Have Faith: Studying the ‘secular sacred’

Rabbi Caryn Broitman holds the lulav and etrog in the sukkah at the MV Hebrew Center.

Every other week, Connie Berry reports on the news, events, and people at Martha’s Vineyard’s various places of worship.

Rabbi Caryn Broitman went to Israel during her first sabbatical from leading the Martha’s Vineyard Hebrew Center; this time around she’ll be staying with her father in Newton while she studies at Harvard University as part of the Daniel Jeremy Silver Fellowship. She will be on sabbatical from Dec. 30 through the end of May.

Rabbi Broitman explained that the fellowship means she’ll be able to devote an entire semester to continuing her studies in religion and literature. While she’s been studying religious themes in modernist literature for several years now, during the fellowship she’ll have access to all the resources at Harvard.

“I’m interested in religion and literature, and how literature opens up themes of the sacred, and how novels can be sacred text,” Rabbi Broitman explained.

Secular modernist writers such as Franz Kafka, James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, and Marcel Proust feature themes of religion in their works, she said: “I’m really interested in themes of the sacred with a secular point of view.”

She’ll be focusing on Yiddish author Jacob Glatstein during her sabbatical. “I’ll be studying his work and others who deal with the ‘secular sacred,’” she explained.

Secular literature often deals with issues of the sacred — life and death, transcendence, and sacred spaces. Rabbi Broitman said she’s always enjoyed literature and finding the spiritual themes within books. “‘Moby Dick’ is like a biblical text; I could see taking that text and sparking discussion on its religious themes,” she said. “It’s not a leap for me to see it as a sacred text; it asks all the big questions in poetic language.”

Rabbi Broitman said when she returns to the Vineyard after her sabbatical, she’d like to offer opportunities in the community to study the spiritual themes in modernist literature.

For Rabbi Broitman, the Torah is not only a sacred text but also a text filled with characters and language with multiple meanings that make it all the more sacred.

While she’s away, the Hebrew Center’s rabbinical intern, Daniel Schaffer, will lead the congregation’s services twice a month. The rest of the time, the congregation will lead itself, Rabbi Broitman said.

“We have people in the congregation who are gifted at leading liturgy,” she said. “They can lead themselves, and I’m not far away, and there will be coverage for anything that might happen.”

She leaves after the congregation’s Hanukkah celebration, planned for 5:30 pm on Friday, Dec. 30.

“I really see this sabbatical as a gift and an opportunity,” Rabbi Broitman said. “I really want to make the most of it.”

The term sabbatical comes from the “sabbath,” she said, “a year the people were restored, regenerated.” In May, Rabbi Broitman will return to her congregation, ready to share her passion for everything she’s learned.


As of Jan. 1, all of the Vineyard’s faith communities will step up to provide a warm meal and hospitality seven days a week with their community suppers.

Monday — St. Andrew’s Church, 34 North Summer Street, Edgartown, 5:30 pm.

Tuesday — Chilmark Community Church, 9 Menemsha Cross Road, 5:30 pm.

Wednesday — First Congregational Church of West Tisbury, 1051 State Road, 5:30 pm.

Thursday — Good Shepherd Parish at St. Augustine’s Church, 56 Franklin Street, Vineyard Haven, 5 pm.

Friday — Grace Episcopal Church, corner of Williams and Woodlawn streets, Vineyard Haven, 5 pm.

Saturday — Trinity Parish House, Oak Bluffs Campgrounds, 5 pm.

Sunday — Edgartown Federated Church, 45 South Summer Street, 12:30 pm.

Houses of Grace homeless ministry begins Jan. 1 as well, with Monday and Thursday nights open at the Federated Church; Wednesday nights at St. Augustine’s Church; and Saturday, Sunday, Tuesday, and Friday nights at St. Andrew’s Church. Houses of Grace is open 7 pm to 7 am.

In addition, the Good Shepherd parish center in Oak Bluffs hosts a warming center from noon to 3 pm, Monday through Friday. They’ll have soup and coffee available, and the parish center also has a gym and a washer and dryer for use during those hours. St. Andrew’s offers a warming center weekdays from 1 to 3 pm as well.


Executive director of the Island Grown Initiative Rebecca Haag was special guest at the December Island clergy luncheon, held at the Hebrew Center. She talked about the IGI’s efforts to expand opportunities for providing better-quality food to Islanders in need.


Grace Church offered a Blue Christmas service on Wednesday, Dec. 21. The service recognizes that not everyone enjoys a merry Christmas season. There are many who are alone during the holidays, and who may have experienced a recent loss of a friend or family member, or perhaps the loss of a job or some other misfortune.

Grace Church will celebrate the season with a festive family Christmas Eve service at 5 pm, then a traditional service with handbells and choir at 8:30 pm. Christmas day service will begin at 9 am. For more information, call the church at 508-693-0332.

If you have news for Have Faith, email it to connie.berry12@gmail.com.