Small enough to know you. Large enough to serve you.

Rosh Hashanah – Day 2 (09/27/22)

Rosh Hashanah – Day 2

I feel sorry for my yeshiva, I truly do. Let me tell you why.

I entered Yeshivas Chaim Berlin, located at the corner of Coney Island Ave and Ave L in Brooklyn, in the fall of 1989.

I was an overzealous baal teshuvah (newbie to Orthodoxy) who strongly aligned with ultra-Orthodox doctrine. And I came there to know God and discover spiritual truths by studying the Bible, Talmud, and Jewish Law (halacha) on a very high level.

By 1995 I knew I wanted to be a congregational rabbi. I felt that with my secular background, I could synthesize the venerable ideas of Judaism into a contemporary template so that it would make sense and appeal to the modern American Jew.

My problem was that in 1995, Chaim Berlin had an elementary school, a middle school, a high school, a yeshiva for college-aged students, and a Kollel (advanced study for married students); however, there was no rabbinical school. The institution was premised on learning Torah just for the sake of learning, without any ulterior motives.

It was known, though, that many superb rabbis were graduates of Yeshivas Chaim Berlin, so I asked, “Why isn’t there a rabbinic track”?

I was told that they had one up into the early 80s, but too many of the graduates took jobs at Conservative synagogues, so they stopped the program.

Well, I was all fire and brimstone. That would never happen to me! I spoke to my Rosh Yeshiva, the dean, about creating a rabbinic track just for me.

He agreed, so in the afternoons for the next two years, I studied the laws of Shabbat, marital purity, prayer, and kashrut in great depth.

I was tested orally after each section by a specialist in Jewish Law, and in February of 1998, I became to first Chaim Berliner to receive ordination in over a decade. I got my first rabbinic position at the Young Israel of Santa Barbara in March, and I served in Orthodox synagogues for the next 16 years.

However, once I left the ultra-Orthodox bubble that is Brooklyn, I was exposed to ideas that were at odds with what I had learned in Yeshiva. These ideas created doubts in my mind, and little by little, my beliefs began to change.

First, my black hat came off – then I started to identify with modern Orthodoxy, then with open Orthodoxy, until I reached a point in my life where I felt I could not honestly remain Orthodox.

Orthodoxy is predicated upon certain Biblical and rabbinic truths and facts. I felt that based on what I now knew from history, archeology, and modern biblical studies, I could no longer uphold the Orthodox banner.

I asked a senior rabbi in my area what I should do, and he suggested that I switch to a Conservative position, for I would feel too out of place in a Reform synagogue. So, as I described yesterday, just when I was looking for a Conservative rabbinic position, so were you.

I never let my Yeshiva know about my transition; I was embarrassed, for I fulfilled their greatest worry.

But I’m proud of my move. Studying Talmud for all those years taught me how to discern weak arguments from strong ones. The yeshiva taught me how to research subjects and wrestle for the truth, and I feel I have used those tools properly. With what I subsequently learned, my beliefs changed but not my search for God and Truth.

Change is not a part of life; it is life. Every day we are aging. This makes us worse at some things but better at others. We learn along the way, and many times we change our opinions.

What we believed 30 or 20 or 2 years ago may not be what we believe now.

How many of us feel the same way regarding homosexuality, feminism, and racism as we did when we were younger? I know that I was not as open-minded and accepting in my youth as I am now. How many of us have changed our diets based on health needs or concerns for animal welfare or the environment? We are constantly transforming.

We have seen our country progress, regress, and flip-flop quite a bit lately. We might not agree with some of these changes, but we need to accept that life is change. Nothing is permanent. All is changing. In every instant. In every moment.

When I first started here, I was awed by seeing women performing roles historically done by men. With services that incorporated commentary, English, and alternative prayers, I felt the davening was more relatable. With Conservative Judaism’s scholarly approach to history and biblical studies, I felt comfortable sharing my new truths with the congregation.

Yet, if we’re still searching for truth and for ways to make Judaism relevant to us, our families, and our community, I believe we need to embrace further changes by reassessing some of our positions and what we do here at MHJC.

For example, nowadays 70% of non-Orthodox Jews choose somebody non-Jewish to marry. I know it happens in our congregation, but not once have I been asked to officiate.

Some people are embarrassed to ask. Others think I am prohibited by Conservative rabbinical requirements.

