Kehillah Kedosha – Building Our Holy Community


The Yiddish writer S. Ansky, in his play The Dybbuk, described it with these words:

“Once a year… the High Priest enters the Holy of Holies in order to pronounce the ineffable name of God. And at this immeasurably holy and awesome moment the High Priest and the people of Israel are in the utmost peril, for even a single sinful or wayward thought in the High Priest’s mind at that instant, might, God forbid, destroy the entire world.”[i]

Dramatic, right?

During Yom Kippur afternoon, we re-enact this moment described in Ansky’s play. We relive what is known as the “Service of the Sacrificial Cult.” While we do not physically perform a ritual sacrifice here on the Bima (!), we verbally imagine the ancient High Priest’s rite on Yom Kippur, in the days when the Temple in Jerusalem stood.

We read the three confessionals that the High Priest offered for his own sins and those of his family, those of the priesthood, and those of the Israelite people.[ii] It includes a dramatic full prostration in the service, at the very moment, when the High Priest would utter the ineffable name of God.

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So strong the power of this moment, that our own founding rabbi, David Einhorn, despite the early Reform rejection of the Temple and its’ sacrifices, included a long  interpretation of this rite in his prayer book Olat Tamid.

He reinterpreted Israel’s unique mission as a priestly people, who must be an Olat Tamid/ an eternal offering on behalf of all humanity. The High Priest, for Rabbi Einhorn, was a symbol for “God’s priestly people, who are to “carry the hope of salvation” and “show the path of life to all.”[iii]

The priest’s power is established in the biblical book of Leviticus. So strong this Yom Kippur ritual of the priests, that their influence is felt long past the initiation of rabbinic Judaism, and is continued  still today in our Reform Machzorim, in Gates of Repentance and in the  newest Reform Machzor, Mishkan HaNefesh.

The Book of Leviticus, the Priest’s book in the Bible, establishes for the Israelites a clear place, and a defined religious ritual, that will sustain them in their wanderings from Egypt in the wilderness, and later, in the Promised Land.

Jacob Milgrom writes, that the book of Leviticus also founds values. He says: “Values are what Leviticus is about. They pervade every chapter and almost every verse…. Underlying the rituals, the careful reader will find an intricate web of values that purports to model how we should relate to God and one another.”[iv]

The role of a holy community has always been to give a sense of place, ritual and values. And in today’s modern Jewish world, there are many types of successful holy communities who create place, rituals and values in a variety of ways.

In Olat Tamid, his prayerbook, Rabbi Einhorn knew the importance of reinterpreting, to make Judaism relevant for his time. Har Sinai Congregation stands at a Mount Sinai moment, about to reform itself for its future, and must ask important congregational questions:

who can we be,

what can we stand for,

and how can we measure our success?

For many years, in the congregational world the success of a congregation was measured by its size. Even twenty five years ago when I began in the rabbinate, the questions in the elevator at rabbinic conferences often turned to how many family units are in your congregation…  I remember that men of a certain era would jokingly ask: “How big is yours?” It was seen, as a type of rabbinic promotion, to place in a congregation that was larger.

Indeed there are many successful large congregations and their accomplishments are great. But the thinking about size in the worship world has changed. There are also amazingly successful mid-size and small congregations.

Once the Gerer Rebbe, questioned his students. “How is Moshe Yaakov doing?” One disciple didn’t know the whereabouts of Moshe Yaakov. Another did not know how Moshe Yaakov was faring. “What!” shouted the Rebbe, “You don’t know? You pray under the same roof? You study the same book? You serve the same God? – yet you dare tell me that you don’t know how Moshe Yaakov is, whether he needs help or advice or comforting? How can that be?”

The Gerer Rebbe in this story, notices that Moshe Yaakov is missing. A smaller vitalized congregation provides the ability for a rabbi to be more attentive to what is happening to their congregants, and to have, a greater personal presence in their lives. The Gerer Rebbe in this story was also disturbed by his students, because they did not know where Moshe Yaakov was to be found. Just as importantly, the Gerer Rebbe’s anger was manifest because his students did not know about Moshe Yaakov’s well-being. They had failed at being intimately connected to their friend in their small community.

In a small community, the ability for clergy to be connected, for individuals and families to know each another, and to be familiar and care for each other, is their very real, small group advantage. Robin Dunbar scientifically confirmed that humans are only capable of 150 meaningful, stable, intimate social relationships at one time.[v] Large and even medium congregations struggle with that sense of intimacy and connection, trying all types of configurations and arrangements to create structure to mimic what is more natural in a small community.

Our special Har Sinai Congregation, like congregations across this country, has grown smaller in numbers. Demographics and affiliation trends do not indicate we will be larger soon. But we have the incredible opportunity to be a successful smaller congregation, with a smaller foot-print, that structures and leverages itself for success.

