My Kol Nidre Talk

I’m currently in my second year of a two year term as president of my synagogue, Congregation Shomrei Torah.  It is customary for the synagogue president to give the sermon or “drash” on Kol Nidre, the evening service that begins Yom Kippur, what is often called the holiest day in the Jewish year.  It has been my honor to give this talk for the past two years.  I hope that I have been able to share some words that have been meaningful to people.  

Tonight, I’m going to talk about why what happens in synagogues saves lives.

You may have a noticed, we recently had a rather large thunderstorm named Irma come ripping through the State of Florida.  I don’t enjoy life much without air conditioning or internet, so I accepted an invitation from my in-laws to join them and my wife, Barbara, at their home in Cleveland, Ohio.  I loaded up my car with our two dogs, a cat, my favorite guitar, 3 laptop computers, a box of Blue Apron meals and I headed north.  I evacuated through Bainbridge, Georgia where I made the turn west towards Montgomery, Alabama and interstate 65.  At the point where I made the turn in Bainbridge I saw the most amazing thing.  This large group people was on the side of the road with tables, grills, and cookers in what looked like a big party.  Along side the road I saw signs inviting evacuees like me to stop and have a free meal.  Looking at this, I was really in awe because Bainbridge was clearly in the path of the storm, and yet here were these people giving out free cooked meals to strangers.  How awesome is that?  As I drove along, I thought about this, and wondered why we don’t see this kind of generosity and kindness when things are going well.  Why does it take impending disaster or crisis for us to be our most altruistic selves?  Why do we give away free food to refugees during times of crisis, but debate things like food stamps and school lunches during times of plenty?

Why does it take impending disaster or crisis for us to be our most altruistic selves?

This summer I read the book “Tribe”, by combat reporter Sebastian Junger, in which he tells the story of Great Britain before and during WWII.  When it became evident to the British government that war with Germany was inevitable and that the Germans were certain to bomb the British cities, there was great concern how the population would react. Never before had a civilian population been bombed.  The government feared that once the German bombs started falling, all social order would collapse, there would be mass hysteria and psychosis,  factories would stop producing goods, and the war would be lost due to public disorder.

The interesting thing is that’s not what happened. British society didn’t fall apart. In fact, the opposite occurred.  When the bombs started falling, crime plummeted, anarchy didn’t occur. In fact, conduct in the bomb shelters was so good the police never had to be called to restore order.  The more the bombs fell the more productivity in factories increased. Most surprisingly, Psychiatrists noted that patients with long-term mental disorders suddenly improved.  Suicide rates, dramatically decreased.

These phenomena generated the interest of social scientists who continue to study it and have been observed many times since during other times of crisis.  Sociologist Emile Durkheim found in his research that when European countries went to war, suicide rates dropped and that psychiatric wards emptied. The same effect also applies to natural disasters.  Researchers found that despite news reports, crime rates in New Orleans actually decreased post-Katrina and that much of the looting was nothing more than people looking for food.  In the six months following the 9/11 attacks the suicide rate in NYC dropped by 20% and the murder rate by 40%.  As a nation, we saw no rampage shootings in the two years following 9/11.

Psychologist Charles Fritz studied the impact of disasters and the resulting improvements in mental health and he theorized that while modern society has greatly disrupted the traditional social bonds of human experience, disasters thrust us back into a more natural way of being by erasing class barriers, income barriers, and even the barriers of race and replacing them with a community of sufferers that allows individuals to experience an immensely reassuring connection to others.

One earthquake survivor gave a less scientific explanation when he said that the earthquake achieved what the law promises, but doesn’t deliver – the equality of all people.

he said that the earthquake achieved what the law promises, but doesn’t deliver – the equality of all people

What about the effects of peace, stability, and affluence? As Jews living in modern America we are enjoying one of the most prosperous and peaceful times in all of Jewish history.  As Americans, we live in what is the wealthiest society that’s ever existed in human history.  Things should be good, right?

