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Wherever you go, there’s always someone Jewish

11350358_10204644506688358_2040870761_nYesterday I attended an event hosted by the Religious Action Center that was for Jewish interns staying in D.C. this summer.  The event, primarily for the students in the Machon-Kaplan Summer Internship Program, was a great opportunity to connect with Jewish students from colleges around the country, and to hear what interns are most excited about to live in D.C.

It’s easy to take for granted my own Washingtonian experience and the vibrant Jewish community I’ve found here.  As a student and young adult, I have abundant resources and support systems whether through GW Hillel and Meor, Shabbat dinners with my friends, or now through Gather the Jews.  Coming from a home where Judaism was always both a priority and a safe-haven, I naturally took advantage of the Jewish opportunities on my campus and in the D.C. community.  The fact that RAC offers that service to students who are here short-term provides these interns with more than just a hub for Jewish life; it gives students a community, and allows them to make D.C. their home.

11125617_10204644506808361_1233173538_nJewish organizations are natural home bases for local Jews, especially college students.  For those who identify with the religious and spiritual elements of Judaism, synagogues and study groups provide students with a place to continue enriching their spiritual connections and meet others who may be on the same path.  For students who identify exclusively as culturally Jewish, or who are still navigating what religion means to them, Jewish groups still serve as an epicenter of community and connection, inviting all Jewish young adults to create their own experiences.  For all college students, being in a new city with new people can be a tough transition–part of which requires students to find where they fit in.  Jewish organizations show all Jewish students that they fit in some
where, that wherever they go, there’s a place for them in Judaism.

11419992_10204644506768360_922725793_nAs a kid, I went to Friday night services with my mom every Shabbat, and sometimes during sermons I’d lose interest and peruse through the Siddurs and song books tucked into the pockets of the chairs in front of me.  To this day, there’s a song that still stands out: Wherever You Go, by Rabbi Larry Milder.  It has a catchy tune and silly lyrics about Jews still being Jews, whether they wear sombreros or live in pagodas, but it’s true: wherever you go, there’s always someone Jewish.  The RAC has the right idea–bring the Jewish interns together, and they’ll always remember Jews are never alone.

Wherever you go, there’s always someone Jewish
You’re never alone when
you say you’re a Jew
So, when you’re not home and you’re somewhere kind of newish
The odds are don’t look far, cause they’re Jewish too.

 

 

Jews and Tattoos

I still remember when my mom first told me that she, “kind of liked” the umbrella tattoo I have on my chest, just above my heart. We were in the lobby of the Theatre J waiting for the doors to open to the dragapella group we were going to see called The Kinsey Sicks.

1073804_10101274587458566_505675968_oMy parents have always been very supportive of my brother and I. That support extends well beyond the superficial to the deeply meaningful and truly powerful. My younger brother is trans, and my parents have been allies every step of the way. Despite their completely open views, something about tattoos strikes a chord. They will always tell me that my body is mine and I can do with it as I please, but at the same time, I think they would have prefered to see my skin remain unadulterated. Why?

According to a 2006 survey conducted by Pew Research, 40 percent of Americans between the ages of 26 and 40 have at least one tattoo; 36 percent of those aged 18-25 report having a tattoo. Those numbers most likely have gone up in the past nine years.

The source of the prohibition against tattoos is Vayikra 19:28: “You shall not make gashes in your flesh for a dead person; you shall not etch a tattoo on yourselves: I am the Lord.”

The Torah uses the term ketovet ka’aka when referring to what we call a tattoo; ketovet is derived from the root letters kaf, tav, vet, which means to write, but the second word, ka’aka is harder to translate as this is the only time it appears in the Torah. It is translated as both incisions or writing/drawing. There are some schools of thoughts that say that the only kinds of tattoos that are prohibited are by the process of incising the skin and then filling it with ink, not with the modern process of using a needle to inject ink below the surface of the skin. Other schools of thought interpret any form of permanent writing to be prohibited.

