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Last year, following Rosh Hashana services, my wife Cindy and I headed over to the family service. With our kids being teenagers, we hadn’t been to the family service in several years. So it was really so nice to see the smiling young families saunter into the sanctuary. And Rabbi Shira began with a story. A story about a young shepherd boy who wandered into a synagogue where everyone was praying. The boy didn’t know any of the prayers or even how to read. So he started to just say the Hebrew alphabet, Aleph, Bet, Gimmel and so on. Over and over again – louder and louder. When the boy’s father got embarrassed and others wanted to throw the boy out, the Rabbi interjected and exclaimed: “Stop! That boy’s shouting the Aleph Bet was more precious than any other prayers said here today! His prayer went straight up to Heaven!”
That is one of my favorite stories for a couple of reasons. The first is that I can’t carry a tune at all; I’m nearly tone deaf and don’t have many of the prayers memorized. So I have a confession to make. I often – especially when sitting up here on the Bima – lip sync so not to throw everyone else off. So there you have it – another lip syncing scandal. You have here at Kol Ami the Milli Vanilli of temple presidents.
But the main reason I love that story is that it shows that our connection to G-d, to Judaism and especially to Kol Ami is not about what prayers we have memorized or how well we sing (at least I hope). This story about the shepherd boy aptly describes the openness we are so proud of here at Kol Ami. There are so many ways to connect with Kol Ami and to have a Kol Ami experience. Certainly worship is one, and we’re all here today for that reason. But there is so much more.
People often ask me what I’ve learned over the past year as being co-president. Well, in addition to learning that apparently our sanctuary thermostat only has two settings – too hot and too cold – I also learned how much is always going on here at Kol Ami each month, each week and every day: For example, it could be innovative Synaplex programming that ranged last year from studying the Jews of Spain to a mock trial of Joseph – our latest of biblical heroes to be tried at Kol Ami; or the opportunity to study James Baldwin or to hear from the youngest person who marched across the Edmund Pettus Bridge on Bloody Sunday, March 7, 1965, when a posse of State Police attacked the Civil Rights demonstrators on their march from Selma to Montgomery – or perhaps going on the Kol Ami civil rights trip or going on one of the upcoming trips to Israel or India – or helping those less fortunate than us, such as with the work we do with the Coachman Center – or celebrating Israel’s 70th birthday or standing up for egalitarian prayer at the Wall – or taking a bus to Washington DC with multi-generational Kol Ami members to stand with those students from Parkland in seeking to stop gun violence – or attending our Confirmation service where amongst the beautifully written student prayers and songs, one of our courageous students spoke personally about his camp friend being a victim of that senseless shooting – or perhaps something lighter like going to a Broadway show or even playing in the weekly MahJong games here at Kol Ami.
That’s what Kol Ami is about and so much more. You may ask what makes some of these experiences Jewish and what makes them Kol Ami? After all, you can do some of these things on your own. But doing it here at Kol Ami is about a connection to community; to our history, our culture, and our values of being modern Jews. It’s our unique ability here at Kol Ami to combine tradition with contemporary ways to form a welcoming and open community that continues in our 95th year to provide a link from generation to generation. It’s about being part of this community – it’s about being part of something bigger than the individual.
And I have to tell you, with everything going on in today’s world, it feels good, really good to be part of something bigger than yourself. You may not be hearing that from Washington DC or from the headlines, but being here today — or any day — is a testament to the fact that the ties that bind us together are stronger than the forces outside trying to separate people. We here at Kol Ami stand as a bulwark against the waves of divisiveness, the waves of individualism over community, the waves of assimilation, and the waves of apathy. So whether you are here two days a year or two days a week or more, as we celebrate our 95th anniversary throughout this upcoming year, I encourage you – I implore you — to wade a little deeper into all that Kol Ami has to offer: Be that a lecture, a Friday night service, a Saturday morning study with at the LIFT service, one of our many social justice/Bethelight initiatives, a trip led by the clergy, attending the Retreat, the Gala or a Broadway show or celebrating or memorializing some lifecycle event; I urge you to find a way – whether small or large – to join us this upcoming 95th year, as we honor our past, celebrate the present and imagine our future.
L’shana tova. Wishing you, your families and our country a sweet, joyous and peaceful new year.
I have a confession to make. And given that it is Yom Kippur, what better day to share it than today . . . here, with you. Several years ago, I was part of a leadership program at Kol Ami. In one of the sessions of that program, each of the participants was asked to list the 3 purposes of a synagogue we found most meaningful. I drafted my list quickly and confidently: Education, commemoration of life cycle events, and fostering friendship and community.
We each shared our responses, and as I listened to every other person describe the importance of services, prayer and worship, I was unsettled — mortified, actually. Worship hadn’t crossed my mind . . . yet there we were . . . sitting in a synagogue, just steps away from this sanctuary. How could I forget worship — Is it not our way of worship that defines us a synagogue community?” Further unsettling was the fact that I had always considered ritual and prayer to be a great part of my Jewish identity and journey.
How then could worship or services or prayer not enter my mind? It is not that these are without importance to me. In fact, as I mentioned in my remarks last year, Kol Ami’s beautiful, meaningful services factored heavily into my decision to join the congregation. So why weren’t they on my list?
Those of you who know me will not be surprised that this question led to some serious introspection. What I came to realize is that at that moment in my life — in that sliver of time — when I was a parent of 3 young children, still relatively new to Westchester, with no family nearby, the three purposes I listed were exactly what I needed most from my synagogue. And I was grateful that my synagogue was there to fulfill these much-needed purposes. I also came to realize that my list would not necessarily remain the same — to the contrary, it most likely would change over time. And with these realizations came the true understanding that a synagogue must find a way to meet the extensive and diverse needs of its entire community, not an easy feat.
