October 5, 2022 /

May Our Doors Be Open Wide – Rosh Hashanah 5779

I have always been interested in where we draw our “lines of disbelief.” The “line of disbelief” is that barrier between what you are able to accept as being plausible and what is just one step too far.  The Torah study class knows this because from time to time I need to clarify this line with them. For example, the Ten Plagues, a bush that burns but doesn’t get consumed, a magical shofar that makes buildings crumble, that’s all fine and dandy, but manna falling from the heavens? Not one animal tried to eat another on the ark? They were supposed to make the curtains for the Tabernacle out of dolphin skins?! Where on earth did they find dolphin skins in the desert? “Wait a minute, let me just clarify. You are okay with the fiery hail or the splitting of the sea, but dolphin skins in the desert, that’s just one step too far?”

Everybody has a line of disbelief. I was chatting with some teens last year about the Justice League movie. They didn’t like it. They were okay with bullets bouncing off Superman’s chest or his ability to fly – that was fine. But coming back from the dead, that was too much. Or the Flash, he can run faster than light, that’s okay, but he shouldn’t have been able to heal that quickly. He runs faster than the speed of light, and you have issues with how quickly he heals? What about wrecking Einstein’s mathematical equations, shouldn’t he be moving back in time? “No,” one teen told me, “I stopped believing that this could be real with how quickly his wound healed.”

A final example, over the course of the spring I had been doing several “meet and greets” in congregants’ homes.  While each one was different, they had a similar rhythm to them. I shared some stories and a little bit about my background that would enable me to talk about my vision for the temple. And then this would happen at nearly every single meeting. I would mention that I’m from Brooklyn and then I would hear. “Wait a minute, you’re from Brooklyn. Like in New York?!” “But you weren’t born there right, you just moved there when you were older, you’re from, like, the Midwest.” It’s Rosh Hashanah, in ten days it’s Kol Nidre, I swear these are true quotes. My favorite, “No way you were you born in Brooklyn, are you sure? Cause you don’t sound anything like Roberta Stone!”

You can thank my mother and a heavy dose of speech therapy for all the confusion I’ve caused here. I was saying “wif” and “foget” and “fowaad” instead of “with” “forget, “and “forward.” Which still pain me to say correctly.  In the end, I ended up sounding like I was from the Midwest, which, for the record, I don’t mind at all. The truth is that I have a lot of fond memories of the Midwest. My father and his family were from Ohio, and I loved every moment that I spent visiting them, usually around Christmas.

In our family photo albums, there are actually a lot of great photos of me with my grandparents, John and Virginia, dressing the Christmas Tree. There I am, as a two-year-old, wearing this red onesie and standing in front of my grandparents’ Christmas tree and I am covered from head to toe in tinsel. My grandparents have this mixed look that ranges from adoration to shock and awe. It’s as if they were thinking “I never knew tinsel could be this messy.” Tinsel really eluded this Jew.

My grandparents patiently taught me how to put-up ornaments. As a young child, we practiced with the cheap ones before we moved on to the more precious ones. Most of them survived, and the Bazeley family ornaments still reside in my mother’s basement in Brooklyn. Where in the basement I have no idea, but I believe they are somewhere deep down in the back recesses in a red faded ornament box that is probably held together by ancient scotch tape that does the job, but if you look at it the wrong way it would just float off the cardboard.

