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.
Whether you count with 5,779 years of Jewish mythical reckoning; or the 4 ½ billion years of scientific reckoning . . . today we Jews celebrate the birthday of the World.
The Mystics teach us that God’s act of Creation was never fully completed. Something was left a bit broken, unfinished. They explain that to repair and complete Creation, we human beings would have a role to play: that through our best moral actions, we can help complete God’s work.
In 1964 Martin Luther King Jr. commented on the unfolding of this Creation’s history: He famously said, “Let us realize the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”
Today I want to share with you three broken places in this creation that need our help; our acts of Tikkun Olam; places we can help to bend that arc of the moral universe towards justice.
The first broken place:
In February of 1972 I was one of 150 enthralled teenagers, sitting on the floor of the rec room at a camp in Connecticut. Speaking to us was Deborah Lipstadt, our regional Youth Director, who had just returned from a harrowing, secret mission to the Soviet Union.
She was not yet Professor Deborah Lipstadt, renowned Holocaust scholar. She was grad student Debby, youth group advisor Debby. And we 16 year-olds were spellbound with the idea that our Debby had just come back from a truly frightening “clandestine” mission on behalf of the Jewish people.
She had travelled to the USSR to visit Refuseniks, Jews who were denied permission to emigrate by the authorities. The term refusenik comes from the “refusal” to let them go, handed down by the Soviets.
(The following based on her telling of the story in her book, History on Trial.)
Before she and a fellow grad student departed on their mission to the USSR, Deborah was quietly given special instructions on what to bring, who to visit, what to say and not say . . . all this, to keep herself and the refuseniks she encountered safe.
She writes, “We were to bring one family medication for their child. And for others, books to distribute on the Jewish holidays, tradition, and history, and souvenirs from Israel, including a number of small Jewish stars on a chain.
“Our primary goal was to let these Jews know that Israel and world Jewry had not forgotten them and were partners in their struggle.”
She spent Yom Kippur at the synagogue in Moscow. She wrote, “Later that afternoon I returned. I saw the old woman from the morning standing at the back of the sanctuary. I handed her my small leather-bound prayer book. Unable to read it, she seemed proud just to hold it. When people walked by, she showed it to them.
Suddenly, the relative calm of the moment was broken. The synagogue sexton, [a Jew,] who, it was commonly assumed, reported all unusual activities to the KGB; he burst in and accused me of being a provocateur, a serious charge by Soviet standards. When he saw that the old woman had my prayer book, his face grew bright red. Sputtering in a mix of Russian and Yiddish, he grabbed it and accused me of distributing religious items. He then disappeared down the street with my book in his hands.
The next day we were waiting in our hotel lobby to depart for Kishinev. Suddenly we found ourselves surrounded by men in trench coats who identified themselves as KGB. Had I not been so frightened, I would have laughed aloud at the predictability of their dress. I lost any inclination to laugh when I saw that they had my prayer book as well as a list of every home we had visited.
“When they questioned us, they used traditional anti-Semitic stereotypes, describing the Jews who wished to leave the Soviet Union as part of an international cabal. . . They kept asking who sent us. We kept insisting we were just tourists. I suspected that the exercise was designed to frighten us. The Soviets knew precisely who had sent us.
“After a long day of strip searches and interrogation, my traveling companion and I-who were kept apart the entire time-, were accused of spreading lies about the Soviet regime. We were “invited” to leave the country and, in the dark of the night, placed in an empty train car with an armed guard. [They didn’t tell us where we were going.] Many hours later, after a long and circuitous route, we were let off the train. We found ourselves in Romania.”
That was a visit to a broken place. But that was 46 years ago That’s a long time! Moscow is far away! And the perpetrators were part of an evil Empire that no longer exists.
The KGB, indiscriminate interrogations, going through your bags to find propaganda materials; questioning you on your motives and your politics and your affiliations. That kind of thing doesn’t happen anymore. Our world is a more benign and friendly one.
One would hope.
Yet, here’s another story about interrogation, intimidation, and the questioning of politics and beliefs and intentions. But this one was not long ago, and for us, the Jewish people, it was not far away.
It was July 16th, a few weeks ago, at 1AM. Sam Sussman, a writer and activist, posted the following:
“I just spent a deeply disturbing hour being questioned about the books in my suitcase by security officers at Ben Gurion airport. “Why are you reading this?” the officers asked again and again. I had Amos Oz’s memoir, Saed Kashua’s last novel, a religious tract on Hasidism and Kierkegaard, Bernard Henry-Levi’s ‘The Genius of Judaism,’ a history of the Communist Party in Mandate Palestine, two novels about the Iraq War by writers with distinctly Arabic names, a novel by a left-wing Israeli writer, a collection of short stories about the occupation edited by Michael Chabon, and four short collections of testimonies from Breaking the Silence.
For a full hour the security guards held up one book after another. “Why are you reading this?” “Where did you get this?” “What is this about?” “Tell me again: why do you want to read this?” “You know Breaking the Silence is against Israel? You know Breaking the Silence opposes the Army?” “Who told you to read this?” After a full search of my suitcase, the security officers found the business card of the director of B’Tselem בצלם. “Why do you have this? You know B’Tselem? You know they are against the Army?”
Sam continued, “I cannot explain or justify this as a security practice. My luggage had already been cleared when the first “non-kosher” book was discovered. This was a political exercise. It’s deeply disturbing to me that airport security officers are using their position to defame Israeli human rights organizations and question readers of Palestinian authors. Imagine if you landed at JFK and for an hour security officials insisted that Iraq Veterans Against the War is against America, questioned why you were reading books written by minorities, and asked why you had a business card from the ACLU.”
(From the JTA) Meyer Koplow – the Chair of the Board of Trustees of Brandeis University – and a longtime donor to pro-Israel causes, Koplow was delayed by a security agent at Ben Gurion International Airport a few weeks ago before being allowed to board his flight. He believes he was called for questioning after security personnel found a brochure in his luggage titled “This Week in Palestine,” which he had picked up in a Bethlehem hotel lobby.
The JTA reported that Koplow said, “The best way I can describe it is a badgering form of questioning where before you finish giving one answer, you’re being asked the same question again as if what you said is not credible. She asked what purpose could possibly be served by people visiting the territories. She asked that several times.”
Koplow said he appreciates Israeli personnel checking luggage for the purposes of security, but he feels that the questioning he experienced “goes a level beyond that. . . Why would you do that other than to send a message that the government doesn’t welcome your engaging in any kind of inquiry.”
Koplow was disturbed as well by “the manner of the continued implication that I wasn’t telling the truth or all of the truth,” he said. He added that describing his past involvement with Jewish and Israeli causes did not change the tenor of the interrogation, which was conducted in public view.
In addition to his position at Brandeis, Koplow is a board member of the UJA-Federation in New York and has served as the president of his synagogue, Young Israel of New Rochelle. He told the reporter that he has given millions of dollars to Israeli causes.
Koplow said “The most disturbing question she asked me, and she asked me more than once, was what was I going to do with the information I learned in the territories.”
“What business is it of security at departure as to what I’m thinking or what I might say?”
Something is broken in the universe when a long ago interrogation by the KGB in Moscow has even the slightest resemblance to the questioning of passengers at Ben Gurion Airport.
A second broken place: Destroying Families
A broken place in the history of Australia is a government program in which Children were stolen from their parents; they were taught to reject their Indigenous heritage, and forced to adopt white culture. Their names were often changed, and they were forbidden to speak their traditional languages
Official government estimates are that in certain regions between one in ten and one in three indigenous Australian children were forcibly taken from their families and communities between 1910 and 1970.
In our own country’s past “the U.S. government forcibly removed tens of thousands of Native American children from their homes and families to attend “assimilation” boarding schools in the late 19th century.
U.S. cavalry captain Richard Henry Pratt, who opened the first such school in Pennsylvania infamously said, “Kill the Indian in him, and save the man.”
(From The Washington Post, Haley Sweetland Edwards. June 14, 2018) Earlier this year, a young Honduran woman named Mirian gathered her 18-month-old son into her arms and walked across the bridge between Mexico, and Brownsville, Texas, where she presented herself to U.S. border agents to ask for asylum. Mirian and her son spent the night in a detention facility. The next day, officials told her to put her son into a car seat in the back of a government vehicle. Her hands shook as she buckled him in. The officials wouldn’t tell her where they were taking him, only that she would not be allowed to go with him.
As the car pulled away, she could see her baby looking back at her through the window, screaming.
Immigrants’ advocates offer wrenching accounts of how, exactly, federal authorities remove children from their moms and dads. On some occasions . . . kids are pulled, sobbing, from their parents’ arms. On other occasions, agents have allegedly lied. “They say, ‘We’re just going to take your kids to have a bath,’” “But then they don’t bring them back.”
The American Academy of Pediatrics recently published a letter noting that taking a child from a parent can do “irreparable harm, disrupting a child’s brain architecture and affecting his or her short- and long-term health.” (The above appears in the June 25, 2018 issue of TIME.)
And then there are the hundreds who, due to a fundamentally evil policy, bad planning, lost records and ineptitude, will never be reunited with their families.
Someone commented on the radio the other day: “When we go to the dry cleaners with a shirt, they make sure that we get a receipt, that little claim ticket that guarantees that of the thousands and thousands of shirts they process each week, that my shirt will get back to me.
