Rosh Ha’shana, Day 1 Sermon: Shul

Rabbi/Cantor Meeka Simerly

I’d like to wake you all up this morning with a funny short story I’ve recently read on Facebook:

“A man decides to stop using social media. Instead he’s determined to make friends without the benefit of Facebook, but still using Facebook’s methods. So, he leaves home to take a walk and as he meets people he tells them what he has eaten, how he feels, what he did last night, and what he will do tomorrow. Then he hands them pictures of his in-laws, his dog, and his garden. He also listens to their conversations and tells them he loves them.

It works!

Soon he does have followers — 2 police officers and a psychiatrist.”

It is a funny little story, but it does point to a pretty painful reality: for so many people Facebook has become THE community in which they interact with people the most.

We share so much more than we ever would with strangers. We are Facebook friends with classmates from elementary or high school, individuals we weren’t particularly interested in cultivating friendships with in the past. And I can’t help but wonder: if way back when we didn’t feel the desire to know much about these people, then why is it that now we pretend to be interested in looking at pictures of their whereabouts, distant uncles, mothers, or goldfish? 

And why should any of these strangers care about mine? Or yours?

“While it may be partially generational,” says Rabbi Louis Feldstein in his essay What Does a Truly Sacred Community Look Like? “… it also speaks to why so many seek the ease of virtual community: because building a real community takes real work.” 

Being part of a hands-on community – now that takes work, engagement, and involvement. Being a member of a truly sacred community requires being fully present. So let’s talk about OUR sacred community, our Temple Beth Tikvah, here, in Wayne.
Shall we? 

I have good news: our membership is starting to increase. Slowly but surely, we are welcoming new, and returning members into our midst. Members of our leadership have been working overtime, moving us in a new direction: we are changing. The type of community we are building strives to have something for everyone to connect us socially, spiritually, and educationally.

But what I really want to talk about is how essential it is for each and every one of our new and existing members to start getting more involved, if we want to continue to exist. 

Our House of Hope is NOT a virtual community. Never was, never will be. Period. In order to insure Temple Beth Tikvah’s continued survival, everyone must be actively engaged. That is the only way to insure the presence of a vibrantly thriving Reform Jewish Community here in Wayne. 

The Hebrew word for member is chaver, or chaverah for female, but it also means a friend.

Being a member of an organization means primarily being interested in what one gets, or receives in return for paying for membership, for example, being a member of your local YMCA, or a member at Costco, or the Golf Club on Ratzer Road. 

A participant in a community, on the other hand, while not necessarily sacrificing his or her own needs, is simultaneously interested in the welfare and the success of the community as a whole. 

So while paying dues to belong to our community helps keep the lights and heat on – the only way for our chaverim and chaverot  to get a return for their membership dues, or d’mei chaverut in Hebrew is to be here; IN the community. Participating. Interacting. That’s the WHOLE reason to keep this place, our House of Hope —  open.

I am wondering if using the metaphor of “membership” to define belonging to a community reinforces and preserves a mentality that is the very opposite of being involved in a community? What do you think? You can share with me later.

“Real religious Community is supposed to be covenantal, not transactional,” wrote Rabbi Michael Knopf in an article in the Ha’aretz Israeli newspaper. “Covenantal Communities are made up of people committed to supporting each other, committed to the infra-structure and systems that facilitate communal well-being.” 

Don’t get me wrong, I am not blind to the fact that many who want Jewish experiences can find them in any number of different venues. Venues with much less baggage, and for much less cost. For example, one can effortlessly find a freelance bar mitzvah local tutor, or readily “rent a rabbi” to officiate in their family’s lifecycle events.

Anyone can access almost any Jewish information one could ever possibly need, for free, by consulting Rabbi Google. And yes, anyone can purchase High Holidays Tickets and sit comfortably at the temple, say shalom to old friends, and then go on one’s merry way Zei gezunt, a gutten yontif and see you next year.

