Rabbi David Gelfand: Kol Nidre 5780
So, for the last six months, if you happened to walk by Temple Israel on a Sunday early morning, late morning, or late afternoon you might be a little confused. There’s a sign outside that says Redeemer Church. It’s not a joke. Last winter we were approached by a Megachurch here in New York that had been meeting on its East Side branch at Hunter College, and chose to seek whether or not we would be willing to open our doors to them. It happens to be that Sundays are the only sort of semi-dark day here at Temple Israel, for in the olden days when religious school used to be on Sunday morning, maybe it had something that kept it busy then, but those days are long, long gone. And so, while there are a handful of mornings that we are fully using the building, and there are Sunday evenings when our high school academy meets, in between we agreed, and so it is my pleasure to introduce to you the new friend at Temple Israel, Reverend Abe Ibrahim Cho, who’s used to speaking up here three times every Sunday. That’s even more than I do on Shabbat.
I come with words of greeting, words of friendship and gratitude from Redeemer Church East Side. We frankly have been overwhelmed at the hospitality that we have received since being in… meeting in your home for the last six months. The community here has welcomed us in really astonishing ways.
At our evening service, which is at 5 PM a few Sundays ago we had a new drummer who was playing with our band, it’s a Gospel band, for the very first time, who happened to be Jewish. And so he walked into the building, and he looked around and he said, “This place is the place of my people.” And he looked around, and looked at me and said, “Your pastor is Asian; the Music Director, you’re an African-American woman; I’m a Jew having Presbyterian Church in a Jewish Temple I am so confused right now.” But then he said, “Wow. Wow, do I love this.”
In a cultural moment, where our society is marked by so much polarization, hostility, hatred, and tragically violence, maybe we need more spaces that confuse? And maybe one of the best ways we can stand together, how we may stand with you against the bigotry, racism, violence, and anti-Semitism that seems to be on the rise – maybe the best way to do that is to create places of friendship, confusing friendship. And more specifically in the spirit of this holy day, to create friendships marked by repentance, and forgiveness, and reconciliation. For God knows, we need that.
When we were preparing to move from our former meeting place in the Hunter College Auditorium on 68th Street to Temple Israel, one of the changes that we knew we needed to prepare our congregation for was the required security check upon entrance. But I took that as a teaching moment. It was a reminder each week of the history of anti-Semitism in this country and beyond. And what is more, the ways in which that anti-Semitism was far, far too often justified with Christian theology.
And so we’d need not just confusing friendships, we need friendships of repentance, of truth telling, of forgiveness, of reconciliation. We need friendships that to me seem to be friendships in the spirit of Yom Kippur.
And so today I count it an honor to have been invited in here to share this sacred moment with you as a friend. Thank you for the uncommon hospitality embrace that we have received. We only hope that one day we might somehow be able to return that favor to you. And so to you, to your loved ones, and all of Temple Israel, L’Shanah Tovah. Thank you.
Why, thank you, Rabbi. How grateful I am that you are here, Reverend Cho, senior Pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church, a protégé of Pastor Tim Keller who created one of America’s Megachurches right here in Manhattan, who not only shares our building with us on Sundays, but shares this sacred night with us. I hope that as our congregants see you about the building or town, you will be greeted as warmly as I am. I mean it’s hard enough to know all these congregants, or at least make it seem like I do, but now I’ve got your congregants who are stopping me on the street, out front of Temple Israel, all over the place.
We believe our evolving friendship is a much needed symbol in this day and age. A healing balm for this fractured world. As I was preparing for Rosh Hashanah the Sunday before last, I came here to work in my study downstairs where I prefer to do some writing. It was a Sunday, after all, in my mind I thought, it’ll be quiet at the Temple. And then as I was walking up 75th Street I all of a sudden remembered, oh wow, the Church is here, and then as I walked in, I said, where are they in the service? He’s just begun to speak.
