The story of tonight is really the story of this community. Ours is the story of two people seeking a home of belonging, only to find it within these walls. In many ways, this is the same story that sparked this entire community. We enter now the 180th year of Congregation Rodeph Sholom. We recall a circle of 20 German Jewish immigrants sparking a center of belonging, helping cohere and acculturate those reaching for a better life. As needs and realities evolved, we would move from Clinton Street to Lexington Avenue to West 83rd Street, moving from Orthodoxy, to Conservative, and to the Reform movement. Each generation of leadership recentering on the needs and power of people daring to reach and strive together.
We recall the sounds and textures of German sermons and the slow creep of English, and then even the radical reembrace of Hebrew into our liturgy. We hold the melodies of German drinking songs, the celestial sounds of the golden age of chazanut, and the folk melodies of song sessions and communal singing. We draw on generations of clergy who challenged our structures and priorities to meet the responsibilities of helping establish the State of Israel, addressing homelessness and food insecurity in New York, and the urgency of educational excellence in our neighborhood.
More than 70 years ago, Rabbi Louis Newman wrote a reflection on the realities of his leadership. By that point, two decades into his senior rabbinate of this congregation, he said, “We are living in the era of the New Jew in a New Age…[and the task of the clergyperson is] that we may avail ourselves of the opportunities and the challenges of the new epoch.” Throughout his writings and sermons, for Rabbi Newman there were two driving purposes of 20th century American Judaism: integration into American society and the establishment of the State of Israel. Seventy years later, even amidst the continued scourge of anti-Semitism, Jews consistently poll as the most well liked religious group in America. What was then but a dream is now a new dynamic reality. Today, Jews can lead any industry and run for president without question. Israel, despite present and continual threats to her security and democracy, is a global force of might and industry. While there is plenty of work to be done, the existential purposes that defined prior generations of Jews have been achieved. Achieved because of the dedication, the courage, and the generosity of those who came before us who dared to dream.
And so, in telling this story tonight, we must center on gratitude, honoring the service and striving that brings us to this moment. We celebrate the generations of clergy – rabbis and cantors – who devoted their lives to the work of shaping this sacred community. We celebrate the generations of educators, who raised learning as our most precious investment. We celebrate our staff, security, maintenance teams, executive directors, and the myriad professionals who pour their lives into the sanctity of every space, every invoice, every phone call, knowing and believing that the grand experiment of community-creation is made by millions of dedicated moments.
The heart of this congregation, as all of our clergy and professionals know, beats because of the commitment of the community itself, those willing to be creators themselves. We honor the generations of present and past presidents, officers, trustees, committee chairs, volunteers. We celebrate each person who noticed the absence of another, each person who tried to open wider the doors of belonging, each congregant who gave and gives of themselves to the collective work of community building.
We have grown up within these walls alongside colleagues and congregants, our Rodeph Sholom family. What you may not realize is how much we ourselves needed this, needed a home that reminds us of the best of human capacity, a place that taught us what it really means to belong. This place is what it is because of each of you, each person who makes CRS a priority, and we want you to know that we see you and are grateful for you.
We are regularly inspired and supported by so many friends and colleagues beyond these walls – those who model for us faith and fortitude, love and laughter. From so many walks and stripes and backgrounds, we are blessed by study partners, kindred spirits, and the many who make up our larger sense of belonging.
We are grateful to our parents, our siblings, our families of origin, some of whom are here with us tonight in body, others in spirit and memory– you supported us on rather atypical life journeys, witnessing our wanderings and searchings, and helping us believe in the paths we choose to follow.
We are supported and nurtured by our respective families, as well as the larger Spratt-De Lowe family unit. To our incredible wives, Micah and Melissa, we know that what you give and do on any given day makes all of this possible. With all that your careers, our families, and our craziness demands of both of you, you rise and inspire us to keep reaching and dreaming. To our beloved children, Ayalah, Jonah, Amichai, and Noa, thank you for being you—for loving us and each other the way you do, for being our beacons of hope when we need it most, and for bringing so much joy into our hearts and homes.
The story of tonight is the story of transformation. In many ways we stand before you as examples of the transformation of our Jewish world and community. We are the Utah-and Missouri-born rabbi and cantor who hail from mixed-faith families. We lack the pedigree of multi-generational Jewish movement connections, but we bear the example of our families modelling for us how to build meaningful Jewish experience ourselves. Prior generations might not have imagined that a former farm girl and a former yeshiva boy would be the ones standing here tonight. This story, the story of us rising as the Senior clergy of this institution…it is a story that could not have been told at any other time in our history.
We stand here at the dawn of an American Jewish awakening, with a new set of challenges and opportunities, a new landscape before us. American Judaism is becoming more diverse, more cultural, more spiritual, more Jewishly proud, with more complex perspectives about American politics, justice, Israel, and ritual than any prior generation.
As conversions to Judaism rise, as new approaches to Jewish learning and life and community bloom, as Jewish communities are comprised of people who are Jewish, Jewishly adjacent, Jewishly-curious, or not Jewish but living with Jewish values and tools, we need a new driving purpose. Our world is changing at an accelerating rate. More than ever, a wisdom tradition of depth and complexity may give us a compass that sets our sights on a shared horizon. In a world of division and fragmentation, when thickness of relationship is rare and pandemic has driven distance, we believe Rodeph Sholom is poised to be a shining beacon for a new chapter. We will build on our legacy of opening wider our doors of belonging. We will support the lives and the spirits of those in our community by offering Jewish tools as a pathway to thrive.
We will see rising generations as trusted leaders and no longer as wayward seekers. We will position Rodeph Sholom as a platform; yes, a house in which people find belonging, but also bringing belonging out into every home. We will raise wisdom and justice as pathways for all who seek. We will see relationship as our most precious blessing and our most necessary responsibility. We will draw on our history and tradition to shape a vibrant vision, one that makes hope a purposeful practice, and empowers us all to live out our namesake: Rodeph Sholom, pursuers of wholeness. We continue the story that birthed this 180-year-old experiment: in seeking belonging, in opening wider our walls, in showcasing the prophetic vision of this being a home for all. And we shape this next chapter, together.