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Be-naareynu U-vizukunaynu: Moving Forward Together

09/21/2023 04:09:56 PM


Rabbi Dan Dorsch

Rosh Hashanah 5784:
Be-naareynu U-vizukunaynu: Moving Forward Together
This past year has been one of two major milestones in my life.
The first is a milestone birthday that reminds me how old I’ve become since I arrived at Etz Chaim. No one tells you when you are in your 30s that your body and your brain come with a “check engine light” and your warranty is about to expire at around 39 ½ years. I keep waiting for a Telemarketer to call and say, “We’ve been trying to get in touch with you about renewing your Mortality and Mental Warranty." Wait, but there’s more! Right after I turned 40, I was at a local restaurant, and I got carded. I said to the waiter, “I am so excited. I haven’t been carded in years!” He looked at me and said, “I’m sorry sir, I wasn’t asking for your ID. I was asking for your AARP card! For your discount.”
In addition to having turned 40, what makes this sermon a shehechiyanu moment for me personally is that this Rosh Hashanah now marks the 7th year I have been in this synagogue.
Now, I know for some of you it seems like I just got here. I know this is true because every few months I meet someone who says to me, oh you must be the new rabbi at Etz Chaim. Rabbi Lewis, how many years does it take until I become the “OLD Rabbi”? Earlier this year a congregant whose identity because my brain is out of warranty, I have long forgotten, stopped me. “You know Rabbi, I have to say you still seem new to me because in all of the years I’ve been here, I haven’t met your wife.” I said, that’s funny: she comes every Shabbat morning…
Yet getting serious now, let’s look at seven years in the framework of the Jewish tradition. The Torah teaches: Shesh Shanim Tizmor Karmecha. Six years you till your fields. And on the seventh year, rest, reflect, dream big about your future.
Which is why at long last, as the “no longer so new” rabbi, having left the days of my wearing light up sneakers long behind me, I want to dream big with you, and I want to share what must be our collective vision for our community. Not only where we are now, but where we will be together, in seven years and beyond.
And to do that with you this morning, what I want to talk about is not this Rosh Hashanah, but the other Rosh Hashanah: which for the Jews living in the Torah, was almost certainly Pesach, which takes place during the Hebrew month of Nissan, what the Torah calls the first month of the year.
Now hold on a second rabbi, Ma Nishtana: Why would the Jews of the Torah celebrate Rosh Hashanah at Passover, and not Tishrei? It’s because while the creation of the world happened today, the first of Tishrei, what the Jews of the Torah understood was that it was the Exodus that first made us a community: and for those Jews, the creation of community was tantamount to creating a whole new World.
Some of us, when we think of Yetziyat Mitrayim, think of a dashing Charlton Heston and an erudite albeit also good looking, bald Yule Brenner demanding that the Children of Israel go free.
But for the Jews of the Torah, Rosh Hashanah was the moment we were finally, for the first time we called Am Yisrael, the people of Israel. Pesach was the moment we came together in a common cause. And it is the moment when Moses says what to me is the defining vision of Jewish life, my vision for this synagogue as we move forward together.
Moshe, in that moment, tells Pharaoh with conviction, benaareynu uvizkaynaynu nelech. We will leave Egypt. We will get to the Promised Land. But only if we walk with our young and our old together.
Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz once defined a Jew not as someone whose grandparents were Jewish, but someone who desires that their grandchildren also be Jewish. Friends, that’s also Moses’ point. Jewish community, synagogues, only thrive when we create a community where our young and old care about one another. Think the Pesach Seder, today, the most practiced ritual among all American Jews. Why is that? It’s because in a time of increasing ageism and lack of understanding between generations, the Seder is the quintessential Jewish ritual when grandparents celebrate grandchildren, and grandchildren honor their grandparents.
Yet it’s no secret: among the Jewish people and certainly in our country, we are increasingly becoming a society that segregates by age. When I moved to East Cobb, one of the first friends I made was a preacher from Dallas, which until that point I thought was a city in Texas. We got to learn a little about one another’s communities. And that’s when he asked me: "Are you a young church or an old church?" I had to laugh. What on earth was he talking about? Main Line Protestants run old churches. Young Christians were gravitating toward non-denominational Christian houses of worship. So, which were we? I told him Benaareynu Uvizkunaynu: Etz Chaim would be a community for all.
Only in that moment I must admit that his words reminded me of a story of several elderly chasidim who met with their rebbe to complain. The children, the elderly chasidim said, are disturbing our kavana and our davening. Can you have their parents remove them from the beis medrash. The rebbe nodded. Hours later a number of parents met with the rebbe and complained that their children felt unwanted in the shul. The elders were pushing them out the door. The rebbe nodded. The next day the rebbe invited both delegations into his study. Our shul, the rebbe said, needs the older members to reach up to the top of the shelves to gather what is holy up there. Our shul needs our youngsters to reach down to gather from the floor what has tumbled to the ground that is holy down there. We cannot have true holiness without both reaching up and reaching down together. How do we know this? Moshe told Pharaoh: Binaareinu uvizkayneinu nelech.
