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My Uncle, My Rabbi, and My Deadhead Friend – Kol Nidre 5777

This evening I’d like to introduce you to three of my good friends – my uncle who isn’t really my uncle, my rabbi who isn’t really a rabbi, and a Deadhead from the 90’s who changed the course of my life. I would imagine that most of us have our own personal version of these people, individuals whom we met at just the right time and in just the right place that their impact on us was amplified exponentially. Perhaps they are folks who entered into our orbit for just a brief while, people we don’t even necessarily keep in touch with any longer; while I talk to my uncle (who isn’t really my uncle) quite often, the Deadhead and I are but warm acquaintances at this point and I haven’t spoken with my rabbi in over fifteen years. Still, my life would be far different had I never have met these exceptional individuals. They helped me to become who I am today.

So first my uncle, Dick Wissoker, the man who invented “warm and welcoming” before such concepts even existed! Mr. Wissoker was a 60-something year old member of Temple Emunah in Lexington, MA when I first started becoming interested in Judaism at age 12. I had recently begun attending Jr. Congregation services with my family in order to satisfy our synagogue’s b’nai mitzvah requirement and, to everyone’s surprise, I sort of loved it. In part were the prayers, melodic and mysterious, in part was the grounding sense of identity at a time when all of us teenagers were trying to figure ourselves out, but mostly was the community – accepting and inviting and creating a place for everyone, even a shy and serious adolescent like myself. When I decided to start coming to shul every Shabbat my parents tried to accompany me as often as possible but there were a good number of weeks when it didn’t quite work out. And so there I would sit with Mr. Wissoker and his wife Barbara, never without a smile and a hug, greeting everyone by name and asking after their family and acting as if there was nowhere but nowhere on earth as truly enchanting as our amazing congregation. Now, over 25 years later, the Wissokers and the Tuckers have truly become surrogate family with Uncle Dick and Aunt Barbara at every graduation and installation and wedding and birthday, with decades of Passover seders, Shabbat dinners, and vacations shared together. Long before I knew I wanted to be a rabbi, I knew I wanted to be an Uncle Dick. I wanted to be central in the life of a community.

Not so very long after I met Uncle Dick, I encountered the Deadhead – Rabbi Elliot Goldberg, we should perhaps call him to be respectful, my Rosh Edah (Unit Head) at Camp Ramah and the coolest Jew I had ever met by far. With a ponytail and an earring and an enviable collection of Phish CDs along with an incredible ability to make Judaism accessible and relevant to the 16 year old mind, Elliot was the first “religious” person I had ever met who managed to exist squarely in two worlds – living a traditionally observant life while participating fully in secular interests and pursuits. Elliot also seemed to sense something in me – a curiosity perhaps, because at the time I still had little Judaic knowledge and few real synagogue skills – that he cultivated and nurtured. “You’ll chant just a few verses of Eicha this year for Tisha B’Av,” he’d tell me though my Hebrew was quite weak, or “Have you ever considered wearing a tallit? I think you’d like it.” Long before I could ever see myself as a rabbi, I started to imagine myself through the eyes of Rabbi Goldberg. I started believing myself capable of becoming a committed and connected Jewish adult.

Which leaves us with our third friend, my rabbi who isn’t a rabbi at all; in fact she’s a Buddhist Monk. Reverend Trudi Jinpu Hirsch was the supervisor during my chaplaincy training program at Beth Israel Medical Center in Manhattan for two summers while I was in rabbinical school and my own personal guru of sorts. If Uncle Dick taught me the power of community and Rabbi Goldberg demonstrated the beauty of claiming tradition for my own, Reverend Hirsch awakened in me a sense of the holy – what it means to be spiritually connected, inspired, moved by something greater than oneself. You might not be surprised to hear that a large part of my connection to Judaism is intellectual – I tend to be a thinker, a writer, a teacher, a little more on the reserved side, a little less ecstatic and mystical. But all of a sudden, under Trudi’s leadership, we were meditating and chanting and doing yoga and Reiki, we were group processing all of our feelings all of the time, we were offering spontaneous prayers and sitting with the dying and learning the art of sacred listening and presence. In my seventeen years of rabbinic training and practice, never did I feel so incredibly alive and filled with purpose as those two summers spent in the radiance of Trudi’s exuberant spirit. She reminded me that there is greater meaning in life that transcends the everyday.

