Yom Kippur Kol Nidre Sermon – 5777

Kol Nidrei Sermon 5777 – given by Rabbi Lev Meirowitz-Nelson
This evening, I want talk with you about introspection—literally, seeing
yourself—and the role it plays in teshuvah and growth, both individual and
communal.

About six months ago, I started noticing my son, Buzz, doing something interesting.
He was about three at the time, and when we told him he was doing something
wrong, he would deny it.

“Buzz, you just kicked Abba. Can you say sorry?”
“No no no no, I didn’t, I didn’t, I didn’t!”

I think what was going on in his sweet little head was a kind of cognitive dissonance,
a mismatch between his basic self-understanding and what he was being told. Buzz
knows that he’s a good boy—and good boys don’t hurt people. But here we were,
telling him that he had hurt Abba. Well, those couldn’t both be true, and there was
no way he had stopped being a good boy, so that left one possibility: clearly we were
mistaken. He hadn’t hurt Abba. QED.

This same kind of clouded logic goes on in all of our heads, at a more adult level,
when it comes to teshuvah. I know I feel it. I mean, for sure I am not perfect, but
come on, I’m a good person, right? Sure, I could give more tzedakah than I do, I could
volunteer more for the causes I believe in, but at base, how much do I really have to
atone for? That cloudy self-perception, that difficulty focusing on myself and my
behavior over the past year, makes it hard to do teshuvah and to grow. In the very
first paragraph of Maimonides’ Laws of Teshuvah, he teaches that the fundamental
move of teshuvah is to declare out loud what you have done wrong—which is so
hard to do if you don’t see yourself accurately.

This challenge is emphasized in two of our core biblical texts for these Days of Awe.
On the second day of Rosh Hashanah, we read the story of the Akedah, the Binding
of Isaac, and I am by no means the first rabbi to note the prevalence of the verb “to
see” in that brief narrative. Abraham sees the mountain from afar. He tells Isaac that
God will see to the sheep for sacrifice. Then, after the angel intervenes, Abraham
sees the ram stuck in the thicket. He names the place “God will see,” because on that
mountain there is vision. And yet, Abraham never really sees Isaac clearly, and he
certainly doesn’t see himself. Tragically, it seems from the text that Isaac and
Abraham become estranged after the Akedah—Isaac does not appear to go back
home with Abraham, and we never read of the two speaking again. Abraham is so
focused on seeing what God demands that he isn’t able to see its impact on himself
and his relationships.

Tomorrow afternoon, we’ll read the perplexing story of Jonah. In four whole
chapters, the verb “to see” appears only twice, and the first time it is God doing the seeing: At the end of chapter 3, God sees the teshuvah that the people of Nineveh do
and averts their decree of destruction. The only act of seeing Jonah does is five
verses later, when he goes to sit on a hill overlooking Nineveh to see what will
happen to the city. He can’t quite believe that God has forgiven them. Like Abraham,
he is focused on looking out at others, but he cannot for the life of him see himself or
his impact on the world. And so, he is unable to learn from his experience or grow as
a prophet or a person; instead, the story leaves him up on that hill with God’s rebuke
ringing in his ears.
As with individuals, so too communities and institutions. In order to thrive, we must
have a clear picture of where we are doing well and where we are falling
short—where there are strengths to build on and where there are weaknesses that
need shoring up. This evening, I want to offer a communal cheshbon nefesh, an
accounting of the soul of the Flatbush Jewish Center, of where we have succeeded
this year and where we have work still to do; where we have seen ourselves clearly
and where we have not.
I’ll start with a simple yet powerful example: where we choose to pray on a weekly
basis. In the first half or so of this past year, we were holding Shabbat morning
services up here. It made sense, in theory: this is a beautiful space, it is our main
sanctuary, and now that we were one minyan instead of two we belonged up here. It
was a claiming of our identity. The grandeur of the architecture, the thinking went,
would inspire more people to join us. Instead, what happened was we found
ourselves spread out and diluted in the immensity of the room, thirty or forty
people davening in a room meant for ten times that number. We felt disconnected
from each other, distant, so that even when turnout was robust, it felt anemic. And
then, our synagogue leadership decided the experiment was not working. They took
another look and saw more clearly who we are, how many people we could
reasonably expect on an average Shabbat. Since we moved back down to the chapel,
our services feel vibrant, welcoming. The room feels full. We can all hear and see
each other better, which enhances our feeling of being a real community.
Now, it’s easy for me to look back with the benefit of hindsight and tell this neatly
packaged story, but at the time, it was a difficult decision. Some people loved
davening up here and were sad to go back downstairs; they had staked a lot of hope
on the symbolism of being in the main sanctuary, and they had to contend with an
adjusted self-image. But I am proud of us for making the decision. Each of us, as
individuals or as a community, is better off with an honest self-image that is slightly
humble than we are with a grand self-image that is a few sizes too big.
In a similar vein, for the first half of this year we tried having a regular Sunday
morning minyan and a once-a- month stand-alone Kabbalat Shabbat service. When
we made special requests for a given Sunday to help someone observe Yahrzeit and
say Kaddish, the community turned out beautifully and made a minyan. But other
than that, almost no one showed up to either service, and you can’t make a special
request every week. We eventually accepted that, even if we wished we were the kind of shul that could sustain those services, at the moment we aren’t. No
judgment—it’s simply a recognition that we could better spend our energies
elsewhere, in ways that would meet more needs for more people. As disappointing
as that might have been, I’m proud that we were able to see ourselves clearly for
who we are, rather than for who we wish we were, or who we used to be.
Here are eight more areas, for a total of ten, in which I think FJC has shone this past
year—I’ll be briefer about each of them:
1. I said we stopped our stand-alone Kabbalat Shabbat, but our once-a- month
Friday night services and Dinner Under the Stars is more vibrant than ever.
It’s what inspired Eliana and me to know this was the right shul for us. And
I’m proud of all the new leadership that has stepped up to help keep Dinner
Under the Stars running.
2. It’s amazing that so many of our kiddushes, lunches, and dinners consist of
food cooked here in our kitchen by members of the shul.

