Postcards from the Beginning
Dispatches from eight Sabbath services on the eve of Barack Obama’s inauguration
Temple Beth Hillel, San Fernando Valley, Calif.
I am all alone. For the first time in 35 years, I sit in the sanctuary at my childhood place of worship, reform Temple Beth Hillel in the San Fernando Valley. I’m hoping to be sermonized to and uplifted on the weekend before a historic inauguration. But no one else has bothered to show up for Sabbath morning services. For 15 minutes, I wait. I stare at beautiful colored sunlight flooding through the turquoise, yellow, and brown panels of a floor-to-ceiling stained glass window. I think about feeling restless and trapped in this cavernous room when I was young, and of a fearsome rabbi with scary, flyaway eyebrows and an unforgiving gaze. Then my thoughts drift to the situation at hand: will services be canceled because we are nine short of a minyan? Or will the rabbi and cantor dutifully take their places behind the bimah and focus all of their attentions on a squirming me?
Then a janitor arrives and tells me I’m in the wrong place. On Saturday morning, services are held in the chapel downstairs.
Congregants at Boston Jewish Spirit
Through the doors of a small, unadorned room I see a tight ring of chairs, a freestanding ark and about 20 people. A kind-faced man in a white shirt and a tie festooned with swimming sea turtles introduces himself as Rabbi Jim and welcomes me. I’m given a prayer book, then asked to pick an instrument from…a basket of apples and oranges. After a tentative shake of a plastic McIntosh, I realize it is a pomme de percussion. For the next two hours, Tami, the song leader, will strum her guitar and sing in a pealing voice as we play rhythm section, our fruit-rattling so out of synch it is almost impressive.
We read from the prayer book, we stand, we sit, we sing, we rattle. So far, no unforgiving gazes, and no desire to flee. For the Torah portion, we follow along in English, and the rabbi flips back and forth through the book of Exodus. In a conversational tone, he sketches out the story of a stubborn, tyrannical Pharaoh and a smart, contemplative Moses leading an oppressed people towards a brighter day. “Oh! I know where you’re going with this,” murmurs a young woman next to me as it dawns on everyone in the room what he’s evoking without ever uttering the names of our 43rd president or his successor.
When the service is over, the rabbi leads me to a hallway and helps me find a temple kindergarten group photo. There I am, smiling with my pixie haircut. Driving home, I think about how I came to get a spiritual take about new beginnings—about the swearing in of our next commander in chief and a sense that we’re reclaiming our lost America—and how I left feeling unexpectedly excited about returning again to my old temple. Was I having a new beginning too?
Congregation Kol Ami, Salt Lake City, Utah
I was a little chagrined Saturday morning when I arrived at my synagogue, the mixed Conservative and Reform Congregation Kol Ami in Salt Lake City, to learn that the rabbi was sick. I’d been counting on her—a lesbian who attended rabbinical school after a career as a banker—to provide me with plenty of choice comments about the inauguration. She regularly finds ingenious ways to link the Torah portion to progressive politics. We Utah Jews are nothing if not progressive; I suppose it’s our response to the prevailing culture.
The cantor would be, as he called it, pinch-hitting with the d’var Torah, and he usually sticks to the text. But there he was, talking about the burning bush, how it was full of wisdom and revelation, and then: “There are bushes and there are Bushes.” Responding to surprised titters among the congregants, he added, “I’m sorry, but this is the last chance I’ll get.” He suggested that Clinton got the line, “I feel your pain,” from God talking to Moses about the Israelites in Egypt. He did spend plenty of time examining the text, describing Moses’ “turning aside to see this great sight” as the beginning of wisdom and then focusing on Moses’ modesty, contrasting Moses’ extreme reluctance to accept a position of leadership with the power-hunger of most world leaders, singling out Putin and Chavez. And then, rather elegantly, he talked about Obama as a model of the very wisdom and modesty the Torah calls for in a leader.
When he was finished, an elderly member of the congregation (whose well-known retail business, run by his sons, is closing its doors after more than 90 years) took off his headphones for the hard-of-hearing and turned to the man sitting behind him. Rather loudly and contentedly, he summed up the sermon: “We have a black Moses!”
Certainly, Moses’ example does suggest that to lead one’s people out of oppression, one has to be raised outside that oppression, but still identify with it. It took a Pharaoh’s daughter to raise a Moses. And it’s taken a white mother to raise the first black president of the United States.
Congregation Beth Yeshurun, Houston, Tex.
