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Rabbi Jessica K. Barolsky - Yom Kippur - 2011/5772

Communal Responsibilities

A few years ago, I served as student rabbi for the only Jewish congregation in Joplin, Missouri.  I flew down there two weekends a month for the length of the school year.  For each visit, I arrived around lunchtime on Friday, after flying into Northwest Arkansas, Walmart’s airport, and driving ninety minutes north.  I prepared for that evening’s service, had dinner with congregants, and I was generally the last one out of the building, the side door with the word “Shalom” arched over it, after the oneg.  There are only about 40 families who are members of United Hebrew Congregation in Joplin; somewhere between a third and half of the congregation attended Friday night services.  Saturdays began early with a learners’ service, a years-long effort to switch to Mishkan Tefilah.  Afterwards, I taught a basic Judaism course for those considering conversion and an adult education class for those interested in in-depth study of various topics.  I ran the religious school program for children from preschool age through high school (although it was fewer than a dozen kids, which presented some interesting class groupings).  In between, I visited those unable to get to the synagogue, and I met with congregants one on one as the need arose.  Along the way, I got to know the community and the individuals in it.  The congregation was comprised of people of a wide variety of backgrounds—some had lived in and around Joplin their entire lives, others had come from surrounding areas or much further away.  Some were very wealthy, some were just getting by, and many were in between.  There were doctors and lawyers, professors and retirees, post office employees and a truck driver.  Some grew up Jewish, and others chose Judaism later in life.  Some were seemingly involved in all aspects of congregational leadership, while others did not think they had much to offer, were not interested, or just had never been asked.

In the late afternoon of Sunday, May 22 this year, the day after my own rabbinic ordination, I was shuttling family to the airport.  Meanwhile, 600 miles away, my former congregants in Joplin were running for their closets and basements.  That afternoon, an EF5 multiple vortex tornado carved a path of destruction through Joplin that was more than a mile wide and, by the time it was finished, twenty-two miles long.  Winds of over 200 miles per hour flattened about a quarter of the city, making it the deadliest tornado to hit our country in sixty-four years.  As newscasters described the path of the tornado and the places it had destroyed—blocks of Range Line Road, St. John’s Hospital, Walmart—I could picture the city’s streets and landmarks.  I drove on Range Line Road to get from my hotel, a few blocks away from the now-flattened Walmart, to the temple.  I know just about the city’s entire Jewish population. 

Over the next few days, while television news stations aired vides of the destruction, I turned to another source for more personal stories and information.  I marveled about what I saw across my facebook news feed: one by one, the members of United Hebrew Congregation in Joplin were checking in.  A congregant who lived almost an hour away had become the contact person; everyone was told to call her, to find a way to get in touch with her, to let her know that they were okay, that their families were alive, and who else they had heard from.  A couple of days later, I started seeing facebook statuses and wall postings asking about specific people: ‘has anyone heard from Steve or Joy?’  ‘Paul is fine, and I talked to Jim’s brother; they’re fine too—but their houses are destroyed.’  Congregants started keeping running lists on their facebook profiles, asking others to help in locating specific members of the congregation.  Days later, they started posting pictures of the destruction.  At the same time, word of the relief efforts began to spread.  Because they are a very small congregation that has had a new student rabbi every year or two for decades, there are dozens of former Joplin rabbis around the country.  Many of these rabbis helped organize collections in their synagogues; many also made plans to visit for a Shabbat during the summer; for many, it was their first time back since they were rabbinical students many years ago.  The congregation not only welcomed all these visitors with open arms and open hearts, but they opened the synagogue building—miraculously, unharmed—to the wider community.  Because they had received so many donations, it became a distribution center for the city, with synagogue members volunteering on Sundays throughout the summer to distribute goods to those who needed clothes, linens, food, and other supplies.  The tornado cut across all lines in the congregation; the wealthy and the leadership lost at least as much as anyone else, and suddenly the different elements of the community banded together to survive and to support each other, their congregation, and their community.

The Talmud teaches us (Shavuot 39a), “Kol Yisrael arevim ze bazeh,” ‘all Israel is responsible one for another.’  By choosing to associate with this community, by choosing to be here this morning, we must accept the responsibilities that come with being a part of a community.  We read during these Days of Awe that as individuals, tefilah, teshuvah, and tzedakah can lessen judgment’s severe decree.  As a community, though, we can also start from tefilah, teshuvah, and tzedakah, and make our community stronger in 5772.

As a community, as a congregation, we have a responsibility to come together to make our voice heard.  To even begin praying, we have the concept of a minyan, those ten people that must be gathered together to engage in certain prayers, including the kaddish yatom, the mourners’ kaddish.  When we gather to say kaddish, whether we are in the synagogue, such as this afternoon for our Yizkor service, or in a house of mourning, in order to properly complete the service, we must have adequate support for the bereaved! 

