A Vision for Adath Jeshurun Congregation
Rosh Hashanah Day 1
Rabbi Aaron Weininger
On March 2, 2012, I turned onto Hillside Lane West for my interview weekend. As we made our way down the driveway, then President Mike Greenstein shared the tradition for members to bake for each other’s simchas. I imagined a mountain of sweets pouring out of a kitchen I was eager to find, baked by people I was eager to meet. We parked, entered the spine stretching the building, and walked through the doors of this sanctuary where I led Dr. Seuss Shabbat for Gan Shelanu.
That weekend I was welcomed through many doors to Jewish life. All of them led to this remarkable congregation, Adath Jeshurun.
Exactly nine years to the day, on March 2, 2021, I shared my vision with the board to become Senior Rabbi. I stand before you on the first Rosh Hashanah in my new role, which began in June. I’m humbled by your trust, and the gracious leadership of my colleague Rabbi Kravitz who has taught me, and all of us, by his example.
On this first day of the holiday, I’m excited to share my vision for our congregation, some of which I shared with the board. But the vision isn’t mine alone. It’s one that has grown over my eleven plus years at Adath: observed in services, debated in classes, read to preschoolers, danced at weddings, reflected at shiva minyanim, and nourished over mountains of homemade lemon bars at now hundreds of Bnai Mitzvah. It’s is a vision created in community — not top down — and through the way lay leaders and staff and clergy collaborate, highly unusual for a synagogue of our size. And it’s a vision that’s shaped by those who have died but whose values still live in the very soul of our congregation.
Adath has many doors to Jewish life. It takes all of us to open them. Some of us open one door and decide to stick around, put our feet up, and get comfortable. Others relish in change. They open one door, and it quickly leads to another and yet another! Thankfully, no matter the path, we never leave quite the same.
Thankfully it’s not a new journey to find the path. The Talmud, in Tractate Sotah 14a, presents the following dilemma: Rabbi Ḥama, son of Rabbi Ḥanina, says: What is the meaning of: “You will walk after the Eternal your God… Is it actually possible for a person to follow God? Hasn’t it already been stated: “For the Eternal is a devouring fire, a jealous God” (Deuteronomy 4:24), and one cannot approach fire!
I don’t know about you, but burning fire that devours sounds dangerous. And not much of an inspiration to draw close. It didn’t satisfy Rabbi Hama either.
So he tries again to understand. This time Rabbi Hama draws upon several biblical examples to understand what it means to walk in God’s ways, including a passage in the chapters before our Rosh Hashanah reading today.
Rabbi Hama says, the meaning of walking in God’s ways is that one should follow the attributes of the Holy Blessed One… Just as God clothes the naked, so too, should you clothe the naked. Just as the Holy Blessed One, visits the sick, so too, should you visit the sick. Just as the Holy Blessed One consoles mourners, so too, should you console mourners. Just as the Holy Blessed One buried the dead, so too, should you bury the dead.
There’s no single way for God to be God. If God can be many things and do many things, how can we not strive for that as well? If God can embrace many things and do many things, how might our synagogue strive for that too?
Maybe we open a door all dressed up. Or maybe we show up in yoga pants. Some of us feel joyful. Others feel the weight of the world. Or both. One thing we know is whether laughing or crying, celebrating or mourning, we always try to live up to our name as the Gathering of the Righteous, Adath Jeshurun. Our name is not a pat on the back but a lifelong aspiration.
While the journey is an ancient one, opening the many doors to Jewish life happens in every generation. To articulate a vision, we first have to understand how and where we’re living.
Today, American Jews don’t always feel the social pull to be only with other American Jews, as we once did. Yes, even with the alarming rise of anti-Semitism, Jews have largely integrated into society. My own two grandfathers grew up in a very different world from their grandson. One was a Holocaust survivor who was liberated from six years of labor camps, and made his way to this country after his parents and three sisters were murdered by the Nazis . And the other served in the foreign service of the State Department, until he could no longer be promoted as a Jew.
Synagogues were once safe havens to hunker down, as Jewish hospitals or Jewish law practices similarly provided safe harbor in a hostile world. But synagogues no longer have the same pull on the limited time of a highly educated and integrated community. Among many other markers of acceptance, Jews live in every zip code, fall in love freely, and donate to a wide range of causes.
