Friday, October 11, 2019

Yom Kippur Morning 5780: Confronting Antisemitism


As some of you know, I grew up in Spring, Texas a northwestern suburb of Houston. It was not exactly the mecca of Jewish life. I heard the taunts of Jews killed Jesus. I was asked about my horns. I would have to fight every year to be able to take off for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur and not face academic penalties for taking the day. And I would occasionally get into very powerful arguments at football games because I would not stand for a prayer that was offered up at a public high school in the name of a person I did not worship. I had to develop a very thick Jewish skin. 
This is probably part of the reason why I have made some of the career choices we have made including coming here to Rockland County. Rockland, as I learned in my research, has the largest Jewish population by percentage of any county in the nation. As a result, schools are closed on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Black and white cookies are abundant, and there are delis around just about every corner. There was even a local Jewish Day school they could attend, a blessed memory. What more could a parent want for their Jewish children?
Perhaps my children, in this multi-cultural society, and in a diversely Jewish county could escape much of the antisemitism I grew up with… Nope.
But before we dive into some of the issues of antisemitism in the county, let’s talks about antisemitism in general. 
This past June we were blessed to welcome one of the preeminent scholars on the Holocaust, Holocaust denial and antisemitism in Dr. Deborah Lipstadt. Dr. Lipstadt was brought in as a speaker by our Holocaust Museum and Center for Tolerance and Education to share her thoughts related to her new book: Antisemitism: Here and Now.
In her book, Dr. Lipstadt helps of define antisemitism first by answering the question of “why antisemitism?” According to Dr. Lipstadt, antisemitism is not merely just the hatred of Jews, but it is the world’s oldest conspiracy theory, and this is why it is such, in her words, “it is hard, if not impossible, to explain something that is essentially irrational, delusional, and absurd. That is the nature of conspiracy theories … Think about it. Why do some people insist that the moon landing took place on a stage set someplace in the American West? Despite the existence of reams of scientific and personal evidence to the contrary, they believe this because they subscribe to the notion that the government and other powerful entities are engaged in vast conspiracies to fool the public…”[1]
I had never thought of antisemitism this way. It thought it merely to be a baseless hatred that could be abolished through education. But sadly education cannot eradicate what the mind convinces itself to be true. This is why it is so pernicious, ever-evolving, and not easy to define.
So rather than defining it, perhaps it is useful to look to our own U.S. State Department which lists contemporary examples of the expression of antisemitism.[2] Here are just a few:
1.     Calling for, aiding, or justifying the killing or harming of Jews in the name of a radical ideology or an extremist view of religion.
2.     Making mendacious, dehumanizing, demonizing, or stereotypical allegations about Jews as such or the power of Jews as collective — such as, especially but not exclusively, the myth about a world Jewish conspiracy or of Jews controlling the media, economy, government or other societal institutions.
3.     Accusing Jewish citizens of being more loyal to Israel, or to the alleged priorities of Jews worldwide, than to the interests of their own nations.
4.     Denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination, e.g., by claiming that the existence of a State of Israel is a racist endeavor.
5.     Applying double standards by requiring of it a behavior not expected or demanded of any other democratic nation.
6.     Holding Jews collectively responsible for actions of the state of Israel.
There are more and I encourage you to go to their website because the list is both real and disconcerting. To continue, let’s look more closely at these tropes. The first being “the myth about a world Jewish conspiracy or of Jews controlling the media, economy, government or other societal institutions.” This was both the basis for Charlottesville and Pittsburgh both areas of violence perpetrated by white nationalists.
As we know, almost one year ago on October 27, 2018, a man walked into Tree of Life Synagogue, “armed with an AR-15-style assault rifle and at least three handguns.”[3] Shouting, “All Jews must die,” he murdered in cold-blood, 11 Jews and wounded 7 others. This act of extreme violence sent shock waves through the Jewish community and the country.
We ask, what where his motivations? In this assailant’s delusional mind, he murdered 11 of our landsmen based on the conspiracy theory that Jews are working with minorities and immigrants to replace the white race. We are the ones behind the so-called ‘white-genocide.’ This is because one of the congregations in Pittsburgh, like us, have allied themselves with the mission and vision of HIAS, the Hebrew immigrant aid society, which provides aid and assistance to immigrants to this great nation of ours.
What is also bizarre is that according to this conspiracy theory is that black people and brown people are not capable of organizing and fighting for themselves, so whenever they do, they must be funded and controlled by some nefarious group seeking to destroy the white foundations of the United States. This is why the name George Soros is thrown around so much. For, in their minds, we Jews are the ones behind all evil societal change in one way or another. We are conniving and power hungry and will use others to our own end. Therefore, we must be stopped including by shooting up innocent people whose only crime was to gather together to worship and celebrate a bris.
