Adventures of a Chief Rabbi: Community Power

October 25, 2014

Community Power

As idealistic as my job forces me to be, some corner of my heart has the dark cynicism of a New Yorker. A part of me expected people who attended The Shabbos Project events to come more for the experience and to remain unscathed from any palpitations of observance.

The Friday night prayer service, Kabalat Shabat, was filled past capacity. More than 400 people filled the beautiful, but barely suitable Hillel building. In the back of the first floor, there is a beautiful rectangular hall that is perfect for 120 people. We squezzed close to 200 women in that hall. The front of the first floor has an expansive hall, with a big beautiful curved bar counter dominating the left side, a pool table on the right far corner and low-hanging modern chandeliers across the length of the hall. More than 250 men arrayed themselves in the insufficient chairs (we only had 350 chairs total). The place was so full that I saw many people enter the hall only to turn back and leave, hopeless to find a comfortable place to stand or sit.

The men sat facing the women across a short narrow corridor connecting the two halls. That is where I placed myself and our extraordinary Hazan, Rabbi Oved Avrech.

There was an incredibly strong showing from the Bogrim (alumni) of all the Tnuot (youth organizations). There were also leaders and members of all the synagogues and communities.

Interspersed throughout the prayer, we invited different people to give short introductions to the different parts of Kabalat Shabat. Speakers included Alicia Perl of NCI, Rabbi Eliyahu Galil of the Sefaradi Community, Sergio Gorzy, President of Central Committee of the Jewish community, Michel Grauser of Macabi, and Israeli Ambassador Nina Ben-Ami.

In the large halls, with many participants unfamiliar with the prayers, I found myself reverting 25 years in the past, to my days as an NCSY Youth Advisor, when we regularly held such events. I was walking up and down the hall, showing people the place in the prayer book, quieting talkers, encouraging people to partcipate and getting those familiar with what we were doing to do the same.

I was pleasantly surprised by the relative decorum and the high level of participation of people for many of whom this was their first Kabalat Shabat.

The singing was loud and emotional and we even managed to dance a few steps in the narrow passageway that was left to walk.

I gave a very short sermon, as is my custom, or perhaps even shorter than usual and I asked, challenged and dared congregants one thing: Turn off your cellphone until the end of Shabat. As a former salesman, I think I gave a good pitch – but you never know.

We had a festive kiddush after the services with delicious food provided by both the kitchens of Kehila and Yavne.

After most of the crowd left, about 100 youths moved up to the second floor to have a community dinner. Also oversubscribed. We had closed the booking at 70 people but somehow managed to squeeze everyone in and feed everyone well. Also great mix of people, a visiting chayal, travellers, Jewish student leaders, college students with no connection whatsoever to any Jewish institutions, and a broad spectrum of religious observance and identification. We were also joined later by Rabbi Mendy Shemtov of Chabad, who enhanced the evening.

The young shlichim and shlichot organized an entertaining game for the dinner which complimented the singing and words of Torah. For a percentage of participants who had never experienced a Shabat prayer or dinner, it was an eye-opening event.

We had also placed a number of individuals, groups and families in the homes of hosts and encouraged others to invite people who wouldn’t have had a Shabat dinner otherwise. I estimate that at least 100 people were invited out for Shabat dinners, if not more.

In Yavne, the following day, we had a communal lunch, with 180 participants split up between two halls. While the majority were regular synagogue attendees there were a number of notable newcomers who participated in the meal. Throughout the day and the night we also had multiple occasions to celebrate Tamara’s birthday. She probably has never had so many people sing and wish her a Happy Birthday in her life (I estimate that throughout the 24 hours, over 500 different people managed to sing to her.)

The Shabat ended with the Havdala Event.

This was conducted in the outdoor grounds of the Integral School. We must have had over 300 participants. There was a strong showing from the Macabi youth group as well as that of communal leaders who weren’t able to attend the other events.

Rabbi Oved Avrech led the Havdala ceremony in the engaging Carlebach style. Then the school band played an excellent medley of four songs. The only one which I recognized was the Beatles’ 8 Days a Week.

Then the Macabi group, the winner of the recent “Noharia” (competition between the different Jewish youth movements) finished the event with a recreation of their prize-winning play. I’m not sure I understood a lot of it, but what I did was very interesting, thought-provoking and very well done. These kids have futures as thespians.

However, the absolute highlight for me were the reports and accounts that came in afterwards. How moving or meaningful someone found some aspect of one of the events. How enjoyable being hosted for Shabat dinner was. One woman confessed that she kept her phone off for the entire Shabat. One attendee admitted that for the first time in his life, he closed his store for Shabat. One man blushingly relayed that he kept Shabat in its entirety.

For each one of these, the entire effort was worth it. And I am sure there are many more stories and events that I haven’t heard.

This was a massive effort that spanned all the communities, utilized the resources of the two main Jewish schools and the Hillel center and required the cooperation of multiple organizations. No one institution could have done this alone, nor would it have been nearly as successful. More than the feeling or observence of Shabat that this event engendered it demonstrated the power and strength of community unity.

In my Havdala talk I said that when we are united, we are invincible. We need to remember that, not only during troubles, not only during rare events. We need to remember that when we are united, we are invincible – every day.

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