Sunday, October 30, 2016

Kurt Roberg's Yom Kippur Appeal 5777

Chag Sameach, or as we used to say, Gut Yontef!

At this time of the year, during the High Holidays, my thoughts sometimes take me back to my childhood in my German birth-town, Celle, with its very small Jewish congregation. We had no weekly Shabbat services, the only time we could gather enough men for a minyan was on the major holidays; those services were led by our cantor, who was also our Hebrew teacher.

During those years in the 1930s, under the Nazi dictatorship, there seemed to be one silent factor in Hitler’s persecution of the Jews: for those who during the early 20th century and the short-lived Weimar Republic had become very assimilated, who had virtually abandoned Judaism as their proof of "being good Germans," for them Hitler left no doubt that they still were members of the Jewish Race; even Jews who had converted to Christianity were classified as "baptized Jews". All were reminded that being a Jew was not just a religion.

As a result, the Jewish congregations became even more the central place of common interests, as well as a resource center for valuable information and guidance for Jewish families.

After Kristallnacht in 1938, as a 14 year old, I managed to escape Nazi Germany to find refuge with my uncle in Holland; but the unprovoked invasion of Holland, along with Denmark, Norway, Belgium and France by the Nazi armies in May 1940 put me again under their control.

Luckily by early 1941 I was one of the few fortunate people who managed to escape war-torn Europe during a 4-month odyssey through Western Europe. This undertaking was made possible only with the help of various Jewish organizations and congregations in Amsterdam, Berlin, San Sebastian, Lisbon and New York.

By August, after having been held at Ellis Island for 2 months, with the possibility of being sent back to Nazi Germany, I was at last admitted and found a haven in New York’s Washington Heights with my family. The Heights was then the heart of the German-Jewish refugee settlement, and again numerous newly formed congregations were the backbone of that refugee society.

After I married and raised a family, first in New York City, then in New Jersey, we were members of conservative congregations, first in Riverdale and later in Englewood; then we joined Temple Sinai in Tenafly. From there we founded the Havorah Beth Chavairuth in the late 1970s. As a congregation without any real estate or personnel, a part-time rabbi and later also a cantor, we were a tight-knit group of people with many close friendships. All the functions and work were carried out by members.

Each week we met in the home of a member family who sponsored the Friday night services on a voluntary, rotating schedule.

By the way, the weekly Oneg Shabbat celebrations became legendary—there seemed to be a good-natured rivalry in offering wonderful home made cakes, pies and other special treats. One even heard opinions that some people attended services mostly for those great onegs!

But as happens in so many congregations, over the years an aging membership brought changes and at the dawn of the 21st Century we decided that it was time to merge. Our committee selected Congregation Adas Emuno, where we would feel comfortable; and we do! As a result I have been a member of this congregation for well over a dozen years.

After having experienced several large congregations, I love the intimacy of this smaller, heimische Kehillah with its distinguished history, perhaps because that was my background in my youth; but there are more compelling reasons for my feeling of great comfort here.

As in most organizations, there are some members who are doerswho make things happenand so it is here. Under the inspiring leadership of our president, Lance Strate, the Executive officers, the Board of Trustees and our many dedicated volunteers, this congregation really functions like clockwork, without any politics or glitches—things always get done.

The spiritual guidance provided by our wonderfully gifted, versatile Rabbi, Barry Schwartz, can be at once uplifting, inspiring and informative in leading our services and the weekly Torah study sessions, that stimulate our intellectual curiosity. Our talented Cantor, Sandy Horowitz, not only has a lovely voice, as you have already heard, she is also the very able Director of our Religious School.

Well, I have given you some background on this congregation and of my own history, but only to show you why I feel so strongly about the importance of having the support of a well-functioning congregationin good or in challenging timesa Congregation that cares about you and your family.

The family has been the nucleus of Jewish Life since time immemorial. I have mentioned the dedicated leadership of our congregation that is here to serve your needsthe spiritual or educational requirements of your family. And yet, after all those organizational necessities that make it possible, the most important part of our congregation is each one of youtogether we are the congregation and as such we can share each others support. Understandably, some cannot devote as much time as other members, but we appreciate everybody’s support in any formnot only with your annual dues, but also by possibly supporting some of our special projects or by celebrating family events with additional contributions of tzedakah.

The old synagogue in which I grew up dates back to the year 1740. It is the only one in all of Northern Germany that escaped total destruction during Kristallnacht. At its door still stands a tzedakah box made of stone and iron, for charitable contributionsthat age-old Jewish command for support of the community and its needs.

That tzedakah box of old has now, in our time, been replaced by a special envelope that you have received today.

