Good evening. In case you do not know me, I am Gerry Ginsburg, a senior rabbinical student at The Academy for Jewish Religion in New York, and a member of Temple Beth El for 31 years. For the past two years I served as the student rabbi at Congregation Sinai in Milford, CT and the year before that at Congregation KTI in Port Chester, NY.
I am really glad to be home. And I thank Rabbi Hammerman very much for the invitation to speak with you tonight.
Imagine for a moment that you live in Houston, Texas, and are ready to welcome the New Year. You and your loved ones are safe, your house is still being thoroughly cleaned and the major repairs are yet to be done because there is so much demand for these services.
You and your family are members of the largest Conservative Temple in the United States, with over 2,300 families – Congregation Beth Yeshurun. As you can understand, the physical temple building is unusable with over four feet of water in the sanctuary, and will be unusable for a while. But yontiff does not wait for buildings to be cleaned as this day, the First of Tishrei 5778, the New Year, is proclaimed. (Sources: news reports, Jewish Herald-Voice, Houston, Congregation Beth Yeshurun website.)
Clearly the ballroom at a local hotel would not be large enough to fit all or most of the members. How can the congregation hold meaningful and memorable High Holy Day services?
Well, sometimes God works in mysterious ways.
You might remember the controversy surrounding Pastor Joel Osteen and his refusal to allow homeless Houstonians to find refuge in his church’s building. It so happens that one of Pastor Osteen’s legal advisors is on the advisory board of the temple. He reached out to the pastor and the congregation found a new home for the High Holydays. All services will be held at the massive Lakewood Church. There is more than ample room for the more than 4,000 people expected for the services. (Sources: news reports, as above)
“Yontiff is approaching, and perhaps at just the right time” said the congregation’s senior rabbi, David B. Rosen, in a letter to his congregation. “This may be the time when we need to know we belong to something bigger than ourselves, that we are not alone.”
Associate Rabbi Brian Strauss, added: “There was not any part of the synagogue that was immune to the flooding. There was water covering the first seven rows of the sanctuary. You couldn’t even see the seats.”
Rabbi Strauss told The Forward that his synagogue sustained about $3 million worth of damage. Along with cutting out floors, cabinets and sheetrock, and disinfecting the building — the basics of flood recovery — the synagogue will have to bury nearly 1,000 holy books that were ruined. The synagogue will set up a Harvey memorial at that burial space. The Torah scrolls were saved, brought to a congregant’s home on an upper level.”
From Houston, we’ll now travel about 2,000 miles south to St. Thomas in the US Virgin Islands. The Virgin Islands were decimated by Hurricane Irma. The synagogue building, home to the Hebrew Congregation of St. Thomas — a National Historic Landmark — is the oldest in continuous use under the American flag and the second-oldest in the Western Hemisphere. Though the synagogue was built in 1833, the small congregation was founded in 1796 when some Jews arrived with the first European settlers in the 17th and 18th centuries. (Source: from the Hebrew Congregation of St. Thomas website)
It has never closed its doors to a Shabbat service in its history.
“I was very nervous. It looked like that chain might break,” said Rabbi Michael Feshbach.
The storm had just hit, power was cut off and curfew was imposed. But Feshbach and his wife and daughter, who is also the cantor, came to the synagogue and started calling congregants. Eight others showed up. One family watched on Facetime.
“The centuries-old tradition was intact,” Feshbach said to The Forward.
Although there is work to be done to the physical building, their Torah scrolls, wrapped in a double layer of plastic, were dry and intact.
Desperate times in St. Thomas call for desperate measures.
“We are reluctant to use a disaster as “fundraising,” said Rabbi Feshbach in a letter to the friends of the synagogue. “We find the prospect… distasteful. But we face a new reality here.
“Life-cycle events and special visits are already being cancelled. This may continue. Your visits and your sense of connection here are a pillar of our congregation. Our work to sustain and grow a vibrant Jewish community in the Caribbean depends on you.”
Personally, I can tell you, as someone who has visited and prayed in the synagogue, that it is a truly special place; From the walk up the steep hill to gain entrance, to the sand on the floor.
“Our synagogue is a living partnership,” the rabbi continued in his letter, “unique in this continent, with others all over the world. We are, indeed, a place where history and destiny meet. We need your help, to preserve this special story – and to be with us, as we write the next chapter” the rabbi stated.
Amidst the destruction, the hurricanes brought something else to these communities:
Eternal hope, Boundless love and the forecast of JOY. Having a place to celebrate yontiff, to be together as a holy congregation, a kehilla kedosha, is worth the toil, the pain and the obstacles. Being with your family and friends gives the holiday renewed meaning, renewed joy.
My philosophy of Judaism is simple and direct. It is a religion filled with joy. Our fellow Jews in Houston and St. Thomas and other parts of the world which were affected by the hurricanes are reeling. To bring them joy, inner peace and space for reflection, the congregants need to be together in their communities. They need the holy spirit, Ruach HaKodesh, to be present.
In Judaism, joy needs to be present at all times, even in our most desperate situations. But also in the simplest.
Think about when one lights candles for Shabbat or Yontiff. One doesn’t just strike a match, touch the candle’s wick and say that’s that. One brings in the meaning and joy of the day by closing one’s eyes and moving one’s hands right after the candles are lit. In this moment of meaning we welcome the Sabbath Queen or Yom Tov. Our motions and thoughts help transform the ordinary into the special and add to our joy.
As Rebbe Nachman of Breslov, a Hasidic sage of the late 18th century, said: “Always remember: Joy is not merely incidental to your spiritual quest, it is VITAL.”
(The Empty Chair, Joy and Hope)
So, my friends, we need to ask ourselves today, as we celebrate the creation of the world, can we let some spirituality come into our lives on a daily basis? Can we try to connect with God and increase our Joy?
We increase our joy when we are with family and friends at the holiday dinner, the Yom Tov seudah, as well as in this holy congregation for services. As we pray together we develop connectedness. We are together with one mission: To greet the holiday and push our souls
higher and higher, to connect with God. We want our prayers and thoughts to travel ever higher. And this is done with our joyful prayers and praises, as well as hearing the blasts of the shofar.
Psalms is the book of the Tanakh, our holy writings, that contains many of the praises and songs of joy. In Psalm 100 we read:
הָרִיעוּ לַיהוָה, כָּל-הָאָרֶץ
בֹּאוּ לְפָנָיו, בִּרְנָנָה.
Raise a shout for the Lord, all the earth;
worship the Lord in gladness
come into God’s presence with shouts of joy
Joy is all around us, and it needs to become a part of each of us on a daily basis. Our soul mates in Houston and St. Thomas, as well as others in land decimated by the hurricanes and earthquakes know this connectedness, know this joy of being together and rebuilding their physical and spiritual homes. It is not easy work, but there is a divine purpose to it.
I pray, as countless other Jews and non-Jews pray, that their physical work results in rehabilitation of body and mind. And I also pray that their services during these Yammim Noraim, these high holy days, reach a level of joy and spiritual fulfillment -- The special joy of being together, of touching each other’s souls and travelling ever higher in our spiritual quests.
This is the start of a New Year. Let’s overcome each hurdle and obstacle and, together, let’s make it a very joyous one.
From my wife, Fran, and our children, Ruth and Sam, and from me:
Shannah Tovah Tikutevu
May you and your loved ones be inscribed for:
A Good Year
A Happy Year
A Healthy Year
And a Joyous Year
And a sweet year!
כן יהי רצון
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