Open Temple on PBS News Hour

The American religious landscape has changed dramatically over the past several decades. While regular church, synagogue and mosque attendance has been on the decline since the late 1970s, a Pew Research Center study this year has found that the biggest generational dropoff has occurred with millennials — young adults born between 1981 and 1996. Special correspondent Cat Wise reports on why.

Link to the full story here.

Redeeming Judgment: Disagree With Me

A Cover Story in The Jewish Journal by Rabbi Lori Shapirio

Redeeming Judgment: Disagree With Me

We’re living through emotional times.

Many of us are wound so tightly by the state of the world, we’ve developed a tendency to be reckless with other people’s emotions — yet very protective of our own. Twitter has become the platform for call-out culture, Instagram the medium of choice for the humblebrag, and Facebook a dark den of repressed judgments while tapping “Like.” Yet, we crumble inside — not angry, but fragile birds — when anyone casts these judgments our way.

It seems we have this entire process backward — working from the external to the internal. We judge others until we, ourselves, are called out by neologisms such as microaggression (interpreting seemingly innocent comments as racial or personal biases) and disinvitations (calling off a speaking engagement at college campuses for fear of offending a population). In an all-out race to the finish, it seems no one is left with impunity. So much of the darkness of the world today — broken relationships, anger, repression and depression — is traced to our inability to understand the complex value of judgment in our society and how we can use it as an instrument of growth for ourselves and our community.

To further complicate the loop of negative feedback, we have created institutional systems that inculcate and perpetuate these processes of calling out others before cultivating personal accountability — beginning at the youngest of ages and continuing through higher education. Troubling upticks in depression, anxiety and suicide rates suggest the impact of adopted pedagogies such as Social Emotional Learning (SEL) and higher education’s policies of trigger warnings and emotional reasoning replacing evidence-based theories have not improved the internal process of self-regulation.

As we stand before the holiest of days in our religion, when we are asked collectively to account for our personal sins and transgressions, is it possible to make a spiritual 180-degree turn when the cultural momentum continues to call out others rather than ourselves? How might the Jewish technology of the High Holy Days be the antidote to our national moral decay?

Yom Kippur, our holiest observance of the year, is the perfect example of to’cha’cha, or rebuke, as the space we enter into is modeled after a courtroom.

As we enter the Yamim Noraim (Days of Awe), the time has come to remember that Judaism demands personal accountability, sobriety and knowledge of oneself. The tasks of these days are ritualized and ordered; a review book (machzor) leads us through ritual behaviors that include praying, reciting poems, recounting legends, public confessing and personal assessing. We consider the days we have lived as well as the limited days allotted to us. Within this short span of 10 days, God and our community require us to judge ourselves as we stand before our ultimate Judge.

It is significant to note that in the Reconstructionist machzor, the Yom Kippur readings for the Mincha (afternoon) service have been changed from the laws of sexual prohibition (which might invite some #MeToo call-outs) to Leviticus 19:1-18, also known as the Holiness Code. This code of conduct expresses essential teachings on human behavior that build upon one another toward the Golden Rule, which implores us “to love your neighbor as yourself.” An essential step in achieving this behavior is in the penultimate verse of the reading, Leviticus 19:17, which states, “You shall not hate your kinsfolk in your heart. Reprove your kin but incur no guilt on their account.”

In other words, before we can love others as ourselves, we must look inside ourselves, the homes we are building and the children we are raising; we must look inward, into our own hearts and family systems. In addition to the requirement “not to hate,” we also are required to “reprove,” which is another form of judgment. Is there something significant that this first step — to judge oneself — is a requirement before we can achieve the essential teaching of the Golden Rule?

A Morality Play

The Lubavitcher Rebbe Menachem Mendel Schneerson, a bastion of positivity and a source of Chassidic Jewish wisdom, has a teaching in the name of his father: “Cherish criticism, for it will place you on the true heights.” Indeed, Yom Kippur, our holiest observance of the year, is the perfect example of to’cha’cha, or rebuke, as the space we enter into is modeled after a courtroom. We take the Torahs out of the ark and witnesses hold them as the bailiff, or chazzan, recites the opening words of the ritual courtroom, nullifying our vows. We rise before a judge, we anticipate entering, and are led through a 25-hour communal practice of self-reflection and self-abnegation that demands a chastening of not only the body, but the mind and soul. We subsist on nothing but breath, in a dress rehearsal of our own deaths. We collectively look inwardly, and invoke the presence of our ancestral martyrs, matriarchs and patriarchs, as we stand as a totality of the human experience.

