Kol Nidre 5777
October 11, 2016
V’Ha-S’neh Einenu U’kal
Rabbi Alan Cook
Sinai Temple, Champaign, IL


When representatives from eighteen Jewish families met in the Grand Army of the Republic Hall on February 7, 1904[1] to charter this congregation, few of them could have imagined a gathering such as this. While Jews had gotten together for High Holiday services in homes and rented spaces since at least 1885, it was not until 1904 that the leaders of the community felt that they had the need, and the financial stability, to formally organize as a congregation. As we come together to worship one hundred twelve years later, we are grateful for their passion and their vision, even as we look toward the future.

In selecting a name for the congregation, the individuals gathered that day looked to the venerable Sinai Congregation in Chicago, which had been founded in 1861[2]. They hoped to emulate that synagogue’s success. But Sinai also serves as an apt name for a Jewish congregation because of its importance in Jewish history. Mount Sinai, of course, is where the revelation of the Torah is said to have taken place.

And “Sinai” is said to be connected to another Biblical word, “sneh,” which is used to refer to the burning bush. You’ll recall that when Moses looks upon the bush, it is engulfed in flame. Yet Moses’ interest is particularly drawn because despite the conflagration, “ha-s’neh einenu u’kal,” “the bush was not consumed.”[3]

There’s a reading in the Reform liturgy that speaks to the miracle of the burning bush. It states in part:

Days pass and the years vanish, and we walk sightless among miracles…
Help us to see, wherever we gaze, that the bush burns unconsumed.
And we, clay touched by God, will reach out for holiness, and exclaim in wonder:
How filled with awe is this place, and we did not know it![4]

This prayer reminds us that the sneh, the burning bush, is ever-present in our lives, beckoning us to approach the world with a sense of awe and wonder. Through the ages, as in the biblical text, the sneh itself continues to exist, despite being subjected to extreme conditions.

Over the years, the same could be said for this very congregation. Though financial circumstances and social circumstances have shifted, though key employers such as the university and Carle Hospital have had their own ups and downs, though pillars of our community have passed on or moved away, and though in 1971 our original building at Clark and State was destroyed by fire, ha-sneh einenu ukal—the core of our congregation has not been consumed, but rather has continued to thrive.

As I begin my fourth year with this holy congregation, I’d like to take a moment to think about the future of Sinai Temple. How can we build for the next hundred years and beyond, adapting to the needs of our community, while remaining true to our core ideals? What steps shall we take to keep our progressive Jewish values alive in the heartland?

These High Holidays are a time for personal introspection and reflection. We engage in cheshbon ha-nefesh, an accounting of our souls, as we reflect on what our successes and achievements have been in the past, and honestly evaluate where we need to make improvements for the future. Tonight, we’ll also engage in a bit of cheshbon ha-kehillah, an accounting of our congregation.

Throughout our holiday season, we return to an anthem based on Psalm 122: Samachti b’omrim li, beit Adonai neilech—“I rejoiced when they said to me, ‘Come, let us go to God’s house.’” It should be a joy to come into Sinai Temple—whether you are here for worship, or religious school, or a social event, or just to drop off something in the office. You deserve to be greeted warmly whenever you call or visit—as I hope you were this evening. We are always happy to see familiar faces at Sinai; you are an important part of the fabric of our community. And if you are newly exploring Sinai, or visiting from out of town, welcome! We are so honored that you’ve chosen to worship with us tonight, and we hope we’ve helped you to feel at home.

We will continue to build a vibrant home here for all the Jews, and explorers of Judaism, who reside in East Central Illinois. We will honor our storied heritage, even as we prepare to meet the needs and challenges of American Jewry in the 21st century. It is doubtful that our founders in 1904 could have envisioned the wide tent that our congregation has established today. But we pledge to embrace all who wish to cast their lot with us: straight, gay, bisexual, transgendered, or questioning; those born Jewish and those choosing Judaism; spouses and partners of Jews who, though they practice another faith, nonetheless welcome Judaism into their homes; Jews of every race and skin tone, and Jews of every denominational stripe. We celebrate the wide variety of people in our midst. V’ha-sneh einenu ukal- and Sinai’s core essence remains, and our diversity enriches our experience.

