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Challenges of Consolidation--Kol Nidrei 2018/5779

posted Sep 20, 2018, 3:03 PM by Heidi Hoover

Kol Nidrei. The melody is haunting, the words legalistic. “All vows—resolves and commitments, vows of abstinence and terms of obligation, sworn promises and oaths of dedication—that we promise and swear to God, and take upon ourselves from this Day of Atonement until the next Day of Atonement, may it find us well: we regret them and for all of them we repent. Let all of them be discarded and forgiven, abolished and undone; they are not valid and they are not binding. Our vows shall not be vows; our resolves shall not be resolves; and our oaths—they shall not be oaths.”


The passage—which is not technically a prayer—declares that vows we make to God and are unable to keep will be null and void. Though Kol Nidrei is very old—it has been part of Yom Kippur observances for well over 1000 years—it has never referred to vows, resolves, and commitments between people. Vows between people are binding. But sometimes, we make promises to ourselves or to God, and we’re not able to keep them.


For example, a hot-headed person might vow never to lose their temper again. How often can such a promise be kept? Rarely. How many people vow to go to the gym regularly, and fail to keep that vow? This is the kind of thing we’re talking about in kol nidrei.


Last year, all of us who are members of this temple entered into a vow with each other, a vow that is NOT nullified by kol nidrei. We vowed, we committed, we entered into a covenant with each other, to bring together two synagogues into one. The majority of both legacy congregations believed it was for the good of both congregations, as did I, as the rabbi of Temple Beth Emeth, and as did Cantor Bernstein, as the spiritual leader of PTBAS.


I think most of us still believe that our consolidation is ultimately for the good of all of us.


That doesn’t make it easy.


In fact, just about the hardest thing a congregation can undertake is to combine with another congregation. Many of you have been through this before—both legacy congregations were themselves products of other consolidations. I don’t think that makes it easier either. I also don’t know how we’re doing compared to those other experiences. What I do know is that I, and I hope all of you, are doing the best we can to navigate it.


For many of us, it’s because we are committed to the future of this Jewish community. For others, perhaps, it’s because there’s not really another option.


I wonder how many of you know the story of Hernán Cortéz, the Spanish conquistador who arrived in the New World in 1519. He had 600 men with him, and once they landed, he burned his ships. There was no turning back—they had to triumph, or not, in the New World. Two years later, Cortéz and his men had conquered the Aztecs.


I don’t tell this story because I think of Cortéz as a hero. These days, many of us don’t accept the idea that it’s right and good to come from abroad and conquer indigenous peoples, even though that’s how the United States came to be here. But the story of Cortéz’s burning his ships is a story of absolute commitment.


As a congregation, we have burned our ships. We are legally one congregation, the building at 1515 46th St. will soon be sold. The only way to go is forward, the only thing to do is to make this project work.


We chose the name Beth Shalom v’Emeth Reform Temple. The acronym is “B’ShERT,” a Yiddish word that means “meant to be.” When something happens that seems completely fitting and right, we might say that it’s “b’shert.” If we meet someone, fall in love, and marry them, we might call that person our “b’shert.” If you are here for the first time and decide this is the right community for you and you want to become a member, it’s b’shert!


I have to tell you, though, I don’t really believe in “meant to be.” And even if I did, I’m not prepared at this moment to say that Temple Beth Emeth and Progressive Temple Beth Ahavath Sholom were meant to be joined into one congregation.


I do absolutely believe it was necessary for both our congregations, but this is not a marriage of love—it’s an old-fashioned kind of marriage—an arranged marriage for the material benefit of all.


When I was a kid, about once a year my family would go and have dinner at the Popats. Manilal and Jyoti Popat are friends of my family. Jyoti is from India, and Manilal is an ethnic Indian from Uganda. They got married probably around the same time my parents did, 1968, and they’re still married. Theirs was an arranged marriage. One time my dad said to Manilal, “How can you marry someone you didn’t choose yourself? Someone you’ve just met? How can you commit to spend the rest of your life with someone if you’re not in love with them?”


Manilal replied, “How can you commit to spend the rest of your life with someone based on something as ephemeral as your emotions at a given time?”


We know that many marriages, whether they’re arranged or entered into by a couple in love, do end in divorce, and that there are plenty of successful marriages of both kinds, too.


Arranged marriages that succeed often deepen into love, and at that point, couples might look back and say, “It was b’shert.”


Psychologist John Gottman has studied married couples for decades to try to learn why marriages succeed or fail, and in fact he wrote a book called Why Marriages Succeed or Fail. One of the key points in his book is that a healthy relationship has five positive interactions for every negative interaction. He doesn’t say people shouldn’t argue or disagree, but that there are healthy and less healthy ways to do it. And regardless of the personalities and communication styles of those involved, marriages worked when there were 5 positive interactions for every negative one.


We are one congregation now, one family. Many people worked hard to arrange this union, to prepare for it as best we could. We are at the beginning of this relationship. Regardless of whether a union is arranged or entered into out of love, it is only when you actually come together that you learn who leaves their smelly socks on the floor instead of putting them in the laundry, who leaves the cap off the toothpaste, who insists on setting the air conditioner to 68 degrees and who doesn’t want it to be on at all.


