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I wore a button that said “We Are All Zionists” after the United Nations General Assembly passed its infamous -- now repealed -- resolution asserting that Zionism was a form of racism.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. 

Tuesday, October 1, 2019

Jan Karski and the Inhabitants of Sodom

Sermon delivered the first morning of Rosh Hashanah 5780
September 30, 2019
The old man got on the Metrobus on a rainy afternoon. He was having difficulty putting away his umbrella while trying, in flustered English, to secure his senior citizen bus discount. The bus passengers were upset at the delay and, hearing his accent, cast their anger frontward at him: someone shouted “go back to where you came from."

But the old man couldn’t go back to where he came from and hadn’t been in his native country for over 40 years. The man was Jan Karski, a professor in Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service. Jan Karski was the greatest man I ever knew personally. He was one of the most popular professors in the Foreign Service School and everyone in the program had to take his course in “Modern Foreign Governments”, so there were usually 200 or more people in the class. I took his class during the fall semester of 1978 and one day in September he made an announcement before he began his lecture. He said that his classes on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur would be taped and copies left in the dean’s office so that anyone who observed those holidays could get copies.
Other professors made accommodations for Jewish students who had to miss classes if they were asked, but Karski was the only professor outside of the Theology Department who proactively did so. At the time, I was a little surprised that this Polish Catholic professor with the thick accent and courtly manner did this, but I didn’t know his story then.
Jan Karski was not his real name. He was born Jan Kozielewski to an aristocratic family and served briefly in the Polish diplomatic corps before the Nazis conquered Poland. After the Nazi conquest he joined the Polish underground. In 1940, because of his knowledge of several languages, he became a courier between the underground and the Polish Government in Exile, which was in London. This is when he adopted the pseudonym Jan Karski. During one of his missions, in July 1940, he was arrested by the Gestapo in Slovakia and severely tortured. He managed to escape.
In 1942 Karski was twice smuggled by Jewish underground leaders into the Warsaw Ghetto for the purpose of directly observing what was happening to Polish Jews. Also, disguised as an Estonian camp guard, he visited a sorting and transit point for the Bełżec death camp. Karski then went to London where he met with Polish politicians in exile and the British Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden, giving a detailed statement on what he had seen in Warsaw and Bełżec. In 1943 he traveled to the United States, meeting with President Franklin D. Roosevelt in the Oval Office, telling him about the situation in Poland and becoming the first eyewitness to tell him about the Jewish Holocaust. He also described what he had seen to Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter.
In 1944, at the request of the Polish Government in Exile, Karski wrote a book about his mission which sold 400,000 copies. When Karski first came to Washington in 1943 he intended to return to Poland once the Allies defeated the Nazis. But as a devout Catholic and fervent anticommunist, he decided to remain rather than go back to the newly-Communist Poland. He got his Ph.D. at Georgetown, joined its faculty, and never spoke about his experiences again until some 40 years later. He had agreed to be profiled by the Washington Post and this lead to him being interviewed by Claude Lanzmann for his magisterial documentary “Shoah.” Karski’s story became known; he was honored by many synagogues and Jewish organizations. Yad Vashem formally named him a “Righteous Gentile” and the State of Israel gave him honorary citizenship. When Communism fell, the Polish government also honored him. He died in the year 2000 and in 2012 he was posthumously awarded the United States Presidential Medal of Freedom.
Although he was honored throughout the world as a hero, Karski always rejected that label. Indeed, he considered himself to have been a failure. Although he understood that the likelihood of success was small, he had hoped to motivate the Allied powers to take action to save at least some of the Jews who were doomed to be murdered. He failed at this, and it haunted him to the very end. In 1965 Karski married Pola Nierenska, a Polish Jewish woman, whose entire family had been killed in the Holocaust; she died of suicide in 1992 when she jumped from their Bethesda balcony.
In 1981 Karski gave one of his first public speeches, to a gathering of American liberators of concentration camps. Reminding them that he had failed in his mission, he said; “And thus I myself became a Jew. And just as my wife’s entire family was wiped out in the ghettos of Poland, in its concentration camps and crematoria – so have all the Jews who were slaughtered become my family. But I am a Christian Jew… I am a practicing Catholic… My faith tells me the second original sin has been committed by humanity. This sin will haunt humanity until the end of time. And I want it to be so.”
Although Jan Karski eventually married a Polish Jewish Holocaust survivor, this was more than twenty years after he repeatedly risked his life to make sure the world knew what was happening. Why did he do it?
There are some people for whom Karski’s actions would not make sense if their thinking was followed to its logical conclusion. The first time that I ever received hate mail (back when it took some effort to send hate mail because it involved paper and a pen and an envelope and a postage stamp) was in January 1993 when I was the Hillel Director at American University. I had just returned from visiting Haiti with nine other rabbis and there was a story about my trip on the front page of the Washington Jewish Week. I received a couple of angry and obscene letters from people who felt that unless a problem was specifically affecting Jews, we should not get involved.
This attitude persists today. On September 13 this year the Jewish Community Relations Council cosponsored a rally in downtown Rockville in support of immigrants’ rights. JCRC Facebook posts often garner lots of comments and discussions but most JCRC posts deal with support for Israel and opposition to antisemitism and garner negative comments from antisemites, racists, and haters of Israel. But the JCRC posts about the immigrant rights rally received lots of negative comments from people who appear to be Jewish, saying the JCRC should stick to defending Jews and Israel and not worry about other people.
In Pirkei Avot Chapter 5 Mishna 10, we come across a somewhat curious teaching: There are four types of people: One who says, "What is mine is yours, and what is yours is mine" is an ignoramus. One who says "What is mine is mine, and what is yours is yours" -- this is an intermediate characteristic; others say that this is the character of Sodom. One who says, "What is mine is yours, and what is yours is yours" is a chassid [pious person]. And one who says "What is mine is mine, and what is yours is mine" is wicked.
Most of this Mishna makes intuitive sense. If what’s mine is yours and what’s yours is mine, we have disorder and confusion. If I say what’s mine is mine and what’s yours is mine, I’m a sociopath. If I was the kind of person who said mi casa es su casa and really meant it, I’d be some kind of saint. But “what’s mine is mine and what’s yours is yours” seems to be quite reasonable; while it’s true that the Mishnah says that this is characteristic of an average person, it goes on that “some say” that this is the characteristic of the people of Sodom -- who, you will remember, were destroyed by God for their sins.
Because we live in a society that is predominantly Christian, many American Jews know only the Christian teaching that the sin of Sodom was homosexuality. But that isn’t the way the Jewish tradition reads it. The Prophet Ezekiel said : “‘Now this was the sin of your sister Sodom: She and her daughters were arrogant, overfed and unconcerned; they did not help the poor and needy.” And the Midrash Pirkei deRabbi Eliezer states: “It was declared in Sodom: ‘Whoever shares his bread with the stranger, orphan, and the poor shall be burned at the stake.’”

