In April of 2021 we will mark the 150th anniversary of the founding of Chizuk Amuno. It is an astounding milestone as we all know that American synagogues are closing their doors every day. There are few synagogues in the United States which have reached this anniversary.
We can joke about how different the modern Chizuk Amuno looks in relation to the post-civil war Chizuk Amuno of 1871 with its $8 yearly membership charge, its required top hats, and the prohibition of women’s involvement. But as we anticipate this 150th anniversary I wanted to understand more about this place that we love.
I turned back to our founding documents to try to determine the aspirations, the hopes for this new congregation when it was created on April 1, 1871. Chizuk was a “break off” of Baltimore Hebrew Congregation as its leaders directed it more towards the Reform style of worship that was exciting German Jews in America and Europe. The break resulted from Baltimore Hebrew’s decision to omit some of the piyyutim, liturgical poems from the prayer service, its introduction of a confirmation service for girls, its use of an American prayer book, and the final straw – a mixed gender choir.
But American Jewry has changed and that was yesterday. One cannot define oneself based on what one is not – Chizuk Amuno is not Baltimore Hebrew Congregation. Not even Baltimore Hebrew is what it was. For an institution to survive and thrive for 150 years it needs to have an identity of its own and aspirations of its own. So it took the name Chizuk Amuno as a way to assert its mission – strengthen the faith. Not the faithful, its aspiration was not to strengthen the faith of those who worshipped at the new congregation, but it saw its role as strengthening the very foundations of Judaism itself. It did this by returning to what they considered a traditional, European, authentic expression of Judaism. (On Three Pillars, Jan B Schein)
We as a congregation have not only embodied the aspirations of our founders. A changing American Jewry also required us to make adjustments to those aspirations, changes that our founders could never have envisioned. But our core remained the same.
That is why our leaders etched Torah, Avodah and GemilutHasadim onto the walls of our synagogue in 1996. They promulgated an agenda for us, for this synagogue: study of our sacred texts, worship that was spiritually and intellectually authentic, and our obligation to embody our ideals by deeds of righteousness. These aspirations gave us an identity as a part of a group that configured its life around a goal, around a purpose. What will be the aspirations of our future as a community as we anticipate 150? What will be the purpose behind those aspirations? We live as a community intentionally, with purpose. And we live the same way as individuals. We do not want to merely be going about our lives, going through the motions based on yesterday’s purposes.
Just as we have aspirations for our synagogue, we also have aspirations for ourselves as individuals. The Yamim Noraim, the Days of Awe are the context of our aspirations. They present an invitation for us to think about our lives and to set goals for ourselves. To think about how we are doing and where we want to go. What goals did I set for myself last year? What did I accomplish? What was simply not achievable?
Judaism is “possibilist.” Judaism believes that it is possible to change who and what we are. That is what these days are all about. They are aspirational at their very core. At different points in our lives, many of us feel frustrated, we feel stuck and we feel that we are simply unable to change. Judaism, and the Yamim Noraim come along with a message that is counter cultural. At this moment we live in a culture that is deeply engaged in mediocrity, a culture that says “You are fine the way you are.” If you, if we, are fine the way we are then we will never push ourselves in the ways that we could otherwise grow. (Rabbi Shai Held)
20 years ago when I arrived here at Chizuk Amuno I had a specific set of aspirations: I wanted to make it through five years in the pulpit and figure out if it was right for me. I wanted to give good pulpit announcements at the end of services. I wanted to get through an eighth grade Talmud class and enjoy it. I wanted never to officiate at a funeral because it was too sad. I wanted to do everything, and do it well – work with college students, teach middle schoolers, give sermons, make hospital visits, lead services. I wanted to write a book and make art. I wanted to learn how to play guitar and keep a plant alive for longer than 7 months. I wanted to drive cross country in an RV and visit the National Parks.
Now 20 years later some of my aspirations have been fulfilled and as you might imagine, some of them have gone down the drain. I find myself in the position of having to both set new goals, and to course correct for those goals that still hold firm.
So I invite you to do the same. To go home and ask of ourselves, if we have them -our children, our partners, how have I fallen short of my aspirations? Those vows and commitments I made to you as your child, as your parent, as your partner: have I met those aspirations and if not how might I refine them so next year can be better? And if you aren’t in a place to do that, because it’s difficult and not all of us are, then the arena where such self-reflection is possible.
That is after all what these days, these Yamim Noraim, are all about. To see how we are doing as individuals relative to the aspirations we set out for ourselves. Last Rosh Hashanah, two years ago, ten years ago, 20 years ago, we set goals for ourselves to live a certain way, to change certain aspects of our behavior, to become certain kind of people. Maybe you wanted to be a better listener, a more compassionate person; you wanted to light candles every week. And we did it with the best of intentions – that’s why they’re called aspirations – we aspired to something. In Hebrew the word is lish’of, to have ambition, to aim, to breathe. Hebrew says having an aspiration is as necessary as breath. But as happens in the course of time, we missed our mark.
The Yamim Noraim are aspirational course corrections for human beings.
Every human being goes through it, every congregation goes through it, and even nations go through it. What is it that we are doing right now in the US and do every four years, if not more frequently, than engage in aspirational course corrections to our nation? Those passionate, public debates about healthcare and judicial reform, about gun control and climate change – they are the way our nation returns to our founding aspirational ideals.
The United States of America was founded on a great idea, AND we are equally aware of the shortcomings of our founders. That’s why we needed amendments to our constitution. That is why we needed to include those who were left out of their vision.
At their best, synagogues and individuals and nations are defined by aspiration and by our constant efforts as we struggle to realize the tremendous possibilities that could emerge from those aspirations. We are well aware, or we should be well aware, of our shortcomings so the tendency might be to lose faith or be disheartened at the constant striving. Our tradition instead suggests that we welcome it. That aspirational living be at the heart of the way we conduct ourselves as individuals, as a nation, and as a synagogue.
On Yom Kippur in 1993 Rabbi Joel Zaiman offered his aspirations for the future of our synagogue: “Maybe one day when a person says, ‘I’m a member of Chizuk Amuno Congregation,’ it will mean much more than ‘this is where I pay my dues.’ What am I looking for? [He asked] A sacred place where Jews can gather together to do things that make their lives better, more vibrant, more meaningful, fully alive. A sacred place where we see beyond the face, beyond appearances, beyond circumstances. A sacred place where we see the redemptive possibilities. A sacred place where we can laugh and cry together, where we can learn, confirm and rejoice in our Judaism, [our Covenant with God.] A sacred place where what we can’t pull off alone, we can manage together, encouraging one another to be the kind of people we should be… a sacred place where expectations are high, where expectations are met. A sacred place where we can be morally strong, spiritually sound… a sacred place where we can say to one another chazak ve nitchazek, be strong , because we are committed to strengthening one another [and our faith.]”
There is always a place for longing and dreaming of the possible. We are people more defined by our aspirations than by our achievements. What are your aspirations for your future?
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.