We are counting the days and weeks. . . yes, we've been counting the days since entering social distancing (almost 6 weeks!), BUT we are also counting the days and weeks in a positive way.
We started to "Count the Omer," from the second day of Passover. Each night we say a blessing and count seven times seven weeks, until on the 50th day we celebrate receiving the Torah at Sinai, on the holiday of Shavuot. In Jewish mysticism these seven weeks are seen as a prime time for inner reflection and personal growth.
This year the Omer season seems more relevant than ever. The first Passover Seder took place while people sheltered at home from a deadly plague. Fast forward over a millennium, and there was another plague, during the Omer season, that killed many of the students of Rabbi Akiba, a great sage and one of the leaders of the rebellion against the Roman empire in the Land of Israel.
Tradition has it that Rabbi Akiba's students were also "plagued" by a lack of mutual respect, and had to learn how to get along together. So during this time each year, we recall these events by a state of "semi-mourning" in which we abstain from haircuts and from holding weddings, among other things. Yep, we are all doing that this year!
The plague lifted on the 33rd Day of the Omer, known as Lag Ba-Omer, which became a day devoted to outdoor celebrations, games, and bonfires. I never gave much thought to this ancient plague, until this year when we ourselves are living through a pandemic. Again and again, the lessons of history have become very real to me this year, and the barriers that separate us from the past have been effaced.
Superimposed on this ancient spring season are some modern Jewish special days: Yom Hashoah, the commemoration of the Holocaust (which took place this week and was marked by virtual gatherings around the world). and a week later Yom HaZikaron (Israel's Memorial Day), followed by Yom HaAtzmaut (Israeli Independence Day).
In honor of Yom HaAtzmaut, Israel's Independence Day, I would like to invite you to a Virtual Tour of Israel! On Wednesday, April 29, 8pm, please join me on Zoom, where you are invited to share a favorite photo of Israel (you can have them ready on your computer desktop), and/or a favorite Israel story or memory. Hopefully we can also sing a couple of Israeli songs. Bring your own Israeli snacks! To get the log-in and Password, see our email to members, or send me or Marcy an email. At that time, I will also share about an interfaith, Peacemakers' Tour of Israel that I'm planning to co-lead with a local minister, Doris Dalton, God willing, when it's safe to travel again.
Looking forward to seeing you then. I'm counting the days!
Dear PCS Community,
"Why is this night different from every other night?" Those words will have a lot of extra meaning at our Seders this year! We are celebrating in different ways this year, unable to have the usual joyful gatherings of extended families and friends in person. Fortunately, we do have the technology to meet virtually, and the religious flexibility to do so.
We are all doing what's difficult together, so that we can preserve life and help all of society get through this challenging time, to better days ahead.
Many phrases and ideas from the Seder will surely echo with us this year in new and relevant ways: The very name of "Passover," for example. Like our ancestors on the first Seder night, we are urged to stay home for our health and safety.
The 10 plagues--all too relevant (not only the Corona Virus, but other environmental and social woes) that have occured in recent months.
On a more positive note, we reconsider the meaning of the parting of the sea and our hopes for freedom. Freedom may have a new meaning for many of us as our priorities shift to consider what is really important to us in life.
Likewise, the figure of Elijah the Prophet inspires us to be the person who checks on our friends and does kind deeds for others.
And "next year in Jerusalem" is becoming "Next year with everyone together!"
I know that this is a hard and stressful time for everyone. Please know that although we may be temporarily isolated, you are not alone. Your PCS community is here for you. Our staff and board have been reaching out to call congregants on the phone, but if you haven't heard from us yet, please feel free to contact me (email@example.com) or Marcy (firstname.lastname@example.org).
We are meeting frequently on Zoom. Drop in for our Kabbalat Shabbats on Fridays at 8pm for beautiful music by Aydin Mayers and inspirational moments and stories with me - and just to see everyone's friendly faces! Enjoy Torah Study on Saturdays at 11am to see friends and learn timeless wisdom. I also lead a bedtime story and Shema for the kids each evening at 7:30pm (except the first two nights of Passover) and we are offering special Hebrew school classes on zoom, with info being sent out to parents.
