Rosh Hashanah Morning 5784
September 16/17, 2023
The Art of Gathering
Rabbi Alan Cook
Sinai Temple, Champaign, IL
In April of 2013, I sat in the business center of a hotel in Cherry Hill, New Jersey (where we had been visiting family) and joined a Skype call – remember Skype?—with Ray Spooner, of blessed memory. It was my first formal introduction to Sinai Temple; a precursor to my interview that would take place a day or two later. Ray and I checked microphone levels and other settings; this was, after all, well before video conferencing was a regular part of all of our lives and we wanted to be sure we understood the technology. We exchanged some pleasantries, Ray sipped on his cup of PG Tips, and then we each signed off to go about the rest of our evening.
It may sound hyperbolic, but Ray was an excellent ambassador, and even in those brief initial moments, I felt a warm welcome from this holy congregation. Those first impressions were of course later borne out through my interactions with the search committee; the thoughtfully curated activities throughout my interview weekend; a thorough and proactive transition team co-chaired by Elizabeth Hess and Ray; and a heimishe community that embraced and welcomed me, Rabbi Jody, and our family. The Cook family feels blessed to call Sinai Temple our home, as we enter into our eleventh year here in CU.
Don’t worry, we have no intention of going anywhere. But we as a congregation have changed over the past ten years. Much of the difference is to be expected: all humans, and thus all human institutions, are subject to shifts that come with the passage of time. But it’s also true that some unique challenges have presented themselves in the past several years. Beloved members of Sinai Temple who made essential contributions of their time and talent to support the congregation’s well-being– from Ray Spooner, to our shammes Art Robinson, to audio visual specialist Aaron Averbuch, to Blanche Sudman, to countless others all are deeply missed; their legacies resonate throughout this building. Other families and individuals sojourned a few years in Champaign, until circumstances drew them to other communities. And the impact of the global COVID-19 pandemic on the way we conceive of public gatherings cannot be understated.
On February 7, 1904, twenty-two men from eighteen founding families held what is traditionally marked as this congregation’s first public gathering. They met with Rabbi George Zepin from the Union of American Hebrew Congregations to charter the first Jewish congregation in Champaign-Urbana. This means that in 2024, Sinai Temple will observe its one hundred twentieth anniversary. One hundred twenty is a significant number in Judaism; the Torah tells us that this is the age to which Moses lived. Therefore, it is common to congratulate someone on their birthday or other significant milestone by saying, “ad me’ah v’esrim—may you live to the age of one hundred twenty.” For us, having approached this storied age, it now behooves us to examine, and perhaps re-imagine, what our congregation is, and what we yet aspire to be as we enter the next one hundred twenty years of our existence—and beyond.
“Why do we gather?” asks author Priya Parker. She asserts, “We gather to solve problems we can’t solve on our own. We gather to celebrate, to mourn, and to mark transitions. We gather to make decisions. We gather because we need one another. We gather to show strength. We gather to honor and acknowledge. We gather to build companies and schools and neighborhoods. We gather to welcome, and we gather to say goodbye.”
Parker’s reasons for gathering have resonance within Jewish tradition. The synagogue is known in Hebrew as the Beit K’nesset, the house of gathering, because it was indeed a focal point for building Jewish community. It served as a locus of activity within Jewish communities, for purposes beyond religious services and education of children. It was a place to which Jewish families and individuals went for socialization, or to engage in acts of community service that crystallized Jewish teachings into concrete actions.
Though the affinity groups of past generations, such as sisterhood, brotherhood, B’nai Brith, and Hadassah, no longer have affiliates in our community, there are of course still numerous avenues for engagement within Sinai Temple. If you need assistance in finding your niche, I encourage you to connect with me, Rabbi Jody, our administrative coordinator Gary Bernstein, Temple president Lil Levant, or any member of the Sinai Temple board. We’ll be happy to connect you in a way that best speaks to your talents.
