Thursday, September 24, 2015

Shma Koleinu and pushy prayers Yom Kippur 5776

Shema koleinu
Pushy prayers
Yom Kippur morning
Temple Beth Jacob of Newburgh
Rabbi Larry Freedman

One of the great High Holidays pieces is Shema koleinu.  The arrangement is by Max Helfman, a very creative soul who taught for a time at our Reform Movement seminary and died in 1963.  The words we are about to read are on page 336:  “Hear our voice, Eternal God; have compassion upon us and with that compassion accept our prayer.  Help us to return to You, God, then truly shall we return.  Renew our days as in the past.”
Let’s look at this for a moment.  Perhaps just reading it, the tone seems calm, bland even.  In truth, however, the grammar is all in the imperative.  We are imploring, no actually, we are demanding of God what must be done.  “Hey,” we shout, “I took off from work.  I dressed up.  I’m here.  God!  Here our voice!  I did not come here to leave empty handed.  Have compassion upon us!”  It’s all very much a demand almost chutzpadik.  And the music adds to this urgency, this intensity.  It builds and builds and builds until the cantor comes out practically screaming for God to hear our voices.  It seems polite in the English but it’s all very demanding in the Hebrew.
Here’s how it sounds. 
What a strange experience this yelling at God, this notion that we say, “You have to do this.”  Let me just say, this is very Jewish, very much our way.  Our very name, Israel, means struggles-with-God.  Our Torah is filled with stories of loyalty to God and then ignoring God and then fighting with God.  We are not a passive people.  We are not just prostrating ourselves before the Lord on High without a good argument about it first. 
This dialogue with God speaks to the dynamic of Yom Kippur.  Coming from a staid, rational Reform Movement, we are very passive.  We sit.  We listen, we read.  We make our way through the liturgy well enough.  But the words themselves speak to grander drama.  There is shouting and demands.  There are also modest moments of humility where we lay ourselves bare, opening ourselves to the deepest criticism.  There are moments of apology so moving we are reduced to tears.  The liturgy of Yom Kippur is a script of a day long drama filled with anguish. This is why Yom Kippur for many is so exhausting.  It is hours and hours of arguing, discussion, bargaining, yelling, listening.
Again, the founders of Reform, in their quest to fit in and not be as emotional as our eastern European co-religionists, quieted the proceedings down but the storyline is still there.
I think that storyline can draw us in even if we have questions about God.  There are Jews who just don’t believe in God and there are many more Jews who have a difficult time with the anthropomorphized God we meet in the machzor.  To this I say, give yourselves over to the story and understand the drama.  Don’t worry too much about the way the characters are drawn.  Down in New York on Broadway, thousands of people each week are moved by the drama taking place amongst cholera and battlements in the streets of Paris and the story isn’t even true.  If they can give themselves over to that fiction because they understand the point of the tale is the point, we can give ourselves over to this drama as well.
This dialogue with God, this yelling at God is all part of the contortions we go through to make Yom Kippur not be passive, not to rely on the grace of some higher power.  Listen, we demand of that higher power, listen we demand of our inner psyches, have compassion upon us!  Accept my prayer!  Accept my sincere efforts!  Help us to return to You!  Some of us open ourselves up to God to care for us and some of us in the comfort of the therapist’s office implore our inner selves to be more kind to us, we struggle to give ourselves permission, to let ourselves off the hook, to force ourselves to acknowledge fault.  Who knows where these arguments really take place:  with God, with our psychological makeup, with some combination of the two?  Regardless, the battle is joined.  Let the drama commence.
What a curious thing shema koleinu is.  What a strange thing to ask and demand of God to be compassionate?  We are distant from God because we have erred; we have slipped from the right path.  By all rights God could say, you made the mistake, you fix it.  Yet, instead we –again- demand of God, “Help us return to You.”  Yes, it’s our fault but you can’t, you simply can’t abandon us.  Why not?  After all, it seems God can do anything God wants.  The answer is, You just can’t.  You simply can’t.  God, we have a brit and you cannot abandon us.
I love this approach to God because it works in so many ways.  For those who believe in a very personal God it contains an expectation of intimacy.  Yes, of course, one must be respectful of God but one must not be so awestruck as to lose one’s way, to lose the ability to speak and advocate and insist, demand, remind God that the brit, the covenant we share is a two-way street.  We will be your people and you will be our God but that has a few requirements, saith us.
For those who struggle with belief in such an immanent God, this insistence offers an intellectual understanding of how Jews over the ages have seen God and that viewpoint is not one of irrational and foolish fear; it is not a belief based in terror of an imaginary being.  It is a belief in a God who works with us, who listens to us, who does not expect silent submission.  It’s a more vigorous relationship than often imagined and dismissed.
For those who struggle with faith, fall upon the old chestnut that God is inside our selves and struggle with your soul to be both more repentant for and more forgiving of your actions.
