The Sacred building project continues…

Early last month I invited our Board of Trustees to my house.
With Rabbi Berlin (and my husband Larry’s) help,
I set up chairs, had food delivered, opened a few bottles of wine
and welcomed in 35 leaders and staff members into our home.
(Please don’t feel left out, you are ALL invited for sukkot)!

Holding a meeting in one’s home is nothing so original,
but the affect was profound.
It’s a different atmosphere than a conference room
and helps transform the nature of what needs to be accomplished
from meeting….to gathering….from agenda to visioning.
Spending time together as leaders, congregants and friends
helped remind us of why people volunteer do this work in the first place…
A passionate connection to and pride in our congregation
And a desire to be nurtured and uplifted by each other’s presence as well.

I presented the group with a series of questions
and invited them to write their answers on little colored post-its
making sure that everyone’s perspective would be preserved. 
The responses revealed that for most,
it is our sense of community that is most meaningful,
and it was clear that a desire to make sure that Temple is a place
where people feel comfortable and at ease was a major priority for all!

And a lot of people do already feel that connection.
But some do not. There may be those who are not that interested.
They feel good about membership for its own sake,
and that is perfectly fine.
We are glad to see you whenever you choose to come.

But if you are looking to Temple as a place to add more meaning in your life
and develop a deeper connection to community and to God as well,
then there is work to be done….and there always will be.

Last week we spoke about our sacred quest to craft a community
based on a connection to the past and a commitment to the future.
And we spoke about the fact that just as the Israelites
had brought gifts of the heart to build the Mishkan…
the portable Tabernacle, so too did members of our community
donate their time, skill and commitment
to construct this majestic synagogue and all its beautiful accouterments
we see displayed before us today.
I invited you to keep sharing your skills, talents and passions
as gifts to the congregation and to God….
we began to think about what it takes to craft a sacred community
with menshlkeit at its core.

On one hand it’s a daunting task this mensch-crafting….
and on the other hand its as simple as can be.
And while of course there is no magic formula
for creating connected community,
the initial steps are as straightforward as they are powerful
starting with the recognition that we all possess a great ability
to affect good in this world
when we live our lives in mindful connection with others.
As the great 18th Century Hasidic master Reb Nachman of Bratzlav taught:
“Each person reaches in three directions,”
Up to connect with the Creator
Out to link with other lives and
In to discover ourselves….

Personal reflection….community outreach….spiritual seeking.
They are all essential phases in our sacred construction project.

And what’s more, as we will see,
they are inextricably intertwined with each other as well.

Building Phase #1: Reaching In

We might be tempted to start with Temple…
after all its always fairly easy to critique our institutions,
a place with so many players and moving parts…
we can more easily remove ourselves from the equation
or the challenges that lie within.
And yet, the truth is when we turn to criticize others,
it’s just another veil that obscures our own self examination.

On this Yom Kippur eve, as we undertake the process of teshuvah,
Praying that we might be written into the book of life for yet another year
we are commanded not only to confront our own mortality
but to thoughtfully examine the life we have lived thus far.
For only by looking within can we hope to shine forth
as the person we most desire to be.

The Rabbis of the Talmud were concerned with self-reflection
and not only its impact on the here and now,
but with how our deeds would be perceived in the world to come
and so in the most Jewish of ways,
they crafted a series of 6 questions that we will theoretically have to answer
before the heavenly court when our time comes.

As we read in Tractate Shabbat (31a).

Each requires personal reflection
and the willingness to examine the intention we bring to our lives.

Each requires that we see ourselves through the lens
of what we do for ourselves and bring forth for others.

Question 1: Nasata v’natata b’emunah?

This is usually translated as
“Did we conduct our business dealings honestly?”
But it also requires us to consider,
“did we respect the work or contributions of others?
Have we been able to balance work and family?
Did we use our time wisely?...Do you reflect your best self to others?

Question 2: Kavata itim l’Torah?
Did we set aside fixed time for study for its own sake?
Ask yourself, have you made time for life long Jewish learning?
Have you given yourself permission to grow intellectually and spiritually?

Question 3: Asakta bepriya ureviya?
Did you bring children into this world?
The command ‘pru u’rvu…be fruitful and multiply can be a tricky one,
but whether you have children or not,
we all have a stake in the future of our community,
so you can ask yourself:  
“have you helped to foster and nurture Jewish family as a parent, grandparent or teacher?  
Have you made sure that families of all configurations
and children across the spectrum of needs
have been made to feel appreciated and welcome in our midst?

Question 4: Tzipita l’yeshua? Have you anticipated redemption?
What are the commitments you have made to serve the community?
What have you done for others?

Question 5: Pilpalta b’chochma? Did you seek wisdom?
Have you taken the time to learn from your own experiences?
Have you sought out the wisdom of others?