This morning, we read the episode in Torah known as the Akeda, the “Binding of Isaac.” In this oft-examined narrative, one word recurs: the Hebrew term “Hineini”,” meaning “I am here.” The word appears eight times in the entire Torah; three of the instances are in this single chapter. Abraham says it in responding to God’s call; he says it to Isaac to reassure him as they make their way up Mount Moriah; and he utters it when the angel of God intercedes to stay his hand just before he can complete the sacrifice. In each of these powerful scenes, Abraham takes a moment to step outside of himself and be fully present for the others with whom he is interacting—human and Divine.
Will Guidara notes that “being present” can be defined as “caring so much about what you’re doing that you stop caring about everything you need to do next.” And I’d argue that the course of the next one hundred twenty years of Sinai Temple will be determined by the degree to which each of us identifies a desire to be fully present in one or more aspects of Temple life. If we can lovingly support this institution, and its people, with our time; our talent; and yes, our treasure, we can continue to achieve great things.
As Rabbi Steven Pik-Nathan writes, “May we each have the courage to say “Hineni” when we are called – no matter how afraid we might still be. And may we each eventually see ourselves as part of something greater than ourselves, something that is meant to improve us and the world around us.”
A person once went up to Rabbi Avraham of Pshitik and said, “I’ve heard that you make magic potions. Make me a potion that will make me God-fearing.”
Rabbi Avraham said, “I don’t have any potion like that. All I’ve got is a magic potion that will make you love God.”
“Well, that’s even better,” the person said. “Give me that!”
“Love other people,” the rabbi replied. “That’s the magic potion that will make you love God.”
In her book The Art of Gathering, Priya Parker speaks of a program that she and her husband created, somewhat inadvertently, on their honeymoon. As they were discussing their “re-entry” into their everyday lives, they committed to dedicating one day per month to exploring a neighborhood with which they were previously unfamiliar in their home city of New York. Before they got started, a friend asked to tag along, and soon what began as one couple’s experiment blossomed into a sought-after experience known as “I Am Here” Days. The rules of “I Am Here” Days include committing to the entire eight-to-twelve hour experience, not allowing any latecomers or drop-ins, unplugging from technology, being fully present, and being game for adventure.
Those who have participated in one or more of the “I Am Here Days” report that the experience helped them to refocus on the things that truly mattered to them. American writer and comedian Baratunde Thurston reported,
It’s rare for groups of people to do things together for a sustained amount of time. We all carry with us the technical capacity to be anywhere, to check out of the present time or space. That means we always could be doing anything. So the active choice to do ONE thing and to do it with a fixed set of people is significant. I sometimes found myself feeling antsy with the rules. I wanted to text someone or look up information… What “I Am Here” day offered was a different way to fill that time. Because of the rules, I could go deeper into the experience. I could observe something around me my phone would have caused me to miss. I could interact with a person next to me instead of thousands of miles away. And with the knowledge that I would spend an entire day with this one group, I could let go of the low-level anxiety caused by using every moment to anticipate the next. It didn’t matter what else was going on. It didn’t concern me where I had to be next. because I decided to be HERE.
I would like to try an experiment. When I say, “go,” please find a person seated near you—preferably someone that you didn’t come with today, who doesn’t live in the same household as you. I want you each to spend two minutes—I’ll time you and tell you when it’s time to switch—introducing yourself and telling each other a story of a time when Sinai Temple has been important to you. I ask two things during this time: One, that you be fully present and engaged with your conversation partner. Two, that you promise that when I say, “Time’s Up,” you will give me back your attention.
Everyone has a story to tell. For all those that were voiced over the past four minutes, there are countless more waiting to be heard. I encourage you over the next year to tap into and reflect upon your stories—the one you told, the ones you held in reserve, the one you heard from your conversation partner, and the ones you may hear from others.
I’ll tell you one of my stories: When we returned to in-person programming following the COVID-19 quarantine, I stood by the building entrance like a puppy dog waiting for its owner to return home from work. I had no way of knowing, for that first event, whether we would attract one person or one hundred people. As the start time for the program approached, I looked past the berm onto Windsor Road and saw a line of cars poised to turn into our lot. My heart swelled and tears came to my eyes. This was an affirmation: people embracing and believing in what we have constructed together, as a community.
