A Community that Strives to Be Sacred – Rosh Hashanah 5778
For the past ten to fifteen years many, if not most, Reform and Conservative Congregations have been referring to themselves in the same way. Congregations have been calling themselves Sacred Communities. Without even thinking about it I too began calling this shul a Sacred Community in my writing, in my talks, almost indiscriminately. Last month, two people pointed it out to me and one of them asked me why. You say we are a sacred community but what does it mean?
Good question what does it mean? If I asked you right now what the name of our congregation is – what would you tell me?
That’s close but not entirely accurate. If you look at our logo, our full name is printed – Kehillah Kedosha Chizuk Amuno, we abbreviate it with two kufs. As you leave this “Scared community” to return home after services, look at the cornerstone on your left side as you leave the synagogue. Etched into it are those kufs of our name. It does not say that we are a sacred community, or even a holy community. What our founders are saying and what I am saying it that holy or sacred is the purpose of there being a community. It is not a statement of fact, it is an aspiration. In actuality “a sacred community” is not something you say, not something you talk about. It’s something you strive to be.
There are other institutions in Jewish life that are referred to in a similar way – we call ourselves am kadosh a sacred people. Israel is not a holy people. Anyone who has been on the beltway near exits 20 and 21 or in the Old Court Giant on a Friday afternoon can attest to that reality. You want to tell me that Israel, or Chizuk Amumo is a holy people? Have you ever been in our parking lot when Yom Kippur ended? When the Torah and our prayer book call the Jewish people am kadosh they mean to say that a primary characteristic of the people Israel is that we strive towards the sacred.
Across the generations and millennia of Jewish history, communities have had different purposes and responsibilities. The Talmud identifies ten things which a Jewish community must have: a law court that may mete out punishment, tzedakah, a charity fund that is collected by two people and distributed by three, a place to pray, a bathroom, a bath house, a doctor, an artist, a kosher butcher, a scribe, and a teacher of children. (Babylonian Talmud Sanhedrin 17b)
A community that aspires to be sacred must, the Talmud states first, be allowed to impose things on its members. A holy community must be able to make demands upon those who are a part of it. In other words that means we as a community must have standards. Standards for membership, standards for education, standards for behavior, standards for religious practice. A community imposes these things because it wants to be sacred. It wants to strive towards something more meaningful than the individual wants and desires of its members.
In ancient times the kehillah used to levy taxes. Before you get too excited now we call that dues. The holiness of a community can be seen in its financial dealings and its commitment to tzedakah. Not just that the needy in the community are supported, but that they are supported in a way that is open and honest and protective of their privacy. A community that seeks to be sacred must demonstrate transparency and integrity in economic matters and transparency and integrity in how that community is run.
A place to pray. This may be self-evident, but prayer is no longer a given in every Jewish community, sacred or not. Maintaining a relationship with God and humanity through prayer is an essential, if not the essential task of a community. If all a community provides are Jewish “experiences”, Judaism lite, then we fail to live up to our name of kehillah kedoshah. Congregations must be places for communal prayer which in our days becomes a rebuttal to society’s worship of the almighty individual.
The Talmud addresses a community’s responsibility to provide for the physical comfort and health of its members in its requirement that there be a bathroom and a bath house and that there be a doctors. In this regard we are blessed. Please God you should stay well, but if you take ill today or next week on Yom Kippur Chizuk Amuno may be the holiest place you could possibly be. Caring for the bodies and minds of human beings is a sacred obligation of a society and of a community.
To be sacred our community must be a place where we can actively engage in the life of the spirit. That means that this must be a place for the arts. Our holiness can be measured in the music that drifts down our hallways, the books that people bring to shul in their tallis bags, the art work that is crafted and displayed here. The Rabbis of the Talmud know, and we know, that the sacred is accessed by different people in different ways. For many of us, and I include myself, a community without music, art or drama would be missing the aesthetic expression of the sacred.
Every community needs a scribe. Someone who lovingly and painstakingly maintains the history of that community. Who, while others are busy living and innovating and experiencing, records what happened when. As Jews we are aware of how much our past figures into our present and our future. In fact when visitors of other faiths come to our congregation among the things that most surprise and impress them is the way we venerate our story. How we lovingly take the story of our people from the ark, parade it among the congregation and daily refer back to its words. To be sacred a community must venerate its own story.
