Rabbi's Column | Congregation Beth Am

Rabbi's Column

Creating a Space for Listening

Rabbi Heath Watenmaker

Growing up, I always looked forward to my family’s Passover seder. My mom would take out the china, the silver, and, my favorite, the colorful cut-crystal wine glasses. Together we would set a beautiful table. The finishing touch was the seemingly-ancient Maxwell House Haggadah from the 1960’s placed atop each setting. I remember my fascination with my dad’s copy — labelled on the front “Leader’s Copy.” It was filled with yellow highlighter and paper clips, and my grandfather’s scribbled notes of “skip” scattered throughout the book. While the Haggadah contained the traditional, full-length seder, the seder led from our copy was anything but traditional. Many decades before, my grandfather crafted my family’s seder, which hit most of the main points of the Passover story, but moved quickly through the seder, skipping things here and there.

As one of the most widely practiced Jewish rituals (in 2013, the Pew Study Research Survey of Jewish Americans found that 70% of those who identify as Jewish participated in a seder), the seder is something with which most of us are familiar. But we also recognize that the way our family observes the rituals of the seder may not be the same as how other families observe the rituals of the seder. We all essentially re-tell the same story, ask the same Four Questions, but inevitably, the seder plays out differently in each of our homes. The basic structure of the seder may be the same, but what we bring to the seder — our stories, experiences, family jokes and traditions — make our own seder unique.

Why am I writing about the seder in February, you might ask? At Beth Am, we are currently in the midst of a series of Small Groups House Parties in our members’ homes. The focus of these House Parties is to offer a “taste” of the Small Groups experience. So far, we have engaged hundreds of our members through these conversations, between our Taste of Small Groups on Yom Kippur afternoon, and the dozen or so House Parties that have already happened in December and January. Each House Party offers the opportunity to engage in a structured conversation guided by a volunteer facilitator. For these House Parties, we created a conversation guide — similar to a Haggadah — that each of us will then make unique by sharing our personal experiences, common interests and passions. Through this kind of intentional conversation, we create a space in which we can meet our fellow Beth Am members, share our own stories and listen to the stories and experiences of others. The structure of the conversation allows us to lower our guard a bit, and remove some of the barriers that might keep us from really getting to know each other and be known by others, feeling that we have been heard. After the Yom Kippur Small Groups program, one conversation facilitator commented on being struck by “the willingness of strangers to be vulnerable, to emotionally disrobe in the interest of connecting.”

Listening is an important Jewish value. The Sh’ma, an important prayer in Jewish liturgy, teaches us to listen. We cover our eyes when we say it as if to acknowledge that we need a little help with the distractions that keep us from really hearing what’s being communicated to us — from others around us and from our community. It is so easy to give in to the minutiae that vie for our attention and consume so much of our lives. It can be difficult to make the time to attend to loftier pursuits, such as making new friends and building deep, meaningful relationships.

Listening to and engaging with one another are at the core of the Small Groups experience at Beth Am. Moving forward, we will be calling these groups “Sh’ma Groups.” They are about building face-to-face connections in this digital age, slowing down in a time of speeding up, discovering one another’s unique gifts in a world often defined by anonymity, conformity and disposability. Rabbi David Stern of Temple Emanu-El in Dallas, one of the first Reform congregations to experiment with small groups, describes small groups as an important space for nurturing the moral quality of a congregation, in which participants have regular opportunities to “manifest curiosity and empathy.” Following these House Parties, the Small Groups initiative will roll out in two phases: pilot groups beginning in February 2017 and then a larger-scale rollout to the congregation in Fall 2017. During the pilot phase, pilot Sh’ma Groups will be formed by Beth Am members who have attended a “Taste of Small Groups” session, and are interested in leading or participating in a new, experimental group. These groups will be based on members’ interests, life stage or geographic location. While the makeup of these groups will be as diverse as our membership, all group “guides” will receive training, and participants will receive discussion materials based on “big questions” that will provide a basic structure for group meetings.

If you have not yet signed up to attend a Small Groups House Party, there’s still time. Visit tinyurl.com/bethamsmallgroups to find a House Party at a member’s home near you and sign up for one of our February House Parties. This is a wonderful opportunity to get a taste of the Small Groups experience for yourself. And when you’re there, make an effort to open yourself up and sh’ma, listen — to your own story and the stories of your fellow Beth Am members.

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We strive to live as a holy community whose study and practice of Judaism inspires and challenges us to "do justice, to love kindness and to walk humbly with our God" (Micah 6:8).