Congregation Beth El–Keser Israel

85 Harrison Street, New Haven, CT 06515-1724 | P: 203.389.2108 |

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Challenge & Acceptance: Kol Nidre 5768 — 2007

Kol Nidre 5768 — 2007

A Message from Rabbi Jon-Jay Tilsen

Fifty years ago, in 1957, the last Kol Nidre service was held in the Rose Street shul, the predecessor of Beth El.

The move to Westville, completed in June 1960, precipitated a split in which a dozen families, and half of the congregation’s assets, were lost, ostensibly over the question of mixed seating in the new location.

When Rabbi Jordan Ofseyer was formally installed by Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan in 1962, the congregation comprised 230 families.

Forty years ago, in 1967, Temple Keser Israel, under the leadership of Rabbi Andrew Klein for 16 years, with 260 members, was engaged in merger talks with Beth El. As the last two Conservative synagogues in the City of New Haven, it seemed only logical for them to join forces. Following the passing of Rabbi Klein in July, Keser Israel found itself without a rabbi, and with a beloved building but impractical location. In March 1968, Congregation Beth El–Keser Israel was born of the union of two historic congregations. (See History of Congregation Beth El–Keser Israel.)

It is wonderful to see many of the leaders from that era still with us, who have stuck it out, thick or thin, over all these years, and invested more energy and time than I can dare to imagine. You are amazing.

The Rose Street Shul is gone, and Rose Street is gone, but Beth El is still here. The “half fortress, half enchanted castle” that was Keser Israel’s home is now a medical office building, but the neshama of the congregation lives on, and is right here tonight.

For one brief and glorious moment, in 1968, BEKI had over 600 member families and over 200 children in its religious school.

Twenty-five years later, in 1993, with the City’s change of fortunes, the congregation’s membership stood at 204 families. The Board debated joining another synagogue or simply closing the doors.

The past had its glories, and the past had its gories, but it is nevertheless past. We learn from the past, and we honor the past, but we must live today and build for tomorrow.

This congregation is important to the survival of the Jewish People and the continuation of our mission. I’ll tell you why.

First, though, I must point out two characteristics of this congregation that are both positive, but somewhat at odds with each other.

One: This is a challenging Congregation. It is challenging in several ways.

This congregation performs the complete standard traditional Hebrew liturgy, including the full Torah reading, three times a day. It is a “full-service” synagogue.

This challenge motivates some people to learn Hebrew and study the prayerbook, but frustrates others.

The standard liturgy appeals to people who want to be challenged, who want to confront tradition, who want to experience the authenticity of historic Jewish worship; people who have grown up at Camp Ramah or attended JTSA, who want the Hebrew tradition without the gender barriers. Our children and adults who are trained here are prepared to be part of any Jewish community in the world, and a Jew from anywhere in the world can feel at home here. While highly idiosyncratic creative services can be meaningful, they are not “transferable.” When our kids go to Jerusalem or Kiev or Los Angeles, they will feel at home in the synagogues there. This can only happen when they know the liturgy common to the Jewish People.

We are challenged because we have given our children a better Jewish education than we received.

This congregation can be intimidating because we include eight or ten rabbis and several world-renowned Judaic scholars; and several parents and children of rabbis and scholars; and members with advanced Jewish educations. We are a congregation of talmidei hakhamim, and it can be intimidating to those who feel like beginners.

There are some communities where the rabbi is the best Torah reader, cantor, Torah scholar, public speaker and sukka builder. This community is challenging because its non-charismatic democracy demands a lot of its members. A typical Shabbat service requires the involvement of over sixty people, as Torah readers, children’s program leaders, qiddush makers, and more. Over one hundred people had a substantial role in organizing or leading these High Holy Day services.

Diversity of practice poses a challenge. Can I invite someone over who keeps kosher if I don’t, or who is more strict than I am? Do people scowl or scoff at me when I drive to shul while they walk? Everyone else seems to know what to do, and I haven’t a clue. Can someone tell me what page we’re on? Can we at least sing the same melody?

