The Latest from BZBI

Fear and Love

Rosh HaShanah 5780

October 10, 2019

Earlier this year I was passing through the entry area on a Shabbat morning when I saw one of our greeters talking with a young man who seemed pretty anxious. I got a sudden chill: a young man, white, jittery, small backpack. Despite overwhelming odds that everything was normal – I’ve learned that many people can feel quite nervous entering a synagogue, even if they’re Jewish, if it’s not something they do regularly – I decided to walk over and say “hello” myself. He told me his name was John and said, as I suspected, that this was his first time in a synagogue. As we continued talking, he seemed to relax a bit and I offered to seat him with some of our Shabbat regulars who could help him follow the service. I offer this all the time to newcomers, but I’ll admit that in this case part of my thinking was to have him with people who would keep an eye on him just in case things started to look suspicious. After getting John a phonetic prayerbook and settling him in with some friendly congregants, I returned to the bimah but kept an eye out in his direction. He stayed about an hour and slipped out before the service ended.

I still think about that Shabbat on a pretty regular basis. More than anything, I keep coming back to my fear – we get new, nervous people all the time, it’s part of the nature of an urban congregation, but what if? What if it had been something else? What if he had come with evil intent? What if we, BZBI, Jews in general, had somehow become a target for simmering rage within him? It breaks my heart to know that my thoughts went first to those questions, and yet on this first Rosh HaShanah after the terror attacks at Tree of Life Synagogue and Chabad of Poway, I also know where that fear comes from.

As for the overall climate of fear in the world today, well, there does seem to be a lot for us to fear. Most days it doesn’t look like the world is headed in a very good direction. Tens of millions of refugees, utterly homeless, find the doors of wealthier nations closed before them; climate crisis inches ever closer; the number of mass shootings has grown so large that a great many don’t even make the news anymore. While politicians on the extreme right encourage so-called “white nationalists” – domestic terrorists, essentially – to target Jews and other minorities, others on the far left make room for voices whose calls for the State of Israel’s destruction are merely another brand of “the oldest hatred.” Plenty to fear.

Fear can be a powerful motivator, but it lacks depth and staying power. After the terror attack in Pittsburgh last October, AJC encouraged people to “Show Up for Shabbat;” we moved our Friday night service from the chapel to Kahaner in anticipation of a larger turnout, only to move it into the Sanctuary when we passed capacity in Kahaner. It was something I’ve never seen before, anywhere: a High Holy Day-sized crowd for Kabbalat Shabbat. Fear drove a turnout nearly twenty times larger than a typical Friday night would draw. Many in attendance were not BZBI congregants, simply Jews and neighbors moved to come to a service that evening. And yet, in the year since then, only a handful of the new faces have been back. I don’t say that with any judgment – services aren’t for everyone, and they’re far from the only way to be active in a synagogue community. What struck me was that, in response to anti-Semitic violence, people who ordinarily have little or no connection to synagogue life wanted to be a part of our Shabbat – once. An outside threat could get people to “show up,” but it wasn’t enough to form a deeper, meaningful engagement with Jewish life.

Something that never fails to annoy me is receiving solicitations from Jewish charities whose basic message is, “Things are really bad for the Jews! Give us money!” I’m not talking about something we might see from a food pantry, highlighting the problems of food insecurity – that pitch is less about the problem than about the concrete good being done to address the need. What gets to me are messages that play on inchoate fears of assimilation and Jewish decline, triggering an emotional reaction without any direction for practical action. Have we nothing better to offer? I get it – there’s a short-term payoff to that kind of thinking, it gets attention, attention brings a response, and the campaign seems successful. But what of the long-term cost? Fear might stimulate an immediate reaction, but I find it often stands in the way of true progress. While there’s no way to know for sure, I am confident that the same fear that brought so many people here for one night last October has also held some back from coming more often. Looking through a lens of fear tends to magnify our problems until they seem well beyond any of our ability to fix.

