Our youth High Holy Day Camp was fantastic! Several parents told us that their child did not want to leave shul! We saw kids from religious school and day school form strong friendships, where one 3rd grader told us he was upset that he wouldn’t see his new friends for a whole year. However, we will have more programs this year for day school and religious school students to be together and strengthen those friendships.
We were also amazed that close to 200 kids took part in the camp. Some of the older students went through the camp stations voluntarily with their friends, like answering reflective questions in Yom Kippur Jenga or participating in text studies!
One of the most exciting parts was watching one of our 3rd graders hold the Havdallah candle after Neilah. He was nervous, but so proud of himself!
High Holy Day Camp is a positive experience linking our youth and Judaism to learning about the holidays and making sure that shul is a happy place for all ages.
Thanks to the ongoing generosity of our congregants, Ladder Project clients are doing well.
Benito and his wife Monica love their Vickery Meadow apartment, which Congregation Shearith Israel completely furnished, and Benito has started his new, full-time job in the maintenance department at Presbyterian Hospital of Dallas; his goal is to save enough money to buy a used car.
Our Afghani family just expanded with the birth of a baby girl. Dad Keramuddin, who is working in food service for Presbyterian Hospital, recently obtained his drivers license and bought a used van with his savings. The family of six will need to move into a three-bedroom house or apartment in June when their apartment lease expires; if any congregant has access to North Dallas housing please let us know.
Wendy, age 56, is a new LP client: After serving on ships for 16 years in the U.S. Navy, Wendy returned home to Plano to care for her ailing parents and brother. After serving as their caretaker, Wendy lost the family home in 2018 due to liens and medical debts. Unable to pay her apartment rent on a warehouse income of $10.50/hour, Wendy moved to the Austin Street Shelter in March 2022. We are currently looking for both a job (she is currently working part-time doing CAD drawings for solar panels and recently graduated from an 8-week medical equipment sterilization course) and a North Dallas apartment for her. All of her family's belongings are in storage awaiting a new home.
Please contact Ladder Project's Chair Laura Miller if you have any housing, used car, or job ideas for our clients.
Congregants will have a chance to meet many of our LP clients at CSI's Hannukah Shabbat dinner on December 16. Please welcome them to the CSI family. They will want to thank you in person for all you have done for them.
We also welcome our newest Ladder Project volunteers: Danielle Gervis, Joshua Gold, Melanie Morris, Eric Roseman, Olivier and Sandra Sebag, and Bill and Helen Sutker.
December 17, 2021
There is a woman currently living at the city's homeless shelter, The Bridge, in downtown Dallas who needs your immediate help. This email is long, but it is important. It's the holidays, and we are in a position to literally take a woman off the streets of Dallas and get her into a warm, safe place to live by month's end. With your help.
It has been awhile since the eight of us who oversee The Ladder Project have reached out to you with any appeals. The COVID crisis kept us from taking on new project participants since our model is to work intensely one-on-one with people to find them jobs and apartments and furnish them through your donations.
In the past few months, we have rekindled our efforts. We partnered with two new homeless organizations -- Catholic Charities and OurCalling -- both of which help thousands of homeless people in crisis, often referring them to other non-profits for additional services and shelter. OurCalling is especially impressed with our model -- a caseworker recently told us that while only 10 percent of the homeless who come to her for help fit our model (no alcohol or drug addictions, no serious mental illness, must be willing to work) she knows of no other program that creates a total safety net for someone short term, giving that person housing, work, transportation and medical help all in one fell swoop, thus affording them a real chance of fundamentally restarting his or her life.
Although we have received several referrals recently, one appears to be a good fit, and we would like to introduce her to you.
Denise is a 55-year-old single woman, who grew up in McKinney as one of 10 children, and has been living at The Bridge since she lost her job in home health care at the start of the pandemic. She lost her older son in a motorcycle accident three years ago, and her younger son has struggled and remains largely out of touch with her. When she lost her job, she was living in an apartment in South Oak Cliff with her disabled brother and a friend, splitting the rent three ways. The friend moved out, her brother moved to a men's rooming house in South Dallas, and Denise found herself living alone in the apartment with no income to pay for it. Although laws passed during COVID prevented her from being evicted, Denise chose to move out when crime escalated at her complex, and she realized her rent debt was mounting. She moved in May 2020 to The Bridge as a temporary measure -- she had never been homeless for more than one night before -- but with no car and no money could not find a way out.
What impresses us most about Denise is her optimistic, sunny demeanor and her ability to motivate herself, despite her circumstances.
