Sermon for Memorial Service at Oheb Shalom Memorial Park – 28 September 2014

We welcome you back to this annual rite as we pay our respects to our ancestors, friends, and family members, those who once walked the path of life with us. Memories flood through us as our eyes mist up and tears run down our face.  We miss our loved ones so much!  What would we do just to see them again!  Is it even possible to see them again?

Of course, the last question is the really big one.  Is there life after death and if so, will we be reunited with our loved ones?  Let me share a true story with you, one that occurred in my first year as a rabbi, almost four decades ago.  I was the new assistant rabbi in a very large congregation in Philadelphia.  Part of my daily routine was visiting the local hospitals and seeing all our congregants who were patients.   One afternoon, while visiting Abington Hospital, I was surprised to see an elderly gentleman whom we will call Isidor Goodman.  I had befriended him and his wife at the synagogue as they were regular service attenders.  I cannot forget him because he had a cultured British accent (being from London), had a white handlebar moustache, and was the epitome of a gentleman.  After he asked me to sit down beside him, Mr. Goodman recounted an experience he had the night before, one that changed his life forever.

Mr. Goodman went into cardiac arrest.  From outside of his body, he saw the doctors and nurses working on him but curiously, he thought, he was at peace.  He was attracted to a bright light and walked towards it.  Welcoming him were his mother, father, grandparents, and many aunts and uncles.  He was overjoyed to see them.  As he approached them, walking into their arms, the light began to recede and soon faded away.  He no longer visualized his family and suddenly opened his eyes and realized he was alive.  When he died a year later, he was not afraid.  He was certain that a new life awaited him after he died and that he would be met by all his deceased loved ones.

Mr. Goodman had what we call a near death experience. There have been thousands of similar reports from all over the world since I spoke with Mr. Goodman over thirty-five years ago.  Our ancestors recognized this phenomenon as Jewish texts recount such experiences.  We read in the Zohar (1, 217b), “At the hour of a man’s departure            this world, his father and relatives gather around him, and he sees them and recognizes them, and likewise all with whom he associated in this world, they accompany his soul to the place where it is to abide.”   In another part of the Zohar (III, 53a) we read, “When a man is on the point of leaving this world…the Shechinah (God’s presence) shows herself to him and then the soul goes out in joy to meet the Shechinah.”

We have read accounts such as these from all over the world in the literature of all the world’s religions.  The near death experience is a cross cultural, universal phenomenon.  It is not limited to time or space.   While we cannot prove in a scientific manner that these near death experiences have objective reality, they are so subjectively real and so ubiquitous that we cannot easily dismiss them.  I certainly would like to believe that it is real and that we are welcomed by our loved ones as we walk through the aura of a bright and warm light.  It eliminates all fear and dread of what awaits us.

I have been with many people at the moment of death.  I can report that, for almost all of us, death is peaceful.  It is a calm and restful state.  Over 2,200 years ago, Wisdom of Solomon (3:2) affirmed, “The souls of the virtuous are in the hands of God, no torment shall ever touch them.  In the eyes of the unwise, they did appear to die, but they are at peace.”  Our loved ones who lie before us today are at peace.  Their souls are with God.  My prayer for us today is that they will be there to welcome us when it is our turn to depart from this world and we are laid to rest among them.


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Sermon for Shabbat Shuvah – 26 September 2014

Shabbat is our physical and spiritual oasis during a trying week, giving us a break from the demands of the world.  This Shabbat is most special, as it is Shabbat Shuvah, the Sabbath of Return, the Shabbat between Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur.  During these twenty four hours of rest, we reflect upon our year.  Where have we gone wrong?  Are we living up to our highest ideals?  How can we become more sensitive and loving human beings?  How can we make a difference in the lives of those around us?   When we are put to a test, will we be able to endure and hold our heads high?

The last question is crucial for we never know what fate will bring us in the coming days.  Will we have to make important business decisions?  Will we have to make critical decisions about the lives of loved ones?  Will our integrity be tested?  Will the Jewish people be threatened?  How will we respond?

That is the question we all ask ourselves.  How will we respond to an emergency?  How will we respond when our values and even our lives are put on the line?   How we will whether the crisis?

Tonight I briefly share with you the story of a man who held the fate of 907 Jews in his hands.  Seventy five years ago, Captain Gustav Shroder of the SS St. Louis, the premier ship of the Hamburg-American Line, was tested as never before.  Captain Shroder was a member of the Nazi party, a requirement for all employees of the Hamburg America Line as it was fully owned by the Nazi regime.  He was to sail his ship from Hamburg to Havana, where he would disembark the 907 German Jews, each of whom paid an exorbitant amount of money to the Cuban government for an immigration permit.  These German Jews planned to escape Germany, live temporarily in Cuba, and await their visas to enter the United States.  Seven hundred thirty four of the Jewish passengers already had their applications approved for the quota for immigration to the United States.

Though he was obliged to apply the Nuremburg laws to his ship, Captain Shroder refused to treat his Jewish passengers as second class citizens.  He ordered his crew to treat all of his passengers with the usual respect according to anyone on the Hamburg American liner.  “By boarding the St. Louis, they stepped into a world of luxury that even the wealthier passengers no longer had access to because of anti-Semitic persecution. Children swam in the pool on the deck, though the youngest might not have known how to swim, since swimming pools were forbidden to Jews. Couples danced in the ballroom, played shuffleboard, took sunbaths on the deck, and above all, enjoyed delicious meals and full cruise service offered by dedicated staff (The Ultimate History Project, Diane F Afoumado).”   After a delightful two week voyage, a lovely respite from the hell of Nazi Germany, the ship reached Havana on May 27, 1939.  The passengers prepared to embark, ready to begin a new stage in their lives.

