Rosh Hashanah 5778
Rabbi Englander's Sermons

Rosh Hashanah 5778 (Our Permanent Jewish Mindset)

Shanah tovah.

I have told you before that one thing I really like about where we live is my commute. Less than a five- minute walk, and an even shorter drive. Being so close it is easy to walk over just about any time, and especially on Shabbat and holidays which are good opportunities to think and reflect or to chat with any family member who might be in tow. What I don’t think I have ever shared is a thought that I often have while leaving the house, often in decidedly formal wear for south Florida, just as other people may be enjoying their coffee or out walking the dog, of course with a kippah on my head. And that is: how fortunate I am, how lucky we are. There have been so many places where Jews have lived – and do live – where what I’m doing right now would be considered dangerous and even risky behavior. I try to imagine what that was or what it could be like, if I had to scurry to shul, maybe leave a change of clothes here so as not to be conspicuous, or to take off my head covering that might be seen by some as a target. How lucky we are that for most of us this is a rare thought, and for our kids, a foreign one.

The following is a true story and it also really happened. I was recently walking home from B’nai Torah, on Shabbat with the suit and the kippah, passing by the homes in my usually quiet and peaceful neighborhood. And as I walked by a house very close to mine someone in the driveway unexpectedly shouted Get out of here! You don’t belong here! Get away from here! I turned and looked at the culprit – it was a female, about 5 years old, and she was yelling at a duck that had waddled a bit too close for her comfort. I couldn’t help myself, and although I’m sure the irony was lost on her, I looked right at this innocent first grader and said, “you were talking to the duck, right?”

But I will tell you that as I turned to look at who would express these unwelcome sentiments, in the half second it took to shift my line of sight, I felt the weight of Jewish history bearing down on me, and not the good parts either. If you saw the Vice News video of the white supremacist march in Charlottesville maybe you experienced a similar feeling – so many torches, illuminating so much hatred in too many eyes. I know that some of our older congregants had that thought – not again, not here. I know that some of our brothers and sisters in Barcelona, following the tragic and spiteful attack in August had that thought. The chief rabbi of the city declared “This place is lost” – it is time for the Jews to leave, before it is too late.

Soon after he made that statement we had a previously scheduled speaker here at B’nai Torah, a courageous and driven woman named Leah Soibel. She founded an organization to support Israel and counter the BDS – the pernicious boycott, divestment and sanctions movement against Israel – in the Spanish speaking world. Responding to the chief rabbi’s comments she said, simply and provocatively, “I disagree.” We don’t run, we don’t hide, we don’t pretend this work is someone else’s responsibility. We stay to counter the anti-Israel lies, to stand up to anti-Semitism if necessary, because we know that from a Jewish, from a human perspective, a society is only as fundamentally strong as the way it protects and defends its minorities, how it answers the call of our own Torah to defend the rights of and care for the widow, the orphan, the stranger, the sick, the displaced, and yes, the immigrant and the refugee. Jewish communities are now and have always been in the crosshairs of those who seek to undermine these foundational elements of a just society. Fortunately, whenever it has been physically possible, Jews have stood up to defend not only our own place but that of others who have been threatened by intolerance and bigotry.

I recently heard a story about two people who visited a museum. In the museum was a display of furniture that people typically had in their homes in whatever town the display was depicting. And one of the visitors, looking a chest of drawers, said “that one was in a Jewish home.” And his friend said how can you possibly know that? And the reply was simple: “Because that chest of drawers has wheels.”

So oh my God is this rabbi saying on Rosh Hashanah that it is time to pack up, that history is repeating itself, that our suitcases with their inline wheels should be at the ready? No – thankfully – I’m not. Though it has crossed my mind and the mind of many much smarter than me to ask where is that line between seeing warning signs and heeding them, between a society and government that is committed to legal protection for all of its citizens and the slippery slope of me but not you, him but not her, straight but not gay, white but not black or brown, this religion but not that one. Whether the current occupant of the White House is good, bad, or indifferent for the Jews or for Israel we cannot be blind to the divisive energy released during a blistering campaign. Charlottesville did not help, neither did a decidedly parave response by the President which will hopefully be balanced out by many future positive accomplishments toward national unity around better values. We take him at his word that this is a goal toward which he wishes to make progress during his time in office. Torch-wielding white supremacists, some who chanted Jews will not replace us with shocking fervor, are still the exception to our experience, but there they were, in plain sight of us and of our children.