Along with our diverse personalities, we are pleased to celebrate our disparate modes of expressing our Jewish beliefs and ideals. I am proud to be part of this congregation that offers a wide range of liturgical choices: from the Egalitarian Traditional Minyan to our Reform services, to the English service that was the brainchild of Judy and Peter Braunfeld and will celebrate its fifteenth anniversary in November, to our Shabbat Rocks and Next Dor! worship opportunities for our students. This year, we will introduce our Friday Night Feasts: on the first Friday of each month, you are invited to join us for an early Kabbalat Shabbat service, followed by a chance to enjoy Shabbat dinner as a community and socialize with all of your Sinai Temple friends.

And with our different modes of worship come distinct ways of connecting with the divine through music. In any given month you may hear traditional nusach chants; classic melodies from Martha and our soloists; selections from our Shabbat Singers choir; contemporary melodies from the Shabbat Family Folk Singers; and guitar-driven music from Larry Adleston, Jessica Kopolow, Ethan Soloveychik, and Kayla Israel, who help to lead our younger worshippers. We continue to build our musical repertoire, melding familiar melodies that have stood the test of time with contemporary compositions that cast well-known liturgies in a new light. We innovate, while always acknowledging our roots. V’ha-sneh einenu ukal- and Sinai shall continue to thrive.

We will offer exciting, incisive, and significant educational programming, beginning with our youngest students in Hand-in-Hand and progressing through adult learning opportunities. Our Hebrew and Religious School students, under the guidance of Rabbi Jody and her staff, will continue to get the knowledge and skills they need to lead proud and meaningful Jewish lives. We will constantly strive to innovate and will remain abreast of current trends in education, so that we may meet the needs of all of our learners. Recognizing that learning does not stop when one completes grade school, we will also continue to provide adult education opportunities, from our Saturday morning Torah study group to our Sunday morning Talmud classes to our Sunday adult ed gatherings and our monthly “News and Nosh” discussions. We were thrilled to welcome Rabbi Sally Priesand a few weeks ago, and will welcome Rabbi Gary Zola as our Steinberg scholar-in-residence in the spring.

We will support the land of Israel and her people, and to embrace her promise as a homeland for the Jewish people and a beacon of democracy in that region. We pledge to continue to discuss and debate the best ways for her to be true to that mission. We recognize that we may be critical of her leaders and their policies while steadfastly championing her continued existence. We will advocate for political leadership that strives toward peace for all peoples, and we will work to support social policies that recognize the broad range of Jewish expression within the land of Israel, and work to promote policies and procedures that further egalitarianism and religious pluralism. We acknowledge the essential humanity of all those living in the area—Israeli and Palestinian; Jews, Muslims, Christians, and Druze; those of every faith, gender, and political stripe—and we seek to lift up those programs and causes that will affirm this truth for all those who call this region home. We know that we are not homogenous in our opinions regarding Israel and her role in American Jewish life, and we seek to provide a safe space to explore such issues in a respectful manner. V’ha-sneh einenu ukal- and Sinai shall continue to thrive.

We will affirm our commitment to works of social justice, in support of our sacred calling l’taken olam b’malchut Shaddai, to restore the world to wholeness according to God’s vision. This will be realized through discrete projects such as holding blood drives, providing food for the hungry through our High Holiday campaign for the Eastern Illinois Food Bank, and participating in the Habitat for Humanity build. But it will also be articulated in long-range efforts, such as seeking partnerships in our community across the boundaries of faith, race, sexual and gender orientation, and socio-economic status. We will work with our Christian and Muslim friends and neighbors; we will work with the LGBT community. We will work with the African-American community, the Hispanic community, and the international community. We will work with all those who are marginalized by our society. When we are good partners in our community, we are strengthened and enriched. As Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, “That which draws us nearer to our fellow man is this – that the deep heart in one answers the deep heart in another, that we find we have a common nature, one life that runs through all individuals, which is indeed Divine.”[5] V’ha-sneh einenu ukal- and Sinai shall continue to thrive.

We will always look upon ourselves as a kehillah kedoshah, a sacred community. We will rejoice together in times of simcha and we will provide uplift to one another in times of sadness and struggle. We will seek out opportunities to socialize and strengthen our connections to one another.

But all of these affirmations that we make will have little resonance if we do not ensure that this building, our congregational home, is capable of providing for the needs of this community well into the future. As you are hopefully aware, we have recently begun to explore modifications to our building—with a particular focus on our sacred spaces and our outdoor gardens—with an eye toward bringing them into the 21st century. The first phase of this effort is visioning: several dozen of you were present on a recent Sunday morning when Sanford Hess facilitated a discussion of our most pressing needs. We appreciate the feedback that we received, and we will continue to provide opportunities for everyone to share opinions and insights.

