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Kil Nidre 5772

Kol Nidre – 5772 “Moment of Truth” October 7, 2011

It was the most extraordinary night I ever experienced at camp. I have taught on the faculty of Camp Harlam in the Poconos, for more than 20 years.  This summer, I taught during the last two weeks of the session, with other Reform rabbis, cantors and educators.

The last week of camp features a three day, all camp competition. It is called “Maccabiah” or more commonly, Color War. The entire camp is divided into four colors which then compete in every imaginable activity, from sports to arts and crafts and everything in between. The highlight is the last night, the Zimriyah, in which all four teams perform the songs they have written themselves.

Each team has to write three songs – the first song must be in Hebrew, helped by the many Israelis who serve on staff each year, the second must be a fight song, the third song, a quieter, kind of alma mater, extolling the virtues of your color’s particular theme (this year each team represented and American city).

Right after dinner, we slogged through the deluge of rain that had gone on for three days to the main program hall, called the Beit, short for “house.”

Excitement was high. Despite all the rain and thunder, none of the events had been cancelled. Over three days, different teams had been in the lead and tonight, the winner would be crowned. The Red, Green and Gold teams sang their Hebrew songs. Then it was the Blue team’s turn. And they started right in with gusto. But in the middle of their song, there was a loud clap of thunder, a flash of lightning, and suddenly, the entire camp went dark.

Immediately there were screams. You know, that high pitched scream of 7 year old girls? Multiply that by at least one hundred. But in the next instant, all of camp, all 700 individuals from youngest camper to oldest staffer, got quiet. We all knew that we were not in danger, but panic could put everyone at risk.

The director of the camp called out of the dark for staffers and campers to turn on their flashlights. Most didn’t have them. Then, in a very 21st century kind of request, he asked that everyone who had a cell phone on them to turn them on and see how much light they could provide. Even though cellphones had been banned in camp, it turned out virtually all 200 staffers had their cell phones.  Between that and a couple flashlights there was an eerie glow, just enough light for the Blue team to see their song sheets.

So they started singing again. Cell phones in the air, kids huddled close to see the words of their songs, they found an emotional gear they didn’t know they had. And this was repeated by the other three teams, with increasing spirit and enthusiasm for the rest of that night’s singing. All four teams sang their hearts out. Without much light, all four teams made up for it with their ruach, their spirit. They did so by digging deeper and singing louder despite the handicap, or just maybe, because of it.

Everyone agreed, they never would have been able to produce that sound had everything just been normal. For well more than an hour, the intensity built and built in the dim, cellphone light. Finally, the last song was sung, and the judges went to work.

Backstage, I found the camp director, Aaron Selkow, huddled with the unit heads, trying to figure out how they were going to get the kids back safely to their cabins in the pitch black night. The solution came quickly – everyone in camp would turn their car lights on and mass them on each living area to guide the kids back to their bunks.

And at that very moment, the power was restored. People laughed and sighed with relief. As the hugging and giggles continued, the judges came forward, with the predictable cheers and groans when the Gold Team was proclaimed the winner.

Later that night, we talked about what went on. We realized that when the power went out, it was a moment of truth. Either the camp family of more than 700 would pull together or they would pull apart as people gave in to their individual fears. And the staff, mostly, 19-22 year olds, were the leaders. They calmed their young charges and kept each other in line, despite being concerned for their own selves. It was as true a response to a challenge as I have ever seen. There was no cynicism, no skepticism, no doubting. You could not do any of those things and lead scared children.  You had to be absolutely true.

We do not plan moments like these in our lives, moments of truth that reveal who we really are, that define our character. But we do plan one of them in the Jewish calendar. It is called Kol Nidre.

Tonight, there can be no lies. It would be too shameful to offer them to God or even to ourselves. Tonight, the shadows are peirced, we have no place to hide, not even behind our best clothing and our warmest smiles. Tonight, we are stripped of veneer and pretense. Tonight, we examine ourselves with honesty and clear sight.

So, this Kol Nidre, I would like to offer some truths about the Jewish world as I see them. Of course, it is impossible to see totality of any truth, and I’m sure that you see aspects that I do not, for which I am the poorer. I want to speak about four areas of intense concern to us all, Israel, our Reform movement, our place in the Pittsburgh Jewish community, and finally, our beloved Temple Sinai.

