Kol Nidre 5768
September 21, 2007
Since we began the High Holidays looking at the relationship with our parents as our first leaders and our families of origin as our first community, this evening, the holiest night of the year, I’d like to explore how and why we gather together as a community.
For the last forty days, we have been reciting the 27th psalm every morning. It begins, “Adonai is my light and my safety, whom shall I fear?” It goes on to say, “One thing I ask of you, God, to dwell in Your house forever.”
How do you imagine this shelter? What does it look like? Is it a real place that has brought you comfort or is it a place of your invention? Do you see yourself at the shore of a body of water, in the mountains, in the desert, or in the home of a dear friend?
Perhaps you envision yourself alone, at one with the natural world. Your yearning may be for a shelter that allows you to quiet self-absorption and preoccupation, a place where you feel no fear, anger, or grief. Despite this longing, few of us want to be alone forever.
To live in God’s house is to live in a house where God wants to be, a place where we don’t feel alone but with others who are journeying to the same place. HaMakom means “the place” and it is one of God’s names. It is the place that strengthens us beyond solitary vulnerability.
When we envision ourselves as hermits, it is often by desperation rather than temperament. While our prayer may invite each of us to enter God’s sanctuary privately, we pray for this together. We gather as community to remember the biggest picture, that we are not the only ones struggling or in pain. Community reminds us that we join together for solace as well as celebration.
In 1996 I read a fascinating article in the Atlantic Monthly called “The Next Church.” It described the phenomenon of mega-churches that have attendance of 10,000 on a Sunday morning. These churches are plainly untraditional, with valet parking, cappuccino stands at the entrance, and soft rock spiritual music wafting out into the courtyard. In the courtyard are card tables of specific interest groups with volunteers offering all the ways a big place can become small. Singles, single parents, gays and lesbians, and social action committees encourage visitors to introduce themselves and meet others with common interests and concerns.
No organ music, stained glass, priestly robes, Sunday best clothes, nor elaborate steeples, are present at these churches in every part of the United States. Meanwhile, the conventional churches are languishing; half of the Protestant churches have fewer than 75 congregants. Despite great numbers in synagogues on the High Holidays, Jewish congregations continue to merge to compensate for dwindling numbers of members.
The Atlantic Monthly article goes on to say that new members go into a special class to deepen their spiritual experience. People say that they have moved from joining, to going, and finally to belonging in these congregations. The ministers say that because the government, family, workplace, and other communities are falling apart, people are looking to faith communities to hold the center. They come for fellowship and they get what they didn’t know they wanted-a life change.
Despite being in the service of the meta-physical, these institutions follow a business model developed by Peter Drucker, the high priest of management theory. They ask themselves constantly, “What is our business? Who is our customer? What does the customer value?”
Believe it or not, we have the same revolution occurring in Jewish community, and many are taking such questions seriously. Their business is to bring people closer to God through Judaism, their customer is spiritual but often non-religious, and the customer cares most about finding meaning to their lives.
The next synagogue, if you will, is challenging traditional American Judaism. For many of us, going into a huge sanctuary filled with well-dressed strangers and listening to minor key music in a foreign language isn’t satisfying. Some of us found connection to our essence in other faiths and have abandoned the synagogues with their building funds and coldness. Fortunately, some of us love Judaism so much we don’t believe that this is all the tradition has to offer.
Anyone going to New York has heard me suggest that they visit perhaps the most successfully attended Kabbalat Shabbat in the world at B’nai Jeshurun. 2000 Jews gather every Friday night, wearing everything from suits to rollerblades, and they sing, cry, and dance their hearts’ deepest desires. Most surprisingly, the assembled are not all Ashkenazic Jews but multi-racial people of all ages. Friendly greeters make eye contact and hand out prayer books with bulletins inside that announce not only services but opportunities to volunteer in a food bank, go to a gay Shabbat dinner, and study Kabbalah.
A child may be playing with transformers next to a grandparent singing spiritedly. The first twenty minutes of the hour-long service are sung not by a choir but by the congregation that either knows the prayers by heart, or they follow along in Hebrew or in transliteration.
For years other synagogues have looked enviously at BJ as a model. Is it the music, the rabbi, or the congregation, that makes it so popular? Much money and effort has gone into replicating BJ across the country, yet no one has been successful in capturing its appeal.
What we have seen, however, is a handful of communities that identify with the Jewish renewal movement started by Rabbi Zalman Schacter-Shalomi. Like BJ, their communities are full of magnificent music and charismatic rabbis who inspire a Judaism unlike anything known in the last generation.
What we are hungry for is to sit in a room not only as individuals sitting next to strangers, but as part of a community connected by an invisible web of history and promise. What the new communities offer is intimate connection with one another and with God. We too want more than joining, we want belonging.