Congregation Beth Yeshurun
“I think,” said Rabbi Morgan, one of the pulpit rabbis at Houston’s Congregation Beth Yeshurun, “that we can’t let something that hateful go unanswered.”
That “something” was the reason no one at the congregation seemed interested in talking about our president-elect. The day before, on Erev Shabbat, a group of (a few) Palestinians and (a lot more) Palestinian supporters rallied in front of the Houston Holocaust Museum, carrying signs saying things like “Zionism=Nazism” and “Holocaust II: Now Playing in Gaza.” As soon as the Jewish community leaders got word of this, they issued an urgent appeal for counter-ralliers to, as Morgan told me later, “protect the sanctity of our symbol.”
In this vein, instead of talking about Obama, he gave a 25-minute sermon on the morality of Israel’s attack on Hamas.
I caught Morgan on his way back to his table with a plateful of tuna and bagels from the Kiddush luncheon.
“You know,” I said to him after, “you just ruined my piece. Couldn’t you have just talked about Obama?”
“The rabbi last night talked a little bit about Obama,” he said. “I mean, the Jews in Chicago seem to like him, right? But I thought it was more important to talk about the rally.”
I wandered off.
“I wish he’d talked about Obama,” I said to a 50-something lady in line for bagels and tuna.
“No,” she said. “This was more important. It really needed to be said.”
I asked her if she didn’t think everyone already knew everything he said, and if it hadn’t just been preaching to the choir. She shook her head.
“Not enough people were at the rally,” she said. “I think it was necessary. I mean, they were in front of the Holocaust Museum. In 1939, too many people were silent. We can’t make that mistake again.”
I stared at her. “So if we allow them to say ridiculous things unanswered, there will be another Holocaust?”
She stiffened a bit. “Well,” she said. “I thought his sermon was very well said.”
I sat down. The people at my table were all, as my grandmother would say, alte kockers. They were talking about their grandchildren.
“It’s interesting,” I said, attempting to stir things up, “that he talked about the rally and Hamas instead of Obama. I mean, 80 percent of Jews voted for him . . .”
“Not here,” said the elderly, stentorian man sitting next to me.
“When I was your age,” he went on, “I voted for Adlai Stevenson, but I’ve become less liberal since then. I don’t understand all this Bush-hating—he’s been great for Israel. Best president we’ve had, for that.”
“Oh,” his wife said to me. “Are you in school?”
“Yeah,” I said. “University of Texas. Obama . . .”
“Oh,” she said, beaming. “My grandson . . .”
“Lots of Obama signs there,” said her husband. “Lots.”
They went back to their food.
“You know,” someone said, “it’s too bad we didn’t know about the rally.”
KAM Isaiah Israel, Chicago, Ill.
KAM Isaiah Israel
Most Americans keep tabs on Barack and the Obama family through CNN, NPR, and YouTube, but members of KAMII know him from somewhere else: the gym.
On the last Shabbat service of the Bush administration at KAMII, long-time congregants, Interim Rabbi Darryl Crystal, and Cantor Miriam Eskenasy welcomed unexpected visitors, students from a Boca Raton congregation, and took the opportunity to reflect on KAMII’s activist history and its neighbor, President-elect Barack Obama.
As the only reform congregation between Chicago’s Loop and the Far South Suburbs, KAMII carries a long-standing legacy of social justice. Kehilath Anshe Maarav (KAM) opened in 1847, claiming to be the first synagogue in the Midwest (it merged with Temple Isaiah Israel in 1971). Although it’s been in its present location across the street from the Obamas’ home since 1924, a rift in social and political ideologies divided the congregation during the politically charged 1950s and ’60s. Many members fled the racially mixed Hyde Park for the mostly white suburbs of Chicago’s North Shore. Under Rabbi Jacob Weinstein’s leadership, members who stayed shaped the organization into one of the country’s leading social action congregations.
Rabbi Crystal called up the story of righteous midwives Pua and Shifra, who refused the Pharaoh’s orders to kill all newborn Hebrew boys. Their actions marked the Torah’s first recorded act of civil disobedience.
Crystal compared them to Martin Luther King Jr., who visited the synagogue in December 1966 and spoke on a panel with Rabbi Weinstein and then-Congregation President Bud Lifton. Like Pua and Shifra, King fought for his beliefs even when his own supporters disagreed.
