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December 22, 2014 | 30th Kislev 5775

Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie, Sermon, December 12, 2008

Sermon at Union Board Services, Tampa, Florida
December 12, 2008
Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie

See press releases on the sermon

We gather this Erev Shabbat at a momentous time in the history of our community and our country. Stories of economic collapse dominate the media and our consciousness. Day after day we read what we already know: that we are in the worst economic crisis since the Depression; that our 401Ks have shrunk dramatically; and that too many of our neighbors and friends are losing their homes and their jobs.

Yes, a new Administration is about to take office, offering promise and excitement. We pray that our new President will revive our economy and renew our hope. But the obstacles that he faces are many, and for most Americans, this is a time of worry and uncertainty.

Will our synagogues be affected? Of course. They already are. Synagogues – like churches and mosques – are grassroots institutions, supported by the voluntary giving of their members. When Americans are suffering economically, synagogues suffer as well. Some areas of the country are better off than others, of course, and many of our synagogues are not now in crisis; nonetheless, all of our congregations are concerned, and most have taken steps to control costs and reduce expenses.

In fact, in the months ahead we may begin to see a reversal of those trends that have characterized American Jewish life for more than half a century.

We Jews are a contentious, fiercely independent people. When it comes to our religious views, we embrace a multiplicity of theologies and worship styles. And to accommodate this variety, we have established an extensive network of congregations, far more than would appear to be justified by our numbers.

Let me be clear: I have always believed that the passionate pluralism of North American synagogue life is a source of strength. Except in crisis situations, a city with a Reform, Conservative, and Orthodox synagogue is a stronger Jewish community than a city with one synagogue alone; and three or four Reform congregations usually make for a stronger Reform community than one with a single Reform temple. Most of the time, unity is overrated, and diversity is a blessing.

But now we are in a crisis situation, and it may be that we can no longer afford what we once took for granted. For example, in a small town, it may be that a struggling Reform and a struggling Conservative synagogue will have to overcome their differences and join in cooperative programming, and even formal mergers; and in a large city, with two, or five, or ten Reform congregations, it may be that the time has come to share social services, buildings, and staff.

And by the way, perhaps the time has come for North American synagogue movements to do the same. In areas such as social action and synagogue management, why shouldn’t we be working together? At a crucial crossroads of American Jewish history, perhaps now is the time for all streams of Judaism to join in friendship and cooperation to help maintain the strength and vibrancy of our synagogue community.

I know how hard it can be to make these decisions. When I was a regional director for the Union in the Midwest, I often worked on congregational mergers, only to see everything fall apart at the last minute. The stated reason might be a dispute over where to put the memorial plaques, or whether one congregation should get eight seats or ten seats on the new temple board. But the stated reason was rarely the real one. The real reason was the intense loyalty we feel to our synagogues, which we see an extension of our families and ourselves.

Nonetheless, I believe that if preserving the synagogue’s mission requires cooperative efforts on a scale never before imagined, then we in this great movement will do what we have to do to make this happen.

And I believe this as well: in a period of crisis, our synagogues will not be less important; they will be more important. At times such as these, they become – even more than before – our matrix of belonging, our holy place, our refuge from the insecurities of human existence. Yes, we will struggle with budgets, but our members will seek the anchor that only Torah can provide and the consolation and community that only our rabbis and synagogues can bestow.

Let us not forget: the purpose of our sanctuaries is to open up a space for God at the heart of our collective life. As Jews and as vulnerable human beings, we need that space, now more than ever.

II.

Let us pass now to the national scene and ask the question: At a time when our politics is in transition and our economy in disarray, what do Reform Jews have to say about the profound problems that our country faces?

First, to state the obvious, we wish our new President well. Whether we are Republicans or Democrats, whether we voted Obama or McCain, we appreciate the appeals to idealism and public service that President-Elect Obama has articulated. He has given voice to a new spirit in our country, one that we hope will energize the forces of social justice in our synagogues, churches, and mosques—kindling a rebirth of hope, community, and commitment.

Second, we know enough to be guarded in our outlook. The problems that we now face are too profound to be resolved quickly, easily, or without significant sacrifice.

President-Elect Obama, we know, must address the corrosive decline of American prosperity, which was the basis of his campaign and the reason for his election. But this is an enormous task, perhaps beyond the ability of this or any president. And every other item on his agenda is tied to the success of his economic program.

