Building a Holy Community--Kol Nidre Sermon 5775

This will be my last sermon about Limestone. For the past nine years, I have found a way to weave stories into Yom Kippur about the Tikkun Olam Family Work Project and our annual week of repairing homes in Northern Maine. We have also been known as JWH “Jews with Hammers,” and by the slogan, “repairing the world one house at a time.” But no more. In August, a group of 18 (chai) made our final trip to Limestone, Maine. While we hope to attract new families who will help decide on a different location for our summer trip next year, we won’t be returning to Limestone.

For the past year we have known that this day was coming. Pastor Ellen called a few of us aside a year ago to tell us of her plans to retire in 2015. She explained that, for a variety of reasons, we would not be able to continue our mission work there after her retirement. And then she asked to hold this information in confidence, because she was not planning to announce her retirement to her own community for some time.

During the year, our group struggled with many difficult feelings about this news. Saying goodbye is hard enough. Being pushed to say goodbye takes an emotional toll. Eventually, we developed our own rationale for ending the Limestone era. It was a rationale grounded in truth, and one that leaves the door open to continue the project elsewhere. What we have told you and we have told the good people of Aroostook County is this: As our children have grown from teens into young adults, they have not been able to come on the trip. Our group could no longer fulfill the mission of having parents and teens working together. As evidence, this last group consisted of fourteen adults and only four teens and young adults. It has become a comfortable way to face this change, one that would not compromise our relationship with Pastor Ellen and her husband, Malcolm, who does most of the behind-the-scenes work of finding families to help, scoping out the projects and acquiring lumber and materials.

As we got closer to the date of our final trip, we encountered new conflicts. Some of us were uncomfortable with the projects that our hosts had selected for us this year. They were too far away, they did not seem sustainable, they ignored other needs in the community. Initially I attributed these conflicts to our different priorities.

Our Boston group sought out meaningful work in Limestone. By this we meant projects that would build community among us and would connect us to the people we are serving.

For Malcolm and Pastor Ellen, the selection of the projects came through a process of discernment. They were asking: who does God call us to serve? We wanted the projects to meet our expectations, while they were driven by their own relationships with the people in their home community and with God.

After much discussion, the group accepted their approach, however grudgingly, recognizing that we are guests in their world. We know that when we leave, anything we have done, for good or ill, will remain with Pastor Ellen and Malcolm and their community.

At the end of the week in Limestone, the entire group agreed that the work was as fulfilling as any we had ever done. It dawned on me that our conflict arose because we were asking for more than we had ever asked before. If this was to be our last trip, we wanted it to matter. We wanted it to be part of our legacy. It began to be more about us and less about the needs of the community. By letting go of the new expectations that we had suddenly foisted on the work, we all came to value both the work we had done and the people we had served, just as we have every prior year.

The most memorable part of the Limestone experience is always our closing circle. After breakfast on Friday morning, we sit at tables in the church dining room, along with Pastor Ellen and Malcolm. We are joined by Sharon Berz, who takes the week off of work to cook for us, and is one of the only Jews in town and a good friend, and the church ladies who volunteer to help prepare the food and wash our dishes and who have befriended us over the years. Each of us speaks for two minutes about what we’ve learned over the past week.

In other years, there’s been a lot of levity in the closing circle. We retell funny stories. We proudly describe the new skills we’ve acquired with the power tools (one year I built a porch!). We talk about how inspired we are by the people we’ve met. But for this year’s closing circle, where all but one of the group had been coming for multiple years, we asked each participant to tell us what these years in Limestone has meant to us.

There was a lot of Torah shared that morning. Not the Torah of written texts, but the Torah of our lives. I always love what the youngest in the group have to say, because they speak with passion and wonder. One of the most eye-opening lessons that one young adult shared was her gratitude for being treated as an equal, because the teens’ views have nearly always been solicited and respected.

