Remarks for Leona Morris’ 100th Birthday – November 15, 2014

Just two weeks ago, we read from Parashat Lech Lecha, which means “Go forth.” God told Abraham and Sara to leave their home in Haran and journey to the land of Canaan, taking with them all the people they had acquired in Haran. The sages interpreted the phrase, “the people they had acquired in Haran,” to refer to Abraham and Sara’s students, the proselytes who also believed in the power of the One God in the Universe. Abraham and especially Sarah were their mentors, their surrogate parents, who molded their characters and raised them to be righteous people and God revering Jews. I refer specifically to Sara this morning because she was a model for us, the mother of the Jewish people, a strong and determined woman who influenced countless generations for good.
Leona is our own Sara Imeinu, Sara our mother. We are all her children and her students. As a teacher, she imparted knowledge to us and taught us the ways of the world. Even more important, she has been a role model for us, showing us that age and optimism can be synonymous, that life does not atrophy with additional birthdays, and that change can be embraced no matter what one’s chronological age. She is a model for women everywhere: the first woman to teach in the History Department of the University of Maryland, the first woman to become a dean at what became Baltimore City Community College, the first female confirmation teacher (1950-1966) and the first female president of this holy congregation (1983-85).
Leona represents the highest ideals of our Faith. She is a student of Torah, a leader of our congregation and the community at large, and a doer of good deeds. In 2005, Leona said in her own words, “I hope to be remembered as one who loved learning, who loved people, who was always ready to try new things, who accepted change, who was ready to help those who needed assistance and who always used humor to lighten difficult situations.” Leona is a brilliant, erudite, witty, and irreverent person. She is warm, friendly, and welcoming. Leona has embraced thousands of students and made them her children. Her impact upon this congregation and the people of Baltimore cannot be overstated.
Leona’s dear father and mother, Samuel and Sadye Morris, raised Leona and her brother Vernon in small towns in Virginia and Maryland’s Eastern Shore, where they made a living as merchants. Always active in their communities, they taught Leona the importance of engaging with others in order to work for the common good. After high school, she left home for the big City of Baltimore where she attended Goucher College, majoring in history and political science and graduating Phi Beta Kappa. She earned her Master’s degree at the University of Maryland and took advanced courses through many distinguished universities. She taught at Southern High School and Poly for many years, eventually joining the faculty of Baltimore Junior College and its administration. In 1972, after formally retiring from her career in education, Leona embarked on a new endeavor. She became the senior on-air correspondent for WJZ, meeting thousands of new people and showing the entire state and nation that a vigorous and enthusiastic person such as Leona cannot be limited by any societal imposed boundaries.
In the course of her life, she has made countless friends, has influenced thousands of students, and has been a great mother to us all. As we celebrate her 100th birthday, we wish that Leona may continue to “go forth” and live as long as Sara Imeinu, until 127 years of age, with undimmed eyes, a clear mind, and the ability to find meaning and enjoyment each day of her life. She honors us by her presence today.
May Leona continue to go from “strength to strength” as together we say


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The Orioles and the Sukkah – October 10, 2014

This is one of the most exciting nights in recent Baltimore history for, after a very long draught, the Orioles are playing in the American League Championship series.  It is not my task tonight to wax rhapsodic about the Orioles or the Kansas City Royals, a scrappy and competitive team from a second tier city like Baltimore, far away from the media centers in New York and Los Angeles. My role tonight is to briefly share with you the answer to the question, “What do the Orioles and Sukkot have in common?”  At first blush, the question may seem rather ridiculous, but I think you will understand as we go along.

The Orioles were predicted to finish no higher than fourth in their division.  At the beginning of the season, prognosticators confidently bet on the Red Sox repeating and the Yankees giving them a run for their money.  No one thought the Orioles would capture the division title, let alone beat the renowned Detroit Tigers and their three Cy Young Award winning pitchers to advance to this point.  Then again, no one expected the Kansas City Royals to sweep the Angels, the team with the best record in baseball.  Sometimes, the forecasters are wrong.  No matter how fine their biometrics, numbers cannot always predict the outcome of a particular ballgame, series, or season.  That is one of the joys of baseball- and of life in general.

