Coming Home

Yom Kippur Morning

September 15, 2013

Rabbi Eric S. Gurvis

Coming Home

Good morning – Gut Yontif – Shabbat Shalom!  Some stories are keepers!

A bit over a decade ago, I told you a story on a Yom Kippur morning with which I’d actually like to begin this morning. It’s still one of my favorites! In a mountain village in Europe many centuries ago, there was a nobleman who wondered what legacy he might be able to leave for his townspeople.  After much consideration, he decided to build a synagogue.  No one saw the plans for the building until it was finished.  When the people came for the first time they marveled at its beauty and completeness.  There were corners, nooks and crannies everywhere in which the townspeople could gather. But as the sun was setting, the synagogue grew dark and someone asked, “Where are the lamps?  How will this place be lit?”  The nobleman pointed to brackets, which had been placed on the walls all through the synagogue.  Then he gave each family a lamp, which they were to bring with them each time they came to the synagogue.  “Each time you are not here,” he said, “a part of the synagogue will be unlit.  This is to remind you that whenever you fail to come here, especially when the community needs you, some part of God’s house will be dark.

I still like that story because for me it’s not just a story.  In our House of God there are many also corners, there are many nooks and crannies.  There are corners where people gather for study; and there are rooms where people gather to sing and pray.  There are rooms in which people come to enjoy Jewish cultural experiences; and there are places where people sit with a cup of coffee or tea and read a book or newspaper, work on their laptop or spend time in conversation.  There are places in which people gather to talk about the challenges of our time — and then they collaborate to devise strategies to meet those challenges. And often people sit and talk about more personal things, problems, triumphs.

In each of these corners, these nooks and crannies, there is light. It’s not the light from lanterns hung on hooks that make this House so bright and cheery (nor the lights maintained by Al White.)  Rather, it’s the light emanating from the people who fill this place, and who join their individual lights together to make our congregational home bright, and a place where special things happen. This is not something I learned in Rabbinic school.  In truth, it’s a lesson I learned as a child, in my childhood synagogue

I have incredibly fond memories of my childhood synagogue, Temple Beth Avodah in Westbury, NY, which later merged with and became Community Reform Temple.  I recall the High Holy Days, which were a powerful time. It felt like a large extended family gathering.  Over the years I felt so at home as together with my friends and the other congregational children, we would spend the day together, hanging out before and after services (sometimes even during services).  The synagogue felt like it was our home and we could kick back and enjoy one another in this time we’d spend in our shared home. The same was true for the many Shabbatot, holidays and numerous other occasions when my family would go to temple. MY dad served as synagogue president; I served as president of our junior youth group and I also taught music in our all-volunteer religious school for several years. Today, I especially remember Yom Kippur forty years ago.  I actually was not at my own synagogue that morning for I had been invited to come help lead the music at another synagogue during the alternative morning service.  I remember the rabbi coming in to stop the service to tell us that war had broken in Israel.  I could not wait to return that afternoon to my own congregational family.  As I walked through the door I found a hastily set up bridge behind which my dad sat, soliciting donations and pledges to help support Israel.  It was a scary time and it felt good to be in my synagogue home. It was as if I had a second family, and a second home. I loved it.

I suppose that in some ways, I have spent the past thirty plus years of my life trying to re-create and share that feeling in the various communities I have had the privilege to serve as a rabbi.  To be sure, times have changed since those days – mostly the 1960s and early 70s, and people’s lives have changed. The synagogue and Jewish life have also changed and continue to change today.  As Jo-Ann shared with you last night, it was quite interesting this past spring when the members of our Visioning Team shared the thought pieces we had each written about our visions of Temple Shalom five years from now – the similarities were striking.  We took that as a sign that there is some common yearning that brings so many of us to this synagogue community.  We each have different needs, yet our interests, and desires, as well as our talents and gifts create a tapestry which nourishes each one of us.

One of the many books I read over the summer was Simon Sinek’s Start With Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action. A trained ethnographer and author, Sinek has held a life-long curiosity for “why people and organizations do the things they do.”  It sounded like good sabbatical type stuff, so I added it to my list. Sinek’s basic premise is that when we think about our lives, organizations, and institutions we often begin with “what” and “how” questions. However, based on scientific study and biology Sinek believes we are better off beginning with “Why.”  He writes, “By ‘why,’ I mean: What’s your purpose?  What’s your cause? What’s your belief? Why does your organization exist?  Why do you get out of bed in the morning? And why should anyone care?”  I spent a good bit of time this summer reflecting on Sinek’s questions – about my own life, the life of our congregation and the work of our visioning team.

What’s our purpose here at Temple Shalom? Jo-Ann told us last night that the answer is framed in our new Vision: “As a congregational family, Temple Shalom is committed to making each person feel welcome and at home.”  We aspire to be more than a random collection of people who happen to come to the same building for Jewish holidays, education and life cycle ceremonies.  We want to be a family, and we are committed to being as broad, diverse, inclusive and welcoming as we can be.

