My Kol Nidre Sermon: The Haunting and Hopeful Words of Unetaneh Tokef

Image from the collections of the Massachusetts Historical Society.

The haunting words of Unetaneh Tokef:

On Rosh Hashanah it is written and on Yom Kippur it is sealed. How many shall pass on and how many shall thrive. Who shall live on and who shall die. Whose death is timely and whose is not. 

As I spoke about on Rosh HaShanah, on the surface, this prayer seems to suggest that we have no control over our destiny. It appears that God determines our fate today by either writing our name in the Book of Life, thus insuring that we live another year, or leaving us out, guaranteeing our demise in the months to come. But, a closer look at this prayer teaches us that teshuvah (personal growth and change), tefillah (prayer or, as we discussed on Rosh HaShanah, living a life of gratitude) and tzedakah (doing our part to heal the world) can help to insure that our name is written in the Book of Life.

Tonight, on the holiest night on our calendar, I want us to dive even deeper into the words of Unetaneh Tokef and explore how this prayer, which has filled many of us with dread year after year, actually contains a precious lesson of hope which encourages us to feel confident that our name will be inscribed in the Book of Life.

You can see this message of hope yourself. Turn with me to page 871. Third paragraph down:

It is You (God) who shall open the Book of Remembrance (same as the Book of Life), but its contents shall speak for themselves, for it bears the signature of us all, which our deeds and our lives have inscribed.

God opens the Book of Life. But, God does not put our name in this book. Unetaneh Tokef makes it explicitly clear that we do this. Our actions allow us to sign in, to place our signature in this holy, albeit, symbolic book. This is a very empowering message if you really think about it.

So, how do we sign in?  Well, we go back to the line we focused on last week on page 876:

u’teshuvah u’tefillah u’tzedakah ma’avirin et ro’a hageserah

When we strive to live meaningful lives, lives in which we challenge ourselves to grow, evolve, give thanks, and help others, we sign ourselves into the Book of Life. Our actions say : “Count me in this year; I want to live a meaningful life!”  Our actions, according to Unetaneh Tokef, give us the ability ensure that we are sealed in the new Book of Life that has just opened. Untaneh Tokef reassures us and gives us hope that last year’s shortcomings and failures will not bring about our demise this new year.  This is why tonight, during Kol Nidre we could all recite the words on page 695:

V’yomer Adonai: Salachti Kidvarecha/God said: I grant you forgiveness as you ask!

We don’t need to look back in fear. We can look forward with hope because by living a meaningful life, we place our signature in the Book of Life, guaranteeing that we will be sealed in the Book for another year! So there should be no despair in the sanctuary tonight. If you are willing to commit to a meaningful life in the year ahead and add your signature to the Book of Life of 5775, you can do so. It is up to you.

To help drive this point home, as you leave tonight or over the next several days, you will actually have a chance to add your signature to our own Book of Life in the hallway. Our Book will be open until sundown on Tuesday evening, October 14th – the last official day of judgment, the day the Book of Life is sealed, the day known as Hoshanah Rabbah. The Book does not close tomorrow night, You have some time. Once it is sealed, it will be placed in the ark in the library. As you sign in, commit to living up to your potential this year, promise yourself that you will grow, you will be grateful and you will share your blessings.  Add any note you want along with your signature as you sign in. Our Book of Life will visible in the library ark – there for you to visit throughout the year; there as a reminder that you committed yourself to live a life of meaning; there as a reminder that with the new year, we are offered a new beginning, a promise of another chance at life. We will open our Book of Life next year as the holidays begin and we are once again charged with reflecting on the year that has come to a close.  As we look at our signature next year, we will ask ourselves, did we meet our expectations? Did we live a meaningful life? If not, what will we change as we sign ourselves into next year’s Book of Life?

So, by teaching us that we can sign ourselves into the Book of Life by living a meaningful life, Unetaneh Tokef sends us a hopeful message: our names will be in the Book when it is sealed!

But, is this really the case?! Unfortunately, we know too well that just because someone signs into the Book of Life, it does not guarantee that that they will have an incredible year or that they will even be here physically to sign into next year’s Book. And this reality upsets us and tramples upon the message of hope that we were just talking about. But hold on! By focusing our attention on our signature that we place in the Book of Life, Unetaneh Tokef is quietly imploring us not to give up the hope that quickly. Unetaneh Tokef, if you listen closely, is telling us that despite the unpredictability of life, we do not need to despair. Rather, the prayer is telling us something very deep….that despite the uncertainties of life, we can be confident that our existence never ends. Unetaneh Tokef is promoting an ancient Jewish concept, one that is not spoken about often, but one that has been embraced by some of the greatest Jewish thinkers over the centuries, including the famous Moses Maimonides. This is the concept of immortality – the idea that, while our bodies might give out, our soul, our lessons, our inspiration – all of these things are sealed in the Book of Life with our signature; all of these things continue even if we physically slip away from this world.

