Shema Kol Ami: Listen. Connect. Relate. Renew.

Yom Kippur 2017-5778
Rabbi Jeremy Schneider

There once was a rabbi who was so well known for the quality of his sermons that everyone in the community came each Shabbat to hear him. One weekend, however, a member of the synagogue traveled out-of-town for his nephew’s Bar Mitzvah. But, he didn’t want to miss the rabbi’s sermon. So he hired someone who wasn’t Jewish to sit in the congregation and record the sermon. That way, he could listen to it when he returned.

Well, other congregants saw what was going on, and they got the great idea that they would also hire non-Jews to come each Shabbat and record the rabbi’s sermons – that way they could play golf instead of going to shul. Within a few weeks, there were 50 non-Jews sitting in shul recording the rabbi. Well, the rabbi got wise to this. So, the following Shabbat, he, too, hired a non-Jew to play his prerecorded sermon for the congregation… Witnesses said this marked the first incidence in history of ’artificial insermonation.’

In all seriousness, it is exciting and exhilarating to stand here with you this evening; my seventh Yom Kippur at Temple Kol Ami. The crowd is a little different since starting here. Temple membership and affiliation has more than tripled since Rachel and I arrived. Heck, even our family has double since we arrived. Religious school is at physical capacity with more than 230 kids engaged and our preschool has a waiting list.  Thank you to Gregg Luchs for being such a great partner and Nancy Drapin for her incredible job as our executive director. Debbie Glassman and Alison Garshick do an amazing job with our Early Childhood center caring for a 100 kids every day and Carly Kastner, our director of youth education, inspires our kids weekly. Our office is supported now by Chris and Danny Fedo, Laurel Herriman, Nancy Lad, and of course, the Menna Family. It truly takes an army. Of course, having the ability to take a break here or there is important and Gregg and I couldn’t do that without the continued support of Rabbi Herring and Cantor Raina.

Have any of you been to Sequoia National Park in the Sierra Nevada Mountains? The Sequoia trees are mammoth. As big as they are, interestingly, their roots spread out just barely below the ground’s surface. Most trees depend upon deep roots to anchor them and protect them against strong winds. This is not the case with sequoia trees. Instead, they grow only in groves and their roots intertwine underground. When the strong winds come, they hold each other up.

We, Jews, are just like those Sequoia trees. The great modern Jewish philosopher Franz Rosenzweig wrote that “None of us has solid ground under his feet; each of us is only held up by the neighborly hands holding him by the scruff, with the result that we are each held up by the next [person], and often, indeed most of the time, hold each other up mutually.”  Simply put, we need each other.

NY Times Columnist David Brooks published an op-ed about a powerful analytical tool – created by Google – that searches words and phrases from 5 million books published between 1500 CE and today. The results revealed cultural and historical shifts. For example, between 1960 and today individualistic words like: “self,” “unique,” and phrases like “I can do it myself” were used more frequently than words like “community,” “share,” “united,” and “common good. ” We’ve become more “me” focused than “we” focused.

MIT psychologist, Sherry Turkle, explains the impact of television, the internet, and our cell-phones, saying that “we [now] live in a technological universe in which we are always communicating. Yet we have sacrificed conversation for mere connection…At home, families sit together, texting and reading email. At work…we text during meetings…[and I am guilty of this too]…we text (and shop and go on facebook) during classes and when we are on dates.”

We are, quite literally, alone – together. At home alone – together. In our neighborhoods – alone – together. Working longer hours with people at work, alone – together. In the car driving long distances – alone, together. Watching TV or perusing apps on our cell phones – alone, together. Facing the problems of our lives, and sadly, all too often, even celebrating joys alone – together.

It is a weird paradox. Superficially connected to each other through the pictures we post or the snippets of clever banter we tweet. On this Day of Atonement, we must admit we are failing to relate, face-to-face with family, friends, neighbors, our religious institutions and our democratic structures. We are shortchanging ourselves by thinking that our online connections add-up to deep or impactful relationships.

Jews have been suffering from this same disintegration of community that plagues the general population. Over the past several decades, there has been a gradual move away from community and toward more individualistic expressions of the Jewish self. Jews ask themselves, “Why should I belong to the Temple when I can explore Jewish topics online, or attend any number of community events without belonging. And if I belong, why should I get involved? What do I get back on my investment? What is in it for me?”

I am suggesting we should approach this topic by asking: “What can I bring to the temple that will energize it, strengthen it, and keep it exciting?” And “what will be my legacy to the Jewish community? How will I make it better for generations to come?”

We have been addressing these questions now for 6 years. When we started 6 years ago, TKA was a shell of its former self. Now, over 400 families, 1 out of every 4 members have joined in the last year. 2 out of every 4 in the last three years.  It’s wonderful. It’s shocking. It’s humbling. But now the real work begins. We must begin a real effort of meaningfully connecting to each other to strengthen ourselves and our community.

Humans are social creatures. From pre-historic camp-fires to our kitchen tables, it is in our homes and neighborhoods and in our synagogues, where we form relationships that add substance and support and meaning to our lives.

We want friends who can be relied upon. We want advice from people we know and trust. We want to learn and celebrate life in relationship with others. We want to share our journey with people who encourage us to become the best within ourselves. We want to be enlivened and nourished by ideas and passions. And we are not always going to find it online.

