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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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putting the joy in judaism

on Tuesday, 03 March 2015.

Last month, my family and I traveled to my home town of New Orleans to celebrate Mardi Gras. As a New Orleanian, it was far from my first Mardi Gras, but it was my first time sharing it with my children. And I would call it a smashing success! The parades, the floats, the beads and doubloons, the masks and costumes. What's not to love?!


There is something about this time of year that makes us want to let loose and have a good time. Maybe it's the continuing snow and cold. Maybe it's the hope of Spring coming soon. And while Mardi Gras (like Montreal's Carnival) has its origins in the Catholic Church, the Jewish tradition of Purim grew up right alongside it.


Purim is, of course, the story of Mordecai and Esther defeating the evil Haman to save the Jews. It is a liberation story, a reminder that God works through the actions of human beings, and that God's presence can be felt in the world in our relationships and our TikkunOlam. It is also, by the far, the SILLIEST holiday we have.


On Purim, we wear masks. On Purim, we shout over Haman's name and shake noise makers and jump on bubble wrap. On Purim, we come together not only to celebrate, but to have FUN. We need that during this time of year. We need it all the time.


Often our Judaism is serious and solemn. That's not a bad thing: we need to take religion seriously. We need to study and learn, and make important choices, and work hard to make the world a better place. But we also need to enjoy being together – this month and every month. May this month of Adar remind us to imbue our Judaism with joy, wherever and whenever we come together as a community.

L'shalom,
Rabbi Micah Streiffer

breaking bread, err. . . rice together

on Wednesday, 28 January 2015.

I really like sushi. I don't think that's a secret.

And over the past few months, I've discovered that apparently, other people do too. That was really clear last month when more than 15 members and guests of Kol Ami gathered at a sushi restaurant to eat, to be together, and to have an amazing conversation about their Jewish beliefs.

We've been holding these "Torah & Sushi" sessions for several months now. As a group, we are engaged in the ongoing study of PirkeAvot, which is an ancient text that lists the Rabbis' favourite ethical sayings. We have read, pondered, and debated such well-known passages as "Turn the Torah again and again" and "You are not required to complete the work, but neither are you at liberty to ignore it." We have discussed such heady issues as work-life balance, war and peace, the efficacy of worship, and the nature of God. The words of PirkeAvot were written thousands of years ago, by sages who are separated from us by time and space, but they continue to speak to us and to our lives today.

What is it that makes "Torah & Sushi" successful? Is it the Torah or the sushi? I actually think it's the combination. As Jews, we learn in order to better ourselves and our world, in order to grow as individuals and as a people. And as Jews, we eat in order to build community – to cement relationships between ourselves. You can do that over matzah balls at the Seder, over brownies at the Friday night oneg, or over miso soup and sashimi the fourth Monday of every month!

I'm often asked whether it's OK to just drop in for a session. The answer is absolutely! You do not need to have any prior knowledge, and you do not need to have been there last month in order to join us this month. All you need to bring is your appetite – for knowledge, for learning, and for Japanese food.

The next "Torah & Sushi" is Monday, February 23 at noon. We meet at Sano Sushi, 8143 Yonge Street (just south of Highway 7). If you're coming, please send me a note at rabbistreiffer@kolami.ca, so that the restaurant knows how many to set up for.

L'shalom,

Rabbi Micah Streiffer

the power of fear: a response to events in paris

on Monday, 12 January 2015.

A SERMON FOR SHEMOT 5775

This week’s horrific events in Paris have touched us deeply. For a lot of reasons – because Wednesday’s shooting at the Charlie Hebdo satirical magazine hit at the heart of our freedom of speech, one of our most sacred freedoms. Because today’s hostage situation occurred in a kosher grocery, in a Jewish neighbourhood. Because tonight, synagogues in France are dark for the first time since the Holocaust. People afraid to attend their houses of worship, being warned by the government to stay home.
 
When things like this happen, our natural human impulse is to want to find someone to blame. Whose fault is this? Is it the fault of a particular community? Of a specific religious group? Of religion in general?
 
This past week, Egypt’s President - Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, publicly worried about the increasing violentization of the Muslim world. He said: “It is unbelievable that the thought we hold holy pushes the Muslim community to be a source of worry, fear, danger, murder and destruction to all the world,” He called for no less than “a religious revolution” in the Muslim world. (NY TImes: Raising Questions Within Islam After France Shooting.)
 
And other voices expand that, blaming religion in general. Religion, they say, divides and polarizes people. It pushes us to hate one another and to focus on points of difference and contention, rather than commonality.
 
There is no doubt that religion has been the source of a great deal of violence throughout history. And there is no doubt that Jews have been the victims of a great deal of that violence, though we’ve been the perpetrators of some of it as well. But as a liberal Jew and a religious person, I have to reject the notion that religion is somehow inherently violent. That religion, by its very definition polarizes people. I have to reject the notion in itself leads to hate. But I have to accept that it plays a role in it. If not, there wouldn’t be so much religious-based violence around there world. There wouldn’t be so many people killing and dying in the name of God.
 
So what is the connection, the bridge between religion and hate?
Mahatma Gandhi once said, “The enemy is fear. We think it is hate; but, it is fear.”
 
This week’s Torah portion teaches us about the danger of fear, and about the ways that it can lead us to hatred and violence. We read this week from parashat Shemot. It is the first portion in the book of Shemot, or Exodus, and it begins the saga of the Jewish people’s descent into slavery and our Exodus to freedom.
 
וְאֵלֶּה שְׁמוֹת בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל הַבָּאִים מִצְרָיְמָה אֵת יַֽעֲקֹב
These are the names of the children of Israel who came to Egypt along with Jacob. (Exodus 1:1)
 
And it goes on to list them: 2 Reuben, Simeon, Levi, and Judah; 3 Issachar, Zebulun, and Benjamin; 4 Dan and Naphtali, Gad and Asher. 5 Seventy people in all, and Joseph was already in Egypt.
 
But from there, the story turns dark almost immediately:
 וַיָּמָת יוֹסֵף וְכָל־אֶחָיו וְכֹל הַדּוֹר הַהֽוּא:
Joseph died, and all his brothers, and all that generation.
 וַיָּקָם מֶֽלֶךְ־חָדָשׁ עַל־מִצְרָיִם אֲשֶׁר לֹֽא־יָדַע אֶת־יוֹסֵֽף:
And a new king arose over Egypt who did not know Joseph. (Exodus 1:6-8 )
 
This, of course, is the Pharaoh who will enslave the Israelites. The one who will treat them as an enemy and who will oppress them and embitter their lives. And the Torah begins its story by pointing out what about him? That he did not know Joseph. The Etz Hayim says, “He was ignorant of or indifferent to the extraordinary service that Joseph had rendered to Egypt.”
 
And it was that ignorance and/or indifference that led to his animosity toward the Jews.
 
The author H. P. Lovecraft wrote, “The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.”
 
It was fear that led the Pharaoh to enslave the people. Fear of something that he did not know, did not understand, and did not attempt to understand. The very next verse proves it. He says, “ הָבָה נִּֽתְחַכְּמָה לוֹ - Let us deal shrewdly with them. Otherwise in the event of war they may join our enemies in fighting against us."”
 
