Kol Nidre Talk – Wonder, Awe, and Radical Amazement

Life has been busy lately and I’ve gotten behind on my blog posting.  I’m currently working on a couple of posts that I’m sure you will enjoy.  However, until I am able to finish those pieces, my friend, Howard, asked me to post a copy of my Kol Nidre talk at the synagogue where I am currently serving a term as president.  I hope you enjoy it. Understand, this was written as a speech, not an essay, so there may be typos or grammatical errors in the text. 

How would you respond if someone asked you the question “Why would you chose to be Jewish?”.  It’s probably not a question you’ve been asked before, but it happens to me occasionally. See, my Mother is a Methodist and my Father is a long lapsed Baptist, which means that about 25 years I made a decision to be Jewish, something that can surprise people. Interestingly, people generally respond with one of two questions depending upon their background.

If I’m talking with a Christian, they always ask me. What about Christmas or what about bacon?  That’s understandable, both Christmas and bacon can be pretty good.

However, if I’m speaking with another Jew, then the question is different.  What do you think Jews ask? The answer is that they always as “Why would you want to be Jewish?”.

That we as Jews would ask each other “Why be Jewish?” is very interesting to me.  I’m pretty confident that my Methodist relatives don’t ask newcomers to their Church why be Methodist.  In their world, it just makes sense.

As puzzling as the question may be, it’s equally puzzling to me that that I never have felt like I’ve been able to articulate a truly honest answer either.

I usually respond by saying something like “I read some of the writings of the Rabbis and I was so moved that I wanted to learn more”, but let’s be honest, you don’t have to become Jewish to read or learn from the writings of the Rabbis.  You can order all the books you want off Amazon and study to your hearts content.

I could say that, truthfully, that Judaism helps bring balance to my life, but it’s not necessary to be Jewish to live a balanced life.  Indeed, sometimes my Jewish life feels pretty unbalanced.  Besides, I think the Buddhists are really the experts when it comes to balanced living.

I could say what I was looking for community and found it in the Jewish people, but there are times when I’m pretty isolative and there are lots of communities out there to be part of, most of which don’t require you to go through a ritual circumcision to join.

Abraham Joshua Heschel
Abraham Joshua Heschel

So, why be Jewish?  It’s not just my question.  It’s the question that faces every one of us whether we are Jewish through birth or conversion.  Indeed, in an age of declining synagogue membership, Why be Jewish may be the most important questions we can ask ourselves?

I often find guidance in the wisdom of the writings of Abraham Joshuah Heschel, so I went looking to see what Heschel has to say about why be Jewish?  After all, Heschel knew something about the struggle to be Jewish.  He barely escaped the Nazis, lost his mother and two sisters to the holocaust, and another sister to German bombs.  Although ordained as an Orthodox Rabi he found himself at the Conservative Jewish Theological Seminary where he became a legendary scholar and theologian.  Active in the civil rights movement, he marched beside Martin Luther King, Jr. during the Selma march.

Heschel wrote: “Never in my life did I ask G-d for success, or wisdom, or power, or fame.  I asked for wonder, and he gave it to me.”  Of religion he wrote: ““The root of religion is the question what to do with the feeling for the mystery of living, what to do with awe, wonder and amazement.” (God in Search of Man, p. 162) He sees wonder as an absolute necessity when he writes: “The beginning of our happiness lies in the understanding that life without wonder is not worth living.”  Heschel’s writings on wonder also refer to it as “radical amazement” which he sees as a prerequisite of authentic awareness.

I wonder if people would accept the answer that the reason to be Jewish is the opportunity to live a life of awe and wonder?  Thinking about my Jewish life, reflecting back on my experiences, I can say that Heschel might be onto something, provided I pay attention.

When I was a law student I lived in New York City.   Every Saturday I would take the train to the upper west side, then walk a couple blocks to Congregation Ansche Chesed, then climb the stairs up 5 stories to a classroom to daven with a group of 20-30 people who made-up the West Side Minyan. The folks who attended this minyan were a diverse group, we ranged from students like to software developers, to several ordained Rabbis and faculty members at Jewish Theological Seminary.  The leaders of the minyan were a group of women who who made sure the davening was top notch and that all who attended were welcome.  Before I knew it they had me laining Torah and when Barbara visited she was invited to read the Haftarah which mention because it’s the only place where I’ve ever seen my wife intimidated by the davening level.

