As many of you know, Seth and I are – ok, I’ll just say it – we’re Trekkies. Now, where are my fellow Trekkies? Maybe you’ve even noticed the stickers on our car. We’ve attended four Star Trek Conventions over the past few years (and Spencer won cutest Captain Picard in a costume contest), and they are such fun, and fascinating, events.
For those who have perhaps seen clips of the Convention on TV, or in a documentary, or even as it was parodied in the movie Galaxy Quest, it can get pretty intense. Trekkies, or Trekkers, depending on who you ask, take all the Star Trek stuff pretty seriously. They debate which series was the best, which captain was the most capable, which villain was the most fierce, and more. They dress up as their favorite characters (also known as cos-play), buy myriad pieces of memorabilia, and create fan-fiction. Many attend the convention every single year.
I grew up watching the Original Star Trek Series – you know the one, with William Shatner as Captain Kirk – because my mom was a fan. Then, as I entered middle school, I grew to love The Next Generation. My Star Trek appreciation ended there, but Seth happens to be a big fan of Voyager and Deep Space Nine. So, between the two of us, we look forward each time to meeting so many of the actors and actresses, and spending time with fellow fans. We took pictures with them, and we got autographs. I might have even purchased a Star Trek uniform….
While at the convention, part of me couldn’t help but observe what was going on around with as more of a sociologist. Why do the fans do all this?
And the answer that was most obvious? Because we all need a place to belong. We want to spend time with likeminded people – people who “get” us, who care about what we care about, who value what we value. Author and organizational consultant, Simon Sinek, states,
“Our need to belong is not rational, but it is a constant that exists across all people in all cultures. It is a feeling we get when those around us share our values and beliefs. When we feel like we belong, we feel connected and we feel safe. As humans, we crave the feeling and we seek it out.”
There are many truths that link us as human beings – qualities that we share no matter who or where we are. We all need to eat and sleep, learn and grow, and we all need to feel that we belong somewhere.
To belong is to feel at home, to feel comfortable, and to feel like you are part of something. You are surrounded by similar people. Perhaps you are connected by belief, by interest, by history, by hobby, or even by blood. This shared connection is powerful, meaningful, and enriching in so many ways.
What you may not realize is that, by virtue of being here – right here, right now – you belong.
First of all, we all belong, either by being born, or by choice, or by marriage, to the Jewish Community.
We share a common history, many common beliefs, many of the same foods, many of the same myths, legends, and stories. And you belong to Beth Shalom Rodfe Zedek, this particular grouping of individuals and families which make up our kehilah kedoshah, our sacred community.
That being said, some of you may not always be so sure what you’re doing here. As a Kivvun parent – who shall remain nameless – said a few days ago, “I’m a member of the ‘Never Thought I’d Ever Belong to a Temple’ club.” For some, there may be a nagging sense of obligation, especially to the next generation. For others, there is a feeling that this is just what Jews do. So I wonder, as your rabbi, should it mean more than that? CAN it mean more than that?
Here’s the big question: WHY are we here?
I suppose it’s only fair if I tell you a little bit, from my heart, about why I am here.
Why am I here? I am here to share my love and enjoyment of Judaism with others so that we can all take part – in our own ways – in this sacred tradition together. And I do love being Jewish. Is it a little weird to hear someone say that? We aren’t often encouraged to feel a sense of pride or affection for being Jewish. My joy at being Jewish doesn’t diminish anyone else’s faith traditions, or anyone else’s choices; it is simply my own experience. It’s the feeling I get when I sing the first few notes of “Oseh Shalom,” and soon the whole room joins in with me. It’s the feeling I got in Israel on Friday afternoons when everyone around me wished me a “Shabbat Shalom.” It’s the feeling I get when I experience God’s presence in my life. I love being part of this world-wide, timeless tradition that teaches us to make the world a better place, to care for ourselves and others, and to enjoy life while we are here. In my cells, I feel my Judaism, and that I belong to this special community, and that I am connected across time to my ancestors and to my descendants. I treasure the stories, the folk legends, the way Jewish time works, the music, the lifelong learning. And I feel privileged to be part of the Reform Jewish movement.
