Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Lance Strate's Yom Kippur Appeal 5774

In the Reform temple in Queens that my family belonged to when I was growing up, the Yom Kippur Appeal was always given by some old guy, so I don't know why they asked me to do it.

Another difference was that it wasn't called the Yom Kippur Appeal. It was the Kol Nidre Appeal. As you may have guessed, that's because it was delivered during the Yom Kippur evening service. And maybe they did it that way because of the Kol Nidre prayer that gives the evening service its name, because of that beautiful melody that cannot help but touch the Jewish heart, and stir the Jewish soul. Kol Nidre captures so very perfectly the spirit of repentance that is central to the High Holy Days, these Days of Awe. 

But also, that music, so familiar, so haunting, speaks to us of return, that you can come home again, that you are always welcome here, that you are never a stranger here among family, friends, community, congregation. This is your house of worship, this is your house of meeting, this is your house of learning—this is your house. But more than that, this is your home.

Welcome home.

Back when I was a kid, I remember them saying every year that the Kol Nidre Appeal is a silent appeal. That always puzzled me, because the person doing the appeal wasn't at all silent, but in fact would go on talking for a long, long time. Now, as a kid, I realized that adults often don't say what they mean, or don't say everything they mean to say. And eventually I came to understand that this silent business meant that no one would come out and ask for donations. That was what the little white envelopes were for. Even in the years when my old Temple in Queens was facing severe financial hardships, that wasn't considered something appropriate to talk about during the appeal. 

And I am going to follow in that tradition by not mentioning how much our little shul on the hill depends on your donations, simply to break even from year to year. I'm not going to appeal for your financial support, because I know you understand that we have to pay our bills, that we cannot keep this congregation going on prayer alone, and that we will never, ever exclude anyone from membership in this synagogue due to financial hardship. I'm not going to talk about these things, because I know you understand.

Back when I was a kid, the Kol Nidre appeal often made some reference to the Holocaust. Almost all of the adults present had lived through the Second World War, had had personal experience with anti-Semitism, and felt the threat of the Nazis even from afar. Many of those present had escaped from Europe just before the war, and a number of congregants were Holocaust survivors, my parents among them. That was the milieu I grew up in, where all of the adults spoke Yiddish, and many spoke English with accents from a dozen or more European countries, from Germany, Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia, Bulgaria, Lithuania, Russia. Where everyone had family members who were victims of the Nazi genocide, and we all knew individuals who had numbers tattooed on their arms, survivors of the Auschwitz death camp. 

My mother, who is in her nineties now, has a locket on a necklace that she used to wear, and inside is a picture of a baby boy, her nephew, who was lost during the Holocaust, along with her sister and her sister's husband—the baby would be in his seventies now. And my mother, who was in her early 20s at the time, also witnessed her own mother die under terrible circumstances.

Living with the recent memory of such monstrous evil that had been directed specifically at our people, it was easy to summon up a sense of obligation, to agree that we must not let the light of living Judaism go out, that supporting our congregation is another way to fight back, another way to say, never again. And we were reminded that it didn't matter if you were a member of a congregation or not, if you practiced or not, if you believed or not, even if you converted to Christianity, it didn't matter. To the Nazis, a Jew was a Jew was a Jew, there was no escaping who you are, no escaping your identity, no free pass out of the concentration camps and firing squads. What alternative is there, then, but to embrace who we are, and join together for mutual protection and support?

But the generation of survivors is dwindling, and with them the living memory of the Holocaust. Time passes, new generations are born, wounds that may never heal can still grow less raw, less painful. Memory, which may not fade entirely, grows less vivid, more distant. We still live in a world marked by anti-Semitism, Holocaust denial, and threats to our very existence, but here in the United States we have grown very comfortable and secure, doors that once were closed to us are wide open now. Where we once huddled close together for mutual protection, we now walk confidently alone in search of the American dream.

When I was growing up, the horror of the Holocaust was eased by the enormous pride, and reverence, we all felt regarding the State of Israel. The Six-Day War of 1967 seemed nothing short of miraculous, but then came the Yom Kippur War in 1973. This Yom Kippur marks the fortieth anniversary of an attack that caught Israel by surprise, the beginning of a war that, in the early stages, Israel was in danger of losing. It was a war in which support from the United States was crucial. We knew that Israel was surrounded by enemies vowing to drive our people into the sea, and that most of the rest of the world was indifferent to their fate, if not overtly hostile to the Zionist cause. And our congregations became the focal points for rallying support for the Jewish state. We knew we had an important role to play as American Jews, in guaranteeing the future of the Jewish people, both here and abroad.

Today, we tend to be less idealistic, certainly less worshipful, about the State of Israel. And despite the fact that Iran is on the verge of obtaining nuclear weapons, we tend to be less concerned about the existential threats to the Jewish state. And at the same time, we seem less aware of the extent to which the future of our people, our faith and our tradition, rests with us here, as well as with the Promised Land. 