The Orioles were known for their defense and their solid play.  They had All Stars in Manny Machado, Matt Wieters, JJ Hardy, and Adam Jones, each among the best at their position in the American League.  None of them were authentic sluggers like Nelson Cruz, whom the Orioles got for a relative steal in the early spring.  With the decline of Chris Davis, Nelson Cruz’s bat gave the Orioles the power they needed to win ball games.  That, however, is just part of the story.  The Orioles starting pitchers, who seemed so dismal in April and May, all of sudden turned into a first class rotation.  Chris Tillman, Bud Norris, Wei Yi Chen, and Miguel Gonzalez dazzled us with their steadiness and hard work, producing one of baseball’s lowest earned run averages in the last three months of the season.  The bullpen, which began the season without a certified closer, performed beyond any reasonable expectation.  They were literally fantastic.  The great surprise was the infield, bolstered by two catchers, Nick Hundley and Caleb Joseph, a second stringer and a rookie, Steve Pierce, a first baseman whom the Orioles released at the beginning of the season, Jonathan Scoop, another rookie, and Ryan Flaherty, a dependable utility player who was known for being all defense and no bat.  These five players filled the gaps left by the injured starters and added a lot of heft to the team.  Without any great stars, including Nelson Cruz whose reputation was so damaged by last year’s steroid scandal, the Orioles magically became our darlings once again and stomped all over the American League East opposition.  They proved this year that an age old truth still has efficacy- the sum is greater than its parts.

What that means is that the Orioles’ success this year is based on the synergy of all the various parts of the Orioles’ system working together, from the front office to the coaching staff to the players.  Each component brings its energy to the whole, creating an inexplicable chemistry that makes the team shine.  The Orioles “clicked” this year because of that synergy, of the combined energy of the systems’ parts.

Just a few days ago, many congregants came up to Cantor Braun and me and said that our Erev Yom Kippur service was the most beautiful they had ever attended.  “What was different?” they asked?  The answer is, “Nothing, everything and everyone just clicked.  Each of us brought something special to that service which created an ineffable chemistry.  You experienced the magic of that synergy.”

Now what does this have to do with Sukkot?  The lulav and etrog, which we have before us, has four components.  The etrog has a strong flavor and fragrance.  It reminds of Jews who learn Torah and do good deeds.  The palm generates a fruit with flavor but no fragrance.  This reminds us of Jews who learn Torah but do not perform good deeds.  The myrtle has fragrance but no flavor.  It reminds us of Jews who do good deeds but are ignorant of Torah.  The willow has neither flavor nor fragrance and reminds us of Jews who neither study Torah nor perform good deeds.  The rabbis tell us that God said, “Bind them together in one bunch and they will make up for each other.”  The sum of the Jewish people is greater than our individual parts.  We need each other to become a coherent whole.  We bring together individual abilities and strengths to create a synergy to make us better together than any of us could be alone.  Just like the Orioles, the Jewish people are greater than the sum of our parts.

May the O’s bring home the pennant and the World Championship this year to Baltimore.

Amen and Shabbat Shalom!

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Yizkor Sermon – Yom Kippur – 10 Tishrei, 5775 – October 4, 2014

This is the time of day when we are feeling weak and most vulnerable. Hungry, tired, and overwhelmed by emotion, the tears come easily as we remember all those who have walked the path of life with us and now live only in our memories. While the last ten days have been given over to self-reflection and prayer, this is when we feel closest to God and one another as we mull our ultimate fate. What will our loved ones remember about us when we are gone? What of us will they miss the most? What will the rabbi say about us in our eulogy?