Sadly, this trope is not the only one prevalent in today’s world. There is also the effort to institutionalize antisemitism by claiming that Zionism is a racist endeavor. This antisemitic trope is especially prominent on many of our college campuses and in the fight for some progressive causes like the Women’s March. In an editorial for Tablet Magazine by Andrew Pessin and Doron Ben-Atar, they wrote, “While some may see in Israel a prosperous (if flawed) liberal democracy facing unprecedented security challenges, the growing campus orthodoxy sees only an “apartheid regime” founded upon “racism,” “ethnic cleansing,” and “colonialist imperialism.” Zionism, anti-Israelists believe, can be neither defended nor corrected, both because the very idea of a Jewish state in that region depends on dispossession of others and because the concept of Jewish democracy is an offensive oxymoron. Israel, and Zionism, are thus cast as illegitimate, incorrigible abominations. The problem isn’t Israel’s alleged “crimes,” then, but its sinful essence. “A crime,” wrote Hannah Arendt, “is met with punishment; a vice can only be exterminated.”
A vice cannot be engaged. Evil cannot partake in a scholarly debate. You must under no circumstances “normalize” your relations with it. Anti-Israelists don’t want to hear what the other side says at all, nor let anyone else hear it, because to them there simply is no other side: they seek not to study or understand the lone Jewish state in the world (as scholars might do) but to destroy it. Painting it as an abomination is a crucial part of that strategy. They exchange the mantle of scholarship for activism, or use the mantle of scholarship as a cover for activism.”[4] 
Thus, if you are a true progressive, you cannot also be pro-Israel. Or to put it another way, intersectionality is a slippery slope to antisemitism. Hence the banning of the rainbow-colored Israeli flag at the Dyke March in D.C. under the rubric of not allowing ‘nationalist symbols’ while allowing the Palestinian flag to fly freely.[5] For they may say it’s only about Israel, but really, it’s all about the Jews. 
This too, sadly is classic antisemitism a slight derivation, what we might call leftist antisemitism. “As Jonathan Freedland aptly described, “When Jews call out something as antisemitic, leftist non-Jews feel curiously entitled to tell Jews they’re wrong, that they are exaggerating or lying or using it as a decoy tactic – and to then treat them to a long lecture on what anti-Jewish racism really is. The left would call it misogynist “mansplaining” if a man talked that way to a woman. They’d be mortified if they were caught doing that to LGBT people or Muslims. But to Jews, they feel no such restraint.”[6]
Both antisemitism on the right and on the left are huge problems. However, there is another emergent challenge threatening to undermine our fight against hate, and that is the politicization of antisemitism. Or as some argue, “join my side because your side is the antisemitic one.”
This way of thinking is inherently wrong, as Lipstadt wrote, “we must make people aware that antisemitism is not solely a problem of the Right or the Left, but that it exists in both arenas. It might be more institutionalized on the left, but we are also seeing it as an element in the rise of right-wing nationalism both in the United States and abroad. We cannot let those on the left – progressive people who are dedicated to righting long-standing wrongs – blind themselves to the antisemitism that has tragically insinuated itself into some areas of the political left. 
Similarly, we must forthrightly acknowledge those on the right who say they are merely trying to protect “European culture” as the Antisemites and racists that they are.”[7] Antisemitism is not a left issue or a right issue, it is a human issue!
As I wrote in a note to the congregation following the production of that hateful video, “A Storm is Brewing in Rockland,” Sadly, antisemitism is becoming an increasingly partisan issue, while being excused if one supports the politician or party of the person spewing the hate. Antisemitism is antisemitism, and it must be called out and condemned regardless of who is speaking it. To all politicians I say, stop using Jews and/or Israel to further your political ambitions. Your use of us, only further endangers us from those who would seek us harm.”[8] 
Which brings us back to Rockland. As many of you undoubtedly know, Rockland is home to not one but two types of antisemitism: the more generalized one we have been speaking about, and also a very specific anti-Hasidic version. Now I will readily admit, I am no expert on Rockland, as I have only lived in the county a little over three years and hence, I am not privy to all of the ins and outs. What I do know is that my some of my neighbors mentioned to me how thrilled they were to discover that when we bought the house, I was not ‘that’ kind of a rabbi.
Therefore I would like to borrow from a recent High Holiday sermon from Rabbi Dan Pernick, one of my local colleagues who has thirty years in the county under his belt who said, “And lest any of us sit smugly and say, well, it is their ox which is being gored, not mine, let us remember that for those who hate, there is little to no difference between Hasidic Jews and us. 
Even for those who do not hate, there is a serious lack of knowledge. A large segment of the non-Jewish community and even a significant segment of the Jewish community do not understand the difference between Hasidic Jews and modern Orthodox Jews, between an Orthodox rabbi wearing a kippah and a Reform rabbi wearing a kippah, between a Hasidic Jew and you. For all too many, a Jew is a Jew.
For over thirty years, (Rabbi Pernick has) listened to students in Orangetown, Clarkstown and Bergen counties complain about the anti-Semitic taunts and insults they have had to endure in the public schools. Virtually all of them, as well as their parents, didn’t want anything done because they didn’t want to stand out. 
