To the Moon and Beyond

Rosh Hashanah Day One

Picture this: “Three astronauts are strapped into a small spacecraft thirty-six stories in the air, awaiting the final moments of countdown. They sit atop the most powerful machine ever built.

The Saturn V rocket is a jewel of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, a vehicle that will generate the energy of a small atomic bomb. But it has never flown with men aboard, and it has had just two tests, the most recent of which failed catastrophically just eight months earlier. The three astronauts are going not merely into Earth orbit, or even beyond the world altitude record of 853 miles. They intend to go a quarter of a million miles away, to a place no man has ever gone. They intend to go to the moon.”[1] These are the opening words of author Robert Kurson in his book Rocket Men: The Daring Odyssey of Apollo 8 and the Astronauts who made Man’s first journey to the moon.

This journey began in the summer of 1968. And as Kurson notes in his book, “Kennedy’s end-of-decade deadline was in jeopardy. Design and engineering problems with the lunar module – the spidery landing craft that would move astronauts from their orbiting ship to the lunar surface and back again – threatened to stall the Apollo program and put Kennedy’s deadline, just sixteen months away, out of reach. And that led to another problem. Every day that Apollo languished, the Soviet Union moved closer to landing its own crew on the Moon. And that mattered. The nation that landed the first men on the Moon would score the ultimate victory in the years-long Space Race between the two superpowers, one from which the second-place finisher might never recover.”[2]

It was at this point that George Low, a NASA engineer, had an idea. It was this idea that placed Frank Borman, Jim Lovell, and Bill Anders atop the Saturn V rocket in Cape Canaveral, Florida as described at the start of the sermon.

Following the successful launch, the astronauts took 68 hours to reach the moon. After making 10 orbits over the course of 20 hours, Apollo 8 safely returned to a hero’s welcome on planet Earth. Borman, Lovell and Anders were named Time Magazines Men of the Year in 1968 and her successful mission paved the way for Apollo 11.

But it was far from a sure thing. There were incredible number of technical issues that could have gone wrong and resulted in catastrophe. Believe it or not, one fear was that if anything went wrong it could have ruined Christmas for the entire nation if not for the entire world. Another fear was that if the mission failed, the Russians would have made it to the moon first, which would have been detrimental to the psyche of the nation. And the list goes on and on.

“Often, during meetings about Apollo 8, George (Miller) Mueller [Associate Administrator for Manned Space flight] had pushed a piece of paper in front of … other senior NASA managers and asked them to estimate the probability of success at each phase of the flight; doing that would then yield the chances of success for the total mission…” The answer was … “fifty-fifty.”[3]

In hindsight, we of course know the mission was destined to succeed. But how many would be willing to stake our lives, our futures of a fifty-fifty probability?

Thankfully nothing major went wrong during the entirety of the flight. Instead the mission galvanized the nation and reignited faith in our scientific prowess. All of this came about by our sheer audacity to dream. It was this dare to dream that made this seemingly impossible mission, possible.

The ability, the desire to dream has been a core part of our Jewish journey since the very beginning our story as a people. Avram, later Abraham, who we read about this morning, had a dream of a covenant with God. Brit haBitarim, the covenant of the parts or the halves. It was in this dream that Avram realized the destiny of his descendants who would one day inherit the land of Canaan.  But Avram was concerned. Up to this point, he and Sarai, later Sarah, were childless. He reasonably asked God, “how can I dream of future generations when I do not have any offspring?”

It was in this dream that God revealed to Avram that he would have a son, Isaac. Avram was overjoyed by the news as Isaac would be the progenitor of our people. Isaac would be the one to continue the ethical-monotheistic tradition moving forward. Yet, as we read about this morning, God then demanded that Abraham offer Isaac up as a sacrifice.

Every year we wonder, why would God request Abraham offer up his son, the one he loves, Isaac? Every year we are bothered even more so by the fact that Abraham not only fulfills God’s command, but also does it without questioning God. And every year, we attempt to make meaning out of such an upsetting story.

One potential midrash, reason for the challenging story of the Akeida is to reconnect us with this earlier story we find in Genesis 14 of the Brit Habitarim, the covenant between the halves. Perhaps God is foreshadowing a core lesson in our tradition that that nothing great can be accomplished without sacrifice. That to dream, it is not merely enough to have the dream, but to be willing to give up everything that matters to bring the dream to fruition.