One day as we were finishing service and going through the announcements a woman in a very modest turquois dress with a scarf on her head stood and asked to speak.  I didn’t really know her, but I was used to seeing her every week as she came in which her son and daughter.   As I turned to look at her I could see an ashen look to her skin color, her muscles looked weak, as she didn’t seem to have any hair underneath the scarf on her head.

In a determined voice she addressed us all: “I saw my doctor this week and he says that my cancer treatment isn’t working.  He doesn’t give me much time and I’m concerned because my daughter has her Bat Mitzvah coming up next year.  My husband doesn’t care about this stuff and I’m worried that if I’m not here, she won’t become a Bat Mitzvah.  I’m asking if you can please make sure she has a Bat Mitzvah if I’m not here.”

Watching the response of the women who led that minyan I knew that I was witnessing something very special and very sacred, maybe more sacred than the prayers and rituals we’d just finished performing, something that transcended even our own mortality.  It might sound strange, but I felt honored to witness that moment.  There was no doubt in my mind that her daughter would have the Bat Mitzvah. I knew, and I think she did too, that her community would keep its promise. And it did.  I would love to tell you she was there for her daughter’s bat mitzvah, but the doctor’s prognosis was correct, she died a few months earlier, but I think Heschel was correct too. Watching that community make a dying mother’s dream come true will always be an experience of awe, wonder, and amazement to me.

I would add that on those rare occasions when I have had the opportunity to visit New York and make to Saturday morning services at West Side Minyan, I always see the daughter, now a young woman davening the prayers her mother passed on to her. In my eyes, that is wonder.

When I look around Congregation Shomrei Torah, I see wonder, awe, and radical amazement.  I feel a sense of awe when I see people who, every month, not only go and feed the homeless, but they take time to see them and talk with them in a way that reaffirms their humanity.  I am radically amazed as I see our members who I know have funded Bar and Bat Mitzvahs for children whose parents couldn’t afford it.  I experience awe as I see people who provided Jewish burial for an indigent man without family and who regularly sit up late at night so that our dead are not left alone before burial.  I am constantly amazed by our volunteer Bar and Bat Mitzvah tutors, not just for children, but for anyone who wants to learn.  I am amazed by our community that made a decision that no child should ever be denied a Jewish education so they made their religion school free.  I feel a sense of wonder when I remember how a couple years ago you stepped up and supported Beit T’Shuvah, a Jewish drug treatment center, that helped a member of community who remains sober and employed to this day.  I am in awe of the many small acts of kindness and chesed such as the member who came to my house in the middle in the night after I called him for help when I came in the door and unexpectedly found my 115-pound dog dead on the floor, or the see the faces of the parade of visitors I encountered when I went to visit a member who was in the hospital waiting for surgery just a few weeks ago.  So many moments of wonder and awe.

A life of wonder, awe, and radical amazement
A life of wonder, awe, and radical amazement

But here’s the deal, to experience those moments of wonder and awe I had to something.  I had to show-up and engage.  Signing on facebook, sending an email, or even reading a book isn’t sufficient. I had to show up and engage despite that the fact that it wasn’t always easy, that people in synagogues aren’t always perfect and sometimes they gossip, sometimes they’re cliquish, and sometimes the services don’t inspire me, or I don’t agree with the sermon.  To experience the moments of awe and wonder, I had to show up and engage.

It’s tradition that on Kol Nidre the synagogue President talks gives a talk encouraging monetary donations to the synagogue.  Money is always needed and your donation are incredibly important to us, but we more than money, we need your engagement.  We’re a small lay-led synagogue, nothing happens here that you guys don’t make happen, and the truth is, we’re running short on volunteers.  So many of you have enjoyed the wonderful Shabbat dinners that come out of our kitchen, but it’s becoming increasingly difficult for us to recruit people to help prepare those meals.  A large number of our board members have served 3,4,5, or more terms and are planning to step down at the end of their terms, but they have no successors in place.  I became your President, not because I came up through the ranks of the board, but because there was no one else who was willing to take the job.  To secure our survival we need the next generation of leaders to step-up.