Hundreds of children were taken from their parents at our border without even a claim ticket!
How broken that is. (Journalist: Annie Correal)
The third and final broken place: For most of our lives, at dark moments in our nation we have been able to turn to our country’s president, of either party, in the hope of hearing comforting and inspiring words that speak to our higher selves.
55 years ago, President Lyndon Johnson, addressed the nation on the occasion of the signing of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. It was in the midst of a very difficult time in our modern history.
He said, “Americans of every race and color have died in battle to protect our freedom. Americans of every race and color have worked to build a nation of widening opportunities. Now our generation of Americans has been called on to continue the unending search for justice within our own borders. We believe that all men are created equal. Yet many are denied equal treatment. We believe that all men have certain unalienable rights. Yet many Americans do not enjoy those rights. We believe that all men are entitled to the blessings of liberty. Yet millions are being deprived of those blessings — not because of their own failures, but because of the color of their skin. Our Constitution, the foundation of our Republic, forbids it. The principles of our freedom forbid it. Morality forbids it. And the law I will sign tonight forbids it.”
With those words and those laws, LBJ did indeed place the not-insignificant weight of the American Presidency firmly against that long arc of the moral universe.
Following the racial violence and death in Charlottesville last August, two more US Presidents weighed in: (Maya Rhodan, August 16, 2017)
Both presidents Bush released a joint-statement saying: “America must always reject racial bigotry, anti-Semitism, and hatred in all forms. As we pray for Charlottesville, we are all reminded of the fundamental truths recorded by that city’s most prominent citizen in the Declaration of Independence: we are all created equal and endowed by our Creator with unalienable rights. We know these truths to be everlasting because we have seen the decency and greatness of our country.”
Voices of moral clarity.
Alas, here is the third broken place; the response of our current president to the anti-Semites, the racists, the white supremacists and neo-Nazis who gathered in Charlottesville.
He said that counter-protesters deserve an equal amount of blame for the violence. “What about the alt-left that came charging at, as you say, at the alt-right?” “Do they have any semblance of guilt?” “I’ve condemned neo-Nazis. I’ve condemned many different groups. But not all of those people were neo-Nazis, believe me,” he said. “You had many people in that group other than neo-Nazis and white nationalists,” Trump said. “The press has treated them absolutely unfairly.”
“You also had some very fine people on both sides,” he said.
As former President Obama commented on that infamous moment on Friday when he asked: “How hard can that be?! Saying, “Nazis are bad!”?
What are we to do during these dark times? What role can we play in this Tikkun Olam, in the fixing of these broken places?
Presidential historian Jon Meacham reminds us that we’ve been here before. And for similar reason: Fear. Economic fear and fear of the other.
He reminds us that the irrational fear of the emancipation of blacks and of immigration in the 1920’s created a KKK that was so much more dominant than we now remember.
Like today, he continues, it was all about economic transition, uncertainty, a fear of the other, that somehow or another people who didn’t sound like us or look like us – then meaning white Anglo Saxon Protestants – were going to take those jobs, were going to take over the country.
That was the 1920s. And here we are again. The same fears. And same ugliness arises. We become ugly at our borders, ugly with our nationalism, ugly with our racism.
The question Meacham asks is the question we need to ask right now:
Since we have been here before, how did we get through it? What did people do that turned things around?
There was one essential element , one common denominator, was that the people themselves were relentless in saying that, “This is not who we want to be. This may be who we are sometimes, but we don’t want to be that. And if we can get to 51% of our better angels, that’s a pretty good day.’
The Mystics taught us: Tikkun Olam is not something we observe passively from the sidelines as we watch others do the work.
Martin Luther King reminds us: Our task is not to sit by with folded arms, and admire others, as they work to bend Martin Luther King’s moral arc.
May we be relentless in letting the world know that “this is not who we want to be!”
With our votes
With our voices
With our presence
Today with our prayers
In the days to come with our actions!
In 1935, Solomon Perel was a 14 year-old Jewish teen, living with his parents and older brother in Germany. As Nazism swept across the country, the Perel family went east, seeking refuge in Poland. Solomon and his brother ended up separated from their parents, and in the ravages of war, the two brothers became separated from each other. Solomon found shelter in a Soviet communist orphanage, until the Germans moved into Soviet-controlled Poland. “When the Germans came,” Solomon said, “they forced us to stand in line. I heard talk that they would not take Jews alive. I buried my papers and Communist youth card in a hole in the ground I dug with my foot. When my turn came, I said I am Volksdeutsche– a German.” He was, of course, a native German speaker. He assumed a new identity as Joseph (Jupp for short). He became an interpreter in the Wehrmacht unit that adopted him, and soon after was sent to an elite Hitler youth training school back in Germany. “I believed I was Joseph–a German,” Solomon said, reflecting on his complicated life. “The Jew began to disappear…Solomon, the Jew, was almost forgotten. He became just a little part hidden away in me. I never hated Jews. But I, Jupp, accepted Nazi ideology. The Germans were superior and the Jews subhuman.”
Solomon’s story was made famous in the film, Europa Europa. You may recall the central panic of Solomon’s disguise as a non-Jewish German, the fear that he would be caught naked, circumcised. In an interview from his Givatayim apartment in Israel, as a 65-year old, following the release of the movie, Perel acknowledged that his circumcision almost cost him his life, but, he added, reflecting on the powerful and seductive pull of Nazism, “but it saved my soul.” For had he been able to become fully Nazi, he would have.
In 1990, David and I and our children traveled with 35 other Kol Ami members to Prague, Budapest and Israel. We went with prayer books and Torah commentaries to help fortify a fledgling Reform congregation in Budapest. Two young men met us to receive the books. “Tell us about yourselves,” we asked – and how is it that you are leaders of this small community?” As it turned out, both young men were raised as Communists; neither knew that he was Jewish. “So what happened?” we wanted to know. They each had a story, of course, but one in particular has stayed with me. “I came home from school one day,” he said, “I was a teenager. And I boasted to my parents that I had helped beat up a Jewish child.”
What do parents do in a moment like that? The mother and father had each lost their entire families to the Holocaust. They were the sole survivors. And they had made a pact that the suffering they had experienced would end; that they would not pass on their Jewishness. And so they had protected their boy from knowing that they – or he – was Jewish. Now what do they do? As the young man spoke, I imagined to myself in a flash of pain that the parents felt they had a stark choice to make: they would have to choose: either their son would be a victim, or an oppressor. And they chose: he will not become an oppressor.
We will be reading today from the Torah one of the most troubling stories in our sacred canon. “Take your son, your only one, the one whom you love, Isaac, and go forth to the land of Moriah. Offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains that I will show you.” The Torah is unrelenting in its drumbeat: “Abraham built the altar – arranged the wood – bound Isaac his son – laid him on the altar, upon the wood. And Abraham reached out and took the knife to slay his son.”
What a terrible story. And of all the stories in the Torah, why choose this one for Rosh Hashanah, for the beginning of the year? Why this one? “I hate this story,” I said to David years ago. And David said, “What Abraham didn’t have to follow through with, (an angel stayed his hand), countless other Jewish parents did.” David reminded me that during the years of the Shoah, the overwhelming number of Jewish parents continued to circumcise their boys – for sure, a mark of vulnerability, putting them in the path of danger.
We do everything to protect our children – like that mother and father in Budapest. Why bring them up as Jews?
In preparing sermons for the High Holidays, I give a lot of thought to the music that becomes part of the sermon, or that concludes the sermon. What am I going to do for a sermon that features circumcision. Maybe this one. [Beatles – It won’t be long now.] I know it’s irreverent, but good religion needs to be a little irreverent – and these are dark times, and we need to laugh, and we need to laugh at ourselves.
We don’t have to go as far back as the Shoah – or as far away as Budapest – to remind ourselves of the risks we take marking ourselves as Jews. Some of us are non-Jewish members of Jewish families; some of us have chosen Judaism along the path of your life. And so this exercise may mean different things to different people. Please imagine for yourself a time that you were part of a conversation, part of a group of people, in which no one knew that you were Jewish or married to a Jew. And you decided that that was fine – that you would pass. And then someone says something that’s not okay – and you decide to come forward with your Jewishness. Can you remember a moment like that? What does it feel like? Does it feel that you, even for a moment, let in an edge of vulnerability, or risk? This is part of being Jewish. It’s not only what we believe, it’s not only what we stand for, it is who we are; being Jewish and part of a Jewish family is in our being. In its most perverse form, Hitler understood that it would not be enough to get rid of Jewish books or Jewish ideas. For him to accomplish the evil he intended for the world, he needed to get rid of Jews. We stand in the face of evil. We stand against bullies, against racism, against oppression and bigotry. In our very being.
The story is told about a Jewish merchant in America in the early 1800’s, peddling his wares in the South. “Triebwasser, a twine merchant from New York, was trying desperately to sell some of his goods in Louisiana. But wherever he went, he kept encountering anti-Semitism. In one particular department store, the buyer taunted him: ‘All right, Jake, I’ll buy some of your twine. As much as reaches from the top of your Jewish nose to the tip of your Jewish prick.’
