Rosh Hashanah Morning Sermon 5783

In 2001, the National Jewish Population Survey clearly identified 93% of American Jews as “religious” – meaning that the vast majority of those who self-identified as Jews some twenty years ago also identified with a congregation, or a movement, or a denomination.  In 2013 in a well-documented Pew Research study, only 78% identified the same way.  22% of all American Jews listed themselves as having “no religion in particular.”  The study also noted that of those born after 1980, that is under 40, a full third listed their religion as “none.”  It’s a strange statistic.  These are self-identifying Jews, listing their religion as “none.”

And since then the fastest growing group of Jews in our country are the “nones!”  If you narrow the study down further, to those under 30, a few other statistics jump out.  Almost 90% of that age group never attend services anywhere.  Almost 50% believe you can be both Christian and Jewish at the same time.[1]

In the intervening ten years, many opinions and prognostics have been put forth both on what these statistics mean, and what, if anything, we should do about it.  But let me tell you, just a few days ago, this past Shabbat, I heard something that gave me words to express the solution as I see it.  As part of our month long series of interfaith sermons on forgiveness and repentance, Imam Ahmed al-Amine from the Al- Fajr mosque, asked us if any of us had seen the movie, Terminator 2!  His question did raise an eyebrow or two, but the point he made next has stayed with me as a sacred truth.  The Terminator, he explained, is a complex robot sent back in time to find a specific target in our day to eliminate, thereby preventing a future rebellion by never allowing its presumed leader to be born. This killer robot has only one mission.  As it searches the city for the correct Sarah Connor, it encounters many others who do not fit its narrowly prescribed parameters, whom it ignores completely.  The Terminator is only interested in finding those who meet its expectations, and help to fulfill its mission.

Imam Al-Amine then declared, “Our houses of worship are filled with Terminators!  If someone walks in who does not fit into our preconceived notions of what we are looking for, they get ignored, or worse.  We have different aims than killer robots, undoubtedly.  But I love this comparison.  For how many of us can admit we are guilty of judging those who enter even this sacred space,
and instead of welcoming all under our very large tent, even unintentionally dismiss, reject, shun those who fit into our ideal picture of a spiritual seeker, a potential friend, a possible congregant, an individual with their own unique wisdom to share?

Personally I gravitate towards those who struggle to find their place in community, in theology, and in Jewish practice.  Those wary of organized religion and its potential for politics.  I try to reassure them, what it means to be a Jew in the twenty-first century is going to look very different from what it looked like in the past. And besides I say, for an organized religion, we are very, very disorganized.  All are welcome here.

The earliest reformers of the Jewish tradition, especially the ones who came to this country during the first waves of immigration, grappled with a similar serious question about Jewish identity.  Looking to the future – what does it mean to be a Jew?  A generation ago, that question forced us all to recognize the numbers of interfaith families who made up our numbers – many of us are here tonight.  Today we make it a point, as we did last night, to acknowledge, to welcome, and to bless all those who cast their lot with the Jewish people, while not yet embracing Judaism themselves.
We are stronger for your presence, commitment and support.  I remember when Jewish leadership, from Federations to synagogues were panicked about the “crisis of interfaith marriage.”  In fact, only by recognizing the needs of a new generation of Jewish families, many of whom share more than one faith tradition at home, and by striving to meet those needs, were we able to find new strength and evolve.

We face a new challenge today, with this growing category of Jews we call the “nones.”   What are we to do about the “nones?!”  No pun intended by the way, and no, I didn’t coin the phrase. (My apologies to our Catholic staff members and friends).  In ten days time we will begin Yom Kippur together by looking around us at these filled seats in the sanctuary and saying to one another, “I see you,” “We take responsibility for one another,” “we admit our sins as one community.”  And we will all pray together as one.  And while we might check your reservation status, we will not be asking you to prove your theology on your way in.  Those who call themselves “just Jewish” will sit alongside those Jews who report their religion as none, sitting next to those whose dedication to Reform Judaism goes back three or four or more generations.

The way our community confronted the questions raised by a high rate of intermarriage, is the same way we will need to confront the reality of those who see themselves as post-denominational, non-denominational, or Jewish only by ancestry, or culture.  By the way, in the same study, almost 85% of those who said they were Jewish with no religion said they were proud, or very proud to be Jewish.

