Rabbi Cohen’s Erev Rosh Hashanah 5779 Sermon – Engaged or Empowered?

Erev Rosh Hashanah 5779
September 9, 2018
Rabbi Heidi M. Cohen

Engaged or Empowered: How We DO Jewish

In 1943, during World War II, 25 families of Jewish merchants would gather together in downtown Santa Ana on Friday evenings for Shabbat services, establishing themselves as the first Jewish congregation in Orange County. They first met in the living room of one of these members’ homes and eventually moved into the first building at 8th and Bush in 1945. Imagine if you will, the women and children gathering in the building while waiting for their husbands to close shop in downtown Santa Ana so that they could welcome Shabbat at 9:00 pm. Following services, they would walk across the street to a social hall for oneg. It was a very different life then, but they held the same mission and hope we have today, create a Jewish community for everyone; a safe and welcoming community where they can live and do Jewish.

The past 75 years have seen many changes and growth in our Temple Beth Sholom community. From a living room to a converted church to our own building that has undergone renovations to be more current as well as restoration following our fire. Our community has changed as well. And as Rabbi Michael Marmur has said, “the most traditional thing a Jew can do is to change.” While change can be scary and take us out of our comfort zone, we see the benefits of change, especially in how diverse a community we have become. We are a more diverse community with both partners being Jewish, interfaith and interracial families, LGTBQ individuals and families, families with children and adults with special needs, individuals seeking connections with not only other Jews but with a community who is embracing of all.

Over the past 75 years, Temple Beth Sholom has evolved to meet the needs of our ever changing world and Jewish life. And here’s the hard reality – we have to always be evolving. We cannot be stuck in the mode of, ‘this is how we’ve always done it,’ because life is not like we’ve always done it. The beauty of being Reform, not Reformed  is that we are not done yet. We are constantly evolving to embrace our 3000 year old religion in a modern world. That’s what makes Temple Beth Sholom so exciting; things evolve, we learn, we grow, we try some things that might not always go over well, then we reflect and continue to evolve, learn and grow. We are not the same congregation we were when those 25 families began in a living room 75 years ago and we will not be the same congregation in another 75 years. But we will always be Temple Beth Sholom and there will always be Temple Beth Sholom as long as we engage our members and one another to create the community that WE need and want.

The Jewish community as a whole continues to ask a very important question – how do we engage Jews today? Rabbi Steven Windmueller of the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Los Angeles recently wrote about the New American Jew. “Today, we find an emergent 21st-century framework reflective of the rise of boutique organizations and alternative expressions of Jewish participation. The peer-networked leadership model, a central attribute of the last century, has given way to a framework of self-selected, empowered leaders.”[1]

Rabbi Windmueller suggests there are six factors contributing toward our ever changing understanding as to how we relate to community in general and hence our Jewish community.

  • First, our changing nature of work, from communication to technology and the disparity between the very wealthy and the general working class.
  • Second, how we receive communication. Especially with the use of social media as we are receiving and sending information at a higher rate than ever before. And it’s only going to increase. As much as some may say they want to stay away from social media, we can’t. News and information is hitting platforms such as Facebook, Twitter and Snapchat at an incredible speed.
  • The millennial generation is redefining community engagement and loyalty. The millennials are not affiliating as Jews have in the past, instead they are participating in society in a whole new way. Rabbi Windmueller asserts that “Sociologists are seeing resulting shifts in the creation of cultural identity and expressions of social connectivity that require a rethinking of the importance of distinctive generational characteristics and behaviors.”[2]
  • There is a loss of prominence of institutions and leaders. No longer is it enough to have a leader standing in front of the community saying, this is where we’re going. Instead, there needs to be more of a partnership between all members of the community to set the direction and implement the vision.
  • We are acquiring knowledge through many lines. With greater access to information and the rise of a knowledge based culture, those who are able to share that information are able to more easily shape the community’s social ideas.
  • And finally, the role of liberal religion is declining in our society. The presence of religion, and especially in our case, Judaism, is giving way to competing social structures and causes. According to Rabbi Windmueller, “Where once religious fidelity was seen as central to American social identity, today 42 percent of Americans report that they have changed their religious affiliation, with many labeling their current status as “religious none” (holding no religion)!”[3]

These six factors are part of the decline of connections to Judaism, the synagogue and Jewish community. Jewish community is not what it once was. So the question that we all need to explore is, what can it become? We should not feel so defeated, that there is no hope for the Jewish community, but rather, that there are endless possibilities for what we can become.

