The Sacred Community of Or Chadash
October 8, 2019 – 10 Tishrei 5780
Rabbi Joseph M. Forman
Shana Tova, Happy New Year.
Tonight – Kol Nidrei – is one of the most beautiful and spiritually moving of all the services throughout the year. But Kol Nidrei has had a bumpy history for more than a thousand years. Historically, this has been a difficult night for the Jewish community. Over the centuries, Jews have been accused of using Kol Nidrei to renege on promises made — not only by those expressing anti-Jewish sentiments, but by rabbis, as well.
As early as the 10th and 12th centuries, several prominent rabbinic leaders tried to remove Kol Nidrei from the Yom Kippur liturgy. They stated that “the custom of reciting the Kol Nidre was unjustifiable and misleading, since many ignorant persons believe that all their vows and oaths are annulled through this formula, and consequently they take such obligations on themselves carelessly.” (Jewish Encyclopedia)
The early rabbis of our Reform Movement were so disturbed by the words of Kol Nidrei that in the Newly Revised edition of the Union Prayerbook, the editors decided to remove the reading of Kol Nidrei altogether. It wasn’t until 1961 that the full Aramaic text was restored. And it wasn’t until 2015 that an accurate English translation was included in the Reform Machzor. Our book offers only a creative interpretation.
Kol Nidrei, however, has endured. Why? Not because of the words, but because of the music. Throughout much of the Jewish world, the same haunting melody was chanted. The appeal of that melody united the Jewish community. With all the different sects within Judaism, with all the different movements and the indecipherable alphabets of Jewish organizations we have today, we all share this attachment to Kol Nidrei. And in nearly every synagogue around the world, Jews will all hear that melody.
And so tonight, as millions of Jews of every stripe gather to ask that our misspoken words be forgiven, I have a question for us. It is one I that I have been wrestling with lately. On these High Holy Days, a time to ask the great questions of life, I have been asking the question of WHY? And I want to ask you: Why? Why do we exist? No, not why do human beings exist, but why does Or Chadash exist?
Those of us who live in Hunterdon County and the surrounding area know that our Jewish community is small. Yet we are not the only Jewish community here. But why Or Chadash?
Before we get to an answer, a brief look at our Torah reading for tomorrow morning.
The Torah portion for Yom Kippur is taken from Parshat Nitzavim in the Book of Deuteronomy. Nitzavim is translated as standing. “Atem Nitzavim hayom kulchem” — You stand this day, all of you, before the Eternal Your God.
Nitzavim, however, is much more than standing around. Nitzavim is to stand proudly for something; it is to bear witness to an idea. Our Torah reading makes mention that the covenant that is being made between God and the Israelites is a covenant not only with those who are standing together that day, but a covenant with the community of Israel who are not there — the generations yet to come.
We — each one of us — are part of that sacred covenant. We are the descendants of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and those generations who for 3500 years bore witness to the truths of our people.
And now, we, too, make that declaration as we will read again the ancient words of Deuteronomy. Atem Nitzavim hayom kulchem — You stand this day, all of you, before the Eternal Your God. We are part of this sacred community!
But what does it actually mean to be a part of a sacred community?
On Rosh Hashana eve, and again in the morning, I shared with you words from Pirkei Avot, words of Hillel, the 1st century rabbi who is one of the great voices from our tradition. Hillel wrote: Do not separate yourself from the community. Al tifrosh min ha tzibbur. (Pirkei Avot 2:4)
Over the centuries, many rabbinic commentators had a lot to say about Hillel’s admonition. They asked a lot of questions.
What is meant by “the community”, they asked?
Who is part of it? Who is not?
Who determines these boundaries?
Is it all Jews? A subset of Jews?
What defines the Jewish people? Nationality? Ethnicity? Ethical behavior? Religious commitments?
Is there even such a thing as “the” Jewish community?, some asked.
What are the benefits of belonging to a community?
Hillel’s words remind us that being a part of our community is not something we should abandon. But how a community behaves, how it stays relevant and an effective center of Jewish living — that is a question worth asking.
This past year the Reform Movement has been asking the same question I posed a bit ago. Why? Why does our synagogue exist? They asked that question to congregations all over the country — and the research is ongoing. What is our mission, our purpose? How do we see our sacred community, and who is part of it?
