The sermon is a staple of the American Jewish synagogue experience. Commonly used to glean insight into the week’s Torah reading or as an excuse to catch up on sleep — depending on your interest and the speaker’s talent — the sermon as a form tends to be formulaic. Raise a question about the parsha, offer an explanation, maybe tell a story, stick in a joke here or there. Pretty straightforward, right?
Wrong. At least when it comes to SermonSlam, a public forum geared toward re-energizing talks on the weekly Torah portion by imbuing them with the urgency and spirit of slam poetry. SermonSlam’s founder, David Zvi Kalman, a doctoral student in Jewish-Islamic medieval studies at the University of Pennsylvania, said the forum is aimed at “exploring the many different ways of delivering a sermon. My hope is that SermonSlam will give inspiration to sermonizers to experiment with how to best convey Torah ideas.”
SermonSlam made its New York debut in the large auditorium of Congregation Beth Elohim in Park Slope on a Thursday night late last month. Over 130 people sat in the audience as 12 brave souls got up in turn and slammed. Among them were students, poets, comedians, rabbis-in-training and laypeople, all of whom shared the common denominator of passionately riffing on the night’s theme of “Sanctuaries and the Tabernacle.” In typical slam fashion, each presenter was given five minutes or less. Jonah Rank, a musician and rabbinical student at the Jewish Theological Seminary, was on hand to play elegant, Oscar-style lead-out music if any of the performers’ slams went over the allotted time.
An on-deck system made sure that each slammer was given adequate prep time before ascending the podium. Three judges sat in judgment, determining who would take home the prizes for “Funniest Slam,” “Most Creative Slam,” “Best Use of Sources,” and “Overall Best Content.”
The night began with a piece from Rabbi Marc Katz, CBE’s assistant rabbi; he wrestled with the biblical edict of “Build me a sanctuary,” and then proceeded to paint a rosy picture of serving God in the good ole days of the Temple.
Subsequent slammers used the night’s theme as a springboard to delve into a host of issues. One pondered how to balance living in a world largely defined by greed and consumption with feeling a deep need to be charitable. Another took the classic call from God to man of Ayeka — “Where are you?” and turned it on its head, demanding, “Where am I? No, God. Where are You?”
Serving God was compared to building an IKEA bookcase by a slammer, with all of the attendant frustrations. “My sanctuary is authenticity,” another began. “What’s yours? What’s your sacrifice? Would you ever set your iPhone on fire?”
Some used the forum to expound on a sermon in the typical question-answer-here’s-the-takeaway format, but still others went even further, transforming the sermon experience in ways unfamiliar. Naked Barbie dolls were used by one of the presenters as makeshift keuvim, the angels that either faced or turned away from each other to indicate whether or not God was feeling favorable toward the Jews.
Another slam, titled “The Metamorphosis,” retold the story of Kafka’s protagonist, Gregor Samsa, except from the perspective of a yeshivish girl who wakes up one morning to find the words Kodesh L’Hashem, Holy to God, tattooed in gold across her forehead. (This slam took home the top award of the night; the prize was a SermonSlam T-shirt and a ruler with pictures of Israeli war heroes on it).
Some of the slammers were punners as well. “When I heard that it was to be Torah themed,” one began, “I reached deep into my dvarsenal.” And the last contestant of the night slammed along to a soundtrack of singles from the ’70s, which nicely jived with her piece about the struggles of growing up with one foot in the traditional Jewish world, the other in mainstream society. Or, as she put it, “I grew up with Bowie and babka … with the Rambam and the Ramones … with ABBA and abba.”
In between each slammer, two MCs kept the atmosphere in the room light and jokey, with an assortment of audience-involved activities, such as Parsha Mad-Libs (“Next year in … Minnesota!”), a communal round of Jewish geography (“Does anyone here know anybody named … Josh Rosenberg?”), and pairing off of two six-person teams competing to make the better “human sanctuary.”
One of the slammers, Avishai Gebler, a second-year rabbinical student at Riverdale’s Yeshivat Chovevei Torah and the rabbinic intern at Brooklyn’s Prospect Heights Shul, used the night’s theme to draw connections between Lego, casinos and the tabernacle. “When a friend first told me about it,” he said, “It just sounded like a fun event, a different way to give over Torah, and also a forum for me to work on different modes of expressing myself. In addition, the chance to hear all different people with all different backgrounds and approaches sharing that space in fun, slightly subversive yet deeply devoted ways was so special.”
SermonSlam NY was the third such event. The first was held in Philadelphia in November and the second was in Jerusalem at the end of December. SermonSlam NY received its funding from a Schusterman Make It Happen grant, which has allowed it to fund the rental cost of the equipment used to film and record each event. Kalman also recently launched a KickStarter campaign (https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/openquorum/sermonslam) to raise awareness and more funding for future slams.
Kalman’s ultimate goal is to have one SermonSlam every week, in communities all around the world. The gathered content will then be disseminated in video and podcast form before Shabbat that week, in essence allowing SermonSlam to serve as a resource for compiling new, inventive Torah content. Slams are planned for the next few months in Tel Aviv, Boston, Chicago, Providence, R.I., Columbus, Ohio, Ann Arbor, Mich., Berkeley, Calif., Montreal and Toronto.
SermonSlam is the first public event of Open Quorum, an online platform that is the sole project of Jewish Public Media, a nonprofit founded by Kalman last month. There are, however, other Open Quorum events simmering — all of which aim to include the same level of audience participation as SermonSlam.
“Sermons are never experienced alone,” Kalman said. “They’re meant to be experienced as a live event. When we record them, we include a separate microphone to get the sounds of the audience. To experience a sermon is to experience the audience, too.”