From Rabbi Shira
“We come on the Sloop John B
Around Nassau town we did roam
Drinking all night
Got into a fight
Well I feel so broke up
I want to go home.
So hoist up the John B’s sail
See how the mainsail sets
Call for the Captain ashore
Let me go home, let me go home
I want to go home
Well I feel so broke up
I want to go home.”
On August 1, 1492, when Christopher Columbus set sail for the New World, Jews were on the move over land and sea. Jews had lived for centuries – more than 500 years – under Muslim sovereignty in what is known as the Golden Age of Spain. But now, with the Christian Reconquista, ethnic cleansing was the order of the day. Of the 250,000 Jews still alive in Spain, faced with the choice between conversion or expulsion, more than 100,000 converted under duress to Catholicism. Some embraced Catholicism; others went underground with their Judaism, becoming crypto-Jews. The rest left Spain, escaping to Holland, North Africa, the Ottoman Empire and the New World. Aboard Columbus’s ships were known Jews, and hidden Jews.
Some fled to Portugal. Abraham Zacuto was among them. Already prominent in academic circles (he was a mathematician, physician, professor of astronomy, historian and rabbi of his community – somewhat like my own credentials), he was invited by King John II of Portugal to the court and nominated as Royal Astronomer and Historian, a position he held until the Inquisition erupted with all its ugliness in Portugal as well. The navigational instrument that Zacuto invented and created, the astrolabe, was carried by Vasco de Gama and Amerigo Vespucci, among so many others, in their explorations of the far seas and their search for a passage to India.
“So hoist up the John B’s sail
See how the mainsail sets
Call for the Captain ashore
Let me go home, let me go home
I want to go home
Well I feel so broke up
I want to go home.”
Jews and Muslims both were expelled from the Iberian Peninsula, and together, a group of them established a town in the Rif Mountains of Morocco. Chefchaouen, established by these Jewish and Muslim exiles from Spain in 1471, prohibited any Christian from entering the city until 1927 – so great was the lingering fear of the Inquisition.
Stories of crypto-Jews are everywhere. You have heard about our encounters in Missoula, Montana – in Izmir, Turkey – in Santa Fe, New Mexico – even in Jerusalem. Two years ago, David and I traveled to northeastern Portugal to see for ourselves the village of Belmonte. I need to remind you that the tentacles of the Inquisition were long and vicious. Jews – in particular hidden Jews – were searched out by the Inquisition, interrogated, terrorized, tortured, publicly tried, and burned at the stake. Even remains of Jews were exhumed and burned – and their property, bequeathed to survivors, confiscated. No one quite understands how the small Jewish community of Belmonte survived. Known by their neighbors as different Catholics, they kept apart, married one another, attended Mass weekly – and secretly preserved and passed on their particular customs. Lighting candles on Friday inside clay buckets; eating unleavened bread during Easter Week, and fasting at a time in the fall, near (but not on) Yom Kippur. Some kept a light burning in their homes in the seven days following a death in the family. They lived in isolation and secrecy – among their neighbors, who never turned them in – for 400 years. A Jewish Galician mining engineer, Samuel Schwartz, working in Belmonte in 1917, suspected that they might have a Jewish story. They refused to engage him in any conversation. Secrecy, after all, was an essential part of their identity. It was only when he recited the Sh’ma – Sh’ma Yisrael Adonai Eloheinu Adonai Echad – it was the word Adonai – that they first realized that they were not the last Jews on earth. On December 5th of 1496, Portugal issued its own Edict of Expulsion. 500 years later, on December of 1996, Belmonte dedicated its new synagogue. The plaque in front of the synagogue, Bet Eliyahu, reads:
“Here in this place, the chain of our tradition has not been severed… As a result of government decrees, the Jewish residents of this village, like other Jews throughout Spain and Portugal, were forced to publicly deny their Jewish religion. But they maintained their Judaism in their homes. Here the candle of Jewish light was never extinguished. For a period of 500 years… in the homes of this village the Jewish commandments were secretly performed, the tradition was transmitted from parent to child in hushed tones, the Sabbath was sanctified in hiding while Sunday was celebrated before the eyes of the neighbors. They made blessings over the halla and the wine and mumbled words of Hebrew prayers in the darkness. Here the Jewish soul was never lost. Here the Jewish soul remains forever…”
Not all crypto-Jews went underground in quiet secrecy. Some vowed revenge. They had witnessed the terror of the Inquisition. Their parents, sisters and brothers, aunts and uncles, had been hunted and tortured. And they sought revenge. The age of exploration gave them a different route through the high seas: they became pirates – can you imagine that, Jewish pirates -and they set out to sink the Spanish Armada.
- Sinan sailed under the Ottoman flag of Haryeddin Barbarossa. Fighting against the Spanish, he was known as the famous Jewish pirate.
- Samuel and Joseph Palache would go from commanding pirates to building the Jewish community of Amsterdam.
- Moses Cohen Henriques, a pirate of Portuguese Sephardic Jewish origin, operating in the Caribbean, helped the Dutch West India Company capture the Spanish treasure fleet in the battle of the Bay of Mantanzas in Cuba.
- In the early 1600’s, the fledging Jewish settlement in Jamaica conspired with England and Holland to overthrow the Spanish, in exchange for religious freedom. Tombstones in the old Jewish cemetery still carry signs of the skull and bones.
- The Jewish pirate of New Orleans fame, Jean Lafitte, raised by his Sephardic grandmother, always carried with him the Hebrew Bible she had given him. On the flyleaf he wrote, “I owe all my ingenuity to the great intuition of my Jewish Spanish grandmother.” Raised on stories of the Inquisition, Jean Lafitte vowed, “So long as I live I am at war with Spain.” [Jean Lafitte’s original manuscript of his journal (in French) on display at the Sam Houston Regional Library and Research Center, Liberty, Texas]
“We come on the Sloop John B
My grandfather and me
Around Nassau town we did roam
Drinking all night
Got into a fight
Well I feel so broke up
I want to go home.