I want to clarify the relationship at Shomrei Torah between volunteer engagement and our finances.  We are able to keep our dues low and to offer free religion school because of our volunteers.  Fewer volunteers mean we either have to do less, or we have to hire people to make things happen, which means increasing our dues.

We have the benefit of a board that has done very well in providing a full service synagogue while keeping member dues among the lowest in the United States.  Earlier this year I attended a training for synagogue Presidents run by United Synagogues and the other synagogue presidents were all amazed by what we are able to accomplish on a very small budget and no professional staff.

I’m not going to mislead you, we’re doing a lot of great things here at Shomrei Torah, and we have the potential to grow and be here for many years to come, but we also face some very real and imminent threats that we need your help to address.

We are very proud of our free religion school, but we recently had to increase our teacher salaries to ensure we paid our teachers fairly.  This created a $7,000 deficit in our budget that we’ve temporarily offset with the funds from the office administrator position which is currently vacant.  I am hoping that you will help us restore those funds by giving direct donations to the religion school so we can continue to pay our teachers and help the next generation see the awe, wonder, and radical amazement of a Jewish life.

Rabbi Merrill Shapiro
Rabbi Merrill Shapiro

In the past week so many of you have come to me and told me how much you enjoyed having Rabbi Shapiro with for Rosh Hashanah, so much so that we invited him back to be with us tonight and tomorrow.  Although we’re a lay-led synagogue, we’re very proud of our Scholar in Residence weekends where we bring-in excellent Rabbis from all over the country for weekends of study and learning. If you’ve enjoyed Rabbi Shapiro, or any of our other Rabbis, please remember that these weekends take a lot of work from a lot volunteers and they are expensive.  Not only do we have to pay the Rabbis an honorarium, we have to provide travel expenses, housing, food has to be purchased, meals have to be arranged and prepared, someone has to carry them from their hotel to the synagogue, the event has to advertised.

The list goes on, but I know that your attention isn’t limitless.  I want you to know that what happens here at Congregation Shomrei Torah is important. We do more than just pass on tradition, we change lives and we create community.  No other synagogue in our area offers the opportunities you will find in this building and in this community.   We may not have the biggest building or the professional staff you will find in other places, but we can provide the warmest welcome, a more intimate community, and more opportunities to participate than any other synagogue that I know of.

Why be Jewish?  I may not be able to articulate the answer perfectly, but if you show-up and engage, keep your eyes open, I know you’ll experience wonder, awe, and radical amazement and then you’ll know that your time and your financial investment in a Jewish life returns, as Heschel says, “A life worth living”.

Rosh Hashanah: Finding Connection To A Meaningful Life

I am presently with my wife in Los Angeles, California where we are preparing to spend our second year celebrating Rosh Hashanah at Congregation Beit T’Shuvah.  We are both looking forward to seeing a young man from Tallahassee helping to lead the services at this synagogue.  A year ago this young man was at a very low point in his life, but thanks to the kindness and generosity of Beit T’Shuvah  he is finding a new lease on life.

It is always interesting to me to see how life evolves.  What follows below is a talk I gave at the very beginning of Rosh Hashanah 2013 in Tallahassee.  In the talk I mention Beit T’Shuvah and the work they are doing.  Little did I realize that my curiosity would take me on such an incredible journey that has created many wonderful new relationships, not just for me, but for a number of people in my life.  I actually got to meet the young woman I quote in the talk and she’s an incredible person who is doing amazing work in her life.  I hope you enjoy this look back at my writing from 2 years ago.:

Rosh Hashanah Talk 2013

Last year, a few weeks after we finished the High Holy Days I gave a talk from this very bima on why I don’t like the High Holy Days and described my struggle to find meaning in the rituals and words in the High Holy Day prayer book. In a way my talk was somewhat of a challenge to our tradition and maybe even to G-d to help me find some meaning the process we’re about to go through. Let me tell that if you come into a synagogue, stand before your community, and directly challenge G-d to help you understand something, you’re probably opening yourself up to some interesting opportunities for growth.

And that’s what happened for me, and through my experience I got a new perspective on not only why we observe the High Holy Days, but also why we even come here at all.

