Shabbat Parashat Ki Tissa 5778
Rabbi Englander's Sermons

Shabbat Parashat Ki Tissa 5778

Counting and Being Counted

My first experience running High Holy Day services took place when I was an undergraduate at the University of Michigan. Back then Conservative services took place in the main ballroom of the Michigan Union, a very prestigious and centrally-located place, thank you very much. Hundreds of students and faculty came together and as the head of the weekly Friday night service, I had the opportunity to facilitate this service with a cantor while the Hillel director was speaking at all of the different services being hosted on campus.

I remember very little about it, truthfully, other than feeling like yes, this is something I think might also be part of my future. Little did I know at that point that I would now be approaching my 20th High Holy Days here at B’nai Torah, preceded by two in Huntsville Alabama and one in Waycross Georgia, in both places serving not only as page caller but cantor, Torah reader, and sermon giver. But if you were to ask me where this journey really began in earnest, I think it might have been at the Michigan Union as we approached Yizkor on Yom Kippur. I told the crowd that when I was a child, I thought that the word Yizkor was translated as “fire”, why? Because both words have the same effect on large crowds. That bit of insight and the laughter and agreement that followed were, shall we say, very encouraging.

And the observation remains true: I like to say that even in our wonderful Family Service on the High Holy Days in the Weiner Cultural Center, half the people leave right before Yizkor and the other half leave right after. It is a truism, there seems no way around it, and the way I have come to think of it is how wonderful that so many people come up to that point, and how great that there is at least a minyan that remains afterward. They didn’t have to come in the first place, and the rest had every reason to leave. I only see full seats anyway; I don’t even notice the empty ones. In other words, as long as you are here, we are in this together.

If Yizkor having an effect on our crowds is one truism, here is another one that is on my mind this week. We are reading Parashat Ki Tissa, the beginning of which we also read just a few weeks ago on Shabbat Shekalim. It is the report of a census of the Israelites, the universal fee that had to be paid by everyone, rich and poor alike in order to be counted among the Israelite community of the time. These funds were collected for the upkeep and proper implementation of the ritual of the Mishkan, the Tabernacle, and eventually the Temple in Jerusalem. Since a census in the ancient world was often a prelude to a new tax or to war, this counting had a spiritual component to it as well – each was a “kofer nafsho”, a ransom for the individual. Through the giving of the half shekel, the payer was protected from any plague or calamity that was assigned to those who failed to pay. Would that our agencies, synagogues, and organizations could make the same threat and promise – you better give your share, or watch out for the plague coming your way!

So here is the other truism: whenever the Jewish community is surveyed or surveys itself, and the results are published, we have to get the firehoses out to prevent radical over-response to the data that has been reported. Famously this happened with a report a generation ago on intermarriage statistics, it happened more than ten years ago the last time our community’s Jewish demographics were studied, it happened with a report put out by the Pew foundation now a couple of years ago that caused panic due to the number of Jews who supposedly identified culturally but not religiously. Less well-publicized was another Pew study released just months ago on the connection between Israeli Jews and North American Jews, which quantified a significant distance and strain between the two. I recently taught a Lunch and Learn at our wonderful Hillel of Broward and Palm Beach and that was our text, and I’ll do the same with our high school students after services today.

I’m not in the prediction business but I can forecast that soon there will be another intense and well-meaning reaction to a new population study that is being done under the direction of our Jewish Federation and implemented by some excellent demographers out of Brandeis University. They met with many community stakeholders to find out what it was that we wanted to know. They organized those requests, added to it what they know to be most helpful from past surveys, and developed a randomized sample that was invited to fill out a survey online that would take 15-20 minutes. Though I am in no way certain that I will help or hurt the sample or the results, they sent me an official and anonymous link to participate which I was really happy about. This week I filled it out, for three reasons. First, to be helpful to the project, so that the data we will no doubt learn from will be as accurate as possible. Second, to encourage anyone who may have received a link to the survey to fill it out – as the results will only be as helpful as the willingness of people to participate. And third, because there is a spiritual question that underlies this scientific exercise: when we think about ourselves as a community, what lies at the heart of what it means to be a connected – or disconnected – Jew in the first part of the 21st century in America? And “how are we doing” when it comes to holding up our individual and collective share of the challenge and opportunity to connect deeply enough that future generations will still be filling out surveys from a position of strength? How is it that we can make sure they do not need to come back from the brink, but instead seek to further improve and enrich opportunities for Jewish engagement and rich Jewish living?

