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Yom Kippur 2007

Rob Meyer

Shana Tova.

Some of you may remember that a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, I  stood up here with some regularity to address the congregation. But when  Rabbi Jaffe asked me if I would once again ascend the bimah, this time to  describe my Jewish journey on the afternoon of Yom Kippur, I first felt  tremendously honored, then somewhat intimidated, and finally, frankly  terrified. Now, having accepted the challenge of trying to construct a  roadmap of where I’ve been and where I might possibly be going, what I  feel most is gratitude to have been given this opportunity to describe to you,  and to attempt to clarify for myself, this journey; and yes, I am still so very  honored that you asked me. Thank you.

Jews have always taken journeys, many, if not most, out of necessity and  under duress. “The Wandering Jew” is well established in our collective  psyches and with good reason: the Journey, the very basis of our Torah, has  repeated itself countless times in our people’s history. Whether from Minsk  to Manhattan, Berlin to Brooklyn, or Baghdad to Beersheva, each journey  recapitulates the Exodus, from Mitzrayim, a “narrow place” to Eretz Zavat  Chalav, a “land flowing with milk and honey, from enslavement to  redemption and freedom. And though I have had the great fortune to live in  a land where Jews enjoy more freedom and prosperity than at any time in  our history, and have not been forced by circumstances to leave or to escape,  my journey, at least figuratively, bears some similarities to those of my  forbearers, both immediate and remote. Friends, I am wandering; I have  become a “Wandering Jew” in situ.

My journey begins with that of my parents; both born in Germany, they  shared a first cousin, and so actually met there as children. After Hitler  came to power in 1933, both my parents, though especially my mother, of  blessed memory, suffered the increasingly brutal degradations of anti-  Semitism. When their families finally read the handwriting on the wall, it  was almost too late. My father’s immediate family got out intact in 1939;  their journey took them through Holland to England and on to New York.  By 1940, exit visas for the United States were exceedingly difficult to  obtain; my mother was the only member of her family that did. Because the  war in Europe was already raging, and because Hitler and Stalin were still  buddies, my mother left Germany, alone, at the age of 16, embarking on her  journey that would take her eastward through Siberia, Manchuria, Japan and  Seattle to New York, never to see her parents or sister again. In New York,  my mother and father became reacquainted and the rest, as they say, is  history.

Many families who were touched by the Holocaust chose never to discuss it  with their children; my parents, or so it seems in retrospect, spoke of it  incessantly. Family reunions were often marked by long discussions about  relatives who perished in the Camps; Hitler, it seemed, had done a pretty  good job of pruning my family tree. And so my first feelings about Judaism  were tinged with anxiety, if not outright fear; the occasional anti-Semitic act  in our suburban town did nothing to help. This anxiety, I believe, set me  apart somewhat from even the other Jewish kids I knew; none of them were  first generation Americans whose parents had escaped Europe; but other  than this rather significant difference, I had a fairly typical upbringing in  Classical Reform Judaism: we celebrated Shabbat and the Holidays; I  attended Sunday School and hated every minute of it. But by far, the  highlight of my early Jewish experience was Youth Group; NFTY provided  me with a rich mix of cultural, religious, spiritual and social experiences. I  had never felt better about being a Jew, but as is typical, any religiosity or  connection with Jewish institutions hibernated when I went to college, to  reemerge only when Anne and I were married, and began to contemplate  starting a family.

Enter TempleIsaiah. Anne and I joined this wonderful Congregation in  1982; we were warmly greeted by Irving Belansky (weren’t we all?) and by  Michael and Sydney Pearlman, and then basically became invisible until we  joined Family Connection, then in its infancy, in about 1991. Through  Family Connection and with the help and inspiration of Rabbi Cary Yales, of  blessed memory, I discovered that there was more to Judaism, a lot more,  than the sadness and loss associated with the Holocaust. I became active in  various committees and the Board of Trustees and ultimately became  President of the Congregation.

All that I have just described is prologue, a prelude to the journey on which I  now find myself. Looking back, the road on which I had been traveling was  the Interstate of contemporary American Reform Judaism, more or less  proceeding in a straight line without a lot of detours or deviations or even  Howard Johnson’s. I was moving along, but with an increasingly nagging  sense of dissatisfaction; for me, this road became a narrow place, another  Mitzrayim, and it was time to leave.