To help us understand how Unetaneh Tokef teaches this ancient Jewish belief, I want to share words that our congregant, Joel Dreher, shared last month at his wife Jody’s unveiling. Jody passed away just days after last year’s Book of Life was sealed. This being said, everyone who knew her would agree that there is no doubt that she inscribed herself into the Book of Life of 5774. We know that her spiritual signature continues to touch us. Joel writes:

You’re not in the next room doing yoga, you’re not snuggled next to me in the bed. There aren’t numerous jars in our pantry full of indescribable kelp like stuff (Jody was a health nut) nor are there jars in my luggage prompting the TSA folks at the airport to want a further search. There aren’t trays of wheatgrass.   It’s quiet.   I don’t hear you teaching yourself a song nor a dance nor a rap to use for your students (Jody was a music teacher). Now I have to get my dose of you by inadvertently seeing a leftover handwritten reminder note to yourself to buy non pasteurized milk or probiotics and having your handwriting hit me because it came from you and is still here.  

Let’s appreciate for a moment the simple yet awesome power of Jody’s written words – written by her own hands. Look at what these words have given to Joel. They serve as a testament of Jody’s very existence, helping to share her lessons despite the fact that she is no longer physically here. Her written words help Joel discover that Jody is still present, still teaching and still inspiring. Her written words have given Joel a glimpse of Jody’s immortality.

In the same way, by referencing our signature in the Book of Life, Unetaneh Tokef is teaching us that while some who sign in to the Book of Life this Yom Kippur will not physically be here next Yom Kippur, their spiritual signature in the Book of Life will be here, serving as a reminder that they were, during their lifetime, committed to living a meaningful life. Their spiritual signature and the meaningful life that inscribed their signature into the Book of Life will forever serve as proof that they were indeed inscribed in the Book of Life this year. And realize, their spiritual signature can never be removed. It will forever capture their life and their determination to live. It will inspire those left behind to live meaningful lives.

Immortality is how we combat the unpredictability of life. By living a meaningful life and, thus, according to Unetaneh Tokef, inscribing our signature in the Book of Life, we secure our legacy. We make an impact on the people in our lives. An impact that insures that, when our time comes, we won’t be forgotten. Yes, it is unsettling that we don’t know for certain if we will be blessed to sign next year’s Book of Life. But, despite this, we do know with great certainty that we can sign this year’s Book and, in doing so, guarantee that, no matter what – we make it clear that this year, we choose to embrace life. Further, by signing the Book, we can be confident that our spiritual signature, a testament of our life of meaning, will speak for us and be our immortality.

Interestingly enough, while Unetaneh Tokef quietly encourages us to think about our own immortality, many of the other prayers and rituals of Yom Kippur push us to accept our own mortality. We are actually rehearsing our own death on this holy day. We dress in white, symbolizing the ritual shroud we will be buried in at the end of our days. We fast, making our body feel weak, as if we are slipping away from life.  We recite confessional prayers like Ashamnu (p. 424) which are recited before we die.  And even Unentaneh Tokef pushes us think about our own death: “how many shall pass on and how many shall thrive.”  While this push to accept our own mortality might make us feel helpless and hopeless, it should not.  Sure, this day makes us face the fact that our death is, hopefully many, many years from now, inevitable and not at all predictable. But, Unetaneh Tokef, by urging us to embrace life and sign into the Book of Life is teaching us to take as much control as we can. Unetaneh Tokef is begging us to own our legacy, asking us: “How will we be remembered?” If we don’t know the answer to this question, if we don’t like the answer to this question, today is the day to change your life. Unetaneh Tokef is, like the blast of the shofar, a wake up call! Unetaneh Tokef is pleading with us: “HAVE AN IMPACT; MAKE A DIFFERENCE; LIVE A LIFE THAT MATTERS and allows you to leave a mark on this world – a mark that is expressed by the values and lessons that your life instilled within others – a mark symbolized by your signature in the Book of Life. A mark that is your immortality.

So, yes, some of the messages of this day are unsettling. But, in the end, I see Yom Kippur as a day of hope, a day that tells us to “grab life by the horns” and live it fully. If we do so, we get a new beginning. We get to sign into the Book of Life. We get to leave our indelible mark. If we live the lessons of this day, we can take comfort in the fact that our life and our lessons are immortalized by our spiritual signature.  We can enter this new year confident that we are in control of our destiny and the life we are living will leave a deep, meaningful and lasting impression.

By signing ourselves in – may we seal ourselves in the Book of Life for a year of great meaning.

My Yom Kippur Sermon: My Statement of Values – Signing Myself Into the Book of Life

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Last night, I spoke about the importance of symbolically signing the Book of Life and leaving a permanent mark on this world. I urged us all to actually sign our own Book of Life that is in the hallway – and I invite those who haven’t yet done so, to please add your signature! Today, I want to share with you one way that I am working to move beyond symbolism to insure that I am more than just a signature in the Book of Life; to insure that the life that I am leading is worthy of being inscribed in the Book; to insure that my life will create a meaningful mark on this world.

Over the past few weeks, I have worked to prepare a personal Statement of Values – a document that, as I explained in an email earlier this week (Please see comments below which contains email I sent out; you can find questions that will help you prepare your own Statement of Values in this email), expresses key principals and beliefs that are important to me. Since the time of the Torah, our ancestors have created and shared such statements. Jacob and Moses both express their core principals in the Torah, teaching us the importance of being able to clarify who we are, what we stand for and what we hope to share with those in our lives.