For security reasons, I would rather not put the logins on this blog, but you can email me for details: email@example.com.
If you need some one-on-one support, we are offering counseling by me, the rabbi, (firstname.lastname@example.org) and by our Westchester Jewish Community Services Partner in Caring, social worker Jill Schreibman (email@example.com).
We have several members who have offered to shop for others (Marcy can provide names: firstname.lastname@example.org ).
For Pesach, we provided free or donation-based Passover meals from a grant, and are offering three online Seders led by myself and by congregants (see an email from Marcy about how to log on to those, or email me). And check out my previous blog post for some digital haggadahs that you can use if you are running a zoom or Skype seder for your own family. (And in the post before that, I suggested tzedakah funds to help our neediest neighbors through this difficult time.)
My friends, this Passover, we will gather separately, but with one heart. I'm thinking of all of you and looking forward, please God, to the time when we can all be together in person again.
Next year in Jerusalem! Next year (and sooner)--may we gather at home and at shul together again!
With many blessings for health and happiness,
Rabbi Julie Hilton Danan
PS: Here are some relaxing guided meditations that I have recorded and posted on my personal website:
And here is a timely Seder supplement that includes a contribution that I wrote:
"Why is this night different from all other nights?" That' line has never applied to any Seder more than this month! Our Passover Seders will necessarily be different due to the emergency situation of the Covid-19 pandemic.
For everyone's health, we must not have any guests in person at our Seder, but only people who are living in the same household already. Those of us who are liberal Jews can have online Seders (such as on Zoom) to include family and friends! (In fact, even some Orthodox Israelis rabbis took the unusual step of permitting people to include grandparents at their Seder via Zoom.)
If you are going to have some guests online, and want to share a digital Haggadah, there are several to choose from. Here are some ideas:
Bayit, a Jewish educaitonal organization, has shared a variety of digital resources for Passover, including the popular Velveteen Rabbi Haggadah by Rabbi Rachel Barenblat, and some social justice-themed Haggadot:
For families with young children, or who want a simple illustrated Haggdah, you can get one free by signing up with Kveller, a website for Jewish parents: https://www.kveller.com/haggadah/
If you would like a mystical/Hassidic version, you can get the Breslov digital Haggadah: https://breslov.org/free-breslov-haggadah-download/
Update: And here's one more that has an environmental emphasis--and you can get it as a power point (great for zoom sharing):
Here are some ideas for using a digitual Haggadah:
If you use the digital Haggadah on zoom, you could send the link to everyone before hand, they can download and they can look at it on their screens. Alternately, the leader can share their screen. I suggest just sharing some pages briefly for a prayer or reading, and then stopping the share to allow for "face to face" discussion.
Mostly, I suggest keeping your Seder simple. The Seder is not just a script to be read, it's a framework for discussion. You might ask each person to share something they are grateful for or to prepare a song or discussion topic. We certainly have a lot of topics to discuss this year: about plagues, about freedom, about our hopes for the future. Whichever Haggadah you choose, use it as a starting point, not a script. We can try to think of what we have and not what we are missing this year.
It's also interesting to note that even in Biblical times, people couldn't always celebrate Passover appropriately at the correct time. Maybe this year we will celebrate as best we can this month, and have a modern version of the "Pesach Sheni," a second Passover, by gathering in person at a later date, God willing.
Wishing you all a good and meaningful Passover, and "Next year--together with everyone again!"
While we are all struggling in various ways with the isolation and stress induced by the epidemic, the struggles are far more difficult for many of our needy neighbors.
This year, PCS has been partnering on a UJA Open Tent grant, together with Mosholu Montefiore Community Center (MMCC) in the Bronx, to provide Jewish gateways for Jews of color, LGBTQ and interfaith families in Westchester.
