Every once in a while, quite often actually, I am asked what my vision for the shul is. “What’s your dream, Rabbi, for Ner Tamid?”
Really these questions are a cover for very particular question. Though people use broad words like vision, or dream, they’re really just trying to avoid using a word that rhymes with pizza. Or maybe metzitza. And like pizza and metzitza, it’s a topic that is controversial and gives many people indigestion.
But today, it’s the last Shabbos of this crazy year, so I will answer the question. You’re ready?
This is my vision, my dream for Ner Tamid:
This past week, someone joined us for evening services. He was in mourning and asked to lead davening. He also happened to be a Satmar chossid, and so his davening sounded something like this: “Boo-reech ahtaw…” I loved it because I dream of a shul in which Jews of all stripes feel comfortable in these walls. All Jews. And that means that on Shabbos, no one should be able to find parking for at least five blocks around the shul, not because we endorse driving to shul on Shabbos but because people who do feel comfortable coming to our shul. It means that in the shul, you will see streimels and t-shirts, black hats and doilies, kippot srugot and no covering at all. All Jews. A shul in which Jews of all races, orientations, and all identifications can say this place is my spiritual home.
Though we sometimes struggle with our weekday minyan, what I love about it is its intimacy. It is such a small crowd that everyone seems to know each other’s name, everyone knows when a regular is missing. I dream of a shul where we may not all be best friends – that’s not realistic, but where everyone knows everyone’s name. A shul in which, if someone is missing even for a Shabbos, they get a call or a text to let them know they were missed.
Many children in this shul went to camp this summer. I love sleep away camp. The energy that is generated in those setting is very hard to replicate anywhere else. In speaking to these boys and girls there is one recurring theme – regardless of where they went to camp, one of their top highlights is Friday night services in camp, in which the campers, their counselors, the head stuff would welcome Shabbos with beautiful energy-filled singing and dancing. The energy in summer camps is awesome. I dream of a shul in which every Shabbos tefilah is like camp. A shul in which no one feels any inhibitions and lets loose with full-throated singing, with spirited dancing, every time the siddur opens.
Someone who is part of our community told me he’s going to Uman this Rosh Hashana. Every year there is a mass pilgrimage of Jews who go to the site of Rav Nachman of Breslov’s grave and celebrate Rosh Hashana there. These men leave their wives back at home – it’s men only. Someone sent me a meme in which a man tells his wife he’s going to Uman for Rosh Hashana and she says, “No problem. When you’re at the holy site, do yourself a favor and pray for a good shidduch.”
These people go to Uman because they can’t find services that are so soulful in America. I dream of a shul in which these spiritual seekers can find comfort. A shul in which is pin-drop quiet, but not deathly quiet – those shuls in which you’re afraid to talk lest you get silenced by the shushing czar. A shul in which people are quiet the way they are quiet in a museum of fine art, they are so moved, they just cannot speak.
One of our members, Nomi Maine celebrated her Bat Mitzvah this weekend. When Nomi and I were talking this past week, I learned that she is a big fan of Ariana Grande, a very popular singer. She told me that she wouldn’t mind getting a bottle of Ariana Grande’s latest perfume. I didn’t buy her a bottle of perfume as a gift, but I did look it up, and it turns out that her latest perfume is called, God is a Woman, and it’s inspired by Ariana’s song, God is a Woman. I looked up the lyrics of the song – and I quickly decided to not talk about the song!!
However, the subtext of the song title is a powerful challenge – why is G-d always referred to as a man? Why not a woman? Within the English language, it’s a good question; why do ‘genderfy’ Hashem? In Hebrew though, everything, even inanimate objects are either masculine or feminine, you have to pick one. But the challenge is not really about G-d; it’s about power, it’s about inequality, it’s about roles. And these are tough topics in society and especially so for Torah-observing Jews. We do believe that there are different roles for men and for women as expressed through the different Mitzvos. We also recognize that as opposed to a home setting where the is spiritual equality, or if anything, a far stronger set of responsibilities and opportunities for woman, in a shul setting, which has particular emphasis on minyan and things of that nature, Judaism comes across as terribly skewed.
I dream of a shul in which we do not oversimplify, we do not just do what others are doing, in which we continue to grapple with this question, and yet, we create endless opportunities for growth, for spiritual experiences, and advanced learning for women. I dream of a shul in which all the girls here have a spiritual role model, a woman who is on the payroll, who women can turn to for sensitive questions, for guidance, for Torah.
One thing that I love about our shul is that people care so deeply about communal and global issues. It is a community with a big heart. I dream of a shul in which that heart is expressed in action, in doing, in taking on projects, in using our collective energy to not just talk about the world around us but to change it.
We are a shul of Zionists and every once in a while, families get up and move to Israel. Making Aliyah is not for everyone. But I dream of a shul in which we are constantly losing members because they are living in Eretz Yisroel. These members are replaced by new members. And then we continue to lose members to Aliyah, who are replaced by new members. And on and on.
I dream of a shul in which Torah learning plays a central role in everyone’s life. In which classes are a supplement but everyone, in their own way, has a unique and personal relationship with this unbelievable heritage of ours and spends time every day, at home or at shul, studying these sacred texts. Growing through the uplifting teachings of our Sages.
I dream of a shul in which we comfortably talk about G-d and comfortably talk to G-d.
And lastly, one of the most famous and moving messages of the prophets are the words of Malachi: Hinei Anochi sholei’ach lachem es Eliyahu hanavi. G-d promises the Jewish People that one day in the future, He will send Elijah the prophet to herald the Messianic era. V’heishiv lev avos al banim, and the hearts of parents will return through the hearts of their children. This is the ultimate Jewish dream, for our children to surpass us spiritually. This is the Messianic vision of Malachi, that the arc of the spiritual universe is long, but it bends further with each generation.
And that is my dream for Nomi, and for all the children in this shul, that they live this dream. That they experience what it is to be a member of a community, of a shul in which everyone is accepted, in which the prayers are soulful and services are magically silent, in which people are constantly dancing and singing in prayer, in which girls and women, and boys and men, find opportunity, endless opportunity for spiritual growth, in which we change the face of our community by rolling up our sleeves, in which we deepen our connection to the land of Israel, in which we are all well-versed in Torah, Gemara, Halacha, and Jewish thought, in which we all have a relationship with G-d. I dream that the children not only experience this reality but that they pave the way to make it happen. That’s my dream.
When I spoke to Nomi, we discussed her career plans. She said, she might want to become a doctor or a businesswoman – which is awesome. She didn’t tell me where she wants to go to college and what grades she’s going to need to fulfill her dreams. And that’s because those are details. She is thinking big and that’s the only way to fulfill our dreams. The details will follow, but we cannot lose sight of the big dream.
There is a famous question asked, why we first celebrate Rosh Hashana and then Yom Kippur. Shouldn’t we first atone for our sins and then clean from our misdeeds, start the year with a fresh slate? It seems out of order.
Our Sages explain that the goal of Rosh Hashana is to think about the dream, the big picture, where we really want to be. Once we crystalize that picture, we then zoom in and focus on the many things that are getting in the way. And so we first celebrate Rosh Hashana, where we accept G-d’s kingship, and our role in His world. And then on Yom Kippur, we focus on our sins, the many impediments that are preventing us from living up to that dream.
There are details that we, as a shul, need to address if we want to live this dream. But they are details. Let’s not lose sight of the big picture. Let’s not lose sight of the dream.
May we be done with all the trials and tribulations of these past two years. May G-d bless us with peace, with harmony, and with health, so that we, together, can transform all of our dreams into reality.