Monday, September 29, 2014

An Avodah for Emanuel, Delivered Rosh Hashanah morning 9/25/2014

            Rosh Hashanah, the start of a new Jewish year, should be a time of joy and celebration.  Yes, the weeks leading up to this holy day, those of the month of Elul, slowly invite us to begin the process of cheshbon ha-nefesh, that introspective task of taking an inventory of our thoughts and actions that will culminate days from now on Yom Kippur.  Our Slichot service held this past Saturday evening formally ushered in our season of repentance and Rosh Hashanah marks the start of the most intense period of that season, the ten Yamim Noraim, the ten Days of Awe and Reflection; but, Rosh Hashanah is also a celebration of new beginnings.  The apples and honey, the sweet cakes and kugels that will be served at our holiday tables, they remind us that this day is to be celebrated with sweetness and delight. 
            I have always loved Rosh Hashanah and as a child eagerly awaited its arrival each year.  Getting “back to shul” outfits to replace outgrown clothes, going to services where I met up with friends in the youth lounge; singing along to the music of the liturgy; enjoying the Kiddush in our synagogue’s courtyard, and then heading home for a festive meal with grandparents and lots of honey, challah, apples, and my grandmom’s chocolate chip oatmeal squares.   
My holiday looks different now than my childhood one did.  The places where my grandparents sat, all born in the first 5 years of the 20th-century, have long been filled with children of my own.   New clothes now mean an occasional update (perhaps new shoes) to a well-worn suit or dress.  Singing along has been replaced with my taking a formal leadership role in worship, and I now make the chocolate chip bars; but still, always, I have found simple and sweet joy in Rosh Hashanah, the sound of the shofar, and the opportunity to start a new year.   The Jewish calendar has it right: Fall is the perfect time to stop and take a moment to celebrate the possibilities for renewal.
            I must confess, however, that the joyous anticipation I normally feel this time of year has been elusive.   One could argue that national and global events have dampened the sweetness of this holiday.  Indeed, there has been much in our world that could weigh heavily on our hearts and minds.  Just since this past spring, our world has witnessed:
            The kidnapping of hundreds of school girls in Nigeria by the extremist Islamic faction, Boko Haram, a group that has been wreaking havoc generally in Nigeria.  We have witnessed the erosion of a woman’s right to access complete healthcare in this country.  We continue to bare witness to a seemingly unrelenting and intractable conflict in the Middle East.  Earlier this week, we watched and listened as our country and its allies began a proactive military response to the recent increase in volatility (and inhumanity) of ISIS.  And, this past summer, we witnessed racial tension in our own country that elicited a response that mirrors all too vividly other images from my early childhood that are not nearly as sweet as my Rosh Hashanah memories. 
            But, as difficult as such events as these are to comprehend and digest, what weighs perhaps most significantly upon my heart and mind as we usher in 5775 are the challenges and tensions we are feeling here in our own small congregation.  Thankfully, our challenge is not a bloody one (let’s keep it that way, please), but nonetheless, it weighs heavily on my heart, and I expect on yours as well.
             Deciding to sell this building evokes genuine and legitimate feelings of loss and disappointment even as it is clear that it is a good and thoroughly considered decision, arguably the best in the face of our current circumstances. This sanctuary and building have been Temple Emanuel’s home for 18 years.  We can talk all we want about how community is defined by people, not space (and I assure you, I will continue to do so), but it is this physical space that has enabled us – the people of this place - to gather easily for worship, for study, for lifecycle events – baby namings, Bar and Bat Mitzvahs, weddings, and funerals. 
We have gathered here to celebrate birthdays, anniversaries, and other special events; we have gathered here to watch our kids master skills; we’ve gathered here for the most simplest of needs: for food, for solace, for compassion.  Indeed, the building has served as a physical residence, a home, for our congregation.  So, sadness is warranted.  We – perhaps especially those who were involved in building this space – have every right to name that sadness and to mourn that this building didn’t house and will not house the future imagined when it was envisioned and built.
            At the same time, let us be sure to mourn only the loss of the physical plant and the specific vision that went into building it.   Let us be sure that we are not prematurely mourning the loss of Temple Emanuel.  The building must not become our sole identity.  
We are far from the first Jews to be in a position where we may lose our beloved building.  Recall, the Jewish people of the first century not only lost a physical plant that was their beloved Temple, but lost it for good.  This was a traumatic period for that generation of Jews, far more traumatic than ours, but they were able to seize upon a working vision – one painstaking worked upon by leaders in the community – a vision that transcended space.  A vision that created a future that was no longer dependent on that building that they knew so well, that building that had housed their worship for generations.
 Our prayer book and our holidays spend a good amount of time and energy reflecting upon that Temple of old, but if we look carefully at those prayers and the festive days that call us back to the Temple, it is to the goings on within, not the structure itself that is deemed significant.  
For example, the Yom Kippur Avodah.  The Avodah is a lengthy rubric of prayer that we recite every year on Yom Kippur afternoon It recalls, replays in a sense, the ritual of Yom Kippur worship as it took place in the Temple that stood in Jerusalem and sets it poetically into the context of Jewish history.  One could argue that the Avodah is long, even tedious (it certainly has its repetitive moments); but as poetry, it’s brilliant.   For, this Avodah worship narrative of Yom Kippur provides a literary vehicle that has sustained itself for over a millennium – even as it has evolved – while telling us about the worship in which the community engaged inside the walls of the Temple.  It doesn’t tell us much at all about the structure.  It tells us a great deal about how the community functioned and what was valued.  Versions of the Yom Kippur Avodah have been written in most every era of Jewish history, and they continue to tell us not about our buildings, but about us – the folks who make up the community.  This worship narrative tells us about how we act and pray.
 Maybe we should write our own Avodah about our Temple.  What would it tell us of ourselves?
            18 years of Torah
Have taken place here,
In these rooms
            And Prayer.

