High Holy Days 5779
Rabbi Oren Steinitz's Yom Kippur Evening Sermon

Shannah Tovah!

Ever since I arrived here, and probably way before that, we have been hearing discussions and arguments about what Kol Ami actually is. I am not referring to the endless arguments about whether services are too Reform or too Conservative (or both at the same time, judging by the comments I got after Rosh HaShannah), or whether the building should be called a synagogue or a temple. Many times people argue whether CKA should actually be a religious community or a cultural center, are there too many social events or not enough of them, and what should be our focus in the years to come.

In a way, these discussions are very much in line with modern Jewish thought, as Jewish thinkers and scholars have been constantly debating for close to two hundred years now not only regarding who is a Jew, but also regarding what is Judaism. If Judaism is nothing but a religion, how come we have so many non-religious people who proudly identify as Jews? If Judaism is a nationality, does that mean that those of us in the diaspora are somehow less Jewish than those who live in Israel? If Judaism is an ethnicity, how come we have European, American, North African, Middle Eastern, Asian, Indian and Ethiopian Jews? How come they all look so different? If Judaism is a culture, how come the different Ethnic Jewish groups do not share a language, literature, or even food? Just try and get a decent corn beef sandwich in Israel…

In his book Judaism as a Civilization, Rabbi Mordecai M. Kaplan suggested a different view. Judaism, Kaplan said, is the sum total of all of these elements – it is a religion, and ethnicity, a nationality and a culture, all at the same time. If we take even one element out of the equation, whatever we will be left with will not be Judaism anymore. We may even have more than one of each! I don’t think we can imagine Judaism without both Ashkenazi and Sephardi cultures, without the many different religious movements – not just Reform and Conservative, by the way, without Israel and the Diaspora. There simply cannot be Judaism without both Gefilte Fish and Falafel.

So what are we? Even though we may agree with the premise that Judaism cannot be defined in just one word, we sometimes have to. I have become particularly fond of referring to Judaism as a “Tribe,” or simply an extended family, and I think it is particularly fitting for a community like Kol Ami.

You see, a family is always – always – an heterogeneous group. Families contain women and men, children and adults, young and old, and even your crazy uncle. Unlike any ideological group, club or society, you do not need to get accepted to a family, and you really cannot get thrown out. In the words of the Eagles, you can check out any time you like, but you can never leave. You may not get along with some of your family members, you may not like them, but at the end of the day, you know that unless you want to take drastic measures and cut ties with your family altogether, there really ain’t much you can do about it.

Rabbi Ilai Ophran writes that this is why ideological organizations have such a hard time with families. Many Yeshivas, for instance, insist that their students stay in school over the holidays and visit their homes as seldom as possible. You would notice that often when someone becomes more religiously observant than their family, the first thing they do is stop eating at their table – breaking bread together brings people closer, and often times, when you stop eating together, you grow apart. If you decide to stay close to your family, you know you are making a choice. You know that you will often be in the same room with people you disagree with. Sometimes strongly disagree with. You know that if you want to see all your cousins for Channukah, you may just have to sit next to your crazy uncle, smile, and pass the applesauce.

Rabbi Ophran points out an interesting phenomenon. In the last several years, we constantly hear how family values were never less popular. And yet, somehow, families appear stronger and stronger. Stronger, in fact, than most ideologies. If fifty years ago, families were quick to disavow their children if they married out of the faith, today they simply set another seat at the table. A son or a daughter who come out of the closet is still welcome at the Seder table, as long as they sit exactly in the same place they did when they were eight years old. Children drive to Shabbat lunch at their Orthodox parents’ houses and only get a sour face if they don’t help with washing the dishes. Families, so it seems, have decided they have way too much to lose.

The same goes for our extended Jewish family. It took us long enough, but we finally realized we simply cannot afford to alienate anyone. This is particularly true in our neck of the woods. If larger cities can afford to have six different synagogues and three different JCCs, based on any kind of religious, political or any other ideology, here – we are one family. Even if the person sitting behind you sings loudly off key or if you must sit next to a crazy uncle at the Kiddush table. Just smile and pass the applesauce...

Shannah Tovah!

1008 W. Water St. Elmira, NY 14905

Shabbat Service Schedule:

Friday Evening Service - 7:30PM

Saturday Morning Service - 8:00AM

Saturday Morning Service - 9:30AM

1008 W. Water St. Elmira, NY 14905
Phone: 607-732-7410 / 607-734-7735