Rabbi Donald Rossoff

The following sermon was delivered during the 2001 Jewish High Holiday season following the tragic events of September 11, 2001. It has been included on the Torah From Terror website as a resource and retains the copyright of its author. Please cite the source accordingly.

Rabbi Donald B. Rossoff
Temple B’nai Or, Morristown, NJ

American and Jewish: We are All Israelis Now
Yom Kippur Eve – 5762 /2001

September 11th, 2001, was the day that changed our world. It snuffed out thousands of innocent lives, shattered the lives tens of thousands more, wreaked havoc with our economy, and set us on a path to a long, treacherous and largely uncharted war.

It has been over two weeks now, two weeks of watching and waiting, of ceremonies and sermons, of funerals and memorial services, of crying and of giving, of digging out and digging in. The full impact of what happened is just starting to hit us. Tonight we are all still hurting and will be for some time. Temple’s Caring Community and Wellness Center will be doing more as time goes on like the walk-in clinic we offered.

On Rosh Hashanah, I shared with you my reaction to the attack, talked about what we as Americans must and must not do in response, and put our personal and collective challenges into a context of faith. I am sure that there are those who would like me to repeat that message tonight. Well, copies of last week’s sermon are available as you leave.

Tonight, I want to address this moment in Jewish history, and suggest where we are and should be as Jews. I do this, because I believe that the events of September 11 shed tremendous clarity on Israel and the last 12 months of terrorism and turmoil it has gone through. I do this also as a way of fighting back, for to let Israel and the Jewish people be pushed off of our agenda at this time would be granting yet another posthumous victory to the terrorists, and this I will not do. I do this now because tonight of all nights is when we can look around and see the reality of our corporate Jewish existence, feeling the bond with our people that transcends time and space.

We sometimes speak of our American identities and our Jewish identities. But as Alan Deshowitz said, on September 11, our American identities and our Jewish identities merged. I will go even farther than this: I believe that on September 11, 2001, every American became an Israeli Jew. Whether they sensed it or not, whether they admitted it or not, whether they liked it or not – because who could like it? – the feeling of living under siege, hated by those with whom there is no reasoning, part of a war which respects not the rules of war, but attacks innocent civilians in their work and in their leisure, all those feelings of rage and vulnerability that Israelis have been living with for years, all of them, found a new home in the American psyche. Two weeks ago yesterday, sadly, the existential links between Israel and the United States grew stronger and deeper than ever before, for on that day, America became Israel; and all Americans became Jews.

I first caught a glimpse of that on the afternoon of that terrible day and it was a most moving moment. It happened in my office at a meeting of the Morris Area Clergy Council to plan the Interfaith Service we had the next day. Many of you remember Rev. Allen of Union Baptist Church on Spring Street who inspired us so last year from this pulpit. Rev. Allen turned to the group and to me and said, “I want to say to Rabbi Rossoff that I now understand what his people have been going through for so many years. I thought I understood. I would hear news of an attack and think it was sad, but I really did not understand. Now, I understand.” Many nodded in agreement.

You see, in that long ago, far away time before the terror and trauma of September 11, terror, trauma, confusion and despair were everyday realities in Israel, especially this past year. That same rejectionist spirit exploded just after last Rosh Hashanah. As you remember, in the summer of 2000, Israel put unprecedented compromises on the table for discussion with the Palestinians, but rather than discuss, Arafat rejected. Having then been cast as the peace breaker, Arafat did what he had done so many times before to win world sympathy; he encouraged a so-called popular uprising. He used children at the front lines, so that Israel would be seen on the heavy handed occupier of a poor and beleaguered people, the big Goliath against the little David. He used the Palestinian’s anger, frustration and despair as a lethal weapon in the pursuit of his goals. And he did that very well. I am not saying that Israel did not make mistakes in its approach at Camp David or in every means of response to attacks, but it is clear to me that whatever mistakes or miscalculations Israel – or President Clinton - made at Camp David or following, they are dwarfed by the moral depravity of the Palestinian leadership’s return to violence as a means to avoid real negotiation. It became so clear to me this summer as I watched Palestinian television; theirs agenda is not the pursuit of peace, but the furtherance of a radical national liberation movement, radical in that it brooks no compromise.

