Home > D'vrei Torah > “This Synagogue is a Zoo”- D’var Torah 8-15-09; Parashat Re-eh

“This Synagogue is a Zoo”- D’var Torah 8-15-09; Parashat Re-eh

This is a d’var torah that I presented at Shir Chadash on August 15, 2009. It was the final Shabbat before our new Rabbi started. Over the previous year, I, along with another congregant and two Rabbinical students, were alternating leading services. Finally, the year had come to an end, and we had one last Shabbat on our own. In this d’var torah, I attempted to discuss my family’s month-long trip to Israel, give a plug for visiting Israel, and wrap-up the long transition which the synagogue was undergoing.  I was pretty proud of how it turned out. No animals were harmed in the making of this d’var torah.

Will & Baby at the Biblical Zoo

At the Biblical Zoo, Jerusalem

This Synagogue is a Zoo

A few months ago, as Jennifer and I were planning our Israel trip, we decided that it would be a good idea to study some Hebrew. I have a decent vocabulary but after every Israel trip that I take, I always say ok, before the next trip I’m going to take a Hebrew class. Never happens. So, we found an online Hebrew course that offered a series of lessons, and we decided we would do a lesson every day in advance of the trip. We got up to lesson number 4. Much like how I do with exercise programs, we kind of put it on the back burner after the first week.

This lack of Hebrew was evident when we got in a taxi one morning and we told the driver we’re going to the zoo. Unfortunately, he didn’t know the English word “zoo.” So, I had to very quickly attempt to explain a zoo with the limited knowledge of Hebrew that I had. I wanted to say “the place with all of the animals,” except in the spur of the moment I could only remember one animal in Hebrew.  So I said “Kelevim” of course meaning “dogs.” Then I remembered “Sus” means horse and “dag” means fish.  So in my pidgin Hebrew I asked to go the place where they have all of the dogs, horses, and fish. So the cab driver dropped us off at the Korean restaurant.

Fortunately, the cab driver was able to figure out what I was talking about and he taught me the Hebrew word for zoo is “Gan hayot”   Literally, garden of animals. So he brought us to the Jerusalem Biblical Zoo which is now known as the Tisch Family Zoological Gardens.

The zoo, which opened its new modern facility in 1993, stands on 62 acres and has become one of the top attractions in Israel.  It’s a beautifully landscaped open site that blends into the countryside and onto the Jerusalem hills. There are two main levels and lots of side paths that take you to all of the exhibits. It’s perfect for strollers and wheelchairs—you can get to everything without having to go up any steps, and on a given day the zoo is filled with people. Israelis, Arabs, Secular, Ultra-Orthodox, kids, grandparents. It’s an enclave within Jerusalem where everybody is there to relax and have fun—to walk around, have a picnic, fly a kite, see the animals, or just hang out enjoying the people you’re with.  It’s a place where people of all races and nationalities can take a break and relax.

There are two main themes in the zoo- It features animals from around the world that are in danger of becoming extinct. Asian elephants, rare macaws, cockatoos, penguins, red pandas, and of course a lot more, although there were no dogs or horses. But mainly, it’s a Biblical Zoo, so it features animals that are mentioned in the bible including lions, beers, cheetahs, types of deer, oryx, gazelles, Ibex, and birds; many exhibits have the biblical quotations that feature the animals. What’s an Oryx? It’s a type of antelope. It has majestic horns that could appear as a unicorn-  it’s mentioned in our Psalm for Shabbat, Psalm 92, “you have exalted my horns like that of an oryx.”

Of course, we have many animals that are mentioned in this week’s torah portion. As Moses is recapping the laws to the people of Israel, he takes special care to list the types of animals that are allowed and prohibited. Oxen, sheep, gazelles, wild goats, roebucks and antelopes were all okay, although, he said, good luck finding kosher antelope at Joel’s. Any clean bird was okay except for eagles, vultures, falcons, buzzards, owl, stork, or bats among others.

So what do you do? You take this torah portion and go to the Jerusalem Zoo and you play a game about the animals—what’s kosher, what’s not. You track down and study the biblical references where the animals appear. Or, you don’t and you just walk around—that’s okay too, although you miss a prime learning opportunity.  But that’s the amazing thing about Israel—everywhere is a prime learning opportunity. You’re walking in the steps of 1000s of years of history of the major religions in the world, but you’re also walking on steps that are designed with the future in mind. You can spend hours in the zoo studying about Judaism but you also have to marvel about the ingenuity of the zoo’s design. Because as you’re walking along the paths seeing the exhibits, you’re looking above at new residential complexes. You’re walking below looking at the valley and out toward the desert, and you’re looking around at opportunity.  700,000 people visited the zoo in 2007; that’s more than the # that visited the Audubon Zoo that year—they only welcomed 628,000 visitors.  The Jerusalem zoo was designed to be able to expand in its current location; the Municipal Planning Committee recently approved plans to expand the zoo from its current 62 acres to almost 100 acres.

