Rosh Hashanah Morning Sermon 2019

Rabbi Aaron Meyer: “My rear end hurt. I had been sitting in the car for the last three hours, alternating between listening to the radio, listening to an audio book, making faces at other drivers, and trying to remember the last time I had the luxury of feeling bored when I uncovered my GPS to again check the amount of time left on the drive. Staring at the thing constantly didn’t help pass the time, and apparently neither did trying to pretend I’d forgotten it was there. The ETA still read “Forever.” I wasn’t even close…yet.

Everyone in this room knows this phenomenon. Whether you are thinking of its modern permutation, of staring at the little airplane on the 5” screen in front of you making its way at a glacial pace toward your final destination — though glacial speeds are the topic of a much-needed sermon for another day — or whether the young people in your life also have a habit of incessantly asking “are we there yet, are we there yet,” we all know from the excitement and hope of traveling to a new destination…and the challenge of not being there, yet.

Yet.” It’s actually the most powerful word I know. A single, small word that injects hope and possibility every time it is used. 

“Are we there?”

“Not yet” means we are going to get there — to our final destination, be it the soccer field or DisneyWorld. “Not yet” opens a door open instead of allowing “no” to slam it shut. 

“Yet.” It’s actually one of the most powerful words in Jewish practice. Franz Rosenzweig, a German Jewish philosopher and theologian, struggled with his place in the Jewish community throughout his youth. Attending High Holy Day services in 1913, hearing the sounding of the shofar with the clarity of a ringing bell, Rosenzweig found his way firmly back within the fold in an unusual way. He wasn’t particularly observant, but when asked if he observed this or that mitzvah, he answered “not yet.” He answered by recognizing that the future held potential not realized in the present.

“Yet.” It’s actually one of the most powerful words in Jewish philosophy. Naomi Rosenblatt, author of Wrestling with Angels, situates “yet” as the greatest opportunity for humanity. “Being created in the image of an infinite God,” she writes, “means that our spiritual potential for growth and transformation is limitless. If there is no ceiling on the concept of God, then we who are made in God’s image have infinite space to grow. We never reach the end of our potential. Never. Not in our marriages, not in our careers, not in our relationships with our children and our friends.” Not yet have we become the best we can be, she explains, because the future holds potential not realized in the present.

As we open a new chapter in the book of our lives, labeled 5780, I hope you will join me in making it the year of “yet”: in our personal lives and in the life of Temple Emanuel because this year, because we, because Temple holds potential not fully realized in the present.

On Rosh Hashanah, we are asked to reflect on the year that was. Who were we? Who are we now? Who do we want to be? Where did we fall short of being our best possible selves, and where did we have successes we need to carry forward? If your ledger looks anything like mine, this is a pretty scary proposition. When did we say things inarticulately that caused hurt to friends and colleagues? How often did we say things that were intentionally hurtful to loved ones? Where did we over-engage when we should have empowered others and where did we take the lazy way out when we could have made a difference. Al chet shechatanu — we have all wronged God and our fellow human being, and we are not the people we need to be. Yet.

“Yet” is the blessing of being human. “Yet” allows us to view ourselves — our mistakes and regrets — as missteps along our journey rather than the sum total of our identity. “Yet” allows us to leave the door open, to forever yearn to reach our highest potential, not because who we are now is bad but because we can always, always be better. It is the positive self-talk that allows us to be more than we ever imagined possible.

Imagine where you might embrace the word “yet” in the coming year. That destructive habit you are trying to kick? It’s not that you can’t, it’s that you haven’t fully committed…yet. That challenge not accomplished? Spending more time with family or friends? The slump you can’t crawl out of at work or in your romantic life? A Steeler’s win? It’s not impossible: they, you just haven’t figured it out…yet. Every single time we are presented with a challenge, we can allow a “no” to subconsciously close the door on our potential, or we can embrace the option that more is always possible. You can. You will. At least leave that door open: that’s the beauty of yet.

“Yet” is the very reason that I am here. Personally, of course, because the rabbi I have yet to become is far greater than who I am now and I’m counting on your help to get there, but also because yet — because possibility and optimism and potential — is almost tangible at Temple Emanuel. I felt yet throughout the interview process. I felt yet on Installation weekend. And I feel it today as we stand on the cusp of the year 5780.

The founding members of this synagogue realized the need for organized Jewish life in the South Hills, born of the desire to educate and inspire the next generation. For nearly 70 years it has done exactly that with tremendous success. Our collective recognition that synagogues the world over can’t continue to do what they have always done and expect to get what they have always got isn’t a critique of who we have been, or how we have been doing things, but the realization that the landscape of Jewish life and involvement has changed significantly.

