When I meet new people, one of the questions I often ask is “what keeps you up at night”. The question “What wakes you up in the morning” is similar, but that can be passion and energy. “What keeps you up at night” tells me what concerns you, it tells me what worries you, it tells me what you haven’t yet figured out how to fix. Tonight, I want to talk about what keeps me up at night as I need your help…not with sleeping pills or a better pillow, but with your actions, your advice, your voices.
Jonathan Sarna has often said that every generation of Jews looks at the next generation and says, “woe to us, Judaism will certainly end with this generation,” and yet it has never happened. Somehow, as he puts it, every “vanishing generation” of Jews is miraculously replaced with another “vanishing generation”. Judaism continues to reinvent itself, as it always has, showing that it was not built for any one specific time but for all time. When Sarna talks about Judaism continuing long after all our lifetimes, he is correct, but let’s be clear on what is saying and what he is not saying. He believes that Judaism will always find a way to continue; traditions may change, rituals re-reinvented…but Judaism as a religion will find a way. What he is not saying is that every Jewish community that practices Judaism will exist forever. Judaism is the constant; the people are the constant…the location is variable.
You know better than I the stories of the Jewish communities within 180 miles or so of Omaha that have all but closed-up shop. The communities have dwindled in size, and the Jews either moved elsewhere or passed away. Make a mental map for yourself, Council Bluffs, Lincoln, Sioux City, Grand Island, St. Joe’s and the list goes on. These communities have certainly not vanished, in some there is a continued effort to keep institutions and Jewish life alive. Yet I think we can agree that no one is moving to these cities because of their Jewish community.
What keeps me up at night is trying to figure out why Omaha will be different? For Omaha to remain a vibrant center of center of Jewish life for years to come we need to understand certain realities, we need to ask ourselves some tough questions and we need to hear some things we may not want to hear. The alternative is to bury our heads in the sand, but that isn’t what our parents and grandparents taught us to do.
While in rabbinical school one of my beloved professors told me that the true job of a rabbi was to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. This evening is my attempt to wake us from a place of comfort so we can act.
If we want to be around in 50 years, we must regain our sense of community.
If the pandemic taught us nothing it was that if we made Judaism more convenient, more folks would participate. Zoom (or live streaming) is here to stay. The ability for us to turn on zoom for weekday services is amazing, to see folks logged in from Dundee to Palm Springs. I am thrilled at the engagement of those who choose to be part of our services from outside the building. On Rosh Hashanah, in addition to the great crowd in the building we had 135 screens tuned in across the country watching our services, 135 screens could likely translate to around 200 people. It is amazing…but I need you in the building. A community may be able to sustain itself on zoom, but it cannot grow or be built on zoom. When a new member walks in the door, a friendly face on zoom does us no good. They need someone to make eye contact, shake their hand and say hello. When a mourner walks in the building to grieve the loss of a loved a one, they need a hug, not a heart emoji. What has made Beth El such a special place since, long before I arrived, has been its people. I am thrilled to use any medium available to share our beautiful services and classes with those who cannot be here in person…but it’s not the same experience.
During Covid we made it very convenient to be Jewish while not being present. I have no issue with zoom, but it cannot be a substitute to folks showing up in person. If we don’t have folks here in the building, we may as well pack up shop and log into a service in Minneapolis, Dallas or LA. None of us want that…we want our service, with our people, our tunes, our traditions, and our families’ names read on their yahrzeit. I need your help!
It’s easy to say, I know it’s not to do, but a synagogue without any people is at best a museum, at worst, it’s a mausoleum.
If we want to be around in 50 years, we must double down on Jewish Education.
If we want to be around in 50 years, we must make a commitment to Jewish education that exists from cradle to grave, not just kindergarten to B’nai mitzvah. Judaism is unique in that we have a disproportionate amount of highly learned people. The numbers bear out when looking at graduate school, Ph.D. programs, law, and medical; you get the picture. Yet, for a people of the book, we manage to have doctorates in the secular world and 6th-grade educations in the Jewish world. We must do better!
