Opening our Doors Even Wider: Yom Kippur Sermon 5783/2022

Editor’s Note: Rabbi Julie originally gave this sermon during the Yom Kippur service, Oct 2022.

This past March, during women’s history month, a reporter from the Montclair local news interviewed me together with Miriam Haimes for an article about Shomrei appointing its first female rabbi.  There was something important and memorable that our past president said during that conversation that didn’t end up being quoted.  Miriam said, “our congregation was open to hiring a rabbi of any gender.”  I remember feeling a sense of pride that I was coming to a very open and progressive community, that was ready for a rabbi who identified as female, male, non-binary, or trans.   And then on my first day of work at Shomrei this past August, I walked into the building through the first set of doors and noticed for the first time a sign that reads, “all males please wear a head covering while in the building.”   I remember thinking, well I guess it doesn’t matter if the rabbi remembers to wear a kippah.

I realized in that moment, that our intentions are there, we want to be a community that is open and inclusive in every way.   And we need to open our doors even wider.  There are so many ways in which our congregation is ahead of the curve and there are times when our values and our commitments aren’t fully expressed in our words and actions and people are hurt.  Today, on Yom Kippur, when we do a chesbon hanefesh, when we take an inventory of how who we hope to be matches up with who we are, I want to lift-up the ways we already open our doors to Jews of color, interfaith families, people with disabilities, and LGBTQ individuals and families. And I also want to shine a light on some areas that still need our attention, because ultimately, we can only continue to improve in our inclusion efforts if all of us, and I mean each and every one of us, makes a commitment to continually learn and grow.

* * *

In a 1995 oral history interview, Rabbi Schnitzer, who served as Rabbi of our congregation for 44 years, was asked to describe Shomrei’s proudest moment during his tenure as rabbi.  He recalled the story of an end of year picnic the congregation organized at the Preakness Pool Swimming Club in the summer of 1963.   At that time, there was a Black family named the Rogers who were members of the congregation.  When they arrived at the club, there was a ‘squabble’ with the owners, who happened to be Jewish.  They wouldn’t allow the Rogers to enter because they were Black.  Rabbi Schnitzer pleaded with them, saying, they’re Jews, they’re equal people, they’re human beings.  The owners agreed to let the Rogers family into the park, but not into the swimming pool.  Rabbi Schnitzer decided the entire congregation should leave and they relocated the picnic to someone’s backyard.  It was a big deal at the time;

the synagogue president was interviewed on the radio and United Synagogue gave the congregation a national award. [1]

The interviewer then goes off script for a moment, saying, “I remember when my dad passed away, one of the Rogers boys came to the house to help make a minyan.  Some of the people in my family were surprised to see a Black Jew in our congregation.  That same sense of surprise or curiosity manifests today in questions that alienate Jews of color, questions like ‘how are you Jewish?’ or ‘who are you here with?’ or comments like ‘I’m surprised you know so much about being Jewish.’ [2]  As Leah Donnella explains in an essay, ‘Black, Jewish, and Avoiding Synagogue on the High Holy Days,’ as a black woman with a Jewish mother, “looking out of place is one of the most consistent parts of my life.  But it’s different in a synagogue.  There’s something about feeling like an outsider in the place where you grew up that stings.  Like a family member who no longer recognizes you.”

And even when the community does recognize you, it’s hard if you don’t recognize yourself in the community, if you’re one of the only Jews of color in the religious school or none of the leaders and teachers of the synagogue, even guest lecturers, are Jews of color. [3]

* * *

Four years ago, I met Naomi Hess, the first Jewish student in my 17 years at Princeton who used a wheelchair to get around campus.   Born with a rare form of muscular dystrophy that affects her muscle strength and her speaking voice, Naomi is “soft-spoken, but she makes herself heard”. [4]  Last year on Yom Kippur Naomi was given an aliyah at services in recognition of her disability advocacy efforts including making Princeton’s original building – Nassau Hall – wheel-chair accessible for the first time in its 266-year history   When members of the congregation were invited to stand in body or spirit to support Naomi’s efforts, the entire room stood up.

I called Naomi earlier this week to ask her why it matters to her when prayer leaders say ‘please rise if you’re able’ instead of just saying ‘please rise.’  She said, “when leaders make a dedicated effort to use inclusive language, it shows they’ve considered that some people in the congregation have bodies that differ from the norm.  And it sends the message that there are many ways to honor religious practice, even if someone can’t stand.  I asked Naomi if she prefers, ‘rise in body or spirit’ or ‘please rise if you are able’ and she said, “she has no preference.  Both phrases send the message that everyone belongs” even if they have physical limitations.  She reminded me that a simple gesture, like including the name and email for a person to contact to request disability accommodations at the bottom of a flyer and on the website, eliminates the uncertainty of whether or not you can request what you need to fully participate in the community.