What’s our cause?  Again, from newly adopted Vision: Our objective is to build our community “in a personal way by getting to know each member of our community, one at a time, and in doing so help everyone find a place in Temple Shalom’s dynamic and supportive Jewish community.”  Everyone has, as it were, a hook on which to hang his or her lamp.  There are enough corners, nooks and crannies that everyone should feel welcome to find his or her comfort spot in the larger whole. However, we are also committed to working to enhance the ways in which each person can feel he or she is known, in a personal way. No one should feel lost in the crowd. Remember the old theme from Cheers: “Sometimes you want go where everybody knows your name.”

What’s our belief? While the strategies and technologies for living them have changed over the years, our values remain constant: “Lifelong Learning, Enriching Spirituality, Building Community, Repairing the World, Deepening our Relationship with Israel and Sustaining Jewish Continuity”

Why does our organization exist? We gather together to . . . “participate together in the religious, educational and communal life of our congregation as we live [our] values.” This was illustrated for me quite potently just a few days after Rosh Hashanah, when I received an email from a member of our congregation who had had a pulpit honor during one of the morning services.  He wrote: “When standing on the Bimah, holding the Torah and looking out on the congregation, I couldn’t help but feel like the bridge between Jews over the millennia.”  Bingo – that’s our shared commitment to Jewish Continuity right there.

The truth is, the questions that Simon Sinek poses in Start With Why and those with which our Visioning Group were challenged by our consultants from CJP, are not that different.  Friends, the Vision is but a place for us to start. The reality is that the continuation and success of the process rests in our collective hands, just as the lighting in that synagogue in that European village rested with each and every family in the community.

Since early summer, five days a week I receive a short email from Simon Sinek with a daily thought for inspiration.  Ironically, this past Monday, his message stated: “Stories are attempts to share our values and beliefs. Story telling is only worthwhile when it tells what we stand for, not [just] what we do.”  As Jo-Ann invited us last night, “Let’s share our stories.”  It’s the reason that for over four years, I have been issuing the invitation to coffee.  When he joined us three plus years ago, Rabbi Hirsch offered the same. I have heard incredible stories about your work; about the families; about some of the amazing projects and organization’s members of our community have created.  I know I speak for all of my colleagues when I say, we relish the opportunity to spend time with you one on one, to hear your story, your concerns, and to have the chance to get to know one another.  Our Vision team foresees our expanding this on a broader basis within our congregational family.

As our Vision Team members wrote those magazine articles about Temple Shalom five years hence, many of our articles made this place sound like Starbucks or the corner coffee house.  Indeed, we even have a dream to do just that – have a coffee house right here in our own Beyt Knesset – House of Gathering.  It’s interesting to me that when the Rabbis envisioned the synagogue’s role in the community after the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE, they conceived of three different functions – Beyt Tefillah – House of Prayer; Beyt Midrash – House of Study; and Beyt Knesset – House of Gathering.  In each case they referred to the synagogue as a Bayit – a home. In a sense, as I discussed last night, there are spaces for each of the five critical realms of our lives: Spiritual, Physical, Intellectual, Relational and Emotional.

Like the homes in which we each reside, in this Bayit, there are different rooms which we use for different purposes.  Each of us has our favorite spots in our homes.  We may also have rooms that we rarely enter.  It’s really no different in the Bayit we call the synagogue.  Most of the year, we each come for different reasons – some to pray, some to sing, some to eat, some to study, some to engage in acts of tikkun olam, some to simply be with the other members of the family. For some that place is on a softball diamond with the Shtarkers. But know this — there is a corner, nook or cranny for each person here.  As we embark on this New Year in earnest, our leadership – both lay and professional – invite you. Come explore a corner you’ve never stepped into.  Come be part of living the vision, and the values.

Just as times change, so does the way we live in our homes. This is especially true in synagogue life.  Like many congregations, we have struggled with helping people find their new niche when their earlier need is no longer present or compelling.  Ultimately, we are not so much looking at new programs, but rather at new ways for us to engage with one another, learn one another’s stories and figure how we wish to live together in our Bayit. For some it will be to enter through the Beyt Midrash as they come to learn; for others it will be through the Beyt Tefillah as they enjoy being part of the community as it gathers for prayer.  For all of us, I pray it will be through the Beyt Knesset as we gather together to share our lives, and whatever we can that might enrich our lives.

Jo-Ann referenced Ron Wolfson’s book Relational Judaism last night. Ron writes: “I learned to love being Jewish through relationships. My Jewish self was shaped by my relationships with family, with friends, with Jewish texts and ritual, with synagogue and community, with Jewish peoplehood, with Israel, with social justice work, and with God.”  That is also the key to what I remember about my childhood synagogue – and it’s what I want our children and grandchildren to remember decades from now.

As Ron Wolfson reminds us: “Judaism in its very essence is a relational religion, born of a covenant between God and the people Israel, sustained for millennia by a system of behaving, belonging, and believing that grows and evolves through time and space. But Judaism is even more than a religion. It is a people, a community of communities, a culture, a language, a history, a land, a civilization, a technology, a path to shape a life of meaning and purpose, belonging and blessing.” He writes, “After more than forty years of living and teaching the Jewish way, I have come to an understanding about the essence of Judaism: It’s all about relationships.”

Friends, it starts with relationships – and that’s going to be an important theme for us in this New Year. I pray this will be a sweet year, a year of health, and a year of blessings – and that all our lives may be enhanced by the ways in which we seed new relationships and nourish the older ones here in our Temple Shalom.

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