Shanah Tova! I recently bought for myself Mishkan HaNefesh, the new Reform Mahzor which became available for wide use just last year. I love Mishkan Tefillah, though some of that appreciation may be connected to my summer at Kutz camp, when we had the opportunity to use the book while it was still in a draft edition, and I loved being able to have the sneak peek at the new poetry and layout of the prayer book. Still, I thought the Mishkan HaNefesh would likely have some beautiful new additions for our High Holy Day readings, and maybe some new insights for our understandings and experiences of Teshuvah. Sure enough, as soon as I opened the book for the first time an essay by Rabbi Lisa Edwards jumped out at me. She opens with explaining how the town her father grew up in had only one synagogue. Immediately, I thought, “Well that sounds familiar.” Then she continued by explaining how the one shofar blower in the one synagogue in this small Jewish community had a stutter, so her father and his childhood friends grew up assuming that the blasts of the shofar, of various lengths and rhythms were the result of the man’s stutter rather than the intended sound of them.
We often will have the experience of being a representative of some facet of our identity to someone who has never met another person who shares that identity, just as that man was the representative of both shofar blowers and stutterers to those Jewish children. In a town with only one synagogue, those same children were likely the representatives of Jewish children to their classmates. How wonderful that the community they represented was inclusive and ensured that a man who perhaps would not be able to smoothly lead a service or give a d’var Torah still contribute something so monumental to the spiritual life of their community, even if the kids didn’t fully understand any of that at the time.
As I begin to settle in here in Northern Virginia, I’m thinking about the ways I represent this community. At Gesher, many of the students have strong misconceptions about Reform Judaism, and many of the adults have never heard of Ner Shalom, so I am an immediate representative of our community and our denomination as a whole and I’m conscious of how I want to promote both. In Prince William County, where, similar to the town in Iowa where Rabbi Edwards’ father grew up, we are the only synagogue, we must all be aware of how we represent Ner Shalom, Reform Judaism, and perhaps even Judaism as a whole. Luckily, I think this too is a place that is inclusive and looks for ways to ensure any one can feel at home here. One of the things that excited me about joining this community is how diverse it manages to be for such a small population.
Judaism comes in many shapes and colors, and a community that is truly reflective of that embraces people with different types of abilities, both physical and neurological. It embraces people of all races, sexual orientations, gender identities, and socio-economic classes. It is not judgmental of others’ personal traditions and it does not place prohibitive expectations that all its members contribute in exactly the same ways. It seeks to share in the joys of its diversity, to learn from each member and to work together to make the community, both within the synagogue and without, stronger. Because ultimately, it’s not any of those factors that determine our Jewishness. It’s our shared values and core beliefs. It’s our commitment to tzedek, to justice, and to tikkun olam, repairing the world. It’s our love for Torah and our commitment to Am Yisrael, the Jewish people. It’s the fact that we are here tonight to embark on a transformative Ten Days of Awe together. It’s that we are repenting for the wrongs we’ve committed against each other and that we are repenting together as a unit for the sins we’ve committed against ourselves and God.
As we welcome in the New Year, may it be one with ever increased inclusivity in our community. May we see growth, emotional and spiritual as well as in our numbers, and may we grow stronger together in the year to come. Amen and Shanah Tova.