“After Pittsburgh” A Sermon by Rabbi Renni S. Altman


“After Pittsburgh”

A Sermon by Rabbi Renni S. Altman

Vassar Temple

November 2, 2018   25 Cheshvan 5779

Kol ha-olam kulo, gesher tzar me’od; v’haikay lo lifached klal.

“the whole world is a narrow bridge; the main point is not to be afraid.”

These words of Rabbi Nachman of Bratzlav echoed in my head all afternoon last Saturday.  We sang them at the vigil Tuesday night; we want to believe them and hold onto them.

But how can we not be afraid?

We have seen such attacks elsewhere, but never here.

We hear echoes of the Jews of Germany on the eve of the Holocaust – it cannot happen here.

We should be safe in the synagogue – it is a place of sanctuary, after all.

How could this happen in Squirrel Hill – a vibrant Jewish neighborhood, one that demonstrates unity and not division?

Mr. Rodger’s neighborhood!


How can we not be afraid?

Since Pittsburgh, there have been a number of anti-Semitic incidents:

At another Reform congregation, Union Temple in Brooklyn – someone entered the building and defaced the wall with anti- Semitic slurs;

Anti-Semitic graffiti was found on the Upper West Side.


Well, one way that we can be less afraid is by coming to the synagogue, as we do on this night.

Many of us would have been drawn to the synagogue this Shabbat, even if we aren’t regular attendees, even if we don’t practice Judaism much, even if we aren’t Jewish!   We need to be with community at times such as this.

In response to the shooting and as a demonstration of solidarity and strength, the American Jewish Committee initiated campaign for this Shabbat: “Show up for Shabbat.”

This solidarity is as much for us as it is for the larger world – a reminder, that we are never alone:

Kol Yisrael Aravin Zeh b’zehi (all Israel is responsible for one another).

And a statement to those who would attack us:

Am Yisrael Chai (the people Israel lives!)

We will not be defeated by this vicious act of a deranged man, filled with hatred who attacked Jews and Judaism:

In a House of Prayer on our sacred Shabbat

Because there, people were living out the values of Judaism, especially to welcome the stranger.

Our best response is to continue to come to the synagogue, to live proudly as Jews.


We can be less afraid because of the knowledge that so many stand with us.

Immediately after the attack, I started to receive emails from leaders of other faiths – people I haven’t even met yet, expressing their deep sorrow, their shock and their anger.  It was especially heartening to receive such notes from members of the Islamic community and those who participate in the Muslim-Jewish dialogue.  As we have supported them when they have been victims of such hateful attacks, so do they stand with us now.

We planned for 125 people at the vigil Tuesday night; the Poughkeepsie Journal estimated attendance to be 500.  It was “standing room only.”  That experience has been repeated at vigils and memorials throughout the country – and around the world.


I heard an interesting interview the other morning on a podcast.  They were interviewing people in Squirrel Hill and shared one particularly unusual story:

It involved a Frenchman who, seeing the rise of anti-Semitism there about ten years ago, came to the US, to NY, and lived there for some time with his wife and child.  Because of visa issues, they had to return to France.  After the 2015 terrorist attacks at the Charlie Hebdo newspaper and then the kosher supermarket, this family no longer felt safe in France.  The man had a relative in Squirrel Hill, moved there and has been there since.

The interviewer asked him to reflect on his experience in France and now in Squirrel Hill—did he feel safe here?

Yes, he said. The big difference was the support of the larger community.  The world saw the big march in Paris; that was mostly for the journalists who were killed.  Here, he felt the support of the larger community who came out to support them and who spoke out against the anti-Semitism.


While this act was perpetrated against Jews, we know that it was not aimed only at us.  It was aimed at all Americans who value the basic principles of democracy upon which this great nation was founded, who respect the rights of all – people of different religious, ethnic, racial backgrounds — to live in peace and security.

In one horrible week:

  • 14 Pipe bombs were sent to democratic political leaders who have spoken out against President Trump – thank goodness they did not go off.
  • a man killed two African Americans in a supermarket in Kentucky, after unsuccessfully trying to enter a black church
  • 11 Jews were murdered in cold blood while praying in their synagogue on Shabbat morning.


It is not news to us that Anti-Semitism is here; it has ebbed and flowed over time, varied from community to community, but we have seen it rising in recent years.  According to the research of the Anti-Defamation League, “anti-Semitism is still the number one hate target in America…. To this day, [there are] more attacks, more assaults, against Jews than any other faith. And anti- Semitic incidents [which means harassment, vandalism and assaults] increased by 57% in 2017.  They are increasing most significantly in educational institutions:  For K-12 schools, this is a dramatic increase of 94% over the 235 incidents in 2016. Anti-Semitic incidents on college and university campuses also increased in 2017 to a total of 204, an 89% increase over the 108 incidents in 2016. [1]

Some of you are all too familiar with such incidents.

Just a month or so ago, someone (another lone actor), put up anti-Semitic posters on some of our local college campuses following the Kavanagh hearings implying some Jewish cabal was behind it.  They were immediately taken down, the person was arrested and the presidents of the colleges uniformly condemned the act.

The good news is that the FBI confirms that Bowers was acting alone; he was not part of some larger group planning other attacks.

I share this not to raise the fear level any higher than it already is, but Pittsburgh (and, really, all of these attacks) is a call for greater vigilance, even as we hold onto our principles and values of outreach and welcome.

I’m not an alarmist by my nature.   As I followed the unfolding events on Saturday, my immediate feelings – after overwhelming sadness – was anger.  Anger at the various factors that enabled this massacre to happen, anger at our seeming inability to do much about it, anger at the fear that these attacks are instilling not only in the Jewish community but in so much of our nation.


I’m angry

That we cannot pass gun control legislation that would limit a Robert Bowers from stockpiling weapons (legally) and maximizing his killing potential with an assault rifle.

After Newtown, we thought there would be some action;

A year after Las Vegas, and we are not yet at a national ban on bump stocks;

After Parkland, what has changed?


I’m angry

That social media, with all of its potential, is a breeding ground for loners such as Bowers and Sayoc to find a community of like-minded people spewing hatred and fanning the flames of their passions that can lead them to take action on their words.

“Social media companies have created, allowed and enabled extremists to move their message from the margins to the mainstream,” said Jonathan A. Greenblatt, chief executive of the Anti-Defamation League, “In the past, they couldn’t find audiences for their poison. Now, with a click or a post or a tweet, they can spread their ideas with a velocity we’ve never seen before.”[2]

Thankfully, GAB,the extremist website where Bowers posted, was shut down, though with great lament by white supremacists who are now seeking out other avenues for their postings – like weeds they keep popping up.

Facebook, Twitter and YouTube have all announced plans to invest heavily in artificial intelligence and other technology aimed at finding and removing unwanted content from their sites, with Facebook and Youtube each hiring tens of thousands more people for security.  But they admit that it’s much easier to find sites with nudity and take them down than it is to find sites that encourage hate crimes.

As challenging as it is to find the balance between protecting freedom of speech and stopping hate speech in the world of flesh and blood interactions, how much the more so is it to try to contain it on the internet.  The genie is out of the bottle and it has a life of its own.  We have to call out to those responsible for these sites to use the brilliant minds that set this all up, to find a way to monitor and control what is posted – or they are also to be held responsible for enabling and inspiring killers.


I am angry because “words do matter”.  Yes, I’m quoting Joe Biden, but he did not originate this principle.  It is firmly part of Judaism.  After all, how did God create the world?  Vayomer Elohim y’hi or — and God said, Let there be light…”  We understand that words can create and words can also destroy. We learn in the book of Proverbs, “Death and Life are in the hand of the tongue.” (18:21)

Thus, we too, need to pay attention to the words that we speak and post, lest we contribute – even on a small scale – to the vilification of the other and the divisive, negative tone in our country.

Words do matter – and they matter most from those in leadership positions, most especially from the president of our country.

I found this perspective from Abe Foxman, immediate past director of the ADL, to be most insightful on this troubling matter.  NYTimes op-ed columnist, Brett Stephens, a self-proclaimed conservative, reflects on Foxman’s remarks from an interview that Foxman gave to the Times of Israel:

“Pittsburgh is not Trump,” Foxman says. “It’s also Trump.” Trump, he adds, is not an anti-Semite. But fanning one set of hatred against immigrants has a way of fanning others, as it did for Bowers when he attacked the synagogue because he was enraged by its support for the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society.

Turning to last year’s neo-Nazi march in Charlottesville, Foxman says of Trump, “He didn’t create them. He didn’t write their script. He didn’t give them the brown shirts. But he emboldened them. He gave them the chutzpah, that it’s O.K.

“And when he had an opportunity to put it down,” Foxman adds, “he didn’t.”[3]

228 years ago, the President of this nation, George Washington, calmed the fears of the Jewish community at the Hebrew congregation in Newport, RI, who were very tentative about their status in this new nation.  Would they enjoy the right of religious freedom under this new government?  Washington allayed their fears and guaranteed that right:

…happily the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens, in giving it all occasions their effectual support.”[4]



When our president does not only not condemn the Neo-Nazis who marched in Charlottesville and chanted “Jews will not replace us” but says there are good people on both sides – that does not allay our fears; rather it exacerbates them.

When our president uses such loaded terms as Nationalist and Globalists and claims their neutrality, when to the Jewish ear they ring of anti-Semitic tropes of a Jewish cabal running the world – that does not allay our fears; rather it exacerbates them.

Yes, there is rhetoric in all of politics, some we know is worse than others.  And there are demagogues out there spewing all kinds of hatred.  But they are not in the White House, they are not President of this country who needs to be a president for all of the people, protecting all of its citizens.  We have the right to demand more.


So what do we do – with our fear and our anger and our anxiety, our sadness?

First we mourn –

In this week’s parasha, Chayei Sarah, Abraham mourns Sarah and he cries for her.  It is the first mention of mourning in the Bible and of the emotions that go with it.  He cries, he mourns.

Vayakom Avraham m’al pinei meito, “then Abraham gets up from before his dead”

After he mourns, Vayakom —  Abraham gets up to take action:

first, he acquires a burial place for Sarah;

then he acts for the future, finding a wife for Isaac.


This week we mourn for the senseless deaths in Pittsburgh, 11 lives snuffed out in a moment because of hatred.   We weep for the families of those killed and the heartbreak of such a close-knit community.  We weep for innocence lost.

Almost immediately, Vayakom, we stood up.  We stood supported by hundreds in this community and thousands around the nation, to speak out against hatred and for love and decency and respect.

Vaykom – we stood up:  We opened our doors for religious school Sunday morning as normal.  And we come to synagogue to be together on this Shabbat, and we will continue to send our children to religious school, and we will gather Sunday night for our gala to celebrate Vassar Temple and stand proudly as Jews, and we will celebrate the wonderful efforts in this congregation that the shooter condemned – we will honor Andi Ciminello and her partners who worked on behalf of Syrian refugees who sought the safety of this country, and we will honor Ron Rosen for his efforts to protect our environment which is so endangered, and we will honor with them so many in this congregation who dedicate themselves to social action and repairing our very broken world.  And we will continue to do that sacred work because that is what it means to be Jewish.

