Tag Archives: Community

Rabbi Allison Berry’s Inclusive Community Shabbat D’rash

February 5, rabbi_allison_berry_2011_web_medium_large2016

Inclusive Community Shabbat D’rash – Parashat Mishpatim  

Years ago, for many of us, instead of opening our hearts to prayer, Hebrew school had the effect of silencing our natural instinct to prayer. Now – I certainly hope this no longer applies – but for just a moment go with me on this one.

To illustrate, Rabbi Nahman of Bratslav tells the story of a simple shepherd, who every day would offer his personal prayer to God: “God, I love you so much, if you were here, I would give you half my sheep. If it was raining and you were cold, I would share my blanket.” One day a great rabbi was walking by the field, and he heard the shepherd praying. He ran up to him, and said, “Do you call that praying? Are you kidding? What would God do with your sheep? Of what use would a blanket be to God? Here, let me show you to pray properly before you further desecrate God’s holy name!” The rabbi then got out a siddur, and gave a brilliant lecture on the structure and meaning of the various prayers, and explained what to say when to the poor illiterate shepherd. As soon as the rabbi left, the shepherd sat there dumbfounded. He didn’t understand a word of it. But he knew the great rabbi was quite upset that his prayers were not proper. So he stopped praying.*

And, so sadly for many in our community, that’s where the story ends…Their prayers and essentially their voices are silenced. However, here in our community – there is more to this story…

A recent innovation in the Jewish world has been to designate February as Disability and Inclusion Awareness Month. The secular month of February was chosen in part because this is usually the time of year we read the powerful and profound message of this week’s Torah portion, Mishpatim from the book of Exodus. Among all the laws discussed in this portion, we are taught the mitzvah (commandment) of not taking advantage of the stranger, the widow and the orphan. As we read in Exodus:You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. You shall not mistreat any widow or orphan (Exodus 22:20-21).”

Our commentaries address the question of why God loves and singles out these three groups – the ger or stranger, ya-tom, orphan and the almanah – widow – in such a special way.  What unites these three kinds of people? Rabbi Loren Sykes teaches us: Based on the language of the commandment, we understand strangers, widows and orphans can easily be taken advantage of, be oppressed or be ignored.  You can imagine the conversation: “It is too expensive to care for these people, let someone else take care of them” or “We are really sorry but we are just not equipped to help” or “You are not welcome here.  Your child makes too many strange noises during services or during class.”

Of course the Torah’s call to not take advantage, to not oppress, to not ignore the stranger, the widow and the orphan resonates in today’s world. And in our modern context, we can extract the importance of caring for those who are particularly vulnerable.

And so, this month of February is a reminder to each of us: we can do more to include members of our community who are vulnerable; in particular those with special needs or disabilities; those whose prayers are uniquely their own. And in fact, it is the Torah’s imperative that we strive to make all who enter our community feel at home, welcomed and loved. And of course, this is the very foundation of our community and Temple Shalom’s vision.

However, our month of reflection and recognition should not only be a celebration of our intent. Let this evening also be a call to action. At Temple Shalom, our vision and values guide our understanding and the imperative of inclusion and there is much to do and much to celebrate.

Just this year, due to the generous support of members of our community, we welcomed Inclusion Coordinator, Emily Kieval to our education staff.

Our new Inclusive Community Task force has begun the process of creating a strategic plan so we can spread the word about great work happening in our community, as well envision ways we can grow. We will have the first draft of this plan ready soon and we hope many of you will participate in the process of making it reality.

We are proud of our deepening relationships with partner Jewish organizations such as Gateways, The Ruderman Synagogue Inclusion Project, Yachad and Synagogue Council as they, along with us, further the work of opening and then widening the doors – quite literally – of our community and its institutions.

Finally – a huge thank you to members of the Temple Shalom community and Inclusive Community Task Force. Your care, tireless effort and support have brought us to this moment. Your thoughtful plans including our (sadly canceled) dinner program celebrating our inclusive community are the result.  We recognize each of you for your contribution.