Rabbi Shimon, indicates that the only the prohibition is against a tattoo that includes the name of an idol (you shall not etch a tattoo on yourselves: I am the Lord), while the Minchat Chinuch 253:1 prohibits permanent marking of the skin even if no ink is applied, and Tosafot says that there is a rabbinic prohibition against even temporary writing that looks like a tattoo, while both Rambam and Shulchan Aruch indicate that in order to violate the prohibition you need both pierce the skin and need to apply color, not just ink.[1]

Another idea surrounding the ban on tattoos and why it may not be applicable in a modern world, with a modern interpretation of halacha is that in biblical times, ink was something very different than what it is now. The ink itself may not have been kosher, or even verifiably safe to put into one’s body. Additionally, any kind of incision put a person at risk of infection. In that light, a tattoo is certainly not worth the risk. However, today, the circumstances are quite different.

One thing that is clear amongst the debate, is that having tattoos does not prevent a person from having a Jewish burial in a Jewish cemetery. Just as those who ate treif, choose not to keep Shabbat, or took interest on loans can be buried in a Jewish cemetery, so can those who did not obey the prohibition against tattooing. “You can’t be buried with your family if you get that butterfly on your ankle, now eat more chicken soup, you’re too skinny…” is just an urban legend made up my our collective grandmothers.

But, old myths die hard, and many tattooed Jews in their 20’s and 30’s say they are criticized by other Jews, both relatives and strangers, or even by non-Jews. For a long, long time I felt weird, bashful, even ashamed of showing my tattoos in shul. Any other place, any day of the week except Shabbat, I would not think twice about letting (all five) of them show, but in shul I kept them covered. I am not sure if it was out of respect, just as I would never eat traif in shul, or if it was because I was afraid of being judged.

IMG_9864We violate halacha on a daily basis. Many Jews choose not to keep kosher, or shomer shabbos, or shomer negiah. Why are tattoos so divisive? Is it because they are a permanent, visual reminder of a choice to disregard a prohibition from the Torah? Is it because they are a reminder of the Holocaust?

Especially for Jews of an older generation, tattoos do represent the Holocaust, not self-expression or art. “Tattooing during the Holocaust was an enormous instrument of degradation,” says Michael Berenbaum, a rabbi and Holocaust scholar who played a key role in the creation of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. “Survivors were always told that you no longer have a name, your name is now your number. And they found tattoos to be one of the indelible marks of depersonalization.” [2] However, this is not the story for those of us who are at least two generations removed from the Holocaust experience. For many of us, the fact that we are embracing tattoos, often using their design as a direct expression of our Jewish identity is the perfect response to the weaponization of tattoos against our grandparents’ generation. We are turning a bad thing into something positive.

These days I let my tattoos show when they will, even if that’s in shul. I have found that I am far from the only one there with tattoos, and in fact am sometimes not the one with the most body art. I love what I have chosen to put on my skin, else it wouldn’t be there – my body art is truly an expression of me.

American Jews are very idiosyncratic when it comes to our acceptance of a la cart halachic practice. A little more knowledge about the situation helps (don’t get all of your information about where you can be buried from The Nanny), and an open mind goes further. If this conversation is about the biblical interpretation of the prohibition against tattoos, it surely isn’t over. However I think it is about learning to accept that our generation is more fluid in its understanding of Judaism, which might make us look like inked-up rebels on the surface, but also leads us to develop a real connection with the why of it all underneath. We are a unique generation of Jews who do it “our way” but that’s much better than not doing it at all.

[1] https://www.ou.org/torah/machshava/tzarich-iyun/tzarich_iyun_jews_with_tattoos/

[2] http://forward.com/articles/193019/tattoos-reign-in-israel-jewish-law-or-no/

 

Michele is the founder of Chopping Block Copy, where she is a full-service copywriter / editor / designer. She gets overexcited about bio-luminescence, corduroy, the roller derby, sustainability, people who can compose a proper sentence, and Grumbacher titanium white oil paint and drinks her whiskey neat, because that’s the only way.

Michele is the community leader for Moishe House Without Walls, D.C. which is a global network of community organizers who seek to create pluralistic Jewish programming that makes Judaism meaningful in a modern world. Find them on Facebook!

Check out more of her writing at writteninthemargins.com and email her at writteninthemargins@gmail.com.

