In 1861 a small group of German Jews were seeking a Jewish community that spoke to the questions of their time. With the age of enlightenment – science and reason – it was important to find a place where they could practice their liberal Judaism free from the perceived-constrictions of Jewish law, yet keeping Judaism a meaningful part of their lives.
This group of German Jews argued that Judaism was actually a progressive religion. That the Torah was written by human beings whose lasting legacy was the ethical teachings of The Prophets. And so with these opportunities at the very inception of the great American Jewish experience – Chicago Sinai Congregation was born. Our founders questioned the very foundations of their faith (and ours), and in doing so, they revolutionized what a synagogue and what Judaism can be.
The revolution did not stop there. Unlike every other contemporary synagogue, at Sinai over the next decades women were welcomed as full members. Sunday mornings, instead of Shabbat, became the day when the Rabbi delivered a big sermon attracting crowds of thousands. And of course, Sinai was one of the first “shuls with a pool” as it sought to expand into a social center.
To the people of that time, each of these changes was profound, but the truth is, what our German Jewish founders did wasn’t so revolutionary in the grand scheme of Jewish history. It was actually in keeping with the consistent pattern of Jewish communal evolution driven by the desire to ensure that Judaism not only survived, but thrived, as the world inevitably changed.
Consider that at one time, the act of prayer itself was a radical innovation in Judaism. The notion that an individual Jew could express their devotion to God with words from their heart would have been foreign to the Jews of the Torah.
While the Great Temple stood in Jerusalem, worship was largely composed of Temple sacrifice: offerings of doves or goats to God. The priests were there to mediate the relationship between the people and God in a very fixed and formal order and hierarchy.
Fast forward to the year 70 CE. The Second Temple in Jerusalem has been destroyed by the Romans and it is in ruins. The Priests are out of a job. The entire institutional structure that has existed as the means for the Jewish community to connect to God and each other is destroyed. By all rights, Judaism should have ended.
The stakes were high. The moment was critical.
Instead of sitting around and lamenting, our sacrificing ancestors created something new. Rabbis eventually came to replace priests, and prayer came to replace animal sacrifice. In a time of extraordinary duress, the instinct to innovate and change helped the Jewish people survive when every other ancient people was wiped out.
At a critical juncture, our forebears adapted. They innovated.
And they did it by asking themselves 2 key questions; two questions that I would suggest still beckon to us today –
1) What is essential to Judaism, in other words, what do we hold on to?
2) And what change is necessary to remain meaningful, relevant and vibrant?
Friends, we stand at another critical juncture for Judaism today. All around the country, synagogues and other religious institutions are closing or merging with their neighbors in order to stay afloat. Even here, I often hear these questions being whispered in the pews: “How do we get more young people to attend services?” “How do we attract more members?” To be sure, membership and attendance are real concerns to address. Our situation at Chicago Sinai mirrors that of every religious institution in America. While data shows that there are over 2 million Reform Jews in America, only ¼ of those Jews belong to a synagogue.1 Unfortunately, shouting from the rooftop, or bemoaning the data won’t solve the questions of the day.
Like the Jewish people in 70CE, we have a choice: we can see the decline of synagogue membership as an existential threat or we can see this as a moment of opportunity that necessitates change.
Rather than lamenting the fact that there are more Jews outside the walls of synagogues, how might we shift our thinking towards creating new pathways to bring those on the outside in, while at the same time, nourishing those who are already inside? Or, how might we open up the walls of our synagogue in ways they’ve never been opened before, to expand the reach of what Judaism offers to anyone regardless of where they are?
These ideas might sound radical, but the questions behind them are not new. And creating something new in order to adapt to the reality of the time is, in its very essence, Jewish.
In a famous Talmudic story, Moses sees God writing a Torah scroll and adding decorative crowns to some of the letters. He asks God “What are those?” God responds that the crowns represent interpretations of Torah that don’t yet exist.
When Moses doesn’t understand, God sends Moses on a trip to the future. Moses travels over a thousand years ahead to the second century CE, finding himself in a beit midrash, a Jewish classroom, with the teacher Rabbi Akiva at the front of the room.
Moses sits in the back of the classroom, and tries to listen, but he is absolutely lost, and cannot follow Akiva’s teachings. Akiva is talking about prayer and rabbis—Moses practiced a Judaism of sacrifices and priests. Moses is agitated that he does not understand a thing until a student asks Rabbi Akiva, “Where are these teachings from?”
Rabbi Akiva answers “we learned all of this from —Moses our teacher.” And with this Moses’ mind is at ease.
The institution of the synagogue has now survived for more than 2,000 years, and in that time it has been forced to adapt, innovate, and recreate itself over and over again.
