Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Mazol tov from Beth Garden

Shabbat Shalom Tacoma! I want to begin by congratulating the entire congregation on the the occasion of its fiftieth anniversary. Mazal Tov to all of you! I also want to wish my parents Mazal Tov on 50 years of marriage. I want you both to know that I remember celebrating your 25th anniversary here at Temple Beth El like it was last year. I am ready to help you plan #75, because I know that will be right around the corner.

I am honored to have been asked to share my memories and observations of what it was like to grow up at Temple Beth El, with all of you this Shabbat. A milestone anniversary is a time to think about and appreciate our connections to each other and our connection-- to points in time-- which connect us through memory and hope. This can be a time for pride, nostalgia, and taking stock. For gaining a deeper appreciation of the gifts that each day brings, and for planning and dreaming about what is to come.

My family is inextricably, immutably connected to this community, so much so-- that I find when I am here, it feels like I never left.
Every time I come back, I still get the same sense of community and connection that I admittedly took for granted when I lived here some 30-odd years ago.
I often find myself bragging to colleagues and congregants about how the little synagogue of my youth has had an amazing ability to crank out Rabbis, Cantors, Educators, Jewish Scholars and lay leaders, especially given its relatively small membership (but who knows? maybe it happens to be an optimal size). Either way, there is some special connection that happens here. I often wonder if it is just a coincidence-- that this congregation has been able to nurture so many of us who have become compelled to prioritize Jewish continuity?

This is also a Shabbat of connections, because we read parashat Eikev from the book of D’varim or Deuteronomy, which derives its name from the second word in the portion.

Eikev is a word that connotes connection. It is usually translated as "if" or "in consequence of." However, the literal meaning of the word is "heel." Ekev comes from the same root as Ya'akov, Jacob, who was so named because he was holding on to the heel of his twin Esau as the two of them emerged, connected-- from their mother's womb. From this one word, eikev, we learn that nothing in life occurs by itself, nothing exists in a vacuum. Everything occurs eikev--on the heel of, or connected to everything else, and the Torah’s message? The well being of the community is connected to, and dependent on its ability to be God-like, and connected to each other through mitzvot. To remind us that as we strive to achieve our goals, visions and hopes for the future of the community, as so many of you here have been doing for the past 50 years...we will be holding on to the heels of others.

Thinking about this sense of connection on the heels of everything that has happened in the past 50 years led me to wonder about what draws us in to community? What keeps us connected? Why do those of us who go elsewhere look for a similar Jewish connection? Maybe it is because we have experienced authentic Jewish connection here. I know that the hours and hours I spent here as a child and a teen made me the seriously engaged liberal Jew I am today, so today, I am here to share my version of why synagogue life in Tacoma, Washington is viable and and why Jewish bonds and connections created here are so strong.
From the minute our family walked in the doors of Temple Beth EL in the spring of 1974, we were made to feel like this was our Jewish home away from home. We showed up for religious school, services, and especially for Shabbat dinners, complete with Kentucky Fried Chicken! The Union prayer book was still in the pews and The Gates of Prayer was still at least a year away.

As eleven-year-old’s do, I quickly set about comparing Temple Beth El with the congregation we attended in our former lives. The things I noticed were: There were fewer kids in my week-day Hebrew school class. But they all knew each other really well, and they were really interested in me, because I was someone new. We connected right away. My parents also became lifelong friends with the couples they met in their first few weeks here, and with their wonderful hospitality and energy, they have picked up so many more as the years have gone by.

Sunday school was a place where anything could happen. Israeli dancing, challah baking, learning Haftarah Trope, Shtettle Day, Purim Shpeils and carnivals, Lag B’omer Picnics, boiling bagels, playing Texas Hold ‘em Dreidle...It was social, informal, and educational. In the summer there was Camp Beth El and don’t even get me started with that.

Then there was the Rabbi. He was different too. The Rabbi was among us. This was REALLY a big difference for me. I was used to a rabbi who I only saw in services and even there, he usually talked to the ceiling, and rarely looked at us. We NEVER saw him at religious school. Rabbi Rosenthal, on the other hand, was always around, and he talked to EVERYONE, not just to the grown ups. He knew everybody’s name. It was easy to ask him a question, or maybe he would ask us a question...in any case, he was entirely approachable. He wasn’t the first rabbi I ever met, but he was the first rabbi I ever really knew. It didn’t take long for him to recognize my mother’s talent and creativity and when Temple Beth El hired her to be the Religious School Director, we REALLY started spending a lot of time here.

Now, the music at Temple Beth El took some getting used to. I missed hearing the cantor on Shabbat, but I grew to love our “singers” and learned to appreciate the new music. There was organ from a hidden choir loft, and guitar too. It dawned on me that some of the singers were women. Up to that point, I had never imagined that a woman could be leading singing in front of a congregation.

When I grew older, I had the opportunity to attend camp Swig. I learned so much new music. Modern sounding versions of the same prayers we would sing on Shabbat here. I wanted to share it with the congregation, but Rabbi Rosenthal was rather adamant that camp music, like the Klepper Shalom Rav we just sang, was for camp, and serious music was for services. This became one of our “ongoing” discussions...I wouldn’t let it rest and we did go back and forth about it for years. Eventually, I tortured him with avant garde flute music in the library next to his office before services on erev Shabbat and I think he grew to love the camp music. I can only hope to be as accessible as he was. Temple Beth El has also been fortunate to have lay leaders who worked to continue his legacy, searching with great success for the same accessibility, warmth, and devotion to community in their clergy. Temple Beth El has been and continues to be blessed by the presence of truly gifted Rabbis, and let’s face it, that is one very important point of connection in the Jewish community. And now, Temple Beth EL has reached an amazing new milestone. You finally have a REAL LIVE Cantor!

What an amazing achievement. It makes my heart sing to know that Temple Beth El has made this a priority. The musical and educational connections that Cantor Holland will create can only enhance an already great community. I hope you all know what an amazing anniversary gift you have in Cantor Holland. Please take good care of her. Every segment of the congregation will benefit from her artistry and talent, and her commitment to Jewish education will continue to enhance the experience of Jewish learners or all ages. I feels comforting to know that my Jewish home away from home is as whole and complete as it has ever been, and that it is poised and ready for what the next 50 years will bring.

Achieving 50 years of Jewish connection is no small feat, even if those feet don’t have heels to hold on to. Jewish connection over time isn’t some magical process and it doesn’t often happen by itself. It requires service, devotion, vision and every possible type of support to maintain the Jewish community in Tacoma, and in turn, create necessary connections and relationships that sustain the future of the community.

May Temple Beth El go from strength to strength, and and may God bless you all and shine upon all your endeavors as she has for the past fifty years.
Keyn Y’hi Ratzon.

Cantor Beth Garden
given July 30, 2010