This past August, she got a job as a crossing guard at John Quincy Adams Elementary School in Pleasant Grove. Every week day, rain or shine, she rode the bus from the shelter in downtown Dallas to the school in Pleasant Grove for her two shifts -- 7 to 9 am and 2:30 to 4:30 pm. She loves her job, especially her relationships with the children who she shepherds across a busy intersection every day. Determined to better herself, and get transportation that would enable her to find a second job, she saved money to put a down payment on a used car, which she purchased in October. And she applied to the Dallas Housing Authority for a housing voucher to subsidize her $687/month income so she could get an apartment.
But life's challenges overwhelmed her again.
The DHA housing voucher was set to expire on December 19, and she had not secured an apartment due to application fees and red tape. The 2010 Mazda3 that she had purchased at a used car lot in South Dallas with 178,000 miles on it was in such disrepair that the day she bought it she was unable to get a state inspection because the mechanic said the car had too many engine and brake problems to pass. Denise spent several hundred dollars in repairs trying to get the car qualified for inspection, but to no avail. The dashboard is still lit up with warning lights, the brakes are still not working properly, and Denise has been afraid to drive it. The car's registration expires this week. She was badly taken advantage of: she paid $850 down, and was required to pay $200 every other week until May 2023 ($9,056 total). The car insurance is $75/month, her phone bill is $50/month, and last month (before she met us) when bills overwhelmed her, she went to a payday loan shop in Oak Cliff and borrowed $300. (The terms were incredible: $84 every other week for 12 weeks, with a balloon payment of $398.63 in May 2022 -- $1,406.63 for a $300 loan.)
We have been working daily with Denise for the past 10 days, racing against the clock to unwind her blatantly usurious financial obligations. We paid off the remainder of her payday loan ($385). We got a 30-day extension on her DHA housing voucher and toured a 55-and-older apartment complex in Casa Linda, six miles from Denise's school and currently under renovation. We picked the best available apartment, put down a $135 application fee and security deposit, and we are working with DHA administrators directly to get expedited approval and hopefully move Denise into her apartment by the end of the month. We are actively engaged with DISD administrators about getting additional work at DISD -- they feel the best fit is a $13.50/hour school bus monitor position (where she can train to become a $22.50/hour bus driver) or a $13.50/hour cafeteria worker (we have spoken to the school where she works as a crossing guard, and there is currently a vacant cafeteria position).
NOW WE NEED YOU.
We need a car for Denise. We are hoping that someone in the congregation has a car that he or she is willing to donate to the shul as a tax write-off. Perhaps you have a mother-in-law car, or a teenager's car, or a car that you were thinking of trading in for a new car -- but would be willing to donate instead as a great mitzvah. If you currently have a car for sale, perhaps we could negotiate! (If no congregant has an available car, we will be pursuing buying a small, used car with Ladder Project funds that you all have generously donated in the past.)
This request has become URGENT.
Last week we began negotiations with the owner of the car dealership, Michael Laney of Credit Auto Sales, 1211 S. Barry Avenue. Although he initially refused to answer any of our calls or emails, we obtained his cellphone number through Whitepages.com ($9.99 for one report). We told him that the car was unsafe and should not have been sold, especially at an exorbitant price, in its current condition. He was dismissive, stating that complaints come to him all the time. He refused to refund the $1,250 Denise has paid so far (even knowing she was homeless), but did agree after 10 calls to take back the car and void her Contract of Sale. Although we had hoped to return the car to him earlier this week, when the next $200 was due, Denise underwent emergency surgery to remove two broken teeth after multiple visits to Parkland Hospital for severe pain and infection. (Dr. Howard Kessner has generously offered to provide Denise's dental care pro bono going forward.)
Despite our best efforts and with no warning, the car dealer repossessed the car late last night at The Bridge. We have purchased Denise a monthly DART bus pass to get to work, but we need to get her a car to put all the other pieces of our plan for her together.
We will also be reaching out to the congregation in a few weeks when Denise moves into her apartment. We will need to fully furnish her one-bedroom apartment, including all household and kitchen items. She has no belongings.
Please email firstname.lastname@example.org if you have any leads on a car. If you have good, used furniture or household items you know you will be able to donate later this month (not until then because we have no storage), please include that information also.
Thanks everyone for your continued support of The Ladder Project.
Update: Marom-Kampala Jewish Community in Uganda
Our beloved congregant Shoshana McKinney, who lives with her husband and son in the Marom-Kampala Jewish community in Uganda, is back in Dallas for a short while and spoke to our Shearith community during Shabbat Morning services this past weekend, offering thanks for our continuing generous support and an update on the current situation.
Your Help is Still Needed
In the last couple of months Shearith Israel has raised funds to help the Marom-Kampala community with their education project to enable 18 students to learn virtually through the continued Uganda Covid lockdown. Each student needs a laptop, headset, a personal internet connection, and writing notebooks to continue in school. The cost is $1,144 per student for a total of $20,591. To date, we have raised $12,110 for this education project, leaving $8481 remaining to be raised.