While such an attitude is understandable, it means that we have also been enabling this type of attitude to develop. The problem, my friends, is that far too many of us do not want to confront the forces of hatred.”[9]
This is not to say there are not real challenges in the county. Many of you know these better than I. I am not here to dismiss your worries or fears or to denigrate them in any way. There has been real damage done to this county and the issues of corruption and over development are real issues. However, in the words of Rabbi Pernick, “Yes, we have a messy and uncomfortable situation in Ramapo. The local Hasidic communities played a role in this, but so did local political leaders. 
The answer is not to vilify the religious identity of some of the residents, but rather to deal with the very real issues that are the problem, including the corruption which sent Ramapo’s non-Jewish, Town Supervisor to prison.”[10] Simply blaming the Hasidic community for all of Rockland’s problems ignores many of its larger structural, organizational, and political issues. Do some in the Hasidic community have a role to play, absolutely. But they are not the only ones at fault including some of our statewide officials and politicians. It is incumbent upon us to fight for Rockland County, but what we cannot do is let the fight turn into an antisemitic narrative.
Thus “there are ways to challenge frustrating developments in Rockland County without putting a target on the back of Jews writ large. It is one thing to challenge the actions of a person or persons. It is another to indict a whole community. Anger towards Jews leads to violence towards all Jews. For as we know, when one Jew is assaulted simply for being Jewish, we all become targets to be assaulted. Lest we forget, the communities that were attacked in Pittsburgh and Poway were not ultra-Orthodox communities.” To an anti-Semite, we are all the same.
So what can we do in the face of increasing antisemitism both here and in the nation? For one, we have to acknowledge it and call it out wherever it rears its ugly head, no matter the person or persons speaking it. Secondly, we have to work harder to bring ourselves closer to one another. Maybe this means joining a synagogue or committing to support a Holocaust Museum or the ADL. Or ideally, all three. No one else is going to take on the battle of fighting antisemitism if we do not lead. Third, we have to stop turning on each other. We may have different political beliefs, but we are all either Jews or people who have chosen to bind ourselves to the fate of our people. Thus confronting antisemitism is something we all must do. 
We also need to find allies. This means we need to work on building connections and relationships with other religious communities, communities of color, and the like. We need to work to make their causes our causes and help them understand why our cause is their cause. But what we cannot do is let them fall into the traps of casual or deliberate antisemitism. 
We need to support Israel. In the words of NYT writer Bari Weiss, who will be coming to speak here in Rockland in the spring, as she wrote in her book How to Fight Anti-Semitism, “Supporting Israel does not mean – I cannot believe I have to say this – never criticizing it. On the contrary, it means demanding that Israel live up to its ideals. But it is also important to hold in tension Israel’s flaws with the fact that it is a political and historical miracle.”[11]
Thankfully we also live in a time and in a place where our local elected officials and authorities, for the most part are on our side. Unlike the recent and not so recent past, it is our police who rushed into the synagogue in Pittsburgh. It is our local Clarkstown police who are not only present during our High Holy Day services but have also helped us work to make our building and you safer and more secure. To them and to our off-duty police officers whose presence here today, we are tremendously grateful. 
And there are so many other ways as well to fight antisemitism. But more than that, we also cannot, we must not give into despair. As Dr. Lipstadt argues, we need to reject the victimhood of Judaism, we need to not focus on the oy, but instead find the joy in Judaism. After Pittsburgh, we held a rally of solidarity at the JCC. It was standing room only. Elected leaders and officials and Jews of all denominations gathered in the gym to mourn, to share our fears, and to embrace one another. And following that, we held a Shabbat of solidarity here with our friends at Congregation Sons of Israel along with other faith leaders from our community. We may have grieved together, but we also celebrated Shabbat together. 
Antisemitism may be the world’s oldest conspiracy theory. It may be impossible to eradicate. But you know what, we Jews have been around for a pretty long time too. And we are not going anywhere either. On this Yom Kippur, this most solemn and somber day of the Jewish Year, let us recommit ourselves to standing strong, standing up in the face of hate and intolerance, and standing proud as the Jewish people. We stand with each other. We stand with Israel, and we stand strong in the face of hate. Or in the words we tell ourselves at all times in good and in bad, Am Yisrael Chai, the Jewish People Live! And no matter what the world throws at us, we will not be afraid. 
In the words of Bari Weiss, “There are many forces in our world insisting, again, that all Jews must die. But there is a force far, far greater than that. And that is the force of who we are. We are a people descended from slaves who brought the world ideas that change the course of history. One God. Human dignity. The sanctity of life. Freedom itself. 
That is our inheritance. That is our legacy. We are the people commanded to bring light into this world. 
Do we believe in our own story? Can we make it real once again? I believe that we can. And that we must.”[12]
Am Yisrael Chai!
