Shabbat Service Here Highlights Israel-Diaspora Gap
Tue, 05/07/2013
Robbie Gringras
Robbie Gringras

On a recent Friday night I went to a wonderfully inspiring religious service on a recent Friday night at Romemu on the Upper West Side.

Beautiful singing — much of it in Hebrew — an inspiring sermon, a warm and welcoming community atmosphere. In some ways, it was a snapshot of all that is dynamic and valuable about North American Jewry. And at the same time, it was a snapshot of how sustainable Israel engagement is in real trouble.

Three things I, as an Israeli, noticed in this snapshot:

The first is such an obvious, prosaic point it is almost not worth noting, but let’s say it anyway: the Kabbalat Shabbat service was almost unrecognizable to the vast majority of Israeli Jews. Original tunes, guitar and drums, rabbi wearing a “Madonna” mike, and lots of only-half-spontaneous clapping and dancing around the hall, people being drawn in to the hora like sober guests at the office-party conga. As a British newcomer murmured to me, half in disdain and half in wonder: “It’s like Simchat Torah every week.”

To be clear: I view this kind of renewal service as one of the most creative and enjoyable aspects of North American Judaism. I’m no halachic stickler, and I love harmonizing before a meal. But you’d be hard-pressed to find even 5 percent of the Israeli Jewish population that would feel anything other than culture shock in that service. If we were only examining the pluralistic nature of Jewish practice, this wouldn’t be an issue. But I was looking for common ground between U.S. Jews and Israelis, and when religious ritual isn’t on the map, this is cause for concern.

Second, the message was ecumenical, universal, and ever-so-slightly Christian. The sermon was delivered passionately and intelligently by a charismatic and highly learned rabbi teaching us about compassion. He spoke of a blind man in a subway, there was reaching out, and there was a conceit about seeing and blindness.

The message was deeply felt and deeply sourced in Talmudic and chasidic thinking. Its message of doing good in the world was both universal and individual. Doing good in the world was not presented as the collective taking of power, nor a communal drive, but rather as an individual’s response to a social ill for which he or she had no direct responsibility to change, only to ameliorate. It was, in the end, a message for a people without a collective identity, a people without a state, living in a Christian world.

Again, as a message to the world, one could do far worse. It may even be exactly the right message, calibrated perfectly, for life on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. But it shares so very little with the thinking that underlies Zionism and the raison d’être of Israel. The idea of collectivity, the idea of responsibility for an entire nation, the possibility of uniquely Jewish aspects of our moral mission on earth — these were nowhere to be found.

I don’t suggest that the individual approach is bad and the collective approach is good. Just that — again — the common ground with Israelis is terribly sparse.

Finally, it was clear that this Friday night service was the Jewish highlight of people’s week. There was spiritual uplift and harmony. It was a beautifully constructed evening that was complete in and of itself. In a packed week of work and family, people turned to Romemu for their Jewish island and its comforts. For some it might have been their only encounter with their Jewish identity that week. For others, if not their only encounter, certainly their most inspiring.

Yet there was no room for contemporary Israel in this service. How could there be? How can Middle Eastern discord be allowed in among the harmonies? What space is there for Israeli doubt, fear, and fury, in a service so full of comfort and consensus? It would be wrong, or wrong-headed to ever expect that Israeli current affairs should gain anything more than a mention of the local Yom Ha’Atzmaut celebrations.

Yet if one believes, as I do, that Israel is one of the most important missions of the Jewish People, then a Jewish service that is perfect without mention of this mission is cause for concern. I do not judge this service on its own merits — it was not lacking, it was not empty, it was neither dumbed-down nor patronizing. It was a beautiful expression of how Jewish life can feel itself complete and vibrant without being in any way connected to Israel.

Was this a misleading snapshot? Or was it another sign of the dying of the light between Israel and the diaspora?

Robbie Gringras is artist-in-residence for Makom, an educational project of the Jewish Agency for Israel.

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I find this article very interesting. The author complains that the reality of Israel is absent during the service. Then I would like to know, which other service really shows that reality. I was raised in Argentina, and all my Jewish, and especially Zionist memories are filled with music, dancing and joy. In fact, I strongly believe that it is something so rooted in the Zionist culture that it is almost what made the Jewish people survive for so long. I know songs and dances that even many Israelis did not learn, or are embarrassed by. Romemu just offers a different kind of service, where we are allowed to connect with Judaism, the way we enjoy it the most, without people judging others either because they don't observe enough, or because of the car they drive or clothes they wear. Also, Romemu is the only synagogue I have ever been to (and I've been to a lot) where we do not only pray for peace in Israel, but all around the world. Is that what makes Romemu a more Christian experience? By everything I have read in this article, I am an even more proud of being a member of Romemu. Hopefully more synagogues, and more religious institutions will pray for peace as we do, instead of just paying attention to how Jewish or Christian or whatever a service is. And Romemu is also a beautigul community, where everyone has their arms, heart, and doors open for anyone in need, and by what I know about Israel and its citizens, Romemu is one of the most "Israeli" communities i;ve even been a part of.

