President's Rosh Hashanah Message

Rosh Hashanah 5781
Dear friends,

Shabbat shalom v'shanah tovah

Before I begin my comments, I would like to offer a big thank you to some very special people. As we have had to deal with the coronavirus, our office staff, Rachel, Ileane, and Jim, our custodian, have been truly amazing in what they have accomplished under trying conditions. They are the engine room that keeps this ship going forward. We are all immensely grateful for your efforts. Rabbi Wainhaus, my Zoom buddy, you've had to roll with the punches on this one. We thank you for adapting, with great aplomb, to the realities of dealing with the pandemic and being the essential glue that helps bind our synagogue together as a community. To our High Holiday committee, Harvey, Paul, and a normal year, you always complete the Herculean task of preparing for our holiday worship with amazing detail and great execution. This year, despite the unique difficulties, you have duplicated the feat. Well done! And to all of our Board and committee members, Sisterhood and Men's Club, and, of course, the many volunteers, thank you for all that you do. We are better for it.

Since my last High Holiday address to you, I can only say, wow!...what a difference a year makes! Especially these past six months, many of us have expressed to each other — who would have thought that we'd be mired in the daily concerns of wearing masks and constrained by the rules of social distancing as we are today. But my intent is not to devote this address necessarily to bewailing COVID-19. We have experienced too much of that already. I think it is better to think of our current circumstances as affording opportunity to progress. Cognizant of the difficulties confronting us, what must we do that makes us stronger as a community? That, dear friends, is what we need to place emphasis on and is the scope of my remarks today.

A couple of weeks ago I found myself skipping ahead in our bible to the very end. I'm not sure why, I didn't have anything particular in mind...I just did. And, just two sentences from the absolute end of the Torah, I once again came across the line that says the Lord had singled out Moses "panim el panim" — face to face, an idiom meaning in person and directly. Those words caught my attention. Their use in the Torah is limited and aimed at human-divine encounters, as between God and Moses or Jacob after wrestling with an angel. Panim el panim is the biblical way of expressing the intensity of an encounter, to make it intensely personal, to make it matter, to make it significant beyond the routine. Please hold that thought. We'll be back to it.

Thank God for Rock and Roll. Most anything related to the human condition can be found in the lyrics of a popular song. It was just a few weeks ago, while listening to some golden oldies, one titled "Stuck In The Middle With You" was given a replay for my listening pleasure. The refrain of this song, written by two members of Stealers Wheel, a Scottish band, goes like this:

Clowns to the left of me,
Jokers to the right, here I am,
Stuck in the middle with you.

This song, released in 1972, went international shortly thereafter, and the lyricists were totally surprised by its popularity since it was something that was supposed to be just a Bob Dylan parody. My immediate reaction upon hearing these lyrics again, for the first time in many years, cool, and how apropos, and also how prescient to some of today's dilemmas. You see, we, Congregation Or Shalom, might find ourselves sort of in the same position...stuck in the middle.

The song's lyrics have been interpreted a number of ways over the years; but one that stands out for me is that the main character in the song is sandwiched between strong external influences, perhaps conflicting points of view or courses of action, represented by the clowns and jokers. The extremes and the cacophony of these antagonists are numbing to the person(s) stuck in the middle. Unable to move and overwhelmed to the point of inaction by the sheer number and magnitude of incompatible issues and differing opinions, paralysis results. I ask, is Or Shalom the central character here and are we hemmed in by the difficult circumstances of our day, the mish-mash of COVID-19, a declining economy, a vitriolic election year, declining Jewish engagement, unfavorable demographics, all manner of budget issues, social apathy, deteriorating race relations, and so on? I'd like to think not so much, but then again, maybe there's some truth here.

A year ago today, the focus of my Rosh Hashanah address to you was about relationship building. It is through relationships that we might bind together tightly as a Jewish community. Success stories from synagogues around the country, in all denominations, testify to the efficacy of that approach. It requires something from us though — engagement. Continuing engagement is a critical element to maintaining those precious relationships and the bonds of community. We need to get face to face. Panim el panim directs us to recognize and honor how we live in relation to one another. From the familiar one-on-one connections that thrive within our congregation to our many partnerships and social networks beyond, these relationships form the heart of who we are. To live face to face is to genuinely encounter one another, sometimes to affirm and sometimes to challenge, and always to learn. These words may seem nice and they may resonate within us, but they require focus and not a trivial amount of hard work.

Have we made progress towards the goal of becoming a congregation of relationships? In dribs and drabs is my best assessment. Overcoming our organizational inertia has been and will continue to be a significant energy sink. It will take time before change is manifestly apparent. Not insignificantly, we have also been knocked off the course necessary to make good progress, to generate momentum in a positive direction, by COVID-19. How do we build community, how do we foster and maintain relationships when meeting in the physical presence of one another is possible only under the highly restricted circumstances of today? As the song suggests, are we stuck in the middle?

