Gilad is Home!

Sukkot is called, z’man simchateinu, a time of our great joy. Today, a young man was returned to his family after five years. Gilad Shalit, an Israeli soldier, was abducted within Israeli boundaries near the Kerem Shalom crossing. On June 25, 2006, seven armed terrorists used a tunnel dug between Gaza and Israel to attack and kill two soldiers, wound five, and take Gilad Shalit. For five years, Gilad was allowed no contact with his family, the red cross or any other international organization to confirm his condition. But today, October 18, 2011, Gilad Shalit was returned to the arms of his parents, his family and his country and people.

We rejoice in his return, but yes there are concerns. Questions about the price Israel pays for the trade of one person for 1,027 prisoners. Is this price too steep? Should those who are responsible for the killing for Israelis be allowed to go free in order for one Israeli soldier to be returned home?

Since 1979, 6,566 Palestinian prisoners have been released for nine Israeli soldiers, ten dead soldiers, and one Israeli citizen. This is a high price to pay. However, as the Talmud teaches, to save one life is to save the whole world. (Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:5; Babylonian Talmud Tractate Sanhedrin 37a).

A life has been saved and a son has been returned. Yes, the cost is great and the emotions are very high on all ends. My heart aches for those families who lost loved ones and friends in the homicide bombings and attacks in Israel. But I ask this question: Knowing that those who have died can never be returned to their family, is it wrong to be grateful that a son was able to be returned to his parents? Should Gilad have been left in the hands of terrorists without any contact from his family, his country, the world? Knowing that there was the possibility to bring him home and back into their arms, could we really have just left him there?

Yes, the price may be very high and I have my reservations about the attitude we are starting to hear from Gaza and the West Bank. But, while we are alert, I hope that we can at least be able to enjoy this time of our great joy, z’man simchateinu, and just be thankful for this moment that Gilad is home, where he belongs.

Sitting at the Feet of Our Teachers – Yizkor 5772

The legend says that he sat under the table of his father, a Rebbe, in Ozarow, Poland. He would listen for hours as his father would teach students Talmud and soak it all up himself and carry it with him on his own daily chores and throughout his life. But this is a legend that was passed amongst the Rabbinic Students at HUC Cincinnati regarding our beloved Talmud teacher, Ben Zion Wacholder.

Born in 1924, in Ozarow, Poland, Ben Zion Wacholder studied in Yeshivot near and far from his small village. He became a great Talmud scholar before World War II began and he carried it with him through the Holocaust. But he had to do so in secret, for Ben Zion Wacholder survived the years of the Holocaust living as a Christian under an Aryan name and working in a Polish labor camp until liberation. The words of Talmud had to remain only in his mind’s eye and never on his lips during those years if he was to survive. After the war, he made his way to Paris, then to Bogota, Columbia and finally to the United States, where he came to settle in Los Angeles as the librarian at the Hebrew Union College.

He received his doctorate in 1960 and then became a professor of Talmud for students in Cincinnati. He was truly beloved and cherished by all of us.

There was another story passed down from generations of students about Dr. Wacholder – that when his eyesight had all but disappeared, Dr. Wacholder would come into class, ask us to open the tractate, volume of Talmud we were studying that day and begin reciting verbatim the mishnah, g’mara, and commentary along the tops, sides, and bottom. He never missed a word. But the story passed on to us was that years before, the students went to the Dean and said, ‘we adore our professor and we know that he is a learned man, but he comes with no book and is that truly honoring the text to come with no book?’ The Dean went to Dr. Wacholder and told him the student’s concerns and Dr. Wacholder, being the ever patient teacher, brought with him his tractate, his volume of Talmud to class. He carefully sat down, invited the students to open his or her tractate to the specified page as he opened his. He started to “read” the words to the students and as he was doing so, lifted the book in front of his face. The students looking at their teacher noticed two things: first, it was the wrong book and second, it was upside down. What the students saw that day was that they themselves were blind. They were blinded by their own ignorance and ego to assume that just because a professor did not have the book before him, that he would not teach them properly. The students presented themselves to Dr. Wacholder and apologized for their own misgivings and shared their appreciation of who he was as their teacher. From that day forward, they sat at their teacher’s feet and absorbed every word he spoke.

 

When Debbie Friedman was 12 years old, she picked up a guitar, opened her mouth and the world listened. Debbie’s music, writing, and love for all brought so many to sit at her feet and be inspired. She opened doors to building personal spiritual connections to those who only thought prayer and connections to God belonged to only those who studied and understood the generations of text. But Debbie took text, transformed it and returned it to you and me inviting us to make it our own. She was a learned Jew, taking the time to study the words of our sages and transform them to melodies that would remain on our lips.

For over four decades, peers and campers sat with her in the circle, singing and creating music and text that would transform synagogue worship. She gave us permission to raise our voices in song, a role once only reserved for the hazan, the cantor. But Debbie opened new doors and invited us to explore them with her. And as her music became “traditional” in synagogues of all denominations, and I do mean all, her name would fade into the background. How often we would refer to a mi chamocha tune as the traditional tune only to later realize that it was given to us by Debbie Friedman. How often we would assume that Mi Sheberach was a tune that we just “always” sang. How easily forgotten is it that (sing havdalah la la) was Debbie’s gift to you and me allowing us to enjoy what so many say is their favorite Shabbat moment of Havdalah and which we will sing in the next hour bidding farewell to Yom Kippur.

We sat at her feet and sang with Debbie the music and the prayers which opened our hearts. She blessed us that “may our eyes shine with the light of Torah” and reminded us “that we shall be a blessing.” And when she sang to us, we sat at her feet, took in every note and every word and she brought us wholeness and completeness.

 

I would walk into Torah study on Shabbat morning, so excited to share that which I gleaned for our study that morning. I set out my books, my notes, turn to the page we are going to start reading and say, “Boker Tov!” I’d have to say it a couple of times before our Torah study students would take their seats after schmoozing with friends they see only once a week in this place. I’d say,’let’s begin by turning to page…’ and before I could finish, Alan Friedman would call out from the back, my left corner, of the room and say, “excuse me Rabbi, shouldn’t we say the blessings first?” Humbled, I would say, “of course…please join with me…baruch, atah Adonai…Blessed are you Adonai our God, Eternal Soul of the Universe, who makes us holy through the mitzvoth and commands us to engage in the study…in the wrestling of Torah.” Now, we could begin.

Alan, as we shared on Rosh Hashanah morning, was our ba’al t’kiah for almost 50 years. He not only shared his breath with us as he shared the calls of the shofar, but we sat at his feet as he studied Torah with us. Every person has the ability to be a teacher of Torah and Alan made sure to share that message with all. He would bring in new students to Torah study and after being a part of the group, he would gently encourage them to be one of the Torah study leaders on Shabbat. He opened himself to each leader to study with him, provide him or her with commentaries and websites, to help them dig deeper in to the meaning of each word of Torah. And he did so without ego, without pretense. He allowed each teacher to share Torah as he or she felt it, experienced it, and wrestled with it. We sat at his feet and we studied with him, turning the words of Torah over and over again. And we learned the words he held in his heart, “Vision looks inward and becomes duty.  Vision looks outward and becomes aspiration.  Vision looks upward and becomes faith.”

