Union for Reform Judaism Member Congregation

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The Same, But Different

That was the title of Rabbi Goodman’s Bulletin column last year at this time: “The Same, But Different.” If it was true then, when Rabbi Goodman wrote those words—preparing to lead services at Union Temple for the last time as your Rabbi before assuming the role of Rabbi Emerita—it is, kal v’chomer, all the more so true this year, as a new rabbi stands before you on the Days of Awe for the first time in 26 years.

The same, but different… indeed!

I want to say how very happy I am to have joined Union Temple as your Intentional Interim Rabbi this year. I have been especially pleased to see so many of you over the summer, at our Friday night Kabbalat Shabbat “Meet and Greet” services. And when we are all back in just a few weeks from wherever we may have been (hopefully at least a staycation? maybe travelling? a cabana at Silver Point, perhaps?) I look forward to meeting and getting to know you all.

My family has a long history here at Union Temple—a story for another time. But it is the Union Temple of today—and tomorrow—that drew me, the reason that I am here with you this year.

The Reform Jewish world has changed so much in recent years. Indeed, in many ways it is simply unrecognizable. Gone is the organ, gone is the choir behind the curtain, gone are the robes on Shabbat. And yet, not everything has changed: our progressive attitude, our commitment to being in tune with the zeitgeist, our openness and flexibility. As Rabbi Goodman put it so well—we are “the same, but different.”

Much will be the same this year, and much will be different. I hope that you will explore at least a little bit out of your comfort zone. If you have young children at home, see if you can still manage to come to one of our Friday Adult Ed lectures. If you are an empty nester—or a single or couple with no kids—come be an adult presence at one of our Pajama Shabbat nights. Let’s mix it up, and see if we can’t break down the artificial barriers that keep us from living up to our name: Union Temple. At Union Temple, children and adults are always welcome… to everything.

This is our temple’s 170th anniversary year. Remarkable. We started out as a “chavura,” a friendship worship circle, much like Shir Ha’Maalot which meets at Union Temple today. At first, before we had a building, we would meet at various homes. That went on for two years until 1848, when Moses Kessel’s home on North Second Avenue—what’s now Marcy Avenue in Williamsburgh—became our first official synagogue building. We started out Orthodox, but in time moved toward the Reform style. And so began the debates about how much Hebrew and how much German we should have in the service! The same, but different.

We are approaching the Hebrew year 5779. In Hebrew, numbers are indicated with letters. The Hebrew letters which “spell” out 5779 are Tof-Shin-Ayin-Tet. My father-in-law of blessed memory used to make a notarikon—a kind of word-play, in which letters become an acronym – out of the number-letters every year. He’s gone now. So in his memory, allow me to try one. T’hiyeh Sh’nat Ayin Tov. May this coming year be a year of seeing one another with a “good eye.”

The contemporary Jewish singer/composer/ teacher Rabbi Shlomo Katz teaches that seeing one another with a “good eye” implies a higher level than simply giving one another the benefit of the doubt. It means that we interpret one another’s motivations kaf zechut, on the scale of merit. We elevate one another. We assume our fellow must have had a good reason for whatever it was that he/she/they did, even if we don’t understand it. The ability to see one another with a “good eye” does not come overnight. Great tsaddikim, people marked by great righteousness, are known to have worked seven full years just to begin to develop this ability—something we work on for the rest of our lives. So don’t get discouraged. Spiritual progress is never a straight line. But when we go into something knowing already that there will be aliyot v’yeridot, ups and downs, Rabbi Katz teaches, then the ups and downs don’t really bother us so much. We can deal with the yeridot—with the downs—and not let them paralyze us. We celebrate even small, incremental spiritual advancements along the way—our own, and our fellows’. And with an appreciation for how difficult this work is, rather than criticizing and speaking harshly to one another, we develop the quality of adinut—of gentleness—in our relations with one another, and toward ourselves, knowing that the ups and downs are inevitable.

Congregational transition is nothing if not a journey of ups and downs, challenging our capacity to be gentle with one another. One of the gurus of organizational transition, William Bridges, in his book “Managing Transitions,” describes the journey as, paradoxically, beginning with the ending (which is marked either negatively by denial, or positively by excitement), which then descends into a period of anxiety and confusion (but also, positively, by creativity and innovation), finally moving into the new beginning, marked hopefully by at least a sense of relief, even by a sense of accomplishment, recovered energy, and renewed commitment. But to get there, we must, along the way, give one another the benefit of the doubt, try to judge one another on the scale of merit, speak with a sense of gentleness toward one another, training ourselves to see one another with an ayin tov, with a “good eye.”

So T’hiyeh Sh’nat Ayin Tov. May the coming year be a year in which we see one another with a “good eye”—a year in which we strive to see the good in one another, a year in which we encourage the good in one another; a year in which we are gentle with one another; a year of experiencing what is the same at Union Temple and what is different at Union Temple, with openness and generosity toward one another, as we begin a year of experimentation, and spiritual, congregational, personal and interpersonal self-exploration and, ultimately, ascent for us all.