Peter J. Rubinstein | September 13, 2013
As an English major in college, I developed a singular passion for the eloquence and power of the English Romantic poet John Keats. But it was his letters more than his poetry that enchanted me.
Keats lived only to the age of twenty-five. Unable to marry the love of his life, Fanny Brawne, weakened by tuberculosis from which he eventually died, tormented that he never considered himself successful as a poet, Keats’s letters chronicle his consuming anguish.
In John Keats’s last surviving letter, written to his best friend, Charles Brown, Keats concluded, “I can scarcely bid you good bye even in a letter. I always made an awkward bow.”
Those words have stayed with me since I first read them. I suspected there would come a time when they would be personally germane, a time when I would be taking my leave.
Tonight I will speak my last High Holiday sermon as Senior Rabbi of this congregation. But, I am incapable of awkward bows, and this is not going to be a good-bye, not an occasion for a song of mourning or a memoir.
Rather, I have chosen to write this sermon as a letter, a love letter from me to each and all of you. This is from my heart to yours, and it is also about the legacy we have created together and that is now yours to carry on.
You have made my life a dream. You have supported me for nigh on twenty-three years. What we have is indefinable and exquisite. We have shared an adventure and a journey.
So what is it that I love about you?
Our relationship was born out of a singularly bold and courageous decision. In the spring of 1990, at the end of my first interview with Central Synagogue’s search committee, and as the hour grew late prior to my returning to San Mateo, California, I was asked whether there was anything we had not discussed during the meeting and about which they should know.
Not confident about what I was being specifically asked, I told them that when I led services in my congregation, I wore a kippah, a tallit, and no clergy robe.
I watched as the members of the committee, somewhat aghast, even ashen, turned to each other, until the chair tentatively said what they were all thinking: “Well, our rabbis do not wear a head-covering.” I surmised that head-covering in traditional language meant a kippah or yarmulke. I knew that my two immediate predecessors, who had yearned to wear a kippah on the pulpit, had been prohibited from doing so, whether by stated policy or precedent.
So before extending me an offer, the entire board of trustees of Central Synagogue was polled on whether the wearing of a kippah would be a litmus test for the selection of their next Senior Rabbi. In those days, it was a pivotal question for this congregation. The board of trustees correctly worried that taking the chance on this West Coast rabbi wearing a kippah on the pulpit might cause significant disruption, and that some members would resign. At that time, a further decline in membership was terrifying.
When I returned to San Mateo the next morning, a brief message from the chair of the search committee awaited me: “You can wear a head-covering. Problem solved!”
You courageously took a chance on me. And none of us could have predicted how it would turn out, though from the beginning the message was clearly trumpeted: change was afoot.
Because I believe that change is organic in vibrant institutions, I did not wait long for the next opportunity. One month into our fledgling relationship, during the summer when we were holding services in Beir Chapel, I introduced the hakafah without prior consultation with the then-extant Ritual Committee. While standing on the pulpit with the Torah in my arms, as music played and without forethought, I instinctively carried the Torah into the congregation.
At the next Ritual Committee meeting, as you can imagine, several members were considerably agitated about the change. As an accommodation, we agreed to continue the hakafah as a trial for six months and then discuss it again. When we raised the issue six months later, the Ritual Committee wondered why it was being discussed at all. By that time, the congregation had accepted the hakafah as an occasion for congregational exuberance, an opportunity to be close to the Torah and the clergy, a centerpiece of our worship services.
The courage from which you and I were born were those tentative beginnings which vigorously define us. Since then, we have re-formed our High Holiday services, re-examined our Friday evening worship, and re-created our Shabbat morning liturgy. Every segment of our ritual and worship practice has been transformed along with our administrative systems, programmatic initiatives, and congregational expectations.
What made our congregation great, and that for which I love you, is that we would not take anything for granted. You permitted and supported the heretical disavowal of time-worn assumptions. You understood when we searched for and reinterpreted the original intent of our traditional expressions, applying them anew to our own time and personal spiritual longing.
You understood that our Jewish existence needed to be anchored in strength of character, depth of soul, and the power of relationships.