The last three weeks have been a whirlwind of activity concerning the future of Israel as Jewish state. Mahmud Abbas, President of the Palestinian Authority made a dramatic pronouncement at the United Nations, a bid for statehood. Israel and America once again found themselves isolated from so many countries, but closely aligned in values and outlook.

Our President looked out at the hostile faces of UN delegates and declared, in a moment of truth for us all:

“Let us be honest with ourselves. Israel is surrounded by neighbors that have waged repeated wars against it. Israel’s citizens have been killed by rockets fired at their homes and suicide bombs on their buses. Israel’s children come of age knowing that throughout the region, other children are taught to hate them. Israel, a small country of less than eight million people, looks out at a world where leaders of much larger nations threaten to wipe it off the map. The Jewish people carry the burden of centuries of exile and persecution, and fresh memories of knowing that six million people were killed simply because of who they are. Those are facts. They cannot be denied.”

This was after he proclaimed:

“America’s commitment to Israel’s security is unshakeable.”

I offer these words tonight not to support a President. Rather, honesty demands we affirm that Israel’s essential story, by which we connect so strongly with Israel, is understood by our American leaders. This understanding has been affirmed by every one of our Presidents, regardless of political party, since the 1973 Yom Kippur war.

But in the spirit of tonight’s honesty, I am saddened by our seeming inability in the Jewish community to discuss Israel without degenerating into labeling, or even worse, name calling.

I am torn. I love Israel enough to have traveled there 20 times,  with two more trips this year. I have no time for anyone who questions Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state, to defend itself from enemies whether  they are other  nations or  terrorists.   I have little patience for those who say, “Israel should just make peace,” as if it were up to Israel alone to accomplish this goal, sought for the last 100 years. I am put off by friends in the non-Jewish community who ask me to sign one sided petitions that see Palestinians only as victims and not as perpetrators of suffering.

But I despair over those in our community who claim that Palestinians are not a people with rights, a legacy and story of their own. I cannot understand those who simply want Palestinians to move to Jordan, as if they had never lived in Haifa, Hebron, Jaffa and Jerusalem. I am bewildered by those who advocate an Israel that is a democracy only for Israeli Jews and not for Palestinian Muslims and Christians. And I am incensed by Israelis who want to exact a “price tag” on Palestinians for their nationalism by burning down a mosque, as happened in the Israeli Galilee village of Tuba Zangaria this week.

And I am frustrated that the government in Israel doesn’t realize that the world is poised to impose a settlement or force Israel into intolerable diplomatic and economic isolation.

What chills me even more is that Israel has become a non-issue for too many of us. I speak with too many Jews today for whom Israel is only an abstraction, or even worse, a burden to the Jewish community.

I get it – the Jewish Generations X & Y have never known a world without a Jewish state. Israel may seem less important than other concerns, such as the quest for deeper spiritual connection with God, engaged Torah study or passionate attachment to Jewish social justice projects.

Or, as one dear soul told me a while ago, “Oh, Rabbi, Israel’s your thing. Personal prayer is mine.”

No, it’s not. I beg to disagree. We are not an “either-or” religious endeavor.  We are an all-inclusive, like one of those Caribbean resorts.

Israel must matter. It has the largest Jewish population in the world.

We cannot afford to disengage ourselves from Israel and expect to survive, much less thrive. Long ago, there was a huge community of Jews 2,000 years ago in Alexandria of Egypt. They disconnected themselves from their brethren in Israel and, despite their size and vitality, disappeared from history completely.

Why care about Israel? Because the Zionist project of an independent Jewish nation over the last 125 years was never intended only to concern Israelis. It was meant to engage all of us in the fundamental question of how we care for each other as Jews.

Tonight, on Kol Nidre, at this moment of truth, in this time of fear and worry in the Middle East, I affirm that we are bound to our brothers and sisters in Israel, to our friends and loved ones and to those with whom we passionately disagree. I affirm that Israel has claims on us, even as we have claims on it.

That is why I am going to lead a trip in December (spaces still available), living in Jerusalem for six weeks to study and write and participating in the community mega-­mission in June. If you have not been, please come with me in December or June.

Closer to home, we who care about liberal Judaism here in America are rapidly facing our moment of truth as well. The Reform movement started in Germany 200 years ago as Jews there struggled to balance the demands of their faith with the opportunities of the modern world.

As the Jews flocked to this country, millions of our families were faced with hard choices demanded by economic necessity. And from 1885 up to 1985, Reform Judaism grew from a few congregations to become the largest synagogue movement in America, a position it still holds.