Mensches of Motown: Rebuilding Detroit

5305_753954927979874_822597788960443057_nAt Freedom House Detroit, a temporary residence for asylum seekers from the most violent or oppressive parts of the world, I was curious about the inhabitants’ transition.

“How do you like Detroit so far?” I asked a Nigerian refugee, one who grew up in a country plagued by bloody ethnic conflict, AIDS epidemics, water shortages, sanitation crises, and terror organizations like Boko Haram.

“Man, Detroit is a damn warzone.”

A warzone.

Detroit, factory-forged from sweat, steel, and the American entrepreneurial spirit to become the one-time pride of our nation, is now being called a warzone from a man escaping Boko Haram.

The onslaught of crime, corruption, economic depression, and abandonment in the postindustrial era clearly took its toll on the American paragon.  Each passing Michigan winter, conditions degraded for Detroit until that Motown rhythm was blunted to a complete halt.  The city is now littered with abandoned buildings and blight.

But if our group of young professionals learned anything from the weekend volunteer trip, it’s that the spirit of Detroit, the spirit of big dreams and bigger community, hasn’t broken.

The 25 of us young professionals from Washington Hebrew Congregation in DC gathered this right off the bat from our first morning with Ben Falik and his team from Repair the World.  Within minutes of meeting the passionate, ambitious troop of staffers, it was clear that Falik and his crew could be living extravagantly in Manhattan, employed at any given corporate acronym with lavish expense accounts.  Instead, the Repair the World crew is taking disadvantaged inner city Detroit youth to museums.  RTW paired us with rambunctious grade school boys and girls to guide through the Michigan Science Center as they witnessed the wonders of engineering and air pressure via 4D movie theaters and trashcan wind cannons.  At the proceeding barbecue and ultimate Frisbee game, the thoroughly caffeinated, curly haired Falik detailed all of the other work the organization does with healthcare, education, and nutrition within the struggling city.

That night, we attended services at the Isaac Agree Downtown synagogue, the last surviving synagogue inside Detroit, resilient to the exodus of Jews.  The small congregation with no rabbi embraced our group with open arms, excited to share their beautiful 80-year old shul with young travelers to welcome in the Sabbath together.

The following morning, we had a breakfast meeting with Jon Koller who has been organizing volunteers to renovate and revitalize a once abandoned 100-year old housing complex.  We then drove to the B’nai David Cemetery, a graveyard entirely enveloped in the weeds of long neglect.  Our trip Rabbi, the tirelessly passionate Aaron Miller, told us that, in Judaism, there is no greater deed than charity for the dead because the deceased can never repay.  With that in mind, we terraformed the veritable jungle throughout the day to salvage the integrity of our buried Jewish brethren.  Trees were trimmed, grass was cut, and dozens upon dozens of garbage bins full of shrubbery surrounding the tombstones were removed.

We spent Saturday night at the aforementioned Freedom house, playing volleyball and sharing stories with the asylum seekers stuck in limbo, their true homes an entire world away.  We prepared a massive dinner together with fresh, local ingredients procured from Detroit’s bustling Eastern Market.  Before leaving, we were serenaded with the Detroit Freedom House song written by a former resident, repeating “G-d bless America” throughout the refrain.

We split up on our final day.  Some toured the city by bike with Falik, some were blindsided by the stunning collections at the Detroit Institute of Art, and myself and a few others joined John George of Motor City Blight Busters in a tour of the almost 700 properties his organization has cleaned up.  Almost all of us slopped up some Slow’s BBQ.

The volunteer weekend of the young professionals of 2239 is a drop in the bucket in terms of what Detroit needs.  But that drop meant so much to Ben Falik, John George, Jon Koller, Freedom House, Downtown Synagogue, and all the people of Motor City that we met.

We somberly left Detroit back to fight its own battle, but Detroit will never leave us.  That sense of community, volunteerism, and service will inspire us forever.

And one thing is for sure: that Motown rhythm is picking back up.

Catch a Date with “Email Bait” – – GTJ Dating Series with Erika E. (No. 86)

heartbaitDo you ever come across a profile that you like, you want to send a message, and then you have a strong bout of writer’s block?  It turns out you’re not alone.