As Jews, we are heirs to something extraordinary. We are the beneficiaries of a religious tradition that will speak to us for our entire lives if only we are willing to listen.
We talk so much about our kids, and they certainly are the best place to start, but let’s be honest…we all need some makeup classes. I have said this before, but my penance for having too much fun (that is…misbehaving) in Hebrew school was that at some point in college, I got curious and registered for a Jewish History class. I was shocked to learn how incredible our story is, it made me want to learn more.
I get the argument; perhaps services aren’t interesting, Hebrew school or Hebrew High isn’t as engaging as our kids want, and as parents, the last thing we want is a fight. There are so many other hills to die on this is an easy one to say, “fine, you don’t have to go”. Let me be clear, I am not knocking any family who has had to have this conversation and made this decision.
Here is my issue, if your kid came home and said I am done with math, I’ll never use it. I am going to assume you would say, “tough, you may be done with math, but math isn’t done with you”. In fact, you may even point out that there are any number of professions that, without math, would no longer be available to them. Why is Judaism less important? Judaism is a lifetime pursuit and will serve you and your children for generations to come in ways you cannot imagine.
You get the picture, but I need your help. If you want Judaism to exist in the lives of your family and our community, then it needs to be of equal or greater importance than little league, gymnastics, basketball, or cheer.
I have one more ask on the topic of Jewish education. Jewish learning must ALSO take place outside of this building and in your home. Once a week, in the car, at the dinner table with your family or friends…pull out your phone and check the Jerusalem Post, perhaps the Times of Israel…open the 2-paragraph summary of that week’s parsha on My Jewish Learning. One thing, once a week, and for those of us with kids…DO IT IN FRONT OF THEM. Don’t tell them Judaism is important; SHOW THEM.
In 5000 years, Judaism has never been as accessible as it is today; it’s at our fingertips. Almost every Jewish text sitting in my office exists in a FREE APP on my iPhone.
If we are going to survive, we need to show our kids and ourselves that Jewish learning is a lifetime pursuit.
If we want to be around in 50 years, we need to know more about our own religion than we do about others.
Over the past 12 years, Beth El has built a wealth of relationships with organizations and religious institutions outside of our walls…no one can say we are not dripping with inclusivity. Yet, we must be equally or MORE knowledgeable about our own religion than we are of anyone else’s. It’s not inclusivity, it’s ignorance if we KNOW more about someone else’s religion than our own. We should be curious; we should ask tons of questions to our neighbors…and then when they turn around and say, “what do Jews believe” … you should have an answer.
We should always show the utmost respect to our neighbors, irrespective of religion; that should go without saying. However, we will die a slow death if we put the knowledge and respect of other religions before that of our own. No one will ever care about Judaism as much as we do; if it’s second in our book, we cannot expect it to be first in anyone else’s
I need your help. Let us work together to become fluent in our own religious tradition, then we can become experts in everyone else.
If we want to be around in 50 years, we must let Jewish values guide us and not politics.
Politics have a place inside the walls of this synagogue and on this pulpit, but it CANNOT be the reason we exist. If the reason we exist is to promote a political agenda, our lifespan will be calculated with an egg timer. If, on the other hand, we allow Jewish values to guide our thinking and our actions then while there may be division, we will be able to have an honest and thoughtful debate.
Judaism has lived through and survived democracies to monarchies, and more wars than any of us can count. Judaism will survive our current political discord, and if we listen closely, we can learn that the inherent beauty of Judaism is the way it values argumentation and high-minded debate. As such, if you don’t like “my politics” but they are grounded in my understanding of Jewish text, so instead of sitting on the sidelines commenting, pull up a chair and let’s study together.
I will continue to push Beth El to be involved in any number of issues locally and nationally, but our politics MUST be a byproduct of our rich tradition, not the other way around.
