How the rabbi missed Yom Kippur services

Another in a series of stories for liberal religious kids. Source and notes at the end.

This is a story about Rabbi Israel Salanter, who lived in Lithuania in the 1800s:

It was Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the year for Jews. All the people had gathered in the synagogue to wait for Rabbi Israel to lead them in reciting the Kol Nidre, the prayer that begins Yom Kippur. But Rabbi Israel didn’t come. After waiting a long time, the people in the synagogue recited the Kol Nidre without the rabbi, hoping he would appear. Still he didn’t come. The people continued to wait for Rabbi israel, though by now he was so late they began to worry that he would not arrive until after the service was over.

Finally the rabbi came into the synagogue. The people looked at him in amazement: they saw down stuck in his hair and his beard, and his clothing was wrinkled and messy. But Rabbi Israel walked in as if nothing were wrong, as if he were not horribly late. He put on a prayer shawl, and began to recite his prayers. When he had finished praying, he at last explained to the congregation why he was so late:

He had been walking to the synagogue [he said], with plenty of time to spare, when he heard crying inside a house he was walking past. He went into the house, and there was a baby lying in its cradle, with a six year old girl fast asleep nearby. A bottle of milk stood above the cradle, just beyond where the baby could reach it. The rabbi could see what had happened: the mother had gone off to the Yom Kippur service, telling her six year old daughter (who was too young to go to the service) to give the baby its bottle if it started crying. But the girl had fallen asleep, and she did not hear the baby crying. So Rabbi Israel fed the baby. When the baby finished the milk, the rabbi tucked it in the cradle and watched it fall asleep.

It was just then [said the rabbi] that the little girl awakened. She was afraid to be home alone, and begged him to stay with her. The rabbi looked around, and saw that the candles the mother had left were burning low; here was a good reason not to leave the child alone. So he stayed until the children’s mother got back from the synagogue. He concluded his story by saying he was very glad that he had a chance to do such a good deed on the most holy day of the year.

The people in his congregation stared at him. One of them asked: You mean you didn’t say the Kol Nidre, you were absent for the Yom Kippur services, you missed the most important moment of the whole year, all this just because a baby was crying? You, the greatest intellect, the smartest person of our time, you missed being here because of a baby? Rabbi, what were you thinking?

The rabbi scolded them all, saying: Don’t you know that there are reasons why we Jews are allowed to skip prayers, reasons why we are even allowed to break the laws of the Sabbath? If there is the slightest chance of saving a life, we are allowed to — no, we must skip prayers and break the Sabbath. Then too, don’t you know that our families, our children, are central to Jewish life?

This silenced the people. They realized that it didn’t matter that Rabbi Israel had humbled himself by taking care of a mere baby. As he said, there could nothing more important.

Source: This story is from Lucy S. Dawidowicz, ed., The Golden Tradition (Syracuse University Press, 1996), pp. 173-174; the story is quoted and interpreted in Leora Batnitzky, How Judaism Became a Religion: An Introduction to Modern Jewish Thought (Princeton University Press, 2001), pp. 124-125; I am indebted to Batnitzky’s interpretation of the story.

Places of worship in south Palo Alto

A few days ago, I started at my office in the Unitarian Universalist Church, and took a walk around the neighborhood. In less than an hour, I walked past or near 7 different faith communities.

I walked to the corner of Charleston and Middlefield; down the street and just out of sight on my left was the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints at 3865 Middlefield Rd., which is locally famous for the annual Christmas Creche exhibit that is erected in its front yard in December.

Continuing down Charleston, I crossed Fabian Way; to my left, a few blocks down at 3900 Fabian Way is Kehillah Jewish High School, where the Keddem Congregation, a Reconstructionist Jewish faith community, holds its larger events and services.

At the corner of Charleston and San Antonio Road, I walked next to the Jewish Community Center, where, every Sunday, the C3 Silicon Valley Church rents their auditorium for a worship service. The C3 Church is a worldwide movement based in Pentecostal Christianity.

