Rabbi Kuhn Rosh Hashanah morning sermon

By Rabbi Bill Kuhn, sermon delivered Rosh Hashanah morning 2011

A couple of months ago, I met with a small group of some of the top Jewish leaders Philadelphia, and one of them said that he really wondered if the Jewish community in America would exist in another generation.  I have thought a lot about that statement, and I must agree that there are threats to the very existence of our Jewish community, but actually, the threat to our existence comes from the fact that conditions have never been better for Jews in America.  We are totally accepted into American society as never before.

In their important new book about religion in our country, American Grace,the authors study how Americans feel about all the different religious groups in our country, and they found that Jews are the most popular religious group in America. [American Grace,Robert D. Putnam and David E. Campbell, Simon & Schuster, 2010, New York].  This news may come as a surprise to us because our people have suffered from thousands of years of persecution, oppression and exile from virtually every nation in which we have lived – in spite of all of this – we have finally found a home in America where we can worship as we please and be an equal partner in this wonderfully diverse and religiously pluralistic nation.

Yet, how are we dealing with our success?  We are disappearing!

The entire landscape of Jewish life in America is changing in ways few people understand.  We are several generations removed from our European ancestors, who came to this country, and whose roots are barely known by most American Jews today.  Our numbers are declining:  our birthrate is not replacing our losses; the American Jewish community is growing older; we are losing people simply due to lack of interest.  And then there is the generation of 18-35 year olds, many of whom have very different attitudes about religion in general and Judaism in particular.  [Rabbis Alan Henkin and Paul Kipnes, CCAR Journal, The Reform Jewish Quarterly, CCAR, New York, Spring 2011].

Yes, the rapidly changing landscape of the American J.C. poses many challenges to us as a people.  The good news is that we are totally accepted into the mainstream of American society.  We got what we wished for. But now that we are not faced with much anti-Semitism, how will we maintain our identity?  And in this changing world, what is Jewish identity?  I believe this is the essential question, because the very definition of Judaism is changing, and how we define Judaism will determine whether we continue to exist.  Will we keep our Jewish community intact, strong and vibrant?  Or will we meld into the great fabric of American society and disappear?

I believe we are at a pivotal moment for the Jewish community in America.  We are at a crossroads.  We can shrie and complain about how much things have changed, or we can recognize the challenge and seize the moment.  And I believe it is the duty of Congregation Rodeph Shalom to take the lead in showing the world what the future of Judaism in America can be.  If you want to know where our community has been in the past, go to the magnificent new National Museum of American Jewish History on Independence Square.  But if you want to know what our future will look like, come to Congregatopm Rodeph Shalom, and join in our vision, as we stand on the shoulders of our historic congregation’s founders and dedicate ourselves to ensuring the future of the Jewish people.

But before we can envision a future, we need to understand where we are now.  Changes in the landscape of the American Jewish community are affecting the way Jews relate to synagogues, Israel and all of our institutions.  A recent Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life concluded that the U.S. is a nation of “religious drifters,” where denominations and labels like Reform and Conservative do not mean as much as they once did.  Americans are attempting to “invent new ways of describing and participating in a faith that often does not seem to respond to the changes in society…Today, instead of religion defining Jews, Jews are defining religion.”  [paraphrased from Rabbi Stephen Pearce, “Shifting Landscapes:  The Response of Modernity to Faith, Social Advocacy, and Demographic Change.”  CCAR Journal, New York, Spring 2011].  And if the Reform Movement does not recognize it, we will soon be relegated to a nice exhibit case in the National Museum of American Jewish History.

This congregation has changed a lot since the days when we were composed mostly of German Jewish families, classical Reform, homogeneous in background and belief.

But today, Rodeph Shalom is as diverse as any congregation in America, reflecting the beautiful patchwork quilt of the future of American Judaism.  We are not all on the same page, regarding our background, our views on Israel, on worship style or in our belief or non-belief in God.  All of us together are seekers, all of us together:   Jews by birth and Jews by choice, Interfaith families, Black, White, Asian and Latino Jews, straight or gay, people from all socio-economic backgrounds and family constellations,Reform, Conservative, or Orthodox backgrounds,  Believers,  Atheists or Agnostic …we are all seekers.  We are all on a spiritual journey, searching for profound moments which give meaning to our lives.  We yearn to find something in ourselves that gives us an understanding that we are a part of something greater than ourselves.  We need to be a part of a sacred quest that transcends our isolation, takes us away from the “bowling alone” syndrome and removes us from the solitary life symbolized by the i-pod.  And we do this by connecting with others who are on a similar journey.