This past year witnessed indiscriminate acts of terror – teens at the disco in Tel Aviv, babies and grandmothers at Sbarros in Jerusalem. Drive by shootings, violent demonstrations were almost everyday occurrences and still are. Israel was forced to protect itself by sealing off from the Palestinians in the territories who are now forced to live with the terrible consequences of their leaders’ choice. The Palestinians suffer and Israel suffers, again isolated from the community of the nations.

Hundreds of Israeli and Palestinian lives were lost in the course of the year, in a war fought as much on CNN than in the streets. The terrorists strike. Israel responds in defense and in retaliation and yet the world sees terrorist attacks and defensive actions as morally equal. There is no moral equivalency between those who attack and those who defend, between those who take lives and those who try to save lives, just as, in the words of Rabbi Ammi Hirsch of ARZA World Union, no moral equivalency between the police officer and the criminal

So, despite having offered more than most could ever have imagined at Camp David, Israel was forced back into a defensive poster, doing whatever it could to protect the lives of its citizens. This included the killing of those known to be personally and professional engaged in acts of terrorism. Our government has criticized Israel’s practice of killing known terrorist leaders, calling it assassination and saying it inflames the situation; Israel calls it self-defense. We have no tradition, friends, of turning the other cheek. What we do have is a law that says, if someone is trying to kill, you are to do all in your power to stop that, even if it means taking the life of the other.

But then comes 9/11, and I sense that the perspective on how to combat terrorism has changed; at least I hope that it has. If we here had known that individuals, trained pilots no less, were on their way to hijack a plane and crash it into the Twin Towers and that the only way to stop them would be by killing them, what rational person would not have agreed to pull the trigger? They say that hindsight is 20-20 and that you can never know. But sometimes, you do know, and it is immoral not to take action.

But as much as America may now understand Israel’s point of view, there are growing concerns that some still do not get it. Even now, as President Bush is forming the international coalition against terrorism, many, like Egypt’s president, are trying to make a distinction between justified terrorism – which is anything directed at Israelis – and immoral terrorism – anything directed at anyone else. Why is it, President Bush, that neither Islamic Jihad nor Hezbollah, both of which have taken responsibility for terrorists acts in Israel, are among the groups whose assets here are being frozen? And now Yassir Arafat is positioning himself to be part of the coalition against terrorism. I will tell you, having Yassir Arafat part of the fight against terrorism is like enlisting Ben and Jerry as part of the fight against obesity.

And as I mentioned on Rosh Hashanah, there are still some voices out there that are blaming America’s support of Israel for September 11, saying that it was Israel which created radical Islamic militants and their hatred for America. Those who wish to blame the Jews will blame the Jews. It is the same twisted thinking that says that the Jews crucified Jesus, that we poisoned the wells which caused the Black Plague, used the blood of Christian children to make matzo and infected African Americans with the Aids virus, the same don’t confuse me with the facts, I begin with my prejudices and work from there” kind of thinking which has typified anti-Semitic rhetoric from the days of the Pharaoh on.

There is the old joke: Did you know that all of the world’s problems are caused by the Jews and the bicycle riders? Why the bicycle riders, one asks? Why the Jews?

But, friends, what the world is doing vis-à-vis Israel and the latent anti-Semitism this has brought crawling out from under the rocks, as disturbing as they are, are not my only worry. I have another concern – it is what WE are doing vis-à-vis Israel, or more specifically, what we are NOT doing. We have simply pulled away from Israel.

We may be thinking that this is a time when it would not be so bad to put our concern for Israel on the back-burner, but the fact is, most of us already had Israel on the back-burner, and another such move would put the Jewish State and the Jewish People off of the stove altogether. And that would give the terrorist yet another posthumous victory and that I do not want to do!

One of the things that I heard in Israel this summer was tremendous disappointment – in us. The Reform Movement’s decision to cancel its teen trips last summer because of safety concerns was a blow and became, unfairly, the target of a lot of other frustrations. But I think the most cogent response came from Rabbi Donniel Hartman of the Hartman Institute where I studied. In an open letter to his American friends he wrote, “As a parent, I understand not sending your children. I, too, am concerned about the safety of my children living here. No, my complaint is not that the youth are not coming, but that the adults have stopped coming.” His point was that, even before this last year, the relationship between Israel and the American Jews had become essentially empty.

A caricature of the old relationship went something like this: Our part over here is that we send money and hopefully we go there and spend more money. We make sure that our congress and our president know that Israel is important to us.