“Two weeks later, the buyer was startled to receive a shipment containing eight hundred cartons of Grade A twine. Attached was a note: ‘Many thanks for your generous offer. Invoice to follow. [signed] Jacob Triebwasser – residing in New York, circumcised in Kiev.’” [Novak and Waldoks, The Big Book of Jewish Humor, p.83]
God to Abraham about Isaac: Take this child, whom you love, and bring him up to make a difference. Tell him that the world is filled with injustice. Tell him that it’s hard to be a human being, and that it will be hard for him as well. That he will fail in his work, and stumble as a human being, and disappoint in his relationships. That growing up takes courage and fighting for a better world will mean taking risks.
Parents invoke this covenantal moment between God, Abraham and Isaac at each birth ceremony – each brit. Brit – or bris – is the Hebrew word for ‘covenant.’ It does not mean ‘circumcision.’ We bring our children into the covenant when they are born and named – boys and girls alike. So many parents, in speaking to their little one, have expressed the hope that “more than anything, we hope for you that you will be happy.” We imagine that we will create a world in which we can shelter our children from pain, or suffering, or illness, or death, or disappointment. Not only is this unrealistic, but it also renders our children helpless and powerless in the face of life’s challenges. Keeping them away from sorrow and pain will rob them of their humanity and of their power to comfort and to heal.
I have been privileged to stand with so many of you – parents, grandparents and great grandparents – as you welcome children into the world. And I have learned from you. Zachary Mazin, a young Kol Ami father, knew that in speaking to his children, he would not be able to wish them a life of uninterrupted happiness and success. He said to them:
“I hope you never have to experience heartache. But when you do, I hope you have dear friends to comfort you.
“I hope you’re never mean or vindictive. But when you are, I hope you have the capacity for remorse.
“I hope you never fail to accomplish something you set your mind to. But when you do, I hope you have the persistence to try again.
“I hope you never betray someone’s trust. But when you do, I hope you have the integrity to admit it and make it right.
“I hope you never shirk responsibility. But when you do, I hope you work extra hard to become someone who can be relied upon.
“I hope you never fail to consider the effects of your actions on others. But when you do, I hope you find the capacity for empathy and humility.
“I hope you never forget to engage in the work of repairing the world. But when you do, I hope your relationship with God steers you back toward helping to improve the lives of those around you.
“I hope you never have to go through loss, or behave poorly or finish second in a race or are unhappy for any reason whatsoever. But when all these things happen, and they inevitably will, I hope you find strength from within and solace from without.”
Beyond being happy, there is something else we need. We need to know that we matter. We need to know that we are alive for a reason. Now, more than in a long time, our lives as Jews and as members of a Jewish community matter.
God to Abraham about Isaac: Put down the knife. Do not lay a hand upon the boy. Life is way too precious. And there will be never be another child like this one. Each one is unique. But do not leave this place relieved. Whew! We escaped danger. It is not enough just to be alive. You must be alive for a reason. Do not squander the gift.
We have been given the gift of life. We have been bequeathed a covenant as Jews and as members of this Jewish community. It is a covenant of vulnerability and courage. We will stand up wherever there is hate – and we now know that there is more hatred in our country than we ever imagined.
From the moment our people was called into being, we have been asked to stand in the face of injustice, by virtue of our differentness to witness to the deepest religious truth that each of us, in our very difference and diversity, is created in the image of God. During World War II, in ways both told and forgotten, Jews resisted the hatreds of Nazism. Among the ways not well-known is the physical resistance against the Nazis. You will find an exhibit in the Petschek Gallery of 60 photographs from World War II, documenting Jewish resistance against the Nazis. The exhibit is called: “Resistance is the Lesson.”
“Amos Oz” – Israeli author – “said that there are a number of ways to respond to calamity. Take the example of a fire. What can you do? You can run away. You can write an angry letter. Or you can bring a bucket of water to throw on the fire. ‘If you don’t have a bucket,’ he adds, ‘bring a glass, and if you don’t have a glass, bring a teaspoon. Everyone has a teaspoon. I know a teaspoon is little, and the fire is huge, but there are millions of us and each one of us has a teaspoon.’
“Bring your teaspoon and pour water on hate and fanaticism.”
[Rabbi Sandy Eisenberg Sasso, January 21, 2017]
On your way out of the sanctuary today, as we begin a new year, you will find boxes of beautiful signs you can post on your lawn. What makes them beautiful is what’s written on them: “Hate has no home here.” The signs are not in democrat or republican. The signs are in English, Hebrew, Spanish, Arabic, Chinese, Korean and Japanese. We have 200 of them. If we run out today, we will buy more for Yom Kippur. You are invited to leave a contribution to help defray the costs of these yard signs. You are one person, or one family, one home. We are one congregation. But each of us matters. And it will take each of us – and a sea of signs on the streets of Westchester – and Putnam and Dutchess counties and across our country – to turn the tide of hatred.
We are Jews. We know about hatred and bigotry – and we cannot let it happen to anyone. We have been given the gifts of vulnerability and of courage. “Listen to Me,” God said to Isaiah, “you who pursue justice. You who seek the
Lord. Look to the rock you were hewn from. To the quarry you were dug from. Look back to Abraham your father and to Sarah who brought you forth.
For he was only one when I called him. But I blessed him and made him many.” [Isaiah 51:1-2]
I made him many – I made him you. We stand together for Avinu Malkeinu.
One of my favorite podcasts is The Moth. It’s a very simple format, people come up to the microphone and tell a story. The only ground rules are that the story tellers have nothing written down, and most important, their stories have to be true.
We know that some of the most beautiful and memorable moments on this bema are when people have shared their own stories, their own true stories.
One of those times was a few months ago when a young man named Max came and spoke to us on Pride Shabbat. He told us his own true story. He spoke with intelligence, honesty, passion and heart.
He began with a thoughtful assertion, based on an old nursery rhyme:
“Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me.” It’s a children’s rhyme, one that can be traced back to the 1860’s. When I was a kid, I remember hearing it all the time, from my parents, teachers, friends. It was used to teach confidence, implying that wicked comments are just that, comments, and that because they lack the ability to inflict physical damage on a person, that they are actually harmless.
“Words will NEVER hurt me”.
I think that statement is false, and actually acts as justification for people to mistreat one another. For if words cannot hurt us, then they also lack the ability to heal us, inform us, worry us, console us, intrigue us.”
Words have power.
Then Max told his own story. He told us about his family, and how wonderful they were. “When my brother and I were growing up, our parents never referred to our future spouses as our wives. They used phrases like, “when you meet someone special” and “your future partner” but they never said anything to imply that we would be spending our futures with women specifically. At the time, I wasn’t able to see how deliberate that was; it was just my parents being my parents.”
“I had out-gay and lesbian family members when I was growing up, and a transgender aunt who I saw quite frequently. I was never under the impression that homosexuality was a sin or that LGBTQ folks should not have rights; quite the opposite.”
As Max was telling his story one was left with the impression that he was a very lucky young man. Sounds like the perfect family and environment for young gay kid.
“But despite all of that, I was conditioned to believe that being gay was the worst thing I personally could be. I was called names, physically assaulted, socially excluded, and those experiences superseded that of my open and accepting community. I didn’t have a problem with other people being part of the LGBTQ community, I just hated that I was.”
Then he told us about his synagogue. “I grew up in a very progressive Reform Jewish community, one where conversations about diversity and inclusion were not only acceptable but also encouraged. My rabbi officiated same-sex weddings and was never shy about her unwavering support for the LGBTQ community.”
As I was listening to Max I thought – ‘Ahhh, that’s gonna be the source of his solace and self-confidence. An embracing and accepting synagogue community. That’s where his story is going to turn around and he’ll find happiness and love of his true self.’
But that’s not where Max went with his story. It was confusing and puzzling. He had this wonderful family, a great synagogue community. Sounds like the stuff of a happy outcome to me.
He continued, “I was in 6th grade the first time I was called a “fag”. I didn’t even really know what it meant, but I could feel what it implied. I was quite effeminate as a young kid. I sang in the choir, went to arts camp, most of my friends were girls. I never had a problem with that; no one ever made me feel like there was a problem with that. But when I heard that word for the first time, when I felt that word creep underneath my skin and make a home for itself inside my body, I understood that in fact there was a problem with that.
Words have power.
“Throughout middle school I became quite familiar with that cruel word, at certain points hearing it almost daily. “Hey faggot, what do you have for lunch today?” “That’s right, faggot, keep on walking.”
“Between the end of my eighth-grade year and the beginning of high school, I made calculated alterations to the way I acted, presented and socialized. I stopped spending time with the group of girls I felt most comfortable around and ventured into a big group of boys. I lowered my speaking voice, I walked with a slouch and I clenched my fists while running. I changed the names of people in my contact list to ensure more boys’ numbers than girls, and put music on my iPod that I didn’t like so that if someone snatched it out of my hand I would be listening to something acceptable. My freshman year I was on the soccer team, I was in Mock Trial. I was popular; I just wasn’t me.
“For years, I allowed the memories of every humiliating comment, every crude remark to dictate my actions. If I thought an activity would make me appear even the slightest bit gay, I wouldn’t do it. And if I thought something would make me seem straight or masculine, regardless of whether it was a good idea, I would usually participate in it. I spent every day focused on how best to present myself, and every night replaying the missteps of my façade.