Other teens spoke of how the work has changed them. One was so moved by seeing the enormity of the work that needed to be done, and how much we were able to accomplish, that he wants to dedicate himself to do more.

Another shared how this work had taught him the value of being part of a religious community, even for someone who doesn’t consider himself religious. For him, it was not just about the relationships, but the way that those relationships led to other relationships with other good people.

One of the adults continued the theme of relationships, describing the privilege of being with people in their most vulnerable state. Coming right into their homes we have an intimate picture of people’s lives. The rest of the year people usually show us what’s good when we come into their homes, and here we see everything that’s wrong too.

Several participants spoke about community. One said, “This is what community really means. Here people really do take care of each other” One person struggled out loud to name what he had experienced. What do you call this, where everyone is treated equally and accepted both among the Limestone people and in our group?”

And a surprising number of individuals, both in the church group and our own, named it. It was God.

Now that’s not a word I’m accustomed to hearing from our group. God sometimes sneaks in when we remember to say hamotzi before we eat. Malcolm often talks to us about God. But that’s usually the extent of it.

Something special happened that allowed people to open themselves to speak of this experience as something godly. Here’s how they explained it:

One adult from our group put it succinctly, “God is love.”

Then one of the church ladies explained: “What your group does affects the whole community. People can’t believe that strangers would give up a week to help strangers. It inspires the townspeople to think of helping others.” And she added, “It was God who brought us together.”

And a third member of our group put it this way:  “God is the ‘in-between’ in the relationships we build.”

God is the in-between in the relationships we build.

 What we aim to do here at HBT is to create such a community, a holy community, a community built on relationships. Where we are there for each other, not just because we are good friends, and not because we live together blissfully without disagreement (we don’t). When we build a relationship, we create a brit, a covenant, that binds us together saying, “you matter.”

When we bring food for a family with a new baby, we joyously tell them, you matter.

When we show up for a shiva minyan we silently convey, you matter.

When we listen attentively to ideas shared in a class, meeting, the men’s group, services, or Torah study, and we learn from others, we demonstrate, you matter.

This simple message may be the key to the future of the Jewish people.

This past year Jewish scholars and lay people throughout North America have been wringing their hands over the recent Pew Research Study: A Portrait of Jewish Americans. Pew’s own summary opens with this paragraph:

“American Jews overwhelmingly say they are proud to be Jewish and have a strong sense of belonging to the Jewish people, according to a major new survey by the Pew Research Center. But the survey also suggests that Jewish identity is changing in America, where one-in-five Jews (22%) now describe themselves as having no religion.”

With the future of the American Jewish community at stake, many have read the results as a dire warning for synagogues, Jewish organizations, Jewish denominational movements and for the Jewish religion itself.

Speaking on behalf of the Reconstructionist movement, Rabbi Deborah Waxman, newly appointed President of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College and Jewish Reconstructionist Communities (of which HBT is a member), took a different approach. She found the Pew results were heartening, pointing out that

• 94 percent of American Jews say they are proud to be Jewish and have a

strong sense of belonging to the Jewish people and

• of non-religious Jews 42 percent still say that belonging is very important.

 Rabbi Waxman went on to note, “This is extraordinary when we live in such an open society with so many choices. These findings are an affirmation of our Reconstructionist approach—our focus on the Jewish people who are building up the Jewish civilization.”

Referring to Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan, founder of the Jewish Reconstructionist movement in the 20th century, and to his idea that Judaism is an evolving religious civilization, Rabbi Waxman pointed out that Kaplan

“was insisting that we recognize that there are many entry points into Jewish living beyond religion—though he thought religion was vitally important.  Kaplan and his closest followers, and we after them, are adamant that there can be no single authority saying: …‘This is the only way to be Jewish.’

“We embrace this diversity not just as a sociological reality but also as a virtue. And we have to remember that for Reconstructionists, …belonging is extremely important….”