After this struggle comes Ki Anu Amecha v’Atah malkeinu, which we will sing in just a moment.  “We are Your people, You are our ruler.”  You have a role, I have a role.  And your role is harder.  Leadership is hard, responsibility is hard.  Caring for so many is hard.  It is much harder, much more difficult to be the shepherd than it is to be the sheep.  But that is how it is.  You, God, offered this covenant.  You knew the terms of this agreement and you accepted it.  And now, as we gather here on this Day of Atonement, we are doing the hard work of trying to change and we hold you accountable to do your part.  We are doing our best so get ready to atone.  That is the brit, that is the covenant, that is your job.  And so we sing Ki Anu Amecha with a full voice just to add a little reminder.
And how does this play out for us?  What is the effect of Ki Anu Amecha on our psyches?  We remember we are not the center of the world.  We are not the ones in charge.  We are part of something larger than ourselves.  We are not the shepherd, we are not the vintner, we are not the creator.  We are just one of many sheep, one of many vines, one of many creations.  We are each infinitely valuable but also one among millions.  We are unique but then again, truly, just part of the masses.  Each one of us is but one grape amongst the rolling hills of the vineyard.  We are not the center of the world.
I’ve been wondering if we’ve forgotten that idea lately.  We’ve seen degradation in civility in what used to pass for reasoned conversations and political debate.  The Iran nuclear agreement is one area where Jews turned on Jews to a very concerning way.  Yes, the stakes are high but the screaming and accusations and name calling has found a new low.  I’m not a prude over a little political theater in the service of advocacy.  That’s nothing new.  But we saw not advocacy but anger, accusations and assumptions that we were right and anyone who disagrees is wrong and an idiot.  Everyone is either Neville Chamberlain or a warmonger. Everyone is a traitor.  Everyone is leading the Jewish people to destruction.  No one really listens to each other.  We yell at each other. 
It’s amazing how such a complicated agreement could be understood so intimately by so many, so quickly that they feel free to demonize –not just disagree or refute but demonize- the other. 
This happens when we are the center of the world.  This happens when we think that this grape is truly the better grape.  Gone is discussion, gone is learning, gone is reason and reasonable discourse. 
I love the Kol Yisrael project but one of the problems I see is that with imperfect knowledge, people feel free to trash some decision or mock some issue or grandstand about this or that.  It’s easy to do that.  Some people take pleasure in it, but it also means that the gossiper feels he is the center of the universe, that she doesn’t need to discover more info, that they don’t need to consider anyone else.  Gossip leads to half-knowledge, unnecessary drama, roiled feelings and distractions that keep us from making good, smart plans.  Gossip and half-truths get in the way of clear thinking.  They cause hurt feelings when none need to be hurt.  They drain us of the energy so many put into this project.
I know gossip is a worldwide phenomenon but can we try to control it at least in our small corner?  Yom Kippur doesn’t imagine a perfect world.  Indeed we recite merely some of the long list of sins that exist out there.  Yom Kippur knows the way of the world.  But Yom Kippur calls us to make ourselves better.  Maybe just this corner of the world could be better.  Maybe the rest of the world will be mean to each other but we, here, we will resist the trend and we will treat each other nicely, respectfully.
Maybe, as we have expectations as to how God must treat us, we should implore each other to treat us with more respect.
We are a pushy people.  We have been since Abraham talked back to God.  We don’t take things sitting down but we should come to that advocacy with some humility.  We can say:  I do have issues I need addressed, I do have things to discuss, I do have concerns and sometimes I am frustrated.  So who can I talk to about this?  That’s a better answer than a gossipy soapbox.
Shema Koleinu is about us demanding God to treat us with the respect we deserve as people who are trying our best.  Shouldn’t we demand that of each other, to demand that we knock off the mean-spiritedness and come to each other with respect and care and, dare I say, a basic love for another of God’s creations?  We should.  And soon enough, after we demand of God and we demand of each other, we will arrive at the vidui, the confession where we will own up to our own sins, our own gossiping, our own degradation of civility.  We’ll get there soon enough and we will beat our chest and feel the self-flagellation and know we can do better.  But for now, we need help so we turn to God demanding that God help us be the best we can be.

We are not the center of the world.  We need help.  We are merely the vines in a vineyard.  You are the vintner.  But with your help, what a thing we can create.  What a world we can make.

Yizkor and Candles erev Yom Kippur 5776

Yizkor and Candles
Yom Kippur 5775
Temple Beth Jacob of Newburgh
Rabbi Larry Freedman

Ten days ago I spoke to you about our community spirit.  Rosh Hashana is, after all, a festive day, a happy day of us coming together to celebrate a new year.  Tonight, as we enter the more individually introspective Yom Kippur, I want to talk about something more individual. 
Let’s talk about… juice glasses.  When I was a kid, we had, more or less, two types of juice glasses: the ones we loved and the ones we wouldn’t touch.  The ones we loved were Welch’s grape jelly jars.  They had cartoon figures on the outside and as soon as we could finish the jelly the glass jar was ready for drinking.  The dishwasher slowly faded the colors but we didn’t care.  A jelly jar that was a juice glass.  That was so cool.
