Monday, April 29, 2013

High Holiday Sermons 5760: "The Hole in the Bagel"

Day 1 | Day 2 | Kol Nidre | Yom Kippur 
Rosh Hashanah Day One
"The Hole in the Bagel" 
 by Rabbi Joshua Hammerman

A few months ago, I added a new item to my rabbinic resume. I became the mashgiach, or supervisor of kosher food production, at the Hot Bagel downtown. When the previous supervisor backed away, although the store had not changed its standards or procedures, I was left with a dilemma: How could a viable Jewish community survive without kosher bagels?
Now I’ve never been a big fan of what has been derisively called "lox and bagel" Judaism, a form of identification by ethnicity that surveys show is dying rapidly. But here I was, making a statement that having a kosher bagel place in town was as important as having a synagogue or a Kosher butcher or a JCC. I was giving the bagel an exalted position in Jewish life. And I wondered why. Why the bagel, of all foods? Why does it stand out, at least among Ashkenazic Jews, as the quintessential Jewish food?
And then it hit me. It’s the hole.
Not everyone agrees. A structural analyst, Stanley Regelson suggests that post-war American Jews fell in love with the Sunday morning lox and bagel ritual because smoked salmon comes from a blood-colored fish bearing a resemblance to ham; add to that a shmear of cream cheese allowing the sandwich, in appearance at least, to subtly challenge the dietary laws.
Too subtle for me. But the analysis does pose the interesting question:
Why did the bagel explode in popularity in America in the middle of this century? And as Jewish food crazes go, the bagel is a recent one. The Yiddish word is itself less than four centuries old, originating in Cracow around 1610. And it’s the hole that matters. It’s the hole that makes it Jewish. It’s the hole that draws us in. Without the hole, a bagel isn’t a bagel—it’s a bun.
And to have the hole is in fact a religious requirement—sort of.
Because what makes a bagel kosher, in part, is that the baker has performed an unusual ritual before separating, shaping and baking the dough. Jewish law requires that a small piece be taken from the dough, about the size of an olive, in other words, about the size of a bagel’s hole, and the piece is burned separately, and a blessing recited. This piece of dough is called hallah—not to be confused with that delicious round bread we dipped in honey last night, although there could well be a connection. The word hallah is derived from the Hebrew root meaning "hollow," or "to pierce," suggesting that the original hallah bread might have been perforated or hollowed out when the hallah dough was removed from it—maybe even appearing like what we now call a bagel.
There are different reasons for removing that bit of dough, but as I was considering my hole-in-the-bagel dilemma, one reason stood out: We perform this ritual in order to make the food incomplete. The food is incomplete, so that even when we are full, we are just that olive-sized morsel short of really being satisfied. That’s also we’re so attracted to that bagel with the hole. Because, subconsciously at least, it reminds us that a piece of our lives is always missing. Even if we eat all of it, something is left uneaten—the hole at its heart.
The hole—it’s in our hearts too.
The hole—it’s in our souls.
The yearning, the hunger, the dissatisfaction, the fear, the emptiness, the depression, the anger, the mortality. It’s the hole. It’s there and it won’t go away. At century’s end, in fact, it seems to be growing. It’s not just in us, it’s in our society too. It’s around us—the boredom, the hollowness. People try desperately to fill it, often with most inappropriate things.
A quarter of a million aging baby boomers and baby boomer wannabees traipsed off to Woodstock to fill that hole with nostalgia, to fill their empty todays with the music of yesteryear—and did they look foolish doing it. (Present company excluded, of course.)
Evel Knieval wannabees stuff the hole with senseless risk, putting their lives on the line to defeat mighty rivers while climbing steep mountains. In Switzerland this summer, a group of twenty was killed doing just that, all of them trying to bridge the emptiness in their hearts. Some have questioned John Kennedy Jr.’s flying under extraordinarily risky conditions. It would be unfair to pass judgment on that here—but how many lesser-known people take far greater risks without ever leaving the ground, every time they step behind the wheel with a chip on their shoulder and two drinks in their system? But people take greater risks these days, defying death routinely because even death seems more exciting than an empty life.
Some fill the hole with drugs, others with alcohol or promiscuity.
And some fill it with hatred.
The shootings in Littleton and Atlanta and Granada Hills were done by people consumed with aggressive hatred and the need to feel powerful, to make one dramatic statement with their lives, no matter how destructive.
The coward who three weeks ago sped his car into our parking lot and, likely without even stopping, excreted medical waste and those swastikas from his car, that person suffers from the need to fill his hole with hate.
And these people, who fill their lives’ yawning spiritual gap with venom, have created an ever-deepening abyss in all of us; a summer of sadness, a litany of hate. Dylan Klebold, grandchild of proud Jewish community benefactors in Ohio raised not as a Jew but as a hater of Jews, filled his heart with hate, and his Columbine victims with bullets.
Buford Furrow, who proudly turned himself in, proclaiming, "I killed the Jewish children," not knowing that his plan had in fact been thwarted but that indeed he had taken another precious human being. Thank God there was outrage over that. And there was outrage after synagogues were torched in Sacramento and Long Island, and Jews shot leaving shul on a Friday night in Chicago. Thank God that even with what happened in our parking lot, for an incident far less violent though no less vile, there was outrage. And that outrage is very good. The moment the community ceases to be alarmed by something like this, that’s when I worry. The moment we cease to be outraged by messages of blood and swastikas, that is the moment when our society begins to slide backwards, into the abyss.
And there are many more Buford Furrows out there. But it’s not the phenomenon of anti-Semitism that’s growing per se; that is just a symptom. What’s growing is the emptiness and the hate that fills it. And we sit in fear of the growing danger, of the millennial fever pitch that is threatening to make psychosis trendy, and of a blind Congress that refuses to get guns off the streets so that they will not threaten our children. For us, the bullet that nearly took the life of five-year-old Benjamin Kadish at the North Valley JCC last month, the bullet that has since then made it all but impossible for me to say the words "five year old boy," that bullet only widened the hole in our hearts.
In Leon Wieseltier’s book "Kaddish," a masterful chronicle of the year he said Kaddish for his father three times a day, fulfilling the traditional requirement, the author speaks often of that hole, which is perceived most acutely by those in grief. Only for him, it is not just our hole, it is God’s as well. He writes, quoting a Hasidic master, "If only a single Jew is missing, then there is already a lack in the greatness and holiness of God." When we say the Kaddish, "therefore, we pray that God’s name may be "magnified and sanctified," that is, that God’s blessed name may be made complete for what it has lost with the disappearance of the deceased."
When a person dies, the hole is not just in us. Heaven itself is pierced.
The hole is not uniquely Jewish. But the response is. How we fill it is.
What we build around it is. How we live on in spite of it and even because of it, is.
The Talmud records a classic first-century dispute between the school of Hillel and the School of Shammai. For two and a half years they were divided, with Shammai holding that it would have been best for humanity not to have been created, and Hillel saying that it was better that people do exist. The two schools took a vote and came to a conclusion: we lost. It would have been best if humanity had never been born. But, the text continues, now that we are here, we had best examine our deeds.
This is an astonishing passage, one of my favorites, because it so perfectly reflects the Jewish world view. This is not the best of all possible worlds. This in fact might be the worst of all possible worlds, a world where even God can screw up—and creating us might have been the greatest screw up of all. As global warming causes the temperature to climb a degree or so per century, as the ozone layer races with the rainforests to see which will disappear first, as we limp to the conclusion of a blood-stained millennium, the school of Shammai seems to have proven its point. We did all that. The world is a mess.
But the school of Hillel produced the compromise by saying, yes, it’s true, things are lousy—but let’s make the best of it. Wieseltier looks at this story and comments, "These sages were not sentimental about truth. They understood that it rattles and sunders."
Nor can we hide the unhappy facts. Nor can we bury our heads in the sand. Our sages taught us how to live our lives with courage, how to see the world as a very narrow bridge; the sages taught us how to make do with that hole.