By being a part of CBSRZ, you are considered part of the Reform movement, under the umbrella organization known as the Union for Reform Judaism, or the URJ.
We might be able to articulate why someone might want to be part of the general Jewish community, but we may not feel as confident if someone asked us, “What is a Reform Jew?”
To begin, let’s get the terminology down – it is Reform, not ReformED. There is no “ED” at the end. It is not past tense, and this is an important point. Some have even suggested, as you’ll soon see, that the most appropriate name would be “Reforming,” in that it is a continuous process. Yet, for nearly two hundred years, we have called it Reform, so that’s what we’ve got.
Of the major movements in America – Reform, Reconstructionist, Conservative, and Orthodox – Reform was the first. Up until its creation, everyone was just Jewish. You might make your own choices about observance or belief, and you might follow the teachings of this rabbi or that rabbi, but there was no other formal distinction between Jews other than whether you were Ashkenazic or Sephardic.
But in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, as the Enlightenment spread across Europe, a radical idea began to grow: people could be Jewish without adhering to the strict moral and legal code of their ancestors. A number of Jews wanted to update Judaism to meet their new needs and to express different spiritual yearnings. They believed that the faith had grown stagnant and had lost its appeal. This group felt that religious change and growth was legitimate, and that it was all right to allow Judaism to evolve as society evolved. In short – they believed that they could continue to BELONG to the Jewish community, while still belonging to the larger society.
The Reformers began a tradition of studying the various laws and rituals of Judaism, and of encouraging people to make choices about what was meaningful to them in their own modern lives.
Reform Jews were now able to express their Jewish identities on their own terms and to connect with growing numbers of like-minded friends.
Over time, what is considered meaningful has always been allowed to evolve and change – whether it involved ritual garb like Tallitot and Kippot, keeping Kosher or Shabbat, attending services regularly, and on. Congregations might differ in terms of how much Hebrew a worship service might contain, or what type of liturgical music is included, and we are nevertheless encouraged to continue asking ourselves – what is meaningful to us?
As 21st century Jews, we sometimes find ourselves in a paradoxical state. On the one hand, most of the barriers which historically kept us from “fitting in” and “being like everyone else” have come down; on the other, our ancestral roots nourish us and we want to preserve our differences. Our sense of belonging is becoming simultaneously wider and narrower.
Reform Jews vacillate between particularism and universalism. We are members of a particular religious and cultural background – the Jewish people. And, more than ever before, we are keenly aware of our responsibility for our larger communities, our countries, and truly the entire world. When we ponder – to whom do I belong? – there are so many different answers. Identity is more fractionalized and complex, determined by such factors as country, language, gender expression, profession, political party, socioeconomic status, and religion. Each of these components makes up our identity like pieces of a pie.
For many of us, identifying the Jewish piece of that pie or its importance among the other components has become increasingly difficult. What is the binding agent that connects us to the Jewish people? There is fear that loyalty to Judaism may be waning among younger generations of Jews, who tend to dislike labels and prefer more fluid lifestyles. They may seek out the Jewish community to fulfill current needs, such as a lifecycle ceremony or the education of their children, rather than regarding synagogue membership or involvement as a lifetime commitment.
Let me share with you why we should make that Jewish piece of the pie, and the CBSRZ piece of the pie, more present in our lives in this new year.
First, I’ll remind you of the delightful book which we as a congregation were encouraged to read this past spring.
the small book attempts to answer the question, “Why Be Jewish,” with ten of the most central concepts in Judaism, and how they remain integral to modern Jewish life. If you haven’t had a chance to read it yet, and, don’t worry if that’s the case, I still wholeheartedly invite you to read it. We offered some small group discussions in the spring about the book, and how it might inform choices we make here at CBSRZ, and we hope to offer a few more sessions in the coming months.
