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teachings from our rabbi

NEWS AND VIEWS FROM RABBI MICAH STREIFFER


 

Read below for sermons, writings, and messages from our rabbi. Feel free to email  Rabbi Streiffer with thoughts or comments!

 

 

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Jewish Every Day

Rabbi Micah Streiffer

Jewish Every Day

 

As an aspiring Canadian, I’ve learned that weather is really important. We talk about it. Complain about it. Worry about it. It determines our activities: If you want to go sledding you need enough snow; it’s hard to skate when the temperature is above freezing.

 

That’s why we look forward to this time of year when the sun shines, the weather is warm, and the outdoors beckon. When I first moved here, I was amazed by Toronto’s Cottage Culture: the fact that so many people skip town on weekends and find places to enjoy the great outdoors. Even for those of us who don’t have cottages, there are festivals, concerts, and ample opportunities to enjoy being outside while still in the city. You have to enjoy it while you’ve got it!

 

In some ways, therefore, synagogue life slows down a bit in the summer, since so many people are out of town and there are so many other options. But Judaism doesn’t slow down; Judaism is with us every day.

 

Our Jewish tradition teaches us to spend each day cultivating a sense of appreciation, a sense that the world around us is a gift. When we see a thing of natural beauty, we are traditionally supposed to say a blessing:

 

בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה יְיָ אֱלֹהֵֽינוּ מֶֽלֶךְ הָעוֹלָם, שֶׁכָּֽכָה לּוֹ בְּעוֹלָמוֹ.

Baruch atah Adonai, eloheinu melech ha-olam, sheh-kachah lo b’olamo.

Blessed are you, Eternal God, whose world contains such a thing!

 

It is a statement of awe and thankfulness, an attempt to see the world as a blessing, and an act of mindfulness – of being in the moment.

 

This summer we will experience many beautiful things: cool breezes, pretty sunsets, and moments of connection with friends and family. May we remember that these are not only nice moments; they are holy moments. Whether or not we say a blessing, our Jewish sense of appreciation can be with us all the time.

 

Meanwhile, synagogue life continues here at Kol Ami. Over the summer, Shabbat morning Torah Study and services continue (with a slightly altered schedule). Friday night services will be held four times (July 2 and 20, August 10 and 24) in people’s homes, followed by a potluck dinner. And, of course, we can’t live without Sushi & Study.

 

I look forward to seeing you in the coming weeks, or to catching up about our travels when fall hits. Have a wonderful summer.

 

L’shalom,

Rabbi Micah Streiffer

 

Together

Rabbi Micah Streiffer

Together

“The whole world is one town.”

(Yiddish proverb)

Each year in late winter (around the time we’d all like to scatter to warmer climates) we read a Torah portion about the importance of togetherness:

וַיַקְהֵ֣ל מֹשֶ֗ה אֶֽת־כָל־עֲדַ֛ת בְנֵ֥י יִשְרָאֵ֖ל

Vayak’hel Moshe et kol adat v’nei Yisrael.

Moses brought together the people of Israel…(Exodus 35:1)

These are the opening words of the Torah portion called Vayak’hel, in which Moses speaks about the importance of Shabbat and about how to build our sanctuary. The Hebrew word vayak’hel (וַיַקְהֵ֣ל) comes from a root that means “gathering” or “congregation.” (The word kehilah, community, comes from the same root.) It is noteworthy that when Moses goes about teaching our people about these most important Jewish practices, he וַיַקְהֵ֣ל - he brings us together to forge us into a congregation.

This is, of course, one of the most basic lessons of Judaism: our Jewish lives – and indeed, our lives in general – are richer when they are lived together.

This year, we have some Vayak’hel to do ourselves, as we will be undertaking the project of welcoming the members of Neshamah and forging a single, stronger community from the identities, practices, and traditions of our two congregations.

There is much that Kol Ami brings to this venture. As you know, we are an active, learned, intimate community whose members support one another throughout the year. We have an incredible menu of services, programs, and learning – at a very high level – yet we still manage to be what some have termed the “Cheersof synagogues: the place where everybody knows your name.[1] Neshamah also brings a great deal: a strong commitment to youth education, willingness to think outside of traditional boxes, a spirit of ritual creativity. (Wait until you experience “Visual T’filah!”) Our task will be to maintain and celebrate those values, strengths, and experiences that are core to our congregational life, while opening ourselves up to the project of building something together.

