Yom Kippur At JRC: Part Two

A few weeks ago I began to share with you the uncommon experience that is JRC on the high holidays. My intention was to share the stories but I got wrapped up in setting the stage. Now it is time for the stories.

The first is technically from Rosh Hashanah. Howard, our cantor, shared his experiences from his extended time off earlier in the year. Howard chose to visit services from the vast variety of Jewish, Christian and Muslim services in the Chicago area. One of his main themes was despite the great differences in the services in form, substance and god across religions and even within the different sects of Judaism, he was consistently welcomed  warmly by both clergy and congregation wherever he went. His stories were often hilarious and I can not do them justice attempting to repeat them here. The telling of the stories lent two impressions. First that of the personal warmth and humanness of the storyteller. Second,common are our bonds as people no matter the specifics of what we believe and how we choose to seek an understanding of our universe.

There were two deeply moving stories. First, a man shared his experiences from within the walls of Folsom Prison. Yes the same prison made famous by Johnny Cash. Today it houses men convicted of the worst of the possible violent crimes. This man was not a prisoner but part of an annual program in which men from all walks of life share three days with 30 hardened criminals discussing their lives. Not just the lives of the prisoners but all the participants.

The first amazing part of this amazing story is that agreeing to do this was not enough to get you in. This man needed to be accepted by convicted killers and rapists. All would be sharing their darkest fears and secrets during the three days. Acceptance required standing up in front of 30 prisoners and being asked why they should trust you. At one point a prisoner got directly into his face. He spoke of weeping openly as he thought about his life and the mistakes his regrets. He was accepted.

The second amazing part is what he learned about the prisoners as men. That even those who had committed horrible crimes still had bits of humanity. One man spoke of his sadness that he would not be there for his young son and that he was afraid that his son would end up following a similar path to his. Even more interesting was what the JRC congregant discovered about himself. He discovered that he had built his own prison. One made of fears that kept him from becoming the man he wanted to become and from doing things he wanted to do. He had turned down for several years the opportunity to participate in this program. The thought of three days in the heat and discomfort of Folsom being with hardened criminals did not seem appealing. Yet in the end it is what set him free.

I was in tears listening to this story. I know that I have let the enormous pool of fears that engulfs me keep me from doing and being more. I could definitely relate. This was not the type of experience I would have had in the synagogue I grew up in. Yet it was extreme but not out of the  ordinary for JRC.

While I like to tell stories. I am not a professional. At JRC there are several people who make their living as storytellers. Who even knew this was profession? On each day of the High Holidays one of our storytellers shares a story, typically a one of Jewish tradition with a meaning relevant to the holiday. I don’t particularly care for professionally told stories. I prefer ones that come from the heart told in less than perfect manner by a person. The sing-song cadence of the professional storyteller tends to  bore me rather than pull me into the tale.

One exception was the story told on Rosh Hashanah about becoming a grandfather for the first time. This story was well constructed as one would expect from a professional but this was indeed from the heart. It sang with honest emotion. Contrast that with the storyteller on Yom Kippur. I had heard her many times before and as I said I tend not to enjoy a story told professionally. Yet on this day she seemed off her game. The sometimes faulty delivery actually brought me more into what she was saying than if she had been “perfect” as defined by the union of professional storytellers. 

During the Torah reading portions, there will be three different readers. On Yom Kippur one of the readers was an elderly lady who actually read from a card rather than the Torah scrolls. The rabbi made a point of commenting that an exception was being made for Shirley. Shirley mad one small error during her reading but was generally great. I turned to my wife to ask how old she thought Shirley was. I had thought late seventies. My wife suggested eighties. More on Shirley later.

After the morning services, JRC has a long-standing tradition of having an “open mike” session. Anyone who signs up gets three minutes to talk about anything. We had never stayed for open mile. In the past our son would be anxious to leave. However, being empty nesters does provide extra freedom. So we stayed.

 The talks covered a variety of subjects. Several people discussed the recent loss of loved ones and often spoke of the assistance and kindness provided by members of the congregation that helped them through. One poor man lost four close relatives in the past year. One man spoke on behalf of Israel and while acknowledging the flaws of this kindred nation was asking for continued support.

