Ma HaAvodah HaZot: What is this sacred work to you? Stepping into the Next Century at SAJ

Lauren Grabelle Herrmann
9 min readFeb 8, 2023

Rabbi Lauren Grabelle Herrmann, Delivered January 28, 2023

On January 27, 1922, SAJ held its first Shabbat service, a few doors down at 41 West 86th Street, ten days after the Society for the Advancement of Judaism had been established.

On January 29, 2022, SAJ inaugurated its Centennial Year. In the midst of a snowstorm and Covid, SAJers miraculously found their way to this sanctuary and many more joined on Zoom. And with Rabbis Deborah Waxman and Michael Strassfeld, local pastors and friends of SAJ, and with elected officials in person and online (including a spontaneous blessing to Rabbi, I mean Representative Jerry Nadler!), we marked the significance of the moment with SAJ’s signature mix of reverence and joy, with kavod (honor) for our past and with determination and hope for the future.

And today, one year later, we gather for SAJ’s 101st anniversary.

As we prepare ourselves to walk boldly into the next century of SAJ, I want to invite us to ask an important question. It’s not a new question — it’s an ancient one. It comes, in fact, from this week’s Torah portion, Bo.

As the ancient Israelites receive instruction for the first Passover observance in human history, the Torah asks a question, “Ma HaAvodah HaZot Lachem? “What is this service/this holy work to you?” (Exodus 12)

In the context of the parsha, this question is surprising and instructive. The people hear this while they are still slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt. They are dreaming of and praying for freedom, which should be coming imminently. The word “Avodah” here is not random — Avodah means “service” but also this root can be used for service as a slave.

At this moment, the people are hearing that while soon they will not be slaves to Pharaoh, their freedom will not mean “vacation” or “freedom to do what they want” rather freedom to serve. Their life will be filled with obligations to God/something Higher and as they will soon learn, to one another and the community as a whole. Their future life will be one of sacred service.

Further, they learn that their service will need to mean something not only for themselves, but for their children and the generations to come. For in the text, it is not God who asks the people “Ma HaAvodah HaZot Lachem” — the narrator puts this question onto the lips of future generations. According to this Torah passage, it is your children that will ask you “Ma HaAvodah HaZot Lachem” — and you will need to answer them.

This question is a source for how we structure the Passover seder, as a teaching to the children about what the story of exile and freedom has meant to our ancestors and to us. It is a question among the generations that never has one answer; a conversation that continues dor l’dor — generation to generation- ad olam- forever.

As such, the question of Parshat Bo is not only one for the ancient Israelites. It is one which every generation has to answer. It is one each and every individual can answer in their own way.

So, I ask it of all of us today as we move into the next century, I invite us to think for ourselves: What does this sacred service- of Judaism, of community, of SAJ — mean to us? What do we want it to mean for the broader community and the world?

Let’s start by taking a moment to pause, look back and consider what the holy work of SAJ’s year has meant to us as a synagogue and to our broader community. Following in the metaphorical footsteps of the Divine, let us marvel at all that has been created and accomplished and acknowledge “this is very good.”

In the past year:


We brought more joy and beauty into our lives and into the world this past year. We began the year dancing a horah in the middle of a snowstorm. We sang along with former cantors and also created new works of music that will bless the entire Jewish people, with Cantor Lisa’s original song “Hineni” about the first bat mitzvah/breaking barriers and with a new original song Baruch HaBah, commissioned for our 100th anniversary. And at the SAJ gala, we embodied the truth that joy is not a luxury, it is fuel for our work of community building and tikkun olam (repair of the world).


We began to see ourselves the way that historians see us: an institution that changed the landscape of Jewish history. Thanks to the behind the scenes work of our scholars and archivists, editors, interviewers and our artists and tech wizards, we have brought our history to life through a visual exhibit, one of its kind interactive virtual exhibits, member reflections. And throughout this year, we have conducted new oral histories interviews that over the next few months will become available online to our community.


We made the Jewish community a more equitable and more inclusive place through the 100th anniversary. (Repeat) When we created a national celebration of the first ever bat mitzvah, that happened within six weeks of the start of SAJ, we did not simply mark a historic event.

We brought it to life through the creative and amazing @judithkaplan1922 instagram story project, a far reaching social media campaign that included famous Jews like Mayim Bialik posting their bat mitzvah stories.

SAJ and Bat Mitzvah were featured in the LA Jewish Journal, Teen Vogue, the podcast Chutzpod and so much more. We co-created the national Rise Up Shabbat with the Jewish Women’s Archive, engaging 19 National Jewish organizations of all denominations as partners.

As a result, hundreds of communities across the country and even across the world, recognized and celebrated the role of girls and women in transforming American Judaism.

We provoked conversations in congregations and among Jewish leaders about how to expand this Jewish coming of age for non-binary and transgender youth, expanding the boundaries of Jewish tradition just like Mordecai Kaplan did in order for his daughters to have a place in Jewish community.


