The text is not just a narrative about faith, or dysfunctional families. It’s also a narrative about what it means to look to the future.
We read in Genesis 22:4: On the third day - Abraham lifted up his eyes - and he saw that place…(the place God had designated for Isaac’s theoretical sacrifice) - from afar.
Abraham’s ability to see…to perceptively vision…is affirmed at the story’s climax. Abraham names this place where God’s presence was so palpably felt ‘Adonai Yireh,’ which we might loosely translate as “Adonai was, and will be, seen.”
On Rosh HaShanah, we are all like Abraham. We are all straining to catch a glimpse of the ram’s horn. We are all straining to discern what God is asking of us. And we are all looking into the distance…peering into the future…toward a vision of what might be. This is the sacred conversation we begin this morning. I am humbled to take the first step in that journey by sharing thoughts about my vision for our congregation. I am reminded, however, of the story of the woman who walks into an optician to return a pair of spectacles that she purchased for her husband.
The innocent assistant asks, “What seems to be the problem, Ma'am?”
The woman replies, “I need a refund for these glasses! He’s still not seeing things my way.” Needless to say: I am excited to hear from you - your thoughts about where we’ve come from, and where we’re going. So that together, we can chart a way forward. Some of this work has already been done for us. Several years ago, a group of lay leaders crafted our congregational Shema and V’ahavta - rich and meaningful language that articulates the core values of our synagogue. I am proud that my vision grows out of this statement, which hangs prominently outside our library, and is of course on our website.
My vision also grows out of three pivotal Jewish experiences in my own life…moments that made me feel particularly aware of God’s presence, and the profound call of our Tradition. One moment comes from my teenage years, when I was included rather than excluded, in a Jewish communal space. One comes from my early 20s, when Amy and I were dating and I came to recognize the transformative impact of Shabbat. And the third comes from the beginning of my rabbinate, when I first recognized the unique opportunity a rabbi has to build relationships with, and between, others. These moments are the seeds of my vision for a renewed 21st century synagogue. We begin with the question of inclusion. Our congregational Shema and V’ahavta proclaim: “We recognize the holiness in each one of us as we celebrate our differences.” That’s a principle that emanates from the Torah’s Creation Story, which we’ll read tomorrow. That story is the source of our belief that every person was created betzelem elohim - in the image of God. We believe that everyone matters.
I experienced this value at our movement’s Camp Harlam. I was an awkward middle schooler, and I didn’t always fit in with my peers. But when I arrived at camp, I encountered a community that was inclusionary, and did not tolerate kids alienating one another. Harlam’s playbook was straight out of the Torah: everyone has value, and everyone should be welcomed.
Our synagogue claims a remarkable legacy around this value. Our teacher, Rabbi Emeritus Stephen A. Klein, led area rabbis in courageously imagining how a synagogue could warmly welcome families where one partner is not Jewish. I am deeply humbled to try to follow in his footsteps. In that same spirit, our new educator, Rabbi Ilyse Glickman, has been working with lay leaders to launch Kulanu (All of Us), to more effectively engage students with language based learning disabilities. And Mazel Tots Director Jody Glassman is working with our preschool faculty to enhance their sensitivity to contemporary issues of gender identity. Our staff does this work out of the conviction that we become a more authentic and values-oriented synagogue when we make room for everyone. But our work is not done. Our Reform Movement encourages every synagogue to pursue “Audacious Hospitality.” And despite all we are doing, aspects of our community are not yet audaciously hospitable. There is, for example, the ongoing question of the most appropriate dues model for our synagogue.
I am so grateful to those who have offered feedback on that question during this last year. Our Connected Congregations team has assembled a significant amount of data, thanks in part to your input, and will be presenting it to our Board in the coming weeks, so that our lay leadership can reflect on the most appropriate course of action that will move us forward. My own perspective on the matter is informed by Torah, and my reading of Leviticus Chapter 5, which addresses the question of sacrifices brought in ancient times.
The chapter opens with the default presumption that a sacrifice is a four-legged animal. But what of the person who cannot afford to offer up a four-legged animal? The Torah permits more-affordable birds instead. And if someone cannot afford birds? Then he or she should bring a symbolic amount of flour instead. Authentic participation in ancient Israelite communal life didn’t hinge on the size of one’s flock. It hinged instead on the authenticity of one’s heart. And so I wonder: is there a more Jewishly authentic way that we can financially administer our synagogue, so that people of all socioeconomic backgrounds would be welcome to join?
As I shift to another inclusion challenge facing our community, a different verse from the Hebrew Bible comes to mind. Isaiah famously proclaimed: “My house shall be a house of prayer for all people.” The verse suggests that our prayer space belongs to everyone who is moved to worship with us. And yet: this beautiful sanctuary that we are privileged to gather in is not accessible. Its steps, in particular, are a safety hazard for young and old alike. And they often prevent those with physical challenges from fully participating in worship and life cycle events.
As we enter into the new year, I would ask you: how we can be even more inclusive of the needs of you and your family? And what are your thoughts about the feasibility of a campaign to better align our sacred architecture with our sacred values? Our congregational Shema and V’ahavta don’t just remind us about the centrality of inclusion. They also teach us about the rhythms of Jewish time. For example, the statement encourages us to draw “from the well of Jewish wisdom, [as] we infuse our lives with meaning and enrich ourselves, our families and our congregation.” For thousands of years, Shabbat has been the Jewish vehicle to infuse our lives with meaning on a weekly basis. But let’s be honest: Shabbat is often an afterthought. We are over-committed: to our jobs, to our children, to ailing parents, to errands, and to our screens that constantly remind us of those obligations.
