Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Lend Your Voice in Song - Rosh Hashanah 5775

Take a deep breath. In. Hold. Now let it go. Out. Release.

Let’s face it. 5774 was a rough year, particularly for the Jews.

This summer, as Rabbi Stecker was in Jerusalem and in and out of bomb shelters, the Israel Defense Forces entered Gaza with the stated objective of stopping the barrage of rockets by Hamas. While Israelis ran for cover, most of us here in America were struggling with the following question: How do we respond? How do we show our support? (Some things we did here at TIGN: We held a fundraiser for our sister congregation in Ashkelon; we sent them a video greeting; we held an info session for our college students, many of whom will confront anti-Israel activism on campus.)

Those of us who use Facebook (if we’re not friends on Facebook, we should be. Friend me!) were subjected to a barrage of articles, analysis, blog posts, status updates, body counts, anti-Israel and sometimes even anti-Semitic postings by people we thought were friends. Or even worse, people who really are friends but are unaware of how they are propagating canards, stereotypes, and sometimes outright lies.  Social media became a battleground that was not as physically bloody as Gaza but very nearly as emotionally taxing.

But I think the worst of it was the anti-Semitic mobs that surfaced all over the world to protest Israel’s incursion in Gaza. The hooligans in France who held a Parisian synagogue under siege. The protesters in Boston and LA who attacked supporters of Israel. The mob in Germany heard chanting, “Gas the Jews.”

A sign held by a protester at the rally
A sign displayed at an anti-Israel rally in Minneapolis in July.

As was mentioned in a very timely piece in the New York Times this week, just two weeks ago in Brussels, on the European Day of Jewish Culture, as Belgian Jews gathered to dedicate a Shoah memorial, youths threw stones and bottles at them; a few days later, a suspicious fire broke out at a synagogue in the same city. This follows the killing of four at the Jewish museum in Brussels earlier this summer, even before the Middle East erupted.

Take another deep breath.

I spoke this past summer about the current surge of anti-Semitism, and my message went something like this: It is shocking and disgusting and deeply troubling. But our obligation in the face of it is to look past the hatred, as our ancestors have always done, to hold onto our traditions and our heritage.
But that’s not so easy, right? Especially when that hatred is staring you in the face from your computer screen.

Some of you know that my wife, the daughter of two Hungarian Shoah survivors, still has relatives in Budapest, and that we have been to visit a few times. I was in Hungary last year, and at a Masorti (Conservative) minyan that meets in an apartment in Budapest, I met an attendee named Tamás whose parents had hidden from him that he was Jewish. Tamás grew up Christian, and it was not until he was in his 40s that he discovered he was Jewish, and committed himself to learning about Judaism and to living a Jewish life. He also told me that he is not alone; there are perhaps thousands like him. After World War II, many European Jews chose to hide their Jewish identity. That was an understandable response to the horror of the Shoah. For some, it guaranteed, if you will, the objective of, “Never again” - that is, it can’t happen to me and my family again if we just stop being Jewish.

A leading Hungarian politician from the Jobbik party, which is right-wing, nationalist, and openly anti-Semitic, Csanád Szegedi, discovered two years ago that he himself was a Jew. He has since sought out his Jewish heritage, and was even circumcised, just to prove that he is seriously repentant. This is a man who has done some serious teshuvah.

What led the parents of these Hungarians to conceal their Jewish roots was hatred and fear. But what has driven people like Tamás and Mr. Szegedi to learn about Judaism and commit themselves to a Jewish life? Is it the desire to stick together in the face of hatred? In Mr. Szegedi’s case, he did not have much of a choice - his political career was destroyed and none of his old nationalist buddies will speak to him any more.

But maybe these returnees to Judaism have a more positive motivation: an ancient yearning for the richness of Jewish life and tradition. A desire to be a part of their people, Am Yisrael. Perhaps their motivation is even more simple: curiosity about their heritage, leading to a desire to learn more. Like a paleontologist unearthing fossils, the more dust she removes, the more she reveals the form of the ancient creature. The more that is revealed, the more there is to learn.

In America, the Jews have lived for decades now in relative safety, largely removed from the anti-Jewish sentiments that permeate much of the world. The ADL, which keeps track of these things, has noted that while anti-Semitic activity in America has declined in recent years, it has been on the rise everywhere else. Our member Steve Markowitz, who is the Chairman of the Holocaust Memorial and Tolerance Center of Nassau County, recently described this country as a “Jewish Disneyland” in comparison to the rest of the world.

