Rosh Hashanah 5784 Sermon By Rabbi Jeffrey Sirkman
So, here’s the tricky but not at all “trick” question.
IF deplaning [a usage, BTW, coined in the 1920’s before you could really do it]
Means removing people from an airplane to keep everyone safe…
And dehumidifying means removing moisture from the air
to make everyone feel cooler…WHAT might DE-CHURCHING mean?
[AND, does it make you cooler & safer?]
According to Jim Davis, Ryan Burge & Michael Graham, pastors and authors of
“The Great De-churching: Who’s Leaving, Why Are They Going & What Will Bring Them Back”…it means being among the 40 million Americans who,
though previously part of a faith community, have simply stopped going.
Though it’s not really simple at all.
“We are currently in the middle of the largest religious shift in the history of our country,” the de-churching authors assert. Surveying the last quarter century, studying religious groups from mosques to temples to Friend’s meeting houses
to churches of every stripe, their data suggests that this “de-churching”
is prevalent among one group in particular…
The Jews—as high as half who once were are no longer affiliated.
However, our congregation tells a different story.
For even though disaffiliation is a fact of life for many today,
we are facing the flip side of the question.
With a post-pandemic increase of 130 or more households
in just the last couple of years,
What in the world are all of you—all of us—doing here?
Experiencing not a “de-churching” but rather a “re-templing,”
Beyond the location—location—location explanation,
with so many joining LT we have to ask: WHAT does it mean to belong?
[And WHY does that choice truly matter?]
This year of all years the question is especially consequential,
as we mark LT’s 75th and Reform Judaism’s 150th!
SO what must it mean for us as a movement, for this place in particular,
To be WHO we are?
Since being REFORM is all about “informed choice,”
let’s start with a multiple choice question.
Back in 1873 when founding framer Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise established
The Union of American Hebrew Congregations, Reform’s national organization,
His operative aspiration was:
To cast aside meaningless ritual/tradition in favor of intelligent religious expression.
To adapt religious practice so as to integrate Jews into American culture.
To elevate worship, modernizing its presentation to speak to the spirit.
To promulgate the values of the Prophets, making us good, just & charitable.
When in doubt, always choose E…All of the above!
By the turn of the 20th century, establishing itself as the Jewish pioneer of progress,
Reform’s ritual innovation and embrace of societal justice set its course as the movement of Prophetic Ethics…So much so that by the post-WWII years,
Being Reform meant standing for the poor and downtrodden, standing up for justice, and for the right to be who we are…
SO…enter stage right, the birth of a congregation you know & may well love.
June 28th, a muggy summer night in 1948 in the living room of
Arnold & Pearl Belchetz at 125 Woodbine Avenue, just up the street…
14 families gathered, hoping to recapture the spirit of being Jewish without all the rigor and requirements, aspiring to create a place where their kids could learn what being Jewish means, celebrating the major holidays, creating in this quaint, predominately Protestant-Catholic community a Jewish Temple!
As the leatherbound book of typed minutes of that founding meeting wonders:
“We don’t know yet whether the formation of a liberal Jewish congregation in Larchmont will be a success…But if the reawakening of the spiritual desires of this generation after a devastating war, the wish to have the growing generation feel their Jewish faith… providing clearer contact with their religion and its meaning is any indication…we have no doubt that the expected rich spiritual & physical fruits will grow out of the seeds.”
75 years ago, for LT’s founders, Being REFORM meant finding new meaning in the practices their parents & grandparents discarded, or never thought to explain…
And as the 1960’s saw this building built, by the 1970’s LT at 400 families-strong
became the foundation stone of both social & sacred Jewish life…
FF to our 50th, and we were on the cusp of a new age…
When multi-generational LT families, the Blum-Merians, the Scharff’s, the Cronin-Tillmans stood with our temple’s Torahs in hand as our then President, Ken Gordon read aloud our newly written Covenant of Membership, we were marking a defining moment, a paradigm shift.
Being REFORM now somehow meant keeping Covenant,
which implied our response to a transcendent call:
To do Jewish, to think Jewish, to grapple with God and what it all meant in our lives.
That Jubilee year, 1998, celebrating our relationship to each other
and to this place through our shared promise.
we commissioned our Covenant of Membership as an art-piece
Rendered as a veritable village radiating out from its words…
And, like a marriage contract, word smithed by a cross section of leaders/members,
describing the hopes both partners [congregant & congregation] bring,
it hangs to this day as a reminder of that sacred relationship in the front foyer…
It was sometime in the early 2000’s that, on a Board of Trustees walking tour of LT,
I stopped in front of it to point out our covenant of membership,
Alluding to the three doors in the front hall reflecting the three pillars of covenant.
Just then, our leader & social action pioneer Lee Perlman responded,
“Yeah, but you’ve gotta get Covenant off of that wall.”
I nodded, knowing just what he meant.
The framed sentiment is a lovely ambition.
But unless you take it with you and try to bring it to life every day, its just words…
The year after our LT Covenant was created,
with the winds of Reform change pickin’ up, I joined over 500 rabbis in Pittsburgh, the place where a century before, 18 Reformers pared down tradition
to protestantize Reform as a Religion of Reason.
This time around, at the turn of the millennium, we reclaimed our movement’s future.
Passing a Statement of Principles after three years of dialogue and debate,
We affirmed the central tenets, the multi-layered understandings of
God, Torah & Israel, not a credo but a road map,
with Covenant the compass to help us each find our own way.
And since then, BEING REFORM has meant being part of that ongoing dialogue, struggling to determine where we stand “on principle,”
With Torah’s place in our lives…
With our place in this People Israel…
With God’s Place as it animates our world…
Sounds like the perfect metaphor for our movement.
So, what’s the problem? Most of us have left Covenant on the wall!