The synagogue of tomorrow faces considerable challenges today. You know these challenges. Geographic mobility is increasing at a time when inherited familial commitment, compelling us to life-long relationships with our home synagogue, is decreasing. We know that the traditional markers of adulthood — home ownership, marriage and family, joining the synagogue — are being pushed later and later. In a broader American culture that has largely disowned a sense of collective responsibility in favor of radical I’m-only-for-myself individualism, transactional “what have you done for me lately” relationships with synagogues are becoming the rule rather than the exception. And maybe synagogues the movement over have taken the adults in our community for granted, seeing them as the chauffeurs for their children rather than offering compelling and engaging programming to meet their needs. I could go on…we could go on: and this is where the “yet” comes in. The “yet” at Temple Emanuel to overcome these challenges is tangible, and I’m excited to work together to actualize and realize that potential.

We will do so by ensuring that meaning and relevance are at the core of everything we do. Meaning and relevance. Abstract teachings, random historical facts, and unanchored Jewish practices? Not meaningful. Acquiring knowledge of our common Jewish narrative and historical past to build resilience in our children and ourselves? Meaningful. Furthering knowledge of our values — middot and mitzvot — to inspire moral choices and actions to fix this broken world? Meaningful. Engaging in Shabbat services and tefilah experiences not with an eye toward repetition but a focus on the the best selves we have yet to become? Meaningful. And when those meaningful experiences are relevant to life right here and now, when they immediately applicable to our lives, then we have a recipe for success. 

We will actualize and realize the palpable “yet” at Temple Emanuel by articulating and following through on a clear value proposition, a definitive answer to why people must belong to the Temple. Cultivation of conscience uniquely happens here, as does its application. In 1871, Isaac Mayer Wise, the architect of American Reform Judaism, wrote that “intelligence and conscience are the arbiter of faith.” Reform Judaism prizes both critical and reflective thinking, trying to understand not only the world in which we live but our role within that world, and gives us an unapologetic vision for our shared future born of both universal values and particularistic concerns. As Jews we must engage with words of Torah, we must engage with mitzvot

…and, to fulfill our purpose, to satisfy our conscience, we must alleviate suffering by providing hot meals prepared in the synagogue kitchen, we must translate our values into actions that work tirelessly for justice and equality, and we must work to create systemic change using every tool at our disposal including civic engagement. Cultivation of conscience, our value proposition, will be realized not through committee contemplation nor while trapped within study’s ivory tower but though the tangible external actions that we will engage as a community. 

Finally, we will meet the challenges of our day and realize our “yet” by embracing not only Jewish tradition but the Jews who practice it. This means we have an obligation to create both a more expansive definition of Jewish community and a more expansive definition of Jewish practice. With regard to community: everyone who has chosen to embrace Judaism in their lives — people who were born Jewish and continue active expressions of their faith and heritage, Jews-by-choice who meritoriously opted to engage with Judaism, and interfaith couples who have chosen a Jewish home or practice for their lives — all have equal footing here. Everyone who has chosen to embrace Judaism in their lives — people of all abilities, and sexual orientations, and gender expressions, and others who have been marginalized by the Jewish community — all have equal footing here. And with regard to practice: Our tradition is predicated on the ability to bring the highest values of 3,000 years of Jewish experience into the modern world. That can only happen when we don’t shy away from the modern world. Together we will explore how we can embrace technology to advance our mission, how we can expand the definition of Shabbat practice to include more Jews doing more Jewish things on a Jewish day, and how we can reimagine everything we do as a synagogue to meet the needs of 21st century Jews. 

We have a bit of work to do. This is where our “yet” comes in: the yet at Temple Emanuel is tangible — our future holds potential we have not yet realized in the present. I feel that sense of yet when Rabbi Locketz and our teachers retool lesson plans and the entire Torah Center to help our students and our tradition not only survive but thrive. I feel that sense of yet every time I speak with Iris Harlan and enter the ECDC classrooms to find teachers nurturing curiosity of our youngest members. I feel that sense of yet when we embrace new melodies and new musicians on Shabbat, enriching our experience, and when David Weisberg and the Temple Board meet to discuss the biggest issues of our day. I feel that sense, that embodiment, of yet in each of you as we meet, brainstorm, discuss, and vision how Temple can best meet your needs, and through those conversations come closer to its full potential in this new year. 

As we open a new chapter in the book of our lives, labeled 5780, I hope you will join me in making this the year of “yet.” Saying “yet” in our personal lives, as we continue to stretch toward our highest potential, not because who we are now is bad but because we can always, always be better. Saying “yet” in the life of Temple Emanuel, because our sacred community holds potential not fully realized in the present. There is always the possibility of improvement: that’s the beauty of yet. 

