23 Oct Rabbi Hillel Skolnik’s Sermon for Kol Nidrei 5775 Southwest Orlando Jewish Congregation
This past Monday morning I had the opportunity to take a break from the constant stream of sermon writing that is a rabbi’s life between Rosh HaShannah and Yom Kippur and attend what has become a phenomenally important event in our community and that is the annual Crime Summit organized by Orange County Sheriff Jerry Demmings. At this yearly gathering police officers, community leaders, representatives of houses of worship and numerous elected officials all gather to hear an update on how our county is doing in preventing both violent and non-violent crime and to be educated about some of the many challenges facing our community at large. While the information shared was of course important and the resources I was able to gather are invaluable, for me the most significant moment came at the beginning of the keynote address. The keynote speaker, Mr. Monte Stiles, opened his remarks about drug legalization in our society – an interesting and important topic but one which I have no interest in commenting on – by describing his life as a child. He talked about growing up in Iowa, how his parents were very loving and how one set of grandparents lived on the same farm, and his other set of grandparents lived on the other side of what of the closest field. He was, as he put it, always within cookie baking smelling distance of some member of his family.
The reality, and I believe it to be a sad reality, is that our world doesn’t work like that anymore. We no longer live within cookie baking smelling distance of our closest relatives and frankly our lives are the poorer for it. Gone are the days when we all lived in the same community as all of our grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins and virtually every other member of our family. It is true even in my own family with my parents in New York, my in-laws in Cleveland and us here in Orlando. In fact there was one year that of me and my three younger siblings, I was here, the older of my two sisters had moved to Okinawa, Japan, the younger of the two was on a semester abroad in Copenhagen and my brother, had started school at the University of Michigan. Forget about cookie baking smelling distance, we are lucky to occasionally be in the same time zone. And until Apple comes out with the iphone-smell that can transmit comforting aromas from one house to another, those of us with at least some members of our family living in places other than Orlando, which I suspect is most if not all of us here tonight, will continue to rely on the remarkable tools of modern technology to make us feel like we live close by to those we love, even if it is not really the case.
Which is why it is so incredibly important that we, now more than ever, recognize that this is our family. That those of us gathered here make up our new hamentaschen baking smelling distance family that stretches from St. Cloud to Clermont and from Winter Garden to Winter Haven. In this world in which we live, where children, myself included, often move far away from their parents, this community, this Jewish community, this synagogue community, becomes our family. It becomes our responsibility to celebrate with each other in times of happiness, to mourn with each other in times of sadness, and most importantly to teach our children what they need to know to be Jewish adults in this new world.
One of the best parts of my job on Rosh HaShannah and Yom Kippur is that while you all have to look at the Cantor and me throughout services, I get to look out at you. I get to see your reactions, read your emotions and watch as you experience the music and the liturgy of the High Holidays. It is always fascinating and honestly tremendously inspiring, as it was for me last week on the first day or Rosh HaShannah during Kaddish Sheleim. As it happens I was not standing here at my lectern but at the top of the ramp in my place with our fantastic High Holiday choir and as the cantor began to sing “Yitgadal v’yitkadash sh’mei rabah” I could see all of the reactions in the room as you immediately recognized the tune. But what I could also see was a group of teenagers sitting towards the back, no doubt to escape the watchful gazes of the parents, not just singing along but what I can only describe and try to imitate as bopping along throughout the entire piece, basically going (bopping to side to side while singing) “v’imru…vimru amen, amen.” And I wish you all could have seen it too because it was just awesome.
I wish I could have bottled that visual up because it was one of those moments where you could actually see our tradition being passed on to our children and both as a rabbi and the father of Jewish children myself, it made me not just hopeful but confident in our Jewish future. It was a moment of tremendous pride. I saw them singing along and I saw that Jewish education works, that bringing yourselves and your children to synagogue and having them be in services works, that when you hear tunes on a regular basis – and this was a tune that these teens have only during the High Holiday season – it becomes engraved in your mind, sealed upon your heart and entrenched into your soul. And I knew in that moment that we are succeeding in raising the next generation of synagogue members who are going to show up for services throughout the year and on the High Holidays and expect to hear the tunes they used growing up. And when they grow up and join a synagogue, if it happens that they don’t hear that tune and go and complain to the rabbi of the congregation then I’m just fine with it because it means we have done our jobs. It means that we will have succeeded in making so invested in our traditions that they might almost feel unfulfilled if that tradition is not kept.
It was that same feeling of pride which I had just two weeks ago as we welcomed our Scholar-in-Residence, Dr. Walter Herzberg, to our community on the Shabbat before Rosh HaShannah. As he stood in this very room and taught Torah to the members of our community I was impressed and again inspired by the participation from members of our community who showed once again that a healthy thirst for knowledge brings us learning and that using that thirst to engage with the Torah and with the treasure trove that is our Jewish tradition brings us closer to each other and closer to God. After the weekend I received an email from Dr. Herzberg thanking us for our hospitality and for welcoming him so warmly and in it he said something that I’ve known to be true for the more than three years now. He said, “Seeing your involved, multigenerational community was most encouraging. There’s an awful lot of good people doing good Jewish things outside of New York.”
There is an awful lot of good happening here, from amazing physical changes to spiritual growth, social opportunities for our members as well as continuing on the path of educational excellence for people of all ages. It is because of this good and because of all of you that our synagogue is becoming known not only in the Orlando Jewish community but in the country as a wonderful place to be. As we experience the coming year together, let us be grateful for the family we have around the world and for the one we have among us. And let us continue this holy work of teaching our children and making what is a fantastically great community even better.