I believe our goal should not only be about filling seats; but also about filling souls. What can we offer to those who are looking for community, who are spiritually searching, and to those who wish to stand for core Jewish values and make them manifest in our modern world? Indeed, this is a moment of immense challenge and exciting opportunity. Chicago Sinai has never been just another synagogue. In order to serve Judaism in the 21st century – we must further expand our notion of what a Synagogue can yet become. Lucky for us, we are building on a strong foundation here. I would like to suggest that our vision of a new future should be framed and built to respond to these three issues:
First: Loneliness and the need for community
Second: Spiritual exploration & depth
Third: The Jewish moral call to justice
First: The epidemic of loneliness and the desperate need for community Way before the Surgeon General of the United States recognized the epidemic of loneliness, our Jewish tradition knew that it was not good for human beings to be alone. Our story begins when God spoke to Adam in the Garden of Eden saying, “lo tov hiyot adam l’vado”, “it is not good for a human being to be alone.”
The COVID pandemic and its lockdowns only highlighted the profound ways we rely on human connection – face to face interactions – being known, being seen and being heard. Now more than ever Chicago Sinai can become a place of belonging and connection.
We know this. I’ve heard you say this. When asked why you are part of Sinai or what you are looking for, almost every single person responds with the same answer: “community”. Inscribed on our building are the words from the prophet Isaiah, “My House Shall Be A House of Prayer for All People.” What does it mean for us to take these words seriously? How can we be intentionally inclusive to all human beings created in the Divine Image? How do we foster a community where all feel welcome and included regardless of ability, age, appearance, economic status, education, ethnicity, gender identity, marital status, national origin, parental status, race, religion, and sexual orientation.
Community means everybody and every body. The broader Jewish community has never been more diverse than it is today and Sinai has always been a leader in celebrating that diversity.
It is time for synagogues to become the space where we transform disparate souls into a unified body, community, and congregation, for a shared and higher purpose, of working towards a common good.
Being in Community, though, is done in sacred partnership. So let’s work together to make this a place of belonging.
Second: Spiritual exploration and depth
One of the fastest growing ways people identify their faith in the United States is “spiritual but not religious”. People are searching. Instead of outsourcing spiritual growth to yoga studios or soul cycle, how might synagogues return to places of spiritual exploration?
How many of us here this morning can honestly say that we feel spiritually fulfilled or nourished in our daily lives? How many times have you found yourself grasping for a meaningful way to process the enormity of the societal challenges we face? How often have you questioned the authenticity of your own faith and practice as a Jew?
Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote, “Religion is not given to us once and for all as something to be preserved in a safety deposit box. It must be recreated all the time.4 Together, we are the creators.
Judaism offers a plethora of modalities to connect to the soul – mindfulness practice, meditation, music, study, action, all within the space of community. Let’s use our imagination and create these spaces for spiritual exploration together.
Isn’t that what Synagogues are all about – where curiosity and exploration are welcome – brave spaces where we can have meaningful, important, and even difficult conversations.
We are the People Israel – a people who wrestle, and because we wrestle, we prevail.
Which brings me to number three: our Jewish moral call to Justice.
And here I recognize I may be preaching to the choir. Ingrained in what it means to be both a Reform Jew as well as a part of Chicago Sinai Congregation is to live our lives according to the words of the ancient prophets who called us to justice.
As we sit here today, we hardly need the reminder.
We know we must respond to the evil of hatred. We know we must assist those who are without food or shelter. We know we must be concerned with the plight of all who suffer in the world. We must do more to build bridges with other faith communities. Not only because we care as individuals and as human beings, but because that is what our Jewish tradition demands of us.
This work of repairing the world cannot be done alone, and must be done in sacred partnership. We have the opportunity to ask one another: what keeps you up at night? Or even better, “what gets you up in the morning?”
Is it the fact that a woman’s right to choose is on the line? Or the concern about what world the next generation will inherit? Or the pervasive hatred for nearly every minority in our world, including the Jewish people?
And here’s where the data is positive; the latest Pew report shows that while synagogue affiliation has decreased, commitment to living according to moral and ethics, caring for justice and equality are at an all time high.
Together we can reignite our commitment and work of repairing our world through deepening our direct service, working in partnership with our neighbors, Jewish and non, to create the world that we all yearn for. It is our sacred obligation to each other and to the world.
Rabbi Samuel Karff who served this congregation for 13 years wrote, “Reform Judaism has always been a creative response, how do we serve God under the conditions of this time and this place? When the conditions change, we must change”.
Whether we were born Jewish, whether we are here because we love someone who is Jewish, whether we are struggling with our faith or whether we are on a spiritual journey of our own, let us walk into this new year committed, together, in partnership, to addressing the needs that are within and outside of our walls.
The year is 2123 and Chicago Sinai Congregation is ushering in the New Year; the community is recounting the generation before.
I’d like to imagine that they will be reflecting on how we were a generation who allowed them to get to where they are.
That it was our revolutionary adaptations which led them to understand that they, too, must rethink and adapt as they navigate their own challenges.
That Judaism is not going anywhere.
And because of that, their next chapter might very well look different than prior generations.
Nevertheless, it will undoubtedly be nourished by the same values, morals and traditions that have served as the roots for every generation in our unbroken chain.