He had no real, rational reason to believe that the Israelites would join his enemies. But his fear led him to cruelty and hatred. It was fear that caused our oppression. It was fear that made us slaves. And it is is fear that leads people to do horrific things to each other, all around the world, in the name of religion or nationalism or whatever other excuse we come up with.
 
When we mourn the victims of the Charlie Hebdo attack, what we are mourning is that fear and ignorance have so violently and so disgustingly encroached on modern people’s right to express themselves, and to disagree with one another. When we mourn the victims of today’s hostage situation, what we are mourning is that fear and ignorance have hit violently at the heart of our own community, curtail our right to live and worship and believe as Jews. This is the tragedy of extremism.
 
Our prayer is this: If religion can help engender fear, it can also help dispel it. And this is true. If we look around us, we can see instances all over the world of religious communities working together to build bridges of understanding and peace between communities. We see this in Israel, where our Reform Movement is deeply involved in Jewish-Arab dialogue. We see it right here here, in our annual “Open Doors, Open Minds” lecture at Kol Ami. I would argue that the power of religion is that it has the ability to move people’s thinking and influence their actions. Whether that influence is for good or for evil, is up to us. 
In the 21st century, religion needs to be a force for good - to help us focus on commonalities rather than differences, to help us understand that we are all God’s children. We have a LOT of work to do.We can do so by increasing our dialogue with other communities – even those who are very different from us (maybe especially those who are very different from us.) We can do it by reaching out to those whose practices and beliefs are foreign to us.
Bertrand Russell once said, “To conquer fear is the beginning of wisdom.”
On this Shabbat, as we mourn the victims of hatred and fear, may we commit ourselves, and commit our religious community, to be builders of wisdom, to be proponents of understanding and dialogue, to be champions of peace. And someday, may the world around us reflect those values as well.
 Amen.

our promised land

on Monday, 29 December 2014.

Israel is complicated. That may be the understatement of the century.

We are uniquely fortunate to live in a time when there is a sovereign Jewish state. That makes us unlike the vast majority of Jews throughout history. It is reason for celebration and for ongoing thanksgiving. At the same time, Israel's existence has been wracked with heartbreaking complications: the Palestinian conflict, the second-class status of Reform Judaism, the growing polarization of the Israeli and North American Jewish communities.

Israel is not perfect. Like any other state, she has the right to make mistakes, to learn from them, and to move forward. As the Jewish state, we also have the right to expect that Israel will be at home for us, and will live up to our Jewish values of equality, holiness, and TzelemElohim - the Divine Image in all humanity.

One of the ways we show our love for the Jewish state is by advocating for those values within her society. The Reform Movement has been deeply involved in social justice work in Israel for decades. Our synagogues are offering a new and liberal kind of Judaism to the Jewish state; our Israel Religious Action Centre fights for social equality for all its citizens, regardless of ethnicity or gender; and our support of Women of the Wall (a transdenominational organization, NOT a Reform group) is changing the face of women's religious equality at the Kotel and beyond.

From the other side of the ocean, Kol Ami actively supports these efforts. We partner with congregation BirkatShalom, we advocate for Women of the Wall, we raise money for Israeli's Reform Movement. We have much to be proud of, and much work still to do.

This month we are very pleased to be able to offer a "Virtual Torah Study" program with Rabbi Meir Azari, Senior Rabbi of Beit Daniel of Tel Aviv, the largest Reform Jewish community in Israel. Rabbi Meir Azari was one of the first Israelis to be ordained by the Reform movement, sits on the board of the Jewish agency, and is a widely respected religious and community leader in Tel Aviv. He will join us by Skype at exactly 9:00 am, so please arrive on time for this fascinating program with a fascinating leader.

L’shalom,


Rabbi Micah Streiffer

a minor holiday

on Saturday, 29 November 2014.

Chanukah is our least important holiday.
Except that it's not.

Rabbinically speaking, the Festival of Lights is a minor holiday with relatively little stature. It's not mentioned in the Torah (because the events it celebrates had not happened yet). It's not a day of rest, or one of the Pilgrimage Festivals. There aren't even any specific synagogue practices associated with this holiday.

And yet, Chanukah persists as one of the most celebrated holidays in modern Jewish life.

Why? Well, let's be honest, some of the reason has to do with its proximity to the non-Jewish holidays going on at the same time of year. It's nice to be celebrating something when our neighbours are also celebrating something.

But I don't think that's the whole story. The messages of Chanukah resonate deeply with us today. It is a holiday that teaches us that miracles can happen; that individuals or small groups can make a difference; that Jewish life will go on regardless of adversity. We need only look around us to understand the power of these ideas. The rebirth of the State of Israel, the flourishing of Jewish life following the Holocaust - these are miracles of Maccabean proportions. When we sing about the miracle of the oil, I think we also mean these modern-day Jewish miracles.

Perhaps above all, Chanukah is a way of bringing warmth into a cold world. And opportunity to bring light into the darkness that surrounds us at this time of year. We do so with our candles, and with our blessings. We do so with our special foods, and with our community.

At Kol Ami, we celebrate Chanukah with the "Night of a Thousand Candles." Please join us Friday, December 19, at 6:30, for a special Chanukah-themed ROCK SHABBAT service. Bring your menorah and candles, and we will fill the sanctuary with light. A Chanukah potluck dinner will be held afterwards. You can just show up for the service, but please RSVP to jaykowal@gmail.com for the dinner.

Chag Sameach!

Rabbi Micah Streiffer

can you really "rock" shabbat?

on Wednesday, 29 October 2014.

Over the last year, the rock band we call SHTYX has shaken up Shabbat at Kol Ami!

Oh, we’ve always been a musical congregation. The choir is amazing; the congregation sings through every service. Music is at the centre of our identity as a synagogue – after all we’re called “Voice of My People.”

And yet, there is something wonderfully irreverent about having a rock band on the bima. There is something satisfyingly incongruent about distortion pedals and bass lines during Kabbalat Shabbat. And it’s clear from the attendance and the participation that the congregation loves it!

But is Rock Shabbat really so new and different?

In some ways, yes. The Torah never envisioned electric guitars or drum kits during prayer. But it did envision musical instruments. Psalm 150, written two millennia ago, says “Halleluhu b’teika shofar, b’nevel v’chinor – Praise God with blasts of the horn, with harp and lyre.” It is describing an orchestra that played in the ancient Temple in Jerusalem.

And it’s also the case that Jewish music has always evolved with the times. That’s why Yemenite Jewish music and Polish Jewish music sound so different – they grew up in different parts of the world and were heavily influenced by the surrounding cultures. (Many people know that the melody of “Ein Keloheinu” actually comes from an old German drinking song that was adapted for sanctuary use!)

So when we bring in new instruments, and write new melodies, we are following in the footsteps of our ancestors who did the same. We are drawing from our culture and imbuing it with sanctity, giving Jewish meaning to something that already speaks to us.

Can you really “rock” Shabbat? You sure can! Judaism teaches us that in every generation, we should “Sing to God a new song.” There is nothing more Jewish than what we do here on Friday nights.

