Building the good place

Last year during these days of awe, I invited you to take a personal risk, to try something new, to be willing to fail. And many of you took up the challenge.

This year, I am going to invite you to take a different kind of risk, this time, not alone, but together with all the people sitting in this sanctuary. 

But in order to consider how big a risk we’ll take as a congregation in 5780, let’s go back for a moment to a story that took place in the Jewish year 5585. 

Our story starts in Buffalo, New York. Anyone here from Buffalo? Perhaps you know this story. 

One hundred and ninety four years ago, in September 1825, the “Jewish State of Ararat,” was nearly established on Grand Island, near Buffalo, of all places.

Historian Howard Sachar describes the foundation ceremony, which took place at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church: “On the church communion table lay the cornerstone for the Jewish community of Ararat, inscribed with the Hebrew Sh’ma. Here it was that Noah delivered his ‘Proclamation to the Jews.’”

He said, in part, “…Looking forward to a period of regeneration, and to the fulfillment of prophecies, the Jews have preserved within themselves…the oracles of God assigned to their safe keeping, and the time has arrived when their rights as a nation can be recognized. 

“In the enjoyment of independence, the light of learning and civilization, and the obligation of industry and morality, they can cultivate a friendly and affectionate understanding with the whole family of [human]kind, and have no longer enemies on earth.

The visionary almost-founder of Ararat was Major Mordechai Manuel Noah. He was born in July 1785, the son of Manuel Noah, a Jewish Revolutionary War hero. Mordechai Manuel Noah had purchased a portion of Grand Island, New York as a refuge and learning center of self-government for the Jewish people.  And Noah humbly declared himself “Governor and Judge of Israel.” 

On the day of the dedication ceremony in 1825, there was the firing of canon, a band striking up a march while leading a procession of notables including the Seneca Chief Red Jacket, and at the head of it all was Mordechai Manuel Noah. To add to the surreal atmosphere was Noah’s outfit: he rented a Richard III costume from a local theater company.

Just as with the work of personal teshuvah, we can either spend our time mired in cynicism about the way things are, or, dream a bit about the way things could be, and the active role Shaaray Tefila might play in bringing a more perfect world into reality. 

There’s enough cynicism on any cable TV news channel of your choice, so let’s not go there today. I invite you all, instead, to join me for a moment in a more optimistic endeavor. 

The word utopia was coined in the year 1516 by the author Thomas More, who wrote a book about a magical island founded by a General called Utopus. The island is governed by rational thought, religious tolerance, communal property, and no class distinctions. 

Books like The Hunger Games and Divergent can trace their origins back to Thomas More’s most famous work. Perhaps John Lennon was inspired by More when he wrote “Imagine.” 

More coined the word ‘utopia’ from the Greek word oo-topos meaning ‘no place’ or ‘nowhere’. But he had a way with language, that Thomas More. The word he chose was a punthe almost identical Greek word eu-topos means ‘a good place.’ So at the very heart of the word is a vital question: can a perfect world ever be realized? And if not, is it still worth pursuing?

This summer, I binge-listened to a podcast called “Nice Try,” the whole first season of which is about the perpetual search for a perfect place. Turns out, lucky for you, that this was just the high holiday season for me to be inspired by podcasts!

The podcast “Nice Try” contains a series of stories from the last several hundred years about noble efforts to solve the problems of nature or government or religionissues still relevant to our world today.

In the podcast, host Avery Truffelman, who, I only learned later, just happens to have become a Bat Mitzvah at Shaaray Tefila some years ago, tells a variety of stories about failed utopias.

She starts with the story of Jamestown and the Virginia Company in 1606. She then shares the story of Prime Minister Nehru, who founded a new city called Chandigarh in 1948 after the Punjab province was separated into Pakistan and India. 

She describes the dueling efforts by the founders of Levittown and Concord Place in the 1950’s to create an ideal suburban communityone all white, one integrated racially. 

From Truffelman we learn about Biosphere 2 and Germania and the author Charlotte Perkins Gillman’s vision of Herland. 

And while I don’t have time here to tell you the whole story, I’ll just leave it at this: if you take the time to listen to the 37 minute episode about Oneida, you will never look at the tableware in your home the same way again. 

And then there’s Frank Lloyd Wright’s Usonia, and Walt Disney’s Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow, also known as EPCOT. And on and on it goes. People, it seems, have always tried, and continue to try, to build a perfect place.

And, since Adam and Eve were kicked out of the Garden of Eden, we Jews have also been trying to make our way back, trying to build our vision of the world as it should be. 