In the aftermath of Shoshana’s speech to the congregation on Shabbat, one of our congregants immediately and generously committed to an $1,144 donation to take care of the needs of one of the remaining students. Please consider matching his commitment or combining with other family and friends to sponsor a student together. Your contribution will make a huge difference in these students' lives. As Shoshana said powerfully and movingly this past Shabbat, “the People of the Book should be able to read books.” Please, click below to donate to these young Jewish students in Uganda.
Please donate at https://bit.ly/Shearith-Uganda
If you would have met Avi Mitzner back in his elementary school days, you might have thought he
was headed toward a career as a rabbi. He attended an intensive Jewish day school and went to Yeshiva University. But Avi ended up at Law School at the University of Maryland, and being a Rabbi was never his chosen career path—until now.
This past June marked twenty years at Shearith for Avi. "It was about two or three years into my
tenure here that I began thinking about becoming a rabbi," Avi said. "But at that time, it was completely impractical. I was busy with young children, and we would have had to move to whatever city the school was in. No one was learning on Zoom back then!
As my children grew up and as more programs went virtual, I toyed with the idea of finding a rabbinic program. In the end, it was Rabbi Roffman who found the school for me. On my last trip to Israel, I got a text from Adam about a new program designed for working Jewish professionals. Adam wrote that he personally knew some of the teachers and because he respected them, he thought the program was worth further investigation.
"Then, Rabbi Sunshine contacted some of the staff on my behalf. After his discussion, he said it sounded like the program was designed with someone like me in mind, because I have a comprehensive background in Jewish knowledge and extensive experience working at a synagogue.
"What this program offers in addition to the advanced Jewish learning, is the practical study of
being there pastorally for a congregant. Many of my classmates will share this background, as well, so I'm excited for a cohort of learners who will also have a deep knowledge of Judaism and are moving to a new path."
Avi will begin his studies in January of 2022 and the program goes through December of 2023. "After I complete my rabbinic studies, I will stay at Shearith Israel," Avi explains. "I'm thrilled that when I finish this program, it will allow me to be there for our congregants in a full capacity at all their lifecycle events, from a bris to a b'nei mitzvah, to weddings, and funerals."
Avi started working part-time at Shearith in April of 2001. Within a couple months, he took on a
full-time role. "Since then," Avi says, "I've been fortunate to have the opportunity to really grow into this position. I've also been lucky to work with an amazing group of people including all the klei kodesh and lay leadership, who have truly supported my new journey."
When asked what wife Shelley thinks, Avi laughs and says, "she said, what took you so long?" It's a fair question, but Avi found the right time—a time when his kids are independent and grown, a time when learning at an esteemed school can happen in Dallas, and a time when Shearith is poised with an amazing team of klei kodesh and lay leadership. "Exciting things are on the horizon," Avi says, "and I'm thrilled to be supported on my new journey by my dear friends, now like family, that are part of my Shearith life."
Shearith President, Irving Prengler says, "We are so happy for Avi to achieve this dream. It will be such a wonderful and meaningful accomplishment!”
Congregation Shearith Israel will celebrate Avi’s 20th Anniversary with a special Shabbat and
Kiddush lunch on Saturday, December 11. We hope all our Shearith family will join us to celebrate Avi.
Additionally, you may donate in his honor to a fund that will go directly toward his Rabbinic school costs. Donate HERE
Back in May, when we celebrated Shavuot, the Shearith Israel Social Action committee organized a fruit drive to evoke the ancient tradition of bringing the first fruit of the harvest to the Temple in Jerusalem. The drive raised money to donate boxes of fruit to The Bridge, a homeless recovery center, which offers individuals without a home in Dallas County a place to get their basic needs met, including hot showers, nutritious meals, and haircuts, as well as intensive services such as physical and mental health evaluations and care management services. Each day The Bridge serves over 800 guests and provides overnight shelter to 300 guests.
The Social Action Committee set a goal of collecting enough money to donate 49 boxes of fruit, one for each day of the Omer. Congregants were asked to donate $36 for each fruit box. The response was overwhelming! Our members donated over $2,000 which was enough to buy about 75 boxes of fruit. Because of this generosity, Shearith has been able to make fruit deliveries every other Friday since mid-May. On the first week of delivery, congregants Arlene Sandgarten and Sharon Kuhr met with Katerah Jefferson, Volunteer Coordinator at The Bridge to oversee a delivery of 1300 servings of pears, oranges, apples, and bananas.
Social Action co-chairs Andrea Solka and Mindy Fagin were thrilled with the donations. Mindy said, “Our Shearith Community provided this abundance of fruit for a very vulnerable population, and we will be able to continue deliveries until August.”
