Love Letter to My Congregation, Yom Kippur sermon 5782
Love Letter to My Congregation: A Legacy Letter of Appreciation and Blessing for A Lifetime of Learning, Love and Living Jewishly!
An old joke, from before even I was a rabbi, goes like this: A congregant approaches his rabbi with a dilemma. “Rabbi,” he says, “I have a big problem. You know I’m a huge baseball fan and the final game of the World Series is going to be played during Kol Nidrei! I’m torn! I just don’t know what to do!” “You know,” the rabbi responds, with some degree of exasperation, “nowadays, with modern technology, you can simply record it and watch it later?” Overjoyed, the congregant asks: “What?! I can record Kol Nidrei?!” I say it’s an old joke that has kind of lost its punch, of course, because it would have been unheard of, before a mere year and a half ago, to record Kol Nidre to watch later! Who would record Kol Nidrei?! Nobody!! But today, we can and do record Kol Nidre and most of our other High Holy Days services, as well! (If you want to catch this sermon again, by the way, just head over to our youtube channel!) We are living in a new world! And not just because of our recent COVID challenges! Yet, in many ways, the most precious, valuable things—which are not things at all—remain the same for us here at Bet Haverim over the 60 years we’ve been in existence: the power of community, the power of each individual to make a difference, and the power of our Jewish texts and traditions to transmit values and wisdom that continue to inspire, activate and guide us today!
In what feels like a blink of an eye, our 27 years together are coming to a close. So, for one final time, on this Yom Kippur, I have a chance to look back with you, but also, and perhaps more importantly, to look ahead with you with a sense of wonder, excitement and promise at what the bright future holds in store for our Bet Haverim, our House of Friends.
Many years ago, I happened to read Alan Alda’s brilliant commencement speech that he delivered at his daughter’s college graduation. His insights have stayed with me all these years and, now, on this liminal and holy night of Kol Nidrei, his words create the perfect imagery for us as we stand on the threshold of a new era. Here are the words Alda shared:
“Deep in our hearts we know that the best things said come last. People will talk for hours saying nothing much and then linger at the door with words that come with a rush from the heart. Doorways, it seems, are where the truth is told. We are all gathered at a doorway today. It’s the end of something and the beginning of something else…. The very best things said often slip out completely unheralded and preceded by the words, ‘Oh, by the way!’”
Now, we stand at a “doorway” moment. Hands on the knob, the door not quite shut. (After all, we will still have almost another year together!) Yet, there is so much more left to say. There have been so many important experiences that we have shared, lessons I have learned from you and with you, and values that we have continually aspired to embody as a community! I felt that it was important to actually distill all this accumulated wisdom and capture in writing all that I have loved and learned from my amazing years as your rabbi. (Well, to the best of my ability!) What has emerged through this process is this love letter to my congregation: A Legacy Letter of Appreciation and Blessing for a lifetime of learning, love and living together Jewishly! For more than twenty years, I have offered the opportunity for our parents of Confirmation students to write their teens a Legacy Letter or Ethical Will, a time honored Jewish practice of transmitting important values and blessings onto the next generation. A kind of family Torah! Julie and I also wrote one for each of our own kids when they went through Confirmation. But it wasn’t until I participated in the fabulous class that we offered this past spring with our trained guide, Jay Sherwin, that I was inspired to utilize this beautiful model for my thoughts I’ll share with you tonight.
For my framework, I am choosing to use the Kabbalists’ notion of the Four Worlds: the Physical world, the Emotional world, the world of the Mind, and the world of the Spirit. The Kabbalists believe that a fully human life requires us to dwell in each of these realms. It is my hope that all of you will always discover ways to deepen your lives in these four areas through the life of our congregation. I want to share with you some of the most important life lessons I have learned over the years, which comprise my own “Four Worlds” approach to life, and how these have translated into some of my proudest experiences here at Bet Haverim with so many of you. These overarching values and principles have guided me as a rabbi and have shaped the way that I have approached creating our Jewish home at Bet Haverim with all of you.