So hoist up the John B’s sail
See how the mainsail sets
Call for the Captain ashore
Let me go home, let me go home
I want to go home
Well I feel so broke up
I want to go home.”
Where does this drive come from? The drive for religious freedom? The belief in human dignity? The dream of a world redeemed and perfected? And the willingness to fight for it.
This dream has been bequeathed to us through the gift of Torah. Written by hand by a scribe, with a feather quill, in ink composed of vegetable dyes, on animal parchment, this scroll contains the stories that changed human history and shaped our destiny. You might think that this mighty scroll would belong to a privileged few, to an elite group of scholars or rabbis. But no! It is the provenance of each of us, the critical rite of passage of every Bar and Bat Mitzvah, as they in turn read from the Torah and claim it as their own.
Every Bar and Bat Mitzvah.
Joachim Joseph, born in Berlin and raised in Amsterdam, had watched with interest as older boys in his neighborhood celebrated their bar mitzvahs. His father, a lawyer and businessman, was not religious, but several uncles were, and they frequently took Joseph and his younger brother to synagogue.
Then the Nazis came to power.
“The family was sent to a Dutch prison camp, Westerbork, late in 1942. A year later, the Josephs were brought to Bergen-Belsen, the concentration camp in the Lower Saxony region of Germany where 50,000 died, including Anne Frank. Joachim’s father and mother were sent to different sections of the camp. He and his younger brother ended up in a barracks with Simon Dasberg, a 42-year-old rabbi who had been deported two years earlier, when he was chief rabbi of the Netherlands.
“When Rabbi Dasberg learned that Joachim was 13, the age of bar mitzvah, he asked if he could teach him to read from a miniature Torah he kept hidden in the barracks. They studied together secretly at night.
“The bar mitzvah took place before dawn on a Tuesday, in March 1944, deep inside a barracks at the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp.
Those men who were strong enough covered the windows and doors with blankets, and stood watch to make sure the SS guards weren’t coming. Four candles, scrounged from somewhere, gave off enough flickering light for Rabbi Simon Dasberg to unfurl his tiny Sefer Torah — the five books of Moses, handwritten in Hebrew on a parchment scroll only 4 1/2 inches tall.
“Thirteen-year-old Joachim Joseph chanted the blessings just as the rabbi had taught him, and he chanted aloud from the ancient text in the [beautiful Torah chant that you know well] that has been passed down for hundreds of years.
“There were people listening in the beds all around,” Joachim recalled as an adult, describing the narrow, triple-decker bunks where the Jewish men and boys were forced to double up. “Afterwards, everybody congratulated me. Somebody fished out a piece of chocolate that he had been saving, and somebody else fished out a tiny deck of playing cards. Everybody told me, ‘You are a bar mitzvah boy now. You are an adult now.’ And I was very happy.
“And then everything was taken down, and we went out to morning roll call.”
Dasberg also gave Joachim a gift: the miniature Torah scroll, covered in a red velvet wrapper and tucked into a small green box. “He said: ‘This little Sefer Torah is yours to keep now, because I’m sure that I will not get out of here alive. And you maybe will. I give this to you on one condition,’ he added, ‘that you must tell the story.”
“Joachim used rags to wrap the green velveteen box that held the Torah, and stuck it deep down in his pack. It stayed there, undetected, as conditions in the camp grew grimmer. As he approached his 14th birthday, he weighed just 42 pounds. His feet, protected only by rags, rope and two chunks of an old tire, froze in the winter cold.”
A series of miracles led to the freedom of both brothers and their parents, all emaciated and near death, and they made their way out of Germany on a convoy with Allied POW’s whom the Germans hoped to exchange for their own prisoners. They made their way to British Mandate Palestine – now Israel.
“For the next four decades, Joachim said nothing about his experiences. He wanted to stop the nightmares he kept having. He wanted to move on.
“I screwed it down, deep down,” he says. “I managed to forget it.”
He studied atmospheric physics, receiving a doctorate in 1966. He pioneered experiments in how dust particles in the atmosphere affect the climate.” Working with him on these experiments was fellow scientist and astronaut, Ilan Ramon. Ilan spotted the small Torah on Joachim’s shelf, and Joachim told him the story. Ilan (whose own mother was a survivor of Auschwitz) asked Joachim if he might take the Torah into space with him, to honor his country and his people.
Rabbi Dasberg had given the 13-year old Joachim the tiny Torah on the condition that he tell the story. And on January 21st of 2003, that story was told to the world when Israeli astronaut Ilan Ramon held the scroll aloft during a live teleconference from the far reaches of space, aboard the Columbia Space Shuttle
“This,” Ilan Ramon said to the world, “was given by a rabbi to a scared, thin young boy in Bergen-Belsen…It represents more than anything the ability of the Jewish people to survive. From horrible periods, black days, to reach periods of hope and belief in the future.” [excerpted from Debbi Wilgoren, The Washington Post, February 19, 2003] This little Torah had flown from the depths of despair to the heights of the universe – to the heavens.
To the heavens. Eleven days later, on re-entry into the earth’s atmosphere, the Columbia space shuttle exploded and disintegrated – killing Ilan Ramon and the other six astronauts aboard. The Torah, too, was destroyed. But not the story.