Today, “the Jewish community is more accurately described as a series of interwoven networks that look and function differently from past communities.” Jewish institutions are “struggling to retain the prominence and power they once had as more and more Jews adopt a post-institutional orientation.”[4]

As Judaism changes we turn to our text for an important reminder: Pirkei Avot teaches us: al tifrosh min hatzibur, you are not allowed to distance yourself from the community. While the community is changing, it’s easy to say, I’m going to step away, let things settle down in my life and then decide how and if I am going to re-engage. We all have to be a part of rethinking our Judaism, our Jewish community, and what a better time to do this than starting tonight at our New Year.

Let’s begin with an expression you might have already heard me say or read; how do you DO JEWISH? It is not enough for us to just identify as being Jewish, we have to ask, how do we do Jewish? And with the diversity in our congregation, we have a rich and complex tapestry of how each of us do Jewish as individuals and how we do Jewish as a community?

Rabbi Mike Uram classifies Jews in two different ways, Empowered Jews and Engaged Jews.

Empowered Jews are those who have long Jewish resumes and significant levels of motivation for seeking out and creating Jewish communities and experiences. They are the Jews who grew up going to religious school, involved in youth group and there was never a doubt that when the time came, they too would join a Jewish community. They are empowered because they feel a sense of empowerment to create that Jewish experience. However, we know no matter what we give our children, there is no guarantee that they will be empowered Jews later in life.

Engaged Jews are those who may have a strong sense of Jewish identity, but they have a shorter Jewish resume and are a bit more reluctant to join the Jewish community. What’s in it for them? Why should they join a community when they already identify as Jewish? Engaged Jews, which  is the vast majority of North American Jews, require a deeper level of personal engagement and more customization from an organization. In other words, it takes more work from the established organizations, such as synagogues, if we want to engage this group. Just a few statistics: Only 51% of Jews in the United States choose to participate in having a celebration for becoming Bar or Bat Mitzvah. Only 31% of American Jews belong to synagogues and only 18% belong to some other type of Jewish organization, which might be some of the same people.  So we have our work cut out for us to engage Jews in our community.

With this in mind, I want to do something completely out of the ordinary and unexpected. Then again, for those of you who know me, doing something out of the ordinary is really not that unexpected.

Please take out your cell phones and wake them up. Yes, wake them up! I am giving you permission to do this, but don’t go surfing the web on me or check game scores, just stay with me for a moment. Some of you may have the wifi code for TBS Guest, if you see that your phone is being too slow, that means we are using way too much bandwidth, so turn off your wifi and use your cellular data – because in our world today, who doesn’t have unlimited data?

Poll Results:

Here’s what we’re learning about Jews today: there is more than one way to be Jewish and as a synagogue, we need to expand how it is we “do Jewish!” Yes, we want people to come into this space. Yes, we want people to engage in our programs. Yes, we want people to participate the way we remember participating, after all, if it was good enough for us, then why shouldn’t it be good enough for them?

Now is the time to start looking at this new Jewish cultural model. It’s not to take away the religious connections and the fence we put around Torah, but how we meet the needs of the ever changing American Jewish family.

How do we share information with one another? As much as there is a desire for print media, we see the best way to communicate with the majority of those in our community is through social media, text messaging, email and the web. We are able to get information out to our community more quickly, update information and connect with one another faster than ever before. This, however, does not discount the importance of interpersonal communication in the form of phone calls and one on one conversations.

