A few months ago, I met an acquaintance I haven’t seen in eighteen years. Since he was flying out of BWI, we met for an eagerly awaited breakfast at a restaurant in Catonsville. Fred, a former district attorney in Des Moines, Iowa, was head of the Polk County Iowa Restorative Justice Division, a unit that brings crime victims together with the perpetrators so that the victims can confront the criminals, determine their punishment, and gain some relief from their pain. He had traveled a long way to see me and I was curious to find out what was so urgent. Through bites of his omelet, Fred told me about how his life has changed over these last two decades. He explained that all of these changes were spurred by the most powerful event that ever occurred in his professional career. It seems that I was a crucial actor in what transpired in those days long ago.
Let me tell you a true story. Forgive me if it seems to be a bit long, but the point, and its relevance to this holy day of Yom Kippur, will soon be apparent. On the morning of March 3, 1994, Sally and I received an early morning call from Kenny Jacobs, our synagogue’s executive director. Kenny told me that students walking to the middle school next door noticed strange and disturbing writing on the outside of the synagogue. After walking around the building, Kenny found that someone had spray painted Nazi symbols and very hateful words all over the synagogue building in black and red paint. The synagogue was on a main street, much like this one, and the words were so large they could be seen by drivers on Grand Avenue. We immediately drove to the Temple and saw what had been done. Our beautiful synagogue, built in the midst of the Depression in Byzantine-Moorish style, had been desecrated by neo-Nazis! We knew that Aryan Nations and other Nazi type groups were active in the Midwest but we never imagined we would be a target. This became front page news in the Des Moines Register and the leading story in the local news channels. The Des Moines Police put all their resources into finding the culprits. The religious community mobilized, holding a rally at the Temple that Sunday afternoon to protest the hatefulness and to show support for Temple members. The Mayor, Governor, and both Senators attended. The political and religious leaders took turns applying paint remover to the front doors, covered with Nazi graffiti. It was a very powerful moment.
Our Jewish community was devastated. One Holocaust survivor locked herself in her bathroom and would not come out, convinced that the Nazis were back to get her. Others were so angry they wanted to attack someone, anyone, who could be identified as an enemy. Most of us were emotionally distraught. That building, which represented to us all that was beautiful, good, and sacred in this world, had been defaced by all that was reprehensible and evil. I am sure you can imagine how we felt and empathize with our feelings.
The police offered a reward for information. After that, it did not take long for them to receive a tip which led to the arrest of 19 year old Tim and his 17 year old girlfriend, Mandy. They immediately confessed to the crime and took pride in what they had done. “A runaway who had been taken in by members of Aryan Nation, Tim saw his hateful act as a way of making a name for himself within the disparate white hate groups active at the time.” It was then that Fred met with me, asking if the synagogue leadership “would be interested in meeting with the two perpetrators to explain the damage done by their hate crime and to work out the sentence.” We could press charges and insist they go to jail. But what would come of that? Tim and Mandy would only become more militant and hateful people. It took some convincing on my part, but the Temple leadership agreed to meet with them.
Six weeks later, with mediators, attorneys, six members of the congregation and perpetrators present, we met for four hours in the synagogue. To say that we were apprehensive about this meeting would be a terrible understatement. We would finally come face to face with this monster that embodied all that we detested, one who inflicted great emotional harm on our congregation and community. We imagined Tim as being a huge man with bulging muscles, so strong he had to wear manacles to restrain him. We thought Mandy would look like a stereotypical concentration camp matron, a tough socio-path who would spit at us when we entered the room. You cannot imagine our surprise when we saw Tim for the first time. He was the proverbial ninety pound weakling, smaller than me, who was covered by tattoos, had a serious hearing disorder, spoke with a lisp, had profound self-esteem issues, and never graduated from high school. Mandy was a scared teenager who clearly had no idea what she had gotten herself into. We had made an emotional mole hill into a mountain.
During this meeting, we “heard from Tim and Mandy about why they had done this. We heard what they thought of Jews. Then we talked about how upset and angry we were. They had to leave the room several times because it was so hard for them to listen to us. Our expressions of outrage clearly got through to them.” After a lot of discussion, we decided we did not want them to go to jail. We came up with a rigorous restoration program, supervised by the DA’s office. Mandy and Tim would have to be regularly tested for drugs and alcohol. They each had to get a GED. Tim had to have a hearing test and receive speech therapy and wear a hearing aid. They were both required engage in therapy with a professional counselor. They had to perform 100 hours of physical labor at the Temple supervised by our custodian. They also had to study Judaism and the Holocaust with me for 100 hours. If they fulfilled all of these provisions, we would drop the charges.
Over the next six months, Mandy and Tim met all the requirements. They removed all the paint from the Temple, performed some much needed maintenance, and studied with me. I learned that they were much more intelligent then they seemed. During our time together, they became more self-confident and were able to articulate their personal aspirations. Their misconceptions about Jews disappeared as they had real contact with Jews for the first time. I began to care about them. In fact, a year later our custodian and I were invited to their wedding.
