Rosh Hashanah 5777 Hineini

There is a story that begins, “A cantor was rushing through the streets of his town when he was stopped by the rabbi who asked, ‘where are you going in such a hurry?’ Replied the cantor, ‘I am headed for the synagogue to study the prayer book and prepare for the Yamim Noraim – the Days of Awe.’ The rabbi then said, ‘The prayer book will be the same as it was last year. Better examine yourself and your deeds.’

That story reminded me of the words of Rabbi Akavyah ben M’halalel, who said, “Reflect upon three things and you will not come into the hands of transgression: know from whence you came, where you are going, and before whom you are destined to give accounting.” Rabbi Akavyah is not as famous as Akiva or Hillel or even Shammai. However, his words ring true during this season of self-examination and especially as I begin my last Yamim Noraim with all of you.   Together, we have celebrated 38 High Holy Days.

All those years ago, you invited a very young, very single, very nervous cantor to share the pulpit with Rabbi Jon Stein.  That Rosh haShanah, there were two things that became obvious to the congregation:  there was a cantor on the bimah and the cantor was a woman.  For many seated right about here (point), these were two things they never expected, some never desired, and others never thought would be in their temple.  For some it represented why they were Reform Jews.  For others, my presence reflected their past.  And for some, it was the beginning of a new chapter in their Jewish life.

After 38 years, 76 renditions of Kol Nidre, a few more than 1000 Avinu Malkeinu chantings – not to mention rehearsals –  and thousands of hours of reflection, prayer, introspection, doubt, and yes even a few moments of dozing off, I am still asking myself the same questions that a recently ordained Cantor Janice Lowenstein asked nearly four decades ago as she walked down the hallway and up the stairs into this sacred space to face my new family: where have I come from? where am I going? and to whom, especially as we begin these days, together, in which the gates have been opened before us – to whom am I destined to give accounting?

This is my last Rosh haShanah serving as your cantor.  There will be time later this year to discuss where my family and I will be next yontif.  As we open the gates of 5777 and begin a period of reflection and introspection with our God, it is hard not to reflect on the last 37 years, the amazing journey we have taken together in our exploration of Judaism, and to search for meaning in the relationships we have nurtured.  Some of you may be expecting a sermon about God, social justice, the upcoming election, the state of the synagogue, or the need for funds.  Allow me to get a jumpstart on Yom Kippur and apologize to each you now.  That’s not the sermon this Rosh haShanah.  With your permission and indulgence, I would like to simply have a very personal conversation with you, and take advantage of having center pulpit, and begin to write the last chapter in my book of the time we have spent together.

In the tale known as the Akedah – the Binding of Isaac – which is a traditional reading for Rosh Hashanah – we learn that God challenged Abraham to complete an action which had the potential to end our Jewish story almost before it got started. We have shared the reading of this story and countless interpretations over the years. Each time I study this episode, however, there is a detail that continues to intrigue and challenge me. Three times Abraham is called: first by God, then by his son, then by an unnamed angel. Each time he responds hineini – here I am!

Though we translate hineini as “here I am;” it is not a statement of location. In the words of Rabbi Amy Schwartzman, “it is a statement of emotional and spiritual presence.” Abraham’s response is a single word.  In a response we would typically anticipate from a child, Abraham presents himself fully and unencumbered.  “Here I am” emotionally, physically, spiritually.  “Here I am” with no pretense, no barriers, no reservations.  “hineini” here I am with love, with warmth, with my entire being.

Hineini, here I am, is the answer to a call. It has been a gift to have a professional life that I truly love.  A friend once counseled Brandon and me that there is a difference between a job and a profession.  My profession has been sacred.  As your chazzan – your spiritual leader – it has taken a lifetime to recognize that it is a calling. The Roosevelt graduate who left Chicago for New York and entered Hebrew Union College didn’t consider the trek to be her calling. Now, looking back, I realized I was called to serve the Jewish people. Hineini, I called back – here I am.

It was a hineini moment for me when Rabbi Jonathan Stein offered me the opportunity to join him at IHC as its first female – and first official – cantor. The most frequent comment during those first months was “are you a real cantor; you know, you’re a woman.” As Akaviah counseled, let me look back to know from whence I came.

