Gates Of Prayer-Beth Israel Celebration

AUGUST 30, 2009

By Rabbi Robert H. Loewy

Friends, as I look out, how wonderful it is to see so many of you who are friends, to our two congregations, to our community and to one another. Today is an historic occasion in so many ways. We mark the fourth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, a storm, an event, whose impact and aftermath was traumatic for each and every one of us who lived through it and continues to resonate amongst all who are now part of our community. Institutionally it left Gates of Prayer in shambles and Beth Israel in ruins. We both have certainly come back strong since then! We celebrate that reality today.

When I think of the relationship between our two congregations before the storm, we shared common links, but to be honest we viewed the other from afar. We knew that we were in the same family, but did not really wish to be connected.

Still, in times of crisis family reaches out to family. It was the right action to take, the moral, just and Jewish position to pursue. I know from our perspective, we were pleased we could assist, as we regularly stated that it was important for our community to have a mainstream Orthodox Jewish presence. Perhaps we recognized that if you were not here, we would miss you. Distances began to be bridged and it was our honor to invite Beth Israel to temporarily utilize our multi-purpose room, as an oasis for regrouping.

Over the course of the first few months some fascinating realizations occurred for all of us. Though intellectually we may have known it all along, we emotionally accepted reality: We were really not so different, as we came to appreciate what each other represented. In lieu of your rabbi, I was honored to assist some of your families through life cycle events, something that would never have happened prior to the storm.
I distinctly recall a magical moment during Kol Nidre 2006. In the midst of our service I received a surprise message that Beth Israel’s visiting rabbi wanted to come and speak to our congregation. With a bit of trepidation I agreed. Rabbi Friedman stood on our pulpit that night to express his appreciation for what we were doing. He utilized the imagery of the Prophet Isaiah, who describes angels to the right and left of God’s heavenly throne. When each set of opposing angels fully unite and stop their competition for God’s attention, we will find ourselves in messianic times. He likened the evolving relationship between our congregations as a harbinger of future wholeness. It was an inspirational moment in the life of our congregation. Whereas traditional theology speaks of the coming of the messiah, Reform thinkers speak of a messianic age, when all work together to bring about a peaceful society. Our two congregations are modeling that possibility.

When Beth Israel decided to hire a new rabbi and was fortunate enough to select and woo Rabbi Uri to come to our community, we took another giant step forward. In Rabbi Topolosky you chose a warm, energetic, insightful, bright and visionary leader, whom I have come to respect, admire and love. He has become my teacher and friend, just as he is yours. I am only a little envious. I seem to recall that I was once his age.
Rabbi Uri and I have worked together to move our two congregations forward, to bring healing to brokenness, to rebuild where there has been destruction and to create bridges of understanding, where once were great divides. Instead of accentuating our differences, we emphasize commonalities, stressing what unites us and respecting those areas where we differ in our approaches to Judaism.

We have held joint Selichot programs, where we have sung, learned and danced together; offered Continuing Education programs with films, lectures and classes of mutual interest; advocated jointly for Gilad Shalit and other common Jewish causes; arose before dawn for Birkat Hachama- as we jointly led a ritual of the sun; and shared guest speakers and meals- Yes, Reform Jews can eat Kosher. How wonderful it is that we have been able to learn, socialize, grow and appreciate one another in ways that before the storm would have been impossible.

However, let us each be clear about the future. Gates of Prayer is not about to become Orthodox in its rituals and practices, nor is Beth Israel turning to Reform Judaism. We will continue to embrace our separate approaches to Judaism, but we will find ways to be Jewish together with great respect for our distinctiveness. Through our example, we can send a positive message to our Jewish community, and even more to Jews throughout the United States and the world. We celebrate what unites us and honor our differences.

Friends, we have come a long way since August 29, 2005. Now we look to tomorrow. Later today we will hear about Beth Israel’s future plans. Gates of Prayer looks forward to continuing a warm, caring association, as you relocate alongside us. However, I have a concern. The Book of Deuteronomy shows that Moses had the same worry as the Israelites were approaching the Promised Land. He reminded them and I remind all of us, that we must never forget how we have reached this point in our journey. Let us continue to banish former negative attitudes and permanently embrace feelings of unity. Let us always remember the harmony which was forged out of adversity, as we build for a better tomorrow for our congregations, our community and the Jewish people.


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