“We Cannot Stop Noticing”

There is a story about a rabbi in the early twentieth century. His name was Henry Cohen, and he served in Galveston, Texas, for 50 years.

For about ten years, Galveston was a principal port of entry for immigrants into the United States from Russia and Eastern Europe. And Rabbi Cohen was an advocate for many, and in 1911 an imprisoned immigrant requested a meeting.

He was awaiting extradition back to Tsarist Russia, and he insisted to Rabbi Cohen that he was not a criminal but was entitled to political asylum.

Rabbi Cohen believed him and took up his case. He intervened with the authorities but lost his initial appeal on the man’s behalf. Cohen then took the case to the Supreme Court of Texas and to the Governor of Texas, each time with the same negative result.

Finally, he sought an interview with President William Howard Taft. After many frustrations, he was granted an appointment with the president on the strength of his reputation. And he pleaded the cause of the prisoner. Taft listened and then shook his head.

“I am sorry, Rabbi . . . much as I admire the way you Jews stick together . . . try to help one another, I cannot see any reason for intervening this case. I’m sorry I can’t help your fellow Jew.”

 “Jew?” said Rabbi Cohen. “Who said he was a Jew? He’s a Russian Christian.” “A Christian?” echoed the president. “But why are you concerning yourself with him?” 

The rabbi replied. “He’s a human being, isn’t he?” 

And so it happened that the president cancelled the extradition order. (Found in Rabbi Cohen’s autobiography. Thank you to Elliott Cosgrove for alerting me to the story.)

This story resonates with us. It resonates with us because of who we are, whether we come to this synagogue twice a year, or twice a day. It resonates with us whether we were born Jewish or simply choose through our family to connect ourselves with this community. I dare say it resonates with us whether we are conservative or liberal,  young or old, whatever our background.

And it resonates with us today, this evening,  because of the climate of our country, the challenges we face, the words we hear, the dangers, the anxieties we feel. We may not always agree on policies. We may not agree on what government needs to do or what legislation needs to be passed.

But we do know our values and character. What is so often lost in the flood of headlines and tweets is the set of core values for which we stand. The sound of the shofar pierces into our hearts and reminds us of them.

And what values do we stand for? A commitment to equality, a concern with the outsider, the marginalized, a persistence, even occasional stubbornness to bring justice into this world. So let’s look a little more closely at them. 

First, a commitment to welcoming the stranger, the immigrant, the outsider, is encoded in our spiritual DNA. The immigrants who came from Germany, then Eastern Europe, then the former Soviet Union…we know that history because it’s many of our histories. That history—coupled with those of other groups—made America what it is today. Just this year I married a couple in which the bride was the child of immigrants from the former Soviet Union. And the groom?

Well, he was born in Bosnia. But he was born when it was still part of Yugoslavia. His dad was from Croatia. His mom was from Serbia. When they were part of Yugoslavia, the groups got along. But after the fall of the Soviet Union, the two sides were at war. The groom’s father was a successful doctor, but his family was attacked, and he had to flee to Germany, leaving his wife and newborn son—the future groom—behind.

Eventually, the mom and son escaped by walking across the border into Romania under the eyes of a sympathetic border guard. In Romania, the father picked them up and drove them to Germany. Even though he was a highly respected doctor in Yugoslavia, the only job he could find in Germany was as a construction worker. The family applied seven times for asylum in the United States. Finally, they made it and arrived here penniless. 

Ultimately the son worked hard, majored in computer science and biology at Stanford, and is now in his final year as a medical resident doing cutting edge research in pediatric oncology. Where would America be without immigration? 

And where would America be without our Jewish voice–We helped define America as a place, a culture, a nation whose identity rested on a promise of freedom and opportunity for every new arrival. Oscar Handlin, a Jewish professor at Harvard, was the first person to describe America as a “nation of immigrants.”

Emma Lazarus, America’s first Jewish poet, inspired the world with her words describing our country as a place welcoming all the huddled masses yearning to breathe free.

That’s one of the reasons the events of this year– the pictures of children separated from their families, sleeping on concrete floors—horrified us. That’s why we cried and instantly empathized with families fleeing terror to find a better life here.

 But it’s not only our feelings of compassion and empathy. It’s also an awareness of our own vulnerability. Rhetoric against immigrants is rhetoric against Jews. 

The times when America turned away from the world—when we closed our borders, when we talked of invasions, infestations, of  people being disloyal and savages—those were the times when antisemitism rose. And it’s happening now.  For the first time in at least 60 years, American Jews are really scared. This year we saw 11 Jews at prayer murdered at a synagogue in Pittsburgh. We saw a gunman storm into a synagogue in San Diego and shoot at the rabbi. A 60-year-old woman jumped in front of the rabbi and lost her life. 

People ask me what we can do. We can call it out. We can write letters and work with our extraordinary tikkun olam taskforce. We can go into schools and churches and mosques and work with and teach others about the reality of antisemitism . We can push for more laws with greater penalties for hate crimes and hate speech. 

