Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Rosh Hashanah 5771 - The Youth House is the Qodesh ha-Qodashim of Temple Israel

(Originally delivered on September 9 & 10, 2010.)

This is essentially the first of a 2-part sermon, and I will be giving the second half on Yom Kippur.

I must confess two things. The first is that I am receiving no money for mentioning the following product. The second is that I own, and love, my iPod Touch. It gives me instant access to many wonderful things: news, email, music, the Internet, YouTube, and so forth. I am sure that many of you have similar devices, which you are similarly devoted to.

But all of this instant gratification gives me pause. The modern Jewish philosopher Martin Buber’s describes God’s encounter with humans at Mt. Sinai as having left both fundamentally changed; likewise, my iPod has changed me as well. And I am not sure that it is necessarily all for the better.

We will come back to the iPod, but the overarching theme to this two-part sermon is this question: What makes us Jewish, and what keeps us Jewish, in the age of the iPod, when momentary satisfaction can be found instantly, and infinite choice rules our desires?

* * * *

What makes us Jewish?

Is it merely bloodlines? Being born to a Jewish mother? Tribal affiliation?
Is it going to services? Bar/t Mitzvah? Jewish law? Shabbat?

Is it a way of thinking?

Is it a commitment to a certain set of principles?

Now how about this:
What keeps us Jewish?

This is a harder question to answer.

In the wake of the recent marriage of Chelsea Clinton, the daughter of two famous Southern Methodists, and Marc Mezvinsky, who grew up in a Jewish home identified with the Conservative movement (that’s right, he’s one of us!), some among us are asking, is this our highest aspiration in America?

America has always been a land of freedom. Arrival in what my great-grandparents called in Yiddish “Di Goldene Medina,” the Golden Land, brought more liberties than they could have possibly known in their country of origin. They fled not only the oppression of non-Jewish rule, but also rabbinic control, the coercion of the Jewish religious authorities in the old country. There are stories of people burning their tefillin while crossing over from Europe by boat, demonstrating their release from this religious control. As Dr. Jonathan Sarna reports in his monumental work, American Judaism, rabbis who immigrated in the late 19th and early 20th century were shocked to see, even on the boat to America, many Jews who “defiled themselves with non-Jewish food... abandoned their daily prayers and considered their tallitot and tefillin excess baggage.”

There are many of us here this mornng, and I think that your presence here indicates that you think that Judaism is valuable, that it is a gift that you have been given by your parents, and that you would like to bestow upon your descendants. How many of us here want great-grandchildren who positively identify as Jewish? Raise your hands.

Given all of that, what will keep us Jewish in America, the golden land of freedom, that great double-edged sword?

And here, I do not necessarily mean “Jewish” in the halakhic sense. That is, the simple definition mandated by Jewish law, which says that you are Jewish if you are born to a Jewish mother, or convert to Judaism under the auspices of a rabbinic Beit Din.

No, I am talking about something else. There are, in fact, multiple ways to be Jewish.

A story is told of one Shimon Fogelberg, who was obsessed with joining a restricted club. So he goes off to Oxford University, acquires an education and the accent of a British gentleman, gets his clothes tailored at Savile Row, and changes his name to Chauncey Fumpleroy III. He returns two years later to the same club, walks up to the same clerk that had kept him out two years before for being Jewish, and says, in the Queen’s English, “Good afternoon. I should like to apply for admission to this grand institution.”

“Certainly, sir,” says the clerk, taking out a form. “And may I ask your name?”

“Chauncey Fumpleroy the Third.”

“Very good, Mr. Fumpleroy. And may I ask your occupation?”

“I deal in stocks and bonds.”

“Very good, sir,” said the clerk again. “And I hope you won’t mind, sir, but it is our policy to ask about your religion as well.”

“Religion?” said Fumpleroy. “I am of the goyish persuasion.”

For Mr. Fogelberg, and for many of us, the American experience has been as much about assimilation as anything else. As such, we have produced many different ways to be Jewish, more than there were in the old country. Yes, there is the halakhic definition of who is a Jew, but it is also possible to be halakhically Jewish, but not religiously or culturally Jewish. It is also possible to be culturally Jewish without being religiously so. And then there is secular Zionism, something that my wife was born into.

