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Erev Rosh Hashanah 5782 September 6, 2021

Love Your Neighbor: An Essential Value to Frame the New Year

V’ahavta l’rei’acha kamocha,  “Love your neighbor as yourself” is one of the best known and most often quoted statements in the Torah.  This verse is found in Leviticus, in the Holiness Code, which we will hear on Yom Kippur afternoon. (Lev 19:18)  “Love your neighbor” is not one of the Ten Commandments, but people often think it is.  It is one of the 613 mitzvot, and, according to Rabbi Hillel, the most important.  When asked to summarize the whole Torah while standing on one foot, Hillel famously said:  “What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor, all the rest is commentary, now go and study.” (Tal. Shabbat 31a) Rabbi Akiva also identified v’ahavta l'rei’acha kamocha as singularly important: “Zeh klal gadol baTorah,” said Akiva.  “This is the great principle of the Torah.” (Bereishit Rabbah 24:7)

Regrettably, what we see too often in the world around us today is a lack of will among many to set “Love your neighbor as yourself”  as the great principle of living.  As we embark upon a New Year, it is essential that we re-center this principle of “loving our neighbors” within ourselves and in our communities.  We have already seen what happens when we fail to do so:  It brings about destruction and even death.  

Two key subjects have defined our lives over the past year:  The ongoing battle to fight Covid-19 and the response to the call for racial justice and equity in the wake of George Floyd and the Jacob Blake shooting and its aftermath one year ago.  “V’ahavta l’rei’acha kamocha” must be the foundation upon which we respond if we wish to make progress in either arena.  

First to the Covid situation. Recently, during the Wisconsin State Fair in Milwaukee, a reporter took her microphone around and asked people how they were feeling about the fair being held again after one year off due to the pandemic.  The Delta variant had just caused a steep uptick in cases in our area, such that masks were being required again in some indoor spaces.  But few people were masking at the fair.  The reaction that most troubled me was the following: “No, I won’t wear a mask.  I’m here to eat and have fun, and I don’t care.”  

“I don’t care.” Of course, we understand that people just want to have a good time. We all experienced exaltation about being able to be around people and enjoy some normal activities this summer.  None of us wanted to return to masks, but conditions have required the change.  Under current conditions, as even vaccinated people are becoming infected, when children are becoming sick at an alarming rate, and hospital beds and ventilators are once again maxed out, to continue to have the attitude: “I’ll do what I please, and I don’t care about the possible consequences”  flies in the face of this central Jewish value of “V’ahavta L’rei’acha Kamocha.”   We must mask and distance because loving our neighbors is the “klal gadol” of the Torah, not to mention a fundamental principle of human decency. 

Sadly, this attitude of refusing to wear a mask because “it’s my choice and I don’t care” is part of a greater societal viewpoint that seems to be growing in acceptance in our American culture.  Who can forget that fashion statement jacket  that had “I Really Don’t Care Do U?” printed on it in graffiti-like writing?  Former First Lady Melania Trump chose to wear this jacket on a visit to the US-Mexico Border when the family separation crisis was at full tilt.  Her decision to visit the border said “I do care,” but the jacket said something else entirely.  The Zara apparel company apparently knew that apathy and brazen self-centeredness would sell when they marketed this jacket in the Spring of 2016. “I really don’t care” has apparently been “haute couture” for at least 5 years. But in Judaism, it’s never in fashion. 

Opponents say that getting a vaccine or wearing a mask is a personal choice.  But they are mistaken.  It is not like the choice to wear a seatbelt in a car or a helmet on a bike, where the only person you harm is yourself. (See Jamelle Bouie editorial NYT Aug 15, 2021)  It is much more akin to driving drunk.  

When you choose not to mask or not to be vaccinated, you choose to participate in a chain of events that can literally kill and cause serious illness in others as well as yourself.  And people are dying in hospital beds all over the United States right now, even previously healthy young people in their 20s and 30s, because of people making this choice.

