Rabbi Joshua M. Aaronson’s Yom Kippur sermon: Jonah and Me

One of the inspirational parts of our tradition for me is that as I move through life and as times change, different Biblical personalities resonate with me.  For many years, I felt a great kinship with Jacob.  As a young man, his character flaws threatened to overwhelm him.  Yet, with the passage of time, he transcended his own weaknesses.  I found his transformation inspirational.  His example held out for me the possibility that even I could get out of my own way long enough to transcend my many flaws.  This year Jonah resonates with me.  I feel as Jonah.

וַֽיְהִי֙ דְּבַר־יְהוָ֔ה אֶל־יוֹנָ֥ה בֶן־אֲמִתַּ֖י לֵאמֹֽר׃

The word of the LORD came to Jonah son of Amittai:

ק֠וּם לֵ֧ךְ אֶל־נִֽינְוֵ֛ה הָעִ֥יר הַגְּדוֹלָ֖ה וּקְרָ֣א עָלֶ֑יהָ כִּֽי־עָלְתָ֥ה רָעָתָ֖ם לְפָנָֽי׃

Go at once to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim judgment upon it; for their wickedness has come before Me.

וַיָּ֤קָם יוֹנָה֙ לִבְרֹ֣חַ תַּרְשִׁ֔ישָׁה מִלִּפְנֵ֖י יְהוָ֑ה וַיֵּ֨רֶד יָפ֜וֹ וַיִּמְצָ֥א אָנִיָּ֣ה ׀ בָּאָ֣ה תַרְשִׁ֗ישׁ וַיִּתֵּ֨ן שְׂכָרָ֜הּ וַיֵּ֤רֶד בָּהּ֙ לָב֤וֹא עִמָּהֶם֙ תַּרְשִׁ֔ישָׁה מִלִּפְנֵ֖י יְהוָֽה׃

Jonah, however, started out to flee to Tarshish from the LORD’s service. He went down to Joppa and found a ship going to Tarshish. He paid the fare and went aboard to sail with the others to Tarshish, away from the service of the LORD.

וַֽיהוָ֗ה הֵטִ֤יל רֽוּחַ־גְּדוֹלָה֙ אֶל־הַיָּ֔ם וַיְהִ֥י סַֽעַר־גָּד֖וֹל בַּיָּ֑ם וְהָ֣אֳנִיָּ֔ה חִשְּׁבָ֖ה לְהִשָּׁבֵֽר׃

But the LORD cast a mighty wind upon the sea, and such a great tempest came upon the sea that the ship was in danger of breaking up.

God calls Jonah to undertake a great mission, a mission that a first blush, should honor Jonah.  God chooses Jonah to go to a city in which the people are known to be sinners and proclaim judgement upon it.  God asks Jonah to tell the people of Nineveh that unless they repent and turn toward God, God will punish them.  This should be easy stuff for Jonah, a man of wealth and substance.  Who wouldn’t want to do their civic duty, as it were?  Yet, Jonah flees from this opportunity and heads to the port of Jaffa and sets sail to Tarshish—the opposite direction as Nineveh.  When I have the chance, I stand at the port of Jaffa, I look at the boats and I imagine I see what Jonah saw; I ask myself, ‘what was Jonah thinking?’

Jonah was a man in the midst of an existential crisis.  For Jonah, the world was not a happy place.  Jonah looked around and saw a world of sinners, a world without hope.  That God could forgive their sins was of little consequence to Jonah.   What good, Jonah asked himself, was humanity if they were doomed to a life of sinning and repenting and sinning again—even if God is a merciful God, a God who forgives?  Jonah was pessimistic about the world.  Jonah also feels powerless.  Sure, God can forgive, but what can a mere mortal do?

I feel a bit like Jonah. The world feels heavy.  It’s hard to be optimistic.  Perhaps I am projecting my own uneasiness about the world onto the rest of you, but I think—in fact, I hear this from you—that I am not alone in feeling this way.  And, I’ve observed that this isn’t a statement about politics; everyone seems to feel the stress of the world more keenly at this moment.  In the past two months alone, we’ve witnessed storms and earthquakes that killed hundreds of people and laid waste to countries from Mexcio to the Eastern Carribbean.

I know that every generation faces unprecedented challenges.  Surely, these times are no more turbulent than the Middle Ages, than the Civil War, World War II or the 60s.  Is our own era qualitatively different or is it merely different because we live in it?  I cannot answer that question.  I can say, however, that in my lifetime, as long or as short as you think it’s been, this moment feels different than others.

To begin with, the mighty wind blowing upon the sea is exponentially stronger because it is amplified by deluge of information that inundates our senses literally every minute.  The devastation of hurricanes and earthquakes would be traumatic no matter the era, but in this day and age, we witness these events in real time.

