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This I Have Learned: Rosh Hashanah, Day 1- September 14, 2015

Rabbi Richard Plavin

In the perspective of Jewish history, 37 years is the blink of an eye. But in the life of one particular rabbi, it has been the better part of a lifetime. The Bible uses the number 40 to refer to a long time – be it the years Israel wandered in the wilderness or the days Moses spent on the top of Mt. Sinai. For more than 40 years I have been a rabbi, and for almost all of them I have had the distinct merit of being the spiritual leader of this congregation.  Now, we are in the home stretch with just ten months to go and it is time for reflection.

Moses, with 40 days on the mountain, came away with the Torah. What have I learned in nearly four decades?

I have learned that not all congregations are created equal. In my ordination class at the Jewish Theological Seminary, I was one of 25 students. I am not certain, but it may well be that I am the last of them to be retiring from the pulpit rabbinate. Over the years I have seen many of my classmates leave the pulpit rabbinate. Some retired after distinguished careers. Some have taken non-pulpit positions in the Jewish world; others in careers in no way related to Judaism. One of my colleagues sells furniture, another sells dental supplies and another sells automobiles. A few have made aliyah, some have taken early retirement, and some, on the way to that retirement, drifted aimlessly from congregation to congregation. I have learned that not all congregations are equal. This beautiful community, in this “city of village charm,” has had two rabbis for 70 years. Before me, my beloved predecessor, Rabbi Leon Wind, alav haShalom, served for many decades. In the hospitable environment of this congregation, like Rabbi Wind before me, I have been able to be a guide to families at significant life passages, to teach Torah and lead worship, to share my Zionist fervor, and to promote the Jewish mission of perfecting the world by being agents of the One God who made us all. That is a privilege I do not take lightly.

Very clearly, this is a remarkable congregation. Everyone warned me that to follow a Rabbi who had been a strong leader for 33 years, and would remain in the community, was not a wise career move. I disagreed. I contended that a rabbi such as Rabbi Leon Wind who had such a fine reputation, and a congregation who could provide a culture in which he could florish in his rabbinate, was the kind of community with which I wanted to be associated. Thank God, I was not wrong. This is a remarkable congregation and all of you, the people who comprise this community, can rightfully take pride in that fact.

Rosh HaShanah is an appropriate time for reflection, particularly so when it is the last Rosh HaShanah on which I will be serving in this pulpit. I have learned a few things in these years and I want to share some of them with you today.

When I came to this congregation in 1979 I was 33 years old, and I knew so much. One of the most important things I have learned over the years is that I was not nearly as smart as I thought. The Torah praises Moses as being the most humble of all men. I have learned that humility comes slowly. When I began my rabbinate, it was clear to me that I knew the best way to be a Jew – my way. Over the years, I have learned that there are many ways to live Jewishly. The Talmud teaches that there are 70 facets to the Torah, and I believe that refers to more than Torah interpretation. Halacha, Jewish Law, has always been the cornerstone of my Jewish existence. It still is. But I have learned that the same cornerstone will not work for all Jews. We have all heard the absurd question of who is good Jew. Beware of those who think of themselves as good Jews when it is to the exclusion of others who live their Jewish lives differently. My concern is that a Jew be serious about his or her Jewish identity; that it makes a difference in how they live.  I want Jews to wear the mantle of Jewish identity with pride and be guided in life by that identity and by Jewish ethical values. Ritual acts would be nice as well, and may be vital to our continuity, but honestly, I believe them to be less crucial than Jewish morality.

I heard a wonderful story about a senior rabbinical school class at the Jewish Theological Seminary taught by Rabbi Mordechai Kaplan, one of the foremost Jewish theologians of the last century. He asked the men – back then it was only men- to list the ten most influential Jews of the prior 100 years. Names like Theodore Herzl, David Ben Gurion and Echad HaAm appeared on everyone’s list. Then he asked that next to each name the student should indicate the congregation where that Jew prayed each Shabbat morning. Almost none of those who appeared on the lists ever stepped into a synagogue. Were these not good Jews? I think you get my point.

