Saturday, October 1, 2016

Erev Rosh Hashanah: Finding Small Community

When I was a rabbinic student, what seems like a hundred years ago, I served a small congregation in Muncie Indiana. This was a congregation of roughly 60 people. Not families. Not units, PEOPLE. The rabbi’s office had enough room for a chair, a book case and a small desk, right off the side of the sanctuary. The building wasn’t so different from our building, but shrunk down about 75 percent. It’s a lovely congregation full of Ball State professors and doctors and basketball coaches and firefighters and retirees and college kids and store clerks. Some have come  to that part of Indiana from other parts of the world, and some were born and raised. The kind of place where the same kindly old lady was still serving coffee at the oneg just as she had since her children--themselves now grandparents--were young, where everyone pitched in to help lead high holiday services or mow the Temple lawn or make the charoset for the congregational seder, and where everyone in the congregation was not only invited to the bar mitzvah, but came!

Amazingly, this congregation wasn’t the only synagogue in the area. There were a few other reform communities in Richmond, Marion and Kokomo (yes, when the Beach Boys are singing about Kokomo, you won’t find it in the Caribbean but Northeast Indiana), and each of these were served by a student-rabbi as well. At some point, we got together and decided to try to have a joint Shabbat experience. So we planned and we organized and the day finally came when we brought these congregations together. And a curious thing happened. As we gathered for Shabbat dinner and we identified ourselves to the folks from other congregations they kept saying, “oh, you’re from the BIG Temple.” Again and again, “You’re from the BIG Temple.” Imagine that, 60 people, and it was the big one!

I kind of get the feeling. I grew up in a small congregation not so different from the one I served in Indiana, one where everyone knew each other, where everyone pitched in to make the Charoset for the seder, where the same ladies served coffee at the oneg just as they had done years earlier, where all the teachers were volunteers and everyone came for the bar mitzvah. And so when I first served larger congregations, first as an intern and then as an assistant rabbi, I was terrified. The buildings were HUGE! And there were so many people! I remember that my first Rosh Hashanah service as an assistant rabbi there were so many people in the room there was an actual split-second delay between the back of the room and the front of the room reciting the same verses. It was overwhelming, and gave me a hint of what it must have felt to stand at Sinai. And that feeling has never really left me. In fact, even today, it takes my breath away seeing all of you gathered in this room, and it probably always will.

I bring this up because I know how, for so many who come to this congregation, and for so many who were raised here at Beth Emeth, it’s easy to feel a little lost. Again and again I hear from new members looking to make connections and longtime members who come missing their friends and still find this place so transformed that they all but actually squint to see the sanctuary they celebrated their wedding or bar mitzvah in.

This isn’t to say that lots of us aren’t finding opportunities for connection, either as volunteers, or through worship or study, as teachers and caregivers and just plain hanging around.  Nothing makes me happier than walking through this place on a Sunday morning or Friday at the Nosh and seeing people here engaged and enthusiastic about creating community together. And yet, how many of us feel as if this place is just...too...big? And you know what? I get it. It makes me sad. And I get it. And it tells me that we need to make this place feel smaller. Note that I said “Feel” smaller. More intimate. More like that small community we’re all seeking.

And that makes sense for us. As human beings we crave smaller, more intimate gatherings. We want to know that, when we walk into a place--be it the Brew-Ha-Ha up the street or the doctor’s office or the synagogue, the folks in the room know us, and we know them. We want that feeling of being in a village, a neighborhood, even if the community itself is large. As our interactions, be they banking or shopping or dining, are increasingly through an app on our phones rather than with a live human being, we want that intimate moment of connection, to know that we matter.

And there’s a spiritual dimension to this as well. Think of our Torah: so many of the models we have are personal, familial, or tribal. For every scene of Moses speaking to Israel on the mountaintop, we have God speaking to him face to face. Again and again the Torah points to sacred encounters that are pretty intimate, in contrast with massive gatherings of faceless individuals. Even those scenes where Moses is speaking to multitudes get reimagined by the rabbis as personal; rather than have him speak from on high, the Midrash sees Moses speaking personally to each Israelite, in the way he or she could best understand. And even the language surrounding the yammim noraim, these Days of Awe that are marked by myriads sitting in synagogues full to the gills, is the language of intimacy. The mitzvah is not for the shofar to be sounded but for each person to hear the shofar; the prayer unetaneh tokeph speaks of each person having their encounter with God; and at Yom Kippur, the image is that of the Avodah service, where there was enough room for each and every single Israelite to gather at the Temple in Jerusalem and bow low before God, for each one to have a place of their own.