Did the walls learn?
Did the rafters sing?
Can the emotions felt
 Bar Mitzvahs,
Can they be infused into concrete, dry wall,
into paint?
If they could, which would laugh?
            Which would cry?
Maybe that was it!
 our roof emoting
            Tears rushing in
            During every rain?

The inquiry absurd
Of course
The building doesn’t care
Even as it has proudly stood
            Labeled Emanuel
            At our bequest.

The rabbis insist
Al shelosha devarim,
These are the legs that sustain us.

For all the yearning for a Temple
I don’t ever recall
A demand
 for any ceiling,
 Or mantle.

A structure – even Jerusalem’s Wall –
can’t satisfy
            Such a human call
That requires us,
            To engage
to comply
to the values
passed down through time.

            Yet, still we need
and desire
            A place to call home,
A place for Emanuel
and Ha-Makom.
            A place for us to gather
                        and fill more rooms
 with Torah
                                    And lots more Chai
Proverbs reminds us
            How to build
                        With pursuit of
            They are the gems
            That provide
            For length of day,
                        And years of chai.
            and compassion
Can we grasp
            Can we comprehend?
These are the tools
                        That we must hold on to --
As we strive
                        To keep Emanuel
                         And its legacy
Considering our congregation’s next steps into the future raises tensions among us that have the potential to divide.   We must remind ourselves that these tensions reflect loyalty and love for our congregation.  They are evidence that we care.  As we begin this New Year, 5775, I challenge all of us to refuse to let difference of opinion about our future to divide us. 
Our congregation’s, Temple Emanuel’s, identity can survive without this particular building.  It can’t survive without its people – without you.  I believe that the almost 60 years of this congregation’s history can be sustained into the future.  But, in order for it to do so, we must be open minded and willing to change our tightly held views about just how it can do so.  We must guard against being too inwardly focused in our thoughts about what a synagogue, what this synagogue, must be while remaining committed to imagining what it can be.   And perhaps, what it can be a part of.
This is the season for renewal.  This is the season when we can commit ourselves to seeing things differently.  In order to move forward, we must mourn the past.  We must let go of unrealized goals and vision.  That is, for sure, a difficult and critical part of cheshbon hanefesh, of taking that internal tally that is so much a part of the process of teshuvah.  But, it is required; for only then, can we move forward embracing a revised vision that benefits us, that benefits those who come after us seeking a place to nurture their Jewish identities, and that benefits the broader Jewish community that this synagogue was founded to serve.
Copies of my Avodah for Emanuel are available in the lobby.  I invite you to take one and consider what you would add to it.

