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Be the Jewishy One in the Room

Let the year 5784 be a new chapter in how we all deepen our lives as Jews. 
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September 29, 2023
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In my 20’s I worked as a counselor at a Jewish camp in the Poconos. At services one particular Shabbat, I bowed at the appropriate times in the service.  (Mind you, I was the only one doing so).

A few days later, I was walking by a group of younger teens.  One whispered to the other (while pointing at me) “There’s that real Jewishy guy.”

What a comment.  And at a Jewish camp!!!

I laughed at it then.

I think about it now.

Yes, perhaps it was that real Jewishy stuff that made me want to be a rabbi.

But here’s the truth …  My hope this Holy Day season is that we ALL take pride in being “that really Jewishy” person, or part a really “Jewishy” family.

What does that even mean?  It’s not about keeping kosher (though I do want people to make informed choices when they eat).

And it’s not about observing all the laws of Shabbat (though I do want people to take Shabbat in their homes to the next level).

It’s about knowing in our core that being Jewish is important — and that we have no shame in wearing Jewish pride wherever we are.

Now – more than ever, I feel this as the legacy of our time.

Rabbi Hillel, the great rabbinic sage, asked three questions in our Mishna:

  1. If I am not for myself, who will be for me?
  2. If I am for myself only, what am I?
  3. And if not now, when?[1]

The Jewish community has been stellar with regard to questions two and three.

Question 2: If I am for myself only, what am I?  In other words, we need to be out there helping the world. We have so much to be proud of when it comes to how we have stood up for others.  Our role in gender equality, our leadership in civil rights, our support of LGBTQ rights.  We marched in Selma.  We lobbied for fair wages.  We protested in support of undocumented immigrants.

We give philanthropically to art and theatre, universities and museums.  We seek homes for those unsheltered.

And to Hillel’s question number three: If not now, when?  We can also be proud.  We don’t wait for someone else to take the first step.  Our people break barriers, separate the waters, and create opportunity.  We recognize that Justice delayed is justice denied, so we don’t sit back.

But that first question: If I am not for myself, who will be for me?

Friends, I think we could use some extra help here.  I suggest that we consider “Myself” to be “my people.”  If I am not for my people, who will be for us?

My hope this Holy Day season is that we ALL take pride in being “that really Jewishy” person, or part a really “Jewishy” family.

While we as Jews stand in line to support world organizations, who is standing in line to support Jewish organizations? Who is supporting Hillel? Who is supporting the Federation? Who is supporting the Jewish Studies departments? Who is supporting the ADL?

We are in a strange time as Jews in America. Historically, our dreams, our visions, our determination for a better world — they all helped build this country. But there are many, many institutions that are actively ignoring and erasing our presence.

I’ll go a step further – there are many institutions that are condemning our existence.

And yet — those on the extreme right and those on the extreme left — they seem to have one thing in common …. A disdain for Jews.

I believe that we need to step up as Jews and for Jews.

Last spring, I had an experience at a local bookstore.

I was delighted to see a shelf with books celebrating Arab-American Heritage Month. So much to learn!

But as I perused the books, I noticed that many had nothing to do with Arab-American life. Rather, they were about Palestinian life in the Middle East with vitriol against Israel.

I wrote the bookstore, suggesting that I could help curate books for Jewish-American Heritage Month (in May), books about the Jewish-American experience, and books that build bridges (while not ignoring the real issues among religions in our day).

I didn’t hear back.

At the beginning of May, I returned to the bookstore. It was Asian-American Heritage Month. Again, I was delighted. I then looked around for a Jewish-American Heritage Month display.

Nothing.

I wrote the bookstore again, volunteering to do a Jewish themed reading later in the month.

I didn’t hear back.

I wrote one last time. Finally, the owner contacted me.  She said she would be delighted to get my thoughts on important Jewish books prior to the Holy Days and suggested we connect in the summer. I responded right away that I would be thrilled to talk.

And so, we set about curating a list of books to display at the Village Well Bookstore in Culver City.

Yes, I was the Jewishy one making a little noise. And while at first I was apprehensive, I remembered, “If I am not for myself, who will be for me?”

The next step is to be the Jewish voice in the room when it comes to Culver City (home to Temple Akiba) — ensuring our youth are not penalized because the school district continues to hold classes on Yom Kippur. We are committed to effectuating change — guiding the leadership to understand that Yom Kippur is not a holiday, but rather a Holy Day. It’s not a celebration, it’s not a day recognizing a hero or memorializing a loss or commemorating a victory.  It’s a day of pause and introspection and reflection.

More?  We then need to be the Jewish voice in the state when haters try to put forward the so called ethnic studies curriculum in California, which in its original form was anti-Israel and anti-Jewish.  They will continue to try. So we need to stand up.

All this is a reminder to have our radar on when we are out there in the world.  It’s a reminder to see with Jewish eyes, to experience with a Jewish soul, to feel with Jewish emotions, and to express with Jewish passion.

(And look, if the grocery store puts Matzah on the shelves for Yom Kippur, don’t be indignant. At least they are trying.)

I get it …  Standing up can be hard, and it can be scary.  Standing up comes with consequences.  And there will be times when we have to make a judgement call.  When do we stand up, and when do hold back? The book of Ecclesiastes reminds us, “There is a time for silence and a time to speak.”

With the recent increase of antisemitism, people have asked, “Is it OK to wear my Jewish star?” “Is it OK to hang my mezuzah?”  “Is it OK to wave an Israeli flag?”

My response?  Haters of Jews know who are Jews, regardless of what we say, do wear, or believe.

But let’s go a step further … Wearing that star, hanging that mezuzah, waving that flag … We don’t really do it to set ourselves apart. We do it to bind us together.

Let the year 5784 be a new chapter in how we all deepen our lives as Jews. Let’s allow the holiness of our traditions  imbue our choices with Jewish values and Jewish hope.  Let’s all become the Jewish ones in the room each and every day.

Allow me to share a final word from the incredible Maya Angelou: “… I not only have the right to stand up for myself, but I have the responsibility. I can’t ask somebody else to stand up for me if I won’t stand up for myself. And once you stand up for yourself, you’d be surprised that people say, ‘Can I be of help?’”

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