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Friday, October 3, 2014

Our Jewish Homes: Genesis

Kol Nidre Sermon

On Rosh HaShanah, I spoke about the possibilities ahead of us at Temple Beth Emeth, after successfully navigating the narrow passage created by the great recession. We created a smooth transition wishing well to two key staff members and at the same time graciously welcoming two new contributors. We are taking on the challenge of the new dynamics of synagogue engagement with younger Jews. And we are continually committed to programs, activities and services that are ever fresh and deeply rooted.

Yet, in all that I said last week, I made no reference to Genesis, our cooperative engagement with Saint Clare of Assisi Episcopal Church. That happened, in part, because Genesis needs no inclusion. Genesis is who we are. For 40 years we have lived in Genesis and been sustained by its vision of interfaith cooperation. And if you are sitting here, saying to yourself (or your neighbor), “What’s Genesis?,” I would reply that its invisibility is a strength. Together, with Saint Clare’s, we have built a home that successfully houses both of us. And moreover, provides a platform for interfaith activities like the Back Door Food Pantry. And moreover, provides opportunities like the erev Thanksgiving service that brings our members into honest conversation with St Clarians. And yet moreover, moreover, Genesis is one of the very few places in the world where Jews and Christians can casually live out their separate faiths in close proximity. The real beauty of Genesis is transforming the “other” into the friend, the stranger into the fellow seeker. Not by mixing but by deepest regard and mutual respect.

When I came to Beth Emeth, Genesis was still young and fragile. Part of my vetting for this position involved making what felt like loyalty statements to our partnership. I was grilled on the issue. Anything that I might say that seemed to some folks to miss the mark of absolute loyalty was sharply brought into question. Understandable. Genesis, when founded, was hotly debated in both the church and the synagogue. Doug Evett, the founding minister, told me that some of his members quit the church when Genesis was created. They did not want to be that intimate with Jews. But before you get too riled up, many Jews told us that they would never join a synagogue so tied to Christians. Both our organizations needed members, and we had taken this bold cooperative step that would actually limit our reach. A worthy sacrifice. Genesis is where we do our totally Jewish thing while others do their Christian thing in each other’s company. Pretty terrific.

But all is not as it might be. Life is never stagnant. And today Genesis is troubled. If this is news to you it is because our leadership has done everything possible to meet the challenges with the least amount of noise. Nothing has been secret but nothing has been alarmist. But there are issues. And you, all of you, need to hear of them. The church has chosen to request the Interfaith Resolutions committee to meet. This committee is the place to bring unresolvable problems from the congregations when all else fails. If this were congress, we would call it the nuclear option. In 40 years this committee has never met. We use to laugh about this at Genesis Annual meetings. Now it’s not funny. Saint Clares has also asked us to put on the back burner the planning process for a hoped for 40th anniversary celebration. There are issues.

I believe that the path to our present began several years ago when the minister or Rector of Saint Clare’s and I met about space issues in our building. For several previous years we, TBE, had grown and began to use more space, like Sunday night Religious School, while the church, suffering from an internal crisis was contracting. However, Saint Clare’s had hired an exciting innovative minister to be their rector and he needed space to grow his new program. The philosophy we had previously used was to work together, he and I and our staffs, to make sure everyone’s space needs were met. But the minister wanted a committee to discuss the issue outside of Genesis, with an eye toward guaranteed Church times and spaces and guaranteed Temple times and spaces whether or not they were used. We could request from each other permission to borrow the time, but it was a shift from from partnership to neighborliness.

Soon afterwards came the request to alter our financial arrangement so that we, TBE, would pay more than Saint Clare’s. We actually had, on several previous occasions, offered this to Saint Clare’s in the interest of fairness and we had been rebuffed. When we rebuilt the building in the mid 90’s we did succeed in working with Saint Clare’s to use our unequal annual budgets as the basis of our contributions to the project, but we were clearly told, by Saint Clare’s, that all upkeep costs, that is the Genesis annual budget, would be split equally. Then a few years ago, Saint Clare’s had a change of heart, and we worked with them to devise a new formula. We worked this out.

