By Jill Abromowitz Gutmann
As the Spring blossoms fill the air with the fresh scent of another season arriving, I take in the smell and grin. It is the last season for the Gutmann clan to experience the completion of our first year in our new home at Temple Beth Zion and in metro Buffalo. Being new to a community is not new to me. Aside from my childhood spent mainly in Southwestern Ohio, I have never really known permanence. I have mostly known change.
But I have also known home in many places-while living in a picturesque town in New England as a college student; experiencing the cherry blossoms, the mountains and excitement of South Korea; observing the honking of horns, cows and chaos of South India; and taking in the gray skies and magnificent buildings of Prague.
I have known home in the winding paths of Jerusalem when my husband Brent was a new rabbinical student. I have known home in the monsoons of July in rural south Thailand. I have known home in the perfect sunset over Lake Michigan in Petoskey, Michigan when Brent was a student Rabbi. I have known home being a young mother and graduate student in Cincinnati and making a home for our first daughter. I have known home in the natural beauty and wonder of New Zealand with Brent while he served his first pulpit in Auckland and we were blessed with our second child, and I have known home in the calm of West Bloomfield, Michigan, where we became a complete family of six, adding two more daughters and honing the craft of becoming a rabbinic family. I have known these places as home as a young woman, as a newlywed, as a mother and as a Jewish professional and ethicist.
In Genesis 12:1: God said to Abram, “Go forth from your native land and from your father’s house to the land that I will show you.” The trust Sarah and Abram needed to leave their family and their roots and to start on a journey to a new place which they did not know was profound. They had to trust in God that their new home would provide for their family and help them flourish into the great nation which they were promised. And the nation they created was from their new home, made by taking that leap of faith, trusting in the unknown. As we, too, had to uproot our family a year ago and start anew, I often think of Sarah and Abram and their uncertainty and excitement in the chance for a new opportunity full of potential blessings.
In our new home, our new place, we have been blessed with many opportunities to bring life, creativity and energy back to the community that has been at the heart of Jewish Buffalo for nearly 174 years. Temple Beth Zion to many has been their spiritual home for generations but for us it is our new home. Sitting in the sanctuary and looking at the magnificent stained glass designed by Ben Shahn in the building designed by Max Abramowitz, one cannot sit without awe while at the same time immediately realizing this place matters, this community matters.
A month ago, I was sitting with a volunteer from First Shiloh Baptist Church in a moment of calm before the Freedom Seder and she said this place makes you want to scream, Hallelujah! A few weeks later, at the conclusion of the Buffalo International Jewish Film Festival, the Buffalo Philharmonic Choir sang Leonard Cohen’s song, “Hallelujah” and I thought, how right she was. Home is in this space that makes you want to sing Hallelujah!
In this week’s Torah portion, Acharei-Kedoshim we are in the heart of the book of Leviticus, which includes the section known as the “Holiness Code”. Chapter 19 says, “Speak to the whole Israelite community and say to them: You shall be holy, for I, your God יהוה, am holy.” This statement sets the tone for the entire portion, which contains a list of laws and commandments that are meant to guide us towards a life of holiness. But what does it mean to be holy?
The Hebrew word for holiness is kedushah, which comes from the root word “k-d-sh,” meaning separate or set apart. Holiness, therefore, is the state of being set apart from the mundane and the profane, and dedicating oneself to a higher purpose focused on ethical behavior. The commandments that follow are focused on how we treat one another, and how we conduct ourselves in the world. These commandments are not just about following rules, but about cultivating a mindset of compassion, integrity, and kindness.
As we strive towards holiness, it is important to remember that it is not a solitary pursuit. The call is for the entire community to support one another in our journeys towards holiness. It is through our interactions with others that we can practice understanding, forgiveness, and empathy, and create a world for which we aspire. So too, it is through focusing on holiness that we can focus on what it means to be “A Home” set apart from trivial matters that focuses on being open and inclusive and celebrating our community.
I think about the Young Family Shabbat services we have been holding every third Friday night filled with children dancing and with a meal shared and prepared by our own community in the TBZ kitchen. I also think about working side by side with our new sisters and brothers from First Shiloh and Temple Beth Zion, making matzo balls with collard greens for the joint seder meal at our first Freedom Seder. I think about welcoming new families as well as established ones with open arms to Shabbat services. I think about the Holocaust Resource Center’s Yom HaShoah commemoration, to the community Earth Day festivities, to celebrating the opening of the reimagined Cofeld Museum. I think about the installation ceremony that will be on Friday, May 19th when my husband will be officially installed to be the leader of our new spiritual home.
As my family and I settle into our home in Buffalo and lay down roots, we think of our collective call to action to be holy. For it is in being a part of this warm and constantly evolving community and engaging with all of our diverse neighbors that we will truly be home. In doing the work of creating a Holy Community, we are fostering the home we aspire to that will make all who enter its doors sing, Hallelujah!
Jill Abromowitz Gutmann is proud to lay down roots in her new home of Buffalo. Jill is a mother, bioethicist, rebbetzin, adult educator and foodie.