Coming Home: A Sermon for Yom Kippur

For those interested in an aftertaste of the High Holidays, here’s a short excerpt from my Yom Kippur sermon:

As for me, I’ve always felt it is far too early to write the epitaph for synagogues just yet. I do believe in congregations. I do believe that congregations are still places where great and important and transformative things can happen. But I believe just as strongly that that synagogues must become more relevant to a rapidly changing American Jewish community or, sad to say, they will eventually become extinct.

For the entire sermon, click below:

I have a confession to make to you all: I mentioned that we’ve decided to dedicate the High Holidays and the year in general to the theme, “Coming Home.” However, I will admit to you now, I’m not sure Judaism actually teaches us all that much about this particular concept. I’ll explain…

Let’s start with our most sacred of writings, the Torah – the first five books of the Hebrew Bible. In the beginning we read about the creation of the world and the creation of humanity and soon after we read about the birth of a new nation that God promises to bless and eventually bring home to their land. We then read extensive narratives about this nation’s forefathers and foremothers and their adventures as they wander in and about the land. We go on to read about this nation’s nascent origins in the crucible of enslavement, how they are liberated and brought to a mountain in a wilderness to enter into a covenant with their God.

We then read on, as this newly born nation wanders in the wilderness as they prepare to enter and settle the land. It is eventually decided by God that this generation cannot be the one to enter, and Moses cannot be the one to lead them there. Finally, Moses anoints Joshua to be his successor, and he brings the new generation to the threshold of the Eretz Yisrael. He prepares them for their grand and long-awaited homecoming. He dies on a mountaintop, and… then the Torah comes to a close.

Huh?!!

I’m picturing the Torah’s very first readers, you know, after the final redaction: they’re plowing into this great narrative and finally getting to that ending, can you imagine what their reaction must have been? Sort of like the reaction to the final episode of “The Sopranos:” “You mean that’s it?” “That’s the end?” “All build-up and no payoff?” When you think about it, the Torah really is the ultimate cliffhanger. It starts with the promise of coming home, it brings the nation to the threshold, then it rewinds right back to the beginning and starts all over again.

If you do want to read about the homecoming, of course, you can. That occurs in the sequel to the Torah – otherwise known as Nevi’im or Prophets. But you know what they say about sequels. It’s never, or almost never, as good as the original. The homecoming is actually quite a messy business. Nothing really goes according to plan, and things go downhill fairly quickly. Those who have read on in Nevi’im invariably understand why the Torah ends where it does – and why only these first five books are invariably considered to be our most sacred of writings.

The reason, I believe, is because Judaism has always found redemption not in the homecoming itself, but in the process of coming home. And if you think about it, this makes perfect sense: if you understand the world in terms of sacred history, homecoming represents the end of history. Once you arrive home, the story is over. (Anyone who has seen “The Wizard of Oz” knows this to be true). That is why, by the way, Jewish millenarian sects have historically never remained Jewish all that long. One of the central bonding agents for Jews throughout history is not the Messiah per se, but our yearning for the Messiah. I sometimes shudder to think what might happen if we Jews ever actually lost that yearning.

This, then, is my personal spiritual vision for this year of JRC’s homecoming. That it not represent a homecoming so much as it represents an important milestone along our journey home. Yes, for the last several years, we have been focusing on this dream of a new home for our congregational family – and in recent years we have accomplished incredible things to ensure that our dream would indeed become a reality. But I will say without reservation: as exciting as this project has been for us all, as thrilling as it has been to watch our new building gradually take shape this past year, the most fulfilling aspect of this entire journey for me has been the ways this project has transformed and strengthened JRC – the ways it has deepened our commitment to and investment in our community and its sacred values.

Don’t get me wrong: I will be as excited as anyone this January when we move back to 303 Dodge. But as we prepare for this move, it is clear to me that we must not view this event as the end of a process, but rather as a transition to a new and even more exciting chapter in the life of our congregation. I do believe that is what our President David Pinzur meant on Rosh Hashanah eve when he said that it’s not the building, but rather what we do inside it that really counts. We have indeed met great challenges to arrive at this moment. But in so many ways, I believe the road that lays ahead will be equally, if not even more challenging for JRC.

To be sure, committing to this building project, was an act of faith by our community. It was a gesture of faith in ourselves and in our future viability. But in the end, this act of faith has an even larger significance than that. We are, quite frankly, showing faith in our congregation during a time in which most congregations aren’t doing all that well.

This is, after all, an era of synagogue and congregational disaffiliation. The most recent surveys indicate that the percentage of American Jews that belong to synagogues is around 40% and I suspect the actual number is probably even lower than even that. Personally speaking, I have no trouble admitting that congregational Judaism has steadily been losing its relevance to the American Jewish community. And by the way, I was interested to read recently that I am not alone in this opinion. A new study by the STAR Foundation revealed that less than half of American rabbis surveyed are optimistic about the future of American Jewry and less than a third expect synagogue membership in the United States to increase over the next three years.

As for me, I’ve always felt it is far too early to write the epitaph for synagogues just yet. I do believe in congregations. I do believe that congregations are still places where great and important and transformative things can happen. But I believe just as strongly that that synagogues must become more relevant to a rapidly changing American Jewish community or, sad to say, they will eventually become extinct. How to achieve this is certainly no great secret: we in the Reconstructionist movement we have been advocating this for years. How can synagogues remain vital in the 21st century? Here’s just a brief checklist:

– Synagogues have to concentrate not merely on programming for their current membership, but focus outreach on an increasingly diverse American Jewish community: on interfaith families, gays and lesbians, Jews of color, singles and single parent families, blended families, young people in the post-college years.

