Loyalty and Love at Temple Beth-El

Sermon given April 2, 2004, by Rabbi Barry H. Block
On the occasion of honoring all those who have been continuous adult members of Temple Beth-El for 50 years or more

When I was a child, growing up at Congregation Beth Israel in Houston, I noticed an older lady, who came to Temple every week. She attended Sabbath worship so often, and for so long, that she could recite all of the congregational portions of the Union Prayer Book from memory, without ever opening the book.

Both here at Temple Beth-El, and at my home congregation in Houston, the new prayer book arrived with a new Rabbi in the mid-1970s. Gates of Prayer was a powerful symbol of the arrival of a new day in Reform Judaism. After all, the Union Prayer Book had been around, in almost the same form, for the better part of a century. The familiar was giving way to the modern.

For some people, the change was most welcome. Gates of Prayer spoke to the contemporary spirit. It discarded English anachronisms, like “when thou sittest in thy house.” It integrated the Hebrew and English texts, making for easier usage in a congregation beginning to pray more in the sacred tongue.

For others, arrival of the new prayer book caused a rupture with a cherished past. Uplifting poetry had given way to flat prose. The new prayer book was awfully big and heavy. And, need I mention that they added the word “is” to the translation of the Shema?

Many people suggested that the new prayer book was a harbinger of still greater change. They were right. Of course, some who predicted the continued evolution of Reform Judaism welcomed that trend, while others did not.

I lost track of that elderly woman who knew the Union Prayer Book by heart. Nevertheless, I think of her often, as we struggle with change in our own congregation. Such a faithful, pious woman should forever feel at home at her own Temple. Such a faithful, pious woman would want her synagogue to remain relevant in the present and into the future. We who lead this congregation have a great responsibility to the members whose loyalty and love have given life to Temple Beth-El for so many decades.

Loyalty is perhaps the defining, uniting feature of you who have been continuous adult members of this congregation for fifty years or more. You have stood by your Temple, maintaining your membership, in good times and in times of difficulty, both personal and congregational. Over the decades, at least something has happened at the Temple that you did not like, and yet, you are still here. You are loyal to Temple Beth-El. You are loyal to Reform Judaism and to the whole House of Israel. You are loyal to God.

British political scientist Harold Laski wrote: “A healthy loyalty is not passive and complacent, but active and critical.” So it is with long-standing Temple membership. Two duties, then, are implied by the virtue of loyalty: To be involved in the life of the congregation and to be willing to speak up, in one’s own name, to praise what is positive and to offer constructive criticism when we fail to live up to our sacred name.

The truth be told, these same words could be used to describe the attributes of a good marriage. A man must not merely say that he loves his wife in his heart, but he must tell her and show her, in meaningful ways, every day. If a woman sees the ways in which her husband can be a better person, she is obliged to find the right way to lift him up to be the best person he can be, lovingly, with support and humility.

Lifelong Temple membership is a great deal like a lasting marriage. More than half a century ago, Rabbi Barnett Brickner wrote: “Happiness in marriage is not a gift, but an opportunity. It is an obligation, not an experiment. . . . The chief purpose of marriage is . . . the making of a home, the rearing of children, and the working together for economic security.” Let’s see what happens if we insert “Temple membership” in place of “marriage,” in each phrase of Rabbi Brickner’s statement.

Temple membership “is not a gift, but an opportunity.” For five decades or more, each of you has offered yourself the possibility to worship God with the words of our tradition. You have given yourselves the chance to study our heritage, to become more knowledgeable Jewish adults. You have afforded yourselves occasions to connect with community, to perform acts of loving kindness, to make the world a better place. You have provided yourselves and others the option to be touched by a Rabbi’s pastoral presence, at the hour of need, whenever that time might arise, even without warning. Each of these possibilities only becomes a gift when we embrace the opportunity of Temple membership that we have given to ourselves.

