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Rosh Hashanah 2002 / 5763

09/01/2002 08:58:54 PM


Rabbi Howard Jaffe

Just about one year ago, the world turned. It was not destroyed, and it was not completely devastated, though many of us were. And it did not even cease being a place we recognized. But we all woke up on the morning of September 12th knowing that the world as we knew it was different than the one in which we had awakened the morning before.

During the past year, much of our psychic and emotional energy was naturally spent re-orienting ourselves to reality as it now presented itself. And the good news is we have come an extraordinary distance. Do you remember what it felt like to be here last Rosh Hashanah? Do you remember how utterly intense it was? Do you remember how difficult it was to imagine if there would even be a tomorrow? Thank God it feels a lot different this year. We are not completely healed, but we are not nearly as raw and as disoriented as we were one year ago.

Of course, the primary theme of the High Holidays is Teshuvah, repentance and return, and part of the equation is that we must not only seek forgiveness, but we must offer it. Few of us have ever had as difficult a time saying one particular piece of liturgy that is in our books as we did last year. When we came to the words that stated that we forgave everyone who had wronged us during the previous year, many of us said them as an affirmation of what we hoped we would feel, perhaps by this year. Perhaps by this year, we would be able to begin to forgive. And more of us are ready to at least think about forgiveness this year. We are ready, not necessarily because we are feeling so generous of spirit, but more likely because we do not want to live with the anger and upset that have been too much a part of our lives.

More of us are ready to at least think about it this year. And not necessarily because we are feeling so generous. If we want to be able to offer forgiveness, it is more likely because we do not want to live with the anger and the upset that has been too much a part of our lives.

Rabbi Harold Kushner tells a story that has been repeated often from his days at Temple Israel in Natick: one Yom Kippur, he gave a sermon about forgiveness, about how it is not a sign of weakness and concession, but an indication of strength. A woman in his congregation called the next morning, and came in to see him. The sermon had upset her. She and her children had been abandoned by her husband some ten years earlier. Life had been extraordinarily difficult for her. And here, her rabbi was telling her to forgive him! He responded by telling her that he did not want her to excuse him, not say that what he did was okay. What he wanted was for her to let go of him. To not let him have the power of defining her as a rejected woman. And he said to her: “Look, for ten years, you have been standing in Natick holding a hot coal in your hand, waiting for your ex-husband to come buy so you could throw it at him. For the last ten years he has been living in New Jersey and you haven't hurt him at all, but you have burnt your hand in the process. Can you understand forgiveness is a favor you do yourself, not a favor you do the other person? Forgiveness is something you can do when you are strong enough to let go.”

That kind of lesson makes great sense, both in our personal lives, and in our communal lives. There comes a time that we have to move forward, or be defined by the pains and the wrongs inflicted upon us.

And if living well is the best revenge (which, for the record, Bartlett attributes to George Herbert, about 200 years before Oscar Wilde) -- if living well is the best revenge, let us get on with it!

And when I say us, I do not only mean us as individuals. I mean us as a community, as a congregation. The truth is, Temple Isaiah experienced enough trauma and challenge prior to last September that we were good and ready to start living better than we had been for some time. Please do not misunderstand – I am not saying that things were or are bad. I am saying that given the stresses and challenges that faced this congregation, moving forward was not easy to do. I came in as you rabbi two years ago, and immediately assumed the responsibility of being the one who would have the greatest opportunity to inspire and to lead that forward motion. And I made a conscious decision: I needed to get to know Isaiah, its people, its stories, its way of being and of doing before I would start to express my own vision of where we might yet go. And I gave myself one year, one year to listen and learn and observe and begin to understand how this extraordinary congregation came to be what it is.

Last year, I was expecting to share with you my vision of where we should be heading as a congregation; share with you my understanding of what it means to be a Reform Jewish congregation. And then, a week before Rosh Hashanah, the unimaginable happened. It was, of course, not the time to talk about the future of our congregation – we were far too concerned with the future, period. Slowly, through the course of the year, we began to emerge, each at our own pace – and we got back into our regular routines, including our synagogue life.

Scholarly articles, including at least one written by Isaiah member Robert Putnam (a nationally recognized authority on the subject of community and civic-mindedness in American society) indicate that as a direct result of the national catastrophe we experienced, we are ripe for the kinds of community-building that an organization like Isaiah is positioned to facilitate.

To do so, however, we must define who we are as a community. And so now, with your permission, I want to begin to do just that right now.

You may have noticed that the oldest congregations in the United States all have names that begin with the initials “K.K.” That stands for Kahal Kadosh, Holy Congregation. Their very names reflected their understanding that they were not just congregations, but holy congregations. We are a holy congregation too, and everything that we do must flow from that essential point.