On that cold March morning in 1944, the morning of Joachim Joseph’s Bar Mitzvah in Bergen Belsen, as Rabbi Dasberg handed that small Torah to Joachim Joseph, in a barracks nearby was another young boy, a red-haired, freckle-faced six year old, my cousin Henry Fenichel. In another story of miracle and escape, a story I hope that he will tell you himself this year, Henry made it out of Bergen Belsen with his mother. What are the chances? That he too survived. That he, too, became a physicist. That he, too, received a gift later in his life – a tiny Torah, sister to the little one that went up into space with Ilan Ramon. Henry, whose family went from Europe to Palestine to America, began in earnest to tell his own story only in these last decades – bringing together Jewish and non-Jewish children, anxious to teach them about hatred and its consequences – about tolerance, about courage and hope. On a chance video conference between Israeli and American children, connecting the two continents, Henry was on one end in his Cincinnati home – and sitting with the Israeli children was Rona Ramon, the widow of Ilan Ramon. Her eyes fell on the little Torah sitting on Henry’s shelf that she could see so clearly on the screen. Henry said, “When Rona learned that yes, there was another little Torah, belonging to another child survivor of Bergen Belsen, who also became a physics professor, she requested permission from me to allow my Torah to be sent on a flight into space, in order to bring some closure to that part of Ilan’s mission”. [Richard Tenorio, Times of Israel, December 20, 2016] She asked with hesitation. Knowing the risk. Knowing that it might not return.
He didn’t hesitate.
That little Torah soared into space in September of 2006, circling the planet 187 times, traveling 4.9 million miles, landing back on earth thirteen years ago today, Rosh Hashanah.
Torah gives us a language of dreams. It gives us a way to “proclaim liberty throughout the land”; it calls us to tithe our earnings and leave the corners of the field for the poor. It gives us the poetry of suffering and even the language of the broken heart. The motel in Memphis from whose porch Martin Luther King was assassinated bears a plaque with a single verse from the Torah (from the story of Joseph and his brothers): “For lo, here comes the dreamer. Let us kill him for his dreams.”
Torah gives us the language of dreams. The language of justice, of sorrow and pain, of compassion. Written by hand by a scribe, with a feather quill, in ink composed of vegetable dyes, on animal parchment, this scroll contains the stories that changed human history and shaped our destiny. We will watch this story literally unfold before us this year, as we are giving ourselves the gift of a new Torah scroll. With your help, we will have one of the rare Torah scrolls in the whole world written by a woman. Our scribe, our soferet Julie Seltzer, is one of five women world-wide trained and certified to write a sefer Torah. You will have the chance (if you haven’t already) to meet her in the Atrium outside. Introduce yourself. Tell her about your own relationship to Torah; she will tell you about hers. You will have the chance this year – if you take it – to write with her a letter in this Torah. Yes, to write a letter. To write yourself into this story.
Torah gives us language for justice; it gives us a poetry of sorrow. Torah also gives us a mandate for joy. “V’samachta b’chagecha – v’hayita ach sameach. You shall rejoice in your holiday…and you shall have real joy.” [Deuteronomy 16: 14-15] Torah – the study of Torah – like Jewish life, needs to connect us to joy.
“We come on the Sloop John B
My grandfather and me
Around Nassau town we did roam
Drinking all night, Got into a fight
Well I feel so broke up
I want to go home.
So hoist up the John B’s sail
See how the mainsail sets
Call for the Captain ashore
Let me go home, let me go home
I want to go home
Well I feel so broke up
I want to go home.”
Those Jewish pirates of the Caribbean.
1 ounce mint leaves
2 ounces fresh lime juice
1 and half ounces white rum
1 teaspoon granulated sugar
4 ounces club soda
Shake, serve with a lime wedge.
And study Torah.
Mojitos and mezuzahs.
It turns out that each Jewish home has a tiny Torah. Not the whole Torah. One magnificent section. Sh’ma yisrael Adonai eloheinu Adonai echad. The Sh’ma – the verse that gave the Belmonte community of hidden Jews the clue that they were not alone. The Sh’ma and the following paragraph. We invite you to gather with friends this fall – old friends or new ones – to connect in the joyful study of Torah, the text of the mezuzah.
Torah will renew in us the dream of justice. Torah will connect us more deeply to joy. Torah will connect us with our past and with our destiny. Torah will bring us closer to one another.
Torah will bring us home.
“So hoist up the John B’s sail
See how the mainsail sets
Call for the Captain ashore
Let me go home, let me go home
I want to go home
Well I feel so broke up
I want to go home.”
[For this Rosh Hashanah day, the Torah will be unfurled in front of us – a magnificent white sail and a sea of black letters. Please remain seated.]
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.
“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.
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.
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.
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
Jacob was on his deathbed. He called his son Joseph to his side. Holding Joseph and his sons close, Jacob lifted his hands and placed one on each of his two grandchildren and blessed them: Hamalach ha-goel oti mikol ra
Yivarech et ha-n’arim
Vikarei vahem sh’mi.
“The God in whose ways my fathers Abraham and Isaac walked, the God who has been my shepherd from my birth to this day, the Angel who has saved me from harm, bless these two lads. And may my name be recalled in them. “[Genesis 48:15-16]
Then he instructed them saying, “I am about to be gathered to my kin. Bury me with my fathers [and mothers] in the cave which is in the field of Ephron, in the land of Canaan…”
“When Jacob finished his instructions to his sons, he drew his feet into his bed, and breathing his last, he was gathered to his
people.” [Genesis 49:28-33]
And Joseph? He buried his father, as his father had wished, in the land of Canaan, Israel. He returned to Egypt, “where he lived to see children of the third generation…At length, Joseph said to his brothers, ‘I am about to die. God will surely take notice of you and bring you up from this land to the land God promised to Abraham, to Isaac and to Jacob…and when God has taken notice of you, you shall carry up my bones from here.” [Genesis 50:22-25]
The Torah records the stories of the lives of our founding families – the conflicts, the deceptions, the loves and anguish, the births and deaths. And in these stories that close the book of Genesis, the Torah tells us how the great patriarchs prepared for their dying. The Torah records the clear instructions they gave to their children. They each invoked the story of the generations that came before them, and each gave of their own blessings while entrusting to their children the unfolding of the future. Past – present – and future – all in a powerful, singular and explosive moment of life. All infused with God’s Presence, a sense of purpose and destiny.
