By Rabbi Seth Phillips
Congregation Keneseth Israel
Writing a farewell column in the Lehigh Valley after only 10 years feels, well, a tad self-indulgent given the on-going service of double that and more from Rabbi Yaacov Halperin, Rabbi Moshe Re’em, and Cantor Ellen Sussman. Rabbi Allen Juda is of course the doyen of the rabbinate and continues to guide us all.
But June 30 will mark the end of my tenure at Congregation Keneseth Israel after a decade of being embraced and, may I say, being at home throughout the valley. I wore my Navy uniform on Memorial Day (because it still fits) to say once again how chaplaincy has shaped my time here. In the Navy, chaplains have no direct power, but must create relationships and connections with all shipmates, even if they are not of one’s faith. From KI, I was given the freedom to be with Jews from all shuls and to support the organizations that enhance Jewish life. Being a board member of the Jewish Community Center and the Jewish Day School expanded my horizons and modeled my belief that every Jew needs a Jewish community connection. Yes, a solitary Yid can like Levy’s rye bread or know that bagels go with lox, but Judaism’s survival as a religion or as a culture depends on connecting your passion with others’ shared passions and tolerating that there may not be 100-percent overlap.
I have come to believe that while there are many shuls in the valley and many ways to express and share our Jewish identity, there is very little of “the shul I wouldn’t be caught dead in.”
You know the joke of the Jew rescued on a desert island after many years. The rescuers are amazed to see two Jewish houses of worship. “But there is only one of you!” they say. “Why do you need two?” Bada bing!
Thankfully, in the valley we seem to be able to be happy for others’ happiness. No guest at a KI Bar/Bat Mitzvah has ever scoffed at the absence of this prayer or that minhag. Yes, we have our own cherished way of doing things, but I see no evidence of a desire to impose “my way” on the world. Wearing a kippah or not, we can both support the Federation. Driving to shul or walking, every rabbi will be happy to see you.
If welcoming is our super power in the valley, I, gratefully, don’t see the kryptonite of judgement as in “What kind of Jew are you?” Who has the time for lashon hara (evil speech) about another agency or org when we are all schlepping along to pay the bills, provide the tuna for Kiddush, and attract a minyan or a meaningful collection of worshippers.
So “be happy,” in the words of the Bobby McFerrin song. Those of us who have come out of the woodwork in the Lehigh Valley and support this wonderful community can afford to take a victory lap for the many accomplishments. But as someone who has just had a birthday with a zero and who knows all my future neighbors around my plot at the beautiful KI cemetery, I know we still need to worry. In an aging community, enthusiasm and personal invitations matter more than ever. If you’re doing something Jewish in the valley, tell a friend or a neighbor and invite them. You’re not missionizing to a complete stranger but sharing an important part of yourself with friend.
Because I am staying in Allentown—Martha Segel of blessed memory helped us to find our lovely West End house—I won’t say goodbye, but shalom to the next chapter of our shared adventure. To be continued…