Yom Kippur 5778: Doing Better

Here’s my sermon from today–didn’t get audio and waiting for the live stream to be up in the archive to share the video.Screen Shot 2017-10-01 at 11.12.10 PM

When I was in sixth grade, a classmate of mine drew a swastika on the cover of one of my text books.  I’m not going to name him, because it doesn’t really matter.  And because I don’t think he really understood what he was drawing.  And because he’s a nice person.  And because we’re facebook friends and I don’t want to shame him.  I saw him at our last high school reunion and had a great conversation about religion and our own personal journeys.  I think that, at the time, when we were in sixth grade, he wanted to pick on me, knew I was Jewish, and knew that drawing that particular symbol was a way he could accomplish that—I doubt he really knew why.  I don’t really remember how I responded.  I think I erased it and tried to move on.  I’m fairly certain that I didn’t tell a teacher or my parents.

The phenomenon of victims of hatred based acts, due to any kind of hate, no matter how small or large the act, not saying a thing, is a common one.  More than half of hate crimes go unreported, according to the Department of Justice.  Perhaps because those who are the receivers of such acts don’t want to make waves, or are embarrassed that something happened to them, or because they don’t think anything will realistically be done about it…too often, things happen and no one says a thing.  Which has the effect of the perpetrator of the act never learning that what they did was wrong.  And of any sort of real, systemic change being slow, because few realize or recognize the reality of what happens to individuals.

For this particular instance I shared, I think I just wanted to move beyond it.  Maybe to pretend it didn’t happen.  I’m fairly certain that this man does not recollect this incident—I don’t think it was a defining moment of his childhood, and I don’t think he did then or does now actually hate Jews.

But quite frankly, the fact that this was a fairly innocent act, and not a hate fueled statement, actually makes the whole thing all the more frightening to me.  Because it shows that a swastika is a common enough symbol, that even someone who was neither Jewish nor a Nazi knew that it was antisemitic.  Because casual antisemitism was a thought that crossed the mind of this boy in the mostly white middle class suburb where we grew up.  Because such an act of hate was not something that likely had a lasting impact on him.  Because while I understood that this symbol on my book would worry the adults in my life, I wanted to hide it.  Because, to this day, I still think he’s a nice guy.  A nice guy who drew a swastika on the cover of my text book.

Antisemitism, prejudice, various forms of hatred have existed in this country since the beginning of its history.  But we’ve been able to largely pretend that they no longer exist, or that they aren’t at all wide spread.  Until recently, at least.

When our JCC had repeated bomb threats earlier this year. When news of swastikas defacing all sorts of places became regular news stories, including some drawn on message boards outside of some dorm rooms at my alma mater, Brandeis University, just this week. And this summer, when we all watched images of torch bearing white nationalists, wielding confederate flags and nazi flags, marching in the streets of Charlottesville, VA.  Shouting, “Jews will not replace us.  YOU will not replace us.”  Forcing the members of a synagogue that was along the path of their march to leave Shabbat services through a back door, sneaking the Torah scrolls out to keep them safe, as well.  I don’t need to go into the violent details of that day,  which woke a lot of us to a realization that racism in this country is a real and present problem.

For many of us, the color of our skin does not mark us as different, so we often don’t think of ourselves as victims of racism.  But, in fact, by virtue of our connection to Judaism, our whiteness is conditional.  We, of course, are able to hide our Judaism—we are able to pass as white. But our passing whiteness doesn’t remove the hatred that exists. Charlottesville made it clear that racism and antisemitism not only go hand in hand, but are one in the same.

We live in an odd time, in which Jews can and have risen to the highest of positions, but at the same time, face roadblocks and hatred.  While the glass ceiling may have been shattered for us, we still exist within glass houses, and have been taught not to throw stones.  Which, when stones are cast in our direction, becomes challenging.  And when stones are cast at others—because of their difference—we may want to help, but we don’t want the hatred to spread to us.  And we’re not the ones who are hating.   And we’re not sure what to do.  And, all too often, we do nothing.

The words of Martin Niemoller echo in our heads:

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.

Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out— 

Because I was not a Trade Unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out— 

Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.

