Our Connection to Judaism

Lynn Urbach, President. Rosh Hashanah 5780. Address to the Congregation.

I like to daydream. I dream that Congregation Bet Ha’am fully lives up to our mission statement. Do you know what it is?

Congregation Bet Ha’am is a welcoming Reform Jewish community providing vision, voice, and opportunity for connecting to, practicing, and sustaining Judaism. Bet Ha’am, House of the People, respects and celebrates the divine spark in each individual.

I suspect it is safe to say everyone here gets the part about providing the opportunity to practice Judaism. We’re all here, right? 

This morning I would like us to think about how to live up to another part of our mission, that we are a welcoming community providing opportunity for connecting to Judaism.  Our mission is NOT that the Rabbi, the office staff, and a handful, or even a lot, of volunteers provide an opportunity for connecting to Judaism. Our mission is that we all are a community, and we AS A COMMUNITY provide the opportunity to connect to Judaism. We are also individuals, and there are many different ways to interpret both being a community and how we each want to connect to this community.

Why are we here? I mean, why is each of us sitting (or in my case, standing) in this room today?

Some of us are here because we are committed, for one reason or another, to Judaism, its traditions, its history, culture, community. Some, because we feel or imagine pressure from our family, or want to be role models for our kids, or need to keep someone company while they pray, or sit here, or whatever it is they do here. Maybe it’s guilt—my family has always done this and I don’t want it to be on me that it ends, or my father will be disappointed in me, or my coworkers need to see me here. If we are lucky, part of the reason we are here is to celebrate the new year with our community.

Let’s face it. Most of us, myself included, don’t believe that God really cares whether or not Lynn Urbach attends services for Rosh Hashanah or fasts on Yom Kippur. My ancestors, my grandparents, and great grandparents, have no idea, and, at the moment, don’t actually care, whether or not I continue their traditions. Even though I know of quite few of them died because of these very traditions. Yes, my mother cares. But I know she will love me even if I take the easy way out, give up my commitment to Judaism and its continuity, and assimilate into the melting pot that is the United States.

So, why is it so important to me that I be here, in a synagogue that I have made my community, on this holy day? And why, for gosh sake, am I going to spend an a awful lot of hours over the next two years working my tuchas off for Bet Ha’am, seeing little of my husband, to help us not only continue to be the warm, welcoming, and wonderful community that this is, but hopefully to bring it forward, to grow, to thrive, and to encourage more of you to find your own way to be a part of OUR community? 

We, as a community, must provide opportunity to connect to Judaism, for now and for future generations of Jews in Southern Maine.

I’ve helped prepare well over a dozen Bet Ha’am kids to become Bar or Bat Mitzvah. One of the first questions I ask is, “Do you believe in the words you will recite, the meanings of the prayers we are about to start practicing?” Of course, most of the time they’ve never paid much attention to the English. So together we read the translations of the Mourners’ Kaddish and the Aleinu. “Can you honestly say you believe what these words say?” I love both prayers. I get comfort and find solace in the voice of a congregation reciting them. But do I believe the words I am reciting? Not literally. Would I be comfortable reciting them in English?” Easy answer: no.

Here’s what I can say with certainty. And what I tell my B’nei Mitzvah students. For generations upon generations upon generations, for over 3000 years, our ancestors found great value in this thing we call Judaism. The religion, the lifestyle, the culture, the Torah, and other texts and traditions. There is something extremely precious here. So, I ask these 12- and 13-year-olds, please, don’t just “get through” these lessons and the service to get to the party and then move on and away. Think seriously about what it could mean to you to become an adult member of this community.  There is something deep here. Something worth learning, something to treasure, something worth investing in, committing to, and getting involved with. Make it a part of you. And you will find that you are a part of it. The same goes for the rest of us.

WE are the community, and WE must provide AND TAKE the opportunity for us to connect to Judaism.  For now AND for future generations. And I believe that in these troubled times it has become more important than ever to add all of our voices to this community.

I wonder, how many of you think, or at least live, as though Bet Ha’am does not offer anything that is of interest to you beyond educating your children and coming to High Holy Day services? I would like to turn that around, and ask, “What do you want for and from your community?”

At the mortgage burning in May I spoke with Josh, a young man I’ve known for a very long time. He had come to the celebration with his dad only, he told me, because of the free food. I asked him, “What would bring you here to Bet Ha’am other than free food?” I got the answer I expected, “Nothing.” “What if,” I countered, “it wasn’t an event in this building. What if it was a gathering after work for young adults, maybe at a bar on Exchange Street?” His eyes lit up. That was something he could imagine doing, that was a way he would want to be a part of this community. In fact, he started to name a number of places he knew well that have a room that we could reserve.

I recently ran into a former Bet Ha’am volunteer. (Yes, there is a theme here. I’ve tried to make a habit of seeking out people who are not currently active members of this community.) Years ago, this woman was passionate about this place and this had clearly been one of her communities. She seemed to be here all the time and organized event after event. But when her kids got through confirmation, she seemed to disappear. When we saw each other on the sidewalk in Portland this summer, she was almost hesitant to talk to me. She thought she knew what I would ask. “Oh no,” she said, and I’m paraphrasing here, “I’m not doing any more big projects. I’m done with organizing things.” But that’s not what I am looking for, I responded. “Would you come back if we offered an opportunity to build relationships within our community, do something regularly with a group, something you enjoy? If coming to services isn’t your thing, what is?”

These people both told me that Bet Ha’am doesn’t offer what they are interested in. They’re thinking inside a box. When they need us, for a life-cycle event, maybe a wedding, maybe a funeral, their child’s Bar Mitzvah, they count on this community being here for them. Yes, we are a community. We are YOUR community. We WILL be here when you need us. But if we are valuable, important to you at critical lifecycle events, maybe we are worth investing in beyond those events.

There are many people here who have made this their community. But I guess I’m greedy. I want more. I want each one of you. It’s those of you who are thinking right now, this isn’t for me. It’s a great idea, but I’m too busy, not interested, it’s too much effort, I don’t have any friends here, I don’t know anyone here, and Bet Ha’am is doing fine without me.  It’s for you to change that. We need to think outside the box. We don’t do things the way our grandparents did. But we need to do various things in diverse ways and that requires your participation. Unfortunately, we can’t read your mind. I don’t know what you want. It’s up to you to speak up.

So I ask you, If you could do whatever you wanted as a part of this Jewish community, what would it be?  

I hope you will join us this year in making sure Bet Ha’am thrives with energy, activity, and volunteers, to welcome everyone, to be here when the right time comes for each of us to join in. May the time come soon, maybe even this year, 5780, that each of you here will find a way to play your own part in our community. I am eager to hear from you. To hear what we can do, what you want to do, how to transform us, even more than we have so far, into your community, your connection to Judaism.

My husband, Jerry Olshan, and I wish you a shanah tovah u’metukah, a good and sweet year.

I’m interested!

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