Looking Out; Looking In; Looking Up: A Vision for Beth El

October 1, 2015

Looking Out; Looking In; Looking Up:
A Vision for Beth El
Rabbi Greg Harris
Congregation Beth El, Bethesda, Maryland
High Holidays 5776

I stand here filled with gratitude.

We have a blessing for such a moment – the Shehecheyanu.

Blessed are You, Lord our God, King of the Universe, who has granted us life, sustained us and enabled us to reach this moment. 

This is my 14th High Holidays at Beth El and my first as Beth El’s head rabbi.

And I am grateful.

At Beth El, I found mentors and guides like Sam Scolnic z’l, Bill Rudolph, and Abe Lubin, and 8 shul Presidents.  We found friends in the Beth El community and we have all shared countless s’machot and sadnesses together.

For me, this is a Shehecheyanu moment:

Baruch atah Adonai, Elohenu melekh ha’olam,

shehecheyanu vekiyemanu vehigi’anu lazeman hazeh

As the new head rabbi, my relationships with you will deepen and I want you to understand more about me. You already know I am from San Francisco, I love the Giants baseball team, I am on and off again with both my running and learning to play guitar.

But, what you might not know is the burning question that has motivated me throughout my career. Over almost 25 years, I have worked at the Anti-Defamation League and Jewish Federation.  I have been an Executive Director of a private foundation.  I have been a chaplain for those suffering from addiction and HIV.  I have been with people when they took their last breath and others on the day of their first breath.  Each experience has brought me insight into the question that has pulsed under all this:

How are Jewish communities shaped, influenced, and made relevant?

Let me tell you what I have learned about the Beth El community and then lay out my vision.

Perhaps reading the front pages of Jewish newspapers or the results of national surveys will convince you that Conservative Judaism is on the decline, Yet, keep me company in the atrium of the shul on a Sunday morning or Tuesday night, and you will find yourself standing amidst a stream of people  coming from work or working out.  Some enter with their walkers, others with a child in tow. Guys show up in Beth El softball jerseys, adult learners with notebook and chumash in hand, and committee members with coffee and ideas. The energy is palpable in the hallways, classrooms and meeting rooms at Beth El.

For many, Beth El has become their “3rd place”.  As sociologist Ray Oldenburg describes, there is home and work and then the 3rd place, where you chose to spend time to learn something new and connect with other people.  It is where you feel noticed and grounded.   Our focus on engagement and making Beth El your “3rd place” extends to every age and interest group within our community.  From high school seniors to senior citizens, you have a place here.  Whether you are married or single, play bridge or basketball, spend Shabbat in a minyan or other places, there is a lot to be excited about and you have a place here.

This is the case because together, we have developed a synagogue culture that believes in empowerment, risk taking and tailored Jewish experiences.

  • Empowering members to create new experiences and partner together. Beth El’s culture is not ‘top down’ but most often our creativity comes from you expressing your interest and desire to do something.
  • Risk taking – As a community, we are not afraid of trying new things. We have developed a confidence that small failures can lead to big successes.
  • Creating tailored Jewish experiences – Together, we work to create smaller intimate spaces for experiences because ‘one size does not fit all.’

With this incredible Beth El culture, I want to share my vision for us and offer a frame for our efforts over the next years.

In brief, we should look out, look in and look up.

First, looking out – community leadership.

Looking out means seeing the broader community within which we live.  Many Jewish communal leaders make Beth El their synagogue home because of our commitment to looking beyond the walls of the shul.   The current President of Federation and many past Presidents have found their home at Beth El.  Beth El members act as the professional and lay leadership at the JCC, Jewish Foundation for Group Homes, Jewish Day School, Hebrew Home, AIPAC, JStreet, AJC, Hebrew Free Loan Association, Jewish Social Service Agency, Jewish Community Relations Council, Hillels in the area, and so many other groups.

Just as Beth El attracts leaders of the Jewish community, other congregants serve in leadership positions in more secular organizations like Shepherd’s Table, Interfaith Works, Manna Food Center, Habitat for Humanity, Bethesda Cares, and KEEN.

And I believe we can look out even further.

We can add Beth El’s voice to help shape the local Jewish and wider Montgomery County community.  Within this, there are two things I want to do this year as part of our community leadership.

One is that as we look out from Beth El, I will be convening the first ever Beth El Non-Profit Roundtable. This gathering will be open to Beth El members who are involved in organizations addressing needs in the County.  Educational or environmental needs, social services or otherwise.  Bringing these leaders together in a strategic way will leverage our relationships for an even greater impact.  With this Roundtable, I know 1+1 will equal far more than 2.

If you would like to join this discussion, please email me.  I do not believe we can solve all the social problems of the county but I do believe strongly that we can enhance our relationships and partnerships in addressing our community’s needs. By bringing community leaders together who are already involved in Beth El, we will foster new ideas and bridges between organizations at Beth El and beyond.

The second is I am going to ask our shul President to work with the Board and Executive Director to determine if there are additional ways to utilize our building in support of local social service initiatives. We have built an incredible building which is used in multiple ways.  Beyond our own space needs, I love seeing students coming into the building for driver ed classes and others coming for exercise classes.  These are good partnerships with local organizations.  But, I am interested in thinking through if we could do more.  Would we sponsor an AA meeting in our building as we once did?  Could we strengthen our partnerships with Bethesda Cares or other groups by matching our space and their needs?   Possibly.  These are two ways to enhance our communal leadership at Beth El.

Next is looking in – looking into our caring community.