Thousands of years ago, when we left Egypt, young and old coming together was the rule: now, it is the exception. And in particular, I have been thinking about this since last Sukkot, when I was witness to both a beautiful and concerning interaction that took place in our shul. A more senior congregant came to a younger one who had brought her two young children to services and thanked her for coming. Why, asked the younger parent, would you possibly thank me for coming? The older congregant said, “I am grateful that you came to hang out with a bunch of old fogeys like us.” That’s when the younger congregant turned to me and said, “Rabbi, I don’t get it. I grew up on a kibbutz. There, we have a deal. The young take care of the old...and the old people are supposed to look after my kids. “Why,” she observed, “are American Jews failing at this so badly?”
Friends, she’s right. We are failing at this badly. Maybe it’s because people of different generations struggle to understand one another and see the world differently. Maybe it is our age. The latest PEW forum data on American religious life reported that Jews are the oldest religious group in America. We have an average age of 67. Maybe it’s our differing priorities. My parents and grandparents were married in their 20s and only then settled into their careers. Among 18–40-year-olds in America right now, only 32% even see marriage, and building a family, as key to their fulfillment.
Their careers come first.
I get it: we are not always going to see things the same way. We are not always going to want to practice Judaism the same way. But here is my point in all these stories: can you imagine what a country, what a Jewish people we could create if we put aside the ageism, the complaints about millennials, the “Ok Boomers” and we could be part of that Kibbutz style deal? Literally, Kibbutz means gathering together. Benaareyunu Uvizkunaynu. Can you imagine what we could do if we would only listen to Moses, who taught us that for the Jewish people to thrive, you need the wisdom and experience that comes from an older generation, the holiness up here, coupled with the vibrancy and enthusiasm that comes from a younger generation, the holiness down here.
Folks, I will tell you how I know at Etz Chaim we are on the right track. Because friends, in the same day, I swear to God, bli neder, I was the rebbe in our story, having had these two conversations only hours a part:
The first person walked into my office. She told me, “Rabbi, our synagogue is too old. We are an aging congregation. You must do more programming for young people like me.” I told her about Sukkahfest, our rapidly growing preschools and religious schools, targeted family programs, thriving youth groups, and she agreed that she was full of misconceptions, that she needed to come to Tot Shabbat, we were a synagogue for young people.
Not an hour later, the person's mother walked into my office. She said, “Rabbi, our synagogue is too young. There are so many new young families, I don’t know half the people on the holidays. You must be neglecting old people like me.” And so, I told her about our thriving partnership with Agewell, adult learning opportunities, chavurot, partnerships with Huntcliff, our Prime Timers, and the like. And she agreed she was also misinformed, and that we were a synagogue for mature Jewish adults.
Only here, at that moment, was my mistake. Here’s where I messed up. I should’ve called them into a room together and told them the story of two Jews discussing how their synagogue might change with the selection of a new rabbi. One search committee member said: “I want a rabbi who will create an environment where my grandfather would feel comfortable,” The second one thought, then said, “I want a rabbi who will create an environment where my granddaughter will feel comfortable.”
I should’ve told them how we here at Etz Chaim, not only under the old rabbi, but under the new rabbi, we will do both of those things together. I should’ve told them about our Better Together Grant, which this year will have students and seniors learning about the Holocaust together. I should’ve told him about our Bubbes and Zaydee’s volunteering in the preschool, and the hugs and kisses given to Papas and Nanas and Bubbes and Zaydees. I should’ve told them about our Sisterhood Kickoff event, organized by women in their 30s and attended by people in their 90s. I should’ve told them about the joy of seeing people of all generations celebrate Blue Jean Shabbat or Shabbat in the Park. Or about kiddush tables and buffet lines filled with people on Shabbos from different generations connecting. Be-Naareynu U-Vizkaynaynu, all founded on the belief that all of us, no matter what our age and experience are part of a deal: where we care about one another.
My ask of you is simple. In the waning days of COVID, now is the time to re-engage with us. Continue to be a part of creating this meaningful, purposeful, multi-generational family. Tell both your children and your parents that this is a place for all of us. It doesn’t mean we are going to always be interested in the same kinds of things or see Judaism the same. But let us never forget that what has always made this synagogue strong are the depths of our intergenerational relationships.
It’s hard to believe it’s been seven years. Not seven years of an old church or a young church, but seven years of Am Yisrael, a nation of Israel. Not an aging congregation nor only a young one, but a community of grandparents who sit for a Seder, and grandchildren who sing the Ma Nishtana. Seven years of holiness both above and below. Seven years not only of ID cards but AARP cards thriving together.
Ledor Vador. Together, over the next six years we will till our fields and get down to work: so that in another six years, we will once again celebrate the fruits of our labor. Please join me in reciting the Shehechiyanu….