This is an exciting moment in our congregational life! The road will not be without bumps – some of what we do over the next year will feel new; there will be experimentation; there will be trials and errors. This is all part of the process of forging our path ahead. As a congregation, I hope we can commit to two things: First is a commitment to enter into this project with excitement and curiosity, with faith in the power of what people can build when they come together. Second is a commitment to Hachnasat Orchim – the Jewish value of hospitality. There will be new faces at shul in the coming months. Please reach out and welcome our newest members when you see them. Please try to think of yourself as a host, welcoming new family members into your home.

Our first opportunity to be hosts will be at Rock Shabbat in the Park on Friday, June 15 at 6:30. For the third year in a row, we will gather at the outdoor amphitheatre of the North Thornhill Community Centre. This year, we will be inviting the members of Neshamah to celebrate with us as well. Please mark your calendar to come sing, pray, eat, and Vayak’hel – bring together our whole community!

Kol Ami means “Voice of My People.” This has always been a congregation where every voice matters. Thank you for lending your voice to this extraordinary community. I am looking forward to exciting times ahead!

L’shalom,

Rabbi Micah Streiffer

 

[1] Can you believe the rabbi just compared our synagogue to a bar??

 

A Part of Something Larger

Rabbi Micah Streiffer

  “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.”

(African Proverb)

Judaism is a team sport. That’s why we count a minyan of ten people when we are gathering for services, or a mezuman of three when we say the blessing after the meal. It’s not that you can’t pray or eat alone – but there is a special sanctity to doing these things together. In fact, the Mishnah even teaches that when people gather in study or prayer, God’s presence dwells among them. We are so powerful that just by being together, we invite God into the world!

The communities we form are very important in our Jewish lives. It is interesting to think of our Jewish ties as a series of concentric circles:

We are part of Jewish families that come in all shapes and sizes. Some gather regularly for holidays and family meals. Most now include non-Jewish members.

We are part of a congregation that gathers regularly to eat, pray, and study. A congregation is committed to educating the next generation AND to building a meaningful Jewish life for this generation.

We are part of Toronto Jewry, one of the largest and most active communities in the world, which boasts a level of learning, culture, and religious activity unmatched in most cities.

We are part of the Reform Movement – the largest religious Jewish movement in the world today. Imagine nine hundred congregations all over North America that share our values of inclusiveness, informed choices, and balancing of tradition with modernity!

We are part of K’lal Yisrael, the Jewish people, who live all around the world and lead lives as different from one another as can be, yet see ourselves as part of a greater whole.

To be Jewish is to be part of something larger, actually, many somethings larger. This month, we have several opportunities to celebrate the connections and communities that we form:

On Saturday, May 5, at Torah Study (9 am), we welcome Rabbi Rick Jacobs, President of the Union for Reform Judaism. Rabbi Jacobs has been instrumental in setting the agenda of inclusiveness and open tent in Reform Judaism across North America.

On Friday night, May 11 (6:30 pm), we celebrate Teacher Appreciation at Rock Shabbat. It is a chance to recognize the teachers who are helping educate our next generation and making our community stronger.

On Wednesday, May 16 (6 pm), our new Challah Club is a chance to be together and schmooze, while making challah dough to take home!

On Saturday night, May 19 (7:30 pm), we celebrate Confirmation, honouring those students whose commitment to Jewish life and to our congregation has kept them active and involved all the way through the end of Grade 10.

Of course, there are plenty of other events going on this month. See the Voice for more details. As always, I feel fortunate to be part of such a busy and active congregation. More importantly, I feel lucky to be part of a strong community.

L’shalom,

Rabbi Micah Streiffer

Under the Chuppah

Rabbi Micah Streiffer

“The voice of joy and the voice of gladness. The voices of feasting and singing”
(From the wedding liturgy)

The midrash (Bereshit Rabbah 48:9) teaches that the tent of Abraham and Sarah was open on all sides so that the patriarch and matriarch could rush out to greet people and welcome them in. This is a symbol for hospitality, welcome, and inclusiveness in Judaism.

