Rosh Hashanah Eve 5779 – Celebrating 70 Years at The Village Temple

We gather tonight on the sliver of a New Year.  So much is familiar…perhaps the persons sitting next to you…or, the imposing pillars supporting this Great Hall…around which you strategically place yourselves to have a clear view of this transformed wooden stage—now a sacred bimah.  According to our most senior temple member, Harriett Zimmer, from its earliest years, The Village Temple family has made its spiritual High Holy Days home at The Cooper Union.  At the beginning of this service we sang the song, Makom Kadosh—Making this place…holy…separate space.

These High Holy Days mark the beginning of a new decade in our congregation’s lifespan.  This is our 70th anniversary!  During the decade that I worked for the Union for Reform Judaism, I came across congregations, whose beginning spanned centuries.  We know the mega-congregations in New York that fall into this category—Emanu-El of New York City, Central Synagogue, Shaaray Tefila and Rodeph Sholom—all boasting 170 plus years of Jewish presence in New York City.  And there are numerous, small congregations dotting the geographical landscape of the Midwest and South, which have chugged along for more than 100 and even 200 years.  Last month, Agudath Shalom Synagogue in Lynchburg, Virginia faced fear of closing, not due to a demographic shift, but rather the threat of a dam break.  Proudly, on its website, the congregation informs the reader that the congregation has served the Jewish community in Lynchburg for 120 years.  One can ask, why and how did these congregations get founded?  You might suggest that at the turn of the last century, Jews were beginning to flee Russian tyranny and immigration was on steep incline slope.  Yet, the oldest congregation in West Virginia, L’shem Shamayim—For The Sake of Heaven– was founded in 1849 in Wheeling—14 years before West Virginia became a state.  It was a prominent building—2 stories—a Moorish, grand design—not your grandfather’s steibel of Eastern Europe. Many of these small congregations got their humble beginnings by Jewish peddlers settling in the towns…merchants opening stores…families establishing enduring roots.  These communities took tremendous pride in their role of seeding Judaism, particularly liberal, Reform Judaism across the United States.

As the rail travel expanded in the second half of the 19th century, so, too, did Jewish communities. Entrepreneurial merchants, Jewish and non-Jewish, found opportunity in the untamed west. Perhaps, the most influential merchant was Fred Harvey—a British immigrant who established a restaurant and hotel empire that accompanied newly emerging towns along the routes of the Chesapeake, Topeka and Santa Fe rail lines. (NY Jewish Week, August 3, 2010, Stephen Fried, The Jews Who Tamed the wild west.)

What is perhaps, a less known fact is, that two 19th Century Jewish Immigrants, Dave Benjamin and Harold Schweizer were Fred Harvey’s partners in creating the Fred Harvey empire.  And as towns sprouted along these rail corridors, Jews established businesses to cater to the growing demand for supplies.  In recent years, many of those small-town synagogues have either merged, or permanently closed their doors.  Demographic shifts extinguished the eternal lights of these once, vital Jewish communities.  My first student pulpit was B’nai Israel in Williamson, West VA…a coal mining town that once boasted 70-80 families.  The furniture, jewelry and clothing stores were owned by Jewish families, as well as the syndicated radio station.  In the last 40 years, children moved away but their parents hung on.  In 2009, B’nai Israel fell victim to the dwindling Jewish population.  The Union for Reform Judaism had a committee that assisted congregations—in West Virginia, Alabama, Texas, Mississippi, across America, in closing their synagogue doors and allowing these temples to spiritually die with dignity.

Surely, a robust Jewish community existed at the turn of the 20th century; however, synagogues burst on the scene following World War II.  Jewish flight to suburbia, was followed by the building of numerous Reform and Conservative congregations.  Long Island is a perfect example and to a smaller extent, New York City. It is no coincidence that both East End Temple and The Village Temple were founded in the same year!  Returning soldiers from World War II, the birth of the State of Israel, the baby boomers needing religious education—the perfect spiritual storm for establishing synagogues.

Our congregation had humble beginnings as a group of 30 people dreamed of and established a new Jewish presence in the East Village. And for 70 years, B’nai Israel—The Children of Israel—The Village Temple has created its own spiritual roadmap dotted with peaks and valleys—excitement, uncertainty and renewed possibility.

Seventy—7 times 10–is a significant number in Jewish tradition.  Sheva–The number Seven serves as life’s bookends –the 7 days of creation of the world—the beginning of it all, AND, the 7 days of shivah—the 7 days of mourning at the end of life.

