Yom Kippur Kol Nidrei 5777 – Maintaining Ourselves as Beth El
Jacob left Be’er Sheva on the road to Haran. He came upon a certain place and encamped there for the night. Taking one of the stones there, he used it as a pillow as he lay down. He had a dream: a stairway was set on the ground and its top reached into the sky, and angels of God were going up and down on it.
And the Lord was standing beside Jacob and said: “I am the Lord, the God of your father Abraham and the God of Isaac.”
After the revelation, Jacob awoke from his sleep and said:
“Surely the Lord is present in this place, and I did not know it!” Shaken up, he said, “how awesome is this place! This is none other than the abode of God, and the gateway to heaven.”
Before he left that place he named it Beth El -House of God.
According to our Torah, that is how Beth El — the one in the Promised Land — received its name.
And what about our Beth El? How did we get our name?? I’ve been wondering about this a great deal, as we move into our 90th Anniversary Celebration.
Related to this question, I recieved a call the other day from Lillian Rappoport, who needed a few minutes of my time. I thought it was about the upcoming March of the Living group, where we have a handful or more participating, but it turned out that she had a surprise for me. Over the summer a staff member at the JCC told her he had something to give her that he didn’t know what to do with, so she accepted it.
Once she looked at it she knew I – we – would want it. It is an original copy of the original Beth El Temple Building Dedication Booklet from 5688 – that is, 1928. Holding this one in my hand helped me focus my attention on this evening’s sermon.
As we begin our 10th decade of existence as a Sacred Community, a Kehillah Kedosha, and as we look forward to concluding this decade with our centenary celebration in 2026, we should pause throughout this year to ponder the past, celebrate the present and set our sights on the future. I believe that our future can be planned, envisioned, and realized; it might not happen exactly as we hope it will, but the future is coming. There are issues locally, nationally, and internationally that are beyond our control; there are social trends that we cannot buck and events we cannot imagine that will occur, hopefully all or at least most of them for the better; and tonight we can plan and commit ourselves to a strong future presence here in Harrisburg.
I believe that Beth El Temple plays a significant role in the future of both the Jewish Community in Harrisburg and in the future of the Conservative Movement. On the first day of our new year I spoke of our people’s founding story, the degradation of slavery, the challenges of freedom and the celebration of deeply spiritual and humanistic virtues our religious community developed.
What is our congregation’s founding story? What led to Beth El Temple’s establishment as a Conservative Congregation at a time when the newly settled Jewish immigrant community had largely focused on the economics and civics of assimilation and not the spirituality of assimilation?
90 years ago, Henry Brenner wrote:
The idea of the Temple was conceived early in 1926 when some twenty of our present membership were brought together in the hope that somehow they might bring into being a Synagogue dedicated to the re-emphasis of Jewish traditions and to an idealism and culture that breathes the traditional spirit and zeal for the Jewish faith. The practical accomplishments of this ambition seemed so visionary that only a rare optimism could foresee its early realization.
Within 18 months this group had raised $50,000 so the original Temple structure could be built with a Sanctuary seating 550 people, a canvas tapestry hanging from the ceiling, colorful windows to the outside and inside, and a growing congregation, from two or three hands full in 1926 to nearly 200 by the time the building was completed.
What characterized this group? Henry Brenner wrote that they were
Imbued by an unusual unselfishness and working with extraordinary zeal…
He concluded his thoughts 88 years ago by saying
Hence it is our hope that the young and old may come to enjoy a Judaism that is modern, constructive, completely Jewish, and religious, firm in the belief that only by being true Jews can we be true Americans. For this purpose Temple Beth El is dedicated, to advance the true principles of Judaism, and to serve our community.
While it is safe to say that it takes those types of people, those who are imbued by an unusual unselfishness and working with extraordinary zeal to found a congregation, we could not have continued as a congregation and become our Conservative Movement’s trail-blazer and trend-setter between Philadelphia and Pittsburgh without exceptional lay leadership, volunteers who worked during the day and took care of their congregation at night, volunteers who were selfless and devoted and passionate about this building, the clergy, the support staff, and most importantly, their fellow congregants. For the women and men who have led and who we will remember tomorrow at Yizkor, we thank God for their devotion.
We continue to be led and inspired by our volunteer leaders for whom we thank God — for whom I thank God every day. In a certain, deeply spiritual manner, our volunteers and your devotion to this cause justify our title — House of God — Beth El.