Orthodox rabbi Benjamin Hecht of Toronto explains the rabbinic understanding of the social order in Sodom. “The Sodomite would not steal from another but, on principle, he/she also would not extend a helping hand. ... The fact is that in Sodom, it was considered wrong for someone to receive something for nothing or to give something to another for nothing. To them, this was an important societal ‘value’, necessary for the proper functioning of a community. From a Jewish perspective, the adherence to such a negative moral viewpoint, though, was deemed to be the key nature of the evil within the population of Sodom. The driving force of the Sodomites in the story was their opinion that a wrong was committed, that it was ‘immoral’ [to give something for nothing] no matter what the circumstances. This drove the Sodomites to act. They had a ‘principle’ that what’s mine is mine and what’s yours is yours and nothing should be given for nothing.” “From a Jewish perspective, the story of Sodom is . . .one of ‘committed’ citizens motivated by an evil principle, which they believed to be correct, that was being violated.”
Jan Karski was the polar opposite of the citizens of Sodom. He was tortured and risked his life in an effort to convince the Western powers to save Jews. He did this even though he was not Jewish. He failed in his mission because the Western powers could not be convinced that saving Jewish lives was worth the investment in munitions and manpower to do so.
The Jan Karski Educational Foundation was established not only to honor his memory but to urge humanity to follow in his footsteps. The Foundation created the “Spirit of Jan Karski Award” to recognize “individuals who through their actions have demonstrated the values represented by Jan Karski and have distinguished themselves by defending human rights, speaking out against aggression and on behalf of the integrity of ethnic and religious groups and sovereign nations.” Award recipients include NY Times columnist Nicholas Kristof, for calling public attention to humanitarian crises throughout the world; Ambassador Samantha Power, for advancing the cause of genocide prevention; and the late Senator John McCain, “ for his courageous leadership and willingness to speak truth to power about international acts of aggression.”
As long as there is a Jewish community we will argue with each other about how much time, energy, and money we should devote to specifically Jewish interests and how much to the general welfare. If we do not take care of our own needs, we will not exist. But if we only take care of our own needs we have no reason to exist; nor would we have a right to complain when others don’t help us when we are in need. Or as Hillel put it over 2000 years ago: “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? But if I am only for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?”

When we reach out to serve others -- a Christmas brunch at the Men’s Emergency Shelter, collecting school supplies for children in need, sending clothing and toys and hygiene supplies to asylum seekers in Nogales, Mexico -- we do not do it because the people we are helping are Jewish. We do it because we are Jewish. When Israeli search-and-rescue and rebuilding teams go to the Bahamas, when Israeli doctors help refugees in Syria -- they do not do it because those being helped are Jewish. They do it because they are Jewish and understand that we are called to be a light unto the nations.
At the end of this day, the world will either be a more or less kind, compassionate, and loving place because of your presence. As we ask God to inscribe us for blessing in the book of life, it is these qualities which will define us.