Friday, October 6, 2017

Lance Strate's Yom Kippur Appeal 5778

Shana Tova! And Shabbat Shalom!

Every year we ask someone different to deliver the Yom Kippur Appeal. That's because we don't want to bore you. And it's because different members of the congregation have different experiences of Jewish life. Different memories that they can draw upon. Different relationships to our synagogue. And different reasons that they can give in asking for your support.

So why is this year different from all other years? Because this year is my last year as president of our congregation. I've been president of our congregation for a long time now. In fact, I'm in the second year of my third two-year term, and if you do the math, that means that I'm in my sixth year as president. I was a young man when I started out! Now I'm old.

But I want to make it clear that I still love Adas Emuno, and I will continue to serve our synagogue. And sure, I could continue for another two years. And another two years after that. And another two after that. But we all know that it can't go on forever. And it's healthy to have new blood. Because that brings with it new ideas, new approaches, new ways of thinking and doing, new styles and skills and competencies. It's a process of renewal. And I am very pleased that we now have several officers who are able to step into the leadership position at our shul.

So why is this appeal different from all other appeals? Because it's my last year as president, they thought you might be a little bit more willing than usual to listen to me. I'm not sure that's true, but maybe there are other reasons why this year is different.

For example, there's the recent resurgence of anti-Semitism here in the US. I'm sure you all saw the footage of the neo-Nazis marching in Charlottesville this summer. I don't know about you, but their chanting sent a chill down my spine: "Jews will not replace us!" It should serve as a warning against complacency and complete assimilation. Some of us may forget who we are, but they will not. And our position here in America may not be as precarious as a fiddler on the roof, but neither is it as secure as a bass drummer in the basement. Benjamin Franklin's words have some resonance with our own situation: "We must all hang together or assuredly we shall all hang separately." And how can we all hang together unless we have a place, like this one, where we can all hang out?

This has special meaning for me because both of my parents were Holocaust survivors. My mother lost one of her sisters, she was married, had a little baby boy, they moved to another town before the Nazis came, and my mother never heard from them again. In the immediate aftermath of the war, my mother witnessed her mother die as a consequence of the war. The Holocaust was a fire that continued to smolder even after Germany surrendered. And even today, the smell of that smoke still lingers.

My parents met in Paris, after the war, as refugees, and were married there. They couldn't come to America because of restrictions on immigration, a problem familiar to us today, so they went to Australia and lived there for three years, until the rules changed, and then they came to New York. I was born soon after. By that time, I was a last minute idea.

I grew up in Kew Gardens, Queens, a Jewish neighborhood, full of immigrants, some survivors like my parents, some refugees who escaped before the war broke out, some who arrived earlier in the century. And some who were just running away from Brooklyn.

But between neighbors, family, and friends, I grew up in a Holocaust survivor milieu. Some, like my uncle, had the numbers tattooed on their arms. Some didn't. Some were in concentration camps, others ghettoes, others different situations. Some were deeply troubled, bursting into tears without warning, suffering nervous breakdowns, talking to themselves out loud about gas chambers and crematoriums. Some had to be taken away, committed. Others lived among us. I remember this. Most of all, I remember the nerves. Always the nerves. Today we call it PTSD, posttraumatic stress disorder. Me and my friends, we just called it freaking out. I know it affected me, I had to learn to be calm in the midst of these emotional storms. I've read that the effects persist through many generations, and that troubles me.

But growing up in a Jewish neighborhood, I never experienced anti-Semitism directly while I was in elementary school. I grew up feeling safe and secure, confident and proud of my heritage. And for that reason, my reaction to the neo-Nazi footage was mixed. Part of me couldn't help but see them as almost comical, as buffoons, palookas. And I couldn't help but think, why in the world would we want to replace the likes of you? But clowns can be quite scary, as you may know, at least from Stephen King and American Horror Story, if not from personal experience. And a sadder response that came to mind was, how can we possibly replace you? There are so few of us left? So few of us. So very few.

My father never finished high school back in the old country, and as an immigrant here, he worked in an automobile body shop. My mother was a homemaker, as was the norm at that time. So we didn't have much money when I was growing up, and when I asked my parents to buy me a toy or game that I saw on TV, the answer was usually no. But I never felt deprived. And whenever I asked my parents to buy me a book, the answer was always yes. For books, always yes. We had some differences of opinion on whether comic books counted, but there was room for negotiation. Books, school, education, those were the values that were instilled in me from an early age. Jewish values. Not unique to us as Jews, but central to our culture. Read, study, learn, think, use your head, and hopefully, make something of yourself.

And we joined a nearby synagogue, Temple Isaiah in Forest Hills. My parents were not especially observant. Like some of you, they were more of the once-a-year-on-Rosh-Hashanah-and-Yom-Kippur kind of Jews. They never heard of Reform Judaism before, but the flexibility and meaningfulness of the services appealed to them. So did the friendliness, the socializing. We didn't have much money, but membership was a priority, and so was sending me to religious school there.

I loved religious school, especially the Judaica, the stories, the history, the ethics. I drank it all up. And because we were Reform, I was never told what to believe. We weren't told, here are the answers and you better learn them. We were told, here are the questions, let's all try to answer them for ourselves.

I loved religious school and I loved the services. And those feelings and experiences gave me vital resources to draw on, to call upon, when I was nine years old and my father died.

If you want to know what is really important, think about where we turn to when dealing with a death in the family, with grief and mourning. You can't find it on Facebook or HBO, or through sports or games. It's only here, in our house of worship. And it is the same source that we turn to, the only source that there is that can consecrate our life-affirming moments, marriage, and the miracle of the birth of a child.