Although our grant-related activities are in Westchester, I want to support our partners at MMCC and the people they serve. Imagine sharing a small apartment among three families and struggling to keep afloat from day to day. Many live in dire circumstances even at the best of times. How much more those families are struggling now, when the inequities of our society have been thrown into sharp relief.
This week was my birthday and I decided to do a fundraiser for the MMCC food pantry. Please join in! To donate, go to:
IMPORTANT: YOU MUST FILL IN THE "IN HONOR OF" SECTION of the form with "For food pantry"! (If you forget, you can respond and tell them this when they send your donation acknowledgement). You can also call 718-882-4000, ext. 0 and say you would like to donate for the food pantry, or mail a check to MMCC (memo line: food pantry) and send to: MMCC, 3450 Dekalb Ave., Bronx, NY 10467.
Another organization on the front lines of feeding the hungry right now in New York City is a favorite of mine: Masbia. Founded by a really cool Hassid, Alexander Rappaport, they normally have soup kitchens (that are really like nice restaurants) to feed thousands of needy New Yorkers daily. They are now distributing groceries and food to the needy and packages of healthy foods to the quarantined.
Don't forget our local neighbors in Westchester. We can help right here by donating to the Westchester Food Bank.
Tzedakah is one of the greatest Jewish mitzvot, and there is no time like now to help those in need. Tzedakah saves lives. It may even alleviate our own anxiety and stress for a bit when we do something to help others.
Let me know in the comments if you are finding ways to do extra mitzvot now!
Take Heart! We are engaged in a mitzvah.
Shabbat Shalom! I don't have a lot of time to write before Shabbat, but I want to let you know that I'm thinking of everyone in our community. Many are concerned for their or a loved one's health, some are having to postpone long-awaited simchas, others of us are just stressed out by the news from hour to hour.
By now I hope you have seen the email from our president, Leyla Naksbendi, about our current building closing. If not take a look wherever those emails hide in your email folders! (There is also some info on the home page of this website).
Here are a few more words of encouragement from me personally:
In Israel, they talk about the challenges of the day as the "Matzav," the situation. I hope we can take heart from time to time by reframing our "matzav." We can consider that we are all participating in a huge mitzvah--and we are doing it with the whole community. We are doing the primary mitzvah in the Torah: Pikuach Nefesh, saving lives. For that, the Torah tells us to put aside just about any other mitzah.
By giving everyone more space and less contact for a while, by washing our hands frequently and well with soap, we are helping many people stay healthy and we are "moving the curve" of a growing epidemic. As a medical professional in my family told me, don't think worst case scenarios. Think that we are actively doing what needs to be done to keep our medical resources from becoming overwhelmed. (And she really emphasized the handwashing!)
That said, it can be isolating and sad to not have contact with one another regularly. We can get overwhelmed with the news and updates. Thanks to the wonders of technology, I'm going to try to stay connected with you! It may take me a while to get up to speed on some of this, but how about joining me for some Shabbat moments together, some time to have peace and to decompress from the news?
If you want to greet Shabbat with me tonight (Friday, March 13), I'll be livestreaming on Facebook (short, not a full service) at 6:30 Friday evening:
You can also meet me on Zoom for Torah study at 11am on Saturday, March 14.
Use the link below (fuller information in the email from Leyla):
Finally, if you just need to talk, you can email me: email@example.com, or call my home office from the number in the email. We also have a social worker available to give us emotional support, and her contact info. is in the email from Leyla. I may not be in the office, but I am "in" and here for you. Shabbat Shalom and hope to see you online!
Did you know that as an American Jew who supports Israel, you can take just a few minutes between now and March 11, to make a difference for Israel's future by voting in elections for the World Zionist Congress? Any Jewish person age 18 and up who affirms a general set of Zionist principles can vote and help to select 152 American delegates to this global Jewish forum that meets in Jerusalem every five years.
It's the most important Jewish election you've probably never heard of.
This organizational election helps determine the future of Israel's culture by guiding the directions of key institutions responsible for allocating nearly $1 Billion annually to support Israel and World Jewry. Yet only about 1% of American Jews voted in the last one.
Using this link: https://azm.org/elections you can vote (there is a $7.50 processing fee, $5 for age 25 and under). You will select one of 12 slates described on the page. I encourage you to follow the links and see which slate appeals to you, which is obviously your choice. Many in our community may be interested in learning about these slates and their visions for Israel:
You can read about all of the 12 slates from the main page and look up their websites for more information. Learn about the diversity of the Jewish movements and decide which vision you affirm. Then take just a few minutes of your time to vote and support that vision and those organizations you believe in.
"When you vote, you will be able to choose from over a dozen slates representing diverse political beliefs, religious denominations and cultural traditions. Those elected from the United States will join delegates from Israel and around the world at the 38th World Zionist Congress in October 2020, the international “parliament of the Jewish people”, to make decisions regarding key institutions which allocate nearly $1 Billion annually to support Israel and World Jewry (including the World Zionist Organization, Keren Kayemet LeYisrael – Jewish National Fund and the Jewish Agency for Israel)."
A short video below tells you more.
Each year I choose a central theme for my High Holy Day / Days of Awe messages.
The theme is woven into my sermons, remarks, Cantor Abbe's choice of songs, and even what I call our "holiday swag," of things you get to take home to remind you of the message.
Past themes have included:
This year, my holiday theme is "Lamed Vavniks: The Hidden Power of Righteouness." In case you haven't heard the term, don't worry; it's simple. Lamed and Vav are the two Hebrew letters whose numerical value is 36. There is an ancient legend of 36 hidden tzaddikim (saintly, righteous people) whose merits uphold the world. Sounds quaint and naive, but I think that this venerable tradition has a deep contemporary meaning for our globally interconnected world, a world where we too often assume that our small, private deeds have no impact. Over the next ten days, I plan to speak and teach and discuss with you how this tradition might inspire us to feel more empowered and humble at the same time.
Have you met some someone whose character and deeds were so exemplary that just being around them raised you to a higher level, made you want to do a little better? Hopefully we all know at least one or two people who seem to be living their entire lives on a different plane. Hopefully we can think, too, of someone whose words or actions, however small, made a great difference to our lives. These are our lamed-vavniks.
Our tradition is full of legends about "lamed-vavniks," the humble, hidden saints who secretly sustain the entire world. We first hear of it explicitly in the Talmud [Bavli Sanhedrin 97b and Sukkah 45b], where the sage Abbaye is quoted as saying, “The world must contain not less than 36 righteous individuals in each generation who greet the Shekhinah’s presence each day,” (the Shekhinah meaning God’s presence in the world). His proof text is from the biblical book of Isaiah 30:18, Ashrei kol hokei lo, “Happy are all those that wait for Him.” (The word “for Him” in Hebrew, Lo, spelled lamed-vav, equals 36 in gematria.) The number thirty six itself is symbolic, meaning twice the value of “Chai” or life (18 in Hebrew numerology).
How do the Lamed Vavniks keep the world going? Some say by the practice of compassion. As Dr. Naomi Remen's relates in her popular book, My Grandfather's Blessing, her grandfather told her as a child: “Anyone you meet might be one of the thirty-six for whom God preserves the world…It is important to treat everyone as if this might be so… [The Lamed-Vavniks] respond to all suffering with compassion. Without compassion the world cannot continue. Our compassion blesses and sustains the world.”
Traditionally, the lamed vavniks were seen as so humble that they didn't even know who they were! It used to be the pinnacle of chutzpah to consider oneself a lamed vavnik. But with the state of the world today, I think that we have to take another approach. We should look to the models of those we know who live those extra-righteous lives, and try to take one step in their direction, knowing that we will never know the ultimate repercussions of a single deed. In order to heal our planet, we need to do more than advance our technology. We need to develop our character, our compassion, our hearts and souls. We need to reach for “double high,” to live our lives at a higher level.
