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.
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
Kol Nidre Sermon 5780
Rabbi Ari Sunshine, Rabbi Adam Roffman, Rabbi Shira Wallach
L’Eyla u’L’Eyla. Higher and Higher. These are the words that we utter in the Kaddish prayers during these Aseret Y’Mei Teshuvah, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur and the days in between. We add an extra word “L’Eyla” to our customary recitation to remind us that during this 10-day period God is elevated even more beyond the prayers we human beings can offer in God’s praise. And during this High Holy Day period we also try to lift ourselves up to commit to being at our most godly going forward into the New Year.
Last year during this Kol Nidre Service in all three of our sanctuaries, the rabbis shared the same message about a way our community could elevate itself while at the same time elevating someone else in need in the way our teacher Maimonides once instructed us. We are proud of David Corn as he completes a year in our Ladder Project program. Since January, David has been paying his own rent and utility bills, and just renewed his apartment lease for another year. He has worked steadily since last November at Studio Movie Grill, where he has been promoted to a team leader -- both training new employees and supervising the teams who maintain and prep the theaters in between showings.
But what we have learned is that $12/hour is not enough money for David to live on since he is currently paying court-ordered child support for one of his sons, leaving him no ability to put aside money towards obtaining and maintaining a car, which is his #1 goal. David recently passed his driver’s test and is excited about being able to drive. We are asking congregants to let us know if they can offer David a full-time job that pays a minimum of $15/hour AND donate a used car to David, which would significantly change his life. Reliance on public transit greatly limits where, and how often, David can work. We feel confident that David can reach a new level of financial self-sufficiency with a new job and a car.
As you are hopefully aware, David joined us for Rosh Hashanah services last week and was extremely proud to be celebrating his new life -- a life far away, physically and emotionally, from the homeless shelter he lived in for several years before meeting us. He speaks often of the generosity and caring hearts of this congregation -- his spiritual family, as he calls us -- that made all of this possible. We are grateful for all of your support in helping David this past year.
We look forward this next year to further success for David and to hopefully welcoming a new person or family to our program. Our Ladder Project Executive Committee is currently searching for candidates and we have had a couple of possibilities, but we are doing due diligence to make sure we pick someone who is ready to be helped.
Just as last year the three Shearith rabbis decided to give a unified message, so, too, this year we also decided to speak about the same topic this evening. And the choice of topic will likely not come as a surprise to anyone in any of our three sanctuaries. One of our congregants recently commented on Facebook that this was the first year our congregants were ever asked to come to a security briefing before High Holy Day services. Who would have even thought this was necessary a decade, or perhaps even five years, ago? 250 congregants attended six briefings in total, which speaks to how concerned folks are with recent trends in anti-Semitism and violence, both here in the United States, and around the world as well. Why are we concerned?
We’re concerned because of October 27, 2018, a Shabbat morning in Pittsburgh, which could have been a Shabbat of shalom and joy and community like every Shabbat before that one and every Shabbat we hope to celebrate in the future, but instead was a Shabbat that bore witness to the murder of eleven Jews at Tree of Life Synagogue in Squirrel Hill as the killer shouted, “All Jews must die”.
We’re concerned because six months later, on Shabbat morning, April 27, the last day of Pesach, another shooter visited death on another synagogue, this time a Chabad in Poway, California, taking the life of Lori Gilbert-Kaye and wounding several others including Rabbi Yisroel Goldstein, having posted online just beforehand an open letter in the form of an anti-Semitic rant blaming Jews for the “meticulously planned genocide of the European race”.
We’re concerned because, according to the ADL, the U.S. Jewish community experienced near-historic levels of anti-Semitism in 2018—1,879 attacks in total, the third-highest year on record since the ADL began tracking data in the 1970s, a number not far off from the 1,986 incidents reported in 2017, 48% higher than in 2016 and 99% higher than for 2015. 59 people were victims of 39 anti-Semitic assaults in 2018, almost three times as many victims and twice as many incidents as in 2017.
We’re concerned because anti-Semitism thinly veiled as anti-Zionism continues to rear its ugly head. This extends from the United Nations, on down to college campuses through the pernicious BDS movement which constantly forces our students to have to defend the right for a Jewish state to exist, and has even seeped into the halls of our U.S. Government.
And we’re concerned because we’ve read in the news locally that a Jewish convict named Randy Halprin was sentenced to death by Judge Vickers Cunningham who allegedly called him “that [expletive] Jew”, and much worse, during the trial. Saying nothing of Halprin’s guilt or innocence, it seems incredulous to us that this could happen in a courtroom in the United States. Thankfully Halprin’s attorneys, with the support of 100 Jewish attorneys and numerous rabbis from all over Texas including Rabbi Sunshine, convinced the Appeals Court to stay the execution and remand the case back to a Dallas County court for further review.
Over the past few days, we’ve seen that many rabbis across Dallas and across the nation have also chosen to address the fearsome rise in anti-Semitic incidents in America during this High Holy Day season. What’s notable about these powerful statements from our colleagues is that despite the diversity of communities they serve in areas across the country, many make, essentially, the same three points.
First, if we are to understand the threat we face, we must also ensure that we understand the underlying ideology that fuels it. Anti-Semitism is a specific form of hatred and it cannot be equated with mere ignorance, intolerance, or prejudice. It is born out of an irrational fear of our particular beliefs, values, and way of life. It takes the form of conspiracy theories, double-standards, and scapegoating narratives.
Anti-Semitism is Pharaoh, paranoid that our growing nation would inexplicably rise up against the same land and people that sustained us through a devastating period of famine in the land of Canaan.
Anti-Semitism is Haman and Antiochus Epiphanes, who saw a people not apart, but against. Ironically, for all the charges of dual loyalty that have been laid at our feet, it was their inability to believe that we could, at once, serve a God that was ours, and yet still contribute to the well-being of a land that wasn’t, that inspired them to plot our destruction.
And yes, Anti-Semitism is Adolf Hitler and his Nazi collaborators, who followed in the example of so many before them when they blamed Jews for the economic and political catastrophes their government had wrought on its own people.