Then there were the other juice glasses that we did not like.  These were squat little things that held just a few ounces.  They, too, were repurposed but these had held not jelly but wax.  Specifically, a candle.  More specifically, a yartzeit candle.
Yartzeit is Yiddish for “year’s time.”  It is an anniversary.  In this case, the anniversary of a death.  Jews were never big on birthdays but we have a finely honed ritual for death dates.  There are five times one lights a candle.  On the yartzeit date itself, and then the four dates we have Yizkor services.  Those are today, Yom Kippur, the last day of Sukkot, the last day of Pesach and the day of Shavuot.  The candle is lit on the evening the day before as the Hebrew date begins.  That would be tonight.  The candle burns for 24 hours so it had to be big enough to hold all that wax and inside a flame proof container, hence the size of a juice glass.
There is no prayer said when lighting a yartzeit candle but it is a nice time for reflection, a moment of remembrance.  You light yartzeit candles for siblings, spouse, parents, child although many people light just for parents and spouses and when needed, children.  Some people have a candle for each person but many people have one candle to remember multiple people.  Either custom is fine.
Afterwards, the container can be thrown out or used for juice glasses.  Honestly, it’s just a glass.  It held a yartzeit candle, sure, but halachically, it’s just a glass.  You could do anything with them and that’s why people used them for drinking glasses.  But my brothers and I were having none of that.  We knew that something important had taken place over these glasses.  It wasn’t just that we were remembering dead people.  It wasn’t just that.  It was that these yartzeit juice glasses were present for a whole ritual.  It got taken out of the special cabinet where a half dozen sat at the ready.  It was set up on a plate in the middle of the stove-top as extra fire protection.  It was lit with intention and a serious pause.  A very serious pause.  In my Bubbie’s house, the candle was my great-grandmother and great-grandfather.  In my mother’s house it was my Bubbie and Zaide.  These juice glasses, handed down –nothing should go to waste- represented the lives of people and more importantly they represented remembering the lives of people.  Lighting the yartzeit candle meant that attention had been paid. Lighting the yartzeit candle meant that names were recalled, good times recalled, fondness recalled, love recalled.  For twenty-four hours anytime we walked into the kitchen, past the kitchen, through the kitchen we knew that remembrance was taking place.  Actually, it was nice.  It was nice to know remembrance was taking place.  It’s a bit sad but it’s nice.
Often, when I meet to discuss a funeral, families tell me, “We want it to be a celebration of life.”  One time at a different synagogue, the family told me they didn’t want the funeral to be sad.  I wasn’t sure how to have a funeral not be sad.  Then they explained they wanted a “celebration of life.”  I hear this idea not infrequently.  They want a “celebration of life.” 
First of all, what do they think a Jewish funeral is?  Do they think we just meditate on the nature of death?  Of course, not.  We share stories and tell tales and remember our loved ones as they lived.  We recall their triumphs and we acknowledge, with gentleness, their shortcomings.  We, dare I say, celebrate their life.  And that is what yartzeit candles are for as well.  They are not there to ruminate on death.  They are there to remind us to celebrate the person’s life.
Why has Judaism not developed a culture of celebrating birthdays but has a ritual for anniversaries of death?  Because another birthday is another challenge to make something of the next year.  A birthday is the understanding that a year of hard work is about to take place.  Work, study, relationships, growth, raising children, caring for parents.  The next year will be another challenge.  No child ever ruminated on the passing of age nine.  No!  They excitedly talk about being ten!  And should that not be the case?  The secular notion of a birthday is a celebration looking forward.  A parent may celebrate looking back at that crazy day of birth, birthdays ending in zeroes may cause a brief reflection but really, other than that, what does a birthday celebrate?  It celebrates passage of time but let’s be clear a birthday isn’t a celebration of life because you’re not yet done with that life.
The yartzeit is the true celebration of life.  The yartzeit is the moment to look back.  The person’s life is done.  How did he do?  Where did she succeed?  Did they make something of their life?  And most often the answer is yes and we celebrate that.  The yartzeit may take place on the date of death but its purpose is to gaze at the person’s life.  The yartzeit is the place to remember and recall with fondness all that our loved ones did with their lives.
And when we have yizkor on those four dates, yes, of course, it’s sad but what’s wrong with a little sadness?  What’s wrong with a little weeping for the people we loved?  It’s okay to be melancholy.  The point is to take a moment, give yourselves over to the ritual and just take a moment to remember.  In a busy world with our busy lives, our heritage, your heritage gives you a pause, a time out, a chance to breathe in, say a prayer and remember.  Four times a year, no, five even, we remember and we celebrate life.
There is a kabbalistic idea behind those candles and wannabe juice glasses.  The wax represents our bodies.  The flame, the best part of a candle, ever reaching upwards, is the soul.  The flame always reaches toward heaven, always tries to aim higher.  The flame wants nothing more than to go up and up and up but it is tied down here by the wax, the source of its energy.  Our bodies are wax, living for just a finite time but they give energy to our souls and they allow our souls to be seen and touched while here on Earth.  When the wax is gone, the flame goes out but the energy of that flame lives on forever.  The body fades, the body dies but the soul lives on in our hearts, in our actions and in the heavens forever.  When we light that candle, we remember that precious soul and we celebrate that life.  That is what the candle is for.  That is what our yizkor service is for.  It’s a lovely moment.
