RENOVATION AND RENEWAL
Rosh Hashanah Eve, 5772/2011
Rabbi Debra Hachen Temple Beth-El, Jersey City
A few days ago someone fairly new to the Temple mentioned to me that his elderly relative who moved away from Jersey City decades ago was describing to him how Temple Beth-El was known for its great wealth and beauty back when she was young – 65 years ago. This relative particularly recalled the gorgeous maroon cushions on the pews in the old days. Those of us hearing this story laughed -- for here in this sanctuary, we still sit on those maroon cushions. on those same wooden pews. And we are proud of it – proud of our history, our tales of the founders and movers and leaders of this Temple and their influence in Jersey City for good. We are proud of the names of donors written onto stained glass windows, or plaques, or ritual objects. It’s as if old friends and neighbors are here in the room with us, come back again to share the High Holy Days.
I love being the new rabbi in an historic Reform temple. Like this congregation, my roots go back over a century in the Reform movement. My great-grandfather, Rabbi Sol Kory, was ordained at Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati in 1903 and served a congregation in Vicksburg, Mississippi. My father, alav hashalom, was also ordained at HUC in Cincinnati and served congregations on Long Island, in Connecticut and in Ohio before working for the Reform movement as a Regional Director.
Tonight is all about how to embrace the old, embrace one’s roots, and yet make room for the new. One of the reasons many folks fear change is because they fear the jettisoning of all that is familiar and comfortable. Even when we are in situations where we are stifled or frustrated or stuck, it is tempting to hang in just a little longer because at least we are dealing with the “known” – not the unknown.
Perhaps you recall the famous folktale of the man who complains to God how difficult his life is. That night, in a dream, God carries him off to heaven and invites him into a large room. There all along the walls are hooks, and hanging from each hook is a large sack. God explains that each sack contains all the troubles of one human being. God then invites the man to check out each sack, and feel free to choose one to take back to replace his current sufferings. The man slowly looks in each bag, hovers over their contents. There is not one that is empty of sorrows or failures. A few times he pauses, tempted to try on a different assortment of hardships, but, in the end, he takes his own sack off the hook, hoists it over his shoulder, and returns home to earth.
Some see this story as a reminder that everyone suffers. I think it is more than that. It is also a reminder that the familiar seems more livable. Over the years we learn how to cope and manage what life brings us – and we are not very sure if those coping mechanisms will work to our advantage in a new situation. It is not merely awareness that all life is tough that moves the man to take his own sack; it is also that he has learned to live with his circumstances.
There is nothing wrong with adjusting to one’s circumstances. Accepting who we are and the realities around us are healthy qualities. The High Holy Days, however, ask us to stretch and consider that change may be just what the doctor – or God – ordered. Stasis is not a healthy state of being. The new becomes old, the old becomes worn out. Even the maroon cushions need to be cleaned and repaired from time to time. And one day, replaced altogether.
So, on this High Holy Days, with admiration for the generations who were the Temple Beth-El of the last 100 years, I want to challenge us to undertake a renovation. Not a renovation of the sanctuary or the roof – though we all know those are both sorely needed – but a renovation of the way we think about our congregation, our Judaism, and our individual lives. Why start today? Our liturgy gives us the clue as we recite the words in the Avinu Malkeinu prayer. Avinu Malkeinu, Our parent and ruler, Chadeysh aleynu shana tova. Renew for us a good year. We literally ask God to make this year new – different, unique, something that has not existed before.
And we know that God cannot simply turn on a switch and make that happen. The hard work of renewal has to come from each of us.