The World of the Spirit or Ruach: I should begin with our beginning, nearly 27 years ago, which illustrates my first important life lesson: keeping our hearts open and trusting life as our spiritual paths unfold. Julie and I moved to the Bay Area from Wisconsin in the summer of ’92 so that I could assume my new role as Director of our Reform Movement’s camp, Camp Swig, now Camp Newman. I had experienced a number of life-changing summers at Camp Swig as a young adult; they left an indelible and powerful imprint on my sense of Jewish identity. In fact, my years working at Camp Swig had a huge influence on my decision to become a rabbi in the first place. I was so excited to be returning to Camp with an opportunity to shape the future vision for this place that made Judaism come alive for so many. Many of our Bet Haverim kids will tell you that Camp continues to have this magical effect.
I thought that I was well on my path to a career as a Camp Director, but sometimes God and the Universe have other plans for us. As it turns out, we only get a small piece of our “life map” at any one time! I had to reconcile myself fairly quickly with the fact that I was not really cut out to be a camp director and administrator in practice, though I loved the idea in theory. I must admit that when I decided to leave my position as Camp Director I was in great distress, unsure where my next rabbinical move would take me. We were a young, growing family. It was frightening and unsettling to have the future so uncertain. I remember consciously, at some point, just trusting that God and the Universe had a plan for me, for us, even if I didn’t know what it was. I soon enough learned the truth that one door closing may just lead to a window opening somewhere else. It so happened that my particular window led to Davis. It is only after we are well into our life journeys that the real arc, the true path of our lives, is revealed. Only in looking back can we begin to connect the dots and see the pattern that has been emerging all along. It turns out that not only did the opportunity to come to Davis open up for me because I left my camp position, but I learned about the position ONLY BECAUSE I had been the Camp Director! I really didn’t know very much about Davis at all before we came here; however, I had met some wonderful Bet Haverim families through Camp Swig’s Family Camp, including our partners the Pattisons and Munowitchs. It turns out that Barry Munowitch was the president of the congregation when you all were looking for a new rabbi lo those many years ago and he invited me to apply for the position. Who knew!? What, at first appeared to be a major life crisis for me, turned out to be the best blessing! I had to have the job at Camp so that I could find my way to Davis; and, indeed, that has made all the difference. Our family’s good fortune to come here to Bet Haverim has, without a doubt, had a tremendously positive impact on my life, and that of my entire family, and has shaped the nature and arc of my entire rabbinic career.
While this is my personal story, which clearly turned out so well, it reminds all of us that even through the difficult and very challenging situations we might experience in life, we are always invited to look for the spiritual opportunities present in each moment to learn and grow; to see where God is calling us. Sometimes it requires great faith and patience to see these difficulties as hidden gifts, opportunities, and to perceive, as I learned from my teacher, Reb Zalman, how the negatives in our lives can be transformed over time into positives.
Change and challenges are inevitable in any community. In my time here at Bet Haverim, we could easily have given up many times along the way to realizing our dreams. But, at every turn, it was the dedication, generosity of spirit, and deep commitment of our partners that kept us going and helped us succeed! Many obstacles appeared insurmountable at first! How could we possibly raise $2 million dollars from our small congregation for a new synagogue building? How could we possibly take on the challenge of creating a flourishing preschool from the ground up? How could we afford to acquire not one but two new Torah scrolls?! Each time we faced roadblocks, but ultimately with the incredible work and vision of so many, we trusted the process, we believed in ourselves, and with God’s help we have made miracles happen. Together we exceeded even our wildest dreams and now we own our beautiful campus free and clear. We have our home for today, but even more importantly, a foundation for building our home for tomorrow!
Who knows what challenges and miracles yet await us?! While there is sadness for us in our shifting relationship as I take my leave and one door closes, I am filled with great confidence that just the right new rabbi will walk in through that same door. (BTW, our Rabbinic Search Committee is doing an amazing job to locate that special rabbi!) And like everything that we have achieved, not without a lot of hard work on many people’s part! (Big thanks to Rob Egel and Robin Kulakow and their team!) Miracles don’t just happen, they are created! I know that your next spiritual leader will bring new gifts, new opportunities, and new wisdom to our community! And they will carry with them the next piece of the map that will chart our growth into the future.
