Rabbi David Segal
Aspen Jewish Congregation
Yom Kippur 5774 • 14 September 2013
Sculpting Our Clay, Filling Our Vessel of Community
“Don’t bother. All they want is a playground. There’s no substance there.”
That’s the advice I got when I was considering this job about four years ago, from a colleague who thought he knew what Aspen was all about.
“Don’t bother. It’s escapism with a Jewish flavor. The second-homeowners won’t engage in any meaningful way. You can’t build something real there.”
I got an altogether different impression when we visited Aspen for our onsite interview. Ready to be turned off by the glitz and shallowness, I met a different Aspen than the reputation that preceded it. I met down-to-earth people raising happy families in awe of their natural surroundings. I met devoted leaders who poured their heart and soul, years of their life, into this community.
I saw the potential that one of my first interviewers for this job, former Treasurer Steve Rittvo, identified for me in New York when he described this community as “a quality lump of clay, ready to be molded.”
He was as right as the first advice was wrong. And the past three years here attest to the potential ready to be unlocked, the clay ready to be molded, and, let’s not forget, the foundation of volunteerism and community going back nearly 40 years.
But the other truth I’ve learned, in three years of working with our quality lump of clay, is this: the most potential is unlocked when the clergy are not the only sculptors. As your rabbi, my duties and passions include teaching, leading, and guiding this community toward a richer, Jewish life. But my most important role is to empower. We all know the Golden Rule, but in community building we need to emphasize the Iron Rule: don’t do for others what they can do for themselves. In this mode, I must add listening and relating to my key responsibilities: listening, to learn the hopes, concerns, and interests that animate our community members; relating, to facilitate and deepen connections within our community that allow us to be more welcoming, more engaging, more empowering, and more powerful. Where we focus that power will depend on who we are and what we care about. And that requires knowing who we are and what we care about, which is impossible until we ask each other. I’ll speak in a moment about what that might look like.
But one thing it doesn’t look like is a simple top-down approach where the rabbi or board chooses the program or issue to focus on and then recruits people by force of will, charisma, or guilt, to his or their vision. Rather, we must all be sculptors, all invest in shaping this community – as stakeholders, rather than consumers.
In a moment, we will hear this morning’s Torah portion, Nitzavim. It will be chanted not just by our Cantor but also by 5 individuals who have become b’nai mitzvah here. It’s a fitting way to present this text, which is a blueprint for inclusive, sustainable community. Toward the end of the Torah, on the edge of the Promised Land, Moses rallies the people to enter into a covenant with God. He summons the Israelites in the most inclusive way possible:
You stand this day, all of you, before ADONAI your God — your tribal heads, your elders and your officials, all the men of Israel, your children, your wives, even the stranger within your camp, from woodchopper to water-drawer — to enter into the covenant of ADONAI your God. (Deuteronomy 29:9-11)
Everyone in the Israelite camp – men, women, children, of every occupation, and even the strangers (the non-Israelites who have taken up residence) – the covenant encompasses them all, would be incomplete without any one of them. This covenant is inclusive not just demographically but across time:
I make this covenant, with its sanctions, not with you alone, but both with those who are standing here with us this day before ADONAI our God and with those who are not with us here this day. (Deut. 29:13-14)
Most commentaries take “Those who are not with us this day” to mean future generations. I think it means that plus generations past. This covenant is to be a pact with our past and our future. To this point, there’s a story told about David Ben Gurion, when he was faced with a decision about the UN partition plan for Palestine. On one hand, it was the fulfillment of the Zionist dream; on the other, it was a only a sliver of land.
Ben Gurion went back and forth, and then called on his colleague Yitzhak Tabenkin to help him decide. Tabenkin said, “Please give me a day to think about it. I must consult with two individuals.”
The next day, Tabenkin returned and urged Ben Gurion to reject the plan. Ben Gurion asked, “You mentioned two individuals you had to consult. Who are they?”
“The two people I consulted,” said Tabenkin, “are my grandfather and my grandson. My grandfather who died ten years ago, and my grandson who is not yet born.”
Like that monumental moment in Israel’s history, this covenant in the wilderness is all-inclusive, reaching across time and space to include all Israelites, past, present, and future. A daunting task, it would seem – or so we might think. To relieve our anxiety about this great responsibility, Moses instructs us that it is
...not too baffling, nor is it out of reach. It is not in the heavens, that you should say, “Who among us can go up to the heavens and get it for us and impart it to us, that we may observe it?” Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, “Who among us can cross to the other side of the sea and get it for us and impart it to us, that we may observe it?” No, the thing is very close to you, in your mouth and in your heart, to observe it. (Deut 30:11-14)
It’s not rocket science. It’s in our grasp. It’s not in the heavens or across the sea – and it doesn’t reside only with the Rabbi, Cantor or Board. So how do we go about this work of building a covenantal community? Moses gives us a hint: it’s in the mouth and heart of every one of us. The mouth is the tool of conversation, the way we interact and begin to share stories. The heart is the space of caring connection, where real relationship begins. These are two essential components for a thriving community.
There’s just one thing missing, in addition to the mouth and heart: the ear. It’s that part of us that is always open, that should be listening, learning, welcoming.
