metro minyan

Last night I went to Washington Hebrew Congregation‘s new Metro Minyan, a monthly Friday night Shabbat service and dinner hosted by the Reform synagogue’s 2239 group, for young professionals. My friend Alanna’s brother Aaron is the new assistant rabbi at Washington Hebrew, and she invited me and a group of our friends.

The idea behind this new initiative, the rabbi explained, is to meet young people where they are, literally. Indeed, most young professionals in D.C. live in metro-accessible locations (and very few of them have cars), but — and this is one of my pet peeves about synagogues in D.C. — most of the shuls are not. Of course, this fact made it all the more ironic when we couldn’t take the subway home because the orange line trains were suspended when the event ended.

The service was also an attempt to help young Jews connect to their Judaism, the rabbi said, some of them for the first time. That certainly doesn’t describe me — or any of the many people I knew at the service — and I’m not sure how else the others would have gotten there, unless they were at least somewhat plugged into the Jewish community. Indeed, the rabbi recognized a group of volunteers who had just returned from a community service trip, organized by the synagogue, to Birmingham to rebuild a house.

But engaging young Jews is the obsession of the Jewish community today. At the Union for Reform’s Judaism Biennial conference in December, for instance, a new Campaign for Youth Engagement was announced (which might have prompted this initiative by Washington Hebrew). And as I wrote in my rabbinical school applications, my generation is not connecting to the organized Jewish world in the same way as our parents. The way we as Jews are handling intermarriage isn’t helping either.

eastern market’s north hall; photo by susana raab

The service was held in the North Hall of Eastern Market, D.C.’s oldest continually operated fresh food public market (according to its website). Renovated by the D.C. government in 2009, the North Hall is a community space in the Capitol Hill market.

The service lasted about an hour and was (I gather) a fairly typical Reform Friday night service. I didn’t grow up affiliated, but most of my experience has been in more traditional services. I love the Kabbalat Shabbat service and was sad that it was over with perhaps three songs. And since I was sitting in the back, I couldn’t hear the rabbi that well in the cavernous space; the people around me weren’t singing very much (I could really only hear my friend Julia behind me). I wish there had been a piece of learning or a d’var Torah. However, since I am applying to the Reform seminary, I knew I needed to get myself to a Reform service or two. Update (1/25): I should have noted that I was very happy that we sang Debbie Friedman’s “Mi Shebeirach,” which I love and I don’t get to sing that often at services.

Dinner was great: The food was from New Course Catering, a non-profit that provides chronically unemployed D.C. residents with marketable restaurant training. The proceeds from the night went back to it. As the event website noted, it was “a meal and a mitzvah!” And I discovered a new challah option. I’ve always thought that KosherMart made the best challah in the area, but my friend Jordy (apparently) swears by the one from Great Harvest Bread Co. I may have been converted. Naturally, there is no location in D.C. proper. I guess the bakery isn’t worried about engaging young Jews!

visions of freedom and justice

Tonight was the eighth annual MLK Shabbat at Sixth & I. (I didn’t know it had been going on that long; I thought I had gone to one of the first, in 2006.) Held in conjunction with the Turner Memorial AME Church, this is, hands down, my favorite Shabbat service each year.

Dr. King and Rabbi Heschel march in Selma.

The service commemorates both the federal holiday dedicated to the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the yahrzeit of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel. One of the most influential Jewish theologians of the 20th century, Heschel marched with King in Alabama in March 1965. He famously wrote, “When I marched in Selma, my feet were praying.”

Every Jewish social justice activist knows this story. We are taught about Heschel as much as young black kids are taught about King. We aspire to be like Heschel the way they want to be like King. We know Heschel’s words about Selma as well as they know King’s “I Have a Dream” speech.

And, I imagine, we ask ourselves, “Can I be as brave as Rabbi Heschel?” as much as they ask themselves, “Can I be the next Dr. King?”

The service is a mix of a traditional Jewish Friday evening service with pieces of African Methodist Episcopal worship: The Howard Gospel Choir sings; the Agape Liturgical Dancers perform; the Senior Pastor preaches. And in between we say Shehecheyanu, the Sh’ma, and the V’Ahavta.

I can’t adequately describe the power of this service. I alternate between goosebumps and tears — and I feel like my feet are praying as I walk home. I love the traditional Kabbalat Shabbat service: It is real and spirited and inspiring and beautiful. But I wish I could go every week to a Shabbat service with the Howard Gospel Choir. And communal prayer should always end with “We Shall Overcome.”

Tonight Pastor William H. Lamar IV spoke. My mouth was literally agape by the end. (My friend Bert asked afterwards if I had taken notes during his talk: “You have to learn how to do that when you’re a rabbi!”) A self-professed “King-ophile,” Pastor Lamar talked about his desire to remember the living, breathing legacy of Dr. King, instead of the ossified version enshrined in the memorial on the mall. He cited Cornel West’s warning not to “Santa Clausify” the civil rights leader: We have, in other words, turned him into a cartoon — one that teaches us to ignore much of what he stood for, because what he stood for remains such a threat to the political establishment in this conservative country. Dr. King was not afraid to speak truth to power, and he sometimes focused on issues that his community thought didn’t pertain to it (the war in Vietnam, for example). But as we all know, Dr. King believed that “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” Pastor Lamar noted that being a leader sometimes means betraying your tradition and your people — to move them away from prescriptive views.

I love this service because it represents the best of what Judaism can be: pluralistic, visionary, radical, inspiring, and insistent on our obligations to one another as human beings. In the words of Rabbi Heschel:

Above all, the prophets remind us of the moral state of a people: Few are guilty, but all are responsible.