Rosh Hashanah Eve 5772-2012
“So, rabbi, where did you go on your sabbatical? Israel? What did you study? Philosophy? History?” During previous sabbaticals, I would have responded affirmatively to those questions.
But this summer, I opted for a different path to educational and spiritual enrichment. I studied by reading a variety of journals and books that have been calling to me for a while, participating in on-line seminars on ethics and Israel, as well as attending a conference on homiletics. However, this break from my usual routine emphasized family time, relaxation and cooler temperatures. To achieve this goal, Lynn and I packed our car and drove north, accumulating over 4000 miles before returning. In the process, I also fulfilled one quirky desire, what some might refer to as a “bucket-list item,” visiting the professional sports Halls of Fame for basketball, baseball and football in Springfield, MA, Cooperstown, NY and Canton, OH.
I have been a sports fan from childhood, starting with the New York teams of my youth, but then transferring my allegiance to the Saints and Hornets. There are those of us who can play and those who can watch. I’m in the latter category. I’m sure that many of you have your favorite teams, as well as others who could care less about sports. Still there are universal and specific Jewish lessons to be gained even at a sports hall of fame.
All three begin their exhibitions with history, detailing the origins and remembering those trailblazers, who laid the foundation for what is now a multi-million dollar industry.
History includes challenging issues: gambling scandals that corrupted the game, societal bigotry as reflected by separate leagues for blacks and whites, but also breaking down those walls with Jackie Robinson in baseball or the West Texas State basketball team, the first all black squad which won the NCAA Championship.
As Jews we regularly resonate to an appreciation of history. We recall our origins annually through the reading of Torah and our holiday cycle. We celebrate triumphs and mark calamities. On the grand scale, as with sports, this holy day season calls upon us to embrace our past, recognize how it has impacted our present, before we move forward into the future.
All three of the museums celebrate individual and group accomplishments. Championship teams are highlighted, but also thousands of individual players, who enjoyed outstanding single seasons or in some cases brief shining moments. Though they played long before my time, it was a vicarious thrill to stand in front of Lou Gehrig’s locker and view Babe Ruth’s homerun hitting bat. In Springfield I laughed at the display of a victory cigar, which was the trademark of Red Auerbach, the championship winning Jewish NBA coach of the Boston Celtics.
There is often a tendency to root for the underdog, David over Goliath. Throughout history, the Jewish people have often been in that role. Perhaps that is one reason we identify with the oppressed, those less fortunate, who have the deck seemingly stacked against them. In Canton, which was probably my favorite of the three Halls, a number of exhibits especially resonated for me. But it was a small item to which I reacted most strongly- a wrist bracelet worn by Tom Matte of the Baltimore Colts in 1965. Matte was a runner forced into the role of quarterback, a position he had not played for years, after both Hall of Famer Johnny Unitas and his back up, Gary Cuozzo, suffered season ending injuries.
Comparably for today’s Saints, this would be as if Drew Brees and Chase Daniels were both injured, puh, puh, puh and Tyler Lorenzen, a tight end who played quarterback in college, led the offense. Matte, wearing this wrist band, inscribed with a list of plays to run, did just that and almost brought his team to the Super Bowl, one of the great underdog stories in sports history. More than that, it personifies the message that in challenging moments, we can rise to meet the crises of life.
Each of us has crises as well, bouts of ill health, reversals of economic fortune, confrontation with the literal storms of life, relationships that fail, loss of loved ones and so many more. How can we respond? Like Matte, we improvise as creatively as possible. We dig down and rediscover previous experiences upon which we can draw. Yet perhaps most importantly, we are never alone. There are teams of others who are there to guide and support us, if we are willing to let them into our lives. We look upon those moments, not as defeats, but opportunities for us to triumph.
Aside from the exhibits, I especially enjoyed watching the young people walking through the halls, absorbing the history, appreciating unique athletic feats, perhaps dreaming that one day they might be remembered for something similar: little league teams in Cooperstown, admiring teens in Springfield, big burly Ohio high school football players walking with their coach in Canton.
This serves to remind us all that there are always others watching and observing us as potential role models. Children obviously mimic the behavior and attitudes of their parents. Students look up to their teachers. Young professionals seek mature colleagues for guidance. New organizational members are inspired by experienced leaders. Here at Gates of Prayer, Confirmation Class pictures are now displayed in the back hall of our Religious School for your viewing pleasure, but also as inspiration for younger students to achieve that status. Exemplary behavior and accomplishment is not limited to the realm of sports.
A goal for many athletes and sports professionals is not simply to have one feat commemorated in a Hall of Fame, but to be enshrined. This requires a long, full career of consistency and achievement, to be known for playing hard and according to the rules, a professional lifetime of excellence. That is the ultimate goal for them and I would argue for each of us as well: to live our lives with integrity, contributing to the world around us through the wealth we have earned and personal involvement, by actively engaging in Jewish life, to lovingly nurture meaningful relationships with others, We may not see our names enshrined, but we can all strive for a lifetime of achievement.
