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Responding to Uncertainty, Anxiety, and Loss

posted Oct 1, 2017, 10:31 PM by Heidi Hoover

I read a lot of Jewish stuff. I can tell that that’s surprising to you. I’m not talking only about sacred texts and scholarly texts, though I do read those, but I also read Jewish newspapers, blogs, magazines—you know, current events. If you do too, you’ve probably noticed that the organized Jewish world is pretty preoccupied with concern that the American Jewish community is in trouble. Right now I’m not talking about the current political situation, though I’ll get to that later. The concerns I’m talking about are more internal.

There is a widespread sense that organized Judaism—synagogue Judaism—doesn’t interest Jews the way it used to. Synagogue membership is declining, synagogues are closing and merging. People blame liturgy that is dry and irrelevant, clergy who aren’t engaging, synagogues that ask too much from people—or not enough—the general societal trend away from membership in organizations, intermarriage.

Intermarriage is perhaps the most popular scapegoat. The majority of Jews take as a given that intermarriage is bad for the Jews. You may know that I’m not one of them. I don’t think intermarriage is bad for the Jews. I think we like to blame intermarriage when Jews who aren’t raised to have a strong connection to Judaism stop practicing it and are entirely secular—perhaps “culturally Jewish”—as adults, and don’t pass Judaism on in a meaningful way to their children. This can happen regardless of who they marry.

But when Jews are raised with Jewish practice as a joyful, integral part of their lives, they are more likely to want to continue to have it in their lives—indeed, many can’t imagine their lives any other way. Then no matter who they marry, they create Jewish homes and raise Jewish children. When I think of our congregation, and how many dedicated interfaith families there are, raising Jewish kids, participating in services and holiday celebrations, learning, questioning, building relationships in our community, I don’t see Judaism dying out.

If you are not Jewish, and you are here with us, or watching on the internet, or reading this, and you are sharing the Jewish spiritual journey, and especially if you are not Jewish and you are raising Jewish children, thank you. Jewish parents have a responsibility to raise Jewish children, but you do not. That you are willing to do so is extraordinary, and the entire Jewish people owes you a debt of gratitude. Please know that you are fully embraced in this community.

Intermarriage may not be the reason, but it does seem true that fewer people are interested in synagogue membership than used to be. Maybe it has to do with feeling more comfortable and safe and integrated as Jews in the United States, so that Jews don’t feel the need to stick together as closely with other Jews.

In our particular situation here in Prospect Park South, Brooklyn, a heyday of Reform Judaism took place in the mid-20th century, and Brooklyn housed a number of large Reform synagogues. In the latter part of the century, the population shifted. Reform Jews moved out—maybe to Long Island, or Westchester. Congregations shrank, even before the current era of struggling synagogues.

Our rabbi emeritus, Rabbi William Kloner, considered it one of his greatest accomplishments here at Temple Beth Emeth that he orchestrated, together with the synagogue leadership, mergers with other synagogues that kept Temple Beth Emeth afloat: mergers with Progressive Shaari Zedek and Temple Beth Ohr. Even so, it was hard.

In the early 2000s, the population of our area began to shift again as real estate agents expanded the definition of “Ditmas Park” and greater Ditmas Park became one of the hottest neighborhoods in the city. Our synagogue began to see some growth. When I first came here as the rabbinic intern in 2006, I believe there were 20-25 children in the religious school. This year we have over 50.

Nevertheless, a series of issues starting with abruptly losing our building tenant and continuing with a number of physical issues in our over-100-year-old building have been depleting our resources over the last few years.

After many years of overtures back and forth, we are consolidating again, this time with Progressive Temple Beth Ahavath Sholom of Borough Park, itself the product of previous mergers. As we combine into a new congregation which I am certain will not be named Shuly McShul-face, we will all benefit from our combined resources of energy, creativity, caring, and money. That last item isn’t so spiritual-sounding, but the fact is, if our community is to survive and thrive, that costs money.

In one of our Torah readings tomorrow, we read the passage where Moses says in God’s name, “It is not with you alone that I make this sworn covenant: I make it with those who are standing here with us today before our God, and equally with all who are not here with us today.” The congregants of PTBAS are not here with us today. We are each having our last high holiday services as separate congregations. But the covenant, the promise that we will come together to form a congregation stronger together than either of our congregations have been alone, has been made.

We all need to be committed to that goal. There is uncertainty, anxiety, and a sense of loss on both sides, regardless of whether we know this is the right next step for our congregations. If you come here on a fairly regular basis, you probably feel it. I do. Uncertainty, anxiety, and a sense of loss are normal responses to our changing congregation. The question is, given these very common feelings, how are we going to respond?

Our own localized situation, dealing with this consolidation, is one example of change leading to these feelings. The political situation in our country is attributed by many to similar feelings of uncertainty, anxiety, and a sense of loss in those who voted for Donald Trump—whether those feelings have to do with changes to industry that left people without jobs, for example in the coal industry; or a sense that white people are losing power and opportunity; or that things are just wrong in a way that’s hard to articulate.

