Farewell to Cranston Bldg: April 22, 2012 / ראש חודש אייר תשע״ב
In several books, sociologist Robert Bellah argues that instead of forming communities, people form lifestyle enclaves, such as country clubs and suburbs that are composed of people with similar backgrounds, educations, ages, political views, and interests. What characterizes a lifestyle enclave is its homogeneity. When you can't pay your dues, you leave the country club. When your kids are grown, you sell your four-bedroom house in the suburbs with the basketball hoop in the driveway. What differentiates a community from a lifestyle enclave, he argues, is that community members' commitments run deeper and the diversity of the members is much greater.
Between our foundation congregations of Beth Israel and Beth Torah, we are standing on the shoulders of 90 years or so of community: for close to a century, the commitment, the vision, the passion and inspiration of those who created Beth Israel, The Cranston Jewish Center, Beth Torah and Torat Yisrael have shown us how to be, sustain and evolve community.
It occurred to me, as I read Robert Bellah's distinctions between lifestyle enclave and community, that there have most certainly been those who have regarded their membership in our congregation as dues paid to associate with a convenient or important lifestyle enclave at a certain juncture in their lives. Here at Torat Yisrael, we try to lift the curtain and show everyone who comes through our doors that we offer much more depth and engagement and diversity than any lifestyle enclave might offer: our school kids bake hamantaschen with the empty nesters and seniors of our sisterhood and men's clubs; our social action Committee supports and even helps to staff a local food pantry, our mourners are fed throughout their shivah week: the faces of our community reflect those who take vacation cruises, own their own boats and rely on disability and meals on wheels to put food on the table. The faces of our community reflect those who were educated in the full immersion of the yeshiva system, those who made their way with more or less enthusiasm through our own Frederic G. And Lawrence G, Cohen Religious School, those who found and converted to Judaism as adults and those who are married to Jews and are proud to support the Jewish identity of their spouses, partners and children. We have joined this community looking for a place to pray, a place to Jewishly educate ourselves and our children, a place to find other Jewish families . . . And we've discovered so much more once we stepped in the door.
Last Friday evening at services, I asked everyone to speak about this building: places that mean most to them, things in the building they'll miss . . . Most everyone had something to say . . . About people, about events. Names that have become iconic in the history of our congregation like Max Rothkopf and Sam Primak . . . And Lana Picker . . . And friends from religious school (partners in minor crimes, I think) . . . And family weddings and B'nai mitzvah . . . As the sharing went on, it became clear to me that the essence of these 60 years is the people, not the bricks and mortar. And that in the lessons learned and the relationships forged and the values internalized by example and the smiles and hugs and tears of those sitting in these pews over the decades, that we are taking with us the most essential parts of Torat Yisrael. Not the lifestyle enclave, the community.
There is so much that we bring with us: much more than the truck container outside our door can hold: the love of God and Torah and the Jewish people that has fueled our community for 60 years in this building. The wisdom and the challenges and the commitment and the frustrations and the love . . . We are the community of Torat Yisrael and we bring our great spiritual and human legacy with us when we walk out of these doors with our sifrei Torah this morning.
On the cover of today's program, there is a declaration that Moses made to Pharoah: בנערינו ובזקנינו נלך . . . We are going with our youth and our elders, with our sons and our daughters . . . And that makes this a festive day for God and for us.
This week's parashah/Torah portion establishes one of the cornerstones of Jewish tradition: there are two categories of animals, those that may be consumed and those that shall not be consumed by those who consider themselves to be part of the brit/covenant between God and Israel.
Not that long ago, "keeping kosher" was normative practice among Jews in the United States. Jews who today do not maintain kosher kitchens in their homes most probably recall the kosher homes of their parents or grandparents. Living in a state in which there are no kosher butchers (although Trader Joe's always carries fresh kosher meat and poultry!) and one kosher coffeeshop/bakery (Wildflour Bakery in Pawtucket, yum!), it is clear that a minority of Rhode Island Jews follow kosher guidelines when making decisions about food.
Last night I had occasion to write in an e-mail to a Torat Yisrael member that it is often the case in the Torah that a mitzvah / commandment is given and no reason is provided. Thus, Passover, according to the Torah, lasts seven days. and although we might come up with engaging and inspirational reasons for this number, the bottom line remains that Pesah lasts seven days for the simple reason that God said so.
Keeping kosher is largely about religious discipline. It is a statement: all the food God created is healthy, delicious, nourishing . . . but as an expression of the centrality of my Jewishness in my life, I am going to avoid eating pigs and lobsters and veal parmesan. Here is a place where we might very well expect "God said so" to be the only available reason in the Torah.
But Parashat Shemini not only provides criteria for kosher creatures (mammals with cloven hooves that chew their cuds, water creatures with both fins and scales) but we get a reason, too. Toward the end of the parasha we read:
(vayikra/leviticus 11:44-45) For I am the Lord your God, and you shall sanctify yourselves and be holy, because I am holy, and you shall not defile yourselves through any creeping creature that crawls on the ground. For i am the Lord Who brought you up from the Land of Egypt to be your God. Thus you shall be holy because I am holy.
Here we are given to understand that accepting the discipline of kashrut endows us with holiness. i find this to be an astounding and energizing concept: holiness is not exclusively a divine state, it is an attainable goal for human beings as well.
In traditional parlance, a Jewish congregation is referred to as a kehillah k'doshah, as a holy congregation. I believe that our Torat Yisrael community, on the verge of leaving our 60 year old building in Cranston and preparing to settle in East Greenwich is very much a kehillah k'doshah, a holy community. We express this in innumerable ways: we support the hungry in our state through our partnership with the Edgewood Food Pantry in the Church of the Transfiguration on Broad Street and our support of the Chester Kosher Food Closet; we support the homeless in our state through our annual Kosher Christmas Dinner for the Rhode Island Family Shelter; we are committed to the perpetuation of the covenant between God and Israel through our outstanding Torat Tots, Yeladon and Cohen Religious School; we deepen the Jewish spiritual and intellectual journeys of our members through our services and Torah study. We declare our commitment to striving for that exalted k'dushah / holiness that God offers us through our adherence to the system of Kashrut.
The insights of this week's parashah are a gift: by the simple, accessible means of choosing eggplant parmesan over veal parmesan we can take a step towards human holiness: a gift of an eternally accessible opportunity to us as individuals and to us as a kehillah k'doshah, a holy congregation.
Rabbi Amy Levin
has been Torat Yisrael's rabbi since the summer of 2004 and serves as President of the Board of Rabbis of Greater Rhode Island.