Question 6: Havanta dvar m’toch dvar?
Usually translated as did you understand one thing from another?
But we can read it as a way to challenge the life choices we have made.
Are they based on the priorities you have set?
Do you understand what matters to you
and do you lead a life that matters?

Each query should be one we ask not only at the end of our lives
but each and every day….
for they help us live a life full of thoughtfulness, awareness and intention.

As Rabbi Yael Ridberg explains: “these questions are really the questions
of an earthly court, in the present…
These questions challenge us to think about how to really live,
and not merely exist.
But on this day, we cannot put them off, for the questions are urgent
and demand that we begin to answer them for ourselves.”

By reaching in, looking at who we are and what we hope to be,
clarifying what matters most in our lives…
we are able to think about how best we can nurture our own well being and
reach out to others as well.

Building Phase 2: Reaching out

Since arriving in San Antonio, my popularity has really been on the rise.
Not only did I get my picture in the paper
(did you see that great shot from Erev Rosh Hashanah
with me and Jay Rubin in the San Antonio Express?)
but my number of friends on Facebook has drastically increased.
Not that I am displeased to have so many Temple members reaching out.
Quite on the contrary…
it’s a great way to see what’s going on in people’s lives….
as long as the connection doesn’t stop there….
You see, I am happy to be your ‘friend’ but I’d also love to be your rabbi!

Let’s make a time for coffee, or lunch, or a meeting in my study
or up at the J (I am there ever Tuesday afternoon from 4-6!)

I know I have a busy schedule…. so do you!
But what is most important to me especially in this first year
is not so much to learn everyone’s names (though believe me I am trying)
but to know your stories as well.

Before long we’ll have plenty of shared history together,
but in the meantime there is no better way to strengthen connections
then to understand what we have in common
as well as what makes us each interesting and unique.
It’s been great to hear that people are from the East coast originally,
or that they know my in-laws or are actually related to my in-laws.
I like knowing what kind of work people do
or the organizations they are passionate about and why.
But unless we each make an effort
our relationships will remain superficial at best.

And this worries me as your rabbi,
but also as a mother, daughter, sister and friend
for I find more and more that while
most of us are connected like crazy….
so many of us feel incredibly lonely all the same.
The ability or desire to invest in honest to goodness relationships is waning,
as we become more and more concerned
with recording and commenting on our lives
rather than focusing more intently on living them
and we are beginning to feel the affects.

Psychologist, Sherry Turkle shared this concern in a NYT op-ed
back in April of 2012 when she wrote,
“The move from conversation to connection
has reduced ‘messy & demanding’ human relationships
to edited postings of who we want to be, not who we really are.’
It’s a process in which we shortchange ourselves or worse…
Since the technologies provide the ‘illusion of companionship’
without the demands of relationship…(The Flight from Conversation NYT 4/22/12)

So how do we reverse the trend?
We can start by looking up and reaching out to see those around us.

What would it mean to turn off your email from erev Shabbat on Friday
to Saturday evening as the sun went down?
How would your conversations and connections be different
without the screen in between?

What would it feel like to make a call (even if a text would do)
not only to convey information and make a plan,
but to hear how your mother, or colleague or friend are doing?
Even if it took 5 or 10 minutes longer than you had planned,
would that be ‘wasting time’ or investing in relationship?

How would it feel to commit time each week to ‘just be’ at Temple? Whether at services,
or a program, a discussion or to hang out?

Nothing makes me happier when I am running around the building
on a Sunday morning, then to see clusters of people
gathered together…talking about a book in the library,
or watching their kids play together in the Jacobson garden…
or sitting in the nook outside the rabbis’ studies…
reading the paper, discussing the news. I see people who ‘get it’.

Maybe they are just killing time
until their kids get out of Religious School…
not wanting to make the round trip home and back.
But the way I see it, they are investing in each other
and creating community in the process.

Sitting with this year’s consecration parents in the Block conference room this past Sunday,
I made a pledge that I intend to keep.
That we will provide regular opportunities for our kids and families
to get to know each other and grow together
as religious school families…for sure…
but as members of a shared community that transcends age,
gender and family make up….
we will intentionally be crafting moments of meeting
for members of our congregation.

This is something that Mega Churches like Lakewood in Houston,
or Saddle Back in Lake Forest, CA or Cornerstone right up on 1604
here in San Antonio have been doing for ages with astounding success
and the only thing stopping us from doing it is ourselves.
We don’t need huge stages, rock bands
and jumbotron screens either. (Forbes, 6/26/09)
For despite the 20,000 + crowds these churches get each Sunday,
what really draws people in are the micro-communities
the churches work so hard to foster.

