Last Friday as I came into the synagogue to prepare for Shabbat services, our Hazzan Sheni Beth was standing in the foyer with her husband, Ira and their 4 year old son, Jonah. Beth turned to Jonah and said, “Say Shabbat Shalom to the Rabbi, Jonah.” He looked up at me with that 4 year old innocent look and said, “My mouth doesn’t feel like talking.”
I guess if my mouth felt that way the High Holy Days would be a lot shorter!
Didi keeps in regular touch with a Jewish inmate from a former congregation who is in State Prison in Northern California. I want to begin this New Year with a story he told her last week: Two Jews who are riding on the same train. The one looks across the aisle at the other and sees that he’s reading an unusual looking newspaper, so he leans over to get a closer look and lo and behold the other Jew is reading the English language edition of AL JAZEERAH.
The first Jew gets indignant and challenges the one reading the paper – “Why are you reading that trash? Why are you reading that disgusting anti-Semitic, anti-Israel diatribe?”
And the second Jew replies, “Have you ever read AL JAZEERAH? It says here that the richest people in the world are the Jews, that the Jews control the US Congress, that the President of the United States does their every bidding, that the Jews control the media – TV, newspapers, radio, that Israel is behind every suicide bomb in Baghdad, that the entire world is being controlled by a vast, international Jewish conspiracy..
To tell you the truth I like this news better!”
It’s the New Year – 5766. And in Gamatria, Jewish numerology, 5766 is the equivalent of the Hebrew words, TAVO ALEYHA BERAHA – MAY BLESSINGS COME UPON YOU.
Not a bad way to start the year: “5766 – May blessings comes upon you.” So I want you to know that you, this synagogue of Kehillat Israel has been my blessing for the past 20 years. Because tonight marks my 20th anniversary High Holy Days at KI – the beginning of my 20th year as your rabbi. 20 years privileged to work side by side with Chayim Frenkel as my cantor. 20 years of the incredible privilege to be an intimate part of your lives. 20 years of more blessings from all of you than Didi, and Gable and I could possibly count.
Like anyone who anticipates marking a significant milestone in life, I have been thinking long and hard about the visions I had for KI when I first arrived on that first Rosh Hashana, what we have accomplished up to now, and what new dreams and visions I have today for KI’s future.
20 years ago when I first arrived we were a congregation of less than 250 households in an old, funky building. The stairs were broken and dangerous. The pipes under the building were clay and falling apart. The congregation dreamed of reaching the as yet unreachable goal of 300 families. And when I first arrived, this congregation had gone through 3 rabbis, 3 cantors and 3 educators in the previous 6 years.
In those early years my vision was primarily to create a sense of stability, trust and continuity for a synagogue that was smarting from past hurts and betrayals. My vision was to be part of the transformation of a community where disagreements and strife among leadership and between rabbis and boards of directors were an accepted part of synagogue life, into a community of collaboration, lay-professional partnership, mutual respect, celebration of personal worth, dignity and cooperation.
The KI culture is very, very different now – 20 years later. Ask anyone and they will tell you. To be on our board of directors is a privilege, a pleasure, a reward, an opportunity to discover even greater meaning, and depth of character and purpose in your personal and spiritual life.
Well as you know, in those 20 years, we have grown to over 1,000 households representing over 3,500 men, women and children who make up the inner circle of our immediate KI family. Eight years ago we built a beautiful and inspiring sanctuary that has attracted Jews and non-Jews alike from across Los Angeles to become part of our unique synagogue.
What you probably don’t realize is that those 3,500 individuals represent at least another 15-20,000 relatives, friends and members of the community to whom we provide services - religious, social, educational and communal every single year.
There is a story about a group of military leaders who succeeded in building a super computer that was able to solve any problem – large or small, strategic or tactical. These military leaders assembled in front of the new machine for a demonstration. The engineer asked them to feed a difficult tactical problem into it so the military leaders proceeded to describe a complex hypothetical situation to the computer and then asked the pivotal question: attack or retreat?
This enormous super computer hummed away for an hour and then printed out it’s one-word answer…YES. The generals looked at each other, somewhat stupefied. Finally one of them submits a second request to the computer: YES WHAT?
Instantly the computer responded: YES SIR!
That has always been my dream – my vision. A synagogue that is a YES in people’s lives. And a synagogue that people want to say “yes” to and become part of as well.
On the corner stone of our synagogue is inscribed a quotation from the Book of Exodus. God speaks to Moses and in words that are both a challenge and a promise commands: asu li mikdash veshahanti betoham. “Build me a sanctuary that I might dwell within them.”
“Within them” and not “within it” even thought when talking about a sanctuary “it” seems to make more sense - because for Jews God is found not in buildings and monuments no matter how lofty and beautiful and inspirational they might be. Instead, we discover God in the hearts of human beings, holiness in the creation of community, and life’s meaning and purpose in numberless acts of kindness and justice, Tzedakah and Gemilut Hasadim that being part of a “kehillat kodesh” a “sacred community” is ultimately all about.