How might we describe such a world, open to us at every turn — and we, open to it? It’s a discerning world with a consumer culture primed to give feedback at every turn. From a two-minute car wash to a two-week cruise, you can review it all. Ordering food on DoorDash invites me to create the dish, rate the restaurant, and note what I liked and didn’t like. It seems like every time we buy a pillow or eat a piece of cake, we are handed a virtual megaphone to recount every last detail to the rest of the world.
Such a flattening of authority and, in its place, a hyper egalitarian consumer culture means that businesses (and synagogues) rise or fall on buzz. People don’t respond well to affiliation out of guilt or loyalty or a one size fits all. Many American Jews want to shape a highly personalized experience, curated to our needs, as much as we shape our social media presence… and, well, everything else. Judaism is not immune to the culture in which it lives and breathes. We question authority and eschew norms. Consider the reality that any of us can be a cab driver (thanks Lyft) or a hotel manager (thanks Airbnb) without much or any professional training. We’ll try multiple options without commitment (thanks Classpass), stick exclusively to online options, or if we’re not happy, pick up and move to a new sandbox.
We might choose to bury our heads in the sand or encounter our reality. When we open the many doors to Jewish life, we encounter a Judaism that doesn’t simply help us be more Jewish, it helps us be more human, more alive in the world.
Adath will lead the way in that. I want us to think about synagogue membership more expansively. How do we invite those who might not normally consider joining a synagogue to consider joining Adath, because BELONGING TO SOMETHING and TO ONE ANOTHER helps us encounter life’s big questions not alone? How might we spend time thinking about beginning membership at Confirmation, at age 16, when young adults are most engaged with the synagogue? Why wait to see young adults go off to college or a new job and become disconnected for 10-15 years? And if they get married or have kids, only then try to re-engage? How might such a model even encourage a culture of philanthropy at an age-appropriate level, starting in high school, only to deepen? It is a mistake to think legacy should be left to 90 year olds, and life to 20 year olds. We need to be talking to younger adults about legacy and giving, and we need to be making space for older adults to live life.
We regularly meet spiritual seekers who make up a future that embraces all ages. Some grew up at the day school, SMP, and Talmud Torah and some didn’t. Some do weekly Shabbat dinners with their families, with the best of Minnesota roots, and others are new and breaking through Minnesota nice. Some folks were raised outside the Jewish community, some were born as Jews. We’ve found them in the preschool parents who are organizing a Torah study at my home this fall, and those hosting our Backyard Shabbat summer gatherings for families with young kids. We’ve found them in the grieving family who moved to town and needed a minyan for shiva right away, and in the young adult who taught for the first time at a Shavuot program in a St. Louis Park yoga studio. In the 83 year olds who study with Rabbi Kravitz and celebrate their second bnai mitzvah, in the popular Soul Sisters class and women’s trip to Israel with Hazzan Dulkin, and in the 21 couples of Honeymoon Israel, who returned with me to Minneapolis energized to build a community that embraces non-Jewish partners as treasured members.
There’s no single way for God to be God. If God can be many things and do many things, how can we not strive for that as well? If God can embrace many things and do many things, how might our synagogue strive to do the same?
Relationships are everything. When I arrived at Adath over eleven years ago, I invited people to grab a drink with me — anyone in the congregation who was willing to take me up on the offer. I wanted to learn what made folks feel alive, and see how Jewish life and learning could enrich that feeling. Rabbis and cantors and synagogue staff are doing things that synagogue models from fifty years ago didn’t account for, and whose budgets still assume that same model. We do not (nor have we ever really) officiated at Shabbat services and called it a day. Our offices are wherever Jews gather and wherever those who love us, Jewish and not, are asking big questions and encountering moments that call us to be in relationship: birth, naming, coming out, transitioning, coming of age, relationship, illness, healing, loss of every kind, discovery, grief, birth — and often in a non-linear combination. We search for meaning in coffee shops and at lakes, in hospitals and at rallies, in sanctuaries and at preschools, teaching Torah online and even (as I did for the first time) at a pizza farm. And we are sometimes trying to undo the damage that has been done in the name of Judaism. Anyone, like me, who at one point was told “you don’t belong” or “stay behind that closet door” — please know we need you. Jewish life in America is more alive than ever with the proliferation of Jewish literature, music, learning, social justice, and mindfulness practice. Is each of us willing to invest in all that Jewish life can be, to help us be more human in the world? And if not, what’s stopping us?
