Rosh Hashanah Morning, 5776 – Judea Reform Congregation, Durham NC…
Robert Putnam, the Harvard social scientist best known for Bowling Alone, his book about the erosion of social capital, authored a new study earlier this year. It is called Our Kids. The title hearkens back to a time when, at least in the author’s recollection, the adults in the Ohio town of his youth saw all the kids in town as “our kids.” Putnam’s claim, buttressed with loads of data (as is his way), is that the sense of shared responsibility and community that once characterized our nation has deteriorated. In its place, a vast opportunity gap has opened up in America. Multiple generations of wildly disparate educational and economic attainment are firmly entrenched, and two children growing up today are likely to lead vastly different lives based largely on accidents of birth, like their zip code or the color of their skin. Our Kids tells a story that is bad, and getting worse.
This is not news, of course, though seeing the numbers and realizing the scope of the problem is compelling. As is his way, Putnam brings the data to life by describing the lives of actual kids: black and white, poor and rich, in fine schools and in troubled schools. In presenting these stories, the author hopes to tap into our sense of anger and shame at having forgotten that all the kids are “our kids,” and to spur us to action.
Putnam’s title hearkens back much further than Port Clinton, Ohio, circa 1959. The same sentiment can be found in the pages of our Tradition, in a Rabbinic commentary on the verse in Torah that has God commanding Abraham to lift up his son as an offering. The verse reads, “Take your son, your precious one, whom you love, Isaac.” For the Rabbis, this verse contains far too many words to be the speech of a God Who Needs No Editor. “Take Isaac” would have done. What’s going on?
And so the Rabbis (GenR 55:7) imagine that God’s words are only half the story, and they create a conversation out of the verse. It goes like this:
God: Take your son.
Abraham: But I have two sons!
God: Your precious one.
Abraham: Well they’re both precious…this one is precious to Sarah, and this one to Hagar!
God: Whom you love.
Abraham: But I love them both!
The “test” which Abraham passes in the ensuing verses is not one we’d give today, nor is it one that relates to this morning’s message. That is to say, I am less interested in exploring Abraham’s near-sacrifice of his child, and more interested in the efforts we might undertake for our children. Our kids. All of them. The ones in our immediate families, but also the ones in our congregation, the ones in our community, and the ones halfway ‘round the world. Because to pass the test today, in this world, is to echo Abraham’s voice in that Midrash, to answer the call by saying “they’re all precious, and I love them all.”
So let’s talk about our kids.
The first kid I have in mind is Alan Kurdi. Alan, you may know, is the child whose death has stoked our anger and our compassion for the millions of people living in war-torn Syria. The image of Alan’s lifeless body washed up on a Turkish beach on the morning of September 2 shocked us, and changed the conversation around the resettlement of Syrian refugees. It shouldn’t need to be that way. We shouldn’t need a picture to wake us up. But sometimes, that’s how it is.
In the days since Alan’s drowning, European leaders have shown more willingness to give these refugees safe haven, and the people of Europe have done the same. Here in America, too, we’ve begun to talk about increasing the number of refugees welcome on our shores. More than a few of us have noted that, had America done a better job of extending compassion beyond its borders in the 1930s and 1940s, recognizing that someone else’s kids are our kids too, we Jews would have many more relatives today. And so we are determined that “Never Again” mean, at a minimum, “not this time.”
Like Abraham, we hear a call; can we, like Abraham, answer hineyni, here I am? There are a few specific things that we might do, right away, in response to the Voice, in response to the searing image of our kid, Alan. There’s a flyer around the building, which I hope you’ll take home with you and use to guide your advocacy and giving around this issue. Let’s reach out with our charitable dollars to support HIAS, born as the Hebrew Immigrant and Aid Society in the 1880s to help Jewish immigrants, and now devoted to helping migrants and refugees around the world. And let’s reach out with our voices, calling the White House and our congressional delegation, demanding that America shoulder its share of the burden, welcoming in 100,000 refugees before the end of 2016. And when they listen, and the refugees start arriving here, let’s be sure that Judea Reform Congregation is a part of the effort to welcome them to Durham and Chapel Hill. We owe them that, not only because we are commanded to love the stranger…but because we are challenged to see even in the stranger’s kids, our own.