So how do we achieve that? How do we create and foster intimate community? How do we create this feeling of being in a village? Joining me on the bimah this evening is our longtime friend Donna Schwartz. Herself a member of this congregation, and a past assistant director of the JCC, she is the Executive Director of our University of Delaware Hillel, and knows a few things about creating that sense of community. I’ve asked her to share her wisdom, her story, her experience.

The following are Donna Schwartz' remarks:

Do you remember your first week at college? Do you remember the feeling of being lost, overwhelmed and a bit anxious? I remember moving into my dorm where I knew nobody and that feeling of will I make friends and what will life be like for me for the next few years. I remember walking into my first class which was in a lecture hall with over 500 people in it and looking around and wondering if I knew anyone or where should I sit?

This was a strange feeling for me because I grew up in Boca Raton, FL going to school with the same kids since I was 5 years old. We all knew each other and had for a long time. I belonged to the largest synagogue in town where all the Jewish kids from my school which was the majority of us (It is Boca Raton after all) went to Hebrew school together. I went to the JCC for camp from the time I was 5 till I become the Teen Director as my first professional job. During high school, I joined BBYO become president of my chapter and was elected to the regional board. To say that I was involved Jewishly was understatement.

Fast forward to almost 3 years ago, I took the job as the Executive Director at Hillel. Hillel wasn't a part of my college experience and frankly I knew very little about its mission except I thought it was  "like the JCC for college students." I learned very quickly that Hillel was not exactly like a JCC for college students.

Imagine trying to engage 2000 people in Jewish life every year and each year 500 people graduate and 500 new people come in. It's a daunting task. The weight of the task was made real when I read that 85% of all Jewish High School graduates go to college. Think about that. 85%. What would life be like if 85% of Jewish children went to a Jewish Preschool, Jewish Day School or attended Religious school. College is the one and only time that that many Jewish people are doing the same thing. (I mean except for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur at a synagogue)

So here’s what I’ve learned in my short time at Hillel:
Developing meaningful relationships builds community and builds a better Jewish community.  Students today are looking to build micro communities with peers focusing on issues and ideas that are personal to them.  It’s not Bubbie’s Judaism that excites them.
Michelle Lackie, Hillel International’s Associate Vice President recently wrote about Hillel’s engagement methodology.  She said “it empowers students to build relationships with other Jewish students on campus to help them form personal connections to Jewish life. Through interactive training, Hillel teaches students the skills of active listening, empathy, paying attention to what is relevant to their peers and using that as the basis for designing Jewish life.
Ultimately, Jewish life is focused around the needs of students, not the needs of the institution. This is the essence of relationship-based engagement: Relationships first. Design second.”
 As students get to know other students, their Jewish exploration comes to be about them, not the people in charge, about their Judaism and not our Judaism. As students have more opportunities to explore, they build their Jewish self-confidence, increase their Jewish knowledge, feel more connected to Jewish peoplehood and community, and create more positive Jewish memories. Ultimately, these actions and decisions about their own lives help each student take ownership of their Jewish experience.

We try and engage all 2000 students each year through relationship based engagement.  That number is daunting especially when I started and we only had 3 staff members.  While staff are an important equation in making meaningful experiences, you can see that it’s really based on engaging students on their own Jewish Journey and having them build their own small communities.
Every year, we hire 8-10 Campus engagement interns. This elite group of students meet weekly to learn from each other, discuss Jewish current topics and learn new leadership skills. The CEIs main responsibility is to engage in these peer to peer conversations. Each CEI has a community that they are connected with. For instance this year, we have CEIs focused on the Greek community, sports, Israel, and summer camp. Each CEI is responsible for 60 coffee dates within their community. That's 600 coffee dates a year with unengaged Jewish college students.
The goal of each coffee date is to ask "Ayekah?" Where are you? Ayekah was G-ds first question in the Torah. G-d asks Adam Ayekah? I have to believe that G-d knew exactly where Adam stood in the garden but was actually asking where are you in this world? How do you fit in?
Ayekah is the perfect question to ask college students on these coffee dates. Our CEIs are taught to listen and ask open ended questions about where are they on their own Jewish Journey.