Unbeknowst to them or their captain, the Cuban government refused to honor their landing permits.  There was a power struggle between the Immigration Minister, Manuel Benitez, and the President of Cuba, Frederico Bru, over who would receive the lucrative income that came from the landing permits.  Benitez pocketed the money, over $500,000, and refused to share it with Bru.  Bru retaliated by cancelling the Jews’ landing permits and forbidding any immigration to Cuba.  Shroder was apoplectic.  Nothing he said or did yielded any results.  Two representatives from the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee made their way to Cuba to negotiate with President Bru.  These negotiations failed as the president refused to meet with them while insisting on a payment of $500,000 to allow the refugees ashore.  A few days later, Captain Shroder was issued an ultimatum and forced to leave Havana harbor.  He sailed to Florida, hoping to bypass the Coast Guard cutters following him.  He contemplated running the ship aground on the Florida coast to give the Jews a chance to escape.  The Coast Guard cutters then prevented that, sailing between the St. Louis and the coast.  With the United States eliminated as a refuge, Shroder turned to Canada, but the Canadian government also refused the ship permission to land.  Having no where left to go, Shroder turned the ship towards Europe, hoping the run aground in England, presumably the safest place in Europe for the Jewish passengers.

Through miraculous negotiations, the JDC was able to find several countries that would take portions of the refugees. 181 could go to Holland, 224 to France, 228 to Great Britain, and 214 to Belgium.  “Of the 288 passengers admitted by Great Britain, all survived World War II save one, who was killed during an air raid in 1940. Of the 620 passengers who returned to continent, 87 (14%) managed to emigrate before the German invasion of Western Europe in May 1940. 532 St. Louis passengers were trapped when Germany conquered Western Europe. Just over half, 278, survived the Holocaust. 254 died: 84 who had been in Belgium; 84 who had found refuge in Holland, and 86 who had been admitted to France (US Holocaust Museum).”

Relieved of his command, Captain Shroder spent the War years at a desk job in Hamburg.  He was honored by Germany after the War for his heroic actions and was honored by Yad Vashem when he was posthumously given the title “A Righteous Gentile.”  He was a man whose integrity was tested, whose honor was not infringed, who took care of his passengers despite knowing how his government hated them.  He is an example to us all.

If we are ever tested, may we have the integrity of Captain Gustav Shroder, a righteous gentile, whose courage enabled most of his Jewish passengers to live.

Amen and Shabbat Shalom

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Rosh HaShanah Morning Sermon – 1 Tishrei 5775 – 25 September 2014

How wonderful it is to greet you again on this, our sixteenth Rosh Hashanah together.  Sally and our family join me in wishing you and yours a happy, healthy and sweet New Year. This is already a very good year for Oheb Shalom.  There are over sixty new families celebrating Rosh Hashanah with us for the first time.  Our religious school continues to flourish and grow.  If you have not been here for a while on a religious school Sunday morning, please come and see for yourself.  This has really become a fun and exciting place.  This is also my thirty sixth year as a rabbi, meaning that it is an especially fortuitous year being my double chai in the rabbinate.  In our Hebrew calendar, this is year 5775, spelled in Hebrew, tav- shin- ayin-hey.  The tav stands for 400, the shin for 300, the ayin for 70, and the hey for five.  When we look at 5775 as a word, it says “Tishah,” which is the number nine in Hebrew.   In the Hebrew alphabet, every letter has a numerical equivalent which for nine is the tet, the rarest number in the Torah.  The first time the tet is used in the Torah is in the first chapter of the Book of Genesis, when God pronounces His creation as “tov,” as good.  I pray that this will be a tov, good, year for us, the Jewish people, our country and the entire world.

The beginning of the year, however, while positive for us, does not bode so well for the entire world.  Have you heard the old Jewish joke, “What is the definition of a Jewish telegram?  Start worrying.  Details to follow.”  It seems that we have received a collective telegram at the start of this year for we should be worried, especially at events in Europe and the Middle East.  I will speak about this topic today and why it is more important than ever to visibly show our support for Israel.

We are terribly troubled by Russian support for Ukrainian separatists.  A civil war is taking place in the Ukraine, one that is fed and fueled by the despot Putin, who wants to assert Russia’s imperial hegemony over all of Eastern Europe and past Soviet conquests in Central Asia.  Putin has re-ignited the Cold War, one we thought ended in 1989 but is heating up as we speak.  Putin has caused NATO to become more vigilant and the Europeans to up their defense budgets.  We have every reason to be concerned about Russian expansionism this year and in the years ahead.  While we may not go to war with Putin’s Russia over the Ukraine, we are pledged to defend the Baltic States and Poland.  If I was running the government of the United States, I would be increasing our defense spending, not cutting it.

Anti-Semitism is running rampant in Europe.  Four Jews were murdered at a Jewish Day School in Toulouse, France in 2012, and four Jews were killed at the Jewish Museum in Brussels this past May.  In July, police had to rescue a hundred Jews trapped in a synagogue by a pro-Palestinian mob. Israel has warned Jews not to wear kippot in public anywhere in Europe.  Demonstrators in Germany shouted “Jews to the gas.”  A British MP, Member of Parliament, declared his district in Bradford, an “Israeli free zone.”  In Central London, last month, anti-Israel protesters targeted a Sainsbury grocery store and the manager pulled all the kosher food off the shelves.  While the situation in Gaza may have precipitated the latest anti-Semitic outbursts, anti-Semitism, primarily linked to European Muslims, has been increasing in Europe since the 1990s.  This is a distinctly Muslim form of anti-Jewishness, a blend of traditional Christian anti-Semitism and leftist, secular anti-Semitism.  The Hamas Charter contains references to the virulently anti-Semitic pamphlet, “Protocols of the Elders of Zion,” written by the Czarist secret police in 1905, claiming that a cabal of Jews were plotting to control the world.  A Hamas spokesman recently “stood by his statement that Jews used the blood of non-Jewish children in making matzah,” (Deborah Lipstadt, NY Times, August 20, 2014).  Let me re-assure you.  This is not 1939.  We can rely upon European governments to protect their Jewish citizens.  Given the exponential growth of the Muslim population in European countries, we wonder if this will be true twenty and thirty years from now.  No wonder French Jews are making aliyah at an unprecedented rate.