My grandfather died from cancer when I was 6, and my grandmother died from ALS when I was 10 and with her death, was the end of the Bazeley Family Christmas dinners. I remember being out in Cleveland with my parents as we packed up their house after we sold it.  Because my mother was a teacher, we went out during Winter Break to close up the house.  While their old house was brightly lit from the inside, it felt oh so much darker without the holiday lights on the trees both inside and outside the house.  I used to love seeing how the snow would cover the multicolor lights on their front yard bushes. The dinner that Dec 25th was not the same either. We had no food in the house, so my father and I went out on a scouting mission to find an open restaurant. Forgetting that Cleveland at Christmas was not the same as Brooklyn at Christmas, we drove for about 30 minutes without seeing a light on anywhere. Even McDonalds was closed.  We were driving around in what Clevelanders called a flurry, but what we would call a whiteout. It was like driving around in an eerie, deserted ghost town from the wild west, except instead of tumbleweeds there were snow drifts.  Barely being able to see a block or two ahead of us in the snow we saw a faint glow in the distance. We pulled up and saw that there was one restaurant open in all of Cleveland. It was a Chinese restaurant and guess what it was full of? Jews. When we walked in, there seemed to be every other Jew in Ohio there with us. And suddenly again, I felt like I was surrounded by family. It was joyful, but also sad. It was as if I had yet another reminder that with my grandparents’ death, a part of my identity had died with them. That this part of American culture was part of my culture too, but now it wasn’t. Every year, even to this day, the sights and sounds of Christmas bring all of these emotions back to me, and I know that I am not alone with wrestling with what Christmas means to me. Either as a Jew, or as an American Jew, or as an American Jew with a blended background. The truth is that each one of us, no matter our lineage, wrestles with what it means to be a Jew in today’s very Christian and sometimes openly anti-Semitic America.

Over the summer there was a report of a Washington State deputy who was fired because there was a photo of her wearing a “Proud Boys” logo shirt. I was baffled by what that even meant. So, I went to Rav Google and looked up what “Proud Boys” was. I was not really surprised to find that the Proud Boys are one of those white national groups that now feel more comfortable with being open about their supremacy in public.

Three days after that report came out Alyson and I were walking around the Binghamton Zoo with the boys, and I spotted a gentleman wearing a nearly identical shirt. He was big and looked like he had been in a fight or two in his life. I found myself analyzing the four of us and wondered, “How ‘Jewy do we look? Are we at risk? Would he attempt to hurt us here in this very public space?” I must admit there are times when people confuse me for not looking Jewish, and there are times when I don’t mind it at all. That was one of those moments. The truth is that there have been many religious leaders in my family’s background. However, they were all priests and ministers, I’m the first “Rabbi Bazeley.”

What I have come to realize, is that my father’s side of the family, my Christian background, has not hurt my Jewish identity in the slightest. In fact, I think it actually made it stronger. I believe that my Jewish identity has been made stronger because I have something to compare it with, to balance it with, to interact with it and grow with it. Many of the significant Jewish advancements of the last 200 years, including the advent of Reform Judaism, was made partly because rabbinic leaders were in partnership with leaders of other faith heritages. We didn’t pull the organ that you hear today or the music of Samuel Rossi out of thin air. They listened to the melodies and the service styles from neighboring churches. The rabbis had the great idea of giving sermons in the vernacular because that’s what priests and ministers were doing. Who knows, if we didn’t grow and adapt because of our relationships to Christians, this sermon might have been entirely in Hebrew, albeit probably a little shorter.

But how is this more than just about “feelings.” My greatest challenge with making the decision to officiate at a wedding between two people of different faith heritages was not always a given. I wanted to make sure that if I were to say yes that I could just as equally justify both sides of the argument. The truth is that no matter how stringent rabbinic law is, no matter how absolute Jewish law seems. Jewish law has always functioned in fluidity and has had a longstanding practice to be flexible and lenient when other pressing concerns are involved. For generations, rabbis have refused to officiate because of the fear of creating idolaters. In the proper historical context up until contemporary times, that was a well-justified answer. While today I believe that saying no helps push couples away from Judaism and makes it easier for them to replace their faith and further assimilate. When a couple comes to me to officiate, they are looking for a uniquely Jewish experience. I will not co-officiate, and I am looking for a commitment of a Jewish family. Turning them away from the wedding turns them away from Judaism.