This is the vision of our Congregation: to create profound connections and to be as a sacred family to each other.  This past year, a number of our Board of Trustees members did some in-depth work to try to seriously analyze our congregation and where we are going in the future, and they wrote a beautiful vision statement which you will see and hear much about it in the coming months, as this vision will infuse everything we do.  The very purpose of our congregation is to create profound connections which add meaning to our lives – connecting us to each other, to Judaism and to the Divine.

The great 20th century Jewish thinker Martin Buber described these connections as being the only way to really understand what God is. When we enter into a genuine relationship with another, we also discover God.  And we can feel God’s presence, or as Buber calls it, we can “meet” God in the ordinary activities of daily life, if only we would enter into  genuine dialogue with others.  As a result of this “meeting,” we can become more sensitive, more responsive and more human.  We become more spiritually enriched by creating profound connections.  [Finding God.   Rifat Sonsino, Daniel Syme, UAHC Press, New York, 1986].

This is the search most American Jews are on now, and this must be the vision of our congregation, to help everyone find meaning and purpose in life.  On the dawn of this New Year, let us commit ourselves to take the lead in creating a renaissance of Reform Judaism.  Now is the time to recreate Judaism in America, and we must be on the cutting edge of this effort.  We can light the path to the future of liberal Judaism, as I believe it is up to you who are here today to take up the obligation to ensure the very survival and vibrancy of the Jewish people.

And we do this by radically altering our thinking about the very nature of who we are and for what we stand.  Everything we do should be viewed through the lens of our vision.  Every prayer service, every learning opportunity, every social justice effort, every meeting, every social event – everything we do should be for the purpose of creating profound connections. Everything we do should be an opportunity to engage with each other so that we may develop stronger relationships with each other, so that we may be a family.

Our vision will be reflected in everything we do, and it must begin with Shabbat, our “Palace in Time” [The Sabbath, Abraham Joshua Heschel. Farrar, Straus & Giroux, New York, 1951]. All week long, we busy ourselves with a routine that takes our hearts and minds away from that which is most important.  During the week, in our congregation we break up into various “connection groups” according to our interests and our demographics.  But on Friday night, we come together as one congregational family to welcome Shabbat, to pray together, to support each other in times of need, to celebrate with each other in times of joy, to socialize together and to build a strong sense of community.

On Friday night we lift our voices in prayer, embracing the faithful as well as the skeptic.  We do this by creating the kind of uplifting and transformative worship experience that will attract all of our diverse congregation, a service that is participatory, accessible, warm, inclusive, welcoming, spiritual and meaningful.  A service that will help us to create profound connections among each other and with the soul of Jewish prayer.  As Martin Buber said, the purpose of Jewish prayer is to connect people in community, so they may know the mystery of feeling the presence of God among us.  This is how you create the miracle of community.

I believe more and more members of the Rodeph Shalom family feel that it would be unthinkable to begin their weekend without participating in Shabbat services, every Friday night at 6:00, your “Palace in Time.”

But if we are to be a truly visionary congregation, each of us must accept the obligation to learn more about Judaism.  In his new book Empowered Judaism, Rabbi Elie Kaunfer wrote “Jews of all ages are thirsting for a meaningful engagement with critical life questions and want to open up the texts of our past to deepen that engagement.”  [Empowered Judaism, Rabbi Elie Kaunfer, Jewish Lights Publishing, Woodstock, VT. 2010].

Our congregation takes this challenge seriously.  We are expanding our offering of opportunities to learn from important scholars and transmitters of Jewish knowledge on Sunday mornings, 1st Wednesday evenings of each month, Friday night speakers, Saturday morning Torah Study, Introduction to Judaism courses, and much more. Our vision is to engage all of our members in the lifelong transformative study of Judaism.

