President's Yom Kippur Message

Yom Kippur 5781
Dear friends,

Chag sameach

A good friend named Tom Lewis, an Irish folk singer and retired Royal Navy submariner, sent these words to me in an email two weeks ago: "All of us are displaying — to a greater or lesser degree — symptoms of COVID-19; though very few, in real terms, have caught the actual disease. Nearly all of us are, in some wise, bereft of the physical company of our friends. Many are limited in the freedom to move around. Of course, attending any sort of actual 'live gig' is just an impossibility. The simple offer of an outstretched hand to a person with whom one wishes to make a connection is, in these days, regarded as somewhere on the spectrum between a death-defying act and a grave social faux-pas." Indeed.

In Exodus, Moses receives instruction to build the tabernacle commencing with fashioning an ark to house the stone tablets. Therein, G-d details that the construction of the lid for the ark have two cherubim, with wings spread to shield the cover, facing to the center towards each other. G-d then says, "There I will meet with you." In the space between the two facing cherubim, we find G-d and She finds us. It is one of my favorite lines in the Torah; dramatic with powerful imagery, uplifting, and to the point. This is sacred ground, being face-to-face...and not just with G-d, but with each other.

Rabbi Susan Laemmle, writing in 2001 and published in the Jewish Journal, puts it this way: "Face-to-face. Is this not the way in which each of us wants to be known and spoken to; the way in which we want to be acknowledged and loved? Judaism teaches us that G-d cannot be confined to human categories. And yet the Torah speaks in the language of human beings, and it understands our yearning to apprehend G-d both directly and personally. As for the ways in which we need and apprehend one another, while being realistic about human nature's propensity towards rivalry, our texts are full of meaningful personal encounters that convey mutual affirmation."

The modalities of human interchange are expanding at an almost dizzying pace. The half-life of new technology has collapsed from years to months and, in some cases, only weeks. The proliferation of ideas and information across the bounds of humanity have expanded in seemingly exponential fashion, but not without increasing inter-personal stress and overall social tension. We are confronted with the potential risk of creating a 'digital divide' between those computer fluent and those not, between the in-person 'Sanctuarians' and the 'Zoomers'. This divide is the antithesis of relationship building. Yet today, everywhere, we are speaking to each other across ever widening stretches of time and space. Never before has it been so easy to be in contact with loved ones and close friends or to forge new connections with potentially compatible strangers using digital technology such as Zoom or other social media.

The integration of communication technology in support of our day to day lives comes with mind-boggling convenience. At the crux of it, though, we human beings remain as we have been for millennia, with much the same needs, fears and aspirations. Even while driven by our inexorable instinct to seek food and shelter, we also are driven to attend to our social needs and be nourished by the experience. It is basic to our species. We need to have an existential view of ourselves that is confirmed and understood by another. As it is in Exodus 33:12, we yearn to be 'singled out by name, to gain favor' throughout our lives. As we do, we strengthen present relationships and create new ones.

We so need to be panim el panim, 'face-to-face'! To the consternation of all of us, we have to deal with a pandemic and the reality of online virtual relationships. Nonetheless, we must succeed in making those relationships and connectivity and community flourish while relying on electronic technology. It is the metaphor of 'eating an elephant one bite at a time' that seems to me particularly relevant in these times. Perhaps the Alcoholics Anonymous mantra of accepting the things we cannot change, and having the courage to change the things we can, may also be used as a North star of guiding wisdom. The course of the pandemic is essentially out of the immediate or direct control of our synagogue. Nonetheless, life goes on at Or Shalom and we, to the maximum extent possible, must be part of it. As you read this, the High Holidays are past or imminently ready to be so. It is time to turn our attention to the future, both proximate and distant. We cannot be a synagogue where the majority of activity is clustered around just morning minyan and Shabbat or holiday services; we must turn our concerted attention to all of the other things we do or will need to do. I discussed this thinking at our last Board meeting and Harvey Remz offered the following comment: "It's time to be not just surviving, but thriving." I can't say it any better.

The importance of face-to-face meetings, virtual and in person, abound, from the meetings that exist between business enterprises large and small, to all manner of social action based organizations, to houses of worship across the religious spectrum. Inherent is the ability to connect at a personal level that, organizationally speaking, makes things happen that otherwise would not. Face-to-face meetings not only have the power to change the individuals involved but have led an uncountable number of organizations, communities, and, yea verily, synagogues to make systemic change for the better.

