Monday, April 6, 2020

Hoarding and Shortages

I heard this story at a Holocaust Remembrance Day program some years ago and I cannot swear that every detail is accurate, but the story itself is true. The person who told it is a friend who is the son of Holocaust survivors

His father was around 16 years old and the family was locked up in the Warsaw Ghetto with thousands of other Jews and no food. They were on the verge of starvation when the 16 year old decided he had nothing to lose by trying to sneak out of the Ghetto and find some food. If he succeeded, they would have something to eat. If he got killed trying, then they were still no worse off because they were soon going to die of starvation anyway.

My friend's father was gone several hours and came back with exactly one potato -- not much for their family of four, but something.

He triumphantly handed it to his father who proceeded to take a knife, cut the potato in half, and head for the door of the family's apartment.

"Dad, what are you doing?"

"The people downstairs are hungry too."

Thursday, March 26, 2020

Passover in an Age of COVID-19

Passover in an age of COVID-19
Rabbi Charles L. Arian
Kehilat Shalom, Gaithersburg, MD

Observing Passover (Pesach) always presents challenges but this year is more challenging than usual. In this article I want to address two different issues:
Observing the Seder when health guidelines tell us not to gather with people outside our immediate household.
Keeping kosher for Passover when going shopping presents a health hazard and supply chains are interrupted.

I do not intend to address the overall question of keeping kosher for Passover as I have covered that in previous years. That guidance can be found here but should be used bearing in mind the particular leniencies which are applicable this year.

It should be absolutely clear that under no circumstances is it permitted to gather for Seder with people other than your immediate household. There is a principle in halacha (Jewish law) known as dina d’malchuta dina (the law of the land is the law) and it is a Jewish religious obligation to obey civil laws. Since the State of Maryland has issued rulings restricting gatherings to no more than 10 people, and has further advised people to remain at home except for truly essential activities, and public health guidelines call for us to maintain a distance of at least six feet from people who are not part of our household, we consider it a sin to violate these guidelines. If you are still planning to gather for Seder with a group of less than 10, maintaining the six foot separation, you may only do so if your physician tells you that this is permitted.
Kehilat Shalom has already been streaming daily and Shabbat services via Zoom since March 19. The Committee on Jewish Law and Standards (CJLS) of the Conservative movement has issued guidelines that permit the use of video streaming for services (and by analogy the Pesach Seder) and allow for the recitation of Kaddish provided that there are at least ten participants and they can all see and hear each other. (This provision is why we use Zoom rather than Facebook Live or Youtube which are one way rather than interactive connections.)
The original CJLS guidance specified that streaming needed to be done in such a way that the equipment was not operated on Shabbat, neither by the person moderating or hosting the streaming session, nor by the other participants. Unfortunately, following this guidance requires all kinds of IT infrastructure that costs many thousands of dollars which we do not possess. Therefore I reluctantly concluded that we would violate the CJLS guidelines and offer Zoom services on Shabbat regardless. My reasoning is that the prohibitions which are violated by operating Zoom on Shabbat are d’rabbanan (rabbinic) rather than d’oraita (biblical) and that the rabbis have the authority to suspend d’rabbanan prohibitions when it is in the public interest to do so.

On March 25 the CJLS issued guidance which says that “ideally” the above practices should be followed but if they cannot be, it is permissible in current circumstances to connect to or initiate a stream from a computer which is already operating if it can be done by instructing a virtual assistant like Siri or Alexa to do so or by clicking on a link rather than typing in a web address. The stream itself should also be set up so that it does not record. In my opinion this guidance is much more realistic and we should strive to follow it, but I still maintain that typing into a computer on Shabbat or causing video recording is at worst a rabbinic rather than biblical prohibition and can be overridden if necessary under current circumstances. Therefore it is permitted to conduct a Seder over Zoom or similar technology and include friends and family who cannot safely join you in person. Ideally there should be a seder plate at each location but at a minimum each location should have three matzahs, wine or grape juice, carpas (any green vegetable), maror (any bitter vegetable), and salt water.

Keeping Kosher for Pesach:

The main concern as we shop for Pesach this year is disruption of the supply chain combined with the risk of going shopping, and all the more so the possibility of having to go from store to store since availability of products is so inconsistent. One way to minimize this problem locally is to do your Pesach shopping online through Most of the products in their system are Kosher for Passover, and those which are not are clearly marked. They will deliver your order to our area but like everyone else they are limited by availability of product and have limited delivery time slots available.
Bear in mind that while it is prohibited to eat chametz (“leavened products” which combine liquid and any of the five grains wheat, barley, oats, spelt, or rye) it is required to eat matzah only for the Seder. If you are having difficulty obtaining matzah this is helpful to remember. Those who have a sufficient supply of matzah should be willing to help make sure that their fellow Jews have at least three matzahs for the Seder and find a way to get them to each other in a contactless manner.
Karpas can be any vegetable (in Israel it is commonly a boiled potato). Maror can be any vegetable which brings a tear to the eye if consumed raw. In Israel it is usually romaine lettuce but it could be hot peppers, fresh ginger, mustard greens or raw lemon if horseradish is unavailable.
As I referenced in my general Passover guide, the CJLS in 2015 permitted all Jews, not just Sephardim, to consume kitniyot (“legumes”, things such as beans, rice, and corn) on Passover. For this year the CJLS is urging everyone to permit the consumption of kitniyot and general guidance can be found in my above article.
I have previously written and discussed the halachic concept of bitul b’shishim which means that an amount of non-kosher food or drink which is less than 1/60th of the total volume is nullified and the product remains kosher. While this doesn’t apply to chametz during Pesach, it does apply before Pesach and we formally nullify any chametz in our possession the night before and the morning of the first Seder. In practical terms it