Preparing my Statement of Values has not been easy. There is a lot to think about. I have rewritten my statement many times and know that I will do so again in the near future. This being said, writing this statement has been extremely rewarding. It has helped me figure out what my signature in the Book of Life stands for. It has given me a better sense of who I am and what I find to be important and meaningful. It has also given me a better sense of the lessons I want to share with the people in my life. And, preparing my Statement of Values has encouraged me to think about the legacy I would like to leave, hopefully, a long, long, long time from now.

Most importantly, writing my Statement of Values has taught me that despite the unpredictable nature of life that Yom Kippur has us face, I do have the ability to control what my life stands for. I can be certain that when I sign the Book of Life, my signature means something – not just to me, but to the people who know me. In this world that is filled with so much uncertainty, creating my Statement of Values has filled me with great hope – hope that my life is filled with meaning, meaning that will make a difference, meaning that, I hope, will transcend my lifetime.

As I put together my Statement of Values, I found myself being driven by the words of the Vahavtah: “v’shinantam l’vanecha/ teach them (morals, ethics, values) intently to your children.” While I have many roles in my life, one of course being the lucky rabbi of this community, I found that as I put together my values and wrote them down, I was inspired to do so not as a rabbi, but as a father. And so, my Statement of Values that I share with you today is written to my children, Abigail and Jonah. This being said, the values I share with my children are values which, I hope permeate all aspects of my life – particularly my role as your rabbi.

STATEMENT OF VALUES – 5775

Prepared by Rabbi Andrew Jacobs

 Abigail and Jonah,

This Statement of Values that I have prepared as I begin the Jewish year 5775 will serve as my signature in the Book of Life. While I am far from perfect and make many mistakes, I hope that through my words, deeds and actions, I share my values with you in ways that have encouraged you to lead more meaningful lives.  I hope that nothing I share in this document surprises you, as it has been my intention to live the values I share below. If there is a surprise or two, I apologize for not doing what I should have done to share all of my values with you.  Please know that I consider myself truly blessed to be your father and I am honored by the fact that you trust me to be one of your teachers.  Also know that the lessons you have shared with me have made me a better person.  I thank you for listening to this document, as it affirms my signature in this year’s Book of Life. While I sincerely hope that you will embrace the values I share in this statement, I respect that you will make your own choices.  I ask that you formulate your own values and act on these values as you journey through life.  Don’t be impulsive.  Think things through.  And think about the consequences.  What will your actions say about you?

Let me begin by saying: There is nothing more important than family.  It is your rock.  Abigail and Jonah, you and your mother are the center of my life. While I am not always successful at balancing my family life and my professional responsibilities, I do believe that nothing should ever come before family.

As family, our bonds of love are deep – but we must never forget that these bonds still require that we treat each other with the utmost respect and honor.  It is by uniting our love for each other with our respect for each other that we achieve  the Jewish concept of Shalom Bayit – peace in the house/family.

You both know that I have spent many years researching our family tree.  It is a huge, magnificent tree.  Yes, like most family trees, there are branches that do not speak to other branches.  Despite this, know that you are blessed to have a 99-year old great-grandmother, grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins.  Please do your part to nurture these relationships as you grow.  In doing so, you honor the memories of those no longer here with us physically who gave up so much to insure that their family could have what you have.

Abigail and Jonah, I pray that you fall madly in love one day and marry your best friend.  However, I want you to remember that love alone does not make a marriage.  A great Jewish sage teaches that we should treat our spouse “like a left hand protecting the right hand and not an independent limb.”  You must truly become one with your spouse.  This takes a lot of work.  You must listen to each other.  Honesty, openness and communication will be required to learn how to act together to build a home.  Shared values are required to raise children.  Common goals are what will propel you forward as partners.

Despite what the Torah teaches us about the obligation to respect our parents, I don’t believe that it is simply the title of  “parent” that requires our children to respect and honor us.  Respect and honor are achieved through the excruciatingly hard work of parenthood.  Abigail and Jonah, your mother and I are not here to be your best friends.  We are here to help lead you down a meaningful life path with the hope and expectation that you will be capable of navigating this path on your own in the future.  I pray that, one day, you get the privilege of leading your own children down this path, continuing the journey your mother and I began with you – and living the words “l’dor v’dor/from generation to generation”.  And, I pray that by giving you the tools needed to travel down the path of life, your mother and I earn your respect.

Your Judaism is a gift.  Your mother and I are anomalies in our respective families.  On my side of the family, your 99-year old great-grandmother has 9 great-grandchildren.  You two are the only ones who have embraced Judaism.  On your mother’s side of the family, your grandmother has 6 grandchildren.  You two are the only ones who have embraced Judaism.  Making Judaism an integral part of your lives, insuring that the words “l’dor v’dor” actually meant something, and honoring the legacy that was left to us by the generations that came before us, were our dreams as your mother and I began this journey of parenthood.  Not that long ago, millions of Jews were wiped off the face of the earth simply because they were Jewish.  It brings me such joy that today, my two children openly love their Judaism, are strong supporters of Israel and know their way around a siddur, a Haggadah and a Torah scroll.  Thank you.  As you grow into adults, I sincerely hope that Judaism remains a significantly meaningful part of your lives.  In the world you are growing up in, I know that this won’t be easy.  However, I hope that by honoring and respecting the bonds of family and filling your lives with those who share your values, you will indeed pass Judaism on to the next generation.