In this country, the Presbyterian Church has voted to align itself with the anti-Israel BSD (Boycott, Sanction, and Divestment) movement.  The United Methodist Church is considering joining them in their anti-Israel stance.  Why this growth in European and mainline Christian anti-Zionism?  Christians and Muslims, even the most liberal among them, have a very difficult time with Jews having power.  We no longer fit into the traditional Jewish stereotype of victim.  Israel has turned upside down the Christian notion of triumphalism, that the Church has replaced the Jewish people as God’s chosen ones.  It is abhorrent to many that Jews should be in control of our own fate.  It is even worse that we should have our own country in which Jews dominate Christians and Muslims.

This past year has seen dramatic developments throughout the Middle East.  Arab Spring caused the demise of the semi-secular and pseudo-modern dictatorships of Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, and Syria, and, with the exception of Egypt and Jordan, leading to the disintegration of the Arab nation states founded by Britain and France in the aftermath of World War One.  “Arab nationalism has given way to Arab tribalism.  Arab modernity is deteriorating in the face of Islamic fundamentalism…Failed states, extremist movements and torn apart nations are replacing what were once secular and cohesive Arab countries (Ari Shavit, My Promised Land, page 409).”  The Israeli-Hamas conflict is part of a greater struggle, one so transformative that some commentators have compared it to the mid-seventeenth century Thirty Years War in Europe.  We cannot understand what it happening in Israel unless we view it within its larger context.

According to Tom Friedman, there are three civil wars raging in the Arab world today.  There is the civil war within Sunni Islam between radical jihadists and moderate Sunni Muslims.  There is the civil war between Sunnis funded by Saudi Arabia and Shiites funded by Iran and the civil war between Sunni jihadists, including ISIS, and all other minorities in the region, the Yazidis, Turkmen, Kurds, Christians, Jews and Alawites.  “We are dealing with multiple venomous civil wars that are breeding ground of the ISIS cancer.”  ISIS, the detestable and evil Sunni insurgency now plaguing Syria and Iraq, emerged as an “extreme expression of resentment by one side- Iraqi and Syrian Sunnis who felt cut out of power by the pro-Iranian Shiite regime in Baghdad and the pro-Iranian/Alawite Shiite regime in Damascus” (Tom Friedman, NY Times, September 2, 2014).

What does this have to do with Israel?  The answer is pretty simple, “When Middle Eastern powers clash, they take shots at Israel to gain advantage over each other” (David Brooks, NY Times, July 28, 2014).  Hamas recently attacked Israel, shooting over four thousand rockets at Israeli towns and cities, because the new Egyptian government, an enemy of Muslim fundamentalism, closed the vast majority of tunnels connecting Egypt to Gaza, an act which was economically devastating to Hamas.  “Hamas needed to end the blockade, but it couldn’t strike Egypt, so it struck Israel.  If Hamas could emerge as the heroic fighter in a death match against the Jewish State, if Arab TV screens were filled with dead Palestinian civilians, then public outrage would force Egypt to lift the blockade…The eminent Israeli journalist Avi Issacharoff summarized the strategy when he wrote, ”Make no mistake, Hamas remains committed to the destruction of Israel.  But Hamas is firing rockets at Tel Aviv and sending terrorists through tunnels into southern Israel while aiming, in essence, at Egypt.”  Turkey and Qatar are backing Hamas while Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates are rooting for Israel to destroy Hamas.  While the enemy of my enemy often becomes one’s friend, Israel has no permanent friends in the region, only permanent interests.

This would be a very different Rosh Hashanah Day if Hamas’ plans had come to fruition.   Hamas spent over $100 million in aid funds to build elaborate and sophisticated underground tunnels that led from the Gaza Strip into Israel.  Hamas had planned to send hundreds of terrorists into Israel this past night to attack lightly guarded Israeli communities, murdering and kidnapping thousands of Jews before retreating back through the tunnels into the Gaza Strip.  During the recent Operation Protective Edge, the Israeli Army uncovered thirty one tunnels, many with as many as seventy side shafts, replete with electricity, weapons and food caches, Israeli Army uniforms, and advanced drilling equipment.  An Israeli military spokesman referred to them as “Subways under Gaza.”

Since the end of Operation Protective Edge last month, the barbarism of ISIS is currently grabbing our attention.  Our country is currently engaged in putting together an anti-ISIS coalition, trying to destroy this latest incarnation of evil.  We cannot forget, however, despite the current ceasefire, that Hamas is an ally of ISIS, a Gazan incarnation of this diabolical pseudo-state.  Ari Shavit, the liberal Israeli columnist for Haaretz and author of the best seller my Promised lAND, is best known as a critic of Israel. Yet here he speaks for all civilized people when he asks, “Who are we fighting? A fascist organization that terrorizes the people of Gaza, oppresses women and gays and shuns all democratic values of freedom and progress.  Hamas are Palestinian neo-Nazis.  They’ve turned the first strip of land that was granted relative freedom into a bastion of totalitarianism.  They’ve incessantly attacked Israel for roughly a decade.  They staunchly rejected every Israeli attempt to prevent the current escalation.  They stubbornly fired thousands of rockets at civilians.  They’ve employed a sophisticated yet malicious strategy- to kill innocent Jews and force the IDF to kill innocent Palestinians.  Hamas…is an organization of war criminals…by no means can we show any empathy for the evil they represent” Haaretz, July 24, 2014).

Much of the world has condemned Israel for defending itself against Hamas.  They see photos of dead Palestinian civilians and lay the blame for their deaths exclusively on Israel, not understanding that the vast majority of civilian deaths are caused by Hamas itself, as it fires rockets from schools, hospitals, and residential areas.  Our college students will face a daunting task defending Israel in the face of the media onslaught and left wing academics.  Michael Oren, the historian and recent Israeli Ambassador to the United States, wrote, “In certain academic and media circles, Zionism is synonymous with colonialism and imperialism.  Critics on the radical right and left have likened it to racism or worse, Nazism.  In the Middle East, Zionism is the ultimate abomination- the product of a Holocaust that many in the region deny ever happened while maintaining nevertheless that the Zionists deserve it…In every war since 1948, Israelis have risked their lives for an idea.  The idea is Zionism, the belief that the Jewish people should have their own sovereign state in the land of Israel.  Though founded less than 150 years ago, the Zionist movement sprung from a 4,000 year long bond between the Jewish people and its historic homeland, an attachment sustained through twenty centuries of exile.  This is why Zionism achieved its goals and remains relevant and rigorous today.  It is why citizens of Israel take up arms.  They believe their idea is worth fighting for…We will be vilified, we will find ourselves increasingly alone, but we will defend the homes that Zionism inspired us to build.”

