By the time I became a rabbi at 53, I knew a few things.
A monthly Jewish paper, May 2006
By the time I became a rabbi at 53, I knew a few things. I wanted to bring people closer to God, I wanted to share what I knew of my beloved Judaism, and I didn’t want to be bored. I also didn’t want to be confined to a denomination, because I find blessing and drawback in all of them. I went to the Academy for Jewish Religion, a nearly sixty year-old trans-denominational seminary that Reform Rabbi Stephen Wise and Conservative Rabbi Louis Newman created to forge a new vision of a Judaism that reflected the temper of America. I was trained to serve all denominations, including Orthodox (I’ve led minyanim where I wasn’t counted!).
Five years ago I took the risk of forming a new community, HaMakom: The Place for Passionate and Progressive Judaism, a place that would primarily embrace those for whom denomination was less important than belonging to a community that offered fresh religious experience.
We have attracted artists, singles, spiritual seekers, alienated Jews, people of all ages, and a group committed to having a good time becoming better people. We are a laboratory for a community of love, and although we haven’t succeeded in doing this without a board, we have managed to take the best of the havurah movement and marry it to the work of a traditional synagogue.
We’ve chosen to share space with St. Bede’s and hope that we can stay there until the messiah comes. Our congregations have held events together and Father Murphy and I are comrades in the experiment of modeling how two faith communities can work together to be an interfaith community. This translates into no building fund or costly maintenance of staff and grounds.
By being intentionally small, we are a community that knows one another well enough to notice when someone is missing from our weekly Shabbat morning service or our monthly evening celebrations. By witnessing how members have rallied around a family after a serious car accident with providing food and child care, and the support given to those who have suffered serious illness and loss of family members, all of us are assured that when our time of need comes, we have a community that acts with empathy and help.
I am a 25 percent rabbi. Because of this, the community doesn’t have a huge salary that requires a large membership to create revenue, but nothing is free. It has required the community’s willingness to create an infrastructure that is learned enough to lead itself in services. Our cantorial soloist leads the service with lay Torah teachers to lead the Torah discussion and leyners for Torah reading. Therefore, HaMakom has the benefit of professional leadership and the vitality of a knowledgeable community. This is particularly amazing when I look back at our beginnings, when most didn’t know that the prayer book opens from right to left!
This year we had eleven women become B’not Mitzvah, which is roughly 15 percent of our membership. These women, ranging from their forties to their sixties, studied for eighteen months to learn Hebrew, law, history, holidays, and life cycles. Not only did the women reflect our unusual demographic, they came from wildly disparate faith backgrounds. Before they undertook this commitment, some had been Sikhs, yogis, messianic Jews, or determined universalists.
To help them answer for themselves why they wanted to become a Bat Mitzvah, we went to Ojo Caliente for an overnight vision quest mikveh. Havdalah, shaharit, time in the wilderness to reflect and write, guided imagery, and immersion brought all of us into profound shared experience that gave resonance to the Chol HaMoed service they led. Their effort and accomplishment set forth an energy of intention for the entire community. Praise God!