Open Temple

Doing the Work

A message from Rabbi Lori:

Making it Meaningful…

What does Passover mean in 5784? As the concept of Freedom has become a universal trigger, Jews all over the world approach Passover with a personal revisionism this year. In Israel, they are saying “Lo b’Seder” – a pun playing with the Hebrew word for “all right” and the fact that we are “not all right” as well as an expression for who will NOT be present at the seder. Elijah’s cup and visitation are being revised through poetry and rituals; we are encouraged to add an empty seat with a yellow ribbon to our seder tables to keep the lack of freedom for the hostages prominent; some are even placing gauze on the seder plate as a symbol for the suffering and healing wishes we have for victims in Gaza (where the word originated through the weavers who lived there in the Ancient world). And on and on and on (read this article on Rabbi Stav of Shoham and how Israelis are re-valuing seder this year).

Regardless of how we feel – approaching Passover, or passing it over – this is undeniably a time for self-reflection. Half a year ago, we gathered at Yom Kippur and marked 50 years since the Yom Kippur War. Tomorrow night’s Passover seder will mark 200 days since 10/7. How are we doing?

The only response I have through this time is this: It’s time to do the work. Our Seder Crawl invites everyone into Radical Ritual; the cleaning we have ahead of us before Monday night invites us to begin with the outer work as we deepen our inner work; and our upcoming series Omer Ascent accompanies us into deepened spiritual development that calls to us from within.

My heart remains broken; my hope never fails; my love deepens with compassion each day as we read more and more about our broken world. May the Matzoh be a reminder of the work our ancestors did in setting their own seder table through troubled times and may we never be resigned to defeat; for our power to love and understand the Other is our Superpower and the essence of our journey around the Seder Table.

May this year we find Redemption for All.

With Love and a Blessing for Freedom from Bondage,

Rabbi Lori

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Pray Tell


B’nai B’rith Magazine 2023 Winter

Congregations Rely on Both Innovative and Traditional Approaches to Worship

By Jeff Weintraub

On a Shabbat morning last spring, I was one of two prayer leaders who launched the service at Adat Shalom Reconstructionist Congregation in Bethesda, Maryland, with the traditional Ma Tovu prayer. Instead of simply vocalizing it with one of several age-old melodies, as many might in other American synagogues, I was both singing and playing guitar to a melody co-composed only a few years ago by Josh Warshawsky, whose modern and catchy liturgical music has lately been adopted by a growing number of American synagogues.

We similarly offered up several psalms and prayers with a mixture of familiar ancient Nusach, or traditional musical modes that correspond to segments of various services, and—with instruments—melodies from other modern composers. We also drew on tunes from two Israeli influences—the singer Yosef Karduner and the group Nava Tehilah—as well as a setting by the Philadelphia-based Joey Weisenberg, who leads Hadar’s Rising Song Institute, an incubator of emerging young Jewish musicians like himself.

It’s an approach much different from some of the synagogues a short distance away. At the Modern Orthodox Kemp Mill Synagogue in Silver Spring, Maryland, congregants recite the entire text of an Ashkenazi-style (or traditional Eastern European-inflected) service in Hebrew, without instrumental accompaniment, which they avoid on Shabbat and major holidays. And unlike the service at Adat Shalom, which pauses for frequent insights and explication of the text, prayer at Kemp Mill is “efficient,” as Rabbi Brahm Weinberg describes it. The service moves, he says, “at a fairly robust clip to make sure it doesn’t feel overly long or taxing for people when they come.”

Tradition, tradition: 19th century artist Maurycy Gottlieb’s famed “Jews Praying in the Synagogue on Yom Kippur” focuses on individual responses to worship. Photo: Aviv Museum of Art, Tel Aviv

Not far from Kemp Mill, Ohr Kodesh, a Conservative-affiliated synagogue in Chevy Chase, Maryland, covers much the same liturgical real estate, with similar choreography—standing up, sitting down and bowing at prescribed times—and including chanted music. But Ohr Kodesh has no mechitzah, or separation between men and women, who equally share the duties of prayer leading and Torah reading. And like some Conservative synagogues, it also uses electrically powered sound and web-streaming systems that are off limits at Orthodox synagogues.

