Tuesday, October 15, 2019

Yom Kippur 2019/5780 Lessons of a Retiree Rabbi

Now retired after a long career, the newly ordained rabbi said, “on one hand, you are at a stage of life where you have already raised your kids.  When I finish my rabbinical degree, I do expect to find work.  I’d like to earn money to spoil my grandkids.  Basically, this is a point in my life where I am lucky to get the chance to do things I have always wanted to do.”
These words were not spoken by our own Rabbi Margie Cella, no, these words were spoken by David Goodman, a retired journalist who was ordained by the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College after having been a life-long synagogue goer and prayer leader. 
But the fact that his story meant there were at least two people out there who had taken on the great challenge to enter rabbinical school at a later stage in life struck me when I learned of Goodman’s story in a Forward article about how many Jewish Baby Boomers are “Rewiring” and not “Retiring” through a reconnection to Jewish life and in particular to synagogue life. 
The fact that we had our own parallel to that story, and that our congregation has many other examples of related stories, really spoke to me, and I though it might speak to you. 
Because we see, here and across America, that ever since “60 became the new 30” (mark my words in another 30 years it will be “90 is the new 30” as the Boomers hit that milestone), the elders on the Jewish family tree are finding unique and creative ways to be the keepers of the faith, the person sitting at the head of the Passover Seder table, the one who shares with the grandkids the lighting of the menorah.  The ones who continue to join and stay members of synagogues – finding meaning that through a willingness to be the elders in new and fresh ways will benefit and inspire the rest of us, too. 
After the holiday, look up the Jewish Grandparent Network.  It has found that with relatively high annual incomes, with relatively high synagogue affiliation rates, today’s young Jews will definitely share fond and loving memories of their childhoods now, being taken to synagogue by today’s grandparents.  And they will share how when they got there, they learned that their Poppa, Grandma, Bubbie, Zayde, was an important person – a person who taught in the Hebrew School, gave Bar Mitzvah lessons, studied Hebrew, read Torah.  Think about what that is going to do for today’s kids to see today’s grandparents doing all that.  Heck – I already see it and I’m consistently impressed by it!
Why should we all not be impressed and inspired, and even perhaps relieved by it?  I’m not giving away secrets to you all to say that American Jew under 50 don’t affiliate with synagogues the same way that members of that age cohort did fifty years ago.  But that study and my own experiences with all of you tell me that the kids of today’s unaffiliated “young” Jews are still getting their Jewish education, their Jewish pride, their Jewish experiences – because their hip, happening, and Jewishly-connected grandparents are giving it to them and making it possible for them. 
And that synagogues, including our own, are being re-energized by new members – new members who are Baby Boomer Jews now looking for social, communal, educational, and spiritual Jewish connections and coming back to synagogue.  We have had a very successful Gift of the Heart campaign, encouraging current members to bestow the gift of a free membership on a friend.  Our five-year, long-range plan from 2015-6 anticipated that at the current rates, we would have only 360 member units.  Today we have more like 400.  That is not just stability, that is growth – at a time when synagogues generally and Conservative synagogues in particular, aren’t growing.  Now, not all those people are Baby Boomers, and not all those people are Gift of the Heart members, but a lot of them, I know, are the friends or relatives of our “BB” members who’ve come to join their peers in synagogue life – and we all benefit from it. 
We benefit from it through the involvement and enthusiasm of these members, and we benefit because many of these members want to give back financially, too.  I find it highly worthy of praise that anyone, that all of you, choose to support the synagogue, and I’m not shy to talk about it.  And that after living good lives, full lives, Baby Boomer Jews want to show it through support of institutions like ours.  It is again, I think, no surprise that our Kol Nidrei campaign in recent years has exceeded annual expectations and I fully expect it to do so again.  Not because I’m being crass or greedy, but because financial donations to the synagogue aren’t grubby money matters – they represent someone whose life is being lit up by what the synagogue does and by someone who wants to see that light shine a little brighter for the next person who enters it.  I thank everyone of whatever age who lights up our synagogue in that way.
As I said, the example being set by today’s grandparents, today’s cool Zaydes and Bubbes, today’s Baby Boomers is not just for them.  It is for all of us.  For what, after all, is the meaning of teshuvah, of “repentance?”  In Lamentations we encounter a verse that shows up elsewhere in our tradition and liturgy:
הֲשִׁיבֵנוּ יְהוָה אֵלֶיךָ וְנָשׁוּבָה חַדֵּשׁ יָמֵינוּ כְּקֶדֶם.
21 Restore us to yourself, Lord, that we may return; renew our days as of old.
What we are trying to do over the holiday season, the spirit with which we are to enter the new year – is that we seek to “recalibrate” we “turn the dial” to where it should be pointed, from wherever it had gotten to – maybe not necessarily a bad place, but get it pointed now towards an even better direction.  A direction, that, as the verse says, can make us, even if years have gone by “like new.”  As NSJC seems to be a fine example of a trend across American Judaism in which a new generation, the Baby Boomer generation, reinvents itself, and in so doing, finds creates new meaning suited to today, for today, for themselves and their families, in organized Jewish life, - enriching, educating and inspiring them and others – that is a chapter in the Book of Life being written right now that we should be hopeful could make the future for Generation X, Millenials, Gen Z and beyond, be similarly “like new” when it comes to their Jewish experiences in this new year ahead and for many years to come.
G’mar Chatimah Tovah – May you all be sealed in the book of life for good!

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