Saturday, January 30, 2010

Don’t’ Stop Thinking About Tomorrow

Sermon Parshat Beshallach


Shabbat Shalom

The story in this week’s parsha is not only about the epic battle between Pharaoh and Moses, but it is also about Moses leading the people of Israel. Ancient Israelites are not all that different from Jewish communities today. New things made them uncomfortable and they keep looking back, with nostalgia, about how good life was in Egypt.

But let us take a closer look at the story of the crossing of the sea . We all know the script: Pharaoh regrets letting the slaves go. He sends out the Egyptian army in pursuit. The army catches up with Israel and we find them trapped between the approaching army and the sea. The People of Israel are terrified. There is danger in every direction. Moses, Aaron and leadership of the tribes are not sure what they are supposed to do. One brave man, Nachshon ben Aminadav, leader of the tribe of Judah, and the brother in law of Aaron, moves forward and he enters the sea. The people then behold the greatest miracle of them all; the sea parts offering an escape for the Israelites.

But the people are still scared. Do you remember the movie, “The Ten Commandments?” As the waters part in the movie the people are filled with awe, but their faces also show they are very sacred. They start across hesitantly, looking over their shoulders at the advancing Egyptian army. With fear and trembling, they leave Egypt for the other side of the sea. But when they emerge on the other side, there is great relief; there is joy; music, singing and dancing. For that day, there was happiness in being saved and seeing the dreaded army of Egypt suddenly destroyed.

That is not only a story from our past; it is a paradigm for the future. The way into the future often starts with terror about unknowns, with danger in every direction. We are very happy to keep the things in our life the same and we only get up and go when there is no other choice. We get comfortable until we become too scared to stay in one place any longer.

This is true of ancient Israel, it is true right here in the United States of America in this age of Change, and it is true of Temple Emeth. There are challenges facing our congregation, issues that threaten not only our financial health, but the very existence of our community. It has been reported in our local newspapers, not just our congregation, but all senior congregations are in serious trouble. Membership is falling, synagogue membership is aging and younger members live elsewhere and, if they attend synagogue at all, they attend elsewhere. The research today shows that Jews want to live in communities with a mix of young and older families and they want their synagogues to have that same mix of members.

We are comfortable where we are, but we easily see that Egypt is attacking. We cannot survive as a community, as a congregation if we stand still. Look at some of the sister congregations around us. Deerfield Beach has merged with Habad to save itself. Coconut Creek and Margate are shrinking very quickly. There are no new or younger leaders willing to take on the issues. The established leadership has no one to whom to pass the leadership mantle.

We could just give up; we could just let it all fade away as the population of King’s Point slowly becomes less and less Jewish. Our membership continues to slowly decline, and the economy is not helping us either. More and more Jews are asking themselves if membership in a synagogue is worth the expense. Should we just close our doors? Just what do we have to offer new members that they can not get elsewhere, in their community clubhouse, in the local strip malls or on the street?

I was not brought to Delray Beach to oversee the end of Temple Emeth. We have some unique strengths that can help us not only weather this crisis but emerge, in just a few years, stronger and better. We don’t need to change what we are doing, we only need to expand the opportunities in our congregation to welcome those who still long for a Jewish spiritual experience.

Conservative Jews in Delray will need to work together to create a strong community. I am sure you have heard many rumors about merger talks between our congregation and Anshei Shalom. There are plenty of differences between our congregations, big differences, but the reality is that we need each other. Talks between our congregations may be long and difficult at times, but I am hopeful that we can find a way to work together to create a stronger community.

Over the past years, we have fallen behind other Conservative congregations. Everyone who visits us from the north is surprised to find we are using old siddurim and old humashim. These are books that other congregations replaced 30 years ago. The prayers in our siddurim have not changed all that much but the world around us has changed a lot. Since the siddur we used was published, there have been new prayers written about the Holocaust, Israel, and the reunification of Jerusalem. There are even prayers for the secular holidays that we celebrate in this country. Contemporary siddurim include women and those who convert to Judaism in our prayers. Prayers are translated using the same English that we use. Thanks to Shirley and Vernon Leopold, we will be dedicating new siddurim just before Pesach.

The Jewish community is very large and includes all kinds of Jews. That is why we need to make our community and our synagogue a very big tent. We may need to have alternative minyanim meeting here on Shabbat. Some Jews want a smaller egalitarian minyan run entirely by lay leaders. There are others in our community who will want a non-egalitarian minyan because they are not comfortable with full participation by women. Perhaps we need a learners’ minyan where people can go to learn to pray. Our tent has to be big enough to include all who need to express their thanks to God. One size no longer fits all daveners. We need to let people know that all are welcome here. One congregation that embraces all.