If we want to be around in 50 years, we need to understand that Tikkun Olam/Social Justice, while important, is not the lifeblood of Jewish belief and practice.
All too often, “social justice” and “Tikkun Olam” come to encapsulate what we in the liberal Jewish movements (that’s not a political statement, it comes to define non-orthodoxy in America, that being the reform and conservative movements) understand as repairing the world, doing good outside the walls of Beth El. We use the words with awe and reverence as if they represent the core tenants of what came down at Sinai. They are not…
The challenge is there are good people all over this world who do amazing things on a daily basis, and most of these people are NOT Jewish. What makes their actions any different from ours?
If we don’t know the Jewish foundation for why we are doing good, why we are feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, visiting the sick, welcoming the stranger, and loving our neighbor…then we are being righteous, but it has nothing to do with Judaism.
The rabbis knew what they were talking about when they said, “first study, then act.” If the action comes from study, it means so much more. It’s then grounded in our faith; let’s build a committee that sits and studies on a weekly or monthly basis and then goes out into the community acting on what we have learned…let that be our legacy. You can be a good and moral person and not be Jewish…if we want to be around in 50 years, we need to understand what makes our actions Jewish.
If we want to be around in 50 years, we must be a thorn in the side of the greater Jewish community.
I recognize we sit in this room not just as Beth El members but as a community. However, if you are here, you are my family, so I am speaking to you regardless of your membership status. The Jewish Federation of Omaha has incredible power in our community to affect change. The Federation is a convenor, it has a low barrier for entrance, it speaks to Jews in our community who are unaffiliated much more easily than the synagogues.
Our challenge is that we need to be a thorn in their side so that the Jewish Federation never forgets to bring the Jewish.
This past Sunday night, there was a lovely event where we heard from one of my favorite opinion columnists. I commend the Federation staff, the event chairs, and the campaign chairs for putting on a fantastic event. Of course, there is a BUT….next year, I need your help in making sure the event is kosher, not a kosher option.
The point of having a kosher affair is not so a minority of people in the room can eat…the issue is who we are and what we stand for as a community. I never imagined a world where the Jewish community would consider it “inclusive” to allow me to order a kosher meal.
You all know me well enough by now that I am not the rabbi who is going to get on the pulpit and declare that we must all keep kosher. What I will say is that when we operate as a community, our goal should not simply be to cover the lowest common denominator. If we care about Jewish values, then we have to care about them, EVEN when they are inconvenient. Even when they may be values THAT WE DON’T OBSERVE!
I need your help because I’m the rabbi, and while my voice may be loud, it gets dismissed. Your voices are louder, and it’s your community. When I call about “Jewish,” I get placated because I’m the rabbi, and the assumption is that you, the community, are OK with it. And you know something I don’t think you are…I think you want the community to hold itself to a higher standard, SO I NEED YOU TO SAY SOMETHING!
Funny enough, the past two speakers the Federation has brought in, Bret Stephens of the NYTimes this past Sunday and Joshua Molina in 2019, for whom I have a mild crush on from West Wing and other shows. BOTH of these men stood at Temple in a packed room and spoke of the importance of Jewish education, Jewish identity, and Israel. If you don’t want to listen to me, then let’s listen to them.
If we want to thrive, we need to stand up for our traditions and our rituals, EVEN THOSE WE MAY NOT OBSERVE THEM.
I was told last week that Westside High School had originally planned certain homecoming festivities for tomorrow, Yom Kippur Day. When they realized it was Yom Kippur, they immediately moved the date of the programming. I am sure this is not isolated to Westside, the point is that YOU spoke up, members of the community picked up the phone, posted on Facebook, sent a text…did something to say, “wait a minute, you can’t do that”.
I need your help in NOT just speaking up and saying “wait a minute” to the secular world; I need you to say it to our own greater Jewish community. When we forget who we are, we need to speak up and call them out for not being true to their mission. By the way, I would expect nothing less of Beth El and me.
If we want to be around in 50 years, we must realize that while money helps, it won’t solve all our problems.
