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Updates from Rabbi Jeff Pivo (updated 9/17/2021)

 

To our EBJC members:

This is where I will be posting my sermons each week (after they have been delivered!), as well as any other messages to the community. Now that we are beginning to open up to in-person services, classes, and meetings, I hope to see you in person once again. We will also continue to utilize streaming on line so that all can participate during the week, as well as on Shabbat and Yom Tov.

Rabbi Jeff Pivo

 

Shabbat Sermons

 

Lekh Lekha Sermon 2021

Our Wednesday Lunch and Learn class has just begun studying Lord Rabbi Jonathan Sacks’ book Morality: Restoring the Common Good in Divided Times. The thesis of the book is that western society has drifted so far into the realm of individualism that we have lost our sense of the collective, the shared, the “us.” Rabbi Sacks writes of causes, consequences, and remedies for this dilemma, and I’ve been thinking this week about one area where “we” has always superseded “I” in Jewish life, in the realm of prayer.

Jews invented communal prayer. Individuals’ words addressed to God have probably existed as long as people have. The utterance of words of thanks, of petition, or of praise are universal, part and parcel of being a human being. But the act of coming together, to recite the same words at the same time, came into being only in the last years that the Temple in Jerusalem was standing. Communities around the land of Israel wanted to synchronize the recitation of daily prayer with the sacrifices that took place in Jerusalem. When the sacrifices ceased, with the destruction of the Temple in the first century, communal prayer continued, effectively superseding the offerings on the altar.

And while individual prayer continued to be praised by our sages, as a means of fulfilling a thrice-daily obligation, public prayer has always been considered the highest form of address to God. What is the ethic that gives precedence to praying together over praying alone? What are the implications of elevating public prayer above that of the individual? Why does Judaism insist that “we” are more important than “I”?

Perhaps our history of living as a minority influenced the practice of public prayer. The same war with Rome that destroyed the Temple also forcibly sent us into the diaspora. A dispersed nation, wandering among others, across a wide geographical space, would benefit from the daily affirmation of common beliefs and practices. Shared daily prayer or, where that was not possible, shared Shabbat prayer at a minimum, held the community together. It affirmed the boundaries of the community, who is in and who is out. It cemented Hebrew as the international language of the Jews, at least in ritual settings. By emphasizing public prayer, and setting a minyan requirement of 10, the sages defined community through the act of prayer.

For most of the last two thousand years, wherever Jews could gather daily for minyan, they did so. Where they could not, either because of outside danger or simply through being few in number, they prayed privately, omitting the public parts of the service such as Torah reading and kaddish. But the preference for coming together remained, a centerpiece of the Jewish experience.

Which brings us to the dilemma of America, with its promises of success for any individual who works hard enough. That ideal is at odds with the traditional Jewish emphasis on the community. In place of the Jewish idea of obligations, to God and to one another, Americans think in terms of rights, of what is owed to each of us. And so American Judaism has developed quite differently than Judaism in other places. What is lost is the recognition that each of us is part of a whole, and that the whole suffers when we are absent.

The pandemic has further weakened our connection with each other. Many of our members, like people the world over, are hunkered down at home, venturing out only for the necessities. We don’t judge anyone for that; this pandemic is real, dangerous, and has no end in sight. But for those who are vaccinated, the risks are now low enough that being together in the same space, with masks and social distancing, is safer than it was at the beginning of the pandemic. Judaism is a communally based culture; if we value it, we must support it with our presence.

And so I am urging all of you to come back to shul, on a regular basis. Our meetings and classes are beginning to shift back to an in-person setting, but now including a Zoom feature, so that those who truly cannot be in the building still have access. In addition to the larger social value of being together again, I want to emphasize how important it is for us to be here for communal prayer, morning and evening.

It is only when we come together that we constitute a minyan, and can include all sections of the liturgy. It is only when we are together that those who are mourning loved ones can say kaddish. It is only when we are together on Monday and Thursday mornings that we can read Torah. It is only when we are together that we experience the human contact that we have been missing, and yearning for, for nearly two years. Let’s return to the Jewish value of “us,” of being together, of reciting the words and singing the tunes that remind us who we are, that make us who we are.

