Rabbi Prosnit often jokes, upon returning to lead services the first Shabbat after taking a vacation that ‘this will be the ‘what the Rabbi saw on his vacation’ sermon.’ But, while we get the joke, the sermons are always insightful and I always see the world in a new light or learn something new from listening to those reflections. Because Rabbi Prosnit, who I have learned so much from these past six years, knows that a good friend does not make you endure a sitting of the 875 photos that they took on their holiday; rather, they pre-select a handful of the most unique and memorable moments worthy of sharing.
When I’ve been on a journey and return with my collection of snap-shots, I tend not to be the kind of traveler who has images like ‘there’s me in city X’, or ‘there’s me next to statue Y’. I like to take in the scene, and learn from the unfolding of the human or natural scene before me. I want you to see what I saw through my eyes when I was there. And that’s what I want to do this evening. This isn’t the ‘What I’ve learned about being a Rabbi’ sermon. This is the ‘This is what Jewish community looks and feels like’ sermon. I’ve sifted through thousands of days, scenes and moments from the past 6 years here at B’nai Israel. Too many to count and too many to do justice to all of you, what you have created together, and how you have inspired me. All I can do is select a few snapshots. This is my mini photo-montage of my journey with Congregation B’nai Israel – the memories that I take with me, created by each and every one of you.
Shabbat morning minyan
The first picture is a little out-of-focus. That’s because I’m still rather bleary-eyed at 8am. As many of you know, I’m not a morning person. But, such an incredibly unique and blessed community is our Shabbat morning 8am minyan that I believe that I’d be a regular attendee even if I didn’t have to get up to the lead the service. Cantor Blum knows that when I lean over to her just before we start the service and say, ‘let’s sing ‘Open up our eyes’ before the Shema this morning,’ that I need a little extra help fully awakening to the day that week.
In this slightly blurred snap-shot, you’ll see a teenager reading Torah on the anniversary of their bar or bat mitzvah. Or perhaps one of the many adult Torah leyners we have up at the reading desk. If you notice that the shot looks a little more blurred where their hand holds the yad – the Torah pointer – its because sometimes they get nervous. But they do it anyway, and they inspire others, from time to time, to step up and say that they are ready to have a go.
But I also want you to take in the scene at the back of the chapel. There’s a couple of rows of women – they are some of our senior members. They are there every week. They’ve been through a lot; losses and challenges in life. But they are there for each other, and they help each other get through. And they didn’t stop praying. In fact, its after some of those losses and challenges that they began. Seeing them there, praying together, helps me to pray.
In the next snap-shot its hard to pick out what to focus on. Actually, unless you were there, its hard to tell from the image what exactly is going on – it’s a group of teenagers and the scene looks a bit chaotic. Its hard to tell what they are doing, but you can see from the laughs on their faces that everyone is having fun. This is a Monday night during my class with our Eighth Graders. You know, its not an accident that I’ve spent 6 years running the 8th grade program. It wasn’t intended as Rabbi Prosnit’s version of hazing the new Assistant Rabbi. Its actually the gift that I received from our Educator, Ira Wise. We value our teens, and bar and bat mitzvah is not a destination, its just one stop on the journey. And when one of your Rabbis is responsible for teaching the 8th grade its because we really care and we want you to be a part of it.
In my photo, on this particular night, things look a bit different because it’s the night when members of BIFTY, our Youth Group, come storming in and ‘kidnap’ my students for night to give them a taste of our High School youth group community that they will be invited to become a part of that night. I’ll tell you what I see in this picture, and what awes me every time. A group of teenagers – 14, 15, 16 year olds maybe. And some of those kids were my 8th grade middle class students just last year. And tonight they are leaders. They are team-building, and they are instructing and guiding, and they are helping and including. And I get a glimpse of something that is so much more powerful than just fun and games. I get a glimpse of the remarkable young people in our congregation; not only may they be the leaders of our community in the future – they are our leaders today.
I see them in BIFTY, I see them at Merkaz. And they inspire me and give me hope.
Nursery and young children
The next picture is one of the few places in the synagogue building where I feel tall. There are some adults in the room – a couple of teachers and our Pre-School Director, Alexa Cohen. But I’m feeling tall because I’m in a pre-school classroom with a class of 4 year old children. We’ve got our hands and legs stretched out in all different directions (demonstrate). We’re being trees. Because its almost Tu Bishvat – the festival of trees. Tu Bishvat often falls in February and so, when I come in and ask them what special holiday is coming up soon, I’ve learned not to be surprised when they tell me ‘Valentine’s Day’.