Music Evokes Memories and Emotions

09/05/2023 10:28:44 AM


Rabbi Dan Dorsch

There are certain songs that I can’t listen to without sobbing. Anything by James Taylor and Carol King. Puff the Magic Dragon. Most of what plays on the “The Bridge” channel on SiriusXM.
What is amazing is this inevitable sobbing begins before any of the lyrics are actually recited.  I just have to hear a few chords.  My mother used to sing Puff the Magic Dragon to me as a child while strumming the guitar in bed.  And so the first time I tried reading a copy of the book to Zev, I couldn’t get through the book without tears staining all of the pages.  No doubt, the theme of the song–the loss of innocence and childhood–could be worth a good cry.  But over time, I’ve discovered I am not crying because of the content.  I am crying because of the memories evoked by the music.
In a few weeks, Jews across the country will come in droves into the pews for Kol Nidrei. In Israel, even Israelis who have never been in services will gather outside of synagogues to hear the final sounding of the Shofar.  
Very few people think about what Kol Nidrei even means or why we do it.  In sum, we are setting up a court of elders who will retroactively annul all of the vows we may make with God and accidentally forget about in the coming year.  No doubt, that topic is worthy of a good cry.  We all make promises and in the wake of the new year, sometimes forget them.  Painful consequences can ensue when we forget our promises.  
However, I am not sure this is what resonates with people at Kol Nidrei.  A Shofar that sounds without a memory of shofarot past is powerful, but it’s not the same.  Kol Nidrei makes us cry because the music and the chanting remind us of what was and is no longer each year.  And we come back year after year because of who was with us once upon a time and now only exists as a memory.  
Our rabbis refer to the melody used for Kol Nidrei as being so old that it is “MiSinai” (from Sinai).  That makes sense.  When we cry at Kol Nidrei, we are not the only ones. We cry alongside the Jewish people who eternally cry at the same melody, from generation to generation.

08/14/2023 11:28:29 AM


Rabbi Dan Dorsch

This past week at a local grocery store, my patience was running thin.  The checkout boy clearly had no discernible skills when it came to identifying produce or any non-barcoded grocery.  I was polite and all smiles on the outside, but seething on the inside.  Ten minutes.  How could someone so inept waste so much of my precious time?
When I got into the car, I then gave it some thought.  What was wrong with me?  The checkout boy was exactly that: a boy.  He probably was a local high school student who had a job over the summer weekend.  He was also someone else’s child.  In a few years, I realized that the check-out boy could be Zev.  Could I have even identified Kale as a high schooler?  How could I be such a judgmental, impatient, yutz (I would have used another word, but this is a synagogue blog)?
Then, my mind began to wander.  If I could show such empathy for this teenager, why couldn’t I demonstrate more empathy for people in general?  It’s easy to judge when you haven’t walked a mile in someone else’s shoes.  What about the woman who woke up early to get to the store to work her weekend job because her husband was out of work?  Or, the person stacking shelves trying to get their life together after a traumatic incident?
We all carry more baggage with us than the bags that hold our groceries in the store.  Perhaps, that’s why Jewish tradition teaches us that we should judge everyone just a little more favorably (dan lekaf zechut).  Any one person on the other side of the checkout counter deserves a little compassion, and as I will try to work on, a little more of my patience.   

05/12/2023 11:09:29 AM


Rabbi Dan Dorsch

As printed in the Marietta Daily Journal, May 12, 2023

I have to admit that I am a little embarrassed to be writing this letter. I’ve been the rabbi of the largest synagogue in Cobb County for nearly seven years. During that time, I’ve experienced no outward antisemitism (Jew hatred) against me personally. On the contrary, I’ve found that people of all faiths (and even those without) have treated me with affection and respect. I have participated in any number of inspiring interfaith gatherings from East Cobb to Kennesaw. This is a wonderful community to live, learn, and raise my family.


All of that changed when I read a letter to the editor submitted by one of your parishioners in the MDJ a few days ago. You may have seen it yourself. In this letter regarding his observance of Good Friday, the writer refers to my ancestors, Jews living in post-biblical times, as “the swamp.” He then chose to repeat the lie that has been the cause of so much violence against Jews throughout our history: that the Jews are responsible for Jesus’ death.