And so, remember the story of our shepherd and know his stifled prayer is not where our story ends. Instead, our story continues as we strive as a Jewish community to open our arms, minds and hearts.

In closing I share with you a blessing:  Baruch Ata Adonai, Eloheinu, Melech ha-olam, asher kidshanu bemitzvotav vetzivatnu lirdof tzedek, u’lichabed kol nefesh. Blessed are you, Our God, spirit of the universe, who makes us holy with your mitzvot (commandments) and commands us to pursue justice and to honor all people.

*This story, based on a Talmudic tale, can be found in the book, Days of Awe: Stories for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur by Eric Kimmel (Puffin, 1993). I only included half the story in the D’rash but this abridgment along with the second half of the story is found in Rabbi Barry Leff’s Rosh Hashanah sermon, 2003: http://www.jacksonsnyder.com/arc/Midrash/56.htm

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Changing My Place to Reinforce a Cherished Value

It’s an oft-used Hebrew idiom: M’shaneh makom, m’shaneh mazal, “Change your place and you’ll change your luck.” I’ve been pondering the phrase for several days now. A friend even used it in a conversation just this morning. A more literal translation of the Hebrew would suggest, “if you change your place, you change your mazal (meaning the astrological constellation under which you are situated. The words mazal tov we often to congratulate one another, are actually astrologically rooted.  Another time.)

My mind locked on this phrase in a most unexpected manner in recent days as I have been enjoying some vacation time. It’s not been a travel vacation but more of what folks call a “stay-cation.” Nonetheless, I sensed that even two days away from my usual surroundings might be a welcome diversion. On Sunday I packed up and headed out to spend two days in the Berkshires in Western, Mass. Some reading, perhaps a bit of study, and catch up on sleep. Maybe I’d even do some writing. Mostly, I thought that sitting in a different set of surroundings would allow me to more fully feel the sense of having vacated my usual haunts and habits.lee20mass20exit202

There was, however, one wrinkle: Sunday afternoon’s AFC Championship game between the New England Patriots and the Denver Broncos.  Where I was headed I would not have cable service (nor internet for that matter – a part of the allure.) The Berkshires may provide a quieter, and in many cases, more rural surrounding, but they are hardly cut off from the world. I’d scout the town of Lee for a restaurant or pub where I could catch Sunday’s game.  That turned out to be a relatively easy mission.  What I did not expect was an experience that would draw me right back to what my colleagues and I, both lay and professional, work at creating at Temple Shalom: a welcoming environment which exudes what is now often called “audacious” or “radical hospitality.”

frontwindowI parked my car in Lee with about 30 minutes until kick-off. I began scouting my options along Main Street of which there were several. I first walked into a relatively new Craft Beer and Whiskey Bar named “Moe’s Tavern” which was hidden around the back of the stores that front Lee’s main drag.  The place was mostly empty. One long table was partially occupied and a number of folks were seated at the bar. A server quickly greeted me and answered my questions. One gentleman, whom I’d soon learn was named Josh, offered to take me around to Main Street to check out their store front Craft Beer shop. He opened up the shuttered store, and offered gracious explanations of their wares I thanked him, suggesting I was going to walk around for a bit, indicating I might well return to Moe’s.

I walked down the store-lined street to another venue, a sports bar/restaurant.  Their obvious advantage was their full menu of food options. While Moe’s allows patrons to bring their own food, they only offer random bagged snacks for purchase. I’d missed lunch and was hungry. So, I stepped inside. The place was half empty. A second room offered larger TV options. It too, was only about half full.  There were quite a number of servers and a greeter present. I found myself standing awkwardly for an uncomfortable amount of time. Walking around, I spied a small table for two which was empty, with a “reserved for 1:00 pm” sign on top.  I asked a nearby waitress if I might sit as it was way past 1 pm.  I received a brusque answer and wandered back to the other side of the establishment in search of a menu and a table.  Asking if I might glance at a menu, I found the wait staff flustered at my request. I found a menu on my own.  In the meantime, no one had offered to seat me.  I quickly realized that game time was drawing near.  While Moe’s might not offer food for sale, I felt more drawn to returning to a place that graciously welcomed me than the one which offered more of what I sought, but which felt cold and unwelcoming. Moe’s it was. I spent a mostly delightful afternoon (leaving the outcome of the game aside. The Broncos deserved their win), in surroundings, and the quite pleasant company of complete strangers.