Please consider your most generous High Holiday donation and return it in that tzedakah box envelope.

On behalf of the entire congregational membership, as the recipients of your kindness, I want to thank you.

Shanah Tovah!

Friday, October 28, 2016

Rabbi Schwartz's Sermon for Yom Kippur 5777




Sometimes you read a story, and it just grabs you. In my case that means: It’s going to end up in a sermon. The really good stories end up in the really big sermonson the High Holidays. Last year it happened not once, but twice. On Rosh Hashanah, you may recall, it was the story of Gus Newman, the young autistic boy whose best friend was Siri. On Yom Kippur it was the story of Zion Harvey, the young boy who became the first child to receive a bi-lateral hand transplant.

Well, back in July, on my birthday it so happens, I read the story of Ben Wichmann. And I knew it would end up in sermon. So here it is.

Ben’s full name was Bernhardt Wichmann III. As the reporter who told his story wrote, "Sounds like an old-money name for sure, but any money ever attached to it was no longer visible." In fact, Ben Wichmann was an indigent Korean War vet who died in Manhattan this summer at the age of 84. He came to New York from Davenport, Iowa and worked for a time as a draftsman. He never married. He had no family. He lived in a tiny third floor room on E. 74th St.

Long ago Ben lost his one sister, lost his job, lost his possessions. And Ben lost one other thing: his voice. In 1983 he had polyps removed from his larynx. He hadn’t been able to speak since. Neither Ben nor his doctors really knew why.

When Ben Wichmann died in his room on July 7th there was no relative to bury him. One might have expected a pauper’s funeral, with no one present. But that was not the case. Ben Wichmann was buried, as a veteran, at Calverton National Cemetery on Long Island, with an honor guard detail. Present that day were Jorge Grisales, the night doorman at the Mayfair apartment building on E. 74th St, with his wife and children. Present was Juan Arias, the day doorman, with his wife. Present were two other women from the neighborhood.

You see, without anything, without even a voice, Ben touched the lives of the people around him, the 200 block of E. 74th Street. Ben, it seems, was a man who radiated happiness. Ben nodded and smiled. Ben petted people’s dogs. Ben gave little gifts, Ben communicated with written notes. He always drew a smiley face after his name. Ben struck up a friendship with Jorge and brought him coffee and a Spanish newspaper. Ben tutored Jorge in English. If Jorge mispronounced a word, Ben would write how to say it. He marked which syllables to emphasize. He wrote down other words that rhymed with it. Ben did all kinds of little things that brightened one’s day.

Jorge and Juan gave Ben shirts and shoes. Jorge had him over for Thanksgiving. Joan Gralla, who lives near the Mayfair, gave him sweaters and hats. She found out that he loved opera. Once a year she got him a ticket to the Metropolitan Opera. Ben would dress up in his best clothes and have the time of his life. "Ben was just magical in bringing out the best in people," Joan said.

Less than a year before he died Ben was having hallucinations and went to a Veterans clinic, where he had an MRI. Nothing was found. Unfailingly courteous, Ben mouthed the words "thank you" to the technician. Except he heard his voice saying those very words! Ben Wichmann could talk again. One of the first things he did was ask to use a phone, He called Jorge Grisales. "Hi Jorge, it’s your friend Ben," he said. The voice was deep and gravelly. A puzzled Mr. Gisales said, "I have one friend with that name, and he can’t talk." "This is him," Ben said. "Your friend. I can talk."

The word spread down E. 74th St. But as reporter N.R. Kleinfield wrote, "Miracles have expiration dates. They can come mercifully fast. For years, Ben had prostate cancer. It had been in remission, but it returned and was spreading." A few months later Ben was in the hospital and then a nursing home. The doorman went to visit to cheer him up. He cheered them up. In a few months he was gone.

It is said that Ben Wichmann was the man who lost his voice and found it again. But in truth, Ben never lost his true voice, just his speaking voice. That’s because Ben’s neshama, his soul, his essence, always shone through. That’s because Ben’s menschlekeit, his goodness, was never obscured.

The title of the July 29th New York Times story was A Voiceless Man Whose Spirit Spoke Volumes. Ben had nothing, yet touched everyone.

The title of this sermon is Finding Your Voice. His story told, permit me a few more minutes to reflect on Ben’s legacy.

There’s a famous story in the Bible about the prophet Elijah. Elijah was a fierce prophet, full of zeal to do battle against idolaters, but also, it seems, very self-righteous. When Elijah is fleeing from the wicked Jezebel he protests his innocence to God, and is overcome by fear and despair. God sends him on a journey deep into the wilderness. Elijah takes refuge in a cave. "Come out," God calls, "and stand on the mountain before the Lord."