The natural human tendency is to be feel the bad more acutely than the good.  So, like Jonah, the weight of information that inundates us tends to skew, at least in our own minds, negatively.  Faith in humanity is hard to muster watching bickering politicians, insane dictators, spoiled athletes and self-absorbed celebrities 24 hours a day.  Is faith in humanity justified?  Or, is humanity doomed to consistently sink to the lowest common denominator?

For Jonah, his cynicism about humanity causes him to flee.  I can understand that.  I feel that way too, sometimes.  And yet…we know there must be something more at work.  We know that the story of Jonah cannot possibly be about cynicism and powerlessness…for Yom Kippur itself is about redemption and optimism.

As all of you know, after Jonah is thrown from the boat, he is swallowed by a whale.  He spends three days and nights in the whale’s belly.  What happens to Jonah there is this:  Jonah resets his moral compass.  He focused on that which is true and enduring—in Jonah’s case a call from God, and in doing so, Jonah could regroup and do the right thing.  Jonah learns that without a moral compass, we are adrift in a sea of chaos without any clear hope of finding our way.  We feel helpless. We are treading water and getting tired.  At times, we feel we cannot stay afloat for even one more minute.

And, then…and then, we see an image of some guy—and let’s be honest, it’s a guy we normally would never know or have in our circle of friends, taking his own boat to help people stranded by the floods.  And then…and then millions of dollars in aid flow in to ravaged countries.  And then, in the midst of all this angst about the NFL, there’s a guy named J. J. Watt and it turns out not only has he done an amazing mitzvah for victims of the floods in Texas, he does this kind of thing all the time.  In these acts, I find my moral compass reset.  For in these acts, we see the highest common denominator at work:  one human reaching out in empathy to assist another human in need.  There is no concern for race or nationality.  No one stops to ask who you voted for; no one cares about your position on health care or gun control.  Humans connect with humans not on the most basic level, but on the highest level:  the shared human hope that even when everything is lost all is not lost.  Living another day is always a better option than not.  The hope of tomorrow is a powerful beacon that calls us, as we read in the Torah portion for Yom Kippur, to choose life!  And in witnessing these acts, true acts of lovingkindness, our moral compass is reset.

The challenge is in the coda to the Jonah story.  Jonah does one true and good thing:  he preaches to the people of Nineveh to repent and they do.  Yet, when his disdain and cynicism for humanity get the better of him, Jonah heads for the hills to await the what inevitably happens:  the fall of humanity to the lowest common denominator.  For after the redemptive stories of heroism and sacrifice during the floods and earthquakes, we humans tend to fall back to the lowest common denominator just like Jonah.  The stories on our social media feeds of one human connecting with another in grand gesture of the human spirit are too quickly replaced by bickering, political grandstanding and bullying that seem to me unseemly in spirit and petty in the face of mother nature’s unstoppable force.

Why is it we need a massive earthquake or a sequence of category 5 hurricanes to bring out the best in humanity?  Why do we need a tragedy to reset our moral compass?  And, why, once our compass is pointing in the right direction, do we as humans so quickly veer off course?  These questions weighed heavily upon Jonah—they weigh heavily upon me.  Sure, when you’re threatened with God’s wrath, it is easy to do the right thing.  Our moral compass always points in the right direction when humanity is threatened with extinction.  But, what about when we are just going about our day-to-day lives?  Can we imagine the world if at every moment the human spirit soared as high as it did in the aftermath of recent natural disasters?

Judaism imagines that world.  The entire point of Judaism is to elevate the human spirit to the highest possible denominator.  Judaism is the North Star for our moral compass. Yes, we frequently veer off-course, but Judaism and specifically Yom Kippur hold out the possibility for us to reset our compass and get back on the right path, even and perhaps especially amidst the raging seas of the modern world.

This day—Yom Kippur—this day is a microcosm of the great existential crisis faced by Jonah.  This morning we read profound and stirring words of optimism:  we stand this day as one community, asked to do something, exactly like Jonah, that is within our ability.  We’re asked to reset our moral compass.  The Torah itself tells us the task is possible:  ‘this commandment I command you this day is not too hard for you…choose life!’

This afternoon, we shall read the book of Jonah…the story of a man weighed down by chaos of the world, a man riddled with cynicism and doubt; a man bereft of faith in humanity.  Jonah is a man who is drowning in the flood, but ignores the boat coming to rescue him.

This is the challenge of this day.  Yes, we see the destruction of the flood and the devastation of the earthquake.  And, yes, we see the acts of lovingkindness that reveal the greatest spirit of humanity.  The world can be both these things…today we must choose which world we will create.

You can choose to be Jonah.  You can wallow in cynicism; you can believe that humanity will always revert to the lowest common denominator.  You can abandon all hope and give in to the rising tide of the flood. In doing so, not only would you abandon hope, you would abandon Judaism itself.

