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.