L’shana Tova

-->


[1] Liptstadt, Deborah, Antisemitism Here and Now, New York, Schocken Books, 2019, pg. 7
[2] https://www.state.gov/defining-anti-semitism/
[3] https://www.nytimes.com/2018/10/27/us/active-shooter-pittsburgh-synagogue-shooting.html
[4] https://www.tabletmag.com/scroll/257840/the-silencing-of-pro-israel-students-on-campus
[5] https://www.nbcnews.com/think/opinion/d-c-dyke-march-barred-jewish-pride-flag-lgbtq-space-ncna1015786
[6] Liptstadt, Deborah, Antisemitism Here and Now, New York, Schocken Books, 2019, pg. 201
[7] Liptstadt, Deborah, Antisemitism Here and Now, New York, Schocken Books, 2019, pg. 220-221
[8] https://rhythmguitarrabbi.blogspot.com/2019/08/a-storm-is-brewing-but-not-one-as.html
[9] https://www.facebook.com/RocklandisOne/posts/736647930096530
[10] https://www.facebook.com/RocklandisOne/posts/736647930096530
[11] Weiss, Bari, How to Fight Anti-Semitism, New York, Crown, 2019, pg. 193
[12] Weiss, Bari, How to Fight Anti-Semitism, New York, Crown, 2019, pg. 206

Thursday, October 10, 2019

The Wolves of Kol Nidre


Famed soccer player Abby Wambach, at the 2018 Commencement of Bernard College, told the following story, “in 1995, wolves were re-introduced into Yellowstone National Park after being absent for seventy years. In those years, the number of deer had skyrocketed because they were unchallenged, alone at the top of the food chain. They grazed away and reduced the vegetation, so much that the river banks were eroding.
Once the wolves arrived, they thinned out the deer through hunting. But more significantly, their presence changed the behavior of the deer. Wisely, the deer started avoiding the valleys, and the vegetation in those places regenerated. Trees quintupled in just six years. Birds and beavers started moving in. The river dams the beavers built provided habitats for otters and ducks and fish. The animal ecosystem regenerated. But that wasn’t all. The rivers actually changed as well. The plant regeneration stabilized the river banks so they stopped collapsing. The rivers steadied—all because of the wolves’ presence.
See what happened here?
The wolves, who were feared as a threat to the system, turned out to be its salvation.”[1]
Since reading Wambach’s words, I’ve been thinking a lot about soccer, change, and wolves. Now please bear with me (no pun intended). Wolves often get a bad rap in culture. For example, there is the metaphor of the wolf in sheep’s clothing. There is the boy who cried wolf. There is the story of little red riding hood and the big bad wolf, which Wambach mentioned. There was even the recent Scorsese movie, the Wolves of Wall Street, which was all about unscrupulous stockbrokers. In each example, the wolf is a character either taking advantage of a situation or seeking to do harm for their own benefit. The wolf is a predator that must be feared. But can it also be respected?
To find out we have to dig a little deeper into history. There is the story of the demigods Romulus and Remus whose father Numitor was displaced by his brother Amulius. Fearing for their lives, their mother Rhea Silvia hid them in a cave where they were suckled by a she-wolf. This she-wolf nurtured the twins until they could come into their own. Eventually Romulus went on to found the city of Rome, according to ancient lore. 
The image of the wolf even appears in our tradition. For example, the wolf is the symbol for the tribe of Benjamin. This is because in his blessings / curses of his twelve sons, Jacob/Israel blesses his son Benjamin with the following words, “Benjamin is a wolf (Benyaim Z’ev) that rends in the morning devouring the booty, in the evening, dividing the spoil.”[2]
As the Plaut Torah Commentary goes on to explain regarding Benyaim Z’ev, “Benjamin’s warlike temperament is here characterized. Two famous warriors, Ehud the Judge and Saul the King, were of this tribe. Based on this verse, many Jews have been named Binyamin Z’ev, among them, Theodor Herzl, the Zionist leader.”[3]
Thus, there is a juxtaposition between the wolf as predator and the wolf as a force for good and a force for survival. But what if the wolf is, metaphorically speaking, something else entirely?
Writing for Tablet Magazine, famed Jewish writer Dara Horn retold the story of “The Wolf”[4] (by Yiddish Poet Leyvik Halpern. Halpern wrote around the turn of the 20th Century about his experiences growing up in Belarus and his time in Siberia during the pogroms) … [The poem] opens with a solitary figure, known only as “the Rov” (rabbi), awakening from unconsciousness on a mound of ashes to discover that he is the only person left alive in his destroyed town. He wanders the smoldering landscape searching for other survivors, then for perpetrators, then for corpses, and then even for body parts to bury. But the victors have left, all human remains have been torched, and, as the poem keeps repeating in a haunting chorus, “the Rov did not know what to do.”
