Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Yom Kippur 5773

What does it mean, this community?
Yom Kippur morning 5773
Temple Beth Jacob of Newburgh
Rabbi Larry Freedman  
September 26, 2012

Have you ever tried to explain what Judaism is to someone who isn’t Jewish.  I’m talking about someone who really wants to understand Jews.  They know we’re a religion but then we tell them we’re not just a religion.  We explain that we are a culture except that there are Jews around the world who share neither language nor foods with us and even their holidays, our holidays, are celebrated a bit differently.  And that’s when your friend might venture, “so you’re a race, right?”  But, uh, now hold the phone there, let’s not go there.  We are not a race.  We got in a lot of trouble for that one.  We are a complicated thing.
We are very unique among the families of the world in that we identify as a people and within that people there are many expressions of connection to that people.  And among those many types of connections, there are mixtures with infinite combinations.  The life of any one Jew is almost never exactly like the life of any other Jew and yet, Jews we all are, Jews we all enjoy being. 
One classic way of understanding the palate Jews draw from is the triptych God, Torah, Israel.  I dare say that everything we do as Jews, every moment that means something, every good feeling we get is a reflection of one of those three: God, Torah, Israel.
Look at this moment.  Look at this gathering.  Some of the power of this moment has to do with God, with the religious experience.  We gather before God, invoke prayers, feel spiritual.  We come here out of a sense of religious obligation and we take seriously the images our machzor offers us.  We feel better having been here.
Then again, look at this gathering.  Some of the power of this moment has to do with Torah, with the intellectual experience.  The realm of Torah is the realm of thinking about the words and their meaning in our lives, and it is the realm of ethical demands that insist we figure out how to be better.  Torah moves us with attention to ritual so we can live out the words of the actual Torah. 
Then again, look at this gathering.  Some of the power of this moment has to do with Israel, the people of Israel, of coming together with family, of having the big dinner with the same foods, of sitting next to each other here in the same seat you’ve sat in forever.  Feeling the presence of friends and family no longer here. Knowing that at this moment around the globe, millions and millions of Jews are doing the same thing is very moving.  And let’s not forget the non-Jews who have joined us and also among the people of Israel having joined us each in his or her own way.
I have not adequately explained.  I do not think I can because each of you has your own experience.  Each one of us experiences Judaism and the joy of being Jewish through the lens of God or Torah or Israel.   Only you can identify how you experience your Jewish identity and where your experience comes from.  These three experiences of God, Torah and Israel are like overlapping circles, like a Venn diagram.  To be in one circle often means you are in two.  At times you may be in the center experiencing a moment of all three, a feeling of God, an awareness of Torah and ethnic warmth of the people of Israel.  And then you slide back into the corner of just one circle.  Our lives as Jews are very fluid.
Take a moment.  Look around.  Think deeply.  Why are you here?  At the very worst you are here because someone made you but still, it means you have been welcomed into the Israel circle.  And even then, you might be feeling other moments of connection.  Take a second.  Right now, right here, are you feeling a religious connection?   Then you are in the God circle.  Are you aware of customs and meaning and thought and ritual and find they move you?  Then you are in the Torah circle.  Are you moved to be back with people who share your culture?  Then you are in the Israel circle.  Think of how this experience speaks to you.  What is the emotion you feel or hope to feel on this day?  What helps you cultivate that emotion?  If you weren’t here, what would you miss? 
Last night we sang Kol Nidre.  The prayer Kol Nidre works on all these levels as well.  It’s a prayer of humility that starts off the tone of Yom Kippur, that we go before God to ask that we be forgiven of all the oaths and promises we made that we should have kept but just, after trying, couldn’t.  We have let ourselves down, we have let God down and we ask, before we go on, that God forgive us.
And, Kol Nidre is a moment of Torah where we actually had the Torah scrolls out as witnesses.  The ethics and morals contained in those books are displayed before us reminding us to try to uphold them.  Last year we failed in ways large and small and so we stand in front of that which we let down to apologize.  The image of Kol Nidre is that of a court and so we were all part of the beit din, the judges.  We wear our tallitot as judges robes and we stand for the solemnity of the proceedings. 
But even if you did not know the underlying message of the visuals of Kol Nidre, there is the sound of Kol Nidre, three times that haunting melody plays, a melody that rings through the minds of the people of Israel.  If nothing else, we want to hear that melody, that sound, because we hear it together and know that we are together amongst the Jewish people on a solemn day in our calendar and that feels right.
As we move through Yom Kippur, there will be moments of God, Torah and Israel.  Sometimes the moment is obvious.  Prayers are God centered.  The ideas in the liturgy, the customs, the actual study session this afternoon night is Torah centered and the social aspect of being together, sharing an experience together, not to mention break fast tonight is truly people centered, a moment of Israel.
But most of the time, every moment is a mixed moment of some of this, some of that.  That is the power of Yom Kippur and all of Jewish living.  It hits us on so many levels.  That is why it is sometimes hard to describe why we enjoy being Jewish, why we like being in this congregation.  Being part of Temple Beth Jacob is some mixture of God, Torah and Israel.  It connects us spiritually but then really it is about learning and customs but then really it is about shared experiences and community.  But then really it is about all three, in different combinations.
Temple Beth Jacob is a space where your Jewish identity in all its ways can be nurtured.  It is the place that allows you to revel in who you are.  The truth is, many of you wonder why you belong.  You question the need for such a place or at least you question your reason for engaging this place.  And if that is not you, we all  know people like that.  And the truth is, in the excitement and work to create our joint venture, some of you may not be feeling the love.  If you haven’t been over to 290 North Street, you may feel distant from your community right now.  I understand.  But the project has already proven successful in terms of community building and energy and, while it is a little early to close the books on it, it seems financially our goals are being met as well.
I can’t resist reminding you of amazing opportunities to come together.  October 7, at 11:30:  we will enjoy our sukkah and hear the latest on the Kol Yisrael project, what has been done, what needs to get done.  We’ll dispel rumors and answer questions.  October 19 and 20, Aaron Kintu Moses is coming to tell us about the Jews of Uganda, the Abayudaya and talk about a school he is building.  Then the weekend of November 16 the Motyl chamber orchestra is coming to play music that sprang from the Holocaust.  Amazing opportunities to learn, to be part of Israel past, present and future, to feel connected.  In November 2013, I’ll be leading a Federation trip to Israel which surely is a connection to God, Torah and Israel all rolled into one.  And Tot Shabbat is back monthly, open to anyone.  Anyone:  members or not.  Tell your friends and neighbors. 
All our holiday celebrations are fun and uplifting, Shabbat is a refreshing meaningful moment whether you join us every Friday night or just sometimes.  Torah study every Shabbat morning engages the mind and  soul.  And there is more and more and more.  So many reasons to support this institution.
Our Jewish identity wanders among the spiritual, the intellectual and the ethnic.  But it should not wander alone.  We have no ascetic tradition.  We feel more engaged when we are with others.  We feel more proud of our Judaism when we are in community.  We feel more uplifted when we rise among our fellows.  We can’t do that alone and we don’t want to.  But don’t just listen to me. 
In place of the customary Yom Kippur appeal, it’s my please to invite Gay Miller, temple president and Rachelle Harmer, treasurer to express their experience of community and what belonging means to them.