The prolific works within the machzor ask us to reflect upon our promises and nullify them; consider how we will die as well as how we live; and places a collective guilt on our hearts for both our own complicity of as well as the transgressions of our fellows. Yom Kippur requires the nullification not only of our own vows but of our identities, as we attach ourselves to a cosmic community of all those who came before us and all those who will come after. It is a 25-hour near-death experience that prepares us for the final moment of judgment in our lives, so that after going through it (if we are lucky) 70 or 80 times, we are prepared as best we can be when meeting our Maker. The machzor is a morality play of poetry, leitmotifs, biblical allusions, storytelling, prayers and pageantry. We are the primary players. No one is distinguished above another, as our mortality is highlighted as the grand equalizer. But how many of us enter into this ritual theater prepared to do this work?

Today’s Yom Kippur: Escape From Purgatory

“For the sins between man and God — Yom Kippur Atones; For the sins between man and man, Yom Kippur atones only when one has appeased his fellow.” (b. M. Yoma 8.9)

It is a complex time to be a Jewish American. The entrenched bipartisan divide and disdain for one’s fellow in today’s political circus is rooted in the early 1970s and came into contemporary formation in the early 2000s. Political scientists call this dissolution “affective partisan polarization.” Our two major political parties should be thought partners, but instead wield their power to undermine each other. This animus is reminiscent of the rabbinic story of the destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem due to sinat hinam (hatred of others).

Not insignificantly, Judaism evolved through the loss of temple worship and emerged from the ashes with a renewed commitment toward pluralism. Any Talmud page illustrates the diversity of opinions that became a core value in Jewish thought. This tradition reflects Judaism’s unique example of not only preserving minority opinions but preserving the process of disagreement (machlochet) on the page, as well. Our beliefs ask us to hold many different opinions at once, as a part of a mental and moral calisthenics we cultivate in order to understand others. Our ability to judge one another is a fundamental tenet of Judaism — from Moses challenging God, through the diversity of Jewish voices heard in any café on the streets of Tel Aviv. Disagreement is an essential part of critical thinking. It also is the training ground for our inner moral debate.

Yom Kippur is the day our internal moral debate weighs in on the scales of justice. Following hours of public confession, the climax of the Yom Kippur Musaf liturgy repeats the leitmotif of the Uneh Taneh Tokef prayer — a graphic Grand Guignol horror poem that began at Rosh Hashanah, asking who will be inscribed (in the Book of Life). It returns on Yom Kippur for the final seal of “how many will pass from the earth and how many will be created; who will live and who will die.”

On Yom Kippur, we return to stand as a flock before our shepherd, none without blemish, all equal in our fated verdict. Through the intermediary days, we engage in acts of repentance to repair what is broken between human and human before we return to the synagogue on Yom Kippur to repair our transgressions between ourselves and God. The authors of the siddur prepare us with valuable soul work of how to lead a good life. Taken together, the three acts of teshuvah, tefilah and tzedakah command the power of “removing the Evil of the Decree.” “Repent (personal accountability), pray (self-regulation) and act righteously (have a system of justice). Perhaps these are guideposts for us to find a way back to humanity.

The High Holy Days are a time when we stand together, each of us broken in our own way, and begin to put the pieces back together by acknowledging our personal brokenness is a primary part of what is wrong.

Confronting Evil

Jonathan Haidt, a social psychologist and professor at New York University’s Stern School of Business, wrote “The Righteous Mind” in 2012 with the ambition of sensitizing Americans of the biases that affect everyday moral thinking. His follow-up book, co-authored with Greg Lukianoff, “The Coddling of the American Mind,” identifies the pitfalls in our education system that continue to inculcate a culture of intellectual and moral failings. Together, they studied the impact of the 1980s’ and 1990s’ political-correctness movement on educational systems, and how its commitment to diversity devolved into what has become a cultural movement whose “primary concern is the emotional wellbeing of every student” as opposed to the intellectual development of every student. Haidt and Lukianoff view the political-correctness movement as “a movement which sought to restrict speech (specifically hate speech aimed at marginalized groups), while also challenging the literary, philosophical, and historical canon, and seeking to widen it by including more-diverse perspectives.”

