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Yom Kippur Morning 2006

Rabbi Mark Dov Shapiro

             The story is told of a Jew who dies and goes to heaven. He’s greeted there by an angel and told that before he enters, he has to present the bravest thing he has ever done.

             The Jew pauses and says. Well, once the sheriff in our town passed a terrible law forcing Jews to pay heavy taxes and other horrible things. When I heard about this, I walked right up to his home. I walked past the guards, through the entry, and right up to the sheriff. I told him that he had no business treating Jews like this. I told him that he had better watch out or he would be sorry. I told him that his plan was unacceptable.

             The angel listens to this story and says, “That’s a very impressive tale. Tell me, when did all this happen?” The Jew responds, “Around 3 minutes ago.”
             Sometimes the stakes for what you do are high. Sometimes you know it’s time to take a stand. And sometimes it’s not so clear or easy.

             Let me give you an illustration. Several years ago a Sinai couple came to see me. They wanted to speak about their daughter’s becoming a Bat Mitzvah, which was scheduled to take place in around ten months. Dad and mom expressed themselves in these words,

             “Our daughter’s Bat Mitzvah is coming soon, but we’re wondering if it makes sense for us to go through with it. We get her to Religious School regularly. She’s a pretty good student too. But we ourselves don’t do much that is Jewish. We don’t come to services. In the last few years, we haven’t attended the class Shabbat dinners or the family programs. We’re cultural Jews. We’re happy to be Jews, but we’re concerned that our family isn’t Jewish enough to go through with a Bat Mitzvah. We’re thinking that out of respect we should cancel the Bat Mitzvah. What do you think, Rabbi?”

             Not so clear and not so easy a question, is it?

             We talked for a while longer until the couple added more huge questions: “Rabbi, do you think we’re bad Jews?” and “Rabbi, are we the only people to feel this way? Has anyone else asked you about the integrity of their Jewish lives?”

             Dear Sinai Temple – This morning you have your assignment.

              What do you think I should have said to the couple? Better still, how would you respond if somebody brought these concerns to you?

              Should a Bat Mitzvah or Bar Mitzvah go ahead when the family is at loose ends Jewishly? Are they bad Jews? Should we at Sinai question their Jewish integrity?

             You know, only a few minutes ago we read the viddui/confession, and we began that section of the service with an extended silent confession. Did you read one of the paragraphs I did? I wonder how the couple I met would have read it. I wonder how you read it.

             The paragraph read as follows:

             “I have neglected my duties to my community. The Jewish people is only a remnant of what it was…It needs strength…Have I been a source of this strength? Have I enhanced its good name? Have I shared fully in its life? Have I even acquainted myself sufficiently with the history of my people and the teachings of my faith?”

             Very heavy language…somber and disturbing.

             Have I done my best? To paraphrase the congregants who visited me in my office, have I…have we…been good Jews?

              Let me try a response to these intimate questions by referring to the Temple’s new Mission Statement. As we adopted the Statement last June, it opened with these words: “Sinai Temple is a welcoming and inclusive Reform Congregation...”

              So what does that mean? How does it get us closer to a response on this matter of being a good or a bad Jew?

              I think the Mission Statement might be helpful if we highlight the two adjectives I just said aloud. “Sinai Temple is a welcoming and inclusive Reform Congregation...”

             What do we mean by calling ourselves “welcoming and inclusive?” For me, the words suggest that we are a place where the door is always open. We are a congregation that does not place obstacles before its congregants as they find their way in Jewish life. Our two primary prayer books are called “Gates of Prayer” and “Gates of Repentance” because we see ourselves as a synagogue where everyone should feel at home.

             “Welcoming and inclusive” – As a Reform congregation, we are not trying to make Jewish living easy, but we are trying to make it possible for all kinds of people in all kinds of different situations.

              It’s with this attitude in mind that the Reform movement has welcomed and included women as full participants in Judaism. We have made English a full part of our prayer books in order to open the service up to all. We work extra hard at Sinai to include our youngsters in everything we do and to welcome them as strongly as we can into the adult world via Pre-Confirmation and Confirmation.

              Being welcoming and inclusive means we are not in the business of judging. We meet Jews wherever they are.

              And that may be especially important because of where many adult Jews are in their lives. Years ago Leonard Fein wrote an article in Moment Magazine in which he suggested that adult Jews often suffer from what he called “fear of Judaism.” Fein said that although American Jews are highly educated and accomplished in many areas, they frequently know very little about Judaism. Since so many of them haven’t studied Judaism after age 13, Fein said they feel insecure inside the synagogue. In his words, they experience “fear of Judaism” – fear of being embarrassed by what they don’t know.

              And wouldn’t you know it. The mom from the couple I’m describing to you did mention how she had dropped out after her Bat Mitzvah. I never asked a thing about her background, but she volunteered what made her feel uneasy – even unworthy - around the Temple.