I’ve already alluded to Mordechai Manuel Noah’s dream of the Jewish State of Ararat. We could spend the rest of our time together today speaking of the founders of Kibbutz Degania, the first of hundreds of utopia-based kibbutzim in Israel. We could expound on the visions of Karl Marx and Leon Trotsky, but we’ll leave that for another day.

When I asked rabbinic colleagues for ideas about Jewish idealized places, several told me of the Jewish agricultural settlements in New Jersey and elsewhere in the 1900’s— the original Jewish farm school. 

There’s actually an entire thick book called Jewish Agricultural Utopias in America, 1880-1910, if you are really suffering from insomnia. 

And, of course, we find utopian ideas in our Torah tradition itself, where Shabbat is a taste of the world to come, and the book of Leviticus envisions a Jubilee every 50 years, where all debts are forgiven and all land returns to its original owner. What a world that would be. 

There is no shortage of Jewish imagination around what the Greeks called “good places.”

I’d like to focus for a moment, though, on a story that begins 125 years ago, and the different birth pangs of Utopia that the story caused, so that we might begin to see a way forward for us, in our own day.

In 1894, two young Jewish men were intently following the trial of Captain Alfred Dreyfus, a Jewish officer in the French army who was accused of passing secrets to the Germans.  It became apparent that the charges were fabricated, and that the trial was simply an anti-Semitic charade. 

The first man was a thirty-four year old writer named Theodor Herzl, and the other was a twenty-two year old named Leon Blum.

Following the trial, in which the crowds chanted, “Death to the Jews,” each man chose a remarkably idealistic but different path.  

As you probably know, Herzl came to the conclusion that Jews would never be secure in Europe, and that the time had come to pursue Jewish nationalism.  Herzl locked himself in his room, and wrote his ideas down in what would become his book The Jewish State. 

Herzl devoted the next ten years of his life to building the State of Israel – convening six Zionist Congress meetings in Basel, Switzerland which brought together delegates from all over Europe and the world, and traveling throughout the continent to build support for the Jewish state.  

In the last years of his life, Herzl wrote Altneuland, “Old-New land” in which he dreamed of the utopia that would be built in a Jewish homeland, a country in which Jew and non-Jew would work together in brotherly collaboration, where there would be peace, prosperity, and justice for all.

Unlike Herzl, Leon Blum chose to attempt to build his utopia in his home nation of France.  Blum began his career serving in parliament and became a leader of France’s left-wing republicans.  

As fascism and totalitarianism grew in Italy and Germany, Blum believed it was imperative to rally his people to stay true to the principles of freedom and justice for all.

Despite an assassination attempt in February 1936 by right wing groups who sought to dismantle French democracy, Blum would not back down.  In June of that year, he was elected Prime Minister–the first Jewish person ever to hold that post.  

During his tenure, he instituted the 40 hour work week, paid vacation, and other reforms that would later be embraced throughout the world.  A champion of women’s rights, he also included three women in his cabinet even before women had the right to vote. 

When the Nazis invaded France during World War II, Blum was interred in the Buchenwald concentration camp.  He survived the war, and returned to France, becoming Prime Minister again for a short time in the provisional government, helping to negotiate American aid for the postwar rebuilding of his country.

Blum and Herzl, and the women and men who founded Kibbutz Degania, and Major Mordechai Manuel Noah, and Nehru, Charlotte Perkins Gillman, Frank Lloyd Wright, Walt Disney, and Thomas More all have one thing in common. 

They all had the audacity to believe that the world as it is doesn’t have to be this way. They envisioned, and then many of them built versions of, a world more perfect. 

And while none of their utopian visions have yet quite lived up to their founder’s ideals, and while not every creation endured in its’ ideal form, that audacity drove them, and their visions, forward. 

Realizing and maintaining a perfect place seems impossible. But the human drive that urges us to strive for perfection is as old, it seems, as the human experience itself. 

Don’t we all try to do this? 

We may not individually be striving for the ideal society, like Utopus, but isn’t it what we are all engaged in to some degree—to create a good place for ourselves? 

And not just when we’re repenting on Yom Kippur. 

When we pick our life partners and our life’s work; when we select the art and furniture for our homes, and when we choose where to go on vacation, and when we choose our synagogue, and when we work to make all of those things the best that they can be, are we not each striving for a little piece of perfection?

The perfect utopia may not be possible; remember that the word itself comes from a work of fiction! 

