Thursday, October 13, 2016

We Are All Jews! A Sermon for Kol Nidrei 5777

It was several months before Fannie Rosenbloom's 80th birthday, and few
people had lived a more pious life.  She regularly attended services and performed any mitzvah she could.  She never had asked God for anything.

However, Fannie had become weary of struggling to find the money to support both her tzedakah causes and her grocery bills.  So she decided for the first time in her life to ask for something for herself.

Fannie began praying each Shabbat that God allow her to win the lottery. Months went by without her prayers being fulfilled, but she waited patiently. As the High Holidays approached it became difficult for her to contain her disappointment. 

Finally, on Kol Nidre, when the ark was closed, she slowly climbed the steps of the b'imah for her honor, with the help of the Rabbi on one side and the President on the other. She was to read the prayer for the congregation, which was given her because the whole community knew of her kindness to others. Few knew of her financial plight.

Fannie stood before the microphone with her prayerbook open to recite the prayer, but instead of speaking to the congregation, she turned around to face the ark and cried out:

Gott im Himmel… (that mean’s “God in Heaven.”)  I have been a righteous woman my whole life. Every extra penny went to the pushkah every day. Every penny. I love all your creations as much as you do. 

Now beginning to weep, she implored:

After 80 years, I ask for something for myself. Something! A little thing from the maker of the universe. Make me a lottery winner!

 Her hands trembled. Her legs trembled. People thought she was about to collapse in a heap.

The room was deathly silent as the rabbi walked over and put an arm around the distraught Fannie. But before the Rabbi could say a word to her, the entire Sanctuary shook and was filled with a presence that was indescribable.

A voice, obviously that of the Almighty, came from everywhere at once, and said in an exasperated manner:

Fannie, Fannie. Sheine Fannie! Help me out a little here… Buy a ticket!

For the most part, modern western Jews are not superstitious. And if we believe that God acts in our world, affecting people’s daily lives, we generally do not believe that God would be heard speaking aloud. But if it were it to happen, Yom Kippur would be the time. This day, the holiest day of the Jewish calendar, we can joke about things like this. This day is awe inspiring and full of dread. This day? Just maybe.

Tonight, we come before God with humility and sometimes in distress. In ages past, Jewish men and women who were forced to convert to other faiths while under duress, sometimes at the point of a sword, came before God to plead forgiveness. Once the Kol Nidrei prayer became a regular part of this service, long ago, perhaps 1500 years ago, this evening connected not just to our faith, but to our being.

At the same time that it focuses on our relationship with God, specifically on our oaths, the Kol Nidrei prayer reminds us annually that we are inheritors of a multi-generational struggle, that many of us owe our lives, much less our Jewish identities, to people whose lives were embittered and who came to services on the eve of Yom Kippur to plead with God for themselves and their loved ones because of strife happening in their lives.

The Kol Nidrei prayer is like a DNA marker in our service, evidence of what happened to Jewish people time and again. We can imagine ourselves as those Jews. They may have felt lonely and afraid as they walked through towns and villages before hostile eyes, heading to synagogues. Perhaps, they felt the support of other Jews. Perhaps, they felt ashamed, before God or perhaps the Jewish community, as if they were betrayers, having sworn an oath to abandon outward Jewishness, yet feeling Jewish in their kishkes, in their guts.

It is said that the Kol Nidrei prayer is the prayer of those who were forced to say, “Yes,” when they meant, “No.”

For too many others, defiance was their last act. But not always.

When I grew up, reruns of Hogan’s Heroes were among my favorite tv shows. My colleague, Rabbi Jeffrey Salkin recently wrote about the show. He said:

As I look back, it’s hard to imagine doing this kind of show, a show about Allied POWs making fun of the Nazis. But this doesn’t even take into account the cast of the show.

