Bonim B'Yachad - We Will Build This Together
Shanah Tova - Or should I say Good Yontiff?
I want to begin my words this morning by telling you about Chaim Abromowitz. You see…
Chaim Abromowitz was on a cruise when his yacht sank during a violent storm. Fortunately everyone on board survived by swimming to a nearby island. When the people realized that they might be stranded for weeks or even months on this deserted island, they began building shelters for themselves and searching for food.
All except Mr. Abromowitz. He lay on the beach tanning himself in the sun. When the others asked him why he was so calm, he said, "You don't understand. Two years ago my synagogue had a shortfall and I gave them twenty thousand dollars. Last year when they had a capital campaign I gave them ﬁfty-thousand.
It's a new year -- don’t worry, they'll find us! ”
As usual I wanted to begin my sermon this morning with a little levity - a little joke - but at the same time I also want to be upfront and honest and let you know that this is a serious sermon.
The sermon is serious because the outcome of my words this morning has serious implications for our congregation, for our greater Jewish community and for each of us individually.
So I am just going to say it: we must raise money to rebuild and renovate our aging, inadequate and outdated facility.
I know that by just making this statement — from the Bima — on Yontiff no less - l have probably made a few of you uncomfortable and if that is the case I am sorry. I am sorry that you may be a little uncomfortable — but I am not sorry that I said it.
I believe we are at a serious crossroads in our congregation’s life and I believe that it is my sacred obligation to do everything in my power to ensure that we never forget where we came from, that we never neglect our immediate needs and that we pass down this great congregation stronger and better than we inherited it.
We are a people, a congregation that values our time-honored custom of caring for and passing down what is most meaningful and what is most lasting.
I am reminded of this remarkable custom each Shabbat morning as I witness one of the most meaningful of all of our traditions — when we remove our people’s story from the Holy Ark and literally pass down a physical Sefer Torah — our actual Torah scroll — from one generation to the next until it rests firmly on the shoulders of a bar or bat mitzvah.
How amazing is it that after all these thousands of years we still have a tangible Torah that we can touch, smell, read, and pass down. How amazing is it that the Sefer Torah we pass down has the exact same story, the same values, the same laws and the same customs as did the scrolls that our grandparents, great-grandparents and great-great-grandparents had passed down to them.
Sure, in our modern world we have many copies of the text in other forms. Some may even argue that we don’t actually need to have a physical Torah scroll made up of animal skin parchment wrapped on wooden dowels. We have all seen or used versions of our Torah that come in forms that are less cumbersome, easier to handle and easier to read.
We can readily find our people's story in bound books, on a CD, on the Internet and in apps like UTorah, Pocket Torah and Living Torah (if you don‘t believe me, look it up — but please do it after the service). All of this may be true but wouldn’t it seem strange if we open the ark doors on Shabbat or on the High Holy Days and remove an iPad?
The fact is we are linked not only to the written word in our Torah but we are equally connected to the physical scroll itself. It is the “tree of life” because it is the same physical Torah our grandparents, great-grandparents and great-great-grandparents carried, studied, and cherished. We are generationally linked to the Torah because it looks the same, feels the same, smells the same, and when read out loud it sounds the same.
This is one of those ancient traditions that l truly believe has saved the Jewish people. I believe that the fact that we still have a physical Torah -- a tangible, touchable, concrete, real Torah scroll to pass down from one generation to the next -- teaches us that the emotional and stimulating metaphor we find in the words of Torah, are not enough. We are being taught that Judaism must also be a tangible, touchable and concrete experience. We are being taught that we can’t ignore the klay kodesh — the holy objects — of our people only to be steeped in the cerebral, the metaphorical and spiritual.
Let me tell you a story:
There was a little boy who frequently went to shul with his grandparents. And this little boy would always sit right next to his Poppy as he affectionately called his grandfather.
Wide-eyed and curious, the little boy would watch his grandfather, who before services began would remove this beautiful piece of silk with fringes and shiny silver from a blue velvet bag. This blue velvet bag was embroidered with gold letters that spelled something in Hebrew, and even though the little boy couldn't read Hebrew yet, he could sense that it said something important.
The little boy knew by the way his grandfather handled this garment that this was something extraordinary. His grandfather would recite a blessing, wrap the silk garment with its fringes and beautiful silver around his neck, open his prayer book, and begin to pray.
