5776 Erev Rosh Hashana Sermon – BELONGING TO EACH OTHER

Dedicated to my mentor and my rabbi, Sheila Weinberg (rabbi u’morati).

A little over a year ago, here at the DJC, we celebrated our first individual bar mitzvah as part of a DJC Shabbat morning service.  This might not sound all that remarkable. It might sound like what any other Jewish community does.  But for this community, it was remarkable.  Up until last year, anyone who didn’t participate in our wonderful year-long b’nai mitzvah class with its group b’nai mitzvah celebration each May used to arrange for a private bar or bat mitzvah – renting a space, hiring our wonderful Cantor Lisa or someone else to lead the service, creating their own prayer book, and inviting friends and family.  Many of you here have had that experience and I have no doubt that it was beautiful and meaningful.

As we’ve been growing into a more full time, year-round community with more resources and infrastructure to support it, and as we’ve been slowly deepening our connections with one another throughout the course of each year, the DJC has officially stopped offering private b’nai mitzvah.  DJC b’nai mitzvah are now communal, public, and held on a Shabbat morning as part of our scheduled programming for the year, and every single one of you is invited to each and every bar or bat mitzvah that we have from now on.  By the way, I recommend investing in market shares at Dough Bakery across the street – I have a feeling their annual challah demand will be rising (pun intended).

On that particular Shabbat morning over a year ago, our bar mitzvah Misha Thompson chanted from the Torah and stood on the bimah as a shali’ach tzibbur, which literally means ‘a messenger of the community’.  He gave an insightful and probing dvar Torah.  You couldn’t sit in this sanctuary and not learn from him.  Members of his family also chanted Torah, had various aliyot, and, as an interfaith family pioneering the project of raising Jewish children in a home in which one parent is not Jewish, they all stood together on the bimah, celebrating Misha’s entry into conscious Jewish adulthood.  The joy that morning was overflowing.

But that morning did not revolve entirely around Misha.  In fact, on that same Shabbat morning we had another simcha.  Our members Yiftach and Chris brought their big-cheeked young twins Magnus and Yael into the brit, the covenant, of the Jewish people and we gave them their Hebrew names with blessing and honours for their families and friends.

And on that same Shabbat morning, the students from our Jewish Studies program came up on the bimah and led the community in morning blessings and joyful prayer-song they had practiced in advance.

And it was also a regular Shabbat morning that included mourner’s kaddish and prayers for healing offering communal support to those facing illness and grief.  And some people were simply there to celebrate Shabbat.

Everyone there that morning participated in a joy that was richer and fuller than any one of those events would have been on its own.  No matter why they came, everyone there, members and non-members, Jews and non-Jews, took part in welcoming Magnus and Yael into the Jewish people by tangibly, concretely being the loving arms into which those young people landed and with which their fathers were embraced.

We all witnessed those in grief and could put a hand on their shoulders and offer comforting words, a listening ear, or simply stand side-by-side with them breaking bread together.

And no matter who they knew or didn’t know, when they walked through the doors of Bethminster, everyone there took part in embracing and claiming Misha as a creative, contributing member of the Jewish people by showing him – on our faces and with our delight – that we take him seriously, that he is needed and wanted, that he matters, and that he needs us and has us.  How often do 13 year olds in our broader culture receive that message from adults, particularly from those they don’t even know?  How often do adults get to build relationships and be inspired by young people who are not their own family?  This embodies the very meaning of b’nai mitzvah as a young person takes their place in the circle of Jewish community and we lay claim to one another.

Why am I telling you all this? Because the ingredients that mixed together that day are a microcosm of the best that community can be and, as is the nature of community, when community is at its best, each of us individually are at our best as well.  Over its history, the DJC has done a beautiful job supporting its members in tragedy, celebrating together, sharing the weight and the creativity of running a community with very few resources and a lot of commitment.

And yet, our membership is growing and many of you don’t know each other and don’t know each others’ lives.

And, as we grow, there are important needs that aren’t being met – when some shiva services are packed and others can barely get a minyan; or when we do our best but fail to find a ride for someone who can’t drive but desperately wants to come to a Friday night service; or when a person comes to High Holyday services for 10 years and still feel like a stranger here.  I want us to explore how the DJC can be a robust, Jewishly engaged, intentional community at this stage of its life.  That does not mean making you more religious than you are, or convincing you to buy into beliefs you don’t find meaningful.  It does mean exploring how we can show up for one another, what Jewish principles and practices can guide us there and attend to anything that gets in the way.