(As an aside, while I was growing up, the state of Israel was the just and righteous country. It was the little Jewish state just trying to exist among powerful countries that on multiple occasions tried to drive the Jews into the sea. Somewhere along the way many mistakes were made and horrific acts of violence perpetrated on the Palestinians. Israel is no longer without blemish. This is a difficult conundrum for Jews wanting to show support for a Jewish homeland.)

Other open mike topics fell into the general category of “I am doing good things and I am publically patting myself on the back”. OK, this may be a bit harsh. I am sure that these people who are doing very good things just want others to know about them.

The second speaker during open mike and normally the first was Shirley the Torah reader. She walked with a cane and needed help climbing the stairs. Her first words were “I am 92 years old”. That led to several moments of applause. She went on to say that in the past she would share statistics about her exercise routines. Miles walked, number of push ups done, etc. I am guessing that I have missed years of entertaining milestones from a woman much older than she looked. This year she spoke about the trials she had been through. She had been through several illnesses and injuries and for months had been in constant, considerable pain. Only fairly recently had a doctor, a JRC member no less, figured out how to relieve much of her pain.

Shirley spoke of how she began to doubt if she wanted to fight after being so worn down with so much. Maybe at her age it was time to let go. She had lived a good life, a long life.  (I suspect that many people would think of themselves or anyone above the age of eighty in that way. Yet with someone younger they would be encouraging the person to kep fighting. Age discrimination?) Fortunately for anyone within the sphere of Shirley’s life she is still kicking. I for one look forward to next year when I suspect we will again be regaled with stat after stat of her exercise achievements. I certainly hope so.

We did not stay for the various discussion groups that followed the open mike session.By then we succumbed to the early hunger pains that are a part of Yom Kippur. It was time to go home and nap.

For those of you who grew up in and/or live in a Jewish tradition I suspect that JRC is not the norm. Yes we do say prayers, read Hebrew and the like but the connections to G-d, good works, and community are done in a way that is unique and special.

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.

Shanah Tovah

Friday night began Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year. A common greeting on the holiday is L’ Shanah Tovah which roughly translated is “To a Good Year”.

I send wishes for a happy and healthy year to all my Jewish or not friends.

This has become a bittersweet time of the year since my mother died a year ago the day before Rosh Hashanah. Due to my people’s use of a lunar calendar I get to remember this event twice, once on the day before the holiday and once on the english date of September 29.

I will try not to be too maudlin but her presence has been felt all week and it was hard for me to watch friends with their moms or worse yet grandsons with their grandmas. I know that this too shall pass.

I also miss not having our son with us on the holiday. This whole college, separation thing may be good for him but it is hell for me. I feel as if the family is no longer together, at least not in the same way.

Moving on. This is the time for atonement. It is traditional to ask for forgiveness of our sins from both our G-d and from all nongodlike creatures whom I transgress from time to time. While this is meant to be done on a personal basis, I am asking forgiveness from any of those of you whom I have wronged. You know who you are.

And if I have butchered the English language with incorrect use of whoms then I also ask forgiveness of both Merriam and Webster.

L’Shanah Tovah.

The Ancient Improved By The Modern

For religious Jews, study of the Talmud can be a lifetime quest toward understanding the word of G-d. This quest made all the more challenging since it is written in Aramaic, not a commonly used language. Yet for centuries Jewish scholars have studied these text and the commentaries written by Rashi and others.

The October 9th edition of The Economist says it better:

“THE Talmud is the bedrock of traditional Judaism: a repository of law and lore, chaotically interwoven with biblical explanation and legend. Compiled in fifth-century Babylon (today’s Iraq), it has since enticed, intrigued and exhausted generations of Jews.

For Orthodox Jews, lifelong study of the Talmud is the supreme religious precept. But for many earnest students through the ages, it has been a frustrating grind. Written in Aramaic (often described as the language of Jesus), it does not easily surrender its textual meaning or inner reasoning. In the 11th century, a French rabbi named Shlomo Yitzhaki, often known by the acronym Rashi, wrote a ground-breaking commentary to make the original text more accessible. But even he is often terse and replete with abbreviations and unelaborated allusions, as are the thousands of commentaries and books of scholarly correspondence that accrued over the ages.”

