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Ma Norah HaMakom HaZeh: On Becoming the Rabbi of SAJ

Installation of Rabbi Lauren Grabelle Herrmann – November 21, 2015

I am not sure how many of you here know this, but I came into SAJ for services one time before my interview Shabbat last April. It was early October of last year. It has been announced that Rabbi Strassfeld was retiring and the position would become open. I happened to coming up for the weekend for the naming of a dear friend’s baby. I wasn’t sure I would apply, but why not, come up, sneak in the back and get a sense of the community? When I arrived, I took a Shabbat pamphlet and headed inside, in the back, right near a bunch of 13 year olds present for a friend’s bat mitzvah. As soon as I sat down, a very, very friendly face greeted me. “Shabbat Shalom!” “Where are you from?” Trying to keep a low profile, I simply answered “Philadelphia.” “Oh” he said, “I am going to Philadelphia for a board meeting for the RRC tomorrow.” I decided to blow my cover, “I am actually a rabbi in Philadelphia.” A look of excitement overtook him. “Really?! Well, would you please have an aliyah?” In a stressful 15 seconds I weighed the costs and benefits of standing in front of the congregation were I to apply for the position. My mind said no but my mouth said yes. A minute later, this person got my full name and congregation name so that by the time I was called for the aliyah, Rabbi Strassfeld announced “And we welcome Rabbi Lauren Grabelle Herrmann from Kol Tzedek in Philadelphia.” I turned pretty pale and tried to hide behind the gabbai. Not exactly the reconnaissance visit that I had planned, but that’s what happens when the Honorable Judge Abraham Clott welcomes you at the door of SAJ! It is hard to believe that 13 months later, I am standing here today, being installed as the Rabbi of the SAJ. I feel so deeply grateful for the blessings I have received this evening, for the incredible support I have received so far from the SAJ community, from its leaders, staff, clergy team. I am so thankful to Rabbi Deborah Waxman for being with us today and for sharing her vision and to another mentor, Rabbi Sharon Kleinbaum, for offering a blessing. I am very personally moved to have the co-founders of Kol Tzedek here this evening. It was a gift to be able to start a new congregation full of caring, passionate, and wonderful people. I am profoundly grateful to my family, and want to especially mention my children Aviel and Nadiv and my husband Jon. It was Jon who said to me after the first service and dinner during my interview weekend, “I think you should do this!” I literally would not be here without him. This morning we sang the words that come from this week’s torah portion articulated by our patriarch Jacob, “Ma Norah HaMakom HaZeh,” “how awesome is this place!” There are no more fitting words for me this evening. 2 Ma Norah HaMakom HaZeh: How awesome is this place. I stand in the same sanctuary that Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan, of blessed memory, stood as he was formulating and articulating his program for the Jewish future – sharing ideas that would change the history of Judaism and impact all the movements of Judaism for the good. Kaplan spoke here– in this place– about the primacy of peoplehood, about an alternative way of understanding the Divine and holiness, about honoring tradition without needing to leave our intellects behind. Kaplan spoke here about embracing American values like democracy and sharing core Jewish values such as righteousness and ethics with the broader world. What happened here, in this very room, changed the world and brought a new vision for Jewish life into birth. As I step into leadership in this place, I am keenly aware of those that came before me. I am filled with awe and wonder and blessing, knowing that I have the opportunity to help shape the future of this congregation and to continue the conversation about what it means to reconstruct Judaism for the our generation and the next. Ma Norah HaMakom HaZeh: How awesome is this place. Since coming to SAJ, I have begun to see and understand what makes SAJ the unique and dynamic spiritual community that it is. At SAJ, there is a clear love of torah and a commitment to wrestling with it. People come to SAJ because they want to learn, to engage, to see what torah has to say to their own lives and to help them understand the world around them. This applies to our torah discussions, adult learning opportunities, salons. SAJ members are deeply curious about life, the world, how things work and they want to both learn and teach. The weekly tishes are a wonderful example of that – members sharing the torah of Jewish history, culture, text and life experience, enlightening each other and always leaving with the hopes of more conversations. At SAJ, there is also a spirit of participation and a commitment to building community. I love coming in on a Shabbat morning knowing there will be many people gathered in the sanctuary for prayer, parents dropping off children and either coming to services or joining with others in a coffee break or a parenting conversation. Meanwhile, children of all ages and backgrounds are learning together. And then we come together as a community for Kiddush, an intergenerational mix of people, yet we are all part of a larger whole. This commitment to community extends beyond the doors of the synagogue. My family and I are especially looking forward to this year’s retreat! SAJ members also know how to rally to each other’s side and be there for each other. Through the house meetings and 1:1s I have heard many people articulate how held they have felt by SAJ when they needed it and I have begun to see this myself. 3 SAJ members care deeply about this community. They are passionate – I was warned ahead of time about just how passionate SAJ members are! But this intensity is present because they care so much about torah, values, and about the congregation and its future. There are of course areas for us to work on together, to strengthen; there are relationships to build and more intergenerational connections to be made; I am excited to partner with you to envision and develop SAJ in its next iteration. Even knowing that, SAJ is a fundamentally a strong and healthy congregation. I know that this is due in large part to the leadership of Rabbi Strassfeld, and I am deeply grateful to him for everything he did to make SAJ what it is today. I am filled with awe and excitement at the possibility of serving and leading a congregation of passionate, caring, and committed people. I cannot wait to see what we can do together as we move forward in this partnership. I am also aware and want to name that coming into leadership of a synagogue at this particular day and age is not only awe-inspiring, it is also daunting. There is much discussion about overall trends in Jewish life: disaffiliation; increased secularization and a market-driven economy where people can get the “services” of synagogue life without the membership dues. Moving forward, these are realities we will need to contend with, and we may need to adapt and change. That said, I firmly believe that there is a hunger and need in our society for connection; that there is a hunger and need for a torah of compassion and justice. In our world, it is easy to feel despair. It is especially easy given the news of the past few weeks. And despite the “connectivity” we achieve through social media, it is common for many of us to feel disconnected, not seen. Yet, Jewish tradition teaches us to fight despair with hope and light and joy. Judaism gives us rituals to help us connect in meaningful ways. And Jewish tradition reminds us that each of us is an essential part of this Creation. This is why I believe the work we are doing all together tonight –and every day in our office– and every Shabbat — is holy work that is profoundly needed – perhaps more now than ever. Ma Norah HaMakom HaZeh. How awesome is this place, how awesome is this work, how awesome is this moment. May we all be blessed tonight and in our continued work together at the SAJ.

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