In our parasha it was only men over 20 years old who gave the half-shekel. I’m sure there were actuarial tables that then projected some broader demographic data as to how many total souls that represented, just as our community study will be based on a small percentage of the overall Jewish population. Most likely the people traipsing through the Sinai wilderness needed to know the size of the fighting force it could deploy for its own defense if that was necessary. What is it that our community is seeking to learn about itself? I did not take comprehensive notes or screenshots as I went through the questions, but a few things stood out to me that I would like to share with you.

There were questions about ritual Jewish practice – do you regularly or irregularly light Shabbat candles, Hanukah candles, fast on Yom Kippur, keep kosher to any extent, hang a mezuzah at home, and the like. I have also asked similar questions to various subgroups around the congregation, and to everyone’s credit, I can tell you that fasting on Yom Kippur, for those medically able to do so, always ranks very high.

But we don’t want to know just how often people come to shul or what they will order off of a menu (come to think of it I should have requested to know how many fellow Jewish vegetarians there are in our community, I’m guessing more than we might think). We want to know about the quality of people’s Jewish connections both to Jewish organizations and educational institutions, what they find to be at the heart of their Jewish expression and commitments, what motivates them to continue to associate and hopefully affiliate with this community and this people, when opting out is a cleaner and smoother option than it has perhaps ever been.

So, Jewish education is polled – schools and programs, those that are all day every day and those that are once in a while. And it is not only synagogue attendance but an interesting question about that participation if and when it exists, which was to rate whether your spiritual needs were met when you attended synagogue and if you felt connected to or disconnected from the people who were also in attendance when you were there. Each requires further investigation, I think, and I want to do that through an image from an article I recently read in the New Yorker.

It was about the survey culture that we live in – we post reviews, we Yelp, we go on TripAdvisor, we buy things on Amazon based on how many stars others have given them. Someone had the great idea – and lucrative idea – to create a very simple terminal or kiosk that could be placed all around venues, buildings, anywhere people gather and interact with those trying to provide a positive customer experience. It is called a HappyOrNot machine and it has only two buttons. A green smiley face button and red frowny-face button. You don’t put in your name, what you bought, or any other information. Just Happy or Not. And from that a company can easily match up those responses with what is going right or what is going wrong in the immediate vicinity of that machine, and move to fix it if the ratings are bad.

We won’t be putting Happy or Not machines in our sanctuary or lobby, and I would like to think that generally, the ratings around B’nai Torah would be high. Happiness and satisfaction with our experiences together under this large roof are certainly part of what we all want to feel. But it is not the be all end all of a successful engagement in services or Jewish education at any age. No one goes to a ball game to feel challenged or perplexed, no one fills up their car at a gas station expecting to be asked to respond to the biggest questions of life and existence, or to be challenged to raise our ethical bar and to meet our responsibilities in keeping with the expectations of God and a 3000-year-old tradition. We almost certainly expect our customer-vendor interactions to take place in a language we understand fluently. Yet here we are, pushing the bar, pushing ourselves, not only toward satisfaction and happiness but also toward spiritual uplift, intellectual challenge, and finding greater meaning in both celebration and struggle.

