What We Learn From Honey Bees

Deborah Davidovits on Rosh Hashanah

Shana tova umetuka,

I would like to start by saying how humbled I am to find myself in a position of leadership for those who I consider to be my leaders. I would like to thank our most recent presidents, Joan Pirie and Eli Harary, who have painstakingly laid the groundwork for me to continue moving our community forward.  In addition, I am honored to be working with my fellow board members; Jenny Kaplan, Aaron Pincus, Deana Morenoff, Allen Alter and Adrienne Rosenfeld.

We eat matzo at Passover and latkes for Hannukah.  We bake Hamentachen for Purim and eat cheesecake at Shavuot.  And on Rosh Hashanah, what do we eat…. ?  Honey and apples. 

So what can the tradition of eating honey and apples teach us about being a member of a community? 

Honey.

When people learn that I am a beekeeper, two of the most frequently asked questions are; do you get stung a lot?  And “Do you make honey?”  Well I guess I get stung a lot more than I would if I was not a bee keeper.  And no, I don’t make honey, but my bees do. 

Honeybees act not as individuals, or families, but as something called a superorganism, which is an organised group, consisting of many individuals, that together function as a whole unit.  It is believed that in a superorganism, the intelligence of the group exceeds the intelligence of any one individual.  Tom Seeley, in his book Honeybee Democracy, refers to this as “collective wisdom.”

When a honeybee is a few weeks old, she becomes a forager; exiting the hive to travel the world in search of nectar and pollen.  After filling her honey belly with the nectar from hundreds of flowers, she returns to the hive and is met by a receiver bee, who takes the nectar from the forager’s mouth, and deposits it into a honeycomb cell.  House bees will then fan the nectar with their wings to dry it down from 80% water to 18% water so that it does not ferment.  Finally, when it is dry enough, the house bees squeeze little discs of wax out of their abdomens, soften it in their mouths, and work in a honeybee assembly line to cap the honey with a thin layer of beeswax.  Over the course of her short lifetime, after flying tirelessly to thousands of flowers, a honeybee will have produced only about one twelfth of a teaspoon of honey.  As individuals, their impact is insignificant, as a hive, it is immense. 

I would like you to ask yourself, what is our community’s honey?  What is it that we are willing to work together on, each of us playing the part that we are most suited for, in order to achieve our “collective wisdom”? 

The Sefat Emet a Chasidic scholar from the 1800’s writes “every Jewish person has a particular letter of the Torah”.  Jewish or Jew-ish, I interpret this to be a recognition of the interdependency between the individual and the community.   Just as the Torah could not exist without its hundreds of thousands of letters, the individual letters would be but phonemes if they were not part of the words that collectively make up the Torah.  Honeybees are nothing without their hive, and the hive is nothing without the honeybees.

This year we have a total of nine committees at BHA, six of which are new, and I am very thankful to our committee chairs and members who have agreed to fill these positions.  We have formed these committees for one wonderful reason. Our congregation has expanded to the point where it takes more than just a few individuals to get all of the things done that need to get done. 

Here is some of what the honeybees of BHA have been busy doing.  We are now entering the second year of our incredibly cute Jewish nature-based pre-school.  A huge thank you to Ilana and Diana for the love, patience and hard work that they show our youngest children.  Cathy Harary has put countless hours into transforming our storage closet into a beautiful office space for Faith, our new administrator, and Ashley our Education Director, who has been working closely with our hebrew school teachers, Julia, Wendy and Debbie to develop new and innovative programming for our school aged members.  By the time the fall is in full swing, we will have learning opportunities for folks aged 3-120.  Rabbi Brent, our spiritual guide and tireless innovator, continues to lead services, teach his adult learning classes, work with our Hebrew School students, and head our monthly Soul Strolls, along with Josh Kaplan who guides our children on a parallel path.  Our cantor Ellen continues to shower our community with love and nurturing as she leads us in song, chanting, shruti-ing, musical shabbat and much more. 