We read in the Book of Kings (19:111-12): "And lo, the Lord passed by. There was a great and mighty wind, splitting mountains and shattering rocks
but the Lord was not in the wind. After the wind, an earthquakebut the lord was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake, firebut the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire, a still, small voice.”

The still small voice of the Torah has been identified as the voice of God, or the voice of conscience
or both. It was the soft but insistent voice that humbled Elijah and reanimated Elijah to return to his prophetic quest. It is the voice that Ben spoke when he had no audible words. It is our inner voice which gives rise to our outer voice. It is the spark that illuminates our soul and ignites our action.

And of course there is another famous prophetic passage, one that we read this morning, because it is from the haftarah for Yom Kippur. "Raise your voice like a shofar," cries Isaiah. "Unlock the shackles of injustice; loosen the ropes of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free. Share your bread with hungry, and bring the poor into your house."

In treating others in the best way he knew how, and in bringing out the best in those he touched, did not Ben Wichmann awaken us and stir us and raise his voiceless voice like a shofar?

Can we too find our voice and proclaim it like a ram’s horn.

You know, when I was originally typing that last line, a funny thing happened. A typo. Instead of typing voice, I typed vice. There is just a one letter difference. All too often we are adept at finding our vice, not our voice. We are expert at sinking to the lowest common denominator rather than rising to the highest common denominator. We speak when we should be silent; we are silent when we should speak.

When Moses was coming down the mountain with the Commandments, he and Joshua heard voices coming from the Israelite camp below. The Book of Exodus recounts that when Joshua heard "the boisterous voice of the people," the commotion really, he said, "There is a cry of war in the camp." Moses listened and then said, "It is not the voice of triumph, or the voice of defeat. It is the sound of celebration." The problem was, it was the celebration of the golden calf. In the absence of Moses, the people had gone astray. They had listened to the wrong voice, and then given voice to their doubt and faithlessness. How quickly they had forgotten the commanding voice of Sinai. Vice, not voice.

Ben’s story also affirms that each of us has a unique voice. The Torah affirms that too. Remember when Jacob tries to impersonate his brother Esau before his father. He knows that his voice will likely give him away, so he wraps his hands and neck in goat skins to mimic his brother’s rough and hairy skin. Blind old Isaac responds, "The voice is the voice of Jacob, yet the hands are the hands of Esau." We’ll never know if the aged patriarch was deceived by letting his sense of feel prevail over his hearing… or if he willingly went along with ruse, knowing full well that the younger was attempting to steal the firstborn’s blessing.

The voice is the voice of Jacob. No two voices are alike. Each of us is uniquely bestowed with the gift of speech. How will we use it?

Allow me to conclude with two final reflections. The first is personal. You may recall that I did something highly unusual at the end of last year’s Yom Kippur sermon, The Work of our Hands, about the story of little Zion Harvey. I dedicated it to my wife Debby, because she is a hand rehabilitation therapist who helps restore the gift of our hands to those who have lost it. I dedicate this sermon to my daughter Talia, who is a speech therapist. She works in the acute trauma unit of Columbia Presbyterian Hospital, across the river, She helps restore the gift of our voices to those who have lost it. I am so proud of her.

And this: a coda to the life of Ben Wichmann. At his funeral, with full military honors, an American flag was folded and presented, as is done for all who have served our country, Except... there was no relative to receive it. It was accepted, instead, by his friend, the doorman Jorge Grisales. Jorge has ordered a frame for the flag, with Ben’s name, and his date of birth and date of death. He intends to hang it on the wall in his home, in a place where all will see it. Then, when someone notices it, he will sit them down. And tell a story. The story of a voiceless man whose spirit spoke volumes. The story of a voiceless man who helped us find ours. The story of a man.

Thursday, October 27, 2016

Rabbi Schwartz's Sermon for Kol Nidre 5777




Let’s face it—the High Holy Days are when we are supposed to talk about what we don’t want to talk about.

It’s when we are supposed to confess our sins. No, that is not a Christian thing. It’s a Jewish thing. We were doing so a thousand years before Christianity was born. We no longer sacrifice goats. We use our words. Like our mothers taught us: Use your words. In the synagogue we use a lot of words. We confess ritualistically, through prayer.

One of those prayers, which we will recite on Yom Kippur, is called Ashamnu. You may have said it many times over the years without realizing that it goes in alphabetical order. The first letter of every sin goes straight through the aleph-bet from aleph to tav. The translators of the Reform prayer book wanted to replicate that in English. They got all the way to X and then said, "What sin begins with X?"

