PHOTOS: Congregation Shaarie Torah’s kindness webpage features videos of President Joe Biden speaking about the need for acts of kindness during a message about the High Holidays, and of Rabbi Gary Oren issuing a kindness challenge to the congregation in his first Rosh Hashanah sermon since becoming Shaarie Torah rabbi.
BY DEBORAH MOON
In his first Rosh Hashanah sermon at Congregation Shaarie Torah, Rabbi Gary Ezra Oren challenged congregants to perform 18,000 mitzvot or “regular acts of kindness” in 5782.
“In our world, a little kindness can really make someone’s day, and a lot of kindness can restore hope, joy and possibility,” says Rabbi Oren, who took the reins of the 116-year-old Conservative congregation July 1.
“When I said 18,000 in 5782, there was a ‘wow’ gasp in the sanctuary,” says the rabbi. “It’s a lot, but it’s not that much for our whole community.”
The pandemic has limited in-person attendance at services. On the first day of Rosh Hashanah, about 70 people spread out in the sanctuary that holds more than 700. About 315 streamed the services on the website with 150 clicking on the Facebook stream. So to ensure all congregants know about the challenge, the congregation is promoting it on its website at shaarietorah.org/regular-acts-of-kindness and has emailed all congregants.
The webpage notes: We’ve all heard of Random Acts of Kindness, but we want these to become part of the fabric of our everyday experience and to acknowledge the power of this work in the world, so we’re choosing to call them Regular instead of Random.”
Everyone is encouraged to log each regular act of kindness on the page. By Sept. 10, several people had posted kindness acts. One teen picked up books and supplies a schoolmate dropped and said they could tell that the person was having a really bad day, and it seemed to help. Another congregant smiled and complimented everyone they saw in the grocery store. One person paid for the coffee of the person in line behind them at the drive-through.
Rabbi Oren says he was inspired to issue the challenge because, “The world seems so uncertain and scary right now, and I know that sometimes that means we can close down and circle the wagons.” He adds that he already has received positive feedback. “People have said that a little moments of goodness go a long way, and that they’re going to find ways to do it.”
He also was inspired by the Gidi Kindness Project, started by friends after their son, Gidi, died in a tragic boating accident 5 years ago just a few days before his 5th birthday. Every year at his yarhzeit the family asks friends to perform random acts of kindness to spread love and joy and Gidi magic.
In his sermon and on the website, Rabbi Oren references the poem U’netanah Tokef, which is read on Rosh Hashanah. The poem asks many questions about what will befall us humans in this next year.
“U’nataneh Tokef teaches that the decree is written – it is called being human – with all the good parts and all the hard parts, including the fact that we are vulnerable and have limited control over such huge forces in our lives,” says Rabbi Oren. “The prayer insists that while we don’t have total control, we do have power to mitigate the decree for some through teshuvah (kind responses), tefillah (mindful introspection) and tzedakah (pursuing justice with our time, talents and treasure).”
The webpage contains an extract from the rabbi’s sermon about the poem. “This poem also reminds us that what we can control is how we act and respond to life in and around those big moments. We get an opportunity every day to be someone who is kind, who is helpful and thoughtful, and there are thousands of little moments to do this. These little moments can add up to changing these bigger moments, possibly even altering/mitigating the intensity of the human condition for ourselves and for others. Sometimes we can impact those around us with our acts that ripple bigger than anything we can know.”