Lastly for a community to be sacred it has to teach and it has to teach in a certain way. Fortunately for us, Baltimore is filled with institutions of learning. Learning in a synagogue however is different. When we learn here we do so because we believe there are ultimate truths to be studied, truths about God and the world and the way we should be in the world. A place where Jewish education is a requirement joyfully met. A place where study is among its highest values. Where educational expectations are imposed upon adults and children alike.
For us at Chizuk Amuno all of this means that in order to be a sacred community we must have expressions of the sacred as part of the life of the community. Those expressions are made manifest in how we treat each other – the kindness in the way we speak, our truthfulness, the emails we send, the compassion we show for those who sit next to us; in how we act – the respect we give our teachers, the comfort we offer a mourner, the seriousness with which we engage in Jewish learning; in how we spend money – the programs we value, the priority we place on learning, the way decisions are made in a hierarchy of holiness; in how we handle conflict – directly, without nastiness, with respect; in how we make demands – gently and relentlessly, unapologetically, reasonably and with great integrity.
Can you tell me at this moment that we are a kehillah kedoshah, a sacred community? Are we a place that has: a law court that may mete out punishment in other words standards that we uphold; tzedakah, a charity fund that is collected by two people and distributed by three, in other words transparenct in economic matters and the way the congregation is run; a place to pray in other words that presents diverse opportunities for a diversity of people to engage with the divine communally; a bathroom and a bath house, in other words a place that provides for the physical comfort and health of its members and visitors; a doctor, in other words a place where people know they will be safe and cared for; an artist, a place where the life of the spirit is nurtured through creative endeavors that adorn and enhance the community and its members; a kosher butcher, in other words a place that maintains ritual standards; a scribe, in other words a place that venerates its history and institutional memory; and finally a teacher of children, in other words a place where Jewish education is a requirement enthusiastically met for both children and adults, where Jewish learning is among its highest values.
When the Talmud spoke of the ten things that a community must have. Note that it did not say that these are the things that a community must provide for its people. What is done for you is not what makes a community sacred. The whole community must do these things together. We are NOT meant to be passive consumers of the riches that a community can provide. You want a community to be sacred? You be an active participant in making that community holy. You be the artist. You be the doctor. You be the honest distributor of tzedakah. You be the teacher and the student. You be parent who upholds educational standards. You be the worshipper. You be the esteemer of history. You respond with gratitude and kindness. You strive to do holy things.
There is a famous Jewish teaching concerning the sacred that comes from the laws associated with the Hanukkah menorah. I imagine you know that the Sages Hillel and Shammai had a debate about the order in which to light the Hanukkah candles. Shammai said that we begin by lighting eight candles and each night light one fewer. Hillel said we begin by lighting one candle and night add one more. The Rabbis decided in favor of Hillel’s method because they said, ma’alin be kodesh ve ein moridin, we go up in holiness, we don’t go down.
Our synagogue’s name is not a name. It is a prayer, – Kehillah Kedosha Chizuk Amuno. Our task together is to take that prayer from the realm of the aspirational to the realm of reality. Our task is to keep going up in holiness and continue to strive towards the sacred in all our endeavors.
Rabbi Wechsler has touched the lives of many members of our community through her intellect, warmth, compassion and commitment to the ideals of Conservative Judaism. As the first woman to serve as rabbi of Chizuk Amuno Congregation, her impact and accomplishments are demonstrated in our successful b’nei mitzvah, adult learning programs, gemilut hasadim efforts, and many learning and life cycle experiences. Her communal work includes service on the Executive Committee of the Baltimore Board of Rabbis, the Grant Review Committee for the Jacob and Hilda Blaustein Fund of The Associated, and the Teacher Certification group of the Center for Jewish Education. She has published sermons and opinion articles in The American Rabbi, The Orchard, and the New York Jewish Week. Debi received her rabbinic ordination, as well as an M.A., from the Jewish Theological Seminary of America in New York City where she also served on the Board of Overseers of the Rabbinical School.