Rabbi Rick Jacobs, President of the Reform Movement, has taught that when we open our tent, when we make an effort to welcome people into Jewish life, we provide “an ongoing invitation to be part of community—and a way to spiritually transform ourselves in the process.” In other words, it is nice to be welcoming – it is an expression of our values. And at the same time, it is good for the Jewish people, in that we bring people in, instead of pushing them away.

That welcome, that inclusiveness, is the symbolism of the open tent. And interestingly enough, there is a second open tent in Jewish life: the chuppah.

https://i.pinimg.com/originals/66/71/65/667165ce3924adfa1924088430346b6c.jpgThe Jewish marriage canopy is a representation of the home that a couple is creating together. It is also reminiscent of Abraham and Sarah’s tent. This is true physically, in that it has no walls. It is also true symbolically, in that the couple invites their community inside the chuppah (metaphorically speaking, since most chuppot aren't that big) to celebrate, to be part of the life that they are building together.

When a couple chooses to stand under a chuppah, it is a powerful symbol for building a life based on Jewish values and traditions. And it presents to the community an opportunity to respond by opening its tent, by being welcoming and inclusive.

On Yom Kippur morning, I stood before you and announced a significant shift in my practice: that I would begin officiating at Jewish weddings that involve a non-Jewish partner. At that time, there was an outpouring from members of the congregation – of support, questions, concerns, and excitement. It has been clear that our community is deeply engaged in this issue, that it matters to us on a number of levels: personally and philosophically, as a family matter and as a matter of Jewish identity.

Since that time, I have performed two such weddings. In the time leading up to these weddings I worked closely with the couples to engage in Jewish learning and to have important conversations about religious life. We examined the beliefs and practices of the Jewish people, and the ways that they apply in modern life - questions that we as Jews are always meant to be exploring. It has been, for me, an extraordinary experience to delve deeply into questions of meaning, tradition, and commitment with thoughtful people who are seeking to build lives together. This is the true privilege of being a rabbi – to be invited into people’s lives at significant and important moments. I believe that by engaging in these conversations and welcoming these families, we are furthering the mission of our congregation: “We strive to help people of all ages and backgrounds find joy, meaning and support through Judaism.”

In other words, to use the language of the midrash, we are opening our tent.

As always, I welcome your questions and feedback. Please know that my door is always open.

L’shalom,

Rabbi Micah Streiffer

What I Learned About Pesach from Grade 10 Geometry

Rabbi Micah Streiffer

My high school geometry teacher, Mr. Antoine, was a real character. Picture a tall African American man with a vaguely Cajun accent who wore alligator-skin boots, a cowboy hat, and a large, silver belt buckle.  I can still remember him, in his own unique way, explaining the plotting of points on a graph. “There are two foci,” he would say while tapping the ellipse drawn on the blackboard.

I have to admit geometry wasn't my forte (though it wasn’t as bad as calculus, which is what ultimately drove me to become a rabbi). And yet, the idea of “two foci” came back to me as I was considering the meaning of Pesach, the holiday we will celebrate at the end of this month. According to the dictionary, a “focus” is the “centre of interest or activity.” In geometry, the foci of the ellipse can be used to find its centre point using the equation c2 = a2 - b2 where c is the distance from the centre to the focus (and now my brain hurts again). In Judaism, we can distill the focus of a celebration or holiday by seeking to understand what that holiday makes us think about and the emotions or memories it raises in us.

It turns out that Pesach, like an ellipse, has two foci. On the one hand, Pesach is a celebration of freedom. Around the Seder table, we tell the story of the Exodus and give thanks for that ancient moment (whether real or mythological) in which we were set free and put on the path toward becoming Jews. None of us were there when our ancestors walked through the Red Sea (after all, it probably didn't even really happen), but that story has shaped us in innumerable ways and continues to do so.

At the same time, Pesach is a celebration of bounty, the Spring harvest festival. At this time of year, Israelite farmers would harvest their crops and watch their flocks giving birth, and they would take an accounting and give thanks for this year’s yield. Similarly, we have the opportunity at Pesach time to take an accounting of our bounty: What are we proud of? What did we accomplish? What do we have to be thankful for here and now? Freedom and bounty; past and present; what we have been given, and what we are choosing to become. These are the two “foci” of Pesach, and truly of all of Judaism.