Martin LaMonica, Deputy Editor of The Conversation, US Edition, and author of "Exploring Religious Community Online", documented how people built online religious communities and explored what factors caused them to engage heavily in a specific online group. Mr. LaMonica writes, "Among the things that people most valued in their online communities is the ability to build relationships with people they would not be able to connect with offline. Online communities became a place of support, where they felt their presence and contributions were valued by others." Similarly, a man belonging in an online religious community, states his feeling of being cared for and connected this way; "I've tried to leave the group three times due to the amount of time I spend online, but I've always rejoined because I miss the people, I miss the banter and I miss how they encourage me." In other religious communities, researchers found that people invested in online groups in order to "strengthen their offline social networks and deepen interpersonal connections with members of their faith community." And perhaps most importantly, studies have found that internet users highly valued the social relations they found online, which allowed them to expand their faith commitments offline as well.

When I quickly examine the websites of other synagogues and churches to see how they have incorporated online services, I find many are simply trying to replicate them as they are conducted in person. Some of this is certainly due to where a level of comfort exists, I am sure; let congregants see that nothing has changed, we're still the same, there's nothing off-putting here, all remains familiar. Others are more or less constrained by whatever level of technology they have at their disposal such as the number of cameras and fields of view, pre-recording capability, and active vs. passive streaming, etc. Live streaming that does nothing more than broadcast a service makes for a very passive experience for those watching; whereas, active technology, as in Zoom, offers some social engagement...a critical attribute for building online relationships.

Mr. LaMonica's research indicates that some synagogues and churches are stepping beyond the comfort zone by "distinctly trying to change the style and format of their services in order to create opportunities for members to communicate or interact with others." Some initiatives are: modified patterns and melodies associated with liturgical songs and music, sharing prayer requests through social media or texts (ideally suited to using the Zoom chat feature), multimedia experience for services and events, interactive dialog with the service leader regarding sermons (which we do), and completely, dare I say radically, changing the format of a particular service on a periodic basis...in baseball terminology, akin to throwing a change-up when the batter is expecting a fastball. The bottom line here is that "scholars observing online church and synagogue developments over the past decade have stressed that people want interactive spiritual encounters with each other online. When religious communities created opportunities for intimate and personal online interactions, especially beyond the online event, participants became more invested in the group."

Martin Buber, a prominent early 20th century philosopher and religious thinker, wrote I and Thou in which he discussed how an individual engages with other individuals, inanimate objects, and all reality in general. We innately orient ourselves toward the Other as an object or as a subject, as an "It" or as a "Thou." If we confront another person as an "It", our interaction is transactional, both people derive some kind of useful benefit from the relationship. We see the "I - It" relationship everywhere. We ask the barber for a haircut, and then we pay the barber when it's finished. When we ask the Uber driver to get us from home to the airport, we pay the driver for that service. We use the Other (person) as an object of transaction, a means to an end. And in many circumstances, that is perfectly OK.

However, Buber also posited that to create and maintain meaningful communities, we must strive for "I - Thou" interactions by finding opportunities for inter-personal relationship. In an "I - Thou" interaction, the relationship is mutual; it is sought and the meeting is not for transactional benefit. When we treat the other as a "Thou", we see the whole person, with emotions, with personal stories and thoughts of their own. We recognize that the other person is a human being just like us, with needs, dreams, hopes. We are able to sympathize and empathize with the other person. Every "It" interaction has the potential of being transformed into a relationship of "Thou". How can we change our relationships from "I-it" to "I-thou"? Especially in this world of Zoom technology, how can we truly cultivate a community of deep, meaningful relationships? How do we turn face-to-face with each other when the primary venue to do so is virtual?

Picking up where I left off in my Rosh Hashanah address, I suggested the we might make panim el panim a congregational theme for 5781. Dr. Paul Chappell, the senior pastor at Lancaster Baptist Church, describes it this way. Each year select a theme from, in our case, the Torah, and focus your membership's activities around that theme. He offers five ideas to do so: through preaching, through teaching, through special services, through giving, and through outreach. Often, coalescing about a common theme is a great way to become part of a small group which, in turn, leads to forging relationships. So let's take each of these functional groups in turn and see how they may apply to Or Shalom. Please bear in mind that these groupings are not uniquely discrete but, rather, there is substantial overlap between them.

Through preaching...

As we shortly will roll the Torah back to B'reishit, it affords an opportune time to begin to search out, in every parashah until Rosh Hashanah 5782, some bit of sacred text, some kernel of insight or wisdom that feeds into the idea of being panim el panim, even if digitally, with each other. Of course, not every sermon or d'var Torah needs to be based upon the theme; but to do so with reasonable periodicity over the year is a great way to stay on course and emphasize it. And we need not confine ourselves to just the Torah; all of our sacred texts form the cornerstone of Jewish learning and are replete with examples ripe for thematic discussion.

