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Gesher l’Ahteed – Bridge to the Future – Rosh Hashanah

September 21, 2017

Last night, I gave the first of what will be my last High Holy Day sermons as your rabbi. This morning I want to share with you my heartfelt optimism about our future as we prepare to welcome your next rabbi.

Our leaders on the Board of Trustees have created Gesher l’Ahteed/‘Bridge to the Future,’ and that phrase expresses the faith that all of us should have as we move forward.

My decision to retire on July 1, 2018 was made in the Spring of 2015, and it was the result of two considerations: {a} to find the right time to leave something I truly love – being your rabbi – to pursue other things while I hopefully have the health and energy to do so, and {b} to give you time to plan ahead.

On January 10th {2017}, you received letters from me and our president, Shelley Chamberlain, that announced my decision. Three days later, at the first Shabbat service following the letters’ arrival in your homes, I said, “Let me begin by answering three questions that I have been asked:



and “Yes.”


“Yes, I am well.”

“No, Susan and I are not moving.”

“Yes, I am very optimistic about the future of our congregation that you and I cherish.”

During these past nine months, I have been impressed, though not at all surprised, by everything you have done to ensure that everyone’s voice has been heard in our quest to find a new spiritual leader. ‘Open forums’ were followed by parlor meetings. Parlor meetings were followed by questions on our ‘Pulse survey’ seeking more input from you. Our leadership sought advice from other synagogues throughout the country, and their experiences in rabbinic searches was very helpful. An application was sent to the Rabbinical Placement Commission of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, the Reform Movement’s office through which all Reform rabbis request information about congregations seeking a rabbi.

The application provides information about our history, culture, size and location, as well as what you are looking for in a rabbi: the abilities, skill-sets and people-skills that you would like him or her to possess. There is no doubt in my mind that you will attract the interest of many rabbis eager to be interviewed for the position of spiritual leader of our wonderful “intimate and dynamic” congregation, located in one of the great cities in our country.

Speaking of great cities, I was raised at one of the most historic and influential synagogues in our country, Temple Emanuel in San Francisco. It was there that a moment arrived that set me on a path I had no idea I would embark upon. When I was in the sixth grade and studying for the celebration of my Bar Mitzvah the following year, my parents told me that I would be continuing to celebrate Confirmation at the conclusion of the 10th grade. That meant three more years of religious school. I did not have a choice. They were not going to let me opt out of Jewish study because of after-school sports, or AZA meetings and programs. I resisted my parents’ edict but to no avail, and I finally shouted, “Alright! I’ll do it, but afterwards the Jewish religion is not going to see much of me!” The message from my parents was clear and emphatic: commit to Jewish study, and be involved in the congregation’s commitment to social justice, Israel and Jews throughout the world.

These are the core values of our congregation’s ‘Vision Statement’ created at our inception in 1994, reviewed and reaffirmed throughout our history. This is what it says: “At [Kol Ami] the voice of our People, we are passionately committed to:

  • the survival of Jews, Judaism and the moral values of Jewish traditions
  • our sacred scriptures that nurture and define the Jewish soul and the myths, symbols and rituals that animate their message
  • strong bonds with Israel, recognizing the importance of the historic partnership between Israel and the Diaspora
  • ethical monotheism: there is one God whose essential demand of human beings is ethical behavior
  • the Torah, which eloquently expresses the awareness of human needs and the acceptance of responsibility for others, obligated to assist worldwide Jewry and all who are in need, no matter their faith or ethnicity: Tikun Olam
  • the creation of a religious community open to all
  • the recognition and celebration of the infinite value of life
  • the belief that learning is the key to Jewish identity and memory
  • experiencing Shabbat in personal ways to help create a sense of sacred space: a time with a different texture, a different pace, a different quality.

Congregation Kol Ami encourages its members to learn, celebrate and grow together so that each individual will have the fullest opportunity to share the beauty of Jewish expression.”

We have always been in such good hands: yours. From July 11, 1994, when ten families met with the goal of turning the dream of what we would now call “a religious start-up” into reality, we have been blessed with wonderful minds and hearts. In the decades that we have been together, I have been inspired by how you always roll up your sleeves and do the necessary work – a labor of love – to nurture and sustain our synagogue: our Board of Trustees and committee chairs; event planners and conveners of conferences; our Student and Adult Choirs, lifting our souls “higher and higher”; our dedicated core of Shabbat worshippers who make Torah personal and our discussions exciting; everyone who enters our sacred spaces to meet and greet, study, schmooze, pray and plan. You are the collective heartbeat that gives our congregation life, purpose and meaning.

