From Stranger to Neighbor

Rabbi Joy Levitt has called Yom Kippur “the day we come together to be alone.” We sit amongst a sea of people, and we go deep within ourselves. Cheshbon Hanefesh – honest soul-searching – requires a focus and a clarity, a tuning out of the people around us. Yom Kippur is the most personal and individual of Jewish holidays.

And for all that, I want to speak tonight about building community.

Your Strangers and Your Friends

Tomorrow’s Torah readings, from Deuteronomy chapter 29 and Leviticus 19 are among the Torah’s “greatest hits,” which accounts for their selection as readings on the holiest day of the year. Deuteronomy’s clarion call to community: “You are standing here this day, all of you, before Adonai your God, to enter God’s covenant, to be God’s people,” and the demand of Leviticus to “love your neighbor as yourself” are, in many ways, summaries of the entire message of Judaism.

I am drawn this year to a couple of phrases from those passages, which I’ve included on your handouts. These two passages have something important to say to us about relationships and the communities that are built out of a web of relationships. Let’s look at them together. They are:

ger’cha asher b’kerev machanecha –and your stranger in the midst of your camp.

v’ahavta l’re’acha kamocha –love your friend as yourself.

It was the word gercha that first caught my eye. In the account of the many sorts of people who are standing together to enter the covenant – leaders and followers, men, women and children, woodchoppers and waterhaulers – we are told that standing among is also gercha asher b’kerev machanecha – your stranger who is in the midst of your camp. This is an odd formulation, and sounds just as weird in Hebrew as it does in the English translation. Would it not make more sense to say hager asher b’kerev machanecha, “the stranger who is in the midst of your camp?” Why does the Torah throw that extra possessive pronoun our way?

I think it does so to emphasize that ger is a relational term. One cannot be a stranger by one’s own self, but only in relation to the person he or she doesn’t know. Let me illustrate. I am a man, and a United States citizen, and an ordained rabbi. These are objective facts, not dependent on what you or anyone else thinks, or on your relationship to me. But am I a stranger? That depends. To some, I am a stranger, while to others I am not. Calling someone hager – the stranger – belies a pretty egocentric way of defining one’s world. They may be your stranger, but to someone else, they are no stranger at all.

And the same holds true for the word re’a, neighbor, from the Leviticus text. Not “love the friend,” but “love your friend.” In bringing these two texts together on Yom Kippur, it seems to me that our tradition is hinting at a great and important task: that we turn our strangers into our friends. And I would suggest that, as this congregation grows – and it is growing – we must meet that challenge head on, lest we become a congregation of strangers to each other.

For this congregation, like all congregations, is a very different place now than it was in the past. Changes in society are mirrored in Temple, and they contribute to the challenge we face to keep friendliness at the forefront and hold strangerliness at bay. I want to explore three factors that contribute to the challenge, and point us toward the solution. They are geography, demography, and biography.

Geography

Let’s begin with geography. We are prone to being strangers to each other, first and foremost, due to the geographical spread of El Paso, and of El Paso’s Jewish community. No longer can it be assumed that any neighborhood is a Jewish neighborhood, or that all Jews live on the West Side. Truth be told, that was never really the case, but it was much closer to the truth in years past. El Paso was smaller, and the vast majority of Temple members lived near each other. Their children attended school in clusters in the few public schools that had Jewish enrollment.

Today, there are many more public schools, as well as many private schools, and there are no parts of town without some Jews. Our membership lives on the West Side, yes, but also in the Northeast, the Valleys, Upper and Lower, in the Far East, Horizon, and even across state lines and national boundaries. Temple is not a neighborhood shtiebl, but a metropolitan congregation.

This point was driven home for me in a dramatic way last month when I spent some time with the boys in our sixth, seventh and eighth grades. There were eleven boys at school that day, and they attend eight middle schools! A couple of them go to what have been understood, historically, as the “Jewish” middle schools, but the majority of them are in school elsewhere.

For much of the last millennium, Jewish geographical cohesion was forced upon us in the ghetto; more recently, we chose it through the creation of what some called “gilded ghettos.” But now, the immersive Jewish neighborhood is no longer. The “standard” Jewish path through El Paso’s public schools, from Mesita to Wiggs to El Paso High two generations ago, or from Western Hills to Morehead to Coronado more recently, is no more. In this new environment, Temple takes on a new importance as a beitk’nesset, a gathering place, for people who should be neighbors and friends but might otherwise remain strangers.

I am confident that we can overcome the geographical challenge, and that our centrally-located building can fulfill the historical role of the synagogue as beit kenesset – a place of assembly. Here, in our religious school and in our services, geographical barriers are erased and replaced with a warm and embracing Jewish community…an echo of a former time.

Demography

Our geographical diversity is, if anything, surpassed by our demographic diversity. Do you remember that line from The Blues Brothers when the waitress tells Ackroyd and Belushi that the club they are playing has both kinds of music: Country and Western? A visitor to Temple Mount Sinai a century ago asking a similar question would have been told that it had both kinds of Jews: German and Hungarian. Descendants of those founders remain active in the congregation even now, but they’ve been joined by so many others. Jews from Eastern Europe were first, changing Temple’s character, bringing a desire for more Hebrew and ritual. Now, the original Germans and Hungarians, and the later arrivals from Russia and Poland, are joined by Sephardim, Syrians, Persians, and more. As befits a congregation on the Border, we are a smorgasbord of Jews.

If that were where our demographic diversity ended, it wouldn’t be much of a challenge. Mix up the music a bit, serve bunuelas and baklava alongside the schnecken, and everyone would be happy. But of course, the greatest demographic change in the American Jewish community over the last generation is not about which part of Europe one’s ancestors hailed from. The great change is the influx of people who are not Jewish or who were not born Jewish.

