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Yom Kippur 2014

Sandy Whitecross

My spiritual journey began at an early age, attending religious school and holiday services, and I was very active in youth group from 7th grade on. As the first teen in the congregations’ history to be invited to join a standing committee, I agreed to serve on the Board of Education.

There was an article in the Milford Daily News, Monday Evening, September 25, 1972. Title: “Candidates for Pastor Interviewed in Millis.” The article begins: “The Pulpit Supply Committee of the Church of Christ has been meeting on a regular basis interviewing candidates to fill the position left vacant by the resignation of Rev. William C. Flemming last December.” The article goes on to describe the search process and lists the twelve members of the search committee, many of whom were parents of my high school peers. As a member of the Board of Christian Education, I was one of the twelve who served on the search committee for a new minister. The beginning of my spiritual journey was based in Christianity.

My Jewish journey began with Rabbi Cary Yales, z”l in the old classroom wing of this very building. Along with several members sitting in this congregation today, I studied Jewish history, ritual, traditions and the Hebrew language with Rabbi Yales. This Introduction to Judaism class made me realize that the tenets of Judaism were in complete alignment with my nefesh, my inner core. Although it was very scary to step foot into a building with a magen david, the star of David, as the door pull, once inside the classroom with other adults searching for meaning in Jewish life, I began to find my way.

One of these sessions will always stand out for me. Rabbi Yales brought us into the plane being held hostage by members of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. The plane en route from Israel to France was hijacked on June 27, 1976 and flown to Entebbe, Uganda. At Entebbe, the hijackers freed many of the 258 passengers who did not appear to be Israeli or Jewish and held the rest of the passengers hostage demanding for the release of 53 militants imprisoned mostly in Israel, Kenya and West Germany. In this class we were gaining one understanding of what it meant to be Jewish. We were asked that evening to respond to the following question:

Are YOU Jewish? Are YOU Jewish? Are You??

Knowing that the hijackers were willing to kill passengers who, by faith alone, were representative of their enemy, I searched deeply for my response. If traveling alone, what were the consequences of my response? Would I be strong enough to reveal my true identity? What if I had not “officially” taken an oath to join the Jewish people? What would my answer be? And what if I had? What if I had stood before this ark, holding the Torah and declared my allegiance to the people Israel, would the answer be the same?

Then my thoughts moved to imagining that I was traveling with my mother. What would be my answer then? Could I state my true faith and risk my mother’s life when in fact, she was in no way a Jew, not by birth not by choice? Which took precedence, my true identity or the safety and protection of my family? Of all that I explored then and even to this day, that lesson has made a permanent impression upon my soul.

On July 3, 1976, Israel dispatched four Hercules cargo planes carrying upwards of 200 soldiers. The cargo planes were escorted by Phantom jet fighters. After flying some 2,500 miles from Israel to Uganda, the Israeli force rescued the hostages within one hour after landing.

When I first joined this congregation, I constantly felt ill-equipped to participate fully in services, felt awkward in adult learning, and afraid to join a committee, because I just didn’t know enough. In conversations with the rabbi, I often confided my insecurity. Always reassured that I was welcome and knowledgeable, it was hard for me to move beyond “I don’t know enough.” Participation in the Youth Commission, the Outreach Committee, Saturday morning minyan and so many other opportunities, has helped me move from “I don’t know enough” to recognizing that I have learned much. And at the very same time, I also know that what is yet to be explored, is way more expansive. There is so much to learn and experience with great teachers and other learners. Learning in Judaism is a primary value so it is an integral part of what the Mussar tradition refers to, as my soul or spiritual curriculum. I expect that learning will be part of my spiritual journey for the rest of my life.

I feel blessed to have had the opportunity to choose to be Jewish. The ceremony included an immersion in the mikveh, a ritual bath and standing before this ark, holding the Torah for the very first time. It was official. The first few days I remember feeling as if I was in a sort of spiritual limbo. It was five days until my family celebrated Christmas and I had no plan to join them. We had joked that yes, they would still get their Christmas gifts from me, but more importantly they wanted to know if they now had to give me 8 gifts, 1 for each night of Chanukah! I’m not sure what I was thinking, but told them no, they were not now on the hook for eight gifts.