So as I look back over the past 20 years, without exaggeration or excessive self-congratulations there is no doubt that by any typical synagogue standards KI has grown into a thriving, successful religious institution.
But “typical synagogue standards” have never been my goal, for the Jewish world is filled with thousands if not millions of adults whose childhood experiences with rabbis, and religious schools and the financial practices of “typical synagogues” have turned them off to organized Jewish life for good.
My goal has always been for KI to be a-typical, for us to be extraordinary, different from every other synagogue in the world – open, welcoming, exciting, inspiring, nonjudgmental, inclusive. My goal has been for KI to be a place where adults and children alike can discover their truest selves through study of ancient Jewish wisdom and figuring out how that wisdom can bring meaning and purpose to their modern lives.
But since Rosh Hashana is a time of confession and repentance, let me confess that we sometimes talk a much better community than we walk. Just last week I got a call from one of our members – a single older widow who has been a member of KI far longer than I have been here – I am sure over 30 years.
She was calling to tell me why she wasn’t renewing her membership this year. I won’t tell you her name, but I will tell you what she said. “Rabbi,” she chastised me, “not one person from KI has called me for a year. Not one “How are you feeling?” Not one “Would you like a ride to services or to come to an event or program.” Not one call in a year. So since you are obviously too large, too successful, to busy to care anymore about one person, I am not renewing my membership.”
That phone call broke my heart. That is not OK. That is not community. And with all our remarkable success and our beautiful building – if no one calls you for a year to check if you’re OK – then what kind of a “sacred community” are we - we are failing to live up to what we can be, and what we must be.
Without a doubt my favorite movie of the summer was March of the Penguins. Now that was a lesson in the power of community. If only all of us in this synagogue were as wise as those emperor penguins in Antarctica.
For there is only one way that they can possibly survive in the awesome, freezing, harsh and hostile environment in which they live. One way – thousands of them huddle together, providing each other enough warmth to last through the most brutal subfreezing weather. And most remarkably, they take turns walking around the outside of the huddle while those in the middle sleep. Survival depends on each one giving to the community unselfishly – staying connected – recognizing that each individual’s destiny is inextricably bound up with the other.
So my commitment, my vision for the next 20 years of KI is that no one should go a month, let alone a year without being touched in some personal way by being part of our community - without knowing that they matter.
When Didi and I were in Africa a few years ago we heard the legend of Yameel – the fastest runner and messenger in all of Africa. He was legendary for his swiftness of foot, his incredible sense of direction, his uncanny ability to find any location from the most remote tree to the largest village.
One day a tribal elder found him standing motionless in the middle of the road. “Why have you stopped in the middle of a mission?” asked the Elder.
Yameel replied, “I have been running so fast that I have left my soul behind. I am standing here waiting for it to catch up to me.” Sometimes that’s KI as well. We’ve run so fast, grown so fast, we’ve moved so fast, we sometimes leave our soul behind.
All of us are like that. Sometimes, particularly living here in LA we move too fast to notice what we have – the blessings that surround us too numerous to name. We forget that true happiness and fulfillment in life comes in through only one door – the door of gratitude.
The Yiddish proverb says, “If you are going to be miserable when you are sick, be thankful when you are well.” It’s all about gratitude. It’s not about the running, but the stopping to experience how blessed we are every day.
After all, we don’t need the drama and devastation of Katrina or Rita or last year’s tsunami to leave us breathless with gratitude.
If you woke up with more health than illness – you are more blessed than the million who will not survive this week. If you have never experienced the danger of battle, the loneliness of imprisonment, the agony of torture, or the pangs of starvation, you are ahead of the 500 million people in the world who have. If you have food in the refrigerator, clothes on your back, a roof overhead, and a place to sleep – you are richer than 75% of the people in the world.
When my friend Marlene Marks, not a smoker, got lung cancer, she experienced the every day miracle of breathing in a totally transformed way. Every day, every morning when she woke and took a breath – she said Modeh ani “Thank you God” with the deepest humility and gratitude possible.
In one of her last columns before she died, she wrote, “Gratitude begins in awe, in seeing the whole human enterprise as audacious. It rejects the very notion of the mundane and sees the extraordinary even in the ordinary. Nothing is taken for granted…Thankful, not greedy. Humbled, not entitled. Beholden, not exempted by the great mystery of survival; the realization that the turkey, the trimmings, the easy breath and the easy flight are all divine.”
This then is our New Year’s challenge – to stand in awe of our own blessings. To live each day out of profound gratitude, and to resolve to give back this year to fulfill our own limitless potential and possibility.
Shortly before he died, George Bernard Shaw was asked by a reporter, “If you could live your life over and be anybody you’ve known, or any person from history, who would you be?” “I would choose,” replied Shaw, “to be the man George Bernard Shaw could have been, but never was.”
The New Year is just beginning. And we are here, we are alive, we are blessed with the next breath once again. Let us become this year – individually and together as a community what we know we can become.
5766 – TAVO ALEYHA BERAHA – THE BLESSINGS ARE ALREADY HERE!