In fact, its very helpful when they remind me that 3 and 4 years take in everything from the world around us. It reminds me that being a Rabbi today means that we always have to respond to the times and the culture that our community is living in. We can’t stand still, and we have to make the ancient Jewish rituals, holidays and wisdom relevant in today’s world. That’s what Rabbi Nicole Wilson-Spiro has done in providing a weekly Shabbat morning Young Families Chavurah which combines a totally contemporary take on parenting Jewish children with the gift of family time on Shabbat. And that’s what Elaine Chetrit does with our elementary-aged children on Friday evening at Mishpacha Shabbat. Celebrating with these groups gives me joy.
If the next shot looks a little unfamiliar and a little… Christian… that’s because we’re at a Retreat Center on the CT shoreline. 30 women have gathered for a one day retreat. Its probably the most intensive kind of adult learning experience that I’ve taken a snap-shot of, but I could have chosen so many others, with men and women, experienced learners and complete beginners, figuring out their relationship with Jewish community, traditions, ethics, and taking a look at what they believe, what inspires them, and what feeds their spirit and their soul. Some are engaging in the hardest kind of learning of all – being complete beginners at Hebrew with Elaine, or the festivals and other basics in the Parent Learning Circle.
Its not easy being a beginner at something when we’re adults and so accomplished in other areas of life. But the snap-shot of the retreat will always stay with me. Its partly that the setting is so beautiful. Its also a place where I’ve worked and led services with my soul partner and master teacher of creativity – Suri. But more than that, it’s the deep sharing and connecting that is so beautiful; its what’s possible when we dispense with the ‘small talk’ and engage in ‘big talk’ with each other. This snap-shot is full of spiritual awakenings. Learning with these adults nourishes my spirit.
I wasn’t actually present for this next snap-shot. But it’s a group of people with charts and to-do lists in front of them. The photo may not look very exciting – a group of people sat around a table, talking and planning. Everyone has something to contribute and everyone is pitching in with their particular skill set and passion. Some of these people knew each other before this photo was taken. But some are meeting for the first time, or getting to know each other better. They are planning a big party, and by all accounts, they did an amazing job! But while I have and continue to thank everyone who had a hand in an incredible gala this year, this kind of scene at our Temple is just a touch-stone for all of the lay leadership that makes things happen around here each and every day.
Committees who are doing our caring work, visioning the future of our Religious school education, helping with our family-focused celebrations and mitzvah day, making sure that we can pay our bills, and helping our amazing facilities manager, Abby Rohinsky, with all the juggling of activities, tasks and maintenance involved in running a place like this. And then, our course, there is our Board and Executive.
I’ve worked here under three Presidencies – Richard Krantz, Amy Rich, and Mark Kirsch. And now Mindy Siegel prepares to take up the reigns. Each so different in their styles, and each so delightful to partner with in our work here. Countless people who, even if its just to do one thing one time, step up to offer of themselves to make this holy community happen. We couldn’t do it without members and their financial support. But that isn’t enough. We couldn’t do it without a quality professional staff. But that isn’t enough.
Just as in the Torah Moses asks for contributions to build the Mishkan – the place where God will dwell among them – from those whose hearts move them, so those who volunteer of themselves are giving from their hearts to create this place where God dwells among us. When I look at this snap-shot I am inspired to work harder and offer more too.
The final snap-shot hasn’t been taken yet. I’d like to break with sanctuary protocol just this once and take it now. Its all of you.
When I arrived, I sang a short blessing at my installation. So taken was I by the warm welcome I received when I arrived 6 years ago, and by my sense of genuine caring and community that I felt here, I adapted a blessing that is traditionally said when you see beautiful and amazing things in nature. The blessing says, ‘Blessed are You Eternal our God Ruler of the Universe, who has such as these in Your world.’ This is a beautiful snap-shot that I see before me, and you have been my blessing. Baruch Ata Adonai Eloheinu Melech Ha-olam, Shecacha lo b’olama, shecacha lo b’olamo. Amen, Selah. Thank you.