Welcome Homeby Cantor Lisa Levine
It was exactly a year ago that I got the call from my brother that my mom was in the hospital, for what would be the first of many times before her ultimate death in December. Each time I left my home to head back to my hometown of Bakersfield, I wondered. Am I heading home? Or am I heading away from home? Maybe it was a little of both.
We Jews have been searching for a home since the beginning. We read in this week’s Torah Portion that Adam and Eve were forced from their home, a beautiful garden, the only home they had known, to be banished forever where they labored on the land for the rest of their days. They had two children, and out of jealousy, Cain slew his brother Abel and was exiled from his home and forced to wander.
Later in Genesis, Abram was commanded by a voice he believed to be God's, to leave his home to become the father of a great nation. In the process of his journey he settled with Sarai in Canaan, then Egypt, then back in Canaan where his name was changed to Abraham and Sarai's to Sarah. Together, they became legendary hosts, welcoming stranger and friend alike into their tent for rest and refreshment.
Abraham’s great grandson Joseph was forced from home by his own step-brothers, sold into slavery and in his new home in Egypt, rose to prominence and ultimately wound up saving his whole family from famine. Then they called Egypt home for many generations until a new Pharaoh decided to enslave the Hebrew people!
Moses found this unacceptable, so we abandoned everything in a big hurry to follow him into the wilderness, only to wander 40 years in the Desert living in tent cities. In the process, we accepted the Torah and a set of rules and laws that molded us into a monotheistic religion called the Jewish people.
Finally, we settled in the land of Israel, which we really made our home. We built cities, towns, farms, home, Temples and were ruled by Kings.
Eventually, the Romans kicked us out of there and exiled us to Babylon, and from there to lands all over the region. Later after our expulsions from the various places like Spain, we settled in Europe and Arabic countries where we were eventually evicted from our homes yet again! Those who didn’t emigrate before WWII were sent to death camps to be murdered, our Arabic communities forced to flee.
Finally, we made our way back to Israel, fighting for the Promised Land we had been exiled from centuries before. We here in the United States of America have enjoyed a relatively stable and prosperous home life through all of this. Israel has remained our spiritual home, despite the fact that most of us still live in the Diaspora.
So where, exactly, is the model in Jewish history for home? If you use Jewish history as an example, then home is an elusive thing. Perhaps that's why Jews search for roots, for a welcoming place where our spiritual and communal needs take shape and bring us into some kind of permanence. It is our ancient collective memory of wandering and exile that compels us to find stability.
The Shtetl that my ancestors called home was the small village of Nezhin near Kiev in Russia. It was a place that operated pretty much all on its own. Nezhin had one synagogue, one butcher, one baker, one milk man, one shoe maker, one tailor and one Rabbi who was also the shochet (the ritual slaughterer), oh and yes, the Rabbi was also the mayor, Yaakov Bernstein, my great grandfather. I read the stories of Nezhin, written down by my Aunt Rebecca, the oldest of the 9 children, in a journal called Rivka’s tale. Later she told me how the family was forced to flee after a particularly bad pogrom, and went by wagon with all their belongings piled high, to a ship in Amsterdam that set sail for America. There were tears running down her face when she told me that when they saw the Statue of Liberty for the first time, they knew they were safe and felt they had arrived home. I do feel blessed that my family left the Shtetl in search of freedom. But it does make me wonder how they endured so much wandering, so much upheaval, so much change.
From an early age I was drawn out into the world, away from my home where I grew up in relative stability in one house for my entire childhood. Early on my parents sent me to a URJ Jewish summer sleep away camp. At first I thought they were trying to punish me. Later I would realize that camp experience was the greatest gift they ever gave me.
When I was 16 my parents sent me on a Kibbutz Aliyah Desk program for 9 weeks where I really got to get away from home. This time I knew they were doing something that would change the course of my life, and indeed, it did. During college I attended the EAP Program and spent an entire year in Israel. After college, I decided to apply to Cantorial school and left California altogether to make New York my home. Little did I know that on the East Coast, I would become reacquainted with my mother’s family there and spend a lot of time with the Matriarch of our family, Rebecca herself. In her thick Yiddish accent she recounted tale after tale of the shtetl and the home they had left behind for America. She insisted that the worst day here was better than the best day there.