Abraham was not our tradition’s only dreamer. Moses dreamed of a free people in their own land. It was this dream that became his life’s work. He did not live to see the dream come to fruition, but it was his vision, his drive, his determination that made it all possible. Ezekiel had a dream of a nation restored following her destruction at the hands of the Babylonians in 586 BCE. Our people, throughout our time in the Diaspora, kept dreaming of the Jewish people restored under the banner of heaven. And more recently, Theodor Herzl had a dream of a Jewish Nation. This dream was realized fifty-one years after his proclamation at the First World Zionist Congress in Basil, Switzerland in 1897. It’s not just NASA or the United States, as a Jewish people, as Joseph might have said, we too are in the business of dreaming.

Today, on this start of this New Year, the Reform Temple of Rockland also has a dream. But before we get to that, it’s good to reflect on where we have come from in order to get a sense of where we might be going. This year marks only our third year celebrating the High Holy Days with one clergy team under one roof. And thankfully to the efforts of Jeff Grossman and the building committee, that roof is repaired, though there is still a lot of work to be done. You are witness to some of the many ongoing repairs that will be done to a building that has been a tad bit neglected for the past twenty years. And we thank you for your patience and your understanding.

We also note that we are no longer Temple Beth El or Temple Beth Torah, but like a married couple, we are something better, something stronger. We have spent these past several years asking the question: who do we want to be? It has certainly not been a journey without some growing pains. We’ve had to wrestle with the question of our location, demographic challenges and financial considerations. All of this is being done under the watchful eye of our amazing volunteer leaders.

Yet, we continue to wonder about our future. One group that has been pointed out again and again are the millennials. Over and over again we are told that they are not joiners. They prefer their experiences to be ala carte. However, I think we do a grave disservice to be dismissive of our country’s largest generation, yes even larger than the Baby Boomers in terms of sheer numbers. The millennials are a widely diverse group who have experienced a catastrophic financial collapse. They have had to pay far more for college than any other group in recent history, resulting in greater debt than ever. And they have had fewer economic opportunities than their parents. This is the first generation that by all accounts, will be worse off than the one preceding them. And yet, we look to them to be the standard bearers for the next generation of Jewish life.

They are often maligned and misunderstood. Instead let us remember that they are, as a whole, are a group who also care deeply about heritage, tradition, family, and community, but in their own way. Yes, many are still residing in the city or in White Plains or in Northern Jersey, but contrary to popular belief, there are young people moving to the area. Therefore, it is one of our tasks to find new ways to engage them and encourage them to become part of our congregational journey.

To do this, a small group was tasked with the daunting task of imagining, of dreaming. We held multiple meetings, we had many conversations, and we ate our fair share of cake. We discussed many programs that have been done before, and we began to dream. This was when we happened upon an idea that to the best of our knowledge has not been tried before. And that is the dream of a free religious school for all.

Already we are offering, through the generosity of two of our funds to offer free religious school for pre-K through third grade and 10th grade through 12th grade. As a result, we are already seeing growth in our youngest grade levels. We are having to hire more teachers because classes that were once combined are now having to be separated out. It is a very exciting time, we are seeing growth in our religious school for the first time since I have been here.

But this vision is not sustainable without a major capital campaign. This is our Apollo 8 moment. And you are the key. We know one of the main reasons why people join congregations is for parents to be able to offer Jewish experiences to their children. Along the way, it is our hope and our intent to provide meaningful community and inspirational experiences for the parents as well.

It is our hope, our plan, our dream to raise enough funds to sustain our school going forward so that cost will no longer be a consideration for families looking at options for Jewish living. As you undoubtedly know, living Jewishly is not cheap. There are the costs of congregational membership, religious school, b’nai mitzvah, confirmation, the JCC and Jewish summer camp, just to name a few.

We also know that sustaining an organization has costs to it. We have to pay for the building, to light it, keep it cool in the summer and warm in the winter, and freezing during the High Holy Days. Clergy and staff all need to be paid in order to be able to offer the services you have come to expect. This is the reality of Jewish communal life.

Hence the question: how can we make it easier, more affordable, and more enticing for those who are already being squeezed economically to want to join our journey? And the answer for us is free religious school.

Down the road you’ll be hearing more about opportunities to support this endeavor. And to be honest, it is possible that it may not work. We may find the numbers are simply not out there, or that people are really not looking to join congregations. But isn’t it worth trying? We will not know if this will be successful unless we aim for the moon. Our odds may not necessarily be better than those of Apollo 8, but look what we as a nation accomplished because people believed and people worked to overcome the impossible.

