|“Abe ran into Moishe one afternoon. "Moishe, what's new?"
"Oh, I'm into racehorses at the moment. I have a couple of real winners and have won a lot of money already."
"How can I get into it Moishe?"
"Well, in fact I do have a horse I'm looking to sell. In twenty-four starts it has won nine. I'll let you have it for $120,000."
“Done,” said Abe and gave Moishe a check for $120,000.
Three days later, Abe was excitedly waiting at the front gate for his horse to arrive. The horse van pulled up, and inside was a dead racehorse. A month passes and Abe runs into Moishe, who has obviously been avoiding him all these weeks.
"Moishe, what's new?" asks Abe.
"Umm, things are well, and with you?"
"Things are great!” said Abe.
"Abe, you're not upset I sold you a dead racehorse?"
"Not at all Moishe. In fact, it made me a lot of money."
"How is that? It was dead!"
“Well,” replied Abe. "I had a raffle. I sold 100,000 tickets at $5 a ticket with the horse as the prize."
"Wasn't the winner upset that he won a dead racehorse?"
Abe shrugs, "So, I gave him back his $5!"
Now that is what we mean by the Jewish expression, a “yiddishe kup!” It’s generally a compliment that one Jew gives to another as praise for cleverness or wisdom (although usually not with larceny in mind). I thought of it because I heard that expression several times over the summer – particularly by older Jews when speaking about Vice President Al Gore. They were either saying he has a “yiddishe kup,” for picking Joe Lieberman as his running mate, or he needed a yiddishe kup, so he picked Joe Lieberman as his running mate!
Either way, the next day the front page of the New York Post read: IT’S A MIRACLE, and Joe Lieberman suddenly became the most famous Jew in America. But Lieberman’s nomination isn’t a miracle. It reflects a reality that has emerged perhaps so slowly, so steadily over the past 50 years that we Jews might have been the last to really notice. For it seems as if we were collectively caught off guard. As if we hadn’t quite gotten how totally integrated, affluent and influential we have become in America. I suppose this unprecedented moment in Jewish history could hardly have been imagined by our parents and grand parents 50 years ago the year Kehillat Israel was born, as they struggled to cope with the aftermath of the holocaust and come to grips with the straggling remnants of Hitler’s nightmare.
And yet after the shock and euphoria of Lieberman’s barrier-shattering nomination ebbs, we look around the American social landscape and realize that the evidence of our full arrival in American life has been everywhere. In business, the media, the arts, medicine, science, academia, the justice system and every level of local, state and national politics.
What made this nomination truly remarkable, is that Lieberman was picked because as a publicly practicing Jew, he represented an embodiment of the spiritual and religious values that our country seems to feel it so badly needs. Now that is something both to take pride in and to live up to. What people have responded to is their craving for integrity, their hunger for authentic spiritual values, their unquenchable thirst for a life of purpose that nourishes their souls. With Lieberman’s nomination, it was as if the eyes of all America suddenly turned to each and every one of us with the unspoken question – what values can a practicing Jew bring to the arena of public life that might make a difference in the quality of our lives in these opening years of 21st century America?
And as we celebrate 50 years of Kehillat Israel this year, we are challenged to ask ourselves that very same question. How does being part of a synagogue and participating in Jewish life today make any difference in how we experience meaning in our personal lives and the lives of our children? And does it really matter whether or not Kehillat Israel is here for the next 50 years?
I spent four months on sabbatical this year away from our congregation and community. Didi and I visited nine countries and I read forty-five books. And I had a lot of time to think about what gives meaning to my life, and how some of the lessons I learned on this personal spiritual journey might reveal something useful about the spiritual direction toward which I want to lead Kehillat Israel as well.
I learned from small children in Amboseli, Kenya, in a tiny village with huts made of mud and straw and dung, that happiness is not a function of what you have, but of who you have. Having someone in your life that makes you feel loved, important, valuable transcends physical things. These kids were worse than dirt poor – they were dung poor. But they smiled, they laughed, they played in the dirt with joy as Didi sang them silly songs incorporating their hard-to-pronounce Maasai names. Squealing with delight, they would call out – “Bye bye Didi…Bye bye Didi” and laugh some more.
Flies in their faces, filth on their scant clothing, but joy and laughter in their hearts and lives. The adults as well, smiling, welcoming us into their homes, their tiny mud huts, their very lives. At one with the world, in harmony with their surroundings – we who had so much could learn so much.
Because the Torah commands us to be an “am kadosh,” a people of holiness, so as KI turns 50 this year I ask myself, “What does it mean to be holy as a community?” For I believe that what Kehillat Israel must be is the place to discover that holiness in ourselves and others.
A few weeks ago Fern Eisenberg, our ECC Director heard that one of her nursery school mothers with three little kids, had been struck by an undiagnosed physical challenge that involved so much pain that she can’t get out of bed or lift anything, drive her child to school or prepare food for her family.
What it meant to that woman to be part of Kehillat Israel, is that immediately the ECC parents and staff responded with daily food deliveries, rides to school for her son, play dates for her daughter, help securing connections to doctors and hospitals, and even financial support to provide someone who would come into the house each day to cook and clean and rescue this family from the terror of being alone and overwhelmed.
That is what it means to take holiness seriously. For KI to matter we must have the capacity to respond in similar manner to a whole host of family crises and personal needs including from our increasing population that is single or elderly or partnered without children and who are in desperate need of a caring community to which they feel valuable and connected.
