Adventures of a Chief Rabbi: Boos, Childhood Trauma and Crowd Participation

November 17, 2013

Boos, Childhood Trauma and Crowd Participation

Shabbat started with a well-attended school Kabalat Shabbat (services welcoming the Shabbat) in the gym of the large Jewish school in honor of the graduating class. The students together with their parents filed into the nicely decorated gym. A mechitzah (partition) divided the men from the women. Blue and white fabric adorned the tall ceiling and walls. A stage held an ark, podium and chairs for the speakers (including myself).

A variety of students learned the tunes for different parts of the prayers, got on stage and sang. Most of the crowd was either unfamiliar with the songs or too shy to sing along. Then it was my turn to speak. First, I spoke of perspective and point-of-view and how from the stage I noticed an interesting phenomenon that most of the audience couldn’t notice. In the men’s section it was extremely clear who the students were and who the fathers were. However, in the woman’s section it was harder to distinguish the difference between the mothers and the daughters. For some reason this comment brought great laughter.

Then I announced a test. I wanted to determine the Jewish knowledge as well as guts of the audience. I would start singing a song. I wanted to see who would know the song and who would have the courage to sing it with me. We sang “Mah Nishtana”, the famous children’s song from the Passover Seder. Everyone sang. I took off from there asking what is different about this night from all other nights. Answer: Celebrating and bringing in Shabbat together as a community. Then I gave a pitch for the importance of everyone finding the spiritual aspect of Shabbat that they enjoy doing in a community setting. I admitted that mine was sleeping during the Rabbi’s sermon. There is something spiritual and qualitatively different about a Shabbat nap in synagogue than anywhere else. Whether everyone started laughing from incredulity or from empathy, I’m not sure.

The following morning at the Kiddush of the Yavne synagogue it was announced that our office had removed the Kosher certification of a highly popular and tasty ice-cream franchise. Anyone with questions was directed to me. In my public role I have been applauded, engendered laughter, song and smiles. This is the first time in my career that I’ve gotten an entire hall filled with people booing me.

I don’t take it personally, as I believe that the community understands that we are removing the certification because we take our responsibilities seriously, and ironically this event increases the trust and confidence the community has in our work. Though Tamara I think is still disturbed as it was one of the few places in Montevideo we could eat out and she really liked their ice-cream.

In the late afternoon I walked to my regular Friday night synagogue for a custom Shabbat afternoon service for a Bar-Mitzvah boy. Typically we don’t have services there Shabbat afternoon, except in the case of a family-planned event. I knew there was a problem the second I entered the synagogue.

The night before, during the Kabalat Shabbat service, the Bar-Mitzvah boy served as the Hazan. I wasn’t there because I was at the high school event. It seems one of the elder participants found some aspect of the boy’s rendition offensive and corrected him in a harsh fashion. The boy broke into tears and left the podium. He had to be cajoled to return and complete the service. My heart went out to the boy upon hearing the report.

During my sermon, I apologized on behalf of the community for the negative experience and then told the Bar-Mitzvah boy and the full synagogue of my own similar experience. Almost 32 years ago, living in Rio de Janeiro, my family decided to celebrate my Bar-Mitzvah in Israel. I read the Torah in my grandfather’s synagogue in Arad. One of the synagogue officers, an older man who was either hard of hearing or didn’t understand my Spanish-Portuguese-accented Hebrew reading corrected my reading every two sentences. He must have stopped me at least fifty times. By the end I was in tears, outside of the synagogue and refused to return and read the Haftarah. The offensive official was asked to vacate the podium and I read the Haftarah without issue or interruption. I explained that despite that traumatic, distasteful, off-putting encounter with Jewish practice on what was supposed to be my special day I became a Rabbi, and the Bar-Mitzvah boy better watch out, as he may have a similar fate. I hope that repaired some of the damage, and gave some constructive purpose to that old man’s disturbing and hurtful interference all those years ago.

We completed the night prayer together and then did the Havadala ceremony together signaling the end of Shabbat. He was pelted by the crowd with candies, under the lights of the video cameras that had just come into the synagogue, amidst happy friends and family. A great way to end Shabbat.

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