Sunday, September 15, 2013

When Lightning Strikes - Yom Kippur Morning 2013

On the afternoon of June 29, Shabbat, with not a storm cloud in sight, a bolt of lightning struck three campers who were playing Frisbee at Goldman Union Camp Institute GUCI including two nine year-olds, a girl from St. Louis named Lily Hoberman, and a boy from Louisville named Noah Auerbach, as well as a 12 year-old from Cincinnati named Ethan Kadish. The lightning strike that hit the camp was the only lightning strike in the area at all according to news reports and no storm at all was close to the camp at the time. Not only was it not raining, the skies were clear but for a few clouds. This was a "bolt out of the blue."

Rabbi Ron Klotz, recently retired as Director of Goldman Union Camp Institute, wrote in his blog a little over week later that:

I guess one could say that this is an ultimate teachable moment.  I've had numerous conversations this week with friends who question, "How could God let something like this happen?" and, "How can one have faith in the midst of so much doubt?"  With the High Holy days approaching early this fall, I know that many of us will be wrestling with such questions.  When we read the Unetane Tokef on Yom Kippur..."Who shall live and who shall die.  Who by fire and who by water, etc?" 

In speaking to those who were at Goldman Union Camp when the lightning struck and seeing what went on during the weeks that followed, I think it important to discuss with you another theme of Yom Kippur. Not about the Unetaneh Tokef with its stark treatment of life and death and its troubling assumption that God decides fates, but instead I would like to speak about the theme of the afternoon Torah portion, “It is not beyond you,” not too distant, not too difficult. I do not want to talk about why lightning may have struck. Today, I want to talk about what happens when it does.

For the past twelve years, I have spent two weeks each Summer at GUCI. Of those roughly 180 days give or take a few, I probably spent a hour or more on over 100 of those days at the pool or at the sports fields within a couple hundred feet of where the lightning struck. As I stand here before you this morning, I can imagine in detail the entire day. In my mind, I can see the campers shuffling in to the dining hall for the late wake up breakfast wearing pajamas, most with flip flops on their feet. They eat bagels and cereal set out on a buffet and sit with their friends at whatever table they like. Breakfast ends and there is a short time before services begin. They go back to their cabins and dress for the day gathering at the Beit Tefilah where GUCI campers enjoy music filled services.

After services, the camp would have Kiddush over very sweet and usually very warm grape juice and do the Motzi over tiny mostly dried out pieces of Challah. Then everyone heads to get lunch. During Shabbat lunch, one can sit wherever one likes outside near the dining hall. It is a relaxing time at camp. After a brief menucha, a rest period, campers change into their swim suits and head down to the pool and sports fields. From 1:30 pm to about 4 pm, every Saturday the kids play games on the fields, swim in the pools, and, if they would like, they can attend optional mini-groups which include everything from arts and crafts to discussions about the world of Harry Potter, singing popular tunes like an opera singer, playing your belly as a musical instrument and my kids’ favorite, the Clergy Kids Support Group.

That afternoon, like every Shabbat, at 1:30 pm kids were just entering the pool, a game or two would be just beginning on the basketball courts, and half a dozen to a dozen kids would begin playing Ultimate Frisbee. There were a few clouds in the sky but not many. The sun was shining. It was a warm and sunny end of June day.

Ethan Kadish was teaching Lily Hoberman and Noah Auerbach how to play Ultimate Frisbee. Suddenly, there was a flash of light and a loud bang. A neighbor said it sounded like artillery going off. The lightning did not strike the six story high climbing tower which was a couple of hundred feet away. It did not strike the line of trees near-by, nor the basketball courts, where a game was underway. Instead, the lightning struck three children playing Frisbee on a sun drenched field. From this point on, I cannot imagine. It is difficult for me to even visualize what happened next even after hearing about it from multiple people.

That is, however, what I think is vitally important to discuss. What do we do when there is a bolt out of the blue in our lives? Would we be prepared to face the challenge?

It just so happens that only a few days before the lightning struck, some members of the camp staff had finished their recertification for CPR. At least one of them was playing basketball not much more than a hundred feet away. There were a number of other staff members who also knew CPR who were nearby. All three campers received CPR within a minute and all three of camp’s Automated External Defibrillators or AEDs, were put into use shortly thereafter.

The Monday morning after the lightning struck, I had not seen much of anything written about what happened. I had seen the very brief statements from Goldman Union Camp and I listened to a conference call during which Rabbi Covitz read a prepared statement that offered less information than could be found in the Indianapolis Star. As it became clear that it was only the response of the staff of the camp that saved the lives of the three children and I read postings from friends on staff at the camp praising the actions of their friends that day, I was inspired to write an article about it on my blog. The article, “A Bolt Out of the Blue,” ended up being shared widely by the URJ and by Goldman Union Camp and read by thousands of people from around the world including hundreds of my colleagues and parents and alumni of camp. Most importantly, as I found out later, my article helped bring comfort to the leadership and staff at camp.

As I wrote in my article, when the lightning struck:

Life sometimes gives people the opportunity to demonstrate their best. On this day of challenge, in perhaps the most stressful moments of urgency that will occur during their lifetimes, [the first responders] showed that the preparation and training, compassion and passion, which have long been the hallmarks of Goldman Union Camp and its staff, when put into action can make a difference not just in theory but in real life.

Preparation, both preparing of appropriate skills and emotional preparation, helps. Feeling like you can accomplish the necessary task, feeling like you can make a difference, matters. Goldman Union Camp does a good job of making its campers feel empowered as Jews and ultimately as members of their communities. The staff of the camp includes many who have spent over ten summers at camp as campers, as part of Avodah, the camp service corps, as assistant counselors, counselors and leadership staff. Some on staff have spent upwards of fifteen summers at camp, coming as children with their rabbi parents and attending the camp for young children, Camp Katan. GUCI has had a major impact in developing the character of those who now serve on its staff.