They assert the current movement on college campuses “is largely about emotional wellbeing. More than the last, it presumes an extraordinary fragility of the collegiate psyche, and therefore elevates the goal of protecting students from psychological harm. The ultimate aim, it seems, is to turn campuses into ‘safe spaces’ where young adults are shielded from words and ideas that make some uncomfortable.”

The result of today’s political correctness 2.0 is a litany of behaviors working their ways into popular culture from campus life. These include vindictive protectiveness (turning campuses into values-neutral “safe spaces”); microaggression; disinvitations; and trigger warnings (a system of red-flagging students for potentially offensive or difficult subject matter). These and other “values neutral” behaviors are supposed to protect the emotional well-being of today’s students.

These nascent trends over the past decade have found their ways into our national conversation, most recognizably through the #MeToo movement, and disinvitation and call-out behavior. What they share is the willingness to censor and judge others supersedes a process of self-reflection, self-regulation and personal accountability. They also contribute to a public health crisis, as emotional-reasoning behaviors supplanting critical-thinking skills on campus is perceived as leading students to an intrepid belief system. Many students are stringently divided, as illustrated on both sides of the Israel debate on campus, and are resistant to learning from people with whom they dislike or disagree; this leads to limited adaptability and character resilience. Rising rates of depression, anxiety and suicide gravely express the negative-sum output of an emotion-based system of reason.

As we near Yom Kippur, could this insight recast the words of judgment in the Uneh Taneh Tokef prayer: Who will live and who will die? If campus statistics of rising self-inflicted harm and the national need for deans of health and wellness are any indications, withstanding, understanding and integrating a system of judgment is a matter of life and death.

Haidt and Lukianoff identify the origins of these anxieties as rooted in the current political climate. An unanticipated impact of “affective partisan polarization,” they assert, is why “students arriving on campus today are more desirous of protection and more hostile toward ideological opponents than in generations past.” Entrenched moral biases rooted in emotional reasoning perpetuate the downward spiral of self-interest and moral indignation. When all our attention is about the behavior of others at the expense of our own moral and character development, the result is “teaching students how to think pathologically.”

Social-Emotional Learning (SEL)

SEL refers to the process of developing social and emotional skills in the classroom. It is a catchphrase for a method in secular education that introduces learning around emotional intelligence. Another way of looking at it is to consider that secular education — not rooted in a religious moral system — requires some kind of structure to teach children empathy, compassion, cooperation, tolerance, diversity and other emotional intelligence.

Over the past five or six years, a trend toward SEL has overtaken core curricula. Many people have children or grandchildren whose schools and teachers are trained in these methods. These methods are steeped in controversy. Some are recasting what might seem a well-intentioned curriculum to teach children about tolerance and empathy as a controversial method of dubious implementation, reinforcing racial biases and ripening the opportunity for intersectional politicking.

The Jewish Response

I contend that SEL and other forms of emotional-intelligence education have their roots in Jewish values — with one clear distinction: While both seek to improve critical thinking skills and the ability to favorably judge others, Judaism adds the imperative to judge ourselves rigorously. Nowhere is this as clearly illustrated as it is in the High Holy Days liturgy, whose leitmotif arguably is the melodies and chanting of the 13 attributes of God throughout the 10 days of observance: “Yah, Yah, God, compassionate and gracious. Slow to anger and abundant in kindness and truth. Preserver of kindness for thousands of generations. Forgiver of iniquity, willful sin, and error, and who cleanses.”

Torah teaches these words came to Moses from God as a way to remind of God’s essence after the Israelites’ collective transgression of the Golden Calf. The prayer and its melody are a haunting awakening of the need for teshuvah through a personal reflection of our behaviors as refracted through godly attributes.

So much of the darkness of the world today — broken relationships, anger, repression and depression — is traced to our inability to understand the complex value of judgment in our society and how we can use it as an instrument of growth for ourselves and our community.