Vaccines have given us our lives back to some degree. They have allowed some of us to come together in-person on this eve of the New Year--granted in less than ideal circumstances. Vaccines will protect most of us from serious illness or death, but we must be concerned about the unvaccinated, the immunocompromised, the elderly and children above ourselves. We must continue to practice patience and put safety above self-enjoyment.  Yes, the longer it goes on, the harder it is to sustain this position.  But our klal gadol, our great principal of the Torah, requires it of us.

V’ahavta l’rei’acha kamocha is also the great principle we invoke as we go forward after the anniversary of the Jacob Blake drama in Kenosha.  The boards have come down from our buildings.  But, if we just let the light into our buildings and do not do anything else differently,  a more sinister kind of darkness will surely follow.  The crisis in Kenosha was brought about in large part because, when it comes to racism and the biases we all carry inside, the privileged, including most of us in the Jewish community, fail to realize that our own inaction and self-isolation from the disturbing realities of a racially divided society contribute mightily to this problem.  And our behavior comes from not practicing the great principle of the Torah: “Love your neighbor as yourself.”

And so, at Beth Hillel, we are choosing to change our ways. Many of us within the congregation spent the past year delving deeply into our own biases and attempting to  understand and acknowledge how we walk in the world with white privilege. We did this through book-reads and discussions on white privilege, implicit bias, and systemic racism.  And there will be another such opportunity on Yom Kippur afternoon this year.  It was eye-opening, and at some points, soul-scorching, to do this work. 

Now our Leadership Council is working on language for a resolution on this topic that contains several commitments within it. It will proclaim that, as individuals and as a congregation, we will educate ourselves and we will participate in actions that demonstrate: “V’ahavta l’rei’acha kamocha.”  With these commitments, we declare that if we really love our Black neighbors and our fellow Jews of color as much as we love ourselves, we must no longer sit impassively in a world in which so much is kept from them-- but granted to us--simply by dint of skin pigmentation.

Our Beth Hillel statement will be a way of saying:  We acknowledge that there is racism and, out of love for those who live it, we pledge to learn and to act to end it.  And we commit, as individuals, to stop saying: “I’m not racist, so I don’t have to work on this.” We all have to work on it.  

Who among us hasn’t felt bothered by the way a person of color speaks with an accent, jargon or a tone that we find unrefined or difficult to understand? Who hasn’t experienced a moment of puzzlement when a person of color appears in a Jewish space, assuming and sometimes even suggesting to them,that they do not belong?  Who here has never tensed a bit when walking along a trail alone or in a parking lot at night when a Black man approaches? Which of us has not thought:  “Well I’m part of a hated minority too, so I can’t be racist?” Racism is not only exhibited in blatant actions.  The very presence of these types of thoughts, means we have work to do.

Because “v’ahavta l’rei’acha kamocha” is such an important principle in fixing the broken pieces of the world, the Alter Rebbe added the following kavanah or meditation to his prayer ritual every day: Hareini m’kabel alai et mitzvat haboreh, “I hereby accept upon myself the commandment of The Creator:” V’ahavta l’rei’acha kamocha, “to love my neighbor as myself!”  Are YOU ready to take this mitzvah upon yourself?  It may inconvenience you; it will require new behaviors and new ways of thinking.  Even so, let us allow that singular blast of the Shofar which we heard a few moments ago send us forth with a renewed pledge to accept this commandment upon ourselves each and every day of this new year.  For the sake of those around us, we all must make and keep this pledge right now.  Are you ready?

Rosh Hashanah Morning 5782 September 7, 2021

Judaism and Germany as Models for Recounting a Nation’s Story

These High Holy Days are all about looking honestly at who we are, admitting our imperfections and vowing to try to correct them.  It’s hard work, and it can be demoralizing at times, but we are commanded to engage in this pursuit because the end result, a better self, is worth the effort. If we fail to look honestly at ourselves, it is possible to carry on with the fiction that we have no flaws or that any past mistakes are just as well forgotten.  But, to do so is to blind ourselves to the truth of who we really are in our souls and to impede the quest for who we might yet become.  Individuals need to periodically examine their past, honestly and critically, in order to grow morally and to stretch spiritually and aspire to something greater. And so do nations.