After grad school, I uprooted myself in an effort to get closer to California and ended up half way, in Dallas, Texas. There I met Andy, had Emily and Louis, and we began to build a family of our own. From then on, home was wherever they were. Ironically, we moved three more times, to Des Moines, Iowa, to Kansas City, Kansas and to Baltimore, Maryland, all for mycareer. This mobility brought us closer as a family and ultimately gave our children the tools of independence and flexibility that have served them well. This makes me believe that all the traveling and moving our ancestors did is the very reason our people has survived. We were forced to cope with change and it brought us closer to our ideals and our family units.
Today, my kids are leaving home and making their own nests. This makes me crazy for a variety of reasons. I think back on my history, and know they may never live close to me again. I'm not sure that's the way life is supposed to be. I regret now, not staying closer to my parents while they were alive. Being together for weddings, Bar Mitzvahs and Anniversaries just doesn't seem like enough to me now. I know it won't be enough for me when I have grand kids. Not that that is happening any time soon!
So, where is home? Well, for all of my life, my synagogue has been my home away from home. My Shtetl. My earliest memories are of sitting with my parents at services hearing the boom of the Rabbi’s voice and getting chills from the soloist’s high notes. The synagogue became a refuge and comfort to me when things at home got tense. It became a place to meet my friends, to sing in the choir, to bake for the Oneg.
It was a place where I felt comfortable, like I belonged. I think that really is why I became a Jewish professional. So that while I was far away from my home I would always have a place to anchor me, to ground me and to remind me of my childhood so sheltered and protective, wrapped in the cocoon of synagogue life.
This week I was reading “10 Minutes of Torah” from WRJ, the Women of Reform Judaism’s website coincidentally titled: Hachanasat Orchim, welcoming the stranger. The story is told by Katie Roeper, a non-Jew who, with her husband, finally decided they should raise their kids Jewish. On the first day of Religious school she went into the Rabbi's office and asked him if she could attend Religious school as well. The rabbi politely told her no, but suggested a few books to read. She then attended her first Sisterhood breakfast, where she was mortified when the President asked everyone to share their first Jewish memory. As the women went around the table and one by one told their memories of baking challah, frying latkes and holiday meals, all she could think of were the Easter and Christmas dinners her mother had cooked! She was so embarrassed that she fled before her turn arrived go to collect her children from their classes. While she heard them tell their stories of how many friends they made and how much they loved their teachers, she felt a tap on her shoulder. She turned around to find the sisterhood President who put her hand on her arm and said: “I just wanted to be sure to catch you and let you know how happy we are that you were with us today. We would love for you to join us again next Sunday when we all get together to bake for the Holidays.” Katie went on to say that she was speechless and couldn't believe she had been noticed, let alone singled out for an invitation to return! She did show up the following week to bake, then volunteered to help run the Chanukah Mart, then ran the Sisterhood Gift Shop! Through the model Women's Seder's she learned how to set a Seder table, bake macaroons, cook a brisket and how to light Shabbat candles. Eight years later, Katie was back in the Rabbi's office, after serving on virtually every Temple committee, this time asking how she could convert to Judaism. Thanks to the action of one person, a simple tap on the shoulder became the gateway to a whole new life.
We have many new members of all faiths and backgrounds who have joined Temple shalom in the past few months. Just this week I led a minyan service at the home of a new congregant who had suddenly lost her father right after Sukkot. Although they had just joined our Temple family we mobilized to provide meals, comfort and support for them in their time of need. When I called to make sure everything was okay before the minyan service, the response was overwhelming gratitude for everything we had done. I'm glad that this was not just a one-time occurrence, I’m proud to say this is just the way we roll at Temple Shalom. At least we try to, and if we are not, we should get busy! We should always be pulling together to care for one another in our times of need.
Over the years, I've had many congregational homes, but none have ever felt as real and as much like home as this home, Temple Shalom. I really do feel connected here, I care about the families and children and parents. I know I would love your pets too, if you were to bring them in. I love animals!
When I walk into this building I want everyone to feel welcome. I want everyone to feel the way I felt about my Temple when I was a child. Protected and nurtured, like you belong.
Now that I'm beginning my fifth year as the Cantor of Temple Shalom, I feel like I can legitimately treat everyone as though they were walking into my own home. Whether you are visiting for the first time or come here every day, we should all be saying “welcome home.”
My prayer for this Shabbat is that Temple Shalom remain a place where everyone, no matter where they are in their personal journey, no matter what age, level of observance, ethnicity or background, feels at home. In our ever-changing fast paced world, everyone needs a place where they are accepted unconditionally and where, no matter where they are headed, they can always find their way back.
That's why I know, every time I headed away from here, that I would have a place to come back to, and that meant I was okay. My family would be around me and say: “Welcome Home.”