Shana Tova! Welcome to Oheb Shalom and the New Year of 5776. It is hard to believe, but this is our seventeenth Rosh Hashanah together. As I look through the congregation this morning, I see so many with whom we have interacted over these almost two decades. In happy and sad times, in times of crisis and confusion, we have supported one another. That is the best part of being in a community. It is why we are here for each other. The good news today is that Oheb Shalom is prospering. In contrast to other non-Orthodox synagogues in Baltimore we are still growing and our religious school is still expanding. We have the most students since the halcyon days of the sixties and seventies. While I cannot confirm this, I am pretty sure we have the largest religious school of any synagogue in this area. So, compared to most synagogues, we are doing well.
Before I go on to the core of this sermon, it behooves me to try to tell a joke.
A young, single man moved to Baltimore to work in a startup tech company. He was not very social and was lonely. So he decided to get a pet. He went to the pet store and told the owner that he wanted an unusual pet. After some discussion, the owner recommended he buy a centipede. They young man was surprised. He asked, “You mean one of those 100 legged bugs?” “That’s right,” said the owner. “They make great pets.” After some thought, he bought a centipede that came in a little white box. He took the box home, found a good spot for it and decided he would take his new friend to shul. Together they would try to become part of a community. So he asked the centipede in the box, “Would you like to go to shul with me today?” He waited but there was no response from his new pet. This bothered him but he waited a few more minutes and asked again. “How about going to shul with me today? We’ll pray together.” Again, there was no answer from his new pet. So he waited a few minutes longer and thought about the situation. Finally, he put his face up against the centipede’s house and shouted, “Hey, in there! Would you like to go to shul with me and learn about God?” This time, a little voice came out of the box. “I heard you the first time! I’m putting my shoes on!”
Well, that will probably be the last time we laugh for a while because there is little that this year that has been funny for the Jews. We will speak about the increase in anti-Semitism, foreign and domestic, the BDS movement, the rise in Israeli extremism and, of course, the nuclear treaty with Iran. I will try to do all of this, including the Israel Bond Appeal, as expeditiously as possible, so please bear with me.
There continues to be a rise in anti-Semitism throughout Europe and certain sectors of American society. French and Belgian Jews have been murdered by Islamic terrorists, spurring the largest increase in Aliyah from a Western country since the creation of Israel. Even the mainstream Islamic world believes in the reality of the blood libel, that we make matzah with the blood of Christian children, and the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, which purports that a conspiracy of Jewish elders runs the world. Even more troubling is the rampant growth of BDS, the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement in the United States, specifically on college campuses and in liberal Christian circles. This movement supports the boycott of companies that do business in Israel and removes investment funds from those companies who invest in Israel, leading to the isolation and pariah status of Israel. Many academics and students have embraced BDS and use it as a litmus test for election to student governments. If a student, typically a Jewish student, fails to endorse BDS, she will not be allowed to serve in student government. This has already occurred in such hallowed institutions as Stanford and UCLA. The leadership of the United Methodist, Presbyterian, and Episcopal Churches as well as the United Church of Christ, have shamefully voted to endorse BDS. Why? Just like the students, they have embraced the narrative of the Palestinians as the helpless victims, pawns of the evil Israelis, unable to influence their own fate, not having any responsibility for their own decisions. This infantilizes Palestinians and makes Israelis the adults who should be doing the right thing. It is, of course, a complete misreading of the situation and factually wrong. The liberal Christians also conflate the modern State of Israel with Biblical Israel. They claim that more is expected of us than the Palestinians because we are God’s chosen people. Not judging Israel by the standards of a modern state is anti-Semitism. Worse than this, Christians are very uncomfortable with Jews exercising power. They much prefer us to be victims. It better fits into their theological frameworks. This, too, is anti-Semitism. Jews cannot solve what is essentially a problem for Christians. We have many liberal Christian allies, some of whom are in Baltimore, who are struggling with their own denominational leaderships to right these wrongs. We should support and applaud them for doing the right thing.