Well, it turns out that some smart guy realized that there is a very real, very significant sin that starts with X. It’s not a word you hear that often, unless you are preparing for the SATs or for a championship Scrabble tournament. But it’s a word we should all know. It’s a problem that we are all dealing with. It’s so important that I am devoting a whole sermon to it. The word is xenophobia. It means fear or hatred of the foreigner or stranger.

We live in xenophobic times. Yes, I know that immigration has been an issue throughout American history, and world history, but I do not recall it ever being more so in my lifetime than now.

Can we deny that it is a huge factor in our current presidential election? Can we deny that it is a huge factor in Brexit
the UK’s momentous decision to leave the European Union?

Can we deny that it is a huge factor in the global rise of right-wing, so called populist movements in Greece, Hungary, Austria, France, Russia… and even Israel?

The call to halt migrations
the call to build walls the call to ban Muslims… are birthed by real issues… but the radical solutions are driven by a phobiaan unreasonable fear or hatredthat clouds our mind and distorts our judgment.

Our history and our heritage have a lot to say about this. That is what I want to talk about this evening. At another time we might examine the economic and political factors responsible for the rise of xenophobia. But today I want to convey how strongly Judaism and the Jewish experience abhor xenophobia. How it contradicts the loftiest moral impulses of the Judeo-Christian heritage. How ultimately we are taught not to hate the stranger, but to love him.

Our Torah commences with the extraordinary declaration that the human being is created in the image of God.

Our Torah commands that we are to pursue holiness and that the highest expression of that holiness is to "love your neighbor as yourself."

Our Torah teaches, and this refrain repeats itself over and over again, "love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt."

That is the classic statement of Jewish empathy. "For you were strangers." You have been there. You know what it is like. You were oppressed. You were outcasts. You know the heart of shunned and the exploited. You can more than sympathize; you can empathize because you lived through it.

I was in Egypt? I was at Sinai? How so? It’s called "corporate memory." We are part of a people that remember everything, that never forgets. As one of the people, as a member of the tribe, we are a part of that collective experience.

The whole point of the Passover Seder, arguably Judaism’s most important ritual, is to reenact the experience of liberation from slavery. And what is the single most important line of the Haggadah? B’cal dor hayav adam lirot et atmo k’ilu hu yatza m’mitzrayim. "In every generation each person must see himself as if he went out from Egypt."

K’ilu. As if. Use your imagination, your moral imagination. Put yourself in your ancestors' shoes. Don’t forget your roots, your origins, where you came from, what you went through. It explains what you are made of. It explains who you are.

In the Book of Exodus, Moses, speaking for God, says: “You shall not oppress a stranger," v’atem yadatem et nefesh hager, for you know the nefesh, the soul, the deepest feelings, of the stranger, "having been strangers yourselves in the land of Egypt" (23:9).

Again, in Leviticus: "When a stranger resides with you in your land, you shall not wrong him. The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as one of your citizens; you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt" (19:33).

Again, in Deuteronomy: "For the Lord your God… upholds the cause of the orphan and the widow, and befriends the stranger… You too must befriend the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt" (10:17-19).

Who are the strangers? They are the powerless. They are the poor. They are the marginalized. They are the immigrant. And they are the precisely the people we are commanded to help.

This summer I read a new book called The Geography of Genius by Eric Weiner. The author explores why certain times and places give rise to revolutionary creativity. One of the places he chronicles is turn-of-the century Vienna, and its greatest genius, Sigmund Freud. Weiner writes, "As an immigrant, Freud was well positioned for greatness. A disproportionately large number of geniuses were geographically displaced, voluntarily or otherwise. One survey of 20th century geniuses found that 1/5th were first or second generation immigrants."

"That dynamic holds true today,"he continues. "Foreign born immigrants account for only 13% of the US population but have nearly a third of all US patents granted. They are 25% of all US Nobel laureates."

. . .            . . .


To chronicle the contribution of immigrants to this country would take me forever. Anyone with a sense of history appreciates this. We are often called a nation of immigrants, and most of us in this sanctuary are not more than three or four generations removed from the immigrant experience ourselves. Our personal history and our people’s history and our country’s history all reinforce each other. We know the heart of the stranger for we were strangers in the land of Poland and Russia and Germany.

Back in May, President Obama gave a remarkable speech, right here in New Jersey, at Rutgers. I know at least one member of the congregation was there, celebrating her son’s graduation. I urge you to find it online and read the whole thing. It is funny and it is wise. In that speech President Obama made a point about xenophobia: "Building walls," he said, "won’t boost our economy, and it won’t enhance our security either. Isolating or disparaging Muslims… is not just a betrayal of our values, not just a betrayal of who we are; it would alienate the very communities at home and abroad who are our most important partners in the fight against violent extremism. [To] blame our challenges on immigrants, that doesn’t just run counter to our history as the world’s melting pot; it contradicts the evidence that our growth and our innovation and our dynamism has always been spurred by our ability to attract strivers from every corner of the globe. That’s how we became America. Why would we want to stop it now?"