I do not expect, nor do I want you to only surround yourselves with Jewish people.  The world we live in is filled with many diverse, incredible people who can bring great meaning into your lives.  Open yourselves up to the lessons that the world can teach you.  Respect those who are different from you.  They have much to share.  Do not be afraid to be challenged by other viewpoints.  Engage in healthy, respectful debate.  I trust that as you get older you will make meaningful choices that will allow you to thrive.  This being said, please remember that: “kol yisrael arevim zeh la’zeh/all Jews are responsible for each other.”  Please, take care of your fellow Jews.  Do everything in your power to strengthen the Jewish community.  Support and stand with Israel.  If you don’t, who will?

As you journey down the path of life, there will be obstacles to overcome.  As Rabbi Nachman of Bratzlav teaches us, “the whole world is a very narrow bridge; the essential thing is to have no fear at all.”  Never take for granted the bonds of family, for within these bonds you will discover the antidote to fear and the skills necessary to cross that narrow bridge.

Pirke Avot teaches us to “acquire a friend.”  In addition to your family, I want you to have close friends.  People you can truly trust.  People you can confide in, laugh with and cry with.  People who will travel down the path of life with you.  Family is so important.  But so are friendships.  They are what make us part of a community.  Rabbi Hillel teaches us: “do not separate yourself from the community!”  I do expect you to live by these words.  Whether it be a synagogue, a team, a social group, or a professional group, surround yourself with good people who can challenge you to be your best, support you when you stumble and lift you higher when you celebrate.

Pirke Avot also teaches us to acquire a teacher.  Fill your life with teachers.  Educate yourself.  Whether it be traditional classroom learning, traveling, reading or mentoring, I want you to constantly be learning and expanding your mind.  Every time I present a bar/bat mitzvah student with a Torah I say: “Hafoch ba, hafoch ba, de’kula ba – Turn it and turn it, for everything is in it.”  Treat life the same way.  Turn it and turn it and get as much out of it.  There is so much to learn out there.

As you think about your future and what school you will go to and what you will do professionally, know that all I want is for you to be happy.  To me, being happy means to live a life filled with meaning.  Your family, friends and Judaism will help you discover meaning by providing you with a strong sense of belonging.  Being grateful for all that you do have and remembering the obligation we have to perform tikun olam/healing the world by balancing the scales and giving of ourselves to help those in need will also enable you to discover meaning.  Gratitude will allow you to look to tomorrow with optimism and hope and this is this is a recipe for a happy life.  I want you to find meaning in your everyday actions and I want you to do everything in your power to make this world a better place.  In doing so, you not only guarantee your own happiness, but the happiness of others.

I want you to find a career that brings great meaning to your life.  While I have no expectations as to what you will do professionally, I hope that you will not work just to make money.  I want you to build a life that has a purpose and allows you to leave a lasting mark on this world.  I hope that your career will be a part of this mark.  Don’t get me wrong, I want you to be financially independent and comfortable.  Judaism has no problem with financially successful people.  This being said, I never want you to think that you are too good to get your hands dirty working hard or that anyone owes you something.  The Book of Proverbs teaches us that “He who puts in the effort and tills his soil will have bread, but he who puts in no real effort, he has nothing.”  I want you to put in a lot of effort.  I want you to work hard – really hard.  I want you to understand the value of a dollar and appreciate the rewards of a hard day’s work.  I want you to respect the money you make and learn how to save it and invest it.  Remember the words of Ben Zoma: “Who is wealthy?  The one who is happy with what he has.”  Don’t define yourself by material possessions, but make certain that you can purchase what you need and, yes, some things that you want.  Live within your means.  Stay away from credit cards.  Learn about the stock market.  Put money away for the future.  And, please, allow your financial success to benefit others by supporting a synagogue and other causes that are meaningful to you.

Be a rebel.  Think outside of the box.  Don’t be afraid of change.  The Jewish people have survived because of their ability to evolve with the times.  Remember, if it were not for the invention of the synagogue 2000 years ago, there would be no Judaism today.  The synagogue was a radical concept.  Some didn’t like it,  It was different, scary.  But it worked.  Believe that you have the ability to bring about radical change that will make the world a better place.  At the same time, surround yourself with people you trust and listen to them. If they suggest you are off course, step back and think about what they are saying.  You don’t necessarily have to agree with them – but hear them out.

Apologize.  You will screw up.  Embrace the lessons of our new year rituals and genuinely say “I am sorry” when you hurt someone.  Forgive those who hurt you.  Forgive yourself.  Carrying a grudge and seeking vengeance drag us down and surround us with negativity.  Let it go.  At the same time, do not be foolish.  Judaism teaches us to “Zachor/Remember” the wrongs that have been done to us by others so that we don’t become a victim twice. So, yes, forgive, but learn from the hurt.

Don’t ever compromise on what you believe in.   Rabbi Hillel teaches us: “If I am not for myself, who will be for me?”  Stand up for yourself.  You deserve to live your life the way you want to.  The Torah teaches us to “Choose life!” Never forget that you are in control of your life– don’t let others choose your life for you.  If someone does not respect who you are, let them go.  They do not deserve you in their life.  Believe the words of Anne Frank: “people are really good at heart” but never overlook the fact that evil is real.  Keep your eyes open. Be cautious – not paranoid.  Do your homework, ask a lot of questions and protect yourself.