I remind us all that our policy is that we give first preference to a traditional, non-egalitarian minyan in the evenings, but that if we lack ten Jewish men we go to plan B, which is the egalitarian option. I know it does not satisfy everyone, but it affirms the emphasis on “us” rather than on “I.” If we fail to meet the more traditional style minyan, we should be willing to pivot to a more inclusive style whenever possible. In that way we affirm the dignity and authenticity of both styles. I also remind us all that the primary purpose of prayer is not the recitation of mourner’s kaddish, while that is crucial for those in mourning. The purpose of prayer is to come together, as a community, to share space, time, and ritual. I will not insist that all members of EBJC fulfill their daily obligation to davven three times a day in public; I merely encourage us all to be in the sanctuary as often as possible. This is a core value of our shul, and it is time for us to get back in the habit of honoring it. Shabbat shalom.

 

High Holiday Sermons, etc.

Thoughts on Avinu Malkeinu

I was pleased to see my father this year. He lives out in California and, with the pandemic and all, we mainly communicate by phone or text. He arranged to visit when I had some time off, and we traveled together through New England to visit his grandchildren in Boston and New Hampshire. We were together for more time than any since I moved out of my parents’ home, when I was 19. At the house, with the grandkids, and during long miles in the car we were able to talk.

I don’t remember having a substantive conversation with my father, ever. My brother and I had a good time with him when we were growing up but, like many dads, he worked long days and often seemed farther away than he really was. And so I was surprised when, one night at the house he told me that he hadn’t been a very good father to me growing up, and that he was sorry for that. It was so unexpected, this moment of candor and real feeling, that I didn’t know how to react. Half jokingly, I responded that since I had few memories of my childhood, he shouldn’t feel any guilt about things that happened back then, since I couldn’t remember.

But that incident made me think about my own faults in fatherhood: The times I got upset at the kids, or in front of them; the times that I missed saying the right thing; the times I was simply not there, because of work or weariness from work.

I’m thinking about my parents quite a lot these days. In so many ways I am completely unlike them and the rest of my extended family; in other ways I am me only because of them. Who they were then continues to echo in my life, now. Looking back, are the few things I remember about my father from childhood truthful memories, or are they merely a version of what happened, a function of who I was at that moment? Remembering the fathers of our childhoods, we invoke memory and feeling, and unwillingly assign to those memories the awesome power of shaping us, even now.

Then there is the other father figure. Speaking to God at this time of year brings back remembrances of High Holidays past, communities past, our past selves. Re-entering the words and melodies, we time travel back to when we sat next to the father who lived with us yet seemed so distant, and the father who sometimes seemed so distant, but who was always right there. And we say: “Hi dad.”

 

 

Kol Nidrei: The Oral Law and the Art of Interpretation

I finally got around to reading Mark Twain’s essay on the Jews, published in Harper’s magazine in 1899. The article was panned by both Jews and Christians, as Twain predicted it would be: Christians complained that they were really not antisemites, for any of the reasons Twain cited, and the Jews complained that Twain reverted to stereotypes, even when they were positive ones. But there is truth in its last paragraph, which concludes with a question.

[The Jew] has made a marvelous fight in this world, in all the ages; and has done it with his hands tied behind him. He could be vain of himself, and be excused for it. The Egyptian, the Babylonian, and the Persian rose, filled the planet with sound and splendor, then faded to dream-stuff and passed away; the Greek and the Roman followed, and made a vast noise, and they are gone; other peoples have sprung up and held their torch high for a time, but it burned out, and they sit in twilight now, or have vanished. The Jew saw them all, beat them all, and is now what he always was, exhibiting no decadence, no infirmities of age, no weakening of his parts, no slowing of his energies, no dulling of his alert and aggressive mind. All things are mortal but the Jew; all other forces pass, but he remains. What is the secret of his immortality?

Mark Twain, Harpers, 1899

 

Last week I spoke about the kind of shul we should want to be. Tonight I want to focus on Jewish tradition, law, and history, and along the way answer Twain’s question about the eternality of the Jewish people. For there is a quite simple answer to it: The Jews have survived because whenever an important challenge arose, they willingly and consciously changed, adapting to new circumstances, innovating, interpreting, sometimes even reversing the application of words of the written Torah.