I look forward to learning, praying, and discussing with you over these holidays, and finding our "inner lamed vavnik!"
Wishing you L'shanah Tovah--may we all be blessed for a good and sweet year, inscribed and sealed in the Book of Life.
Tonight begins Shabbat Hazon, the Sabbath of Vision: the vision of Isaiah, a prediction of the destruction of Judaea and the temple in Jerusalem by the Babylonians as a consequence of the evils of society. Saturday night (8/10) through Sunday evening is the full day fast of Tisha B’Av, the 9th of Av, marking the destruction of the ancient Holy Temple along with other catastrophes of Jewish history, such as the exile from Spain in 1492.
Tisha B'Av itself is a day replete with mourning: not only fasting but chanting the book of lamentations and other kinot (dirges), sitting on the floor like mourners, refraining from greetings. These concrete rituals create a sort of psychodrama or affective education in Jewish history. They evoke our difficult national memories of sieges, exiles and deportations. This summer observance has little appeal to non-Orthodox Jews and I have seldom been able to convene a service or program with more than a couple of people.
But the meaning of this day is more relevant than ever, and let me explain why.
This Shabbat is a Shabbat of preparation, and vision. It is striking to me that the book of Isaiah provides the most beautiful and uplifting visions of world peace and harmony in all of the Bible. And yet the Shabbat that we call the “Shabbat of Vision” has a negative vision of destruction: “Your land is waste, your cities burned down.” And the cause is clearly spelled out, an unjust and unfaithful society: “Ah, sinful nation! People laden with iniquity! Brood of evildoers! Depraved children! (You get the point).
G-d is apparently tired of empty “thoughts and prayers” and desiring of right action: “Though you pray at length, I will not listen. Your hands are stained…wash yourselves clean…cease to do evil; learn to do good! Devote yourselves to justice; aid the wronged. Uphold the rights of the orphan; defend the cause of the widow... [then] be your sins like crimson, they can turn pure as snow.”
Some modern day prophets had a way of motivating with a positive vision, like the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., in his “I have a dream speech” of an equal and just society in America. Many more who predict our global and national future paint dire pictures of where we are headed, be that an unraveling of democracy or a growing environmental disaster.
I have always been opposed to scaring people into doing the right thing. Our Sages preferred to emphasize the positive. Indeed after Tisha B’Av, we will turn to seven weeks of beautiful and uplifting prophetic visions in our haftaroth leading up to Rosh Hashanah.
But once a year, we have to confront the darkest visions, the most destructive destinations of our current trajectory. We are indeed headed toward environmental meltdown at a growing pace, and yet our government is removing environmental regulations and withdrawing from international treaties. We turn on the news to fatal mass shootings on a regular basis. Children cry because they are separated from their parents due to immigration violations or for seeking asylum at our borders. Our national conversation has turned to anger and mocking, and we fail to find common ground to address some of our biggest problems. Like the Judeans at the time of the Roman destruction, as Americans (and also as Jews on many matters) we are bitterly divided among ourselves.
Contemporary Jewish thinkers like Rabbi Arthur Waskow have universalized the meaning of Tishva B’Av, by tying it to the dropping of the atom bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which also occurred at these seasons, or by singing a modern lament for the destruction of species and natural habitats on the planet.
Like all our rabbis of old, I encourage us enter that heart of darkness. . .but then to turn around, as we embark on our annual season of teshuvah, sacred return. We have looked unblinkingly at the worst of history and envisioned a future of destruction. But we cannot despair and stop there. We must pull back from that brink, turning toward a positive vision and making the necessary changes to realize it. My teacher Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi often said that the 20th century offered us two competing visions: the mushroom cloud (today I would say the melting polar icecaps and burning cities of climate change) on the one hand, and on the other the shining universal vision of our blue earth as seen from outer space.
To choose life is to confront the reality of the first, and then consciously pivot to the second.
