Rabbi Leora Abelson
When I was growing up, my family belonged to a Conservative synagogue in Ann Arbor, Michigan. We didn’t always feel totally comfortable there; my parents both attended Reform synagogues as children, and none of my grandparents were observant. But when my older sister began preparing for her bat mitzvah, we began attending Shabbat morning services with some regularity, and started to get to know the community better. There was one person, named Ron, who was there every Shabbat morning, and it was his role to help kids feel comfortable in services and on the bima. He is the one who would walk around during the Torah service and slip you some candy. When I began preparing for my bat mitzvah, I got really into it, and Ron cheered me on. I felt seen by him, and valued as a member of the community. I felt like he was my friend, even though he was older than my parents. As I was trying out different ways of feeling grown-up, it was meaningful to me to have an independent relationship with someone like him.
Being in community with people of all ages, and having the opportunity to develop relationships with people in very different stages of life than me, became something I learned to value. In college, I missed it. And after college, I joined the steering committee of an independent havurah primarily because I enjoyed getting to know and collaborate with the older members.
Which isn’t to say it was easy. I began learning then what I think is a lifelong lesson, about how challenging, how rewarding, and how necessary it is to build intergenerational community.
The importance of intergenerational relationships is embedded in our liturgy: L’dor va dor, we sing, from generation to generation, nagid godlecha, u’l’netzach netzachim kedushatcha nakdish. From generation to generation we will tell of Your greatness, and forever and ever we will sanctify Your holiness. Which is to say: our religious task is to receive from our elders, and pass on to those who come after us, the words, the melodies, the recipes, the wisdom, and the calendar that are our particularly Jewish testimony to the sacredness of this world. And when God says, “I make this covenant… not with you alone, but both with those who are standing here with us this day before the LORD our God and with those who are not with us here this day,” our tradition understands that to include all future generations of Jews. We pass on not only our attention to the world’s inherent sacredness, but also our obligation to protect that sacredness and allow for its full expression in a just society.
That’s intergenerational community for the sake of Jewish continuity, and I think the challenge is obvious: what, exactly, gets passed on, and what changes in the passing, and how do we deal with the conflict that brings up? And that’s a topic for another sermon. Because I know that we need relationships across generations not only in service of Jewish continuity, but because they enrich this community, in this moment, for everyone. We need the wisdom of those who have done it before; we need to learn from their successes, and from their failures. We need the wisdom of those who are coming to it for the first time: we need their imagination, and their beginner’s mind. We need the lived experience of our history, the stories that help us understand how we got here. And we need the urgency that comes from having a stake in what the future will bring.
I know that it was my relationships with young people and with elders that got me through this year. Young people - babies, kiddos, teenagers, even people in their twenties - surprised me, pushed me, and showed me that the world we are longing for is all around us, if only we are curious and open enough to embrace it. And elders, in this congregation and in other parts of my life - I needed them more than ever this year. I needed their perspective, their reassurance, their feedback, their support.
I want to say here that I am thirty-six years old. In addition to my work at Nehar Shalom, I am a hospice chaplain, and I spend time with people who are in their nineties and over one hundred years old. So I feel really young a lot of the time. And I can say this: I am old enough that I encounter young people sometimes and feel intimidated, like they are speaking a language I don’t understand, like their points of reference are so different from mine that I’m not sure if they will think I have anything to offer them. And sometimes, I am critical: of their righteousness, of their urgency, of missing context or nuance. I am also young enough that I encounter older people sometimes and wonder - will they respect me as a leader, as a rabbi? Have I lived enough to be able to offer them anything? Will they be open to hearing what I have to say? And sometimes, I feel critical of their resistance to change, or the excuse that they are too old to accommodate new terms, new norms, new ways of showing respect.
In 1981, Bernice Johhson Reagon, the civil rights musician and activist, gave a speech at the West Coast Women’s Music Festival (https://womenwhatistobedone.files.wordpress.com/2013/09/1983-home-girls-coalition-politics-bernice-johnson-reagon.pdf). She was addressing the community about their very significant conflict over who was welcome at the festival and who wasn’t. She spoke about the difference between home and coalition. Home, she said, is the space where you get to be with people who are like you, a space where you are fed and nurtured; the space where you feel most comfortable. Coalition, on the other hand, often doesn’t feel good - it’s the space where you come together with people who not only aren’t like you, but make you uncomfortable, or are even threatening to you, and you come together because you have important work to do together, or need each other’s strength. Both home and coalition are necessary, she said, and it’s important “not to confuse them.”
I think that a synagogue, a spiritual community like ours, has to be both a home and a coalition. We are building a home for everyone who comes seeking; a place to feel comfortable and be comforted. A place to bring our full selves. A place of familiar values, languages, melodies, practices. A place where we know what to expect.
But it is also, in some senses, a coalition: a collection of people with significant and meaningful differences, who come together held by something very powerful that sometimes can feel a little abstract - something, if you will, that is transcendent but not always immanent.
We are blessed, at Nehar Shalom, to have a strong sense of alignment, of what we value: a Jewish life that is vibrant, rich in learning, and traditional without compromising our commitment to feminism, to the fullness of our queer beauty, to accessbilty of every kind, and to working, in an ongoing way, towards becoming more anti-racist, more inclusive, and more just - within our community and beyond it. That is a foundation that Rabbi Victor and Mieke cultivated with both love and conviction. And because we are committed to the fullness of who we are - each of us - we welcome a significant amount of difference.
