My son and I took a cruise last month to Alaska. It’s a part of the world I’ve always wanted to see, and with my 70th birthday coming up, it seemed a good time for a father-son experience. The scenery was spectacular, and we were blessed with exceptionally good weather. And, we learned a good bit about Alaska’s history.
If you’ve been on a cruise, you know that there’s a sheet distributed each day with a list of all the activities taking place aboard the ship. Friday’s included a listing for “Sabbath services, 7:00 pm,” with a room where these would take place. Based on past experience, and the fact that the listing said “self-directed,” I suspected that actually organizing a service would be up to those who showed up. Also based on past experience, I knew that this could be quite an awkward experience unless someone was prepared to step forward and do the organizing. So, barring the presence on board of a rabbi, cantor, or some other eager volunteer, I went to the room prepared to play that role, but not knowing exactly what to expect.
The first good news was that the ship had provided some siddurim (Bokser edition), two challot (wrapped in plastic), two bottles of Manischewitz wine, and plastic cups. And, slowly, our kehilla began to assemble: a young couple from Cleveland with two daughters, a couple from Melbourne (Australia, not Florida), a couple from Sweden, a group of around twenty Israelis who were traveling together. So, we cobbled together a service, trying to find tunes that some number of us might know (L’cha Dodi was a winner; Ahavat Olam less so), balancing American and Israeli-style “davening.” Somehow, we made it through, ending with a rousing Yigdal, and wishing each other Shabbat shalom as one of the Israelis recited Kiddush and the girls recited Hamotzi. And, then we all scattered, some to dinner, some to other activities.
I cite this experience because it’s not the first time it’s happened to me. In fact, every cruise I’ve been on, with some variation, has seen this same phenomenon: strangers finding their way to a room listed on an activity sheet, coming together as a community for a moment in time, then going on their way. I’m sure there were many other Jews on the cruise who did not come to services that evening. But, for those of us who did come, there was that mysterious, but very real, sense of camaraderie that comes with sharing an experience that we know belongs to us as a group despite our individual differences of background and custom.
This sense of collective ownership of Jewish tradition is something that we hope to see expanded through our work at Lippman Kanfer Foundation for Living Torah. The evidence is strong that many Jews feel the desire to be and to celebrate together with other Jews that brought our rag-tag kehilla together that Friday night. But, too many Jews today are made to feel disempowered and inadequate as Jews, and as a result they opt out of engaging with Jewish teaching and practice and miss out on the value these could bring to their lives. Our challenge is to help more Jews engage with Jewish content and community in ways that feel comfortable for them, even if a bit awkwardly at first, so that they can experience that value and, hopefully, continue on a pathway of growing engagement.
One Shabbat service does not make for an enduring community. But, we are seeing today a host of new endeavors to create Jewish communities that are enduring, that welcome Jews (and fellow travelers) as they are and forge connections among them and to dimensions of Jewish tradition that speak to their needs and aspirations. Nurturing and supporting these communities is an important part of the work of our Foundation.
I don’t know if I’ll be taking another cruise. If I do, I’ll be looking for that announcement somewhere among the long list of Friday activities, and I hope I’ll find a group as diverse and congenial as the one that gathered off the coast of Alaska. In the meantime, I’m happy to join my Foundation colleagues and our partners in trying to spread ownership of Jewish tradition and create the communities in which people can engage with, apply, and grow Jewish wisdom for their own well-being and for the well-being of us all.