The Rov finally removes his shoes and begins to recite Hebrew laments traditionally sung to commemorate the Temple’s destruction, a central ritual of communal Jewish mourning, but “he had forgotten the words of the laments.” He then attempts to recite the daily prayers, but “he had forgotten the words of the prayers.” As night falls, he flees barefoot into the “forty-mile forest” surrounding the town.
That’s where things get interesting. Caught in a snarl of barbed wire in the woods, the Rov somehow loses his clothes and falls onto all fours, and his transformation begins. Naked and struggling, his body sprouts hair, his fingers fuse and grow claws, his neck and shoulders merge, his teeth grow sharp, his lips droop, his eyes glitter, and he howls out his pain. When this Jewish werewolf emerges from the forest, things get even worse.
Back in the destroyed town, Jews expelled from other areas move in and rebuild. Dedicating their repaired synagogue, they are celebrating their renewed life in this desolate place when they hear “a long drawn-out howl of a beast” in the distance: “At first, angry and roaring, as in a moment of devouring prey, / Then thin and desperate, as the wailing / Of a dog baring his heart to the moon, / And finally, quieter and quieter and whining, / Like the cry of a human being.”
The nighttime howling terrifies them, but more horrifying is the appearance of a stranger the next morning in a rabbinical coat and fur hat. At first they hurry to greet him, hoping he will replace their own murdered Rov. But soon they see that he is bare-chested and bloody beneath his coat, his feet bare and his face sunken. He enters the synagogue and takes the Rov’s seat beside the eastern wall. And then he speaks, railing at them for rebuilding the ruins. Soon he falls at their feet, begging them to kill him. They crowd around him in sympathy. That’s when he bites someone’s hand. The congregants flee.
Each night, the howling continues, until suddenly, on the eve of Yom Kippur, it ceases, without anyone connecting the sound to the Rov. The congregation rejoices, relieved. But at the very end of Yom Kippur, at the shofar’s final blast, the “wolf” enters the synagogue and attacks the prayer leader. At that, one congregant takes a wooden lectern and smashes his skull. The entire congregation then pummels him until he lies dead on the floor—“And the congregation burst into great weeping / For on the floor, tortured, in a river of blood / Lay not a wolf but a Jew in a rabbinical fur hat.”
As Dara Horn[5] went on to write, “When I first encountered this poem years ago, I was riveted by the Rov, whom I understood as a person disfigured by trauma. The poem, I thought, was a call for empathy for survivors, and a warning about how “hurt people hurt people”—though the latter idea in this context felt false to me even then, a cheap After School Special idea about “prejudice” that was untrue to the survivors I knew, and also untrue to the poem itself (where only the Rov winds up dead).
But after the Pittsburgh massacre, I read this poem differently—and, I suspect, in a way much closer to how American readers in 1920 may have read it. Insert here all the insultingly obvious caveats about how a lone gunman murdering 11 people in no way resembles 50,000 dead. Those caveats don’t matter for this poem, because this poem isn’t about history. It is about fear.
The poem, as I now understand it, isn’t really about the Rov, whose point of view hardly figures in the work. It’s about the other Jews, whose shared emotions are intimately described—and all too familiar. These Jews rejoice in their survival, but they are also haunted by the horrific fact that other Jews have been murdered while they have randomly been spared—the defining fact of post-Holocaust American Jewish identity. The wolf’s presence in their midst is an embodiment of that haunting, the deep awareness of total vulnerability that lurks just beneath the surface of their daily lives.”
We live in a time of growing uncertainty and fear, embodied by an ever-increasing sense of vulnerability as articulated by Horn in her interpretation of Leyvik. A lot of it has to do with the growing incidents of antisemitism, which we will discuss more tomorrow. However, even with the rising levels of hatred, we are also living at a moment of opportunity. Do we live with fear or do we live despite our fears? Are we Rov’s wolf or are we Wambach’s wolf? Are we wolves whose transformational story inspires us? Or are we the wolves symbolizing the great fear in the world.
The answer is most likely both. We stand here this evening on Kol Nidre, entering into the most sacred, the most somber day of the Jewish calendar. According to traditional theology, we are on a knife’s edge, awaiting judgment and praying for mercy. We call these days the Yamim Noraiim, the Days of Awe. However, Noraiim doesn’t exactly mean ‘awe.’ It can also mean ‘fear.’ Fear that if we don’t get it right, we may not be sealed into the Sefer Chayim, the book of life. 
With all of this focus on fear, are there ways we can overcome it? With Kol Nidre and Yom Kippur our tradition is providing us with a model to help us manage our fears. If I can get through this fast and this challenging time of introspection, I can and must face any challenges that lie ahead during this coming year. Or as Nelson Mandela famously said, “I learned that courage was not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it. The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear.”
To do this, we need strength. But with so much anger and hate in the world, where can we find the inspiration to draw the power needed to overcome our fears? We can certainly find it in God and in our tradition. But perhaps there is another source of strength so close at hand that we often overlook it. To borrow from our overstretched metaphor, we can look to the wolves in our midst: our children, for they are truly the ones working to transform the world.