For as long as I serve this holy congregation, if there is only one teaching that you remember let it be this:  Judaism is the most optimistic religion in the world and Jews are the most optimistic people in the world.  What, you ask, how can that be?  Is the story of Jonah optimistic? How can we be optimistic in the face of the destruction of the Temple not once but twice?  How can we be optimistic after millennia of antisemitism, of expulsions?  Where is optimism in the face of pogroms and the Shoah?

The answer is you.  Despite all these things, all this tzuris, you are sitting here, in this sanctuary.  You are the guy with boat after the flood in Houston.  You are people pulling survivors from the rubble of earthquake in Mexico.  What Jonah failed to realize—and what I think we fail to realize—is that our story is not the story of the destruction of the Temples or the expulsion from Spain or the Shoah.  Our story and our religion is the story of what happens between those events—the boats that come to save us.  That’s who you are.  That’s who we are.

There is a famous quote, attributed originally to Debussy and in my version, it goes like this:  How do you play the notes so fast, someone once asked a famous pianist…and the answer, ‘oh, the notes are easy…it’s the space between the notes that are difficult.’

We Jews live in the space between the notes.  Everyone is beset by problems.  How we live between those problems, those calamities, those horrors…this is when we Jews are at our best.  We Jews are forever the man with the boat coming to the rescue and seeking a new beginning.  Let this be our way for the New Year.

A more modern view of homosexuality

The American Modern Orthodox community has just entered uncharted territory. Last week, our largest rabbinic organization, the Rabbinical Council of America (RCA) formally withdrew its support of JONAH (Jews Offering New Alternatives to Homosexuality). JONAH has long been the Orthodox community’s address for reparative therapy, a process that is intended to cure people of their homosexual attractions and to replace these with heterosexual ones. The recently announced lawsuits against JONAH brought by four of its former clients, accusing JONAH of both fraud and abusive practices, was apparently the last straw for the RCA. 

Strictly speaking, the RCA’s statement rejects only JONAH. It, in fact, goes on to say, “We believe that properly trained mental health professionals who abide by the values and ethics of their professions can and do make a difference in the lives of their patients and clients [and that these professionals] should be able to work on whatever issues [their] clients voluntarily bring to their session.” This is, of course, indisputably correct. But the statement’s acknowledgement of  “the lack of scientifically rigorous studies that support the effectiveness of therapies to change sexual orientation” represents a paradigm shift. It is a rejection of the very premise that JONAH and all reparative therapy is built on, namely that sexual orientation is subject to change, and that any client who works hard enough at it can become heterosexual. This may not strike many readers as being a revelation at all. But through this RCA statement, the Modern Orthodox community has formally crossed into a brave, new world. 

[Related: Israel gets same-sex divorce before same-sex marriage]

Any discussion about what the practical implications of this might be needs to be grounded in an understanding — even an appreciation — of the context out of which it emerged. Any of us who grew up in Orthodox institutions in the 1980s or earlier knows firsthand that homosexuality, and, in particular, male homosexuality, was spoken of with disgust and revulsion, and that homosexual slurs were de rigueur. (In our own defense of course, the larger social landscape wasn’t much different.) And even as the campaigns for gay rights and recognition played out over the ensuing decades, Orthodoxy remained largely unmoved and unchanged. There was only one serious grappling with the issue during this period, and that was the essay written by Rabbi Norman Lamm in 1974 which, while utilizing language that is offensive in today’s context, took the unprecedented step of distinguishing between the “sin” and the “sinner,” asserting that while “the act itself remains an abomination, the fact of illness lays upon us the obligation of pastoral compassion, psychological understanding, and social sympathy.”  

Though Rabbi Lamm’s words undoubtedly, and with good cause, arouse anger, pain and resentment in many contemporary readers, understanding why he used them is crucial to understanding the true significance and implications of last week’s developments. The “illness” paradigm for explaining homosexuality (which was, indeed, the American Psychological Association’s paradigm as well until 1973, just one year prior) was Rabbi Lamm’s — and Orthodoxy’s — legal and theological lynchpin. Legal in that it provided access to the legal category of “transgression as a result of compulsion,” a category that elicits a more generous judgment. Theological in that it provided a response to the conundrum that God, who is all-knowing, just and kind, could not possibly prohibit that which cannot humanly be resisted. As long as homosexuality was an illness, a person’s failure to resist its temptations need not be ascribed to a Divine failure, but to an unfortunate human one. Needless to say, the “illness” paradigm also led inexorably to the obligation to seek therapeutic intervention. And while the most modern end of the Orthodox spectrum began to eschew reparative therapy some years ago — see, for example, the July 2010 “Statement of Principles on the Place of Jews With a Homosexual Orientation in Our Community” (http://statementofprinciplesnya.blogspot.com/) — the balance continued to insist upon it. (See, for example, the 2011 “Declaration on the Torah Approach to Homosexuality” — www.torahdec.org.)