It’s hard when people decide to leave our temple, it’s hard being left. I know that most who leave don’t make that decision lightly. Some even deal with pain and discomfort when they finally make the decision to go. And even if a temple is large and growing, it is still hard when people leave. But when the temple is smaller, like ours is, each loss is far more painful.   

As a clergywoman for many years, I’ve had to deal with such departures. It is so very hard. It’s especially hard when those leaving have been long-time members, because when a small temple loses just one family it can mean great changes for our community as a whole. It’s not just a drop in attendance, or volunteers. It’s the loss of people we know; people we have grown to love. People with whom we have emotional investment; people we’re friends with. And that hurts. It leaves an open wound. 

I’ll take it a step deeper and admit the following: it really does hurt when people who I thought were doing well and were happy at the temple, simply utter these words, “we just don’t feel engaged” or “connected anymore.” That, my friends, is so hard to hear. These have been some of my toughest moments. Because deep inside, I know that we have been trying to do everything we possibly can to provide activities, services, programs, and office hours to try and insure all age groups feel connected and engaged. That’s why each and every one of us, staff and our highly committed lay-leaders, have been living, eating and sometimes almost sleeping here too!

And the most frustrating thing about the, “here are the reasons why I’m leaving,” conversation is that we don’t get a chance to make things right.

And that hurts us all, because WE so need YOUR help, any help we can get to make Temple Beth Tikvah relevant and engaging, in order to thrive in the present, pay homage to our past, for the sake of our future as a Jewish Community. Can you imagine Wayne without a Reform Shul that welcomes into its midst mixed marriages, gay marriages, and children of couples who celebrate both Hannukah AND Christmas?

In case some of you have forgotten, this is Wayne! A town with a many-layered history of anti-Semitism. Communities such as Pines Lake where Dave and I now live, and Packanack Lake that even into the 60’s and 70’s did not allow Jews and families of color to move in, as well as town officials within the same time period, who openly preached anti-Semitic messages.

For crying out loud – a Confederate Flag was erected about a month ago, here in Wayne, at Paris Inn!

Yes, perhaps nowadays your children are extremely busy, no doubt. They play soccer on Mondays, Basketball on Tuesdays, they horseback ride on Wednesdays, they play tennis or dance on Thursdays, rehearse for school plays on Fridays, and practice piano on Saturdays. No doubt, their lives are full of activities, which in turn makes your life full too; now add to that school homework, and who has time or energy to also engage in social Jewish life, at the temple, with so much else going on?

But what kind of support our, your children will have when in college they will hear slogans like “Zionists go home,” “Jews are the source of evil in our world,” or worse? 

Our synagogue is not just a building.

So many of you grew up here. So many of your children are now grown and don’t need religious school, as their Bar or Bat Mitzvah goals are over. 

“So why,” one may ask, “why should we stay members?”

One reason is because you have a cool rabbi on call should you need her care, listening ear, or guidance. You can always trust knowing that if you have a big decision to make, there’s someone grounded in our traditions with many years of life-experience with whom you can discuss your issues. You also know that if something bad happens, all members of your temple family will be free to call on your rabbi for support and guidance. 

But you don’t have to look to your rabbi only during times of crisis. Your rabbi and your temple are here to help you through the good times too; weddings, births, anniversaries, and yes, those high priority bar and bat mitzvahs too. And your rabbi can be goofy and funny as well, when she goes down to sit and play on the carpet with your children or grandchildren. Heck, your meshugie Rabbi will even bless your pets!

Another reason to become or remain a member is that You can help build a sense of a true Jewish community. You may not love everything about us, TBT community, or everyone here. But YOU can help make it YOUR community by letting your friends know that we are here, and our doors are always open. You can invite other, and new families to be in your Chavura, a smaller community within our temple that shares your family’s interests, and create a forever-lasting bond with them. No matter what, you will not be anonymous here at TBT, if you choose to not be.

There’s an old truism that comes into play when you also get involved in a community: the best way to learn, is to teach. In a similar fashion, the best way to bring good into your life, is to do good—to volunteer. We have a wonderful network of volunteers at TBT who are always looking to teach others how to bring goodness into their lives as well. 