For a long time, I have been comfortably settled in my Jewish identity, it is who I am and in many ways, who I always was. I made the right decision for me and my family has been extraordinarily supportive from the very start. That is not to say however that we don’t have our differences.

When my father was first diagnosed with cancer in January 1994, my parents were living over 1,400 miles away. Many of you know the struggle of being far from the ones you love, particularly in the midst of a health crisis. I visited my dad several times that spring, and joined my brothers, sisters-in-law, nieces and nephews in Florida that April to celebrate my parents’ 50th wedding anniversary. Three weeks after returning home I was called to my father’s bedside. Hospice had been there a week. Before I left town, I met with Rabbi Yales to ask him what to do. We talked, he gave me a couple of readings to take with me and then a hug for good measure. When my dad died the day after I arrived, my brothers, mother and I sat around the kitchen table talking about next steps.

There was little to decide as far as funeral arrangements, as my dad had made his wishes very clear to all of us: he was to be cremated and his ashes spread in the Gulf of Mexico. He had decided this long before he got sick and even made jokes about sleeping with the fishes. The decision was made, yet it was still difficult for me to accept his cremation. I was grounded in the Jewish tradition of a quick burial in lieu of cremation, and wondered where I would visit to “talk” with my dad. There would be no permanent marker of my father’s life. The Jewish traditions of burial and mourning were my grieving context and yet, my dad’s ashes could not be scattered for at least 4 days after his death.

At a very difficult time in my family’s life, we were each grieving in our own way, and my tradition was dramatically at odds with my father’s wishes. It happened again when my mother died. At the time my mother’s death, I was familiar with one of the morning blessings often said upon waking, and which is an expression of gratitude for the renewal of life upon waking and celebrates of the miracles we experience every day. Mishkan T’fillah, p. 173

Blessed are You, Adonai our God, Sovereign of the universe.

אשׂר יצר את האדם בּחכמה וּברה בוֹ

נקבים נקבים חלוּלים חלוּלים.

God, with divine wisdom You have made our bodies, combining veins, arteries and vital organs into a finely balanced network. Wondrous Maker and Sustainer of life, were one of them to fail -- how well we are aware! –- we would lack the strength to sustain life before You. Blessed are You, Adonai, Source of our health and strength.

I held onto this prayer every day in the hospital room with my mom. How well I was aware when first one part of her finely balanced network failed. The doctors and nurses responded to that failure finding ways to support her and sustain life. Then another part of her finely-balanced network failed. You can imagine the rest of the story. This morning blessing brought me comfort in my time of need and is forever linked to my mother’s life.

In mourning my father and my mother, I fulfilled their individual wishes for burial and then followed with my own spiritual healing through Jewish tradition here in this community. It was a challenging dance with one foot in my family’s religious tradition and one foot firmly rooted in my own. The difficult dance between two worlds fortunately happens infrequently. Mostly, the dance is a joyful one as my brothers and I honor and respect each other’s spiritual journey.

My path has been rich and fulfilling and certainly unique. Friends in this community create my Jewish family with whom I share part of my journey. Many of you have been a teacher of mine in some way or another. Here at Temple Isaiah I have been blessed to have some of the greatest teachers there are. Some of my best teachers are nine, twelve and sixteen year olds!

My spiritual journey began at an early age, attending religious school and holiday services, and I was very active in youth group from 7th grade on. My spiritual journey continued as I got older, teaching religious school, attending holiday services, serving as youth group advisor for students in grades 7 and on. From Sunday school to summer camps; from youth groups to singing in the adult choir; back to the classroom, first as a student and then as a teacher; and back to summer camp as an adult leader; and then back to the classroom… again.

May this holy day of Yom Kippur be one of many important steps of your spiritual journey. I wish you a year of richness, personal meaning and a year of learning with wonderful teachers, especially the younger ones!

G’mar tov.

Sat, March 2 2024 22 Adar I 5784