I, along with others at Adath, get the enormous privilege to ask people to contribute to projects that express our deepest values in this changing world. It’s an honor to create that alignment. That’s what it meant for us to raise a quarter of a million dollars to create our first-ever Director of Young Adult and Family Life in 2017, whose funding has ended this year. That’s the spirit of innovation I want us to continue in the fine tradition of our Adath Foundation of planned giving and the Newman Family that has generously endowed the Senior Rabbi position and celebrates thirty years in 2023. That same spirit of innovation is also built into L’Chaim, our annual campaign that allows us to realize our vision now. We have expanded our L’Chaim goal by 20%. But more important this year, we are prioritizing maximum participation. Each one of you is invited to contribute in a way you define as meaningful. We have the privilege to share the work of opening the many doors to Jewish life.
What will that enable us to do right now? We must expand our Adath professional team. After the fall holidays, we will begin the search process for up to two new clergy members to join us, as Hazzan Dulkin and I remain bimah partners and Rabbi Kravitz retires in the summer of 2024. Our new clergy will expand our capacity for Jewish life and learning at every stage. We are a congregation of over 1100 households — not to mention unaffiliated folks who are exploring with us. People rightly expect a high caliber, and it is time to keep growing in new ways. This summer we were fortunate to promote Andrea Blumberg to the role of Senior Director of Operations and Fundraising, Adath's top administrative position. We created a new title Director of Communications and brought on Elisheva Thompson, who hit the ground running. Since June, our program and administrative staff receive ongoing supervision every other week, that builds in bidirectional feedback. We incorporate regular learning into our staff meetings so that professional development is part of the culture. A respectful culture that values appreciation, curiosity, and good communication is critical for our staff. That chemistry translates to reaching our larger Adath community, and I’m grateful that Rabbi Kravitz and Hazzan Dulkin have been such wise and trusted partners in that. We get to sit, listen, and notice without fixing. To let each person grow from where they are. To support when we can, and make room for others when we can’t.
Holding the inevitable joy and hurt of life belongs to all of us, not just the clergy. During the worst of Covid, we developed a virtual shiva minyan model, from the ground up, training lay leaders, from the technology of the slides to the service leadership itself. We also talked with some of those lay leaders about intention setting even with the distance of Zoom screens— as volunteer prayer leaders and slide runners have done beautifully with our daily minyan. If you have some extra time this New Year, we need more help as we want to bring more daily minyan services back in person and need service leaders.
This summer we created a floor gabbai system for congregants to distribute ritual honors and help more honorees become educated about the mitzvah of tallit, as we now ask adult Jews of all genders to have a tallit for a ritual honor. While the rabbis used to hand out all aliyot, this gabbai system allows clergy to be leading services more actively. We also have more work to do - to build a group of Shabbat greeters who can extend the warmth of the synagogue to all who enter, to get to each person and the stories that bring us here.
We enter the many doors to Jewish life for all kinds of reasons. Sometimes we don’t enter at all. But let’s talk about it. If you think services are boring, let’s have a conversation about prayer — not shorten the service and be satisfied with fewer minutes of the same boring service. And let’s not get stuck in false choices. SPA musical service or choir service or outdoor service. This door to Jewish life… or that one. I want us to open the many doors to Jewish life in the most thoughtful ways possible so that one door doesn’t have to be bad for the other door to be good. When we were dreaming up SPA at a Sukkah party 10 years ago, we wanted prayer to be a reflection of life: life doesn’t have to be this OR that, but many things can be true at the same time. So we made a service that’s hard to peg. SPA includes people who are regulars and those exploring Judaism for the first time. We bring in Ashkenazi melodies, and those inspired by Mizrachi traditions. We use a more traditional liturgy and we have musical instruments. The rabbi sings and the cantor teaches, and sometimes the cantor sings and the rabbi teaches. We talk about boredom and frustration and excitement in services, because those things exist for the other 20+ hours of the day we’re not in services, when we’re facing loved ones and ourselves. Life is not endless entertainment. In our “yes and, many doors approach” - we get to make room to be playful, to mix things up, flip the script, and add surprise. But don’t worry, Yom Kippur is still happening next week.
In that spirit of holding innovation as part of tradition, there are many doors to Jewish life that call us to action, especially on issues of racial justice and equity through the Adath Antiracism Committee, the awareness of people with disabilities through Inclusion, and our burial society in the Chevra Kavod Hamet. We need more volunteers to care for those at the end of life as we do during life, and we will celebrate the outgoing Chevra leaders and welcome new ones this fall.