Not surprisingly, therefore, there is an intense debate on priorities underway. There are those who say: You must relieve the financial crisis and stabilize the economy. We cannot afford to do anything else. All other issues, no matter how vital, are too complicated and contentious.

And then there are those who say: You were elected to give Americans health insurance and a more-efficient health-care system. You were elected to end the war in Iraq, rebuild our infrastructure, refashion the energy sector and promote “green” investments. Focusing on the economic crisis – however essential – cannot be a reason for ignoring your broader agenda.

In the real world, of course, it is never either/or. There are compelling arguments on both sides, and there will be no single, stark choice between fiscal responsibility and a politics of caring. And even the most expansive liberal will acknowledge the need for financial discipline and common sense.

Still, as this battle rages, we Jews – motivated by our historic passion for social justice and equality – will often be on the side of addressing the great issues of justice that dominated this campaign.

We have time now only for a single example: the issue of health care.

Mr. Obama made health care a centerpiece of his campaign, returning to the subject again and again. And he has talked of investing in health care as part of his economic recovery program. Also, most Americans believe that it is a task of government to provide its citizens with essential health care. So it will really happen this time, right?

I am not so sure. Mr. Obama campaigned on containing medical costs and extending medical coverage to the 46 million uninsured Americans. But every President for the last 30 years has faced the same problem, and the same thing always happens. It turns out that controlling costs is much harder than anticipated, and extending benefits is always “temporarily delayed” until savings can be wrung out of the health care budget. Of course, the savings never happen, and the uninsured remain uninsured.

We have already begun to hear that perhaps the cost control problem was underestimated, and that coverage for all Americans may have to wait. “We haven’t given up on the principle,” these voices are saying, “but given the financial crisis, just we can’t do it now.”

Mr. President-Elect: Please, stand strong. No more: let’s wait. No more inaction. No more retreat from promises solemnly made to those who need help now.

We must stand up for the family stricken by severe illness and pushed into bankruptcy by medical bills—something unheard of in the industrialized world and yet common in America. And we must stand with the three million hard-working Americans who, when they lose their jobs in the current recession, will lose health benefits for themselves and their families. Surely if our nation can provide bailouts for billionaires, it can find a way to provide health care to America’s uninsured.

We all know that this is a complicated matter, but if it is to be done, now is the time. We have a President with the right instincts, who cares deeply about the issue. And we in the Jewish community have a role to play here. Let’s remind him that his place in history may depend as much on this issue as on any other matter. And let’s be clear about our goals: the new President promised health insurance for all Americans by the end of his first term. For America’s sake, let’s hold him to that promise.

We Jews have a stake in this issue, of course. As the American ethnic group with the highest median age – a painful fact, but true nonetheless – we are particularly sensitive to the problems of the current health care system. Members of our congregations have lost insurance too, and others wake up every morning in fear of losing theirs.

But this is not only a matter of Jewish self-interest; it is a matter of Jewish values. Remember, we Jews pray for healing and for the sick every single day, but if we turn our backs on those who are denied a doctor’s care, these prayers are an insult to God. So let’s help our new President along. Let’s stiffen his backbone and urge him to fight. And let’s do here what every other advanced country somehow manages to do for their citizens: provide health insurance that can never be taken away, no matter what happens to your job, no matter what medical catastrophe befalls you.

III.

I would like to conclude with a few words on what is happening on the global scene.

This world is a dangerous place, and the first thing that we ask of our new President is that he keep us safe. This means, above all, that he deal with the threat of a nuclear Iran and with the dangers posed by Islamic extremists. These are not only Jewish issues; they are matters that threaten the peace of the world. Nonetheless, it may be that we Jews feel these dangers even more keenly than do others.

Think back to the horrific attacks in Mumbai. The terrorists entered the Chabad House for the purpose of hunting down Jews. In order to carry out their Nazi-like mission, they needed intelligence, but they had done their homework. Posing as Malaysian students interested in learning about Judaism, they had previously asked for shelter from the young Chabad couple who ran the facility. They got to know the rabbi and his pregnant wife, and then later used the information they had acquired to kill them.

We have had quite enough of this dreadful cult of martyrdom and the boundless contempt for the Other that fuels it. Our new President, we know, will give these terrorists no quarter, and we support his efforts to build alliances around the world with those who will join this battle. And we ask as well that Muslim leaders raise their voices and demand that the fanatics release their death grip on the faith of Islam. Some have done this, but all others must follow.

And what of the State of Israel? When we look at Israel today, we see a strong state with a reasonably healthy economy. Much of the credit should go to President George W. Bush. He supported Israel’s security needs, provided much-needed military aid, and accepted no excuses for Palestinian terror. The President is under siege right now, but we in the Jewish community must not forget that he has been a good friend to the Jewish State and the Jewish people.

I hasten to add that John McCain is also a good friend of Israel, and so are Bill Clinton, Al Gore, John Kerry, and President-Elect Obama. There are many issues that divide Republicans from Democrats, but Israeli-U.S. relations is not one of them. American Jews have worked hard to build a bi-partisan, pro-Israel consensus in this country, and we have succeeded; indeed, it is one of our proudest accomplishments. For that reason, I was saddened by Jewish accusations during the campaign that Senator Obama was anti-Israel; they were shameful and wrong. Our new President will be a strong advocate for the security and well-being of the Jewish state, and Secretary of State Clinton will be a dedicated partner in this effort.

And when it comes to Israel, what should we expect from the new administration? Let’s not look for miracles. Peace cannot be imposed and may not be possible. The extremists of Hamas control Gaza; the Palestinian President, Mahmoud Abbas, is a reasonable man, but very weak. Nonetheless, there are things that can be done. Weak or not, moderates need American support, and Abbas is a moderate. America has supported him and trained his security forces, and should continue to do so. And Israel’s current government, which has made progress with Abbas, welcomes an American role in moving their talks forward. America can also be helpful in advancing talks with Syria, which Israel initiated earlier this year and which are supported by many of her military leaders.

And there are steps that Israel can take as well. Several times in recent years, the Government of Israel has made a solemn promise to the Government of the United States that it will stop settlement expansion and remove illegal West Bank outposts. We all understand, I believe, that this is a promise that must be kept.

And we understand as well that something must be done about the young Jews who in recent weeks have been rampaging through the streets of Hebron. They have desecrated Moslem cemeteries and local mosques, writing the words “Mohammed is a pig” on gravestones and mosque walls. They have beaten Palestinian passers-by, burned their houses and cars, and attacked Israeli soldiers. This is part of a growing pattern of settler violence in the West Bank that, tragically, has been building for years. Their actions are particularly distressing to us, because these people profess to be religious Jews who are acting in the name of Torah; we know, of course, that they dishonor our Torah, besmirch our tradition, and bring all of Judaism into disrepute.

These men and women are a fringe element in Israeli society; they represent no one, and Israel’s Prime Minister and Defense Minister have condemned them in the strongest terms. But there is no denying that for a long time, the authorities have looked the other way, excusing their misbehavior as idealism or dismissing it as the harmless antics of the young. Well, it’s time to admit that extremism unchecked rises up to devour you; it’s time to admit that Jewish hooligans and vigilantes are no different than any other hooligans and vigilantes, and before any further damage is done, they must be arrested, tried, and punished for their crimes.

But for President-Elect Obama our essential message is this: America has a commitment to Israel, and that commitment must remain as fixed and permanent as the sky. At the same time, remember that nothing positive happens with the Arabs and Israel unless the United States is active. If peace is to be possible, if a two-state solution is to be possible, if a secure Israel is to be possible, a U.S. presence will be required. So we welcome your commitment, frequently stated, to put this matter high on your diplomatic agenda. Yes, peace may be difficult, and perhaps a distant dream, but despair is not a Jewish emotion; and if America is involved, we need not and will not give in to despair.

IV.

This is not a simple agenda that I am proposing, not for our government and not for ourselves.

We Reform Jews must strengthen our synagogues in difficult times, even as our synagogues support and maintain us.

We must defend the State of Israel with all our might, promoting all the while those values that are central to her wellbeing.

And we must demand from our government a moral agenda that includes medical insurance not only for the healthy and the wealthy, but for us all.

We will not do any of this with good intentions alone. And we will not do it by being “Buddies of Barack” or defenders of a new status quo. Our job is to go on the moral offensive. Our job is to do what God and Torah demand of us, and to hold our leaders to the highest possible standard. Our job is to do what we can to help heal the soul of America, this great country in which we live.

It is no easy matter, this enterprise of being Jewish; it summons us to be fired by a very broad vision. But as leaders of the synagogue, summoned by our prophets to be a goad to this nation’s conscience, we expect no less. As leaders of the synagogue, we are called by our God, our tradition, and our history to be healers and fixers and pursuers of justice, and thus to be a blessing to all humankind.

Shabbat Shalom.

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