Choosing life will also require you to take care of yourself physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually.  Eat well.  Exercise.  Treat your body like the holy vessel that it is.  Go to the doctor.  Never be afraid or too proud to seek and ask for help when life is overwhelming.  We all need help at times.  Continue to develop your relationship with God.  And surround yourself with good people.  Don’t ever be afraid to be who you really are and know that if you genuinely and honestly choose life with all your heart, mind and soul, you will make the right decisions, you will make a great name for yourself and you will make your mother and me very proud.

Realize that you will make mistakes.  We all do.  When you do, remember that first Torah that Moses brought down from Mt. Sinai, the one he smashed in anger after he found the people worshipping the Golden Calf, all of its broken pieces were placed in the sacred ark, along with the whole second Torah that Moses received from God.  This story teaches us that both our broken and whole pieces are holy.  They define who we are.  While we take great pride in our accomplishments, appreciate that some of our greatest blessing are taught to us by our mistakes.  Perfection does not give us the scars that make life meaningful.  Our mistakes expand our horizons and force us to grow.  Embrace your mistakes.  Learn from them and never forget that they are holy.

Your mother and I will hopefully continue to earn your respect and remain integral parts of your lives.  Know that we, as your parents, will continue to suggest, advise and nudge you.  If we overstep our bounds, we want to be told, as the Shalom Bayit we work to create in the house requires that we all feel respected.

In closing, I want you to be open to all the gifts the world can and will give you if you live with your eyes wide open.  I also expect you give back as much as you receive.  Share your gifts with the world.  Finally, please find the time to laugh so hard you cry tears of joy.  Don’t allow the intensity of life to keep you from discovering the deep wells of joy that are out there.  Smile and know that a happy you will be my best legacy.

I love you forever,

Daddy

This year, as you know, I have encouraged us all to prepare Statements of Values. It is not enough to sign ourselves into the Book of Life. We have to live meaningful lives in order to insure that our signature stands for something. I encourage you to work on putting into words what you stand for. It will give a voice to your hopes. It will capture your faith. It will clarify your goals and expectations. And it will serve as the foundation of the legacy you want to leave. I’ve prepared some questions that will help you get started on your Statement. You can find them in your email or on my blog. Try to answer them. Share your answers with the people you love. And realize that as you do this, you’re helping to leave a beautiful and indelible mark on this world. Don’t put it off. As Rabbi Hillel asks us, “If not now, when?”

Ramat Shalom’s Rosh HaShanah GRATEFUL Video

One month before Rosh HaShanah, I challenged members of my community to send me photographs of people, things and moments that they are grateful for.  The response was tremendous.  This video captures just some of the photographs I received.  It was shared in the lobby of our synagogue as people entered on Rosh HaShanah morning.  Enjoy!!!!

 

Selichot – Belonging

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My apologies to all the wonderful supporters of my blog!  I have not posted much recently as I have been really busy with the High Holidays and, before that, our daughter’s bat mitzvah!  Over the next few days, I plan to post a lot of material from the High Holidays.  I also plan to post my thoughts to my daughter as she became a bat mitzvah.

Selichot, Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur were truly inspiring for all of us at Ramat Shalom. Below, I have posted four of five wonderful presentations given by members of my synagogue who spoke on Selichot about the power of belonging.  Once I get the remaining- I will post it as well!

The words of Peggy Angelici:

Shik-seh….Goy…. non-Jew….Convert. For me, those words were used to mean; you don’t belong, you’re not one of us.

For those of you who may not know me, I’m Peggy Angelici. I was born to an Irish mother, Margaret Marie Ludwig, and a very Italian father, Luigi Galliano Angelici. I am the youngest of five and grew up surrounded by my large extended family in Pittsburgh; therefore, the feeling of not belonging was never a question. I was raised in a non practicing Catholic home celebrating Christmas and Easter, never questioning the minimal connection to my religion.

Let me fast forward 18 years when I entered college in Michigan. I know this next statement may be difficult to believe, but it’s true. It was there that I met my first Jewish friend. I went to several Hillel services on campus and it was my newly found Jewish friends that I found myself drawn toward. In the last semester of my senior year I was three credits shy of my BA degree and asked friends for recommendations on which psychology Professor was the most interesting. The unanimous response was Dr. Gold. At the risk of boring you with details, I married “Dr. Gold” (despite the fact that I was only awarded a B+ in his class)!

When I began dating my then professor, my father began inquiring about him, and the inevitable question came…..”by the way Peggy, what’s this Steve guys last name”? As I braced myself, he let out several Italian expletives that I won’t repeat and then he said, “Jesus Christ Peggy, he’s a JEW”! My heart sank as I felt the bond between myself and my family slip away. For the first time I felt the fear of not belonging.

As the saying goes, “when one door closes, another door opens”. My mother and father-in-law, Lenny and Shirlee Gold opened that door for me. The intensity of my own fathers’ negative reaction to me dating a Jew was matched equally with the intensity of my in-laws acceptance of me. In that moment my fears of not belonging because I was not a Jew had temporarily disappeared. They accepted and loved me even though I was a shik-seh. During the next several years, I began studying Judaism and after I married, I decided I wanted to convert and raise my future children as Jews.

