This past December, Har Sinai Congregation sent a small delegation to the Union for Reform Judaism’s 72nd North American Biennial Conference. Biennial, for those of you not familiar is a gathering of approximately 5,000 Reform Jews from throughout North America though we also get some participants from as far away as South America, Israel, Europe, and even South Africa.
I had the honor of attending this past year’s Biennial with our Congregational President Joanne Goldsmith and our Women of Reform Judaism Sisterhood Representative Micki Sibel.
The idea behind the Biennial is to gather together and to celebrate all things in Reform Judaism. To this end, there were a significant number of workshops for lay leaders and clergy alike covering everything from worship to budgeting, communications, and membership. I particularly enjoyed the presentation on Visual Tefillah, which I hope to one day employ in our congregation.
The highlight of every Biennial is the Shabbat Morning Service where those of us in attendance had the chance to worship with 5,000 of our closest friends. The service includes an incredible, all volunteer choir singing melodies that both inspire and uplift. It is truly a wonder to behold.
Personally for me, one of my favorite highlights were the Shabbat Song Session with some of our movements most creative, talented and innovative song leaders. By the second song, just about everyone was up and dancing. It was a real treat to for me to see Loui Dobin, one of my guitar heroes as well as the Director of Greene Family Camp up on the stage strumming furiously along with the likes of Rabbi Joe Black, Rick Recht, Josh Nelson, Julie Silver and so many others. The Biennial was so moving that Neshama Carelbach, the daughter of Shlomo Carelbach, the modern Hasidic musician, publically embraced life as a Reform Jew!
It was a powerful, moving, inspiring, and exciting conference, which is exactly what it is designed to be. Biennial is meant to reinvigorate especially the leaders and volunteers of congregations just like ours with a renewed sense of purpose and vision. This was further illustrated by our new URJ President Rick Jacobs who spoke on Erev Shabbat, without the use of notes or a teleprompter for 2 hours, and you thought my sermons were long! One of the themes he spoke passionately about was the Abrahamic idea of radical hospitality. It is a vision for the movement where we should be striving to embrace all who enter into our community. Many of us have felt this embrace from Lil and Nates Strauss, and they are certainly the embodiment of the radical hospitality we can all strive to fully represent.
For those of you who are interested, the next URJ Biennial will be in Orlando in the late fall of 2015, or more specifically from November 4th to November 8th. Feel free to mark your calendars we would love to have you join us.
Later that same Friday night, after Rick Jacob’s sermon, I gathered together with a multitude of CCAR Rabbis for a free wine and dessert reception. For nothing compels us rabbis to gather together more than the words: free, dessert and wine.
To set the stage, we had just seen a hilarious and audacious presentation encouraging us to sign up for our annual Rabbinic Conference to be taking place that spring in Chicago, when a text came through to my friend Liz. The look on her face said it all. She couldn’t even speak. All she could do was pass the phone around. Sammy Sommer, whom I know many of you have heard me speak about before, had just died as a result of complications from Acute Myeloid Leukemia.
To say we were all devastated does not even begin to capture the depth of our grief. From that moment on, the Biennial took on a whole new meaning. Now, truth be told, it was no longer about the Biennial. It was about how we could get to Chicago for the funeral. I, for one, flew back to Baltimore on Sunday as planned, and then I left again first thing Monday morning for an all-day whirlwind trip to Chicago. I am so glad I went, and I am so grateful to my wife, to the ladies of Sisterhood and to all of you for understanding my need to be there with my dear friends and colleagues Mike and Phyllis Sommer, Sammy’s parents.
A thousand of us gathered in Phyllis’ shul to come and perform that sacred mitzvah of comforting the bereaved as well as the sacred mitzvah of accompanying the dead for burial. The service, the eulogies, the music were perfect in the way that we celebrated Sammy’s life. But on such a day, we were really mourning the life he and so many other young victims of cancer will never get to lead.
About fifteen minutes before the service began, the sanctuary was enveloped in silence. I don’t know if it was a collective moment of anticipation or perhaps a collective moment of dread, but the silence was overwhelming. The silence was eerie. The silence was palpable.
Finally Sammy’s family entered. There were tears and there were hugs. And so the funeral began. I will never forget the words of Rabbi Steven Lowenstein’s eulogy, “Sam Sommer was born exactly nine months after his father Michael completed his rabbinic thesis.” You could just feel the tension let out of the room as we all laughed and cried together.