Well, let’s look at the data.  In the United States deaths for from overdose, suicide and alcohol related causes, commonly known as the diseases of despair, have increased dramatically since 1998.  For white women that number is a shocking 381% increase.  These numbers are the highest in the industrialized world and are in stark contrast to every other industrialized country where such deaths are decreasing.

The portrait of teens emerging from the data is only of a lonely disconnected generation where social life is conducted online rather than in person.

When we look at the data for our children we see some very interesting and disturbing trends.  On a positive note, psychology professor Jean Tweage, in a September 2017 article in Atlantic magazine reports that the data shows that American adolescents today are physically safer than any prior generation, are less likely to experiment with alcohol or drugs, are less sexually active, are less likely to smoke, and that teenage pregnancy rates are at historical lows. She also says that we have a generation on the verge of a mental health crisis.   She reports that rates of teenage depression have sky rocketed in recent years. Three times as many 12-14 year old girls committed suicide in 2015 as did in 2007. The portrait of teens emerging from the data is only of a lonely disconnected generation where social life is conducted online rather than in person.  Interestingly, the data stretching back to the 1930’s shows the lives of adolescents began changing in 2007 and the rate of change became exponential in 2012. What do you think happened in those years? (The iPhone was introduced in 2007, and in 2012 we reached a threshold where 50% of people had smart phones).

Modern society has perfected the art of making people feel not necessary

So, what’s the deal with us where our mental health improves in times of war and mass disasters, and deteriorates when things are good? Returning to Sebastian Junger, he postulates that “Humans don’t mind hardship, in fact they thrive on it; what they mind is not feeling necessary.  Modern society has perfected the art of making people feel not necessary.”  This same idea is found in the writing of Rabbi Harold Kushner who said: “One of the basic needs of every human being is the need to be loved, to have our wishes and feelings taken seriously, to be validated as people who matter.”

As Jews, we are a tribal people living in an age of globalism.  Globalism brings many great things into our lives, but it comes at a cost, and that cost is emotional benefits of tribal connection and the loss of struggle.  In other words, alienation.

What does all this mean for us as a Jewish community and why I am talking about this on Kol Nidre?  It’s because this is where synagogues become important and save lives.  When people find connection and community in our synagogue we help immunize them from the diseases of despair that have become epidemic in America today.

To be counted in a minyan one isn’t required to be scholarly, observant, wealthy, or good-looking

In a global world, we provide the tribal component that is missing is so many of our lives. Judaism is often referred to as a tribal religion and we see elements of this scattered throughout our rituals.  For example, when we say Kaddish or read Torah, we are commanded to have 10 adult Jews present.  To be counted in a minyan one isn’t required to be scholarly, observant, wealthy, or good-looking.  Just being a Jew is enough, nothing else is required.  Tomorrow when we recite the Al Het and confess our sins, we do this as a community, not as individuals.  We share the burden of our sin together and together we seek a pathway to redemption. I also see this concept of tribalism present in the Torah. We’re all familiar with the many lines contained in the Torah that remind us to “love our neighbor as our self”.

Congregation Shomrei is a place that is rooted in tribal connection.  When we come to this synagogue, we combat alienation and despair.  We share more than just ancient ritual, we share a tribal connection.  We do this when we come to services or events and we put away our cell phones and we share the stories of our lives, when we stand on the Bimah as I am right now and we share our Torah or our ritual skills, when we feed each other with amazing Onegs, Kiddush lunches, and Shabbat diners, when we welcome children and new parents with baby namings and bris’s, then we watch those children grow up in our religion school, we see them become Bar or Bat Mitzvahs under the watchful eye of our volunteer Bar/Bat Mitzvah tutors, when we go out into the world together when we feed the homeless at the Kerney Center, when we watch each other grow older, when we support each other in times of sickness, With our Hevre Kadisha we even care for each other after death.  This year we expanded our tribal connections when made the important choice to extend membership to non-Jewish spouses because we realized that those who share their lives with our members are an indispensable part of our community. All of these things, help us to be a part of something that is greater than ourselves. The things that happen in these walls give our lives meaning and I invite you to be a part of this experience we call synagogue life.  For a small rural lay-led synagogue run completely on volunteer labor, this Congregation is amazing and there is great beauty in our community.