means that if one didn’t sort through the beans or rice they bought before Pesach and they happen to find a grain of chametz in it before cooking, they can simply discard the chametz and the food remains permissible.
The concept of bitul b’shishim also means that while we normally strive to buy products which are certified for Passover, in a crisis situation such as this year we can rely on bitul to purchase products which we know do not contain any chametz but might have been produced on a production line which is also used for chametz. The CJLS has published a more in depth guide to Pesach shopping for this year which can be accessed here.

On Monday March 30 at 10 am I will be offering a seminar on these issues as well as a Q&A at the following link:

While I am happy to answer any questions and provide guidance, unless you are doing your Pesach shopping prior to this coming Monday I would ask you to hold your questions until the seminar since your question may be of broader interest.

My fervent prayer for all of us is that we merit to observe this coming Pesach as safely as we can and that in future years we once again join together in person to proclaim “next year in Jerusalem.”

Thursday, January 16, 2020

MLK Address from 2010

In January of 2010, ten years ago, I was invited by the Norwich, CT NAACP Branch to give the keynote address at the annual Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Service.

I want to thank Rev. Barbara White and Evans Memorial for hosting this event, and I want to thank you for honoring me with this invitation to speak here today as we celebrate the legacy of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. When Rev. Greg Perry called me several weeks ago and asked me to do this, there was no doubt in my mind that I would accept, but I was a little surprised and a little bewildered. But then I remembered a conversation that I had about a year ago with Brother Joseph Hemphill, who some of you certainly know. What you may not know is that some of my conversations with Brother Joseph work their way into the sermons I give at Beth Jacob. And it was just about a year ago, because we Jews read the entire Five Books of Moses every year through, and it is just about this time of year that we begin reading the book of Exodus. So freedom and liberation are on our minds, and it is always appropriate that we're reading the Book of Exodus at the time that we are also remembering Dr. King. And it was in that context that Brother Joseph said something that really stuck with me. He said, "you know, what Dr. King did, he didn't just do for the Black people."

And that's correct, and that's why it's OK for a white, Jewish person to give this talk today. What Dr. King did, he did for all of us. As Abraham Lincoln said so long ago, "as I would not be a slave, I would not be a slave master." It is not just that Black people needed to be liberated from the shackles of racism and oppression. White people needed to be liberated from their own oppression as well, because oppression is a product of fear. It is not just African Americans who are better off today because of Dr. King. All of us are better off, because we are working together for a society where we will be judged not by the color of our skin but by the content of our character. Dr. King's dream was not a Black dream or a white dream, it was an American dream, and a human dream. And it was a dream influenced by the Abrahamic covenants of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.

I want to begin this afternoon with a story from the Talmud. The Talmud is a collection of Jewish legal and ethical materials, laws and stories, that was codified around 1500 years ago, but much of the material is quite a bit older than that. When I as a Jew and a rabbi read or hear stories of Jesus, they are familiar to me, because Jesus, too, was a rabbi, and he was not the only rabbi of his time to teach by means of stories and parables. So maybe those of you who are Christians will find something familiar in this type of story as well.

One day Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi encountered Elijah the Prophet. As you know, in our traditions Elijah is considered to be the harbinger of the Messiah. And so Rabbi Yehoshua asked him “when will the Messiah come?”
“Ask him yourself”, came the reply. “He sits at the gate of Rome with all the other beggars, but there is one way you can single him out. All of the beggars un-bandage all their wounds at once and then re-bandage them all at once. But the Messiah un-bandages one and then immediately re-bandages it, un-bandages another and then re-bandages it, thinking that perhaps he will be needed and have to go in a hurry.”
Rabbi Yehoshua traveled to Rome and found the Messiah as Elijah had said. “Shalom to you my Master and Teacher.” “Shalom to you, ben Levi.”
“When will Master come.” “Today!” the Messiah replied.
When Rabbi Yehoshua returned to Elijah he was crestfallen. “Surely he lied to me, because he said he would come today and yet there is no sign of him.”
“You misunderstood what he was saying,” replied Elijah. “He was quoting to you from Scripture, Psalm 95. ‘Today – if you would but hearken to God’s voice.’”