All we ask is that when we do reach out, please be generous. And also know that this is not the only endeavor we have going forward. We have also partnered with the Rockland Foundation and Federation and a number of other organizations and congregations in our area in a new legacy giving campaign. It was just recently announced that the Rockland Community has been accepted to the Steinhardt Legacy giving program. What this means is that we will benefit financially through grants if we reach certain legacy giving goals.

At a recent meeting we were told that Jewish non-profits need to have at least 20% of their income coming from sustainable endowments in order to endure future challenges. Needless to say, you will be hearing more about our legacy campaign as well, which is an entirely different form of giving. This type of giving can involve naming us in your will, including us as a beneficiary in life insurance policies and in 401Ks to name a few. You do not have to specify the amount of your gift, nor make a legally binding promise to give, but merely to state that you intend to give for the future generations.

Now none of this is in place of our Yom Kippur Appeal, which Sean Levin, our first Vice President will be speaking about on Yom Kippur. Many of you have hopefully already received your annual invitation to give to the appeal. Please join Joy and I in giving and also please remember we are striving for yes/and rather than either/or. As a non-profit, every gift helps us to achieve our mission, your mission. What we are really striving to do is ask you to think about the past and future of the Reform Temple of Rockland. To succeed requires offerings from the heart in what the coming days may bring. As we learned from the midrash about Avram, to achieve one’s dream can require great sacrifice, or in our case, the willing gifts that come with a little bit of hope and faith.

Now, lest you think that this is just about the future, we would also like to mention that we are doubling down on the present. One area we have been working hard on expanding is in our life-long learning programs. Our Adult Education Committee along with Brad Zicholtz, our Director of Life Long learning, have been working diligently to offer more learning opportunities than ever before. They are partnering as well with our affiliated organizations like our WRJ Sisterhood and Men’s Club to offer book clubs, lectures, film series about relevant issues, and so much more. We are also looking forward to offering more scholar-in-residence programs in the future too. But this is just a taste.

As we know, being part of a congregational community is about learning, worship, education, family, social action, social activism, friendship, God, and kinship, and so much more. Alas, there is a cost to be able to offer all of this. In my dream world, being a part of our community would be completely free. This dream of a free communal Jewish life is like our nation’s dream of getting men and women to Mars. It is a long way off, but still possible. But before we aim for Mars, let’s aim together for the moon, and be able to provide for our children and grandchildren the experience of a free Jewish education.

Now I am sure some of you are thinking, I didn’t come here to hear about congregational finances and giving opportunities. I came to be inspired, I came to be challenged. To that I say, not to worry, there is plenty more in store for Rosh Hashanah Day II, Kol Nidre and Yom Kippur morning. In today’s challenging times, though one could argue that every day, every year is a challenging time, we will be continuing to have important conversations in the framework of our Jewish tradition. But I thought it would be inspirational to put all of that aside for one morning and instead do something that our people is great at, and that is the ability to hope and to dream no matter the circumstance.

So to that we ask: dare we dream like Abraham, Moses, Ezekiel, Herzl? Dare we dream so many did in December of 1968? Or to borrow from the words of the songstress of the Reform Movement, Debbie Friedman as she sang so many years ago based on our prophet Joel: “That the old shall dream dreams, and the youth shall see visions, and our hopes shall rise up to the sky. We must live for today; we must build for tomorrow. Give us time, give us strength give us life.”

In this New Year of 5779, let us dream our dreams, let us see our visions, and let us raise our hopes up to the sky. Let us live for today, but even more importantly, let us build for tomorrow. For the future is endless and opportunities abound as we join hands and journey into a brave new world. As we are all on a mission. One perhaps even greater than the moon. A mission to create a sustainable future for us and for the generations who come after.

All we ask is: Ribbono Shel Olam, Master of the Universe, give us the ability, the courage, the strength, the determination to see our dreams come to fruition. Or to paraphrase from a favorite in our household, Buzz Lightyear: to the moon and beyond!

L’shana Tova,

Rabbi Benjamin Sharff

[1] Kurson, Robert, Rocket Men: The Daring Odyssey of Apollo 8 and the Astronauts who made man’s first Journey to the moon, New York, Random House, 2018, pg. 3.

[2] Ibid., pgs. 5-6.

[3] Ibid., pg. 130