Rabbi David Steinhardt
Kol Nidre 5762
September 26, 2001
Gut Yom Tov – Good evening.
For nearly two weeks now, almost all my comments have been directed towards the tragic events of the terror attacks and the impending war. My belief is that if we don't talk about what's truly important to us, if we don't talk about what matters in this world.... if we can't connect the meaning of the machzor, the siddur or Torah to what is out there, and then we have failed our mission. If not here, then where? On this holiest of nights we gather to look deep inside of ourselves, but we're also looking to each other and at the world around us.
Bruchim Habaim...Welcome, welcome to all of you.
I saw the great young ball player Shawn Greene of the Los Angeles Dodgers interviewed on television the other night…almost 40 years after that other Dodger, Sandy Koufax inspired a generation of young Jewish boys who refused to play that World Series game on Yom Kippur, another young hero will serve as a role model and inspiration to a generation of young American Jews…I bring this up tonight because I believe that it is so important to assert that we can be great Americans, successful in whatever we choose, and still hold on and hold tight to our Jewish identities.
In fact, being able to assert our identities as Jews in this country is truly part of the greatness of America. The model of America as "the great melting pot" has changed. Pluralism is the essential piece of American democracy. Neighborhoods that reflected the origins of the immigrants were separate, but not when it came to the assertion of the great American values of freedom and democracy. And in that picture of pluralism we learned that keeping our religious institutions strong, keeping our cultural identities alive is part of the grandeur of American freedom.
Last Thursday night many of you gathered with me at an interfaith prayer service for the victims of the September 11th terrorist activity…we gathered in memory of the dead and in support of this great nation. At that time, I asserted that an interfaith gathering such as that “is an expression of the greatness of America.” Very few moments in history and very few places in the world have consented to that kind of gathering...And we were there in large numbers, our adults and teenagers, proud to be Jewish and proud to be Americans.
America has been very good to us. It has provided our parents with opportunities to flourish. And America has been a comfortable home for the life and growth of great Jewish institutions, organizations that work for social welfare, community centers, great academic centers and great synagoues. The American experiment in Democracy reshaped this world. It was, and is, and will always be a threat to totalitarian regimes and any structure that threatens the basic freedoms of individuals.
On the other hand, Jews and Judaism have contributed mightily to American thought and American greatness. In almost every field of endeavor we have made profound contributions – not merely because we happen to be Jews, but also because of the way Judaism has shaped us, our system of belief, our valuing education. We, I believe, have a challenge…keeping our end of the American Jewish experience strong.
Over the past few weeks, we’ve experienced so much …most of us are fortunate, being safe here. We’re not avelim, mourning the loss of family members…but every one of us, like every person in this country has been affected. We’re frightened and anxious; some of us are literally losing sleep, …yet our gatherings together…here in this sanctuary over the last two weeks have brought us comfort and hope.
This past Sunday I found myself literally crying over the New York Times...the pages of obituaries, the stories of survivors, and the recognition of heroes. In the magazine section there was a very poignant piece written by Deborah Sontag of Brooklyn, N.Y. Deborah and her family, including her children Emma and Adam have recently returned from a three year stay in Jerusalem.
She wrote the following:
Shortly after we returned this summer from a three-year posting in Jerusalem, we borrowed a house in the woods in central Vermont. The first night, Emma and Adam, our two younger children, couldn't sleep. After learning to achieve deep slumber during the many Middle Eastern nights when tank fire pounded on the periphery of their dreams, they were gripping their sheets because they had heard a hoot. Owls in the trees! My husband and I were thrilled by the mundanity.
It was with considerable relief that we had left behind the relentles Israeli-Palestinian conflict. We were eager to surround our kids with the plump pillows of American security and normalcy. The first time we stopped at a tollbooth crossing the Triborough Bridge Adam asked if we were at the American border and Emma chided him, "No, silly, it's just a checkpoint."
But very, very quickly, tutored in a land of pop culture and American childhood 101, by cousins and by Nickelodeon, they caught on and shifted their focus of concerns. Instead of grilling us about the distinction between Judaism, Christianity and Islam, they were wondering what made Skeechers different from Stride Rite sneakers. Five-year-old Adam stood dazed in a supermarket as he confronted an entire aisle of cookies, finally declaring, "I love America! As if we were immigrant parents, some small part of us feared the ill effect of American pettiness, abundance and materialism. But it was patently preferable to worry about their cartoon intake instead of their well being, and we relished the way that the children called "the fighting" receded in their minds.
That terrible Tuesday was the first day of American school for Emma, who was entering third grade, and Adam, who were starting kindergarten. It was a glorious morning as they skipped through downtown Broooklyn. They wore new sneakers (Stride Rite won out) and bacpacks that were essentially empty but nonetheless an essential part of the American school uniform. I left Emma designing a nametag to hang above her cubby. In Adam's clas, where he was seated at a table designated "Femur" in anaticpation of a unit on the human body, I patted his blond head and inadvertently said aloud what I was thinking, "You'll be safe here."
