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Look at Those Jews!

Below are my remarks from our annual fundraiser.

I want to begin by thanking everyone for being here. You did not have to come tonight and support your synagogue. Yet you chose to do so. Thank you. In fact in this day and age belonging to a synagogue, participating in Jewish life can no longer be assumed. I recognize that your choice remains unique. I am grateful for your devotion. I am thankful for your involvement....

To reflect on the meaning of this hour, and the import of our merger, I wish to share a story. Years ago, when Susie and I were still in rabbinical school, we were the unit heads for a newly created six week summer program for 10th graders at Jacobs Camp in Utica Mississippi. Part of the program was taking these Southern Jewish kids on two trips. On one we took them on their first trip to the big city of Atlanta and to this new 24 hour news place called CNN and also for many of them to their first major league baseball game. The Braves lost in extra innings.

On another trip we took them throughout the Deep South. We cleaned up old Jewish cemeteries. We tidied abandoned synagogues. I remember in one town the lone Jew greeted us with the keys to the cemetery gates. He was literally the only Jew remaining in that town. We then filled up another synagogue with rows and rows of young people singing. We read Torah there. We taught Torah. Even on the High Holidays when this synagogue brought in a student rabbi only half of its pews were filled. We brought Torah to a small Southern town.

In another synagogue in Port Gibson, Mississippi there were no more Jews. There once were hundreds. The synagogue building was a beautiful building. The keys were in the care of the gas station owner adjacent to the synagogue. I told him who I was. “I am soon to be rabbi Moskowitz and we are here with sixty high school kids to clean up the synagogue and pray there.” “Here are the keys,” he said. No ID. No skepticism. No doubt. After cleaning up and dusting the floor we sang the Shema in a sanctuary emptied of its furniture. It still pulls at my heart to remember that moment sitting on the floor of a closed synagogue singing the prayers that have sustained our people for generations.

Later when we returned to camp we heard rumblings from the campers that some of our students stole candy from the gas station when we had allowed them to buy snacks. We soon discovered the identities of the three. I put them in the back seat of my Subaru and drove them the 45 minutes back to Port Gibson. No music. No talking on the ride. Only quiet reflection. Judaism demands honesty. It requires ethical scrupulousness. “Back so soon?” the owner asked. These students have something they want to say. They timidly approached the man. They offered their confession. They paid for their stolen candy. Then the response I still recall. “You drove all the way back from Utica to give me a few dollars for candy. You Jews are so honest. Wow. I am so impressed by you Jews.” “Here,” he said, “let me give you something as a thank you present. Here take these cigarette lighters.” I said, “Thank you” and then said, “But you have to understand they cannot accept a gift.” He forced the lighters into my hand. “You have to take something. Thank you, thank you, he said over and over again.”

I have been thinking about that event this past year. Too often the wealth of synagogues is measured by the number of Torah scrolls they have in their Arks or the majesty of their buildings. But if the Torah is only held close and never shared with the world at large, if we do not bring it into our hearts and influence our hands then we have failed. Even our holy scrolls are but tools to bring healing to the world. Even our buildings are intended to help us bring more beauty and meaning to our neighborhoods. The Talmud states that the world is sustained only by the breath of schoolchildren. (Shabbat 119a)  The world not just the Jewish people it states. A confession about stolen candy changed everything—at least for a day—in a small town in Mississippi. That is the breath that breathes life into our souls.

Our two congregations are now one. We are now stronger because we are bound together. We have created friendships. We have ensured our continued success, but mere survival is not good enough for me. All of our hard work is only a starting point. It only matters if it brings meaning to our lives and improvement to our world.

It only matters if because of this place and these people and this congregation the world stands up and says, “Look at the Jewish people.” Let's start here and now. We begin by improving our small corner of the world. We have to start somewhere. Our synagogue, and our survival, must have meaning for the world. As long as we bring healing to others then this undertaking will have import. All of this only matters if people rise up and exclaim, “The world is better because we stood here in this place, because we stood here together.”