First and foremost, we need to be a congregation of mensches. We need to treat each other with kindness and thoughtfulness and respect and sensitivity and caring. We need to make Isaiah a “no insult zone”, where everyone assumes that every other person who is speaking to them is speaking out of a sense of kindness and consideration, and if someone says or does something that seems insulting or upsetting, that we ascribe to him or her the best of intentions. How we treat each other is always first and foremost. Like being part of a family, being part of a community means sometimes putting needs of others before our own . We need to do everything we can to make sure that everyone is as comfortable as possible when they walk into this place, which includes having every one of us introduce ourselves to someone we see in the building who we do not know. Go ahead, take a risk. It is fine to walk up to someone and say, “Hello, my name is such and such, and I’ve been a member for about 3 years - how about you?” - only to discover that the person you have just introduced yourself to is a founding member of the congregation. The more we know each other, the more we will feel like a community. And we do have to take the time to introduce ourselves to each other. This is not Cheers -- everyone here does not know your name. That does not mean that we cannot create a sense of belonging and a good feeling about the fact that we can all try to get to know one another. Some suggest that this is difficult to do in a place like Isaiah, but I disagree, and want to share a story with you. One member of our congregation, who grew up in another congregation, shared with me about how much larger the congregation in which she grew up is than Isaiah. Now, I happen to know that congregation. The rabbi of that congregation is a friend of mine, though was not the rabbi in the days that she was growing up there. I smiled as I said to her, “Um, actually, Isaiah is about twice the size of that congregation.” A congregation can be small, and its members can feel disconnected from one another. And it can be the size that Isaiah is, and everyone can still feel connected to one another. We could be a quarter of the size that we are, and not have the feeling and the spirit that we do, and we can be the size that we are and be a congregation in which everyone feels comfortable and good about their place. Menchlichkeit.

This is a Reform congregation. By extension, we are Reform Jews. We need to understand what that means. First of all, let me say this: if you want to see me jump up and down and scream, then talk about Reform Judaism in terms of what we do not do. We do not need to define ourselves that way! We do not do that in other aspects of our lives. I do not stand before you and say: “I am not a woman. I am not a child.” I will simply say, “I am a man.” We must do the same with our identity as Reform Jews. As Reform Jews, we believe that the Torah is our guide for living, and that we base our lives and our values on its teaching. At the same time, we view the lessons of modernity as compelling, and having a claim on our practice and understanding as well. Our goal is to search for meaning, and to respond to God’s commandments. And yes, we can use and should use, the word “commandment.” We also employ the term “mitzveh.” When pronounced that way, it is a Yiddish word which, in fact, translates to “good deed,” which is what we usually say mitzveh is. But the Hebrew word “mitzvah” means commandment, and we recognize that we are commanded by God. However, we understand that not all of us feel commanded to do the same things and act in exactly the same way. And part of being a Reform Jew is to respond to the commandments that we believe we are commanded to do, while fully respecting what others understand themselves to be commanded. Our goal as Reform Jews is not observance for its own sake, but meaning. It is, in fact, very easy to lose sight of meaning by clinging to traditional observance for its own sake. My favorite example: as a youngster growing up, I used to wear canvas sneakers to Yom Kippur services at the Orthodox synagogue I attended, as did just about everyone else. We all knew the rule: you do not wear leather on Yom Kippur. The reason for that, as outlined in the Mishnah, is that is one of the ways in which we afflict our souls on that day. Now think about it. In the days of the Mishnah, about two thousand years ago, to not wear leather shoes (which is the specific instruction) meant to afford little protection for your feet altogether. Hence, not wearing leather shoes was genuinely an affliction of one’s soul. To wear canvas sneakers, however, is, in fact, a whole lot more comfortable than leather dress shoes. That is why I, and most of you, will wind up wearing leather shoes here on Yom Kippur - not because we do not take the commandment seriously, but in fact, because we do take the commandment as seriously as we do. It is not the letter of the law, but the spirit of the law that concerns us. And in fact, it was that concern, which we seek to fulfill the spirit of the law that led to the creation of rabbinic Judaism in the first place. Being a Reform Jew, then, requires knowledge and understanding of Torah, but also a commitment to carrying out its true ideals.

