Showing Up For Holy Community©

Rosh Hashanah Day 1
September 30, 2019 - 1st of Tishrei 5780
Showing Up For Holy Community©
by Rabbi David Baum, Congregation Shaarei Kodesh

As Floridians during hurricane season when a storm is approaching, we often have a dilemma - for some of us, it is, will the chips and cookies that we bought to survive last until the actual storm hits?

After the hurricane leaves, and assuming there is no damage, we have to figure out, how long do we keep the shutters up?

The thought process goes like this - if I leave the shutters up, I’ll be protected from the next storm which is bound to hit in a week, two weeks, or a month.  Leaving the shutters up gives us a sense of protection; we are ready for anything.  But, here’s the thing, leaving our shutters up is actually dangerous.  Every year, the county has to give a public service announcement on why keeping our shutters up is dangerous.  The main reason:  if there is a fire in the house, fire responders cannot get in to help, and people inside cannot escape.  The danger quickly turns from outside in, to the inside out.

In the Torah portion we read today, we see an interesting question that an angel asks Hagar.  As she runs away from Sarai, and she is on the road, an angel asks her, “where have you come from and where are you going?”  Hagar answers, “I am running away from my mistress Sarai.” The Malbim, a 19th century European Rabbi Biblical commentator who himself ran away from enemies due to his beliefs, even being imprisoned for them, states that Hagar had only one thought in mind, to get as far away as possible from the place that threatened her well-being and her future.

She had tunnel vision - her shutters were up.  She couldn’t answer the angel because she didn’t know where she was going.

Rosh Hashanah marks the end of one year, and the beginning of another year.  In this New Year, it seems we are running away from the unprecedented anti-Semitism of the last year in this country.  It is the elephant in the room that we struggle with.

On October 27, 2018, a holy space, Tree of Life Synagogue in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood of Pittsburgh, was attacked by a white nationalist leading to the deaths of eleven innocent souls whose only crime was that they were Jewish, and they showed up for Shabbat.

That same morning, in our synagogue, a family was heckled by a man who followed them in our parking lot screaming, ‘Heil Hitler’, and ‘Death to the Jews’, the same words used by the mass murderer in Pittsburgh.  I am grateful for our armed security which we have had for years now who greet our family with a warmly every week with a ‘Shabbat Shalom’ and who stepped in right away to protect the family.  When I started here at Shaarei Kodesh ten years ago, I could not imagine that we would have armed security every Shabbat.

When my wife and I took on our honeymoon in Europe, we visited many synagogues - in almost all of them, we had to call in advance because strangers could not just walk in.  I recall visiting a prominent congregation in New York City five years ago, and instead of being greeted by a friendly face and a shabbat shalom, I was greeted by an armed guard who asked me, in a loud harsh tone, “What are you doing here?”

This year shattered the illusion that we do not need shutters on our shuls - from Charlottesville, to Pittsburgh, to Poway we saw anti-Semitism on the right, and for years, Jewish college students on some campuses have been reluctant, some fearful, to be outwardly Jewish because of anti-Semitism on the left.  In Brooklyn we see Hassidic Jews being beaten up; in Minnesota we see a synagogue burned, and across the country, shuls defaced with swastikas.

It is not just the tropics that are heating up, but also the temperature of our country.  Our instinctive reaction is probably the way we feel after a hurricane - leave the shutters up because you know another one is probably coming.  But if we leave them up, we also put ourselves in danger.

So here’s my solution:  In a year where it did not seem safe to be a Jew in the open, I am doubling down on the oldest continuously running Jewish institution in our history, that many are saying is in danger of dying:  the Synagogue.

So I return to the question the angel asked Hagar, a question she doesn’t answer- where are you going?  This is the question we must answer this year, not what we are running away from, but what where we are going this year and how we must look forward with hope and opportunity.

In a year when synagogues were attacked, when every bone in our body tells us to stay home, I’m going to show up for our holy community.

In a time when we are tempted to only care about ourselves, I want us to open our hearts and care about others.

This is not the first time that we as Jews have been tempted to shutter ourselves inward.  The Holy Temple in Jerusalem was the center of our people’s lives, our collective heart.  It was in the Holy Temple where we experienced God in all of God’s glory.  It was only through the Temple that we could fully serve God through the sacrificial system, but this ended in the year 70 CE.  It seemed that all was lost, but our Sages of blessed memory, wisely looked back in order to move forward.  Rather than say that God’s presence was gone forever, they said it moved, and it became part of our lives wherever we went in the world, in our Batei Knesset, or shuls otherwise known as synagogues.