In parshat Ki Tetzei we read:

If a man has a wayward and defiant son, who does not heed his father or mother and does not obey them even after they discipline him, his father and mother shall take hold of him and bring him out to the elders of his town at the public place of his community.They shall say to the elders of his town, “This son of ours is disloyal and defiant; he does not heed us. He is a glutton and a drunkard.” Thereupon the men of his town shall stone him to death. Thus you will sweep out evil from your midst: all Israel will hear and be afraid.

Deut. 21:18-21

There is a fascinating discussion about this passage in the Talmud (San. 68b). The rabbis spend an inordinate amount of time discussing the circumstances under which the “wayward and defiant son” (ben soreir u’moreh) would actually be executed. Since the verse states he is a glutton and a drunkard, they rule that being just one or the other is not sufficient; the law does not apply. Since it stipulates that his mother and father take him to the town elders, one or the other cannot do so on their own, and so the law does not apply. Since it says that they bring him out, the rabbis say that if one of them is disabled, and cannot bring him out, the law does not apply. This type of argumentation goes on for quite some time, with the rabbis adding more and more restrictions to the application of the law, until finally the sages of the Talmud conclude: “There never was a case of ben soreir u’moreh, and there never will be.” Essentially, the rabbis take the explicit words of Torah, refuse to acknowledge the reality of the case, and legislate it out of existence. The reason seems obvious: They were as uncomfortable with these verses as we are, and they did not hesitate to use their authority to undo what they felt was an unjust law in the Torah itself. Note that they did not claim that this passage was not part of Torah, nor did they suggest in any way that the law should not be applied. Rather, they made it impossible for any court to do so. Their method was to leave the written Torah intact - it says what it says - but to interpret its application so narrowly that the entire passage becomes an exercise in intellect rather than actual law. Social mores had changed, and they interpreted Torah in light of those mores.

When the Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed in the year 70 CE, many died, many were enslaved or banished from the Holy Land, the site where sacrifices had been offered for a thousand years now inaccessible, the priesthood without purpose, as the sacrificial system at the heart of biblical practice was in ruins. The early rabbis were the last Jewish authorities standing. At that moment of peril to Judaism itself, they made a remarkable pivot, redefining Judaism from a religion of animal slaughter to one centered on prayer and study. The harvest festivals, which had brought people from all over the country to Jerusalem three times a year, became instead symbols of creation, redemption, and revelation. The elements of Torah that could continue to be observed - the reformulated holidays, the dietary laws, Shabbat - did continue. Much else was abandoned, augmented, or reimagined. The Temple was gone, but Judaism survived and thrived.

Another illustration: The Torah tells us precious little about how to observe Shabbat beyond avoiding work, not lighting fires and not leaving the house. But by the first century CE Jewish society had changed. Settlements had grown into towns; towns into small cities. It was no longer reasonable to expect people to stay home every Shabbat, especially in light of the new practice of communal prayer at synagogues. And so the rabbis developed a workaround. Redefining “home” as any space that was, or could be made, physically connected, they made apartment courtyards, adjacent buildings, even structures that were joined together artificially for that very purpose, a “home.” This institution, the Shabbat eruv, has no precedent in the Hebrew Bible. In fact, like the case of the ben soreir u’moreh, like the shift from sacrifice to study, the innovation of the eruv seems to fly in the face of the Torah’s intended practice.

I made a long list of similar developments within biblical law, and from biblical law to rabbinic law. We won’t take the time to go over every one of them tonight, but what they all share is the willingness of the rabbis to experiment, change, and even reverse biblical law and practice. And what was the theological basis for these many rabbinic innovations? On what authority did the rabbis arrogate to themselves the right to do such things? They just took it.