With regards to Reform Judaism, Rabbi Eric Yoffie, past president of the Union for Reform Judaism, suggests the following points:
1) Reform Jews are committed to a Judaism that changes and adapts to the needs of the day. Since its earliest days, Reform Judaism has asserted that a Judaism frozen in time is an heirloom, not a living fountain. Changes must be thoughtful, of course, and must be rooted in the history and traditions of our people. But we assert Judaism’s innovative character, and we assert, too, that a stubborn failure to change will make Judaism an irrelevance. This willingness to adapt has brought new vitality and strength to a Jewish community that is fully integrated into North American culture.
2) Reform Judaism’s most enduring “mantra,” if you will, is one of INFORMED CHOICE. All too often, I hear people say, “I’m Reform, so I don’t actually have to do anything.” Or I hear, “This is a Reform congregation, so we don’t have to observe that ritual.” This is one of the greatest falsehoods, and it is important that we work together to educate each other about this. It can be much more difficult to be a Reform Jew than Orthodox. In Orthodox Judaism, you learn the rules and you follow them. Reform Jews are responsible for choosing on their own. That personal responsibility can be challenging for some, but exhilarating for others.
3) In Reform Judaism, we all have the responsibility to learn the traditions, to study the rituals, and then to make our own decisions about what is meaningful to us. Therefore, many Reform Jews choose to keep kosher. Many Reform Jews choose to wear tallitot or don Tefillin when they pray in the morning. Many Reform Jews choose to study Torah or Talmud every day. Many Reform Jews choose to observe Shabbat every week. We must all be respectful of their choices, even if we’ve chosen something else. It is not enough to just choose ignorance or default to the easiest option – we must learn, study, and educate ourselves, and then make the choice that resonates most for ourselves.
4) Reform Jews are committed to the absolute equality of women in all areas of Jewish life. We were the first movement to ordain women rabbis, invest women cantors, and elect women presidents of our synagogues. While we have not yet totally fulfilled this commitment, there is no longer any debate that a Judaism that diminishes the equality of women is a Judaism that degrades our dignity and besmirches our soul.
5) Reform Jews are committed to social justice. Even as Reform Jews embrace ritual, prayer, and ceremony more than ever, we continue to see social justice as the jewel in the Reform Jewish crown. Like the prophets, we never forget that God is concerned about the everyday and that the blights of society take precedence over the mysteries of heaven. A Reform synagogue that does not alleviate the anguish of the suffering is a contradiction in terms.
6) Reform Jews are committed to the principle of inclusion, not exclusion. We understand clearly the need for boundaries between Judaism and the society around us, but we have little patience with those who spend day and night trying to define precisely where the boundaries are to be drawn in order to keep the maximum number of people out. Far better to spend time filling our Jewish world with experiences that will draw people in to Knesset Yisrael, the indivisible collectivity of the Jewish people.
The power and uniqueness of Reform Judaism does not in any way demean the other religious movements, which we respect and with which we join in common cause whenever possible. But we can best serve the members of our Movement and draw upon the springs of their Judaic spirit if we all understand what it means to be a Reform Jew.
My friend and colleague, Rabbi Paul Kipnes, elaborates:
“We live in a world that speaks of consumer values: “What do I get if I pay?” Judaism is a people/religion/nation/culture/ethnicity/more that transcends that question, asking instead, “What will being part of a community do for our world, for all people, for our people, for our community?” That’s how I think, and it’s how I want my children to think.”
If I may tell you one more classic Jewish joke:
A Jewish man is stranded on a desert island for decades before he is finally rescued. Over time, he builds two ornate synagogues. When is finally rescued, he is asked why he went through the trouble of building two synagogues. “Oh, I belong to that one,” he says, pointing at the one on the right, “But that one” he points to the one on the left, “I would never set foot in that one.”
