In governance, splansky

(There is so much to say and so much to do against the backdrop of a changing world.  I spoke of it yesterday.  You can see that Shabbat sermon about vigilance and justice on-line.  Let me simply say here now that we pray for this good country and its leadership; we pray for our neighbouring country and its leadership.)

I. It is the 160th anniversary of Toronto’s first synagogue, Holy Blossom Temple. Happy Anniversary!  Our Sages teach that whenever we see the word, “Vayehi” – “And it came to pass,” is it always a prelude to tragedy.  And whenever we see the word, “Yehi” – “Let there be,” we are about to be introduced to initiative, discovery, something new and wondrous.  “Yehi” is the word God used to create the universe.  It is also the word with which we create a meaningful life, one that leaves the world a little better for our presence.  Leaders don’t wait for things to “come to pass.”  They do not say “Vayehi,” but rather “Yehi” —  “Let there be.”

Throughout our 160 years we have known both moments of “Vayehi” and moments of “Yehi.”   In 1856 our founding fathers said  “Yehi” —  “Let there be.”  Our first beautiful synagogue building at Yonge and Richmond Streets burned down – “Vayehi.  And it came to pass.”  (Just a plague remains there now to testify the site of Toronto’s first synagogue.)  In the 1920s our congregation made the shift from Orthodoxy to Reform.  We said then “Yehi — “Let there be.”  During WWII, when every congregant-family sent their young men off to fight Hitler, a whole generation was missing from Temple life – “Vayehi. “And it came to pass.”  When Rabbi Eisendrath boldly moved the congregation from Bond Street to Bathurst Street, the 250 families then said, “Yehi– Let there be.”  When the polio epidemic shut down our Religious School – “Vayehi. And it came to pass.”  With the founding of the State of Israel — we celebrated “Yehi–  “Let there be.”  And on and on with the highs and lows of Jewish history and Jewish communal life….  Thank God this is a “Yehi” moment.  We are blessed with many leaders and volunteers and contributors of all kinds who are now saying, “Let there be!”  Optimism is giving way to confidence.  Anticipation is giving way to the action.  Anxiety has melted away.  Before our very eyes there are cultural shifts that signal a time of imagination, experimentation, and true community.  Now that doesn’t mean any of this is easy.  It is very hard work and we are really just getting starting.

II. Ron Heifetz of the Harvard Kennedy School of Government, teaches courses on leadership and change. He distiguishes between Techinical Change and Adaptive Change.  Technical Change is practical, when experts fix something.  With a particular set of skills, an individual or team solves a problem through a checklist of implementation.  Adaptive Change is a process by which an organization sheds outdated priorities, beliefs, habits, and loyalties.

We are doing both simultaneously.  Technical Changes and Adaptive Changes.  Renewal of Space and Spirit.  It takes a range of skills to build a building that is attractive.  It takes a range of talents to build a synagogue-community which attracts.  We are doing both simultaneously – with curiosity and creativity, intelligence and openness.  (In that spirit let’s take a moment to introduce ourselves to the people at our tables.  Perhaps there is someone you don’t yet know.)

III.  Sarah’s Tent – The paradigm, the blueprint for every synagogue that ever stood is based on The Temple in Jerusalem.  And the paradigm for the Temple was the Tabernacle/Mishkan, the portable sanctuary we carried with us throughout our desert wanderings.  And the paradigm for the Tabernacle was Sarah’s tent.  How must our Temple emulate Sarah’s tent, which plays a significant role in this week’s Torah portion, because there the next generation was established.  What do we know of Sarah’s tent?

Our Sages imagine that her tent was open – a sign of good hospitality.  You’ll hear from Cheryl Sylvester, Chair of the Department of Membership and Tema Smith, our new Director of Community Engagement about how we are welcoming newcomers and how our membership is growing.  When many synagogues are shrinking, ours is growing.

Our Sages imagine that Sarah’s Shabbat candles miraculously remained lit from Shabbat to Shabbat.  What does light represent?  Torah wisdom.  Life-long learning.  Our experiential education for youth is expanding in the creative hands of our Director of Youth Engagement, Lisa Isen Baumal.  Our Adult Learning opportunities led by congregant-volunteers in partnership with our Director of Education, Debbie Spiegel and Rabbi Satz, continue to be wide and varied.  Included there is a new emphasis on what is called “Jewish Life Education” which provides resources for living Jewishly at every stage of life.  For example, “Understanding Bereavement” which last just launched last week for mourners and “PEP Talks,” our Jewish Parenting Series under Rabbi Helfman’s leadership.

