I am still basking in the aftermath of having spent 6 glorious weeks this summer in Eretz Yisrael. It was a turbulent time for the country. Rockets were flying across the Palestinian/Israeli border, sirens blasting, innocent people caught in the middle of a battle that appeared to have no resolution, young soldiers called to defend the country they live and die for. . . we all saw the photos, read the commentaries, counted the casualties on both side, and wondered about the future of the State of Israel and the Palestinian people. Regardless of where we stand politically, we, as Jews and those with an affinity for our people, ARE connected to the Land of Israel.
For the first month studying in Jerusalem, I was in my bubble, streaming news feeds 24/7 for siren alerts while living a ‘kinda-normal’ life. Many weekday evenings, I forfeited cultural events to attend sessions with political analysts who bantered on their sociological and historical perspectives of the situation, followed by late night conversations of the future of Israel with international and Israeli friends in local cafes. Immersed and engaged in the world I was living, I found myself constantly reassuring my family and friends back in the States that I was well.
Actually, I was fairing better than well. I was great. I could not alleviate their worries, but I was able to let them know that I needed to be in Israel at this time and that I was in the right place. I love Israel. . . not everything about it, but the idea that I have a place to go that feels like my home. In Israel, my feelings of longing are appeased with a sense of Belonging. While in Israel, I live Jewishly with ease. I live a rhythm where I can pray with others or alone, maintain a low carbon footprint while walking everywhere, study Jewish texts, engage with people of diverse backgrounds and lives who have so many viewpoints, and joyously observing Shabbat. Don’t get me wrong. I am filled with gratitude for the life that I have cultivated here in New York, but being in our homeland, I get what it feels like to be home, to Belong!
As a child of Holocaust survivors, the notion of belonging and settling in to a place was paramount to my parents in creating a life for themselves and their family when they arrived in the States. That said, having moved up and down the California Coast, with a college stint back East, losing two home to fires, and returning to New York to raise my family, that sense of displacement is embedded deep in my DNA. I try to make “home” and connect wherever I am, and, yet. . . somewhere deep inside me is this stirring feeling of not being settled. I believe this is the legacy that was passed down to me from my parents, who absorbed it from their parents and grandparents, dating back to a lineage of ancestors who picked up and left every few generations, traversing the landscapes of Europe as Jews and before them, an exiled people who wandered the dessert in search of a homeland.
This summer I befriended people from Europe, including many from France, who were studying Hebrew at the Conservative Yeshiva with me. I found it interesting to note that many of them spoke about the urgency for them to learn to speak the Hebrew language. Young and old, many had conscientiously chosen professions that they could “take with them” wherever they may go. I met elders who grew up at the end of WWII and young people who were third generation Parisians who felt the tide was turning again and it was time to find a new homeland. Why not Israel? They no longer feel safe and part of a thriving Jewish community in their respective countries. Like me, they live with a sense of yearning, of longing to BE-long to something greater than themselves.
In these turbulent times, is it any wonder there is so much restlessness and desire for people to find a place where they belong? During my month in Jerusalem, I connected with people through study, song, hiking, meals, prayer and curiosity. I believe we connected not because we liked the same music or falafels or enjoyed sitting for hours debating the meaning of one passage of Talmud. I believe that we connected through a sense of be-longing to the Jewish people. As Diaspora Jews, we care deeply about what happens in Israel. Like America, Israel has been a homeland to many displaced persons, including my relatives who feared the Bolsheviks post War, to Russian Jews in the 60s and 70s, to Ethiopian Jews who migrated in the 80s and 90s and scores of other international communities that have had to flee their homeland for reasons of safety, politics, economics and survival. Israel gives Jews what no other nation on Earth can give them: a sense of belonging, an extended national family irrespective of where they live, work, play, and pray.
The sense of Belonging is a primal human condition. Human beings share the universal need to form and maintain at least some degree of interpersonal relationships with other humans and feel like they are a part of something beyond themselves. According to human theorists, belongingness is an innate quality with an evolutionary basis, and has clear survival and reproductive benefits. Think about it. What connects us to our ancestors? What connects us to each other?
Last week, just as I thought I had completed preparing this sermon, I received a brochure from CLAL, the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership. Reb David and I were privileged and honored to be student rabbinic fellows in CLAL’s Rabbis without Borders a couple of years ago. This past spring, our leaders challenged us to reach out to our respective congregations and survey responses to what makes a meaningful High Holiday service. The themes were geared to three qualities: Hope, Gratitude and Belonging. After some deliberation, Reb David and I decided we would spare you from participating in the complex survey. However, the conversation did inspire us to want to explore the notion of “Belonging” with all of you throughout the year. In this brochure, the following sentence stood out: “ Rosh Hashanah celebrates the birth of humanity, and the fact that we all belong to the human family. In fact, we all belong to many families and communities; it’s just that sometimes we forget.”
Your clergy and board are so committed to making Temple Beth El, the House of Belonging, a place where you can feel that sense of belonging, where everyone feels included and can rest knowing they have a spiritual home.
Look around . . . we are here together on this holy day to not only commune with God. We have chosen to do so in community with one another as part of ‘Our’ Shul by the Sea. Throughout the country, Jews are gathering in prayer this Rosh Hashanah. We have come together to celebrate not only as Jews, but also Gerei Toshav — family members of Jews and people who choose to be with us, because we resonate with the liturgy, the Jewish peoplehood, to reinvigorate our values, and especially because it is a time for us to be gathered in community. It is what we do on this holiday and we want to be a part of it.
Today, I invite you to take a few moments and think about all the ways you belong. Beginning with your family of origin, imagine yourself opening through concentric circles of all the groups you are a subset of. Think about your family, friends, organizations. There is your shul by the sea, the Jewish community of New York and beyond that, the Diaspora, and Klal Yisrael, all Jews in every nation. We can open the circles even wider to include all humankind. To be created in the Image of God (b’Tzelem Elohim) is to see the face of God in all people, in all circles . . . in all corners of the world.
As we move through the next 10 days and prepare for Yom Kippur, take some time to make a list of all these communities, families, tribes, and nations to which you feel connected. The list will be longer than you imagine. You may want to write down your list and keep it with you as a reminder that you belong to so many and so many others belong to your world.
My challenge to you is this: How will you open your hearts and souls as not only Jews but as citizens of the planet to be in relationship to one another and with the Earth? How will you share the sense of Belonging with others? How can you seek out those who are disenfranchised and lonely, and help bring them into one of your circles? How will you welcome the stranger and seekers into our sanctuary and embrace them with a sense of belonging?
Over the next week, take some time to connect with the people that you feel a sense of belonging to. Don’t stop there! Capitalize on that feeling and memory as a catalyst to reach out to others, creating new circles of belonging. We need one another. As the song goes: ‘Love is the only answer, love is the only way. Love love, our love, watch our circle grow.’
Let us begin by counting on one another, no more longing to be a part of, but Belonging to this wonderful community. We all count on each other to make these Days of Awe truly holy and transformative. May God bless us all with health, fulfillment, prosperity and love in the New Year. May God bless this community, our country, Israel and all humanity with justice, harmony and peace. May our hearts and souls find shalom and comfort in knowing that we BELONG!