That’s where Temple Kol Ami can step in. We belong to Kol Ami to ensure that Jews have a spiritual home, a center of Torah, a foundation for Jewish life, a safe harbor in times of trouble, a place to seek guidance and support for all those in need whenever they need it. And if Kol Ami is there for others when they need it most, then it will also be there for you when you need it most.

We are blessed with a wonderful, vibrant Temple. There are a myriad of opportunities for our members and their children to learn and grow, and develop strong Jewish identities grounded in the values of Torah. Yet, what drew Rachel and me to Scottsdale was seeing that Temple Kol Ami is a congregation that is really like family, where there is a real reaching out between members; a congregation with a steadfast commitment to social justice. But I know there is so much more we can be as a community; to each other.

That’s why I’m introducing you to Sh’ma Kol Ami. The goal of Sh’ma Kol Ami is simple and rich: to bring together the newer and more long term members of our congregation to learn and laugh, to deepen connections to one another, to Temple, and to the rhythms of Jewish time and life. At its core, Sh’ma Kol Ami is about building relationships. I understand some of you have known the Temple members you are sitting next to for years. But my question is: do you know 9 others? If not, or even if you do, I hereby declare everyone has permission to use this message in the weeks and months ahead to walk up to someone at an event, in the hallway, during an oneg and introduce yourself. And listen to the other person’s name and their story. And why they are at Temple Kol Ami.

Listening – is our first step. Why? Because, we don’t assume that we know what is on the minds of other Temple members. We don’t assume to know what is central and important in each other’s lives. Each member of our congregation has desires and interests. Each member of our congregation is facing the dynamics of modern society in similar and different ways. And each of us is a central element to the living faith that we build, together.

Being a part of a community involves more than paying membership dues. Temple should be a place that motivates us to live meaningful and impactful Jewish lives, in relationship with one another, doing Jewish.

In the next couple days, you will get an email invitation to an online survey that will help us grow and enhance the great things that we do, understand what knowledge skills and resources we will need to move into the future, and develop a set of measurable, sustainable and realistic goals that will direct our staff and volunteers in program planning, budget development, marketing and continued relationship building.
The results of this survey are merely a starting point. Conversations will then ensue in the months to come. We will then build small, self-led groups of members who share common interests, passions, ideas, life-experiences and geographies. Together, these small groups will learn and laugh together, celebrate, connect and relate. For example, a mentoring program where we match people up who are in the same industry but at different points in their career.  Multiple generations of members, from just starting out to retired folks, connecting through common occupations, where by the mentor and mentee derive benefit from this relationship via Temple Kol Ami.

This is a yearlong process to build relationships within the congregation, to make a large, small congregation feel small again, and to build a strong living community of communities that will enliven our Jewish lives to do Jewish together. It’s called Relational Judaism.

So I ask you: If you feel like you are constantly running from one thing to the next. If you’ve ever been exhausted by the hectic pace of life. If you feel a desire to connect and relate with others. If you believe that you have strengths and ideas and passions that you want to share – but have never managed to share them here…Join the conversation. Share the gifts of yourself with others. Talk with other parents and empty- nesters. Host or attend a Havdalah house party. Share your voice, your ideas, your interests, and your truths. Listen and Connect. Relate and Renew.

In a mountain village in Europe many years ago, there was a nobleman who was concerned about the legacy he would leave to the people of his town. The man spent a great deal of time contemplating his dilemma, and at last, decided to build a synagogue.

In the course of his planning, he decided no one would see the plans for the building until it was finished. The construction took a long time – much longer than he’d anticipated. But at long last, the project was completed. The townspeople were excited and curious about what they would find upon entering their new synagogue. When the people came for the first time they marveled at the synagogue’s magnificence. No one could ever remember so beautiful a synagogue anywhere in the world.

Then, noticing a seemingly obvious flaw in the design, one of the townspeople asked, “Where are the lamps? What will provide the lighting?” The proud nobleman pointed to brackets which were strategically placed all along the walls throughout the synagogue. He then gave each family a lamp as he explained, “Whenever you come to the synagogue, I want you to bring your lamp, and light it. But, each time you are not here,” he said, “a part of the synagogue will be dark. This lamp will remind you that whenever you are absent, some part of God’s house will be dark. Your community is relying on you for light.”

I say to you today that your community – your Temple – is relying upon you for light; the light of your unique and distinct gifts; the light of shared belonging – shaped by the idea that when we are in relationship and well-connected, we can better care for the well-being of one another. And the light of spiritual growth and learning of and with one another – we will live better and richer and fuller lives. That is how we will do Jewish together. That is what Sh’ma Kol Ami is all about. That is what this Temple Kol Ami is all about.

On this Day of Atonement, I ask you to join me, Rachel and the rest of Temple Kol Ami staff and volunteers to keep the light burning, to help strengthen this congregation, to choose to value possibility and relationship over self-interest, to share the gifts of ourselves with others, and to openly receive the gifts of others into our own lives. And, only then, may we move towards possibility and abundance in the year ahead because we ARE strong, but we are stronger TOGETHER when we do Jewish together!

*This sermon is inspired by my colleague Rabbi Asher Knight