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Being Our Best Selves: A Vision for SAJ for 5777 and Beyond

Rabbi Lauren Grabelle Herrmann, Rosh HaShanah 2016

Shana Tova.

Last year, I stood here for my first High Holidays as the rabbi of the SAJ, aware that we – the community of SAJ and I – were beginning a new relationship. I wanted you to have a window into who I am as a person, Jew, and a rabbi. You may remember that I told the story of a young woman who had come to me, who wasn’t sure if there was anything left for her in Judaism and was considering leaving it for another faith community. Her questions: “why should I stay a Jew?” “What is here for me?” stayed with me, and I shared with you three teachings that I wish I had told her – ones that reflect my passion for and vision of Judaism. I spoke about my commitment to social justice, my appreciation for a rich and joyful Judaism, and my passion for ritual. I hope that over this first year — through participation at services, classes, programs and holidays, the retreat or through weekly emails, one to one conversations, or lifecycle transitions– that you have seen these passions come alive through words and actions — and you have seen and experienced other dimensions of who I am. Over this first year, I have had the blessing to get to know you, the SAJ. When I began, I wanted to understand who makes up the SAJ communityincluding those in various cohorts, those very involved and those minimally so, those at SAJ for one year and those members here close to 50 years. I also wanted to steep myself in SAJ’s history, and to understand the challenges it faces and the strengths it possesses. To accomplish this, I spent much of my first year talking to and mostly listening to anyone and everyone who would tell me their Jewish/spiritual journey or their SAJ story. I did this through house-meetings, individual and family conversations, b’nei mitzvah student and parent meetings, and through Shabbat celebrations. And here is a taste of what I heard from you: From a long-time member: “SAJ was the first place I felt that I had something to say about torah- and that my voice mattered.” 2 From a 50-something member: “At SAJ, I have friends who are in their 90s, friends who are my age, and friends in their 20s. Where else does that happen?” From an SAJ father: “I happily agreed to raise my children Jewish- and I knew I wanted a place where they would have a similar feeling of community as I did, having gone to a caring and warm church every week as a child. SAJ is that place for my children.” From a Shabbat regular: “I got to SAJ because here, I get to be surrounded by the most intelligent and thoughtful people I know.” From a bar mitzvah: “SAJ is a place I can truly be myself” It has been such a blessing to hear your stories this year. I set out to learnbut in the process, I have come to embrace and love the SAJ. Now, on our second Rosh HaShanah together, as we have gotten to know me and I have gotten to know you, I want to start a conversation about our shared future. When I was applying to be your rabbi, I asked a question at the end of my first interview: ‘What are you looking for your new rabbi to do? What do you want from him or her?” Those on the other side of the computer screen paused and then answered back to me, “We are looking for someone who can help us be the best version of ourselves.” The best version of ourselves. I have thought about that charge a great deal during this past year as I have talked and listened, celebrated and mourned, and observed Shabbat week to week with you. I have considered the possible implications: What might being our best self mean in terms of our internal SAJ community? In the context of the broader faith community in NYC? As the first congregation in the Reconstructionist movement? In the vibrant, Jewish community of the Upper West Side and in a time when expectations around joining a synagogue have shifted — what will make SAJ transformative for those who walk through its doors and what will keep them here? What will be the core values that will animate us? 3 On Rosh HaShanah, when we are invited to imagine new possibilities for ourselves and our communities, I want to share a vision for being the best version of ourselves. This vision draws on SAJ’s strengths but I hope also challenges us to new needs within and to make an impact in our broader world. In particular, I will highlight three core Jewish value areas for SAJ to deepen and to expand, in the next several years, which are: Talmud Torah- learning, Kehillah-Community, and Tzedek- justice. At the end of the talk, I will share more about the journey ahead. Talmud Torah: Jewish Life-Long Learning Barry Holtz, professor of Jewish Education teaches, “Studying Torah in its various guises is not simply a matter of learning the whats and hows of being Jewish. Studying is the essence of being a Jew. It defines who one is. Hence Jewish learning is not the instrumental gaining of skills, knowledge, and competencies. It is the religious act par excellance. And religious education is not only a preparation for what will come later; it is being a Jew, realizing one’s Jewishness, in the very act of studying.” Holtz’s statement conjures the image for me of the beit midrash, the house of study, where our ancient rabbis spent the vast majority of their days learning for the sake of learning, arguing with a text and with others to gain meaning and understanding. Prayer was important — but learning, learning was the holy act — a discovery of self and world. Holtz, I believe, is subverting the dominant paradigm about how synagogues typically are organized and urging us to learn from our ancestors and place learning front and center of Jewish communal life. The dedication to learning that Holtz describes is alive at the SAJ, whose members are intellectually curious and rigorous in their thinking. Many came to SAJ in the first place because of the intellectual conversations engendered in the participatory d’var torah. The “Tish” offers high quality learning on a weekly basis. Holding Makom/JJP on Shabbat speaks to this value. When Holtz says that learning is the religious experience par excellance, the way one experiences Jewishness- I can visualize many SAJ members nodding in agreement. At the same time, SAJ’s culture of learning has been primarily addressing the needs of a subset of the community. Who makes up the Jewish community in New York today and the SAJ community is