Then a parent barged into the room and told a few of us that a plane had crashed into the World Trade Center. We walked, because there really was no other choice, straight to the Brooklyn promenade on the East River overlooking Lower Manhattan. The second airplane had just crashed into the Twin Towers, and flames were devouring the tops of the buildings. It was a perfect view of the horror, and there was nothing we could do but stare.
This was terrorism of a different magnitude. In Israel, such attacks were chillingly intimate. Within hours, everyone in the country knew who had been killed and knew someone connected to the victims. Bombings were also anticipated and routine. With grim efficiency, daily life was restored to the bombed area. But this was so vast that it could not be personalized or swept up. We were struck by the fact that no victims were named on the news that first day. We were breathing the acrid, dusty air that wafted across the river. The attack was palpable. Yet, it was beyond our grasp.
Adam was clueless when we picked him up at the kindergarten annex. In the school's main high-rise building, Emma's class waited in the overheated basement where the elementary students had been herded to stop them from watching the whole thing from their classroom windows. We pushed through the thronged halls to get outside. Passerbies were wearing paper masks. "Aliens," Adam said. A woman snapped at us, "Cover your children's mouths?” Emma burst into tears. "My first day of school wasn't fun at all,” she said. "You promised. You promised it would be better here."
In Israel, we could keep our children, who were foreigners, in a relatively secure cocoon, although that meant greatly limiting their universe. We could even isolate them from much of the news. But here, waiting for our apartment to be ready, we were staying in a hotel that was designated an emergency relief center. People were streaming over the Brooklyn Bridge covered in ash and seeking first aid in the Brooklyn Marriott. Security was tight. School for the next day was canceled. A father of one of Emma's classmates was missing. We had to start explaining. At first, I used a silly, gingerly phrase, telling Adam that a plane had "bumped into" the Twin Towers. "By accident?" He asked. There was no avoiding the ugly truth.
We turned on the television news. "It looks like Israel," Adam said. He asked if we were going to start seeing soldiers in Brooklyn. I told him no, but then we descended to the lobby and happened on several National Guardsmen in their camouflage uniforms and army boots. We stepped outside. Sirens wailed. “We were home?"
This is our home. This is the home to our children. And in this climate and during this period of fear and uncertainty, we need to make sense out of this...we need to find comfort in all this, we need to understand this, and we need the strength to go on, to face the days ahead, to believe and to hope, and to have faith.
Some terrorist leader announced the other day that once America uses force, every American and every Jew becomes a target. Let's not have any pretenses. We are in this battle now. We're in this war now. And it will probably be a sustained battle fought on many fronts and in many new ways. It will be fought overtly and covertly, through governments and through banks.
In the Second World War the religious institutions, churches and shuls, played a great role for those who were on these shores...Sanctuaries were filled with people who needed to turn to each other and turn to God...During Viet-Nam churches and synagogues played a very different role. The war was far away and over time became the source of much public unrest and social protest at home. During that war clergy of different faiths became amongst the leaders of anti-war sentiment.
This time we will again be called upon to be a grass roots place of support. This time our tradition provides a real context for understanding...again, like the battle against Nazism, it's a battle against totalitarian forces, this battle is against those who hate, and denigrate human life, and destroy ideas...it is about those who wish to destroy the free world and the God of the free world. You know the first Commandment...Isn't it interesting that the very first thing that God wants us to know, the very first thing that God wants us to know about himself, is “I am the Lord your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage, to be your God"...God, our God is the God of freedom.
The other night a group of people were here studying with Rabbi David Starr...they learned a lot of different things...they learned about Jewish life in the medieval period under Islamic rule...You know Islam protected us, as a minority...A second-class minority...As long as we were small, as long as we knew where political allegiance was to be given...The real problems didn't begin until we, with the consent of the world's bodies, established a state. A state that quickly became the refuge to hundreds of thousands of survivors from the holocaust.
It is here that we can gain some perspective on this...besides the reality of bringing each other comfort, because WE ARE IN THE SAME BOAT...we also have a shared perspective that comes from a shared experience...and from a world view that was shaped by generations of Jewish learning, study of Jewish texts, and Jewish history...and the shared experience of Jewish worship, Jewish community.
The vehicle that we have, that most authentically allows for this response is the synagogue...And if the synagogue doesn't, then its not being authentic...And I say this from the perspective of the synagogue, the shul, being a house of worship that's part of the mosaic of religious homes of different faiths throughout this great country...The preservation of this, of this right is as basic as any fundamental democratic right...I say this from the perspective of a house of learning...our holy texts, philosophies, history...that not only help us understand the past, but help us light the future...I say it from the perspective of this place, this, Makom Kodesh being the place where we celebrate life's greatest moments...birth and growth of our children, and love and family life...Here we celebrate new moons and special days...and here we share in sorrow and comfort each other and reach out to each other.
