Help Our Ladder Project Families as We Usher in the New Year
Our Ladder Project families have faced unprecedented challenges in this time of COVID, and while our Shearith Israel family has helped them emotionally and financially throughout, they are at a critical juncture. In order to establish housing security for their children, these single moms must have jobs. We are looking for three things from our congregants right now: two jobs and one laptop.
"We need two jobs and one laptop."
This is the challenge: If our nearly 1,000-member congregation cannot help find employment for two smart, motivated women, how can the community at large ever hope to significantly reduce homelessness in Dallas?
Patrice lost her $17/hour clerk's job at the Frank Crowley Criminal Courthouse in March when DISD shut down and her two 9-year-old sons could no longer go to school. She has been home caring for her boys since then, including home-schooling so they don't fall behind in their academics (which suffered when school went virtual last spring). Ladder Project Executive Committee member Mindy Fagin has taken the family on several outings during COVID—including an animal preserve, an ice cream store, and Mindy's backyard pool—all while practicing safe distancing.
Patrice, 42, had been receiving a monthly rent subsidy from the Shared Housing Center, where she and the boys lived while homeless, but that ended July 31. The Ladder Project had fully furnished her apartment pre-COVID and has intermittently helped with phone, internet, and food bills. But by August, Patrice was unable to pay her rent. Last week, in order to prevent Patrice from being evicted, the Executive Committee struck an arrangement with Patrice's landlord to pay the $1,150 monthly rent going forward until the boys can be cared for during the day and Patrice can resume working, on the condition that the landlord forgive the August rent. Which the landlord agreed to do.
Now we need to help Patrice find work.
In the short term, until the boys have a place to go during the day, we are looking for hourly remote work. (We are also looking for a gently used or new laptop donation—Patrice's tablet cannot download Microsoft or other office products.)
Patrice completed 86 credits at Central Michigan University and is handy with a computer—she entered criminal cases into the Dallas County Clerk's computer system—and she has excellent phone and customer service skills. She boasts a wonderful, engaging personality. Any remote work you can give Patrice, no matter how small or short-lived, would be a mitzvah and her only income at the moment.
If you have an in-person, part-time or full-time receptionist or administrative job available for Patrice please let us know that too. The Boys and Girls Club near Patrice's apartment will soon allow students to work remotely at its facility, and perhaps other child care arrangements can be found.
Petrina is another single mom we are helping. She lost her $15/hour job doing intake for Dallas Housing Authority clients when COVID shut down the agency in March. Petrina's daughter Jacelyn is 13 years old and can stay at home by herself during the day, so Petrina has more work flexibility. She is looking for a full-time job—remote or in-person—and would ideally like to find a job in the non-profit sector so she can help people.
Petrina, also 42, has a BA from Georgia State University and an MBA from the University of Phoenix. She is an excellent writer, having worked at a Houston area newspaper as a reporter for several years. Unlike Patrice, Petrina owns a car. Petrina's monthly apartment rent was subsidized by the Shared Housing Center until recently; the Ladder Project fully furnished her apartment and paid off two revolving expenses in order to free her from debt. But Petrina receives only $688/month in child support and disability payments from her daughter's father, and if she does not find work soon, she too could be facing eviction.
There is no greater mitzvah as we start the Jewish New Year in the middle of a pandemic than helping these two single mothers keep a roof over the heads of their children. They want to work, which is a requirement of our program. Please let us know if you can help by contacting Executive Committee Chair Laura Miller at firstname.lastname@example.org
David Corn's Success Story
In case you question whether our efforts actually change lives, we'll end on a positive note by bringing you news about our first Ladder Project participant David Corn, who we recruited two years ago from the city's downtown homeless shelter The Bridge.
David was furloughed in March, due to the virus, from his $12/hour job at Studio Movie Grill, where congregant Joe Harberg had originally found him a job. With the help of the Ladder Project Executive Committee, David applied for unemployment in April and also worked briefly for $12/hour at Tom Thumb Preston Forest. The extra $600-per-week in unemployment benefits provided by the federal government in response to COVID kept David afloat for several months. In August, with $26 left in his bank account and a September deadline to renew his apartment lease, David had applied to Costco, his dream employer, but he began to worry that the job applications he had submitted via his phone, had not gone through. He made copies of his resume and spent a day on DART buses and light rail traveling to three of Costco's stores in Dallas and Plano. At the last store, on Churchill Way and Coit, a manager told David he was impressed with his assertiveness and introduced him to his management team. David started at the Churchill Way store on August 6—at $15/hour, which is a significant increase for him.
This past week, in a phone call on one of his days off work, David teared up on the phone when talking about his two years in our program, the lifelong friends he has made at Shearith Israel, and the progress he's made professionally since he first met us. "At Costco, no one knew the manager, or had a special friend who agreed to talk to me about a job. I do feel good that I went to get this job. I did. I went and got that job."
The Ladder Project and Shearith Israel are extremely grateful to everyone for their previous in-kind and cash donations, which continue to help our Ladder Project recipients. Please email Laura at email@example.com with any job leads for Patrice and Petrina or if you have a laptop to donate.
L'shana tova tikateyvu
The Ladder Project Executive Committee
April 29, 2020
The COVID-19 pandemic has affected us all, including our Ladder Project families. Here is an update about them, and how we are helping during this stressful time.
David Corn was let go from his job at Studio Movie Grill in early March after the virus forced the closure of movie theaters nationwide. David and his fellow employees were encouraged to apply for unemployment from the Texas Workforce Commission (TWC), but the process was confusing and customer service help was non-existent. Ladder Project Executive Committee member Jeff Hoppenstein helped David file his application, and David received his first check on April 11.
In the meantime, the Ladder Project Executive Committee put out feelers for jobs, and on April 14, David began a new, full-time position at Tom Thumb Preston Forest. David is a member of the Drive Up and Go team, filling online orders and delivering them to customers curbside. Although David is wearing a mask, please say hello to him if you see him. He very much enjoys the job, most especially spotting our congregants shopping in the store -- most recently Cantor Zhrebker!
To help David through this period, we spent $250 in Ladder Project donations toward his April rent; we also purchased new work pants for him. But he will pay all his own bills in May. (After almost a year of financial self-sufficiency, David had also requested help from us in February, due to an unprecedented six days of missing work at SMG.) As always, your donations go directly to our families and serve as the ultimate safety net for them in times of emergency. This is a great comfort to our families, and a satisfying mitzvah for us.
Petrina Johnson also lost her job due to the virus. Petrina and her 13-year-old daughter Jacelyn had moved in February from a downtown homeless shelter to an apartment in Mesquite. They were sleeping on the floor in an empty apartment until our congregants filled it with furniture and purchased all 28 household items on an Amazon registry we created for them. The Ladder Project also paid for Petrina and Jacelyn to take the bus to Houston to empty a $83/month storage unit and bring their belongings back to Dallas in a UHaul. We also paid off a $60/month liability for a saxophone Petrina had purchased for her daughter several years ago. Petrina, who has a BA in journalism from Georgia State University and an MBA from the University of Phoenix, had aggressively applied for jobs and was delighted to start a $13/hour job at the Dallas Housing Authority in February, doing telephone screening of new clients, but she was almost immediately let go when the virus hit.
Since Jacelyn's middle school is closed, Petrina is looking for a job that she can do remotely. She is an excellent writer (she worked three years as a reporter at a suburban Houston newspaper), owns a laptop, and has wi-fi in her apartment. If any congregants have administrative work that she can do from home please email Laura Miller at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Petrina's rent is covered through August by Shared Housing Center, the homeless shelter where Petrina and her daughter lived, through a Rapid Rehousing Program that pays six months of rent for departing clients. The Ladder Project is giving Petrina cash in increments of $60 for food purchases until she finds a job; Ladder Project Executive Committee member Sally Wolfish stays in regular touch with Petrina to make sure she and Jacelyn are doing well.
Patrice Bryson also lost her job to the virus. She had been working since November as a $17/hour clerk at the Frank Crowley Criminal Courthouse. Her two boys—Chase and Caeden, both 9—are not able to go to school while DISD is closed, so Patrice has not been looking for work. She is helping the boys complete their online school work, and Caeden is receiving extra help via Skype from a DISD dyslexia specialist. Like Petrina, Patrice's rent is being paid through August by Shared Housing Center, but she also had no furniture when she moved into her East Dallas apartment in February. Shearith Israel congregants fully furnished it and purchased 27 items on a Bed, Bath and Beyond registry. Earlier this month, we gave them $200 for food and their monthly phone bill. Ladder Project Executive Committee member Mindy Fagin, who lives just east of Patrice in Lakewood, has been especially involved with the family—last week, for Chase's birthday, she dropped off a homemade birthday cake and Mattel's UNO card game; she gave them face masks for virus protection, and before the pandemic, had taken the boys to Half Price Books, where she gave them each $15 gift cards.
Both women just received their one-time stimulus checks from the federal government, which should tide them over for the time being. (David did not get a check; he presumes it was sent instead to his ex-girlfriend's mother, who gets court-ordered child support from David for his 21-year-old son who still lives with his grandmother.) We will continue to monitor the women's financial situations, but we do not anticipate giving them cash for the foreseeable future. In the meantime, if any congregant has experience helping elementary school children with dyslexia, it would be a great mitzvah to augment what DISD is doing for Caeden. Please email Laura Miller if you can help at email@example.com.
Patrice Mackey is the third single mom the Ladder Project was helping before the virus struck. We had enrolled her in GED classes four days a week and we were paying for after-school care at the South Dallas YMCA for her two children while she attended classes. The plan was for Patrice to get her GED, in preparation for finding a job, and then we would move her and the children into an apartment (which the Ladder Project would pay for initially) as early as May 1. Shared Housing Center had agreed to let the family stay in the homeless shelter in the interim.
