Monday, October 2, 2017

Kol Nidre 5778: The Happiest Place on Earth

The Happiest Place on Earth
Rabbi Alan Cook
Sinai Temple, Champaign, Illinois
Kol Nidre 5778- September 29, 2017

One of my personal interests has to do with the Disney company.  The movies, TV shows, and other media that they produce are fine, but my true fixation is on the theme parks that make up the Walt Disney World resort in Orlando, Florida.  We take a family vacation there every few years, and I’ve come to appreciate the way that the company’s corporate philosophy shapes the guest experience as they roam through the so-called “happiest place on earth.” 

Now, I’ll acknowledge that some have purported that Mr. Disney harbored some anti-Semitic sentiments, which would make him an odd figure to focus upon in a sermon for the Jewish High Holidays.  But most recent biographers have argued that while Disney was a deeply flawed individual who was not always nice to his employees, accusations of anti-Semitism are unfounded.[1]  At any rate, Mr. Disney’s propensity creativity and innovation are legendary, and his influence continues to be seen not only in the wide-ranging empire that bears his name, but also throughout American culture.  

So during this High Holiday season, let us take a moment to contemplate some of the lessons from “The Happiest Place on Earth,” and explore how we can perhaps look to some of the company’s techniques to continue to grow a meaningful and welcoming culture here at Sinai Temple.  Moreover, let’s think about how these insights can help us understand core Jewish values as we embark on this New Year.   

In the early 1950s, when Walt was developing Disneyland in Anaheim, California, he would arrive home in the evening and enter his house through the kitchen.  If dinner was not yet ready, he would take a hot dog—a “weenie,” he called it—from the icebox and share it with his dog, Lady.  He soon realized that he didn’t have to enjoy this snack in the kitchen—wherever he would take the weenie, Lady would follow.  Walt realized that his theme park needed similar “weenies,” enticing attractions that quickly grab one’s attention and draw them into an immersive experience.  Cinderella’s castle or the geodesic ball at the entrance of Epcot are two such examples, as are visibly kinetic sights such as Dumbo the Flying Elephant or the Splash Mountain flume ride.[2]

So what is the “weenie” that draws one in to synagogue?  A number of us are undoubtedly drawn here today by the awe and majesty of this day’s liturgy, and the power of this day as an opportunity for reflection and teshuvah.  Others may find less resonance in the words and melodies in the machzor, but come to Temple because the “weenie” of tradition pulls them strongly.  And of course, there are some whose experience parallels the old joke: “Moshe comes to Temple to talk to God; I come to Temple to talk to Moshe.”

But Sinai Temple is so much more than worship services.  For more than 110 years, we have served the Jewish community of East Central Illinois as a house of prayer, a house of study, and a house of gathering.  Our current physical plant is more than forty years old, and over the years has seen us come together both for simchas and for sad times.  We are excited to have begun the process of updating our gathering spaces—primarily our sanctuary and pods—working with RATIO architects to design a space suitable for our 21st century needs.  You can see some of the proposed enhancements in the Power Point presentation playing in the foyer; please feel free to provide constructive feedback.  All of the changes under consideration are designed to increase accessibility and visibility, while also updating our sacred spaces to match a contemporary aesthetic.  I hope that our community will enthusiastically support these endeavors.  Like the “weenies” at Disney parks, the hope is that an enticing environment will play a small role in encouraging people to spend time at Sinai Temple. 

But synagogues cannot rely on mere gimmicks; we are not primarily in the business of entertainment or “infotainment.”  We’re not going to construct Disney-esque “weenies” like neon signs, roller coasters, or 6-foot tall anthropomorphized animals. Still, Rabbi Jody and I, along with the rest of the staff and leadership of Sinai Temple understand that a Temple can’t just rest on what one sees and experiences within its four walls.  We continue to strive to create and maintain programming that fulfills a wide range of Jewish needs.  And beyond programming, beyond tangibles, we are working constantly to build community. 

