Over the past year and half, you might have heard a name recited on the Mi Sheberach list, Sam Sommer. This is the seven year old son of colleagues and friends, Rabbis Michael and Phyllis Sommer. Sammy has leukemia. For the past year, he has been through many rounds of chemotherapy in order to help rid this disease from his body. This has been the fight for his life and he has become a super hero for many of us, hence why his Mom started calling him, Superman Sam!
Phyllis is an avid blogger, ImaBima, and social media maven. With so many from their congregations, family, friends and community who wanted to stay in touch with the family and hear about Sammy’s fight, Phyllis and Michael began a blog called Superman Sam. It is here that we’ve read about Sam’s treatments, milestones of his three siblings, his remission then return of the leukemia, and now, how Sam is just one week post bone marrow transplant. Over 200,000 people read Sammy’s blog, follow the family on Facebook, and hope to ensure the family knows they are not alone. The outpouring of love has been tremendous.
But why would anyone want to put all of this out there for over 200,000 people to follow and comment on during what can be a very stressful and intimate time in a family’s life?
Let’s first start with the fact that Phyllis and Michael are both rabbis and as we all know, rabbis live in a fish bowl. We can either, pile up the rocks in the bowl and hope others can’t see in, or just let everyone in to our lives. As rabbis, we are human: We like to play, enjoy time with family and friends, are honored to care for our communities, know that we make mistakes but that we can learn from them too, celebrate at life’s joys and cry at life’s challenges. And just like everyone else, rabbis like to embrace life! As rabbis, we are in a multitude of relationships. We are woven into the fabric of our congregation and community. This is the beauty of our lives and one that we as rabbis embrace – I don’t think I would be as successful if I wanted to shut myself up in a house and not let anyone in – and it would be very lonely!
By being so public about their journey and building these relationships, the Sommer’s have shared the tremendous amounts to gifts sent to Sammy with other children in the hospital, created wish lists for the Ronald McDonald house where they are all living, to provide cleaning supplies, toys, books and videos for everyone who lives there, and the greatest of all, taught thousands about the importance of and mitzvah of getting swabbed to see if individuals might be a match for a child or adult in need of a bone marrow transplant. Sammy will have a relationship with a person who he may never meet but know that he or she gave him a great gift that will, God willing, save his life.
These are precious relationships that connect one person to another. They are priceless and a blessing.
Tonight, here we are gathered for a single service. While in the past we’ve divided ourselves into two evening services, which we will do again next week on Kol Nidrei, I wanted to try and bring us all together for this one moment. This most precious moment is all about relationships. This is the beginning of a new year and a wonderful opportunity for all of us to be together as one family, not divided into separate services. This is a time for us to celebrate and embrace the relationships we share as a congregational family.
Each of us has a story and a reason for being here. Whether it is a sense of obligation that this is what we’re supposed to do on Rosh Hashanah, or it’s because we want to connect with our friends, what matters is that we’re here. Some of you have been at TBS since you were children, others came to TBS later in life, maybe to educate your children or because you sought out a place to explore your Jewish self. Whatever brought you here then led to the creation of relationships. I know there are many who have raised their children together since preschool, celebrated B’nai Mitzvah, even danced at weddings and baby namings. And now, for some who came because of your children but are now empty nesters, there is the great challenge to recognize the changes within your own life and how to rebuild connections to the synagogue community by finding, creating, requesting, building that which will now feed your soul. We see how it is not necessarily the community that changes but that our life experiences change.
What keep so many connected to a community are the relationships established, cultivated and nurtured. When do we fall from community? When we no longer have those personal relationships. But that’s something we have to build and work on together. No one can build a relationship for you, but we can facilitate them together.
Ron Wolfson, whose name you might recognize from such programs as Synagogue 2000 and now Synagogue 3000, recently wrote a book, Relational Judaism. Our TBS Board is studying from it, committees are exploring it, teachers are reading it and our staff is uncovering deeper meanings from within. He starts off by saying, “People will come to synagogues, Jewish Community Centers, Jewish Federations, and other Jewish organizations for programs, but they will stay for relationships.” If, we as a congregation create programs without considering how the program will create deeper connections to each other, then we will miss the boat. People will come in for the program, leave having said, ‘that was nice’ and find no lasting impact. He puts his cards on the table and says, “It’s not about programs. It’s not about marketing. It’s not about branding, labels, logos, clever titles, websites, or smartphone apps. It’s not even about institutions. It’s about relationships.” Through relationships has the Jewish community thrived and through relationships will the Jewish community survive in the future.
We see from demographic studies that there is a great decline of participation in and affiliation with Jewish institutions and synagogues. Some say that it is because of the recent economic crisis and believe that “when the economy improves, campaigns will be more successful, and membership levels will come back.” But Ron Wolfson suggests that no, there are too many other factors involved: “lower birthrates, longer young adulthood, delayed marriage, intermarriage, and an exodus of aging baby boomers from synagogues and other groups.” And studies by Steven Cohen and Jack Euchlis confirm this. But they suggest that instead of calling those who are not connected to a synagogue, unaffiliated, they are rather, uninspired. And where is the inspiration? It comes from each of us. While I take great responsibility in knowing that inspiration can come from the pulpit, classes and events, the real inspiration to be a part of a community comes from all of us as we all must work to include one another in our relationships.