Regrettably, the wisdom of looking honestly and critically at the past has become a subject of ferocious debate in America --focusing on the subject of teaching American history in our schools.  Folks on one side of this controversy fear the examination of painful and difficult truths of our nation’s past in school curricula when it comes to issues of race and the treatment of minorities.  This position argues that teaching about the centuries- -long mistreatment of Blacks, immigrants and indigenous peoples at the hands of the white majority in this country will encourage our young people to hate our country and make white kids feel guilty and ashamed about being white.  On the other side of the conflict, are those who believe that historical inquiry requires delving forthrightly into the past-- however negative or unflattering. This stance holds that it is essential for young Americans to know where their forebears erred in the past--in addition to where they soared with insight and vision-- in order for the next generation to lead us to become a “more perfect union.” 

The discussion about how best to tell the American story can be informed by what our Jewish tradition has done over the millenia in the way we study and tell our narrative.  We cannot deny that we have parts of our story that make us feel shame about our heroes or their actions.  But, we do not suppress that material. Even on this festive and profound day of the New Year, we lay it all out there, replete with morally repugnant behavior.  This Jewish penchant for portraying our forebears and our foundational texts with all of their warts may be the very impetus that enables us to aspire to be strong, compassionate, humble, and adaptable as a people.   This approach is a model for how best to teach American history as well.

The Torah texts we choose to highlight on Rosh Hashanah are very good examples.  The Akedah, the Binding of Isaac, that we heard a few moments ago, is one of them. The story of Abraham banishing Ishmael and Hagar is another text sometimes read on Rosh Hashanah.  Both are found in our Rosh Hashanah Mahzor, if you wish to re-read them.  In both stories, Abraham’s actions can make a person cringe: Abraham agrees to banish his concubine and son to the wilderness with only meager provisions because Sarah is jealous and can’t stand to have them around; Abraham consents, without hesitation, to ritually slaughter his other son, Isaac, as an act of faith and loyalty to God.  Both texts are upsetting on a number of levels, and we sometimes wish Abraham’s behavior was otherwise.  But we accept that this is part of who Abraham, our great patriarch, is and, therefore, somehow part of who we are as well.  

Many of our biblical stories reflect the doings of imperfect human beings.  There are even shameful and aggressive communal acts in the Bible that are sometimes explained as directed by God.  For example, the settling of the Promised Land was accomplished by conquering other nations who were already living there. And yet in spite of these unpleasant parts of our history, fully on display in our sacred texts, as a people, we Jews have aspired to justice, kindness and peace as our highest values.  

Telling the truth about our shared past has not hurt us.  On the contrary, knowing we are not and never have been perfect, has given us motivation to grow over time and to aim for greatness and goodness.  As a passage in our Shabbat siddur puts it:  “Though our failings are many and our faults are great, it has been our glory to bear witness to our God, keeping alive in dark ages Your vision of a world redeemed.” (Mishkan Tefliah, p. 157)

On a national level, we also might look what Germany did after the Holocaust for a model of how this debate in America should be resolved.  Germany passed laws that required Holocaust studies of all school children, including trips to museums that lay bare Germany’s history of genocide against our people and many other minorities.  In addition, in many of its public spaces, the German government has erected monuments about the horrors of the Holocaust and has encouraged the placement of “stumbling stones,” small brass plates on the street in front of homes where Jewish families once lived, citing their names and their ultimate fate. In Germany, it is a crime to deny the Holocaust.  This is the very opposite of the argument that American schools ought to suppress an ignominious past.

As Jews, we applaud what Germany has done. Because of its strident efforts to cope with its unsavory past, Germany has proven itself stronger and better able to combat hate.  Germany is a model for all nations.