And thank God they did. At every point when history, or social change, or an evolution in widely held beliefs created conflicts with biblical law, or even threatened the continued existence of Judaism itself, the rabbis did whatever was necessary to adjust their understanding of Torah to meet current challenges. This is the answer to Twain’s question: We survived as a civilization because we moved with the times, while keeping what we could of tradition. No more fixed Temple in Jerusalem? Then we will be a mobile people, carrying Torah with us wherever we go. No way to approach God without sacrifices? Now Torah and daily prayer will connect us to God. The wayward and defiant son? To tell you the truth it was always a theoretical case.
This year, we found that willingness to innovate in the use of cameras and other technology to enable us to come together electronically, until such time as it is safe for everyone to be together. In part, that decision was adopted out of necessity; many shuls knew that having no in-person services at all was untenable, and so we adjusted our practice. Even when the pandemic subsides, we will continue to make use of that technology, because of the blessings it brings to so many who cannot or will not come in person. But we do so in a way that minimizes the infractions against Shabbat and Yom Tov by having non-Jews operate it, and not fixing it when it goes out because of a power outage, as was the case on Rosh Hashanah. We are still finding our way when it comes to this issue. Some of us had an interesting discussion on the second day Rosh Hashanah afternoon about why we should or shouldn’t count people on Zoom for minyan. The jury is still out on this; I invite your feedback.

As we move to be the warm and welcoming place we claim to be, this is the history that we should champion; this is the tradition we should emulate. Those who claim the only way to preserve Judaism is to put it in a jar and pickle it ignore all evidence to the contrary. The genius of Judaism, its “secret,” is an eternal adaptability, clothed in traditional garb. Upending the status quo in order to save it is the most Jewish approach of all.

In this second year of a pandemic whose end is yet unclear, we must pledge ourselves to do all we can to find new ways of Jewish learning, Jewish doing, and Jewish belonging. It may be that the greatest threat to Judaism is secularism reinforced by separation. But here too, we will find ways to overcome the dangers of our time just as we have always done. The Jews are too clever, too stiff-necked, as the Torah puts it, to allow a pathogen to kill what the Romans, and so many others, could not. We will stubbornly cling to our tradition until such time as it is no longer tenable, and then invent a new tradition, and insist that the new way is the most traditional of all. And we will be right.

G’mar chatimah tovah.

 

YK/Yizkor: Charlie Watts/Playing Behind the Beat

I was sitting at my desk, talking to Cantor Larry, when the news of Charlie Watts’s death came over the internet. I told Cantor, who replied: Who’s Charlie Watts? There are two kinds of people in this world: Those who know that Watts was the drummer for the Rolling Stones for over fifty years, and the heathens who do not.

In the coverage of Watts’s life and playing style, a consistent theme arose among the musicians who played with him, both in the Stones and in his small jazz groups (Watts was trained as a jazz drummer; he claimed not to even like rock and roll.) What distinguishes his drumming style from others is that he is fractionally behind the beat. How can that be? A drummer, by definition, keeps the beat, makes the beat. They set the tempo and everyone else plays to it. But Watts upended that dynamic by playing along to Keith Richards’s guitar playing. And so there is an almost immeasurably small fraction of a second during Rolling Stones songs between where the beat should be and where it is.

That small discrepancy is where life throws off sparks: The slight difference between expectation and execution, the pause before a punch line, lovers locking eyes just before they kiss. As we move into our Yizkor prayers, we remember what made each of our loved ones individuals. How did they speak, move, laugh, dance? What was the sound of their voice? Were they quick with a handshake or a hug, or more reserved? Did they rush the beat or play behind it? There are a thousand ways each person is themselves, and it is those things that we miss when we recall our dead. Four times a year we do so in this service, but we remember them more often than that. By linking their memories to acts of tzedakah, as we do in the yizkor prayers, we ennoble those thousand details of their individuality; we make them little less than angels. And we consider the backbeat of our own lives, which will inevitably dance us to them in eternity.

 

Erev Rosh Hashanah 5782

Inclusion as a Moral Imperative

At a recent meeting a colleague of mine complained about the consequences of a majority of the congregants taking part in services over Zoom: “I’ve got a guy watching services from his boat! Is that the kind of religious experience I’m trying to create?” Others responded by pointing out that the guy would be on his boat in any case; Zoom at least made it possible for him to hear uplifting words on the Sabbath. I’m not sure Pastor Munez was convinced, but it was reassuring to hear that we share some of the same challenges.