As Jews, we are always looking backward and ahead. We are always aware of the forces of history, mythology, literature and thought that have shaped us, and at the same time of our immense capacity to grow and learn and accomplish.  These two basic truths guide our Jewish lives not only at Pesach but all year long and throughout our lives: to be a Jew is to be part of an ancient tradition, to be the recipient of wisdom and tradition that have been passed down through the generations and that are worthy of our continued attention and love. It is also to know that past generations do not define us, that we are defined by our own actions, our own blessings, the goodness and generosity and learning and Tikkun (repair) that we bring into the world. That is what sits at the centre of Judaism, and if you know your foci, you can find your centre: c2 = a2 - b2.

Thanks, Mr. Antoine.

L’shalom,

Rabbi Micah Streiffer

Live a Little

Rabbi Streiffer

Live a Little

Why so serious all the time??

  • On the High Holy Days, we focus our time and energy on repentance, sin, and setting things right.
  •  On Pesach, it’s freedom and slavery - and their very real implications in our history and in our world today.
  •  On Shavuot, we are thankful for Torah, and for the teaching, instruction, and morality that it represents.
  • And on Shabbat we dig into the serious business of rest and mindfulness.

Judaism is serious business: making meaning, building a spiritual life, and repairing the world, which are no small tasks. But Judaism is not only serious, it is also about enjoying life. In contrast to some other religious traditions that essentially teach that this world is an anteroom to the afterlife and that our task is to suffer through this life to get to the next one, Judaism puts the focus on this world, on this life; it teaches that we should enjoy life.

The book of Ecclesiastes says: “There is no better for a person than to eat and drink and enjoy his/her work. For this, too, comes from God” (Ecclesiastes 2:24)

The Jerusalem Talmud, in response to those who would vow to forbid themselves enjoyable things out of devotion to God, asks incredulously, “Is it not enough what the Torah has forbidden you, that you wish to forbid yourself more things??” (Nedarim 9:1)

Indeed, Judaism is both about serious things and about enjoying life. The High Holy Days are not only about repentance but about community. Pesach is about freedom, but also about really good food. On Shavuot, we punctuate our discussion of Torah and morality with cheesecake and blintzes. One of the primary mitzvot of Shabbat is Oneg – enjoying or delighting in the day.

Purim is the holiday of enjoyment par excellence! Here is a day of silliness, enjoyment, fun and dessert, where it is encouraged to make a fool of yourself and it is a mitzvah to drink (within reason)! When we come together on Purim – to hear the Megillah and to celebrate – we take part in what is perhaps the most basic and most important Jewish activity: living.

Our Purim celebration, “New Queen on the Block,” features the music of the 80s and 90s. We will gather the evening of February 28 at 6:00 pm for a megillah reading, spiel, and a NEW, IMPROVED carnival. Special addition this year is Haman’s Hideaway with drinks, games, and fun for the adult set. It all promises to be a good time! I’m looking forward to celebrating with you.

L’shalom,

Rabbi Micah Streiffer

O Jerusalem

Rabbi Micah Streiffer

If I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand wither;
let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth if I cease to think of you,
if I do not keep Jerusalem in memory even at my happiest hour.
Psalm 137

The first time I saw Jerusalem, the city looked like it was made of gold.

It was dusk, and I only been in Israel 2 hours. Having arrived at Ben Gurion airport that afternoon as part of a High School study group, I was almost immediately swept away from the airport and onto Israel’s Highway 1 (the highway connecting Tel Aviv and Jerusalem). I watched from my bus window as flat plains turned to gentle slopes and the road began to wind its way through terraced foothills, ascending (making aliyah, so to speak, since the word literally means “ascending”) toward Jerusalem.

When you sit at Mt. Scopus and look down onto the city at dusk, the light plays off of the stone buildings in such a way that they appear to shimmer like gold. That is what I saw the first time I looked over the city. It is what generations of people have seen as they looked down upon Jerusalem. It is, in fact, the origin of the term “Jerusalem of Gold,” which only became a hit song in 1967 but has been a nickname for the city since at least the first century.