Gay Miller
I am honored to stand before you this morning as president of Temple Beth Jacob.  Clearly I am committed or ought to be.
Many who have stood here before me giving the high holiday appeal have talked about growing up Jewish and what it was like as a member of Temple Beth Jacob for many years.  I cannot do either, because I did not grow up here, have been a long time member, nor was I raised as a Jew.
I am a Jew-by-choice.  I have been a member of Temple Beth Jacob for about 8 years after moving back to Newburgh.  Before becoming a member here, I was a member of Monroe Temple for over 20 years and before that a member of congregation Beth Israel in San Diego, California.
As with many people who choose Judaism, I was introduced when I was married.  When I became pregnant we knew that our son was going to be raised Jewish and that was when we joined congregation Beth Israel, a reform congregation.  I went to many programs for interfaith families and that is where my real introduction and journey to Judaism began. 
This was not an instantaneous or simple journey.  With the exposure come increasing levels of commitment and a desire to be fully embraced by the Jewish experience.  Ultimately, after many years, I took the final step and converted.
If it were not for these well established and welcoming reform congregations, I might not have embarked on this journey.
If there were not Temple Beth Jacob with its many committed members representing a variety of perspectives this opportunity would not be available to others. 
I believe that there is a reason that all of us belong to this synagogue.
Whether we are here for the holidays or Friday nights, whether we are born Jewish, are a Jew by choice or a non-Jew, whether we agree with organized religion, we are all making a statement. 
We believe that being a Jew matters.
With that in mind, I am asking you to commit to making Temple Beth Jacob a viable reform congregation long into the future.

