Kol Nidre 2018-5779 - Looking Back in Order to Look Ahead

Kol Nidre 2018
Looking Back and Looking Forward: A Call for Social Justice

This past year I had the honor and privilege of officiating at 4 weddings - more than I usually get to do. It’s always fun and thrilling to be involved in a marriage ceremony. I get to the know the couple as I meet with them a few times and then I get to see their smiles and witness the joy and celebration as family and friends participate in that most happy of occasions.
But it’s even more special when I’ve known either the bride or groom for a long time. In those cases I remember them when they were younger and in that way I can put the ceremony in better perspective. As I stand with them under the chuppah, I picture them on the bima when they became bat or bar mitzvah. By doing so, I can better appreciate how quickly our children grow up into mature, beautiful adults.
Such was the case this year as I celebrated with Talia Plotkin in May, Heather Auerbach in June, David Weinstein in July and Miriam Sandberg just over two weeks ago! It was so special to celebrate with them and their families. I was pleased that I could reflect upon what I said to them on the shabbat of their bnai mitzvah and see how they ended up growing into those wishes and blessings I extended to them at the time. Because I’ve been you’re rabbi for a number of years I’ve been blessed to watch many of your children grow up and to be part of their life cycle events.
I was thinking about these weddings because they helped put into perspective for me my tenure as your rabbi. Just as I’ve seen these brides and groom this year grow up, so too I’ve watched our synagogue evolve over the years. I became your rabbi in August 1994 so that makes this our 25th Yom Kippur together. I can’t believe a quarter of a century has gone by! That’s a long time and it’s a perfect opportunity to wax nostalgic and to be reflective this evening.
It was fascinating to look back in my files and read what I spoke about in 1994. Not only were the pages of my sermons printed by a dot matrix printer, the topics were a sign of the times too. I spoke about Israel and the prospects for peace with the Palestinians in light of the peace treaty signed with Jordan in the summer of 1994. I vividly remember that signing ceremony and the promise and optimism in the air at the time. Songs were being written and sung about the dreams for living in peace and tranquility. Lots of people from across the political spectrum thought that true peace was only a short time away. Now of course, with the civil war in Syria, the Iranian threats and a lack of will on either side in Israel and the Palestinian leadership to continue to negotiate, and continued violence that dream of peace seems further away.
I also spoke about what it would mean to be an egalitarian congregation and I laid out my plan for studying that religious issue and implementing changes. In 1994 it was still common for Conservative synagogues to deny women the right to fully participate in the service. Having grown up in my father’s synagogue in Philly that had been egalitarian for years I was very comfortable with egalitarianism and took it for granted. I also was in the first rabbinical school class that enrolled women. Looking back now, who could ever imagine in a non-Orthodox synagogue that women’s participation would be an issue anymore? But in 1994 it still was and I spoke about the class I was going to offer and the process for implementing changes.
I also devoted a sermon to my theology as I began to introduce myself to you. I wanted you to know how I believed in God and why, so that we could appreciate the variety of Jewish perspectives. I wanted you to know that there are a number of legitimate, Jewish ways to believe in God and even more so that it is imperative to reflect upon our relationship with God continuously. As you have heard, my theology has changed over the years based mainly on tragedies that we have experienced together as a community. The horrific nightmare that Irma Goff lived through 23 years ago and 9/11 that Marilyn Pontell experienced personally and the many personal losses felt by many of you over the years influenced how I believe in God. By living through and helping guide you through these crises I developed a theology that worked for me and I felt could work for everyone so that no matter the depths of despair we experience, we can still appreciate the comfort and strength of God’s presence.
And I spoke about my vision for what our shul should be and how we could thrive together into the future. In that sermon I spoke about the power of community. I highlighted programs I hoped to support and to create that would strengthen our sense of community so that our congregation would be more attractive to new members. There wasn’t anything very creative or bold in that sermon, it was mainly another attempt on my part to help you understand my vision for how we could work together to help Shaare Tefila grow and thrive. But that vision was based on assumptions about the Jewish community at the time that have since drastically changed.
