I spent this past Sunday in a sunny backyard – not with a barbeque or a beer but with the Torah and revolving groupings of B’nei mitzvah students and their families. Because our group B’nei Mitzvah celebrations will be online this Shabbat and next Shabbat mornings, we wanted to give the students an opportunity to be with the Torah, in person – to be handed the Torah, through the chain of their ancestors, and to physically receive it and hold it in their arms; to be called up to the Torah for an aliyah with the special call reserved for the day of B’nei Mitzvah, with the chant chazak chazak chazak! – wishing them strength as they step forward and take their place in front of the Torah; to take their yad in hand and point in the Torah to the adorned, scribed letters, one hand resting on the etz, the ‘Tree of Life’ wooden dowel, as they hold the Torah open, and sing out each word. And then I got to look in the eyes of each student and give them a blessing.
I have become accustomed to the limitations of not being in person for holydays and Shabbat, for simchas and lifecycle events. It is quite a marvel how moving services and rituals can be online and the ways we have adapted to this format. And there is no doubt that the upcoming B’nei Mitzvah services online will be moving and filled with joy. The students will be leading parts of the service and sharing teachings and Torah chanting in the presence of the whole community. Please join the celebration, even if you don’t know any of the young people! It’s important that our virtual community is robust and embracing.
At the same time, when so much is virtual, distanced, and mediated through technology, it was astounding to be together, in person (with masks on), in the garden, to witness how simple and powerful these rituals are. I could actually see something change in each of the students. The parents could feel it too. What a beautiful revelation and palpable reminder. When done well, wisely and with intention, ritual is not merely symbolic. It actually facilitates change.
We are also about to begin Pride month. Alongside the city-wide celebrations and events, the DJC is joining with a fabulous group of downtown Jewish community partners in a unique Pride Shabbat Around the Table gathering and ritual, inspired by Judy Chicago’s Dinner Party. I don’t want to give too much away (you’ll have to participate to get the full lowdown) but the team has been engaged in a richly creative process, weaving the rituals of Shabbat – welcoming the Beloved, gathering in light, feasting together, and shaping time as consciously transitional and filled with sacred rest – with Pride-filled rituals of celebration, community-building, and elevating queer Jewish ancestors and our individual and collective Jewish LGBTQ+ courage, resilience and potent beauty. Evolving, radical ritual, deeply rooted!
At a time that has been so painful, frightening, angering and heart-breaking, amid violence and destruction, I want to keep connecting us with the rituals that make us strong and responsive, that link us to joy and the goodness that is also vibrantly here, to enable us to grieve, to lift us to be brave and to reach us toward one another.