After all, we have made it. Jews are accepted throughout American life and society. About a year ago, the Pew Research Center released a study on American Jews that found 58% of self-identified Jews who got married in the last decade or so are married to non-Jews. (The figure is much lower for those identified with Orthodoxy and the Conservative movement.) A couple of generations ago, few gentiles would marry us. Now we are desirable life partners; the daughter of a president married a Jew. We have arrived. (Not that this is a measuring-stick of which we are proud, but it is an indicator of our acceptance. It is also a challenge to Conservative rabbis and communities, but that’s a discussion for another day.)

Some in this room might remember a time when anti-Semitism was much more visible in America. But while American Jews in the middle of the 20th century were more likely to be subtle about their Judaism, today I have no fear about walking down the street wearing a kippah. (Despite the recent incident in Manhattan where a visibly-Jewish couple was attacked by thugs displaying Palestinian flags.)

And yet, here is the irony: as Jews have come to be more accepted in wider American culture, as we have been welcomed into formerly exclusive clubs, and intermarried with non-Jewish Americans, our commitment to Judaism per se has waned. And all the polling data backs up that assessment. Free entry into the wider society has bred a lessening devotion to Jewish life.

Once again, another deep breath.

Rosh Hashanah is a time of transition. This is a liminal moment - that is, one that marks a separation. Like lighting the Shabbat candles on Friday night or the havdalah candle on Saturday night, separating the mundanity, the ordinariness of the week from the holiness of Shabbat, Rosh Hashanah is perched on a fault line between the year that was and the year that will be. On this day, we look back to 5774, and all the ways that we succeeded or failed to meet our goals, and we look forward to 5775, a blank slate on which we hope to write a better story.

But leaving our own deeds aside, whether we all treated each other well or did what God expects of us or otherwise met our own expectations for ourselves, this past year has left a foul taste in my mouth. Commercial airplanes shot down and disappeared. Russian rebels in Ukraine. A bloody civil war in Syria. Ebola in Africa. ISIS. The death of Joan Rivers and Robin Williams, who have left us a much-less-funny planet. And, of course, there is that troubling worldwide rise in anti-Semitism.

The good news: we have a new year in front of us, and we can hope that this year will be better. And that is exactly what Rosh Hashanah is all about.

And really, it’s not just about hope. It has long been observed that Judaism is not about belief; it is about action. What we do matters. We have the potential to change our lives and the lives of others. That is why we keep coming back here every year, to these Ten Days of Repentance, when we scour our souls to bring out the shine, and recommit ourselves to making this world a better place. I might even argue that this is the central message of Judaism; each of us has the ability to effect real change. Each of us is called to tiqqun olam, repairing this very broken world.

We will invoke this same principle when we sing, deeper into the Musaf service, the great Aleinu. Yes, it is the same Aleinu that we all know and love, the one that indicates that services are coming to an end and we can go eat, but this is its original location. It is somewhat more glorified on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, when the custom is to actually prostrate ourselves, signifying our bodily commitment to being God’s hands on Earth.

But the call to action is buried in the second paragraph, which is almost never sung out loud; rather, we usually mumble through it at breakneck speed. If you want to see it, open your mahzor to p. 156, top of the page. This is the beginning of the Malkhuyot section of verses about God’s kingship/sovereignty, one of the three themed sections of the RH Musaf service:
עַל כֵּן נְקַוֶּה לְּךָ ה' אֱלהֵינוּ לִרְאות מְהֵרָה בְּתִפְאֶרֶת עֻזֶּךָ. לְהַעֲבִיר גִּלּוּלִים מִן הָאָרֶץ. וְהָאֱלִילִים כָּרות יִכָּרֵתוּן. לְתַקֵּן עולָם בְּמַלְכוּת שַׁדַּי.
And so, Adonai our God, we await You, that soon we may behold Your strength revealed in full glory, sweeping away the abominations of the earth, obliterating idols, establishing in the world the sovereignty of the Almighty.
It is our duty, says the ancient composer of this prayer, to act in building a world in which our actions echo the holiness to which God calls us. In ancient language, that meant sweeping away idolatry, but to us today it means to work hard, to put actual elbow grease into making this world a better place, free of hatred, free of oppression, free of suffering and war and all types of destruction.

To that end, I would like to propose a call to action, a response to the anti-Semites of this world: We will not let you drive us further away from Judaism. Rather, we will embrace wholeheartedly our tradition, our community. We will maintain our pride in who we are, in our values, in our heritage of learning and practice.  