As the final seconds wound down I packed up my gear, disappointed by the Pats loss. I returned to my car with a sense that in spite of the outcome of the game, I had been blessed with a really powerful object lesson in that which I spend so many of my waking and working hours addressing: make people feel welcome; helping them see that we value their presence and that they have a place in our midst.

1431288989In a world which can so often seem impersonal and increasingly disconnected as we “connect” via our myriad technological devices, we all need relationships and personal engagement. Getting out of my usual box served to reinforce something I know so well, yet so easily could forget. Thank you Moe’s for reminding me of a very powerful and important piece of the work I do.  I will most certainly be back!

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Mazel Tov to Leah Sawyer!

Leah Sawyer, Wet Hair Moment

We share in joy with Leah Sawyer as we welcome her officially to the Jewish community! Today, Leah met with a beit din and immersed in the mikveh to complete her conversion process.

At services this evening, Leah will stand before our community as she recites Sh’ma holding onto our sacred Torah for the first time. We will also bestow upon her a Hebrew name.

What a milestone! In preparation for this day, Leah prepared a reflection on her Jewish journey:

Today I am choosing to become Jewish.  This is an important step for me – seven steps, actually, into the mikveh waters as a Gentile and seven steps back out as a new Jew – and a decision I do not take lightly.  After nearly two decades of thinking about the idea, and after 15 months of serious study and reflection, I am ready to become officially what I have come to feel inside, and to what I have been drawn for most of my life.

The question of “why Judaism?” is a hard one to answer – not because of a lack of compelling reasons, but because much of my motivation comes from somewhere deeper than logic.  Judaism just feels like the right fit for me, in an elemental way that defies description.

Growing up in a loving Irish Catholic family, my parents instilled strong values that included doing the right thing even at personal cost, prioritizing family and community, and the importance of kindness and generosity.  As I have grown in my life’s path, many of the specific tenets I believe in have changed, but those core values continue to guide me.  In Judaism, I find deep resonance with those values, and with new ones I have come to hold dear – inclusiveness, healing the world, feminism, and lifelong learning.  I still have many questions and expect I always will — in Judaism, I have found a structure in which I can wrestle with thorny topics and learn from others who are doing the same.  Most importantly, I have found an oasis of peace and calm in my life, a space of time in which I can recharge, and at the same time be challenged to be better and kinder.

My Jewish journey started in middle school, when I first read Chaim Potok’s The Chosen (and in short order, all of Potok’s other books) that gave me a window into a new world, and when our Christian Bible teacher Dr. D taught us ancient Israelite history and a smattering of basic Hebrew.  In college, as my once-ardent Catholic faith faltered, Dr. D’s statement that “next to Mandarin, Hebrew is the hardest language” was a spur to find a Hebrew tutor (difficult in deep rural Virginia) who introduced the aleph-bet, and to find a scholarship to study in Israel.

My six months in Israel taught me many things – that there are many kinds of hummus and they’re all delicious, Hebrew really IS incredibly difficult to learn, never to trust that an Israeli-organized “short easy” hike will be either short or easy, and that Israel is a deeply difficult and deeply beguiling country – but not so much about the actual religion of Judaism.  I learned that (at that time) most Israelis were culturally but not spiritually Jewish.

It was not until 2013, after a difficult period caused me to reexamine my life in many ways, that I began to think about Judaism more seriously.  At the time I was living with a roommate who had converted to Catholicism and taught high school theology.  Theological conversations with Andrea over red wine and pad Thai started me thinking again, after a long time of being closed spiritually.  I knew I couldn’t convert to Judaism, even with its lifelong pull, for a number of reasons… though in the end, none of those reasons stood up to debate or research.  I read Anita Diamante’s book Choosing A Jewish Life, my heart racing with excitement, and decided that this sounded right for me – I needed to know more.