Vayakom – As we get up and move forward…

We will take Mr. Rodgers’ advice into account:  we will look for the helpers.

We look to our partners.

The DCIC is a great organization of people of many faiths.  How can we continue to work together to combat ignorance and hatred?

We must take next steps together.

We have to begin with education to counter the hate –for children and adults alike.


We are grateful to the most important helpers in Pittsburgh a week ago – the first responders, four of whom were wounded.

We are grateful for our helpers, local law enforcement, and we have their reassurances that they will always do their best to protect us, along with all residents of Poughkeepsie.

They are working with us to help us ensure our security in our building.  How we can have an open door policy even if our door must locked much of the time?

The Tree of Life Synagogue followed security protocols, they had active shooter drills; authorities believe that it could have been much worse had they not done so.  The board will be meeting Sunday morning to review various security options; you will hear more in the future.

Tuesday is election day.   Right now, the most powerful tool in our hands to conquer hate is to act on our sacred rite as citizens and vote; to vote for candidates we believe will be most effective in combating this climate of hate.

While Jews can proudly claim a very strong voting record (studies show Jewish voter turnout averages around 85% in contrast to just 50% of the country overall), turnout is generally much lower in non-presidential years

According to estimates, only 50% of registered young voters actually voted in the 2016 presidential election.   Get your young people out to vote!

Make sure you vote and encourage others to as well.


Like Anne Frank who never gave up her ideals that people are really good at heart, I still believe that most people are.  I will never lose that faith or that optimism.

I take strength from the words of a young man, Josh Stepakoff now 25.   In 1999, when he was just six years old, Josh became a shooting victim in the attack at the North Valley Jewish Community Center in Los Angeles.  In a radio interview last year, Josh reflected on that experience and his understanding of being targeted because he was a Jew.

“As I started to reflect on why I was shot,” he says, “I started to think of all of the good things that came from Judaism as opposed to this one terrible thing. I started to remember that it’s my view on life. It’s making sure that I treat everyone with compassion and that was more of what Judaism meant to me rather than a threat to who I was.” [5]

Kol ha-olam kulo, gesher tzar me’od; v’haikay lo lifached klal.

The whole world is a narrow bridge; the main thing is not to be afraid.


May we draw strength from one another and from our faith, that we will fight hatred with love, bigotry with compassion and fear with faith.

[1] https://www.adl.org/resources/reports/2017-audit-of-anti-semitic-incidents


[2]On Instagram, 11,696 Examples of How Hate Thrives on Social Media; https://www.nytimes.com/2018/10/29/technology/hate-on-social-media.html


[3] Yes, the President Bears Blame for the Terror From the Right, https://www.nytimes.com/2018/11/01/opinion/trump-sayoc-bowers-attacks.html


[4] George Washington and his Letter to the Jews of Newport; http://www.tourosynagogue.org/history-learning/gw-letter


[5] NPR interview from 2017 replied on Morning Edition, Nov. 2, 2018



“Hugging and Wrestling” A Sermon for Yom Kippur Morning 5779 Rabbi Renni S. Altman


Forty-five years ago today, Israel was attacked and successfully defended itself in what became known as the Yom Kippur war.  Like many of you, I remember being in synagogue that day and first hearing the news announced from the pulpit.  The fear was palpable.  Our synagogue was hosting two Israeli high school exchange students for the semester.  Being with them that day brought home the very real fear in which they lived in a way that I had never experienced before.  Thankfully, Israel was victorious, but it was a pyrrhic victory and marked the beginning of the end of an era in Israel’s history.


I came of age in the glory of the post-67 war, a zenith of Jewish pride in Israel – David who slew Goliath.  We Jews, overcoming anti-Semitism and quotas in the US, could hold our heads up with pride.  Blue and white JNF boxes were ubiquitous and support for Israel – financial and political—was unquestioned.  Israel was the unifying factor in an increasingly diverse Jewish community.  We taught and imbibed the most idealistic images of Israel – the kibbutz, the great Israeli army where women were equal, the land of Chalutzim (pioneers).  In NFTY and Reform movement summer camps we sang Israeli songs with gusto and danced Israeli dances for hours.  I have vivid memories of being at Kutz camp when the success of Operation Entebbe was announced – the dining hall rocked with shouts of jubilation.


I was bitten by the Israel bug.   My first visit was on a NFTY college trip between my sophomore and junior years of college where we spent two of the six weeks on an archaeological dig.   I fell in love- not with a person, but with the country, with the very land of Israel.  I felt a deep spiritual connection with my past — not at the Wall, mind you but with the country as a whole – walking in the footsteps of my spiritual ancestors.  There was a big part of me that felt that I was “home.”


I returned to Israel after college as a volunteer on the newly established Reform Kibbutz in the Arava, Kibbutz Yahel.  There I experienced the fullness of Jewish life in this isolated community, planting roots for Reform Judaism.   I returned to the States but longed to go back to Israel.  I went back on a Jewish Agency sponsored year long program and ended up in living in Jerusalem, connected with the Reform movement and ultimately worked for two years in the NFTY in Israel office there.  Though I was in the process of making Aliyah, I decided to apply to the American rabbinical program as an opportunity to return home for a few years.  I had intended to move back to Israel, but life took a different turn and I chose to serve the Jewish community here in America.


Living in Israel I came to know the realities and complexities of the modern State of Israel, something quite different from the perspective I had as a teenager in America, enraptured by the idealistic vision to which we were exposed.  I experienced first hand the economic challenges of daily life and the stark divisions in Israeli society between Ashkenazim and Sephardim, the latter who felt like and were then treated as second class citizens.  I was living there during Shalom HaGalil, when Israel invaded Lebanon to stop the katusha attacks on Israeli villages in the north and when the horrors of the massacres at Sabra and Shatila came to light (36 years ago this week). I remember watching on my second hand tv in Jerusalem the evacuation of Yamit, the last Israeli settlement in the Sinai, when it was returned to Egypt in exchange for the first peace treaty with an Arab nation.  What a painful moment it was for the country, but how high were the hopes for what it could lead to.  I was so proud of our small but growing Reform movement, but so frustrated by the almost daily incredulity of the average Israeli when I tried to explain that, yes, I was religious, but no I was not orthodox and by the uphill battle for equal rights for liberal Jews that continues to this day.  I marched in rallies with the very new movement for an end to the occupation, Shalom Achshav (Peace Now) as Israelis began to speak out against the actions of the government and the growing refugee crisis in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.


I returned to the States after my first year in the rabbinical program and sought ways to find my place with this new understanding of Israel.  I supported organizations and efforts that addressed directly the causes in which I believed.  The American Jewish establishment was still very monolithic on Israel:  we must support Israel, right or wrong was the very clear message.  As Diaspora Jews we have no right to speak critically about Israeli policies; unless we are living there and putting our lives on the line, we can have no voice of opposition.  We must defend Israel in public; any criticism is offered only in hush tones, only within “the family.”


This attitude has held sway within the Jewish establishment for decades, but not so among the Jews.  My own journey of coming to know the real Israel – with its strengths and its challenges – may have been more unusual because that awareness came from living there for four years, but that has been the journey of much of the non-Orthodox American Jewish community over the last 45 years.  As American Jews have become better acquainted with the realities within Israel and as the euphoria of the post -67 victory came into conflict with the on-going challenges of the occupation that resulted from it, Israel as the symbol began to unravel into the murky realities of nationhood and with it, the code of silence.


Despite fears that such criticism would lead Jews to abandon Israel, studies have proven that not to be the case.  It is the nature of the relationship that is changing.  As Dov Waxman writes, in his excellent analysis of these changes, Trouble in the Tribe, “Rather than growing more disconnected from Israel, as many have claimed, American Jews have actually become more actively involved with Israel over the past two decades.  More American Jews are reading about Israel, learning about Israel, and going to Israel than ever before.  They are more engaged with Israel than previous generations whose connection with Israel was largely limited to donating money every year to local Federations to pass on to Israel.  The big change that is taking place in the American Jewish relationship with Israel is not that American Jews are disengaging from it, but that they are critically engaging with Israel – they are, as many now put, “hugging and wrestling with Israel.”[1]


A high percentage of those huggers and wrestlers are young non-Orthodox Jews, ages 18-35.  They did not grow up with any of the romanticized notions about Israel that their parents and grandparents had nor any of memories of the Holocaust and anti-Semitism.  They don’t know Israel as David, only as Goliath, with its soldiers standing grimly standing at military checkpoints throughout the West Bank.  Various surveys of young American Jews demonstrate that Israel is less important to their Jewish identity than it was to their parents.   Their support is not automatic but depends upon whether Israel acts in accordance with their beliefs and values.  A 2007 survey by sociologists Steven Cohen and Ari Kelman reported that 40% of young Jews believed that “Israel occupies land belonging to someone else” and more than 30% reported feeling “ashamed” of Israel’s actions at times.[2]


Young Jews seek an open environment and discourse where all sides of the issues can be discussed and debated freely.  This struggle came to light on college campuses with the Open Hillel Movement that began almost five years and the controversy surrounding students desires not to be limited by Hillel’s restrictions regarding the groups with whom they could engage.  As many will remember, the Vassar Jewish Union was the second group to sign on.  If young people who are struggling with Israel do not feel that their voice is acceptable in the Jewish community, they will abandon it and they will be lost to us – and potentially as supporters of Israel as well.


The struggles within the Jewish establishment over what it is means to be pro-Israel and who can claim ownership of the title Zionist came to a head in the summer of 2015 in the incredibly divisive and public battle about the Iranian nuclear Deal.  The vituperative attacks by each side against the other and the disgraceful claims against congressional leaders as being anti-Zionist and far worse, were absolutely appalling.  One good thing that came out of it was that it brought this core issue to the surface.  Some in the Jewish establishment, primarily those opposed to the deal, called for unity and decried the danger of disagreement as being confusing to American governmental leaders who were trying to figure out what it is the Jewish community wants and, therefore, would be detrimental to Israel.   Others, primarily those in support of the deal, saw this multiplicity of views as positive in that it made clear to our political leaders that there is no one Jewish spokesperson, no one Jewish representative, and no Jewish point of view when it comes to Israel and many other issues.


It is time to accept that there is no one group or viewpoint that has the monopoly on Zionism, that huggers and wrestlers are very much pro-Israel even if they are critical of policies of the Israeli government.   Enlarging the tent, welcoming a multiplicity of voices, even as we do need to establish some boundaries regarding those whose aim is the destruction of the State of Israel, is good for Israel and good for the Jewish people as a whole.   Ultimately, such healthy debate will strengthen the American Jewish community and its relationship with Israel and, perhaps, even improve perceptions of Israel around the world.


You will note here a common thread underlying my sermon today and that of Rosh Hashanah.  The polarization of American society in general is a factor for the increasing divide within the Jewish community, not only on matters related to Israel, but certainly impacting that debate.  We face similar challenges of not being able to listen across the divide because so much is at stake for each side.


I have a personal stake in this debate; I count myself among the huggers and wrestlers.  I have a deep love for the State of Israel, for my ancient homeland, and for what it can be.  I will defend its right to live in security and to defend itself from all who would attack it and I will defend Israel when, as is too often the case, Israel is treated unfairly by international organizations and other nations.


I take tremendous pride in the incredible accomplishments of this young, 70 year-old “start up nation” of worldwide leaders in science and technology responsible for, among other things, drip irrigation, the cherry tomato, and Pill Cam (capsule endoscopy that is now the gold standard for intestinal visualization).  I am among those who are completely reliant on WAZE to get around (did you know that it is an Israeli invention?).  Israel’s humanitarian efforts around the world save countless lives.  Who could not be in awe of their efforts this summer to save thousands of Syrian civilians, innocent victims of that country’s civil war, who were transported in and out of Israel in secrecy so their lives wouldn’t be at risk.


Yet, as a Reform Zionist I cannot be silent when I see my beloved homeland acting in ways that are counter to my understanding of Judaism, to the values that we hold dear and to the promises enshrined in the Israeli Declaration of Independence ensuring “complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex…”  I share the view of Rabbi Eric Yoffie, former president of the Reform movement who said, “My love for Israel is unconditional but not uncritical.”


We have good precedent for the obligation to offer such critique, from the book of Leviticus, in the portion we will read this afternoon known as the Holiness Code: “Rebuke your kinsman but incur no guilt because of him.”  We have an obligation to rebuke those we love when we see them doing wrong.  Incur no guilt – Rashi teaches, “do not shame him in public, in which you case you would bear sin on account of him.”  Thus, we need to be careful how we offer that critique.  The Kli Yakar, 17th century Rabbi of Prague, taught, “if you do not rebuke him then his sin shall be upon you because ‘All Israel is responsible for one another.’”   We, Jews in America and Jews in Israel are responsible for one another and need to hold one another accountable for our actions.  We are partners in this enterprise of Jewish living as part of the Jewish people.  We are family and while we love one another, there are times when we will disagree; healthy families find ways to air those disagreements with love.


This summer was one such time for loving critique when the Knesset passed the morally repugnant Nation-State Law, calling into question the very democracy of the State as it favored Jews and Judaism over one-fifth of its inhabitants who are not Jewish, including its Druze citizens who are a very loyal minority, even serving in the IDF.   It does not even mention the word democracy at all!   The law demotes Arabic from a state language to one of special status and has the potential to limit freedom of expression in Israeli schools.  Immediately, numerous organizations in North America, including our Reform movement, issued statements of outrage.  We spoke out against the actions of the Israeli government, but we spoke in solidarity with the center of Israeli society who opposed the law and with the tens of thousands of Israeli Jews who stood in protests with Israeli Arabs and Israeli Druz.  This is not the end; law suits have been submitted to the Israeli high court and numerous Israeli organizations that work for the civil rights of minorities will continue to fight against it.  We can help by lending them our support.


The Nation-State Bill also has the potential to impact us as Reform Jews as it gives the state the right to “act to preserve the cultural, historical and religious heritage of the Jewish people among Jews in the Diaspora.”  This law will further empower the Orthodox hegemony in Israel when it comes to issues of personal status and religious identity.  This challenge to the legitimacy and rights of liberal Jews comes almost a year after the Israeli government reneged on the plan to create an egalitarian prayer space at the Wall, a sacred site for all of the Jewish people, not just those who live according to Orthodox Judaism.  For decades now, our movement has been taking root within Israeli society with its more than 50 congregations and communities throughout Israel and institutions such as the Israeli Religious Action Center.  The Progressive Movement in Israel offers an alternative for religious expression to both Orthodoxy and secularism.   We can add our voices to this struggle by supporting our sister institutions in Israel, especially by joining ARZA, the Association of Reform Zionists of America.  ARZA’s Campaign for Religious Equality, initiated after the unraveling of the plan for the Wall, is designed to strengthen the Reform Movement on the ground in Israel, to bolster the Israel Progressive movement as they fight for recognition and respect, and to build a Jewish Homeland welcoming of all Jews based on the core tenets of  Equality,  Democracy,  Pluralism and the vision of Israel as articulated by Israel’s founders and Declaration of Independence.    “ARZA is taking back the Z: unapologetic love for Israel, the land-people and the State is at the core of our beliefs,” it proclaims on its website.  “Zionism should not be devisive.  No one faction should be allowed to dictate “ownership” of the Z word.  ‘We are part of a people, of a nation, and we all have a stake in Israel’s future’” writes Rabbi Josh Weinberg, president of ARZA.[3]  I urge you to join me in becoming a member of ARZA and supporting these efforts for religious pluralism in our Jewish homeland.   Make your voice heard!  We make the process very easy for you; the option to join ARZA is on your temple membership bill.  Of course, you can always go to their website directly.


I cannot finish speaking about Israel without mentioning the elephant in the room, the 51 year- old occupation of the West Bank.  It continues to erode the moral fiber of Israel, creating a sense of hopelessness among Israelis and a self-perpetuating state of despair for the 4.5 million Palestinians living under Israeli military rule.  But the fires of hope have not yet been completely extinguished on both sides as there are small efforts and organizations that work to bring Israelis and Palestinians together.   They need our support and our commitment not to let go of the hope for a two-state solution that will free both sides of the chains of this occupation.

I would like to invite us as a congregation to get to know the real Israel, with all of its gifts and its challenges.  To engage together in conversation about our hopes and dreams for its future.  There is no better way to understand Israel, however, than by experiencing it in person.  I would love to explore the possibility of putting together a congregational trip, perhaps even for next year, and would invite anyone interested to speak with me about it.  I would love to share with you the Israel that I love, to meet those who are devoting their lives to building an Israel that can live up the promises it holds.

I conclude with the Prayer for the Welfare of the State of Israel, composed in honor of the Birth of the State of Israel 70 years ago, expresses the hopes and dreams still within our hearts.  May it be so.


Avinu ­ – You who are high above all nation-states and peoples –

Rock of Israel, the One who has saved us and preserved us in life,

Bless the State of Israel, first flowering or our redemption.

Be her loving shield, a shelter of lasting peace.
Guide her leaders and advisors by Your light of truth;

Instruct them with Your good counsel.

Strengthen the hands of those who build and protect our Holy Land.

Deliver them from danger; crown their efforts with success.

Grant peace to the land,

lasting joy to all of her people.

And together we say: Amen.[4]



[1] Dov Waxman, Trouble in the Tribe:  The American Jewish Conflict over Israel, p. 53

[2] Ibid., 50

[3] http://www.arza.org/homepage

[4] Mishkan Hanefesh, p 288.

“To Err is Human; to Forgive, Divine” A Sermon for Kol Nidrei 5779 Rabbi Renni S. Altman

About twelve years ago, Chris Williams was taking his family for ice cream one evening, when his car was hit by an underage drunk driver. The crash killed Chris’ nine-year-old daughter, 11-year-old son, and his pregnant wife. Though Chris lost his family instantly, his immediate thought before he had even been rescued from his car was forgiveness. “Whoever has done this to us, I forgive them. I don’t care what the circumstances were, I forgive them,” remembers Chris.[1]


Three summers ago, a troubled young man named Dylan Roof, with the hope of igniting a race war, walked into the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, SC and, after studying Bible with a small group of congregants, opened fire, killing nine people, including their pastor.


While we have become numb to such shootings, I still carry with me the responses of the families of the victims to this murderer.  Despite their shock and anger, they overcame any human desire for vengeance and, instead, offered words of forgiveness to Roof, just two days after the murders, at his bond hearing:


“I will never talk to her ever again. I will never ever hold her again,” said the daughter of one victim.  “You hurt a lot of people, but God forgives you and I forgive you.”[2]


“Emanuel does not harbor hate in her heart,” said the sister of another victim.  “That’s not the God we serve. It’s important for us to know that the young man is a mother’s son, a father’s son. If he can earnestly repent, God will hear him.”[3]


I am awestruck by such words and thoughts of forgiveness, by the strength of these people whose very faith was at the core of their humanity, and by the comfort that this act of forgiveness brought to them.  These people who lost so much for no reason were able to forgive the one who took their loved ones away and leave the retribution in “God’s hands.”  I can only stand in humble, silent tribute to their grace and to bear witness to the very depths of their faith.  Who could offer forgiveness – without any offer of apology or expression of remorse on the part of Roof or the drunk driver?


To be sure, in both cases, their offers of forgiveness did not mean that they absolved either the driver or Roof of their crimes nor does it imply that they did not want them punished to the full extent of the law.  Rather, it means that they were able to open up some small space in their hearts, in the midst of their overwhelming pain, to offer the forgiveness that would enable them to take the first steps in their own healing.


The Rev. Norvel Goff, interim pastor succeeding the pastor who was murdered, said that “self-preservation was also a motive in the [families’] offer of forgiveness, that forgiving does more for the person who is hurting than the one who caused the pain.  ‘We’re not in control of those who may commit evil acts,’ he said, ‘but we are in control of how we respond to it.’”[4]
Ten years after the accident, Chris Williams is motivational speaker, sharing his story with others about the power of forgiveness.  He teaches a similar lesson as the pastor: “Forgive for your sake, not the other person’s. Forgive because if you don’t, your bitterness will consume you.”


This approach to forgiveness is challenging for me as a Jew; perhaps that is one reason why I found it so overwhelming and unfathomable.


Judaism teaches us that someone who commits a sin must go through a process of teshuvah, repentance, in order to be forgiven (hence the Ten Days of Repentance between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur).  The steps to true repentance include first regretting one’s actions, then immediately stopping that behavior, committing never to repeat it again, making restitution to the person wronged and, only then, asking for forgiveness.


We learn in the Mishnah that “For transgressions that are between a person and God the Day of Atonement effects atonement; but for transgressions that are between one person and another, the Day of Atonement effects atonement only after you have appeased the other person.”[5]


In this past year of “me too,” we have seen many public apologies.  Not that public admissions of guilt are easy, but unless they are accompanied by other acts of repentance and, most especially by a direct apology to the person who was wronged (which may well have happened) they are meaningless.  Public Mea Culpas without the rest cheapen the very meaning of an apology.


However, when a person comes to us in sincere repentance, meaning that they have at least taken steps to make up for the wrong, then the power rests with us. That person’s soul is in our hands.


Thus Maimonides taught in his Mishneh Torah:  When the person who wronged [you] asks for forgiveness, [you] should forgive him with a complete heart and willing spirit. Even if he aggravated and wronged [you] severely, [you] should not seek revenge or bear a grudge.[6] Not only must we forgive, but according to Maimonides, we must be kind and generous of spirit about it.


We know that that is not so easy.  For victims of hateful, harmful acts like the families in Charleston or of the senseless loss of life like in the case of Chris, forgiveness, even following sincere repentance, takes great courage and compassion.  For most of us who have been hurt in ways far less significant, forgiveness is still a tremendous challenge.  At first glance it certainly seems as though forgiveness should be more natural.   Wouldn’t we all feel better putting whatever it is behind us?  Yet, the act of forgiving raises so many emotional issues and often brings up hurt and anger that may have even been buried for decades.  We run away from accepting that apology, rather than re-open those wounds and come to terms with that past.


And, sometimes, if we are truly honest with ourselves, we actually thrive on being the wronged party and we carry that sense of having been wronged like a badge of honor.  We are wounded:  our pride has been hurt and we are not able to let go of that and move on.


No wonder that Alexander Pope’s words, “To err is human; to forgive, divine” have struck such a chord within the human soul and continue to resound some two centuries after he uttered them.  Forgiving is hard; making mistakes is easy.  But is forgiveness really limited to the realm of the Divine and out of our reach?

Judaism teaches us that as beings created in the Divine image, we are, in fact, each a reflection of the Divine and have within us the potential to imitate the Divine.  Imitating the Divine is the basis for Jewish morality, as we learn in the Talmud:  As God clothed Adam and Eve, so should we clothe the naked; as God visited the sick, visiting Abraham after his circumcision, so should we visit the sick; as God comforted Isaac after Abraham’s death, so should we comfort mourners … [7] So, too, should we imitate God by acting with compassion and forgiving those who turn to us in teshuvah, as we now turn to God.

Perhaps you might it comforting to know that just as we struggle with forgiveness, so, too, did our sages.  Even more, they envisioned God struggling with forgiveness as well.  Thus, in the Talmudic debates about prayer, they imagined God praying daily, and this is the prayer they imagined God uttering:


“May it be My will that My mercy suppress my anger so that it may prevail over My attributes of justice and judgment; and that I may deal with My children according to the attribute of compassion, and that I may not act toward them according to the strict line of justice.”[8]


God seeks to overcome Divine anger by acting with Divine compassion.


The prophets envisioned a God who wants to forgive.  God offers us every opportunity to change and seek forgiveness.  The words of Isaiah still call out to us:


“Seek Adonai while God can be found.

Call to God while God is near.

Let the wicked give up his ways,

The sinful man his plans;

Let him turn back to Adonai,

And God will pardon him;

To our God,

For God freely forgives.  (Is. 55:6-7)


God’s offer of forgiveness is guaranteed.


Our worship this evening began with the stirring melody of Kol Nidrei.  Its origins are unclear.  Many attribute it to the Morranos who had to live their Judaism in secrecy, pledging their outer lives to the Church; others say it dates to a much earlier time.  Regardless of the timing of its development, Kol Nidrei has a firm place in the heart of the Jewish people, even as its placement in our worship this day has been heavily debated throughout the ages.


How can we make this public disclaimer to vows we might offer?  Wouldn’t that make them – and our word – meaningless?  One interpretive translation of Kol Nidrei in our mahzor addresses this question:  we declare our vows null and void, “should we, after honest effort, find ourselves unable to fulfill them.”   In response, with words taken from the Book of Numbers when Moses, once again, pleads with God on the Israelites behalf – in this case, when they spurned the call of Joshua and Caleb to enter the Promised Land – God promises, “I have forgiven in response to your plea.”


Here we are, admitting our failings, and God promises forgiveness because we have asked.  Would that we could be that generous in our forgiveness of others!   How often do we find ourselves in situations where we are hesitant to apologize, so fearful that the person we wronged will not forgive us? We fear making ourselves vulnerable, lest our outreach be rejected.  But, if we could feel certain that if we do the work of teshuvah, we will be forgiven, wouldn’t we be far more likely to try?


God will accept our sincere efforts to change without demanding perfection.  God recognizes our humanity and is more concerned with our desire to change than with our ability to get all the way there.  In that way, God encourages us in this process; “Return unto Me, and I will return to you,” promised the prophet Malachi.  The sages expanded upon this teaching with a parable about a prince who goes far away from his father – a hundred days’ journey away.  His friends said to him: “Return to your father.” He replied, “I cannot; I have not the strength.”  Thereupon his father sent back the following message: “Come back as far as you can, according to your strength, and I will go the rest of the way to meet you.”[9]


In his book, How Good Do We have to be?, Rabbi Harold Kushner offers a very helpful perspective on guilt and forgiveness that is premised upon an acceptance of our human limitations which then allows us to take ownership of our mistakes.  At one point, Kushner talks about the number of people he encountered on his book tour who shared their positive experiences in Alcoholics Anonymous or other support groups.  Kushner reflects on his conversation with one man and how accepted that man felt in the program:


“The church-sponsored group was not offering forgiveness for his deeds.  It was offering acceptance, forgiveness for his being a flawed, incomplete, imperfect person.   It was offering what the synagogue offers its worshippers on the Day of Atonement:  the reassurance that if you drop your pretensions and excuses and stand before God naked and vulnerable, if you admit your failures as the first step toward doing something about them, God will not reject you as a flawed specimen.  You will still be acceptable in His [sic] site.” [10]


What a challenge that is for us. Can we learn to accept another person’s limitations and flaws so that we can then recognize their sincere attempts to change, appreciating whatever steps they take even when they may not make it all the way to where we think they need to be – or even where they may want to be?


Acting with compassion, letting go of anger; not demanding perfection, asking only sincere effort; meeting someone halfway.  If we can find it in our hearts to act in these ways, then “forgiveness will, indeed, be Divine,” because we will be emulating the Divine and through our actions inviting God’s presence into our lives and our world.  Moreover, such actions not only enable the wrong doer to move through the process of teshuva and make real change in her life, they also let the one who has been wronged move forward in her life by offering forgiveness and letting go of that past.


If we can act that way towards others, how much the more so should we strive to forgive the one who is often the most difficult for us to forgive:  ourselves.  Too often we hold ourselves to unrealistic standards of perfection and we blame ourselves for our failure to reach them.  When we set unrealistic goals for ourselves, we cannot hope to succeed and will most likely fail to reach the potential that we do have within.


One of my favorite lessons in this area comes from a Hassidic sage of the 18th century, Rabbi Zusya of Hannipol who taught:  In the world to come, they will not ask me “Why were you not Moses?”  They will ask me: “Why were you not Zusya?”


As we consider the power of and potential for forgiveness, let us turn back to Chris and those gracious people of Charleston and ask, “Are there limits to forgiveness? “As we’ve seen, the Jewish understanding of forgiveness does not seem to be in concert with the gracious acts of these individuals.  The Jewish notion of forgiveness demands some level of repentance on the part of the sinner.   Even if we strive to be compassionate, understanding of limitations, and as open as we can, if the person makes no effort to take steps towards teshuvah, Judaism teaches that we have no obligation to forgive.


Having said that, where does that leave us?  This is where the example of the Charleston families is so powerful.   Their faith compelled them to forgive.  And, in doing so, their actions brought them a sense of comfort as well, a lifting of a heavy burden of hate and anger that might have held back their own process of healing.


In such cases, perhaps we can think of forgiveness in a different way.  Kushner offers us another view: “Forgiving happens inside us.  It represents a letting go of the sense of grievance, and perhaps most importantly a letting go of the role of victim.”[11]


In How Good Do We Have to Be?, Kushner recounts the story of a young woman who comes to see him, explaining that she just found out her father is dying.   He expects her to talk with him about the funeral; instead, she reveals that her father abandoned her and her mother when she was 9, had numerous affairs during the marriage and had virtually nothing to do with them.  She hadn’t spoken to him or heard from him in the past 10 years.  “Rabbi,” she asks, “can you give me any reason why I should mourn for a man like that, why I should go to the funeral or say kaddish for him?”  Kushner does encourage her to go to the funeral, but to see it as an opportunity to grieve for the father that she never had, to cry for the father that her father could not be and to mourn the loss of the father she certainly deserved to have. In the end, the young woman did attend the funeral, admittedly with very confused feelings, but she later told Rabbi Kushner that much to her surprise she did not feel angry. She attended services for a while to say Kaddish and then moved on.[12]


The ability to recognize the limitations of those who disappoint or hurt us, and to grieve the loss of that which couldn’t be, while not exactly forgiveness, may help us achieve the peace that forgiveness provides.


Rabbi Lewis Kamrass, of IM Wise Temple in Cincinnati, wrote one of the beautiful mediations that is at the beginning of our mahzor; his words express so beautifully the power of forgiveness:


What an extraordinary gift is is—what a blessing, what a miracle

To have been raised by imperfect parents who did their very best;

To share our life with a partner no more flawed than we are;

To count as a friend one who understands and accepts us most of the time.

How brave, how hard it is to be “good enough” in our ties to one another:

To give, even when we’re exhausted; to love faithfully;

To receive with grace the love imperfectly offered to us.


Can this night set us free from the tyranny of expectations?

Can this night release us from fantasies impossible to fulfill?


We resolve this night to embrace the practice of forgiveness:

To forgive others who fail to be all we hoped they would be;

To forgive ourselves when we fall short of what others hoped we would be.

We declare this night that we will cherish goodness wherever it is found,

And open ourselves to the gifts that are before us.[13]


Four months ago we celebrated the Festival of Shavuot and the giving of the Torah at Mt. Sinai.  Soon after hearing the Ten Commandments, the Israelites grew frightened during Moses absence and committed a grievous sin by building a Golden Calf to worship.  Moses came down the mountain bearing the two tablets with the commandments only to encounter the people dancing around the Golden Calf.  Embodying God’s anger, Moses smashed the tablets.  The people were punished and repented; Moses pleased for God to continue to lead this people to the Promised Land.  God agreed and commanded Moses to carve two new tablets and return to the mountain top.  The day on which Moses brought down the newly inscribed second set of tablets was Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement.  This was the day on which God’s forgiveness was sealed with the tablets, the covenant affirmed and the relationship renewed.


So may this Yom Kippur be for us a day of forgiveness and renewal, a day of promise and hope for a new year of reconciliation and understanding.



[1] https://www.cbc.ca/firsthand/m_features/epic-stories-of-forgiveness

[2] New York Times, June 19, 2015

[3] Ibid.

[4] New York Times, July 4, 2015

[5] Mishna Yoma 8:9

[6] Mishnah Torah:  Hilchot Teshuvah 2:10

[7] Babylonian Talmud, Sotah 14a

[8] Babylonian Talmud, B’rachot 7a

[9] Pesikta Rabbati 44:9

[10] Harold S. Kushner, How Good Do we Have to Be? P. 52-53

[11] Simon Wiesenthal, The Sunflower: On the Possibilities and Limits of Forgiveness, p. 176

[12] Kushner, p. 85-6

[13] Lewis Kamrass,  Mishkan HaNefesh: Yom Kippur (CCAR Press), p.6