But today, the fastest growing Jewish movement in America is Orthodoxy, whether in its Modern form, the Charedi or Lubavitch Chasidism.

Their insistence on day schools has dramatically increased their foundation of learning. Their devotion to Jewish legal tradition, Halakha, resonates among younger Jews who face what sociologists have labeled “decision fatigue.” This is the feeling of dread over having to make decisions about everything in life from vital health care issues to breakfast food. Many young Jews like knowing that there IS a specific way to be Jewish and they don’t want to have to figure out the meaning of kashrut and Shabbat for themselves.

You might think that young people love choice or simply don’t care. But academic Peter Beinart wrote more than a year ago in a controversial article that as of now, 34% of Jews 18-25 here in America now proudly call themselves Orthodox. We, with our emphasis on autonomy and free choice, are not matching their fervor. The fear is that, over the next century, Reform Judaism could disappear, leaving behind nothing but beautiful buildings, empty shells.

Orthodoxy has its problems as well, but I defer to my traditional colleagues to speak about those this Kol Nidre.

To meet these challenges, our movement initiated the Reform Think Tank, a high-powered small group, 30 in all, to discuss where we are going and how to plan our future.   Last year, I was chosen as one of ten rabbis   in the US and  Canada to participate.

What have we discovered? That many Reform Jews who fill our congregations this night don’t feel connected to their synagogues, much less our movement. Even here, some might say they belong here because they like Rabbi Symons or me or love Sara’s singing, or that we offer a solid Jewish education. We are liked for being “warm and welcoming,” a wondrous phrase that obscures more than enlightens what we actually do around here.

We discovered that the trauma of the past recession is not over for many of us. At Temple Sinai around 30% of our households are on reduced dues because of their financial situations – and we are glad and PROUD to support and keep our connection with every one of them.

Nationally, the situation is far worse. In the fabled congregation of Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills, California, around 50% of their households are on reduced dues. We are exploring other ways to fund synagogues without such a heavy reliance on membership dues.

We have also discovered that there are many Jewish services on the internet for lesser cost than synagogue membership, including Bar and Bat Mitzvah training via Skype. There is online adult Jewish learning and opportunities for Jewish social justice advocacy through groups like American Jewish World Service. Even programs to build one’s connection to God are offered by the Institute for Jewish Spirituality, which I personally support! One stop shopping at synagogues for our Jewish needs and services will not be the only option as we head into an uncertain future.

So we ask: Why be Reform? Why affiliate with our movement?

Because Reform Judaism stands for a passionate connection to tradition and the modern world. We embrace a brave new world of science and social media, of new technology and diverse family arrangements.

Our movement holds high the banner of social justice for workers, the poor and minorities through our Religious Action Center in Washington.

Our movement in Israel fights the Orthodox monopoly in the government. We fight against segregation of sexes on public buses and for the rights of women at the Western Wall in a way that no website or storefront minyan can. It is our movement that is already raising money to rebuild that torched mosque in the Galilee.

We stand for openness and inclusion, for women and for interfaith families. Being Reform means that we don’t shy away from difficult issues. We may close our eyes for the Sh’ma, but we open them to the world around us.

We run fantastic summer camps, hothouses of learning and experience that plant liberal Jewish seeds in hundreds of future rabbis, cantors and congregational leaders. No social media, no flash mob, can match the experience of walking up to Camp Harlam’s Chapel on the Hill, 700 strong each Friday night, swaying together and singing for Shabbat as if there were no tomorrow.

We refuse to lose our children to Judaism just because their fathers were Jewish and not their mothers.  We throw open our doors to converts, instead of looking upon them with fear and suspicion.

We teach on principle that gay men and lesbian women should be ordained as rabbis, invested as cantors and engaged fully in synagogue life. We declare, without apology, that God made men and women who they were sexually and should be able to get married. We teach that if the Torah doesn’t account for this, we will have to change how we understand Torah.

Now, Jewish social media sites can be open and inclusive and even teach, but would you want a rabbi ordained by Facebook? Or some unknown online seminary? I do not believe they can match the onsite learning, preparation and exhaustive training that I and Rabbi Symons underwent for 5 years of graduate work to be ordained as rabbis!

Now, there are some “Reform” congregations that are not affiliated with our movement. They go their own way, but they depend on our movement to produce all they depend on, from prayerbooks to rabbis, camps to learning institutions. We are not like that and never will be.