And I learned a lesson from the waiters, waitresses and busboys in the Table Bay Hotel in Cape Town South Africa. We stayed there for a week. On the morning we were leaving a group of them came over to say goodbye and added, “You, two we are going to miss.” “Why us?” we asked, thinking about all the hundreds of guests that pass through the hotel each week.
“Well,” they answered, “ most people don’t even speak to us, other than to order of course. We’re invisible to most of the guests, most of the time. But not to you two.”
Now, maybe it was just that Didi had spent the morning taking pictures of each of them with a Polaroid and giving them the picture as a present (as she had been doing throughout the world for the entire four months of the sabbatical – especially with children everywhere), but I suspect the lesson was much deeper and more profound than that. It was an echo of the famous statement of philosopher William James who early in this century wrote, “The deepest principle of human nature, is the craving to be appreciated.” And that truth is the same today as when he first spoke those words.
To really experience being seen by another human being – feeling profoundly that who you are matters to someone else is one of the most precious gifts we can give to another human being. That, too is what making a synagogue holy is all about.
A woman was joining KI a week or so ago, and while she filled out the membership form she told me a story – it seemed that our Cantor, Chayim had been told by a relative of hers that she was in the midst of a divorce and so depressed that she was staying home all day never even getting out of her robe.
So Chayim got her on the phone and simply announced that he would be showing up at her door soon to take her for some coffee and conversation, and if she didn’t want to go out in public in her bathrobe, she had about twenty minutes to get dressed. He showed up, she was dressed and off they went. She was telling me this story so I would know that the reason she was joining KI was because that one act of caring turned her life around – broke her depression and reminded her that who she was mattered to someone – even a relative stranger.
And most of you don’t know that every Friday afternoon Rabbi Lewart makes phone calls to people shut in by illness or loss. She reads them poetry. She shares with them blessings. And she gives them hope, love and the gift of knowing they are not forgotten. And so people are constantly thanking me for bringing her to KI.
But that, too is what a holy community is all about and it is our challenge to make sure that no one is left behind – no one languishes at home in depression without someone from our KI family calling, connecting, inviting, caring. That is when synagogue life really matters.
Like the man who literally cried with gratitude on the phone with me because when his business crashed and he felt abandoned by so many and that his life was falling apart, in a heart beat, our Executive Director, Betti Greenstein simply cancelled his outstanding debt to the synagogue – so he could start clean and begin again with dignity. - because that’s what a holy community does.
In a former era, the synagogue was a safe ethnic haven in the midst of an otherwise foreign and perhaps even hostile world. But not any more – if nothing else Joe Lieberman has reminded us of that.
My dream is for KI to become both a center of world-class Jewish learning for adults and kids and the spiritual center of the search for meaning in your lives - the place where you feel most excited, most inspired, most connected to the lives of others, with a new model that replaces “membership” with “ownership” and “partnership.”
We have a friend whose son was in the first grade. His teacher asked the class “What is the color of apples?” Most of the children answered red. A few said green. But Kevin raised is hand and said, “white.” The teacher tried to explain that apples can be red, green or sometimes even golden, but never white. Kevin, however, was quite insistent that apples were white. After a long “discussion” with the teacher, he finally shrugged and simply said, “Look inside.”
“Look inside.” Kevin had it right all along. KI at 50 isn’t our award-winning building, as spectacular as that is. Look inside – it’s the sum total of hundreds of individual lives touched in thousands of individual ways large and small.
On the first day of our new Sunday program a mother said to me, “My son Michael is going to a new private school this year which he really likes. But I couldn’t believe how incredibly excited he was to be coming here to religious school this morning. He was literally jumping out of his skin with the excitement of being back with his Jewish friends again. This is really his most important community.”
Frankly, Michael doesn’t really care that much about the Jewish education part – it’s the community that matters. Michael’s friends are here. Michael’s family is here. Michael’s life is here. And I want Michael to find holiness here as well.
As Nancy Levin prepares to retire as Director of Religious Education this year, we have an historic opportunity to look at Jewish education with a fresh eye. To be bold in our vision and ask the questions that will transform the very nature of what we mean by Jewish education in synagogue life in the years ahead. And every one of you can help make that happen. We must begin to look outside the traditional religious school classroom for living Jewish experiences that in themselves can become “teachable moments” of Jewish identity and meaning, the learning of basic Jewish life skills and the reinforcing of positive Jewish self-esteem. Meaningful Jewish family experiences like that already exist in the everyday lives of some of our students and our challenge is to find ways for similar experiences to play a significant role in the lives of all our students. What it will take for this to happen is for many of you to join in this process of educational transformation by sharing your own dreams and visions of the Jewish adults you want your and all our children to grow up to become.
In the year ahead we will have at least two separate opportunities to spend the day creating a shared vision of what our synagogue must become in order to have a profound impact on your spiritual life and the life of your children. I urge you to join with us by participating in one of these day-long summits on “Synagogue Transformation and Renewal,” or in one of the smaller focus groups that will be organized throughout the year, by responding to the educational vision questionnaire that you will soon receive in the mail, or by simply putting your own vision of how KI can bring greater spiritual fulfillment and meaning to your life in writing and sharing it with me.
“Look inside,” said Kevin with the innocent wisdom of a child. So on this New Year of KI’s 50th anniversary, rather than merely looking back, let each of us look inside instead. For there where our hearts are most tender and our souls most fragile – we will find the core of that which is most holy in all of us. My dream is that creating a place where that sacred self can grow stronger and grander, more brilliant and beautiful with every passing day will ultimately become what Kehillat Israel is really all about.