Rabbi Alana’s Remarks - Installation 4/17/15
A few weeks ago, many of us gathered in this same room to tell the story of the Exodus from Mitzrayim, the narrow place. My teacher Rabbi Ebn Leader explains that the way we experience Passover is all about freedom from. Freedom from slavery, constriction, winter.
In the world of social justice activism, we’ve got that part down. We fight, we object, we resist. We know the precise dimensions, the taste and smell, of all the chains we seek to break - we demand freedom from sexism, racism, classism and exploitation, heterosexism and homophobia, environmental degradation. But freedom FROM is not enough -- it is not dayenu. My teacher points out that the first time that Moses goes to Pharoah, he does not say that the Israelites must be released because their enslavement is unjust. Moses demands they be freed SO THAT they may hold a festival to God. Not just freedom from, but freedom to do what?
B, a blogger and activist, writes:
"We have become the expert biographers of our own demise. Rather than offering a vision of the world we yearn for, we study and share the machinations of government and capital that harm us. Like doctors who offer diagnoses but no cures, we are the town criers of a sick society rather than the midwives of the world to come."
And this is ultimately why I gave into the pull towards rabbinical school. Because I could see the strain and the suffering, the inevitable burnout afflicting activists and organizers. I needed to root myself in a wisdom tradition that demanded vision, that forced us to think beyond the immediate eviction or pathetically low raise in wages we were fighting for. A tradition that provides practices that helped us taste the world we were seeking, and thus be better able to imagine it.
Some of you have heard me say that I never imagined that I would serve a congregation. I have given two reasons for that - one is a lack of self-confidence and likely some internalized sexism (the synagogue I grew up at currently has 5 rabbis, all of whom are men). The other reason is that I thought there were very few congregations that were progressive enough to support my rabble-rousing, or tough enough to stomach all my doom and gloom, or would create enough space for significant social justice organizing. I had lost faith in the institution of the synagogue to be a liberatory force in the world. I lacked respect for the work of a synagogue rabbi. But then I came here. And I fell in love. I fell in love with a visionary community -- one that is playful and serious, passionate and fiercely loving -- unafraid of change with deep respect for tradition. I have been forced to face my cynicism and disillusionment.
And not a moment too soon, as within a week of my arrival, I was at the bedside of a member’s father as he lay dying. No rallies, no petitions, no marches. Just being present in that dark and tender hour. And I saw what it meant to him to have Jewish tradition and his community to hold him. And I felt ashamed that it had taken me so long to see just how profound, how radical and subversive it is to commit to a community of accountability and a religion that is constantly asking questions and demanding awakeness.
And I’m still working on it. I wonder how long it will take for me to feel as comfortable using my community organizing skills for synagogue recruitment as I do for SJ. I will often ask you to come to a planning meeting or a political action.
But have I asked you to come to shul? Not just invited you, but asked you -- explained why I think it’s important, and really asked you.
As we are in the period leading up to the holiday of Shavuot, it is oddly appropriate to say I showed up here and i fell in love. Shavuot is about marriage. Two parties entering into a long-term committed relationship, understanding that things are going to be really challenging and really freaking great. It’s when God and the Israelites say to each other: You in? I’m in.
At the foot of the mountain the Israelites accept the Torah saying: naaseh v’nishma, we will do and then we will understand. I will be your rabbi, before i have any idea what that means. Thank you for continuing to teach me how.
Kosi revaya - my cup is overflowing, because tonight I get to welcome new members into the T’chiyah family. I wanted to give long introductions to each of them -- let you know just exactly how amazing they each are. But I’ll just say that I can’t wait for each of you to experience the thoughtful questions, the sharp analysis, the infectious laughs, the dedication to liberation, the compassion and the deep Detroit love of Michael Evers, Dan Lee Merci Decker, Nora Feldhusen, Cassie Stanzler, and Anna Kohn.
To the new members of our mishpacha, our family, I want to share a bit of Torah from Pastor Nadia Bolz Weber. She talks about how church is a place that is going to disappoint people, where people will get hurt, because it's full of human beings.
She says to newcomers:
“at some point, I will disappoint you or the church will let you down. Please decide on this side of that happening if, after it happens, you will still stick around. Because if you leave, you will miss the way that God's grace comes in and fills in the cracks of our brokenness. And it's too beautiful to miss. Don't miss it.”
Capitalism teaches us to commodify everything, so how can we not think of shul in the same ways we think about restaurants and hair salons? I hardly ever go somewhere without looking at a dozen Yelp reviews - I know exactly what I’m gonna get.
But this ain’t no restaurant, and this ain’t no hair salon - there is no Yelp review.
When God meets Moses he tries to pin God down, asking for a name -- and God famously replies:Eheyeh Asher Eheyeh - I will be that which I will be. You cannot pin me down -- the only thing that you can count on is that I will change. But I ask you to take a risk and commit to being in relationship with me anyway -- because part of the ways I change will be because of the power of this relationship.
Michael, Dan, Merci, Nora, Cassie, and Anna - you see something different, something hopeful and rad in us. You could stay home and not risk it -- communities are so messy, so full of drama - so much potential for hurt and discomfort. Thank you for taking this risk and coming this wild ride.
My message for our veterans is not terribly different: Stick around. Things are going to change, they already have. Please be a part of that change. I’m gonna make mistakes. If you don’t like something come talk to me (maybe not at every kiddush…). And then be REALLY patient when it takes me a long time to integrate that feedback. And support me to take care of myself -- let me know that it is ok to take time off, and to ask for help.
I want to express my gratitude to the Installation Committee -- thank you for all the hours and love it took to create this special weekend.
Thank you to my parents for shlepping all the way from California - I am very grateful that you showed me how meaningful it is to commit your life to community-building, education and social justice work.
Justin, you knew before I did that this thing in Detroit was the real deal, and we needed to be here. Thank you for taking this leap with me - for believing in me and this community.
Sharon, Rabbi Cohen Anisfeld, your presence and Torah make this moment feel quite real -- thank you for being here and for everything you have done to support me along this journey.
I am blessed to work with an amazing Board -- thank you for all your hard work and support.
There are a few Board members who have gone above and beyond that I want to mention by name. Roz, it has been a blessing to work on so many projects together, and I’m so grateful for your dedication, patience and willingness to try new things. Syma, I know I can call on you day or night -- you have been an incredible support in the face of a tremendous learning curve.
Andy and Mary Ellen: you are visionary. Thank you for dreaming as big as you did, and now dreaming even bigger. I would have given up a long time ago if it wasn’t for your commitment. You could have said: we had this great idea, now you make it happen. But you didn’t -- you have been by me planning, strategizing, dreaming, and building, each step of the way. Thank you.
Thank you to everyone here tonight, for helping to believe in the potential of a synagogue again.
Tonight we count the 14th day of the Omer.
May we be blessed on this journey together --
May we be midwives of the world to come.