Vidya Kagan Sermon
Shabbat Shalom. It’s a pleasure to see so many people here. Thank you for joining us for Shabbat Services on this beautiful summer evening.
As Rabbi Heath said, my name is Vidya Kagan. My family and I have been part of the Beth Am community for 5 years. We have experienced many simchas during our time here, including our daughter’s Bat Mitzvah in 2016. We have also learned a lot over the past 5 years, thanks to our experienced and dedicated clergy and staff, and our diverse congregation. In fact, it’s our large congregation that drew me to Beth Am. I knew that by joining Beth Am, I would have the opportunity to meet a lot of different people and learn from them, all while connecting over our shared Jewish culture and traditions. I am comfortable in large groups, but I realize that it’s not the same for others. With such a large congregation, it can be difficult to meet and connect with people and feel a sense of belonging. Beth Am has created many ways for us to connect, and the one initiative that has made a huge difference in my life is the Sh’ma Groups Initiative. Thanks to my involvement as a Sh’ma Groups member, group guide, and now, as a Sh’ma Groups Committee Co-chair, I have developed strong connections and friendships with several very special families, have learned more about Judaism, and feel like I belong at Beth Am.
How exactly did I get involved with Sh’ma Groups?
It all started with a retreat.
A Beth Am Bnei Mitzvah retreat in 2016, to be exact.
Who knew that a 2-day retreat doing something I’ve NEVER done before would result in deep and lasting friendships? A sense of community and belonging? A stronger connection to Judaism? And fun? Lots of fun!
Let me explain.
See, I didn’t grow up Jewish. My religious background is Hinduism, and a fleeting relationship with Hinduism at that. I never engaged in any learning and I never felt connected to the religion or the community.
My relationship with religion and community changed in the mid-1990s, when I met my husband Steve, who is Jewish. Steve and his family warmly welcomed me into the Jewish community. Before I knew it, I was immersed in Jewish culture, traditions, and holidays and was eager to learn everything I could about Judaism. In fact, when Steve and I got married in 1999, we had a Hindu ceremony and a Jewish ceremony because we felt so strongly about honoring both cultures and traditions. For the past 20 years, we have celebrated Jewish holidays with family and friends, joined our relatives and friends during happy times like bnei mitzvahs, and participated in the life of our synagogues.
Which brings me back to the Bnei Mitzvah retreat that my daughter and I attended in the spring of 2016. Talk about participation! I had no idea what to expect. I found the retreat to be open and warm, and all about learning and community. I soaked up every detail, every conversation, every activity, every lecture. Most importantly, I met a handful of families who would later be part of my dear Sh’ma Group. Two days together with these families turned into a Sh’ma Group that has been going strong for more than 2 years. That’s 2 years of friendships, 2 years of listening and learning, 2 years of animated discussions, and 2 years of food and fun. Let me tell you - my Sh’ma Group can bake a mean coffee cake!
Today, I’m going to talk about the basics of Beth Am’s Sh’ma Groups Initiative and the overall benefits of small groups. I’ll then transition into what Sh’ma Groups can do for you and how you can get involved.
Simply put, the goal of Beth Am’s Sh’ma Groups initiative is to bring members of our congregation together to know and be known, deepen connections with one another and Beth Am, and to experience the rhythms of Jewish life. Groups typically consist of 8-15 people with shared interests and are led by members like you and me. Groups can be about a shared experience like my group and bnei mitzvahs, or something social like hiking or playing cards. The idea is to meet on a regular basis to create deeper relationships through meaningful, structured conversations and enhance our Jewish growth and exploration. As human beings, we are wired to seek human connections, deep connections at that. We want genuine friendships and opportunities to be ourselves. We want to belong. Sh’ma Groups can help you do all of this and more.
Sh’ma Groups is our terminology for the small groups concept that is popular in churches and other social organizations around the world. The benefits of small groups are many. Ron Wolfson, the author of The Relational Judaism Handbook, describes 6 particular benefits:
Relationships. Small groups enable one to deepen relationships with one another.
Greater sense of belonging. By joining a small group, you get to know people very well. When you participate in a Beth Am event or come to services, you will see your group members and not feel so anonymous any more.
Finding your place, finding your people. Making friends and developing relationships leads to greater connections to our community & Beth Am as a whole.
Opportunity to be part of a caring community. Small groups offer members authentic opportunities to care for one another in good times and in tough times.
Growing new leaders. Small groups enable people’s voices to be heard, which may result in members who are willing to take on different roles in the community as leaders, connectors or facilitators.
Organization-wide conversations. Small groups are an opportunity to hear from the clergy and leadership at Beth Am, have substantive discussions, and feel more connected as a whole. (how Sh’ma Groups contribute to the synagogue as a whole)
Being a member of a Sh’ma Group can create a space for you to make friends, create relationships, and learn. But it’s more than that. It’s a way to make sense of our busy lives and to pay attention to what matters most: the people around us. It’s a way for us to slow down and be present. It’s a way to recharge and reignite our passion for our family, our friends, our community and our culture. It’s a way to belong and be ourselves.
Personally, I have found that my Sh’ma Group has provided all of this and more for me. As much as I love big gatherings, I feel more comfortable connecting and sharing with people in smaller settings. My Sh’ma Group is an opportunity to talk, listen, introduce new ideas, ask questions, and engage in learning with friends. It’s a way to put myself out there and be understood. As a result, I now feel more comfortable attending Beth Am events. I speak up and I feel like I’m being heard. I feel like I make a difference with my Sh’ma Group friends and I feel like I belong at Beth Am.
Everyone’s Sh’ma Groups experience is different. It really can be whatever you want it to be. There are some groups where the members have bonded quite closely. In fact, they may have never met each other if it weren’t for Sh’ma Groups! And there are Sh’ma Groups that have been so large and so successful that some members have started new Sh’ma Groups and are serving as group guides, which is our term for the leaders of these groups. There are quite a few folks who belong to more than one Sh’ma Group because each group offers an opportunity to get to know different people. Sh’ma Groups can add to your life too. If you commit the time and energy to the group and the group members, you will get so much out of it, more than you can imagine. You will develop deep friendships, learn a lot, and engage in spirited discussions. You may even realize a few new things about yourself! My personal journey from being a member to a group guide to a Sh’ma Groups Committee member to a Sh’ma Groups Committee co-chair has been enriching and incredibly meaningful. My journey has indeed been a blessing for me and something that I would’ve never expected, much like the retreat I mentioned at the beginning of my speech. It has added so much to my life. I am grateful for the opportunity to belong to a Sh’ma Group and to my group members -- my friends! -- and to contribute to Beth Am.
Now that you have a good sense of what Sh’ma Groups is all about and the benefits of joining one, I encourage you to take the next step and learn more. Ask questions. Think about joining a group. Maybe you want to “go big” and start a group. All of this is possible. If you are ready to participate in Sh’ma Groups right now, please consider joining our Elul Group next month! This group will be led by Rabbi Heath and will give you a good taste of what Sh’ma Groups are like.
It’s up to you to take action and get involved. Please know that all of us at Beth Am are here to help you, support you, and guide you. After services today, please find me or any other Sh’ma Group committee members - we’ll be the ones with the clipboards - to talk and discuss your ideas.
I’d like to close my speech with a look to the future. As I mentioned at the beginning, my Sh’ma Group started with a bnei mitzvah retreat. We’re now in year 3 of our group and looking to the future. My son’s bar mitzvah will take place in the summer of 2020 and we’re partnering with one of the families in my Sh’ma Group. Your Sh’ma Group experience can be whatever you want it to be in the present and in the future. For me, it means friends and community for life. Shabbat Shalom.