These last two years have upended so much. Just since July we went from thinking the worst was over to fearing it has not yet arrived. And while I am proud of the many ways that we have responded to the pandemic at EBJC, as we look ahead it may be time to think strategically about a future that looks like this. Over Rosh Hashanah, I will propose a new approach to how we see this synagogue. It is grounded in the realities of Jewish demographics, the nature of Conservative Judaism, and the pandemic we continue to suffer through. And while it is tempting to frame such proposals in financial terms - membership numbers, dues, and so forth - my area of expertise is not in synagogue finances, but in Torah, history, tradition, and making meaning. We need to resolve to be a place that does the right thing, and in striving to do right, I firmly believe that we will also do well.

There is no better time to talk about innovation and enhancement than these holidays. The Yamim Nora’im are when we review our past in order to make a better future. That is their purpose. We call out to God: “Renew our days, as in the past!” but the words are directed no less toward ourselves. We look back to move forward; we review past errors in order to create a better future. Sometimes that means stopping things we have been doing when they no longer reflect our values. I learned a new commentary by Rashi this year that I have shared which teaches that even God loses affection for some practices which no longer reflect the Divine will; things change. At other times it means beginning new ventures which will renew ourselves and the entire shul community.

This time of distancing ourselves from one another has already forced us to innovate. Many of you are seeing and hearing me from home, something we would not have even considered doing before the pandemic, but which is going to be standard from now on. I want to thank Cantor Larry for taking the lead on getting our new video system in the sanctuary, with a great deal of help from Matt Kaufman. We will continue to tweak it until we perfect its use. But just as online classes, meetings, and services have enhanced our relationship with each other in a time of social distancing, we must continue to innovate in our use of technology, as well as innovating in the kinds of things we do, and the participants whom we wish to reach.

In the meantime, we recite the words and sing the tunes that these days bring, and we reflect on our character over the past year, so that the year just beginning brings more joy, more learning, more celebration. We pray to be able to forgive, and we pray to receive forgiveness. We seek out new paths even as we revisit ancient texts. We once more affirm our commitment to God, to our shared history, to each other, and to the future we will build together. Many more things bind us to one another than divide us; in the coming year we seek to diminish, even to eliminate, those things that separate us. Being Jewish means having the faith that things will be better, and having the wisdom that making the world a better place is not God’s responsibility, but ours. As we begin these days together, and on behalf of our staff and Board of Directors, I sincerely wish every one of you a Shanah Tovah u’Metukah, a good, sweet, New Year.

 

Rosh Hashanah First Day: Racial Inclusion; Gender Inclusion; Disability Inclusion; Mixed Family Inclusion

 

Emo Phillips, 1980’s:

Once I saw this guy on a bridge about to jump. I said, "Don't do it!" He said, "Nobody loves me." I said, "God loves you. Do you believe in God?" He said, "Yes." I said, "Are you a Christian or a Jew?" He said, "A Christian." I said, "Me, too! Protestant or Catholic?" He said, "Protestant." I said, "Me, too! What franchise?" He said, "Baptist." I said, "Me, too! Northern Baptist or Southern Baptist?" He said, "Northern Baptist." I said, "Me, too! Northern Conservative Baptist or Northern Liberal Baptist?" He said, "Northern Conservative Baptist." I said, "Me, too! Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region, or Northern Conservative Baptist Eastern Region?" He said, "Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region." I said, "Me, too!" Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region Council of 1879, or Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region Council of 1912?" He said, "Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region Council of 1912." I said, "Die, heretic!" And I pushed him over.

 

Of course, it isn’t only “Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region Council of 1912” Christians who see everyone outside their group as a threat. It’s us, too, and it’s not so funny. For four years now I’ve been making the case for a pluralistic synagogue, for providing different kinds of services for different kinds of Conservative Jews. In large measure, that effort has paid off. We have an expanding group of people who lead and read in our egalitarian service, and the members of the traditional service who don’t care for that style just davven as they have in the past. While the pandemic has temporarily strained our ability to field two Shabbat morning services, I look forward with hope to a time when we can once again do so.