On this Yom Kippur, let’s talk about what we don’t want to talk about. And let’s not let ourselves off too easy. The late, great philosopher Abraham Joshua Heschel said that in a democratic society, "some are guilty; all our responsible."

I would hope that we are not blatant racists. I would hope that we are not obviously xenophobic.

But so long as we leave bi-partisan immigration reform in limbo, are we not accountable? So long as we respond to the refugee crisis with a helpless shrug, are we not culpable? So long as we fail to confront demagoguery, are we not liable?

Ashamnu, bagadnu, gazalnu….

We have all committed wrongs; together we confess these sins. There was violence, weakness of will, xenophobia.

V’al kulam, eloha selichot, salach lanu, mechal lanu, kaper lanu.

For all these, O God of mercy, forgive us, pardon us, grant us atonement.

Forgive us; pardon us, grant us atonement… and spur us to new resolve and new activism in this new year.


Saturday, October 8, 2016

Rabbi Schwartz's Rosh Hashanah Prayer 5777


Rabbi Barry L. Schwartz

Eloheinu, velohei avotenu

Our God, God of all generations:

Help us to thoughtfully reflect on the year just past, and to courageously embrace this year, 5777, just born.

The pain of human suffering by war and terrorism and poverty and disease, created by our own human hand, continues to plague us in staggering numbers.

Just these last weeks, the images of desperate refugees teeming to Europe, and drowning in the sea while trying, haunt us. Imbue the leaders of Europe with basic human compassion as they deal with the worst humanitarian crises on their soil since the Second World War. As Jews, we know too well what it means when the gates are closed.

Help us here in America to discern the path of response to this refugee crisis as well, and to the unrelenting, barbaric evil of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, who destroy irreplaceable lives and irreplaceable cultural treasures at whim.

Help us stand firm in the face of the implacable hatred of those sworn to the destruction of our beloved Israel, which includes the unrepentant republic of Iran. Give wisdom to our elected leaders as they wrestle with the aftermath of the nuclear deal, and the hard road ahead.

Here at home, in a racially charged yearafter Ferguson, after Staten Island, after Baltimore, after Charlestonit is all too apparent that we must redouble our efforts to root out racism, bias, prejudice, and apathy. Black lives matter; brown lives matter; all lives matter. There is too much violence from the police; there is too much violence toward the police. There is too much violence.

In a momentous year when the Supreme Court of this land affirmed the right to same-sex marriage, and transgender stories are front page news, let us celebrate the ever-widening circle of diversity and inclusion in our pluralistic society.

In the coming year when candidates of all sorts will vie for their party’s presidential nomination, we pray, please, for enlightened discussion and real debate.

In the meantime, guide our gridlocked Congress to basic cooperation for the public good, for the sake of our planet and for the sake of our children.

Foster a spirit of empathy and sacrifice that the vast richness of this land be shared more equitably, and that, in the words of Torah, the most vulnerablethe widow, the orphan, the poor, and the strangerbe not forgotten, “for you know the heart of the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”

Our God, Source of all life and blessing, at this New Year of hope and possibility may we find common purpose to do Your will, to rise to our greatest potential, to reflect our Creation in Your image… and to walk with You, forward, to peace and purpose.

Thursday, October 6, 2016

Rabbi Schwartz's Sermon for Rosh Hashanah Morning 5777




On this first day of the New Year, I’d like to tell you who to vote for.

Only kidding! I wouldn’t do that. I would be in hot water with quite a few congregants, never mind the IRS.

But I would like to look back at one candidate who is no longer in the race, but who caused quite a stir. No, not Ted Cruz. Yes, you guessed it⎯Bernie Sanders.

My interest in talking about Bernie Sanders on the High Holidays is not about his political platform but his Jewish identity. What he revealed about it during the campaign was minimal, but fascinating. It is a provocative case study that speaks to all of us, which is why I think it is worthy of comment… on this High Holiday and before history moves on to a new president.

On the night of his resounding victory in the New Hampshire primary Bernie Sanders became the first Jew to ever win a presidential nominating contest in American history. Sanders, who is known to avoid all personal references, got uncharacteristically personal in his victory speech. “I am the son of a Polish immigrant,” he told his frenzied crowd. That lit up the Jewish social media. “Polish?” posted quite a few writers.

