Hanukkah starts the night before Thanksgiving this year, leading some people to call the holiday "Thanksgivukkah". This has never happened before, and will never happen again. Yet, it is fitting that they do overlap, as there is much to be grateful for about both holidays. Hanukkah is the celebra-tion of the victory of the Maccabees and the rededication of the Temple in Jerusalem. Like Thanksgiving, the festival of lights celebrates a miracle, the victory of a few over the many. Thanksgiving celebrates another miracle, the survival of the Pilgrims and a bountiful harvest after a perilous journey and difficult year in their new home.
At Temple Etz Chaim, we have much to be thankful for; we have a community of people who truly care about each other, celebrating in good times, and consoling each other in times of trouble. We have a vibrant religious school, complete with library, music and art, where our children get an excellent Jewish education. We have new adult education offerings, in-cluding weekly torah study, led by the rabbi. We have many B’nei mitzvah throughout the year, joyous occasions, where our young people celebrate becoming a young adult in our community. We have a vibrant sisterhood, and brotherhood, a wonderful choir and a knitting group, all venues for deepening our ties with each other.
There are many who do not have as much, and at this time of year it is important to remember this. There is much em-phasis put on providing material help for those in need, and that is very important. As important however, is providing emotional support, friendship and caring to others. It may be as simple as a kind word to someone who seems to be hav-ing a bad day or inviting someone new to the area to come worship with us, so that they may feel the warmth of our com-munity. It may be inviting a college student who cannot get home to share one or both holidays with your family. Shar-ing community and a sense of belonging can help make "Thanksgivukkah" that much more meaningful.
Today, we celebrate Rosh Hashanah, the beginning of the high holiday season, the days of awe. We gather as a communi-ty to worship and wish each other a “sweet new year”. But what does it mean to gather as a community?
What do we get out of this? You have heard a great deal about the importance of community today, which I whole heartily agree with. I wanted to share with you some stories from our community about why the temple is important to three families among us.
Here is my story: I joined the temple so that my children would know their heritage. Being brought up in a non-practicing household, I knew little about Judaism. I remember being in a temple, and my father telling me that women do not wear kippot. That was the extent of my religious instruction, other than eating bagels and lox on Sunday mornings. I was determined that my children would know more. Although I started out with the expectation that my children would get an education, I was unprepared for what followed, cheerful greetings in the hallway at drop off and pick up and fellowship formed over class dinners and services. I also quickly realized the need to educate myself, to stay ahead of Rose. I enrolled in an intro-ductory Hebrew class, and eventually in an adult B’nei Mitzvah class. I was asked to join the education committee. I be-gan to realize that there was more to temple than an education for my children, that this was a true community. Nowhere was this more evident than during class and temple-wide events, where all the adults watched over the children, and felt free to help someone else’s child, or let them know that they needed to quiet down, or stop running around the temple building. I truly feel that sense of community to this day. As my children and the children that they grew up with get older, the connection continues, and advice and storied are freely shared between parents whose children have “been there/done that”, and those who are approaching whatever the event/milestone is. I look forward to continuing to share the ups and downs of not only my children’s lives but also my life with my temple family.
Another member told me that she did not initially see a need to join a temple; her husband is not Jewish, and “it didn’t seem necessary”. Her daughter came home one day and asked when she was going to get her first communion dress. She told her that she was not Catholic, and her daughter asked her “What am I?” She began taking her daughter to high holiday services, and some Erev Shabbat services. Her daughter never went to religious school, and did not have her own Bat Mitzvah celebration, although she did attend some of her friends’. She has since married, and joined a temple of her own. Being a member of this temple gave her an answer to her question, “What am I?” Meanwhile, the mother was asked to be on the board, and she eventually became president of the temple. She is no longer as active, but when asked what she got out of continuing to be a member, she simply answered, “I can’t imagine not being a member”. She added that being a member offers her an opportunity to remain connected to her Judaism regardless of her degree of practice that the temple is there any time I want to observe/practice, without my needing a special invitation, and that that is a great source of comfort for her.
Another member joined the temple when she was pregnant with her first child. She and her husband had bought a house, and the real estate agent had mentioned Temple Etz Chaim, although they did not join immediately. When they were looking, they went to a Shabbat service. The service felt comfortable enough for her conservative background, and not too strange for her husband who is not Jewish. However, during oneg, they felt “like we walked into someone’s house as a welcome guest”. They continue to feel welcome, and she related that, in addition to being a place to educate their chil-dren, “this is our Jewish home”.
I invite you to tell me your story, and share with me how you came to join our temple, and what keeps you here. I would also like to hear how we can do better, what you would like to see our temple do for you, to help you feel that this is YOUR “Jewish home”.
On this beginning of September, the start of the high holidays, it is customary to think about how we have done in the past year, and what we can do better. As far as our temple goes, we can consider what it does well, and what things leave something to be desired.
Our religious school is truly exceptional, in that we have a full curriculum, including art and music. We have active acade-my and confirmation, and even post-confirmation classes. Many students continue to be involved as Madrichim (classroom aids). We have an active youth group, that engages in Tikkun Olam (repairing the world) activities, and is ac-tive in NFTY (North American Federation of Temple Youth).
As far as adult education goes, we have an exciting year coming up. The adult education committee has been quite busy, and there are plans for regular Saturday morning Torah study with Rabbi Alpert. We will be having Rabbi Amy Scheinerman, a scholar in residence, at the temple in March for what should truly be an inspirational weekend.
What about our sense of community? Are we truly a community of families who are engaged with each other? Do we truly care about each other and the temple?
I think the answer depends on who you ask. I know that many people are very involved, and care deeply about the temple and one another. However, do we do as good a job at engaging everyone as we could? I believe that there are some mem-bers who feel that they are travelers on the path to B’nei Mitzvah, and that they get little else from the temple. This strikes me as sad.
The Torah teaches us to be kind to the stranger, because, “You know the feelings of a stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” (Exodus 23:9). One simple way to be kind is to engage with those we may not know well at services, in Java Negilah and other places. Welcoming the newcomer will help them to feel as if they are part of things, and help to give them a sense that members of the community care about them. Encouraging new members to become involved in temple activities that are of interest to them is another way to make help them to feel welcome and “a part of things”.
I encourage each of us to make the effort to do these things, both with regard to making newcomers feel welcome and to help those who feel on the periphery to realize that they are a valued member of our community.