This prayer community is deeper than counting participants, though.  As a quick Hebrew grammar lesson, words ending in “-nu” are usually first person plural, meaning we, us, or our.  Eloheinu, for example, means not just God, but our God.  Now consider our Yom Kippur worship service.  On Yom Kippur, our service contains the section where we confess our sins.  Al chet she’chatanu l’fanecha, for the sin WE have committed before You.  Ashamnu, bagadnu, gazalnu, WE have sinned, an alphabetical acrostic of the sins that we, as a community, have committed.  When we arrive in this part of the service, we do not confess only to those sins that each one of us, individually, has committed.  Instead, as a group, we confess to every one of these sins, however unlikely it may be that any one of us has, in fact, committed every sin on the list. 

There is comfort in this communal confession.  Not one of us has to stand up in front of our community and admit that as an individual, I have done this specific thing wrong.  Instead, we stand, side by side, and speak the words together.  By standing together, we may enable one person to confess his or her wrongdoings to him or herself and to God.  We confess together because we are a community.  We support one another when things go wrong as well as when things go right.  By standing together, the confession comes more easily to our lips, and so we take the responsibility of the community, and we confess, together.

But how does someone new to this congregation become part of the communal us of our prayers?  When you came to this congregation, whether days ago, years ago, or a lifetime ago, how did you meet others and grow to feel that this is your spiritual home?  As a community, we have a responsibility to welcome others to our congregation.  When we welcome newcomers, strangers, those who may be on the fringes for one reason or another, we make “them” part of the us, the we, and the our of our prayers.  Our Torah portion this morning includes every member of society.  Standing across the Jordan River from the Promised Land, Moses tells the people, “the heads of your tribes, your elders and officers, every one in Israel, men, women, and children, and the strangers in your camp, from the one who chops your wood to the one who draws your water—enter into the sworn covenant which the Eternal your God makes with you today” (Gates of Repentence p. 343).  Every possible group is covered in this statement, and therefore it is our communal obligation to ensure that every group, every person, is welcomed and included here in our community.

We already try to facilitate welcoming.  We have greeters at every service, people who facilitate the giving out of prayer books and the finding of seats.  But when we leave the sanctuary and walk down the hall to the oneg, or when we are sitting in the lounge waiting for our children to be dismissed from religious school, or when we come into the building for a meeting with one of our rabbis, with a committee, with our executive director, there are no official greeters.  Once we’re sitting down, nobody forces us to meet the people nearby.  Look at the other people sitting in your row.  Can you name everyone else sitting near you? Do you recognize them all?  It is up to each one of us to do that greeting, to make sure that no stranger in our midst, no prospective Jew, no curious newcomer or community member is left alone to watch from the sidelines, because our tradition teaches that this welcoming is our responsibility as community members. 

The current issue of Reform Judaism magazine discusses the congregational oneg, Kiddush, or whatever type of social and snacking event a synagogue has before or after services.  The author compares the oneg to a high school cafeteria, where sometimes one walks in and realizes that her friends just aren’t there today, or that their table is full, or that he’s the new student who doesn’t know which table has the cool kids and which one will doom him to lack of a social life for the next few years.  It’s a drastic example, but one with which most of us can sympathize.  Haven’t we all, at some time, walked into a room full of people and realized that we don’t know anyone—and everyone else seems to know each other?  Find the people hesitating near the door (or near the food), whether they’ve been members for 60 years and simply chose a night to come when their long-time friends aren’t present, or whether they just moved to town and are trying to find a comfortable Jewish home.  That’s our shared responsibility, as a community, to welcome those around the edges of the room, around the edges of the community.

But what about our community members who have become disconnected from the synagogue?  Perhaps, some of us here this morning have become separated from the congregation and aren’t sure how to find our way back in.  Our liturgy tells us to look to teshuvah.  Often translated as “repentance,” teshuvah more literally means “return,” “go back again.”  Obviously, Yom Kippur is a time for the repentance part of teshuvah, but it is also a returning.  The U.S. Department of Education publishes pamphlets advising parents on how to give children the best possible education.  In the late 1990s, they wrote, “Thirty years of research confirms that family involvement is a powerful influence on children’s achievement in school.” [1] That’s true here, too.  We don’t give out grades which are sent to colleges, but we teach literacy just the same: Hebrew literacy, of course, but also literacy with our traditions, our history, our texts, our very identity as Jews, and just like teaching reading, students learn more when the learning is reinforced outside the classroom.  We build community here, and it works more effectively when everyone is involved.

We read words from the Torah today reminding us that we are all part of the community, from the woodchopper to the water-drawer.  We also learn that teshuvah, repenting, returning, is not so hard.  “This commandment which I command you this day is not too hard for you, nor too remote.  It is not in heaven…nor is it beyond the sea…no, it is very near to you, in your mouth and in your heart, and you can do it” (Deut. 29:11-14).  Today, on a morning when we are all engaged in the work of repentance, we learn that returning is not so hard—it’s in our mouths and our hearts, we simply have to get it to our calendars and our feet. 