A message both powerful and troubling, speaking to the need to speak out for others—and yet limited to speech and so focused on inaction, that they serve more as a confession than as an inspiration.  Earlier this year, my friend and colleague, Rabbi Michael Latz wrote the following in response to Martin Neimoller (z”l):

First they came for transpeople and I spoke up — because God does NOT make mistakes!

Then they came for the African Americans and I spoke up—

Because I am my sisters’ and my brothers’ keeper.

And then they came for the women and I spoke up—

Because women hold up half the sky.

And then they came for the immigrants and I spoke up—

Because I remember the ideals of our democracy.

And then they came for the Muslims and I spoke up—

Because they are my cousins and we are one human family.

And then they came for the Native Americans and Mother Earth and I spoke up—

Because the blood-soaked land cries and the mountains weep.

They keep coming.

We keep rising up.

Because we Jews know the cost of silence.

We remember where we came from.

And we will link arms, because when you come for our neighbors, you come for us—

and THAT just won’t stand.

Indeed, the hatred we see in our world cannot stand—we must speak out and we must stand up.  Whether the hatred is against us because we are Jews, or against others because of the color of their skin, racism is real and we cannot stand for that.

We can do better.

We can start by listening.  To noticing hateful acts when they occur.  And to really hear when others point out racism that they’ve seen or experienced.  To not argue against it but to accept that the person experienced it, and consider how we can help them, or even how we ourselves can act differently.  And maybe even ask questions so that we can learn more. And enter into dialogue to better understand.

It’s been virtually impossible this past week to not be aware that something is happening with the NFL, other than football games, as some players from every team knelt or stood arm in arm with teammates during the National Anthem, in solidarity with Colin Kaepernick, who started kneeling during the anthem last year, to protest racial oppression.  At first, he sat during the anthem.  But then, Nate Boyer, a former green beret and NFL player, wrote a public letter to Kaepernick, in which he expressed, “Even though my initial reaction to your protest was one of anger, I’m trying to listen to what you’re saying and why you’re doing it.”  Kaepernick responded by inviting Boyer to sit down and have a conversation—and then the men talked.  Eric Reid, another player, joined them.  According ESPN, “Boyer, Kaepernick and Reid agreed that the divided nature of the country right now is making it difficult to communicate clearly about complicated issues. They hope that people see and understand their conversation, and that it will lead those who can effect change to have similar discussions.”  It was out of that conversation, honoring the views of each of the 3 men, that the 3 men collectively decided that Kaepernick should kneel instead of sit—an act still problematic to many, but one that was formed out of 3 people having a complicated conversation, which can lead to others having such discussions, which is the only way that we can see change.  And they’re right.

Change needs to happen.  And change is difficult and sometimes messy.  But change is necessary.  And we can only see that change when we hear each other, when we listen to each other, and when we try to understand the perspective of another.  To learn to use the experience of others in order to notice and respond to the racism around us.

We should do better.

Let us be aware that this is a problem that exists even within the walls of synagogues.  A rabbinical student, my friend Eric Uriarte, in his recent student sermon at Hebrew Union College in Los Angeles, spoke about his experience as a Jew of Color.  He said, “When we take off our Jewish garb, our skin color and our ethnic markers continue to make us the target of white supremacists.  But when we put them on, I’m sorry to say, those same elements can make us feel excluded in Jewish spaces.”  His experience is not unique.  For many Jews of color, they have been welcomed into Jewish spaces with questions of their legitimacy as Jews—what they are doing there, what their Jewish background is—or assumptions are made that they do not know how to follow a service.  That they must be at the synagogue for another reason, other than to pray.  That because of their color, they must not be Jewish—or not really be Jewish.

None of these stories are ones that I have heard about this community.  But I’ve heard enough such stories—and even witnessed some—that I recognize Jews of color not feeling included is an ongoing challenge for the Jewish community as a whole.

We must do better.

I am not suggesting that racism is the fault of any of us.  I am not suggesting that any of us are racists.

But let us remember that the Hebrew word for sin, het, actually means missing the mark—it’s an archery term.  And that definition recognizes that even when we are trying our best, even when we are aiming to get things right, sometimes we make mistakes.  We must be open to that idea, and we must determine to continue to try.  We must know that even though we are not racists, we might sometimes do something or say something that has been perceived by a person of color through the lens of race.  Just like we can name moments at which someone innocuously said something to us or around us that we experienced as antisemitic, even though they didn’t mean it, we must be open to the idea that sometimes we have unintentionally participated in racism.