Can I take you on a trip with me? It was Friday March 9th...it was the afternoon of Purim, the meaning of time and place was not lost for me...this was the day that we celebrated our existence, and I was in Germany. I took a tram, from a Jewish cemetery in the city of Karlsruhe. I got off the tram and walked to a house I had never seen. The address was 56 Rheinstrasser...it was where my mother and her sister and her mother, my grandmother whose yahrzeit we commemorate this day, and my grandfather, the Moshe I'm named for, that was their address. The house still stands...the neighborhood still exists...One day, late December they boarded a train and left Karlsruhe...never to return. I sat on a wall on that gray afternoon, across the street from that house...I felt so empty. What some have done to us in this world...countless communities existed where Jews once flourished and are no more. Today... ONE JEW...one elderly Jew from before the war is still alive in that city, but hundreds of Jews are back...mostly from the former Soviet Union, and they are in a new synagogue and from that synagogue, rebuilding Jewish life.
A few days later I was in Saxenhausen. A Concentration Camp in the former East Germany. Many of you have been to Concentration Camps. It was my first visit. And there is nothing to say. Really...the banality of evil in this world doesn't deserve words...I was there with a group of rabbis... we davened mincha.... ashrei yoshvei vetecha...and we memorialized the dead and we sang HaTikvah.
I was there with a group of rabbis from America on a mission, primarily to Berlin...I've spoken about it...and will speak again...I want to share this: Once again a Jewish community is present. Once again its almost unthinkable, a Jewish community is seriously emerging...Jews, as Jews learning, organizing communal structures and schools, and praying in synagogues being renovated and re-built and building from scratch.
The synagogue is the portable state of the Jewish people...
There is Germany, I thought about what it is we have here...
What an opportunity we are blessed with. This is the place of such phenomenal Jewish growth...and we're building Jewish life for the next millennium. Our communal structures, our organizations that support the Jews in this area, and around the world, our Day Schools and Hebrew schools...And now we know that FAU will be housing The Hebrew College of Boston…the serious intellectual pursuit of Jewish studies will be a part of this community...
And we play a central role in all of this. We do it geographically – but more importantly religiously…B’nai Torah Congregation, just over 26 years young is in the religious center of this renaissance. As a religious institution in the United States of America, in this area of growth, of vital growth, this new frontier of Jewish life, we are challenged to build one of the great synagogues of this nation and this world. What K.I. of Boston, or Park Avenue Synagogue of New York or Temple Israel of Great Neck...meant to their communities a generation ago, we are to this population and to the future of American Jewry.
We share a mission for the 21st century...Every one of us…we need your help. We have a beautiful building enhanced by the generosity of wonderful individuals and families of our congregation...but we are so much more than a beautiful building. And those qualities that define us cannot always be seen and some of them, the most important, won't be measured for a generation...We are a shul where people daven three services a day, 365 days a year...we are a place of comfort and caring and outreach for the sick and the elderly and the bereaved...we are a makom t'fillah with services for different generations and different davening styles...we are a beit midrash where hundred of adults study...we sponsor activities for social action and lead drives for funding in areas of need. We sponsor events for holidays and celebration, we keep alive Jewish culture and music...we have groups for support, and we are a place where seniors gather to laugh and love and learn...It all takes planning...it takes the work of hundreds of volunteers like yourselves, but also a large and talented and educated staff...teachers and social workers and cantors and youth workers and rabbis...All that we do is so important...But, if I see one thing as paramount, one thing that stands above all...it’s about the world we want to leave to our children...it's about creating the another generation of Jews who feel like they BELONG HERE...that here they connect to words of Torah and ideas and music...and here they identify with people and values...here they know that they are Americans, they are Jewish...they are part of something very large.
And we're doing it...We are transforming lives of children, giving them a place to create perspective, to attach their lives...we're educating them from the cradle, with Jewish Mommy and Me, Jewish Early Childhood education, through school age, through a B’nai Mitzvah program that's filled with a lot more learning than skill preparation, and through High School...We’re encouraging our children to understand responsibility in this world, teens to have social experiences with other Jewish teens, to go to Jewish Camps, and get to Israel and our kids, some who can afford to, and many who cannot support are part, go to places like Camp Ramah and visit and study in Israel, and The March of the Living. We make it possible…To do what we want to do...to make our Hebrew school experience alive and fun and attractive, to create teen experience that compete with what's out there in the world is very costly...We lose money on all these programs…But we have no choice. This is the future of American Jewry! And we all must give what we can...because it is of central importance...We need your gifts to run these programs now, for this year to endow them into the future.
We know that. That's why we're still here...Look at all of us...Sanctifying life as Jews, praying to this God of ours, sharing our love for community and for Israel, and praying for life...Here we gain some understanding, some perspective...here we learn that we are part of something eternal.
Please, I ask you now...I know some of you have already responded, but I'm speaking to the rest of us...please pick up your tab cards, hold them up...and allow the work of this great synagogue to move forward...Blessed by those who have done so much before us, we've reached wonderful heights...It’s up to you to see that it continues, and that we will be able to do for our children, for all our Jewish children...to create a strong Jewish future.
G’Mar Chatimah Tovah...