Many people have no idea what to say in an initial online dating email (or text, if we’re talking about apps) to show someone that they have an interest in communicating and potentially meeting.  For this reason, it’s best to give these potential suitors (or suitoresses?) one more thing to comment about.  In other words, provide them with some “email bait.”

In my old JDate profile (LovesLifeDC), I had a photo of myself singing the National Anthem.  I got almost daily emails asking where I was singing and how I got the gig.  (Answers: A Washington Nationals game.  A good demo and a lot of persistence.  It was one of the best nights of my life… until I almost ran out of gas on the way home.  I’ll save that story for a rainy day.)  This picture alone gave men the “in” they needed to strike up a conversation with me.

Other examples of some of my clients’ interesting pictures have been:

  • A woman playing ice hockey in full gear
  • A guy dressed as a clown since he performs for children every Sunday
  • A woman climbing a tree at a winery
  • A guy singing with a mariachi band
  • A woman posing next to a sign saying “Completely Nuts” (Oh wait – that was me again!)

As a side note, I think I can speak for most of my fair gender when I say that we don’t care how big the fish you caught was.  Compensating for something, perhaps? 🙂

To show a real-life example, I’m going to use a photo of yours truly:

erika1

This picture, while fine, is not really showing anything special.

Now, let’s look at this one:

erika2

This picture instead shows me performing with Story League, something I like to do to get my creative juices flowing.  (I’m actually performing tomorrow night in the “Sticky” contest.)  It could easily generate questions like:

  • Where are you speaking? (Busboys & Poets)
  • Do you do that often? (Every month or two)
  • What was that particular story about? (A text message gone awfully wrong)
  • Do you always wear glasses? (If you want me to see you from far away!)

These two pictures were taken the exact same night, but one would do much better online.

The moral: Many people have no idea what to say in the initial email, so give them something easy to comment about, or “email bait.”

erika ettin-49381 Cropped (1)Erika Ettin is the Founder of A Little Nudge, where she helps people stand out from the online dating crowd and have a rewarding experience. An archive of all of Erika’s columns is also available.  Want to connect with Erika?  Join her newsletter for updates and tips.

 

 

 

Asking the Right Questions

Question_mark_(black_on_white)When I tell people I run a project called Gather the Jews, they usually have very strong feelings about the name.  About half of the people love it, and when they see me at Jewish events exclaim, “Rachel, you’ve ‘gathered’ the Jews!”  The second reaction is not so fun.  After telling her the name of the project, a friend’s mom said, “You know, we were gathered once before, and it didn’t end so well for us.”

So why did GTJ choose such a controversial name?  Founded just before Purim in 2010, our name comes from the Megillat Esther. In Chapter 4, Verse 16, Esther tells Mordechai: “Go, gather together all the Jews who are in Shushan, and fast for me.”  When Esther uttered these words, the Jewish nation was in trouble, under siege from its enemies who wished to annihilate our people.  The Jews of Shushan gathered, and Esther convinced the king to save us.

According to the recent Pew study, the Jewish people are still in danger.  There are still those in the world who wish us harm, but the Pew study speaks of a different kind of danger: the danger of assimilation.  But is this true?  Or did Pew ask the wrong questions?

As the director of Gather the Jews, an organization that seeks to bridge the gap between Jews in their 20s & 30s and the DC Jewish community, I ask a lot of questions.  What makes young Jews want to connect to the community?  How do they explore their Jewish identity?  What about Judaism inspires them?

The answers to these questions are different for every single Jew, and that is where the Pew study erred. The questions the Pew study asked focused on Jews connecting to Judaism through religious observance, which is only one way that Jews define themselves.  When I ask Jews in their 20s & 30s how they relate to Judaism, I hear about a diverse and multifaceted Judaism.  I hear about tikkun olam projects.  I hear about Shabbat dinners with friends.  I hear about trips to Israel. I hear about Jewish happy hours.  I hear about a thriving DC Jewish community.

And that is the lens that Gather the Jews chooses to view Judaism through.  We have become the number one resource for young Jews in DC and a clearinghouse for Jewish young professional events with the goal that individuals will connect to Judaism on their own terms.