The virus changed everything: Patrice's GED classes were cancelled, and the children stopped going to school due to DISD 's closure. With no job lined up, no full-time child care available, and no way for our congregants to donate their furniture for an apartment during the stay-at-home order, we told Patrice it would be some months before we could move her from the shelter into an apartment. Again, Shared Housing Center was willing to allow the Mackey's to continue to stay with them until we were able to act.
Unfortunately, Patrice was not willing to wait. She decided to move back to an Oak Cliff apartment complex where she had been evicted for non-payment of rent last year and that we believe she cannot afford without income from a job. We again asked her to wait in place until stay-at-home orders expire. She was not willing to do that. We have told Shared Housing Center that we are interested in helping another of their families when it is safe to do so.
What we have learned over the past 18 months is that for the Ladder Project to be successful, we must strictly adhere to our mission: help the people who are also motivated to help themselves, through employment and a sense (even if it is newly acquired) of fiscal responsibility. We cannot be all things to all people. We don't have the resources or experience to become permanent lifelines for people. Instead, we seek to be that firm, critical lift that people need to get out of homelessness to be able to return to financial and emotional self-sufficiency.
Shearith Israel has largely fulfilled that goal in its work with David Corn, although we have come to learn that self-sufficiency can be a long process, as opposed to a quick fix, and that disaster is often one paycheck away for the people we help. We wanted the challenge of working with a family before publicly introducing our model to the local faith community, and we look forward to doing that later this year. In the meantime, please know that all of you who have contributed to the Ladder Project in any way over these past 19 months have performed the ultimate mitzvah in Judaism of saving a life.
If you'd like to support the work of The Ladder Project, you can make a donation HERE
by Rabbi Adam Roffman
March 21, 2020
Not many people know this about Shira, but long before she decided to enter the rabbinate, she wanted to be in a different kind of synagogue business—the synagogue design business. Combining her geeky love of math and science with her fondness for the sacred spaces of her youth at Congregration Kol Ami in Tampa (which her father helped renovate, by the way), Shira imagined that becoming a synagogue architect would be the perfect way to harness her strengths while also giving back to the Jewish community that had brought her so much joy.
It’s no surprise then that the design of this beautiful sanctuary was a real draw for us when we went searching for positions out of Rabbinical school. The beautiful light, the magnificent aron kodesh, and the warmth of a room designed for an intimate kind of sanctity—these elements all combined to move us quite profoundly when we first visited—as they have for many others in our community and beyond.
It’s been a bedrock principle of our faith, since Sinai, that an exquisitely designed space, built with the resources and talents of the Jewish people, was the vehicle for bringing a little bit of the heavens down to earth. That if we get the design just right—if we find the perfect materials and arrange them with precision, kevod Adonai, the glory of God, will reveal itself in our midst. That’s why we spend so much time, in this’s parasha and at the end of the book of Exodus. reflecting on the nature of that space.
And yet, here we are, on Shabbat morning, a dozen or so people gathered together in this gorgeous room so that, at least in part, a much larger number of participants can watch this service on a computer screen in their homes.
How could we have ever anticipated, when this sanctuary was dedicated 13 years ago, that, one day, it wouldn’t be the skyward facing windows, but a discreetly placed camera, mounted to the back wall, that would serve as the most indispensable part of this sacred transmitter, beaming God’s presence into our lives and into our souls?
I’ve spent a lot of time this week, watching God’s glory being beamed back and forth across the Jewish world. I’m proud to say that my colleagues and I have done our fair share of beaming ourselves, just here in Dallas.
Just one week ago, the thoughtfully designed sanctuaries at shuls across the country became temporarily obsolete overnight. The plans we had made for filling them and energizing them with spirited davening and inspirational Torah were suspended and we were all left to wonder—what now?
The answer came rather quickly. Overnight, rabbis, cantors, Jewish educators, and lay leaders became experts at Zoom, Facebook and YouTube Live. Curricula for Jewish day schools, religious schools, even early childhood centers, were adapted for distance learning. Religious ritual was reimagined, in some cases, quite radically, so that prayer could continue, mourners could say Kaddish, and lifecycle moments could be celebrated.
And that was only on the local level. National organizations have been stepping up, as well. Camp Ramah, the movement’s wonderful network of summer camps sent out a notice two days ago, that Rabbi Josh Warshawsky, a talented and popular young songwriter would be holding an impromptu Facebook live concert in his living room. Now, the Indigo Girls got more than 30,000 folks to tune in earlier in the day on Thursday, but Josh got a pretty impressive number later that evening to join him in song as well—more than 1500 screens, each with several people watching, no doubt. On the comments section, I could see friends of mine from New York to Baltimore to Chicago to California who had tuned in and were putting in their requests and expressing their gratitude.
The result of these efforts has been nothing short of inspiring.
I think it’s no exaggeration to say that the creativity borne out of the uncertainly and fear of this past week has been one of the most impressive feats the American Jewish community has pulled off in quite some time.
And part of what’s been so extraordinary to watch and to experience is that what has emerged from all of this has been not a decrease, but an increase in engagement and connection.
Our Friday night service from last week has been viewed more than 1000 times on Facebook. The “attendance” at our virtual minyan is nearly double what it had been when we were meeting in the chapel. The classes that we have moved online are even more well attended than the ones held in our beit midrash.
Yes, there is a real need for connection, for the comfort of community, and the wisdom to get us through this difficult time. But there is also no denying the fact that our Jewish communities have responded to this crisis in ways that have brought out the best in us.
I want to share just one of these moments from the past week. We lost two members of our community over the weekend—two beautiful neshamot, Sydel Rudner and Bob Brenner. And our concern for their families’ care, for the mitzvah of nichum avelim, of comforting the mourner, was magnified by the fact that they couldn’t be physically present with us for shiva.
And yet, when Avi conducted the virtual minyan, which the families attended, he reminded everyone that our custom was to conclude the service with our traditional words of consolation, “May God comfort you along with all the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem,” and then he purposely left the video chat open so that those who were also participating could express their condolences with their own words. One by one, our virtual minyanaires shared the most beautiful and heartfelt words of comfort, words so touching that tears instantly began to roll down my cheeks.
Now, usually, when we gather in person and conclude our services with these words, we say “thanks everyone for being here” and folks usually approach the mourners to greet them, but because we were on a computer conference, and people couldn’t talk over each other and be heard, each individual was given the opportunity to perform the mitzvah of nichum aveilum in full volume, so that everyone could hear.
This was not the plan. This was not the way we drew up shiva minyanim on the blueprints. In fact, it took a surprisingly bold and swift move by the CJLS, the Conservative movement’s law committee, to sanction the recitation of Mourner’s Kaddish without the physical presence of a minyan—a decision that fundamentally changed one the most ancient ritual standards we have. And yet, bending the rules for the sake of an emergency allowed us to comfort these two families in ways that, I pray, are as soul nourishing as they can be in this time of social distancing.
So yes, we sit here in this amazingly beautiful, nearly empty sanctuary, not spiritually depleted, not missing the presence of God, but full of it, knowing that even if the physical sanctuary we have built is not accessible to everyone, the virtual sanctuary we erected, nearly overnight, is serving us quite well for the time being.
When Moses called the people together to begin the construction of the original sacred space, the Tabernacle, in the wilderness of Sinai, he gave them detailed instructions for its design. And all those among the people, whose hearts moved them, brought forward gifts of silver and gold, fine linens of blue and purple and crimson, spices for incense and oil for kindling. But the most important instruction Moses gave them was not what to build—but the intention, the spirit of the builders.
וְכָל־חֲכַם־לֵ֖ב בָּכֶ֑ם יָבֹ֣אוּ וְיַעֲשׂ֔וּ אֵ֛ת כָּל־אֲשֶׁ֥ר צִוָּ֖ה ה׃
Let all who are chachem lev—who are wise-hearted--come and do everything that God has commanded.
Yes, the design of what we build matters. But earthly materials, no matter how precious, can only become sacred conductors of divinity when they are arranged and, when necessary, rearranged with wisdom. They can only become sacred emitters of the contents of our souls, when they are activated by the love we hold in our hearts for each other, for the Jewish people, and for God.
This past week has been a difficult one. We have seen the number of cases of coronavirus rise sharply in our country and in many countries throughout the world, and we have also seen the terrible consequences that rise will bring in its wake. We know that we have not yet reached the peak of this pandemic, nor do we know whether that peak will be the height of this crisis, or just one in a series of mountains that we will have to climb together.
We do not know when we will all be able to return to work, to school, or, to the beautiful spiritual home we have constructed thanks to the tremendous heart of this generous community.
But what we do know, and what we have seen this week, is that when Jews set their hearts and minds to creating the sacred spaces that will keep us together in faith, in relationship with each other and with God, a beautiful design always emerges.
By Rabbi Shira Wallach
One of the most beautiful Jewish ideas is our vision of community: an embracing, loving, expansive, caring family. Because we rejoice our simchas together, our shared joy is magnified. Because we mourn our losses together, our shared despair is a bit easier to bear. Because we all feel a sense of responsibility for one another, Jews who have never met are still bound together by our common history and experience.
It’s no different in the way this week’s parasha, Yitro, characterizes the incredibly climactic and coalescing moment of Revelation, when God bestowed upon us the deeply precious gift of Torah. When we left Egypt, we were downtrodden refugees escaping from Pharaoh’s soul-crushing oppression, but when we stood at the foot of Mount Sinai, we became Am Yisrael—the people of Israel—united under a common law, protected by a sacred covenant with our God.
This moment was so transformative, so central to the Jewish narrative, that our tradition teaches us that it was not only those who were physically present for Revelation at Sinai, but “all the souls still destined to be created” (Exodus Rabbah 28:6). It is because of this midrash that we cherish the ubiquitous belief that every single Jewish soul—by birth or by choice, from that generation all the way into the infinite future—shared the ecstatic fusion of heaven and earth on that day, when God’s voice echoed across the great expanse of the wilderness.
