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Belonging (Sermon from Rosh Hashanah, 2019)

rabbi hannah Oct 11, 2019

            When we ask someone “Do you belong to a synagogue?” we usually mean: Are you a member?  Do you pay dues?  But belonging is so much more than that.  Over the summer when I asked congregants what “belonging” means to them, several people mentioned that belonging to a group is a primal human need.  Thousands of years ago, people had to band together to survive and on some level we still do. A number of people also mentioned an epidemic of loneliness and isolation in our own time.  A few pointed out that the British government has a Minister of Loneliness whose job is to address social isolation.

            When the CBH board met this year to talk about our vision for the future, people agreed that a sense of isolation is often what draws people to a synagogue –  it may be isolation from other Jews or it may be living far from family, or it may be the busy-ness that prevents us from connecting with others.  But most of us yearn for a place to belong.

I want to start by exploring what belonging is not.  Social Scientist Brene Brown says that: “The opposite of belonging is fitting in.  Fitting in is assessing and acclimatizing.  Here’s what I should say.   Here’s what I shouldn’t say.  Here’s what I should avoid talking about.  Here’s what I should dress like, look like. That’s fitting in.  Belonging,” she says, “is belonging to yourself first, speaking your truth, telling your story, and never betraying yourself for other people.  True belonging doesn’t require you to change who you are.  It requires you to be who you are.” 

There was a poem by Sharon Olds in the New Yorker that expresses this idea beautifully. 

It’s called “No-Makeup.”  Olds writes:

“I tried the paint, but I could feel it on my skin, I could
hardly move under the mask of my
desire to be seen as attractive in the female
way of 1957,
and I could not speak. And when the makeup came off, I felt
actual as a small mammal in the woods
with a speaking countenance, or a basic
primate, having all the expressions
that evolved in us, to communicate.

In my small eyes, and my smooth withered skin,
you can see my heart, you can read my naked lips.”


            This idea of being seen for who we are, is not really about makeup or the clothes we wear.  It’s something much deeper.  And don’t we all long to be seen, to be known, to be accepted and loved for who we really are?

            One way we can create a space for belonging is by telling our stories.  Every one of us has a whole lifetime of stories that make us who we are, but in day to day life we rarely share them. One of the benefits of a community like ours that values relationships and meaningful connection, is that we can create opportunities to share our stories.  When our members share memories of their loved ones when they have a yahrzeit, the stories and photos deepen our understanding of each other and where we come from.  We learn what influences shaped the people we are today. 

            In the past year we have added new ways to share stories.  Last fall Stephanie Tran partnered with two women from Fountain Baptist Church to bring Moth Storytellers for a joint workshop.  The participants crafted stories that they shared with each other and with both of our communities.  This fall, some of the people who participated in the workshop helped others from our two congregations create stories, and they will be sharing them with all of us on November 2.

In the spring the Spiritual Life Committee came up with the idea to use our fifth Friday services to invite immigrants and refugees who are part of our community to share their stories.  So far, we have heard from people who came from Eastern Europe and from Asia and out next sharing will be from people whose families came from north Africa.  I often wonder whether people who were not born in the United States, whose first language is not English, feel that they truly belong here.  I wanted to draw them in to the center of our community by sharing their stories and being known more fully.  I can’t speak for them, so I don’t know whether it had that effect, but I do know that for those of us who heard the stories, it was a gift that wove our community more tightly together.

            After the board meeting when we talked about our isolation and the need to belong, Andy Kaplan sent out an op-ed by New York Times columnist David Brooks.  Brooks believes that social isolation is the core problem that underlies many other problems in our society.  Brooks started an organization called Weave: The Social Fabric Project.  He gathered a group of people who travel around the country looking for people on a local level who are “weavers” – people who are building community and weaving the social fabric.  He says: “Weavers share an ethos that puts relationships over self.”  Brooks points out that even though U.S. culture values personal freedom, self-interest, and self-expression…  Even though social scientists often claim that people are motivated by selfish interests such as money, power or status… Weavers are not motivated by these things.  Brooks believes that Weavers understand that “the measure of our lives is in the quality of our relationships.  They believe that: “We precedes me.”

