Thursday, September 5, 2013

An Open Community- Erev Rosh Hashanah 5774

An Open Community
Erev Rosh HaShanah 5774/2013
Rabbi Joseph R. Black
Temple Emanuel  - Denver, CO

My Dear Friends,
A story is told of a King whose daughter was to be married in 3 months.  He sent out invitations to his entire kingdom for everyone to come and celebrate at the wedding feast.  He also asked that guests bring no gifts.  All that he requested was that each household, in the weeks before the wedding, should bring a pitcher of their finest red wine to the town square.  There, he had erected a huge barrel - 8 feet tall and 4 feet wide.  During the weeks that led up to the wedding, each household was to bring their pitcher of wine to the barrel, climb up a ladder and open the lid and pour it in.  In this way, when it came time to toast his daughter and her new husband, they would do so using the shared bounty of the entire community.
As the weeks and months passed and the wedding date grew closer, a representative from each household came to the town square, climbed up the ladder, opened the lid and poured their pitcher into the huge barrel.  It slowly filled with each offering until it was almost completely full.
Finally, the day of the wedding arrived.  The bride and groom stood under the Chuppah, rings were exchanged, the glass was broken. Everyone shouted MAZAL TOV!!!  Then, at the beginning of the feast, the King prepared to bless the wine and called for the 1st toast.  He held a clear, crystal glass up to the tap on the bottom of the barrel.  He broke the seal, opened the spigot and out came a stream of pure…..water.

You see, each townsperson, as they heard about the King’s request, thought to themselves: “So many people are contributing to the King’s toast, and it’s such a huge barrel, if I just pour water in, no one will know the difference!  So, one by one, thinking that their contribution didn’t count, each person poured water, not wine, into the barrel.

The moral of this story is obvious – but worth stating:  Every member of a community has value.  Every one of us has an essential and vital perspective to share.  If everyone does not feel as though their contribution is going to make a difference, then, in the long run, we are all diminished.

Tonight, I want to talk about the importance of hearing and celebrating every voice in our community.  As I look around this beautiful sanctuary, I see men and women, fathers and mothers, married couples and singles, Gays and Lesbians; I see Jews by choice and intermarried households.  I see people of almost every racial and ethnic diversity imaginable.  I see Republicans and Democrats, Independents, Liberals and Conservatives – truly Temple Emanuel is a multi-faceted community.  And although we may not agree on every issue, we are strengthened by the variety of opinions and perspectives in our midst.  We strive to be welcoming and we are usually successful- occasionally we stumble - but most of the time we do a pretty good job.

And yet, in spite of all of our efforts to create a welcoming and diverse community here at Temple, there are still areas where we, as a larger, Denver Jewish Community,  fall short.  In particular, I want to talk about how we understand, support and agree to disagree about The State of Israel.

This topic is so important, that, at a rabbinic retreat this past summer, members of the Rocky Mountain Rabbinic Council came to a consensus that we would encourage every pulpit rabbi to address it at some point during the high holidays.   I believe that this is the first time that the members of our Rabbinic Council have made a conscious decision that that we will encourage all of our members to speak about the same topic.

Tonight, of course, our hearts and minds are thinking about Israel.  The dangers posed by the instability in Syria: the over one hundred thousand souls who have been killed in the conflict so far; the inhumane gassing of over 1400 innocents by the Assad regime; the two years of brutal fighting have taken their terrible toll.  Now, of course, we await Congress’ response to that horrific event. In Israel, the decisions made by our leaders will have a vitally important impact.  The prospect of an attempted Syrian, Iranian or terrorist reprisal in Israel to a military attack by the United States is very real. Once again, Israelis are clamoring for gas masks, reserve soldiers are being placed on alert and everyone is preparing for whatever contingency might arise.  This is a tense time.  This is a time when, more than ever before, the voice of the American Jewish community needs to be strong.  Internal squabbles can only harm our ability to send our support to our leaders here in America –and our brothers and sisters in Israel.

I have spoken about the vital importance of the relationship between the United States of America and the State of Israel on many occasions.  So have others from this pulpit.  That our two nations share the same strategic, political and moral vision is an indisputable fact.  And yet, one of the changes occurring within the American Jewish Community is a growing gap between American Jews and Israel.  Whether because of politics, religious concerns, apathy or ignorance, we are growing apart - and that is something about which we all should be very concerned.  But it is not only between Israeli and American Jewry that there is a growing gap – we can see also it within the ranks of our own community – particularly among those in their 20’s and 30’s.