The last question is quite salient. What will the rabbi or the cantor say about us in our eulogies? Will he or she say, “His crowning achievement in life was making senior vice president. What everybody most loved about her was that she ate lunch at her desk every day.”

Eulogies are about the stuff that make us the kind of people we are. Eulogies speak about love, relationships, caring, friendship, and passion. They speak about our connections to others and all the good we did while we were alive. Eulogies speak about what makes us laugh and the kind of wisdom we shared. As David Brooks wrote a few months ago, “Eulogies are not resumes. They describe the person’s care, wisdom, truthfulness and courage. They describe the million little moral judgments that emanate from that inner region.” Yet we spend very little time preparing for our eulogies and most of our precious time adding to our resumes, trying our best to meet our current broken definition of success.
Steve Jobs, one of the most successful and well known men of our generation, the man responsible for making Apple what it is today, was eulogized by his sister, Mona Simpson. She spoke about his work ethic and all the amazing things he did, but she spent most of her time talking about how much he loved his family. She sprinkled her eulogy with lines like, “Steve cultivated whimsy. He treasured happiness. He was humble, he liked to keep learning, and he had lots of fun. Steve was an intensely emotional man.” His sister made sure that we knew him as a man who had a family, friends, and passions, not just as the man who invented the I Phone. Steve Jobs lived his eulogy, not his resume.

Very few of us have the kind of security and independence of a Steve Jobs, but each one of us can define our own success in life. We can be fully present in the lives of those whom we love. We can re-prioritize what is important to us. We can redefine what we mean by being successful. We can re-devote ourselves to what we really care about. We can be more grateful for all the positive things in our lives. We can take this time to begin working on a new and better version of our eulogies. Let us each take this message to heart and do so while we have the opportunity.

G’mar Chatimah Tovah- May we be sealed for good.

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Yom Kippur Morning Sermon – October 4, 2014 -10 Tishrei, 5775