So why do I bring this up today? Well, now that I am a Co-President, not a day goes by that I fail to think about Kol Ami’s responsibility of meeting the needs of our entire community. I am proud of our work.
In the past year — Scott’s and my first in our positions — we have witnessed firsthand as our tireless Clergy taught, inspired, celebrated with and provided comfort and support to our community. Our schools educated hundreds of our children and, along the way, instilled confidence, made connections to Judaism, and provided love and joy. Our communications were streamlined and upgraded, and we launched a beautifully revamped website.
I have seen the unique beauty of our b’nai mitzvah services — and especially that magical moment when the bar or bat mitzvah child steps onto this Bimah . . . the child becomes a leader in the blink of an eye.
I had the privilege of being in this sanctuary as our confirmation class led a most beautiful Shavuot service with confidence and camaraderie; musicality and maturity, humor and humility.
Our programming was unparalleled. From our thought-provoking Synaplex speakers, to our brilliant and most enjoyable summer concerts, to our engaging work toward social justice, our community learned, laughed, and made an impact on each other and on our world, together.
But along with the successes, I see that there is more work to be done. One of the things that has captured my attention this year has been the concept of membership. As only a synagogue president would do, I asked myself, “What exactly does membership mean here?” Is our commitment to our congregation best described as “membership,” or is it something else, something more?
You see, membership is transactional. A person provides whatever membership requires — perhaps dues, perhaps information, perhaps some level of service or residency requirement — and he or she becomes a member.
I see our relationship with Kol Ami as deeper than that. And as I thought about what concept better captured the relationship we have with Kol Ami, the word that stuck in my mind was “community.”
While membership is transactional, community is living and breathing. It is defined by continuous interaction. We have responsibilities to our communities, and our communities have responsibilities for us. We look out for each other, we share in each other’s successes and joy, and we comfort each other in times of loss and sorrow. We listen; we respond. We educate; we learn. We celebrate; we support. We pray.
And, yes, there are financial responsibilities as well. I know the word budget brings, at best, a yawn, and at worst, a feeling of disdain, but allow me a few minutes to offer you my perspective. For the past several years, I have had the privilege of working with our Clergy, our staff, and incredibly talented and dedicated congregants to create Kol Ami’s annual budget. The budget is more than a listing of amounts . . . so much more than number crunching. We not only bring along our calculators, but also our minds and our hearts. It is our opportunity to enact our vision for our future and set our priorities for the coming year. Our budgeting work touches every aspect of synagogue life.
We know our dues do not cover our expenses. It is a purposeful decision. While dues are necessary, we do not want to burden our congregants with an even higher financial requirement for joining or remaining in our community. And so, to ensure the continuation, indeed survival, of our offerings and programming, we rely on voluntary contributions to our Annual Fund.
Yes, we rely on generosity, your generosity. Generosity that supports our Yad b’Yad program, the only program in Westchester for Jewish teenagers with developmental challenges that focuses on critical life skills, social skills, and Jewish education — a true blessing to those whose lives it touches; generosity that ensures that our sanctuary is filled with music each week and every holiday, just as it is today; generosity that allows us to brilliantly stage our Purim Spiel, which is one of the most memorable and joyful events of the year; generosity that provides our youth with a welcoming place to connect with one another, free from the distractions and pressures of their everyday lives; generosity that enables us to stream our services so that you can be with us even if you are unable to physically be present here.
So it is with a full, grateful heart that I ask of you to: Give. Give Meaningfully. Give Proudly.
- Give. As a community, each of us has a responsibility for one other, and each one of us makes a difference. This year, we are counting on total donations of $195,000. Yes, our budget line for this year’s Annual Fund is $195,000, slightly more than last year. If every congregant or family unit contributed, we would meet our need handily. Unfortunately, last year we saw a participation rate of only about 30%. That is less than a third — fewer than 1 in 3. Every contribution matters. Please Give.
- Give meaningfully. Dues amounts are set. Annual Fund amounts are not. We ask that you give in a meaningful, generous way. We all have different circumstances, and I do not presume to know what is possible for or meaningful to you. What I do know is that every gift — whether $18 or $18,000 — will be met with deep and sincere appreciation.
- Give proudly. Know that your generosity enables Kol Ami to serve the needs of our entire community and to make an impact on all of our lives.
In a community, we give and we take, and it’s often the giving that provides us with the greatest satisfaction and joy. I hope you will find the joy in giving to Kol Ami, especially knowing that our Kol Ami community is always at the ready to give of itself to you . . . whatever may be the top 3 on your list.Annual Fund Donation
Four generations. We were setting the table in my mother’s home in Jerusalem this summer. My mother, Savta Jo, drew one of the placemats closer. On it was a replica of an ancient map of the world. Savta Jo explained to her great grandchildren: “This map was drawn 500 years ago by a Christian traveler on a religious pilgrimage. Notice how this map looks like a three-leaf clover. One leaf is Europe; one is Asia; the third is Africa. The center that he drew,” she explained to them, “is Jerusalem. The sacred center.”
That sacred center, the Old City of Jerusalem, is filled with ceramicists, but there is only one “Jerusalem Potter.” The Christian Armenian family of Stephan Karakashian was brought to Palestine in the early 1900’s to help repair and replace tiles in the Muslim Dome of the Rock. Following the 1967 war, he was asked to create the tiles – the street signs – that grace every alleyway and path through the Old City – in Hebrew, Arabic and English. I left his shop on the Via Dolorosa many years ago, stepping out into the maze of alleyways. “Can you give me directions to the Jaffa Gate?” I asked. “Can I give you directions?” he said. “I made the signs.”