If it was just annoying and ultimately ineffective, that would be one thing – but organizing ourselves around fear actually has concrete negative consequences for us and the people around us. While it can feel comforting to band together with others who are afraid of, or opposed to, the things we oppose and fear, it doesn’t give us a real connection to anything or anyone we can truly rely on. It feels like the fear goes away, but connections based on negative emotion can’t provide us with real sustenance.[1] I’m reminded of the Talmud’s notion that the righteous live on after death, while the wicked are considered dead even during their lifetime.[2] Trying to build community around a shared enemy strikes me as one of the ways a person could end up physically alive but spiritually dead. Fear leaves us empty.

Most years, around this time, my thoughts circle around some version of the same question: what’s the point of all of this? What is the purpose of a synagogue at this moment in the historical arc of American Jewish life? This year, considering the pervasive fear running throughout our society, I believe one thing a synagogue can offer us is an antidote to the poisonous effects of living in fear. It’s not the only good solution, nor is it intrinsically helpful on its own. What I would like to suggest is that a certain kind of synagogue community can offer a counterweight to the bombardment of negative emotional influences around us.

In the mid-1940s the novelist Flannery O’Connor barely 20 years old, kept a prayer journal in which she recorded actual, personal prayers rooted in her daily experience. Her prayers offer an inspiring window into the mind and especially the heart of a deeply religious woman. Early in the journal she writes, “I don’t want to fear to be out, I want to love to be in; I don’t want to believe in hell but in heaven.”[3] While her language is very Catholic, I believe her sentiment speaks to a universal human need for belonging and connection. It is natural to want to be a part of something larger than ourselves, to feel ourselves linked to the people around us in ways that are deep and reassuring. The essential question becomes, what does it take for us to “love to be in” more than we “fear to be out?”

In her book, Braving the Wilderness, Brené Brown suggests that the solution lies in sharing moments of joy and pain with others.[4] This can take any number of forms. I think I go to more weddings than the average person, and there still comes a point at each one where I start to get choked up and even cry a little. Of course that’s only partly about the couple in front of me; in those moments, I am at the wedding and also remembering my own wedding and imagining, God willing, standing at the huppah one day with my children. Still, it is the present wedding that brings up all of those memories and dreams, the love in the room that moves me to tears.

Just months after my ordination, when I was new in Chicago, the adult son of synagogue members took his own life in their home. Although I had just started at the synagogue there, I had already gotten to know his mother in one of my adult education classes; heartbroken doesn’t even begin to depict a sorrow infinitely beyond words. She would go on to do incredible work in his memory, raising awareness about depression and suicide among medical residents and changing some of the country’s leading residency programs to better support their students’ emotional health – but that was much later on. In the days before and after the funeral there was only raw devastation. The part that remains etched in my memory came when we returned from the cemetery to the shiva house. While people milled about, as they do at a shiva, I saw the mother sitting across the living room, looking off into the distance. Her pain was absolutely unbearable to witness. I don’t know where the impulse came from, but without even thinking about it I put a bagel and some fruit on a plate and went to sit next to her. I sat there for an hour, neither of us speaking except for my encouraging her, every few minutes, to have another bite, until the food was gone.

Then there are the times when joy and pain come all at once. In the years when Rebecca and I were struggling with infertility and IVF, I went out of my way to go to every bris and baby naming connected to the synagogue, whether I was officiating or not. On one level it felt like stabbing myself in the heart, over and over again. I couldn’t see a mother or father with a newborn baby without feeling the full weight of our yearning for another child. At the same time, I also knew that if I turned away from others’ joy, a part of me would shrivel and die inside. I needed the constant reminder of what could happen to keep my hope alive; even with the pain there was something nurturing, sustaining, in experiencing that family’s joy.

