Why? (Kol Nidrei 5777)

CBJ can be a home for you. But you do need to reach for it.

I have talked a lot about our work in building community. About all the ways we are fostering to deepen our relationships to each other. But I thought we should ask the question why? Why be part of a community and more specifically a Jewish Community?  Of course, in today’s world we can live in our own self-selected silos where we have the ability to dip in and out of different groups without being fully committed to any. You have your work colleagues, your sports league, your bridge group and your book club. So, why is it important to become part of the Jewish community?

For starters, we are all part of a story that began long before we were born and will continue long after we are gone and we must ask ourselves: will we continue the story?

Now the truth is for much of my life I didn’t give much thought to being part of the Jewish community or a continuing story. My parents were Jewish, so I was Jewish. We lived in New York City where Jewish culture is so pervasive you didn’t need to work too hard to feel your Jewishness and to be part of the Jewish community. But in the Bay Area it’s different. And I certainly fell in line with the unaffiliated, once a year Hillel services attendee pattern for many years. But when my oldest daughter was a preschooler and I attended high holiday services at Stanford, it seemed as though I heard for the first time the words of the Shema that said: “thou shall teach them diligently to your children”. Wow! I felt a responsibility. For the first time, I felt like I was part of a bigger story that I wanted to continue, and that I wanted my children to know—and it was up to me to do my part.

So, I did what many of you did and joined a synagogue — CBJ — and enrolled my kids in religious school. And life went on. To a great extent, I felt I had done my bit. Life was busy, I dropped the kids off and picked them up and attended Junior Congregation and the main service when my kids class was leading that week. But in truth my involvement was somewhat by rote.

My daughters’ B’not Mitzvah celebrations were pivotal in drawing me and my family into the importance of study and coming of age in the Jewish community. I must say our clergy know how to do really good B’nai Mitzvah here. I know our experience was far more meaningful than the exercise in memorization I went through so many years ago. And, our family’s Simcha was so enhanced by the embrace of the community.  I don’t think I realized at my own Bat Mitzvah, that truly this is a community event as much as an individual achievement. But here, once again, I felt part of a bigger story and I was bringing my children into the story as well. But life is hectic and the wonderful afterglow of these passages soon faded as the pace of daily life picked up and time moved on.

When the Bat Mitzvah era faded away, and the girls moved on from religious school, it was hard for me to find my way back to that feeling. I was done with the dropping off and picking up and Junior Congregation really is for the kids. I had never been a regular shul-goer and I would not have imagined that I would become one. I had always struggled with prayer and with some of the more dogmatic teachings of my youth that left me thinking that Jews had to think a certain way and believe a certain way and pray a certain way. That just wasn’t going to work for me.  And for quite a while I didn’t look any further.

On Rosh Hashana last week, Rabbi Ilana gave a wonderful drash and she started out by asking if any of us ever play the game “Is he Jewish?” You know the one—when you meet someone, or read about someone you try to guess if he or she is Jewish? Turns out we all do this and as she pointed out you get a “ping” of pleasure when you get a hit! It’s so true. There is a thrill when you meet someone who is a member of your same group. It’s a sign of how deeply we need to feel connected to something bigger than ourselves, something more than our individual relationships. I certainly felt this tug that day in the Hillel service when I knew in my bones that I needed to be part of a synagogue and educate my children about our tradition.

As much as anybody, we Silicon Valley Jews embrace individualism. But inarguably, our individualism is bound by the imperatives of family and the cross-generational obligations that family implies. We value a faith in something bigger than ourselves whether that is faith in God or a set of ethical precepts. And we value a life that exudes caring for one another: honesty, fairness, humility, kindness, courtesy, and compassion.  I grew up with my extended family within a few miles of my home. Our synagogue was in the neighborhood as were our friends and we celebrated and mourned together come what may. That life is a distant memory for my family. My Mom always says that we are all dots on a map. So many of us here share this loss of family connection that leaves us craving that deep connection more acutely.

The striving for individualism in all that we do can be a counterweight to our need for connection. Somehow I had come to view Judaism as an inflexible script until Rabbi Ezray taught me, in my Adult Bat Mitzvah class, how to embrace my own Judaism along with our Jewish community.  We don’t all need to have the same vision of God or, for that matter, any vision of God to be a Jew and part of the Jewish community. What we share is a responsibility for each other. As Rabbi Ilana put it, we need to witness each other’s lives and care for each other’s needs. This isn’t easy.  Like in a family– you don’t agree with everyone, and some of your family members may drive you crazy– but you are there for each other. And we need that connection and sense of belonging. Our individualism and work ethic in the fast pace of the Bay Area increases our need for connection. We need the built in work-life balance that Judaism gives us in Shabbat. It is good for our soul, good for our families and refreshing for our work. We need to share the holidays, our Simchas and our sorrows. We need to belong and we need community.

Being part of the Jewish community gives me a home in the big and frenetic world we live in. It gives me a touchstone for the values I believe in when all the complexities of life leave me confused. There have been so many times I have heard my friends talk about this in personal terms. Last year David Saul spoke about how the community embraced him after he suddenly lost his Mom. Gary Geller has spoken to me about how amazing it was for him to move 3000 miles to a new community and a new job without his wife and to be enveloped by our community’s welcome. So many have enjoyed the “chicken soup of the soul and body” delivered by the community when suffering from an illness.

I could go on and on. CBJ can be a home for you. But you do need to reach for it.

On Rosh Hashana I gave you some ideas about how to start. And there are so many more. So as we embark on this New Year, think about reaching out a little bit further to embracing your Jewish community here at CBJ. And we will continue our work at reaching you wherever you are.

G’mar Chatima Tova.