I know that members of this congregation have your own Uncle Dick’s and Rabbi Goldberg’s and Reverend Hirsch’s – I know this because some of you have shared them with me. The older gentleman whom your young daughter became infatuated with, running to sit on his lap each Shabbat, his widow now a very dear part of your extended family. The Men’s Club board member who asked you to start slicing tomatoes for bagel breakfasts, knowing before you yourself even did that this would lead to greater and deeper involvement. There’s the minyan community so warm and comforting that years after a loss you still find yourself coming each day, the Jr. Congo leader so dynamic that your kids actively ask to attend services, the Cantor who would call your children each week as teenagers to read Torah, igniting in them a lifetime skill and passion. There’s the weekly study group that started out as a class and became so much more, the Sisterhood outings that are less about the venues visited and more about the company shared, the village of other parents met through your son’s pre-school with whom you now celebrate Jewish holidays and share Jewish lives. While many of us have experienced powerful programs or events or classes or activities that give us insight into Jewish thought and practice, these are not really the reason that we’ve come here tonight. Our involvement in Jewish life has mainly been shaped through our interactions with other people.

About three years ago, the visionary Jewish educator and community builder, Dr. Ron Wolfson, wrote a book entitled Relational Judaism and the premise which I just shared comes largely from him – the notion that what drives people to join organizations and certainly what inspires them to remain for many long and expensive years is the power of human relationship and connection. He tells the story of a rabbi who confided in him about a member of his community, someone who had belonged to his synagogue for over 20 years and had recently resigned. “I was shocked because she came to all of our programs,” said the rabbi. “She was there all the time!” The rabbi called up his congregant and asked gently why she had decided to leave, and he was absolutely flabbergasted by her response. “I came to everything, Rabbi,” the woman admitted. “But I never really met a single person.”

Over the last many years, we at BHCBE have worked hard to elevate our synagogue – to reduce our debt, to become more attractive to young families, to introduce innovative and dynamic programming. We’ve worked on our marketing and social media presence, on professionalizing our operations and making our worship services more joyous, lively, and engaging, on bringing experiential learning into our Academy. We’ve tried to energize and deepen our teaching of Torah, increase our connection to Israel, and intensify our community’s commitment to disability inclusion, GLBT issues, interfaith families, and the environment. Some of us will know that excellence and accountability in all of these areas and more are extremely important to me. In a world where there are an untold number of activities and causes competing for our time, money, and attention we need to be creating offerings of the absolute highest quality and substance.

Yet, as Wolfson reminds us, the very best programming and marketing and technological brilliance in the end does nothing if it doesn’t leave us with a sense of connection – to our synagogue or its members, to our clergy or professional staff, to the Jewish community as a whole or perhaps even to God. In his words, “What really matters is that we care about the people we seek to engage. When we genuinely care about people, we will not only welcome them; we will listen to their stories, we will share ours, and we will join together to build a Jewish community that enriches our lives.” This, I imagine, is what all of us wish for – to be seen and heard, valued and appreciated. We wish to feel a sense of connection and belonging, to feel that we matter to this institution and the people in it, to know that this is our place, our extended family, our spiritual home. Relational Judaism has been a driving factor in the kinds of programs we’ve chosen to concentrate on in the past few years – Israel trips and retreats which create instant community, ice-cream hours with time for schmoozing and events in private homes which encourage intimacy, opportunities for members of the congregation to share their personal passions and stories whether it is Jews-by-Choice on Shavuoth or guest darshanim (sermon-givers) through the Summer Speaker Series. Upcoming initiatives focused on building community include this year’s Academy room parents organizing grade-specific social events to foster connection, a Guess Who’s Coming to Shabbas™ meal-hosting program, and pairing new members with veterans of our congregation to ease the transition into our community. But Relational Judaism does not only suggest to us new directions and offerings. It also suggests that we approach everything that we do from the perspective of building relationship.