Telling the truth can never hurt American children; it can only make them stronger and more compassionate.  But legislation that is now racing through state legislatures and that has already passed in some states, treat children like fragile beings who must have an eternally rosy picture painted for them in order to love their country.  Wisconsin’s bill is only proposed  at this point.  It is

designed to prevent schools from teaching about the realities of racial oppression over the last 400 years. It would absolve white people of any responsibility for acknowledging or addressing the damage done by previous and continuing unjust treatment of people of color in our society. The bill would even prevent anti-racism and anti-sexism training for employees of public school districts.  (WISDOM position Statement, Summer 2021)

In addition, in other states, school boards would make it a fireable offense to show, for example, the film The Hate U Give, which our KRAFTY youth group showed and led an important discussion about for our congregation last spring.  It was a very eye-opening look at the different experiences that white and Black teens have with law enforcement in this country. Others would also ban this 2018 children’s book, Something Happened in Our Town, which in my view is a must-read for any child who was aware of what happened, for example, in Kenosha last summer. It shows how a white family and a black family experience such events very differently, and makes a strong case for children to befriend those different than themselves.  It includes a discussion guide for a parent or teacher to use in sharing the book with a child. 

Make no mistake about it:  These initiatives seek to ban curricular materials and censor teachers in their presentation of various subjects. These efforts seem like something out of the Scopes Monkey Trial of 1925 or the fictional book-burning world of Fahrenheit 451.  As Jews, we must not quietly oppose, but, rather, actively resist, initiatives like these.  

In Wisconsin, we can do so by joining in an interfaith effort, endorsed by all of the major faith groups in the state, including the Wisconsin Council of Rabbis.  To join the “Take a Faithful Stand for Equity” pledge, as I have, go to the Social Action section of our Beth Hillel website or the Community section of the Temple eNews. Those who sign the pledge, commit to:

-being an  advocate for equity, truth and nonviolence, 

-monitoring agendas and public discourse (such as school boards, common councils, county boards, etc), 

-taking action by speaking or writing publicly on the topic, or responding to other opportunities for citizen/resident input.

As WISDOM, the statewide, faith-based community organizing group with which Beth Hillel is associated  through CUSH, says:  

“Together, we can build momentum for a movement that demands we tell our children (and ourselves) the truth. We can build a movement that calls on our country to become the great place it can be, not to pretend it is something it never was.’  (WISDOM Statement on “Taking  Faithful Stand…”)

As we Jews know well, truth-telling about our past does not dilute national pride; rather, it enhances it.  In the same way that the efforts in Germany are so meaningful to Jews, the strong message that taking this stance would send to Blacks and indigenous peoples and other People of Color in our midst  cannot be underestimated.  We ALL benefit from this honesty about and scrutiny of our past.  

As our sages taught millenia ago and the founders of our congregation enshrined above our ark: “Al shelosha d’varim ha’olam kayam,”  By three things does the world stay in existence:  “ Al ha’emet,” on truth, “v’al ha din,” on justice, “v’al hashalom,” and on peace. (Pirke Avot 1:18) Telling the truth liberates us, leads us to justice, and ultimately brings about peace.  May it be so as we honestly grapple with America’s incontrovertible history of racism today and in the year to come.

Kol Nidrei 5782 September 15, 2021

An Artifact to Remind Us to Fix What’s Broken

The Smithsonian Museum has acquired a new artifact as part of an exhibit that is projected to one day tell the story of the January 6 attack on the US Capitol.  Along with placards, signs, and banners collected at the Capitol that day, the blue J Crew suit worn by newly elected Rep. Andy Kim of New Jersey will be part of the collection.  Rep. Kim was filmed down on his knees cleaning up the mess in the Capitol Rotunda later that night, after the area was declared safe.  After being holed up in his office with staff for hours, he was still wearing his brand new suit. The video clip went viral. For many who saw it, the video symbolized the task ahead for our nation:  “How to heal this country and pick up the pieces.” (Kim interview MSNBC, July 6, 2021)

When asked what moved him to start cleaning up debris from the insurrection in his brand new suit, Rep. Kim replied:  “When you see something you love that’s broken, you want to fix it.” (AP)

“When something you love is broken, you want to fix it:”  It spoke so well to that moment.  But it is also a statement that sums up what this day of Yom Kippur is all about.  Just as the congressman’s suit represents a determination to heal our nation in these troubling times, our Days of Awe ask that we, too, as individuals, aspire and work to repair what is broken in our lives.  In the same way that the blue suit will become a museum artifact to represent the desire to heal our nation, on Yom Kippur, we have an artifact to remind us to heal ourselves:  The haunting liturgical piece, Kol Nidre, which we heard chanted so beautifully by Orit and also played on the harp this evening. Kol Nidre is the High Holy Day artifact that implores us to pursue our personal journeys toward healing.

