Shanah Tovah.

We begin with this oft-told Hasidic story: There was a man who’d been wandering in a forest for several days utterly lost. Finally he saw a person approaching him. His heart leapt with joy. “Now I shall surely find my way out of this forest,” he thought to himself. When they neared each other, he asked, “Friend, will you please tell me the way out of the forest?” Said the other to him, “I don’t know the way out either, for I too have been wandering here for many days. But…come now, let us search for the way out together.”

Well…here we are…at our first Rosh HaShanah together.  Like two new friends who have met in the middle of the forest, joining hands, in search of a path forward to the future.  

But even on a holiday devoted to looking ahead, our Tradition goes to great lengths to teach us that first we must consider how we got here.  This is one reason why we call Rosh HaShanah the Birthday of the World - because we are meant to pause and step back, and to look behind us into our distant and recent past.  And, indeed, if you join us tomorrow morning, we'll go back in the Torah all the way to the beginning...to the ancient Jewish etiology of the universe, which is meant to frame the way we understand life today.


I love that word, etiology.  

Etiology is the study of causation, or of origins.  An etiology is a conversation about where things come from…about how something, or someone, came to be the way they are today.

Though the word might be unfamiliar, the concept is everywhere.  Place names are etiologies…New Amsterdam, and later New York, for example, tell the etiology, or the story, of the City’s historical roots….of how Europeans came to arrive and establish settlements here centuries ago. 

And our own names are etiologies as well; just think of the Eastern European Jewish custom of naming children after deceased relatives.  Our names tell part of the story of who we are, and where we came from. 

I thought that I might begin these High Holy Days with an etiology…of us….of how it came to be that we are facing each other in this figurative forest at the start of this new Jewish year, 5773. 

The twisting path that brought me to Scarsdale was no mere metaphor.  It’s an actual trail, and you can go see it for yourself (with binoculars), if you stand on the shores of the Hudson, just north of Yonkers, staring out toward New Jersey.

During Memorial Day Weekend of 2011, Amy and I had a brief vacation, which included a day of hiking in Palisades Park.

And as we enjoyed the view of the river and of the mysterious trains shuttling back and forth between the City, we had one of those great life conversations that resulted in the first tentative decision that we were ready to leave the beach life of San Diego for a new, and as yet undetermined, home.

One of the driving factors of our decision was our commitment to family.  Our parents and closest friends are here.  We are East Coasters, and we didn’t want the sunshine and surfing to addle our brains! 

When we arrived in California, we thought we’d stay 3 – maybe 4 years tops.  But…we fell in love with the ocean breeze, and with Temple Solel, the community I served there.  Our friends became our family, even as Amy and I welcomed our children there – creating a family of our own.  But in the end, it was our kids who helped us to realize that we didn’t belong there permanently.  We had never intended to raise them so far from their grandparents.

But it wasn’t just family that had a defining impact on my etiology.  There was also something that was happening to me, as a rabbi.

When I was ordained in 2005, I sought out a position as an Assistant Rabbi, because I barely knew anything!  I wanted to learn with, and be mentored by, a great rabbi.  And for the last seven years, I found that in Rabbi David Frank.  He is a gifted, and nationally respected, rabbinic colleague.  And I am grateful that I experienced all the joys and challenges of the rabbinate under his supervision.

But after five years of rabbinical school, and seven years in San Diego, I came to believe that I had grown as a teacher, scholar, and counselor.  I was now ready to seek out a community of my own. 

That’s my etiology….a bit of who I am, and where I came from.  But what about you?  Where did you, as a community, come from?

We might begin the story of Scarsdale Synagogue by mentioning its founding, and by recalling the initial leadership of Rabbi David Greenberg during the early 1960s when some of Scarsdale’s leading families sought to establish a new temple in the heart of Westchester.

If you or your family joined Scarsdale Synagogue before 1976, would you stand now so that I, and we, can recognize you? 

And we reflect, with pride, on the unique history of this synagogue… which has not once, but twice, welcomed substantial numbers of families from other temples whose communities were unsustainable.  Even if we refer in shorthand to our temple as Scarsdale Synagogue, we know that we would not be who we are today without the unique contributions made by those who trace their etiologies back to other proud centers of Reform Judaism. 

If you or your family trace your path back to Temple Tremont, would you please stand so that we can recognize you? 

And if you or your family joined Scarsdale Synagogue by way of  Temple Emanu-El, would you please stand? 

And if you count yourself as a proud member of SSTTE who has not yet stood, would you please stand now so that we can recognize you?

Never was the phrase E Pluribus Unum more true: Out of Many…One.  Our diversity is our strength.  Let us continue to celebrate and honor it.

For me, though, the etiology of SSTTE begins and ends with Rabbi Steve Klein. As a senior colleague of mine, I marvel at the three decades he spent as your teacher and confidante.  He was, in the best sense of the term, your rabbi.  I’m truly humbled by the opportunity to succeed him.  Although Rabbi Klein has graciously chosen to absent himself during this high holy day season, as I begin my tenure…nonetheless, will you join me in recognizing the indelible stamp that his rabbinate has had on SSTTE? 