The next Rock Shabbat is Friday, November 21 at 6:30 pm. We hope you’ll join us! The service is no more than an hour, and there is a potluck Shabbat dinner immediately following. If you’d like to come to dinner, just RSVP to jaykowal@gmail.com.

L’shalom,

Rabbi Micah Streiffer

standing together: interfaith families and jewish community

on Monday, 06 October 2014.

RABBI STREIFFER'S SERMON FOR KOL NIDREI 5775

If I were to ask you to name the most important person in the Torah, you might say it was Abraham, the first Jew. Or maybe you’d name Moses. Or Miriam, the great prophet. But I’ll bet no one in the room would nominate Oznat. In fact, I’ll bet most of us have never even heard of her.
 
Who is Oznat? She is the wife of Joseph. She is only mentioned three times in the Torah, and really only because she is the mother of Ephraim and Menashe, Joseph’s sons who are born in Egypt. But that’s important. It’s especially important to us because they are the first Jewish children ever born outside the land of Isrel. The first Jewish children in history who had to live as a minority. Who had to struggle with maintaining their Jewishness while surrounded by a sea of Egyptian-ness.
 
We can imagine the kinds of questions that their mother had to contend with:
What do you do when the class pyramid visit coincides with Yom Kippur? What happens when the school chariot race is on Friday night? Like any parent, Oznat would have gently guided her sons through these difficult choices, helping them to balance their daily lives with their Jewish identity.
 
We know what that’s like. Menashe and Ephraim remind us of our own children. And Oznat reminds us of ourselves. So much so that it’s become traditional to bless your children at the Shabbat table with the words: Yesimcha elohim l’Efrayim v’chi-M’nasheh – May God make you like Ephraim and Menashe. Every single Shabbat we look upon our children in the light of these first Diaspora Jews; and every Shabbat and we put ourselves into the shoes of their mother Oznat. Because we know that she helped shaped and mould their Jewish identity. Because we know that without her guidance, there might be no Judaism today. She is in some ways, the most important influence in all of Jewish history. 

And you know something interesting? She is not Jewish.
 
Who is Oznat, wife of Joseph, mother of Epharim and Menashe? She is the daughter of Poti-phera, the Egyptian priest. And we are indebted to her for keeping Judaism alive.
 
A year ago, on Rosh Hashanah morning, I gave a sermon about inclusion in Judaism. I argued that the doors of the Jewish community are better open than closed. We talked specifically about inclusion of women, of gays and lesbians, and of interfaith families.
 
The response to that sermon was absolutely overwhelming. So many of you came up to me to tell me a story – about your daughter who is dating a non-Jewish man and struggling with issues of identity. About your cousin and his wife who are doing their best to teach their children about the holidays, even though the kids aren’t halachically Jewish. About people who are looking to be accepted and embraced by the Jewish community, but who have too often felt rejected.
 
I’ve spent a lot of time this year thinking about that response to my words; thinking about the stories you told me. And trying to figure out: What really are the barriers? What’s keeping us as a Jewish community from being as inclusive as possible?
 
As I started to write this sermon, I pulled down all of the books from my shelf that deal with interfaith marriage. And suddenly the answer was clear. I own a book called “Overcoming the Stumbling Blocks of Interfaith Marriage.” I own a journal of academic papers called “A Response to the Threat of Mixed Marriage.”
 
Now granted, those books were both written several decades ago, and things have changed considerably. We’ve become more open, more welcoming. But still, as a Jewish community, our basic assumption about interfaith marriage is that it is a threat to our way of life.
                                                                                      
I daresay that if Oznat had seen herself as a threat to Judaism, her choices would’ve been different, and Judaism might not have survived.
                                      
Rabbi Jeff Salkin writes
         

There are many “Asnats,” female and male, in the Jewish world today. They may not be Jewish, but their children are, and one might hope that their grandchildren... will be.”[1]
 

We want Oznat’s grandchildren to be Jewish . We want to do what is right for our people’s long-term survival, and we want to do right by those families who are seeking our acceptance. And that will require a shift in our thinking.
 
The author Seth Godin wrote that “Change is not a threat; it is an opportunity. Survival is not the goal; transformative success is.”
 
Transformative success for 21st century Judaism means moving from seeing threats to seeing opportunities. It means moving from tolerating interfaith families to considering them an integral part of the community. It means recognizing – both in word and in deed - that interfaith families are Jewish families.
 
Not long ago, I was doing some Jewish reading, and I stumbled onto a pretty provocative argument regarding non-Jews in the Jewish community. The book I was reading essentially argued that we need to stop worrying so much about who is and who is not. That if someone wants to opt into the Jewish community, into our practices and our learning, they should be invited to do so.
 
You might be wondering what book I was reading? What radical, left wing author would argue such a thing. It was the Torah.

וַיְדַבֵּר יְהֹוָה אֶל־מֹשֶׁה לֵאמֹֽר
Adonai spoke to Moses, saying....
וְכִֽי־יָגוּר אִתְּכֶם גֵּר וְעָשָׂה אִשֵּׁה
When a stranger takes up residence with you, [and that person wants to] present an offering before God, they shall do as you do.... The same ritual and the same rule shall apply to you and to the stranger who resides among you.[2]
           

                                    
3000 years ago, the Torah already recognized that there was a group of people who lived among the Israelites and who followed Jewish practices, but who, for whatever reason, chose not to formally join the Jewish people. The Biblical name for this group is Ger Toshav – the “resident stranger,” or “the one who lives among you.” There are laws about the Ger Toshav all over the Torah – you’re supposed to share tzedakah with them; you’re supposed to treat them with respect; you’re supposed to include them in communal life.
 
That’s not to say that there was no distinction. Biblical society most definitely did differentiate between Jew and non-Jew. But what’s remarkable about the Torah’s approach is that it treats the Ger Toshav essentially as a member of the community. And in Judaism, being part of the community means being part of the covenant.
 
A second passage from Torah: The parashah that we will read tomorrow morning is about an ancient covenant ceremony. It says:
 

 אַתֶּם נִצָּבִים הַיּוֹם כֻּלְּכֶם לִפְנֵי יְהוָֹה אֱלֹֽהֵיכֶם

You stand this day, all of you, before Adonai your God.
 
This takes place at the end of the 40 years in the wilderness. Our people are standing before God for the purpose of taking upon themselves the obligations of Jewish life before crossing into the Land. But the commentators want to know why. Didn’t they already stand before God at Sinai? Didn’t they already accept the Torah? Why are we doing this all over again?
 
The reason, we learn, is that the covenant is being expanded to include more people. The first time around, back at Sinai, it was all of the Israelite men who stood before God. But here, the Torah specifies: “Atem nitzavim kulchem – ALL of you are standing:”
 

כֹּל אִישׁ יִשְׂרָאֵֽל: טַפְּכֶם נְשֵׁיכֶם
All the men, women and children of Israel
וְגֵרְךָ אֲשֶׁר בְּקֶרֶב מַֽחֲנֶיךָ
And even the stranger – the non-Israelite – who lives within your camp,[3]
 

Men, women, and children. Israelite and Ger Toshav, are all standing together to enter into covenant with God. That’s an extraordinary and very powerful statement written into a very ancient text. It tells us that from the very dawn of Judaism, our community has been made up of Jews and non-Jews who were committed to Jewish life. In ancient times, they were Egyptian princesses and resident strangers. In modern times, they are the Christian, Muslim, Hindu, and Humanist men and women who are married to Jewish spouses and who are raising Jewish children, who are living as part of the Jewish community. And they are having a lasting and positive impact.
 
