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Spirit in the Night: Springsteen on Jewish Community

August 26, 2008

This past Thursday I attended an old-fashioned spiritual revival. It wasn’t at a synagogue or a church and barely a mention of God was heard. But from the moment it started until the last word was spoken, the crowd that assembled was held in an uplifting emotional rapture that stirred the heart, strengthened the soul and made everyone move to the rhythm of the night.

The man who led the revival wasn’t a man of cloth (unless you include denim) and wasn’t passing around a collection plate or tzedakah box at the end of his sermon (unless you include references to the local food bank). But for a large portion of the people in the room, the man up front was guiding everyone thorough an experience that most would characterize as religious.

So who was the leader of this spiritual revival?

Bruce Springsteen.

That’s right, Bruce Springsteen. If you have never seen Springsteen in concert you might not appreciate my description, but if you have seen Bruce in concert, even once, you understand what I mean.

As a Northeast kid growing up, it’s hard not to have the Boss in your blood, so I admit I am partial to the man and his legendary band. The Nashville concert I attended with my friend Adam Rubin on Thursday night was the umpteenth time I had seen him in live and, like the Atlanta show a few months earlier, Bruce didn’t disappoint. Listening to a 3-hour set of classics, mixed with rarities and new classics, the audience was delivered a rare treat of spirit, nostalgia, passion and promise. We laughed at stories, sang our (secular) psalms, clapped our hands and praised the past while screaming for the future. We danced in the aisles…even in the dark.

There was definitely a spirit in the night.

Exhilarated and exhausted, on Friday morning I drove the 3 ½ hour trip back to Atlanta and my family, but on the way home I couldn’t help but think about the show the night before and the lessons it held. Not just how to put on a good rock concert, but also how to connect people to their communities, and particularly the Jewish community. What are the lessons that Bruce could teach professionals and volunteers in the Jewish community about how to touch people in a way that revives their Jewish spirit? Using some of the lyrics from the song the Boss sang that night in Nashville, I offer a few thoughts…

“When I’m out in the streets, I walk the way I wanna walk. When I’m out in the street, I talk the way I wanna talk” (from Out in the Streets).

Lesson #1: People use their own actions and language to define who they are. If we want to walk with them and talk with them, we need to understand them first.

Our Jewish community is filled with a diverse group of Jews with individual experiences and aspirations. They are complex and constantly shifting. If we want to understand what will get them to come in off the street, we need to understand how they act and talk when they are out on the street (and in their homes, and in their social groups).

“Jack the Rabbit and Weak Knees Willie, you know they’re gonna be there; Ah, sloppy Sue and Big Bones Billie, they’ll be comin’ up for air” (from Rosalita (Come Out Tonight)).

Lesson #2: All types of people (and I mean all types) will come out for experiences in the community, so if we want them to come back, we need to have diverse options for their diverse needs and desires.

Members of the Jewish community, especially younger generations, don’t always conform to what the community expects, they expect the community to conform its offerings to their expectations. They have different names than they once had (because of intermarriage) and they have different ways of communicating (because of technological innovation). When they finally come up for air to breathe some breaths of Jewish life, we need to have what they are seeking – or they will seek it elsewhere.

“Show a little faith, there’s magic in the night” (from Thunder Road).

Lesson #3: Have faith in what lies ahead – when we create a constant culture of apprehension and fear about the state of our community, we leave little room for the faith in the magical future that lies ahead.

There is much to be concerned about with our collective Jewish future. How do we engage assimilation in different ways that may be more impactful? How do we prepare for the increasing number of Jewish elderly that we must care for? How do we help support a safe and strong State of Israel? But for all of those concerns, we must make sure that we don’t only focus on the challenges, but also the wondrous experiences of modern Jewish life. There are many magical experiences to have and share and we need to make sure that we encourage and embrace that culture as well.

“Someday girl I don’t know when, we’re gonna get to that place where we really want to go and we’ll walk in the sun” (from Born to Run).

Lesson #4: Community leadership needs to believe in the ability to reach the destination charted for the community, even if we can’t quite measure the timing of that arrival.

In our focus on measuring success in quantifiable terms we sometimes belie the faith we must have to assure the very same success we seek. Especially in the areas of Jewish engagement and enrichment, we need to look longer term with a degree of patience. And our funders (federations, foundations and otherwise) need to find some of that patience too while balancing it with the appropriate level of fiduciary oversight. We might not know when we will get ‘there,’ but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t keep trying, or that it will be any less wonderful when we do arrive at that place we seek.

“You can’t start a fire; you can’t start a fire without a spark” (from Dancing in the Dark).

Lesson #5: The rapturous flames of community do not start without instigation – they need a catalyst (or several).