– Congregations simply cannot be run like businesses or institutions. They must be run not only from the top down, but the also from bottom up. Synagogues certainly need visionary leadership from clergy, staff and lay leadership, but they should also seek to empower the widest possible spectrum of members to invest their time and energy in their community.

– Synagogues must be as sensitive and responsive as possible to the spiritual needs of their member and potential members. They can no longer afford to present Judaism from a narrow ideological focus or in pre-digested fashion. If they are to be spiritually relevant to their congregants, they will have to understand themselves as places where members can explore their relationship to Judaism in a safe, open and non-judgmental way.

I believe that JRC, like many Reconstructionist congregations throughout North American actually gets all this. I know that the values that I’ve just enumerated here are no big secret to us. We should bear in mind that – and be proud of the fact – that JRC has largely bucked the disaffiliation trend in American congregational life. For the past twenty-plus years, our membership has remained relatively stable at roughly 450 households. This means, essentially, that we have been able, every year, to gain as many members as we have lost, which averages out to roughly 6 to 10% annually. For a congregation that has not invested in significant outreach, this means we must be doing something right. Especially when you consider that we live in an era of increasing congregational disaffiliation.

And if we have ever had any doubt about the health and energy of our congregation, what we have accomplished during these past several years has been extraordinary: building consensus on the need for a new building and for a Capital Campaign to fund it. The creation of a broad based campaign that gives every single JRC member the opportunity to commit to and participate in this dream. The raising of $6.5 million (and counting) in commitments thus far – an astonishing level of commitment that none of us dreamed we were capable of. The decision from our membership to building a synagogue facility according to values of environmental sustainability – a commitment that has already made JRC a role model in many quarters. The Herculean efforts of our leaders in helping to design and construct our new building; a process that continues to involve a myriad of details, decisions, meetings, meetings and more meetings. The incredible mobilization of our members to help JRC make the transition to three temporary sites – and soon enough back again to Evanston – an effort that has required the expenditure of countless members’ time, energy, skills (and often, truth be told, their sanity).

I could go on and on in this way, but I think my point is clear. Only an extremely healthy and vigorous congregation could have pulled this off – and accomplish what we have accomplished over these past several years. We should have absolutely no doubt in our minds that we have taken a leap of faith together, and we have come together to ensure that our faith in one another would lead us to a better place.

So now, as I said earlier, it is the time for us to make our next leap, as it were. We will soon move into the building that we hoped would help us realize our congregational dreams. Now it is time to articulate those dreams and realize them together. Our board has just begun the discussions about a strategic planning process – one that will help is involve every member in formulating our vision and direction of our community into the next chapter of our existence. Whatever form this process will eventually take, I believe it will be vital for each and every one of us to participate in this “new construction project” if you will: the construction of our ongoing spiritual life. I have no doubt that this new chapter will enable us to grow and thrive as Jews and as a Jewish community in ways that we could never have dreamed were possible.

Since you’ve got me here now, I’d like to share with you just a few of my own dreams for JRC as we enter this exciting new phase of our homecoming:

For one thing, our new building has inspired me us to think more creatively and more broadly about our religious services. It is my hope that we can increasingly look to Shabbat morning as a time in when we can come together and create a true sense of Shabbat community. As I wrote in our newsletter several months ago, I would love to explore how we can come to view B’nai Mitzvah not only as private family rites of passage, but also opportunities for JRC at large to gather and celebrate Shabbat together as a community.

It is my hope that our JRC Religious School not only provide a meaningful Jewish education to our children, but can further connect them to their JRC community past the age of B’nai Mitzvah and through the High School years. It is my hope that our Noar Hadash Youth group will create an even deeper sense of youth community at JRC and connection our more of our children to Reconstructionist youth nationally. It is my hope that we can reach out more actively to chronically underserved members of the Jewish community, particularly to a growing number of young people post-college who are seeking to connect and contribute in a Jewish way but are not finding a great deal of meaning in congregational life.

It is also my hope that we can build upon the numerous initiatives we have created in the realm of social justice and Tikkun Olam. As we have now committed to the South Evanston neighborhood for the long haul, I would love for us to explore what that means for us as an Evanston institution – how we might be more active and present in the life and issues of our immediate community. I would also welcome the opportunity for JRC to explore our values as Jews about increasing critical domestic issues such as health care, affordable housing, and livable wages – and see if we can find our congregational voice to advocate for change on these issues.

This is, of course, just a short and sweet wish list of my own. There’s much more where these came from. I welcome the opportunity to explore these questions and many more like them in the coming years. In particular, I welcome the fact that we have now have the opportunity to explore them in a serious and substantive way. And perhaps this more than anything else is why this is such a moment of blessing for our congregational community.

As your Rabbi, I can only say it is my blessing to be part of this chapter in JRC’s history. I love this congregation so very much and I can say to you honestly and without hesitation that my family and I are looking forward to spending the coming years with this community with excitement and gratitude. In the end, truly, we are all blessed to share in this moment together. For those members of the JRC family who are in this sanctuary now, those, of blessed memory, who participate in this moment in our hearts, and all of those who we are yet to meet along the way: may it be a journey of blessing and transformation for us all.

As we are all filled with gratitude at having been sustained long enough to reach this moment, let’s say it now:

“Holy One of Blessing, Your presence fills creation, You have given us life, sustained us, and brought us all to this moment together.”

Amen.

One thought on “Coming Home: A Sermon for Yom Kippur

  1. What wonderful powerful words. My parents raved about your sermon, (however as a disclaimer I must add that every year my mother says, ” wow Brant really outdid himself this year; Papi thinks this was best one yet…” )

    Even though I am no longer in Chicago, I cannot think of another place that I could call home. I spent 17 yrs in the old JRC and although it holds a multitude of memories for me, what I hold closest to my heart is the unity of our community.

    I cannot wait to come back and take part in the magic that is JRC.

    maya

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