When I first arrived in Stamford, now 13 Rosh Hashanahs ago, there was a big hole in the ground across from the Mall on Grayrock Place. It’s still there. It has been interesting over the years to keep an eye on that hole, and see what’s become of it. Most have called it an eyesore. Anyone who has been to Israel knows better. Such eyesores there are called excavations and they are considered not so much the sites of holes as holy sites. And they often yield treasures of greater value than any modern construction project could bring. Israel’s greatest archeological sites are in truth garbage dumps, where two thousand years ago someone threw out some pottery. The area next to the Western Wall is so holy to us precisely because it is an ancient junk yard, where the pillars and ramparts of the burning Temple were flung to the ground. A hole in the ground can yield wonders.
Even when a hole isn’t holy, sometimes it can be made beautiful. A few years back, someone decided that what was needed around that hole at Grayrock Place was some graffiti. And fascinating murals of urban art grew around it, some quite beautiful, all of it thoroughly original and bursting with the spirit of this city. It’s gone now, and soon a building will arise there, and doubtless it will be lovely. But I’ll kind of miss that hole in the ground.
What was done with that hole was actually a very Jewish thing. Rather than to stuff a hole superficially, what we do instead is to decorate around it, to make it beautiful. We are a people that specializes in making the desert bloom, not by denying its desert-ness, but by accepting it, even embracing its harsh conditions, and growing things to match its climate.
There is a folktale about a king, who once was given the most beautiful jewel in all the kingdom. One day he was admiring it, when suddenly it fell from his hand onto the hard floor. When he picked it up he noticed a pronounced scratch on the surface. The king wept bitterly for the loss of this perfect jewel, until, after several days, he decided to summon all the great jewelers of the kingdom and see if any could succeed in getting rid of the scratch. No one was able to. Until he came to Beryl the Jewish jeweler. Beryl took the jewel with him and a few days later returned, saying to the king, "Look, this jewel is now more beautiful than before."
And it was. It was, because Beryl, rather than trying to eliminate the scratch, had engraved rose petals around it, so that the scratch became a stem.
That is how the Jew responds to tragedy. That’s how we address the gaping holes of our lives; we don’t stuff them with hate or illusory hope, we fill them with soil and plant roses in them. We arise from the shiva bench and remember our dead not with endless bitterness and regret, but with tzedakkah and acts of kindness. The response to death is always and only to live and love all the more. But not to deny tragedy—rather to grow from it.
It could well have been a Jew who said that life is like photography—you use the negative to develop.
That pithy quote is small consolation to those who are beyond consolation, those who, call upon God from out of the depths.
There is a beautiful documentary out called "Strong at the broken places." It tells the story of four people whose lives have been shattered and rebuilt through their remarkable courage and determination. One of the people is Max Cleland of Georgia, an Army captain who was 26 when a grenade shattered his limbs in Vietnam. He rebuilt his life and eventually became a US Senator. He said in an interview: "Hemingway was right. Life breaks us all. But many are strong at the broken places, and that’s one of the things I’ve learned. By the grace of God and help of friends, it is possible to become strong even at the most broken places in your life."
There are times when each of us feels broken, when that hole in our hearts becomes most unbearable. And we have the whole spectrum here in this room right now. People who have lost their best friend, a parent or spouse, people who have been downsized or otherwise crushed by the system. People who have seen their children leave them; people who have been disappointed with their own shortcomings. And that is just the beginning of the list. I fit into many of the categories myself.
My cousin, Jeffrey died of AIDS last week. He lived in Stamford and some of you knew him. He had little room in his life for organized religion, but he did find comfort in this sanctuary, especially one memorable Shabbat around six years ago, when he spoke from this pulpit about his struggles with HIV. It was perhaps the best sermon ever delivered here, present company included. I took it out and looked at it the other day. "To me the purpose of life is to learn, to grow." he said. "To do this, we choose problems to solve, or more often, problems choose us. From the time we’re born it is problems that stir us to grow. Well, I see HIV as one of these problems, a lesson, a test. It is not a test I would have chosen. But it’s the test which my life has brought me. My faith has held up to this test. I believe more than ever that there is a basic goodness to life and a reason for the things that happen." Jeffrey looked serene as he lay dying at hospice when I last saw him, content with having made every day count. He took a life sentance and made of it a life. A gardner, he grew petals around it. A brilliant writer, he added the exclamation point to that sentance, someting we all need to do.
Life has a way of breaking us all, but the Rabbi of Kotsk understood the paradox when he said, "Nothing is as whole as a broken heart." From the ruins of being broken the Jew knows how to rise. Echoing the Psalmist, the stone that the builders cast away becomes, to the Jew, a cornerstone to build anew.
If only more Jews actually adopted this perspective, then perhaps the rate of depression among us would not be so high. Now I’ve no illusions here. I know that if I were to ask for a show of hands, it is rather likely that more would be raised if I asked who took Prozac yesterday than if I asked who put on tefillin. Now please, don’t misunderstand me: Read my lips: take your medication. But the tragedy is that prayer could be part of that healing process too, and that so few Jews know it, while study after study shows that so many others are praying more and living longer. The tragedy is that our sources are filled with ways to make us strong at the broken places. So many of us are lost. So many of us are lonely. So many of us are devoid of hope.
Let us not try to escape the pain then, or cover it over artificially with false hopes or hatred. Rather let us learn how to live with it and grow from it. Let us learn to take sorrow, in that amazing line of Heschel’s, "and turn it into song."
Let us believe, in spite of it all, that every action matters, in the end, that our lives do really matter.
Here is a story to illustrate that final point; its was forwarded to me by a congregant, for which I’ll forever be grateful.
It’s about a 5th grade teacher named Mrs. Thompson, who on the first day of school told her students a lie. Like ost teachers, she looked at her students and said she loved them all equally. But that was impossible, because there in the front row, slumped over in his seat, was little Teddy Stoddard. He was, in her eyes a most unpleasant boy, who didn’t play well with the other children. His clothes were messy and he constantly needed a bath. It got to the point where Mrs.Thompson would actually take delight in marking his papers with a broad red pen, making bold X’s and then putting a big "F" at the top.
At this school, teachers were required to review each child’s past records, and she put Teddy’s off until last. When she reviewed the records, she was in for a surprise. The first grade teacher wrote, "Teddy is a bright child with a ready laugh. He does his work neatly and has good manners...he is a joy to be around."
His second grade teacher wrote, "Teddy is an excellent student, well-liked by his classmates, but he is troubled because his mother has a terminal illness and life at home must be a struggle." His third grade teacher wrote, "His mother’s death has been hard on him. He tries to do his best, but his father doesn’t show much interest, and his home life will affect him if some steps aren’t taken." The fourth grade teacher wrote, "Teddy is withdrawn and doesn’t show much interest in school. He doesn’t have many friends and sometimes sleeps in class."
Mrs. Thompson now understood the problem and felt deep shame. It got worse when the students gave her holiday gifts, all wrapped in beautiful ribbons and bright paper, except for Teddy’s. His present was clumsily wrapped in a brown paper grocery bag. Mrs. Thompson took pains to open it in the middle of all the other presents. Some of the children started to laugh when she found a rhinestone bracelet with some of the stones missing and a half-empty bottle of perfume. But she stifled the children’s laughter and exclaimed how pretty the bracelet was when she put it on and dabbed some of the perfume on her wrist. Teddy stayed after school that day just long enough to say, "Mrs. Thompson, today you smelled just like my Mom used to." After the children left she cried for at least an hour. On that very day, she quit teaching reading, writing and math. Instead she began to teach children.
And she began to pay particular attention to Teddy. As she worked with him, his mind seemed to come alive. He rose to the top of the class. A year later, she got a note from Teddy saying that she was the best teacher he had had in his whole life. He sent her the same message, again and again as he grew, through college and medical school, and she later attended his wedding, wearing the perfume and that bracelet with the rhinestones missing. There he hugged her and thanked her for making such a difference in his life. To which she responded, "Teddy you have it all wrong. You were the one who taught me that I could make a difference. I didn’t know how to teach until I met you."
Mrs. Thompson was the one who helped Teddy engrave the rose on that shattered necklace and begin to fill the hole in his shattered life. We can also do that for others, and in doing it, it will help us to heal ourselves.
It is the only way. Over the next ten days, we’ll continue this journey, looking for ways to take that hole in each of our souls and add the letter "W" to the beginning of the word. We won’t deny the aching emptiness—but we’ll try to turn it into song. The truth is that life indeed rattles and sunders. But life is also strongest at the broken places. And nothing is as whole as a broken heart

"Winning is the Only Thing" 
A true story about winners and losers.