Our congregation excels at bringing the unaffiliated into relationship with Judaism.  Our message has always been, as is stated on our web page: “It is our responsibility to keep Judaism relevant.” We don’t build ivory towers, we engage with those searching for a place to belong, especially with those who haven’t yet found a home. Their “crisis” of identity is nothing new.  From our very beginning we have grappled with the question – what does it mean to be a Jew?

The first time the early so-called Reformers met was in 1885, in Pittsburg, at the time a center for German Jewish immigration. The rabbis who attended the conference there wrestled with finding a balance between two extremes.  Some fought to completely throw out Jewish tradition, and start a new kind of Judaism, based not in spirit but in intellect.  Others pushed to integrate the Judaism of old with new ideas about American society.
They debated intensely what the future of American Judaism would be.  And there was one thing they agreed upon which formed the final paragraph of the Pittsburgh Platform:

In full accordance with the spirit of the Mosaic legislation (mitzvot), which strives to regulate the relations between rich and poor, we deem it our duty to participate in the great task of modern times, to solve, on the basis of justice and righteousness, the problems presented by the contrasts and evils of the present organization of society.

As we have debated, for decades, our relationship with God, our practice of kashrut, the wearing of kippot or tallit; our familiarity with Hebrew or lack thereof; choosing which melodies resonate with us; deciding which practices might fill life with meaning, and which won’t – this has been the one clear unifying factor that has kept us together.  One historic and prophetic legacy, which has guided liberal Jews in the fulfillment of our sacred obligation to each other, to the world, and to God.

Today we call this the work of social justice.   We are obligated to repair a broken world by bringing justice to it.  And we are obligated to do this in the social sphere – to feel the responsibility for social improvement at every level – local and global.  In the great compendium of rabbinic thought, the Talmud, the rabbis taught, “Whoever can stop their household [from doing something wrong] but does not, is punished for [the wrongdoings of] their household.  If they can prevent their fellow citizens, they are punished for the sins of their fellow citizens; and if the whole world – if they have the power or influence to direct the actions of the whole world, and they do not use that influence or that power, they are punished for the sins of the whole world.” (BT Shabbat 54b)

Determining which issues to stand behind, and on which to remain silent continues to be the work of synagogue committees, boards, and clergy.  But the very definition of a Jew has always included those who do not give themselves an “out.”  We may not stand idly by[2]; we do not stand only for ourselves[3]; we love our neighbors as ourselves[4]; we maintain one law for the Jew and stranger alike[5]; we care for those outside our own community “mipnei darchei shalom,” for the sake of the peace for which we all strive.

The first Jew, Abraham is known as an “Ivri”, a Hebrew, which translated refers to the one who crosses boundaries – geographic, political, hierarchical.  Moses spoke truth to power in the form of the Pharaoh.  Our prophets call to us from the pages of history calling us to keep these priorities front and center.  On Yom Kippur, in the midst of our fast, Isaiah reminds us that God does not need our fast of affliction.  God needs, God desires us to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and keep faith with those who sleep in the dust.

When asked why young people in particular are less inclined to identify with specific congregations or even denominations, they report that religious institutions seem A) too focused on money, B) welcoming to some and not others, and C) hypocritical about the values they preach.  The Torah speaks of caring for the immigrant (in Exodus 12), the non-citizen (in Deuteronomy 10), and the disenfranchised (in Exodus 22, and eleven other places) – that is not politics, that is straight from Torah.  This is what dynamic, relevant Judaism looks like in the 21st century.

Allow me one word to the naysayers of the term “social justice.”  Since the 1970’s, some have argued that this term is really code for a redistribution of wealth, or some other form of socialism.  This is not what the Hebrew prophets had in mind.  Nor did those philosophers who showed us the brokenness of the world, hope that utopia would look like uniformity.
The language of our ancestors was about something else entirely.  Seek out injustice, they demanded.  Understand who are most vulnerable in your society, and in your own town.  Ask what makes them vulnerable, and ask yourself to what they are so very vulnerable?  The imbalances of our history only reveal themselves when we learn about our history; when we teach our history; when we do not forget our own history.

In his beautiful book on Jewish memory, Zachor, the scholar Yosef Yerushalmi argues that Judaism stands alone in the commanding of memory.  “The word “remember” appears in the Bible no less that one hundred and sixty-nine times, usually with either Israel or God as the subject,” he writes, “for memory is incumbent upon both.”