Through Rabbi Lowenstein’s words we were reminded that though we called him Superman Sam, what Sam really loved was turtles, causing trouble, and googly eyes. He was especially close with his sister Yael, and he became, like so many young cancer victims, old and wise before his time.
However what really struck me about that day, is yes, many of the people in attendance were from Phyllis’ congregation, and others were friends and family and colleagues. However a great many more were people who had never personally met Michael, Phyllis, or their kids David, Yael, Solly or of course Sammy. They were instead a new community of friends established through the digital realm.
See, over that past year and a half, Phyllis and Michael created a family through social media that stretched across the globe with their daily blogging of Sam’s journey. Sammy’s fight against AML was everyone’s fight against childhood cancer. Just as it continues to be our fight.
This past March, I joined with over 70 of my closest colleagues to shave our heads to raise money to fight childhood cancer through the St. Baldrick’s Foundation. It was originally supposed to be just 36 Rabbis, and the goal was to raise a modest $180,000. By the time we shaved, we had raised over $720,000. For me, it was an accidental shave, as I had no intention of shaving, I simply wanted to raise awareness. But when the time came, I just could not let my friends go bald alone. They were, they are my community. They were, and they are my extended family.
And that is when the meaning of the concept of community really struck home for me. Community is all about us standing side by side with each other through our triumphs and our tragedies. It is about lifting up one another when we grieve and dancing together when we rejoice. This is why the rabbis tell us in Eilu Devarim, as part of our morning worship service, to provide for the wedding couple, and accompany the dead for burial. Our community helps to define who we are as Jews and who we are as people.
And we are a community because of you. Each and every one of you helps define who and what we are and what we can be.
To this end, our Jewish community, our little shtetl in the wilderness of Northwest Baltimore really is what YOU make of it. And more than that, it is a different kind of community. For example, the synagogue is a sanctuary from all of your other activities. This is a place where you don't have to do, it is a place where you can just be. In today’s helter-skelter world, isn’t nice to know that we have a home that accepts us for who we are, and is glad that we are here?!
But that is only the beginning. One of the beauties of congregational life, is when we are doing things right, we can help provide that most elusive sense, a sense of context. To illustrate this, I was recently listening to a story on NPR about computer aided crossword puzzles. Apparently there are folks out there who have now created computer programs to solve these puzzles. They have programmed in years of previous puzzles as well as multiple dictionaries and, in one case, all of Wikipedia into their computers. This means these programs have access to most of our collective knowledge.
Because of this these programs are really, really good at solving crosswords. Well in most cases. However when the answer requires a sense of cultural consciousness or is a play on words the computer has not seen before, it is at a total loss. That is because the computer, though really knowledgeable, is completely blind to the wisdom needed to solve a crossword. It is following algorithms, albeit, really good algorithms, but it still lacks the context to solve them correctly.
We live in a world where there is a tremendous amount of easily accessible knowledge. Just click in a few words on a Google search and you can find just about any piece of trivia except perhaps the location of the Lost Dutchman’s Gold Mine or your missing car keys.
But when it comes to life’s larger dilemmas, life’s larger questions, being a part of a congregation, being part of a community, can be immensely helpful in understanding not just the how, but also the why. Why are we here? What is the meaning of existence? How do we deal with life’s ethical dilemmas? What role can religion play in today’s modern world? Why is there so much turmoil in the Middle East? Being part of a sacred community helps to shape and guide us as we wrestle with such questions like today’s questions, why did such a person like Sammy die so very very young?
I was thinking about this very question with regards to today’s very troubling Torah reading, the Akeida, the binding of Isaac. For the longest time I have read the Akeida as both a test of Abraham’s faith as well as a polemic against child sacrifice.
And yet, it was this year, through all that I had seen and been through that I began to find myself drawn to another reading of the text. One which looks at this notion of God “testing” Abraham. This is the same Abraham who argued with God over the justice of Sodom and Gemorrah! And yet, when God asked Abraham to offer up his only son, his beloved son, Isaac, Abraham was silent.