In Brooklyn, Chush is a school that caters to learning-disabled children. Some children remain in Chush for their entire school careers, while others can be mainstreamed into conventional Jewish schools. At a Chush fund-raising dinner, the father of a Chush child delivered a speech that would never be forgotten by all who attended. After extolling the school and its dedicated staff, he cried out, "Where is the perfection in my son Shaya? Everything that God does is done with perfection. But my child cannot understand things as other children do. My child cannot remember facts and figures as other children do. Where is God’s perfection?"
The audience was shocked by the question, pained by the father’s anguish, and stilled by his piercing query.
"I believe," the father answered, "that when God brings a child like this into the world, the perfection that He seeks is in the way people react to this child."
He then told the following story about his son Shaya.
Shaya attends Chush throughout the week and a boy’s yeshiva on Sundays. One Sunday afternoon, Shaya and his father came to the yeshiva as his classmates were playing baseball. The game was in progress and as Shaya and his father made their way towards the ballfield, Shaya said, "Do you think you could get me into the game?" Shaya’s father knew his son was not at all athletic, and that most boys would not want him on their team. But Shaya’s father understood that if his son was chosen in, it would give him a comfortable sense of belonging. Shaya’s father approached one of the boys in the field and asked, "Do you think my Shaya could get into the game?" The boy looked around for guidance from his teammates. Getting none, he took matters into his own hands and said, "We are losing by six runs and the game is already in the eighth inning. I guess he can be on our team and we’ll try to put him up to bat in the ninth inning."
Shaya’s father was ecstatic as Shaya smiled broadly. Shaya was told to put on a glove and go out to play short center field. In the bottom of the eighth inning, Shaya’s team scored a few runs but was still behind by three. In the bottom of the ninth inning, Shaya’s team scored again - and now with two outs and the bases loaded and the potential winning runs on base, Shaya was scheduled to be up. Would the team actually let Shaya bat at this juncture and give away their chance to win the game? Surprisingly, Shaya was told to take a bat and try to get a hit. Everyone knew that it was all but impossible, for Shaya didn’t even know how to hold the bat properly, let alone hit with it. However as Shaya stepped up to the plate, the pitcher moved in a few steps to lob the ball in softly so Shaya should at least be able to make contact.
The first pitch came in and Shaya swung clumsily and missed. One of Shaya’s teammates came up to Shaya and together they held the bat and faced the pitcher waiting for the next pitch. The pitcher again took a few steps forward to toss the ball softly towards Shaya. As the next pitch came in, Shaya and his teammate swung the bat and together they hit a slow ground ball to the pitcher. The pitcher picked up the soft grounder and could easily have thrown the ball to the first baseman. Shaya would have been out and that would have ended the game.
Instead, the pitcher took the ball and threw it on a high arc to right field, far and wide beyond the first baseman’s reach. Everyone started yelling, "Shaya, run to first! Shaya, run to first!" Never in his life had Shaya run to first. He scampered down the baseline wide eyed and startled. By the time he reached first base, the right fielder had the ball. He could have thrown the ball to the second baseman who would tag out Shaya, who was still running. But the rightfielder understood what the pitcher’s intentions were, so he threw the ball high and far over the third baseman’s head, as everyone yelled, "Shaya, run to second! Shaya, run to second." Shaya ran towards second base as the runners ahead of him deliriously circled the bases towards home. As Shaya reached second base, the opposing shortstop ran towards him, turned him towards the direction of third base and shouted, "Shaya, run to third!"
As Shaya rounded third, the boys from both teams ran behind him screaming, "Shaya, run home! Shaya, run home!" Shaya ran home, stepped on home plate and all 18 boys lifted him on their shoulders and made him the hero, as he had just hit the "grand slam" and won the game for his team. "That day," said the father who now had tears rolling down his face, "those 18 boys reached their level of perfection. They showed that it is not only those who are talented that should be recognized, but also those who have less talent. They too are human beings, they too have feelings and emotions, they too are people, they too want to feel important."
We have a problem in our society, which is so based on the premise that there must be winners and losers. It’s downright un-American to give a person a helping hand. And I mean that literally. An Olympic swimmer can stand beside a swimming pool and watch a child drown without violating any American law. Jewish law would require him to attempt to save that life. So would French law, incidentally, which is why some paparazzi were charged regarding the death of Princess Diana. This shows how much individualism is part of the American legal tradition.
Life is seen as a rat race, and we all feel compelled to keep up, and, more to the point, to win. We celebrate the winners exclusively. The second place finisher is considered a loser. The NFL season kicks off in (36) minutes. Some players on teams that have lost the Super Bowl have said afterwards that it would have been better not to have gotten there at all rather than to have lost in front of the entire country. Everybody loves a winner. The ultimate winner, Bill Gates, has become a great hero and role model in the business world—and so few have seem bothered by the fact that his fortune has been estimated to be equal to the combined net worth of the 106 million poorest Americans. Nor do we pause to reflect on the fact that, according to the National Journal, the incomes of the poorest fifth of working Americans dropped by 21 percent between 1979 and 1995, while the richest fifth jumped by 30 percent.
The income gap is staggering, and it is widening. And the numbers are even more striking on a global scale. The richest 20% of the world’s population controls about 86% of the world’s income, while the poorest 20% controls about 1%. The three richest people in the world have greater assets than the 600 million poorest people. Now there is nothing inherently immoral about great wealth, nor is there anything new about an income gap—but there is something very new about the extent of that gap, and the reasons for it, and the reasons why the richest, and that means us, have it in our best interests to help the poorest catch up. It is in our self interest to do for our American poor and for the third world, a little more of what that baseball team did for Shaya. That is the perfection that God seeks; that is the justice that Judaism espouses.
To explain that, I return to something I raised yesterday. I mentioned that Jewish law requires that we take a small portion of the dough from certain baked items and burn it separately. Yesterday I theorized that we perform this ritual to remind ourselves that life is incomplete, that there is always a hole for us to recognize and, in our own way, fill. But there is another, more historical explanation for the ritual. In ancient Israel, this dough was set aside so that it could be given to the priests. An entire tractate of the Mishna, called Hallah, explains the details of the ritual. The practice of giving it to the Cohanim fell into disuse after the destruction of the second temple. Why? Because the hallah could be eaten only by priests in a state of complete ritual purity; and now, while we’ve got lots of Cohanim running around, none are fit to perform ritual activity.
So every Israelite knew that a small amount of every meal they ate was going to be donated to the Cohanim. You know how your mother used to say, "Eat your food—think of the poor people in India who aren’t lucky enough to have brussel sprouts?" Well, in Ancient Israel, the mothers said that, but then they acted on it too—in a manner of speaking, they gave some of their brussel sprouts away. And the Cohanim got the food, according to Sefer Ha-Hinuch, a medieval text, "in order that the priests, who are always occupied with Divine service, should live without any exertion." They were poor. They had no visible means of support. They were at the mercy of the average Joe living in Jerusalem or Shechem. They survived on the dole. In addition, any commoner who was caught eating that food set aside for the priests was given one of the severest punishments in Jewish law—karet, a form of excommunication.
Now the amount of dough to be set aside was hardly a steep tax. The quantity wasn’t explicitly stated in the Bible, and in rabbinic literature Hillel and Shammai argued over it, like everything else. But the amount was not that important, since this is a society that knew of several different types of tithes that supported the Cohanim, and many other practices that supported the poor and hungry of all tribal backgrounds.
It a new Rabbinic Letter on the poor just published by the Rabbinical Assembly, entitled "You Shall Strengthen Them," we read that "Jews, comprising one of the oldest societies in the world, have developed a code of law and ethics affirming that it is an obligation of both the individual and community to care for the poor and ultimately to bring them out of poverty." The Torah is filled with commandments to leave the corner of the field for the poor, to love the widow and orphan, and care for the stranger. Later Jewish law emphasizes the need to provide food and housing for those down on their luck, dowries for brides and livelihood for the unemployed. Contrast that to the number of people in American society who react nervously when low unemployment figures are posted, out of fear that it might adversely impact the stock market. We’ve lost the sense, as expressed in Midrash Leviticus, that "God stands together with the poor person at the door." Rabbinic law requires that we maintain the dignity of beggars we pass on the street, even if we cannot help them. It is against Jewish law to yell or taunt, or even pass by without noticing. As Maimonides write, "Woe unto him who embarrasses a poor person." Nonetheless the goals of Judaism don’t necessarily endorse the excesses of the welfare state. Maimonides’ famous eight levels of tzedakkah have, as the highest level, helping the poor person to help himself, by finding him employment.
