Late Friday afternoon, 40 minutes before the sunsets, a siren sounds throughout Jerusalem announcing that it’s time to get ready for Shabbat. At that moment, many in the city light their candles. Some wait until 18 minutes before Shabbat. Some don’t observe Shabbat at all. But, no matter what your religious practice is or isn’t, when that siren sounds, you can feel the energy shift in Jerusalem. Things slow down. It gets quieter.
2,500 years ago, long before the invention of the Shabbat siren, a shofar was blown from the Temple in Jerusalem to announce the arrival of Shabbat. The Talmud explains that six shofar blasts were sounded over a period of time late on Friday afternoon. Each blast was designed to get the people ready for the day of rest. The first blast, the Talmud says, was to tell people to cease work in the fields; the second blast, to have shopkeepers in the city close their stores; the third to tell people to light their candles. After these three blasts, the shofar blower would pause for a bit. He then blew a tekiah, a teruah and one final tekiah and with this sacred noise, Shabbat began.
Accurate and reliable ways of telling time, sophisticated Jewish calendars, and smart phones have made the need for announcing the arrival of Shabbat with a shofar or siren irrelevant for most of us. However, as in Jerusalem and some other cities across the globe, the tradition continues. And we still use the shofar to announce the arrival of the new year!
Christianity adopted the tradition of making some noise to mark important events by incorporating bells into their churches. We used bells first, small ones. To this day, we have them on our Torahs to make a little symbolic noise that announces their holiness. This is a tradition left over from the Temple when Aaron, who we read about this morning, and the other Priests had bells on their robes to announce their arrival at important religious moments.
Judaism is one of many religions that incorporates sacred noise into their religious practice. Buddhism and Hinduism, both faiths with ancient roots, have used bells in their religious practice for centuries. Buddhists also use a horn before and during prayer. Certainly, Christianity’s use of bells was due, in part to the influence of these Eastern traditions. But given Christianity’s Jewish roots, the use of sacred noise was a logical adaptation of our Jewish faith.
As Cheryl, the kids and I visited England this summer, I got to appreciate the beautiful sounds of church bells. We climbed up to the belfry of the Abbey in Bath where we got to listen to and come face to face with 10 bells, 8 of them dating back more than 300 hundred years, 2 of them dating back 225 years. The incredible sounds of these bells tell an amazing story.
Like the ancient practice of blowing the shofar before Shabbat, church bells are rung to let people know that services are about to begin. Some churches rang and continue to ring their bells to remind people to say certain prayers and to mark important moments in a religious service. The bells in many churches, like the ones in Bath, sound every hour and half-hour and also at special moments, like a wedding or coronation. Islam uses a vocal call to worship that is chanted five times a day from the mosque – another example of making spiritual noise to say something important is happening.
After our trip up to the belfry in Bath, I did some research and was fascinated to learn that, as we’ve evolved as Jews, some synagogues actually incorporated bells into their buildings, using the Christian adaptation of our own tradition to call the congregation together for prayer. This was driven largely by the Reform Movement, which began in Germany in the early 1800’s. Keep in mind that the founders of Reform Judaism were determined to make our tradition more “mainstream” – more like the Christianity of their German neighbors. In early Reform Judaism, the Bar/Bat Mitzvah was replaced with Confirmation – a ritual that began in the church. Shabbat was moved to Sunday. The bimah was moved from the center of the sanctuary to the front, just like in a church and, oftentimes, an organ was added. And, yes, bell towers became part of some 19th century synagogues.
As I stood before the bells in Bath Abbey, I couldn’t help but think about the events they’ve announced over the years, most recently Prince Harry and Princess Meghan’s wedding. I thought about how many services the bells have convened and the countless people they’ve inspired during their time hanging in the belfry, including Jane Austen and Charles Dickens who both lived in Bath.
And this got me thinking a lot about how we in Judaism don’t do a good job at announcing important moments today. Gone is the ancient shofar blower announcing Shabbat. Beyond Shalom Notes, Facebook and an occasional newspaper article – we don’t really share the special moments that go on in our community – not to proselytize, but to simply say: “Hey, great stuff is happening here!” And we should do this!
As I experienced the power of the bells in Bath, I became a little envious. I wanted some bells to bring home to Ramat Shalom and ring on the NW corner of Broward and Hiatus to broadcast what goes on here with a beautiful sound that let’s folks know that they should come on over and check us out.
Don’t worry, I didn’t buy bells. And I’m not asking you to donate money so that I can buy some. And while I’ve asked you to reclaim the wimpel this year, I’m not asking you to reclaim the Reform Movement’s short-lived attempt to add bell towers to synagogues. Nor am I suggesting that Peter and Harrison Krimsky stand on Broward Blvd. every Friday afternoon before Shabbat blowing their shofars.
But, boy, when I returned home last month from England, I really wanted bells.
