Rosh Hashannah Morning 5774
The mysterious voice of God echoed: “Abraham?” Abraham could have ignored it, could have dismissed it. But ever faithful Abraham answered “Hineini—Here I am.” I am here God, I am attentive; I am ready.
On this first day of the Jewish year, we have gathered together, offering prayers, continuing on our journey of self-reflection and atonement, and celebrating in the brilliant new possibilities that lie ahead. God says to us “Temple Emanu-El?” And we say “Hineinu—Here we are.”
But why are we here—really?
Is it for the prayers and melodies? Out of respect for tradition? Is it to learn or to be inspired? Is it to see friends and loved ones? While there is no shortage of reasons for why we come through the door, Ron Wolfson explains there is only one reason that we stay: relationships.
In his book, Relational Judaism, Wolfson offers the case study of Central Synagogue member named Jill. Jill was not active in temple life as a child. When given the choice of becoming a Bat Mitzvah or skiing every weekend, she chose skiing. She did not have complete Jewish education as a child. But when she married her husband and had children, she became interested in temple life. To her surprise, she found services to be engaging. Immediately she felt as if both the clergy and the entire community cared about her—and really wanted to know her family. Her family began to meet others at cocktail parties in congregant homes. “my husband and I believe that you can’t really know who you are and where you’re going unless you know where you come from,” she explains. “I think that our experience at Central Synagogue has helped us to know where we are and has made us better parents, better friends and better people… really. And my kids feel connected there, too. They really enjoy it. We have Shabbat dinners with other families. We light candles together. We talk about things as a family that I don’t think we would ever have talked about if not for [Temple]. This is the value-added of a great synagogue.”
Jill came to temple for the programs and the services. She stayed for the relationships.
Ron Wolfson reflects on his Jewish upbringing. “I learned to love being Jewish through relationships. My Jewish self was shaped by my relationships with family, with friends, with Jewish texts and ritual, with synagogue and community, with Jewish peoplehood, with Israel, with social justice work and with God. These relationships form the beating heart of my Jewish soul.”
Okay, you may be thinking. But what do I really get out of temple? What can I? I have friends outside of temple. I can learn about Judaism from books delivered to my door. I can do social justice work in the community. I can pray or meditate or connect to my spiritual size on my own. I can celebrate holidays outside of temple. And you’d be right. So why do we need Jewish community?
In the summer of 2009, my friend Mara and I met at a bar. There we expressed what we had been feeling for some time. We loved Astoria, Queens, where we lived. There was no shortage of culture—from a wide array of cuisine to parades to fairs to museum exhibits and beyond. We had some friends in the area, but no matter how much we loved it, it still was not home.
Both rabbinical students, we didn’t need another place to study or even pray—we had both in the communities we served as well as our seminary. We didn’t need a place to celebrate holidays—we both had family nearby. But we profoundly felt a loss. Without a Jewish community, we could never fully feel at home.
We craved what we could not find outside of Jewish community—what Jill had been searching for—“the opportunity to be in face-to-face meaningful relationships with Jews and Judaism in a relational community that offers a path to meaning and purpose, belonging and blessing.”
God called to Abraham, and Abraham said “Hineini. Here I am”
Our commentators ask why Abraham was so eager and willing to say “Hineini,” again and again, not knowing the path God had for him. Why was he willing to pick up everything he ever knew to follow God to the land to a strange land? Why would he allow God to test him time and time again? Perhaps he too was in search of Jewish community—of relationship with God, with himself, with family and friends, and with the world. God called to him, and he knew he needed to heed God’s call.
Mara and I decided we would form our own minyan—a group that any Jews in their 20s and 30s could join. We would start by having a monthly Shabbat potluck in our homes. At first the idea was frightening. In this day and age was I really going to advertise locally and invite complete strangers into my house to eat and pray? Was I out of my mind?
Was Abraham out of his mind to leave his home? Wasn’t he scared or hesitant to go on God’s missions? Was Jill out of her mind to step foot into temple for the first time? Wasn’t she scared to step foot into a new community?
Yes, absolutely. It is not easy to say “Hineini.” It is not easy to step foot in the door.
The first month we held Shabbat services and potluck, exactly four people showed up: Mara and I and our husbands. The second month we tried again. A few more people bravely came into Mara’s home. Mara bravely hosted. Our guests were people we had never before met—and likely never would have met if we didn’t start this group. But we talked and laughed and celebrated Shabbat well into the evening.
Each month our prayers became louder as more people joined the group, and past participants came back. Before we knew it, we had more people than we could comfortably fit into our homes. Each time we opened our house we were nervous, but as people came we could feel Shabbat ascending. We were finding everything we had been searching for. Slowly the group was expanding to 20 people, 30, 50, 100, 200… We began not only eating and praying together, but volunteering together, celebrating life’s joys and being there for one another at times of challenge. We became good friends, inspiring one another to live more meaningful lives, and helping one another to connect with God and the Jewish community in ways we had not imagined.
