Congregating to Make Meaningful Change - A Path for the Future
I was a very fearful child. I was scared of dogs. Of fire. Of chicken soup, for a time. And I was very scared of sleepovers.
I rarely could bring myself to make it through a whole sleepover without needing a parent to pick me up. When I did, I was miserable.
So, when my Beth Am class was going on an overnight to LA, my mom called the Rabbi to see what could be done. Could I be placed with a friend? Could I change my homestay away from one where there was a dog? And because Beth Am was Beth Am, I was taken care of, and had a great trip (even though I did get sick from Cantor’s Matzo Ball soup right at the front of the bus - my chicken soup fears were validated!).
I thought a lot about my fear of overnights last year, when we learned that thousands of children had been separated from their parents and caregivers at the border. I could barely handle one night at a friend’s - how could we be doing this to these children?
The news stories were horrendous, and I could have felt helpless to make a difference.
Again, I turned to Beth Am. Immediately, there were ways to help. There was a Congregation in Texas helping families and unaccompanied minors, and Beth Am congregants donated 20 boxes of supplies to help them.
Beth Am congregants participated in a local vigil, and Rabbi Sarah used Jewish teachings around separation to inspire the crowd.
Earlier this year, a delegation of lawyers from Beth Am went to the border to help, and last week 50 Beth Am members wrote their members of Congress about the conditions at the border.
And every day until Tisha B’Av Beth Am members are joining in a vigil in Palo Alto to call for compassion at the border. There is so much more to be done, but I have a community of people with whom to act, and in that, there is hope.
And I’m not the only one who feels the need for this kind of community that congregates to address injustice.
Earlier this year, another community at Beth Am - a small group of young adults at Beth Am gathered to start thinking about what it would take to bring our young adult program to the next level. Inspired by both the success of our growing young adult program and the importance of reaching more, we - the young adult task force - set about interviewing unaffiliated Jewish young adults we knew.
They weren’t hard to find - most Jewish young adults - most of my peers - are not connected to a synagogue. And in our particular region, most are not connected to an organized Jewish community at all.
My friends and peers care about Judaism - celebrating holidays together and working with their partners to build a Jewish home - but, due to many factors, many of them aren’t yet finding their way to our wonderful community here..
So we asked - what would you like from a Jewish community, if anything?
A few of the answers:
“I want access to Jewish lifecycle services that I could pay for with as I need them.”
“I want new avenues of Jewish engagement that don't feel forced or like there's an agenda behind it.”
“I’d maybe like a book club? But specifically designed for young people, not my mom's book club.”
And two of my favorites:
“I want to be part of something bigger.”
“The news is a depressing and paralyzing factor in our lives, not a motivating one for social change. Could spiritual leadership change this?”
You and I know, Beth Am’s spiritual leadership does change this sense of despair. Rather than feel depressed and unmotivated by the enormity of injustice in the world, we at Beth Am - as it says in our congregational “Tzedek Vision,” congregate to make meaningful change in the world.
I hold fast to a Pirkei Avot teaching, which says, “it is not upon you to finish the task, but neither are you free to desist from it.”
In order to let this teaching truly inspire you, though, you have to know that while you alone won’t be finishing the task, others will join you, and together you will make progress.
One doesn’t have to look far at Beth Am to be inspired by the way we make meaningful change together. Look to the left and you might see a congregant who makes chicken soup to be delivered to people who can’t enjoy community outside of their homes.
To your right, a family that regularly volunteers at the LifeMoves family shelter, bringing breakfast monthly with a team of Beth Am members.
At the Bimah, a rabbi that marches for racial justice, or another that organizes to support our Muslim neighbors. A youth group that collects your food donations at High Holy Days every year to give to those that can’t afford to get the food they need.
Your fellow members register voters, march against gun violence, support a Ukrainian synagogue, and more. Hundreds of members participate in our Equal Start initiative - providing an array of services and leading as advocates for equal educational opportunities for young children. Our congregation is part of a new Bay Area Organizing effort, building power through relationships among communities, so we can tackle problems together.
When Catholic Charities asked if they could partner with our congregation to get needed supplies to help a refugee family of 8 from Afghanistan settle here, a couple of congregants organized the response, and hundreds of congregants donated funds, furniture, and time to make sure the family had all they needed to move to the United States.
Dozens of congregants trained together to respond to ICE raids, supporting our neighbors who live in fear. Nearly every week, we learn about a way that a Bar or Bat Mitzvah has chosen to better the world, and every week dozens of congregants give to the monthly tzedakah recipient.
When I am fearful for the state of the world, when I feel that the hurt is too big for me to fight, I turn to my congregation, and feel hope because I have hundreds of partners in bringing my Jewish values to life.
As the several dozen young adults who are here today can affirm - there is a lot to gain from being part of a larger Jewish community. We’ve made friendships, we’ve carried on traditions, we’ve studied, we’ve taken comfort and inspiration from prayer and text, and we’ve celebrated life cycle events together. Already, we - the young adult community at Beth Am - found ways to follow in the tradition set forth for us by Beth Am to do good in the world. We’ve had over 60 young adults show up for a volunteer fair, and tomorrow, 15 are joining together for the first “Social Justice Shabbat,” to study our values and work together to put them into action.
This week’s Torah portion - which, like a good millennial, I learned about on a podcast - speaks about the future of the Israelite people when they enter Canaan. How will land be passed down? Who will lead?
There’s a particular story about how rules of inheritance were adjusted to meet the new needs of the people in the community.
Over the next few years, we will be having many similar conversations about the future of Beth Am. How will we bring all that we love about our congregation to a new generation? What new programs and systems will we create to adjust to the new needs of our community?
Several young adults are working with our Rabbis on piloting new programs for our peer group, and Rabbi Jon has been studying new models for engaging young adults.
One thing I know we will seek are more opportunities to follow in Beth Am’s commitment to pursuing a more just world. This is a tradition that does not change with the generations. It is a tradition that inspires and lifts up our people from despair, and allows us to make the world we are living in better for everyone. And it is a tradition that will continue to draw folks to Beth Am, as they look for ways to
make meaning in a sometimes despairing world.
Thanks to the model our values, and our community has set forth, the future is bright, both for young Jewish adults, for Beth Am, and for the world we continually look to make more just. Shabbat Shalom.