Perhaps then, Abraham failed the test. As Rabbi Paul Kipnes wrote, “Rashi, the greatest Biblical commentator of all time, also hangs his interpretation on (this). He explains (on Genesis 22:2), perhaps God was saying, “When I said to you ‘Take your son’… I did not say to you, sh’chateihu, ‘slaughter him,’ but only ha’aleihu, ‘bring him up.’ Now that you have brought him up, introduce him to Me, and then take him back down.” Instead of wanting Abraham to sacrifice Isaac, God really only wanted him to spend some spiritual “quality time” with his son. Had Abraham only paid close attention, he might have spared himself, Isaac, and Sarah a significant amount of stress and pain.” Perhaps then what this text is saying is God does not want the offering of our children; instead God grieves at the loss of our children. Or as Eric Clapton sang, “there are tears in heaven.”
In Jewish tradition we cherish our children. That is our context. I cannot explain the death of Sammy Sommer. All I know is that I am grateful to be able to be part of a community and a tradition that provided the framework to celebrate his life and mourn his passing. I am grateful to be part of a larger community that also provides the collective embrace to support his loving family through their continued journey, now without Sammy.
One of the driving purposes of Judaism is to help provide the framework for grappling with these questions and so many like them. Judaism is not a theoretical expression of devotion to God; instead it is both a practical and pragmatic approach to living life in a sacred and fully engaged way. And what better way to discuss that than as part of a congregational family.
Our congregation is also a place for family. It is a place where you can sit with your children and with your grandchildren. It is a place where you can sing, and clap and dance. And if you are looking to expand your family, at least metaphorically speaking, you can create a community of friends to rejoice and commiserate with.
One of our members David Carp likes to tell the story of how when his first grandchild was born, he received notes and mentions of congratulations from friends. But what really struck him, was the outpouring of good will from his Har Sinai Congregational community. The cards, phone calls, and donations in his granddaughter’s honor were just simply overwhelming. He was and is still so moved by the radical hospitality and support of our community.
That is what we strive to do and to be as a community. But again, our community is what you make of it. We cannot do, we cannot be, if you do not tell us what you need and what you are looking for. Nor can we do for you nor be there for you if you are not here. It is not that you have to come every week, though we would love that; but if you are not here, it can be hard for us to know who you are.
Har Sinai Congregation is your community. What you make of it is up to you. I cannot tell you how to make the most of it, only that you should. However, what I can tell you is that Har Sinai Congregation is not going anywhere. We have been through some rough patches financially. That seems to be part of our sacred history as well. I know this to be true, because I had the pleasure of looking at our minutes written around 170 years ago in their original German, and guess what, even back then they were arguing over budget deficits.
What I can also tell you is we have a plan. Our leadership has engaged in two major campaigns this year. The first is our ReJewVenate Campaign. You may have seen the diagram coming in. Without going into all of the specifics, what I can tell you is that we set an ambitious goal in May of 2013 to raise $2 million to help us secure our financial future. To date, with the help of 69 families, we now have pledges of over $815,000. You can find their names on your Rosh Hashana handout, both those who have pledged and also those who have given. Our goal by this Rosh Hashana was $750,000, so as you can see, we are above our goal and well on our way. Already we have 100% participation from the Executive Committee, 100% participation from the staff, and nearly 100% participation from the leadership of the congregation. We would love to get 100% participation from you as well. If you have questions, would like to set up a meeting, and/or would like to give, just let David Carp know. He would love to talk to you more about this vitally important campaign.
Also, as all congregations run an ongoing budget deficit, we have created a new program called Share the Load. This program enables you, our members, to sponsor various programs and worship experiences at the congregation. We are already blessed to have donors who support the music of our High Holy Day Services. We have donors for things like the flowers. However there are so many more opportunities. You can support a Shabbat Rocks! Service or an adult education class. And you can find the brochures on your seats, and we will gratefully acknowledge your support at the events and/or services that you choose to sponsor. Just, if you heart is so moved, fill it out and sponsor some of the amazing things going on here in our congregation. There are opportunities no matter your giving level.
As we say in our tradition, Kol Yisrael Averim zeh la’zeh, all of Israel is responsible for one another. What better way to demonstrate this central value in our tradition than by being part of a loving and supportive community that encourages our individual explorations of life’s central questions, while at the same time, enables us to be surrounded by our loving friends and our loving communal family through the good times and the bad.
On this Rosh Hashana 5775, we encourage you to commit or recommit to your Har Sinai Congregational family. We have a lot of amazing things going on, and we have a lot of important work still to do together. Join us in our journey, and bring your friends. For it would not be the same without you.