For the most part, American Jews have generously helped those who have suffered from the hurricane in Central America last year, the unthinkable atrocities of Kosovo this spring and most recently the tragic Turkish earthquake. Locally, our food drive collections have increased each High Holidays, and I’ve no reason to believe that we won’t be even more generous this year. And many from our congregation also make donations to Mazon, the Jewish Response to Hunger. Mazon has sort of become the hallah ritual of this generation, asking that we take 3% off the top of the amount spent on a catered celebration and dedicate it to feeding those who don’t routinely eat their meals in the shadow of Viennese tables and ice sculptures.
But we must still do more. You see, in this new, global wired world, we are even more responsible for all other humans, because our destinies are all the more interconnected. "Landsmen" are everywhere to be found, even in he most remote corners of Africa.
Not only "Landsmen," but, wonder of wonders, Cohanim. DNA tests have confirmed a link between the Jewish priestly tribe and the Lemba tribe of Zimbabwe. This is a Bantu speaking people with a tradition that they were led out of Judea by a man named Buba. (He had to be Jewish because his mother must have called him Bubala). They practice circumcision, keep one day a week holy and avoid eating pork and pig-like animals, such as the hippopotamus. It was the hippopotamus thing that really clinched for me that we are related; I don’t know a single Jew who eats hippopotamus. Can there be any clearer signal to us we are linked with not only the Lemba, but through the Lemba with the entire third world, that we cannot leave anyone behind. Although the Lemba have traces of the telltale priestly Y chromosome, in truth we share virtually the same genetic make up with the entire human race. The differences are so minute; just enough to give the Lemba tribe a different skin color and little Shaya the baseball player a developmental disability.
We should be sending our olive sized pieces of Hallah dough to the Cohanim of Zimbabwe. It is a matter of self interest, not just charity and not just because they are family. Because if allow this rich-poor gap to grow much more, the entire world will find itself at the mercy of billions of angry, hungry people. And these days, some of those people, poor as they are, can band together and acquire some mightly powerful weapons. Thomas Friedman, in his new book, "The Lexus and the Olive Tree," says, "When you combine the angry men that Americanization creates (all over the world) with the way globalization can super-empower people, you have what I believe is the real, immediate, national security threat to the United States today: the super-empowered angry man." And if you don’t believe there are angry have-nots out there, even in America, then you didn’t attend a screening of the movie "Titanic" and hear all the cheering in the room when some rich people went under.
True, our very security is at stake. But the way to fight this threat is not to dig trenches and continue to live lives of isolation from those who are different, and especially those who are poor. The key is to open up and love our neighbor all the more. The terrible events of this past summer were indeed a wake up call to us—not a wake up call to hate, however, but a wake up call to love, to use the strength that we have and lift up our neighbor, so that our neighbor won’t become even more weakened and susceptible to the hate that does surround us.
"Rich and poor increasingly live separate existences," writes Friedman, "sending their children to different schools, living in different neighborhoods, shopping in different stores, even going to different sporting events." The gap between winners and losers grows increasingly large.
We read in Midrash Tehillim: "Is this what you call power? When you see someone by a pit, you push him in? When you see someone on a roof, you push him off? What really is power? When you see people about to roll and you rescue them."
That’s why hundreds of Kosovar refugees were flown to Israel, including many Jews, but not exclusively. "What did you expect to find when you got to Israel," someone asked one refugee. "Warm deserts and cold people," she quipped. "And what did you find when you got here?" "Paradise."
We can only be proud of the fact that Israel sent more assistance to Turkey following the earthquake than any other nation, including America. These are Moslems that they were saving, as well as some Jewish victims. Right now, even in recession, Israel is a burgeoning regional economic superpower. It knows it must use that power for good. For in today’s fickle global marketplace today’s winners can become tomorrow’s losers very quickly. Just ask Indonesia. Just ask the Chicago Bulls.
We can’t isolate ourselves, tempting though it may be. We simply can’t. You should know that after our little parking lot incident last month, I heard from dozens of clergy and community leaders. And this culminated in a massive interfaith outpouring of support at the JCC last Tuesday, at which this scroll was signed by the religious and civic leaders of Lower Fairfield County. As there speeches of love and support for Jews were being made by clergy from some surrounding communities that used to be known for discriminating against Jews, I sat there in imagining how history could have been changed if this same scene had been played out in Germany in 1933. I looked around and was amazed. It as as if the person who intended to defile our sacred space so destructively had brought about a mass communal exercise in teshuvah, in the most constrcutve sense. The Catholic Bishop was there, reinforcing a letter of support he had already sent us. The African American leadership was there, the Episcopalians and Lutherans and Methodists were there, and everyone else. The outpouring was extradordinary. Among the many letters and calls I received, I was most moved by a letter sent by the tiny First Evangelical Lutheran Church of Bridgeport. Yes, the entire membership of that church signed the letter. It is a small church, with a few dozen members at most, and they might not be a church much longer. You see their minister passed away recently and they haven’t found a replacement. In the interim, they are being led by the widow of that minister, a dear friend of many in our community, the Rev. Ann Schmidt Snider. This is what the letter said:
"Dear Sisters and Brothers: You have our support and our prayers during this painful time. When there are too many words of hate and prejudice, we want you to hear our words of care for you. Faith reminds us always to love God and our neighbors. To act against our neighbor is to act against God. And this is not acceptable. We can not let the acts against your Temple and you go unnoticed, nor let our concern go unexpressed. You were in the prayers of our congregation this morning. As the Holy Days approach, please know that you will continue to have our support and continued prayer. May the Holy One bless you and keep you." And they all signed.
This from a community in many ways far less fortunate than ours. This from a pastor still grieving for her husband. After they signed the letter at the end of the service, they adjourned into a meeting and determined that next week they will vote on whether to disband a church that has been around for generations. They probably will, and that letter to us will serve as their final testament of goodness. What did we do to deserve such an outstretched hand of caring.? And will we be there in their time of need? Are we there now?
No one can be left behind. No one. What those boys did for little Shaya, we must do for all who are different, all who aren’t as fortunate. What that congregation did for us, we must be equally willing to do. Vince Lombardi was right: Winning IS the only thing – but only if everyone ends up a winner.
Some day, I’d love to rewrite all of our favorite children’s fables and give them Jewish endings. I’ll start with the Tortoise and the Hare. Right now the ending is very dissatisfying. Sure, the Tortoise wins, but who do you think is going to win the next hundred rematches? If only the Tortoise had paused a foot before the finish line and gone back to wake up the Hare. If only the Hare had been so moved by the Tortoise’s kindness that he decided to link arms and finish the race together. Then there would be no winners and losers, only winners. We are reading our children then wrong bed time stories. Tell them the one about Shaya and the baseball game. Tell them that there is only one race we should be trying to win, and the Torah tells us which: the relentless pursuit of justice. Tzedek, tzedek tirdof. And if in our pursuit of justice we happened to be the first ones to reach the victims, we must pull others in to help us help them, so that they can be winners too.
There is a story of a poor man who tried to get into a rich synagogue, and they were too polite to say to him that they didn’t want to let him in. So they put him off with one excuse after another. "You need letters of reference," and then, "You need to wait until the committee meets," and so on. Until finally the poor man began to get the idea. One day he went to services and got rebuffed with the same excuse, and as he was walking away, feeling downhearted and depressed, he happened to meet God. And God said, "why do you look so sad?" The man said, "Because I’ve been trying to get into that shul for months and I can’t get in."
And God says, "I know how you feel. I’ve been trying to get in there for years, and I can’t get in either."
