Friday, August 17, 2007

Peace, Salaam, Shalom

I am proud to announce that I am officially a member of the “National Havurah Committee Institute” fan club. After three years of hearing friends of mine wax poetic about the Institute I decided that “this was the summer” to go.

The theme of this year’s institute was V'rav sh'lom banayich – "Great shall be the peace of thy children" - from Isaiah 54:13. The Institute was held at Franklin Pierce College in Rindge, New Hampshire, a small liberal arts college with a great view of Mount Monadnock and a gorgeous lake for boating and swimming. This was a great site for an intensive experience like the NHC Institute, because I was able to feel “very away” and there were lots of nooks for escaping to read a book, sit by the lake, have a conversation, or relax in the sun.

Each institute participant signs up for two courses, which take place on the Tuesday-Friday of the Institute, and the rest of the daytime schedule is filled with workshops and prayer. My morning course was titled “Us and Them: Four Texts, Multiple Interpretations” and was taught by Alicia Ostriker, a wonderful poet, teacher, mentor, and now friend of mine. Each day the class studied a different bible story to examine how the characters handled difference and conflict. We then wrote midrash (interpretive responses) about the texts we studied: Sarah/Hagar, Samson, Ruth/Naomi, and Jonah. In my afternoon class, “Textual Ethics for a New Era: Constructing a Practice Sexual Ethic from Traditional Wisdom,” I and my classmates wrestled with Talmudic texts on business ethics as a guide for our sexual behavior. For workshops, I taught one on grassroots fundraising to a room of seven people (largest yet, yay!), and participated in a wonderful workshop on Talmud and the Vagina Monologues, where we studied the monologue “The Flood” next to Talmudic texts on Niddah (Ritual Purity). Workshops took place everyday twice a day, but I found that this was also good time to regroup, have conversations with new friends, and explore the campus.

In addition to workshops and classes, the Institute offers evening programs and many prayer options. The prayer services I participated in were all creative, but one critique I have was that at times I did not find the prayer offerings or service leaders as inclusive as I would have liked. For instance, there were “non-prayer” options and “learner’s services,” but as far as I know I did not find any services which used English or offered prayer options for people with less Hebrew and/or Judaic knowledge, or those who prefer a more traditionally Reform-style service (for lack of a better way to explain it). At the Cathedral on the Pines service, which was a community-wide shaharit (morning) service, I had a difficult prayer experience in which I felt rushed, a little controlled, and offended that the terms the service leader was using when asking for communal participation were not explained (terms like gabbi for instance). I want to emphasize that my personal ability to participate was not hampered by the use of insider language or these methods, but I found myself reflecting on the fact that there are Jews out there who would love the NHC community, who may not have enough knowledge to feel like they can fully participate. I had a much more positive experience with the communal-wide Kabbalat Shabbat (Welcoming Shabbat) service, in which I felt the leaders did an excellent job of ensuring that everyone could follow along.

An additionally important part of my Institute experience this year was the Everett Fellows Program, a program created to engage post-college adults in community-building and Jewish life through participation in the NHC Institute. As a first-time attendee of the Institute it was great to be a part of a smaller group, and I also very much appreciated being matched with a mentor (mine was Alicia Ostriker, mentioned above).

I found in reflecting on my experience at the Institute that the parts that I enjoyed the most were the connections I made with members of the NHC community and the new things that I learned. With my fellow young adults, I discussed the strategies we each use to ensure the strength and sustainability of our respective religious and non-religious meaningful communities. I learned some dirty sign language, rocked out on the guitar to folk tunes and old pop, and discussed my thoughts about my career as a Jewish communal professional with participants of all ages. I learned that I like life much better when there is less television and more time to reflect, when I am reading and writing, and when I am surrounded by thoughtful people. I learned that I love writing midrash and davening (praying) with a kippah (head covering), and have very strong opinions about how I like to pray. Additionally, I learned that the issue of kosher wine is extremely complicated, that I can only handle a limited amount of tofu (the food was vegetarian all week), and that fast food can actually be enjoyable on rare occasions. My biggest takeaway, however, is that the philosophy of “Just Jew It,” of taking individual responsibility for creating personally meaningful Jewish life is alive and well. I am honored to be a part of it.

I'm really glad to hear you had a good time. I mean, I *know* you had a good time, but it's good to read it too. Anyway, it was great seeing you again, and yay for including dirty ASL in the write up :)

Oh, and the explanation of Jewish/Hebrew terms is a complaint I've certainly heard before. I''d like to think most people are aware of it, and try to explain/translate, but there always seem to be people who fail to realise that this can cause a stumbling block for some.
I'm not sure if this is a good excuse or not, but I'm guessing that in the case of asking for a gabbai, the thought was that anyone who didn't know what a gabbai was would not be able to act in that role.
Hi Anonymous,

I'd say its only a somewhat valid excuse. Its a kin to someone who can recite the entire Birkat Hamazon but does not know what the term "bench" means.

In the case of torah reading, this may apply less, but I think it still applies.

Thanks for the comment! :)
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