Our retail experiences are different from our spiritual experiences in another way as well. We expect to be served well at a restaurant, we expect a seller to send us what we bought online quickly, accurately and in one piece. Success equals happiness, failure equals unhappiness. Quickly what is the name of the last cashier who checked you out at Publix? Your waiter at the last restaurant you ate at? 99% of us would not know. But if we are anywhere near that percentage for knowing who is sitting in your row this morning, or in front of you or behind you, we have not done all we can to take control of and responsibility for the answer to the question of how connected or disconnected we feel in this experience. We have to continually encourage each other to never view this experience as the same as watching a show at the Broward Center – even though we have exactly the same seats here as they have there – and to take responsibility for building this experience together.

I was pleased to see that the demographers chose to poll what motivates us as Jews in addition to ritual activity. It asks responders to rate their agreement or disagreement with the ideas that it is important to Judaism whether we live an ethical and moral life. I am pretty sure that will get high marks as it is not a very nuanced question. I think that is in the survey to set up the following question which is ok, friends, given that you probably just answered yes to the question of the intersection of ethics, morality, and Judaism, what do you think about this one: does Judaism require you to work for justice and equality in society?

We know, anecdotally and statistically, that a younger generation of Jews especially are motivated by acting positively and helpfully in their community and in their world. The teens leading the national response surrounding the tragedy in Parkland may have been thrust into the spotlight due to the horrific and tragic act that senselessly took 17 lives, but they were already primed to make a difference in the world beyond their home. It is a learned response and perspective that should not have been activated in this way, but they are not strangers to the idea that their impact can be felt broadly. They are technology and social media natives, they are not scared off by so-called trolls who use offensive and violent language against them for their efforts, and they know what it is to live in an interconnected world, which is in part why we can expect both huge crowds in Washington and elsewhere on March 24th and many local rallies as well. They are why some progress on reducing gun violence in this country that suffers from way too much of it might be made. They will learn a lot through their activism, including that real change takes time, perseverance, and continued effort. Our teens don’t like setbacks; they expect life to be a march of forward progress. Our Jewish community knows well what a long and at times difficult slog major achievements in equality, safety, and empowerment can be. With perspective and experience, and with pride and hope, we encourage and stand with those who are standing up and making their needed voices heard.

I will leave you with a question, an answer, and a challenge. The survey ended with a free response question and I admit I am curious both about how many respondents will bother to fill it out, and what those who do will say. The question was along the lines of “If you could choose one program or service to focus on to improve the [south Palm Beach] Jewish community, what would it be?”

Most of my time is spent either engaging with or thinking about how to better engage those who are already in B’nai Torah’s orbit, to serve and partner with our members. Sometimes, of course, is invested in the broader local community and that which lies within Jewish concerns beyond our borders especially in Israel, and for me, as you know, in the developing world too. In fact, in a couple of weeks, I’m going to Washington again with American Jewish World Service to learn and lobby on issues of global justice, which to me are also Jewish issues.

But in thinking about how we could improve our broader community my answer was not about our membership or those already meaningfully involved in synagogues, Temples, or other organizations and Jewish initiatives, but with the many thousands of people who identify as Jewish or live with or are married to someone who does who have not yet found their way to connect to the many blessings that an interconnected Judaism offers. We are a strong community and can be even stronger. We are a big community and can be even bigger. We try and fail, and try and succeed, in engaging those of all different backgrounds and commitment levels. But the biggest leap is from being disconnected to being connected, unaffiliated to affiliated in any way, feeling Jewish to doing Jewish with others doing the same. When we figure that out, or do it a little better, the blessings will reverberate today and far into the future as well.

So, if you could choose one program or service to focus on to improve the Jewish community, what would it be, or I would add to the professional demographers whose work will help our community plan for our future with enthusiasm and hopefully without panic, if you could do one thing to elevate yours or someone else’s Jewish experience, what would it be? Whatever it is I guarantee, based on three thousand years of thinking about the Jewish past, present, and future, there is something you can do today to begin to make it happen. Sh-sh.