On one of our many visits to Jerusalem, David and I bought my parents a beautiful bowl from the Jerusalem Potter. I was surprised on a subsequent summer visit to find it missing from the shelves. My mother explained: it was dropped on the counter, cracked – and known to not throw out anything, my mother brought it back to the potter, and asked if he might repair it. Which he was happy to do. “That was November,” my mother said. “I haven’t had a chance to go back. “Would you mind picking it up for me?”
I was happy to have an excuse to visit him. I found my way there, explained that my mother had brought the bowl to him back in November. Did he by chance still have it? After all, this was now the middle of the summer. “Come with me,” he said. I followed him to a side room, and sitting on top of a huge kiln was the bowl. I remembered it perfectly. He took down the bowl and took out the note, in my mother’s handwriting, that was sitting inside. The note was in fact dated November – three years earlier.
I gasped, “You are so faithful!”
He said, “This is nothing. Around the corner is my friend, the shoemaker. In 1947, a Jewish customer ordered a pair of sandals. Then the war broke out, and the city was divided for twenty years. In 1967, the customer came back to pick up his sandals.”
Kiryah ne’emana. The faithful city.
2,800 years ago, the prophet Isaiah described Jerusalem as the faithful city. For three thousand years, she has been the faithful center. Even in the worst of times. And two thousand years ago, it was the worst of times.
Please. Imagine that the year is 72 CE – almost 2,000 years ago.
Only a few years earlier, the Romans had laid siege to Jerusalem, murdered priests and teachers, burnt the Temple to the ground. So many Jews were sold into slavery that you could buy a slave for the equivalent price of a nickel. Jewish life as we knew it was over. But from this cauldron, a new Judaism will emerge; it is the Judaism of the rabbis, our Judaism, the Judaism that has sustained us for two thousand years. The great Rabbi Yohanan Ben Zakkai secretly calls fellow Jewish leaders to join him to plan a Jewish future. Imagine this gathering on the coast of Israel – in an academy called Yavneh.
Speaker #1 (Shira to center podium)
Friends, fellow rabbis, colleagues and students. We are gathered together in dangerous times. Our beloved Israel is in a precarious situation. As Jews, we are besieged from all sides. Our community is deeply divided; we can hardly talk to each other, much less listen. And so I implore you to set aside some of your deeply held beliefs, if only for these minutes. Our community is at a crossroads; it’s hard to know what path to walk down; it’s hard to know what God and Jewish destiny are calling us to do.
I hardly need to remind you that we have to build from the ashes of the destruction of our people. Some of you are here because you escaped this inferno. Yes, some of you are survivors. Some of you had the good sense to flee earlier – to the caves of the Dead Sea, or the desert plateau of Masada. Some of you have survived by adapting to the ways of our neighbors. And some of you have chosen to continue to fight, at all costs. I want to hear from each of you. Our survival as a people hangs in the balance.
It will be easy for us to walk out on each other – or to be offended by what our friends (or former friends) may say. Those who speak to us today have taken great risks to travel here today. You can imagine how unsafe the roads are; there are soldiers and terrorists and zealots everywhere. Again, I implore you to listen. What they say is likely to reverberate for thousands of years. Who knows, thousands of years from now, we may hear the echoes of these thoughts
First, from hiding in the caves of the Dead Sea, we invite a member of the Qumran Community. Please, tell us about yourself.
[Dead Sea Sect]
Speaker #2: “The first thing I want to say to all of you is that you are the cause of the destruction of the Temple. Because you didn’t follow God’s commandments, because of your sinful behaviors, Jerusalem was destroyed.”
Shira: Whoa. Could I ask you to lower the rhetoric. Perhaps you might tell us more about yourself, and not about the rest of us.
Speaker #2: “Okay then. For decades now, my family has seen the corruption in Jerusalem. We have seen how our people have given up on observance and mitzvot. It is impossible to preserve the essence of our Jewish way of life living among the Romans and the heathens and the Jews who want to be like them. And so we made the decision, along with a few hundred other families, to leave Jerusalem and to head out for the desert. There we have lived in isolation, protected from the contamination of a culture of entertainment and frivolity. We live in piety and purity. We only admit the purest of our Jewish brothers and sisters into our community. The survival of the Jewish people will depend on us – for we are the distillation of the holy and the pure.”
Speaker #3: Hah! You think you’ll survive in the wilderness? That the Jewish people can survive on holy fumes? I heard that a few years ago, one of your settlements was attacked on Shabbat, and what did your community do? Rather than desecrate the holy Sabbath, you laid down your arms. Did God come to your rescue because of your piety? Right. The Romans couldn’t have cared less. Everyone man woman and child was massacred.
If you ask me, the only answer is to the fight the Romans to the death. They only understand force; in fact, the whole world only understands force. We have always needed a strong army. And now we need to re-arm ourselves. Every person needs a weapon. You are probably wondering who I am. My name is Eliezer and I have also come here from the desert – but not from some pure and pious settlement – oh no. I have escaped from the mountaintop of Masada. It’s true – I have also seen the brutality of the Romans. We’ve been holding the mighty Roman army at bay for years. We will never succumb to the power of Rome; we can never allow ourselves to be sold into slavery, or to be seduced by their ways. As far as I can tell, you all are traitors – I stuck a knife in my “fellow” Jew who thought we could make peace with the enemy. The only way to be Jewish is to live as a free people in our own land. The only answer is to continue to fight. Down to the last man.
Speaker #4: Don’t knock being seduced. Judaism may be beautiful, but how many Shabbat candles are you going to light if you’re dead? At least if you’re alive, you can give thanks to God in your heart. You can marry and love and have children and raise them to be decent human beings. You think being Jewish is the only way to be a good human being? And you people think that the only language you can pray in is Hebrew. God hears us whatever language we speak. We can bring our Jewish values and ethics to Rome and merge into the greatest human enterprise the world has ever known.