You can also be what we might call “reflexively” Jewish. This is when you’re Jewish when you’re with your family - for holidays and for life-cycle celebrations (weddings, benei mitzvah, beritot milah, and so forth), but with no further consideration as to how Judaism permeates the rest of your life.

And then there is what you might call “default” Judaism, which is that you think of yourself as Jewish, and perhaps even as a member of the Jewish people, but do not do anything distinctly Jewish in your life. Those Jews are growing in number today, but they do not tend to pass their Judaism on to their children.

But I am about to advocate for the best way to be Jewish: that is, to be actively Jewish. Active Judaism and those who practice it are what makes us all Jewish, and will keep us Jewish.

To be actively Jewish, you have to do Jewish things: learn our sacred texts, go to the synagogue (even when it’s not a bar mitzvah), and associate with the Jewish community. This is much harder than the “default” method. For many of us, to be actively Jewish requires stepping outside of our comfort zones.

Default Judaism will not ensure that there are Jews in the next generation. Active Judaism will.

And, just to be clear about this, being active does not necessarily mean being Orthodox. And default does not equal Reform. I know many active Reform Jews, and many default Orthodox Jews.

My friends, I have a two-fold suggestion about how to make sure that Temple Israel, and the moderate approach to Judaism that it stands for, will be around for our children and grandchildren: number 1, that we have more children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren, and number 2, that we dedicate and re-dedicate ourselves to the building of this community by being actively Jewish.

Now, anybody who has been paying attention to my High Holiday sermons over the past three years has noticed that this is my cause. Some rabbis like to talk about personal goals, about bettering yourself. And that’s good. One way of building community is to improve yourself.

I have a more collective vision, one that seeks to incorporate individuals into the greater community. And this is, I think, the most important task facing us as modern people. There are plenty of societal forces that tear us apart, driving extended families to become nuclear families, and nuclear families to become distant associations (as an extreme example, my brother and sister and I live in Florida, California, and New York). This is not unusual in America, for Jews or non-Jews.

But we Jews have each other. We are all members of Kelal Yisrael (that is, the collective group of all Jews). And we need each other. Without commitment to community, our Jewish community, we have nothing, and will rapidly disappear into the wider fabric of America.

* * * *

I have been here at Temple Israel for three years now, and, as some of you might know, I have now taken on an second role, a role is about to lead me into the inner sanctum of Temple Israel. Our Qodesh ha-Qodashim, the Holy of Holies. No, it is not the main office. No, there’s no secret inner rabbinic lair. There is no special clubhouse behind the ark in the sanctuary, open only to an elite few.

The Qodesh ha-Qodashim is not even in this building. It’s across the parking lot, in the Waxman Youth House.

I am fortunate in that I have been charged with the task of taking young adults, newly-obligated to the 613 mitzvot - commandments of Jewish tradition - and exposing them to the depth and breadth of Judaism. I have taken on the job of turning children who have barely passed the milestone of their benei mitzvah into committed, strongly-identified Jewish adults.

Because that is our goal. If we want children, grandchildren, and subsequent generations who understand the value of the Torah in the world of today and tomorrow, then it is not enough to sit here on Rosh Hashanah and be introspective and seek forgiveness on Yom Kippur; it is not enough to gather with family and friends for other holidays; it is not enough to provide our young people with merely sufficient Jewish knowledge to be called to the Torah on their bar or bat mitzvah. It is certainly not enough to reproduce. Rather, we must produce children who are actively committed to Judaism and our traditions.

OK, sure, Rabbi. But how do we do this?

Think for a moment. What was your most memorable Jewish experience?

How many of us had that experience between the ages of 13 and 22?

Two weeks ago, I and the Youth House staff took a bunch of students and a few parents to Lido Beach, on the South Shore of Long Island. We spent a few hours there, playing in the sun, riding the waves, eating lunch, and so forth. It was beautiful. And powerful. And although you might not think of this as a Jewish experience, some of those teens will remember the day that they went with the rabbi to the beach, and have positive associations with the Youth House, with other Jewish teens, with Temple Israel, and of course with Rabbi Adelson.