There are many who, at the threshold of death, cannot bless those whom they leave behind. For some, death takes us suddenly; for others, the end of life robs us of our capacity to know, or to articulate, our hopes and our deepest feelings. And still for others, we are afraid to talk about our dying, and we miss the chance to say – to say our blessing – to bestow upon those who survive us our deepest blessing.
And so Yom Kippur invites and encourages us: don’t miss the chance. You will not live forever, and there are precious opportunities right now. I understand that it spooks us to talk about death. We fear that it might jinx us, or that it will compromise the quality and joy of our life right now. We don’t want to talk about saying good-bye.
But good-bye is built into the fabric of life. It doesn’t matter when it happens. Bringing our first, or last, child to nursery school. Taking leave of our parents – or an old friend, wondering if we’ll ever see them again. Grandparents and parents handing the Torah to their Bar or Bat Mitzvah. Making the decision to move – closing the door on one part of our life and opening a door to the next. Walking a child down the aisle of a wedding. One more child off to college. We love with all our hearts, knowing all along we will have to say good-bye. And so in these joyous moments – our children spread their wings – a 50th anniversary – a new birth – when we are so happy, we are also crying.
In the years when my own children were already grown up but before they were married with children of their own, we found ways to be together as adults. With Noam it was a week in Berlin – during the year that he was living and studying there. We shared the space of his studio – an intense week of immersion into his life in that city. The last night, we were sitting on the floor of his apartment, playing cards, when Noam suddenly spread a bunch of cards in his palm and said, “I’ve chosen a card,” he said. “Now tell me what card it is.” I looked at him – like, are you kidding me? “Concentrate,” he said. “I’m focusing on it, so concentrate.” I did. I ventured, “The two of spades.” He turned the card around. The two of spades. “Now you do it,” he said. “Can’t we just quit while we’re ahead?” I said. “No, you do it.” So I spread out my hand and I chose the card – and focused on it. “Easy,” said Noam, “the queen of hearts.”
We were in perfect sync. Timeless. Without age or generation. A moment out of time. And then I remembered that I was going to say good-bye. And in an instant, I was again the mother. Saying good- bye is what we do. We love with all our hearts, knowing all along we will have to say good-bye.
My sister-in-law, Diane, tells the story that when she and her husband, Jeff, had brought their first child to college and were heading back home to Los Angeles, they were both crying so hard they had to pull off the highway. And four years later, when he moved back home, they cried even harder.
Why do we cry? Because we know it is so fragile – so fleeting – it is only a moment. Their life and ours. Here but for a moment. And we hold on. We hold on to the times they were young – or the times we were young. Or we are filled with fear of the future – what if…? What if he won’t always love me? What if she leaves me? What if something terrible…? We know the nightmares. We either wish for a past that is no more, or we are frozen in fear because of what might someday be. And we miss out on life.
So here’s the craziness. Let go of it – and you will have it. Like the kids’ song, hold on to love, and you won’t have any. Hold on to spiritual power – claim it for yourself – and you have none. Share it, give it away – it will be part of you.
It’s not only love we hold onto. We hold onto anger. We hold on inside to those who have hurt us, refusing to forgive them, thinking we have power over them as long as we refuse to grant them pardon. But we have no power until we let it go. Until we release them, and relinquish all control, we will not be free to live.
As long as we are afraid of losing, or of saying good-bye, of letting go of hurt or of anger, we will not be able to fully embrace now. As long as we expect to live forever, a long as we expect that we will not suffer, that people we love will not get sick or die, we will always be unhappy and disappointed. If we hold on to the hope that nothing bad or sad will ever happen to us, our lives will be without joy. As long as we live in fear of dying, we will not be able to live.
And we are going to die. “I’m not afraid of dying,” Woody Allen said. “I just don’t want to be there when it happens.”
What would happen if we were there, really there, as much as we could? Jacob was on his deathbed. Holding Joseph and his sons close, he blessed them.
A few years ago, I received a call from someone outside the Kol Ami community, who wanted to know if I could help with the impending funeral of her friend. I didn’t feel at that time that I could. Would I be willing to talk with her? Yes, I said. The phone call came in; we were connected. I turned away from my computer screen, closed my eyes, and listened. It was easier for me to listen than usual. I had no preconceptions; no baggage. I didn’t know what she looked like; we had no history; I had no agenda. I just listened. She was expecting to die within days. Why the call? She was furious at her family – her family of origin. They had not spoken for decades. Should she speak to them before she died, she wanted to know. Should she take that risk?
There must had been some crime, some act of violence, some irreparable damage. I imagined terrible things. But then I really couldn’t imagine. I said to her, “I have no judgment about your anger. I do not know what your family did to you. I am sorry for the pain you bear. I have no judgment,” I repeated, “on whether you should or shouldn’t reach out. Only if you do, who knows what impact your reaching out might have long after you die.” There was only one question I knew in that moment to ask: “Do you want to die with this anger?” I asked her. She answered in a flash. “No,” she said.
After that, she needed no help, no advice.
I wouldn’t have known what happened next, but as the way the world turns, her funeral ended up at Kol Ami. I learned that she had been gay, and had loved and lived with a woman for decades. Her family had rejected her. (It’s hard to imagine how our hearts have changed and opened, for many of us only in the last few decades.) She grew older, never speaking with her brothers or parents, never meeting her nieces and nephews.
She chose to reach out to her family. I learned that she died with her nieces and nephews all around her in her bed – and her brothers vowed to carry on her legacy of openness and inclusion.
We think that the end of our lives represents only loss and diminishment. There is unbelievable power at the end of our life, concentrated power, that will last forever in the lives of those we leave behind. “I’ll miss you so much,” I said to Rosanne, what turned out to be the last night of her life. “You will find me in your heart,” she said to me. And because she said that to me, it is so much easier for me to find her in my heart. The blessings we give at the end of our lives last forever.