We are asked to attend daily services, even though we are not interested, don’t believe in prayer or that God hears our prayers, don’t know when to stand or sit or put on tefilin or wave the lulav. We are invited to build a Habitat House even though we don’t know which end of the hammer to hold. We are asked to help in the kitchen even though we can’t stand the heat.

This congregation is challenging because we seek to operate within the constraints of Jewish law, to live in allegiance to that towering achievement of Jewish civilization; to adhere to an authentic, moderate approach to halakha. This, in a world where there is in some quarters a competition to adopt stringencies — kosher supervised water, 30-foot mehitsas — and in other quarters a movement away from traditional observance altogether.

At BEKI, we are challenged to be part of a community, to belong to something bigger than ourselves, in a society that stresses individual choices and self-interest, with generations who, thank God, have never mobilized for war or known a Depression.

We are challenged to remain in community despite its flaws, despite the ways we sometimes hurt each other. Our sage Hillel said,  “Al tifrosh min ha-tsibbur — Do not leave the community” even though we sometimes feel like we are being driven away. (See my essay, Please Don’t Leave.)

The congregation is challenging because it is run by volunteers, its expenses are all paid for (or not) by our members. We strive for excellence while believing that “the best things in life are free.” Have an idea? — He who proposes disposes.

Religious School students take note: Our new principal is very nice and welcoming, but she will demand a lot of her students; she will challenge you.

Our Shabbat programs for children and youth are run by parents who take turns leading them. This is a great challenge for many parents, but brings the greatest rewards.

At BEKI there is a financial challenge. Corporate matching funds, foundations and philanthropies do not give to synagogues, and most Jewish philanthropists prefer high-profile secular causes such as universities. Most our funds must come directly from committed members. It is challenging to our sense of fairness and our bottom line that our basic dues are the same for the family trying to get by on $50,000 a year as they are for the family making $250,000 or more and living in a home in far better condition than this building.

We are challenged by the needs of this community. A child whose father is at war in the Middle East; a child whose single mother works six days a week to make ends meet; an adult whose medical condition means she can’t keep a good job; a worker whose company laid him off; a businessman who hasn’t turned a profit in three years. These are all real members of our BEKI community. Who is going to help pay for their tuition, for their dues, for their bar and bat-mitzva training, for the real cost of their membership? These are the challenges of a community. We are challenged to be generous and gracious in an environment where synagogue membership is thought of in the same way as country-club membership.

You get calls, letters and visits asking you to come to services, give money, volunteer for this or that, a lot. It would be impossible to do all of the things you are invited to do: stuff envelopes, go to services, go to class, organize the auction, prepare the qiddush, bring a meal to a family, cut the bushes, read the Torah. (See my essay, Mitzva Indigestion.)

These are among the reasons that BEKI is a challenging community. It is humbling, sometimes disappointing, often exhausting, occasionally exhilarating, usually expensive, always demanding. It is religiously and intellectually challenging, and many find it a place to grow as a human being and as a Jew. This is a place for people who want to be challenged, who want the real thing, who want more.

This is not an active congregation; it is a hyper-active congregation — the level of activity here is typical of synagogues with memberships five times our number. Yet, we are a small congregation, where the rabbi knows your name.

I said that there are two aspects of this congregation that are both positive, but somewhat at odds with each other.

One is that this is a very challenging Congregation.

The Second is that this is a very accepting Congregation.

We accept one another; we encourage and help each other.

We encourage, welcome and recruit those who have had no formal Jewish education, no Hebrew education, no established patterns of ritual observance. We welcome anyone who wants to be part of a mitzva-based community. The proportion of converts, of Jews who had their first aliya as adults, of gay or lesbian Jews, of Jews who are observant and intermarried, is much higher at BEKI than at most other “traditional” congregations.

This is a congregation that honors the model of Aqiva, who learned to read Hebrew at age 40 and went on to become one of the most influential sages of all times. (We will hear about Aqiva again tomorrow during the musaf service.)