Second, though Anti-Semitism has been used as a political tool for more than two millennia, Anti-Semitism is not politics. It is hatred. Therefore, Anti-Semitism cannot be accurately categorized as left or right, progressive, populist, or conservative. It can however, usually be found at the ideological extremes and, terrifyingly of late, it has been countenanced and tolerated, if not yet embraced, by those who claim to speak for the mainstream and the center. It has defiled the cause of those who say they champion equality and social justice and it has profaned the lips of those who argue that they are fighting to preserve and defend our national identity and culture. It has inspired violence both directly and indirectly, and when it is present in the sacred halls of our government or regularly evident in the temples of international diplomacy, it is a sign of impending danger, not only for Jews, but for all oppressed people across the globe.
Finally, should this unsettling trend continue, we would do well to remember that the most powerful weapon against those who would seek to destroy the agency, prosperity, and sovereignty Jews have enjoyed since the middle of the twentieth century, is, paradoxically, that very thing which inflames their hatred of us: our love for and pride in being Jewish. For if we allow our Jewish identity to be defined, principally, by our fight for survival, then we will have already lost. How did we defeat Pharaoh? By recovering our ability to cry out to God in the words of our ancestors. How did we defeat Haman and Antiochus? By harnessing our ingenuity, our wits, and our chutzpah to once again defy the odds. How will we defeat the men who murdered twelve of our fellow Jews as they clasped prayer books in their hands in the House of God? By holding our families close as we light Shabbat candles, by gathering for simchas and sorrows, by teaching our children to love our tradition and to love Israel, and, as we have all demonstrated tonight, despite whatever uneasiness may lurk in our souls, by showing up, as a community, to shul.
Each year, on Kol Nidre, we are gifted a remarkable opportunity: to renounce any vows that we made over the last year that we didn’t have the chance to fulfill. And while we reflect on all the ways in which we were too optimistic or too forthcoming with the power of our promises over the past year, we also use this moment to decide which new vows to make this coming year, knowing just how much weight they carry. In light of recent events, we propose three new nedarim, three sacred oaths that we make to one another in this precarious time.
First: that we must vow lo tishkach, never forget. On the Shabbat before Purim, we read a special maftir from the Torah that reminds us why we must blot out the names of those who try to annihilate us: not just Amalek, but Pharaoh, Haman, Antiochus Epiphanes, Adolf Hitler, and all of those who walk in their footsteps. Those who target us purely because of our identity have a particular appetite for blood; Amalek attacked us from the back as we traveled toward our Promised Land, killing the weakest and most vulnerable among us in order to strike fear into our hearts. And as the blood of our children, our ill, our elderly, called out to us from the ground, what was, and what will be our response? God hopes it will be: never forget, and blot out the names of our attackers from under Heaven. Never think that there won’t be another Amalek or Haman or Hitler. And yet, as long as blood still fills our veins and air still fills our lungs, we have a sacred duty to build a world in which it is impossible for hatred to survive.
But this vow of lo tishkach isn’t only about never forgetting those who are filled with anger and hatred against us. It is also about pledging to never forget those victims who were murdered, defamed, persecuted, and tortured. It’s about telling their stories and devoting our lives to theirs, lifting up not only their mourning families and communities but also the values that animated them. If you go to Pittsburgh today, and visit the Tree of Life*Dor Hadash Congregation, you’ll see first of all the chain link fence that surrounds the building. Then, if you hang around a bit, you’ll notice that the only person who goes in and out of the dark building is the custodian, who maintains the synagogue, until its leaders decide what to do with it. The one thing that is certain: they cannot see themselves ever praying there again, without experiencing violent flashbacks to October 27th, when eleven of their community members were shot and killed. For now, the building remains as a reminder, as a sacred memorial, lest we ever forget, for if you look through the fence at the synagogue’s front door, you’ll see an Israeli flag, a note thanking first responders, a list of the eleven victims’ names in Jewish stars, and a promise: “No day shall erase you from the memory of time.”
Second: that we must vow to protect and advocate for ourselves. We must not be afraid to speak out on behalf of our people and call out anti-Semitic language and behavior when we see it. Unfortunately, we must come to terms with the reality that no one else can be entrusted with this task; there is no one else as deeply entrenched or invested in the destiny of our people. As Rabbi Hillel asked: Im ein ani li, mi li? If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If even we cannot recognize and condemn attacks against our people, then who else will take up our cause?
The blood of our brothers and sisters cries out to us from the ground! When our people are slain in Pittsburgh and Poway, beaten on the streets of Brooklyn, defamed in political ads in Rockland County, we must rise above the fray, attend to our dead and our injured, and speak out against this injustice! We must call out this hatred and this violence for what it is.
Third and finally: that no matter where we fall on the political spectrum, no matter who we’d like to see leading the Knesset, no matter where we like to sit on the High Holy Days at Shearith Israel, that we pledge to uphold our sacred unity above all else.
I don’t have to tell you that we are at our most vulnerable when we are divided. Our factionalism has cost us dearly in the past, pitting Jew against Jew, contributing to the rise of sin’at chinam, senseless hatred, that ultimately caused the destruction of our beloved Temple. We must not let our own ideologies distract us from who the true enemy is.
The Talmud, in Masechet Shevuot (39b), the tractate that addresses the nature and power of our oaths, asks about the difference between those sins that only punish the offender, versus the sins that punish both the offender and his or her world. The rabbis respond: for the sins of swearing and lying, and murdering and stealing, and committing adultery, it is only the offender who has sinned and bears the weight of punishment and responsibility to atone. And with regard to all other transgressions in the Torah, punishment is exacted from the entire world, in which each and every person is inextricably bound to one another, because one person’s sin mars the humanity of everyone else. It was this idea that led the rabbis to say: kol yisrael arevim ze bazeh, the entire Jewish people must serve as guarantors for one another.