Like a couple whose Ketubah hangs in the hall but who’ve stopped trying to grow together, the spark is but an ember, many of us become a bit complacent,
very much a byproduct of the 21st century lives we live.
In this digital age of instant access, when curating every facet of our life-experience is there at our fingertips, personal freedom has shifted into hyperdrive.
A proliferation of personal choice, at times overwhelming,
has changed our relationship to the religious enterprise entirely,
making Judaism but one competing interest among many
rather than a core component of our window on the world.
Back in the beginning of June, I was part of Re-Charging Reform,
A conference of some 300 leaders, spiritual & professional, gathering at the urging of a select group of rabbis, deeply concerned about what it means to be REFORM.
Sitting next to Jane, our Executive Director, we listened to organizer, agitator and keynote speaker Rabbi Ammi Hirsch of SWFS [Stephen Wise Free Synagogue] in Manhattan.
Articulating the concerns bringing us together,
That broad-minded liberalism would be the path to our downfall,
Rabbi Hirsch worried that we’d replaced particular Jewish values
with universal humanist aspirations,
Causing a disconnect with Israel, with Torah as our guide for moral direction,
and with an inspired & connected community of prayer…
The largely gray-haired [or no haired] gathering, a grassroots effort,
kvetched about shrinking congregations, questions of commitment,
in essence, De-churching, and how our movement must respond.
But its what the conference did not say that I believe is our best bet
at re-charging Reform, igniting the spark to inspire a more vibrant JWSH tomorrow…
And it all comes down to this:
Being REFORM means Being a Jew—By CHOICE!
20 years ago, when Susan and I were on a 3-month sabbatical in the city,
[the only one I ever took—my meshugas, not yours, I assure you]
I started writing a book entitled:
CONVERTED: How Ten Jews by Choice Taught a Rabbi Covenant.
What most Jews-by-Birth do not understand is the conviction & courage it takes to, of one’s own volition, become part of the Jewish people.
It’s meshuganneh!...In a way, its counter-intuitive.
And though every conversion journey is different, worthy of our reverence and praise, one, in particular, provides the essential answer as to the spark that will Recharge Reform & help us embrace what it means to be who we are.
Receiving an email 13+ years ago from Raja Ahmed requesting a meeting with me to talk about becoming Jewish, my initial thought was: Really?!?
Meeting him at Starbucks, my amazement only increased.
“So, who’s Jewish in your family?” I asked.
“No one.” He said.
Raja then explained, growing up a Pakistani Muslim with a traditional grandfather,
he had a deep connection to some of Islamic ritual as a kid, but intellectually,
as an adult, it no longer spoke to him. It was a question from his then wife:
“How will we raise the kids?”
As Raja said, “It was as if a fire was lit inside me.”
Raj proceeded to pull out Maimonides Guide for the Perplexed, one from among the many Jewish philosophic works he was carrying around in his briefcase.
He explained, “I decided to study the three major faiths, their primary ideas and beliefs…What I thought would be a three-month project turned out to be a 5-year self-study course…” Then Raj quipped:
“During my study I lost a God, questioned God and found a new God.”
People convert for all kinds of reasons, but never before had it been:
“I’ve done this 5-year study of the world’s spiritual paths, and I’m choosing you!”
Presenting post-conversion to the 3rd year rabbinic & cantorial students at an HUC Seminar, describing the evolution of a journey,
His, and in many respects, ours. As Raj wrote:
“My conversion was the biggest accomplishment in my life,
For it was an informed and educated decision…I didn’t have to study to pass some exam or do it to please my grandparents. I thoroughly enjoyed searching for God, and in so doing I taught myself a new way of thinking and more importantly being…
When I announced that I was going to become a Jew, my children probably thought, “Oh dear, he’s found a new hobby again.”
But my wife took it rather well, asking: “So, what are we supposed to do?”
I was lost with that question. I had studied lots of theology…But for converts like me that have no Jewish past, tradition is the hardest part…For us this was entirely new, and we were all doing it together. So we started doing Shabbat dinner, taught ourselves the prayers, as the kids were all in religious school. Initially, Judaism for me was about studying Torah, but that’s just one aspect. Tikun Olam, justice, is essential. Judaism to me is more about people than it is about God. It’s what we do righteously, selflessly, what we give and how we help, that makes us created In God’s Image.”
Prolific author, last year’s LT Fall Scholar, Dara Horn,
addressing the graduating class of 18 Jewish cadets at West Point in May
put it powerfully:
“We are all Jews-By-Choice, free to decide how we will engage with this tradition…
The purpose of this freedom is to allow our people to willingly accept God’s commandments…Human dignity comes from our choosing to take on this responsibility.”
In a world that often feels upside down,
Democracies here and in Israel eroding,
basic human rights we imagined as immutable evaporating,
our promise for maintaining a healthy planet often ignored,
Being REFORM must be a calling that we answer
by our choice to make it matter…
Through our commitment “to studying more, to arguing more,
To mobilizing more, to praying more, to doing more, to being more.” [R’Michael Marmur]
Raja, BTW, is a weekly regular at Chevrah Torah and coordinates our summer Chevrah leaders,
a master Torah teacher himself!
We can point to that lovely art-piece out there as a fond memory of our 50th,
or, celebrating our 75th, we can become Jews-BY-CHOICE…
Acknowledging and so responding to the call,
we can get Covenant off that wall,
By taking our Judaism sincerely, seriously enough to make it part of our prescription
through which we see and try to make sense of our world.
Being REFORM means Keeping Covenant:
Bringing your life-struggles and concerns and questions
to the never-ending conversation we call this congregation,
and then choosing the Jewish commitments that will help keep you.
SO, this New Year,
Doing Justly—Loving Mercy—Walking Humbly,
May we become WHO We ARE……AMEN