This is a learning congregation. We create a supportive environment where we can try new things for the first time.

Our sages said that Torah study is on par with, or superior to, prayer as a form of worship. So if one person wants to study, and another wants to pray, that is fine.

No one ever said that putting on tefilin or lighting a Shabbat candle is a “better” mitzva than helping to build a house for someone or preparing a meal for another. No one ever said that keeping kosher is more important than visiting the sick. These are not either / or propositions. Rather, there is a smorgasbord of mitzva opportunities, and we respect, value and honor all of them. The more, the better.

We accept each other as imperfect human beings — ashamnu. But we still get along, because we are a community.

We are proud that this community welcomes adults and children with developmental disabilities, and other disabilities, or who have other challenges. We welcome all children without prejudice. We are so accepting that the Sisterhood will accept men.

There is no stigma to intellectual ability, age, race, conversion status, marital status, societal status, political or romantic preference. We do not judge each other, and we celebrate not where one is on the ladder of mitzvot, but the direction one is going. We feel a sense of holiness in the motion, and that ladder can be a fuller Shabbat experience, the ladder of Tzedaqa, or the ladder used to erect the Sukka or at the Amity Cares Habitat for Humanity Build.

This is an extraordinary community of committed, decent, devoted and hard-working Jews and I am proud to be a member of it. I am deeply appreciative and thankful that Miriam and I are able to raise our children in such a great community.

When I was growing up in St. Paul — the city, not the church — I had the privilege of attending a community Talmud Torah, where I learned from a diverse faculty, including some truly excellent educators.

Here is one of the books we used in class, A Science & Torah Reader, published in 1970 by NCSY. The book contains several essays on Science and Torah.

Here’s a statement by a famous rabbi in New York written in 1963 (and which is still taught by his followers to this day):

The argument from the discovery of fossils is by no means conclusive evidence of the great antiquity of the earth….
Even assuming that the period of time which the Bible allows for the age of the world is definitely too short for fossilization (although I do not see how you can be so categorical!) we can still accept the possibility that G-d created ready fossils, bones or skeletons (for reasons best known to Him), just as He could create such “ready” products as oil, coal, or diamonds, without any evolutionary process.
… If people are still bothered by the theory of evolution, I can tell them without fear of contradiction that it has not a shred of evidence to support it. (Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, pp. 24-25.)

In case you missed that, he said that the world is about 5,700 years old, that dinosaur bones and fossils were created “ready-made” 5,700 years ago and so do not prove that the earth is millions of years old, and that there is “not a shred of evidence” to support the theory of evolution.

Had that been presented to me as the “authentic” Jewish viewpoint, I would not be here today. I mean I would not be a Jew in shul on Kol Nidre, at all.

I was very fortunate that I had great Conservative teachers who showed me that our tradition embraces reason and celebrates science, and who showed me what a loving community is.

There are certain ideas that we try to teach our children in this congregation, at least insofar as I have anything to do with it. I mention these specific teachings because they are not shared by the entire Jewish world.

We embrace reason and science above mysticism or obscurantism. We honor our scholars and philanthropists but make our communal decisions democratically and within the law. Our synagogue is owned by its members, not an external or privately-controlled body.

We renounce the notion of the “genetic spiritual superiority of Jews over gentiles” (see BEKI Bulletin November 2003, p. 3). Instead, we teach that each person is valued and loved unconditionally by God, is unique and endowed with certain inalienable rights, and that our essential distinction as Jews is not biologically-based. We promote human rights and equality before the law as Divine imperatives.

We teach the equality of genders. We do not teach that men are superior, or that women are spiritually superior to men and therefore somehow may not lead public ritual.

We teach that modern Israel is the Jewish People’s homeland. We value the totality of the Jewish people, struggle against sectarianism and legitimize diversity. We understand Judaism as a civilization and that Hebrew law and Torah are essential and developmental. We try to teach our children and adults to be good educated Jews and decent human beings, and that they must be part of a community.