Imagine a world where no child goes to bed hungry. Where no child lives in fear of the adults who control his life. Where the poor are not merely given what they need to survive but treated with respect, and given the tools with which to lift themselves out of poverty. Where workers are always treated fairly. Where disputes between individuals and between nations are settled on the basis of justice and reason, not on the basis of who has the greater might. Where animals are protected from human cruelty; where natural resources are treasured as God’s gift to humanity and used wisely, with concern for future generations and their needs. Where the elderly are not considered a burden but treasured for their wisdom and experience. 

Such a world is not a fantasy. That world is possible. You and I, with God's help, can bring that world into being. 3500 years ago at Mt. Sinai, God gave the Jewish people a plan to bring that world into fruition. And then Christianity and Islam came onto the scene to spread that plan, but we still -- all of us -- continue to fall short.

The Jewish people really became a people in Egypt. When Jacob and his family went down to Egypt, the entire nation consisted of one patriarch, his twelve sons and one daughter, the wives and children of the twelve sons and their household employees – a band of seventy souls in all, perhaps. After four hundred years that number had grown somewhat. Six hundred thousand adult males left Egypt -- together with wives and children probably 2.5 to 3 million.
The Jewish people, then, was forged in the crucible of slavery. Thirty seven times the Torah commands us to remember that we were strangers in the land of Egypt. Not so we should seek revenge.  In fact, we are specifically commanded not to hate the Egyptians, because they provided us food when we faced starvation. No, the Torah reminds us of our origin as strangers in order to remind us that because we were strangers, we in turn have a special responsibility not to oppress the stranger but to love him.
At the time of Jesus, there were two other great rabbis of the age, Hillel and Shammai. Once there was a pagan who, for whatever reason, enjoyed making fun of rabbis. He went to  Shammai, and said to him: “I am willing to convert to Judaism if you can teach me the whole Torah while I stand on one foot.” Shammai like Jesus was a carpenter by profession and apparently brooked no nonsense. He took the yardstick that was in his hand and whacked the pagan over the head.
              So the pagan went to Hillel. And Hillel took him up on the challenge. He said to him “what is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor. This is the entire Torah, all the rest is commentary. Now go and learn."
     For us Jews, there are two sources of values. One is the Bible, and the other is Jewish history. I believe that it is no accident that Jews have been in the forefront of every struggle for human freedom.
Dr. King and Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel were close friends. The picture of them marching arm in arm during the March from Selma to Montgomery in 1965 is one of the great iconic images of the Civil Rights era. Dr. King and Rabbi Heschel first met in 1963 at a "Conference on Religion and Race" in Chicago. This is what Dr. Heschel said then:
"At the first conference on religion and race, the main participants were Pharaoh and Moses.... The outcome of that summit meeting has not come to an end. Pharaoh is not ready to capitulate. The exodus began, but is far from having been completed. In fact, it was easier for the children of Israel to cross the Red Sea than for a Negro to cross certain university campuses."
 Thus it is no accident that the two white volunteers killed by the Klan during Mississippi Freedom Summer in the United States almost fifty years ago alongside James Chaney were Jews named Schwerner and Goodman. It is no accident that in apartheid South Africa, for years and years the only anti-apartheid member of the all-white legislature was Helen Suzman, the Jewish representative of a predominantly Jewish district in Johannesburg. It is no accident that the two demographic groups in the United States whose voting patterns are most alike are African Americans and Jewish Americans. It is no accident; it is a direct result of the Torah’s repeated admonition to “not oppress the stranger, but remember that you were a stranger in the Land of Egypt.” What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor. This is the whole Torah. All the rest is commentary.

            All the rest is commentary. But in our day Hillel’s teaching is not enough. It is not enough because it is merely passive. And as both Blacks and Jews learned so painfully within the memory of many sitting here today, it is not enough to merely personally refrain from doing evil. Rabbi Heschel said  "The opposite of good is not evil, the opposite of good is indifference," while Dr. King said "To accept passively an unjust system is to cooperate with that system." Not to act communicates "to the oppressor that his (sic) actions are morally right." And so I would add a corollary to Hillel’s maxim: “what has been done to you, do not let be done to another.”

In February 1993 I was part of a group of rabbis and rabbinical students who spent a week in Haiti examining the human rights situation there and the U.S. government’s policy at the time of returning Haitian refugees who were intercepted trying to make their way by boat to our country. And interestingly enough, all ten of us cited exactly the same motivation for going on this trip: the St. Louis.
In 1939 a boat with 900 Jewish refugees steamed away from the shores of Germany. They were bound for Cuba, which had given them visas. But for one reason or another, the Cubans changed their minds and sent the refugees away. So the boat, the St. Louis, headed for New York harbor. And President Franklin Delano Roosevelt sent them back to Germany, where most of them disappeared in the crematoria of the Holocaust.
So for a Jew, who knows Jewish history, seeing a boatload of refugees returned home to face likely death hit too close to home. When I am asked one day what I did when we sent the Haitians away to be killed, I won’t have to say “I was a good German. I did nothing.”
We are a people that learn from history. Because we were slaves and strangers in Egypt, we have tried to free the slave and honor the rights of the stranger. Because the world watched and did nothing while we were slaughtered, we were determined not to watch and do nothing as Bosnians and Rwandans were slaughtered. And because we are all of us people who learn from history -- whether as Jewish people, as Black people, or simply as American people -- we cannot sit idly by and watch and do nothing while people continue to die in Haiti.

