Thursday, October 1, 2020

BELONGING - Rosh Hashana 1

“In the late Summer of 1940. the exact date in not known, five men from Arlington held a meeting at the home of Mr. and Mrs. Samuel Friedman to organize a congregation for the High Holidays. Herman Schwarzman was elected president and Samuel Friedman, Treasurer. The other charter member were: Harry Austin, Michael Honick and Frank Kahn.

The first High Holiday services were held that year in the Aston Heights Women’s Club building. Rabbi Goldman of Washington conducted the services at which 66 Jews from Arlington attended.” These are the opening lines of a document given to me telling the history of this Congregation.

It is my honor to start my first official Dvar Torah celebrating our 80th birthday as a community. While I have just arrived a couple months ago, it feels like I already BELONG to this very special group of people. And this is how it started. A group of people.

Interestingly, in the English language, people is also the word to represent a specific collective, like the Jewish People. My one-word-blessing for tonight is BELONG. The blessing of belonging to the Jewish People and to this amazing community.

Rabbi Mordechai Kaplan, one of my favorite authors of the last century, talks about the changes from what he saw as traditional religion to a new model that he was describing. In his understanding, traditional religion starts from a place of BELIEVING and goes to a place of BEHAVING until one can actually BELONG to that community, to that people. Kaplan talks about the three B’s: BELIEVING - BEHAVING - BELONGING.

In his idea of the traditional religion, we would start from believing in something. A divine call. A metaphysical event that will change someone’s understanding of how the world works. This person would feel compelled to share it with others, as this is a divine message.

This divine message requires a certain BEHAVIOR to be followed. Whether the behavior is social, ritual, or theological, one needs to do something about it. One person starts behaving according to this divine message. Sharing the message with others who begin to BEHAVE in the same way and keep sharing the message.

A BELIEF led into a specific BEHAVIOR of individual people. There was no meeting, protocols, committees, bylaws. Nothing. Just a divine message, a BELIEF, transformed into BEHAVIOR. After you have a group of people who BELIEVE in the same thing and BEHAVES in the same way, they will form a community. A community is a group of people who feel that they BELONG together. Kaplan’s innovation is to understand that, at least for modern Jews, this process actually works in the reverse order.

For Kaplan the key element of the Jewish Community is BELONGING. First, we BELONG. Then, we will learn shared BEHAVIORS, practices, customs, and, of course, traditions. Our engagement with our community begins from a communal sense of BELONGING and moves into being part of a group where I can practice OUR traditions. I didn’t sign a contract that requires me to believe in anything.

I’m just a part of this community for who I AM, and now, also for what I DO.

Let me share a story with you.

A few months ago, I was teaching a group of kids about the beginnings of Judaism. I asked the group: “Who was the first Jew?”. A young girl said: “Adam!”. Surprised with the answer, I said: “I don’t think Adam had any religion. Judaism started a little bit later.” Even more surprised than I was, she looked at me and said: “If Adam had no religion, who would take care of him? Where would he go to?” Religion isn’t the only way to create a welcoming community that cares for each other deeply. But Judaism did not start as a religion, but a group of people who got together to pursue a common goal. Before being a religion, Judaism is the result of a collective of individuals who care deeply for each other.

What I want to tell you today is very simple. We live in community and it is good to stay together. We should strengthen our relationships, help to ensure that we are all safe, nourish our communal care for each other, and share common values and practices.

We are living in times where people are desperate for belonging, either we are aware of it or not. This is not something to be taken lightly, but a serious issue that invites us to rethink the way we relate to each other and how we should create our communities.

Jews have stayed together as a community for thousands of years because we know, that life is better if we are not alone. Over the past 6 months, we felt the real need for community like never before. The need to isolate ourselves in order to take care of each other is a new a very strange concept to many of us. The challenge we faced then and still face now is how to remain connected, how to create community, how to feel that we BELONG somewhere, when we have been isolated from each other. As Jews, we are not protected from this challenge. Still, I want to invite you to face it and find ways to overcome it in the light of our tradition.

Today, we celebrate the day that 5 families got together here in Arlington to start this community. Today, we celebrate that 80 years ago, 66 Jews from Arlington attended a High Holiday service. The Pirkei Avot (5:21) teaches: “Eighty is the age of Gevurah, Strength”. There is no best word to describe our mission for this year. We are stronger when we are together.

When the Torah tells the story of Adam, the first human being, it teaches that it is not good for us to be alone, thus, Eve joins Adam in this world. We have rituals that celebrate every stage of our lives, from sharing our children’s names at a communal celebration, to celebrating our commitment with our people’s tradition in a public ceremony, by taking on the responsibilities of adulthood. We celebrate love and friendship, as well as we support each other in the hardest times of our lives, mourning and being present with each other. This is not accidental, nor frivolous. It is part of our communal DNA. Just like a family, whether we always get along or not, we stay together.

Today we celebrate the birth of humanity. Today we celebrate that is not good to be alone. Today we celebrate our community, in whatever shape or form it takes as we struggle to find ways to stay connected, to tell each other: you and I BELONG here.   So my blessing to you today, on this Rosh Hashana, as we celebrate that hundreds of Jew gathered virtually to take care of each other for the new year of 5781 is: BELONG - be part of this amazing Community. Nothing can be done without you. You are the most important asset we have as a community because without you we have no community.

May it be God’s will that we overcome the challenges ahead of us, staying together, taking care of each other.

May this year be a year of blessings for this incredible community and for each one of its members.

Shabbat Shalom

Shana Tova uMetuka

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