But why, in 1926, did the Congregation decide to call itself “Beth El?” While nowhere in the Dedication Booklet is this answer spelled out, we know that Beth El was then and continues to be a popular name for synagogues in America. Why? Because it represented a connection between the Biblical Land of Israel and the newly established Jewish presence in America, the New Promised Land. I also think the title “Beth El” was popular because in America it is an aspirational name whereas in Israel it is a factual name, a place name. In the Bible Beth El is revealed to be the place where God reveals the Divine Presence to Jacob and connects him to the covenant through his parents. In America, Beth El is the place where we aspire to affirm the covenant with God that connects us to eternity and to each other; Beth El is a place we enter to Experience God’s Presence and be inspired; and Beth El is the place we establish to learn deep and more meaningful interpretations of our traditions and behave in such a way as to make this a Holy Congregation, a true House of God.
Jacob fled his brother’s wrath and found a safe haven in Beth El. We flee the darkness outside, we flee the sadness of the world, we flee the spiritual chaos that is our civilization, and we gather together to create a safe haven at Beth El.
We know this building, this institution, is only a building, and yet we imbue it with sanctity because of what we do here. Pray. Study. Celebrate. Engage in Fellowship. Break bread. We imbue it with sanctity by dint of what we learn to do here to help lead our communal agencies, to lead community hunger and housing relief agencies, to lead in establishing and maintaining communal, national, and international organizations, and to give generously to them all.
In so many ways we are Beth El — A House of God.
Tonight I’d like us to consider how we can do even better as a congregation as we move forward into our 10th decade.
Permit me to share a two hour experience I had this past summer, at the Hartman Institute. One afternoon I attended a workshop entitled “Can the Synagogue Be Saved?” led by two Rabbinic Colleagues: my classmate Eddie Feinstein, of Valley Beth Shalom Congregation in Los Angeles, and my colleague Noa Kushner, a younger colleague who has a congregation in San Francisco aptly called “The Kitchen.” Imagine my surprise when one of the texts we discussed was the Membership Brochure from the congregation in which I grew up, the Congregation my parents helped to found in 1948, The Israel Community Center of Levittown, Long Island! The brochure was dated from that first year, 1948. I was surprised and flattered.
In 1948, someone who I probably knew growing up wrote this copy:
Many of our people have had little previous contact with synagogue life, having hitherto regarded the synagogue as a province of their elders. Many have not seen the inside of the “shule” since their Bar Mitzvah. Now, however, they feel it is time that they “grow up” and they have consequently acquired a renewed interest in synagogue activity. The responsibilities of parenthood have led many to rethink their position with regard to Jewish heritage which they now seek to maintain in order to be able to transmit it to their children. In Levittown, this “return to Judaism” is facilitated for them through the existence of a synagogue consisting of like minded young Jewish parents.”
For the Jewish veterans of World War II, and their spouses, this text resonated loudly in their consciousness. Moving out from the Big City to the suburbs, starting a family, and seeking to Americanize as first, second, and third generation immigrants, The responsibilities of parenthood led many to rethink their position with regard to Jewish heritage which they sought to maintain in order to be able to transmit it to their children.
Does this text continue to resonate today? It does for me. The problems and the challenges have not reinvented themselves! After WWII, Conservative synagogues were established with afternoon Hebrew Schools to attract parents of young children, baby boomers. Now, this quickly became a problem. Already in 1951 there were studies documenting the tension between what parents wanted for their children — for the Synagogue School to teach their children all about Jewish heritage and traditions, customs, and ceremonies, on the one hand; and on the other hand their parents not wanting to observe any of the specifics their children were learning. Teach them about Kashrut — but we won’t keep Kosher. Teach them about Shabbat — but we won’t observe Shabbat. Teach them about the importance of Life Long Learning, but their Jewish Education will end with their Bar Mitzvah — and later their Bat Mitzvah and/or Confirmation.
In an article in Commentary Magazine, from January 1951, Herbert Gans concludes his remarks with the ominous sentence “The fruit of this might well be a Judaism that ends rather than begins with Bar Mitzvah.” While these texts are from 65 years ago, they still resonate today.
Beth El Temple’s founders wrote the following in their dedicatory booklet, in the section entitled “Aims and Purposes of Our Congregation.”
We are Americans, and as Americans we have had to give up a great part of Jewish Civilization. We have surrendered the Jewish civil code; we have little time for Hebrew Language and literature; we have no Jewish community life. But, if we want to remain Jews, we must retain enough of Jewish civilization to make a difference not only in our mode of praying but also in our mode of living, not only in the way we keep the seventh day but also in the way we spend the six days of the week.
The authors of this Statement of Aims and Purposes couldn’t have imagined the Holocaust and the impact that played upon Judaism, could only have prayed fervently for the establishment of a Jewish State in Palestine but not imagined the impact that would play, nor could they have imagined the impact the turning towards the “me generation” — the America culture of “what’s in it for me” — or the impact that plays upon Judaism here.
Today, decisions concerning Judaism that many of us make are inextricably wrapped up in the search for personal meaning. Moderately affiliated Jews today are not abandoning tradition but refashioning it. They have no wish to sacrifice the particularity of ethnic and religious loyalty in the name of America or of humanity. They aim to make Jewish narratives part of their own personal stories by picking and choosing among the new and inherited practices and texts to find the combination they as individuals can authentically affirm.
