Ignite Your Passion!

By Rabbi Sharon Litwin

As Director of Congregational Learning, Rabbi Sharon is passionate about lifelong learning! During a sermon presented on Rosh Hashanah, she spoke about the importance of continuing to learn, grow and connect as Jews. Here is an excerpt from her sermon:

Your passions are the pipelines to your soul. They connect you with your soul’s purpose in life. They are the light guiding you to fulfill your unique and special reason for being alive. I am pretty sure, that what you love and God’s will for you are one and the same. It is not an accident you love the things you love. It’s not an accident you care about the things you care about, nor is it an accident that when you are disconnected from those things you start feeling miserable and have to drag yourself through your day.

But the thing about our passions, is that they help us to connect with other people. We find the things we have in common with others, and that draws us into deeper connection with community. So since I love the Jews, I ended up working in a synagogue. And since you’re here, and you’re all Jews, or at least connected to a Jewish family, you get to be part of my passion and my community.cbi-head-shots-3

This community, our congregation B’nai Israel family, has enormous passion. There are some of you who are so dedicated to your children, and to making sure that they’re Jewish education is as quality as it can be. I spend a lot of time with those of you. There are some of you who are passionate about helping the hungry, or the homeless, about making sure that those who are less fortunate than we are have what they need, locally and far away. Some of you are passionate about Israel, and I am excited that we will be working together to bring more of you to the AIPAC policy conference later this year. Some of you love politics, and some of you loathe it. Some of you laugh at me when I talk about clean eating or healthy living, and others of you have embraced a lifestyle that is not the mainstream in America today. But, the one thing that you all have in common is that you are paying to be a part of this community.

The primary source of strength and continuity in Judaism today is the synagogue. We want synagogues, we want clergy, religious schools, lifelong learning, lifecycle events, and communal support when we need them. So, you have all chosen to be a part of this community and you are helping to support all of the needs of our community. Unlike churches, we do not pass around collection plate during services, mostly because Jewish law prohibits carrying money on holidays and Shabbat. But, we do ask you to help us to pay the salaries of the people who work here, to keep our lights on, to make sure that it is cool in the building when it is hot outside and warm in the building when it is cold outside. And we hope, that by doing this, you feel you are getting something very special in return. You are getting the support of your friends and community in times of need, you have the services of a caring Rabbi and a kind Cantor. Your children are studying in a positive environment, and the building that we are in right now is being very well taken care of. But what more, might you think you could get by being a part of this community? I would like to offer you this, I would like to offer you a way into developing your passion. A way into focusing on some aspect of the part of you that you love most and helping it to grow here in this community.

We live in a society where we are entitled to opt out of everything. We are not required to participate in community, we are not required to be a part of an organized religion, we do not have to attend meetings, or volunteer, we do not have to have community responsibility. We can choose to take care of ourselves and only ourselves. You have chosen, for whatever reason, to opt in. You have chosen to remain connected to the Jewish community, whether because you think that Judaism has a lot to offer you in a spiritual sense, because your friends are here, because you hear your grandparents’ voices in your head, or just because you think it’s the right thing to do. Or it’s what you’re supposed to do. You don’t have to be here, but since you are here, why not be here with passion? Why not get your money’s worth?

When I was hired a year and a half ago, the job I was hired to do is to be the Director of Congregational Learning. So sure, my main job is to run the religious school and to make sure that our children are prepared to be literate Jews as they enter into adulthood. But, I am also here to work with all of our adults as well. Last winter, I started meeting regularly with the adult learning committee, and we spent many hours brainstorming and trying to give focus to what we hoped the educational needs of this community could be.

In 1934, John Dewey wrote that “The purpose of education has always been for everyone, in essence, the same – – to give the young the things they need in order to develop in an orderly, sequential way into members of society… Any education is, in its forms and methods an outgrowth of the needs of the society in which it exists.” Amazingly, that definition has not changed in the last 80+ years. Educators are still striving to ensure that we provide the best tools to help the next generation become successful members of society. But, that doesn’t stop when our children are no longer here. In fact, I am seeking to provide lifelong learning opportunities so that all of us may continue to challenge ourselves and push the limits of what we know, or thought we knew, about topics relating to Judaism. Maybe, you will find your passion connects you to the people who you are sitting next to you.

We learn so that we can continue to create connections. There are connections between ourselves and the text of our people. Connections between ourselves and the other members of the community. Connections between us and the larger Jewish community. In the Talmud, we learn about a conversation that took place between Rabbi Tarfon, Rabbi Akiva, and the elders of the community. I included this teaching in my letter in our new adult education brochure that you received in the mail this past week.lifelong-learning-logo

“Rabi Tarfon and the Elders were reclining in the attic of the House of Nitzah in Lod and this question was asked in front of them: Is study greater or action greater? Rabbi Tarfon answered and said, ‘Action is greater.’ Rabbi Akiva answered and said, ‘Study is greater.’ They all answered and said, ‘Study is greater, since study brings about action.’” (BT Kiddushin 41a) (Kedushin 41a). It is clear from this short story that even thousands of years ago, relationships are made within communities based on action and study. We know that both of these areas are important to congregational life, they sustain the interests of different groups of people and provide support for populations within the walls of the synagogue and outside of it. In Jewish tradition, we are always taught that we need to have an understanding about why we are doing something so that it will help us to create a deeper and more meaningful connection to whatever it is that we are doing. Study can help us to know something more about what we are doing when we are doing it. Your passion might not be Talmud study or prayer, but there is usually a good reason ensconced in a larger Jewish tradition for almost everything that we do here.

