It Belongs to You
Aspen Jewish Congregation
Carbondale Farewell Shabbat at the Orchard
I was asked this week what I feel are my biggest accomplishments from my seven years as the rabbi of the Aspen Jewish Congregation. One rose to the top right away: Expanding our reach throughout the valley, and repositioning the AJC as a valley-wide congregation.
Parts of this effort predate Rollin and me. The Basalt Hebrew school was already underway when we started, under the leadership of Jessica Slosberg. Mid-valley chavurah gatherings had been happening for years, for example at the Shiekman-Miller home in Emma, among others.
Over the last 3-4 years, we have worked hard to nurture growth in the mid-valley, to shore up existing programs and create new ones. That includes the Chanukah Menorah lighting in Basalt, the adults-only Purim party at the Woody Creek Distillery, Hebrew School in Glenwood Springs, and Torah study and Shabbat at the Orchard. (As an aside, there were many venues on the table when we first started planning these Friday nights in Carbondale, but we have found a true home with our friends here at the Orchard. To Lead Pastor Charley Hill and most especially to Melissa Miller, thank you for your warm and enthusiastic welcome and support.)
In my seven years as a rabbi, I’ve done a lot of thinking and reading about what makes for a happy and fulfilled life. Study after study says that we thrive on human connection and attain joy through serving a purpose beyond ourselves. There is no debate there. And yet, we are more isolated than ever.
Now here’s the tricky part. Sometimes even a well-meaning congregation and rabbi can feed the very problem we’re trying to solve. Take a look at this week’s haftarah, from the prophet Ezekiel, on the special role of the priests:
The levitical priests…shall approach Me to minister to Me…declares the Lord ADONAI. They alone may enter My Sanctuary and they alone shall approach My table to minister to Me; and they shall keep My charge. (Ezekiel 44:15-16)
The priests are intermediaries between God’s holy presence and the ordinary Israelites. They have a monopoly on the sacred. They alone own it.
I think we think we’ve evolved beyond that hierarchy of holiness. The temple destroyed, the priesthood ended, everyone today has equal access to the holy. And yet, I’m up here and you’re down there. I’m speaking, and you’re listening (or not). We’re here in Carbondale on the dates we the staff decided work best for us. Some of that is natural — we have full-time people dedicated to offering quality programming. And I suppose five years of rabbinic school count for something when I stand before you.
But if this interaction stays in the consumer/provider dynamic, then we will have failed. It’s surprisingly tough for us to break free of that mindset, having been primed by the marketplace to see ourselves as customers. But the thing about Judaism, or any spiritual community and wisdom tradition, is that you can’t outsource it. If you want it for yourself and your kids, you have to own it. We clergy and educators can help and guide, but we can’t do it for you.
I read an essay recently called “Your Church Does Not Need Volunteers.” The author, a pastor, made the point that volunteering is “what you do at a place that is important to you — but not at a place that belongs to you.” She continued (and you can just replace the word “church” with “congregation” or “synagogue,” because the point is the same):
You cannot volunteer at your own church, in the same way you cannot babysit your own kid. Because the church belongs to you in the same way your family does. It’s your own place, your own people. So of course you help take care of it… But whatever we do, we should remember that we don’t just belong to the church — it belongs to us.
In the same spirit, there’s a Hasidic saying: If you want your children to force their children to study Torah, then force your children to study Torah. But if you want your children to study Torah, then let them see you studying Torah. Translation for today: If you want a meaningful bar/bat mitzvah experience for your kid, you have to make sure you’re invested in it yourself. If you want your kids to care about being Jewish, and more importantly to know what that means and live it in a way that adds value to the world — then you need an answer when they ask you that innocent yet disruptive question: “Why?” We can help you craft the why, but it has to be authentically yours.
A legendary rabbi, Arnold Jacob Wolf z’’l, once told me that a rabbi’s job is to sit in his office and wait. Wait for people to knock, to call, to show up. I thought he was crazy. But now I think I get it. I’m not your priest. I do not have a monopoly on holiness. I do not own Judaism. I cannot perform a magic trick that makes you suddenly feel God or makes your children miraculously into caring and literate Jews. Like most things worth doing, you have to work for it. Commitment, I suppose, is counter-cultural. But I believe we owe it to ourselves and our children to teach them the value of community and service to others, about gratitude and responsibility. And to teach that, we have to model it.
For me, Judaism offers a beautiful and transformative template for a life of depth and impact. Stories and rituals shape us into people in whom the past and future meet. Texts and sages provoke us to question assumptions and examine our ways. Calls to communal life remind us that we are social, political beings with obligations to others.
If Judaism isn’t any of that for you — if, after serious consideration, you decide to opt out — go in peace. Really! It’s not for everyone, and one of the dysfunctions of the consumerist trap we fall into is that we think we have to sell everyone on how great our product is. And it is great — obviously I believe that or I wouldn’t have staked my career on it — but I also know it’s not for everyone.
I just ask you for two things — parting gifts, if you will. First, take Judaism seriously enough that you know what you’re walking away from. It has become a cliche, for example, to speak of the many Jews who become Buddhists without any awareness that Judaism has its own ancient and rich mystical tradition of embodied spiritual practice and meditation.
Second, if you decide to look elsewhere for community and spirituality, please take that search seriously. Promise me that being “spiritual but not religious” isn’t just an excuse to be lazy and non-committal. Being a parent, or a neighbor, or honestly just a human being is too awesome a responsibility and opportunity to take lightly.
I will leave the Valley knowing there is still so much potential to be realized here. To do that, you have to see yourself as a stakeholder, not a customer. Whatever you do, remember: you don’t just belong to this congregation— it belongs to you.
You have a great rabbi coming here — Rabbi Emily Segal is a friend and colleague who has my deep respect and full confidence. But like me she’s not a priest or a magician. She doesn’t own the sacred, but she can help you find it together.
I want to invite all of us, whether through this congregation or another path, to live with more intention, commitment, and awareness. Whatever we might tell ourselves, it is our actions and choices that reflect our priorities. What are yours?
If I’ve been preachy tonight, I’m sorry — although it is sort of my job, sometimes, maybe. Know that it comes from my love for this community and my faith in its future. I’ve gotten to know the potential of this valley over the past seven years, and together we’ve started to realize it. I thank each of you for showing me what is possible here! You’ve helped make me the rabbi I am today, and I will carry all of you with me wherever I go.
Shabbat shalom, and thank you for everything.