Live What You Prayby Rabbi Bruce E. Kahn, D.D.
Never before in my life have I faced such a preaching occasion. Not ever. This is my last major address to you on these Holy Days and for all the Holy Days to come. I am very aware that after this Yom Kippur, I will not see you all together again, at least not in my capacity as senior rabbi of Temple Shalom.
In smaller gatherings, I will of course be privileged to spend a lot of time with you through the year, as we have done for more than twenty years. We will celebrate a great many and variety of simchas together. I will also try to help you through the pain that is to come when grief, illness and other terrible trials afflict you. We will learn together and worship together and pursue tikkun olam together. Side by side we will laugh. Face to face we will cry. As the whole panoply of lifes sacred and mundane moments unfold, we will be together, but in fewer numbers than is the case here and now. We shall not pass this way ever again, not as we are on this Holy Day. Therefore, it has been quite challenging to decide just what to say to you. In this final address, just what shall I put in the record?
When, as senior rabbi, I officiate at my very last Friday night service in this sanctuary, on June 29, 2001, I will preach words of thanksgiving. I will speak of my enormous debts to my family, especially to Toby, debts to the members of the staff and my debts to lay leadership and most of all to you.
But tonight, I feel compelled to address how far we have come together in the last twenty years and what I believe to be the most necessary steps this congregational family should take in the decades ahead.
Changes in 20 Years
Let me begin with a revealing look at our practices. When I arrived at Temple Shalom we did not chant vahavta, avot let alone avot vimahot, gvurot or shu noteh shamayim. Nor did we chant or sing a host of other Hebrew prayers and songs that now uplift our worship experience. Almost never did a bat mitzvah wear a tallit and no tallitot were worn by girls when they were confirmed. There was no Saturday morning Torah study and no weekly minyan. Few males donned a kipah and tallit at any service, other than bar mitzvah youngsters who did so only on the days of their respective ceremonies. We had no hakafah, no carrying of the Scroll around the sanctuary on Friday nights when we read Torah, and we never sang a mishebeirach prayer for those upon beds of illness. We had yet to discover the importance of offering services for tots and the start of our Social Concerns Shabbatot had yet to be reached. Our first Tashlich service was years away and no neighborhood Sukkot programming had been introduced. At Simchat Torah celebrations we did not gather according to the months in which we were born, under a huge tallit so that everyone might be called forward for an aliyah.
The bnei mitzvah madrichim program had not yet been conceived. There was no guide book for bnei mitzvah families to follow, nor did any packets yet exist to coach congregants through the preparation of baby-naming or brit milah services, marriage ceremonies, conversions or unveilings. Rarely did a Jew by choice, choose to go to mikveh as part of ones conversion procedure. No Womens Seder had been imagined, let alone implemented here. We possessed not even one kosher Torah scroll, and in the Gift Shop there were no kosher kelafim, inscribed pieces of parchment for placement in your mezuzot at home. In 1980, no egalitarian influence had yet altered a single word of our liturgy.
Twenty years ago, we did not separate tenth grade graduation and confirmation, and there was no such thing as youngsters taking a confirmation vow period, let alone doing so in the overpowering manner in which such vows are made at Temple Shalom today. Just a handful of congregants kept kosher then or practiced vegetarianism on Jewish moral and ritual grounds. The congregation had not yet formulated or voted on a set of welcoming rules that would clarify the role of the cherished non-Jewish members within the Temple family. Neither had we established the rules of the road for what we ought to do and ought not to do in the name of the congregation on the Sabbaths and Festivals.
Our ritual life has matured and prospered over the years, often through the creative and passionate efforts of other staff members and congregants who it was my privilege to support. Why did it all happen? I think the answer begins with the determination made by Reform Jews, by you, that we would no longer rigidly avoid traditional practices in order to demonstrate Reforms opposition to the habits of the Orthodox Jewish world from which we separated so enthusiastically at the start of the 19th century.
A change had occurred. We were becoming more comfortable as Reform Jews. We began to focus on making informed choices that would enable us to better fulfill our ritual-emotional needs. We ceased worrying about whether these informed choices made us seem more or less similar to the Orthodox. And always we set about meeting our ritual requirements by touting an ever-growing commitment to gender sensitivity.
We have engaged here in quite a run on the ritual field of Reform Jewish life--quite a run. It will continue. Creativity and traditionalism will blend and must blend as the power of informed choice is implemented and prospers at Temple Shalom.
