September 05, 1994
The High Holy Days are a time for reflection, resolution and renewal. As early as the High Holy Days are this year, thanks to the lunar calendar, my personal journey toward them occurred during the first week of July. I had just completed twenty years in the pulpit, having made my decision in March not to renew my contract with a congregation I had served for the past ten years, and I was looking forward to trying my hand at writing children’s books and offering my voice to the commercial and voice-over narration field. I recorded a script for the Monticello Foundation, the home of Thomas Jefferson in Charlottesville, Virginia, and then I was on my way to the proverbial drawing board in my home study to develop an outline for a children’s book, when fate and faith intervened.
In March, when I had made it clear that I was leaving the pulpit, people began asking me what I would be doing and many of them graciously said that if I were to find a pulpit in the northern suburbs, they might be interested in joining me. I was very gratified by their support and enthusiasm, but I demurred, claiming the need for time to explore some creative ventures. But from March through June – in supermarkets, on softball fields, in side conversations, at meetings, poolside, courtside, at lunches and dinners- the prospect of a new reform congregation was raised, discussed and deferred. The idea intrigued me, but I wasn’t committed to it
Then on July 6th, I sat down with a group of people to see if we shared a common philosophy and vision. These were people whom I knew as friends or through work in the community, and we gathered to see if our common vision would enable us to make our dream a reality. In just two months we have developed a philosophy and a Vision Statement that reflect our hopes for Kol Ami, and the fact that we are all here this evening- despite it being the Monday of Labor Day weekend – is due in large measure to the creativity, energy and perseverance of our founding members. I thank them for inspiring me, and for making the past two months incredibly creative, hectic and enriching.
Let me hasten to say that the founding members are a diverse group of individuals. We want the leadership of our congregation to reflect what we hope will be a broadly defined membership, spanning all ages, bringing each other the benefit of our years of wisdom and experience. We can all find ourselves here. People who have expressed interest and support for Kol Ami, as recently as this morning, have become founders by virtue of their desire to be part of this exciting journey. People who in the next few days, weeks or months decide to become part of our community will find many of their needs or interests met by our mutual desire to create a caring, responsive, intimate community…a congregation defined by creative programs, spiritual dialogue, a sense of connection with each other, and the willingness to allow for the possibility that exploring certain rituals and traditions will enable us to find great joy in how we express our faith. Rituals are fixed and they are fluid. We can create new rituals from existing models at home and in our synagogue at one of the most special times of the Jewish week: on Shabbat, over the Torah, in the midst of community.
I want to tell you a story as a way of letting you know how personally excited I am to be part of this journey. It was a Sunday morning as a mother entered her son’s room to awaken him. “It’s time to get up,” she said, gently shaking him. “Why?” came the muffled response. “Because it’s time to go to religious school,” his mother replied. “Why do I have to go to religious school?” the sleepy voice persisted. “Because I said so,” she answered. “Give me two good reasons I should go,” he demanded. So she said: “Number one, because you are 47 years old…and number two, because you’re the rabbi.” My mother, who is here with us tonight, would not have to say this to me. I want to be with you.
There are several things that I could have done after July 1st, but being part of Kol Ami, being your rabbi, is a spiritual calling to which I am delighted to respond. The question that I am most often asked is, “What does ‘Kol Ami’ mean?” It means “Voice of My People” and the name reflects the core philosophy of what we always want our congregation to be. By ‘we’ I mean those of us who believe in the importance of the individual. We consider it to be our sacred task to listen to the voice of every child, youth and adult who is part of our synagogue. We want to know one another by name. We want Kol Ami to be a congregation where the word ‘community’ is not a theory but a reality that we are creating. We are creating something for which we have yearned, and that is a spiritual center which encourages everyone to explore religious paths that will lead to a greater sense of wholeness and happiness: the essence of the word for inner peace, shalom.
We want our faith to speak to us, to make a difference in our lives. We want our faith to resonate with hope and joy and, in times of conflict or loss, with comfort. We want our worship services to be joyful and participatory, and when you hear Eve lead us in song with her guitar on Shabbat – and at tomorrow afternoon’s Rosh Hashanah family service – you will know exactly what I mean when I say that she will inspire you not just to listen to her but to sing with her. Shabbat services will be times when the Torah will be carried through the congregation so that you can connect with it, as we hope we will with each other. The Torah will be read in your midst so that children and adults can gather around it, surrounding it with joy and the spirit of community.
