Rosh Hashanah Morning Sermon 2017

Below is a transcript of the sermon given by Austin Zoot at Temple Oheb Shalom in Sandusky, Ohio on September 21st, 2017.

When the year 5776 began two years ago, I was living in Israel, beginning my rabbinical school journey. During that year, I was learning about the basics of our faith, the history of our people, and, most intensely, about life and society in Israel. One of the elements of the year that I found particularly intriguing was that my time in Israel overlapped with the American Primary Season. I was, in a way, getting to experience the American election from the perspective of an outsider. I was getting to see how the world saw us, and how our decisions as a nation had an impact on our allies.

By the time I got home to America in May, the primaries were essentially over. The year, in retrospect, could be fairly significantly defined as a year of polarization. Our nation had divided itself into camps. You had those who identified with Bernie, those who were Trump supporters, those who were With Hillary. What years ago had been impolite to discuss was now unavoidable. To ignore the politics of the world was to appear ignorant or disengaged.

Well, the year 5777 began almost exactly before the election of 2016. What came next was, in many ways, defined by an election in which one candidate received a significant victory in the electoral college, the other receiving a victory of the popular vote by a wide margin. The polarization from the year before was about to shape the coming year.

Thus started the year of reaction. It seemed, over the past 11 months, as if every day came with a new reaction to something going on around us. Donald Trump was sworn in as president, the next day saw the women’s march on Washington. News media outlets published pieces and the White House restricted access. Countless executive orders and bills were brought forward and the public ran to their keyboards to express their frustration and their indignation. Even when our enemy was nature, we reacted, rushing forward to offer donations of time, money, and shelter to those affected by the hurricanes of this past month.

Overwhelmingly, this year of reaction has been difficult to process. We have struggled with a lack of control amidst a world that continues to move in ways that we don’t see coming, surprising us and driving us to actions that, in some cases, we never thought we would have to take. I never thought I would have to explain why participating in climate change agreements were important, yet we did this past year. I never thought we would have to debate what “real news” is, because all of a sudden the foundations of truth have been uprooted by the spread of mislabeled opinion. I never thought that on Rosh Hashanah morning, I would have to be discussing the fact that yes, Naziism is wrong and that Jews would have to live in fear in this nation, one founded on equality and liberty and freedom, of those who seek to destroy us because of our faith that is different from theirs.

We are living in a time of change in the way our society functions. We have easier access to information than ever before, and it is, in some ways, growing difficult to hide from the inundation of data streaming in. With every update, we react. With every news blast, we react. We have gotten to the point where, in the time it takes us to process what has just happened, the world has already moved on, forcing us to grapple with the next dilemma, the next challenge, the next scandal.

The year 5777 has been exhausting, confusing, and difficult. Which is why, in 5778, as we begin anew today, we must turn this year into the year of action, rather than reaction. It is time that we change our focus away from the ever-changing cycle of reaction in favor of proactively making the world a better place.

We know, after all, what this feels like. When we have an experience thrust upon us, a difficult and trying day, we feel that frustration and exhaustion from the loss of control and the demand to catch up. But, when we know what we are about to set out to do, when we have our marching orders before we embark, we feel like we’re accomplishing something, like we’re making a difference. The ownership fuels us. The action inspires us.

What does that look like, though? It can start in the simplest of ways. In Cincinnati, like many communities, we have a high population of homeless and hungry people, asking for money on street corners. They stand on the highway off ramp and ask for handouts. It was in my fourth month in the city that I finally got frustrated with the constant feeling of inadequacy. I wasn’t able to clothe them or shelter them or help them in all the ways they needed. What could I do? How could I become part of the solution?

I finally decided that I would buy a box of granola bars that I would keep in my car. I can’t be giving money every time someone needs help, but I can help ease a little bit of hunger for today. Maybe it’s granola bars. Maybe it’s a few blankets or hand warmers as the days grow colder. We, as individuals, have the ability to look at those who need help around us and to reach out and make their lives easier. The assumption, of course, is that if I make this tiny little effort, than everyone else will join with me. In our tradition, Rabbi Tarfon teaches us that it isn’t our job to complete the task, but we aren’t free to ignore it either. We have a difference to make, and we each have to do our part to make it happen.

Now, not all help has to be financial, but sometimes a donation of money is the best way to help a specific cause that we’re passionate about. When you make your donation, though, don’t do it alone in your home. Tell people about it! Share it on social media. Organize games and activities around making donations to causes that speak to you. Maybe you make a bet on football. For every loss by the Browns, you donate to your favorite charity (and there will be many of them). Maybe you ask your friends to sponsor your daily walk; for every mile you traverse, your friends will donate to the cause of your choice. Find friends who will match your donations and partner in your work and all of a sudden, your giving grows beyond what you can afford, and your ability to make a change grows too. It may sound like bragging about the good you’re doing, but in reality, it may be an inspiration to someone else to do their own version of good.