There is an aura about Jerusalem, as though the city is made not of stone but of dreams and memories. It is a city so ancient that it hides secrets that are still being discovered, but it is also the modern, sprawling capital of a thriving state (and maybe someday of two?). And it is holy to half the world’s population. Jerusalem is a “City of Peace” (Jerusalem = Ir Shalom) which sits at the centre of an ancient conflict. And it is, for Jews, both an actual, historical place and a symbol. The place: where our kings reigned and then fell, where our Temple stood and then was razed, and stood again and was again razed, where priests made sacrifices and prophets cried out to God, where freedom fighters fought and civilians lost their lives and paratroopers wept tears onto the stones. And the symbol: for God’s presence, for homeland and sovereignty, for the repair of the world, for the national aspirations of a people, for an end to exile.

The poet Yehuda Amichai wrote these words:

The air over Jerusalem is saturated with prayers
and dreams
like the air over industrial cities.
It’s hard to breathe.

 

Jerusalem is always in the news, but perhaps especially right now. Last month, a certain president south of the border made headlines by announcing a change in policy – to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. Since then, the press has focused largely on the timing of the announcement and its violent aftermath – important topics for sure. Amidst all of that is a larger story, and it is now an opportune time for us to explore what Jerusalem means to us. If you haven’t been, I encourage you to read up on the current events coming out of Israel. The sands are continuing to shift there every day.

As a community, we will gather to learn and talk about Jerusalem in a class I’ll be teaching entitled “If I Forget Thee, O Jerusalem.” Please join me three Monday evenings in a row (January 15, 22, and 29 at 7:30 pm) as we explore what Jerusalem means and has meant for Jews throughout our history, delving into the history, symbolism, meaning, and significance of the Holy City.

L’shalom,

 

Rabbi Micah Streiffer

Bringing Light to the Darkness

Rabbi Micah Streiffer

Brrrrrrrrrrr, it’s getting cold out there!

Part of being Canadian, I’ve learned, is talking about the weather. So let’s talk about the weather.

We’ve reached the time of year when temperatures drop mercilessly, when you have to consider trading in that fall jacket for a real winter coat, and when it’s possible to eat both breakfast and dinner in darkness.

During this cold, dark time of the year, we want to bring light and warmth into the world. We light up our fireplaces and roast our marshmallows, and we celebrate festivals of light. Many religious traditions have some kind of festival of light during this time of year. Even as Jews are lighting up our chanukiyot and putting them in the windows, our Christian and Hindu neighbours have similar traditions. Clearly, it is a basic human instinct to want to light up a dark world.

For many, the darkness of the season is also a reminder that our world can sometimes be a metaphorically dark place as well: poverty and homelessness; war and hatred. Judaism teaches us that we have a responsibility to do Tikkun– to try to repair what is broken.

This year, we have two opportunities as a congregation to bring light to a dark world – one literal and one metaphorical.

On Friday, December 15, the Shabbat during Chanukah, we will gather at 6:30 pm for our annual Night of a Thousand Candles. It is an amazing evening - We’ll join in a Rock and Roll Shabbat/Chanukah service. And we invite everyone to bring their own menorah and candles as we illumine our sanctuary together!

A few days later, on Wednesday, December 20, Kol Ami will once again be hosting Out of the Cold. On this night, we partner with Temple Har Zion to provide a warm meal and shelter for dozens of homeless guests. It is an incredible mitzvah. Please contact the office if you can cook or be involved.

It’s getting cold and dark out there. Let’s work together to create warmth and light. A happy Chanukah to all.

L’shalom,

 

Rabbi Micah Streiffer

People of the Book

Rabbi Micah Streiffer

 

Jews are often referred to as People of the Book.

The term was actually given to us in the Islamic world. The Quran refers to both Jews and Christians – monotheistic religions based around Scripture – as “people of the book,” and for this reason they were considered protected minorities in Muslim society. Amongst Jews the term stuck, perhaps because we identify so deeply as a people with books and all that they represent.