It is very important to mention in regard to all this change, that getting comfortable with Hebrew is now officially seen as basic to Reform Jewish practice. The call to do so appears twice in the new Pittsburgh Platform of Reform Judaism. This year my classmate Rabbi Eric Yoffie, a most popular and successful president of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, called upon all of our synagogues to set as a goal attaining 100 percent congregant literacy in Hebrew over the next ten years.
The lay leadership of our movement is wildly, and I mean wildly, enthusiastic about meeting this challenge. Already at Temple Shalom, JoHanna Potts taught our first one day Hebrew immersion program that produced exciting results and serves as a sign that we can indeed accomplish this great goal. Few, very few challenges have so captured the attention and desire of Reform Jews, as has Rabbi Yoffies call to reach Hebrew literacy for all.
I begin to giggle in silly ways at the very thought of how delicious is this possibility. My God, the doors that would open to us as Jews! The closeness we will feel to one another, the revelations that will rise out of our worship experience and our exploration of Torah! The joy and special identity that we will know when we have done it, bonding Jewishly through Hebrew with all the generations of our people who walked this earth before us and who shall come after us and with Jews all over the world today.
I think Shalom and our sister congregations will largely succeed with the Hebrew Literacy project, and I expect the excitement generated by the effort to capture all of us in the next few years. Let us rush to the lead in meeting this extraordinary and delightful challenge. Free yourselves Jewishly. Embrace Hebrew! Indulge in the discovery of it, the joy of it.
Shalom Rabbis and Educators
Permit me to take a still further look at how I have seen our synagogue, your synagogue progress. I began my ministry at Shalom attempting to bring shalom, to provide healing to a community that previously had been torn apart and was still bleeding profusely. For most here tonight those days seem rather remote. That pleases me greatly. We have come far since that time of darkness. For this is a special place and you are the reason it is so.
In September 1980, Darryl Crystal became the first member here to enroll at Reform Judaisms seminary, the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. He attained ordination from the College-Institute in 1985 and serves now as senior rabbi of a thousand family congregation in Syosset, New York. Let us understand that sending a member of ones Temple family to our seminary is a big deal. The total student body of HUC-JIR numbers only around 300. There are nearly 1,000 Reform congregations. So it means a lot to send someone to this school of graduate Reform Jewish education. Today, I am thrilled to emphasize that three daughters of Shalom are attending the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. Two of them are in the rabbinic program: Jennifer Clayman and Debra Wright. One studies in the educator program, Dena Kahn.
Next year, we may have a fourth member of Shalom at Hebrew Union College, four at one time, four out of 300, just from our congregation. And God willing, over the next five or six years, many more of our most magnificent youngsters may choose to answer Gods call to pursue a life of Jewish service as rabbis, cantors, educators, Jewish communal service professionals and scholars. Nothing could make us more proud than to see such sacred commitment flourish. Indeed all of us should do everything we possibly can to encourage such enthusiasm.
Jewish Education and Commitment
Through the mighty efforts of a host of individuals, we have developed at Shalom a strong and spirited educational environment. Bear in mind that in Reform synagogues, the national average of bnei mitzvah youngsters pursuing their Jewish education through the tenth grade average is about percent. At Shalom, year after year, 75 percent or more of our bnei mitzvah students complete studies through the tenth grade. And I believe that the only acceptable goal is for us to reach a 10 percent success rate.
Indeed at Shalom, we have built such enthusiasm among our youngsters for our educational experience that commonly between 80 and 95 percent of all confirmands attend our post confirmation class offering. They do so voluntarily! This year more than 30 juniors and seniors will enroll in the program, an almost unheard of success story in the American liberal Jewish community. The overwhelming majority of other Reform, Conservative and Reconstructionist synagogues throughout the country have no post confirmation class, let alone one that is attended as is ours.
I have been thrilled to be a part of this achievement. But the lions share of praise for our success in bringing kids from post bar/bat mitzvah through tenth grade, goes to you the parents. You are the heroes. You believed that bar/bat mitzvah is about Jewish commitment and affirmation, not about abdication. You made sure that your youngsters followed through on their promise to continue with their formal Jewish learning.
And credit for the success of our amazing post-con program goes to the kids themselves.