And that, my friends, is the beauty of Israel. Every time I go there are new buildings, hotels, attractions, restaurants, shopping—there’s a new high-end shopping mall that connects King David Street to the Jaffa Gate of the Old City. Thursday nights, the mall is packed with shoppers enjoying live music, clowns, street performers, and fireworks. I find it fitting for the Jewish state that the most convenient pat

From the Haas Promenade, Jerusalem

From the Haas Promenade, Jerusalem

h to the Old City goes through a shopping mall. There are building cranes everywhere. Sitting on the patio of one of the mall’s restaurants, we could see 9 cranes in downtown Jerusalem. That is progress.

Israel has mastered the art of honoring its history while securing its future. Think about the zoo—preserving animals that are in danger of becoming extinct—teaching about their role in the Bible- in our recorded Jewish history while at the same time doing all of this in a state of the art facility with room to grow. It’s not easy taking care of all of these animals- Jennifer and I have enough trouble taking care of a dog. The animals in the zoo—they’re all coming from different parts of the world, all with different backgrounds, all wanting something different to eat, and all wanting different climates. It’s too hot, it’s too cold, it’s too sunny over here, it’s too shady, it’s too dark, why are there so many lights in here, why are the chairs set up this way? Hmmmm. It’s like running a zoo is a lot like running a synagogue. All of our members have different needs and desires and it’s up to us as a synagogue to ensure that we succeed in our goal of pleasing all of the people none of the time.  Or something like that.

Friends, this Shabbat marks the end of a long chapter in the history of our synagogue. Chuck was pretty happy at the board meeting this past week. He said there wasn’t a lot to talk about. Our new Educational Director is in place. Our new Rabbi starts next week. Our building renovations are complete. We have a workable budget in place for the coming year. We’re preparing for the High Holidays that mark the start of our celebration of fifty years of Conservative Judaism in New Orleans. And most importantly, Elliot and I are preparing for our new positions of Pseudo-Rabbis Emeritus.

It has been an honor and a pleasure serving in this role over the last year. I feel fortunate to have had the opportunity and I have enjoyed the challenge of coming up with divrei torah, sermons, and Shabbatainment over this past year. I hope I can speak for Elliot when I say that he and I have strived each in our own ways to conduct services that were spiritual and comfortable, and while we know our methods may not be all things to all congregants, our aims have been twofold: to preserve our synagogue’s great history and traditions while attempting to bring a new song to our worship. Together, we thank Julie for chairing the Ritual Committee, Hugo for arranging all of the divrei torah over the last year, everybody who has participated in services, and all of the members of the Ritual Committee for their hard work in making this last year run smoothly.

I feel fortunate that growing up in this synagogue has given me the skills and abilities to be a non-Rabbi. I credit my parents for making it a priority to bring me here growing up and encouraging me to get involved and to lead by example with their many roles in synagogue leadership.  I think about all that I’ve learned here in forty years and how that knowledge plays a role in almost everything that I’ve done. This synagogue is a pretty special place- and we can all be pretty proud of what we’ve been able to accomplish over the last year and how we’ve promoted Conservative Judaism over the last 50 years. Just as they’ve done in Israel, as we’ve honored our history, we’ve built for the future.

The future starts next week for this synagogue under the leadership of Rabbi Linden and Liba Kornfeld and I look forward to seeing the role that the two of them will play in {our daughter’s} Jewish development just as our previous Rabbis and Educational Directors have had on mine.  We’re not going to see miracles. We’re not going to have 400 members next week and a religious school of 150 all of a sudden. We’re not going to have a bunch of babies flying all around the room. Yet- but there might be some safety issues. We need to give Rabbi and Liba our support and work with them so that they can feel comfortable in their roles. We can’t expect them to have all of the answers especially when we don’t know all of the questions. But we can look forward to a new spark, a new light, and a new song in our congregation.

Our parsha this morning is Re’eh- “to see” but that can mean much more—to feel, to touch, to hear, to taste, to experience. To have hindsight and foresight. Moses is instructing the people of Israel how to live their lives in holiness- learning from their ancestors while foreshadowing how they’re supposed to live in the Promised Land. Travelling around Israel, there is so much to see and so much that is unseen—the history of our people that lies around us and the vision of a Jewish state for all of us to experience. On this Shabbat, may G-d open our eyes so that we can look around and see each of us as a building block in time. Together, may we build a “Gan Neshamot”- a Garden of Souls that honors the past and prepares for the future for the sake of our synagogue, for Israel, and for the Jewish people.  Amen.

Will Samuels
Shir Chadash, Metairie, LA
August 15, 2009

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