Friday, January 27, 2012

Out of the Darkness, Light: Live Streaming Comes to WRT!

Shalom, Internet friends!

This week's Torah portion, Bo, describes a plague of darkness -- "darkness so thick it could be felt." (Ex. 10:21). The Egyptians afflicted by the plague sit, encased in this impenetrable shroud, unable to move from their places, so utterly obliterating was the darkness.

But all the Israelites had light in their dwellings (10:23).

A famous midrash (Shemot Rabbah 14:3) noted that the text says that the light was found not throughout the land of Goshen where the Israelites resided but rather "b'moshvotam" -- in their dwellings -- so as to suggest that the light came from the residents, not from the residence! The light emanated from the people, a people blessed with light.
The Jewish people have always felt the charge to bring light into dark places. "I will make you a light unto the nations" (Isaiah 49:6).

There are many ways to bring light in the darkness: a kind word, a caring act, a loving look, a warm embrace. We can also embrace new ways of reaching out to people to cast light into the shadows. Many within and without our community would love easier access to worship services at our synagogue, but especially in the cold winter months feel uncomfortable driving at night or in inclement weather. Many people who live outside our area would love to find connections that keep them close to our community's experience of prayer. And many people would simply find it illuminating to know what happens at Westchester Reform Temple on a Friday night.

I am so pleased to share with you today's news from WRT. The words of our Executive Director, Yoel Magid follow this message. Read on and tune in to this evening's live webcast of Shabbat services -- tonight, at 7:45. Shabbat Shalom!

Rabbi Jonathan Blake

I am grateful to David Levy who reminded me of this wonderful midrashic teaching.

WRT's Board of Trustees has approved regular livestreaming webcasts of Friday evening services. As part of a winter update from WRT President Lisa Messinger, we will explain the policy in a bit more detail in a congregational letter next week. But since we had a number of congregant requests, we've decided to begin the regular livestreaming today since so many of us knew and loved Debbie, not only because of her wonderful music, but also as someone who spent so much time with us at WRT leading healing services and as an artist-in-residence for a year.

The link to the livestreaming webscast will appear on the bottom right section of the home page of our website and will not require a password. Feel free to inform your children away at school or others in the congregation who might not be able to attend the service that they can watch the webcast on .

The webcast will begin at 7:45 PM. As a general guideline, please note that it is not possible for anyone watching to copy the webcast and that WRT retains all rights in and to each webcast, including the rights to use, modify, distribute, display publicly and control the contents of the webcast.

We hope you will be able to join us for this special Shabbat evening service in Debbie's memory, but, if not, we hope you and your family will be able to join us virtually to share in welcoming Shabbat and to enjoy Debbie's music that accompanies us through so many of our services.

Yoel Magid, Executive Director

Friday, January 13, 2012

MLK Shabbat - Shabbat Shemot


This is the meaning of this week’s Torah portion:

That when you take the power of God, and combine it with a human voice, and you multiply that human voice with other human voices, then there is nothing you cannot do.

The Hebrew slaves are languishing under the whip of Pharaoh’s taskmasters. A genocidal decree goes forth from the king, dooming the male children to destruction. A baby boy is floated down the Nile in a basket of reeds, rescued by the daughter of Pharaoh, Moses--from the water have I drawn him. As he grows to manhood he sees the suffering of the slaves. Defending one of the victims he strikes a taskmaster, killing him, and flees for his life. Moses has discovered the power of his fist to strike against injustice but he has not yet learned the power of his voice or the power of God.

To find that, he must go to the mountain, to the bush burning but unconsumed, to the call that summons him before Pharaoh.

He must learn of God’s signs and wonders, the miracles and marvels that will impress Pharaoh.

But most of all, Moses has to find his voice.

God gives him the words. “You must say to Pharaoh, “Thus says the Eternal: Israel is My firstborn child! Let my child go in order to worship Me. But if you refuse to let him go, then I will slay your firstborn.”

Moses does not feel ready to speak. “I beseech you, Almighty. I am not a man of words. Never have been, never will be. I have heavy lips and a heavy tongue.”