Growing up in Jewish Chicago was different from the experience my children had in Indianapolis.  I lived in a community where we were the majority.  I dropped out of my Brownie troop to start Hebrew School at Temple Beth Israel, my childhood congregation, with most of my friends. My first Hebrew teacher, Mrs. Harriet Becker, was not only a wonderful teacher, but also planted the seeds of my love of Hebrew and Judaism. A year later, I joined the Junior Choir at Temple Beth Israel and met Cantor Irving Zummer. He gave me my first solo at age 10; then left for another congregation – I don’t think it was my singing or anything I did. His replacement was a young woman named Judith Karzen. She called and I said, hineni.  I said hineni to sing in her choirs, learning by her side, leading high school and college services, and when she offered to pay me to sing in the congregation’s High Holy Day choir – “hineni!”

My hineni moments were in response to teaching, to instruments, and to music – not to my voice. I started teaching music in our Religious School as a teenager.  While I didn’t really know what to do, I realized that my basic piano skills and a few standard books would get me started.  My main instrument, however, became the flute and I played in the Concert Band and Orchestra of my high school; singing in the choir only during my freshman year – and later when I was brought in to help out at concerts.

Judith Karzen our synagogue music director began as my teacher and morphed into my mentor.  Following in her footsteps, I attended Chicago Musical College of Roosevelt University. At the same time, I studied Judaism in more depth at Spertus College of Judaica – just down Michigan Avenue from Roosevelt. I met Cantor Chaim Najman when I was in college.  This cantor, an Orthodox Jew, saw something inside me that no one, including me, had seen before.  He recommended I apply for the cantorial program at HUC.  I had gone to Olin Sang Ruby one year during high school, sang in choirs, played flute, taught Religious School, and studied.  Was this a cantor?  An orthodox cantor in Chicago thought it was; so did my mentor who grew up at a time when the thought of women on the bimah was unheard of.  Together, they called.  I said hineni. Looking back I realize that, as author Jonathan Safran Foer says, “Judaism is the soil in which my imagination was planted.”

It was late in my last year of HUC, when I applied for the position at Indianapolis Hebrew Congregation. Years earlier, my father and I drove through Indianapolis on my way to Indiana University to audition for the School of Music.  Other than that, I didn’t know anything about this community.  I remember going to the headquarters of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations – now the Union for Reform Judaism – which was on Fifth Avenue and 65th Street, and singing for Phyllis Herman and Dorit Paul. They were two of the members of IHC’s Cantorial Search Committee. A couple of days later, I met Rabbi Jon Stein in New York along with Sharon and Jim Fishman – two congregants who were chaperoning the Confirmation trip to New York.  Much like the reading of the Akedah, you know how this story ended.  Dorit, Phyllis, and Rabbi Stein called, Hineini – here I am.

Abraham’s second call was from his son, Isaac, who cried out, “Avi – father,” to which Abraham replied, “hineini b’ni – here I am, my son.” Hineini, here I am, with my IHC family, to discover new meaning in ancient words.  Nearly 40 years later, we are still uncovering new meaning and new experiences from sacred texts, celebrations, and life cycle events. The position of cantor back then was uncharted territory. It was a result of the vision Rabbi Saltzman and Stein had for the evolution of the clergy and worship experience at Indianapolis Hebrew Congregation. My colleague, Cantor Stephen Richards, preceded me here, but was hired as the music and youth director.  In the minutes of the Board, it was noted the he was specifically not to function in the role of clergyman. Cantor Richards was one of my teachers at HUC. We were blessed that Cantor Richards composed a piece for our community in honor of my 25th anniversary that the choir, musicians, and I shared with you last night.  When Cantor Richards left IHC, Ron Levy – an Israeli – was hired as music director.

