Why I Love Or Shalom

Prepared for the Annual General Meeting of Or Shalom Synagogue, Vancouver, 2011.


You may know that I recently returned from a trip to New York City.

There I

  • visited family
  • spent time with my brother’s wise cat Ditto
  • attended the Rabbis Without Borders meeting
  • taught a one-day class to ALEPH rabbinic students,
  • and looked at the city from the Empire State Building’s 86th floor observatory.

You can read about Ditto on my blog, if you didn’t receive her wisdom during yesterday’s Dvar Torah.

Tonight I would like to talk about other aspects of the trip.

The rabbinic students met me at my brother’s office to take part of a course called “Losing God, Finding God: Jewish Responses to Suffering.” Our opening question came from philosopher Oliver Leaman. Leaman reviews the work of six famous Jewish theologians who think about God all the time. Yet, in the wake of the holocaust, none of these theologians really knows what to say about who God is or how God relates to the Jewish people. So Leaman asks, “If we lose our connection to God, what is the basis for being Jewish?”

Leaman hopes the answer is not merely, “we are a people with a shared culture.”

So he hopes, even though so much of contemporary Jewish discourse assumes that culture is our only glue.

At Rabbis Without Borders, we reflected on this same question. Rabbi Irwin Kula taught that much of Jewish education is based on a “narrative of attrition.” According to this narrative, the Jewish people is shrinking. We are lured by the temptations of an open, multicultural society. In response, Jewish education has focused on teaching Jews to be proud of their national identity. As a result, most young North American Jews today participate only in the few religious practices they need in order to feel as though they belong. They see no other value in Jewish religion.

What else do we have to offer? Rabbi Kula reminds us that we have a deep tradition of spiritual wisdom. Jewish wisdom can help us negotiate our way through life’s inevitable inner challenges. Jewish wisdom is pluralistic, opening itself to different interpretations by different personalities in different historical eras. That’s how it flourishes, grows, and lasts.

Obviously, I don’t need to travel to New York City to learn this. It’s the Jewish Renewal philosophy that I once learned and now teach in the ALEPH seminary. It’s the way of being I try to share every day through davenning, divrei Torah, life cycle rituals, the Exploring Judaism class, and spiritual direction. I may not know at every moment where or how to find God – but I do know that our rituals and our Torah help us organize our inner lives, as well as our communal lives, as we search.

Still, hearing these familiar teachings in a group that crosses the borders between Jewish movements was special. It was a bit like enjoying the observatory at the Empire State Building late at night. There I could see the whole city at once, and I could make out the shining arcs of my favorite suspension bridges.

When I saw the whole spectrum of Judaism at once, I was reminded of Or Shalom’s ethos. We are a kind of collective bridge between questions and answers. We come together to seek meaning, and to share meaning. No newcomer, no governance structure, no financial worry or fundraising success affects this.  Meaningful Judaism is what we do.

George Stevens, who worked for three months as our interim program director last year, wrote a beautiful thank you letter to Lily, me, and the co-chairs. He wrote, “Or Shalom is a community of engagement, communal responsibility, caring and creativity, one that is genuinely inspired by the traditions of Judaism, while so many other communities carry on by little more than a sense of (reluctant) obligation to the traditions of Judaism and a confused nostalgia for the Jewish past.”

Two weeks ago, the leadership of our Young Adult Community, YAC, wrote their mission statement. They wrote, “YAC is the young adult community of Or Shalom. We are a fully inclusive group of funky young adults and the young at heart. We meet to (re)connect to a Judaism that is relevant, creative, and alive/vibrant.”

I love these various reflections of our official mission statement,  “Or Shalom is a Jewish spiritual community affiliated with ALEPH: Alliance for Jewish Renewal. We are traditional, egalitarian, creative and participatory.”

Of course we can bring forward our mission with more and better programming, and with more and better welcoming. Of course, we can each think about the part we should play in doing so.  But the desire to improve takes nothing away from our strengths.

It’s true that Or Shalom is no longer a chavurah. We “expect the trains to run on time,” so to speak, and for that we need some centralized coordination through staff and a volunteer governance structure. But whatever our structure, one thing remains the same: all our work, and all our play, is animated by our love for Jewish spiritual wisdom.

I am so glad that all of you have chosen to play with us.

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