But if we look closely at the Torah, we make the heartbreaking discovery that this is only a half-truth. To adequately prepare the Israelites for Revelation, “Moses came down from the mountain to the people and warned the people to stay pure, and they washed their clothes. And he said to the people: be ready for the third day; do not go near a woman” (Exodus 19:14-15). Commentaries suggest that part of achieving spiritual readiness is to attain a state of sexual purity. And so, in the heteronormative world of the Ancient Near East, we can only assume that Moses was addressing the men. In his mind, the men were Am Yisrael, the People of Israel, the inheritors of tradition, and the women were not only excluded from Moses’ assumed audience, but were a potential source of impurity that would render the men unfit to receive God’s laws.
Furthermore, God delivered the Ten Commandments in the masculine singular verb formation. How does our experience change, when only the men are told: “I am the Lord who brought you out of Egypt” or “Remember Shabbat and keep it holy” or “You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife” (Exodus 20)? How can the women of our history, our present, and our future move from the periphery to the center of Jewish tradition and study?
Dirshuni, a collection of modern commentaries written by women rabbis and scholars, imagines a conversation between God and a young woman who is struggling with her invisibility in the Torah’s account of Revelation. “God says to her: How long I have waited for you to come to Me and challenge Me, so that I can clarify for you what has been hidden away for three thousand years! I told Moses: ‘Go to the people and warn them to stay pure today and tomorrow. Let them wash their clothes. Let them be ready on the third day: for on the third day the Lord will come down, in the sight of all the people’ (Exodus 19:10-11).”
Tamar Beulah, the author of this midrash, points out that Moses made an erroneous assumption in response to God’s warning about purity. It was never God’s intention to name women as a source of impurity. It was never God’s intention that women should be separated—physically or intellectually—from the most important event in our history, or any subsequent conversation about Torah, halakha, practice, or prayer.
This Shabbat, when we hear the majestic and timeless words of the Ten Commandments, let us ponder their revelatory brilliance, and at the same time, let us challenge their assumptions. For it is only when we embrace the entire community that our fullest joy and greatest potential become possible.
Parashat Vayishlach 5780
Rabbi Ari Sunshine
Earlier this week I was in Boston, along with our president, Shirley Davidoff, and our Chief Operating Officer, Kim West, for the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism and the Rabbinical Assembly’s joint “20/20 Judaism” conference, a conference for the lay and rabbinic arms of the Conservative Movement. As an aside, when I found out that the Reform Movement’s conference this week was being held in Chicago, I couldn’t help but wonder: note to conference organizers, would it be too much trouble for you to plan winter conferences in WARMER PLACES? I’m just sayin’…
In any case, heavy jackets aside, the convention was bustling and lively, with about 1400 people in attendance, including some staff, volunteers, and exhibitors. I’m not sure if it’s the largest convention USCJ and the RA have ever had, but it certainly was the largest in some time, and there was a great deal of energy in the building from convention-goers. As you might expect, we had a series of large group, full-convention plenaries, including the opening session on the topic of “Why Are We Dreaming Together?” featuring a keynote address by NY Times columnist Bari Weiss; a session on “Why Be a Conservative Movement” featuring a dialogue with the leaders of the Jewish Theological Seminary, the Rabbinical Assembly, USCJ, and the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies; and a session on “Will We Serve the Jews of Today and Tomorrow?”, looking at research regarding Jewish youth today and where they’re at. In addition to thought-provoking presentations to the entire convention body that fed our minds, we also gathered together to listen to, and sing along with, the engaging and inviting styles of contemporary liturgical singers like Joey Weisenberg from Machon Hadar and Rabbi Josh Warshawsky, feeding our Jewish souls with the uplifting ruach, spirit, of these moving encounters. We also had ample opportunities over meals and coffees to network, idea share, and brainstorm, with colleagues and friends from all over the Conservative Movement—keep in mind the Movement spans not just the U.S., but also Canada, Latin America, Israel, and Western and Central Europe, not to mention in places as far away as Melbourne, Australia! And of course, there were a number of slots in the convention schedule for breakout sessions where we could select topics that were of most interest and relevance to individual convention-goers.
In one such session I attended, entitled “Who are Today’s Conservative Jews?”, we were presented with combined data from surveys conducted of the Jewish communities in Boston, Pittsburgh, and Washington, DC, in 2015, 2017, and 2017, respectively. That data was also compared at various points in the session to findings from the 2013 Pew Research Center study of the American Jewish community and framed to offer us some potential takeaways from the available data. Here are a few interesting stats: when asked in these surveys what denomination Jews identified with, the Pew Study had 35% identify Reform, 18% Conservative, 10% Orthodox, 6% Other, and 30% No Denomination; and the merged data of the other three studies came up with 32% Reform, 19% Conservative, 6% Orthodox, 2% Other, and 41% None (which included Secular/Cultural and “Just Jewish”). Another stat: for those who, when asked, identify denominationally as Conservative Jews, 57% of them are members of synagogues, with 32% belonging to Conservative synagogues specifically and 25% belonging to other types of synagogues; whereas 85% of those who identified Orthodox are members of any synagogue, and 41% of those who identified Reform are members of any synagogue. When it comes to age groups, one might be surprised to find out that the percentage of those who identify denominationally as Conservative barely varies whether the person asked is 18 or over 80 or anywhere in between—the percentages hold steady in a very narrow band at 18-21% throughout that timeline. Unsurprisingly, where the numbers vary more are in the synagogue affiliation rate itself, with only 25% affiliation between ages 18-34, moving up to 36% affiliation from ages 35-49, peaking at 41% between ages 50-64 and then trending slightly downward to 37% from ages 65-79 as well as age 80+. A few other stats about behaviors and attitudes in these 3 Jewish communities that were surveyed: of those who identify Conservative--
Among the takeaways presented from this data, our session leader, a researcher at the Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies at Brandeis University, noted that the data complicates our understanding of the label “Conservative” in that there are Conservative Jews who are not synagogue members and there are also members of Conservative synagogues who don’t actually identify as Conservative Jews denominationally. It certainly raises important questions about who we’re currently serving, and who we might yet serve. The fact that Millennials and the Gen Z generation are still affiliating at lower rates than Gen X and Baby Boomers is one that has been consistently noted in recent survey data and challenges us as modern Jewish institutions to continue to create more entry points and lower bars to participation into synagogue life and Jewish life in general. I was pleased to learn that, in the communities studied, 57% of Jews who identify as Conservative Jews are members of at least one synagogue, whether the synagogue itself is Conservative or an independent minyan or affiliated with another movement—that number seemed higher than I would have expected. And I was likewise encouraged to see some of the behavioral and attitudinal data that I shared with you a couple of minutes ago, which suggests, as the Pew Study data suggested as well, that Jews who are identifying as Conservative on balance are relatively engaged Jewishly, both in ritual practices as well as in supporting Jewish community here and in Israel.
So where does all of this leave us? At the outset of today’s parasha, when Jacob is anticipating his reunion with Esau, knowing Esau is coming his way with a large company of men and not knowing Esau’s intentions for him, the text says “va-yira Ya’akov m’od”, Jacob was greatly frightened. Midrash Bereishit Rabbah, a collection of rabbinic legends on the Torah from close to 2000 years ago, teaches us (76:1) that “two people received God’s assurances, yet they were afraid; the chosen one of the Patriarchs—Jacob—and the chosen one of the Prophets—Moses—despite the teaching from Proverbs (3.5) to “trust in God with all your heart”. Thus, according to the Midrash, the Jewish people in other precarious moments in our history—like in the days of Haman and the Purim story, for example--could justify their own fear by saying, “If our ancestor Jacob, who had received God’s assurance of protection, was nevertheless afraid for his survival, how much the more so are we justified in feeling afraid?” Jacob’s example illustrates that fear, or anxiety, is actually fully compatible with deep faith.
A number of scholars and sociologists have, in the last 10-20 years, sounded the alarm bell for Conservative Judaism, warning that the Conservative Movement is rapidly heading for extinction. So, should we be afraid of what they’re saying? Should we be feeling hopeless for the future, or perhaps even fearing for our survival as a Movement? Friends, I think we should take a page out of our ancestor Jacob’s book. Namely, on the one hand we should embrace the healthy anxiety that some of the statistics may cause us, because it is out of this anxiety and concern and even fear that a meaningful way of Jewish life is being lost, that we are forced to rise to the challenge. We must continue to do more outreach, embrace innovation, and passionately and energetically model Jewish engagement and practice that is both traditional and adaptive, and thought-provoking for our minds and inspiring for our hearts and souls. And on the other hand, we should not just embrace our anxieties on this issue, but we should also have faith:
To mark the year anniversary of The Ladder Project our first participant, David Corn, joined us for Rosh Hashanah services, which he greatly enjoyed.
David has reached many milestones this year. He moved out of The Bridge homeless shelter to his own studio apartment, which our congregation furnished, outfitted and subsidized for several months. He got a job at Studio Movie Grill, thanks to congregant Joe Harberg. He's now certified as a tactical team leader, overseeing theater prep operations and training new employees. Since April, he's been totally financially self-sufficient—paying all his bills, including food, phone, DART passes, rent, renter's insurance, and utilities. (The recent tornado hit David's apartment complex, and the Ladder Project paid for David to go to a motel near his job for several nights until power could be restored; we also replaced the food that was spoiled in David's refrigerator and freezer.) David also became noticeably more handsome this year—thanks to Dr. Rowan Buskin, who volunteered his labor to give David dentures (the Ladder Project paid the out-of-pocket expenses). David is also extremely fortunate to have CSI congregant, Dr. Lawrie Friedman, serving as his pro bono general practitioner.