As I wrote that day:

Every morning at GUCI, the camp sings “L’takein”, also known as the “Na Na Song” because of its introductory chorus. These are the words written by Danny Nichols [a well known Jewish musician who tours the nation every summer visiting camp after camp] someone who has been a part of the GUCI community since childhood. His words inspire the faculty, staff, counselors and campers at GUCI every day. [The song is but two lines long.]

Baruch atah Adonai Eloheinu melech ha’olam shenatan lanu hizdamnut l’takein et ha’olam!
Blessed are you, Adonai, our God, Ruler of the Universe, who has given us the opportunity to mend the world!

Sometimes, as the Summer drags on and the morning seems to come all too early, the hands may not be raised as high up in the air or sway as much from side to side, but the sentiment seeps into the thoughts of those who hear it. Each morning, those at camp hear, “I have the opportunity to mend the world today.”

Most of the time, the listeners probably think of large scale social action such as feeding the hungry or helping the environment. Some of them may realize that the words could apply to helping make their cabins better, their friends happier. Everyone at camp, all of the campers, all of the counselors, hear those words every morning. As I said in my blog:

Simply put, when [the] opportunity came with urgency on [one] Shabbat afternoon, people imbued with the concept that they could mend the world, saved the lives of three children.

Many of you have asked how the students affected by the lightning are doing.
Noah Auerbach from The Temple in Louisville, Kentucky suffered relatively minor injuries. When he returned to camp with his family for the final Shabbat of the first session so that he could thank the first responders and say a proper good bye to his cabin mates, counselors, and other good friends, he showed off the burned area on his foot where the lightning left his body.

Lily Hoberman from Congregation Shaare Emeth in St. Louis suffered slightly worse injuries, including more burns. On the Friday night that Noah Auerbach visited camp with his family, Lily Hoberman attended Shabbat services at home and in front of a very packed congregation there to support her, recited the Birkat Hagomel, the blessing for one who has recovered from a serious illness. Imagine a nine year old girl whose heart had stopped beating a week earlier standing in front of her congregation reciting these words:

Baruch Atah Adonai Eloheinu Melech ha'olam, ha-gomel l’hayavim tovot sheg’malani kol tov.
Blessed are You, Adonai our God, ruler of the world,
who rewards with goodness,
and who has rewarded me with goodness.
According to an article in the St. Louis Jewish Light,

Michelle Hoberman, Lily’s mother, said of the swift response of GUCI’s camp counselors and staff, “they literally saved her life. One young man, a wilderness specialist at the camp from Pittsburgh, administered CPR and shocked Lily back to life. He was the angel who saved her. Another young man from Cincinnati, Ohio, a college student, was there to assist him. Without those first responders, without those counselors, the result would not have been the same. They were trained so well. I am so happy that we got to meet the people who saved our children.

The Hobermans, along with the parents of the other two campers who were injured, the Auerbachs of Louisville, Ky. and the Kadishes of Cincinnati, issued a joint statement thanking camp counselors and staff.

“Their extensive training and the camp’s preparedness allowed them to be life savers when the urgent need arose. The way in which URJ quickly responded by bringing together the support staff and senior leadership was phenomenal and we are grateful for them for maintaining the safety and security of our children and for other concerned campers.”

With an outpouring of support and a desire to donate funds following the event, the three families created the Miracle Kids Medical and Rescue Fund at GUCI to help fund the annual rescue training of the staff and to provide new and additional medical equipment for camp.

The leadership of the Union for Reform Judaism demonstrated a high level of caring and concern both for the families of the affected children and for the staff at camp. Immediately after the event a senior staff team including the Director of Camping and a leading crisis counselor came to GUCI to provide support for the staff there as they addressed the psychological impact of the event on both their campers and themselves.

While the recoveries of Noah and Lily were relatively swift and complete, Ethan Kadish faces many challenges ahead. Evidently taking the brunt of the impact of the lightning, Ethan’s injuries were much more severe and his recovery will be measured in increments over many months and years. He suffered a traumatic brain injury in addition to other ailments that have left him unable to speak or move voluntarily as of yet and he requires hours of therapy each day. The URJ recently sent out a letter asking for funds to be donated to Help Hope Live, a catastrophic injury fund, in the name of Ethan Kadish to help the family pay for his extreme medical bills in the years ahead, bills that have and will continue to dramatically exceed the cap of available insurance coverage.

One morning, while I was at camp, Danny Nichols, who spent the week at camp, and Camp Director Mark Covitz drove to Cincinnati to visit Ethan and his family in the hospital. Ethan’s younger sister was also there with her parents and brother. She had been attending camp along with her brother and had remained at camp during the week after the lightning strike. The family members, associated with GUCI for many years, are big fans of Danny Nichols and are particularly fond of his song, “Chazak.” Danny recorded a special version of the song and dedicated it to Ethan. The chorus of the song is “Chazak, Chazak, v’nithazek. Be strong, be strong, and we’ll strengthen one another.” These are the words we traditionally say when we finish reading a book of the Torah.

Danny Nichols sang the song with the family at Ethan’s bedside and I can only imagine the strength of the emotions present. Recently, I contacted Alexia Kadish, Ethan’s mother, letting her know that our congregation sends its prayers to her family and for her son’s continued healing. The family greatly appreciates the outpouring of support that they have received from our congregation and from many others. Today, we continue to think of the Kadish family and wish them strength and courage as they face the challenges ahead. I think as well of Rabbi Sissy Coran and the rest of the staff of Rockdale Temple in Cincinnati who have been of immense support to the family since the lightning struck. Chazak, Chazak, v’Nitchazeik. Be strong, be strong, and we will strengthen one another.

I concluded my article written two days after the lightning struck with words in which, having heard more about what happened since, I have even more confidence. That Monday, I wrote:

There are going to be times in our lives, hopefully very few, when we will be struck by a bolt out of the blue, suddenly confronted by a difficult challenge. For most of us, those words will only be idiomatic. For three children on a Shabbat afternoon at camp, it literally happened to them. When such an occurrence happens to us, may we be blessed to be among those who have the compassion and care to reassure us as we face the difficulty and the ability to help us to overcome the challenge. [That] Saturday afternoon, Goldman Union Camp Institute proved what I have known for many years: that it is such a place. It is why I send my kids to camp, why I spend time on faculty at camp, and why I encourage others to send their kids to camp. GUCI is a special place and its faculty and staff are exceptional people.