While the aftermath of the Holocaust may have driven the hatred of Jews underground for a time, it has emerged once again. This is an unfortunate reality that we will have to accept. But that does not mean that we should retreat, or be any less Jewish. Hiding will only embolden those who hate us.

Rather, now is the time to take pride in our culture, our history, and our heritage. Now is the time to renew our covenant with God, to refresh our communal ties, to strengthen our identity. Just as the best response to anti-Israel activists is to arm ourselves with knowledge about the complexity of Israel’s position, the best response to anti-Semitism is to be not merely comfortable, but downright exultant in knowing who we are and what we stand for.  The best response to anti-Semitism is to arm ourselves with knowledge: where we came from, what our sages have shared with us across the ages, how and why we maintain our traditions and pursue our spirituality, what we have given to the world.

You may ask, “How might I do that, Rabbi?” I’ll tell you:  

1. Learn something new about Judaism. Most of us have not considered terribly deeply all of the richness of Jewish tradition since our benei Mitzvah. It’s not just about matzah and apples and honey and potato latkes. Now might be the time to get back into the game: Read a book, take a class, come learn with me. I will offer to lead a discussion for you and any group of friends you can assemble. Just call my office (or email, or find me on Facebook or Twitter).

2. Re-connect to Jewish life. You have a great opportunity in the Great Neck Shabbat Project, Oct. 23-25:

But of course we are here with plenty of Jewish offerings every day of the year.

You can start small - merely by typing a few keywords into a search engine. Here is a list of reliable online resources:
For taking a break on the seventh day:
For learning about all aspects of Judaism:
For issues about Jewish parenting:
For current events and analysis: and
For figuring out what time services are at Temple Israel:
But the final suggestion is as follows: Lend your voice in song.

I recall one of my first Hebrew School teachers, maybe when I was in first or second grade, Mrs. Bashevkin, explaining to us that when in hot water, Jews stick together. OK, so I was like, 7 years old, and this was a very confusing image. I figured out a few years later what she meant: We stand together, we support each other, we think and act as a community.

As a teenager, my family attended Shabbat morning services every weekend. Occasionally, when my mind would wander in synagogue (nothing has changed!), I used to think about all the Jews that were in other synagogues at the same time, all up and down the Eastern time zone. Were they all on the same page in the siddur? Could it be possible that we are all singing “Aleinu” at exactly the same time?

The image is a powerful one. One of the ways that we stand together as a people is that we literally stand in prayer together, all around the world. And we sing together.

And we need your voice. The voice of every single person in this room. Not necessarily to be in synagogue every Shabbat, or to take upon yourself all 613 mitzvot at once, but to contribute to the great Jewish chorus any way you can.

My friend Michael Goldwasser, a music producer, R&B songwriter and performer, pointed out to me recently that he was invited to join an organization called Creative Community for Peace, which features members of the performing arts community who are supporters of Israel. Among the boldface-names who have signed on to their ads are Paul MacCartney, Madonna, Elton John, Lady Gaga, and Justin Bieber; there are many more. Many of the celebrities who have lent their names to the campaign are not Jewish. Most are probably not too familiar with all the political complexity surrounding Israel, Gaza, Hamas, the Palestinian Authority, and so forth, or for that matter the long and complicated history of anti-Semitism. But all are willing to figuratively lend their voices in support of Israel.

And you can too - not just in support of Israel, but in support of Jews, Judaism, Jewish life, and Jewish identity. Find a way to lend your voice - by learning (the highest mitzvah of all of the 613!), by showing up and committing time to your community, by seeking to understand Jewish values and implement them in your own life, by traveling to Israel (if not outright making aliyah), by representing your people well in the public sphere.

The true response to anti-Semitism is not to retreat. The true response is rally together as a community and lend your voice. Our ancestors survived two millennia of persecution, of oppression, of dispersion, of moving from one place to another as they were alternately welcomed and then kicked out of places all over the world. Did they give up on being Jewish? A few did, here and there. But the vast majority of us did not, and that there are so many of us gathered in synagogues on this day around the world is a testament to our historic victory over anti-Semitism.

The greatest threat to Judaism is not hatred. It’s not Hamas or ISIS or al-Qaeda. The greatest threat to Judaism is apathy.

So take another deep breath, and lend your voice, so that we may work together in repairing this world. Your people need you now.

