In the summer of 2013, I left a wonderful congregation in North Carolina to pursue an exciting opportunity on the staff of Gann Academy in Massachusetts. Many of the rabbis I work with at Gann Academy take on added responsibilities during the High Holy Days, helping out at Hillels, chavurot, and synagogues in the Boston area. As we swapped sermon ideas and commiserated over cantillation, my colleagues were surprised to learn that I’d be spending the holidays with Temple Emanu-El of Longview, Texas as part of the ISJL’s “Rabbis on the Road” program.
Though I am familiar with the South, even I wasn’t sure what to expect from a community that would fly in a rabbi from 1,700 miles away, sight unseen, to lead their High Holy Day services. As I left the airport, speeding down Route 20 from Dallas, Kol Nidre playing on the rental car stereo, I realized that, for the first time, I was leading the entire High Holy Day service, and I had no idea what the minhag ha-makom [local custom] was in East Texas.
As soon as I arrived in Longview, however, I found everything I could have hoped for in a community: open and supportive, warm and welcoming. And in addition to the southern hospitality I’d been missing in Boston, I discovered one of the most dedicated collections of lay leaders I have ever encountered.
Though the Jewish population of Longview has dwindled over the years, a small cadre of dedicated families has maintained their synagogue both physically and spiritually. The temple building is not only immaculately kept, but also frequently put to use. While rabbinical leadership has diminished from full-time to biweekly to occasional visits from the ISJL, Temple Emanu-El continues to hold lay-led Shabbat services and dinners nearly every week.
Temple Emanu-El doesn’t just serve the longstanding members of the Longview community. As the only synagogue in a 40-mile radius, Jews – and the many, many local friends of the Jewish community – came in from the surrounding communities of Marshall and Kilgore. On both Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, I noticed young couples, new to town and far from home, joining the community for the first time.
Many families had a tradition of inviting their children and grandchildren to spend one of the holidays with them, and more than one family had three generations present at our Yom Kippur service. Practically every synagogue I’ve been to offers separate programming for children, so I was curious as to what the young people would get out of the service. Would they be bored? How would they respond to a worship experience that was not designed for them?
There were some naps, and yes, there were some meltdowns. But there were also helpers at Havdallah, Judaic crayon art created during the sermons, and exuberant demonstrations of cheer routines during the break-fast. Instead of feeling like the rabbi of a very small congregation, I started to feel like a member of a very large family.
My favorite moment of my visit was when, at the end of the Kol Nidre service, at nearly ten o’clock in the evening and following a lengthy, aimed-at-adults sermon, two young sisters shyly approached the bimah, nudging each other and whispering.
“You tell her!”
“No, you tell her.”
Finally, one of them said, “In part of your sermon, you were talking about Jonah, but you said Noah.”
So, they were paying attention…
Celebrating the holidays with Temple Emanu-El certainly kept me on my toes. It also showcased the dedication, commitment, and attention to detail of a community I might not otherwise have had a chance to meet. I headed home feeling that the Jewish future is in good hands. And that’s a great way to start the New Year.
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Throughout the high holiday season, we think a lot about judgment. It’s a heavy word, and also a word that brings to mind lots of possibilities. In the month of Elul, God is judging us to see what we have done in the past year and what will happen to us in the future. Knowing this we reflect and pass judgment on ourselves and, often, others.
I am going to borrow a phrase from Rachel Stern’s #BlogElul post and say: life is about perspective. She used this phrase to encourage people to see things as blessings. Here, I’d like to remind everyone that our judgments are also a matter of perspective.
When I tell people I work for a Jewish organization in Mississippi I occasionally get a response like, “there can’t be a lot of Jews there!”… and it’s true that there are not as many Jews here as there are in New York or Los Angeles. But I am sad when people say things like “It’s great that you are helping those Jews, they must really need it.”
I think this statement reflects a judgment, intentional or not, lacking in firsthand knowledge. It also reflects a judgment about what a Jewish community should look like, that it should look one certain way, when in fact there are lots of different ways to build a Jewish community. The Jewish communities that I visit have rich Jewish lives, they just might not look like the life we know in New York or Los Angeles.
“Those Jews” don’t need judgment. None of us do—but we can all use support.
I also have to be careful of my own judgments. I am a visitor in the communities I serve as an ISJL Education Fellow, and it is my job to empower educators. It is not my place to judge what a community’s priorities should be, how they should spend their resources, or which values they should hold most dear. And it is also not fair for me to judge them against any other community, Northern or Southern. Each congregation is its own special place.
Throughout this month of Elul, as I begin my fall visits and my second year as a Fellow unfolds, I will have to evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of the communities with which I work, so that I can help them plan for a successful year. As I do this I am being extra careful to evaluate, but not to judge. I want to help each community be the very best versions of themselves, whatever that might be; evaluating their needs will help guide me to what support will be most helpful.
So, too, as we celebrate Rosh Hashanah, should we strive not to judge, but rather to evaluate. To take a personal inventory of what worked for us and against us in the past year, and how we can—and what support we need.
Each congregation I work with deserves respect, evaluation, and support—not judgment; each of us deserves the same. We are all “those Jews” who “really need” that!
It’s that time of year. The holidays are on my mind, and in my heart.
The sound of the Shofar for me is a primal calling, something that touches my soul as a beautiful and startling awakening. Each year I feel astonished that I have not even noticed my own drift into semi-conscious life until I hear that shofar and my mind, body and soul suddenly come together to shake me to my core.
How does it happen each year to slowly and imperceptibly drift into semi consciousness? I am so “busy” with life, that during the year a protective barrier forms somewhere between my soul and my mind and body to insulate me from this fully awakened state.
If the barrier was not there, could I live and be productive doing mundane tasks in everyday life? What if I could block the barrier from growing back? Would I then be able to fully realize the holiness in every task that I do? Would that kind of holy awareness be too much for me to handle all the time?
If I was fully aware of holiness all the time, would I lose the awe of the awakening?
How does a woman who believes in the truth of the Torah and all its’ teachings without believing it all as “fact” get moved to tears at the sound of Tekiah Gadola as the metaphorical gates are closing at the very end of Neilah Service? How has it happened year in and year out for so many years and yet still….. it surprises me?
These are just a few of the questions that I am asking myself this High Holy Day season in preparation for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, when I will sit in the pews at my home synagogue in New Orleans and be awakened again by the call of the shofar as a new year begins.
What questions are on your mind as you reflect throughout this holy season?
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