Perhaps we need a Hall of Fame for Jews, proud Jewish individuals for us to admire and emulate. Well, as a matter of fact, there is such an institution. It was on my summer itinerary, but unfortunately events forced me to bypass it. Still, I thought I would like to describe it to you.
The National Museum of American Jewish History opened this year in Philadelphia and is dedicated to the American Jewish experience. Its core exhibit is the recounting of the history of Jews in America from 1654 to the present. Like the sports Halls of Fame, it begins with history, focusing upon the foundations, dreams and challenges of freedom. The last floor is listed as “Gallery/Hall of Fame.” 18 individuals were selected from a variety of fields and the museum will add others over time. So, who is on the list?… Names you will recognize and some you may not, Jewish men and women who have made a difference either in Jewish life in particular or American life in general:
Menachem Mendel Schneerson
Isaac Bashevis Singer
If you were counting, that’s only 15, let me focus on three who I have not yet mentioned.
The first is one of my favorites: Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise, the organizational giant of what became Reform Judaism in America. He initiated many of the reforms to worship that are a mainstay of liberal synagogue life today, choral singing, Confirmation and men and women sitting together.
Wise’s dream was actually not to create a Reform movement in America. Rather, he envisioned a Judaism unique to this country, embracing modernity and tradition. Based in Cincinnati, Ohio, where there was a vibrant, wealthy German Jewish population, open to innovation, but also respectful of tradition, he created a siddur for this land and called it Minhag America (the customs for America). Next he brought together those synagogues throughout the country that shared his vision and formed the Union of American Hebrew Congregations in 1873. Notice the word “Reform” is nowhere in the name. For there to be a uniquely American expression of Judaism he advocated for American trained rabbis. So, with the funding of the UAHC and its members, Hebrew Union College (HUC) was created in 1875. His final creation consisted of all the graduates of HUC forming a rabbinical organization, the Central Conference of American Rabbis in 1889 of which he was the first President. However, it seemed clear that this group and all of Wise’s projects would not serve the totality of American Jewish life, but only that segment which we know today as the Reform movement.
We are the heirs of his creativity, as we proudly maintain our position as committed American Jews, embracing our tradition, while playing a full role in our society. But let us note that like Wise, we may not always fulfill our dreams: attend the university we chose, earn as much as we had hoped, achieve the positions to which we aspired, create the family unit we envisioned. Forces beyond our control intervene. We make mistakes or are simply reaching beyond what is possible. Perhaps we will never give up on our dreams, but at the same time be satisfied with what we accomplish in pursuit of them.
The second name was one, which in truth I had not remembered: Rose Schneiderman. Born in Poland, she came to America and was a major fighter for human rights and women’s rights, specifically as a labor organizer, working tirelessly to improve wages, hours, and safety standards for American working women. She saw those things as “bread,” the very basic human rights to which working women were entitled.
But she also worked for schools, recreational facilities, and professional networks for trade union women, because she believed that working women deserved much more than a grim subsistence.” (Annelise Oreck)
She was President of the Women’s Trade Union League from 1926-1950. As an intimate friend of Eleanor and Franklin Roosevelt, she had a major influence upon many of the New Deal labor policies and programs. She was also a proud Jew, an ardent Zionist, who with fiery oratory raised awareness of the plight of the Jews in Nazi Europe. If Wise was the embodiment of the modern American religious Jew, Schneiderman represents that model of many American Jews who utilize their Jewish values in an activist way, to make a difference for all people. Through our revitalized Social Action Committee, I hope to see our congregation step up its involvement in our community.
And what would a discussion of both sports and Jewish Halls of Fame be without…. Sandy Koufax? A typical Jewish boy, born in Brooklyn, at age 19 he signed to play baseball for the Brooklyn Dodger organization and the rest is history. His baseball credentials are impressive:
3 Cy Young Awards as best pitcher in the league, four no-hitters including a perfect game, and over 2000 strike outs in a career shortened by arthritis, which warranted him being elected as the youngest man to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1972. But in the Jewish community he is of course best known for being proud enough and respectful enough of his tradition that he chose not to play baseball on Rosh Hashanah or Yom Kippur, even during the World Series. Tonight all of us are here, but what about tomorrow morning? Next week on Yom Kippur? Can we act like Koufax?
Friends, it is not too late for each of us to lead lives worthy of enshrinement. I’m not suggesting that any of us will be in Springfield, Cooperstown, Canton or Philadelphia, but we can strive for excellence in all of our fields of endeavor, inclusive of the jobs for which we are compensated, our pursuit of a more just society, the way we conduct ourselves as Jews,
our engagement in Tikun Olam to repair our world, the relationships we establish with others, those which are casual connections, along with those which are intimate and of course with those we love, our nearest and dearest. Perhaps that is what was really meant by the rabbis with our seasonal expression of hope: L’shanah Tovah Tikotevu- May it be a good year and may you be inscribed and enshrined.