Rabbi Karen Citrin
Yitro, February 6, 2015 – Shabbat in the Round
To be a modern Jew, I have found it helpful to know how to navigate some Jewish websites. To name a few, there’s: myjewishlearning.com, urj.org (the Union for Reform Judaism), askmoses.com, g-dcast.com, and jewishvirtuallibrary.org. While these sites are certainly no replacement for good Jewish books, sometimes one can glean interesting perspectives online.
I recently learned of a hip Jewish website called kveller.com. To kvell is the Yiddish term meaning, to burst with pride. It is loosely a Jewish twist to parenting website, but it also contains broader perspectives on Jewish life. One can glean information on topics ranging from Shabbat, Tzedakah, Hebrew school, how to make matzah balls, the Jewish take on vaccinations, and the appropriate time to talk with children about anti-Semitism.
This week’s article was entitled, “Expensive Dues Aren’t the Only Reason People Don’t Go to Synagogues.” Noting the trend among some congregations today to look differently at their dues structures, author Nina Badzin asks the question: is a change in dues structure sufficient to address the growing trends of low participation and apathy, especially among younger Jews?
She says the pressing challenge today is not just a financial one. The deeper issue is that members and potential members do not see the value in Judaism, or do not see how the Judaism the synagogue offers has anything to do with their lives. She writes, “If rabbis do not have relationships with their members that are personal enough to help those members grow in their Judaism or to introduce members to the idea that Judaism has the potential to improve their lives, then after lifecycle events or in the years between them, it’s no wonder the value of membership becomes a pressing question.”
Nina reverses the idea: “Provide value and people will pay. Show people the joy of Judaism and empower them to bring that joy home. Engage members with discussion on how to be a better person, a better parent, sibling, spouse, friend, and a more ethical business person, and they will come back for more.”
We are fortunate here in Tulsa that we have such a high affiliation rate and strong funding resources. Yet, the challenge to engage Jews, and especially the next generation, with meaningful Judaism, still speaks to us here. So many of us today seek meaningful community. I am especially drawn to Rabbi Avi Olitzky’s description of community as, “a circle to which you feel you belong that will miss your presence; it reaches out to you when you’re absent, and you long for it when you’re not there.”
We all know that we can find that community in any number of places – from the golf course to the office, from book club to gym class, to kids’ schools and sports teams. I also hope we will create and be part of powerful Jewish circles of community.
One of the first memorable Jewish circles of community can be found in this week’s Torah portion, Yitro. Some biblical gender exclusivity aside, the verses of Torah I just chanted called the Israelite community together at the foot of Mount Sinai. Amid thunder and shofar blast, the community stood ready to receive the Ten Commandments, ready to hear the ten utterances of God.
Take yourself back for a moment. Stand in that holy place. Hear the thunder and the blast of shofar. See the smoke. Feel the sand under your feet and the trembling of the mountain. You huddle close. Imagine what it felt like to be one of the myriad of Israelites assembled at the foot of Mount Sinai, preparing to encounter God’s Presence, to hear God’s voice. Imagine what it would be like to be part of a union of heaven and earth.
The mixed multitude that had left Egypt, now encamped around the mountain, bound together by a circle of community and shared experience. Our tradition teaches that we all stood at Sinai. “Anokhi Adonai Elohecha,” “I am Adonai your God” (Exodus 20:10). God spoke to each of us. We were all there and that experience, that circle of community, extends through all time and space. That Torah is our Torah. The Yiddish author, Sholem Asch, said, “The words were uttered not for one people alone, and not for one age, but for all the people and for all the generations until the end of time.”
And at Sinai, the people spoke, “Na’aseh v’nishma,” “We will do, and we will listen” (Exodus 24:7). We will be part of this circle. We are here because the experience was so powerful, so meaningful, and so memorable.
Today, our challenge is to discover more Sinai moments, more lasting Jewish experiences, and more meaningful relationships. Provide value and they will come. Look around our circle tonight. It matters that you are here. We would miss you if you weren’t. You belong. Shabbat Shalom.