But you don’t come.  I don’t know how many light candles at home but our yizkor services are very poorly attended and even yizkor on Yom Kippur is not as full as it should be considering it is a lovely, poignant, quiet reflective moment.
I suspect I know why yizkor is poorly attended over the year.  Two reasons, really.  There was a tradition that children shouldn’t attend yizkor services even adult children.  Some say they wanted to spare the children the sight of parents crying.  Some say it would tempt the evil eye to cause the parents to die in the coming year.  Whatever reason, children didn’t grow up understanding what yizkor services were and so when it came time for them to go, it wasn’t something they were familiar with.
Another reason is that yizkor is part of the liturgy for the holiday and many people don’t liturgy.
What can I say?  I like liturgy.  It tells a story.  There is a mantra like effect in its repetition but perhaps I’ll try to convince you of that another day.  For now, let me meet you where you are.
Over the last year, Cantor Amy and I have experimented with highlighting the poignant aspect of yizkor and diminishing the surrounding tefillot.  We’re going to keep doing that to find out the best way to create a reflective moment that succeeds.  Come experience what we are putting together and let us know what you think.
The climax of yizkor is mourner’s kaddish.  That prayer runs interference for the deceased’s soul in heaven.  The root for prayer in Hebrew is  פלל.  It has the sense of interference.  Prayer interferes, as it were, with God.  When we say prayers we use them as intercessors, something to reach out to beseech and prod God.  There is a classic understanding that upon death, God judges the soul of the deceased and saying the kaddish prayer interferes with the judgment by softening the judgment.  Saying kaddish the first year after a death of a parent was crucial because for thousands of years, we’ve understood that power of prayer as literally having an impact upon God and many still believe that but for us in the rational tinged Reform Movement, we may have lost that understanding. 
Let me, then, bring in a different type of interference.  Perhaps we can reinvigorate a tradition that will interfere with your daily life, something that breaks up the months so that three times, in the fall, the spring, the summer at the end of Sukkot, the end of Pesach, the end of Shavuot, we can interrupt our rhythm and use it as a time to remember those who came before us.  We don’t often get that chance.  Let’s see if we can do that, together.  Let’s remember together.  Let’s come together as a community to support each other as we remember.  Let’s not let the years roll on without stopping to pause and remember.  Let’s mark our calendars and add a flow to our year and light a candle in our kitchens.  I know that people can and do remember all the time but there is something different about having special moments set aside where we all share the same experience together.
To help you do that, outside I have candles for you to take home.  I hope you’ll join me in remembering our loved ones and adding, perhaps, a new tradition to your home.  I know this will be hard for many of you.  Embracing an old tradition that is new to you is difficult.  It will feel foreign.  It will feel inauthentic.  To this I say, just give it a chance.  You are allowed to add to your repertoire of Jewish living at any age.  You are entitled to recapture the custom of your Bubbie and Zaide.  You are entitled to add something new to your Jewish home.  Rekindle the custom of yartzeit candles and start tonight. 
We have 200 candles outside, enough, I think, for a couple per household.  Light them tonight and take a moment to remember the best of the people you are remembering as you celebrate their lives.

Let's talk to the next generation Rosh Hashana 5776

Let’s talk to the next generation
Temple Beth Jacob of Newburgh
Rosh Hashana 5776
Rabbi Larry Freedman

My goal, when I became a rabbi, was to help Jews be the best Jews they could be and to help Jewish families be the best Jewish families they could be. 
That has worked out fairly well but it also has been a non-stop 23 year cold-water-to-the-face wake up when I meet Jews who really don’t care and Jewish families who have better things to do.
It’s just part of the job to be insulted once or twice a month by people who have no idea they are insulting me when they say that this thing I have studied, the heritage I have dedicated my life to and this mission of helping you that I have chosen is, I am told, “well, I don’t know, my grandmother used to do that but who has time?”
(You folks aren’t usually the ones saying that.  Being here pretty much takes you out of this other group.)
A few of us experienced this when we ran the Jewish Outreach Institute’s ”Passover in the Matzah Aisle” program.  For three years, a few weeks before Pesach, we set up a table near the Pesach foods at a supermarket with different kinds of charoset, matzah and other tasty Pesach treats.  We had a raffle, collected names and contact info and basically did some outreach to the community.  Instead of waiting for Jews to come to us, we went to them.  We will continue to be creative in order to reach out but in this case, it didn’t really work.  The Jews we met just thought it was great to see us and they told warm stories of seders with family and warm memories of foods and afikoman hunts and all that.  They were so pleased for this touchstone but when we said, would you like to come to our community seder?  You should come visit us at the synagogue and meet our community they said, oh no.  I don’t do that anymore.  I don’t have time.  I might as well have been showing them how to grind their own flour.  It’s nice to know someone is doing that but back here in the real world… pass.