As I began my conversion process new fears arose. It became increasingly clear to me that I did not look Jewish nor did I know how to act or sound Jewish.

I listened with great intensity to my in-laws and tried to learn as much Yiddish as possible.

Although I couldn’t afford to purchase my wardrobe at boutiques like my mother-in-law, I did try to replicate her dignified and refined look. I began to feel more confident that I could hold my own in a conversation, (throwing in a few Yiddish words and phrases), and I was dressing more stylishly, but WAIT……. what about my hair!!! I have Shik-seh hair! There was only one solution…… a perm! I got the perm and prayed the massive curls would deter people from noticing my tiny nose because there was nothing I could do about that!

As I stood on the Bima in Edison New Jersey at my conversion ceremony 31 years ago, reciting the blessings flawlessly; I was overwhelmed with emotion. It was in that moment that I felt I truly belonged.

My story isn’t over just yet……………….

I had one more hurdle to jump…..finding a synagogue to join. I was terrified! All the previous fears of not belonging, not being accepted, not knowing enough, and not looking or acting Jewishly enough flooded back as I walked through the doors of Ramat Shalom. This was 30 years ago but I remember it like it was yesterday.

As I entered the sanctuary the kindest, friendliest, warmest woman came running to me with a beautiful smile and introduced herself.” Hi, she said, I’m Nancy” (yes, our own Nancy Holstein). She took my hand and began introducing me to every possible person there. I remember praying that she wouldn’t let go and she didn’t until she safely seated me with other congregants. I left synagogue that evening with tears streaming down my cheeks truly understanding the feeling of belonging. I knew that night, 30 years ago, I was home.

 

The words of Lisa Van Gorder Cohen:

In 1996, American poet David Whyte wrote a beautiful poem called ‘The House of Belonging’.  The last verse reads:

 

This is the bright home

in which I live,

this is where

I ask

my friends

to come,

this is where I want

to love all the things

it has taken me so long

to learn to love.

 

There is no house

like the house of belonging.

 

In Whyte’s poem, his house of belonging was a physical home but more than that, it was a space that he chould share with friends and a space that he could experience love.

As I consider my life through the lense of these words, I feel that my house of belonging is certainly with my own family in our home, but also with this synagogue and the Jewish community.

Some of you know my relationship with Judaism, and I know some of you have a story similar to mine.  I was not raised Jewish and I have never converted to Judaism yet raised two wonderful Jewish children.   A bar mitzvah and a bat mitzvah, fulfilling a promise I made over twenty years ago to Steven, my husband, before we were married.

Truth be known, I made this promise without hesitation and without much thought about the impact it would have on me.  I made this promise because I was in love and impressed with the his conviction that Steven wanted to raise his children Jewish to honor the sacrifices past generations.  I was not un-comfortable with setting my religion aside without fully adopting his.  My upbringing had a lot to do with my attitude.  I was raised in a military family, and by the time I was 20 I had lived at 18 different addresses. So I was accustom to stepping into unfamiliar situations, I was used to feeling like an outside observer.  Maybe even comfortable with it.

I didn’t realized at that time, what this promise would really mean.  Of course there has been the time demands of torah school and getting ready for the bar & bat mitzvahs.  But I have started to measure time by the  rhythms of Jewish life & Jewish holidays.   I think I really suprised my family last year when I didn’t put up a Christmas tree.

Most unexpectedly, however, I didn’t know that how comfortable I would come to feel in this community.  I don’t know exactly when it happened  but I feel like an insider.  Honestly, I don’t even feel like I’m not-Jew any more, I feel like I belong.

I will finish by telling you something more about David Whyte’s poem.  He wrote this poem about a lonely time in his life, which is something each of us can relate to one way or another.    Yet, the poem is ultimately a poem of hope for life and hope for love, which is found through a sense of belonging.

I am grateful for the hope I feel through the sense of belonging I have here in this community. And I wish for each of you the blessings of hope and a house of belonging.

L’shana Tovah

 

The words of Sharon Jacobs-Brown:

“To what Temple do you belong?”, I am sometimes asked. My family “joined” this Synagogue in 1994 when my daughter started Torah School. So we have been “members” of the Ramat Shalom “community” for 20 years. Until recently I never considered why we use those words: “belong”, “join”, “membership” and “community” to describe our affiliation with a synagogue. But then my Mom passed away a year and a half ago, and I learned the value of BELONGING.

We buried my Mom in Rhode Island, had a meal after the funeral and received guests the next day, but no prayers were said at that shiva, as per my Dad’s wishes.

When we returned to Florida, I wanted to sit shiva here. I told myself the reason was so that my children could experience a proper Rabbi-led shiva minyan and because my Mom would have wanted it that way. I discovered that it was really for me.