In Parashat Nitzavim toward the end of Deuteronomy [which we read just a few Shabbatot ago/ which we will read from tomorrow morning], we are reminded that the covenant God has forged with the Israelite community extends to every participant within that society: from the chieftains and officials to the woodcutters and water-drawers.[3]  Torah is meant not only for those who are present listening to Moses while he delivers his valedictory speech, but for those generations of Israelites who had come before, and for every generation yet to be.  There have been myriads of Jewish people throughout time touched by the history, laws, and traditions of our sacred text.  In a similar vein—not to diminish the importance of Torah by drawing parallels to something more frivolous—millions of individuals pass through the gates of Disneyland, Disney World, and the company’s international parks each year, and the company strives to establish a program and a culture that will be inviting to all.   As Walt said in his speech at the opening of Disneyland in 1955, “To all who come to this happy place; welcome. Disneyland is your land. Here age relives fond memories of the past…and here youth may savor the challenge and promise of the future.”[4]

For any Temple—for any institution, really—to withstand the test of time, it must be able to speak to a multitude of interests and needs on a variety of levels.  Disney’s words mirror the prophetic vision found in the book of Joel: “Your old shall dream dreams and your youth shall see visions.”[5]  Ampliifying the call of Nitzavim, the call of Disney, and the call of Joel, we will continue to offer our wide range of programs and worship opportunities.  We remain firmly rooted in our past, grateful to those who laid the foundation, physically and philosophically, for this holy congregation.  And we ever strive for the future, adapting and innovating to meet modern challenges.  We will not be able to undertake every program or satisfy every desire, but we will do our best to meet the challenge of serving as a kehillah kedosha- a sacred community in which we can depend upon one another.

If you spend long enough immersed in a tight-knit community, you begin to develop a certain vocabulary, and a certain appreciation of the customs and cultures of that group.  As an example, here at Sinai, many of us readily recognize that ETM refers to the Egalitarian Traditional Minyan, that “the pods” refer to the gathering spaces adjacent to our sanctuary, and that the annual Labor of Love is our Labor Day project to spruce up our building and grounds.  Disney, too, has developed a specialized culture among its cast members (as employees are known).  For instance, “cast members” are asked never to point to a location or item with just one finger.  A single finger is rude in some cultures, and Disney welcomes many international guests each year.  Furthermore, two fingers are easier to see, and are interpreted in a more friendly way.[6]  Cast members are also urged to do everything in their power to make magic for guests.  This means trying to avoid saying “no,” and making sure not to get flustered by seemingly impertinent requests or questions.

It may be apocryphal, but many claim that a question cast members frequently field is, “What time is the three o’clock parade?”  It seems like a simple question with a straightforward answer, but the cast members are trained to stretch themselves beyond the simple response of “three o’clock.”  They try to consider what information the guest is really seeking—things like, “when do I need to line up for the three o’clock parade?” or “what is the best viewing spot?” or “when will it pass by me?”  By anticipating a guest’s needs, the cast members can reassure them, and help to turn a good vacation experience into a stellar one.[7]

In Judaism, perhaps, the corollary to the “three o’clock parade question” is, perhaps, “What does Judaism say about…”  Yes, we have certain understandings that are established as halacha, received Jewish law.  Other practices are enshrined as minhag, longstanding customs codified by the rabbis in Talmud, midrash, responsa, and other compendia.   But the Torah teaches us that we have the power to parse our own three o’clock parade questions.  It attempts to demystify our tradition by emphasizing that all of the teachings of our heritage are accessible to anyone who is willing to seek them out.  [Parashat Nitzavim/ Our Torah portion for tomorrow] notes that God’s instruction “is not too wondrous for you…lo ba-shamayim hi—it is not in the heavens, that you must send someone up to retrieve it and bring it back for you.”[8]  Rather, each of us has the power individually to engage with the sacred messages of scripture.  This, to me, is another element of what makes our congregation so special: understanding the diversity of backgrounds from which our members are drawn, we have established an unwritten social compact that allows Jews with wildly different practices of kashrut, or understandings of the liturgy, or beliefs in a God-concept, or observance of Shabbat and festivals to nonetheless gather under one roof and treat one another with respect.

Keeping our Temple running, both in regard to our physical plant and in terms of our programming, requires the contributions of many individuals.  In addition to Rabbi Jody and me, we have a small but dedicated corps of employees who ensure that everything functions smoothly.  Kathy Douglas and Roxanna Davison in the office, bookkeeper Natalie Peterson, music director Martha Alwes (whom we wish a refuah shleima), and custodian John Thompson are all an integral part of our operations.  Of course, I cannot and do not discount the contributions of so many congregants who serve on the board, participate in committees, and come forward when called upon to host an oneg, or cook for a meal of condolence, or prepare a bulk mailing, or wash tablecloths, or build the sukkah, or any of the numerous other tasks that may arise over the course of the year.