Due to the work of over 50 scholars working separately but able to be linked electronically, their are new translations in English and modern Hebrew. By having an electronic version, there are search capabilities that never before existed.

Even with these modern techniques, one does not merely read the Talmud but tries to extract meaning. Even computer technology cannot help you there.

One of the coolest things is that “Many follow a universal page-a-day programme: all over the world, people are studying the same text on the same day. It takes them seven years to complete the whole opus.”

I am fascinated that the same world can contain Twitter, instant messaging and still have room for a seven year quest for knowledge.

Happy Diwali

Earlier this month I received my first ever “Happy Diwali” card. Diwali, or Deewali,  is a five day celebration often referred to as the festival of lights. The following from diwalifestival.org provides the briefest of overviews of this Indian holiday (with much more available at the site):

“Deewali is a festival of joy, splendor, brightness and happiness. It is the festival of lights and is celebrated with great enthusiasm by all Indians all over the world. The uniqueness of this festival is its harmony of five varied philosophies, with each day to a special thought or ideal. People celebrate each of its five days of festivities with true understanding, it will uplift and enrich the lives.”

We live in a country with a long Judeo-Christian heritage. One in which there is little understanding of Jews by Christians, and visa versa, or even amoung the many Chritian factions of each other. Oh by the way we are also currently trying desparately to understand Islam right now. In this slice of the world it is easy to forget that there are hundreds of millions of people that follow other religious beliefs including the Hindus, Sikhs and Jains who celebrate Diwali. So much to learn, so little time.

Fortunately for me I have friends with many different beliefs– some are even Republicans! I look to these friends to help me understand the beauty of their traditions.

Jews have their own festival of lights, Hannukah, which begins in less than 2 weeks. Though not named for the same reason I find it cool to have a holiday with the same moniker as a Hindu holiday.

Vive La Difference!

Fasting Goes Slowly

For Jews around the world last night at sundown Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, began. This means many things. Most importantly it is the last day of the 10 day period beginning with Rosh Hashanah during which you ask forgiveness from your sins of the past year and hope to be written into the Book of Life for another year.

You are asking forgiveness from G-d for the sins against the 613 commandments but also from every individual whom you have harmed. Sins of omission as well as commission. It is an introspective and solemn day.

To help create the mood, one of the commandments is a sundown to sundown fast. I have found that the term fast means different things in different religions so I want to clarify the Yom Kippur fast. NOTHING. No food, no liquids, nada for what ends up being 25-26 hours.

While you would not think so to look at me, I can go without food for a day if necessary.  It is the water or other liquids that I miss the most. I have been at this for 21 hours so far. I will survive as I have every year but my mouth is dry and in an hour or so my stomach will be rumbling.

So while other religions have their food sacrifices such as Lent or Ramadan that last longer than a day. I will put Yom Kippur up against any of those for the pure intensity of 24 hours of nothingness.


The Jewish Reconstructionist Congregation (JRC) in Evanston has “been my synagogue” for the past 10 years. I put those words in quotation marks after staring at the screen for 10 minutes trying to find words to relate the JRC to me. Those words came to me but I feel they need further explanation. Let me get back to that at the end of this post.

I came to the JRC shortly after becoming no longer single and learning the importance, if not the skill, of compromise. While not terribly religious on a daily basis I grew up in a Traditional congregation. That slice of Jewish observance falls a half step below orthodox. The women are not separated physically from the men but they play no direct role in leading the worship service or the business of being a congregation. Most of the service is in Hebrew and it tends to be long. Rabbinic sermons were filled with fire and brimstone. I only grew up at this congregation because my aunt and uncle belonged there when we moved into the neighborhood. Yet this approach to being a Jew was how I spent my formative years, provided the foundation of my Jewish education and all I knew for thirty years.