I don’t know if God is here, in our midst. I do know however, that the love of God is here, in us and around us. It saturates the air and penetrates every corner of our community. We have been touched by it. The hate crime we witnessed here was, in the end, a blessing—because it brought out so many positive forces in the community. Fear was trumped. Amalek lost this round. But now we must respond to the good that we have witnessed. And we must respond by distributing our olive sized bits to all who are hungry, to our priestly cousins the Lemba in Africa, and all their cousins too. The hole in each of us that I spoke of is already disappearing. It is being washed over by a tidal wave of love. We must respond by declaring that if there are any losers, than all are losers. And if no one is allowed to trail behind, then God will witness perfection, at last, in us all..

"Alone/ Together" 
You might recall that last week I centered my remarks around an item that is especially appropriate to discuss on Yom Kippur: food. Specifically, bagels, and how they've become an important symbol of the Jewish soul. On the first day I spoke of how the hole in the middle can be seen as a metaphor for the black hole at the core of our beings, and on the second I focused on the fact that the ancient ritual of taking a little piece of dough from the batch and giving it to the priests can be interpreted as a call for us to help the needy. In that way, all can be winners in the game of life. Tonight and tomorrow morning I'll be discussing two more lessons we learn from the round bagel and its yawning gap in its middle. My hope is that by tomorrow evening, when, appropriately, we'll be breaking our fast on bagels, we should already be spiritually full before we've tasted a single crumb.
Let's look at the peculiar anatomy of the bagel: Aside from the hole, what makes it such a Jewish food? For me the answer is that the bagel highlights a true Jewish ideal: the synthesis of alone and together.
There is no doubt about the bagel's inclusiveness. It is the product of the collaboration of all the forces of nature: earth, air, water and fire. You have the dough, made from the fruit of the soil, and it is formed into rings surrounding a repository of air in the middle, the hole, then it is boiled in water and then baked in a fiery oven. The bagel is in fact a pluralistic food. It is completely inclusive. It is even pareve, so you can eat it with anything. The bagel welcomes all comers.
But even more than that, the bagel recognizes the most basic need that Jews and others have at the end of the twentieth century. The need for space. Let's think of that hole in the middle now not as a black hole of despair, but as the place where the bagel breathes, where this massive gooey, crusty concoction can come up for air and find serenity. If the bagel were Manhattan, the hole would be Central Park. We all need air sometimes. We all need to be left alone. We need the calm. And now, especially, we need to assert our uniqueness.
If we have learned anything at all during the terrible century now concluding, it is how dangerous it is for the individual to be subsumed into the collective. Communism, the century's grand experiment in collective living, failed everywhere, from the Kremlin to the Kibbutz. Fascism failed too, everywhere it was tried. The one thing that communism on the left and fascism on the right shared, was a single common enemy: the Jew. Why? Because the Jew stood for the uniqueness and infinite value of every single individual. Jews knew long ago that there always has to be a place for individual accountability, even as we share our sins. The people of Nazi Germany thought they were giving up their culpability when they gave their souls to the state. Adolf Eichmann's recently released prison diary indicates that, even after all the carnage became known to him, he never relinquished the stance that he had done right simply by following orders. To this day, there are many thousands of Serbs who refuse to take responsibility for the terrible human toll their feverish, misguided nationalism has wrought.
As Jews we are part of a collective, a people, and we take responsibility for one another. But we never lose our individuality in the process. As Jews, we are part of the bagel, but each of us is also the hole. We live every moment of our lives with that tension between self and community. In the confessional of Yom Kippur, we say "al het she-hatanu," "we have sinned (as a group)," but we think about our own individual sins, and how ours contribute to a general climate of an irresponsible society. The prophet Bilaam called us "A people that dwells alone." More accurately, we are a people that dwells alone - together.
That same tension is found in the Mishnah in tractate Rosh Hashanah (16a.) The topic is the Divine judgment of humanity, which takes place on Rosh Hashanah. The text, which later became part of the Unetane Tokef prayer, reads, "On Rosh Hashanah all creatures pass before God as b'nai maron." What does this enigmatic term mean? The ensuing Talmudic discussion offers these interpretations:
  1. As a flock of sheep. Just as sheep are counted one at a time for tithing purposes, so on Rosh Hashanah do we pass by God one-by-one.
  2. As at the pass of Bet Maron. The reference here is to particular mountain pass so narrow that if two people are talking together, when they reach the pass they must separate and go through individually. Again, the implication is that, however much we enter Rosh Hashanah together, when we reach the judgment, we must separate and be reviewed one by one.
  3. As the soldiers of the House of David. The army of King David is imagined as passing in review individually. There is nothing more uniform than an army, yet even here, everyone is an individual.
So, the Talmud seems to be saying, it is the individual that matters above all, that is how God judges us. Not so fast, because the community side of the tension asserts itself too, when the G'mara states, "Nonetheless, (the creatures passing in judgment on Rosh Hashanah) are considered and reviewed collectively, with one single glance." Although our actions are judged individually, we are still seen, ultimately, as one people.
In a commentary on this section, Rabbi Tzvi Blanchard adds that, in the liturgy, the communal side is seen as the ideal. In one of those paragraphs beginning "U'vechain," which appears in the High Holidays Amidah, we ask that we be made into "aguda echat," "a single band," to do the Divine will. But such a unity in the service of a religious vision, although a nice ideal, is not close to being a reality.
The way I see it, the only way to strengthen the bonds of community, paradoxically, is to strengthen ourselves individually, even if that means separating a little, creating a space for oneself. Kabbalists, after all, believe that even God withdrew into Him or Herself, in effect creating space for the world to evolve. It is a complicated concept called Tzimtzum, but basically it means that God, like any good parent, backed away voluntarily so that the children could mature on their own. That's how they could begin to explain the preponderance of evil in God's world. True, Pirke Avot says, "Al tifrosh min ha'tzibur - do not separate yourself from the community." I think that, at this point in time, we need to amend that: Don't break from the community, but, like God, do create a modicum of personal space so that you and others may grow."
"Personal space." It's a very '90s term. (Next year we'll have to call it a very "00's" term). Do your family a favor some Sunday and go down to the tenement museum on the Lower East Side, see where our great grandparents lived, and imagine great uncle Yossel kvetching about a lack of "personal space." But the fact is that we do often feel that walls of humanity are closing in on us, much more than they felt it back at the turn of this century, when they were living ten to a room. If you don't believe me, go to an old ball park. I've been told there's one up in Boston that will be gone in a few years. It was built in 1912, and one of the reasons it had to go is that the seats are considered too narrow. Too narrow? Now in 87 years has American tush increased in size that much? Or have we become less tolerant of those sitting next to us and more needy of space?
We do need that space. It seems that the entire world is encroaching on us - and they feel it in cramped, bursting Israel even more than here. There is that story that appeared in the Israeli media about the driver who was nabbed by police in Netanya for swerving on the road while talking on two cell phones at the same time. Thomas Friedman writes that we are a society in danger of becoming over-connected. So our natural inclination is to separate, to create space, even as we hold on to the very cell phone that is denying us that space.
I know all about private space. I live next door. Yet thanks to most of you, my family has had more of a sense of privacy here than I ever expected. Everyone needs that sense of inviolability that comes with having that space, knowing that, whether or not there is a fence, what goes on in one's driveway or house is private. Some overcompensate for that need for space, and that is not good either. We might not live in tenements, but neither should each child in a family have an entire wing to himself. Each of my kids has his own room, and ironically, a great thrill of their summer vacation is to sleep in the same room.
Technology has most definitely changed the way we think about private space. Twenty years ago, the Walkman was invented, signaling the beginning of an inwardly-focused era and many were afraid that it would atomize us, isolating each of us in our own private worlds. Now, with 186 million Walkmen having been sold, the same fears of isolation and alienation are now being raised about the Internet.
But I don't think the comparison holds. For with the Internet, I think we've finally found a perfect way to resolve this tension of needing space and needing community. For like nothing else ever invented, the Internet allows us to be alone/together.
I saw that a few years ago when my kids sent their first happy birthday e-mail note to their older cousin in Israel. I sensed it a year later, when a dozen first cousins began to renew family ties by creating an e-mail cousins club. We did it following the tragic death of my aunt and uncle. Before their deaths, we had begun to talk of having a family reunion in the near future. Within a couple of months, those of us with e-mail capacity were all signed on, I compiled a mailing list, and the cousin's-club-without-walls was born. The distance that separates us, spanning from Israel to California to Georgia to New England -- it all dissolves to nothing as we shoot the cyber-breeze at the beginning of each month in our virtual living room. The 'Net is now Zeydeh's living room, without the hugging and honey cake perhaps, but with intimacy of another sort: the intimacy of detachment. All this and no shared tenement with twenty cousins. We still have our space.