The statement of the RCA however, quietly, boldly and courageously breaks new ground. In recognizing that there is no evidence that reparative therapy is effective, and that there is, consequently, no obligation to pursue it, our community is acknowledging that homosexuality may very well be simply part of the human condition. Accordingly, we have decided that homosexuals should not any longer have to pay the psychological, emotional and even physical price for our theological comfort. We have effectively designated our theological question as a teyku, one whose answer still needs to be determined. But one that will, meanwhile, not prevent us from seeing the human truths in front of our eyes. 

It is not realistic to expect that Orthodoxy will some day recognize homosexual relationships as being equal to heterosexual ones, or to authorize gay marriage, or even to drop the idea that gay sex is a transgression of biblical law. Orthodoxy’s foundational beliefs concerning the Divinity of Torah and the authority of halachah (received Jewish law) preclude such developments. In other words, if the Torah declares a particular action prohibited, it’s not within our authority to say otherwise. But we can regard homosexual acts as we do other forms of nonobservance, as we do, for example, the nonobservance of kashrut, both in the sense that it doesn’t carry the charge of immorality and also in the sense that it doesn’t harm our ability to have a normal familial relationship with someone. The shift from Rabbi Lamm’s “sympathy” to the RCA’s recognition of the reality of sexual orientation can and should bring us to a place in which we can accept our friends and children and siblings for who they are, grant them the dignity and respect that any person deserves, and love them as our own. 

Within our community, it’s a brave, new and better world.

Yosef Kanefsky is senior rabbi at B’nai David-Judea (bnaidavid.com), a Modern Orthodox congregation in the Pico-Robertson neighborhood.

JONAH center being sued for false claims on reversing homosexuality

JONAH, a Jewish center in New Jersey that offers therapy to reverse homosexuality, is being sued for allegedly making fraudulent claims.

Four gay men and two of their mothers filed the suit Tuesday in New Jersey Superior Court against Jews Offering New Alternatives to Homosexuality, which offers treatments that the group says can turn its clients straight. Some of the treatments include using rabbinic writings on the subject of homosexuality.

The lawsuit, which was filed through the Southern Poverty Law Center, maintains that the center uses misleading pretenses to entice clients to enroll in its program. The plaintiffs are previous clients of JONAH.

“JONAH profits off of shameful and dangerous attempts to fix something that isn’t broken,” said Christine Sun of the Southern Poverty Law Center. “Despite the consensus of mainstream professional organizations that conversion therapy doesn’t work, this racket continues to scam vulnerable gay men and lesbians out of thousands of dollars and inflicts significant harm on them.”

JONAH founder Arthur Goldberg and counselor Alan Downing violate the New Jersey Consumer Fraud Acts, the lawsuit said. JONAH therapy options cost a minimum of $100 for weekly individual counseling and $60 for group sessions, it said, and some clients said their instructions included undressing in front of a mirror or group sessions of standing naked in a circle.

Reacting to the lawsuit, Goldberg told ABC News that many JONAH clients were successful and healed, and “hundreds of the clients we serve are satisfied.” He also said, “Our therapy is very conventional.”

The amount of money being sought by the plaintiffs was not made clear but includes the costs spent by clients on JONAH and psychological services that dealt with alleged damages from using JONAH, as well as attorney fees, Reuters reported.

High Holy Days: Books for children and teens

“Oh No, Jonah!”

by Tilda Balsley, illustrated by Jago (Kar-Ben: $7.95)Oh no, Jonah!

Those parents and teachers looking for a new twist on the story of Jonah (read yearly on Yom Kippur) need look no more. This latest version from children’s author Tilda Balsley sticks to the biblical text but is appropriate for very young children. The clever rhymes demand to be read out loud, such as after Jonah suggests that the frightened fisherman throw him into the sea: “Immediately, the weather cleared. / But things were worse than Jonah feared / ‘I wish I hadn’t volunteered.’ ” The vibrant, bold illustrations are truly stunning, and the artist’s interpretation of a huge, bright orange fish is probably more accurate than the usual depictions of whales. “A giant fish swam to his side / And stared at him all google-eyed. / Its mouth, humongous, opened wide / and, CHOMP! / He found himself inside.” Entertaining fun with a biblical message of forgiveness that is surely important to remember during the High Holy Days.