"I don't have words to express how grateful I am for all of the support," David said recently. "I'm growing up again in a way—by rebuilding my life, reconnecting with family, and gaining new family. It's my honor to know you all. Thank you. I couldn't have done it without your support. We continue with the journey."
As David's self-esteem and self-confidence grew this year, he reached out to his 35-year-old son, who he hadn't communicated with in years. He also went to Houston for a poignant reunion with his sister, who he'd been estranged from during his homeless years.
David reunited with his sister, Patricia Gonzalez.
We are now ready to help David get to a new level of independence. Although David enjoys his job, he only makes $12 an hour, the top of the pay scale. David struggles to cover his bills. When emergencies happen—like the tornado—David can't make ends meet without help. And, unfortunately when the theater is slow, David is sometimes let off work early, without pay. AND a significant portion of David's wages are deducted by the state for court-ordered child support for a 20-year-old son, who was raised by his grandmother.
We are actively looking for a job for David that pays at least $15 per hour. Our rabbis made this appeal to the congregation on Yom Kippur Day, but we have yet to be contacted by anyone with a job offer. However, one congregant, who wishes to remain anonymous, has agreed to pay David the difference between his current wage and his dream wage (a difference of $3 per hour) until he finds a new job. David will use this money for emergencies, and will also put it aside for future expenses, particularly car insurance, gas and repairs.
Used Car so David can get to a better paying job
Which brings us to the second ask the rabbis made on Yom Kippur: we are looking for a used car for David so that he can stop relying solely on public transportation. The flexibility that comes with a car will create more opportunities for a better job. David turned down one good job last year that would have required a 2-hour trip on three different DART buses. David just signed a new, year lease at his apartment, which is owned by congregant Michael Ochstein, who made a $5,000 donation to the Ladder Project. We prefer the car be donated to the synagogue but have some Ladder Project funds that could be allocated for this. thanks in large part to David's personal commitment to his job, and the many in-kind donations of furniture, household items and medical care.
We have been interviewing candidates to be our next participant family, and we will have an update about that in the next issue of The Shofar.
Thank you for all you have done to save a life. David certainly feels we have saved his, and we look forward to celebrating his future successes and enjoying his friendship.
Ladder Project Executive Committee: Chair Laura Miller; Mindy Fagin, Glenn Geller, Jeff Hoppenstein, Larry Krasner, Marsha Lev, Andrea Solka, Sally Wolfish
A sermon by Rabbi Adam Roffman
Among the tales in the Roffman family lore is a story about my brother who, when he was very young, before I was born, went out to eat one night with my parents. It was February and the restaurant had been releasing, a week at a time, commemorative plates featuring the faces of the great American presidents. That week, they honored our 16th president, drawn, as usual, in his impressively tall top hat.
“Do you know who that is?” my parents asked my brother.
“Yes!” he answered. “That’s Abraham Lincoln! He freed the slabes!”
No, that’s not a typo. S-l-a-b-e-s. Slabes.
And then he said: “And that’s why we celebrate Thanksgiving!”
I think of that story often this time of year, as I reflect on the meaning of a holiday that holds great significance for American Jews. After all, we have a lot to be thankful for, living in the greatest diaspora community in the history of our people, afforded the rights and privileges denied to us for so many years.
And yet, because we are taught that expressing our gratitude through prayer and ritual is one of the fundamental tasks of daily Jewish life, it seems a little odd that we should celebrate that gratitude on any one day of the year. Is there something more to the nature of this holiday that might help us understand why this day of thanks is, as we say, different from all other days of thanksgiving? And is that “something” also reflected in our tradition?
Turns out—the answer is yes.
One of the most famous symbols of Thanksgiving is the cornucopia, or horn of plenty. We’ve all seen pictures, no doubt, of the basket with a narrow opening that leads to a widening passage filled with the fruits of the season, gourds and grains that are so abundant they spill out of the end of the horn.
As I reread the account of the story of the first Thanksgiving, I realized why both ends of the horn have something to teach us about why those Pilgrims and Puritans were so grateful in 1621.
In his account of those difficult first few years off of Massachusetts Bay, Of Plymouth Plantation, William Bradford writes:
“The Lord sent them such seasonable showers, with interchange of fair warm weather as, through His blessing, caused a fruitful and liberal harvest, to their no small comfort and rejoicing. For which mercy, in time convenient, they also set apart a day of thanksgiving… By this time harvest was come, and instead of famine now God gave them plenty … for which they blessed God.”
The Englishmen who arrived on these shores were expecting something very different from what they found—a land of plenty, with ample resources to build and sustain a growing colony that would generate wealth and prosperity. Instead, they encountered harsh winters, disease, and famine. It wasn’t until the Native-American Squanto taught them how to grow corn that the land delivered on its promise and devastating hunger was replaced overwhelming gratitude at the abundance that now adorned their very full tables.
Like the horn of plenty, those who experienced that first Thanksgiving had known both a narrow, difficult beginning, and a seemingly infinite and expansive present and future now that the vastness and potential of the American landscape was revealed to them. This potential led them and their descendants to spread out as far as their ambition, hard work, and sacrifice could take them, filling their bellies and their pocketbooks with the rewards of the richness of this country.
And yet, we know that the widening of their enterprise came at a great cost for those who had lived for generations on that same land. Eventually, when you spread out as far as you can go, either you will run out of room or you will have to dispossess others of what they own in order to satisfy your own appetite.
We Jews also know a great deal about the challenges of moving from scarcity to abundance, from the narrowness of the meitzar (the root of the Hebrew word for Egypt), to the blessings of a land filled with milk and honey.
In last week’s parasha, Toldot, our patriarch Isaac also runs into some trouble when he tries to expand his territory. In the unfriendly confines of the territory of the Philistines, the wells which were rightly his, an inheritance from Isaac’s father who dug them, were stopped up. Isaac successfully reopens them, but when he finds new source of mayim hayim, living waters, the locals challenge his right to this most precious resource in the arid land of Canaan.
Eventually, Isaac manages to wrestle away a well of his very own—one he names, appropriately, with gratitude to God, Rehovot, the wide-open spaces.
Still, if our sense of gratitude is dependent on our ability to constantly expand outward, to possess more and more, what happens when that isn’t possible or isn’t ethical? If we are only able to say “thank you” when we have more, how will we maintain our gratitude to God when we, inevitably, have less?
One of the rabbinic teachings frequently mentioned this time of year comes from Pirkei Avot: “Who is rich? The one who is satisfied with his portion.” Rabbi Jonah Gerundi explains further:
“Anyone who is not happy with his lot and is not satisfied with what God, may He be blessed, gave him is a poor person; as it is explained in the verse (Proverbs 15:15), "All the days of a poor man are bad, but one with a good heart has a constant feast." This teaches that all the days of a 'poor man,’ one who desires only money are bad, for ‘a lover of money never has his fill of money': but all the days of the one with a good heart, who is happy with his lot, are good [as the one] one who makes a constant feast.”
Gerundi ingeniously understands the terms “rich” and “poor” to be not indicative of the balance of one’s bank account, or the size of one’s home, or the breadth of one’s holdings, but of the condition of one’s spirit.
If all we desire is to “widen” what we already have, if that is the only thing that gives us satisfaction, then we do not understand the meaning of the word gratitude. If, on the other hand, we can learn to temper our desire to constantly expand, or use that desire to do good for others, those whose lot is still narrow, then we will truly be able to share in a Thanksgiving that is both authentically American and unmistakably Jewish.
Rabbi Shira Wallach and Rabbi Adam Roffman
Yom Kippur 5780
Shira: Dear Hannah, my precious first born: I hope that you’ve been holding onto this letter for a good long while. And now that you’re finally reading it, I trust it means that God granted us the gift of a long time together, in which I had the opportunity to watch you and your sister grow into the strong, compassionate, curious, loving women that we always knew you would be. We shared a lot of meaningful conversations throughout our lives, moments in which our souls encountered one another. I heard you learn to articulate yourself with wisdom and insight beyond your years, and I hope that you always felt heard and validated. But as I took stock of the ideas we often broached together, I realized that there were things left unsaid.
Adam: Dear Rebecca: I pray that despite the grief and sadness you’re feeling, that opening this letter and seeing how long it is has brought a little bit of a smile to your face. After spending so many years watching me go on and on and on in front of a crowd at important moments in people’s lives, you must have known, of course, there’s no way I’d pass up the opportunity, at this moment of transition, to write one last sermon for you. Without a doubt, you and your sister were the greatest sources of pride in my life. And despite the tough road that we sometimes put in front of you, I hope that you were proud to be my daughter. But we both know that there were many times when I could have done better.
Shira: As rabbis, it was so important to your father and me to project success—because our success represented the success of our Jewish community and of the Jewish people. But just like everyone else in my generation, I was guilty of editing my story so that people only saw the happy times, the times when it looked like we were in control and everything was going great. When I was your age, we had this thing called Facebook, which was created for that very purpose.
Adam: Failure was not a word we used a lot in our house. Your mom and I never wanted you to feel defeated by missed opportunities or ill-advised decisions. We never wanted you to hear us admit that we had failed, because we didn’t want you to carry the burden of our mistakes with you. But what I realize now is that this too was a mistake. Because, ultimately, what we came to understand was that our success was, very often, predicated on remembering our failures and learning from them.
Shira: Judaism is the most enduring success story in human history. We survived as a people for 4000 years despite the persecutions, the exiles, the destructions, and the threat of losing our identity to the cultures that surrounded us. But if you look closer, you’ll see that we’ve had to admit to and own our failures many, many times over the generations. Only then could we undertake the soul searching necessary to earn our place as a light unto the nations, or lagoyim.