First, the renovation, the renewal, of the congregation. My first 100 days in the temple will end on Yom Kippur – and I dedicated that time as much as possible to listening to the history of Beth-El and individual stories of our members. I heard of volunteers who put in years of effort to make Temple Beth-El a light to the greater community. I heard of the days when these pews were filled to overflowing and extra seats had to be set on the bimah. I listened to the sadness as beloved members passed on. I heard how a friendly smile at an Oneg Shabbat convinced a young couple to join the temple, and how Rabbi Brickman not only tended to you – his extended family – but how he taught respect and understanding in his interfaith work with local colleges and churches. I heard the pride of hosting the worshippers from Clair Memorial United Methodist Church for the ten years it took for them to rebuild after a fire. Before we start adding the new – we need to know where we came from. And as they say, we come from good folks. We come from Reform Jews who did not reject traditions – but honored them and updated them. We come from people who were passionate about civil rights and human rights: whether here in New Jersey or around the world. We come from people who took care of each other when there was illness or death. We come from people who were delighted when young families and couples and singles wandered up from downtown and discovered this treasure in a changing neighborhood. We come from people who sit down together – 20 somethings and 80 somethings, and share conversation at an Oneg Shabbat. We come from people who pride themselves on the interfaith and interracial families that call Beth-El home. We come from people who want to preserve this historic building because it is one of the last reminders of the flourishing Jewish Community that began to dwindle in the 70’s and 80’s.
At the same time, this community is poised for renewal. And that renewal is not just beginning with a new rabbi or leadership. It began years back as one by one, individuals of all ages began settling back into this part of Hudson County. It began with a Bat Mitzvah 13 years ago that was the first in many years. It began with empty nesters who brought their leadership talents honed at other temples. It began with those who were long settled in the congregation who began to imagine a new chapter at Beth-El, and welcomed it. They did not just take down the same sack from the wall – content to continue with the same old, same old.
I love this congregation already because it may only have 120 member households, but it has 120 good will ambassadors who want to try new things, learn new things, experiment, and have fun doing it. A new rabbi brings new energy because he or she stands back and sees things in a new light, and then shines that light so others can see themselves in new ways. I am sure Rabbi Brickman is doing that now in his part-time congregation in Pinehurst, North Carolina.
And that is what I hope to do here at Beth-El. Bring my thirty years of experience, plus my curiosity about the innovations happening in the greater Jewish world, plus my core belief that Jewish life is built one relationship at a time – and shine some light on areas of temple life that had been on the back burner. In partnership with all of you, we will then define our mission and goals, and begin implementing the programs and worship that will propel us forward. While a rabbi cannot impose a vision on a congregation, a common vision is, I believe what drew you to me and me to you back last spring. My vision of a temple is one that does not wait for people to cross its threshold. It goes out and holds classes and even holiday celebrations where the people are. My vision of a temple is one that rethinks the definition of membership and views its constituency as all Jewish or partly-Jewish households whether they pay dues or not. My vision of a temple is one in which the rabbi and lay leaders work side by side – pushing each other to think outside the box. My vision of a temple is one in which there is no one right way to pray or practice Jewish rituals, but there is one right set of ethical standards. I believe my vision and your vision are traveling the same road, one that Rabbi Brickman walked with you during his long tenure here as well, and that this Rosh Hashanah is a commitment not to replacing an old vision, but taking that vision in new directions.
There is a second renewal asked of us tonight. And that is to re-examine our personal connection to Judaism, the Jewish people, and God. Over the next ten days we are going to be in an environment that challenges our normal way of thinking. We are going to be removed for hours at a time from the regular secular rhythm of our lives – work, errands, the tasks of caretaking others. Our Jewish consciousness is going to be raised – simply by being in a Jewish setting singing Hebrew words, discussing Jewish topics, examining teachings from Jewish texts. And we have a choice to make. We can experience these days as a nostalgic return to our roots, a brief “visit” to an exotic past, or we can be truly present and open to hear God’s call. This can be a time out, a sort of vacation from our regular lives, or it can be a jump start on confronting the bigger questions of existence and purpose.