This is the Day of Awe, our most serious and introspective day, when we stand alone before God in the midst of our congregation, promising to change and asking for forgiveness. This does not mean, however, that we are not allowed to laugh. Let me tell you a story:
Samuel Cohen was the oldest of seven children who lived on Lombard Street in Baltimore. Unfortunately, he had to leave City College early and go to work to help support his younger brothers and sisters. So Samuel never learned to read.
Years later when he married and opened a bank account, he signed his checks just “XX”.
Samuel then started his own tailoring business in Pikesville, which soon prospered. He became a very rich man.
One Thursday, he got a call from his bank, ‘Mr. Cohen, I wanted to ask you about this check. We weren’t sure you had really signed it. All these years, you’ve been signing your checks, “XX”; this one is signed with three X’s………’
Samuel sighed, “Since I’ve become rich, my wife thought I should have a middle name.
Samuel Cohen is a perfect example of who we are and what we have become. Just three or four generations separate us from our immigrant grandparents and great-grandparents who worked very hard and sacrificed so that their children could go to school and become Americans. Their children and grandchildren prospered in this new country, making us the most successful ethno-religious group in the United States and the wealthiest Jewish community in history. That doesn’t mean that all of us have prospered. There are many poor Jews, especially since the beginning of the Great Recession in 2007. Yet most of us, despite economic setbacks, are pretty comfortable. For us, sacrifice means not taking a vacation every year, not getting a new car or postponing our cosmetic surgery. This does not mean that life is easy. We still worry about money and are insecure about our employment. We do not spend enough time at home and work too hard. Despite our angst, the majority of us are college educated, live in nice homes, and enjoy some material pleasures. It is not just the older generation who is doing well. If you haven’t been here on a Sunday morning when religious school is in session, you should see the kind of cars that pull up to drop off our kids. Half of our children go to private school and half to public schools, the best ones in Baltimore and Howard Counties. By any standard of measurement, we are doing well and I thank God for that. I am incredibly thankful that my grandparents came to this country so that we could have the opportunities we do. We can live freely as Jews without fear of persecution. We have achieved the American dream. While it is harder today for our children then it was for us, compared to most in this country, they will do well.
My concern today is that for many Americans today, the American Dream is unattainable. For those of you unfamiliar with the term, the American Dream meant that anyone who worked hard and was a good citizen could own a home and have a decent life in this country. It was this idea that brought our ancestors here and still attracts millions of immigrants to our country every day. Yet most Americans will not be able to achieve this standard of living- and more and more are being left behind every day.
We have become the most economically stratified country in the world. A few of us here today may be in the top 1% of all Americans in terms of wealth. Most of us are in the top 5 and certainly the top 10% in terms of income. The middle class, however, is not growing. It is shrinking! The economic gap between the social classes in this country is becoming enormous and is perceived by those at the bottom to be unbridgeable. It is this last statement that is most troubling for if so, it means the American Dream, that which inspired our ancestors and still propels us to success, is dead for the majority of Americans.
We do not have to go far to witness the despair that envelopes so many in Baltimore. Just drive a few miles south on Park Heights Avenue or Reisterstown Road and we enter a different world, one plagued by crime, drugs, and hopelessness. Thousands of Baltimoreans have no hope that their children will break out of the cycle of poverty in which they live. They believe, with some merit, that if their children are born into poverty, they will die in poverty. They have little towards which to aspire, except for a short and hard life.
Writing in Politico, Doug Sosnik assessed what he called a decade of anger and disaffection. He said, “At the core of American’s anger and alienation is the belief that the American Dream is no longer attainable. For the first time in our country’s history, there is more social mobility in Europe than in the United States.” Our middle class, which had long been the world’s most affluent, no longer is. We have been overtaken by Canada. America’s rank on a social progress index of 132 countries has us at 39th in basic education¸ 34th in access to water and sanitation and 16th overall, just two spots ahead of Slovenia!”
For us and so many others, education has been the key to economic advancement. “The gap between the wages of a family of two college graduates and that of two high school graduates is $30,000 a year…American workers with a college degree are paid 74% more than those with only a high school degree, on average, nearly the biggest premium in the industrialized world.” The United States used to lead the world in educational equality. Not anymore. Among 25-34 year olds, only 20% of men and 27% of women have achieved a higher level of education than their parents. It is even bleaker at the bottom: Only one in twenty Americans aged 25-34 whose parents didn’t finish high school has a college degree. In most industrialized countries, the average is one in four!” Unless we vastly improve public education for the poorest of our children and help them break out of the cycle of poverty, America will become more and more stratified into a nation of rich and poor.