According to a Pew Research Center survey, as of 2020, about 8% of Jews in the United States said they attend some kind of prayer service monthly, and 12% report that they attend weekly or more often.

Those who do attend might be part of Reform-affiliated synagogues, which rely more heavily on English, responsive readings and music. Or they might participate in the sort of service associated with Jewish Renewal, an emerging segment of the community that offers a mixture of mystical, Hasidic, musical and meditative prayer practices. Others might be attracted to pray at a place like the Open Temple in Venice, California, an unaffiliated incubator of new approaches to engaging Jews that has featured, among other offerings, a “Kayak Shabbat” on the Venice canals, where members float on kayaks alongside their leader, Rabbi Lori Shapiro.

Worshippers at Adat Shalom Reconstructionist Congregation in Bethesda, Maryland, participate in Shabbatons, weekend-long events intended to illuminate and deepen the significance of the Sabbath through the exploration of prayers and their meaning. Photo: © 2023 Audrey Rothstein Photography—All Rights Reserved
Rabbi Lori Shapiro conducts services at The Open Temple in Venice, California. Its social media encourages congregants to: “Feel Your Fury. Let Your Passions Penetrate. Express.” Rabbi Lori asks us to “Unmask Our Souls.” Photo: The Open Temple

All this speaks to one of the hard-to-miss features of the entire American Jewish prayer landscape: The variety is vast—arguably more so than in any other Jewish community in the world, where the Orthodox-style service is most common.

Much of the difference is, of course, driven by theological distinctions among the movements. But it’s not hard to notice that the prayer experiences at synagogues even within the same movement can look and feel much different. That’s the result, perhaps, of the unique history and lay and clergy personalities that make up a particular synagogue or prayer group. 

The American Jewish prayer landscape got this way, argues Rabbi Lawrence A. Hoffman, in large part because of this country’s unique commitment to separation of religion and state. 

Hoffman, who, until his recent retirement, taught Jewish liturgy for nearly 50 years on the faculty at Hebrew Union College in New York, notes that because of the strict separation between religion and government in the U.S. “it meant that the church, as it were, has been free to experiment more than in most other countries.” Religious groups in the U.S., he adds, “learned how to compete for people’s attention and identity. Hence, religion in America is rather specialized in innovation.”

The other and perhaps even more notable hallmark of Jewish prayer observance in the U.S., Hoffman says, is prayer’s relationship with the personal identity of individual Jews. It shapes them, tells them what is important or what it means to be Jewish.

Mirele Goldsmith of Bethesda, Maryland, for instance, says that when she recites various Jewish blessings and liturgical poetry that express wonderment about and gratitude for the world around her, it reinforces her commitment as a national leader in the Jewish environmental advocacy movement. Parts of the Shema, the centerpiece Jewish prayer that expresses God’s singularity, she points out, “talk about the connection between our ethical behavior and the condition of nature, that if we don’t behave ethically, the earth will suffer. That speaks directly to my work in this field.”

Hoffman notes that, just as prayer can shape us, the opposite is also at work. Worship in the American context has changed over time in part because it can reflect how American Jews view themselves. “Consequently,” he says, “worship tends to vary with the people attending it.”

For two decades, Rabbi David Lyon has been senior rabbi at the Reform-affiliated Beth Israel Congregation in Houston, where he is keenly conscious of, and plays a role in shaping, the forces of change. “I’m always taking the pulse of the congregation,” he says. “In the past, my predecessor had the good fortune of waiting every five to 10 years for change to happen. That change is happening now every three to five years and more likely three years than five. So, we’re trying to keep pace.”

Lyon has ushered in rituals that are standard in more traditional settings, such as: a hakafah, or Torah procession; lay recitation of aliyot, or Torah blessings; and the calling out of chatimot or concluding lines of prayers and liturgical poetry. A growing number of members, he says, feel comfortable wearing ceremonial garb such as kippot and tallitot, a big departure for a century-and-a-half-old synagogue that long stood firmly as classical Reform.

