Ma Tovu ohalecha yaakov – how beautiful are your tents O Jacob, your dwelling places O Israel…it is an amazing blessing to be sharing this tent with you this morning. If you knew all the work over the last month that went into making this set up work…it is wonderful to see you all here, and here (wave to zoomers) this morning.

I have talked about the ingenuity and resilience of our community over the past 18 months, but I must say that from where I stand now it feels in a way like it was preparation for the last month, a month when we realized that in spite of all the mask wearing, isolating, and vaccinating this thing is not over. And yet, here we are. I need to express my gratitude to everyone who, in their own way, kept us together over this year and a half, and really made us stronger than ever. Adversity does indeed inspire creativity and it has revealed a strength in our community as well.

That is not to say that we are not exhausted and heart worn. Life for me feels more out of my control than ever before. The High Holidays come this year with a message: Accept your losses, accept help. We can’t do it alone. Have a little faith and let God hold you sometimes. In the past year and a half the importance of community is clearer to me more than ever. Amidst these challenging times, as a Jewish community we ground ourselves in the transcendent – in prayer, tradition, respect for humanity, acts of kindness and justice.

And the pandemic had its own message – don’t continue to do things the way you always have because “tradition.” You must respond to the present moment, to the needs of your community. More than just being responsive, you must live into the future and who you want to become if you are to thrive. And this too is the central message of the HHDs. You must expand your tent. And so I’d like to explore what that means for us as a community today

Kol Emet is a beautiful tent. Our beauty is not just aesthetic, though we are blessed with our beautiful grounds and sacred space. Our tent is exemplified by kindness, and a love for meaningful, evolving, creative Judaism. It is a living Judaism, a doing Judaism, a Judaism for our times, where we respond to the present moment with honesty and nuance, drawing from the deep well of Jewish values. As a Reconstructionist Jewish congregation, we are inspired by our tradition but not bound by it. And as much as I am your spiritual leader, our members govern our community and truly drive its Jewish vision and mission.

Let me share an example of this. Kol Emet, since its inception, has welcomed and included interfaith families in a way that was pretty radical 30 years ago. And I’d say we’re still ahead of the game. We invite everyone in our community to be involved, have a voice, and get involved in our committees regardless of their religious background or how much they know. We allow any adult to come up to the bimah for a Torah honor. We count every adult in a minyan.

It is not that we are blind to difference. We at Kol Emet have long recognized that people who weren’t raised Jewish bring their own religious and personal perspectives to bear in the Jewish community that are important and beneficial. We know that it is important that we seek diversity in our committees, even and especially in religious matters. Our Ritual Committee invites the perspectives of those who weren’t raised Jewish, or who have young kids at home to make services and holidays accessible and relevant to everyone.

I want to point out that this is more than just Kol Emet policy; over time it has shaped our identity and our synagogue culture. Rather than being united by an assumption of our shared background, we have evolved into a congregation that is united by our values, by how we treat one another, and by our spiritual practice.

But naturally, we have boundaries – as every community or congregation should. We must have boundaries to protect our community norms, our progressive Jewish values, and our sacred tradition. We must stand for something even when, or especially when it feels hard. However, as a Reconstructionist synagogue, we are much more focused on our positive mission and than in erecting walls to keep the wrong people out.

But we also must set boundaries for our physical safety. Unfortunately this is the world we live in and we need to think in this way. The sad reality is that 59.1% of all hate crimes motivated by religious bias in the US in 2020 were anti-Jewish (https://www.justice.gov/hatecrimes/facts-and-statistics). I could give a whole other sermon on anti-semitism, or racism, and I have. The reality is that we always need to balance being welcoming and accessible with looking out for our safety, and this is not just a challenge unique to Kol Emet.

But it must be said that communities also set boundaries in ways that are more unspoken, implicit, reflexive, even unintentional. And it’s important that we acknowledge this so that we can become aware of our unconscious biases and fears. For example, if somebody comes in that we don’t recognize, we might come up to them and talk to them and try to find out about them. If we somehow feel that something is off, we might start getting worried.

But how do we determine whether someone fits in, or doesn’t, in a synagogue setting? That is often a more subconscious process of looking for something recognizably Jewish, like a star around a person’s neck, or a Jewish sounding last name, or even facial features that look familiar.

I say this with great compassion for those of us who grew up with Jewish people and Jewish community looking or behaving in a certain way, or sounding or eating in a certain way. Certainly, in the United States, Ashkenazi culture, ritual, language, and food have been the norm for over 100 years. Between 1880 and the onset of restrictive immigration quotas in 1924, over 2 million Jews from Russia, Austria-Hungary, and Romania came to America. The character of American Jewry was transformed, as the Eastern Europeans became the majority. Before that time, interestingly, the American Jewish community largely adhered to Sephardic ritual customs particularly in Jewish hubs including Newport, R.I., New Amsterdam (later New York), Philadelphia.