In his book Inside Intermarriage, author Jim Keen tells the true story of a man he calls Rick, a Christian Dad raising two small children with his Jewish wife Rachel. One Friday night, Rachel unexpectedly had to work an extra shift, and Rick – home with his children - realized that the kids would still expect to have their usual family Shabbat rituals. Rachel had always taken the lead, for obvious reasons, but he knew how. So Rick set out the challah and grape juice on the table, and he searched all over the house for Shabbat candles. The closest he could find were some birthday candles. He figured it was better than nothing, so he reluctantly put those out on the table, and he and the children joyously sang the Shabbat blessings together. They blessed the candles; they blessed the wine; they blessed the challah. And at the end of the last blessing, the two small children unexpectedly made a wish, and blew out the birthday candles.
 
Needless to say, Rick was horrified. But when he told his wife about it later, the two of them decided that actually, there was something nice about adding a “Shabbat wish” to their weekly ritual. So starting the next Shabbat, they did just that. After all three blessings, each family member would make a wish...but not blow out the candles. And Rick - a non-Jewish father – had added a meaningful and deeply Jewish element to his children’s religious experience. Those children will grow up a little more connected, a little more moved by Jewish ritual because their Dad made the effort to light candles with them.[4]
 
We have plenty of Ricks in our own congregation – men and women who have made a commitment to raise Jewish children and build Jewish households. They are lighting candles and chanting blessings; they are driving to and from Hebrew School; they are attending services and Torah study, and singing Hebrew prayers, and cooking kosher recipes, and sometimes answering their children’s Jewish questions. They are lovingly and commitedly constructing the Jewish future. They are standing at Sinai.
 
If we see someone as standing with us as Sinai, then we will understand their place in the community differently than if we see them as a threat. If we recognize that a person has opted into the covenant, then we will treat them differently than we would an outsider. If someone has taken on the obligations of Jewish life, then the Jewish community has obligations to them as well: to include and welcome them, and to give them the tools they need to live the Jewish life that they are seeking.
 
Some congregations around North America are offering a program called the Mother’s Circle. It is an educational course designed for non-Jewish women who are raising Jewish children. The impetus behind it is that people who don’t grow up Jewish don’t usually have the memories or the knowledge associated with Jewish life, but they they are very often responsible for the religious life of the household – for making sure the seder happens; for lighting Shabbat and Chanukah candles. So it’s the synagogue’s job to teach about these things.
 
But it isn’t a conversion class. This is designed for people who want to participate actively in Jewish life along with their families, but not to become Jewish themselves.
 
One participant said: “It is a huge comfort to know we are not the only family that has made this journey. [I’ve gained] the confidence to raise strong Jewish children!”[5]
 
I don’t think Oznat could have said it better if she tried.
 
This is only one example. But the bottom line is, we have a responsibility: To recognize and appreciate the contributions of the non-Jewish members of our community. To affirm their choices and open doors for them, rather than saddling them with a preconceived notion of what we think they ought to be. To embrace interfaith families as Jewish families, and embrace the opportunity to help them build Jewish lives.
                                                                                        
And so, I’d like to invite you to participate with me in a dialogue this year. A dialogue about how our community can better fulfill these responsibilities to the Jewish families in our midst that include a Ger Toshav. And I have some ideas of things I think we should talk about. I think we should do some learning together, explore what our traditional texts have to say about being part of the Jewish community. I think we should talk about our congregational membership policies; about the rules surrounding burial and the fact that we currently have no place for interfaith couples to be buried together. We should talk about how we can reach out into the community to let people know they are welcome here, and what kind of resources we can offer them when they are here. And finally, I think we need to have a discussion – an honest, respectful, open-minded discussion - about interfaith marriages, and whether they under certain circumstances they should be considered Kiddushin, Jewish marriages, and whether under certain circumstances our clergy should consider being involved in them.
 
I’ve scheduled the first of our discussions for Saturday, November 1 at 9:00 in the morning. There’s even breakfast, so I hope you’ll come and join us.
 
I’ll tell you ahead of time that I haven’t settled my own opinions on all of these matters. I don’t know exactly where this discussion is going to take us, but I know that we need to have it. I know that we cannot continue to treat Oznat as a threat, and then wonder why Ephraim and Menashe don’t enroll in Hebrew school. I know that there are families out there who are clamouring for a welcoming Jewish home. And I also know that Kol Ami is the kind of embracing and open-minded Jewish community that can become that home. I know it, because you told me so.
                                                                                            
The rabbis of the Talmud were once engaged in heated debate over a matter of Jewish law. Each side brought argument after argument, until all possible words had been exhausted. Finally, in exasperation, Rabbi Hanan turned to Abaye, the greatest Sage of the era, and asked “How will we ever know how to proceed?
 
Abaye responded: פוּק חָזִי מַאי עַמָא דָבַר – Go out and see what the people are doing.[6]
 
In times of uncertainty, we should trust in our people. We should go out and meet them where they are, and build Jewish life together.
 
As we embark on this journey together, may we be guided by our love for the Jewish tradition and by our commitment to the Jewish community. May we work to fulfill the ancient words of the prophet Isaiah: Beiti beit t’filah yikara l’chol ha-amim – May this, God’s house, be a house of prayer for all people.
 
Amen.

 


 

[1] Salkin, Jeffrey. Righteous Gentiles in the Hebrew Bible. Jewish Lights; Woodstock, NY. p. 121 (ibook edition).
[2] Numbers 15.
[3] Deuteronomy 29:9-10.
[4] Keen, Jim. Inside Intermarriage. URJ Press; 2006. p. 88.
[5] www.themotherscircle.org
[6] Based on B. Eruvin 14b.

 

the most important holidays are still to come

on Sunday, 05 October 2014.

That's right, you heard me.

It feels funny to say, coming off of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, but I think there's something really special about the holidays that come next. Sure, I appreciate the holiness and importance of the High Holy Days. It is awe inspiring to have our entire community together in the room, and to pray and repent and work toward a good new year. But in stark contrast to the solemnity of Yom Kippur, Sukkot and Simchat Torah are fun! And in many ways, they are exceedingly relevant to our modern lives.

 

On Sukkot, we celebrate nature: we build a sukkah, decorate it with fruits and grains, and enjoy all the beautiful world has to offer us (before it is swallowed up by winter). It's a reminder that as modern people, we need to work harder to be in touch with the earth that gives us life.

 

On Simchat Torah, we celebrate completing the annual reading of the Torah. We unroll the entire Torah around the room, and we dance, and dance, and dance. It reminds us that we should always be learning, always growing, and never standing still.

 

In ancient times, Sukkot was one of the three pilgrimage festivals – the Shalosh Regalim – during which our ancestors would travel to Jerusalem to bring offerings to God. It was one of the most important festivals of the entire Jewish year.