Our shul is bursting at the seams with prayer, learning, food and fun and I invite each and every one of you to become one of the bees who makes it all happen.  Between now and Yom Kippur I will be sending out an email, asking how you would like to be involved in our community. There will be numerous suggestions offered, and none of them will be a huge ask.  It might be making phone calls for our annual Kol Nidre campaign.  It might be helping Matt build our Sukkah on Main Street, it might be baking cookies with Joan, manning a table at our Hannukah party, setting up for a service or fixing a broken shelf.  It could be helping out at our blood drives or delivering food to the food pantry.  It might be organizing a hike for our teens or reading a book to our pre-school students or being called on to sit shiva.  Or it might be something that we have not thought of yet, but that you are hankering to do, and if so, we would love to hear about it.

Apples. 

Most of us think of Johnny Appleseed as a carefree barefooted soul who traveled the country, spitting out apple seeds as he walked, effortlessly populating the land with the beautiful, crispy, delicious apples that we enjoy today.  The truth is that it’s very hard to grow an apple tree from seed, and if you do succeed, the fruit will be small, malformed and fairly inedible.

To grow an apple that actually tastes good, farmers graft an outer branch, with buds, of a preferred type of apple tree, onto “rootstock”, the hearty stump of a related species. Because of the established root system of the rootstock, the fruit tree that results will be stronger and quicker to establish, and will bear the best qualities of both the rootstock and the apple that was grafted onto it.

Our roots at BHA run deep.  This community was founded almost 100 years ago by 30 or so families; whose names are on the wall downstairs, including Cantor Ellen’s grandparents; Barnett and Esther Pearson.  In constructing this building, these families literally laid the foundation for a Jewish community in the city of Beacon.  They did this not only for themselves, but for all those who would come after them.  For its present and future members. 

Speaking of members.

If this is your first or second time here; “Welcome!  Check out our calendar to see what we have going on.  Talk to me or to another board member, or the person sitting next to you and ask questions.  Come to Long Dock today at 4 pm for Tashlich and enjoy some very local apples and honey.  Come back for Yom Kippur and our Community Break-fast.  Check out Open to the Sky, our community wide sukkah on Main Street and join us in our lovely BHA sukkah for Simchas Torah.  And after that, if you like what you’re seeing, then please, become a member.  We welcome you and we need you.  

If you’ve been coming around for awhile now and you are not yet a member because you’ve just been dipping your toe in the water, I invite you this year, to get your whole foot wet.  We need and want your voice.  We want your participation and yes, we need your financial commitment.  No plea for membership at BHA would be complete if it did not mention our policy of not turning anyone away for financial reasons and if that is what has been keeping you from joining, please contact our administrator, Faith, and she will set up a confidential meeting with the chair of our Membership Committee. 

Perhaps on Rosh Hashanah we dip apples in honey to remind us of how mutually dependent all things are. To remind us that the flower produces the nectar that feeds the pollinator who collects the pollen that mixes with other pollen to grow the fruit that feeds the beekeeper who takes care of the bees.

One thing that I have learned about the BHA community, is that the range of opinions, backgrounds and beliefs is broad and the sustainability of our community depends on each member feeling respected and heard, while continuing to work together towards the collective good of the community.  The Board of Directors cannot sustain a community.  A rabbi, cantor and staff cannot either.  Committees can organize, but if noone shows up to set up the chairs, then there is nowhere to sit.  It is only when all parts contribute, pollinating the blossoms, collecting the nectar, tending to the babies and doing the best waggle dance that they know how to do, it is only then that a community can make it through the lean times, work through the challenges that are bound to arise, fully celebrate the joyous occasions and comfort those in need. 

It is only then that we can be sure of making it through to the next year, with its promises of goodness and sweetness.

Shana tova umetuka.  I wish you, and our community, a year that is good and sweet.