“When I was a second-year student at HUC-JIR,” writes Shira Stern, “I began volunteering at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, focusing on pediatrics, although I covered other floors when the need arose, especially when other chaplains were away. One particularly cold winter Friday, I was preparing to go home to make Shabbat, when I noticed a mislaid request for candles and wine to be delivered to a patient’s family. Coat on, sunset imminent, I wrestled with myself: ‘It’s late already; someone should have taken care of this; will they even still be there if they are Shabbat observant?’
“Gathering wine, challah rolls and electric lights, I made my way to the room, where a middle-aged woman was sitting just outside the door. In broken English, she thanked me for coming in, and when I responded in French, she began her story. They were recent immigrants from Syria and had traveled from the other side of the world to make a better life for their two teenage sons, buying in to a business with the husband’s brother. Two months later, her husband was diagnosed with stage-four liver cancer, and he was given little hope of recovery. She cried when she said this, cried harder when she wondered how to raise fatherless children, and wailed because she felt so alone. All the unsaid words a couple might share over a lifetime needed to be articulated now, but her husband had been semi-comatose for days; it was too late.
“Her two sons, sitting in chairs on either side of the bed, were studiously ignoring our conversation. I suggested we usher in Shabbat together, so I set up the lights on the bedside table, poured the wine, covered the rolls with a clean towel, and then drew the privacy curtain around us. Rivka asked that I lead, while she held on to her husband’s feet. I sang softly so as not to disturb the quiet in the room. As I lifted the Dixie cup to chant Kiddush, the patient lifted his hands and placed one on each boy’s head, reciting both the traditional blessing for sons, (the blessing of Jacob for his grandchildren), as well as [Yivarechicha – may God bless you and watch over you]. His wife stood stunned, unable to move. When I began to sing, the man sang with me, quickly, and without missing a beat.
“When it was over, every one of us was in tears, and I left them to savor the moment.
“By the time I had reached the lobby, the man had died.”
[CCAR Journal, Winter 2011]
Jacob was on his deathbed. He lifted his hands and placed one on each grandson’s head. Some day, he said, all of Israel will bless their children as I bless you now.
There is incredible power as we prepare to die. Undeniable, raw power at the end of life. And that power is here – right now – right here. Barely an hour ago, the machzor reminded us:
Who will live and who will die?
Who at their end and who not at their end?
“I sat in shul for years reading these words before I realized the answer. The answer to each of these questions is ‘me.’” [Rabbi Edward Feinstein, Mishkan Hanefesh, p. 206]
Some of us may be dealing with an imminent terminal diagnosis – but all of us are vulnerable. Life is precious for each one of us. Thinking about our dying could scare us to death, or it could free us up to live. And difficult conversations with those we love are sometimes the most liberating. I invite you to continue this conversation this afternoon at 3 (OR following services) in the Chapel in the Woods.
Palliative care professionals share this wisdom: there are five things we need to say to someone before they die: Thank you. I love you. I forgive you. Please forgive me. Good-bye.
Yom Kippur invites us to do the same:
I forgive you. Please forgive me. We find the people with whom we share our lives; we ask forgiveness, we forgive.
I love you. Find your power to bless. You have the power to bless others, to see the spark in them and to gently blow on the spark and give it life. You can bless your children, your friends, your partners. And the words of our tradition help. We have been blessing one another throughout these holy days – but the words belong to you every Shabbat. Please, put your arms around the people next to you and say after me,
Yivarechicha Adonai v’yishmirecha
May God bless you and watch over you
Ya’er Adonai panav eilecha viychuneka
May the light of God’s Grace shine on you
Yisa Adonai panav elilecha v’yasem l’cha shalom
May God be with you and bless you with peace
I forgive you.
Please forgive me.
I love you – the power you have to bless. Thank you.
“I don’t remember much about my Bar Mitzvah, “writes Rabbi Ed Feinstein. “I don’t remember more than a few words of my parsha, or what the rabbi said to me, or what I wrote in my Bar Mitzvah speech. But I do remember quite vividly the Bar Mitzvah that took place in our shul the week after mine. That boy, my classmate and friend, had lost his father to cancer just weeks before. His family decided to go ahead with his Bar Mitzvah. After reading his Torah portion, he stood before us and spoke about his gratitude. He shared gratitude for the time he spent with his dad between the bouts of chemotherapy, for the support and love of his mother and sister, for the kindness of the community. I remember that speech clearly, and I remember how he stood composed and resolute before the congregation as all of us wept. We wept for the sadness of his loss. And just as much, we wept out of wonder for the depth and wisdom he reflected.
“The human condition is terribly fragile. That’s the lesson of our holidays this time of year. And the only remedy for this fragility is our gratitude. Gratitude is the only thing stronger than our fear and our sadness.” Rabbi Ed Feinstein
We don’t have to wait for the last minute to say thank you. We can begin every day, every morning, with thank you. Modah ani. I thank You for reawakening my soul within me. We do not own our life; we don’t deserve it, we’re not entitled to it. It is all gift. All of it. Modah Ani. I thank you.
And good-bye? How do we say good-bye? Jewish tradition offers a prayer that we can say before we die, or that someone can say on our behalf. It’s on the card at your seats:
Elohai v’eilohei avotai v’imotai, My God and God of all who have gone before me, Author of life and death, I turn to You in trust. Although I pray for life and health, I know that I am mortal. If my life must soon come to an end, let me die, I pray, at peace.
If only my hands were clean and my heart pure. I confess that I have committed sins and left much undone, yet I know also the good that I did or tried to do. May my acts of goodness give meaning to my life, and may my errors be forgiven.
Protector of the bereaved and the helpless, watch over my loved ones. Into Your hand I commit my spirit; redeem it, O God of compassion and faithfulness.
Shma Yisrael, Adonai Eloheinu, Adonai echad.
Hear O Israel, the Eternal is our God, the Eternal is One
Just as we have a way to say thank you every morning, we have a way to say good-bye every night. The nighttime shma.