I gave a sermon a few weeks ago stating that a goal of mine for the coming year was to open the doors of the synagogue as wide as possible to Jews who didn’t have a communal home; it was a call for inclusion. Afterward, based on the reaction of some of our members, you might have thought that I was proposing serving ham sandwiches for kiddush on Yom Kippur. In that talk I mentioned several categories of Jews whom I think deserve our attention: Jews of color, Jews of who don’t fit traditional sexual orientations, and Jews whose spouses are not Jewish. I will now add to that list: Jews with disabilities. So why the cry of “Heretic!;” why the impulse to push me off the bridge? It is always easier to get angry than to ask a simple question like “What did you mean by that, Rabbi?” “How would that work?” Hearing only what we want to hear, avoiding asking questions, or choosing to avoid constructive discussion says more about a few people’s underlying fears than anything I have suggested doing. It is time for me to speak plainly and directly about where we are and where we need to go. It is time to speak about our future.

In an era of ever-shrinking religious affiliation, the survival of the synagogue is no longer guaranteed. We know that there are fewer Jews in East Brunswick and its environs than in the past, and we know that there are a number of unaffiliated Jewish families in our area. We know that we are in the second year of a pandemic that is depressing participation at the synagogue even among our members. We only need to look around the sanctuary, any day of the week, to see the drop in numbers. But beyond what we hope is a short term effect of COVID-19, I believe there is a moral case to be made to bring home those Jews who have either been shut out or who have removed themselves from consideration as members of the active Jewish community. It is incumbent upon us to begin reaching out to those Jews who might be members here, but have not been up until now. At a time when religious life was already on the decline, and has been under further stress over the last two years of isolation from one another, we need to rethink the mission of the synagogue. We need to open our doors as widely as possible, as a means of strengthening the institution and meeting individual needs.

There are several categories of Jews whom we should care deeply about and whose membership in our shul should be welcomed: Jews who are not white; Jews who are not heterosexual; and Jews who disabilities prevent them from engagement in Jewish communal life. Our movement, and our shul, should be grateful when someone from those groups wishes to affiliate with us. We should reach out to them with open arms, re-branding ourselves as an open and broadly accepting place. Doing so is not only in line with other Conservative shuls around the country; it is deeply Jewish. The tradition set by Abraham and Sara, and lived out under every chuppah, to open our tents on all sides, means something. It is basic Jewish ethics that ethnicity, gender orientation, or disability should not bar anyone from participation in the Jewish community. None of that should be controversial.

I have shared the national statistics in the past, even before the pandemic. Americans are fleeing religion as fast as they can. Religious boundaries are breaking down in every direction. 70% of non-Orthodox Jews are marrying non-Jewish partners. For many years we have ignored these trends, hoping they would somehow slow or reverse without having to reassess our approach. But the pandemic has only worsened the outlook, and we need to act now if we are to have any kind of future as a synagogue or even as a religion in America.

And that is why it is so important that at EBJC we take a stand to encourage those Jews who are serious about their Judaism, including those who are married to non-Jews, to affiliate with us. The sheer number of such families, rapidly becoming the majority of Jewish households, cannot be ignored or wished away; in time every one of us will have non-Jewish relatives. Neither can we continue to stigmatize, blame, or shun those families. The argument over whether or not to mention the birth of a grandchild to a member based on whether both their parents are Jewish diminishes us; it punishes our members for who their children choose to marry. If a Jew “marries out,” yet otherwise wishes to maintain their Jewish identity, raise Jewish children, create Jewish homes, join Jewish organizations, and to give money and time to an institution whose whole purpose is to do those things, then it is our job to bring them home. The trade off for living in, and being accepted into, an open society, as Jews, is that some will create families with those who do not share our background. The only other option is self-ghettoization, which I suspect is not terribly alluring to anyone here.

What does that mean? Any Jewish adult who wants to be part of our club should be welcomed, should be pursued. I have known a number of blended families whose non-Jewish partners actively support the Jewish community by raising Jewish children, volunteering for Jewish organizations, and, not least, agreeing to pay for membership to keep their spouses’ shuls going. To a person, they do not want, and do not expect, to be given honors in a Jewish religious service. They recognize that certain acts, words, and rituals are reserved for members of the tribe. Until such time as they are interested in pursuing becoming a part of that tribe, they understand that they are not eligible to perform those rites. Specifically, I will not pursue, nor will I permit, non-Jews to have any role in religious activities such as leading services, reading Torah, saying prayers of any kind, or otherwise acting in a religious capacity at EBJC. Non-Jews will not be called to the Torah, though we should be able to find ways to recognize non-Jewish family members when a Jewish simha occurs. I will not officiate at interfaith weddings, baby namings, or other life cycle events.