The part of the commandant, Colonel Klink, was played by the German Jewish refugee, Werner Klemperer, who was the son of the famous conductor, Otto Klemperer. The part of Sargeant Schultz (“I know nothing!”) was played by John Banner, a Jew born in Vienna, Austria, who lost many family members in the Holocaust. Colonel LeBeau, the handsome French officer, was played by Robert Clary, who was himself a Holocaust survivor, deported to the concentration camp at Ottmuth in 1942, and then, to Buchenwald, where he was liberated in 1945. Twelve of his immediate family members died at Auschwitz.
They all knew what happened. They were all deeply affected. Their acting, their joking, about it all was a sort of defiance. Much in the same way that the movie “The Producers” which starred one of my favorite actors, Gene Wilder, who passed away at the end of August was; lampooning the Nazis with a musical entitled, “Springtime for Hitler – A Gay Romp with Eva and Adolf at Berchtesgarten.”
There were times that the acts of defiance weren’t fantasies and they are important for us to remember.

I attended the AIPAC Policy Conference in Washington DC in March. The American-Israel Public Affairs Committee is an organization that promotes the strengthening of the relationship between the United States government and Israel. Over 19,000 people attended this year and heard from many politicians, for some of us too many or too few, heard about and witnessed examples of innovative Israeli technologies such as a shock absorbing bicycle and wheel chair tire or medical advances, and heard stories from many people about why they support Israel.

When Christian politicians and ministers speak at the conference, they often reference Holy Scriptures and other religious connections. Almost always, they speak of common causes and shared values. Very few share a story like the one that Pastor Chris Edmonds of the Piney Grove Baptist Church in Maryville, TN shared with us. It was a story that his father, Master Sergeant Roddie Edmonds, had written down in a diary about his experiences during the war, a story that he never shared with his family while he was alive. Pastor Edmonds discovered the diary and learned of the story while going through his father’s belongings after his death. The Pastor told us the diary recounted this story:

On January 27, 1945, his father, Master Sergeant Roddie Edmonds, of the 422nd Infantry Regiment in the US Armed Forces, was taken prisoner during the Battle of the Bulge, and was imprisoned in Stalag 9-A, a POW camp near Ziegenhain, Germany. He was the highest ranking NCO in the camp. The group of Allied prisoners there included approximately two hundred Jews.

The Wehrmacht had a strict anti-Jewish policy, singling out Jewish POWs from the rest of the POW population. It was known that Jewish soldiers would be subjected to harsh treatment, treated as slave laborers with little chance of survival, or simply killed outright.

Following that policy, the commandant of the camp ordered Master Sergeant Edmonds to separate out all of the Jewish soldiers in the camp the next morning and have them report to be sent elsewhere.

In the morning, Roddie Edmonds asked that all of the American prisoners of war under his command report. When the Commandant, Major Siegmann, saw all of the POWs standing in front of their barracks, he confronted the Master Sergeant about it.

Master Sergeant Edmonds stated simply, “We are ALL Jews.”

Siegmann exclaimed: “They cannot all be Jews!”

To this Edmonds repeated: “We are all Jews, HERE!”

Commandant Siegmann took out his pistol and threatened to kill Edmonds, pointing his pistol straight at the Roddie Edmonds’ head, but the Master Sergeant did not waver. Staring down the barrel of the gun, he retorted: “According to the Geneva Convention, we only have to give our name, rank and serial number. If you shoot me, you will have to shoot all of us, and after the war you will be tried for war crimes.”

It was reported that the commandant then turned around and left the scene.

“Surely, this is an apocryphal story, a Hogan’s Heroes-like myth,” you may be saying to yourself—but it is not. Another American soldier, Paul Stern, retold this encounter to Yad Vashem. Stern, one of the Jewish POWs saved by Edmonds’ courageous action, told Yad Vashem that he was taken prisoner on December 17, 1944, during the Battle of the Bulge.

He was one of the higher ranking soldiers and, therefore, stood very close to Edmonds during the exchange with the German camp commander, which, he later recalled was conducted in English. “Although seventy years have passed,” said Stern, “I can still hear the words he said to the German Camp officer, ‘We are all Jews!’”

Lester Tanner, another Jewish soldier captured during the Battle of the Bulge, recalled the incident in detail. Tanner told Yad Vashem that they were well aware that the Germans were murdering the Jews, and that therefore they understood that the order to separate the Jews from the other POWs meant that the Jews were in great danger.