So hear me, parents of the younger members of our religious school community. Keep the faith! Keep the faith! The payoff is beyond your comprehension. Its benefits are immeasurable. Your kids lives will forever be positively influenced by the experience. Keep the faith and your children will some day come into your presence and with great expectancy say these famous, often hard to believe words: "Mom, Dad, have you registered me for post con yet?"
I want to emphasize tonight that in recent years Reform Jewry and we at Temple Shalom, have begun to figure something out.... again. Judaism is meant to be a way of life. It is not a ritual here, a ritual there, a service here or there, a class here or there, and a tzedakah gift here or there. Those things are all quite important, but Judaism is more than that. And when it comes to education, our goals are not passive. We are determined to do more than just teach some facts about Judaism. We are determined to teach children and adults to live their Judaism, to know Judaism as a way of life!
Judaism is to be lived. Judaism is meant to permeate our being every piece of it, to remain estranged from none of it. In the past we just didnt know enough and understand enough to make it so. We compartmentalized our faith. We are now on the verge of discovering again that Judaism is not a fragment of life, but a way of life.
God is everywhere with you. Our moral insights apply to every decision of conscience, on the job, at school, on the ball field, at home, everywhere. Our orientation to life sanctifies being, moment by moment.
Adult and Family Education
For the first time we have engaged a rabbi, Rabbi Gerry Serotta, my dear friend and classmate, to team up with our remarkable educator, JoHanna Potts and our dedicated adult education chair Dr. Jordin Cohen and many others of us, to envision and establish cutting edge family education programming here.
We are, as far as I know, the only congregation in America with a Dor l'Dor Committee. A group of staff members and congregants assembled to study, debate, plan and recommend for adoption by the Temple Shalom family, precisely what it is we want our children to know, understand, believe and do as Jews. The committee will determine how the entirety of the membership at the Temple may help to bring it all about, even if one does not have any children attending our school. This is a most exciting time to be a Jew and to be a part of our congregation. To have remained in the rabbinic saddle here long enough to witness the beginning of this transformation is both humbling and gratifying.
Imagine, being able to use your Jewishness with ease to figure life out and to succeed at doing so. Imagine using your Jewishness daily to face and resolve your troubles, to sense what is sacred and worth celebrating, and to extract the greatest satisfactions from existence. Do we not want that for our children? Do we not want that for ourselves?
It is beginning to happen, this spiritual and moral and ritual infusion is connecting deep inside, more fully than we have ever known.
In my first year serving Shalom I was often worried and left sad. We had members in the hospital with whom I could not spend sufficient time. There were not enough hours for me to provide what members required who were grieving over the loss of loved ones, especially when it came to helping children who had lost parents. We had members with emergencies that wreaked havoc upon their lives, and I desperately wanted to help ease their way, providing meals and other assistance. But there was no organized way to do so. These requirements for ministry were only growing as our membership grew.
I set about seeking solutions, in that first year and in each of many succeeding years. Nothing worked. I remember well in 1985 there was a day on which eight terrible crises afflicted member families: eight in one day. I was more distressed over what I was unable to do than pleased over whatever assistance was rendered.
Michelle Potter, now a physician at whose wedding I will soon officiate, but who then was a fifteen-year-old religious school student, looked in my face and had a sense of what was going on. She left a note on my desk: "Rabbi, I know it has been a tough couple of days. Hang in there. I love you, Michelle." I love her too, and fifteen years later that note remains on my desk. I must tell you that the eight-crisis-day of long ago made me commit once more to try and find a way to expand what is called the ministry of presence in congregational life. We simply had to do more to help one another!
In 1986 I was able to convene a group of like-minded folks to join me in a discussion about how to better meet the pastoral needs of our members. We held a brainstorming session in my study and created that day the Mitzvah Corps of Temple Shalom. It was named by one of our founders, Anne Goldberg and first chaired by Irene Rosenfeld. We would carefully train selected members to help me better address your most compelling needs. Beyond that we would call upon the entire congregation to accept the idea that here everyone would make it a high priority to go forth and care for one another. We would reschedule our calendars; we would happily reach out in an organized way so that we might come to each others aid. The motto we adopted was one day the benefactor, the next day the beneficiary, and so it has been from then to now.
The Mitzvah Corps was born in 1986 and in my mind every member of Shalom is a part of it. It is our internal Tsedek committee, our internal organized response to the exigencies of existence; our renewed, revitalized and most splendid Tsedek committee leads us toward a host of social justice successes in Greater Washington.