While quality of community is more compelling to many people than a community’s ideological content or creed, content and creed do matter. Many of us see the wonderful quality of community of some evangelical Christians or the Amish; it may be hard to find nicer, more giving, more community-oriented people. Likewise, there are so-called sects of Eastern or Jewish origin that also have embracing community — “bomb with love.” As lovely, tight and supportive as these communities may be, they are based on, and teach, important beliefs that we do not share and cannot accept, beliefs that in some cases we see as false or malicious. For us, it is not enough for a community to be embracing, caring and loving; content matters.

While we are accepting, then, of great diversity, there are nevertheless ideas and beliefs that define us as a distinct community. It is a very great challenge for us to maintain our identity and be true to our beliefs while accepting others who do not fully share our outlook.

The ideas we embrace, along with our commitment to community, are crucial to the mission and future of our people.

Some people are concerned about the declining number of Jews in America, and some are especially concerned that our Conservative Movement is declining fastest. Some are concerned about the size of this congregation, just 260 member families.

We do most certainly face serious sustainability issues.

Margarete Mead said, “Never doubt that a small group of concerned people can change the world…. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”

The Conservative Movement in this country began with JTS, a small school that graduated a couple of dozen rabbis and a handful of doctorates a year for a hundred years. The predecessors of BEKI began with just ten families each.

If we do not have enough teachers for our schools who are positive religious Jewish role models, who understand and believe in the approach of Conservative-Masorti Judaism, then our children will be taught by secular, Orthodox, Reform, or other Jews. Now, that would not be the end of the world. But it would be the end of Conservative Judaism. Our children must be trained and educated as Conservative Jews at school and at home; otherwise they will naturally make their future in other movements or without community at all.

Are we giving the next generation more or less than we had? If less, then the trend will continue, and the community will decline.

But if they go to Garinim Montessori Preschool, attend a fine religious school such as the one here or Ezra Academy or Camp Ramah, if they study at the Conservative Yeshiva or Hebrew University in Jerusalem and study Hebrew and Judaism in college, then they are not going to be satisfied with responsive English readings, abbreviated liturgy or “scrape the cheese off the meat” kashrut. They want an intense and challenging experience; they want a devout community, and they will not find that in their home synagogues. A varsity athlete does not want to play on the novice team. So they look elsewhere.

Of the 200 children in the religious school in 1968, I doubt there are ten who are members at BEKI today. Where have all of those children gone? Sure, many have moved away. But many others are not members of any synagogue or have found their place in non-Conservative communities.

Quality of community, not correctness of ideology, is the priority for most people. But correct ideology is also essential for sustainability.

Our former members around the country say they can’t find a Congregation like this — quality community and correct ideology. But if we’ve been successful in our work here, they will be empowered and motivated to create their own communities elsewhere.

This congregation is a somewhat rare model of a truly challenging, accepting, caring and intense community based on a philosophy that is “close enough” to what we really believe, based on the normative centrist traditional understanding of Torah and tradition guided by the insights of Conservative-Masorti Judaism. This is the varsity team.

What is the attraction here? Our building is still in need of a lot more repair and updating. Our bare-bones budget is barely balanced. Our prayer books and windows are held together by duct tape. The greatness of BEKI is in the exceptional people who form an extraordinary community based on a correct ideology. This is why fifty years ago Beth El survived despite losing half its assets — it kept its community. This is why Keser Israel survived forty years ago despite losing its beloved rabbi and unique building — it kept its community.

The conviction that this community is important motivated some of our young leaders and veteran members to invest a great deal of time, effort and resources to see this Congregation through the leanest years and to develop and implement a plan for renaissance that has brought us to this day.

This is a very special and unique community, one that barely survived but now thrives, one that is challenged and challenging and welcoming and accepting, and one that offers hope for our people, a Torah-community for the modern age, a Congregation that is important to the lives of its members and that makes a unique contribution to the future of the Jewish People.

This Congregation is the people in this room tonight.

…And now, greetings and a message from our President, Jay Sokolow.

©Jon-Jay Tilsen, September 2007

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