I will speak towards the end of this sermon about the struggle for Israel’s soul, but now, let us turn to Iran. There will be many rabbis today who will address this topic. Most will be adamantly opposed to the arms control treaty and will condemn the president and all those who support the nuclear accord. There are some who will vociferously support it. To the chagrin of some of you, my approach is more nuanced. You will not hear any bombastic pronouncements from this pulpit today. Since I am neither an arms control expert nor an expert on Iran, I must rely upon the opinions of others. In truth, there are many people I respect on both sides of the issue, all of whom make rational and cogent arguments for their respective positions. The first point I must make is that there are committed and loving Jews who both support and oppose the agreement with Iran. This is a machloket l’shem hashamayim, a controversy for the sake of God. Whether we support the treaty or not, our loyalty to Israel and the Jewish people should not be questioned. We should strive to discuss this issue rationally and civilly, without name calling and especially without demonizing the other side. Jewish senators and congressmen have come out for and against the treaty. We are awaiting word of how Senators Cardin and Mikulski will vote. What we do know is that regardless of how they vote, they all love Israel and want what is best for Israel. That, of course, is the big question- what is best for Israel? The corollary of that is the other big question- what is best for the United States? This is where we are torn. We are Jews who love the State of Israel and Americans who love and are loyal to the United States of America. Sometimes, as of now, the interests of the two may not coincide. This places us in the current dilemma. What may be a logical policy option for the United States may not be in the best interests of the Jewish State. We should, however, be humble enough to realize that no one can predict the future. “Whether Iran will indeed become a nuclear power or becomes more responsive to the West remains to be seen. At present, what we do know is that the terms of this deal jeopardize the safety and security of the State of Israel and the entire Middle East and creates the possibility of a nuclear arms race.”[i]
There are many influential Israelis in the intelligence community and military who think the agreement is something Israel can live with. They are former heads of Mossad and retired generals. They say that preventing Iran from getting nuclear weapons for fifteen years is good for Israel. They assume that even if Iran does eventually develop nuclear weapons, Iranian leaders will act rationally, understanding that if they launch just one missile against Israel, the Israeli nuclear arsenal of over two hundred weapons will be unleashed against Iran and will utterly obliterate the country and exterminate the Iranian people. Most Israelis, however, think the deal is bad for Israel. In fact, it is practically the only issue that brings most Israelis together. Israel has the most to lose in the short and long term if the Iranians do not honor the terms of the agreement. A nuclear armed Iran is an existential threat to Israel. Supporters of the treaty hope that an Iran engaged with the world economy will moderate its behavior. Journalist David Ignatius wrote that this possibility is a “cosmic bet.”[ii] I, for one, do not want to base Israel’s existence on a “cosmic bet.” Iran is not a serious threat to the existence of the United States. The other countries which joined with ours in negotiating this treaty, Russia, China, Germany, Great Britain and France, are chomping at the bit for trade sanctions to be lifted so they can do business with Iran. A German trade delegation has already visited Tehran.
The treaty is supposed to prevent Iran from developing a nuclear weapon for at least the next fifteen years. While many opponents agree with that statement, they point out that the lifting of economic sanctions will give Iran more cash, billions of dollars, that it can use to destabilize the region, to arm its proxies of Hamas, Hezbollah, and others, to support terrorism, and assert its desire for regional hegemony. Supporters of the treaty say this is the best possible deal. No one, they say, wants war with Iran and the alternative to this treaty is war. The Washington Institute’s Robert Satloff makes a convincing case that a strengthened deal is possible even after the vote takes place in the Senate. We can only hope that this will happen, but truthfully, it is unlikely. The President will sign the treaty and Congress will not have the votes to override a Presidential veto. That is a fact. So the next question is “What happens next?” The best scenario is that the administration will sit down with Israel and say, “How can we make you stronger?” The administration should provide Israel with the bunker busting bomb called the Massive Ordinance Penetrator and even enter into a formal alliance with Israel to guarantee its safety. Prime Minister Netanyahu and President Obama will have to repair their relationship in order to rebuild the Israeli-American relationship. The shared ties between Israel and the United States are too important to be weakened by leaders who do not personally like one another.