Then this year came most challenging test. Saint Clare’s proposed 30 some odd amendments to the Genesis by-laws. Saint Clare’s claims that the 40 year old by-laws, that we thought to have served us well, actually are and have been for 40 years, in violation of Episcopal regulations. This despite the fact that the then Bishop signed the original Genesis agreement that clearly states agreement with the by-laws. This new position, that the by-laws are impossible for the church to abide, first caused the church to request a by-laws revision committee. And when that failed to create something new, they requested, that the TBE Board work directly with Saint Clare’s and rewrite the by-laws. When that did not succeed, the church requested, as I said, the nuclear option, the Interfaith Resolutions committee, a last resort standing committee that has never met.

And what is wrong with the by-laws? The church seeks to make Genesis, which has always operated as a lay-driven cooperative, a representative body charged with managing our facility, into a weaker group that would need to respond to any demands given by either the church or the temple. No more discussion or thoughtful compromise, just absolute agreement to the demands of either of us. This is not at all what was envisioned at the beginning.

Ma la-asot? I really don’t know what to do. I don’t even know with whom to speak. So I decided to share this with you and to speak clearly. I will get, metaphorically and perhaps actually yelled at, for this sermon and it will also be open for comments on our web site. The fate of our synagogue is in question. Not its survival but its very nature. The church has held at least two general meetings, well attended, to share and discuss with all its members, this issue. You deserve no less.

But I chose Yom Kippur for this conversation starter because this day asks us to show chesid v’emet, true compassion. We say, “How can I ask God to forgive my sins, if I don’t forgive those who have wronged me?” We say this not in hope of Divine forgiveness, but in passion for human forgiveness. We seek compassion today. Saint Clare’s is our partner in a relationship that is so much more like a marriage than a business. And they are apparently in pain. They have not embarked on this path out of cruelty toward us. Rather they are deeply committed to Genesis and to us and deeply unhappy. And yes to some large extent we are committed to helping them achieve happiness as they are to us. Perhaps there are now sparks of anger in the room? Toward me, toward the church, toward their leaders, toward our leaders. I ask you to put such energies aside. I ask you to display compassion.

When I came to TBE, as I said, I was vetted for my loyalty to Genesis. I was even interviewed by the then rector, and in that moment we became friends. And, in truth, I became a loyal disciple of Genesis. I believe in its power and message, that two congregations can grow individually in each other’s company and be better for it. Genesis is not about money saved, nor is Genesis about environmental issues, inasmuch as one building can serve us both. No, Genesis, at its heart, is the precious notion that we will be better people because we value the journey of others different than ourselves. In a very small piece of the human landscape we say, loud and proud, that there is room for everyone. Genesis is why we, that is TBE, has such a profound commitment to social justice. Genesis is why we are an inclusive congregation. Genesis is why we are good to each other within Beth Emeth. Sure we might have been just as good without Genesis as our teacher. But I doubt it. 31 years and no one has tried to fire me. What kind of synagogue are we? Jews don’t act this way. But we live a lesson of acceptance. Genesis permeates the synagogue whether you know it or not.

We have reason to love Genesis and seek its success. And we have reason to seek a resolution that will preserve the love and the cooperative spirit that have sustained us for four decades. And if we can’t, then I will grieve, deeply, for something so precious and transformative. I hope that in conversation we will find the path we all can comfortably walk. I don’t know where we will end up, and I pray we are led by compassion.

Dear God,

Help me to be strong in our commitment to our friends in Saint Clare’s Church. May we continue to build a strong union together. May we respect their journey, their hopes and aspirations to live lives infused with your presence. Wherever we find ourselves, may we be grateful for time we spend together and hopeful for continued engagement. Genesis was a gift You bestowed upon us; that we created in partnership not only with Saint Clares but with You, the God of the universe. Genesis strengthens us and we hope brings others to see both the humanity we all share and the one God behind us all. May we go forward with open hearts.

To watch this sermon, click here.