Deep Community

D’var Torah by Rabbi Harold J. Kravitz
Rosh Hashanah, Day 1—September 10, 2018
The last year and a half has been an emotional roller coaster for our family.

I lost my mom Mildred last year and was saying Kaddish until May. In late June Cindy’s dad Irv died, so this year she is saying Kaddish. It is a lot to lose two parents in a short time. As we reflect on these losses, we are both deeply grateful for the support we received from our community, both the community here at Adath and the community we have with friends and colleagues that extends far beyond MN. We are so thankful for the many contributions, the notes of support, the meals, all kinds of people who checked in on us.

In reflecting on these losses, I relate to something I have heard congregants say in similar circumstances—that they don’t know how they could have gotten through it without having a community for support. Cindy and I are deeply grateful for all the kindness shown to our family. We too find it hard to imagine how we would have dealt with this without our community. That observation fuels my commitment to maintaining the health of this synagogue community, which I feel called to speak about today.

For while the comfort of community is so evident to many of us here, I know that not everyone has that experience. The spirit of our times is for people to distance themselves from community in a strong assertion of their autonomy and individuality, or to find support in other kinds of voluntary associations. While Judaism, particularly as we practice it, certainly respects people’s individuality, our hallmark has always been our bonds to each other as a Jewish people and to the principle that as Jews we are a covenantal community that has obligations to each other. That idea is a distinguishing feature of our Conservative Movement.

Our Jewish commitment to an embracing community is captured nicely in a Yiddish statement I encountered in Rabbi Bernie Raskas’ z’l collection of teachings A Heart of Wisdom.  He writes that:

A Jew never has to walk- Why does a Jew never have to walk?  Because he is brought to his bris Tzum bris brengt meinled to his wedding, tzum chasenah firt mein, dragged to the synagogue, tzum minyan shelpt mein, and carried to his grave un tzu a leviyah trakt mein.” That pretty much sums up the thick community Jews have traditionally maintained. The vibrant life of our Adath Jeshurun Congregation contains all of these elements and more.

One of the happier responsibilities of Adath clergy is to officiate at baby-namings marking the arrival of newborns into the covenant of the Jewish people. Last night at our evening service we had the privilege of doing a communal blessing for children born this past year. To see the engagement in Adath of young families you need look no further than the family service going on next store that was reshaped this year through the efforts of Rabbi Weininger in conversation with our young families, to better meet their needs.Adath meets people where they are, across the entire spectrum of life, from cradle to grave and everything in between. In doing so, we draw on the deep, rich wisdom of Jewish tradition. In the spirit of this Yiddish saying about weddings, our clergy are experienced in helping to guide engaged couples to not simply plan a ceremony that lasts half an hour, but in preparing them to make a commitment to a marriage that will hopefully endure, and to seriously considering how Judaism may infuse the home they will establish together.

And what of the Yiddish comment that Jews are dragged to the synagogue? Apparently even in Eastern Europe Jews did not necessarily flock to shul willingly. Dragging people to the synagogue today is not really an option. But fortunately there are those who opt to be here. Having had to rely during our time as mourners on the daily minyan Adath provides each morning and evening, Cindy and I are deeply grateful to our minyan makers, who attend regularly. On Shabbat we are blessed by those whose presence give beauty and meaning to our services in which we pray, we sing, we learn and we mark each other’s joys and sorrows.

As for the line in the Yiddish comment about a Jew being carried to the grave—our Chevra Kavod Hamet burial society,  for which Adath became known nationally from the time it was launched 43 years ago (HH, 1975), provides an incredible service to our members by caring, with profound dignity, for those who have died. Those active in our Chevra can attest that these experiences, whether it is shmira, sitting with the body the met, or tahara, the ritual washing, are profoundly moving moments, altering how we see and value our own lives. Our Adath Chesed Shel Emet Cemetery on Winnetka is maintained thanks to the devoted service of many volunteers. Next spring we will dedicate a new section providing grounds for green environmentally sensitive burial, making ours one of a handful of intentionally Jewish green cemeteries in the country.

Adath is a synagogue—so we are committed to the three pillars of Jewish living we learn from the first chapter of  Pirkei Avot The Wisdom of the Sages 1:2: Torah (learning), Avodah (worship and spiritual practice) and Gemilut Hasadim (acts of loving kindness). We are blessed as a congregation by the enormous dedication of those who keep our community vital in all three of these areas and create the deep sense of community found here.

To see the richness of the Torah offered by us, I invite you to closely read our Center for Learning and Spirituality’s Fall/Winter Guide that arrives at homes this week describing learning opportunities for every age from the Gan to adults. I am especially pleased by the flourishing of our Mussar program through which Jewish learning and practice becomes the basis for our spiritual growth and character development.

Avodah–we provide many kinds of worship services and the opportunity to learn about prayer and the meaning of the service in the Bar and Bat Torah Program we are re-instituting this October.

Gemilut Hasadim–our congregants are incredibly generous to those in need from supporting advocacy to end hunger guided by MAZON to providing direct service organized by our Hesed Committee, whose Giving Circle welcomes those who donate at least $36 or give 3 hours of service to determine our level of giving to the three local food shelves we support.

We have an active Inclusion Committee to make sure that people of all abilities can participate here. Our Keruv Committee works to bring close those who may feel on the margins of our community because of intermarriage, or because of their sexual or gender identity. Adath’s Caring Community—Yad Sima Tova supported by our staff, volunteers and congregational nurse look out for members of our congregation who may otherwise be isolated by illness or aging.