Immersing themselves in the beauty of the natural world, “kayakers” at The Open Temple’s shabbats are invited to enter the realm of the spirit; it’s an experience that the Temple describes as: “Ma’ariv…the mixing of light and darkness. The sun sets and the Divine Palate [sic] reveals itself in the sky. As the colors blend, darkness envelops the sky. Our prayers lead us through this process. Music, Enchantment and Stirring of the Souls.” Photo: Kelly Fogel/The Open Temple

Likewise, as egalitarianism has arguably become more prominent in the personal identities of many American Jews over the last few decades, it has been absorbed into the liturgy of the community’s more “progressive” segments of Judaism.

They allow—indeed, encourage—women to participate in all aspects of the service and insert a mention of Judaism’s ancient matriarchs alongside the patriarchs in the Amidah, the central prayer of every Jewish service. The Reconstructionist movement leaves out references suggesting that Jews are the chosen people—as in the traditional version of the Aleynu prayer, which praises God for not making us “like the other nations of the world.” Also, most progressive worship practices give no special status or prayer responsibility to descendants of the Cohanim, or high priests, as is common in more traditional settings.

In every context of American Jewish prayer, there is music, whether it is Nusach, older and well-established melodies—like the one most commonly used for the Shema that was composed by Viennese Cantor Solomon Sulzer in 1830—or some of the new settings that are emerging from the recent burst of younger musicians.

Music cannot fully express the emotional and spiritual grandeur of Jewish liturgical poetry or the solemn philosophical underpinnings of, say, penitential Yom Kippur prayers. But, considering that, according to the Pew survey, about 13% of American Jews claim to understand Hebrew, it can help them find a connection to prayer and to Jewish tradition that might otherwise be out of reach. 

One of the most recent changes for American synagogues—one that may prove to be permanent and, in many ways, profound—is the shift to Zoom-powered prayer services that were driven and perfected out of necessity by the COVID-19 pandemic shutdowns. Many synagogues appear to be making online access to services a standard feature, bringing prayer and more to those who cannot show up in person (especially distant relatives who can’t make the trip in for a shiva or bar or bat mitzvah).

At Adat Shalom, a twice-weekly, mostly traditional morning minyan that took root on Zoom during COVID-19 shutdowns seemed likely to continue with a core of about 15 participants. One prayer community—whose creator, Rabbi Mark Novak, calls a “Zoom-agogue”—meets entirely online and includes people from many time zones.

It’s impossible to predict the future of the American Jewish prayer landscape, but Hoffman, the recently retired faculty member from Hebrew Union College in New York, believes that relative to times past, “we’re in a healthy era of creative engagement,” which could bode well for Jewish prayer practice in the years and decades to come.

“I think that the more creativity, the healthier the engagement,” he adds. “The richer will be the prayer life of people, the more spirituality people will find, and the deeper and denser their sense of what Judaism can be.”

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AJR/CA Moving to the Campus of Loyola Marymount University

It’s more important than ever to consider Jewish leadership. As a rabbinic graduate of the Academy for Jewish Religion/Los Angeles, the work we are called to do is to be connectors. Open Temple is inspired by my time at the Academy, and the transdenominational rabbis with whom I studied. My colleagues inspire (and many teach at Open Temple). 
Recently, AJR/CA found its home on the campus of Loyola Marymount University, a Catholic University. This collaboration represents the best of Jewish education. If you are at all curious about rabbinical school in America, I recommend AJR/CA at Loyola. It will prepare you for Jewish leadership that will guide Jews into the 22nd Century.

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How Radical Ritual Empowers a New Spiritual Community – Part 3

From the Clergy Leadership Incubator

]Several years ago, participants entered into Yom Kippur while Sympathy for the Devil by the Rolling Stones wasplayed by our band. When the song ended, I asked if anyone knew why Sympathy for the Devil was being played. People seemed puzzled and there was no response. I explained that, at some point in the Torah service, we would read about Azazel, an ancient near-eastern he-goat that represented the Satan in our tradition. When we got to the Torah reading of Azazel, I asked if anyone knew what I was talking about. They didn’t. I cracked open the Torah, and explained that we were commanded to give two offerings – one to Azazel and one to God. “What in human capacity would require us to give expiation to a devil?”, I asked.