Working alongside Jon Stein, Muriel Romer, Sharon Garelick, Peter Schweitzer, and especially the amazing Harvey Gaddie of blessed memory, I quickly learned that saying hineni – here I am – includes a depth that is beyond words.  Abraham’s response to Isaac, hinenei b’ni – here I am my son – reflected much more than a physical and spiritual presence.  The love of a parent has for their child defies understanding.  When a child calls for their parent and the parent says ‘here I am, my son’ their words are a verbal reflection of the love present, the security the child feels, the responsibility the parent feels for that child.  At IHC, I said hineini and Jon, Muriel, and Harvey shared their love of this community, not to mention their knowledge. I used the skills I had learned as a music teacher to teach Religious School – not just music, but also Fifth Grade in that first year. I was called to do pastoral counseling, seeing members of our community when they needed a hand during illness or a shoulder following a death.  Every day was a new challenge.  Like each of you when you stepped out of the classroom, I learned that being a cantor was more than singing and teaching bar and bat mitzvah students. It was the perfect life’s work for me because it combined my love of Judaism and my love of music into one package. Here, in the rich soil of Indiana, I could share my passions with people young and old. I could plant seeds for a love of Judaism, as my teachers had implanted within me.  I heard a call and answered, “Hineini.”

As I stand before this holy congregation this Rosh haShanah, like each Rosh haShanah, I hope to make contact with everyone at some point during the holidays.  Like you, I also remember those whose memory hovers in our sanctuary.  Each connection, each voice, is asking the same question Isaac asked of Abraham.  For me, my hineini b’ni is the at the heart of l’dor v’dor –  from generation to generation. You see, in 37 years, I have been blessed to have seen children grow up, have children of their own, and now to see their children become adults. In 2016 alone, I will have taught 7 out of  31 bar and bat mitzvah students whose mothers and/or fathers had been my students. I have performed marriages for children whose parents I married and named babies whose parents I named. The beautiful thing about that is how the first generation remembers and shares those memories. Recently, one of our confirmands shared her thoughts in a letter to me.  These words were very personal.  I share them with you because they reflect the gift given to me by each member of this community who called to me over the years:

I cannot begin to put into words how grateful I am to have had you be a part of my spiritual Jewish journey. . . You will always have a special place in my heart. If you ever wonder, “Am I making a difference in these young adults’ lives?” I hope you know that you are. Cantor Roger, you have made a difference in mine.

Thank you, Allie, and thanks also to the dozens of young people who sent messages in response to Miles’ Facbook post.

Of course, l’dor vador has a special meaning for me personally. When I was interviewing here, June Herman, now a past president of our congregation, asked me if I was concerned about being a single woman coming into this role in a community that didn’t have a large Jewish population. Did I think that I could find a partner – well, she said husband – in this community, where there were not too many single men in my age bracket. My response was, “It only takes one.”

And it was not too long before I was introduced to my one, Brandon. When I was offered this position, who would have guessed that I would meet someone whose family had such deep roots in this community and IHC? Together, and with the help of his mother, my mother, the late Marilyn Roger, and his brother, Mark, we created our own family in the midst of our IHC community. And, if I do say so myself, it has turned out pretty well. Not only are my children active in congregational life, but together with Mark, my sister-in-law, Randi, and our nieces, Maddie and Sammie, we have been able to build our family and create Jewish memories each and every day.  As I look around our sanctuary – there are memories with so many of you and so many who live on in our hearts. Indianapolis provided the rich soil in which I planted the seeds of my family and my destiny.

The feeling Abraham must have had responding to Isaac when he said, “here I am, my son,” reflected his role as a parent.  It reflected the love and caring that is built with love and nurtured by overcoming pain. Generations ago, it was the custom in our synagogue to sell seats for the holidays.  This custom ended in the 1950’s.  We may not sell seats now, but from my vantage point, I can tell you that most of you have “your seats.”  When we renovated and created this wonderful spiritual space, many simply transitioned to a similar space in the new environment.  Through the years, people I cherish, people who sat in the same seats year after year on Rosh Hashanah morning, became ill or suffered tragedies in their family, or passed away. Sitting with you at hospital bedsides or as you mourn loved ones has drawn me into your lives.  The opportunity to spend a professional lifetime in one home is unusual.  Some might say you give up opportunities to learn and experience new challenges.  I have found that it has allowed us to become closer.  The opportunity to share thousands of experiences allows us, at times, to say more with a touch or just sitting by quietly together.

