Power Outages, Eternal Lights, and The Return Home

Bima at Congregation Beth Tikvah

This was not the fast we desired. 13ish minutes before Yom Kippur morning services were set to begin, the power went out. An electrical transformer exploded down the block, leaving us in the dark while on the precipice of a full day seeking Divine Light and transformation.

Only one outlet on the stage at the rented middle school auditorium we use for the High Holidays had emergency power. That one outlet was powering one thing only: the Ner Tamid, the Eternal Light, the Ner Tamid that sits atop the handmade portable ark that a congregant made. The fake Ner Tamid that is actually a halloween decoration but is surprisingly convincing as a Ner Tamid.

By the light of that fake Ner Tamid, clergy and lay leaders huddled to discuss what to do. A decision about what course to take needed to be made, and quickly.

You see, we use the rented auditorium for Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur each year because our building, while warm and lovely and comfortable and beautiful and home, presents challenges for bathrooms and parking that only a large amount of expendible dollars (cough cough) can overcome. The synagogue and the rented auditorium are 15 minutes away from one another, and the gates of time to decide our path forward were rapidly closing. Would we stay where we are and pray that the lights come back on? Or, would we decide to change course?

This Yom Kippur, would we wait for outside forces to determine our path, or would we take decisive action and change course ourselves? Changing course would be difficult, as it always is. But it was what this Yom Kippur called for. Standing in front of the only working light, the fake Ner Tamid, we decided to return. Home. To the synagogue.

Decades old protocols of behavior had to be shattered in order to return. Returning, we figured, would lessen the severity of the decree of being powerless over not having electrical power. Torah scrolls were quickly and lovingly wrapped in tallitot and placed in cars, buckled in for the ride home. Machzorim were put in boxes and congregants loaded their hearts and their trunks with our books and all they contain. When I left the middle school, there was a line of cars at the entrance waiting to be filled with supplies. Tallitot, kippot, my notes (Baruch Hashem), yizkor books, machzorim, the Cantor’s giant shofar that he can blow for longer than a minute at each Tekiah G’dolah, even the mats that soften the floor under my feet. They all made it home.

A congregant volunteered to stay at the middle school to redirect latecomers to change course. Navigation systems were reset to a new destination this Yom Kippur. The path that congregants thought they were on shifted quickly. Congregants recalibrated to find community, prayer, and Tshuva happening in real time.

In my kittel, with my kippah and tallis still on, I drove to the synagogue on Yom Kippur. I called our office administrator from the car and said, “Hello! Yes, it’s the rabbi calling you on Yom Kippur. Yes, I know it’s 9:02 and we were supposed to start at 9. I need you to please email the congregation NOW and tell them that everything all day is being shifted to the synagogue and send a new streaming link. Tell ’em the power was out at the middle school, and that we will start at 10AM instead of 9. Yes, the study session, healing service, yizkor, mincha, ma’ariv, ne’ilah, and havdalah. Everything! Gotta go.” She consented. The email was out at 9:22.

When I arrived at the synagogue, congregants were setting up the sanctuary and social hall with every chair we own. One congregant was on a ladder turning on all the Yahrtzeit lights. Tables were put in the lobby for Machzorim, and the books and the supplies and the Torah scrolls and the notes and the foot pads and the shofar all began to make it back. Some congregants put on yellow vests and stood outside helping congregants park. A few ran shuttles to an offsite parking lot.

So many rules broken at our Reconstructionist led Conservative synagogue. And yet, so much beauty in each of these moments of brokenness that facilitated our return. We were ready to go at 9:48 for a 10AM start, just about one hour from the power initially going out and us finding the power to recalibrate our path home.

At 10, I took to the bima and began to speak, my heart singing at what I had just witnessed. I shared that the watchword of Yom Kippur is T’shuva, return. We had returned to the warmth and light of our building, and I could not have been prouder to be the rabbi of this community at that moment. I noted that during the Kol Nidre appeal speech from our new president the night before, she shared her view that our congregation is successful because of the unique contributions of each of our congregants. She likened each congregant to a bead on a necklace. Each bead different in size, shape, and color, but each is necessary. Each has unique contributions to make to the shared beauty of our community. In my opening remarks, I referenced the necklace, too, reminding each congregant that their unique bead enabled our community’s quick return. This us who we are, and is what makes Congregation Beth Tikvah, Congregation Beth Tikvah.

By the light of the Ner Tamid, a decision was made. When the decision to change course, the decision to return, the decision to break established protocol happened, we did it. Change, however unlikely we would have thought it to be five minutes before, was possible. Something had shifted. This Yom Kippur gifted our community, this collection of beautiful and complex individuals, an opportunity for rapid adaptation and change. It was Yom Kippur being the most Yom Kippur it had ever been for us.

Tshuva, like our return, is possible. Sometimes, what you think you need isn’t what is actually needed. Sometimes, a blown transformer leads to full and immediate transformation. Darkness leads to light. And sometimes, the light of the Ner Tamid, the Eternal light of Torah, is all you need to make the right decisions for the path forward and the “return” home.

About the Author
Rabbi Nathan Weiner is the Rabbi of Congregation Beth Tikvah in Marlton, NJ. He is a 2016 graduate of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College. Rabbi Nathan has previously served as the President of the Tri-County Board of Jewish Clergy. He currently serves as a board member of the Rabbis and Cantors Retirement Plan, and the Katz Jewish Community Center in Cherry Hill, NJ.