“It’s a … It’s a … It’s a Mitzvah”

by Liz Suneby and Diane Heiman, illustrated by Laurel Molk (Jewish Lights: $18.99)

If your kids haven’t heard of Mitzvah Meerkat and all his animal friends, then it’s time to introduce them to this delightfully illustrated picture book. The authors were inspired by a well-known Talmud teaching relating the importance of various good deeds, such as honoring parents, visiting the sick, helping the needy, bringing peace between people  and more. The lively animal characters joyously perform many mitzvot that children can easily relate to, and the clever layout helps parents introduce the Jewish concepts of performing good deeds in an age-appropriate manner. The title refers to the rhythmic refrain that can be chanted for fun by kids during a story-time session, but the whimsical pen-and-ink watercolor drawings are the highlight of this engaging way to introduce children to acts of loving kindness. Thankfully not preachy or otherwise didactic, the lessons are cute and contemporary.  (The sheep are knitting scarves, the monkeys play on monkey bars, etc.) This is an excellent book for the preschool classroom, but the cuteness factor of the animals’ antics will ensure that parents at home will also get lots of pleasure in learning great Jewish values and passing them on to future generations.

“The Apple Tree’s Discovery” 

by Peninnah Schram and Rachayl Eckstein Davis, illustrated by Wendy W. Lee (Kar-Ben: $7.95)

Well-known author and storyteller Peninnah Schram reminds us in her afterword to this charming fable: “To find the star in the apple, you must turn it on its side and cut it in half. We must look hard to find the beautiful star in each of us, and sometimes it just takes a change of direction.” When a little apple tree notices that stars in the sky appear to be hanging from branches of the taller oak trees, she asks God to grant her wish to also have stars. Although God notes that her “fragrant blossoms fill the air” and her “branches offer a resting place for birds” she covets only what others have. But when God causes a wind to blow and suddenly her delicious apples hit the ground, they split open, exposing the beautiful star within. This sweet parable about appreciating God’s gifts and understanding our own uniqueness is a universal tale. It will be particularly memorable if you remember to read it before you slice those Rosh Hashanah apples — by turning them on their sides and finding that elusive star.

“Be Like God: God’s To-Do List for Kids”

by Ron Wolfson (Jewish Lights: $15.99)

Did you know God gave us superpowers? This inspirational guide/journal for kids (ages 8-12) shows us how “our God shares God’s powers with us so we can make our lives better and the lives of others better. When we learn how to use God’s superpowers, we become God’s partners — God’s superheroes — on earth.” Even though it sounds moralistic, it isn’t. In fact, it looks like fun. The paperback volume sets up prominent Jewish educator Ron Wolfson as a friendly uncle who asks you thought-provoking questions and lets you write down all your answers in your book. This book is a kids’ version of Wolfson’s 2006 adult book, “God’s To-Do List — 103 Ways to Be an Angel and Do God’s Work on Earth.” Divided into 10 chapters such as “Rest,” “Care,” “Give” or “Forgive,” it can serve as a young person’s means of truly understanding the ways he or she can bring goodness into our world. Wolfson is remarkably at ease with the sort of unaffected language that will appeal to young people. The book is attractively designed, the stories within are engaging, and the child’s urge to write in it will be irresistible. 

“Text Messages: A Torah Commentary for Teens”

edited by Rabbi Jeffrey K. Salkin (Jewish Lights: $24.99) Text messages

Rabbi Jeffrey Salkin (author of “Putting God on the Guest List”) wants young people to know that the Torah is about their lives — even if they are teenagers. “Every passage of Torah has the potential to be someone’s personal story and teaching — and that definitely includes you as a teenager,” he writes. Rabbi Salkin serves as editor of this volume and he has gathered insights into each of the 54 Torah portions from more than 100 Jews of all denominations. Most are rabbis, but other contributors are well-known educators, authors or community leaders. Some of the names that would be familiar to Angelenos would be Rabbi Sherre Hirsch, Chazzan Danny Maseng, Rabbi Steven Z. Leder, Rabbi David Wolpe, Ron Wolfson, Ruth Messinger, Rabbi Spike Anderson, Rabbi Zoë Klein, Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson, Rabbi Laura Geller, Rabbi William Cutter, Rabbi Ken Chasen, Rabbi Ed Feinstein, Joel Lurie Grishaver, Rabbi Denise Eger and Rabbi Elie Kaplan Spitz. Each short, two- to three-page essay is written in an engaging teen-centered style, such as one by Rabbi Cherie Koller-Fox, which opens the discussion of Parshat Miketz with this line: “How do you know whom to trust and what is true? In Miketz, Pharaoh faces that problem.” Of course this is a wonderful resource for bar mitzvah students, but it can also serve as the first go-to book for families who enjoy sharing Torah insights at Shabbat or holiday meals.

Lisa Silverman is the director of the Sinai Temple Blumenthal Library and former children’s editor of Jewish Book World magazine. 