Every year on my birthday, I would wish not to be gay, and every year I would wake up the day after, devastated by my continued reality.
This is the last image of his childhood that he shared with us:
“I remember being in gym class for a fitness assessment, and during the running portion having someone turn to me and say, in almost a joking manner, “dude you run like such a fag”.
We were standing within earshot of the gym teacher and as he turned in our direction, the two of us locked eyes. My expression was one of pleading, begging for the support and relief I knew this adult could give me, but it didn’t come. He saw my fear, my embarrassment, my need, and he did absolutely nothing.
Boys will be boys, right? I could see it on his face; he didn’t understand. That moment was one of a long string that reinforced my understanding of those cruel and demeaning comments: that being gay was not normal, that it was not desirable, and that if I happened to be gay, that I could never reveal that unfortunate character defect to anyone.”
Once out of high school, Max’s story took a positive turn. During his college years, he went through the very liberating but grueling process of coming out; first fully to himself, then one by one working his way down a long list of the people that mattered most to him in his life. This process took several years – person by person – and by the end, every single name on the list had lovingly accepted the fullness of Max’s truth.
That his story takes a most positive turn is beautifully clear in the fact that he is spending his developing professional life doing public, legal and political advocacy for the LGBTQ community. A strong young leader.
At the end of his talk I was both uplifted and confused. I was uplifted because he described wonderful, understanding and loving parents; he told us about his synagogue that seemed to teach and do all of the right things.
Yet, his middle school years and high school years were hell, despite that support.
After the Oneg that night, as I was driving Max to the train station, I asked him, “What am I missing? Who messed up? Who dripped the ball?”
He explained quite clearly what perhaps should’ve already been clear. ‘Of course, a loving and accepting family creates the core of young person’s soul. And it’s crucial and important when people work to make their synagogue a safe and welcoming place. To be a sanctuary. But growing up, kids don’t live in the Sanctuary or the synagogue. They just visit a few hours a week. So you have to work harder to change things outside of the synagogue. That’s where the work has to be done.
‘Who let me down? There were adults in my life who should’ve known better: some teachers at school. I was let down by that gym teacher. There were adults whose job it was to look out for us; and some of them didn’t.
‘The message for your congregants has to go way beyond the experience of listening to a sermon, or a lecture on being a caring and embracing community, within the walls of your synagogue.
What’s important is what we all do when we go out there outside of the Kol Ami.
If we are moved by our Jewish lives to speak out against injustice; it won’t mean anything unless we do it out there in all the other places we live and work and play.
When our children, or students, or friends use language we know to be unkind, and we are silent, then we are indeed complicit.
If we know that certain jokes or remarks are racist, but we let them slide – out there – to avoid awkwardness or embarrassment; then by our silence, we’re a big part of the problem.
Silence can be very loud.
If we know in our minds and our hearts that our mothers and wives and sisters and daughters are subject to sexism on a regular basis, yet we ignore it in our businesses, our gyms or our social circles, our schools, then we’re a big part of the problem.
That gym teacher who silently stared at Max and didn’t firmly reprimand the kid who called him “a fag”, by his very silence at that moment, he failed Max, and he failed as a role-model and as a teacher. He was a big part of the problem.
If we make excuses with idiotic phrases like “Locker room talk”, or “boys will be boys”, or “girls will be girls”, then we are part of the problem.
Yom Kippur asks us to find the broken places in ourselves and in our world and then to do the very best to fix them.
I’ll leave you with two images of finding and fixing; one involving a three-star general, and the other involving our 13 year olds at a bar mitzvah party.
The words of the general came to me by several of you this very morning from the New York Times:
“Lt. Gen. Jay B. Silveria, superintendent of the Air Force Academy Preparatory School, addressed cadets on Thursday after racist slurs were written outside five black Air Force cadet candidates’ dorm rooms.
One message—which was posted on Facebook by a young cadet candidate’s mom—read, “go home” (followed by the N word.
The General told the assembled students: “There is absolutely no place in our Air Force for racism, I‘ve said it before: the area of dignity and respect is my red line. Let me be clear, it won’t be crossed without significant repercussions.”
“If you’re outraged by those words, then you’re in the right place,” Silveria said of the racist graffiti. ”That kind of behavior has no place at the prep school, it has no place in the United States Air Force.”
“We would be naive to think we shouldn’t discuss this topic,” he said. “We’d also be tone deaf not to think about the backdrop of what’s going on in our country. Things like Charlottesville and Ferguson, the protests in the NFL.”
“What we should have is a civil discourse, and talk about these issues. That’s a better idea.”
“I also have a better idea about our diversity,” he continued. “And it’s the power of the diversity … the power of us as a diverse group. The power that we come from all walks of life, that we come from all parts of this county, that we come from all races, all backgrounds, gender, all makeup, all upbringings. The power of that diversity comes together and makes us that much more powerful.”
“So just in case you’re unclear on where I stand on this topic, I’m going to leave you with my most important thought today,” he said.
“If you can’t treat someone with dignity and respect, then you need to get out.
If you can’t treat someone from another gender, whether that’s a man or a woman, with dignity and respect, then you need to get out.
If you demean someone in any way, then you need to get out.
And if you can’t treat someone from another race, or a different color of skin, with dignity and respect, then you need to get out.”
The adult in charge found a broken place in his world, and acted immediately and unequivocally to fix it. He knew well that words can hurt. And he used his words to protect and to heal.
And you don’t have to be a three-star general to find a broken place, to act , to fix and to heal.
Some of our own kids did just that a few weeks ago. At a bar mitzvah party in one of our own local towns, a couple of the students attending took some of the plastic masks used as party favors and wrote on them, “KKK”, and “I love Hitler”.
Of course, that’s disturbing and 100 different ways. But we should take pride in what happens next. Immediately a bunch of the kids present spoke up then and there. They insisted that those masks come right off, that those words were hateful and horrible and absolutely unacceptable.
And the masks came right off. Their school taught them well. Their parents taught them well.
In subsequent days, the incident was dealt with in all other appropriate ways at the school and with families. But the moment to appreciate here and now is the kids’ reaction, their immediate denunciation of the hateful act.
Words are powerful.
May all of us here:
Find the broken places
Where we work and play And bring healing
With the firmness of a 3 star general,
And the pure resolve of brave 13 year olds.
Some things in life get more and more complicated. Some
things actually get simpler. Over time, the sounds of a language merge together, moving toward simplicity and economy. For example, in America’s South, a short ‘i’ and a short ‘e’ have merged, becoming the same sound. A ‘p-e-n’ and a p-i-n are both a [peyn]. It’s fine to move toward simplicity, but when things become too much the same, the language has to move to disambiguate – to make things distinctive and clear again. So, if I want something to write with, I would ask for a ‘writing pen’ [rahtn’ peyn]. I know this not just because I love the study of linguistics; I know this because I grew up in the South.
[sing] I [ah] wish I was in Dixie Hooray! Hooray!
In Dixie Land I’ll take my stand To live and die in Dixie
Away, away, away down south in Dixie.
Every morning of my elementary school years, from Kindergarten through the sixth grade, we sang Dixie. I grew up in Richmond, Virginia, then the still proud capital of the Confederacy. (No, not in the 1860’s.) The Civil War, or The War Between the States, as I was taught it, had ended almost a century before, but the pride persisted.
So did the efforts to keep black people down, poor and out of sight. One wouldn’t know that the U.S. Supreme Court had ruled unanimously, 9-0, that separate education was inherently unequal in its landmark Brown v the Board of Education decision. I never saw a black child in my schools. Not elementary school; not junior high school. But most important, I didn’t realize that I didn’t see a black child. I didn’t see.
Was I a racist? Was I pro-segregation? Hardly. My father, a congregational rabbi, also taught Bible at Virginia Union Theological Seminary, and members of its African-American faculty regularly joined us for Shabbat and at our Seder table. My parents actively worked with white and black couples to desegregate restaurants, asking to be seating together, efforts that were often not successful. We were Northern Jews, transplanted into a Southern culture, and I was quite sure that we were not racist.
My awakening came in Israel. My family spent a sabbatical year in Jerusalem; I was in the fifth grade. We had rented an apartment on Balfour Street, an area of Jerusalem still dotted with consulates and government offices. Walking home from school one day, I saw a black man walking from the other side, across the street. Something caught me off guard. He was tall and regal, wearing a turban and flowing robes. And he walked like a prince (which of course, he was – a prince from Africa.) But what caught me off guard was the sudden realization that I had never seen a black man walk that way – so tall and so proud. And then I understood that I carried racism within me.
We have all been affected by racism – whatever our color. Racism – North and South – has woven itself into the fabric of American consciousness.
As Jews, I want so much to believe we are different. Jews who came to this country, whether from Sephardic Jewish cultures in Spain and Portugal in the 15-and 1600’s, or the Ashkenazi cultures of Eastern and Western Europe in the 20th century, wherever we came from, we fled persecution – whether it was the Inquisition, pogroms, ghettoes or gas chambers. We fled from worlds largely divided by religion. Christianity was dominant, and for the greater part of two thousand years, Jews were on the wrong side of that religious divide. We came to these shores, and though there were challenges to religious freedom, the divide in America was not primarily religious; it was a divide of color. Would we maintain the outsider status we brought with us, or would we try to blend? For Jews who were white, they, we, largely chose to identify with white society and its values.