The book of Genesis tells us where we came from: three generations of patriarchs and matriarchs who were courageous and tenacious in their steadfast faith in God, but as parents and siblings, not so much. Abraham basically tried to murder his son on the top of some mountain without consulting with his wife—by the way, for the record, whenever I wanted to murder you, I always ran it by your father first. Isaac, at the end of his life, was blind and impotent, outsmarted by his younger son Jacob who stole the blessing he meant to give to his elder, Esav, and Rebecca not only allowed this manipulation, but gave Jacob this idea in the first place! Not exactly the Partridge Family (sorry, you won’t get that reference. Actually, that part was your dad’s idea. I’m also too young to get this).
Adam: At the end of Jacob’s life, after being reunited with his long-lost son Joseph in Egypt, Pharaoh asks him a simple question—how old are you? —and Jacob gives a very revealing answer. “I am 130,” Jacob replies. “Few and hard have been the years of my life, and they cannot compare to the lifespans of my ancestors during their travels.” What he’s trying to say is this: Here I stand, at long last, beside a son I thought was dead, as he stands at the right-hand of one of the most powerful people in the world. I should feel like shouting from the rooftops! And yet, I can’t dismiss the profound failure in my life that has led to this moment.
We are called B’nai Yisrael, the children of Jacob, not Abraham or Isaac. Why? Because like Jacob, we admit that there were times when we struggled with the angels and lost. But also, like our namesake, we have seen that on the other side of that struggle, was forgiveness, kindness, redemption, and unparalleled success.
Shira: Like Jacob and his descendants, who came down to Egypt seeking sustenance during a time of scarcity, our ancestors came to this country, famished and diminished from years of hardship, only to build their own versions of the American Dream. The story we inherited from our grandparents and our great-grandparents is remarkably similar to that of the 70 who came down to Egypt: incredible resilience in the face of obstacles that most in our generation never had to overcome. Starting out as poor peddlers on the streets, they sold their wares to eke out a meager existence for their families, but within a generation, they owned their own department stores, grocery chains, scrap metal businesses, you name it. The path to success was a straight line to the top.
And because we’ve had to reinvent ourselves so many times in order to survive, we don’t talk about our failures. Just like your father and I always had to project success in the microcosm of the communities we served, it’s not difficult to imagine why our people always had to hold ourselves to impossibly high standards: so that we’d never have to admit defeat, so that we’d never be targeted by the rest of the world for our shortcomings. So that we wouldn’t fall victim to the paralysis of fear. We couldn’t afford to fail.
But as powerful as these stories are, they are incomplete. Of course there were times when our forebearers made wrong decisions that led to loss of friends, money, security, and power. And though those stories of failure may not have reached us, or may not have been spoken about with the same sense of pride, nonetheless, I’m sure they played a central role in shaping the journey that led to their ultimate triumph over adversity.
Adam: You know that one of my favorite things to talk about from the pulpit is that the rabbinate was my second career, that I spent several years after graduating from college in training to be a musical theater actor in New York. I so often spoke, longingly, about what I gained from that period in my life and how my training as an actor informed my work as a rabbi. But I don’t think I ever told you this story of the exact moment I knew that I was never going to make it as a professional actor.
Once, after a train wreck of an audition, ruined by a terrible accompanist, I collected my things, and walked back out into the crowded New York city streets and stood there, staring into space for maybe 20 minutes. I had been dragging myself to audition after audition and, no matter how well they went, I just wasn’t getting anywhere. I was leaving each one feeling worse than I had felt walking through the door.
I went into the theater business thinking I would find community, companionship, meaning and connection. But the life of an actor, even for the successful ones, is often one of isolation and merciless competition. In order to succeed, you have to be CEO of a one-man company, to constantly sell and promote yourself and make yourself heard above the hundreds and hundreds of voices often competing for the same job. Standing there that day, alone in a sea of people on the streets of Manhattan, I thought to myself, “I just can’t do this.” But then, almost immediately, I realized, “Maybe not, but that doesn’t mean I can’t do something with this.”
Community, companionship, meaning, connection—surely, somewhere in my life, I had found all of these things together in one place. It was the crucible of that failure that clarified for me what I was really looking for. And one year later, I had enrolled as a student at the Conservative Yeshiva in Jerusalem on my way to Rabbinical School.
Shira: Over the course of his life, I watched your father tear himself down and build himself back up more times than I can count. And each time he emerged closer to the rabbi he wanted to be, the father he wanted to be, the person he wanted to be. With renewed energy, creativity, and a sense of purpose, he found focus and clarity about where he wanted to go next. And by the time you were born, that’s the man that you saw and came to love. But at the most difficult moments, I would often remind him of one of my favorite rabbinic teachings about the creation of the world.
The Torah tells us that God commands light to come into existence, and the cosmos responds immediately and with perfection. But the Torah only transmits to us the story of God’s success. Only the wisdom of the rabbis fills in what’s so often missing from these narratives: that God created and destroyed a thousand worlds, failing each time to come up with just the right combination of forces and elements, until finally God created this one. What the rabbis understood is that even God couldn’t create the world without trying and failing. And the only way God could learn enough to bring the version that we know into existence was to try and fail all those times before.
Adam: As a people, how many times have we Jews remade ourselves after a national catastrophe? How many times have we rebirthed ourselves after suffering loss, destruction, or losing our way? When the Second Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed in 70 CE, we faced what should have been the end of the story of the Jewish people. The Temple was the center of our lives, spiritually, economically, and nationally and suddenly, it was gone. We were lost.
But through interpretation, our sages turned the Torah on its head in order to create an entirely new world, centered around prayer, study, and acts of loving kindness. Where before our lives revolved around just one holy place, now every home was a temple, and every synagogue was a Holy of Holies. Kings and priests had destroyed our way of life with sinat chinam, corruption and senseless hatred. But it was their mistakes that gave rise to to these audacious rabbinic pioneers who ensured that every Jewish home had an altar at its center, a Shabbat table where we salt our challah in remembrance of the sacrifices of old. That every Jewish child could create their own connection to God when they covered their eyes and recited the shema, as we did with you, when you were a child, every night before we went to sleep.
Shira: You know that your father and I started dating in Israel when we were studying to be rabbis. And when I think back on it, I’m not surprised that being in such a magical place helped me recover from one of the worst years of my life.
Just a couple of months before we left for Israel that year, I called off my engagement. I had a ring and a dress, we had picked a wedding date, we (my parents!) had placed deposits on a venue, a caterer, and a band. And when it was revealed that he wasn’t the person I thought he was, I felt my life unravel. Of course I was sad that the relationship was over, but mostly, I just felt ashamed. Mortified that I had let my family and my friends become so invested in a choice that I had made and then had to undo. I was convinced that everyone around me saw nothing but my failure and because of that, I stopped trusting myself and believing that I could ever give myself over to love again. If I couldn’t even trust my own judgment, how could I trust another person?
Adam: The first time I asked your mother out on a date, she was shocked. Not because such a handsome, intelligent, funny, and eligible bachelor like me would take an interest in her, but because she couldn’t see past the failure of the relationship that she had just ended. She thought everyone looked at her and felt only pity. I knew that she had recently broken off an engagement, but what I saw when I looked at her wasn’t a person who was broken, but a kind, talented, ethereal angel who was waiting to be made whole, who deserved to love and be loved. The fact that she had tried and failed only made her more alluring to me because she had been in a broken relationship and therefore would know even more how to create one that would be enduring and nurturing.
What she perhaps didn’t understand at the time is that there’s a big difference between failing and being a failure. This is something that I had to remind myself of and many others every year on Yom Kippur. I was so often asked: rabbi, why do we need to spend 25 whole hours beating our breasts, repeating the same confessions over and over and over again? Why are we presenting ourselves before God as people who are so completely inept, immoral, unkind? Am I really supposed to feel all that bad about myself? Are all those things we say in the machzor really true?
Of course they’re true, I would say. But just because you’ve sinned, that doesn’t make you a sinner. Yom Kippur is supposed to be a joyful day because we are unburdening ourselves, letting go of our failures one by one. We read over and over again that if we repent God will take us back in love. And why does God do that? Because God knows making a mistake is the prerequisite for teshuvah, for understanding how and why to make a better choice.
Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel taught that “man’s sin is his failure to live what he is. Being master of the earth, man forgets that he is the servant of God.” When God created the Garden of Eden for Adam and Eve and gave it over to their stewardship, he took quite a risk. Contained within the Garden was all the good that God created in six days, but God also knew that Adam and Eve were imperfect beings, subject to temptation. And so it would only be a matter of time before their curiosity caused them to fail. Why then, knowing that this was inevitable, would God place that temptation at the forefront of their consciousness, warning them not to eat the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil? Perhaps part of the plan all along was knowing that Adam and Eve would fail. And not just that, but that God would be there for them to love and comfort them as they learned the lessons of their failure. After Adam and Eve discover with their newfound knowledge that they are naked, God removes their shame by harnessing the very creation they had corrupted—the leaves of the Tree—and lovingly fashioned clothes to cover them. Their mistake became their redemption.
Shira: My sweet Hannah, you know that your father and I had so much nachas from you, that our hearts exploded with joy every time that we saw you succeed: the first time we saw you take center stage in your ballet tutu with a huge smile on your face, so composed, so filled with light. When your academic record was so stellar that you earned a FULL scholarship to college so that Mommy and Daddy could pay for all the cars that your younger sister wrecked. And when you discovered for the first time the incredible joy of what it is to love another person and to earn their love in return, when you were 37 and not a day younger!
But Hannah, don’t discount the times when you would come to us crying, broken, and afraid after you had bombed a test or ended a relationship or let a professional opportunity pass through your fingers. Just as our parents did for us, we wiped your tears and held you close and sat together and said, ok now what? And then, a day, a week, a month later, you showed us all what the answer to that question was. That my love, is the very definition of pride.