When manager Will Guidara was hired by chef Danny Meyer, of Shake Shack fame, to be the front of house manager at Eleven Madison Park, a renowned New York City restaurant, the two knew that they wanted to create more than just an exemplary dining experience that would delight the palate. They sought to extend such gracious hospitality that guests would leave the establishment feeling transformed. They were so devoted to the diners’ experience that others in the industry viewed their customer service offerings as unreasonable. When Guidara published a book about the philosophy that guided his work at the restaurant, he called it Unreasonable Hospitality.
Guidara notes that “unreasonable” was initially a term that others applied to him in an effort to denigrate his work. He writes, “The word unreasonable was meant to shut us down—to end the conversation, as it so often does. Instead, it started one and became our call to arms. Because no one who ever changed the game did so by being reasonable. … Look across every discipline, in every arena…you need to be unreasonable to see a world that doesn’t yet exist.”
Many of you know that one of my all-time favorite films is the original Muppet Movie, from 1979. In the film, Kermit the Frog is pursued by Doc Hopper, who wants Kermit to be the spokesperson for his chain of restaurants serving frog’s legs. After a cross-country chase, Kermit confronts his adversary and asks why Hopper continues to harass him, and Hopper states that he has done so in pursuit of his dream. Kermit responds, “I’ve got a dream too. But it’s about singing and dancing and making people happy. That’s the kind of dream that gets better the more people you share it with. And, well, I’ve found a whole bunch of friends who have the same dream. And, well, it kind of makes us like a family.”
I love my Sinai Temple family, and so I’ll be so bold as to share my dream: I aspire for Sinai Temple to be moderately unreasonable, for us to work collectively to curate an experience so phenomenal that anyone who enters this building feels welcome, engaged, loved, and respected. Our relationships to one another should not be transactional, but should strive to build webs of connection that elevate us all. While it may be true that we lack the staff, the physical plant, or the fiscal resources that are characteristic of congregations in larger metropolitan areas, I believe that we make up for it in the interconnectedness and engagement of the individuals who call Sinai Temple their spiritual home. I ask you to partner with me, to dream with me, and to prove this hypothesis correct.
In today’s world, we are pulled in numerous directions. Many of us find ourselves creating buckets of time and energy—allotting a portion of our week to work or school, another portion perhaps to hobbies, a chunk of time to chores, and so forth. But if your time and availability bucket is already filled before you’ve tended to your personal spirituality and community engagement bucket, I think you’re doing yourself a disservice. I hope the stories we told one another earlier stirred something within you—if you make space in your heart, your mind, your calendar for this community, the rewards you reap will be manifold. Richard Coraine, a chief officer at Union Square Hospitality Group, notes, “All it takes for something extraordinary to happen is one person with enthusiasm.”
In the coming year 5784, may we all embrace this place, and one another, with enthusiasm, believing that we can accomplish extraordinary, unreasonable things. We can do it, if we are each prepared to say, “Hineini.”
 As attested in the Urbana Free Library online digital exhibit “The Sinai Temple” (sic). Retrieved from https://urbanafree.omeka.net/exhibits/show/early-jewish-life-in-champaign/the-sinai-temple , August 21, 2023.
 Parker, Priya. The Art of Gathering. (New York: Riverhead Books, 2018), p. 1
 cf Genesis 22, verses 1, 7, and 11
 Guidara, Will Unreasonable Hospitality (New York: Optimism Press, 2022), p. 183
 Quoted in an online post “Hineini: ‘I am Ready’ and ‘I am Prepared.’” by Cantor Jeri Robins. Retrieved from https://bjep.org/hineni-i-am-ready-and-i-am-prepared/ , retrieved August 25, 2023.
 A teaching of Sha’ar HaHasidut, loosely translated by Rabbi Jason Rosenberg. Shared on Rabbi Rosenberg’s personal Facebook page, June 2023.
 Parker, p. 139
 Guidara, Will. Unreasonable Hospitality. p. 5
 “The Muppet Movie,” screenplay by Jerry Juhl and Jack Burns.
 Guidara, p. 27