Maybe it’s because she grew up in a very small Jewish community – El Dorado, Kansas was home to about ten Jewish families. Maybe it was because of her deep love for Jewish values, traditions and teachings. Whatever inspired it, my mother absolutely delighted in discovering that the perfect stranger with whom she was sitting on the airplane or whom she happened to begin speaking with in the museum or concert hall at intermission was, like her, a Jew.
If one of her kids was nearby, she’d shoot us a knowing look and stage-whisper, “He’s JEWISH.” Sometimes it was obvious. A star of David around the neck. A hamsa. Maybe it was the name – David Shapiro was an easy one. Rochel Leah Rabinowitz – a no brainer. Shmuel Cohen – a gimmee. But mom could also find the Jewish Maureen O’Malley, too.
Then it was time for some Jewish geography. Before you knew it, mom had found a connection. Maybe through an acquaintance, a distant cousin – some Rabbi we knew in common.
When I entered Rabbinical school, it got worse. Here’s how it played out:
- Step one: Identify the Jew.
- Step two: Chat up the Jew.
- Step three: Discover some type of personal connection to the Jew.
- Step four: Seize the opportunity to announce proudly to her new best friend that her son is studying to be a rabbi.
Once on a family vacation, as we sat down for our first dinner, a member of the staff approached me and said, “I hear you’re a rabbi – would you be willing to help us light the Chanukah candles tomorrow night in the lobby? Your mom said you’d love to!”
I don’t want you to think that her ability to identify and connect with Jews was flawless – sometimes her “Jew-dar” was off. Once, on a phone call with mom when I was in college, I mentioned that I was going to a Bruce Springsteen concert with some friends. “You know he’s a self hating Jew, don’t you?” She said. “I mean, he never talks about his Jewish identity, he’s not raising his kids as Jews – he hasn’t ever performed in Israel.”
“Mom,” I noted. “We’ve talked about this before. Bruce Springsteen is not, I repeat, NOT a self hating Jew. Do you know why that is, mom? It’s ‘cuz he’s NOT A JEW AT ALL. Yes, his name ends in ‘Steen’ and he’s from Jersey but HE’S NOT A JEW.”
There was a pause.
“Still,” she said, “he could be more supportive.”
My parents taught us that we were part of a community, a People – Members of a Tribe. They were devoted to our synagogue. Mom was president of the Temple sisterhood, an active lifelong learner, forever volunteering for things like the outreach committee, the book drive, and taskforces of all types. Dad was honored to be named the volunteer of the decade at our local Jewish Community Center.
For us kids, attending religious school through Confirmation was a requirement. Mom insisted that we all try Jewish summer camp and youth group. We loved it so much that we went back year after year.
And my parents walked the walk with their tzedakah dollars as well supporting the Temple, our local Federation, and a host of Israel related activities.
Their example, the way they modeled the importance of being part of Jewish community, shaped me in the most profound ways, leading me ultimately to the rabbinate, to devoting my professional life to Jewish community, education, and values. It’s what inspired me to move to Israel to study and that’s there I met my wife, the mother of our three daughters – by far the best outcome of all.
My life has meaning and purpose because of these experiences. I have a deeper sense of my small role in the cosmos because of it. Being part of this tribe, this people Israel, has helped me to feel a sense of connection in a time of increasing alienation and division. And – most importantly – it is through my community that the values of our People have been transmitted to me: a way of life that points us towards justice and righteousness and inspires us to make ourselves and the world better.
This sense of connection to a people with a shared history, destiny and set of values provides us with what the great sociologist, Peter Berger, calls a “plausibility structure.” A system of meaning which helps us to make sense of our world and understand our place in it.
But for so many people today, not just Jews, the “plausibility structure” of community itself is being undermined in profound ways.
Marc Dunkelman, a professor at Brown University, writes about this in his recent book, “The Vanishing Neighbor: The Transformation of American Community.”