Many, many Jews today emphasize personal meaning as the arbiter of their Jewish involvement. Their Judaism focused on the self and self fulfillment rather than directed towards the group — the people of Israel, the Jewish Community, the Jewish Community Center, the synagogue. Many Jews today believe that being Jewish is an extremely voluntary identity — assuming rightful freedom of each individual to make his or her own Jewish decisions…as a result, Judaism is strictly nonjudgmental. Each person interacts with Judaism in ways that suit him or her. This phenomenon has come to be called “the sovereign self” — when the individual feels empowered in making their own Jewish decisions.
What should we do? How can we respond to the move that many Jews are making away from institutional affiliation, including Synagogue and JCC affiliation, and believing that “Do It Yourself Judaism” is good for them? How are we to move ahead into our 10th decade with purpose and passion if everyone just wants what they want to help them feel fulfilled?
I believe we are moving in the right direction, but we need more impetus to envision the future we want for our congregation and our community. The challenges to us here in Harrisburg are serious challenges. The demographic drop in young families with children in Harrisburg has led us to a point unimaginable just five years ago; Chisuk Emuna, Temple Beth Shalom, and Beth El have merged our Religious Schools into a new school called “Gesher” — a bridge between our congregations, a bridge bringing Jewish learners of all ages together to approach Jewish traditions and Jewish texts in age appropriate, serious ways. Under the leadership of Rabbi Ilyse Kramer and our active Gesher Religious School volunteer committee, our Gesher Religious School is in its second year; our Gesher Life Long Learning Program for adults kicks off in February and March with a co-sponsored course in Jewish Ethics.
The demographic drop in the general Jewish population is also dramatic. There are very few Jewish people moving into our neighborhoods who wish to affiliate. Dues is not a problem; desire to affiliate and be counted upon as a Jew is the problem. The Life and Legacy project you’ve heard about is one mechanism to maintain our financial viability and the financial viability of other Jewish agencies in our community into an uncertain future. Continued co-operative programming with Chisuk Emuna is also important.
But at the present we must be concerned with our vibrancy, not simply our viability. The days of obsessive concern about survival ended over two decades ago, and Jewish renewal, Jewish vibrancy, Jewish Renaissance must be our goals as we move ahead. One path to achieving the goal of renewal, vibrancy, and renaissance for Beth El Temple is a renewal of our vows from 1928. In 1928 our founders wrote the following under the heading “Aims and Purposes of our congregation”:
What are Members of Beth El Expected To Do?
- To provide their children with an intensive Jewish training which should continue far into the years of adolescence
- To affiliate with communal organizations which are essential to the continuance of Jewish life in the Diaspora
- To take an active part in the restoration of Palestine by giving it both material and moral support
- To foster the cultivation and growth of the Hebrew Language and literature
- To encourage in the Jewish school and pulpit the reevaluation of Israel’s past in terms of the present day world outlook.
- To devote some time each week to individual study and group discussion of the ethical aspect of all problems touching human life
- To translate their ethical ideals into actual conduct in their home life, in their dealings with their neighbors, in their work, and in their play
Permit me please to translate the above into doable actions — mitzvot — for 2016-2017: include Jewish social interaction, Jewish intellectual interaction, and Jewish spiritual interaction. My goal is for us to gather together next year at this time on our Jewish spiritual national calendar as a revitalized community of “more doing” Jewish congregants.
Come to Adult Education and establish or renew your relationship to our traditional wisdom and talk with others about how to apply those ideas to real life. Support and engage with our Jewish communal organizations. They need your leadership and your followership to thrive. Make a commitment to Jewish life in Israel. Read one American and one Israeli Jewish newspaper on line every week. Go to Israel to visit and volunteer.
Our Beth El is a place where we come to experience God’s Presence. It is not the only place we can go for such an experience, but Beth El offers those seeking Jewish spirituality a home, those seeking Jewish intellectual stimulation and satisfaction a home, those seeking Jewish fellowship, friendship, and love, a home. Our Beth El is a place where we can dream of God’s presence informing our lives for the better, for the sake of fulfilling the ultimate commandment: Love your neighbor as yourself.
Friends, we deserve to give ourselves a gift for our 90th Anniversary, and that gift is a Renaissance of Judaism here at Beth El Temple for our sacred space and for our sacred congregation. It is in our power to do this; we will make it happen when we imbue our actions with an unusual unselfishness and work with extraordinary zeal on behalf of our Beth El Temple.
May this be a year of renewed zeal, revitalized Jewish activities, and a Renaissance of Jewish Life for our Congregation and our Community. And may everyone be written and sealed for a year of good health, sweetness in all interpersonal activities, celebration, and joy.