Over these past nine months, I have developed an even greater appreciation for synagogue life viewed from where you sit since I will soon be in your midst. A colleague with whom I was ordained told me that at the moment of his ordination, Rabbi Fred Gottschalk, President of the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, “placed his hands on my shoulders and asked me if I was ready to become a rabbi. I replied, ‘No, but now I would make a good congregant.’ He replied, ‘Mazal tov, you’re a rabbi anyway.’” I am a rabbi about to become a congregant.

I am honored to have been your rabbi for the past 23 years. Ours is a magnificent congregation that has embraced creativity and championed change. We have been enriched by the presence and involvement of interfaith families, Jews by choice, and LGBTQ members. It was not so long ago that one would have needed to pause to explain what each of those letters refers to, but thankfully that is no longer true and here, especially, we are one. While in other places people build walls, we build bridges. Their cornerstones, dating to 1994, are labeled “love” and “respect,” “dignity” and “devotion.”

Over the years, you have created wonderful programs and conferences that have opened peoples’ minds and hearts within and beyond our sacred walls:

  • launched in 2007 and the first in our region, our Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program is aligned with Hazon, a national non-profit that links Jewish tradition with environmental action. Through CSA purchasing power, we support organic farmers in Lancaster, and enjoy the fruits and vegetables of their labors. CSA fosters a greater awareness about environmental issues from a Jewish perspective through classes and experiences, including our annual trek during Sukkot to Lancaster Farm Fresh to the home of one of the farm families where we break bread with them over potluck lunch and then join the farmers for a personal tour of the land they nurture through organic farming


  • in 2012 {October 21} we partnered with our Interfaith Dialogue Relationship group to host a symposium called ‘The Interfaith Roller Coaster: Navigating the Challenges, Enjoying the Ride” and welcomed New York Times bestselling writer Anita Diamant – author of ‘The Red Tent,’ and ‘The New Jewish Wedding’ and ‘How to Raise a Jewish Child’ – to address us. It was an inspired afternoon that spread the message of the importance of interfaith couples in our midst and what you mean to our congregation


  • in 2014 {December 7} we created an instrumental and groundbreaking conference – ‘Kindness Counts: Welcoming LGBTQ Jews and Their Loved Ones Into the Mishkan [the synagogue as an historic ‘tent of meeting’]’ – for people in our congregation, our community and Greater Philadelphia to offer learning and dialogue about welcoming and including LGBTQ Jews in synagogues that are safe spiritual homes


  • the ‘tent of meeting’ expands beyond the synagogue, and so three months later {March 26, 2015} we hosted a community-wide program that brought representatives of ‘Parents Circle Families Forum’ – a joint Israeli-Palestinian organization of more than 600 bereaved families whose common bond is that they have lost a close family member to the conflict. Instead of choosing revenge, they have chosen a path of reconciliation. Through dialogue, they have brought together tens of thousands of Israelis and Palestinians through their personal stories that opened minds and hearts. For many, it was the first time that they have seen “the other side” as human. That was certainly true for many who were present here that evening


  • last November {November 8, 2016}, on very short notice, we gathered as a congregation and larger community to pray, sing and speak on an evening called ‘A Time to be Together – Gathering to Express Hope the Day After the Election.’ It was apparent that a sea-change had occurred in America and many people wanted to express their concerns and their plans to re-engage with greater passion in communal endeavors to try to safeguard the American dream for all our citizens


  • that same month {November 13, 2016}, mindful of the success of our initial ‘Kindness Counts’ conference, we convened another conference called ‘Kindness Counts bet [the second letter of the Hebrew alphabet denoting the next step toward greater awareness] – Moving Beyond the Gender Boxes: Embracing Transgender and Non-Binary Jews, Their Loved Ones and Allies in the Mishkan.’


  • this past June {June 27, 2017} we hosted a communal gathering called ‘Immigration Rights in 2017: Community Challenges and Opportunities.’ A panel included a social worker and immigration attorneys, and they spoke about the legitimate fears that immigrants and refugees face in an America that is increasingly hostile to their presence, and what we can do to offer them hope and haven

Look at what you have done and continue to do! Those are snapshots, important ones to be sure, of what you create and offer within our sacred walls, and I have not even spoken about the important year-round work that goes on through the activities of our many committees on behalf of our children, youth and adults.