Although I've never actually been in a room with my dozen cousins at the same time, we feel closer together as a group than was ever possible before. Even if our families had never left Brooklyn a generation ago, I don't believe we could possibly have become as close as we are today. The cousin's club has become so intimate, and yet there are a few that I possibly would not recognize if I passed them on the street. We can be alone/together.
In Judaism, God is experienced alone/together. For the purpose of a complete prayer service, the minimal number of adults required to consider this group an official "community" or minyan is ten. The implication is that God is not really as present, or at least as perceptible, without that number. Yet when Jews pray, authentically, much of the praying hardly sounds communal. People are all over the place, mumbling the Hebrew words each at a different pace, some mumbling in English, others humming, others dozing. There are certainly times when all are "on the same page," but for the most part, there is a strange paradox at play: people appear to be alone, together.
It is very liberating at a service to be able to focus on a single word or letter, to let one's mind wander, to contemplate a bird or a falling leaf as we can do here, (and what a gift this sanctuary is) -- to run one's fingers through a child's hair, to fiddle with the tzitzit, occasionally to quietly chat with one's neighbor or spouse, and to meditate on the big questions of one's life.
But it is very comforting to know that people are all around me, an entire community in fact, one that cares for me. I can wrap myself in my tallit to hide from them, but when I need them, especially when making dramatic declarations about the meaning of sanctity, restoring order to my life, I can count on my neighbors to be there.
One of the great tragedies of post-war American Jewish life is that we lost the art of davening. It's not that we lost the Hebrew, because you can daven in English. It's not that we lost the melodies, because you can use any melody. It's that we made a conscious decision to abandon our individuality. We decided that we would rather be reading or singing the same thing at the exact same time as the guy sitting next to us. That's a very un-Jewish thing. It took that tension that I've been speaking about between the self and the community and totally blew the individual out of the water.
That's why I bristle when I hear comments suggesting that davening is "too traditional." No. It is authentically Jewish, that's what it is. Some extremely liberal congregations do some very good davening. We are also doing more of it here, and I hope that on these High Holidays, that each of us is finding a way to make prayer an expression of our individuality.
Tomorrow evening, during the final hour of the Day of Atonement, as the sun is setting on a grueling 25-hour fast, we will open the ark and invite worshippers to ascend to the bima, as we did last year. When I announced it then, an astonishing parade ensued, as one by one, or in pairs, the broken-hearted or merely grateful advanced slowly to the pulpit for a few moments of personal prayer. By the dozens you come to bare your souls before God - knowing full well that hundreds of your friends and neighbors were watching you; knowing, yet unabashed. That is what it means to unmask oneself unconditionally and individually before the community. That kind of individual expression is the purest form of davening. We need to do more of it, all day long, all year long.
I carry my community with me even when I am alone. When I write the words of these sermons, I am alone, staring at my computer monitor at 10 p.m., yet intimately connected to all of you. Even when we are alone in front of a blipping screen, there is sanctity and there can be community. One is truly alone, yet simultaneously in the presence of millions, and easily in the presence of a minyan who are like-minded. In any chat room, by definition, if there are ten people in the room who chose to be there because of that basic concern, whether it be saving the whales or nominating Jerry Springer for President, these are ten like-minded people. The masks come off, the hearts merge, and the aloneness is transcended. The experience of finding that minyan is incredibly powerful, obliterating boundaries, dissolving differences.
I want "alone/ together" to become our credo here.
We must recognize that the best way to become a more cohesive community is by allowing each individual to shine and flourish, each in his or her own way. What you see hanging in front of my tree house here is our new symbol of this approach. It is a tallit that was made by all the students of our Religious School last spring. Whether you are in the front row looking at it or viewing from the back a mile away, this w what you learned. Organize another home-study group and we'll come again. Take that experience that you have gained out there and bring it back in here.
I also know that adult takes many forms, and that the best learning often comes unexpectedly, at the oddest times, often in one's pajamas. I've found that my most effective adult ed teaching tool is not even in your brochures. It's called the Bar Mitzvah video. I've appeared on literally hundreds of them, and I know that the words I say to every 13 year old child who comes up to this pulpit will likely be listened to attentively, probably late at night, by the 21 year old he or she becomes; possibly those words will be replayed when that young adult is lost and lonely, directionless, seeking to return to that rooted feeling of community and sanctuary that we so often lose when we go out into the world. I know that years later, those videos will be scrutinized as closely as the Zapruder film or the video of Monica's beret. "God lives in a word," said Heschel. In the end, the indelible Word remains. I know that just as my deeds are inscribed in the Book of Life, all my words of teaching are recorded for posterity in these Videos of Life. I'm a rabbi, and I play one on TV! And that when that video is played, I am speaking not to an entire congregation, but to a single, vulnerable, precious soul. There are times that even when we are alone, we are together.
We need the bagel and we need the hole. We need our space, but we need real human contact too. Without that contact, Tzvi Blanchard points out, aloneness becomes loneliness. And to be truly whole, we need all the elements together here, the earth, the air the fire and the water. We have to build a community which finds a place for all Jews, outsiders included, and sees to it that each one has an important voice, not only a place at the margins. We need to build a real community, not one that pretends to be a community, not a ghost of a community that once was but is now lost; we need, all of us, to be part of a living, vibrant chain of Jewish existence stretching from our past and into our future. And it must be a community where all Jews, each of us, can also "stand alone."
So that is why we confess in the plural but atone in the singular. That is why we pass before the Judge of the world Kivnei maron -- one by one -- while knowing that we are all judged together in a single glance. And that is our glass enclosed sanctuary is so perfect for us. There is really no inside nor an outside. This is truly a synagogue without walls. We can see through these windows directly into our homes. May the strength we gain here, all together this holy night, penetrate each individual heart, and the warmth we generate together sustain each of us, b'shivetecha b'vaytecha, u'v'lechtecha ba'derech, u'veshachbecha uvekumecha: when we dwell in our homes, when we are on the road, when we sleep and when we rise, on line, in line - wherever we are, whomever we're with, 24/7, may we know that we are never really alone.

"Healing the Jewish Soul" 
I begin with a classic hasidic parable. A man had been wandering in the forest for several days, not knowing which was the right way out. Sudeenly he saw a man approaching him. His heart was filled with joy, thinking that now he would certainly find the right way. "Brother, tell me which is the right way, for I've been wandering for several days." And the other man responded, "I do not know the way our either. For I too have been wandering for many days. But I do know one thing -- do not take the path I have chosen, for that will lead you astray. And now let us look for way out together."
That story encapsulates the situation of the American Jew at the close fo the 20th century. With all the good things that have happened for the Jewish people these past few generations, there is, increasingly a recognition that we gotten ourselves terribly lost and no one knows the way out. We have our success stories, to be sure, but overwhelmingly we see our failures, and we feel that there is a hemorrhaging  of Yiddishkeit that cannot be stopped, a loss of the glue that holds us together, that keeps Jews Jewish. For every Joseph Lieberman there are a dozen Monica Lewinskys, people who went through the Bar/Bat Mitzvah mill like everyone else, yet somewhere along the road to adulthood decided, either out of ignorance or intent, to live a life virtually devoid of fundamental Jewish values. There is a deep, gaping hole in the Jewish soul. If we are honest with ourselves, we see it. If we care about the Jewish future, we see it. If we want the Jewish people to continue to make a huge impact on human advancement, we see it.