            Brother Joseph was right when he reminded me that what Dr. King did, he did for all of us. Dr. King's genius was that his vision was rooted in the biblical texts that almost all Americans hold to be sacred. His dream was, as he himself said, "deeply rooted in the American dream." He called us, all of us, to be the kind of people that we know in our hearts that we ought to be. He called us to live lives of justice and of peace. He called us, finally, to join hands and build the kind of world that God wants us to have. He called us to hearken to God's voice.   
              When will redemption come? Today, if we would hearken to God’s voice.
              When will redemption come? When we bring it. Let’s not wait to begin the task.

Thursday, October 10, 2019

The Importance of a Home

Sermon Delivered Yom Kippur Morning 5780
October 9, 2019

A classmate of mine from rabbinical school once said to me that to avoid angering congregants on the High Holidays, a rabbi should avoid talking about three subjects: 1.) politics; 2.) religion; and 3.) anything else.

For a long time Israel was the exception in the American Jewish community to my friend’s cynical advice. American Jews might be divided about lots of things but we were all united in support of Israel. I remember going to my mostly working-class-Catholic public high school every day wearing a button that said “We Are One” for months after the October 1973 Yom Kippur War. A couple of years later I wore a button that said “We Are All Zionists” after the United Nations General Assembly passed its infamous -- now repealed -- resolution asserting that Zionism was a form of racism. These buttons represented shared sentiments among Jews then.

But those days of commonplace support for Israel are long gone. While we often hear that like much of American society, American Jews are polarized about Israel, that isn’t even the right word. Polarization properly understood implies that we are split into two warring camps, but it’s much more complicated than that. We are splintered into groups which don’t understand each other, don’t talk with each other, and at times even demonize each other.

“We Are One” was never quite true but in today’s Jewish community we are many. There are those who are enthusiastic supporters of Benjamin Netanyahu, approve  of his actions and his policies, and will be disappointed if, as appears likely, he does not continue to serve as Israel’s Prime Minister. There are those who might have had some doubts about Netanyahu but felt that it was our duty as American Jews to support the elected government of Israel, period. There are those who consider themselves to be pro-Israel but do not support Netanyahu, are concerned that some of his polices were actually harming Israel, and are hopeful that there will be a new prime minister soon. Then there are those who no longer know what to think and just throw up their hands in frustration. And finally, there are those, mostly young, who are quite vocal about not supporting Israel because they feel that support of Israel conflicts with the progressive and humanistic values they were taught as Jews.

These young progressives might be surprised to learn that there was a time when supporting Israel was considered a progressive cause.  For example, in 1950 the folk quartet “The Weavers” , which included Pete Seeger and Ronnie Gilbert, recorded the Israeli folk song “Tzena, Tzena.'' This song was also recorded by Mitch Miller, Chet Atkins, and the Smothers Brothers. Harry Belafonte and Miriam Makeba together recorded the Israeli folk song “Erev Shel Shoshanim” while Belafonte alone also recorded “Hava Nagila” and “Hinei Mah Tov u’Mah Naim.” Now it is seen by many as an oxymoron if you state that you are liberal and pro-Israel.

Israel was a progressive cause for many reasons. Progressives tend to support the underdog and in the struggle to establish a Jewish state, Israel was seen as an underdog. Zionism fought against both the British empire and the Arab nations, all of which were theocratic monarchies. Most of Israel’s founding fathers and mothers -- David Ben Gurion, Moshe Dayan, Golda Meir, Yitzhak Rabin, Moshe Sharett, Yigal Allon -- were socialists and many of them had spent time living on kibbutzim, the purest form of socialism ever put into practice.  The Histradrut labor union advocated democratic socialism, and it was one of the most important institutions in the country along with the Labor Party, which governed Israel uninterruptedly from 1948 until 1977.

Israel is in many ways still an extremely progressive country. Israel has developed a healthcare system that simultaneously guarantees health insurance to everyone and preserves choice and competition, as Israelis can choose between four nationwide HMOs. Men and women are guaranteed equal pay and equal employment access. Transgender soldiers serve in the Israeli military; Palestinian gays and lesbians seek refuge in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem from the homophobic attitudes of Palestinian society.

How then did Israel lose the support of so many progressives? We all know the history; the 1967 Six Day War left Israel in control of the West Bank and East Jerusalem which it conquered from Jordan, the Golan Heights which it conquered from Syria, and the Sinai Peninsula and the Gaza Strip which it conquered from Egypt. East Jerusalem and the Golan have since been formally annexed to Israel and their residents have the option to seek Israeli citizenship. Sinai was returned to Egypt under the terms of a peace treaty and Israel withdrew unilaterally from Gaza in 2005, but fifty two years after the Six Day war the status of the West Bank is still unresolved. This is an extraordinarily complicated issue and I could speak for several hours and still not cover it adequately. Israel’s public relations has suffered hugely with the unresolved status of the territories. Trite slogans that do not recognize the complexities are helpful to no one. 