The vision to create these programs comes from you! You have developed and sustained a culture that embraces openness and dialogue. It is no surprise that welcoming people beyond our walls to teach and inspire within our walls is so easy: Rabbi Howard Bogot, Rabbi Seymour Rosenbloom, and Dr. Reena Friedman to our ‘Study at the Shul’ classes for adults; Phoenix Schneider, Director LGBTQ Initiative, Jewish Family and Children’s Service of Greater Philadelphia, to address our Board of Trustees, and lead workshops for our staff and religious school teachers; Pastor Ashley Rossi of Carmel Presbyterian Church who spoke so eloquently at our recent Second Seder. We have memories to cherish and the future to embrace, and a year’s worth of synagogue programs to enjoy.

The application to which rabbis will respond arrived at the Rabbinical Placement Commission of the Central Conference of American Rabbis last month, and after the High Holy Days colleagues will contact our search committee to set up times for Zoom interviews, and eventually candidates will be invited here to meet with you.

In the meantime, we will celebrate this year. I know that the celebration is on my behalf and I am grateful for it, but I really see it as celebrating us. Jewish prayer is almost always “we, us, our”:

  • Modeem anach’nu – ”We give thanks…”
  • Neh’kadeysh et shim’cha – ”We sanctify Your name [God]”
  • ah’sher kid’shahnu – ”Who has sanctified us”
  • Eloheinu vay’loh’hey avo’taynu v’ih’moh’taynu – ”Our God and the God of our fathers and mothers”
  • Hahsh’key’vaynu Adonai Ehlo’heynu l’shalom – ”Enable us to dwell in peace”
  • Sh’ma Kol’ay’nu – ”Hear our voice”
  • Avee’nu Mahl’kaynu

Not the singular, but plural. Not one, but many. We celebrate each other. We move ahead together.

The journey might be a bit bumpy at times because change is not always easy. Let’s talk to each other if we hit some hurdles along the way. I already have. This past December {December 4, 2016}, a month before you received the letter {January 10, 2017}, I stood on this bimah with new students in our religious school at their Consecration Service to welcome them to our synagogue. They received their Certificates of Consecration as well as small, replica Torah Scrolls and pieces of chocolate in the shapes of Hebrew letters. In previous years, I knew that I would have the pleasure of seeing them grow up in our midst and I would eventually stand with them to celebrate their Bar Mitzvah or Bat Mitzvah and Confirmation, but this will no longer be true. The recognition of that fact will be driven home again at our Consecration Service this coming November {November 12, 2017}. That’s just one example. Here is another. This past May {May 22, 2017} we celebrated the graduation of our LAMED students: children who grew up in our synagogue, celebrated their Bar/Bat Mitzvah services, were Confirmed in the tenth grade, and continued on to advanced Jewish study in the eleventh and twelfth grades. These are young adults whom I admire and cherish. They have just commenced college or a gap year experience, and I look back on our years together with such gratitude, as I will with students who will be celebrating their Bar/Bat Mitzvahs between now and June, and another group of students with whom I will stand at their Confirmation service next May, and our 12th grade LAMED students at their graduation that same month. Last laps, new beginnings.

There have also been lighter moments. I received a note from a student who had her Bat Mitzvah this past Spring. She wrote, “Not to immediately write you off, but we will all so deeply miss you when you retire.” It was such a wonderful, innocent way of conveying her sentiment, but a few weeks later someone a few decades older than her told to me that she felt herself pulling away from me because the thought of saying goodbye is difficult. I understand that. We can get through it better if we acknowledge the feelings we might experience over the next few months.

There are so many paths opening up before us, and let’s also place that thought in the context of your next rabbi. Open your minds and hearts to him or her. All of us know what it is like to meet colleagues at work for the first time, or to walk into a social gathering and not know anyone there, and this is far more significant. This is a place where lives are touched and changed, a makome/a holy place – the synagogue and the sanctuary – where a rabbi and his or her congregation create sacred space and civil discourse. Whether you are a founding member, a long-time member, or a member of more recent vintage, all of you are stakeholders. Your experiences here are similar and different; your history and experiences here matter and merge; and you now have the wonderful opportunity to write new chapters in our congregation’s history.

We have an exciting and fulfilling year ahead of us: a year of celebration and renewed commitment to this precious place, our spiritual home. In the letter that I sent you this past January, I quoted Wallace Stegner {1909-1993}, an American novelist, historian and environmentalist who wrote about the sanctity of place and relationships in ways that very much define Congregation Kol Ami: “A place is not a place until people have been born in it, have grown up in it, died in it – have both experienced and shaped it as individuals, families, neighborhoods and communities, over more than one generation…No place is a place until things that have happened in it are remembered in history, ballads, yarns [and] legends.” Together we have created sacred space and significant moments, and soon we will find a rabbi who will cherish it as much as we do.

Rabbi Elliot J. Holin