But on a day dedicated to self improvement, and to the audacious idea that we can each individually begin again, more whole, I think utopia is still a thing worth thinking and dreaming about, of striving for. 

And that’s what religions at their best, do. And that’s what we as a synagogue, do, along with all of the other critically important work that we engage in.

On Yom Kippur, we acknowledge our personal brokenness. And we acknowledge that our beautiful world, too, contains brokenness, as well. 

That’s why we break a glass at the end of Jewish weddings. As we celebrate a couple that has found wholeness in one another, we know that they can’t live under the chuppah. They have to live in the world. 

And when they break that glass, and we shout mazal tov, we pray in that beautiful and perfect moment in their lives that they will draw strength from the wholeness they’ve found in one another to fix brokenness in the world.

For nearly 175 years, this community has been engaged in the work of world repair. 

Of course, our rabbis have advocated and worked hard on behalf of the plight of the Jewish people. Our rabbi, DeSola Mendes, who led Shaaray Tefila when we were located on West 44th Street, founded one of those farm colonies—  in Vineland, New Jersey— for Jewish refugees fleeing from Russia in 1882. 

Shaaray Tefila’s annual meeting archive from 1941 includes Rabbi Stern imploring the congregation from the bima in our sanctuary on West 82nd street to raise funds for Jewish refugees fleeing from Poland. 

Rabbi Tattelbaum repeatedly and passionately spoke from this very bima on behalf of Soviet refuseniks in the 1970s, Rabbi Stein fiercely advocated on behalf of the State of Israel, and Rabbi Hirsch spoke forebodingly about the rise of anti-Semetism in the United States and in Europe. 

I am committed as one of your rabbis, and I know that you are, too, to protecting and advocating for the Jewish people wherever they are in the world. 

And, too, this congregation has been a tremendous force for building a more just neighborhood, a more just New York, a more just America. 

Our founding rabbi, Rabbi Isaacs, preached on Yom Kippur from Shaaray Tefila on Wooster Street in 1863 that African American soldiers should have equal rights as citizens with white soldiers. 

Rabbi Bamberger preached from this pulpit on Rosh Hashanah in 1963 that the shofar should call Jews to advocate for racial equality. And Rabbi Mehlman boldy preached against the Vietnam war in 1969.

We will celebrate this legacy, along with so much more about the history of this congregation, in the year ahead, our 175th anniversary. But let the celebration begin today. On this day, we celebrate Shaaray Tefila’s dedication to envisioning a good place for us all.

For decades, for example, our congregation has been committed to a utopian idea: that hunger should be eradicated from our city. That’s why I am so proud that we’ve hosted a soup kitchen for decades, that we make backpacks for Backpack Buddies, and thousands of sandwiches each year for the New York Common Pantry at our Sandwich Saturdays. 

It’s why I hope you’ll contribute generously to the food drive we’re running now for Little Sisters of the Assumption.

We are looking for partners who care deeply about this issue, who are willing to look beyond the hunger those of us who are fasting today feel, to build a world in which no one feels this feeling— not any day of the year.

For nearly three years now, our congregation has been a member of Manhattan Together/Metro IAF, a network of 80 communal and faith-based institutions across the city that work together across lines of difference on issues of common concern, striving to build the world as it should be. 

In a world where the threat of anti-Semitism is on the rise, I can think of no greater insurance policy than for us to build deep relationships with Christians and Muslims, with white folks and people of color, understanding that our deepest longings and destinies are inextricably linked.

Manhattan Together has spent the last year focused especially on matters of mental health, and we are looking to expand our organizing for justice around this critical issue that surely affects every family in this sanctuary, and in this city, in some way. 

We were recently thrilled to learn that the Reform Movement will honor Shaaray Tefila for our work on this issue at its Biennial Convention in Chicago in December. 

And, through Manhattan Together and its national umbrella organization, the Industrial Areas Foundation, we are a part of a novel and creative approach to gun violence prevention called “Do Not Stand Idly By.” If you want to do more than offer thoughts and prayers about gun violence, we need you.

And in recent months, our congregation joined the Reform Movement’s Brit Olam, a Covenant with the World, in which, after input from many members of Shaaray Tefila and thousands of Reform Jews around the country, our denomination identified 5 areas of overwhelming concern—immigration justice, gun violence prevention, environmental justice, racial justice, and reproductive justice—issues that plague this nation, and all of us, to varying degrees.

There is so much work to do in this city, this country, this world of ours. Every day there’s a march to be joined, a letter writing campaign to launch, calls to elected officials to be made on a hundred different issues. It can feel overwhelming. I know.

