By Rabbi Boaz D. Heilman
President Ostroff, Cantor Funk; fellow rabbis, educators and clergy of many faiths; members of the Board of Directors and congregants of Temple B’nai Israel; honored guests and friends, I begin with the most beautiful word in the Hebrew language, shalom! Peace!
Having just begun serving as rabbi of Temple B’nai Israel, you will forgive me, I hope, for still feeling a little bit like “the new kid on the block.” You see, I’m still looking around, still trying to familiarize myself with the area, the people and the culture.
To tell the truth, about a year ago, when I began looking at this fresh and new venture, I didn’t know what to expect. I was finishing a 20-year rabbinate in the Boston area, an area known for its erudition in academia as well as Judaica. What would I find in Laconia, New Hampshire?
The whirl of events surrounding my transition left me almost in a daze. It was good that soon afterwards I left for some R&R in Israel. Israel is my home. My mother lives there, my brother and his family – my family… It is where my entire being finds nurturance and replenishment, where my roots reach as deep as the most ancient strata of my people’s history, and where my boughs extend up and out, even to the most modern times and innovations.
When I returned at the end of the summer, I felt refreshed, ready to begin this new chapter in my life. Yet I still didn’t know quite what to expect, and the High Holy Days met me with a bit more than the usual trepidation in my heart.
What I did find astounded me – and still continues – to this day.
Not only did I find the kind of powerful and dramatic beauty of nature that New Hampshire possesses. Within the first few weeks, I found some time to hike up a couple of mountains and explore a couple of nearby trails. I experienced the magnificent kind of New England fall that artists and poets rhapsodize about.
Not only did I discover a slower, more patient, more easy-going way of life; a place where you don’t need to cut off another driver just to get in the line of traffic; where, if you want to stop and enjoy the moment, you can, and do.
Not only did I discover a thriving Jewish community here, but one that has been in existence for well over one hundred years!
I discovered a community of people so devoted to their Judaism that they took it upon themselves to make sure that it survived and even thrived. Working first with volunteers and then with student-rabbis–many of whom went on to become national leaders in their own right–this group took on the mitzvah – the imperative – of maintaining their Jewish way of life for themselves and their children. Volunteers all, they not only ascertained that the temple stood on solid financial ground, but also that it faithfully followed our customs and traditions and became a warm and welcoming home–in the fullest, most “heimisch” sense of the word–for all its sons and daughters.
Maybe that’s what has to happen in places like New Hampshire, where we Jews find ourselves more isolated and therefore more dependent on our own skills and abilities than in some other, larger and more specialized communities. The responsibility of being Jewish, of living Jewish, of making sure the Jewish People continue beyond us, is so much more incumbent upon us here.
At the same time, however, Laconia is not so isolated from the rest of the world, not in this age of social media and instant communication. The same problems and issues that Jews face all over the world are as crucial here as elsewhere.
Living as a small minority among other cultures has always made keeping Jewish traditions alive and meaningful a difficult task. It is possibly even more of a challenge today, especially in places where gathering to worship and study as a k’hilla, as a sacred community, means we have to get in our cars and drive nearly an hour just to get to a temple.
Throughout our people’s history, the study of our sacred texts has been key to Jewish existence. Yet today, in our time of unprecedented progress in research, science and technology, a day when the study of the cosmos can take us to the very first milliseconds of the universe’s existence, the stories of Creation that we find in the Torah seem – at least to some of us–irrelevant and childish.
Laws that once regulated our people’s behavior–what we wore, what we ate, even whom we socialized with and married – are less in keeping with our contemporary lifestyle than they ever were before.
Perhaps it was the Holocaust, less than a lifetime away, or maybe the advances of photography–particularly images of war and terrorism – that allowed the most horrifying crimes, the most horrendous cruelty ever exercised by human beings, to penetrate the safe havens that once were our homes and break down the walls of our carefully structured lives.