Torah study builds unshakable conviction in faith

As the ’07-’08 school year is well under way, are you sure you’ve got everything you need? Pens? Check. Cool new backpack? Check. New makeup set? No need, I go to an all-girls school. Cute shoes? Check. A real understanding of the significance of a Jewish education? Eh, not so much.

With a modicum of disbelief, I have embarked on my senior year at Yeshiva University of Los Angeles. While printing out applications for colleges and seminaries in Israel — which will likely stay on my desk until immediately before their due dates — I ran across an interesting question: “What do you believe to be the most essential thing you’ve learned throughout your high school career?” I was truly puzzled. They see my grades and SAT scores, and now they actually want me to remember what I learned?

I have been fortunate enough to attend Orthodox private schools for my entire life, privy to an in-depth study of scripture. As I entered high school, and the learning became both more challenging and fascinating, I wondered whether my rapid note taking was simply in order to pass a test or for true spiritual enlightenment. The lives of Abraham and Sarah? The importance of lighting Shabbat candles? The mitzvah of buying new clothing for a holiday (which for any Jewish girl is almost every day)? What is the most important thing I have learned?

Suddenly, it dawned on me. On Yom Kippur afternoon, we read the book of Yonah, a minor prophet with a major message. All too well do we know the story of Yonah being swallowed by a whale and saved from the fury of a terrible storm. But right before Shamu entered this story, the sailors who suffered due to Yonah’s indiscretions cast lots to find the perpetrator who caused this storm to befall only their ship. As each lot fell on Yonah, the sailors asked what big “no-no” he had committed to incur the wrath of God. “Tell us now, because of whom has this evil befallen us? What is your trade? And from where do you come? What is your land? And of what people are you?” (Jonah 1:8). In Yonah’s reply, I found the answer to my intriguing question and a potentially great college essay.

“I am a Hebrew and I fear Hashem, the God of the heavens, Who made the sea and the dry land” (Jonah 1:9).

I know what you’re thinking: How is that an answer? Was Yonah’s seasickness affecting his thought process? Nope. Before understanding the brilliance of this answer, think for a moment about how you would answer these questions. “Well, um, I didn’t follow what God told me to do. I’m, um, a student and I hail from the Valley. And, oh yeah, I am of the Jewish people.” That’s all I’ve got. But no, in Yonah’s answer he searches within himself to find who he truly was — a God-fearing Jew.

Our sages pass down the idea that only through concentrated learning of the Torah and other books in scripture can we truly understand our world and how we must survive within it. By means of learning we come to understand laws, philosophy, and develop a true pride in being a son or daughter of Israel; thus, becoming more than just what we are, we can become who we are.

As I begin my college search, there is one question I can’t help but ask myself: Will living in a world where language, fashion and food are constant battles lead me to forget my upbringing? Will I be just another addition to the melting pot? No, I assert, I will not. And I know why — because of everything I learned throughout my long years in Jewish day school.

Voila! I finally had an answer. Through myriad hours of learning, I have managed to cultivate a strong conviction in the Jewish faith that I am sure cannot be damaged. Every time that I open the Torah and learn the secrets that lie behind each word, I feel a great surge of pride that I can call myself a Jew.

So, what will I tell the seminaries (when I finally get around to filling out my applications)? There is not one thing that has changed me or led me down a God-fearing path, but, rather, it is the accumulation of my many years of Torah study that have come together to define my true persona, that of a modern Jewish woman.

My advice to teens and adults alike is to take advantage of every moment you can learn, whether through speaking to someone knowledgeable, reading a book, or even taking a quick peek at the explanation of the week’s Torah portion online. You will be surprised how quickly these fragments influence your daily life and improve the foundation of your faith and Jewish identity.

Now, equipped with new notebooks, a laptop, and an understanding and appreciation of talmudic study and my role as a Jewish woman — I’m off.

Jina Davidovich is a senior at YULA Girls High School.

Speak Up!

Tribe, a page by and for teens, appears the first issue of every month in The Jewish Journal. Ninth- to 12th-graders are invited to submit first-person columns, feature articles or news stories of up to 800 words. Deadline for the November issue is Oct. 15; Deadline for the December issue is Nov. 15. Send submissions to julief@jewishjournal.com.

The Book of Jonah: when doves call

It’s time for Jonah again. I cherish this prophet, whose Hebrew name, “Yonah” means “dove,” the bird of peace. I consider him a member of the family.

Shortly after the deaths
of my mother and sister in 1971, the rabbi of New Orleans’ synagogue, Shir Chadash, gave my dad, Mike Brener (z’l), the honor of reading the Book of Jonah on Yom Kippur afternoon. The rabbi hoped this would engage my father in the community and deliver him from the waters of grief.

My father embraced the invitation. Like Jonah he escaped drowning.