Shanah tovah. A healthy, satisfying, and peaceful 5775.

Rabbi Seth Adelson
(Originally delivered at Temple Israel of Great Neck, Rosh Hashanah 5775, September 25, 2014.)

Friday, September 19, 2014

Sorting Through the Noise - Nitzavim-Vayelekh 5774

Moishe Goldberg was heading out of the synagogue on the first day of Rosh Hashanah, and as usual, Rabbi Mendlovich was standing at the door, shaking hands as the congregation departed.

The rabbi grabbed Moishe by the hand, pulled him aside and whispered these words at him: "You need to join the Army of God!"

Moishe replied: "I'm already in the Army of God, Rabbi."

The rabbi questioned: "Then how come I don't see you except for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur?"

Moishe whispered back: "I'm in the secret service."


Those of us that are here today are, of course, the rank-and-file of the Army of God. We are the regulars. We like shul.

I presume that some of what we like about the regular Shabbat synagogue experience is the opportunity to pray - to sing, to meditate, to mumble, to take our time with the words of liturgy to appreciate, evaluate, immerse ourselves in ancient text.

Come Wednesday evening, it may be a lot more difficult to do that. And this despite all the wonderful features of this season: the richness of the High Holiday liturgy, the glory of the melodies, the heights of the hazzanic interpretation, and the grandeur of these days make this time of year especially powerful.

No, the reason is this: it’s all too much!

The High Holidays are something of a mixed blessing. It’s wonderful to see so many people returning to synagogue, seeking holiness, prayer, and teshuvah / repentance. And yes, the tefillah experience is moving, inspiring, and beautiful. I get shivers when I hear the first motifs of the RH/YK nusah at Selihot.

But it’s a lot to take in. A lot of time in synagogue, with a lot of words in a foreign language. A lot of people. And of course a lot of food. And how can we all expect to focus on the important things - the introspection, the teshuvah - when the ritual, gastronomic, and crowd-control issues might actually be getting in the way? How can we find our kavvanah / intention? How do we enter the High Holiday in a way that is meaningful, with so many physical and metaphorical entrances and exits and inflow and outflow?

I think that the best answer is to work harder at preparing beforehand: Take a personal inventory. Know why you are coming to the synagogue for those days, and be ready to swing into action while you’re there. Perhaps you should set aside some time for personal study ahead of time, by flipping through a mahzor or reviewing the holiday Torah and Haftarah readings with commentary. (I can point you to them in the humash if necessary.)

Given that we are just a few days away, I am going to give you something to think about right now to aid in your High Holidays preparations.

One opinion regarding the opening line of the Parashat Nitzavim, which we read this morning, foreshadows the High Holidays (Deuteronomy 29:9):
אַתֶּם נִצָּבִים הַיּוֹם כֻּלְּכֶם לִפְנֵי ה' אֱ-לֹהֵיכֶם:
Atem nitzavim hayom kulkhem lifnei Adonai Eloheikhem.
You stand this day, all of you, before the Lord your God.
The scene is this: all of the Israelites are standing together as a community and committing themselves to the covenant with God. This suggests the annual evaluation of Jews by God that is a part of the rabbinic understanding of this season. It is the theme that is addressed directly in the central prayer of the High Holiday Musaf service, Untaneh Toqef, wherein the anonymous author describes us as sheep passing before the Shepherd (with a capital S).

As we all know, the overarching storyline of the Aseret Yemei Teshuvah, the Ten Days of Repentance, is the Book of Life - on Rosh Hashanah it is written, and on Yom Kippur it is sealed: who shall live and who shall die, etc  The Talmud (Rosh Hashanah 16b) reports that there are three books: the Book of Life, in which the completely righteous are inscribed, the Book of Death, into which the names of the completely wicked go (one assumes that every year we mint new wicked people). And then there’s the intermediate book, in which all the rest of us are written temporarily during the Ten Days, with the hope that our names will be transferred to the Book of Life by the end of Yom Kippur.

But I think there is a better way to understand these days, and to do that we have to look past the “Who by fire, who by water” passage, to the following page in the mahzor:
Adam yesodo me-afar...
Each person’s origin is dust, and each person will return to the earth having spent life seeking sustenance. Scripture compares human beings to:
a broken shard / withering grass / a shriveled flower / a passing shadow / a fading cloud / a fleeting breeze, scattered dust / a vanishing dream.
And You - You are the Sovereign, living God, ever-present.