At Kol Nidre services last week at Central Synagogue, the historic Reform congregation in Manhattan, Peter Rubinstein offered his last High Holy Day sermon as senior rabbi after 23 years in that post. He billed his talk “A Love Letter,” and in an emotional 30-minute address, he explained that it was being delivered “from me to each and all of you … and it’s about the legacy we have created together and that is now yours to carry on.”
At the conclusion he received a standing ovation from the throng of devoted congregants, many of them in tears.
Across town at various locations, the clergy of B’nai Jeshurun led as many as 5,000 people in inspirational prayer; in Tribeca Amichai Lau Lavie was joined by Israeli music star David Broza in conducting services at his experimental Lab/Shul; and Judith Hauptman, a professor of Talmud at the Jewish Theological Seminary, having identified a need to reach many young people who may not otherwise attend, once more offered free High Holy Day services to grateful worshippers. And the list goes on.
At a time when observers and critics assert that American Jewry is weakened at its core, that traditional forms of religious expression are out of sync with 21st century culture, it’s important to remember that leadership, authenticity, passion and creativity continue to engage many of us, communally and spiritually.
Rabbi Rubinstein, who will step down from his pulpit next June, thanked his congregants for their courage in partnering with him as he brought change to virtually every aspect of synagogue life. That included reforming and re-creating services and rituals, and bringing new energy to a “dysfunctional” supplemental afternoon Hebrew school a decade ago by hiring full-time teachers at the top of their field who could be role models to their students. It turned the school around.
In more traditional elements of our community the synagogues are full not only in this season but every Shabbat, if not every day of the year. Young people, the beneficiaries of intense Jewish education, are more, not less, observant than their parents. A new generation is drawn to the daily rhythms and responsibilities of Jewish life through devotion to the holy texts and their commandments.
Of course there is plenty of reason for concern for our future as a thriving Jewish community in this country. Late marriage, low birth rates, a distancing from affiliations, a lack of Jewish education and engagement. We know that story and it needs to be told.
But it is not the only story. And in this High Holy Day season, as we shift Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur to Sukkot, from the intense inner-directed reflections of repentance toward the appreciation of God’s natural bounties, we note with pride the flourishing of those who find meaning in their being Jewish, inspired by a history that goes back to the beginning of time and the promise of an eternal future.