Friday, September 26, 2014

Days of Old - Days Ahead, Delivered Erev Rosh Hashanah 5775, Sept. 24, 2014

         You may have seen the following social media post that has repeatedly made its rounds on Facebook, Twitter, and the like over the past couple years. It is targeted specifically to those raised during the 1960’s through the 1980’s, and perhaps to the parents who did the raising:
…we survived being born to mothers who smoked and/or drank while they carried us. They took aspirin, ate blue cheese dressing, tuna from a can, and didn't get tested for diabetes…. our baby cribs were covered with bright colored lead-based paints. We had no childproof lids on medicine bottles, doors or cabinets and when we rode our bikes, we had no helmets…. As children, we would ride in cars with no seat belts or air bags. Riding in the back of a pick up on a warm day was always a special treat. We drank water from the garden hose and NOT from a bottle. …. We ate cupcakes, white bread…and drank soda pop with sugar in it, but we weren't overweight because WE WERE ALWAYS OUTSIDE PLAYING! We would leave home in the morning and play all day, as long as we were back when the streetlights came on. No one was able to reach us all day… We would spend hours building our go-carts out of scraps and then ride down the hill, only to find out we forgot the brakes. After running into the bushes a few times, we learned to solve the problem. We did not have Playstations, Nintendo's, X-boxes, …. no 99 channels on cable, no video tape movies, no surround sound, no cell phones, no personal computers, no Internet or Internet chat rooms..........We went outside to find our friends.  We fell out of trees, got cut, broke bones and teeth and there were no lawsuits from these accidents…. We were given BB guns for our 10th birthdays, made up games with sticks and tennis balls and although we were told it would happen, we did not put out very many eyes. …. Little League had tryouts and not everyone made the team. …. This generation has produced some of the best risk-takers, problem solvers and inventors ever! The past 50 years have been an explosion of innovation and new ideas. We had freedom, failure, success and responsibility, and we learned HOW TO DEAL WITH IT ALL!
Really?  At first glance, this monologue seems to capture the ingredients necessary for the achievement of The American Dream.  It was these childhood experiences apparently that lead to generations of balanced risk takers, determined problem solvers, and creative inventors.  It was these experiences, according to its nostalgic author, that have fostered the productivity, ambitious work-ethic, and ability to get ahead that we associate with the American Dream.   Moreover, the intention of this rant is to convince us that the curtailment of certain freedoms coupled with helicopter parenting have caused some apparent failure we see among the younger generation rising up after the Boomers and Gen-xers, a group known as the Millennials.  
I couldn’t disagree more.
I am glad to be among the lucky who survived many of these childhood experiences, but I’m equally glad, thrilled actually, that my children don’t have to.  I bet my parents are thrilled that I didn’t have to face the risk of polio either.  Thanks to advances in science, technology, and in some cases, common sense, we know better.  I’m grateful for the bicycle helmets that Rachel and I wear when we ride out onto Smith Avenue.  I’m glad my kids don’t blink an eye at what would have been considered weird “health food” when I was a child (and I’m talking about wheat bread here).  I’m grateful for the information that allowed me to do my best, in this day and age, to have healthy pregnancies.  As a parent to a student driver, I’m glad – thrilled - that driver’s ed is now a requirement and not just an option for reduced insurance rates!  I’m sure the rules will change again and again, and again.  That’s called progress.
Yes, I recall the freedom I had to wander the neighborhood alone at a young age.  I also recall my parents calling the police in to find me on one occasion.  Perhaps, if I had a simple and convenient way to notify them (or better yet in their minds, ask them) if I could stop at a friend’s house en route home from another friend’s house, they’d have been spared tons of worry.  And, our community’s police officers would have been spared a needless house call.  Sure I was safe, but I might not have been – even in the 70’s bad, even atrocious things happened -- and my parents had no way of communicating with me to find out.  Did those carefree, if not na├»ve, wanderings lead to my success as a human being?  I think not.
Did my being cut from middle school field hockey and basketball tryouts impact me?   Absolutely.  It’s no wonder that my favorite sports don’t involve team play.   Instead, one sport I love today is one in which I was welcomed to participate in as a young teen.  There were no cuts on my school’s track team.  Did that make me less determined, ambitious, or willing to take on risk?   I am standing here on Temple Emanuel’s bema, aren’t I?  It did, however, help turn me into a life-long runner who rejoices at being out there stretching myself beyond my comfort zone and far beyond my natural skill set. 
This seemingly innocuous social media post is far from harmless.  It has the potential to stir unrest, engender negativity, and create division.   It works to convince us that we are failing, that for the first time in American history, young people will not be as accomplished as the previous generation preceding them.  That, they will not achieve or even have access to the American Dream.