I also know that the wisdom of our Jewish tradition can guide us here, too. The Talmud, our code of law dating from the 5th century, says it best when it teaches, tafasta meruba, lo tafasta. That means, roughly, if you try to grab everything at once, it all slips through your fingers.

And so it is with the issues in our world. If our goal is to be everywhere there is something to do, there may just be enough of us in this sanctuary to send one of us to every single place that there’s a rally every single day in New York City. In that way, we can be everywhere. 

But if the goal is to win on the issues we care about; if the goal is to change reality; if the goal is to build world we dream of—then we need to be more strategic, to do a power analysis on the issues and on ourselves. 

If we want to live in a more perfect place, and to be a part of making it so, we need to make some choices. What issues will we take on as a congregation? And that necessarily means that there are other issues we won’t tackle systematically—not because we don’t care, but because, if we what we care about is making an impact, we have to accept that we ourselves may not be able to do everything all at once.

And here’s the deal: I, myself am not going to make the choice about what issues we’re going to address. I learned the hard way, early on in my rabbinate, that if I stood here on this day of days and unilaterally announced the issues we as a congregation were going to take on, that many of you would come up to me after services and say, “You go, rabbi!” 

And that’s not what I want. I want us to be in powerful action as a congregation, as inheritors of a prophetic tradition that demands that we do so— a tradition that comes down to us from Isaiah and Jeremiah, yes, and Isaacs and DeSola Mendes and Stern and Bamberger and Tattelbaum and Stein and Hirsch. 

If what we want is not just to show up and feel good, but to actually be a part of building a good place, it’s only going to be if we act together with each other, and with other Jews, and in coalition with other Americans of every race and creed.

So we want to know: if you have to pick one issue, because you, too, can’t do everything equally well, which issue do you care about enough to change your schedule for? 

In addition to combating anti-Semitism and standing up for the Jewish people and the State of Israel we dream of, as Shaaray Tefila always has, and which we always will, what other public issue are you willing to actually do something about?

In the next couple of days, you will receive a simple survey inviting you to share which issue you care most about in this moment.

And then we will create teams around the issues that rise to the top. And those teams will meet in the coming weeks, and together, they will decide the best path forward to act powerfully on that issue. 

Those teams may decide to do direct service. They may engage in advocacy work at City Hall or in Albany or in Washington. They may engage in community organizing work with Manhattan Together. 

The teams, led by and consisting of the people in this sanctuary who are willing to put themselves in to the work, supported by Rabbi Reines and me, will focus on these issues for the coming year, evaluating along the way, adjusting as need be. 

To be honest, I’m less interested in knowing what you think I should do, or that someone else in the synagogue should do. We want to know what you are willing to do.

Everyone in the congregation will be given the opportunity to participate in the action of any of the task forces, but we’re inviting you to select one that will be your primary interest for this period of time. 

And I believe that everyone in this sanctuary can find an issue they want to work on, regardless of the political diversity which is a strength and hallmark of this synagogue.

Today, all that remains of Mordechai Manuel Noah’s “Ararat” is the cornerstone of the phantom Jewish homeland displayed in the Grand Island Town Hall. I’d like to think, though, that Noah would be proud to land at Ben Gurion airport in Tel Aviv today, to see a version of his vision realized, even as Israel remains very much a utopia in progress.

Thomas More was right when he based his novel on a Greek word meaning “no place.” Because perfection is impossible. 

And, More was brilliant to base his novel on a Greek word that can also mean a “good place,” because that work, building a “good place,” is the work we as humans have always longed to do, are driven to do, and can do, if we do it together.

Shaaray Tefila was founded 20 years after Mordechai Manuel Noah’s vision for the American Jewish homeland was launched, and subsequently abandoned. We’re still here, driven by meaning, purpose and connection to each other, rooted in Reform Jewish values we study and teach our children, and animated by our care for each other and the world. 

Utopia may never be fully realized. But we can, we must, do our part to live what we study, to change the things we say we are beating our chests for today, to make this city, this great country, a better, more perfect place for us as Jews, and for all Americans. 

As members of this sacred community, on this most sacred of days, we have the possibility, the passion, and the power in this sanctuary to partner with others to help build a good place. 

If we work together, I am confident that we will gather in this place exactly one year from today, on this grand island, proud of the progress we made, with more than a cornerstone to show for it. 

G’mar chatimah tovah. May we all be sealed for blessing in the Book of Life.

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