Rosh Hashanah Day 1--Vision of CBI and the Army of God

Rabbi Philip Weintraub
Congregation B’nai Israel
Rosh Hashanah Day 1

Boker Tov, Good morning. If we have not yet met, my name is Rabbi Philip Weintraub and I am blessed to stand before you this morning. Over the last few weeks, I have spent my time with you, getting to know many of your, trying to discover what makes CBI thrive, and how we can continue to build it for the next generation. I have studied Torah, led services, organized my office, and had more cups of coffee than I can count. Yet over all that coffee, I have found the soul of CBI. This is truly a kehillah kedoshah, a holy community.

Today and tomorrow we read of Abraham and Isaac and Sarah, of Hagar and Ishmael, of the foundations of faith and sacrifice. We see the promise of the future and the struggles of the past. We might think of Abraham’s choices as those of the ancient world, yet every day we are making the same choices. How do we fight for our children? How do we help them grow? How do we deal with marital tension? What is best for our spouses or ourselves? Where do we live? What are our values? How do we welcome everyone that comes through our doors--even when we aren’t feeling up to it? What texts inspire us? Abraham’s questions aren’t new! They still resonate today. Ultimately, the lesson of Abraham is that through God and community, we can be our best selves.

Standing at a shiva minyan, I promised a joke on Rosh Hashanah, so here goes.

Moishe Goldberg was heading out of the Synagogue one day, and as always Rabbi Mendel was standing at the door, shaking hands as the Congregation departed. The rabbi grabbed Moishe by the hand, pulled him aside and whispered these words at him: "You need to join the Army of God!"
Moishe replied: "I'm already in the Army of God, Rabbi."
The rabbi questioned: "Then how come I don't see you except for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur?" Moishe whispered back: "I'm in the secret service."

Like most jokes, it is funny because it has a little truth to it. Humor allows us to see our foibles. We laugh at jokes, because they let us laugh at ourselves. In this room, there are some for whom synagogue is a regular part of their lives and some for whom it is not. Some of you here light Shabbat candles every week and others might not know a Shabbat candle from a Hanukkah candle. That is not a judgement, but the reality of living in 21st century America. Some of you are happy EXACTLY as you are. Life is good. Others are more dissatisfied. The American Dream is looking a little tarnished, yet even when life is great, sometimes we feel something missing. The answer to what is missing is right here.

Together, we discover that CBI is a kehillah kedoshah, a holy community. We support one another in difficult times and dance and celebrate when times are good. We mourn together and enjoy simchas together. We SHOW up for one another. Many like to complain about how younger generations are not joining in the same way--but if we want others to join--we first have to show that WE care.

We are the answer to each other’s problems. Right here, right now, you can find Gd. Coming into this room on a regular basis will help make your life more fulfilled. It will make you feel happier, healthier, and more alive. (While I cannot claim that it will physically change your health, I believe that spiritually healthy people do feel better than those not in their peak condition. Atlantic Magazine even had an article recently about how people’s health declines when they drop their religious affiliations.) Your doctors tell you to exercise your body. I am your soul’s doctor and I say you also need to exercise your soul. Regular spiritual exercise connects you to Gd, connects you to yourself and connects you to one another.

I spoke first about your problems, now I want to talk about the problem of our faith. Like many Catholic, Protestant, Muslim, and Jewish congregations across the country, we are faced with a challenge. Life is too good in America. I see you looking at me like I have three heads. Too good, you ask? You might be thinking: “I just spent tens of thousands of dollars on my child’s college education and they cannot find a job!” or “My pension is nonexistent and my IRA will cover three years of retirement. I worry about expenses, about bills, about what might happen if something happens and my deductible has not yet been met for my insurance.” Maybe you lost your own job or had a period of unemployment. These are all problems, yet amidst that tsurris MOST all of us in this room have food on our tables. We have roofs over our heads. There are (generally) not tanks on our streets. Police are not breaking down our doors with “no-knock” warrants looking for drugs. But at the end of the day, life is still too good. Many people feel that they do not need religion or Gd anymore. They think they can travel life alone, without the guidance of a spiritual community, without a spiritual/personal network, without clergy or spiritual leadership.

Right now, right here, I have a solution to both of our problems. You are all already a part of the Army of Gd and I WANT YOU in the reserves. Just like the US military reserves, I want to see you once a month and two weeks a year. If you are currently in the Secret Service, you are already coming the two weeks a year (Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur), so you are halfway there. To participate in this commitment, you simply need to pick one Shabbat services a month and start coming. Escalate a little bit and pick a daily minyan to support. (If you come 36 times to daily minyan you become a minyannaire--with all of the perks and privileges that that affords you!) In the morning we will even give you breakfast. Thanks to your generosity and the time and energy of Sisterhood, we have lovely lunches weekly and INCREDIBLE lunches monthly for Simchat Shabbat. We have monthly Shabbat dinners. Many people love the intimacy, the melodies of Friday night. If you are one of those people, come join us. If you have not yet discovered the blessing of welcoming Shabbat Friday night, join us, too! Coming together to sing, to talk, to dance, to celebrate we build a holy community.