A strong middle class has been America’s greatest strength. Without giving those at the bottom rung of society a real chance to move upwards, our country is in real trouble. That is one of the reasons why I am so committed to making life better for all people in Baltimore. I want to give as many children as possible a chance to achieve the American Dream, to make something of them, and not end up as just another statistic in the crime reports. Too many of our children, and make no mistake, they are all our children, see their lives as dead ends. They are born poor and will die poor, living in cockroach infested housing, working for the minimum wage, and dying at a young age. We know what happens when anger and frustration build up in the inner city. Baltimore is still recovering from the riots of 1968. What will happen when thousands of people, many of them just wanting a chance for a better life, become so angry they take out their frustrations on those whom they view as an impediment to their having one?
Dear friends, our Torah portion for this morning speaks to us of choices, choices we make every day, for life or death, blessing or curse. We have a choice to make and we should make it today. Will we stick our heads in the proverbial sand and allow these trends to continue or will we do our very best to change our community’s priorities? Will we try our best to lower the impediments to social and economic advancement or will our country become a place for the rich and the poor with few in between?
Let me assure you that I am not naïve. I know there will always be poor people and that some will always struggle. The rabbis of the Talmud said that until the Messiah came there hunger, poverty and oppression. Yet that does not give us an excuse not to try to make Baltimore a more livable and more humane city.
I encouraged our congregation to join BUILD last year, Baltimoreans United in Leadership Development, so that we could join with like minded people, members of churches and schools throughout our city, to be part of ongoing work. BUILD has been around for almost forty years- and we are the first and only synagogue to be part of it. BUILD is a community action organization. It is dedicated to creating relationships that will change the power dynamic in our city. Over the years, BUILD has brought after school care to the city schools, has made possible the creation of hundreds of new homes, and helped steer the $1 Billion bond program through the State legislature that will renovate and rebuild over thirty Baltimore schools. If the cycle of poverty will ever be broken, if Jewish families ever want to buy home once again in Baltimore City, we have to start with the schools. If Baltimore gets quality schools, then families will stay in the city, neighborhoods will be more stable and prosperous, jobs will be created, and the American Dream will become reachable for the next generation.
I would like each of us to donate a few hours every month, just a few hours, to make life better for others in our city. In Hebrew, the word for volunteerism is hitnavdut. It comes from the root nun-dalet-vet which means “free will offering.” Giving to others is literally a gift of our hearts. We can work provide meals for the residents of the Ronald McDonald House through Oheb Shalom. Just contact Shelle Schnell, our vice president of Tikkun Olam. Shelle also co-chairs Isaiah 61, our task force with Bethel AME that works on improving the lives of the residents of Upton, one of the most impoverished neighborhoods in the city. Shelle, will you please stand up so everyone can see you?
I just mentioned Tikkun Olam. These two words mean “Repair the world.” This is more than just a phrase. Tikkun Olam is a Kabbalistic concept that is at the heart of my Jewish belief and identity. The idea was most profoundly taught by the Ari, Rabbi Isaac Luria, who lived four hundred years ago in Sfat. It is at the center of Lurianic Kabbalah. No one has described this concept better than master of Jewish storytelling, Howard Schwartz:
“At the beginning of time, God’s presence filled the universe. When God decided to bring this world into being, to make room for creation, He first drew in His breath, contracting himself. From that contraction darkness was created. When God said, “Let there be light,” the light that came into being filled the darkness. Ten holy vessels came forth, each filled with primordial light.
In this way, God sent forth those ten vessels, like a fleet of ships, each carrying its cargo of light. Had they all arrived intact, the world would have been perfect. But the vessels were too fragile to contain such a powerful divine light. They broke open, split asunder, and all the holy sparks were scattered like sand, like seeds, like stars. Those sparks fell everywhere, but more fell on the holy land of Israel than anywhere else.
That is why we were created, to gather the sparks, no matter where they are hidden. God created the world so that the descendants of Jacob could raise up the holy sparks. That is why there have been so many exiles, to release the holy sparks from the servitude of captivity. In this way, the Jewish people will sift all the holy sparks from the four corners of the earth.
When enough holy sparks have been gathered, the broken vessels will be restored, and Tikkun Olam, the repair of the world, awaited so long, will finally be complete. Therefore it should be the aim of everyone to raise these sparks from wherever they are imprisoned and to elevate them to holiness by the power of their soul.”
Whenever we help another, perform a good deed, study Torah, and do a mitzvah, we gather another spark and restore it to the broken vessels. When we work together individually and communally, through the efforts of countless generations, eventually we will raise enough sparks to repair the world and bring forth the Messianic Age. That is what I believe. It gives meaning to my life as a human being and a Jew. It makes our existence worthwhile. It makes our work together as part of this greater community even more important.
So, my dearest friends, on this holiest day of the year, let us re-dedicate ourselves to Tikkun Olam, the repair of the world. Our lives, our city, and our very world depends upon it.
G’mar Chatimah Tovah,
May we be written and sealed in the Book of Life.
Frank Bruni, the NY Times, May 3, 2014.
Eduardo Porter, NY Times, September 10, 2014.