I didn't understand it at the time, but our temple made accommodations for my mother, as a widow, so that we could remain members and I could continue to attend religious school. I had my bar mitzvah. The temple gave me a scholarship so I could go to Jewish summer camp. I went on to my Confirmation, and became active in temple youth group. Then I went away to college, and my strong sense of connection to Judaism faded a little, and after college a little more. I became a once-a-year-on-Rosh-Hashanah-and-Yom-Kippur kind of Jew, along with lighting candles on Hanukkah, the Passover Seder and not eating bread. And the culture was still very much a part of me.

And the pride.

And the friendships.

And the questions, the searching. And I do believe in something, I'm not sure what, but something greater than ourselves. Something beyond the physical world, beyond what science can tell us. And there is something else I believe in: Our people. I believe in the genius of our people, not that we are inherently better than everyone else, but that we have a unique history and tradition, a culture and religion that calls upon us to be our best possible selves. I believe that, as a people, we have been guided by something greater than ourselves, but only when we listen to that still, small voice. I believe that we have a responsibility to be, in the words of Isaiah, "a light unto the nations". But to do so, we have to follow the words of Peter Yarrow: "don't let the light go out".

I married a Jersey girl, crossed the Hudson River to live in Bergen County, we had two children. And we tried a few other congregations before we found a home here at Adas Emuno, a warm, welcoming, and nurturing environment.

And it hasn't been easy for us. Not long after we joined, my daughter was diagnosed with autism. I won't try to convey to you what life has been like under these circumstances, it's really not possible. But as all-consuming as it has been, dealing with my daughter's disability, it was still important to maintain our membership here, to send my son to religious school, to have his bar mitzvah and confirmation, and to give my daughter a sense of connection to Jewish life, including a special needs bat mitzvah. Among the many hardships that we faced have been financial ones, and I will confess to you that we have had to ask for accommodations ourselves. And I want to express our gratitude, on behalf of all those who suffer financial hardships, for the fact that ours is a congregation that will not turn away anyone in need. That only asks you to give what you can, however much you can, whenever you can. And if you can, to give as much as you can, because we're all in this together, our community, our congregation.

We are now four years away from our sesquicentennial, our 150th anniversary. And barring some unforeseen major disaster, we will be celebrating that auspicious occasion together, God-willing each and every one of us. But after that, will we survive for another 150 years?

We don't know what the future holds, but we can take action in the present to maintain and sustain our congregation, as a legacy and gift for the generations yet to come. And maybe I'm a bit biased, but I think our congregation is different from all other congregations, special in certain ways that are not always easy to explain, in some ways maybe even a little bit blessed. I think ours is the little shul that could, and maybe that's just because we think we can, we think we can, we think we can. But we do.

So my appeal to you is not so different after all, because I ask the same of you that we always ask. To give, if you can, to give what you can, when you can, as much as you can, to give, generously. To help us make ends meet, to help insure our survival, to keep our congregation going for many years to come.

And my appeal to you is a call to service, to join together in the work of running this congregation. We are a do-it-yourself congregation, and I ask you to give of your time and effort, whatever you can, whenever you can, as much as you can, to volunteer and help out, to serve on committees, to consider serving on our Board of Trustees. And I think that somewhere out there, sitting among you, are the future presidents of Adas Emuno.

And my appeal to you is to be Adas Emuno ambassadors, to help us bring in new members, new families, because first and foremost, Adas Emuno is us, a congregation, a community, not buildings, but people. Talk us up, show your pride in Adas Emuno, let others know about this warm and welcoming, one of a kind community. Help us engage in our ongoing process of renewal.

We are part of a tradition that goes back 4,000 years. And how can we not be filled with awe and reverence for our amazing history, for our survival against all odds, and for all that we have given to the world. As Reform Jews, we are part of a movement that is over 200 years old.

And how can we not be filled with gratitude and respect for an approach to Jewish life that emphasizes progress and evolution, flexibility within continuity, and the prophetic vision of social justice, to be that light unto the nations, to engage in tikkun olam, to heal our poor, broken world?

And we are part of a congregation that is almost 150 years old, and how can we not be filled with humility and happiness for being a part of this adas emuno, this assembly of the faithful? And how can we not dedicate ourselves to keeping the faith, and keeping faith with the future?

When I heard them chanting, "Jews will not replace us", I had another thought as well. I thought, but who will replace us? Who will replace us Jews, when we're gone. Over in Poland, where a once great Jewish community is no more, the Poles are trying to recreate the Jewish heritage of that country, lost through the Holocaust, by dressing up like Orthodox Jews and holding mock Jewish weddings and ceremonies. They're not trying to make fun of us, it's just a kind of historical recreation. Is that where we're headed?

We see and hear of so many Americans who are not Jewish, but have a Jewish parent, or grandparent, or ancestor. They recall a connection, but Judaism and Jewish life for them is nothing more than a memory. We have to be more than that. To be more than just a memory, we must instead be the ones who remember. We are called upon to remember, to actively remember instead of passively becoming a memory. To remember who we are, what we are.

And we can only remember together, collectively, through our houses of worship, our synagogues and religious schools, remembering together, remembering from one generation to the next. Who will replace us? No one else will. It's all up to us.

So this is my appeal to you, my call to you, in my final year as president. Do all that you can to support our synagogue and our tradition. Not only to defy those who wanted to wipe us from the face of the earth.

Do it because it matters, because in the long run it matters more than most of what we think is important in everyday life.

Do it for all those who came before us, who kept the faith so that we could have this gift of Jewish life, this gift that we call Adas Emuno.

But more than anything else, do it for all those who will come after us, whose lives will be so much the poorer if we have not preserved and sustained our tradition, and movement, and congregation.

My friends and fellow congregants, it's all up to you. My final appeal to you is, don't let the light go out!

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