Today Laura and Sara are joined by Rabbi Craig and Leah Jones of Emanuel Congregation. Emanuel Congregation, founded in 1880, is a Jewish Reform synagogue affiliated with the Union for Reform Judaism, and was incorporated in 1898 as “Emanuel Congregation of Chicago.” Even after 140 years, Emanuel Congregation continues to grow and emphasize their value of building community. Regardless of what reasons motivate you to pursue your religious beliefs, their goal is to have a place for everyone at 5959 N Sheridan.
Listen to Episode 99 with Rabbi Craig and Leah Jones of Emanuel Congregation!
- Rabbi Craig Morantz is originally from LA and is married with 2 kids. They came to Chicago three and a half years ago from Connecticut, seeking a new “mojo.”
- Leah Jones has lived in Chicago since 2002, and studied for conversion at Emanuel Congregation. She has been President of the Congregation since last year, and runs a company called Natiiv, which facilitates and plans staff retreats. Leah was a born-and-raised secular Christian. Because of a romantic interest, she decided to learn more about Judaism. She studied and read about it a lot, which eventually led her to Emanuel Congregation. Leah explains, “Converting usually takes a full year – to live it and learn it. Or, it could take longer. We welcome but don’t proselytize. In collaboration with your Rabbi, you go before rabbi and clergy, who question/judge your readiness, and make a contract (mikvah) to the Jewish people. If you are in a relationship with a Jewish partner, they will not ask you (to convert) – it’s up to the person to investigate.”
- The history of the Synagogue is that it was founded in 1880 by 18 Russian families as small a orthodox synagogue, then embraced reformed Judaism. The chapel is spiral shaped, which allows it to have a window. Rabbi Craig says, “It allows us to look outside…serves our mission, it’s welcoming but also outward facing…good neighbors, a collective force for good.” He describes their community as offering “audacious hospitality…inclusivity.” When you visit Emanuel Congregation, you’ll find that there are a lot of doors, literally. The main entrance is right off their parking lot. Guests are buzzed in by security, with services in the large sanctuary or chapel just past the sanctuary. Leah shares their vision for the future, “When we look to the future, 2030, we want a space that can accommodate everyone on the holiest days of the year. Bring more energy and people into the building. For 2030, our goal is to be a nationally known venue for really outstanding secular programming that is deeply rooted in Jewish values. Cultural arts, healing, spiritual renewal, faith, justice, hope, and peace.
- Coming up on March 27, 28 and 29 is “140 reasons to celebrate 140 years – Legacy Weekend 2020.” The Guest of honor will be the Congregation, and the celebration will include Shabbat, a Havdalah Dance, and Tikkun Olam Mitvah Day. Join them and learn more here. #140reasons “It’s really important that anyone that is part of our experience feels like they belong in it. They’re not just a spectator, not just a witness. They certainly can choose to be that, but we want to be inviting enough to bring people along. There’s nothing better than music and creativity, and we have that in large supply,” says Rabbi Craig. This comes into play in many different ways, through their religious school, on Sundays and many community events.
- Sara asks about those seeking wholeness, authenticity and place…what does Rabbi Craig say to those who ask if “Is this a place for me?” and what can they expect? Rabbi Craig shares, “We try to engage the community in meaningful ways with the spirit of invitation, and very rarely, if ever, expectation. People are smart and they know what they want, and it’s important that we help them make a good choice for their spiritual direction, community, or seeking God or wholeness, whatever they need.
- Practical things they do at each service is welcome people with music, or “nigunim” or songs without words. These are important because they lend melody into the experience, and anyone can verbalize along with a simple sound. It’s a great transition from the parking lot to the service. This musical invitation gradually draws people in to connect.
- You can see the schedule of services here. Friday night services are at 6:30PM, and they first have a Pre-Oneg snack, or nosh. Saturday services are at 11AM, and often include Bar or Bat Mitzvah families, and open to the public. Also, Saturdays are opportunities to study with Talmud Class (oral law) at 9am, and Torah Class (5 books of Moses Genesis thru Deuteronomy) with Emeritus Rabbi Zedek. There are many ways to connect during Shabbat.
- Purim is March 9 and 10. What is it, and what can people expect? In a nutshell, Leah explains, “Purim is the story of queen Esther, who married into a non-Jewish Persian royal family. The King’s top advisor was anti-semetic and decreed all Jews be killed. Esther unveiled herself as a Jew, and shenanigans followed to sway the King and his adviser Haman to change their mind. Esther sways the King, the decree is reversed, and Haman and his sons are killed.” She says with humor, “Purim is one of many holidays where they tried to kill us, failed, so we celebrate by eating.” “The whole Megillah“, phrase common referring to Esther’s story, sometimes using a “spiel,” (a farce play) to tell the story. Every year they try to tell the story in a new and interesting way, last year adapting the music of Grease. They’ve also parodied The Beatles before. This year, 3 events – Children’s Purim Carnival planned by junior youth group teens on March 8, Shabbat-a-Tot program for toddlers, and March 14 Piano Bar Purim sing along. “Spiel is the word!”
- Leah and Rabbi Craig talk about a specific food enjoyed in celebration of Purim, hamantaschen – a cookie pastry in the shape of a triangle, that reminds us of Haman’s (boo- bad guy!) tricorn hat. The cookie can be filled with poppy, chocolate, raspberry, etc.
- When asked, “In these times, what gives you hope?” Leah replies, “What keeps me from sinking into nihilism is that I really believe that Judaism is a powerful technology for living your life in the world.” Leah was recently at a retreat, and some of the Torah they studied was Ecclesiastical, focusing on the concept that “Two are better than one.” She further shares that “Judaism forces us to be in community – some prayers require a certain number of people. I cannot imagine what my life would be like today if I had not found Judaism 15 years ago. In community, there is hope.”
- Rabbi Craig shares as well that “Judaism, in a way, is counter-cultural. What I mean by that, is it calls on us to be rugged individuals, to be responsible. But, I don’t think it’s possible to do everything alone, that we can do together.”
- And last but not least, when asked which Andersonville business they would trade with for a day and why, Leah shares that she would choose Octavio. She recently visited on Taco Tuesday, and had a good view of the kitchen and its tortilla making machine, and would like to learn how to use it. Rabbi Craig would choose his friends at Cheetah Gym, a place he loves. It is a spiritual place for him – a place to refresh his mind and body, and be with people who are taking care of themselves. Leah comments it’s important to be in strong physical shape at Emanuel, since they have five Torah scrolls of varying weights. You don’t want to drop one during hagbah (opening the Torah scroll, and then lifting it above your head to show you’ve read from Torah today). Leah wants to learn hagbah but doesn’t want to drop one!