A friend of mine, a committed Methodist, was telling me about her new preacher. The Methodists usually assign ordained ministers to their posts, and those ministers are pretty well educated: bachelors degree and seminary, at a minimum. So when my friend told me they got a “neighborhood” preacher, I was surprised. What’s a neighborhood preacher? It’s someone who hasn’t been to seminary, someone who simply feels called to serve.
I am Jewish and one of the reasons I converted to that faith is the emphasis on education. Rabbis are superbly educated: four years undergrad, five years rabbinical school, often additional MAs and PhDs, some are even rabbi/cantors. In addition to biblical studies and rabbinics, there is the Hebrew language to learn, rotations in pastoral counseling, student pulpits. Some go on to do military service as chaplains.
So my gut reaction to a “neighborhood preacher” was, uh-oh. Pure snobbery on my part.
The friend related how, on first stepping to the pulpit, this neighborhood preacher started with these words:
I’m gonna love y’all.
That’s it. No hell-fire and brimstone of the sort I knew growing up in fundamentalist churches. Just love.
The high holiday season for Jews starts in a few days. At Yom Kippur, we say a prayer of confession, or vidui, in a prayer called Al Cheyt (For Sin):
For the mistakes we committed before You under duress and willingly.
For the mistakes we committed before You through having a hard heart.
For the mistakes we committed before you through things we blurted out with our lips.
For the mistake we committed before You through harsh speech.
For the mistakes we committed before You through wronging a friend.
For the mistakes we committed before You by degrading parents and teachers.
For the mistakes we committed before You by exercising power.
For the Mistakes we committed before You against those who know, and those who do not know.
For the mistakes we have committed before You through bribery.
For the mistake we have committed before You through denial and false promises.
For the mistake we have committed before You through negative speech.
For the mistakes we have committed before You with food and drink.
For the mistakes we committed before You by being arrogant.
For the mistakes we committed before You with a strong forehead (brazenness).
For the mistakes we committed before You in throwing off the yoke (i.e. refusing to accept responsibility).
For the mistakes we committed before You through jealousy (lit: ‘a begrudging eye’).
For the mistakes we committed before You through baseless hatred.
For the mistakes we committed before You in extending the hand.
For the mistakes we committed before You through confusion of the heart.
As with most Jewish prayer, this is a communal prayer. Not only have we all done these things at one time or another, to one degree or another, but we are responsible for each other and our behaviors.
This year, I’ve seen two different synagogues articulate their own Al Cheyt prayers for their failings and omissions as organizations. One of them, composed by a friend and rabbi I greatly admire, Nicole Roberts, goes like this:
A – Acceptance of diversity within our sanctuaries and social halls
B – Bimah policies that don’t cause hurt or insult
C – Creativity (versus monotony)
D – Development of long-term strategy
E – Experimentation with new styles of worship or programming
F – Financial responsibility, sustainability, and Fundraising
G – Generosity towards both Jewish and non-Jewish causes
H – Healing, Helping, and offering Hope
I – Inspiring and being Imaginative
J – Jewish identity-building
K – Knowledge-building and Know-how
L – Life Cycle rituals that are meaningful, not rote
M – Minimising our carbon footprint
N – Nurturing optimism
O – Outreach to those who feel marginalised
P – Pastoral care and support of our members
Q – Quieting the noise of the work week on Shabbat
R – Relevance of our text study and our rituals
S – Synagogue transformation
T – Tikkun olam
U – Understanding of other cultures, religions, and movements
V – Values embodiment
W – Welcoming the stranger
X – eXcellence in Israel education for all ages
Y – Youth and Young Adult engagement
Z – Zero-tolerance for bullying, harassment, or other workplace woes*
For all the areas in which our synagogues may have fallen short of the hope and faith placed in us, by the people Israel and the God of Israel, s’lach lanu, m’chal lanu, kaper lanu. May this season of reflection and aspiration inspire us all to renew our collective efforts in the year ahead.
Some congregants pay their dues (or tithe, or drop something in the plate, as the case may be) and expect to have religion served up on the platter they paid for. Some houses of worship provide facilities and programs and religious training for children and consider their work done. But no amount of seminary training can instill in clergy a love for people. As one of my husband’s favorite sports quotes goes, “You can’t teach that. It’s learned behavior.” And this business of congregational life is a two-way street. It is a covenant, and we are all responsible for each other.
I recently joined a new synagogue, and my fervent hope this year of 5775 is to simply be able to say, I’m gonna love y’all. And I may just go check out that neighborhood preacher.
*The Hebrew prayer is an acrostic, so the rabbi formulated the congregational Al Cheyt that way in English.
Kim Phillips is a Judaica artist, marketer, and certified pararabbinic. She is also mom to Jacob, the Most Awesome Cat.