If you read the translation of Kol Nidre (p. 18), you may find its meaning a bit strange.   The basic idea of the prayer is a plea to God to release us from vows we will make but may be unable to keep in the year to come. Why on this night-- of all nights-- do we ask God to release us, in advance, from promises we might not keep?  Shouldn’t we be asking God for forgiveness for promises already broken and for help to keep them in the future?  The words of the prayer are so puzzling that there was even a period of time when leaders within the Reform movement sought to remove Kol Nidre from the liturgy.  They considered it a superstitious incantation.  (Times of Israel, Sep 18, 2018) 

However, in spite of Reform leaders’ efforts to expunge Kol Nidre and even some traditional liturgists’ dislike of it, the Jew in the pew felt that Yom Kippur itself was stripped of its emotional power without the recitation of this piece.  Kol Nidre, with its “deeply affecting melody,...” has always been the key artifact of Yom Kippur upon which the rest of the day depends.  

According to psychoanalyst Theodor Reik, a disciple of Freud, Kol Nidre’s “soft broken rhythms reflect...deep remorse and contrition to those who hear it. ... The high mental tension, …, do(es) not refer to the actual formula they are repeating, but to its latent content.” (Times of Israel, Sep 18, 2018)  Like Rep. Kim’s blue suit, which in itself is only a garment pulled off a sale rack at a clothing store but which in its context on Jan 6 had great meaning, Kol Nidre is a symbol with great pathos, containing the hope of being able to heal our brokenness.

How do we access our own brokenness as we let Kol Nidre envelop us and instruct us?   That is difficult for many of us.  We may think to ourselves:  “I’m not really so bad,”  and we would not be wrong.  But we can be better.  Rabbi Michael Marmur puts it this way:

“My own personal version of preparation for Yom Kippur always begins with limited I am,.... I try to bring to mind the inadequacies and the errors, the times when I was angry instead of smart, and when I was clever instead of genuine. However we come to them, we need to acknowledge our weaknesses and vulnerabilities.” (Rabbi Michael Marmur MHN YK,P. 7).  

The work of teshuvah, repentance, isn’t just for  “bad” people. It’s for all of us because we all have limitations, frailties and flaws.

Kol Nidre may not set us to weeping and wailing, as apparently it did often in ages past, but its mournful notes can be an impetus to identify our inadequacies and errors. We ought to then go one step further and link those weaknesses and mistakes to the effect they have on our relationships and how we function in our lives.  In this way, we can take responsibility for the brokenness in our lives and begin to see a path to teshuvah.  

For example, if someone is headstrong or perhaps prone to gossip; if we know we tend toward laziness or maybe negativity; if we tend to be hyper critical or demanding, it is not enough to say:  I recognize that that is my “achilles heel.” It’s just the way I am. Instead, we take a hard look at how that characteristic makes life difficult or problematic for ourselves and especially for others.  We then speak to those in our orbit who may have been affected by these failings in the past year, and seek forgiveness.  

One of the most profound things about the concept of teshuvah is God’s role in it. The mishnah says:  “For sins between people and God, the Day of Atonement atones.  But for sins between people and people, the Day of Atonement does not atone until they have made peace with one another.” (Mishnah Yoma 8:9)  We cannot expect God to assuage our guilt or make us feel better about our inadequacies until we have tried to appease those we have hurt or disappointed, and hopefully have succeeded.  But once we have done that work, we can seek God’s help.  We implore God in the Avinu Malkeynu prayer, “Ain banu ma’asim,”  “We have no deeds of goodness within us.” “Aseh imanu tzedakah vachesed,”  “Therefore treat us with righteousness and lovingkindness.”  