From the beginnings of our self-awareness as a nation, Am- Yisrael – the people of Israel have been inexorably linked to Eretz Yisrael – the land of Israel.  When God spoke to Abraham and told him: “Lech Lecha- go forth  - leave all that you know – and go to a land that I will show you,”  - from that moment on our destiny has been intertwined with a piece of hotly contested real estate.  Traditionally, when we pray, we face towards Jerusalem.  We end our Seder with the words:  L’Shanah Ha-ba-ah B’yirushalayim- next year in Jerusalem.  When the modern State of Israel was established in 1948 – in the aftermath of one of the greatest tragedies ever to befall humankind – we saw this fledgling Democracy as a miracle of redemption  - a spark of hope in the midst of a darkened world.
Today, Israel is a complicated place.  It is a center of culture, science and technology.  Within a relatively short period of time – 65 years – the Jewish state has created a democracy that is both modern and maddening.  Israel is incredibly diverse.   There are no limits on public or political discourse in Israel.   The only exception to this was the banning of the overtly racist Kach Party of Rabbi Meyer Kahane in 1988.  Indeed, within the Israeli Knesset you can find voices from every corner of the Political spectrum- from ultra-Orthodox fundamentalists, to socialist atheists; from hard line Hawks to passionate Doves.  Even Communists and Arabs have a voice.  And yet, despite the crazy-quilt of Israeli politics – or maybe even because of it - the society functions.

If the state of Israel can have so many different political and social perspectives in the Knesset, why can’t we, as an American Jewish Community, encourage diversity of opinion in our own communal organizations?
Like many Jewish communities around the country, Denver has a Jewish Community Relations Council, or JCRC.  The JCRC is made up of representatives from Jewish institutions and organizations in Denver.  Temple Emanuel and all of the Denver synagogues have representatives.  So do AIPAC, the ADL, JFS, and most other community organizations.  The mission of the JCRC is to collectively develop policy positions, advocate community perspectives to elected and appointed public officials, and organize the community in times of crisis.
Last June, at a meeting of the Denver JCRC, an application for membership was submitted.  The organization applying for membership was J-Street.  For those of you who might not be familiar with J-street, it is a pro-Israel, leftist lobbying group that tends to support and encourage efforts by the American government to press for negotiated settlements to the Arab Israeli conflict that will lead to a two State Solution.  J-Street has a large and growing following – especially among younger American Jews.  They have applied and been accepted in other JCRC’s around the country.

Before the meeting during which the was to have JCRC voted on J-Street’s application, several community leaders were invited to share their thoughts about the vote.  I spoke - along with Rabbi Ben Greenberg of BMH-BJ and Rabbi Bruce Dollin of HEA  - who sent a letter because he was not able to attend in person.    Now Rabbi Dollin, Rabbi Greenberg and I do not always share the same opinions on political and religious issues.  In addition, all three of us are outspoken supporter of AIPAC and have attended the AIPAC policy conference in Washington DC.   Nonetheless, all three of us spoke in support of J-Street’s inclusion.  Our rationale for acceptance was not based on J-Streets’ positions on issues or politics.  Indeed, all of us expressed reservations about some of the statements that have been made in their name and some of the groups and individuals with whom they have been connected.  Nonetheless, we felt that it was vitally important for the sake of our community to allow all responsible voices to be heard around the table of communal discussion.

In the sharing of ideas that took place at the JCRC meeting prior to the vote, there was a great deal of anger, misunderstanding and fear expressed around the table.  Many people perceived J-Street as a threat.  Some felt that, by questioning both Israeli Governmental policies around peace negotiations with the Palestinians and by suggesting that it was important for the American Jewish Community to pressure the Israeli Government to push for a negotiated settlement – we were somehow being disloyal to the State of Israel and the Jewish people.  Others vehemently disagreed.

After the rabbis and community leaders spoke, we were asked to leave so that the vote could be taken.  After the ballots were counted, J-Street’s application did not receive the requisite 2/3rd majority and was rejected.  While due process was followed by the JCRC – and it must be said that, for some of the people who either voted “nea” or obstained from voting, one of the main reasons for their vote had more to do with organizational governance than political stances - most of my colleagues and I, as well as many other community leaders, were disappointed – if not dismayed by the outcome.

I believe that J-Street’s rejection was a mistake – one that we can ill afford at a time of growing crisis. Study after study has shown that, despite all of the outreach efforts at our disposal – in particular Birthright Israel - increasingly, younger American Jews no longer see themselves as Zionists.  Israel is rapidly becoming just another Middle Eastern country for too many of our children.  Many will see- and have seen the rejection of J-street as a rejection of an entire generation.  The old paradigms of communal identification are rapidly disintegrating and if we don’t see the need to educate ourselves and our children about the importance of supporting Israel and allowing for all voices to be heard, we do so at our own peril.