So, I couldn’t help myself, even though I should have been downstairs at my computer, or reading, I came in and stood in the back. Talk about audacious hospitality. At least a dozen people came up to me and said, can we find you a seat? Reverend Cho had just begun his sermon. He was deep in a theological reference. He paused, if I remember it was something like this, and you kind of looked up there. I wasn’t sure if it was the blinding of that light, or all of a sudden you were about to say something profound, and he said, does anyone here remember the movie “Dumb and Dumber”?
He had me hooked. I had never seen the movie. But I did see all the people smiling, and him trying not to laugh as he continued. He said something like this: Remember the lead character, kind of a buffoon, who asks a beautiful woman, do you think that there is a chance that you would go out with me? Not good, she responds. Not good, he says, like 1 out of 100? No, not good, like 1 out of a million. And then he says, so you’re telling me there’s a chance? Yeah!
Afterwards, I thanked him for the story. I said, it will find a place. [LAUGHTER] That’s why I made you stay up, out late tonight, and be here. One in a million… one in a million. That’s about the chance that we’ll wake up tomorrow morning, and the news will be all good, sweet, and life affirming. One in a million. Yeah. I’ll take it.
One of the greatest rabbinic scholars of the Talmudic period, Ravah, suggests a series of questions that God will pose to us on the days of awe. Yamim Noraim. And it won’t matter whether you’re in the Sanctuary, or at home live streaming, as we have people all over the world watching us, it doesn’t matter where you are, God will have this expectation, if you have the expectation that you plan, or hope to be, in the Book of Life in the coming year.
Did you deal honestly in business? Did you set aside time to learn something, to study? Did you create something in the past year? And will you create something anew in the coming year? And the unexpected and difficult question this year, did you live with hope in your heart?
We all know the answer to the latter. Not all the time, or maybe not as much as I wish I did. The world has been much too much with us, and for some people, hope has become a four-letter word. For too many people it is so much easier to be angry than to hope.
For some people it is easier to hate than to hope. In this year the lingua franca has become the language of hate. It is now expected, and it is accepted in ways that we have never seen in our collective lifetime.
The author, James Baldwin once imagined, one of the reasons people cling to their hate so stubbornly is because they sense, once hate is gone, they will have to deal with reality, and the reality is painful. Pain can elicit existential issues of shame, and betrayal, and abandonment. There is plenty to be pessimistic about. The world’s in turmoil, and it’s become easy to feel overwhelmed and sometimes despondent. From the air we breathe, to the water we drink; from the polarization in our country, to the bigotry that speaks every language of the world.
Positive psychologist founder Martin Seligman teaches the defining characteristic of pessimists is that they tend to believe bad events will last a long time, and will undermine everything they do, and are their own fault somehow. The optimists, who are confronted with the same hard knocks of the world, tend to believe that defeat is just a temporary setback. Confronted by a bad situation, they perceive it is a challenge, and will try to think of ways to try harder and do better.
Judaism is a religion, ultimately, that strives to bring light to where there is darkness, as Leonard Cohen sang about. All you need is a little crack, and the light can come through. And if you don’t believe Jewish tradition, well, we have a custom here, some people eat Chinese food around Christmas time. Here we serve Chinese food to the staff at lunch, Erev Yom Kippur, and my fortune cookie said, “Hope is the best stimulant of life”. Not bad for a fortune cookie. Okay, it’s not really a fortune, if you think about it, but it’s still a good maxim.
As I did, and as Reverend Cho just mentioned, as his congregants were to come to the synagogue, I informed him that I wanted to apologize about the security. And I want to apologize to you about the security. You see some of it, and some of it you do not, that is on purpose. And yes, some of them are packing. It’s a little safer feeling than the U.S. Marshal who used to sit over here on Friday nights, and informed me after her first service what she did. She said, I hope it’s okay if I’m packing. And I looked for a bag.
What Reverend Cho was trying to tell us, is what I was reminded of when they were going to come here. It is one of the great tragedies of the moment. You don’t need to be searched, wanded, or go through a metal detector to go into a church. Don’t misunderstand me, each night as I leave this building I thank the security officers, and after a service, I shake hands with New York’s Finest and thank them for being here. I am sorry that we have to have such security. And I’m sorry for our children and grandchildren, all the kids who come to synagogue, or to any Jewish institution today, this is not the world that we wanted for them, and it is not the world that we expected.