Like Rabbi Waxman, I believe that the enduring strength of Jewish life lies in the diversity that is found in bringing Jews together in a variety of ways. And not only Jews, but whoever shares a household or a family with a Jew, an ancestor who was Jewish, or whoever has a desire to participate in our community. No matter what your Jewish education, no matter what your background or family or race or ethnicity, no matter what rituals you do or do not practice. We all want a place to belong, a place where we matter. 

I find the phrase “Jews with no religion” suspiciously vague. The Jewish religion, said Kaplan, exists for the Jewish people, not the Jewish people for the Jewish religion. Therefore, “having religion” can take whatever form we find valuable. Someone who says they are not religious—and I am confident that many of you sitting here on this Kol Nidre eve make this claim—undoubtedly has his or her own very personal definition of what it means to be “Jewish and not religious.” It might mean that you consider yourself an atheist or agnostic. It might mean that you like to eat shellfish or you go to the gym on Saturday mornings. We don’t know, because no one asked them. But what we do know is that, according to the Pew Study, like you, 42% of those who claim to be non-religious say that belonging still matters.

Rabbi Kaplan once said, “Belonging precedes believing and behaving.” In other words, we find our Jewish home in the place where we feel most at home. Belief and behavior often follow afterward, as we become acculturated to the place we call home. The key to all of it is a feeling of belonging. Knowing that I matter.

The most powerful tool that we have to shape the future of the Jewish tradition and the Jewish people is our relationships. If we are looking for ways to breathe life into our synagogue and to ensure its survival, we need to spend less time worrying about how many people show up and more time in building authentic relationships with the people who do.

To become a community of belonging requires opening ourselves up, sharing our stories and listening to each other’s stories. This is exactly what made our congregational retreat on the Cape such a resounding success. With great intention, the committee chairs built in time for us to hear each other’s stories. In the coming year, we hope to create opportunities for telling our stories as often as possible.

When we gather our congregation together we call it Kulanu Yachad—all of us together. Well today is Yom Kippur Kulanu Yachad, a time for all of us to find our own way in and to take time to build more meaningful relationships.

I urge each of you to take some time before tomorrow night to do two simple things to advance this vision. 1. Spend at least fifteen minutes getting to know one person who is new to our community. (30 minutes is even better). Find out something meaningful about their life and share something meaningful about yours. And 2. Spend at least fifteen minutes deepening a relationship with someone in our community who you don’t already know well. Listen for what gives their life purpose and tell them what gives purpose to your life.

And after Yom Kippur, I have one more charge: reach out to a third person, someone you know, and invite them to an event at HBT so they can experience our unique congregation this year. Let those three people know that they matter.

It is a fact that Jewish life is changing. Our congregation is changing. Our world is changing.

With that in mind, we need to recognize that this work is not just about you or me, or our little congregation. This is about creating a new future for the entire Jewish people.

Here at HBT, we share an inspiring vision of a new Jewish world.To use Theodore Herzl’s words, “Im tirzu ain zo agada. If we will it, it is no dream.” We have the power to shape the future of the Jewish people. Our community can be a model for all those who want to belong, to those are searching for meaningful connections to a community, and new ways into Torah and perhaps even to God.

As we prepare to deepen our relationships, I am reminded of a prayer that we will read together later in our service:

Atah yodei’a razei olam

All our secrets are known to You, O God.

We cannot even fool ourselves.

Lying is a vain exercise; help us not even to try.


How could we deceive You, within us,

at once forming and knowing

our most secret thoughts?


We live in a world of illusion.

Each of us thinks we are separate, alone,

cut off, misunderstood, unwanted,

We forget we are part of Your glory,

each of us a unique ray of Your infinite light.


As we live our lives, rent asunder,

each in her own small world,

help us to remember what we often forget;

we need one another, we each are part of the other,

and someplace, so well known yet so secret,

we may find our true solace in You.


After all, God is the in-between in the relationships we build.


Rabbi Barbara Penzner

Yom Kippur 5775

Posted on October 5, 2014 .