Jews are lost; and Jews are being lost. Last week I touched upon Dylan Kliebold, one of the killers of Columbine High. And here is what appeared to be the perfect American Jewish success story. His great-great grandfather Isaac Yassenoff came to America in 1881 from Russia. Isaac's son Leo went to Ohio State, where he played football and settled in Columbus after granduation. Leo made his fortune ion the construction industry. He built the Orthodox synagogue in Columbus, the orignal Jewish Community Center and the Hillel at Ohio State. When he died in 1971, he left a substantial portion of his assets to a charitable foundation and the new JCC in Columbus was named after him. Leo's son Milton married a woman who was not Jewish, but Milton's daughter, Dylan's mother Susan, was raised as a Jew. Here we have it. Up until now, a perfect example of the American Jewish success story, par excellance. Escaping persecution, rising from the ashes, making it in the worlds of academia, athletics and business; and not forgetting from whence they came. Charitable to a fault, with a gravitational pull to Judaism strong enough to overcome the complexities of intermarriage, and a non-Jewish spouse supportive of raising a child as a Jew. So far, so good. So we think. But then Susan married a Christian, and the family apparently attended a Lutheran church for a time in Colorado. The Lutheran minister who presided at Kliebold's funeral said that a few weeks before participating in the massacre of 13 individuals, young Dylan asked the Four Questions at his family's Passover Seder. He asked the qestions, but Dylan never learned the answers, the Jewish answers.
Am I saying that his lack of Jewish identity led directly to the killings? Of course not. There are any number of other psycho-social factors involved here. Would he have done this killing if he had been a Yeshiva bochor. Well, Baruch Goldstein and Yigal Amir were, so I don't know. But if he had truly understood the Jewish value of loving one's neighbor as oneself, it would have helped. If he felt so at home and comfortable with his family roots that he never feel like an outsider, it might have helped. But that's all fodder for speculation. What's undenyable here is that, from a Jewish perspective, something went very wrong along the road from Russia to Littleton. And, as the Forward declared in an editorial, "Of all the people our hearts go out to, there is first of all old Isaac Yassenoff who set out with such high Jewish hopes for the new world and whose great great grandson died at his own hand after participting in the murder of his classmates and teacher on a date apparently selected to mark the birthday of Hitler."
I know this is hard to listen to. But you must hear it from me. Assimilation has had its wonderful benefits to all of us; but we are losing far more than we are gaining, and we don't even know it. We've made it in America beyonf our grandparents' dreams. We think we've gained the world. But we are losing eternity.
I read a book this year that has changed millions of lives. It was written by a Jew and about a Jew, and many of the concepts in it are very Jewish, although the main character distanced himself considerably from Judaism. So, while the book was inspiring, its potential to tap into a deep stream of wisdom was lost, and many of its most startling revelations were, for one who sees the world through Jewish eyes, basic alef-bet stuff. "Tuesdays With Morrie" is a beautiful book and Morrie Schwartz a genuine American hero. But although the iconoclastic professor dying of Lou Gehrig's disease had lots of wisdom to impart, he had very little of his ancestors' wisdom to fall back on. He was born Jewish, but Morrie became an agnostic when he was a teenager, borrowing freely from all religions; a "religious mutt," writes author Mitch Albom, "even more open to the students he taught over the years." Since when does abandoning one's legacy make one more open-minded? Now Morrie had his reasons for leaving Judaism. You see his mother had died when Morrie was young, and then his brother got polio, and Morrie went to synagogue and prayed for his brother, and, at the age of nine, he felt as if the weight of a mountain were on his shoulders.
So because of boyhood suffering and the feeling that God had abandoned him, he effectively abandoned the faith of his fathers. Another American Jewish success story. Yes, "Tuesday's With Morrie" was beautiful and his struggle against the night inspiring. But if only it could have been "Shabbos With Morrie," perhaps it could have shown us the way out of the forest.
Here's a joke that's been going around in various forms on-line: One Saturday morning, the rabbi noticed little David was staring up at the large plaque that hung in the foyer of the synagogue. It was covered with names, and small American flags were mounted on either side of it. The seven-year old had been staring at the plaque for some time, so the rabbi walked up, stood beside the boy, and said quietly, "Good morning David."
"Good morning rabbi," replied the young man, still focused on the plaque.
"Rabbi, what is this?" David asked.
"Well, son, it's a memorial to all the young men and women who died in the service."
Soberly, they stood together, staring at the large plaque. Little David's voice was barely audible when he asked, "Which one, the Friday night or the Saturday service?"
At first, I didn't like this joke because it is insensitive to those who actually have had a relative die in the service. Then I realized that, on an entirely different level, this joke is also no laughing matter. Because it's true. I'm speaking on a nationwide basis, here, not specifically of our synagogue. But I think the claim can be made, based on the fact that young people are staying away from services in droves and so many older ones left long ago, that sure enough, on our collective obituary it will likely say that American Judaism was killed in the service. But thank God, the American Jewish leadership is finally recognizing that we are losing our young people in droves, and that the way to bring them back is through inspirational religious and social experiences at synagogues.
A remarkable thing happened this year. The UJA ceased to exist! Not only that, they voted themselves out of existence. And they took the federations with them! Voluntarily! When the Council of Jewish Federations merged with the UJA to create a single entity and it came time to come up with a final name, the initial idea was to slap the two together with a hyphen and make everybody happy. But something strange happened on the way, something highly unusual in organized Jewish life. Vision trumped petty politics. They did surveys and discovered that when most young Jews hear the word "federation," they think of Star Wars. So to entice young Jews to buy into the worthy goals of organized Jewish life, they changed the name to "United Jewish Communities " All three words resonate with young people: "United." That's what I want to be. "Jewish." The word rings a bell; I heard it once around the time of my Bar Mitzvah. And "communities." Yes. That's what I am looking for. That's what I need. That's what I am missing. That is the gaping hole in my soul. 
Welcome, ladies and gentlemen, to Generation J. We've had Generation X and Y and Z, but the Jews in their 20s, 30s and early 40s are increasingly seeing themselves as Gen. J, the lost Jewish generation. There is even a book, a web site and numerous chat rooms for Gen J'ers. In truth they could well be called Generation Y, because the question most on their minds is "Why?" Why date Jewish? Why affiliate Jewish? Why pray Jewish? Why do Jewish? Why be Jewish at all?
To its credit, Generation J has done much on its own to re-enter the fold. They've had to because we haven't helped them much. We need to help them, because ultimately, their questions are our own. We don't know really what it means to be Jewish either, or how to ensure that we have a future; and those of us who care are very worried.
Nathan Englander is an outstanding representative of Generation J. Raised in New York with a solid Jewish background, he moved in Israel, asking himself the same questions all Jews are asking these days. The results of that questioning can be found in his masterful first collection of stories, entitled "For the Relief of Unbearable Urges." In one of the stories, "Reb Kringle," an aging Orthodox rabbi with a long white beard raises needed funds for his impoverished shtiebel by crossing the bridge into Manhattan and working each December as a Santa at Macys. For years, no problem. But then, the story descibes how one day a child climbs onto his lap and Itzik, the rabbi, asks him what he wants for Christmas. The boy is reluctant to answer. Santa peppers him with suggestions: A mountain bike? No. Force Five Action Figures? No.
"C'mon," Itzik said, "Out with it." The boy's lip started to quiver. And then, he answered, with tears.
"A menorah."
"A what?" he said much too loudly, and then, sweet, nice, playing the the part of Mr. Kringle, "A what-did-you-say?"
"A menorah."
"And what would a nice Christian boy want with a menorah?"
"I'm Jewish, not Christian. My new father says we're having a real Christmas and a tree, and not any candles at all -- which isn't fair because my last father let me have a menorah and he wasn't Jewish."
"Why won't this new daddy let you light candles?"
"Because he says there's not going to be Hanukkah this year."
I won't give away the rest of the story, but I'll tell you what's not there. I would have loved to see what became of the boy. And not just that Hanukkah, but the Hanukkah after that, and on Passover, and Shabbat, and at his wedding, and at his grandchild's wedding and at his funeral. Would he end up on the statistical trash heap of Jewish history, or would he possibly find his way back, much in the way of Stephen Dubner, the New York Times writer whose Jewish parents had both converted to Catholicism, but who in his adult years rediscovered his Jewish roots, and against all odds, became Jewish again?
There is certainly quite a lot of traffic going through that forest, isn't there. Jews, ex-Jews, neo-Jews, patralinial Jews, and pseudo Jews going back and forth looking for the way out.