Israel’s part of the equation is that they make us proud to be Jewish by showing the world that Jews can have a productive society which provides benefits to all people, and show the world, especially after the Holocaust, that Jews are not wimps. More than that, they provide for us a Jewish Disneyland where we can come, experience the history of the Jews, see that we are part of a vibrant, creative and very much alive people and feel like we have a home away from home once we go back home. I know there is more to it, but for most people, not much, if that at all.

But once things get messy, when Israel is not longer the little David against the big Goliath, when some of what Israel does is not to be cheered, when it seems that they do not need our money as much, in essence, when it rains in Disneyland, then things start to change. What surfaced during this past year is that most American Jews already had little or no connection, and so were essentially unmoved, or if moved, were moved to cancel trips. Understandable, but a disconnect nevertheless.

This disconnect is somewhat generational. It has been documented, and I have seen it here, that we baby-boomers are simply not as connected to Israel as those who are a tad older. In their book, The Jew Within, Steve Cohen and Arnie Eisen, speak of our generation having privatized Judaism. The focus of our lives and our loyalties is our families and ourselves and this is equally true of our Jewish lives. Polls say that we are pro-Israel in general, but with a great deal of ambivalence, and few loyalties.

But friends, when we start to look at our Jewish lives, I think we need Israel just as much as our parents. We who are proud to be Jewish, just not religious, and whose buzzwords are spirituality and transcendence lose the connection to our Jewish spiritual core without Israel. You cannot transcend if you stay at home, as a Buddhist, yes, as a Jew, no. Reliance on the autonomous self often leaves us bereft of aspirations higher than our selves.

And in an age when we are loosing our grip on ethnicity and sense of belonging, of being part of something bigger than ourselves, we need peoplehood and that means Israel even more. In the words of Rabbi David Hartman, Israel serves as a conduit for our sense of memory, a connection to Jewish history and Jewish hope. Without Israel, Jews might otherwise lose “their covenantal identity by becoming a secular people with no more than a shallow attachment to Torah...”

For me, to be a Jew is to have the privilege and the responsibility to live knee deep in history. On Pesach we read, “In every generation, each one of us should see ourselves as if we went out of Egypt.” Today, in this generation – each one of us she see ourselves as if we returned to Israel – and then make the as if a reality.

Fellow baby-boomers – I ask you to consider this: It was the generation before ours which helped create Israel. They knew a world without a Jewish state and the tragic consequences when Jews have no power. We have grown up with an Israel with power, which sometimes did not use that power in ways that were amenable to our sensibilities, but most of the time did. Despite all it has been through, Israel has still not lost its moral – its Jewish – aspirations. No one quotes the prophet Joel, who said, “Let them beat their plowshares into swords, their pruning hooks into spears,” although they have good reason to do so, given the attitudes and actions of many of the Palestinians. Instead we still hear the voice of Isaiah say swords into ploughshares, spears into pruning hooks, production, not destruction, food, not war.. Shimon Peres spoke to some us just last month and insisted, “Morally, Jewishly, Israel cannot be indifferent to the suffering, poverty, and humiliation that are the lot of the Palestinian people. Without justice, there can be no peace.” There is still a vision to create a society at peace, not a pax Romanus, but a peace based firmly on justice. What could move us more?

In the Torah, we see that Moses led our people across the Red Sea and brought us to freedom. But it was Joshua in the next generation who led us across the Jordan River and brought us into the Promised Land. If those before us were Moses, it is our turn to be Joshua – to cross our own Jordan River to bring the dream to fruition. It’s our turn! It’s time we baby-boomer came up to the bar, widen our circle of involvement, and put Israel on our personal radar screens. Israelis and American Jews live in a symbiotic interdependence, partners in the shaping of Jewish destiny, perhaps even human destiny and its time for our generation, not just a few, to come to bat.

Every Israeli chooses life, each and every day, by continuing to have hope in the future and by continuing to create, little by little, the destiny of the Jewish state. They may not think about it as they go through their daily routine, but to live in Israeli is a choice of life and an affirmation of Jewish aspirations.

How do we support that choice; how do we choose life with them? There are easy ways and ways a bit less easy.

Easy is this: We can stay in touch, reaching out to friends in Israel, letting them know that they are not alone. Many Israelis have done the same for us in these last two weeks.

We can buy Israeli products.

We can stay informed. In our newly designed temple web sight, www.templebnaior.org, there will be links to Israel sites. Register for news services, stay in touch and understand Israel’s unique position in the world equation.

