Rabbi Cohen Erev Rosh Hashannah 5775 Sermon – “TBS – A Community of Practice”

Erev Rosh Hashanah 5775
September 24, 2014
Rabbi Heidi M. Cohen

TBS – A Community of Practice

Rabbi Heidi Cohen

An event that no one ever thought possible brought our TBS community together on the morning of February 15. This was the morning of what seemed to be just a kitchen fire. Yet, while the flames were contained only to the kitchen, our entire building was compromised because of the fire. With each passing day after the fire we discovered the extent of the damage continued to grow until the walls in the sanctuary and social hall were stripped bare. Every last bit of fabric, plaster, carpet was removed till we were left with a skeletal structure. Eerie in its desolation yet beautiful in its simplicity. Each time anyone walked into the building with its white beams exposed and concrete floor there were remarks about how beautiful it was to see the open uncluttered space. And just over a month ago, a group of 20 of us sat on the bima as we listened to the chanting of the words of Lamentations. Voices rose up commemorating the destruction of the First and Second Temples in Jerusalem and echoed through the empty hull of what was once our grand sanctuary and social hall. And while thoughts of mourning the loss of our own building flooded over us we also looked toward the future of what this space will be yet again. It will be filled with color, exquisite design and people once again, but it will also be months before we are back in that space.

And while we struggled with the loss of our building, something else extraordinary happened; we came together as a community. Everyone responded and continues to respond to the fire and from this we see the opportunity before us.

Not only is this an opportunity for us to rebuild our congregation physically, but this is an opportunity for us to rebuild our congregation community.

We are a passionate community. There are many topics and opportunities that will engage our congregation in exciting discourse or action. Look at the passion we have taken on for our Mitzvah Meals program going into its fifth year! Hunger is at a tragic high and we are enthusiastic about feeding those in need. And that commitment has not only been contained to TBS but to many other organizations and congregations who want to do whatever we can to end hunger one person, one meal at a time.

Hear the passion in our weekly Torah study sessions. While we might read the same words from the Torah, there are many interpretations. And there is no lack of passion when it comes to challenging the text and each other in debate and discussion. It is always respectful but it can be impassioned debate that will challenge each participant to look beyond the words on the parchment.

Feel the passion of parents who seek a strong Jewish education for their children. Today, we know that every child learns in his or her own way. Education is not a one size fits all model. From our preschool led by Pam Ranta and her teachers to our religious school directed by Jodi Kaufman, our Director of Congregational Learning, and staff, we hear and respond to the passion of every parent seeking the best for his and her child. And together, we harness this passion with our teachers and volunteers to build an educational program not only for our children but also for ourselves.

Experience the passion of all of us in our community as we struggle to understand the complex situations in Israel and throughout the world as it relates to us as a Jewish community. As we’ll discuss later over these High Holy Days, we are passionate when it comes to our Jewish identity, especially when it is threatened. We are passionate when we say that the Jewish community will not remain silent in the face of anti-Semitism or when Israel is threatened.

Forgive the image, but there is a fire within each of us when our passion is ignited. Even our rabbis remind us that we are actually made with fire and God interwoven together. The word for man and woman is ish (alef yud shin) and ishah (alef yud shin hey). Rabbi Akiva teaches that if a man and woman are worthy then God will dwell among them. But if they are not, then God will leave them and all that will be left is a fire that will consume them. Rashi explains this to say that God rests between them because God’s name is within them – the yud and hey represent God. But if they do not merit God’s presence then God is removed, the yud and the hey, and the eish, the fire alone can consume and destroy.

But fire can ignite passion and if balanced and tended carefully, it can be a creative force. From fire, metal is forged into form and function. From fire, heat can be generated to warm the body and space. From fire, light pours forth to pierce the darkness. Fire is essential to all existence.

Even in the midst of our fire, we know that God never abandoned us. The neir tamid, the eternal light reminding us of God’s presence in the sanctuary, was never extinguished. The sun is a powerful source of light and heat and our neir tamid being solar has always been connected to God’s flame. It brought comfort to enter the darkened sanctuary and see that beacon of hope.