History and the present fused when Jimmy, a 92-year-old former University of Chicago professor, slowly rose to talk about his hopes for the new presidency. Leaning on his wooden cane, with eyes alight, he spoke about the first black president and the newly appointed black Illinois Senator, Ronald Burris.
Other senior congregation members took pride in explaining how they helped to build a racially and economically mixed neighborhood that helped to shape Obama’s vision. It was hard to keep from shouting “Yes we can!,” raising a fist to the congregation’s curved ceiling.
As the cantor’s melodic voice closed the services, Jimmy and a fellow congregant ambled toward the exit. They’d had so many face-to-face interactions with the president-elect at the gym and in the neighborhood, Jimmy’s friend joked, that she could write a book titled My Life with Barack Obama.
Isaac Agree Downtown Synagogue, Detroit, Mich.
Isaac Agree Downtown Synagogue
It is a little after 10 on a frigid Saturday morning in Detroit. The only remaining synagogue in the city has just assembled a minyan. Most of the congregants wear tallitot over winter jackets; it is maybe 45 degrees in the sanctuary. Neil, the cantor, plants himself at the lectern like a defensive lineman. He is wearing a short-sleeved polo shirt and amply cut denims. You can almost see the steam rising from his beefy arms as he belts out the morning service; it’s as if he were davening on the 50-yard line at a January Packers game. Neil has a gorgeous voice, clear and powerful; I later learn that he is not an ordained cantor (“I’ve been getting lessons from a cantor in Las Vegas,” he explains).
There is no rabbi at the Downtown Synagogue. Marty Herman, retired professor at Wayne State University and president of the shul, leads the services.
The Downtown Synagogue feels very far away from Obama’s inauguration in Washington. I try to engage an older African-American man who is reading the New York Times in one of the pews, but he would rather talk about the plane that splashed down in the Hudson last week. Most of the congregants are glad Senator Obama is to be sworn in as President, but don’t see it as affecting their Sabbaths.
“Sixteen! We got sixteen!” beams a small woman midway through the service, referring to the number of people who braved the cold to make it to shul. It is an exceptionally diverse crowd: young and old, black and white, women and men, hipster and non-, bearded and shorn. Rather than the inauguration, it is the synagogue—its prospects, its internal politics, its thermostat—that dominates the congregants’ conversations. It is only through the constant efforts of its members that the Downtown Synagogue stays afloat, which does not mean the shul is on its last legs; on the contrary, its precarious existence lends the Downtown Synagogue a ragtag, propulsive vitality.
Conversations over Kiddush hum with a defiant energy that borders on giddiness. A few of us take shots of El Toro tequila after the place has cleared out. We are not talking about the presidential inauguration. We are talking about working to build something larger than ourselves; about taking part in a campaign no more or less quixotic than the one launched on the steps of the Illinois statehouse nearly two years ago.
Temple Judea, Coral Gables, Fla.
The first time I remember hearing about the genocide in Darfur was in synagogue five years ago on Yom Kippur.
For a long time after that, it seemed like the only substantive discussions I heard about the Sudanese government-sanctioned systematic murder, rape, and displacement of the Darfuri people came from the pulpits of synagogues. (To read Nicholas Kristof’s vital columns online at the time, you had to be a New York Times subscriber or pay a fee.)
We’ve all heard the argument that religion is at the root of all the trouble in the world. But American Jews (and also, incidentally, Evangelical Christians) have been among the loudest voices calling for an end to the atrocities that, more than five years later, are continuing in Darfur.
Shabbat services at Temple Judea in Coral Gables, Florida are spirited and joyful, filled with singing and upbeat melodies. But during Friday’s service, that tone shifted as Rabbi Judith Siegel took the occasion of the inauguration of Barack Obama to implore congregants to make it a personal mission that Darfur not disappear from an agenda that includes Guantánamo, Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, Israel, and a crumbling economy.
In her sermon, she invoked the words of the President-elect: “We cannot say ‘never again’ and then let it happen.” She read an excerpt from Clinton, McCain, and Obama’s joint statement last May condemning the Sudanese government. In spite of deep concerns about the economy and the war in Israel and Gaza, she continued, “Now is the time to let our new president and his administration know that this is an important issue and that we must take action…Saving lives is the most important value in our Jewish tradition.”
Friday’s service at Temple Judea ended with “Od Yavo Shalom Aleinu,” a song popularized by a musical ensemble including Israeli and Palestinian musicians. It’s a call for peace in Hebrew and Arabic, and in the context of Friday’s sermon, it evoked not just a longing for peace in Israel, but also a sense of responsibility. “Our Jewish heritage is all about freedom,” Rabbi Siegel said, “not just our own freedom, but freedom for all.”