What makes Jewish communities different from Christian congregations are two things. First, we cannot be Jews by ourselves. Our tradition believes that while none of us alone are worthy of saving, as members of an eternal commuity we will find salvation. Not by my merit but by the merit of our ancestors will we be saved from our individual shortcomings.
We need a minyan to recite certain prayers and to read Torah. When we study, we don’t pick up a book and read it alone. We have a partner, a chevruta, who helps us see more than we could by ourselves. Throughout our history we have created communities to embody an ideal of lovingkindness and fairness, and on Yom Kippur we lift one another with prayers that remind us that God gave birth to each of us. We are brothers and sisters.
Second, we cannot be Jews without memory. We are who we are by what we remember; each generation teaches the next. This has been our secret weapon against disconnection and despair. We pray to Eloheinu, our God today, and to Avoteinu, the God of our ancestors. When we name our children for our parents and grandparents they have never seen, we link them to those who taught us.
As Jews we have the challenge of reaching for direct encounter without losing hold of our tradition. Gardeners know that long roots produce long branches. Like the deep-rooted tree that sends its immense branches to the sky, our community roots itself in the memory of the creation of the world and the Jewish people. It is this collective memory that lifts us to heaven.
But we are more than memory and tradition. As community we create the world anew, looking for the Beloved One that is revealed in every generation. During the High Holy Days we ask to be written and sealed into the book of life. Each generation is a page of Torah, and we at HaMakom will write our sentence in this book by making our membership a community where each will find a family, a home that links us to past, present, and future.
When we began HaMakom five years ago, we came together for many reasons. We wanted to make friends. We wanted to return to the practice of our parents. Many of us live far from our families, and we felt disconnected living in an impersonal, transient world. We’d worked hard at being successful and found that all the glittering prizes haven’t satisfied us. We were still missing something.
We discovered that what we wanted was more than fellowship; we wanted meaning for our lives and connection to something transcendent. In Hebrew the word for this is devekut. It means cleaving. Physically, it is a definition for sex, and meta-physically it means being totally and intimately connected with the holiness of God that permeates and surrounds us. Devekut in community is a sense of unity among members.
Most of all, whether we realized it, we were hungry refuge, shelter from the noise, busyness, materialism, and negativity of the world. We needed a place to lay down angst and anger, or else why be a community? We wanted to build a place to help us cope, where we could be who we were born to be.
When we daven at HaMakom on Shabbat, we sit in a circle so we can see one another. We look in the eyes of one who has lost a parent, a spouse, or a child. We share in the joy of a new mother, a teenager who has just gotten a driver’s license, a widower who has found a new love.
Because we know that what works for one may not work for another, we endeavor to offer something for everyone: some are moved by song, others by silence. Some resonate to study, others to social action. Our tradition stands on three things: Torah, tefilah, and good deeds. We hope that we provide many ways to cleave.
Most of all, we are here to be God’s face to one another. For me, I see this face as the face of my grandparents, whose delight in my presence stays with me today.
Many of us distrust organized religion. When we hear about religious leaders who abuse the trust people have in them with financial or sexual abuses, or simply by lacking compassion, our faith is betrayed. At HaMakom we never have been accused of being organized. While some have been disappointed spiritually by holding perhaps unrealistic expectations of a very human rabbi and congregation, thank God, we haven’t been corrupted by excessive power. Maybe there is salvation in smallness. We don’t have a building fund, we have minimal salaries for those who professionally serve the community, and we never turn anyone away because they can’t afford membership.
The big communities that are successful have learned how to make themselves small by creating many communities within. HaMakom has become what may be a model of another kind of Jewish experience. We are a marriage of the chavurah, the original small community that began in the late sixties in reaction to the impersonal synagogue where its members led themselves. We chose to have professional leadership that depends upon a laity that has made the effort to learn how to lead the community. When we began most of us didn’t know which way to open a prayer book. Today we have fifteen adult B’nai Mitzvah, and I am proud to follow prayer leaders and Torah leaders at our services.
Most importantly, we are learning how to be better people through our ancient technology that makes us more conscious of how we behave with one another, the world, and God. We remind each other not to measure success by numbers but by witnessing each other’s emotional and spiritual growth. Ask Jay Zeiger and Bill Lazar if they ever had the blessing of building a sukkah before five years ago.
We are married, single, gay, straight, old, young, poor, comfortable, learned, learning, mostly baby boomers, a few blessed children, and a few exalted elders. What we have in common is a yearning for devekut and a pride in the community we’ve built. Behavior is contagious, and when one reveals his heart, others gain courage to reveal theirs. In HaMakom we drop the veil that separates us, and in our connection we know God.
Look around the room. I have the honor of knowing most of you. Pour out your heart to God without fear. You’re in holy company. Everyone here will be grateful for your honesty, and you’ll encourage your neighbor to do the same. All this is not an merely exercise in making us a better community or better Jews. God is global and so are we. HaMakom exists not only for you and me, but for a world that needs a few more kind people. Thanks for being here and making the world a better place.