Jews of the South participated in all aspects of the slave trade, in proportion to our numbers in the general population. Only one American rabbi (North or South) spoke out against slavery. Rabbi David Einhorn, a Reform rabbi in Baltimore, delivered a sermon in 1861 in which he stated that the institution of slavery in the South was incompatible with Jewish values. A riot broke out after the sermon, in which a mob chased after the rabbi to tar and feather him (an all-time low in rabbi-congregant relations.) For Einhorn’s congregants, and for the overwhelming number of American Jews, they were finally on the “right side” of the divide and they were going to stay safely there.
There was so much I didn’t see growing up in Virginia; there is so much that we don’t see, even though it is right in front of us. The scars of a brutal exploitation of human beings are all around us. Half of all slaves were separated from their spouses and parents as a result of the domestic slave trade. Rape and sexual violence were commonplace. The Emancipation Proclamation was issued by President Abraham Lincoln in 1863 and ratified as the Thirteenth Amendment (abolishing slavery) in 1865.
But resistance to slavery has persisted for the last 150 years. The Thirteenth Amendment was finally ratified by the state of Mississippi in 1995. Since Emancipation, fear, intimidation, violence and incarceration have been used to seize and maintain political control and reassert social dominance. Seventeen years ago, I bought a book called Without Sanctuary – Lynching Photography in America. Since 1877, a decade after the end of the Civil War, more than 4,000 black men, women and children have met the end of their lives at the end of a rope. Most recently as 1950. As if this were not horrible enough, these lynching were a source of public gatherings and entertainment. Spectators took photographs of these lynchings, and made them into postcards that they mailed to friends. The book I bought is a photographic record of hundreds of postcards. The book is still wrapped in its original cellophane cover. I can’t bear to take it off.
In my reticence to open the cover, I do not feel very brave. My mother-in-law would have been braver. Our children grew up with her stories of resistance against the tightening grip of anti-Jewish discrimination and terror in Germany of the 1930’s. Like this one: Riding home on her bicycle one afternoon, she spotted a line of young men, all dressed in brown uniforms, making a chain across the street to block her passage. They were a block and a half ahead of her, anticipating her approach. She could have turned at the corner and avoided them (a tactic I probably would have chosen.) But not
Ruth. She reasoned to herself, “If I avoid them now, they will continue to harass me.” And so she closed her eyes, pedaled as hard as she could, and smashed right through the line of boys – who did not bother her again.
Ruth saved her family from their home’s destruction on Kristallnacht, fled from Germany on forged work papers, worked as a scullery maid in England, took a trip to London and laid down on the floor of the Jewish Agency office and refused to move until they issued exit visas for her mother, her father and her sister – which they got in August of 1939, days before the Germans invaded Poland and World War II began.
This is our first Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur without Ruth. She loved being here, with family, with you. This summer, David and I were invited to participate in an interfaith conference held in Germany, not far from Ruth’s hometown. We had traveled in that area 44 years ago, when we were first married, an important opportunity for me to connect with the family stories that were so important to David. But some of the stories remained still undiscovered. One branch of his family had lived for a thousand years in the town of Windesheim, in the Rhine Valley. So this summer we decided to find the town and search out its Jewish cemetery. Certainly there would be some remnant, some reminder that they had been there. The town is nestled among hills and vineyards (the Rhine Valley is famous for its white wines.) We turned into its narrow and winding lanes in the late afternoon of a hot summer day. So hot that that all the stores and cafes were shuttered; there was not a soul out. We found one older man watering his plants, dressed in nothing but a pair of boxers. David asked him in German where the Judenfriedhof, the Jewish cemetery was. He answered that there wasn’t one in that town. We drove around ourselves, like looking for a needle in a haystack, haplessly up and down random streets, hoping for a clue. But it was getting late, and our rental car was low on gas, and we did see an open gas station. So we pulled in and filled up the car. David walked into the station to pay. “What brings you to our town?” the woman behind the counter asked.
“My family lived here for generations,” David said. “I’m looking for the Jewish cemetery. Is there one?”
“Yes,” she said. “My husband knows where it is.”
“I know better than where it is,” her husband said walking out of the office. “I know the man who has the key to the cemetery.”
He hopped into our car, we drove to the home of the self-appointed town historian and caretaker of the Jewish cemetery, who
also hopped into the car, and the four of us drove up into the hills, through vineyards and corn and potato fields, to the edge of the forest, where we parked the car. And walked along a path to a clearing, a fence and locked gate, to a simple and beautifully maintained cemetery. Over the centuries, stones have been taken or destroyed or have weathered and faded. Maybe 20-30 tombstones remain But there, among them – Jakob Wolf, David’s great great great grandfather.
Jakob’s grandson married and moved to Krefeld, where his descendants married into the Solomon and Servos families. One August afternoon, in 1902, Theresa Solomon Servos’s neighbor brought her a ripe peace. But it was Tisha B’Av, the ninth of Av, the Jewish fast day that commemorates the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, and Theresa was fasting – notwithstanding that she was 87 years old. She put the peach by her bedside, to save for the end of the fast, and took a nap in the late afternoon. From which she never awoke.
Nearly a century later, our son, Noam, was in Germany for the summer, in an intensive language course. He sent an email on Tisha B’Av, saying only, “I broke my fast with a peach.”
We found Theresa’s tombstone, too – the ninth of Av.
We would have loved to tell Ruth that we found Jakob Wolf’s tombstone in Windesheim – and Theresa’s tombstone in the cemetery near Krefeld. But she is not here for us to tell her.
A last stop – a small museum in Krefeld, in the mansion of a prominent Krefeld citizen – Jewish and gay – who had been deported and killed. The museum is devoted to the stories of the Jews who once lived in Krefeld. In one room, an exhibit is displayed on a white door. Life-size figures, like holograms, step into the light momentarily, look around – and seeing that no one is paying attention, they turn away and disappear. If you press a button, they will stay. They are all young actors – and they are each holding a book. A young woman stepped into the light. We pressed the button. “Mutti, Vati,” the voice of the young actress calls out. It is a voice describing the horror of the night of broken glass, of Kristalnacht, November 9th, 1938. The diary she is reading from is the young Ruth Meyer, David’s mother.
And Ruth is not here for us to tell her.
On August 113h, Friday night, I said to David, “I am so glad Ima Ruth is not here.” What would she have done, if she had seen the coverage of hundreds of people marching with torches in the night, chanting “Jews will not replace us” and Nazi slogans? What would
she have done? And listened as our president refused to take a clear stand against them? Originating as a protest against the removal of the statue of Robert E. Lee (a Virginia boy), white supremacists gathered from all over the country to openly display their hatred. Confederate and Nazi flags side by side. We might have thought that here in America, at least those of us Jews who are white were finally on the right side of a divide that was primarily one of color. But now we see it clearly. We are on the side of any group that is targeted for bigotry and hatred.
The images of Charlottesville were terrifying. If you were afraid, know that you are not alone. You are surrounded here by a strong, loving and courageous community. Now is the time to strengthen these connections – for you, for your children and grandchildren. And, as Rabbi Rachel Timoner writes, “We are in good company. We are strong as a Jewish community; we are stronger still when we join company with all those who are targeted by neo-Nazis and white supremacists – people of color, immigrants, Muslims, [gays], disabled people, and all decent people who stand with us…We are part of a beautiful majority.” [letter to CBE, August 18, 2017]
Another rabbi, Milton Grafman, spoke to his congregation: [excepted] “Friends, it’s with a great deal of fear and trepidation that I stand before you at this moment and begin to speak to you, when the
Rabbi is supposed to bring some message of hope and inspiration, or help carry you not really through the day but through the year to come. Very frankly, this has been a horrible summer! These are troublesome times. Anybody with a shred of humanity in him could not have been but horrified by what happened [this weekend] . And I’m sick at heart for a lot of reasons. I’m here to say if you want to change this, you are going to have to start standing up and being counted. And let me tell you, these people are primarily anti-Semitic and this is where you have got a stake. Because let me tell you, if they get away with this, nobody’s going to be safe including us, members of the Jewish community.”
This was not 2017. Rabbi Milton Grafman delivered this Rosh Hashanah sermon in Birmingham, Alabama, on September 19th, 1963, four days after the 16th Street Baptist Church was bombed and four young black girls were killed, a turning point in the struggle for Civil Rights in America.
A lot of us didn’t see it then. We still thought we could pass, and were even relieved that the hatred and the violence were not directed against us. But now we see clearly. As the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King said, “We may have come on different ships, but we’re in the same boat now.”
As a Jewish community, we need to profoundly reconnect with the legacy of slavery and the ongoing struggle for civil rights. We’re going to hear stories this year, of white Americans of both the North and the South, who began to untangle their families’ complicated relationship with slavery. A Synaplex speaker, Karen Brannan, researches her family tree, only to learn that the tree on her family’s plantation was one from which people were lynched. Kol Ami is traveling on an intergenerational Civil Rights journey in November – four days to Atlanta, Birmingham, Selma and Montgomery. Kabbalat Shabbat with Jews of Birmingham, Havdalah on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Sunday in Church in Montgomery. Confronting a complicated legacy, but also listening to first-hand accounts of both African Americans and Jews who were and who are standing up to be counted.
