David's Brain and Ego Have Been Chopped Into Little Pieces and Spiritually Chargrilled

This is bad. I have been hurt. I have incflicted awfulness on other people. I have not yet had a Coke. This is not a good Shabbat so far.


Last night for Shabbat Ma-ariv T'Fliah we went to Kehilat Kol Haneshama, the largest Reform anything here in Israel. If you recall my experience with the Kotel and my expectations about it (second post down on the page here), it will mean a lot to you when I say that I was a bout ten million times more excited about Kol Haneshama than I was about the wall.

I am always interested by how Reform Judaism looks in different places. Though the basic theology and the basic tenets remain the same in Progressive, Reform, and Liberal Judaism everywhere, the outward appearance that develops around that underlying structure changes from place to place. The ethics and the observance of ethical commandments and traditions don't change too much, but the rituals and the observance of ritual commandments and traditions do change. Thus, I was really psyched for this.

We arrived at Kol Haneshama about a half hour before services began. The Kol Haneshama campus is composed of anumber of buildings and wings including a sanctuary (which I imagine doubles as a social hall), an administrative office wing, a youth center, and a nice open plaza in the front center of the whole assemblage of buildings. The architecture is all understatedly made of white Jerusalem limestone, the only flourishes being green metal Frank Lloyd Wright-esque windowsill fixture things. The structure, more than any American Reform institution screamed out a sense of stability and rootedness that impressed me and made me all the more excited. The inside of the snactuary was obviously furnished on the cheap, but nicely and elegantly so.

The first omen of things to come was when Baruch Kraus, our principal, pointed out to me that all the other men there had their heads covered. He noted that in the Israeli Progressive movement a kippah is almost expected. I told him I'd rather not put on one. (If anyone is interested, let me know and I can do a whole other post here about why I don't like to wear a kippah). He insisted. I asked if people would be offeneded. He said he wasn't sure. After a protracted and highly awkard conversation about the issue, he grudingly agreed I didn't have to put one on. So I didn't.

Then the service started. There more nigunim than I care for. There were then a copious amount of meditative moments. Then we did about half of the service silently. I couldn't determine why. The moments felt awkward, not spiritual. I cannot express how unfulfiling this service was for me.

This comes also on the heels of an increasing sense that although I know excatly what I think about ethics and rituals and Reform, I can't tell what anyboyd else thinks. I feel increasingly alone as the mainstream URJ maintains serious Classical Reform roots and, to a large extent, practices, yet the "Indie" or "Contemporary" or "Ultra-Modern" wings of Reform in the US become too ritualized for even me.

All of this together created an exremely quiet and conflicted mood in me last night. The most horrible realization of all being that I felt so spiritually out of it that I was unsure that I could lead services on Shabbat morning. Oh yeah, did I mention that?


Services sucked. I blew it. It cannot be sliced any other way. I led the service, my friend Sam accompanied on guitar at various points, and another friend, Rachel, served as gabbai and led the Torah service.

I am good at leading services. I do it more often than the average person and I do it well. People enjoy. This is not my ego (which is currently on life support) talking. These are fact. Thus, when we established a T'filah Committee I naturally too charge. We set up a system of rotations of leaders, songleaders, and Torah readers and we have plans to set up a D'var Torah rotation later.

The ideas I was testing in this service were minimal instructions and subdued leadership. Rachel, Sam, and I sat in the front row. I explained that I would be leading from within the congregation, rather than from without, the norm. I also announced page numbers only when absolutely neccessary and I never issued directions such as "rise" or "be seated" Being that I was in the front row and couldn't see everybody behind me, my mind created a picture of everybody enjoy the damn thing. Apparently they didn't. Someone was "elected" from within a large group of people who disliked services to come speak to me about the general problems that people had with services.

They were apparently boring, devoid of music (although we did use the guitar on four occasions), and confusing. This hurt a lot. I know that nobody was trying to be mean in this, but it means that I obviously know a lot less about what I'm doing than I thought. I'm in a very self-critical mood right now. I am sitting writing this on my balcony looking out at more of the hotel and the sweeping Judean hills. I am inconsolable. "Everybody has off weeks," somebody told me a moment ago. It doesn't matter what people say to me right now. I just feel like a moron. I have hurt the community by inflicting boring services on them.