B’yado afkid ruchu b’eit ishan v’a-ira
Into Your Hand I commit my spirit
When I sleep and when I awake In life and its passing
You are with me, I will not fear.
And why say good-bye at night? Yes, we don’t know if it will be our last. Yes, to come clean, to be at peace. But maybe most of all, to say, I will not fear. Life is too great, too incredible, too great a gift. And if we are consumed with fear of dying, we will miss it. I love you and bless you. I thank you. I forgive you. Please forgive me. Good-bye. We say good-bye so we can live.
It’s the heart afraid of breaking
That never learns to dance
It’s the dream afraid of waking That never takes the chance It’s the one who won’t be taken Who cannot seem to give
And the soul afraid of dying That never learns to live.
B’yado afkid ruchi b’eit ishan v’a-ira
V’im ruchi g’viyati
Adonai li v’lo ira.
Shma yisrael adonai eloheinu adonai echad
May this Yom Kippur free you to live.
[chant] Shir HaShirim asher l’Shlomo.
“The Song of Songs by Solomon.
Oh give me the kisses of your mouth
For your love is sweeter than wine.
The king has brought me to his chambers
Shechora ani v’nava – I am black and beautiful
O daughters of Jerusalem.”
[from Shir HaShirim 1: 1-5]
“The queen of Sheba heard of Solomon’s fame and she came to test him with hard questions. She arrived in Jerusalem with a very large retinue, with camels bearing spices, a great quantity of gold, and precious stones. Solomon had answers for all her questions; there was nothing that the king did not know, nothing to which he could not give her an answer…
It took her breath away. She said to the king, ‘The report I heard in my own land about your wealth and wisdom was true. But I did not believe the reports until I came and saw with my own eyes that not even half had been told me; your wisdom and wealth surpass the reports I heard…Praised be the Lord your God who delighted in you and set you on the throne of Israel.’
She presented the king with one hundred and twenty talents of gold, and a large quantity of spices, and precious stones. Never again did such a vast quantity of spices arrive as that which the queen of Sheba gave to King Solomon…King Solomon, in turn, gave the queen of Sheba everything she wanted and asked for…Then she and her attendants left and returned to her own land.” [from 1 Kings 10: 1-13]
Her own land was the land of Ethiopia. In the Ethiopian version of this Biblical story, the beautiful black queen returns from the encounter with King Solomon pregnant with his child. The son she bears becomes Menelik the First, first in the line of the Solomonic kings of Ethiopia. When Menelik grows up and becomes a young man, Ethiopians say, he traveled to Jerusalem to meet his father, King Solomon, to learn from his wisdom and to claim his patrimony. And when he was ready to return to Ethiopia. Solomon sent him home with 1,000 men from each of the twelve tribes of Israel – and another gift, the Ark of the Covenant from the Temple in Jerusalem.
This is the foundational story of Ethiopia. It’s everywhere. If you fly Ethiopian Airlines, you can sign up for their frequent flier program and get Sheba Miles. And everyone talks about the Ark of the Covenant. Remember – the Ark of the Covenant that Solomon sent with Menelik? It eventually came to rest in the northern Ethiopian town of Axum. It is housed in a chapel that is inside a building that is surrounded by a compound. A hermit monk sits in front of the building day and night. His food is brought to him. When he dies, another hermit takes his place. No one sees the ark. Ever.
Is it there? Maybe. It is unlikely that Solomon gave the Ark as a gift to anyone. But several centuries later, the Temple that Solomon built was destroyed by the Babylonians. When our Bible lists the items that the Babylonians looted from the Temple, the Ark is missing from the list. And we know that when the Second Temple was rebuilt, there was no longer an ark in its Holy of Holies. Was it whisked away to safety before the Babylonian destruction? Secreted away to Elephantine Island in southern Egypt – where there was a Jewish colony? And then moved to Ethiopia? Maybe.
On a June morning this summer, at 5:00 am, the world still pitch black, David and I gathered with thousands of villagers in this town of Axum in northern Ethiopia, to circle the compound of the Ark of the Covenant. Priests dressed in white, carrying a replica of the ark, covered with a cloth – followed in slow procession by thousands of people also dressed in white, carrying white candles flickering in the darkness, walking, chanting – the two kilometer path circling this sacred center of holiness.
Is the Ark of the Covenant there? Maybe. But more important, the story is there. Every single Ethiopian Orthodox Church is built on the model of the Temple in Jerusalem. Each church has three parts: the outer part for the chanters, the center chamber for the priests – and then a curtain which separates those sections from the Holy of Holies that contains a replica of the ark with a tablet of the Ten Commandments.
Ethiopian Orthodox Christians don’t eat pork; they circumcise their baby boys on the eighth day; the primary languages of Ethiopia – Amharic and Tigrinya – are Semitic. The language of prayer, Ge’ez, is Semitic.
And in this land of mystery is another mystery. The story of the Jews of Ethiopia. There are different versions of how they arrived ; perhaps they descend from the Israelites sent by King Solomon to accompany Menelik on his homeward bound journey, three thousand years ago. Perhaps they fled Jerusalem at the time of the destruction of Solomon’s Temple, 2,500 years ago – fleeing southward toward the Arabian Peninsula, and from Yemen, crossing the narrow straits of the Red Sea into Ethiopia. Whatever the story, there are other clues for the authenticity of an ancient Jewish presence in Ethiopia.
Our own Jewish traditions took a radical turn when the Second Temple was destroyed by the Romans 2,000 years ago. Priests were replaced by rabbis; sacrifices were replaced by prayer and learning; and the home – not the temple – became the locus of sanctity. You and I – regular people – made moments of daily life holy with blessings: blessings for waking up, for eating, for lighting candles and for celebrating holidays. Biblical Judaism evolved into Rabbinic Judaism. So let’s be detectives with this mystery: If the Ethiopian Jews had in fact been in Ethiopia for more than two thousand years – and if they remained isolated from the rest of world-wide Jewry (as indeed they were), we would expect their Jewish practice to look more like Biblical Judaism than the later Rabbinic Judaism that we practice.