Speaker #2: Rome? There is no Jewish life outside the land of Israel. It is only in Israel where we can be fully ourselves, where we can live a fulfilled Jewish life.
[Aveilei Tziyon – mourners of Zion]
Speaker #5: I really don’t get the rest of you. We are living in an age of total destruction. Yes, there is a Jewish community in Babylonia, and in Egypt – but almost all the Jews of the world were living here. Can you fathom the destruction of millions of our people? There is really no way now to even think about regrouping. You know the words of Ecclesiastes, “There’s a time to be born, a time to die, a time to dance and a time to mourn?” Well, now is the time to mourn.
Speaker #6: Oh Mary don’t you weep don’t you mourn. God hasn’t abandoned us, my friends. God is giving us a message. The Old Covenant with the people of Israel has been shattered, but God has given us a New Covenant – a New Testament. We don’t need laws and mitzvot; we need faith. You don’t have to be born of the Jewish family to be Jewish; you only need the spirit. Keeping kosher was part of the Old Covenant. God doesn’t care what goes into your mouth, only what comes out. And bringing sacrifices to the Temple to atone for our sins? God ended that with Jesus. God allowed Jesus to be sacrificed for our sins. Now and forever. Everyone who believes can be part of this new Church. God has sent us a New Testament and a redeemer. Born is the King of Israel.
Each of these voices – each of those communities – was lost to the Jewish story. The Dead Sea sectarians died in their purified isolation, refusing to welcome the diversity of the Jewish people. The fighters on Masada ended in mass suicide; the military and nationalist revolt against Rome failed – as a result, there was no independent Jewish life remaining in the land of Israel. The world may have been enriched by those who were once Jewish, but those who assimilated were lost to our community. And the followers of Jesus became Christian.
But something else amazing, and radical, succeeded. It is the Judaism we live. Judaism became portable. Instead of the Holy Temple, each home became a holy temple, a mikdash me’at – a sanctuary in miniature. You know that priestly benediction – may God bless you and watch over you? Who says it today? Who are the priests of today? We are – each of us – as parents, as grandparents, as friends. God blesses us through one another. And instead of one holy ark, every community has a holy ark, with Torah in its center – the ongoing interpretation of the Divine hope for the Jewish people.
But even as we became portable, we never lost our connection to the land of Israel. In the midst of our joys, we remembered. Every wedding ended with the smashing of a glass, a reminder of the shattering of the Temple – and the hope of rebuilding a world of joy. Every Passover Seder ended with “Next year in Jerusalem.” Every grace after meals. Every day. Jerusalem remained the sacred center.
But again, we are at a crossroads. Again, staggering after the massive, nearly incomprehensible destruction of Jewish life, this time in Europe. We are still wide-eyed at the miracle of the reborn State of Israel. And yet, again we are fighting about what it means to be Jewish, and about our connection to the land of Israel. The voices are back.
Speaker #2: They are not Jews, I tell you. They desecrate the holy name. I saw them at the Kotel, the Western Wall. Men and women praying together. And singing! The voice of a woman is an abomination. Men without kippot. Women wearing a tallit. I could not believe my eyes. I had a shopping bag filled with groceries. Thanks to God I had something to throw. Eggs, fruit – I would have thrown stones if I could have found them quickly enough. They are not Jews and their Judaism is not Judaism. We must burn this evil contamination from the midst of our people.
Speaker #3: Let’s face it. The whole world wants us dead. How many resolutions have been passed by the United Nations? And how many of them are against Israel? Gimme a break. Like there’s no violence or corruption or human rights violations anywhere else. Not the Congo, and not South Sudan, and not Saudi Arabia, and not Afghanistan and not Venezuela. And we’re surrounded on every side by hostile Arabs. And frankly, even on the inside we’ve got hostile Arabs. It’s a mistake that we ever gave them the idea that they could be equal citizens of Israel. We finally passed the new Nation-State Law. Now they know which way we’re headed. And any Jew who supports them is traitor, an enemy of our people. We are Jews. Words like ‘equality’ and ‘democracy’ are out of the picture. This is a Jewish State.
We gotta do what we gotta do to survive.
And what we gotta do is have a strong army. Yeah, sometimes it means terrorizing people. It means innocent people are gonna get hurt. It means building a wall and putting people through checkpoints. It’s tough. But what’s the choice. And if our boys who have served in the territories think they have the right to speak about what they did? And threaten the Jewish State? They call themselves “Break the Silence.” Well, I’ll tell you what I would break.
Leave me alone already. I really find this whole conversation boring. I am happy to just be an American – the movies I watch, the language I speak, my friends, the values important to me are universal– What I really care about, the issues that concern me, are not over there, they’re all around me here, the poverty and racism right here at home.
I’m a proud Jew with a deep love for Israel. I’ve got a lifelong résumé of engaged Jewish activism to prove it. But in today’s Israel, that may not be enough to let me in the country. I was born and raised in an AIPAC-loving, liberal American Jewish Zionist family. At 19, I was arrested at the Soviet Embassy in Washington, D.C., while protesting for the Soviet Union to free its Jewish citizens. I attended Jewish Agency meetings and advocated for Ethiopian Jews to be returned to Israel. Later, I made aliyah. I took Israeli citizenship. I learned fluent Hebrew. I made Israel my home. I lived through wars and terror attacks and intifadas, just like other Israelis. (continued on next page)
This, too, is my résumé: I spent several years working for the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, working for women’s rights, equality for Arab citizens of Israel, LGBT adoption rights, freedom of expression and human rights education – all of which has been challenged in these last weeks. And now, people like me – who love Israel and who love democracy – are being held at the border for questioning.” [adapted: Hadar Harris, Haaretz, August 23, 2018]
We are at a time of crisis – a crossroads. Sometimes, Israel feels so distant, even for those of us who return to Israel often. It feels like we are losing our connection.