The very fact of the brouhaha is revealing. On one level, Sanders was factually correct. His father was Polish. My paternal grandfather left Poland the same year as Eli Sanders. But did my grandfather consider himself a Polish immigrant? Maybe… but by his own account he was first and foremost a Jewish immigrant. Like Sanders, my grandfather’s family who remained in Poland all perished in the Holocaust. My grandfather reminded me of that.

But note that at this pivotal moment in Bernie’s life, and throughout the campaign, Bernie chose not to speak publicly about his being Jewish.

As journalist Gal Beckerman jokingly observed:

At one level, of course, it would be a redundancy of sorts for Mr. Sanders to assert that he is a Jew. What else could Bernie be? Every time I hear his voice, I am returned to Passover Seders where I’ve often been cornered by one of my uncles pointing a finger at my chest and yelling about something very important I must listen to right now.

Beckerman goes on to note in a more serious vein that,

the breakthrough aspect of his [Jewish] candidacy has been met with silence… [and] this silence has do with Mr. Sanders and the kind of American Jew that he representsone who privileges the universal over the particular, society over tribe.

That’s a very nice way of putting it. But allow me to rephrase, in a slightly more provocative way. I do so in order to establish a thesis for this sermon. Bernie Sanders remained silent about his Jewish identity not because he denies it, not because he is ashamed of it, but because he is ambivalent about it.

Bernie Sanders is the ambivalent American Jew.

And in that regard Bernie Sanders is not alone.

Contrast Sander’s silence with that of another man who made the news in the spring, Merrick Garland. When Garland was nominated by President Obama to the Supreme Court I happened to catch his brief remarks at the White House. You may have missed it, but it was live from the Rose Garden. Garland began by thanking the President and then his wife, and then Garland said: 

My family deserves much of the credit for the path that led me here.  My grandparents left the Pale of Settlement at the border of western Russian and Eastern Europe in the early 1900s, fleeing anti-Semitism, and hoping to make a better life for their children in America.

Most Americans did not know that Garland was Jewish
I didn’t. Garland knew this. And he took the climactic moment of his life, on national TV with the President of the United States by his side, to acknowledge itto affirm it. He didn’t have to. It would have been easier not to. But Merrick Garland chose to express that his Jewish identity is an inseparable part of who he is. He was saying that his Jewish family shaped his life. Not exclusively, but essentially.

To be fair, Bernie Sanders did speak about his Jewish identity once during the campaign. CNN host Anderson Cooper asked Sanders about his Jewishness during a Town Hall meeting. Sanders replied that,

 My spirituality is that we are all in this together and when children go hungry, when veterans sleep out on the street, it impacts me. That’s my strong spiritual feeling.

Cooper nodded but then asked Sanders whether he was intentionally keeping his Judaism under wraps. “No,” answered Sanders: “I am very proud to be Jewish.” Sanders added how his father’s family had been wiped out in the Holocaust, and how as a child he remembered seeing neighbors with concentration camp numbers tattooed on their arms. He concluded that being Jewish “is an essential part of who I am as a human being.”

So am I being too hard on Bernie? Well, let’s delve into this. Bernie did say something positive about his Jewish identity… but only when pressed about it. Quite honestly, he looked uncomfortable to me when he said it. He did not say it convincingly, with his usual passion, but almost apologetically. And what he said in his few words was also telling. Sanders spoke about his Jewishness in strictly ethnic terms, in connection to the Holocaust.

The esteemed conservative columnist Charles Krauthhammer wrote an entire article on Sander’s response:

What a strange replyyet it doesn’t seem so to us because it has become increasingly common for American Jews to locate their identity in the Holocaust.

Krauthhammer continues, 

The Holocaust forms an ineradicable element of my own Jewish consciousness. But I worry about the balance. As Jewish practice, learning and knowledge diminish over time, my concern is that Holocaust memory is emerging as the dominant feature of Jewishness in America.... We must of course remain dedicated to keeping alive the memory and the truth of the Holocaust, particularly when they are under assault from so many quarters....
Nonetheless, there must be balance. It would be a tragedy for American Jews to make the Holocaust the principle legacy bequeathed to their children. After all, the Jewish people are living through a miraculous age: the rebirth of Jewish sovereignty, the revival of Hebrew... [and] the flowering of a new Hebraic culture radiating throughout the Jewish world. 
Memory is sacred, but victimhood cannot be the foundation stone of Jewish identity.

Krauthhammer argues, and I certainly agree, that Sanders missed an opportunity to connect his passion for social justice with his Jewish identity. “I was sure his answer would be some variation of tikkun [olam (repairing the world)]”, he wrote. “On the stump, he plays the Old Testament prophet railing against the powerful and denouncing their treatment of the widow and the orphan.” Maybe Sanders was alluding to this when he talked about his social justice spirituality, but he never made the connection explicit.