Let me tell you about Stacey whom I've gotten to know well over the past few years. Stacy a young woman from California is a very typical Jewish college student. She was bat mitzvahed but didn't do much else Jewishly after that. Stacy never went to a Jewish summer camp and was not in a Jewish youth group. She came to UD early and participated in Freshmen Fest but that's it. During Freshmen fest, she made friends but it didn't turn into a real community for her. She attended High holiday services and Passover and on occasion went to other programs during her Freshmen year. At the end of her first year, one of our CEIs took her out for coffee and asked her Ayekah? Stacey's response was that she was missing that Jewish connection and wanted to get involved. The CEI and Stacey put together a plan for what Stacey was interested in and from their Stacey become a CEI her sophomore year and got involved in planning Freshmen Fest and various other programs. Last year Stacey took on even more responsibility. She saw a problem that we have this great Freshmen Fest program but no continuation of it throughout freshmen year. She and a group of students built a new community called FYSH (First Year Students at Hillel). This group pairs upper classman and freshmen who have similar interests to guide them, be a friend and a mentor.
Time and time again we see the power of our CEI’s, not only for the impact that they are having on Jewish life at UD but on themselves.  Stacey says that CEI opened up her “Jewish Pandora’s Box.”   From there on out she was committed to making sure freshmen understood that Hillel was not just a place of worship, it is a place where you can do homework, have leadership opportunities, catch up with friends and make new ones, engage in text study or a cooking class, and talk with the amazing staff. Hillel had become a home for her, and she wanted others to have the exposure to the amazing home it could offer them before they could create a stereotype in their head. My favorite quote from Stacey is “Hillel has given me the opportunity to be an entrepreneur, a leader, a spokesperson, a friend, a student, and most of all, Jewish.”
That’s the impact of relationship based engagement and the power of coffee and asking a simple question of where are you on your Jewish Journey!
CEI is one of many ways Hillel is building micro-communities.  Last year, we realized that while it’s great for a group of students to throw a Chanukah party for their fellow students.  We weren’t giving them the tools to “do it yourself” to more than those few students who were planning the event.  We went out on a limb and developed a new program with a group of student interns called “DIY Holidays.”  We offered the idea to students to host their own Shabbat in their dorm, apartment, or public space.  20 students took us up on our first offer and hosted Shabbat across campus for their friends.  We supplied the basics, food, candles, challah and grape juice and it was up to them to design the Shabbat experience they wanted.  Almost 300 students participated and helped create Shabbat experiences from Vegan to Outdoor Shabbat to Music to Traditional and everything in between.  It was beautiful.   Our DIY program brought students together around their own interests and taught a larger group of students how to do it themselves.  We did the same thing for Chanukah last year and many sororities and fraternities asked if they could host Chanukah parties.  Not just AEPi and AEPhi, NON JEWISH GREEK HOUSES hosted Chanukah and Shabbat dinners.
We have 7 communities that are led by student boards all with their own purpose: Hillel Student Life focuses on outreach to the greater Jewish community on campus, Kesher our reform group, Koach our conservative group, Project Change who does all of the community service projects, Israel U focuses on cultural activities around Israel, Blue Hens for Israel which does all the political action programs, and Challah for Hunger who bakes Challah every week, sells it and donates the profits to Mazon.
Dayenu?  And if that wasn’t enough. We have over 150 interns working and learning as a community on things like Leadership development, Marketing, Graphic Design, Social Media, Philanthropy and the list goes on.
These micro communities are all fueled by peer to peer engagement, coffee, a wanting to connect and a need to figure out where they are on their Jewish Journey
Hopefully, our work at Hillels across the country will change the face of how Jewish institutions do “Jewish” in the future.  We shouldn’t feel like we need to hide like Adam and Eve did after eating the forbidden fruit because we feel guilty for not coming to services or that we should be doing this or that.
Instead, when you are asked ayekah- where are you?  Hopefully, you can say Heineini- I am here!  Here in my community that connects me Jewishly to what’s important and impactful to me and the world around me.
L’shana Tova from my family, our staff at Hillel and 2000 grateful UD Jewish students for the amazing community that surrounds them.

Could it really be that simple? Invite each other for coffee, ask each other about our lives, share in each others' joys and sadnesses? Is that all it is? Yes. I beleive with perfect faith that the answer is yes. More than that, I believe wholeheartedly, completely, that it isn't about some program, it isn't about a new gimmick, it's about our willingness to be authentically present with each other, to answer God's question, our question--Ayekah, where are you?--with affirmation:  we are here, we're willing to connect, we are willing to touch each others' lives. We are willing to take the leap of faith in one another, to open ourselves to one another, to build those connections with one another. In the Zulu language, the response to hello is: "I see you". I would add that in Judaism, in the Torah, the response to a greeting is "Hineini" "Here I am". May we truly see one another, may we truly be present for one another. And when we hear, in a myriad different ways, 'where are you?" May we be willing to answer the call. I see you, I hear you. Amen.

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