It is helpful to set the project of community in a wider cultural context. In his book Bowling Alone, Harvard Professor Robert Putnam chronicles the breakdown of social capital.  By that he means “the networks of relationship that link us to one another and the norms of reciprocity and trustworthiness that arise from them” (Putnam, p.19).  He illustrates that in the 1950s and 60s, we used to go bowling in leagues.  We as a society were actively involved in clubs, civic organizations, religious institutions, and neighbourhood activities.  We were engaged in these various constellations of relationship that extended well beyond family and friends. According to Putnam, between 1985 and 1994, active involvement in community organizations in the U.S. fell by 45%.  That’s almost half of America’s civic infrastructure obliterated in barely a decade (Putnam, p.60).

Interestingly, organizational memberships have not significantly dropped.  People are still paying dues, joining organizations, keeping their names on membership lists.  But what has significantly dropped are more active forms of face-to-face participation.  In the last third of the 20th century, our social networks have become narrower, our engagements have become more individualistic, and we have become increasingly disconnected from one another.  We are more isolated than we used to be.  More lonely.  We are required to rely on a smaller network of supports than we used to.  And although the web of surveillance cameras and Facebook photos reveals more and more information about our lives, there are fewer and fewer people who bear witness to our lives in a deeper sense, as the foundation of our mutual concern, our interdependence, and our practices of generosity.  Increasingly, we bowl alone.

This is where community steps in, potently moving against these trends.  One of the most salient aspect of community lies in what Putnam calls “generalized reciprocity”.  Most of our interpersonal relationships involve both giving and receiving.  We don’t keep score of who is giving and who is receiving in every moment, but we’re generally mindful that there is an overall balance and mutuality in our direct relationships.  We either do or don’t experience reciprocity in that direct space between us, and that is one of the measures of the health and maturity of the relationship.

In a community, though, giving and receiving are often not direct. I would actually say that a community is at best, ethically and responsively, when reciprocity is not direct, when it is generalized.  To use Yogi Berra’s wry humour, it’s a plain truth that “if you don’t go to somebody’s funeral, they won’t come to yours” (quoted in Putnam, p.20).

In community, you ideally give with no expectation that the person who benefited from your kindness will give directly back to you.  In fact, our Sages teach, that the deepest act of chesed (loving kindness) that we can offer in Jewish life is putting earth in someone’s grave, bringing them to their final resting place with kavod, honour and respect, knowing they themselves can never repay you.  But someone else in the community will.  These acts of generosity are not altruistic.  They are rooted in the clear and deep trust that you can count on the community when you are in need.  You give when you can give.  And when you need to fall into the arms of the community, you will be held.  This is a system that can only work if enough people join together in mutual obligation and shared responsibility.

In the words of contemporary Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, “Modern culture slices responsibility too thinly and distributes it too narrowly” (The Home We Build Together, p.236).  But in community, “mutual responsibility is cultivated as a habit” and it is spread broadly over the entire community.  In Jewish terms, this is where mitzvah and chesed, obligation and loving kindness embrace, where doing the right thing and doing the loving thing embody the same action.

It is also an essential feature of community that we do not choose everyone else who is in it with us.  This is key.  Unlike your circle of friends, in any community there will likely be people you don’t know, people you don’t like all that much, and people you disagree with.  Simply because we commit to being here together, we have the opportunity to practice showing up for one another.  Woody Allen wisely said, “Showing up is 80 percent of life.”

So we practice.  We practice showing up and expanding our hearts to include more people, to care more widely, to know each other more honestly, and to hang in with each other through all that life throws us.  These are muscles we can strengthen in community, that we’re not called upon to stretch and strengthen in the same way in other contexts.  We practice.  We practice moving through our awkwardness or sadness or jealousy to be able to rejoice with others and make their joy our own.  We practice moving through our ambivalence about Judaism, or religious institutions, or rabbis, to be able to come to a shiva service of someone we don’t know.  Whatever is getting in the way of moving in closer to this particular group of people is worth examining. Let’s talk about it.

I’m not trying to guilt you into getting more involved. If coming to the DJC once a year is what you are interested in, you are always warmly welcome.  But I also know that many of you are hungry for community.  Many of you yearn for belonging, and specifically belonging in Jewish community, even if that is fraught and complicated and has been a source of hurt.

I want to invite you to decide that you belong here.  I want to invite you to decide that we belong to one another.  Maybe belonging isn’t merely a feeling, but a decision. And the more we practice belonging to one another, the more clearly we will know that we belong together.  In the process, we each come to know ourselves as bigger because the more we belong to others, the more deeply we belong to ourselves. I want to call us into a view of ourselves that is bigger than we hold. That’s why we’re here – to be bigger somehow (Rabbi Sheila Weinberg).

Let’s practice. Let’s practice showing up for each other this year. Let’s practice until we are really good at it, until it spills over from within the community and outward to others.  May this be a year of communal celebration and simchas, community support and comfort, and all the sweetness that is waiting to be shared.

Shana tova!

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