We must all understand that there is no room for smugness here. That boy on Reb Kringle's lap belongs to all of us. That boy is all of our children. That boy is us. Assimilation is now complete. If our children are to choose to be Jewish, they'll need positive reasons to do so. They are going to have to love every minute, every single Jewish experience. They are going to have to learn how to breathe Jewish oxygen, how to eat, sleep and think Jewish, and when it comes time to make crucial moral decisions, to understand Jewish values and respond accordingly.
And you don' have to be fully observant to observe the world fully through Jewish eyes. All it takes is a little background, a good Jewish library and the knowledge that there is a Jewish connection to everything.
Example: Did you know that there is a Jewish Pokemon? If you want to know what Pokemon are, ask any child from 5-12 and he'll tell you; but I'll say for now that Pokemon are 150 creatures that need to be captured and their powers harnessed by apprentices hoping to become Pokemon masters. Now a child can become a Pokemon master simply by getting his parents to buy Game Boy, lots of Nintendo products, very expensive cards and to let him watch the show every morning at 7 o'clock. The Jewish Pokemon? It's number 76, and its name is Golem. The Golem is the Frankenstein of Jewish folklore, a monster of sorts created from the earth through the magic and wisdom of great sages. What the Golem is really about is our universal and tragic human desire to play God.
So a perfect Jewish conversation to have with a child would be: "Look, there's a Jewish Pokemon." To which the response will be, hopefully, "Cool." That's level one: group identification. For my generation it was "Sandy Koufax." For my kids it's Golem. It's not enough, but it's a start. The next step is to go to the library and get a child's book about the Golem. Or, if that is too hard, at least to discuss why people try to become Pokemon masters, and what it means to control all of those creatures. Wouldn't that make us like God? And should we really want to be like God? Isn't it dangerous to have so much power? And this could lead to a discussion about nuclear weapons or totalitarianism or even the Holocaust, and, God knows, any number of important topics with distinctly Jewish angles. All from Pokemon. Cool. I'll have to try it with my kids some time.
If we are to heal that hole in the soul of young Jews, it will take a lot more than Golems and Pokemon. It will take a dynamic combination of vision, prioritization and money. Enter Charles Bronfman and Michael Steinhardt and "Birthright Israel." In the year 2000 we will finally be able to tell Generation J that help is on the way. It has long been understood that a teen tour of Israel has an enormous impact on the identity formation of American Jewish teens and college students, and that if they don't go before 21, they'll likely not get there for decades, if at all. On an Israel experience, Judaism comes to life and an indelible connection with Jewish history and the Jewish people is forged. The effect is measurable and it is phenomenal. We all know that it works, but relatively few have taken advantage of it. Until now. Beginning next year for some, the gradually increasing over the coming years, Birthright Israel will be funding dramatically subsidized Israel experiences for diaspora Jews. Once the project was devised, Messrs. Bronfman and Steinhardt wsere joined by two important partners, the United Jewish Communities and the Israeli government. I am working with our local federation to try to get Birthright Israel to select Stamford as a pilot community so that we could get significant funds for teens to travel to Israel next summer. We have failed abysmally in getting our kids to go; we are far behind other American Jewish communities. With the noteworthy exception of the Bi-Cultural eighth graders, Stamford's Jewish teens aren't going, haven't been going and won't go unless we do something. So we are.
Barb Moskow and I went to our Youth Commission for advice. We told them that Barb is willing to lead a teen tour next summer of three week's duration, one that would overlap with a family tour that I'll be leading for people of all ages. We told them that we would endeavor to make the teen tour as inexpensive as possible, using Gift of Israel scholarship money already available and hopefully the Birthright scholarships too, which together could make the trip dirt cheap. Our goal is to make our 9-12 graders an offer they can't refuse. But, I added, there was a good chance that we would not get the Birthright money right away and the trip could be more expensive. The Youth Commission members looked at us for five seconds and said, unanimously, "Of course. Go!" And so we are. And we are planning two Israel trips for next summer that will be very different from anything we've had here before. We are coordinating the trips with staff from Ramah Israel, the educational and camping arm of the Conservative movement. The family tour will have a guide and a family educator on hand, and at every stop Jewish history will come alive. We'll be starting the trip not in Jerusalem  but at the edge of the Wilderness, at Israel's Grand Canyon, the Ramon crater; hear the words of our unsurpassed tour coordinator, Pamela Cohn Allen, who wrote of an evening stroll there, "And then we reached the lips of the crater and were greeted by lashing winds and the ink-black space beneath us. The dark silence filled us with an awe different from that of an afternoon's visible crater. Here was unfathomable mystery, and a howling wind to warn us away."
The highlight of the two trips will undoubtedly be a memorable Shabbat together in Jerusalem that the two groups will spend together. And of course we'll do the Bar Mitzvah affirmation thing and leave plenty of time for shopping. My goal is fifty kids on the 9-12th grade tour. Fifty teens from Stamford. If we get thirty, I won't cry, because this year we had a paltry two or three. One of them was Ruth Ginsburg, who compiled an extensive journal while over there. On the final pages she writes, "As I reflect this was the best summer of my life, I would like to take what everyone else has showed me and use it in my every day life." Reading Ruth's words made me even more committed to this project; it helped me to realize that she has found her way out of that forest. Bronfman and Steinhardt have given us the map. If we don't send several dozens of teens to Israel on our own comfy, custom made trip, we'll have only ourselves to blame.
Israel tours are one way to meet the needs of Generation J, but there is more. In January, we're going to host an event designed specifically for Jewish sngles and young couples called "Friday Night Live." It will feature the singer Craig Taubman and will be modeled after a service that he does monthly at Sinai Temple in Los Angeles, which in turn is modeled after B'nai Jeshurun in New York. At last count over 2,000 Generation J'ers attend the LA program every time it is held. The service follows a traditional pattern but with a very contemprary musical edge that makes it irresistible to young people. This will be the first time Friday Night Live will be done in the New York area, and it will be right here, on this bima. We are already working with Temple Sinai and the Young Professionals group of the JCC and Federation to make this event the smash hit it will be. I'd love to see it come off big, but I will not be satisfied until our community can organize Friday Night happenings like this on a regular basis.
And this afternoon, while some of you rest up for this evening's final prayers, we will hold a Learner's Service for everyone, including those who have felt left behind, those beyond the fringes of Jewish life, including many young singles. We want to send a clear message to the community that we hear their cry. And after that beginner's service, I will invite the participants down here for minha, yizkor and ne'ilah, which we always open to the public anyway. And the young professionals will have their own break-the-fast in our building, along with our communal one. They need to know we care and we do.
For the Learner's Service, a donor came forth immediately. For Friday Night Live, I only had to ask one person, and it was a done deal. We care. I know we do. I expect that within the next few weeks, some of you will be calling me or Edith Samers at the UJF to see how you can help fund the Israel Teen Tour and give our kids that offer they won't be able to refuse. I have already seen your response to all the amazing things we are doing in our school, with youth groups and social action, in the form of a significantly higher participation in our High Holidays appeal.
We are doing this because we know it is the way out of the forest. We now have the map, we've been following it. And you are helping us to get there. For there is only one way to respond to the hate crimes we've seen. We must reconnect ourselves and our youth to the wellsprings of our faith, the hopes of our generations and the land of our dreams.
At the very end of the last story of his collection, Nathan Englander returns to a a Jerusalem cafe where he had been the day before when a terror bomb had hit. He is nervous, his hands are shaking, the sounds are caught in his head. "I've picked up on the congenital ringing in Jerusalem's ears," he says. But he is compelled to return, to the same spot; the same table. And the waitress serves him a big round-headed muffin, poppy seeds traped in the glaze. Anchors. Symbols, he thinks. "Round foods are good for mourning," he says, "They symbolize eternity and the unbreakable cycles of life."
Which returns us to the beginning of this journey. To the round bagel with the hole, to the piece of dough that fills the hole and to the honey-dipped round hallah which heralded the new year. We know that our people have survived predicaments far worse than we face today. We know that the aching lack that we feel in our lives can be filled with simple goodness and with renewed commitment. We know that we are free and dignified individuals, but part of an eternal and unbreakable people. And we know that we can find our way out of the forest, if only we could understand the power of the vision that has sustained us for four millennia.
Round foods: that's our response to blood and swastikas. A delicious honey-dipped hallah. And a bagel with a hole.

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