Sermon: Last Service B'nai Jacob (Ottumwa Synagogue)

Sermon Ottumwa
Rabbi Esther Hugenholtz

Counting In

This beautiful synagogue here in Ottumwa has a meandering history, carried on the ebb and flow of Jewish demographics in the American Midwest. The Ottumwa Jewish community, as many of you know far better than I do, was founded in the late 19th century, in 1898. This beautiful sanctuary, however, wasn’t built until 1915, for the grand total of $10,000. Upon its inauguration, the local newspaper reported that both ‘Gentile joined with Jew Sunday to observe the dedication of the newly erected synagogue of the congregation of B’nai Jacob.’ It was a real milestone for a community whose numbers had fluctuated and would continue to fluctuate. At the time of the dedication of this prayer space, the community numbered 412 souls, its demographic peak, up from 15 members only a decade earlier. Hence, I imagine the building of the Ottumwa synagogue to have been a fairly risky and daring endeavor (can you imagine those board meeting?): no-one knew whether the numbers would hold steady or even grow.

This fortuitous moment which allowed this brave and visionary men and women to build their building didn’t last. After only a few decades, decline became evident. In the 1930’s and 40’s, the membership numbered around 250 and would continue to fall over the next 80 years.
And now, today, we are here to fulfil a difficult and heartbreaking mitzvah: to accompany this community to its dignified end, to provide good Jewish homes for its sacred scrolls and other implements and to cherish and treasure over a century of memories, of simchas and tzuris. The Ottumwa community is older than our relatively ‘young’ Agudas Achim, and so the younger sibling is called to minister to its older sibling.

Being here today is bound to engender mixed feelings: the vibrant joy of reconvening one final time and sanctifying this beautiful space with our prayers, friendship and laughter. The wistful sadness of loss and transition that comes with decommissioning a building and dissolving its community. It is a very bitter-sweet day, more bitter for those of us who grew up roaming and loving this space. It is heartbreaking to conclude that a community cannot carry this burden anymore; yet it is also heartwarming to know that there are people here today dedicated to celebrate the life of B’nai Jacob.

It seems apt, somehow, in the light of this week’s Torah Portion, Bamidbar, that the congregation was called ‘B’nai Jacob’ – the Sons of Jacob. After all, the portion opens with a census: the Israelite tribes – literally the Sons of Jacob – are counted and accounted for. The beginning of the Book of Numbers is the beginning of our wilderness journey with all its attendant ambivalence.

Numbers is not an optimistic book nor is it a pessimistic one: rather, it is frank in its record and understanding of human nature, in its scrutiny of the human condition, including the Israelite propensity to kvetch, kvetch and kvetch. (Plus ca change…). This ambivalence is built into the text: if Genesis concerned itself with the creation of the world and a covenant family and Exodus concerned itself with the creation of a people, then Leviticus concerned itself with the creation of a religion. Numbers, on the other hand, forces us to contend with human nature: with our fears, anxieties and dreams, as we stand on the verge of the Promised Land. Yet between the rebellion and the incessant complaining, Numbers demonstrates to us that all these emotions count. What people felt in the book of Numbers was real. What people feel today is equally real.

If we re-examine the portion, it is mainly composed of this census, this counting of Jews. Counting, like Bamidbar, like this very day, is a curious and ambiguous act. When we count people, do we objectify them or do we acknowledge them? Is it a way to pay attention to individuality or a way to generalize groups? The Jewish tradition wrestles with that dichotomy: there is a custom, after all, not to count Jews for a minyan but to say ‘baruch ata Adonai eloheinu melech ha’olam hamotzi lechem min ha’aretz’ – 10 words exactly. And yet, we rely on a minyan – a counted, fixed, pre-determined number – to make sacred community.

Likewise, Rashi insists that God counted Israel in Bamidbar out of God’s love for them. This tribal headcount renders us a surprisingly accurate number (although it only represented adult men): 603,550.

Like Bamidbar, we today can count. Not to count people out, but as a desire to count in. To be accountable, to be visible and to be acknowledged in the many contributions you have made to this community. Counting and being counted is hard: we Jews tend to be obsessed with numbers – with our demographics – for good reasons. (We are only 0.2% of the world’s population: even the category of ‘other religions’ in demographic pie charts is bigger than we are!) Yet, in the pursuit of numbers, we can forget our value: that each and every of us impacts not only the Jewish past but also the Jewish future. That each and everyone of us matters. That our overrepresentation in current affairs, history, economics, literature, science, the arts, politics should be a source of pride despite our small numbers. Our voice, small though it is, carries far.

There is an interesting occurrence in the portion, in Chapter 3. Once the Israelites and their households have been counted and once they have been allocated their place in the camp, we zoom in on one particular family: that of Moses. ‘V’eleh toldot Aharon u’Moshe beyom diber Adonai et Mosheh be’har Sinai: v’eleh shemot b’nei Aharon hab’chor Nadav va’Avihu, Elezar v’Itamar… Vayamot Nadav va’Avihu lifnie Adonai behakrivam eish zarah lifnei Adonai b’midbar Sinai ‘banim lo haiu lahem.” – “This is the line of Aaron and Moses at the time that the Eternal spoke with Moses on Mout Sinai. These were the names of Aaron’s sons: Nadab, the first born, and Abihu, Eleazar and Ithamar…. But Nadab and Abihu died by the will of the Eternal when they offered alien fie before the Eternal in the wilderness of Sinai and they left no sons.” (Num. 3:1-4)

There is something very touching about this commemoration of Nadav and Avihu. We learn multiple times, that they were at fault and died on account of their sin. And yet, we refuse to forget them. We do not silence their voice or erase their memory. Their loss is palpable and heartfelt and honored in the community that once nurtured them. There is an acknowledgement that among the anonymous reams and reams of numbers, there are individuals. There are stories. There are formative moments, for better or ill, that have shaped Jewish lives and Jewish histories. And we, the Jewish People, with our portable religion, will carry those stories on in our hearts. Although Nadav and Avihu did not have children, their story lives on. Although B’nai Jacob will not continue in its present form, we too, will place the sacred fragments of this beautiful community in our collective ark and carry it with us into our own Jewish future.

And so we journey on, with our ambivalence, sadness and joy. With the acknowledgement of what we have lost and the gratitude of what we can take with us. We are an ancient and venerable People.
Our Covenant lives, as it has done, for 3500 years, and within that Covenant, within that sacred community that received Torah, and will receive Torah tomorrow, at Sinai, dwell these stories. Stories of bravery, of chutzpah, of hope against hope. Of Jews coming together and moving apart, of Jews reassembling pieces of this story and holding it in our hearts forever more, ledor vador.

B’nai Jacob, we will hold you in our hearts forever more.

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