You have a few synagogues to choose from along our Connecticut Shoreline. And we all feel fortunate that you have chosen to belong here, to CBSRZ. You belong to the CBSRZ family. And I don’t use the word “family” lightly.
Why are we that synagogue on the right, rather than the one the guy on the island would never set foot in? WHY belong to CBSRZ?
In order to come together as a Jewish community so that we can care for each other and the world.
We really care about each other here, and it is so heartwarming and inspiring, every day that I have a chance to witness it and be part of it. We learn each other’s names. We find you your own unique place, on your own terms, within our larger structure. We care when you aren’t around. You may recall receiving a phone call from a member of our Board of Directors over the past few weeks. Our lay leadership wanted to wish you a Good New Year, as well as learn more about why CBSRZ is special to you and what you’d like to see more of here. More than two-thirds of those who answered shared that it is our community here which is most precious to them. And that is remarkable.
So many of us express a deep desire for spirituality and connection with something greater than ourselves, and numerous paths are open to you. Some connect with the Divine through prayer or music. Some through learning our sacred texts or languages. Some through guided meditation or walking meditation through our meditation garden. Some through performing acts of Tikkun Olam and good deeds which change the world one piece at a time. All of these actions, whether we think consciously about it or not, allow us to experience the Oneness which unites us all.
We strive to be inclusive and welcoming to folks with all different kinds of stories or journeys which brought you here. From the chicken farmers over 100 years ago who started our congregation, to the lay leaders who chose to merge Beth Shalom with Rodfe Zedek 20 years ago, to the people today who are choosing to join the Jewish community from another faith tradition, to members of the LGBTQIA communities. No matter what brought you here, welcome home.
We are proud to have active members of all ages at CBSRZ. And all ages are invited to learn with us, participate and interact with us, and help shape CBSRZ into what you envision it could be. We have babies, we have nonagenarians, and every age in between.
And, we really hope you just enjoy being here. That you find meaning in our well-curated art exhibits. That you are moved and entertained by our musical performances. That you find yourself sitting on the comfy couches just outside the sanctuary and engaged in friendly conversation.
So, chaverim, I have a job for you. On this Day of At-One-Ment, 5779, I invite you to do five things:
1) Be proud of your involvement with CBSRZ. Continue to think about why this community is so special to you, and help us communicate these qualities to others who might want to join us.
2) If you are feeling disconnected from CBSRZ, please reach out to one of us in the staff or leadership, Cantor Belinda or me, anyone with whom you feel comfortable, and talk with us. We’d love to understand more, and we’d be honored to help you find your place here.
3) If you are feeling disconnected from the Jewish community, please let me or Cantor Belinda know. We’d love to talk with you, and help you along a path to a new feeling of belonging and being at home.
4) Learn something new – some new piece of Jewish text, some new part of a lifecycle event, or something new about a Jewish ritual. The more you know, the more you’ll feel like a confident, competent part of the community. Explore your heritage, discuss it, and debate it.
5) Try a new ritual. You might decide that you don’t like it, or that it isn’t meaningful to you, but you will have experimented and expanded your own Jewish identity. You will have made an IMFORMED CHOICE about your own Jewish life.
5.5) And make a new friend!
And may we all have a good and healthy new year!
Kaplan, Dana Evan. American Reform Judaism: An Introduction. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2003.
Meyer, Michael A. and W. Gunther Plaut. The Reform Judaism Reader: North American Documents. New York: UAHC Press, 2001.
Meyer, Michael A. Response to Modernity: A History of the Reform Movement in Judaism. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1988.
Sinek, Simon. Find Your Why: A Practical Guide for Discovering Purpose for You and Your Team. New York: Portfolio/Penguin, 2017.
Sinek, Simon. Start with Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action. New York: Portfolio/Penguin, 2009.
 Start With Why, p. 53.
 Let There Be Laughter, p. 255.