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Rabbi Marc E. Berkson - Yom Kippur - 2009/5770

To Tell a Story

Hob ich mir a mantl – the first line of a Yiddish song telling the story of a man who has a coat, a coat so worn and frayed that he turns it into a jacket which, when it gets torn and frayed, he turns into vest which, when it gets torn and frayed, he turns into a tie which, when it gets torn and frayed, he turns into a handkerchief which, when it gets torn and frayed, he turns into a button which, one day, he loses.  What to do?  Or perhaps you know the story better when told about a young boy named Joseph who, when born, was given a blanket by his grandfather.  As he grew older, so did the blanket, until his mother said to him, “throw it out,” and Joseph instead went to his grandfather who would know what to do.  And, yes, his grandfather turned it into a jacket which Joseph wore until both he and it grew older and his mother said, “Throw it out.”  Joseph, instead, went to his grandfather who would know what to do.  And, yes, his grandfather turned it into a beautiful vest which Joseph wore until he and it grew older and his mother said, “Throw it out.”  Joseph instead went to his grandfather who would know what to do.  And, yes, his grandfather turned it into a beautiful tie which Joseph wore each Shabbat until he and it grew older (and the tie stained) and his mother said, “Throw it out.”  Joseph, instead, went to his grandfather who would know what to do.  And, yes, his grandfather turned it into a handkerchief in which Joseph could carry his marble or pebble collection until he and it grew older and his mother said, “Throw it out.”  Joseph, instead, went to his grandfather who would know what to do.  And, yes, his grandfather turned it into a button to hold up his pants until Joseph grew older and the button popped off and Joseph could not find it.  His mother told him that this time even his grandfather did not have enough material to make it into something else because you cannot make “something out of nothing!”  But Joseph still went to his grandfather who found enough material to make this story and a song, a story and a song reflecting a relationship of love and devotion.  The grandfather knew that he would not making something out of nothing; he was taking words and using them to create, weaving the story I just told you.  Hearing is believing.

We all have songs to sing, stories to tell.  But stories can only be told when someone is listening.  For everything is in relationship and what else is that relationship but a brit, a covenant, between two people.  As I noted back on Rosh Hashanah, we have our story, a story we tell and retell.  And there arose a Pharaoh who knew not Joseph.  And we, we became strangers, slaves in the land of Egypt.  The Eternal, our God, heard our cry and freed us from there with a mighty hand.  With Moses’ help and the help of an expanding group of leaders, God led us through the wilderness of Sinai for forty years until we reached the land promised to us.   The high point of the Exodus–when God met with us and gave us Torah at Sinai.   As redemption came in the past, so, too, will it come in the future.  And then, as I also noted, we have our stories–stories of joy and sorrow, stories of loneliness and love, stories of sickness and recovery, stories of sin and forgiveness, stories of birth and of death–stories to be shared.

Some five years ago, as we began the process of planning and then building this magnificent sanctuary, this transcendent space where we can encounter God, we visited a number of synagogues in the Chicago area.  We wanted to see the results of their building processes, to learn from them what we might be able to incorporate into our new building.  One of them, Sinai, now in Chicago’s Streeterville neighborhood, had finished their new building and was about to embark on another kind of building campaign.  So another story.  Their campaign, which they called “Face-to-Face,” was intended to bring members of their diverse congregation into sacred conversation.  Now let me have Rabbi Jonah Pesner tell the rest of this story:

The leadership team conducted planning meetings and training sessions, and hundreds of members literally met and spoke one-on-one.  Lasting for about an hour a piece, these conversations enabled members who may have previously sat anonymously in services or passed each other at …religious school to actually know each other’s concerns, passions, and interests.  People were asked to share their visions for a more just community, asking one another what injustices they witness that “keep them up nights.”  They told stories to each other, so that their values and concerns became concrete and compelling, beyond abstract assertions.  Throughout the process, the leadership team was able to discern concerns common to many members of the congregation [from] the environment [to] healthcare.  Most important, members bonded with one another as they heard each other’s stories.  The sharing of stories became a sacred act that brought members into relationship, face-to-face.

Similar building processes have been occurring in other congregations across the country, a reflection of a hunger to transform social action into social justice while, at the same time, move the notion of congregational life from a series of services and programs and activities to a community of relationships.  From Temple Israel in Boston which joined with the Greater Boston Interfaith Organization to lead the way to Massachusetts’ health care plan to Temple Israel of Beverly Hills which joined with OneLA to gain better oversight of nursing and extended care facilities, congregation-based community organizing has now dramatically entered Reform Jewish life.  Some of you may have seen a featured article about it in Spring’s edition of Reform Judaism magazine.  Entitled “Partners in Power,’ the article quoted David Saperstein, director of our Religious Action Center, when he noted that “Many synagogue members feel that bringing a can to shul is not sufficient in fulfilling the Jewish mandate to do justice.  They understand that to address root issues and be part of real change, they need to be organizing.”  And Rabbi Pesner, who told the earlier story about Sinai in Chicago and who led Temple Israel’s activities in Boston, has gone on to head a relatively new initiative for the Union for Reform Judaism called Just Congregations.

