By Rabbi Jonah Geffen
B’rosh Hashanah yikatevun, uv’yom tzom kippur yehatemun…
בְּרֹאשׁ הַשָּׁנָה יִכָּתֵבוּן וּבְיוֹם צוֹם כִּפּוּר יֵחָתֵמוּן…
Rosh Hashanah has now passed; the writing of the great book has begun. On the eve of Yom Kippur, as J Street’s Director of Rabbinic Relations, I wanted to share with you excerpts from some inspiring and courageous sermons delivered by some members of our Rabbinic Cabinet on Rosh Hashanah last week.
Friends, this summer was not an easy one to digest. And I expect we will be dealing with its trauma for some time. Both the insensitive and belligerent speech delivered by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to the United Nations General Assembly and the mean-spirited and negative response offered by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu have lowered our collective spirits. There is an oppressive feeling in our community that yet another opportunity is being lost and events are moving in the wrong direction.
As Rabbi Brad Boxman told his community on Rosh Hashanah:
“This may be one of the most difficult sermons I have ever preached in almost 30 years in the pulpit. I have written and rewritten this message in my head at least 100 times, and I pray I get it right. How do we reconcile Israel’s need and right to defend herself using deadly force to maintain her security and the compassion and reverence for all life which is at the heart of Jewish core values, especially for those who are labeled so inhumanely as ‘collateral damage’?”
We’re so proud that J Street rabbis did not stay silent despite the difficulty presented by this moment. We all know that it’s not easy to speak about Israel from the pulpit. The easy course is to avoid the issue and talk about something else.
But as Rabbi Michael Zedek stated:
“This summer with the renewed conflict with Hamas, I want to, have to, must talk about Israel. I do so with elements of sadness, pain, awkwardness, devotion, admiration and anxiety, not only because of Operation Protective Edge but also with the increasing voices of anti-Zionism around the world.”
For some, the events of this summer seemed to point to stark divisions within the Jewish community.
But Rabbi Lester Bronstein reminded his community that differences of opinion strengthen our community. He said there must be:
“a feeling of willingness to ‘release’ ourselves from looking at these issues in only one rigid way. I invite us not to judge every news item, every clash, every rocket, every statement from Washington or Jerusalem or Ramallah, through the time-honored lens of our own personal firmly-established ideology or politics.”
At J Street, we have worked to promote just this kind of engagement with Israel. We must ask questions like those raised by Rabbi Noa Kushner:
“What does it mean when we here, have reached a moment where when we hear about the deaths of innocents and we jump to our arguments rather than stop and weep?… I am worried about our collective neshama (soul)… I worry we are building an Iron Dome around our hearts.”
Members of J Street’s Rabbinic Cabinet have given us an inspiring example of what our organization embodies–the courage to speak out on behalf of a better future with security for Israel and justice for the Palestinians.
As Rabbi Amy Schwartzman put it:
“By now most of us surely realize that there is no military solution to this conflict. As long as the suffocation felt in Gaza is not alleviated, Israel will not be able to breathe freely either. It’s time for a radical rethink to end the cycle of violence before hundreds more innocent people die. I don’t know exactly what this might look like. But I imagine it would include an end to settlements, the Israeli army pulling out of the West Bank, and a newly empowered Palestinian Authority that helps put a lid on Hamas violence.”
At his synagogue this Rosh Hashanah, Rabbi John Rosove ended his sermon with these words:
“I say, Chazak chazak v’nit’chazek–Be strong and let us strengthen each other for good, for justice, for peace, for the security and dignity of our people and state [Israel], for the security and dignity of the Palestinian people, and for all peoples of the Middle East.”
Indeed. This Yom Kippur, may we all be inscribed in the Book of Life.