Kesher Israel, Washington, D.C.
One would expect grand political analysis jam-packed with inside-the-Beltway references from the rabbi’s sermon on inaugural weekend at a congregation known as the Georgetown Synagogue. Kesher’s website hails it as the ultimate (and only) Washington insider’s synagogue, “perhaps the most unique synagogue in America,” located a mere 14 blocks from the White House and walking distance to the Capitol. Among its members are “a Senator, a Congressman, a significant number of Ambassadors…the Secretary of Agriculture, and several distinguished authors,” including Leon Wieseltier, literary editor of the New Republic.
Despite Rabbi Barry Freundel’s record of addressing other momentous days—9/11, Rabin’s assassination, the nomination of Kesher congregant Senator Joe Lieberman—this week, rabbinic intern Noah Greenfield of the Bronx delivered the sermon. “He is only here occasionally, and the schedule is prearranged,” Freundel wrote in an email.
On Saturday, about 60 people sat in the men’s section, and the number of women in the balcony was impossible to count. Lieberman sat in the front row wearing a kippa seruga (a blue-and-white knit head covering favored by Zionist, modern Orthodox Jews) and a maroon tallit stitched with “From Zion will come forth the Torah.” He was called up to the Torah for the sixth aliyah by his Hebrew name, Yosef Yisrael ben Chanan. A cell phone rang during the reading of the portion.
Greenfield spoke about Moses, who he argued, echoing 19th-century Rabbi Naphtali Tzvi Judah Berlin, had an Egyptian name meaning “Sonny boy.” (After services Greenfield said he had not heard about CNN’s segment from five days earlier: “Grandson of slaves: Obama is our Moses.”) His main talk focused on Martin Luther King Jr. and the Bible’s endorsement of slavery. Rejecting some past scholarly approaches to this problem, Greenfield preferred to look forward, rather than backward, at contemporary problems: the “vibrant” sex trade in Israel, Darfur, and the “slaves” of globalization who process our food and other goods.
The only references to Obama during the service were an announcement welcoming inaugural guests and Freundel’s blessing of the “president, vice president, president-elect, and vice president-elect” along with American and Israeli soldiers and politicians. After the service, about 100 people crowded into the Kiddush room for cookies, soda, and hard alcohol—their conversations also seemed to steer clear of the inauguration.
One attendee had a guess as to why the subject of Obama never surfaced: Kesher did not want to upset its most important congregant, who infamously switched parties and spoke at the Republican convention. Greenfield denied any such motivation.
Boston Jewish Spirit, Boston, Mass.
We all knew it was true. But it wasn’t until the rabbi actually said the words out loud that it became real. Rabbi Howard Berman explained in his soft-spoken liturgical sing-song cadence that this service was unique in that we were here not only to welcome in the Sabbath, but to reflect on and pray for the coming presidential inauguration of Barack Obama. A collective and audible psychic sigh of relief swept through the small congregation. About 45 of us were gathered here in the sanctuary of an Episcopal Church on Newbury Street in Boston. Outside it was bitter cold. Nevertheless, winter in Boston, particularly at night, has its own magical flavor. Something about the early dark and the freezing air makes the inside particularly cozy and preternaturally warm.
Rabbi Berman continued, “Tonight our ancient words of faith call out to us with truths and inspiration.” And so we prayed.
But unlike other Sabbath services, where the call and response can after a time lose its import, tonight there was something almost longing about our prayers: please let this mean something. The transmission ran through the congregation like electricity (or we were just giving each other the flu). “The stranger that sojourns with you shall be accepted as your equal,” we chanted. “For you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”
The little electric piano set to “pipe organ” did little to ease our spirits. We were all eager to get to the sermon.
“It’s providence that links this inauguration to Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday,” Rabbi Berman began. He went on. This is a unique historic moment: check. A national weekend of affirmation at churches and synagogues around the country: check. Profound meanings and implications: check. Renewed sense of hope and pride in America: check.
We agreed as he told us how Obama echoes and embodies the noblest influence of the American vision. But we needed Rabbi Berman to say what we had all been feeling for so long, these last eight or so years. “It is the Jewish social vision that will be on display on Inauguration Day!” he exclaimed.
Hope, then, entered the room like the spirit of God. But we knew not to hope too much in a higher power—without the struggle of people, the will of God is empty.