Bangor synagogue plans spirituality weekend

Posted Jan. 21, 2009, at 8:20 p.m.
Last modified Feb. 13, 2011, at 11:07 a.m.

BANGOR, Maine — Congregation Beth Israel, 144 York St., will hold a Shabbaton Retreat this weekend that will include Sabbath services, meals and small group discussions.

Rabbi Lisa Gelber, associate dean at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York City, will be the guest speaker. Members of the congregation will lead workshops to explain how they try to incorporate Jewish spirituality into their everyday lives.

“The focus will be on the art of spiritual prayer and it is intended to make our prayer life as Jews more meaningful,” Rabbi Steven Schwarzman of Beth Israel said last week. “It also is an opportunity to bring the congregation together for an entire Sabbath from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday and into Sunday morning, although participants will not sleep at the Beth Israel,” he said, noting that congregants will stay in their own homes.

In a small way, the retreat is part of a growing trend in American synagogues to make the Jewish worship experience more spiritual and meaningful.

For thousands of American Jews, Judaism is not a religious connection but a cultural one, according to www.religionlink.org, a Web site that provides resources for religion writers. Fewer than half of the Jews living in the U.S. affiliate with a synagogue or marry another Jew.

Those statistics are not true of Beth Israel, according to Schwarzman. One of the things that attracted him to Maine’s oldest synagogue was the fact that it has between 135 and 145 households, and between 40 and 65 people on average attend Sabbath services each week, a high rate of participation.

Many national Jewish leaders believe that an increased emphasis on spirituality and personal transformation is necessary to build a healthy future for Judaism in America. The Institute for Jewish Spirituality that Gelber is associated with is a leader in the young field.

The institute, also located in New York City, was founded in 2000 specifically in response to American Jews’ yearning for Jewish communities of greater spiritual depth, according to information on its Web site. The institute states that spirituality involves nurturing the human capacity to:

ä Develop one’s personal understanding of God.

ä Seek out truth and purpose.

ä Discover meaning in personal and communal prayer.

ä Develop a relationship with one’s deepest and most authentic self and with others.

ä Find strength and hope and maintain balance in the face of challenges.

ä Experience deeper joy at times of “simcha,” or celebration.

The institute has based its program, according to information on its Web site, on retreat practice.

“Retreats are the context in which to acquire and establish contemplative spiritual practices,” according to the institute. “We believe that retreats … support the development of a spiritual openness and acuity necessary for the revival of our synagogues and institutions. Retreats provide the framework in which we can present, experience and learn to model spiritual community.”

At Beth Israel’s retreat, Jennie Goldenberg of Orono will conduct a workshop called “Tikkun Olam: Making the World a Better Place.” “Tikkun Olam” means repairing or perfecting the world, so her session will focus on the social justice aspects that are part of the Jewish tradition.

“Rabbi Schwarzman has injected a lot of enthusiasm for Jewish learning into the congregation,” Goldenberg said of why the retreat is being held. “He’s really the catalyst to getting us jump-started to talking about these things.”

Goldenberg is heading a Social Action Committee at the synagogue that she hopes will allow congregants to put their spirituality into action in the community by helping others.

“It’s about making the world a better place than what you found it,” she said. “That fits into getting in touch with our spirituality. In Chapter 1:14 of the Pirkei Avot, which means Wisdom of Our Fathers [and is composed of ethical maxims by early rabbis], it says ‘If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am only for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?’”

For more information, call Beth Israel, 945-3433.

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