High Holy Day Appeal Speech    Rachelle Harmer        September 26, 2012

Two years ago, and some of you may remember that I was told I was doing the High Holy Day appeal and after much thought, I considered it to be an honor…this year I was told I would be giving part of the appeal and after much thought, I think it is an honor…but if they tell me I am doing appeal again next year, I am


So, once again I want to welcome all our congregants, families and friends.   

Like the Harmers, many of you probably joined initially to give your children a Jewish Education.  You may have been looking for something for yourselves, such as Torah study, Jewish culture and values…or maybe you joined to forge a stronger connection with the Jewish community or to find new friendships.  Temple Beth Jacob is here for you today and hopefully for many more years to come.

We at TBJ literally survive from day to day on what monies come in throughout the year.  Membership dues cover about half our budget. We rely on other avenues like fundraising, which includes our gift card-scrip program, donations and this annual appeal to balance our budget. We have no financial angel to shower us with unlimited funds.  

Your generous support is needed more than ever during these challenging economic times.  Unfortunately, some of our congregants have lost their jobs and are having difficulty making their mortgage payments and paying other household bills. 

Perhaps you can give a little more this year to cover for those who have no choice.  But always remember, and I’ve said this before….never give until it hurts….but give until you feel good!  Last year we raised a little over $25,000. at our annual appeal. Our goal this year is to increase that amount by at least $290.00 which symbolizes our new address..

Please help us keep Temple Beth Jacob alive and vibrant.  As a family we must work together.  Each and every one of us must assume the responsibility and obligation as well as take the pleasure and pride to ensure that Temple Beth Jacob is here for our children and our children’s children.  Give today, so that we can look forward to tomorrow so we will be here for the generations to come.                                                                                                                 

With your help, we look forward to Temple Beth Jacob’s future with hope and faith that the year 5773 will be one blessed with peace, prosperity and good deeds.  May we all be inscribed in the book of life and may the coming year be filled with good health, laughter and joy and with a renewed commitment to our Jewish Community.

Please take out your pledge cards, turn down what you can and hand them to one of our Officers who will now come around.

Thank you…

L’Shanah Tova

Kol Nidre 5773

The Torah uses three primary terms to define “sin”: Chet [חטא], Avon [עוון] and Pesha [פשע] (see Exodus 34:7). On Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement) the High Priest would pray for atonement for his people by admitting, “Your people Israel have erred (chet), deliberately disobeyed (avon), and obstinately violated (pesha).”
Types of Sin
Temple Beth Jacob of Newburgh
Kol Nidre, 5773
Rabbi Larry Freedman