God relents and says, “What about Aaron your brother, the Levite? I know that he can really speak. Look, here he comes! When he sees you, he will rejoice in his heart. You shall speak to him. Put the words in his mouth, and then I’ll tell you what to do next.”

This is the meaning of this week’s Torah portion:

That when you take the power of God, and combine it with a human voice, and you multiply that human voice with other human voices, then there is nothing you cannot do. God’s power, Moses’s voice, Aaron’s voice all combine to overturn a tyrant, set free a people, turn the raging sea into dry land, give birth to a nation, bring forth the law from the mountain, survive for forty years in the wilderness. God’s power, and human voices speaking together.

You may not remember this but when Reverend Darin Moore last spoke at WRT, our sanctuary was very new -- he was one of the first guest speakers to our congregation. In fact, you may have missed this architectural detail but the doors to our sanctuary were normal-size back then.

When Rev. Moore spoke to us last time, 2 years ago, he literally blew the doors off the place. Rev. Moore, that is why our sanctuary now features ginormous doors -- we are ready for your message tonight!

Our oversize doors were really part of the plan all along. They echo the message of Isaiah, “My House shall be called a house of prayer for all people.” Those doors are wide enough to embrace all who enter, all God’s children--people who come here with joy to share, who need healing in their distress and comfort in their grief, who come to feel embraced.

We feel so privileged to welcome back to WRT Rev. Darin Moore, who has been the Pastor of Greater Centennial A.M.E. Zion Church of Mount Vernon since 1993.

Much has happened in our congregation and in yours since the last time you spoke here and lifted us up. In that time, WRT and Greater Centennial have joined a wider alliance of community institutions working for the common good, called Westchester United, a number of whose dedicated participants have already come up onto our bimah tonight.

Speaking of which: there must be a spiritual energy to this bimah; it seems that religious leaders who speak here get put on the track for national leadership in their respective denominations. Even as our own Rabbi Jacobs has ascended to the Presidency of the Union for Reform Judaism, our friend Rev. Moore has offered himself for the office of Bishop in the African Methodist Episcopal Church, a denomination officially born in 1796 that now serves more than a million members. A board of twelve bishops provides the leadership of the church; last year at this service we heard from one of the bishops, Rev. Dennis Proctor. You can now follow and support Rev. Moore’s candidacy by going to the Moore for Bishop 2012 page on Facebook, and following @MooreForZion on twitter.

That’s right! I know a lot of you have had questions about how much time your new senior rabbi spends on social media (all for work, I promise), but our guest tonight out-tweets me at every turn. Because he understands that the power of God and the power of the human voice can be even more powerful when we use technology in an inspired way to bring a powerful message to the people, and multiply it. Consider a recent tweet, a message broadcast into cyberspace in 140 characters or less, from Rev. Moore’s personal Twitter feed:

Happy New Year! Remember that it won't be new if u do

the same in 2012 that u did in 2011. A new year awaits a new YOU!

So instead of spending these precious minutes reading the obligatory biography of our distinguished guest, I want to encourage you to go online and get the message from the source.

We are thrilled to welcome back to WRT our friends from Greater Centennial: Rev. Moore and his wife Devieta; Rev. Julius Walls, his wife Cheryl and assistant Kay Heron; Minister of Music Mel Reburg; and Chairman of Operations Tony Granston; their amazing choir and musicians, and so many of their parishioners.

And we are grateful to God for the gift of the voice that has the power to make the message known.

Friday, January 6, 2012

Vayechi 5772 - A Vision for WRT Part I: Community


Rabbi Jonathan Blake

Westchester Reform Temple, Scarsdale, New York

This week’s Torah portion is called Vayechi, meaning “he lived”--an ironic title if ever there were one, for in this portion, both Jacob and Joseph die.