Don’t separate yourself from the community

I’m told that it is customary for the synagogue president to ask you for money on Kol Nidre.  There is always a need for money in any synagogue.  To those of you how are able and have shared your financial wealth with us, I thank you. We couldn’t do it without your support, but what I hope that I have communicated to you tonight is how your support of Congregation Shomrei Torah translates into something that is much larger than mere dollars.  This really is about life in both a literal and a metaphorical sense.  For those of you who struggle financially, I want you to know you are not alone and that you matter every bit as much the big donors.  If all you have to share is your time or your stories, that’s fine.  We always need volunteers and there is always room for one more at our table.

I am going close with the words of Hillel from Piriki Avot who said: “Don’t separate yourself from the community” to which I would add, this is not just for your sake, but for mine and everyone else who is part of the Shomrei Torah Community. Our lives are at stake and you make the difference.  At Shomrei Torah we are all necessary.

Kol Nidre Talk – Wonder, Awe, and Radical Amazement

Life has been busy lately and I’ve gotten behind on my blog posting.  I’m currently working on a couple of posts that I’m sure you will enjoy.  However, until I am able to finish those pieces, my friend, Howard, asked me to post a copy of my Kol Nidre talk at the synagogue where I am currently serving a term as president.  I hope you enjoy it. Understand, this was written as a speech, not an essay, so there may be typos or grammatical errors in the text. 

How would you respond if someone asked you the question “Why would you chose to be Jewish?”.  It’s probably not a question you’ve been asked before, but it happens to me occasionally. See, my Mother is a Methodist and my Father is a long lapsed Baptist, which means that about 25 years I made a decision to be Jewish, something that can surprise people. Interestingly, people generally respond with one of two questions depending upon their background.

If I’m talking with a Christian, they always ask me. What about Christmas or what about bacon?  That’s understandable, both Christmas and bacon can be pretty good.

However, if I’m speaking with another Jew, then the question is different.  What do you think Jews ask? The answer is that they always as “Why would you want to be Jewish?”.

That we as Jews would ask each other “Why be Jewish?” is very interesting to me.  I’m pretty confident that my Methodist relatives don’t ask newcomers to their Church why be Methodist.  In their world, it just makes sense.

As puzzling as the question may be, it’s equally puzzling to me that that I never have felt like I’ve been able to articulate a truly honest answer either.

I usually respond by saying something like “I read some of the writings of the Rabbis and I was so moved that I wanted to learn more”, but let’s be honest, you don’t have to become Jewish to read or learn from the writings of the Rabbis.  You can order all the books you want off Amazon and study to your hearts content.

I could say that, truthfully, that Judaism helps bring balance to my life, but it’s not necessary to be Jewish to live a balanced life.  Indeed, sometimes my Jewish life feels pretty unbalanced.  Besides, I think the Buddhists are really the experts when it comes to balanced living.

I could say what I was looking for community and found it in the Jewish people, but there are times when I’m pretty isolative and there are lots of communities out there to be part of, most of which don’t require you to go through a ritual circumcision to join.

Abraham Joshua Heschel
Abraham Joshua Heschel

So, why be Jewish?  It’s not just my question.  It’s the question that faces every one of us whether we are Jewish through birth or conversion.  Indeed, in an age of declining synagogue membership, Why be Jewish may be the most important questions we can ask ourselves?

I often find guidance in the wisdom of the writings of Abraham Joshuah Heschel, so I went looking to see what Heschel has to say about why be Jewish?  After all, Heschel knew something about the struggle to be Jewish.  He barely escaped the Nazis, lost his mother and two sisters to the holocaust, and another sister to German bombs.  Although ordained as an Orthodox Rabi he found himself at the Conservative Jewish Theological Seminary where he became a legendary scholar and theologian.  Active in the civil rights movement, he marched beside Martin Luther King, Jr. during the Selma march.