Our Sages imagine Sarah’s bowl for kneading the Challah dough was always full – What does this bowl represent?  Sustenance.  You’ll hear that we have a balanced budget thanks to the careful oversight of Russ Joseph and Jeff Meilach.  We have a successful Annual Campaign thanks to Vanessa Yacobson and our Director of Development Jonny Ain).  We have a successful Renewal Project Campaign thanks to Joan Garson.  And now we are deep into demolition, which gives momentum to our fundraising.

And finally, our Sages imagine Sarah’s Tent was covered by a cloud of God’s glory – representing the Shechina, God’s nearness.   Even though we have blown the roof off, we feel ourselves under the protection of God’s cloud of glory.  We were concerned that during the High Holy Days congregants might feel frustrated by the construction, but it seemed to be just the opposite.  There was a mood of uplift and progress and excitement.  This, too, is evidence of God’s blessing.  It is a privilege to work with this team of professional colleagues and lay leaders, with scores of volunteers who invite God’s blessing upon this extraordinary congregation.

IV. With our eyes on the horizon, what can we expect in the coming year? Four examples of how we are saying “Yehi — Let there be.”

1.)  In just over a year Phase I of our Renewal Project will be complete.  We will have magnificent new spaces to enjoy.  We need to prepare so that they are not only beautiful, but also reflective of our core congregational values.  We need to prepare so that the new spaces help to animate true community.

2.) This is the time to integrate our many new members and draw “our crowd” (Early Childhood families, Little Blossom Families, Adults who take advantage of our programs or come to say Kaddish) into our congregation. Pirkei Avot 1:5 teaches:  Y’hi veit’cha patuach la’r’va’cha. “Let your house be open wide and let newcomers become – bnei betecha — members of your household.”  Hospitality is one thing, but when one is a guest, there are limits to his level of engagement.  When one is a member, there is pride of ownership and real belonging.

3.) Now we cultivate the next generation of leadership.  Lisa Taylor and I are co-teaching for the second time, Holy Blossom’s Jewish Leadership Institute. If you would like to nominate a congregant between the age of 26 and 46 for this eight week course, please let us know.  The program is project-based and designed to bring emerging leaders to serve and strengthen the Jewish Community and to HBT in particular. It is also to bring Jewish wisdom to strengthen one’s natural leadership in the workplace or other volunteer roles.

4.) Chavurot – The most tried and true vehicle for enriching and deepening the lives of both new and long-time members are Chavurot. A Chavurah is an affinity group of 10-20 people who gather regularly to “do Jewish.” They may be at the same stage of life; they may share a common interest; they may live in the same neighbourhood.  Chavurot are the best way to make a large congregation feel smaller.  In the coming year we will be rolling out many new Chavurot to add texture and meaning to membership.  I hope you will participate and benefit from this initiative.

Closing Prayer

On the occasion of the 160th Anniversary of our congregation, let me conclude with this prayer for our future.

Ivdu et Adonai b’Simcha.
Bo’u l’fanav birnana.
Serve God and find satisfaction.
Come into God’s Presence and rejoice!
          (Psalms 100:2)

Our God and God of our ancestors, God who drew near to the tent of Sarah and Abraham, in pride and joy we come together this day to offer praises to You, our Shelter, our Sanctuary, our Home.

Your loving strength anchors the generations.  You give us strength and endow us with the devotion and determination to continue the work, which we began 160 years ago when Toronto was new.

Our founding leadership placed their faith in You.  They laboured to make Your name magnified and sanctified.  Their efforts were not in vain.  Through their prayers and their example, countless thousands have been brought nearer to You, Adonai, Eternal One.

May the recollections of them and their voices proclaiming:  “Yehi.  Let there be,” stir us to meet our sacred duties today and with renewed passion.

As a united congregation we ask Your blessing, Adonai, for us and for future generations which we can only yet imagine.

See how we open our tent on all sides to greet them and to draw them nearer.  See our dedicated efforts and bless us as You blessed Rebecca and Isaac with Your light, Your bounty, Your cloud of glory.


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