Rosh Hashanah 2014

We Are Lone Soldiers

I have gotten a number of requests for my Rosh Hashanah sermon on Israel…

When I was growing up in Newton, it seemed like the whole world was Jewish. I think there may have been two girls in my elementary school who were not Jewish. The big question around the high holy days was whether to send the kids to school on the first and last days of Sukkot. Of course there was no school on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Over 5000 people attended high holy day services at my temple, Temple Israel in Boston. And the most crowded place in town on Rosh Hashanah afternoon was the South Pacific Chinese Restaurant.

When I attended Newton High and at Brandeis, the big cultural difference was between those of us who grew up Reform and those who were Conservative. Even this issue did not exist in rabbinical school. The section of suburban Philadelphia where I served in my first congregation was the mirror image of Newton.

So even after spending half my life here in Burlington, I never quite grasped the concept of what it means to be a small Jewish minority. Every year I would hear stories about teachers giving kids homework or tests on the high holy days, people not understanding what a challah is, many insensitivities in the month of December, the subtle and not so subtle anti-Semitic remarks or actions of other kids at school. I listened and responded to all these incidents and but I never really got it. Even at my clergy meetings, I was under the allusion that somehow everyone was really Jewish.

That all changed, however, this past year. As the shofar is supposed to arouse us out of our slumber and make us hear the brokenness of the world, I have finally been jolted out of my little fantasy and forced to wake up to the reality of what it means to be a lone Jew in a non-Jewish world. The combination of anti-Semitic events locally, the fallout from the conflict in Israel this past summer and the rise in anti-Semitism around the world have changed my perception of our place in the world and our community. I heard a new term coined in Israel this summer: lone soldier. This refers to someone who moved to Israel without his or her family to fight on Israel’s behalf. For the first time this year, I understand what it means to be a lone soldier, advocating on behalf of our people and our state.

For the first time I felt personally assaulted by whoever threw a large glass vase against the front door of the temple and whoever scrawled some anti-Semitic writing in our Men’s Room, after being appalled by the swastikas appearing at Bedford High School along with other incidents of an anti-Semitic nature. For the first time, I was part of a Restorative Justice circle with two young men who were caught using a swastika as a team symbol for an online game. I was shocked by their ignorance of the Holocaust. I was amazed that one of the boy’s parents thought that this was no big deal. Just four days ago another swastika was found spray painted on a sidewalk in Billerica. Yesterday afternoon I heard about a rabbi in Jackson Mississippi who went to a store to buy a salad and the man behind the counter asked him if he would like a full size or Jew sized, because Jews are small and cheap. The more I participate in town committees, the more I hear subtle innocent, but discriminatory remarks. There are more people than I ever imagined who simply don’t understand us, our culture, our loyalties, our customs, our faith.

The critical response to the 50 day war in Israel this past summer shattered many of my illusions about America’s support of Israel. I never expected the American press to be so lopsided and negative in its reporting. I was disheartened by the response of some of my interfaith clergy colleagues. The same friends who have been so supportive of us in the wake of the anti-Semitic incidents, have shown me how much of the world regards Israel’s actions. In their eyes, Israel was the aggressor and carelessly killed many Gazans. Israel is to blame for the devastation in Gaza. While they understand that Israel has the right to defend herself, they are opposed to her heavy-handed tactics.

What I have been forced to see for the first time in my life, is that there is a fundamental difference between our relationship with Israel and that of people who are not tied to our faith. Israel is our homeland, our people, our extended family, the only place on earth where our culture is lived, the land of our ancestors. For many people in the world who do not have this relationship, Israel is a Goliath, beating down the poor, weak underdog who needs to be protected. Because of Israel’s success as a nation, it has unearned the title of victim, causing those with liberal and conservative values in our country and around the world to turn against it.
An added complication for me for the first time, is having to be schizophrenic in my response, depending on who I am talking to. If I am talking to someone who does not care about Israel, I am quick to forcefully defend and list all the reasons why Israel’s actions were right and justified. But among my Jewish colleagues, I have had to grapple with many conflicting values, how every life is sacred, the Talmud’s teaching that if you even save one life, you have saved the entire world, how peace and tikkun olam, repairing the world, are our ultimate goals as Jews.

