Thursday, September 5, 2013

"Listening to our Stories" - Sermon for Rosh Hashanah Evening at Temple Beth-El of Las Cruces, NM - September 4, 2013

   We had been there before.   It was our first stop after we entered the long-familiar city.  This time, we had stones with us that we planned to leave in their appointed spots.   We arrived at the place that we now visit like a pilgrimage.   We knew exactly where to go, so much so that I was recently able to direct a friend from long-distance to find that same spot and pay his respects.   We parked on the tree-lined drive and walked over to the markers that have sat side-by-side for nearly a decade.   Joseph Karol - Ruth Karol - you will never know them, but you can see them in what Rhonda and I do for the community in which we live.    We were silent for a moment....and, as if they could answer, we asked for their continued support.   Then we put the stones down on each marker and stood silent again.   We returned to our car and continued along our way, on a day when we later visited my now 105 year old aunt.  We ended the weekend attending a  gathering of my extended family, who, along with us, continue to keep alive the memories and the stories of my parents.
    Such moments are holy, special, treasured, and cherished, almost as much as the time that we were able to spend with my parents over the years.    We really do like to revisit and rediscover how we came to be who we are, and how our background and origins affect the ways in which we deal with change and challenge in our lives.  
     Part of our origin story is embedded in our genetic make-up.  That is why I was intrigued at the presentation at my rabbis' convention this past March by Ann Wojcicki, co-founder of 23andme.  This organization provides individuals with their own genetic information.   Their website explains, "At 23andMe, we believe genetic research can and should be used to give us a deeper understanding of the role genes play in our individual lives."   23 is significant because it refers to the 23 pairs of chromosomes which determine our personal characteristics.  We can learn from our genes why we might be predisposed to certain health conditions.  Our genes can help us discover as-yet-unknown facts about our family roots. So let me tell you a little bit about myself based on the 23andMe analysis of my genetic information.   I am 93% Ashkenazi, 99.5% European.   My ancestors lived in the Near East and then in Europe.  According to my genetic information, my eyes are likely blue, my hair is slightly curlier than average hair, and I have decreased odds of losing my hair.  There was health information included in the report that I received about my risk for certain conditions and diseases.   What I was most interested in was filling out my own family story, finding relatives I didn't know I had.   Through 23andMe, I am now connected to at least 150 2nd to  4th cousins, but not one of them bears a name that I can connect to my family history.  One of my new cousins was a fellow member of Hillel at University of Illinois in the 1970s. We just don't know yet how we are related, and we may never know.    So, even with all of this information, I would have to say that my story is incomplete. 
    Fortunately, we are not just the sum total of our genetic makeup.   We are multifaceted human beings, and by being here tonight, we identify with the Jewish community in some way, whether by ancestry or by choice, whether by heritage or by marriage, whether by interest in Judaism or by raising a child to live a Jewish life.   We come together this night to celebrate our New Year. We are united in this sanctuary and this community as we contemplate who we are and consider who we will be in the year to come.   We do this as an expression of our heritage, our religion, our personal spirituality and faith, and our ongoing, ever-growing life story.   
    And we have many stories to tell!   We heard during Passover from some of our TBE Pioneers as they regaled us with tales of their experiences at Temple Beth-El and in Las Cruces.   At several "Sharing our Stories" sessions held in recent months, community members spoke about the values they learned from being raised in their families and home communities. Some of the principles that were articulated at those meetings are the very building blocks of community, including finding beauty in life; treating others with kindness; treating people equally while accepting the individuality of each person; honesty; working for social justice and improving the world; being humble; feeling a sense of responsibilty for others; mutual respect; patience; strength; living simply and with authenticity; and encouraging questioning, which can lead to deeper understanding.
    In this year’s Jewels of Elul series, internationally acclaimed singer Achinoam Nini  expressed values that are central to Judaism as she wrote about what it means to be welcoming.  She said, “For me, the word ‘welcoming’ is deeply associated with the word “opening” - opening a door, a heart, a mind. Opening your eyes in order to truly see those around you, opening your mind to new ideas, opening your heart, even to what seems threatening, frightening, ominous, with the knowledge that we fear most what we are unfamiliar with. Reaching out to those whom we are suspicious of, those whom we have formed weakly- based opinions of, is the key to dissolving fear and making way for growth and acceptance.”  
   Reaching out to each other and acceptance are essential to community, and can lead us to intently listen to one another’s stories and current concerns and hopes. A few weeks ago, I offered you an opportunity to articulate the dominant theme in your lives.   Let’s take a moment to listen to these reflections that came from you:
·      Staying healthy, physically, emotionally and spiritually