It is my hope that I, our staff, and you the members of our congregation and our community will be able to provide compassion, caring, support and comfort to each one of us individually and to each of our families during our times of need as well. That is the kind of environment that we work to create and maintain.

When lightning strikes, we put our preparation into action. We rely on the people with whom we have surrounded ourselves, our friends, our neighbors, our congregation, our community. We pray and we hope. We cry. We hug. We seek out support. Like the Kadish family does through Ethan’s Caring Bridge page, we offer thanks for the blessings that we have even amid the curses we have faced. We go on, though it may be difficult or more than difficult.

This High Holidays, I have spoken to you four times. On Rosh Hashanah, I noted that we should care about what is going on in the world and act to make our world a better place. Last night, I spoke about what it means to “Love your neighbor as yourself.” All of the sermons that I have offered this year tie in to this one. They are all at their heart about one theme: preparing yourself to be ready to help others and to give them strength when they most need it. If you are ready to care and ready to act, you can be of help when lightning strikes. You can help to strengthen others.

Today we join with those around the country sending strength and comfort to the family of Ethan Kadish and let us make the promise to work to strengthen one another. It is not beyond us, nor too distant, nor too difficult.

May this year be a year in which we bring blessings into the lives of others.

Gamar Chatimah Tovah, may we help to inscribe one another in the book of our lives for a good year. Good yom tov.

Whatever Happened to Love Thy Neighbor? Kol Nidrei Sermon 2013

I have to admit that I am a big fan of Mel Brooks’ comedies. They are anything but politically correct, making fun of stereotype after stereotype. From the Producers  to Spaceballs, from History of the World Part I to Blazing Saddles, Brooks’ movies make us laugh, but they also make us think about the world in which we live and how we treat one another. Often, they make us cringe. As a recent PBS documentary noted, “Mel Brooks never met a stereotype he couldn’t upend.”

Perhaps, his most politically incorrect work is Blazing Saddles. Released in 1974, the film starred Cleavon Little as a Black Sheriff named Bart, no doubt after the famous outlaw “Black Bart.” Bart is full of Yiddishkeit and sophistication. He works alongside sidekick Gene Wilder and the people of a small western town to oppose the machinations of Harvey Korman aided by a very racist and ignorant Slim Pickens. Along the way, racist stereotype after racist stereotype is confronted head on. Brought to light, they appear absurdly ignorant and silly, but throughout the movie the viewer is confronted with the reality that some people really act this way and believe this stuff.

There are many verbal exchanges in the film that are very funny, very pointed, and very much inappropriate for a High Holiday sermon, but there is one story that I would like to share. It begins with a knock on the side window of the Sheriff’s office.

[Bart gets up and sees the same woman who insulted him earlier]

Elderly Woman: Good evening, Sherriff. Sorry about the (Insult and racial epithet) I offered earlier.

[Many of you know the exact words of that insult. Tonight, on Kol Nidrei, let us operate under the Jewish premise, Hu mei-vin Ya-vin, the one who understands will understand… She continued].  

I hope this apple pie will in some small way say thank you for your ingenuity and courage in defeating that horrible Mongo.
Bart: Well, uh... thank you, much obliged. Good night.

[Bart closes the window and smells the pie... but returns to the window when he hears another knock]

Elderly Woman: Of course, you'll have the good taste not to mention that I spoke to you.

Bart: Of course.

Elderly Woman: Thank you.

The bigger picture, pardon the pun, within the movie is a very Jewish narrative. Bart and his fellow railroad workers, all with dark skin of course, are driven by a taskmaster who does not value their lives at all. Bart strikes the overseer and flees. The narrative diverges of course, the move is a cowboy spoof, but throughout—with its outlandish violations of political correctness—one theme develops: When people of all sorts work together, they can overcome those who discriminate and hate. That message remains as appropriate for today as it was nearly 40 years ago.

Tonight, I would like to talk a bit about discrimination in our day and age and then I will answer two questions. How do we overcome hatred based upon difference? And bringing it into the context of Yom Kippur, whatever happened to ‘Love thy neighbor as thyself’, the directive that we read in tomorrow’s Torah portion?”

Where we are today?

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. famously said, “The moral arc of the universe bends toward justice.” In response, at the 50th anniversary of March on Washington and Dr. King’s “I have a Dream speech,” President Obama stated that, “The arc of the moral universe may bend towards justice, but it doesn’t bend on its own,” one of the better statements concerning civil rights that I have heard.

As I look back at this past year with Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman, with battles over Same Sex Marriage and Immigration Reform, with voter restriction efforts reminiscent of the early 1960s, I wonder how much of an arc there is at all. It appears as if the arc of the moral universe has been running pretty much parallel to justice for a very long time, never getting too close or at times rebounding in the other direction. In fact, sometimes, like when discussing the absence of concern about children dying in conflicts overseas, one wonders whether or not the “moral arc of the universe” curves at all.

I would more confidently say that there is a “moral arc within our lives.” We relate to those around us, to our family, our friends, but not necessarily to our universe, to all of humanity or all of creation. We are far more angered by relatively small injustices close to home than by massive injustices committed at a distance. We tend to care much more about our neighborhood and our neighbors than about others further away. We care even more by things affecting people whom we have met in person. Our personal moral arc is more likely to bend toward justice for them.

So what happens when our lives consist of waking up in the morning, driving to work alone in our cars, working in a cubicle or small office, interacting in person with few others at work to any substantial degree and then returning home? We might interact with a few people on Facebook, send a few emails, make a few phone calls, but too often for most of us, our actual person to person interactions are very limited both in number and duration. While we may indeed interact with those who are different from us, we are almost certain to avoid talking about that difference, especially if it makes us uncomfortable.