I have just now come to realize that those who are not part of the Jewish community or related to someone in the Jewish community, do not really understand, appreciate or empathize with the complex feelings with which we are grappling. We are proud of Israel’s tremendous accomplishments as a nation. We are extremely grateful for the success of the Iron Dome. At the same time we are horrified at the sight of innocent victims, both Israeli and Gazan. We are anxious over the potential conflicts still to come. The current truce will not hold as a peace agreement. ISIS, Hamas and Iran continue to pose existential threats to Israel. As Rabbi Hillel said, If I am not for myself, who will be for me. Our tradition teaches, Kol Yisrael aravim zeh bizeh – all Israel is responsible one for the other. As we look around our community we are the lone soldiers looking out for Israel’s best interest. The State of Israel is itself a lone soldier in the world. Even if we don’t personally agree with all of her tactics, like an imperfect relative, when push comes to shove, it is still family. When our family is attacked, we can debate the merits of who did what to who later. The first order of business is to jump to its defense.

And this year my Jewish bubble has been burst regarding how much anti-Semitism exists in our world. I have never in my lifetime seen gangs throwing stones at synagogues and smashing the windows of Jewish owned businesses in Paris. Pro-Palestinian demonstrations with clear anti-Jewish overtones throughout Europe and in this country.

This has been a wakeup call for all of us, that we need to bond together more than ever to support one another, our people, our faith, our homeland, because no one can be there for us in the way that we can be here for one another. In our schools, our workplace, our neighborhood, our social circles, among our colleagues, we are all lone soldiers. We need to educate others about our faith because no one else will. It is up to us to be ambassadors for Israel because no one else cares as much as we do. The temple is the lone institution in our area which defends our faith and our people’s best interests. We need to band together here, both for support and to figure out ways to enlighten others.

This is the year I have realized the down side of being a lone Jew in our society. But happily, I have also learned how many friends I never knew we had. Despite my disagreements with some of my fellow clergy relating to Israel, the discussion of these issues strengthened and deepened our understanding of each other. The Burlington clergy actually wrote a letter of support to our community which they all signed. Never in my life did I think I would know, let alone be friends with a superintendant, have a police chief at my house for Passover seder or host the Middlesex District Attorney in my living room. I never dreamed that our sanctuary would be filled to capacity, with 22 town officials from Bedford and Burlington helping to conduct last spring’s Holocaust Memorial Service in a show of solidarity. I am immediately notified by the police every time there is an anti-Semitic incident. As soon as the rabbi in Jackson Mississippi called the local press, reporters arrived and began peppering the store owner with questions.

What does it mean to be a lone soldier in Israel? This summer, I learned that this is a total misnomer. During the war, each of these young men and women were embraced by the entire nation. When one of them was killed in battle, many thousands of Israelis attended his funeral. Each of them was embraced by an entire nation.

On this day in this place, we are similarly embraced by our community. Though we are lone soldiers to the outside world, we enjoy one another’s support as if we were one extended family. We share in the joy of each others simchas, feel deep concern when one of us is ill and mourn as a community when anyone suffers a loss. Our temple may be a lone bastion of Judaism, but our temple community provides us with the support we desperately need to face all of life’s challenges.

For the first time this year, I hear the lone blast of the shofar as a call to unite, to defend our people, our temple and our homeland, as well as a call of hope… that thanks to our diligence as the next generation of Jews, our people will continue to live and thrive as it has since the day Abraham sacrificed a ram instead of his son. This year the words of Israel’s national anthem, hatikvah, the Hope, speaks to us in a way it never did before,
As long as deep within the heart
A Jewish soul yearns
And toward the edges of the east
An eye to Zion looks
Our hope is not yet lost
The hope of two thousand years
To be a free people in our Land
The Land of Zion and Jerusalem.