The largest bell in Bath Abbey, known as the Tenor bell, was originally created and installed in the Abbey in 1700. It weighs 1½ tons. Imagine the noise this bell made when, about 200 years ago, the ropes holding it gave way and it plummeted 15 stories to the ground, crashing through the sanctuary ceiling, landing inches away from parishioners who heard it ringing earlier and, as a result, had come to pray. The congregation was grateful no one was hurt. But still, the experience rattled them. It also embarrassed them. You see, many knew the bells were in poor condition. The church didn’t have the funds needed to maintain them. So they ignored the problem and hoped for the best. Every morning, when folks heard the bells ring, they told themselves all was okay. The Tenor crashing through the ceiling, however, told them a different story – one they didn’t want to hear, but when 1½ tons of metal hits the floor after falling 150 feet, it’s hard not to hear it.
You’d think that this incident would’ve led to a fundraising effort to repair the bells. It didn’t. Instead, church leadership simply wanted to get the Tenor back into the belfry so that the townspeople could hear their bells and go about their days knowing what time was, when services began and when other important events took place. To make this happen, some of the strongest men in the congregation were asked to work together to hoist the Tenor up the tower and back into place. How they did that, I don’t know. But, they did. The experience was so challenging that the men involved told the church leadership that they would never do it again. To ensure that these guys would, indeed, never have to do it again – this is what pushed church leaders to begin a fundraising effort to maintain the bells.
They raised some funds and made the repairs that were needed. But, in 1869 the Tenor cracked. While it could still ring, it sounded awful – ruining the beautiful sound coming from Abbey’s belfry, upsetting the people of Bath. Something had to be done.
When a bell cracks, it can be recast and then tuned by professionals. But, this required funds the church, again, didn’t have. So, church leadership took the cheap route: the church organist – he offered to fix the bell. If he charged them anything, it was a fraction of what it would’ve cost to have the bell removed from the belfry, shipped to London and professionally recast and tuned.
It took some time, but when the organist announced that the Tenor was back to normal, everyone was quite happy and looked forward to hearing its beautiful sounds once again. But, when the bells were rung, the Tenor sounded awful – maybe even worse than before. Despite the efforts of the organist, the Tenor remained terribly out of tune.
Our tour guide at the Abbey explained that the organist, while a generous soul, was hard of hearing…You get what you pay for. He just wasn’t capable of tuning the Tenor. And so church leaders, knowing just how important the bells were to themselves, to their fellow parishioners and to the entire city of Bath, did what they should’ve done all along: reached out to church members who could cover the costs associated with properly repairing the Tenor.
Lady Hopton was one of the first to come forward and the most generous. She couldn’t commit to giving everything at once, so she gave in installments. Her first few installments were just enough to cover the costs associated with professionally removing the bell from the Abbey and sending it to be repaired in London. It was a relief to church leaders to have begun the process and to know that the bell was in the hands of reputable folks who could repair it.
But then, poor Lady Hopton died. Church leaders mourned her passing. They also feared that they would never get the money needed to repair the Tenor and it would be stuck forever in London. But, fortunately, Ms. Hopton left quite a bit of money to the church – specifically for the Tenor. And so, the Tenor was recast, tuned, brought back to Bath and installed in the Abbey’s belfry, where it hangs to this day making beautiful noise. Inscribed on the Tenor are these words: “All you of Bathe that hear me sound, thank Lady Hopton’s hundred pound.”
Yes, our visit to the Abbey’s belfry made me want my own set of bells at Ramat Shalom. But, upon arriving back in South Florida and being reminded that afternoon tea and the sweets that come along with it are not part of my normal routine, I came to my senses. It’s not that I stopped wanting bells, it’s that I realized we already have bells here. No, I’m not talking about the small bells on our Torah. I’m also not talking about actual bells. There’s no hidden belfry here! Let me explain…
I realized that the bells in the Abbey, just like the shofar and the Shabbat siren – while they’re really important, they’re actually just symbols – symbols that exist to draw attention to what really matters. A bell is hollow. A shofar is empty. A Shabbat siren is just noise. It’s what fills that hollowness and that emptiness, it’s what makes the noise – that’s what matters. The bells, the shofar, the siren, if their noise wasn’t coming from a place where people could gather, if their noise wasn’t created by people who cared, if their noise wasn’t grounded in a rich faith, their sounds would just be part of the dissonance that regularly overwhelms us.
The bells in Bath weren’t part of this dissonance. It was their beautiful noise, I realized, that symbolized the centuries-old church building that housed the congregation, the people who make up the congregation and the faith that defines the congregation. These three things, the building or the foundation, the people or the families and the faith, these are what fill the hollowness of the bells. The foundation, the families and the faith – these are why the bells ring, these are the “real,” albeit metaphorical, bells that define Bath Abbey.
And we have the same metaphorical bells here at Ramat Shalom: the foundation, the family and the faith bells. We haven’t been that great at ringing our three bells, sharing loudly and proudly what makes us so special. But I do hear them.
I hear our Foundation Bell whenever I walk into this sanctuary and into our Education Building. I hear this bell when I meet with folks in my office and when I drive past our campus on the way to dropping my kids off at school.