According to all the polls here in America, the younger we are, and the more progressive we are, the less likely we are to feel connected to the land of Israel. My own children are in this cohort. They are young and they are progressive. They grew up in our home – Zionist, Hebrew-speaking. They can sing the songs that form the heartbeat of the Israeli story from before they were born; they spent countless summers in the land of our ancestors. Yet, Israel sometimes feels very distant.
This sermon originally had a different ending, but it changed this summer. This summer, with four generations, brought me home to the sacred center. The last time Yaron was in Israel was ten years ago, to introduce his first baby to his great grandparents, my mother and father. But this summer my mother turned 90 – and Yaron decided to meet me, with his two older children, Cruv and Rimon – in Jerusalem. Four generations. Yaron copied me on his note to my mother, on his return to San Francisco.
I was not in the pictures I took. But as we touched down in San Francisco, emails [and pictures came in.] And there I was, in the alleys of the Old City and on the walls of the David’s Tower, as an Abba, in my late thirties, with children. And, somehow, I was surprised.
In the ancient city, in your timeless home, and with you and your ageless vitality, I thought I would look different in the pictures. I would be seven, racing up the stairs…I would be eleven, sitting on the mirpeset as the birds welcome the sun…I would be thirteen, rounding the corner to the “Pita Man” of the Jewish Quarter. I would be nineteen, challenged and challenging ancient texts. Even with my children, with my beard, with your walker, with artisanal ice cream and craft beer…even as Saba is no longer there and his desk is in the corner, it was, at moments, as if I were a boy, a teen, a young man, and a grown Abba, as if I could bend thirty years of time.
If I could bend time, I would have bent our five days into…. I don’t know how long would have been enough. I don’t know how long the glow would have lasted. Being with you, in your gentle hand, in your home, in your city, reminded me how much I miss the sacred center,…yet I rarely go. That I have not nourished the part of me that could feel the bend not only of thirty years, but the bend and embrace of three thousand.
It was not a sure bet two thousand years ago that we would survive. At the beginning of the first century, it is estimated that there were 7 million Jews worldwide; by the year 500 we numbered less than half a million. In between was the loss of the Jewish state.
So much these days seems to hang in the balance – so much of what we value. We can take none of it for granted – including the State of Israel. We need to be better advocates for Israel here at home. Criticism of Israel, in places all over the world, but even here in Westchester, is morphing into anti-Israel and anti-Jewish rhetoric. That is hatred and bigotry that endangers every one. On the evening of October 11th, David Elcott will lead a session: “Don’t Walk Out on Israel: advocating when it’s complicated. An interactive training.”
And on October 20th, Shabbat morning one month from now, we will have the exceptional opportunity to study with Anat Hoffman, the director of the Israel Religious Action Center, a champion of religious pluralism and civil rights in Israel.
And in November, Kol Ami is heading out on an extraordinary pilgrimage to Israel. Based in Jerusalem, our sacred center, we will connect more deeply to the complex narratives of Israel. There are still a few spaces left on this trip.
What we have is precious. The Torah, the sacred story we brought to the world, changed human history- that human beings were created in the Divine Image, b’tzelem elohim, that God moves through liberation, and that each of us is here to bring our own and unique blessing to the world. We were named Yisrael, God wrestlers, taught to take on any authority, even God, in the fight for justice. We dared to believe that the world can get better.
And you have a part in that story. The voices that sustained our people through that crisis were not the voices of ultra-Orthodoxy, or zealotry, or exclusion or intolerance. Our voices, our Reform, progressive Jewish voices, are needed now more than ever. Those of us committed to justice and human rights for all citizens of Israel must not cede the space to those who are not.
Our voices are needed now more than ever.
Speaker #7: I bring my voice, our voices. I come today to sing – Of you, the faithful city. To pledge our faithfulness.
Jerusalem of copper, of gold, of light. Lest I forget thee, Jerusalem.
Im eshkachech yerushalayim asher kula zahav
Yerushalayim shel zahav, v’shel n’choshet v’shel or,
Ha-lo l’chol shirayich ani kinor.
A long, long time ago, when I was a newly minted rabbi, the way we prayed in a Reform service was really different from what we’re doing here. The guiding principle of Reform Jewish Worship of the day was “decorum.” “Behavior in keeping with good taste and propriety.” Being decorous was expressed with our clothing (formal); our language (almost entirely in English and very little Hebrew); musical instruments (only the organ and the human voice); our expressions of emotion should be kept to a minimum, except of course for some occasional righteous indignation!
“Spirituality” believe it or not, was not thought to be very decorous. Spirituality could be messy, emotional, uncomfortable and unpredictable. (When I went to the Hebrew Union College for my interview for rabbinical school in 1978, I was strongly advised NOT to use the word “spiritual”. It could make the committee uncomfortable. They might think you’re some kind of meditating, spacey, hippie or something.
I was once chastised for wearing brown shoes at services. We were warned against “osculation” on the bema. (Kissing someone “Shabbat shalom”). Not tolerated were the sounds of young children; the sight of an open collar with no tie; guitar playing; facial hair, etc. It was a different world.
We’ve come a long way. (Last Friday night at services I happened to have on a suit and tie. More than one person came up and asked, “Why are you so dressed up? What’s the occasion?”)
We also didn’t talk about God all that much. Even on the bema. Especially from the bema.
Now take this as a compliment, because it’s meant as one: you Jews today are much harder to please with prayer and worship than the Jews generations past. And that’s a really good thing. Truly a complement. Much was left unquestioned in the decades of the past. People excepted the music they’d always heard, people recited the prayers more out of habit, without great concern for their meaning.