Judaism values questions.  Now we need to be asking the right questions.

Rachel Giattino is the Director of Gather the Jews.  This article originally appeared in the Washington Jewish Week.

Thanksgivukkah Hybrid Foods to Consider

b-thanksgivukkah-102313With Thanksgiving and Chanukkah combining forces for the first time ever this November, many American Jews are considering modifications to their traditional thanksgiving dinners.

So here are a few ideas for combining almost 400 years of Thanksgiving deliciousness with 5,000 years of Jewish culinary tradition:

APPETIZERS
Sweet potato ball soup
Parsley and Horseradish salad

MAIN COURSE
Beef brisket-stuffed Turkey
Venison Bagels with Cottage Cheese

SIDES
Brussels Sprouts-wrapped Hamentaschen
Gefiltefish Stuffing

DESSERT
Pumpkin Knishes
Potato Latke-Crusted Apple Pie
Pecan-Kugel Pie

DRINKS
Manischevitz cranberry wine
Lox Cider

Remember to save some room for wontons and egg rolls on December 25.  And don’t forget to celebrate Thanksgivukkah early with the GTJ November Happy Hour! (RSVP on Facebook to be entered into a raffle for two Matisyahu concert tickets!)

Brian Fishbach is a writer and comedian.  You can read Brian’s weekly satire news articles at http://www.TheComedyNews.com, and enjoy his late-night jokes at http://www.BrianFishbach.com. Join The Comedy News’ Facebook page for updates.

The Art of Setting Yourself Apart – GTJ Dating Series with Erika E. (No. 77)

jdateLet’s say we’re in a room full of 100 people.  Say, a GTJ happy hour… except that’s more like 300 people!  We look around, and everyone seems fairly different, right?  But before knowing a thing about anyone else, we are all basically the same… just people in a room together.  Now, what if we try to segment the 100 people into categories?  For example, we might ask the question, “Who likes to cook?”  Let’s say that 25 people raise their hands.  Now these 25 people are different from the other 75 who would rather be jumping into a pool of crocodiles than trying to decipher a recipe in “How to Cook Everything.”  Those 25 people, though, are now all the same – they like to cook.  So let’s delve a bit further by asking around to see what specific dishes these people like to cook:

Erika – “I love making my grandma’s kugel recipe with apricots and raisins.”
Betsy – “I make a flourless chocolate cake for Passover that people really like.”
Jonah – “I make one thing and one thing only – eggplant parm.”
Conner – “All I know how to make is a tuna melt.  But it’s a good tuna melt, if I do say so myself!”
Maxine – “I’m no gourmet chef or anything, but I love making summer salads with chick peas and beans.  I also make my own salad dressing.”

The five of us have now differentiated ourselves, first from the larger group because we each like to cook, and now from the 25-person subset because we have shared specifically what we enjoy cooking.  Who would you rather go on a date with: Someone who says he likes to cook, or someone who says he makes the best apple pie on this side of the Mississippi?  I’d venture to say the latter.

In your online dating profile, it’s very important to differentiate yourself to the point where people can see you for you and not assume you’re just like everyone else.  Let’s look at these two profile excerpts:

I love to laugh and have fun.  My family and friends are so important to me, and I always try to be there for them when I can.  I love to cook, run, and play with my dog.  

When I’m not chasing my dog all the way to the dog park every morning (trust me – he’s fast!), I love hosting family and friends for dinner.  It gives me great pride to make my late grandma’s kugel recipe for every Jewish holiday.  The best advice she ever gave to me was to use a whole stick of butter every time.  Maybe it’s a good thing I get my exercise by running every morning… even if I can never catch Scruffy!

The first profile doesn’t tell us much.  It lists a few hobbies, but on the whole, it’s pretty nondescript.  The second profile, however, really gives us a sense of who this person is – someone silly and family-loving who loves to cook and who has an abnormally fast dog.  That’s someone people want to meet!