 

Slowly he walked in. Leaning on his walker, dressed in his dark blue suit, his shirt freshly pressed, and his blue kipah on his head. He made his way to the front of the service, much to the concern of his caregiver. But that didn’t matter, Ely Litsky was going to sit up front and participate in the service. However, he was concerned and would call out, “Rabbi! Rabbi! Have you said Kaddish yet? I have to say Kaddish for my beloved Rachel and my son, Israel.” I would come off the bima, to his side and reassure him, ‘no Ely, we have not said Kaddish yet. I promise you, I will let you know when it is time.’ He would take my hands in his, bring them to his lips and kiss them gently saying, thank you.

Ely was 100 years old this year when he died. He outlived his guards and tormentors in Auschwitz and Mauthausen. No one survived from his hometown of Bialystok. He made his way to America, the Bronx, and fell in love again and had a daughter. But those whose feet he sat at, those relatives and teachers he loved, were no more. Yet he kept them alive deep down in his soul. And he shared his stories of life, song and dancing in the restaurant her worked at in Bialystok. And he openly showed his tattoo, that would serve as his name, number 100719 until the end of the war. He sat us at his feet and reminded us of a life that was and the death that came. He told us to never forget, for when his generation is gone, there will be no eyewitnesses and we are responsible to never forget his name, to never forget the stories of the millions who were killed in the gas chambers, in the camps, in the forests, in their beds. That as we sit at his feet, as we listen to each word and envision each image, we cannot forget, we must not forget. But we must also dance and we must also sing! Yes, so much was stolen from him, but no one should steal the joy of life, for there is so much to be joyful about.

 

Each of us sit at the feet of our teachers. Each of us has the memories of their words, their songs, their breath, their touch. These moments of yizkor bring forward the lessons taught and absorbed not only in our mind but also in our soul. Our teachers, our loved ones, have inspired us and given to us the greatest gift of all – to carry their lessons, their stories, with us and give them as a gift to the next generation so that they too may sit at our feet and share in the weaving of memory.

Dr. Wacholder, Debbie, Alan, Ely, all of our teachers, it is time to say kaddish…it is time for us to remember….it is time for us to teach, sing, breathe and hold you in our hearts.

Zichronu livracha – you are all blessings.

Amen

Two Trees – One Rock Yom Kippur Morning 5772

There are some musicals that just stick in your head. You’ll be in a special place and someone will say something that all of a sudden brings a song to mind. Just ask our kids: Matt and I will hear a word and we will break out in song, totally embarrassing our children. But then again, I think that’s our mission in life, to find new ways of embarrassing our children.

Fiddler on the Roof – now, there is a musical that causes most of us to break into song.  Jada, Paul, and Cantor Reinwald shared some of their favorites and Jerry, her favorite quote.

Throughout the musical, Tevya gives us so many words of advice, but none so powerful as when he speaks to God and says: “I know, I know. We are Your chosen people. But, once in a while, can’t You choose someone else?”

Tevya, and the whole community of the small Russian shtetle of Anatevka, know how hard it is to be the chosen people. The chosenness during the time of the pogroms of Eastern Europe, the anti-Semitism of every age, including today, can cause anyone to ask, ‘why should I be Jewish?’ It’s so hard.

Each time I meet with a student studying toward conversion, I ask, ‘why do you want to be a part of a people who have been persecuted generation after generation?’ This is even a question we have to ask ourselves – why do we remain a part of a people who are persecuted, teased, ridiculed, generation after generation? In our world in which religion seems to be taking a back seat to all the other commitments of our day, wouldn’t it just be easier to turn our backs and walk away from the name calling, the stereotypes and challenges of being a Jew?

But we don’t! We don’t walk away, we don’t turn our backs. We might hide for a bit or hope that the storm will just blow over, but ultimately, we as the Jewish community do not turn our back on our religion, our people, our identity. Being Jewish is not just a religion, it is being a part of a people, religiously and culturally.

Unfortunately, the waves of anti-Semitism are growing in our community and the time is for us to stand up, take notice and speak out.

Israel Apartheid Week has been a regular event on college campus’ for the past seven years, including at the University of California, Irvine. This movement began in Toronto and has featured extreme anti-Israel rhetoric, including accusations of Israeli racism and apartheid. There have been renewed movements to boycott, divest and sanction Israel and Israeli products throughout the country and there are allegations that Israel is committing war crimes and genocide against the Palestinian people. During the Israeli Apartheid week, anti-Israel and anti-Semitic speakers are brought to the campus’ to spew lies and create a very tense atmosphere for students, especially our Jewish students. Thankfully, as in here in Orange County, the Jewish Federation has partnered with Hillel to support our Jewish students on campus during the week and to promote Israel during a separate week of events.

But imagine if you will, having to be a student walking through your college campus with walls and pictures of hate against not only Israel but against Jews. How would you react? What would you say? How would you feel? Our college students have to experience this each year, and it is not only here in Irvine, but it is starting to show up on more and more college campus’ throughout the country.

We must ask ourselves – how are we preparing our high school students for these years when they will be away from home and have to confront these critical identity issues on their own? Will we encourage them to just be silent or will we encourage them to embrace who they are as Jews? Sure, it’s easy to be silent, but is this the response that we should give? Silence can suggest acceptance. It’s not to say that our students should confront those on the college commons, but rather we need to encourage our students to embrace their Jewish identity, join communities such as Hillel and Jewish organizations on campus, so that they know that they are not alone and so that they can collectively speak out against those who speak about hate.

Anti-Semitism has also crept into an effort for a ballot proposal in San Francisco and a discussion for one in Santa Monica. In May, backers for the ban of circumcision on minors, received enough votes to put it on the ballot. While the request has since been denied by Judge Loretta Giorgi, the publicity that came forward regarding this ban were reflections of anti-Semitic propaganda from World War II. Lloyd Schofield and Matthew Hess, the bill backers, call themselves human rights activists. In an article in the Los Angeles Jewish Journal, Hess was quoted as saying, “We do what we do because we strongly believe that no one has the right to cut off part of another person’s body without their consent. We believe that amputating part of a boy’s penis is no different in principle than amputating part of a girl’s vulva. If you ask any activist in Africa why she is trying to stop the practice of female genital mutilation, I suspect that her answers would be very similar to ours.”

But when confronted about the charges of anti-Semitism, Hess said, “I might understand such an accusation if our proposed legislation applied to everyone except Jews. That would be like saying we care about all boys except the Jewish ones.”

However, in an issue of a comic book produced by Hess and Schofield, a blond haired, blue eyed muscular super hero, complete with cape, called Foreskin Man, was there to defend a small baby from his parents and the evil Monster Mohel, drawn as a dark-haired, wild-eyed man toting glistening scissors. Baby Glick is saved from his father who insists on the Bris while his non-Jewish mother, damsel in distress image, is locked in her bedroom so as not to disturb the ceremony. Foreskin Man sweeps in, saves Baby Glick and ends up taking Baby Glick away from not only his father, but his mother and entire family so that he can be raised in peace and fully intact by the Inactivist (sic) Underground.

So much is wrong with this comic book but especially the portrayal of the hero and the mohel, drawn just as the propaganda posters of 1939 Eastern Europe.

