Gut Yontif! Shanah tovah!
It is wonderful to be together on this first day of our Jewish New Year. We’ve waited longer than usual for its arrival. May it be a fulfillment of the adage, “good things come to those who wait.” May 5777 be a year filled with good tidings, good health, sweet blessings, times of joy and celebration with family and friends, as well as here in our Shalom family. I pray it will be a year in which we move towards greater civility, broader justice and real peace.
On the 15th anniversary of 9/11, we were privileged to play host to Rabbi Donniel Hartman, President of the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem here at Temple Shalom. That night Rabbi Hartman shared a story from his time in the Israeli Defense Forces I’d not previously heard. Donniel served in the Tank Corps during the First Lebanon War in 1982. Over the years I have heard him recount numerous memories of his difficult experiences in the IDF. On September 11th we heard about a particularly brutal battle after which Donniel was one of very few survivors from his unit. After the episode, the surviving members of the unit were redeployed some distance from the site of the battle to the shore of Lake Qaroun in Lebanon. In relative safety, and away from the frontline, on Shabbat Donniel and his fellow soldiers began exploring their surroundings which he describes as one of the most beautiful sites he has ever seen. Disturbingly, they came upon a number of Syrian corpses floating in the lake. This was jarring against the beauty of the place.
Troubled by the disconnect between Jewish tradition’s mandate to bury the dead, and the sight of countless corpses before his eyes, Donniel sought out his unit’s chaplain. He asked whether they might bury the Syrian corpses. The Rabbi was unmoved. “Does this really trouble you?” he asked. Donniel immediately understood that “the heat of battle was not the ideal setting for [a debate over] moral sensitivity.” He walked away deeply disturbed by his chaplain’s harsh response. Perhaps, he thought, the chaplain’s religious faith does not provide enough God to go around.” As Donniel told us on the night of September 11th, that sight and his encounter with his unit’s chaplain haunts him to this day. As I heard him tell that story it struck a chord within me. That is not just a story about an event almost 35 years ago. It resonates powerfully today.
As many of you know, in early August I set out for Berlin, Germany to participate in a Rabbinic mission to engage with those on the frontlines of the Syrian refugee crisis in Germany. Much of the work is taking place under the leadership of IsraAid, an incredibly courageous and inspiring organization with whom I have become more familiar in recent months. Virtually any time we hear of a crisis, almost anywhere in the world – an earthquake in Haiti, a tsunami in Asia, the August earthquake in Italy, IsraAid is almost always the first group on the scene, bringing strategic humanitarian aid to those who are suffering. IsraAid is a truly inspiring group of Jews, Arabs, Christians, Druze, and Muslims hearing the call to help the stranger and comfort those in desperate straits. In the time I spent with the leaders of IsraAid, the staff of the American Jewish Committee in Berlin, and especially with the refugees I met, a truly horrific crisis was transformed from a mere news story into a real, living and painful human drama.
One group of refugees me met were Druze from the same Syrian village. The Druze religion is an offshoot of Islam and there are many Druze living in Israel. Some of you have visited Druze homes and communities with me on past Israel trips. The leader of IsraAid’s efforts in Germany is Samuel Schidem. As I came to learn, Samuel is a Druze Israeli who hails from the Druze village of Usifiya, which is on the outskirts of Haifa. I know Usifiya, and the neighboring village of Daliyat el-Karmel quite well. Samuel has now lived in Berlin for 13 years. He served, as most Israeli Druze do, in the IDF. He now directs the efforts at aiding and comforting the countless numbers of Syrian refugees who have taken refuge in Germany. These refugees have been taken in as result of the leadership of German Chancellor Andrea Merkel. To be sure, her policies are hotly contested in Germany. This was very much in evidence during my time in Berlin, which was shortly before their elections.
