Congregation B'nai Israel

2710 Park Avenue, Bridgeport, CT 06604 | (203) 336-1858 | |

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Our Shared Journey

Rabbi James Prosnit                                         Yom Kippur/Kol Nidre 2018/5779
Our Shared Journey

They appear like clockwork each August!  For the past almost forty years the High Holy Day dreams begin.  I’m standing in front of the congregation totally unprepared.  I’ve have nothing new to say! Drivel I hear folks mutter! Half way thorough my remarks I find missing pages in my prepared text.  I’ve forgotten by clothes, but I can relax, I have a robe on.   

Several years ago, however, those nighttime expressions of seasonal anxiety escalated into a full blown nightmare when in my dream I came out of my office on Kol Nidre eve, stepped out on the bimah and found no one in the congregation.

I didn’t have the wrong day.  People just hadn’t shown up!  Even the holiest night of the year failed to inspire; failed to engender a sense of obligation and opportunity.  And I had either enabled it or been impotent in preventing it from happening.

So needless to say — how good it is to see all of you tonight. And while I will not be retiring for another nine months or so it is poignant to acknowledge that this is my last Kol Nidre as Senior Rabbi of the congregation. I realize too, that it’s the last time I’ll be seeing half of you at services!  And while I couldn’t resist that comment, I hope you agree that I have never used this night when you are here as a chance to induce guilt for the times when you are not.  As our president Shari Nerreau said in her Rosh Hashanah welcome, our community is sustained by those who are here twice a week and those who are here twice a year.

Thank God for the power of this Holy Night –an evening that draws both the peripheral and the loyalists; the saints and the sinners; the believers and the skeptics.  This is us! This is the Jewish people and the people of B’nai Israel. You have again proven my nightmare to be just a bad dream and I am both relieved and grateful.   So while not my last sermon or swan song, I have been thinking long and hard about what it is I want to say tonight.

And mostly it is an acknowledgement of the legacy we have created together and an extended thank you for allowing me to be your teacher and guide into a tradition that is both rich with the wisdom of the ages and ever expanding to fit the needs and challenges of the present.

Twenty nine years ago, my sermons were written on a yellow legal pad.  Pat Marchetti learned to decipher my hand writing and typed them up after the fact. Charlie Fried of very blessed memory, my first Temple president brought me a computer from his office and said, “You should learn to use this.”  Any research that was done for the next decade or so came from books or magazines. There was no such thing as the internet or google.

But on that night 29 years ago I referenced the  Roman god Janus, a two faced figure that was said to have one face looking towards the past  and the other towards the future.  While it may have been inappropriate to use a pagan god to make a point in a High Holy Day sermon the intent was to salute the healthy community that the triumvirate of Rabbi Sher, Cantor Gilbert and our educator Bob Gillette had fostered and to envision some changes that I was hoping to bring forward.

Some of those were in ritual matters.  I was the first rabbi in some 90 years to cover his head during services and some months later the first on a Sabbath to take off his black robe. We brought the Torah to the people, literally, by parading the scrolls around the congregation, initiating a Hakafah that encircled the community with the joy of Torah and we expanded the number of aliyot enabling those in the congregation to come up to bless our sacred story.  Over time we lowered the bimah twice – a symbolic move that sought to minimize distance and enable even those with diminished mobility to approach the ark.  It was ten years ago when I handed Robin Greenhall a Torah Scroll and watched her wheel it through the congregation.

Along the way we added a second day of Rosh Hashanah, increased some Hebrew and eventually moved the late Friday night service to an earlier hour bringing with it a musical heritage that we hoped was more approachable and singable.

Some of you missed that classical style mightily and felt the Hebrew disorienting.  But most of you understood that  reform was a process and that doing what had always been done was not a good enough reason to keep doing it.  We needed to adapt to changing times and new spiritual longings and not slip in to our own orthodoxies.  I remember a Bar Mitzvah of a child whose family had been here for multiple generations. The boy wore a kippah and tallit, his dad wore a kippah and grandpa came to the bimah with neither. 