The Hebrew term for synagogue is Beit Knesset, but it doesn’t mean a place of prayer, it means a place of gathering.  The rabbis modeled our Batei Knesset from the ashes of the Holy Temple.  When we prayed, we faced toward Jerusalem, to the Holy Temple.

After the first Temple was destroyed, and our people were exiled to Babylonia, they built a synagogue, and the foundation stone they used was from the Holy Temple that was destroyed.

But our Batei Knesset, our places of holy gathering, have gone through some serious tests.  In 1096, Pope Urban II decreed that knights would reconquer Jerusalem and the Holy Land, but this crusade led to what was called the “People’s Crusade” led by a man named Peter the Hermit.  As the soldiers marched, so too did mobs of peasants; a roving city marched with them.  On their way toward fighting the Muslims, the main course, they feasted on an appetizer, murdering thousands upon thousands of defenseless Jewish men, women, and children in France and Germany.  Peter the Hermit lived up to his name; he wanted to make sure that Jews stayed in doors.  Much of the liturgy of the High Holidays, the themes of the unpredictable nature of life and death, were created during this dark time in our history.

Who shall live and who shall die,
Who shall reach the end of his days and who shall not,
Who shall have rest and who shall wander,
Who shall be at peace and who shall be pursued,

I cannot imagine what it felt like for parents during these years; sitting in their tiny shuttered up homes, praying that the horde would pass them by.  They connected to the story of the binding of Isaac:  why were they bound to the alter?  Was it a test of their faith, or a punishment?  The storm eventually passed, and their first inspiring act of defiance was to show up in community.  They kept their Batei Knessets full; they educated a new generation of Jews who would survive and become our ancestors.

We have survived Crusades, Pogroms, and even the Shoah/the Holocaust, but can we survive during the good times?

We live in a time, and in a city, where it is simply not cool to be part of a synagogue community.  The percentage of Jews who consider themselves affiliated with a synagogue brick and mortar synagogues is 10% and even if we expand this to synagogues without walls and Chabad, we get to a total of is a 20% (this includes those who purchase tickets for High Holiday services as well).

Why support a synagogue with membership or purchasing high holiday tickets when I can attend high holiday services in my County Club?

My friends, I am here to tell you something:  synagogues matter, maybe now more than ever.  

And Synagogues matter because we show up; not just for ourselves, but for others.

We are products of the societies we live in.  America is a market-based society - if someone pays money they want to know, what’s in it for me, what’s my ROI - return on investment.  All synagogues list the benefits of ‘membership’ - life cycle events for your family, education for you and your children, a place for you to pray, to socialize with other Jews, and more.  But that’s not exactly how synagogues work.  It’s not just what the synagogue does for us, but what we can do for those in our synagogues.

We are with our people during the good times, like a baby’s birth, a bar or bat mitzvah, a wedding, but also, during the times when we would rather shirk away.

This year, this congregation inspired me by showing up, and I want to share just one of those times.

The first example was the Shabbat after Tree of Life.  As I mentioned earlier, our synagogue also experienced an anti-Semitic act on that Shabbat, and although the two incidences were unconnected, the local news picked up on it and interviewed me.  In an instant, we were no longer the little shul in the gas station, but a place where people felt unsafe to pray.  That Shabbat, the American Jewish Committee, which is known as the State Department of the Jewish people for their incredible work in Jewish advocacy around the world, started an initiative:  Show Up For Shabbat.  I sent out a message to our community, but I honestly did not know who was going to show up.  Would people be scared?  Would they take the week off, or the month, or even the year?  As I walked up to shul, I saw a sight that brought a tear to my eye:  a full parking lot.  It was a high holiday crowd in November.  Together, we gathered, we prayed, we mourned, we sang, and we mustered the courage to smile and live a Judaism of joy.

Amongst the victims were the people who came early, and left late, three women and eight men, ages 54 to 97.  Two of the victims of the attacks were brothers, Cecil and David Rosenthal, ages 59 and 56. Cecil and David went to services at Tree of Life every Shabbat; they came early, and left late.  Cecil was considered the unofficial Mayor of Squirrel Hill.  The brothers were intellectually disabled adults who lived in the Acheiva house, a Jewish home for intellectually and physically disabled Jewish adults.  They would stand at the entrance of the sanctuary, giving out books to people who walked in, and offering them a handshake.  Jeffrey Solomon, a life long member of Tree of Life congregation said the following about the brothers:

“They’ve been fixtures there for as long as anyone can remember.  They were what we call ‘shomrim,’ people who guard the religion even for the rest of us who don’t go all the time.”

This summer, I was asked to present at a conference called Expanding the Canon at the Jewish Theological Seminary- together, we learned about Jews on the periphery, Jews of color, LGBT Jews, and Jews with disabilities, and how synagogues can and should embrace them.