Building community has a slow burning element to it, but it also sometimes requires a fanning of the flames. And those flames don’t always start without there being an encouragement of new ideas, new sparks, that help the burning to create community grow. We need to orient our community institutions to nurture these catalysts and to support them. Support isn’t just financial, it includes encouragement and mentoring too – but when the time for financial support does come we should not be overcautious. If we snuff out too many sparks we won’t have a fire that is growing.

“Mister I ain’t a boy, no I’m a man; and I believe in a promised land” (from Promised Land).

Lesson #6: We need to create personal and enduring relationships between individuals Jews and Israel that transcend childhood and teen experiences.

My friend Ken Stein often reminds me that while we must create connections with Israel at the teen level, we must not lose sight that it is when we create meaningful experiences that endure throughout adulthood we will truly be able deepen our relationships with Israel. So while we invest in programs like Birthright, we must also start younger and maintain those experiences far after the Birthright experience has ended. In our era of Jewish life we have witnessed the return of the Jewish People to the Promised Land- we need to continue to believe in its importance, and create avenues that strengthen that belief in youth and adults.

“I believe in the love that you gave me; I believe in the faith that could save me. I believe in the hope and I pray that some day it may raise me above these Badlands” (from Badlands).

Lesson #7: When building community, we must not lose sight of the religious and spiritual elements that give meaning to the Jewish faith.

There is more to the Jewish community than organizations, activities and experiences. There is also a faith, a belief system and a spiritual fabric, and we would be remiss not to emphasis those elements as we try to raise our community higher. Formal and informal spiritual networks are vitally important for the strengthening of our community because it is our collective faith that has helped us endure all these generations. Belief and prayer are important parts of Jewish life and we need to continue to embrace them as a way to encounter God as individuals and as a community.

“Sky of love, sky of tears (a dream of life); Sky of glory and sadness (a dream of life)” (from The Rising).

Lesson #8: The skyline of Jewish life is filled with love and glory even while it sometimes feels filled with tears and sadness. The key is continuing to dream of what Jewish life could be.

We often struggle with the tragedy of the Holocaust in Jewish history and life as well as seek understanding of the countless tragedies Jews have suffered in the past. We mustn’t lose sight of the experiences and lessons of being an afflicted people, but we shouldn’t let it cloud our ability of also being a dreaming people. A people of creators and inventors, and people that find joy in the everyday. We continue to dream of Jewish futures – near, far and ultimate. And we need to continue to keep painting the sky with those dreams even as we guard against the danger that often confronts us.

“Familiar faces around me; Laughter fills the air; Your loving grace surrounds me;
everybody’s here”
(from Mary’s Place).”

Lesson #9: The goal of building community is not just to collect as many names and emails as possible, but to bring people together for experiences of joy and the feeling of community.

Ask a dozen people how they define community and you get a dozen different responses. Often time one can describe community as a “know it when I feel it” answer. That is the way we need to remember the goal of community building – not just a means to an end, but an end to itself. When we are all together in community we are closer to God and the wonder of all of creation. Lists of names are important, but not as important as when they are all familiar names.

“We made a promise we swore we’d always remember; no retreat no surrender” (from No Surrender).

Lesson #10: Don’t quit.

Being Jewish isn’t always easy. And building Jewish community is even less easy. But it is meaningfully important – it is our great task as a people. We may struggle, but we mustn’t quit – regardless of the challenges.

So there you have it, some of the wisdom with a little bit of ‘drash thrown in for good measure. Whether you agree with all of the interpretations or none of them, one thing that we all can agree on is that a look at Bruce’s lyrics (and exhortations) present a distinct voice that is able to capture prophetic musings while rooting them in everyday struggles. He is a leader with a voice.

But not to be lost in our appreciation of Bruce is the recognition of the E Street Band. Every night, as Bruce tries to deliver his flock of fans to the Promised Land, the E Street Band is carrying Bruce too. He couldn’t do it without them. And that too is a reminder to all of us that even though we admire our leaders who find the voice to lead, the singer is just one part of a band. To make the music that moves us, it takes many instruments and rhythms, mostly in sync, but not necessarily always. Some times the sound that comes from the band is mixed, but if it’s loud enough it still might push us through the darkness on the edge of town into the promised land. And even the followers of the band help push the whole crowd forward…dancing, swinging and urging the revival to continue.

Like the fans at a Springsteen concert urging the rock n’ roll revival to continue, we all must take a role in the continuation of the revival of our Jewish community. Leaders, band members, followers and fans – we all have a role in building community. Nobody can do it alone… not even Bruce Springsteen.

But it sure is fun watching him try.