Rabbi Jason Nevarez Opening Reflections – 2.11.20
It is so wonderful to be here with all of you this evening. I’m aware that I only have a few minutes with you before we dive deeper into some Q and A. With that in mind, I would like to offer some brief reflections, grounded in this week’s Torah portion, entitled Yitro, which comes from the Book of Exodus, aptly synchronous for the moment in which we find ourselves gathered this evening. This week’s portion consists of two episodes that appear to be a study in contrasts. In the first, Yitro, (Jethro) Moses’ father-in-law, a Midianite priest, gives Moses his first lesson in leadership. In the second, God, at Mount Sinai, makes a covenant with the Israelites. For the first and only time in history God appears to an entire people, making a covenant with them and giving them the world’s most famous code of ethics, the Ten Commandments. Without doubt, we can identify contrasts in these two episodes, yet there is one theme in common to Jethro and the revelation at Sinai: The Israelites are called upon to be a nation of servant-leaders. Both through the systems Jethro would guide Moses in establishing, and by virtue of the covenant, the Israelites have been called upon to accept responsibility not only for themselves and their families, but for the moral-spiritual state of the nation as a whole.
This is the principle that later became known as kol Yisrael arevin zeh ba-zeh, “All of Israel is responsible one for another.” Jews are the nation people, where every individual is expected to be both a prince and a servant, that is to say, every one of whom is called on to be a leader. Never was leadership more profoundly democratized. And to be perfectly honest, that’s why the Jewish people have been historically hard to lead as well! I share this, as I believe my rabbinate, to date, has been reflective of helping individuals find their path in both serving and leading the Jewish people. It’s enveloped in the sacred obligation of impacting lives and facilitating change, striving to uncover new and meaningful ways to make Judaism relevant in a world where competing priorities and value shifts are the constant climate.
My rabbinate has also been grounded in teaching Torah in the broadest of senses…so that the wisdom from our teachings can offer us guidance in order to, as I like to say, “walk the talk”. By walking the talk, our teachings become actionable and illuminate the Divine in each of us. Whether helping those less fortunate, honoring teammates on the sports field,becoming an ‘upstander’ when we see someone being bullied, or exposing injustices that go against our ethical and moral imperatives; even in those everyday moments of interacting with the attendant at the gas station or simply communicating with family and friends, we all have the opportunity to serve and to lead, and I am hopeful to help bring you along on this journey.
In conversations with members of the Beth Israel community throughout these past 6 months, I have come to appreciate how much of my rabbinic vision allies so organically with your own hopes for the future of this beautiful congregation. I am incredibly excited to have the opportunity to not only teach and guide, but to learn from all of you here at Beth Israel as I enter this next chapter of my own rabbinate. From the very first virtual interactions with search co-chairs, BI President Kim Carnot and Allison Golding, I felt an overwhelming sense of bashert “destiny”, a feeling that Beth Israel was a beautiful match for my family and I. What I experienced throughout the interview process was a deeply compelling community, richly diverse, energetically and geographically expansive, and one that confirmed my initial impressions.
During my visit to campus and in the ensuing months, I came to learn that nearly 160 years of institutional history here has served to amplify the imprint of Jewish life in San Diego. As I engaged with the incredibly devoted staff and passionate lay leaders, I witnessed, first-hand, that legacy come to life. I had rich encounters with your wonderful clergy – Rabbi Cantor Arlene Bernstein and Rabbi Jeremy Gimbel. In each interaction, I become even more eager to be in thought-partnership and collaboration with them. In meeting and talking with Lesley Mills, Executive Director, it was clear that this community has only benefited from her incredible skill and wisdom, and I would as well. And to the many others I have already met, I have felt the love, care, and excitement shared in each of the roles they play. I am captivated by the notion of helping to lead this strong, vibrant community into its next chapter, to build off its many successes and form new connections in order to remain relevant in a time of a fast-paced and changing Jewish landscape. I am very excited to begin that journey with you!
I am aware that this born-and-bred New Yorker will take some time to get adjusted to life in Southern California, but something tells me…my family and I will be just fine! I am excited about the connections my wife, Nicole, and I have already made in the greater San Diego Jewish community, ever-aware that my (and our) transition time will be spent learning the rhythms of SoCal Jewish life. I am hopeful, however, that elements of my east coast, New Yorker upbringing and tenure there will offer some expansion of Jewish thinking that will serve to benefit Beth Israel!
