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October 9, 2015 | 26th Tishrei 5776

Regional Biennial Sermon 2008-2009
Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie

My daughter is completing her doctorate in history. A few months ago she sent me a very excited email. A job in her field had just opened up at Texas A&M University, in College Station, Texas—which, in case you don’t know, is just outside of Bryan, Texas, about an hour and a half from Waco. My response was: Oy.

The point is not that I have anything against eastern Texas—which I do not, or against Texas A&M, which is a fine university. In fact, I was pleased that any college had a teaching position in the utterly obscure area of European History that my daughter has chosen for her specialty.

But what did concern me is that if she got this job, she would be living in a largely rural area with few Jews, and one that is a six-hour trip from my home in New Jersey. And yes, I admit, I am thinking not only about her but about my wife Amy and myself. Our son just started law school and can already name the big firms in major cities throughout America. What then are the chances that either of our children will end up living close enough to us so that we can regularly see those grandchildren that we keep telling them we expect them to produce?

The overwhelming likelihood, in fact, is not only that they will settle far away, but that they will spend years moving from place to place, trying to establish themselves in their professions. And in this regard, they are no different from other Americans.

Forty percent of Americans expect to move in the next five years. Even worse, seven out of ten Americans say that job security is a thing of the past.

This then is our reality: what one scholar has called the “destruction of place in American life.” Our lives are increasingly shaped by temporariness: temporary homes, jobs and schools. In this era of radical mobility, capital is on the move. Individuals are on the move. And we are all caught up in an endless cycle of work, more work and then more work still.

I am not, heaven forbid, blaming anyone for this. Americans are just trying to cope and improve their lives. Especially now, when the economy is in crisis, people work harder than ever, move when they have to move and do what they have to do.

But we do pay a price—a steep price.

For example, without deep roots in our community many of us deal with our nail-biting lives by staying closed up in our houses. We come home every night, click the remote control in our cars and drive right into the garage without having said hello or good-bye to a single neighbor.

And our children pay a heavy price too.

Yes, I know, we Jews adore our children. We dote on them. We buy them things. We drive ourselves to the brink of exhaustion to provide for them. And the kids that I meet in our synagogues are great kids. But there is something else going on here. We also raise our children with a degree of excessive concern that can be crippling.

This summer the New York Times ran an article about the high-maintenance parents of kids at sleep-away camp. The stories seemed incredible to me, and so I asked the directors of our twelve camps if they were experiencing these problems. Their response was: Are your kidding? Our parents are the worst. They break the no cell phone rule by giving their kids two cell phones, in case they get caught with the first one. They call and email the camp every single day with endless problems and demands. They make requests about diet that are too ridiculous for words. They complain if little Steven’s picture is not on the camp website, and they complain if it is on the website and his hair isn’t combed.

What in heaven’s name is all this fussiness about?

I have a theory. It has nothing to do with whether we love our children, because of course with do. But we cannot protect them like we once could. And most important: we feel surges of guilt because we are spending less and less time with them. And so we compensate with all kinds of silliness.

If you don’t believe me, consider the following: we have developed this very peculiar notion of “quality time.” Mom and Dad race home from work, race through supper, and then engage in a few magical moments of “quality time” before their kids are sent to bed – usually between, say, 8:00 and 9:00. Somehow these snatches of quality time are meant to make up for all the time apart, all the absences, all the harried and hurried moments that make up so much of our day. “Quality time” replaces the old-fashioned sort of time that often meant Mom, Dad and kids just hanging around together, doing nothing—and having the leisure to see each child, in all his irreducible specificity, as a child of God.

Am I saying that we are at fault? Absolutely not. Am I making a case for stay-at-home Moms? Heaven forbid. Reform Jews believe in equality, in both the home and the workplace. But we all know what’s going on here: almost every adult is now in the paid labor force, like it or not, and the average person works 163 more hours a year than he did 20 years ago—a whole month stolen from their families for both Mom and Dad.