And I do believe that we bear a communal responsibility.  Our liturgy on these High Holy Days reminds us of that with the plural language of our confessional prayers; words that we all read, even if we ourselves have not committed a particular act.  We have gone astray.  We have sinned.  We have done these things.  We might not have acted through hatred based prejudice, but we still confess.  We might not be racists ourselves, but we know that there are others who are.  We may not be the cause, but we still participate in, and sometimes even benefit from, a system in which racism is inherent and bias is real. Al chet shechatanu l’faneicha—for all the ways through which we have missed the mark in ending racism, we pray for forgiveness.  And we resolve to change.

We will do better.

We must speak out.  Just as thousands are marching against racism in Washington today, as Rabbi Robinson spoke about last night, I am protesting racism through my words today.  I hope that we all take our place in the chain of Jewish tradition of Kivie Kaplan and Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner and Abraham Joshua Heschel, and speak out against the systemic racism that still exists.  This is the prophetic voice that must inform us.  This is the fast, as Isaiah reminds us, that is demanded.

We must speak out and we must also speak up.  We must not stand for racist comments—and let it be known when we observe racism happening.  And we must do this for ourselves, as well.

Allie Gurwitz, a student of mine from San Antonio is now at Georgetown University.  In response to swastikas being painted around her campus, she recently posted the following:

I don’t normally post things like this on Facebook but as Elie Wiesel said, “Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.” To whatever individual or group is responsible for the growing number of swastikas being painted in different locations on campus: I am not afraid. We are not afraid. The Jewish community at Georgetown is strong and proud. Your hate has no place here and will not be tolerated. Spread love today.

She’s right.  We must speak out.  We must not be afraid.  And we must combat hate through love.  And darkness through light.  To pursue justice is our sacred mandate.  Our holy task is to bring the light of justice into our world.  We are taught so many times in the Torah that we must care for the stranger, for we were strangers in the land of Egypt.  Through our communal history, and through our personal experience, we must remember that we will not stand for hatred expressed towards us nor towards anyone else.  We must act in accordance with building the world that we want to see—to be the light for justice so that we can know a world of justice.  A world of righteousness.  A world of peace.

Ken Y’hi Ratzon, may this be God’s will.

Ken Y’hi Ratzeinu, may this be OUR will.

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#BlogElul Speak

I had the distinct joy yesterday of being at a NFTY event.  The Pennsylvania Area Region held its Leadership Training Institute, and I had the chance to attend, along with our synagogue’s Director of Youth Programs and 3 of our teen leaders.  I’ve been deeply involved with NFTY for decades–first as a participant and later as an advisor and rabbi.  I even worked for the Youth Division of the Reform Movement at 2 different points in my career.  Yesterday was no different in that it inspired me, reminded me of my own experience as a Jewish teen, and helped to reframe my own thinking about Jewish leadership.

In one workshop I sat in on, about Public Speaking, the following video was shown:

It’s a brilliant video.  It makes a lot of points without overly describing those points–a lesson I think many of us can learn.  It uses humor.  And it pokes fun of what successful presentation looks like, while also pointing out what is effective public speaking.

It’s a great lesson in how we teach–and a reminder in making sure we have something to teach, beneath the presentation itself.  It’s important to know how we are presenting learning, but it’s even more important to know what we want that learning to be.

What do we want our learners to come away with?

What do we want them to remember?

What do we want them to do with that?

As the Director of Youth Programs and I took the kids home, we facilitated a conversation about the day.  And what the kids said was amazing–on several levels.  They got it and were able to articulate it.

At one point in the conversation, one of the teens said something about part of leadership being getting others to act.  I was reminded of one of my favorite leadership lessons.  That of the First Follower.  This idea teaches that as much as the leader is important, it is really the first person to follow that leader who has the greatest authority.  It’s counterintuitive, but true. Watch:

It’s important to know how to get others to follow.  But it’s also important to inspire others by being the first person to do the action. Both roles are important–either role is arguably more important.