A huge part about taking intentional action to make the world a better place is about wearing your values on your sleeve. So many of the problems we are facing today are as a result of the animosities and resentments people are holding in their heart. We are experiencing racism, sexism, bigotry, religious intolerance. While I am only able to control the way I think and feel, I am able to share that with other people. Letting someone know that you are there for them, that you care, that you respect them as an individual is a powerful thing, something that we all too often overlook. These outward expressions of support are subtle, but they could go a long way toward letting someone in your life know that they are not alone in their fight against oppression, and that they have a partner on their journey.

One of the inherent problems with my theory, of course, is that if everyone listens, not everyone will be taking action in the same direction. If I go out and do, and someone who opposes me goes out and does, then we are pushing against one another. But, in the words of Aaron Sorkin, “decisions are made by those who show up.” We need to be present, we need to stand up, and we need to go out and fight for the world we wish to create. When that happens, truth and righteousness have a way of rising to the top.

Proverbs teaches us that “a person who runs to do just, good, and kind deeds attains life, success, and honor.” But we are meant to go run to do that work. The days of sitting back and waiting for the world to change around us are over. We have spent a year reacting, allowing others to decide where we are going to put our attention and our energy. Now is the time that we must take ownership of the places and the things that we want to exert our influence, the ways that we want to make an impact.

Rabbi Hillel famously asked the question: “If not now, when?” 5778 is the year for us to take action. 5778 is the year for us to go out and busy ourselves with the repair of the world. 5778 is the year that we take control of our task. May we all work together to fight for a brighter future.

Shana Tova.

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July 11th: What Mega Churches Have to Teach

Growing up, I was fascinated with Joel Osteen. The televangelist was able to reach an audience on a weekly basis that blew me away, and his words were able to have an impact that was so incredibly powerful and moving. I had always wondered: what could we, as the Jewish community, learn from seeing his success and the way he has run his community?

I finally went to find out. My father and I traveled to Houston last week to experience a service at Lakewood Church, the largest church in America. Built out of the remains of the Compaq Center, where the Houston Rockets had once played, the church was a cathedral of modern religion. Throughout the service, there were some powerful lessons in things that the Megachurch is able to do that Jewish communities need to emulate, and others that we need to be very careful to avoid.

Things the Jewish community needs to learn from the Megachurch:

  • Lifestyle of church attendance

From the very start, the church was clearly selling a lifestyle. Church isn’t viewed as a luxury of time, something to do only when it’s convenient. No, the church is a place to go on a regular basis, as many as three or four times a day. The programming they offer matches everyday needs of modern people, from seminars on maintaining a healthy marriage to discussion groups on meaningful and pertinent topics. The church is selling the idea that participation in programs is a route to a more meaningful and fulfilling life, something that anyone with a passion for religious community can understand. Jewish communities have been offering worship services and religious school for generations, but we have a long way to go as a collection of congregations in terms of making participation on the temple an essential part of the experience of life. Going to church isn’t a question, just like going to the grocery store isn’t a matter of “if I have time.” We, as Jewish communities, need to figure out how to sell people on the idea that participation isn’t a luxury but a necessity for meaningful living.

  • Music

It would have been hard to tell if the prayer service we experienced was church worship or a rock concert. Between the full band, the lighting, and the smoke machines, the vibe was that of a party, of a celebration of the greatness of God and community. This sure beats the droll, traditional music that too many places of worship occupy. Of course, not everyone can afford a full scale band and performance caliber musicians, but the central idea is that worship doesn’t have to feel dogmatic. Innovation and enthusiasm speak volumes about the experience that they are attempting to create. And it was far more spiritually moving. It wasn’t just that it was fun to watch or listen to, it was the sensation that a community coming together to celebrate life at its finest can feel like a real connection to the divine. We need to take a note from this book and figure out how to turn services into celebrations of the greatness of life and of God, rather than an act of repetition of a thousand years of ritual practice.