So look around the room, and if you think you might be writing the same profile as the person next to you, it’s time to get more specific.  There’s an art to setting yourself apart, and now you’re well-equipped with the skills to do it.

erika ettin-49334smallErika Ettin is the Founder of A Little Nudge, where she helps people stand out from the online dating crowd and have a rewarding experience. An archive of all of Erika’s columns is also available.  Want to connect with Erika?  Join her newsletter for updates and tips.

This article also appeared on JDate.

 

 

The Future of American Jewry

pewJudaism has thrived in the United States for centuries, which makes A Portrait of Jewish Americans, the newly published Pew Research study on American Jewry, unexpectedly grim.  Ten years of data tells us that the future for American Judaism is more unstable than we thought.  Today’s Jewish institutions will shape the Jewish future, and if the Pew study says nothing else, it is time for a new set of tactics.

The Pew study concludes that one of every five Jews today identifies as having “no religion.”  When we look more closely at Jewish millennials, this number shoots up to one in three.  Congregations of all stripes have responded by offering some version of “Judaism lite.”  As a millennial and a rabbi, I think this mostly makes things worse.  Young Jewish adults are exploring their Jewish identities every bit as seriously as their parents’ and grandparents’ generations, and when Jewish programming stops at happy hours and kickball teams, it is no surprise that 20s and 30s might walk away saying, “This Judaism does not speak to me.”  Jewish experiences for any age can and should be content-rich.  They should challenge and inspire.  They should breathe life into the Jewish soul, and if they don’t, then they have fallen short.

To stem the tide of Jewish dissolution, every stream of Judaism now plays a pivotal role.  Orthodox Judaism, with its cutting-edge millennial outreach initiatives, will always be an answer for some.  For most Jews who are drifting from Judaism, however, Orthodoxy is not a realistic or accessible option.  This means that Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist, Renewal, and thoughtful non-mainstream institutions have a greater role to play than they ever did before.  Ninety percent of the American Jewish community is at stake.

To strengthen the 90 percent, Jewish communities need to serve and energize the Jews in the pews while reaching out to those who are not.  Gone are the days when Jews joined a congregation simply because it was there.  As bonds to organizational Judaism continue to fray, congregations will need to spark Jewish interest before ever suggesting membership.  We have to reach people where they are, and increasingly, this is behind a computer screen.  Jewish institutions typically do an amateur job marketing themselves and the Judaism they espouse, and until we do, we can no longer expect people to walk through our doors.

For some Jews, especially the intermarried, our synagogue doors seem forever closed.  Encouraging Jews to date and marry Jews is and will always be an indispensable part of Jewish continuity, but according to the Pew study, 58 percent of Jews (71 percent of non-Orthodox Jews) now intermarry.  Intermarriage is an American reality, and the future of American Jewry depends on how well we address it.  The numbers are telling us a truth we need to hear.  If we are concerned for the Jewish future, it is time for rabbis and congregations to value and honor our core members while embracing intermarried couples and inspiring them to raise Jewish children.  If we don’t provide interfaith families with the warm community, the rabbinic embrace, and the Jewish passion they deserve, Jews will leave us for their loved ones and intermarriage will continue to unravel the Jewish community.  We have not yet wrapped our heads around a Jewish future where interfaith marriage is normal, and in turning away those who love non-Jews, today’s standard-bearers are a part of the problem.  It cannot be this way.

I am a rabbi, a millennial, and an optimist at heart, and I don’t think this means some inevitable end of American Judaism.  Two statistics tell me that, if we’re smart, we’re going to be just fine.  Seventy-five percent of Jews in America report “a strong sense of belonging to the Jewish people,” and more significantly, nearly 100 percent are proud to be Jewish.  That is the most important number of them all.  Some Jews might not know how to express these overwhelmingly positive Jewish sentiments.  Many lack both the vocabulary to give their Judaism a voice and the rabbis, congregations, and, communities to animate their Jewish souls.  This can change, and when it does, I believe that American Judaism will change along with it.

There are two futures facing America’s Jewry.  If all remains the same, America’s Jewry will be anemic, stale and dwindling to an ever-shrinking core.  But nothing in Judaism has ever remained the same, and the Pew study tells us loud and clear that staying the same is not an option.  The other future for American Judaism is one that is vibrant, alive, and expanding in ways that have only recently seemed possible.  The end is not near.  Not even close.  We are a generation of Jews who, like every generation before us, has paved the road for the next.  If the generation ahead of us does its job, and if we do ours, ani m’amin b’emmuna sh’leima, I believe in perfect faith, that the next generation will do the same.

