Well, they’re here. The High Holy Days—the Yamim Nora’im. Many of you may not even be thinking about them yet, as they are still just dots on your calendars, but I assure you, your rabbi, your PAW committee, and many others have been working for weeks in order to plan for these most important days. As a new rabbi there is, admittedly, a sense of trepidation when it comes to these services, sermons, and programs. They tend to bring the most attendance and, since I have only just begun here, will offer many of you your first chance to form an opinion of your new spiritual leader. Perhaps because of this, several times in the last few weeks, I have looked up at my bookshelf and focused on a book about the Days of Awe by Alan Lew, This is Real and You are Completely Unprepared. Contrary to what you might be thinking, the book isn’t actually about writing sermons or practicing cues and prayers, nor is it about making a good impression on your congregation. Rather, the book reminds us that the High Holy Days are something one is never truly prepared for, and that these holidays are emotional, personal, and incredibly exhausting.
Lew suggests that any trepidation I am feeling about the upcoming High Holy Days—or that perhaps some of you might be feeling—is normal and expected. Importantly, however, he argues that we should also find a degree of excitement for them, and that we should use this excitement to temper our anxiety. This is certainly the case for me. Since my tenure began here at Temple Israel just under two months ago, I have been welcomed with kindness, encouragement, and partnership. Therefore, as this year’s High Holy Days approach, in addition to trepidation, I personally am feeling excitement to go through these most holy and powerful days with all of you and hope that you are equally as excited to share them with me.
Every year, when planning the High Holy Day worship programs and services, I decide on a central theme that will follow us from Selichot to Simchat Torah, and that will be reflected in sermons and worship. In my time here thus far, I have felt the true meaning of “sacred partnership” and have cherished the trust and flexibility you have shown me as I have introduced new programs, kinds of worship, and traditions. Because of the strong bond I have felt in my short time here, it seemed appropriate for this year’s theme to be b’yachad, the Hebrew word for “together.” To that end, our worship services will focus on our sacred partnership, on working together to find peace and spiritual fulfilment so that we all leave each service with feelings of insight and renewal. My sermons will discuss what it means to be a Jewish community in the 21stst Century, where the Reform Movement is going and thus where we will go, and how we will grow and change b’yachad, together.
This theme is appropriate not only because of our present situation—a new Rabbi to an established congregation—but also because of worldwide events. We are witnessing, for example, a global rise in antisemitism and national white supremacy. While older members of our community may be able to think back to a time when Jews were so publicly targeted, for a lot of younger generations of Jews, this level of open hatred is something they never witnessed in their lifetimes. Around the world, Jews, like many other minorities, have become the target of hate crimes and hate speech. In Europe and Latin America, there are already metal detectors in synagogues. Meanwhile, in the United States, synagogues are researching and investing in new security measures. Moreover, those who wish to instill fear in our hearts do not differentiate between the denominations Judaism. Whether you are ultra-Orthodox, Reform, or even non-practicing, a Jew is a Jew is a Jew. As such, for the first time in many years, Jews as a group share a very real, common fear. It is a terrible thing to fear, especially when the fear is bred from the very depths of ignorance and intolerance, but this fear presents us with an opportunity. What would it look like if, in the face of this fear, Jews across movements stood b’yachad – together?
To take such a stand is not without its challenges, however. Our denominations are far more different than they were even two decades ago. The Reform Movement, for example, while holding relatively steady in membership, has never been more traditional in its views, practices, and worship, causing a divide between those who grew up in Classical Reform, and those who grew up in the camp movement and what is now referred to as Contemporary Reform. The Conservative Movement, on the other hand, is shrinking at a pace far faster than ours, with many Conservative Jews aligning themselves with Reform Judaism and an equal number moving towards Orthodoxy. Scholars project that this migration may leave the Conservative Movement unrecognizable in as little as ten years. Meanwhile, the rise of the Chabad Movement has transformed and made accessible the ideas of Ultra-Orthodoxy across the globe, causing some Jews to finally find a home in Judaism while others feel wary of assertive intra-faith proselytization. How then, can we all come together as Jews in the face of antisemitism? And, at the same time, how can individual Jewish communities (Reform, Conservative, Orthodox, etc.) survive and thrive to make sure that every Jew has a place to find engagement? How can we and our other denominations accomplish this work b’yachad – together?
On a more local and immediate level, how do we—the members of Temple Israel—ensure that our synagogue is a place where we all can find a sukkat shalom, a shelter of peace? What can and should engagement look like? Social action? Prayer? Worship? Simchas? What can 21st Century Reform Judaism look like? What should it look like? This High Holy Day season, we have an opportunity to take the first steps of exploring these and other important questions b’yachad – together.
As you worship with us this season, I hope that each of you can remember how fundamental the concept of b’yachad is to Judaism. While I want to focus on this important element of our faith for the High Holy Days, know that it permeates everything that we as Jews do. For example, at the end of each Shabbat Service, during the Mourner’s Kaddish, I invite those whose custom it is to rise to do so. The Mourner’s Kaddish, as well as its other versions—Chatzi, D’rabbanan, and Shalem—are responsive prayers, with the service leader or mourners saying one part, and the rest of the congregation saying another. Traditionally, the Mourner’s Kaddish requires a minyan (ten people) and those who are in mourning or those leading the prayer rise and say most of the prayer, while the kahal (congregation) says only those elements that support the mourners (such as Amen). In other words, the Mourner’s Kaddish does not work unless we say it together. Without a minyan, the mourner has no one to Amen the prayer. Without a mourner or prayer leader, the kahal has no prayer to Amen. This is similar to how we do not say “amen” to our own blessings, but rather others present “amen” our blessings, thus sealing them. In Judaism, prayers like the Mourner’s Kaddish are not completed unless we are all there b’yachad – together, to fill the needs the prayer requires of us. This creates an atmosphere of support and community. We cannot say the Mourner’s Kaddish alone. It’s very design demands that we be there to support the mourner, to all be in it b’yachad – together.
That is Judaism. And that is beautiful.
As we come together this High Holy Day season, take time to look around the sanctuary, to think about what it means for us all to be in the same space, at the same time, sharing in our most holy of worship experiences. Just as we cannot fight antisemitism as isolated silos, we cannot share in the fruits of the New Year, or offer and grant forgiveness, unless we are b’yachad – together. It is my hope that this year, as a community, we can meditate on and seek clarity on this idea of togetherness.
May we all be sealed in the Book of Life as one community.