 

Today, we no longer make a pilgrimage to Jerusalem and we know that we no longer offer sacrifices. But our holidays remain as relevant as they have ever been. It is an extraordinary thing about Judaism, ancient traditions can be renewed and imbued with new meanings.

 

As a congregation, we will celebrate Sukkot together on Wednesday evening, October 8 at 6:30. Join us for a service, followed by a potluck dinner with sukkah decorating. We will celebrate Simchat Torah the following Wednesday, October 15, at 6:30 PM, with dancing, celebration, food, and even a DJ! I look forward to seeing you there.

 

Chag Sameach -  Happy Holidays!

 

Rabbi Micah Streiffer

finding each other's humanity

on Saturday, 04 October 2014.

A SERMON FOR YOM KIPPUR 5775

In January 2003, I woke up one morning to something amazing. The world around me was covered in snow. Now, that may not seem like much in Toronto, but in Jerusalem, it’s magical. Can you imagine the Dome of the Rock, the streets of the old city, all covered in white? Walking around, you could see pure joy on the face of every person who passed: Jews, Arabs, Christians, Muslims – didn’t matter. But the highlight of the day was a snowball fight outside the Jaffa gate. A group of young Arab men and a group of uniformed Israeli soldiers, smiling and laughing as they pelted each other with fluffy white projectiles.
 
It was as if, just for one day, the snow had washed away all the differences and all the grudges, and it had left behind one simple truth: everybody loves a good snowball fight.
 
David Ben Gurion once said that “In Israel, in order to be a realist you must believe in miracles.” Lately, our Israel seems to be a place not of miracles, but of confusion and angst. A protracted conflict, yet another eruption of violence. Altercations at the Western Wall over women holding Torah scrolls. Growing animosity between left and right; religious and secular; Arabs and Jews.
 
Right now is an uneasy time for the Jewish state and those who love her, between the conflict in Gaza, the rise of ISIS, the disturbing resurgence of Anti-Semitism around the world. Prime Minister Netanyahu addressed the UN General Assembly on Monday, and he talked about opportunities and dangers: opportunities for cooperation and peace in what he called the “new Middle East,” and dangers of extremism and hatred and the potential to slide back into violence.
 
Like a lot of you, I spent the summer keeping up on news from Israel and Gaza. I read lots of articles from lots of newspapers. And I also read lots of posts on social media. That may have been a mistake, because so much of what was there was incredibly one-sided, and ultimately futile. For example, an old high school friend of mine, who has become quite pro-Palestinian, posted an article about Israeli war-crimes. So I, feeling my responsibility as rabbi and a Jew, came to Israel’s defense. I posted about human shields and rockets. Back came his response: Occupation. So I shot back: Disengagement. And so on and so forth until it was clear it wasn’t going anywhere and we both gave up.
 
Our Facebook and Twitter feeds were full of that kind of activity this summer. We felt, rightly, like we needed to come to Israel’s defence. We needed to add our voices to the dialogue. And it’s good that we did so, because Israel needs our supportive voices, especially in times like these. But in hindsight, what we were participating in wasn’t really a dialogue, because there was very little listening going on. And unfortunately, that’s mirrored in the international debate over Israel: people simply talk past each other. They quote their own arguments and try to shout loudly enough that that other side will be drowned out. And in the end, nobody changes their mind; nobody is convinced; nothing changes. And we only become more polarized.
                                                                                                  
Over the summer, Rabbi Sharon Kleinbaum of Congregation Beit Simchat Torah in New York City created a prayer for peace, to be read during services. She wove into it the names of both Israeli soldiers and Palestinian children who had been killed in the fighting. That was too much for 4 families in her congregation – including a board member – who resigned their membership and accused their rabbi of “spreading propaganda” for Hamas. Around the same time, Rabbi Ron Aigen of Montreal gave a sermon that defended Israel’s ethical standards during this difficult war. His congregation also lost a member, who accused him of stifling opportunities to critique Israel.[1]
 
The debate on this issue has become toxic on so many levels. And even though we North Americans sit far from its epicentre, we are very much part of the discussion. And we need to be asking ourselves some hard questions: Why are people judged and vilified for their views on this issue? Why are rabbis afraid to talk about the Jewish state from the bima? When did the words “pro-Israel” and “pro-Palestinian” become mutually exclusive?
 
The journalist Frank Tyger once that, “Listening to both sides of a story will convince you that there is more to the story than both sides.” We have all forgotten one of the most important responsibilities in a debate is to listen to what the other side has to say.
 
This summer, Israel went to war. It went to war because it had to – because its citizens were being terrorized and its safety was being threatened by a vicious terrorist organization. As Jews and as human beings, we stand behind Israel’s right to self defence. As Jews and as human beings, we also mourn the deaths of innocent people. Thankfully, this round of fighting has come to an end. The question now becomes: What next? How do you bring normalcy to an area of the world that hasn’t known it? How do you confront the fear and the mistrust that have two peoples stuck in an endless cycle of violence?
 

The Rabbis of the Talmud teach about just how powerful fear can be. In tractate Shabbat, they tell us that:
There are five examples of a large creature fearing a small one. The lion fears the gnat, which buzzes in its ear. The elephant fears the mosquito, which goes into its trunk. The eagle fears the swallow, which flies beneath its wings. The scorpion fears the spider, and the whale fears the tiny stickleback fish.[2]
 

The Talmud’s lesson here is that our fear can paralyze us, whether it’s rational or not. An elephant has no reason to be afraid of a mosquito, but it cannot bear what it does not understand.
                                                        
There are many legitimate fears in Israel right now. Rabbi Michael Marmur, who is the Provost of the Hebrew Union College, the Reform Rabbinical seminary, and who lives in Jerusalem, gave a sermon last month where he enumerated many of his own fears. He said:
 

I fear that the physical threats we face may one day prevail. I fear that the moral challenge presented by years of occupation and periodic periods of military conflict will prevent us from reaching our finest aspirations. And I fear that the current crises may starve hope of light and sustenance and leave it emaciated.[3]
 

For anyone who loves the Jewish state, those fears are truly palpable right now. Add to that the very visceral Israeli fears of rocket attacks and terror tunnels. The Palestinian fears of Israeli military action and shrinking available land. The pervasive sense by both peoples that their lives and their wellbeing are outside of their own control. And you can understand why we’re all still fighting.
 
Rabbi Marmur asserts in his sermon: “Our vision is clouded by our fears.” And the only way to uncloud it is for those fears to be “acknowledged and confronted.”
 
There is a Jewish word for acknowledging our fears and confronting ourselves. It is called teshuvah – turning, or repentance.
 
The Chassidic masters tell the story of a disciple who went before his Rebbe to try to understand the punishments for breaking Torah law. “In the Torah,” he said, “it declares that a sinner is to receive 40 lashes. Yet the Rabbis reduced them to 39. Why?”
 
His Rebbe answered, “A person should never believe that he has fully wiped away his sin. So the Sages took away one of the lashes, to remind us that no matter how far we’ve come, we should still work to better our ways.”[4]
 
On the High Holy Days, we come together to confront our wrongs and challenge ourselves to do better. In conversations with some of the leaders of our Reform movement in Israel, they believe that while this summer’s war was just and probably unavoidable, there cannot be lasting peace without teshuvah on both sides.
 