I’m not telling you to go out and act like the Elderly Woman in Blazing Saddles by confronting difference by airing discriminatory views, but I am going to tell you that avoiding addressing them or only doing so by looking at Google search results online, as those of us who are younger are wont to do, is not going to have the same impact as personal interaction. There is a big difference between speaking to a Sudanese refugee from Darfur about what it is like being an African Muslim in Des Moines and looking up “African Muslims in America” online. You may get a very different answer if you ask a Muslim woman why she is wearing a Hijab, a head scarf, than you would if you look it up with Bing. And if you look up different views about issues related to Judaism, after scrolling down through multiple links taking you to ultra-Orthodox websites which make no effort to represent Reform or Conservative perspectives, what answers you may find may not only confuse you, but could well mislead or anger you.

This brings me to the discussion to which I had the privilege to listen between Leon Wieseltier and David Wolpe about the Jewish people today when I attended a program for rabbis put on by AIPAC in Washington DC in August. Wieseltier began with an observation that defines our age. He said that:

“The Internet is the greatest attack on human attention—and Judaism is largely based upon attention and constancy of mind.” ADHD is not the disorder. Attention is now the disorder.

It is certainly humorous, but the implication isn’t. By this, Wieseltier meant that the practice of Judaism in general is under threat because Judaism requires regular participation in person and over a period of time. We, especially the younger generations, hardly do anything regularly over a period of time. Further, Judaism mandates that we be focused on what we are doing, that we pray with intentionality. In the internet age, we are easily distracted. We quickly click and look and then click and look away just as swiftly.

But the threat from the internet that Wieseltier noted is greater still:

You don’t support institutions with a click. You don’t support institutions by visiting the webpage. You support institutions by maintaining the boiler. Judaism operates in places and places need maintaining. We are a physical people.

Obviously, he was more than implying that there is an essential financial component. We need institutions and we need to be able to maintain them. We are also a people with the concept of a minyan. In the Jewish tradition, when ten Jews gather, the presence of God is with them, the dynamic changes. Connection to other Jews is vitally important and the primary place where that connection should happen is in our synagogues.

At the recent opening of this year’s Sunday school program, it was noted that an individual child being absent from class does not just affect that child’s ability to learn, it impacts others as well. In small groups, the absence of one child can make all the difference in another child feeling comfortable in attending or participating. We know this affects youth group activities as well. Kids want to know if their friends will be attending.
This doesn’t stop when we graduate from high school. Even as adults we feel much more comfortable seeing friendly faces and this is all the more true when we are feeling sad, insecure, or have something we are excited to share. Think for a moment about the times when people feel the greatest need to attend services. You got it. It is exactly at those times when we feel sad, insecure, or when we have something going on in our lives that we feel excited to share. The basic reason for a congregational community to exist is to be there at those moments. That is part of fulfilling the commandment “Love thy neighbor as thyself.” If we want that support, we should be there for others.

In that vein, there is the story of the supposedly religious Jew and avid golfer who decides to play golf all by himself on Yom Kippur instead of sitting through services and hits a hole in one. He’s so excited that he can hardly contain it. He shouts to God, “Thank you God! I’ve played for many years and finally, finally, I hit a hole in one. I thought, ‘God will strike me down for playing on Yom Kippur,’ but look! Look what happened today. The sun is shining. No one is out here to slow me down or hurry me up. And I hit a hole in one! You are so gracious, God. Thank you for not punishing me. I finally hit a hole in one!”

A voice calls down from heaven, “Who are you going to tell?”

We want to share our accomplishments and our joys. It is torturous for the golfer who hits a hole in one on Yom Kippur not to be able to share his joy. It is not all that different for those of us who have something we are eager to share to have no one with whom to share it. And let’s be honest, sharing it online isn’t the same as getting a high five from a good friend. We know well that there is an essential dynamic when we gather with other people, especially with our friends, that isn’t there when we are sitting alone in front of our computers at home or in our office. Hanging out with friends in person is far superior to a Google Hangout and that is much better that clicking the “like” button when your friend posts something on Facebook.

When it comes to liking life, clicking “like” isn’t going to get the job done.

It is not just that we need to put into action the directive to “Love thy neighbor as thyself.” We need to make sure we have neighbors in our lives. We need to interact with other people.
A significant nuance should not be overlooked. The term “v’ahavtah” does not mean “love” as in “like” or “appreciate.” It really means “be devoted to” or “act like you care about.” It is not an emotional term but a term of action. The “V’ahavtah” reading which follows the Sh’ma in every service is not about “Liking God no matter what you are doing,” though that is a nice sentiment. It is about “acting like you care about what God expects of you” no matter what you are doing or where you are or when. V’ahavtah l’rei-ekha kamokha, “Love thy neighbor as thyself” really means “Act like you care about your neighbor as much as you care about yourself.” It is a statement about how we should treat other people more than it is about how we should feel about them.

The problem, of course, is that we all too easily develop the belief that very few people whom we know well, or only a certain kind of people, qualify as our neighbors. We equip ourselves to treat others differently than we would want to be treated. The Jewish tradition is constantly working to correct that and throughout the year, we are reminded to “Remember the stranger for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”

We were just like those different people over there. We were just like the new people who moved into our neighborhood, the new kid at school, the new employee at work. We were just like that woman dressed differently, that man from a distant land having trouble speaking our language. We have been the “them” for generation after generation. We know what it is like to be oppressed and yearn for freedom. We know what it is like to be bullied and praying for strength. We know what it is like to not be called “neighbor” and to not be treated with care. We know from over three thousand years of history how that feels. It is in that context we are to hear “Love thy neighbor as thyself.”

I am not going to tell you to stop sharing your joys and your sadness with “friends” on Facebook, some or many of whom, you may not really know. I am telling you that you need more than that in your life. I’m reminding you that life is much better lived not in isolation but among friends and neighbors. And that if you work at getting to know strangers, you might make them neighbors and friends.

And one last thing—a vitally important thing to mention on this night: tonight we come before God asking God to be gracious to us, to pardon our failings, to treat us kindly and generously, to be merciful. Our tradition challenges us: How can we ask that for ourselves if we are not willing to act that way toward others? To an extent, this day is all about those five words, “Love thy neighbor as thyself.”