Where Judaism espouses a relationship between the community and a God concept, SEL classrooms collapse the hierarchy and create a sense of egalitarianism through teachers and administrators. Lateral and seemingly anti-hierarchical systems of individualism replace traditional forms of authoritative presence; for example, teachers, administrators and students are all called by their first names. Students are tutored and drilled in critical thinking founded in genderless, colorless, distinctionless and impossible neutrality, which perpetuates and ingrains a values-neutral, “bias free” bias.

Education trends have interesting trickle-up impacts. What was a curricular trend in the past becomes a management problem in the workplace 15 years later. While SEL bears striking differences to “participation trophy-ism” (everyone’s a winner!), a latent concern is its impact on education. What are we to make of a practice that asks 5-year-olds to rely on their own inner sense of right and wrong before their self-regulation mechanisms have fully developed? Might these methods escalate the already acute rise of child and teen anxiety?

According to statistics, the youth suicide rate appears to be the highest it’s been since the government began collecting such statistics in 1960. Is this an anomaly? Do we blame it on the usual suspects: social media, broken homes, or access to violent images and technology? Or might this public health crisis be an indication we are missing something essential in the way we educate our youngest citizens? Yom Kippur, as a spiritual calisthenics, an intellectual boot camp, an emotional reckoning, revisits us every year to offer another way.

If campus statistics of rising self-inflicted harm and the national need for deans of health and wellness are any indications, withstanding, understanding and integrating a system of judgment is a matter of life and death.

Congregation Bias: Be. Judged. Now.

But there’s a catch.

Walk into most synagogues and a paradoxical problem arises: Either everyone is speed davening through the service and attempting to say every word, which makes it doubtful the levels and layers in each and every word is conveyed; or everyone is pretending to say every word, with most people not having any idea what is being said, or the congregation is offering immediate gratification vis-a-vis a call to social action — which may or may not have anything to do with what is required of us on Yom Kippur. How can we surmount these denominational quirks to penetrate the essence of what is asked of us?

Surprisingly, the answer to this question is a salve to wounds of depression, a unifier of difference, and a transcendent and loving presence: music. It seems liturgical song captures the most penetrating ritual moments. The music of our liturgy connects us as kol echad — one voice. We sing “Anu Amecha” and we feel a solidarity with others in the room. We chant “Al Chet” and pound our hearts as a rhythmic section of percussion instruments. There seems to be a kind of epigenetic memory switch attached to our goosebumps and tear ducts when hearing the opening notes of “Kol Nidre.” Our inner moral acumen knows why it has come to services as the sun sets into the 10th of Tishrei. We are there to turn and return, and hold ourselves accountable. This truth —  beyond calls to social justice, call-outs to disappointing politicians or outcries of inequality — is the grand equalizer.

Judgment Is a Core Jewish Value

The process of going through Yom Kippur completes a circuit that began on the 9th of Av. It began when we looked inward and asked ourselves, “What is broken in my life?” and continued through the 30 days of Elul, when we gave voice to our examined brokenness through the first public cries of the shofar. We are living through emotional times, as the Yamim Noraim ask us to be emotional. We are meant to cry for those who have died, see our society’s shortcomings and understand our complicity in this mess. The High Holy Days are a time when we stand together, each of us broken in our own way, and begin to put the pieces back together by acknowledging our personal brokenness is a primary part of what is wrong. It is upon us — each and every one of us — to get our lives right before turning to fix anything else.

Pirkei Avot 6:6 lists 48 reasons why Torah supersedes the priesthood and monarchy. Among the qualities listed are insights into foundational Torah values: critical give and take with friends, fine argumentation with disciples, clear thinking, loving reproof and judging with the scales weighted in one’s favor. These are values that exercise subjective reasoning, self-criticism, complexity of thought and disagreement. In short, no “values neutral,” emotional reasoning or mental filtering required. Just a sharp “kop.”

Yom Kippur arrives like a crown on this kop and reminds us to use it wisely. We are thrust into a 25-hour ritual that is an action, a doing that completes a circuit of behavior that began with our self-reckoning with personal misdeeds and our agency in them. Between Rosh Hashanah and through Kol Nidre, we engage in teshuvah, tefilah and tzedakah to rectify personal wrongs, deepen our prayer and practice charity with one another. Yom Kippur completes the circuit of these behavioral exercises through communal confession, petition, benediction and imploration. We emerge more self-regulated and self-knowing.