Dunkelman describes what he calls “middle-ring” relationships. These involve people who are not family or close friends but not as distant as mere acquaintances. Over the past few decades, these middle-ring relationships have all but disappeared in America and as a result, people feel less and less connected to their neighbors, their towns, and, even more broadly, their country. An additional consequence of this alienation is a narrowing of our world-views.
Dunkelman notes that middle-ring relationships are best “suited to pierce our much-bemoaned filter bubbles” – the increasingly precise way we get our news and are exposed to the ideas of others through the various feeds, tightly controlled by ever-monetized algorithms, that limit the ideas, people and – ultimately – experiences to which we are exposed.
Before the deterioration of these “middle-ring” relationships, “a left-wing academic might talk with a conservative banker while in line at Blockbuster — if that’s how we still rented movies. An activist could explain the benefits of paid leave to a skeptical businesswoman on the sidelines of the P.T.A. meeting — if that were how we spent our Tuesday nights. Experiments that compel ordinary people to discuss a fraught topic face-to-face have illustrated that those conversations quite frequently lead participants to think differently. But without middle-ring relationships, those sorts of thoughtful, substantive interactions have become all too rare.”
And, sadly, tragically even, our ability to connect deeply with what was once not a “middle-ring” relationship but rather a kin/familial relationship, namely, to Jewish community, has also been compromised.
Locally, nationally, and internationally, our Jewish community has become more fragmented and divided politically, ethnically, and religiously. Right versus Left. Ashkenazi versus Sephardi. Orthodox versus Reform.
And, more globally, there has been a most unfortunate distancing between the two major centers of Jewish life today: Israel and America. This past summer, divisions between Israel and the Diaspora surfaced in deeply troubling ways. The Kotel controversy and the debate over a new conversion bill in the Knesset, inspired headlines in Jewish newspapers including this one that should send chills down our spines: “Netanyahu to Millions of Jews – we don’t really want you.” The author of that piece, David Horovitz, the editor of the Times of Israel, argued that the Prime Minister’s decision to freeze the Western Wall compromise plan that had been labored over for more than three years was a “blow to the heart and soul of world Jewry.”
And just a few weeks ago, in the middle of the month of Elul – our countdown to repentance – the chief Sephardic Rabbi of Jerusalem said publicly that Reform Jews are worse than Holocaust deniers.
Perhaps you’re thinking, “Rabbi, don’t be so naive! Isn’t this how it has always been?”
Indeed, my own grandfather used to tell me about how the German Jews in Omaha used to look down on the Shtetl Jews – my family – who had immigrated more recently from Poland.
And what about the old adage, “two Jews, three opinions”? This one is beautifully illustrated by the joke about the Jew who is shipwrecked on a desert island. The crew of a passing ship notices his campfire and comes to his aid. When the captain of the ship comes ashore, the Jew thanks him profusely and offers him a tour of his little island. He shows him the fire pit where he cooks his food, the hammock where he sleeps, and the little synagogue he built so he could offer his prayers to God. On the way back to the ship, the captain notices a second synagogue. The captain is confused. “I don’t understand,” the captain asks, “why on earth did you go to the trouble to build two synagogues!?!? You are the only Jew on this island!” “Vell,” replies the Jew, “da first shul, dat’s where I go to daven! Dis shul? I would never set foot in dis shul!”
It’s funny. And it’s awful. And it’s a rather apt metaphor for human life on this planet today – or where we might be headed.
Each of us all alone on our own little islands. Like the two couples I saw the other night out for the dinner – all four of them on their smartphones, not talking to one another, not even looking at each other.
All alone on our islands – one Jew with two synagogues, or, even worse, one Jew actively choosing to absent himself from every synagogue, from the community itself. Each one of us an island – experiencing the world, filtering our news and our friends and the values we embrace, all on our own.
And here is why this conversation is so urgent, why it matters so much, right now: Communities transmit values and a sense that, whatever the challenge, we can confront it more successfully together.