As we know, there are a myriad of different ways to categorize and separate Jews. It’s profoundly difficult to see how Haredim have anything in common with Reform Jews and it’s so much easier to look out for our own little corner of the Jewish world. But the rabbis of the Talmud challenge us with the responsibility of KOL Yisrael, ALL of Israel. This means that at all times, but especially during times of threat, we must transcend the boundaries that divide us in order to support the sacred whole.
When Mattathias and his son Judah began their revolt against the Hellenist occupiers of the land of Israel in 167 BCE, they faced overwhelming opposition. But not only from the Greeks, from their fellow Jews, as well. On one side, the Pietists, or Chasidim, believed that if salvation was at hand, it would come from God, not from a band of guerilla fighters from Modi’in. To fight without divine sanction was sacrilege. And on the other side, those Jews who had adopted the Greek way of life, embracing both its scientific and literary advancements, resisted what they saw as an unwise struggle against the natural progression of Jewish life in the Ancient Near east.
The first major victory the Maccabees won was not against the Greeks, it was for the trust of their fellow Jews. By demonstrating both their respect for the ancient wisdom and practice of our Torah and by allowing that practice to be informed by the realities of their time, Mattathias and Judah created a broad coalition of Jews who fought to reclaim the beating heart of the Jewish people, the city of Jerusalem and the Temple at its center.
It is no accident that in this extraordinary Dallas Jewish community of some 70,000 souls, this 135-year-old flagship Conservative synagogue has served as a vital center—a place for those on the right and the left and all those in between, both religiously and politically, to come together. Because in our shul we believe that all those who love our tradition, who love Israel, and who are called to serve and love each other and God should be made to feel welcome.
It was at Shearith Israel that hundreds gathered after the Pittsburgh shooting to grieve, to offer our support to the families of the fallen, and to pledge that we would do everything in our power to fight back against the terror that our brothers and sisters faced that horrific Shabbat morning in October.
And beyond these walls, the contributions of our Shearith members to ensuring that we and others never forget, that we have the means and the strength to fight back, and that will do so as a united Jewish community, are immeasurable. Who had the largest team at the ADL Walk Against Hate on September 15th? Shearith Israel. Who sends the largest delegation in town, every year, to the AIPAC conference in Washington D.C? Shearith Israel. Of the broad spectrum of Jews from across Dallas who have championed and sponsored the Federation’s Community Security Initiative, who often took the lead? Members of this community. And there is no better example of the extraordinary efforts our community has made in the fight against hatred than the time, financial resources, and brilliant vision so many members of Shearith have given to the newest crown jewel among our local Jewish institutions, the Dallas Holocaust and Human Rights Museum. And I look forward to seeing all of you at our Shearith Night at the Museum, November 10th, when it will open exclusively for our community so that we can celebrate this remarkable achievement together.
Friends, we can take great comfort, great strength, and great pride in the fact that we are Maccabees—that we have always been and will always strive to be a community that stands together. But more than that, because of who we are, and the consensus we work hard to achieve, we can fulfill this role of being a uniter, not just for ourselves, but for the good of all our fellow Jews in Dallas.
This Kol Nidre, we pledge ourselves to this great cause. To stand as one before the sha’are hashamayim, the gates of Heaven, and cry out before God, for ourselves, and for the martyrs of our people whose voices we must now carry within each of us—Anu ameicha—we are one nation. Anu kehalecha—we are one congregation. Anu nachaltecha—we are the stewards of the legacy you entrusted to us, that no one will ever deny us, Am Yisrael Chai—the people of Israel, whose story, whose destiny will live forever and ever.
Ken Yehi ratzon, so may it be God’s will.
  Sales, Ben. “Reliving the massacre every minute: How Pittsburgh survivors are struggling a year later.” Jewish Telegraphic Agency. Published October 2, 2019.
Rosh Hashanah Sermon 5780
by Rabbi Adam Roffman
In Bend, Oregon—about three hours south of Portland—tucked away in a strip mall shop between Papa Murphy’s pizza and a Chevron gas station, you’ll find a vestige of a bygone era.
Walk in and you’ll see 1,000 square feet or so of aisles crowded, not with people, but shelves and shelves of rectangular boxes organized alphabetically by category. And should one of these boxes catch your eye, if you’re lucky, you’ll find another identical in size right behind it, marked with an iconic logo in blue and yellow.
For $3.99, the contents of that box could be yours for an evening, if you flash your membership card at the counter. Just don’t forget to bring it back by 7 pm the next evening.
For the 75,000 residents of Bend, I imagine that walking through the doors of what is now the last Blockbuster Video on earth is almost like stepping through a time machine. How quaint it must be to think of the world as it was in the 1990’s, back when commodities were physical, not digital. When face-to-face human interaction was required to deposit a check, or borrow a book, or file your taxes.
In its heyday, the business model at Blockbuster was based on a social contract my children will never fully understand. Because if, after 24 hours, that summer blockbuster was still sitting on your kitchen counter, or hidden out of sight in the belly of your VCR, that means that some little boy would go home that night disappointed, his plans for the evening scuttled, as he is forced to endure his parents’ copy of Singin’ in the Rain for the umpteenth time this month.
And remember those little stickers they affixed to the label of those tapes? “Be kind, rewind.” I’m pretty sure my older daughter has never even heard the word rewind and that it would probably take some sort of diagram to explain it to her.
I’m turning 40 this year. And though I usually get a good laugh from the folks around here whenever I say that I am starting to feel my age, these little reminders of the way things used to be two generations ago are a pretty significant marker of how far we’ve come since I was born, or, in some cases, how much we’ve lost in the meantime—just in the small details of the way we live.
“Be kind, rewind.”
If you think about it, what makes that expression so quaint is not the pithy rhyme, but the overall message. Is returning something in the same condition in which you received it really an act of kindness? It’s certainly the right thing to do, but that’s not the same thing as being the nice thing to do.
We lament, with good reason, the meanness, even the cruelty, in so much of our societal discourse. But there are times when I wonder if the genteel era we are missing was an illusion conjured up by the language of politeness and civility. Even before the chasms of ideology and technology created such distance between us, if we convinced ourselves that rewinding a tape, or returning a book on time, was a gesture of the heart rather than simply meeting the bare minimum of our obligations to each other, did we ever really understand what kindness was? Are we missing something that was never actually all that present in the first place?
