Tammy was a member of my first congregation while a student Rabbi. And when she died, this is what everyone had to say about Tammy at her funeral. This was her legacy and what people most treasured and remembered about Tammy. Tammy was an inspiration. But then I started to hear, ‘what shall we do now that Tammy isn’t around anymore? Who will be there to greet the newcomers when they enter our temple?’
Warmth, welcoming, friendliness – it is a quality that we all admire. It’s a funny paradox – making friends is one of the most rewarding and life-enriching things we do. Why don’t we do it more often? There are many answers to that question, and I’m going to explore some of them more deeply on Yom Kippur. But Rosh Hashanah is a day of new beginnings. So, the question is, how do we begin? Last night, some of us began by introducing ourselves and talking with each other. Today I’d like to share the vision of how we might do better at answering that question in the context of our spiritual community here at Congregation B’nai Shalom.
Mordechai Gafni, in his book ‘Soulprints’, shares a story of leaving on a trip to teach and, just before going, his young son hands him a box. He asks his father to look at his box while he is away. He’s all packed up and eager to get on the road – he takes the box and stuffs it into his suitcase. Once travelling, he is absorbed in his reading and his teaching and he forgets about the box. Upon returning home from the trip, his son is waiting up, eager to see his father. When it becomes apparent that his father has completely forgotten about his box, a tear runs down his cheek. Mordechai, realizing why his son is so downhearted, runs to get the box out of his case.
He sits on the edge of his son’s bed and, apologizing, suggests that they look inside the box together. As he opens the lid, he is confused. He sees an assortment of random bits and pieces, but they may no sense to him. But, to his son, each and every item in the box represents a moment, a memory, and something of significance in the life he has had so far with his family. And he is hurt. He wanted to share his box with his father, and his father didn’t know how to receive it.
When someone begins a conversation, it is an opportunity to share little pieces of ourselves with another person. Like a child who wants to give you a gift, and all they want is for it to be received, so we respond when someone receives a piece of our story from us.
Our relationships and connections with others are the most important parts of our lives. They are central to the meaning of our presence here on this earth. Giving and receiving, giving and receiving, in an endless flow.
In Jewish mystical writing, the idea of a universe that is in the constant flow of giving and receiving is what animates existence. God is not a separate being that bestows things upon us. God is the entirety of a system of giving and receiving so multifaceted, inter-layered and complex that it is impossible for any one of us to wrap our heads around it all. And we, by our actions or by our inactions, facilitate the Divine flow of this giving and receiving, or we can equally be the cause of blockages in the system. The enormity of the system can make contemplating the significance of this too difficult in the abstract. So let’s bring it down to some very small-scale concrete examples.
A middle school aged child wants to join in with a group of children playing together. But someone in the group makes a split-second decision that the newcomer doesn’t fit. They are excluded. I am pretty certain that a large percentage of people in this room has had this experience at some point in their lives. If not at school, perhaps at college, or perhaps as a parent trying to make new friends at the PTA, among the soccer moms, or in the workplace. We all know what that feels like. It hurts. It is embarrassing. It is uncomfortable.
Now, what do we do? We might like to think that such experiences would make us more likely to extend ourselves to be as welcoming and inclusive as we possibly can in any situation, dedicating ourselves to ensuring that no-one else has to feel that way. But the truth is, in the normal flow of day to day events, unless particular mindfulness is brought to these interactions, that is not what most of us do. Instead, we solidify the friendships that we have, and create our own, clearly defined groups as a kind of self-protection from encountering that feeling of hurt and exclusion for ourselves. And so this is how blockages in the Divine system of giving and receiving occur. We erect walls where there should have been unlocked gates. Whether you examine this on the level of individuals and their social groups, towns, or nation states and, yes, congregations, al cheit shechatanu – we are all guilty at some moment of this.
And so it takes a conscious act to move beyond the norms and outside of our comfort zones to create a different, more spiritual and more inclusive reality. And that is what this year’s particular focus at Congregation B’nai Shalom is all about - #takeaseatmakeafriend.
I have a vision for our congregation. And I believe from all the conversations I have had this past year and from what I have been told, that you share this vision. I don’t want our congregation to conform to how the society we live in sometimes feels, warts and all. I want the experience of being part of this congregation to be one where we strive to create a model of a better kind of community. Where the congregation becomes a lab for who we can be in our highest moments, and how relationships can form the foundation for what we are able to create together. I want this congregation to be a place where we can identify all the ways in which we are part of an ongoing Divine flow of giving and receiving more easily than we can point out to the places where we have created our own blockages.
But we all need to push past our business-as-usual comfort zones to turn that vision into a reality. And that is why we need to approach the relationship-building that we all crave and desire as a spiritual practice. I believe that it is the single most important thing we can dedicate ourselves to as a spiritual community. And it will form the foundation that will make anything else we seek to do together possible and more meaningful.
So, for those who haven’t caught on to what has been happening this past month to prepare for this work, first a quick review. At the start of the month of Elul – the month leading up to this day of Rosh Hashanah – I sent out an email communication to every congregant. ‘Take a seat, make a friend,’ it said.