very different in 4 2016 than it has been in earlier iterations. In order for us to grow in depth and breadth, we need to expand our passion for inquiry and learning from “aleph to tav” and from across the life spectrum. Also, let’s consider that our unique torah- and the torah of Reconstructionism- could have reach well beyond the building walls. When I say “aleph to tav,” I mean that our learning community should reflect the variety of interests and backgrounds present and potentially present at the SAJ. Some want to engage with traditional texts. Some want a simple understanding of the traditions of their Jewish spouse and family. Some want to learn in ways that promote their personal, spiritual growth. And so on. Building a robust and diverse educational program that meets the many varying needs of the community will ensure that we give people that opportunity as Holtz says to experience their Jewishness through learning. “Across the lifespan” means re-conceptualizing Jewish learning as a lifelong activity. In this view, there is no day of one’s life, in which one is not a learner- there is no “children’s learning” “graduation” or “adult education”, there is only a continuous and ongoing relationship with texts and tradition. We should begin with programs for the very young and consider the best ways to engage our elders. To build life-long learners, we will need to divorce ourselves from the Jewish community’s habit of organizing our religious school primarily around the bar or bat mitzvah of each individual child. There should be “no end date” to Jewish learning in general- and in particular, at the SAJ. I also envision SAJ as a place where we share our passion for Reconstructionist Judaism with a larger audience. Even as denominations are criticized, I have found people are hungry for a Reconstructionist approach to tradition and some who are transformed by it. One example is from Kol Tzedek, my former congregation, where I offered a Introduction To Judaism Class from a Reconstructionist lens. One year, a couple signed up for the class– one of the two women was considering conversion, the other there to support her partner but had no interest in the Jewish learning. After all, she had grown up in a traditional congregation with three times/week hebrew school, went to Jewish camps, and her brother was a Conservative rabbi. She didn’t practice very often but when she did, she knew exactly what to do. After a few weeks of minimal participation, she started to come alive in class. While she knew everything 5 technical that I taught about Shabbat, kashrut, and prayer, she had never experienced a Reconstructionist approach that encouraged her to embrace both tradition and the personal meaning. More and more, she became excited by a Judaism that challenged her to think and to question. By the end of the class, her life had literally changed. She had fallen in love with Judaism, through a Reconstructionist lens, and re-dedicated herself to learning, community engagement, and spiritual exploration. If we have something meaningful to share– which I believe we do— why not share it with a broader audience? As we go forward, we will determine what this will look like – some possibilities include sharing resources and teachings through video and audio, creating digital partnerships with other Jewish institutions, offering programming and classes outside of the building. Whatever shape it takes, I am excited to think of SAJ, the synagogue where Kaplan started this whole project, as contributing to the promotion and “advancement” of Reconstructionism and Judaism in the 21st century. Kehilah: Community In the Talmud, there is a well-known line that instructs on the value of community and is at the core of my understanding of the power of Jewish communal life. “Kol Yisrael Aravim Zeh LaZeh” (B. Talmud Shevuot 39a). Like many Hebrew phrases, the text is rich with levels of meanings. “Aravim” comes from the root “a-r-v” which means “mixed up/mixed together.” On the basic level, this teaches that our fate is tied up with other Jews and Jewish communities. Peoplehood, as Rabbi Kaplan taught. The word “aravim” is also understood as “responsible.” The Jewish people is responsible one for the other – for the fate and well-being of those in our broader Jewish community and our particular community. At SAJ there is a strong sense of kehilah/community among its members, especially those who are most involved. Many people have shared SAJ stories with me that sound like this: “When I needed SAJ, SAJ they were there for me. They made minyans for shiva, sent food, and people sent cards.” And many commented — and I observed firsthand at kiddush and on the retreat about SAJ’s intergenerational community building, which is uncommon in most segments of life. Of course, no organization is perfect. And in listening to the experiences of people from many cohorts of the SAJ, I learned that not everyone feels as connected or invited into congregational life as we would like. One family 6 lamented to me that while they liked the down-to-earth culture of the SAJ, in 5 years there with their child in Makom, they never formed a bond with another person or family. A few expressed surprise that no one at SAJ called when they welcomed a new child. A few expressed desire to connect more, but weren’t sure how because weren’t “shul-goers.” As we move forward, let’s learn from the wisdom of Jewish communal leader Ron Wolfson, who speaks about Relational Judaism and Relational Synagogues. These are synagogues that put relationship-building at the center of their work; that design programs in order to facilitate relationships instead of having relationships be a hopeful byproduct of programs. It’s about the active cultivation of smaller groups and cohorts and bringing Judaism more into the home. It’s about creating more and different ways for people to find ways into the congregation, outside of the traditional categories of Saturday morning service or Hebrew school dropoff. My friend belongs to what I would call a relational synagogue on the West Coast. When she joined, she got a phone call welcoming her within one week. Two weeks later, an invitation to a Shabbat meal in someone’s home. Soon came an invitation to a new members gathering, in which my friends were invited to join one of several havurot (small groups) that met monthly. Through the havurah she joined, she met people who would become her closest friends and primary support