At that moment, images from Charlottesville appeared on the screen. Men in button down shirts marched with torches and chanted “Jews will not replace us.” Suddenly, a man rose from the congregation. “That was me,” he called out “I was one of them.” I asked him to come to the bimah and explain what he meant.

I placed Logan in the congregation as a ringer. I met him through an organization called “Life After Hate” that provides former neo-Nazis community, time to reflect and helps them to unload the burden of their transgressions by providing them the opportunity to speak and “confess” to public audiences. Logan shared his story – years of anti-semitic gang membership, drug dealing and even participation in a murder, for which he served 20 years in prison. After sharing his story, he said, “I heard that today was a day in the Jewish calendar that we are to ask for forgiveness. I am wondering if you all would forgive me.” Our congregation rose from their seats and came to the bimah in a spontaneous mi sheberach. In a tiny healing of the universe, Logan continues to work in our community as a security guard and handyman to this day.

The Burial

I always ask young people “what is your favorite Jewish holiday?” When they answer, “Yom Kippur” I let them know that they have a high probability of becoming a rabbi someday.  There is something to this ritual that is so essential; indeed, it is the apex of our High Holidays and the most immersive and challenging experience of Open Temple’s High Holiday Ritual Lab. For years, I have festooned our bimah with mock tombstones on Yom Kippur with the words “Your Name Here” printed on them. At the peak of Covid, I found that circumstances provided the perfect opportunity, and I called several local cemeteries to see if one might host us. What had been my dream–to someday offer Kol Nidre in a cemetery, was finally a reality.

Memeno mori is Latin for a genre of performance art that reminds the audience of the inevitability of death. I always imagined Kol Nidre as a form of memeno mori. Here is an excerpt of the liturgy I fashioned for our first Kol Nidre burial, experienced in a cemetery.

With the sun setting in Santa Monica, cars entered the narrow driveway of Woodlawn Cemetery as the band played Bitter Sweet Symphony by The Verve in a loop. Here is the song as liturgy:

Well I’ve never prayed,
but tonight I’m on my knees, yeah.
I need to hear some sounds that recognize the pain in me, yeah.
I let the melody shine,
let it cleanse my mind.
I feel free now
but the airwaves are clean and there’s nobody singing to me now.
No change, I can change,
I can change, I can change.
But I’m here in my mold,
I am here in my mold.
Cause it’s a bitter-sweet symphony that’s life.

The iconic song transitioned, and our cantorial soloist chanted the traditional High Holiday nigun with its penetrative, “Lai lai lai lai lai lai lai…” melody, ending on an emphatic final punctuation. With the music halted, the silence penetrated us. Standing together, we realized what was obvious but formerly not as penetrative – the beautiful park-like environment was filled with headstones, as we contemplated our own life on Kol Nidre.

Yom Kippur rituals return, year after year, and we are asked to recognize the permanence of our actions reconciled with the evanescence of our existence. Under a rising half-moon, 120 souls sat on tapestries, laid out for them in between tombstones, the marble stones and the names etched into them, a visible reminder of where life, inevitably, leads.

Our cellist began the Kol Nidre, sounds chanted for millennia, Max Bruch’s famous cello solo, a haunting melody. The Kol Nidre observance is a descent into the grave, with the hope that we will make it out of this near-death experience and rededicate our lives for the good. As the selichot service began, the Jewish ritual practice of tahara, or ritual cleansing of a body for burial, was described, and all participants were given white shrouds to wrap themselves in. As the music began, participants were asked to take a look at the headstone they were standing before and whisper the name of the person, asking for their blessing to lie down. Beginning with an awareness of what will sustain us for the next 25 hours – breath – a guided visualization began of their own funeral – what were the eulogies given? Who would show up? What regrets did we hold in our hearts were life to end at this moment?