Temple membership “is an obligation, not an experiment.” Yes, synagogue membership, like marriage, is a voluntary association, which can be terminated, long before death. How, then, is it an obligation? We Jews understand that God requires us to do many things that we might freely choose not to do. Mitzvah doesn’t mean “good deed,” despite what we were taught. Mitzvah means “commandment.” We might elect not feed the hungry or observe Passover, but God has imposed those religious requirements on us nonetheless. Supporting our synagogue, attending worship and study, and serving God in covenant with a congregation, all are mitzvot, obligations of Temple membership, not a short-term experiment but a life-long obligation.

A “chief purpose of” Temple membership “is . . . the making of a home.” Indeed, our own Temple Mission Statement begins with the “place.” In the last few years, the members of Temple Beth-El, significantly its members of long standing, have dedicated a tremendous amount of resources to this sacred space. Like the ancient Israelites, who brought gifts in abundance for the building of the Tabernacle in the desert, we have devoted our own legacy to the revitalization of this magnificent Temple. The Wulfe Sanctuary holds a special place in the hearts of Temple members. Here, this congregation has gathered, not merely for fifty years, but for over 75 years. As our predecessors built our home, you have remodeled and refurbished and added on, not just in recent years, but in decades gone by, as well, time and again throughout the generations of your own membership. This synagogue home is a living tribute to your loyalty and your love.

Another “chief purpose of” Temple membership is “the rearing of children.” Surely, we all agree that maintaining an excellent Religious School is one of the chief responsibilities of a congregation. Let us meditate, though, for a moment on just how seriously we take that obligation here at Temple Beth-El. In some parts of the country, Temple affiliation begins when the oldest child enters Religious School and ends when the youngest child has a Bar or Bat Mitzvah. In those suburban communities, the number of children in the Religious School can equal or surpass the number of households in the congregation. Our own Religious School enrollment this year is at the highest level in many years, with right about 400 students, a number that is still less than one-third the total of households in our membership. The reason for that disparity is sitting in the Wulfe Sanctuary tonight. You have retained your membership, long after your own children have completed their education. You continue as Temple members for many reasons, among them your understanding that our obligations to provide a Jewish education don’t stop with our own children, but extend to all the children of our community. Temple Beth-El is a magnificent dinosaur, one of the very few remaining congregations that doesn’t charge tuition for Religious School. Our entire congregation bears that responsibility together. You are rearing all the children of Temple Beth-El, your own grandchildren and children whom you will never know.

Finally, Rabbi Brickner wrote that the parties to a happy marriage share in “working together for economic security.” To be sure, dues, or annual commitment, is not the most pleasant part of Temple membership, just as dealing with the family budget is not the joyous part of marriage. And yet, I’m reminded of the words of our former Administrator, Dick Hunder, of blessed memory. Dick would point out that, even when complaints dominate discussion about dues, the overwhelming majority of our members could be counted upon to pay their obligations, regularly, dependably, and fully. For a half century and more, you have contributed to the economic security of our Temple, often sacrificially. What a blessing, for many of you have arranged to continue to assure the financial well-being of your beloved congregation, even after your time on Earth is through. This marriage, the bond that you share with your Temple, is a love even stronger than death.

After all, marriage is rooted in love, and so is Temple membership. The devotion that you have demonstrated to Temple Beth-El throughout your adult lives indicates your love for your Jewish people, for this holy congregation, for your God.

The twentieth century Jewish philosopher and theologian, Martin Buber, wrote: “One who loves brings God and the World together.” We bring the Divine into our very own lives, when we love our community enough to nurture and sustain a congregation, through decades of change. We bring Earth closer to God, when we love our Temple enough to support it, even when we do not perceive our own personal benefit. We bring God and the World together, when we love our fellow human beings enough to reach out with acts of loving kindness as a holy congregation.

May God ever bless Temple Beth-El with the loyalty and the love that fill the Wulfe Sanctuary tonight.