I’d like to spend the next few moments reflecting on how our community, and the greater Jewish community has changed and what challenges lie ahead. This 25 year retrospective is an opportunity to better understand who we are as a congregation, how we got here and how we’ll best succeed moving forward. Since Yom Kippur is a day of reflection for each of us personally it’s also a perfect time to reflect as a community.
The Jewish community today both locally and nationally is much different than it was 25 years ago. Locally the greater Washington Jewish community has grown to be tied with Chicago as the third largest Jewish community in North America. The nearly 300,000 Jews here are mostly living in Northern Virginia (41%), closely followed by Montgomery County (39%) and then DC. But the biggest difference between now and then concerns synagogue affiliation. In 1990 41% of the North American Jewish community was affiliated with a synagogue. But according to the local Jewish demographic survey published last December that number declined to 26%. And that number should really be 18% because 8% of local Jews belong to Chabad or other non-denominational independent minyanim that don’t ask for dues. That is a huge decline from 4 out of 10 households being affiliated to only 2 out of 10 households. That decline has tremendous implications for how synagogue leadership strategized 25 years ago vs. how we should strategize today. And I think that decline may also reflect how we - in the synagogue community - may have missed the boat in how we reach out to Jews today.
In 1994 a lot of so called experts in the Jewish community spoke about the 41% affiliation rate and saw how that also was a decline since the previous survey. But within the Conservative Movement people liked to talk about how we were still essentially tied with the Reform Movement as the largest denomination in North America. That swagger made us arrogant and diverted attention to other factors that the movement’s leadership felt were more alarming - namely the rise in the rate of intermarriage. Leadership actually not just in the Conservative Movement but in the Federation world representing all Jews in North America spent much money and programming efforts on what they called Jewish continuity. The fact as they understood it that over 50% of Jews were marrying people who weren’t Jewish was more alarming to them than any other statistic from the survey. So people discussed how best to counter attack that perceived threat on the essential nature of the Jewish community. Should money be spent on in-reach to the current Jewish population and raise the level of Jewish identity and Jewish education, thus supposedly strengthening the desire among Jews to marry other Jews, or should money be spent on reaching out to those mixed faith couples themselves and by doing so hope to provide a reason for them to stay connected with the community? That debate raged for years and as it did, it offended many people. The mixed faith couples themselves were offended that they were being targeted in such a direct way. Those couples felt that the community was blaming them and condemning them for doing something wrong by marrying out of the faith and the community was making it worse by offering them a chance to make amends. Others within some denominations in an equally offensive manner felt that it would be a waste of resources to spend money on people who they felt had already left the fold. They argued that money should be spent on proven programs - day school or summer camp for example - rather than on creating experimental programming that may not be successful.
While the leadership devoted energy on a symptom, the leadership ignored the more important problem. Intermarriage was only one issue that the community was facing. Declining synagogue affiliation, the question of the centrality of Israel, the level of Jewish education and holiday observances were just some of the other issues that were studied as well. But all of those issues and many others only masked the more important question. Rather than studying and reacting to the “what”, we really needed to focus attention on the “why”.
As the Pew Research Center has shown in its last survey in 2014, 64% of people who identify as Jews fairly certainly believe in God. If two thirds of the community believe in God then why does only one fifth belong to a synagogue? Out of all the statistics from all the surveys over the years that is the most crucial statistic of all highlighting what is the main challenge to synagogues in the future. The main problem in other words is if people believe in God why aren’t they joining synagogues to express their belief? If ⅔ of all Jews believe in God why do only ⅕ of all Jews belong to a synagogue?
That large discrepancy between belief and affiliation certainly explains why many synagogues including our own haven’t grown over the years and in fact why many have closed. If we think synagogues are essentially places to pray and Jews aren’t praying in synagogues then it makes sense that synagogues would be in decline.
Belief vs. affiliation is another way of expressing the debate between the why and the what. In order to understand the nature of the what - synagogue affiliation - we have to understand the nature of the why - essential Jewish beliefs.
Let me describe this dilemma another way. As I try to understand the health and condition of my body, I could focus on my baldness, or on my aches and pains, or on my weight and I could try to treat all those issues one at a time. In the process I would be neglecting the bigger question which is the nature of my overall health. By focussing on a pain in my leg I may be neglecting to focus on how my whole body is doing. The same is true of the Jewish community. Education, our relationship with Israel, synagogue affiliation, among others are all symptoms - or pains in the leg or the neck. The bigger issue, the crux of trying to understand the foundational issue facing the Jewish community is why are people Jewish?