Many years ago, when Mike and I had been living together for a little while, I had a popcorn habit. Air-popped, lots of butter and salt. (I apologize for bringing this up on a fast day.) You know when you make popcorn, you put it in a big bowl, pour on the butter and sprinkle the salt, and then you toss it. So that is what I did, pretty much daily, in our tiny kitchen. Well, when you toss the popcorn, there are little bits of chaff and pieces of popcorn shell that don’t make it back into the bowl, and they were settling on the counter. I didn’t even notice, but it bothered Mike. One day he said, “Look, do you think you could do that over the sink instead of over the counter, so the popcorn dust goes in the sink?” I said, “Yeah, I can do that,” and that’s what I’ve done ever since. It was just one tiny piece, one little irritant in our relationship that was removed.


Since I know all of us have been in close relationships with other people over the course of our lives, whether with parents, children, friends, or spouses, I expect most of us would agree that there are a million little irritants in relationships. Mike and I resolved the popcorn one constructively and pretty easily. We don’t always do it that well.


When we came together in this building last year just after the High Holidays, we quickly began to notice irritants in the relationship—some big, some small. As in any relationship, some of them we resolve, some of them we live with, and some of them are still an issue every time they come up. Over time, I hope and believe that things will become smoother.


Having committed to becoming one congregation and having metaphorically burned our ships so that there’s no going back, we all need to focus on the success of our new congregation—not for the sake of the congregation itself alone, but for our own sakes. We each need to find our place and the way we can feel comfortable here.


There are those who believe that Judaism is a religion of guilt, of beating our breasts and feeling bad. It isn’t. That is only one component of Judaism. At this time of year, we do face our guilt, and some of us literally do beat our breasts in our confession and repentance. But the point of this is not to continue feeling bad—it is to release the guilt and bad feelings, forgive others, and forgive ourselves. Our goal at the conclusion of Yom Kippur is to feel free of guilt, to have the sensation that we really are starting fresh, starting over.

Two congregations moved in together October 21 of last year. Some people were enthusiastic, some were cautiously optimistic, some were sad, some were angry. Some had mixed emotions, including all the ones I’ve mentioned and more.


And there has been damage. Feelings have been hurt, people have felt disenfranchised, people have felt attacked. Some of us have hurt others by mistake—because we didn’t understand that something unimportant to us was important to someone else; because of poor communication; because of what we just didn’t know about each other. Some of us have hurt others out of our own pain—we have lashed out, or been passive-aggressive, or scoffed at other people’s ideas.


Now is the time to leave that in the past. To ask for forgiveness if we are aware of harm we have done, to forgive if we are asked to—and if we can, to forgive even when have not been asked to do so.


We are in this together, and we are going to continue to be in this together. Yom Kippur urges us all to wipe the slate clean, let go of our resentments that have built up over the past year, and give each other another chance. This is something we must find a way to do in any long-lasting relationship—whether of close friends, in a marriage, or among members of a community like ours. EVERY close relationship has conflict, hurt, and grievance. We are called upon in ANY close relationship to move on from those hurts, by apologizing, asking for forgiveness, and forgiving.


When we let go of resentment, when we forgive, when we wipe the slate clean, we have the opportunity to deepen our relationships, get to know wonderful and interesting things about each other that we never saw before. Because a clean slate is also an open heart, and when we look and listen with our hearts open we encounter one another in a different way than when we are guarded and suspicious because of our pain.


I’ve gotten to know quite a few of you at least a little bit, and I’m here to tell you, every person here is worth knowing. Every member of our community is worth knowing. Let us open our hearts to one another and discover the richness of our community. As we do so, we will build trust, which will make us better able to work together and be together.


There is a little bit of irony to the word “b’shert.” I expect that many of us know of a relationship or two in which the couple didn’t like each other at first, or there were other circumstances that made a union between them impossible. Then things changed, they got together, and a long time later, they look back and say: “It was b’shert.” It was meant to be. We don’t always know that something is meant to be at the beginning. And to a certain extent, it is our openness to a relationship and our commitment to it that can make it feel, at some point, that even though it didn’t seem so at first, that that relationship was b’shert, meant to be.


So our new name, B’ShERT, is already true for some people. Some of us are enjoying this union, and believe that it is meant to be. For others of us, the name B’ShERT is aspirational. It is upon us to live out our commitment to one another and create a healthy and loving community, so that one day we will be able to look back and say, “It wasn’t at first, but I can see now that this was b’shert—this was meant to be.” And it will have been, because we made it that way.


May our confessions, our prayers, and our worship this Yom Kippur help us to value our commitments and our relationships. May they bring us to the ability to forgive and to ask for forgiveness—not just with God, but between one another. May we recommit ourselves to the health and growth of this community as a supportive, spiritually rich environment where every nefesh, every soul, who enters here can feel the warmth and find a home, and feel that it’s b’shert.


Amen and G’mar Chatimah Tovah—May you be sealed for good in the year to come.