There are few modern creature comforts as valuable to me as GPS. Printed driving directions are now vintage. We rarely include driving directions in invitations. Few people today remember mapquest, and even fewer still remember a map. A good old-fashioned map. The best feature of any good GPS is that when you lose your way, it simply recalculates a new path. This is actually a profound concept. Imagine if life had a recalculating feature, so that every time we lose our way, a recalculated better one would appear.
For the Jewish community, these days are our recalculation. These days of Awe, the time in our Jewish calendar where we take a close look at ourselves and figure out where our lives might need a recalculation, as we look to the new year! But we know we can only look forward after we look behind. After we have a real reckoning of the kind of person each of us was in the past year. That is the beauty of GPS. Even if you recalculate, the system doesn’t forget where you were prior. It helps to change your course based not only on the destination, but on the entirety of the journey.
Change is hard. John Kotter, one of the leading change experts in the world writes, “Whenever human communities are forced to adjust to shifting conditions, pain is ever present.” The shifting conditions in the American Jewish Community are greater today than they have ever been. We find people in American society less willing to join in general and as such synagogue affiliation rates are dropping. People have a bevy of choices of how and where to engage Jewishly. Synagogue membership is no longer a foregone conclusion. No longer can we just build a strong community, we have to be able to sell it as well. We have to build a brand the screams Chizuk Amuno. A brand that is reflective of both our sacred history, and our necessary path into the future. Adaptation has long been a hallmark of the historical Jewish community, of this community. Today, perhaps more than ever calls for us to adapt, to be true to our historic culture today.
But there is great news. We have much to build on here at Chizuk Amuno. For almost 150 years CA has been a center of Jewish life here in Baltimore. Under the direction of a historically gifted group of clergy, this Jewish community has been a flagship synagogue for not only Conservative Judaism, but for all of the American Jewish population. Our unique brand of Jewish living is one that stresses education, gemilut hassadim acts of kindness and generosity, and one that promises to be a presence in your lives in good times and bad. Other communities might try to be there for you when you’ve lost a loved one, or when you are celebrating a milestone, or to educate your children. But they will not be there for you the way that we will.
Perhaps Rabbi Wechsler or I have officiated at a lifecycle event for your family, or maybe you have felt the warm embrace of our morning minyan under the direction of Dr. Shualy when saying Kaddish. Maybe you have felt the joy in the sanctuary when we celebrated your joyous milestone. Or was it a sisterhood, brotherhood or Chazak event where you spent time and learned with groups dedicated to enriching the entire institution. Perhaps you are a current or alumni parent in one of our amazing schools (KSDS, GECC, RRS/Netivon) and you have been there to witness that special sauce that our schools possess, and you leave that experience secure in the knowledge that your kids are in the right and loving place they so richly deserve. I hope that you have experienced this, and if not than we need to do better. Everyone of us should know why this sacred community is special, and why being a part of the magic that transpires here is not one of many choices, but the only one.
We are living in unprecedented times. Rising levels of anti-Semitism and hatred make the world a scary and unpredictable place. There is turmoil everywhere you look. We are the perfect antidote. Synagogue life is the absolute remedy for the world around us. In this big world we crave intimacy, we try to seek out smaller arenas to connect to people with whom we share something significant. When everything around us seems off kilter, it is the Jewish community, it is Chizuk Amuno that can provide shelter from the storm. It is we who can be a source of strength and light, when we are at our weakest and life seems most dark.
I feel blessed to walk into this building every day. What goes on within these walls, and outside of them in our name is nothing short of incredible. But we cannot rest on our laurels. Too many strong Jewish communities have waited too long to adapt and unfortunately the price they pay is their very existence. Kotter writes, “With awareness and skill organizations can change. The key lies in understanding why we resist this change. Only then can we understand what exactly is the multistage process that can overcome destructive inertia. Most of all, we need leadership that can drive this change process in a socially healthy way.”
Rabbi Joel Zaiman z”l served this congregation with great distinction for over 20 years. During his tenure, he positioned our community to be one that was ready to exit the 20th century and enter the 21st. Rabbi Zaiman, understood the value of a Jewish Day School, how learning and acts of kindness can drive a community, but most of all he understood that a synagogue is ultimately measured not by numbers of members, but by how many successful relationships we create. Now more than ever, all synagogue engagement is about relationships. The synagogue of the next generation, the community that will celebrate our 200th anniversary will be different than we who will celebrate 150 in less than two short years. Our responsibility is to leave them with a community that reflects our eternal values, but that also understands the world outside these walls, so that they too will be able to bequeath this holy gift to the next generation.
As we move forward, I wanted to take a few moments today to lay out for you where I think we can go in the future. There is so much to be proud of here at CA & Schools. For me the best fashion to celebrate all our successes and to learn from our mistakes is to dream together about the limitless possibility of the next 20 years and beyond. I want to begin by talking about schools.
Our Schools are the crown jewels of Chizuk Amuno. We educate people of all ages and all skill levels. Our Stulman Adult Education School offers courses in a wide range of subjects from advanced Talmud, to current events to social justice through a Jewish lens. Our Krieger Schechter Day School, Rosenbloom Religious School, Netivon, & Goldsmith Early Childhood Center bring life to our building and ensure our future. Each of our schools have grown in the past year, and the word is spreading around the community. We educate so many in so many different ways that is almost unfair to say we can do better, but we can.