Adam: Rebecca, as you find yourself telling our stories over these next many days, I know that people will encourage you to share the good times, of the things we did to raise you with love and strength, and also the efforts we made to strengthen the Jewish people with love. But, don’t leave out half of the story. Don’t leave out the times when we got it wrong, when we misjudged, when we let you and others down. Because chances are, that behind every success story that you tell is also a story of learning to harness the lessons of failure and how powerful it is to emerge on the other side, after a long period of introspection, purified and reborn, ready to begin again.
Shira: Hannah, as the days of my life are coming to a close, I am reminded of the words we said each year at Ne’ilah just as the gates of heaven were swinging shut, marking the transition from one year of life to the next: kerachem av al banim, ken terachem Adonai aleinu. Just as a parent has compassion upon her child, so too God will show mercy unto us. We have held each other, you and I, many times, weeping, hoping that the love we hold for each other in our hearts will transform the sins of our past into the merits of our future. In my absence, I hope that God will hold you in a similar embrace and remind you to have compassion on yourself, to believe that every failure is an opportunity to draw closer to those in your life who will show you the way to goodness.
With all my love,
Adam: With all my heart,
Adam & Shira: Mom/Dad
Yom Kippur AM Sermon 5780
by Rabbi Ari Sunshine
After seventeen years of marriage, a man dumped his wife for a younger woman. The downtown luxury apartment was in his name and he wanted to remain there with his new love, so he asked his wife to move out and said he would buy her another place. The wife agreed to this, but asked that she be given three days.
The first day she packed her personal belongings into boxes and crates
and suitcases. On the second day, she had the movers come and collect
her things. On the third day, she sat down for the last time at their candlelit dining table, soft music playing in the background, and feasted alone on shrimp (yes, full disclosure, this is not a story of traditional Jewish origin) and a bottle of Chardonnay. When she had finished, she went into each room and deposited shrimp leftovers into the hollow of her curtain rods. She then cleaned up the kitchen and left.
Her husband returned with his new girl, and all was bliss for the first few days. Then it started; slowly but surely. Clueless, the man could not explain why the place smelled as it did. They tried everything. First, they cleaned and mopped and aired the place out. That didn't work. Then they checked vents for dead rodents. Still no luck. They steam cleaned the carpets and hung air fresheners. That didn't solve the problem. They hired exterminators; still no good. They ripped out the carpets and replaced them. But the smell lingered.
Finally, they could take it no more and decided to move. The moving company packed everything and moved it all to their new place. Everything. Even the curtain rods.
On one level this story may seem amusing, and fair. The wife, who was certainly a victim, gets her revenge on her unsuspecting ex. But is revenge what we should be looking for in a case like this? Granted that the short time frame captured in this story doesn’t even begin to allow for the process of healing to really begin, in principle, instead of looking to “get even” on some level when we have been hurt by another person, even someone close to us, over time we are better off pursuing a different, and more noble, value—FORGIVENESS.
Our tradition places a huge emphasis on the importance of forgiveness. We may be aware that, during this time of year, it is customary to approach people whom we have wronged during the past year to apologize for what we have done and ask them for their forgiveness BEFORE we can try to repent to God. But we may not all know that our tradition goes a bit further than that. You see, if you have the strength to approach someone three times in sincere repentance to ask them for their forgiveness, and they refuse to grant that forgiveness all three times, then the burden shifts to them and you are free to continue on your path of teshuvah, return, to God. This particular law in our tradition teaches us two important things: ONE—it is vital that, over time, we move to forgive others, otherwise, why would this law assume that three real attempts at an apology ought to clear the slate; and TWO—forgiving can be very difficult—otherwise, why would this law acknowledge that it might take three legitimate attempts before an apology would be accepted!
The command to forgive IS a difficult one to fulfill when we have been wronged or hurt, and we are certainly not the only ones who have struggled with what might seem to us like an unrealistic obligation. Going back in history, let’s just take two examples of people who simply refused to forgive when someone did them wrong, and made that point very publicly.
One was Michelangelo. Michelangelo was one of the greatest artists who ever lived. Not much debate on that front. He could carve incredible statues that still amaze us whenever we look at them to this day. He could paint pictures that still fill our souls with wonder. But there was one thing that Michelangelo could not do. He simply could not forgive anyone who had hurt him.
A friend of his once dared to criticize one of his works of art. How did Michelangelo respond? When he painted the Sistine Chapel, he used that man’s face as the model for the devil. So that everyone who enters the Sistine Chapel to this day looks at a work which is a testimony to Michelangelo’s genius as an artist, but which is also testimony to Michelangelo’s smallness as a human being.
For another example, how about Dante? Dante was arguably the greatest poet of the Middle Ages. And yet, Dante had a major flaw. He could not forget, and he could not forgive anyone who crossed him. And so when he wrote his masterpiece the Inferno, he described the terrible torment that those who suffer in hell will endure, and he used the names of his enemies as the examples. So whoever reads the Inferno sees the work of a man who was a brilliant poet, but not so noble in his character.
So if we’re having trouble with forgiveness, we’re in good company. If Michelangelo, who was an artistic genius, and Dante, who was a remarkable poet, could not forgive someone who hurt them, then maybe we shouldn’t feel so bad? How can I be expected to forgive, if they couldn’t? And yet, our tradition is replete with examples of people who showed remarkable strength of character in their decisions to ultimately forgive. Here, too, let’s make mention of two such examples, both from the Torah.
The first is Joseph—many of us may be familiar with the general nature of his story; Joseph, the dreamer, the bratty, and even arrogant, kid brother, was sold into slavery by his jealous and hateful older brothers. Some years later, when the fortunes of both parties had turned completely—Joseph was the viceroy of Egypt and his brothers were suffering through a famine in Canaan—Joseph found himself in a position of power over his brothers who had come to Egypt to beg for food for their family and did not recognize that they had come face to face with the little brother they had once victimized. Joseph faced a dilemma—exact vengeance and make them pay for their sins against him or forgive and reconcile. When they were willing to trade themselves to redeem the youngest brother Benjamin, Joseph recognized that they, in fact, had been redeemed—they had changed. And with that came forth the emotional cry from within Joseph—“I am Joseph. Does my father yet live? Come near to me, I pray you. I am Joseph, your brother, whom you sold into Egypt.” Joseph had finally reached the moment when he could let go of the memory of the wrong they had done him. Under the circumstances, reconciliation had to have been extremely difficult for Joseph, and yet he showed us that forgiveness can triumph.
For our second example, let’s turn to our tradition’s greatest prophet and teacher—Moses. Was there ever a Jewish leader who was rebelled against more often, who was betrayed more often, who was criticized more often, than he was? His brother, Aaron, and his sister, Miriam, both spoke out against him; his cousin, Korach, tried to overthrow him, the people of Israel rebelled against him over and over and over again for forty years in a row! Moses had to put up with this nonsense for 40 years! And yet, somehow Moses was able to forgive his people and to continue to lead them and love them until the end of his life.
And on the day that he died, the Midrash says that Moses made the rounds of the twelve tribes, hugged each one of them and accepted their apologies, and gave them his apologies. The Midrash says that they said to him, “We are sorry that we rebelled so often,” and he said to them, “I am sorry that I was so hard on you,” and they made up with each other and then he died.
Could any of us have done what Moses did that day? If we were in his position, could we have forgiven the people that harassed us mercilessly for forty years? Deep down we can admire Moses for having been able to forgive his people, for it couldn’t have been an easy thing to do.
Long after Moses lived, an anecdote was told about the life of one of Judaism’s Talmudic sages, Mar Zutra. Each night before he went to sleep, Mar Zutra would say, “I forgive all who hurt me today”. He understood that people weren’t perfect, and he genuinely forgave those who had hurt or disappointed him. He gave the gift of forgiveness freely to others as well as to himself. He knew he would sleep better and live happier if he had removed the bitterness and hatred from his heart.
And that’s just it—as Steve Goodier, who shared the story with which I began, analyzed the story this way: “The problem is... we can't carry a grudge and carry love in our hearts at the same time. We have to give one of them up. It's a choice we make. Some resentments are large; they've built up over a long time and will not be easy to part with. Some have been fed by years of pain and anger. But all the more reason to give them up. When we're tired of the anger and resentment and bitterness, we can choose a better way. We can be forever unhappy, or we can be healthy. We're just not made to carry a big grudge and a heart filled with love at the same time”.
I think that the truth is that we don’t like to forgive, because there is something inside of us that enjoys the taste of revenge, like the woman in the story. Let’s be honest. On an instinctual level, it feels good to get back at someone who has hurt you, doesn’t it? Refusing someone’s apology gives us a certain amount of power over that person and that power feels good.
It is tempting to nurse a grudge. And yet our tradition is emphatic in telling us not to do it. Here are three important reasons why: The first reason: When you hold on to a grudge, who does it hurt: your enemy or you?
Rabbi Harold Kushner, a Conservative rabbi and world-renowned, best-selling author, tells the story of how a woman once came to him, and poured out in detail her anger against her husband for how he left her for another woman, and how he had mistreated her and their children. What advice did Rabbi Kushner give her? “Let it go, not for his sake, but for yours. For ten years this has been burdening you. If you wouldn’t let him live in your house, rent free, why on earth do you let him live in your mind rent free?”
What harm does it do to the one who has hurt us for us to brood and wallow in our anger and in our self-pity? It is better for us to get on with our lives, and not let the one who has hurt us continue to control our lives and pull our strings and drive us crazy.