We became a stronger community, engaging a record number of 153 volunteers in our centennial efforts. As when Moses asks for contributions from the community and the community responds beyond his dreams, so too have we been overwhelmed by the generosity of this community and affirmed in the knowledge that each individual contribution matters to the whole.


We contributed to the ongoing conversation of Jewish people, adding our voices to a conversation that spans generations. Through tishes, guest speakers, our impressive Symposium, and forums, we brought teachers of great renown to help us probe the big questions of Judaism of today and the Judaism of tomorrow. Through the many forums we held in the year, SAJ engaged in the ballpark of 1000 distinct individuals — members, alumni, Reconstructionists across the country, and other curious folks — in these vital conversations.

When I first came to SAJ, I often heard long-time members describe SAJ as “the best kept secret on the Upper West Side.” I think we can safely say that after this spectacular year and all we accomplished and all the places we have reached — the secret is out! Now, we have to keep it that way!

Now let’s return to the question of our parsha: “Ma HaAvodah HaZot Lachem?” What does this service of community mean to you?

The Centennial Steering Committee, our board, clergy and staff team saw our 100th year not only as a time of celebration but also a time of building for our future, for that next generation. We have been asking our community essentially that question and have been developing a campaign developed in response to the many conversations we have had over the past year or more.

Today, we are stepping forward to announce the second phase of SAJ’s Next Century Campaign. The campaign brings forward the vision we developed together to advance Judaism by embodying a “Judaism that Stands for All” and as is written on our website a “school where kids run towards and a synagogue where all can come for Shabbat, study, and social justice.”

“Shabbat, study, and social justice.”

The campaign will first ensure that we can come together in this space, in our 100 year old building, for Shabbat and other gatherings. This space is a holy one. For many, it is not simply a place where we meet, it is a place where you got married or celebrated an important milestone in our life. It is where we can experience the living community and feel the presence of those whom we have lost. Improvements to the building will enable the next generation to create their own sacred memories of this space.

The campaign will next ensure that our young people can gather to study, specifically through our Pela and Makom community. We are blessed to have a thriving, intergenerational community, a school that kids really do run towards and one where parents sometimes have a hard time getting them to leave at the end of Kiddush. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if more people knew about our inclusive, serious, values-driven, and joyful educational model that fosters belonging for the whole family? Wouldn’t it be fantastic if we not only wait for people to come to our doors, rather we meet them “where they are?”

Through broader outreach and new public space programming, we will cultivate a new generation that can answer the question “what is the meaning of SAJ to you.”

And third, the campaign will ensure we can join together to pursue social justice. SAJ will establish a “Tzedek Lab” that will consider programs, staffing, educational initiatives and partnerships to make a greater impact in our neighborhood, city and country.

In a time of encroaching fascism that leads to increased marginalization, what would it be like to stand up as a Jewish community for democracy and freedom?

In a time of raging anti-Semitism, what would it look like to strengthen the interfaith relationships that protect us and other marginalized groups? What would it be like if future generations that come long after we are here can tell the stories of how we left the world better than we found it?

It is important to be clear- these pieces are not the whole of SAJ. And they do not in any way diminish our ongoing commitment to arts and culture, services/spirituality, adult learning which we will continue to grow and strengthen.

We chose these because they are three building blocks that help us become a Judaism that Stands for All, and ones that allow the conversations about the service of Judaism to continue to the next generations.

At the very end of services, we will be handing out the SAJ Next Century Campaign Case for Giving, so you can read more about our hopes and dreams for this campaign.

And now…

Time for an exciting announcement: Because a centennial anniversary only comes every one hundred years, we set an ambitious fundraising goal: 1.5 Million dollars, with individuals giving over 3 years.

Words cannot properly express how excited, appreciative, and proud I am to share that members of the SAJ community have so far committed nearly $1Million dollars to our Next Century Campaign. $925,700 to be exact.

For those who have been asked and pledged, we thank you. For those who have not been approached yet, we are not asking you for a donation today.

Over the next five or so months, we are going to reach out to people individually and in small groups to ask you: What does the work of this sacred community mean to you? What is this avodah lachem? What from these three areas speaks most to your connection to SAJ and to the legacy you want to leave for the conversation between generations of people who walk through our doors.

In the spirit of SAJ, we are aiming for as close to 100% participation as possible. We want you to help us build our future, no matter the size of your donation.

Before we close, take one more step back:

We are poised to enter into the next century with renewed strength, vision, purpose, and confidence. I hope everyone here, whether you are here for 6 months or 50 years, is so proud of what we have accomplished.

I hope that everyone is finding in their hearts an answer or an emerging answer as to what this service, what this holy place means to you.

I am excited to learn from you and to partner with you so that we can continue to make SAJ a blessing for us, for the children of the congregation and for generations to come.

Invite everyone to please rise as I offer the most ancient blessing, the priestly blessing (making some contact, tallitot).

Yevarechecha Adonai Veyishmerecha

May we be blessed and held in safety

Y”sah Adonai Panav Elecha

May the DIvine shine light upon us and through us

Ya’er adonai panav elecha v’yasem l’cha shalom

Through our service in community, may we find sustenance, peace, and wholeness, Amen.