We gave Tim and Mandy another chance at life. Rather than going to jail, they got a new start. Most important, we were able to shed the hate and bitterness that filled our hearts. We were able to let go of the pain, the hurt, and the anguish. The nightmares that afflicted us eventually disappeared. So why did Fred want to meet with me? He decided he is going to write a screenplay about this. He thinks it would make a great movie on the Lifetime or Hallmark channels. We spent a lot of time trying to decide who should play the 42 year old Rabbi Fink. I thought Ryan Reynolds and Brad Pitt were good choices. He thought a much better option would be Adam Sandler. Well, we agreed to disagree on this one. Oh, I almost forgot. What happened to Tim and Mandy? They had a baby girl and were divorced two years later. Mandy eventually remarried to a good man. Tim became an apprentice plumber and was doing well until he was arrested for running a meth lab. The last time I heard from him, he wrote me from jail. Some people just never learn.
Granting forgiveness is never easy. It is a difficult and emotionally fraught process. I did not realize it at the time, but we followed a process developed in the late nineties by Everett Worthington, a psychologist who has written the defining book on forgiveness. He had good reason to write this book.
As I look around this room, I see many of you who have been deeply impacted by violent crime. It sears our souls and leaves a huge hole in our hearts. We are never the same afterwards. On New Year’s morning in 1996, Dr. Worthington received a call from his brother telling him that their aged mother had just been gruesomely murdered. After the initial grief had passed, Dr. Worthington decided he did not want to go on living filled with anger. He realized he had the tools necessary to forge a process of forgiveness. This is a valuable five step process for each of us to internalize, for living with anger and bitterness only hurts ourselves and those around us. It is most appropriate on this Yom Kippur day to learn about this.
“Dr. Worthington calls his process REACH. The R stands for recall the hurt. Do so in as objectively as possible. Do not think of the other person, the perpetrator, as evil. Do not wallow in self pity. Take deep, slow, and calming breaths as you visualize the hurtful event taking place. This is the hardest part. Conjure up the scenario and imagine what happened to your loved one on that fateful day. E stands for empathize. Try to understand from the perpetrator’s point of view why this person hurt you. This is not easy, but make up a plausible story that the transgressor might tell if challenged to explain. To help you do this, remember the following:
• When others feel their survival is threatened, they will hurt innocents.
• People who attack others are themselves usually in a state of fear, worry, and hurt.
• The situation a person finds himself in, and not his underlying personality, can lead to hurting.
• People often don’t think when they hurt others. They just lash out
A stands of giving the altruistic gift of forgiveness, another difficult step. First, recall a time you transgressed, felt guilty, and were forgiven. This was a gift you were given by another person because you needed it and you were grateful for this gift. Giving this gift usually makes us feel better…Tell yourself you can rise above hurt and vengeance. If you give the gift grudgingly, it will not set you free.
C stands for commit yourself to forgive publicly. In Worthington’s groups, his clients write a ‘certificate of forgiveness,’ a poem or song, or tell a trusted friend what they have done. These are all contracts of forgiveness that lead to the final step.
H stands for hold onto forgiveness. Memories of the event will surely recur. Forgiveness is not erasure. It is a change in the tag lines that a memory carries. It is important to realize that the memories do not mean unforgiveness. Do not dwell vengefully on the memories and do not wallow in them. Remind yourself that you have forgiven and read the document you have composed.”
This five step program has been proven in eight controlled study tests to work. The participants have been shown to have less anger, less stress, more optimism and better reported health. Keeping rage and resentment bottled up is harmful to oneself and to others. We need to work it out and work it through. REACH is a process that works.
Just last week I had a tearful encounter with a congregant who has been deeply upset by the vicissitudes of life. The Jewish community of Baltimore can be tight knit and inclusive. It is hard to break in and difficult to create a social network, even for the most outgoing of us. This person and his family, relative newcomers to Charm City, felt excluded. They were deeply hurt by a particular recent interaction with another family. That wound was the trigger for all their emotions to pour out. Rather than come to the synagogue for the High Holydays, the family felt they wanted to run away from Baltimore’s Jews. They came to me for help. My reply went something like this – You need Yom Kippur now more than ever before. You need to cry, to pour out your anger to God, and to get rid of it. Your fury is an impediment to your healing. Try to grant this family forgiveness so that you can get on with your life. You do not want to wallow in misery. You do not want to regurgitate this in your mind over and over again. Do not grant them forgiveness for their sake; Do it for your sake. If you are able to go through the process of forgiving them, you will be a more content and giving person.
The Torah portion we just read urges us to choose life or death, blessing or curse. Forgiveness leads to emotional life and spiritual blessing. Continued anger leads to emotional death and spiritual curse. My dearest friends, let us today, right now, begin the process of making teshuvah. Let us release our bitterness, our pain, and our rage. It only harms us. This is the day that God has given us to begin. May we make good use of it.
G’mar Chatimah Tova,