But today, so many of our people, of all ages, want to understand what we’re saying. We want to ponder who that God is that’s being addressed on these pages. We want the words we say to be authentic and ring true.
These changes are wonderful! And they go way beyond the sanctuary.
Weddings are really different: What people look for in a ceremony has changed dramatically over the years. Most of the couples who came into my office in the 80s or 90s all said the same thing to me: “Rabbi, if you could not use too much Hebrew, and please don’t make it too Jewish; and if you could keep it really short.”
It’s so different today! Couples now come in with incredible curiosity about each little part of the ceremony, sometimes wanting to revive old traditions, sometimes wanting to create new ones.
And these same conversations are equally interesting whether it’s two Jews, or with an interfaith couple, or with LGBTQ couples, or folks who converted. We all want to understand what we are saying and to Whom? People want to be very careful with the God language in their weddings; they put a lot of thought using only words they actually believe.
(BTW: One thing hasn’t changed. Everyone still wants it short. No one has ever, ever come up to me and asked, “Rabbi, could you please make our wedding ceremony really long!”)
Folks as young as our 12 and 13 year-olds can be wonderfully demanding too in wanting to understand this “praying stuff” and “this God stuff”. It used to be rare for a bat or bar mitzvah kid to think so deeply about God. Now a good number of these young kids have serious and brilliant God questions.
More than a few times a year David, Shira or I will get a call from a parent who’s a little embarrassed to tell us that their daughter or son isn’t sure they want to have a bar mitzvah because they don’t believe in God.
But please don’t be embarrassed or feel awkward to tell the rabbi or cantor that your kid is not sure he or she believes in God. Cause that’s a really cool kid! Our response to you is “Good for you, good for your kid!” Most of us don’t think much about prayer and God issues until we’re well into adulthood!
So if you’re lucky enough to have one of those kids who is curious, and asking hard questions, and is even a bit strident in their thoughts, then Mazal Tov! You have a thinking caring soul on your hands. And we all look forward to engaging in good discussion with them.
Many of our 15 year-olds have deep and serious questions. Every year when we prepare for Confirmation our 10th graders have a sheet of sentence completions that they fill out.
The place I feel most comfortable is . . . ?
When I grow up I would like to . . . ?
If I could change one thing in the world it would be . ?
My favorite Kol Ami memory is . . . ?
I’ve used the same sheet for many, many years.
Then all of a sudden a few years ago one sentence completion became very contentious.
“A time I felt close to God was . . .” Complete the sentence. That one used to seem kind of innocuous; pretty straight forward. Bur recently they began to find that sentence very presumptuous; a question that a) presumes you believe in God, and b) presumes that there was a time when you felt close to God. That’s a lot to presume.
And the kids are asking, “Hey, what if I’ve never had a time where I felt close to God. What if I don’t believe in God? Am I still a part of this?”
We’re not in the business of telling young people what to believe; rather our job is to give them the tools and the spiritual vocabulary to engage in their own life long journey; wherever it takes them. And most often it takes them to good places.
So what’s the modern Jew supposed to do?
There’s this great little morsel of wisdom that may help: May have been written a few centuries ago, but it certainly helpful for us here today with our really hard God questions.
“Pray as if everything depends on God;
and act as if everything depends on you.”
[St. Augustine or from Reform Prayerbook, Mishkan Tephillah.]
In this teaching you have the praying and the doing.
What do we pray for almost every time we gather?
We have that prayer for healing,
the prayers for peace,
the prayer to bring comfort to someone who recently had a death in the family,
the prayer about feeding the homeless or clothing the naked,
the Amida in which we have now fully embraced the mothers of our tradition equally with the fathers of our tradition.
“Pray as if everything depends on God; and act as if everything depends on you.”
It doesn’t say “or”. It doesn’t say “act OR pray”! How brilliant that it says both:
Pray AND act!
It’s like a redundant back up system. Think of yourself sky diving; you’re never going to jump out of that plane unless you have both your parachute AND your emergency chute. Pray and act.
How do we Jews pray AND act?
The Prayer is the Mi Sheberach: we sing the prayer for healing. The Action? When we visit people who are ill, when we call them, when we check in on them or make a bowl of soup.
The Prayer Oseh Shalom: Maker of Peace: The Action? Any time you have eveworkedin your life to prevent war, or protest, or write a letter, or supported a war you thought might bring peace; or when you have meeting with elected officials?
The Prayer to console the bereaved. The Action: when you show up for shiva, and give that hug.
The Prayers about feeding the homeless and clothing the naked. The Action: When we create and sustain a Food Pantry on our own property; when we have bags in the Atrium filled for us to take to someone who could use it; When we create a magnificent Thanksgiving dinner for the people from the Coachman.
(Do you know what our kids will be doing across the way tomorrow morning?: They’ll be praying and acting. After a Yom Kippur service they will be packing up donated food for the homeless, as we do every year with Feeding Westchester. Kol Ami is one of their largest donors, giving each year literally thousands of pounds of food for hungry people. Our kids . . . praying AND acting.
The Prayer, the Avot and Imahot, in which we now fully embrace the mothers of our tradition equally with the fathers of our tradition. The Actions?; when we fill up busses to go to DC, or NY or White Plains to act for Women’s equality.
Singer Sam Smith recently wrote a beautiful song that captures our dilemma: Smith is a British fellow who’s about 26 years old. His first songs were mostly love songs. But a couple of years ago he travelled to Iraq with a charity called War Child, an organization that works to provide assistance to children living in war zones.
Smith says that he “…spent five days in Mosul and came back embarrassed that [he] had known so little about the world and other people’s lives.” He was deeply conflicted about what to do? And with this song he captures the essence of these hard questions: When should I pray? Do I believe? Are You there? Where do I start? I’m confused!