The little boy watched intently and copied his grandfather’s every move. He would pick up a prayer book and pretend to read - mumbling some made up sounds that resembled those he heard coming from his grandfather and all of those around him.
Eager to teach and excited that his grandson was interested in learning, the grandfather always took the time to explain. He taught his grandson that in the blue velvet bag was a special prayer shawl and written on the bag in gold, were the Hebrew letters tet— lamid — yod — taf, tallit or tallis as the grandfather pronounced it. The little boy always loved his grandfather and he always loved his grandfather’s tallis. The grandfather could often be heard whispering - someday you will have a tallis just like this.
Little did this grandfather know that through his ability to transmit his tradition — the tradition of the Jewish people – both metaphorically and physically - I would be standing here today as your rabbi at Peninsula Temple Beth El - still holding tight to his beautiful silk prayer shawl with its shiny silver and blue velvet bag embroidered with the word tallit.
I know that my Poppy didn’t intellectualize these formative moments in my life. I know that he had no idea that these moments would lead me to the rabbinate. As a matter of fact my Nana was always convinced that if my Poppy found out I was becoming a rabbi he would turn over in his grave in disbelief. Regardless of what he may or may not have wanted the outcome to be, I do know that he took the sacred responsibility to pass down what was most important and what he felt was most lasting seriously.
I find it remarkable that like my Poppy, our sages, our ancestors knew it was not enough to simply have rules to follow. They knew it was not enough to have stories to remember. They knew it was not enough to have customs to practice. Yes, we are commanded to pass down our rules, our stories and our customs -- but they teach us that we must also pass down all of the sacred objects we need and we use to inspire us and assist us in fulfilling our sacred acts.
What they instinctively knew was this — it is in the transmitting of both the physical and metaphysical aspects of Judaism that enables us to learn how to make challah and why we make it. It is in the transmitting of both the physical and metaphysical that we learn how to wrap the fringes of our talIis around our necks and what the fringes stand for. It is in the transmitting of both the physical and metaphysical that makes sitting in this sanctuary, celebrating our New Year together, so much more than the prayers we read and the melodies we sing. It is in the transmission of our tradition, both the physical and metaphysical from one generation to the next that enables us to experience the sacredness of this space.
Let me tell you another story:
One October evening a little more than 60 years ago, a group of visionaries gathered to form Peninsula Temple Beth El. They sat in the home of Jerry Batt and imagined all the social and intellectual possibilities a Reform Congregation would bring to the North Peninsula Jewish community.
While I was not in the room, I am pretty sure that when these founding members met in the Batt‘s home, they spoke passionately about creating a congregation built on the same values we live by today. I am sure they pontificated that Peninsula Temple Beth El would be a caring community, deeply committed to study, worship, the State of Israel and the pursuit of social justice. I am sure they dreamed that Peninsula Temple Beth El would be a community that celebrated together, mourned together, and reached out to repair the world together.
I am sure they knew then as we do now that at our temple's core would be the ability to raise the spirit of each of its members from the mundane to the holy. I am sure they knew then as we do now that at our temple's core would be a membership ready to stand as a people of faith with the desire to transform their lives, at home and in the community. I am sure they knew then as we do now that at our temple's core we would take seriously our sacred obligation to pass down what was most meaningful and most lasting.
I would like us to stop for one second and acknowledge and remind ourselves how fortunate we are that sitting in this very room are many of our founding members, their children, grandchildren and in some cases great-grandchildren. And now together with the rest of us who are here today on Rosh Hashanah 5774, we cannot forget how fortunate we are to be the direct recipients of the physical Torah they passed down to us.
For the past 60 years, built on the shoulders of our founding members, we have taken pride in the young people we educate and the adults we engage in lifelong learning. For the past 60 years we have been enriched by the thousands of lifecycle moments we share as a community. For the past 60 years we have honored our tradition through our collective acts of tzedakah and gemilut chassadim – acts of charity and loving-kindness. And for the past 60 years we accomplish all this by being a truly welcoming and inclusive Jewish community.