If you look up the Hebrew word for kindness in the dictionary, you’ll find a number of unsatisfactory entries: nechmadut, better defined as niceness, or chavivut, which means dearness or fondness. Only the two-word phrase tuv lev, good-hearted, comes close—because kindness, in our tradition is not a simple concept. It is a compound idea, an action that results from a feeling. Kindness comes from the soul.
Perhaps that’s why Jews don’t really aspire to be kind, they challenge themselves to commit acts of loving-kindness—of chesed.
Chesed is not simply “kindness,” because kindness is a unidirectional act. In our secular lexicon, we do kindnesses for others. We volunteer, we offer, we give of ourselves. Sometimes we act out of love, but sometimes also out of sympathy, or pity, or even self-interest.
Gemilut chasadism, acts of lovingkindness, are mutual, as suggested by the Hebrew word gomel, which means to remunerate, to pay back. They are based on the assumption that kindness is relational. God extended His kindness to us by giving us life and the blessings that make it fulfilling and we, in turn, send that kindness back heavenward when we obey God’s commandments, particularly those that increase goodness in the world.
Of course, the concept of gemuilut chasidim also reflects an equal exchange between humans, as our sages so succinctly put it: mitzvah gorreret mitzvah. One good deed engenders another. Each time we are kind to another person, we perpetuate a sacred cycle of generosity that elevates us all, bringing us closer to the source of all chesed, back to God.
Believing in the power of chesed is an act of faith, one that assumes that these reciprocal actions can fundamentally change not just the way we live, but the world we live in.
I was reminded of how transformative a force kindness can be when I came across the story of Braysen Gabriel, a 4 year old boy with autism, who boarded a United Airlines flight from San Diego to Houston with his parents. Just before takeoff, he unbuckled his seat belt and insisted that he needed to lie down on the floor. Knowing that the crew would never allow the plane to takeoff unless he was seated, Breyson’s parents forced him, kicking and screaming, back into place.
When the flight attendants came over to the family to see what all the commotion was about, Breysen’s mom explained the situation, fearing perhaps that it wouldn’t be long before they were taxiing back to the gate and removed from the plane.
Instead, the flight crew huddled, come up with a plan and sprang into action. They allowed Breysen to sit on his dad’s lap during takeoff. Seeing that he was still out of control when the seat belt light indicator turned off, the crew led Greyson by the hand to a place on the floor of the plane, where they sat with him, hoping that the vibrations would calm him.
It wasn’t long before Breysen wandered off to first class, where he began kicking the back of a passenger’s chair repeatedly. Once the boy’s condition was explained to him, he replied, “He can kick my chair, I don’t care,” and began giving Breyson high fives.
Pretty soon, everyone in first class was asking his name, showing him pictures on their phones, and giving him free reign of the cabin.
Needless to say, Breyson’s parents were overwhelmed by the patience, care, and kindness these strangers had bestowed on their son, and on them.
As Breyson’s mom was headed down the aisle off of the plane after a long flight, another passenger, an off-duty flight attendant gave her a hug and handed her a note. “You and your family are loved and supported. Do not ever let anyone make you feel as though your son is an inconvenience or a burden. He is a blessing. God bless your patience, your love, your support and your strength. Continue to be a super woman.”
Mitzvah gorreret mitzvah. One act of kindness inspires another.
What inspires me about that story is that it so perfectly illustrates what it takes to build a community of chesed. These strangers, cooped up in a tiny capsule just a few feet wide and who certainly had reason to behave otherwise, became united, no pun intended, in a sacred purpose---not just to get this boy and his family through the ordeal of a difficult three-hour flight, but to ensure that they walked off that plane together not ashamed or angry, but feeling that even though they had landed safely on the ground that they were still 30,000 feet up in the air, uplifted by generosity, admiration, and yes, kindness.
And though listening to stories such as these can make us feel as if the answer to what is poisoning our discourse, our relationships, and at times, even our own hearts, these days is so simple—“be kind,” we would do well to remember the lesson our tradition teaches us. Kindness is not simple. Chesed can’t be defined in a word. And acts of chesed reflect a soul that has been cultivated and conditioned to respond in ways that often defy the culture we live in.
When you buy an airplane ticket, you aren’t just paying for the journey, you’re paying for the space you occupy along the way. And these days, when the pricing structure for airline seating is more complex than figuring out how to buy floor seats at a rock concert, folks can be pretty protective of the 3.7 square feet that their money or their frequent flier status has earned them. Go ahead, try putting both your right and your left elbow on the armrests next to you and see what happens. The more expensive and exclusive and small these spaces get, the harder we fight to keep every inch for ourselves.
And yet, the passengers on United Airlines 2210, somehow found the room on that cramped flight for Breyson, a boy who was breaking every single convention of personal space with every limb of his body.
In our tradition, no figure is more revered for his acts of chesed than Abraham. And in the litany of good deeds he committed throughout his 175 years of life, perhaps no act of kindness is more well-known than the hospitality he showed to three strangers, wandering in the desert in the midst of a long journey. Notwithstanding the physical agony he was enduring three days after he circumcised himself at God’s command, Abraham opened his tent wide, providing his guests food and shelter.
What makes his act of chesed, of hachnasat orchim, of welcoming guests, so instructive, is not that it was easy, or expected, or polite, it’s that it was hard, painful even. Abraham’s story is an important reminder that acts of kindness are not acts of convenience. They require us, in ways that are often quite literal, to push ourselves past the boundaries of our own comfort zones.
Indeed, some of the most impactful acts of chesed occur precisely at the moments where we are most uncomfortable. Welcoming new faces, feeding the hungry, consoling the recently bereaved—these moments where kindness is required, require us, to overcome our anxiety that so often stops us in our tracks.
Sefer Vayikra, the book of Leviticus famously teaches in the holiness code, which contains the most essential commandments for creating a sacred community: lo tachmod al dam re’echa. Do not stand idly by when the life of your friend is at stake.