Unaffiliated Jews and Jewish families are out there in Orange and Dutchess counties but getting them to engage their Jewish identities is a big hurdle.  This is a sign of big trouble.  The Jewish community of the US is in trouble for a number of reasons. I want to focus on just one reason and one small solution and to get there, I want to talk about talking and to do that I need to talk about intermarriage.
Now, after you’ve taken a big gulp, everyone relax.  It’s not what you think.  If you are in an interfaith relationship and you are part of our community I’m not talking about you.  You are the heroes of this story.  I want to repeat that.  You are the heroes so for those of you who have heard the word intermarriage and have already tweeted that the rabbi stinks and you’re never coming back, let me say again, I’m not talking about you.  You are in this room.  You are part of this community.  You have had the hard conversations and you have given us your time and money and most precious of all your children.  You have trusted us –me- with your children.  You are the heroes of this story.  Do not feel threatened.  Indeed, I humbly suggest you feel smug and self-congratulatory as you will see.  Okay?  Okay?  We good?  I’ll come back to you but we good for now?
The attack intermarriage typically took is that it lead Jews out of Judaism.  But a study came out a number of years ago that challenged that assessment.  This study looked specifically at young Reform Jews of marriageable age to see what their attitudes were towards Jewish living and intermarriage.  It wasn’t great.
When they looked at basic markers of Jewish identity, lighting Shabbat candles, having Jewish friends, supporting Jewish institutions and so on, young Reform Jews had very low percentages doing these things.  When it came to behaving in ways we would identify as living a Jewish life, our own young people weren’t doing it.  And then their rates of intermarriage were very high.  A long time ago I was listening to the writer Leonard Fine.  He said he told his children that the reason they shouldn’t marry someone from China is that they don’t speak Chinese.  It’s hard to forge a relationship if you don’t share the same language.  In the same way, he encouraged his daughters to marry someone with whom they speak the same cultural language.  He meant Jews because they would share a common cultural language.  He was correct but not in the way he imagined.  Today, young Reform Jews speak secular culture more fluently than Jewish culture.  Indeed, they may not speak Jewish culture very well at all.  All this is to say that intermarriage doesn’t lead people away from Jewish connection.  Those already barely connected have no strong reason to find a Jewish partner anyway.
That’s why I say that those Jews and their non-Jewish spouses who join a Jewish community are the heroes of the story because they have had the thoughtful, difficult conversations with spouses, made a considered choice for their own religious life and for their children.  Within these couples, the even greater heroes are the non-Jewish spouses.  We have these amazing spouses who, and I’m going out on a limb here, when dreaming youthful dreams of marriage and a family, joining a synagogue never came popped in their heads.  It’s the rare child who says, when playing house, I’ll be the mommy or daddy and I’ll pretend I’m part of a cultural group with which I am totally unfamiliar.  Spouses who didn’t grow up Jewish and yet contribute considerable time and energy to the Jewish community are people who are owed a tremendous debt of gratitude and we, and certainly I, don’t say that enough.  So, thank you for what you do and the gifts you have given us. 
The statistics are very clear.  The children of most intermarried families are barely connected.  The grandchildren, statistically, have faded away, lost to the Jewish people.  You are the minority that rejects that premise.  You are the vibrant percentage that is keeping us strong for yet one more generation.  You have figured out that living a Jewish life has meaning and is worthwhile.  Too many others have not figured that out.
We are failing to teach Reform Jews a sense of urgency, a sense of purpose, a reason to keep this heritage going.  We have failed to make it personal.  Too many of us for too long have treated Judaism as a nice aspect of who we are, just another of our many identities but nothing central to our being.
I have many interests, many concerns but central to my being is that I am a Jew.  My life proudly revolves around my history and heritage and faith.  I accept our received texts and wisdom with love and admiration with the caveat that as a rational Reform Jew I’m able to reflect critically at those texts.  I also accept that as a Jew I have a mission, a purpose in life; that once granted the privilege of being born into this people I accept the responsibility of using my heritage to make the world a better place and make myself a better person.  And I accept the notion that as a Jew I have the responsibility and joy of always learning more about my heritage so that it enriches my soul and makes my Jewish life more sophisticated.  That’s me.  And it can be you as well.  Indeed, it already is the way many of you experience your Judaism.  But for many others, not so much.
Intermarriage isn’t the issue.  It’s one generation proudly educating the next generation what Judaism means to them.  Pride is the key term.
If you are a parent and want Jewish grandchildren, it might help if your children marry Jews.  Statistically speaking, it offers a bump.  But you know what works even better?  If you, you the adults, the parents and grandparents and great-grandparents sitting here can dig down and articulate to the next generation why you find it meaningful.  Don’t tell them why they have to find it meaningful.  Explain to them how it stirs your soul, how it moves you, how it informs your life.  That is going to be a challenge for some of you because you may feel you already figured out how much Jewish life you want in your life.    But you are never too old to change habits.  Maybe, upon reflection, you could add a little more Jewish living to your life.