Think about the extraordinary images we’ve seen over the past few weeks of the devastation caused by hurricanes and earthquakes. Neighbors rescuing neighbors right along side professionally trained first-responders.
Friends – now, as ever, we need each other. Whatever our differences, the challenges we’re facing confront us all. Climate change, North Korean nukes, stagnant wages, social disruptions, a worldwide refugee crisis – no one is immune. Gay, straight, transgender – whether we were born in this country, immigrated here with all the proper papers, or came as an infant in the arms of a parent dreaming of a better life – we are all in this together. Only through a shared commitment to our best values will we be able to survive, to thrive, to hope for and realize a brighter tomorrow for ourselves, our children, and our world.
So the challenge is bigger and the sense of urgency is more pronounced but here’s the good news: the solution hasn’t really changed at all. It’s ultimately a matter of choice. We have a simple decision to make: Are the privileges and benefits of communal membership generally and, more particularly for us as Jews as members of this tribe, this People, worth the efforts required? If we conclude that they are, then it’s all about commitment.
And, make no mistake, it’s always been a matter of choice. In Talmudic times, there was a robust competition amongst the Jewish, Christian, and Pagan communities for the hearts and minds of the masses. The rabbis – two thousand years ago – had to make a case for Jewish community.
First, they laid out the obligations the community has toward the People. In short, the community had to provide for the physical, intellectual, and spiritual needs of everyone – no small task. Soup-kitchens for the poor; funding, and matchmakers, to make sure that orphans could marry; assistance for widows; burial societies and cemeteries for life’s end. Schools for learning. Synagogues for worship. Emissaries to represent the interests of the community to the Gentile authorities. The community would provide everything. (Sanhedrin 17b)
But the relationship must be reciprocal. The individual has obligations to the community as well.
Here’s how the Midrash puts it: “The person who asks, ‘Why should I trouble myself for the community? What’s in it for me to involve myself in their problems? Why should I care about what they say? I’m fine all by myself!” This person, says the Midrash, “מַחֲרִיב אֶת הָעוֹלָם – destroys the world. (Midrash Tanchuma, Mishpatim 2:2)
An example of Rabbinic exaggeration? Perhaps. Destroying the world might be putting it a bit too strongly.
And yet, and yet. The one who thinks, “I’ll just worry about myself and my needs alone,” doesn’t this way of thinking, ultimately, lead not merely to the disintegration of one’s local community but to the disintegration of society, of civilization itself?
And here’s what makes affiliation in Jewish community in particular and the energy we expend to strengthen it more than a provincial, self-centered act. Communal affiliation is generative. The act of connecting more deeply to our particular community, leads us to a deeper sense of obligation to and concern for the broader community. Our affiliation with and affection for members of our tribe does not have to lead us to being “tribal” in a parochial, narrow, xenophobic fashion. In fact, our tribal tradition wants our particular, personal experience to be a doorway to a more expansive sense of connection and responsibility for others who, while not MOTs, are part of our broader, human family.
As the great theologian and scholar, Rabbi Eugene Borowitz, argues, “our particular religious vision is also profoundly and inseparably universal.” Our People’s master narrative of our slave ancestors being redeemed at the Shores of the Red Sea, leads us to understand in a personal and profound way, the universal value of liberation and national dignity for all people.
In a time when our nation is so deeply divided and so much in need of healing, our commitment to Jewish community and the values it upholds can help us to be better Americans for, as Jews, we have always cared for more than just “our own.” As the great sage Hillel put it 2000 years ago:
״וּכְשֶׁאֲנִי לְעַצְמִי, מָה אֲנִי?״
״If we are only for ourselves, what are we?”
For our Rabbis, the “case” for community is existential: without it, the whole world is destroyed. We depend upon community for our very survival – physical and spiritual as well for communities transmit values.
And our spirits, our souls, need the core values of our tradition especially right now.
