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What's In A Name?

By Rabbi Joseph Berman

The daily morning liturgy contains the phrase “blessed is the one who spoke and the world came into being.” The idea is that the world was created through words. As it says in Genesis in the creation story, “And God said ‘Let there be light,’ and there was light.” Embedded in this teaching is the profound understanding that words have power to create. Just think about words that have hurt you. Now think about words that have healed you. Words have the power to shape reality. So too when it comes to names: the words by which we call ourselves matter.  And we just gave ourselves a new name. Or, more like we made our old name our new name, or something like that. So now that it’s a official I’ve been thinking about the meaning of our name.



New Synagogue Project 


Our tradition has a lot to say about the idea of doing something new. It says in Psalm 96 (part of Friday night liturgy) "Shiru l'Adonai shir chadash, shiru l'adonai kol haaretz" Sing to Adonai a new song, sing to Adonai the whole earth. Sometimes we think of religion and tradition as already set and established, but in this Psalm is an imperative to pray, to praise, to connect with all of creation through a new song. (If you hadn’t already guessed, I was the one who suggested “Shir Chadash: A New Synagogue Project”, but the majority has spoken!)


Not only is newness not anathema to Judaism, I learned from my teacher Dr. Judith Kates that change itself is actually embedded in the tradition. In the 5th book of the Torah, Devarim (Deuteronomy), Moses gives the longest sermon EVER in which he retells the stories of B’nai Yisrael’s 40 year wandering through the desert. But here is the thing, he rewrites the story. He changes it. In some very important ways. And this is all in the Torah. In our focus on liberation and engagement in both the political and the spiritual, our ecstatic and accessible prayer, our separation of Judaism and nationalism, our bringing together of mystics, agnostics, and atheists in the same community, and in so many other ways -- we are striving to do something new! AND YET, our striving for newness is not original, we are following in the steps of our ancestors. In both the past and present, others have striven and are striving for many of the same things. We can aim for something new while also having humility and gratitude for those who came before us. 


New Synagogue Project


There is now a whole world of Jewish spiritual startups that intentionally reject the synagogue model. They think the synagogue is dead, no longer relevant. In the past year, many people from this world have asked Lauren and me, “you’re starting a synagogue?!? Why would you do that?!” My response  has been and continues to be: a synagogue is by definition an intentional community and in our society being in intentional community is a counter cultural and radical act. We eschew the individualistic notion that says each of us should go at it alone. Opting-in and joining community affirms that we are connected, that we value a collective, and will throw our lot in with others, beyond just our friend group and family. It affirms that we need help, that we will ask for help, and that we will give aid to one another. 


Building a synagogue also means that we are building an institution. The downside of institutions is that they can get stale, stuck in their ways, and ossify. That’s why we have “new” in our name! We must commit to regular reflection in order to review and renew what we’re doing. On the other hand, institutions have power. And if we want to make change, if we want to fight displacement in DC or build safety through solidarity with other communities, we need to build power. Institutions also have infrastructure to support our individual and collective needs: this includes the infrastructure to take care of one another, to celebrate lifecycle events and to mourn loss, as well as to educate ourselves and our children. We are building a synagogue.

 

New Synagogue Project 


Remember those group project assignments in high school? That was bad. Well, this is our opportunity at redemption. We’re building community together. At times it’s fun. At times it’s messy. And it’s always in process. I am so grateful and excited to be the rabbi of the New Synagogue Project. It is a tremendous honor and joy. I look forward to continuing to create together.