Developing a Liturgy for the Jewish Communal Profession
In the Journal of Jewish Communal Service (Volume 80, 2004), I had occasion to publish an article entitled, “Developing a Liturgy for the Jewish Communal Profession.” In that piece I offered the following observation:
Although many of us became Jewish communal professionals because of our commitment to the Jewish tradition and its values, there has been no specific liturgy or ritual related to Jewish communal service. This article explores the religious roots of Jewish communal service and presents a prayer that both defines the special role of the professional and acknowledges the contributions of the field to the Jewish people.
Indeed, throughout our history Jews created individualized mitzvoth that addressed the appropriate charitable obligations that they were expected to exercise on behalf of the community:
- Malbish Arumim: Society to clothe the naked
- Talmud Torah: Educational services to provide for children
- Ha-Knasat Kallah: Fund to assist maidens with a dowry
- Maot Hittim: Passover assistance for poor families
- Bet Yetomim: Care for orphans
- Bikkur Holim: Society for visiting the sick
- Moshab Zekenim: Services for the elderly
- Hesed Shel Emet: Jewish burial society
- Pidyon Shebuyim: Committee for the ransom of captives and refugees
- Kubbah Shel Zedakah: Charity fund
Jewish liturgy reflects the story of the Jewish people, with its emphasis on collective responsibility for the welfare of the community. Most Jewish prayers are recited in the first person plural, reflecting the collective character and shared historical experiences of our community. This notion is based on the Talmudic injunction, “All members of Israel are responsible for each other” and “all members of Israel are companions” (b.Sanhedrin 27b, Shevuoth 39a).
In the traditional Siddur, we find references to those who engage in tsarchei tsibbur (providing for “the needs of the community”):
“…those who give lamps for light and wine for Kiddush and Havdalah, bread to wayfarers and charity to the poor and all those who occupy themselves in faithfulness with the wants of the congregation (community). May the Holy One, blessed be He, give them their reward; may He remove from them all sickness: may He heal their body, forgive all their iniquity, and send blessing and prosperity upon all the work of their hands, and upon all Israel their brethren; and let us say. Amen.”
In more recent times, the focus would remain on acknowledging those who serve the community as evidenced by the Union Prayer Book (1940):
“May He reward with the joy of goodness the charitable and the merciful – succor the poor, care for the sick, teach the ignorant, and stretch forth their helping hand to those who have lost their way in the world.” (pp. 98-99).
There has been a great deal of experimentation with Jewish religious practice in more recent decades. Commenting on this trend, Professor Lawrence Hoffman stated that creative worship “provides unmistakable attempts to develop Jewish liturgies that reflect American Jewish consciousness.” (Beyond the text: A holistic approach to liturgy, 1987, p. 83)
Marcia Falk’s The Book of Blessings (1996) and CLAL’s publication, The Book of Jewish Sacred Practices (2002), among other such initiatives, incorporated innovative ceremonies, rituals, and prayers in the area of leadership and communal life. Such practices include “building a pluralist Jewish community, examining ourselves as leaders, taking on new responsibilities, and installing a new communal leader” (Kula, 2002).
The discipline of Jewish communal service is a 20th century phenomenon and as such has been continually developing both its identity and place within Jewish life. The development of liturgy generally takes a significant period of time to form and to become a part of social culture and religious practice of a community, in part explaining why such prayers have not appeared earlier. In the early decades of this past century, there existed an artificial disconnect between the communal sector and the religious enterprise; today, that divide is no longer so prevalent.
During my tenure as the director of Hebrew Union College’s School of Jewish Nonprofit Management (now the Zelikow School), with the encouragement and support of a number of colleagues, I had occasion to introduce this liturgy. Over time, various emendations to this text have been introduced, as various groups have incorporated this prayer or similar expressions as a way to recognize and honor their current and future professional colleagues.
This liturgy is presented below:
O God, grant honor to those who serve the household of Israel,
Give strength to these Your klei kodesh, Your sacred vessels.
Who seek to fulfill the mitzvot, by promoting tzedekah through the world.
Their work extends Your own. Their actions manifest Your loving kindness.
Since the days of the Levites, they have served our people in every age, in every place.
Even risking their lives to insure the wellbeing of the tents of Jacob.
They inspire us through their words and deeds, as they strive:
To protect the sanctity and welfare of each Jew
To care for those in need, for the poor and ill amongst old, the young, for those and us whose voices cannot be heard
To rescue those in danger
To speak and act against injustice
To inspire and lead our institutions
To build our communities
To help fulfill the promise of building the Jewish state.
Blessed are You, Eternal God, whose vision is fulfilled through the hands of Your servants.
The complete article from 2004 in the Journal of Jewish Communal Service can be found here.