Sam Smith’s song, Pray:
I lift up my head and the world is on fire
There’s dread in my heart and fear in my bones
And I just don’t know what to say
Maybe I’ll pray
I have never believed in you, no
But I’m gonna pray
You won’t find me in church reading the Bible
But I’m still here and I’m still your disciple
I’m down on my knees, I’m beggin’ you, please
When I try to explain, the words run away
That’s why I stood here today
And I’m gonna pray (Lord), maybe I’ll pray
Pray for a glimmer of hope
Won’t you call me?
Can we have a one-to-one, please?
Let’s talk about freedom
Oh, and I’m gonna pray,
Pray for a glimmer of hope
Maybe I’ll pray,
I’ve never believed in you, no, but I’m gonna pray
(Pray by Sam Smith. Sung by Melanie Barest)
“Mirror mirror on the wall
Who is the fairest one of all?
Slave in the magic mirror
Come from the farthest space
Through wind and darkness I summon thee
Let me see thy face.
Magic mirror on the wall
Who is the fairest one of all?”
We are asked during this season of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur to take a good look at ourselves – and I trust, that if you are like me, that you have checked yourself out carefully in the mirror before you came here this evening. In fact, I have found myself thinking about mirrors a lot. There are two mirrors in my bedroom (one was there before we moved in) and three in the bathroom. And another two mirrors in my study here at Kol Ami (both of which preceded me.) And I find that I look different in each of them. How do I know that? Because I look at them all! Mirror mirror on the wall!
In 1990, the first of the major losses hit our family. Mutti – the beloved matriarch of the family – died. You heard how my mother-in-law escaped from Nazi Germany as a teenager, and subsequently rescued her mother and father and sister. Mutti was the mother she rescued. Mutti was my husband David’s grandmother, his tether in the universe. Mutti was the great grandmother of my children – each of them known and loved by her. Mutti lived a long and loving life and her death was not a tragedy – but our loss is often commensurate with our blessing, and the family was sunk in loss. We gathered our young children around us and prepared to fly to Los Angeles to bury her, together with the rest of the family. My sister-in-law Diane was preparing her home for our sitting shiva. “Do I cover the mirrors?” she asked me on the phone. I thought to myself: the family doesn’t keep kosher, they don’t belong to a synagogue, they don’t observe a traditional Shabbat. “No,” I said. “You don’t need to cover the mirrors.”
Diane didn’t listen to me. Thankfully. I learned a few things. I learned that it was relief to get up in the night and walk down the hall and to see that the physical world around me had changed. The world didn’t look the same. And because our world had changed profoundly – that everything felt so different – it was a relief that it also looked so different.
And I also learned that I look at mirrors all the time. Because every time I walked down the hallway, I turned my head to look at what was the mirror, but now was only a blank sheet of white.
Blazing white. A bolt of lightning and rumble of thunder. The Israelites gathered at the foot of Mt. Sinai, and “as morning dawned there was thunder and lightning and a dense cloud upon the mountain a very loud blast of the shofar. [Exodus 19:16] All the people saw the thunder and the lightning and the blast of the shofar and when the people saw it, they fell back in awe.” [Exodus 20:15]
What is it that they saw? Sacred traditions tell us that they came into direct encounter with God’s Presence. They saw God’s Presence. Like the movies: you’ve seen it: Lightning, thunder, dark clouds, drama. The rabbis of old offered a different take: they suggested that God appeared to them as a mirror. [Rabbi Levi, Pesikta de Rav Kahana, piska 12] What a strange and wonderful image.
I have found myself thinking about mirrors a lot.
Once there was a princess who had never cried. Princess Elinor had never had anything to cry about. Everything she wanted she got. One day, she said to her father, the king, “Father, I want to see God.”
“See God?” he bellowed. “No one has seen God.”
“That is precisely why I want to see God,” Princess Elinor replied.
I am reciting to you practically verbatim one of my favorite stories, told by Molly Cone in a collection about the Ten Commandments. You can find the story in its full original on our website – the link for Rosh Hashanah resources.
The King did everything he could think of to show God to his daughter, but having never looked for God himself, he was at a loss for what to do. In exasperation, he wandered out of the palace onto a country road where he came across an old man planting a tree. The king sat down, exhausted, looked at the old man, and at the sapling, and said (not too kindly), “Say old man, do you ever expect to see the fruits of that tree?”
“No, of course not,” the old man replied. “But perhaps my children will, or their children, God willing.”
The king perked up. “Did you say ‘God’? Do you know God?”
The old man looked quizzically at the king as the king continued: “My daughter wants more than anything in the world to see God. Do you think you can show God to her?”
The old man had heard about the princess who had never cried. He thought for a moment and said, “Perhaps I can.”
He followed the king back to the palace and stood before Princess Elinor. She looked doubtfully at the old man and said, “Can you really show God to me, old man?
“If God wills it, I will.”
“And if God doesn’t, you’ll be sorry.”
“But first you have to do one thing for me,” the old man said. The princess raised an eyebrow. “You have to come with me to visit someone you don’t know.”
The old man led the princess out of the palace, through surrounding farms and down an old dirt road. They came to the side of a shack and stopped. The old man motioned the princess toward the doorway. She hesitated, bent down and stepped into the shack. It took a moment for her eyes to adjust to the darkness, and she made out a young girl seated beside a low table. Her nose wrinkled at the smell of something cooking on the stove.
“I am Princess Elinor,” she said. The girl lit up. “You’re supposed to get up when you meet a princess.” The smile slipped off the girl’s face.
“I can’t,” she whispered. “I never could.” She lifted her skirt.
The princess looked, quickly turned around and stepped out, blinking back the bright sunlight. “Are you ready?” the old man asked.