I am an Israeli and I am a member of Romemu.
I did not enjoy reading the article by Robbie Gringras. I enjoy the service vat Romemu very much. True, I live in New York for 25 years and go to synagogue every Friday night. But, when my family come to visit me from Israel and I bring them to Romemu - they love it, and they say: "We wish we had something like that in Tel Aviv". I am willing to bet that if Romemu was located in Tel Aviv it will draw hundreds of congregants.
I feel sorry for the author of this article who had to write with such a negative tone. One could actually write a similar article with a much more positive conclusion. A lot of hard work and sweet love goes into preparing the Romemu service and it is not fair to allow anyone to dismiss it so quickly. I am hoping that one day there will be many "Romemu like" congregations all over Israel.

Robbie

I am an Israeli citizen and an American citizen. I live and work in both Israel and the US. I am deeply committed to Torah, Judaism and Israel. But most of all, I am an incredibly proud member of Romemu.

I so much want to find the good in your article but alas I am left with the sad observation that despite your being born in the UK, you truly have become fully Israeli as is clearly evidenced by your need to review, judge and criticize what should have been a personal spiritual encounter.

Chaval, that when you come into a a new environment you reach for judgement and criticism in place of curiosity and contemplation.

Shul is a personal and communal place for connection. Whether Romemu is right for you, I can't possibly say. But one thing I can say for sure, is that as long as you come to daven with nothing but evaluation and judgement, then there is no shul in the world that will ever move you.

Interesting that most of the comments focus on the author's third point, the absence of reference to or discussion of Israel in the service. As troubling to me is his second point...the individualism and universalism of the service. Granted the criticism of the author that he attended only one service is valid. Nevertheless, I suspect Areyvut - Jewish Mutual Responsibility - our duty to care for Jews not just in the congregation or locally but worldwide - is overwhelmed by the current trend of Tikkun Olam ... fixing the world outside of the Jewish people. While not opposed to helping "the other" I fear the liberal American end of our Jewish spectrum is forgetting our own and in doing so is weakening one of our unique messages to the world ... you take care of your family, your people and "the other".

If these are the reflections of one of the leaders of JAFI's educational project, then something is deeply amiss.

Mr. Gringrass suggests that because he (and by extension 95% of the Israeli population) would not recognize the service, there is something wrong - the fault being with the service (because, I guess, surprise is bad). He goes on to label a sermon "Christian" because it dealt with individual response, rather than communal identity. This is condescending, insulting, and ignorant of much of classical Jewish tradition; one can only wonder what he would have said about classical Musar sermon. Finally, his expectation that a service *must* have a reference to the State of Israel seems just odd. Do Israeli kabbalat shabbat services refer to the condition of Jews in the Diaspora? Or to every other important item on the Jewish agenda?

The only word for the attitude expressed here is narcissism, and if it is representative of JAFI as a whole, then we have a problem that goes much deeper than whether or not a visitor feels comfortable at a Renewal service.

i am neither Religious nor a member of the shul the author writes about so ignorantly.

Basically he's saying that services are passion-less, boring, and meaningless in israel....just uniform.

they need MORE services like this one in Israel. not fewer here!
He's so afraid of change, he should just be Haredi, where they never change anything.

I don't know why we need to intellectualize what was a straight forward piece. Feels to me like we should accept Robbie's insights at face value. There are experiential and cross cultural differences that can manifest themselves a thousand ways. To the extent we can be conscious of them enables us to bridge the gaps. It works the same way in Israel as Americans seek the familiar after making Aliyah. We all wind up adding and expanding our mindset and worldview by listening and absorbing each other's experience and perspective. I applaud the article and don't see it as a criticism in the slightest. Simu lev. David Black, Executive Director, Sid Jacobson JCC, East Hills, New York www.sjjcc.org

I think his basic critique is that Renewal Judaism is pretty far removed from Rabbinic Judaism and in that sense it's similar to Reform Judaism. Both RJ and RefJ use rabbinic Judaism as a starting point but from there they depart into completely new territory that does not bare any resemblance with the kind of Judaism that most of our grandparents practice. Perhaps in a generation or two we will be able to tell if places like Romemu are relevant, necessary and long term successes. My guess, personally, is that it is short term trend. But who knows maybe I am wrong.

As a member at Romemu, I found this piece very provocative and very self serving to the writer. One service/ sermon is just that- a snapshot. Not something to draw sweeping conclusions about. How does the writer know that the shuls' message "shares so little with the thinking that underlies Zionism?" after hearing just one sermon? This is pretty presumptuous. He missed the entire message of Romemu which is open-mindedness to the new, compassion and accountability.

Judging Romemu from one service he also shuts off the possibility of learning more fully about the wonderful work Rabbi Ingber has been involved with repeatedly- in creating dialogue across cultures in Israel- this being just one example of his commitment to collective dialogue and engagement not just amongst Jews but all people.

It feels like the writer came in looking to prove his already drawn conclusion of feeling excluded and surprisingly in a shul whose message is always about inclusion. Comments about people " half spontaneously clapping" and "half in disdain" seem to be more about the writers' feelings than about anything he can know about participants enthusiasm just by looking.