Most changes came with conversation and engagement of both the Religious Practices committee and the Board.  When controversies are debated over philosophy they can be enriching and engaging. When they center on ego or turf they wear you down and are stifling. How fortunate that most all of ours were the former.  You permitted a change in some time-worn assumptions. You understood that our movement and our congregation was changing.  In our midst were not just the Reform Jews of past generations, but those far more and far less traditional.  We welcomed those who came from Conservative and Orthodox backgrounds as well as Jews by Choice and an ever increasing number of those of other faiths who had fallen in love with Jews. 

The goal of the early Reformers was to help make Jews into Americans.  They adopted many customs of the majority culture and I believe saved Judaism for many of us by suggesting we could celebrate in our way, but still look and act like our non-Jewish neighbors. Over time Jews became very comfortable with their American identity and so we started incorporating some once rejected rituals back into our liturgy to help affirm our distinctiveness.

We also strove to be certain that the ethical commitment and prophetic voice of social justice remained part of the core.  As I mentioned on erev Rosh Hashanah, sixty years ago when it was clear that Jews were leaving Bridgeport for bigger homes, safer streets and better schools, the congregation followed the Jews up Park Avenue.  And while that preserved the congregation it also led to the challenge of not only believing in Bridgeport, but making certain that our commitment to the good did not neglect the city that spawned us.  We built houses for humanity, collected food, fed the hungry, initiated mitzvah mornings, joined interfaith coalitions and continue to make a mark in the city that has been our spiritual home for 160 years.

We also invigorated learning opportunities for adults as well as children. Courses and lectures and cultural offerings fulfilled the mandate that the world stands on three things Torah, avodah and gimilut hasadim –Worship, Learning and Acts of loving kindness. Those we reaffirmed as our sacred pillars and together we knew our Jewish existence needed to be anchored in strength of character, depth of soul, and the power of relationships.

But permit me a story.  The one of the rabbi who has given the exact same sermon every Yom Kippur for the past 5 years.  The congregants as you can imagine are talking.  So some leaders of the congregation meet a few weeks prior to the Holy Days to determine who will speak to the rabbi to suggest that many in the community are hoping for a new message this year.  They draw straws to see who will speak to the rabbi and sure enough the president picks the shortest one. 

She arranges a lunch meeting with the rabbi and half way through decides to broach the subject.  You know she says, “people have been talking about the fact that you have given the exact same sermon for the past five years and are really hoping for a new fresh message this year.  The rabbi thinks for a moment, and says, “Oh, what is it that I’ve said.”  The president fumphs around and as you can imagine just can’t answer.  The rabbi then, says, “In that case, I think I’d better try it one more year!”

In keeping with that a teacher of mine once said that in truth most rabbis preach the same sermon throughout their lives, couched in different ways and with different metaphors.  If that is true, and it may well be, then what has my message been to you?

And I guess it has been about the importance of being a sacred community and the challenges entailed in building that.  It’s been about the role of the synagogue in providing a sense of identity and purpose to those searching for meaning; a place of comfort for those in need and a forum to share both historic and universal truths.

In one sermon I suggested the Temple could be the front porch, an antidote to the back decks we build that separate us from our neighbors.  In another I referred to the synagogue as a base camp providing security and stability to the mobility and pace of our lives.  Affiliating puts us in touch with the ages, suggesting that we are part of something larger and more significant, but also something imminent and vital.  This connectivity to the past, present and future Judaism calls kedusha – holiness and identifies the synagogue as its best preserver and generator.

I think about the times the congregation responded and provided stability for people during moments of burden and tragedy.  I remember after September 11th or hurricane Sandy or after the shootings in Sandy Hook how people turned up because they needed an anchor; community when the world around them was shaken.

