‘SermonSlam’ Teeters on Edge Between Earnest and Cool

Trendy Jewish Spoken Word Hits Brooklyn Synagogue

Audience participation: Young Jews attempt to form a tabernacle using their own bodies as building materials.
courtesy of congregation beth elohim
Audience participation: Young Jews attempt to form a tabernacle using their own bodies as building materials.

By Sigal Samuel

Published January 30, 2014, issue of February 07, 2014.
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“I’d like to point out that you’ve all just paid $5 and come through the snow on a cold Wednesday night to attend an event with the word ‘sermon’ in the title,” David Zvi Kalman said, followed by a loud round of laughter.

Kalman was addressing the 130 young Jews who had gathered in Brooklyn’s Congregation Beth Elohim on January 22 for SermonSlam, a new performance event that bills itself as “a poetry slam, but for sermons.”

The robust turnout came as a pleasant surprise to Kalman, a 26-year-old doctoral student in Jewish and Islamic law at the University of Pennsylvania, and his collaborator, Michal Richardson, a 30-year-old producer of educational apps in New York. To read the recent Pew Research Center’s report bemoaning low engagement rates among young American Jews, you’d think it would be impossible to get so many people to set foot in a synagogue ballroom. But here they were — those sought-after, jeans-clad 20-somethings — leaning forward in their seats, riveted to the words of Torah that were pouring out of their peers’ mouths.

Like traditional synagogue sermons, SermonSlam events focus on a theme from the weekly Torah portion. This was the third such event of many more that Kalman and Richardson are planning, following a successful inauguration of the concept in Philadelphia and Jerusalem.

This time, the theme was “Tabernacle,” a structure with details that the 13 slammers put to great effect, despite the fact that its biblical description often bores young Jews. You’ve never heard the words “acacia wood” used so frequently, or with such aplomb.

Teetering on the edge between earnest and cool, Beth Elohim’s SermonSlam differed markedly from other spoken word events. For one thing, the performances were a lot more “sermon” than “slam.” The hard-edged competitive undercurrent often found at slam competitions was completely lacking at this event. The organizers were more interested in cultivating a feel-good, everyone-is-a-winner atmosphere that would allow all participants to feel welcome.


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