Saturday, September 13, 2008

Back to the future

Here I sit again in Anchorage. This time I came back to help celebrate the 50th anniversary of the congregation. The current Rabbi, Michael Oblath, my predecessor here, Lester Polonsky, and their recent interim Rabbi, Fred Wenger are all here for the festivities. Many of the living past presidents and some former residents along with the current members of the congregation are all here to celebrate as well.

Before Shabbat evening services the organizing committee set out three notebooks containing the congregation's history. Just out of curiosity, I have been keeping an eye on how many people have flipped through them. To my surprise, they have sat largely untouched.

For me, observances like these provide opportunities to reflect and learn the past which then gives us insight on the present and the foundation to build toward the future. My teacher Dr. Eugene Mihaly, z"l, used the phrase "our moorings and our reach" to describe this process. Like a ship we are moored in our past. It grounds us, teaches us and hopefully inspires us but does not tie us down. Rather, our past provides the steady base upon which we stand as we reach out in the present to create the future.

Mashal (A story) - A new rabbi comes to a community and finds the community split over whether or not to stand for the Shema. Each side lobbies the rabbi to back its position. The rabbi, being wise, (Aren't all rabbis in these stories wise?) sought out the most senior member of the congregation to determine the origin of the dispute. This member tells him that the congregation fights this fight because it has always fought this fight. It is part of the congregation's identity.

Knowing the past enables us to see the system in place. Once we know how the system developed to its present state, we begin to see the path to moving the system, in this case the congregation, forward.

In reality though, there are "many pasts". That is different people experienced the past differently and remember it even more differently. Therefore, it is important to learn as many different views of the history of the congregation as we can.

Another lesson from this weekend is that people may not change but they do move on. People are often creatures of habit. We like continuity and often find change, no matter how positive, disconcerting or alienating. But as it has been said, change is the one constant in the universe. As we grow, or at least as we age, our primary interests change and we move on to places that fulfill that new place. And as we know nature hates a vacuum, our movement from the center allows space for others who now find themselves where we were to fill our former place. However, even when our primary interest moves on, a part of us remains connected to where we came from, to our moorings and when we pass near those places, we are drawn to them and seem to want to feel the warmth and welcome our moorings provided us in days gone by. When we find that the tides of time have change the moorings we remember, we can feel lost or ill at ease. At those times we need to see with fresh eyes the beauty that those who followed us have added to where we once were and bask in the glow of knowing that we added to the foundation upon which they now stand and build. We can share our stories with them but we need to listen and hear theirs as well.

Over the weekend many people reflected on why they feel they "are Congregation Beth Sholom." Reflecting on what first drew me to CBS I see it is still there today and is stronger than ever. CBS is a place that empowers and allows it diverse membership to explore, develop and determine its life. CBS is a congregation of doers who desire to be self-sufficient and loved for that quality. If more congregations had that same desire, Judaism would be much stronger and more vibrant.

The last lesson for this post: Congregations are more alike than they are different. As I look at Temple Beth Zion and look back at Congregation Beth Sholom the same people are in both places. The actual people are obviously different but in each place someone fills each role. As we move to new places, it behooves us to use the lessons we learned about how best to deal with each person and their role to move more easily through our new home.

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