April 14, 2023
Farewell: Gratitude for the Gifts of this Community
This transcript was edited and formatted by a third party and may vary from the live sermon delivered at Shabbat.
"Farewell: Gratitude for the Gifts of this Community"
On one of the first days of my freshman year in college, I attended a welcome event at the Hillel on campus. At some point in the evening, my fellow students got onto the topic of their b’nei mitzvah parties. I boasted about how low-key mine was; we wore casual attire, played sports, and ate my favorite food: barbeque chicken pizza.
The group laughed as I smiled blankly, unaware that I had said anything funny. As a self-conscious teenager who had spent very little time in Jewish spaces growing up, I started to feel awkward.
When the rabbi realized that I was not in on the joke, he quietly asked if I would like to meet and study one-on-one the laws of kashrut. Thus began my first ever chevruta.
If it weren’t for this rabbi, Rabbi Mordechai Rackover, I wouldn’t be standing here today, three weeks away from ordination. When we first met to study together, we turned to the text of this week’s Torah portion, Parashat Sh’mini, and read about all the animals that are permitted and forbidden for those who keep kosher. No pork, no shellfish, and no meat on your pizza were just the beginning.
We also studied Talmudic arguments and legal codes, sounding out Hebrew and Aramaic one syllable at a time. Then, my learning became embodied when I enjoyed meals at Rabbi Rackover’s home with his family, where I spent many hours soaking in the joy of Shabbat. And so, after careful consideration, I began to keep kosher.
Thinking back on it, that welcome event at the Hillel could have become quite unwelcoming. As my peers laughed and my lack of Jewish knowledge was revealed, I could have logically concluded that I didn’t belong there. I did not have the right background or reference points or practices. But instead, my rabbi gave me an incredible gift: a sincere invitation into Jewish learning, heritage, and community.
Because this isn’t a gift that can be paid back, seeing as my rabbi already felt quite comfortable in Jewish spaces, I decided to pay it forward. I spent the next 8 years studying with scholars ranging from Orthodox to atheist, in institutions as varied as yeshivas and summer camps, until eventually I knew enough to teach others. After so many years of receiving, I had become a rabbinical student and would finally be able to act as a giver.
But once again, I found that the joke was on me.
In the four years that I have been privileged to serve the Central Synagogue community, first as a religious school teacher and then as your rabbinic intern, I have received the most tremendous gifts from all of you.
The elementary schoolers gave me the gift of creative and challenging questions. There may be nothing more enlightening than sitting with a group of second graders who are hearing our best-known Torah stories for the very first time. They asked, “If God made the world in seven days, then what about the dinosaurs?” and “How did Noah make it so that the animals didn’t eat each other inside the ark?”
I loved when a class that happened to be all girls asked why Dinah is not included when we list the tribes of Israel, seeing as she is just as much Jacob’s child as Reuben or Benjamin. And the best question of all was asked most frequently: “Wait, did this really happen?”
You could study Torah for years without ever delving into these issues of science, equality, history or belief, but anyone fortunate enough to spend time with the children of this congregation knows that they are too sharp and too curious to let that happen.
The Central 20s & 30s group gave me the gift of joyful and deep relationships. When I was hired on to help with a young professionals portfolio, my first thought was, “I’m definitely not cool enough for this job.” I assumed our events would be kitschy, focused on going out to bars or matching up eligible singles.
Thank goodness for Rabbi Ross, who not only reassured me that I was indeed cool enough, but also introduced me to the unique community he had created. I could not have been more pleasantly surprised to discover that this is a group that loves to pray together, to contribute time and resources to the Breakfast Program, to discuss how Jewish values influence big adult decisions.
Don’t get me wrong, we also mingle and go to shows and enjoy a few l’chaims, but I am indebted to Central 20s & 30s for showing me how lighthearted joy can mix with deep thoughtfulness to form such special bonds.
And finally, the adult education and Mishkan participants gave me the gift of brave and committed learners, and I thank Rabbis Auerbach and Berman for supporting me as a teacher. I was amazed and intimidated by the professional and intellectual accomplishments of this group, and the expertise you brought forward greatly enriched our discussions.
But even more incredible was your willingness to take a class on a totally foreign subject, step outside of your comfort zones, and say “I don’t know, but I’m excited to find out.” This takes courage, and it transforms a class into a community, one that is committed not just to the subject matter, but to each other. Because of this openness, we have been able to wrestle with existential questions, offer support in times of illness, mourn together when we lost loved ones, and celebrate life’s big joys and little miracles.
Who would have thought, way back in my first year of college, that the young woman who bragged about serving barbeque chicken pizza at her bat mitzvah, unaware of Jewish law or even how to spell the word kashrut, would be trusted as a teacher in this congregation?
It is because of Rabbi Rackover that I found my place in and passion for Judaism. It is because of this community that I found the confidence to step forward to serve the Jewish world.
As I look towards ordination in just a few short weeks, I do so with immense gratitude for the ways that you have shaped me as a rabbi.
Shabbat shalom and Todah Rabbah.