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Erev Yom Kippur Sermon – October 3, 2014 – 10 Tishrei, 5775

No One Needs to Suffer Alone

This is the holiest night of the year. During this most sacred day, we stand alone before God in the midst of millions of other Jews, opening our souls to God and standing before Him in judgment. For the last ten days we have engaged in Cheshbon HaNefesh, an examination of our souls, asking ourselves how we can become better human beings. How can we become more empathic, more caring and more giving people? How can we diminish our selfishness and become less self centered? How can we better appreciate our family and friends? How can we show our gratitude for the blessings, large and small, that God has given us?
The vast majority of us greatly benefit from this day of personal and communal introspection. There are some of us, however, who live in a cloud of darkness, who are not able to see the light that wants to envelop them, who are so ill that life itself is a burden rather than a blessing. Among us tonight are some who have a disease of the brain that is as real as if they had cancer or heart disease. We call the disease from which they are suffering “mental illness” which still, unfortunately, has a terrible stigma attached to it, as if we lived in the 19th century and confined our mentally ill to an asylum called Bedlam. “It is time we stopped thinking about mental illness in pejorative way. It is time we acknowledged that a disease in the brain is just as physical as a disease in the heart, the lungs, or the liver. The fact that it is more complicated, less understood and not well studied, does not mean we can ignore this fact. In truth, it means the exact opposite: that mental health needs to be treated with urgency. Our society needs to start treating its illnesses as every bit as deadly and malicious as other ailments”
We were shocked less than two months ago when we learned that Robin Williams had died. We were even more horrified by the news that he had killed himself. In truth, Robin Williams did not kill himself. His disease, his mental illness, killed him, just as if he had been felled by cancer. Robin Williams suffered from depression, a darkness so thick that it distorted his reality, causing him to think that death was preferable to life. Robin Williams, despite his comedic genius and lovable personality, was so ill that he wanted to die. It may be hard for us to imagine, considering that he was brilliant, beloved, and wealthy, but that did matter to him. His illness made him want to die.
It comes as a surprise to some that Robin Williams was not Jewish.
Growing up in a Protestant home in suburban Detroit, attending bar and bat mitzvahs weekly, Williams felt completely at home with our people. He sprinkled his speech with Yiddishisms and was Billy Crystal’s best friend. He solidified his Jewish “creds” when a German reporter interviewed him asking, “Why do you think there’s not so much comedy in Germany?” Without skipping a beat, Williams replied, “Did you ever think you killed all the funny people?”
Jews practically invented psychiatry and defined the study of illnesses of the mind. That is not a coincidence, considering that we have more than our share of mental illness. “Early 20th century studies observed more diagnoses of depression and bipolar disorder in Jews than non-Jews, but the effect might have been due to a greater tendency of Jews to seek psychiatric help. To avoid that bias, a larger study conducted twenty years ago by the National Institute of Mental Health determined that Jewish men had higher rates of depression than non-Jewish men while Jewish women suffered from depression similarly to non-Jewish women. I am not going to touch that one. Whatever I say can only get me in trouble.
Researchers are looking for a genetic determinant to mental illness but evidence is still elusive. Whether or not we experience more mental illness than others, we are certainly more sensitive to it, considering the large number of Jewish mental health practitioners and the number of us who are in therapy.
The Jewish experience throughout history has been molded by oppression. Constant oppression has caused overwhelming stress which is a component in the formation of mental illness. After thousands of years of wandering, pogroms, and persecution, it is a wonder that so many of us still are in the spectrum of normality. God commands us to remember our pain so that we can be sensitive to the widow, orphan, and stranger, the disenfranchised and different among us. Generations of suffering has enabled us to be empathic to the most vulnerable in our society.