To exist as a congregation, to be able to carry out our ideals, we need funding. It costs a lot of money to run this place. We have managed to do so by collecting dues, as is done in the North American Jewish community. And that is terribly unfortunate. There is a real problem. People pay dues to belong to organizations like health clubs, and the fact of the matter is - that makes sense. People have a right to expect that they are going to get something back for their money, and that others will not get the same privileges without paying for it. If you belonged to a health club, and you saw that they were not checking I.D.s and were letting anyone who wanted to enter just come in, you would rightfully be very upset. Why should you pay good money to belong if no one is going to even enforce the rules? If no one is even going to bother to make sure that you are a member? In the same vein, you might be looking around the sanctuary today and see a neighbor whom you know is not a member of the congregation, and ask yourself, “What is my neighbor doing here? My neighbor does not pay dues to this congregation. My neighbor doesn’t support this congregation. How did my neighbor get here? What right does my neighbor have to be here?” And you would not be wrong. You are not wrong to think that way. But the system is wrong. As long as we have a system where we pay dues, we are naturally going to feel proprietary about our synagogue and our membership in the synagogue. And we have every right to not want other people to get for free what we pay for. So we have unintentionally and inadvertently created a reality which goes against the very notion of why we exist as a congregation in the first place! What we want is to promote Judaism, and Jewish living, and Jewish community. Instead, what we wind up doing is to promote membership in an organization for those who are ready to pay the full freight to belong.

I have a proposal, though I am realistic enough to recognize that it is unlikely that it will come to fruition in my lifetime. I would love to see a day when membership in the congregation costs a much smaller amount - say, a hundred dollars or so - less for those who cannot afford even that much. And then, I would like to see every one of us contribute to this Temple at the level we do now, or at an even greater level. Not because we have to, but because we believe in it, and because we want to support the Temple, its programs, and activities. Just think of it - every one of us giving, not because it is required, but because we believe in it and because we can be proud of the work we are doing. And then, we would not feel protective of our synagogue, and be concerned about other people joining us for worship and other activities. Instead, we could reach out to them and be pleased that they are here. We could take pride in people participating in that which we support and value so much. Imagine what would happen if that kind of thinking went mainstream! And if there is any congregation that is poised to do that, or at least to begin to do that, it is this one.

Few would argue against the notion that our Jewish community continues to be in a crisis state regarding our future. Many have pointed to inter-marriage as the root cause of this crisis. It is time for us to say, once and for all, that inter-marriage is not the problem.
We are not going to stop our children from marrying non-Jews. We live in an open society where people of different faiths, cultures, religions and ethnic backgrounds interact with people of other faiths, cultures, religions and ethnic backgrounds. And our children will wind up dating people from other faiths, cultures, religions and ethnic backgrounds - and yes, some of them are going to marry people from other faiths, cultures, religions and ethnic backgrounds.

A few decades ago, someone who was born to Jewish parents was presumed to grow up Jewish, have a Jewish family, and affiliate with the synagogue, even if he or she remained on the periphery of Jewish life. We know that is no longer the case. We cannot allow ourselves to think that just because a Jew marries another Jew, they are going to be more involved in the Jewish community than someone who marries a non-Jew. The more voluntary our Jewish community has become, the easier it has become to opt out. Or, more precisely, to choose to not opt in. We have to make a conscious effort to make our Jewish community attractive and our

Judaism compelling, so that our Jewish children who marry non-Jews will want to be a part of the Jewish community, and raise their children as Jews. And we need to acknowledge the sacrifice, dedication and commitment non-Jewish partners make when they agree to be part of a Jewish family, raise their children as Jews, and be a part of the Jewish community. Look around this room. Look at the non-Jews you know. Think about the choices and sacrifices that they have made. Think about the commitments that they have made. Think about the non-Jews you know who are the ones primarily responsible for seeing to it that their children are here to receive a Jewish education and that their families are involved in the life of the synagogue. Then multiply that by the numbers of non-Jews who you do not know who are part of our community, and you can begin to appreciate what a gift the Jewish people have received from so many non-Jewish partners and parents.

I have spoken with a good number of non-Jews in our congregation about how they feel. Most of them say that they feel tolerated. Some say they feel accepted, and a few even say that they feel that they fully belong. But that is not okay. We need to create a culture not of acceptance, but of appreciation, in which we express to the non-Jews who are a part of our community our acknowledgment of what they have given up to be with us, and to share the path that they have. We need to express to them how much we appreciate what they do, and what they give to us.

And the truth is, we need to do that for many of the Jews in our midst as well.

Let me share a fascinating statistic with you. When Gary Tobin was the Director of the Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies at Brandeis, he did some research which showed that 80% of North American Jews affiliate with a synagogue at some point in their adult lives – but most for a very short period, usually coinciding with the years that are required for their children to become Bar/Bat Mitzvah. No big surprise there! Thankfully, that is not the case at Isaiah. But we all know that our affiliation rates could be a lot better. We have made it too easy for people to join for just a period of time to get what they perceive they need from us, and then be finished with their formal affiliation with our community. As most congregations, we have established a sense of community where what is required is not involvement, but writing a check, which many people will only do for so long. We need to get everyone involved and support every Jewish family, no matter what that family looks like in their Jewish lives - lower barriers, higher expectations.