What does it mean to be people of the book? It means that we make meaning by writing and by reading. The Mishnah (Peah 1:1) says, “Talmud Torah k’negged kulam – Study of Torah is equal to all of the mitzvot.” Indeed, we know that study and literacy have long been central to Jewish life. In fact, when a child becomes an adult – when he or she stands on the bima for the first time as Bar/Bat Mitzvah - one of the first things we do is hand them a Torah scroll (the most important book we have) and invite them to carry it into the congregation. It is through books that we receive traditions that have been passed down to us through many generations; and it is through books that we pass those generations on to the next generation.

We are fortunate this month to have two very special new books being launched at Kol Ami. First, on November 3 during Friday night services, we will host the launch of Six Lost Years, the story of Amek Adler’s experiences during the Shoah. Amek, who passed away last year, was a long-time member of Kol Ami and a respected Holocaust educator. We are so grateful that his daughter, our member Rose A. Weinberg, will speak that evening about her father’s experiences and about his legacy.

The following weekend – Saturday, November 11 in the evening – we are privileged to host Ellin Bessner, a veteran journalist whose book Double Threat: Canadian Jews, the Military, and World War II tells the “untold stories of how and why Canada’s Jewish community sent 17,000 men and women in uniform to defeat Hitler and the Axis in the Second World War.” This extraordinary lecture will be held in memory of our own Jack Cahan, himself a veteran of Canada’s Armed Forces and a passionate public speaker.

Two books, many stories. Please come and join us for these special events as we celebrate books, memory, and legacy.

L’shalom,

Rabbi Micah Streiffer

Hineini: Celebrating Jewish Choices

Rabbi Micah Streiffer

Following is the sermon I delivered on Yom Kippur morning, 5778 (2017). It outlines my decision to begin officiating at weddings that include a non-Jewish partner.


 

In ancient times, long before they were synagogues or rabbis or prayerbooks, there was the shofar.

In those days, the shofar was sounded outdoors, in the Temple courtyard at the centre of Jerusalem. And it was meant to call the people to be present. When there was threat of war, the shofar was sounded and the people would come together to serve their nation. At festival times, it called them to gather at the Temple and celebrate. And at the New Year, it summoned them to be present because the holiest day of the year was approaching.

The High Holy Days are a time when we are called upon to be present – both physically and spiritually. The shofar calls us to mindful awareness. And the Torah portions for the High Holy Days reflect this idea as well.  Last week on Rosh Hashanah, we read the Akeida - the very challenging story of Abraham being asked to sacrifice his son. Three times during that passage the patriarch’s name is called – once by God, once by Isaac, and once by an angel. And each time, Abraham answers “Hineini.”

The word Hineini literally means “Here I am.” But it signifies much more than a physical location. It is, according to Rabbi Gershom Barnard, a statement of “openness and responsiveness” to the other.[1] When Abraham says Hineini - to his son, to God, to anybody - he is saying “I am here with you and here for you.” He is opting into a relationship.

The Torah portion for this morning also speaks to that act of opting into relationship – this time on a communal level. In this parashah, our people are standing all together in the wilderness, and Moses says to them:

Atem nitzavim hayom kulchem lifnei Adonai Eloheichem.
Today, ALL of you stand before Adonai your God. Men, women and children. Chieftains, wood choppers and water drawers. Even the stranger who lives among us.

And in so doing, he says, by being present today you enter into covenant.

This is a description of our people saying Hineini – entering into a relationship with God and with each other. One of the most powerful things about this parashah is how careful it is to make clear that the covenant includes everybody who is present - regardless of gender, occupation, socioeconomic status. Even regardless of religious or ethnic background, since the ger, the non-Jew is included as well. This is a purposeful choice. It doesn’t say, “Atem nitzavim - We stand together, everyone whose mother is Jewish.” Or “Atem nitzavim, everyone who keeps kosher and had a Bar Mitzvah.” It doesn’t say, “Atem nitzavim - “Everyone who eats bagels and knows how to swear in Yiddish” (though I’d like to read that Torah). It says that we all stand together - all of us who have chosen to be here.

In order to fully grasp the power of this statement, we have to recognize the fundamental truth that Jewish life is a choice. This has always been true to some extent, but it is especially true in the 21st century. Alan Dershowitz writes that "we are witnessing a significant diminution of the external factors that have traditionally" kept Jews insulated.[2] In past ages, anti-Semitic social exclusion and sometimes even legal requirement made sure that Jews essentially stayed within the Jewish community. But in 2017, there are no outside forces compelling us to affiliate or participate in Judaism. To be sure, we might feel guilt (most of us do have Jewish mothers after all). We might feel family pressure or social pressure. We might feel the weight of history. But at the end of the day, all of us are Jews by choice.

