Adventures of a Chief Rabbi: ‘Tis the Season to be Jolly…

Tuesday, August 28, 2013

‘Tis the Season to be Jolly…

Overnight I have become perhaps the most sought after Jew in Montevideo. It isn’t for anything that I’ve done. It isn’t even for anything I’ve said. It is simply because I exist and because I have the word “Gran” in front of my title of “Rabino”.

I have just finished two days of giving lectures throughout the day and into the night and this is just a warm up. Apparently the Jewish population of Uruguay takes its preparations for Rosh Hashana (the Jewish New Year) very seriously. I have been invited by a multiplicity of Jewish organizations, groups and school classes to give a pre-Rosh Hashana lecture and/or “L’chaim” (a toast – literally “to life”). I’m already booked six times for Monday – so if anybody else out there is keen on Monday, let me know soon.

It’s great fun, I’m always warmly received and I generally have a captive audience – what more can a Rabbi ask for?

While I’m finally in writing mode after a brief hiatus I thought I’d share a few items. Plans for Rosh Hashana are coming along. In just a few weeks I’ve gone from never having gotten a sound out of a shofar to doing a passable job of sounding like the guys who do it in the synagogue – there’s nothing like desperation to motivate you.

We’ve managed to change internally some of the views of the High Holidays service and have started an ad series that is reflecting what I hope is a fresh, modern, more attractive perspective that we hope will attract more people. We’ll find out soon enough.

Classically there has been a panel discussion in the synagogue the afternoon of Yom Kippur, which I’ve been told have been poorly attended. I’ve proposed what I think may be an interesting and timely discussion topic for this year: “The Jewish view on the legalization of Marijuana.” We have a contact that is a legal distributor of marijuana implements who we may invite to join the panel, together with other related professionals. We may get a slightly different crowd for the discussion than in previous years.

Having had many years of conducting Jewish informal education I am fairly comfortable in class settings and then spontaneously doing something out of the box. In most cases I avoid direct frontal lectures, but rather try to engage the audience. I’m having a lot of fun using a bagful of tricks. Yesterday I played broken telephone to illustrate the challenges of transmission (very effective). Today, students packed the back of the hall, leaving the front completely empty. I called upon the tale of the Aleinu prayer (always at the end of the prayer service) that complained to God that it’s at the end when people are already leaving the synagogue. To make up for its slighted feelings God then inserted Aleinu in the very center of the High Holiday prayers. I also mentioned the end of the Leha Dodi prayer of Friday nights when the entire congregation turns around and the back row becomes the front row for a few moments. In that spirit I forced all the students to turn their chairs around and I lectured (if one were to call it that) from the back of the hall. I think some of the kids of the back row (now in front of me) squirmed at the sudden proximity to the lecturer, but they seemed attentive enough and even participated. That is one of the benefits of being a free guest lecturer. You can have fun, do things a salaried teacher couldn’t necessarily try or risk, and if it doesn’t go well they can’t fire you or not pay you. I am invited back to give another lecture tomorrow so I guess I can keep experimenting…

My original thought when planning these multiple lectures was to give the same basic themes over and over again. It was different audiences each time, so why not? However, in many of the cases, some of the same teachers were around for the second or third lecture and I felt some pity for them to have to hear the same thing again. Then I realized that I didn’t want to say or hear the same thing again either as it would be boring for me. So I’ve ended up giving almost completely different lectures every single time (with some overlap of themes). So besides the standard themes of repentance, kingship of God, reward and punishment, God’s mercy versus justice, Judgment Day, introspection, asking forgiveness, ritual commandments versus social ones, blessings and curses, stages of repentance, levels of expiation of sin (repentance, suffering, Yom Kippur, death), second chances and more, I’ve also tackled the centrality of the Belief in God, the creation of the world and the age of the universe, the dynamics of the Divine justice system, the challenges of the Israeli Rabbinate, pre-nuptial agreements, concerns of chemical attacks upon Israel and more.

One other thing I’ve learned, and this goes against what many Rabbis say and are told is the topic of stories. I’ve been told that people love stories. Always insert a story. I’m discovering, at least with a small vocal group of people, is that they are sick and tired of stories. Stories are overused, abused, misused. They’ve heard the stories already. They don’t want to hear any more stories. A small personal intimate anecdote perhaps, but a boilerplate Hasidic story? Forget about it. They’ve been saturated with stories. They’re already tuning them out the second you say “Once upon a time.”

Jokes still work though. Not out of style yet. Anyway, time to get some sleep during this short calm before the High Holiday storm.

One thought on “Adventures of a Chief Rabbi: ‘Tis the Season to be Jolly…”

  1. Really fantastic to hear that there is so much interest. So proud! Kol Hakavod and a Ktiva veChatima to you and your family. Much luck and success for your busiest period of the year, and may the people of Montevideo be uplifted by their new Gran Rabino!

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