I mentioned on Rosh Hashanah (the second day, in case you are wondering how you missed it), that Judaism is all about small steps.  We all have a responsibility to take a small step toward enhancing this community, our community, with our teshuvah, our return, whether it be just to hang out, have coffee, and socialize on occasional Sunday mornings, or to drop in—once, for starters—to a class that sounds interesting, or to see what the hype is about for our next Torahpalooza, Totapalooza, or even a “regular” Shabbat service.  If that’s too big a step, join us online.  “Like” the synagogue’s facebook page.  Read the articles and questions that are posted there, and leave a comment.  Little steps are still steps forward.  I’m not looking for complete transformation.  After all, then what would we do next Yom Kippur?  But I want to remind you that by showing up, returning, today, you are a part of this community, and we’re thrilled you’re here; now you have an obligation to return again.  Our community depends on it.  Yom Kippur is a return to synagogue, which for some happens only or mainly in this season.  And our Yom Kippur service reminds us that sha’arei teshuvah, the gates of repentance, the gates of return, are always open.  For the sake of this community, use those gates more frequently and more consistently!

In addition to welcoming those outsiders and newcomers in our community, and strengthening it through our presence, we also turn to tzedakah, our responsibility to improve our community.  Pirke Avot (2:21) teaches “lo alecha ham’lacha ligmor, v’lo atah ben chorin l’hibatel mimena,” ‘it is not your duty to complete the work, but neither are you free to desist from it.’  In other words, none of us alone can perfect our community or even do much to improve it.  But if each one of us pitches in and does our part, it will go a long way to making our community and even our world much, much better.  This is that season for change, renewal, and making things better.  In this space, as we reflect and pray, we often focus on ourselves and personal change and growth.  But we must undergo the same process as a larger community and consider how we can become a better community.  This improvement can be both within our synagogue community and within our larger, Jewish and Milwaukee communities.  Within the synagogue, your voice is always welcomed and listened to.  We like feedback, new ideas, new energy!  By all means if you have new ideas for classes, programs, activities, events, share them.  We encourage giving to the synagogue, so that we can continue to offer a variety of programs and activities and build our community, here.

We are not an isolated community, however, but rather a part of a larger one outside these walls, and we have responsibility there, too.  We give back to our larger community when we pay attention to what is needed.  Our community has too many people who cannot afford what we give up today—food.  The recipients are of every age, every background.  Some were donors themselves before losing a job or having a medical emergency. The fastest growing need is coming from residents of the North Shore.  In this current economic climate, there are Jewish families who are having trouble making ends meet.  Many for the first time are feeling the crisis of unemployment, the fear of not knowing which bills to pay, who are being forced to choose whether to buy food or whether to buy necessary medications.  As members of the community, we are obligated not to stand idly by.  Look in your service bulletin, today or on any Shabbat, and you’ll find information about the current projects of the Social Action Committee and the Salinsky Task Force to feed the hungry.  The volunteer activities are both one-time and ongoing, to do alone, with your family, or with a larger group.  We encourage giving to Mazon and to our current food drive for Hunger Task Force and the Jewish Community Food Pantry to help those for whom fasting is neither voluntary nor only annual.  There are opportunities to give money to the community.  J-help is Milwaukee Jewish Federation’s effort to help the local Jewish community. The hundreds of thousands of dollars J-help has already distributed are helping to relieve that sense of fear and shame—and reinforce the strength of the Jewish community.  Being a part of the community means supporting it in many different ways.  No one person can do it all, and no one committee can do it all.  Together, however, we can make this synagogue community stronger, more active, more attentive to your particular needs and wants.  Together, we can make this city’s Jewish community and community as a whole better nourished, more cohesive, and better able to serve those who rely on the community to fulfill even basic needs.

We are all here this morning in community with God and in community with one another.  Now that we are assembled, we have responsibilities to one another.  We stand this day, all of us, before the Eternal our God.  We stand stronger together than we were on our own, better able to confess to sins we committed and to help others, through our communal presence, to confess their sins.  And together, we pray to our God.  We stand together, welcoming those among us who may be new, on the edges, or not so new, building our community and strengthening it with every new relationship we forge.  And we stand together, working together side by side to improve this community, because it is when we work for improvement of the community that it grows spiritually and communally. 

When the tornado tore through Joplin, flattening homes, schools, and businesses in its path, it brought a community of individuals to a crisis.  Those individuals rose up and stood together as one congregation, supporting friends, neighbors, and even strangers.  They found that reaching out and making connections with all people in their community, returning, coming together to care for their congregation, and working together to help those who were in need, they could rebuild the community, strengthen the congregation when it needed it most.  But the people who are leading Joplin’s rebuilding, and many of the resources that helped United Hebrew Congregation become a source of support and sustenance for Joplin’s Jews and for the entire community were there long before the 200 mile per hour winds.  In Joplin, it took nature’s destruction to bring the Jewish community together across all dividing lines.  Today, we learn from the words and lessons of Yom Kippur that we have everyone and everything we need to take this amazing community and make it stronger physically, financially, and spiritually.  Let’s not wait until disaster strikes.

May we, as a community, go from the edges to the heart of our congregation, to active participation, to reaching out to others.  May our congregational community go from the strength we already possess to the strength of which we are capable of achieving, together.  Kein y’hi ratzon, may it be God’s will.

[1] “Family Involvement in Children’s Education – October 1997”

Sat, February 24 2024 15 Adar I 5784