Wednesday, August 3, 2011

What Used To Be Home Pt. 5

(After a brief interruption, we are returning to our regularly scheduled series of articles, "What Used To Be Home." You are also welcome to visit, which contains the musings of my daughter, Natania.)


It took more than one trip, traversing several malls, but in the end we purchased almost all the housewares, the clothing, and the odds-and-ends we were looking for -- everything except the elusive road map. Before we had left The Land, I had printed out a list of every synagogue in Silver Spring, about eight in total, as well as every kosher restaurant and market in the area. That's why I needed a map, so we could sit in Gwen's apartment and figure out where we at point A were in relation to point B and C, and where point B was in relation to point D. That's where a GPS is of limited use. I had already figured out that I was nowhere near any of the synagogues on my list. My plan for Shabbat was to stock up on take-out and spend a quiet day in the apartment. Despite the fact that this residence is under the auspices of the local Jewish Federation and the food is kosher, it's not really designed for Sabbath observance, and I'll say no more on this subject. But Barbara sensed that she was too stressed out to start dealing with enough take-out food to hold us through Shabbat. She suggested that, instead, we contact one of the local synagogues to see if some worthy family would host us. As long as Barbara was the one doing the phoning, I had no problem with her idea.

I seemed to remember that the Kemp Mill Synagogue was the largest one in the area, so I suggested that she start by calling there first. It was already Thursday morning with a full day's activities planned, (including our trip to the funeral home chronicled in article three) so there wasn't much time to lose. The synagogue administrator was dubious -- only one day before Shabbat -- but she agreed to contact the people in charge of shul hospitality and have someone get back to us. Sure enough, within an hour or two, Barbara's cell phone started to ring. By the middle of the afternoon, we were set: staying with family A, having Friday night dinner at family B, lunch the next day with the rabbi and his family. No take-out food, no lonely Shabbat for us!

I'd like to think that every Orthodox Jewish community in the American exile has some unique quality, something to write home about. One thing you couldn't fail to notice in suburban Silver Spring is the deer population. Because of the large green belt going through the area, there's a bunch of these critters wandering around -- not just in the evening when you would expect to see them. Throughout the day on Shabbat, we saw a family of deer perambulating nonchalantly around the well-manicured lawns. I guess the deer realize that hunting season is canceled on our day of rest.

There may have been a few deer, but there were Ph.D's here by the bushel-full. Almost every family we met had at least one of these highly educated folks, and most of them worked as scientists in some Federal agency -- Washington D.C being a commutable distance using the local Metro. A very distinguished crowd, and a very hospitable one at that.

Because of the distance to the synagogue, we were invited to join a small minyan at our hosts' neighbor's house on Friday night. Therefore, it wasn't until Shabbat morning that I, accompanying the fellow with whom we were staying, got to the main shul, the aforementioned Kemp Mill Synagogue, a mile or so from where we were staying. Walking through the very large lobby towards the main sanctuary, I noticed a bulletin board with a Vision Statement on it. I couldn't stop to look at it right then and there, but I made a mental note to check it out later. I figured that, if they took the trouble to post it smack dab in the middle of the lobby, it might actually mean something.

(Fair disclaimer: the terms 'vision statement' or 'mission statement' are matters of great interest to me. I spent three years working on a strategic plan for our former congregation in Teaneck, and I, and a number of other folks put in a lot of time and effort translating into concrete terms what we understood to be our fellow congregants concerns. While some things were accomplished, I'm not convinced that the plan itself remains the living, breathing document for the folks who remain behind (the woman who worked with me as a co-chair made aliyah with her family the same year we did!) that we intended it to be.)

When I had the chance later to look at what was in plain view on the bulletin board in the KMS lobby, I was mightily impressed. These folks weren't kidding around. Looking at this vision statement -- written eight years ago -- which I found recently on their shul web-site (actually it is a mission statement, but I'm not about to quibble), I noticed the following statement:

"If a synagogue is viewed merely as a place of prayer and Tora study, a location where people gather in order to fulfill their religious obligations, then one Beit Kenesset should not be all that different from another. However, if a particular group of pray-ers and learners are striving to become something greater than the mere sum of their collective presences on Shabbat, Yom Tov, and during the week, then it becomes necessary to articulate the nature and values of the religious community that they are looking to create."

I admit that these sentences don 't quite have the urgency and oratorical pizazz of the opening words of the Declaration of Independence (When, in the course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another...), still, they do say a mouthful. More than a mouthful. Imagine that: people are being asked to articulate something, to have a vision, to have aspirations! People are being asked to think about who they are and what values they as a community have -- for real, not just because some rabbi got up and used up fifteen minutes of time after the Torah reading -- to a captive audience.

I read the entirety of their statement, and I thought back to the pleasurable Shabbat we spent at KMS. There was something special about the building itself. There are lots of shuls of all stripes that are large, ornate, and intimidating. When you walk in them, you can almost hear the rustling of dollars bills, the millions that were spent in putting up the edifice. It must have cost a pretty penny to build this beit knesset; just purchasing a plot of land that big must have been a bundle. But here I felt something beyond the money spent, a sense of simplicity, airiness, and inclusion. For example, the mehitzah is a glass panel dividing the large, light-filled sanctuary in half -- so that there are as many seats for women as for men -- and the distaff members can even see and hear what's going on. Gee, if I were a woman, I might even want to show up.

After the davening and the bountiful kiddush (with suitable adult beverages), I, along with a young couple who were also invited, walked back with Rabbi Jack Bieler for lunch with him and his wife (Barbara and Ms. Bieler had left earlier). Inserting myself into a discussion of the role of the modern rabbi, I seized an opportunity to ask the rabbi a question. I had noticed him walking around at the kiddush with a basket of lollipops, something which few Orthodox rabbis would dream of doing. Rabbi Bieler was more than happy to share his philosophy with me. Simply put, he doesn't want the local youth to be intimidated by THE RABBI, so that they are reluctant to come over and ask him something. In other words, if the rabbi is his own 'candy-man,' then he's not just the austere figure on the bima. If a child can come over for a lollipop, then you can have a conversation. An interesting approach.

It's funny what one remembers. We had a wonderful, relaxing conversation at lunch, but I can't remember any of it (just as I can't remember anything of the stimulating d'rash that a young bat mitzvah girl had given after the davening). What sticks with me is the poster that was on the wall facing me. No Judaic kitsch reproduced in the thousands for the Bielers. Here was something different, a copy of what had once been plastered on a billboard, advertising a long-forgotten Yiddish melodrama. Imagine the scene: an observant Jewish man and woman sitting in their parlor (decor: Old-world oppressive, c. 1920), looking askance at their 20 something year old daughter and her new beau, who, from the looks of him, had not seen the inside of a shul in many moons.

Was the poster there only for its aesthetic value? As a reminder of by-gone days? Was it there to make a point? As a challenge to a modern day rabbi? There was a time when the little scene depicted on the poster and fleshed out on the stage was the reality of Jewish life in American: young people fleeing what they saw as the dour, oppressive religion of their parents. Today, the opposite is true: young people fleeing the stifling secular ideologies of their parents, looking for a little tradition, a little structure. Some of them seek inspiration from the Judaism that their families had abandoned. Maybe that's where the Rabbi Bieler's of this world come in: to get their attention -- even more important, to get their children's attention. I am not planning on joining KMS; it's too far a journey on a Shabbat morning from our home a little bit east of Yerushalayim. But the congregation and the rabbi certainly had my attention while we were there.

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