Judge Giorgi ruled that this ballot measure could not remain on the ballot since it is “expressly pre-empted” by state law because the evidence overwhelmingly suggests that “circumcision is a widely practiced medical procedure” and California law prohibits local governments from regulating medical procedures. (Intermountain Jewish News, Dan Klein; August 5, 2011) However, just the nature of the energy that went toward supporting this ban should cause us to pay attention to the nature of public opinion and misrepresentations of Jews and the Jewish community. We would be foolish to think that misrepresentations of Jews in words and pictures no longer exist. We would be irresponsible to not notice that there are those in the world who still consider Jews as having horns.

Locally, we have become more aware of anti-Semitic acts against individuals.  The beginning of this summer, the Anti-Defamation League posted reports about recent events here in Orange County.

A young Jewish boy came home from playing in a local park claiming that he had been beaten up by two brothers. The boy’s mom took her son to the boys’ home and tried to speak to their mother, but she refused to talk to her. The victim’s mom contacted the school and asked the principal to try and resolve the issue. The night the principal got involved, the father of the two brothers went over to the Jewish family’s home and started screaming profanity and anti-Semitic slurs. The Jewish father tried to calmly speak to the father but was met with more slurs. Unfortunately, the brothers continued to pick on the young Jewish boy and made fun of his Star of David. All of this came to a point that the boy was afraid to leave his house. Again, he was beaten up by the brothers so badly that the parents called the police. Later, as the family left their home by car, the neighbor followed them, pulled up beside them and yelled anti-Semitic slurs.  The Jewish family pulled over to the side of the road and the father got out of the car to confront his neighbor.  The neighbor attempted to attack him with a hammer while screaming anti-Semitic and racist slurs and making other statements that identified him as a white supremacist. He left before police arrived and was sought by law enforcement.

Kevin O’Grady from the ADL contacted the family and assured them that the ADL would work to protect them.  He contacted the police to follow-up on the search for the attacker, he contacted the hate crime unit of the Victims’ Assistance and the family was assigned an advocate who would work with them to get a restraining order and advocate for them as the process moves forward.  But the family was so distraught by these events that they decided the best solution for them was to move out of state to be near extended family. The move was costly for this family whose father is a disabled vet of the Iraq War and the Jewish community rallied together to help them with their moving expenses.

There is so much that is shocking and sad to this story. The idea that a family would be pushed so far as to have to move from their home is shocking and heartbreaking. But this is not the only incident recently in Orange County. There was another Jewish boy bullied and beaten so badly he left school; a Jewish high school student was bullied and received death threats; a 6th grade girl in Long Beach was shown a picture of Hitler and told it was the last thing she would see before she died; our children are being called anti-Semitic names and pennies thrown at them so other students “could watch the Jews pick up the pennies.”; and a Jewish middle school student in Villa Park was kicked to the ground by a fellow student and had his glasses knocked off when he refused to take a bible from an evangelist outside of the school. And finally a local business man, whose wife’s family has been a part of the Santa Ana business community for over 100 years, and he, a son of Holocaust survivors, was likened to Hitler and accused of engaging in Ethnic cleansing just because he strives to reawaken a sleeping city to the potential of business and community growth. And when the city official who used these heinous slurs on public record issued her inadequate apology, it was met by other city officials with, ‘she’s apologized, let’s move forward’ and voted that there should be no consequences for her actions.

Unfortunately, anti-Semitism is on the rise. The most recent ADL audit, reports of anti-Jewish vandalism, harassment and physical assaults rose 8% in California. This is the first time we have seen an increase in anti-Semitism, not only in California, but in the United States since 2004. And we have a choice, to lower our eyes and pay no attention to it or to stand tall and speak out. No one said that it is easy to be Jewish. No one said that we would never be met with racial slurs and hate speech. But no one said we could just lower our eyes and walk away as if nothing was wrong.

Over Rosh Hashanah and last night, I shared with you what it means to be a part of peoplehood and the responsibilities we share in creating our future. We have outlined ways in which we are going to strive to be a more compassionate and caring congregation. We have asked the important question regarding why it is so important for us to be together as a community and a synagogue family. But we must also examine how we might be able to be more visible and vocal as Jews in our community and not hide our identity when outside the safety of our home and congregation. We must consider how, as the Jewish community, we might be more active and present outside, out there. And how we might also remember that we not only stand up against hate crimes in our own community, but also speak out against hate crimes against others, such as that which took place on Sunday, October 2. A mosque in the Israeli Galilee Arab village of Tuba Zangaria, is burned by Israelis with the words, “price tag” and “revenge” on the walls, we cannot turn our backs when our own people engage in such hate crimes. It would be hypocritical for us to call out against anti-Semitism and not call out that these actions in Israel against Israeli Arabs is just. No, these too are hate crimes and I am ashamed that fellow Jews would engage in such an act.

We have opportunities to stand together as a community and with other communities.

Just a few weeks ago, on September 10, Temple Beth Sholom created and facilitated an Evening of Light and Hope. It was meant to be an evening in which we remembered the 10th anniversary of 9/11, but it became so much more. Before I left for Sabbatical, I sat down with Soni Sanberg, our Worship Vice President, and discussed with her my vision of an evening during which we would not only remember 9/11 but that we could take this 10 year anniversary and begin the process of moving forward and journeying toward a light of peace for all people. From there, our Worship Committee took this vision and created an evening that not only fulfilled the vision I first set forth, but grew it to that which touched so many. I cannot even begin to express my gratitude to the Worship Committee for coming together to create that evening of Light and Hope.

It was during that night that we invited participation from First Christian Church of Orange, Church of the Foothills, churches from the Orange Diocese, I Am Jerusalem, Pacifica Institute and Temple Beth Tikvah. Each participant brought with them music and reflections that led us through the themes of remembrance, peace and our journey forward. And while the evening was carefully and thoughtfully constructed, none of us who shared reflections knew what the other would say. Yet, as the evening progressed each reflection shared seemed to build on the one before – it became a flowing conversation of unity and joint spirit. And when Father Al Bacca reminded us that the next day, the memorial in New York City would have no clergy participation because it was thought that it would complicate it too much, we shared that by our participation together, in one place was not complicated but rather it was harmonious. And while there are issues that each of us might disagree upon, the evening showed us that it is possible to come together and talk, share, feel safe in disagreeing but always returning to the knowledge that every person should be treated with dignity and respect no matter their race, religion, color, sexuality or gender.

While I traveled in Jordan this summer, as we were hiking out of the canyons in Petra, I came across a most unusual sight. There, in a rock, in the 118 degree heat, grew two completely different trees. Two trees from one rock! It’s the picture you have on the front of your bulletins. How was it that these two completely different species could co-exist in one rock? How could these very different trees find sustenance in one rock, from one source?

These two trees in one rock inspired me. If they could survive and thrive, why is it that two different people, three different people, all different people, cannot thrive in one world? I understand that there are issues that are complicated and cannot be solved in a short amount of time, let alone in the span of generations. I understand that issues like those that face Israelis and Palestinians is so complicated that we as Americans, try as we might, want to be arm chair politicians and suggest exactly what we think should be done to create peace in the Middle East. I understand that we cannot do this. But while there are so many complicated issues in our world and in our lives, it is not so complicated to suggest that the least that we can do is to thrive on the one rock that we all live and that one rock that sustains us.