To do this we need vision. I am inspired by small congregations who have taken up the challenge of, as Priya Parker words it, the “art of gathering… the conscious bringing together of people for a reason and committing to a bold, sharp purpose.”[vi]

Image result for the temple in jerusalemThe Levitical Priests had such a bold, sharp purpose. Their drive was not maintaining the grand Temple or the dramatics of ceremony, it was not the communal gathering of the people, or the sacrifices, or the wording for the expiation of sin. If you drill down deep, deep, into this ancient ritual, the Priest’s central raison d’etre is found in the utterance of the Ineffable Name. The bold, sharp purpose was to create connection to God. So powerful was their purpose, that we still include it in our Yom Kippur ceremony today.

A building, the size of a congregation or how people connect, worship, dues structure, program, religious school, committees, caring groups, education, are all means – they are not the bold, sharp purpose of a congregation. They are all vital for the running of a synagogue. But those means are not and should not be mistaken for mission. Ultimately, they are all infrastructure, that needs to connect in some way to the bold, sharp purpose that a congregation chooses.

In Cincinnati OH, Temple Sholom took their floundering congregation on the down-turn, and invested in change, by focusing on their unique purpose in a town that held several Reform synagogues. Concentrating on the mission of spiritual justice at their center, they sold their building, and moved to a rental, put half the money they made aside not to be touched, and took half the money for ramp-up programming, focusing on their new, defined purpose. Initially they lost members. But in defining a “bold, sharp purpose” they have, within a short period of a few years, expanded their membership to numbers greater than before, and have engaged younger generations than they expected.

Other small congregations have understood that they cannot be everything to everyone, and are successful also, because they are clear about what drives them.

Lab Shul in New York, a synagogue without walls, focuses on being “an artist-driven, everybody friendly, God-optional pop up experimental community for sacred gatherings.”[vii] They attract the money and the participation of Millennials, Generation Y, Gen Next, iGen, who attend their services and events. It is seen as a place to be, and people wait with anticipation to see where they will pop up next in the city, inspired by their creativity, innovation and experimentation in cool atypical venues.

The Kitchen, in San Francisco, is a sacred Jewish community “provoking awe and purpose… believ…[ing] that Jewish religious practice can transform: It can change lives, make meaning, and invest people in the world.”  The folk in The Kitchen, have envisioned and rethought what congregational life can look like, placing themselves in an unconventional space, and rebranding everything to match their purpose. They’re run by a Cabinet of folks (as in the Kitchen Cabinet), with well-branded bios of each member, so we know by perusing their website what they bring to the Kitchen Table, and how their presence relates to community purpose. On Shabbat morning, the community davens for half-an- hour, and then does an interactive Torah reading – changing lives with storahtelling. Then they invite those who have walked into their Shabbat morning Kitchen to lunch: “Shabbat lunch is on them”. Awe, purpose and investing people at the center underpins all they do. So much so, who wouldn’t want to buy their “swag” and display it with pride?

Locally, or internationally, we need look no further than Chabad, to see a successful community with a bold, sharp purpose. The Rebbe encouraged his followers to create communities open to Jews, bringing them closer to Judaism, mitzvah by mitzvah, anywhere and everywhere in the world, from Baltimore to the Himalayas. They invite you to every mitzvah – sit in their Sukkah on a truck, wave the lulav, try out some tefillin, and they will bar mitzvah your boy (if his Jewish credentials are right) for minimal work. They have a central financing system, sustained by people who give money to them, from within their community and without, because people are inspired by Lubavitch’s seeming openness, attention and reach.

These synagogues know what they do well and focus on it. They prosper by attracting members that buy into their unique visions. They create a boutique community and their purpose defines them: their doing, their praying, their gathering, their operations.

Image result for ELEPHANT RIDESarah Van Breathnach tells of a business trip her husband took to the beach, where she and her daughter enjoyed the mornings, while he attended workshops. One afternoon it was announced that there would be elephant rides for the children in the hotel parking lot. Her daughter, Katie, was delirious with excitement.

Sarah told her: “Life is always full of wonderful surprises if we are open to them. Some mornings you will get up not knowing what will happen, and you get to ride an elephant that day!”

When they got home, there was an invitation for Sarah to join a group of journalists on a trip to Ireland. She was tired of traveling, and not really a spontaneous person, so she told them she probably would not go.

Her husband, overhearing her, said: “So you are not going to ride the elephant?”

She decided to go.[viii]

Two years ago, when I interviewed to come to Har Sinai Congregation, I shared my vision, my bold, sharp purpose. My aspiration…

My dream is to create a community that is willing to pray, govern, learn and play, in out-of-the-box meaningful ways, and willing to live a creative Judaism that is rooted in the values and traditions of our people.

Har Sinai Congregation would live out this vision of creative and relevant and participatory Judaism, run not by staff alone, but by us all. It would make us unique in Baltimore. My aspiration would make us an inspiration.

Imagine being run not by a large Board, but by a smaller group of a dozen Imagineers – visionaries – creators.

Imagine not committees, but multiple groups of people working on unique short and long-term projects that underpin our congregational life.