And so it is: Ethiopian Jews continued to practice ritual sacrifice of animals; they still had priests; the Torah’s laws of purity and impurity were a high priority for them: menstruating girls and women sat in a separate hut for seven days (for those of you who have read The Red Tent, this will have resonance); though they did not cook milk and meat together (a Biblical prohibition), they knew of no other separation of milk and meat; and they had no idea about Hanukkah (a post-Biblical holiday) until being airlifted to Israel.
Clues surely to an ancient mystery. Glimpses into our own past.
Jews made their home in Ethiopia for thousands of years, and like us, they faced Jerusalem when they prayed. And more than us, they dreamt of a return to their home. Since the early 1980’s, they have begun the journey home. In clandestine operations in 1983-1984, Ethiopian Jews walked under the cover of night and in harrowing conditions over the Simien Mountains into Sudan, where they were airlifted to Israel. 12,000 set out on the journey; 4,000 died along the way. Israel was poised to try again. Seven years later that moment came. Just as the Mengistu regime was about to be toppled by rebel forces, the Israeli military carried out Operation Solomon. Solomon. Of course. The Ethiopian Jews were going home.
In thirty-six hours, 34 Israeli planes flew non-stop – cargo jets, El Al passenger jets, Israeli Air Force Hercules transport planes. “In order to accommodate as many people as possible, airplanes were stripped of their seats and immigrants were squashed into the plane, with as many as one thousand two hundred in a plane. Many of the immigrants carried nothing with them except their clothes and cooking instruments…” [Wikipedia, “Operation Solomon.”] Five babies were born on the planes. It was the largest single movement of any population ever in human history – 15,000 people in 36 hours – and the first time that Africans were brought out of Africa to freedom.
They are ours – and they are part of our story. [Lia – comes up to bima]
Shalom. My name is Leah Heillo.
I am very happy to be here to share my story with you. As a Jew, I always heard about Jerusalem at home, when I was a little girl. Jerusalem for us was a dream, and before 1984 the only way to get to Jerusalem was by walking from Ethiopia through Sudan. When you do that, you take the risk of losing your family members on the way. 4,000 Ethiopian Jews lost their lives on their way to their dream, Jerusalem. My family waited in Ethiopia until Israel opened her gates for Ethiopian Jews. In 1989 When I was 3 years old , my family decided to immigrate to Israel. In order to immigrate we had to go to the capital city, Addis Ababa , where the Israeli embassy was located.
After two years in Addis Ababa, on the morning of May 24, 1991 without warning we were told about Operation Solomon. That morning my father wasn’t at home and we couldn’t leave without him, so we missed Operation Solomon. My family had to stay in Ethiopia and wait for 5 more years. My brother who was 18 years old and married made the aliya with his wife’s family.
It was di cult to stay in Addis Ababa, a strange city for us with hard conditions. As temporary citizens in Addis Ababa, we rented very low quality apartments in a slum that was near the embassy, from people who hated us only because we were Jewish.
In December 1995 we got permission to immigrate to Israel. It was exciting, even though we all felt tired. That month, we finally arrived to Israel to the city called Haifa, where the absorption Center was located.
After two years in the absorption center we bought a house with the support of the country .We couldn’t buy a big house because of the very limited budget. so we bought a house with 3 little bedrooms for 11 people, but the size didn’t bother us and we just loved our house, because since we left Gonder in 1989 we didn’t have a real home . Now we have our own house that we can stay in forever in our country.
When we moved to the new house I was 11 years old At age 12 after I finished my primary school , I took the entrance exam in the Reali high school, a private high school that is one of the best in the country. I passed the exams and even received a scholarship for the full time until I finished my studies there. I finished my studies there with high grades which let me to continue to the Technion , wיere my older brother finished his studies at the mechanical engineering department.
Before I started my studies at the Technion I served two years at the army. When I finished my military service I started my studies in the civil engineering department. As a student who was supported by a scholarship, I had to work a few hours a week at some community center. As someone who immigrated to Israel, I took this opportunity to work at the absorption center that was nearest the Technion so that I could help other new immigrants.
When I first immigrated, I thought that in Israel, I would never feel again discriminated or hated because of who I am. I was wrong because if in Ethiopia i was di erent as a Jew, here I was too black and not Jewish enough. It was very disappointing and hurtful but I decided to fight it and to be part of the society in Israel and help people understand and accept me as who I am by teaching them about me, my origins and that I may be di erent but that we all are di erent from one another.
In this way I succeeded to be part of Israeli society I know that I could have acted in other ways that could make me stay separate from the society, never being part of it. I have chosen otherwise, to work on being part of it.
As someone who works at the absorption center I was able to prepare the kids for Israeli life and make it smoother than mine. I wish I had more time to teach what I knew from my experiences. About a year ago, I met Chana, the head and founder of an organization called Kaleidoscope. She was able to bring my experiences, feeling and thoughts into the Kaleidoscope program which helps people in Israel to understand each other’s cultures. For example, Kaleidoscope helps Arabs and Jews and new immigrants and native Israelis understand one another. But first we have to understand and be sure of who we are. I was very happy to hear about the aim of the program and to take part of it .I have had a great opportunity to work in Kaleidoscope, support the new immigrants as they begin to feel good about being in Israel while feeling good about being Ethiopian. I am happy to be here with you. I see it as part of my journey. I believe that all Jews all over the world should know about Ethiopian Jews so that my children would never feel unaccepted because of their ethnic origins and di erences. I think that learning to be more accepting is a very important message, especially today on Rosh Hashana. I hope that we all work on a new year of accepting and respecting differences.