When I arrived, I was a novice.  I understood Jewish life as a child growing up and from books.  Some of you were my teachers as I became a parent.  Some of you taught me how to combine a professional life and family.  Some of us shared carpools, some I prepared for a bar or bat mitzvah and then was the mom who drove you home.  Some of us took our children to college together and watched them take their first steps to adulthood.  You dignify me by calling me cantor, you honor me by calling me aunt, mom, friend, Janice. That is part of what makes the cantorate a calling.

As Isaac called to his father, he asked, “here is the firestone and the wood, but where is the lamb for the offering?” Abraham’s response was, “God will see to the lamb.” Isaac’s question was in keeping with Akaviah’s maxim, “know before whom you are destined to give accounting.” It is to you – the community of IHC and the greater community of Indianapolis – that I am accountable. When I arrived and said, hineini, “here I am” it was with the intention of being, as Rabbi Schwartzman wrote, “emotionally and spiritually present.”

I stand before you this Rosh haShanah trembling and afraid, before God and this holy community.  I hope that I have given my full attention to you each time we met and that I was emotionally present; a caring and loving presence, available without judgment or reservation. It is also my hope that you can forgive me those times when I did not live up to that standard.

Abraham last said hineini to an angel of the Eternal. That angel gave Abraham the news that there would be a future because it was never God’s intention that Isaac be sacrificed. On this Rosh Hashanah morning, I offer my third hineini. It is the one which forces me to think about where I am going. Over the last months many of you have asked me what I am going to do when I retire. Indianapolis is our home and this is where our family is.  Eddie and Miles are fourth generation of our family to be members of IHC and I pray there will be fifth generation. That said, I have a standard answer which includes some activities in the general community. In reality, however, I am not entirely sure where I am going. There are so many variables and, of course, we can’t know what life will bring to us.

With that in mind, let me tell you one more episode from my youth. When I sang in Judith Karzen’s choir, there was a woman named Dorothy Edidin who sang Janowski’s Avinu Malkeinu every year. It was my wish that someday I would sing that solo. While it didn’t happen in Chicago, I have sung Avinu Malkeinu well over a thousand times in our sanctuary. In the text of that prayer, there are three requests that I make of you and of the Holy One of Blessing.  My prayer this Rosh haShanah for our holy congregation is:

Shma koleinu – hear our voices. Always listen; listen to each other. Listen to hear not only the words that are spoken, but also the underlying prayer that is uttered. Judaism is a heritage which values words. Again, in the words of Jonathan Safran Foer, “Giving a word or name to a thing gives it life.” When we hear the words of each other, we are also hearing the word of God – for each of us is created in the image of the Divine. May this year be the first of many when we hear and are heard. Then will we become living, loving individuals in a community of like-minded people

Na al t’shivenu reikam milfanecha – please, do not turn us away empty-handed from your presence. Every time we turn to you, O God, for strength, help us to be strong. Every time we offer our words of prayer, help us to rise from that prayer better people. May each of us enrich ourselves through our community and enrich our community through our presence. Then we will never have a feeling of emptiness within.

Chadesh aleinu shanah tovah – let the New Year be a good year for us. Chadesh means, literally, make new. We have heard the voice of the Shofar issuing its clarion call to us – reminding us that it is our task to make the year ahead – no, the years ahead – new and better and good. Not only for ourselves, but also for each other. May we take these words to heart and live them each and every day. Then we will truly be renewed.

Hineini – here I am, here I have been, here I shall continue to be as I moved towards a new stage in life. Hineini – the calling which brought me to you and you to me lives on each and every day. May we all be blessed with the ability to answer hineini whenever and wherever we are called. If we are able to do that, then we will deserve the opportunity to say the words of the Psalmist: Pitchu li Sha-arei tzedek, avo vam odeh Yah – open for me the gates of righteousness; I shall enter them and give thanks to God for this is the day that Adonai has made, let us rejoice and be glad on it.

Ken y’hi ratson