The answer, I have learned, is actually very simple. It’s all about connection.

For me all this understanding started with an email to my Mother-in-law. You know that in any good Jewish story there has be a mother or a mother-in-law. So, I was writing my Mother-in-law an email and I was telling her a story about some challenges people close to me faced many years ago. I’d told this story many times before, but this time when I hit send, I’m felt uncomfortable about what I had written. As I thought about my discomfort I realized that while everything that I’d told my Mother in law in the email is true, I haven’t really been honest in what I shared with her because the story I told her was carefully edited to leave out any of the struggles that I encountered or any of the failures I experienced. I was quite distressed when I realized that I had written myself out of what really was an important part of my life story.

It occurs to me that one of the challenges in life, at least for me, and I suspect for many of you, is to show up and tell our stories in the most honest way possible, disclosing not just our strengths and victories, but also our struggles and failures. I’ve certainly seen this in my work as a nurse and as an attorney. People will commonly talk around and evade disclosing information that reveals their struggles and imperfections. But why is this such a challenge? Don’t we all want to be authentic honest people?

To understand this further, I looked to the work of researcher Dr. Brene Brown who studies shame and vulnerability. I’m told that Brene Brown’s TED talk on vulnerability is one of the top ten TED talks of all time and she was named one of 50 most influential women of 2009. Brene Brown says we as human-beings are hard wired for connection with other human-beings, but that shame, which is really fear of loss of connection, creates a barrier to connection, and that to fully connect we must be willing to be vulnerable and tell our stories in a wholehearted way.

She writes: “We must remember that our worthiness, that core belief that we are enough, comes only when we live inside our story. We either own our stories (even the messy ones), or we stand outside of them – denying our vulnerabilities and imperfections, orphaning the parts of us that don’t fit in with who/what we think we’re supposed to be, and hustling for other people’s approval of our worthiness”. Brown says that in seeking avoid vulnerability we numb ourselves, but we’re not just numbing shame and vulnerability, we’re also numbing joy, love, and creativity.

A few days ago we gathered for Selihot and prior to the service we watched a film called G-Dog about a Jesuit Priest name Father Greg Boyle, who I met this summer that Chautauqua Institution. I’ve learned a lot about the impact of shame and the power of overcoming shame to reach connection from Father Boyle’s work. I highly recommend his book Tatoos on the Heart. Father Boyle runs, Homeboy Industries,  the largest most successful gang intervention program in the United States. In describing how he helps turn a 70% recidivism rate into a 70% success rate that has helped decrease gang activity in Los Angeles by 50% he writes: “ You stand with the least likely to succeed until success is succeeded by something more valuable: kinship. You stand with the belligerent, the surly, and the badly behaved until bad behavior is recognized for what it is; the vocabulary of the deeply wounded and those whose burdens are more than they can bear”.   It’s about overcoming shame and developing connection.

Similar work is happening in the Jewish community with the work of Rabbi Mark Borowitz, himself a former addict, who now leads a congregation whose work is a 120 bed residential treatment facility. The name of the facility, Beit T’shuvah. The house of return. Did you know that Jewish addicts and convicts exist? At Shomrei Torah we learned this several months ago when a Jewish inmate wrote to us and requested prayer books. I am very proud to say we answered the call. Unfortunately, the stories of our fellow Jews who struggle with addiction or who have had legal troubles rarely get told in our synagogues. Sadly, even when those stories get told, we often act as if they’re anomalies rather than real problems in our community. Consider what one young woman from Beit T’shuvah wrote:

As a young “nice Jewish girl” from Calabasas, to many people I am not the usual addict. Yet, still people do not want to hear what I have to say. They head nod me off until I shut up and then they give me the “not in my house” speech. Usually goes along the lines of my child gets great grades, they are in all AP’s, they are involved in extracurricular activities, we have Shabbat every Friday, or another excuse to make me believe they are perfect. But I too had all of those traits, yet I checked into rehab at 18 years old.