I honor the leadership of this congregation through the years for having buttressed us in taking chances with forceful courage and encouraging us to build beyond the excellent. We passionately believe this synagogue has a breathtaking opportunity to redefine institutional Judaism with sparks of brilliant creativity and to be a model for religious institutions.
We will continue to be groundbreaking when others fear to tread. We will dream bigger when others choose to cover their eyes. We will be honest about our failures and faults and desperate to fulfill the wondrous possibilities of humankind and Jewish meaning. We will never cower before challenge. We will never say, “It can’t be done.”
Imagining the unimaginable has become our hallmark.
Courage, boldness, and outrageous audacity in dreaming larger than ourselves, taking chances on emergent excellence, and grasping for the star beyond our reach is our mission. That is what it means to be a Jew. That’s what it means to be Central Synagogue.
I love you for your courage.
This congregation cares for each other and for others beyond our walls. The depth of your caring, though apparently so fundamental, is miraculous.
You certainly care about this incredible synagogue. You make it possible that no one will be turned away for financial reasons. And when things are broken, you help us conceive and format new structures out of the chaos.
When it was obvious to us and to most of the Jewish world that supplemental afternoon religious school was dysfunctional, that our children were coming home with the same complaints we had when we attended religious school, that it was boring and repetitive, you supported the revolutionary concept of full-time religious school educators, which we’ve now had for nearly a decade.
The primary concept was transformative: teaching Judaism to our children and their parents needed to be a priority. We wanted teachers who were the brightest and most creative post-college and post-graduate-school young people in our community to help us achieve that priority.
We wanted teachers who would be role models to our children. We sought educators who were excited about what they taught and passionate about what their students were learning. At times we struggled with set-backs, but we forged forward in that program.
And we want more. The original funders of this program imagined that we could transport the Full-Time Educator model to other congregations around the country. We held seminars for educators to raise awareness. We counseled rabbis who were willing to think differently. The ripples flowed outward tickling the imagination of other synagogues. They too came to realize that they didn’t need to be stuck in the quagmire of ineffective religious education. They too could do it differently and excellently.
And here we believed that whatever we did for ourselves, however radical, could be a model for those who were searching for alternative synagogue systems. When we became aware of small congregations around this country that had no clergy or professional leadership, we began to visit and care for small synagogues in the South as we have also done in New York City.
We partner with struggling heroic congregations in Minsk and in Israel and in Barcelona. We help a liberal day school in Mendoza, Argentina, and support the first rabbinic school to be opened since the Holocaust in Germany. We continue to challenge and try to help our own national Reform Jewish institutions become as vital, imaginative, and effective as possible in meeting the needs of our synagogue movement and beyond. We provide a gateway for those who are not Jewish and want to be and those who are Jewish but have wandered off and want to return home.
And we continue to support plausible and sometimes difficult programs of outreach to those who have been devastated by hurricanes, massacres, earthquakes, and tsunamis. We cannot tolerate staying safe within these walls while people suffer outside these walls.
I am especially aware on these holy days that when we rebuilt this building after the devastating fire in 1998, we formatted this Sanctuary for flexibility because we knew that none of us could foretell the future possibilities of worship.
We wired and outfitted the building for the use of what was then unimaginable technology, never presaging that we would one day live stream to twenty thousand far-flung Jews and non-Jews around the world on these High Holidays, from whom we received several hundred notes during Rosh Hashanah last week, like these:
From a young woman in Florida:
I have been considering converting to Judaism for a long time, and I have tried to find a congregation that I feel at home with. As strange as this might be, after watching a year’s worth of services with Central Synagogue, I feel as though I am a part of the family, even though I live in Florida. Thank you, from the bottom of my heart.
And this from a young parent in Quebec, Canada:
I have a six-month-old baby and I wanted to attend Rosh HaShanah services but going with my baby was not an option. I started looking for an online service that I liked and found your services. I am loving it and I feel very identified with your congregation. Thanks SO MUCH for making your services available to us. Shanah tovah.
That’s why we do what we do. You care about our synagogue and you care about the role of this congregation in shaping a more just society, a more tolerant community, a more caring nation.
As a congregation, you exemplify human decency and Jewish values. And because you care, you know there is more to do. You know we still have children to welcome who know nothing of the old ways, the warmth of Jewish homes, or the intergenerational magnetism of sitting with grandparents in synagogue.