Tell me: Is this progress? I’ll tell you what kind of progress it is. It’s the kind of progress that the fabled Russian politician spoke of when he got up and said: “Comrades, yesterday we stood on the edge of the abyss. But today we have taken a giant step forward.”

So let’s stop fooling ourselves into thinking all is well. And let’s consider some Jewish solutions to these problems—which I will come to in a minute.

I do not mean to romanticize what was. I’m at an age when many of my friends have joined the “Things Were Better When We Were Young Club,” which is not a club that I want to be a member of. Yes, we have plenty of problems today, but in the old days we had different problems. And in most ways, our lives are a lot better now than they used to be.

Look at the impact of technology, for example.

When I went off to college, I called my parents once a week, collect, on Sunday nights. Today, using email and cell phones, I talk to my kids every day.

And even I, technophobe that am I, depend on the Internet, live by email, and turn to Google a dozen times a day. So yes, technology has dramatically improved our lives.

Still, just as we have learned of technology’s blessings, so too have we learned of its limitations. It has changed our lives, but not always in the ways we expected.

I thought, for example, that technology would make our kids more knowledgeable and more aware of their world. But in observing young people around me, what I see is that immersion in media and technology is largely about entertainment and the need for constant stimulation. Many young people use their TV and video games, their iPods and cell phones, their split screens and instant messaging to give them continual jolts of sensation. And then they deal with this assault on their senses by simply tuning out most of the time. Technology, in other words, is about the right never to be bored and about paying half-attention to the endless stream of messages that we send and receive. These are not bad things. But they don’t make us smarter or better able to deal with ultimate questions.

We also thought that maybe, maybe, technology would lift us out of our aloneness. But that was wrong too. Yes, information technology allows us to connect and to help. Virtual communities have their uses. But spending as much time on the Web as we do, we are reminded of why in-person communities are so important. We yearn more than ever for community that is grounded, concrete, tactile, relational. Technology has not changed the simplest rule of human behavior: people are hungry for human contact. In other words, we need both the face and the “Facebook.” And that, of course, is where the synagogue comes in.

And, therefore, my message to you this Shabbat is simply this: This is the synagogue’s moment. For all the reasons that I have mentioned, we are entering the great age of the American Reform synagogue.

In an era that has seen the destruction of place and the loss of community; at a moment when our economy is in disarray, our families are under attack and we barely see our children; at a point when technology helps us in some ways but disappoints us in others; at a time when our lives are tied to home and workplace and we can’t get a minute to find or make friends—at such a time, we need a Third Place, a center of community. And the synagogue must be that Third Place because there is nowhere else to turn.

And more and more Jews are demanding that their synagogues step up. Because they want to find meaning in their ladder-climbing lives. They need the sense of purpose that they get from causes greater than themselves. And they need Torah and the Jewish people to help sustain them.

And Reform synagogues are stepping up. What is it that synagogues are offering?

A sense of community above all.

Loneliness consumes people; it kills them eventually. And so in a world where people are locked up in their homes, the synagogue becomes a place that extends a loving hand to every embattled Jewish soul; a place where, when you are not there, someone misses you, and where no member suffers alone, grieves alone or sits home alone on a Jewish holiday. A place where a Jew can say with confidence: “I belong here.”

A synagogue is a place where you stop being another face in a crowd of strangers; where someone taps you on the shoulder, recognizes you, calls you by name and affirms that you are unique and irreplaceable in the eyes of God.

A synagogue is also something else: a place that extends a hand to our embattled families.

As I have said, this is a frenzied cultural moment. Life is stuck on fast-forward. Our children are overscheduled from an early age. And parents and children do not see each other nearly enough.

What does the synagogue offer us? Education that we do as a family. Social justice that we do as a family. And increasingly, Shabbat.

