Every year (unless I fall asleep*), I try to write up my thoughts on the Rabbi’s sermons. Sometimes it is something that resonated with me; other times, it is things I thought the Rabbi missed. Whichever is the case, this helps cement what I remember about the sermon in my head. Last night was Erev Rosh Hashanah (if, indeed, that term is correct), and Rabbi Shawna gave the sermon, so guess who is the lucky winner?
There were two main themes that I could discern in Rabbi Shawna’s sermon which, at least to me, weren’t connected as well as they could have been. Both were good points to be making; they just came across a little disjointed. Let’s explore each of them.
The first dealt with getting outside of your comfort zone, and the importance of doing that if you are going to achieve any form of personal growth and improvement. This is something I understood well–it is the main reason I accepted the mantle of leadership in $mens_club. Handling the logistics and running organizations isn’t a problem, and is well within my comfort zone from my work on ACSAC. However, going out there and interacting with strangers to sell an organization: that’s extremely uncomfortable. Being in a position where I have to occasionally say “no” to people. Outside my comfort zone. Making blind telephone calls to congregants to welcome them. Very outside my comfort zone. Yet these are skills that will serve me well in the future.
So I strongly agreed with Shawna’s call for people to get outside their comfort zone. I wish it had gone a little further — in particular, calling people to get more involved with organizations at the synagogue. It is far too comfortable to go to synagogue twice a year or for the occasional service, never get to know anyone, and be hidden in the corner. It takes effort — especially for introverts — to go out and get involved with groups like $mens_club or $sisterhood or $committee. Yet these are just the small groups where you can meet people easier and try on leadership capabilities.
Shawna, instead, used the notion of going outside your comfort zone to connect to the recent NFL scandals, and to the importance of speaking out against domestic violence. She connected this to Jewish notions about defending the downtrodden, and how we have imperatives to prevent this. Again, I didn’t think she went far enough. We need to realize how our actions reflect to others statements not only about us as individuals, but us as groups.
Last week, I listened to a wonderful “This American Life” titled “A Not So Simple Majority”. The prologue described the show thusly:
Before the war in the East Ramapo, New York school district, there was a truce. Local school officials made a deal with their Hasidic and ultra-Orthodox Jewish neighbors: we’ll leave you alone to teach your children in private yeshivas as you see fit as long as you allow our public school budget to pass. But the budget is funded by local property taxes, which everyone, including the local Hasidim, have to pay — even though their kids don’t attend the schools that their money is paying for. What followed was one of the most volatile local political battles we’ve ever encountered.
What followed was a story about how the Orthodox community took over the school board, refused to listen to community input, decimated the public schools seemingly to move forward in the Yeshivot’s best interest, and thoroughly divided the community. Listening to the piece (which everyone should do) raised numerous discussion issues about who was right, who was wrong, and so forth. Related to the sermon, however, is one more issue: appearance.
Irrespective (and that’s the prefix “in-” as an intensive) of the “rightness” of the O side, what did their appearance and how they behave say about them and about the Jewish community. Did it project a bad image that opened the door to antisemitism? On the other hand, would such an argument be analogous to the claims that women need to restrain how they dress and act because men can’t control themselves. Where is the balance between how our behavior says something about us, and how latent attitudes come out with respective of behavior?
The answer, of course, it that we should not restrain our behavior because of how it might impact others, but more so, because our behavior is a reflection of our values. The Orthodox behavior was wrong because it showed that their value was their own self-interest over the interest of the down-trodden in the community (which may have been a behavior outside their comfort zone — caring about someone not in your own community). Similarly, tolerating domestic or physical abuse and not speaking out or doing something is wrong, because it reflects an acceptance of those values. Being ethical comes from within, and must be reflected in everything we do. (Or, as I say in MoTAS (Men of Temple Ahavat Shalom, otherwise known as $mens_club), because we’re the role models).
Let’s connect this back to the first idea of comfort zones and getting involved in synagogue life. Often, we don’t get involved because we had a bad experience, or we feel the synagogue is a “Marble House full of Plastic People”. That’s comfortable, but that also sends the message that such behavior is acceptable in a congregation. Act up. Fight AIDS (oops, wrong musical). Act Up. Get on those committees and boards and force change from within (a palace revolt) so that our Jewish institutions can reflect Jewish values of today.
People ask me why I got involved with MoTAS. It certainly wasn’t for power or glory, or even (completely) to learn skills. It wasn’t for “male bonding”, as I still have no idea what that it. Rather, it was to help make MoTAS, and hopefully the congregation, the place I believe it can be. A place where the esteem in which you are held is based on what you do and how you live, vs. how many zeros you can write on a check. A place where fundraisers can involve everyone — from those for whom $10,000 is noise, to those for whom $18 is a significant outlay. When your organization only asks for the large contributions, what does it say about your attitude towards those who can’t make large contributions? People often don’t realize those subtleties (just, as I’m sure some friends of mine will point out, those benefitting from “white privlege” often don’t even realize it).
Get out of your comfort zone and your complacency at your congregations. Get involved, and make those organizations reflect the values and attitudes that care about the poor members as well as the rich members, the moved as well as the movers, the shaken as well as the shakers. Be the example this coming year about how to do things right.
[so folks know, I often never know where these posts will end up until I write them — the message just seems to want to get out on its own.]
* P.S.: As I’m now on the Board at temple, I was honored by sitting on the bimah last night. Little known fact: The people on the bimah can see you when you are sleeping during the sermon. Yes, you. Fourth row, end of the aisle. And you, in the back.