‘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.
  • Print
  • Share Share
  • Single Page

“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.


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • Is Twitter Israel's new worst enemy?
  • More than 50 former Israeli soldiers have refused to serve in the current ground operation in #Gaza.
  • "My wife and I are both half-Jewish. Both of us very much felt and feel American first and Jewish second. We are currently debating whether we should send our daughter to a Jewish pre-K and kindergarten program or to a public one. Pros? Give her a Jewish community and identity that she could build on throughout her life. Cons? Costs a lot of money; She will enter school with the idea that being Jewish makes her different somehow instead of something that you do after or in addition to regular school. Maybe a Shabbat sing-along would be enough?"
  • Undeterred by the conflict, 24 Jews participated in the first ever Jewish National Fund— JDate singles trip to Israel. Translation: Jews age 30 to 45 travelled to Israel to get it on in the sun, with a side of hummus.
  • "It pains and shocks me to say this, but here goes: My father was right all along. He always told me, as I spouted liberal talking points at the Shabbos table and challenged his hawkish views on Israel and the Palestinians to his unending chagrin, that I would one day change my tune." Have you had a similar experience?
  • "'What’s this, mommy?' she asked, while pulling at the purple sleeve to unwrap this mysterious little gift mom keeps hidden in the inside pocket of her bag. Oh boy, how do I answer?"
  • "I fear that we are witnessing the end of politics in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I see no possibility for resolution right now. I look into the future and see only a void." What do you think?
  • Not a gazillionaire? Take the "poor door."
  • "We will do what we must to protect our people. We have that right. We are not less deserving of life and quiet than anyone else. No more apologies."
  • "Woody Allen should have quit while he was ahead." Ezra Glinter's review of "Magic in the Moonlight": http://jd.fo/f4Q1Q
  • Jon Stewart responds to his critics: “Look, obviously there are many strong opinions on this. But just merely mentioning Israel or questioning in any way the effectiveness or humanity of Israel’s policies is not the same thing as being pro-Hamas.”
  • "My bat mitzvah party took place in our living room. There were only a few Jewish kids there, and only one from my Sunday school class. She sat in the corner, wearing the right clothes, asking her mom when they could go." The latest in our Promised Lands series — what state should we visit next?
  • Former Israeli National Security Advisor Yaakov Amidror: “A cease-fire will mean that anytime Hamas wants to fight it can. Occupation of Gaza will bring longer-term quiet, but the price will be very high.” What do you think?
  • Should couples sign a pre-pregnancy contract, outlining how caring for the infant will be equally divided between the two parties involved? Just think of it as a ketubah for expectant parents:
  • Many #Israelis can't make it to bomb shelters in time. One of them is Amos Oz.
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.