My wife on the other hand grew up in a Humanist congregation. I do not know exactly what this means but in terms of worship service it seems to have been lighter than most reform congregations. Short and mostly in English.  All I know is the family rabbi that married us refused to wear a yarmulke, the traditional head covering which I had been led to believe was part of Jew 101.

Needless to say, finding a congregation that we could both be comfortable in was going to be challenging. After 6-8 attempts at various places we lowered the standard of success to finding a place we both could tolerate. JRC became that place.  

In the first couple of years I was mostly focused on what JRC wasn’t. I would tell my friends how they shortened most of the prayers and did much more in English than in Hebrew. It felt less religious. Worst of all they used different tunes for the prayer/songs that I knew and loved. You cannot overestimate how closely my spiritual tie to the entire service, to being Jewish, was linked to those songs. I don’t particularly like change.

I believe my wife seemed focused initially on how much more Hebrew was read than what she had been accustomed to and the increased length of the services. We both however had appreciation for how music was integrated into the service which created beauty.  In my former place of worship, no musical instruments were allowed, just a small men’s choir. Here, in addition to a choir of women and men came guitar, piano, flute and cello. I began to notice the joy that much of the congregation took from the service. In the early years though I stayed true to my introverted self and emotionally held the entire experience at arm’s length. This was a place to be on the high holidays and a place for my son to receive a Jewish education. It continued to meet the “high” standard of compromise that my wife and I set.  

Fast forward to Wednesday, September 13, 2007, the first day of Rosh Hashanah, marking the beginning of the Jewish New Year. I was in an ugly mood and having trouble connecting in any way to the service. The turning point for me came after the rabbi introduced one of the members of the congregation to provide her personal reflection, a regular event on the high holiday program of JRC.

The woman’s theme was redemption. She spoke of growing up in an orthodox tradition and learning to love being Jewish. As a young adult, however, she began feeling left out given the orthodox focus on men and the exclusion of women from the most holy aspects of the rituals. It was not until her partner chose to convert and become a Jew and then later dragged her to the JRC that she reconnected with her religion and found a warm and accepting religious community. She had been concerned that being female, gay and an adoptive parent were facets of her personality that would make connections difficult. At JRC she found not only people that would accept her as she was but also people similar to her.

For some reason this woman’s story struck me harder than usual. I was vaguely aware that JRC was an open and accepting community. I say vaguely only because I have always stayed on the periphery. In prior years, others had in similar personal reflections echoed those sentiments. I could also visually observe the differences in the congregation and how JRC conducted itself. This time however I felt the truth of her observations.

At JRC it does not matter if you are female or male, gay or straight, or young or old. Anyone showing interest and being deserving (based on their actions, especially in support of the JRC and its community) can participate in meaningful ways in the prayer service. As an example, my friend’s son Sam reads from the Torah though he is only a few years beyond his bar mitzvah. (He does an excellent job btw.)

On JRC’s website you will find the words below.









The JRC and its community are all that. The Rabbi, Brant Rosen has brought to us attention to religious study, humor, good nature, a focus on community and an activist’s focus on doing good works– both within the Jewish community but also anywhere else they are needed. Despite the fact that he looks as if he is barely out of rabbinic school he provides the right kind of leadership to this community.

Cantor Howard Friedland is one of the warmest individuals you could ever meet. This comes through in his chanting and his comportment in front of the congregation. Taking a slightly different road to JRC, he was a free-lance actor before becoming a cantor. While not having a long cantorial resume would have excluded him from consideration at other congregations, it was who he is and not what he previously did that mattered to the JRC.

So why am I writing over a thousand words about the JRC? The values of JRC are values that I hold dear. Values are a big part of who I am. That JRC and I had this in common struck me intellectually and I connected at least on that level. For me this was a significant step forward. The next day, the second day of Rosh Hashanah is attended by only 20%-25% of the crowd from the day before. I enjoy the more intimate setting. I sat with friends and actually prayed. The beginning of a connection on an emotional level. A baby step anyway. For now for me JRC is a place to be. It is my synagogue in name. My dues are current. For now I recognize that it is much more for many people and could be more for me some day. Who knows if or when? Stay tuned.