We also need to think about action as responsible citizens of this state and country: as reproductive health, immigration, and trans rights face vicious attacks— while we evaluate longstanding commitments in our Hesed Committee and in Keruv through interfaith households and LGBTQ folks. Our action extends to our beloved eretz Yisrael. Among other projects, we will find new ways to affirm Adath’s historic support for the flourishing of Masorti/Conservative Judaism in Israel. When we see our Israeli family and friends fighting on the streets for democracy, we respond as family and friends: staying engaged, visiting, and lending our support. And we share the beauty and challenge of living a vibrant Jewish life outside of Israel. We have a lot to learn from each other.
Adath teens, historically in record numbers before Covid, have traveled to Israel each summer, and Hazzan Dulkin and I joined 50 Adath congregants as part of the Minneapolis Jewish Federation mission last April, expertly organized by Adath’s very own Kara Rosenwald. These teens and adults bring a willingness to ask good questions that ensure a robust, inclusive Zionism. No matter the topic, we thrive at Adath on questions of curiosity rather than answers of certainty. One of the biggest threats to Jewish survival is the lack of Jewish literacy. It is not anything others are doing to us — but what we are not doing to educate ourselves. We need to be lifelong learners who transmit our learning to action. Even though I didn’t get much sleep, I’m grateful I got to spend last Shabbat in an immersive environment with 40 SMPers and their incredible staff at the SMP Shabbaton in Eden Prairie. One of the messages I tried to convey is that we need each other, whether we were shooting hoops on the court or taking an aliyah for the first time or speaking kindly to the camp wait staff. As we gather today on Rosh Hashanah, we remind ourselves that Judaism is not a sport for some to watch and others to play. “Oh, if only somebody else would carry the ball or take the shot” isn’t a verse found anywhere in Torah.
Having skin in the game extends to everything. When we went to raise money to build Adath’s young adult community in Makom, we said it was necessary to create a space that had many doors to Jewish life with unaffiliated young adults. We thought young adults could shape their experience and then take on leadership roles in our larger Jewish community. The idea was simple, we said. “Let’s make Jewish community genuine, come-as-you-are, and irresistible. Let the people who walk through the doors to shape the doors.” But it took an investment in a new model of staff and how and where time was spent. Just this year alone, pop up summer Shabbat services and dinners were hosted in Linden Hills and Burnsville and last winter, in cozy living rooms in Northeast and Roseville. I’m proud that Adath has the longest running synagogue young adult community in the Twin Cities. That same energy was the impetus for Rabbi Kravitz and Anna Simon working with lay leaders to develop the camp-like vibe of Atid, powered by adults 50s plus. The models for Makom and Atid can help us reflect on what it means to embrace the many doors to Jewish life, from Westwood nature center walks to wine and cheese tastings on our beautiful back patio. This kind of approach reminds me of what my colleague Rabbi Carie Carter describes as experiencing the “many roads to the palace” of Jewish living.
As we embark on hiring new clergy, relationships with emerging rabbis, cantors, and educators are especially critical. During Covid, Rabbi Kravitz and I were invited to team teach the online JTS seminar class of graduating rabbis and cantors, two years in a row, about healthy relationships in rabbinic teams (when those are rare). With the support of a multi year gift by an Adath family, as well as a contribution this year by Women of Adath, our synagogue has been welcoming outstanding rabbinic interns for the High Holy Days. For this third year of funding, we selected two rabbinical students from the larger group of applicants: Alan Imar based in Jerusalem and Sarah Klein based in Los Angeles, to teach, serve our families with young kids and our teen community as well as receive mentoring from us. We make our Jewish community stronger when we invest our energies in its current and future leadership.
The Hassidic master, the Baal Shem Tov, noticed for human beings what Rabbi Hama noticed for God. There are many ways to enter Jewish life. The Baal Shem Tov noticed for each of the ancestors in the Amidah we repeat the word “elohei… Avraham, elohei… Yitzhak” and onward. He asked why the repetition again and again of the word elohei, meaning “God of” before each of our ancestors? You might think, just put one elohei for all of them, and call it a day! He taught each ancestor carved a special relationship with God. We might imagine that each of our ancestors stepped through a different door to Jewish life, and that each door had to be acknowledged every time we recite the Amidah, the central prayer of each Jewish worship service. On this Rosh Hashanah we get to affirm the same for each of us.
When we open the many doors to Jewish life, we encounter a Judaism that doesn’t simply help us be more Jewish, it helps us be more human, more alive in the world. May the many doors to Jewish life lead us to a life in which we walk in the ways of the Holy Blessed One and find one another along the path. And let us say: Amen.
Adath clergy, staff, and congregants share