Daryl Messinger Sermon | Congregation Beth Am

Daryl Messinger Sermon

By Daryl Messinger on
November 2, 2018

Shabbat Shalom.

As Rabbi Lenny Thal has remarked from this bima, you haven’t truly lived until Janet Marder does your eulogy…

…oops I mean your birthday blessing.

Thank you Janet:  for your beautiful words of blessing, for your friendship and, most of all, for being our Rabbi. 

Beth Am has a sacred partnership between its lay leaders and clergy.  It is an honor to be among this congregation’s past presidents. 

Thank you to those watching on live stream or Facebook Live.  I travel extensively both in service to the Reform Movement and for pleasure.  Many a Friday night, I have tuned-in via Facebook to get my “Beth Am fix”.  I wave to many of you and sing along – luckily you cannot see or hear me. 

Tonight, I am not giving the talk I had planned to give. 

The tragedy at Tree of Life synagogue demands a different talk—one that makes sure that those 11 innocent people were not lost in vain. 

A talk to affirm that we will not live with fear and hatred. 

And to acknowledge and appreciate that we are not alone.

The outpouring of love, concern and solidarity is staggering.  Last night after returning from Israel, I had a chance to watch the video archive of the vigil that took place here Sunday that drew more than 1,000 people; I was uplifted by the extraordinary expressions of support and unity. 

Yesterday another example:  Parents and children arriving at Brandeis Marin Jewish Day School were greeted by hundreds of families from the elementary school just across the street carrying signs: YOU ARE NOT ALONE.  YOU ARE LOVED.  

People of all faiths, races, genders and classes join us in this holy work to eliminate the root causes of this terrible illness that permeates so much of our culture today. 

Six months ago, on May 3rd, just two days before his untimely death in a plane accident, my brother-in-law Rabbi Aaron Panken, president of Hebrew Union College -JIR, our Reform Jewish seminary, spoke to the graduating class at HUC-JIR. He described this environment that perhaps contributed to the Tree of Life tragedy.  He stated:   

“[Graduation] comes, this year, amidst a particularly challenging and painful world.  …. We now live in a world in which truth is distorted, basic institutions of American life like the press, the courts, the electoral system, the FBI, the beautiful mosaic of immigration that made this country what it is, the dignity and value of public leadership and civil service, egalitarianism and a woman’s right to choose, and so many others, are threatened in ways we simply could not have imagined a few years ago.”

Aaron’s speech then turned to what we could do to change course.  He provided a call to action. He stated:

“But here’s the thing: the Jewish people, and our religious friends of other faiths, have seen this before, and we have lived through it, and thrived and built again and again and again. … We are a people of action and courage, of innovation and fearlessness, of adaptation and endless creativity.”

Tonight, I want us to consider what we each can do to insure that this tragedy is not just added to the long list of other such cowardly acts?

Our individual and collective deeds can and will make a difference. I know we can do this. 

WHY?

Because I have seen firsthand, the power of our movement and the impact that our network of congregations can and do make.

I am honored to serve as the chair of the Union for Reform Judaism, the URJ, the largest and most diverse Jewish movement in North America with more than 850 congregations and almost 2 million people identifying with Reform communities, values and precepts.

Our Reform movement has a proud history of and an explicit process for speaking out on moral issues that should concern us all – not just as Jews, but as human beings and as citizens of the US and Canada. 

We welcome the stranger, the refugee and those who often are left on the side-lines of Jewish life.  We defend and demand democratic and egalitarian principles in all aspects of civil and Jewish life.  We love, believe in and support a Jewish, democratic, pluralistic Israel. 

Recently a rabbi friend reported that she asked a group of kids whether they had any idea what the letters U-R-J stood for.  One young girl got it absolutely correct.  She shouted: U R JEWISH. 

Yes! The URJ strengthens Jewish life to make our world more whole, just and compassionate. 

We have also, unfortunately, gotten all too good at responding to crises.  Whether from natural or human causes, the Reform Movement mobilizes a network of trained professionals and organizations to address the immediate and the longer-term needs of communities in crisis. 

This past week was again an example of this ability.  We are doing this in a highly coordinated and collaborative way.  Not just in our Reform Movement bubble.  We are marshalling resources with and for other denominations, Federations, JCCs, ADL, AJC and others. 

