The DJC at Eighteen

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(excerpted from Rabbi Miriam’s Erev Rosh Hashanah sermon)

So here we are at the DJC, celebrating our 18th year.

At 18 years of age we have a tremendous amount to celebrate. There is so much to be proud of and so much to thank each other for. So many of you have served on the board and on committees. You have helped set up chairs, licked envelopes, and cut apples. You have housed in-home Shabbat gatherings and movie nights, reading circles and music salons. You have organized b’nai mitzvah celebrations for our young people and a b’nai mitzvah celebration for our community. You have sewn exquisite hangings, written marketing materials, sung in choirs, and advocated for Roma refugees. You have been involved in listening projects, multi-faith walks, food drives, and community Seders. You have brought comfort to mourners and you have welcomed new babies into the brit, the covenant, extending the chain of the Jewish people into the future.

Over the past 18 years we have built a Jewish community that is deliberate about our diversity and is consciously inclusive of a wide range of Jewish backgrounds and beliefs, welcoming and inclusive of non-Jewish partners and fellow travelers, inclusive of the broad diversity of sexual orientations and gender identities, and is striving to become ever more accessible to people with diverse physical and mental needs.

We are not very formal or fancy. We prefer to be warm and heymish. We are a community that is reflective and questioning and quite funny. And today we have a school with 84 students and an excellent team of educators. We have a rich and diverse programming calendar filled with opportunities for Jewish learning and experiences that cover the gamut of spiritual, cultural, intellectual, and social programs. We have two incredibly skilled administrative staff and a proficient volunteer coordinator. We have a cantor who is running multiple choirs, and weaving beautiful music into more and more DJC programming. We have a fundraising team that is working hard to ensure this community will thrive for many years to come, and we have a rabbi, based in Toronto, who’s not half bad.

Those of you who started the DJC were truly courageous and creative in building something outside of the often conservative and insular norms of the mainstream Toronto Jewish community. So you have built a community that challenges the boundaries of a traditional Jewish community. You sought to widen the range of ways we can express Jewishness, and what it can look like to do Jewish together.

In many ways, you started this community with the rebellious, free-spirited orientation of a teenager. That’s not an insult. Teenagers go through a valuable stage of rebellion and differentiation. Teens will often push for what is right. They have sensitized antennae to judge when adults are being hypocritical, narrow-minded, or too comfortable, rather than being principled and passionate. They often need to reject many of their parents’ values and choices before they can consciously choose which ones they will weave back into their lives.

But now that we’re 18, now that we are an established community standing on our own two feet, I think we are ready to leave the remnants of our teen selves and step into organizational adulthood.

Our new mission statement names positive values that describe who we are and what we care about. Of course the words inclusive, joyous, egalitarian, musical, accessible, and inspiring are listed. As we tried on other statements reflecting our commitments, it was clear that naming the values at the centre of this community shouldn’t only describe our current values, but should point at the directions we aspire toward. We wrote that we “share in the rich wisdom and inspiration of Jewish tradition and culture, while seeking to challenge, explore and reinterpret it”. We said we “are striving to revitalize our traditions and culture with moral courage, creativity, and generosity of spirit”. We asserted ourselves as “a vibrant community” that is “part of a larger progressive Jewish movement”. These are exciting, inspirational statements. I would want to be part of that community. And these are just the bare bones. Now it is our wonderful challenge to keep these values at the forefront of our minds, and make them concrete as they guide everything we do – our learning and programming, the ways we address conflict with one another, and the ways we show up for each other in times of mourning, to name just a few.

We are also ready, in our mature new state of being, to understand these values, not as our own inventions and not as the general values of nice liberals, but to discover their dimensionality in Jewish tradition, and their contemporary embodiment in progressive Jewish life.

In terms of progressive Jewish values, the DJC is certainly a special community, but it is not unique. Progressive Jewish communities, thinkers, and resources exist world-wide. We have a lot to learn from them and with them. The more we can examine how others reinterpret our sources through the lenses of feminism, anti-oppression theory, queer theory, etc., and how others re-imagine prayer and spiritual life, social activism, or end of life issues, the more we will be able to learn from the lessons of our predecessors and partners, gain valuable insight to define our values with vision and substance, and bring more strength and substance to progressive Jewish life.

So what do you want to learn next? Do you want to learn Hebrew so that sources become accessible to you? It just so happens we’ll be offering beginner Hebrew this year. How about learning the skills of Torah interpretation? This fall, I’ll be teaching a series on Shabbat mornings called Scuba Torah – diving into the sea of Torah commentary. Don’t be afraid, the water is warm. For those of you who aren’t Jewish, learning Jewish texts can be an open and inviting way to understand more about Judaism, about Jews, and glean universal teachings from them without having to claim these sources as your own or hold any particular beliefs. If it’s not already clear, I’ll underscore that you are always welcome at any learning session.

The DJC is an incredible community. What we are building here matters, not only for those of us who call this our Jewish home, but it matters for the whole of the Jewish community in Toronto, and for the thoughtful evolution of Judaism, living up to its highest values. This work is important because we have big work to do in the world. A strong, conscious, mature, and joyous community is ready to take on the biggest issues of our generation. I am so excited to see how we will grow in the coming years.

Le’chayyim!

Posted in Rabbi's Message