Our parties for holidays, our Shabbat dinners and our entertaining shows attract an audience of members and non-members that are very important to what Temple Emeth is all about. These must continue. But we also need new programming that will reach out to those who do not need a congregation for their social life. What do they need? They need programs of social action. The Jews we seek to join us are busy all day long, but not with anything of any substance. Their lives are a mile wide but only an inch deep. I spoke about this on Rosh Hashana and some came up to me and said, “I am too old to do social action anymore, leave that to the younger people.” And that is exactly right. We need to attract younger people by offering them ways to find meaning in their lives through rolling up their sleeves and getting to work. We are organizing two new social action groups now, and with God’s help, we will have more as the year goes by.

It is well documented that over the last ten years, Jews join synagogues for three reasons: to pray, to do meaningful acts of hesed and to learn about their heritage. I happen to love our Adult Education program. It is varied and unique in the community. I would not change any class that we offer. We just need to offer more. Young retirees and empty nesters are looking to find a personal place in Jewish Learning. The local office of the Seminary now offers adult classes in people’s homes. These are serious text classes. Habad also offers them in the conference rooms of downtown law and real estate firms. They can’t open these classes fast enough. We also too need to take our text classes, in Bible, Talmud and Ethics into the homes, offices and conference rooms where Jews are hungry for learning. Just as my daughter Ashira last week taught Torah to this congregation, we need to bring that teaching into the communities that surround us with home study groups and maybe even some business study groups. If we invite our neighbors to join us in the serious study of Jewish texts, it is only a matter of time before they will join us in prayer and social action as well.

The Talmud teaches that the world stands on three things, Torah, Avoda and gemilut hasadim. All the surveys that have studied why some congregations grow and why some die seem to hinge on these three things. The Teaching of Torah, meaningful services and acts of kindness to others. Adult Education, a prayer environment that offers choices to all who search for God and social action projects are what we need to add to our congregational menu to bring in the very people we need so much to move our community forward. It is not about “changing everything we have always done” because what we need is not to “reform” the congregation, nor to “reconstruct” the congregation. What we need is to expand what we are doing to make Jews who are lost and searching, welcome in our community.

We are in a unique position to make all of this a success. We have a community that is more than just condominiums. We have many mixed neighborhoods filled with many Jews who are seeking a spiritual home. When this economy recovers, we will be in a city where there will be plenty of building, both to our west and to our east; west of the turnpike and east into the neighborhoods of downtown and east Delary. From Yamato Road to Woolbright, from the ocean to 441, Temple Emeth can emerge stronger and better over the next five to ten years. Yes there will be some changes, but there will also be much that is the same.

The people of Israel were the same people on the Sinai side of the Red sea as they were on the Egyptian side. The difference was, now they were free from all their fears. The future may always be uncertain, but at that moment, as yesterday’s problems drowned in the sea, they joyfully danced and sang. So too we must leave our fears of the past behind and face what the future holds. There will be plenty of difficult decisions to make and yes, we will probably pine for the “good old days” when we had thousands of members. But our future calls for a community of young and old alike, working to make Judaism and the world a better place.

And that is something to sing and dance about.

Shabbat Shalom

Monday, January 11, 2010

Father and Son

Parshat Shemot
Delivered as a dialogue between Rabbi Konigsburg and Hillel Konigsburg (who participated in creating the dialogue.)

Rabbi: In this week’s parsha, we find Moses standing in front of the burning bush. It is a pivotal moment in Moses' life and in the history of the Jewish People. For the first time, God speaks directly to a human being in order to create history and it marks the beginning of a relationship that echoes to this very day. It all begins simply enough, with a bush that burns but is not consumed. It is a simple miracle that catches the eye of Moses and brings him into the presence of the divine. The sages ask the question, why a burning bush? Why not in thunder and lightning? But the Rabbis see in this miracle a test. Moses will have to watch the bush burn for some time in order to realize that it is not being consumed. That is the way it often is with miracles, they happen all the time, all around us, but we have to take the time to see them, to realize that we are in the presence of a miracle, that we are in the presence of God. Let me give you a few examples... First of all...

Hillel: Now just wait a moment! So you are suggesting that the burning bush represents the many miracles that surround us every day. What miracles? What are you talking about?!

Rabbi: Hillel, is this so hard to imagine? The whole world is filled with miracles; the grass that grows, the sunset, the impact of a beautiful song in our soul. The idea that helps humanity, the cure for a dread disease, the hero that saves the innocent, all of these are the miracles that we experience almost every day.