“A Hebrew word for luck, gad,. equals seven in gematria,” a Kabbalistic method of interpreting the Hebrew bible by computing the numerical value of words, based on those of their constituent letters.” (Dictionary definition) Mazal, the Hebrew word we more often use for luck, equals 77 in gematria. And let us remember, that our gathering this night, on the cusp of a New Year, occurs on the first day of the seventh Hebrew month—the month of Tishri—in the year 5779. (Judaism and Numbers Rabbi Geoffrey Dennis, The Jewish numerology tradition, known as gematria, values some numbers more than others

For many, the number 10 symbolizes the Decalogue—the 10 Commandments—the Divinely bestowed prized gift of the Israelite nation, which it gifted to the world.  Ten also emerged as the number signifying the minimum number to constitute a Jewish community– based upon Abraham’s arguing with God over having a viable community of righteous people in Sodom and Gomorrah.

The Bible mentions 70 nations of the world.  70 languages were created when the Tower of Babel toppled.  70 Jewish scholars translated the Hebrew Bible into the Greek Septuagint.  In the book of Numbers, Moses appointed 70 elders to advise him, thus forming the first Sandhedrin—court of Jewish law.

Much has transpired in our world in the past 70 years.  When I was 10 years old, I remember going to my aunt’s home and being enamored by her color television—we didn’t have a color TV—this was in the day when the NBC peacock would appear before the start of a TV show aired in living color.  I was most intrigued by the remote control.  It was a Zenith Space Command According to a Wired Magazine article, “The Space Command system was pure genius: Pushing a button caused a clapper to hit an aluminum rod, which emitted an ultrasonic tone {a BOING}.  The TV interpreted the various tones as commands to switch the channel up or down, mute the sound, or turn itself, on or off. “ (Wired 10.23.07—1956 Zenith Space Commander Remote Control).)   It was an aluminum rod, not two double AA batteries that powered the device—well of course—Energizer didn’t produce AA batteries until 1959—3 years after the Space Command Remote was invented.  Our congregation was founded 4 years prior to the first commercial jet airline.  B’nai Israel’s humble beginnings preceded the first non-stick pan, Mr. Potato Head and radial tires.  Indeed, much has transpired in the past 70 years.

On this eve of the New Year, 5779, we must let the energy of our 70th year uplift and inspire our sacred congregational community.  For centuries, the synagogue has remained the central institution of Jewish life.  I have no doubt, many of us here have traveled worldwide, and somehow make time to visit the synagogue—whether active or extinct: in Rome, Nairobi, Cordoba, Budapest, Fez, Hong Kong.  We don’t go visit, the Jewish community centers of these cities, we don’t seek out Jewish hospitals or Federations, rather, we enter the sacred walls of synagogues and touch history and become infused with a spiritual rush.  In 2012, the then president of the Union for Reform Judaism, Rabbi Eric Yoffie wrote, “Those who are synagogue members have much higher rates of Jewish involvement, in New York and everywhere else. Schools and camps are very important, but synagogues are essential. The committed core of American Jewry is made up of synagogue-affiliated Jews, and strengthening the synagogue remains our highest priority.” (Haaretz,  Surveying U.S. Jews: Orthodox Poverty, Increasing Intermarriage, Insistently Liberal, June 14, 2012)

A decade before Rabbi Yoffie’s article, In May, 2002, Rabbi Ismar Shoresh, the then, Chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary, upon receiving an honorary doctorate from HUC-JIR—noted that 100 years prior, in 1902 Solomon Schechter arrived in America to become the Chancellor of Jewish Theological Seminary.  In charging the HUC-JIR ordaining rabbis, Rabbi Shoresh stated: “the synagogue, generically speaking, is the bedrock institution of the total Jewish community. It alone is the aquifer for the social capital that nourishes and drives the vaunted organizational structure that marks American Jewry. The communal ethos, the spirit of voluntarism, the skills of self-governance and the social networks indispensable to the conduct of organized life in the public sector are all developed within the private sector of the denominational synagogue.”  (The Centrality of the Synagogue, Ismar Shoresh) Indeed, It is no surprise that in his list of contributions made by synagogues’ ‘communal ethos’ was at the top of the list. After all, the address was given 8 months after 9/11 blackened the NY skyline and our human spirit.