A couple of years ago, one of our Academy moms approached me and asked if it would be okay to invite the parents of all the children in her son’s second grade class over for a cocktail party one evening. I was struck by this mother’s initiative and generosity and touched by her deference in seeking permission; of course I also loved the idea! Creating community lies not only with leadership but with all of us – inviting friends from shul into our homes, welcoming newcomers when we see them, departing from our normal Kiddush table every once in a while to sit with someone different. It’s staying around to schmooze after Academy drop-off, picking up the phone if the person who sits next to us Shabbat morning has been absent for a few weeks, bringing an idea or talent or gift we have to share to our congregation in the hopes that it will inspire others as well. Creating community is in thinking about the folks who live far from family and might need a place for the holiday, in making play-dates with shul friends for our children, in continuing the conversation after a board meeting over a cup of coffee. It’s in being attuned not only to what happens at our synagogue but to who it happens with.

Relational Judaism is both very easy and very hard, particularly in a congregation of about 500 families like our own. What makes it easy is that getting to know people deeply, really learning about them and what matters most in their lives, building connections of meaning and substance, is incredibly interesting and gratifying, enriching and fun. It’s one of the things that drive many of us who choose to work with people in our professional lives to do so; it’s why close friendships feel so dear.

What makes Relational Judaism hard, however, is that this kind of engagement takes time – it’s done over one-on-one lunch dates rather than in large class or program settings; it involves hosting a meal or making a phone-call or taking time for a long walk. There are ways that we can apply the wisdom of Relational Judaism even to larger events – making sure that people are greeted warmly upon arrival and know one another’s names, for example, or looking for opportunities in a class or meeting for people to share their own personal stories and ideas, to break into small groups where true dialogue can emerge. But often Relational Judaism takes place in more intimate settings and if the synagogue or the rabbi or the shul president hasn’t personally reached out to us yet, even as we’ve seen that they’ve reached out to others, it can feel painful and rejecting.

Kol Nidre, this sacred night just upon us, is about vows, and there’s something quite paradoxical in the way in which these holy promises are uttered. “All vows, renunciations, bans, oaths, formulas of obligation, pledges, and promises that we vow or promise to ourselves and to God from this Yom Kippur to the next – may it approach us for good – we hereby retract,” we recite. “May they all be undone, repealed, cancelled, voided, annulled, and regarded as neither valid nor binding.” We begin this most solemn day of the entire Jewish calendar by indicating that the very resolutions for change we’ve spent the last ten days making should be for naught. We cancel the very pledges of our heart.

Traditionally, the explanation for Kol Nidre is that making vows in Judaism is a very serious thing indeed and, knowing the realities of human fallibility and the difficulties of behavioral transformation, the rabbis did not want to set up our people for failure right from the start. To me, this also reminds us that we should make our ambitions for the year so audacious that we probably won’t achieve total success. If we’re quite sure that we can master something, we probably haven’t set our sights quite high enough!

So let us vow this new year just begun to help our congregation embody a spirit of community building even more strongly. Let us all try to extend an invitation to someone new, to plan activities with human connection in mind, to adopt a spirit of radical welcome, to support initiatives that foster relationship. Let those of us in leadership try even harder to reach out, to pull in, to listen well, to notice the passions and gifts of others and put them to good use. And if the president or the rabbi or the synagogue hasn’t quite come around to us just yet, let’s remember that relationship goes both ways and feel free to take the initiative upon ourselves as well. The goal is audacious and we probably won’t get it right all the time. But together we will continue to create a warm, caring place of belonging – our own spiritual home right here at BHCBE.
From Uncle Dick, I learned community.

Through Rabbi Goldberg, I claimed ownership.

With Reverend Hirsch, my spirit soared.

Wishing you a most meaningful Yom Kippur and a year filled with the power of human connection. Tzom Kal!

Date Posted Title Author
Oct 26, 2016 My Uncle, My Rabbi, and My Deadhead Friend – Kol Nidre 5777 Rabbi Annie Tucker