I told the story of how Shaarei Kodesh began, in living rooms, and when the living rooms became too small to hold our households, we moved to the auditorium at JARC, a home for physically and intellectually disabled adults, on the Federation campus.

During our congregation’s time in the auditorium, the community welcomed the residents who wanted to attend services on Shabbat.  When our congregation merged with Congregation Beth Tikvah and moved to a different location, our storefront on Hampton Drive, some of the adults continued to attend services at our new location.

There were, of course, some challenges with the move.  Our congregants with intellectual and physical disabilities do not drive, and Uber isn’t an option, so we set up a rotation of congregants who picked up the residents of the facility and brought them to Shaarei Kodesh on a weekly basis.  Some of the residents wanted to take their involvement in our community a step further, so they became members, or as we call it, chaverim, partners, in our community.  As our programming increased, so did their trips to CSK, and with that, the rides.  It isn’t always easy to arrange the rides, but week after week, day after day, we brought our people from JARC to our shul.

One of our congregants who lived at JARC lost her mother last year, Susie.  Her brothers live out of town, but her family is here at Shaarei Kodesh.  I told the story of how we hold honors for Susie like opening the ark every week; how Susie celebrated her 60th birthday at our congregation by sponsoring the kiddish, and how we will be honoring Susie as our Kallah Torah on Simchat Torah, when she will be honored with the last aliyah of the year.

As I told the story, a colleague of mine started weeping.  I asked if everything was ok, and she answered:  “It’s better than ok.  I have two special needs children, and hearing that a special needs adult celebrated her 60th birthday with her community gave me hope that my children will find a shul like yours and celebrate their birthdays after I’m gone.”

She hopes her children will be the Shomrim of their synagogue one day, like Cecil and David of blessed memory, or our Susie.  The people who show up and because they show up, are the guardians of the light of the synagogue.

Our congregants show up for Susie so she can show up for us.

I’m a native of South Florida, but being a native is actually a pretty rare thing.  Boca Raton has a lot of Jews, but few are from here, in fact, Boca Raton can be called the sixth of the five towns of Long Island.  And when I talk to people from Brooklyn, Queens, and Long Island, I hear stories of all the Conservative and Reform synagogues that merged or have closed.  I was married at Congregation Beth David, and now it’s a BoneFish Grill!

Synagogues, may close, they may merge, they may even burn down, but they are never gone, and they are always our center, they are our hearts; that’s why anti-Semites attack them.

As Jews, we believe in Shalom. Shalom comes from the word Shalem which means whole. The whole things in our lives, and the brokenness that we carry with us are in our hearts; one cannot be separated from the other. I could not think of a better way to describe our tradition, and, our center - our Batei Knesset, our people’s heart.

Out of the unimaginable tragedies of the past year came the realization that our Batei Knesset, our synagogues, are much more than a place of worship. They are a space that transcend walls, extending to homes, and to public spaces.  The Tree of Life synagogue was uninhabitable because it was a crime scene - so a minyan developed outside on the streets, and on the next Shabbat, their congregation went to a sister congregation to join with them, the Rabbi of Tree of Life, Rabbi Jeffrey Meyers, giving the first sermon after the tragedy at Congregation Beth Shalom in Squirrel Hill.  And on that Shabbat, all synagogues became Tree of Life. 

I would like to end my words today with an old Jewish story:

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. At last he decided to build a synagogue. None of the local folk saw the plans for the building until it was finished. When the people entered for the first time they marveled at its beauty and detail. Then someone asked, “Where are the lamps? How will it be lighted?” The nobleman pointed to the brackets which were on every wall of the synagogue. Then he gave each family a lamp to bring with them every time they came to the synagogue. “Each time you are not here,” he said, “your place within the synagogue will be unlit. This will be a reminder that, whenever you fail to attend, especially when the community needs you, some part of God’s house will be dark.”

From the Holy Temple, to the synagogues France and Germany during the Crusades, to the shuls up north that merged or closed, to our own humble storefront on Hampton Drive - we are all connected, we are all one, and that is because of you.  Thank you for bringing your light with you today, thank you for sharing that light with others, and may we help brighten the world as a holy community together.

And thank you all for showing up, on this holy day, whether its a big holiday or Shabbat service, a birth, bar mitzvah, or shiva, or a social action project, or to prepare the kiddish; thank you for showing up.  Thank you for showing up for showing up for Cecil and David of blessed memory, and for Susie who comes every week because we are her family. Let’s make it our mission to continue to show up, to grab the torch from our ancestors so we can pass that light on to a next generation.


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