Heschel wrote: “Never in my life did I ask G-d for success, or wisdom, or power, or fame.  I asked for wonder, and he gave it to me.”  Of religion he wrote: ““The root of religion is the question what to do with the feeling for the mystery of living, what to do with awe, wonder and amazement.” (God in Search of Man, p. 162) He sees wonder as an absolute necessity when he writes: “The beginning of our happiness lies in the understanding that life without wonder is not worth living.”  Heschel’s writings on wonder also refer to it as “radical amazement” which he sees as a prerequisite of authentic awareness.

I wonder if people would accept the answer that the reason to be Jewish is the opportunity to live a life of awe and wonder?  Thinking about my Jewish life, reflecting back on my experiences, I can say that Heschel might be onto something, provided I pay attention.

When I was a law student I lived in New York City.   Every Saturday I would take the train to the upper west side, then walk a couple blocks to Congregation Ansche Chesed, then climb the stairs up 5 stories to a classroom to daven with a group of 20-30 people who made-up the West Side Minyan. The folks who attended this minyan were a diverse group, we ranged from students like to software developers, to several ordained Rabbis and faculty members at Jewish Theological Seminary.  The leaders of the minyan were a group of women who who made sure the davening was top notch and that all who attended were welcome.  Before I knew it they had me laining Torah and when Barbara visited she was invited to read the Haftarah which mention because it’s the only place where I’ve ever seen my wife intimidated by the davening level.

One day as we were finishing service and going through the announcements a woman in a very modest turquois dress with a scarf on her head stood and asked to speak.  I didn’t really know her, but I was used to seeing her every week as she came in which her son and daughter.   As I turned to look at her I could see an ashen look to her skin color, her muscles looked weak, as she didn’t seem to have any hair underneath the scarf on her head.

In a determined voice she addressed us all: “I saw my doctor this week and he says that my cancer treatment isn’t working.  He doesn’t give me much time and I’m concerned because my daughter has her Bat Mitzvah coming up next year.  My husband doesn’t care about this stuff and I’m worried that if I’m not here, she won’t become a Bat Mitzvah.  I’m asking if you can please make sure she has a Bat Mitzvah if I’m not here.”

Watching the response of the women who led that minyan I knew that I was witnessing something very special and very sacred, maybe more sacred than the prayers and rituals we’d just finished performing, something that transcended even our own mortality.  It might sound strange, but I felt honored to witness that moment.  There was no doubt in my mind that her daughter would have the Bat Mitzvah. I knew, and I think she did too, that her community would keep its promise. And it did.  I would love to tell you she was there for her daughter’s bat mitzvah, but the doctor’s prognosis was correct, she died a few months earlier, but I think Heschel was correct too. Watching that community make a dying mother’s dream come true will always be an experience of awe, wonder, and amazement to me.

I would add that on those rare occasions when I have had the opportunity to visit New York and make to Saturday morning services at West Side Minyan, I always see the daughter, now a young woman davening the prayers her mother passed on to her. In my eyes, that is wonder.

When I look around Congregation Shomrei Torah, I see wonder, awe, and radical amazement.  I feel a sense of awe when I see people who, every month, not only go and feed the homeless, but they take time to see them and talk with them in a way that reaffirms their humanity.  I am radically amazed as I see our members who I know have funded Bar and Bat Mitzvahs for children whose parents couldn’t afford it.  I experience awe as I see people who provided Jewish burial for an indigent man without family and who regularly sit up late at night so that our dead are not left alone before burial.  I am constantly amazed by our volunteer Bar and Bat Mitzvah tutors, not just for children, but for anyone who wants to learn.  I am amazed by our community that made a decision that no child should ever be denied a Jewish education so they made their religion school free.  I feel a sense of wonder when I remember how a couple years ago you stepped up and supported Beit T’Shuvah, a Jewish drug treatment center, that helped a member of community who remains sober and employed to this day.  I am in awe of the many small acts of kindness and chesed such as the member who came to my house in the middle in the night after I called him for help when I came in the door and unexpectedly found my 115-pound dog dead on the floor, or the see the faces of the parade of visitors I encountered when I went to visit a member who was in the hospital waiting for surgery just a few weeks ago.  So many moments of wonder and awe.