Thanks to all our members who donated and to the Social Action Committee for their work on this project supporting the greater Dallas community.
For the last few years, the Marom Jewish Community in Uganda and Shearith Israel have had a special relationship. Shearith, through generous contributions from our members, helped provide funds for clean, filtered water for the community and sent 11 new pairs of tefillin, purchased specifically for them during a Shearith Community trip to Israel. One of the leaders of the community, Israel Kirya, spoke at Shearith two years ago this month, and many of us know Israel's wife, Shoshana McKinney.
Israel reached out to us this past weekend, telling Rabbi Ari Sunshine, "The situation in Uganda has worsened as we were hit by the second wave of covid. The virus is spreading at a very high speed and the country is unable to handle the situation. People are dying in higher numbers now than even during the first wave. The government announced a total lockdown for 42 days as they assess the situation."
Israel asked for our assistance. "We are kindly requesting your help with some funds to buy food for our community members. This wave has come during a time when most of our community members have lost jobs due to the first lockdown because of covid. Many of our community members are stranded in the city as they can't travel to the country. Please, we will be grateful for any assistance given."
Rabbi Sunshine has pledged a minimum of $2500 from Shearith Israel to help out the Marom Uganda community in this time of need.
Please consider making a donation during these challenging times to the Shearith Israel Social Action Fund.
To donate by check, please note "For Uganda" in the memo line and send to Shearith. Or, donate online HERE
On November 19, 2020, for the third year, Congregation Shearith Israel joined with local churches and mosques for an Interfaith Thanksgiving Service. As in past years, the event served as a special opportunity for people of different faiths to come together in the spirit of gratitude. This year’s theme—Embracing Gratitude in Adversity—was fitting, as the 12 participating faith communities and organizations gathered virtually because of the pandemic.
The event highlighted the important mission and impact of the Dallas Street Choir. Rabbi Ari Sunshine, who founded this event in 2018, led the Shearith Israel contingent, which included his welcome message (minute 1:30), Cary Rudberg blowing the shofar (minute 2:50), Charlie Waldman sharing his Bar Mitzvah speech on gratitude (minute 7), and Hazzan Itzhak Zhrebker singing On Holy Ground with the One Voice Gospel Choir (minute 31). You can watch a recording of the service on the Shearith Israel YouTube channel at https://is.gd/3ITgiving
Along with Congregation Shearith Israel, other participating faith communities and organizations included: Preston Hollow Presbyterian Church, University Park United Methodist Church, Faith Forward Dallas at Thanks-Giving Square, First United Methodist Church, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, The Thanks-Giving Foundation, Islamic Association of North Texas, Ismaili Muslim Youth Choir, Millennial Choir & Orchestra, OneVoice Gospel Choir and Muslim American Society of DFW.
Reflecting on this year’s unusual service, Rabbi Sunshine commented, “We were nervous about how this would translate to an online-only format, but thanks to the diligent efforts of our event committee chair, Rev. Kathy Lee-Cornell from Preston Hollow Presbyterian Church, and the rest of our planning team, we were thrilled with how it all came together in the end as an inspirational, uplifting, and communal experience. We were even able to include online networking opportunities after the conclusion of the service, as if we were once again standing together at a dessert reception meeting people from other faith communities.” Hazzan Zhrebker added, “This service allowed us to express our shared gratitude in a unified way, singing words of thanks.”
Next year’s service will take place on Thursday, November 18, 2021, and will be hosted by First United Methodist Church.