As a rabbi, I believe in motivating with positive visions, with love of our fellow beings and love of our natural world. I think those are the only long-term ways to make deep and enduring change. But to do so while ignoring the dreadful potential of our current trajectory would be fantasy, not faith. My personal definition of emunah, faith, is “affirmation in the face of uncertainty.” I am not certain, but I affirm.
So whether or not you fast on Tisha B’Av, I encourage you to open to the vision today, and to lament that vision tomorrow. And then get up from the floor, dust ourselves off, and get back to the work of Tikkun Olam.
“I call heaven and earth to witness against you this day:
What I'm lamenting this Tisha B'Av is the gun violence in our country. I just got back from my summer break, sadly sitting down to post about Tisha B'Av (Saturday night-Sunday's fast for the destruction of the ancient Temples and a variety of other sad events). On this full fast day we read from the book of Lamentations in the Bible. The scroll's resonance with current events is pronounced: violence, mistreatment of refugees, hatred and division in society.
Looking at my blog, I was shocked to notice that my last post this spring was about synagogue shootings and the insecurity that we are feeling as Jews with the rise of antisemitism. This week brought two more terrible mass shootings just a day apart in El Paso and Dayton, one directed against Mexican Americans by a white supremacist, and another at random strangers (and his own sister) by a hateful misogynist with a history of violent threats. But the one thing they had in common was the easy means to carry out their evil plans: "The gunman, who was wearing body armor and a mask, opened fire with an assault-style rifle fitted with a high-capacity ammunition drum that could hold 100 rounds, police said," enabling him to kill 9 people in 30 seconds (NY Times, on the Dayton killer).
People used to ask whether it was safe to visit Israel due to terrorism. Now mothers are dying protecting their babies in American cities. We are suffering from a plague of domestic terror in the form of mass shootings that have set the country on edge. It doesn't matter if those mass shootings are (as one misguided scientist tweeted), not the most statistically likely way to die. It matters that they have created completely unnecessary tragedies for scores of citizens, and left everyone else feeling vulnerable for themselves and their loved ones in public gathering spaces, schools, and houses of worship.
As a rabbi I know that all problems are complex. I know that we also have to confront the deadly ideologies and address the mental health issues and the websites that glorify violence. But we can't ignore that our great nation is exceptional in our tolerance of gun violence. We have 5% of the world population, and arguably about 42% of the world's guns. As a result, we suffer from far greater deadly gun violence than other wealthy and developed nations.
Every time I voice my concern about the proliferation of weapons in our country, I get emails from people who chide me about the right to bear arms. So let me address that up front. Leaving aside what our founders meant when they spoke of a "well-regulated militia" back in the age of muskets, I know that guns have long been part of American culture, particularly in the West. We kept guns at our Texas ranch growing up and I learned to fire one. My youngest sister even won a shooting prize at summer camp. I know that they are part of a way of life, and a necessity for many in rural areas. I know there are arguments pro and con about the scope of gun control, and I'm not trying to take away yours. But who could dream of a day when citizens would be allowed to own military-style weapons with high-capacity magazines that allow them to slaughter their fellow citizens within seconds, whether from racism or antisemitism or simply from being deranged and hateful? When children and teenagers would be murdered in schools and our elected leaders offer nothing much more than sympathy?
As a rabbi, I do believe in "thoughts and prayers," as long as they actually make you think and get motivated to make the world better.
The tide should have turned on this issue long ago. Judaism is a religion of idealism and also of persistent, cumulative action to help repair the world. We have to keep going with organizations and protests and citizen actions. But we are also allowed times to grieve and to almost indulge in despair ... before we pick up and start working again on the never-ending quest of Tikkun Olam, repairing our world. That's what Tisha B'Av was meant to do. To wallow in the sadness once a year, and then pull up our bootstraps (or tefillin straps!) and keep going. We have seen worse in our long history, and we know that change and progress can happen.
