February 3, 2023
As most of us aware, EMJC will be celebrating its centennial next year. The synagogue was founded in 1924, and, as Toby Sanchez writes on the website, “the cornerstone of the building was laid on June 13, 1926.” By fall of that year, High Holy Day services were taking place in the building.
Since that time, East Midwood Jewish Center has served as a hub for the Conservative/Liberal Jewish community in the neighborhood. I don’t need to tell the readers of this article about what that means – we all know – but it doesn’t hurt to be reminded periodically about the implications. In a time where religious identification is waning, those of us who choose to affiliate with a synagogue are making a conscious statement about the importance of Judaism in our lives. In our diverse community, that means different things for different people; but by choosing to avail ourselves of religious services, of educational opportunities, of children’s activities, of social interactions, we are declaring ourselves to be “people of religion.” We are expressing our humanity, at least part of it, in a deliberately and consciously Jewish manner. This implies a consciousness of the present – how we comport ourselves “Jewishly” in the moment – as well as a consciousness of the future and the essential role we play in the ongoing story of Judaism.
As part of the preparations for the centennial, we have been compiling databases of members, former members, Rabbi Harry Halpern Day School alumni, and other EMJC-affiliated folk. Toby and others have been poring over a hundred years’ worth of paperwork, from the most mundane mortgage payments to minutes of board meetings to foundational documents. As someone with an interest in history, I often think about ancient Jewish communities and the documentary evidence they left behind. At least some of the psalms in Sefer Tehillim (the Book of Psalms) are records of the diasporic community in Babylon, exiled there from Judah by Nebuchadnezzar in the 6th c. BCE. The Elephantine papyri document the presence of a Jewish community in Egypt, also comprised of refugees from the Babylonian destruction. On and on goes the list – Jews who made their presence known throughout the world and who left behind evidence of vibrant, creative, dedicated communities. These forebears wove the fabric of Jewish life, carrying forward the message of the Torah – the ethical, spiritual, and cultural legacy of Abraham and Moses.
And here we are, carrying the torch. Our documents will one day be looked at and studied for evidence of a vibrant, creative, and dedicated community in the middle of Brooklyn (in fact, they already are). Like our diasporic ancestors, we too are “living the Jewish life,” declaring for ourselves, at least, the importance of our ways, our traditions, our teachings. These are precious legacies, and we are their proud caretakers.
With the centennial on the horizon, it’s time to start considering, as individuals, our place in this history. Let the 31st century archaeologists uncover a clay tablet, or a papyrus, or a computer hard-drive, that has my name on it, documenting how I played a part in the life of my Jewish community. I’m asking you to begin thinking about financially planning EMJC into your budget over the coming years so that our next hundred can be as impactful on the Jewish community as our first. Whether you’re an EMJC member, a reader of this column, a High Holy Day service ticket-buyer, a NightShul student, or an occasional swimmer, you are a part of this history.
In this week’s Torah portion, there is an easily-missed passage at the end of the chapter that introduces the miraculous manna that fed the Israelites through their desert-wandering. In chapter 16:32, God commands Moses to preserve one portion of manna, put it in a jar, and have Aaron “put it aside in the presence of YHWH, in safekeeping (l’mishmeret) throughout your generations.” Aaron does so, and then places the jar “before the Testimony, in safekeeping” – in other words, he places it in the mishkan/tabernbacle, along with the Holy Ark. The jar of manna is to serve as a document, an aide-mémoire of a particular moment in Israel’s past. But it is not a relic. It is a living reminder of a moment in Israelite history that is meant to spur the people on to greater things, and to provide a token of how the past is inextricably tied to the present and is a mishmeret – a “safekeeping” – for the future. That is the task that is before us too – to build off of the legacy that we have inherited and to carry on “throughout our generations.”
Shabbat shalom um’vorach – a peaceful and blessed Shabbat,
Rabbi Sam Levine