The least we can do, my dear friends, is support the Zionist endeavor with our utmost effort.  We must be Israel’s ambassadors and greatest supporters.  I urge you to join with Sally and me and buy Israel Bonds and invest in Israel.  Johns Hopkins Bank and the Associated will provide a 100% match to our purchases.  Last year, Oheb Shalom purchased $561,000 of Israel Bonds.  Let us together raise that total by 10% to over $600,000.  Israel needs our help today more than ever.  We must not let her down.  Immediately after this sermon, our ushers will pass the baskets down the aisles.  Please turn down a tab on your card and place it in the basket.  You may, like me, effortlessly buy an Israel Bond on line.  While our brothers and sisters are fighting and dying in our homeland, the least we can do is support them by purchasing Israel Bonds.

I just returned last Friday from an Associated mission to Israel.  There were fourteen of us, including fellow congregants and board members, Michael Greenebaum and Michael Hoffman.   We spent two days in our sister city of Ashkelon, only eight kilometers north of Gaza, and in the settlements in the Gaza envelope, right next to the border.  We saw the effects the over four hundred rockets fired at Ashkelon had on our friends and relatives who live there.  This was one of the most intense and eye opening experiences of my life.  We spent two days listening to and learning from the residents of the area.  During this Fifty Day War, our relatives were under constant threat, experiencing the dread of never knowing when a rocket would fall upon them and their loved ones.  The sirens went off fifteen to twenty times a day, signaling a rocket had been launched at them from Gaza.  The residents of Ashkelon had fifteen seconds, that’s right, just fifteen seconds to reach a shelter.  The residents of Kfar Aza and Ndiv Asara, the villages next to Gaza, had three to five seconds.  Iron Dome could not protect the closest villages but it did protect Ashkelon and the north, intercepting over 90% of the rockets predicted to land in settled areas.  Once one of these home- made Hamas rockets was intercepted, residents had to wait at least ten minutes for the debris to fall to the ground, that being as deadly as the rocket itself.    Perhaps even worse than the rockets were the mortars that fired on the villages.  There was no warning as these small artillery shells would destroy homes and kill people.  A four year old boy was killed by one of these in the last week of the war.

The economy of the South was devastated by the War.  Fields went untended, tourists could not spend money, and small businesses were empty of customers. Camps and summer programs were closed so parents had no idea what to do with their children.  How would they work with children at home?  In a remarkable effort, the teens of Ashkelon took responsibility for the thousands of children in Ashkelon, caring for them and running camp programming in the shelters for at least eight hours every day.  This allowed parents to leave the house and work without worrying about their children.   The people of Ashkelon needed help, so Sigal Arieli, our person on the ground in Ashkelon, called Michael Hoffman at the Associated.  Michael promised that Baltimore would deliver whatever was needed.   With our help, the children of Ashkelon were able to board buses and go on trips to safer parts of the country.  Families were able to leave the south for a few days and have a respite from war.  We should be proud of what we did.

Despite the constant trauma, the resilience of the Israeli people is amazing.   There is, though, lasting emotional damage.  Sigal, like most, still jumps every time she hears a loud noise.  Through our Associated dollars, we are enabling our partners, the Joint Distribution Committee and the Jewish Agency, to put teams on the ground of psychologists, social workers, and trained volunteers to help residents deal with chronic PTSD and go back to normality.  We met the amazing health professionals at Barzilai Medical Center and saw how they coped with constant rocket fire while dealing with hundreds of casualties, military and civilian from the front lines.  This war united the Israeli people as nothing else has in recent years.  This is the third operation against Hamas in six years.  We heard from every person with whom we spoke that the next operation is not “if,” but “when.”  This is a situation that cannot be solved but must be managed, as Hamas ability to wage war will be continually degraded.

The most emotional of our meetings was with lone soldiers, those Jewish young people from the United States, Ecuador, Australia, Germany, and France who make aliyah and join the Israeli army.  Our very own Sam Auerbach, whose parents will speak to us during the Interlude Service on Yom Kippur, is one of those brave men and women who served in Gaza.  We then walked through Har Herzl, Israel’s Arlington Cemetery, to visit the graves of those soldiers, men and women, killed during Operation Protective Edge.  We paid our respects to Max Steinberg of Woodland Hills, California, a 24 year old American who went on Birthright and fell in love with Israel.  He returned, joined the Israeli army and fell in battle during the first week of the fifty day war.  We shed tears as we said Kaddish for Max and the other young defenders of Israel and the Jewish people who gave their lives so that the people of Israel may live.

One of the lone soldiers killed was 22 year old Sean Carmeli, from South Padre Island in Texas.  His funeral was held in Haifa on July 22.  His family was concerned that there would be sparse attendance at the service.  You can imagine their surprise when 20,000 Israelis, almost none of whom knew Sean, came to pay their respects to this young hero of Israel who chose to fight for his people.   A song was written for this service, one we will hear in just a few moments.  Let me translate it for you.  It is titled, “Esrim Alef Achim,” “Twenty Thousand Brothers.”  I know you will be greatly moved by what you will hear and see.

Twenty thousand  people, with you at their head

Twenty thousand people are walking behind you, Sean,

In silence, carrying flowers.

Two sisters, twenty thousand brothers.

The soccer fans who came wearing scarves in the team colors,

And a young woman holding a flag

Who doesn’t know why she is crying so much

When she’d never even known you.