After I contacted the Union of Reform Judaism and signed up for an intro to Judaism course, I started attending the local synagogue, Beth El Hebrew in Alexandria Virginia.  People were welcoming, but I struggled with feeling out-of-place, not knowing the melodies, and barely being able to sound out the Hebrew in the prayer book.  I kept coming every week and found a Hebrew tutor, and over several months I learned the melodies and came to feel less out-of-place, although I was still one of the youngest adults in the synagogue by several decades.

Following a sudden move to Boston for a new job, I was referred to Rabbi Neil Hirsch at Temple Shalom of Newton, who enthusiastically volunteered to shepherd me through the conversion process.  My first experience of Temple Shalom was Yom Kippur, which turned out to be hauntingly beautiful and meaningful in a way I hadn’t expected, as I reflected on the ways I wanted to change my life and myself in the coming year.  The evening Yom Kippur service was followed by a 20s and 30s break fast feast, where I met people my age, many of whom I have come to know well in the interim.

Since then, it’s been a whirlwind year of growth and learning — I’ve lit Shabbat candles in my home, attended services at Temple Shalom and Temple Beth Elohim of Wellesley, studied Torah on Shabbat mornings (especially savoring the footnotes in the women’s commentary Torah), studied Hebrew prayers (thanks to Liz Piper-Goldberg), burned “Thanksgivvukah” mashed potato latkes, taken the introduction to Judaism course in Wayland (thanks to Rabbis Neal Gold, Jen Gubitz, and Alana Alpert, among others), learned about the conversion process at Mayyim Hayyim (thanks to Rabbi Julie Zupan), and participated in the 10-week young adult Eser study class.  Most importantly, I have met regularly with Rabbi Hirsch, whose calm kindness and insightful analysis of complex issues I came to value, as we discussed my evolving thoughts and questions about Judaism, until I felt that I was ready to be adopted into Judaism.

The Mishkan T’filah prayerbook has many beautiful passages for reflection, including one that brings tears to my eyes every time we read or sing it:

Standing on the parted shore of history

We still believe what we were taught

Before ever we stood at Sinai’s foot;

That wherever we go, it is eternally Egypt

That there is a better place, a promised land;

That the winding way to that promise

Passes through the wilderness.

That there is no way to get from here to there

Except by joining hands, marching together.

Today I join a beautiful 4,000 year old tradition, one with built-in growth and deep complexity.  It’s where I belong, and I am honored to join hands and march together into a new future.

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Gaining Jewish Knowledge, Building Community

by Leah Sawyer

When I moved to Boston last fall, I was looking for community in the 20s/30s age range.  I was told by several people to check out Hebrew College’s Eser Program. In Hebrew, eser means ten, for the ten weeks it ranges and the “Top 10” topics discussed.  There were Eser groups meeting in homes located around Boston on different nights, and each was a guided discussion (moderated by a young rabbi in the same age range) on a Jewish topic (like Jews and tattoos, and gender and sexuality) – with the expectation that we would wander into non sequiturs and get to know each other along the way.  Our Thursday Newton group had just under 20 young people with a wide range of life experiences and a similarly wide range of knowledge of Judaism… and some amazing cooking abilities.  As someone with only a little background in Judaism, I learned a lot from both Rabbi Neil Hirsch and from the other folks in our group, and felt comfortable asking questions and sharing my own experiences.  Several times during the ten weeks, we met with other Eser groups in big combined events, so we could make connections outside our group.  Even though Eser is now officially over, we have a Shabbat barbeque planned. I am hoping to continue to make and deepen connections with people from my Eser cohort.  Eser is exactly what I was looking for, in searching for Jewish community in my age range in the Boston area.

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Telling Our Stories

This past Erev Shavuot, as part of our evening service, three members of our community shared their personal narratives with the congregation. The whole event was powerful. Adrienne Frechter, Lynda Schwartz, and Michael Epstein spoke about their lives in the Jewish community.