Noam our son was back in Germany this summer, this time for contemporary art research. He sent a different note to us and to his siblings:
“A long and somber note. I’m a fellow at a research institute in Weimar Germany at the moment and was asked last minute to accompany and lead a discussion for a group of graduate students on their visit to Buchenwald, a concentration camp that lies horrifyingly close to the city. Mostly as a favor to a colleague, I immediately agreed. But I soon realized that my whole relationship to the past, to our past, had undergone a seismic shift this year, of which I somehow remained unaware. For the whole of my adult life (and before), Ima Ruth was the guardian of the story of the Holocaust and I was the grandchild who returned to Germany to honor that story but also complicate it. Praise the Germans for their willingness to memorialize the horrors they themselves committed. Criticize Americans for our failure to own up to American slavery. And so forth. I still believe in the difficult work of honoring and complicating the legacy of the Holocaust. But for the first time I recognized an obligation to guard that legacy, a role I had always entrusted to Ima Ruth. I don’t know what to do with this knowledge, other than bearing witness at Buchenwald. But I do know that I miss Ima Ruth dearly, and less existentially, you as well. I hope you can feel my embrace from across the Atlantic. I most certainly feel yours. And Ima Ruth’s.”
I am grateful that Ima Ruth didn’t live to see these days.
We, you and I, have been bequeathed a covenant of vulnerability and of courage. Not just my family. All of us.
I, for one, would not have believed that anti-Semitism is alive and well in America. And not only in the South – right here in Westchester neighborhoods.
I would not have believed that our government would continue to seek ways to limit voter access for poor communities of color.
That the same country to which Ruth could flee as a refugee is closing its doors to others.
I would not have believed that an Orthodox Jewish woman and her daughter were attacked on a Queens subway, mistaken for being Muslim.
I did not know how much systemic discrimination and bigotry continue to destroy the fabric of life in communities of color.
But I do know now how closely we are connected. This I know for sure: When one group is targeted with hatred, we are all at risk.
And I do believe that we will stand up and be counted, and that we will overcome. Deep in my heart, as a Jew, I do believe. We shall overcome.
For deep in my heart, I do believe, we shall overcome one day.
Bayom ha-hu, bayom ha-hu, yihiyeh adonai echad, u’shmo u’shmo u’shmo echad.
I got a new car a couple of months ago. I really enjoy it. The technology throws me a bit. Someone said it’s like driving a computer. The best part of the tech stuff is the Blind Spot Detection System: that beeping alert that sounds when a car comes along in my blind spot and I can’t see it.
We should have a Blind Spot Detection System here at Kol Ami; a device that would sound an alert when there is something urgent we really should be seeing that we’re not seeing.
Kol Ami has had blind spots in the past. Some of them we have managed to identify and fix.
Years ago there were interfaith families that we knew were here, but really weren’t seeing you clearly enough to know how to fully welcome you and include you. We see you more clearly now.
There are our LGBTQ members, who, years ago, we sorta, kinda, quietly welcomed, with open arms – – – but we were way too quiet about it. Hopefully we’re doing better and better.
There was our blind spot to those who were not physically able to come up to the bema, but we kept building our bemas with steep stairs and no railings, and no ramps. Many of you have helped us to do a better job.
We’re far, far from perfect. But in some areas we are striving to always do better.
Recently Rabbi Rick Jacobs, President of the Union for Reform Judaism, began to powerfully teach and urge us to open our eyes to the presence and needs and richness of our members who are Jews of Color.
Under his larger umbrella of Audacious Hospitality is this often unrecognized, often misunderstood and sometimes stigmatized part of the Jewish family; Jews who are Asian, part Asian, Latino, African American, North African, Indian and Arab Jews. To name a few.
And too often, you have been in our blind spot.
Please understand that I’m not here on this eve of Rosh Hashanah with answers. But I do want us to start asking questions.
I want us to begin some of the difficult conversations about color and race in our community. I want us to begin identifying and illuminating some of the blind spots.
I apologize in advance for those things I may not express as clearly or as properly as I should. In matters of race I’m sure I don’t fully possess all of the best terminology, or all of the sensitivities I should have. I’m very sorry if anything I say is experienced as hurtful. This is a beginning of conversations.
What we would welcome is your help. Please come after services, or drop by, or send us an email with any helpful thoughts. If you’d like to be involved in any future conversations make sure we know who you are so that you will be included.
There are some really smart people out in the Jewish world today who have started to explore ways for us to ask the tough questions and hopefully move toward some answers.
April Baskin, herself An African American Jewish woman, is one of the senior national leaders of our Reform Movement. Here she gives an example of a young biracial Jew who shared with her what it’s like to have people questioning your identity.
He said, “If there are five Jewish people in a room, all of them white except for one person who’s black, invariably, one of the white people will ask only the black person: ‘So, how are you Jewish?’”
Baskin continued, “Just imagine the damage done by years of so many Jews of color being treated this way. We often don’t feel welcome in the Jewish community.”
Baskin continues, “I am particularly reminded of this every time I hear that, once again, an African-American Jew has been treated like a suspected criminal in a Jewish institution.
Over time, “these experiences are deeply hurtful and push Jews and their loved ones away from our sacred community.
Baskin continues, “The Jewish community is remarkable in so many ways – ways that inspire millions of people to help bring more justice and compassion to our world. And yet, we are not immune to blind spots.
A story of a Kol Ami Blind spot: A good number of years ago we needed a new pamphlet to hand out to folks who were considering becoming part of our community. Some wonderfully talented people with the best of intentions worked very hard to create this beautiful brochure. We wanted to show how inclusive we are at Kol Ami.
The first draft of the brochure was filled with pictures of all types of families; grandparents with grandkids, single parent families, single individuals, same sex couples, a family with an individual in the wheelchair showing how they could get around our facility.
But, and this is embarrassing, weeks into the work it took one individual, with better cultural eyesight than the rest of us, to hold it up in front of the group and ask, “What’s missing?”
The unintended message of the brochure was ‘Kol Ami is so amazingly inclusive of all types of . . . white people’!
Every person in the brochure was white. Of course, that was no one’s conscious intention. Yet what a big blind spot! It shouldn’t have taken us that long to notice the omission. And fix it. And we did fix it. Another Kol Ami blind spot: A handful of years ago I was away on the annual confirmation weekend with our 10th graders. Late on Saturday night about 10 of the kids were sitting around the fire having a conversation.
I forget what she was responding to, but one of the girls said rather casually, “Hey, we’re just a bunch of white Jewish kids from Westchester.”
Two of the girls glanced at each other; one who is part African American and part Puerto Rican, and the other Asian. They gave each other a look that said, “Really? Is that who we all are?”
A blind spot. Some might say, “Isn’t that wonderful. They don’t even notice if someone is a person of color.” But is “not noticing” the ideal? Or ideally should one notice, recognize, but not care and just say, “We’re just a bunch of Jewish kids from Westchester?”
I don’t know.
In recent days and weeks, I reached out to some of you to help me understand. To help fill in some of the spaces in our blind spots.
I spoke with some of you who’ve grown up here from early childhood; and with others who joined the community as adults. You were kind enough to let me share some of my ignorance with you and ask questions. And more importantly you shared your personal stories of being a Jew of color here at Kol Ami. The first clear lesson I learned from talking to some of you about being Jews of Color? There are 1000 different permutations of what it can mean to be a Jew of Color. Just among the few of you with whom I spoke, you are Japanese, Chinese, African American, Indian, Puerto Rican, and Dominican. And each of those has it’s own rich and different, unique stories, and customs and foods and music and accents and histories.
The religion editor at The Atlantic, Sigal Samuel, gave a sense of the rich and countless possibilities that some of you shared with me when she recently wrote: “Am I a person of color? You’d think there would be a straightforward answer to a question like that. And for a while, I thought there was. I thought the answer was yes.
“When I look at my grandparents — four Mizrahim, or Jews from Arab lands — I see people who were born in India and Iraq and Morocco, my grandparents, who grew up speaking Hindi and Arabic. When I stand in Sephora buying makeup, the shade I choose is closer to “ebony” than to “petal.”
When I walk down the street, perfect strangers routinely stop me to ask: “Where are you from? Are you Persian? Indian? Arab? Latina?” When I go through airport security, I always — always — get “randomly selected” for additional screening.
“I was pretty sure all this made me a person of color.
And then an acquaintance, who is Jewish and African-American, told me in the course of a casual conversation that no, actually, I don’t count.
“This was news to me. At first, I admit, the statement got my hackles up. Who gave this person the right to police my identity?
“But then I started to wonder: Was I, a woman who sometimes gets read as white and therefore benefits from white privilege, wrongly co- opting the “of color” label in everything from internal monologues to health insurance forms?
“To find out, I spent weeks talking to people in the black, biracial and Mizrahi communities. What I learned surprised me. Turns out, nobody quite knows how to categorize Mizrahi Jews.
My family doesn’t know.
My HR department doesn’t know.
Even the U.S. Census Bureau doesn’t know.”
It was good to hear from young adults who grew up at Kol Ami, that, for the most part, they felt quite comfortable in the synagogue. Many said that they felt “fully included”. A few said some version of, “My looks are kind of ambiguous since I am a Jewish person of mixed race. Therefore, people often wouldn’t notice.”