Twenty thousand people…

They came to thank you and to say goodbye,

To say that there’s no such thing as a lone soldier

Or a nation that dwells alone

As long as in Texas, Haifa and Gush Etzion

There are people like you.

Twenty thousand people…

May the One who makes peace on high

Make peace for us in the autumn

That you will not live to see, Sean,

And that’s why they’ve come here, from elderly to infants,

From Haifa, from Gush Etzion

Twenty thousand people…

Twenty thousand people with you at their head

Twenty thousand people are walking behind you, Sean,

Silently, caring flowers;

Two sisters, twenty thousand brothers.

Twenty thousand brothers.

May God bring peace to Sean, his family, and all those who have made the ultimate sacrifice so the people of Israel might live.

Am Yisrael Chai!

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Sermon for Erev Rosh HaShanah – September 24, 2014 – 1 Tishrei 5775

It is so good to see you once again as we join together for the first act of our annual ten day family reunion.  This is the time when all the clans of our multi-ethnic, multi-racial and multi-cultural tribe called the Jewish people come together to renew our allegiance to God and to one another.  On behalf of our clan, Oheb Shalom, Sally, our family and I wish you and all your loved ones a happy, healthy and sweet 5775.  The good news tonight is that Oheb Shalom is continuing to grow.  As of today, we have welcomed over sixty new families into our midst since July and have almost 340 children in our religious school.  I am even prouder of the quality of programming and the warmth of our clergy, staff, and congregants that keep our congregation growing.  A high school history teacher once taught me that “The one sure thing is change.”  Congregations, just like people, are evolutionary organisms.  We change over time, just as do the people who make up our membership.  It is incumbent upon us to strive to meet the ever expanding needs of our members while being true to the dictates of our Tradition.  Over the last 160 years, we have done this fairly well.  We promise to continue making you proud of your congregation, keeping it on the cutting edge of Jewish life in Baltimore.

We gather here tonight to begin the ten day process of cheshbon hanefesh, an accounting of our souls. The beginning of this New Year calls us to look at our lives, to examine our priorities, to ask ourselves deep and sometimes painful questions.  Who are we and what do we want to be?  Whom have we hurt?  Is reconciliation possible?  Can I forgive those who hurt me?  Am I able to forgive myself for being a frail human being?  It is hard to look at ourselves in a dispassionate and objective manner but it is necessary if we are ever going to become more moral, sensitive, and loving people.  There isn’t one of us who has not sinned.  We may not have thought before we spoke and said hurtful things to others.  We may inadvertently have hurt another’s feelings.  We may not have spent enough time with our families, not given our best at work, or ignored those in need.  Beyond these moral failings, we may have lied, stolen, or committed crimes which have involved us with the legal system.  A question: Is there any crime so heinous for which atonement cannot be made?

You may recall the true incident that Simon Wiesenthal recounted in his book, The Sun Flower.  An SS trooper was on his death bed in the concentration camp hospital.  He asked for a Jew to listen to his confession.  He had murdered countless numbers of Jews and he wanted forgiveness before he died.  Simon Wiesenthal was chosen to attend him.  Wiesenthal heard the man’s story, listened to his pleas for forgiveness and walked away.  He later explained that the only ones who could grant him atonement were those whom he had murdered and they were unavailable.  Some sins are so agregious that only God can offer atonement.

Fortunately, most of us are guilty of more prosaic sins.  We have been insensitive, morally lazy, and emotionally passive.  We have forgotten who and what really matters to us.  We have neglected our Faith and have let ourselves and our loved ones down.  We are blessed in that our Tradition gives us the opportunity to make amends and start anew.  It is not easy to make true teshuvah, but it is possible.  Maimonides, the great twelth century physician and sage, wrote extensively on  the subject of repentance. He tells us that true repentance is dependent upon our recognizing the sin, feeling sincere remorse, undoing any damage we have done, pacifying the one whom we hurt and given the opportunity to repeat the transgression, refrain from doing so.  He writes, “How does one repent of their sins? He says, O  God, I have sinned, I have committed iniquity, I have transgressed before You by doing such and such.  I am truly sorry for what I have done, am ashamed of myself, and will never do it again.”

We learn that repentance during the High Holy Days can only win pardon for offenses we have committed against God.  We are not forgiven for offenses against other people.  We must pay restitution to the one we have hurt and beg for forgiveness.  If the one wronged refuses to grant forgiveness, we go to him three times and request atonement.  If the one we have sinned against refuses to grant us forgiveness even after being asked three times, then the sin rests on his or her head.

Repentance is not a sudden occurrence. It does not begin on Erev Yom Kippur, just moments before we say the Vidui, the confession of sin.  The great Rav, the Bostoner Rebbe, Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik wrote, “Repentance sprouts forth and grows in the course of a long and drawn out process typified by doubt and speculation, soul searching and spiritual reckoning. First comes the inner stirring which generates actual repentance.  A great gap often intercedes between the idea and the act, for crystallized thinking is the end product of intuitive, undefined thoughts.  They take hold of one in the darkness of the night, they emerge from the innermost recesses of the secret self, and man tries to fend off some of them and hide them from himself, not to mention, from others.  The road leads from these first stirrings until the actual contemplation of repentance is long indeed and, even then, after the rational idea is clearly formed in thought, it must be reborn and translated into action.”  The Rav emphasizes that confession is the climatic finale of a long drawn out, exhausting process. Confession is the concretization of repentance.  It can only occur after the long internal process of self-reflection.