Whether or not you believe that we have become too contented and complacent, it is clear that we don't feel the same sense of urgency that we felt back a few decades ago. That sense of urgency was always a part of the Kol Nidre Appeals of my youth. It was much easier to rally the troops when we felt threatened.

The challenge in making a Yom Kippur Appeal today is not only that we have it too good. It's that we're working too hard, many of us working hard to make ends meet in a difficult economic climate, working longer hours under difficult circumstances. And even when we're not working, we're too busy, with schedules to keep, especially for our children, whose lives are so much more structured than the generations that came before. And when we're not working or caring for others, we have a seemingly endless supply of amusements and entertainments to fill our every waking moment. Between all of our demands and all of our distractions, it's hard to make the time for something else, something outside of the everyday world of work and play, obligations and diversions. 

But I think that deep down we all know that there is something vital that's missing from all the sturm und drang, the storm and stress of everyday life. There's something important that we won't find in the workplace, no matter how many late hours we put in at the office, no matter how high up on the career ladder that we climb. There's something essential that you can't get on cable, no matter how many channels you zap through. You can't find it on a website, and Google doesn't have an algorithm to help you search for it. And there are no apps that you can download for your iPhone, Samsung Galaxy, or whatever smartphone you're using, it doesn't matter. There's something you can only find here, in your congregation, that you can only find here, in your house, in your home.

Where else do we turn for the single most important events of our lives? Where else do we turn when we want to celebrate a birth, to consecrate a new life? Where else do we turn to mark the coming of age of our children, their first great step into adulthood through their Bar and Bat Mitzvahs, and Confirmation ceremonies? Where else do we turn to bless and sanctify a marriage, to rejoice in a joining together to form a family, based on love and commitment? And where else do we turn after the loss of a loved one, to grieve and mourn, and to find comfort and consolation? We find all these things, and so much more, we find the things that really matter, here, in our house, in our home.

It's here that we find education for our children, a kind of education they won't get anywhere else, an education in our traditions, our history, our culture, our literature, our art and our music, and especially, our ethics and our spirituality. And it's here that we find education for adults as well, as well as wonderful musical programs, movie screenings, and many other interesting events. And it's here that we join together for social action, to help others who are in need, to take part in tikkun olam, the repair and healing of the world. It all begins here, in our spiritual home.

And it's easy to take your home for granted, and assume it will always be there waiting for you, no matter what. But the truth is, it won't be, not unless we make it happen. Adas Emuno is us, all of us. It's not a building, it's a congregation, a community, an assembly of the faithful. If we join together in support of Adas Emuno, it will continue. And if we don't, it will disappear. Those are the facts of life.

We just entered the year 5,774 on the Jewish calendar, and while we no longer believe that it dates back to the creation of the world, we do know that it dates back to the dawn of civilization, the beginnings of city life along the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers in Mesopotamia. And we trace the history of our people back some 4,000 years. Ours is an amazing story of survival against all odds, and a story of a tradition that gave the world so very much, including monotheism, a sense of history and progress, a system of ethics and law, and with it the idea of equality, equality before the law, and also the letters of our aleph-bet, and with them literacy and learning, and so much more. 

Ours is a tradition that is not frozen in time, not fixed in the past, but one that is able to grow and adjust to changing circumstances, and that flexibility informs the Reform movement that we are a part of. We live in the modern world, but remain connected to our origins in antiquity, remain faithful to our tradition as one that is living and evolving. 

And our own little congregation will be 142 years old next month, and will turn 150 in just eight short years. But will Adas Emuno still be here to celebrate its sesquicentennial anniversary? I think so. I hope so. But there are no guarantees. Our congregation will still be here only if we continue to support it, only if we keep it going, only if we keep the faith, with the future, and with ourselves.

You know, you can't be Jewish all by yourself. Not fully, it just doesn't work that way. We may pray as individuals, but we pray to Adonai Elohaynu, the Lord our God. We confess the sins that we have committed, and ask God to forgive us, to pardon us, and grant us atonement. We are not a crowd of isolated individuals competing with one another. We are a community, members of the tribe as we sometimes say. We are responsible for our own actions, but we are also responsible for each other. We take pride in each other's achievements. And we feel shame when one of our own goes astray. We are a family, and this, this is our home.

But only if we remember. And only if we want it to be. And only if we do something about it, only if we act to support our congregation, to give of ourselves in whatever manner is possible, to give back for all that we have been given, and to pay it forward for the generations growing up now, and the generations to come. So that someday in the future, it may be one of the young people sitting in this sanctuary today, who will be giving a Yom Kippur Appeal, and reminding that congregation-to-come that they would not be there if not for us here today, for our willingness to support our spiritual community, to maintain continuity with our ancient tradition in the modern world, to keep faith alive in times of darkness and in times of light, to make sure that there will always be a place that we can come back to, a house that we can call home.

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