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High Holidays Yom Kippur 5780- Rabbi Kami Knapp

High Holidays Yom Kippur 5780- Rabbi Kami Knapp

Why should I and how do I belong?

Welcome, my name is Rabbi Kami Knapp and I’m happy to see many of the same faces tonight which I saw on Rosh Hashanah and last night at Kol Nidre. And hello to all those joining/ rejoining us today. I hope the past ten days for you have been contemplative, restorative, and healing. On Rosh Hashanah I began each of my sermons with a question, a question not just for now but a question pondered for generations. Questions like: As the shofar sounds, what should I be aware of? Why do the High Holidays really matter, especially this year? And what I am supposed to be doing and why is teshuva so hard? I hope my sermons provided you with some inspiration to think deeply about these questions.

This year’s theme to the High Holidays is repair, renewal and regrowth. We spoke about repair over Rosh Hashanah and a little last night, and today I want to focus on renewal and regrowth. Not individual renewal and regrowth but communal. 

Today’s questions are: Why should I belong to a Jewish community? How do I belong?

I want to preface this sermon by clarifying that the word belonging does not only mean joining. Belonging means feeling connected, sharing a common goal, experiencing similar values, as those around you. Today I use the term “belong” to speak to all in this room: those seeking and those who have joined. 

I also want to name that I am going to talk in generalities for the sake of being concise. I am naming that the experiences I describe, the history and reasons for community, are generalizations and each individual has their own experience which may not be reflected in the generalities. 

Many of you know that I am an avid sculler (rower). When I’m not at synagogue I am at the river, the Schuylkill. Both communities are integral to my life. In addition to racing, I am an assistant coach for my club and we recently began a 6 week learn to row class which we offer every season. We had just finished rowing and as I followed my coach and a student of the class I heard the following: 

Coach: I assume you aren’t coming next week since it’s Rosh Hashanah. 

Student: How did you know that?

Coach: I have a close friend who is Jewish and a rabbi. (that’s me)

Student: Oh! Well, no, I will be here next Monday night, it’s just the second day of the holiday. And I can only sit through one day of my daughter complaining the entire time about how bored she is. And well, I can understand her.

As I drove home that night, and ever since then, my innocent eavesdropping has stayed with me. I don’t share this story to shame him or try and make an example of him for not coming to services second day (although I love for everyone to come to as many services as they can), I share this story because of the reasons he gave for not coming. 1. He didn’t want to be a broken record telling his daughter over and over: “We are staying. It’s just one day a year. It’s not boring. Listen to the Rabbi.” 2. He also found it boring and so much so that he didn’t want to come back the second day. Because he didn’t want to go to second day services did not mean he was inactive in his community. I use this story because we have all felt like this no matter how active we are in community. I want to use his story and his decision as an example as to why people may not be affiliated or more involved in their communities.

So I wanted to explore all the reasons that could underlie one’s decision to not be involved in community:

  1. Perhaps the person doesn’t understand nor connect with the prayers. Services are in a language they don’t know, in which they don’t take part.
  2. Resentment: A person may feel like they were dragged to synagogue as a kid and now that person is an adult, why do they have to make themselves come? 
  3. This one hurts a bit but maybe this person doesn’t like the clergy.

But the final two reasons I can think of are the ones I want to focus on, the reasons I think are the biggest reasons why people to not belong or engage deeply:

  1. A person doesn’t feel connected or a part of the community. They don’t feel that they belong.
  2. They feel they get nothing back, personally. A person pays money for a membership that they feel does nothing for them. 

I guarantee that every person in this room has experienced these final two feelings. Every person. Whether experienced here or another community. So why should I and how do I engage deeply with a community? Before discussing this question let us first explore what is the necessity for community at all?

Where did the notion of a Jewish community begin? Torah! And when do you think the first Jewish community was formed? Not with Adam and Eve, not with Abraham and Sarah, not with Jacob and Rachel and Leah. But it was formed at Mount Sinai… But there were Hebrews before mount sinai! Until Mount Sinai, being a Hebrew was an identity, a genetic ancestry. The Hebrews were targeted by Pharaoh because of their identity. Through their wandering they became B’nei Yisrael. The B’nei Yisrael came to Mt Sinai and there, after the Golden Calf fiasco, a covenant was made between the B’nei Yisrael and G-d and they became a true community. They became a community by accepting the covenant, a contract, a mission, a common goal and belief system. They said: Na’aseh v’nishma, we will do and we will listen.

Community is defined as a group of people with a common interest, a body of persons having a common history or common social, economic, or political interests. The definition of community says nothing about genetics, ancestry, or even the term identity. Community is a social state not a biological state. So by their acceptance of the covenant each Israelite was saying I choose to enter into this community. 