I hear our Family Bell every time I get to interact with you, your kids, your parent. At Ramat Shalom, we’re made up of all different kinds of families. Two adult housholds, many with kids, single parents, empty nesters, single adults, young folks, older folks, gay, straight, transgender bisexual, black, white, Hispanic, Asian. Whatever your household looks like – you’re a Ramat Shalom family. And for me, your presence here today makes our Family Bell ring.
For the past 42 years, Ramat Shalom has been a place that’s been committed to ensuring that our faith – our Judaism – thrives. From our founding in 1976, we’ve never been interested in doing Judaism because we were told to – we wanted to understand it, wrestle with it and expand upon it. We think out of the box when it comes to our tradition, incorporating new ideas into what we do and, in turn, adding energy to our faith. At the same time, we proudly embrace traditions that have been passed on for generations. Every time we gather together for the holidays, to celebrate a Bar/Bat Mitzvah, to comfort one of our own, to welcome a baby or a new Jew, whenever we learn or sing together, whenever adults, teens and children sit here and get it, I hear Ramat Shalom’s Faith Bell ringing, letting folks all over know that Judaism is alive and well.
But, we can and we must ring this and our other two bells a lot louder and I’m committed to doing just this. Because I believe that what we do here is making a difference out there. This is why we need to ring our bells even louder, to share what we do. It’s good stuff and others deserve to hear our bells and be touched by our energy.
But here’s my problem. It’s a problem that the folks in Bath had to address when the Tenor bell came crashing out of the belfry. Prior to this, most folks in Bath hoped that the bells would ring, without an issue, forever. But hope alone didn’t keep the Tenor from crashing out of the belfry.
We’re no different. Simply knowing that Ramat Shalom exists, knowing that our kids and grandkids have a safe, happy, engaging place to come and learn about our faith, knowing that as hate is on the rise and human decency is on the decline – our kind of Judaism is alive and well on the NW corner of Broward and Hiatus – not that far from own homes – all of these things comfort us. While we might not show up all the time, Ramat Shalom is really important to us and we hope that this place keeps doing her thing for a long time – that our bells keep ringing. But, hope alone won’t keep our bells secure and in tune.
Our metaphorical Foundation Bell was retuned recently as we renovated our building. But, this is the “bell” we ring the most – our facility. It’s ringing seven days a week for at least 12-14 hours a day. And while we had many folks who supported us as we built these buildings years ago and renovated them just recently, we didn’t have a Lady Hopton who made certain that there would be no debt associated with them. We’ve still got a mortgage that has to be paid in order for the Foundation Bell to keep ringing. And there’s the maintenance costs associated with this bell, including a roof that is, as you probably saw when you came in, under a tarp. We patched it two years ago but patching only bought us time. We now need of new roof which I have to pay for over the next few weeks because I don’t want the bell to come crashing down. But, I can’t do this without your help.
Our Family Bell is ringing like crazy with all of you here. But, let me tell you what makes it so difficult to ring this bell day in and day out: it costs money to be considered a Ramat Shalom family. And, as I talked about last year, too many families, for very valid reasons, simply can’t pay to become an official part of who and what we are. I remain more committed than ever to ensuring that money never keeps anyone from being part of us. Some of you have stepped forward in incredible ways to help me open our doors wide to families, to cover costs associated with Torah School and Early Childhood and membership. Many of the families that you’ve helped, amazingly, they do their part to support our community. But, I need more help. We’ve got more families for whom the Family Bell wants to ring –many who can’t cover the costs. And the income from these costs, I need it to maintain our bells, our community. We’ve given scholarships and reduced our rates –- but the scholarship and dues reduction coffers are now empty and it’s these coffers that help me maintain our Family Bell. I sure could use your help not only to fill, but also expand these coffers.
Whenever we gather together like this, our Faith Bell rings loudly. But, Jewish moments like this are few and far between these days. You know it: embracing Judaism today isn’t on most folks’ radar screens. But this doesn’t mean we stop ringing our Faith Bell. If anything, it means we need to ring it even more to share what goes on here – to inspire. We owe it to Judaism to do everything in our power to ensure that Jews who aren’t connected are given a meaningful way to connect to our faith. We can give them this. We have amazing teachers here. We offer great programs. But we must do more. It’s our responsibility to ring our Faith Bell – to invite people to experience what takes place here and welcome them when they respond! If you care about Judaism, if you love what we do here, help me keep our Faith Bell strong.
In a minute, board members will be coming up and down the aisles to collect your Yom Kippur pledge (you can make your donation online by clicking here). I promise you that this year, your pledge will be used to keep our three metaphorical bells – our Foundation Bell, our Family Bell and our Faith Bell strong. If you’d like to focus your resources on one of these bells, let me know and we’ll allocate your donation accordingly.
Please know that your donation will make it possible for Ramat Shalom to create some holy noise, to ring our bells, to continue the tradition that began with the blasting of the shofar before Shabbat. As he stood in the Temple, the shofar blower did so much more than announce Shabbat. He let everyone know that Judaism’s foundation, families and faith were strong. Today, please join me in making certain that we can broadcast the same message about Judaism and about our community.
I thank you in advance for your support, your generosity and for helping me not only keep our bells ringing but making certain that we can ring them louder in this new year.