            The American Dream.
Though based on the ideals set forth in our country’s Declaration of Independence which holds, “certain truths to be self-evident” including “life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness," the formal concept of The American Dream did not exist until the years of our country’s first Great Depression.   The American Dream was not birthed until 1931 when author, James Truslow Adams (no relation to either Presidents Adams), used the phrase over 30 times throughout a book titled,The Epic of America.  In it, he defined the American dream as "that dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement.” (p.214-215) 
Adams understood this American Dream to have been present from the start of our nation, from the Declaration of American independence, and, in his words, to be “the greatest contribution we have made to the thought and welfare of the world.” (Cullen, 4).   Interestingly enough, as familiar, as popular, as the ideal of The American Dream is to us today, it was an entirely foreign concept at its introduction.  Adams was even advised against entitling his book as such.  That was his original plan – to name his book The American Dream not The Epic of America, but he was told, “that …No one will pay three dollars for a book about a dream.” (cited by Cullen, 3).  Apparently, in his day, more were willing to fork over some cash for an “Epic” as opposed to a “Dream.”  After his book, however, the phrase The American Dream quickly entered common parlance where it remains and since has become an expression of our national ethos.
The American Dream.  
What scares us into writing diatribes such as the social media post by which I opened this sermon is our fear that we, or our children, won’t achieve the same material wealth of previous generations.   It is no a coincidence that the whole notion of an American Dream and this social media post were both born in periods of economic distress.  Sadly, however, whereas Adam’s 1931 commentary left Americans feeling optimistic about their future, our contemporary and anonymous author has written a passage that stirs up fear.  It’s not the future that will save us but rather, he argues, a return to the past, a past that he has glorified.
The reality of our economy and the job market not withstanding, I believe that the American Dream is doing just fine.  I believe that the generations that follow me, that follow most of us, have a vision and will have opportunities that surpass anything my generation or those before me had.   Millennials, those born somewhere in the 1980’s through the early aughts, while often accused by the media of being narcissistic and self-absorbed, are, according to a 2010 literary report of the Pew Research Center, “confident, connected, and open to change.”    Those certainly aren’t words that would have described my generation.   
They are also described as complex and introspective.   Remember, this is a generation that as children witnessed the terror of 9/11 and the subsequent and seemingly futile wars that have tapped our nation both spiritually and economically.  They have endured the impact of what is now called The Great Recession both as children of parents affected and now as job seekers.  They have been raised in an America where gun violence is rampant and sometimes very close – too close-- to home.  Their world is very different than mine and from many of yours, and that isn’t because they wore compelled by law to wear seat belts or bike helmets.   
This group is skeptical of organized institutions.  But, frankly they may not need the outside organizations in the way that we have in order to connect.  They live in a constant and ever-present network, and many are eager to use that network to improvise solutions in the moment creating in-person meet ups and hacking sessions in order to tackle serious social and environmental issues.
Indeed, this generation that follows mine has a civic and global awareness that may supersede any before it.  Studying abroad and gap years were and continue to be the norm for these folks.  Connecting so naturally via the Internet and Skype has enabled this generation to transcend geography and virtually abolish any physical barriers to communication.  The experiences of this generation has lead them, as a whole, to have a quickness on their feet, a sense of empathy with others, and an interest in making the world better.   Google’s former CEO and current Chair of the Board, Eric Schmidt, who as a leader in the tech sector has worked extensively with Millennials, describes this generation as, “better” than his own, “better prepared, better educated, more collaborative than any generation, and more socially conscious; they want to feel their work has a social purpose.” (Rehm interview, NPR, 9/22/14)  A representative of this generation, quoted in the New York Times this past August, confirms Schmidt’s observations[GW1] , “the better [I’m] doing,” he stated, “the more [I] can share with other people.” (NYT, 8/17/2014).    
I have no doubt that the generations that follow mine will achieve their own version of The American Dream.  And, that really is the point of the whole notion, isn’t it?  At the core of the American Dream, at least as originally conceived, is to move forward, to create opportunity, to have a vision for the future that is not simply a reproduction of the past.   The American Dream has a lot in common with Reform Judaism – it imagines change and values progress.
The Millennials themselves, however, may not trust in the American Dream.  A current song by the rapper MKTO makes this clear.  He writes,
Never take candy from a stranger

