Saturday, March 13, 2010

An Appeal for Adas Emuno

As a member of the Board of Trustees of Congregation Adas Emuno, I was called upon to deliver the Yom Kippur appeal last Fall.  So, I thought I would share it with you here on our congregational blog.  The appeal was made on the day of Yom Kippur, but it is an appeal that applies all year round.

Yom Kippur Appeal
Lance Strate

Whenever the subject of the Yom Kippur Appeal comes up, I have to force myself not to call it the Kol Nidre Appeal.  That's what it was called in the Reform Temple I went to when I was growing up, over in Queens, because the appeal was made during the Kol Nidre service on the eve of Yom Kippur.  I recall that it was always given by an older member of the congregation, which makes me wonder what I'm doing up here because it seems like just yesterday that I was that little kid.  And I remember them saying every year that the Kol Nidre Appeal is a silent appeal, which always puzzled me, because it always involved quite a bit of talking, sometimes for quite a length of time.  As a kid, I realized that adults often don't say what they mean, or don't say everything they mean to say, and eventually I came to understand that this silent business meant that no one would come out and ask for donations, that was what the little white envelopes were for.  Even in the years when my old Temple in Queens was facing severe financial hardships, that was not something that would be mentioned during the Kol Nidre Appeal, which always focused on the value and importance of Jewish identity, the Jewish religion, and specifically Reform Judaism and our congregation.  The Appeal did not ask for support, not for financial support, nor for volunteers to give of their time, effort, skills and services.  The speaker simply gave the reasons why we should support our congregation, and left it up to the audience to fill in the missing part of the message, that the Temple wanted, and in fact needed their support.
The Kol Nidre Appeal was a silent appeal in part because it would be crass to speak of such things in what used to be called polite society.  It was a silent appeal as well because in Jewish religious tradition we are not supposed to work or deal with money on the Sabbath or holidays.  And how much easier it would be if we could just pass around the hat, or collection plate, or set up a basket or bin.  But we don't do that.  It would also be easier if we could threaten you with eternal damnation in the fiery depths of hell.  But we don't do that.  And it would be easier if we could tempt you with visions of an eternal reward in heaven, especially one filled with the pleasures of feasting and frolicking.  But we don't do that.  Maybe I could just say something about the opportunity to get some good karma.  Karma, mitzvah, they're both Yiddish words, right?
Back when I was a kid, one topic that would come up now and again in the Kol Nidre appeal was the Holocaust.  Almost all of the adults present had lived through the Second World War, had had personal experience with anti-Semitism, and felt the threat of the Nazis even from afar.  Many of those present had escaped from Europe just before the war, and a number of congregants were Holocaust survivors, my parents among them.  Growing up in that milieu, in the shadow of such monstrous evil that had been directed specifically at our people, it was easy to summon up a sense of obligation, to agree that we must not let the light of living Judaism go out.  And we were reminded that it didn't matter if you were a member of a congregation or not, if you practiced or not, if you believed or not, even if you converted to Christianity, it didn't matter.  To the Nazis, a Jew was a Jew was a Jew, there was no escaping who you are, no escaping your identity, no ticket out of Auschwitz.  Like the prophet Jonah, we cannot run away, we cannot live in denial indefinitely, we have no choice then but to claim our birthright, like Isaac, like Jacob.
But the generation of survivors is dwindling, and with them the living memory of the Holocaust.  Time passes, new generations are born, wounds that may never heal can still grow less raw, less painful.  Memory, that may not fade entirely, grows less vivid, more distant.  We still live in a world marked by anti-Semitism, Holocaust denial, and threats to our very existence, but here in the United States we have grown very comfortable and secure, doors that once were closed to us are wide open now.  Where we once huddled close together for mutual protection, we now walk confidently alone in search of the American dream.  Earlier, I mentioned the word mitzvah, and I think that it is not a coincidence that this word, which means commandment, to us means good deed.  In other words, what was once understood to be an order, from on high, is now seen as an option.  And that is, in fact, what Reform Judaism is all about it's about making your own choice, as an individual, about what you believe or don't believe, making your own choice about what laws and rituals to observe and what not to observe, making your own choice about how to worship and how not to worship.  It's all about choice, which is a matter of freedom, which is what our nation founded upon, freedom for democracy, and what our tradition is founded upon, freedom from slavery in Egypt.
In Reform Judaism, we also speak of choice in respect to conversion, and we now  refer to converts to Judaism as Jews by Choice.  Conversion was relatively rare when I was a kid, this too has changed over the years, and our branch of Judaism has always been especially open and welcoming.  But the point I want to make to you is that all of us are now Jews by Choice.  We all have to make the active decision to be Jews, to live as Jews, to be a part of the Jewish community.  We all have to make the active decision to carry on our religious and cultural traditions, to provide our children with a Jewish education, to be members of a Jewish congregation.  If we didn't make these decisions, if we chose to do nothing, that too would be a choice.  It would be a choice to abandon who we are, not all at once, but little by little, a choice gradually to melt into this truly great society that we live in, a choice to fade from history like the fabled ten lost tribes of Israel.