After the World of the Spirit comes the World of Emotions and a loving connection with our Kehillah Kedoshah, our sacred community: My second life lesson is all about the importance of making human connections, which are at the heart of our lives. This speaks to our emotional world; the bonds that feed and nourish us deeply in so many ways. When it comes right down to it, the three most important things in life are: Relationships, relationships, and relationships! The Jewish educator, Ron Wolfson, teaches that people will come to a synagogue because of a program or a class, but they stay because of the people they meet and the relationships that they create there. Those relationships begin from the very minute you meet and say, “Hi, I’m “so and so!” What’s your name?”
You probably know that, to me, people’s names are very important! Names provide us with that personal and meaningful connection with each other. In fact, I have long prided myself on making sure that I learn and remember people’s names whenever I can. When you know someone’s name, you immediately enter into a relationship with them at a different level than with someone you just wave hello to in the neighborhood or exchange pleasantries with at the park. When we take the time to ask and remember a person’s name, we are acknowledging that they have value. We are saying you are worth knowing! What you probably don’t know is how this emphasis on names came to be so important to me. When I was studying in Israel for my junior year abroad on Kibbutz Tzora, I remember very vividly that we had one teacher, an esteemed political scientist, who made absolutely no attempt to learn our names. This was not a huge university lecture, mind you! I am talking about 16 engaged college students sitting around a room with a teacher. Still, after an entire semester, he really didn’t know who we were. Not a single name!It just seemed like he couldn’t be bothered! I took it personally because it made me feel like I didn’t matter. I know how it feels to be anonymous, so it became my mission to make sure that I let each person know that they mattered, that they counted, that I knew their name! That makes a person feel good, makes them feel seen and valued.
The author Maya Angelou once wrote, “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” I have loved this quote from the first time I heard it and I have aspired to let this principle guide me in my life and in my interactions.
From the very start, I knew that Bet Haverim and I were a great match! I understood that we shared this value of building relationships with one another, the belief that each person truly counted. Our community has always prided ourselves on being warm and welcoming; a hamish congregation. We value each individual in their uniqueness and celebrate the diverse qualities that they each bring into our community. We strive to create a Jewish home where everyone feels a sense of belonging and finds ways to contribute. And I am learning that there is even more work to be done in this area! We have initiated a new task force on Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, under the leadership of Cynthia Goldberg, to take a deep look at what systems and practices are in place to promote these values and where we could improve and take further steps towards excellence. If we want to build relationships, build community, we must expand our understanding of who is actually in our community, be willing to integrate new welcoming behaviors to ensure that all feel included, and focus our intention and attention to bring these changes about at all levels of our community.
One of the best examples, for me, of community building that we have had together at Bet Haverim was our 50th Anniversary Celebration and Torah project, expertly directed by Joy Cohan. This was such a meaningful experience for our community. There were a year’s worth of opportunities for us to interact with each other and work together on a communal project that would strengthen our Jewish home. We celebrated and studied together, developed critical funds that would allow us to build for the future, and learned about our congregation’s past. All the while, we also built a wonderful shared sense of identity and history. The crowning moment of this grand community project was the opportunity—for whoever wanted to—to scribe a letter in our new Torah along with our Soferet (Jen Taylor Friedman, the first female scribe to write a complete Torah scroll!), thus fulfilling the 613th mitzvah of writing a Torah. We were all invited to donate a special article of clothing, as well, that was magically transformed into a magnificent Torah cover under the guidance of Diane Moore. That Torah cover has now become a physical manifestation of the diverse and beautiful patchwork that is our congregation and each and every one of us lives as a sacred letter in the holy words, at the heart of our community, that we read each week at Shabbat services. Later this year, we will begin sharing plans for celebrating our 60th anniversary, providing wonderful opportunities to continue to build community and relationships with each other as we open new windows together onto our future!