Fast forward hundreds of years. Jewish communities remain together because of land proximity and Judaism as the dominant theology. The temples became the central pillar for all Jewish communities and enabled them to become one large community. Come the destruction of the second temple these communities began to disperse. Over the next hundreds of years as different tribes, peoples, and nations claimed the land of Israel, Jewish communities spread further and further. The Talmud (redacted in the 4th and 5th century CE) specifies how to create a Jewish community: “A talmid hakham (Torah scholar) is not allowed to live in a city that does not have these 10 things: a beit din (law court) that metes out punishments; a tzedakah fund that is collected by two people and distributed by three; a synagogue; a bath house (mikveh ); a bathroom; a doctor; a craftsperson; a blood-letter; (some versions add: a butcher); and a teacher of children.” (Sanhedrin 17b)

Therefore, in order to form a Jewish community, people had to 1: intend to be a collective, and 2: they had to make intention a reality by creating these places necessary for sustaining Jewish life. Throughout history, a vast majority of Jews remained in Jewish community because it was what they knew and where they could live without fear of violence and death within their community. The community provided them with a synagogue, a place to gather for prayer. 

Then the period of enlightenment was born and it began to gain followers, including those within Jewish communities. On September 27, 1791, inspired by the enlightenment, a historical moment happened for the Jews, a moment which set in motion questioning whether one must remain in Jewish community. September 27, 1791, the Declaration of Man and of The Citizen was approved by the National Assembly of France. This declaration read that all are equal, and this included Jewish equality. “Conte de Clermont‑Tonnerre, in his famous speech to the National Assembly (December 1789), explicitly demanded that the Jews not be excluded from article X of the Declaration of Rights. Therefore, he said, “The Jews should be denied everything as a nation, but granted everything as individuals.” (my jewish learning) Here we see the beginning of individualism and an outright challenge to Jewish community. In order to secure their own personal equality, it was declared that they should not be recognized as a collective.

Overtime, as assimilation grew and equality increased, opportunities became available to Jews that were never there before. Jews began to entertain thoughts of rising in society and have equality with their Christian neighbors. Jews became integral to political systems, they became beougersie, their families became names within social circles. But regardless of their higher economic or social status, Jews always remained Jews, the other, the collective. Therefore, many Jewish communities remained. But Jews began to think about how to balance modernism (which praised individualism) with tradition (rooted in the collective). This gave rise to different forms of Judaism: reform Judaism, Orthodoxy, Conservative, and much more. In the 20th century, for most Jews, as they rose in society and they lived less and less in isolated communities, synagogues were transformed to be not only centers of prayer but community centers, places to gather. Jews participated in Jewish life through membership to a synagogue. And the Jewish communities’ core values were maintaining Jewish life, participating in Jewish life, and supporting the synagogue. For most, being a member of a synagogue was an obligation, an expectation, a priority. 

But over the past 30-40 years assimilation has exploded. Jews were given access to universities without quotas, Jews could belong to country clubs and resorts that historically barred them from joining, Jews began to hold high levels of leadership in business and politics. In large cities, we now find ourselves privileged and perceived as being fully equal with our non-Jewish neighbors. We can go unidentifiable as Jews as long as we don’t wear religious garb. Jews can live anywhere, they can belong to almost any social group. 

And what has happened in tandem with assimilation, amongst not only Jews but all the people of this generation, my generation, is the growth of the individualist mentality (some call it the self-serving mentality), the “what’s in it for me”, the “I create my reality”, “I choose my life’s path”. These are not bad ways to view life but as individualism grows naturally communal life recedes. This is not unique to Jewish communities, this is affecting every faith community. People no longer feel they need faith, they no longer believe in faith. The most recent Pew study from 2013 reported: “American Jews overwhelmingly say they are proud to be Jewish and have a strong sense of belonging to the Jewish people, according to a major new survey by the Pew Research Center. But the survey also suggests that Jewish identity is changing in America, where one-in-five Jews (22%) now describe themselves as having no religion.” (Pew Report 2013)

Taking all these factors into consideration questions arise: Do I need a Jewish community? Why would I belong to a synagogue, a faith based institution, when I don’t identify with religion? Why should I deeply engage in the community if I don’t get anything out of it?

None of this is judgement. I respect everyone’s decisions on when and why people decide to participate in Jewish community, I can respect a person’s decision not to be part of a Jewish community. But I truly believe that people rob themselves and their families by electing not to be in and active in Jewish community. I understand the barriers to being deeply involved in Jewish community, namely a synagogue:

  • Not understanding Hebrew
  • Not understanding or connecting with prayer
  • Not feeling connected to the people or the clergy
  • Jewish involvement competes with other important things in our lives: sports, social groups, even work. 
  • It’s expensive and people are drowning in debt and trying to save for college.

I get it. I’m living it too.

But I believe all of these barriers can be either knocked down or navigated. I not only believe, I guarantee it. And I guarantee that overcoming these barriers and deeply engaging with a synagogue is good for you for your spirit, your health, and your future. 

We are here on Yom Kippur and these prayers speak to us. They tell us, set examples for us, on what we can receive from belonging to a synagogue.

Yom Kippur is the most highly attended day in every synagogue. Why? For various reasons: obligation (whether it be religious or familial), guilt, spiritual renewal, honoring tradition, and many other reasons. But the point is, most people make it a point to be here today. There is something, in almost all of us, that draws us to this day, that draws us to the holiness of this day, that draws us to community. That draw, that pull, is the foundation for belonging to a Jewish community. We must all have it because we are all here today, but I argue we have this pull all year, but for whatever reason we don’t follow it. Therefore, Jewish community is innate for us, it’s instinctual, it’s home.