So I am not suggesting we pack up. The forces of good in this country are evident every day. Commitment to the rule of law, checks, and balances of power, civilian oversight of the military, civil liberties and protection are second to none. In my view Charlottesville was overshadowed by Houston during and in the aftermath of a storm of devastating power, it was outdone by the response to Irma that is still unfolding as neighbors helped neighbors, when seemingly anyone with a boat became a rescuer to those in distress, collections of needed goods and supplies piled high, people took in friends and strangers and a million other acts of kindness that are representative of the true spirit of so many of our fellow Americans.
Instead I want to use this opportunity to remind you, to remind myself, that however close we feel to Judaism, whether that is expressed through regular synagogue attendance or if these are the only days you plan to be here, there are aspects of Jewish consciousness that we are all called on live with that help to define who we are and how we walk through this world. I call it PJM – our Permanent Jewish Mindset. And one part of it is to keep a small part of our minds constantly attuned to and informed by our history. Golden ages are followed by dark ones, and as the psalmist said, seeds sown in tears are reaped with joy. Nothing is permanent other than our desire to build lives of meaning no matter the circumstances, to connect to that which is eternal and to hand off this tradition that is packed full of joys and celebrations and sorrows and tragedy to those who will safeguard it in their own way. We are not allowed to be overly cynical, but we are also not permitted to be naïve.

What else does PJM require in addition to living with our history – its glories and its devastations, and trying to make sure the blessings we enjoy today last and last? I have two more suggestions that are based on stories that inspired me, and neither specifically about our fellow Jews, but each demonstrates how Jewish concerns overlap with the capacity of God’s children to live up to the hopes we believe God has for us.

I hope you remember, I hope we will all know and remember, the name Heather Heyer. She was a 32 year old paralegal who decided to put her values into action and go to a protest against the “unite the right” rally in Charlottesville. And she was run down by a 20 year old white supremacist and there is no doubt what she stood for and no doubt what he stood for and we have absorb and live with that. This protest was not a lark for Heather. Though I doubt anyone here knew her personally we rely on accounts of her friends and her mother, who said that she was constantly on the side of those who suffered from injustice of any kind. The image that stuck with me, in addition to her fateful choice to let her feet attest to her values on that night, was something said by a coworker.

Alfred A. Wilson is the manager of the bankruptcy division at the Miller Law Group in Charolottesville where Ms. Heyer worked as a paralegal. He remembered her as someone who stood up against “any type of discrimination”. And he found her at her computer crying many times. Why? Not because of a pushy client or overly demanding workload. But because “Heather being Heather has seen something on Facebook or read something in the news and realized someone has been mistreated and gets upset” he said. That is empathy at a high level. When that is matched with action, as it was for Heather in August in Charlottesville, we identify it, call it out for good, remember, and hopefully are inspired to feel and act in ways that are motivated by an always-on compassion, for those nearby and further away, which is another aspect of our permanent Jewish mindset.

Commiseration and empathy is something I have been working on, I’ll admit it, and maybe you are as well. I’m trying to understand those with whom I disagree, those who seem to stand up for – and act on – values that they hold strongly and that I find objectionable. Everyone is in this same boat, everyone knows someone who holds as unshakeable truth the very thing you do not. I have my litmus tests – I learn them from our tradition, I see them enacted by people I hold up as role models. But it would be closeminded to think I can stand here and say “Judaism says” or “Jewish people believe” because I hear, and am starting to think it just might be true, that not all Jews agree with each other on everything. I can only say “our approach to Judaism teaches” all this, that if we are to err we are to err on the side of inclusiveness, that when we say all people are created in the image of God we really mean it, that we can learn what we need to know from our Torah and also from history and the experience of others too. That we bear responsibility for living our Judaism and our values, that feeling Jewish is one thing but being Jewish in the world requires these values to be activated.

I spent my summer reading time on this theme of trying to understand. Trying to understand more about a swath of our own country that lives with pressures and a higher degree of hopelessness about the future than we might be able to imagine in J.D. Vance’s book Hillbilly Elegy. Reading Ta-Nehisi Coate’s letter to his son published as a book titled Between the World and Me, trying to learn more about what it is to live as a black American in a time when we are struggling as a country, in some areas more than others, to ensure that fully equal treatment under the law is just that. Where police departments whose work as a Jewish community we honor and are grateful for and we respect, and whose commitments and sacrifice we praise are also struggling with how to do their critical jobs with fairness and effectiveness. Going beyond our borders through the eyes of extraordinary journalist Katherine Boo to the slums of Anawadi, India in her book Beyond the Beautiful Forevers, to get the tiniest taste of a life of daily hardship that puts many other problems into their more proper perspective. As we come before God and our own conscience on these holy days, our perspective is both on our own challenges and opportunities, our blessings and our real worries, and it is also outward toward a country and world that need our values put into practice.

I’ve been talking about Jewish consciousness but I will admit there is also such a thing as rabbi consciousness. It is a rare and not entirely enviable condition of always being on the lookout for stories to share in a sermon. I don’t remember exactly where I came across this one, but it was and still seems to be just the perfect example of learning what I think are Jewish and human values from a place with almost no Jews. Well, usually there are almost no Jews. Let me explain.