We encounter one another across differences of gender, and experiences of sexuality.
We encounter one another across differences of race and class.
We encounter one another across differences of age and ability.
We encounter one another across differences in Jewish practice, relationships to Israel, and convictions about how to build the world we want to live in.
When we encounter one another across these differences, there is power involved. It is essential that we develop norms that address these dynamics of power and privilege, along with a culture where, when harm is caused, we address it with both accountability and care. When it comes to intergenerational relationships, the dynamic is distinct, because adultism and ageism are both real. We live in a society that disdains aging, and that does a terrible job of supporting people as they age. Our society also patronizes young people, and, in the case of young people who are black, brown, and trans, criminalizes them.
I can tell you that there is a lot of sensitivity in this community, among people who identify as young and people who identify as older, about whether their voice will be heard; about whether there is room for them; about whether their presence is valued and whether their needs will be met. It is so important to me to take these concerns seriously. That might look like creating a havurah for older members, for learning about topics specific to your life stage, or simply for spending time with people who you feel most comfortable with and connected to. It might look like making commitments about having younger and older board members. It definitely looks like everyone intentionally building relationships with people who are in different age groups.
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There is a story in the Talmud (Berachot 7a), in which Rabbi Yishmael ben Elisha, the High Priest, describes entering the Holy of Holies, the innermost part of the Temple, which is entered only by the High Priest, and only on Yom Kippur. The story is rendered beautifully by Ruth Calderon, a Talmud scholar and member of the Israeli Knesset, in her book, which was translated by Ilana Kurshan (A Bridge for One Night).
“He steps through the thick darkness into the Holy of Holies.
Yishmael senses a presence. Someone is watching him. He stands in place enveloped in the smell of the incense, his eyes gradually adjusting to the darkness. Someone is sitting there. Is there someone else in the sanctum? Did he make a wrong turn? His heart flutters as if caught in a trap. He does not feel like the high priest, on whom all of Israel’s hopes are bent; he does not even feel like an ordinary priest nor even like a regular human being.
From behind the pillar of smoke, he sees light.
‘Achatriel Yah Adonai Tzvaot,’ his lips murmur.
Across from him is kisei ram v’nisa, a high and lofty throne. Should he prostrate himself before it? He dares to raise his eyes and is greeted by a stormy visage.
‘Yishmael, my son, bless me.”
In her reflection, Calderon writes that “God and man encounter each other here like characters from two totally different stories.” Rabbi Yishmael enters expecting to be humbled before an intimidating and distant presence. “He does not know,” as Calderon writes, “that this is the place where God [who is omnipresent] secludes Himself in moments of loneliness.” In her telling, it takes time for Rabbi Yishmael to pivot. She writes, “for a moment he fears that a foreign god has penetrated the inner sanctum and has sat upon the throne. But then the seated presence calls him by name. In that moment Yishmael divests himself of his role as high priest and becomes only himself. He listens. He tries to overcome his fear and his preconceived notions. He wishes to be fully attentive, freed from his anxieties…[his] astonishment turns to empathy and then to generosity of spirit.”
I find this description so moving, and so powerful, because it could be describing an encounter between two humans. Rabbi Yishmael approaches the encounter with fear and preconceived notions. He wonders if he belongs there. He wonders if the other, who is there with him, belongs there. Thinking he is there to fulfill a prescribed task, he is, instead, asked for something unexpected, spontaneous, and personal.
This is what God says: Yishmael my son, bless me. ״יִשְׁמָעֵאל בְּנִי, בָּרְכֵנִי!״
Three things: God calls Yishmael by name - God sees him for who he is.
My son - God recognizes and validates their relationship.
Bless me - God asks for what God needs.
This witness, this affirmation of relationship, and this vulnerability allow Rabbi Yishmael to pivot. He responds with a heartfelt blessing, realizing that what is required is not perfect performance of the ritual, but realness, presence, self. And he closes his story by saying, “v’nina li b’rosho,” and God nodded God’s head, to accept the blessing.
I invite you to think of an encounter you had with someone who was significantly older or significantly younger than you. What fears and preconceived notions did you bring with you to the encounter? Was there anything that surprised you? Were you able to offer empathy and generosity of spirit? Did the other person extend those to you? If so, what made that possible? If not, what got in the way?
Did you call each other by name - did you really see each other for who you are?
Did you affirm your relationship to one another, whatever it might be?
Did you ask for what you need?
The Talmud editors end the story this way:
וְקָמַשְׁמַע לַן, שֶׁלֹּא תְּהֵא בִּרְכַּת הֶדְיוֹט קַלָּה בְּעֵינֶיךָ
This teaches us that you should not take the blessing of an ordinary person lightly.
Rabbi Yishmael was the high priest, no ordinary person. He was performing the essential ritual of Yom Kippur, the ritual on which the whole community’s atonement and well-being were understood to rest. If the takeaway of his story is to value one another’s blessings; if, in our time, we access the Divine spirit in one another, in our encounters with each other, rather than in the Temple sanctum, then how might we bless one another, how can we become a blessing to one another, as our essential Yom Kippur ritual?
We already do. As much as I know there is tenderness about what our multigenerational community will be like going forward, I know there are already deep, intentional, loving bonds across all generations. I know that has always been one of the gifts of this community, and I know it will continue to be so, as we continue to know each other deeply, affirm our relationships, and ask for what we need.
L’shana tova, and gmar chatima tova.