Taking Ownership of Your Judaism

Rabbi Steven I. Rein
December 26, 2011
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Prior to my arrival at Park Avenue Synagogue, I lived on the Upper West Side for seven years and I davened at Kehilat Hadar. Hadar, founded in 2001 in the basement of a church, is the forebearer of the independent minyan movement that has become a buzz in the Jewish press nationwide. What first attracted me to Hadar was that it was a minyan of people who were serious about prayer, loved to sing, and leveraged a relatively high benchmark for perfection. I have to admit, the more I went to Hadar, the more cynical I became about established synagogues. This outlook began to change as I worked with several communities during my years at JTS. I realized that what I loved about Hadar had nothing to do with the fact that it was an independent minyan, what I loved was feeling a sense of ownership – the ability to look around the room and know that each individual feels spiritually, emotionally, and intellectually invested.

We live in a world in which we delegate multiple tasks and responsibilities to other people and other institutions. We expect our synagogues to inculcate a love for Judaism, our schools and teachers to provide a first rate education, doctors to manage health care, and the list goes on. Ultimately, however, each of these responsibilities lies squarely on our shoulders. I am reminded of the famous dialogue between the rabbi and priest in the movie Keeping the Faith. The priest quips: “Catholics want their priests to be the kind of Catholics they don’t have the discipline to be.” The rabbi responds: “Yeah, and Jews want their rabbi to be the kind of Jew they don’t have the time to be!” As a congregational rabbi, I am here to teach, inspire, and comfort, but I can’t light your shabbos candles for you. It may have worked for Abraham to delegate to his servant the responsibility of finding a wife for Isaac, but I am willing to bet that’s not how we found our spouses and that’s not how we’ll find our Judaism. We each have a responsibility to foster a love for Judaism and ensure its continuity. This responsibility cannot be delegated. The survival of Judaism depends on our ability to take ownership of our own Jewish destiny.

There is no magic, no secret steps; just the acknowledgement that with responsibility and ownership comes hard work. If we accept this responsibility to become complete owners of our Jewish destiny, the Jewish future will remain vibrant for generations to come. Eitz hayim hi la-mahazikim bah – it is a tree of life for those who hold on to it. We all have the potential to take hold of this precious gift – the gift of our Jewish heritage. My question to you is: will you?

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