Of course, we have a way of lapsing back into ways of functioning that we know are problematic, and we often end up repeating our errors.  It is easy to become entrenched in habitual ways of behaving.  How do we release ourselves from destructive patterns?  Sometimes we become so committed to stances we take and patterns of behavior that they begin to define us.   When this occurs, we lose sight of our inner selves.  We let an outer layer or persona keep us from looking at ourselves in a new way.  We find explanations that reinforce our actions instead of seeking new insights from sources outside of ourselves.  Yom Kippur is a day for shedding that exterior shield we show to the world and to instead look deep inside for our truest and best selves.

Kol Nidre can impel us to deal with today, but it cannot serve as a prophylactic to prevent tomorrow’s foibles, no matter how much regret we feel inwardly as its words are intoned.  Nonetheless, today we make a start by picking up the broken pieces and, with God’s help, we embark on a fresh path forward. Our tradition teaches that the effort we make on this day of Yom Kippur can, in itself, help us to avoid repeat performances in the future.  

The jewel of a musical piece for which tonight's service is named, Kol Nidre, is for Jews a kind of  artifact on display in the museum of Jewish life at this one moment of the year.  We may never figure out its precise meaning.  We may even dislike its message.  Even so, that hauntingly beautiful melody has a way of piercing our hearts to remind us of our task on this day.  

God, help us to make a commitment to fix what’s broken in our lives this day. Just as Rep. Andy Kim’s blue suit with the dust on the knees will become a museum piece to give Americans a sense of resilience and hope when recalling January 6th, Kol Nidre can provide us with resilience, hope and resolve to bring healing to ourselves and our relationships on this Day of Atonement.

Yom Kippur Morning 5782 September 16, 2021

We Can Be a Sanctuary

Our Torah portion on this morning of Yom Kippur is a clarion call from Moses, reaching out from millennia ago, exhorting us to stand together as a sacred community. Making  it clear that he is speaking not only to those there in that moment, but also  to future generations, Moses proclaims: Atem n’tzavim hayom kulchem lifnei Adonai Eloheichem, “You stand, all of you, today before Adonai your God.” Moses’ message here is that it is essential for Jews to stand before God, in relationship with one another.  This is, as one commentator put it,  “a stirring moment of communal solidarity.”  (p. 264)

For those most actively involved in Jewish life, it may go without  saying that a Jewish community serves as a kind of sanctuary in our lives.   Jewish communal life and the synagogue are the primary places where we come together to feel welcomed, embraced, and fulfilled.  We unite here through our stories, our texts, our music, our prayers, and our time-honored traditions.  We revel in our sense of peoplehood.  In Jewish spaces, we affirm our shared values and find depth and meaning in life.  I imagine that Moses envisioned this kind of rich and fulfilling communal life for his peers and all future generations as he spoke to the wilderness community and encouraged them to “Choose Life.” 

But, sadly, many Jews today do not have these feelings about or attachments to a Jewish community. Those of us who do experience the fullness of Jewish life in this way are fortunate, and we are duty bound to keep working to make our community a place that is inviting and welcoming to all; a home where what Judaism has to offer is perceived by all as accessible and-- desirable.   

Today, we have many choices of where to gather for socializing, for sports and activities, and we can and do choose a variety of types of people with whom to associate.  And that’s a good thing.  In addition to this reality, a characteristic of the current young adult generations, Jewish or not, is that they tend to eschew any kind of institutional affiliation. Because of these factors, in today’s world, we need to provide very compelling reasons for folks to choose Judaism as their community.

One of  the most  important reasons to choose to build a life in a Jewish community is that it can be an antidote to the divisions and animosity that seem to, more and more, dominate the world around us.  When we enter these doors, we “agree to disagree.”  This does not  mean that we won’t hear opinions we do not share.  But it does mean that we will be accepted and embraced here, whatever our views. And, indeed, the future of not only our own Jewish community, but of the Jewish people, depends on our ability to build and maintain this type of environment.   

Outside of these walls, one does not have to look very far  to find rancor and division.  We only have to open the social media platforms on the devices we all carry in our pockets.  There, we are sometimes dismayed at what people say about each other and about the issues of our day--and the way they say it.  Online, people sometimes vent in a disturbing tone, declaring or repeating outrageous things that they would never say in person.  Harsh and over-the-top rhetoric have also begun to dominate public meetings and interpersonal interactions in ways that go beyond incivility, to indecency.  