For example, did you know that it is one of the most important mitzvot, V’shinantam L’vanecha to teach the Commandments to our children, or maybe you learned that Vahavta L’Reyecha Kamocha, that we love our neighbors as ourselves. As the ancient Rabbi Hillel taught while standing on one foot, that is the whole Torah, all the rest is commentary. What is Torah anyway if it is not love? The blessing that we say just before we recite the Shema every day is a blessing thanking God for giving us the gift of love that is our Torah. And in return for that gift, God is asking us to love, V’ahavta Et Adonai Elohecha B’chol L’vavcha U’vchol Nafshecha, U’vchol Me’odecha : to love God with all our hearts, with all our souls, and with all our might. It is love that brings us into community, whether it is love for our children, love for learning, love for music, love for movement, love for food, love for mahjong, love for Israel or just love for the parents of your preschool aged children who kept you coming back here long after the kids were out of pre-school.

Jewish learning was never intended to cease upon the reaching of age 13 at bar and bat mitzvah. In Pirkei Avot, that same Rabbi Hillel taught: “do not separate yourself from the community… Do not say, when I will be available I will study, lest you will never be available.(Pirkei Avot 2:4) I don’t know about you, but I am very good at putting things aside for another day. I can always do it later. But, as Hillel famously said “Eem Lo Achshav Ematai?” If not now when?

Let me share with you what the adult learning committee came up with, as we brainstormed our thoughts and ideas throughout last winter and into the spring and summer and we got ready for this new year. Our goal was to expand what we had to offer at the synagogue so that there might be an entrée point for every member of our congregation to find a connection and a way to spark an inner passion.

So many parents have asked me to teach them what we are teaching the children in religious school. So I can’t create grown up Hebrew school, but I am going to teach a class that I am calling Delve into Davening. It’s a drop in class, an introduction to understanding the structure of Shabbat services, what the prayers mean their history theology, philosophy and spiritual significance. You don’t need to know any Hebrew, but if you do that’s a bonus. And all I really want to do is to help you feel more comfortable in the sanctuary. Shabbat morning is the centerpiece of this congregation, and really of all synagogues, so if you walk in, and you don’t know what page we’re on, or why we’re saying the prayer we’re saying or what the order is, why would you want to be here? It just feels like mumbo-jumbo and it doesn’t exactly spark a passion, only a confusion. So come join me and let’s see if it we can ignite a spark or flame a new passion.

Maybe prayer is not your thing, but politics is. On Sunday, October 30 Bret Stephens who is one of the foremost authorities on US foreign policy and the forces that are shaping the world will come to speak at B’nai Israel. Mr. Stevens is a weekly columnist for the Wall Street Journal and was the editor-in-chief of the Jerusalem Post. He will be speaking the week before the election, and I am sure he will have something relevant and interesting to say about our candidates, and US policy as it relates to the Middle East. Even if you don’t agree with him, and I don’t know if I always agree with him, I am sure that he will change the way we might think about an issue.

Rabbi Bayar will be teaching an incredible 12 part class in partnership with the Shalom Hartman Institute from Jerusalem. Through video lectures, text study and lively group discussion; Jewish Values and the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict and will be discussed. This in-depth class is intended to help people to understand the ideas and values that animate different attitudes toward the conflict and how these values shape their own political understandings. Though a common political platform may not be attainable, this course will strive to achieve a shared respect for our differences. The Hartman institute is one of the foremost institutions helping to bridge the gap between Israelis and Palestinians, between secular and orthodox Jews, and has been the chief learning program for continuing rabbinic education for thousands of rabbis from North America. I can’t recommend this course highly enough, and we have spaced it out through the year so that it does not mean that you have to make a commitment to 12 weeks in a row. We will take a break after the first six weeks for six weeks, and then return in February for the last six weeks leading up to the AIPAC policy conference which will meet the week after our course ends.

I could go on and on about the amazing array of programs we are offering, but you all got the brochure in the mail and will be able to access it online or get another copy if you just tossed it in the trash, as I sometimes do with mail. Don’t miss out though on the Cantor’s Melody Workshops, or the Men’s Club hikes, the Sisterhood Rosh Chodesh group, the lectures from Kean University Professor Dennis Klein, our field trip to the National Museum of American Jewish History in Philadelphia, CBI roots for the Devils in March, our member Allan Sloan’s talk on Bizarre Business in the Bible and for sure the Scholar-in-Residence Weekend that is the highlight of our year! Andrea spoke yesterday about Rabbi Amichai Lau-Lavie – he is a life changer. Whether you think about Torah or not, whether you’ve ever thought there was a reason to understand and interpret our ancient text for yourself, or if that was a pursuit for people like me, rabbis, but not for you, you must come, you must learn from him. He will make you think differently and none of us can afford to not think differently once in a while, or all the time.

I really hope we can ignite your passion. I hope there is something for you to love about the Lifelong Learning program this year. And if there isn’t, I hope you’ll tell me.