The issue of the West Bank has divided Jews’ opinions on Israel.  There is a growing group of young American Jews known as “If Not Now” that essentially has a one-plank platform: “end the American Jewish community’s support for the Occupation.” They are officially neutral on support for a two-state solution or a one-state solution and whether Israel should exist at all.

On the other hand one hears from some American Jews that these disputed territories are the heartland of Biblical Israel -- which is true; that Israel won them in a war that the Arabs started -- which is also true -- and that no country has ever withdrawn from territories conquered that way -- which is not true.

The complexities about the occupation continue. The Oslo Process under Yitzhak Rabin was an attempt to “end the Occupation.” Negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians were supposed to lead to the creation of a Palestinian state in most of the West Bank and Gaza, with appropriate security guarantees that it would indeed be a Palestinian state next to the State of Israel and not instead of the State of Israel. Even after Rabin was murdered negotiations continued under his successors. In January 2001 the two sides met in Taba, Egypt, for a last-ditch effort. Israel offered to return 97 percent of the West Bank to the Palestinians. There were still significant gaps between the two parties but they were closer to an agreement than they had ever been. But the then-president of the Palestinian Authority, Yasser Arafat, didn’t propose continuing the negotiations and building on the progress which had been made. Instead, with the international community widely holding the Palestinians responsible for the failure of the talks, he gave the green light for a massive campaign of suicide bombings and terror attacks, hoping that the Israeli response would once again allow him to portray the Palestinians as victims. This was, to all intents and purposes, the end of serious Israeli-Palestinian negotiations.

The continued ambiguous status of the West Bank territories complicates any sort of peace in the region as well as complicating American Jews’ ideas about Israel. For the last 52 years the West Bank has been in a sort of limbo where it is under Israeli control but not considered, even by Israel, as part of the State of Israel. It is a disputed territory about which there have been off and on negotiations.  A few days before the recent elections, Prime Minister Netanyahu announced that if he won the elections he would formally annex much of Area C, which makes up around 60 percent of the land area of the West Bank, although a much smaller percentage of its Arab population.  This would have meant the end of any possibility of an eventual peace treaty between Israel and the Palestinians.

Why would this be a problem? Because Israel was founded to be and continues to define itself as a Jewish and democratic state.. Annexation of the West Bank effectively means that Israel can be either a Jewish state or a democratic one but not both. If Israel were to annex the West Bank it would add 2.8 million Palestinians who would now officially be residents of the State of Israel. If Israel extends citizenship to them it will be a state with a bare majority of Jews over Arabs, and given the Arab birth rate Israel will have an Arab majority in a couple of decades. If Israel does not extend citizenship to them, it will have given up all claim to be a democratic state.

The September 17 election results have taken the question of annexation off the table for now. The majority of Israeli voters are open to the idea of two states for two peoples. But this is something that Israel cannot accomplish on its own, unilaterally.  Israel can refrain from taking steps which make a two-state solution impossible, and it can implement small steps to make day-to-day Palestinian life easier and build trust. But until there is a Palestinian partner across the table that is willing to acknowledge that Israel is here to stay and gives up on the illusory goal of millions of Palestinians returning to the very same houses they left in 1948, there will be no agreement, no Palestinian state and no end to the Occupation. 

 A peaceful resolution is possible if the moderate majorities in both Israel and the Palestinian territories give up their maximalist dreams, rein in their extremists, and recognize that their choices come down to either permanent warfare or a treaty where everyone gets some of what they want and no one gets all of what they want. The specific outlines will have to be worked out between the parties, but it is something that is in everyone’s best interest.

So why is Israel so important?  Why is a home for Jews so important? The great American poet Robert Frost wrote that ‘Home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in.’ Every person and every nation wants and deserves a home. 

Between 1939 and 1945, six million Jews died precisely because the Jewish people had no home.  In May 1939 a ship named the St. Louis left Hamburg, Germany, with about 900 German Jews bound for Cuba. The voyage of the St. Louis was in part a propaganda effort by the Nazis. They were saying to the West, you criticize our treatment of the Jews but you are hypocrites because you don’t want them either.  

The Jews on the St. Louis had visas for Cuba but the Cuban government cancelled them before the ship even arrived. The St. Louis headed to the United States but our country, too, turned them away and the ship returned to Europe. About 300 of the Jews were taken in by Great Britain and the others by the Netherlands, Belgium and France. For many of them their new countries proved only a temporary refuge and many of the St. Louis passengers ultimately died in the Holocaust.

They were turned away by Cuba and they were turned away by the United States. If the State of Israel had existed in 1939 the German Jews could have gone there and thus been saved. But in 1939 what was then Mandatory Palestine was controlled by the British who, bowing to Arab pressure, issued a White Paper shortly before the St. Louis sailed which limited Jewish immigration to 75,000 total over five years, with subsequent immigration to be subject to an Arab veto.

