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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.


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. In the 1970s, part of the motivation for creating Genesis was the recognition of the wastefulness of the space of many institutional structures which stood empty for a significant fraction of the time. Since its creation, just as Rabbi Levy has said, Genesis has grown into a truly valuable partnership.

    To be helpful, I need a detailed understanding of St. Clare's difficulties and dissatisfactions. I don't need a blaming explanation. I need an explanation of how we can help our partner.

  3. What is the St. Clare's/Genesis issue and how does it relate to the High Holiday's?

  4. Thank you Rabbi Levy for the very thoughtful and compassionate way in which you have approached and shared this difficult situation with all of us. I'll admit that my first knee-jerk reaction was exactly that-- reactive, and probably also jerky. But you wisely predicted this response and called for each of us to approach with compassion. I see that the only way we can possibly move forward, no matter what the outcome will be, is by doing so with compassion and integrity. Genesis was founded in these values, and we have a responsibility to maintain them. It is also clear to me that no matter the outcome, it is the process by which we get there that will be the true test of our commitment not only to the values that created and have sustained Genesis all these years, but that process, and how all parties conduct themselves, will be the best demonstration of our collective commitment to partnership and harmony.

  5. It seems that St. Clare's perceives a problem and has offered a solution. I understand, at least in a basic sense, what the proposed solution is, but I cannot evaluate it because I don't understand what the perceived problem is. I'm not saying there isn't one, just that without knowing what we are trying to solve it's hard to know if this is the right way to solve it.

  6. I am still absorbing the impact of the rift between the two congregations. It is deeply painful and raises innumerable questions. I hope that there will be more information forthcoming, and opportunities for congregational meetings to broaden our understanding and to engage (to the extent possible and appropriate) in problem solving.

  7. I was very interested to learn of this rift and, like those above, hoping to hear something about the particulars of the difficulties. What now seems to be in conflict with Episcopal regulations? It is not surprising that rules might be interpreted differently now than they were 40 years ago ...

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  9. Thank you, Rabbi Levy, for bringing us all into this conversation, and for framing it so thoughtfully. Growing up at TBE, I was always proud to be a part of Genesis. In telling out of town friends about the unique relationship, I developed deep ownership of the value of interfaith dialogue, support, collaboration, and learning. Yet — and I hate to admit this — I don't think I have ever had a direct personal interaction reflecting the success of the Genesis relationship. I don't know the name of a single member of St. Clare's. Of course it is my loss that I have not chosen to participate in more joint programming. And I wouldn't know if mine is a representative experience. But I do fear that if many others relate, then it weakens the weft of our joint communal fabric. I do hope we can have a productive congregational conversation about where to go from here. I am concerned about the amount of energy it will take to preserve the Genesis partnership, because there is an opportunity cost. Survival on this one dimension of communal life could take a toll on our thriving on so many other dimensions. And we have so much potential to thrive!

  10. I, too, was saddened to hear of this "rift," although it did provide for me an opportunity to reflect on the pride I feel (and perhaps wasn’t even really aware) of this unique union. I walked away understanding that there are challenges but without a REAL understanding of what is going on (which may be ok) or of what is being asked of us as congregants. Was this just a heads up so that we can be prepared for future changes? Ok – done. Was this an effort to assess congregants’ level of commitment to this arrangement? Ok – I feel deeply committed and encourage leadership to continue its efforts to preserve this union, though sadly acknowledge that if it becomes no longer "good" then it shouldn't be saved just for the sake of history or symbolism. Was this a request for reflection from those of us who are arm distance (or greater) away from the situation? Ok – I sensed power struggle and hurt, and those are dangerous conditions in which to make important decisions.

    It was suggested that this partnership is much like a marriage. If that is the case (I’m not quite sure) perhaps some marriage counseling might be helpful. Facilitation from an external, neutral party so that both sides can feel heard. On the other hand, marriage counseling only works if both parties come to the table with the intent to find common ground, and to that I cannot speak.

    Now that this has been shared publicly, I will look for more information and requests for input. I greatly appreciated Rabbi’s suggestion that we approach this with compassion and thought the closing prayer offered was particularly apropos. I pray that those more directly involved can help support and challenge each other in the days to come, so that this can be approached with open hearts and open minds.

  11. I was very sad to hear that TBE and St. Clare's have come to an impasse and hope that everything possible is being done to keep both working together at Genesis. I cherish our relationship with St,. Clare's.
    I was also surprised to hear that both congregations shared operating expenses equally for most of the existence of Genesis when the Temple has a much larger congregation.
    As everyone else has commented, it is difficult to really know what is going on with so few details but I agree with Amy in the hope that those involved can approach this with open hearts and minds. Please also keep in mind how important Genesis is to many of us in the temple and the church.

  12. Many of us realized how much we treasure Genesis when our own TBE congregation contemplated leaving this relationship - when, I think around 2008, we were growing so fast that religious school was not having enough space, and we debated for about a year about moving out and building a larger temple. During many of these open discussions, repeatedly a sense of how much we treasured Genesis became clear, and giving this up was the most painful part of the discussions. Alas, the recession hit us too, we shrunk a little, and it stayed in Genesis.

    During meetings, it was asked what St. Claire's thought - I am sure they were not happy being faced with having to "buy us out" - over 10 years. We were told that they were kept in the loop and know that we are trying to work as much as possible with them. I wonder how they really felt? I am sure we were causing them a lot of anxieties then.

    We are not quite clear what is the underlying issue, whether the legal argument is the main point, or whether it is challenged for other reasons, and whether, like our own challenge on Genesis relationship, the problem may go away.

    But as someone else said about a marriage with difficulties, nobody seems to call for a divorce. Establishing more "business-like" ground rules about sharing of space/time may not be such a bad thing, as that relationship can grow and have ups and downs, and this would still leave the option of a closer relationship at another future time. On the other hand, changing all 40 year old by-laws sounds like a point of no return. So, if I would be talking in that council (glad I am not), I would hope that no bridges will be burned, so that a cooling off can be followed by warmth at a later, more suitable time.

  13. Margit, Thank you for your warm and sensible comment.

  14. Margit, Thank you for your warm and sensible comment.

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