The Selichot service swelled, and an old, almost forgotten song from the 80s, “The Living Years,” began:

Say it loud,
say it clear,
you can listen as well as you hear.
It’s too late,
when we die,
to admit we don’t see eye to eye.

Shema Koleinu wove in and out of the Mike and the Mechanics song, the words of “God’s holy liturgy” underscored by the rock song: “Hear our voice, O God, pity us, save us. Accept our prayer with compassion and kindness.” A harmonium’s chords rose, and the melody of Avinu Malkeinu began. In the darkness, bodies began to appear, apparitions in the moonlight. One at a time, ghostly shrouds of white arose, their voices forming a requiem choir:

Our Father, our King!
Favor us and answer us
for we have no accomplishments;
deal with us charitably and kindly.

As the prayers swelled, audible cries were heard throughout the cemetery – it was as if the dead poured their remorse through the soil. What rose through the congregation was more than just a simple regret – it was a life’s reckoning of what Kol Nidre is actually about. We create a near-death experience as a simulation or test-run for what we will one day experience, and we emerge with a renewed sense of what each of our personal life journeys is about. We release regrets and replace them with resolve. We forgive ourselves for the shame that we carry around, the klipot (or shells) that inhibit us from living life to the fullest. Facing down our own graves, we have no choice, as the 13 Attributes of God are chanted, but to acknowledge that we still have work to do in order to resemble one who is full of “compassion, grace and loving-kindness.”

Our collective chant of mourner’s kaddish bore new meaning – this funeral was for the living. The band closed the service with Pearl Jam’s, “Just Breathe” and all lingered, despite the cold, damp air.  The service ended, and the band and I stood, our heads down, tears streaming from our cheeks, our hands on our hearts. And 120 souls stood under a half-light, half-moonlit sky, still processing what we had just experienced.

At the end of the service, a man walked up to me. “My father was a rabbi,” he said, “and I attended his Kol Nidre service for 40 years. Tonight, for the first time, I finally know what it is about.”

Rabbi Lori Shapiro is the founding rabbi of The Open Temple in Venice, CA. She developed this unique spiritual community model as a Fellow in Cohort 1 of the Clergy Leadership Incubator (CLI) from 2013-15 and then continued working on it when participating in the Open Dor Project. She and her husband, Dr. Joel Shapiro, live in the Venice canals with their two daughters and labradoodle.

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A Prayer for Israel

A Prayer for the State of Israel

For millennia we memorialized You through longing;
For centuries our ancestors wept for You;
For mere decades have You existed,
(Despite your enemy’s wanton design).
You turned the swamp into agrarian riches,
The hills brought to life with human-nature’s song 
for all creatures, solar panels 
and silicon buzzing and humming.
And yet;
This prayer is complex; 
As indeed, your name means 
“One who struggles with God,”
For there is nothing as sweet as the taste of your honey;
and yet, we have two wailing walls now. 
Number One: representing the greatest 
of human potential;
Number Two: rising out of necessity to preserve that ambition and the lives it inhabits.
And yet~
(260 Dancing Youth Disappear as Red Paragliders 
Float above the wall and descend upon them)
And yet.
When my feet walk upon 
your soil, 
your stone, 
your sidewalks,
And my eyes gaze upon your rising glass cities, 
defying hatred, jealousy and destruction;
Your life song calls to me 
all hours of the day and night,
for I feel most alive when I am within you.
Israel, you are a modern marvel; 
a tragic complexity; 
a contemporary meditation
Of what it means To Be
(And what will become of us)   
And yet…
May You and all those who feel 
Inspired by your Impossible Existence 
Find Your Name a Blessing,
and May All who Dwell 
Amongst you and Protect you and Alongside you
Be Blessed.

A Prayer for Israel Read More »

Open Temple’s High Holiday Ritual Lab in eJewishphilanthropy

Rabbi Lori was featured in about Open Temple’s High Holiday Ritual Lab. Here is the link: . Rabbi Sid Schwarz encouraged Rabbi Lori to share her vision for High Holidays with the greater Jewish world (thanks, Rabbi Sid!). Read the original, full piece in its entirety is found here: Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3.

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