I feel really alone right now. They say that it is normal for teenagers to always feel like nobody understands what they are going through. I have never felt that. Until now. I feel isolated. I feel like nobody trying to console me right now knows what I'm trying to tell them. It doesn't matter if people just have off weeks sometimes. Of course they do! I know that! I also know that you can't have this much of an off week when it comes to leading a community.


After my ordeal with Kol Haneshama and my confusion about Reform I expected to at least be able to go through the motions this morning. Apparently, I couldn't even do that properly.


d.profound@gmail com. Etc. Etc. I write the same damn thing here in every post.


This sucks.


Live from Israel: DAVID SCREWS UP



Brandon Kassof said...

its ok ur not dealing with the same intellects as at kutz...

David A. M. Wilensky said...

well... theoretically this is the URJ's premiere youth program and theoretically I think I am, Brandon.

Leslie Bass said...

I suppose now you just have a reason to blow their minds the next time you lead services. And if you didn't D'var this time, you should next. I've sat through plenty of services I didn't like, but that doesn't mean I didn't learn something from them (even if it was that I never wanted to go to a similiar service in my life). However, you are with a group of kids who, despite not enjoying your latest service, are going to give you a second chance. Take it and run with it, my friend.

I miss you more than I thought I would. Things here are great, but it's hard... I've got so many pictures of you up my wall people would think we're married.

R. BDS said...


Though I'll probably regret it at some point in the future, I'm going to try to put your ego back together.

Of course you hated Kol Haneshama. You're a Litvak and I would have been shocked if you didn't hate the services at Kol Haneshama. Kol Haneshama is an outstanding synagogue if you are looking for a touchy-feely let's all sit in a circle and contemplate our place in the Universe experience. And there were times when that really was great for me. But as a fellow Litvak, their services are a little too crunchy granola for me. You should try to go to another Progressive Synagogue in Jerusalem. You should try to go to the Conservative Seminary's services, which you might enjoy more, though you will be required to wear a kippah. But don't feel bad about not enjoying Kol Haneshama's services. You're a Litvak -- be proud of that.

About services. Once I wrote what I thought was the absolute best HHD sermon. My congregation didn't agree with me. But they were from Wyoming, so what did they know? Let's ignore the fact that they were all college professors and more educated and more sophisticated than I could ever hope to be. So I brought the sermon to Ausin and guess what? Nobody here liked it either. The point is, I wrote a sermon for where I was, but not where my congregation was.

You made one mistake and one mistake only with services. You pitched services at a place that your congregation wasn't at. From the way you described it, I would have loved it and it would have been great at Hebrew Union College. But apparently, not at EIE. And it has nothing to do with your congregation's intelligence or your abilities as a service leader. What you have to do is match up where the congregation is and where you want to take them. That is, to be successful, you have to meet people where they are and take them to where you want them to be. The one mistake you made was to start from where you wanted them to be, rather than where they were. I hope this helps.

Shabbat Shalom,

Gilanah Shoshanah said...

At least you didn't have an invisible choir doing all the Hebrew on your behalf!

It must be really hard to lead in a situation where there isn't any established way of doing things and not much in the way of a common frame of reference.

Unfamilar services always feel less satisfying, even when they are interesting. You got to be on both ends of that this week--a great learning opportunity (which is code for a truly miserable experience that will be valuable in the long run).

David A. M. Wilensky said...

Thanks everybody.

Lori Ramirez said...

Creativity and mixing things up is good. Even though people hate change and will usually reject it. (I think I got the gist of this blog, but I don't understand half the words you guys are always using, so I can't say anthing more profound then what I wrote.)

Sarah N. said...

I completely understand what you were saying in this blog. First of all, I'm totally not surprised that you hated Kol Haneshama. I did too. I mean, I love niggunim, but theirs go on forever! I went two or three times with the group, and each time I was just as dissatisfied and spiritually unfulfilled as the last.
It seemed to me that the Reform movement of Israel is more like the Conservative movement of America in their services. At least, Kol Haneshama was just like a Conservative summer camp I went to.
As for the service that you led... I know the feeling. I mean, I don't perfectly know how you felt because it was, as you said, your first time feeling like this, but I have led services in the community as well, and I understand what it's like to find out that your service did not work for most or even all of the congregants. It's very degrading to the self-confidence, at least for a while. And yes, it made me question my knowledge about service-leading.
I hope you had/will have better experiences.