For years, just five days after Yom Kippur we would have a minyan and a half show up for Sukkot.  Now with our pot luck dinner, we had 60 the first year, 90 the second.  If you haven’t joined in, come on out.  It’s fun, it’s social, the food’s awesome, we don’t have tefillot but we do have a lulav and etrog to shake in the sukkah and I will never tell you to stop talking.  Ninety people changed their habit and re-engaged a little bit of Jewish life.
Next thing on our agenda to rehabilitate is Simchat Torah.  This holiday should be the most thrilling, the sprint to the finish coming 8 days after Sukkot.  We’re working to re-imagine Simchat Torah to highlight the best part of the celebration and retire what doesn’t work.  So join us for ending and restarting the source of all we are, the reading of Torah.
Okay, enough of the pitch.  Back to the hard work of explaining what stirs your soul.  I’ve spoken before about the pintele yid, the little bit of your Jewish soul deep inside.  It flames up over the High Holidays then settles back down.  But it’s there.  When you feel more connected, when you have a spiritual moment, when your Jewish self is fully engaged, the pintele yid burns brightly.  What makes it burn brighter for you?  That’s going to be a hard question to answer but if you can’t come up with something, how will the next generation believe you when you say it’s important?  “Just because” doesn’t work.  Come on…. You like this stuff.  You do.  But you probably haven’t been challenged to articulate it since your bar or bat mitzvah.  And while you need to articulate it for the next generation because they are listening, it’s actually more important for you to articulate it for yourself.  It’s more important for you to be able to understand it deeply for yourself and your spouse.  I suspect that even those people not Jewish have had so much experience with Jewish life that you, too, can be challenged to articulate what in Jewish life brings uplift to your life.  What have you found to be moving and profound?
For many people, more energy is spent explaining why the next generation must be a Yankees fan than why they should continue Judaism.  We seem to realize that we can’t just assume the kids will be Yankees fans.  We have to teach that.  Same for Judaism.  Is there something so important in your life that you really wanted your children or grandchildren to follow?  Did you spend the same amount of time teaching why Judaism is important to you?  And if not, why not?  Could it be that you’ve never had to put words to something more emotional?
Join me for four weeks in October for a planned giving class.  I’m calling it a Yerusha Will class.  Yerusha means heritage and it is what God gave to Abraham and what we have spent the past 4000 years passing on.  It’s not easy to do.  The Bible is filled with stories of generations that were not very good at passing it on so you’re in good company. 
Four weeks in October join me as we talk about what moves our souls, why we think there is something valuable to pass on to the next generation and a plan to make that happen.  Think of it as Jewish planned giving but your planning to pass on not your estate but your Jewish life. 
Do you worry the next generation isn’t very connected?  Maybe we haven’t explained why we feel connected. The intermarried couples here are among the few couples in the entire community, I venture to guess, who have had to talk about the religious life of their family, of the yerusha they want to pass on and how to explain that to their children.  They’ve had to talk about why Judaism stirs the soul of the Jew in the partnership.  Other intermarried couples, and this I know from directly hearing from them either a) found the Jew unable to make a compelling case for continued Jewish life b) never had parents who cared about religion in general so they don’t care c) don’t want to talk about it as it will upset their marriage; they had enough stress when they got engaged and don’t want to bring that up again or d) they met a rabbi who was rude to them and they walked out never to return.  I’m sure among the vast numbers of unaffiliated there are more reasons but these are the reasons I’ve heard.
This Rosh Hashana as we delve deeply into our souls, as we consider how we wish to live, let’s commit to considering why we love it so.  And we do love it because we’re here.  Something moves us.  Let’s understand what that is and then let’s put that feeling into words and pass it on.

Things are going well. Erev Rosh Hashana 5776

Erev Rosh Hashana
Temple Beth Jacob of Newburgh
Rosh Hashana 5776
Rabbi Larry Freedman

I come to you today a pretty happy rabbi.  The atmosphere of Temple Beth Jacob is energetic and upbeat.  More committees are spinning up.  More people are volunteering for things.  More creativity is coming to build upon positive changes introduced these last few years.  And the Kol Yisrael project is a huge success.
So I’m feeling pretty good which means this may very well turn out to be an upbeat sermon and that is sure to disappoint those who are looking for something more dour, something more guilt producing.  Fair enough.  I’ll bring a little guilt later on.
Let’s review what’s been happening.  Our erev Sukkot dinner is a hit.  First year, 70 people.  Last year 90 so we’re doing it again.  Just to review, pot luck.  No services, just socializing in the sukkah and shaking the lulav.  And we have a new sukkah this year.  Great thanks to the designers of the former sukkah but it’s time for something even bigger.  We have a mah jong group now.  We have pickle ball which technically isn’t our program but I’m very excited about it.  If you don’t know, it’s a fun game popular with all ages which is code for “of a certain age” which is code for, “I’m going to get myself in trouble.”  Suffice to say it’s a terrible name but a fun paddle sport.  Talk to Gail Oliver.  