We live in one of the most amazing communities. The Hazzan and I talk about this all the time how fortunate we are to be your clergy. If we have a good idea, it can become a reality. 12 years ago, after my first Kol Nidrei service here in Omaha, I walked home after services and assumed that Bev Fellman (of blessed memory) had simply forgotten to do the Yom Kippur appeal. I had never seen a synagogue that didn’t ask for money on Kol Nidrei. It’s simply not what we do…
We are blessed to live in an incredibly philanthropic community, and so when we look for answers to solve our problems, we turn to a commodity we have, which is money.
There are some who believe that offering stipends or reduced day school education..etc, is a way to bring more Jews to Omaha. Their heart is in the right place, but the idea is flawed. No amount of money is going to make Jews move to Omaha, it’s a gimmick. We want folks here who want to be here, not because of a discount on their JCC membership.
If we are going to spend money, then let’s do so wisely; we get the best return on our money if, over the next 18 months, we lay out a holistic plan to support the causes and institutions that preserve and strengthen Jewish Life in Omaha. Let me say it again, we should support causes and institutions that preserve and strengthen JEWISH LIFE. The way you know if it preserves and strengthens Jewish Life is by asking yourself if it disappeared tomorrow could we find it elsewhere in Omaha, or would we need to replace it? I am not going to sit here and go through the alphabet soup of agencies and institutions…but you get the picture.
Jewish giving is, at times, not so unlike paying taxes; we are paying for things we may not take advantage of OR ever need. We pay for these things because, in the long run having these intuitions is a statement about who we are and what we care about. When the early childhood center calls and asks for gelt to answer the phone, when the day school calls, pick up the phone when the Blumkin home calls…answer the phone. It is vital for our community to have certain institutions of Jewish life regardless of whether you think they are important or not.
The Mishnah tells us that the very first things you need to build when moving to a new city is a mikveh and a cemetery. Our grandparents built those things for us even if they didn’t use them, we owe it to our children and grandchildren to see to it that the institutions that will perpetuate Jewish life in this city are taken care of and not left begging for table scraps.
With few exceptions (say the last 5 minutes), nothing I have said tonight requires dollars and cents, it requires our time and energy. It requires us getting our hands dirty, it requires us looking down the road and say, “where do we want our community to be in 50 years”.
We would be nowhere without your generosity, but money only takes us so far.
Let me conclude with a story:
The gemara (ta’anit 23a) tells a story of a man named Honi who was on a long journey and came upon a man planting a carob tree. He asked, “How long does it take [for this tree] to bear fruit?” The man replied: “Seventy years.” Honi was curious, he asked him: “Are you certain that you will live another seventy years?” The man replied: “I found [already grown] carob trees in the world; as my forefathers planted those for me so I too plant these for my children.”
Since it had been a long day, Honi sat down to have a meal, and sleep overcame him. As he slept, a rocky formation enclosed upon him, which hid him from sight, and he slept for seventy years. (it was a nice long nap) When Honi awoke, he saw a man gathering the fruit of the carob tree, and Honi asked him, “Are you the man who planted the tree?” The man replied: “I am his grandson.” Thereupon Honi exclaimed: “It is clear that I have slept for seventy years.”
Honi didn’t understand why you would do something today that you would not reap the benefit. Why plant the trees? Because someone planted them for him. Why care for and maintain the cemetery – because our grandparents built it and left it for us. Why renovate the synagogue, because our founders built it for us, and we are supposed to leave it for our kids and grandkids. Why continue to be educated about Jewish topics because it connects us to our past and, more importantly, to our future.
I, like you, want this sanctuary full after all of us have passed. I want Omaha to be a model of how a community our size can not only survive but thrive. I want our kids and grandkids to look back and know that when faced with the opportunity to strengthen our community, we didn’t bury our heads in the sand; we stood and met the moment head-on.
Gmar Hatimah Tovah
May we all merit to be sealed in the book of life