On the one hand, that’s a scary thought. Because it means that all of this is entirely voluntary - any one of us could simply stand up, walk out that door, and never return. And lots of people have. That’s why the Jewish community has been obsessing over this for 20 years - organizing conferences on “Jewish continuity,” and writing articles about the threat of assimilation.

But the other side of that same coin is the recognition that if Jewish life is entirely a choice, that means that millions of us are making that choice every single day.

That is something to celebrate.

Every person in this room represents someone who has chosen to participate in Jewish life. Every member of every synagogue and JCC, every donor to Federation or JNF, represents someone who has opted into Jewish community. And so, by the way, does every candle lit on a Friday night, and every dreidel that is spun, and every Seder plate that is lifted, and every child who is called to the Torah, AND…every couple that stands under a chuppah.

I believe that the role of the Jewish community in the 21st century is to celebrate and nurture Jewish choices - to recognize when individuals are saying Hineini, are saying “Here we are,” and to say Hineini right back to them. And along those lines, I’d like to talk to you about a change that I have decided to make in my rabbinic practice.

Over the course of my time in the rabbinate, I have been approached a number of times by couples who were seeking to be married in a Jewish ritual - who wanted to stand under a chuppah, to say prayers in Hebrew, and to be married by a rabbi – even though one of the partners was not Jewish. Up until now, I have always politely said no to officiating those ceremonies. Starting now, in many circumstances, I plan to say yes.

Saying yes to those weddings comes from a place of wanting to acknowledge – in fact, wanting to celebrate – the couple’s Jewish choice. It comes out of a firm conviction that interfaith families are Jewish families, especially when they are welcomed in and given the tools they need to live Jewish lives. And it comes out of my belief that opening our doors wider, creating a welcoming and inclusive community, is the best way both to nurture Jewish families and to build a Jewish future.

But you don’t have to take my word for it. This idea has been present in Judaism since the very first Jews. The midrash teaches that Abraham and Sarah would keep their tent open on all sides so that they could greet guests and welcome them. They did so because Hachnasat Orchim – welcoming the stranger – is a fundamental Jewish value. But it turns out that it was also a pretty good way to build their tribe. The Torah says that when Abraham and Sarah first arrived in the land of Israel, they already had with them a whole group of people who had been welcomed in, with whom they had shared food and learning and ritual, and who had committed themselves to Jewish life and to the Jewish future.

In other words, the sharing of ritual and learning became an opportunity to foster a longer-term relationship through which people came to say “Hineini,” through which people opted to become part of the community. Of course, in those days people mostly converted to Judaism in order to opt in. And that’s often still the case. But more and more, we are blessed to have individuals who join our synagogues, who marry Jews and raise Jewish children, and who are seeking to be participants in Jewish life, but for whatever reason do not want to become Jewish themselves. I think it’s important to recognize all the ways that those individuals are opting in. Abraham and Sarah’s approach teaches us that by saying yes, by engaging them, and learning with then, we can foster a relationship.

And interestingly enough, what the Patriarchs knew 3000 years ago has been corroborated much more recently by sociological data. Major surveys of the American Jewish population (since we don’t have any similar data yet in Canada), show that there has been an important shift in the habits of intermarried families over the last 25 years. I learned from Dr. Leonard Saxe of Brandeis University that in 1990, only 26% of all intermarried couples that included a Jew were raising their children Jewish[3], but by 2013, the number had risen to 63%[4] - nearly 2/3 of those couples considered themselves to be raising their children as Jews in some way.

That is a startling shift in 23 years – from 26% to 63%. So what changed during the interim? Among other things, the Jewish community shifted significantly in its attitude toward interfaith families. Led largely by the leadership of the Reform movement, congregations started working to become more inclusive, and to shift the discourse from the threat of intermarriage to welcoming interfaith families. And in turn, interfaith families began to opt in - to congregational membership, to religious school, to other forms of participation in Jewish life. In other words, when the community opened its door to them, they said “Hineini.” They said, “Here we are.”