The increase in antisemitism throughout the world reminds us that the need for one piece of land under Jewish control, where Jews don’t need someone else’s permission to relocate, continues today. It is legitimate and even healthy for us to disagree with each other about Israeli policies, but there should be no disagreement about Israel’s importance to all of us. Keep yourself informed about Israeli news, visit Israel if you can, purchase Israeli products, watch Israeli films and movies -- there are so many to choose from on Netflix, Amazon Prime, and HBO, and most importantly, support organizations in Israel working to make Israel the type of society you would like it to be.

Rabbi Daniel Gordis is one of the most popular authors and speakers about Israel.  Danny grew up in Baltimore, and we worked together and shared an office suite at the University of Judaism in Los Angeles. During the 1998 - 99 academic year he took a sabbatical in Jerusalem. It was meant to be for one year but he and his family decided to stay permanently.

As you probably know, there is a custom that during the Yizkor memorial service on Yom Kippur, those who have not lost a parent, child, spouse or sibling -- someone for whom one is obligated to say the Mourner’s Kaddish -- go out of the synagogue. Danny's grandfather Rabbi Robert Gordis, a prominent Conservative rabbi, considered this a superstitious custom and used to denounce it from the pulpit. In deference to his father, Danny's father would stay in the synagogue during Yizkor and raised Danny the same way; but when Danny moved to Israel, he decided to revert to the older "superstitious" custom.

Some years ago Danny was "confronted" by one of the founding members of his Jerusalem synagogue about his going out for Yizkor. Danny thought to himself, "Oh no, another lecture about following a superstition." But quite the opposite happened. The older man said to him: "When we founded this synagogue, we were all Holocaust survivors and there was not a single person who could go out for Yizkor. Then there were all the wars, and again, there was no one who could go out for Yizkor. But now, look. Most of the congregation goes out for Yizkor. [Now in a synagogue in Jerusalem, none of these people have lost a parent, child, spouse or sibling.] Ha-medina ha-zot nes. This State is a miracle."

May the people of Israel and their leaders be blessed with the courage and wisdom to preserve this miracle.

Defining Community, Defining Ourselves

Sermon Delivered Yom Kippur Evening 5780
October 8, 2019

           The members and board of Congregation Shomrei Shatnez were faced with a dilemma. It was a dilemma that in some ways was nice to have, but it was a dilemma nonetheless. A philanthropic fund with an interest in innovative approaches to Jewish life had approached the congregation with an unusual but very tempting offer. The fund would make a huge gift to the congregation -- something in the order of $20 million -- but the congregation had to agree to one stipulation in return. 

            Shomrei Shatnez was a smallish suburban synagogue with an annual budget of less than a million dollars, so a $20 million endowment with an average rate-of-return would provide more than enough income to cover its budget. But here was the stipulation: Shomrei Shatnez would no longer be allowed to charge dues or to raise money. Because people often make donations to their synagogue in honor or in memory of some person or event, the shul could accept donations, but they could only be used outside of the congregation, to help meet needs in the general community or support overseas Jewry. The only funds available for the congregation itself would be the proceeds of the endowment.

            So what was the dilemma that Shomrei Shatnez now faced? For the typical American synagogue, membership is defined financially. You fill out an application, you pay your dues -- or if you can’t afford full dues you make some kind of arrangement and pay a lesser amount -- and that’s pretty much it. If a congregation could no longer define membership by virtue of paying dues, what would be the criterion?

            One suggestion was simply to continue as before but without dues. If you want to join, you fill out the application and voila, you’re a member. But some of the leaders of the congregation realized that this might inadvertently lead to problems down the road. The $20 million gift was more than enough to sustain the congregation’s needs at its current level of budget and activity. But what if, discovering that there was now a congregation that didn’t charge anything to belong and didn’t even ask for donations, unaffiliated Jews and members of other congregations decided to join Shomrei Shatnez? Would the congregation need to hire additional staff, perhaps an assistant rabbi? Would the religious school grow larger than the faculty and facility could accommodate? Would they even outgrow their building? They realized that if they could no longer determine membership simply by paying dues, they would have to come up with some other way of defining it.

            What I have said so far has really just been a thought experiment. There is no congregation called “Shomrei Shatnez” and no one has set up a huge endowment conditional on a synagogue not charging dues. But if we were in a position so that we no longer needed to charge dues -- indeed, if we were actually forbidden to charge dues -- how would we define membership? And how would we define ourselves?

When people join a synagogue, what exactly are they joining? What does membership mean?
            To give you an example of entities trying to define themselves, in the 1960s in the United States, two very large companies completely controlled the market for manufacturing glass bottles which soda, milk, and other beverages came in. In 1970, the plastic soda bottle was introduced and both companies realized that they were facing a major challenge to their business. One of the companies increased its budget for R & D, hoping to make its manufacturing process cheaper and its glass bottles higher quality, because after all it was in the business of making glass bottles. It raised its advertising budget, hoping to convince consumers and beverage companies that glass bottles were superior to plastic and that they should stick with what was tried and true.