A painful example: This past year, it seems like much of the Jewish world is reading Ari Shavit’s new book, My Promised Land. Ari Shavit is a celebrated journalist for the Israeli newspaper Haaretz. The book tells his version of the story of Israel, starting with the arrival of his own Great-Grandfather, the British Zionist Herbert Bentwich, in 1897, and continuing through the years of the yishuv and the history of the State. Shavit tries to be both honest and thorough, teaching about what he calls the triumphs and the tragedies.
 
Among many other things, he writes about what he calls “black box” of Israel’s history. That is, the moment in which the leadership of the state ordered the evacuation and resettlement of the Arab residents of the city of Lydda during the 1948 war. It’s not a story we tell very often. We mostly teach that it was the Arab governments that told the Palestinian residents to leave their homes. And that’s mostly true, except for the few instances where it’s not. Israel has made mistakes; Israel has done wrong things.
 
Here I’m quoting Rabbi Marmur again:

I believe that there is much which Jewish society in Israel must face up to. We have to stare down bigotry and struggle against inequality. We have to acknowledge the full and unconditional humanity of all individuals, and the legitimate political aspirations of the Palestinian people. Unless and until they have the conditions for a just and workable state, the dream and promises of Israel cannot be fulfilled.
 

Earlier this week on a conference call with North American rabbis, Rabbi Yehoyada Amir, the President of the Israeli Reform Rabbinical Association, echoed those sentiments. He said that teshuvah is precisely what our Israeli colleagues are talking about during this holiday. And he also said that this is where Israel needs our help as North American Jews:

 

We need your helping hand when we are trying to fight racism in Israel. We need your assistance in strengthening Israeli democracy.

Even those of us who don’t live in Israel need to be asking ourselves hard questions. Have we ever clicked away from an article on Palestinian suffering because it didn’t fit with our narrative? Do we ever, in defending Israel’s actions against terrorists, fail to acknowledge the plight of ordinary Palestinians, who have also been victims of this situation for decades?

Israel is just and good. But there is also humanity on the other side of the border. And admitting Israel’s imperfections is not a condemnation or a denial of the country’s goodness, any more than chanting Ashamnu Bagadnu is a denial of our own goodness. Rather, it is a statement that is Israel is a good society. One of most basic of all Jewish teachings is that when human beings are good, they can become better.
 
That being said, it’s important to stop here and stress that teshuvah must be mutual. If Israel is to take an honest accounting, then it would necessarily request of the Palestinian people to do the same. If Israelis are to ask themselves questions about settlements and occupation, then Palestinians must ask themselves about terrorism and victimhood and Anti-Semitism. Teshuvah does not mean accepting total guilt or giving in. It means trying to see legitimacy in both sides of the narrative. It means admitting that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not a zero-sum game where one side has to lose for the other to win. It means recognizing that the enemy is not the person on the other side of the border, but rather extremism in all its forms. Any ideology that would say: my way is the only way, and your way doesn’t deserve to exist. Whether that ideology wears a kafiyya or payos; whether it lives in Gaza City, or Beer Sheva, or downtown Toronto.
 
If there’s anything we learn from the High Holy Days, it is that our differences and our imperfections are what make us human. When we can see both sides of the story, then and only then can we begin to see each other’s humanity.
 
Over the summer, Israel’s Channel 10 aired an extraordinary news story about a 7 year old girl named Afnan, who lives in Gaza. On July 29, during of some of the fiercest fighting, Afnan was on her way home from Haifa after 9 months of cancer treatments at Rambam hospital. She was being driven by Iri Kassel, the past President of the Israeli Reform Movement, and by Yuval Roth, who the founder of Road to Recovery, an organization of more than 500 volunteers who drive Palestinian patients to and from hospitals in Israel.
 
On that particular day, the military had closed the Erez crossing between Israel and Gaza for security reasons. And since Afnan’s escorts couldn’t get her home, they took her for a few hours Kibbutz Hatzerim nearby, where she spent time playing with Israeli 7 year olds in the bomb shelter had been been converted to a school classroom.
 
It’s hard to tell from the video exactly how long Afnan spent in that classroom, but you can tell it wasn’t THAT long. Maybe an hour. And in that hour, a remarkable shift occurs. The children start off asking each other strained questions:
-       Where do you live? Gaza.
-       Are you shooting rockets at us?
-       “No,” answers another child. “Not everyone is shooting. There are good people there too.”
And over the course of about an hour together, the children talk about life, they learn each other’s names, and they play with blocks and dolls. And then Afnan heads home.
 
The remarkable thing about watching this news story is how completely ordinary these kids are. Afnan makes faces at the camera; she melts down at the border crossing when she can’t get home; she puts on a party hat and talks about missing her Ima. By the end of the video, these children have been transformed for one another from a “faceless other across the border” to “someone kind of like me.”
 
Yuval Roth says, “Afnan can create a better future. She can be an ambassador of peace.”[5]
 
These are the ways that barriers are broken down. These are the ways that conflicts are ended – by helping children see both sides of the story. By helping children see each other as human.
 
During this latest war, the Reform Movement in Israel was very, very busy. Our sister congregations created a nationwide system of programming and food delivery to shelters. They provided counseling for traumatized families in the south. And they made every effort to maintain the Jewish-Arab dialogue that is so crucial for building a better future.
 
And on this side of the ocean, many of us supported the “Stop the Sirens” campaign, which helped make those efforts possible. I would urge you this year to considering joining or rejoining ARZA Canada, our Reform Zionist organization, so that this important work can continue. You can find their brochures in the lobby on your way out, and you can join through the Kol Ami office.
 
All around Israel are little pockets of dialogue and co-existence, some of them sponsored by our movement. Our own sister congregation, Birkat Shalom at Kibbutz Gezer, has been engaged for 2 years now in bringing together Jewish, Muslim, and Christian women. Rabbi Miri Gold wrote to me in an email that, “This has been very powerful, learning each other's narratives and pain, and embracing one another in friendship and great warmth and affection.”

 
In a few cases, Jews and Arabs have chosen to create institutions and even towns together. Midway between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv is the village of Neve Shalom, or Wahat al-Salaam – which means “Oasis of Peace.” It is, their own words, “an intentional community jointly established by Jewish and Palestinian Arab citizens of Israel.”[6] And in Jerusalem, the Yad B’Yad Center works to build bridges through mixed schools,[7] bringing Jewish and Arab children together to learn in an atmosphere of equality and partnership. When Rabbi Andy Bachman of New York City visited one of the Yad B’Yad schools, he said that what impressed him most was that he couldn’t tell which students were which.[8]
 

The Rabbis of the Talmud ask: Why did God create only one human being – only Adam - at the outset of the world. Why not a whole tribe, or a whole nation? And they answer: So that no one might say to anyone else, “My ancestors were greater than yours.”
 
It is our blessing and our curse to love a corner of the world that is loved by others as well. But if we can hear each other’s voices, if we can listen to each other’s stories, then maybe we find each other’s humanity.
 