              What do we do with those feelings? It almost means that no matter what the Temple does people are still going to arrive here feeling troubled and/or ambivalent.

              In which case our stance of being “welcoming and inclusive” becomes all that much more important. We would never want to turn away that couple in my office. Our Sinai approach would be to welcome their questions and to offer to work with them so that they and their daughter can discover honest meaning in a Bat Mitzvah. They are “in,” not “out.”

              But here’s where the challenge emerges. If that couple in my office was honest and brave enough to share their worries with me, I think they would also know that Judaism isn’t whatever you feel you want it to be. They would know that Judaism does involve expectations or obligations.

              Listen to our own Mission Statement:

              “Sinai Temple is a welcoming and inclusive Reform Congregation where our members pursue a continuing journey of Jewish growth…We encourage participation in prayer, life-long Jewish learning, and social justice…”

             Now the rubber hits the road! Those words about Jewish growth, prayer, and learning must be the part the rabbi wrote!

              But they really aren’t. In fact, over 180 congregants got together in a variety of focus groups last Fall to describe their visions of Sinai, our Mission committee took notes of what these congregants actually said, collated the notes, and, only then, got together to create the mission statement out of what had been said by real members of Sinai.

              Here’s the best part. At the collating meeting, five members of the committee volunteered to take a crack at creating a draft Mission Statement. They sent their draft paragraphs to me via e-mail. I listed them all on one sheet and removed the author’s names so that every draft would be treated equally when the committee saw them. AND (just to see if any wording would suffice…just to see if there was going to be a unique Sinai slant that would justify creating a Sinai Mission Statement) I mixed 3 mission statements from other synagogues into the document.

              Guess what? When the committee of five read over what were now eight possible mission statements, they immediately rejected the three that were from other Temples. They didn’t fit. It became clear that the Mission Statement we were developing was going to be uniquely Sinai’s. Even my own draft wording wasn’t used. The text we have now was inspired fully by congregants.

             “Sinai Temple is a welcoming and inclusive Reform Congregation where our members pursue a continuing journey of Jewish growth…We encourage participation in prayer, life-long Jewish learning, and social justice…”

              Truthfully speaking, even though I didn’t write it, I like this text very much. But here’s a significant qualification. I don’t like it because I am watching how you or you or you as individuals are taking your journey of Jewish growth.

              That’s because I don’t take attendance at services or scholar in residence programs or school family programs or the Hebrew campaign we’re mounting this month. I know how busy everyone is. I know that everyone is shouldering through life as well as he or she can.

              As I said before, Sinai is not in the business of judging.

              But I would not be honest if I told you that whatever you do or don’t do as a Jew is fine. The Mission Statement can’t say that. You also know it can’t be so. It can’t work for our larger Jewish community or our synagogue.

              Doing whatever you want or don’t want to do can’t fly here because, as an institution, we have a larger purpose. We can’t serve just one family or one person; ultimately we serve the Jewish people and God. And if we’re to do that over the long haul (let’s say through to our 100th anniversary), we do need a critical mass of people (not necessarily you or you, but at least a significant number of people) who buy into Jewish growth, prayer, learning, and social justice.

              Just as individuals need to grow or else stagnate, a Temple needs to develop itself or slide backwards.

              Slowly, over time, as a community together (without specifying that it’s got to be you or you), we need to develop a culture in which we raise the bar: to do more, pray more, sing more, know more, act more, be more, observe more.

              And now I’m in major trouble because you’ve either stopped listening OR begun to feel guilty or angry OR you’ve begun to think this is sounding more like a Conservative congregation than Sinai Reform.

              Or, if you were that couple who wondered about their Jewish future, you might be concluding, “If he wants more, we’re lost. We’re not meant to be part of a synagogue.”

              But STOP.

              Don’t move. Take heart. You see, there is one more critical phrase in the Mission Statement that ties it all together. It’s the last seven words of the statement. Here’s how they fit:

             “Sinai Temple is a welcoming and inclusive Reform Congregation where our members pursue a continuing journey of Jewish growth…We encourage participation in prayer, life-long Jewish learning, and social justice within a joyful, creative, and compassionate community.”

              “…within a joyful, creative, and compassionate community.”

              The very best news is that Sinai Temple is not going away. We are literally here to stay. More than that, our style is here to stay, or should I say, I hope our style will grow to be worthy of the Mission Statement’s last seven words.

             “…within a joyful, creative, and compassionate community.”

              That is to say, even though I believe our community needs to grow, I can’t imagine ever leaving behind that word “joyful.” Coincidentally, I used that word last night, but there it was on the level of the individual. This morning I’m here to say being joyful is also part of our communal vision.