In sharp contrast, our Jewish community is designed to be a refuge from all of that.  That does not mean that heated discussions never happen or that disagreements on major issues never arise, but here there is a fundamental respect for each other simply because of  our shared heritage and teachings.  Here, adults and children are treated to consistently positive messages in our siddur, in our school curriculum, and in the way we  conduct ourselves and the actions we focus on that emphasize decency, kindness, tzedakah, care for the vulnerable, helping others, the value of learning, and more. Using our common values as a basis, we create, within these walls, a kehillah kedosha, a holy community. 

A second reason to choose the synagogue as a  communal home and to work hard to enable others to choose it is because the synagogue is a place of inclusion and welcome.  Moses’ message in this morning’s Torah portion models this.  Moses begins his message with:  “You are standing here, all of you this day, before Adonai, your God:  Your tribal leaders, elders and officers, your little ones, your women and the stranger in your camp, from the chopper of wood to the drawer of water.…..”   Moses knew that people feel excluded when they are not specifically named, and so he tried to encompass everyone who was there.   

Therefore, it is important for us to be intentional about who we invite to be part of our community and to specifically name  them.  In this regard, our Leadership Council chose to change wording on the homepage of our website last month.   Our mission statement claims that we have a community “that feels like an extended family.”  It goes on to say that “we welcome all who wish to celebrate Jewish life: families, singles and couples, LGBTQIA+ individuals, interfaith couples, and those exploring or who have found a spiritual home in Judaism.”  

The language of LGBTQIA+ was the update we added this summer.  The website statement already had terms to include varieties of gender identity and sexual orientation.  But, the terms are changing.  And so, in order for individuals in all of the categories --Lesbian,Gay, Bisexual,Transgender, Queer, Intersex, Asexual + - - to feel welcome, it becomes important to name them all.  (An article defining all of the terms is found in a link within that mission statement on our homepage.)

But, we can go even further. We need to broaden our language and our reach in programming to more consciously and intentionally invite individuals to  join us.  This includes being  more encouraging of people who are seeking a spiritual home to explore Judaism through our community.  Our wording should also explicitly say that we welcome all political views and Jews of Color, who now comprise approximately 15% of Jews in the United States.  

If we believe we have something wonderful and enriching, we need to be more proactive in inviting others to join us.   Not by going door to door, but by encouraging all who come upon us online, who are brave enough to walk  in the door of a synagogue for the first time, who may know about us only through a partner or a friend, even someone who only likes us on Facebook, to be assured that they are welcome and that, if they find us intriguing, we will envelope them in a sense of belonging.

We know that being part of a Jewish community enriches our lives. Those who have chosen to send your kids to Jewish camp and youth group, to our school, to youth retreats, you have given your children an incredible gift: In a Jewish peer community, they find unconditional acceptance.  Let’s face it. There aren’t many groups in society where that is true. When we distance ourselves from the Jewish community, our children’s chances of finding that belonging anywhere is more remote.

Adults also know the richness that community brings through the many opportunities offered at the synagogue.  Be it Torah Study, weekly worship, Mavens in Our Midst programs or other speakers and programming, our synagogue brings us enjoyment, holiness, learning and camaraderie.  Even when it is all delivered through little squares on a Zoom screen.  Age, political affiliation, one’s position on issues, gender identification, how long we’ve been Jews-- are incidentals that fall away.  We are all affirmed and comforted by the community we build in these moments.  

In the Book of Exodus when God asked the Israelites to build a mikdash, a sanctuary in the wilderness, even God was seeking community.  God said: “V’asu li mikdash, v’shachanti b’tocham;” “They shall make me a sanctuary that I might  dwell among them.” Notice the verse does not say “Make me a sanctuary that I may dwell in it,” but “that I may dwell among them.”  God exists not in the building, but in the spaces between people within the community we build.  And so let us make a sanctuary so warm, so compelling and inviting that newcomers will join us, those fallen away will re-engage, and God will come to dwell among us.

Sat, September 25 2021 19 Tishrei 5782