It is a precious gift to be educating over 600 Jewish youth every week. It is also an awesome opportunity. We are creating the next generation of Jewish leaders, and that is the greatest and most serious responsibility we could have. But we will only be at our best when we are united. When all of our schools work towards our shared common goal, to ensure that every student who enters our building will leave with a strong connection to their Judaism, to the state of Israel, and to the entire Chizuk and Jewish Baltimore community. To ansure that every student who is educated here at CA & Schools is taught in a progressive manner that achieves the highest levels of academic excellence. To know that when they leave the safety of our nest, that they do so as resilient, well-adjusted young Jewish men and women. I will say it again. We are creating the next generation of Jewish leaders every day. It is both an awesome responsibility, and perhaps the greatest opportunity in one broad stroke. It is also in large part what separates our institution from the rest. What makes CAC the special place it is.
This past summer I wrote an article for the Forward defending the city of Baltimore. I heard from many of you who agreed with the article, but also with some of you who did not. Everyone who I spoke to agreed that we need to do more for Baltimore City. For a long time, we have had a great GH program here at CA! Under the direction of Cheryl Snyderman, there are many opportunities for someone who wants to engage in hessed work here at the synagogue. But there is so much more we can do. In order to be the community, we need to be for the next generation, we must be engaged in social justice work as a practice.
There was a time in Jewish American life that people joined the local synagogue when they moved into a neighborhood. Today people want to be engaged. They want to see the value in affiliation, they want to see that we will change their lives. We have to understand that People engage in different fashions. Some through prayer, some through hessed and social justice work, some through education. Our great responsibility is to first create meaningful relationships with people so that we will know how to engage them, and second to have a substantive programing palate that will engage what has become a broad Jewish community. Engagement is a two-step process, and might even seem simple, but it is the key to health for every Jewish community in America. Our ability to engage is at the heart of what will keep us strong going forward.
Just a few short weeks ago, many of us had the pleasure of listening to Alfred Moses who was the Ambassador to Romania during the Clinton administration. Ambassador Moses shared stories of foreign service and of working with a who’s who list of world dignitaries. But he came alive when he spoke of the history of CA. Specifically, his experiences of being one of the students of Abba Weissgal. The liturgical history that we possess here is awesome. From Weissgal, to Salkov to Perlman, we possess a treasure trove of some of the greatest liturgical movements in American Jewish history.
We now need to build on this sacred history. Jewish music and Tefillah is exploding. This year, a modern Israeli Singer Yishai Ribo, wrote a beautifully haunting and modern version of the ancient liturgy of the Avodah Yom Kippur service. The very idea seems crazy, but this is what is happening. Our tradition of music here is rich, because it has been built upon by each generation and now is the time for the next generation to leave their mark. Not at the expense of what has preceded today, but in support of it.
Many of you have joined us for Shir Shabbat, our musical Friday night service that engage hundreds of people across all demographic lines every month. (spontaneous dancing) We need to do more of this. Jewish music is a natural way to connect with people of all ages, but only if we are open to learning and growing as a community. Jewish Summer camps are the locale for the most organic forms of Jewish expression. They are experimenting with prayer and adding a modern flare to classic tunes. The staff and campers who are being educated in this setting are seeking out Jewish connections and meaningful Jewish living. They are our next generation of leaders, and we need to be an institution that will speak to them. We need to be a place where they can seek out these connections even when it pushes us a little out of our comfort zone. Each and every one of us here today is part of a generation that pushed the one before it to change in some measure.
It is not easy. Change is not easy. I am not looking to change what you love. I am not looking to make this community unrecognizable to you who have toiled to build this sacred home. What I am doing is asking you to dream with me. To dream of all that has taken place in this community over the past 148 years. To look around and realize that today, sitting here in this moment is the manifestation of the dream of so many who are sitting here in our presence. To dream of our children, grandchildren, and even great-grandchildren heralding in another long chapter in the great history of Chizuk Amuno.
My friends we are living in a world that is changing faster than any one us can keep pace with. We are the fast food nation, where instant gratification is at the ready for anyone who needs. But we are offering something more. We are offering a modern brand of Judaism that can be so many things to so many people. We offer not only a place to pray, but a community where you will learn, where you will be supported, a where you will be challenged, and most importantly where you will create lasting relationships with both clergy and friends. Our brand is one that has lived for 150 years, not because it hasn’t changed, but because throughout our history our great leaders have had the foresight to know when to honor our great history by adapting to meet the needs of future Jewish communities.
I know that we can do this. I know this because of you. Over the last 15 months I have had the opportunity to meet so many of you. You might even hear me thanking you for coming in because the best part of my job is spending time with all of you. We are all part of a community that is replete with people of substance and talent, people who are yearning for connection and meaning in their lives. That is the first ingredient in any Jewish communal recipe. Without it, we build nothing. I need you. I need you to dream with all of us together. I need you to bring your unique talent to this community. I need you to help us continue our great legacy of Jewish life. I need you to help transform the future.
During my installation I shared with you a poem by the modern Israeli poet David Rokeach:
Glory to those who hope!
For the future is theirs;
Those who stand unflinching against the mountain
Shall gain its summit….
My friends we are the ones with great hope, we are a community who will stand unflinching against the mountain. And together, in the coming years, I have no doubt that we will gain the summit!