Plano | April 27, 2007
DENOMINATION Reform Judaism
RABBI Jordan Parr
ADDRESS 6300A Independence Parkway
ON THE INTERNET adatchaverim.org
SHABBAT SERVICES Fridays at 7:30 P.M.
Like much in Plano, Adat Chaverim is relatively new, founded by Reform Jews who were traveling more than ten miles to the nearest Reform synagogue or were simply not attending anywhere. A small group held its first official function in March 1997 on Purim, the sometimes raucous festival that celebrates the ability of Jews to survive hardship in an alien land. The name they chose is Hebrew for “community of friends.” Word of the new congregation spread, and today Adat Chaverim comprises 225 families from Plano, Frisco, Allen, McKinney, and other areas north and east of Dallas.
Unable to afford construction of a freestanding synagogue, these resourceful friends remodeled a former health club, transforming the space into what Rabbi Jordan Parr has referred to as their “gym-agogue.” Tucked into an L-shaped strip center and flanked by a chiropractor, a dentist, a paint store, and a gymnastics studio, the facility reflects the members’ creativity. Since the space is walled in on both sides, the illusion of windows has been managed by mounting illuminated Plexiglas boxes high along the front walls; scenes painted by middle school children create the appearance of stained glass. Other key features, including the bimah (the dais), the ark that contains the sacred Torah scrolls, and a menorah crafted of seven kinds of wood, were made by a woodworker in the congregation.
As the community gathered on the Friday evening of my visit, the atmosphere matched its name. Congregants, most dressed casually, greeted one another with hugs, warm handshakes, and exchanges of “Shabbat
shalom.” The service got under way with singing led by Barry Skolnick, who is not an official cantor but who fills the role about twice a month. Most of the songs were lighthearted, often accompanied by clapping. One, an example of the Hasidic musical style known as a nigun, included repeated choruses of “Bim bam, bim bam, biddy, biddy, biddy, biddy, oy!” and was genuinely fun, though I had no idea what I was affirming.
After the singing, Michelle Sigle, whose daughter Zoë would celebrate her bat mitzvah the next morning, performed the Candle Blessing, lighting candles by the bimah and waving her hands over the flames. Next came a pleasant ritual in which those with something to celebrate crowded under a large tallit (prayer shawl) held by several taller men and serving as a sukkat simchah (“canopy of joy”). Zoë mentioned her bat mitzvah. A few of her peers mentioned less momentous but warmly applauded accomplishments: reaching the semifinals in girls’ basketball, achieving fifth place in a dance competition, placing first at a band contest. One did not have to be present to win: A woman announced that a paper by a relative about to receive a degree in molecular virology had been accepted for publication in the Journal of Immunology. A few people noted birthdays. Rabbi Parr said, “Mazel tov to all,” and the congregation sang an expression of thanksgiving.
The order of service followed a prayer book written in Hebrew with a transliteration and a translation just below the text. Although it was a bit tricky reading from back to front, I managed adequately during recitation of the Shema, the quintessential Hebrew prayer whose words from Deuteronomy 6:4—9 (“Hear, O Israel, Adonai [the Lord] is our God, Adonai is One! . . .”) are inscribed on the parchment folded into
mezuzahs on the doorposts of Jewish homes. But I was not sufficiently familiar with the liturgy to know exactly when to bow toward the ark during the centrally important Tefillah prayer, in which worshippers repeatedly proclaim the glory of God.
A stout man with a friendly mien and manner, Rabbi Parr wore a gray suit and a stole decorated with several bands of bright colors. He also wore a kippah, or skullcap, as did more men than I’ve seen in other Reform services. For his sermon, Parr drew on Tom Wolfe’s book The Right Stuff, focusing on famed test pilot Chuck Yeager. He recounted how Yeager made history by breaking the sound barrier in an experimental plane, the X-1. Though other pilots soon repeated the feat, it is Yeager we remember because he also broke a psychological barrier. The celebrated aviator reported that as a plane approaches Mach 1, the rivets on the wings begin to vibrate, leading most pilots to slow down. Counterintuitively, Yeager accelerated. “He set himself in the direction of risk, not safety,” explained Parr, “and burst through the sound barrier.” As a result, “he experienced the calm after the sonic boom. He overcame his anxieties, took a risk, and achieved immortal greatness.”
The lesson, Parr said, is that the real barriers in life are not physical but mental, psychological, and spiritual, and overcoming them is “always an adventure.” He cautioned that taking risks does not mean being foolhardy. “Chuck Yeager did not just wake up one morning and say, ‘I want to [break the sound barrier.]’ He had years of flying experience behind him. It was a calculated risk.” He noted that teenagers often do things that adults know to be foolish but suggested that adults may need to be more daring in their lives. He mentioned that the congregation’s vision of “a building we own, on land that we own” would also involve some risks—leading me to think that when that proposal is fully developed, he wants his congregants not to back off at the first sign of shaky rivets. Risk has its dangers, he concluded, but it also has great reward. “When we feel that we are ready to break our own personal sound barriers, then we are obligated to do so. For if we do not take that chance, our lives are reduced to ‘could have, would have, should have.’ That is a terrible way to live. …So when we see the opportunity, I pray that each one of us takes that risk and breaks through the sonic boom, into the calm of serendipity. Amen.”
After the sermon, Zoë Sigle took her place by Rabbi Parr in front of the ark, whose opened doors revealed the richly decorated Torah scrolls kept inside. After we sang and bowed toward the Torah during a prayer, Zoë made a short statement of her intention to be a full member of the congregation and expressed her gratitude for being part of Judaism. Parr agreed that Jews and the members of Adat Chaverim have much to celebrate—but also much to remember. That led to the reading of the names of congregants’ relatives who had died at that time of year and a recitation of the Mourner’s Kaddish, a prayer that does not mention death at all but praises God for kindness and mercy.
The kaddish was followed by the kiddush, a prayer and ritual that calls attention to the special nature of Shabbat. On this occasion, Zoë’s father, Terry, recited the prayer and drank a bit of sweet wine from a goblet. After this, children were invited to the bimah to put their hands on a loaf of braided challah, then pinch off a piece to take to their families, an exercise that produced some good-humored jostling and laughter. With that, a song and a benediction ended the service, but the fellowship continued in the Social Hall, where the Sigle family had provided an abundant spread for the traditional after-service gathering known as Oneg Shabbat (“The Joy of Sabbath”). The room bubbled with animated conversation, fueled by plate after plate of tempting sweets. The éclairs were particularly delicious. I had two, maybe three—but in a community of friends, who’s counting?