What does it mean for Jewish studies to be transformative?   I have a friend who told me I had ruined his life (I hope he was kidding).  He used to play golf every Saturday morning, until a couple of years ago, he started coming to our Saturday Morning Torah Study Class.  He found it so meaningful and stimulating that he comes to Torah Study  every Saturday now.  I’m sure he still finds time to play golf, but he reached a “tipping point” in his life, and in his attitude about what is most important.  Now that’s transformative study!

This is really what our vision is all about.  It is about helping people “move from being apathetic and cynical about Jewish life to being passionately engaged in building a new community.”  [Kaunfer, ibid].  Our vision is about transformative innovation.  We are at a turning point in Jewish history, and if we do not change, Judaism in America will die.

In fact, we may be at one of the most pivotal moments our people has ever known – we may be at a “Johanan ben Zakkai” moment.  When the ancient Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed by the Romans in the year 70, this disastrous event marked the end of the Israelite religion as they knew it. But Johanan ben Zakkai, one of the greatest sages of that era reinvented the religion.  He inspired the people to create a new way of being Jewish – he was responsible for the creation of the synagogue  system, which allowed Judaism to flourish in the diaspora.  So radical were his changes, that he is still known today as the man who saved our religion.  He inspires us still today, as one who preserved much of the sacred traditions, but was not afraid of transformative innovation.

I believe we are at another “Johanan ben Zakkai” moment today.  And we, in our congregation can lead the way to a new understanding of what it means to be Jewish.  And it is all about the search for meaning.  In everything we do, we will help people answer life’s essential questions:  Why do I exist?  Why do I walk this earth?  What is my purpose?  We will be the place where people can find meaning and purpose, because we are grounded in values.  The values of community, the values of uplifting and meaningful prayer services, the values of transformative learning, the values of social justice and urban engagement, and of advocating for change in our city and in our world.  The values of welcoming interfaith families with open arms.  The values of drawing inspiration from the beauty of the musical and visual arts.  The values of welcoming all who come to explore and deepen their connection to God and Judaism, where it is okay to be a skeptic – to wrestle with the many faces of the Divine in our journeys of growth and spirituality.  We will wrestle with God on Broad Street.

We will be a congregation which encourages Jews to search for meaning, community and connection, to counter the feelings of loneliness, despair and dislocation in our world – a place where people can tell their stories and be valued – and not be judged.  We will be a Congregation of Conversations, a Congregation of Relationships, a congregation where all of us are passionate about Judaism.

And if we do, we will become the most dynamic, vibrant and meaningful Jewish congregation in America – the beacon of light to those who are longing to learn new ways to be Jewish.  These must be more than words.  Please join us in this mission, for we must do this for our children and our grandchildren, and for the future of Judaism in America.  There is much at stake.  It is up to us to accept this challenge, and to awaken our human spirit to all of the possibilities that lie deep within us.


Material gathered from:

American Grace, Robert D. Putnam and David E. Campbell, Simon & Schuster, 2010, New York.  Rabbis Alan Henkin and Paul Kipnes, CCAR Journal, The Reform Jewish Quarterly, New York, Spring 2011.  Rabbi Stephen Pearce, “Shifting Landscapes:  The Response of Modernity to Faith, Social Advocacy, and Demographic Change,” CCAR Journal, New York, Spring 2011.  Finding God, Rifat Sonsino, Daniel Syme, UAHC Press, New York, 1986.  Empowered Judaism, Rabbi Elie Kaunfer, Jewish Lights Publishing, Woodstock, VT. 2010.  Ideas from Rabbi Peter Rubinstein, Rosh HaShana sermon, 2010. Rabbi Lawrence Hoffman Rodeph Shalom scholar in residence and consultant and ideas from Sacred Strategies, Transforming synagogues from Functional to Visionary, by Isa Aron, Steven Cohen, Lawrence Hoffman, Ari Kelman,  Alban Institute Press, Herndon, VA., 2010.  Ideas fromRabbi Karyn Kedar.The Sabbath, Abraham Joshua Heschel, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, New York, 1951.  Many quotes from the Congregation Rodeph Shalom Vision Statement.