            The other company decided “we’re not in the business of making glass bottles. We’re in the business of making containers for beverages.” It transitioned its manufacturing facilities from glass to plastic. Today only one of those companies is still in business. Which one do you think it is?
So what business are we in? And by “we” I do not necessarily mean Kehilat Shalom but rather the American suburban synagogue, especially but not exclusively in its Conservative iteration.

            For several decades following the end of the Second World War, the suburban synagogue was in the Hebrew school and Bar/Bat Mitzvah business. Jews were moving  to the suburbs, which were ethnically and religiously mixed, from their urban, predominantly Jewish neighborhoods. The Jews leading this exodus were mostly American born children of immigrants. When growing up they might have spoken English with their parents but they probably spoke Yiddish or Yinglish with their grandparents. The neighborhoods where they lived were overwhelmingly Jewish. The newly-suburban Jews might not have been religiously observant but they were steeped in Jewish culture.

            Now they found themselves living in neighborhoods which might be ten or twenty percent Jewish rather than eighty or ninety. Their children were going to public schools with mostly non-Jewish classmates and very often the grandparents stayed behind in the “old neighborhood.” New synagogues were created at a dizzying pace and were sometimes unkindly labelled “Bar Mitzvah factories.” The typical membership trajectory saw a family join when their oldest child started Hebrew school and give up their membership shortly after the youngest kid’s Bar Mitzvah or maybe Confirmation in tenth grade. The fact that a significant percentage, perhaps even a majority, of families were only members for a few years didn’t threaten the stability of the model because there were always more families in the pipeline to replace them. Jewish parents would always want to make sure their kids had Bar or Bat Mitzvahs, the only way to do that was to join a shul and send your kids to Hebrew school, so people would join, pay the assigned dues, and send their kids to Hebrew school for the specified number of years.

            But this model started to crumble in the 1990s or so. More families had a Jewish and a non-Jewish parent, and even families with two Jewish parents didn’t always consider Jewish education a priority or feel the need to provide their children with Bar and Bat Mitzvah ceremonies. As Harvard Professor Robert Putnam documented in his book “Bowling Alone,” the post-Boomer generations tended not to join clubs and organizations as much as their predecessors did. And if the family did decide that a Bar or Bat Mitzvah was important, there were other ways of doing it; independent Hebrew schools, tutors, free-lance clergy who operate on a fee-for-service model. The recent Washington Jewish Population survey revealed that between 2003 and 2017 the total number of synagogue members in the Greater Washington area shrank slightly even though the total Jewish population had grown by 37%;  and that 58% of Jewish children received no formal Jewish education of any sort at any point.

            On the walls of one of the dining rooms at Goucher College in Baltimore there are painted a number of different quotes about higher education. The one that has stuck with me ever since I volunteered with Goucher Hillel almost twenty years ago was this: “I cannot show you the college. It is on vacation. But I can show you the buildings.” I understand this quote to mean that the college is not the buildings but the people who study, teach, and research in those buildings.

            The Hebrew terms for a synagogue is “Bet Knesset” which means “House of Assembly.” But when we pray in Hebrew for the welfare of the congregation and its members, we do not use the term “Bet Knesset” but rather “Kehila” or “Kehila Kedosha” -- congregation or holy congregation -- the same word as in the name of our congregation. We are Kehilat Shalom; we are not Beit Knesset Shalom. Our beautiful building is the place we study, the place we pray, the place we gather with each other for friendship and fellowship. But the building is not the congregation; the people are the wonderful congregation we have today.

            Because American synagogues have generally not asked for anything from their members other than money, synagogue membership has been for many a business transaction. While it is true that we use the term “member”, so does Costco. I am a “member” of Costco which asks nothing of me other than payment of my $60 annual dues. But if Keleigh and I ever reach the point where we shop at Costco so infrequently that it no longer seems worth the $60, we will not have any moral qualms or lose any sleep over our decision not to renew our membership.
Rabbi Yohanna Kinberg of Washington State recently wrote a piece which captures the problematic nature of the commodification of Judaism: “we are a cooperative. Not a business. We are a community, not a product. We exist only to bring vibrant and meaningful Jewish life into this world, something we have been doing together for more than 2000 years. If we view the congregation as a product, as a thing, as something that either serves all our needs personally in the exact ways we need to be served—we are no longer traveling the path of sacred Jewish community. We are shopping. . . .I often hear people say that they do not want to support the community because they do not “use it.” When I hear those words I am hit in the face by how much Judaism has been turned into just another product that people either “use” or do not. Commodifying Judaism strips it of its inherent beauty and strength.”