As we enter this school year and this Jewish year, I wonder who our leaders will be.  And who will be the first to follow. There are so many lessons to teach, so many lessons to learn–how do we figure out how to balance it all?

#BlogElul: Pray Awaken Ask

Tomorrow, I will awaken. And I’ll take a moment and notice the colors of the early morning sky, as the sun begins to rise. And I’ll take a moment to realize that it’s that time of year again, during which I see that sky each week. And I’ll take a moment to realize that the year is upon us, and the holidays are soon behind, and that it’s really and truly here.  And I’ll take a moment and remind myself to breathe.  And I’ll take a moment to, indeed, breathe.

And within that breath, will be this prayerThat :

Thank you, God, for this day.

I pray for those living through the eye of the storm. May they have strength.  May they know comfort. May we all be able to offer help, just as we have.  Too many times.

I pray that my day will be ok. That the kids will be safe and feel loved and know the sweet taste of the joy of learning. That I’ll be able to answer the questions I’m asked and answer the demands that the day will present.

I pray that the young people of our congregation will use their passion and creativity and skill and ideas to lead their peers towards a year of excellence and engagement.

I pray that I’ll get it all done.

I pray that the sound of the shofar will actually awaken me to that which I need to listen to in the world. That the loud blasts allow me to hear the still, small voice within my own heart.

I pray that I’ll be able to lead–through my preaching and my teaching, to help other understand the still, small voices of their own universes.

For these things I ask, as my prayer.

And I ask, ask, as well, what I even mean by prayer. If these prayers are limited by the idea of an interventionalist God, or if these thoughts can transcend a theology I don’t believe in, and become a hope, or perhaps an aspiration, even an inspiration.

For all these things, come morning, I pray.

#BlogElul Catch Up: I missed a few numbers

So, as life happens, I’ve missed a few days of #BlogElul prompts: Remember, Learn, and Intend, to be specific.  Today is Pray.  I’ll get to prayer later.  But in the meantime, I want to share my thoughts.  What follows probably covers all of these topics, but more than that, it’s what is on my mind at the moment.  And definitely ties into considering my life and what I want it to look like as I step into the next year.  So, as a make-up post, here is my offering.

I attended the funeral yesterday for a 96 year old woman, an elder and matriarch of the synagogue.  Many, if not most, synagogues have at least one person like this: the person who is ever present…who comes to services even in their last months…who everyone knows, even the newcomers…who everyone has a story about.  Who have accomplished much in their lives, and have continued to accomplish in their final years.  The folks who are naturally role models for everyone–not only because they have lived so long, but because they have truly lived throughout those years.

Sitting in the funeral, I couldn’t help but wonder about my own eventual end.  Perhaps because I was just in that kind of mood, or because of the time of year, or because I recently wrote a paper that contained my future retirement speech, or just because it was one of those days.  That was where my mind wandered to.  And I wondered who would come to my funeral.

God willing, I’ll live to my 90’s.  But will there be a crowd there of people, not just who remember me for what I was and what I did, but for what I continued to do and who I was at that phase of my life? Even if I live so long, I find it hard to fathom that the things for which these elders are remembered will be even metaphorically true for me: I won’t be teaching either piano or yoga into my 90s.  I’m not sure I’ll be at services nearly every Friday night.  And I can’t be sure what my continued legacy will look like. I’m not even certain who will come to my funeral.  Or who will speak.  Or what words will be said.

And as I consider all that, I remind myself that I need to be more intentional about my relationships, especially my friendships.  I love my friends and I count on them and they give me immeasurable gifts.  I hope they know that.  But I don’t always show it.  As an introvert, it doesn’t always strike me that I haven’t talked to someone in months.  And when I do remember, it’s usually around 4 am.  I know I take many of my relationships for granted.  And I know that I can do better–and that I need to do better.  My friends deserve it.  I deserve it.

This past weekend, I had the pleasure of having dinner with 2 different sets of friends whom I’ve known for decades (2 different dinners).  Neither couple had I seen in longer than it should have been.  And with both couples, we easily settled into the conversation of true friendship–sharing honesty, sharing our truths, sharing ourselves.  And, of course, laughing a lot.

Both of those dinners reminded me of how much joy friendship brings me.  And of how much I miss out when I don’t nurture the friendships I have.