Of course there are many levels of volunteer opportunities: from bringing food to potlucks, or helping to organize and distribute food at the food pantry, or all the way to larger things, like serving on committees to help make decisions for our temple’s future. You are always welcome to volunteer your professional skills for your congregation. Or volunteer to add beauty to our worship services by singing in the choir. Or learn about social justice action opportunities with a ready-made group of people with whom to practice Tikkun O’lam. There are so many different ways that you can help us make this place look better, newer, more gorgeous, inviting, and more pleasing to the eyes.

One of the ways that volunteers quickly realize how volunteering can bring goodness into their own lives, is by helping those who are sick, or injured, or just too old to get around easily on their own. This happens to all of us, and one day each of us may need the helping hand of a volunteer; even if it’s just for a ride to and from a Shabbat or High Holiday services. Our Caring Community for example, has such a great group of people who make sure no one is left 

Behind — but this group of helpers can always use more help.

Now for the “cons” or the “yeh butts” of synagogue Chaverut, friendship, membership:

Yes, it costs money. Having that rabbi on call, and a secretary, a building, a janitor, teachers, running water, electricity, air-conditioners in the summer, heaters in the winter, fixing old stairs, and replacing an old cracking door – all of these features and tons more cost a lot of money.

How else can the temple survive and thrive if it’s members don’t help by paying dues? Any dues?

Also, as I said earlier, not everyone at your congregation is your best friend. Sometimes there is conflict. There are people who drive you absolutely meshugie. You probably drive them a little meshugie too, right Dave? 

But isn’t it the same in any non-profit social organization of people? Or in Families? Or in a tight-knit work place? Or in our country? Aren’t we a microcosm of every other social group in our world? And look at it this way: just like in every other social situation, it’s an opportunity to learn and practice patience, compassion, and perhaps, acceptance. 

Yes, we do always bug you to give money and do stuff. You do get periodic noodnik appeals for financial and volunteer participation. This Yom Kippur appeal will be no different.

But what will you do and where will you go if one day, your spiritual home forever will close its doors?

Where will you feel comfortable being Jewish while wearing your kippah and your own Talit? Where will your children raise their children Jewish? In Orthodox or Conservative environments? Will you feel comfortable worshipping without your spouse by your side? And 

Women, will you feel comfortable being told that only men can wear a kippah and a Talit? 

And where will you hold your own gay son’s wedding? After all, other temples in our area will tell you that your own child’s love is sinful. For crying out loud, how can any true love between humans be sinful? 

Can you imagine your town without our Progressive Temple Beth Tikvah?

Lastly, you may not agree with the way everything is done here. Policy is up to the Board, and the Board is entrusted to call those shots; you get to state your opinion, but you are not the boss. 

However, you can influence, and you can make a difference. If you feel strongly enough about an issue, you are welcome to become a board member yourself and help steer the temple’s direction. Because when you make a difference, a real difference, that’s when your opinions begin to have an effect.

Can you imagine Wayne without a Temple Beth Tikvah?

So please, rethink any decision to leave, or not pay dues to our temple. Instead, please help us implement much needed creative ways to be relevant, beautiful, appealing, and highly functional.

Being here for the High Holidays is simply not enough.

It’s time to help us preserve and continue to support this beautiful spiritual home, which our elders built in the face of the open anti-Semitism of the past. The good news is that we can still do something about it. Can we count on you to help? Because your local soccer or la cross team, Facebook, or any other virtual social media simply won’t be able to do what this temple can do for and with you, with and for us.

I’d like to bless everyone here with a good and healthy new year. Baruch atah Adonai, our God and God of all generations who came before us: Grant us a year of gratitude. Gratitude to You, and to one another.  May we do our best to change ourselves in such a way that we can help our community become a friendly space, where everyone is welcomed and valued, and everyone has a place.  Amen, and Le’shana Tovah.

Your Loving Rabbi Meeka

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