I am a child of this movement. My mother, Lois has been a regional and national leader in the Sisterhood movement, my father a Temple board member. I attended both Reform youth groups and summer camp. All my children have been involved in local and regional youth group events and have spent time in Israel on Reform programs. We are proud to affiliate with the national and international movement of liberal Judaism.

This Kol Nidre night, in this time of uncertainty, change, and even fear, I declare that I am a proud to serve Temple Sinai, a dynamic, affiliated Reform Jewish congregation in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.  I am humbled by the number of you here who lead and participate in full knowledge of who we are and why we believe and act as we do as Reform Jews.

Tonight we must face up honestly to our reality here locally as well.

The Jewish population of Pittsburgh is growing incrementally, if at all. There are barely enough newcomers to replace those of our local population who relocate or who, sadly die due to age or infirmity.

Our growth as a congregation, though a source of pride, is an exception in Pittsburgh. Several congregations face struggles for survival due to loss of membership and financial support. Proud, storied congregations find themselves with large buildings but far fewer participants. Some wonder if we need all of the Jewish congregations, agencies and institutions in our region. Indeed, this is a “courageous conversation” we avoid at our peril.

That said, our leaders have unanimously come to the same conclusion: Temple Sinai is growing because it is both creative and unique. Our task is to make this wonderful place the best it can possibly be. We will deal with future challenges as they arise with the same spirit that has made us such a vibrant congregation today.

Make no mistake. Some venerated institutions with wonderful histories may very well close their doors in the years to come. But that is not our future!

On this Kol Nidre night, I declare that I and our entire leadership are committed to the ongoing sacred work of Temple Sinai as a distinct, unique k’hillah k’dosha, a holy community. With full knowledge of the challenges we face, we are committed to serving you, our members, your children and your grandchildren by offering you the best of our hearts and our minds and our efforts.

We accept this responsibility while affirming our connection to our friends in other congregations and agencies.

And finally, on this night of truth, what truths must we face this Kol Nidre night at Temple Sinai?

Three years ago, I offered a new vision for involvement at Temple, based on creating four centers for each of us to focus our energy and effort: The Neshama Center for Jewish Spirituality. The Midrash Center for Jewish Learning. The B’racha Center for Jewish Connections. The Tikkun Olam Center for Jewish Social Justice. The goal was to find what motivated you and to make it easier for you to live your passion so that you could find meaning, joy and purpose in your Jewish life.

I am thrilled to report we have made great strides. We set a goal of increasing foot traffic in our building from 20% to 30% of our Temple family and the community.  Especially due to the success of the 92nd Street Y program, we have achieved that goal. Rabbi Symons has done a wonderful job involving parents and adults in the challenges of Jewish learning and parenting. He has also led a dedicated band in Tikkun Olam, social justice work. I am inspired by the leaders of both the Neshama Center and the B’racha Center who work each day to fill the spiritual, emotional and personal needs of our family of families.

Some worry we might be offering too much. Tell that to those who complain if we cancel an event or a service. We are prepared, with a tiny staff for our size, to make sure our doors are open to you, seven days a week, 365 days a year (including during blizzards and floods!).

One of our past presidents once said to me, “Jamie, what would you do if you were successful, if everyone came to Temple for our programs? We’d be overwhelmed!” I answered him as I answer you tonight. Bring it on. If the epitaph on my headstone reads, “He helped fill the shul ‘til the walls burst” I could not ask for a better legacy.

For, truth be told, on this night of nights, Kol Nidre, you are my legacy. I have worked my entire life to lead you here, now, at this moment. This is the 24th time I have stood before you, and never have I shortchanged you because you are indeed, a sacred community, one of the finest I have ever seen. In sickness and health, in challenge and opportunity, in hope and frustration, you and I together have built an era of Temple Sinai whose accomplishments will live for generations.

And we are not done. No, we are not done. Tonight, at this moment of truth, this Kol Nidrei…

We stand as individuals, facing with courage the truths of our lives over the next 25 hours, seeking repentance and forgiveness.

We stand as a family of families, ready to care and share in each other’s burdens.

And we stand this night at Sinai as a humble, faithful, joyous Reform congregation, aware of our gifts and flaws, committed to filling this new year with blessings from God for each and every one of us. We dare to aspire to a destiny worthy of our hopes, dreams, gifts and promises.

Honestly.  No lie.  Emmis.  The truth. Nothing but the truth.

Sun, October 1 2023 16 Tishrei 5784