Yom Kippur Sermon 5781
Rabbi Ari Sunshine
Congregation Shearith Israel
Today I thought I’d open my remarks with a few words about food. Dangerous territory in which to tread on a fast day, right? 😊 On the bright side, at least I’m confident I’ll have your, or your stomach’s, attention now. That is, until I tell you what food I wanted to talk about. You see, I wanted to talk about matzah. You heard me right, matzah. I know what you’re thinking. Rabbi, of course it makes total sense for you to talk about a food, matzah, in the midst of a fast day half a year away from Pesach. But now you must admit, you’re a little curious where I might be going with this. So let’s find out. 😉 It seems strange that the Torah and our tradition would choose such a shvach, non-descript food as the symbol of one of the most iconic and formative moments in our people’s history, our miraculous deliverance from slavery through God’s metaphorical hands. Why not a symbol that represented power or perhaps at least greater flair? Somehow it’s a simple unleavened bread, referred to as lechem oni, typically translated as “bread of affliction”, that is the calling card for our people as we became a free nation. How does that have anything to do with the process of redemption? The Maharal of Prague, Rabbi Judah Loew ben Betzalel, a 16th and 17th century sage also known for his legendary associations with the Golem, offers an answer in his work Gevurot Hashem. He explains that matzah is called lechem oni because it is the opposite of enriched, or egg, matzah with its added oils or honey, since the oni, meaning “poor person” in Hebrew, has no money; he has only himself. Instead of framing matzah as the “bread of affliction”, the Maharal looks at it as essentially “simple bread”, with no additives or sweeteners, just flour and water, which is a perfect symbol for the “oni”, the poor person who has nothing except for the absolute basics. The Maharal’s take is that the poor person, while not being in a great position financially, is essentially unshackled from the physical world, unburdened from it, and thus MORE free than someone who has a great many possessions and a standard of living to maintain. It’s a representation of autonomy that, while coming with its own challenges, is quite different than the slave, in Egypt or anywhere, who is beholden to his or her master’s bidding. So the Maharal teaches that we are commanded to eat this simple, poor bread on the original night of the Exodus and every Pesach since. Neither the matzah, nor we as the people Israel and as individual Jews, are weighed down on the night of our redemption by any extra ingredients—save for maybe the debatably worth it pareve flourless cake, sorry, couldn’t resist 😊—it’s just us, and God, together, existing outside of the bonds and burdens of slavery. A simple but fulfilling life.
Well, a quick flip through the rest of the Torah after the Exodus, in particular the book of Numbers, suggests that the relationship between Israel and God was, well, COMPLICATED. Challenges, baggage and distractions seeped into the mix, and the relationship got a lot harder. LIFE got a lot harder, which seems only natural when you’re wandering in a wilderness for a long period of time. And this led to questionable choices and prioritizations on the part of the Israelites. And yet God pines, if you will, for a return to that simple, original and pure state of the relationship, as the words of Jeremiah 31:20, which we heard last week during the Zichronot section of Musaf, attest: “Ha-ven yakir li, Ephraim, truly Ephraim is a dear son to Me, im yeled sha’ashu’im, a child that is dandled, ki midei dabri bo, zachor ezk’reinu od, whenever I have turned against him, My thoughts would dwell on him still; al ken hamu me’ai lo, that is why My heart yearns for him, rachem arachameinu, n’um Adonai, I will receive him back in love, declares Adonai”. We may have strayed from who we were as simple, free Israelites just out of Egypt, but there’s always a pathway back to that special snapshot in time and that treasured relationship with God. And, time and time again, the Israelites end up getting a wake-up call to this reality, either by hearing it from one of the prophets, or by dealing with an external crises that highlights the importance of a reboot and a return to the simplicity of their core relationship with God.
In a number of ways the experience we’ve been going through as individuals, as families, as a community, and as a society over these last six months is quite similar to what our biblical ancestors went through. An external crisis, a pandemic, has gotten our attention, dramatically altered our way of life, and shaken us to our core. As businesses of all kinds and all around us—restaurants, retail shops, movie theaters and others—have been forced to close or re-organize and re-prioritize to find ways to be profitable in the COVID era and its aftermath, and we have been largely isolating ourselves in our homes, the theme of change management looms large in our lives. The world has gotten even more complicated around us—how have we adapted and responded to that change?
One of the most common answers I’ve been seeing and hearing to this question in our community and in society in general is that we’ve been forced to simplify things. To go back to the basics. A number of you have specifically shared with me in these recent months how profound this change has been for you, and how grateful you are that you have been forced to re-examine your life choices and priorities and embrace a simpler life. Cooking together and enjoying daily meals as couples or families at the kitchen table, or socially distanced in the backyard with other extended family members and friends. Walking, hiking, running, or biking to be out in nature and get exercise and take care of our bodies. Playing games. Reading books and taking online classes. More frequent calls or FaceTimes or Zooms with your friends and loved ones, even folks you hadn’t been in touch with in a long time. Seeking community and connection with the shul and with God. In a real sense, what we are taught in the opening words of the biblical scroll of Ecclesiastes seems to ring true now more than ever: “Havel havalim, ha-kol havel”, vanity of vanities, everything is utterly futile—framed dramatically for rhetorical flourish, yes, but meaning that most everything we have in life is extra “stuff”, and is never meant to last. What is not havel, futile or vain, are these basic core building blocks of our lives. Those are meant to last and remain constant if we only choose to prioritize and nurture them.