The second reason why we ought to forgive can be illustrated by a brief story, told by Rachel Naomi Remen. Years ago, she went to a Yom Kippur service to hear a well-known rabbi speak about forgiveness, thinking he would be speaking about God’s forgiveness. Instead, as she tells it, “he walked out into the congregation, took his infant daughter from his wife, and carrying her in his arms, stepped up to the bimah. The little girl was perhaps a year old and she was adorable. From her father’s arms she smiled at the congregation. Every heart melted. Turning toward her daddy, she patted him on the cheek with her tiny hands. He smiled fondly at her and, with his customary dignity, began a traditional Yom Kippur sermon”. The baby girl started grabbing his nose; he freed himself and went on; then she took his tie and put it in her mouth. Everyone chuckled. The rabbi rescued his tie, and then said to the congregation—“Think about it. Is there anything she can do that you could not forgive her for?” After the nods and murmurs of assent came from the crowd, he went on—“And when does that stop? When does it get hard to forgive? At three? At seven? At fourteen? At thirty-five? How old does someone have to be before we forget that everyone is a child of God?” We are all God’s children, part of the same family; we expect forgiveness from God, for anything we do, and God’s children, our family and extended human family, deserve that same forgiveness from us.
Finally, here is a third reason why we should try to forgive, and that is: That the truth is—although we don’t like to admit it, that we have slandered just as much as we have been slandered; that we have insulted, just as much as we have been insulted. We have said and done hurtful things to friends, co-workers, loved ones. The only difference is that when WE do it, we justify it, and we rationalize and we forgive ourselves. But when it is done to us, we get upset, and we want retribution.
It is much easier to think of times when we have been wronged than it is to think of times when we have done wrong. Somehow the human mind works that way. We have a selective memory, and so we find it easier to remember the times when we have been hurt than it is to remember the times when we have hurt.
And so I pray that this year you and I may work on developing not only our memory skills, but, as my colleague Rabbi Jack Riemer terms it, a good “forgettery” as well. Because without a good “forgettery” we really cannot live. If we hold on to every insult, and every harsh word, and every misdeed that has ever been done to us, we become so weighed down by this burden that we can barely walk or breathe or live.
The truth is that, with no exceptions, everyone has his own baggage and there is no need for any of us to add any more to each other’s pain and suffering; on the contrary, there is a need for comfort and companionship. Let us try yet again this year to minimize the hurt that we cause with our words and deeds; but, when inevitably we slip up, AND WE WILL SLIP UP, may we learn how to let go of the anger that we all carry around inside us that chokes us and that does not let us love. And let us forgive, so that we may truly live.
May this new year be a good year, a peaceful year, a year in which we offer forgiveness to our family, friends, neighbors, fellows, and God, and a year during which we receive that same powerful, sacred and healing gift of forgiveness in return. And to this, may we all say: AMEN.
Yom Kippur Sermon 5780
Rabbi Matt Rutta, M.A.Ed.
When I was in the fifth grade, I read a book which, unbeknownst to me then, would eventually change my outlook on life. It was “Fahrenheit 451” by Ray Bradbury. It is a book about a dystopian future in which books are outlawed and firemen are civil servants who don’t put out fires but instead cause them, destroying any books that can be found. According to the chief fireman, the reason all books were banned is that some people started to complain about books that challenged their own worldviews and the practice spread like, well, wildfire. In the words of philosopher Francis Bacon, Scientia Potentia Est, Knowledge is Power, and oppressors will try to control knowledge to protect their power. Ironically, this book about banning books is one of the most banned books in US History due to the fact that one of the books burned by the firemen is the Bible.
When Ray Bradbury wrote Fahrenheit 451 in 1953, he saw it as a vision of America in 1999 - which is now 20 years in the past! I realized upon learning world history, especially Jewish history, that this is not a vision of a dystopian future but a retrospective of a very real dystopian past.
Book Burning is not a new concept. For as long as words have been written on flammable media they have been burned. Jewish history goes back to words carved into stone and our written words have been frequent victims of destruction. If you look at the Wikipedia article "List of book-burning incidents" the most frequent books listed are Jewish, starting from the Judean King Yehoyakim burning the scroll written by the Prophet Jeremiah and when Antiochus IV ordered all Jewish books burned - a causus belli for the Hanukkah story.
Today we are about to recite the Eleh Ezkera which begins with ten of the Rabbis who were martyred by the Romans; one of these rabbis was Hananya ben Tradyon. He violated the capital crime of teaching the Torah and he was burned, wrapped in the Torah scroll with which he was caught teaching. He tells his horrified and heartbroken students that, though the parchment burns, the letters of the Torah are flying back up to their Author in Heaven.
In 1242, urged by Pope Gregory IX, the Talmud was put on trial in Paris and found guilty of blasphemy against Christianity. The Pope was allegedly shocked to learn that Jews did not solely follow the Old Testament but also the Talmud! 24 cartloads of an estimated 10,000 volumes were burned that June. This was especially staggering considering this was 200 years before Johannes Gutenberg invented his movable printing press so many of these volumes were handwritten and forever lost.
It is perhaps the ubiquity of books after that point that, last year, Time Magazine, commenting on the 85th Anniversary of Hitler’s 1933 Berlin book burning, wrote,
“the idea that you could get rid of the books you didn’t like seemed impossible. That is perhaps [...] why it took a little while for the wider world to understand what the Nazis were up to. Some authors initially felt pride to have been included in such a bonfire, [and that] that some book lovers in English-speaking countries expressed a certain wistfulness that in Germany books were thought to hold such power. But the Nazi authorities really were out to close off society to certain ideas, and they were unfortunately far more successful at it than many expected.”
The very same Time Magazine in May of 1933, prophetically dubbed this book burning “The Bibliocaust”. A few years ago, I saw the words of 19th century Jewish German poet Heinrich Heine inscribed in that Berlin plaza, The Bebelplatz, “That was but a prelude; where they burn books, they will ultimately burn people as well.” How tragically correct he was!
With the creation of electronic media, the Internet, and the Cloud, it once again seems that the written word is indestructible and eternal, much like it must have seemed at the development of the Movable Printing Press. While government agencies may try to control and block information people also successfully find ways around blocks and fight for Net Neutrality.
While one war may be fought in the clouds another is taking place on the ground and in ivory towers. Go to any college campus in America today and you will stumble upon something counterintuitive. You will see people protesting for their own freedom of speech while simultaneously denying another’s ability to share their own worldviews and exercise their own free speech. I, myself, have been involved in such shouting matches.
From 2001 to 2005, I was an undergraduate at Columbia University, a place that has been well-known as a hotbed of debate since the days of Alexander Hamilton. Before he dropped out to fight in the American Revolution in 1776, Hamilton engaged in heated debates on a campus evenly-split over Independence vs Loyalism; Hamilton supported Independence but decried the ubiquitous mob violence.
I entered Columbia University in the City of New York only a week before everything changed on 9/11 and things got even more polarized and vocal on campus. In 2004, voices crescendoed when a documentary was released, Columbia Unbecoming, which created a firestorm about allegations of academic intimidation in Middle Eastern department classes. The David Project interviewed a number of Israeli or pro-Israel students, many of whom are my close friends, about cases of Muslim anti-Israel professors in the department being explicitly prejudiced against them for their nationality, religion, or political views; these range from professors not allowing contrarian students to share their views to a professor asking an Israeli student how many Palestinians he murdered when serving in the IDF. Both sides claimed the other side was academically intimidating them and it launched an investigation and ultimately dismantled the Middle Eastern department.
One of these accused professors, it should be noted, is Rashid Khalidi, a founder of the BDS (Boycott, Divest, and Sanction) movement which attempts to eliminate all dialogue in favor of completely shutting down the Israeli side. Thankfully, his and others’ attempts to bring BDS to Columbia have been repeatedly and overwhelmingly thwarted by students and administration, both in my era and in recent months. However, it seems that things have changed for the worse. Whereas, 15 years ago, we would be very vocal in our defense and support of Israel, today’s students, particularly those who are pro-Israel, are engaging in self-censorship. They are remaining silent so they will not be attacked or bullied by those who oppose their view. Instead of the wise child or even the wicked child, many are now the child who does not know how to ask, how to speak up for themselves!
In my final month as an undergraduate, in my capacity of serving on the Executive Board at the Columbia/Barnard Hillel and being the chairman of Koach, the Conservative movement’s group, I was invited to be one of the two representatives of the Jewish people at Barnard’s first annual Interfaith Summit. It was an event explicitly created in order to create healthy dialogue in the wake of the Middle Eastern department controversy. In the very same issue of the Columbia Daily Spectator that covered this event in which I was pictured having deep theological discussion with Hare Krishnas, the grumbling began against the pulling down of flyers advertising a speaker who was about to arrive on campus: US Attorney General John Ashcroft. He was invited by the College Republicans and, very quickly, a group formed, calling themselves the “John Ashcroft Welcoming Committee,” composed of members of the College Democrats and the ACLU.
In college, I was fortunate to be present for speeches by luminaries such as the Dalai Lama, Natan Sharansky, First Lady Laura Bush, and Senator John McCain. Somehow, I got a ticket to the free, but sold-out, event with John Ashcroft. I didn’t go to support nor to protest, I went to hear him speak, more out of curiosity than agreement or disagreement with his policies, positions, or deeds. After all, he was an important government official who had just left the administration! I came to listen. Others came to scream at the top of their lungs. They said they would protest outside and some got tickets, ostensibly, in order to ask hard-hitting questions. This was meant to be a dialogue but what happened is that the “Welcoming Committee” didn’t even let him speak. I was shocked and dismayed at what I was witnessing, what I was hearing and what I was not hearing due to the attempts to drown out the speaker like we drown out the name of Haman on Purim! Here I was, weeks away from earning my Bachelor’s Degree, majoring in American Political Science and I was suddenly becoming disillusioned by politics! Roone Arledge Auditorium became an echo chamber that night and I was not having it.