One of the ways people respond to those kinds of feelings is by looking for others to blame. When that happens, it often leads to precarious times for Jews. We have been chosen as easy scapegoats many times in our history—we, who invented the concept of the actual, literal scapegoat as part of our Yom Kippur ritual as described in the Torah.

I have said for years that while antisemitism exists in this country and we need to be vigilant about it, we’ll be okay as long as the government doesn’t support antisemitism, either actively or tacitly. But we have now reached a time when white nationalists and Nazis marched openly in Charlottesville, Virginia, and the police neither stopped them nor guarded the synagogue they marched past while chanting Nazi slogans and waving flags with swastikas on them. Then our president refused to unequivocally condemn them. We are entering a precarious place as Jews, though our officials here in Brooklyn are still very outspoken against antisemitism. We need to be outspoken in our rejection of blaming and scapegoating—of Jews, Muslims, people of color, any particular group. It never leads to anything good.

Another behavior that feelings of uncertainty, anxiety, and a sense of loss can lead to is increasing insularity. These feelings make it easy to feel threatened, which can prompt us pull away and reject those who are different. At the national level, this can encourage xenophobia as well as racism.

Both of these responses to change or anticipated change, and the feelings that surround it—the response of blaming and scapegoating, and the response of pulling back, becoming more insular—can play out also at the community level. We could respond to our uncertainty, anxiety, and sense of loss with regard to the consolidation with PTBAS by hiding our vulnerability behind attacking, choosing a person or group to blame, or sticking close with our friends and ignoring everyone else. If we all did that, the consolidation would not be a success.

But I believe that is not who we are. The changes that come with combining into a new congregation—both adjusting to actual changes and anticipating changes without knowing exactly what they will be—challenge us, unsettle us. We get to choose how we respond, though. There are alternatives to blaming and pulling away, both at the community level and the national level.

We can choose honesty about what we’re feeling and what it means, and we can choose to trust. During these High Holidays, this time of introspection, we can try to look at our emotional responses and say, “I’m feeling angry and threatened because this is important to me and I’m afraid it will change to something I don’t feel at home with.” We can choose to recognize our feelings as our own, rather than blaming someone else for them. We can choose to trust the future, other people—both new people that we will meet and people we already know—to be open to us and with us, if we offer them openness.

We can also choose what to focus on. We can focus only on our own feelings and experiences, or we can consider also what other people are experiencing. For example, some of my anxiety has to do with working with Cantor Bernstein during the Saturday morning service, when we have combined services. I’m not sure what it will be like. I can notice my anxiety and recognize it as a natural response. I can also imagine what Cantor Bernstein is experiencing. She is giving up being the spiritual leader of a synagogue. While I know this is very painful for her, she has committed herself to the success of this consolidation and to helping her people adjust to me as their spiritual leader. What she is doing is amazing, and I want to make it as easy for her as I can. Knowing what she is going through helps me to have perspective on what I am experiencing.

In our congregation, we instinctively want to pull new people in, help them to feel at home. Doing so with a large number—a whole other congregation with its own culture that is similar to ours, but not exactly the same—challenges our welcoming nature a little, but we can lean into our culture of embracing others until they are not others, but we are all simply “us.” We can choose to do that, and many of us already are.

We can start out at our local level practicing these responses to our feelings of uncertainty, anxiety, and loss, and then encourage each other and our leaders to apply these constructive responses at the national level, too.

At the beginning of this sermon I spoke about changing culture around synagogues in general. There are those who believe that synagogues as the center of the way we practice Judaism are on their way out. I don’t believe that has to be so. I believe that what we do here is relevant, that we can meet people where they are.

It’s challenging, because most of what we do is what most synagogues do, and if you remember stultifying services and buttoned-up, authoritative rabbis and boring, awful religious school, you might assume that’s what you’d find here. But I really believe we do it differently here. There’s a reason some of our congregants call us “Temple Come As You Are.” I really believe this is a place where we meet you where you’re at, and help you find ways that Judaism can be alive and relevant for you. Our kids enjoy religious school here. Our Torah study is lively and irreverent at times, and our parent discussions—which aren’t just for parents—are deep, often moving, and profoundly satisfying. And I don’t know anyone who would describe me as “buttoned-up.”

Do you agree with me? Do you love it here? If so, spread the word. Tell your friends. Better yet, bring them. Let’s share the treasure that is this community.

In this time of uncertainty, anxiety, and loss at the national level and at the level of our community, we need more than ever to stand together and support each other. Our synagogue provides a structure in which we can do that. It, too, needs support in order to continue to provide that structure. Our Torah offers us trust in God as the way to keep our hearts open to one another, and to the future, without fear. It also offers us the Torah itself as the conduit to God. Moses assures us in one of tomorrow’s Torah readings that the instruction to choose life and to choose the path of God’s work isn’t far away from us: It’s right in front of us. We don’t have to choose blaming and withdrawing and rejection, we can and are commanded to choose openness, embracing, empathy, and love.

Let us not let fear of the future turn us against one another, at any level. Let us open our hearts to one another in trust and hope. May each of us, and our community as a whole, be sealed in the Book of Life for the year to come. Amen and g’mar chatimah tovah.

Facebook feed of the service, sermon begins at 1:26: