Rabbi Cohen’s Yom Kippur Morning 5778 Sermon – TBS as a Community of Social Justice

Yom Kippur Morning 5778
September 30, 2017
Rabbi Heidi M. Cohen

TBS as a Community of Social Justice

On Rosh Hashanah we listened to the shofar blast. Over and over we are taught that the shofar is a reminder to us to wake up and pay attention to what we are doing in our lives, where we are and how we might make ourselves better in the coming year. We often use that shofar blast as a personal reminder but it also serves as a wake-up call for us to pay attention to our world.

The Chinese curse says, may you live in interesting time. To say these are interesting times is an understatement. I think we all can agree that our country has been turned upside down and inside out. I have heard from many of you about how these months have weighed heavily on you and asking, what can we do? On the other hand, I also know and respect that there are those who are not as concerned and are looking for hope and change in our country that will make us stronger. This morning we continue our conversation as we examine our Jewish values and ethics as to how we respond to the issues of our times. And this is a discussion that is not meant to be the be all and end all of conversations. This is the beginning of a great deal of work we have to do together, which means, we need to continue it throughout the year. As I mentioned last night, this conversation has to be done with respect for one another and a commitment to come together to do this sacred work of repairing our world.

The Talmud teaches, “If you see wrongdoing by a member of your household and you do not protest – you are held accountable. And so it is in relation to the members of your city. And so it is in relation to the world.” As Jews we are held accountable in ever-widening circles of responsibility to rebuke transgressors within our homes, in our country, in our world. One chutzpadik medieval commentator teaches we must voice hard truths even to those with great power, for “the whole people are punished for the sins of the king if they do not protest the king’s actions to him.”

Today I speak words of protest, joining hundreds of my Reform rabbinic colleagues across the nation in fulfillment of our sacred obligation. We will not be silent. We will, without hesitation, decry the moral abdication of those who fuel hatred and division in our beloved country. This is not a political statement. As Jews, we are a people of prophets and like the prophets before us, draw from the deepest wisdom of our tradition to deliver a stern warning against complacency and an impassioned call for action. We call on you to rise up and say in thousands of ways, every day, as proud Jews and proud Americans: “You cannot dehumanize, degrade and stigmatize whole categories of people in this nation. Every Jew, every Muslim, every gay, transgender, disabled, black, brown, white, woman, man and child is beloved of God and precious in the Holy One’s sight. We the people, all the people, are created b’tzelem Elohim, in the image of the Divine. All the people are worthy of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

Rosh Hashanah was Yom Teruah, the Day of sounding the Shofar, whose piercing tones sound an alarm, express our fears and especially in these times compel us to respond with a resounding call for justice.

Consider each type of shofar blast. First, Tekiah [single shofar blast] The Sound of Certainty:
As rabbis we are, from sea to shining sea, speaking to our congregations in every accent of America to declare in unison: acts of hatred, intimidation and divisiveness will not be tolerated in these United States. We stand upon the shoulders of the sages, poets and rabbis in every generation who fought for freedom. We speak in memory of every Jew and in memory of all people who tragically and senselessly lost their lives at the hands of evil oppressors. We call on our political leaders; progressives and conservatives alike, to rigorously uphold the values brilliantly articulated in the founding documents of our country, the “immortal declaration” that all [men] people are created equal. We call on every elected leader to responsibly represent our country’s history and advance its noble visions of tolerance. At this time of a new year WE are “Proclaiming liberty throughout all the land” [Lev 25:10].

Sh’varim [3 shofar blasts] The Sound of Brokenness:
Something crumbled inside us when we watched the televised images of Charlottesville’s beautiful streets filled with hate-spewing marchers. The wound reopened when White supremacist symbols “14” and “88” were spray-painted overnight on a garage door outside of ADL’s offices near Los Angeles. On one day, August 18, In the Conejo Valley, CA — A swastika was discovered on a sign at Conejo Valley park; in Santa Barbara a “Swastika” and “Trump” were spray painted on five cars; in Alameda, CA — Windows at a synagogue were shattered by a rock-throwing vandal who was recorded on security cameras; Santa Rosa, CA — A swastika was scrawled on Maria Carrillo High School; Bakersfield, CA — A neighborhood in southeast Bakersfield was vandalized with a swastika and the words “war is coming.” And these are just a few of the 34 hate crimes reported to the ADL between August 15 and 29! These hate crimes are happening all over the country!

How much more vandalism; how many clashes; which other cities? We must not accept or become inured to some warped version of “normal,” of racist and anti-Semitic acts or rallies popping in and out of breaking news cycles. Let us never grow numb to the brokenness, but let our pain fuel our vows to respond – with peaceful protests, and with public calls for healing, by building alliances and by speaking in unison with other minorities and faith communities. Neither silence nor complacency nor waiting anxiously and fearfully for the next wounding event are options. Not for us. Elie Wiesel, of blessed memory, possessed a rare understanding of unfathomable brokenness. His memorable words sound a warning to us today, “We must take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented. Sometimes we must interfere.” May we never be neutral, never silent in the face of threats or of discrimination toward any. Let us interfere as [rofei lishvurei lev] healers of the broken[hearted], and [u’mchabaysh l’atzvotahm], binders of their wounds.

Psalm 147:3  הרפא לשבורי לב ומחבש לעצבותם

Truah [9 short blasts] The Sound of Urgency:
The events of these simmering weeks are a wake-up call to our Jewish community. Racism is wrong whether it seeps into explicit anti-Semitism or not. The Talmud teaches that God created us all from the first Adam so that no human being could ever say, “my lineage is greater than yours.” But just in case we thought the white supremacists were after someone else, or that the Confederate flag has nothing to do with modern day Nazi sympathizers, or that we were somehow safe in the fact that most – but certainly not all – Jews in America are white, those fiery torches illuminated another truth, one we learn and forget only to learn again this day: if one minority group’s rights are threatened, we are all threatened. As Martin Luther King taught us, “We are all tied together in a single garment of destiny,” whether we are the least powerful or the most powerful person in our world.


Tekiah Gdolah [lengthy single blast] The Endless Pursuit of Justice:
Tzedek tzedek tirdof the Torah admonishes: “Justice, justice you shall pursue, so that you may live and inherit the land which I, God, give to you.” Our sacred text reminds us that for a community truly to inherit its place in the world, thoughtful leaders at every level must be dedicated to equality and to unity. Every community relies on passionate and engaged citizens; it relies on you to be insistent advocates for tolerance and enduring kindness between the diverse peoples of our nation. To pursue justice is to create a society that protects and enlivens every citizen. Let us be relentless, tireless builders of that society in our city and in our country — in this New Year.


These words being shared by Reform rabbis throughout our country and in synagogues like ours are powerful words. We come together during the High Holy Days hoping to learn something and feel better about ourselves and life. But this is not enough. It is not enough to say, “I was here and I listened.” Trust me, I appreciate that you are here, however, it is not enough. I can only provide the inspiration and tools for you to act. Ultimately, each of you are responsible for taking action. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel said, “In Selma, Alabama, I learned to pray with my feet,” when he marched with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. for civil rights. And now, it’s time for all of us to pray with our feet.

Even before the elections, the Union for Reform Judaism, the URJ, and the Religious Action Center, the RAC, created a specific community of practice for focusing on Justice. A community of practice is an intentionally organized program with invited congregations to engage as a team in various areas of interest. There are communities of practice that work on creating new education models, worship resources, and social justice programming. After the election and a strong call by many in our TBS congregation, I spoke with Lee Winkelman, our regional Religious Action Center director, about how we might be able to address some of these concerns. Some of you joined in our Shabbat service in mid-November during which Lee and I engaged in an open conversation about what can we do? After hearing from you, Lee invited Temple Beth Sholom to join the Community of Practice, Moving Justice to the Center of Your Congregation. Together with Cindy Grossberg, Angela Holmes, and Rhea Dorn and with the approval of our Board of Directors, TBS joined this URJ Community of Practice.

Over the past few months, we have brought into the leadership representatives from all areas of TBS life. Along with Cindy, Angela and Rhea, we have been joined by Suzette Zazueta; Susan Jasper, Jill Weinthal, Michele Shugarman, Paula Pitluck, Barbara & Jerry Rosen, Sheila Silver, Samantha Dressel, and Gary Holloway. Some of us attended the RAC Consultation on Conscience in Washington DC and learned about current events and the Jewish values associated with them. And now, the time has come for us to bring this work to you, the congregation as we consider how we pray with our feet.

Over the next few months, we will be holding house meetings for everyone in which we want to have a conversation. Again, this conversation is not about politics, it is about how we are experiencing the brokenness of our world. What concerns you? Are you worried about anti-Semitism in America? Are you worried about healthcare and how it affects you and your family or your business? Are you worried about immigration rights because Jewish text, from Torah to Talmud, reminds us no fewer than 36 times to not oppress the stranger? Are you concerned about the environment and our ever-changing climate and what earth are we leaving our children and grandchildren? Are you concerned about LGBTQ rights especially in how they affect us and our families? We are a very diverse community, thank God, and everyone deserves to be treated equally. How are you experiencing the brokenness of our world?

Our hope over the next few months is to listen to where we are as a congregation. And then, for us to decide as a congregation, do we want to do something big? Do we want to engage in some kind of action that addresses one of the many concerns we all have for our country? This is non-partisan, this is a Jewish call to action. Seven years ago we decided to engage in Mitzvah Meals and today, we continue to serve over 250 meals a week! Today, we are looking to not only continue the work of Mitzvah Meals, but engage in a way that reflects our world’s changing needs.

I can’t tell you what it is we are going to do together, that must come from everyone! We all have to be in agreement that we want to create positive change. This is not an easy or short process. That’s why I’m not standing here, in the midst of all that is happening in our country and telling you that we have a specific plan, or exactly what it is we are going to do. The plan right now is for us to come together and listen to one another. Even though we are fractured, even though we are broken. If we want to fix our country, we have to learn to listen as a community and work together through the values and morals that Judaism teaches. Otherwise, our work is scattered and we can’t create change.

Yes, I know and I’ve felt, that we want to also act now! And we can. As individuals, we can and we should speak out for injustice. Each of us should engage in conversations with our Senators and Representatives and build relationships with them. Each of us should be present at rallies that help raise one voice to many. I was honored to participate in the 1000 Minister March in August. On the 54th Anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr’s, “I Have a Dream” speech, I along with hundreds of rabbis mixed in with thousands of ministers, priests, Imams and lay leaders, gathered together to make a very public statement that our country needs to return to the lessons taught to us from our various faith traditions that we have lost our moral compass. That we need to work together to heal our country and speak out against hatred and injustice. That we will not be silent, because when they come for us, we need to know that someone will speak out just as we will speak out for them.

When the call comes either directly or in a larger context, asking you to participate in a House meeting or a conversation at temple, please say, yes!

To kick it off, you will see the members of our Community Practice Group at the exits of our sanctuary this morning with clipboards. I encourage you to give them your name, number and email address so that we can be in touch with you if you are interested in either being a part of a house meeting or even hosting a house meeting at your home.

We look forward to sharing our stories, building the spirit of who we are as a people. It is not about Republican or Democrat, this is about Jewish and lovers of the Jewish people, coming together and working as one to heal and repair our world. Don’t just leave here this morning and say, OK, I was at services and see you next year; rather, answer the call and become active. It is not enough for us to only be here today, we have to act and pray with our feet every day. I hope you will join me on this journey because it takes each of us to truly create change.


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