Dana Marks' Sermon
The curtain goes up and Tevye says:
A fiddler on the roof... Sounds crazy, no? But here, in our little village
of Anatevka, you might say every one of us is a fiddler on the roof. Trying to
scratch out a pleasant, simple tune without breaking his neck. It isn't easy.
You may ask, why do we stay up there if it's so dangerous? Well, we stay
because Anatevka is our home. And how do we keep our balance? That I can
tell you in one word! Tradition!
Sing with me … Tradition, tradition, dum-de-dee, TRADITION!
We are a people of tradition. While we cling to our traditions, those traditions are
malleable, are not cast in concrete, and tend to morph over time.
An example: In the 1970’s and 80’s we were members of Temple Emanu-El in
San Jose. One of the very influential members and a former President of the
congregation was called for an Aliyah and steadfastly refused an offer of talit and
kippah. Later he told me that he absolutely refused to wear the traditional
accoutrements of prayer because he was a REFORM JEW; the Reform
movement did not require them, and that is what made us Reform Jews.
That mid-century attitude was a reflection of Rabbi Eugene Borowitz (z”l), the
leading Reform theologian, who championed individual choice, or ‘autonomy’ as
a key feature of The Reform Movement. Thus it was up to each individual Reform
Jew at that time to decide which rituals were meaningful for him or her.
Another example: At our Guys Nights Out we sometimes go to a place for pizza.
There are always meat lovers who would like to have meat on their pizzas. At
the same time, there are those who don’t think it is right for us to serve
communal pizzas containing meat. This is the battle between “minhag”, custom,
and laws of Kashrut. We had a very nice debate about this at last month’s Hot
Topics Breakfast. On the one hand, as a Jewish organization, we should be
keeping to “Kosher Style” in our ordering for the group, even when we are off
campus. On the other hand, there are always cheese or veggie pizzas for those
who don’t want meat. We ended up deciding that when BAM is providing the
food for the group, it should be kosher style whether we are here or off campus.
I think it is an equitable solution to a divisive issue.
This now brings me to this week’s Torah parshah, D’varim. The first verses of the
book of Deuteronomy start out with Moses reviewing what has happened over 40
years since leaving eretz mitzrayim. God says to the Jewish people. “Ravlachem
shevet bahar hazeh.” God says, enough, enough of dwelling at this
mountain. It's time to move on, striking a new path rather than lolling in the
security of that which we have always done.
Rabbi Rick Jacobs, President of the Union for Reform Judaism, said in his
weekly podcast On The Other Hand, “Now what an amazing statement to a
religious community, because how often are we as communities of faith locked
into, not only a place, but a way of being, a way of thinking, a way of practicing.
And here we have to be shaken out of that in a sense, either that lethargy or that
commitment to the status quo. So the teaching is, appreciate how far you've
come. Appreciate all that you've done in this place. But to be on a religious path
means to be moving forward, to enter into new ways of thinking, new ways of
We now change the scene to Pittsburgh in 1999. The Reform Movement’s
Pittsburgh Platform of 1885 had already been revised twice, but it still did not
address the struggle between “fitting in” with our non-Jewish neighbors, and
maintaining our individuality that sets us apart from all other peoples. The
“Statement of Principles” adopted in 1999 caused a sea change within Reform
Judaism, and shifted the center of gravity of the Reform Movement to a more
traditional place, to more traditional styles of study and prayer, bringing in more
Hebrew, opening the door to the wearing of kipot, talit, and even t’fillin, while still
maintaining space for individuality in rituals. That significant change was led by
Rabbi Richard Levy (z”l), then President of the Central Conference of American
In 2015, referring to the Pittsburg Principles of 1999, Dr. Michael A. Meyer,
Professor Emeritus of Jewish History at HUC-JIR wrote “Writing a platform is
indeed a challenging task. The platform has to be so constructed as to be wide
and long enough for most every Reform Jew to stand on it without falling off.”
The Principles that Rabbi Levy wrote changed the face of Reform Judaism for
many years, and was considered radical by many, including, I’m sure, the
gentleman who didn’t want to wear a kippah and talit for an Aliyah.
We lost Rabbi Levy just seven weeks ago, and much has been said about him
since his passing. He was a giant among our movement, but a quiet and humble
man, with a very subtle sense of humor and a huge heart; devoted to his family,
his students, and social justice.
In 1964, as a newly minted Rabbi, he went to St. Augustine, FL, at the invitation
of MLK Jr., along with 15 other Rabbis and a leader in Jewish social justice, and
all 17 of them were arrested and jailed for attempting to integrate restaurants.
Rabbi Levy started his rabbinate as assistant rabbi at Leo Baeck Temple in Los
Angeles. He led Hillel organizations throughout Southern California, and taught
for many years at HUC-JIR in Los Angeles. He was a lifelong teacher and
inspired many young rabbis, including our own Rabbi Heath Watenmaker, by
“Living Torah for the sake of compassion and justice.” He is the author of several
books; his latest is called Songs Ascending, a new translation with commentary
on the Book of Psalms that I find to be most inspiring.
