My Comments at the 2019 TSTI Annual Meeting
Good evening. It is truly an honor to attend TSTI’s Annual Meeting for the 27th time. I first attended as a rabbinic intern in 1992 and it has been and continues to be a privilege to serve this sacred community.
Most years I use my time during this meeting to talk about the state of the congregation from my perspective. And I could easily do so this year, particularly considering how much is going on.
But tonight, I want to take a slightly different approach. I want to talk about why we do what we do. And I want to do so through the lens of a few experiences I have had this year.
It is a quiet Shabbat afternoon in October. Suddenly my phone starts buzzing with reports of the synagogue shooting in Squirrel Hill. Within minutes I’m on the phone with my colleagues and a number of our volunteer leaders. We make calls to the local police, check in with the FBI, and review our synagogue security protocols. While other synagogues scramble to increase their security, we simply need to revisit the procedures already in place and make sure they are fully implemented. You see, years ago we already began addressing the safety measures we need. It took time, and was and is a tremendous expense, but our leadership understood and understands that our top priority is the well-being of anyone who enters this building.
And I think we have done a good job, the proof of which is found in the fact that the morning after the murders in Pittsburgh, our religious school attendance was up significantly compared to the week before. The same was true for the Monday night school program. And it was true on Tuesday night for Hebrew High as well. Yes, many people were a bit nervous when they came into the building but… they came into the building.
That’s a snapshot of this congregation. We know that what we do programmatically is important but we are clear that the health and safety of each member of this community is our top priority.
We understand and act upon our tradition which teaches, “She who saves a single life in the community of Israel it is as if she has saved the entire world.” For us it is more than mere words.
It is late December. Our TSTI Mission to Israel 2018 is in full swing. We go to Neve Michael, a residential school for youth from challenging homes. We arrive and, within seconds, our kids are on the basketball court playing with some of the residents. You could easily have thought they were all old friends. We are so moved by the love and care these students receive at Neve Michael that we decide to get involved and help further their mission. And we have been doing so.
The next day we meet with an Israeli Arab. An Israeli citizen, his son is the head of oncology at a religious Jewish hospital and his daughter is an anchor on i24 TV. Despite the success he and his children have achieved he laments the bias he feels in Israel. In one breath he expresses gratitude at being an Israeli citizen and in the next he calls for it to be transformed into something entirely different- something that would no longer be Israel.
The next morning we meet with another Israeli Arab. A journalist, he tells us about the people he has interviewed on both sides of the conflict. He has a totally different perspective than the one we got the night before. He has no issue being a minority in a majority Jewish state. He simply wants equal rights and is working to help make the necessary changes to achieve them.
That night everyone on the trip shared their key takeaways. Time and again participants spoke about their surprise at just how complex and complicated Israel is. They had seen kids from abusive homes, met with Israeli Arabs to hear about the social inequality that still exists in Israel and expressed an appreciation that they didn’t just see the “wow” tourist moments but also got to see the difficult underbelly of the Jewish State. But while they recognized that Israel is complicated they went on to say that seeing this complexity, having their mythic understanding of Israel replaced by a reality that is often challenging, had strengthened their connection to Israel, not weakened it.
That’s a snapshot of this congregation. At a time when the US-Israel relationship is more complex than ever we engage more deeply in order to help make our voices heard.
We understand and act upon the statement from Psalms stating, “If I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget its skill! Let my tongue stick to the roof of my mouth, if I do not remember you, if I do not set Jerusalem above my highest joy!” For us it is more than mere words.
It is mid-February. Thirty two members of our community have just spent three days with Cantor Moses and me traveling to Georgia and Alabama. We had walked across the Edmund Pettis Bridge, sung with a Bishop who was on the front lines in the civil rights movement, visited numerous museums and memorials and ate far too much fried food. (Not only does Alabama not believe in women’s rights but they also don’t believe in vegetables.) We had gone south to learn about the Civil Rights Movement and we had done just that, but we also came to realize that there is a direct line from those struggles to the ugliness we see in our country today.