Shanah Tovah Umetukah — May this be the absolute best, sweetest year…yet.”

Simchat Torah Temple-Style

Our fall season of holidays came to a close with our wonderful Simchat Torah celebration on Sunday, September 30.  With our service led by Rabbi Don and Rabbi Locketz, we marched and danced with the Torahs to music by the Hot Matzohs.  Our younger folks enthusiastically waved their flags, while the adults carried the Torahs throughout the Sanctuary.  A highlight of the morning was our  Torah service with 16 congregants each reading or chanting a line!  With our Torah Center teachers and madrichim chanting the aliyot, it was truly a special time for all.

Many thanks to our teen videographer, Harrison Pittle, who captured the spirit of the morning for us in this great video!

Three Numbers

by President David Weisberg

Yom Kippur 5777

Three numbers I’d like for you to remember – 14 million, 520 and One. So why are these important? And more importantly, why are they significant to you? Keep these numbers in mind, 14 million, 520 and One, as hopefully I will be able to give you something to think about.

First, let me introduce myself to you. I am David Weisberg. I am proud to be the current President for Temple Emanuel. Some of you may know me as the husband of my beautiful wife Rikki. Others of you may be connected to me as the son-in-law of Suzi and Richard. For those long-time Pittsburghers, my parents are Charles and Gail who, as any proud parent would want to do, are here today to listen to their son. Speaking of parenthood, of all the ways that you may be familiar with me, my highlight is being a father to my kids who are busy having fun and learning in today’s children’s program.

Before my current role on the Board of Trustees, some of you may recognize me from my prior roles these past six plus years. I was in a Treasurer role and then Vice President of Finance. So of course, numbers are something with which I am comfortable.

Professionally I am a banker, specifically a lender. I understand finances. My kids ask me what I do when I go to work. I took them to “Take Your Children to Work” day this past Spring, so as far as they know I eat lollipops and donuts, count paperclips, color on Post It notes and play on the computer all day.

As you would expect, that’s not my typical day at work. I tell my kids that I help people and I help them achieve their dreams. Just as I do with my clients, I look to do so with my efforts here at Temple Emanuel. I want to help all of you achieve your and your family’s dreams and ultimately gain fulfillment here at Temple Emanuel. I want you to be connected to each other, to greater Pittsburgh and to our community both inside and outside of this building.

So why these numbers: 14 million, 520 and One?

14 million – this is the estimated world Jewish population as of 2014. The world’s total population is greater than 7 billion so we as Jews are less than 1%. Of that 14 million Jews in this world, the United States has approximately 6 million, only 2% of the total US population.

So why should this be important to you? It is because we as Jews truly have made an impact both in our country and in the world in a magnitude that is far greater than our actual numbers. We are notable actors and actresses, business professionals, artists, musicians, scientists, inventors, intellectuals, medical professionals, legal scholars, politicians, fashion designers, comedians, just to name a few. Most importantly, we are connected to each other. You’ve heard the expression that all people in the world are connected by six degrees of separation. In the Jewish community, my thinking is that it is far less. We’ve all played “Jewish geography”, right? Why? It’s because we’re all connected.

Of the American Jews who describe themselves as “strongly connected” to Judaism, their active engagement with Judaism ranges from attending daily prayer services on one end of the spectrum to as little as attending Passover Seders or lighting Hanukkah candles on the other. Of those “strongly connected” Jews, just under half belong to a synagogue with the largest percentage being in the Reform movement. We at Temple Emanuel are one of the greater than 800 Reform Jewish congregations in North America. As many congregations are struggling, many have lots of positives. This leads me to my next number.

  1. This is number of member families that we have here at Temple Emanuel. Look around. You are this 520. You are Temple Emanuel. You make Temple Emanuel what it is today as well as tomorrow and the next day. You are the current and the future. Why do you belong to Temple Emanuel? Why is being a member of Temple Emanuel important to you?

We at Temple Emanuel should be proud and have centerpieces from which we can build. We are the largest congregation in the South Hills with 520 member families. We have greater than 150 children in our Torah Center which is the largest Jewish religious school in Greater Pittsburgh outside of Community Day, the Jewish Day School in Squirrel Hill. We have 180 children in our ECDC, the largest of any nursery school in the South Hills of Pittsburgh.

Yes we have things with which we can improve but your generosity and connection are what keep this place going. For that, we thank you. $1.8 million keeps this place running on an annual basis and that does not include necessary improvements that are needed like the parking lot patchwork and roof repairs, which have been funded out of our capital campaign.