As I swim through Elul, trying not to drown in the weeks of preparation, I realize that I need to continue to cultivate the friendships that I have.  I can’t count on the occasional text.  I can’t assume that our history will preserve the present.  I need to intentionally continue the building of these friendships–because even when the foundation is strong, the exterior always needs work.  I need to do that work.  I know that.

Doing that isn’t always easy for me.  At times, it’s decidedly difficult–not because of the friendships but because of me.  That’s something for me to work on.  And I can.  And I will.  And I will look forward to a year full of friendship, overflowing with the blessings that overflow when those friendships get the attention they deserve.

#BlogElul 11 & 12: Trust & Count

When we trust others, we count on them.

When we count what we have, or count time, we trust that we have enough.

 

Both of these can be challenging.  It’s hard to trust people, and truly count on them. It’s hard to trust that we truly have enough of what we need, and that we will continue to have it.

And it can be just as challenging to count on ourselves. To trust that we will be able to do all of the tasks that we count on our to do list.  A list that (at least for me) never seems to get shorter.

We look at the world, and it can be difficult to trust that everything will be ok–violence, hurricanes, illness…we see these things and we struggle with considering that we can trust in the universe.  Even when we see that people who help others–who do extraordinary acts to counter difficulty–it’s hard to imagine that we can count enough people out there to make up for the destruction.

For those of us who struggle with God–who have trouble believing, who have trouble with faith, who have trouble with ideas that are counter to rational thought–it is a struggle to trust that there is anything we can count on.

And yet, we persist.  We learn to trust ourselves.  We learn to count the patterns of nature and rely on the fact that they mean that the universe will continue.  We learn to have trust in the idea that good is stronger than evil, and that the good that is within any of us will be the stronger force for most of us.

And, at this season, we count our days and we count our own acts and we place them in trust.  So that when we need to count on ourselves, we will, ourselves, act.

#BlogElul 9 & 10: See and Forgive

Sometimes, I see things around me and don’t do enough to respond.

Sometimes, I see things that I don’t need to look at and they blind me to what I really need to notice.

Sometimes, I see too much and I don’t know what to look at first, much less what to do about it.

Sometimes, I see only the shadows and miss what is real.

Sometimes, I need to find a way to see forgiveness.  To forgive myself for missing out on the important sights.  To see a way towards allowing myself to see what is in front of me. To embrace the vision laid out before me, and walk towards it.  Into the future.

#BlogElul 8: Hear

 

The sound of the shofar is designed to wake us up.  Not just physically (although, for some, who don’t get much out of services, it serves that purpose, as well), but spiritually.  The shofar calls us to awaken to the world, to our selves, to the possibility that exists in the world to come.

But there are certainly other sounds this time of year that call us.  This year, I think of: the sounds of children returning to school, the sounds of souls moaning as their homes and community are flooded, the sounds of voices joining in shouts for justice, the sounds of women trying to pray at Judaism’s holiest spot and drown out by whistles, the sounds of love drowning out the hatred of those who march in the name of bigotry, the sounds of people just trying to do their best, the sounds of people engaged in conversation.

I invite you this month, to hear the sound of someone who sounds different from you.  Maybe they are from a different background.  Maybe they look different.  Maybe they speak a different language.  Maybe they believe differently.  But, maybe, you can hear each other–and you can learn from each other.  And, together, you can create a new sound–that ushers in a new age of a different kind of peace.

Perhaps that can be what the shofar calls to us this year.

#BlogElul 7: Understand

We spend a lot of time trying to make others understand us.  And, hopefully, trying to understand others.  It’s how we learn–both general knowledge, and the knowledge of other people.  But to what extent do we really understand ourselves?

Maybe that’s a piece of what Elul and the High Holy Days are really about–learning to understand not only the world, not only each other, but us.  If I examine my mind and my heart, then perhaps I’ll realize something new about myself.  Perhaps I’ll understand myself a little bit better.