There are two paths before us. The first is continuing to serve only those who in-marry, as that cohort becomes an ever smaller percentage of American Jewish households. That would certainly stand on principle. Attracting intermarried families has not been a focus for traditional synagogues up until now, and there is no denying that in the aggregate, intermarriage leads to diminished levels of Jewish learning, ritual, support for Israel, and so on. We all understand that dynamic. But on the individual level, those Jews who marry out and continue to affiliate with Conservative synagogues buck those trends. With the obvious exception of their spouse’s religious background, in all other ways they continue to be Conservative Jews, with higher levels of learning, giving, and volunteering than intermarried Jews who attend Reform shuls. When I worked at a small synagogue in Flanders, NJ, there were two women who had been married to non-Jewish men for about fifteen years. The couples were friends, and they were deeply involved in shul life, attending services, classes, the women serving in leadership roles. While I was serving there, the two non-Jewish husbands decided to convert. When I asked them why now, years after marrying and having children, when there was no family pressure to do so (and certainly none from me). They said that after all those years they had left behind any remnants of their former beliefs, that they wanted to have one faith in the household, and that this was their community. These were two of the most meaningful conversions I have taken part in. I am not claiming their cases are the norm, or that I would ever push anyone toward conversion. That is far too personal a decision for me to impose upon people. But what I learned from them is that in some cases, having communal acceptance first opened up the possibility of later freely choosing Judaism.

Pursuing a course of accepting, and even pursuing, intermarrieds is not simple. There are technical and halakhic problems related to membership and dues, and the exact formula for who can do what is yet to be determined. Jewish law, tradition, and sensitivities must be taken into account. I have great faith in the ability of tradition, and of Jews, to find a way. But the underlying ethic remains: Any Jew who wants to join, and who understands the rules of the club, should be happily welcomed, and their non-Jewish spouse greeted as an honored guest and supporter. What we must avoid is thinking and acting as if small-bore measures will be enough to save American Judaism. You’re familiar with the metaphor of rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic to save the ship? Ever more specific dues categories, snappy flyers for events, and the like are those deck chairs. No. Those efforts, while important, will not plug the hole in the hull and bring us safely to shore. Until such time that we are truly accepting of those Jews who want this kind of community, we should not delude ourselves into thinking that we are anything like “warm and welcoming.”

In order to reorient ourselves to this idea, we need to return, to go back, to do teshuvah, and reaffirm our commitment to well established practices of our movement. Egalitarian prayer is not for everyone, and so at EBJC we will continue to offer non-egalitarian services twice daily, every day of the year. Those who continue to think that egalitarian practice is in any way inauthentic implies that the kind of Judaism taught at the seminary, in the Rabbinical Assembly, in United Synagogue, in Schechter schools, in Camp Ramah, in USY, in the Law Committee, in Federation of Jewish Men’s Clubs, in Women’s league, and that of a million Jews around the world, is also inauthentic. You don’t have to take part in, or even like egalitarian services, but if you don’t respect them as authentic and meaningful, your argument is not with me, but with our whole movement.

We need to focus on what is truly important, and get past the squabbling over non-issues which will have no impact on our future as an institution. We don’t have time to relitigate old disagreements. Council of 1879 or of 1912? During this pandemic, we need to strategize about how to blow our own shofar, making a public case for our shul as the central Jewish institution in the area, and actually welcome all who are looking for serious learning, skilled praying, and a deep commitment to Jewish values and beliefs. Those who share those commitments should be here, and be cherished, and if they happen to be married to someone who is not Jewish, yet who makes it possible for them to be here, they should be thanked. I am asking for your active support, this year, in the effort to remake ourselves into a leading proponent of Jewish inclusion, with a special emphasis on inclusion of intermarried Conservative Jews. The place is here, and the time is now, to remake ourselves into the home for serious Judaism for all.

 

Rosh Hashanah Second Day: The Shul I Joined/The Shul We Are Building


 

Lisa and I once had dinner with another couple; both were professionals, he was an academic at a well known university. Describing the culture among the faculty, he shared story upon story of just how vicious and mean some of the internal squabbling in the department was. I asked how there could be that level of vitriol among a small group of colleagues and, without missing a beat, he replied “Because the stakes were so small.”