  • Modern message with religious context

The sermon that we heard at Lakewood dealt with the importance of perseverance, overcoming the challenges of daily life in order to strive for your goal. And the anecdotes and lessons the preacher shared were relatable, were powerful, and were able to touch a nerve for everyone listening. There was substantive sourcework for biblical passages to support her ideas, and she was able to make her point about life while using a fascinating mixture of scripture and real-world application. While Jewish communities are doing better than ever before at this, it was a powerful lesson in the way a message can hit home when the lessons of our tradition are applied to the world around us. We have to learn how to offer something fresh, something that feels modern and applicable. By combining our texts with the world around us, we are able to provide guidance and help that our congregants desperately need, while giving them a service that they can’t get anywhere else. Only religious institutions are able to combine the moral backdrop for grappling with modernity in this way. We need to grow more comfortable with grappling with our texts and asking the vital question: how does this make sense in my life right now?

 

The dangers of the Megachurch:

  • The Relationship with Money

A Megachurch is only able to work because of the profound income they create by way of tithes and contributions. They have created a system where church attendance comes with a weekly financial contribution, one that comes with a not-so-subtle subtext: if you contribute to the congregation, God will take care of you. A significant portion of the service was dedicated to this message. By giving your money to the church, they reasoned, God would smile upon you and would make the money you had left to multiply. By giving your money to the church, you were not only facilitating the good work of the church, but you were also creating good-will with God for yourself, with the promise that God will turn around and give you more than you already have. This message, delivered by a woman holding a brand-new iPhone and wearing a multi-thousand dollar watch, is a dangerous one when presented to a great many people who don’t have enough for themselves. Everyone wants to believe that, by giving money to God, God will take care of you. But, for the general public, this results in a large percentage of money going into the church, leaving congregants with even greater financial challenges when they walked in the door. Anyone selling the idea that you need to buy your way into heaven needs to be considered with caution, and can be a dangerous message for people who are desperate for a better life.

  • Indoctrination

This was the place where church got a little bit scary. At one point, the preacher was talking about when obstacles come along and try to get you to stop your pursuit of your dreams. She said that this doubt was the devil whispering in your ear, telling you you can’t do something, and that all thinking is the work of the devil. When that thinking happens, you’re supposed to turn your brain off, open your bible, and drown out the voices in your head. I struggle with any ideology that tells me that independent thinking and asking questions is the work of the devil. The entire experience called for a kind of repetitive rote performance of life, following the instructions of the church leaders and of the bible while preventing the kind of independent thinking that leads to trouble. Of course, this derives from the idea that human beings are inherently sinners and in need of guidance away from our natural inclination for sin. This is a fundamental difference between the work of Judaism and the work of Christianity. Judaism doesn’t believe in this kind of thinking; in fact, questioning and grappling are inherent to understanding one’s faith and understanding of their Judaism.

 

Throughout the experience at Lakewood, I learned the importance of experiencing a variety of different ways of understanding religion in a modern context. I may have been the first person in that building wearing a kippah in a very long time, but there was so much to learn about the way others communicate message of faith, and so much we can learn about how to get our message out to others. We are all striving for meaning in the world around us, and Lakewood Church is offering a version of that reality that has something to teach as Jewish communities try to express a message of our own.

July 6th: Call Your Knesset Members

Last week, the Israeli government suspended plans to create an egalitarian prayer space at the Kotel, or Western Wall, in so doing ostracizing a large portion of the non-Orthodox Jewish population in Israel and abroad. After plans were put aside, Jews around the world, most notably American Reform Jews, voiced their significant displeasure, noting their feelings that Israel is willfully hostile toward the interests of liberal Jewish communities globally. Some even went so far as to claim that Israeli Jews “hate” Jews living in the Diaspora.

The problem comes in the idea that Israeli Judaism is in any way concerned with what is happening in the rest of the Jewish world, or that it is considerate of us one way or the other. Apathy seems more appropriate than hostility. While Jews across the globe send money to our “homeland,” there has been very little that leads anyone to believe that there is any significant influence exerted by Jews outside of Israel.

As long as Israel is going to wear the mantle of being the Jewish homeland, they have an obligation to represent the interests of all jews. That is a tall order for a people that so rarely agree unilaterally on much of anything. But Israel’s representation of global Judaism only works so long as we continue to allow it to be the case.

What that means is that a certain level of knowledge and involvement is required that hasn’t been seen from Americans concerned with Israeli affairs. We can’t sit in our congregations and our homes thousands of miles away and criticize Israel while ignorant of the politics and demographics that make up the country. If we want to be truly involved and engaged, we have to go out and invest ourselves in the realities that Israelis are dealing with on a regular basis.

To do this, we have to deepen our involvement through grappling with the tough questions. Jewish educational institutions across America have done a great disservice to American Jews by over-simplifying the relationship with Israel. We need to know more than hummus and falafel. We need to know more than Israeli dancing and IDF simulations. We even need to know more than just conflict and war. We need to know what it is like to be an Israeli, right now, today, what it truly means to be a Jew living in the homeland of our people.