              For us, Judaism can’t be gray. It has to be orange, green, and violet. It has to be as vibrant as Yom Kippur, Simchat Torah, Purim, and Shabbat. Our task at Sinai with a light touch is to display the best of Judaism and to invite you in with an open heart and a gracious soul.

             “…within a joyful, creative, and compassionate community.”

              Creative – In one sense I believe that could be our middle name. Think of the innovations we have seen in only the last few years: Friday Night Live, Showcase Shabbat, the possibility of a new prayer book for our whole movement, and the fabulous social action projects of our anniversary: the playground at Washington School as well as the Swimathon at the JCC.

              I see us as a p lace constantly and joyfully in the process of reinventing ourselves.

             “…within a joyful, creative, and compassionate community.”

              Compassionate – while we do what we do, I hope our heart is always open. At a simple level that is why the Cantor and I stay in touch with so many of you through sickness, sadness, and joy. That is why we have also developed a full committee whose task consists of shaping a caring community in our midst.

              And speaking of caring or sensitivity, I want to address two particular populations in our community right now.

              First, a word to those of you who are baby boomers. I know that some of you who have finished educating your children here wonder whether you still need to be here. If you were to visit me, you wouldn’t ask about Bar Mitzvah. (You’re 10 or 20 years beyond that). You would ask what’s in this place for me.

              Here’s the beginning of my response to that crucial question.

              To a significant extent, what’s in this place for you as an adult is as much as you want there to be.

              Personally, I’d like to imagine there is nourishment for your soul here, nourishment for your mind, nourishment for your conscience (our social action programs), nourishment for your ideals, nourishment for your identity, nourishment for your sense of belonging, and nourishment for your sense of history, past, present, and future.

              Belonging here you’re building something that is larger than you or me alone can be.

              I know that is too short an answer, and I don’t mean to be glib. So help me. Engage me tomorrow or next week, and let’s be creative. What if we create a diary or a book of testimony about why Sinai does matter to you at your unique stage in life. Instead of closing this sermon, leave it open. Write me. Dialogue. Let’s write a book of belonging (pros, cons, and pros again) that will enrich us all.

              And while you are thinking what you might write, let me turn to a second group of congregants who may very well have been wondering if a mission statement about Jewish growth embraces them at all. I’m referring here to those of you in our midst who are not Jewish, but who are part of Sinai because, somewhere along the way, you happened to fall in love with a Jewish man or woman, and that decision changed your life.

              Please don’t be embarrassed or upset if I single you out.

              In considering who we are as a compassionate community, however, I think it’s important for the congregation to recognize how much you bring to us. It’s important for those of us who are Jewish not to take your participation in Sinai for granted.

              Back on Rosh Hashanah (during our second morning service) we honored the many congregants who have converted to Judaism. This morning we wholeheartedly honor those of you who understand yourselves differently and still help us build a Jewish future.

              As my colleague, Rabbi Janet Marder, would say, you carpool your children back and forth to Religious School. You learn to make kugel and try to like gefilte fish. You join your family at the Seder and may even be the one who sets the table and makes the evening beautiful. You come to services and hum along with the Hebrew melodies. Many of you have stood at Bar and Bat Mitzvah ceremonies and told your children how glad you are to see them grow up as Jews.

              Some of you have struggled with the generous decision you have made to be part of a Jewish family. Especially if you are parents, I know you have made sacrifices by sharing fully only part of who you are so that your children could affirm their identities as Jews.

              You walk a tightrope, and just in case, we haven’t ever said it, today in the midst of our joyful, creative, and compassionate community, I am pleased to say, “Thank you. Your love is part of the tapestry that makes our congregation holy.”


             Now what about that family back in my office. They are still wondering if their daughter should become a Bat Mitzvah and wondering too how they fit into the congregation as Jews.

              What do I tell them? What would you tell them?

              In the end, I know you won’t let them go and neither will I if I can help it. You see, according to Yiddish, there is inside every Jew – Das Pintele Yid – a point or a spark or a flame of Jewishness. Sometimes the flame is bright and clear; sometimes it’s barely apparent. But it is always there.

              Das Pintele Yid – a spark – a flame.

              On Yom Kippur, this great day of teshuvah/turning, I know our hearts are beating. I know we can fan the flame at Sinai.

              I just know all of us together can be the joyful, creative, and compassionate Jewish community we need to be. That can’t replace the real obligations of Jewish life: a continuing journey of Jewish growth, prayer, life-long learning, and social justice. In the long run, the Jewish values and ideals we all love only come out of our holidays, ceremonies, fabulous texts, and ethics.

              But if the flame is there, the rest can follow.

              Meet me half way.

              Bring me the flame and I’ll show you a treasury of Judaism that will light up your life.

              Bring me a spark and we can make Shabbat, Torah, and all things Jewish into the spice of your life.

              Stand at Sinai the way our ancestors did and we’ll forge a Judaism that has integrity and meaning for you and you and you.

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