Looking within the Beth El community, we can be proud of how we are continually working to help people take root here.  And we can do more to strengthen our sense of a caring community.

This is important to me because as I witness significant moments in people’s lives – birth, death, illness, divorce, and transition, I know these are the moments that being part of a synagogue community makes a difference.  For the synagogue community to be relevant to people’s lives, we need to be supportive and accessible for people in these moments.

Generally, we are excellent at responding immediately after a crisis.  I have seen time and again when a house is full of people for a minyan or a refrigerator is packed with lasagnas from friends.  But what happens 3 month later?  6 months later?  A year?

In my vision of our caring community, we would respond to these types of needs with open hearts and hands.  After the immediacy of the crisis has past, a challah would be delivered on a doorstep or someone would make sure some chicken soup arrived.  Someone could accompany you to minyan for a yartzeit.  You would receive a call from someone within the shul just to check in and not only from the clergy.

We do not have the institutional structures to do this yet… but together we will create the caring community we all want to be part of.  We will reinvigorate the Chesed Committee (Compassion Committee) so we can connect with people beyond the moments of crisis.

These are the moments when people should feel most valued at Beth El.  We respond to the immediate so well and I want us to build from that.

We have looked out – expanding our community leadership; and looked in – strengthening our actions as a caring community.  Now let’s look up and wrestle with God.

Like the Psalmist wrote (Ps 121:1):

Shir Hamaalot.  Esah aynah el he’harim

I lift my eyes up to the mountains.

Whether it is around the table at ‘Jews and Brews’ or in a conversation on Bethesda Avenue, people frequently explain to me they are spiritual but not religious.  Many times they are telling me this as a guilt response for having not been to services in a while.  But I am struck by this divide – between God and spirituality.

I think it is a difference without a distinction.

God and Spirituality are pointing in the same direction.  But, some people believe in God but do not want the rituals.  Others want to engage in the familiarity of the rituals without feeling a sense of obligations from the Divine.  And still others want to access Judaism’s ancient wisdom without committing to the process of being exposed to the texts.  This is not just a Jewish thing.  I have a friend who is a pastor and we often try to understand this.

For too long, clergy throughout America have reacted as if spirituality was a challenge to traditional religious institutions. And inversely, spiritual seekers have looked far afield from those houses of worship.

However we articulate this, I believe we are drawn to the idea that there is something greater than ourselves – no matter what we call it.  Surveys have quantified it and anecdotally, we know this is true.

I searched Google for ‘spirituality’ and found almost 98 million hits. I googled ‘God’, whose social media department has been at it longer, and found 1.54 trillion web hits. People are searching… even on the web.

I am interested in how we bridge the perceived divide at Beth El between people who want spirituality and those who want God, those expressing disbelief and others with healthy questioning.  This will not be news to you – I love to struggle with you about God.  God and spirituality is a core area for a synagogue and clergy to address.

As a community, let’s get more comfortable in exploring God and spirituality while respecting each other’s practices and remaining authentic to Judaism.

The Worship Committee and I have had initial discussions about how to engage in a community conversation about prayer and worship at Beth El.  What does prayer mean to us as individuals?  What does it mean personally to connect with God? How is the current worship experience at Beth El meaningful and what might happen here to engage more people?  How do we make sure that we are not only thinking about Shabbat experiences but minyanim in the morning and evening and even thinking beyond the structures of formal prayer services.

I believe Judaism has the right tools for engaging people in meaningful experiences and conversations about the Divine.  We just have to be willing to look up together.

Look out – community leadership; look in – caring community; look up – wrestling with God.

I want to close with a story.  In sharing my vision for Beth El, I have to mention our patriarch Jacob.

Jacob was not a religious person until later in life.  Unlike his father Isaac and grandfather Abraham, Jacob did not interact with God in his youth.  Jacob’s youth was a bit rough and tumble.  He stole his older brother Esau’s birthright with the lentil soup.  Then he stole the parental blessing by tricking their father.  The peshat, the straight reading of the text, paints an unkind picture of Jacob.

And then something occurs.  The Torah gives us no significant details of Jacob’s journey across Eretz Yisrael but a life changing event happens.  As Jacob is on a physical and spiritual journey, he lays down for the night.  Jacob had a dream.

It is a dream of a ladder with angels going up and down.  In the dream, God stands next to Jacob and says:  V’hiyne Anochi Imach “Behold / Realize, God is with you”   (Gen 28:15)

Jacob wakes and says “Surely God is in this place and I did not know it.” (Gen 28:16)

His life is transformed.

Why am I telling you this?

Va’yekra et shem ha’makom ha’hu beit-el – The Torah tells us that Jacob calls that place of transformation Beth El.

In the Torah, Beth El was a place of spiritual journey and a place where God was found even when it was initially not known.  It was a place ripe for transformation to occur.

Our Beth El can also be such a place.

Looking out – community leadership, Looking in – a caring community, looking up – wrestling together. Together, Beth El will be a place where we can transform ourselves, strengthen ourselves, and share ourselves.

So back to my burning question that has shaped my entire career: how are Jewish communities shaped, influenced, and made relevant?  There is no single answer.  But what I have learned is that the quest to find those answers has brought me into touch with experiences I could never imagine and people I cherish deeply.

I am grateful for each day and humbled by the partners who join me along the way.

I pray that in the new year, we sustain the strength and creativity to make Beth El a place of transformation as we focus on community leadership, our caring community and together, wrestling with God.

Shana Tova U’metuka