Our showing up for these moments of pain and joy constitutes what Brené Brown refers to as a “ministry of presence.”[5] She means that in those moments where we don’t know what to do, simply showing up and demonstrating our presence is the best thing to do. Don’t get too hung up on the word “ministry;” this is something for all of us, not only clergy. Take a minute to think about it – I am confident that each of you has, at some point, offered someone your ministry of presence, and you have probably also been on the receiving end.

Ministry of presence is possibly the most powerful engine of human connection. This year, at their annual meeting on October 16, HIAS PA is honoring a group of congregants from BZBI and Society Hill Synagogue who spent the last year supporting the Mbonigaba family, Congolese refugees living in Point Breeze. For all the tangible good that our volunteers achieved – attending doctor visits, helping find better housing, guiding them through the school system to get the best education for their children – I believe the most important part was our ministry of presence. Whether it was the core group who were regularly at the house meeting with the family, or many of you who signed on for one discreet task, like picking up donated furniture, each act by one of our volunteers said to the Mbonigabas, we see you. We know you are here and we care about your needs, your setbacks and celebrations. We are together as people.

The same is true for the dedicated group of volunteers who go every week to Stephen Girard Elementary School to read with students. While the overt purpose may be helping support the students’ academic growth, I suspect the deeper impact comes from the relationships that BZBI’s library team forms with the students. Could we even measure the impact on a child’s life when an adult shows up to say, I am here for you. You matter. I care, and I will do everything I can to see you succeed. Ministry of presence.

While Ministry of presence is vital to our experience of being human, it still doesn’t get us all the way to a mission for synagogues – what about prayer? We hold a lot of prayer services – High Holy Days, obviously, as well as other holidays, every Shabbat, and our weekday minyanim every morning and afternoon. We pray a lot around here – to what end?

While I chew on this question pretty much constantly, it surfaces in the public consciousness each time there is another mass shooting. Inevitably some public figure will offer his or her “thoughts and prayers,” to which someone else will respond with something like, “Thoughts and prayers aren’t enough,” at which point we either end up with shouting or everyone walking away and ignoring the other. I’d like to suggest that the issue here is not the effectiveness of prayer itself but a particular attitude – on both sides of that exchange – that takes prayer to mean, “I’m going to think about this problem, but not actually do anything to fix it.” And that, as far as I am concerned, is not prayer.

Just last week I had the gift of reviewing with my rebbe, Reb Mimi Feigelson, a teaching about prayer by the Hasidic rebbe Yaakov Lainer of Izhbitz-Radzin. He begins by pointing out what a startling idea it is to think that a human prayer would have any resonance at all with an infinite, all-encompassing God. How does a finite, mortal being establish a connection with the One who is beyond all Creation? His answer to that problem also serves to resolve some of our own questions about prayer. He teaches, אדם מתפלל למקום שהוא חוץ ממנו, “A person prays to a place that is outside of himself.”[6] The play here is on the word מקום, “place,” which is also one of our names for God – as in the traditional words of condolence, המקום ינחם. So “a person prays to a place that is outside of himself” could equally mean, “A person prays to a God who is outside of himself.”

Either way you read it – or, as I am inclined to do, read it both ways at once – Reb Yaakov’s message is that true prayer takes us beyond ourselves. In early August, after the mass shootings in El Paso and Dayton, I joined many of you in attending the vigil held by CeaseFirePA in Love Park. Even with so many elected officials in attendance, I suspect most people there shared my uncertainty if that vigil, or any of the countless others across the country in recent years, would accomplish much of anything. And yet, the southeast corner of the park filled with people insistent that the plague of gun violence in our country is not the only possible way for us to live. We were there because of our conviction that a solution to this problem exists, and we are capable of bringing it to life. And there was prayer in the park that day. I don’t mean just the opening and closing prayers offered by a rabbi and a minister, but the mass gathering of people focused beyond themselves. People transcending the mess of the world as it is to insist on a vision of the world as it should be. People whose response to pain was to come together, in a ministry of presence for one another. That vigil by itself didn’t accomplish anything concrete; the Senate still has not allowed the bi-partisan background check bill to come up for a vote. But the ministry of presence that we shared allowed us to tolerate the pain together – and to look beyond our fears to find hope and inspiration to act.

