I am writing this message early in the morning and, as I do so, I am overwhelmed with a feeling of gratitude. The members of Beth Israel’s new class on “Spirituality and Prayer” have been doing an in-depth study of the traditional morning “Modah Ani” prayer (which means “I am grateful”). Our study group has caused me to rethink and meditate in a fresh new way on this prayer’s central theme of gratitude and daily renewal. I am so grateful to the Divine Source of my life’s breath to have been given the opportunity to connect with you and to share in your personal as well as our communal spiritual journeys. You are changing how I experience the Holy Source of all being, and I am looking forward to ongoing spiritual growth and connection with you in this community.
We have covered quite a bit of ground in our first six months together. December and January led us out into the community to connect intentionally with people of other races and faiths. Beth Israel participated in the local event “Conversations on Race and Interfaith Dialog” along with Muslim and Christian faith communities, a series of community discussions held at Highland Park Elementary School. For four consecutive weeks, we gathered to share a vegetarian meal together and to discuss our different faith perspectives on the themes of Love, Peace, Joy and Hope. There were profound moments of understanding as well as peaceful moments of difference. It was beautiful to have the opportunity to share Judaism with some individuals in our community who’d had no prior contact with Jews in Roanoke and, for some, in the world. I was very proud of the strong turnout and support of Beth Israel congregants, and we established some durable bonds with local Interfaith community and clergy.
In the coming months, I hope to continue to accompany Beth Israel Jews “Out of the Pews” and into the community for broader discussions about personal and communal spiritual life. I will be holding a series of informal “Rapping-with-the Rabbi” and “Coffee Shop Talks” in various locations around Roanoke, including local coffee shops, campus cafeterias, and hospital cafés. I want to hear from you and from the broader community about the big ideas on your mind. Let’s take a step out of our comfort zone and reach out to connect to Jews who might feel uncomfortable or who do not typically show up in traditional religious spaces. What new and meaningful connections can be made with the broader community around us and how can we think differently about the physical boundaries and location of Jewish community?
In the upcoming months, Bina and I will be hosting various Shabbat experiences and Havdalah hang-outs in our home. In addition, you can look forward to upcoming outdoor experiences and events, including some with proximity and spiritual exposure to our beautiful local mountain scenery. Nature spirituality and the comfort of casual prayer spaces are an important component of Jewish spirituality.
Back in synagogue, we will also continue to offer traditional conservative prayer nusach and structure for religious services and study, while also blending in new and contemporary melodies and beats. We also plan to continue to offer our monthly Friday night Family Shabbat Dinner experiences, which have been extremely well attended.
Judaism is broader and more meaningful than what we typically experience in our synagogue pews for religious services. Judaism is good for the world and the world is good for Judaism. So, join me as we get out of our normal seats in Shul, and explore together the melody of new spaces, faces, and places.
Rabbi Jama Purser