Another easy thing: Now through December is the election for the World Zionist Congress, the congress of the Jewish people. Please vote. A high voter turnout this year will signal to Israel – as well as to the American government – that American Jews DO care about Israel. A low turnout will signal that we do not. Plus, a vote for our Reform slate – ARZA/ World Union, will be a vote for religious pluralism in Israel, in the FSU and an affirmation of our commitment here in the states. The information was in your Tempo bags, but don’t worry, we’ll be sending it again. Please take the time – and the $4 to vote, and tell your college students that their vote is needed too.

We can show our solidarity with Progressive Jews and Progressive Judaism in Israel. Make sure, when the January bills come, that you check-off ARZA membership. It’s also time to join or rejoin our sister congregation in Mivasseret Zion. They, too, are building, so if you would like their synagogue named after you, let me know.

Finally, the most important thing we can do for Israel this year – short of making aliyah – is going to Israel. If your close family was hurting and needed you there, chances are you would go. Well, our family there is hurting – partially because of our absence. This year is a time to go to Israel, not necessarily as a family vacation to Jewish Disneyland, but to be with our family there, to learn about what is happening, so they know they are not abandoned by their American cousins. It might seem like an act of courage to get on a plane these days, and to some degree, it always has been, unless, of course, it is El Al. But ask the people who have gone in the last few months, myself included, and we will tell you that once you get there, you see that it is not the way it is portrayed by CNN or even CBS. Life goes on as normal. There are ways to stay safe, really. This is the year to go and I am asking you all to think of it for yourselves. Both the Federation and the Reform Movement will have well-structured groups going, solidarity missions.

This March, God willing, I will be in Israel again, this time for the Convention of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, which holds its annual convention there every seven years. Following the convention, we are planning a five-day mission for members of Reform congregations. We will meet with the Prime Minister Sharon or Peres. We will meet with families of some of the victims of terrorism. We will hear from politicians and academics and journalists about the true story. And we will send a message to the Israel family, we are here with you. Join me, and talk to your friends about it as well. You will not regret it.

We can say, well right now, we have our own problems, and we do. But Israel can help us there too. We can look to the Israelis once again and be inspired and awed by their choice to live as they live and go on. There is some despair amongst Israelis; but for the most part, they have chosen life. Life in Israel, life in the Jewish state, af al pi chen, in spite of the renewed danger, in spite of the dream of peace deferred. If they can carry on there, how can we not do likewise here?

Friends, these are difficult times for Israel and for America. As American Jews, we feel the hurt and the pain, the fear and the tears of two concentric peoples. There are question facing both Israel and the US in the days to come, difficult questions with no certainty of answers which are certain.

But of this, I am certain. We are all in this together! We need each other here as Americans, we and the people of Israel need each other as Jews. We need each other for help and we need each other for hope. As we begin the long and difficult task of putting our lives back together here, we cannot forget that there are others who depend on us – who depend on you, not just me and not just the person sitting next to you or in front or behind, but YOU. If we learned anything in these last two weeks, it is something we knew already: We need each other.

At a time when each of us is asking, is there hope?, the answer in Israel and in American is a firm YES. Why? Because we ourselves can be the fulfillment of other’s people’s hopes. We are doing that here as we reach out to the victims of 9/11. We can do that for the victims of terror is Israel as well. For the victims of the American terrorism, we can offer our support, our dollars, our presence. And for Israeli victims of terror, of isolation and of despair, we can offer that same support, financial and emotional, and our own presence that says, we are not just here for you, we are there for you in your own land.

Now, more than ever, it is time to reconnect with our fellow Americans.

And now, more than ever, it is time to reconnect with our fellow Jews, in Israel and wherever they live.

We know that as Jews and as Americans, we share the common hopes of all humankind: to live in peace with others and with ourselves, to have for ourselves and our children freedom and opportunity so that we realize our potential and fulfill our mandate to serve God by serving God’s children.

Our lives our built upon the twin towers of our American and Jewish commitments and today they stand strong together.

We have a unique roll to play these days. It begins by reminding the world community that terrorism directed at anyone anywhere is directed at everyone everywhere. It continues as we hold on tight to Isaiah’s vision, Let them beat their swords into plowshares, their spears into pruning hooks. Let nation not life up sword against nation, let them study war no more. Friends, let us pray for and let us work for that day when each of us, wherever we live, whatever we profess, God’s children all, can sit under his own vine and her own fig tree, with no one to make us afraid.

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