Our congregation has been doing that kind of work as well. For years now, we have been thoughtfully exploring what it means to us to be an inclusive and welcoming community - through study sessions, and sermons, and Scholar in Residence weekends. Our Interfaith Committee, which many of you are aware of, is another very important manifestation of this valuable work. They have been working for a year now to learn about the experience of our members – both interfaith and otherwise. And they will be leading us in a series of discussions about community, ritual, and governance matters starting October 14. (The outcomes of these discussions, by the way, are not in any way determined. That's why we need to have the discussions.)

I'm proud that Kol Ami has put inclusiveness at the centre of its identity. My decision – to officiate at Jewish weddings that include a non-Jewish partner - is one piece of a much larger puzzle, as we work to figure out our congregational approach to these important questions.

So let me tell you some of the specifics of what I’m planning:

First, I’m not making a blanket statement that I’ll officiate every wedding. I’ll have to work with couples individually to determine if what they’re interested in is what I do. I plan to perform a Jewish ceremony, one that includes the basic rituals and symbols of the traditional Jewish wedding, though with some of the language changed a bit to make it appropriate to a mixed couple). And I don’t intend to co-officiate with non-Jewish clergy or to perform weddings that include blended religious symbols or rituals. But even more important than all of that, I want to take a page out of Abraham and Sarah’s playbook – I want to have the ritual be an opportunity for a relationship. Each time I perform a wedding, I will have spent the year before that wedding meeting with the couple, engaging in study, having important conversations - about Judaism and about what it is to build a home together. And at the same time I’ll be asking them to be part of the congregation, encouraging them to attend services and immerse themselves in the community. My hope is that we can transform a 20 minute ceremony into a lifetime of Jewish living and learning.

I also want to make clear that I don’t intend to remove conversion from the table as an option. Becoming Jewish is a beautiful process and a deeply personal decision. I look forward to continuing to work with those who choose that journey into becoming part of Am Yisrael, part of the people of Israel. At the same time, though, I believe that there should be an option for those for are seeking to be part of Jewish life, but for whom conversion is not the right decision.

Now I know that this is a big change. I know there will be questions and concerns, or you may just want to talk to me about how I made this decision and what it means. So I want to invite you to please reach out to me. You can call or email or make an appointment. I look forward to talking to you about it.

I have to share with you how excited I am about this change. I think it reflects the values our congregation; and for me personally, it truly feels like an expression of my beliefs and my rabbinic conscience. I believe that we have the chance to welcome and engage families who might otherwise feel marginalized, and to give them the tools to lead rich Jewish lives as part of a welcoming synagogue. And at the same time, to enrich our congregational life in immeasurable ways by embracing those who choose to stand beside us on this journey. As it says in this morning’s Torah portion: Atem nitzavim hayom kulchem. We stand – all of us – as one community.

There is a widely circulated story about Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan, the founder of Reconstructionist Judaism who was a professor of homiletics at the Jewish Theological Seminary. Apparently his practice was to give a sermon to the class each Monday, and then assign one of the students to give a sermon on the same parashah that Friday. And he was well known for his blistering criticism of every sermon.

So one Monday a particularly creative student copied down Rabbi Kaplan’s sermon word for word, and when Friday came, he simply delivered it back exactly as it had been given. When he finished, Kaplan stood up and thundered, “That was terrible!” To which the student replied, “Rabbi, that was the sermon that you gave on Monday.” And Dr. Kaplan responded, “Yes, but I have grown since then.”

As Jews, we are always growing and evolving. Always reaching towards new understandings, and striving for new answers to ancient questions.

This year, may we recognize that our community also grows in strength, with each new voice that is welcomed into it.

May we, like our ancestors, hear the call of the shofar as an invitation to be present for one another, to reach out to those who are sharing in this Jewish journey with us.

And may we say Hineini – may we say “Here I am” – to each other and to the Jewish future.

Amen.

 

 

[1] http://www.nhs-cba.org/RH2-HereIAm.htm.

[2] Dershowitz, Alan M. The Vanishing American Jew. Page 29.

[3] National Jewish Population Survey, 1990.

[4] Pew Survey of American Jewry, 2013.

Sun, July 22 2018 10 Av 5778