We know that God has never left us because of the acts of loving kindness from so many in the general community and our temple community. Within hours we had a new place to worship for the following Shabbat and within a day a relationship was forged with the leaders of this LDS meeting house to invite us to share their space, just as they shared our space at Temple Beth Sholom 50 years ago when this building was under construction and they were in need of a home. How beautiful that the mitzvah we performed of welcoming them into our home can be returned as they welcome us into theirs.

Our entire TBS community has come forward to bring healing through words and deeds of support so that we could find the blessings of a brighter future.

All of us are a part of the Temple Beth Sholom community in relationship, in that we identify with being connected to TBS. But we are also a community of practice.

In the 1990s Jean Lave and Etienne Wenger developed the notion of Community of Practice and that term is used frequently today. Penelope Eckert provides the definition that “A community of practice is a collection of people who engage on an on going basis in some common endeavor. Communities of practice emerge in response to common interest or position, and play an important role in forming their members’ participation in, and orientation to, the world around them. It provides an accountable link, therefore, between the individual, the group, and place in the broader social order, and it provides a setting in which linguistic practice emerges as a function of this link.”[1]

We come together as a community of practice through the common Jewish bond, whether Jewish by birth, choice or in relation to someone who is. Our Temple Beth Sholom common endeavor is to be a focal point for Jewish family and communal life. We strive to provide excellent educational, social action and social programming and have a strong and dynamic professional and lay leadership. We hope to foster and build Jewish identity through a number of experiences for all. I would like to suggest that the fire has reignited the passion for our community. But are we a community of practice only because of the fire or are we a community of practice for other times as well?

What we have accomplished thus far, post fire, is phenomenal. Yes, we have been planning, talking about and dreaming about a rebuilt campus for many years. Many of you have heard these conversations for over a decade and you might have wondered when it was ever going to happen. The fire has been a blessing in that it forced us to move quickly to take the dreams on paper and add brick and mortar.

Now, it is time to move ourselves from post fire to our new reality. How are we going to redefine ourselves as a community of practice, or even multiple communities of practice?

Just as is my vision for youth participation in Jewish life, so too do I have this goal for every one of us in the congregational community. I would like to take a roster of the congregation with everyone’s name and hope that throughout the year we are able to add one or multiple check marks next to each person’s name because he or she has engaged in TBS life; in Jewish life. And I’m going to extend this challenge to suggest that we NOT count the High Holy Days as one of those check marks, we’ll call the High Holy Days the “Free Space” in which all of us automatically receive a check mark. I want to invite all of us to define: what will be our community of practice participation for this year?

I’m reasonable, I know everyone is not going to be at everything. Trust me, it’s impossible – I’ve tried. We have so many offerings that it is impossible to be everywhere and at everything. But what is your passion? What ignites your Jewish flame? Is it Shabbat? Is it learning? Is it a social gathering with other Jews during which you can share a similar passion? Is it doing social action or social justice work such as Mitzvah Meals, lobbying congress people for issues that effect our Jewish community? Is it enjoying Jewish food? And for those of you who are sitting there saying to yourself, ‘there’s nothing in this list that entices me,’ I invite you to share your interests, your passions, whatever ideas that are sparked by you with me and all of the TBS staff so we can truly say, we have something for everyone! Each of us has a passion; a Jewish fire that burns within and can create, can build and light a future for our community.

This is the beginning of a new year and with each new year we make resolutions; I promise to go to the gym more often. I promise to eat healthier. What are your Jewish resolutions going to be? How can we reach them together? What can we do together to not only build the building but what can we do to build our community?

Every ish and isha, man and woman, every child, every person, has the potential to build our community and we are stronger when we not only engage God in the process but when we engage each other. The ancient Israelites lit bonfires on mountain tops to announce a holy day or announce a significant event. The fire was meant to inspire and call to action. Now, we are called to action to decide how all of us are going to be engaged in our Temple Beth Sholom community of practice. How many check marks will you have next to your name at the end of the year? What are your goals? What are your passions? Together may we achieve them all and may this fire be one of great creation for a very bright future ahead. And may every ish and isha always feel that God is our partner in all that we do and all that we create.


[1] http://web.stanford.edu/~eckert/PDF/eckert2006.pdf

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