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September 1, 2015 | 17th Elul 5775
Bimah Baskets

  1. Our WRJ group has encouraged us to adopt the custom of having a "bimah basket" on the bimah during Friday night Shabbat services. This symbolic basket would contain samples of non-perishable foods, clothing and other items for the needy. It would symbolize the actual basket that would be sponsored by a congregant/group and donated to a needy person or family.

    We have encountered some objections from people who feel it would detract from the solemn, prayerful decor of the bimah. Our RPC has been unable to resolve the issue, and I wonder whether other congregations have adopted this, and in what manner, and what their experience has been.


  2. How does the dignity of the bimah compare to the indignity of going hungry? When we come to the synagogue, whom are we praying to, and what are we praying for, if not to express our willingness to help repair this broken world?

    If there are people on your committee who dislike the reminder that we have an obligation as a synagogue community to those less fortunate, let them suggest an alternate way to supply the needed food.

    You might also want to give them the famous Peretz story, title usually translated as "If Not Higher," about the rabbi who, being missing from morning prayers during the period leading up to Rosh HaShanah, was reputed to be visiting in heaven. When the skeptic followed him to see where he really was, and discovered he was chopping wood and tending to the other needs of an impoverished widow, he responded to those who said the rabbi was in heaven, "If not higher." (Peretz tells it better than I do.)


  3. Call it a "b'rachah basket" and leave it prominently displayed in the lobby, as one walks into the sanctuary. Have whoever sets up your oneg, purchase two items to put in the basket each week. I do not think that basket will remain sparse for too many weeks, especially if people are reminded week after week by your announcing it every Erev Shabbat, forever. There is more than one way to skin a rabbit, and if you cannot get to people's conscience directly, go around them.


  4. Our bimah typically has a basket of fresh flowers on it for Shabbat evenings, and the subsequent b'nei mitzvah. When my sons became bar mitzvah, we wanted to put as much "mitzvah" as possible into the occasion, and replaced the flower arrangements with decorative baskets filled with things to donate. (One was toiletries/towels; the other was sports equipment/toys.) There was an announcement made about the baskets and where they were being donated to. We never received one criticism, but did hear many "what a good idea".

    Personally, although pretty, I hate to see the flowers just wilting or being thrown out after services. If they can be donated to a nursing home or hospital, perhaps that would be a beginning for your congregation.

    You could always put the sample basket in the lobby as an incentive and an example if putting it on the bimah is a problem.


  5. I wonder whether there is text on tzedakah or temple and synagogue practices that talks about bringing gifts for the poor. This kind of material would give the board something to discuss and a Jewish foundation for the practice.

    Sounds like you have the forces of decorum and "Classical Reform" arrayed against those of social action and community. If you can bring them together and help them discuss how they'd like to be Jews now, maybe you can reach resolution.


  6. I agree that social action was a cornerstone of Classical Reform, although it's clear to me that different Jews responded with different enthusiasm to different aspects of classical reform. Some of those who liked the dignity had little energy for social action and...I suppose...vice versa. That's not a put-down, it's a simple statement that different Jews interpret Judaism differently (a hallmark of Reform) and respond differently to its teachings and commandments.

    All congregations are political systems as well as worship organizations. By definition, not everyone agrees on every issue, and disagreements will be resolved through some process. Some congregations defer to rabbis, others to lay leaders, some to donors, others may work through some form of democratic action. Each congregation chooses a system or evolves to a system that, hopefully, works for that congregation. Breakdowns occur when the system doesn't work.

    There is no criticism implied or to be inferred in the description of a congregation as forces arrayed against one another. It is a statement of fact--perhaps a bit hyperbolic but not necessarily. The original writer had said something about a group of people believing that the bimah was not a place for a basket of food because it wouldn't look dignified enough (or so I read it). Another group wanted that visible location for a social action project. I interpreted this to mean, perhaps wrongly, that the forces for decorum were probably invoking the traditions of Classical Reform Judaism. At a minimum, there appears to be a group saying, "This is a great social action project that we'd like to promote visibly," and another group responding, "This is not appropriate behavior in our sanctuary."

    I put "Classical Reform" in quotes because I find that nearly everyone talks about Classical Reform without defining what they mean. As an example: In a conversation a couple of years ago, a group of people told me they loved the way services used to be in the "classical" days. As we talked further, they described three very different services, and none much liked the others' visions. Neither "classical" nor "good old days" was a useful term. We had to talk specifically about what the service looked like and how the congregation and clergy behaved.