Is there anything we can do to help? Yes, there is. We can make Israel stronger by purchasing Israel Bonds today. Israel Bonds are a secure investment in the economy of Israel. They are an investment in Israel’s future. Last year, Oheb Shalom purchased almost $800,000 in Israel Bonds. Only three synagogues in Metropolitan Baltimore purchased more Israel Bonds than did we. I would like us to increase that number by ten percent. Last year, 144 of us purchased Israel Bonds. I would like to also increase that number by at least ten percent. Our purchases will be matched at 100% by four institutions- the Associated, Johns Hopkins Federal Bank, the Haron Dahan and the Berman Foundation. So, if you purchase a $100 bond, it will automatically be doubled. We can demonstrate our love and support for Israel in a tangible manner by turning down a tab on the Israel Bond tab card or purchasing a bond on line as Sally and I have already done. Remember, this is not a gift but an investment. In fact, as our own member and President of Israel Bonds, Ed Jacobson, will tell you, Israel Bonds offer an excellent return and should be part of our portfolios. We can help Israel weather whatever storms will come by making her economy stronger and by tangibly expressing our faith in Israel’s future. I now invite you to pull down a tab on your cards and ask the ushers to enter the Sanctuary and pass around baskets to collect your tab cards. Please try to listen to the conclusion of this sermon while the ushers are doing their holy work.
While Iran is an external existential threat to Israel, there is another existential threat that threatens its very soul. This threat is internal. It is Jewish extremism, the kind fed and financed by Haredi Orthodoxy and the settler extremists. It is the kind of extremism that taught an Orthodox Jew, Yishai Schlissel, that plunging a knife into six Jews at the Jerusalem Gay Right’s parade is a mitzvah. Tell that to the parents of 16 year old Shira Banki whom he murdered that day, simply because she believed in equal rights for all Israelis. It is the kind of extremism that animated the deadly firebombing of an Arab family’s home in the village of Duma, killing 18 month old Ali Saad Dawabshe and gravely wounding his parents and four year old brother. The government of Israel has condemned these acts and, in the arson case, are searching for the perpetrators. “All available intelligence indicates that the criminals are part of a shadowy network of militant settlers, an offshoot of the mainstream settler movement. These people plan to continue and escalate their attacks with the aim of bringing about the Apocalypse. They must not be allowed to succeed.”[iii] We would be hypocrites if we condemned only Islamic extremism without denouncing its Jewish counterpart. “It is crucial for us to speak out. Friends of Israel who want it to live up to its highest ideals, to be a Jewish state in the truest sense, must not be intimidated into silence. Israelis who share our values need our support.”[iv]
So on this beginning of our New Year, 5776, we pray that God will continue to stand by and support the Jewish people. On Erev Yom Kippur, October 6, 1935, facing an earlier existential crisis, Rabbi Leo Baeck wrote this prayer for all the Jewish communities in Germany:
The nobility and truth of our history is in God;
In God- the source of our survival
Our firm stand through trail and change.
Ours is a history of spiritual greatness,
A legacy of spiritual dignity.
We turn to it when we are besieged by insult and attack.
We look to it when need and suffering press in upon us.
From generation to generation, the Eternal led our ancestors.
The One who leads us through all our days
Will lead our children through theirs.
We stand before our God-
Strengthened by reverence for the sacred obligations of Torah,
Ennobled by a commitment to do what is just and right.
We bow before God, stand upright before all people.
In a world of tumultuous change, we are steadfast;
We serve the Eternal.
With humility we say:
Our faith is in God whose call is compelling.
Our response will shape our future.[v]
Amen and Shana Tova uM’tukah
[i] Michael Steinhardt, the Forward, September 1, 2015.
[ii] The Forward, July 24, 2015.
[iii] The Forward, August 14, 2015.
[v] Mishkan Hanefesh, Yom Kippur, page 435.