Closer to home, there are other kids whose plight demands our presence. They live in every county that we live in, and their parents wish for them what we wish for the kids in this congregation. But structural inequalities make it so much harder for them to succeed. They are poor kids, kids of color, kids whose neighborhood schools don’t work, kids who have all too much reason to be afraid around the very people who are supposed to protect and serve them. Far too often, the structural inequalities of our society render them invisible.
Rabbis from around the country came to the South this summer to lift up those kids as part of “America’s Journey for Justice,” a nine-hundred mile march from Selma to Washington organized by the NAACP. Those rabbis are preaching about their experiences this holiday season, devoting a sermon, or a portion of one, to racial justice. Many of us will be citing passages from The New Jim Crow, Just Mercy, Between the World and Me, or any number of other important books about race that have been written with kids like Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, and Tamir Rice in mind. I’m going to cite a different book this morning.
The book is Durham Magazine’s 2015 relocation guide. It portrays hip, progressive Durham, Bull Durham, City of Medicine, the city that is perennially at the top of the lists of the places you want to live. It illustrates its message, over 136 pages, with photo after photo of people doing what folks love to do in Durham: eating in great restaurants, taking in theater, pushing our kids — our kids – in strollers on the trail, enjoying a ball game. Just what you’d expect from an effort of this sort. But as I flipped through the magazine, a troubling thought arose: where are the people of color? Where are the black faces, and the brown faces, in this magazine? I went back through and counted: 259 white faces, 53 non-white faces, in a city that is in fact 44% African-American and 42% white. Furthermore, of those 53, 17 appeared in a single photo of a Durham Public School classroom. Every picture does indeed tell a story.
I imagine a different story: one in which opportunity is broadly shared, prosperity broadly attained, one in which all the kids’ faces show up. It’s the vision I saw during the two days I spent on the road with America’s Journey for Justice. On that march a week ago today, and the Monday before that, I joined my voice to the voices of my neighbors: white and black, gay and straight, immigrant and native-born, old and young. An amazing woman named Keshia Thomas led us as we chanted, our voices ringing out in rhythm with our footsteps: “This is what America looks like! This is what diversity looks like! This is what hope looks like! This is what love looks like! This is what America looks like!”
At its very best, this is what Durham looks like, and Chapel Hill, and Hillsborough, and Pittsboro, and all the places we live. Faces of every color filling our field of vision, people from different walks of life coming together to make our communities better.
Of all the public spaces I’ve been in during my two and a half months as your Rabbi, I have found no place more reflective of that vision than the meetings of Durham Congregations, Associations, and Neighborhoods, or Durham CAN. Durham CAN and its sister organization, Orange County Justice United, are a vehicle for the sort of community organizing that brings congregations like ours into relationship with congregations that look quite different. What’s great about this sort of organizing is that it’s not about wealthy folks helping poor folks, but rather about all the folks working together toward a shared vision. It is empowering in a way that so much of the tzedakah-based work that we do is not. Which is not to denigrate that work: folks are hungry, and it’s a mitzvah to feed them, folks will soon be cold, and it will be a mitzvah to shelter them. But even as we relentlessly feed the poor, clothe the naked, and God willing, welcome the refugee…can we join powerfully with our neighbors in public actions that bring the true face of our community to light? Can we challenge our elected officials and other public servants to be accountable for their words and deeds? Can we hold each other accountable for our promises?
I am a true believer in the power of this kind of organizing, and so getting to know Durham CAN was one of my priorities upon arriving in town. I’ve been impressed with the organization’s power and presence. We filled the chamber at City Hall last week for a work session devoted to the question of downtown affordable housing stock.
And so I have another flyer to hold up, and another call to make: will you join me and the leadership of our faith-based community organizations on October 15, in this room, to learn more about congregation-based organizing and how Judea Reform Congregation can act powerfully in our community? And will you come out on October 26, to Duke Memorial United Methodist Church, as Durham CAN shares its vision — affordable housing, community policing, living wages, opportunities for all the kids — as we share our vision with elected officials and candidates for office? These assemblies are not about us endorsing candidates – we don’t do that — but they are about asking candidates to endorse us. There are copies of this flyer outside the hall, and around the building. I hope you’ll hear the call and show up with me, on behalf of our kids. And if you’ll do me the favor of turning in the bottom portion of the flyer, we’ll make sure that you are kept informed of developments with Durham CAN and Orange County Justice United, as well.