And so after deliberation by the board and other community leaders, and in consultation with a visiting mentor, we are setting a goal for the coming year to undertake a listening campaign. That is, a sustained and far-reaching effort to engage our entire community – all of you – at the center and at the margins, about the future of this project we call the Aspen Jewish Congregation. The survey you’ve heard about already is a first step, a snapshot of opinions and concerns to prime us for deeper, relevant conversations. I hope you will take the time to respond to it. After that come house meetings, small gatherings in homes with the dual goals of getting to know one another and benefitting from everyone’s wisdom and perspective as we envision together our next chapter.
When I talk about a “listening campaign” and “house meetings” I hope your eyes aren’t glazing over. Mine probably did the first time I heard about it. So forget the jargon; it’s not important. We are using a technique from the toolbox of congregation-based community organizing, but the goals are universal: to deepen relationships, to empower ownership, to listen and learn from what everyone brings to the table, and thereby broaden and inspire the base of our community. People may come to the AJC for programs or services, but they stay, and come back, for the people they connect with. Relationship is the core of a covenantal community, so relationship should be at the core of everything we do.
In light of that vision, I have several invitations for you to consider:
- Maybe you want to take the lead with a core team now in formation to shape our engagement and empowerment efforts;
- or you could volunteer to facilitate a house meeting in your home, a gathering of 6-10 community members, with training beforehand and framing questions to be created together;
- or last but not least, when you get an invitation to attend a house meeting, I hope you’ll accept it.
If any of these interests you, if you have the appetite and time, please let me or any of our staff or leadership know.
Together with a volunteer leader, Julie Fox-Rubin, I’ve been leading a small-scale series of house meetings in the past few months. We have started to identify new leaders as well as issues and ideas with passionate people to pursue them – but we have only just begun, only just scratched the surface.
Out of the many stories of connection, here’s one to share with you now: At one of the meetings, a young mother spoke about her desire to be a good Jewish mother and create a Jewish home with her young son, and at the same time her uncertainty and insecurity about her own Jewish literacy. “I don’t know if I’m doing it right,” she said, self-consciously.
In the same meeting, a retired grandmother spoke up about the alienation of her age bracket, of people who have so much to give in the way of loving Jewish experience, but who feel there is no venue. And there was the spark: the grandmother who would jump at the chance to be a surrogate bubbe for a young Jewish family, and a young Jewish mother seeking mentoring by a more experienced Jew. There’s an opportunity for enriching each other’s lives, for feeling like you matter to someone else – an opportunity that only presented itself because we created the conditions for people to share their stories.
Let me repeat that, because it’s vital to this effort: This opportunity only presented itself because we created the conditions for it to happen.
That is, as they say, the tip of the iceberg. We will only uncover its depths, we will only liberate the sparks, if we dig deeper by asking, by listening, by relating.
I recently revisited the “lump of clay” image with Steve Rittvo. He had this to say, three-plus years later:
Maybe my analogy with the lump of clay is after it is shaped and made into a useful vessel, it needs to be filled and refilled to manifest its value.
Taking to heart Nitzavim’s call to radical inclusivity, I believe everyone brings something of great value to fill and refill our vessel of community. If you don’t add yours, we are impoverished. As we create more openings, more extended and welcoming hands, I pray you will respond by sharing your stories, interests, values, and concerns, and by becoming a leader.
* * *
In 1969, near his 70th birthday, the writer E.B. White reluctantly agreed to an interview with the New York Times. In response to a question – “What bothers you about the world?” – he wrote:
If the world were merely seductive, that would be easy. If it were merely challenging, that would be no problem. But I arise in the morning torn between a desire to improve (or save) the world and a desire to enjoy (or savor) the world. This makes it hard to plan the day.
Now, E.B. White wasn’t Jewish, but this sentiment sure is. Those competing desires – to save the world, and to savor the world – are manifest in the Jewish tradition’s call to fight for justice, and to be present in gratitude for our blessings. The naysayer who tried to dissuade me from this congregation thought this place was only about the “savor” side of the equation – a playground, as he described it, a bubble of self-indulgent Jewish escapism.
But what I’ve come to learn here is that people who truly savor the world, who truly appreciate their blessings and carry themselves with a spirit of gratitude and reverence – these are the very same people who are deeply committed to saving or improving the world. Giving thanks for life’s blessings and working to address life’s injustices seem to go hand in hand. Neither is authentic without the other.
I wanted to end with this quote because this is what a healthy, thriving, sustainable congregation sets its sights on: on one hand, to cultivate our capacity for reverence, to play in our divine natural surroundings, to spend more time being thankful for blessings than dwelling on what we don’t have; on the other hand, to join forces to right wrongs, to care for our natural surroundings, to support the fallen and heal the sick and comfort the bereaved, to do some good in this world.
And E.B. White was right: Trying to do both does make it hard to plan the day. But what a good problem to have, to be faced with the opportunity to do both of those things in deep and lasting ways. This community has already proved it’s capable of great things. As we build on that foundation, I can’t wait to enjoy the world and improve the world with you, each of us stepping forward and adding our own divine spark to light the way to our community’s bright future.
Kein y’hi ratzon, May it be God’s will, and ours.