Tuesday, October 7, 2014

If We Forget Thee, Oh Shabbat

Kol Nidre 5775
A man was lying in bed on a Saturday morning. His wife said to him, “Get out of bed and go to shul”…….  “I don’t want to go to shul”, he said, “and there are three good reasons for that. First, I am tired. Second, I don’t like the service or  the sermons. Third, people there don’t even like me.” So his wife said, “Those excuses are no good. Get out of bed and go to shul- and I’ll give YOU three reasons: First, a decent Jewish family goes to shul together. Second, God will never forgive you, if you don’t come to shul. And third, you ARE the rabbi, after all.”
Certainly, not any rabbi I know … But it’s true, sometimes even rabbis have a hard time getting to services……, for different reasons than congregants, of course. Yet, here we are again, talking about the importance of attending shul, of coming to services. We all have different reasons why we are here tonight, but we all understand and value the relationship we build with God, with others and with our community when we are fully present.
We belong. Our connection to each other is based on a relationship. On this special night of Kol Nidre, we are called to remember, zakhor, that we belong to a sacred community.
Dr. Ron Wolfson, in his book Relational Judaism writes:
“We North American Jews are not only citizens of two great countries; we are also citizens of a people called b’nei Yisrael, “the children of Israel”—the descendants of Jacob, the descendants of Moses, the descendants of those who stood at Sinai and accepted a covenantal relationship with the God of Abraham and Sarah.”
Judaism is a tradition that values our relationship with our ancestors, with the generations that preceded us, as well as with those living in our time. Some of you may recall that on Rosh Hashanah I spoke about the need for us to revive the tradition of saying Kaddish for our loved ones, family and friends. In addition to being our religious obligation, saying Kaddish builds community. Saying Kaddish is about building relationships with each other and with our congregation. Our tradition expresses this idea by teaching that we need a miniyan to say Kaddish.
In more traditional circles, they mean 10 Jewish men. The number 10 has never been questioned. I accept the traditional number; yet, it’s not a magic number.
We need a minyan for regular services at the synagogue, but also for a funeral, a bris and a wedding. To me, the rabbis of the Talmud set a number as a way to promote relationships that build community. IF we are to have a working congregation, we need to have some basic rule; one such rule is the need for a miniyan.
On this unique Shabbat, we are reminded of what the teaches: Zakhor et yom hashabbat, “remember Shabbat,” and we are to mark Shabbat as a special day. When we come to say Kaddish on Shabbat, it also marks Shabbat as a day when we make it possible for others to remember.
A few times this past year, we did not have a miniyan on Shabbat. One of our congregants, who had come to say Kaddish, almost broke into tears when I mentioned that we needed a miniyan to say Kaddish. It broke my heart that we could not provide for a basic Jewish need, and promised myself right then and there that I was going to share that experience with all of you on Kol Nidre. It is simple: When we forget Shabbat we fail to make it possible for others to remember.
For our congregation, having a miniyan on every Shabbat would be easy. Let’s do the numbers. If we divide our directory in four, about 6 letters per group, we would cover 4 Shabbatot a month. I’d need your active participation now, for an experiment. If your last name begins with the letter A, B, C, D, E, F, please, stand up (if you are able). OK, this year you will come on the first Shabbat of the month. You may be seated … now if your last name begins with G, H, I … well …  you get the idea? Obviously, everyone is welcome to come to every Shabbat, BUT if each one of you were to commit to attend ONE Shabbat a month, we would be set. We can do this! It is mathematically possible!
Yet, it is not that simple, because the source of the issue is not mathematical, but relational. For too many of us, our relationship with our community could be improved and deepened. I’m sure we all have our reasons.
Let me give you another example. Thanks to the leadership of our board and a few dedicated volunteers, the Rifkin Campus @ 5200 project is moving ahead. Yet, to date, only 40% of our members have contributed to this unique project. This project will make this location a home for the Jewish community for Northeast Indiana, and will insure our building is up to date. Kris and I have made a commitment to this project and will double our contribution. And, I should note, from now until December 31st, your gift will triple.
Some of you may think 40% is pretty good, yet, a project of this kind necessitates 100% participation. This project is about doing all we can so that we have a beautiful, safe and sustainable space for all the programs, services, and events that we all enjoy and wish to continue and improve. It is about our future in a very tangible way.  
The 40% is a sign that we need and can do better. Each one of us should look inward and ask what we can do to develop a deeper relationship with our congregation. In other words, what can we do to build a sacred community?
Before we continue, I want to make a distinction between community and friendship. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy defines Friendship, as
“[…] a distinctively personal relationship that is grounded in a concern on the part of each friend for the welfare of the other […] and that involves some degree of intimacy.”
It is great if we develop friendships among us, but friendship should be neither our goal nor our basis for action as a congregation. We act in accordance with our values, as our congregational by-laws say:
“[…] this Congregation exists to serve God, to assist and enhance the lives of Jews in the Fort Wayne and surrounding area according to Judaism’s highest values and to bring those values into the lives of all people.”
We are a community, not a “friends club.” Social scientists tell us that a community consists of people from all walks of life: differing ages, genders, and that they may seem to have no relationship at all before joining a community. Communities are held together by common interest, something the community members are passionate about, a common goal, a common heritage. Sometimes I wonder if we remember what our common goal is and why it is important to be an ACTIVE member of the Jewish community.
Assimilation is perhaps the great culprit here. So many Jews today have little or no Jewish education, that it is difficult for them to see the value of Jewish institutions. Lacking a sense of “belonging” can be the root cause of what we experience. Dr. Ron Wolfson teaches:
“To my mind, virtually everything a person could possibly want or need Jewishly is readily available at much less cost and trouble via Internet and rent-a-professional … except deep and lasting relationships, face-to-face relationships with people, both lay and professional, who care about you and care about connecting you to others, and work to help you build relationships with the Jewish experience […]”
I want those deep and lasting relationships for myself, but that I long for them is not enough, you have to want them too. Relationships are a two-way street. If, as an example, I call you or send you a card for your birthday,  and you never do, soon enough I’d give up on that relationship, and move on. We do not have to all be friends to be part of the same community, but we do need to CARE about each other, and provide to each other that which cannot be found anywhere else.
Sometimes I feel as if am missing a relationship piece. After more than 4 years, I still don’t know your personal stories, your struggles or accomplishments. The time we may spend together at the oneg is not enough. If we do not break bread together on Shabbat, for instance, how will I, or anyone for that matter, get you hear your story. By objective standards, we are a small congregation. We have about 140 family units who live in town, and many of them are on individual. It is doable to listen to each other’s life stories. Given our demographics, it is MOST important that we work on developing our relationships. We need to make time to hear our personal stories, our life-journeys.
We have some bright spots in our congregation; great examples of things that build community. Some of our members are actively involved in great projects and programs. One such program is our “Thoughtful Thursday,” a Nationally recognized tzedakkah project. One of the ideas behind TT is that every congregant can participate at whichever level they feel comfortable. I know it is very rewarding for those who volunteer. Our corn beef fundraiser also bring out our members, and it’s great to see so many of you, but that’s once a year. No, we cannot have “Corn Beef” once a month, or even twice a year. TT and Corn Beef are a lot of work and we cannot ask the few volunteers behind those successful programs to do more. Yet, the fact remains: We NEED more opportunities to create community that do NOT require such great investment of time and resources.
Many of the things that create and nurture lasting relationships have been part of the traditional Jewish way of life for millennia. So, what Jewish things will strengthen our relationship to our community? They are all those things that strengthen our common memory and develop new memories.
On this night of Kol Nidre, I would suggest to concentrate on three areas on which we strengthen our community. Three areas to learn about and then DO.
First, clearly, we need to be present in times of sorrow. It is our Jewish duty to comfort the bereaved and accompany the dead for burial. There are several ways to do this mitzvah: You may choose to be counted in the Shabbat miniyan; or attend a public funeral or unveiling. We can also do this mitzvah through food. Please, be open and generous when asked to be part of our congregation’s effort to provide shivah meals after a funeral or for the house of mourning. Most congregations our size DO provide these kind of meals on a regular basis.
Secondly, when our families choose to share the simchah with us all by having their life cycle event here, we need to be present as well. Whether it is a baby naming, a Bat Mitzvah celebration, or confirmation, we need to have a congregation, not merely ONE miniyan. No, we do not have to be FRIENDS with that family or have children who are friends with theirs, in order to attend their simchah. Perhaps that’s how you used to do it, but for a small congregation like ours, staying away from simchas DOES NOT work anymore. When one of our youngsters becomes a bar mitzvah, it is a reason for ALL Jews to celebrate. It is a community event, and being here will strengthen our relationships beyond belief!
Thirdly, be creative. If none of the things I mentioned above speak to you, let us know what would. Hod, our president, as well as the many committee chairs will be glad to hear your input and ideas at any time. I want to challenge you to engange in your community in meaningful and enriching ways. How do you envision your contribution to strengthening our relationships and our community? I’m not saying this lightly: My door is always open. Also, we have a new Starbucks down the street from our house, I’ll ve happy to sit down with everyone of you at Starbucks, and listen, but please, DO NOT ignore the urgency of this matter nor my plea. Like Hillel once taught, im lo achshav, if not now, eimatai, then when?
Having deep relationships with your religious and ethnic group is actually more than just a nice thing to have. Many recent studies have shown that being part of a religious community is good for our health. It does something good for each of us. We know this from surveys of people who LEFT religion and had some dire consequences to their health.
Let me share with you what one such study concludes:
“Any negative experiences after leaving religion, from depression to social isolation, can take a toll on your physical health. Isolation, according to a six-year study out of the University of Chicago, can cause health problems such as disrupted sleep, elevated blood pressure, and a 14 percent greater risk of premature death.”
Need I need to explain more? Are you sure you don’t want to attend services more often? We often take for granted some relationships, but they are soon missed, once we leave the community where those relationships were created and nurtured. The reason why people who left a religious community saw their health declined was not because they missed the sermon, but because they left behind valuable relationships. Having a relationship with a sacred community is part of being human, and a necessary part of it.
Dr. Wolfson concludes:
“Call it what you will—a religion, a civilization, a way of life—Judaism is built on relationships. Born of a relationship between God and Abraham and Sarah, a pact literally marked in the flesh of males and symbolically celebrated in the hearts of females on the eighth day of life in a ceremony called brit, “covenant,” we Jews are a relational people.”
On this holiest night of the year, we must remember this covenant and commit ourselves to continue living it and reshaping it. May we all be blessed with a year of new challenges and opportunities. May we reach deep-inside and reach out to others in community so that our relationships will flourish and enrich each and everyone of us.

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