Shanah Tovah and G’mar Hatimah Tovah!

May we all be inscribed and sealed in the Book of Life for a good and happy year!

Thursday, September 5, 2013

Difficult Choices: Israel, America, and Syria

Rosh Hashanah Morning 2013-5774

This Rosh Hashanah, we are concerned about events in Syria and in particular about upcoming votes in Congress related to President Obama’s request to intervene in Syria to stop the use of chemical weapons against the civilian population.

Israelis from across the political spectrum have reacted similarly. In fact, outrage and calls for action are coming most strongly from traditional doves.

In the words of Israeli President Shimon Peres:

The world cannot accept genocide and slaughter of children and women… Assad is not his people’s leader – he is a murderer of children.

Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu, certainly not a dove, said:

The events in Syria prove that the world’s most dangerous regimes must not be allowed to gain possession of the world’s most dangerous arms. 

Ari Shavit, veteran analyst from Ha’aretz, Israel’s very much left leaning daily and very much a dove argued that:

If civilians can be gassed to death in 2013, we face the end of the world. It’s the end of the world that purports to be moral and enlightened.

Secretary of State, John Kerry, speaking to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Tuesday said that:

This is not the time to be spectators to slaughter. Neither our country nor our conscience can afford the cost of silence.

Silence in relation to the mass killing of civilians is of significant importance to Jews in the aftermath of the Holocaust. We should care. Holocaust survivor Eli Wiesel stated in his 1986 Nobel Prize acceptance speech:

I swore never to be silent whenever and wherever human beings endure suffering and humiliation. We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented … There may be times when we are powerless to prevent injustice, but there must never be a time when we fail to protest.

Speaking of protesters, an article from NBC News on Tuesday noted that:

Several anti-war protesters interrupted the Senate hearing on Tuesday, prompting [Sec.] Kerry to say the day's events reminded him of his 1971 testimony about the war in Vietnam.

"Nobody wants this war! Cruise missiles, launching cruise missiles means another war -- the American people do not want this!" said Medea Benjamin, [the founder of Code Pink], one of the protesters. 

[Sec. Kerry then continued speaking to the committee noting], “You know, the first time that I testified before this committee, when I was 27 years old, I had feelings very similar to that protester, and I would just say that is exactly why it is so important that we are here having this debate. And I think we all can respect those who have a different point of view, and we do.”

Two things of note: first, our own Elton Davis was there Tuesday protesting against the proposed use of military force alongside Medea Benjamin; second, on the Code Pink website, there is an article noting that Medea Benjamin herself protested in front of the Syrian embassy in April of 2011 and said at that time, almost a year and a half ago:

The shameless slaughter of Syrians civilians by their own government has been making headlines for months. We call upon the Syrian embassy to demand its government stop this senseless violence and give the people of Syria the freedom that they seek.

The senseless violence has become far, far worse since then.

Addressing concerns that the reports of chemical weapons use might not be factual, Sec. Kerry noted:

We are especially sensitive, Chuck [meaning Secretary of Defense, Chuck Hagel] and I, to never again asking any member of Congress to take a vote on faulty intelligence...I repeat here again today that only the most willful desire to avoid reality can assert that this did not occur as described or that the regime did not do it. It did happen. And the Assad regime did it.
Senator Robert Menendez, Chair of the Committee and a New Jersey Democrat, said in response:

I voted against the war in Iraq and strongly support the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan. But today, I support the president's decision to use military force in the face of this horrific crime against humanity.

The Senate resolution authorizing President Barack Obama to use military force against Syria as it is currently worded would bar American ground troops for combat operations and limit the duration of any action. Some members of Congress and I am sure members of this congregation disagree with any military action by the United States in Syria. Others may agree with Senator McCain that what is proposed is not strong enough. This is far from being a simple choice.

How do the choices we have made in the past affect us as Jews? As Americans? How do we address the challenges confronting us? Those are the questions that are before us today.

Forty years ago, Israel faced some of those difficult choices.

Six years after the seemingly miraculous victory of the 1967 Six Day War during which Israel tripled in size, conquered the historical capital of Jerusalem, and defeated the combined Arab armies with relative ease, a level of pride, contentment, complacency and even arrogance reigned. Then came Yom Kippur Day, 1973 and the Yom Kippur War.

Egypt moved its forces deep into the Sinai and Syria attacked Israeli defensive positions in the Golan. Israel was not prepared and lost ground quickly. But the tide of the war changed rapidly and Israel regained and then gained ground.
Two weeks after it began, the War was over with Israeli forces poised to attack both of the capitals of its enemies, being within forty miles of Cairo and ten miles of Damascus.

In relation to most military conflicts throughout history, this war would be seen as an overwhelming military victory. Yet, it is not seen that way by most Israelis and the reason why is vital to understand.

During the 1973 War Israel lost 2,500 soldiers. That is proportionately like the US losing 250,000 soldiers and all of those soldiers died over barely more than two weeks, most within the first hours of the war! In addition, there was the realization that the situation could have been much worse.

The impact of the Yom Kippur War upon the psyche of the people of Israel was profound and has endured. The political left and right responded in two primary ways which have defined Israeli foreign policy ever since.

The political left came to believe that the war happened because of Israel’s arrogance and its dependence upon military strength. Thus, the Labor party began a pursuit of improved relations with Israel’s neighboring states and a focus on diplomatic efforts more broadly. Eventually, this point of view led directly to the Oslo Peace Process and outreach to Egypt and Jordan.

The political right came to believe that the war was a result of Israel letting its guard down, a result of complacency and weakness of will. They believe the same was the cause of the 2nd Intifada following the failed Camp David negotiations in 2000 and the various Gaza conflicts over the past decade. Thus the Likud, while believing that good relations with Israel’s neighbors are important, has acted from a “security first, diplomacy second” position, believing that a secure Israel is in a better position to relate to its neighbors.