            A few minutes ago I mentioned Robert Putnam’s book “Bowling Alone” which documents the decline of “social capital” in the United States. Social capital means the benefits we as a society get from all kinds of voluntary involvement -- churches and synagogues, volunteer fire and ambulance squads, service clubs like Rotary or Lions, and so on. If you have been involved in any of these types of groups you know that it is harder and harder to get members and to convince members to step up and become leaders. But the decrease in joining is not limited to volunteer organizations; Putnam notes that more Americans are bowling than ever, but fewer of us belong to bowling leagues -- we are “bowling alone.”
A few years ago, a Protestant minister named Lillian Daniel wrote a “Daily Devotional” for an internet e-mail list that went viral and eventually prompted her to write a whole book based on it. I shared it then. with my previous congregation, and I share it now because I think it speaks to American Jews as well, since we are at least as American as we are Jewish and we are not exempt from general societal trends.
Here is what she wrote:
“On airplanes, I dread the conversation with the person who finds out I am a minister and wants to use the flight time to explain to me that he is "spiritual but not religious." Such a person will always share this as if it is some kind of daring insight, unique to him, bold in its rebellion against the religious status quo. 

Next thing you know, he's telling me that he finds God in the sunsets. These people always find God in the sunsets. And in walks on the beach. Sometimes I think these people never leave the beach or the mountains, what with all the communing with God they do on hilltops, hiking trails and . . . did I mention the beach at sunset yet? 

Being privately spiritual but not religious just doesn't interest me. There is nothing challenging about having deep thoughts all by oneself. What is interesting is doing this work in community, where other people might call you on stuff, or heaven forbid, disagree with you. Where life with God gets rich and provocative is when you dig deeply into a tradition that you did not invent all for yourself. 

Thank you for sharing, spiritual but not religious sunset person. You are now comfortably in the norm for self-centered American culture, right smack in the bland majority of people who find ancient religions dull but find themselves uniquely fascinating. Can I switch seats now and sit next to someone who has been shaped by a mighty cloud of witnesses instead? Can I spend my time talking to someone brave enough to encounter God in a real human community?  Because when this flight gets choppy, that's who I want by my side, holding my hand, saying a prayer and simply putting up with me, just like we try to do in church. “

If you look at the liturgy of the High Holidays, almost all of it is written in the plural. We refer to God on the High Holidays as “Avinu Malkenu” -- our Parent, our Sovereign -- in the plural. We ask God for forgiveness “al chet shechatanu lifanecha” -- for the sin which we have sinned against You. We say “ashamnu, bagadnu, gazalnu”  “we have trespassed, we have dealt treacherously, we have robbed.” We, we, we; us, us, us. 
How do we understand the fact that our liturgy is in the plural? Why am I expected to confess to a whole series of sins which I have not personally committed?
As our teacher Abraham Joshua Heschel taught us: “in a free society, some are guilty, but all are responsible.” 

This sense of mutual responsibility is expressed, I think, in the requirement of a minyan for certain prayers. There is an old Yiddish saying that nine rabbis don’t make a minyan but ten horse thieves do. It is an important lesson: in order to “count” in Judaism you do not have to be a rabbi or a saint. You just have to show up.

You have to show up because we need you and because you need us -- we need each other. We need each other because together we can do what is impossible for each of us as an individual. 
The increasingly individualistic nature of American religion and Judaism’s emphasis on community come into tension particularly around the requirement for a minyan in order to say Mourner’s Kaddish. This tension was highlighted some years ago in an episode of the TV series “Northern Exposure” where the inhabitants of Cicely, Alaska, went to great lengths but were ultimately unsuccessful in putting together a minyan of ten Jews so that the lead character, Dr. Joel Fleishman, could say Kaddish for an uncle who had died. Here in Upper Montgomery County  it is generally not difficult to arrange for a minyan when one is needed but it can take a little pre-planning and maybe a few phone calls to friends and neighbors.

Some will choose to say Kaddish even without a minyan and while I do not endorse such a practice I would never attempt to prevent anyone from doing so. But I think the practice of saying Kaddish with a minyan is important and is worth some inconvenience to maintain.

The requirement for a minyan serves, I think, to force the mourner out of his or her isolation. It requires the mourner to be in contact with other people and requires the community to assist the mourner as well. Relaxing the requirement for a minyan, encouraging people to simply say Kaddish at home or wherever they are, may seem compassionate, but it undermines a core pillar of Jewish life and accelerates the disintegration of our sense of community, our sense that we are responsible to one another.
I started this talk with a thought experiment about a congregation that had the ability, in fact the requirement, of decoupling membership and finances. Unfortunately we don’t have that luxury. But Doug mentioned during his talk on Rosh Hashanah -- and it’s not the first time he’s said this -- that he considers everyone who participates in one of our activities as part of our congregation.
Some of you here today are former members of Kehilat Shalom; others have never been members but have given annually in order to attend High Holiday services. With respect and affection, I want to tell you that we need and want you to become members of our congregation. Your participation matters to us; you matter to us.
Synagogue membership is not a “fee for service” proposition where you are purchasing certain services from the congregation. It is a brit kodesh, a holy covenant. It is a two-way commitment and a two-way responsibility. 

The Days of Awe are all about teshuvah, which while we translate it as “repentance” is really closer to “return.” There are certain values which we know we ought to live by. We know that we need community, that we need each other. We know that our society can be better, that taking care of our neighbor is more important than saving a couple of bucks, that caring about others and being cared about are basic human needs. Yom Kippur comes to remind us, to call us back to a better way of life. May we have the courage to live our lives in community and with concern for each other.