But what about here in Milwaukee?  Tikkun Ha-Ir has tried to provide another model of transforming social action into social justice.  Some of you may well remember that cold and snowy Shabbat as members of our congregation and members of Lake Park Synagogue and students from the Hillel Foundation gathered in our old Kenwood building to share a Shabbat dinner and then to share stories with Rabbi Danny Landes.  That is how Tikkun Ha-Ir began almost ten years ago.  The model was to bring Jews together, Jews from all the streams, to learn from rabbis, rabbis from all the streams-even such rabbis teaching together-to engage in texts and, from those texts, to engage in building a more just Milwaukee.  And crucial to some of the earlier successes of Tikkun Ha-Ir was the relationship which developed between a reform rabbi and an orthodox rabbi, a relationship which invited similar collaboration from others.

And, quietly, over the last six years, I have been involved with what has become Common Ground of Southeast Wisconsin, a congregation-based citizens’ organization.  I have shared stories and built relationships with a wide variety of colleagues from different faith communities and from a number of other organizations throughout the greater Milwaukee area.  Our congregational involvement has been limited to me and to some members of our Social Action committee as we have become members, along with Congregation Beth Jehudah.  But the time may soon be approaching to expand that involvement throughout the congregation.

And it all begins with words, with stories, listening and creating relationships.  I asked each of you on Rosh Hashanah eve to take a few moments over these last days to find someone here you do not know well and tell him, tell her, a story, your story.  What brought you here?  What speaks to you?  What concerns you?  That was an informal beginning.  But this sermon truly came about when our new president promised to set out and meet with each and every outgoing and incoming board member and committee chair.  From those initial meetings, he was going to then insist that our officers and board members go out and meet with other members, with members they did not know.  And he was going to take this ever increasing circle of people until every member of the congregation had had the opportunity to meet, one-on-one, with someone else.  And I was impressed.

Now my sense was that Robert Friebert never planned these meetings to be anything other than a chance for people to share thoughts on what was working for them in the congregation and what was not working for them in the congregation.  “What are we doing right,” you might ask, “and what are we doing wrong?  What else should we be doing?”  So the challenge, Robert, for you, for me, for all of us, can we make these one-on-one meetings into relational meetings, into true panim-el-panim, face-to-face, gatherings?  Can we use them for people to share their stories?  Instead of just asking “what works?” let’s also ask “what do you care about?”  “What are your concerns?  What’s going on in your life?  What keeps you up at night?  What causes move you?  What mode of prayer speaks to you?  How can we study and learn in ways that would engage and motivate you?  Perhaps we even train the first set of leaders who will go out to listen to people’s stories and to ask some of these questions.

Leadership.  Relationships.  Perhaps action.  We do not know yet-and we won’t until we begin.  But this I do know.  Isaiah’s words from the haftarah have already told me of the kind of fast God desires-a fast that will ensure that I share my bread with the hungry.  And I will try.  I will fill up the bag I received from our congregation with food and bring it back here to make sure it goes to the Jewish Food Pantry.  I will send a contribution on to MAZON, the amount reflecting the money I did not spend on meals today.  Yet, even as I do so, thousands more will still slip into poverty and hunger.

So another story-this one related by Rabbi Jeff Salkin who heard it from Julian Bond.  Three men are fishing and they see a baby floating down the river.  The first man jumps in to save the baby.  A few moments later a second baby floats by and the second man jumps in to save the baby.  With that, the third man gets up to leave.  “Hey,” cry out the other two men, “where are you going?  We’re probably going to need you to save the next baby that comes floating down the river!”  “Forget that,” responds the third man.  “I’m walking upstream to find out who or what is throwing babies into the river.”

That is the beginning of the transformation of social action into social justice.  We are not ready to walk upstream yet, if you will; the Jewish Food Pantry desperately needs our food contributions and MAZON desperately needs our monetary contributions.  But band-aids are just that-they only momentarily give cover to root causes.

But we begin with words, with stories.  And the first step is sharing those words, those stories.  You may think that those words, those stories are not much; that we are just trying to create something out of nothing.  Yet those words and stories, those relationships and the relationships which grow from those relationships can take this world which God created and make it the world God so desires.  Hearing is believing.

Sat, February 24 2024 15 Adar I 5784