Yes, when I travel to synagogues around the world, I know to bring my passport, but it was supposed to be different in this country. We wanted the world to be without prejudice and anti-Semitism, and here in America the Jewish community fought diligently for civil rights and civil liberties, and we fought for inclusion, and we fought for open doors. And Logan had other ways to tell us the same, and more, for which we are grateful.
And we thought… we thought naively that the days of the swastika were over.
There is only one good element that I can share with you in this strange, difficult, challenging time. While the numbers of anti-Semitic incidents have gone through the roof, more about that in a moment… before all this started, a decade ago, only 14% of Americans identified themselves as having anti-Semitic beliefs. Today the new polls tell us 14% of Americans identify. The difference is, the genie is out of the bottle, and they believe that it is okay, that mainstreamed bigotry and prejudice is acceptable.
But America’s story was the narrative of the Jewish people. It was escape from tyranny, cross the sea, and come to the wilderness. Arrived in a country, a blessing to be a promised land. And we have believed in that promise, and I pray we still do. But the photo is out of clarity. It is no longer so clear. The colors are distorted, as is the picture. Is it the picture, or is it the tears in our eyes?
My colleague, Brooklyn Rabbi Rachel Timoner, there has been so much crying in this year, and so much more reason to cry. Cry for those murdered in synagogues. Cry for the Black churches burning. Cry for refugee children locked up waiting for parents. Cry for sisters and brothers all fallen by guns. Cry for those behind bars. Cry for those overdosed and addicted. Cry for those deep in floodwaters and for those massed against towering fires. And cry, find tears for the birds and for the butterflies and the bees which are disappearing. And for the forests and all dying things.
She reminds us that Jacob and Joseph cried in that scroll. Warriors and kings, like Saul, and David, and Hezekiah, Solomon, and the psalmists, and the prophets, and the children of Israel at their birthing into freedom cried. Mordecai cried, so that he moved Esther to action. We are a people who both value tears and are fluent in them, she says. Judaism teaches us that the tears are what opens the Gates of Heaven, because when we cry, God remembers us, and we remember who we are, and what we are supposed to care about.
Those photos of America are different this year, for they include hate and violence. We already put in the photo Charleston, and now there is Pittsburgh and Poway. Hate has returned with a vengeance. Anti-Semitism has resurfaced. Of the 400 major violent cases recorded worldwide, more than one quarter happened in the United States. Nothing like that has ever happened before. Hate crimes in this country rose last year by 17%, and anti-Semitic incidents were up 63% in New York City alone.
There were 1,879 anti-Semitic incidents in 2019, if you’ve been counting, like a few of you do, that’s up 99% in four years. If you wear traditional Hassidic garb, the streets of Brooklyn are no longer safe for some members of the tribe. If you’re on a college campus, and you express pro-Israel ideologies in a classroom, a lecture hall, a social setting, well, harassment has jumped 70% for college kids who identify with Israel.
We have been accused of being ignorant and disloyal. We are Jews. We know how to love more than one country at a time, because we care for all humanity. But tragically our safety can no longer be taken for granted. Maybe it comes as a shock [20:00] to some of you, but if you have feelings about being here, whatever brought you here, then you should know that there are people who you’ve never met, and probably never will, who hate you, because you’re simply identified with the Jewish community, one way or another.
Okay. Many Rabbis are afraid to say what I am about the say, I am told. But I pray that you will listen carefully, and be supportive as you have been before. We have the honor of being despised by the extreme right, and the extreme left. By extremists who happen to be Muslims, extremists who happen to be Christians, and extremists who happen to be secular. We are the glue that brings them all together.
Jeremy Corbyn, the Ayatollahs, Farrakhan, David Duke, Richard Spencer… they don’t have much in common, but one thing, they hate Jews and they claim the Holocaust never happened. And if they were all stuck in an elevator at the same time together, you and I know what they’d be talking about. And that scares me.
