Centennial Shabbat morning

 Rabbi Philip Weintraub

Congregation B’nai Israel

Centennial Shabbat morning

March 25, 2023

For at least the last fifty years, we have been waiting for our flying cars.  From the Jetsons to Star Wars, to Back to the Future, the vision of people scooting around town in flying vehicles has been part of any imagined future reality.  Yet, even though George Jetson was supposedly born last year, I have yet to see a successful flying car. 

From the prophets to Nostradamus, from Bible Codes to horoscopes, people want to imagine what the future will be like.  They create elaborate visions, write books, make movies, tv shows and other creative endeavors.  While Nikola Tesla may have predicted wi-fi and Jules Verne imagined a man on the moon, those predictions have been wrong far more often than they have been correct.  It would be folly for me to imagine what life would be like one hundred years from now.  As your investment advisor says, “past performance is no guarantee of future results.”

Yet, history tells us that is not entirely true.  While the institution of the synagogue has evolved over time, for at least the last two thousand years, Jews have participated in their ritual lives at home, school and synagogue.  They have gathered to worship on Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Shabbat and festivals.  They have created elaborate Purim plays.  They have shared meals, blessed their food, named their children, celebrated their weddings, mourned their losses in spaces just like this one.  For the last two decades we have celebrated in this building and for a century, we have been gathering as a community.

Preparing for today, I spent time in our archives and in Dr. Koren’s Histories of the Jewish People of Pinellas County Florida.  There I discovered that while CBI is 100 years old, in 1921 Tampa’s Shaare Tzedek tried sharing their rabbi with St Pete.  Not surprisingly, there was a debate between those who wished for a Reform synagogue and those that wished for something more traditional-and so CBI was born.  It took time and Rabbi Chapman and Rabbi Luski for our current identity to come into formation.  Rabbi Chapman helped us find United Synagogue, increased the roles for women and made youth the center of our congregation. 

He taught us that:

The secret of Jewish survival lives in our ability to strike deep roots in the past, live fully in the present and prepare prayerfully for the future…Whatever we have, our life, our speech, our clothes, our religion, our heritage, we owe to the selfless labors of preceding generations. As a token of our appreciation for all the gifts that God, man and nature have lavished upon us, we must strive to leave the world a better place for those who follow us.”

In building the school wing, we wrote of the importance of the synagogue being a bet tefillah, a house of prayer, a bet hamidrash, a house of study and a bet hakeneset, a house of gathering.  From my very first Shabbat here, that is the identity I have demanded of us.  To truly function as a community we must ensure that education, connection and prayer are the cornerstones of who we are--both in this building and in our souls.

If we truly gather for these holy purposes, then we will be forced to make our home, our community, our world a better place.

Talmud Kiddushin 40b has two teachings that are apropos of this lesson.

First it teaches us that:

a person should view himself as though he were exactly half-liable and half-meritorious. In other words he should act as though the plates of his scale are balanced, so that if he performs one mitzva he is fortunate, as he tilts his balance to the scale of merit. If he transgresses one prohibition, woe to him, as he tilts his balance to the scale of liability, as it is stated: “But one sin destroys much good” (Ecclesiastes 9:18), which means that due to one sin that a person transgresses he squanders much good.

As we plan for the next 100 years of our synagogue, we must ensure the choices we make in the coming years reflect our values.  The budget of our organization reflects our priorities, and so we must ensure that our financial decisions demonstrate our commitment to education, prayer and community.

Later on the very same page is one of my favorite teachings of the Talmud:

Rabbi Tarfon and the Elders were reclining in the loft of the house of Nit’za in Lod, when this question was asked of them: Is study greater or is action greater? Rabbi Tarfon answered and said: Action is greater. Rabbi Akiva answered and said: Study is greater. Everyone answered and said: Study is greater, but not as an independent value; rather, it is greater as study leads to action.

The words of Rabbi Akiva inspire me.  They remind us that we absolutely must do good in this world.  We MUST leave these walls.  We MUST get out and vote.  We MUST do acts of loving kindness.  AND we MUST know our traditions.  We MUST know who we are and what we stand for.  The two are not independent but interdependent.  

In the coming years, we will be blessed with more b’nai mitzvah, or in the language of many young Jews, “B Mitzvahs”.  We will have more children coming through our Pauline Rivkind Talmud Torah, our CBI religious school.  We must show them that our faith is not only coming to synagogue on Rosh Hashanah, but that it is the lives we live each and every day.  Each week, we have pamphlets from Hadar in NY with the Torah reading that can spark conversation-whether between children and adults or even among more mature households.  Each week, we share Torah through classes taught by congregants, Maureen and myself.  Each week we have opportunities to learn and grow together.  AND each week we have opportunities to do good in the world.  We bring light and goodness in the world whether we are volunteering in the DayStar Garden, helping people register to vote, supporting the work of Gulfcoast, of Federation, fighting antiSemitism, supporting and visiting Israel or even opportunities we have not yet even imagined.

Returning to our history--when Rabbi Luski first came to our community he 

Emphasized the need for three action programs: Repentance, Prayer and Charity.  “Teshuvah-the art of repentance. Repentance is a turning; turning in the direction of the good…Tefillah-Prayer is an affirmation that the world represents order rather than chaos. Prayer meanest that we recognize that life is purposeful and meaningful…Tzedekah (Giving of ourselves) we only receive blessings if we share our blessings..”

I have written similar words on many Rosh Hashanahs and Yom Kippurs. From the Untenah Tokef, one of our central High Holiday prayers, we are reminded that our actions can change the course of our lives.  While we cannot change our pasts, we can ALWAYS change our futures.

Since the time of the Talmud, Jewish law has rarely evolved from pronouncements, edicts or legislations.  Instead, it has adapted through individual circumstances, from questions and answers from life.  Ultimately, the question that has remained from the destruction of the Temple until today is what will inspire our children?  What will ensure that they find the same joy, the same passion, the same love for our traditions that we do?  As Jews, this is often expressed in worry.  Will our children find partners that support them?  Will our grandchildren know our faith?  While the potential solutions have changed over the years, the main conclusion has not--our children see us.  We cannot force anyone to care, but if we care, they are far more likely to share our passion than if we do not!

My undergraduate thesis advisor, Jonathan Sarna, closed his powerful book: American Judaism with the words of Simon Rawidowicz, who in a few short lines bared the souls of generations of Jews, writing:

A nation dying for thousands of years. . .means a living nation. Our incessant dying means uninterrupted living, rising, standing up, beginning anew. . .If we are the last—let us be the last as our fathers and forefathers were. Let us prepare the ground for the last Jews who will come after us, and for the last Jews who will rise after them, and so on until the end of days.

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When I look at CBI, I am proud of our community.  We have adapted and evolved in the last few years to changing needs.  We have used technology to welcome those who could not participate previously.  We have adapted our financial structure to ensure that everyone can participate and support our community.  We have been more inclusive of all members of our community.  As we look to the next one hundred years, I predict that our community will only grow stronger.  We will continue to adapt our methodologies to the needs of the moment, while holding fast to our mission.

As we welcome new community members; as we educate more young people; as we develop new initiatives for every demographic in our synagogue, the core values do not change.  We are a house of worship, study and gathering.  We continue to use repentance, prayer and charity to be the best instruments of God in this world.