Thursday, March 27, 2008

Not Just for Children, Congregation Ohev Shalom of Orlando

By David Loewy

Storah On The Road

Immediately after Purim, Congregation Ohev Shalom of Orlando retreated. They grabbed their families and took off for a Shabbat away from normal synagogue life. Deanna Neil and I joined them for their annual family weekend at a Methodist campsite in Leesburg, Florida, complete with an alligator-infested lake and a giant, floating, neon blue cross. (Yes, really.) The two days that followed were packed with joyous disjunctions and a strange sense of escapism.

This congregation has to work pretty hard for its Jewish life. These are central Floridians, and their resources aren’t as robust as their Southern neighbors. There’s also a sizable Cuban contingent in the congregation, adding a vague sense of longing to the communal mix. Their identity comes with no small amount of struggle, and the group culture bears this out with a heightened intensity to their ritual life. They sing. They clap. They stomp their way through a service. This is a community that is really looking to find serious joy in the sacred spectacle.

The thing is, I suspect they don’t get to partake in quite this way back in their own sanctuary. Numerous people mentioned to me how Shabbat services had become focused on B’nei Mizvah, how their practice as Jews had become almost solely focused on their kids. And it’s working, by the way. The kids in the community are enthusiastic, knowledgeable, and Judaically active, but I think the adults are missing their chance to play in the spiritual sandbox.

So what show did Deanna and I give this congregation for Parashar Tzav? What else, but “Sacred Spectacle.” Through the moment of Moses anointing Aaron for the priesthood, we addressed issues of holiness, authenticity, and theatricality in rituals. How do you make material palatable without becoming cloying? How do you make simple things profound without becoming pedantic? The show was about the show (very “meta”), and it resonated with the congregation’s need to find more substance and less exercise in their ritual life.

For a while, I thought I might have been projecting these issues onto the community. After all, I’m a Storahteller; these issues are our bread-and-butter. But my suspicions were confirmed when the parents all crashed the teen workshop. Though slated for ages 10-17, over half of the participants were adults for our Saturday afternoon session. In a remarkably gentle coup, they wrested control of content from their children, and reclaimed a share in the meaning of this particular Shabbat. It wasn’t aggressive. They just wanted to participate. Rather than a search for meaningful Judaism on behalf of their children, they sought it along side their children. I felt privileged to be in the room.

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