Address to Congregational Meeting, June 11, 2020, Rabbi Lauren Grabelle Herrmann, SAJ-Judaism that Stands for All
The Talmud tells the following story. Soon after the destruction of the second Temple in Jerusalem — an event that could have ended this fledgling religion altogether — Rabbi Yehoshua — a leading sage at the time — encountered some who had in the wake of that destruction become ascetics.They refused to eat meat and to drink wine.
Rabbi Yehoshua inquired of them: My children, he said, why do you no longer eat meat and drink wine?
They said: How can we eat meat- the same meat that was sacrificed or drink wine which was poured as a libation on an altar that has ceased to exist?
Rabbi Yehoshua answered: Well, if this is the case, perhaps you should no longer eat bread, because of the meal offerings that were offered.
They said: Yes, you are correct! We will make do with produce!
Rabbi Yehoshua returned: How can you eat fruit, when we can no longer do the ceremony of first fruits?
They said: You are right! We will make do with just drinking water.
Rabbi Yehoshua said to them: What about the water ceremony in the Temple? Will you not drink water because of this?
Then, they were silent.
Rabbi Yehoshua called them forth and said: My children! Not to mourn is impossible — so much is lost. But to mourn too much is also impossible because the community cannot withstand it!
Rabbi Yehoshua’s words ring so true for us today.
It is impossible not to mourn. We feel grief and sadness because many of us-and so many others- have spent the last few months alone or not been able to see loved ones- friends, family, parents, grandchildren- for months. Because our children have lost time for learning and friendships and growth. There is grief because so many people, including relatives, colleagues, and friends, have succumbed to COVID. We are also saddened because the structural inequality of our society has been laid bare before us and because America has not confronted its legacy of racism and white supremacy and people have to take to the streets in the midst of a pandemic to fight or justice.
At the same time, as Rabbi Yehoshua wisely instructs: to mourn too much is also impossible. Because it is not good for the community, it will not enable us to thrive. Because we need to move forwards.
Rabbi Yehoshua was part of a rag tag group of early rabbinic sages who had the chutzpah, the brilliance, and the ingenuity to enable people to hold onto memory while also embracing the present in order to create a future. When the entire way of understanding God, religion, deed came crumbling down along with the walls of the Temple, these were the people who said: God doesn’t want our sacrifice in physical form, God desires prayer and gemilut hasadim, acts of lovingkindness. Whereas Judaism was all about the physical space, they asserted that the temple was in our hearts and in our homes. Were it not for their imagination and commitment, it is fair to say that the Jewish people as we know it would never have been born into existence and we would not be sitting here tonight.
With humility, I would like to say that we at SAJ are following in their footsteps. When the reality of COVID hit, we embraced this new challenge and paradigm shift in front of us, and we adapted and re-envisioned. With less humility I will say: we did so faster and more seamlessly than most other organizations I am aware of. Within three days, we not only shifted our current programming online, we responded to the needs of the moment, with new avenues for prayer, community building — making our online community a refuge and a stronghold for our members.
And if this were not enough, we did so while always setting our mind to being a “Judaism that Stands for All.” We looked for who was missing and how we could include them. We reached out individually and trained SAJ members 1 by 1 on Zoom. We ensured that every person in the synagogue got phone calls and that these were regular for those who were more alone or at risk.
It is important to note: one of the reasons we have been strengthened during COVID is because SAJ has grown in size, spirit, vibrancy so much in the past year. This fall, we had begun to see the fruits of hard work of rebranding and community building over the past four years. Fifteen (!) new families joined Makom and overwhelmingly, they opted to be part of our Saturday community through Pela, classes, services, social groups, and staying for kiddush. We started living our Judaism in new and personal ways as we explored Tikkun Middot and the character trait of the month. We made our community more welcoming through education around gender and sexuality. More significant than any initiative was how many times I heard things like “I have been looking a synagogue like this my whole life!” “My kids never want to leave.” We have been able to make this transition online because our community was already so strong and relationships so deep.
Rabbi Yehoshua taught us that it is impossible to mourn too much. And I want to suggest that perhaps he understood this because he lived in community, with other rabbis and sages who learned together, prayed together, and planned for the future together. In this vein, I want to offer that community is and can be what enables us to move forward, find hope, and inspire action even when we may feel grief and despair.
When we see the faces of the youngest members of our community and elders lighting candles each Friday on our Zoom candlelighting; when we pause and “see each other” on our Zoom Shabbat services; when teens gather two times a week (!) and Makom families sing along with tefilah joyfully; when we listen to one another in our cohort-based support groups; when we join for daily prayer, meditation or study; — we are reminded of a beautiful truth: that we do not walk through this world alone; that we are carried and carry others along with us.
I invite each of us to think about how over the past few months our experiences with or connection to SAJ helped us feel less alone; more grounded and connected, more hopeful, more joyful.
I want to also say: we have not let this Pandemic stop us from our forward momentum and we will continue to build a bright future for ourselves. Cantor Lisa, Debra, and I are hard at work dreaming up High Holidays in this new format and while it will certainly be different, we know it will be beautiful and connective. We will explore ways to go deeper with our exploration of race and racism at SAJ and will be sharing more soon about efforts in non-partisan voter turnout specifically with those who were purged from the voting rolls. Next year, I will launch an Adult B/Remitzvah Cohort. After the holidays, we will begin this year to plan for our 100th anniversary which we want to have ripple effects on our synagogue but also our city and the broader Jewish community.
SAJ is a Judaism that Stands for All, and what we do matters deeply. We will keep strengthening, deepening and dreaming up our future together, in times of abundance and in challenging times. I end with the words of Psalm 90:
וִיהִ֤י ׀ נֹ֤עַם אֲדֹנָ֥י אֱלֹהֵ֗ינוּ עָ֫לֵ֥ינוּ וּמַעֲשֵׂ֣ה יָ֭דֵינוּ כּוֹנְנָ֥ה עָלֵ֑ינוּ וּֽמַעֲשֵׂ֥ה יָ֝דֵ֗ינוּ כּוֹנְנֵֽהוּ׃
May the favor of the Lord, our God, be upon us; let the work of our hands prosper, O prosper the work of our hands!