We need to take a look at our education program. We are going to be heading in new directions for unwanted reasons. It is with great sadness that I share the news that we now know that Monica Weinstein will not be returning to her work as our Director of Education. Our prayers are with Monica and her loved ones at this time. They are prayers that are very badly needed. We will soon begin the process of a search for a new Director of Education.

We are going to consider what direction our education program will take. And it is not youth education alone that is important. Our adult education program at Isaiah is simply extraordinary. There is nothing that makes me more proud to be the rabbi of this congregation than the number of offerings and the quality and level of adult education that takes place here. If you have not already seen it, when you do, you will see that the book - not a booklet - but the book of adult education offerings for this coming year is simply remarkable. And it can be even more so. One offering that makes me so very pleased at its inclusion this year, is a day time course in addition to the Sisterhood course that is already offered. For the first time, this year, there will be a weekday morning class taught by a scholar with academic credentials, both in the fall and in the spring. We know there are people around who are available and interested in taking those kinds of classes. And I hope that this is just the first of many.

We need to develop a cultural arts program. Newton and Brookline are only a short drive away. In fact, many members of our congregation travel greater distances to work each day than to go to either of those places. But when it comes to Jewish cultural events, they may as well be in a different region. The simple fact of the matter is, our congregation does not, as a group, travel very far for Jewish cultural events. There are those whose commute to work each day is longer than the ride to the Newton JCC or to Brookline, but for whom those places might as well be in another region. But we know that when we hold such events here at Isaiah, people show up and the events are very successful. We have established a Cultural Arts sub-committee of the Social Committee. If it is successful, it will become a committee unto itself. Don’t expect too much during this next year, as the renovation is going to make it challenging to hold much of any kind of event here. But even this coming year, expect to see some cultural offerings. After this year, a lot more will happen. We need to celebrate our spirits in as many ways as we can. In concerts and programs that let us touch the sacred through art, we will do just that.

Of course, we have to talk about our worship. It is essential to who and what we are as a synagogue. Take away our worship experiences, and we are a Jewish Community Center. Our worship needs to be, and is, dynamic and engaging. Our Worship Committee has worked very hard for the past year determining what is necessary for an engaging, meaningful worship service, and I want to tell you that they have done so with great success. If you attended services during the summer then you already know what I am talking about. While our worship will continue to be fluid and dynamic, and more innovations are yet to come, we have already created a Shabbat worship experience that is engaging and meaningful. We are pleased that Sandy continues with us as one of our cantorial soloists, and we are also delighted to welcome Noam Katz as our other soloist. Those of you who have been to services these past few weeks already know what a blessing Noam is, and if you want to know more, just ask any of the LEFTY kids, and watch their eyes light up when you mention Noam’s name If you have not been to a service in recent weeks, you owe it to yourself to come and experience what I am talking about.

And, my friends, we need to be involved more in the life of the Jewish community beyond the walls and activities of Isaiah. Individuals need to be a part of a congregation in order to share and to grow and to experience and to accomplish what none of can experience and accomplish by ourselves. The same is true of congregations. We need to be connected to and with the greater Jewish community to share and to grow and to experience and to accomplish what we cannot experience or accomplish by ourselves. Our relationship with Temple Emunah is a blessing, and all too rare amongst congregations. And it is not enough. We need to be more actively involved in the work of CJP and the other Boston area Jewish organizations, and we need to have more of our members involved in the work of the Reform movement, on both the regional and national levels. There are outstanding leaders in this congregation with extraordinary talent, and only a very small handful have brought those talents to the greater Jewish community. And of course, Israel needs to be on our radar. I will be devoting a full sermon to that topic on Yom Kippur.

And there is one simple reason that we need to do all of the above. It is, in fact, the only valid reason for us to exist as a congregation. It is because when we do so, we build a stronger community of meaning, which makes at least our small corner of the world a better place.

In a commentary on the story of Noah, Rabbi Berel Wein recounts a sobering reality:

“Noah certainly had the opportunity to fashion the world in his image, so to speak, after the flood. But it was not to be. The majority of Noah’s descendants reverted back to the evil behavior of society before the flood. It is almost as though the flood and all of its tragedy was a waste. And I cannot think of a greater waste than a wasted tragedy. And this is perhaps the greatest point of criticism that the Rabbis leveled at Noah – that the flood and its lessons were never exploited to improve human society after the flood.”

Our tragedy may not have been as great as the one in Noah’s time, but our response needs to be more effective than his.

We do not have the letters K.K. before the name of Temple Isaiah. We do not need them. We know that we are a holy congregation. We are reminded of that very fact by the name of the prophet after whom we call ourselves. We are Isaiah. Temple Isaiah - dedicated to the pursuit of justice and righteousness and to making the world a better place than it is. And when we commit ourselves to that ideal, we fulfill our very reason for being.

Sat, January 16 2021 3 Sh'vat 5781