group. Community-building may seem more trivial than prayer and learning- but it is not. We live in a fragmented world, where isolation is said to be increasing despite our constant connectivity. Synagogues have a very special role to play in this new reality – they can ease that isolation and provide a sense of meaning and belonging. The Talmud text teaches us that we are also responsible for each other. In synagogues, “hesed,” acts of caring and loving kindness, are the way we step up and fulfill that responsibility. This year, I heard about the great work of the past Bikkur Holim committee that was unfortunately not active when I arrived. I am happy to report that this summer, a new Caring Committee has started. When thinking about a caring community, I draw my model from a Reconstructionist congregation that i visited while in rabbinical school. I was doing my shadowing hours, following a respected colleague around for days 7 and into Shabbat. It happened that I was there on “Caring Committee Shabbat.” After one of the torah readings, a congregant got up to speak. She spoke with vulnerability and eloquence about the outpouring of the support she received from the community during her recent struggle with cancer. She described the many times members, those she knew and didn’t know, who drove her to doctor appointments and helped with meals and other chores. Then, the rabbi invited everyone who had ever participated in one of the acts of caring organized by the committee in the past year to come up for the next aliyah. I looked around in shock and amazement – it must have been 60 people (most of the Saturday morning service!) who came forward for that aliyah! As the rabbi offered them a blessing, I thought to myself: this is the kind of community I one day want to serve and to help sustain. We sometimes are prone to think of acts of caring as meaningful activity that takes place in the margins. At SAJ, we can see these acts as the responsibility of the whole congregation, part of what it means to be “mixed up” with each other, at the center of our identity. Tzedek– Social Justice Joseph Kimhi, a twelfth century Jewish teacher instructed: “Wisdom without action is like a tree without fruit.” Kimhi provides an important balance for us as modern Jews who are constantly searching for wisdom. Wisdom for its own sake has limited consequences — wisdom coupled with action will bear fruit and nourishment and sustenance not only for us but those around us. Many of us feel the weight of the world, but we don’t know what to do, what actions to take. Synagogues can be an antidote to those feelings-when they enable us to act to heal our broken world. In the next few years, I hope that social justice can move from what a few people do- to part of our congregational identity. I have seen the power of both small and collective actions in congregational life. In Philadelphia, my synagogue was a member of a dynamic interfaith group that took on issues facing city residents. One of the campaigns involved working with airport workers, who were subcontracted employees of the City of Philadelphia, to increase their wages from $7.25 to $10.25. A 8 city ballot measure was proposed after many months of organization and our interfaith group engaged in a tremendous campaign for voter turnout. As this was going on, I had a meeting with a member who spoke about the helplessness she felt in light of all the problems going on in our world. I encouraged her to come to one of our many voter turnout phone banks. For two hours, she made calls alongside ten other members. After the election, the papers reported a record turnout for the election and a landslide victory for the airport workers. We had won a victory that affected the lives of our fellow Philadelphians. The woman who I had counseled was at the Shabbat in which we celebrated the victory. She was happy for the workers and proud of the victory. But, she told me, there was more. The experience of being part of the effort had transformed her- she remembered that she could make a difference. Our individual actions can amplified in the context of a community. And our congregational acts can be amplified in the context of the larger faith community, of which we are a part? As we move forward at SAJ, let’s create partnerships with other houses of faith, choose issues we can work on to make a difference, and bring a uniquely Jewish approach to the work we do in the world. Rosh HaShanah is a holiday of renewal, a time when we dream up new possibilities for ourselves and the communities we inhabit and the world we live in. Rosh HaShanah is an exciting time for us to face the challenges that Jewish communities face today, draw upon our strengths, and aspire to become the best version of SAJ that we can be. But as we undoubtedly know from our own life experience, the visions we create and the intentions we set are not enough. It takes time, energy, and real plans to transform our dreams and hopes into reality. It will mean looking at the resources at hand and the resources we may need to accomplish our goals. And for us to move forward as a congregation, growing in the areas of Talmud Torah- learning; Kehillah- community; and Tzedek-justice, we are going to need to roll up our sleeves a bit! Today’s the first step. This is the next: I invite you to read my vision statement which will be available online after the holiday. I wrote this Vision Statement this summer, with input from varied SAJ members and it was affirmed by the board a few weeks ago. 9 I invite you to read it with a particular lens- with the lens not only of critic or observer but as participant. Because while I present this, I hope the entire community being engaged in the vision process- some as participants in new initiatives, some as shapers of individual aspects of the visions, and others in the planning needed to enable us to succeed. Share with me your comments — and please also let me know what excites and motivates you! This vision plan is to guide us for roughly the next five years, which would be 2021, exactly one year shy of SAJ’s 100th anniversary. How wonderful to imagine that at that time, we can realize so many of the ideas that Kaplan spoke about from our very own sanctuary! I hope you are as excited as me to partner together to build our own strengths and move towards the being the best version of SAJ. Shana Tova U’metukah- To a sweet year of new beginnings! 10

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