Tuesday, April 20, 2010

What a fun Jubilee!

Thank you to everyone who came to our Jubilee dinner and to everyone who made it such a success. The evening was sentimental and fun, filled with good food and good friends. We have pictures on our Facebook page but here are a few!

The room

Our new Cantor, Leah Holland; with current president Lisa Sobel; membership chair Dan Rosner; and incoming president Kate Haas

Rabbi David Fine, speaking on behalf of the URJ

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Sefirat HaOmer - Angela Warnick Buchdahl

We are in a special period between Passover and Shavuot called sefirah, meaning "counting." The name is derived from the practice of counting the omer, which is observed from the night of the second seder of Passover until the eve of Shavuot. The counting of seven weeks from the 16th day of Nisan on which the omer offering of the new barley crop was brought to the Temple, until Shavuot, serves to connect the anniversary of the exodus from Egypt with the festival that commemorates the giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai. Each day we are to count the Omer. Today is the 11th day of the Omer.

In our culture, when we think of counting, we usually think of bigger and higher as better. Do we have many people in the seats tonight at services? More would be better. How many Facebook friends do you have? Let’s have more. How much money does a person make? In general, the thought is less on how you got to the number, but rather the number itself.

But the counting of the omer is different. Tradition has it that it was announced to the Israelites in Egypt that the Torah would be given to them 50 days after the exodus. As soon as they were liberated, they were so eager for the arrival of the promised day that they began to count the days, saying each time, "Now we have one day less to wait for the giving of the Torah."

In a similar vein, Maimonides points out that the counting of the omer is suggestive of one who expects his or her most intimate friend on a certain day. That person counts the days, and even the hours. Each day is precious and counts. And in the act of counting each day, we become more aware of the value of each unique day. The Omer teaches that more is not better, but that we are to make each day count. If Jews counted the House, we would have given up as a religion long ago. We’re a tiny minority of the population—but when we count each day, each person, and value each one individually, then we are leading to a redemptive time.

I learned this early on from my experience growing up at Temple Beth El. A Jewish community that I was fortunate enough to call home from age 5. When I arrived from South Korea with my family, we were embraced by Rabbi Rosenthal and the synagogue. It may have helped that I was from a large extended Warnick clan that had been involved in the synagogue for many years. But it was more than that. Rabbi Rosenthal and the community felt that we each counted. That my mother, a non-Jewish Korean woman, counted in the community, though she never converted. We were part of the community and that was never questioned.

This community has never been large, but I grew up feeling that this was its strength. In my Religious school class there were 12 of us my Bat Mitzvah year. But aside from my one friend, Hillary Pallat, we all went to different schools. Hillary, my sister Gina and I were the only 3 Jews in my High School. I was the one who fought to move Student body elections off Yom Kippur. And I was frequently called upon to talk about Jewish holidays at our Holiday assemblies. I felt a sense of responsibility. That if I wasn’t doing it—maybe Judaism wouldn’t carry on, that no one would no about it.

I felt a sense of care from older peers and members of the community who helped make up the community and became its teachers. I looked up to the aids in Hebrew school, who were just a few years older than me, or my counselors at the summer camp. And then enjoyed becoming one of the big kids a few years later. I knew my community, across the ages.

Having smaller numbers meant that we needed to use the gifts and talents of every person. If you could teach, you taught, if you could play guitar, you songlead, if you had a lot of patience, you taught in the preschool. Sometimes people played multiple roles: A RS teacher was also the Youth Group advisor. The head of the sisterhood ran the gift shop and also always brought the most amazing mini cheesecakes for the Onegs for everyone’s Bar or Bat Mitzvah. There was a great deal of investment and ownership that is often missing in much larger community where everything is farmed out to professionals who don’t belong to the community.
It is surprising that Tacoma has had a disproportionate number of its community go onto Jewish professional work—as rabbis, cantors, Jewish communal workers. But also not surprising. So many of us were given our starts here and given a taste of what it meant to contribute to the Jewish community. I first felt really connected to the Jewish world through a music teacher named Ruthie, I finally understood my place in the community. I was about 9years old. I was singing my heart out in her choir, and my sister and I sang the songs in the car and around the house. When Ruthie left 3 years later for Chicago, we had no one to replace her and for a while, there was no music instruction at Temple Beth El. I thought this was terrible and complained to Joan Garden, the head of the RS—“how can we have no music!”. So Joan Garden, shipped me off to Camp Swig the next summer and said, go learn guitar and as much Jewish music as you can and then you’ll be our music teacher. That was my start. I was 14, and I counted. I was needed and my offering was appreciated and supported by the community.

I have chosen to live and raise my family in a city with much bigger numbers, as far as the Jewish community goes. I live in NYC, where we are proud that we have the biggest population, the largest Jewish community. I work in a synagogue with 2000 member families, over 6500 members. I live in a large high rise apartment and there are likely more Jews in my single building than there are in Tacoma. I remember being amazed that all the public schools closed on Jewish holidays, that there were entire aisles of every grocery store filled with Passover foods, that Yiddish was spoken on the street corners by the hot dog vendor. And my children attend a wonderful Jewish day school, the Abraham Joshua Heschel school, where they are becoming fluent in Hebrew and where Judaism is, in Heschel’s spirit, about praying with your feet—living through righteous actions—speaking out for those who are oppressed. I will never forget when my son Eli asked me, “Do non-Jews celebrate Martin Luther King Day?” My 5 year old daughter Rose recently asked me, “who do we know who is not Jewish?” I struggled to think of people in her immediate world, outside of our babysitter, that was not Jewish. It’s a very different Jewish upbringing than that of Tacoma, Washington.

However, I struggle with how they take their Judaism for granted. That we have a wonderful, large community in which almost all of the Jewish education and communal programs are run by professionals who often move in and out of the synagogue and are not invested in the particular community. I struggle with the fact that if they didn’t want to sing in the youth choir, or help out in Religious school as an aid—that hundreds of others could just fill their place, and they know it. How do I teach them, in a Jewish community of such big numbers that each one of them really counts?

I hope to make an impact on my community that recognizes the lessons I have learned from my experience in Tacoma, and from the wisdom of our tradition of counting the Omer—that each day counts, each one of us counts. I learned another insight from My son Gabriel, when he was about 2 years old, who had just accomplished learning to count to ten. We had a counting book—with pictures of bears and lollipops to count on each page. The funny thing about Gabriel was that no matter how many objects were on a page, he would always count up to ten. Sometimes he had to point to the same object more than once or twice to get there, but he reached a triumphant 10 every time!

As I tried to correct him, pointing out that there were really only 6 shoes on this page, or 3 cookies on another, he insisted on getting to ten. I reflect on this now as a lesson that relates to this period of Sefirah, of counting. Ten, is a special number in Judaism, a minyan—a community. Gabriel was teaching me that if you count with passion, with determination and resolve, that even if your numbers come short, you can get to ten—to a minyan. It may mean in some cases, like in Tacoma, you might have to count people more than once, giving them extra tasks to do, more roles to play, but if you count each one, in their multiple roles, you create a community.

I hope that as we are in this period of counting, that we learn to make each one of us count—whether we are in a large or small community. That we count each person—including the ones with whom we disagree, including the ones who might think of themselves as outside the community, including the ones who do not yet know themselves that they have something essential to offer. If we do that, then we can travel from Passover, the period of our slavery, to Shavuot—the period of receiving Torah, and feel this is a true revelation.

Cantor Angela Warnick Buchdahl