Of vital importance, support for seeking American approval before Israel takes action in its defense, something that prevented it from striking the assembled Syrian and Egyptian forces before they began their assault, is virtually non-existent across the political spectrum. If Israel feels that it must act on its own to ensure its security, it has and will in the future. This is true whether a left leaning or right leaning administration is in power in Israel or in America. That said Israel greatly appreciates American support if it feels a need to act against perceived threats and is reassured when it feels that it can trust that promises about maintaining Israel’s security made by the United States will be kept.

Needless to say, the widely varied positions taken by Israelis on any issue are reflected in the diverse opinions of Jews worldwide on those same issues, but with important differences.

Within the United States opinions regarding Israel are generally, but not always, filtered through a Republican or Democratic lens, through our nation’s history of military action, successes and failures, or through our individual perspectives as Jews. For Americans, three different events have come to define our political psyche and our attitude toward difficult foreign policy choices in particular. Forty and a half years ago, the last American soldiers were withdrawn from Vietnam. Twelve years ago next week, on September 11, our nation was attacked by Al Qaeda affiliated terrorists. Then a decade ago, the Bush Administration along with some of our European allies made the case for war based upon the belief that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction and we went to war in Iraq.

These past choices and impactful events significantly affect the way that each of us, Israeli and American, view the world and the difficult choices we face today.

All of us Jews can speak of two thousand years of oppression, persecution, exile and genocide, but in Israel there is always the fear of being in the sights of those who could try to make it happen again. We American Jews can draw on collective histories, familial histories, perhaps even personal histories, of traumatic experiences as Jews, but these same issues impact Israelis differently because of Israel’s strategic situation today.

While we American Jews look at the situation facing Israel and focus ongoing peace talks and our hopes for a swift resolution, Israelis are primarily thinking about three things, “The Iranian proxy regime in Syria, the Iranian backed militia in Lebanon-Hizballah, and the Iranian nuclear weapons program.” “Iran, Iran, Iran.” To dialogue about Israeli security concerns without beginning with Iran is, to many Israelis, like talking about lawn care with someone whose house is in danger of burning down. Though, increasingly you could add growing concerns about Egypt into the discussion.

Today both the arrogance and complacency present in Israel prior to the Yom Kippur War are gone. Both sides of the spectrum are anxious about the future, very much so in fact, not only in the long term but in the relatively short term, which brings us back to the present.

On Tuesday, the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations came out in favor of the administration’s position that some response to Syria was necessary. The Obama Administration as well as leaders of both the Democratic and Republican parties in the House and the Senate had urged American Jewish organizations to offer support for the lobbying effort.

AIPAC, which stands for the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee, issued a press release about Syria which stated that:

Simply put, barbarism on a mass scale must not be given a free pass…

No few on both sides of the political spectrum have noted that there are dire implications of having President Obama say that Syrian use of chemical weapons would cross a “red line” and then having Secretary of State Kerry discussing the severe consequences of such an action be followed by “We didn’t really mean it.” That could do massive damage to American deterrence in relation to every conflict for a long time to come and undermine the confidence in America among friends and enemies alike.

Some have asked, why have we not strongly protested or even acted when these weapons were used in past conflicts? Or why does it not matter equally when large numbers of civilians are killed by conventional weapons or by intentional starvation as they are in Sudan? To me, the answers are we should have protested and it very much does matter. That is part of why I do the anti-genocide work that I do.

Some have asked, “What is our strategic objective in Syria?”

AIPAC stated what appears to be the strategic objective of the Obama Administration, namely to deter the Assad regime in Syria from ever using WMDs again and to discourage anyone else from ever using them. I think we all realize that is an ambitious goal and that limited action might not achieve it. There is certainly valid debate about how we may protest and how we may take action.

To me, the situation comes down to three words to which I have a visceral emotional response: “Government, Gassing, Children.” I cannot advocate for America to stand idly by, even though I feel that we need to avoid significantly involving ourselves in a civil war being fought by two sides that are both hostile to us, an Iranian backed Syrian government and Muslim Brotherhood dominated and heavily Al Qaeda influenced rebels.

Yet, we cannot allow weapons of genocide to be used without consequence or else we will see them used more often in more places. They are weapons of convenience for superior military powers, allowing willing governments to kill everyone in a geographical area without risk to their own forces. Modest use will become frequent use if there is no response at all.

Some will say, “But we cannot be the police of the world.” The Jewish tradition says that in a place where there are no human beings, be a human being. Our mission is to be the light unto the nations, not to accept being part of the darkness.

Fifty years ago, Rabbi Joachim Prinz spoke at the March on Washington immediately before the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. gave his “I have a Dream speech.” Speaking of injustice, Rabbi Prinz offered these words:
When I was the rabbi of the Jewish community in Berlin under the Hitler regime, I learned many things. The most important thing that I learned under those tragic circumstances was that bigotry and hatred are not 'the most urgent problem.’ The most urgent, the most disgraceful, the most shameful and the most tragic problem is silence.
A great people which had created a great civilization had become a nation of silent onlookers. They remained silent in the face of hate, in the face of brutality and in the face of mass murder.
America must not become a nation of onlookers. America must not remain silent. 
We will differ on how the United States should act. But we agree, Code Pink and AIPAC, that there is a shameless slaughter ongoing in Syria and it must be stopped. Our difficult choice is not whether or not to do something, to protest, to respond, but how we must respond.

Between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, we contemplate choices that we have made and those we are considering today. This morning, we read the story of the Binding of Isaac, a story of Abraham’s choice to follow what he believed he must do to please the divine and of Isaac’s willingness to follow. On Yom Kippur morning, we read of blessings and curses, hearing that the choice is ours. “Choose life,” we are told, so that we and our descendants may endure.

As a collection, the stories that we hear during the High Holidays remind us that sometimes we face challenges and decisions that we would rather not have to make, that our choices affect the blessings and curses in our lives and even whether or not we continue to be blessed with life itself.

Sometimes the choices and challenges that confront us in life are very difficult indeed. Not making a decision is also a decision. The consequences of our inaction, of our silence, of our neutrality would be profound now and into the future.