One simple answer is to look to our mission statement. It is found on our website and is based on the words from Pirkei Avot and Rabbi Shimon the Righteous.
He said: The world is sustained by three things: The Torah, Worship and deeds of loving-kindness. And our mission statement reflects this and says:
Or Chadash, the Reform Temple of Hunterdon County, offers a caring and inclusive congregation that prays together, builds Jewish community through acts of Tikkun Olam, shares life’s events and provides education for all ages.
It is succinct. In a few words it attempts to capture all we are and all we do.
But there is a much deeper truth to the Why of Or Chadash that a mission statement cannot fully express. For those truths, one must ask the actual members of a congregation for their Whys?
And so, this past year, our congregation participated in a national survey called the Congregational Benchmarking and Assessment Project. Over 100 of you participated, including every member of our Board of Trustees. We learned a lot about ourselves and about how you see our sacred community. We learned your answers to “Why does Or Chadash exist?” We learned you would recommend Or Chadash to a friend. We learned you love the rabbi – thanks! We learned you love the programming we offer here.
We learned that you support Or Chadash through legacy giving. (We kind of knew that!) And we learned that ‘members getting to know one another’ is a place where we need to improve.
Centuries ago the rabbis of the Talmud conceived of the synagogue with three primary functions:
A Beit Kenesset – a place of Assembly – for socializing and meeting with friends.
A Beit Tefillah – a place of Prayer – where we can express our faith.
And a Beit Midrash – a place of Discussion and Learning.
And today we come to Or Chadash for those purposes and for many other reasons, as well.
Some of us do come here to be with friends, walking, talking, sharing ideas on books or hanging out in the kitchen or on the benches in the hallway that came from the old sanctuary at the UAHC, the Reform Movement’s headquarters in New York City.
Some come to attend beautiful worship services and meaningful life-cycle events or sing during them. And they sit in chairs they themselves dedicated, and they remember loved ones, many now gone.
And some come because Or Chadash is a place where we—children and adults— can study our traditions and fill our minds with the words that belong to us, the words of Torah. We come to learn new and creative ways to think about and express our Judaism. And those expressions can come in the form of learning for the first time how to make bagels or how bake challah, or using power tools to build a Sukkah; or cutting weeds and spreading mulch, or dropping off a meal for someone who needs it.
Some come to Or Chadash to be reminded of the timeless values that teach us about how Jews create a sacred community. And some come because Or Chadash is not only a sacred space, but a bold space to express our Jewish values and a safe space to just be Jewish.
Amy Asin is the The Union for Reform Judaism’s Vice-President and Director of Strengthening Congregations. She offers synagogues guidance and assistance to help them become better versions of themselves.
As the Jewish community evolves, she suggests a bit of guidance — to remind our members — YOU — that at a time when people are searching for meaning and synagogues are searching for those who seek it, our synagogue — Or Chadash — is a place to be. She offers an alternative to the terse language of the mission statement. She suggests the following for consideration — and it, too, is based on that same verse from Shimon the Righteous in Pirkei Avot.
Or Chadash offers a community in which to aspire to tikkun ha-nefesh (repair of the self) and tikkun ha-olam (repair of the world).
In the rapidly changing, dizzying world here in Hunterdon County, sometimes it’s hard to find an anchor or know where to invest ourselves. At Or Chadash, we seek to help you find meaning in this world so you can be the best version of yourself possible, using the wisdom of our past to help you make sense of your present and prepare you and your family for the future. We offer you a place to bring your mourning and pain, and a community in which to celebrate your greatest joys. We work with you to find a meaningful role in the ongoing project to repair the world, ensuring that more people can live lives of wholeness, justice, and compassion. How do we do this? We help you find your place – the part of Jewish life that resonates most for you.
We believe that Torah, avodah (prayer), and g’milut chasadim (deeds of lovingkindness) offer effective pathways to the solace and support you seek for yourself and the agency you hope to have to make the world a better place. Please join us on this journey, enriching our lives as we seek to enrich yours.
I read that and immediately thought that it captured Or Chadash perfectly. That is who we are. And THAT is why we exist.
On this night of Kol Nidrei, during this season of reflection and renewal, may we all know that our synagogue is not just a holy place to be together to hear the melodies of our tradition, it is really a place to become holy ourselves.
I wish each of you a year of journeying together as we find meaning, better our world and enrich our lives.