When I began in the rabbinate, I was a dyed in the wool Conservative Jew – with an upper case ‘C.’ My Jewish passion grew in the soil of my family that was active in a Conservative congregation. My life as a teenager was shaped by my participation in USY. High School was something I did as long as it did not interfere with my USY activity.

After earning my bachelors’ degree at Columbia University, I went on to rabbinical school at the Jewish Theological Seminary, back then the only school that ordained rabbis for the Conservative movement.

I am still a Conservative Jew, and cannot be otherwise. But I have grown very warey of denominationalism. I bristle when anyone refers to Reform or Orthodox Judaism in a pejorative way. The common mistake of using the term ‘Orthodox’ instead of ‘observant’ for a Jew who is scrupulous in keeping Shabbat or Kashrut, is an insult to those of us Conservative Jews who understand why Halacha is important. To call someone whose Judaism has no impact on his life a ‘Reform’ Jew is equally offensive. Some of the most serious, passionate Jews I know proudly affiliate with the Reform movement.

Now, in this 21st century, the strongest movement in Judaism refuses to be classified as belonging to any denomination. The post-denominational independent minyanim that are growing up in the large cities are a joy to behold, and it is a point of pride that most of them are founded and run by Jews who grew up in Conservative congregations and often attended Camp Ramah or were active in USY. That is where those young and not so young Jews find their serious Judaism - in non-affiliated congregations and chavurot - and those of us who serve in the leadership of Conservative congregations have to do some serious soul-searching to determine why these wonderful Jews find our congregations deficient in some way. 

Over these years, I have learned some things about interfaith marriage: it is not synonymous with doomsday. When I came to this congregation in 1979, our By-Laws indicated that a Jew married to a non-Jew was not eligible for membership in the congregation. What a change I have witnessed over the years. Now, very few of the children in our religious school have two Jewish parents. When I first became a rabbi I thought that prevention of intermarriage was one of the most important things I could do. That was very much like believing you can stand at the beach and make the waves stop coming ashore. We live today in a very different Jewish world. Over the years I have become a strong proponent of big-tent Judaism and want to do whatever I can to bring interfaith families into the community.

Allow me to share a very personal family experience. Many years ago, a cousin called and asked for my help in planning her son’s wedding to a non-Jewish girl. She wanted me to help her choose some appropriate Biblical verses to embroider on the Chuppah she was making. In my arrogance I told her I would not have anything to do with the event. That approach caused a breach in my relations with that part of the family that lasted for several years. I have learned a few things as a rabbi since that time. I squandered an important opportunity. I could have cemented my relationship with both my cousin and her son and perhaps dialogued with him on how to maintain his Jewish identity within the context of an interfaith family. I now realize that being welcoming would have benefitted all.

Having shared this experience with you I would be less than candid if I did not reiterate that I still do not feel it is my place as a Conservative rabbi to officiate at an interfaith wedding ceremony.  But this I have learned: if I can help a family enhance their wedding with elements of our Jewish heritage, I am happy to do so. It can only redound to the welfare of this young couple and the benefit of the Jewish community. A few years ago I helped an interfaith couple prepare a Ketubah for their wedding. After they married, they joined our congregational family, and when their first baby arrived, they asked me to officiate with the mohel at the brit. I have learned that big-tent outreach is of vital importance.