Should our nation choose to act against Syria, we hope that innocents in Syria will not suffer on our account and that the people of the nation of Israel will not have to pay the price in retaliation for our actions. May there not be a second Yom Kippur War.

Shanah Tovah Tikateivu!

May we all be written in the Book of Life for a good, sweet, peaceful and happy New Year!

Reform Judaism Is Not Judaism Light

Renewing Reform for the 21st Century
Reform Judaism Is Not Judaism Light.
Erev Rosh Hashanah 5774

I am often asked what Reform Judaism is about. Usually, the conversation involves someone noting that Reform Jews follow fewer ritual traditions or customs and then they may argue something along the lines of “Orthodox Jews follow traditional practices, customs, and commandments. Conservative Jews are supposed to follow most of the commandments and customs and do so with men and women being held equally accountable, but most Conservative Jews actually don’t do most of them most of the time. Meanwhile Reform Jews don’t even know about the traditions they should be keeping!” We are often seen as “Judaism Light,” commandment free, or else as “ethnic Jews,” part of the Jewish community but not religious. Sometimes, Reform Jews may feel this way about their own Judaism.

Tonight, I would like to speak with you about what the reformers of Judaism intended from the start, what Reform Judaism was during the heyday of what is commonly referred to as “Classical Reform,” and what in our modern context Reform Judaism could become.

During the late 18th and early 19th Centuries, many Jews were falling away from Judaism because not only could they not connect philosophically with traditional practices but some of those practices actually turned Jews away. Large numbers of Jews found Jewish services uninspiring or even embarrassing. They were not attending synagogues, were converting away from Judaism, or were losing faith altogether.

Looking at what their Christian neighbors’ churches had gone through, some Jewish community leaders decided that a reformation of Judaism was needed. For these reformers of Judaism, “reform” was a verb, not an adjective. They wanted to restore what they saw as the essential nature of Judaism, just as Protestants during the 19th Century were trying to do within Christian traditions. These reformers wanted to remove from the Judaism of their day what they saw as accumulated “superstition” and “ceremonialism.”

The man who many recognize as the founding father of Reform Judaism, Israel Jacobson, argued in his dedication address for the newly created synagogue in Seesen, July 7, 1810:

Who would dare to deny that our service is sickly because of many useless things, that in part it has degenerated into a thoughtless recitation of prayers and formulae, that it kills devotion more than encourages it, and that it limits our religious principles to that fund of knowledge which for centuries has remained in our treasure houses without increase and without ennoblement.

To put it simply, Judaism had a great deal to offer, but because of the way it was currently being practiced those great things were being ignored or were largely inaccessible to modern Jews. In the early 1840s, as the concept of reforming Judaism spread in Europe, The Society of Friends of Reform, based in Frankfurt, issued a Declaration of Principles.

In it they argued that most of the day to day practices of Judaism in their age were created by people, not commanded by God, and were based upon what those people, and perhaps wrongly, understood in their day and age. These “enlightened” Jews did not see significance in many of the day to day practices that came down to them through the generations and believed some to be impediments to maintenance or development of faith. Some of these included separate seating in worship, maintaining the full spectrum of Kashrut laws, something that could make Jews uncomfortable in the company of Christians, worship services conducted in Hebrew, a language many Jews did not understand, and conducting services without aesthetic beauty that did not inspire.

Instead, they chose to reform Judaism, to restore it to what they considered to be its pure state. These reformers of Judaism saw themselves not as creating “Judaism light,” but as restoring the truth of Judaism to its adherents, purifying Judaism of what rabbis had added to it over many generations.

The reformers believed that Judaism encouraged secular study and the application of secular knowledge to Jewish belief and practice, an idea directly contrary to the practices in some more traditional Jewish communities in Eastern Europe, like the village in Bessarabia where my Great Grandfather lived, where secular studies were strongly discouraged and those who studied them were ostracized.

The founders of what might be called Modern Orthodox Judaism cited Moses Mendelson’s statement in response to the defenders of inquiry. Mendelson stated that, “We are permitted to ponder over the law, to search into its spirit; never the less, our sophistry cannot free us from the strict obedience we owe the law.” To sum that up simply, “We can believe whatever we would like, but we still need to follow the law.”

The reformers pressed their case that it was not a mere willingness to ponder truth that was necessary but primarily a reform of practice. What we believe and what we practice cannot be significantly in conflict. The father of what came to be known as Classical Reform Judaism, Rabbi David Einhorn, spoke of this in his inaugural sermon at Har Sinai Congregation in Baltimore, MD in 1855:

Judaism must be thoroughly Jewish, based upon divine revelation [by which he meant Torah, not Talmud or other rabbinical sources]. In our day we cannot lay too much stress on this point. The more mere ceremonialism loses in significance and observance, the more it is necessary for us to seize upon the essential character of the Jewish faith, upon that which divested even of the whole ceremonial law, would still stand out in sharp contrast to all other faiths...

David Einhorn observed that in his time, many Jews neither believed that the traditional ritual practices of Judaism were important to maintain, nor maintained them. Furthermore, he saw that if Jews felt that this observance of ritual practice was Judaism itself, Jews would fall away from Judaism. Instead of working to promote the significance of observance even where it was in opposition to modern understanding, Einhorn chose to stress what he believed to be “the essential character” of Judaism in an attempt to bring Jewish belief and practice into harmony. In doing so, he created what came to be known as “Classical Reform.”

While stressing believe in a transcendent God, Einhorn delineated what are essentially the basic beliefs of Reform Judaism in all of its forms today:

[We believe] chiefly in man himself…the body as well as the soul; the belief in the original goodness and purity of all created things, especially of those beings, who fashioned in the image of God, are gifted with reason and, with no native bar to a state of holiness, need no other mediation than their own efforts to obtain divine grace and their eternal salvation; the belief in a humanity of which all members possess one and the same natural and spiritual origin, the same native nobility, the same rights, the same laws, the same claims to blessedness.