My Dad wanted shiva to be at his house in Boca Raton. Rabbi Andrew was so kind to come all the way up there, and he was very comforting. My Mother’s 85 year old neighbor volunteered to organize food. She didn’t think my Mom’s elderly friends would come out at night, and I hoped to have even a minyan show up, so she only put out desserts, no food. What I couldn’t have foreseen was that numerous people from Ramat Shalom would drive all the way to Boca for my Mom’s shiva, and for my family. I was surprised and profoundly touched. I hadn’t even expected many of my closest friends to drive to Boca Raton on a week – night. And later Ramat families sent their condolences in cards, emails and donations. I was overwhelmed by the way people reached out.

Some of the Ramat Shalom people that came were friends that I’d made at Ramat over the years. But some were what Rabbi Sarah once called “‘oneg friends” – people you enjoy talking to around the oneg table or at Temple meetings, but you’ve never been out to dinner with them, and might not even know their names. I feel so grateful to everyone who drove so far to Boca, and otherwise reached out because it made me feel part of a caring group to which I “Belong.”

It was not until I had a loss that I understood Ramat’s suggestion to reach out to bereaved families. Previously I’d thought it would be creepy to walk into a shiva home that I’d never been invited into before. And I didn’t understand how my presence could possible comfort the bereaved if I hadn’t known their loved one and barely knew them. But it was incredibly comforting to me in a way that is indescribable, perhaps because it was a showing of the Synagogue to which I “belong”. It is, after all, the people who are Ramat Shalom. It is the people of Ramat Shalom to whom I “belong.”

After my Mom’s death I felt like the earth beneath my feet was not solid any more. I felt unmoored. I anticipated that I would miss my Mom, but I hadn’t expected to feel so adrift, because I do have my husband, two children, family and friends.

I was searching for something. I joined Ancestry.com to build a family tree. I learned that pogroms in Romania forced my maternal great grandfather to reluctantly abandon his successful grain Mills, a home with his cherished piano, and his place in that Romanian Jewish community to move his wife and six small children to safety in America.

For the year following my Mom’s death, I attended Friday night services at Ramat to say Kaddish for her (and, sadly, for my dear friend, Jody Dreher, who passed away a few months after my Mom). My wonderful husband, Ron, came with me every Friday, even though he has an aversion to services – dating back to childhood experiences of mandatory attendance dressed in a suit. So I was so appreciative that he accompanied me without me asking. During that year of attending services I felt warmth and companionship in praying together with the Ramat Shalom community, and Cantor Debbie’s music uplifted me from my sad thoughts.

A year later Rabbi Andrew patiently advised me about the inscription on my Mother’s headstone and contributed readings to include in an unveiling service. He was always available through his many social media outlets as well as in person. I can now see a wise purpose to the Jewish traditions of sitting shiva, and saying Kaddish and Yiskor together with other Jewish people who form a community that embraces the bereaved.

Lately, although I’ve never been to Israel and never called myself a Zionist, I have found myself feeling connected to Israel as the media condemns her as “the aggressor” for protecting her citizens from Hamas assaults.   If I presently lived in Europe, I would probably move to Israel just as my Great Grandparents had fled Romania from pogroms. Israel is my safety net, because I also “belong” to that group, which would welcome and protect my family simply because we are Jewish.

When asked what is important in life, I wouldn’t usually mention that I strive for a sense of “belonging.” And during the past 20 years of Ramat Shalom membership, I wouldn’t have said that “belonging” was my reason for joining. I would have said I joined to send my children to Hebrew School to become Bar and Bat Mitzvahs, or to go to High Holiday services or some other pragmatic reason. But now I know that the language that we use to describe synagogue “membership” – ‘joining”, community”, and “belonging” – are the true benefits that I receive from Ramat Shalom, the worldwide Jewish community and Israel.

On Selichot the skies open wide and G-d hears our prayers clearly. Tonight I will pray for the good health and safety of my family, my Ramat Shalom community, the worldwide Jewish community and Israel, because I “belong” to each of them and they “belong” to me.

Shalom.

 

The words of Aaron Sortal:

What does a high schooler know about belonging? Well tonight I am going to give you three examples: high school, Judaism and community. To me, belonging is about finding your niche where you are the happiest. In high school you have to belong to the right classes, cliques, sports, and clubs because we all want to belong to that right college. I found my group in my school’s broadcast club, but belonging doesn’t come with the snap of a finger. When I joined as an intern in January 2009 I was an outsider. I didn’t know what segment to do, what editing software to use, or what camera to shoot with. I was a deer in the headlights. I didn’t even know how to hold a microphone for a standup. Like most things, finding that little part of your world takes time. Look at where I am now! I have exceeded all of my expectations I had, I found my little niche as the school’s weatherman telling the rainy South Florida weather every Tuesday and Friday live from room 7122. But I wouldn’t have gotten there if I didn’t argue, or like my parents say, were stubborn with the leaders ahead of me. The people that were in the crew made me feel apart of something, they helped me grow in my future journalism career and as a person. They included me in everything possible. It really did make me feel like I belong to something.

After my Bar Mitzvah, my Jewish part of my life declined a bit. Judaism became a small part of my personality. However, when I joined BBYO, and international Jewish youth group, I realized it was one thing I know I am. BBYO stresses the importance of the Jewish movement, and I needed that. I needed to remember who I was and what I loved to do. The people in BBYO make it all worth it! At the first program I went to, everyone wanted to know my name and be friends with me. Then after my first convention, I really felt that I belonged, everyone knew my name and were friends with me. They made me truthfully feel apart of this movement. BBYO also gave me the opportunity to do things I wouldn’t really think about doing.