If Ray Rice were Jewish, he should be standing here asking God, his wife, Janay, his teammates, and his fans for forgiveness. He committed a reprehensible act of violence against his wife and brought shame on her, himself, his team, and his fans. Our questions should be, “Is Rice ready to repent?  Has he gone through the inner turmoil necessary to make true repentance?  Has he struggled enough, engaged in a real accounting of his soul?”  Even though he was drunk when he stuck his wife and knocked her unconscious in the elevator of the now defunct Revel Hotel in Atlantic City, he is still culpable for his crime.  Ray Rice is only 27 years old  and a first offender.  He should have the opportunity to make teshuvah and not be condemnded for life.  As the Rambam, Maimonides teaches, he can only make teshuvah if he is placed in the situation and does not repeat the action. In order to ensure this never happens again, Ray Rice needs to spend a lot of time in serious intensive therapy.  Only then, after completely tearing himself in side out and putting himself back together, can he fully understand his motivations, deal with his anger, and learn to control his violent impulses.  Only after he struggles and triumphs over his inner demons, can Janay Palmer Rice learn to trust him and offer him her forgiveness.

Why didn’t Janay leave him?  How could she bear to be with a man who physically abused her?  The same could be said of Candace Williams, now Candace Williams Suggs, wife of Raven defensive back Terrell Suggs and countless other victims of domestic violence.  Two years ago, Candace Williams received a protective order against her then boyfriend for hitting her and dragging her alongside a car he was driving.  She also claimed he poured bleach on her and broke her nose.  Then, a few months later, she married Terrell Suggs.  Why do these women do this?  The answer is rather simple – they are emotionally and financially dependent upon them.  They are psychologically wrapped up in their careers and success.  It is hard for women to leave abusive men. It is absolutely necessary for a woman’s safety that she leave the home at the first violent instance.  Sadly, it often takes much longer for them to realize this will continue unless they remove themselves from the situation.  That is why we have an agency like CHANA in our Jewish community, to counsel and support those who are victims of domestic violence.  CHANA gives women an opportunity to rebuild their lives, free of the fear of violence.  We are grateful to live in a community in which such a resource is available to us.

If I was Ray Rice’s rabbi, I would urge him to pray to God for the strength to examine the darkest recesses of his soul. I would pray that he has the courage to come out of this internal struggle a new man, one who has the ability to ask his wife to forgive him and to ask his team and his city to give him another chance.  If fact, at the beginning of these Yamim Noraim, these Days of Awe, I pray that we each have the ability to struggle with what plagues us and come out of this High Holyday season more reflective and moral human beings.

May God grant us the ability to make teshuvah and achieve complete repentance.

Shana Tova U’Mtukah

A Happy and sweet New Year to us all.


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Gratitude Must Be Learned – September 12, 2014

What a lovely day we had today! In the coolness of the early morning, we had the first intimations of Autumn. After the hot and humid days of the last week, it felt delightful. The Ravens played well against the Steelers last night, beating them convincingly in front of a national audience, and Baltimore was showcased to the country. We have rarely looked better, with the tall ships in the harbor and the Blue Angels in the sky. To make life even better, the Orioles magic number is now eight! The Susel family is with us tonight, basking in the joy of a family simcha, rejoicing that everyone is healthy enough to share in Abbey’s bat mitzvah celebration. We are grateful for so much. Yet gratitude is a quality that does not come naturally to us. It is a character trait that must be learned, inculcated into children when they are very young. We are naturally self-centered and need to be trained to appreciate what we are given.
Sally and I had taught our children that they could not cash a bar or bat mitzvah check or use a gift until they wrote the thank you note for it. It is amazing that they wrote all their thank you notes within two weeks. Expressing thanks is something they had to learn. It is a lesson that has stayed with them.
Our Torah portion for this week, Ki Tavo, from the Book of Deuteronomy, “portrays God as the gracious giver of gifts. It describes God as giving Israel blessing, rain and crops, cattle and sheep, towns and settlements, sons and daughters, and the power to get wealth. God’s primary gift to the people is the land of Israel itself. Yet the author of Deuteronomy worries that these gifts could easily become snares, that the people will feel entitled to God’s bounty instead of being grateful for it. They will forget that it was God who gave them so much. Earlier in the Torah (Deuteronomy 8:12-18), we read ‘Beware lest your heart grow haughty and you forget the Lord your God…and you say to yourselves, ‘My own power and the might of my own hand have won this wealth for me.’ Remember, it is the Lord your God who gives you the power to get wealth (Shai Held, Torah Commentary, September 10, 2014).”
“Deuteronomy admonishes us against possessing a sense of entitlement. People who have had everything provided for them, who have never had to work to enjoy life’s pleasures, can easily come to believe that they deserve everything they have. Entitlement is a spiritual poison that undermines the very possibility of gratitude. If I have everything coming to me, why should I be grateful? Our text also tells us that those who achieved great success, economic or otherwise, and arrogantly assume that they did it all themselves, have forgotten God’s role in their lives. Their gratitude disappears in the midst of their pride and arrogance (Held, Torah Commentary). “
Is it wrong to think that we are responsible for our own success? No, it is not. We just have to remember what Rabbi Nissim Gerondi, who lived in fourteenth century Girona, near Barcelona told us. The great physician, astronomer and sage wrote there is nothing religiously problematic about acknowledging the hand we ourselves play in achieving success and prosperity. Some people, he writes, have been endowed with special talents in business, medicine, or intellectual matters. To some extent, these people can claim they have accumulated wealth through their own talents. Yet Rabbi Nissim reminds us that our raw abilities are an endowment from God rather than an achievement. We have to always remember who gave us our gifts and where they came from. As Moses said, “Remember that it is the Lord your God who gives you wealth.” We should not forget that even if it is our abilities that have given us wealth, it is God who has given us our abilities (Held, Torah Commentary).”
On a glorious weekend such as this, as we celebrate a young woman’s becoming a bat mitzvah and the two hundredth anniversary of Baltimore’s victory against the British in 1814, we cannot forget that it is God who has blessed us with our talents and endowed us with our gifts. Genuine gratitude to God leads us to share our blessings with others. Deuteronomy reminds us that no matter how much we have, we always must remember to be grateful.
Amen and Shabbat Shalom

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The Sins of the Fathers – Sermon for August 29, 2014

It is so good to be back home, worshiping in our holy place, together once again after eight weeks. While we so value our relationship with our sister congregation, Har Sinai, and are grateful for their cooperation in conducting joint summer services, it is still lovely to bask in the companionship of those committed to this sacred congregation. I just regret that Temple Emanuel and Baltimore Hebrew Congregation, in particular, are no longer participating in this century old Baltimore tradition. Before I go on to more serious matters, just a piece of new information about our local Jewish community. I learned this past week that Temple Emanuel put its building up for sale for $3,087,500. I do not have any further information but if you do, please share it with me following this service.