But this is not a sermon about policy—this is a message reminding ourselves of a core spiritual commitment: to speak out against hate. Hatred of the immigrant, hatred of the outsider, hatred of Jews.  They are interconnected, and when we fight antisemitism, we are also fighting for the rights and the dignity of all. When we speak out for immigrants and outsiders, we are helping sustain America as a place where the Jewish community has thrived like never before.

When we adopt a refugee family, as we recently did for the third time—and when we protest at a detention center, as Rabbi Ike and many of our congregants did this year, we are reminding the world that the Jewish people—indeed, this congregation—proudly stand for particular values. As the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, HIAS, put it in their motto, “We used to take refugees because they were Jewish. Now we take them because we are Jewish.” 

Now the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society helped many of our ancestors in settling in their new home. As we come together as a community, as Makom Solel Lakeside, we are creating a new home. Now for some of you here, this space may not yet feel like home. And for others of you, it has been a second home for decades. But wherever we come from, we, right here, right now, are creating a spiritual home together.

That’s one of the reasons we chose the name Makom. Makom kind of sounds like home. It even sounds like shalom. But there is, potentially, a deeper meaning still. And we find it in an intriguing story from the Book of Genesis.

Jacob leaves his homeland. On the first night of his journey, he lays his head down on a rock and falls asleep. He dreams of a ladder between heaven and earth. Angels go up and down the ladder. When he wakes up from that dream, he proclaims, “God was in this makom, this place—and I did not know it.”

Is God in this Makom? Well, it looks like it. We have a beautiful  ark, ner tamid , a sacred stunning space. But the real answer really depends on what we do here. This makom depends on us. 

Whether it is truly infused with justice and sacredness depends on us. Whether in 50 years, our descendants will look back at this moment and say—they made a courageous decision, they built a makom, a place of inclusion and hope and spiritual growth and tikkun olam—what they answer depends on us. Will we truly open our arms in welcome? Will we act on our values?

Of course we say yes we will. But that’s easier said than done. Earlier, I mentioned Rabbi Henry Cohen who, although not terribly well-known to history, hit the headlines because of a remarkable moment of clarity and humanity in his encounter with President Taft.

Well this item is about a far more famous individual, namely Rabbi Stephen S Wise. For many years he was acknowledged as one of the most important figures in American Jewish and religious life. My friend Rabbi Michael Zedek shared with me a story about Rabbi Wise.

In the 1920s, he made a trip to China, and he was disconcerted during the trip about his experience being transported around in rickshaws by painfully thin and tuberculin drivers. He writes that he could hear those drivers coughing through the night while he was ensconced in his hotel. His hosts informed him not to worry. “In a week you won’t even notice,” they said. Then, Rabbi Weiss writes, “They were right. I stopped noticing, and that, I must admit, was the most embarrassing moment of my life.”

We cannot stop noticing. We cannot stop noticing the gun violence in our streets of Chicago. We cannot stop noticing the families split apart by a corrupt criminal justice system and broken immigration system. We cannot stop noticing the assault on our social and democratic values we see on display here and Israel.

But we also cannot stop noticing our own biases and prejudices. We cannot stop noticing when our own self-interest and excuses stop us from doing what we know is right.

50 years from now, sitting in this sanctuary, I hope they say at that we did notice. That we did notice and amplify the efforts of all of our members and organizations working for justice. That we did notice what is right and good about our country and our tradition and voted and organized and acted to preserve them.

That we did notice and cherish our histories—of Solel and Lakeside—our histories of intellectual and social justice, the histories and memories and values each of us cherish as our own—and then supercharged them together in this makom!  

In this vein, I think our purpose as Makom Solel Lakeside is to become, in the coming years, more like ourselves. That together we fulfill the original purpose of both our founding congregations. What does this mean?

Allow me to illustrate with a story from one of my favorite writers, Thomas Merton. Merton was a novelist who had achieved great success and fame by the late 1940s. Then he decided to enter the priesthood and become a Trappist monk. Eventually he wrote several more books and became a leading spiritual figure. Among his collected writing is a powerful correspondence with Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel. 

Well a few years after Merton had entered the Trappist monastery in Lexington, Kentucky, several old friends went to visit him. They expected him to be a completely different person. He had, after all, given up fame and fortune and entered the priesthood. But after they talked for a while, his friends said to him, “Tom,” he said, “You’re the same guy. You haven’t changed at all.” 

“Why should I?” Merton responded. “Here, in this place, our goal is to be more like ourselves, not less.” 

That is our goal as well. To become more like best selves. To live our Jewish values. To feel with empathy, as our immigrant ancestors did, the heart of the stranger. To meet with vision, as our Solel and Lakeside founders did, the hopes, the needs, the dreams of a changing Jewish community. To act with courage, as our congregants and members and community do today, to build a Makom, a spiritual home, overflowing with justice, compassion, and holiness. 

Rabbi Evan

I show the way Jewish wisdom make our lives richer and happier. In particular, I help Jews appreciate their heritage and Christians uncover the Jewish roots of their faith. Get my FREE Jewish holidays cheat sheet by clicking here.

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