Perhaps it is because I am growing older, but I feel the urgency to bring up these core questions more and more. And I have found that most people are hungry for the conversations with themselves and others that these questions engender. In a moment, I want to share with you my list of questions for this season of the Jewish year, with the hope that you will add your own core questions to the list. The ushers will have copies of this list to give out at the end of the service. It’s not a take home test, but I do hope you will keep it in your pocket or purse between now and Yom Kippur. During our services, you may want to take it out and choose one to think about. Or perhaps discuss one around the table at lunch or dinner. I doubt we will discover any answers between now and Yom Kippur, but these are not questions awaiting resolution. They are questions to awaken the soul, move us from complacency, and take charge of our Judaism.
Here they are:
- What does it mean to be a Jew in the 21st century?
- What role if any should Judaism play in my life?
- If being Jewish is part of who I am, is it part of my core, or on the periphery?
- What is the purpose of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur worship and rituals? What do they add to my life?
- In what ways would my life be qualitatively different if I skipped the observance of these Holy Days?
- What do I owe to past generations of Jews? How autonomous can I be without leaving Judaism behind?
- What does religion ultimately provide for us, or what does it want from us?
- If I am a parent raising children, how can Judaism help me raise my child into the kind of adult I hope he or she will grow into?
- How can Judaism reinforce the kind of adult I hope to be?
- How do I really know if the choices I make about not following certain practices or rituals of Judaism arise truly out of my thoughtful judgment, or if I am merely rationalizing what is convenient?
- Is there something separate from my self: whether it is some ideal of good, some aesthetic inspiration, some natural force, or a being beyond the natural world – that can place demands on me and call me to account?
- Is there an ultimate truth that I can try to understand or even just glimpse? And is that truth accessible through the workings of my mind – that is, my rationality – or through the emotional or the artistic?
- If I make the leap of faith that there is a purpose to my life, how do I discover that purpose and then live up to it?
On these High Holy days, these Yamim Noraim, when we stand in awe of the mysteries of life and death, good and evil, sin and redemption – we should embrace these questions, not be afraid of them or sweep them under the rug. If religion, if Judaism, really matters – it needs to comfort us when we are weary but also move us from our comfort zone so that we can move up the ladder of understanding. It needs to be soul-wrenching and soul-satisfying at the same time. How lucky we are to have in our yearly cycle days set aside for just this kind of spiritual challenge.
Tonight, we have marked the start of a new year – falling as it does on our Jewish calendar of the new moon of the month of Tishrei. We know that in the cycles of the sun and moon and physical universe, this is an arbitrary date. It is not the actual anniversary of the creation of the world. Yet from the soul’s perspective, this season is pregnant with possibilities. We give it the meaning that we need. We call out to God – chadeysh aleynu shana tova, renew for us a good year -- but God answers, it is in your hand, your control. you must make yourself new. I have given you all that you need, now act on it.
We can write in the Book of Life a year of optimism and success for our Temple, by reaching within to create stronger ties with each other, and reaching outwards to connect with Jews wherever they are. We can renew our vision for Beth-El by remembering our history, but not being bound by it. And we can renew our personal relationship to Judaism and God as well – by reaching below the surface of the ordinary, to ask the deeper questions of life. The sweetness of the honey on the apples; the persistent sound of the shofar; even the fasting of Yom Kippur – prepare us to enter the new year. But if we merely drag our old self along, it will be a repeat of last year, and the year before, and the year before. Judaism is not a set of rules, rituals and stories, it is a method of encountering the world and aligning ourselves with a greater unity.
One of my favorite stories is that of the Nobel prize winning scientist who explained that all that he accomplished was due to his mother. Each day as a little boy he would come home from school and she would ask: Izzy, did you ask a good question today? Not, what did you learn. But, did you ask a good question. She knew that questioning opens up new worlds and leads to true understanding.
In this new year, may we ask good questions of our temple and of Judaism, of God and of ourselves. And may the answers pave the way to a good year – a year of commitment to our Temple, our Judaism, our God, and the best that is in each of us.