“I would estimate that there were more than one thousand Americans standing in wide formation in front of the barracks with Master Sergeant Roddie Edmonds standing in front with several senior non-coms beside him, of which I was one…

There was no question in my mind, or that of Master Sergeant Edmonds, that the Germans were removing the Jewish prisoners from the general prisoner population at great risk to their survival. The US Army’s standing command to its ranking officers in POW camps is that you resist the enemy and care for the safety of your men to the greatest extent possible.
Master Sergeant Edmonds, at the risk of his immediate death, defied the Germans with the unexpected consequences [the unexpected consequences] that the Jewish prisoners were saved.”

For that act of heroism, Master Sergeant Edmonds was posthumously awarded the Yad Va Shem Medal, Israel’s highest recognition of non-Israelis who risked their lives to save Jews and is recognized as one of the Righteous Among the Nations. Of more than 26,000 “Righteous” recognized to date, Edmonds is only the fifth United States citizen, and the first American soldier, to be bestowed with this honor.

What Master Sergeant Roddie Edmonds did was an act of the utmost courage. He was willing and ready to die standing up to evil and protecting the lives of others. If the world were filled with people like Roddie Edmonds, it would be a far better place. But most of us aren’t that courageous and, unfortunately, there are many examples of times when the trigger was pulled. Countless numbers of people, during the years of the Shoah alone, gave their lives for what was right and good, standing steadfast in the face of evil, and suffering the consequences.

The history of our people is highlighted by courage in the face of danger, overcoming the most difficult of challenges, and surviving, sometimes barely, sometimes in strength, for another year, for another generation, for generations to come.

Some of us lived as crypto-Jews, hidden Jews, living in danger for many years, sometimes for generations, before perhaps coming to a land in which Judaism could be practiced in safety. Some of us fled from country to country seeking safety and prosperity. Some suffered where they were and survived through their own efforts. Others survived because of people like Roddie Edmonds, the righteous among the nations, people who, though not Jewish, helped the Jews in their midst survive.

And us? On this day, we call to mind the sin of silence, the sin of indifference, the secret complicity of neutrality.

Would we have had the courage to do what Master Sergeant Roddie Edmonds did?

We are reminded during Passover each year that we Jews, even us today, our souls, were there in Egypt and at other places and times throughout Jewish history.

·      We were strangers.
·      We journeyed through the wilderness.
·      We stood at Sinai.
·      We entered the Promised Land with Joshua and shed tears by the waters of Babylon.
·      We rebelled against the Romans, were tortured and killed during the Crusades and were expelled from Spain.
·      We recited the Kol Nidrei prayer from a place of deep anguish in our hearts.
·      We hid our Jewishness from those who would harm us.
·      We rejoiced when we did not have to hide.
·      We were sent to freedom on the Kindertransport.
·      We fought in the Warsaw ghetto, crawling through sewers to survive.
·      We were there in Auschwitz and Treblinka, both surviving and perishing.
·      We too stood beside and behind Master Sergeant Roddie Edmonds and heard him say, “We are all Jews!” and we saw the Commandant walk away.

The last is not simply a memory written in a diary; it is part of our memory as a people, joining these other events in forming who we are.

On Yom Kippur, we are bid to atone, to perform teshuva, turning ourselves in the right direction. This night, we are reminded that staying on the Jewish path is a privilege and not simply a commandment.
Kol Nidrei is a time when we remember those in generations of the distant, and perhaps not so distant, past whose struggles and sacrifices enabled us to be here today.

Let us remember that we are inheritors of a great legacy that has inspired generation after generation and may we do our best to preserve it and enhance it for generations to come. Often we have done and continue to do so with the help of committed family members and friends.

We all are Jews!

In the words of the traditional Yom Kippur greeting, “G’mar hatimah tova!”
“May you be sealed for good in the Book of Life, Blessing, and Peace!”

Kein yehi ratson! May it be God’s will!

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