There is, however, a dark side to remembering pain. Neuroscience has joined with the therapeutic professions to teach us that we participate in creating our reality. Our experiences and the ways we think about them-our insights and reflections-change the neural connections that make up our brains. Dr. Daniel J. Siegel writes, “This revelation is based on one of the most exciting scientific discoveries of the last twenty years: How we focus our attention shapes the structure of the brain.” According to the writer, Diane Ackerman, “In the end, what we pay the most attention to defines us. How you choose to spend the irreplaceable hours of your life literally transforms you.”
Our memories, emotional responses, and primal narratives become encoded deep within us, forming our sense of who we are. When we are not aware of the ways we frame the world, these primal responses can wreak havoc in our lives. A most painful example is that those who were abused as children are at risk of becoming abusers themselves. We are what we remember. But we can choose how we remember. We need to transform our pain into empathy, our fear into courage, and our mourning into joy. Suffering does not have to lead to darkness and death. We can use our pain to become kinder, more caring human beings.”
Just a few days ago, I visited one of our congregants in the hospital. She had overdosed on pills and if her husband had not called 911, I would have officiated at her funeral. She realizes that she has everything to live for but, after struggling with depression for many years and dealing with stressful family circumstances, life, for a short time, seemed overwhelmingly bleak. When I entered the room the first thing she said was, “I wanted to call you. I guess I should have picked up the phone.” I said, “So do I…so do I.” Perhaps I could have talked her through her blackness or at least gotten her the immediate help she needed.
My message to you tonight is that we do not have to suffer alone. Our congregation is particularly sensitive to mental illness as we have, through the generosity of private donors, a congregational nurse, Beth Philipson, and social worker, Robin Lumpkin, on staff. I would like them to stand so that you know who they are. Their help is available to you at no cost, just because you are members of Oheb Shalom. To the best of my knowledge, we are the only congregation in North America to be able to offer this help to our congregants. All you have to do is call them or email them and they, along with all of us, are here to help. We call this our Shleimut program, from the Hebrew word shalom. In addition to its simple meaning of “hello and goodbye,” shalom at its essence means “wholeness.” The name of the program was chosen because we care about you as a whole person. We are concerned not just about your Jewish identity or your attendance at services or religious school. We care about your physical and mental health. We will do all we can to avail you of the help you need to get well.
We do not believe that suffering is ennobling. We certainly do not believe that God wants us to suffer. What we do believe is that suffering does make us more empathetic and makes us grateful for the times when we are not in pain. It causes us to understand that we are not, ultimately, in control of our lives. Suffering reminds us of our limitations. We should always remember that we should not suffer alone. We reach out to family, friends, and clergy for support. We seek medical help. We call or email Robin or Beth. Someone is there to help.
Ultimately, we believe that God is with us at all times, that God is particularly sensitive to our hurt. One of God’s one hundred names is “HaRachaman,” the Compassionate One. While God cannot cure us or alleviate our pain, God embraces us and has compassion on all those who call upon Him. When we are hurting, when the darkness blots out the light, we call upon God and those who care for us to help.
The Midrash is replete with references to God’s redemptive power. The rabbis tell us we should never lose hope or faith. They tell us, “If you have hoped and have not been saved, hope and hope again. God has pleasure not in burnt offerings, peace offerings or sacrifices but in hope of the human heart.” God, the rabbis write, hearkens to all people simultaneously. While a human ruler can only listen to two or three people at a time, God’s ears are never satiated with hearing. God never gets tired of listening to our prayers. The ancient sage, Rabbi Samuel ben Nahmani said, “If you have directed your heart in prayer, be assured that you will be heard by God.” While God may not be able to directly intervene in our lives, God does hear our prayers. God does love us and will also be present in our lives if we let Him in. When God is with us we are never alone. We need not suffer alone…We need not suffer alone.


Shabbat Shalom and G’mar Chatimah Tovah
Ten Minutes of Torah, September 2, 2014
Midrash on Psalms, Psalm 40:1
Midrash on Psalms, Psalm 65:2
Midrash on Psalms, Psalm 108:1

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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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