Whether we find ourselves in the roles of service, leadership, or simply belonging, we can all heed the words of Rabbi Zalman who once said: “A little bit of light dispels a lot of darkness”. We know the power of darkness—it is in the news every day, and cycles through our Jewish communities in various ways. Yet, our tradition teaches that a thousand times more is the power of light. A busy person stopping to do an act of kindness or learn some Torah on Shabbat morning, youth and teens singing joyfully to welcome in the New Year, or synagogue volunteers serving lunch to hundreds of San Diego’s homeless and hungry on Sunday mornings at St. Vincent de Paul Village – each of these are as bursts of light in the nighttime sky.
It would be my honor and privilege to share so many of life’s moments with you as your next Senior Rabbi, knowing I stand on the shoulders of those who precede me. As I anticipate assuming a new mantle of leadership here at Beth Israel, like our Torah teaches us this week, may we begin to, concurrently, create covenant with one another.
I look forward to learning how Beth Israel already amplifies its bright light, and how we, together, can build on that light in powerful and transformative ways.
Kein Y’hi Ratzon – May this be God’s will – Amen.
Rabbi Nevarez’s Closing Remarks – 2.11.20
Thank you for your confidence in me as I assume the role of your new Senior Rabbi.
As I share a few thoughts and my excitement for the short and long term, I want to first express my gratitude to a few individuals – to Kim, Allison, and the Phase II Search Committee – thank you for your thoughtfulness to attention to every detail and question you have given to this process (in truth, I am probably more vetted than an NSA agent!)
I always appreciated your communications, your deep and thoughtful questions, and above all, transparency. To the board – thank you for putting your trust in the Search Committee (though I know some of you are part), and for sharing your great service to this community. To Lesley, thank you for your thoughtfulness and kindness throughout – it is and has been greatly appreciated.
To my new clergy partners, Acting Senior Rabbi Cantor Bernstein and Rabbi Gimbel – you have been nothing but welcoming, approachable, and kind. Your menschlekite is ever-present. To Robyn Spiegel – thank you for being our family’s go to from early on – we value what has already become a fast and rich friendship. To all of the staff I have already connected with and those I have yet to meet, thank you for adding your passion, spirit, and skill into what helps make Beth Israel an amazing community.
To those I mentioned and to all of you, who are present here today or with us in spirit, thank you for putting your trust in me as we embark on this new chapter in the life of the congregation. Not only am I extremely excited, but I continue to be in awe by the wealth of activity offered that makes Jewish life and living both accessible and relevant in 2020. I plan to be back with you next month, as Nicole and I continue to search for a home, as well as to begin to know you and for you to know me! I am passionate about learning your life story…commonalities we might share, as well as the opportunities and challenges that lie ahead of us. Please know that this relational sharing will continue in both informal and intentional ways and settings throughout the foreseeable future. I am excited to work with our transition committee, as they help guide me and us in opportunities to begin and further our dialogue. I also plan to work with other senior staff and lay partners to continue strengthening our clergy and staff teams, and will also begin to engage new and existing community partners. I hope you will model the pace and patience of San Diego living as my family and I acclimate to the Beth Israel community and San Diego living in general! By the way – my family and I welcome thoughts and substantive advice on all things San Diego! As I wrote in the conversation materials you received last week, I envision Beth Israel as a 21st Century laboratory for animating Jewish life, THE go-to address for progressive and inspirational Judaism; where our doors remain wide open. Over these coming months, I invite you to think deep about what you want and hope from your clergy and synagogue community in 2020 and beyond. In Pirke Avot, the Ethics of our Fathers, we learn: “Aseh L’cha Rav, u’knei l’cha haver – Make for yourself a teacher, and gain a friend.” the Maharal explains, “Make for yourself a Rav” in Rabbinic tradition, refers to the fact that a person should learn from all people. Therefore, each person you meet can become your teacher, and you, theirs.
As we conclude this evening, I invite my clergy partners to join with me, as we come together in a song and prayer….Oseh Shalom. We recite and sing these words in each of our services… more than once. It’s the last line of the Kaddish prayer that separates the sections of our service and ends the liturgy as we remember those who have passed on. By reciting these words, we honor those individuals as our teachers who we learn from.
May the One who makes peace in the heavens above bring peace upon us, upon Israel, and many of us add to the passage, “and upon all the world.” The rabbis who wrote this prayer looked heavenward and saw the many celestial bodies hurling through space, seeming to co-exist harmoniously and prayed that inspiration could serve as a model for the people on earth. Beth Israel is woven by a tapestry of individuals who span ethnicities, races, ancestral cultures, even faith backgrounds. Our harmony may not equal that of the stars in heaven, but we have and will experience many beautiful moments of people coming together, cooperating and working for the betterment of our world. And we learn from one another while doing so….oseh shalom.