There is Greta Thunberg, the sixteen-year-old climate change activist. Her great fear is the world she stands to inherit. When faced with the potential devastation caused by global warming, she is unafraid to speak truth to those in power by speaking just a few short weeks ago at the United Nations. True fear has made her unafraid. 
There is Malala Yousafzai, who was shot in the head by a Taliban gunman simply for the crime of getting an education. She survived and became one of the most prominent activists for the right to education, even receiving the Nobel Prize for her efforts. After almost being assassinated, Malala knows true fear and stands unafraid.
And there is our own Jadyn Turner, who is part of what some has described as the massacre generation. Whether it was her cousin, who was killed in Parkland, or the multitude of children killed by gun violence while in their schools, Jadyn works tirelessly, along with many of our teens, to fight for the prevention of gun violence here in the State of New York, often speaking to the most powerful people in the legislature and not backing down. When you fear to go to school every day, speaking to someone standing in your way of safety and security becomes is nothing to be afraid of. True fear has made her unafraid.
Wolves, often misunderstood, are object of derision, but they are the ones who can change the course of nature. Maybe we can learn a lot from them, but more importantly we can and should learn even more from our children. They are the ones who can teach us and remind us of what it means to know fear and stand unafraid. By incorporating this lesson, we can then stand side by side with them, speaking truth to power, and working with them to solve the endemic problems in this world that make so many afraid.
On this 5780, we have the choice, do we wish to become the wolves and face our fears. Or do we wish to be symbolized by the wolves and give into our fears? This is an hour of change; do we draw back or do we cross over? To we give into our fears, or do we triumph over them? The choice is ours. 
As Wambach concluded her words so too shall we by paraphrasing them, “And who you are - on this Yom Kippur - are the wolves. Surrounding you today is your wolf pack. Look around. Don’t lose each other. Leave this sacred ground united, storm the valleys together, and like our children, be our salvation.”[6]
L’shana Tova


[1] https://barnard.edu/commencement/archives/2018/abby-wambach-remarks
[2] Genesis 49:27
[3] Plaut, Gunther W., The Torah: A Modern Commentary, URJ Press, New York, 2005, pg. 313
[4] https://www.tabletmag.com/jewish-arts-and-culture/278149/message-from-a-yiddish-werewolf
[5] Ibid.
[6] https://barnard.edu/commencement/archives/2018/abby-wambach-remarks

Thursday, October 3, 2019

RH Day I: Talking to Strangers


My wife recently pointed out a story to me on social media. The author is anonymous, but I know it is familiar to some of you, so if you’ve heard it before, please bear with me. As the author wrote: “I work in a decent sized, local, indie bookstore. It’s a great job 99% of the time and a lot of our customers are pretty neat people. Any who, middle of the day this little old lady comes up. She’s lovably kooky. She effuses how much she loves the store and how she wishes she could spend more time in it but her husband is waiting in the car (OH! I BETTER BUY HIM SOME CHOCOLATE!), she piles a bunch of art supplies on the counter and then stops and tells me how my bangs are beautiful and remind her of the ocean (“Wooooosh” she says, making a wave gesture with her hand)
Ok. I think to myself. Awesomely happy, weird little old ladies are my favorite kind of customer. They’re thrilled about everything and they’re comfortably bananas. I can have a good time with this one. So we chat and it’s nice. 
Then this kid, who’s been up my counter a few times to gather his school textbooks, comes up in line behind her (we’re connected to a major university in the city so we have a lot of harried students pass through). She turns around to him and, out of nowhere, demands that he put his textbooks on the counter. He’s confused but she explains that she’s going to buy his textbooks. 
He goes sheetrock white. He refuses and adamantly insists that she can’t do that. It’s like, $400 worth of textbooks. She, this tiny old woman, bodily takes them out of (his) her hands, throws them on the counter and turns to me with a(n) intense stare and tells me to put them on her bill. The kid at this point is practically in tears. He’s confused and shocked and grateful. Then she turns to him and says “you need chocolate.” She starts grabbing handfuls of chocolates and putting them in her pile. 
He keeps asking her “why are you doing this?” She responds “Do you like Harry Potter?" and throws a copy of the new Cursed Child on the pile too. 
Finally she’s done and I ring her up for a crazy amount of money. She pays and asks me to please give the kid a few bags for his stuff. While I’m bagging up her merchandise the kid hugs her. We’re both telling her how amazing she is and what an awesome thing she’s done. She turns to both of us and says probably one of the most profound, unscripted things I’ve ever had someone say:
"It’s important to be kind. You can’t know all the times that you’ve hurt people in tiny, significant ways. It’s easy to be cruel without meaning to be. There’s nothing you can do about that. But you can choose to be kind. Be kind.[1]
As far as I can tell, it is a true story, though with the internet, one can never be one hundred percent sure. But it did get me to thinking about the issue of, not so much kindness, as much as it did about the very idea of talking to and interacting with strangers. 
