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You Can't Be A Jew Alone Sermon

Sermon by Rabbi Aron

Saturday, August 9, 2014


We have a mentor program for our tenth grade Confirmation class. Adults in the congregation come in and meet with the students, once a month through the winter, spending some time in one to one conversation. These are adults who enjoy listening to teens, and sharing in their concerns. They are neither the student’s parents, nor are they rabbis or other Jewish professional “super-Jews”, they are regular normal adults who have chosen some degree of involvement in Jewish life, and for that reason are the best role models. ( I am in the process of recruiting next year’s mentors, if you like being with teens, come talk to me,)

Some of the mentor relationships are relatively superficial and last only as long as the school year but others are more enduring. Earlier this week I learned that Grant Wernick, who was Confirmed in 1999, was married this summer, and that his mentor, Judge Jerry Nadler, officiated at the wedding.  I already knew that Grant and Jerry had developed a deep relationship when Jerry was part of Grant’s  college search process. Jerry had also been involved with Grant when he finished school and was looking to find a career path.

Grant’s family lives in the Santa Cruz mountains. His mom was a teacher, now a principal. His dad is an inventor and avid photographer. The Nadler’s live in Santa Clara where Jerry’s wife was mayor back in the 1990’s. I don’t believe that outside of the Temple, they ever would have connected.

Relationships between people, particularly across divides of generations, neighborhoods, industries, and backgrounds- all of this is an important part of congregational life, and of creating the sense of Jewish community.

The section of their Torah portion that Charlie and Ben chose to read this morning, the Ten Commandments, may seem like it is addressed to us as individuals. The Hebrew, very pointedly, uses the second person singular, “you” not “you all”, reminding us, that our own personal decisions are important. Each of us is commanded and we can’t shirk that responsibility by saying, let someone else do it.

But before the Ten Commandments are given, there is a lot of emphasis on gathering the whole community to be present at the foot of the mountain. We are told here in Deuteronomy that “Moses had summoned all the Israelites”.

In the book of Exodus, the real time story, an entire chapter is spent on gathering up the people and preparing them for this experience. It was vital that everyone be present, that this be experienced as a community.

Later Moses will retell a part of this story one more time, just before his death. This section, Chapter 29 of Deuteronomy, has become our Yom Kippur morning reading, perhaps because of this emphasis on gathering the community: “You stand here this day, all of you, before the Eternal your God, your tribal heads, your elders, your officials, all the men of Israel, your children, your wives, even the stranger within your camp, from the woodchopper to the water drawer.” It is in standing together as a community that the people are able to enter into covenant with God.

Several years ago the Reform movement issued a guide to Jewish practice. It was written by a friend of mine, actually the rabbi who officiated at my wedding, my fellow student who has since become a professor at the Hebrew Union College. I was asked to review the book in the Journal of Reform Judaism. I found it very learned and broad, covering all aspects of Jewish life.

Professor Washofsky provides both traditional background and explanations as to why Reform practice has developed in the way it did. But in one respect I felt it was missing something. It did not speak to the social aspect of Jewish observance.

What we chose to do as Jews, is not just a reflection of our individual informed decisions about Jewish practice. What we chose to do is also a reflection of the community in which we find ourselves. It’s not just about the teens being more willing to come to Hebrew High because their friends are there. It’s about our behavior as adults as well. If our friends make Shabbat dinner, and we invite each other from time to time, that will reinforce our personal choice.  If we have a Havurah with which to make break the fast, or Seder when our families are far away, it is more likely that we will make the effort to participate in these rituals.

It is hard to be a Jew alone. So many of our rituals involve community, from gathering people for a bris on the 8th day of life, to having people come to make up a minyan at our homes at a time of loss. Sitting shivah works as a source of comfort only if others come to sit with you, and building a succah is a lot more fun if you have friends to come and join you in it.

While a synagogue is important as a place of prayer and of study, the Hebrew word for a synagogue is Kehillah, from the verb, hakhel, to gather, like, kahal, assembly. A congregation is a gathering of people. Ben and Charlie, I am glad that your family has found a community at Shir Hadash . I hope that wherever your lives take you, as college students and as adults, you will find Jewish communities in which to participate and there find friendships and deeper meaning in your lives.

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