Joy and pain come as a package deal – if you want one, you have to take both, or you end up like the people the Talmud described: alive on the outside but dead on the inside. The key is understanding that it’s about more than just what we feel: becoming spiritually alive in this way depends on how we share our pain and joy with others, and the presence we bring into their pain and joy. Prayer, in its essence, calls us to a place, to a God, outside of ourselves, an aspirational vision of what could be. As a practice, prayer expands our field of view and makes our ministry of presence possible. It asks us to see ourselves, and the world, not as these things currently exist but as they could be: better, kinder, more loving, more compassionate.

There was plenty of fear in Love Park that day in August; we heard from residents of North Philly for whom violent death is a daily scourge, family members who lost loved ones to suicide, members of vulnerable minority groups living under threat because of their race, gender, religion, ethnic origin, or sexuality. And I am sure that, like me, the Jews in attendance were also thinking of Pittsburgh and Poway. Even with all that fear, I believe that what brought us together that day was love – a love of life, every human life – above all else. I believe that we will achieve change in our country, and it will come because of the strength of that love.

Anti-Semitism isn’t going anywhere – it has existed since the dawn of our people, and I expect it will last as long as Judaism itself. The future of Judaism depends on our establishing a Judaism of love over fear. If we want to bequeath a strong, vibrant Judaism to the generations that follow, we need to build a Judaism that brings people into community – at synagogue and in one another’s homes – not because we fear what might befall us from the outside but because we love so much what we find on the inside. And BZBI will be part of building that Judaism of love.

In this room today, a lot of us are already deep in that work of building – some through prayer, in our Shabbat community and daily minyanim; other through ministry of presence in acts of גמילות חסדים, caring kindness, and social justice; still more through our adult education, Neziner Hebrew School, and Early Childhood commiunities. What I feel is most significant to mention is that for most people engaged in building for the future, it’s more than just one of these things – it’s several all at once. If that’s you – if you see yourself committed to building for the future, my question for you this year is: who are you bringing with you? How do you plan to spread the love that brings you back here?

For those who are here because it’s Rosh HaShanah, who aren’t regularly in these halls, I want to honor the strength and courage you show in being here today. It took effort to get here, and it probably would have been easier to stay home. Plenty of people don’t come at all – but you did. So for you, I ask: what comes next? You’re past the hardest part – you’re here. Where will you find your Judaism of love? How will you join in building for the future? What kind of Judaism do you want to hand off to coming generations? Rabbi Annie and I, and BZBI’s leadership, are ready to partner with you in this sacred work. Now the ball is in your court. Will you reach out? Have coffee with a board member, meet with one of the rabbis, or just come back to see what else you might find? It’s your move.

At its best, synagogue community is a place where we come to pray, celebrate, and mourn – sometimes all three at once – and where we do those things together. “I don’t want to fear to be out, I want to love to be in.” BZBI isn’t there yet. Many people in this room feel “in” and embraced here at BZBI; at the same time I know there are some among us today who haven’t felt that love. Every prayer offers an aspiration, and we must keep ourselves in that prayerful, present frame of mind, in order to become who we aspire to be. My prayer is for BZBI to become a true sacred community: a place that inspires us to seek; challenges each of us to grow; and embraces every person who walks through this door with the love that grows from a ministry of presence. May it be all of our will.

[1] Brené Brown, Braving the Wilderness (London: Vermillion, 2017), 135-139.

[2] Berakhot 18a-b.

[3] Flannery O’Connor, A Prayer Journal (New York: Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 2013), 6.

[4] Brown, Braving, 128-134.

[5] Brown, Braving, 134.

[6] Sefer Beit Yaakov al-Vayikra, Tazria #4.