With this understanding, Einhorn became one of the leading abolitionists, railing against slavery and oppression of minorities. This understanding permeates the  prayer book, Olat Tamid, the Eternal Sacrifice, authored by Einhorn, which eventually formed the basis for The Union Prayer Book used by American Reform Jewish congregations starting in the 1870s and for well over a century. With this understanding, Reform Jews stood and continue to stand at the forefront of efforts to advance human and civil rights today. This is the understanding that undergirds our pursuit of equal treatment of and respect for people of all faiths, all races, and of every ethnicity and sexual orientation. This is David Einhorn’s legacy.

We as a religious tradition believe—putting Eihorn’s words more simply—that:

·        There is one God who is eternal, invisible, and incorporeal, meaning that God does not take human form or any physical form.
·        We know about God through creation, meaning through making observations about the universe as we know it.
·        People have an eternal soul.
·        People are inherently good and pure. Born without sin, we start life with a clean slate. There is no original sin in Judaism.
·        People are created in the image of God, making all people holy by nature.
·        People are endowed with reason and therefore should put it to use. Blind faith is not inherent to Judaism. Scientific inquiry is essential.
·        People need no mediator or mediation in their interaction with God, they may relate to God directly in their seeking, to use Einhorn’s words, “divine grace and eternal salvation.”
·        People are all created from the same natural and spiritual origin, meaning that no one is inherently superior or inferior by incident of birth.
·        Rights and laws should apply to all people equally. By this Einhorn meant civil laws, not just religious laws.
·        People are all equally blessed in God’s eyes.

This brings me to my final question. What could Reform Judaism be?

Einhorn and the other reformers understood a requirement to act—to practice what we preach. If we believe that people are all created in the image of God, that all are of equal origin as human beings, that all are equally blessed in God’s eyes and that all laws should apply to all people equally, we need, as Einhorn did, to oppose the enslavement of any human beings. Einhorn was an outspoken abolitionist who had to flee Baltimore for his personal safety because his position on the issue was unpopular there. Those continuing David Einhorn’s legacy champion the causes of the oppressed, of minorities, and of the disadvantaged generally.

Another leading reformer, Rabbi Samuel Holdheim, who was among the leading reformers in Germany during the middle of the 19th Century and was the rabbi of the Berlin congregation stated that:

It is the Messianic task of Israel [meaning “the Jewish people”] to make the pure knowledge of God and the pure law of morality of Judaism the common possession and blessing of all the peoples of the earth. We do not expect of the nations that, by accepting these teachings, they would give up their historic characteristics in order to accept those of our people; and, similarly, we shall not permit the Jewish people to give up its innate holy powers and sentiments so that it might be assimilated amongst the nations.

The Reformers in the United States changed the wording slightly, eventually proclaiming that “the Mission of Israel” was to be “a light unto the nations.” We are to guide the world through the darkness toward the light, toward the truth, as we understand it to be.

Over the years, we have lost the concept of “mission.” In fact, we have even lost the understanding that the advocacy that progressive Jews do for the poor, the stranger, for minorities of all sorts within our communities and for human rights around the world comes not from outside of our religious tradition but is the very basis of it. It is virtually unknown that much of the advancement in relation to those issues over the past two hundred years is the result of advocacy done by Jews precisely because of the moral and ethical imperatives put forth by Rabbi David Einhorn and others from the early 19th Century until today.

Many among us state that we do these things because it is what good people do. I have to tell you that there are vastly more good people in the world than there are people doing these things. When acting as David Einhorn wished for us to act becomes normative for good people, the Messianic Age will already be upon us.

Let us say that we remember the stranger, the orphan, the poor—because it is what we believe Jews should do and hope that others will join us in doing so. Let us say that we believe in equality of all human beings because that is what Judaism teaches and we hope that others will come to agree with us. We need to be proud Jews. We have a tremendous amount of which to be proud.

In my view, over the past decades, the Classical Reform tradition has been treated unfairly both by adherents and critics alike. By focusing on the use of Hebrew prayers and the reintroduction of traditional modes of worship or opposing them, the foundation of Classical Reform has been obscured. For Classical Reform Jews, the rituals were mere adornments on a body of compassion and activism on behalf of the Jewish people and all peoples. The true focus of Classical Reform Judaism was on what we should be doing when we go about our lives beyond the synagogue’s walls.

Today, we have fallen into the very trap described by Einhorn. We allowed ceremonialism to become our Judaism and then we devalued ceremonialism. That is not Reform Judaism.

This building has words written not just above the ark, reminding us of the Ten Commandments, but it has words written on the outside in foot high letters including “Love Thy Neighbor as Thyself.” They were not put there as a mere decoration. They were there as a declaration of intent. These words were the beating heart of Classical Reform Judaism which encouraged outreach and action.

The reformers of the 19th Century believed that whatever we read in our prayer books, whatever songs we sang, were to remind us of our sacred obligation, to strengthen us in our mission. Judaism at its heart was to them not about rituals like tefillin or purity practices like keeping Kosher, it was about increasing Shalom in the world, bettering lives for Jews and others. It is more than Edmond Flegg said in his poem, “I am a Jew because in all places where there are tears and suffering, the Jew weeps.” Reform Judaism truly demands, “When there are tears and suffering, the Jew dries the tears and works to end the suffering.” While Rabbi David Saperstein, the Director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism who will be our guest on September 16th and 17th, and the many who work with the RAC over the course of the year exemplify this directive within our movement, we cannot abdicate our personal responsibility to act.

This new year, think Reform Jewishly. Think about why you do what you do and what you can do to help make this world a better place. When we sing Oseh Shalom and ask God to bring peace, wholeness, and completion into our lives and more broadly throughout our world, believe that it is each of us, individually, upon whom the task falls. We must do the work whether it is through activism, medicine, teaching, lending a helping hand, feeding the hungry, offering a hug in comfort or a joke to bring forth a smile.

Reform Judaism is not “Judaism light,” it is “Jewish Action Heavy.” Our mission is literally to perfect the world. May our prayers during this High Holiday season inspire us to compassion and action.

Shanah Tovah.