Now, I know, as children we were all most likely taught not to talk to strangers, but again, please bear with me.
There was an article posted on bbc.com this past June entitled: The surprising benefits of talking to strangers. It was authored by behavioral scientists Nicholas Epley & Juliana Schroeder.[2] It begins, “Most people spend part of every day surrounded by strangers, whether on their daily commute, sitting in a park or cafe, or visiting the supermarket.
Yet many of us remain in self-imposed isolation, believing that reaching out to a stranger would make you both feel uncomfortable. 
These beliefs may be unwarranted. In fact, our research suggests we may often underestimate the positive impact of connecting with others for both our own and others' wellbeing. 
For example, having a conversation with a stranger on your way to work may leave you both feeling happier than you would think.
We asked bus and train commuters in Chicago how they would feel about striking up a conversation on their morning commute, compared to sitting in solitude or doing whatever they normally do. Most thought that talking would lead to the least pleasant commute.
However, when we actually carried out the experiment, those randomly assigned to talk had the most pleasant commute.
Our commuters estimated that only about 40% of their fellow train passengers would be willing to talk to them. Yet every participant in our experiment who actually tried to talk to a stranger found the person sitting next to them was happy to chat. 
Thinking others aren't interested in talking, or won't like you, are the very things that will keep you from making contact. 
In fact, research suggests that we consistently underestimate how much a new person likes us following an initial conversation.
Separate experiments on buses and in taxis yielded similar results; individuals found connecting with strangers was surprisingly pleasant.
The positive impact even seems to spread to the person you talk to. In another experiment conducted in a waiting room, we found that not only did the people we encouraged to talk have a more pleasant experience, but so did the person they were asked to talk to.
Of course, nobody appreciates unwanted attention.
But simply reaching out to a fellow human being to say hello may be better received than people realise. Few start a conversation with a stranger, but most seem happy to talk if you reach out with good intentions.
One reason may be that the experience of talking with others and hearing a stranger's voice makes us realise they have a rich inner life of thoughts, feelings, emotions, and experiences, just like us. 
These brief connections with strangers are not likely to turn a life of misery into one of bliss. However, they can change unpleasant moments - like the grind of a daily commute - into something more pleasant.
Humans are inherently social animals, who are made happier and healthier when connected to others. Feeling isolated and lonely, in contrast, is a stress factor that poses a health risk comparable to smoking and obesity
Having positive social relationships has been put forward as a key ingredient for happiness, more significant even than how much we earn…”
The author’s go on to write, “Our findings do not suggest that you should talk to every person you see, or that you should engage with everyone who attempts to approach you. 
Instead, the next time you'd like to help a stranger with something, or strike up a conversation, but are worried about how they might react, simply give it a try.
Our research suggests it's likely to go significantly better than you might expect, leaving both of you feeling happier and better connected.”[3]
Today we read from the Akeda, the binding of Isaac. One of the most challenging sections of the entire Torah. And every year, we are left with a lot of uncomfortable questions like: why did God request Abraham sacrifice his son? Or why did Abraham go along with it? Or was Isaac a willing participant, and if so, why did he go along with it? But we’re not going to attempt to answer those questions today. 
Instead, the moment we are going to look at, was the moment where the whole story turned on a dime: “Abraham picked up the knife to slay his son, when the malach, the angel cried out, “Avraham, Avraham!” and Abraham responded, “Hineini, here I am.” The angel replied, “Do not raise your hand against the boy, or do anything to him. For now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your favored one, from Me.”[4]
Here, we have an encounter between two characters who did not know each other, the malach, the angel or messenger, and Abraham. They both learned something surprising about each other. The angel witnessed Abraham’s devotion to God. And Abraham learned, in the words of Milton Steinberg, “it was God’s nature and merit that He would not accept an immoral tribute.”[5] True it was perhaps a planned meeting, but nonetheless, Abraham and the malach learned something new about each other and were hopefully the better for it. 
This is not to say that every encounter with a stranger will go the way we hope it will. Malcolm Gladwell recently wrote a whole book entitled Talking to Strangers about becoming more aware of what we think we know versus what we actually know when encountering strangers. As he wrote, “We have no choice but to talk to strangers, especially in our modern borderless world. We aren’t living in villages anymore … (yet) we should also accept the limits of our ability to decipher strangers.”[6]
So if there is a risk in talking to strangers, but a necessity, is there a place where we can minimize the risk and maximize the reward? Of course the answer is yes. There is perhaps one environment even more so than a bus stop or a book store, where there is real possibility for genuine and meaningful encounters, and that is in the synagogue. Already, just by entering the doors, we are walking in with certain assumptions and a certain set of shared values. These assumptions may be erroneous, as they are often based on experiences from previous congregational life. Many congregations are similar in structure, function, music and experience, but none of them are exactly the same.