            There is a story from the Talmud that illustrates the importance of “we” precedes “me.”  A group of people are traveling on a ship.   One person decided to make a hole in the floor of his cabin.  The others beg him to stop up the hole, but he says he paid for his cabin and he can do whatever he wants with it.  The ship sinks and everyone drowns.  As Brooks says, we live in a culture that cherishes individual freedom, and self-interest.  But unless we balance our individual needs with the responsibility to others, we will all drown.

            In Judaism this idea of that “we” precedes “me” is expressed by the language of covenant.  As I mentioned earlier, the adult learning series I will be teaching this year is based on the Ten Commandments and how the underlying principles of the commandments are still meaningful to us today.  The introduction to the course materials includes this definition of covenant: “Covenant is the coming together of two or more parties in order to create something for the benefit of the other, or better yet, the whole. It is the merging of identities from the “I” to the “we.”  A covenantal community recognizes that belonging is not just about filling our individual needs – it is about creating something bigger than our individual selves. 

            Over the summer, as we were planning the Lifelong Learning series and how it might fit with the theme of belonging one of our members said that “people come to a religious community (and I would add to any community) for a sense of belonging and connection.  But,” she said, “it’s an illusion that this is something we consume.  In reality, the members of the community are the product.  We create, sustain, and maintain the community.  We shape the community.”  Belonging means being seen and valued for who you are and coming together to create something better than any one of us can create alone.

            When we belong, there is an interplay, even a tension at times between the individual and the group.  The psychologist Esther Perel describes this tension, saying: “We all come into this world with a need for connection and protection and with a need for freedom…That tension between freedom and responsibility is at the core of being human.”  When we belong to a family or a community or a nation, we seek to balance our individual needs with responsibility to the group.      Belonging can provide security and strength and empowerment.  But there is also always a danger in belonging.  The danger arises when people say ‘we belong and you do not.’

            At a service in July, when I asked “What does belonging mean to you?” someone who was visiting CBH said that she had been to synagogues where no one spoke to her, but at Beth Hatikvah everyone is welcoming and friendly.  Of course, I am always happy to hear that, but what struck me more was what she said next.  She said that the feeling of belonging starts in community, but it can’t stop there.  We have to turn outward and include more people.

            Another visitor at that service had converted to Judaism. She described working at a Jewish bookstore where some people refused to accept that she was Jewish. She said: “It hurt.  It still hurts.”

            We can hurt people when we refuse to see that they belong.  Judaism can be an exclusive club.  I saw this for myself when I attended the Reconstructing Judaism convention in November and heard the story of a rabbi at the convention who happened to be Black.  She was in the lobby with some takeout food and someone asked her who she was delivering the food to.  The person who asked didn’t see this woman as a rabbi.  Didn’t see her even as Jewish, as someone who belonged there.  Unfortunately, incidents like this are not isolated occurrences, even among progressive Reconstructionist Jews.  We have trouble seeing people as belonging when they do not look like us or do not fit our preconceived ideas of who belongs.

            We saw this on a larger scale this summer when Ethiopian Jews in Israel took to the streets to protest the ways that they are not treated equally.  The chief rabbinate in Israel is constantly making claims about who is a Jew – whose conversion is valid, whose ancestry is acceptable.  It always mystifies me why our tiny little people would work so hard to keep people out, to say “you do not belong.”

            As Jews, we should understand better than anyone the dangers when people are excluded.  For most of our history, we lived in lands where we were strangers who did not belong.  We were confined to ghettos, denied civil rights, subjected to the violence of pogroms and in the ultimate expression of not belonging, we were not even seen as human.  As we know so well, when you are not perceived as belonging to the human race, you can be rounded up and murdered.