I say “yes,” not because I’m afraid of pushing people away by saying “no.” I say “yes” because I have seen what it means to be brought in with a “yes.” I have seen what it does for both spouses spiritually when the Temple embraces them and welcomes them. And far too often I have seen the stance of “no” unfairly cut them off from any future hope of Jewish community and Jewish family life. I can also ground my “yes” in a halakhic tradition that dates back to Maimonides with his sanctioning of marriages that he considers to be counter-cultural[1] as well as a Talmudic principle that one should not impose a law on the people that the majority of them can’t follow.[2] Besides, the marriage between two individuals of differing faith heritages does not mean that they don’t have a Jewish family. I have seen it time and again reflected in all of you. So many of our families here at the temple are blended, and yet, they are a Jewish family even while one of the parents is fully immersed in a different heritage.

I also understand this because I lived it.  Rabbi Rick Jacobs, my childhood rabbi, regularly referred to my father as a “common-law Jew” and this was long before my father even thought of converting. Conversion was not the ultimate goal in why Rabbi Jacobs welcomed him in. He welcomed my father in because he was a member of the congregation and like us, he was on a spiritual journey as well. Like Rabbi Jacobs, I believe that the reality of Interfaith weddings should be regarded as a done deal. I would rather not spend time trying to prevent or stop an inevitable change in our society and instead focus on what I believe is the more important aspect of this debate. How do we reach out and bring in a new type of Jew?

Families are more hybrid than ever, and the Jews that these families produce have a greater sense of identity fluidity than we have ever seen before. Let me give you an example of this – myself. On the one hand, I know a family history that goes back to Eastern Europe who knew the fear of the Czars and the pogroms. My Great Bubbie Lena claims that the Cossacks attacked her and gave her a scar right over here. I think it was probably a cabinet door, but it’s a good story nonetheless. We lost family members in the Shoah, and we have stories of Ellis Island. We use menorahs and candlesticks that have been passed down from generation to generation, and I have passed onto my children a history that holds all this and more.

On the other hand, I also have a family history that dates back to this nation’s founding. Bazeley is a name that dates back to the Normandy conquest of England. There is a Bazeley family crest in the English Registry. I know what it means to sit with family around the Christmas table. To open the door and hear Christmas carolers sing. I don’t feel uncomfortable at all being in a church or singing along to hymns (well, many of them). In fact, Alyson and I take the boys to Christmas dinner at a cousin’s house every year. The catch, it’s not my cousin, it’s Alyson’s cousin, Jessica who is Christian. She is married to Hugo who is from Spain, and we join in with their children, Julia and Emma, in both American and Spanish holiday customs.

When I walk the streets at Christmas time, I have such a mix of feelings. Insider, outsider, other, family nostalgia, delight, sorrow, sadness, joy. And I assure you, I am not alone. For many Jews, no matter their background, Synagogue life doesn’t speak to them, and they believe that they are not wanted here either because they don’t look or don’t resemble the “normative” Jew.

How do we best respond to a “non-normative” Jew? The first step is by throwing away the idea that there is a “normative” Jew. There has never been a normative Jew. Jewish identity has changed and evolved in every generation. Instead, let us say that a Jew is someone who is seeking a life of meaning while walking Judaism’s sacred path. It doesn’t matter who their parents are, or who they are married to, or what the color of their skin might be. And yes, the non-Jewish spouse may also be walking this Jewish path of understanding and meaning, all while maybe not yet converting or never going to convert either. They are our common-law Jews.

The paradigm of congregations and Jewish life is transforming before our eyes. Until recently, affiliation with synagogues happened almost automatically. Today not so much. Congregations and institutions are now needing to reach out to individuals both inside and outside the walls of our institutions and engage with them in a real spiritual community.