We have college students who are searching for some inkling of what it means to be Jewish, in their soul, in their practice, in their life and presently have no place or person on their campus with whom to search.
We have young professionals who don’t yet comprehend how, if at all, being a Jew should shape the contours of their lives. They don’t know how Judaism can support them in their life decisions, and give them guidance even when they intuitively know they need to speak out about impropriety and values in their workplace.
We have Jews who yearn for but have not yet found a synagogue home that will make a difference and matter to them.
There are unfulfilled possibilities for Jewish life. We do not limit our concern to these four walls. We cannot. We embrace Jews and others outside these four walls, even those who do not know us but yet await us.
You are willing to make it all happen. I love you for your decency.
We Jews were born into history to matter. We confirm that our purpose is to make a difference in this Creation, to make humanity ever better, with greater goodness and immutable integrity. And we will manage it all by being a people who believe that dreams become real, that aspirations can be achieved, and that truth can be refined.
Among the principles we endorse is that imprudent communal expectations need to be repudiated.
For instance, particularly because we are few in number, barely .2% of this world’s population, we reject measurable standards as a marker of decency or success. We will not measure the worth of our nursery school children by their ERB scores or our high school or college students later by their IQs, GPAs, SATs, GREs, LSATs, or MCATs, or our graduates by their starting salaries. We will not measure our personal stature by the number of our Facebook friends. We will not measure the success of our congregation by the number of our members or the value of our clergy to us by their national rankings.
Success for us is supporting Jeremiah’s “covenant of the heart” and Isaiah’s mandate that we “be a covenant people, a light to nations, opening eyes deprived of light, rescuing prisoners from their confinement, from the dungeons those who sit in darkness.”
You have trusted me in my belief that improvisation, instinct with an ample dose of impetuousness, experimentation with the guts to fail is essential.
Together we have embraced grand ideas, jumping head first into the depths of uncertainty along with an interminable lust for vitality and wonder and fun in Jewish life. This way of being is the heartbeat of this synagogue. It keeps us vigorous and alive.
You have trusted me enough to give me my headway, to permit me ludicrous dreams, and the opportunity to take chances. You knew I would cherish your integrity, that I would not wander too far afield without glancing at all of you to know that we were still on the journey together, that I would give my days and my life to the wellbeing of this congregation, the survival of the Jewish people, and the immense possibilities of Jewish existence.
You trusted me to confide your life stories to me: your heartbreak and your worries, your disappointments and anger, your concerns and shortcomings, your mistakes and your sorrow, and your joys as well. You allowed me into your lives, listened to my words and believed, as I do believe, that Jews will always do the right thing if given the chance.
You believed in me even when I struggled, you trusted me when I was busy in my own head and didn’t hear you, you trusted me when I was not available and you needed me. You advised me when I took on battles which I could have handled more astutely or when I was intemperate in my convictions and statements and actions.
And that’s why I love you.
I love you for loving me with the kind of love that has granted me courage, models of decency, and trust.
I began personally. And so I conclude personally. After I step aside as Senior Rabbi at the end of June, Kerry and I will stay in our apartment in New York, a bit redone for the next stage of our lives. I will eagerly embrace my position as Rabbi Emeritus of Central Synagogue in support of our next Senior Rabbi. For Kerry and me, Central Synagogue will be our congregation, the place where we will worship, where we will come to celebrate our joys, and when necessary, commemorate our losses.
I love being a Rabbi.
Before my time is up, I assure you that the rabbinate or cantorate is the perfect job for a “nice Jewish girl or boy.” Being your rabbi has been an enduring and sacred honor.
But so much of the health and wonder of congregations and synagogues depends on shared presumptions, visions, and expectations along with goodwill, mutual respect, and the fundamental belief that good people can disagree as long as the issue and not the person is the agenda.
So it is that you have made my life glorious and lovely. This is not an awkward bow, nor a good-bye. It is simply a story of love, my story of our shared journey, a love story for which I thank God and am hugely and humbly grateful. We have been blessed by our time together. May we continue to unfold this blessing which I believe will embrace us forever.
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