On a sunny day this past March, five Streiffers were sitting just outside the Western Wall plaza, at the gates of the Old City. There is an ice cream truck there, and an Arab boy who sells bagels from a cart. He was hollering – almost singing - the word beigele, over and over again to try to attact customers. BeigeleBeigeleBeigeleBeigeleBeigeleBeigele. My six year old son Yair hollered right back at him: “Bagel bagel bagel!” The Arab boy looked at him, with a twinkle in his eye, and they both laughed.
 
It doesn’t snow in Jerusalem in March, but in that moment, the world might as well have been blanketed in white. Differences and history melted away, and two boys – separated by culture and religion and nationality – found something to laugh about.
                                                       
Sha’alu Shalom Yerushalayim. Let us pray for peace in our beloved land. May there be security and tranquility for all those who live between the Jordan and the Sea. May we find the strength to reach across borders. And please, God, may we find the will to build a lasting peace.
 
Amen v’amen.


 

[1] “Talk in Synagogue of Israel and Gaza Goes from Debate to Wrath to Rage.” New York Times, September 22, 2014.
[2] B. Shabbat 77b.
[3] Marmur, Michael. “Vision in the Mist: Sermon Delivered in South Africa.” August 24, 2014.
[4] Agnon, SY. Days of Awe. Schocken, 1948. p. 166.
[5] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=g_1Mv7F9pyc&feature=youtu.be.
[6] http://wasns.org/.
[7] www.handinhandk12.org
[8] “Popular Rabbi’s Parting Shot.” New York Jewish Week, September 3, 2014.

 

sharing our light: building a relational judaism

on Sunday, 28 September 2014.

RABBI STREIFFER'S SERMON FOR ROSH HASHANAH 5775

In a mountain village many years ago, there was a Jewish nobleman who wanted to leave a legacy for people of his town. So he decided to build a synagogue.

 
In the course of his planning, the nobleman decided that no one should see the plans for the building until it was finished. He built a wall around the entire area, and swore the workers to secrecy. They worked day and night. And the people of the town would gather around the walls, wondering what was inside.
 
Finally, the work was completed, and the people began to enter. What they saw astounded them. No one could remember so beautiful a synagogue anywhere in the world. They marveled at its magnificent windows, and admired its intricate designs. They stood in awe of its craftsmanship and attention to detail.

But then, one of the crowd noticed a serious flaw. “Where are the lamps?” she asked. “What will provide the lighting?” The crowd looked around, and indeed, there were no lamps. They began to talk amongst themselves, “He’s built such a beautiful building, but forgotten to provide any light, so that we can see when we worship.” The murmuring grew louder and louder.
 
Until finally, the nobleman held up his hand to silence the congregation. He pointed to a series of brackets that hung all along the walls of the synagogue. And he handed a lamp to each family. “The lamps,” he said, “belong not to the synagogue but to you. Whenever you come here, you should bring your lamp, so that your light will fill this place of prayer. And, each time you are not here, a part of the synagogue will be dark. Your community is relying on your light.”
                                                                         
In Judaism, light is a symbol for many things. It is a symbol for Torah, as it says on our ark doors. It is a sign of God’s presence, as we look to our Ner Tamid. And it is also a symbol for life, for the presence of our fellow human beings. The lamps in the story remind us, as we sit here in our own synagogue, of just how much we need one another. Just how much we rely on our connections with one another.
 
In the 21st century, we know all about being connected to one another. We are in touch with all kinds of people 24/7. Facebook told me yesterday that I have 1,337 friends. That’s very exciting.... but I have to tell you, I’m not entirely convinced that having Facebook friends is the same thing as having real friends.
 
A few years ago, I was invited to a youth group Chanukah party. As I walked in, I remember seeing strobe lights on, and hearing music blaring, and seeing 25 teenagers standing near each other, texting on their phones. There’s no doubt they were talking to someone; but it wasn’t to the people standing next to them. I’m sure this is not an unfamiliar scene to you. And it’s not limited to teenagers either. In fact, as I was writing this very paragraph in Starbucks two weeks ago, I looked up to see a four soccer moms all sitting around a table, looking down at their phones. Remember the old days when rabbis used to get aggravated at people for talking during the sermon. Well, these days, we long for people to talk to each other during services. Because it’s better than checking their Twitter feeds!
 
The irony of the social media age is that in a lot of ways, we are actually more connected to each other now than we’ve ever been. If I want to, I can find out instantly what the girl who sat in front of me in Grade 6 had for breakfast. And I can also post to let all of you know how many deadlifts and back squats I did this morning. We know more information about more people than anyone who has ever lived. And yet, something is missing. A lot of the information that we know is superficial. It’s what we choose to put out there, and it represents a persona, rather than a real picture of who we are. A generation into the information age, we know now that being “connected” virtually doesn’t necessarily mean that we have made a real connection.
 
Now don’t get me wrong. I’m not here to blame cellphones. God knows I’m as addicted as anybody else in this room. But, I think our little cellphone problem is really only a symptom of a larger ailment. In the 21st century, we are finding it harder and harder to connect with other people in meaningful ways.
 
Consider this simple example. How many of us know the names of all of our neighbours? I don’t. When Shoshi and I talk about the people who live 20 metres from us, we refer to them by the following names: There are “the people with the matching white Acuras” on the left, the “loud party family” directly across from us, and of course “the guy who mows his lawn twice a week” on the right. And I’m guessing I’m not the only one here who has neighbours with those kinds of names. It’s the kind of lives that many of us lead. We rush out the door in the mornings. We carry our jobs with us in our pockets all the time. Fewer of us than ever have dinner with our loved ones. We are tired; we are stressed; we are busy. Our days are unbelievably full; but it’s not entirely clear that they are fulfilling us.
 
Judaism has long been aware that we function better when we make connections with others. That’s why halachah requires a minyan – a group of ten people – to hold a prayer service. And if we look closely in Torah, we find an awareness that this need for human connection is built into the very fabric of who we are.
 
Tomorrow morning we will Bereishit, the story of Creation. The Torah tells that as each new thing is created, God looks over it and says vay’hi tov – says that it is good. There is only one thing in the Torah that is referred to as “lo tov – not good.” It comes a chapter later, after God has created the first human. The Torah says “Lo tov heyot adam levado.” It is not good for a person to be alone.[1]
                                           
The commentator Ovadia S’forno says that this is what it means to be b’tzalmeinu kidmuteinu – to be created in the image and likeness of God. It means that we must we rely – in some way - on others. This is the human condition.[2]
 
And what the Torah teaches, science corroborates. Over the last decade, a series of neurological studies has set out to understand what happens in our brains when we feel distanced from others. In one study, participants were invited to play a virtual ball game, in which they were sometimes included and sometimes excluded. And their brain activity was scanned during the exercise. The study found that the anterior cingulate cortex, which is a section of the brain that regulates and registers physical pain, was more active during exclusion. And that other areas of the brain were actively involved in trying to mitigate that discomfort. [3]
 
In other words, being separated from others hurts us, physically. And our brains have built-in mechanisms for coping with that distress, and for encouraging us to seek out contact with familiar people. We literally need each other, at a neurological level. We thrive on relationships. We need friends and acquaintances. We need fellow worshippers, and study partners, and support groups, and communities. We need more than 1337 Facebook connections; we need real relationships in our lives.
 