I am not suggesting that we can create peace and bring the Messianic era to our lifetimes today – ok, it would be an awesome thought to think that we could – but what I believe and know that we can do is not turn a blind eye when someone is bullied, when someone is called names, when someone is tortured to the edge of having to move.

It is NOT easy being different, it is NOT easy being a Jew, but we are and each of us should celebrate and embrace that and understand that each of us has the responsibility to give our children the message that they should be proud of being a Jew. Each of us have the responsibility to educate not only our children, but ourselves more about what it means to be Jewish so that rather than shirking away when someone challenges how they read the Bible that we can say with confidence what it is that we believe for ourselves. We cannot expect our children to carry the burden alone. We cannot expect our children to defend Jewish peoplehood if we ourselves are not willing to do so first. If we don’t stand up for Jewish peoplehood and equality for all people, than our synagogue, our Jewish community, our people will be gone in a few short generations. The demographers have shown this and we know it. If we pass the responsibility only on to the next generation without taking it on for ourselves, than the next generation will say, ‘if you didn’t stand up and say you were a Jew, why should I?’

We are the beginning of a new year with new opportunities. We see that there is a resurgence of hate in our world. But we have the opportunity and the responsibility to act, to learn and to speak. If you hear someone bully another or call them names, speak. If you are not sure how to answer someone who tells you your religion is wrong, then learn and ask so that you may teach. And when you walk out the doors of the synagogue today, have hope that there are two trees living in one rock in the desert, the same desert where Moses and the Israelites walked through on the way to the Promised Land, that there is hope and there are opportunities to live in peace with our neighbors near and far. And may we know that it is through peoplehood that we are made stronger, not only for our generation today, but for God willing, generations to come.

Are We Jonah – Nevi or Prophet? Kol Nidrei 5772

One of my favorite readings on Yom Kippur is the story of Jonah.  I think I like it because it is written like a story, and well, I love to be a story teller.

Once upon a time there was a man named Jonah. And God spoke to Jonah, son of Amittai, telling him to go to Nineveh, that great city, and tell them how awful they have been and that God is demanding that they turn from their evil ways or God will destroy them.

And what does Jonah do? He runs! We know he is in Israel, in Jaffa, he finds a ship going to the farthest place he could possibly think to go, Tarshish. We know that while he is on the ship, God causes a great storm that tosses the ship around and Jonah just sleeps through it all. The sailors, all of them having their own faith, pray to their gods, beg that they are saved to no avail. And finally, when they see that Jonah is asleep in the middle of this great storm, they demand to know who he is and that he should cry out to his god. After the casting of a few lots, they discover that it is Jonah’s fault, which he does not deny, that the storm is before them, about to destroy them. Jonah openly admits that he is a Hebrew, that he knows and fears God, maker of heaven and earth. Jonah takes responsibility for the storm because he is running from God and the mission God gave to him to go to Ninevah and tells them to cast him into the sea. With some hesitation, the men on the ship do this and the sea stops turning.

A great fish appears and swallows Jonah. For three days and nights, Jonah is in the fish and he says to God, “For you cast me into the deep, in the heart of the seas; and the floods surrounded me; all your billows and your waves passed over me. Then I said, I am cast out from Your presence; yet I will look again to Your Holy Temple.” And after three days, the fish spews Jonah out on the land and once again called out that he should go to Ninevah and deliver God’s message to the people of the city. After only traveling a single day into Ninevah, Jonah warns the people that in forty days the city will be overthrown if they do not repent soon.

The people put on sackcloth and ashes and they pray that God will turn over the decree of destroying the city and save every soul. And God does in fact spare the city.

However, we see in the final chapter that Jonah is upset by this outcome! Jonah knew that God was gracious, merciful and slow to anger and of great kindness and would not destroy the city if the people simply repented.  He is so upset by God’s compassion that he prays that God will just take his own life! But God does not answer this call and Jonah places himself in a small booth on a hill so that he could see what would become of the city. And God provides a great plant to provide him with shade and he is comfortable. But then, just as quickly as the great plant appeared it was gone the next day, and again, Jonah was left to burn in the hot sand. Again, he calls out for God to take his life. And when God says to Jonah, ‘why are you so distraught by the loss of this plant? It was only with you for one day, how could you have become so attached to a plant that you neither planted nor tended to?’ And God says to Jonah in the final verse, “And should I not spare Ninevah, that great city, where there are more than one hundred and twenty thousand persons who cannot discern between their right hand and their left hand; and also much cattle?”

That’s it! That’s the end of the story? We are left with a question! Typical Jewish text, leave us with a question and no answer!

What is the purpose of our reading this book of Jonah, four chapters in length, on Yom Kippur? What does it have to teach us on this day of repentance?  There is a top layer from which we learn – everyone has the opportunity and ability to turn from their wrong ways and start again. Everyone has the ability to change how he or she behaves and become better people in order to temper God’s severe decree. That God is a loving and passionate God who, if we turn our ways to the right path, we will be forgiven. Is not this what it says in the Unatantokef? “But repentance, prayer and charity temper judgments severe decree. It is not the death of sinners that you seek O God, but rather that we should turn our ways and return to you.”  Jonah is the story that there is hope, even when we think that there is none. We are never so far gone as to not be able to turn back and find a new path.

It’s a beautiful story, however, there are other pieces to this story that can bring enlightenment to us on this Kol Nidrei evening and inspire us and even allow us to question and wrestle with during this sacred time.

Let us begin with where Jonah is supposed to go and where he tries to go. God calls out to Jonah and tells him to go to the great city of Ninevah and tell the people to turn from their evil ways. But where is Ninevah? It is in Mesopotamia and is the great city known to be the home of the Assyrians who would later succumb to the Babylonians. It would be this great nation that would later come to destroy the people of Israel and carry them off into Diaspora. What is it that Jonah knew? Why would he be so concerned about this when he might not even have known that the Assyrians would be the ones to later destroy Israel?

Jonah is considered to be one of our Prophets. However, we have to be careful when we use the term “prophet.” What does this mean? On the surface, we may say that these were the individuals who would cry out to the people and tell them what they are doing wrong! But really, there are two types of prophets – there are those who we call “Prophet” and those who we call “Nevi.” While we might think they are one and the same, for Nevi literally means Prophet, they are quite different. For a Prophet can see the future but cannot change what will happen. A Nevi does not see the future but by crying out to the people, HOPES that he will be able to make a change for the future.

Jonah was in fact a Prophet, for why he fled is because of that which he saw. Jonah knew from the moment God told him to go to Ninevah and tell the people to repent, that they would, and God would not destroy them but that this people would later destroy Israel. So he fled, to the furthest place he could go, to Tarshish, a place near Spain. But one cannot flee from God’s calling.

And when Jonah learns that he cannot flee, and as he never denies his identity as a Hebrew, Jonah is cast out into the sea and into the belly of the great fish. These words of his going down in to the deep and being able to look again at God’s Holy Temple seem to be dismissed as we are so intrigued by the fish. But it is not the fish that we should focus on; rather, it is the surrounding pieces of this story. Jonah challenges the quick turn of faith by the sailors when in great trouble they suddenly pray to God, Jonah’s God, that they should be spared any harm because they throw this man into the sea. That the people of Ninevah should all of a sudden turn from their idol worship and pray to God because of the looming threat of their destruction.  Jonah is upset that through his actions and his words to the sailors and people of Ninevah, that they might turn toward God, but he knows that all of this is only temporary and superficial. They will get bored of God and go back to the excitement they found in their temples and idol worship. That the words they share in praising God on high have very little meaning or teeth. Their conversion is only temporary.