* * *

When I interviewed to be the rabbi here, I participated in a few smaller focus groups including one with interfaith families. I was asked what I thought about the fact that non-Jewish partners, who are raising Jewish families, aren’t allowed to be members of the synagogue.  Frankly, I was surprised and that Saturday night, when I got back to my hotel room, I began studying the official positions of the Conservative Movement on the matter, finding one written in 1982 that doesn’t allow it.  But in 2017, the Conservative Movement changed its position, allowing non-Jewish spouses to be members of the synagogue with some limitations.  I don’t know all the details, but I understand this issue has been contentious here in the past and was first debated by the Board 15-20 years ago.

A lot can change with inclusion issues in a year, let alone a decade or more.  In 1990, the interfaith marriage rate was 52%.  Today, more than 70% of non-Orthodox Jews marry non-Jewish partners.  The people in the focus group asked me, can’t we at least study and discuss these issues together?  And I also want to make space for grandparents to talk about how to share their love of Judaism with their grandchildren growing up in interfaith families without overstepping.  Ultimately, I agree with Rabbi Kerry Olitsky, a long-time leader on the frontier of interfaith inclusion, “that the time has come to recognize the unsung heroes of our generation, men and women who have taken it upon themselves to raise Jewish children despite being of a different faith.”

* * *

If you were paying close attention during the Torah service, you may have noticed our congregation has changed the way it calls people up for an aliyah, thanks to Rabbi Greenstein and the Conservative Movement’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards.   When we say ‘na la’amod’ instead of ta’amod or ya’amod, we are honoring people and asking them to stand for the aliyah, without assigning them a gender.  “Na la’amod’ means please stand in a genderless way.  Ta’mod means she is invited to stand, and ya’amod means he is invited to stand.  By saying ‘na la’amod’, we allow people to self-identify their gender identity as male, female or non-binary and announce their own Hebrew name using either ben – ‘son of’, bat – ‘daughter of’ or beit – ‘from the house of.’ This approach was adopted almost unanimously by the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards just this year.  I’m also proud of the way we supported one of our JLC students by sending out a video explaining their new name and how important it is to them to be called by this new name, which better reflects their gender identity than their birth name.  These are two examples, when our actions and language match our values and intentions.

And yet, this past Friday, I met with two parents from our preschool to talk about a time we didn’t get it right. Laura, who goes by Mama and Julie, who goes by Mommy, were kind and courageous enough to meet face to face to explain why in one critical conversation we had failed to be fully welcoming to their family.   I had already spoken to one of the moms on the phone about the conversation that was hurtful to them, but the truth was, I didn’t fully understand their experience.  I went to meet with them, because my mentor Rabbi Lebeau taught me that every apology is an opportunity to build a relationship.   They started off by reminding me that it can be really hard to be LGBTQ, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer in our country.  All the time, people at work ask Julie what her husband ‘does for a living’ and she’s forced to come out to strangers and people ask Laura invasive questions like who the sperm donor was for their kids, in front of their kids, when they haven’t even discussed the issue with their little ones yet.  And then it’s hard, they explained, to enter a school environment and even harder to enter a synagogue because like any parents, they want to protect their kids. They said in a town like Montclair, Shomrei can’t afford to be behind on these issues, to gloss over differences in the hopes that everything will just work out because we’re a caring community.  Rather, they urged, we need to model a community where differences are acknowledged and celebrated.

According to the famous 12th century rabbi Maimonides, when we do something wrong, full teshuvah is not achieved simply by admitting we did something wrong and regretting it.

We only fully achieve full repentance when we commit to not doing it again and are able to fulfill that promise.  I decided to change my sermon topic for today and to focus on inclusion, because I believe it will take all of us, and I mean each and every one of us, building on our successes and learning from our mistakes for our community to be as inclusive as I know we all want it to be.   This will take training and practice.  It requires a willingness to change our language and our behavior even if we might not understand fully why it’s important.  And we can only improve when we know and acknowledge where we fall short.  Please speak up if you ever feel we are not fully including you or your family.

When we roll out trainings, not only for our staff and teachers, but for congregants of all ages, I’m asking you to please sign up and participate and learn.  And if you are an expert in this area, please step forward and help us make good on our promise.  Together, we can open our doors even wider so that every individual and family in our congregation, regardless of gender, race, sexual orientation, ability, or religious background can be fully embraced by the Shomrei community.  On this Yom Kippur, please join me in committing to opening our doors even wider.

G’mar Chatimah Tovah. May we be sealed in the Book of Life for a good year.
Rabbi Julie

[1] 1995 Oral History interview with Rabbi Schitzer.

[2] Union for Reform Judaism, Audacious Hospitality, Jews of Color Educational Resource, p.29.

[3] Union for Reform Judaism, Audacious Hospitality, Jews of Color Educational Resource, p.34.

[4] Princeton Alumni Weekly, ‘Opening Doors: Students w/ Disability Push for More Accessible Campus’, March 2022

Rabbi Julie Roth
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