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By JOANNE SEIFF In March, Rabbi Sid Schwarz visited Winnipeg to offer ideas for building community. In his Saturday Limmud lecture, he focused on his book, Jewish Megatrends: Charting the Course of the American Jewish Future.

These megatrends resonate with “next gen” Jews (Gen X, Y and Millennials): Hochma/Wisdom, Tzedek/Social Justice Issues, Kehillah/ Community, and Kedosha/Holiness.

Here’s the last column on how a sense of holiness can revitalize Jewish Winnipeg.
Holiness–Davening with the Angels
When I was a grad student, I had the opportunity to see Sufi Dance, also known as “whirling dervishes.” Sufism is a form of Islamic mysticism. After seeing this ecstatic prayer through movement, a Sufi master spoke to our class. When asked how he reached that spiritual ecstasy and enlightenment, he said, “Well first, you pray five times a day.”
Even though this was a great mystic, he brought us right back to the ritual of his religious practice. In Islam, you pray five times a day. He pointed out that reaching the holy and the ecstatic doesn’t mean skipping all your religion’s basic tenets.
To make a parallel with Jewish mysticism – it ain’t all Madonna and the red thread. It takes more than going to a celebrity Kabbalah centre in L.A. If we want to occasionally reach that level of spiritual meaning, we have to do every-day Jewish work. If you know the song “Al Shelosha Devarim,” you might remember the translation: “The world depends on three things: On the Torah, on Prayer/Work, and on Deeds of Loving Kindness.” Our souls can’t dance with the angels until we’ve done our chores and are ready to greet them.
When Rabbi Sid visited, he talked about holiness during his prayer lab on Saturday morning. He talked about how finding a way towards heartfelt prayers at services might invite angels to walk among us. This angel metaphor is a way of getting at that feeling when our souls take flight together during prayer.
For some, this sounds like hocus pocus. Yet, what Rabbi Sid said is true of Next Gen Jews – we want to re-engage with the spiritual in our lives, and if we can’t get it in Judaism, we’ll go elsewhere. The truth is, we most definitely can find it in Judaism. However, we get there in different ways.
The most successful 21st century congregations offer multiple opportunities to gather in prayer. There are a large variety of minyanim that focus on learning, on communal singing, and on healing. There are chances for prayer in movement, such as the Yoga Shalom program. There are family services, tot Shabbat services, playgroups and story hours. There are cantor-led services with performance-oriented choirs. There are Shabbat wilderness hikes and traditional services with guest lectures.
Offering several prayer experiences means that the shul won’t be packed for one single worship event. The rabbi isn’t always there as a figurehead. Sometimes, the rabbi has to minyan-hop from one group to the next. Instead, small groups, people who know each other, greet each other and bring meaning to their encounter, gather instead. This is a worship community where you know that someone has been ill or that a friend needs to recite Kaddish. It’s intimate. You have to participate, and it’s hard to hide if you don’t want to be involved. It can be deeply meaningful, but it also can be hard work–the other minyan members rely on you to show up and to help make prayer happen.
It’s often the hard work of showing up – knowing that your community depends on you that brings such deep meaning. Those who aren’t invested in their Judaism or who just show up for the food may be put off. Yet, these kinds of small congregational experiences are the ones that have the most meaning for many. When I was involved with the New Shul, under Rabbi Pinsker’s direction, I felt a sense of duty, value, and holiness. I was completely swamped with the needs of twin infants at the time. Even so, when I led the service’s family portion, we all got up, from the infants to the great-grandparents, danced and sang together, told stories and swapped kid-oriented ideas, and it felt transcendent. I also felt the angels in the room while Rabbi Larry taught us a Drash based on the Torah portion. I felt Kedoshah, holiness, surround us.
Thriving North American congregations nurture this. Instead of making it hard for a new Jewish group to meet, these communities offer up their basements and classrooms and invite folks to borrow a Torah. Rabbis with vision recognize that they should embrace every lay-led learner’s minyan…every single chance for Jews to build community, learn, connect, and grow spiritually within their buildings. By enabling this growth, everyone can find their own holiness ‘hocus pocus.’ It evolves from week to week.
The Rabbis teach something deeply meaningful about when Jacob wrestled with the angels to become Israel. The Torah says that the angels went UP and down the ladder. The angels originate here, on earth. To wrestle with the holy, we have to open up the shul doors to all forms of Jewish prayer. We have to invite those angels to dance – and daven – among us.
Joanne Seiff is the author of two books and works as a freelance writer, editor, designer and educator. See more of her work on her blog: www.joanneseiff.blogspot.com.