For Jonah, if something does not last forever, then it is not truth, it has no meaning. For Jonah, he believes in the existential assumption that in order for something to have meaning it must have no end. However, God challenges this idea with Jonah, knowing full well what the descendants of the people of Nineveh will do to the Israelites in a future generation. God gives him the gourd to provide shade, yet Jonah does not care for it and then when it is gone, he mourns the loss. God tells Jonah, the gourd was very real, yet, it did not last. Yes, in life, things or times that have limits, that are not infinite, do have meaning and are real. Just as in death – life has more meaning because we know that our lifetimes are limited.

Jonah is a part of something greater than himself, and this is a difficult lesson that he, the Prophet, is not able to fully understand or accept. Yet it is our challenge, tonight, for us to learn from and grow with. We are a part of something that is greater than ourselves and while our time is limited, there is much we have the opportunity to do and even change, no matter where we are in our lives.

No one has a crystal ball that can tell our future. But we are in control of our lives in this moment that shapes the next. It is our responsibility to not sit in silence when injustice or frustration crowds our world. When we are challenged because someone speaks against that which we believe or know to be true, do sit in silence? Or do we seek justice? Do we turn our backs and say, I will just not cast my lot and allow the chips to fall where they may? Or do we stand up and demand to be heard not allowing someone else to speak for us?

These hours of Kol Nidrei and Yom Kippur call upon us to examine our world and ourselves. Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik teaches that the goal of teshuva and this time of Yom Kippur is not to become burdened by all that we have not achieved, but instead to become challenged to achieve our potential. He writes, “The power stored up within each of us is exceedingly great, but all too often it slumbers within and does not bestir itself from deep sleep.”

These past few years we have felt helpless in a world in which our financial dreams slip through our fingers. Savings depleted, jobs lost, homes downsized, it is a part of a new reality. We have felt lost in the belly of the fish with no light and no idea which direction we were going. But we have emerged in to a new reality, one that has made us stronger. I have watched over these past few years how we have come together to care for one another, share resources, and support our community in times of need. And that has made us richer. It has left us with the feeling that we can accomplish anything when we do so together. Yet, there is still more work to be done and there are still those who are looking for a way out of the depths. And we call out and remind ourselves to not stop caring, not stop building and not stop reinvisioning our world together.

We take on the part of the role of the Nevi in which we cannot see the future but we can hope and we can act in a way in which we want to make a difference. We do not have to sit like Jonah and watch from the hill and wonder what will the world do? How will others act? What will be the outcome? Tonight, we look out from the hill, we lift ourselves up and we ask, where is it that I can go to make a difference, because I know that I can.

We know that our lives are limited. We know that all life comes to an end, but unlike Jonah, we do not wait for death to approach us. Rather, we live each moment to its fullest knowing that even our days are limited, our actions can create an infinite effect on our world, our community and our families.  We can choose hope over despair: even when we feel that we are at the bottom of the great sea, we can choose to swim toward hope and the surface of a new reality. Is this not the message of our Yom Kippur? As we examine our lives, God asks that we not just accept our fate as being complete, but rather, God invites us to turn, return, and turn again to a new path of righteousness, compassion, and respect. We do not know the future, but we are in control of today, this moment. And so, as a people of neviim, what message do you cry out and what actions do you take to claim control of your life toward hope and what actions do you take to not just watch to see what the rest of the world will do, but what you will do to ensure that our world is complete because you are here?

Shofar Memories of Alan Friedman, z’l 5772

And from the top of the mountains the shofar sounded, heralding a new year, a new month, a message for the people to wake up and pay attention. The words of our Shofar service, Areshet s’fateinu ye∙erav l’fanekha, el ram v’nissa, mevin u‐ma∙azin, mabbit u‐makshiv l’kol t’ki∙atenu. U‐t’kabbel b’rah.amim u‐v’ratzon seder malkhuyyotenu, May the words of our lips be pleasing to You, exalted God, who listens, discerns, considers, and attends to the sound of our shofar blast. Lovingly accept our offering of verses proclaiming Your Sovereignty.

For almost fifty years, Alan Friedman, z’l, stood in this place, first with Sam Weiner, and then after he passed, as our ba’al tki’ah, sharing with us the sounds of the shofar. For almost fifty years, as Alan would breathe into the shofar, he opened our ears, our minds and our hearts with each note that we may listen, discern and consider our actions and our lives. He fulfilled the mitzvah of sounding the shofar for all to hear that we should be called together on this Rosh Hashanah day to examine our lives, placing each moment of the past year, each action of each day, before ourselves and before God. That we should embrace our accomplishments and challenge ourselves to reach higher with each breath. His sounding of the shofar asked us to consider our place in the world remembering that each of us have the responsibility to be co-creators with God in building a world of peace, respect, and compassion for all.

These past few years were challenging for Alan as his breath began to diminish. It would take as much effort as possible for him to walk from one place to another and with his oxygen tank close by, he would spend more time listening and sharing in the breath of others. However, when it came to Rosh Hashanah, the oxygen tank was set to the side and his breath filled his lungs like no other time during the year. The desire to stand in this place and sound the shofar and ask God to lovingly accept our prayers, filled his lungs, his soul, and ours.

This year, we miss his presence in this space. But his breath is still a part of ours. And while Chelle asked Matthew Griffin to stand as our ba’al t’kiah as Alan truly respected the compassion with which Matthew sounds the shofar, we hold this space for him at this moment.

And with Alan’s shofar before us, we still hear his call, and we are moved to listen and breathe.

We call upon Matthew Griffin, Joel Ross, and Michael Gropper to sound the shofar, from mountain top to mountain top. Bring us to the heights where we find God and where we are moved to listen and hear.

May the words of our lips be pleasing to You, exalted God, who listens, discerns, considers, and attends to the sound of our shofar blast. Lovingly accept our offering of verses proclaiming Your Sovereignty.

Amen.

 

And now, as we begin our calls, join with me, in one voice as we recite each call. But for this first section, we shall pause after each call, silently recalling Alan’s call to us.

Peoplehood and “DOing” Jewish – Rosh Hashanah 5772

What is truly essential in your Jewish life? What is it that you need to be and to feel Jewish? What is the core of Judaism as you understand it and as you need it in your life? What does it mean for you to be a part of the Jewish Community and of the TBS Family?

These are questions we ask ourselves more often than we realize. They may not be worded exactly like this, but we ask ourselves these questions every Friday night when we consider what time it is as we pull in the driveway and consider how or even if we are going to celebrate Shabbat. We ask ourselves these questions when we consider when to send our children to religious school and why we are sending them. We ask ourselves these questions each year as ponder our temple membership when our dues statements arrive in the mail.

Look around you. Notice how many people are here this morning! Look at the familiar faces and take notice of new ones. Feel the energy in this sacred space of all of us here this morning. When we join in more of our blessings this morning, especially congregational readings and singing, close your eyes and listen to the voices of all of us together, praying together, being together as one people. It is awesome and inspirational.