Shortly after Disneyland opened in 1955, Walt Disney became dismayed that certain spatial limitations within the park threatened to disrupt the guests’ experience of the fantasy.  Princesses could sometimes be seen wandering through the Wild West section of the park, or cowboys were spotted taking a break in Tomorrowland.  For the construction of Walt Disney World in Florida, the park was designed so that the guest experience essentially begins on the second floor.  An entire series of tunnels, known as utilidors, accessible only to employees, allows all of the technical work needed to create the magic to take place out of view of the public.

In a similar vein, a great deal of the Sinai Temple magic unfolds behind the scenes, in ways that are not always obvious to the casual observer.  No, we don’t have a network of underground tunnels or secret passageways—just diligent individuals who care about maintaining our sacred home.

Reverend Erin Wathen, a blogger who is pastor of a Disciples of Christ Church in Olathe, Kansas, notes that her church, like Sinai Temple, has a number of laypeople who work behind-the-scenes to ensure that the congregation functions smoothly.  There is a tendency to refer to such individuals as volunteers, but Wathen notes that volunteering is probably not the correct terminology for what people do at a church (or a synagogue).

As she writes, “To volunteer means that you are an outside resource, stepping in to help an organization in need. Volunteering is what we do when we pick up trash at the park, or build a house with Habitat, or help sort food at the local food pantry.   In other words, it’s what you do at a place that is important to you–but not at a place that belongs to you…. The notion is rooted in consumer culture, in which we can swoop in and give or take a measure that we deem fit, and then dart out again feeling we have done our part. We do a disservice to our faith…when we reduce [this sort of work] to something you can mark on a time card.”[9]

Wathen suggests a language of “discipleship” or “deacons,” both of which are much more likely to find root in the vocabulary of a church than they are in a temple.  But whatever we call this service, we should recognize it for what it is—a service of the heart, a dedication to and investment in the future of this holy place.  I hope that each of us will continue to seek ways during the coming year to give of their ideas, their time, their energy, and their resources in this spirit of service and devotion in order to secure the continued success of Sinai Temple and her programs from generation to generation—l’dor vador.

Ultimately, that call to service is the call of Nitzavim that I quoted earlier.  It’s at the core of Isaiah’s prophecy, which we read tomorrow morning, asking us to share our bread with the hungry, lend a hand to the poor, clothe the naked, and show compassion to our fellow human beings.[10]  It’s the message of the Book of Jonah, which we will hear tomorrow afternoon.  It’s the lesson of this High Holiday season and, I’d argue, the lesson of Disney corporate culture: life is more holy, more rewarding, more worthwhile, and more fun when we are engaged with others, when we give selflessly of ourselves, when we work to ensure that others can experience magic.

We do not afflict ourselves on this Yom Kippur, this Day of Atonement, in order to make ourselves unhappy and resentful of this day.  If we spend all our time tonight and tomorrow obsessively counting the minutes until we can break our fast, then we’ve missed the point of this day.  Instead, we should seek to heighten our awareness of the world around us, and our role within it.  We seek to be inspired toward immersive involvement in doing acts of love, justice, and mercy.  If we can make this our focus, we can make this world a bit more magical, and we can make ourselves worthy of being inscribed in the book of life, blessing, and peace.  And then anywhere we may find ourselves can truly be “the happiest place on earth.”

[1] See, for instance, this article by Rafael Medoff written for the David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies:, retrieved September 24, 2017, or this article by Jessica Derschowitz for EW, speaking about the PBS documentary on Disney’s life:, also retrieved September 24, 2017
[2] The concept of the “weenie” is well documented.  See, for instance,  Retrieved September 25, 2017.
[3] See Parashat Nitzvaim, Deuteronomy 29:9-30:20.  The Reform movement utilizes this portion as the reading for Yom Kippur morning.
[4] Remarks delivered by Walt Disney at the grand opening of Disneyland to the public on Sunday, July 17, 1955.  A full account can be found in numerous sources, including:
[5] Joel 2:28
[8] Deuteronomy 30:11-12
[9] Rev. Erin Wathen, “Your Church Does Not Need Volunteers,” posted on April 20, 2017 at
[10] Paraphrasing Isaiah 58:7

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