One of the, I guess I can use the word privileges, of being a rabbi is that I have gotten to enter your homes at some of the worst times in your lives and I’ve gotten to share some of the most joyous.  I’ve gotten to listen to your stories, some complex, some tragic and I’ve marveled at the strength that most of you show most of the time.  I’ve been invited into a hospital room when most visitors were kept at bay to offer a word of encouragement or a prayer for healing.  I’ve walked up your driveway and through your front door after learning of a death that shook your world and then got to speak loving words, eulogizing some very righteous men and women.   And I’ve gotten to be in your family album under the chuppah or on this bimah for a Confirmation, Bar or Bat mitzvah or baby naming.  In each of these moments, I see myself not as Jim Prosnit, but as representative of the people of B’nai Israel, sending the message that during the peaks and valleys we are part of your world and you are part of ours.  It is something I have always recognized as a sacred and profound honor.

I believe we are here tonight because we believe this congregation, this Temple in its mode of worship, its way of study, its stress on social justice and its embrace of each and every one of us brings to life the pursuit of the sacred.  It is here that Judaism is taught, it is here that the voice of tradition debates the demands of the present; it is here that God the Holy one of Israelis is addressed most closely.  How grateful I am to so many of you for being part of those conversations.  We may not always have found the answers but the questions you’ve asked and the quest we’ve shared has fueled by growth as a rabbi, as a Jew and as a person.

My charge this evening – don’t change!  Be the sacred community that we have long aspired to be and don’t be afraid to change anything and everything if that is what the vision demands.

Twenty-nine years ago when I began at the congregation I wasn’t sure what that future would bring.  I didn’t know if this was going to be my career placement.  I tell my rabbi sons that I know many good rabbis who have never found that congregational fit.  They cannot assume that their journey in the rabbinate will be as blessed and uncomplicated as their fathers.  But I also tell them that it is the quality of the place and the passion of their ideas and ideals that will go a long way in making them as happy as I have been.

These are daunting times for young rabbis.  And they are challenging times for congregations in general.  As we look to the future we know it cannot be business as usual if any synagogue is to survive and thrive into the 21st century.

Just take a look around our own community.  We note that Ahavas Achim, the Orthodox congregation in Fairfield, has been torn down.  Our neighbor Rodeph Sholom is seeking to sell its building, move to a much smaller space or merge with another congregation.  And, while there is a small very traditional synagogue just across the street from where Rodeph Sholom now stands, it may not be long before we are the only congregation in this city that at one time had such a vibrant Jewish life. 

Some of this is demographics.  There are just fewer Jews around these days.  But some of it is maintaining a relevance to the lives of the Jews of today and creating a community that transcends a culture that is either secularized or sees the spiritual as something privatized with no need for affiliation.  Some say, I can do Yom Kippur on the beach with a book or find an entrepreneurial rabbi to train my kid and officiate at his Bar Mitzvah. 

I know, however, that B’nai Israel and those who lead, understand the future that awaits and Rabbi Schultz and his team are poised to do great things.  But they need all of you who are here and some who are not here as the text we read tomorrow will teach, to support those efforts every way you can.  Give your time, your ideas and your money to insure the future.  For our sake, for your sake – for God’s sake! 

It’s good to see you here this evening.  I guess my message and prayer has always been that what we have is quite special and that you should never take this place or your love and commitment to the Jewish people and Jewish tradition for granted.  Dreams can come true, but nightmares can as well if we don’t show up and care. 

Tonight a Yom Kippur of profound meaning begins for me.  Personal account taking and sincere soul searching are the order of the day.  I am proud of what we have accomplished even as I am aware of mistakes made and challenges unmet.  I take heart in Rabbi Tarphon’s words from centuries ago:  “You are not required to complete the work, but you are forbidden to desist from it.”

So it is that you have helped make my life glorious and lovely.  This is not an awkward bow, nor a good-bye.  It is simply a story of a shared journey, for which I thank God and am hugely and humbly grateful. We have been blessed by our time together.  May the blessing of this community continue to unfold in ways still to be imagined.