People connect to Adath in traditional ways through the many opportunities we provide for services and for life cycles. We also utilize 21st century technology to create new opportunities for engagement. We use video conferencing to study important issues of common interest with our sister synagogue in Omer, Israel.

We regularly live stream our service and life cycle events, enabling people from anywhere to participate if they cannot be here in person. One of my favorite moments this year was a Shabbat morning this summer when I was able to give a shout out and a blessing, via live streaming, to our congregant Ida Greenfield when she turned 100 years old, hoping she had tuned in that day as she does most weeks. She had tuned in and was delighted. I invite you now to all turn to the camera and wish Ida, and many others tuned in, a greeting for the new year—L’shana Tova.

I have been giving a lot of thought this summer to the issue of how we build community at Adath. One cannot help but be concerned if you read the two-part series that appeared in the Star Tribune in July of the disappearance of many mainline Protestant churches across the country and in MN, or similar reports about the state of religion in America. Scott Thuma, director of the Hartford Institute for Religion, predicts that in this country “in the next twenty years you will see half as many open congregations as we see now.” While I am pretty confident that our synagogue will be around in twenty years and well beyond, the article makes clear that we cannot take our successes for granted.

In facing the real challenges of our time, we are blessed with some very special gifts. Words cannot convey to you how blessed we are by the professional team we have assembled at Adath who care about and respect each other and are constantly going above and beyond the call of duty to address the needs of our congregants. Two weeks ago we showed our appreciation and worked to strengthen the bonds of our entire staff to each other, by holding a full retreat. Our mystery destination was a bowling alley. In preparation for the day we asked the staff across the breadth of this place- the kitchen staff, the facilities staff,  the office staff , the program staff and clergy, to describe a time when they saw or heard of an Adath staff member who did something that was above and beyond the call of duty. We shared some of those examples all of which were incredibly moving. We are very fortunate.

We are equally blessed by the quality of those who give of themselves as volunteers who you will see thanked in our Annual Recognition of Community that we will hand out on Yom Kippur. And our Center for Learning and Spirituality’s Fall/Winter Guide conveys the vibrancy of our congregation as we work in partnership with our congregants and others to shape Adath in a way that responds to our people’s needs. All of this is possible only when we have as many of you as possible engaged with us to sustain the vitality and vibrancy of our congregation. We are truly blessed by this deep community and we welcome your participation and your membership.

I want to take a few moments to reflect on that notion of membership, on which our congregation has always relied. Not everyone is convinced that it is a concept that has a future. There are those who contend that in a time of radical individualism and customized experience made possible by the internet, the concept of membership is passé. I am not willing to give up on the idea of membership through which people accept responsibility for maintaining a community that can sustain them in times of joy and sorrow and nourish them all year around. I am not convinced that people find that going it alone, dropping in only when it suits them, or spending hours upon hours in the digital world are as satisfying as they might have expected. If one has the ability to come through our doors there is nothing that replaces a face to face, personal encounter of a community whose people have invested deeply in each other. That takes making a commitment. Peter Bloch in his fascinating book Community: The Structure of Belonging (2018 ed, loc 275) observes that, “To belong is to act as an investor, owner, and creator of this place.” That is the kind of relationship and sense of responsibility we foster through membership here at Adath.

Where do we start? Paul Born in his book Deepening Community: Finding Joy Together in Chaotic Times suggests that community is built on actions as simple and as complicated as bringing someone soup. Soup for someone who could use some love sounds pretty simple – right? But as Born wisely observes, to do it well requires more than you might think. First, it requires you to recognize that someone has a need to which you could respond. It then requires you to think about whether soup is what they will find comforting. Maybe they would prefer ice cream. If soup is what is called for, it requires you to know if they are a vegetarian or keep kosher. You then need to commit to carve out time in what is likely a busy schedule to do this for them. It requires you to find out who else may be planning to bring a meal and whether it might be more helpful a week or a month later. See- bringing someone soup is more complicated than it looks. But when that is done well, it creates a bond that will not soon be forgotten. It is such small but complex acts that contribute to creating a deep community. These are the acts of kindness that our family benefitted from in the past year and for which we are so grateful. This is the kind of community that Adath is at its best and that we are working together to sustain.

As I said at the outset, I cannot comprehend how people can get through difficult times without a community to support them and times of joy are surely enhanced when we have others with whom to celebrate. So we will continue to deepen Adath as community in which a Jew, and those who throw their lot in with us, never needs to feel alone and we welcome all who choose to belong to join together to perpetuate that kind of community.

Our local Federations will soon undertake a population survey of the Twin Cities for 2019 and invites those of us who wish to volunteer to assist. These statistics will be important and informative. We also know that community is not only about numbers. Most importantly it is about the quality of people’s participation. If you want to be part of a thick community, than it requires a willingness to invest oneself in it. For those who have done so they know the benefits as you may have learned from the question I asked earlier about what brings you to this congregation today. We could tell from the buzz in the room that it was a lively conversation.

Without doing a survey, we know that our community is far more diverse than was the community that the Yiddish statement I started with could imagine. Ours includes people of diverse abilities and identities. It includes those who are not Jewish, who embrace and are embraced by our families and community.

It includes people of diverse political views to whom we are committed to remaining in relationships that are more fundamental to us than our political differences.

To go back to the questions we discussed earlier when we could feel such energy in the room. What is it that brings you here and what are the gifts that you bring with you? When we bring our very best talents, time and gifts to this sacred community of the Adath Jeshurun Congregation, we allow ourselves to be carried and to carry others and I pray that we will continue to do so for decades to come.