Hillel: Wait, wait, wait. These aren't miracles! Ever hear of these things called Biology, Physics, Harmonics, Psychology? The ability for plants to convert sunlight into nutrients through the Kreb's Cycle is not a miracle. The reflection of light waves at the corner of our atmosphere is not a miracle. The subjective interpretation of vibrations through air is hardly a miracle. They are part of the scientific reality that shapes us.
- Now, the burning bush on the other hand, that was a miracle! Fire that doesn't consume a bush?! Now that is a miracle that no physics book can explain.

Rabbi: Do you honestly believe that any good special effects creator couldn't make a bush burn and not be consumed? The issue is not the science behind it, the issue is really the impact of what we see on what we believe. A falling apple did not cause Sir Isaac Newton to discover gravity, but that apple, at that moment, created in the mind of that man an idea that reverberates through time. He paid attention and the world changed.Reply

Hillel: Now you really don't make sense. First of all, there is a difference between reality and fiction. A special effects artist can create seeming physical impossibilities, but only a fool would think that such a creation is actual. On the other hand, the real world as we experience through our senses - such is a world that represents truth. When Newton had a run in with that notorious apple, it completed the series of events, thoughts, memories, and experiences that allowed Newton to piece together a larger picture. In a manner of speaking, he was at the right place at the right time - continually throughout his life up to that point.

Rabbi: I am not sure what you are getting at. You could make the same claim concerning Moses. He also was the right man in the right spot. The only Jew who knew what freedom was. The only man who had the experience to lead the Jews to freedom. He just needed to be pushed by God to remember that he was a Jew. That the people enslaved were HIS people. All Moses had to do was take all his experiences up to that point and focus them on freedom for the People of Israel

Hillel: Exactly! Where is the miracle in that? That is just a complex web of experiences.
- The miracle in the burning bush was that the bush burned and was not consumed.

Rabbi: The miracle is in the moment of realization. The moment when rational mind meets the big idea, and suddenly, what is impossible becomes possible; that the world, with all its flaws, suddenly can be repaired. It is in the call that the miracle is found. Even if the bush was consumed, the fire started to burn in the heart of Moses and that lead to the greatest story of redemption in the history of Western Civilization. That is why there is no thunder, lightning or extravagant special effects. It is the connection made between what was seen and what was learned which is where the miracle can be found.

Hillel: So why the burning bush? Why contradict the laws of nature? After all, Newton found enlightenment from the banal experience of gravity.

Rabbi: First of all, I don't agree that gravity is a banal experience. Just because it has a name does not mean that we understand it. We really don't know why things fall to the ground. Newton only gave us the formula to describe how things fall, but we really don't know why they fall. No one has ever seen a "gravity"
- In a similar way, Moses was living a fine life as a shepherd and would have never remembered his life in Egypt unless there was a catalyst, a burning bush, to get him to pause and contemplate what he was seeing and to realize what it would mean in his life. Remember, it not only burned, it also talked!

Hillel: But why a burning and speaking bush?

Rabbi: Because at that moment, it was the right event to catch the eye of Moses and bring him out of his dream into the realization that his life could be more than just another shepherd. How many shepherds passed that bush and didn't see what Moses saw? It was the contradiction of the bush not being consumed that helped Moses see the contradictions in his own life. He was no shepherd. He was the leader who could do what no one else could do, lead Israel from Slavery to Freedom.

Hillel: So, a miracle then is the moment of realization, not the actual event that served as a catalyst for that moment.
- Then carry out your argument to the extreme. If moments of realization are the miracles, then there are infinite miracles every day. The mere fact that I can remember where I placed my shoes and car keys would be a miracle, along with the fact that I choose to eat eggs instead of cereal and the realization that my kippah is on inside out.

Rabbi: Exactly. All of life is a miracle. It is a miracle that we are alive, that we breathe, that our bodies work; that we see beauty all around us. That we pick the harmony out of the static that surrounds us. The things we call miracles, are the moments and the stimuli that trigger the "divine call" that changes an everyday moment into a moment of clarity and awareness. Reply

Hillel: But then what is the difference between a miracle and simply being?

Rabbi: We go through life as if it were a dream. We don't pay attention to life as it unfolds. We are distracted by blinking lights, screaming advertisements and a myriad of distractions that keep us from understanding that every moment is a gift from God and all of our actions have the ability to bring us closer to the divine.

Hillel: So then, our disagreement lies in syntax. If one were to argue that miracles are extraordinary events that contradict the natural fabrics of the world, then miracles would be rare occurrences.
- However, if one was to define miracles as you have, then the numerous moments of realization that each of us experience would be classified as miracles and would be quite a common occurrence.