Now, again, in the last thirty years, while we weren’t looking, the American Jewish landscape has transformed yet again. Just look at our community – Jewish last names are no longer reliably Rosenbaum or Katz; they are also Boswell, O’Rourke, and Santarsiero. This is indicative of the changing face of the Jewish community in America as we continue to integrate into the diverse fabric of American society.

The recent 2020 Pew population study (https://www.pewforum.org/2021/05/11/jewish-americans-in-2020/) gives us some perspective on these changes. 72% of Jews married since 2010 are married to non-Jews. That is compared an 18% intermarriage rate of Jews who married before 1980. Now, this is not necessarily bad for the Jews. The adult Jewish population in America has been fairly stable in percentage terms, while rising in absolute numbers, roughly in line with the growth of the U.S. population. And, as one might expect, like the overall U.S. population, Jews appear to be growing more racially and ethnically diverse as one might expect with intermarriage.

Now, approximately 1 in 10 Jews identify with other racial or ethnic categories. Among Jews ages 18 to 29, however, the share who identify as a race or ethnicity other than white rises to 15%. Overall, 17% of Jews surveyed – including 29% of Jewish adults under the age of 30 – live in households in which at least one child or adult is Black, Latinx, Asian, non-White multiethnic, or multiracial. I should note that Jewish families of color and Jewish interfaith families are not necessarily the same thing, though there may be some overlap.

That diversity is reflected at Kol Emet, and especially so in our religious school. And I write this sermon because of them. Our kids are awesome – they learn in many different ways and have wide-ranging abilities and talents. They also have diverse ethnic and racial backgrounds, and gender and sexual orientations. We need to ensure that every part of them is seen, welcomed and appreciated in our community.

Mordechai Kaplan, the founder of Reconstructionist Judaism, who was also a student of sociology, wrote about assimilation, that word so often used in a negative sense in describing Jewish integration into American society. (“Active, Not Passive, Assimilation” article in A Different Light ed. by Noam Zion and Barbara Spectre with excerpts from “The Meaning of God in Modern Jewish Religion,” 1937) He wrote that it actually means two opposite things. In one sense, to BE assimilated is to passively integrate into the dominant culture, leaving one’s particular heritage behind. But in another sense, to actively assimilate means to take the best of the principles and ideals of the greater society into one’s particular heritage or culture or religion. Jews have actually done this for millenia. We’ve taken European foods like kugel, challah, and bagels and made them Jewish food. American Jews have integrated Eastern practices like yoga and meditation into our spiritual practice in congregational life.

So yes, we are engaged in active assimilation here at Kol Emet. We bring Jewish values and ancient wisdom forward to address the changes and challenges in American society. And we bring American values and practices into our rhythm here at Kol Emet. That’s why our tagline is “Judaism for today’s world.”

But yes, to answer the critics, with all this assimilation there is a danger of staying true to our heritage. But then, there is also a danger of our heritage remaining static as everything changes around us. One hundred years ago, Rabbi Kaplan was greatly concerned about Jewish practice remaining stagnant and prayer being done by rote while American values of democracy, pluralism, and egalitarianism were embraced in the public sphere. We have to change with the times, regardless, and this is something the Reconstructionist movement has always recognized.

And so, seeking home in synagogue life are people – adults, kids – who are interfaith, multiracial, multinational, LGBTQ. And just as we are demanding that our Jewish selves be embraced fully in American life, they expect no less – that the Jewish community welcome every part of who they are as well.

By they, I really should say “we” – after all, my own family is interfaith, bi-racial, and multinational. And I would not be a rabbi, or maybe even Jewish at all, if my then-Christian, Swiss mother and my Jewish New Yorker father weren’t accepted in the Jewish community at every step of their journey. But I myself have been told in Jewish spaces, and after services that I have led, that I don’t look Jewish, and that my daughter is too blond to be Jewish. I have been questioned about my “exotic” Jewish heritage, which is not Ashkenazi, but Sephardic, as my grandmother was born and raised in Kingston, Jamaica. I have experienced the assumption that I should know Yiddish or least have heard it in my home growing up. In fact, I heard Hebrew of Western Sephardic vocalization mixed with Judeo-Spanish, or Ladino, (and of course a lot of Patwa and curse-words if you were blessed to know my grandmother).