I have also grown as a rabbi and a Jew in regard to my approach to Israel. My love for Israel is well known, but it is not blind love. I see problems in Israel that must not be ignored. I am not going to make this a political speech, and there are problems unique to Israel that may be addressed on another occasion: how to achieve peace with her neighbors, how to end the discrimination against religious Jews who are not Orthodox, how to deal with the desperate need for a reasonable program of conversion to Judaism, which in Israel is as much a political question as a religious one. These are the points I am not going to address today. The concerns I am focusing on regard social issues. How is Israel to maintain the loyalty of thinking Jews, especially young Jews who did not grow up with the emotional attachment of those of us who were born shortly after the Holocaust? We must be honest and think critically as we consider problems that do exist in Israel.  Most of the areas of concern I see in Israel, and I do see more than I would like, exist as well here in America. But when I see them in Israel, I feel a special kind of pain. Discrimination against minorities is a problem in America and in Israel.  The income gap between the rich and the poor is an abominable injustice in both Israel and America. Disregard for the sanctity of our environment is a problem here and in Israel. These social issues, and others, must be addressed here in America - or our grandchildren and great-grandchildren will suffer the consequences and hold us responsible. But as a Jew and a Zionist, seeing these problems in Israel touches me in on another level. Israel is the Jewish State, the fulfillment of God’s promise to our Father Abraham. I hold Israel to a higher standard – the very thing I blame the press for doing. But the difference is this: I do it out of love and because of pride in our Jewish heritage. In the Torah, God promises us the Land of Israel and I believe that the Jewish state must live by the ethical values of that Torah. Conditions in Israel that contradict standards such as ‘justice, justice thou shalt pursue,’ and ‘you shall love the stranger for you were strangers in the land of Egypt,’ must not be tolerated. We see things in the news everyday and all over the world that disturb us, but when we see them among our own people, then it is even worse. I think that over the years Israel’s mistreatment of its Arab minority has been more than unwise and destructive; it is immoral and contrary to what our religion teaches. America’s treatment of people of color is also an ethical abomination, and has been destructive of our society, and as long as our politicians continue to talk about Judeo-Christian values, we had better live by them. I am distressed when I see what we are doing to our environment here in America, and I am also upset when I see the air pollution around Haifa, but it occurs to me that Israel has a lot less environment to spare. I have learned that true love is not blind love and that constructive criticism is not an act of disloyalty.

I have learned something else I want to mention. When I was a younger rabbi I thought that people who feared anti-Semitism, or blamed various problems in their life on their Jewish identity, were over reacting. I thought that fear of anti-Semitism was overblown, especially in America. Sadly, it is very clear that anti-Semitism has made a comeback. Sometimes it is disguised as anti-Zionism, but now, seventy years after the end of World War II, the world is no longer embarrassed to show its deep seated and irrational hatred for Jews. What I have learned in these decades as a rabbi is that anti-Semitism will always be worthy of our attention and that we must always be on guard. I also feel that the most important thing we can do to guard against anti-Semitism is to live more intensively Jewish lives. Anti-Semites want less Jews and Judaism in the world. I don’t want them to get their way.

I want to conclude by naming some points of pride, accomplishments in these 37 years of which I am proud. But I want to make clear that all of them were possible only within the context of a supportive Jewish community and therefore, the achievements are not mine but ours.

We are a traditional Conservative congregation. We conduct services six days a week. We have a substantial crowd for the service of the Fast of the First Born on Erev Pesach and for the fast of Tisha B’Av. We have services on every day of the festivals Pesach, Shavuot and Succot, and experience Shabbat as a community in myriad meaningful ways, always within the bounds of Jewish law. We have not fallen victim to the fallacy that lessening standards will attract Jews to Jewish living. Fidelity to our Jewish heritage is respected.

We are an Israel-centric congregation. We have had 14 congregational Israel trips since our first in 1985. Hundreds of members of our congregation, and many outsiders who have joined us, have travelled to Israel on our trips, and some have done so multiple times. And we celebrate Yom HaAtzmaut, Israel Independence Day, as the religious occasion it is.

We have both a men’s and women’s Chevrah Kaddisha. Doing the hands-on holy work of preparing the bodies of our fellow congregants for burial is an amazing mitzvah. Many people told me it would be impossible to find volunteers among our members who would get involved in this holy work. We proved them wrong. That is a point of great pride.

We have more continuing education programs in our congregation than in many shuls far larger than ours and we have more people more intensively involved. When we get lecturers speaking here they invariably comment on how amazed they are by the numbers and quality of the students.

We are an inclusive and welcoming congregation. We have active members of so many diverse backgrounds. Visitors have so often commented that they feel so welcome here and that they can sense the active participation of so many of our members.

As a congregation, we are about to embark on a search for a new rabbi. That man or woman will be rabbi to all of us, Lisa and I included since we will be proud members of this shul.  My prayer is that we find someone worthy of this wonderful community. I look forward to our having a new rabbi who loves Jews and Judaism, who loves America and Israel, who loves Torah and will share it with us in exciting ways. We have quite a year ahead. May it be a year of blessing for us and for all Israel. AMEN.   

Sat, July 2 2022 3 Tammuz 5782