For the past 60 years Peninsula Temple Beth El has been a source of support, inspiration and education — a home for Reform Jews and a home for our interfaith families. For the past 60 years PTBE has been a place to share the most personal and meaningful moments in our family’s lives and for the past 60 years we have been here for each other -- and this is what a sacred community is all about.
But, little did our founders know in 1952 that in the year 2013 we would become one of the fastest growing congregations in the country. And little did they know that in 2013 we would become so successful that we would outgrow the sanctuary, social hall and the education spaces they envisioned to house this community. And little did they know that in 2013 our facilities would suffer from benign neglect, some buildings having fallen into disrepair, environmentally inefficient and in some cases even unsafe?
The Talmud teaches that there is a fair amount of importance placed on the idea that one’s inside and one's outside should be the same. The discussion stems from the fact that the first ark to contain the 10 commandments was made of wood covered both inside and out with gold. The rabbis believe this was meant to teach us an important lesson—namely, “Tocho k‘boro—one’s inside should be as one’s outside."
This means that a person whose outer appearance is stunning but whose inner life lacks compassion and humility falls short of the standard set for us by our tradition. And I believe, and so did the rabbis, that if this is true of people, it can also be true of buildings.
So now let me make one of the most important statements that I can make this morning. I am not talking about building new facades that sparkle on the outside and are deplete of our core values on the inside. What we do inside our buildings will always be the driving force of our community, not our buildings themselves.
We must continually remind ourselves to never disregard that the core of this congregation is sitting in this room and we should never overlook how blessed we are to have each other. We are blessed because we feed hungry people, house homeless people, standup for social justice, care for the sick and tend to the bereaved. We are blessed because we teach our children and teach our adults to care for one another. We are blessed because so many of you give of your time and money to guide this congregation and as you heard last night from our Temple President, we are blessed by the remarkable number of our congregants and professionals who serve our greater Jewish community in a multitude of leadership roles.
We should be so proud that at the core of this congregation there is a membership that puts our community first. We should be so proud that we were, we are and we will always be a place of comfort, safety, unconditional acceptance, support and compassion.
With this said we should recognize that over the past six years our extraordinary membership, our clergy team, professional staff and a dedicated assembly of lay leaders have come together, catapulting PTBE to new heights in membership, educational programing, social connections and forged a deep collaborative relationship, never seen before, with our greater Jewish community. However, our facility has become a stumbling block to us living up to our highest selves. Sadly, the truth is if we don't do something about our physical space now, we may not be able to pass down our traditions to the next generation and live up to our core values.
It is like our Torah scroll -— the words on the inside are ultimately the most important part. But if we don't have the physical Torah — if we don’t have an animal skin parchment wrapped on wooden dowels to pass down — we could be in danger of losing the words on the inside.
There is a reason we continually hand down those things that are the most meaningful and longest lasting. Be it a song, prayer, belief, or a name. Be it a kiddush cup, seder plate, chanukiah or a siddur. Be it the meaning of words in Torah or the ark that holds the Torah.
The fact is that through the physical and the metaphysical, through our actions, our stories, our values, our customs, our challah recipes, our prayer shawls, and our beloved Peninsula Temple Beth El itself, when we transmit these traditions - L’dor V’dor - our Judaism can and will remain a living religion, a living experience. Now we — and I mean we — must hear our call to action. This cannot become the responsibility of a few. Yes it is true that we are blessed with some very generous members who enable us to provide the many educational and spiritual programs that we need. And it is also true that we are blessed that 60 members of our board of trustees, past presidents, clergy and communal visionaries have already stepped forward and pledged 2.5 million dollars to this capital campaign.
But this is not enough.
This capital campaign needs every member of our congregation to live up to his or her sacred obligation. This capital campaign needs everyone to dig deep and be as generous as possible. This capital campaign needs us to come together in order to seize this critical moment so we can renovate and create a facility that will inspire us to be a more beautiful, compassionate and a more vibrant congregation, inside and out.
Starting today - on this Rosh Hashanah 5774, some 60 years after our great congregation was founded, we together must place our physical Torah upon our shoulders. Together we must ensure our ability to thrive in our present and pass down our tradition remembering fondly the loved ones who bequeathed us their most prized possession, Peninsula Temple Beth El.
Bonim B’yachad – We will build this together.
Ken yehi ratzon – May this be God’s will and Shanah Tovah - U'metukah