That change is reflected in the make-up of this congregation’s membership. People who have converted to Judaism, or who are not themselves Jewish but who are married to Jews or raising Jewish children, make up a significant portion of our population. What only a generation ago was a rarity has become quite normal. And with that normalization comes a new potential for “strangerliness” in our congregation, along with the corresponding challenge to find new paths to “friendliness” and “neighborliness.”

My mentor Arlene Chernow uses the analogy of a dinner party to illustrate this challenge. Imagine that you are attending a dinner party at a home you’ve never been to before, with a group of people you’ve never met before. Would the host open the door, take your coat, and leave you standing at the threshold? A bad host, maybe. A good host would bring you in, show you to the living room, introduce you to some other guests, and make you feel “at home.”

That welcome is what Jewish Outreach is all about. Temple’s Outreach initiatives include our Mothers Circle program, our library’s Basic Judaism Collection, the counseling and teaching of potential Jews-by-choice and non-Jewish parents and spouses that Susan Jaffee and I do on a constant basis, and so much more. All of these are our attempt to be good hosts, to turn strangers into friends. We delight in the fact that people choose to become Jewish, and we delight in the fact that non-Jewish people make the choice to love Jewish spouses and raise Jewish children. We are all re’im, neighbors and friends. Shame on us if we don’t take the steps to insure that our congregation welcomes those who have chosen to cast their lot with the Jewish people, and whose presence is a blessing to us all.

Biography

Having considered geography and demography, let’s move to one more challenge we face in making our gerim into our re’im. It is our own biography. More to the point, it is a particular aspect of the worldview of those of us who are boomers and younger, namely our insistence on only doing things that are personally meaningful.

Here, as with our geographical spread and demographic diversity, the challenge is a fairly new one in Jewish life. A generation ago, certainly a century ago, “because that’s what we do” was a perfectly reasonable answer to the question, “why should I do this.” Certain Jewish observances and affiliations, if not active participation, were to be assumed. No more. What two noted writers have called “the sovereign self” has replaced the sense of communal obligation that used to be sufficient to sustain us.

Where in the past, a synagogue could do what it had always done, knowing that people would continue to attend and support it – after all, what choice did they have? – now there is a need to adapt. Religious, cultural and educational programming must be deemed personally relevant and worthwhile, or else it will be ignored. In their book The Jew Within, those writers – Steven Cohen and Arnold Eisen – cite a Chicago lawyer’s succinct expression of this phenomenon: “I elect to observe…as I elect to observe. If something is potentially annoying, I avoid it.”

Enter Synaplex. Synaplex, with an s-y-n-a, is a play on the Cineplex – c-i-n-e. The multi-screen complexes that took the place of single screen theaters are a reflection of the sovereign self’s impact on Hollywood. More choices, fewer seats per choice. They don’t build movie theaters like the Plaza anymore. So too in the synagogue, we recognize that people want to attend a program, class, service, or social opportunity that attracts them personally, and not merely see the same show that everyone else is seeing. Some are drawn to worship, but many others are not. Synaplex asks, Can our synagogues be places in which multiple activities are happening, even simultaneously, and where success is not about filling a big hall but about creating opportunities for personal meaning on a smaller scale?

Temple Mount Sinai is taking part in the Synaplex project four times in the coming year, beginning in just three weeks. There’s a flier in the packet you received when you entered the sanctuary, and you’ll see a diversity of programs for people of all ages and interests. Just like some movie buffs can spend a day at the Cineplex going from screening to screening, there may be a few of you who will map out an entire Shabbat, attending much of the programming being offered that weekend. Many more of you will choose one aspect of the Shabbat that you find personally meaningful – perhaps the hike at Hueco Tanks, maybe the “Diaries of Adam and Eve,” or a musical Havdalah ceremony to bid farewell to Shabbat. Through that experience, you may find a new way of connecting to your congregation. And, in a smaller setting than the one in which you find yourself right now, you may find that someone who starts the day as gercha – your stranger – ends it as re’echa – your friend.

A birthing

It is by now cliché to point out that the Chinese character for “crisis” is made up of two symbols: “danger” and “opportunity.” But did you know that Judaism has its own version of this truth, reflected in the Hebrew language? The Hebrew root shin-bet-resh, shever, means “broken” or “shattered.” You heard it spoken several times on Rosh Hashanah when we called for the shofar blast of shevarim – badaaa, ba-daaa, ba-daaa. From that basic idea of “broken” comes the Hebrew word mashber, whose primary meaning is “crisis.” But in the prophets and the psalms, the same word is used to refer to the moment of birth. In Hebrew no less than in Chinese, ruptures are dangerous but they are also pregnant with opportunity.

All three ruptures we’ve thought about tonight – the disappearance of the Jewish neighborhood, the weakening of a sense of communal obligation, certainly the demographic shift in the American Jewish community – are mashberim. I believe that we must meet each of them not as crises, but as a moment of birthing. On the local scale, they bring into sharp focus the need for a congregation that welcomes us in all our diversity. At the larger and more significant level, these mashberim are signposts along the way to a Judaism that is richer and more varied than any our forebears could have imagined.

The Door to this Synagogue

May the door to this synagogue be wide enough to receive all who are in need of love, all who are lonely for friendship.

May it welcome all who have cares to unburden, thanks to express, hopes to nurture.

May the door of this synagogue be narrow enough to shut out pettiness and pride, envy and enmity.

May its threshold be too high to admit complacency, selfishness, and harshness, yet may it be no stumbling block to young or uncertain feet.

May we make this synagogue, for all who enter, the doorway to an enriched and more meaningful life.

Amen.

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