In 2013 the Pew Center published a survey that focused entirely on the American Jewish community. It asked that essential question - how do Jews find meaning today. The number one answer - for 73% of American Jews - is that they find meaning in remembering the Holocaust. A close second at 69% was leading an ethical life and in third place at 56% Jews said they find meaning in working for justice and equality.
As I have described these demographic trends and commented on the issues with which the Jewish community dealt over these past 25 years, I’ve come to realize that the essential question of how we find meaning is what we need to focus on as a shul. As we look back in order to gain insight and learn lessons for moving forward we really need to focus on that basic question. If we know how Jews find meaning then maybe we’ll know as a congregation how to focus our efforts.
Synagogues have been working from a model that has existed for centuries. The different Hebrew names for a congregation highlight that model. We’ve been a beit kenesset, a house of assembly, for social programming. We’ve been a beit midrash, a house of study, for educational programming for our children and for adults. And we’ve been a beit tefila, a house of prayer, as we are tonight. Every synagogue in North America has been functioning according to that three-pronged model for decades. But that model has an essential flaw. It is based on providing programming according to what synagogue leadership thinks the community wants. Because synagogues have been doing things this way seemingly forever we have cornered ourselves into a box. This is our role in the community and we have no other way to function.
But we have to break out of this confining model. Instead of doing what we think you want, we have to do programming based on what we know you want. If the Pew Center report was accurate and 56% find meaning in doing social justice, then we as a congregation need to figure out ways in which we do social justice too. We need not only to be encouraged by the bold and ambitious agenda of our social action committee, but we also need to figure out ways in which we can expand social justice in everything we do. That is our challenge as we move forward and that is a challenge that I look forward to confronting with you.
Since November 2016 I have devoted a lot of sermonic energy on social justice concerns. Without commenting on the current administration we all must admit that a variety of social action issues have been debated these past two years. No matter where we fall on the political spectrum we have to admit that climate change issues, immigration policy, what to do with refugees and gun control along with many other topics have been debated and challenged. I’ve given my opinion in talks on many shabbat mornings and in articles in the Shofar as to how I think Judaism teaches us to act.
It seems clear to me that we need to expend even more effort in becoming a synagogue devoted to social justice. If 69% of Jews care about ethical issues and 56% actually want to work on social justice issues then we need to provide opportunities for Jews to do that. We need to establish as a core principle of our mission that we not only care about social justice but we provide opportunities to become more educated about issues and to do hands on activities.
Our social justice committee under the leadership of Lisa Hedgepeth has begun to discuss how to establish a more bold and ambitious agenda. Though our resources may be limited our energy is boundless. We hope to be able to have both an educational social justice program and an experiential activity every month. We plan to host panel discussions on a variety of topics and for each topic have educated representatives on opposite sides who will not only present their valid response to the topic but will help us listen respectfully to other side. For example, though I might believe that no one needs to own a gun I understand that gun ownership and hunting are part of American culture. There are different Jewish views on how best to combat gun violence. We can provide such a forum for understanding the nuances to this debate. And we can also provide a hands on way to reach out to and work with organizations that help victims of gun violence. This is only one example of many social justice issues that we need to learn about and in which we need to be more involved as a congregation.
At every wedding as I look into the faces of the brides and grooms I dream with them about their future. I see the promise and the love in their eyes for each other and I pray that their love only blossom and grow. I also share with them the following blessing from the Talmud, “May you live to see your world fulfilled, may your destiny be for worlds still to come. May you trust in generations past and yet to be. May your hearts be filled with intuition, your words with insight. May songs of praise ever be on your tongue and your vision on a straight path before you. May your eyes shine with the light of holy words and your faces reflect the glory of heaven.”
No one can predict the future. But by studying the past and understanding the trends in the broader Jewish community we can have a better sense of how to move forward. I think the statistics and studies teach us that we need to focus our attention on social justice. Not just is that an issue that is relevant today but it seems to be what Jews are interested in doing. As that wedding prayer conveys I pray that our path forward together be one of insight, spirituality and growth. Amen.