You had a choice this morning. You could have said, ‘it’s Thursday, I still have so much to do at work before the weekend, I think I’ll just skip Rosh Hashanah this year so I can get it all done.’ But you didn’t. You put aside the every day tasks and you’re here! You are a part of this family and this moment.

But still, we ask, why? Why do you commit yourself to a congregation, this congregational family? What is in it for you?

Belonging to a congregation is not so automatic as it once was. Only a few generations ago, it was unthinkable for Jews to not belong to a congregation. However, today, here in Orange County alone, there are 100, 000 Jews and 70,000 of them are not members of any synagogue. Imagine that number multiplied throughout the country! Only three out of ten Jews are members of a congregation! This number was unheard of years ago, yet today, this is the reality.

Two generations ago, the only place someone could be a part of making Jewish connections was through the synagogue. But today, people can log on to the internet and be a part of a virtual community. Yes, we stream our services here at TBS for those who are not able to physically leave their home so they can feel a connection to our community. But there are actually some internet congregations where the rabbi and cantor lead a service in front of a camera and invite participants to “chat” using their keyboards during the d’var Torah. But it is only your voice you hear. There is no touch of another sitting next to you as you sing a closing song. Yet, for those in rural areas or who are secluded because of health or lack of community, it works.

Today, we can also open the local Jewish publications and see advertisements for life cycle services by community rabbis. They are happy to train your child for Bar or Bat Mitzvah, bring a Torah to a ballroom in a local hotel and hold a private service for you and your family. Yes, a cheaper way to provide the learning a child may need to read some words of Torah and maybe it’s just enough Judaism without a longer term commitment. But it’s missing the opportunity for the child and the family to share in this momentous moment in their lives with their Jewish community. After all, becoming Bar or Bat Mitzvah is the opportunity for a child to stand up and say, I am now a young adult in this community and I count!

With all of the changes in our world, with all of the ways we connect via internet, with our schedules and schedules of our family, it seems less and less of a need to belong to one more community and have one more commitment.

Yet, Donniel Hartman states that “Judaism is viewed as a malleable system, almost infinitely adjustable to the commitments, desires and needs of contemporary Jewish life.” However, there is a fear that if obligations are set before us as to what it means to be a part of a community, we might lose a sense of tolerance and inclusiveness and hence push those outside of the community.

This brings to mind the concept of ikkarim, the basic core of our Jewish obligations . Ikkarim are important in establishing the obligations to our Jewish self and our community, for without them, the Jewish community cannot stand on it’s own. And, we as Liberal Jews are all Jews by Choice, whether born Jewish or have become Jewish later in life, “we all choose a path, a way of life, identity, culture, and peoplehood as the primary prism through which one lives one’s life, sets one’s priorities, makes one’s choices, and educates one’s children.” (Donniel Hartman)

And for all of us, that path leads us to this place today, and for that I…we are grateful. For our Rosh Hashanah would seem empty without each and every one of you.

So what do we get for being a part of the TBS Congregational Family?

Let’s start with our congregational brit.  Did you know we have a congregational brit? Some of our newer members might as it was included in your membership packets and we use it during our New Member Shabbat each year. But the rest of our congregational family may not remember that we have this. So let’s try this – you have it there in your bulletins you received this morning. I’d like to invite us to do this as a responsive reading – this side of the congregation, you’ll read the Members’ Covenant to the Congregation with me; this side, you’ll read the TBS Family’s Covenant to the Members with Cantor Reinwald.

Being a part of our congregational family encompasses each of these areas and is reciprocal between each of you and the entire congregation and staff. Providing and participating in educational opportunities not just for our children but all of us. Providing and participating in Shabbat and Holiday worship. Providing and participating in life cycle celebrations and comforting one another in times of need and bereavement. Providing and participating in tikkun olam, social action and social justice, for not only our congregation but our community and world. And finally, providing and participating in social opportunities, making new friends and continuing to connect with old.

No one can “Do Jewish” for another. Yet, no one can “Be Jewish” without the other. Hence, why each of these areas, Education, Worship, Life Cycle, Tikkun Olam and absolutely, Social connections are so critical to our congregational family’s existence.

Around the synagogue, in your mailbox and on the TBS website are copies of our TBS Programs Catalogue. Right here is a menu of opportunities for everyone and all ages. From educational classes for youth and adults to fitness classes, such as Zumba – an energetic workout with awesome music and fun moves that anyone can do – not to mention a fun word to say, “ZUMBA!” Learning and socializing takes place not only in the classroom, but also on the trail with our Shabbat hikes. There are book groups, field trips and movies to watch. While we might feel that learning opportunities are only for our children, we too should take advantage of these opportunities for ourselves. I cannot tell you how energized and inspired I was to have taken the opportunity for myself to participate in an intensive learning experience this summer, for two weeks, twelve hours a day. While this might seem a bit much for most, it reminded me that I too must make the time for my own educational growth and be a role model for my children in that studying does not end when you graduate. OK, and they both loved the fact that Ima had homework!

We have plenty of one session classes to choose from and classes that with very little time commitment. But that one, two or three hours may just inspire you to reach for a new understanding or new knowledge about something you never considered learning or experiencing before. Please, explore this book. It’s full of so many incredible opportunities.

Our congregational family is committed to being here to care for one another during life celebrations and moments of bereavement or need for consolation. By being a member of TBS, you have invested in Clergy Insurance! By being a member of the TBS family, your clergy insurance provides you with a rabbi or cantor for baby namings, brit milot (ok, we just do the blessings, but we can help you find the actual mohel!), b’nei mitzvah for children and adults, weddings, conversions, anniversary blessings, birthday blessings, hospital visits, funerals and counseling, just to name a few. Cantor Reinwald and I are here for our congregation 365 days a year, 24 hours a day. Our phone numbers are available for life cycle emergencies day and night, and some of you have called in the middle of the night when you needed us. And we’ve been in the hospital room with you or in your home in the late hours of the night or early hours of the morning. This isn’t an inconvenience for us, this is what we do. It’s a privilege for us to be a part of some of these most intense moments in your lives. And when we say, ‘really, just call us if you need us,’ we mean it.

How often do we reach out to the synagogue when we are in an accident, have received some difficult medical news for a loved one or ourselves, or struggle with an ethical dilemma regarding our career or work life? How often do we turn to our Jewish community to share a moment of life celebration? A new job, a new relationship, the fulfillment of a personal goal? When do we share life’s little moments with our Jewish family? These are reasons that the congregation exists, so we can be here to support and celebrate with throughout all of life’s moments.

Being a part of Jewish community and the TBS family also means building lasting friendships. There are many of you who have been part of social groups, or chavurot since you were first married. Some of these chavurot have shared in the birth of their own children and now celebrate in their weddings and birth of their grandchildren.

Many of you have participated or will participate in our Reservations Only events. While these are fundraiser opportunities, they are also opportunities to meet and get to know more people in our congregation. These social events have introduced so many of you to new friends who you might not have ever connected with outside of the congregation. I recently heard someone liken the congregation to a country club. TBS is their country club, it’s the place to belong to get together with friends, enjoy good meals, and be a part of a group of like-minded individuals.