‘Take a seat, make a friend’ is all about creating a relational community, inspired, informed and shaped by the relationship-building that we all commit to doing together.
I shared a video of a street project in which strangers were invited to take a seat with another stranger in a big ball pit. Questions were written on some of the balls, to facilitate the start of a conversation. As you might expect, at first some of the exchanges were a little awkward and somewhat superficial. That’s usually how we begin to feel out the territory with someone new. But then, after a little while, we go a little deeper. We find out about each other’s families and backgrounds. We start to learn about commonalities and differences. And then, if entered in the spirit of caring and community, we have the potential to go further than the strangers in the ballpit – we get past the small talk and engage in the big talk – sharing hopes and dreams, fears and pains. And relationships begin to form.
Over this past month, I’ve been posting regular ideas, short videos, and other materials on our congregational face book page to inspire reflection on how we connect and build relationships. I’ve been sharing more extended reflections on each of those postings on my blog to make them available to our non-face book members. I invited everyone to reflect on a short list of questions and send their responses to me – these are some of the responses that you have been hearing and will continue to hear, woven into our prayerful experience together these High Holydays. Thank you to all who shared so deeply with me. This, along with opportunities for congregants to continue to co-create worship throughout the year, with a new project to train lead singers, involve lay musicians, encourage more lay leaders to read Torah, and continue our creative Ritual Lab services at the end of each month is what Relational worship can look like.
What will happen next? Following Yom Kippur you will start to see and hear about many different kinds of opportunities for relationship building. I was advised that, with nearly 300 children passing through our lobby on a Sunday morning, that erecting a ball pit wasn’t the most practical way to get our congregants talking with each other. But one of our coffee tables in the lobby will feature some special elements to make it easy to take a seat with someone else and, in a fun and non-threatening way, to start a conversation. Think for a moment how lovely it would be if someone invited you. Then commit yourself to making someone else feel that good by inviting them to take a seat with you.
As we hear from members who tell us, ‘I’d love to sit down with a group of ‘fill in the blank’ and get to know each other better’, we’ll be working on finding groups of like-minded people to get together for those living room conversations. ‘Parents of teenagers’ is already one group that I’ve heard from. If you’d like to help gather fellow congregants who might share some commonalities with you, let me know and we’ll do all we can to help bring that group together. From those initial conversations, I hope, will come friendships and, eventually, new kinds of community activity created together. This is what Relational community can look like.
Rabbi Eiduson has been working on transforming our family time at Religious school. Instead of family ed. programming, parents of our students will be invited, by grade, to attend lab days to gain greater insight into the learning activities of their children, and to sit down in a facilitated conversation with each other and Rabbi Eiduson to share their visions of what they hope this community can be for themselves and for their children. We imagine and expect that, over a year or two, these conversations will inform how we evolve what we do in our Religious school and in our congregation as a whole to enable all that we do to align with these visions. This is what a Relational congregation can achieve together.
And, finally, we are looking at everything that we do as a congregation as an opportunity to connect and begin to build more meaningful relationships. Members of our board have committed to having a series of small group and one-to-one conversations with congregants over the year.
Everything that we do - our worship and festival celebrations, our social events and fundraisers, our social action, our caring community, and our brotherhood and sisterhood gatherings – provide opportunities for genuine relational experiences. So a festival like Succot is not just another worship service to attend right after we’ve spent so much time in worship on Yom Kippur. It is a celebratory party and social gathering, where we can meaningfully connect to Israel via our new emissary and the spirit of Succot as originally celebrated in Israel. Our social action committee will continue to offer opportunities for ‘manageable mitzvahs’ – one time opportunities to work with others in the congregation on projects where a few hours of your time can make a difference. But they also want to hear from you about things that you are involved in and care about, where we might help you connect with other congregants who would like to join your cause. A relational community is one where we should be able to do that for each other, and our members would want to, I hope, respond when a fellow congregant asks for your support.
A relational community is one where we offer to be part of Yad b’Yad – our network of congregants who help those in need behind the scenes – and we attend a shiva when we see a condolence notice go out because these become ways of making new connections and forging new relationships when we meet someone at their time of need for the first time.
We’ll know when we’ve arrived at a new place along our journey: we’ll know because we’ll be able to share stories of what we have learned from another when we came together for a Jewish community event; we’ll know because we’ll feel that others in our congregation understand us, the struggles and the joys in our lives, a little bit better; we’ll know because we’ll look forward to the next holiday or the next meeting, knowing that we’ll come away enriched by the experience we created with others; we’ll know because anyone who steps through our doors will start talking about what an incredible feeling it is to be a part of this community.
When we start being a community that does these things together, living up to our own visions of what we can be at our highest moments – this is a vision of what a Relational Jewish community can be. This is the New Year – the time to begin again. So let us build on all that is good, but also reach beyond our individual and communal comfort zones, and take the next steps to turn our vision into reality together. Please – take a seat, and make a friend.
[i] Tammy is not the real name