Adolescence is the time when one’s identity is truly coming into formation, when your brain knits together the various pieces of your personality that will become the adult self. Yes, it is a challenging time for most of us. But it is also a time from which, as grownups, we will draw the most powerful lessons, memories and associations.

The psychologist Erik Erikson (a German-born Jew who immigrated to America when the Nazis rose to power in 1933) identified the adolescent years as a period in which we face the basic challenge of Identity (vs. Role Confusion). We start to make our own choices. We struggle with social interactions, and begin to grapple with moral issues, and our most significant relationships are with peers. According to Erikson, the teenager asks, “Who am I and where am I going?”

Who here remembers first falling in love as a high school student, whether it was with a novel, a class, or another student? Who here remembers taking those first few steps outside of your childhood, when you began to understand that the world offers many more options than those that had been available to you up until that point, like the option of choosing your own activities or vocation, or even (has veshalom!) disagreeing with your parents? Who remembers discovering a new idea, a new philosophy, a new cause, and discussing it passionately with your friends? These are all experiences that contribute to the formation of our identities, and this is the central developmental feature of adolescence.

By taking teens to the beach, and helping them learn to recite the words of ma’ariv (the evening service), and discussing the texts of our tradition with honesty and reverence, and answering their questions about God and tradition frankly, and being in the background while they enjoy themselves with their friends, I hope to build the lifelong identity components that will make sure that they will always be committed to Judaism and the Jewish community, that they will be active Jews.

Some of you might be thinking, is he still giving a High Holiday sermon? Why should I care? My kids are grown, or I don’t have teenagers, or I want to hear something about personal betterment or repentance for my sins, rabbi.

Here is why this should be important to you. Because the teens that attend the Youth House are the actively Jewish kids who are most likely to carry the mantle of Jewish tradition for this community. Sure, there are some people in this room who will never send their kids to the Youth House, even if I were to dedicate 20 sermons to the idea. But I think that everybody here can agree that we need to send strongly-identified, Jewishly-knowledgeable teens out from Temple Israel into this world, so that they will continue to build this community and others like it for subsequent generations.

And as I am sure you know, 13-year-olds who complete the Bar Mitzvah process know many things, but they have not even begun to wrestle with the more serious questions of Jewish identity. If we do not give them the opportunities to do so in the years following, they may form adult identities that do not include Judaism, Jewish life, or Jewish learning.

Our teenagers, these are our builders. These are our the future of our community. We have to be there when they ask, as Erikson put it, “Who am I and where am I going?”

The concluding paragraph of the Talmudic tractate of Berakhot is a famous passage, one that appears in every Conservative siddur that I know of, including the mahzor that you might be holding right now. It’s on page 290, if you would like to look, but you will have to read the Hebrew, because I do not agree with the translation. It reads as follows:

R. El’azar said in the name of R. Hanina: The disciples of the wise increase peace in the world, as it says, (Isaiah 54:13) “And all your children shall be taught of the Lord, and great shall be the peace of your children.” The word, banayikh, your children, appears twice in this verse. R. El’azar wants us to read the second one as bonayikh, your builders. Hence, “And all your children shall be taught of the Lord, and great shall be the peace of your builders.”

There is actually a double-entendre here, as the word “bonayikh” can be read as either “your builders,” or “your learned ones.” The point is that our learned ones ARE our builders. We build community through learning, and being involved. To be actively Jewish is to build community.

And building the Youth House, where young people become strongly-identified, Jewishly-knowledgeable adults, is an essential plank in maintaining our community. The Youth House is the Qodesh ha-Qodashim. It takes newly-minted benei mitzvah, and turns them into Jews. It is what makes these young adults Jewish, and in so doing makes all of us Jewish.

It is more than just a place for teens to hang out and learn. It is also a focal point of this community. It is where education meets practice meets social interaction. It is the incubator of ideas that infiltrate the rest of this community, from social action to environmental action to religious action.

Let me give you some examples. Here are some of the things that students in the Youth House will be doing this year:

1. Taking a trip to Israel. I will be leading a nine-day excursion to Israel during the February vacation, in which we will see not only the holy sites and the archaeological wonders, but also points of historical interest throughout Jewish history, and we will also have as many opportunities as possible to interact with modern Israeli life, through socializing with Israeli teens and spending a Shabbat in the homes of an Israeli Conservative community (known in Israel as Masorti).