Over the years our membership grew, our staff grew and our building was renovated and enlarged thanks to your vision and generosity and thanks to the most remarkable efforts of Sue Weissel and Karen Lowe and all who worked with them. So much that is good and necessary has expanded here. An example: In 1980 there were but six youngsters in our only youth group, a senior youth group. In recent years we merged our youth groups with the religious school program. Today we have 400 members in five youth groups at Temple Shalom.
In 1980 we had not one member of the Temple on the regional or national boards of Reform Judaism. Today six members serve on the Middle Atlantic Council board and two from Shalom, Steve Sacks and Sandy Kamisar sit on the board of trustees of the Union of American Hebrew Congregation.
There are signs, signs everywhere in this congregation of our moving in the right direction. "Im tirtsu, ain zu agadah", said Herzl, "If you will it, it is no dream." I ask you to remember me in years to come as a rabbi who was a dreamer, with a nuts and bolts approach to making dreams come true. And remember me as a rabbi blessed with a congregation that not only tolerated his dreaming, but also joined with him to bring those dreams about. I call upon you to continue to dream and to also continue the nuts and bolts approach needed to fully realize your dreams for Shalom and for you.
Tonight, I wanted my message to you to focus on Temple Shalom, on what it is and what it might yet be, for your sake, for the sake of our children, for the sake of the Jewish people and for Gods sake. Yet, I am keenly aware that there are many other matters of critical importance on your minds in this hour.
Certainly, we are all intensely concerned with what is transpiring right now in Israel. When it comes to Israel, you and I have been through many crises together over the years, especially in 1982, with the War in Lebanon and the Sabra and Shetilla horror. We helped each other cope with the assassinations of Anwar Sadat and Yitzchak Rabin, may their memories be for a blessing. And we celebrated together many remarkable successes as well. We lived to see lasting peace between Israel and Egypt. We witnessed the first stages of Ethiopian Jewish rescue and aliyah to the Jewish State. We witnessed peace with Jordan and the start of peace talks with the Palestinians. One September day we even saw on television Yitzchak Rabin (z"l) and Yasir Arafat standing on the White House lawn and shaking hands. I ask that now, in the midst of this current and tragic crisis, let us remain impatient for peace but wise to the length of time that may be required to overcome the obstacles to achieving that peace.
The World Changes
And regarding Jews in other lands, how remarkable has been our experience over the years. You and I battled together against Soviet oppression of our people. We saw that vast nation fall as its citizens forced it to confront its sins as a repressive, brutal, totalitarian regime. "Shalach et Ami" we shouted, even in front of the Soviet Embassy. The police took us into custody, and I went to prison for twelve days. None of us thought then that fifteen years later we would see our children reading about the USSR, the Warsaw Pact, and the cold war only in history books. Who thought then that one would live to see Poland joining NATO, the Berlin Wall demolished and Germany reunited? We have together witnessed democracy taking hold all over the globe, including the miraculous peaceful transition to freedom in South Africa and in recent days in Yugoslavia.
Freedom is Gods will, safeguarding the dignity of each human being is Gods charge to us. As individuals and as nations, God calls us to face the disturbing fact that we condemn in others the faults we too often accept in ourselves. God commands us, our faith directs us to face this habitual flaw and respond rightly. It is not acceptable to emphasize the faults in others while glossing over what is wrong within us. Rather, let us face what must be faced and go forward to make peace with one another.
Atonement works and leads to redemption when both parties engage in it faithfully. Atonement leads to redemption when both parties, individuals or nations, engage in atonement faithfully.
That is what these Holy Days are about. That is their charge to us. It is a serious one. It is grand. It is real. It is awesome and it matters. This was so long before my arrival here and it shall remain so long after my time in this place and among you is done. The most important wisdom in life, in our faith, in our purpose for being, has not changed and it is unlikely to do so. What changes is our readiness and capacity to accept that wisdom and to engage it.
I like to think that over the past twenty plus years I have assisted in our doing so. I would like very much to think that in the next twenty years and beyond, you would do so even more successfully.
I want to conclude by asking a special blessing upon you. It captures I think a bit of what we have sought together over the years. I wrote it to be easy to remember. I would like you to do so, as you step toward your future with the next senior rabbi. The last four words are the most important really, so please listen most closely for them and take them with you this day.
May God be most gracious to you and bless you to live what you pray. Pay attention to what you pray. Then live what you pray and be blessed by doing so. Live what you pray. Amen.