This Tisha B'Av, I lament the destruction of two temples in Jerusalem ... and I lament two precious human temples in the form of young parents Jordan and Andre Anchondo of El Paso, who died shielding their baby and one another, leaving behind two other children. I lament the exile of the Jewish people from our land by the Romans ... and I lament the children and teens, the Jews and Christians and Muslims, the people of all races who have been targeted and killed in mass shootings. I lament our powerlessness over the centuries ... and I lament our current lack of courageous leadership and communal resolve to address the issues of gun violence and hatred in our society.
For now, I mourn. I lament.
And then, as a Jew, I will get back to work.
"It is not up to you to finish the work. But neither are you free to desist from it."
The featured image on this post shows a wooded area in Lasdon Park, a Westchester County Park near Katonah. The forest here was severely damaged a few years ago by Hurricane Sandy, but it is being repaired through a combination of human care and nature's force of life. Likewise, our social ecosystem has been damaged by violence and hatred, and it needs intensive tending and healing.
The pain of the second deadly antisemitic attack on American soil in six months weighs heavily on my heart. So too does all hatred or violence against those considered different: in recent days in our own country that included a Sikh family murdered in their homes, African American churches set on fire, and a man ramming a car into people because they "looked Muslim," sending a young girl to intensive care.
As Jews, our historic trauma of the Holocaust makes many of us see in recent attacks the signs of another era of antisemitism. And indeed, antisemitic actions have increased domestically and around the world. But the difference today is that the antisemitism is not coming from our own government, as during the Shoah, and also that it is not shared by most of American society. In fact, various studies have shown that Jews are the most liked and admired religious group in the country. We have so many allies, and much common cause with other groups, because (as I heard in a talk by Civil Rights activist Eric Ward) the white nationalist/supremacist hatred now directed so openly at Jews is the same one that threatens African Americans, immigrants, and other minorities. We should turn toward one another and support one another in our common goals of tolerance and diversity.
Our American gun culture is part of the danger. The inaction of leaders to curb weapons of war in our midst has led to a situation where mass shootings, whatever the motives, have become a terrible commonplace of American society. Americans are less than five percent of the world population but own over 40% percent of the civilian owned weapons. Although I grew up with a ranch in Texas where we kept guns, and understood that some neighbors hunted to put food on the table, I never expected a day where people would be allowed and even encouraged to keep military assault weapons in their homes. The terrorizing effect of these shootings has created an age of anxiety for schoolchildren, teens and adults. It has turned our houses of worship (especially for Jews, Muslims, and other minorities) into fortresses rather than open tents. Although solutions elude us, we can't give up.
But while common sense gun laws are important, they are only a start to repairing our social ecosystem. Every one of us has a part in healing the fabric of our society with kindness, love, and the building of community. While tens of people are killed in mass shootings each year (though each one of them an entire world!), about 20,000 use their guns to take their own lives. Depression, anxiety, and suicide have risen dramatically among young people in the last decade, and this shows a very damaged social system.
As a rabbi, I don't pretend to know all the reasons for this trend, but I believe that secularization and the weakening of community commitments contribute to the current fraying social ecosystem that isolates our young people. This applies to any religious group, although I can only speak for the Jewish community. A warm, values-based synagogue community for adults and families, and an active youth group to support our teens...these are not just extra-curricular activities to fit into our busy schedules; they are the very fabric of life and social support.
But today, many people look at the synagogue as a provider of service, seeing it with a consumer mentality rather than as a spiritual home. I believe that the ethos of Pleasantville Community Synagogue is to be a real community. And yet we are struggling against a tide of secularization and of busy lives that leave little time to come together in prayer and celebration. It is truly a sacred task to rebuild and reweave the strong fabric of our community together.
As we mark Yom Hashoah, Holocaust remembrance day, many of us feel shaken by antisemitism. But while recent events evoke our collective trauma, they should really awaken our collective resolve. To paraphrase the great sage Hillel:
If we are not for ourselves as Jews, who will stand up for us? If we are only for ourselves, then what do we stand for? And if not now, when?
May we find comfort as we work together to heal the the ecosystem of our society.