·      Staying independent
·      Visiting new places to see and learn about;
·      “Letting go" and "getting unstuck"
·      Surviving is good, but living is better.
·      The birth of a first grandchild and a family reunion -  it is interesting that the the older we get, the more we turn to family.  
·      A death, an unexpected terminal illness, two pregnancies, a lay-off and new chapters of experience opening with each event.
·      Focusing on family life and Judaism.
·      Appreciation
·      I want enough energy to get through the day without several cans of caffeine.
·      Shedding the accumulations of a lifetime – we swamp ourselves with more than we need or can use, and should spread around what others can use.
·      Hoping for peace in the world, fewer senseless shootings here and everywhere in the world.
·      Looking forward to the coming 20 years ahead, feeling everything is great now, having a nagging feeling that we're going to " get out" just in time, and wondering if every generation feels like this towards the end of life.
We need to make time to discuss these types of concerns with each other if we are truly a community.    Being a congregation means that we are a network of relationships, not just a “religious institution” that offers a variety of programs.   Rabbi Sidney Schwarz, in his book JEWISH MEGATRENDS, outlined an approach that, he believes, will sustain Jewish communities into the future.   To succeed, Rabbi Schwarz advises congregations to convey the wisdom of Judaism and other spiritual paths;  to advance social justice so that Jews can fulfill the charge of the Hebrew prophets to ally with "the orphan, widow and stranger in your midst”; to offer a place where people can form rich and deep relationships; and to provide a glimpse of what it looks like to live lives of sacred purpose.
     In his book RELATIONAL JUDAISM, Dr. Ron Wolfson defined what it means to live a life of sacred purpose within the Jewish concept of building a KAHAL KADOSH, a holy community.  We form a KAHAL KADOSH within a congregation when we continuously celebrate and enhance the web of fellowship that we create together.  Wolfson identified nine levels of relationship that we can explore and develop in a congregation:
·      Between you and yourself, developing your own individual, communal and spiritual identity;
·      Between you and your family
·      Between you and your friends
·      Between you and Jewish living and learning 
·      Between you and your community
·      Between you and Jewish peoplehood, whatever your connection might be
·      Between you and the State of Israel
·      Between you and the whole world
·      Between you and God, however you define God.
  Over the course of a year, we touch upon all of these levels of relationship in our planned discussions, in meetings, in worship, in study sessions, and in spontaneous and worthwhile conversations.   In our learning, in our living, in our praying, in our giving, this is who we are and why we gather together. We have the opportunity to offer  comfort, support, wisdom, connection, warmth, welcoming, counsel, and hope within these walls and in the greater community. Over the course of years, there can develop a sacred sense of family between members, as long as we are willing to let it happen.   We don't have to agree with each other - God knows that family members certainly don't always see eye to eye.   However, if we are committed to being a sacred community, we can make the sum total of who we are special in our own eyes and in the eyes, minds and hearts of those who would join us. 
      Standing by the graves of my parents, Rhonda and I knew that our combined experiences in Jewish life - and now we can add the experiences of our son Adam as well - were enriched by the many years that my mom and dad volunteered their time and energy for their congregation, enough to still be missed even now.   And I have heard from you the stories of those who were once part of this congregation who are missed, on whose shoulders we all stand tonight as we enter the new year of 5774.    This legacy can be one of sharing and of deep concern about each other if we only choose to make it so.
       So let us take the opportunity during this new year to share our stories - our hopes, our triumphs and our challenges - so that we can get to know each other well within a community committed to making moments and our very lives holy and special, creating meaningful relationships and lines of ever-strengthening connection.
   One installment in the Jewels of Elul series this year featured this simple but poignant statement about welcoming from Harve Humler of The Ritz-Carlton Hotel Company: “At Ritz-Carlton, every one of the ladies and gentlemen who work for us carry a wallet-sized credo card with them at all times. It states our three steps of service:
1. Extend a warm welcome.
2. Anticipate and fulfill stated and unstated needs.
3. Provide a fond farewell.
As you can see from number one, welcoming is our top priority. But, in fact, all three steps are about welcoming. Only if the totality of an experience is authentically meaningful can a person truly feel welcome.
What is true of a hotel is true of a home. How often are we all guilty of asking, ‘How are you?’ without expecting or being interested in a real answer about the other person’s successes or challenges, frustrations or fears. To truly welcome another requires truly caring about another.”

   This is the pinnacle of community: creating a place where we can truly know one another so well that we will be present and ready to help in times of challenge and to be prepared to celebrate in moments of joy.   May this be a year of listening and of caring here at Temple Beth-El, in our community, and throughout the human family.  

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