Who are these haters, and why now? Who has poured fuel on the fire? Know well that the blessings of technology also include curses, for the curse of racism has sailed around cyberspace and multiplied on social media in ways that no one could have ever imagined. The Nazi newspaper, Der Sturmer, which disappeared years ago, is now one of the most popular hate sites on social media.
I want to recommend to you an important book. I have shared it with some of you already. The author spoke here last December. Professor Deborah Lippstadt, my dear friend who wrote, Anti-Semitism, Here and Now. It is a must read. Anti-Semitism, to help you understand this, is the chronic fatigue syndrome of history. It is an infection that remains dormant, but given proper conditions and the failures of society’s immune syndrome, and you are guaranteed that it will always reappear. It takes moments of instability and it flares up. It is an incurable cultural virus. Anti-Semitism is the oldest hatred, the oldest -ism, the oldest obsession, and it’s an equal opportunity hatred.
None of us can be complacent, for when there are people who feel they can no longer control their own little world, and they feel like objects of sinister forces beyond their control, and they look for someone to blame, and in Western civilization this has classically been Jews. And strangely it plays out, even when there are no Jews there. I mean Chabad is everywhere, but not in Indonesia, and there is anti-Semitism there. The President of Malaysia just spoke at Columbia University and spewed vile anti-Semitism. There are no Jews in Malaysia.
The anti-Semite imagines the Jew as the avatar of all his fears, the embodiment of evil. He fantasizes about all the super-powers that we possess – if only. Jews control the media, orchestrated 9/11, created ISIS, and get America into wars. Those on the extreme right believe real Americans are white and Christian, and today this America is threatened. No matter how we appear to them, or to ourselves, we are not white, as far as white nationalists are concerned. On the horizon they see hordes of Black, and Brown, and Yellow immigrants, armies of non-Christians coming to pollute the purity of America. They see an organized conspiracy to replace white, Christian America with inferior races, and strange beliefs – and by the way, you and I paid for that conspiracy. So the Charlottesville marchers chanted “Jews will not replace us.” Let us remember, whether it is pointed at us or some other minority, the more minorities are demonized, the more we also will be victimized.
Hard fact, since Charlottesville, two years and three months ago, white supremacists have committed at least 73 murders in the United States of America in the name of white supremacy. The shooter in Pittsburgh aimed his rage at HIAS, the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, an organization founded in 1881 that brought many of our families into this country, and even yet helps refugees today. HIAS, he believed, is the powerful tool of the Jewish conspiracy. He wrote, “HIAS likes to bring invaders to kill our people. I can’t sit by.” And he took… he took with him a powerful weapon of war, and he murdered 11 innocent people who came to pray on Shabbat morning at Tree of Life Synagogue. The sacred phrase, the Torah is a tree of life is tainted.
That Shabbat morning, Jerry Rabinowitz was decked out in one of his usual colorful bow ties. He was enjoying the service with friends, the regulars when they heard what sounded like gunshots. He was a physician, so his impulse was to run outside to see if anyone needed help, and that decision cost him his life, as he became one of the 11 victims. The first mass synagogue shooting in American history. He was a diminutive man in size, but to that community he was a giant. A Past President of the congregation, he was an old school physician who loved to make house calls. In the early days of the AIDS epidemic, as a young doctor, he was a rare mix of kindness and bravery, a doctor who held HIV patients’ hands with no rubber gloves, urging them to hold on to hope.
I single him out as an example, a human example, for he was one of the parts of the Army of Civilization, our army. He was one of the people of whom the Jerusalem Talmud famously teaches that he, and each of them, like Lori Gilbert Kaye who was shot in Poway, literally taking a bullet as a human shield protecting the rabbi, each and every one of them is most important. For as the Talmud teaches, whoever destroys a single soul, it is as if he destroyed an entire world. And whoever saves a single soul is considered as if he saved an entire world.
Oh yes, there was one other thing I wanted to mention about Jerry Rabinowitz. He was the Shofar blower at Tree of Life Synagogue, and tomorrow when the Ne’ila ends Yom Kippur is over, rest assured that everyone there will be overwhelmed by the sight of who isn’t there to blow the Shofar.