Kol Nidre: the first “prayer” we say entering the day of Yom Kippur. Its intent is to annul all vows between us and G-d, we speak to G-d. And one must show up in community and utter this legal formulation in order to be annulled. Kol Nidre symbolically shows us that we belong to Jewish community because it provides a place for us to connect with G-d, it provides a place where we can connect with something outside of ourselves. And this is so needed in today’s world which is so I- focused. Synagogue provides a place to find our uniqueness while connecting with that which is outside ourselves. From community, we receive holiness.

Shema Koleinu: Hear our voice. This prayer is a plea to G-d to hear our voices. We belong to Jewish community because it provides a place for us to share our voice. A healthy Jewish community, which I believe at our core we are, allows all voices to the table and we genuinely hear one another. Hear the joys, the sadness, the challenges, the anger, the concern. Synagogue allows us a place to be heard. 

Vidui and Ashamnu: These prayers form the core of our confession to G-d on Yom Kippur. We confess in community because we hold each other accountable for repentance while also supporting each other in this hard work. These prayers represent the necessity of our synagogues being a place for accountability. A place to hold ourselves and each other accountable. Accountable for our involvement, accountable to our commitments, and accountable for financial support of the institution. In synagogue, we live out authenticity and accountability.

Thirteen Attributes: This prayer was given to Moses, by G-d, after the Golden Calf incident. G-d says that people may be absolved of their sins by reciting this prayer. It became and is a pillar of our liturgy. It is a unifying prayer for all. It’s a common language that we all know, that does the same thing for us all: absolves us. This prayer symbolizes unity and a common goal. Synagogues provide us with a place to come together and work toward common goals. Synagogue is a place where we can work together to inspire the next generation of Judaism and insure that it flourishes for our great, great, great grandchildren. In synagogue, we insure Jewish continuity.

Yizkor: in this part of the service we honor our loved ones who have passed. This represents the deep connection to our past and our loved ones which is held as a sacred value in a synagogue. A place where we share our loses, receive support in the moment and also support for our people’s dear ones for time immemorial. In synagogue, we receive a place to honor and memorialize and a place to be held in these moments.

And Neilah: the final service of Yom Kippur. The service which marks the closing of the heavenly gates and we receive our decree of what the new year holds for us. Neilah is also our last opportunity to appeal to G-d, to atone, to say I commit to not doing this in the future. The synagogue is a place of commitment. And just as we have the Neilah service which allows us to pledge our commitment to a healthy future, we have membership which allows us to pledge our commitment to the health of this community. In synagogue, we enter into a place which supports us through our individual lives and commitment allows us to show our appreciation for this support.

As you can see being part of a Jewish community, a synagogue is rich and provides so much. We receive all of these things. But what drives people to fully receive and grow with and from Jewish community? At the root people join and deeply commit to community because they feel they belong. Rabbi Mordechai Kaplan argues that belonging leads to believing. That people must feel they belong before they begin to believe in the place or believe in G-d. So, here are my tips on facilitating a process of belonging. And belonging applies to all, both those seeking and those already here.

  1. Bring your full self: to feel a sense of belonging we must allow ourselves to be our full selves, to connect with others from a place of authentic self, to represent ourselves as our core selves. This leads to authentic connection. 
  2. Really commit: I know time is limited. I know energy is limited. But commit to contributing to the community in at least one area, but hopefully more! Serve on a committee, participate in community programming, join the sisterhood or men’s club, give back through social action, financially support the community.
  3. Give it time: like all relationships, belonging takes time to cultivate. Try not to dismiss the community because we don’t do this, or you don’t like the way that is done. Use your voice to share with us your feelings (we can’t change unless we know what people want!) and give it time so that you can fully explore the many facets of the community and we can hear your voice.
  4. Ride through the awkwardness: joining a club or sport, starting a new school or job, is always awkward at first. And I’m sorry to say, cultivating a sense of belonging has an awkward phase. But it will pass.
  5. Help create renewal: contribute your voice to a plan for the future. Contribute to Jewish continuity and making Judaism relevant for our times.
  6. Make sure that renewal turns into regrowth: and invest your energy and time to insure that the dreams of renewal become a reality through growth. 

Gaining and finding a sense of belonging doesn’t come easy but I guarantee that finding a sense of belonging will inspire you to join, recommit, double down on commitment, financially support the Jewish community, to this Jewish community. 

Our tradition teaches that we must balance our individualism and our individual needs with the needs of the community.  We have just entered a new year and with a new year comes new resolutions. I invite you to deeply engage in this community, to join this community, to support this community both communally and financially. I guarantee that the more you invest the more you will nourish yourself, your soul, your spirituality, your sense of belonging. We need you and we are excited to have you! Let’s, together, create a supportive community, let’s create a thriving community, let’s make Judaism relevant for our lives today and let’s do this together.