3. We’ve recognized that, if we are going to attract young families with kids, we
need a robust Tot Shabbat. Last year, we made a good first effort that
definitely did bring in new people, and this year we are learning from that
experience and adjusting the program, capitalizing on the skills of our
members.

4. Purim brought in dozens of families whom we had never seen before. I
derived great joy from the horde of little kids in costumes running around
the front of this sanctuary and climbing on the bimah while the megillah was
being read—I loved seeing their excitement and comfort in shul. And yes, this
coming year for Purim, we will fine tune the plan so that the kids can have
that experience again while we also make sure the adults can hear the
megillah without straining.

5. The Sisterhood continued to put on its bazaar in the fall and the spring, this
year with renewed participation from the shul’s younger members. Sara
Sloan, our long-time member who grew up here, tells us that when she was
little, people of every age—including kids as young as three—were enlisted
to run the bazaar. I’m glad that we are heading back in that direction and
grateful to the women of the Sisterhood for their leadership and
longstanding devotion. It’s wonderful that we’re able to offer the bazaar not
just as a fundraiser for the shul but as a service to the community.

6. Since the shul went egalitarian, by my count, at least four women who have
been members here forever had their very first aliyot to the Torah in the
building. For some of them, it was the first aliyah of their lives, and I’m so
pleased that we were able to give them that opportunity.

7. We really are a welcoming, friendly community. You can come here a handful
of times and quickly feel like a regular.

8. Last on my list for now, but perhaps most importantly, I am enormously
proud of the way this shul welcomes people of diverse racial
backgrounds—not every Conservative synagogue can say that.

With these—and I’m sure there are others—on the plus side of our balance sheet, I
want to mention a few places where we face challenges. First, as our membership
numbers have declined over the years, our budget has also shrunk. As I spoke about
at greater length on the first morning of Rosh Hashanah, this year that led to the gut-
wrenching recognition that we had to lay off Cantor Schwartz. We are all saddened
that, after more than 25 years of faithful work leading services on this bimah, week
in and week out, he is no longer with us. We also had to lay off Lois, who worked in
the office for seven years and was so friendly to anyone who called looking for
information. These were another example of good self-vision—it had become clear
that continuing to employ them was not sustainable or responsible—but it hurt
nonetheless. We’ve tightened our belts, and our challenge in the coming year is to
figure out together how to grow our community. We’re blessed to be situated in a
neighborhood that many Jewish families are moving into, which means there are
opportunities for growth all around us.

Second, we have to take a better look at how we care for our elderly members. At
the moment, we don’t have someone who can make hospital visits, care for their
spiritual needs, and—when it sadly comes time—conduct funerals. We need to see
you, the pillars of our community—many of you who have been members here for
decades—clearly, and make sure you know we see and value you. It’s not a simple
problem—if it were, we would have solved it already!—but it demands our
attention.

And finally, how do we build relationships with our neighbors—the Christian,
Muslim, and other non-Jewish communities of Kensington and the surrounding
neighborhoods? I want to know who they are—when I pass their houses of worship,
I don’t want to feel like I’m walking by a stranger’s house—so I can celebrate their
joys with them and support them in times of trouble. I want them to know who we
are when they walk by our building. Seeing ourselves accurately requires seeing our
relationships honestly as well. No person—no shul—is an island.

At the end of a hard day—and it doesn’t have to be an epically hard day, just an
ordinary long day of work and parenting and whatever else life throws at us—my
wife, Eliana, likes to pause and count blessings. She likes to name, or hear me name,
a few things that are going really well in our lives. That doesn’t mean she stops
dealing with whatever happens to be going wrong; she draws strength and
encouragement from the blessings to help her deal with them better, so she doesn’t
get overwhelmed by them. In the same way, our temptation on Yom Kippur is often
to focus exclusively on the things we have done wrong, the ways we have fallen
short. On this Kol Nidrei night, I want to suggest that, in addition to that, we also
count our blessings, the things we are doing right. With clear vision of ourselves,
both sides of the balance sheet, we can dive into the process of teshuvah and set
ourselves on a course for a better year to come.