Every book/blog/article about synagogues right now talks about community and relationships. While buildings and programs are important, and we want lots of activities to get you in our beautiful new space, what gets you to stay are the connections you make. When you talk to me; when you talk to your friends (old and new); when you realize the good you can do for others and the good they can do for you, this TRULY becomes a kehilla kedosha, a holy community. The true power of CBI is the relationships we build here.

In the few weeks we have been here, we have built incredible relationships. Shabbat at our house has become a never-ending pool party--at least until the thunder rolls through. We have been welcomed into the homes of so many of you, getting to know children and adults, seniors and infants. Rebecca, my girls and I are grateful for that welcome and we want all of you to feel as connected to CBI as we do!

For that reason, I speak about joining the reserves, I want you to continue to nourish your soul by taking or teaching classes with me. I want you to help me imagine a learning community. Whether it means we build a Beit Midrash, a living library, or we set aside more time for Torah study, I want Jewish learning to be more central to our community. Prayer is when we talk to Gd, but study is where Gd talks to us. When you look at a Jewish text, you find generations speaking to one another. The Talmud is Jews from the 2nd century discussing Sinai more than a thousand years before, flanked by conversations about those conversations four hundred years later, edited by rabbis two hundred years later and with commentaries available for the next thousand plus years to the present. When we talk about Jewish texts, we write our own commentaries--whether in our souls or upon a page--or thoughts are helpful for imagining what our traditions will look like in another thousand years. Judaism is a do-it-yourself religion, that thrives with community and continuity. We pray, we study together, because alone we miss the dialogue. Jews are not monks who read alone. We argue; we shout; we consider every possibility before coming to a conclusion. The argument that was rejected a thousand years before is written down, because it might just be relevant to us today! 

Returning to my metaphor, I am not asking you to re-up full time. I am not asking everyone to come to minyan every single day--as nice as it would be be to need to move daily minyan to the sanctuary. I am asking for a few hours a month. I am asking for two to three hours in shul, including schmoozing at kiddush and one to two hours attending a class, stuffing envelopes, dreaming of new activities with me or others. Other days we will ask for your financial support, but today I want you to consider your emotional/ spiritual/temporal support.

What would make you want to come through these doors more often? What would it take to light the fire in YOUR soul? Is it music? Is it Torah? Is it art? Is it literature? Is it yoga, meditation? Social action? For some of these things, we already have great activities. For others, we will need your help!

Soon, I hope to start a new book club, discussing the Rabbinical Assembly’s The Observant Life, The Wisdom of Conservative Judaism for Contemporary Jews. Each month we will discuss a topic from what makes food kosher, to what makes sex kosher, to what does it mean to pray as Jews. We will discuss business ethics and the roles of parents and grandparents. Each month is a new opportunity to join, think and discuss. While some of us might meeting regularly, others may drop in when the topic is interesting to them.

On a weekly basis, we are gathering together for coffee and conversation. It’s an open forum to discuss faith, Torah, history, philosophy, Israel or just to schmooze. In the coming weeks, we will add a second session devoted to Mishnah. Steve Wein will keep up his Talmud classes. We are working on creating an adult version of the Golden Kippah society--with an accompanying class of Torah troph!

For the younger crowd, we are working on new opportunities. Maureen is doing incredible work with our children and teenagers, helping them create the programs that work for them. USY was my life when I was a teenager and I hope that our USY can bring inspiration to the next generation.

Some of these activities will stimulate your soul. Some will help us work more efficiently. Yet, together, they create a sense of holy purpose. The create a holy community, a kehillah kedoshah.

This week we come together to acknowledge our shortcomings, to confess our sins and to make plans for a better year. We are all imperfect. We all make mistakes. Yet when we support one another, we find ways to restore our souls. Joining our holy community, offering our prayers, our regrets and our hopes, is truly life changing. As you beat your chest today, feel the weight of guilt leave. The best way to stop a bad habit is to replace it with a good one. Let this community be the good habit.

As we continue our service, I offer my thanks to all of you. You have taken the first and most important step of Jewish life--YOU ARE HERE. That is a tremendous step, a huge blessing and I commend you for it. I look forward to seeing you tomorrow, to continuing our conversations about the Jewish future. Together, we will follow in the footsteps of Abraham and Sarah. We will be radically welcoming, study Torah, celebrate with joyous prayer, and support one another.

G’mar ketivah vechatimah tovah, may you be WRITTEN and SEALED in the book of life.