One day a friend told me, “You know, I was about to leave Astoria before I found this group. Now I couldn’t imagine leaving. I finally found my home.”
This is what it can mean to be part of a Jewish community.
I asked congregants why they are members of Temple Emanu-El. This is what they told me:
“I am a member… to be able to connect and exchange ideas with other Jews, to be part of something I cherish, [and] to feel spiritually connected…”
“I am a member… because I want to be part of a Jewish community and instill Jewish values and traditions in my children.”
I am a member… because my belief and faith in God needed direction—so I could learn how to be Jewish as an adult.
I am a member because “Being involved in the temple has taught be many things…how to work together towards causes of common interest, how to give and listen, how to become a good person, and [how to develop] a relationship to God.”
Each person in their own way is seeking relationship—with themselves, loved ones, the Jewish community and with God. Each one is searching, in some way to find their home.
Here in Temple Emanu-El, many of us do feel at home. We are engaged in a variety of programs, services, and events. The conversations we attend in Torah study inspire us throughout our week. We feel as though the community truly cares about us—that people are there for us at times of joy and celebration and times of struggle. We feel that temple is our extended family.
But many of us are still searching, still missing something. We don’t yet feel at home—or we don’t feel at home anymore. We don’t feel inspired, or connected—yet.
Our Torah teaches that when the Jewish community received the 10 Commandments, everyone in the community was present—young and old, Jews and people of other faiths and background. We all heard the words of God, together.
Temple Emanu-El does not belong to a select few. It belongs to all of us. And until each and every one of us feels at home, cared for, that we have a second family—we have work to do.
We have begun this work already.
Each week people of all ages, and backgrounds come together for Torah study. Struggling to apply the words of tradition to our lives, we share parts of ourselves, and form a undeniable bond. Everyone is encouraged and welcome to attend.
Families with bnei mitzvah aged children meet once a month throughout the year to learn about the service, study, and reflect on their new milestone. Throughout the year, they form a supportive community.
Families gather for Tot Shabbat experiences, in which they play, pray, do art projects and eat with other young families. A tiny torah playgroup for families with children under age 3 meets regularly in congregant’s homes so that children can forge important friendships, and parents can connect in meaningful ways.
This year, there will be an adult Bnei Mitzvah class, where people of a variety of backgrounds can come together to explore Hebrew, better understand the Shabbat service, study Torah, and explore theology. The community of leaders who partake will end the year with a joint Bnei Mitzvah service in which we can all rejoice.
The Waldman lecture in October will jumpstart a congregational band, in which many people can take part.
Students in grades 8-12 will meet once a month to talk about Jewish issues that matter to them, hang out, and eat together—helping to foster more meaningful relationships.
This is a good start. But there is far more to do.
That is why the board met 2 months ago to discuss the future of Temple Emanu-El. In what areas are we excelling and in which are we falling short? We began to imagine what we would need to do to meet everyone where they are, allow everyone to feel connected. And those conversations are only beginning. This fall the temple will be inviting each and every one of you to house meetings in congregant homes. There I encourage you to voice what Temple has meant to you, and what it could mean, to dream together about turning our great congregation into a phenomenal one.
I know many people in this room fairly well. Some of you I consider friends. I know something about your past and your present, what matters to you—what keeps you up at night and what gets you out of bed in the morning. The conversations I have had with you—at times of good and times of sorrow, times of joy and times of challenge—I have found meaningful.
But there are too many people here I am sad to say I hardly know at all. I do not know what drives you to come here today. I do not know your passions, what matters to you.
So I make a pledge today: It is my goal to meet with every single member of this community—to strive to understand who you are, what you need from this community, and what I can do to transform Temple Emanu-El into your home, your family, your enrichment.
But it cannot only fall on me. We are a community. Look around the room. Who do you know? Who have you not yet been blessed to know? Why not say Hineini—I am here? Why not approach them, why not take that leap as Jill did? Or as Mara and I did, and connect with your neighbor?
Some of us do not have family and friends locally. Why not sign up to adopt a grandparent/a family/a friend—bringing congregants together that may not have otherwise had the opportunity. Even if we are surrounded by family, why not sign up?
Some of us are empty nesters, caring for sick family members, or retired. Some of us are artists, musicians, or poets. Why not form chavurah groups to get together with others, exploring your commonalities? Why not join Torah study? Or the adult bnei mitzvah class? The Tiny Torah playgroup, or Hebrew High?
It requires a leap. It required us to stand up and say “Hineini”—but isn’t it worth the risk?
As we march forth into 5774, we enter a tomorrow full of possibilities— where we each realize our potential to form not just a disparate Jewish community where some are members but few are involved—- but a community in which we all feel as though we have a family.
A tomorrow in which we all say “Hineinu—Here we are”—“Hineini—Here I am.”