On his deathbed, Jacob called his family near and blessed his grandchildren and his children one by one. His eyes, the Torah reports, had become “heavy with age; he could not see” (Gen. 48:10) But his words reveal that while his eyesight had departed he had not lost his capacity for vision. “Gather around,” he says to his family, “and I will tell you what will happen a long, long time from now” (49:1).

Peering into the future, Jacob foretells the destiny of each of his sons, the tribes of Israel, noting who will prosper and who will falter, who will live by the sword and who by the sea, who will plough fertile fields and who will feed abundant flocks. Jacob shares his vision for the future of Israel.

We admire the quality of vision in our leaders. We expect it of them, this ability to look into the future, to see the possibilities and potential pitfalls. Visionary leaders must also articulate their vision and translate their commitments into transformative action: not only seeing the future, but charting a course.

When I think of visionary leaders, I think of Thomas Jefferson who articulated his vision of these United States of America in the signature documents of our nascent democracy, and translated this vision into two terms of a remarkable presidency.

I think of Steve Jobs whose mercurial, ill-tempered personality nevertheless accompanied a rare ability to imagine technologies that we would crave, explain them to us, and change the world.

And I think of Anat Hoffman, the pioneering champion of non-Orthodox Judaism in Israel who years ago came to see what many Israelis even today struggle to see--that there is more than one way to be Jewish. She works tirelessly to change the Israeli religious landscape.

When it comes to visionary leaders I think of my mentor Rick Jacobs, whose vision for WRT we see and feel everywhere--in our vibrant worship, in our social justice commitments that challenge the status quo, in this extraordinary campus that re-defines the possibilities for any Reform Temple. And of course no vision for WRT could be sustained without the legacy of Rabbi Jack Stern, who helped to transform a burgeoning little synagogue in the suburbs into one of the most venerable congregations of the Reform Movement.

When a Reform rabbi applies for a job, our parent organization, the Central Conference of American Rabbis, and its Office of Placement which helps congregations to locate rabbis to lead them, and to situate rabbis in new congregational jobs, insists that every applicant write something called a Vision Statement, a document that comprehensively articulates his or her vision of the rabbinate and the work he or she would like to do in the congregation. Two and a half pages, please.

Last Spring, I dutifully submitted a Vision Statement for consideration, and over the coming weeks and months, I will share with you its major components.

I organized my Statement around the five pillars of Westchester Reform Temple’s Mission Statement: Chavurah--Community; Avodah--Worship and Spirituality; Talmud Torah--Education; Tikkun Olam--Repairing the World; and Klal Yisrael--The Unity of the Jewish People. Then I added a sixth pillar, or, more to my way of seeing things, the sixth point of a Jewish star: Omanut v’Tarbut, Jewish Arts and Culture.

Tonight I want to spend a few minutes focusing on a Vision of Chavurah, Community, and specifically lifting up three major themes. One, inclusion. Two, reaching out beyond the walls of our synagogue. And three, deepening engagement with our members.

Inclusion. We comprise a congregation of individuals, each made in God’s image. One of my most sacred commitments as a rabbi is to affirm the rightful place of all who wish to participate in the life of our congregational community. This commitment embraces the inspiring work that our professional and lay leaders have undertaken in responding to congregants’ special needs, from students with physical, emotional, and academic disabilities to the needs of the elderly and infirm, of which this accessible bimah is an important emblem and a blessing -- I speak from recent, personal experience!

I am proud to announce tonight that WRT has just been awarded this year’s UJA-Federation Synagogue Inclusion Award, commending our efforts “to include, accommodate, and accept those congregants living with disabilities,” an honor “granted to synagogues that exhibit inclusion in all aspects of synagogue life.”

Inclusion must also extend to people struggling under the burden of financial difficulty. While financial need never excludes a family from membership, we have already begun to research appropriate responses to a community still struggling under today’s burdensome economy. By embracing people living in all socio-economic circumstances, we will fulfill the promise of the Prophet Isaiah, “My House shall be called a house of prayer for all people.”