Do not misunderstand me, disliking people is not anti-Semitism, that’s human. But when you deny Jews the rights that all people are entitled, to be free and equal, that’s anti-Semitism. Criticism of Israel is not anti-Semitism, that’s Democracy. Criticism of Israel’s government, challenging its practices, as Israelis do, demanding that Israel live up to its ideals as a democratic state, that’s legitimate. But in the extreme left today, there are voices that see Israel as some terrible injustice, a sinful colonial occupation, or that Israel is the worst human rights offender in the world, comparable to the Nazis. Though duly elected we now have at least two members in Congress who subscribe to that, and to conspiracy theories about Israel and Jews controlling foreign policy. And denying them to Israel does not serve us well. All Israel did was make them into heroes for their supporters.
We need to be smart, and we need to be strategic in this fight. What the Jew becomes for the anti-Semite, the anti-Semitic right, Israel becomes for the antiSemitic left, a fantasy, another avatar of evil. Israel was born a socialist country. How is it possible… how is it possible that there is nothing good within that?
On the left, anti-Semitism is not illuminated by Tiki torches, or hidden beneath white hoods, but it hides beneath a different veil, the veil of progressive values.
Under the banner of justice and righteousness, Israeli academics, journalists, artists, and diplomats are shouted down. The demonization of Israel has become academically respectable. They claim they’re not antiSemites, only anti-Zionists.
And while there might have been some such differentiation in the 50s and 60s, not anymore. Denying the rights of Jews collectively, is anti-Semitic.
Denying the right of Jews to define themselves as a nation, and denying the historical connection to Israel is anti-Semitism. BDS… B-D-S… Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions is anti-Semitism. It is functionally antiSemitic because it seeks to single out only one country in the world, the Jewish state. Really? Calling out only Israel as the enemy of human rights, in a world of Syria, North Korea, China, Sudan, Myanmar, Turkey, Iran, Russia, Congo, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Malaysia? – just doesn’t cut it.
You all know what happened in Pittsburgh. But what’s more important, in a different way, is do you know what happened by the next Shabbat? That next Friday night we participated in something called #StandUpForShabbat, under the banner of the American
Jewish Committee. This room was more filled than it is right now. There were people standing around the perimeter, and some of them didn’t look like you and me. There were Muslims, and Hindus, and Catholic clerics, and Protestant clerics. There were people in the neighborhood who had never been in this building. There were Jews in the neighborhood who had never been in this building.
They saw it on the social media, Respond to Pittsburgh, #standupforshabbat. An ambassador from Austria stood before us and cried, seeking forgiveness for what his country had done during the Holocaust, and the endemic anti-Semitism that exists in Europe, and in Eastern Europe. And there were other ambassadors who came from the UN to be with us.
There is a church behind us, an old, historic church for New York. I invited the Minister to come. He couldn’t because of a ritual that evening. But he said, “I’ll do you one better. I’ll put up the Israeli flag for 11 days in memoriam for the 11 killed in Pittsburgh.”
The American Muslim community raised over $200,000.00 for the victims’ families. And then those families responded in kind after the massacre in the two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand.
You need to know not only about the tragedy, the murders, you need to know that the Pittsburgh Steelers showed up at the funerals, because that’s what community does. You need to know that Pittsburgh’s leading newspaper, their headline was in Hebrew letters, with the Aramaic words of the Kaddish, Yit’gadal v’yit’kadash sh’mei raba. It was the only time in the history of American Journalism that any foreign alphabet was a headline, and in response, the Pittsburgh Gazette won a Pulitzer Prize, and then they turned around, and gave the money to Tree of Life Synagogue to help the surviving families.
We can still proudly say, God Bless America.