We have explored the world of the spirit and emotion, and now we come to the Physical World: My third life lesson revolves around the centrality of Tikkun Olam to our Jewish lives; the belief that each of us has a responsibility to leave our physical world a little better off than we found it. The importance of Tikkun Olam was instilled in me by my parents early on in my life, even if I didn’t know yet that that was what it was called. My sister, Amy, and I were simply taught by example what it meant to care for others, nearby and around the world, and to be involved in our community; to go out of our way to make a difference. I have very strong memories of going house to house with my mom collecting funds for starving children in Biafra. We didn’t have the traditional blue pushkes (boxes) in our home, but contributing to the Jewish Federation was a prominent part of our upbringing. We sent money to plant trees in Israel every Tu B’shevat. I still vividly remember volunteering at the Jewish Home for the Aged when there was a shortage of workers. These early experiences were potent and have translated into my commitment to Social Justice as a rabbi, beginning with my student days. I remember that my friend Arik Ascherman and I helped start a Tzedakah Collective during our first year of Rabbinic School in Jerusalem. During my two years at Hebrew Union College in New York City, I was a founding member of the still-operating Soup Kitchen that we organized at HUC to feed the hungry each week nearly 35 years ago.
All of these experiences have inspired me to continue working with all of you to create a synagogue community that makes Tikkun Olam a priority. Over the years we have collected tons of food for STEAC as a part of our HHD food campaign, which you can now support as a part of our digital campaign on our website. We had for many years a vibrant Mitzvah Day, providing opportunities for our Religious School families and others in the congregation to work on projects throughout the Davis area. We raised money and awareness for Darfur and hosted engaging Social Justice Shabbats on a variety of critical topics. One of those Shabbat programs on hunger, inspired two CBH partners, Heidi Smith and Renee Dryfoos-Guss to spearhead a Yolo County-wide campaign to raise thousands of dollars to purchase a new, much-needed refrigerated truck for Yolo Food Bank! I am excited about the recent reinvigoration and expansion of our Social Justice committee under the leadership of Roy Kaplan. We have recently organized a number of programs on racial justice, supported local immigrants and asylum seekers, and are developing new ways we can work on sustainability and the environmental crisis that has been ravaging our world.
One of my proudest accomplishments in the area of Tikkun Olam is the work that we have done to build bridges within the interfaith community, particularly through the Celebration of Abraham, which I helped to found shortly after the terror attacks on September 11th, 20 years ago. Building these significant relationships with those throughout the city, our elected officials, our interfaith neighbors, and our campus community has been a source of great joy for me and continues to provide us with allies we can rely on and turn to when needed.
Issues can always come along to divide us, even, or perhaps, especially, in our own Jewish community. I hope that we will continue to seek to understand one another rather than simply insist that we are right. May we be ever curious and keep open minds. May we always look for the places of shared concern rather than those upon which we disagree. We certainly have had our fair share of challenges, like other Jewish communities, around Israel/Palestine issues. However, I am filled with hope that we are entering a new era of cooperation and partnership as we launch a new Israel committee, Israel Haverim, chaired by Barry Klein and Tony Tanke. It is my fervent desire that we can find new ways to unite in support of Israel, always striving, in love, to help Israel grow into a shining example of a Jewish democracy, reflecting our very highest values.
No one person can succeed alone! But when we join our hearts and hands to work together on our shared dreams of a better world for all, miracles can happen. May we continue to support, inspire and activate each other to create the world of our dreams right here on earth!
We have now discussed the physical world, and the worlds of the spirit and emotions, bringing us now to the World of the Mind. My fourth and final life lesson has been that our Jewish learning—journeys into the world of the intellect—is a life-long process—in Hebrew Torat Chaim. The rich and vast array of treasures in our tradition has something to offer everyone at any stage of life. I still find that even after having been a rabbi for nearly 33 years, I am continually learning new things! Sometimes these insights come from the wisdom of our tradition and teachers of generations past, but just as often I am delighted and enlightened by you, my teachers.