It is not an easy choice to make.  There are so many distractions today, so many different voices competing for our time and attention.  There's so much shopping to do, so many wonderful things to buy, and have fun with.  And there's so much entertainment to watch and listen to, so many websites to surf, so many videogames to play.  As my old mentor Neil Postman put it, we are in danger of amusing ourselves to death.  But we are also working ourselves to death, because today we work harder and longer than anyone ever has, except for factory workers during the Industrial Revolution.  Our lives are full of obligations and assignments, and interruptions.  How do we decide what's important.  How do we decide what matters?  Maybe it helps to think about those times in our lives when everything grinds to a halt, when we have to drop whatever we're doing, when we have to focus on the moment at hand.  The death of a loved one is such an event, and where do we turn, for guidance and comfort?  The birth of a child is another such time, and where do we turn to celebrate that new life?  Marriage too is an occasion when all other activities are set aside, and where do we turn to consecrate that union.  Our rites of passage, the bar mitzvah and confirmation ceremonies, are also unique moments when time seems to stand still, moments that only occur in the context of a congregation such as ours.  These special times, when everything else gets put into perspective, when we are called out of our everyday lives and put in touch with the sacred, these are our best guideposts to knowing what is important.  We have an overabundance of almost everything, of consumer products, of activities, of demands.  But what we don't have an abundance of is meaning in our lives.  We search for meaning, we want to live meaningfully, but where do we go to look for meaning?  You can't find it by googling it.
We are all seekers, in one way or another, and our branch of Judaism is not so much about having the answers handed down to us from authority figures, as it is about working together to find our own answers.  And we are indeed fortunate here at Adas Emuno to have a spiritual leader who is so caring and compassionate, so dedicated, and talented as our Cantor.  With her help, our little shul is full of music and joy, comfort and enlightenment, learning and meditation.  And ours is a congregation where everyone has the opportunity to participate, everyone can take an active role, indeed, everyone is needed to lend a hand.  We are a do-it-yourself, open source congregation, but we also have the benefit of a fulltime spiritual leader, a thriving and outstanding religious school, an excellent location, and facilities that need some work, but are certainly adequate for our needs.  We are blessed here at Adas Emuno, but those blessings, like the fruit of the earth and vine, are the product of labor and investment on the part of many individuals, stretching back for many years.
My family joined Adas Emuno over a decade ago, when we moved to Palisades Park.  My son Benjamin had his bar mitzvah here a few years ago, which was an occasion of great happiness, and meaning.  But there was a touch of sadness too, because we thought that our daughter Sarah would never have the same opportunity, because Sarah, as many of you know, has moderate autism.  But Cantor Shapiro insisted that Sarah could have her own ceremony, and went out of her way to learn how to work with children with autism.  I have to tell you that we have heard numerous horror stories about congregations from all of the different religions being unwilling to allow autistic children to take part in ceremonies, including even the son of one congregation's rabbi.  What makes Congregation Adas Emuno special is that here we chose to include rather than exclude, and last April Sarah had a brief but very beautiful bat mitzvah ceremony.  It didn't have to happen, we had to choose to make it happen.  And from Sarah's bat mitzvah came the idea to hold a monthly Saturday afternoon service for children with developmental disabilities, the first one being this Saturday at 2 PM.  If you live in Northern New Jersey, chances are you know someone who has been touched by autism, and I hope you will let them know about this special Shabbat Meyuchad service.
Ours is just one of so many stories in this congregation.  When we came here, a decade ago, there was a family with children who were hearing impaired.  As a consequence of that, they started to use sign language in our religious school when they sang the Sh'ma.  That family has since moved away, but that gift, and it truly is a beautiful gift to see our children praying through such beautiful gestures, that gift remains.  Here, at Adas Emuno, you have a chance to make a mark, to make a difference, to make something meaningful, and lasting.
The new year that we are celebrating is called fifty-seven seventy, but have you stopped to think about what that means?  Five thousand, seven hundred and seventy years!  What does our calendar, the oldest one in existence, trace back to?  We know it's not the creation of the world, as was once believed.  But five thousand, seven hundred and seventy years ago, the first system of writing was being developed by the Sumerians in Mesopotamia.  This was the beginning of what has traditionally been called civilization, the first cities, and the first historical records, which could only be possible after writing is invented.  We live by a calendar as old as recorded history, as old as civilization.  We are the living links of a sacred chain that goes back to humanity's awakening.  The Jewish people emerge out of Mesopotamia about four thousand years ago, that's the story of how Abraham left the Mesopotamian city of Ur. When I think about how we search for meaning, how we look to be a part of something greater than ourselves, I think about those four thousand years, about being a part of the world's oldest community, about all of the people who came before us who chose to be a part of that community, and in doing so, chose to keep that community alive.  And I think about how we, each one of us, have to make the choice for ourselves, to chose whether the community continues on into the future, or comes to an ends here and now.  We each have to make that decision.
I think sometimes about all the times when I've been to a stadium or arena where people have done the wave.  You know what I mean, when people stand up and sit down in coordinated sequence, and it looks like a wave is passing through the stands, from one end to another.  And the funny thing is, each time the wave comes around, it doesn't really matter whether I myself stand up or remain seated, the wave keeps going regardless.  But other times, the wave dies out because too few people made the decision to stand.  Somehow, the wave is made up of all of our individual choices, it depends on all of our individual choices, and yet it is greater than all of our individual choices too.  We are part of the great wave of Jewish history, and our congregation is a little wave within that greater tide.  And being a little wave means that our decision to stand, or not to stand, makes a big difference.  We all have to choose to stand up and support our congregation to keep it going now, and to keep it going into the future.  This is my silent appeal to you.  And I ask that if you understand my appeal, if it rings true for you, that you respond, silently by standing now for Congregation Adas Emuno.

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