In the face of hatred and violence, neo-Nazis and klansmen marching in our streets, our tradition reminds us (Lev 19:17):
לֹֽא־תִשְׂנָ֥א אֶת־אָחִ֖יךָ בִּלְבָבֶ֑ךָ
Hatred is a sin.
In the face of racism, homophobia, and xenophobia – our tradition reminds us that God created humanity through a common ancestor for the sake of peace –
מִפְּנֵי שְׁלוֹם הַבְּרִיּוֹת
so that no man or woman could ever say: אַבָּא גָּדוֹל מֵאָבִיךָ! My father is better than yours! (Sanhedrin 37a)
We are all children of the same loving God. We are all connected.
In a time of “alternative facts” – our tradition reminds us that there is such a thing as truth and that, indeed, the integrity of the world depends on it.
In a time in our country when disagreements about our deeply held beliefs increasingly move from what should be vigorous, healthy debates to scenes of chaos and violence, our tradition reminds us that, no matter how hard, our job is to “seek peace and pursue it.” (Psalm 34:15)
בַּקֵּ֖שׁ שָׁל֣וֹם וְרָדְפֵֽהוּ
I could go on all day – but I won’t.
But do indulge me just one more: In a time of fear, uncertainty, and anxiety, our tradition teaches us that “the whole world is a very narrow bridge. The most important thing is not to be afraid!” In the face of the very real and frightening challenges of our lives, our tradition reminds us never to lose hope, never to give in to our fears. And being part of a community helps us to cross the bridge despite those fears.
In my own experience, the gifts I receive from being part of this community, this People Israel, far outweigh what is required of me. I get so much more than I give.
And I know this is true for so many of you here today. You’ve told me story after story about how – right here, maybe in our parenting center – you met the closest friends who have supported you throughout your life. You’ve told me about how, right here – maybe at Torah study or as a regular in Shabbat services – you’ve found meaning and strength through life’s most challenging times. You’ve told me about how our clergy have been there for your family through simchas as well as through life’s tsuris. You’ve shared how you’ve found a deeper sense of purpose as a volunteer in one of our Tikkun Olam programs.
You’ve told me – again and again – that you have received more than you’ve given.
We’re lucky – so lucky – to be part of a vibrant, established Jewish community. My mom and her family had to drive to Wichita from El Dorado to attend Shabbat services. Now, truth be told, it’s only 40 miles which took them less time than it does to get to Stephen Wise from Santa Monica on a Friday evening but still, still – it took some effort. She could hardly imagine, as a young woman, a Jewish community like ours numbering in the hundreds of thousands, boasting synagogues and day-schools and Jewish institutions of all shapes and sizes. She couldn’t imagine a shul with a pool.
My mom grew up in a town that didn’t have any Jewish institutions and barely enough Jews to make a minyan. It’s probably why she was always searching, always on the look-out for other MOTs, Members of the Tribe.
It’s part of what inspired her to give so much time and energy to her community. But I know that – ultimately – she received as much or more as she contributed.
When she died, much too young, hundreds and hundreds of members of our community were there to honor her and to support us, to carry us in our grief.
This is the commitment, this is the support, this is the sense of belonging and meaning and purpose that we all need. And it’s what our our nation and our world needs right now, too.
To get there – we’ll all need to step up. It’s hard, I know. We’re busy – pulled in a thousand directions. But it’s important. So in this New Year of 5778, let’s all commit to doing more for each other.
I’m not going to ask you to devote yourself 24 X 6 to the Temple – although you’re welcome to do so. But what if we could each commit to doing one additional act of kindness every month for our community? It might be attending a shiva minyan or showing up to pack lunches for homeless folks in our city. Maybe it’s reaching out and bringing a friend to a class or a service. Maybe it’s helping to raise funds for a special project that will bring more meaning and hope into our world. Maybe it’s volunteering to serve on a committee or help with a program. Whatever it is, let’s commit ourselves to doing more to strengthening our tribe, our community and in so doing, we’ll strengthen our city, our nation, and our world.
Friends – we need each other. Desperately. Joyfully. Eternally.