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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As we approach the winter holidays, one thing will likely dominate our minds: doors.
What? Doors weren’t the first thing on your mind? Come on! We just had the ringing of doorbells on Halloween; next up is the opening of doors to family and friends on Thanksgiving; and this year, that occasion will coincide with the rededication of the Temple’s doors, as we celebrate Hanukkah (and the mash-up “Thanksgivukkah” we keep hearing about).
Understanding that doors play a central place in our secular and religious lives, as the threshold to meaning and community, I wanted to share with you something interesting that I observed while visiting Temple Emanuel in Longview, Texas. There, the mezuzot are affixed to the left side of the doors, not the right; and, they lean outward as opposed to inward.
When I asked the co-president of this Reform congregation how they got into this “unorthodox” position, I was told a fascinating story. Originally, the mezuzot were on correctly. The doors, however, were not, as they opened inwards as opposed to outwards, which is the standard for all public buildings. Thus, the congregation was forced to turn the entire door frame around.
“But, what difference does the door’s direction really make?” I wondered. Then, it hit me! In cases of emergency, the doors in a public building need to open outward as to manage the rapid flow of people exiting. Go ahead. Look around you. I promise that you’ll notice that just about all public buildings’ doors open outward.
“So, where,” you may ask, “do they open inward?”
And here is where we find a powerful message. In outward-opening doors, a public space unconsciously imparts the message of departure and exclusion; whereas, our homes – through their inward opening doors – relates welcoming and inclusion. Likely, that was the original intent behind Emanuel’s construction: to be an extension of home, wherein all would be welcomed.
So as friends and family, neighbors and strangers, get poised to go from door to door this winter holiday season, let us keep in mind that every knock is a knock of opportunity. And, whether the door opens inward or outward, let’s just be mindful to keep it open to all.
Rabbi Klaven will be in Vicksburg, Mississippi.
Rabbi Dreffin will be in Longview, Texas.
In these communities, as in communities large and small throughout the world, Jewish people – and often their friends and neighbors – will come together to seek atonement, to reflect, and to prepare for a better year ahead.
Wherever you will be spending your holiday, we wish you a meaningful experience and a sense of community. May you be sealed in the Book of Life!
Where will you be for Yom Kippur?
(Photos of Vicksburg Confirmation Class and Longview’s Temple Emanu-El both from ISJL’s Encyclopedia of Southern Jewish Communities.)