19th century American author Henry David Thoreau looks to have been cut from the same philosophical cloth as Ecclesiastes. Unlike Ecclesiastes, though, whose reflections seem to have emerged from living in the metaphorical “fast lane” of the societal highway, Thoreau’s desire to understand and examine the worth and meaning of life, and to strip it down to its most basic elements, led him to live in isolation for two years in a small house on the shores of Walden Pond. Reflecting in his work Walden on the reasons for having made this decision, Thoreau wrote, “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practise resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms, and, if it proved to be mean, why then to get the whole and genuine meanness of it, and publish its meanness to the world; or if it were sublime, to know it by experience, and be able to give a true account of it in my next excursion”. And Thoreau added: “Most of the luxuries and many of the so-called comforts of life are not only not indispensable, but positive hindrances to the elevation of mankind”. Whether we frame it through the experiences and reflections of Ecclesiastes or Thoreau, or through the lens of our own recent life experiences, perhaps at this moment in our lives we can realize that we may have been spending too much time and energy on non-essential things. Thoreau advises us in Walden, “Simplicity, simplicity, simplicity! I say, let your affairs be as two or three, and not a hundred or a thousand”. The essence of his, and Ecclesiastes’, message, is clear: cut out what’s unnecessary and focus on what’s important.
And this return to basic values and priorities, my friends, is actually the essence of teshuva, the process of “returning” to ourselves, to our community, and God with which we are tasked during these Yamim Noraim, these High Holy Days. When a properly run organization is going through a process of change management and strategic planning, as we did here at Shearith two years ago, it starts with identifying its mission, vision and values to make sure it is focusing on its core essence, BEFORE moving forward and figuring out what kind of change is necessary. So, too, with each of us as individuals. We can’t begin the process of successful change until we strip ourselves down to our core essence and then see what’s been getting in the way of us being our best selves. We can then cut those obstacles or distractions out and focus on what’s most important.
At the end of the biblical scroll of Lamentations, we read a phrase that is likely more familiar to many of us from the conclusion of the Torah service when we return the Torah to the ark. “Hashiveinu Hashem eylekha v’nashuva, chadesh yameinu k’kedem”, “Bring us back to you, O God, and we shall return, renew our days as they were before”. When we think of renewal, we might first make the mistake of getting bogged down in the root “new” and understand it as something emerging from scratch. But here are some definitions of renewal: an instance of resuming an activity or state after an interruption; repairing something that is worn out, run-down, or broken; the act of being made fresh or vigorous again.
And so our scripture reminds us that renewal and change actually starts with a return to where, and WHO, we were, back when we were at our best, and picking back up from where we left off then. When our hearts were focused on the right things. When we channeled more of our time into pursuing and committing to those relationships that mattered. As with our Israelite ancestors, life got complicated, and some of these basic priorities got away from us and became worn down or broken. But these last six months we’ve been challenged to figure out how we’re going to make it through the wilderness of COVID and emerge stronger from it. We have been forced to simplify, to get back to being like the matzah, the no-frills symbol of our people when we first got our start in relationship with God once Egypt’s oppression was stripped away.
How do our best selves and lives look? When we are deeply connected in relationships, in person or virtually, with family, friends, and community who are the strongest anchors in our lives; when we are focused on maintaining our health by taking precautions and exercising; when we are reading and learning and expanding our appreciation for, and understanding of, our world in general and also of our Jewish tradition specifically, and thinking about how we can contribute to the world and to the continuing chain of Jewish generations; and when we are cultivating our faith in, and commitment to, God who can also be a rock for us even in the most turbulent of times. This is what our best selves look like, and what teshuva looks like, this year and every year. And so we pray together with the familiar words: Hashiveinu Hashem eylekha v’nashuva, chadesh yameinu k’kedem. Bring us back to you, God, and we shall return, to being our best selves and focusing on what matters. Renew our days and clear away the distractions from our souls so that we may once again be fresh and vigorous in the pursuit of meaning in our relationships and in our lives and in our commitment to you and to serving as your agents of goodness in your world. And let us all say, AMEN.
Yom Kippur Sermon 5781
Rabbis Adam Roffman and Shira Wallach
With gratitude for the inspiration of our teacher and friend, Dr. Arnold Eisen
Adam: The Friday night before our wedding, Shira berated our guests because they couldn’t count to 6.
We had gathered everyone together for an intimate shabbaton at a retreat center outside Baltimore and, after shabbat dinner, we had an oneg. Some dessert, some wine, an essential ingredient in this story, and, most importantly for us, some singing.
A half empty bottle of Moscato in her hand, Shira, who cannot hold her liquor, had the brilliant idea that she would teach a complicated three-part round to our assembled guests.
We love our friends very much, but let’s be honest: they weren’t exactly up to our high musical standards. And so, a minute or two into the singing, Shira yelled: “STOP! It’s in 6/8 people!”
In other words: in order not to get lost, you had to count off musical patterns in two groups of three. Which, needless to say, for a well-intentioned group of middling musical talent, resulted in chaos.