Two years and 161 days ago to be exact, I began an incredible journey that made me feel like I belonged more than any other experience I’ve had. I participated in the March of the Living with the BBYO Delegation. The March of the Living is a two-week experience through the concentration camps in Poland and the beautiful state of Israel. When I decided to go on the march I didn’t know what to expect. However, I did not expect it to make me feel the way I did about the importance of the Jewish movement. On holocaust remembrance day, every march participant wears their blue March of the Living jacket and walks the “death march” from Auschwitz to Birkenau. The march is less than three miles, but those three miles are life changing. When we went over an overpass you could see everyone that was marching, it was a sea of blue that you can never forget. This moment made me realize how many Jewish people there are. It’s not like I didn’t know we are big in numbers, but numbers are only a thing. Seeing all those people from around the world, made me feel like I belonged to something bigger, something that I am extremely proud to be apart of.

Belonging isn’t just about fitting in, but it is where you find yourself the happiest. I have found that and it makes me proud to say I belong to the Jewish movement, BBYO, and my school’s broadcast news station. However, I didn’t fit in just like that, belonging takes work and you must want to be apart of the group. But, now all of these aspects make me feel like I belong, but also are aspects of who I am.. I eventually want to be on Good Morning America saying: “Well South Florida you have a rainy day ahead of you with 80 percent chance of rain tonight and a 50 percent chance of rain tomorrow, well until next time this has been your weather update!”

 

 

 

We’re In This Together

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“All the lonely people, where do they all come from? All the lonely people, where do they all belong?”
The Beatles

Friends,
Belonging is a basic human need. This has been proven in various studies, including one performed by psychologists Roy Baumeister of FSU and Mark Leary of Duke. Baumeister and Leary state that we need to create and maintain meaningful interpersonal relationships in order to be healthy and happy and lead meaningful lives.

As many of you you know, our High Holiday experience this year will focus on three themes: Belonging, Gratitude and Hope. Next Saturday evening, September 20th, we gather for our Selichot service at 8:30PM. Selichot is the spiritual “kickoff” of the High Holiday season. Throughout this service, we will be urged to think about the importance of belonging in our lives. We will be inspired by fellow congregants, Peggy Angelici, Lisa Cohen, Sharon Jacobs Brown, Spencer Krimsky and Aaron Sortal, who will share with us what belonging means to them. The music and prayers of the Selichot service remind us that, while the High Holidays urge us to reflect upon our own lives as we enter a new year, we can’t do this reflection alone. We need community in order to grow as individuals. We need a sense of belonging in order to experience the power of the High Holidays.

Avinu Malkeinu, the most well-known High Holiday prayer, reminds us that while we all made mistakes this past year, we can all move beyond these mistakes in the year to come. Avinu Malkeinu does not say “I made a mistake and I want a new beginning.” Rather, the ancient prayer says: “We made mistakes and, as a group, we want a new beginning.” Avinu Malkeinu stresses that teshuvah, the ability to start over, is a group process. We can’t do it alone. We need to belong to each other. At our Selichot service next Saturday night, we gather together to recite Avinu Malkeinu for the first time this High Holiday season.

As we recite Avinu Malkeinu, we are urged to reflect upon the mistakes we want to leave behind as the new Jewish year begins. We continue to do this during our Rosh HaShanah services – again as a group of people that belong to each other. On Rosh HaShanah afternoon at 3:00PM we gather for Tashlich – the service where we come together, once again, as a community to cast our individual sins into the water – symbolically letting go of them. This year, at our Selichot service, everyone will receive a slip of water-soluble paper onto which you are urged to write the “stuff” you want to leave behind. We will bring our individual slips of paper to our community Tashlich service and together toss our “sins” into the canal on Hiatus Blvd. Again, we do this together as a group of people who belong to each other. If you are not able to attend our Selichot service, slips of paper will be available in the office when you pick up your High Holiday tickets.

I look forward to seeing many of you this weekend and next Saturday night for Selichot,

Thank You

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Embraced, touched, soothed, and counseled

These are the words of one of the readings included in our prayer book. For Abigail, Jonah, Cheryl and me, this reading came to life for us this weekend in an extremely powerful way.

Ours are the arms, the fingers, the voices

The countless arms that embraced us as we celebrated Abigail becoming a bat mitzvah. The guiding fingers of Cantor Debbie and Abigail’s tutor, Amy Freund, directing Abigail to the words she would chant in the Torah. The 700 voices that joined us in song on Shabbat morning.

Ours are the hands the eyes, the smiles

The hands of people who stayed late on Friday night to help us set for Saturday morning or took the time to make something special for our daughter or wrote us beautiful messages to let us know that they were thinking of us. The joyful eyes of members of our community who watched, with so much love, as we took to the bimah as the bat mitzvah family. The beautiful smiles on your faces as you shared in our joy. All of these things and more, reminded us that:

We are loved by an unending love.

This past weekend, each of you, in your own way, reminded us that God can be experienced in the holiness of community.

Blessed are you God, who loves your people of Israel

From the bottom of our hearts, thank you for the love you have shown us.

Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbis Andrew and Cheryl, Abigail and Jonah