Birthright poses as a solution to this problem. Send people to Israel for 10 days at a point in their identity formation that they will learn to love and support Israel, and that love will endure beyond their experience. Well, the values of caring for Israel are certainly established, but Birthright does preciously little to meaningfully educate or engage students about the politics or conflicts or ideologies of the region, and certainly not enough about what a young person can do to get involved in the many organizations and nonprofits that exist in the country for exerting influence as a Jew.

Moreso than at any time that I can remember, American Jews can identify with living in a country with a conflict of ideology. We know what it’s like to experience the kind of philosophical differences that Israel politics involves. We need not shy away from really engaging with these political and ideological questions: in fact, we have an obligation to involve ourselves thoughtfully with those challenges.

There are a multitude of ways that American Jews can make their voices heard in Israel. There are organizations and institutions that all are attempting to create meaningful change that American Jews can believe in. Taking the time to familiarize ourselves with the real issues will allow us the opportunity to get involved in ways that we can’t do by donating to “Israel”. Israelis don’t care what American Jews have to say, because, for all intents and purposes, Jewish Americans aren’t saying much of substance in a consistent and powerful way.

The American Jewish population is in control of enough man-power and enough financial discretion that we could be a powerful force in telling Israel how we want the Jewish state to represent us. To this point, we have been operating under the assumption of good faith, something that was fairly loudly declared false a week ago. As long as Israel continues to call itself the homeland of the Jews, it is our obligation to get involved and make our voices heard. That is the only way that we will have a strong, meaningful Jewish state in the land of Israel.

June 13th: The Jewish Whiteness Question

I took a Southwest flight for the first time this past week. I experienced the fierce battle that is finding an aisle seat with a priority spot in the B section, and waited, while the rest of the plane filled up around me. Finally, a man and his 10-year-old daughter sat down in the two seats next to me with a smile and a head nod, and everything seemed to be going just fine.

As we began to taxi toward take-off, I took off my Cubs hat and put it on my knee. As I did, I noticed the man’s face next to me change as he discovered the kippah on my head. The man didn’t get upset, he didn’t get angry, he didn’t get aggressive. But he was most definitely uncomfortable. What he had thought was a perfectly normal traveling companion had turned out to be an “other,” someone different than what he expected. He remained quite polite, still treated me just fine, but the look on his face told me that my ability to pass as a white person had disappeared in the flash of a moment.

In recent weeks, there has been a resurgence into the evaluation of the whiteness of Jews, perhaps inspired by Wonder Woman (played by an Israeli woman), or perhaps simply because it’s about that time of year again.

It is impossible to ignore the fact that, unlike other minority groups, a large percentage of Jews are light-skinned. This allows many Jews to “pass” as white, fitting into the majority without any outward signs of their ‘otherness’. This means that, if they so choose, many Jews are able to pick and choose when they identify themselves as Jewish, and when they get to fit in with the rest of society.

Yet, at the same time, we are only 75 years removed from a time when it didn’t matter what color your skin was. Jews were murdered for their identity, regardless of their outward looks. Sure, a small percentage of Jews were able to hide their beliefs in favor of fitting in with the rest of the German people, but that didn’t stop the extermination of 6 million Jews, having nothing to do with the color of their skin. We can discuss and debate and argue all we want about our whiteness, and someone else can snatch it away in an instant.

The vital piece here is that it doesn’t matter what the outside expressions are: the moment one’s Judaism is exposed, their ability to pass disappears, just as mine did on the airplane last week. Sometimes that comes with questions, sometimes it comes with distrust or anti-semitism, and sometimes it is simply cataloged away as fact. Jews are only able to enjoy the privilege of whiteness so long as their “true identity” remains hidden, which, in turn, means that it isn’t true whiteness.

The truth, though, is that Jews shouldn’t be debating about their whiteness. Our ability to pass is seen by many as the opportunity to fade into the background, to be able to turn on and turn off our role in either community. I posit, rather, that we, as white Jews, have an obligation to maintain our membership status in both the “white” and “minority” communities, in order to create a better world for those around us who don’t have the same privilege. Our Jewish tradition teaches us that we are supposed to be lights unto the nations, that we are supposed to protect the stranger because we too have been strangers. We need to use our outward appearances to bring other white members of the majority into a willingness to listen, to understand, to embrace the diversity of other members of our communities. If I am using my whiteness to hide, I am fundamentally misunderstanding my privilege AND my faith. As a white Jew, my privilege is that I have the tools to force the door open and make the world a more inclusive place for others who don’t have the same foot in the door.