I dream of a Shabbat-centered Scarsdale Synagogue that might be a spiritual oasis - a haven from the stresses of the other six days of our weeks. Shabbat here could be a wellspring of renewal to those who are weighed down by suffering. It could be a space where we celebrate, and mark important life milestones together. And Shabbat here could be a springboard for us to bring help and hope to the wider world. How might we bring the gift of Shabbat to temple families who don’t regularly join us on Friday nights?
One answer is our ongoing Sharing Shabbat initiative, which we will facilitate three times this year. In lieu of Friday night services, we encourage you to host or be hosted for dinner.
I’m fond of this initiative because it reminds me of how Amy and I met, and ultimately fell in love. When we first started dating, Amy had been part of a group of twenty-something friends in Washington that would gather for Shabbat potluck lunches on Saturday afternoons. There were Jews and non-Jews and regulars and guests around the table every week. That space was transformative for me and Amy as a couple. But I was also impacted very personally. I came to realize that the essence of Shabbat was enjoying a leisurely meal with friends. Lifelong friendships grew out of those Saturday afternoons for us. And so I am excited that we have the chance to try to encourage that kind of relationship building here in the coming year.
We are also reflecting on Shabbat mornings. If you are looking for an easy way to be spiritually re-charged and intellectually stimulated, while meeting and getting to know a lovely group of people, please join us for Shabbat BaBoker!
Consider for a moment a future SSTTE with Shabbat at its center. It is a space where we have more opportunities to spend quality time together, rather than less. Our’s could be a community where we gather on Shabbat morning, not just to study and pray together intergenerationally, but also to support the other families in our community when their children become Bat Mitzvah, whether we are close friends with them or not.
Our’s could be a community where we are outside exploring nature on Shabbat, because the seventh day is a celebration of the beauty of Creation and the natural world. And our’s could be a community where we are empowered to do acts of tzedek on Shabbat, because the perfection of Shabbat is meant to inspire us to bring wholeness to the fragile world we live in. For too long, we Jews have mistakenly presumed that Shabbat is about prohibitions…against driving or spending money. I would invite us to move beyond that, as we seek to take the spirit of our day of rest and translate it into meaningful opportunities for us to be socially and spiritually nurtured within our congregation. This notion brings us to the third part of my vision for a thriving synagogue: being in meaningful relationship with one another. This is the defining essence of our Shema and V’ahavta, which asserts: “Hineynu - We are here. Creating a covenant community. Of shared lives and real relationships.” Some of us are privileged to have a circle of friends at SSTTE. Coming to synagogue functions is an opportunity to renew those friendships. But re-affirming already-existing relationships is not the relationality I’m speaking of. I’m thinking instead of those incredible moments when I see two people in our community - who don’t know each other - greet one another anyway. Like during the pause at the start of Shabbat services, when everyone greets one another. And I’m even more touched when I visit a shiva house, and see another congregant there to pay respects - when I know that they barely know the mourners. An ever-more-intentional approach to expanding our congregation’s social network is a key component of what our synagogue needs as we grow into a 21st century institution. We’ve recently taken steps toward this. We are wearing name tags again so we can greet one another by name. We have a long history of supporting congregants through the devoted work of our Care to Connect team, which selflessly offers meals, rides, calls, and visits to those in need. And: as I already mentioned, we are pursuing an ambitious Shabbat hospitality initiative that welcomes congregants into one another’s homes. How can we take all this to the next level?
Our Membership team is boldly experimenting with a new buddy system that will match new members with veteran ones as a means toward relationship building. Would it be feasible to expand that someday so that every temple member had such a “buddy,” to insure that everyone had at least one friend?
I’ve also spent time thinking about my own role in relationship-building here. During Elul this year, I found my thoughts returning to a congregant I was privileged to study with in San Diego. She wanted to convert to Judaism, and live a meaningful Jewish life. But she did not know anyone in our synagogue.
Before I met her, I presumed that my primary impact as a rabbi would be through my teaching. But I came to realize that I could have an even-more impactful role if I welcomed her into the network of people I had come to know at the synagogue. The simple act of introducing her to others, and welcoming her to our communal space, transformed her life, and our synagogue, for the better. I look forward to doing more of this kind of work here in the year ahead.
I treasure the connections I have with so many of you - whether because we studied together, met before or after a service, or bumped into each other on the train.
But to everyone, let me say: I would love to spend quality time with you! I want to hear your stories…how you came to be here in Westchester…how you got connected to Scarsdale Synagogue…why being part of a Jewish community matters to you and your family. I want to hear all of this so that we can get to know each other better, and so that I can better connect you with one another.
And: I want to hear your response to this vision of our communal future. Are inclusion, Shabbat, and relationship-building things that you think our leadership team should be working on? Do you have an expertise or passion to offer us as we work to strengthen our synagogue?
I hope you’ll share your thoughts at the open forums I’ve scheduled for Sunday October 4 and Wednesday October 7. Or be in touch so that we can schedule time to meet one on one - here in the synagogue, or out for a meal! I would love to get to know you, and the things you care about. Even as I invite you to reach out to me, I’ll also be planning to reach out to you. Don’t be surprised if I call in the coming weeks and months, as I try to connect with our entire congregation….just to invite you to coffee.
Long before Abraham was asked to sacrafice Isaac, God said to him: Lech Lecha. Go forth, away from that which is most comforting and familiar, and imagine instead something different.
Trying something new, and experimenting with change, is never easy. But the Jewish People are alive today, because we are Abraham’s descendants. In every generation, we have dared to look beyond the horizon to imagine new ways to express our Judaism…in order to survive, and flourish. We are the heirs to Abraham and his vision. Lech Lecha. Get ready to go forth on this journey, as we give thought to what our synagogue’s future might look like…as we all journey, and join, together.