It is an internal and intimate self-assessment done in a public choir, a call-out culture in the first person plural. It demands we learn the following words before we learn any others: “For all of these things, O God of forgiveness, forgive us, pardon us, atone for us.” Only then, can we learn the true meaning of standing before God on Yom Kippur in America in 5780/2019 to be the revelation and embodiment of “e pluribus unum.” Out of many, Echad. One.

Open Temple Welcomes B’Nai Mitzvah

Open Temple Welcomes B’Nai Mitzvah
By: Erin Ben-Moche
Source: Jewish Journal

Rabbi Lori Shapiro of Open Temple in Venice has been providing meaningful b’nai mitzvah services to her students for more than 10 years, allowing them to curate their own services. 

Shapiro said, “It always starts with asking, ‘Who is this student? What is their curiosity? How do we match what is their personal spirituality and then tie it so that Judaism has a deep starting point in them?’ instead of fitting them in this hole if they are a square peg. A big synagogue isn’t for every kid.”

She added the only requirement of a bar or bat mitzvah student is that he or she recites the Torah’s “Barcha banu” prayer. The rest is open to “invite the students to make it their own.”

Shapiro has helped more than 100 students become b’nai mitzvah and has helped craft their rituals to meet each one’s specific needs. The Open Temple rabbi has held b’nai mitzvah services on top of mountains, at black-box theaters and even on golf courses.

The venue isn’t the only thing in which students get to have a say. They also create their own tallitot, craft their own melodies to prayers and find connections to Judaism in whatever creative way that makes sense to them.

“We want the students to go deep and see what the literal woven tradition is about, being Jewish,” Shapiro said.

Currently, Shapiro is preparing a nature-themed bat mitzvah service that includes meditation and a nature walk for one of her students, who has been meditating with Shapiro as part of her bat mitzvah preparations.

Shapiro’s mission is to show her students there are other ways to connect spiritually to God and Judaism without holding a service in a traditional synagogue.

“We are trying to allow the students’ curiosities to grow through the lens of Torah,” she said.

One of Shapiro’s students had a passion for R&B and rap music, so for her bat mitzvah, she recited the “Adon Olam” prayer to the melodies to which she connected. Another student was drawn to Holocaust studies and survivors and held his bar mitzvah at the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust to share Holocaust awareness and history. Another wanted his service held in the Los Angeles mountains because the views reminded him of Israel and his connection to Zionism.

Shapiro said this year, Open Temple established a music studio and developed a Jewish “School of Rock” so students have access to songwriters, musicians and recording services for their b’nai mitzvah.

Because it’s so personal and the children run the service, Shapiro said the students’ passion always moves their families and friends. “They are ready to really officiate a service and they are creating ritual space,” Shapiro said. “I bring them into an empty box and say, ‘What is this space?’ and give them an idea that an empty space can also be a ritual space … and that’s why they all look so different.”

Whether you are a lover of tradition, sports, soundstages or stand-up comedy, a service can incorporate these passions, according to Shapiro. She added there is no end of possibilities for ceremonies because the idea of Judaism is that ‘Godliness is everywhere,’ so a b’nai mitzvah services should be no different.

She notes that it is easier to have this strong experience if a student is involved in at least two years of Open Temple’s religious School of the Arts program. 

“The whole idea is we have this incredible initiation ritual [bar and bat mitzvahs], the commencement of Jewish adulthood,” Shapiro said, “but so many times, we don’t pay attention to who this adult is becoming. Why is it that we force them to be in these rigid environments? I work a lot on life skills with these kids. What I see so often is that students are transformed through the work we are doing together.”

Shapiro added that with this freedom
and creativity, students truly reflect their likeness in the image of God (B’tselem Elokim) and other Jewish values that will stay with them as they continue their Jewish
adult journeys.

“They are the next innovation of what comes, because that’s where Judaism is going,” she said. “It’s really a validation of what Judaism is. It’s l’dor v’dor — from generation to generation — and this young generation that we’re nurturing will put their own soul print on it, unique and distinct to what we gave to them.”

An Encounter Meant to Happen

An Encounter Meant to Happen
By: Rabbi Lori Shapiro
Source: The Jewish Journal

There is something about New York City that drives me closer to my personal “d’mimah dakah” (still, small voice). That voice inside of me that connects my footsteps with the path ahead of me; that has a preternatural instinct of what street corner to turn at and which street light to wait for. All of this is apparent to me in New York City, where it seems that every day seems to lead me to some encounter of greater design revealed.