But most significantly to me, since the early 70’s my sons have had the honor of
calling him Uncle Richard. You see, his wife Carol (z”l) and my wife Susan had
been close friends since Third Grade. In fact, it took Susan many years to
convince Carol that they should call each other “my friend of longest standing”
rather than “my oldest friend”. He co-officiated at both of our sons’ Bar Mitzvahs,
and we shared every family life cycle event, both happy and sad. He taught me
much about life, and always challenged those around him, students and family
alike, to do more than they thought they could do and to be better people. It was
wrenching to bid him farewell a few weeks ago, but as this week’s parshah says,
we must move on.
For the past five years I have had the privilege of being President of Beth Am
Men. BAM provides a forum for meeting and interacting with other members in
order to foster friendship, support and brotherhood and build deeper
relationships. We focus on service to our congregation and to the community at
large. Fundamentally, BAM works in harmony with the Beth Am mission: We
strive to live as a holy community whose study and practice of Judaism inspires
and challenges us to "do justice, to love kindness and to walk humbly with our
The membership of BAM includes all members of Beth Am who identify as male.
We are a very diverse group, thus our activities are quite diverse. A lot centers
around food and drink, but also includes learning, discussion, and action for
social justice. We sponsor monthly breakfast discussions, co-sponsor quarterly
lunch discussions, hold quarterly Guys Nights Out, occasional sporting events,
either as participants or spectators, and indulge varied interests like photography,
reading, playing bridge, and biking. In addition to imbibing wines and spirits, we
will be pouring wine at next week’s Tu b’Av oneg, and brewing our own BAM
Beer for next year’s Adult Purim Spiel.
BAM is unique among congregational organizations in that we don’t charge our
members to come to our events, but we accept voluntary donations from all who
attend for various tzedakah projects and causes. The San Francisco
Shakespeare Festival, which operates on donations, tells their audience, “It’s free
to get in but it will cost you to get out.” Our collections are always voluntary, and
uphold our belief that the concept of Tzedakah plays an important role in our
Some of our tzedakah money has gone to building play equipment for a school in
East Palo Alto under Beth Am’s Equal Start initiative, and donating three-tier cake
plates to another East Palo Alto school for tea parties they have for the kids as a
special event. This is all done, and hinges upon the initiative of BAM volunteers.
Thank you to all of you who have participated. Some months the collection goes
directly into the Beth Am Tzedakah Box. Last month, by a vote of those who
attended and donated, our collections (almost $1000) went to Jewish Family
Services of San Diego to support their work in helping children and other
migrants at the border.
As you probably know, BAM gives each b’nai mitzvah a gift. In addition, BAM has
provided support to Beth Am Women initiatives, and has made donations of
money and equipment to provide items that are not within the Beth Am budget.
This year there was a need for pipe and drape dividers for the social hall, new
benches outside the administrative offices, and emergency “go bags” for each of
the classrooms here on campus. We have also provided support for the Shabbat
child care program in partnership with Beth Am Women. Our 5780 budget
contains a similar donation to Beth Am, as well as support for the From Strength
To Strength campaign.
It is very difficult to say that the Presidency of BAM is a thankless job when I am
constantly being thanked. Event though I am the only officer of the group, I am
really not doing this all alone. We have a group of six past presidents of BAM
and its predecessor, Yachad, who serve as an Advisory Council and meet
periodically to discuss BAM initiatives, such as how to get younger men to
participate in our events. And then there are the volunteers … I refer to them as
“The Usual Suspects”. They raise their hand every time we need someone to
pour wine, serve drinks, provide food for our events, cook for the Purim Carnival,
and both construct and deconstruct the congregational Sukkah. Without their
help, this would be an impossible job. Say hello to them when you get a glass of
wine next week.
So now, in the words of this week’s parshah, it is time to move on. There are
many changes facing us in the coming year of 5780. We will be welcoming a
new Director of Learning and Educational Innovation, Sarah Lauing, and a new
Youth Advisor, our own Molly Roston. This year our congregation will be
searching for a new Senior Rabbi, and in many months from now we will be
reluctantly saying adieu to our beloved Rabbi Marder … but she isn’t going
anywhere for almost a year!
The newly adopted BAM Bylaws say that the term of a president is two years and
that person may not hold more than three consecutive terms, which means that
this is my last year in this position. It has been my honor to serve the BAM
membership, the congregation, and be part of the Board of Directors. The BAM
Advisory Council will soon choose someone to work with me this year to learn
how things work, and to take on the presidency next year.
That is a lot of moving on! But move on we will because we are up to the task;
with hope in our hearts, and our eyes set on the horizon, as there are many good
things to come. So we will cling to our traditions, and create new traditions as we
go, but in the words of Parshah D’varim, God says, “Rav-lachem shevet bahar
hazeh.” Enough of dwelling at this mountain. It's time to move on. Let us all
move on in strength and with compassion. Shabbat Shalom.