The following is one of three sermons I delivered on the High Holidays (2013/5774). This "sermon trilogy" was delivered before the joint services including the Reform congregation I serve as rabbi, The Jewish Congregation of Kinnelon (JCK), and the Conservative congregation with whom we co-own the synagogue building, Congregation Beth Shalom (CBS). More information about the partnership between JCK and CBS can be found here.
"The Community Comes Back"
During my years as a Rabbinical Student, I had the honor of serving three wonderful small congregations as their Student Rabbi. My first year as an ordained rabbi, I, again, was privileged to serve another small congregation for the High Holidays. In order, those congregations are located in: Natchez, MS; Sioux Falls, SD; Pine Bluff, AR; and Jefferson City, MO. Clearly, these four congregations are all in relatively small and rather remote places; towns and regions where you wouldn’t expect to find that many Jews, let alone living congregations. And yet, there they are, four, collections of Jews who come together because they are a small minority in parts of our country; they come together because they are Jews.I am continually amazed at how these congregations and their membership (some of whom travel upwards of and hour-and-a-half just to attend services) day after day make the active choice to identify as Jews and to join together in their shared heritage. I know that many of the towns where we all live are not bursting with Jews, nevertheless, we are a bit spoiled by the fact that we live in the greater New York area, arguably the second largest and most vibrant concentration of Jews in the world, next to Israel. With all of the resources that have a mere car ride away (and the thousands of resources offered by the internet), we don’t quite feel the same urgent need to actively choose to be Jewish.
As I mentioned on Erev Rosh haShanah, over the past few years, the Union for Reform Judaism has gathered professional and lay leaders from the various arms of the movement in an effort to create a vision for the entire movement going forward. As of this summer, that Think Tank produced its final proposal of that vision. While the proposed vision statement is a product of, and intended for the Reform Movement, many of the major themes that are expressed in the statement pertain to all of us.
The proposed Vision Statement for the Reform Movement is divided into three over-lapping spheres. And, again, since I will be delivering a total of three sermons over the course of these High Holy Days, you can all see how this is going to work…
This morning, we turn to the second paragraph of the vision statement. It reads:
“In sacred attachment to the Jewish people and with connection to the State of Israel, Reform Jews, as members of a group and as individuals, in holy congregations and in diverse settings, strive to make thoughtful choices about how we put our values into action. Reform Judaism asks us to seek the holiness that is present throughout creation through reflection, critical study, and sacred acts so as to renew our living Covenant with God, the people Israel, humankind, and the earth.”The key points that I would like to highlight from this paragraph are the ideas of sacred attachment, reflection, critical study, and sacred acts. These highlighted points reflect the overall theme of the paragraph, which is obvious by its heading: In Community.
Community has been one of the central driving forces of Jewish life since the earliest days of our people. From the wilderness, to the ancient kingdom of Israel, to the lower east side, to Natchez, Sioux Falls, Pine Bluff, and Jefferson City, to Pompton Lakes, to Kinnelon, Jews have always sought out each other, forming close neighborhood enclaves and extended communities. Our Talmud reinforces this trend, teaching us in Sanhedrin 17b:
"A talmid haham (Torah scholar) is not allowed to live in a city that does not have these 10 things: a beit din (law court) that metes out punishments; a tzedakah fund that is collected by two people and distributed by three; a synagogue; a bath house; a bathroom; a doctor; a craftsperson; a blood-letter; a butcher; and a teacher of children"
The cities that the Talmud envisions as proper places for us to live must provide support for all of our basic needs. In the time when the Talmud was written, not all places had these luxuries that we all find so common. In ancient days, these “proper” communities had to be rather small and very close-knit. In contrast, today our “proper” community could, theoretically, be as large as a tank of gas would allow you travel. The beit din, the tzedekah fund, the butcher...and yes, even the blood-letter, do not have to be in your city, per-se, just so long as they are convenient.