Being Jewish is ethnic. Peoplehood is a key part of who we are. Being Jewish is ethical. After all, the Bible itself says that we are called to be a light to the nations, a moral exemplar. For me, prophetic Judaism and its mandate, Justice, justice shall you pursue is our highest calling.

I have no quarrel with Sanders's link to the Holocaust. I have nothing but respect for Sanders commitment to social justice. I even largely accept his criticism of Israel, although I wish he had balanced his critique during the campaign with some words of warmth toward the Jewish state. For a Jewish politician, who himself had spent time on a kibbutz, one would of thought this would be, as they say, a no-brainer.

But I think Bernie’s ambivalence got in the way of his public support for Israel in the same way that it got in the way of his public acknowledgement of the Jewish roots of his social activism. And I think Bernie’s ambivalence has gotten in the way of any meaningful connection to the American Jewish community.

Does it matter that Sanders was not in synagogue last Rosh Hashanah? After all, when Sandy Koufax sat out the World Series, contrary to rumor he did not go to synagogue. But he sat out the game he was due to start as the Dodger’s ace, and that was huge. Bernie did not sit out a day on the campaign trail. He gave a speech, at Liberty University, no less, a Christian school. That hurts.

The major study of Jewish identity by the Pew Research Center that made waves two years ago showed that most American Jews are proud of their identity. That’s good news.

When asked what it means to be Jewish, the single largest response, by far (more than 2/3) was leading an ethical life. That’s good news too, and the world will be a better place for it.

But only 19 percent said that observing Jewish law was important. That’s not good news. Not even half belong to a synagogue. That’s not good news. An alarming number of interfaith families are not raising their children as Jews. That’s not good news. A third of millennials say they are Jewish, but have no religion. That’s not good news.

Obviously I’m speaking as a rabbi, but wherever you put yourself on the Jewish spectrum, ask yourself honestly:

Is ethnic identity enough? Is ethical identity enough? What about faith? What about ritual? Can you really be Jewish without religion? Will you stay Jewish without religion? What about the Judaism in Jewishness?

It distressed me to learn, from someone who has been very close to Bernie Sanders his entire adult life, that neither Bernie’s son nor his grandchildren were raised as Jews. I am enormously proud of Bernie Sanders and his contribution to America. I really mean that. But I am truly sad that the Jewish line that has run though the Sanders family is coming to an end with Bernie. Is that what his forebears in the Pale of Settlement had in mind? Is that what his Polish immigrant father had in mind? Is that what Bernie himself had in mind?

The ambivalent American Jew will become the disappearing American Jew in the next generation. Bernie Sanders as a Jewish American is a tale of triumph. Bernie Sanders as an American Jew is a tale of tragedy.

Which tale are we writing for ourselves and our children?

I believe that the ambivalent center will not hold. Either we are all in. Or we are all out. Either we embrace our birthright, or scorn it. Either we bequeath our heritage or squander it.

We need not be zealots or fanatics. We need not be Orthodox. We can be proud Reform Jews, who affirm our ethnic identity, our ethical identity and our religious identity. We can view God theistically, atheistically, or vote agnostic. But there is a basic level of Jewish observance that comes with the territory. There is a basic expression of Jewish life that says, I am a member of the tribe.

On this Rosh Hashanah, it is time to vote. Not for Hillary or Donald, Democrat or Republican. It is time to cast our ballot for Am Yisrael. And it’s time to say, Hineni. Here I am! Count me in!

Wednesday, October 5, 2016

Rabbi Schwartz's Sermon for Rosh Hashanah Evening 5777




Rosh Hashanah is a time when we celebrate the past even as we embrace the future. We mark the arrival of the High Holy Days by honoring the old while welcoming the new. We chant ancient words, but often add new melody and translation.

This Rosh Hashanah I would like to partake of the old/new by starting a new tradition. Now, on the eve of the Holiday, rather than giving a sermon on contemporary matters, I would like to offer a Davar Torah, a commentary, on one of the key prayers in our holiday liturgy.

After all, we recite these prayers year and year, sometimes by rote. They form the backbone of our service. They move us in an emotive, nostalgic way… but what do they mean? What are we saying? Why are they important?

I am going to start with perhaps the best known prayer of the High Holy Daysthe Avinu Malkeinu. (That is why I am delivering these words now
before we recite the prayer, rather than the usual spot afterwards). And as you will see in a few moments, I will have some help.