Shira: It’s been a challenge for us, over these past few months, listening to the broken rhythms of our time. We’re reminded of this every time we hold services on Zoom, a virtual platform on which it is technologically impossible for people, sitting in their own homes, to speak or sing in unison. For the leader of the Mourner’s Kaddish, the experience is even more disorienting. You begin, and then the sound of everyone else returns to you seconds later.
For those like Adam and me, who can be particular about how things sound, it’s been like nails on a chalkboard. How are we to make sense of this cacophony, this overlapping jumble of words, when we are supposed to be praying to God and comforting mourners?
This experience of saying kaddish is yet another example, of many, of why we are living in a time that has no rhyme or rhythm. It is impossible to predict what will happen and when, impossible to know what to do or how to respond, or if, when we do, it will have any impact at all on the myriad of crises unfolding around us. Put simply, right now, the world makes no sense.
Adam: It makes no sense that, in the most advanced age of medicine ever, over 200,000 of our fellow countrymen and women have died in a pandemic that has ravaged the world.
It makes no sense that, in the streets of our cities and towns, people are turning on one another, fighting and screaming and shouting, looting and burning, each side claiming the moral high ground.
It makes no sense that people are forced to choose between their health and their livelihood, between keeping their children at home or sending them to school, when both seem like a losing proposition.
It makes no sense that after nearly 250 years of progress, Americans are at war with each other about the very systems we have created to maintain unity and order.
As people of faith, it is tempting to believe that there is a relatively simple answer to why terrible things happen in the world. You are either with God or you are not. You are either pious and observant, or you are godless and pagan.
A system of reward and punishment has been outlined in some of our religious texts to lift up those who follow God’s instructions and put out those who don’t. But look a little more closely, and you’ll see that this system unravels very quickly.
Shira: In the book of Job, we read of a man who was one of God’s most devoted followers. And yet, for the sake of a devil, his home is destroyed, his body is wracked with illness, and his family killed. Job demands to know why he has been treated so unfairly. Three men, seeing Job in his wretchedness, come to confront him for railing against God. If you are suffering, his companions tell him, it is because of some fault in you, something you have yet to uncover and to confess.
One of the men, Eliphaz, insists: im tashuv el Shaddai tipaneh. If you do teshuvah, if you return to God, you will be restored (Job 22:23). When you pray, God will listen to you. If only you make good on your promises, God will deliver the guilty and be absolved in your eyes, through the cleanness of your hands.
We are here today, partially, because of these words. Because we believe that if we repent, God will reward us with another year of life. And yet, we all know if the answer were truly as simple as that, many others would be standing here with us on this day with full faith that they too would make it through to another year.
Job speaks for our sense of betrayal at the thought that, if we do everything right, the pieces will fall into place around us and the world will once again make sense. “Until the last moment I die, I have and will maintain my integrity, for I know that I am righteous, and will not yield” he says (Job 27:5). Maintaining his innocence, Job is eventually met with a voice from heaven, explaining away his suffering as a consequence of God’s mysterious ways. “Where were you when I created the universe?” God challenges him.
Adam: Ultimately, Job is rewarded for finally praising God, even in the midst of tragedy. His body is healed, his house is rebuilt, his family is reborn. But make no mistake, this too makes no sense.
Most scholars believe that these last chapters of Job were editorial additions, meant to blunt the harsh argument and the charges against God enumerated in the previous chapters.
Accept that we will never understand. Is that really the answer? What comfort can that provide us in these times? And is this really a story that ends with happily ever after? As if the new wife and children Job were given could really take the place of those he lost?
And while there can be no true answer to Job’s challenge, what we can learn from his story is that those who seek a black and white explanation of why things go so terribly wrong will be disappointed and their faith will be broken.
The truth is: Judaism offers not just a different answer, but a different question. When we assume that the world is supposed to add up; when we insist that it must make sense, we are not making a truly religious claim. From the start, the Torah teaches us that we begin not with order, but with chaos. For it is out of chaos that God created the world.
And so the question is not: how do we get the world to make sense? It is: what do we do when it doesn’t?
Shira: There is another biblical figure who lost everything, who was forced to confront a world of pain and loss, robbed of those who gave her life meaning and direction. Her name was Naomi.
After the death of her husband and sons, she tells those who come to comfort her: “do not call me Naomi, call me Mara. Call me bitter, for Shaddai has made my lot miserable. I went away full, and the Lord has brought me back empty” (Ruth 1:20-21). Calling God by the same name, Shaddai, her language is an exact parallel of Job’s, who also describes his soul as bitter (Job 10:1). And yet, the story of the rest of her life is nothing like his.
Why? Because in the face of his pain, those who gathered around him insisted that he was suffering because the world is ordered. The righteous get rewarded and the wicked get punished.