It’s worth asking why it’s necessary for the Torah to command something that should be obvious to all of us. Did God believe us to be so unfeeling, and so uncaring, that we wouldn’t value the life of our fellow Jew whose life stands in the balance, right before our eyes?
Biblical commentators knew this could not be the case and so Rashi narrows the situation described in the verse—Do not stand idly by if you are able to rescue him; if for instance he is drowning in the river, or if a wild beast is attacking him. In other words, do not let your fear stop you from being kind.
Abraham had reason to be fearful of those strangers on the road. The passengers on Breyson’s Gabriel’s flight had cause to be anxious that his behavior would prove a nuisance at the least, or so far up in the air, dangerous, at worst.
And yet, when kindness took hold, row by row, cabin by cabin on flight 2210, fear transformed into joy and the air of anxiety was pierced by the sound of laughter. And, I believe, most importantly, judgement gave way to understanding.
Of all the rabbinic ethical dictums, dan l’chaf zechut, judging others favorably is, perhaps, the most challenging to carry out in today’s world. The Torah imagined a society where only the most learned and the most pious would be given what was once a divine prerogative--the power to judge. And yet, in our time, we are all judges. Because all that humans can possibly know, all the collective wisdom of the ages, can be accessed in a moment on a tiny screen we hold in our hands and store in our pockets. And when we feel we cannot judge, or are yet unable to, we can search an infinite trove of electronic writing until we find the opinion that seems most valid in our own eyes and we then allow the author to judge for us.
It would be naïve to assume that everyone we meet is deserving of kindness. There will be many sermons devoted to that particular topic this high holiday season, but if we are honest with ourselves, we’ll find that in too many of our encounters, our predisposition to judge precludes the activation of the chesed within us. If we are to follow in Abraham’s example, we have to find a way to let our guard down.
Of the more than 1000 hours I’ve been privileged to sit in a theatre watching a Broadway show, I have never been so moved, so delightfully undone, than I was last summer when Shira and I went to see the new musical, The Band’s Visit (which by the way, is coming to the Winspear this winter, and I encourage all of you to go). The show, which is based on an Israeli film, begins at Ben-Gurion Airport outside Tel Aviv, as an Egyptian band, invited to play at the opening of an Arab Cultural Center in Petach Tivkah, stands awkwardly in a line in their powder blue uniforms. But as they make their way, they mistakenly end up stranded for the night in the fictional desert town of Beit Hatikvah until a bus can come for them in the morning.
The plot is put in motion by an unexpected act of kindness, as only a sabra can offer it. The otherwise prickly proprietress of the one café in town, invites the members of the band to spend the night in the apartments of her fellow employees. What follows is an evening of surprise and connection, as they bond over music and tales of unrequited love and longing.
The musical is set in 1996. More than 20 years later, Israel and Egypt, America and the Middle East are very different places. It is hard to know when or if we will ever recover the time when we could think to ourselves—“Be kind, rewind, reset, renew.” That the secret to dissolving what lies between us could be just as simple as an act of welcoming a stranger for a night.
But in the end, this very Jewish musical is not really about easy solutions. At its conclusion, morning comes. The uneasy and fleeting bond shared by the residents of Beit Hatikvah and the members of the Alexandria Ceremonial Police orchestra is broken by the harsh desert sunlight, in which they discover that despite what brought them together in the shadow of night, by day they are Arabs and Jews, Egyptians and Israelis.
A year after seeing it, I confess that despite listening to the cast recording more than a few dozen times, it’s difficult for me to get through it without shedding some wistful tears. And though there were so many elements of the musical that came together to make it hit home for me, what truly caught me so off guard, was the gemilut chasadim, the completely unexpected acts of kindness and compassion that these beautifully drawn characters paid back to each other for 90 minutes.
For a time, after the show was over, I just sat there weeping, lamenting the loss of a time I could barely remember, until finally, the emotion subsided, my mind cleared and something that had been eluding me, that is eluding too many of us, I believe, came into focus.
It is unreasonable and unrealistic to simply expect a world of kindness. Because kindness is not instinctual. Kindness, like hatred, must be taught. It must be cultivated, nurtured, and practiced. And most importantly, it must be chosen. To learn to be kind is to learn how to overcome your fears, your boundaries, and your judgments and allow for the transformative possibilities of soul encountering soul.
In today’s world we hear so much about the changes, even the upheaval, in some cases, that is necessary to restore and renew our values—to protect liberty, and establish justice, to end corruption and to counter cruelty.
We have spoken about political revolutions, about building movements to retake and reclaim what is ours or what should be. But what I do not hear from any side of the debate these days is that what is needed is not a revolution of policies and politicians, but a revolution of kindness.
Because it has become crystal clear to me that in the climate in which we live now, kindness is a revolutionary act.
In the story of Abraham’s life there is a pivotal moment, that is often overlooked. To save his nephew Lot, Abraham intervenes in a war—a war of five kings against four others. When, thanks to Abraham, the four kings claim victory, saving Lot and his family, Abraham is taken to meet them so that he can be rewarded. One of the four kings is the wealthy and powerful ruler of the city of Sodom, a sinful place ultimately, destroyed by God, for being, among other things, inhospitable.
Riding in on his horse, the King of Sodom offers Abraham an enticing bargain. “Take all the spoils of war, all of the cattle, all of the precious gold and silver. But those you have captured, give them to me.”
Knowing that Sodom was a place without chesed, Abraham refuses. “I swear to the Lord, God Most High, Creator of heaven and earth: I will not take so much as a thread or sandal strap of what is yours; for none shall say it is the King of Sodom who has made Abraham rich.”
In that moment, Abraham faced a critical choice. He could accept the way of the world as it was, a world where indifference to cruelty gave men access to power and wealth.
Or, he could revolt. He could resist. He could stare into the eyes of a man who dared to judge the fate of multitudes in an instant, who stood idly by as his people shut out the vulnerable and the needy, who built a city with cynicism and fear in his heart, and say to him, “For me and my descendants, I will build the world anew. I will remake this land in the image of the One who charged me to fill it with tzedek and mishpat, justice and righteousness. And as the psalmist wrote, olam chesed yibaneh, I will build that world with acts of lovingkindness.
It will not be easy, it will not happen all at once. And it will require each of us to harness the power of teshuva, of refining the soul, and returning it to its purest form.
To create a world where one act of kindness inspires another, and another, and another, until this small crowded space we all inhabit is filled with the music of love and joy and connection, we will have to begin again. It starts today.
By Mandy Golman
When I saw the notice that the Shabbat Hour service led by Rabbis Wallach and Roffman was resuming this past week, I was elated. This service is just one hour long on Saturday mornings in Fonberg Family Chapel. Rabbi Roffman and Rabbi Wallach lead us through a series of “spiritual moments,” the same ones that happen in a traditional service, but in a much more focused and intentional way.
I grew up in a Reform temple and attended Jewish camp and, truthfully, Jewish camping is where my Jewish connection was established and has really been the link to my spirituality for me. Over the years, I’ve often struggled to find that same connection when I’ve attended services. All that changed when I attended the Shabbat Hour. Being welcomed by Rabbi Wallach on the guitar and Rabbi Roffman on the piano to a melodic Halleluyah was just beautiful. I felt transformed back to my camp days. The service is very informal and participatory. The Rabbis add meaningful and relevant reflections and guidance as we go through the service and songs. Believe it or not, I find myself wishing it would continue when we come to a close. I now mark these services on my calendar and make it a priority to attend.
If you would have told me 26 years ago that I would find this spiritual connection at Shearith Israel I would have never believed it, but after this one hour service I leave feeling grounded and renewed and ready for the week ahead. This service will resume after the high holidays. While I know it will not be for everyone (and that’s ok!) if you have struggled at services, grew up in a Jewish camping world, or would just like to try something different, I would encourage you to try it. You will be glad you did!
Editor's Note: Thanks to Mandy Golman for sharing this reflection. If you would like to write a blog post about your positive experiences at Shearith Israel, please contact Communications Director, Julie Carpenter at email@example.com
By Rabbi Adam Roffman
Thank you all, so much, for the good wishes and the joy you’ve shared with us after the birth of our new daughter. As today is the eighth day of her life, we’d like to share with you the names that we’ve chosen for her as she enters into the Covenant of the Jewish people—Rebecca Joelle, Rivka Yael bat HaRav Shira Esther vHaRav Avraham Elimelech.
Rebecca is named for Adam’s mother’s cousin, Ruth Ginsburg, or Ruthie as everyone called her. She was a kind, deeply spiritual, unapologetically eccentric woman who just happened to be a highly respected professional advocate for women, patron saint of progressive causes, and all-around fun-to-be with, easy-to-love soul. One year, on a visit to her home in Boston, Ruthie and Adam spent the day whale watching. He was maybe eight or nine years old, and yet, his mother trusted Ruthie to keep Adam occupied through the five- or six-hour cruise on the Atlantic. They spent the time chatting about how whales poop, counting the number of baby teeth Adam had left, and snapping photographs with his disposable camera. In other words, the kind of conversation any eight- or nine-year old might share with a buddy, except in this case the buddy was three decades older than Adam. No matter what they talked about, Ruthie was absolutely fascinated by the smallest details, each one a jumping off point for a conversation that could last minutes or hours.
We pray that Ruthie’s memory will inspire and remind Rebecca that the best way to earn someone’s trust, and respect, and love is to be deeply invested in them—in what they fight for, in what they care about, in what makes them laugh, and think, and wonder, and smile—no matter what those things are. Ruthie taught us that if something is important to someone you care about, you have to make it important to you. If you do, that person will never leave you, not even after they’re gone.
Rebecca’s middle name, Yael in Hebrew, Joelle in English, honors two remarkable rabbis.
First, Shira’s zaydie Rudy Adler, Yosef in Hebrew. When Shira reflects on his life, she marvels at his strength and perseverance, his sustained faith, and the drive that led him to touch so many lives, bringing as many people as he could closer to the Torah. She wonders how he survived with his relationship with Judaism and God intact as he traveled north from Nazi Germany to Liverpool, England with his yeshiva, leaving his parents behind, how he endured during the tumultuous voyage over the Atlantic Ocean to Toronto, eating only pickled fish and gasping sea air. She can’t fathom what it does to a person to finally make it safely to North America, only to be thrown into an internment camp for German nationals and always having to sleep with one eye open.
But through all of this, Shira’s zaydie kept his faith in God and in people. In Germany, in 1933, which was the year Hitler rose to power, he celebrated his bar mitzvah. In Liverpool, England, he learned to be a brilliant student of Talmud and earned semicha, rabbinic ordination. In the internment camp in Canada, he kept pages of Talmud folded in his sock so that he could retreat to a secluded part of the forest and study. And when he was finally released, he met Shira’s bubbie, Rose, at a young Judea meeting in Toronto, and she took on his life so whole-heartedly that his relationship with faith turned into a team effort. With her by his side, he moved from pulpit to pulpit until ending up in Orlando, with three beautiful children in tow. He lived to see his kids grow up, he spent wonderful quality time with his grandchildren, and near the end of his life, he met his great-granddaughter Hannah Rose, who we named for his beloved.
We pray that Rebecca experiences Shira’s zaydie’s long life and many joys. We also pray that she is inspired by his deep commitment to faith, to optimism, and to light. He always believed that blessings would come to him.
We also hope that she will take after Shira’s zaydie in his humor and lightheartedness. One of the best photographs ever taken of him is Rudy sitting next to Shira’s mom, when she was pregnant with her, each of them with tea mugs comfortably balanced on their round and buoyant tummies. We recreated the photo this Pesach with Shira’s dad, Hannah and Rebecca’s zaydie. When Shira was three years old and loved dancing around in her ballet tutu, he dressed up with her and did his best to keep up with her plies, arabesques, and jetês. And each year in his shul, he gave an annual sermon on Jewish humor—he would start a joke, remind himself of the punchline, and start laughing so hysterically that the rest was completely undecipherable as he dissolved into a mess of giggles. People would come from all over to watch this.
Rebecca's middle name, in English, changed from what we had initially decided on the night she was born, after we realized that she came into the world on the same day as Shira’s childhood rabbi’s 5th yartzeit. Unlike Shira’s zaydie, Rabbi Joel Wasser wasn’t given the opportunity to live out his days, but his legacy shines just as brightly.
Joel came to Tampa when Shira was 9 and brought with him a version of Judaism that centered around wholehearted passion and delight, unbridled faith and commitment to torah. His favorite teaching was from psalms: ivdu et hashem besimcha, serve God with joy, which soon became emblazoned in shining gold letters above the ark at Shira’s shul. When he entered a room, he would bellow “Shalom my holy friends,” in a way that made each person feel important, part of a sacred encounter. His charisma bounded off the walls on Purim, his voice carried all of the hakafot on Simchat Torah, his spirit filled the sanctuary on Yom Kippur. He spent his summers at Camp Ramah Darom and though he could have chosen the nicer staff housing (which his family would have appreciated), he insisted on rooming in the dilapidated shack with no AC in the middle of camp so that he could run into everyone as they were huffing and puffing up the hill. You wouldn’t expect it, but being short of breath was a great condition to insist that someone stop for a while, have a drink, and discuss whatever esoteric Jewish idea Joel was thinking about at the time. Or more often, he’d look right into your soul and ask: how’s your neshama?
Instead of traditional bat mitzvah lessons, Joel taught Shira how to study Mishnah. You can probably imagine that in 6th grade Shira was used to knowing everything and being right all the time . . . so after reading their first passage together, he asked Shira if she had any questions. She said “no, of course not, I understood everything.” And in the next 30 seconds, he asked Shira 50 questions to which she had no response. A perfect introduction to rabbinic literature, a perfect representation of how Joel illuminated Shira’s path forward.
We pray that Rebecca Joelle learns these lessons from Rabbi Joel Wasser:
Don’t do anything half-assed. If you care enough to do something, throw your entire self into it. And if you can throw in a couple of SAT vocabulary words, even better.
Figure out who you are and live out loud. Then, create space for others to do so.
Believe in the possibility of holiness. If you don’t see it around you, it’s your job to kindle it.
Understand that strength and fragility often go hand in hand. Don’t be afraid to give someone permission to have both.
And finally, ivdi besimcha. Do your life’s work, express and receive love, and envelop it all in joy.
Before we were married, we each insisted that the other share in an experience that reflected an essential part of who we are as individuals and what our life together would look like. Naturally, for Adam, that meant taking Shira to his favorite sacred place, his most beloved sanctuary—Oriole Park at Camden Yards, so that we could watch the Red Sox throttle the Orioles. Shira insisted that we do something she could not believe Adam hadn’t done—watch the movie version of the Sound of Music. He was pleasantly surprised by the movie, but even more surprised by what happened last week, the afternoon we brought Rebecca from the hospital. Adam swaddled her in a blanket, and fulfilled his life-long dream of putting his newborn daughter in his lap as he sat at a grand piano in the music room of his own home. When he reached for the sheet music, it wasn’t “Sabbath Prayer” from Fiddler or “Johanna” from Sweeney Todd that he instinctually took down from the shelf. Instead, it was a score from a show he never really understood until he held Rebecca Joelle in his arms and gently played his heart out on an instrument that we hope will echo in her soul and her children’s soul forever, just as it echoes in ours.
Somehow, despite the emotion of moment, his fingers found the right keys, and his voice clearly whispered the words—with a few, small changes:
Our home is alive with the sound of music
With songs we have sung for four thousand years
These walls fill my heart with the sound of music
My heart wants to sing every song it hears
My heart wants to beat like the wings of the birds
That rise from the lake to the trees
My heart wants to sigh like a shofar that flies
From a shul on a breeze
To laugh like a brook when it trips and falls over stones on its way
To sing through the night like a lark who is learning to pray
I go to my home when my heart is lonely
I know I will hear what I've heard before
Your heart will be blessed with the sound of music
And together, you and me and your mother and your sister, will sing once more.
Welcome to our home, Rebecca Joelle.
By Rabbi Adam Roffman
I’ve had gourmet desserts in more restaurants (and even countries) than I can count. But there is nothing more decadent than a hot Krispy Kreme donut as it comes off the assembly line. When Krispy Kreme first opened in my hometown of Baltimore (where they had several kosher locations), there were lines around the block.
Last week, I learned that I might have to think twice, next time, before I decide to indulge in a warm original glazed.
Two years ago, Krispy Kreme, like Panera Bread, Peet’s Coffee, Einstein Bros. Bagels, Dr. Pepper and Snapple, was acquired by JAB Holdings. JAB is a German company, founded nearly two centuries ago. But as was the case for many German businesses that were around in the first part of the twentieth century, the company’s owners, the Reimann family, were avowed members of the Nazi party. They built their tremendous empire on the backs of Russian and French prisoners of war, who served as a slave labor force in their factories.
The current owners, descendants of the two men who ran the company during World War II, no doubt, knew of their forbear’s despicable past, even commissioning a study a couple of years ago on how deep the connection ran between the business and the Third Reich. Pretty deep, they discovered.
And yet, they chose to keep the conclusions of the study to themselves until they were exposed by a German tabloid newspaper. Once the study became public, the family confirmed its accuracy and pledged to give 10 million euros to as yet unnamed charity.
In the ’70 and ‘80s many German businesses were forced to admit their role in the crimes against the Jewish people committed by the Nazis. They paid reparations to Israel and to the families of survivors to atone for their sins. Perhaps that is why most Israeli taxis are German cars and many Israelis have moved to Berlin. The German government has undergone no small amount of soul searching in recent years to understand and atone for the atrocities of the Shoah. When I was in rabbinical school, several of my classmates went on an all-expense-paid trip to the Rhineland to dialogue with government officials and civilians, Germans who were committed to doing whatever they could to right the wrongs of the past.
