by Rabbi Gary Glickstein
Rav A.I. Kook, the former Chief Rabbi of Palestine, often remarked that our role as Jews is to fulfill the vision that “The old shall be renewed, and the new shall be made holy.” (Letters vol. I, p. 214)
Last month The New York Times reported on a high-tech High Holiday service led by a young rabbi, Amy Morrison, in Miami Beach. I am proud to say that Rabbi Morrison is a relatively recent addition to our rabbinical team at Temple Beth Sholom. The service, which took place at the Jewish Museum of Florida, was one of three separate services we ran this year.
In each service, our clergy team aimed to use the communication tools preferred by our diverse group of congregants. In our weekly staff meetings, we routinely ask: How can we create a service that might connect the people in the room to each other and to Judaism? When we are talking about the 20s and 30s age group, why wouldn’t we use texting? Anyone who spends time with someone from that demographic knows that texting is the preferred mode of communication. But our decision to use texts doesn’t tell the whole story.
Thanks to a series of grants from The Woldenberg Foundation, Synagogue 3000 and a number of private donors, we have spent the past seven years cultivating a cohort of 20- and 30-somethings called The Tribe. Through polls, dyads and one-on-ones with hundreds of individuals and groups, we have come to better understand their needs. We applied the outcome of that work to our Erev Rosh Hashanah Experience. Among many concepts that emerged were the following:
The young professional Jewish community in South Florida:
- Feels isolated around holidays;
- Generally organizes into diverse, social and professional islands;
- Is transient and uninterested in lifetime memberships; and
- Seeks meaningful, high quality Jewish experiences.
Understanding what the group was looking for was a key component to creating a service to which they could connect. We focused on breaking down barriers and finding ways for them to communicate with each other.
The vision of the “Experience” was to present multiple ways for congregants to engage; texting was just one way. There was also a new machzor that offered an opportunity to write notes. The rabbi encouraged people to “call out” and say what was on their minds. To get the most out of the experience, people had to actively participate. By actively participating—instead of simply listening—they could be drawn in to the sensation of being present and more open to the experience.
In a room full of people who admitted to having little if any prior experience with traditional Jewish life, we enabled them to use the communication tools they are most comfortable with to express their feelings. Here are some of the written responses The Tribe received from people who were in the room:
- Tonight I experienced God. Yesterday I didn’t believe in God.
- I can’t believe how connected I felt tonight—to the others in the room, the rabbi and myself.
- I love how you try to include everyone and make us feel welcome.
- Texting is great. Some of us are so afraid to speak our minds.
- I felt so much more involved… more connected.
- I really felt a connection to being Jewish.
- The service was emotionally engaging and thought provoking. It really succeeded in making Judaism relevant to me right now.
- I felt really close to G-d. It was incredible.
In other words, it was not about just using technology for the sake of using technology; it was about continuing to apply our tradition of keeping Judaism relevant. The modern world will always offer up an endless array of new communication tools and if they can help congregants connect Jewishly, we should find appropriate ways to use them.
Finding our way to renew the old is but the first step in the reimagining of the Jewish community. We also must venture into the more difficult realm of making the new holy.
Rabbi Gary Glickstein is the senior rabbi of Temple Beth Sholom in Miami Beach, FL.