You have noticed that some worshipers are wearing yarmulkes or tallism. You’ll recall that upon entering the sanctuary this evening that both were available to anyone who wished to wear them. “Egad!” some of you undoubtedly thought, “We were under the impression that Kol Ami is a reform congregation!” Let me assure you that it is, in the best sense of the word. Reform is a verb – and let me dispel a common error which assumes that there is an e/d on the end of ‘reform’, suggesting that ‘reformed’ is to be ‘rehabilitated’- but minus the e/d suffix, what reform does best is to encourage its adherents to make knowledgeable choices that will add meaning to religious moments. If wearing a yarmulke or a tallit helps create that path for you, we are going to make that option available instead of denying it or hiding them under the fourth seat from the left in the last row.
The reform movement, to its great credit, has forged its identity in the arena of social justice. In part, this evolved from the prophetic paradigm, in the words of Isaiah, to care for the stranger, the poor, the orphan, and the widow: those who are helpless and often feel hopeless in our society and in the world. Attention to social justice is critical because our safety as Jews depends upon our vigilance with regard to civil rights and civil liberties. The great social justice issues and causes of the 20th century have been, and continue to be, engaged by the reform movement. You will not find a reform congregation that does not have a Social Justice Committee, and Kol Ami will have strong social justice programs through which we will reach out to our community and beyond, to involve our members in the mitzvah of tikkun olam, healing society of its pain.
Yet as important as this is, something has been noticeably absent, and that is concomitant attention paid to spirituality. Our source texts – the Torah, Prophets, and Writings – offer us abundant wisdom. The moment on Sinai is our compass point as a people of faith. The purpose of Jewish existence is to bring the message of ethical monotheism to the world. An irreducible Jewish belief is that something happened at Sinai, and it is that God demands moral conduct! Sinai is not a story about Moses’ charisma! The Torah goes out of its way to tell us that Moses stammered and stuttered. The Torah goes out of its way to tell us that we do not know where Moses is buried. What mattered at Sinai was not so much about the man as it was about the meaning of the moment, and that moment transcends time and space. You and I are connected to that moment in remarkable ways. When we say the Sh’ma, we reaffirm our covenant with God, and through Moses we are able to discern aspects of ourselves.
Moses on Sinai is not just a story about sacred tablets, it is also a story about second chances. The High Holy Days are also about second chances because in reflecting upon the past year and how we acted, we can redeem ourselves from transgression, indifference and dysfunctional habits. We can truly strive to make the New Year a Shanah Tovah. Consider Moses: he delivered the Ten Commandments and then smashed the tablets in disgust over our inability to remain faithful and obedient for even a short period of time. Moses had to deal with a stiff-necked and short-memoried people. He also had to contend with God Whose word he had not been able to successfully transmit to his people, and so God said, “I will give your people a second chance. I will renew My connection with you, even though this is risky, given what happened before.” God redeemed us from ourselves!
You and I know people – we may be those people! – who are successful but not satisfied. They are content, but not fulfilled. They want to know that life means more than the latest high tech gadget for the home or office, more than the next cruise, more than that hoped for raise. They are asking what Moses asked God on Sinai: let me know that You are with me. Moses did not need to feel divinely equal. He needed to feel the protection of One who was above him, and Who could enfold him.
I believe that many of us desire that sense of assurance. Not all of us need it. I am well aware that there are proud, identifiable, involved Jews who do not want or need God in their lives. Their sense Jewish identity is rooted in their knowledge of the history of our people, or in the joy of feeling Jewish, and from time to time ‘doing Jewish.’ I know Jews whose connection to our people is not theological but cultural and literary, and I also know that some of us – perhaps many of us – have a relationship with God, though our silence on this matter leads many to assume otherwise. We want to know to whom we are accountable, and that is God. Every time that we prefer truth over falsehood, or righteousness over evil, we have met God’s requirements. We believe that we must be moral beacons of inspiration to others. Some of you do that superbly without any thought of a higher power. More power to you! And some of us respond to our ‘better selves’ because we hear a voice calling us to a more noble service than that to which we might have otherwise responded. Whether our individual sense of faith is grounded in God or governed by other loyalties or memories, we are here, bonded to one another by our sense of Peoplehood…even though it is sometimes said that we are the only people in history divided by a common religion. I find it absolutely remarkable that despite the passion of our disagreements, the pervasiveness of our doubts, the intensity of our internecine debates about identity, God and Israel, we are indeed one.