    What I was proposing was that someone in the congregation coordinate a study session in which all these individuals might explore Jewish traditions and sources on the topics of tzedakah...and social action and synagogue decorum...and arrive at some consensus about how the congregation should behave.


  7. If a congregation can come to a compromise solution, one where you are compromising method, not principle, then it should. This a very clear situation where compromise can satisfy both sides. Put the basket in the lobby, near the ushers, with one or two already purchased items prominently displayed. In the meantime, alert the congregation as to what is happening, and announce it from the bimah week after week. Have whoever prepares the oneg each week, purchase the two items for starters in the basket. It will start slowly, but it will eventually develop into a situation where people come to services with food in hand, in much the same way that kids come to Torah School with tzedakah in hand.

    This is not an issue which need split a congregation nor cause hard feelings. Classical Reform Jews are not the only ones concerned with decorum in the sanctuary, at services. Those who prefer the new wave of Reform Judaism are also concerned with decorum. What one person considers disruptive to decorum another considers an acceptable part of a service. But a bimah basket is not worth causing a brouhaha, when there is an acceptable way to accomplish your goal by calling it something else, a b'rachah basket, and putting it in the lobby.


  8. At our congregation we place our baskets in the social hall at the entrance to the sanctuary and hold our drives periodically, usually in concert with our local interfaith coalition...and our very active [city food bank]. In addition, we collect school supplies for the after school program of an "enriched" low-income housing development. Reminders are made during the announcements section of the service, through the Hebrew school, and in the Temple Bulletin. This year, we've also tied it to programming such as support for 30-hour famine against hunger, an Interfaith Service of Giving replete with procession, "wave offering" at the chancel, and a "living midrash" experience, and our participation, including Jewish services, and a program of feeding individuals in need at a local Church's "Love Feast". We also hosted a speaker from the American Jewish World Service at Shabbat services to raise consciousness and also to encourage our youth to think about volunteering. Since we do not traditionally serve as an "agent of sale" for chameitz, we will be encouraging people to bring their canned and packaged chameitz this Shabbat for distribution to the food bank this Monday morning...I also think that there is no one model for success in this area. If a congregation is comfortable, fine. If it prefers to place it outside the sanctuary, fine. The important thing is getting the food to where it's needed.


  9. ...How wonderful that our congregations are feeding the hungry. I hope more of us will also free the oppressed, clothe the naked, shelter the homeless, uplift the afflicted, comfort the bereaved, and do all the mitzvot that Talmud teaches [us] are their own reward.


  10. Though we do not have a "bimah basket" per say, we do have a lobby filled with a "book bucket' for children's books (currently being collected for an inner city public school library by our youth group), a basket for toiletries for a local women's shelter (a Junior Youth Group project), and a food box (that supports the work of our temple pantry--which feeds over 100 families three times each month, and also adds to the stock of two other area pantries). We have tried to minimize the distraction from a rather formal lobby by containing our food collection in a box made of a wood that matches our lobby wood. Our book bucket sits under a table and our toiletries basket is a delicate one that does not distract from the lobby appearance. Dick is right in that it is wonderful and important for us to find ways to provide easy opportunities for people to fulfill the mitzvot of sharing.


  11. At our congregation many b'nei mitzvah families choose to do this ["decorating" the bimah with baskets of food or other articles instead of flower arrangements]. The baskets are not only beautiful (many prepared by "Because We Care" an agency affiliated with the Federation), but serve a more practical purpose also. The family then takes the responsibility to take the contents of the basket to the Mitzvah Pantry or an agency of their choice. This really sets a good example for the child. Maybe congregants need to get use to it--change even for the better is hard sometimes.

  12. I would think whether or not to put the basket on the bimah depends upon the sensibilities of the particular congregation. Perhaps they could feature a sample basket once a year prior to a major collection project. Our congregation's children used to bring offerings of non-perishables up to the bimah at a Sukkot or Shavuot service. Rather than knowing about what constitutes "non-perishable food items," maybe what this congregation needs to understand more deeply is why we, as Jews, should be engaging in tzedakah and acts of loving kindness, such as making the food donations.


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