But we are all here because of a shared religious tradition in Judaism, though what that tradition means to each of us, is of course, different. The synagogue is one of those rare places where folks from all walks of life have the opportunity to encounter each other. 
And there is good reason to do so because aside from building community, as Epley and Schroeder argued, it is good for us. I’ll give an example. I am a regular attendee of the CCAR (Central Conference of American Rabbis) convention almost every year. Yet, there have been years where my closest friends in the rabbinate have not been able to attend for a variety of reasons. I found during those years that I was quite lonely and did not particularly enjoy myself or find the convention meaningful. So I made a choice, rather than just to lean on a close group of friends, I chose to expand my circle of friends. 
One way was purely accidental. I participated in the Religion Action Center’s Brickner Fellowship for rabbis on social activism. I did this fellowship to learn more about how to be an effective social justice warrior and leader, but a wonderful side benefit was that I broadened my circle. And then I joined the convention planning committee, further enabling me to work with and get to know colleagues I would have never otherwise interacted with. Now when I see them not only at CCAR but at gathers like AIPAC or L’taken or the RAC’s consultation on Conscience, or Biennial (coming up this December in Chicago – let us know if you are interesting in joining our growing congregational contingent), I know I now have peers to connect with, and it makes those experiences all the more meaningful. So much so that I will now reach out to colleagues I don’t know, by talking to strangers, and I think it makes both of our experiences more profound.
Last year we spoke about the issue of mental health and depression and the importance of reaching out. We need to remove the stigma and provide support to one another. One of the best ways to do this is simply to engage and share our stories. People who are connected tend to feel less depressed and isolated, and it is even more important in a world that has provided us with increasing technology that enables us to isolate ourselves. We can now do our banking, order clothes and food, and so much more without talking to a single human being. How much the more so it is incumbent upon us to create and sustain a community that is all about personal interaction and connection.
We can talk about all of the initiatives to help sustain our congregational community. There is of course the High Holy Day Appeal to help us do things like keep the lights on and the doors open. There is our Free Religious School Campaign that has helped create pathways for strangers to find a new home here, so much so that we have seen our school grow by over forty percent at our youngest grades. None of our grades are combined any more as we have had to hire more teachers because of this initiative. And there is the Life and Legacy campaign to enable you to think of RTR in your legacy planning to help secure our future. 
But you have to have a reason for doing so. RTR is not only the place where we can experience Judaism and all of its wonderful traditions, but it is also the place and the space where we can encounter people we may not know. So as you are planning out your giving for the year, please to think of RTR. Your thoughtfulness and generosity are always greatly appreciated.
In other news, we are also planning a congregational trip to Spain, and if you are interested in learning more, please let me know, I’d love to have you join us as we trace the history of Sephardic Judaism as well as encounter the beauties of historic and modern Spain.
But there is another reason to possibly join us on the trip as well. A couple of years ago I led a congregational trip to Israel. Not everyone on the trip knew each other. There was even a group of single women, who ended up becoming the closest of friends, and now they often travel the world together. They took the risk not only of talking to strangers but also of traveling with strangers and it has paid off in droves. 
So on this Rosh Hashanah, if you are not inspired by any of the other messages throughout the Yamim Noraiim, these High Holy Days, please be inspired to reach out to someone here who you may not know or someone you may not know well. For as Maya Angelou said, “I've learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” May we all help each other to feel better about ourselves, our journeys, our lives, our communities and our congregational family as we enter into this 5780. But before we conclude, there is a coda to the story of the bookstore, as the purveyor went on to write: “The kid thanks (the woman) again and leaves. I tell her again how awesome she is. She’s staring out the door after him and says to me: “My son is a homeless meth addict. I don’t know what I did. I see that boy and I see the man my son could have been if someone had chosen to be kind to him at just the right time.”
I’ve bagged up all her stuff and at this point am super awkward and feel like I should say something but I don’t know what. Then she turns to me and says: I wish I could have bangs like that but my darn hair is just too curly.“ And leaves. 
And that is the story of the best customer I’ve ever had. Be kind to somebody today.”[7]
May we all be inspired to talk to strangers in appropriate ways, may we all choose a little more kindness, for you may never know the impact of what you say and what you do can have on those with whom you come into contact. So why not take a chance? The conversation you have today or tomorrow could change a life, and by changing a life, it can change the world.
L’shana Tova


[1] https://beepboop-its-a-robot.tumblr.com/post/148856159625/set-this-up-next-to-our-harry-potter-display-im?is_related_post=1
[2] https://www.bbc.com/news/world-48459940
[3] Ibid.
[4] Based on Genesis 22:10-12
[5] https://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/akedah
[6] Gladwell, Malcom, Talking to Strangers, New York, Little, Brown and Company, 2019, pgs. 342-343
[7] https://beepboop-its-a-robot.tumblr.com/post/148856159625/set-this-up-next-to-our-harry-potter-display-im?is_related_post=1