Such is the same with our synagogues and other Jewish communal organizations. In the past, our Jewish ancestors were forced to live in tight quarters with each other. Today we must only live in close proximity to each other; just a reasonable car-ride apart. This change in the geographical distance between fellow Jews has also altered the types of communities that we form. While we still organize ourselves in various types of groups, most notably the traditional synagogue/congregational model, the intimate nature of those groups, of our groups, is not what it used to be, nor is it what it should be. It should not take the High Holidays to bring together an entire congregation, we should feel the need to, and we should feel compelled to come together regularly throughout the year.
This is why the vision of building strong communities comes with those highlighted ideas that I shared just a moment ago. Sacred acts, critical study, reflection, and sacred attachment. These are the keys to strengthening the feeling of community in our congregations. We touched briefly on the ideas of critical study, reflection, and sacred acts on Wednesday evening as we explored our personal relationships with God, building towards increasingly meaningful worship.
Indeed, feeling connected to prayer and finding prayer worthwhile and fulfilling will inspire each of us to attend services more often, resulting in more and more familiarity with each other, and leading towards a stronger sense of community. Yet critical study, engaging in sacred acts, and reflecting on our Jewish lives can also take on many forms outside of the realm of worship. Just as we are traditionally required to have a minyan, at least ten people together in order to pray, so too should Judaism be studied in groups.
A traditional structure of Jewish study is the chevruta system; where two students will study a text together, reflecting, debating, discovering, and discerning what the text is saying and how it applies to their lives. This dynamic is only multiplied with larger and larger classes. We all know that if you put two Jews in a room you will get 3 opinions. In a class of Jews all studying some facet of Jewish life, imagine how many opinions would exist, and how many connections would be made with Jewish life and with each other.
Sacred acts also help to build connections between us. Again, while coming to services and studying are sacred acts, there is a plethora of other sacred activities that we can do together. Whether or not you plan on coming to services, Shabbat dinner with family and friends is a great opportunity to build community in a sacred way. Further, as individual congregations or as a collective, we can engage in acts of tikkun olam. Coming to temple and making hundreds of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for a shelter or a bridges run, or visiting and serving at soup kitchens, are also sacred actions which help to not only build community between us, but extends to the greater community as well. We could spend an afternoon at a food pantry helping to sort food, or go to a nursing home or hospital and visit the sick. And let’s not forget about Synagogue School, Jewish summer camp, teen programming, and youth group. Not only are all of these acts sacred in keeping with the teachings of our tradition, but they also help us create shared memories and form bonds with each other.
Each of these various ways of building that sense of community is nothing without that final highlighted point from the vision: sacred attachment. Activities, social groups, services, studies...all of those help to build acquaintances and form some bonds. But in order to build a truly Jewish community we must feel a sense of sacred attachment, an unbreakable, spiritual, and higher connection that we all share as members of the Jewish people; a mutual responsibility that we feel towards one another.
The natural tendency to be connected one-to-another was even identified and expressed by, perhaps, the smartest Jew who ever lived, Albert Einstein. He said:
“Strange is our situation here upon earth. Each of us comes for a short visit, not knowing why, yet sometimes seeming to divine a purpose. From the standpoint of daily life, however, there is one thing we do know: that man is here for the sake of other men-above all for those upon whose smile and well-being our own happiness depends, and also for the countless unknown souls with whose fate we are connected by a bond of sympathy.”
This is the start of a brand new year for our congregations. On a personal note, with my first year as the JCK rabbi and our transitional year behind us, my main focus for the year will be on my JCK family, building our bonds with each other and with this building, and ensuring that we have ample opportunities to gather together socially and religiously throughout the year. May we all, JCK and CBS, take this year as a time to focus on our relationships with the members of our congregations and as a whole.
As we enter the new year, let us restore that sense of intimate community that our ancestors felt in their close-knit towns, let us actively choose to embrace our Judaism, and let us be aware of that sacred connection that we all share. My hope for 5774 is that, together, we will all find ways to connect to our tradition and to each other.