We know all-too-well that the issue of immigration, and opening our borders to refugees is no simple matter in our own country. Polls show immigration policy near the top of the list of concerns across our nation. This morning I want to set the politics aside. While I surely believe there is much to discuss on a political level about our nation’s approach to immigration; to the many immigrants already within our borders; and the question of how many and who might we allow in going forward, this morning I want to reflect on our world, and the enormity of the humanitarian crisis our world faces. I want to address what I see as our responsibilities as a Jewish community.
Our people have all-too-often sought refuge, fleeing harm’s way, and those who would destroy children, women and men because of they were Jews. To me, this moment in history demands serious reflection. For me, this complex issue is a piece of same gut-wrestling that Rabbi Donniel Hartman felt as he looked at the bodies floating in Lake Qaroun in 1982. His impulse was to honor those dead, reflections of the image of God, in keeping with the values with which he had been raised by his parents. His conscience ached at his chaplain’s callousness to the possibility that as Jews and Israelis, there might still lie responsibility with respect to the bodies of dead from the other side. What do our consciences say?
Think for a moment if you will, back a year to the myriad images of refugees washing up on the shores of Lesbos. There were so many horrifying images of those who’d taken flight from Syria, making their way through Turkey, and onto flimsy rafts and boats, owned by men simply looking to make money by selling passage to these refugees, who bore only what they could carry. Think back to the image of the dead three-year old boy whose lifeless body washed up on the shore of Lesbos. There was a cry of shock around the world at that sight. Yet little came of it. Think back to earlier this summer when the image of a five-year old boy sitting amidst the bombed out ruins of his home in Aleppo, Syria, flashed around the world. Again, there was outrage. Yet again, little has been done. In Berlin we visited a rather extensive remaining section of Berlin Wall. One side has been turned into an open air exhibition of photos and stories of individuals and families whose lives have been devastated by these past years in Syria. It was haunting. I cannot shake the image Donniel Hartman shared with those of us gathered on September 11th, of bodies floating in what he described as the most beautiful of settings. The juxtaposition is haunting. I cannot shake the countless images we have seen in our various news media of dead bodies – a three-year-old child; of older children, and of adults, young and old, who have lost their lives to the madness consuming much of the Middle East which goes by the names of ISIS, Al Qaeda, and other terrorist organizations.
There is so much brokenness in our world. I often find myself despondent at the state of humanity – around the world, and even here in our own country. According to our Jewish calendar, today is meant to be a day of great joy, celebration and awakening. On this day of new beginnings, I cannot hear the sound of the shofar and not hear it calling me, calling us, to awaken to what is going on around us.
Much has been made in the political arena about the dangers of opening our borders to refugees from Syria. This, even though statistics show that very few refugees have committed acts of terror. Xenophobia courses through our land, fed by half-truths and lies. How many times were our people turned away because of who they were? The St. Louis, a boat-load of some 900 Jewish refugees, including one of our own members, Ruth Forrest, was turned away by every nation in the Western Hemisphere, including our own. That horrific journey would later be immortalized in book and film as “The Voyage of the Damned.”
The refugees with whom I sat in Berlin, whose pictures we were not permitted to take because they still fear the enemy who has driven them from their homes and land will come for them, told bone-chilling stories. Some fled with their children. All fled with the little they could carry in order to attempt to start life over. Some spoke of having left families behind, with the hope that they would soon earn enough to be able to pay the bounty so their loved ones could join them in freedom and security. We asked one refugee, Shoki, “Why did you chose to leave your village?” He replied, “There are but 7 kilometers between our village and ISIS. ISIS considers us godless, and is merciless towards anyone who does not embrace their beliefs.” Shoki still cannot sell his house for fear of ISIS. The sale may lead to him. He works as hard as he can to find a job so that he will be able to bring his family to Berlin. Tears streaming down his face, he spoke of his constant fears that his children could be killed at any time. Khardun had been a lifeguard in Syria and spent 12 years on the National Swim Team of Syria. Since the rise of ISIS he was barred from competition because he is Druze, even though the Druze religion is based on a variant of Muslim faith. Khardun lost his job in his family’s business, and left his village for Damascus in search of work. Soon he was also forced to leave Damascus. He found himself kidnapped by the Nustra Front, another terror group, which sought to sell him to ISIS, because of their hatred of Druze. Friends collected 3 million Syrian lira to ransom his life (the equivalent of about $8,000). What is the value of a human life? Shoki spoke of the struggle in Berlin to find work and acceptance. “We think about our children more than we think about ourselves.” Every day brings new dangers at home. Khardun added, “It is illogical that in a conflict in which Muslims are killing Muslims, in which I take no side, that I cannot have my family with me! No country will take us. We are minorities, and no one wants us!”) I could go on. The stories and reality are heart-breaking.