A life of wonder, awe, and radical amazement
A life of wonder, awe, and radical amazement

But here’s the deal, to experience those moments of wonder and awe I had to something.  I had to show-up and engage.  Signing on facebook, sending an email, or even reading a book isn’t sufficient. I had to show up and engage despite that the fact that it wasn’t always easy, that people in synagogues aren’t always perfect and sometimes they gossip, sometimes they’re cliquish, and sometimes the services don’t inspire me, or I don’t agree with the sermon.  To experience the moments of awe and wonder, I had to show up and engage.

It’s tradition that on Kol Nidre the synagogue President talks gives a talk encouraging monetary donations to the synagogue.  Money is always needed and your donation are incredibly important to us, but we more than money, we need your engagement.  We’re a small lay-led synagogue, nothing happens here that you guys don’t make happen, and the truth is, we’re running short on volunteers.  So many of you have enjoyed the wonderful Shabbat dinners that come out of our kitchen, but it’s becoming increasingly difficult for us to recruit people to help prepare those meals.  A large number of our board members have served 3,4,5, or more terms and are planning to step down at the end of their terms, but they have no successors in place.  I became your President, not because I came up through the ranks of the board, but because there was no one else who was willing to take the job.  To secure our survival we need the next generation of leaders to step-up.

I want to clarify the relationship at Shomrei Torah between volunteer engagement and our finances.  We are able to keep our dues low and to offer free religion school because of our volunteers.  Fewer volunteers mean we either have to do less, or we have to hire people to make things happen, which means increasing our dues.

We have the benefit of a board that has done very well in providing a full service synagogue while keeping member dues among the lowest in the United States.  Earlier this year I attended a training for synagogue Presidents run by United Synagogues and the other synagogue presidents were all amazed by what we are able to accomplish on a very small budget and no professional staff.

I’m not going to mislead you, we’re doing a lot of great things here at Shomrei Torah, and we have the potential to grow and be here for many years to come, but we also face some very real and imminent threats that we need your help to address.

We are very proud of our free religion school, but we recently had to increase our teacher salaries to ensure we paid our teachers fairly.  This created a $7,000 deficit in our budget that we’ve temporarily offset with the funds from the office administrator position which is currently vacant.  I am hoping that you will help us restore those funds by giving direct donations to the religion school so we can continue to pay our teachers and help the next generation see the awe, wonder, and radical amazement of a Jewish life.

Rabbi Merrill Shapiro
Rabbi Merrill Shapiro

In the past week so many of you have come to me and told me how much you enjoyed having Rabbi Shapiro with for Rosh Hashanah, so much so that we invited him back to be with us tonight and tomorrow.  Although we’re a lay-led synagogue, we’re very proud of our Scholar in Residence weekends where we bring-in excellent Rabbis from all over the country for weekends of study and learning. If you’ve enjoyed Rabbi Shapiro, or any of our other Rabbis, please remember that these weekends take a lot of work from a lot volunteers and they are expensive.  Not only do we have to pay the Rabbis an honorarium, we have to provide travel expenses, housing, food has to be purchased, meals have to be arranged and prepared, someone has to carry them from their hotel to the synagogue, the event has to advertised.

The list goes on, but I know that your attention isn’t limitless.  I want you to know that what happens here at Congregation Shomrei Torah is important. We do more than just pass on tradition, we change lives and we create community.  No other synagogue in our area offers the opportunities you will find in this building and in this community.   We may not have the biggest building or the professional staff you will find in other places, but we can provide the warmest welcome, a more intimate community, and more opportunities to participate than any other synagogue that I know of.

Why be Jewish?  I may not be able to articulate the answer perfectly, but if you show-up and engage, keep your eyes open, I know you’ll experience wonder, awe, and radical amazement and then you’ll know that your time and your financial investment in a Jewish life returns, as Heschel says, “A life worth living”.