Imagine various small unique, creative Jewish purpose gatherings, meet ups, celebrations, workshops, adventures, where you would arrange the event, could connect and get to know each other – how I would kvell at your motivation and inspiration!

2018-08-18 12.21.01Imagine services, yes, in the synagogue, but also in the woods and in libraries and in restaurants. Services with sermons occasionally, but also with learning or games or stories or drama or music as the focus of the teaching moment or in prayer.

Imagine Torah reading and a teaching at Farmer’s Markets under a tent just as it was read in the Talmudic times in public places.

Imagine family and singles in people’s homes doing Jewish meals and activities on Friday nights, Shabbat mornings, with food catered by the participants of our cooking club.

Imagine going from house-to-house as we help each other build and decorate our own Sukkot.

Imagine an ice cream flash mob on Shavuot at The Cow.

Imagine creating a group of storytellers within this community, a bluegrass band, a barbershop quartet and a kid’s choir.

Imagine musicians-in-residence, Artists, cantors, soloists, brought in for 3 to 6 months or even a year at a time, to lead our music and work with our congregants, to create a unique, varied and participatory musical identity.

Imagine bike rides and golf games and hikes with Torah study.

Imagine learning in cafes and doing a God Shopping exercise in the Mall.

Imagine while working in the Food Pantry creating a mural to illustrate the Tzedakah principals to cheer up the Food Pantry’s walls.

Har Sinai Congregation, of my aspiration, would create modern Jewish souls rooted in traditions, creatively interpreted for today.

You hired me on the passion of this vision.

For some, riding an elephant with this vision may not seem like a good idea, for you love the familiar, and are resistant to change. We have traditions, customs and programs, which are important to people, that may limit, and have limited, what we can do new.

Riding the elephant of one’s vision means making a leap onto its back. On occasion, I feel like I have tentatively got onto the elephant, and many times have said I will ride the elephant later. Or that ascending the elephant is not a good idea for now.

I also know, that the vision of a congregation cannot be entirely my own – rabbinic input has import, but our purpose needs to be communally shaped. All of us ultimately desire connection, support, caring, interaction and holiness, and we need to figure out how to make our Har Sinai Congregation that place in the twenty-first century for the older and younger and future generations.

That is why I have encouraged the Futures Committee to go out and speak to you and gather input. To survey you to find out what is important, and what is essential to you in our Har Sinai community. To meet with you in small groups to figure out our reason-to-be. To discover as Priya Parker recommends: our reason for the “conscious bringing together of people for a reason and committing to a bold, sharp purpose.”[ix]

That is why tomorrow afternoon I have invited Har Sinai Congregation members with a vision to drill down deep on their thoughts in a fishbowl meeting during the “Sharing Our Stories” hour.

Let us find the narrative, what in the business world they call the “WHY” that moves us.

We have important work to do to ensure our success. We have exciting work to do to take us to new places. The time is now, this is our Mount Sinai moment, as we look to the new Har Sinai Congregation beyond these walls, to ride a whole herd of elephants into our future.

And how shall our success be measured?

Not by our financial wealth alone, though certainly we need money to survive. And we know that people give money to places that inspire them. Let us be that place.

Not by number of congregants alone. Though we know that places with boutique purpose attract those with a similar mission, and the exclusiveness of mission generates excitement. Let us be that place.

I commenced my words this evening with words from The Dybbuk, at the moment the High Priest entered the Holy of Holies to utter God’s ineffable name.

S. Ansky tells us that “…even a single sinful or wayward thought in the High Priest’s mind at that instant might, God forbid, destroy the entire world.”[x] Distraction from the High Priest’s purpose destroyed worlds. Keeping to purpose created and sustained a world, and worlds to come.

Our triumph will be in Har Sinai Congregation’s purpose and the world we create. Our success will be measured by being clear about the congregation’s “WHY” within, and without our community, and having that mission create meaning in people’s lives.

har sinai logo

We are Har Sinai Congregation. We are not the walls of this building. We are more than the structural programs we offer, or the services we run, or the Board and committees that are found in every synagogue.

We are what was in our 176 years past, but we need to be more than what was. As Rabbi David Einhorn imagined, in our reimagination of Judaism we like the High Priest can “carry the hope of salvation” and “show the path of life to all,” for ourselves, and the generations ahead of us.

We are what we will be.

A Kehillah Kedosha – A Holy Community. A creative, joyful, cutting-edge, participatory synagogue, for the future.



[i] The Dybbuk and Other Writings, S. Ansky, ed. David G. Roskies.


[iii] ibid

[iv] Leviticus: A Book of Rituals and Ethics, Jacob Milgrom, Fortress Press, 2004


[vi] The Art of Gathering, Priya Parker, Riverhead Books, 2018


[viii] (Passionate Living vs.Fear)

[ix] The Art of Gathering, Priya Parker, Riverhead Books, 2018

[x] The Dybbuk and Other Writings, S. Ansky, ed. David G. Roskies.

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