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CRZ Needs You

Rosh Hashanah 5780
October 2019

Last year at the celebration of our Chai anniversary, we honored the 18 years we have been in this building and all that came before those 18 years:  the rabbis and staff, lay‑leaders, and community members that allowed for this synagogue to grow, survive, and thrive once again through multiple buildings as well as numerous disruptions to and innovations of Jewish life.

We had this celebration on the last night of Hanukkah because, like the Maccabees, we were not only reigniting our spiritual and guiding lights, but we also had to rededicate them.  And the purpose of that rededication was not symbolic, not to feel proud and to honor all that had been done back then.  No, it was a challenge:  Why should we keep this going.  And if answered in the affirmative, what must be done to keep those lights on and shining?

 At the Chai celebration I wanted you to feel pride, and I wanted you to be let into “The Room Where it Happens” by our speakers who built this building and its community.  And we all must understand that the second part of that event is unfolding in front us.  Who do we want to be?  Unlike most synagogues, we are growing, and that growth came from making difficult decisions, taking risks, and not being content with good or with behinds in the seats.  I want to share my vision and fully express that the vision cannot be realized without you sharing yours.  What is your vision for this community?

Here is what I want:  I want a synagogue where we can experiment.  That means we make mistakes.  That means we are flexible, nimble, and able to pivot.  We need to be reflecting thoughtfully the whole time in order to see whether a program or idea was successful or not.  We need to be able to improve in areas where we failed and to be bold enough to discard those aspects of traditional synagogue life that are no longer relevant or those we simply cannot deliver at a high level.

We have experimented with instrumental music, and now the Na'aseh V'Nishma as well as Kabbalat Shabbat services are core to who we are:  a community of learners that is moved and inspired by the uplifting nature that music brings to our rituals and that we can succumb to the power of joy.  Joy is not a word we often use or even associate with shul.  We should not fool ourselves into thinking that joy is not supposed to be felt here;  I assure you that it is.  Much in the building, whether traditional or something we have experimented with, has the power to overwhelm our previous experiences with Judaism and community.

The Jewish Enrichment Center, Minyan Katan and Family Minyan, our wonderful community retreat, and having our own in-house cocktails at kiddush lunch were all your creations; we would not be Rodfei Zedek without them.  This community begins and ends with your gifts.  Make it known if you have an idea about a volunteer opportunity or a program, a new prayer to introduce, or a pop-up meal—anything that would make this community stronger, more whole.

Let me pause to speak to and reflect upon an area we have experimented with, failing and succeeding:  Politics.  I was hired to lead and to teach what I know, and what I know is Torah—what was written in Our Books and how to find the Torah in ourselves.  I am not someone who naturally drifts towards political actions, nor am I someone who is comfortable in the murky waters of communal and political alliances.  Five years in I have learned that the Torah is political.  I know that all decisions, loud and silent, are political; and I do not want to be a part of an institution that exclusively sees the particularity of their identity.  We need to know that the words of our prophets, rabbis, and prayer books were always intended to be political.  Sometimes those are the politics we gravitate towards, and sometimes they are the politics we feel to be alienating,  But you only get a say if you lean in, if you engage thoughtfully enough to have your opinion not merely heard, but understood.  Menshlekeit and dialog may be absent from the realm of politics; but if they are absent within these walls, we lose what makes us sacred.

We have many different people here, and I think we genuinely yearn to embrace that diversity.  Yet that does not mean everyone will feel comfortable, and we have to understand that to be a good thing—little in life is gained from a position of comfort.  If coming to shul is solely about praying or schmoozing, then at some point you may be pushed beyond your comfort zone and for that, I am sorry.  But if being a part of Rodfei Zedek is about being a part of something significant, about being something like family, if it is about being a part of something that you are willing to be pushed into the difficult but essential space of productive discomfort, then you will be a part of something eternal.

I have no interest in sermonizing about the outrage of the day, nor will I ignore the only reason we have heightened security today and every day since the massacre at the Tree of Life Synagogue.  Anti‑Semitism is real and it will not go away.  But that, too, is not what I am here to sermonize on.  My job is not to write op‑eds, to manufacture a Jewish gloss on what happened last week here or in Israel, nor should the function of a sermon be to scare you.  I am here to help us better understand how to live as Jews.  Judaism is about living as a people nourished through the umbilical cord of our tradition yet birthed into a world that is not.  We all need to admit that there is more to learn, that we have to listen more to our tradition and to each other.  When we can broadly understand Torah, then we can use it as our guide through life; then and only then can we understand the world we are walking through, and I assure you that knows no political position.