Turning left on San Antonio, I came to Anjuman-e-Jamali, a new Dahwoodi Bohra mosque, an impressive stone-clad building; the minaret is over 60 feet tall, though supposedly it isn’t functional.

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I crossed back over Charleston Rd., and went a block or two into the city of Mountain View, where I saw the Abundant Life Christian Fellowship, in a large building that looks like a corporate headquarters or maybe a big-box store. The Web site lists no denominational connection, but recent pastors have had connections to Pentecostalism.

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Back over the city line in Palo Alto, along San Antonio Rd., I walked by the small Central Chinese Christian Church. Unfortunately, the Web site is in Chinese, so I don’t know which branch of Christianity this church comes from.

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I walked back down Charleston Rd., and returned to the Unitarian Universalist Church.

The final tally for a one-hour, 2-12 mile walk:
1 Jewish congregation: Reconstructionist Jewish congregation, rented space
1 Muslim congregation: Dahwoodi Bohra (a sect of Shia Islam)
4 Christian congregations:
— Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (Mormon), Restorationist Christian
— C3 Church, Pentecostal Christian
— Abundant Life Christian Fellowship, nondenominational Christian
— Central Chinese Christian Church, unknown Christian
1 post-Christian congregation, Unitarian Universalist

List of faith communities near Palo Alto

I’ve been compiling a list of religious organizations mostly in Silicon Valley, from San Jose to San Francisco. The middle school class of our congregation visits other faith communities, and this list is designed to be used as a resource to help the class find places to visit.

Even though I was familiar with the work of Harvard’s Pluralism Project, even though I expected a wide diversity of religious traditions, I was still astonished at the religious diversity I found: there are hundreds of faith communities, ranging from Anabaptists to Zoroastrians, within an hour’s drive of our congregation.

Most of the research I did was online. It proved difficult to research some faith communities online, as quite a few do not have Web sites, or they have Web sites that are so outdated you don’t trust them. Yelp proved to an excellent source of information about many faith communities, especially when there were recent reviews (search for “Religious organizations” in a given locale). Youtube also proved a good source of information in a few cases; sometimes faith communities have inadequate Web sites but their members may post videos that provide useful information. One or two congregations had Facebook pages that provided the most recent information.

This list also relies on some real-world research. Our middle school class has visited some of these congregations, as noted on the list below. I also relied a lot on word-of-mouth information — people telling me about some faith community that they knew about, or had friends in, or belonged to.

Perhaps the most difficult part of making this list was figuring out a reasonable way to organize it. I started with the eight major world religions identified in Stephen Prothero’s book God Is Not One; added Zoroastrian, Sikh, Baha’i, and Jain to the list; then finished off with a list of New Religious Movements organized according to the categories in the book New Religious Movements, ed. Christopher Partridge. That takes care of the major divisions. It was more difficult to know how to categorize sub-groups within Christianity and Islam. Christianity is arguably the most diverse of the major world religions, and I did the best I could based on various scholarly reference works. Islam was also challenging to categorize, and I finally decided to use the categories from the Salatomatic Web site.

If you live in Silicon Valley, I’d love it if you looked over the list — then let me know if you see any errors or obvious omissions.

And now: the list! Continue reading “List of faith communities near Palo Alto”

Religion in the public square

In the United States, all too often the phrase “religion in the public square” means someone accosting you and telling you that you should join their religion; so the meaning of the phrase becomes, “our religion is right and yours is wrong.” Or that same phrase can be used pejoratively to imply that all religious practice shouldb e kept out of public view; so the meaning of the phrase becomes, “all religion is wrong.” Either way, someone is imposing their own views on the rest of a democratic society.