I know that when Reform Jews hear Shabbat, most think about not being able to do this and not being able to do that. But this is the language of an Orthodox Shabbat. A Reform Shabbat is something else. It is about the many things that we do together to make the day holy. It is about giving children not quality time but real time—because loving children is about profound attention and attention requires being there. It is about the natural rhythms of a day that we spend with our children every week—a day of playing with them, reading to them, and going on outings with them. It is about time spent both at synagogue and home, and about saying, as Jews, that we will not let our work life consume what rightfully belongs to spouses and children and friends.

Many of us will claim that we cannot possibly do this. But let me suggest that love is not a sentiment but a craft and we need Shabbat to relearn that craft. And by this I mean a modern Shabbat, a Reform Shabbat, an active and doing Shabbat. Our children need our trust, our attention, and above all our time, and they are entitled to it on a regular basis. Only in this way, by nurturing those born of our own acts of co-creation, can we prove ourselves able to do God’s work on earth.

The third important thing that a Reform synagogue does is teach us how to relate as Jews to the world around us.

This is no small thing. Many congregations have done a reasonably good job of caring for the neighbor in the next pew. They will help their members who are ill or grieving. But what about caring for the neighbor a little farther away—particularly the poor, the weak, and the other? Many synagogues don’t do so well in this regard.

But for Reform Jews and Reform synagogues, this is not an option; it is an obligation. And it is also a sensible way to look at the world.

Let’s take for example the fight against anti-Semitism. Anti-Semitism is the most successful ideology of the modern era. German Fascism and Soviet Communism came and went. Anti-Semitism came and stayed. As we know, Islamic fanatics are today its primary champions. The terrorists of al-Qaeda and the extremist leaders of Iran curse the Jews in a language reminiscent of Hitler.

But opposing this evil does not require defaming Islam, or returning malice for malice. How then do we respond? For Reform Jews, the answer is simple: We have to win allies. We Jews are a very small people, and we cannot fight anti-Semitism alone. And because we need Christians to fight for the rights of Jews, we must fight for the right of Christians to worship and live freely anywhere in the world. And because we need Muslims to fight Judeophobia, we must fight Islamophobia.

And in so doing, we must change our language. If we talk only of the anti-Semitic attacks on us, then our message is that we are eternal victims. This is a message that our own children do not want to hear. Far better to talk about the God-given dignity of all God’s children.

As self-evident as this approach may be to us, it is not an approach that all Jews share. Indeed, many religious Jews in America never talk to Christians about their concerns, and then wonder why they are not more responsive to our concerns. And when Reform synagogues launched their outreach to American Muslims, many in the Jewish community protested. The simple fact is that too many American Jews just don’t like Muslims very much.

I am ashamed and embarrassed that the purveyors of anti-Muslim email so often target Jews because they see us as receptive to their message of hate.

But I am also fiercely proud of what we do as Reform Jews. And let’s remember that we are the largest movement in Jewish life and we set the tone. Yes, there are those who hate Israel and sanction mass murder in the name of God and they will forever be our enemies. But we know that the answer to this hatred can only come from the minds and souls of people of faith. It can only come from moderate Muslims, from tolerant Jews, from humble Christians. And while religious dialogue may not be possible everywhere, it is possible here in America. That is why at least 100 Reform congregations are now actively engaged in reaching out to their Muslim neighbors and they represent the Reform synagogue at its best.

There is nothing easy about this work that the synagogue must do. As leaders of the synagogue, the hand of Jewish history rests heavily on our shoulders.

To succeed we must face down the barbarians who threaten us from the outer darkness.

We must address the boredom, the emptiness and the lack of passion in modern life.

We must offer an answer to celebrity culture and the ever-present mentality of the market.

But we will do all these things and more.

Because the synagogue is the place where Torah is taught and expounded;

the place where we keep our faith without throwing our reason to the wind;

the place that offers us safety and refuge in perilous times.

As leaders of the synagogue, we will never despair, never retreat and never lose our patience or our nerve. We know, after all, what the synagogue has been and what it will yet be: the place where Jews are linked by history and hope; the place where Judaism refuses to die; the place that transports us back to Biblical times and forward to a messianic future.

Ken yehi ratson. May it be God’s will.

Shabbat Shalom.

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