Molly Pascal, a member of the Tree of Life Synagogue wrote in the Washington Post, six days after the shooting on Friday night the Tree of Life congregation gathered privately in a small chapel at Rodolph Shalom, a nearby synagogue, for the first service of Shabbat. As I waited for the service to begin, people I didn’t know started filing in. Soon the row behind me held a half dozen, strangers, the women in the traditional garb. I looked around, I couldn’t believe how many Muslim families were all around me. When we rose to speak the mourners’ kaddish, they rose with us. They offered their prayers of condolence and invited us to pray at the Islamic Center. Salaam, they said. Salaam, shalom. The Chief Rabbi of Israel has taught, that there’s only one way to defeat boundless hatred, she wrote, and that’s with boundless love. An unreasonable measure of human solidarity, respect, community, and caring. That is the ultimate weapon in the fight against hate.
My colleague Rabbi Ed Feinstein at Valley Beth Shalom in L.A., a life worth living must begin with a yes. So I want you, he said, to tell your children the story of Jewish history. But I want you to tell them a different Jewish story. Jewish history is not the story of what they did to us. Jewish history is not an endless nightmare of persecution, oppression, destruction, and Holocaust. Jewish history is the story of all that we became, despite the hate. Of the communities we built, despite the destruction. Of the brilliant spiritual wisdom, and the profound moral truth we discovered, in spite of the persecution. And of the ideals and the faith that we sustained. We continue to be God’s partners. The best antidote to darkness is light. The light of a world of kindness and love, of being God’s responsible partners.
The British Rabbi, Hugo Grin, of Blessed Memory, used to tell about his time as a boy in Auschwitz. One winter evening in the barracks, Hugo’s father drew him into a corner, explaining that it was the first night of Hanukkah. He watched in amazement as his father plucked a few strands from his prison uniform and then used them as a wick with the day’s butter ration. The boy became angry. How could they waste this precious food for a makeshift menorah? His father replied, “Son, you and I have seen it’s possible to live for a long time without food, but Hugo, a person cannot live even a day without hope.”
So I’m here to tell you, in spite of it all, I’m hopeful. Because we are the best antidote to antiSemitism. And that includes you, Reverend Cho, and your parishioners. It’s not just about upgraded security, and training our staff. That for sure. But if you want to stand up to anti-Semitism, if you really want to make a difference, then it’s time to show up, and it’s time to stand up. You were right, Logan, let’s take the advice of Dr. Lippstadt from Emory. “Put the joy back in oy.” That’s her closing comment. She has given hundreds of talks since her book came out a year ago, and that’s the punchline to every one of them.
So, I hope I’ve done my job tonight. I hope, never having given a sermon on anti-Semitism on the High Holy Days before, I hope I’ve given you some perspective. Let’s stop obsessing about it. It’s scary, it needs to be responded to, it must be responded to. But let’s get down to the business of being God’s partners with some fellow Semites and with some others. Logic may dictate despair, not hope. But we are the people of hope. Ben Gurion said, in Israel, in order to be a realist you must believe in miracles. Herschel said, if you will it, it is no dream, and Churchill said, when you’re going through hell, keep going. We haven’t stopped for 4000 years, why would we stop now? Why would we close our doors, or shut our eyes? [40:00] Why would we hunker down and turn away.
No, the anthem of Israel is Hatikvah. The word tikvah comes from the Hebrew word Kav, meaning line. Line. Like throw him a line, a buoy at the end, maybe.
Or maybe it’s a simple string that little Hugo saw, the small strand that can bring brightness even though we do not know how, or why.
Remember, please, even if the odds are one in a million, you still have a chance. Let’s make the odds much better. Let’s get beyond the oy, let never hate and fear destroy our joy in life, our hopes for a better tomorrow. Let us share our lives in the new year in safety with our loved ones, and in the Jewish community wherever you are, here at home, or far abroad, in Israel or in some far corner of the world, let us remember that those who sow in tears will reap in joy as the Psalmist said. Beyond the darkness of the moment there’ll be a crack, and then light. Especially… especially if we tear open that crack, and welcome others into our lives, especially those who are not like us, especially those with whom we do not agree. Let us find ways to listen and to civilly disagree, and let us find ways to build bridges. L’Shanah Tovah, may it be a good year, especially because you work at making it that way.