What the evening proved was that nothing is better than a good story. And, we had three of them.

You’re going to want to listen to these stories. They will move you. Take a listen or download the audio recording by clicking here.

We are grateful to Interfaith Connection, led by Susan Opdyke, for sponsoring and coordinating this program.

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Between Last Year and the Next

The writer Henry Ward Beecher once noted that “We should so live and labor in our time that what came to us as seed may go to the next generation as blossom, and what came to us as blossom may go to them as fruit. This is what we mean by progress.”

As Reform Jews, we know what it means to strive forward. The early Reformers made prayer and religious involvement relevant in the lives of those in their communities by evolving practices to be in line with their times. They introduced prayer in the vernacular, seeing that not everyone in the pews had a grasp of the Hebrew. They included women as members of the minyan. And they introduced the popular instruments of the time, beautifying the sacred music that was a part of the worship experience. As Leonard Fine entitled his study of Reform Judaism several decades ago, “Reform is a Verb…. The process of Reform is an ongoing, dynamic one, not a static process that has reformed and is finished becoming.”

With summer close by and with the anticipation of warm sun on our faces, we are looking back at this past year.  We see all that we have done as a community. This has been a year of evolution and reform for Temple Shalom, and it is quite remarkable.

This year was a year of change for the youth within our congregation. The year began with a celebration and the launch of MINCHA, our new 7th and 8th grade program. Each Tuesday throughout the year, our students have gathered together to build community with one another, and to learn and live the value of G’milut Chasadim, loving-kindness. Throughout the year, our students traveled to various organizations to volunteer and give back. When the students were here at the Temple, under the leadership of our Director of Youth Engagement, Ellie Goldman they were learning what it means to be a part of a sacred congregation, to be responsible to and for one another. With each week in MINCHA, we noticed a remarkable growing in how our young people treated one another. Respect and honor to one another were always present in a MINCHA session.

This coming year, we are looking forward to the launch of SHACHARIT, our new K-6 learning program, and MA’ARIV, our re-visioned High School initiative. Each, we hope, will be a new blossom in bloom for our congregation.

5774 was also a time to expand our horizons, and to better understand Jewish peoplehood and our own spiritual lives. 35 individuals within our congregation traveled to Cuba, to experience the Jewish community there. What they found was not only a beautiful country and fascinating chapter in the story of our Jewish people, but a reflection of our own story and a deeper understanding of our own Jewish journeys. 30 learners gathered this year to continue their studies through the Shalom Hartman Institute to explore the concept of the Tribes of Israel, and how they are still alive and well in Israeli and Diaspora life. 40 people tried out Shira Yoga–a new Shabbat yoga experience we piloted this Spring. With each of these different opportunities to engage in Jewish living, we found that we were enriched as a congregation, and we pray that each individual who participated experienced growth in themselves.

5774 will surely merge smoothly into 5775 with ongoing initiatives. Our Worship Task Force is hard at work examining how we worship and celebrate Shabbat and other sacred times together.  Shalom Y’all – our outreach efforts to 20s-30s has brought a growing number of young adults into relationship in and around Temple Shalom.  Bonim has expanded its Lunch With the Pros series, and our Sisterhood and Brotherhood continue to build community through a diverse range of activities. Our Family With Young Children Task Force has expanded our offerings and begun to reach out more broadly into the community around us.  Our Adult Learning Task Force is exploring new ways to draw more of us into the journey of Life-long Jewish Learning.  The coming year will see another Temple Shalom Trip to Israel in December and come next June, our first –ever Jewish Heritage Trip to Eastern Europe.  Put simply, this year, Temple Shalom has been a hub of activity.

On Kol Nidrei night, our President, Jo-Ann Suna, presented the new vision for our congregation. A team of leaders gathered this year to create and implement a new strategic plan for the congregation. The hope is to be personal, to be welcoming, to find new and different ways to engage in Jewish life.