Jews do a lot of talking "about" things sometimes at the expense of connecting with them experientially which does not create personal or collective change as much as connecting with something in your own heart. Rabbi Ingber's message is one of love and connectivity. His voice is a sacred and unique gift to the world- and I believe he is still yet to be fully appreciated in the Jewish world for how privileged we are to have a teacher/ rabbi like him to inspire us in our time. He contributes immensely to raising personal and collective consciousness, more than I have experienced in most orthodox shuls.

As Gandhi said ''Be the change you wish to see". Engagement with/of Israel and connection between one jew and another as well as a sense of collective responsibility begins inside the individual and expresses outward. Without inner peace- outside peace is nearly impossible.

Come back to Romemu with a willingness to open your eyes to more than just your own agenda and struggle and you may find more of what you're looking for..

I have found that it takes three services at a new synagogue to fully appreciate (or dare I say judge) the service, or perhaps I should say to decide whether its right for you. I suggest that Mr. Gringras return to Romemu, engage congregants and Rabbi Imber, and get a real feeling for the congregation and the spiritual life of its members, in and out of services, before passing judgement. I do find it puzzling that he expects the focus of a service in New York to be Israel, or for a creative service like Romemu's to be immediately accessible to him. As a Diaspora Jew, my life doesn't revolve around Israel, and I don't expect my religious services to either.

Robbie,

Thanks for your candid and reflective piece on your experience at Romemu. I do have a few questions for you, and would be glad to hear your responses:

1. Would you have felt differently about the service if it had happened to be on Israel? I would think that even in Israel, rabbis choose from many different topics when they give sermons and drashot. Does every service you attend in Israel always include a reference to domestic politics?

2. Did the service really feel all that different than it would have been had you gone to a Jewish Renewal service in Israel (for example, at Jerusalem's Nava Tehila (http://www.navatehila.org/)? Should you argue, Jewish Renewal is a North American import to Israel, I might ask in response, are you suggesting that there is some intrinsically domestic form of worship currently practiced in Israel, uninfluenced by immigration?

3. On that same point, should you argue, Renewal (and really, any type of worship that incorporates a language other than Hebrew, instrumentation, meditation, and other "progressive" innovations) doesn't represent the majority of Israeli shul-goers, I would ask in response, could it be that the privileging of certain forms of Jewish expression through the orthodox and ultra-orthodox rabbinate has hampered the growth of progressive Judaism in Israel? Maybe a larger number of Israeli Jews would find a way to God and spirituality if the government weren't illegitimating the kinds of worship practiced by the majority of Jews in the States.

4. Finally, although it sounds like your experience at Romemu didn't particularly resonate for you as an Israeli, I would ask: (a) doesn't that say more about you than about the service? There are quite a few Israelis who visit American synagogues and discover a form of worship that speaks to them in a way they've never experienced before, not to mention that Romemu has a fair number of Israeli worshippers. And (b) who cares? Why should a Jewish worship experience in the USA have to matter to an Israeli?

One last point: I love your writing generally (your "wrestling/hugging" metaphor is classic) and you as a person. Still, this piece came across less as provocative than deliberately confrontational. If your interest is in building common ground between North America and Israel through worship, why not start with orthodox or Chasidic congregation, where worshippers do indeed flow seamlessly between our two beloved homelands.

With best wishes for a Shabbat Shalom,

Saul

Saul Kaiserman
Director of Lifelong Learning
Congregation Emanu-El of the City of New York
www.emanuelnyc.org

Robbie Gringras is not the first person to feel a mix of joy, inspiration, comfort, awkwardness, pain, and isolation during a joy-filled Shabbat service. What we do with our mixed emotions and with our joy, pain and alienation is often a topic in Rabbi David Ingber’s sermons at Romemu, where I am a congregant. Rabbi Ingber frequently dares us in his sermons and stories to live more honestly in our vulnerability. So I suggest bringing more vulnerability to this discussion about the Diaspora-Israel connection.
I can understand why someone from Israel, where realpolitik is so necessary, would feel pain upon encountering an ecstatic and contemplative community like Romemu. I am the child of a Holocaust survivor and Palmachnik, as well as of a parent who had polio. Some of my earliest encounters with Jewish Renewal’s ecstatic practices left me feeling unsafe, alienated and enraged. I have learned, with the help of the Hassidic masters so often quoted at Romemu and by other Renewal teachers, that joy can be a painful challenge, and that one’s pain can be a dangerous comfort (and, God forbid, a weapon). Robbie Gringras felt pain at a spirited Romemu service- a pain that I and others could relate to. If he returns, I hope he might talk more about his pain, rather than lashing out at a warm and compassionate community.
Many Israelis have gone to India and Tibet to find contemplative and ecstatic spirituality. Romemu offers a contemplative and ecstatic path within Judaism. I think many Israelis might actually find that to be a good thing.
-Shoshana Jedwab

he could have gone to an orthodox service: it is EXACTLY like in Israel.

Why should a religious service be about politics or State relations? We share a lot with our Israeli friends and family- a worship service that focuses on the Jewish expression of our relationship with the divine.

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