Like many of you, I can say that I am, on a certain level, only here today because of him.  For I fell in love with the SSTTE that he built.

The synagogue that I met last fall was one that was founded on the principle that every person who walks through our doors should feel welcome.

Whether you are gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, or searching: you are welcome here. Because: at the end of the day…aren’t we all searching?  Perhaps not in terms of our sexual orientation or identity, but surely in terms of a spiritual one.

Regardless of our faith etiologies, we are a community of searchers.  And as such, we welcome anyone seeking a meaningful engagement with Judaism. Our’s is a community that celebrates the prophet Isaiah, who said:

 
.כִּי בֵיתִי בֵּית־תְּפִלָּה יִקָּרֵא לְכָל־הָעַמִּֽים  
God’s house shall be called a House of Prayer for All Peoples.

What matters to me, and what I think should matter to us, is that this synagogue is an institution of authentic Jewish life and practice to anyone in search of Judaism’s wisdom about how to live a life that matters.

Rabbi Klein deserves credit for teaching what it means to be welcoming.  And I should take this moment to affirm the spirit of Rabbi Klein’s rabbinate in this regard.  Although I might make specific decisions that are different from the ones he made, particularly around the pivotal question of rabbinic officiation at interfaith marriage, make no mistake: every interfaith family that seeks a meaningful Jewish life can, should, and will find a supportive home here. 

And as to whether or not I’ll officiate at interfaith weddings, I invite you to join me in study and dialogue in the coming year, as I move toward a decision.  You can find details of those programs in the Lifelong Learning Booklets…and, in the coming months, in the newsletter and online.

And if we consider the etiology…the origin of where else the welcoming openness of SSTTE comes from, then I suggest we turn to a particular group of heroes, whose contribution often goes unnoticed.  The particular vision that we have for welcoming interfaith families is dependent on the untold numbers of non-Jewish individuals in our families …who, though they have chosen not to convert to Judaism….nonetheless have courageously agreed to raise their children as Jews.  They have done this philosophically.  And they have done this practically….by committing to Hebrew school carpools, attending and volunteering at temple events, and financially supporting SSTTE.  I would like to invite them to rise…so that we might honor you and thank you for helping to sustain this synagogue, and the Jewish People.

For me, everyone in this room ultimately embodies the essence of the etiology of SSTTE….it’s your passion and commitment which helps to explain who this synagogue is, and how it came to be the institution it is today.

Etiology is not just a tool to understand our past.  The story of our origin also informs our future.  As we look ahead, what can we expect in our synagogue’s future?

You can expect that Study, and the thoughtful consideration of Big Words (like Etiology) and the Big Ideas that those words are connected to, will be a hallmark of my rabbinate.  I purposely chose, for example, to name my website – which you can find by the way – at www.bit.ly/rabbibrown - anyway I purposely named the site “Seventy Faces of Torah.”  The name suggests....that there are a multiplicity of voices and perspectives in our Tradition.  There is never just one Jewish position on the most pressing questions we encounter.  Whether it’s about God, Israel, Torah, Interfaith Marriage, Gender or what’s happening here in America…Judaism has a lot to say about it! 

Now…you need to know something at the outset of my tenure: we won’t always agree.  We shouldn’t – because that would violate the eternal law of 2 Jews, 3 Opinions.

But I passionately believe that to be part of a Jewish community is to be engaged with the issues that matter most to us.  We’ll do that with text and stories; with film; and even with field trips (like the upcoming one to the National Museum of American Jewish History in Philadelphia, which I hope you’ll join me on).  We’ll do it during Shabbat and holidays; and we’ll engage with older adults, and with younger people.  Because the only Judaism that can be sustained in the 21st century is a relevant one…one that has something to say about that which matters most to us.

I also believe that our synagogue should be devoted to helping us figure out our own etiologies….to figure out who we are and how we want those identities to guide the future choices that we make.  Though we live in a time and culture which prizes assimilation….when our televisions and magazines try to compel us to shop at the same chain clothing stores, and eat in the same chain restaurants…Judaism prizes that which is unique, individualistic, and different.

Being Jewish in a world that isn’t Jewish matters to me.  The fact that I am spiritually descended from one of the world’s most oppressed minorities helps me to know who I am.  It helps to teach me and my children that we are different – never better or worse – but different from many of the people that surround us. We have our own values and customs to transform what could be a secular life empty of meaning into something kodesh, something deeply holy.

Take time out during this season of contemplation to consider your own etiology.  Be in touch – I’d love to set up an appointment so that we might do this work together.  Or, you might ask yourself privately:  Who am I?  How did I come to be this way? Look in the mirror.  How do you feel about the person staring back at you?  And are you committed, as I am, to changing, learning, and improving in the coming year? 

How will our etiologies…the journeys that’ve brought us from our past, inform the people that we are going to be in the year ahead? 

I’m not quite sure what the answers to all of those questions are …but with all my heart, I can say that I am so very excited to walk down this path with you….in the hope that we might find our way out of the forest…together.

Shanah Tovah.

 


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