- But why then do all the miracles of the Torah revolve around physical anomalies? The parting of the sea - The 10 plagues - Miriam's well - Water from the rock

Rabbi: These famous miracles do for us what they did for our ancestors, they get us to stop and contemplate what Moses, Miriam, Aaron and the People of Israel considered. Even if we could explain them scientifically, that it was a low tide, a savvy desert expert who knows where to find water, or red silt in the water that killed the fish, it would not make a difference. I may not know exactly what happened but I do know that what happened changed someone's thinking and the world has never been the same since.

Hillel: Ok, good point. So if we are to conclude that miracles are not the events themselves, but the reaction to the events, then miracles do indeed happen all the time.

Rabbi: And all we need to do is to wake up to God's call, a call that goes out every day to anyone who will listen, and then let that call change our lives. All we need to do is to stop and listen, and we will hear God telling us to remove our shoes, because the ground on which we stand is holy.
- May all of us stop to see the wonders of the world around us and may that sense of wonder and amazement, lead us to find God in the world and in our heart. May God bless us with open eyes and open minds as we say Amen and Shabbat Shalom.

Monday, January 4, 2010

The Greatest Love of All

I sent this out to the Shefa list and, with a few modifications, I share it with all my readers today.

Let me start by saying that I am a "company man". I believe in the institutions of Conservative Judaism and while the structure may need some improvement, I don't mind working with what we have.I am also a realist. I don't have any nostalgic preferences for what we have done in the past. I only know that it is important to teach the ethics and the rituals of Judaism to Jews where ever they may be. And that I am committed to teaching a Judaism that is pluralistic, egalitarian, and equally open to all Jews who share the Positive Historical approach to Jewish History and Halacha.

With both of these ideas in mind, I believe that the reason our institutions are dying and our denomination is shrinking is because we have never really been good at the things we need to do now. We have hung on to our past for so long that we no longer reflect the needs of those who should be finding a home here, and this includes all those who think like us but who don't affiliate with our movement. Each of these areas below needs an entire essay to explain but I will keep this short. These are my opinions on what we can do now to re-energize our movement;

1. We have, in the past, built our synagogues around our schools. Jews today marry later and have children much later. By the time they need us, they have already lived over 10 years as an adult without us. Our synagogues must be something more than a school for children of members.

2. Our Cantors have been dedicated to preserving music from the golden age of Cantorial music at the beginning of the twentieth century. Jews today are creating new music for liturgy and there may even be a new golden age going on but our congregations and many Cantors have decided to stick with the past. The issue is not musical Instruments on Shabbat vs. no musical instruments, the real issue is what kind of music will be use for prayer. There are many Cantors out there who really "get" this, but I find that other Cantors margialize the new contributions of their mostly younger colleagues

3. Synagogues see themselves as social centers for Jews. Today, Jews of all ages, and particularly young, single, professional Jews, do not not need a synagogue for social or professional reasons. There are way too many other, more interesting ways to spend their free time. We need to program what is missing from the lives of Jews today. For example...

4. Our synagogues have never been committed to ongoing, get your hands dirty, social action/political action. Jews of all ages today are hungry for meaning in their life and we give them very little to do that will help them feel they are making a difference in changing the world. They can't get this from the internet or from cable television in High Definition. We need, as never before, a strong social action/political action agenda for Conservative Jews. We have some, but we can do better.

5. Our synagogues give only poor lip service to serious Jewish studies. All Jews today are interested in a serious examination of texts and spirituality that is less about indoctrination and more about how to live a better life. You can tell how much we value Adult Learning by how little our congregations spend on it. We need to make Adult learning a major budget item and a key part of synagogue life.

6. We offer one main service in a world where one size no longer fits all. Here I could blame Rabbis who are either afraid to let their members daven in a different room or who would rather daven in the other room but are "stuck" in the main service. We need services that we are proud of going on all over our buildings.

7. I believe nobody will care how long services will take if they are engaged in meaningful prayer and thought provoking study. They don't need another 3 hour show that is the same thing every week. If the service we will conduct before Universal Health Care is passed ( or rejected) is the same as the service we will conduct after it is passed (or rejected) then what we do is meaningless to the people who we want to reach. We need to engage our congregations in prayer and study if we want them to attend Shabbat tephillot (prayer)

OK so all of you who have said, "the time for meetings is past, it is time for action" here is your action plan. Start with any of these seven issues and see how quickly your congregation will become vitalized. Ignore them at your own peril. BJ, Ikar, Hadar, and, Anshei Chesed in NY are living proof that this works. Ron Wolfson and Synagogue 3000 have been collecting data to prove the point. We know what we need to do, so lets roll up our sleeves and get to work!