As we look to 5775, we look forward to the evolutions and growth that is bound to happen on that front. The Jewish tradition has a concept of Shalshelet HaKabbalah, the sacred chain of transmission. We take Torah and pass it on to the next generation. In each generation, we determine how to make Torah for ourselves. We are in that process, and we are seeing that process take root. We have enjoyed seeing what has come from our evolutions and growth, and we cannot wait to see what blossoms next.

We wish you a relaxing and restorative summer.  We look forward to gathering to welcome not only the New Year, but one another as we continue to build on this year’s accomplishments and continue to go “from strength to strength.”

Sincrely,

Rabbi Eric Gurvis and Rabbi Neil Hirsch

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Musings on B’midbar

The following was delivered first as a sermon this past Shabbat, June 14, 2013.

Once, when living in Israel, I attended a lecture given by an American-born scholar who had made aliyah 30 years prior. He was in the middle of this amazing lecture, and we were hanging on every word, when suddenly he came up short. I do not remember what he was lecturing about, but as he was giving his talk in English, it was clear that he couldn’t come up with the word he was looking for. He thought for a minute, and asked in clear Hebrew, “How do you say…” and we all shouted out the English word he wanted. The scholar began to laugh and he said, “You see, you can live in Israel for 30 years, and your English never is what it was, and your Hebrew is never quite good enough.”

Put another way, this man was living an immigrant’s experience. Even as embedded in the Israeli culture as he was, he was still a step outside, he was still that stranger in a strange land, that ger b’tokham, that foreigner who dwells among them.

Ger anokhi ba-aretz, I am a stranger in the land (Psalm 119:19), the Psalmist states. This is an essential notion of Jewishness. Strangeness is an essential quality of our being Jewish. We are strange as we are set apart as a kehilah k’doshah, as a holy community. The Jewish people bear this mark of holiness, and by definition that sets us apart. The root of holiness brings us to the word hekdesh, to distinguish and designate. And perhaps it is this confluence of holiness and separate designation that defines us as strangers wandering through a strange land.

We wonder, why was it our destiny as the People of Israel to wander in the wilderness? Why are we as Jews made to feel separate, apart, different from others? Like one of the last single friends at a wedding, or like someone carrying scars on the inside that do not show to passersby on the outside, we end up back at an essential question: Why am I here on my own when everyone else seems to be settled in their place? This strangeness is uncomfortable, and yet, it is holy, as well.

It is a holy strangeness, because that wandering leads to the promised land. Out of the tension that exists in the wilderness, we learn and we develop, picking up the lessons and meaning that it offers. Yet, we cannot discount that the tension and the learning from a strange wilderness wandering is uncomfortable. Why have you brought us here, our Israelite forebears cry out to Moses and Aaron. Without water, without food, rambling along, the Israelites can only look back to the place from which they came, We would be better back in Egypt! Living in the narrows of bondage! At least there would be food, drink, a place to lay our heads. We would have some sense of surety.

Certainly Moses and Aaron would have loved some of that confidence their followers sought as well. Miriam, their sister, has just died, and the wells dry up. The people cry out in thirst, robbing Moses and Aaron of their cries of grief over their sister’s death.

Talk to the rock, God commands, and it will give water. But weak-of-tongue Moses could not talk; in his grief, he could only strike out. He struck the rock, and still water came forth, but God’s trust in him had been fractured. To be in a wilderness period of our lives, we may not be the best versions of ourselves. We are, after all, living in a moment of tension and separateness. Still, wilderness wanderings, strangeness in strange lands, lead to promised places. To be in that liminal space is, in fact, holy. After all, “You know the the very being of the stranger, as you were strangers in the Land of Egypt.” (Exodus 23:9). We are all somewhere between two languages, somewhere wandering between two lands, wanderers of our own sort, which opens us up to empathetic possibilities when we encounter others along that way.

I have a distinct memory of my first experience in which I learned the power of empathy. It was Yom Kippur. I must have been in middle school or early high school. Growing up in Houston, my congregation on Yom Kippur afternoon held what they called symposium. This was an afternoon program in which four congregants were invited to share their lives’ stories, especially around the topic of how the Jewish tradition had influenced their lives. It was an honor to be asked to give your story at symposium, and often it would draw a crowd equal to Kol Nidrei. The stories our friends and neighbors shared were powerful. Often, getting to tell their stories was a cathartic process for them, and it was an opportunity for those listening to see similarities reflected back. Symposium was the first time I saw my father cry.