I wrote this prayer several years ago. I read it to a congregation for the first time last year in New Orleans:

Unatana Tokef

We now confront the meaning of this day
As we stare into the face of our own mortality.
We form a circle.
Hands and souls linked,
We stand as community.
Together we contemplate
The Yomim Noraim.
The days of awe,
The days of trembling.

Our eyes scan the room
And lock with the eyes of others,
As we consider the year just begun.

As we cross the threshold of a New Year,
We are not so foolish
As to think that it will be
A year unblemished by tears.

Give us the strength to stand as a circle,
When the year is touched by anguish and pain.
When injustice, illness, and death,
Enter the circle,
Give us the compassion not to avert our gaze.

Only You know what the year will bring.
Who will live and who will die.
Who will face cancer or depression
Or the other maladies of flesh and soul.

Job loss, addiction, infertility, heartbreak,
Temptations to stray from vows to family and community.
Impoverishment, earthquake, hurricanes, acts of terror,
We are vulnerable creatures subject to Your grace.

We do not ask to be exempt from the afflictions of being human.
We only ask that you be with us in the peaks and in the valleys,
That you help us to stand with each other in good times and in bad.
And that the circle of witness and consolation
Remains unbroken
In the coming year.


— Anne Brener

In gratitude, my dad framed a wooden structure in the synagogue courtyard to be outfitted each year as a sukkah and used for celebrations. His gift captured the exquisite paradox affirmed after Yom Kippur when we build sukkot: Life is fragile, like these huts, but despite our vulnerability we celebrate zman simchatanu, “The Time of Our Joy.” My father continued to chant Jonah until his death in 1995. He and Jonah became so closely linked that the year after he died, only the rabbi would step up to the bimah on Yom Kippur afternoon to fill his shoes.

Jonah is so human. This prophet, who hears God’s call and runs in the opposite direction, speaks for the part of all of us that would rather sit, like Jonah, in the shade, drink cool drinks, and mutter about evil, rather than arm ourselves with righteousness and set upon the overwhelming wrongs we are called to confront.

While I am no prophet, in the last year I have had the sense of being called. Like Jonah, I would not have chosen my missions. As the Days of Awe approach, I realize that it has been a Year of Awe. The Hebrew word for awe, “yirah,” is variously translated as awe, fear, reverence, terror, and horror. It describes our shock when we come toe-to-toe with the great mysteries of life and death and cannot absorb them. Our spiritual imperative is to traverse the narrow bridge from the awe of fear and trembling to the awe that represents a renewal of reverence and love.

This year, with Jonah as my companion, I have taken two journeys on that bridge. These excursions have given me a frightening view of what Al Gore might call “An Inconvenient Promised Land.” I have visited the Land of Mass Environmental Disaster and the Land of Cancer. I fear these might be waiting for all of us, if we remain mired in fear and denial and do not find a way to steer our community to align with the Yom Kippur biblical call to “choose life.”

My call came three days before Rosh Hashanah last year. It came, not from heaven, but on my cellphone, through God’s representative: the current rabbi of Shir Chadash. I was in New York, after working with the Red Cross in Mississippi. I had intended to go to Baton Rouge where the relief efforts of the New Orleans Jewish agencies were regrouping. But Hurricane Rita was approaching. I headed East instead of West and waited out the storm.

I e-mailed the rabbi to ask if I could help, thinking he would ask me to make pastoral visits to congregants remaining in Louisiana. Within an hour, he called. Most of the congregation was in Houston. He was going there to lead Rosh Hashanah services for them. There was a small group left in New Orleans. They wanted a service. Would I lead?

Like Jonah, I was afraid. In the seconds between his question and my response, I reminded myself that I had only three days to learn an unfamiliar machzor, write sermons and review Torah portions. I had never led High Holiday services without a cantor. I blow shofar poorly. Then I thought of Jonah who ran away when he was called. I said, “Yes.”

A few frantic days later, I was on a plane, headed, not to Nineveh, but to New Orleans.

A flight into New Orleans used to have a party atmosphere. But on the day before the Yomim Noraim, my fellow travelers and I descended with mouths agape in horror. We looked down at the swamps that had reclaimed the Crescent City. My fellow travelers were in two categories. There were the relief workers: FEMA, the Corps of Engineers, Red Cross, Salvation Army and others from around the world on missions of mercy and repair. And there were the returnees: people coming home from exile, having fled to havens across the Southern states and further. I was in both categories.

I was coming to bring relief, and I was coming home. I fled New Orleans years ago, not because of a hurricane, but after the deaths of my mother and my sister. So in a sense, though I have spent much time in New Orleans in the ensuing years, I was also returning from exile. I was making the journey on the day before Rosh Hashanah, the day that had sent me running from the city in 1971. For it was on the day before Rosh Hashanah in 1971 that my mother killed herself.