Others described experiences of being asked in religious school, or at social events, “Where are you from?”, or some version of, “How are you Jewish?” Depending on the situation, your experiences of those encounters ranged from a bit amusing, all the way to quite painful and rude.
It was very impressive to hear of our young people’s ability to differentiate between their Jewishness and their race. People seem to have a pretty clear understanding of that very important difference: knowing that being a Jew, being 100% Jewish is not in conflict with your being 50% Japanese, 25% Scandinavian, 100% Black, 25% Chinese or 75% Arab.
Ancestry.com may be able to tell you that you are 2% Native American,
9% Welsch; but what they’re measuring cannot tell you that you are anything but 100% Jewish.
One of our college grads said to me, “When I identify as a Japanese Jew, I identify not as the intersection of the two, but as the union. Like I have two full worlds of culture and lessons to learn from.”
Now, the hard part for many of us: How about the role played by those of us who are not Jews of Color? Or, as Singer put it, those of us who are “Ashke-normative” in our American setting?
We heard described the experience of the one black Jew sitting in the room with four white Jews.
We hear about the kids of color in our own Hebrew school who are inevitably asked,” How are you Jewish?”
We hear of the Asian Jewish mom standing in the Hebrew School Lobby, while other mothers make clear their assumption that this woman is “other”. Not one of them.
We hear of the experience of the Jewish man of color in a new synagogue being stared at suspiciously – if not menacingly – by other Jews.
Rosh Hashanah challenges us, demands of us: As part of our introspection during these holy days, those of us on the other side of these encounters have to ask ourselves some very hard questions:
Have I ever been one of the four white Jews wondering why the one black man was in the room was?
Have any of us ever looked at a child in our religious school and questioned whether or not that child was Jewish because of the color of their skin?
Have I ever been one of the parents in the Hebrew school lobby assuming that the mom or dad of color standing near us certainly wouldn’t understand our conversation about our recipes for Rosh Hashanah dinner?
Admitting these things inside our own heads can be awkward. Admitting them things out loud can be really uncomfortable.
Our hope is that in the months and years to come we can create good healthy opportunities to share the uncomfortable conversations, to more fully understand our own misconceptions and confusion about who we are.
So much exciting and hard work to be done!
Hard conversations; joyous ones; the sharing of stories; building familiarity with what was once unfamiliar. We will begin that work.
And one of the ways to build that familiarity is with visibility. Just getting to know the people in the seats right next to us, or up at the lectern leading and teaching you.
One of our 11th graders said that “learning about Black Jews from Ethiopia and now in Israel was a cool thing. It felt good to hear about them.” He was seeing something of himself in those other Jews.
When our Executive Director’s husband is a proud Catholic – active in our community; when the president of the Central Conference of American Rabbis is a lesbian; when the senior rabbi of one of the most prominent congregations in the country is an Asian woman . . . All of these people are filling in our blind spots, making what was once, for some, an uncomfortable difference – now a welcome and beautiful part of who we already are as a Jewish community.
May we have the strength to do the work.
And may we have the heart to take complete joy in each other’s presence.
Rabbi Angela Buchdahl is the Senior Rabbi at Central Synagogue in Manhattan. Besides being a very talented rabbi, Angela happens to be Korean. How cool is it that hundreds and hundreds of little children are growing up at central synagogue looking up at the bimah taking for granted and being absolutely nonplussed by the fact that their rabbi happens to be Korean. And how cool is it that for all of the little Asian Jewish children of central synagogue, they are seeing themselves on the bema.
How cool that a little kid from central synagogue might someday come to services here at Kol Ami, look up at Shira on the bema with puzzlement, thinking to themselves, “They say she’s the rabbi, but she’s not Korean.”
Here are four things you can do to alleviate “perpetual stranger status” in your community:
When I was in the fifth grade, my family went to Israel for a year. My father was on sabbatical, and he and my mother decided it would be an important and precious opportunity for all of us to live in Jerusalem for a year. It was. And I have stories to tell. Like glass doors in our apartment and fights with my younger brothers and crashing into one of those glass doors and the scar on my face.
Other stories too. For Hanukkah vacation, we went on our first road trip out of Jerusalem. We headed south for Eilat in our little Peugot 404. It was long before seat belts. My parents sat in the front and the four us crowded on the bench seat in the back. There was a regular highway from Jerusalem south to Beersheva. Beersheva was, and is, the northern tip of Israel’s long southern desert – and as we headed out into the Negev, the road became only one lane of asphalt rolled out onto the desert floor. One lane for both directions of traffic. That meant if two cars, or a car and truck, came from opposite directions, one had to move out onto the sand and let the other pass. It was going to be a long way to Eilat.
But we didn’t get too far. Within minutes of our heading out on this road, it began to rain. First, a few big fat raindrops on the windshield. But within minutes, we were in a flashflood. Heavy rains poured onto the desert dunes around us, and silt from the hills washed onto the narrow road. Our car skidded, rolled off the road, and we tumbled, the car somersaulting into a ditch below. The car landed on its wheels; the rains stopped as suddenly as they started. My parents spun around. The car was smashed like an accordion. We were all alright.
We climbed to the top of the hill. The desert was still. Other than a Bedouin shepherd, staff in hand, leading his sheep (we could have been back in the Bible), we were all alone. And then an army jeep whizzed by. Two soldiers jumped out and looked at this straggly group of six people. My parents explained what had happened. From relief or being scared or I don’t know what, I started to cry. One soldier said, “Lama at bocha? Why are you crying?” The other jumped to my defense: “Hi lo bocha. She’s not crying. She has a cold.”
We piled into the open jeep and rode back to Beersheva, where we got a taxi and drove back to Jerusalem. We got back to Jerusalem in time for the first night of Hanukkah. Every night of Hanukkah, we say two blessings as we light the Hanukkah candles. The second one – ”[sing] she- asa nisim l’avoteinu bayamim ha-heim baz’man hazeh.” – gives thanks to God “who made miracles for our ancestors in those days at this time.” My parents changed the blessing by a single syllable: “[sing] bayamim ha-heim U-va’zman ha-zeh.” – “who made miracles for our ancestors in those days AND at this time.” This happened 55 years ago. There are two things I have always remembered. The changed Hanukkah blessing. We have sung it that way every year; our children and their children sing it that way. We give thanks for the miracles of those days and for the miracles of now. And I remember the kindness of the soldier who jumped to my defense – who saw that I was crying and wanted to spare me any embarrassment.
Of all the qualities I once wished for myself, kindness was not among them. Courage, joy, ambition – yes. Kindness? Kindness seemed for wusses.
So I was surprised to see how moved I was by a graduation speech forwarded to me by one of one of my sons-in-law. Three years ago, George Saunders delivered the convocation speech at Syracuse University for the class of 2013. “Here is something I regret,” he said. “In seventh grade, this new kid joined our class…She wore these blue cat’s-eye glasses that, at the time, only old ladies wore. When nervous, which was pretty much always, she had a habit of taking a strand of hair into her mouth and chewing on it.
“So she came to our school and our neighborhood, and was mostly ignored, occasionally teased…I could see this hurt her. I still remember the way she’d look after an insult: eyes cast down, a little gut-kicked, as if, having just been reminded of her place in things, she was trying, as much as possible, to disappear…At home, I imagined, after school, her mother would say, you know: ‘How was your day, sweetie?’ and she’d say, ‘Oh, fine.’ And her mother would say, ‘Making any friends?’ and she’d go, ‘Sure, lots.’
Sometimes I’d see her hanging around alone in her front yard, as if afraid to leave it.
“And then – they moved. That was it. No tragedy, no big final hazing.
“One day she was there, next day she wasn’t. End of story.
“Now, why do I regret that? Why, forty-two years later, am I still thinking about it? Relative to most of the other kids, I was actually pretty nice to her. I never said an unkind word to her. In fact, I sometimes even (mildly) defended her.
“But still. It bothers me.
“So here’s something I know to be true, although it’s a little corny, and I don’t quite know what to do with it:
“What I regret most in my life are failures of kindness.
“Those moments when another human being was there, in front of me, suffering, and I responded…sensibly. Reservedly, Mildly.
“Or, to look at it from the other end of the telescope: Who, in your life do you remember most fondly, with the most undeniable feelings of warmth? Those who were kind to you, I bet.”
“Now,” he continues, “the million-dollar question: What’s our problem? Why aren’t we kinder?
“Because kindness, as it turns out, is hard.”
We think that being kinder works against us. We live in a zero-sum world: the real world offers limited resources, limited jobs, limited places at the table, and someone else’s loss is my gain. We think it’s a given: if someone else get a piece of the pie it means one less piece for you. But is this true?
Adam Grant of the University of Pennsylvania set out to study successful people in a huge range of professions. He found the usual correlates to success: ambition, talent and opportunity. But he also found a fourth ingredient in successful people: reciprocity – the way we give and take. “Every time we interact with another person, we have a choice to make: do we try to claim as much value as we can, or contribute value without worrying about what we receive in return? As an organizational psychologist and Wharton professor, “ he writes, “I’ve dedicated more than ten years of my professional life to studying these [reciprocity] choices at organizations ranging from Google to the U.S. Air Force, and it turns out that they have staggering consequences for success.