But if ours is a truly multicultural democracy, we should allow space in the public square for a variety of worldviews, without letting any one worldview dominance over the others. This becomes a delicate balancing act. Literal or metaphorical shouting matches between religious worldviews don’t promote tolerance; mind you, sometimes you have to get into shouting matches to preserve the openness of the public square, as when we have to fight to limit Christmas displays on public property, but no one imagines that these shouting matches increase tolerance. So given that public religious expression is a delicate balancing act, what does it look like when you have an appropriate expression of a religious worldview in the public square?

Sukkah at the JLISF, Columbus and Lombard, San Francisco

Today I saw such an expression of a religious worldview in the public square, and it looked like a rented flatbed trailer with a sukkah built on top of it. The trailer was parked in front of the Jewish Learning Institute of San Francisco (JLISF), on Lombard Ave. right off busy Columbus Ave in the North Beach neighborhood. Carol and I walked by just as some people from JLISF were cleaning up from lunch. They were polite and friendly, and ready to explain that they were celebrating Sukkot, and what a sukkah was, and so on.

This is a good display of religion in the public square: present, but not intrusive; with friendly people who are ready to explain, but not berate.

Sukkah through a bus window

(Posted the next day, and backdated.)

How to take your Sunday school back to the year 29

Every couple of years, we run a five-week Sunday school program called “Judean Village,” in which we travel back to the year 29 to be in a predominantly Jewish village in the Roman-controlled territory of Judea.

The Judean Village program has us travel back in time during Sunday school. We gather in the village square, where the artisans and shopkeepers of the village (i.e., the Sunday school teachers) exchange gossip and rumors — gossip about what the hated tax collector has been up to this week, what the Roman overlords are doing, etc. — and rumors about the wandering rabbi named Jesus of Nazareth who is rumored to actually sit down to share meals with tax collectors (horrors!), who is rumored to be healing people and even raising them from the dead, and who may or may not be planning a revolution that will drive the Romans out of Judea and reestablish Jewish rule. The artisans and shopkeepers are all wearing long tunics with rope belts and head cloths (available from www.christiancostumes.com). We supplemented the costumes we purchased with ones made by volunteers in the program.

The village song leader comes by, and teaches the villagers a song: Continue reading “How to take your Sunday school back to the year 29”

Disruptive forces acting on congregations

In an essay on the Alban Institute Web site titled “Restructuring the Rabbinate,” Hayim Herring writes:

Individuals can access educational, spiritual, and cultural resources on their own, independent of congregations. The Chabad movement continues to expand its network of synagogues, minyanim, religious schools, preschools, camps, and college campus houses, and undoubtedly is planning new initiatives. This movement abandoned the typical synagogue financial membership model of “joining” a synagogue for a relationship-based model of involvement. They understood that people who are emotionally connected to a rabbi and community are willing to contribute voluntarily. Chabad’s global reach and its ability to work with families over a lifespan has been a disruptive force for many established synagogues.

I think a key phrase here is “disruptive force.” This is a phrase that comes from the world of business, and it refers to the way that innovation that provides a good-enough product or service can put high-end or excellent products on the defensive and by so doing, completely disrupt an established market. An example of this is Craig Newmark, who developed Craigslist, a Web site that offered largely free classified advertising; in so doing, Newmark disrupted the newspaper business, for newspapers had depended on classified advertising for their financial survival. Arguably, Craigslist isn’t as good as newspaper classified ads — because it’s a free service there are many stupid ads which merely waste one’s time, and of course when one bought a newspaper one also got journalism along with the ads. But Craigslist ads are good enough, and Craigslist has disrupted the newspaper business model by driving newspapers out of the classified ads business.

As much as we’d like to think that religion is free from market forces, in today’s consumer capitalism nothing is free from market forces. And there are disruptive forces acting on religion. Hayim Herring gives the specific example of Chabad as a disruptive force acting on typical synagogues. While Unitarian Universalist congregations rely on a different financial model than do Jewish congregations, we also have disruptive market forces acting on us. Perhaps the most important disruptive force acting on Unitarian Universalist congregations is the religious-fee-for-service business model. Continue reading “Disruptive forces acting on congregations”