As I headed to New Orleans, my early losses, my efforts at healing, first for myself and then through my writing and work as a psychotherapist and spiritual director, and, now my rabbinical studies, all of this seemed to be part of some mysterious curriculum that had been preparing me for this for my entire life. My teacher, Rabbi Jonathan Omer-Man, used to ask, “What is the question for which your life is the answer?”

My question had to have been, “Will you come to help after Katrina?”

And there was more. Thirty-five years ago, before the deaths of my mother and sister, I worked for the Ecology Center of Louisiana. I bicycled from the Garden District to the French Quarter each weekday to present a five-minute radio segment. We hoped to alert residents of the Gulf South to the dangers of the chemical by-products of the oil industry; the toxins in our food chain, water and air; global warming; the erosion of the coastal wetlands, and the potential for disaster when the Army Corps of Engineers tries to out-engineer God and nature.

That was in 1970 and 1971.

And when I returned to New Orleans, that day before the Birthday of the World, I witnessed the fulfillment of the environmental nightmare we forecast all those years ago. I visited homes weeks awash in the Katrina flotsam, reeking of mold and chemicals, penetrating every material thing that denoted daily life. Nearly every refrigerator in town was covered with the spores of long-decayed food, and set out on the sidewalk awaiting removal and disposal.

By whom? To where? I smelled the smells. In New Orleans they still smell the smells.

Now, late at night, as I begin to fall asleep, I return to New Orleans. I see the houses that are still stained with waterlines above their doorways and smell the mold that remains in many places more than a year later. I remember the gray of seemingly nuclear winter that covered the foliage, leeched by the fetid water of its verdant semitropical green. I feel the nausea that rose in me as I drove through the debris-filled streets around my father’s flooded and looted store in the Ninth Ward and saw not one other human being.

But that’s not the only nausea I have felt this year. Nausea has been an occasional side-effect of the treatment for the cancer found in my body shortly after I returned from my three months in the Gulf South. During these Days of Awe, I weigh these back-to-back catastrophes to see if there is a relationship between them. I try to find some meaning that will allow me to better align myself with the Holy Call to Heal the World.

As a child in Louisiana, I can remember the black skies of summer. Darkened, not by clouds prophesying rain, but by mosquitoes flocked so thickly they blocked the sun. Clouds of white followed them. Again, not the lamby clouds of impending precipitation, but of DDT belching into the sky to kill the insects. Did this give me cancer?

Or was it the secondhand smoke from my mother’s Salems as I rode in the passenger seat through the streets of New Orleans, stopping periodically at the gas station, where I inhaled the sweet fumes of refined Louisiana crude? Or was it swimming in Lake Pontchatrain before it became illegal?

Or maybe the birth-control pills or the diet sodas or the hormones or the toxins in hair products and cosmetics or the fact that I did not eat enough organic? Overeating? The L.A. air? My laptop sitting on top of the womb where the tumor was found?

During these Days of Awe, we contemplate what we must do to align ourselves with the Holy Call. What better way to observe the days between the Birthday of the World and the Day of Atonement than to ponder our connection to the planet?

When Dana Reeve died, the tender eulogies remembered her grace, courage and kindness. Commentators committed to fighting the disease, finding a cure and wiping the scourge of cancer off the face of the earth. No one mentioned the earth itself.

We early environmentalists made a public relations blunder that weighs heavily on me on these Days of Awe. Instead of “Earth Day … Friends of the Earth … Save the Earth,” we should have appealed to human narcissism, crying out, like Jonah in Nineveh, “Repent … save yourself … your days are numbered…” How grotesque would it have to be to be as effective as Jonah and rouse the community to break through denial and honor the sacred call of tikkun olam? And do we have time? The earth will take the time it needs to recover itself. It is human beings who are in urgent danger.

I was the first one to arrive last year at Shir Chadash on my mother’s yahrzeit to prepare for the next day’s service. Waiting, breathing New Orleans, I pressed my nose to the window, looking past the mud and mold, trying to see if the sukkah was still standing.

In the silence, I heard the cooing of a dove, a yonah. I followed it around the back of the synagogue. It led me over a fence toppled by Katrina, to my father’s sukkah. The sukkah was standing in the courtyard, not a splinter taken by the storm.

The next day, the congregation (100 for the evening service and 170 in the morning) gathered in the small chapel, stripped of its carpet, smelling slightly of mold. Present were Jews from every denomination, from unaffiliated to Chabad. At one point a group of men from Beth Israel, the Orthodox synagogue destroyed by Katrina, shared the bimah with me. There are some fences that Katrina toppled for which we can feel grateful.

Anne Brener is an L.A.-based psychotherapist. She is the author of “Mourning & Mitzvah: Walking the Mourner’s Path” (Jewish Lights, 1993 and 2001), a fourth-year rabbinical student at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion and a faculty member of the Academy for Jewish Religion.