Thursday, September 20, 2012

Rabbi Schwartz's Sermon for Rosh Hashanah Morning 5773




Communication is never easy. In fact, sometimes it can be downright perilous. Let me give you a few examples. All are true; they were actually spoken or written. The first category is from insurance claims: listen carefully:

I had been driving for forty years when I fell asleep at the wheel and had the accident. 
My car was legally parked as it backed into the other vehicle. 
I collided with a stationary truck coming the other way. 
In my attempt to kill a fly, I drove into a telephone pole. 
I pulled away from the side of the road, glanced at my mother-in-law, and headed over the embankment.

The second category is from social service applications:

I am forwarding my marriage certificate and three children, one of which is a mistake as you can see. 
You have changed my little boy to a girl. Will this make any difference? 
I cannot get sick pay. I have six children. Can you tell me why? 
I am very much annoyed to find that you branded my son illiterate. This is a dirty lie as I was married a week before he was born. 
Unless I get my husband's money pretty soon I will be forced to live an immortal life.

Communication is complicated by the fact that our facts are sometimes off. Consider these examples, reported, appropriately enough, by religious school principals:

Noah's wife was called Joan of Ark. 
Lot's wife was a pillar of salt by day, but a ball of fire by night. 
Moses led the Hebrews to the Red Sea, where they made unleavened bread which is bread without any ingredients. 
Moses died before he ever reached Canada. 
The greatest miracle in the Bible is when Joshua told his son to stand still and he obeyed him. 
Solomon, one of David's sons, had 300 wives and 700 porcupines.

And finally, speaking of wives, this one: 

Jews and Christians should have only one wife: this is called monotony.

Yes, communication can be perilous, and humorous, even at the same time!

Communication shares the same root as community. Communis in Latin, is itself derived from munis, which means gift, or service. Thus remunerate means to give back, and immunity originally means one who is exempt from giving.

The suffix co- means shared. In its most basic sense, then, community is the place where we share our gifts and communication is the means by which we achieve it.

Think about that. To communicate is to ultimately share one's gifts. And the collective sharing of our gifts, our goals, our hopes, our fears—that is community.

The ongoing challenge of building true community, here at Adas Emuno—that is what I want to talk about at this New Year.

What does it mean to share of the self, to transcend the self?

It means believing that the blessings that come my way, will be all the more resplendent in the company of others.

It means believing that the burdens that come my way will be all the more eased in the company of others.

It means believing that the effort of giving will be rewarded by the privilege of receiving.

An anonymous but very wise person once said that "shared joy is doubled; shared sorrow is halved."

Your family, and by extension your congregation, your family of families, if it is truly community, should be a place where your joy is magnified, and your sorrow is diminished.

Think about the joy of building together, learning together, praying together, singing together, marching together, mourning together, celebrating together, cooking together, gardening together.

A dozen years ago now Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam published an article on this subject, and it created something of a sensation. The piece was called "Bowling Alone". Putnam's proposition was that Americans were dropping out of civic life. Still bowling, but bowling alone, and not in leagues.

Putnam then published a full book with the same name, in part to amplify his thesis and in part to rebut the critics who challenged his data and created something of a backlash. His careful review suggests that while nominal membership in community organizations has not fallen, active involvement certainly has. For increasing numbers, membership means writing a check rather than attending an event. As Putnam writes, 

Many Americans continue to claim that they are members of various organizations, but most Americans no longer spend much time in community organizations—we've stopped doing committee work, stopped serving as officers and stopped going to meetings.

I came across another trend while reading Putnam, which piqued my interest. It had to do with informal gathering, which is also crucial to community. In the late 70's the average American entertained friends at home about 14 times a year. Now it is 8. That is a 35% decline!

People are spending significantly less time in each other's homes, never mind in their houses of worship, and community halls.

To my thinking, the portrait of increasing isolation painted by Putnam, highlights all the more, the need and yearning for community:

The yearning to seek out like-minded people and lift our voices in celebration and lamentation.

The yearning to rediscover our roots and educate ourselves and our children.

The yearning to join hands to build a better world.

For nearly a century and a half little Adas Emuno has been this kind of community. That’s why we’re still here. That’s why we matter.

In Hebrew we call it kehillah k'doshah. The Holy Community. Community that touches the soul.

In the old days, many congregations had a double hebrew letter, koof, koof, before their name. The initials stood for kehillah k'doshah.

Adas Emuno may not have had these initials in its name, maybe because our founders were German Jews rather than eastern European, but it could have. But they chose a name a community minded name just the same. Adas is another term for community, meaning gathering. Emuno is a variant of the word for faith. Our name means, the community of the faithful.

And in truth, that should be the measuring stick, the litmus test, we set before us. In our words and in our deeds are we a holy community; a faithful community.

In his first column as our new president Lance Strate articulated seven characteristics of our congregation that he believes defines our community:

1. Our warmth 
2. Our diversity 
3. Our perseverance 
4. Our innovation 
5. Our volunteerism 
6. Our progressivism 
7. Our spirit

Lance then went on to present challenges to not only maintaining these defining traits, but being “the best Adas Emuno we can be.”

Some of the specific questions he raised are so important that I would like to highlight them again now, in my own words:

1. How do we perpetuate our warmth and intimacy in the age of social media? 
2. How do we reach out and recruit new members of our congregation to affirm our diversity?
3. How do we engage in strategic planning to insure that our long history has a new chapter in the face of demographic challenges?
4. How to we honor the spirit of renewal in our worship, education, and activism?
5. How do we excite a new generation of volunteers and donors?
6. How do we better listen to each other?
7. And ultimately, how do we facilitate the sharing of our gifts for the benefit of all?

Friends, I am under no illusion that the task will be easy.

Just one look at the center of Leonia shows that this town is struggling.

The Jewish community in this past of the county is declining. Last summer, having newly arrived, I presided over a bittersweet ceremony that dedicated these ark doors from one congregation that closed, and our holocaust scroll, from another that is no more.

But this congregation is like an old tree that sprouts new shoots. Just look at us on Sunday mornings, on Hannukah eve; on Purim.

There is something worth fighting for here.  As Lance concluded his inaugural column:

Congregation Adas Emuno is an extraordinary, altogether unique, and beautiful spiritual community, a place where we join hands in praying for healing and in service for those in need, where hearts and minds work together in hamishe cooperation to create something for ourselves, something that is greater than ourselves.

That my friends, is community. And community is precious.

Debby and I are deeply privileged to be part of this community and hope to be so for many years to come.

A hasidic master once asked his disiciples how they could tell when the night had ended and the day had begun.

"Could it be," asked one of the students, "when you can see an animal in the distance and tell whether it is a sheep or a dog?"

''No,'' answered the rabbi.

Another asked, "Is it when you look at a tree in the distance and can tell whether it is a fig tree or a peach tree?' ''No,'' answered the rabbi.

"Then what is it?" the disciples demanded.

"It is when you can look at the face of another and see that it is your brother.

Because if you cannot see your brother, it is still night."

At Adas Emuno we see each other. A new day has dawned. So too, a New Year. Shanah tovah!

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