Pittsburgh calls us to remember that Kol Yisrael Arevim Zeh la Zeh.  All Israel is responsible for one another. 

So let's talk about six things we each can do.  Credit must go to Sofi Hersher, assistant director of communications at the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, for many of these ideas.  Please see her suggestions and other resources at reformjudaism.org.

First, we must remember these 11 innocent victims and ensure their lives are for a blessing.  They each have a name and a story. Please take time to read their obituaries. We will speak their names tonight with our kaddish list. 

Second, we need to recognize that while we certainly wish to be secure that the likely best way to ensure safety at Beth Am and all Jewish places is to remain visible and part of the larger community. 

The Talmud teaches: "A person should pray only in a house with windows" (B’rachot 34b). Why? So that we can look out --as we do so beautifully here -- and for others to look in and to see that we are like them. 

Our first impulse is to ask security experts to help us “harden” our buildings --to literally board up our windows and doors against intruders.  But friends, security at the expense of community, welcome and outreach is not really safety.  Our fear cannot close our windows or our hearts.

April Baskin, the URJ’s vice president for audacious hospitality and herself a Jew of color appropriately cautions that too often people of color are made to feel suspect or unwanted when entering our synagogues.  April worries that sometimes we see danger when we should simply see difference. In trying to be more secure, we may do exactly what we don’t want others to do to us.  Make them feel excluded, different, the ‘other’.  People of color are not the only individuals that get pushed away…LGBT folks and those with disabilities can as well.

We must balance vigilance and necessary precaution with community.  As Amy Asin remarked to me earlier today, this balance will reflect not only what kind of community we have to be, but what kind of community we want to be.

Third, speak out against hate and become more empathetic to those with different perspectives. 

We must delegitimize anti-Semitism, white supremacy, and bigotry whenever we hear or see it. We know this and yet…

And yet, we often don’t want to be the one who reminds our friends, co-workers, or relatives that comments and attitudes, no matter how innocent, have consequences.  Even those made in jest can reinforce the stereotypes that make someone the outsider, the "other". 

Another way to eliminate hate is to build friendships, empathy and understanding with those individuals with whom we do not normally interact.   Get to know someone of a different faith.  I’m sure Louise Stirpe Gill or Ellen Stromberg would love to share their experiences with the Sisterhood of Salaam Shalom. 

Fourth, support immigrants and refugees.

The gunman believed Jews were conspiring with immigrants to kill white Americans. This is a manifestation of a virulent type of violent rhetoric that is fraying this country.  

Support organizations such as HIAS, an organization that helps resettle refugees, either with your time or your money.  Beth Am has a strong partnership with HIAS and we have sponsored two refugee families.  Additionally, our youth education programs work with IsraeAID to support a school for refugee children on the island of Lesbos.

Fifth, demand that all our governmental officials – state and federal-- pass real gun violence prevention legislation and comprehensive immigration reform. 

Our policies are broken. 

For the love of every Jewish value we hold dear, we must work from the left and the right to find compromise and to improve. 

Since the beginning of 2018 in America, there have been more than 48,000 incidents with guns and more than 12,000 of these have resulted in death (https://www.gunviolencearchive.org/).  My family personally knows one of these victims. My nephew’s bride, who is here tonight, lost her uncle earlier this year because someone pulled a gun and shot him. 

And we now all know 11 more.

ENOUGH IS ENOUGH. 

Earlier this week, URJ leaders again spoke out for asylum seekers. Please write your legislators and the President and urge them to respect the international and domestic laws for those seeking asylum.  Further demonization of these legitimate seekers is wrong. 

ENOUGH IS ENOUGH

Sixth and lastly, VOTE!  I know everyone here has or will vote on Tuesday.  But your neighbors, your kids, the folks who work with and for you may not.  Try to understand why they are hesitant, and then encourage them to exercise this extraordinary privilege and responsibility. 

The great Jewish teacher and philosopher, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel remarked, “In a free society, some are guilty, but all are responsible.” 

We may not be guilty of committing the atrocities in Pittsburgh, in Parkland, Charlottesville, Charleston, Orlando, or Paris, but we are all responsible. 

Let me be clear — this violence is not inevitable.

Our actions will determine our future.

We are all responsible for repairing the world.

Hazak Hazak v’Nitchazek – Be strong, be strong and together we will be stronger.

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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 God" (Micah 6:8).