Gathered in this sanctuary we can do little to bring an end to the fighting in the Middle East. At the same time, it is my fervent belief that we cannot do nothing in the face of such horrors, especially in plain sight. I hear Donniel’s chaplain’s query, “Does this really trouble you?” I hear as if it is being asked of me. My answer is “Yes. It troubles me greatly.” I pray I am not alone in this sanctuary.
Along with IsraAid, one of the leading lights in the work to aid the refugees has been HIAS – the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society. HIAS was born out of the need to assist the many Jews fleeing persecution in Europe and elsewhere who sought refuge on these shores. In recent years HIAS’ vision has broadened. Just as Donniel Hartman could not simply look away from the bodies floating on Lake Qaroun, HIAS has said we will not look away from the countless numbers of refugees fleeing death and devastation because of the terror that has consumed their homelands because they are not Jews. In the Spring, HIAS put out a call for synagogues to join a new initiative as a way of responding with education and action to the evil and horrors of today’s refugee crisis. We were part of a small group of congregations to whom HIAS reached out at the very earliest stages of launching the campaign. Rabbi Abrasley and I brought this to our Temple Shalom leadership. First our Executive Committee, and subsequently our Board of Trustees, and all voted unanimously to join this effort. My heart was filled with pride as I listened to our leadership’s deliberation about this request. On Friday night, October 21st, during Sukkot, our festival during which frail, temporary huts remind us of our people’s flight from slavery in Egypt and their journey towards freedom and dignity in the Land of Israel, we will hold a Shabbat dinner and a program of learning about this crisis. We will hear from refugees and we will learn how, as a community, we can be responsive in some small way. This was all set in motion before my trip to Berlin. Now, having witnessed and learned firsthand, from relief workers and refugees themselves, I am even more prepared to say, “Yes, it troubles me greatly.” Over the summer we were contacted by JFCS Metrowest, CJP and HIAS. There are a small number of refugee families coming to Eastern Massachusetts in the months ahead. We have been asked if we are willing to be part of the network that helps these families settle in communities where they will not be alone as Syrians, and assist with their integration into their new homes and lives. I am proud we are one of 4 synagogues who immediately stepped up. In the spirit of Abraham in our Torah reading, we have responded, Hineinu – we are here. There is yet much to be learned about this task. It is no small undertaking. This is no simple social action project. This is about people’s lives. These refugees have undergone extensive vetting by our nation’s agencies for nearly two years. In the coming months they will begin to call Eastern MA their new home. It is my hope that ours will not be a meek voice that responds Hineinu when it is time to dig in and reach out. Stay tuned for more in the weeks and months ahead. Join us on October 21st for what will surely be a powerful evening. Join our Refugee Assistance Working Group, chaired by Carol Berlin.
When it was Jews from the now Former Soviet Union, Temple Shalom stepped up in great strength. These Syrian refugees may not be our people. But like you and I, they too, are reflections of the holy image of God. In the words of Rabbi Tarfon in Pirkei Avot, “Hayom katazar v’ham’lacah merubah – The day is short, and the work is great.” It is holy work. As we engage, perhaps we will tilt our chaotic, noisy, conflicted world just one or two families closer to wholeness. I pray this will be so.
Shanah tovah – May this be a year of sweet blessings, growing justice, and peace!