Here's a funny story that I thought I'd share and I have no idea if it is true. At many universities it is not uncommon for classes to consist of several hundred people in a lecture in the ubiquitous 100 level freshman introductory course. It was final exam time. Time had run out and the professor called for the exams. The students finished up, tossed their blue exam booklets on a table by the professor's lectern, and left the lecture hall. A few more minutes passed, the last few students frantically wrote their final comments and they too left, leaving only the professor, a stack of hundreds of blue books on the table, and one student still in the middle of the room. He kept writing. Minutes passed and the professor stood there shocked and annoyed at this student's audacity. Finally, the student walked up to the professor to hand in his blue book. The professor said: "If you think I am going to accept that exam, now twenty minutes late, you are quite mistaken." At which point the student replied: "Professor, do you have any idea who I am?" The professor answered indignantly: "No, I have no idea, and to be quite frank, it is unimportant to me who you are." The student went on: "So, you're saying that you have no idea who I am." The professor said: "None, whatsoever", at which point the student shoved his blue book into the middle of the big pile of identical blue books and said, "And now you never will. Have a good day." and walked out of the room.

Ironically, this student took advantage of his anonymity. But, usually, we don't want to get lost in the crowd. We don't want to be just a number. We want to be known and to matter.

We Jews have blessings for just about anything and I stumbled into this bit of knowledge the other day...did you know that there is actually a blessing that may be said when seeing or being with a large crowd of people? The Talmud (bBerakhot 58a) presents it:

"Blessed is He who is the wise-knower of secrets", for the mind of each is different from that of the other, just as the face of each is different from that of the other.

As is usually the case, talmudic insight into the human condition is powerful. Upon seeing a faceless mass of typically unknown people, we acknowledge God's ability to know each of us. Implied in the blessing is an imperative to us to address something that is innately human nature. We don't want to be simply a statistic, one among others. Each of us is unique with a personal narrative combining our trials and successes, our memories and dreams — all that which makes us who we are. And our narratives, the telling of our stories, often form the basis for establishing relationships with one another.

So let's turn back to panim el panim.

Alone is not good. "No Man Is An Island", exclaims John Donne's poem. Simon and Garfunkel's classic lyrics from "I Am A Rock, I Am An Island" try to argue to the contrary but ultimately give in to the pain of being separated from humanity. No, you are not an island. It is when face to face, in belonging, that we find strength, solace when necessary, and the motivation to go beyond the self and help the other. We need relationships, we need community; it's in our DNA.

Here's an approach to relationship building and community that is being used by some synagogues and churches around the country. Simply put, establish an annual theme and focus the organization's attention on it. I suppose that this kind of effort derives from a sage bit of wisdom, origin unknown: "How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time!"

As with many USCJ affiliated synagogues, Or Shalom faces many near term and long range challenges. You've heard them many times over, so I won't repeat. But if there is one thing of immediate concern to us, it is declining membership. At the risk of stating the obvious, to combat this trend, we need to improve our recruitment of new members and retain who we rocket science here. Recruitment and retention are driven by many, often interrelated, things. But if we agree that relationships are the integral ingredient, the thing that makes us want to belong, that suggests a point of focus.

I was reading on a Chabad website that the Zohar, a medieval Kabbalistic text of teachings, explains: at the beginning of the month of Elul which leads up to Rosh Hashanah we are achor el achor, meaning back to back; and by the end of Elul we are panim el panim. An interesting and heady perspective on not only our personal relationship with God but also with each other, don't you reckon?

Hmmm...and after rolling this interpretation around for a bit, my thinking finally coalesced to this point. Yes, we're stuck in the middle...and we're still achor el achor. We need to think beyond just the travails of dealing with COVID-19. We need to get back to the strategic planning that ultimately defines our long term future. We need to return to tending the relationships we have and build new ones across our whole membership.

So what actionable steps might we, as a whole congregation, take to start turning panim el panim, steps that unequivocally zero in on turning inward, face to face with each other, to truly become a relational-centric community? The answer is the first bite out of the elephant. There are success stories from other organizations (synagogues, churches, non-profits) that can give us a roadmap of what worked, whose lessons learned we will take full advantage of. We need only to tailor the knowledge to make it applicable to Or Shalom. Francis of Assisi described it this way: "Start by doing what's necessary; then do what's possible; and suddenly you are doing the impossible."

In my Yom Kippur address to you, we'll start getting into some details.

During this new year, 5781, let's make panim el panim our congregational theme. Let's take those words to heart and let them motivate us to action. Let's break out of the middle and get on with the unfinished work in front of us. Let's turn our collective attention to the relationships, present and future, that define our amazing community.

May we all have a good, sweet and healthy new year.
שָׁנָה טוֹבָה וּמְתוּקָה.


Top ] [ Back ]