This one year that I am remembering in particular, one of the speakers was Mrs. Klein. Mrs. Klein had been a teacher in my elementary school. She was the mean teacher; she was the difficult teacher; no student looked forward to having her. So, as a child growing up in that community, when I saw that Mrs. Klein was speaking at symposium, I doubted what she might have to offer our community. As she began to speak, I listened with curiosity. She spoke about her upbringing in a difficult family, losing her father at a young age, being raised by her mother alone, not having much money or access to nicer things, and feeling shame about being poor and Jewish, when it seemed an expectation that Jews be a success.

And then, she paused. She dug down deep, and segued into another part of her story. When Mrs. Klein was 11 years old her mother remarried. The two of them moved into her stepfather’s home. Shortly after that move, the physical abuse and sexual assault began. She was regularly victimized until she was 16, when she finally ran away from home. It took great strength for her to survive that home, even greater strength to survive after running away, and in her adult years, she struggled to overcome her isolation as a victim, she had embraced her status as other, her her status as a stranger among her community, she was someone who was wandering with scars that she could not show. Finally, she found comfort in confidence with her rabbi, and he directed her toward a support group. It was there that healing began. She came out of her shell more. She realized that her experience was not hers alone. She looked at the faces sitting around her in support group meetings, and she could say together with them, “You know the the very being of the stranger, as you were strangers in the Land of Egypt.” By invoking the very identity of strangeness, Mrs. Klein came to understand that she was included in a kehilah k’doshah. She encountered the other there, and discovered a new reality for her own life. By walking through that wilderness, and finding empathetic companions along the way, and by discovering the strength to take her private pain public, Mrs. Klein also encountered the healing embrace of community.

After this symposium, I reflected back to my mother, “Who knew?”

She replied, “You see, you never really know a person. You never really know what’s going on under the surface. That is why we should not be so quick to judgement.”

We all carry our stories with us. For some we love to share those stories and to receive them as well. And some remain private, secret, tucked away. Truly sometimes it can be painful and fearful to talk about some of those things. But in this congregational family, in our Jewish community, none of us have to be alone.

In a former congregation as a rabbinic intern, I was tasked to start up a listening campaign, similar to the house meetings and one-on-one conversations that Temple Shalom has done as part of Ani v’Atah over the years. I was asked to build a team of leaders who would go out and have coffee with thirty other congregants each, to talk, to hear and share stories, to understand each other’s motivations, passions, fears, and hopes. We ran a number of trainings to get the leaders ready. We divvied up the congregational mailing list, and the leaders began to make their invites. A few weeks later we had a follow up meeting. Of the 300 conversations or so that were supposed to take place, each leader had only been able to get one or two people to agree to sit down with them. We tried to understand why there was resistance within the congregation. One person at the table had the answer. She told about one invite she had made over the phone to which the other person had said, “Why would I sit down with you? You’re a total stranger.”

We had assumed that because of the shared connection through the synagogue, people would be willing to make time for one another. This wasn’t true. These individuals within the congregation were far from neighbors, even though they all lived blocks from one another. They were strangers to one another, and they were each on individual journeys. Evidently, good fences made great neighbors. At that point we saw the campaign we needed to run. We called it From Stranger to Neighbor, and its mission was apparent: We are all wanderers, and the joy of Jewish life is that we can travel together. Isolated and busy we may be, but if we care to, if we have a curiosity in others, if we seek companionship, then we as Jews can break down walls and offer partnership and connection to one another. After all, what is the central theme of Torah if it is not to love your neighbor as you, yourself are loved?

The core message of the Book of Numbers is one of holy strangeness in community. As we are each somewhere between two languages, somewhere between two lands, it is possible to find sanctity in the comfort of friends and family who surround us and who help to bring us closer to that promised land.

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