Where Job’s advisers offer him only cold and calculating logic, Naomi’s daughter-in-law Ruth offers her something else, something that is much more reflective of the true nature of our tradition and the instructions we receive in the Torah. What is that gift? Chesed. Love. Understanding. Compassion.
Where you go, I will go. Your people will be my people. We usually read this as a statement of faith in God. It’s not. It’s a statement of faith in goodness, in kindness, in how God wants us to act in this world.
What follows in the Book of Ruth is a progression of kindness. Ruth shows chesed to Naomi and in turn, her future husband Boaz pays it forward to Ruth.
Adam: For many hundreds of years, our religion has been accused of being one primarily concerned with only the minutiae of law. What is the right way to tie your tzitzit? Which direction should the mezuzah on your door face? What are the dos and don’ts of Shabbat?
This reductive and infantile description of our 4000-year-old tradition misses the point. Despite the fact that other religions have laid claim to it, in its essential character, Judaism is and has always been a religion of chesed, of faith with love at its heart. And when it comes to being a religion of law—guilty as charged. Because in the Torah, law is love.
Law is veahavta et Adonai elohecha. Your relationship with God should be a loving meeting of souls.
Law is veahavta lereacha kamocha. Treat others as you would like to be treated yourself.
Law is veahavta et hager. Show mercy, show compassion, to the stranger, the widow, the orphan, the vulnerable.
But it’s more than just acting with love, it is also learning to reorient oneself, to recalibrate the way we take in the world, so that even at its worst, we see it with love.
We are commanded to put fringes on the corners of our garments because God wants to remind us that the power of mitzvah, the potential of sanctifying the world, exists in every moment and every place that we go.
We are obligated to point the mezuzah toward the inside of our homes because, when we enter that space, the space where we nurture and foster the most important relationships we have, we must be ever-conscious of this obligation to be loving and patient.
If we care so much about the behaviors we engage in on Shabbat, it’s because God insists that we be granted one day in every seven to imagine what the world could be, instead of dwelling on what it is.
Shira: On this day of vidui, of confession, let us confess something to you. For the past several years, as we have watched the world spin faster and faster off its axis, we have approached the high holidays with greater urgency, believing that if we just delivered the right message, if we were persuasive and optimistic enough, the words that we uttered might make some small difference in helping to push the world back toward order and civility. And though there may come a time again when that might be possible, we’re not sure that, this year, that is the case.
We cannot promise you that the world will make more sense this year than it did last year.
But what we can promise you, is that because you are Jewish, because you are invested in the mission of our people, to bring chesed into the world, you can make it through these challenging times. With the love that resides within you and the wisdom of our tradition, you can work to banish tohu va’vohu, chaos and upheaval, and usher in, little by little, a new era of tzedek and mishpat, justice through laws of compassion.
Because Jewish history lives within us, we are experts at enduring the world at its worst, while also insisting that it be at its best. Job teaches us: it is not our project to unravel the mysteries of good and evil, and how and why and when manifestations of both occur in our lives.
Rather, it is our purpose to accept the chaos around us as the way of the world, and to go to work, soul by soul, on comforting and lifting up those who are facing it.
Adam: Put another way, the act of God is not the virus, the violence, or the anger and resentment that poisons so much in this world. The act of God is when those who are inspired by God’s Torah open their hands and hearts to those who are in need of its redemptive message.
Just as Ruth did, we must say to those around us: your pain is my pain, your fight is my fight. Your story is my story and your healing is my healing.
On Tuesday morning, at 7am, we’ll leave behind this beautifully designed, technologically advanced portal, and re-enter the humble and generally uncooperative virtual environment of Zoom.
We’ll go back to saying the Mourners’ Kaddish with voices that overlap and overwhelm.
But here’s the thing: you can make the same choice that we have learned to make. In that chaotic chorus of voices, words of praise about God and the world God created, you can choose to hear not disjointedness and disconnection, but the opposite.
Voices filled with love and reverence, with longing and hope, reaching out across the geographies of physical and virtual space.
You can reorient yourself to a world that seems to be a total mess, and yet, if you listen hard enough to the beating heart within you, and at the center of our faith, you can transform both your perception of the world and free yourself of the malaise that has weighed us all down for far too long.
Shira: And you will come to understand, just as we have, that what you’re listening to is not out of rhythm at all, but a sound perfectly calibrated for this moment. And then, you can leave your home, and go out into this chaotic time that we all live in and see not brokenness, but opportunities to make the world whole.
Adam and Shira: [overlapping] Yitkadal veyitkadash sheme raba. Oseh shalom b’imromav, hu ya’aseh shalom aleinu. May the one who brings peace above, bring peace to us, to all of Israel, to all those who dwell on earth.
[in unison] Ve’imru: Amen.
Shearith Israel clergy, staff and congregants share