Israel, the homeland our people returned to and rebuilt as a safe harbor, a refuge from the age-old scourge of anti-Semitism, is still being attacked and delegitimized among its many enemies and detractors. Among us, too, some of us are examining our relationship to our homeland, trying to understand both the politics and the special bond that exists between Israel and the Diaspora, and what that means for us – and more importantly, for our children, who have never known a world without a State of Israel, without an Israel Defense Force to help defend and protect them, and to fill us with joy, gratitude and pride.
To quote a line from one of my favorite Broadway musicals, “Fiddler on The Roof,” these are all problems “that would cross a rabbi’s eyes!”
And yet, just as we’ve never lost hope in the past, so we remain hopeful today. Our strength as a people has never come only from within us. And surely, as our third patriarch, Jacob, learned to recognize so long ago, surely God is present here, among us, at this sacred time and place.
When I first walked into this community and sanctuary, I felt–as palpable and as tangible as anything in the physical world that can be perceived, measured and gauged – love and devotion that are nothing short of miraculous.
Our very presence here tonight is proof that, despite all the challenges and difficulties, we have not abandoned our faith, nor lost any of the love that we’ve always carried with us, throughout our journeys. Our love for our heritage, for our people and our land and, ultimately, for our God, is still the single most powerful force that has always inspired us to create and maintain our sacred communities.
Despite the relative isolation of this congregation – or perhaps because of it – Temple B’nai Israel has become hallowed ground for this community. They just can’t seem to stay away from it! From the Board of Directors to the volunteer teachers, caretakers, cooks and handymen (and women); from Cantor to Educator; from the children and the parents or grandparents who bring them here, to a rabbi who drives two hours every other weekend so we can all celebrate or mourn together, learn together, and worship together. Surely there is excitement here, a spirit of innovation, a true miracle of survival and existence.
Temple B’nai Israel is a staple in the rich communal life of the Lakes Region of New Hampshire. Every summer, it participates in the Food Festival, offering a wide array of traditional Jewish foods. In the fall, the school children glean the fields of local farms and prepare soup for Salvation Army lunches. The annual Interfaith Thanksgiving Service will take place here, in this sanctuary, a week from this Sunday; and proceeds from tomorrow night’s performance, at the Winnipesaukee Playhouse, of the Boston College Jazz Band and Vocal Ensemble will benefit the Central New Hampshire Visiting Nurse Association and Hospice.
Services at Temple B’nai Israel are a true example of what the rabbis called not only avodat hakodesh – the sacred service – but also avodat halev – the service of the heart. And the enthusiasm shown by the children as well as adults who come here to participate in Torah study and Jewish learning only highlights the nearness of the message of Torah and Judaism to our hearts and minds.
All these – beauty of nature, a vibrant community, challenges and blessings – and yet so much more, have I found here, at Temple B’nai Israel, in Laconia, NH.
Not too long ago, a child asked me a wonderful question. “Rabbi,” he said, “how do you know that God hears our prayers?” I looked him in the eye and answered, as truthfully as I could, “Because you are here.”
My friends, I feel blessed to be here tonight with you, to participate with you in this joyful occasion. I feel blessed to have been asked to be one of a long line of rabbis who found inspiration, purpose and meaning here. I am humbled by the kindness, trust and faith you have shown me by entrusting into my hands not only your own spiritual care, but also the care and education of your children and grandchildren. It’s a gift I will always treasure.
As always, I am filled with love and gratitude to my wife, Sally; to our children Hannah and Jonathan; to our parents, family and friends for always being there for me and supporting me along my path.
I feel particularly blessed and grateful to have a role in the history of our people, to carry God’s message forward, to help bring to reality the vision of the prophet Isaiah:
“These I will bring to my holy mountain and I will give them joy in my house of prayer. Their burnt offerings and sacrifices will be accepted on my altar; for my house will be called a house of prayer for all nations” (Is. 56:7).
Thank you and may God bless us all tonight and always. Amen