In the words of Rabbi Rick Jacobs, now the President of the Union for Reform Judaism, “Too often in our history, [meaningful] Judaism has been drained of its vitality, leaving behind ossified religious bureaucracies. We Jews have created a variety of institutions to sustain our devotion to God’s intended path for us. Sometimes, though, we forget that our institutions are means, not ends. We need to be reminded that we are called to do something bigger, grander than simply be caretakers of Jewish institutions. What is that something? Our Jewish jobs are to build a more vibrant, richer Jewish life for people and communities so that we can live up to our world of wholeness, compassion, joy, and justice.”[3]

The URJ has called this “Audacious Hospitality,” Dr. Ron Wolfson, in his book, calls it “Relational Judaism.” The truth is that we have been doing this here for a long time. There are many programs of substance here that are here not for their sake, in an of themselves, but for the goal of fostering emotional relationships with one another all while, together, in covenantal relationship, going on a journey of discovery of the self and of faith.

In the introduction to his description of Relational Judaism, Dr. Wolfson reminds us that,

“It’s all about relationships. People will come to synagogues… for programs, but they will stay for relationships. Programs are wonderful opportunities for community members to gather, to celebrate, to learn. There is nothing ‘wrong’ with programs; every organization has them. But, if the program designers have given no thought to how the experience will offer participants a deeper connection to each other, with the community and with Judaism itself, then it will likely be another lovely evening, afternoon, or morning…with little or no lasting impact… It’s not about programs. It’s not about marketing. It’s not about branding, labels, logos, clever titles, website or smartphone apps. It’s not even about institutions. It’s about relationships.”[4]

This notion of relationships being at the core of Jewish life is the reason why we are about to celebrate our 160th year in New Brunswick. In one month, on October 11th, we will be turning 159. We beat Moses by a couple of touchdowns, and we aren’t slowing down anytime soon. Relationships are what has kept us vibrant. Relationships are what has kept us in New Brunswick. Relationships are what makes some of you drive great distances to get here, distances that others, who do not know us, say are too far. Relationships are what made me say, I love Anshe Emeth, and I don’t want to leave. And relationships are what has made me say that we need to reevaluate how we reach out to Jewish families with multiple faith traditions represented in their families. While we are at it, we also need to acknowledge that much of the American Jewish population no longer looks like white, straight, European Jews. Personally, I hate the term “non-normative.” It means that we are assigning someone else an identity based on what they aren’t. The same goes for the term, “non-Jew” like in the “non-Jewish spouse.”  It turns someone into the other while the goal should be to turn the “other” into “us.” It’s one of the reasons why we are looking at how we reach out to the Jewish LGBTQ community in Middlesex County and make sure that they, as well as anyone else, is included and cared for here just as much as the next Jew.

I have inherited a wonderful institution from Rabbi Miller, and I am grateful to him and all the rabbis who came before. But what I don’t want is for us to become complacent when we think about our community. That we take you for granted and assume we know what your Jewish needs are and fall under the erroneous belief that we are filling those needs. At my installation speech in two weeks, I’ll speak more about this. That is a sermon for another day and as a great mentor of mine once said, “only give one sermon in one sermon.”

What we do today and what we will do in the coming years is to ensure that our gates, are open wide. That our behavior and our policies fulfill this prayerful vision found within our prayer book, Mishkan Tefilah[5]:

May the doors of this synagogue be wide enough to receive all who hunger for love, all who are lonely for friendship.

May it welcome all who have cares to unburden, thanks to express, hopes to nurture.

May the door of this synagogue be narrow enough to shut out pettiness and pride, envy and enmity.

May its threshold be no stumbling block to young or straying feet.

May it be too high to admit complacency, selfishness, and harshness.

May this synagogue be, for all who enter, the doorway to a more vibrant and more meaningful life.

Amen v’Amen

 

[1] Teshuvot HaRambam 211

[2] Babylonian Talmud Avodah Zarah 36b

[3]Dr. Wolfson, Ron. The Relational Judaism Handbook. Encino, CA: The Kripke Institute. 2018. Pp xi-xii

[4] Dr. Wolfson, Ron. Relational Judaism. Woodstock, VT: Jewish Lights Publishing. 2013. Pp 2-3.

[5] Prayer by Sydney Greenberg