To be Jewish is to challenge the status quo. It is to confront iniquity and inequity. It is to wrestle with our conscience and resolve to make a difference in other lives by reaching out to the stranger, the poor, the orphan and the widow. Our congregation will be known for its commitment to social justice in this place and in many places where people with no voices yearn to rear our voice: Kol Ami. We will respond, I promise you that.
We are the namesake of the patriarch who wrestled with God in order to learn more about himself. Can we, Jacob’s legacy, do less? We must speak about the meaning and purpose of our faith. We should talk about transcendent moments in our lives. I know from my twenty years in the rabbinate that when we create opportunities to talk about God – our struggles, discoveries or denials; the place or displacement of God in our lives- we will quickly learn that there are kindred spirits among us whose quest for spiritual moments mirror our own. One of our first programs will be to offer dialogues based on a marvelous book entitled Stages of Faith -The Psychology of Human Development and the Quest for Meaning, by James Fowler, through which we will explore and discuss our personal faith journeys: how traditions can be teachers; rituals, connectors; and faith be made meaningful.
Faith need not have labels, though it often does for the purpose of identification, but sometimes labels breed resistance. I was in Israel just a week and a half ago to attend my cousin’s wedding. While in Tel Aviv one morning, I met his father’s law partner, a delightful man who said to me, “I am a non-observant Orthodox Jew.” I smiled upon hearing this, whereupon he informed me that he was quite serious. “Well,” I said, “I took it to mean that you are devout about what you do not observe.” “Not quite,” he replied, “There are many things that Orthodox Jews do that I do not do. However, there are a few things that I do in exactly the same way that my grandfather, who was Orthodox, did.” I told him that he undoubtedly has a greater appreciation of the essence and purpose of Reform Judaism than do almost all Orthodox Jews. “In fact,” I said, “You are closer to being an observant Reform Jew than a nonobservant Orthodox Jew!” At Congregation Kol Ami we will open up possibilities for spiritual growth without labeling their sources. We will adopt, adapt and create practices that will enhance our sense of Jewish identity and increase our joy of Jewish expression. We will offer Shabbat afternoon enrichment experiences for you and your children. We will celebrate the joy of being together at social programs: days in the park, travel, theater and museum outings and tours to sites of Jewish interest and, of course, Israel. We will offer home hospitality Shabbat dinners to enable members to meet, relax and rejoice together. We’ll explore opportunities for single parent families to meet and talk, and so too for those whose mates have recently died. With your help we will create important social justice programs to benefit your favorite organizations: local hospitals and shelters, the Ronald McDonald house, Planned Parenthood, and more. We will perform mitzvot in the name of our people and Kol Ami. We will welcome interfaith couples to our congregation and offer programs to enable them to talk about religious differences and discoveries. There is richness in our diversity and a healing power in the community we are creating.
This new year, you and I have the rare opportunity for a second chance: the chance to attain the dream of being part of a congregation whose members will know each other by name, who will hear each other’s voices, and respond to one another’s needs…the formation of an intimate, caring community. How will we do this? The answer is found in a story from our tradition. Once a young man wished to learn how to be a blacksmith. He approached an older man, who took him on as an apprentice. Soon the young man’s technique was perfect. He had learned all the skills of the trade, but when the time came to forge iron on his own, he was not successful. Turning with pleading eye to his teacher, he asked what he was doing wrong. His teacher said, “You have all the information, all the tools, and you have mastered the techniques, but you still do not know how to kindle a spark.”
Here at Congregation Kol Ami, we will help each other kindle sparks of joy, commitment, community and spirituality for a Shanah Tovah u’metukah, a year that will be good and sweet for us and for those whom we love. In July, Kol Ami was conceived. Tonight, our mutual dream is delivered. May it, and we, flourish together.
Rabbi Elliot J. Holin