Yom Kippur At JRC: Part One

I have written about our time at the Jewish Reconstructionist Congregation, better known as JRC. It is time to write again.

Though my family was not overly religious I grew up in a very traditional synagogue. By that I mean long services, prayers mostly spoken in Hebrew (for which I can sound out words but do not know what they mean), and professional shushers that would roam the aisles should any congregant attempt to chat with his neighbor. Shhhhsh.

The Rabbis’ sermons were of the hell-fire and brimstone variety. He would either be telling us what we were doing wrong as sinners or alternatively to  telling us to support the state of Israel, there were no other topics. Women had no role in these services. They were lucky not to have to sit in a partitioned off area as they do at an orthodox service. These were serious and stern services. The dress code was suits and ties, though admittedly this was decades before business casual changed our sartorial expectations.

It’s not that I disliked my family synagogue. I knew of nothing different. The cantor had a beautiful voice and many of the tunes I learned there are hauntingly beautiful. This was my opportunity as a terrible but enthusiastic singer to belt out songs under the cover of prayer and of being one of hundreds of voices.  I learned to pray solemnly–even if I did not understand the words I was pronouncing.

The JRC has a radically different approach to the holiday services and to the ideas of community and the role of a synagogue and its congregation. It did take me awhile to get past what I consider to be “prayer–lite” and the relatively casual dress of the congregants. (Yes, I can be shallow enough to judge people on how they dress as opposed to who they are.)

Once I saw past the superficial the substance of what Rabbi Brant Rosen and Cantor Howard Friedland brought to me as a Jew and a human it was hard not to like this place. Our time as a congregation on Yom Kippur, one of the holiest days of the year will be a good example of what JRC is all about.

Throughout the night and next day that make up this holiday, Rabbi Rosen communicated themes of community, commitment to the improving society, finding a connection to G-d both individually and collectively and understanding the spirit, not just the law of the holidays. The individual prayers are shorter than the tradition I grew up with (which bothers me at times) but the level of spirituality is higher.

If you are looking for a stern lecturer spewing fire and brimstone, you are in the wrong place. Rabbi Rosen– Brant– is passionate about many things but his delivery is that of an everyrabbi. He is calm, casual, caring, and funny (including a willingness to laugh at himself). He sets the tone for the service and for the service and for the community. Or perhaps JRC  found a rabbi that reflects his congregation. I am not involved in the congregation though we have been members for 12 years. But during the high holidays I get a sense of the long time and involved members and they appear to  share Brant’s characteristics and the desire to do good as well as be good.

Then there is Cantor Friedland–Howard. I have a strong distaste for people who pretend to care but are clearly insincere. I have come to refer to these people as the anti-Howards. While many care only if a cantor has a great voice, I care about whether the cantor has a great spirit. Howard brings both.  He is a perfect complement to Brent. I have not yet found the “team” to compare them to. Certainly not The Lone Ranger and Tonto for Howard is not a in a secondary role. Perhaps Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, at least as we know them from their portrays by Paul Newman and Robert Redford. Both men of substance who work well together. ( I am not sure that the characters fit completely but Brant/Howard any objections being compared to Newman and Redford?)

Since the set up has taken so long I am splitting this story into parts one and two. Part Two will discuss the wonders of this particular Yom Kippur.

Before I go, let me share two more things. First, below is JRC’s self-description form its website which can be found here.

 JRC is a Jewish community known for our joyful spirituality, life-long learning, and a deep commitment to social justice. Located in Evanston, Illinois, our members come from all parts of Chicago and its suburbs. We are an inclusive congregation, reflecting the rich diversity of the American Jewish community – our JRC family includes interfaith families, blended families, young people, senior adults, people of color, and gays and lesbians.

JRC is much more than a synagogue – we are a community committed to a Judaism that makes a difference in our lives and in the world.

The second is a point I found out when I went to the website . Rabbi Brant Rosen has been listed in Newsweek as one of the “Top 25 Pulpit Rabbis in America” . Read more about this here.

50 Minutes Of Bliss

No not that. I have not been able to that for 50 minutes since…well since never. Try these words instead.

Terrace. Mexico in February. Massage. Put them all together and you get close to heaven on earth.

It was our last night. We had talked for a couple of days about getting massages. Actually I told my wife to get one. After all we were there to celebrate her birthday. She insisted that we do it together.

Yet it was so easy to lay around, hardly move and order another drink. Walking the 200 yards to the Spa would take planning and effort.  I am a procrastinator by nature. It did not look good. Earlier that day we discussed the possible times. Nothing seemed to work. She had made plans to play tennis and later we had the Oscars to watch. It just wasn’t going to happen.

Then fate intervened. Her tennis partner canceled. We had an hour to kill. Why not take a chance and see if the Spa had openings? We did. They did. Right now.

The Spa had the normal inside massage rooms but the openings were on the terrace. Open air. Looking over the ocean. Looking at all the poor people on the beach who were not about to get oil rubbed all over their bodies. Beauty.

Mine was Scandinavian, possibly Swedish. She had great hands. Long, strong fingers. Her hands worked quickly and powerfully. It was magical.

massage-therapy.jpgWe had asked for therapeutic massages using medium force. No elbows gouging into muscle knots but no light frolic either.

The funny thing is that while I enjoyed the massage immensely, I had pain in every spot she touched. Neck, shoulders, back, thighs, calf and feet. OK not everywhere. It did not hurt when she rubbed my head. That’s it. I suspected that I was a physical mess but I did not understand to what extent. If I had the time and money I would have had her work on me for days until she worked the pain out of my body. Every knot, every aching muscle. I estimate she would need most of a week.

After the message, I showered then went into the steam room. This was followed by a special shower that dumped cold water on you as you pulled a cord for as long as you kept pulling. At first I went 1 second. Then 2 seconds then 4. There was something stimulating about having this rush of cold water after a steam.

I have a second letter for my alphabet book of adult pleasures. M is for Massage.

Hard to believe I was living this bliss just two weeks ago. Today it is 24 degrees in Chicago and it will be colder tomorrow.

Excuse me while I close my eyes, breath deeply and repeat my mantra. Terrace. Mexico in February. Massage. Terrace. Mexico in February. Massage.

The Life Aquatic

Maybe it was because  I have lived my life in the Midwest with the nearest ocean a thousand miles away. Maybe it was my first trip to the Caribbean in my mid- 20s. Maybe I was a creature of the sea in an earlier life. What ever it was, I love the ocean and the living creatures that inhabit it.

While I did not dive this vacation, the schedule and keeping the boys happy prevented it, I did snorkel. Once in Maui and several times on the Big Island. The main new creature this trip was the variety of sea turtles. Beyond that there were a great variety of fish and some spectacular corral.  Each snorkel experience was different. I am not certain what it is about the being in the ocean with a mask on that brings me such joy; I just know that it does.