Some of the changes will be purely aesthetic and cosmetic: this building was dedicated in April of 1975; it is my understanding that the last significant upgrade to our public spaces was in 2003 with the installation of our beautiful ark doors in the sanctuary. Carpeting and many other fixtures are still original, from when the facility opened. We note with love and appreciation the hard work, tireless energy, and generous financial contributions given by so many that originally constructed this building. Now it is time to develop a vision for how we and future generations will experience this space.

There are practical needs, as well, that will shape how we move forward. Much of the work to be done revolves around the theme of accessibility. The bimah must be more accessible to those who have difficulties with mobility, so that all may have the opportunity to enjoy an aliyah, a birthday blessing, or any other pulpit honor. The lighting in the sanctuary and pods must be improved and our audio systems upgraded.

Better video capabilities will eventually allow us to livestream services and programs; if there are congregants who can’t come to Sinai for an event, we’ll bring Sinai to them! Our outdoor spaces, including the Cohen, Neuman, and Einhorn gardens, will be improved in order to make them more visually appealing, easier to maintain, and practical as event space. Each step of the way, every effort will be made to inform and elicit input from all of us. And though changes will be made—and that’s sometimes difficult to embrace when you are emotionally, spiritually, or historically attached to a place or an idea—I assure you that ha-sneh einenu ukal- our core essence shall remain unchanged, and Sinai shall continue to thrive.

Some of the changes that that need to be made won’t seem quite as exciting because they involve operational systems that most of us do not usually see (so long as they are running properly). For instance, to heat and cool a building of this size requires a great deal of HVAC infrastructure. It behooves us to plan ahead for maintenance and repair of these systems. There are roofing and electrical issues that are to be expected in an aging building, but need to be addressed.

Many of us have fulfilled our building fund pledges, and several have responded to last year’s call for additional capital to help with maintenance. This generosity is greatly appreciated. And of course, we are all grateful to those seated among us today who were contributors to the campaign that originally provided for the construction of this building, and those who supported the addition of the Davis Chapel and the new classroom wing in the late 1990s. With this new campaign, we seek to continue to celebrate our past, while planning for a bright tomorrow.

You may recall that on Rosh Hashanah, I shared the Talmudic story of Honi, who ridiculed a man for planting carob trees whose fruit he would never personally enjoy. The man chastised Honi, reminding him that carob trees existed when he was born, and that it was important to plant for forthcoming generations. Our upcoming campaign will only be successful if we if we can each embrace this reality: it is incumbent upon each of us to help prepare for the future, even if we may not fully reap the benefits ourselves.

I have devoted my Kol Nidre sermon to talking about these plans for our Temple, and how I see Sinai developing over the next several years, because I believe in this place and what it has meant to so many generations of Jews here in East Central Illinois. I believe in all of us, and our power to continue to create a loving and thriving community. We will all need to share our ideas, our energy, and our enthusiasm. And yes, we will need everyone’s financial commitment.

The development committee and the board are dedicated to finding donor opportunities that are accessible to all, no matter your personal finances. We hope that everyone who cares about Sinai Temple—and all of us who are here tonight hopefully see ourselves as stakeholders—will find some manner in which each person and every household can participate.

If you are visiting with us from out of town this evening, or you are a local who has not yet affiliated with us, again we welcome you, and we invite you to share in our dream of a bright tomorrow. For those who are so inclined, pre-stamped, pre-addressed donation envelopes are available outside the chapel and the sanctuary. Funds received will be used to start off our building improvement campaign.

Rabbi Hillel taught, “Al tifrosh min ha-tzibbur, do not separate yourself from the community.”[6] As we enter the holiest day on the Jewish calendar, let us embrace one another in the spirit of the kehillah kedosha, the holy community in which we find ourselves. Let us renew our commitment to making our congregation a vital center of Jewish life, worship, study, and celebration. United in this commitment, we will continue to be strong. V’ha-s’neh einenu ukal- and the light and essence of Sinai Temple will shine brightly for years to come.

[1] Amid the Alien Corn, (self-published history of Sinai Temple) p. 12-13
[2] See http://www.chicagosinai.org/chicago-reform-congregation/first-reform-synagogue-chicago for that congregation’s history.
[3] See Exodus, chapter 3
[4] A reading by Chaim Stern, appearing in Mishkan T’filah: A Reform Siddur (New York: Central Conference of American Rabbis, 2007).
[5] From The Complete Sermons of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Vol. 3 (Columbia, Missouri: University of Missouri Press, 1991)
[6] Mishnah Avot 2:5