Since I last spoke to you six weeks ago, the world seems to be going up in flames. ISIS is still carving out more territory for itself in what used to be Syria and Iraq. Word came to us just today that this terrorist organization, trying to create a new caliphate in the Middle East, recently beheaded 250 Syrian soldiers. This is in addition to beheading American journalist James Foley and murdering thousands of Iraqi and Syrian Shiites, Yezidis, Christians, and Kurds.  It is forcing the conversion of Shiite and Yezidi young women to Sunni Islam and forcing these women, some as young as eight years old, to marry terrorist fighters. They are also enforcing the dhimmi, enforced taxation of nonSunni Muslims, on everyone else in its territory. The United States is in the process of reengaging in Iraq with the hope of stopping and then reversing ISIS’ gains. Russian forces are advancing into the Ukraine, hoping to carve out the Eastern Ukraine and add it to Russia. Putin knows that NATO will not go to war with Russia over the Ukraine and will lie and deceive until he gets what he wants. Libya is in chaos, Ebola is spreading through West Africa, and our country seems to be impotent in its ability to stabilize the world.

Of course, our attention has been riveted to events in Israel all summer. As almost 5,000 Hamas rockets rained down upon Israel, our hearts were united with those of Jews everywhere in support of our people. We trembled each time we learned that a rocket hit a house or a car. While the Iron Dome anti-rocket system preserved thousands of lives, it is not perfect and occasionally missed a rocket that landed in a populated area. Just two days ago, I heard our representative in Ashkelon, Sigal Arieli, report on the effect of the rockets on our sister city just eight kilometers north of Gaza. Over ten percent of Hamas’ rockets were launched at Ashkelon. Iron Dome shot down 137 of them, while most landed in fields or other unpopulated areas.  Several hit houses, causing horrific devastation. I am going to Ashkelon in two weeks with a fifteen person mission from the Associated. I will better report to you what I see when I return.

The Europeans have turned against Israel. In the guise of anti-Zionism, seventy years after the Shoah, Jew hatred has once again reared its ugly head. AntiSemitism is no longer forbidden in polite society. It is open and vitriolic. The difference is that governments are now protecting Jews instead of rounding us up and putting us on trains to the East. Jews have been murdered in Belgium and attacked in France. Only police intervention prevented a mob, predominantly composed of Arabs, from overrunning a synagogue on Shabbat morning in Paris. The MP representing Bradford in England declared his district an “Israel Free Zone,” saying Israelis and Israeli products were not welcome there. Why anyone, Jew or non-Jew, would want to visit Bradford is another story.  Jewish students returning to college will be confronted with a great deal of anti-Israel propaganda. We will see an increased effort by the BDS crowd, the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions people, to punish Israel for using “disproportionate force” in its war against Hamas. What they and the Europeans really want is for Israel to just disappear.  In this latest round of fighting between Israel and Hamas, 68 Israelis were killed, 64 of them soldiers. Over two thousand Palestinians were killed, many of them women and children. Israel did everything possible to reduce civilian deaths, even warning residents of neighborhoods to evacuate thirty minutes before a strike. The problem was that Hamas used women and children as human shields, setting up its rocket launchers in civilian neighborhoods and storing rockets in homes, schools, hospitals, and mosques. Hamas wanted the world to see Israel as causing the deaths of countless innocents. Of course, the Western media played right into the hands of Hamas, broadcasting images of dead and maimed children. Israel had no choice but to try to destroy every rocket launcher and to kill every Hamas terrorist. It is deeply troubling that Hamas has such little regard for its own people that it deliberately places them in harms’ way.

I have entitled this sermon “The Sins of the Fathers” because hundreds of Palestinian children literally died due to the sins of the Hamas political and military leadership, the “fathers” of Gaza society. The Torah tells us in Exodus, chapter 20, verse 5, that God will visit the iniquity of the fathers upon the children, punishing them until the third and fourth generation. This is explicitly stated again in chapter five of the Book of Deuteronomy, in which God punishes children for the idolatry of their parents. When parents put their own political agenda before the lives of their children, that is an idolatrous act. When parents place their children in danger, that is an idolatrous act. The greatest gift God has given us is the lives of our children. To deliberately sacrifice one’s own children for the sake of political expediency is an affront to God and an act of idolatry. Israel is not guilty for the deaths of these poor children. The blame falls squarely on the heads of the Hamas leadership which cavalierly sent rockets into Israel, hoping to inflict massive civilian casualties, the same leadership that squandered hundreds of millions of dollars in aid money building subterranean tunnels, hoping to infiltrate Israeli towns and settlements and wreck destruction upon women and children. What Hamas did is to sin against God and their own people. Shame on them, not just for what they have done to Israel, but what they have done, and are continuing to do, to their own people.

We pray that this situation will soon come to an end and that Palestinian children will no longer be victimized by their fathers.