During the High Holy Days, we should recognize that part of Tikkun HaNefesh – part of the the work of our souls – is asking ourselves whether we are putting the right priority and the right effort into our relationships. 21st century living isn’t always conducive to that, but Judaism can help.
                      
One of the primary tasks of Jewish life is to help us build a support system around ourselves. That’s why the synagogue is known in Hebrew as “Beit K’nesset” – not a place of prayer; not a place of study; but literally a “place where people gather together.” A synagogue, at its core, is a place where we build relationships with each other.
 
The Jewish writer Harry Golden tells that when he was young, he was confused why his father, a staunch atheist, insisted on belonging to a synagogue. So he asked his father, “You don’t believe in God, Why do you keep coming to shul?”
 
Harry Golden’s father looked at him, and looked out over the congregation. “You see Cohen over there?” he began. “Cohen comes to shul to talk to God. Me? I come to shul to talk to Cohen.”
 
Our members say something similar. Over the last 3 years, I’ve had innumerable conversations with Kol Ami families about what brought them here and what keeps them here. And nearly without exception, those conversations always follow the same pattern:
     -    We joined Kol Ami because.... [fill in the blank - Religious School, services, music]
     -    But we stay at Kol Ami because of the friends we’ve made and the community that we’ve found here.
If you search your own experience, I suspect that some version of this is true for most of us. We all got here for different reasons. But we are still here, year after year, because we have built rich relationships with people who have become very important to us. We come to shul to talk to Cohen.
 
And by the way, there’s nothing wrong with that. I often hear from people who genuinely wonder whether a synagogue is the right place for them, since they’re struggling with their beliefs; since they’re not so sure what they think about God. But one of the ongoing lessons of Jewish life is that Jewish community is the place where it is OK to wrestle with our beliefs. And in fact, for many of us, it is by forming relationships in a community that we experience God at all.
 
The philosopher Martin Buber wrote that God is what we encounter when we enter into what he called an “I-Thou” relationship – a relationship in which we strive to see the other person in real and authentic ways. You know that sense of higher purpose you sometimes feel, when you make a real connection with somebody? The sense that you’ve brought something into each other’s lives that wasn’t necessarily there before? For Buber, that sense is an indication of God’s presence.
 
And even if that’s too ethereal for us, we can agree that by entering into relationships, we enrich and deepen our sense of each other’s humanity, and our own.
 
I want to invite you right now to try something with me. This might be a little bit outside of your comfort zone, but please bear with me. I’d like you to turn to someone nearby you – someone you don’t know very well. You have one minute to have a conversation with that person about what you did yesterday. That’s it, just go through your day. Go.
 
1 minute elapses.
 
Now here’s part 2. Please turn back to the same person. And this time, we’re going to go a little deeper. This time, I want you to tell them about the one person in your life who has influenced you the most. You have 3 minutes. Go.
 
3 minutes elapse.
 
I wasn’t privy to all of your conversations, but I know what’s happened when I’ve participated in similar exercises – at rabbinical conferences, and at last month’s Board Meeting. I know that when we share something real of ourselves, we begin to see each other in more authentic ways. I know that we benefit from finding out what we have in common, and that we build a stronger community when we really care about each other. To use the language of the story I told earlier, this is how we share our light with one another.
 
Lately, the members of our Board of Directors have been reading a book called Relational Judaism. It’s by Rabbi Ron Wolfson, who is the founder of what’s called the Synagogue Transformation movement. Rabbi Wolfson argues that we need to be paying a lot more attention to the importance of relationships in a synagogue community. In fact, he argues that we need to completely redefine what understand as the purpose of the synagogue:
           

                                                                         
The goal of Jewish institutions is not self-preservation; it is to engage Jews with Judaism. It’s not gaining more members; it’s gaining more Jews. It’s about people, not programs. It’s about deep relationships.[4]
 

Great synagogues are the ones that engage Jews with Judaism, and engage members with one another. Great synagogues are the ones that connect us with God, and with each other. Great synagogues nurture us spiritually, and help us build relationships that will carry us through life.
 
Can you imagine what would happen if, after services, we didn’t just shake hands and say “Gut Yontiff?” If instead we continued the conversations that we had started here today? Can you imagine what would happen if each of us went up to one person that we don’t know very well and shared a story about ourselves? Imagine what we might find in common. Imagine the strength we would bring to our community. And imagine how much more strongly we would feel this community in our lives.
 
Kol Ami is a great synagogue. We have always been on the cutting edge in music and learning and programming. Now it is time now for our community to put into practice the principles of Relational Judaism. And I am standing up here today to ask for your help in an initiative that has the potential to transform our congregation.
 
Some of you have noticed that in the last couple of years there’s been a subtle shift in the name of our community. We’ve begun to deemphasize the word “Temple,” and sometimes to replace it with “congregation.” What’s the difference? Well, a Temple is a place of worship and holiness. But a congregation is not a place at all; it is a group of people. People who come together to worship, to study, to be part of each other’s lives. And we, of all people, know that a building is nice.... but the measure of a synagogue is not in its Temple, but in its congregation.
 
That’s why this summer we struck a new committee, which we are calling the Relationship Committee. The mandate of that group is very simply, to create opportunities for our members to get to know each other better, to build relationships. And there are a few initiatives that you’ll be hearing about in the coming months. For example, our New Member Luncheon has been renamed the Member Appreciation Lunch, and we’d like to invite the entire congregation to come and get to know each other on November 1. We will be weaving relational activities, like the small conversations we had this morning, into many of the things that we do. We’re going to be building on our social programming, offering opportunities for people to be together. The goal is to build into the culture of this community the idea that each of us is a relationship builder, that every program or service or class is an opportunity to strengthen our connections.
 
So what are we asking of you? Well, as Woody Allen once said, “Showing up is 80% of life.” Some of these initiatives may take you outside your comfort zone. But the stakes are very high, and the possibilities are very exciting. Please, let’s enter the new year with a sense of openness to trying new things, with a sense of faith in our own ability to strengthen and transform our community. If you want to join the committee, that’s wonderful. If you want to host a dinner, that’s even better. If you can greet visitors, or come to a program, or even just strike up a conversation with the person next to you, we need you. We need your excitement; we need your passion; we need your expertise. We need the light of the lamp that you bring into this place each and every time you enter these walls. Our sanctuary is brighter and more beautiful and holier because of what we mean to each other.
 
In this new year, let us reach out to one another. May we recognize the light that our friends and loved ones bring into our lives, and may we strive to be truly present for those who need us. May we work together to build a synagogue community that is a haven during times of need, a support in times of joy, and a home for every moment of our lives.
 
 
Amen.

 


 

[1] Genesis 2:18.
[2] Sforno to Gen 2.
[3] Eisenberger, Lieberman, Williams. “Does Rejection Hurt?” Science. Vol 302, October 10, 2003, p. 290.

 

See also Crothers, Kolbert, Albright, Hughes, Wells. “Nerulogical Contributions to Bullying Behavior.” Bullying in the Workplace. Lipinksi and Crothers, ed. Applied Psychology Series, p 121.
[4] Wolfson, Ron. Relational Judaism. Jewish Lights. Woodstock, Vermont; 2013. p. 22.

Wed, January 16 2019 10 Sh'vat 5779