On a recent trip to New York City with my daughter, I walked to Central Park with the intention to treat her and my friend’s daughter to a carriage ride in the park. When we entered the park at 81st Street, the driver of an idling carriage informed me that he was waiting on a client. Ready to relinquish that activity and “find a new dream,” an Asian man on a bicycle-shaw pedaled up to us. “I know of another horseman who can take you now,” he offered, and invited us onto his bicycle carriage for a short ride to Tavern on the Green. Some still small voice in me said, “Go.”

Arriving at Tavern, I spotted a man loitering beside a horse and carriage, like a magical merkavah awaiting our arrival. As our group stepped off the bicycle-shaw, I said to the carriage driver: “Hi, I’m Lori. Are you free for a ride now?” The man introduced himself as Ariel. Recognizing that his name is a Hebrew name, I asked him in Hebrew where he was born. From this inquiry, I learned that Ariel was a veteran of the Golani Brigade when he served in the Israel Defense Forces, serving during the Yom Kippur War through the Lebanon War in the ’80s.

We rode through Central Park, singing “L’cha Dodi,” the children belting out the words and Ariel’s smile growing wider with delight. He turned for a moment, and said, “Do you know this one?”:

“HaYom Yom Shishi … HaYom Yom Shishi, Machar Shabbat … Shabbat Menucha. Hayom Kulum Ovadim Machar Shabbat … Shabbat Menucah … Shabbat Menucah. HaYom Yom Shishi … Shabbat Menucah.”

“This was a song we sang every Friday when growing up on kibbutz. Do you know it?”

Hearing the murmurs of children from swings nearby, I smiled with recognition. Ariel said that his wife teaches kindergarten at the Solomon Schechter School in White Plains, and he was a congregant of Rabbi Avi Weiss’ in Riverdale and brought goats (goats!) to the Hebrew school annually to teach children how to feel connected to the Earth and its creatures. He impishly added, “I had to keep them at my house afterward as they had nowhere else to go.”

He saw my delight. I told him that I was a “rabbah,” and creating a progressive community to make Judaism open and relevant for everyone on the periphery. I said that our community also loved inviting in goats, most recently as we sang “Chad Gadya” while doing goat yoga at the end of our Passover seder. He laughed with delight, in a way that only a kibbutznik can.

He told us, “I will remember this day. This made my year! And more! To sing these songs on Yom Shishi, in the park, on this carriage, with you all singing. I will remember this always.”

I extolled a Shehecheyanu and an “amen!” Indeed, the moment was magic. It was a bit of what I think we all seek as we navigate the streets of our lives: a connection to the wind of our souls, an affirmation from the still, small voice that we are in the right place at the right time, an experience of pure connection.

Ariel is a treasure. In our magic New York moment, a small piece of Eden was redeemed. As we near the end of the Book of Vayikra, and enter into our great narrative of our walk through the wilderness, Bamidbar, may we all keep our senses open for guideposts home along the way. Ariel was a holy malacay haSharit (ministering angel), for me; and a reminder that there are signs everywhere leading back home.

Last Night of Hanukkah

Open Temple’s “Hanukkah on the Canals Parade” Party
Source: The Jewish Journal

Armando at the Jewish Journal visited our Eighth Night Hanukkah on the Canal Parade Party with Open Temple and turned out this amazing video capturing the experience. May the lights continue to shine! Thank you, Armando!

Celebrating Light and Hope

Celebrating Light and Hope in Our Time of Darkness
By: Esther D. Kustanowitz, featuring Rabbi Lori Shapiro
Source: The Jewish Journal

How do we celebrate the rededication of the Temple destroyed long ago, when we and our families, friends and neighbors are reeling from these urgent crises?

Bringing Home Early Detection

Yehudit Abrams: Brining Early Detection Home
By: Rabbi Lori Shapiro

Israeli physician and engineer Yehudit Abrams speaks about the influence of Open Temple and Rabbi Lori’s impact on her life for Israel National News at 26 minutes into this interview.  Dr. Abrams award winning Monither empowers women to monitor changes in their own breast tissue and is a revolutionary innovation in breast cancer early detection.

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