We all have issues. Every family is dysfunctional in its own way. The question is when do we stop leaving the dirty laundry at home and start talking about our problems? Judaism is rich in sources of comfort and teachings about the possibilities for change. When it comes to the social ills of our own, however, we often seem to prefer denial. People are coming into treatment younger and younger and from all different types of homes. But how can we stop it? My advice is to stop living in denial. Break the taboo and start talking about personal issues and stop hiding behind a mask. Learn how to cope in a healthy way with issues rather than just pretending they don’t exist. Without learning healthy coping mechanisms we turn to escaping through drugs, alcohol, gambling, shopping, work, food, etc. Addiction does not discriminate. If kids and adults believe that this disease CAN happen in their own backyard, they will become more aware of how their actions affect their lives

Bringing our troubles into the synagogue, telling our stories, it’s really what why we’re here. Sure, there are lots of reasons why people come to a synagogue. Some of us come to socialize, some for rituals, some for a sense of ethnicity, but at the core, it’s all about connection. Jewish philosopher Martin Buber wrote: “when two people relate to each other authentically and humanly, God is the electricity that surges between them.”

Rabbi Adderett Drucker recently recommended a book to me, and I want to recommend this book to every person who wants to strengthen and grow our community. The book is called “Relational Judaism” by Ron Wolfson and the basic premise is that it doesn’t matter how beautiful your building is, how many programs you offer, how charismatic your rabbi is, or how pretty your website is. None of that matters, what does matter is whether the people who come through your doors find a truly welcoming community where they find connection and build relationships? We need to ask are people, including newcomers, sharing Shabbos dinners, dinning in Succahs together, gathering to study, and is your synagogue a place where people can show up and share their story, and be heard. Is your congregation a safe place for people to tell their story?

One of the most powerful stories in the book is about a synagogue where huge overdone parties had become the rule but as soon the Bar/Bat Mitzvah was over the families left to never be seen again. In that synagogue they brought the parents of children preparing for Bar/Bat Mitzvah’s together to share their Bar/Bat Mitzvah stories and the author writes: “We realized that they were not happy with what the expectation were, but that they felt helpless to change it. They didn’t want their child to be the only one not having dancers, the games, etc.” As the families shared their stories, the conversation moved from the subject of parties, to what kind of children did they want to raise, and what is the purpose of the Bar/Bat Mitzvah.

The result of those conversations was not only to change the way the synagogue did Bar/Bat Mitzvahs, but it also turned their previous 80% drop-out rate of post bar/bat mitzvah families into an 80% retention rate. People changed from seeing their synagogue as a place of transactions, such as bar/bat mitzvah training and celebrations, to a place where they were seen and could share stories and experiences with other people. They had become a place of connection.

As we begin our journey through the High Holy Days, we refer time and time again to repentance and t’shuva, but what is this? I used to think that T’shuva meant apology, but that’s incorrect. The word for apology is actually “ sheliot”. T’shuva means “to return”, but return to what? I think it’s a return to connection.

William Tyndale, who coined the term “Day of Attonement” in his 1530 translation of the Hebrew Bible implied that sin is a matter of estrangement, of disconnection.   Maimonides writes that Teshuva “brings close those who are far off” and Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchek in commenting on Maimonides’s teaching defines sin as that which creates distance between a person and G-d.

There’s a Hasidic teaching that says that every human-being is tied to G-d with a rope. If the rope breaks, but is later fixed with a knot, then that individual is connected ever closer to G-d than if there never were a break in the rope. Thus, errors, mistakes, and failures have the potential of drawing us ever closer to G-d.

My readings on the High Holy Days lead me to the idea that the purpose of t’shuva and repentance is much greater than what most of us consider to be “sinful acts”. I’m seeing the purpose as a return to authenticity and a promise that despite our short-comings, imperfections, and failures, we are worthy of love and connection whether it be with G-d or with our community.

In closing, as we go through the next 8 days, I invite you to look at this as a process of connection, not of self-flagellation. In just over a week we’ll fast, not to punish ourselves, but to render ourselves vulnerable, so that when stand before G-d and recite the al chet prayer ten times, not listing our sins as is commonly thought, because this actually translates as the times “we missed the mark”, we do so with a whole heart showing our true imperfect selves.  This is our opportunity to share our stories, to become more authentic, to allow ourselves to be vulnerable, and in the process transform both ourselves and our community. Let’s connect.