Through teaching...

On hiatus since early March, time has come to re-activate our Coffee and Learn series, perhaps December, maybe earlier, being the kick-off. In some of these coming discussions, by drawing attention to the theme, we might explore how it may be applied to our lives within and outside of our synagogue family. We certainly have other opportunities to extrapolate the theme into a wide variety of educational initiatives. How about a re-start of the Monday afternoon Women's Bible Study seminar?...certainly a candidate. We have recently started a weekly Discussion on Race...a decidedly face-to-face event that not only requires seeing each other in a Zoom meeting format, but also means turning inward to come face-to-face with our inherent (and often completely subconscious) personal biases regarding race and minority groups in general.

Through special services...

There is no succinct definition of what special services might be, so I see it as a somewhat broad catch-all for involvement beyond the synagogue. Many of us are individually active as supporting role players in Conservative movement affiliated organizations such as our parent United Synagogue for Conservative Judaism (USCJ)/Rabbinic Assembly (RA) (including our Northeast District), Hadassah, Federation of Jewish Men's Clubs (FJMC), Women's League, Masorti, United Synagogue Youth (USY), Mercaz, etc. Our personal involvement and the influence we might bring to those organizations can be guided by the same theme.

Through giving...

It is easy to see our Social Action Committee all over this one. We have many excellent activities such as supporting JCARR, the Downtown Evening Soup Kitchen, Spooner House, the Orange Food Pantry to name a few. There's the collection of food, toiletries, and masks for donation, and the Mitzvah of the Month. What jumps out at you from these efforts is that there are dedicated individuals, working face-to-face, getting important things done. Beyond that, though, is something even more vital. Judaism is a religion of relationships and it has never been about just our synagogue or we Jews. It's also about reaching out to the world, panim el panim, and making it a better place.

Through in-reach/outreach...yes, I have expanded the scope of this one...

A very common question in most any synagogue goes like this. How do we provide to our members the means to create deep, meaningful engagement opportunities? It is a subject that Dr. Ron Wolfson and Rabbi Lydia Medwin cover in The Relational Judaism Handbook. It has been a topic frequently addressed in USCJ leadership workshops, seminars, and papers. Essentially, the goal here is to create a campaign aimed at engaging large segments of the congregation in small groups, sometimes referred to as affinity groups. A key element is that, rather than the senior staff (the Rabbi, the Board, the committees) creating programs and trying to recruit members to attend, the effort is flipped upside down. The starting point is to ask members what they want to do, not what the staff thinks they should do. Members are invited to request a group, or to offer to lead a small group. The affinity group model in meant to give power to the congregants. It promotes the need to be face-to-face organizing a small group effort. It becomes a spawning ground for new relationships. The staff person(s) become a resource and facilitator for the small group, not a program director. This fill in the blank is at the heart of where we want to go — "I wish Or Shalom would/could ______________." Let's all think about that. In the coming few weeks, you will be hearing more about this campaign and how it might work for our synagogue. Just so you know, I raised the topic of affinity groups at the last Board meeting and one of our members has already compiled a list of five excellent ideas.

In each of the five functional groups listed, I have suggested only a modicum of what might be involved, what might be possibly stimulated under the motivation of the panim el panim theme. It's the first bite out of the elephant and we've got to start somewhere. I feel like the sky is the limit. We are only limited by the bounds of our ingenuity and our willingness to be part of something that is truly larger than each of us.

Borrowing Rabbi Laemmle's lofty words again, "The Torah and our lives are full of less-than-perfect, hyper-mediated communication. Would that we could always express ourselves in plain, straightforward fashion — and that such expression served us well, rather than embroiling us in difficulties. As things stand with human nature, we often do better to be self-aware and thoughtful when speaking, as well as when listening. With maturity comes the bittersweet realization that perfect, wordless understanding is achieved only rarely and cannot serve as the day-in, day-out basis of relating to other people or G-d. And yet, a continuing longing for such understanding still animates our lives, expressing itself in art, in sexual intimacy, in acts of lovingkindness and in prayer. Across the gulf that separates us, we strive — even if intermittently and imperfectly — to communicate face-to-face. We long to be 'singled out by name' and 'gain the favor' of those we care about." Amen.

It's all about relationships, it's all about community; this is how we thrive. And whether we do this in the physical presence of one another or we are reaching out across the tile of precious faces on a Zoom screen, we're still the same community. We've much to accomplish. Let's turn to each other, panim el panim, and make it happen.

May you be sealed for good in the Book of Life
G'mar Chatima Tovah

Bob

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