520 is the number of member families, but the actual number of people in our congregation is well over 1,000. As an example, my family of four is one member family. All of us together make Temple Emanuel. All of us should be proud. You are the 520. We all are the 520.

The most important number is the final number I told you were going to be discussing. The number One. Why? One is you. One is me. One is each of us. Why is One important? It is important because you are here. You are here today. Maybe you are here in this building for more than just today but you all have a reason for being here. You all have a reason for being a One. You all have a reason for being a part of Temple Emanuel. You all have a connection.

You – the One. You are important. You are valued. Your contribution is key. Your connection is paramount. What else can our Board do to make it more meaningful for you? What can we do to develop greater bonds to each other? We are all in this together. We are One. We are a community, we are Temple Emanuel. We together can continue to build and bring connections to Temple and to each other.

In all deference to Three Dog Night, “One is the loneliest number,” I would beg to differ. One makes connections with another. One can link to another. One and One does indeed make two but One plus One is far greater. It connects. It empowers. It compounds. It multiplies. It helps create dreams. Remember, it all starts with One.

Thank you for being the One. I look forward to what lies ahead here at Temple Emanuel. All of us, each of us as individuals, as Ones, can connect to make this an even better place than it is today.

Thank you. L’Shana Tovah!

What a fun and LOUD time we had!

Our shofar blowing workshop was a huge success! Thank you to Ron Schneider and Harvey Rubin for teaching our students (and a few parents as well). We were amazed at quickly they learned and look forward to some new shofar blowers at our High Holiday Family Services this year!shofar-1 shofar-2 shofar-3 shofar-4

Countdown to Passover!

Make Temple Emanuel part of your Passover celebration this year!

  • Join us for Torah Center’s Model Seder, led by the always amazing Melinda Freed, on Sunday, April 17 at 10:45 AM.  Please RSVP via email to torahcenter@templeemanuelpgh.org.
  • Leave the cooking to us and bring your family to our Community Second Seder on Saturday, April 23 at 6PM.  RSVP by April 11 to the office or online at http://www.templeemanuelpgh.org/event/2nd-seder-at-temple/.
  • Ladies (and young ladies ages 10+), come and be inspired at our Women’s Seder on Thursday, April 28 at 7PM.  RSVP by April 21 to the office or online at http://www.templeemanuelpgh.org/event/womens-passover-seder/.
  • Stop by the gift shop and browse our selection of beautiful seder plates, matzah covers and more.  Shop for yourself or find the perfect hostess gift.  Sundays 9:30am-noon, Mondays 6:30-8:30PM, Wednesdays 4:30-6:30pm.
  • Worship with us at our Yom Tov and Shabbat Morning service at 10:30AM on April 23 and join us for our Concluding Passover, Yizkor and Shabbat morning service at 10:30AM on April 30.
  • And, do a mitzvah!  When you’re cleaning out your kitchen, donate your chametz to SHIM.  Drop off your food donations any time at Temple.

No two Passover Seders are alike!

We’re just over a month away from Passover (1st Seder is Friday, April 22), so what better time to start thinking about ways to make your seder special.  Every family has their own traditions – we’d love to hear about some of yours.  Please send your comments to lhoffman@templeemanuelpgh.org.

Our member, Jennifer Bordenstein, shared her family’s truly unique seder experience:

Our Passover Seder tradition is quite unique.  After WWII ended, and 6 siblings on my husband’s side emigrated to the US, they began holding a Seder each year.  During the Seder, they spoke of their “Exodus” from Russia to America.  They spoke of l’ador vador, and how they hoped generations ahead would continue with their Seder tradition.  

My children began the 6th generation of the Dobro Family Seder.  We have our own Hagaddah, that is filled with stories of how the family began their new lives in Boston.  The Seder is ‘MC’d” by a relative who was a Broadway actor, so you can imagine the laughter that ensues.  There is a yearly family tree that is printed to show the new babies, marriages, and deaths.   We “facetime” with the now elderly, Florida contingent of the family.  The Seder ends with “Good and Welfare”, where each of us must stand up and tell something about our year.  People announce new jobs, new homes, good and terrible health situations, and there have been 2 marriage proposals.

The Seder fluctuates in size each year, with 120 people at its largest.  Family fly in from all parts of the country and it has gone from us all cooking together in a community center, to hosting it at a banquet hall in Boston.  I began attending the Seder in 1996, with my boyfriend, turned fiance, turned husband.  Each person outside the family must be deemed “Seder Worthy”, which is a huge step in the relationship.