On this day, the Day of Atonement, when so many of us are here gathered together, rabbis take the opportunity to talk about big ideas or comment on important issues.  We have a captive audience, only the most bold of you will sneak out before the sermon.  We know that you have to listen.  And what idea is bigger than the upcoming election?  Surely now is a chance to talk about democracy and justice and policies that will make this country ever moral, ever ethical, ever the shining beacon upon the hill.  And yet, try as I might, that sermon coming from me would probably be better delivered in New Paltz.
As I mentioned at Rosh Hashana, I’ve been drawn this year to look closely at the prayers so that we can better understand what we are doing during these hours.  Instead of looking at the big ideas out there, I wanted to look at the big ideas in here.  Back to basics, as it were.  I want to focus on what is happening in here and how it affects our souls.
So let’s go back to basics and ask, what are we doing here?  What we are doing is taking a journey.  We start with great anticipation.  We have dinner together, we dress up.  White is the preferred choice.  My kittel for example.  The white represents freshness, a new start to the year, a fresh start for our souls.  White is the color of the holiday.
We began with Kol Nidre and that famous, haunting melody.  Right from the start it sets the tone for our journey.  We recite:  for the promises we made and tried, honestly tried, to keep we are forgiven.  And since Kol Nidre comes right at the start of the liturgy, boom, we are off to a good start.  We begin with a win as we start to look at our souls.
And then.  And then we go home and we can’t have that little snack because we are fasting.  From the peak of Kol Nidre to the valley of self-denial. 
We use fasting as a way of denying the body in order to focus on the soul.  It's not just fasting, of course.  There are five things we deny the body in order to focus on the soul.  We don’t eat anything, we don’t drink anything, we don’t bathe which some take to mean luxuriating beyond the needs of hygiene.  We don’t anoint ourselves with oils.  Some people say that means perfume.  And we don’t wear leather, a symbol of luxury.  That is why I’ve got my Teva’s on.  Finally, we don’t engage in “marital relations” with its focus on the body, not so much the soul.
But we make it through the night and we come back.  I know some people won’t.  They’ve had enough of Yom Kippur.  But that's a shame because the story of the prayers has only just begun.
We start with all the usual prayers and then come to something unique for these days:  the vidui.
The vidui is the confession.
It starts on page 269.[1]  You can follow along if you like.  It starts with Tavo l’fanecha[2] which means, "Our prayers will come before you."   That is how it starts but when I was a child, it was the ending that always intrigued me.  To God we say, please don’t think us so arrogant that we don’t think we haven’t gone astray. We have.  We don’t like to admit it but we have: we have gone astray, we have sinned, we have transgressed.  The Hebrew is Chatanu avinu, pashanu.[3]  Before I could read the Hebrew, I could hear the Hebrew and something wasn’t quite right.  Chatanu sounds like the word from, “Al chet shechatnu l’fanecha” for the sins we have sinned before You.  I got that one.  The last word, pashanu, must be something bad as well but the middle word, avinu, must be the word avinu from avinu malkeinu.  Right?  Not right.  This time avinu spelled with an “ayin” instead of “alef,” means something different.  Indeed, each word of chatanu, avinu, pashanu means something different.
Chet[4], the sin found in chatanu is a simple mistake.  We have missed the mark.  We tried, we did our best, we messed up.  It wasn’t intentional, not the biggest deal but still, to be honest and come clean, it was wrong.  Intentional or not, it was wrong.  Easy.
The next category of sin is avon[5] found in the word avinu.  T his sin is harder to dismiss.  This is intentional sin.  You knew it was wrong but you did it.  Did you not care?  Could you not control yourself?  Did you let the pressure get to you?  Were you just being mean?  We knew it when we did it but we did it anyway.  And now we feel bad because, well, we should feel bad.  We did an avon.  So we think about avon this past year and plan to do better. 
And then comes pashanu and the category of pesha[6].  Pesha is worse than avon because not only did we know it was a bad thing, we did it on purpose.  It’s almost rebellious.  I know it’s wrong but too bad I’m doing it anyway.  I’m going to say that hurtful thing, I’m going to take what doesn’t belong to me.  I’m going to be mean.  I could hold back but you know what?  I don't want to. 
All together, chatanu, avinu, pashanu means we have erred, we have disobeyed, we have been obstinate in our wrongdoing.  Three words to say we have sinned.  It’s not just that we behaved badly.  There are qualifications to our bad behavior. Chatanu, avinu, pashanu.  Sometimes we have erred, sometimes we have disobeyed, sometimes we have been intentionally bad.  Three different sins that describe three different levels of mistake.  And if we are honest, we’ve all done all of them at least once last year.  We’ve all done bad things out of spite or out of some justification we barely believe ourselves.  Need help remembering?  The machzor gives us a list to think about on page 269:  ashamnu, bagadnu, gazalnu and on and on.  We did this, we did that.
 “Ashamnu Bagadnu”, that litany of sins, the list from A to Z, alef to tav, of bad things we have done.  Note how we all say this collectively not because we all did all those things but because someone in this room did at least one of those things and together we cover the list.  We say them together as a way of supporting each other.  It would be too cruel to have to recite our sins publicly saying, “For this sin I did, for that sin I did.”  It would be crushing to the spirit to be so alone at that moment and so we confess our sins together with friends and family to support us.  It’s easier for us when we can lean on the person next to us to help us get through it:  we’ve done this, we’ve done that.
We move to page 271:  Al chet shechatanu[7], for the sins we have sinned, we ask for atonement.  Our spirits sink low as we tap our chests, shaking us with each pound as we admit, yes, we did this, we did that.  And then, at the end we sing, “v’al kulam” asking that God forgive us, pardon us, grant us atonement.  And if we are sincere, if we really will try to be better, the Day of Atonement atones.  Some Jewish teachings say that the day itself, the very act of being here atones for you.  Imagine that!  Just for being here on this day you receive for your efforts kapara on Yom Kippur.  Being present, you receive atonement.  Except…
While, with sincerity, you may automatically receive kapara, that doesn’t automatically make you a good person.  A jerk with kapara is still a jerk.  Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement cannot stop a person from being mean and nasty.  Yom Kippur cannot keep a hater from being a hater.  Only we can do that.  Inside the liturgy, on page after page, we implore God again and again and again to forgive us.  Outside the liturgy, we are taught to go through the process of teshuva[8], of turning, turning to a new way, turning over a new leaf, turning from being who we do not want to be and turning towards who we want to be.  The process of teshuva, of turning, takes serious thought and reflection.
Here, then, is why we gather for the whole day.  Without outside distractions, with good music to carry us, we have the chance to still our minds, allow our thoughts to wander and think, think, think about ourselves.  Yom Kippur is our most self-indulgent day because all we do is think about ourselves and be honest with ourselves and make plans for ourselves to improve.  And when we do that, we gain kapara and we engage teshuva and we rise better people.  That's what we will do.  And so we begin the process of moving from the depths of self-criticism upwards to a more hopeful, positive outlook.
Look at the next prayer, “Shema Koleinu” on page 278.  Written to lofty music, it is a musical highpoint that cannot be ignored and it will not be ignored because it is written in a demanding voice.  The whole prayer is written in the imperative, as a command.   “Hear our voice, Adonai, our God, have compassion on us, accept our prayer.”  There isn't a "please" to be found.  There isn't a question that is asked.  It does not say, "if you find us worthy" it says, "Hey.  We've admitted our sins.  We have done our part.  We will rise as better people.  Now You, God, have to hear us and have compassion on us.  You just have to."  Our liturgy is a seesaw of petition and demand.  It is a roller coaster of insisting and beseeching.  We admit we have sinned and we will accept responsibility and make a plan to change and become better but we demand God help us with that plan.
Of course, we aren’t done.  We arrive at a high point, confident with shema koleinu but the day will continue with its roller coaster liturgy until the very end.  Exhausted, hungry, impatient, we will arrive at the triumphant neilah service in the early evening as the gates of repentance close.  We will cross the finish line tired but victorious.
But until then, I hope you can engage the prayers and their message.  I hope, by going back to basics, you can better understand the flow and themes of the vidui, this confessional section as well as all of the sections of prayer as well.  Our goal is to enter this day humble, aware of our failings, and leave it proud of what we will do, proud of what we will accomplish, excited to be a better person filled with the spirit of teshuva, of turning our lives around for the better.  And we are so sure we will make that change that we demand of God to make it happen.  That is what we are doing here this day.  This is the story of our machzor on Yom Kippur.