And Inclusion means interfaith outreach. We draw strength not only from our Jewish members but from all who accompany us on our Jewish journeys. When Kelly’s own spiritual quest--a journey that began long before we met--led her to choose to become Jewish, I came to understand the importance of interfaith outreach. I also came to inherit an extended interfaith family. My mother-in-law and brother-in-law are not Jewish but their feelings of warmth toward Judaism and the Jewish people derive directly from how they were treated at Rockdale Temple in Cincinnati where Kelly celebrated her conversion. Interfaith outreach will become an increasingly important theme as interfaith marriages touch more and more of our families.

Reaching out beyond the walls of our synagogue. WRT emerged first among area congregations as a sponsor of a program called Next Dor NYC, which uses one-on-one networking and group programs to create community among people in their 20s and 30s in New York City. Over the summer I enlisted seven other partner congregations, each of whom may have dozens of people in their 20s and 30s who grew up in our congregations and whose lives now revolve around the city. We cannot expect them to commute to Scarsdale, Rye, White Plains, Roslyn, or Short Hills for Friday evening services, Monday night classes or a Sunday morning program. But dozens are now showing up regularly for Next Dor services, programs and social gatherings in the city. If you have a friend or a relative in this age bracket who would like to get involved, just let me know.

I’m also encouraged by the enthusiastic response to the application of social media, not only from our youth, but also from veteran Torah Study participants who tune in each week to WRT’s Torah Study blog. Our new website, is clean, clear, and updated regularly so if you haven’t logged on lately, check it out.

When I interviewed for the position this summer, one thoughtful search committee member asked, “As senior rabbi, do you think you’re still going to want to spend your time using social media like Facebook and Twitter and video blogging?” I responded, “The real question is, why is the entire professional staff of a large, presumably cutting-edge synagogue like ours not already doing the same?” New technologies provide new opportunities, like live-streaming services which can reach members and non-members, travelers and the homebound, college students and city-dwellers alike: a powerful way to reach the unaffiliated.

Engaging our Members. When it comes to creating sacred community, “high-tech” is just a tool in service of “high-touch,” which means leading with compassion, openness, and humility. Deepening our pastoral caregiving, with an emphasis on sustained interaction with congregants in need of comfort and healing will be a priority for all of us.

The Caring Community of WRT which reaches out to people in times of sorrow and celebration is already hard at work meeting the emotional and spiritual needs of our 1,200 households undergoing every manner of life transition. And a caring team of Shiva Service Leaders has joined the clergy who remain on call to assist in homes experiencing bereavement.

We rabbis and cantors also regularly visit congregants at White Plains Hospital. Hospitals are not authorized to disclose confidential information about patients, so we request your help in notifying us about visitation requests. In all these ways and more, my vision encompasses a community where each of us feels held and embraced and understood--from our youngest to our oldest members, from our families with young children to our empty-nesters, from our toddlers to our teens, from those without children to those living through divorce or bereavement.

In the end, though, my vision of community is not primarily about the clergy and what we bring to the table. I read an article in this week’s New York Magazine in which the author, Justin Davidson, a classical music critic, is given an opportunity to live out a fantasy, to conduct a rehearsal of the New York Philharmonic. He chooses the Overture to Mozart’s Don Giovanni, and soon discovers that despite a conducting class here and there back in his school days, he has no idea what on earth he is doing. He turns to Music Director Alan Gilbert for advice. “‘Just beat clearly and they’ll take care of it,’ he advises.” And James Ross who, with Gilbert, runs the Juilliard School’s conducting program, has this piece of wisdom to offer: “The sound is all around and behind you. You have to gather it from there.”

Ross asks him to set aside the baton, close his eyes, and turn his back to the orchestra so that he’ll listen more and insist less.... “[W]e have to realize the emotional life of the music is going to be there, no matter what’s going on inside us.”

This is what I know about this extraordinary community: the emotional life of the music is going to be there, no matter what’s going inside us (i.e., the professionals, the clergy).

I know I speak for my exceptional colleagues when I say that we will try to beat clearly as we take this journey together. But my experience of this congregation has taught me that you’ll take care of it--you, the community, you the people--you, who make the music.