When someone comes to TBS for the first time, it is my hope that they feel welcomed and embraced. It’s not easy to walk into a new place not knowing anyone and if a connection is not made immediately, they will have just come for a service or program and see no reason to return. It is up to every single one of us to reach out to those who walk through the doors. And if you’re not sure if someone has been here before or not, it’s better to overwelcome than not welcome at all.
Rabbi Rick Jacobs shared a story recently about how the orthodox rabbi in Westchester, New York came to him and told him that he fought to include Westchester Reform in the local eruv. This eruv, a string or wire encircling the entire community allows those who fully observe Shabbat to walk and carry within that circle – basically, creating a home within a neighborhood. When the Orthodox rabbi’s colleagues asked him why he believed this reform congregation should be included in the eruv, he simply said, ‘because I have a relationship with the rabbi and many of his congregants and we should all be able to celebrate with one another, even on Shabbat.’ It was his vision to create a larger circle of Jewish life and relationships.
How then do we re-draw lines to include those who might not be in our circles and bring them in so they can be a part of our relationships? How can we be more inclusive? It starts with sharing our stories.
From Torah to Talmud and yes, even to puppets, we love stories. From the Biblical stories of creation, the Akeidah – God testing Abraham, the story of the Exodus, and even asking one another, where did you grow up? When we meet another Jew, that’s the first question. And the second is, ‘do you know?…’ It’s the game of Jewish geography and the stories within. I am honored when I sit with a family preparing for a funeral and the stories of their loved one pours forth like water. But we shouldn’t wait for the end of a life to share our stories, we should be sharing them now, building our relationships and connections to one another.
While it is amazing to see everyone here tonight, it’s hard to develop deep meaningful relationship with everyone at one time. The relationships need to be built one at a time and should be developed in a deep rich manner. While we call ourselves a congregational family, we need to know each other’s stories and what inspires one another. But this relationship building has to go two ways. Judaism is not transactional – while, yes, in order to exist we rely on membership and dues, the relationship goes beyond having a rabbi on call, Shabbat and holiday services, and educating our children and ourselves. The relationship is about creating the next steps of a Jewish journey. We have to ask, ‘how do our programs, events, and moments together grow our Judaism through connections to self, to family, to friends, to Jewish expression, to community, to Jewish peoplehood, to Israel, to the world, and to God?’ These statements help us measure our connection to Jewish identity. It’s not measured by how many services or programs or classes we attend. Not by how we celebrate Shabbat. Rather, it is measured through the relationships we develop.
We have to ask ourselves the following questions:
“Do I see myself as Jewish? Does my Jewishness influence the way I live my life: my work, my purpose, my hobbies, my indulgences, the food I eat, the music I listen to? Do I see myself as part of a Jewish family?…Do I locate myself among a network of good friends, friends who will be there for me in good times and bad? Do I engage in lifelong learning about Judaism? Do I try on Jewish practice? Do I commit to living a Jewish life? …Do I connect to the Jewish people, the “tribe”? Do I care about the State of Israel? Do I work to repair the world? Do I wrestle with God?”
All of these are the types of questions we ask about why we belong to any community – just replace the word Jewish with the identifier for that community. Ultimately, we are a part of a community or engage in a relationship with a community because we want to feel connected. We want to feel valued. No one wants to walk into the sanctuary, the classroom, an event, and not feel connected to the people around them. We can be in a room with a thousand people, like tonight, and we can feel very alone if no connections are made. And I pray that no one tonight, leaves here feeling like they were alone in this room with all of us here. If you are here for the first time, or it’s been years, or you don’t know anyone, please, come up and say hello to me and Cantor Reinwald. Come introduce yourselves to us tonight so that we know you are here and we get the honor of meeting you and hopefully, beginning a relationship together.
Over these next ten days, we are going to be exploring more about this idea of Relational Judaism. We are going to look at it through the lens of tzedakah and caring for those in our community; how relationships help us through the time of introspection and repentance; how we are a part of a community on the genetic level; and how we as a community share in each other’s life and memory. And I look forward to continuing the conversation with each of you throughout the year. We as a congregation do not exist without the deeper relationships that are created between one another. Otherwise, all we are is bricks, mortar and land. Instead, we are a family who cares for one another in all times. We are a family who loves one another. Remember, the purpose of Judaism and of all relationships is to love, find meaning and understanding, find our purpose in living, belong to community, and find blessings of gratitude and satisfaction.
May we, in this coming year find ways of deepening our relationships with one another, finding our purpose in being a part of a community and family, and then acknowledging the blessings within. This is the next part of our journey together, building lasting, loving and living relationships for today and for our future.