It is our hope to create social events for all ages and demographics. We have travel opportunities such as our Tour of Jewish LA, which of course will involve eating! And there is the congregational trip to Israel this coming January 25-February 5. This trip is designed for adults to not only experience Israel and the beautiful places and historical sites, but to also connect with the Israeli people. I spent the summer exploring the country and meeting some amazing individuals who I look forward to introducing you to and building the connections between the people of Israel and our congregational family. And an added bonus! You get 12 uninterrupted days with me, your rabbi! Complete access for 12 days!

And while we have so many opportunities for connection on some levels, I still believe that we can continue to stretch boundaries of our community. That we can and should create deeper connections to our Temple Beth Sholom family through each of us reconnecting ourselves to one another and the link of past generations, to today and forward to tomorrow.

While sharing in what we currently have, I want to introduce to you what we are going to create starting today.  Allow me to introduce you to the TBS Congregational Connections program. Last year, through the vision of Monica Engel and the commitment of so many volunteers, we established our Mitzvah Meals program. And one year later, Mitzvah Meals has successfully fed thousands of individuals thanks to so many of you here in this sanctuary. Each and every Sunday, many of you have joined with our Mitzvah Meal leaders, sorted, cooked and delivered hot meals to those in need throughout Santa Ana and Orange County. And I could not be prouder of the work that we are doing for our community. May this work continue until the day comes that no man, woman or child goes to bed hungry. Then we will have fulfilled our mission.

And now, while it is so important to remember that Temple Beth Sholom is a cornerstone in the community, it is time to bring this cornerstone back into our own lives.

How often has someone said to me, Cantor Reinwald or another staff member that they were touched by a card they received from the Kesher LaBayit, the TBS Caring Community, which has been headed by Carol Kanofsky, Carol Weiss and Renee Siembieda for these past seven years. Over that time, some of you have helped with our caring community by sending these cards, providing meals or driving those in need to doctors or physical therapy appointments. But the group has been small and we realize that the need is greater and can be expanded.

Today, I share with you the beginning of our TBS Congregational Connections program. The vision is to help all of us connect to TBS, the Jewish community, and especially our Jewish selves, at all points in our lives. While the most obvious times include times when a loved one dies and there is a need to help lead or organize shiva minyanim in the home; or someone is in the hospital or long term care and longs for visits and help to and from the doctors; there is still so many more ways for us to connect with one another. And creating these Congregational Connections will help foster our connections to peoplehood and our Jewish life.

A member of our TBS family recently said to me, “after my accident, I made sure to take care of my body and my car, but I didn’t think about taking care of my soul.” When this person was ready, birkat hagomel, the blessing that is said in the community when someone comes through a life threatening or very difficult time, was shared and these moments of bringing in Jewish connections added to their healing.

We all have the opportunity to be a part of these connections. Each of us are a part of the link and each of us, without any special training, has the ability to reach out to another, welcome a new family to the congregation, check in on a family with a new addition, invite a single individual or couple with no other family around to Shabbat or a holiday meal, and support the foundation of our congregations existence. Each of us has the opportunity to not only be Jewish but to do Jewish.

This summer, our membership Vice President, Susan Sherman, TBS Program and Membership Director, Juliet Friedman, have been working to divide the congregation into twelve Congregational Connection teams, each with their own coordinator.  In the weeks to come, each family will hear from your Congregational Connection Coordinator and he or she will share with you information about how to create deeper links to our congregational family and fulfilling the needs and celebrating life’s moments together.  Each of the Connection teams will be responsible for one month during the year. During your Connection team’s month, your coordinator may receive a call from me, Cantor Reinwald or anyone on the TBS staff, sharing that there is a need in the congregational family and we could use the support of your connection team. Some of you may not have time for visits, but be willing to make a phone call to just say hello to a homebound TBS member. Others might be freer during the week to drive someone to a doctor’s appointment or just stop by a home for a visit and to deliver a meal already prepared by our Mitzvah Meal mavens. You yourself may see a need that your Connection’s team can fulfill. Maybe a young couple with a new baby could really use a date-night to reconnect and they don’t have family around who can babysit. Your team might have someone, be it grandparent type or family with young children of their own and all the needed baby accoutrements, and would love to volunteer to babysit just so the couple can have some much needed time together.

The possibilities are endless for the connections that we can create with one another. There is so much to share in each other’s lives that creating these connections will not only care for those in need but also build connections amongst the entire community. And is not this the reason why we are here?

No one comes to the synagogue to be alone and no one should feel alone when you are here. Therefore, allow us to revisit the questions I asked you when I began – What is truly essential in your Jewish life? What is it that you need to be and to feel Jewish? What is the core of Judaism as you understand it and as you need it in your life? What does it mean for you to be a part of the Jewish Community and of the TBS Family?

Can you fulfill Jewish obligations alone? Can you pray alone? Can you eat alone? Of course, yet, what brings us back to this place each year is the sense of being a part of the larger community, being a part of the Jewish family. What sustains our Jewish selves and our Jewish core begins with each other. And so, allow us to sustain it together. Allow us to build stronger connections through our monthly links and into the ever changing moments of our lives. Allow us to celebrate together and to be and do Jewish together.

Today, we join together during these High Holy Days, during this Rosh Hashanah, this new year, to contemplate what it is we hope to achieve in our Jewish lives. May our blessings be expanded to the connections we can create together and the vision we can make real and may we each be blessed in the Congregation we call family.

Peoplehood, What it Means – Erev Rosh Hashanah 5772

Remember the assignment the first day of school: ‘OK students, it’s time to talk about what you did over your summer vacation!’ The teachers might have us draw pictures or write stories, interview each other like we’re writing a newspaper article. But the question was always the same, ‘what did you do over your summer vacation?’

Tonight, I have the opportunity to share with you what I did over my summer Sabbatical. And I come before you with too much to share in one sermon, let alone five. I come before you with not only that which I will share over these High Holy Days, but what I hope we will be able to engage in over the entire year. For we cannot possibly expect to get our Judaism fix in only two days, but we can lay the foundation for what we hope to explore this year.

First, I have to say, thank you! Thank you all for the opportunity to take these past three months to refresh and reconnect. Thank you for the opportunity to live, study and grow in Israel. The last time I was in Israel for a long period of time, I was a student, alone, and immersed in my studies toward becoming a Rabbi. This time, I was not alone. Not only did I travel to Israel with my family, but you were with me as well. After 13 years of experience with you, my congregation, I brought you into my studies and travels considering how I might bring it back and share it with you.  While it was personally enriching, I hope that it will be communally fulfilling as well. For what I learned over my summer Sabbatical is not only for me, but also for all of us to explore.

This summer I realized that the conversation we need to engage in over these High Holy Days and over this coming year is one of, amiyut, or peoplehood. But what is peoplehood? I can say that my spell check is not happy with this word for it insists that it does not exist. Nor, in Hebrew, is amiyut, really a word. True, both use the word “people” or “am”, but what is peoplehood? The dictionary defines it as a noun

1. the state or condition of being a people.

2. the consciousness of certain beliefs or characteristics that make one part of a people;  sense of belonging to a people.

