Sermon: Including every Generation – Vayakhel 2011

Written by Writings & Sermons by others — 20 April 2011

My first pulpit on leaving Leo Baeck College was at Woodford Progressive Synagogue. My predecessor there was Rabbi Dr Chaim Wender, who had also gained semichah at Leo Baeck College. Before he had trained to become a Rabbi, Chaim had achieved a number of things among which was a hard earned PHd in Gerontology, the study of ageing. Every rabbi needs some kind of special topic that they study and act within to help to keep them in the habit of renewing their academic knowledge.

For me it has been business ethics – arising out of my degree in Management and the business which I ran in years gone by. For Chaim, not surprisingly it was the needs of the elderly. Chaim then is credited with the foundation of Doroteninu, a Jewish task force on the older generations, set up in 1994 to determine ways in which our older members can be best helped to contribute to and benefit from both congregational and national life. I only met Rabbi Chaim Wender properly once in between the time that I knew I was going to become the rabbi at Woodford and when he left for his new post. It was on a sleety, murky December day in 1995, a few days before his departure. Where was this Gerentologist Rabbi’s new congregation?  Delray Beach, Florida , right in the centre of the Miami retirement belt, where Chaim continues to minister very happily to this day in a congregation fully able to take advantage of his special skills and knowledge and where murky, sleety December days are a thing of the past.

One hundred years ago the average life expectancy at birth in Britain was only 48 years for a man and 51 years for a woman- a figure that is now in 2011 only found (to the shame of humanity) in the poorest of countries such as Mali and Burkina Faso. Children born today in the UK can rejoice in a life expectancy of 77 years for men and now just over 81 years for a woman. Please note that these are average figures for the country as a whole – 8% of the members of Alyth are aged over 80, we were able to celebrate Kaye Weissands’s 95th birthday a couple of weeks ago – sadly over the past couple of years we lost Esther Orden at 102, Rose Hacker at 103, and Leo Adam at 100 – just three of the Centenarians in Alyth’s history.

Age is no barometer of activity or competence. Our synagogue is certainly the richer because its leadership is multigenerational. But we need to make sure that that our older members are not restricted from activity in the congregation by unnecessary bars. So for those who need them we have an induction loop in operation in this sanctuary that we all know could do with improvement, large print versions of Seder HaTefillot are available at all times, and from just two months from now a  permanent ramp to enable step free access even to the Bimah.

But Alyth should not only deal with the physical’ difficulties that some elderly people may have – it should also, crucially, encourage older members to renew their involvement with congregational life. It should encourage them to be not only passive attendees of events but also to use the additional time that they might have back in their lives to become involved with the running and planning of communal activity. Many of the more mature people in our congregation never stopped being part of its life. I would like to say that we have no bar on those who have not previously done so because their working or family lives precluded them, becoming active participants in our committees and activities later on in life – but I have the feeling that we often underrate the potential contribution of our older members.

Whilst life expectancy has changed radically in the past so have many other givens of what that life might have been a hundred years ago. Today’s Reform Jews are mostly thoroughly integrated into the society around them and so we tend to practice our Judaism within the context of that society and the changes which it has experienced.

So, for example, few families in our community today have one partner who is not working outside the home at least part time. It means that activities such as the league of Jewish Women and the Guild, are no longer able to call upon a force of women who have free time during the day time. Some groups have become defunct because of this – such as the wonderful Guild which began with a group of women who were home based for much of the day but which was on its last gasp when I arrived in this community. It is an easy thing then to hold up our hands in horror and be upset at the loss of such groups – but that is not what a Reform synagogue should do. Instead we try to fulfil the need gap that forms with a new way of working.

Occasionally this means that what used to be done by volunteers is now done by professionals, but equally often it just requires new thinking – hence the number of Shabbat morning activities now for children in the Synagogue together with their parents and , at a time when parents can be free and able to join together and Lynette Sunderland’s work matching individual welfare and visiting volunteers with members who would appreciate such visits.

Other changes include the security of marriage. We have had the pleasure this past year of celebrating several Golden Weddings within our Shabbat services with more to come. But the Jewish community has not been able to stave off the level of divorce that is now part of our society. Indeed in the Jewish community in the UK nowadays there are around 1000 marriages per year – but 400 divorces of marriages contracted in previous years. This too requires response from a caring Jewish community such as ours. We do so for example by offering a warm family atmosphere here where single parents can feel welcome to bring their children to any activity and indeed our “Alyth at home for people parenting alone” Shabbat dinner two weeks ago was an effective example of positive action. I hope that this year there will be a good response to the appeal in our Pesach leaflet for families who are willing to host a guest, perhaps one newly single, at their frst night Seder this year, and that anyone who would like to attend such a seder will come forward and ask.

At its best the family of Alyth way of doing things in our community can truly include – and for people who do not have partners or do not have children we can be an extended family where you can go through the ups and downs of life with others who care about you and with whom you build a good future.

In Jewish movements to the right of us C’lal Yisrael normally means that for the sake of solidarity and so that no community need feel, in their words, embarrassed, some mythical gold standard of Judaism should be applied. This mythical gold standard of Judaism settles questions of who is a Jew and of requirements for Jewish practice in a way that will often tend to exclude whole swathes of people who might otherwise gain hugely from being part of the Jewish community.

The Reform Jewish way of understanding what is meant by Clal Yisrael is to open our doors as wide as we possibly can – to enable people who have been affected by the social trends of our times to participate in any aspect of Jewish life that they may choose. Whether they are intermarried, whether they are homosexual, whether they are disabled or from a family riven by divorce. Clal yisrael, literally the generality of Israel means to us to deepen and widen the Jewish community – because this is a religion and not a club.

Our Tcrah and Haftarah portions showed us a Judaism changing its outward forms so that it could be effective in the lives of the Jews of its time. The Tabernacle was built for an unsettled people who yet needed a focus to their relationship with God – a place where they could meet him through worship, rather than the a statue of a calf that was meant to represent him. Then Solomon’s Temple gave the Jewish people of his time a focus for their religion which gave it the same prestige as the different religions of their surrounding peoples – their Temple could hold its head high among the nations. So to we build a changing and flexible community to meet the fast changing lifestyles of our generations with a vision of inclusivity so that no person is valued less because his or her life does not fit a crude mould.

Shabbat VaYakhel – the Shabbat of the portion which begins with the words “and then Moses gathered the whole of the Children of Israel together” then is here to make us take stock each year of the extent to which our inclusivity is real – whether we are really open to the whole of Clal Yisrael – not just those whose needs are easiest to meet