What brought me back to Crown Heights was a visit to Base BKLYN, a UJA-funded initiative stewarded by Hillel International. With three locations in New York, each “Base” (a play on the Hebrew word for home) serves as both the actual home of a rabbinic couple and a home base for young adults where they focus on three core values: hospitality, Jewish learning, and community service.
Not an unfamiliar concept, particularly near Chabad in Crown Heights. But the vibrant, pluralistic Jewish community offered at Base Hillel is especially powerful for those who might not have found a fit elsewhere, and it’s clearly forging new ground. Consider this: on Rosh Hashanah, the rabbi will lead a service that includes prayer, discussion, Torah reading, and guided shofar meditations.
The evening of my visit, an incredibly diverse group of about 45 people gathered in the living room of Faith Brigham Leener and Rabbi Jon Leener, the inspiring young couple who run Base BKLYN and are among the organization’s founders. Each guest was met with a hug, and everyone was open to the other’s unique journey and Jewish identity.
One woman told me she had left an ultra-Orthodox community in Williamsburg and was reclaiming her Jewishness here. An impressive young man from the Midwest, who formerly had little connection to Jewish life, said that discovering Base BKLYN had literally changed his life, grounding him in Jewish tradition and community.
Rabbi Leener led us all in a lesson on Rosh Hashanah, beginning with its biblical sources. Today we commonly associate Rosh Hashanah with celebrating the creation of the world and the Jewish New Year. But, perhaps surprisingly, the original biblical references to the holiday (first in Leviticus and again, with slight variation, in Numbers) don’t mention either of these concepts, and simply say: “In the seventh month, on the first day of the month, you shall observe complete rest, a sacred occasion commemorated with loud blasts.” “You shall observe it as a day when the horn is sounded.”
The biblical focus of Rosh Hashanah is, unmistakably, on the “loud blasts,” the sounding of the horn. With no other details, we’re left to wonder: what do the loud blasts of the horn represent? Rabbi Leener explained that these loud blasts are what they sound like — a deep, primal cry. He drove the point home exploring texts and commentary that equate biblical moments of profound despair with the sounds of the shofar. The cries we hear on Rosh Hashanah are meant to remind us of the brokenness we all live with — the brokenness all around us. Even more importantly, they are meant to spur us to action.
In a welcome analogy for this die-hard Yankees fan, Rabbi Leener tied it all together with baseball. The baseball season generally culminates around the same time as the High Holidays. And just like baseball — where we start at home, run the bases, and return home — every year, we have the opportunity to start back at the beginning, at home base.
We’re given these days of reflection to return “home.” To recommit to our values and traditions. To our ideals and the work that needs to be done to realize them. To each other, despite the differences that too often keep us apart. And to helping those in need and making the world a better place.
Sitting in a Crown Heights start-up community, very different from the Crown Heights of my youth, but filled with a familiar spirit and warmth, I felt a sense of coming home. It was a feeling that I hope to carry with me into the New Year and beyond.
And so as we sound the shofar to welcome in the year 5779, I wish you all a year of peace, health, and happiness. A year of coming home.
Shabbat shalom and shanah tovah u’metukah