As we sit here in this sanctuary over the High Holy Days, we cannot help but feel a part of the larger community. We cannot help but feel connected because we are surrounded with so many in our Jewish community. It is safe, it is awesome, and it feels good. There’s nothing more satisfying than being together, seeing old and new friends all in one place. It lifts our spirits and automatically, we are transformed into the place of feeling like we belong because we are sitting here together. Peoplehood is easy when we are all together on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. It is exciting to see where we have come as the Jewish people.

While I was in Israel, Matt and I took Dahvi and Yoni around to all these amazing historical sites. Archaeological excavations uncovered ancient cities in which we were transported to where the Israelites studied, prayed, worked, socialized and lived. In these places, like Masada, Caesarea, Beit Shean, Akko, Tzefat, Beit Guvrin, Moresheh, Jerusalem, just to name a few, we would recount the lives of our ancestors the Israelites, who not only lived in these places, but fought for their existence and were even expelled.

“(*)Look, here at the place where the Israelites worshipped freely until the Babylonians came in and destroyed their homes and sent the Israelites into exile.  (*)Look, here at the synagogues and schools that the Israelites, who returned from exile in Babylonia, established when they returned.  (*)See the great amphitheaters and cities that the Israelites built in response to that which was being created in places like Greece and Rome.  (*)Look kids, this is where the Zealots fought the Roman legions as Jerusalem was being destroyed. (*)This is where the people stood against the great armies, the few against the many, holding on to what the believed until the fateful night when they took their lives rather than be taken as slaves or killed by the Romans.  (*)And here is where Israel’s Declaration of Independence was written and read for the world to hear.  (*)It was here where the Israelites fought against those who sought to destroy her in 1948, 1967, 1972 and even where the missiles land today and the shelters to which the people run and pray to be safe.  (*)Look, at this vast country that for thousands of years, so small and whose people seemed so insignificant, has survived time and time again. (*)And look, how today Israel is a leading nation in technology and scientific development. How the people who so many have sought and still seek to destroy stands so strong and stable. But remember, Dahvi and Yoni, while it may seem that Israel stands on her own with such strength, it is only because all of am Yisrael, the people of Israel, whether in the land or throughout the world, are connected to her and support her that she survives. It is through peoplehood that not only will the land survive, but that we will survive.” And yes, during a time in which peace seems to be so distant between Israel and her neighbors; where the Palestinian people seek their own nation yet only through a unilateral declaration of independence, without regard for a peace process, we have to hope that Israel and her neighbors will some day find peace and security. The issues are so complex it seems so easy for us to say what we think should happen from across the ocean. We may not be able to fix the issues of peace, but we can and we should voice our support for Israel for she is and has been the home of the Jewish people for generations.

In a world of archaeological artifacts and digs, we can uncover our past, but we have to take those shards of pottery and build our future. So where is it that peoplehood began? And where is it going and where will it take us?

Let’s start at the very beginning. Adam and Eve. God created the world, created all of the creatures and finally, on the last day, God created humans, Adam and Eve. But unfortunately, this first attempt to create them was not good. And with that, God started over again with Noah and his family – it was God’s “do over.” But even after that, we read in Genesis 11, the story of the Tower of Bavel.

“And the whole earth was of one language, and of one speech. And it came to pass, as they journeyed from the east, that they found a plain in the land of Shinar; and they lived there. And they said to one another, Come, let us make bricks, and burn them thoroughly. And they had bricks for stone, and slime had they for mortar. And they said, Come, let us build us a city and a tower; whose top may reach to heaven; and let us make us a name, lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.” (Genesis 11:1-4)

Again, there needs to be a do-over, but not by destroying the people, rather, spreading them out throughout the world through speech and land.

But then we come to Avram who will become Avraham – who enters into an eternal covenant with God. What does he get with this covenant? That God will bless him and make him a great nation. God will multiply his seed and bless those who bless Abraham and curse those who curse him and his family. And in our Torah portion which we will read tomorrow, the Akeidah, the binding of Isaac, the great final test of Abraham, what does he receive for his loyalty to God? The same blessing as when Abraham and God first met; that he should be a great nation and that God will multiply his seed and bless those who bless him and curse those who curse him. This is a covenant of lineage and a statement that what it means to be a part of the people is to be a part of the family – it is not about what one does or how one acts. This Genesis covenant of peoplehood is not about how you act, rather it is who you are related to and there is no getting out of it. This is an eternal covenant.

But there is a shift in Exodus. Moses and God meet at a burning bush and God is introduced through the ancestors of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, but that is as far as the blood lines go. Rather God turns to the connection with the people by hearing the plight of the Israelites in slavery in Egypt. They cried out and God answers by telling Moses to go to Pharaoh and say, “let My people go that they may worship Me.”

God wants more of the people than just being a part of the family. Now God is seeking that the people do something to be a part of the peoplehood. The identity of the Jewish people in the Exodus model is no longer just about saying that we were born into it. No, now, if we want to truly be a part of the covenant, our identity must be linked to our experiences and actions.

Our Genesis and Exodus models present us today with two ways of identifying ourselves as Jews. Through Genesis, Jewish identity is through birth and identifying as a part of the family. Through Exodus, one may identify as a Jew through action. Yet, where are we today? Where are you today?

Is the Genesis model becoming irrelevant? Some may challenge that it may even feel racist in that it is a closed model – you are born into it. Is the Exodus model too challenging or inaccessible? Many times people do not want to take the time to learn and do, especially in the lives we have created for ourselves today – we just don’t have time with everything else we have to do.

But as a synagogue community, we are in the best position to examine our peoplehood and our identity as the Jewish community. The Genesis model is disappearing. “Based on current intermarriage rates and the average number of Jewish children per family, the chances of young, contemporary Jews having Jewish grandchildren and Jewish great-grandchildren, with the exception of the Orthodox, are extremely remote.”[1] We then must consider that it is not enough to be Jewish just by being born a Jew, but rather, being Jewish is by acting and engaging in Judaism and Jewish peoplehood.

So I challenge us with a very simple question: Why should we be Jewish? Unfortunately, there is no one reason. We can talk about how to be Jewish but there is no real reason about why to be Jewish. That, we must decide on our own and this we will study together tomorrow.

What does it mean to be a part of peoplehood? That too is something that each of us sitting here tonight will have to examine and challenge oneself with. Is it enough to just say, “I am a Jew?”

Over these next ten days, I want to challenge us to consider what our definition is of peoplehood. We are going to explore our community and how we are each important pieces in the TBS community, the Orange County community and the community of the Jewish people in Israel and abroad. We will explore the challenges of anti-Semitism as it exists today as well as examining justice versus righteousness through the story of Jonah. And finally, we will sit at the feet of the teachers who came before us, listen to the words and the lessons they shared with us and what we will take into this next year.

Peoplehood may be frustrating to my computer’s spell check, but it is crucial that it is a part of our vocabulary today and tomorrow. Be assured, this examination of identity and peoplehood is not a conversation that is unique to our generation. No, this is a conversation that has been going on for many generations and will be held in generations to come. The glass is not half empty, the Jewish people are not going any where soon. But today, the Jewish people are at a crossroads at which we have the amazing opportunity to redefine who we are and how we are Jews in the year 2011/5772.

Look kids, yes, there are many places where they tried to destroy us, but this is the place where we still stand strong. Now go and plant your seed.


[1] The information provided by a culminating conclusion of a research article co-authored by Antony Gordon and Richard Horowitz