The synagogue symbolizes the backbone of Jewish community through the millennia.  Indeed, for Jews, there is no more recognizable landmark in Israel than the Western Wall.  Although only a foundation support wall, the Western Wall embodies the memory of vibrant Jewish life 2000 years ago.

The ancient Temple and the synagogue today, like human beings, are both physical and spiritual entities.  On the one hand there is the brick and mortar structure, and in some instances, stone, granite or wood.  Some temples are jaw-dropping majestic in appearance:  Surely, God’s holy abode.  There are others, mere storefronts or brownstones, or stand-alone modest structures, like ours.  Let me be clear–majestic cannot be interpreted as intimate or haimish. And haimish can never be equated with grandiose and austere.   Our building reflects our downtown persona—casual, eclectic, intellectual, avante garde—a community not identified by sky-scrapers, but by smaller brownstones.   Our Greenwich Village is community rich with tradition:  Beatniks, jazz clubs, literary figures, Gay Pride, historical speeches and protests in both Union and Washington Square parks. In a way it is so fitting the High Holy Days, the three days when we crave a little more grandeur, are held in this historic and beautiful hall. The other 363 days a year, we experience God on our home turf.

And, the synagogue is more than a building—it is about the sacred community that bonds within and outside its walls.  It’s about the men and women upon whose shoulders we stand…those g’dolai ha-dor—great ones of their generation who had the vision to establish our kehilah k’doshah—our sacred liberal Jewish presence in the East Village, and we remain, to this day, the only affiliated, Reform Jewish congregation south of 14th Street—an awesome burden and amazing opportunity.

33 East 12th is a repository of precious souls.  Last March, on the temple Israel trip, we visited Bet Hatefusot—The Museum of the Jewish People.  In one section was a collection of miniature-sized models of European synagogues destroyed on Kristallnacht or during the Shoah.  And just last year, The Museum at Eldridge Seat had an exhibit of the lost synagogues of Europe.  It’s hard to gaze at such structures without conjuring up what life was like inside the doors—life, too often, so painfully extinguished.

The number 70 has an additional meaning in Jewish text.  In Psalm 90 we read, the “days of or our years are threescore years and ten.”  The psalmist reminds us that life is a combination or good and bad, struggle and achievement.  No one coasts through life on a silver lining.  No one is immune to failure.  Each of us experiences personal struggle, significant loss and disappointments.  To paraphrase from ABC’s Wide World of Sport opening line, “Each of us knows the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat.”

In thinking of our 70th Anniversary, it is critical to acknowledge the other 70th anniversary this year that transformed world Jewry:  the establishment of the modern state of Israel.  In its short life-span, Israel, too, has experienced triumphs, grasped hold of dreams, and has, at times, lost its soul.  In short, Israel, the underdog, defeated swarming armies more than once, transformed desert into fertile ground, has emerged as one of the leading high-tech nations in the world, Operations Magic Carpet and Solomon rescued Jews from Yemen and Ethiopia. Israel absorbed millions of Soviet Jews and has provided humanitarian aid to nations facing disaster, including millions of dollars in supplies and human resources to refugees fleeing a Syrian genocide. Twelve Israelis have been the recipients of Nobel Prizes, there have been Olympic Medals including gold, the Entebbe rescue, Israel–a leader in de-salinization in a region parched for water.  Many of these accomplishments transpired against the backdrop of unfriendly neighbors and terrorist organizations whose mission remains to drive Israel into the Sea.

And…and…despite these victories Israel has known defeat—lives lost in all its battles, victims of ceaseless terrorist attacks whether by bomb, in Munich, whether by wielding knives, cars plowing through crowds, or burning tires hurled at civilian.  And let us not forget, Israel’s escalating negative image in the press.  And, like all of us, Israel has made and continues to make major missteps that blacken its soul and causes pause:  Expansion in the occupied west bank, refusal to assist asylum seekers, the lack of religious equality in a Jewish State, mistreatment of Palestinians, the growing choke of ultra-Orthodox Judaism that at times turns violent, corrupt leadership, last month’s nation state law that puts at risk all minorities in Israel and strips Israel of its democratic identity—its democratic soul.   Indeed, Israel still bears witness to the best of times and the worst of times.