Alan Kurdi and all that he represents: our kid. The marginalized folks, so close to home yet so hard to see: our kids. And right here within these walls, there is work to be done.
This is the hard part to hear, which I why I saved it for last. In getting to know Judea Reform Congregation over the last ten weeks, I’ve been meeting with lots of members and listening to their stories. “What made you join Judea Reform?” “What’s your passion?” And I’ve heard plenty of stories about an incredible congregation that really means it when it proclaims itself “warm and welcoming.” This has been my experience this summer as well…but that’s to be expected when you’re the Rabbi, I suppose.
The other story I’ve heard on my listening tour was a story rooted in some pain. I heard it a few different ways from different folks, but if I had to boil it down to its essence, it would be this: Judea Reform Congregation sometimes struggles, like many congregations of its age and size, to be a place where people are noticed and cared for.
In its essence, the story is this: It was easy when we were a dozen families, or a couple of hundred. It was easy when everyone knew everyone else. It was easy when everyone lived close by, when the kids all went to just a few schools.
But now? The disorientation some of us feel relative to our synagogue is undeniable. We are doing great things, no doubt. Ivy catalogued the accomplishments of the congregation last night, and she’s absolutely right to lift them up as a sign of our vitality. But for those of us who’ve arrived more recently, those of us whose chavurah didn’t pan out, or who never got to join one, those of us who live a bit further away from the campus, those of us who don’t drive any more, those of us without extended family in the area….all that vitality and activity, the dollars raised and the transitions successfully navigated, none of it can erase a sense of loneliness, even in the midst of this sea of people.
I choose to name that challenge in the context of this sermon because I believe it is no less an issue of justice than the others I’ve mentioned. As we expand our field of ethical concern to take in our economically disadvantaged neighbors at home and refugees on the run halfway ‘round the world, let us not be blind to the needs right here in our own synagogue.
Rabbi Simcha Zissel of Kelm, one of the great teachers of the Mussar Tradition taught that “to bear the burden of one’s fellow, to lighten his suffering, to partake in his joy, is a holy thing.” The 1,300 souls that make up this congregation are a bundle of burdens and joys. How much healthier we’ll be, and how much holier, when we bear them all together.
There are people who would love a ride to services now and then. There are people who need some help with meals around an illness or a simcha. There are opportunities to reach out with a simple call, or a card. There are opportunities to show up in each other’s lives as we walk the mourner’s path.
And, there is an invigorated group of folks – many of whom are showing up because they recognize their own need to feel more connected – ready to coordinate all of this activity. Heidi Tyson and her growing team on the Caring Community Committee invite us all to fill out a “Spiritual Pledge Card” during these holidays. As we sign on to help and as we invite the congregation to be a part of our lives in times of need, we will weave the web of compassion and concern a bit tighter in the New Year.
“Take your son, your special one, whom you love…”
Like Abraham in that imagined dialogue with God, we have more so much more than one special kid to love. We have so many friends, so many children, and so much love. But can we do it all? Refugees, organizing, caring community…and we didn’t even talk about Pride, or Inclusion, or Interfaith connections. There is so much to do, and we don’t have time to do just one thing at a time.
Can we do it all? Together we can. That’s the beauty of being a part of a congregation. Your own energies may flow primarily toward Judea’s Caring Community, or toward the community organizing that will make our region better reflect our values, or toward reaching out to refugees halfway ‘round the world. Maybe you’ve got the appetite to be a part of two efforts, or all three. Maybe this is a year in which you need to welcome these efforts rather than make them, and so you’ll be involved in the Caring Community by letting us help to shoulder your burden. That too, is a mitzvah.
But together, we will act in all three areas…and in the others, too. We will show up powerfully, publicly, and collectively on behalf of each other, on behalf of all of us. We will show up with our full hearts, because they are all our kids, our special ones, whom we love.