Back to holidays, we restructured family Shabbat which is successful when we promote it well.  Families have busy lives so we’ll do better to help you plan.  Our Pesach seder is a joy but the feedback was that it was too costly.  Two things about that.  One:  Folks, we’re not making any money on this thing.  There are costs to putting on a seder!  Two: we’ll do better.  We’re trying to figure out if we can bring it inside this building.  One of the principle rules of KY is that no partner organization is allowed to do something that prevents another partner from fully expressing itself.  The kosher for Pesach laws are more complicated than the standard kosher laws.  This is a topic for an entirely different sermon but the point is, it’s complicated and we’re working on that.
Now, Shavuot, that is my proudest holiday moment of last year.  We returned Confirmation to a Friday night and held, on erev Shavuot, our first Tikkun Leil Shavuot.  This is an ancient custom revived in the last 20 years or so.  Traditionally it involved Torah study all night long until dawn.  We aren’t that ambitious.  We started at 7:00 PM, went until 11:00 PM, had food at the breaks and featured lay people teaching something.  Different people took a 30 minute slot and taught whatever they wanted that was either directly or not so directly connected to Judaism.  Forty-six people came out over Memorial day weekend.  That, for a first time program, is a hit.  It was fun, interesting, social.  It was a lovely evening.  We’ll do it again so come join us and… what would you like to teach?
Then, in the middle of summer, we and Agudas Israel came together for Tisha b’Av but we did something different.  Instead of the traditional liturgy, we watched a movie about the rise of Israel hatred and anti-Semitism on college campuses.   Now, I’m not a fan of spotting anti-Semites under every rock but if ever there is a day to acknowledge people hating us, Tisha b’Av would be it.
What’s next?  I’m very excited to try an experiment this November 14.  For years I’ve been hearing how people would like to come out for Shabbat services but, you know…  You tell me you’re tired after a week of work.  You tell me it’s rough timing if you’re also trying to have a Shabbat dinner.  You tell me that once you get in the house it’s just so hard to go out again.  You tell me you don’t drive at night.  You don’t drive in snow.  You don’t drive in rain.  You don’t drive in rain or snow at night.  And I hear you.  I totally understand all those reasons.  I feel particularly for those folks who don’t drive at night anymore.  They loved joining their community for Shabbat and now they’re stuck at home. 
So.  Now.  As I said, I totally understand all those excuses and I believe you.  I really do.  Of course, you could just be making up excuses to be polite.  Maybe you just don’t want to go.  That’s possible.  Or maybe there’s something about our Shabbat tefillot you don’t like.  To that I say this.  If you’re being polite, if you would like to go but you don’t like something, like for example, the sermon, tell me.  Tell somebody to tell me.  I’m flexible.  Cantor Amy and I have shortened the evening and we constantly tinker with the music to develop a repertoire that is familiar and joyful but not stagnant.  Tell me.  Don’t just murmur to your buddy.  Tell me.
But if you’re not being just being polite then November 14 is for you.  We are moving our weekly Shabbat tefillot to the morning.  We’ll cancel Friday night and meet in the morning.  Torah study will be first from 9:00 to 10:00 for those interested and then tefillot itself from 10:00 to 11:30.  I really hope you’ll give it a try.  I’m hoping for a good turnout so that I can get good feedback.  Was the time right?  Should we have lunch afterwards or is a simple Kiddush sufficient?  Should we build Torah study into the morning instead of separate?  We can create something really meaningful and important and spiritual for so many people.  All we need is for you to be the person to give it a try.  I need you to at least try.
Ah!  Good.  Now I’m at the guilt part.  I am aware that synagogues everywhere have large numbers of supporters and then a dedicated but smaller group that takes advantage of the place year round.  Don’t get me wrong.  I’m thrilled that you are here today.  Truly I am.  I stopped giving that finger-wagging sermon about how you shouldn’t come just twice a year, blah blah blah like, 20 years ago.  Hey, if you only want to darken our doors twice a year, so be it.
But, you know, we have so much more for you.  Your community has so much more.  Our holidays and our traditions and just the comfort of connecting to something larger than yourself.  This place can touch your soul if you’ll let it.  I just don’t know how to get you to let your soul be touched.  I’m working on it.  Everyone in leadership is working on it but honestly, we need some help.  Give me a call.  Let me take you out for cup of coffee.  I’ll come to you!  What does Temple Beth Jacob mean to you?  What does it offer you and what would you like it to offer?  Maybe there’s some adult learning topic.  Maybe.  But I suspect there’s something else that you yearn for.  That’s right.  Yearn.  It’s something in your soul, deep down, that is just not being reached.  You all are here which means this place, Judaism itself means something to you. Help me help you identify what your soul is seeking and then, help me help you connect more deeply. 