But let me ask you: to those of you with intermarried children, has your opinion on intermarriage changed over time?

What do Millennials and Gen Z think?

Mike Uram, who used to be the Hillel director at the University of Pennsylvania, writes, “Millennials see their identity as more fluid than previous generations. For example, rather than being either Jewish or American, millennials see their identity almost as a series of windows on a computer screen that can all be open at the same time or that can be rearranged or closed as desired. This means that they don’t want to be forced to choose between being members or non-members or between Jewish spaces and regular spaces. They want to feel that their different identity characteristics can be flexible and integrated with one another”.[1]

This is why so many of our youth intermarry. They don’t see it as a contradiction to their Jewish identity: my love life is one window, my religion, another. This is a change in thinking. It’s certainly different than the way we saw intermarriage 50 years ago, but then again, change is what’s natural.

So how should MHJC respond? Do we want to continue to be the synagogue that ignores a Jewish person’s needs on the day of their greatest joy? Statistics prove that when rabbis get involved in the wedding preparations of an intermarried couple, they’re more likely to join a synagogue in the future.

Are we able, as a synagogue, to thrive by ignoring the needs of 70% of our people? Does this policy agree with our mission to be a progressive synagogue?

I suggest it’s time to have a real discussion on this topic.

Another issue we should broach is utilizing instruments at this service and on Shabbat mornings, which the most successful synagogues do. In ancient times, the Levites in the Temple had what would be a full orchestra. Music inspired the masses. The decree not to play music on Shabbat was made in mourning over the Temple’s destruction. Now that nearly two thousand years have passed and most of us don’t want to return to animal sacrifices, should we still be constrained by this decree? I think having music, and alternative prayers in the morning service, especially during a Bar or Bat Mitzvah, would help make the service relatable to those guests who don’t regularly attend services or know Hebrew.

I believe we should also reconsider the number of committee meetings that take place in our synagogue. Almost every week, there are multiple meetings on the schedule: executive, education, membership, ritual, house, sisterhood, finance, nominating, interfaith, Israeli and community affairs, marketing, and a board of directors meeting.

Yet are all these meetings in our best interest? I know it’s in our by-laws to have these meetings, but these laws were made decades ago when the synagogue was larger and when more people found meaning and pleasure in attending meetings.

Wouldn’t it be better if meetings could be scheduled as needed? Then those time slots could be used to host game nights, youth nights, learning, dancing, yoga, meditation, and more – activities that would make the synagogue invaluable.

The great spiritual teacher, Ekhart Tolle, tells that he was once walking with a friend through a beautiful nature reserve near Malibu in California. They came upon the ruins of what had been once a country house, destroyed by a fire decades ago. As they approached the property, long overgrown with trees and all kinds of magnificent plants, there was a sign by the side of the trail put there by the park authorities. It read: Danger: all structures are unstable. He said to his friend, “That’s a profound sutra [sacred scripture].”

He recounts: “And we stood there in awe. Once you realize and accept that all structures (forms) are unstable, even the seemingly solid material ones, peace arises within you. This is because the recognition of the impermanence of all forms awakens you to the dimension of the formless within yourself”,[2] our true essence.

Change is the natural way of life. I know change is uncomfortable, but as long as the changes are in concordance with our values and goals, then, in a way, we’re not changing but rather upgrading.

And as we enter a new year, it’s obviously not just synagogue policies that need review. We may want to change our personal political alliances, our jobs, our diet, our places of living, and maybe even some of our relationships. Impermanence is the nature of the world.

I leave you with the wise words from Conversations with God:

“You have thus built your society on a paradox. You keep changing your values, all the while proclaiming that it is unchanging values which you…well, value! The answer to the problems presented by this paradox is not to throw cold water on the sand in an attempt to make it concrete, but to celebrate the shifting of the sand.

Celebrate the shifting sands as they form the new mountains you would climb, and atop which you will build your new castles. Yet understand that these mountains and these castles are monuments to change, not to permanence. Glorify what you are today, yet do not condemn what you were yesterday, nor preclude what you could become tomorrow.”[3]

Shana Tova

[1] Uram, Rabbi Mike. Next Generation Judaism . Turner Publishing Company. Kindle Edition.

[2] Tolle, Eckhart. A New Earth (Oprah #61) (p. 96). Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

[3] Walsch, Neale Donald. The Complete Conversations with God (Conversations with God Series) (p. 536). Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

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