Unfortunately, many are choosing the privatized Jewish route – rent a rabbi for life cycle events, from birth to death. While it may be more convenient, it does mean that we don’t connect to a community of other Jewish families. This leads to a larger array of choices for those in our Jewish community. No longer is there only one community to connect to, rather, there are many. 75 years ago, TBS was the only synagogue in Orange County. Then along came Temple Beth Emet in Anaheim and today there are more than 20 congregations, which include the many Chabad institutions in almost every city of Orange County. With so many choices individuals are able to connect to one or many Jewish communities to create their Jewish experience.

Governance in our institutions is no longer relegated to only one small group. More and more people want to be involved in deciding and creating the direction of our community. We have moved from a top down model to a communal model of decision making. Our institutions are not under the direction of only one group, our people want to be partners in the mission, vision and implementation of Jewish life.

While we might call ourselves Reform Jews, it is evident in our community and in all communities that there is still a great diversity as to how we practice. I love listening to how we pray the amida or kaddish and the various pronunciations, tunes and even choice of hakol or hameitim in the amida. We each come with varying beliefs and practices and they are interwoven in our collective worship and practice.

Judaism is entering an age of experimentation. How do we live our Jewish lives? How do we “do Jewish” and how do we connect with and support the Jewish community?

These are difficult questions and ideas to wrestle with. But this is the time to put them on the table for us as a community. Who are we as a Jewish community? How do we sustain ourselves and how do we create the programs, experiences, learning, and social opportunities for everyone?

As Rabbi Uram engaged in coffee conversations with college students regarding their Jewish identity, he discovered some very foundational questions that we all need to be asking ourselves as we continually rediscover our own personal identity and how it is connected to our Judaism:

  • How do I have meaningful and fulfilling relationships with my loved ones?
  • What does success look like?
  • Why am I doing what I’m doing?
  • How do I find a balance and search for a greater purpose in my life?
  • What, if anything, does Judaism have to offer me in my everyday life?
  • What is my legacy?

What are we going to do with all of this? We’re going to work together and define who we are as Jews and how we as a community can help create today’s Temple Beth Sholom. How are we going to do this? We’re going to do it together. There is only one me, one Cantor Reinwald, one Jodi Kaufman, one Ruth Irving and one Pam Ranta and there are a lot of you! And there are a lot of other Jews in our community who have not been engaged in a very long time or even ever before. I want each of us to set up coffee dates with at least three people in the next few months and ask them the questions I just gave you. Don’t worry, I’m not asking you to remember them right now, I’m going to repost them to our website, in our emails, I’ll tweet them, post them to Facebook and Instagram. I want each of us to meet three other people and learn more about them and let them get to know you. Then with these new relationships, let’s build our Temple Beth Sholom community together. It is ever changing and we have an opportunity to rethink how we “do Jewish.”

No one can do this alone, even Moses couldn’t lead the people by himself. It was his father-in-law Jethro who told him, Moses you need others to help you do this work, because if you try to do it alone, you will surely fail. And from then he created a circle of elders who then spoke to the people and who passed it on one generation to the next.

Temple Beth Sholom is your community. It belongs to each and every individual who want to be a part of it and therefore, it is each and everyone of us who are responsible for ensuring the future for the next 75 years. This is something that all of us can do, even our youth! You all can be asking these questions of one another. You are just as invested in TBS as any adult in this room, after all, the Jewish future is yours to create and own. It is all of ours to create and own.

With our new year, it is time to reclaim how you do Jewish and how we do Jewish. Allow us to use Torah, 3000 years of text, and our tradition of changing as a guide, and then let us build something great together. It is with this evolution from engaged to empowered that we will always ensure our future as clal Yisrael, the community of Israel.

[1] http://jewishjournal.com/columnist/237358/new-american-jew/

[2] Ibid

[3] Ibid

[4] “Next Generation Judaism: How College Students and Hillel Can Help Reinvent Jewish Organizations.” Rabbi Mike Uram.

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