I want a synagogue that does not simply value diversity, but mines it for all of the value it can bring.  We need to embrace diversity not as an issue of marketing but recognizing that diversity makes us better as people, as Jews and as a synagogue.  We cannot simply be proud that we have Jews by choice in our community, members who are not Jewish, or members whose backgrounds are not as common as those we are accustomed to seeing in a synagogue.  How can every member of this community be instilled with the confidence to recognize, “I matter and my opinion is wanted.”

We have many community members who chose to be Jewish.  This is not an issue merely to honor as unique but to recognize as an essential aspect of who we are and who we will be.  Diversity is not a value in and of itself; it is a value if we recognize that we become better by having more voices, more ideas, and more life experiences in order to better us and challenge us, complicate and enrich our community.  I want a synagogue that recognizes the inevitable-obvious-necessary-eternally blurred lines of religious and secular.  We need to know that it is a false binary.  My dear friend Rabbi Jess Minnen always said to me, “No one wakes up in the morning and says, ‘Today I am a secular Jew.’”  Likewise, as I have said before, neither I nor the tradition care if you believe in God or not.  If you do not, you can join an illustrious group of rabbis, philosophers and theologians who came before us and stayed.  But Judaism does cares about creating a certain kind of person, one who seeks meaning and yearns to leave the world a better place.  The tradition has a variety of tools to reach that ideal person, the person our history and texts were created to birth.  Yet it is only through engagement where you can unlock the manual that renders those tools useable.

I want a synagogue that is guided by tradition, that is tethered to the sacred works of our people and recognizes that what makes them sacred is our voice and our care, not our reverence.  Nowhere does Judaism ask us for blind adherence; it simply asks us to care, to tend to the maintenance of its ideas, sustaining their values and being on a quest for their on-going innovation.  Right here is a place where prayer is both fixed and fluid, where kiddush lunch is a mundane meal that yields sanctity when it is embraced as a sacred practice.  If I can be so immodest as to quote myself from last year, I would like you to remember that coming in time for lunch on shabbat is not showing up late, but embracing the Talmudic command of Just For Kiddush.

That is what I want, but above all else, what we need and the only reason to keep these lights on, the only reason to give of your time or money, is to be a community.  That’s it.  This vision is not sexy, but I think it is the only one that exists for a synagogue.  This building exists for each other.  I think, historically, that synagogues were only created for this reason:  a place to house the people who make community.  Synagogues were built to contain what cannot be held yet what we are all in need of possessing:  care, a place where we are known and where we can be seen for who we are.  That is why in 1874 a group immigrants laid down this synagogue’s cornerstone, and that is why you decided to build it again and why we now must add to that foundation once again.

The scrolls behind me, the books in your hands, and the shawls on your shoulders are nothing more than outgrowth and a best guess at how to properly maintain a covenant that was created between us.  They are our tradition’s physical attempts at manifesting the expression of our true needs, which are simply to be seen, to be heard, and most importantly to matter—literally to count.

Judaism may be able exist on a desert island, but the God of our traditions is not searching for that shipwreck.  Our God is the God of community, the one who breathes life into our simchas and our sadness.  Rodfei Zedek is here to be a support and to be an anchor in our lives, to be family when we don’t have one, to celebrate with you and to sit silently with you, to enjoy and to endure the uncertainties of life with you.

I want to thank you for inspiring me.  I hope you will continue to make this your home and to push us to go deeper, to know that community is not created through any shared practice or dogma but out of the need to count.  If this has not happened for you here, we need to work harder, and you need to trust that it will work for you.

Menahem Mendl of Kokst, The Koksker Rebbe, taught that all souls descend from heaven on a ladder, but once we get to earth God pulls that ladder up.  When we can still see that ladder, when it is not that far off the ground, we jump, trying to reach for it.  But then we get tired, and many stop trying to reach for it.  They give up and eventually neglect the fact that that ladder is still there, just beyond our ability to see.  Yet, some people keep leaping, struggling to keep that final rung in sight.  And the Koksker writes, that God loves leaping souls.

We are a community whose belief in each other outweighs any other belief.  Let’s, as a community, keep reaching.  Let’s leap for that ladder together.  Let’s be the community to prop each other up.  Then the divinity of a sacred community will be within our sights.

I pray that this year we can stand on each other’s shoulders reaching for a year of meaning, support, and joy.  May this community and each of us who makes it be blessed with a shanah tovah.

  Rabbi David Minkus

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