This article was originally featured in the Washington Jewish Week.

Rabbi Aaron Miller is assistant rabbi at Washington Hebrew Congregation.

A Break with Tradition: Over 1,200 High Holiday Visitors Flood the Outdoor, Musical Worship Experience at Adas Israel

Kol Nidre at Adas IsraelOver 1,200 eager Jewish High Holiday visitors descended on the outdoor plaza at Adas Israel Congregation, the oldest and largest conservative synagogue in Washington, DC,  to experience an innovative and free Kol Nidre (Yom Kippur evening) service this past Friday. It was led entirely by Adas clergy-member Rabbi Lauren Holtzblatt – an increasingly popular and dynamic young woman Rabbi. Accompanied by a professional live band, this unique High Holiday service boasted reflective eastern music, a pattern of dancing lights in the plaza trees, a fully-lit moon, and over a thousand voices singing and chanting reflectively in unison. This alternative Yom Kippur service drew both synagogue members and non-members alike, and was particularly well attended by DC area Young Professionals, as well as unaffiliated Jews seeking a “less conventional” worship experience for the Jewish High Holidays.

The service reflected a major break with the more traditional High Holiday services most have come to expect from the Conservative Jewish movement – which traditionally charges a great deal of money for High Holiday tickets and wouldn’t permit musical instruments to play on Sabbaths and Holidays. The many guest and visitors (which included Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg and Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren, among others), as well as synagogue members described it as one of the most unique and powerful evenings in the life of the 144 year old synagogue.

Adas Israel Congregation, a historically traditional American synagogue, has just completed a major synagogue renovation and rejuvenation project known as the Vision of Renewal. This Renewal Initiative included the fifteen million dollar renovation of the synagogue’s building and facilities – the major premise of which was to change the “feeling” in the building by creating warm, welcoming, natural worship and gathering spaces flooded by natural light. The initiative also includes the creation of new and innovative programs and learning opportunities designed to meet the needs of an ever-evolving 21st century religious landscape.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERASenior Rabbi Gil Steinlauf says “innovative new programs and worship experiences like this exciting new Kol Nidre service are exactly the tools we need to change the way we experience ‘synagogue.’ By meeting people right where they’re at spiritually, as well as creating an open-minded, non-judgmental atmosphere that is open to everyone, regardless of their relationship to God, we are confidently meeting an ongoing “Customer Service Problem” many American churches, synagogues and other religious institutions are facing today.”

Adas Israel billed this enormous outdoor worship gathering as “Return Again to Kol Nidre, and it was co-sponsored by the Jewish Mindfulness Center of Washington at Adas Israel, which offers programs and workshops designed to help deepen the Jewish experience of the “spiritual” through Jewish meditation, yoga, chanting, mindful learning, and spirited Shabbat & Holiday programs, all within a uniquely Jewish context. The synagogue also offered a more “traditional” Yom Kippur service inside its new newly renovated Charles E. Smith Sanctuary, which also drew close to 1500 members and families.

Shortly before the service began, Rabbi Lauren Holtzblatt announced to the growing crowd as they eagerly anticipated the start of the music and chanting, “Let this be a sacred space, a safe space, a space of dynamism and welcome. Let this be a space where we can all raise our voices in prayer and song before the sky, before the earth, before God, and before each other.”

Despite uneasiness from the more traditional sects of Conservative Judaism, the clergy and leadership at Adas Israel are confident that these new approaches to Jewish life and ritual are exactly the ingredients needed to revitalize the increasingly dwindling movement. Through these renewal initiatives, Adas is betting future generations of Jews  – who aren’t Orthodox, and therefore not bound to show up at a synagogue  –  but are genuinely interested in embracing modern Judaism, are free to meet and explore their innermost beliefs and ideas.

Rabbi Steinlauf says, “Today’s Jews are looking to meet other like-minded people and find an authentic Jewish identity. They are open to sharing new ideas, and they want ‘the real thing.’”