To be a Jew is to remember.  We remember where we came from, and we remember the cost of the freedoms we enjoy.  We remember the atrocities committed; we are commanded to never forget.  “Remember the days of old,” Moses cautions, “ask your parents and they will tell you, your elders and they will teach you.” (Deut 32:7) The poet writes[6]: To be a Jew is to remember; it is to weep wherever there is suffering, to bring hope wherever there is despair.

This year in particular, our world seems a very despairing place.  We are failing to protect our children from gun violence, we are failing to act to reverse climate change.  We are failing to engage in civil conversation about so many difficult topics.  We feel helpless, watching the resurgence of oppressive forces – the religious right, neo-Nazism, not to mention the oppressive force of willful ignorance which animates so much of society’s leadership today.  The lessons of the past – regarding everything from ideology to environmentalism, seem lost – drowned out by loud voices arguing about how to even define fact and truth.  Meanwhile, it is the truth, and facts themselves who suffer.

To be a Jew means to hold as our most sacred possession knowledge of the past in all its detail, and to bear witness, honest and accurate witness to facts, when those who would diminish or ignore completely their accountability and fidelity to facts ask us to forget what we know, forget what we’ve seen.  To be a Jew means to engage with this world, and become part of the solution for the world’s problems large and small.  There is no other way to claim the moral high ground.

On Yom Kippur Rabbi Chernow-Reader will challenge us to consider what our own personal commitment to this engagement might look like.  The task, as the rabbis say, is not ours alone to complete, but we are also not free to sit and do nothing.  In a time of great religious transition and change, this is the Jewish paradigm emerging.  This is the heritage we will hand down to our children.  And this is absolutely what a next generation of disconnected and disaffected Jews is demanding from us.  We must walk the walk, we must remember our history and bring that knowledge into present day.  We cannot afford to silo ourselves in religious towers, and ignore what is happening in the social square.  And we cannot unburden ourselves from the causes of justice for our people, and for all people – regardless of the risk.

I understand those who would seek refuge in this sanctuary from more debate, more discussion of politics which fill our screens every single day.  But those who hear words of Torah and miss the compassion demanded for the immigrant, the disenfranchised, the historically oppressed, and the minority are misreading that book.  As your spiritual leaders, we only want to help you see this tradition is in your own heart, and in your own mouth to do it.

Meanwhile white nationalism and authoritarianism continue to threaten our democracy.  Religious extremists would effectuate a single religious perspective into law regarding women’s health care.  And those of us who agree with that religious perspective should be just as concerned as those who don’t.

Our congregation will always strive to live up to the principles of our Reform Jewish forefathers.  We will continue to speak up and act out as did IHC’s rabbis of old.  And we will always advocate for Jewish values in our society and in our world.  Our mission also says we aspire to always being a force to build a just world.

A 2020 report by the Schusterman Family Foundation found that American Jews are among the most civically engaged groups.  Nine out of ten said it was simply, “the right thing to do,” and that, “Jewish wisdom encourages us to engage in democracy and our communities.”[7]

This is why we do the work, and why we must open the walls of our tent to those seeking a Judaism that speaks to the issues of our day.  Our children need to see that their religious community not only has something relevant to say but will also lead the way in defining right action…


Rabbi Shai Held (of the progressive Orthodox community Mechon Hadar) puts it this way,

“Jewish Theology believes in ‘radical responsibility.’  This is a time to wrestle with what that directive requires of us… [The sage] Ibn Ezra states that the one who oppresses, and the one who witnesses oppression and says nothing, have the same status.  According to the Torah, there is no innocent bystander.  If you want to love a God and serve a God who is on the side of the vulnerable, then it is also your responsibility to stand on the side of the vulnerable.  You cannot be preoccupied with the God of Justice, and remain indifferent to questions of justice.  Good people can disagree with what justice requires of us, but there isn’t room for disagreement about our responsibility to engage.”[8]

Today, as we enter a New Year, we need to wrestle with the question Rabbi Held poses.  Are we attempting to be bystanders?  Do we stand on the side of the vulnerable?  Have we engaged enough?  And what future engagement will be asked of us?  I pray we have the strength and confidence to answer.

[1] Stephen Windmueller,

[2] Leviticus 19:16

[3] M. Pirkei Avot 1:14

[4] Leviticus 19:18

[5] Exodus 12:49

[6] Edmund Fleg, Jewish French writer and playwright. 1927.


[8] Judaism Unbound podcast.