As it says on the Saddle Back Church website:
“Life is not meant to be lived alone….You were created to experience life with other people,
and that’s why at Saddleback,
we encourage you to get into a small group.
Small groups gather each week in a home, workplace, or online.
In a group you’ll hang out, study the Word, and pray together…
No matter where you are in life, there’s a group for you.”

Christian fellowship aside, it’s a community building lesson
we would be fools to ignore.
If our ultimate goal is to be engaged in a joyful,
meaningful and passionate Jewish communal life
then we must recognize that one size fits all rarely fits anybody!
We must be open to reaching out and strengthening connections
for all who are seeking even if it is not in the usual way.

This is as much about all of us as committed members to temple
as it is about a mind shift for the institution itself.  
And though we do many things well…we can do better.
As Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of our Reform movement
challenged us this past December,
when he spoke about a culture of welcoming.
“…being welcomed at the door, even by greeters with nametags on their clothes,
smiles on their faces, and hospitality in their DNA still isn't enough.
Audacious hospitality isn't just a temporary act of kindness
so that people don't feel left out;
it's an ongoing invitation to be part of a community
where we can become all that God wants us to be –
and a way to transform ourselves in the process.
Audacious hospitality is a two-way street,
…Hospitality is not just our chance to teach newcomers but,
just as important, an opportunity for them to teach us.”

We are quite fortunate to have a vibrant sisterhood,
active brotherhood and other wonderful ongoing programs
like Machar, SAFTY, Saturday morning Torah study,
meals on wheels, book groups and more.
Each of these groups is concerned with
and committed to building community.

But we can broaden our reach still further by narrowing our approach.
So we will be organizing gatherings for new members
and perspective members with the rabbis and cantor
and Temple leadership here and in people’s homes…
not so much so we can tell you about us,
but so that we can hear about you and your family.

We’ll be building an inter-faith network at Temple…
not only continuing with the wonderful outreach
and partnerships we have with other faith based communities
around San Antonio, but continuing to build on the amazingly
in-depth work our intro to Judaism and conversion students do.
Creating bridges for them into Temple life
by meeting with other ‘Jews by choice’….
and creating forums for our non Jewish members
who support their families and commit to Jewish community for their sake.

And we are hosting several worship forums in December
to discuss the innovations and experimentation
we are doing here at Temple this year….
all this in addition to our adult learning opportunities,
holiday celebrations and of course
Shabbat every Friday and Saturday as well…. and there is room for more.

Whatever groups exist formally or informally that help you build connection….
a knitting group….a mahjong foursome, a family chavurah….
a Shabbat dinner group….., let us know about them
so we can celebrate the sacred community feeling they bring
and you can model them for others too!

Building Phase 3: Reaching Up

By reaching out to those around us, and taking the time to look within,
we are also reaching out to God!
I believe that this is the phase that transcends the others,
even as it provides them with the essential support they need to flourish.

God we are taught in Pirkei Avot dwells among us in a variety of ways….
the rabbis said that God’s holy presence resides among us
when two study Torah or when 3 or more eat and discuss Torah.
The Talmud teaches that God dwells with us
when we do gimilut chasadim…acts of loving kindness.
When we are kind, thoughtful and invested human beings
we bring God’s presence into the world.
Striving towards this goal is what Yom Kippur and teshuvah are all about….
As Rabbi Yitz Greenberg teaches,
Teshuvah assures us that we have the ability to change,
to grow to reshape our lives.
By becoming conscious of what we are doing,
by being willing to change, we turn from serving time to serving life….
we create a new self, more loving, more connected to others.
Thus we become co-creators of the most precious things on earth-
human beings created in the image of God….ourselves.”

Each open conversation we have with another,
each spiritual discovery we make and then share with another,
each moment in time we put aside our own immediate needs
to care for someone else’s that are more pressing,
we are building a connection to God.

As Reb Nachman taught:
 “Each person reaches in three directions
Up to connect with the creator
Out to link with others
In to discover ourselves.
And the miracle of creation, is this:
When a person reaches in any one direction
she or he makes contact with all three.

On this Yom Kippur eve as we ready ourselves
for the day of introspection and reckoning that is to come,
may we not only take Reb Nachman’s teaching to heart but pledge to integrate it
into the fabric of the life of our community…

Reaching in….
challenging ourselves to be more thoughtful and generous human beings.
Endeavoring to live each day in a way that would pass muster
with the heavenly court on high…

Reaching out… Deepening our relationships
opening up ourselves to more genuine connection with others
and sharing in acts of audacious hospitality with friends and strangers a like

And reaching up to strengthen our connection to the holy one with open hearts and minds…
filling our lives with greater intent
so that this place and this space might radiate holiness within and without
For many more generations to come.