            Mark Hetfield president and CEO of the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society spoke at a service here at CBH this year, when we gathered with members of the other two synagogues in Summit. This in itself is a wonderful reminder that we belong to the Jewish People and not just to our own synagogue.  Mark Hetfield described the horror and anger he felt when he heard Americans chanting “send them back” because those words have special meaning for Jews.  He reminded us of the St. Louis – the ship that approached Florida in 1939 with 937 passengers fleeing Germany and Eastern Europe.  They were sent back where many of them perished in the Holocaust.  Hetfield wrote that “send them back” is the message we convey as we prepare to further decrease the number of refugees this country will accept, in the midst of the worst refugee crisis in human history.

            This summer the New York Times published page after page of Americans sharing stories of being told to “go back” because of their race or ethnicity or religion.  I’d like to share just a few of them with you, but please look online and read them all.  It’s important for us to hear the voices of people who do not feel they belong in our country and in our communities.

A man from Los Angeles said: “I’ve been called a terrorist and Osama bin Laden’s son. I’ve been told to go on my jihad. I’ve been called a member of Al Qaeda and the Taliban. These all came during high school. I was born here, yet others told me I didn’t belong.” 

A woman from Washington D.C. wrote: “I immigrated to the United States from Panama in 2002 at just 8 years old. My mother enlisted in the Army, so my first experience of America was living and attending school at a military base in North Carolina six months after 9/11.  I was told to “go back” to my country on an almost daily basis.  I wished for nothing more in those first months than to be able to go back home to Panama — but this was my home now. My mother was fighting alongside their fathers. Didn’t that mean we belonged here, too?”

            A man from New Hampshire wrote: “I grew up in Centereach, N.Y., then went to M.I.T. and finally Harvard Medical School. I am now a neurosurgeon.  Yet, a patient told me, “Why don’t you go home to Israel?”  When I told her I was American, and my home was here, I faced an incredulous stare.  The white coat, Ivy League degrees and seven years of residency and fellowship garnered no kinship to these countrymen, who viewed me only through an anti-Semitic lens, declaring me an outsider.”

            The one that hit me hardest related to Brene Brown’s distinction between belonging and fitting in.  A woman from Brooklyn wrote: “I was walking out of the old Barnes & Noble with my husband, who was carrying our granddaughter on his shoulders. An older white woman started shouting at him to go back to Iran.  She then said our granddaughter should have burned in the towers instead of Americans.  I was blind with rage, but my husband remained calm.  This woman did not see me, as I was behind them. It took all of my willpower to not make a scene for my granddaughter’s sake. The next day my husband shaved his beard so as to not appear too ‘Muslim.’ My heart broke that day.”

            At the service this summer, someone said: “We all belong to the human race.  That should be it.”  Perhaps she’s right.  Perhaps if everyone felt that way, all of our problems would be solved.  But that is not the world we live in.  And we humans seem to be drawn to belong to tribes and groups and nations where we feel safe and accepted.  There is value in that.  It fills a basic human need to be known and valued and connected to others.  There was a time when our survival depended on banding together with others like us.  But we live in a different world now.  If we are going to survive, we will need to expand our definition of what it means to belong.  We will need to understand that it does not mean fitting in; it does not mean looking or behaving or believing like everyone else.  If we are going to survive, we will have to understand that belonging to each other means creating covenantal communities where each of us contributes to the good of all.  If we are going to survive, we will need to take the strength and security we have within the bonds of community and family, not to turn inward and hunker down, but to turn outward to include more and more people.

            Our wonderful president Margie Ticknor came up with a visual, physical reminder that we are woven together, we belong to one another.

            We are going to ask you to stand up if you are able and reach each of your hands out to someone behind you or diagonally across from you and take their hands.  Don’t hold the hands of those next to you.  Think of the game “twister.”  We want to intertwine our arms as much as possible without leaving our seats.  And when you are intertwined, look around and join us in singing Hinei Mah Tov – How good it is to be woven together.           


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