That is because my commentary will include some creative interpretations of the Avinu Malkeinu from the new Reform machzor, called Mishkan Hanefesh, which was published just last year. It is a beautifully produced two volume set, and expensive, and it is unlikely we will purchase it anytime soon. But I want to introduce some of its best new material into our service, and this is one way to do it.

We know that the oldest surviving prayer book, Seder Rav Amram, which dates to the 9th century in Babylonia contains the Avinu Malkeinu. So Jews have been reciting this prayer for at least a thousand years. But the original phrase, Avinu Malkeinu, Our Father, Our King, is known from a Talmudic tale of Rabbi Akiba, who died around 132 during the Second Revolt against Rome. So Jews have addressed God in this way for almost 2000 years.

This prayer obviously has staying power, and star power. It remains the centerpiece of the High Holy Day liturgy before the open ark. It has been set to so many stirring melodies. But as Professor Lawrence Hoffman, a leading authority of Jewish liturgy, and one of my rabbinical school professors, notes, “The music... so overwhelms the lyrics that most people remain relatively unconcerned with what it means.” While that is not a tragedy, it behooves us to consider the content of what we are saying, or rather, praying. And as we will see, how to properly translate and understand Aveinu Malkeinu is a challenge.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 

Another scholar, Richard Saranson, writes that, 

It is an irony of history that the very language now so controversial in Avinu Malkeinu (namely the masculine-gendered, hierarchical images of God as "Father" and "King") is what make this prayerful appeal so distinctive and effective for its original users.

Avinu Malkeinu, Rabbi Saranson, goes on to say, 

is a penitential litany.  That means that it uses the...  refrain, "Our Father, Our King," repeatedly to invoke the gracious favor of a God who is conceived of as both distant and approachable, both stern and merciful; whose powerful nature can be portrayed as both Ruler and Parent toward the people Israel, who view themselves during the High Holy Day season as both dependent and unworthy of favor–"Deal with us graciously for Your own sake, since we can plead little merit before You." Encapsulated here are the ambivalent feelings of we mortals toward the power in the world outside us over which we have uncertain or little control.

The story in the Talmud tells of Rabbi Akiva stepping before the ark during a great drought and exclaiming, Our Father, our King! We have no king but You! Our Father, our King! For Your sake, have compassion for us! And then the rain fell. (Babylonian Talmud, Ta’anit 25b)

Over time the number of petitions for God’s compassionate care grew and grew. For example:

Our Father, our King! Deal with us [graciously] for Your name’s sake!

Our Father, our King! Send a complete healing to the sick among Your people!

Our Father, our King! Remove from us plague, sword, famine, and destruction!

Our Father, our King! Remember that we are but dust and ashes!

Our Father, our King! Speedily bring us salvation!

In the traditional Ashkenazic rite there are forty-four such petitions!  Most Reform prayer books have reduced that number significantly. For those of us who remember the old Union Prayer Book there were only seven. Reform reduced the number of petitions for reasons of length and because the strong penitential rhetoric of some of these petitions did not sit well with a modern sense of human empowerment.  Gates of Repentance, which we use, brings back more of the Avinu Malkeinu petitions, and concludes with the one that pleads our lack of merit. Why? That last line is commonly sung to a well-known eastern European melody, which we use too, and thereby has come to typify the entire litany for many American Jews.

While earlier generations of Reform Jews had difficulty with praying that we have no merit, our generation has also had trouble with the Avinu Malkeinu’s masculine and hierarchical images of God. You might say that it is no longer politically correct to use such language. Already in 1996 the new gender-sensitive edition of Gates of Repentance included at the back of the book a feminized version of the prayer. But for many, substituting parent for father, and ruler or monarch, for king, takes away from the power of the prayer. It has led to quite a debate, and in the end the new Reform machzor leaves the key phrase untranslated. How’s that for ducking the issue?

A final point before the interpretative readings. As Rabbi Barry Block write in sermon about this prayer a few years ago: "Calling God Avinu and Malkeinu, in the same breath, is an oxymoron." A parent is not a monarch, and "does not rule with strict justice." A ruler, on the other hand,

cannot remit penalties out of loving favor....
The one, true God is two opposite thingsAvinu, a loving parent, and Malkeinu, a strict rulerat one and the same time. God is a living, divine oxymoron. God seeks to love. God needs to judge.
The ancient rabbis teach that both strict justice and divine love are required to establish and sustain creation….
So what do we need God to be, at this High Holy Day season, Avinu or Malkeinu?

Monday, October 3, 2016

Sunday, October 2, 2016

Shana Tova!

On behalf of Congregation Adas Emuno
We wish you and yours a very Happy New Year! 
L'shanah tovah tikatev v'taihatem!

May 5777 be a year of good luck for all!

And a year of health and happiness above all!