Too often we get caught up in our own righteous indignation over issues that, to an outsider, must seem awfully provincial: this siddur or that one; this mahzor or that one; this chumash or that one; this heksher or that one? While all around us religion in America is cratering. There are distinctions to be made when it comes to decisions over books, over ritual practices, and conversations worth having, but we need to recognize that most of the issues that we have been bickering about at EBJC in recent years have been resolved by most other Conservative shuls and Conservative institutions long ago.

Occasionally I hear the following sentiment when I propose that we start behaving like a mainstream Conservative synagogue: “That’s not the shul I joined 25, 35, or 45 years ago.” I’m glad that we recognize the changes that have taken place all around us. Because it is not 1951; it is 2021! Do we yearn for the days when there were separate black and white restrooms or water fountains? Do we pine for the time when those who have trouble walking couldn’t step off a curb, or onto a bimah? How about people being arrested, imprisoned, or assaulted because of their sexual orientation? It seems to me that the changes we have witnessed in American society over the last 70 years have been a remarkable improvement over what once was. The ever-expanding circle of civil rights has brought more and more people into public life, acknowledging their humanity and bringing us closer to the ideal of what America should be.

Much the same has happened in American synagogues. We have undergone changes, many of them driven by the world we live in, that have raised up innumerable people from exclusion from Jewish leadership and meaningful Jewish experiences. And so I am grateful that we recognize just how far we have come as a society and as a synagogue. Now let’s talk about how big the stakes are. Instead of talking about how traditional our services should be, let’s talk about how traditional our lives should be.

I’ve spent the last thirty years devoting myself to Torah and to the Jewish people. Over that span of time I’ve met so many people who want to learn together, to argue a text together, to be together as Jews in a sanctuary, at a Shabbat dinner table, or a sukkah. Those are the experiences we should be emphasizing; those are the values that we should be expounding. There is a biblical mitzvah to take lulav and etrog in hand over Sukkot; how many in our “traditional” synagogue take part in that mitzvah? How many of our members drive or even get on airplanes on Shabbat, for non-Shabbat activities? How many keep kosher, either in or out of their homes? Why do we insist on particular traditional forms of prayer when our Jewish lives outside of services in no way reflect traditional Judaism?

To be clear, I am not interested in making personal judgments about these actions. We each make Jewish choices based on our understanding of what is important about our Judaism; that is a healthy thing, in general. But what is good for an individual is not necessarily what is good for a community. The two are, of course, linked. What we, as a group, believe, will inevitably influence our expectations of life within the synagogue. My continuing disagreement with some of our members is over the extent to which our values are reflected in this room during prayer. If we are inclusive of all Jews outside this room, why are we not inclusive of them in it? Do we exist for the law or does it exist for us? I’ll be going into that topic in detail on Kol Nidrei. For now, I will simply remind us all that a wonderful opportunity exists to do teshuvah in the area of consistency: God, forgive us for insisting on the rights we want for ourselves while denying them to others. Forgive us for emphasizing the letter of the law while trampling its spirit. Forgive us for excluding other Jews from participation in communal life when we should be welcoming them in, training them, befriending them.

The shul some joined here in 1970 is certainly not the one we are in today. That is simply the way of the world. As others have said before me, let’s make it the place not of our grandparents’ dreams, but of our grandchildren’s. Let’s make it a place where every Jew feels welcome, has access to the kind of Jewish experience they are seeking, can make Jewish friends and can experience Jewish time. Let’s build a place where we can discuss the ideas and the practices that mark us off as a people distinct from other groups, while overlooking what distinguishes us from one another. Let’s build a place where our concern for those not yet here matches, or even outshines, the memory of what was once here. Let’s build the American Judaism of 2051.

G'mar chatimah tovah.

Havdalah Services

 

EBJC comes together for Havdalah every Saturday night.

We are looking for volunteers to lead this service each week.

Please speak to Rabbi Pivo or Cantor Larry if you're interested in volunteering.

Logistics for Havdalah this week can be found on the Online Events Page.

Tue, November 30 2021 26 Kislev 5782