It’s clear to me, when it comes to JAB Holdings, that’s not the case. Not only did they fail to disclose, unprompted, what they uncovered about their history, the amount of money they pledged to donate is insulting. As the humor site McSweeney’s wrote, this family that makes use of a Jewish sounding name to peddle their (mediocre) bagels and appropriates Yiddish slang like “schmear” to make their chain more “authentic,” decided that donating 0.0297% of their net worth was an appropriate gesture of apology. Shame on them.
I’ll admit it. I consume a lot of their products. Shira and I only buy Peet’s coffee, we love it. We go to Panera regularly for salads. And Einstein’s is the most ubiquitous bagel chain in town (and I have eaten more bagels than perhaps any other food item over the course of my life). Though the foreign company that owns these chains has made some unconscionable errors in judgement, I have no wish to pass that judgment onto to the hundreds of hard-working employees who earn their living serving carb-addicted Dallasites like me.
But JAB Holdings profaned the name of German industry through its actions during the war and they did so again last week. It’s our obligation to let them know that when it comes to asking the Jewish people for forgiveness, they have truly missed the mark. I encourage you to join me in writing to their Chairman at his overseas office to inform him that your rabbi says that he, his fellow owners, and his board of directors might want to take teshuva a little more seriously.
Mr. Peter Harf
CEO, JAB Holdings
Haarlem, 2031 CC
By Rabbi Adam Roffman
I realized the other day that I probably spend six months thinking about the High Holidays and six months thinking about Purim.
Seems a little strange that a relatively minor holiday should take up so much of my consciousness over the course of a year, but it’s true. I start thinking about what my Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur sermon topics should be in April and gather my thoughts and sources over the course of the summer so that, by August, I’m ready to start writing.
And right after Sukkot, we decide, as a staff, what our theme should be for Purim and my mind gets to work on imagining skits and videos and costumes (and this year a Broadway style show!) A month out, I start to write, and record and edit film, and plot about how much I can get away with when I ask the other Klei Kodesh to make a fool of themselves for our community’s entertainment (and they always oblige!) at the Family Megillah Reading. Shira contributes a great deal of the material (and does an incredible job of keeping me calm).
And if you think that’s a lot of work, it’s nothing compared to what the rest of the staff and the rest of the community puts in to making this an incredible celebration.
Katie Babin organized nine separate bakes that produced 3500 hamantashen so that, for the first time, we delivered homemade goodies, preservative free, and made with love to each and every member home. Our WFRS kids helped out as well. Their restraint in keeping themselves from eating the fruits of their labor was remarkable.
Between the hamantashen and Mishloach Manot deliveries (which was GPS-aided by a new mapping application this year!) over 200 people volunteered (special thanks to our chairs, Jennifer Charney, Scott Cobert and Andrea Steiger) to fulfill the mitzvah of sharing food packages with neighbors for Purim. Our entire administrative staff also volunteers their time to staple, stuff, and organize our bags. And of course, we received so many generous donations from our community, so that we can continue to put on efforts like this year after year.
Katie also works with Sarah Katz and Julie Carpenter to design signs and decorations to transform our sanctuary and social halls into superhero lairs, or Dr. Seuss books, or Hogwarts, and this year—a Broadway theatre. Sarah Lipinsky spends several weeks getting our students ready, this year helping them to organize booths for the younger children to enjoy.
And Nathan and his crew get all the moving pieces in the right places and the right times.
Needless to say, hundreds and hundreds of hours go into making this a very joyful and special day.
This year, everyone has really outdone themselves. I’m especially excited for our Family megillah reading this year, which will feature amazing performances of some my Broadway favorites featuring our Klei Kodesh and special guests. The curtain goes up promptly at 6:30 pm in the Beck Family Sanctuary. Don’t be late for the show!
By Rabbi Shira Wallach
The weather outside may have been frightful, but inside we made the best of it! This weekend, our most adventurous families made their way to Waxahachie to brave the cold, the wind, and the rain, so that we could experience a beautiful Shabbat together.
I want to give you a couple of glimpses into the sacred time that we shared.
On Friday night, Rabbi Roffman led his annual Bibliodrama session, in which he takes a beloved story from the Torah and allows parents and children to work together in order to retell and understand it from new perspectives. The story that we tackled was that of sending Moses down the Nile: how did his mother feel? What was his sister thinking? Why did Pharaoh’s daughter rescue him? And at each meal after that, if you looked over at the kids’ area where they could play when they were done eating, you could see them continuing to work out the story.
On Shabbat morning, after morning tefilla, Sarah Lipinsky led an exploration into the weekly parasha by asking our children: What is your favorite room in your house and why? Do you think God would also enjoy that kind of space? What kind of a home would you build for God on earth? And then, our children led their parents in thinking through beautiful spaces for God. Some of their creations even boasted bounce houses, swimming pools, fully-equipped kitchens, lovely strings of lanterns, and glimmering jewels.
On Saturday night, as we watched the sky grow dark, the temperature dropped and rain threatened. We sang a beautiful Havdalah inside, and then, most of us threw caution to the wind and went outside to toast marshmallows and enjoy the delicious nostalgia of s’mores. In the end, the crackling campfire and sheltering trees protected us from the elements. Back inside, we sang everything from “Brown-Eyed Girl” to “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star,” “Let it Go” to “Sweet Caroline.”
In the morning, I asked families to talk about what they’d like to bring back to Dallas from the weekend, and then illustrate it on a large puzzle piece. Of course, we all loved the campfire, the music, and the company, but I also saw sketches of God’s house that the kids designed, Sarah’s incredible indoor obstacle course, a deck of UNO cards, and even one of the Shabbat-o-grams that we exchanged at the beginning of the weekend. You can see our assembled puzzle in the group photo; come by our offices soon to see the final laminated image!
I want to thank our volunteer team Rachel Alexander, Shari Birnbaum, Amanda Franklin, Melissa Goldberg, and Julie Yochananov, and of course, none of this would be possible without the incredible Sarah Katz! Thank you to everyone who came, who helped create the special bonding and memories that will continue giving us joy. Let’s do it again next year!
Shearith Israel clergy, staff and congregants share