We were exhausted but the exchange of emails and texts began immediately after the trip. And every one of them, in some way, said the same thing- “What’s next? We’ve learned the history but it is now clear that past is prologue and the fight for civil rights still needs to be fought. So what’s next?”
We’ve begun the process of trying to answer that question. The group has met numerous times since returning home and I’m looking forward to them sharing their work with the entire community in the near future.
That’s a snapshot of this congregation. We know it is important to learn but we also know that learning needs to be transformed into action. And while we know our actions can never solve everything we also know that doesn’t mean we aren’t going to work as hard as we can to do our part.
We understand and act upon the teaching from Pirke Avot which states, “It is not up to you to finish the task but neither can you desist from it.” For us it is more than mere words.
It is early March one week after my father’s death. I come to temple at 9am and take my place on the bimah waiting for the preschool to come in as they do each Friday. The doors open and a parade of children floods in. There are so many of them that they barely fit on the bimah. And they are smiling. Sitting next to every few children there is a teacher, a teacher’s aide or the parent of a Shabbat child. The smiles, the warmth, the attentiveness of the adults toward the kids is so constant across the bimah that there’s no way to know if an adult is attending to their own child or someone else’s… because the teachers and aides treat each of the students as if they are their own.
And then I’m struck by the human tapestry sitting before me. When you see our preschool student body you see a microcosm of the diversity that drew so many of us to this community. And I think to myself, that’s the kind of world I want to live in. That’s the kind of synagogue I’m proud to serve.
One of the teachers’ aides is relatively new to our school and to our community. In fact, she’s still relatively new to America because she is the daughter of one of the refugee families we helped resettle. Now, two and a half years later, Balkis works as an aide in our preschool. So that morning, one week after my father’s death, as I sat on the bimah proudly looking at our students I was struck by the fact that one of the teachers aides sitting on the bimah wears a hijab. And I think to myself, that’s the kind of world I want to live in. That’s the kind of synagogue I’m proud to serve.
But then Balkis got up, walked over to me and in her ever-improving English said, “Rabbi, I do not know the right way to say this but, my condolences on your father’s death.” And I think to myself, that’s the kind of world I want to live in. That’s the kind of synagogue I’m proud to serve.
That’s a snapshot of this community. When our sacred text says, “You shall not afflict the stranger in your midst for you yourselves were slaves in Egypt,” we take it seriously. Moreover, we see it as a challenge, a challenge to reach out to the stranger and then, once they have been welcomed, turn that stranger into a neighbor and a friend.
Similarly, in the book of Genesis we read that we are, all of us, created in God’s image. We understand and act upon that tradition and we take it not only as a reminder of the divinity within each person but as a call to take action so the most vulnerable in our society, who are also created in God’s image, are protected.
Friends, we are living in challenging times. Hate and bias are currently on the rise. Israel is being used as a partisan wedge issue and the current government of Israel certainly isn’t helping. Racism and voter suppression are as prevalent as ever. And our government and institutions are not doing enough to protect them. And this administration continues to vilify and marginalize Muslims and immigrants. That’s not a partisan statement. That is simply a statement of fact.
These are challenging times. And at no time in my lifetime have the values and commitments of Judaism in general and Reform Judaism in particular been more important. And every day, in ways big and small, this congregation and the members of this community are part of trying to address these challenges. Some of those efforts are public but many of them happen quietly with no publicity and without a desire for credit. The members of this community, all of you, work to make this world a reflection of our values. We know we can’t just read or pray about equality, or acceptance, or respect. We need to act in a manner that brings these qualities into the world.
So when somebody asks you why you belong to TSTI I ask that you remember this. Our programs, services and classes are all important but at its most fundamental, this congregation is about making the world a little more whole. That’s why you support this community, because none of this is possible without you. And because at a time that often feels dark, Temple Sharey Tefilo-Israel continues to illuminate our corner of the world and, by doing so, we help bring light to corners near and far.