So, too, for The Village Temple: Our 70 years have been marked by great accomplishments:  the purchase of the building, a thriving school, a children’s choir that has raised up generations of VT students and their parents under Anita Hollander’s direction, a now defunct sisterhood which in its heyday generated critical resources and leadership for the temple.  The Village Temple has nurtured Jewish professionals including Rabbi Jonah Pesner, the Director of the Reform Movement’s Religious Action Center whose father, Robert (z’l) was a Village Temple past president in the early 80s.  There have been adult and youth trips to Israel and innovation in prayer and music.  There is much for us to be proud!  And, our congregation, too, has known moments of struggle.  Our sacred walls have absorbed the tears of those in pain, who have experienced illness and loss, divorce and depression.  Like every family, conflicts emerged throughout our 70 years that tested our neshama—our collective soul:  conflicts with clergy, between lay leaders, between members and lay leaders, between profession staff.  There are those sitting in this sanctuary that wear the battle scars, and, most important, they are still here, praying side by side on this hallowed night of a new year–at times wounded, but never defeated.  On Kol Nidre, 12 of our past presidents will stand on this bimah—not only holding the sifrei Torah, but also, they will hold precious holy history of our congregation—the positive and negative history.  We must remember that the Israelite carried the shattered first set of 10 Commandments with them for 40 years in the desert, and placed them, side by side, in the Holy Ark—good and bad, sadness and joy, victory and defeat, all are inextricable twins.

Abraham Lincoln once said: “In the end, it’s not the years in your life that count. It’s the life in your years.”  The Village Temple’s first 70 years has experienced a rainbow of life—colors of darkness and amazing brilliance.  We are at a crossroads of building toward a new future.  Although there is no crystal ball to gaze into that future this we know:  Our youth walk through our physical space with pride, with ownership, and most importantly with a sense of ease and comfort.  For them, and for so many of us The Village Temple is that quiet refuge—a safe space to breathe, recalibrate, renew.  Our youth are our congregation’s legacy.  And the future for all of us one of great opportunity.  The year ahead is an exciting one.   Three distinct events are being planned to celebrate our 70th year:  Rabbi David Stern, senior rabbi of Temple Emanuel in Dallas, and current president of the Central Conference of American Rabbis—a brilliant teacher and speaker…and mentsch, will be our scholar-in-residence in November.  Plans are in the works for a concert in mid-winter.  Our celebration with culminate with a Gala at the Manhattan Penthouse on March 6.  Our co-chairs, Wendy Goldberg & Stephanie Kanerak, two past- presidents, and their committee, are diligent to make each event a community-builder and celebratory moment for our congregation.  And throughout the year, new programs will be introduced including, leadership development, robust youth offerings, innovation in a one-day-a week Wednesday religious school program and an adult Civil Rights Trip to Alabama…just to mention a few.  And, we will be reaching out into our greater community to make a difference.  More about that on Yom Kippur.  During the next couple of years, we will continue to experiment with program and structure and not fear failure but embrace it as a stepping stone to growth.  John F. Kennedy wrote once said: “The Chinese use two brush strokes to write the word ‘crisis.’ One brush stroke stands for danger; the other for opportunity. In a crisis, be aware of the danger–but recognize the opportunity.”  Through vision and diligence, our congregation has moved on a trajectory from crisis to opportunity.  Let us recognize and seize those moments of possibility and build upon the rich legacy that has been entrusted to us.

The Village Temple stands as our Makom Kadosh—our holy place. The word Makom, is one of the name’s for God, originating from the story of Jacob, fleeing his father’s home—who arrived ba’makom—at the place– and dreams of a ladder spanning from earth to heaven—God promises Jacob, that the Eternal One will be with him and bless him.  Jacob awakens from his dream and declares:  Achen, Yesh Adonai Ba-makom HaZeh, va’a’nochi ’lo yadati.  Surely, God is in this Makom—in this place, and I didn’t know it.  God dwells in our Makom Kadosh on east 12th Street and a Divine spark dwells in each one of us—divine sparks that co-mingled and  ignite a bright flame that illumines our path to holiness and  to one another.   The word Hand in Gematria is 14, .and two hands is 28, and the  28 is the gematria for the word, Koach-strength.  May we, join hands and strengthen each other and our congregational family.  May walls, and brick, Torah, Village Temple children and adults continue to build and sustain our Makom Kadosh. Indeed, let us make “our space a holy place. Rejoice every soul who enters here.” (Debbie Friedman and Tamara Cohen,  Makom Kadosh). 

Shanah Tovah