In college, I was also a member of the Philolexian Society, Alexander Hamilton’s own college literary & debate society given a name, a name which translates as “lovers of discourse” and our raison de’ȇtre was to engage in friendly debate and never take ourselves too seriously. What was happening that night was completely anathema to my identity and my college pride. Where was the Columbia of vigorous but respectful debate, the one where I witnessed the healthy protests and counter-protests during my prospective-student visit in high school during the confusion three weeks following the 2000 Presidential Election, the events which made me want to be a Political Science major in the first place? Columbia’s motto is “In Lumine Tuo Vidibimus Lumen,” from Psalm 36: “BeOrcha Nireh Or,” “in Your Light we shall see light.” And yet, Columbia was becoming a place of darkness. Ashcroft’s speech, or, more specifically, the disrespectful reception that silenced him, really struck me that day. I decided then-and-there to listen to everybody and make my decisions - not by agreeing with a partisan slate of positions and political platforms - but by learning to listen to everything and everyone and making educated decisions. We may not be burning books today but we ARE definitely burning bridges!
I should feel the same way about the students shutting down Attorney General Ashcroft as I do toward the professors and students who intimidate and bully the Israeli, Zionist, and Jewish students. Free speech swings both ways! We live in a country where freedom of speech, expression, religion, assembly, press, and petition are enshrined in the First Amendment of our Constitution. As much as we treasure that right for ourselves, it would be hypocritical to deny it to those with whom we disagree.
Other countries don’t have that blessed right. Take Iran. A year after the Ashcroft debacle, Columbia invited the President of Iran, Mahmud Ahmadinejad. Now, let me make it clear that I wouldn’t have invited him (nor fellow Holocaust-denying anti-Semitic Malaysian President Mahathir bin Mohamad a few weeks ago) to have an unqualified bully pulpit at my alma mater, however, I was thrilled to see him get defensive when the university’s president, Lee Bollinger (who argued free speech cases in front of the US Supreme Court) asked Ahmadinejad about the mistreatment of homosexuals in Iran. Ahmadinejad was flabbergasted and flustered! “In Iran we don’t have any homosexuals. In Iran we don't have this phenomenon. I don't know who has told you we have it,” he exclaimed to the derisive laughter of the audience. In the wise words of an elderly King Solomon in Ecclesiastes 9:17, “Words spoken softly by wise people are heeded sooner than words screamed by a foolish leader.” As long as there can be fair dialogue is it that dangerous to hear from a plurality of opinions, to open a dialogue and perhaps learn something new and teach something new? Open dialogue is very Jewish.
In fact, our own Jewish tradition is a strong proponent of us attaining as much knowledge as possible from as many sources as possible. The very first reference to knowledge in Judaism is Etz HaDaat Tov v’Ra, the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil in the middle of the Garden of Eden. Ancient Greece warned against Prometheus giving the world fire, Pandora succumbing to curiosity, and they executed the great philosopher Socrates for corrupting the minds of Athenian youths and not believing in the gods. In our own story, Christian interpretation calls the eating from the Tree “Original Sin” with which each and every baby, a descendant of Adam and Eve, is born into the world tainted by sin and must be purified by the waters of baptism. It seems to me that Judaism not only does not denounce the action of Adam and Eve but supports it! In God’s perfect Paradise where would a disobedient snake have come from and why would God tell us about an easily seen and accessible tree that could have been hidden or locked far away? It could be open for debate that God never intended us to remain in the blissful ignorance of the Garden of Eden! For the early rabbis, the idea of Paradise in the World to Come is the ability to learn directly from God. Eating from the tree was not an Original sin; on the contrary, eating from the Tree is the beginning of the Jewish tradition to learn and teach as much as possible to the next generation.
We are commanded, in the Shema: Veshinantam Levancecha v’Dibarta Bam, “You shall repeat them to your children and speak of them!” It is a paramount mitzvah to teach Torah to your children. The first petition we make in the weekday Amidah, Chonen HaDaat, is asking God to give us knowledge, wisdom, and understanding. God is pleased with Solomon when the newly crowned king asks God for wisdom. Among many other aphorisms about wisdom, Solomon writes in chapter three of his book of Proverbs:
Happy is the man who finds wisdom, the man who attains understanding. Her value in trade is better than silver, Her yield, greater than gold. She is more precious than rubies; All of your goods cannot equal her. In her right hand is length of days, in her left, riches and honor. Her ways are pleasant ways, and all her paths, peaceful. She is a tree of life to those who grasp her, and whoever holds on to her is happy. (Proverbs 3:13-18)
You might recognize that we just sang these last two verses in reverse as we put the Torahs away: עֵץ־חַיִּ֣ים הִ֭יא לַמַּחֲזִיקִ֣ים בָּ֑הּ וְֽתֹמְכֶ֥יהָ מְאֻשָּֽׁר׃ דְּרָכֶ֥יהָ דַרְכֵי־נֹ֑עַם וְֽכָל־נְתִ֖יבוֹתֶ֣יהָ שָׁלֽוֹם׃
Just this past Shabbat we read in Parashat Vayelech (Deuteronomy 30:19) that God places before us life and death, blessing and curse and we are commanded to choose life. We are invited to return to Paradise with unfettered access to the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil and the Tree of Life. We weren’t expelled from the Garden to protect the Tree of Life; in fact, it wasn’t eternally forbidden fruit, we just weren’t ready - but we are now and God commands us to choose it!!
In the context of Proverbs chapter 3, King Solomon is not just talking about Torah but wisdom in general! Knowledge and life are inextricably tied together! There isn’t meant to be esotericism in Judaism. Modern tradition may restrict the study of the mystical Zohar to men above the age of 40 but this tradition isn’t universal and has nothing to do with one’s caste or level of wisdom. Even the more forbidden fruits should be tasted, as in the Talmudic story of the student hiding under his rabbi’s marital bed to learn about sex. Upon being chided by his teacher the student responds, “This too is Torah and I must learn it!”
We are commanded to acknowledge and learn from those with whom we disagree. It’s Debate 101 and Judaism 101! The Mishnah and Talmud, the fonts of Jewish law, record multiple opinions and often don’t come to conclusions or resolutions. You may have heard of the famous debates between the schools of Hillel and Shammai, but there was never any acrimony between the two. In Talmud Eruvin 13b we read: “Rabbi Abba said that Shmuel said: For three years the School of Shammai and the School of Hillel disagreed. These said: The law is in accordance with our opinion, and these said: The law is in accordance with our opinion. Ultimately, a Divine Voice emerged and proclaimed: Eilu v'Eilu Divrei Elohim Chayim Hen, both these and those are the words of the living God... v'Halachah k'Veit Hillel, However, the law is in accordance with the opinion of Beit Hillel. The Talmud asks: Since both these and those are the words of the living God, why were Beit Hillel privileged to have the law established in accordance with their opinion? The reason is that they were agreeable and forbearing, showing restraint when affronted, and when they taught the law, they would teach both their own statements and the statements of Beit Shammai. Moreover, when they formulated their teachings and cited a dispute, they prioritized the statements of Beit Shammai to their own statements, in deference to Beit Shammai.” That’s how you win a debate!
Indeed, we can - and should - learn from everybody. We can’t just preach to the choir. The editor of the Mishnah and Rabbi par-excellence Yehuda HaNasi says in Pesachim 94b that, contrary to popular belief, even Rabbis don’t know everything. In fact, Rebbe says that there are things that gentile scientists know that we don’t know and that we should learn from them as well! We should learn about other faiths not only to be good global citizens but also so we can dialogue and respond when someone tells us something that challenges our faith or understanding. I teach a class to my 8th graders that includes significant time learning Comparative Religion. They will certainly meet people who aren’t Jewish. A former student of mine told me that a girl on her soccer team asked her about Isaiah 7:14, a key text for Christians from the Hebrew Bible, and she was not only able to identify the verse but successfully refute the teammate’s claim. If we refuse to learn from one another, to learn about one another, to dialogue, we don’t have a chance as individuals, as Jews, as Americans.
Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel remarked, “man is a messenger who forgot the message.” I realize now, as I realized back in college, that one of the purposes of life is to gather information and to learn as much as possible, not just to win hundreds of dollars in HQ Trivia (though I’ve done that) nor to appear on Jeopardy! (still waiting on that) but so I can be an informed citizen of the world and know as much as possible.
The very first mishnah of Pirkei Avot, the Lessons of our Sages, says one of the three most important things for a rabbi is to raise many students. In a battle between quality vs. quantity, one might think that quality is the better ideal. You might have a few great students, but with quantity everyone has a chance. I’d like to think I do the same with my students, I’m never gonna give up on them and there’s always a better chance of finding a diamond in the rough if I teach many than if I only teach a few. So too with content; even if you think you will never need math or science or a random sugya of Talmud, you never know what you might do with your life that will require it.
In Ray Bradbury’s fictional America of 1999, the country was burning down, page by page. Twenty years later, in 2019, it doesn’t seem so far-fetched. They tried to incinerate our knowledge.“That was but a prelude; where they burn books, they will ultimately burn people as well.” However, all is not lost! We can learn once again from the rabbinic pair of Hillel and Shammai:
A gentile came before Shammai and said to Shammai: Convert me to Judaism on condition that you teach me the entire Torah while I am standing on one foot. Annoyed, Shammai pushed him away with the measuring stick in his hand. He then came before Hillel. Hillel converted him and said to him: That which is hateful to you do not do to another; that is the entire Torah, and the rest is its interpretation. Go study.
We have the ability to learn and to teach. You can be a Shammai, shutting down and chasing away anyone who is disagreeable to you. Or you can be a Hillel, welcoming in people of different opinions and starting a dialogue with them, even if they annoy you. The world is filled with Firemen and Shammais, burning down the world and pushing people away. In a world where there are no Hillels be a Hillel! Create the brilliant light of learning that will burn even brighter than the fires of those burning books. Let there be light.
G’mar Chatimah Tovah.
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