One of the greatest challenges of this conversation is that, by confronting the notion of whether or not Jews are white, it actually is forcing the issue of putting people into boxes. When we force a label on a group of people, we are asking them to bend their identities to match your understanding. Instead, we need to embrace the indeterminacy. We need to stop trying to identify whether or not someone IS a particular category and need to start embracing individuals. We need to stop treating all Jews as the same, all whites as the same, all blacks as the same, all of any group as experiencing the same issues. A Jew of color knows that their experience is very different from my own. When I meet a Jew of color, I don’t want to assume things about them, I want to learn about their experience and their identity. I hope that, even as a white Jew, I can be given the same opportunity.

It is always difficult to write something like this, knowing that I open myself up to the immediate disregard by someone saying “well, you have white privilege, you don’t get it.” I certainly don’t claim to know what it is like to be anyone else, or to have struggled like anyone else. All I am pursuing is a deeper understanding of identity than simply the demographic groups we fall into. If we really want to get to a point where we are creating spaces of inclusion and welcoming, we need to be doing so with the understanding that we human beings are complicated jumbles of identity, and that, in some cases, we need to be willing to understand that we are not always going to understand. When we don’t understand, we have the obligation to ask, and the opportunity to learn.

May 21st: The Year in Israel – A Year Later

One year ago today, I got on a plane and returned home after my first year of rabbinical school in Israel. At the time, I remember the feeling as though I had just experiencing something too big for words, too profound to be understood in a day or a week or a month. I knew, as I sat on that plane a year ago, that I was going to do a lot of growing as I came to terms with who and what I had become after the experience of leaving everything I had known about my life and moving to the other side of the world.

Now, a year later, I think about the processing I have done. Truth be told, rabbinical school leaves surprisingly little time and space for reflection, throwing one experience at us after another. Almost as soon as we finish a phase of the process, we move on to the next with little more than a debrief.

What I have had the chance to do is to better understand who I’m becoming, and how I grapple with the challenges I face. I spent a large part of my time in Israel counting down the days: days til breaks from school, days I spent away from my fiáncé, days left before I got to go home. WIth this focus on arriving at certain benchmarked days, I lost sight of the experience I was having, instead looking too far out in front to truly embrace where I was.

Looking back, I engaged with my year in Israel as an observer, more like an anthropologist than a resident or citizen. I wanted to learn as much as I could, and I treated that learning as something I did for the purpose of furthering my understanding, not necessarily participating in what I was finding. This is neither a bad thing nor a good one. It simply was how I experience the year. It allowed me to see what the world was doing, how things operated, while also maintaining my tether to who and what I was, something that not all students abroad are able to do.

Of course, at the root of the Hebrew Union College requirement to study in Israel is the hope of building a connection with the state of Israel itself. In the 365 days since I left the country, my relationship with it has changed every time I’ve examined it: at times, I have been angry with what I see, at others deeply and profoundly connected to the nation of my heritage. One of the lessons I’m walking away with most clearly is the comfort with the knowledge that I will never have just one stance on Israel. Israel is a vital part of who I am and what it means to me to be Jewish, and that is going to change as the world around me does. While I went to Israel expecting to concretize my understanding, and even came home thinking I would have, I am now more comfortable than ever to be at peace with my fluctuating and maturing love for the Jewish homeland.

Before going to Israel, I was terrified of leaving my home and everything I loved in America. I built up my departure so large that I was consumed by my anxiety associated with it. When I came home, I was convinced that I was never going to worry about anything again; I had conquered my greatest fear, and had no reason to stress to that extent ever again. Reality has shown me that I am not going to simply stop stressing or worrying overnight, that they are a part of how I process my relationship with the future. Yet, what I have been able to learn from my experience in Israel was the constant need to remind myself of the context, to constantly be putting things into perspective for myself, so as not to lose sight of the opportunities I am afforded, even when I am anxious about what the future may hold.

My experience in Israel a year ago was not one that I was going to understand when I completed it, and I am even more confident that I am still not finished with internalizing and growing from it, even a year later. My time in Israel and my time in rabbinical school as a whole are deeply interwoven, and will build upon one another the further I go into my experience.

I am grateful that I had the privilege of going to HUC in Israel, of getting the chance to experience first-hand the incredible world we live in and the richness of Judaism in the Jewish homeland. I am also extremely grateful to be home, living my life with the people I love and the pieces of society that are part of my way of life. And I am grateful that I have had the chance to continue to explore what life has to offer beyond the one experience in Israel, because it gives me the hope and excitement for what is to come.