This wildly successful, alternative High Holiday experience represents the next step in the ongoing evolution of this traditional American synagogue, which has played host to the likes of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Israeli prime ministers, US presidents and vice-presidents, and more recently, the Dalai Lama.

Rabbi Lauren Holtzblatt, creator of the “Return Again” service, says, “After experiencing this past Yom Kippur service, I don’t believe it’s an overstatement to say it may well represent the next step in reviving the Conservative movement of Judaism and synagogue life as a whole.”

Georgetown Sukkah is an Architectural Wonder

sukkahThis article was originally published on the Georgetown University website.

Two award winning architects arrived on Georgetown’s campus before Sukkot to set up a sukkah, a temporary dwelling representing the shelters ancient Israelites used in the desert wilderness.

Architects Henry Grosman and Babak Bryan of BanG studio in Brooklyn, N.Y., who won an international design competition to reimagine the sukkah in 2010, set up the modern, collapsible sukkah on Healy Lawn on September 17th.

This year Sukkot, the harvest festival called “the season of joy,” starts at sundown on Sept. 18 and ends at sundown on Sept. 25.

The structure will be open night and day for students and other members of the Georgetown community to explore and sit in the sukkah to enjoy a meal or reflect throughout the holiday.

Share and Teach

“This is about creating a space for the Jewish community on campus to observe Sukkot, one of our most celebratory holidays,” says Georgetown’s Rabbi Rachel Gartner. “We thought this would be a great way to do that, and also provide an opportunity to teach about Sukkot to people of other traditions.”

During Sukkot, Jewish communities are meant to leave their homes and dwell in the sukkah, inviting ushpizin (guests) to join them. Some people sleep in the sukkah, while others just enjoy meals inside the structure.

“The sukkah is designed to force the inhabitant to reconsider the world in which he or she lives,” says Grosman, who says the Georgetown sukkah will fit about 10 people at a time. “It is a temporary place where one goes to consciously remove one’s self from daily life in order to reflect upon it and one’s place in the world.”

Various events are scheduled in and around the sukkah during the holiday, including an opening reception with the architects on Wed., Sept. 18 and a community-wide open house on Sept. 22 from 12 p.m. to 2 p.m.

A shabbat (the Jewish Sabbath) service with music will be observed in front of the sukkah on the lawn at 6 p.m. on Sept. 20.

Jewish Roots

“The sukkah provides an opportunity for those who are not Jewish to learn about this Abrahamic faith tradition,” says Kevin O’Brien, vice president for mission and ministry. “For Christians in particular, visiting the sukkah and participating in some of the programming can help them understand more about Jesus’ Jewish roots, and how the rituals and commitments of Judaism inform Christian worship and values.”

Setting up the sukkah, whose walls comprise a series of seven portal frames made of cedar, will take about four to six hours, the architects say.

“The arms of the frames are connected by a series of strings woven through holes in the frame like a cat’s cradle,” Grosman explains. “The walls have been pre-woven in Brooklyn and rolled up for transport. At Georgetown, we will unroll the walls and bolt them into place.”

 Spiritual Blueprint

Gartner notes that Sukkot comes right after Yom Kippur, the holiest day on the Jewish calendar.

“We spend Yom Kippur inside the synagogue, thinking about things from a very spiritual plane, making a spiritual blueprint for the coming year of how we want to live our lives,” the rabbi explains. “The first thing we are meant to do at the end of Yom Kippur is to hammer the first nail into the sukkah. The lesson here is that we need to set our intentions and make plans, but then we need to act.”

She says Judaism is at its core about putting spiritual ideals and ethical visions into action.

Universally Human

The sukkah also will be available to people attending the third annual President’s Interfaith and Community Service Campus Challenge conference at Georgetown on Sept. 23.

When Sukkot is over, the sukkah will be disassembled and put away until next year.

“Judaism is alive, vibrant, and evolving,” Gartner says. “It has a distinct voice of its own to contribute to interfaith dialog and interfaith searches for meaning. Judaism contributes to the conversation among traditions in ways that are both distinctly Jewish and universally human.”