Amen and Shabbat Shalom

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Sermon for July 11, 2014

Once again, I am so happy to be officiating on this historic pulpit with
Cantor Gerber. Har Sinai has an illustrious patrimony. It is a privilege to
participate in even a small part of it as I am tonight.
Our thoughts are dominated by events occurring all around us. There are
rockets from Gaza raining down on Israel. The Israeli Air Force and Navy are
striking hundreds of terrorist targets in Gaza. The Ukraine is trying to retake its
territory from Russian rebels. Iraq is in the midst of dismemberment, coming
apart at the seams as we speak. All of the events that concern us have their origin
in the world shattering assassination of Archduke Franz Ferndinand and his wife
Sophia by a Serbian anarchist on June 26th, 1914 in Sarajevo, the spark that led
to the beginning of World War One. Within two months, Germany and
Austria-Hungary were at war with Britain, France, and Russia. Tonight I will
speak about how World War One, the first World War in a hundred years,
impacted the Jewish community in Europe, the Middle East and the United
States. Allow me to begin with the current situation in Iraq.
We should not be at all surprised that Iraq is unraveling, for it is an
artificial state which the British created after WWI from three separate Turkish
provinces, Mosul, Baghdad, and Basra. In 1916, while T.E. Lawrence, the
famous “Lawrence of Arabia,” was encouraging the Arabs to revolt against their
Turkish overlords and was promising the Hashemites, the rulers of Arabia, that
they would rule over their own independent kingdoms in what is now Syria,
Lebanon, Israel, Jordan and Iraq, the British Foreign Office signed an agreement
with the French called the Sykes-Picot Treaty, which divided the entire Middle
East into French and British spheres of influence. The French pushed Faisal
Hussein out of Damascus, forcing the British to carve a new nation, called Iraq,
for him to rule out of Ottomon Turkish territory. His older brother, Abdullah,
invaded Amman and threatened Syria but was placated by the British when
placed upon the throne of a new country called TransJordan, carved out of their
mandatory territory of Palestine. The Kurds, who resided in Northern Iraq since
ancient times, were promised their own country by the Allies, but were double crossed at Versailles. They were forced to become part of this new state,
populated primarily by Shiite Muslims and ruled by a Sunni Muslim king. It was,
from the beginning, a recipe for disaster. The only ones who seemed to profit
were the Jews of Iraq, a highly sophisticated population of about 125,000 who
made up a large part of the merchant, professional, and managerial class under
the British. Of course, this lead to pogroms against the Iraqi Jews in 1941 during
a pro-Nazi revolt against the British, which the British put down at great cost.
Iraq today is dividing along tribal and religious lines, with the Kurds running
their own de facto state in the north, the Shiites running their own country in
Baghdad and the south, and the Sunnis dominating what may be their own
country in the west. While none of us know how this will play out, I doubt very
much that Iraq as a nation has much of a future. The only bright spot is that the
Kurds and Israel have are aligned against the all those who want to extinguish
their independence.
In 1914, the majority of the world’s Jews lived in Eastern Europe in the
Pale of Settlement, ruled over by the Jew hating Russian Czar Nicholas II. Four
million Jews lived in a large ghetto, from Eastern Poland through Eastern
Ukraine. This area was the highly contested Eastern front, fought over by the
German, Austro-Hungarian, and Russian armies. The constant fighting and
fleeing created a humanitarian disaster for the Jewish community. It is estimated
that 100,000 Jews were killed by the Russians. Thousands more died from
disease and malnutrition. The irony is that while Jewish soldiers were serving the
Czar by fighting against his enemies, other Russian soldiers were raping their
wives and daughters behind the lines and leaving a trail of blood. The Russian
and Polish Jews looked upon the German and Austrian armies as liberators.
Germany was revered as the home of enlightenment and civilization. German
soldiers were welcomed in every city and shtetl. For the more than 90,000 Jews
serving in the German Army and almost three hundred thousand serving in the
Austrian Army, exposure to their Eastern European religionists was an
awakening. On one hand, they were deeply moved by these Jews devotion to
their ancestral heritage. On the other hand, they were appalled by their primitive
and backward living conditions. The German conquerors found that these Eastern Jews fit all their stereotypical anti-Semitic caricatures, feeding the
nascent antisemitism that would soon dominate German life.
While many Germans accused the Jews of not doing their patriotic duty,
Jews flocked to the Kaiser’s colors far out of proportion to their part of the
German population. Jews served with great courage and patriotism, embracing
the Fatherland that had given them a sense of home. Jews of England, France,
Italy, and later, the United States, also flocked to their respective flags. This was
the last time in modern history that Jews wore contrasting uniforms and fought
against one another. There is a well known apocryphal tale that supposedly
occurred on the Russian front, but also could have taken place on the Western
Front. A Russian soldier wounded an Austrian soldier and approached him to
finish the job with his bayonet when he heard the wounded soldier recite his
dying words, “Sh’ma Yisrael Adonai Eloheinu, Adonai Echad.” Overcome by the
realization he had grievously wounded a fellow Jew, he threw down his rifle.
Grieving for his Jewish comrade in arms, he embraced the mortally wounded
soldier and held him until he died.
It is estimated that between 200,000 and 250,000 Jews served in the
American Army during WWI. The vast majority of them were recent immigrants
to the United States. While they experienced antisemitism in American military
service, their time in the Army quickly Americanized this immigrant generation
and cemented their allegiance to the United States. The War caused several
important developments to take place within the American Jewish community.
First, divisions between German and Russian Jews became meaningless as all
Jews wanted to support their co-religionists in Eastern Europe. No matter their
country of origin, American Jews, for the most part, were sympathetic towards
the German cause, wanting the Kaiser to defeat the nefarious Czar. Events in
Eastern Europe also led to the founding the American Jewish Joint Distribution
Committee, the first all encompassing philanthropic arm of the American Jewish
community. The Joint, as it has become known, raised the equivalent of $265
million for the relief of Jews in Eastern Europe and Palestine. Their life saving
efforts are still incredibly important in the former Soviet Union, literally saving
thousands of lives. Third, the devastation of Eastern European Jewry and the
exhaustion of German, French, and British Jewries made the American Jewish
community the leading Jewish community in the world. From this time forth, the
future of Jewish life depended upon us. In a fascinating twist, the British
government, thinking that American Jews had inordinate influence on the
decisions of the American government, and urgently wanting the Americans to
intervene on their side in the War, issued the Balflour Declaration in 1917,
promising to create a Jewish homeland in the land of Palestine. This declaration
immediately brought most of the world’s Jews to the side of the Allies and was
the seminal event leading to the creation of the State of Israel thirty years later.
So dear friends, as you can see, World War I led directly to the events that
are uppermost on our minds today. It was the catastrophic event of the early
Twentieth Century, the waves of which are still impacting our shores today.

Amen and Shabbat shalom

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