Nonetheless, I also understand why the outcome of the J-Street vote came to pass.   Talking about Israel is hard.  3 years ago, when I first came to Denver, I was amazed that the Rocky Mountain Rabbinical Council avoided discussing Israel.  We were afraid that the diversity of political opinion within our ranks would somehow poison our ability to work together on other issues.  And so, we never talked about our feelings about Israel – until, two years ago, at a retreat, where we had a program during which we shared our experiences, thoughts and perspectives on Zionism and the modern Israeli state.  We learned a lot from that experience. No one convinced anyone to change their views, but we learned how to take risks – to disagree and yet to see, hear and respect one another.  We followed up our retreat with a powerful course of study published by the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem called iEngage.

The iEngage program combines multimedia video presentations from leading rabbis and intellectuals in Israel along with current and thought-provoking readings that are discussed during classes taught by rabbis in the local community. This program has been implemented in cities throughout the country and has been highly successful.   iEngage didn’t tell us what to think about Israel, rather it challenged us, through textual study and discussion, to formulate an educated and sophisticated perspective on how the Jewish State can have more meaning and purpose in our lives.

After we finished studying together as Rabbis, we decided that it was vital that we bring the iEngage program to the Denver Jewish community at large.  The recent vote at the JCRC only enforced the urgency of its implementation.

And so, I’m announcing tonight that the Rocky Mountain Rabbinical Council in cooperation with CAJE - will be offering the iEngage program  - 9 weekly sessions beginning in October.  Communal classes will be held in our building and at the Hebrew Educational Alliance at two different times:  one during the day and the other in the evening.   In the foyer tonight and throughout the High Holy Days, you will find registration materials for iEngage.  You will also be able to access materials on our website and Facebook page. I hope that many of you will consider signing up.  This curriculum has been implemented successfully in many other synagogues and institutions around the country – but I believe that we, in Denver, are one of the first communities to offer it as a community-wide effort that resulted from inter-denominational Rabbinic cooperation.

In addition to the iEngage program, I also want to let you know about two other important opportunities to learn about Israel that will be taking place over the next year.  During the weekend of February 7th and 8th, we will be hosting Anat Hoffman – Chairperson of Women of the Wall and Executive Director of the Israel Religious Action Center.  Many of you have followed Anat and the Women of the Wall as they have fought for equality of religious expression for all at the Kotel – the Western Wall in Jerusalem.  You will be hearing more about Anat and her visit in the weeks to come.

I also am excited to announce that Sue and I will be leading an all-ages trip to Israel this summer from June 25th-July 6th.  Information on the trip is also available in the foyer and on our website.  I hope that many of you will seriously consider travelling with us on what I know will be a life-changing experience.

There is a Midrash that speaks of the moment that the Israelites are poised to enter the land of Canaan for the first time as a free nation. Moses summons spies to tour the land and to bring back a report on the people dwelling there. Amidst the details Moses asks them to report on, he tells the spies to see if the Canaanites live in “Open camps” or “fortified strongholds.

One would imagine that a clear sign of strength of the armies that the nation of Israel will soon be encountering would be a country full of heavily fortified strongholds.   Every city, town and village would be surrounded by high foreboding walls and deep murky moats. That would be a people to be reckoned with. However, our tradition teaches us that the opposite is true.

In the Midrash, the Rabbis state that Moses wanted to know about the defenses of the Canaanites cities because the strength of a people is not to be found in their fortifications but in their openness.  A people who can live open and unencumbered - that is a people who is secure in their position and who is strong.

My friends – we need to move beyond the walls and fortifications that divide us as a community.  We need to find avenues of openness that will lead us to productive debate and communal participation.
I hope you will join me in this process of discovery and exploration. I hope you will join me in the iEngage program, along with the rest of our community.  Let us cultivate the tools that will enable us to discuss, support, and yes, at times, disagree about Israel - but from a place of mutuality and respect – that seeks to make room at the table and not to marginalize and divide. Let us take the advice of Moses and build a strong, vibrant and lasting community; a community that is open and not closed; that is accessible and not divisive.

Tonight, as we enter into a New Year, let us pray that it will be a year of peace – for the State of Israel and for us all.  May our openness make us stronger and our faith give us hope.

AMEN – L ‘Shanah Tovah.

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