2. Building involvement with USY and Kadima. United Synagogue Youth, or USY, is the national Jewish youth group of the Conservative movement; our Youth House is a chapter of USY, and we aim to step up our involvement, so that our teens have the opportunity to meet and be actively Jewish with others from all over the region. Kadima is a youth group for 6th through 8th grades, and we are also planning to establish a chapter here for our middle-schoolers.

3. Team Tikkun. We have instituted a new program this year that meet once per month and help teens learn how to raise money and donate it wisely, so that their donations match their personal priorities for tikkun olam, repairing the world. It is called Team Tikkun,

4. Finally, continuing all of the great teen-centric programming, in addition to its academics, that the Youth House has always done: Shabbat retreats, trips to amusement parks, holiday activities, the teen Shabbat service in the Main Sanctuary on Shabbat Hol Hamo-ed Pesah, and so forth.

Furthermore, I have some very good news. Outside of the academic portion of the Youth House, the classes that meet every Tuesday and Thursday, all of the things that the Youth House does are open not only to teens who are enrolled in the High School classes, but to every child in the community. Any child in grades 8-12, even those whose families do not belong to Temple Israel, can just show up to any of our social activities. The opportunity to participate and learn and grow with your peers is open to all.

There is a Hasidic story of a boy who used to wander in the woods. At first, his father allowed him to go, but as the child grew older and spent more time in the woods, his father began to worry more. The woods were dangerous, and the father did not know what lurked there.

One day he decided to ask his son about it. “My son,” he said, “I have noticed that each day you walk into the woods. Why do you go there?”

The boy replied, “I go there to find God.”

“That is a very good thing,” replied his father gently. “I am glad you are searching for God. But, my child, don’t you know that God is the same everywhere?”

“Yes,” the boy answered, “but I am not.”

All of us seek God, in one way or another, depending on how you define God and what you expect to find by seeking. Sometimes, in order to find God, we have to reach a little beyond our comfort zone, we have to step out into the woods. The teenage years are essential in our own personal quests to discover and understand the wealth of Jewish tradition, and the depth of the Infinite. The Youth House is the place to seek and find, just across the parking lot, and just a little bit outside of our usual realm. It’s a little like going into the woods.

And it’s the laboratory in which we create active Jews, from those who might otherwise be default or reflexive Jews. And in so doing, the Youth House makes us all Jewish. It is truly the Qodesh haQodashim, the inner sanctum of Temple Israel. It is the closest we can get to an insurance policy to ensure our survival as a community.

Whether you are a parent with a teenager in the 8th-12th grades, an empty-nester, a young adult, single, married, whatever, the Youth House is the center of the action. So I encourage you to urge your children, grandchildren, siblings, cousins, and friends to come and participate. And drop by yourself to check it out.

On this day when we ask for God to remember us for life, I suggest that we all remember that adult Jewish life only begins at Bar Mitzvah or Bat Mitzvah. The opportunities for teens to clothe themselves in their adult Jewish identity are available here. If we fail to cultivate strongly-identified Jewish teens, after their bar or bat mitzvah, our future as a community is, at best, tenuous.

We no longer live in the pre-modern world, where our children had no choice but to be Jewish. Today, with our iPod mentalities, when you can delete a song just as easily as you can buy it online, Judaism is just one more choice that can be just as easily discarded. It is only through continuing to further their Jewish involvement and learning through the teenage years, that we can even hope that our young people will keep Jewish identity on their playlist. The Youth House is the Qodesh haQodashim, the Holy of Holies of Temple Israel. Please help me in making that a strong, steadfast reality.

1 comment:

  1. Nice, if long. At least one error: Bill Clinton is a Baptist. Hillary is Methodist and presumably so is Chelsea because a Methodist pastor co-officiated with the Yale rabbi at her wedding.

    Also, regarding Isaiah 54:13: Rabbi Waxman always said parents in Great Neck read this as "may all your children become millionaires" and then taught the real meaning. He also frequently discussed youth and education in his High Holiday sermons.