Shalom, I’m Rabbi Sam. I am serving as the part-time rabbi for Congragation Bnai Jeshurun. I began in May of this year and have met many of you over Shavuot, and the several Shabbatot that I have been able to attend. At CBJ, I have found a diverse community with a desire to maintain the rich tradition of the synagogue while also wanting to grow and expand in its knowledge and service to our Heavenly Father.
I’d like to share with you a little about my background. I grew up in a very Orthodox home, and am from a rabbinical family; my brothers and father are rabbis, as were my grandfathers. While I followed in the family tradition and also became a rabbi, I veered from the rigid orthodoxy and have gone on a journey to discover a Judaism that is a blend of traditional and progressive; a Judaism that reflects our great historical knowledge but is not in conflict with our current knowledge, including the many advances we have made in medicine and science.
I am an avid hiker and find my spiritual peace in nature. I often find myself working my way up or down a mountain, a perfect metaphor for the challenges we often face. As the rabbi at CBJ, I hope to climb different kind of mountain with you; the ascent towards filling up the pews on Friday nights, reaching the peak of strengthening an interdependent community that rallies together to support each other, completing a trek that is as enjoyable for a teenager as it is for an old-timer, and to continue to rise up the steep slope towards developing a Hebrew school that is growing and reinforces our Jewish identities for the next generation. Just as Mt. Everest cannot be climbed in a single day, neither will we be able to revitalize the Shul overnight, but we can begin by setting up the base-camp – a strong foundation to begin our challenging and exciting journey together.
I am also coming from a background of working with the terminally ill for the last nine years. I have worked as a spiritual counselor for the Visiting Nurse Service of NY Hospice program, providing emotional support and spiritual guidance to families of all backgrounds dealing with terminal illness. In my work, I observe individuals who are faced with their own mortality – and they often reflect on their successes and mistakes in life. At that point, there isn’t much that can be done to rectify the past, other than to take responsibility for it, and to ask for forgiveness for wrongs done. Much better would be for a person to do this type of reflection earlier on. As Jews we have the opportunity to do this annually in preparation for the High Holidays. Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur ought to be the culmination of this reflection rather than the beginning.
It is my hope that each of you take some time to reflect on your actions over the last year, just as you might do in a performance appraisal at work – except that in this one, we are looking at our actions both as they relate to others and as they relate to G-d. We all make mistakes, we are human after all, but we can use this chance to think about how we would like to act differently in the New Year. Questions I’d like you to consider include: have I been deceitful in any of my interactions or unethical in any of my decisions, was I selfish towards others, have all my actions matched my beliefs and if not, why? These are difficult questions to answer, and many would prefer to avoid thinking about their imperfections. But is it worth it? I think so. It is the way of honest, meaningful living. It is the way of inspired ritual and intellectual satisfaction. Ultimately, it is the way of living joyously as a Jew in the New Year.
Blessings for a Shana Tova and a sweet New Year,
Rabbi Sam Kastel