“Over the past three decades, in a series of groundbreaking studies, social scientists have discovered that people differ dramatically in their preferences for reciprocity – their desired mix of taking and giving.”
“Takers have a distinctive signature: they like to get more than they give. They tilt reciprocity in their own favor…Takers believe that the world is a competitive, dog-eat-dog place. They feel that to succeed, they need to be better than others. To prove their competence, they self-promote and make sure they get plenty of credit for their efforts.
“These preferences aren’t about money: givers and takers aren’t distinguished by how much they donate to charity or the compensation that they command from their employers. Rather, givers and takers differ in their attitudes and actions toward other people.
Givers are other-focused, paying more attention to what other people need. “If you’re a giver at work, you might not think about the personal costs at all, helping others without expecting anything in return…you simply strive to be generous in sharing your time, energy, knowledge, skills, ideas and connections with other people who can benefit from them. It’s tempting to reserve the giver label for larger-than-life heroes, but being a giver doesn’t require extraordinary acts of sacrifice. It just involves a focus on acting in the interests of others – providing mentoring, sharing credit, or making connections for other.”
“In the workplace, few of us act purely like givers or takers, adopting a third style instead. We become matchers, striving to preserve an equal balance of giving and getting…If you’re a matcher, you believe in tit for tat, and your relationships are governed by even exchanges of favors.” How many of us approach our personal relationships this way? It may even be unconscious, but we keep a running list in our minds, keeping score of who did what, how much effort it took, even who hurt the other more, who apologized last, who “owes” more. (Do I sound like I’m talking from experience?) When we give to another person in this way, expecting an even exchange of favors, it’s not the same as giving. It is a form of keeping score. Giving with strings attached is not received as an act of generosity – not in the workplace, and not with our spouses or partners or friends.
Adam Grant published his results in 2013, in a book called Give and Take. In a style that reads more like suspense and a detective story than business, he writes: “If I asked you to guess who’s the most likely to end up at the bottom of the success ladder, what would you say – takers, givers, or matchers? All three reciprocity styles have their own benefits and drawbacks. But there’s one style that proves more costly than the other two…[Y]ou might predict that givers achieve the worst results – and you’d be right. In the short range, across a wide range of important occupations, givers are at a disadvantage: they make others better off but sacrifice their own success in the process.
“So if givers are most likely to land at the bottom of the success ladder, who’s at the top – takers or matchers? Neither…”It’s the givers again.” It the short run, it looks like the giving strategy doesn’t pay off. But in the long run, it often does.
Adam Grant’s research covers occupations as diverse as entertainment, sports executives, financial advisors, lawyers, teachers, scientists, doctors, writers, politicians, engineers, entrepreneurs and sales people. “Let me be clear,” he writes, “givers, takers and matchers all can – and do – achieve success. But there’s something distinctive that happens when givers succeed: it spreads and cascades. When takers win, there’s usually someone else who loses. People tend to envy successful takers and look for ways to knock them down a notch. In contrast, when givers win, people are rooting for them and supporting them, rather than gunning for them. Givers succeed in a way that creates a ripple effect, enhancing the success of people around them.”
One of the reasons we aren’t more kind is that we think being kind works against us. But being kind, giving without expectation of return, being genuinely concerned with the successes of those around us, (coupled with care and respect for ourselves) turns out to be a good strategy for the workplace, as well as for our homes and friendships. It’s also the most important strategy in building the world we want to part of it. Just think – whether you are a giver or a taker, you probably want the people who take care of you to be givers. You hope your doctor, lawyer, teacher and yes, financial advisor will focus on contributing value to you, not on claiming value from you.
You, too, might have thought as I did, that kindness is for wusses. It might be nice and sweet as a spiritual value – but in the real world, it isn’t practical. Not only is it practical, it turns out that we don’t do well when we divide ourselves into our practical and spiritual selves. We need to be whole. We are each one person. The values that make us better people will make us better partners, better parents, better friends, better leaders, better bosses and better colleagues. In research conducted world-wide, “giver values (working for the well-being of others, responsibility, social justice, and compassion) “are the number-one guiding principle in life to most people in most countries – in more than seventy different countries from around the world – from Argentina to Armenia, Belgium to Brazil, and Slovakia to Singapore. In the majority of the world’s cultures, including that of the United States, (values that are under assault in this election), the majority of people endorse giving [and kindness] as their single most important guidance principle.” In America, more people leave their jobs not over salary – but over the quality of the workplace. We seek places of empathy, of genuine caring, where our talents are acknowledged, our creativity and passions encouraged. [9 Things That Make Good Employees Quit Dr. Travis Bradberry]
When we don’t bring these values with us to our relationships and our friendships, when we don’t experience them in the workplace, we are working against ourselves – we compromise our own integrity. We anticipate the self-serving behavior of others, and ready ourselves with a competitive and adversarial stance. Expecting the worst in others ends up bringing out the worst in ourselves. [Robert Frank, Cornell economist]
During World War I, the story circulated about a small waif pestering an American GI for a chocolate bar. Frustrated and annoyed by her constant badgering, he finally took a newspaper with a map of the world printed on it, tore it into pieces and gave it to the girl. “When you put this together,” he said, “I’ll give you the chocolate bar.” To his shock, she returned a few minutes later with the whole thing taped together. “How did you do it?” he wanted to know. “It was easy,” she said. “On the other side of the paper was a picture of a person. When I put the person together, the world came out all right.”
Framing this in religious language, Judaism teaches us about tikkun – repair. Tikkun olam – repair of the world – is a mandate for each of us, a religious obligation to do our part in making this world a better place. We forget that repair of the world, tikkun olam, needs to be in balance with tikkun ha-lev, the repair of the heart. Our work on the inner world, in our hearts, needs to go side-by-side with our repair of the world around us. So here is the remarkable thing about kindness. We don’t have to prioritize tikkun olam, repair of the world, over tikkun ha-lev, the repair of our heart – or insist that we must first fix our inner life before we can be concerned with those around us. Working on being kinder to others makes us a kinder and more generous person. Thinking about others helps us already to become less selfish and less self-absorbed. Caring and doing for others will lift us from the entitlements and pre-occupations that have made us small. What will make us great? What will make America great again? Making a society where working for the well-being of others, social justice and kindness are at the top of our list.
2,800 years ago, one of the great prophets of the Hebrew Bible, our Bible, said, “What, o mortal, does God require of you? Only this: to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God.” [Micha 6:8]
Being kind. It’s easier said than done. Sometimes in the short run, it’s a tough decision to make. We may sacrifice popularity, or status, or a business deal. The arc does indeed bend toward justice and goodness, but not always immediately. Sometimes the decision to be kind is really difficult. We need help. We need to marshal the forces of goodness in this world to help us. Thirty years ago, a member of Kol Ami, Peter Meyer, already then an old man, gave me this prayer:
So far I’ve done alright. I haven’t gossiped Haven’t lost my temper
Haven’t been greedy, grumpy, nasty, selfish or over-indulgent. I’m really glad about that.
But in a few minutes, God
I’m going to get out of bed.
And from then on
I’m going to need a lot more help.
We do need help. And if you think it’s hard to be generous and kind in the workplace, it is much harder to be kind with people that we know and live with. Our own emotional needs, and past injuries, and expectations loom largest with our most intimate relationships. I share advice not because I’m a master; I‘m a master of none of this. I share because it’s what I need and hope to learn. Robert Covey, zichrono l’vracha – of blessed memory, taught, “Seek first to understand, then to be understood.” “Suppose you’ve been having trouble with your eyes,” Covey writes, “and you decide to go to an optometrist for help. After briefly listening to your complaint, he takes off his glasses and gives them to you. ‘Put these on,’ he says, ‘I’ve worn this pair of glasses for ten years now and they’ve really helped me. I have an extra pair at home; you can wear these.’” [Steven Covey, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, p.236] How long do we “listen” to someone before we jump in to fix the problem, or say, “I know exactly how you feel,” or, “Let me tell you what I did when this happened to me.” Deeply actively listening to someone, without an agenda, without a need, without thinking about what we would say, listening to understand someone, is a gift to give to another human being. It would be an act of great generosity, and kindness (not to mention wisdom), if I started intense conversations at home that way. Seek first to understand, then to be understood.
Love kindness, and walk humbly with your God. Humility before God reminds me that I will not live forever. That I am here to love and to serve and to give thanks.
The eve of Rosh Hashanah is also a reminder that we will not live forever. We are so conscious of those from whom we parted in this last year – and so acutely aware that for us, too, our days and years are numbered. This isn’t morbid. This is a good reminder: thinking about our mortality helps us consider what is most important. Who am I? Who do I want to be? What will matter most to those I love when I am gone?
In the words of another prayer:
“I expect to pass through this world but once; any good thing therefore that I can do, or any kindness that I can show to any fellow-creature, let me do it now; let me not defer or neglect it, for I shall not pass this way again.” [attributed to Stephen Grellet]
May this be our blessing Amen.
May we be blessed as we go on our way May we be guided in peace
May we be blessed with heath and joy May this be our blessing,
May we sheltered by the wings of peace
May we kept in safety and in love
May grace and compassion find their way to every soul May this be our blessing,
Amen. Debbie Friedman