Since I started officially in July, my time has been spent getting to know just what it is that makes Temple Emanu-El special. I have had the pleasure to get to know the front office and custodial staff, learning just how much work it takes the folks behind the scenes to keep our temple running, I have gotten to work with Jewish professionals I’m proud to have on my team. From sharing the bimah and crafting T’filah with Kelly, to traveling with Abi our educator to camp Tamarack to see our kids at camp, planning for the school year and crafting the best programs we can offer to our students, I have spent the last couple months getting to know the team. I have also had the distinct pleasure to begin hearing directly from you, members and stakeholders in this special congregation. I have heard the love you have poured into your temple home, the joys and frustrations you have encountered, and the hopes and dreams of a vision of this community.
I met descendants of the Lieberman family who originally donated the land upon which our building sits and what this patch of land we sit on once looked like. I heard the tale of the new suburban congregation, the first in the area to be established in the suburbs, and its growth alongside the city of Oak park.
I have heard from founding members, and their children and grandchildren about the love they have for this place, this community, the joy they have taken in building us up…
It may seem strange to hear this coming from me… As many of you know I myself have a deep history with this congregation. I was raised here. I was given my first opportunity to be a Jewish leader here. My Judaism was shaped here. From my earliest memories learning and playing with the Early Childhood community to being called to Torah on for the first time on this very bimah to this moment today, my place// my Judaism // has been forged by the opportunities given to me by, and my interactions with, my Temple Emanu-El family.
As I have traveled my path and grown as a person and as a rabbi, I came to understand that which motivates my Judaism. As I served congregations from Seminole Oklahoma, to McGehee Arkansas, Chicago Illinois, Petoskey Michigan Cincinnati Ohio to Kalamazoo, I have had the privilege to hear and witness how countless individuals connect with their Judaism and how their communities have shaped that view:
For some, it is the definition of the name of our people Yisrael – The people who wrestle with G-d – That which has honed our tradition over the generations – learned Jews debating and discussing law, Torah, commentary, and not accepting law stam – just because, but striving to learn more and to understand more deeply what tradition can teach us.
For others their connection comes from being together with other Jews –learning, and praying, but more importantly and centrally to those individuals, being in community, and yes, eating in community.
Yet others connect with our rich liturgical tradition, and the connection that tradition gives to us, to Jewish communities across the world and across the generations. The idea that we are speaking the same words, praying in ways similar to our ancestors over years of history is a beautiful and comforting piece of connection to many.
I connect with pieces of all of these approaches. I love the communal aspect of our tradition, where we lift up those who need lifting up and celebrate with those celebrating. I connect with learning and growing our knowledge of tradition, and the wisdom of the rabbis, I enjoy and deeply connect with speaking the prayers our forebearers spoke when they prayed.
I heard from so many, and experienced such varied expressions of Judaism forged in, and reflecting of, the communities in which they were developed, I couldn’t help but try to enumerate in what ways I connect most deeply to my Judaism.
I know that my Judaism interacts with the world around it – when something in the world is happening, I want to understand what my tradition teaches about how to understand and interact with it.
I know that my Judaism dictates action when I encounter injustice. Action to tikkun HaOlam, repair my world. Action to publicly declare the values we hold most dear, as an Or L’Goyim, a light among the nations.
My Judaism is that which Abraham Joshua Heschel spoke of after marching with Dr. Martin Luther King in Alabama. Rabbi Heschel was asked upon his return when did you have time to pray when you were down in Alabama? Rabbi Heschel replied: For many of us the march from Selma to Montgomery was about protest and prayer. Legs are not lips and walking is not kneeling. And yet our legs uttered songs. Even without words, our march was worship. I felt my legs were praying.
My Judaism is the Judaism that prays with its legs and feet, one that stands up for what our tradition teaches to be just. My Judaism is one that fights for the rights of those whose rights are under attack. My Judaism is one that remembers the most often-repeated phrase in Torah – no fewer than 36 times – is the reminder that we were once strangers in a strange land, and that we must act as protectors of those strangers –in our midst, protectors of those most in need of protection.
My Judaism is that which Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook (First Ashkenazi chief rabbi of mandatory Palestine)spoke of when he said I don’t speak because I have the power to speak, I speak because I don’t have the power to remain silent.
This connection to my Judaism didn’t come from nowhere, and it didn’t develop overnight, so from where did it come?
I decided to take a journey down the path of the temple’s
historical record, the temple newsletter. We have almost all of them, dating back to January 1 st 1954, when the newsletter of the Suburban Temple of Greater Detroit was in its 3 rd volume, and the congregation was planning its 2 nd anniversary.
Years of newsletters, learning of the joyous occasions marked with the Congregation Emanuel community, reading of the fundraisers to finally build a building, then an education wing. I read the topics of sermons, the guest speakers and guest sermons, study sessions, classes and various programs and columns from the rabbis.
I saw a congregation dedicated to the vibrancy of the Jewish community in their corner of the world. I saw a congregation thirsty to engage with their community through interfaith services and discussions on topics of common interest.