It was this mystery that drew David and me to Ethiopia this summer. We arrived in Gondar, the province of northern Ethiopia that had been home for the Jews for millennia, in time for Shabbat. Hundreds of men, women, teens and children gathered in the huge, open, corrugated shed – which is the center of the Jewish Community Compound in Ethiopia. The men draped in white cloths; the women dressed entirely in white – seated separately. A woman walked to the front to light Shabbat candles. What do you do when you only have one pair of candles for an entire community? She lit the candles, covered her eyes and called out Baruch!
Baruch, everyone said. Ata – ata! Adonai – Adonai!
Overwhelming and moving. I knew the words – as you would. Asher kidshanu bi’mitzvotav v’tzivanu l’hadlik ner shel Shabbat.
Here, in the heart of Africa, I was one with them. We were one people; we had stood together once at the foot of Mt. Sinai and had spread all over the world.
Who are we? Who were we? Were we once black? “Shehora ani v’nava – b’not yerushalayim” ; I am black and beautiful O daughters of Jerusaem. I don’t mean to be asking a silly question: those of us who are today white-skinned were not black two – or three – or four or five thousand years ago. Shechora Ani – I am black. Black is part of our story. The Ethiopian Jews were isolated from the rest of world-wide Jewry for so long that they thought they were the last remaining Jews on the earth. When they arrived in Israel they were shocked to find out that not only were there so many Jews, but that most of them were white!
What does it mean to look at the other and to see oneself?
Here, in the heart of Africa, I was one with them. We were one people; we had stood together once at the foot of Mt. Sinai and had spread all over the world.
But I didn’t always feel that way. I grew up in America’s segregated South. Raised in Richmond, Virginia, the capital of the Confederacy, I sang “Dixie” every morning of my public elementary school years. Though my parents fought against segregation and worked actively and publicly for Civil Rights, I carried within me the unconscious ever-present racism which is part of our world. When I was ten, my family traveled to Israel for a year. I remember walking home one afternoon, uphill, along a beautiful Jerusalem street, and realizing something unusual about what I was seeing across the street. A black man was waking down on the other side of the street, in turban and robes. What was unusual was that I had never seen or expected a black man walk that way. He was tall, and he walked proudly – like a prince – which he probably was – an African prince on his way to a consulate or embassy office. And I understood for the first time the racism and prejudices that I carry inside me.
The challenges of seeing ourselves in the other are present right here for us in these United States. This past July, millions of Americans anxiously followed the trial of George Zimmerman for the murder of Travyon Martin. After his acquittal, President Barack Obama reflected on race and prejudice here in the United States:
There are very few African-American men in this country who haven’t had the experience of being followed when they were shopping in a department store. That includes me.
There are probably very few African-American men who haven’t had the experience of walking across the street and hearing the locks click on the doors of cars. That happens to me – at least before I was a senator.
There are very few African-Americans who haven’t had the experience of getting on an elevator and a woman clutching her purse nervously and holding her breath until she had a chance to get off. That happens often.
And then, finally, I think it’s going to be important for all of us to do some soul- searching. You know, there’s been talk about, should we convene a conversation on race? I haven’t seen that be particularly productive when, you know, politicians try to organize conversations. They end up being stilted and politicized, and folks are locked into the positions they already have.
On the other hand, in families and churches and workplaces, there’s a possibility that people are a little bit more honest and at least you ask yourself your own questions about, am I wringing as much bias out of myself as I can? Am I judging people as much as I can based on not the color of their skin, but the content of their character? That would, I think, be an appropriate exercise in the wake of this tragedy.
President Barack Obama – speech, July 19th, 2013
There are now more than 120,000 Ethiopian Jews living in Israel, a third of whom were born in the land of Israel. In the last few years, Israel has seen its first Ethiopian members of the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, and the last Miss Israel was Ethiopian – black and beautiful. Israel is not without its problems of prejudice and racism. Ethiopian Jews still struggle more than any other group within Israel with unemployment, under-education, poverty, crime and suicide.
Being Jewish means being part of a family. Whether by birth, or conversion (which is like adoption), this is our family forever. And like any family, we can love them, we can hate them, we can even leave them – but they are still our family. It’s who we are. White and brown, black and beautiful. There are still 1,600 families left behind from Operation Solomon. They are the Falash Mura, members of the Jewish community who converted to Christianity under pressure a century ago. Many of them are still Jewish by patrilineal descent. These 1,600 families have been part of the Jewish community for a decade or more. They are the ones we met at Shabbat services in Gondar. They have made the long road back from Christianity to Judaism. They speak Hebrew, they wear kippot and tzitzit, they have cast their lot with the Jewish people; and for their children being Jewish is the only life they’ve known. They have been living in poverty, as internal refugees, as they wait for permission to make aliyah to Israel. David and I went to Ethiopia to witness the triumphant end of the Ethiopian Aliyah to the land of Israel; we didn’t know we would be face to face with heartbreak. There is so much heartbreak in the world. There is racism and brokenness and prejudice – in us and in the world. But we are not helpless.
As Jews, we have a mandate to hope, to act and to heal. Israel’s national anthem is “Hatikvah” – the Hope. We believe in hope; we believe in each person; we believe in creating a society where each person brings their gifts and blessings to create a better world. So many Ethiopian Jews never made it to the Promised Land. Others made it through unbelievable obstacles – but could not surmount the obstacles once they arrived. And there are still those who are left behind in Ethiopia. We have much work to do together.
We will be better Jews – we will be better people – if we reach beyond ourselves. This year at Kol Ami we will immerse ourselves in these stories, watch the documentaries, meet the filmmakers, advocate on behalf of the Ethiopian Jews left behind, and renew our connections with Israel, and address the intersection of race, poverty and homelessness right here in Westchester County – facing and healing the prejudices we carry within .
Shechora ani v’nava – I am black and beautiful. We are black and beautiful. We are Jewish – we are Jewish together – and we have been given life in order to bless and heal this world.