Everyone is Welcome Here – Rosh Hashanah Day

5780 – 2019

By Rabbi Pam Frydman

My friend and teacher Rabbi Brad Artson is the Dean of the Ziegler School that trains Conservative rabbis in Los Angeles. Rabbi Artson is fond of saying that seeking justice “is an eternal religious obligation, that is at the very core of what it means to be a Jew.”[1]

Rosh Hashanah is a time to look at our lives and think about what it is that we need and want for ourselves, our loved ones, our community and our world. Sometimes it is difficult to know how to ask for what we need and want and sometimes it is difficult to even know what we need and want.

One of the goals of Rosh Hashanah is to help us develop the vision, imagination and self-confidence to dream big and ask for what we want and need. Our prayer book includes teachings in the margins that are designed to invite us to go inside and explore our own thoughts and feelings right here in the middle of the service.[2]

As the melodies of the prayers are coursing through us, the words in the prayer book invite us to break out of our complacency and dream big. We know that we cannot have everything we want, and we also know that we cannot repair everything that is broken in our world, but if we dream big, then perhaps we can begin to imagine what we really need and want for ourselves, our loved ones, our community and our world,

When it comes to helping others, if we were to go around the sanctuary and invite each of us to say just one thing that we have done during the past week to help others, we would likely find that we are a very giving and caring community. And we would probably also find that many of us have helped others without even thinking of it as helping, because helping is such a natural part of who we are and what we do.

On the other hand, there may also be times when we look at the ills of society that are incurable, or where the cure is so far beyond our reach that we feel sidelined by the challenge.

The immigrant children housed in cages along our border deserve to be free. Perhaps we are already helping by donating money or supplies or signing a petition or attending an event. But at the same time, we know that nothing we do personally is going to be enough to cure these devastating calamities.

From one point of view, it is, of course, important to think globally and act locally, so that we are helping those whose needs are within our reach. At the same time, however, it is crucial that we spend at least a little time hoping and praying that the seemingly insurmountable problems will be addressed, at least eventually.

One of the things that I am trying to cultivate during this new year is having more patience and more understanding with people who see the world differently than I do. Our Jewish values teach us that we should not try to be monolithic. We need to be able to think for ourselves and feel our own feelings. This is so true in the Jewish community that we actually have a joke that whenever there are two Jews, there are three opinions.

It may not be easy to admit, but the fact is that, whether we know it or not, there are good and decent people on many sides of the divide on a variety of issues both here in the Bay Area, in our nation, in Israel and in the greater world. And while many of us, or perhaps most of us, may prefer to spend time with like-minded and like-hearted people, we are entering an age when it is imperative that we begin to commit ourselves to being kind and thoughtful with people who see the world very differently than we do.

As we know, Tikkun olam has always included helping the less fortunate. Now, however, tikkun olam must also begin to include finding ways to enter into civil discourse with those whose views are different than ours. I am not suggesting that we should be expected to help those, with whom we disagree, to fulfill their agendas; but I am suggesting that we do need to find ways to be kind, thoughtful and polite with people on the other side of the ideological divide even if all we can do is to greet them and make small talk and avoid the topics that divide us.

Eleven months ago, in October of 2018, there was a horrific tragedy at the Tree of Life – a Conservative synagogue – in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The day after the tragedy in Pittsburgh, over 1200 of us gathered here in San Francisco for a vigil at Temple Emanu-El where speakers and attendees included the Mayor of San Francisco and members of the Board of Supervisors and leaders of Jewish, Christian, Hindu, Buddhist and Muslim faiths.

A few days after the vigil at Temple Emanu-El, I flew to Toronto, in Canada, to attend a conference and that Shabbat, I attended services at Beth Zedec, the largest Conservative synagogue in North America.

At the end of the service in Toronto, the rabbi invited the entire congregation, of nearly 1000 worshippers, to gather in the lobby and take turns shaking hands with Muslim neighbors who had been standing outside in the freezing November cold in Toronto in order to form a circle of peace around the synagogue. On that same Shabbat morning, Muslims had also formed similar circles of peace around seven other Toronto synagogues in the aftermath of the tragedy in Pittsburgh.

I stood in the lobby of the Beth Zedec Synagogue in Toronto and joined in shaking hands as we welcomed our Muslim guests who offered condolence on the loss of Jewish lives in Pittsburgh.

This idea of forming circles of peace and solidarity around houses of worship was begun in 2017 in Oslo, Norway, when a Muslim teenager organized a circle of solidarity around an Orthodox synagogue in response to violence against Jews in Europe.

During that same year – 2017 – there was also a tragedy in a mosque in Quebec City. In response, Toronto rabbis gathered their congregations to form circles of peace around seven Toronto mosques. It was that outreach by the Toronto rabbis that led Muslim leaders to gather their communities to form circles of peace around eight Toronto synagogues in the aftermath of the Pittsburgh tragedy.

Here in our own Congregation B’nai Emunah, we say that everyone is Jewish enough and interfaith families are welcome. And not only do say this; but we also walk our talk. And we extend our welcome to visitors of all faiths, backgrounds and needs, including helping to provide food to the destitute in our area, and including welcome members of the Muslim and Christian communities to break bread together for an Iftar, break-the-fast, during Ramadan. The Muslim leader, with whom we co-organized the Iftar, reached out to me today and extended his wishes, and the wishes of his community, to all of us for a happy new year.

It says in the Torah thirty-six times to welcome the stranger, and it also says that we must treat the stranger and the homebound equally. On behalf of our Board and staff and all of our leaders, I want to extend a warm B’nai Emunah welcome to everyone, whether you are a member for the past 30 years, or the past 70 years, or the past two weeks, or whether you never become a member. Regardless of what feels like just the right amount of affiliation for you and your loved ones, we want you to know that you are always welcome here.

May this new year of 5780 be filled with health and meaning for each of us; may we have what we need; and may we also be blessed to have what we want and to have the resources left over to be able to help others as well. May the new year bestow upon us the strength, courage and commitment to stand together in solidarity with others on issues that are important to us and to stand with others on issues that are important to them. And at the same time, may we also have the courage and capacity to reach across the aisle and befriend those who ideologies are not the same as ours.

L’shana tova tikateyvu v’tichateymu. Saleh no mobarak.[3] Gutt Yuntif.[4] May you be inscribed and sealed for a healthy, joyous, meaningful and peaceful year. Shana Tova.

[1] Please see Bonnie Lindauer’s talk entitled, “Shoftim – Justice Justice Shall You Pursue” in which she also includes this quote from Rabbi Artson <https://www.bnaiemunahsf.org/learn/judaism-university/shoftim-bonnie-lindauer/>

[2] Mahzor Lev Shalem, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, by Rabbi Edward Feld, et al. New York: Rabbinical Assembly, 2010.

[3] Farsi greeting, meaning Shana Tova.

[4] Yiddish greeting, meaning Good Holiday.