I saw a congregation proudly sharing their rabbi’s outreach in the community – in one newsletter, from January 15, 1954 it was shared that Rabbi Rosenthal delivered the annual Christmas message at the Drayton Ave 1 st Presbyterian church in Ferndale, participated in at least two interfaith panels, addressed the Berkley women’s club and City Commission of Royal Oak. He taught classroom sessions at Albion College, was invited to be chapel speaker at Hillsdale College and he was appointed a member of the commission of the United Foundation of Southern Oakland County and that isn’t all of it.
As I took a trip through the Temple’s historical record, it
became clear to me just exactly from where my vision of Judaism comes, it comes from this very place. From its earliest days – days before there was even a building to call our own – this congregation strived to be a voice to help its membership understand how the Judaism of Temple Emanuel could interact with the world in which it exists, a congregation that welcomed and lauded their rabbi’s work in the community to build relationships, teach about who we are, and to be an active and engaged member of the larger faith community. From the board passing a resolution in support of the state Fair Housing Act in 1968, to welcoming speakers on topics in 1968 such as Jews and the Negro Revolution, and Making Judaism meaningful to our children, one can’t go very far into this archive of newsletters without seeing the focus of the new suburban congregation in Oak Park- the young temple Emanuel – committed to a vibrant Judaism, while maintaining commitment to being engaged in the world around.
A thirst for knowledge and justice. Speaking up and speaking out. Taking a stand for justice in our world, from the civil rights movement to supporting fledgling former soviet Jewish communities, our congregation’s roots are deeply planted in striving to understand our world and to work to improve it.
It is time we honor those roots. It’s time we remind ourselves of that which has brought us to this point in time. We have been, from the beginning, a community focused on bettering our world and working for the whole community, and it’s time to remind ourselves that we are stronger when we engage with the world around us, when we pray with our legs, our feet, our entire bodies and use our minds to understand how our Judaism flavors that prayer.
Kabbalistic thought, mystical thought, teaches that, when God created the world, God wanted to send God’s light to us, and did so in special vessels. But God’s light and power was too much for these vessels and instead of containing the light, they shattered into infinitely small shards, scattering God’s light all over the world, for us to find. Those shards of God are found everywhere, and we find them when we endeavor to fix the world’s brokenness. It is up to each of us to find those shards of divinity in our world, and the more people we can help devote to finding God’s light in a world seemingly growing darker, the closer to divinity we as a community grow.
Traditionally our efforts to engage with our community have come out of our Social Action Committee. The truth is, our world is in deep need of a lot of our work and love. The truth is our social action should not be relegated to only one committee but should permeate all that we do. The truth is there is so much work to be done, and so many places where I know you personally see work that needs to be done that this model may not be the answer.
In order to broaden the ability for us to encourage all who want to be involved to be connected, we are going to try something new. We will still have our social action committee to work on ongoing projects and help us retain our focus as a congregation on social justice, and we are going to help blossom into something bigger. We will be instituting interest groups around the areas of engagement you want to be involved in.
Do you know of a program or effort that you think the temple should be involved in? Do you see a need in our community that isn’t being addressed? This is your chance to make your mark, and we want to foster that.
Do you want to help get out the vote in November? Do you want to work to support refugee and immigrant families as they try to find a piece of the American dream? Do you want to help make our environmental footprint smaller? Do you want to help your congregational family to learn how to live in a more environmentally sustainable way? This new model will help us to offer as broad opportunities as we can to engage with our greater community, to put our Judaism into action.
You may be saying this sounds a lot like a chavura, a smaller informal study and prayer group – you’d be right. The chavura model is a wonderful way for groups within a larger community to fine-tune their involvement in their community and I believe it is a model that can work well for social engagement as well.
As your rabbi, I am committed to speaking clearly for the values we hold to be vital to our uniquely American Judaism. Like Rabbi Kook, I do not speak merely because I can, I will speak up when I do because I cannot remain silent. Your engagement, your care about your community, your desire to repair your world, these actions all speak louder than any words I may deliver and your efforts will only help us to find even more sparks of divinity around us.
I understand that we cannot do everything and be everything to everybody. For as much work as we can put into our community, there will forever be more to do. But with a new approach to engagement we can help you to find the place you want to be involved, and to bring along your fellow temple family members to repair one small corner of our world.
As we begin the new year, I pray that our commitment to tikkun haOlam, repairing the world be reenergized in a world more in need of engaged, compassionate individuals willing to pray with their feet and remembering our roots as a congregation and as a movement.
The world is a different place than it was 60 years ago 40 years ago – 20 years ago. Even ten. But who we are as a community remains rooted in who we have always been – a family of families who care about each other and the world around us and who want to make the world better than how we found it. It’s time to reignite the fires of social justice that has been the mark of this congregation from its founding, and let us strive to live the words found in the book of Amos: Let justice roll down like water, righteousness like a mighty stream.