[1] Gates of Repentance
[2] תבוא לפנך
[4] חט
[5] עון
[6] פשע
[7] על חט שחטנו
[8] תשובה

Motyl Chamber Ensemble

The Motýl Chamber Ensemble Will Perform At Temple Beth Jacob in Newburgh, NY. Please join me for this wonderful concert on November 17th., and call the Temple office to make reservations today!

Seventy-four years ago this November, Kristallnacht echoed throughout Nazi Germany and Austria. In the ensuing years, along with Jewish professionals from across the artistic spectrum, many of Europe’s finest composers would be imprisoned at the Terezin Concentration Camp in what is today the Czech Republic, before their eventual murders. Their music, written during that nightmarish period, has miraculously survived and has been preserved and nurtured by the Motýl Chamber Ensemble, led by the vision, scholarship, and musicianship of Dr. Aleeza Wadler. On Nov. 17th, at 7:30 p.m., this group of dynamic young artists, accompanied by the voice of Cantor Amy Goldstein of Newburgh’s Temple Beth Jacob, will bring the music of Terezin back to life in a multi-media presentation at Temple Beth Jacob, 290 North Street, Newburgh, NY.

The Ensemble will present a program open to the public of music written by composers who were victims of the Nazi regime. The Ensemble has performed all over the New York area. Their music includes a description of the musical and artistic life at Terezin. Photographs of daily life in Terezin, as well as original watercolors, drawings, and poems from children at the camp, are part of the program. This multimedia approach creates a connection with the history behind the music. The group comprises a string quartet, piano and voice. The composers include Viktor Ullmann, Hans Krasa, Egon Ledec, Felix Mendelssohn and Martin Roman.
Dr. Aleeza Wadler, a renowned violinist and founder of the Motýl Chamber Ensemble, will narrate the music and provide background about the lives of the composers and their music. Local vocalist Goldstein has been part of the group for several years.
For more information and reservations please contact Marsha Sobel at Temple Beth Jacob, 562-5516, or Tickets are $25 each. When purchased in advance, discounts are available for people over age 65 ($15 each) and students with a valid ID card ($10 each). All tickets are $25 at the door. Advanced reservations are recommended. MasterCard and Visa accepted. Refreshments will be available.
You will not want to miss these accomplished, talented musicians who will send chills up your spine as you listen to them perform in combinations of trios, quartets, and solos, along with their slide show about the history of this tragic era. It is wonderful to have these brilliant musicians in the Newburgh area for community enrichment.