Gander, Newfoundland is a small town in Canada that for a long time was known outside of Gander for one thing. It has an airport that was a refueling stop for transatlantic flights. When jet planes advanced and could go around the world on a tank of gas it was forgotten. I never heard of it, and if you heard of it before it came back into consciousness this year then, as only Canadians say, good on you.

On September 11th, 2001 American airspace was closed and all flights were diverted to the nearest airport that could receive them. Gander International had 8 flights scheduled to land that day. Within a short period of time 38 planes were on its tarmac. Pictures of the airport on that day look like a Saturday night in season at Mizner Park, except with planes full of people from every corner of the world. 6,759 passengers and crew, including terminally ill children on their way from London to Disney World, parents of a Brooklyn-based firefighter who did not know if their son was among the dead and missing of that tragic day that was also full of the most extraordinary heroism. 9 cats, 11 dogs, and a pair of endangered apes were stuck and would be for an undetermined amount of time.

Twenty-four hours later, following necessary security screening, the so-called “plane people” began descending down those stairways that are only used when something has gone wrong. They were greeted not with wariness and worry, not with a surplus army cot or a freeze-dried meal, but with every possible comfort the town of Gander could provide – hot food, home hospitality, medicine from pharmacies. The kids on their way to Orlando got a “pop up Disney” hosted by local high school students – the kids said they had such a good time it didn’t matter if they made it to the real thing. The only way to transport that many people was by school bus and the drivers happened to be on strike. Not anymore, not on that day – they all came back to work to help out. Passengers tried to pay – the money was refused. Why? As one Ganderian said “First thing you do is put yourself in their shoes and wonder how you would feel.” And another said, “Because you would do the same for us.” The ultimate expression of a teaching perhaps introduced to the world by our Torah and acted on by peaceful and faithful people everywhere, v’ahavta l’reiacha kamocha, love your neighbor as you love yourself, and you never know just who your neighbor will be or for how long.

Why was Gander back in the news this year? Because a Broadway show was staged that is based on some of these stories. It received Tony nominations, awards it might have won if not for Dear Evan Hansen. It is called Come from Away and it picked up on a last bit of inspiration, underreported at the time, involving a Chabad Rabbi, Leivi Sudak, who was on a plane that landed in Gander. To their credit, Chabad really is everywhere!

He established a vegetarian kitchen for those who kept kosher, for vegetarians, for Muslims observing Halal rules. A Holocaust survivor, whose own parents saved his life by giving him to non-Jews to raise as their own before their lives were taken, who never told anyone he was Jewish, saw this rabbi’s arrival as a sign to share his secret with somebody before he died. And as every rabbi recalls the High Holy Days were right around the corner. Flights leaving from Gander after that was again permitted would not make it back by the time Rosh Hashanah began. In a last of many acts of kindness, locals drove the rabbi and two other observant passengers 500 miles to a different airport and flight. He made it back to his family seven minutes before candle lighting. Two plane people wound up marrying each other, and all sought to comfort Hannah and Dennis O’Rourke, parents of fallen New York City firefighter Kevin.

As for Gander, when the hubbub was over by all accounts they went back to their lives and when the story was finally told of their exceptional care and concern, simply did not understand “what all the fuss was about.” They had no idea what was coming, but they did not need to adjust their basic values in order to rise to the occasion. All they had to do was activate them, live by them, express them, demonstrate them, not worry about who would notice, and only focus on the human beings who had come for an unscheduled visit.

Gander consciousness overlaps, I can only hope, with our own PJM, our permanent Jewish mindset, an acronym I invented and hope that you might consider taking with you into this year, and help me, and each other, to do the same. It includes but is not limited to carrying with us our ancestors and their multi-faceted experiences, their courage and curiosity, their steadfastness and their bravery, and their miscalculations and misplaced trust, and learning from it all. It includes the affirmation that every human being is created in the image of God, which calls on us to learn, think, feel, and act in ways that reflect this very first and most important thing the Torah teaches about being human. And we need to know what we plan to do when these values and commitments are tested, on which side of the broad spectrum of human compassion, dignity, and hope we aim to establish ourselves. This is how, eventually, we will be called to account for our very lives.

On these holy days we commit in advance to bearing our burdens with as much grace and strength as we can find, and to assist others as they travel their own inevitably bumpy road. We are not free agents; instead we are agents of God. To live up to that lofty calling is not easy but it is meaningful. Thank you God for the opportunity to make a difference and to try to build a life worthy of being remembered, bless us with strength and courage, in this New Year for Your people and our world.

Shanah tovah.