I bring up my experience because unfortunately these experiences are not unique to me. Jews come from all parts of the world – we speak different languages, speak Hebrew with different accents, have different musical and culinary traditions. But somehow there is an implicit assumption in too many Jewish spaces that Jews are Ashkenazi and that they are white. Indeed, unfortunately these “othering” experiences are more pronounced for Jews of color. This spring, at our Shabbat services, we had the blessing of hearing from Zohara Armstrong, my study partner and a Jew of color, about her negative and positive experiences in Jewish spaces.
Just a few weeks ago another landmark study called “Beyond the Count” came out, which surveyed the experiences of 1000 Jews of Color in the US. (https://jewsofcolorinitiative.org/what-we-do/research-field-building/) The good news is that a slight majority of Jews of Color do feel that they belong in Jewish spaces, and it is clear that being Jewish is important and meaningful to the respondents. The majority of them also indicated that honoring their Jewish identity and their racial or ethnic identity is meaningful to them. And, encouragingly, many respondents felt most comfortable expressing the fullness of their identities around their Jewish family members.
However, a full eighty percent of respondents indicate experiencing discrimination in predominantly white Jewish spaces, ranging from racist microaggressions to outright challenges to their Jewish status. And the majority of respondents feel that the organized Jewish community is not doing enough to address it.
This is very concerning, but it is also energizing. The Beyond the Count study did offer concrete recommendations for advancing the work of building an increasingly inclusive and diverse community that represents all Jews, not just some.
So what can we do at Kol Emet? Aren’t we a welcoming, loving community as we are? I would say emphatically, yes. However, I believe that if we also expand our tent intentionally, we won’t just be reacting or responding to our current reality, we will be building consciously toward the future and our kids’ future.

An insightful article came out recently in the online journal eJewish Philanthropy, called “Expanding not diluting: Embracing Jewish+ families,” co-written by Jewish educators Alison Weikel and Rachel Weinstein White. In it, they share personal stories of feeling “less than” in spite of being career Jewish educators because to their interfaith, interracial marriages. They also take on certain terms we’ve become accustomed to, namely the terms “interfaith family” and “non-Jew.”

The term “non-Jew” they argue, frames a person in the negative, focusing only on what the person is not. They also point out that the word “interfaith” is not an accurate way to describe a family who only celebrates Judaism, or another family where the non-Jewish partner is of no faith. And, while “interfaith” works for some, is a challenging term for others because it has been used in a pejorative sense by those who disparage interfaith marriage. They offer instead the terms “Jewish adjacent” and “Jewish+ family” which I will try out with you now.

While it is certainly true that some “Jewish+ families” move away from Jewish community life, it is also true that Jewish adjacent family members inspire their Jewish counterparts to live more Jewishly in profound ways. This is what happened with my own parents in their journey of raising my brother and I as Jews. I’ve witnessed it over and over again wherever Jewish adjacent partners are fully welcomed. At Kol Emet, our Jewish Adjacent parents raise Jewish children, celebrate Jewish holidays at home and at shul, and yes, ask Jewish questions that raise our awareness and question our assumptions. They add to the Jewish experience and narrative, and I would argue that you do not dilute the Jewish experience; you are making it richer.

Now, I am not wedded to one term or another, it is more important to me that we as a community consider the words we use carefully in our informal conversations, as well as at our meetings, services, on our forms and website. Indeed, language holds such power and words frame our communal attitude and action.

But of course it’s not just words; we need to walk the walk. We need to have those conversations about our experiences, positive and negative. We need to listen open heartedly and learn from one another about how we can enrich the Jewishness of our community for everyone and how we can better engage the diversity of our community.

Why bring this up now, on Rosh Hashanah, of all times? Rosh Hashanah is a beginning; the precipice of a new year. We reflect on the past and commit to doing better, and we marvel at the endless possibilities that await us in this new year. And interestingly, Torah and Haftarah portions for this day help us to reflect on both the entrenched, generations-old biases we hold and assumptions we make, and challenge us to become more aware, to become more loving and more accepting.

We just read about Sarah and Hagar – the two wives of Abraham who were in competition with each other for yerusha, which is more than inheritance – it is the family line. It was Sarah and her son Isaac vying for supremacy versus Hagar and Ishmael, who was the older son of the two. But Sarah was the primary wife, and when she told Abraham to kick Hagar and Ishmael out, he did so. It is a painful story of exclusion and it is a lesson to all of us about the power we have to shape the future of the Jewish people.

And, we read in the Haftarah about a priest named Eli who saw a woman Hannah acting unusually in his temple. Eli assumed that Hannah must be drunk and spoke harshly to her. But Hannah was simply there, praying fervently for a child, as if her life depended upon it. Thankfully, Hannah didn’t leave the temple when she was chastened, she spoke up and corrected Eli. And when he realized his error, he apologized. The son Hannah would have, Samuel, would himself become a priest and would become one of the most important prophets in Israel. By holding Eli accountable, Hannah maintained that not only did she and her prayer have a rightful place in the temple, but that her son would also have an unquestioned place in Israel.

Rabbi Harold Kushner wrote that, “Judaism is less about believing and more about belonging. It is less about what we owe God and more about what we owe each other, because we believe God cares more about how we treat each other than…about our theology.” (To Life! A Celebration of Jewish Being and Thinking by Harold Kushner) This Rosh Hashanah, let’s consider what binds us together and what we truly owe one another. May we be blessed with a sweet new year, ripe with possibility, joy, and openness to expansive growth.

Shana tova u’metuka!