And keep your eyes open for danger

'Cause this right here is the twisted paradise
This ain't the same summer song that you used to know

'Cause Jack left Diane thirty years ago

The world is spinning too fast for you and me

So tell me whatever happened to the American dream
This ain't the same summer song that you used to know

So baby, let's live and die before we're getting old

You know that nothing is the way it used to be

Our attitudes, such as expressed by that social media post, haven’t helped.  For too long we have equated material prosperity with the American Dream.  Home ownership and luxury vehicles – stuff - have become markers of success.   Our consumerist culture enables this distortion of the American Dream: some things money can buy, for the rest there is debt…oh, I mean MasterCard.  This is where we have failed Mr. Adams.   We have seized on his 1931 definition of The American Dream as a perpetual striving for “better, richer, and fuller” while entirely ignoring his qualification that, immediately follows, “It is not a dream of motor cars and high wages merely, but a dream of social order in which each man and each woman shall be able to attain to the fullest stature of which they are innately capable, and be recognized by others for what they are, regardless of the fortuitous circumstances of birth or position."
Shame on us.  Even Ben Franklin, who made more than his fair share of money and is considered by some “a prophet of capitalism,” (Curren, 64) viewed the wealth he accumulated as a vehicle for a greater good.  Once financially secure, he retired from his printing business in order to devote himself to both: the research and study of electricity and to philanthropic endeavor.
It is so tempting to imagine the past as better than then the present.   We survived it, so how bad could it be?  It is just as easy to forget that the past is at least as complicated as the present.  We are just really good at whitewashing the complicated parts out of our memory.  Francis Scott Key, as The Sun paper reminded us this summer, offers a poignant example.  He is recalled – appropriately so - as an American patriot who sacrificed his freedom for the sake of a friend.   Just the utterance of his name evokes images of the American values of independence, loyalty, and liberty for all.  
We forget, however, that the America of his day was not the America of today.   He is celebrated for the poem that would in time become our nation’s beloved Star Spangled Banner.   We forget that only the first verse of that poem became our nation’s anthem.  The rest we have happily forgotten.  The full text reflects the far more messy and complicated reality of war in a period where whites owned blacks.  Key was remarkable in his day in that he donated his legal services to blacks and stood up for their rights.  He was also typical of his generation in that he was very much in favor of slavery and did not believe slaves' rights were on par with their owners. I don’t raise this to bash Key.  He deserves his place in the historical record.  But, let him remind us too that the past is as complicated as the present.  It behooves us not to put it too high on any pedestal.  I love the study of history for the insights it brings, but I prefer to trust in the pursuit of the present and the future.
During the holiday season, we reflect upon and honor the past.  We challenge ourselves to “renew ourselves” as in “yamenu k’kedem” those days of old.  As we enter 5775, one of great challenge for our country, for Israel and other regions beyond our borders, as well as for our own small congregational community, let us equally renew ourselves by taking note of the generations that are coming up after us.  Let us learn from their compassion and social consciousness, from their creativity and their willingness to collaborate.  Let us use their tools: let us meet up and hack in our effort to find solutions.  Let us be inspired by them as we all work towards creating a reality that is dream worthy.