We are partners, you and I.  We are partners in crafting a place we can call home, a place that connects us through the ages.  We are partners in promoting the notion that we Jews and our Jewish families have a purpose in life, a sacred task passed down for thousands of years.  Our mission is to make the world a better place and make ourselves better people.  That is our task and we accomplish that sacred task through the structure of Torah and mitzvot and community and holidays and customs and rituals and lifecycle moments.  And we do all that together.
We are partners here.  You, me, the leadership, Cantor Amy, our teachers, the support staff.  We are all partners in this enterprise.  Temple Beth Jacob means a lot to me and I know it means a lot to you.  I know that because you are here.  I know that because you offer your time and energy.  You volunteer or you attend events or you buy gift cards or you join in conversations on our Face Book page and, let’s face it, you donate money.  You do all that because this place is meaningful to you. 
Of course, because it’s meaningful, sometimes problems arise.
It seems that synagogues have lived a life with a split personality.  There is the spiritual side providing for your spiritual and emotional needs.  And then there is the business side which for decades, centuries was… let’s agree that it was lacking in caring about your spiritual and emotional needs.  In attempt to pay the bills, synagogues had dues, building funds, mandatory fees, turning over your 1040, having to explain financial straits.  There are stories from the old country to the new world where if a man didn’t support his synagogue the rabbi directed the kosher butcher not to sell him chickens!  Now that’s putting on the pressure.  Truth is, these approaches worked for a time and truth is they hurt a lot of feelings.  Everyone understands the spiritual mission and everyone understands how a synagogue needs to pay bills but when the two sides draw near, there is an explosion.  I hear just about every other month another story of someone humiliated, embarrassed, insulted because the synagogue, any synagogue, asked for money in not such a nice way.  The stories usually boil down to this: how can a place that is supposed to be caring be so cold? 
It shouldn’t be.  There has to be a way to treat people better. 
Our new partnership support model in place of the old dues model is one of those attempts.  It’s not about money.  Truly it is not.  It is about treating you with more respect.  It is a shift from us telling you to a partnership where we talk to each other and support each other.
The key to our new approach is simply an answer to this question:  What is it that makes you love this place?  And what would you miss if it were gone?
Here are some details.  Our budget is $330,000.  Leaving out school fees and fundraising of all sorts, it costs around $2000 per household to keep us running.  By the way, I hasten to remind you that our gift card program brings in $15000 a year to our operating funds so please support it as best you can.
The partnership support plan asks this:  think of what Temple Beth Jacob means to you and then do your very best to support your community according to your finances.  Some people will contribute more, some less, doesn’t matter.  Do your best to keep us going.  You don’t have to show a W-2.  You don’t have to talk to a vice-president, you don’t have to justify your contribution.  Just do the best you can.  No one will question that.
Now, people will say, well then, what if everyone just donates ten bucks?  And I say, that’s fine and we’ll close down in a week.  Yes, people can take advantage of this approach but partnership support isn’t about finding a deal.  It’s about being a partner in your community and doing your best, according to your finances, to keep us going because we don’t want to lose this place.
Back in the summer I had a conversation with a person who told this story.  On Yom Kippur, as she came in to the synagogue she was taken aside into an office and asked to pay her bill.  That was her welcome to Temple Beth Jacob on Yom Kippur.  When did this happen?  Sixteen years ago and she’s still insulted and she won’t come back.  I don’t want that to happen ever again.  Partnership support means it won’t.  Just do your best to keep us going. 
Another story.  Last year I had five conversations with five different families who refused, refused, to join Temple Beth Jacob because they couldn’t afford the dues.  I said, you know, all you have to do is ask and the Board makes adjustments.  No, they responded.  Some of the families said they were not going to go before someone and plead poverty and some of the families said, and this is the interesting one, they felt an obligation to support the community to the amount requested and if they couldn’t swing it, they didn’t want to feel like freeloaders. 
Never mind the money; we lost five families.  Five Jewish families who want to be here aren’t and all that energy and enthusiasm is lost because our dues system wasn’t working.  Partnership support will solve that problem.
The bottom line, the real bottom line, is that we need people.  We need to inspire the souls of Jews and Jewish families in the Hudson Valley.  We need the energy and enthusiasm of more people.  If we had $10 million but no people, what would that get us?  People are our priority.  Money is just the tool to keep this place going so we have a place for the people to gather but people are the priority. 
We have a four thousand year unbroken heritage of connecting with God, living out our ethics and values through our holidays and turning to Torah to find a pathway to making the world a better place and making ourselves better people.  We can’t let the necessary but less spiritual business of business become an impediment.  Of course we need the money.  We have a very tight budget and we worry about it dearly because that budget allows us to focus on our primary mission: the spiritual and emotional care of you.  That’s what we’re all about.  You.  Partnership support reminds us of that.  It’s really not about revenue streams.  It’s really all about you, appreciating you, respecting you. 

Thank you for doing the best you can do.  Thank you for being a partner in the continuation of Temple Beth Jacob and all we stand for.  There is so much going on here.  Join with your community for all or for some of what is going on.  Your choice.  Just join in for something.  I will always be happy to see you, my partner in the life of Temple Beth Jacob.