Why such dissatisfaction? For many years, I have become increasingly  disenchanted with our liturgy to the point that I now find it difficult to sit  through a traditional Reform Service, and when I do, it is most often with  the siddur closed on my lap. Why? Because it is rooted in a highly  anthropomorphized God, an omnipotent, omniscient Creator who hears  prayer, rewards those who observe the Mitzvot, and punishes those who do  not; the very same God we all learned about in second grade, the very God  that is best epitomized by the liturgy which we recite this very day, a God in  which I can no longer believe.

In the best tradition of Jacob, I have struggled and I have wrestled with  God, and have reached the point at which I no longer feel guilty or  apologetic or frightened for rejecting those traditional images. What I am  coming to believe would be very difficult to express to you in just a few  lines, except to say this: just as the notions of the God which I have rejected  permeate our ancient Texts, what I have come to believe as my nuggets of  Truth reside there as well. To name just two: in Exodus 3:14, when God  says to Moses at the Burning Bush, “Ehyeh-asher-Ehyeh…I will be what I  will be,” that, for me, is permission, indeed an invitation, to wrestle and to  struggle and to find a sense of the Sacred that holds meaning for me. And in  I Kings 19, when Elijah finds that God is not in the earthquake, nor in the  wind, nor in the fire, but in “Kol D’Mama Dekah…in the murmurings of a  brook…in a still, small voice,” this magnificent passage has inspired me to  search in new places for the Divine Force in the universe. These notions  now accompany me everywhere on my journey and I am eternally grateful  to those with whom I’ve studied Torah and God for continually showing me  the relevance of these and other passages to my wrestlings.

As if this wasn’t a sufficient exit ramp off the highway, there is another: I  have become extremely disillusioned with, and very cynical about,  organized religion. All of them. I have come to believe, in my heart, that  throughout the history of humankind, organized religion has done more  harm than good. For while it is probably a basic function of human nature to  enter into community with like-minded individuals, what seems to inevitably  follow, at least when it comes to Western religion, is the glorification of  “Self” followed by the identification and, ultimately, the demonization of  “The Other.” History books have shown this time and time again, but  unfortunately, what revealed it to me with crushing clarity (and I know I  may be treading on thin ice here) was last summer’s war in Lebanon. I have  often disagreed with Israel’s policies towards its neighbors, but this time, I  was simply ashamed and appalled. Yes, Israel must defend itself against  murderous suicide bombers and incoming Ktusha rockets, but to drop  American-made cluster bombs on civilian populations: innocent men,  women and children—this was madness and it was unconscionable.  And in the months since then, after learning more about “The Troubles” on a  visit to Ireland, and, first-hand, of the persecution of indigenous Mayan  peoples by the Catholic Church in Guatemala, I question whether my  pursuit of spirituality might not better be accomplished in the company of a  few close friends, or even alone, rather than as a part of any organized  movement, Jewish or otherwise, whose principles and values might too  easily be compromised by geopolitical struggles over land or wealth or  power or influence. On a more local and personal level, our shared  affiliation with Judaism and its values have bound us together in this  wonderful community; yet I fear that religious affiliation can also limit our  horizons, narrow our vision, and place us all into our own “group silos.”  Instead of confronting the issues of the day by asking “Is it good for the  Jews?” we must question “Is it good for humanity?” “Is it good for our  planet?”

And so, I am wandering. Leaving Mitzrayim was not easy for the Israelites  of the Torah; it hasn’t been easy for me. The Wilderness can be a scary  place, especially if one anticipates wandering around in it for a while, not  knowing where those wanderings will lead. For example, given what I’ve  just said, you may ask and I, too, have wondered, just what it is left of my  Judaism? Now there is a frightening thought, but as I’m learning, the  answer is “quite a bit;” I feel Jewish to my core, and my journey is still a  Jewish one. And as a beloved teacher and friend has continued to tell me,  “The Wilderness is a good place to be” and I’ve discovered that he is right;  I’ve become more comfortable there. In the wilderness, there can be silence,  and that quiet can bring clarity. Yet, I have come to suspect that, after the  Wilderness, even if I can attain some type of spiritual Promised Land, the  reality is that Promised Lands can and do morph back into Narrow Places,  and then, it will once again be time to “hit the road.”

May we all continue to find the courage to leave our narrow places, to spend  some time listening and searching B’Midbar, in the Wilderness, and in doing  so, may each of us inscribe ourselves for another year of spiritual life,  fulfillment and peace.

Shana Tova

Thu, April 18 2024 10 Nisan 5784