“Ready – for what?” the princess asked.
“You are ready,” he said. He handed the princess a small mirror, and said to her, “Hold the mirror in your hand and close your eyes and look deep into yourself.”
The princess took the mirror in her hand and closed her eyes. Suddenly, big fat tears started to roll down the face of the princess who had never cried. “Why are your crying?” he asked.
“I have seen so little,” she said. “I have only seen myself. I have only thought of myself. Do you think it would help if I brought her good food to eat, maybe a new dress? Do you think it would help?”
The old man took the mirror from her hand. “My child,” he said, “You have seen God.” [Molly Cone, Who Knows Ten]
Mirror mirror on the wall.
Rabbi Nachman of Bratislav taught that a person reaches in one of three directions: inward – to oneself; out – to others; up – to God. He added: when we reach (or see) deeply in any one direction, we touch all three.
In, out, up. Each facet is a mirror. How we see ourselves in others affects how we see ourselves. How we see God affects how we see ourselves. David and I are the parents of four and through them, grandparents of ten. Some of you knew me as the parent of young children; some of you know me now as the grandmother of my delicious grandchildren. Over the years, our children have taught us so much. Our eldest, Talia, kept a little black notebook, a running list of all the things we did wrong. We didn’t always know what it was – but something would happen that would prompt a furtive look, then pulling out that little black book, writing some notes and quickly closing it. We figured it wasn’t fair. Someday we’d be in therapy together, and she would be the only one with the notes.
Sometimes what we learned was in a momentary exchange. Like the time our youngest, Liore, was two and a half. – a story some of you know. David was giving her a bath, and out of the blue, Liore turned to him and said, “Abba, God likes boys better than girls.”
I know exactly what I would have said had I been there. I would have definitely said, “That is SO not true.” But David was much wiser. He asked instead,” What makes you think that?” Liore said, “Well, God has a penis and boys have a penis, so God likes boys better.”
There were two amazing things to learn from this moment. The first – and most obvious. Why did my daughter think that God had a penis? (This in a family where it’s her mother who is the rabbi!) Many of you have been to my home (and those who haven’t, I would love to invite you for a cup of coffee or a glass of wine. Please talk to me.) You won’t see any portraits of God in my home – and certainly none of God with a penis. So what made her say that? Don’t doubt for a moment the power of the pronoun. Liore had heard God described as He – He and His. With two brothers and a father, she knew what a ‘he’ looked like. But the more subtle and the more profound lesson was something else: because Liore imagined God as male, she imagined herself – in a cosmic way – as worth less. How we see God affects how we see ourselves. We are reflected in the Divine Mirror.
You never know looking at someone what mountains they have to climb. Learning to love is my mountain. I have had many teachers along this way. You have been among them. We have created a community of love. But it is in the simple and pure and unencumbered moments with my grandchildren that I know, for sure, that I have learned to love.
A few weeks ago, I was sitting with my 4-year-old granddaughter Maya, helping her wash up. (My grandchildren call me ‘Imama.’) She turned to me and said, “Imama, you are like a grandmother.” I said to her, “I am a grandmother.” She said, “Ohhh my God!”
I can’t believe it myself. I am getting old. I am happy and grateful to say that. And though getting old is beautiful, it’s not always pretty.
Mirror mirror on the wall. I open the door to my bathroom in my Kol Ami study (yes – I have my own bathroom) – and ten inches in front of my face are the mirrors of the medicine cabinet, lit up by ferocious fluorescent lights. It’s beautiful getting older – but it’s not always pretty. And then I came up with a brilliant plan. I have covered the mirrors with photos of my grandchildren. Now, I open the bathroom door and break out into a huge smile.
We need to be seen deeply. Not just by our color, or our age, or our ethnicity, physical ability or occupation. In the world around us, we are assaulted daily by messages that denigrate human dignity, and ethnic, racial and religious uniqueness. Now, more than ever, our eyes need to welcome everyone who enters this sacred space. Even here, at Kol Ami, we have assumptions of what it looks like to be a member of the community. I have overheard members of our community, people of different colors, being greeted by:
- Excuse me, this is a synagogue. Can I help you?
- Are you one of the custodians?
- Or, overheard at a barbecue for the Coachman Shelter families we host here at Kol Ami, said to one of our incredible Kol Ami volunteers: And how long have you been at the Coachman?
Everyone needs to be valued and cherished as part of this sacred community not in spite of who we are, but because of who we are. Not in spite of our limitations, our abilities or vulnerabilities, our connections or our aloneness, our age, our color, our partners, our faith traditions, our ethnicities – but because of it, all of it, because of who we are. We are all facets of the unfolding Jewish story.
Outside in the Atrium is a spectacular gallery of faces of Kol Ami, a glimpse into our multi-faceted, diverse glory. There is room for you in this gallery of photos. Please let any of us know if you would like to be part of it.
When the Israelites gathered at the foot of Mt. Sinai, God appeared to them as a mirror. Thousands of people looked – and they each saw themselves reflected. One mystical mirror; thousands of refractions of light. Each of us is a unique refraction of the Divine Presence. Each of us harbors within a spark of divine presence. But we don’t see that divine spark looking at a mirror. We see it reflected in the goodness we do; we see it reflected in the eyes of others. It really matters how we are seen by the people around us. What you reflect in your eyes tells others how they are valued, how they are accepted, and respected, and welcomed and loved. God has no eyes except yours. The way you look at others will give the people around you the chance to see themselves reflected in love.
No mirrors in my nana’s house
And the beauty that I saw in everything
Was in her eyes.” [Isaya Barnwell No Mirrors in My Nana’s House]
“The world outside was a magical place.
I only knew love.
I never knew hate,
and the beauty in everything
was in her eyes…”
In your eyes.