Judaism teaches about 2 kinds of repair: tikkun olam, repairing the world, which we talk a lot about (the world is pretty broken, after all) and tikkun middot, repairing ourselves.  Through different values and different character traits, we are taught to constantly strive towards being our best selves.  And we are also taught to keep this all in balance–to practice those traits that are harder for us, and to recognize when one trait might be more useful than another.  And also to use these traits and these values to view our lives differently.  Tikkun Middot is about positioning our personal moral compass–in order to navigate our complicated lives within an ever increasingly complicated world.seesaw-self-vs-other

The balance, of course, also exists between when we focus on the world and when we focus on ourselves–and the recognition that both play into the same process.  It’s like a seesaw, which constantly goes back and forth, and works best when the center of gravity is found.  Just like we work best when we are centered and grounded–understanding those around us, as well as ourselves.  Even if just for a moment.

#BlogElul 6: Want

54 years ago today, these words were spoken by Rabbi Joachim Prinz, immediately before Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech.

4 years ago today, I used those words as I addressed the San Antonio City Council to advocate for a non-discrimination ordinance to offer limited protection to veterans and LGBTQIA+ individuals.

I quoted Rabbi Prinz’s words:

“…Our fathers taught us thousands of years ago that when God created man, he created him as everybody’s neighbor. Neighbor is not a geographic term. It is a moral concept. It means our collective responsibility for the preservation of man’s dignity and integrity.”

A few days later, when I shared my words again, standing with clergy from across denominations in San Antonio, I ended up on Texas Public Radio, the local ABC affiliate, and on the front page of the San Antonio Express News. While not everyone in my community was so pleased, my advocacy for the NDO (which eventually passed) is one of the acts that I am the most proud of. As I said then, “It is by my religion, that I am called, I am compelled, I am obligated, I am commanded, to support the rights of all human beings and to support the fight of those who are oppressed.”

Today, I used that same conviction to join again with faith leaders from across denominations, this time from across North America, for the Thousand Ministers March for Racial Justice.  Together with thousands of religious leaders, I stood and marched for a more just world.  Together, our voices sang out and shouted loud: What do we want? justice.  When do we want it? Now.

It seems like a simple desire.  Yet history shows that it’s a long path towards completion–and that we’re still walking that path.  And so, my conviction continues to continue to walk–towards the world that I want, and that I know that we can achieve.

In one of the most powerful moments of the day, Rabbi David Stern blew a shofar for the gathered marchers, as a call for us to “Get Woke,” as invited by April Baskin, a Vice President of the Union for Reform Judaism.

“Tekiah! Wake Up.  Tekiah! Wake from your slumber… Tekiah! Our nation needs to wake up from the fact that the the Rev Dr Martin Luther King’s vision of ‘I Have A Dream,’ as he so beautifully articulated in his speech, years ago, that it still largely remains an unrealized dream.”

Indeed, we all must wake up, so that we can someday awaken to the world that we want. In the meantime, we must wake towards the call to action to build that world.

Today, I joined others to take a small step towards that world.  Tomorrow, I hope to continue that work.  I’m not sure I know exactly what those steps will look like, but I know that we can build that world.

As I said 4 years ago, on the steps of San Antonio City Hall, it is our sacred obligation

“To support the fight against discrimination.  To work for righteousness in our city, our country and in our world.  To pursue legislation that is based not on prejudice, but on justice.”

As we heard today, to sing is to pray twice.  And so, I leave you with this music, written by Rabbi Menachem Creditor for his daughter, born shortly after 9/11.  And may these words both be a prayer, a collective vision, and a shared mission.

#BlogElul 5: Accept

There’s a sort of mantra I have with some friends: Good enough is good enough.  Sometimes, we need to accept things for what they are.  They’ll never be perfect, and that’s ok.  At some point, we need to realize that they are good enough to fulfill their purpose.

But there are other instances when we need to look around and reject what we see around us and determine to fix it–to perform the sacred tasks of tikkun olam (repairing the world) and tikkun middot (repairing ourselves).

The question is: How do we know which to do when? When do we accept things the way they are and when do we keep working to make them better?

When do we step forth to do the work, even though we know we can never complete it (as we are taught in Pirkei Avot)? And how do we know when we’ve done all we can?

It’s a rough world out there–and the work is certainly not done.  I can accept that I need to keep working on it.  And I can accept that I need to keep working on myself.

I hope I can accept, and learn to accept, when small pieces of my life, and even of the world around me, are good enough–at least good enough for now.