Rabbi Brian Zimmerman uses the Power 9 principle of Belonging to increase his community's health and well-being.
Brian Zimmerman is the rabbi at Fort Worth’s Reform Beth-El Congregation. Reform Judaism affirms the central tenets of Judaism — God, Torah, and Israel — while acknowledging the diversity of Jewish practices. Even in the middle of social isolation, he found a way to create Belonging -- bonding people together as part of a larger spiritual family – which is a key component of longevity for people who live in Blue Zones communities.
Now in his fifth year as Beth-El’s senior faith leader, Rabbi Zimmerman was settling in comfortably, with the standard concerns about care of an aging building and an increasingly mobile flock when COVID-19 shuttered in-person worship. “The decision to close was not as challenging for us as for other faiths. Gathering in a worship space becomes secondary to keeping people healthy.” But how to retain community in a time when the community has to be apart? Through a combination of videotaped and streamed services from the synagogue’s sanctuary and gatherings on Zoom, Beth-El has managed to create virtual community. “Those who want to see people can log on for the candle and wine blessings with friends,” he said. “Those who want the ritual of the service can still see the synagogue and the Torah.”
The power of belonging and community for Jews is especially important for the High Holy days of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, celebrated in early fall. Even people who don’t attend weekly services make it a point to join their tribe in communal worship. Of course this year posed significant challenges. “People get so many different things out of the High Holy days,” Rabbi Zimmerman said. “It was about how we could connect all the pieces so we met as many needs as possible.”
Some congregants wouldn’t or couldn’t leave their homes. For them, the celebration of hearing the Shofar (ram’s horn) came to them thanks to a few talented Temple members willing to travel with their shofars. Others needed to see their friends, so there was a parking lot service where people could stay in their cars and tune the service in, similar to a drive in movie. On the way out, glove-clad volunteers gave out individually wrapped round loaves of bread and Steel City popsicles, a substitute for a more lavish spread indoors.
Rabbi Zimmerman says that upon reflection, Judaism offers believers “a playbook on most of the Power 9” principles –– including eating with a Plant Slant (heavier on consumption of fruits and veggies with limited meat intake), Right Tribe (encouraging a close-knit community’s frequent socialization), and definitely with Wine at 5 and Downshifting on Friday nights. The blessings over a cup of wine and bread offer a moment for Jews to naturally pause and reframe their thoughts. “Elevating Shabbat (the Jewish Sabbath) automatically includes sanctifying time with your family and your extended Temple family,” he said. While Shabbat is not purpose-built for Blue Zones, the Jewish tradition –– consumption of a small amount of heart-healthy red wine before a downshifting into a time of focused prayer –– does fit the Blue Zones bill. In countries where Blue Zones centenarians reside, the daily glass of red wine has been shown to reduce the risk of heart disease, certain cancers, and may slow the progression of neurological disorders, while downshifting –– purposefully slowing down to shed tension –– is also a key to health. “Wine is not a sacrament as it is for Christianity,” Rabbi Zimmerman continued. “In Judaism wine was a sacred beverage that opened the way to the mystery of creation and Shabbat.”
Rabbi Zimmerman comes from a family of rabbis and educators, but says that growing up, he didn’t think that was a career for him. “You have this kind of image of rabbis, even when it’s your dad,” he said. “It’s an image of people surrounded by faith and books and study.” So he went to film school. “Even when I was bouncing around Los Angeles, on Friday and Saturday there were still times I stopped what I was doing” to observe Shabbat, he said. One thing is certain – the challenge of rethinking how to gather a faith community in the face of a global pandemic has required the ingenuity of a set designer, the vision of a director, and faith that the spirit of the Jewish community dwells in many places.