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Yom Kippur Appeal 2019 - Talia Winokur

Talia Winokur’s Yom Kippur Appeal
October 9, 2019
(Click here for a printable PDF of Talia's appeal)

Good morning.

As you know, now is the time in the service when a member of B’nai stands before members and friends to ask for financial support.  But before I talk about money, I would like to tell you a little bit about how I come to stand before you tonight, a passionate Jew in her 30s. 

I grew up in B’nai Havurah, although when I was a kid it was still called CJRF, the Colorado Jewish Reconstructionist Federation.  Some of my best childhood memories were in this community.  When I was little, my family and I were part of a Havurah of about 10 families.  I used to love our monthly Shabbat dinners – I remember being so excited when the Havurah came to our house and I got to collect everyone’s coats and eat hors d'oeuvres for dinner sitting on the floor around our crowded living room coffee table. When I was 4 or 5, I vividly recall sitting in the front row of High Holiday Services coloring as the age-old melodies washed over me.  And I remember practicing my reading part when, at 6, I was finally old enough to go to the microphone with my family and read for the whole congregation during the Rosh Hashanah morning service.   

But mostly I remember B’nai as a welcoming and safe place.  I remember attending Shabbat morning services without my parents as a high-schooler when my family was in crisis.  I loved the predictability of the melodies and how everyone knew me, but no one pried into what was going on at home.  And I loved listening to our Torah discussions where all the heroes came from dysfunctional families, and everyone talked about struggling with how to be good in difficult situations. At the time, I didn’t realize what a uniquely accepting and relevant Jewish community this was. I didn’t know that all Shabbat services did not require soul-searching participation in a lively Torah discussion.  And I didn’t know that at many synagogues, there was an expectation, whether explicit or unstated, that members fall into line with similar levels of observance, similar ideas about God, even similar sensibilities about what clothing to wear to services.  When I went to college, I did not feel the need to rebel against my Jewish upbringing because my doubts and confusion about the existence of God had been embraced in my Jewish community.  And now, as an adult with children of my own, I am so comforted to know that B’nai is still a community where questions are encouraged, where Rabbis don’t claim to have all the answers, where portrayals of our ancestors are nuanced, at times disturbing, and always relatable.

But despite my passion for B’nai Havurah, when I was asked to give this talk, I was a bit uneasy.  Of course, I know that in order to survive, B’nai needs the monetary support of our members and friends.  And yet, I am hesitant to mix fundraising with the transcendent experience of Yom Kippur. 

But as the service so eloquently reminds us, Yom Kippur is all about little things like how we spend our money.  It’s about how we talk to our coworkers, how we think about the people who espouse views we struggle to understand.  It’s about how we stand up for ourselves, and whether we have learned to say no when we need to.  Yom Kippur is about our daily life in the trenches, because our rabbis recognized that life in the trenches is really all there is, and every person’s life is mostly made up of small decisions, small failures, and small accomplishments.  This is a holiday where we use the tools of transcendence to help us turn in a thousand small ways towards lives more in line with our best selves.

After leaving Denver and B’nai Havurah, I attended Georgetown, a conservative Catholic university.  My time there forced me to take a hard look at my Jewish practice – why was I involved in Judaism?  Was it really just the accepting nature of my congregation, or was there something more keeping me a Jew?  During the first semester of my freshman year, my hall-mate, Angela, invited me to a bible study put on by the local branch of Campus Crusade for Christ.  Even though I sensed she was trying to convert me to Christianity, I was curious, and went to several sessions.  In them, I found out about original sin, and the concept of faith alone guaranteeing salvation.  These concepts, along with others I would become familiar with in the next couple years, helped me define my own beliefs as a Jew. 

After college, I moved to Bolivia where I lived in a convent with the Missionary Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament and Immaculate Mary.  It was an amazing cross cultural and interreligious experience.  I translated B’nai’s old High Holiday binder into Spanish and several of the sisters participated in a little service on the morning of Rosh Hashanah, even mumbling along with the Hebrew.  They, in turn, invited me to participate in their silent retreats and I learned how to pray the rosary.  I was there for their arguments and their crises of faith. 

But it wasn’t until I was in my twenties living in Los Angeles teaching religion in a Catholic elementary school that I was able to answer the questions I’d been getting from Christian friends since freshman year of college: Did I believe in God? (probably not, or at least not a God with a will or personality) and if not, why was I Jewish?  What did it mean to be a Jew when an omniscient and omnipotent God wasn’t part of the picture? I had realized through hours of conversation with my Christian friends and the nuns from Bolivia that I was Jewish not because of something I thought or felt about God, but because of my worldview. 

Like the rabbis of old, I believed in the power of my actions to shape my soul, and I didn’t think that good deeds only counted if done with a pure heart.  I agreed that the best way to feel grateful was to start saying “Thank You,” and that the best way to feel comfortable in a room where I was the only white person was to put myself in that situation again and again, even if I didn’t really want to at first.  And like the rabbis of old, I saw the power of communities to largely determine the fate of their members.  Teachings about Jacob’s kin, the first Israelites, placing the doors of their tents in such a way as to ensure privacy so that people would be more peaceful made intuitive sense to me.  I could see why the al het, which we recite again and again today, is in the plural: We have robbed, we have told lies, we have gone astray.  In some sense I am responsible if someone in my community feels the need to lie, and I am responsible if you go astray.  After all, I am a part of the community, and I can and do have a real impact on those around me. 

According to our sages, it is my obligation not only to do right for myself, but to strengthen my community as well.  For Jews, salvation is a communal affair.  We confess our sins together, we pray together in a minyan, we eat and live together, and someday we hope to be redeemed together through our acts of tikkun olam.  Our intentions don’t always have to be perfect, but we must do what is best not only for ourselves, and not only for our families, but for our communities and the broader world.  When I realized these ideas were Jewish, my questions about God faded to the background.  Whether I understand God as a real willful force, or as a metaphor for the unity we are obligated to seek, doesn’t really matter. 

What matters is that we can be our best selves together much more than as individuals.  And ultimately, that is why I am asking you to donate generously to B’nai Havurah tonight.  Because we need each other, and we need this community.  It’s difficult to find a group of people willing to ask themselves the hard questions, willing to provide a space for each other’s doubts and fears, willing to let loose and sing with joyous abandon.  I feel lucky to have been raised by this group of God wrestlers, and I know I’ll need you to keep me firm in the commitments I make for this new year.  And I also know that for B’nai to thrive, each of us must do our part.  The community is counting on us.  We are all there is.  For the sake of my sons Nisayon and Adiv, and for all our children, we must make sure that B’nai’s unique progressive Jewish voice is part of the greater conversation.  We must guarantee that our sons and daughters, grandchildren nieces, and nephews are embraced in their doubts, in their desires for pluralism, in their need to wrestle with their tradition.  Because for liberal Americans, I believe that is the only way Judaism will remain relevant.

This year, don’t leave it to someone else to ensure that B’nai Havurah is around next year.  Step up, take your place in the community, and give what you can.  Each of you received a pledge card when you registered today.  Please take it out now and commit to taking care of our B’nai Havurah.  Fold down the tab that corresponds to your giving level. Then, after the holiday, mail in your contribution.  Because these are the small decisions that help us truly return to the home of our souls.  This is one way we can each start to become the men and women we yearn to be.

May we have the strength to write the book of lives with ever more purpose in the coming year.  G’mar hatima tova, and may you have an easy fast.

Fri, November 22 2019 24 Cheshvan 5780