I have discovered that a sustained engagement with our Jewish learning creates a life filled with meaning that is relevant, inspiring and sustaining. For me, stories, experiences and humor are some of the most powerful tools for exciting the mind and the imagination. I actually think that it was my experiences at Camp Swig as a counselor and unit head— where Judaism truly came alive for me—that taught me the power of teaching in an experiential way, using stories and humor. (Which, of course, led to my wanting to be the Camp Director in the first place! Which naturally led to my arrival here! You see how the pieces of my map, our map, fit together?!) I have always endeavored to bring these same elements, which I learned so long ago, into my teaching here at Bet Haverim. Whether in our Torah study sessions, my Introduction to Judaism classes, our Leading with a Jewish Heart program, or other array of classes that I have offered, we have always sought to learn and grow together in a way that is participatory, joyful and full of creativity. I also recognized the importance of exposing you to a vast array of Jewish teachers and perspectives beyond my own. I have always sought out dynamic guest scholars to share their wisdom with us and I am very proud of the wide range of teachers we have had a chance to learn from over the years, including: R’ Alana Suskin (An Orthodox woman rabbi), Student R’ Yoel Sykes and Rabbi Or Zohar, who have exhilarated us with their services, Rabbi Rami Shapiro, Rabbi Alan Lew z”l, Kabbalah expert Danny Matt, Rabbi Shefa Gold, Ron Wolfson, and so many more, including wonderful folks from our own community.
I hope you have learned from and been inspired by me just as much as I have been shaped and guided and inspired by all of you! I hope you have enjoyed the different ways that we have connected. I hope that I have challenged you to think about Jewish ideas in new ways and connect Jewish themes from our tradition to ideas and circumstances that are critical and relevant to our lives today.
But most of all, I hope that I have helped you feel the power of being part of a community, a kehilla kedoshah, the deep sense of belonging and being valued for who you are. I hope you have come to know the endless possibilities that come from working together and alway appreciate the love that flows from being part of a hamish (warm), dynamic, generous, and thoughtful Jewish community. The very best of our community is not something that I can take credit for in any way. Each of you have made us who we are! I have been blessed so thoroughly to have been given this opportunity to share this journey with all of you in different ways.
I know the great strengths and potential of this amazing community, filled with spirited leaders and so many partners who are willing to give of their time and energy to help guide us into the future and realize our dreams. The sky’s the limit! I know that we will attract an exciting and dynamic rabbi to our congregation to continue building with you a loving Jewish community in Davis for the next 27 + years and beyond.
My blessing for all of you is to trust that your life has purpose, a plan. Grow your vision for our congregation going forward with lofty spirits and aspirations. Keep learning and seek out wisdom wherever you can find it. A knowledgable, educated Jewish community is the bedrock of our Jewish world. May you continue to build relationships that are meaningful and nourishing with each other. Be broad and inclusive, bringing holiness into all that you do. Always protect and cherish the sweet hamish nature of our congregation even as we grow and build in the future. May you continue to know the deep joy of building bridges to other communities that are different from our own as well as building bridges within our Jewish community. May you always dream together the biggest dreams possible! Dream with chutzpah and continue believing that your dreams can and will come true! Don’t worry if sometimes you fail, just keep believing in yourselves and each other. Leave our community and our world stronger and more vibrant than you found it! Remember to celebrate every step along the way and to always use every joyous opportunity to enhance the world and others as you go. Share your good fortune. Share with one another, your gifts, your time, your energy. Love each other. Support each other and always be there for each other. That is what it means to be in community, in sacred partnership with one another. Our lives will be intertwined forever, of that you can be certain.
I leave you with this final blessing penned by my teacher, Rabbi Larry Kushner:
Each lifetime is the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle.
For some there are more pieces.
For others the puzzle is more difficult to assemble.
And so it goes.
Souls going this way and that
Trying to assemble the myriad parts.
But know this. No one has within themselves
All the pieces to their puzzle.
Everyone carries with them at least one and probably
Many pieces to someone else’s puzzle.
Sometimes they know it.
Sometimes they don’t.
And when you present your piece
To another, whether you know it or not,
Whether they know it or not,
You are a messenger from the Most High.
I thank you for a lifetime of sharing your puzzle pieces with me. I have been the one who is truly blessed and I am so much richer for your having let me into the most precious parts of your lives. What a wonderful picture—a glorious Jewish puzzle— all of our pieces have joined together to create, an inspiring map pointing us ever onward. Oh by the way… I can’t wait to see how it all turns out! I love you all!