I hope you join me in being appalled at seeing these false claims about Jews in print. And if you are the pastor of this individual, I hope you will reach out to him and ask him to submit a retraction. It hardly needs repeating that the Second Vatican Council in Nostra Aetate (1962-1965) repudiated the claim that the Jews, then and now, hold any responsibility for Jesus’ death. Similar major American churches, such as the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, have also followed suit.


However, there is another good reason beyond this claim’s historical inaccuracy for you to repudiate it publicly from your pulpit. It is not only false, but it is dangerous and makes Jewish communities feel unsafe. European Pogroms, or violent massacres against peaceful Jewish communities as late as the 1800s, were often based on this claim. It won’t surprise you to find out that during the 1930s in Germany, there were plenty of pastors preaching this lie from their pulpits, unaware of what influence their sermons would have in the years ahead.


I suspect you do not follow statistics about current antisemitic hate crimes against Jews, but it won’t surprise you to know that they are skyrocketing in our state. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported that antisemitic incidents in Georgia were up 63% over the previous year. Metro Atlanta neighborhoods where Jews live are routinely blanketed with offensive flyers intended to intimidate, and we are often the victims of harassment. American Jewish Committee, the global advocacy organization for the Jewish people, reports that 9 out of 10 American Jews are concerned about antisemitism, and 4 out of 10 American Jews feel that their status as Jews is less secure than a year ago.


Jews have been part of the fabric of Georgia since we first arrived here in 1733. Since then, we have been part of the fabric of this incredible state by serving in public office, law enforcement, and the military. The oldest synagogue in Georgia was the recipient of a beautiful letter written by America’s new president, George Washington in 1791. I shared this letter as a prayer when I recited the opening benediction at a session of the Cobb County Commission several years ago.


My ask of you, therefore, is simple: if you preach these untruths about Jewish deicide, or denigrate my ancestors from your pulpit, please stop doing so. If you hear an antisemitic comment from a parishioner, please call it out as unacceptable and as a threat to the lives of your fellow American citizens.


I’m sorry we’ve never met. Therefore, I extend a hand to you and your community in friendship. Bring your community to our synagogue so that we may get to know one another. I know that we do not believe in all of the same things. But we share so many common values and principles, foremost among them, a deep love of this country and a desire to make it better for our children. Let us try to focus on the great things we can do together rather than what makes us different.


Rabbi Dan Dorsch of Congregation Etz Chaim and Co-Chair of Interreligious Relations, American Jewish Committee Atlanta.



Constructive Conversations

05/04/2023 05:08:43 PM


Rabbi Dan Dorsch

At some point in my rabbinate (I am deliberately being ambiguous as to the timeline here), I received a rather chutzpadik complaint.  
In fairness to this person, the complaint itself was not the problem.  She may even have had a point.  What made the complaint chutzpadik was that the person who issued the complaint was not a member of the synagogue, had never been to a synagogue program, and had no personal stake in the matter in which she felt the need to complain.  
When people file suit to the Supreme Court, this is called a matter of having “standing.”  If the person filing suit is not in some way directly affected by the matter, it does not matter if they are right or wrong: the court dismisses the case.  As a rabbi, for example, I couldn’t take part in a class action suit filed by the Lovers of Bacon Society (yes, I just made that up).  It would be absurd.  
One of the more serious concerns from where I sit when it comes to having constructive conversations about Israel is related to this issue of standing.  I personally feel that our synagogue, by virtue of our love for Israel, has good standing when it comes to holding constructive conversations about the future of Israel.  We are invested.  We serve in positions of governance on boards and on committees that support Israel.  We have family members and friends who live there.  All of this gives us standing.  For the record, not all Israelis would agree with me.  Many feel that American Jews who do not vote in the country, serve in the army, and are not citizens, have no standing at all.  
Despite that last disagreement, what American Jews and Israelis certainly unite behind is that many critics of Israel–especially those who are a part of intersectional movements–have no standing to get involved in these conversations.  This certainly hasn’t stopped random groups and some celebrities from believing it’s their place to comment on Israeli politics.  But most serious people recognize that these folks are as bad as my joining up with the Bacon Lovers Society, and as much a farce as the chutzpadik complainer I began this piece by writing about. 
I do feel when engaging in productive discussions about Israel, it’s always important to take the standing of a person into consideration.  And all the more so, when we are among lovers of Israel not to forget: Derech Eretz Kadma LaTorah. 
There are certainly the “Bacon Lovers” in our society who warrant our disdain.  But we cannot forget that the way we treat one another, especially in our large, “multiple-ways to change a light bulb” community of standing, matters almost as much as what we have to say.  
Sun, October 1 2023 16 Tishrei 5784