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Chaye Sarah: November 3, 2018

Rabbi Randall Konigsburg

Shabbat Shalom

Ever since the destruction of the Second Temple of Jerusalem, the world has asked the question; “What are we to do with the Jews?” For two thousand years, without a homeland to return to and without a country to protect us, we have wandered for 2000 years as stateless refugees, depending on the goodwill of people and governments to establish our homes. So many times, throughout history, we were attacked, discriminated against, and deported at the whim of despots and nations. For two thousand years, we were the stateless refugees looking for a place to call home

This was the genius of Theodore Herzl; he understood that unless we had a country of our own, we would always be at the mercy of someone else. Only in our own country could we take control of our own destiny. For a half century, we worked to establish our own homeland in Israel and finally, after the genocide of Nazi Germany, we were permitted by the United Nations to establish a nation of our own. The Zionist philosophy was always that Jews outside of Israel would always be subject to hatred and bigotry and only when we were all gathered in Israel could we finally be masters of our history.

And yet, Jews have found homes in many nations of the world. All Jews did not move to Israel. Israel was our anchor, our root, our homeland that enabled us to live in other lands. We could live in peace and security because, after the establishment of the State of Israel, we knew we always had a place of refuge if we were in danger. And it has worked for over 70 years. Nazi Germany could kill Jews because there was no other country who would let us in. Today, Jews from Argentina, Venezuela, South Africa and France, when they found themselves in danger, moved to Israel where they were welcomed home and where they could start their lives over again.

In the United States, Jews always felt a rocky road. Massachusetts colony was not a welcoming place for Jews. Nor was Connecticut in the early days of this nation. Maryland did not allow Jews to vote until the 1820’s. New Amsterdam Jews fought hard for their civil rights in the Dutch colony and when the English took over and renamed the colony, New York, for the most part, the rights that Jews had, they were able to keep.  Rhode Island, South Carolina and Georgia welcomed Jews, almost from the beginning. The first Jewish Chaplains in the United States Army were permitted for the first time during the Civil War. Jews fought on both sides of the Civil War but after the war, we were among the first in the south to give free slaves decent jobs, a major factor in why the Ku Klux Klan learned to hate Jews. Jews have been lynched in the United States. There was also a blood libel in upstate New York. 

George Washington, the first President, wrote to the Jews of Newport, RI saying that this country would give “ bigotry no sanction” and it is true; there has never been state sponsored Anti Semitism in this country, something England, France, Italy and Germany can’t claim. Even Mexico and the countries of Latin America, with a Catholic Church firmly established, would have their own difficulties welcoming Jews. The inquisition of the Jews in Spain was transferred to Mexico and other countries in South America.

Jews never suffered Jim Crow laws in the United States; instead we faced “gentleman’s agreements” that some neighborhoods, some businesses and some schools and universities would be closed to Jews. Clearly World War II was a turning point. Jews fought bravely on both the Atlantic and Pacific fronts and after the war, slowly the barriers broke down. When Black Americans marched for Civil Rights, Jews understood their cause and marched with them. The Jewish people understood always what it meant to be segregated, maligned and marginalized. So we have always taken pains to welcome strangers, support the oppressed and extend our hands to those who are suffering. We have been there. We understand and, since the time of the Biblical Prophets, we will not stand for the oppression of another human being.

I give everyone this morning this thumbnail history of Jews in America because last weekend we suffered the deadliest attack on our community in our history in this country. The hateful rhetoric of this chapter in American history had brought attacks on Black churches and Muslim mosques. It was only a matter of time before it arrived on our doorstep. This week we mourned the loss of eleven Jews who only wanted to worship in their community synagogue. The blood and bullet holes in Tree of Life synagogue tore through not just one building in one city, but it tore through the very hearts of every Jew in America, and through the hearts of Jews around the world. Once again we searched our souls to find some meaning in this tragedy. The man who murdered our people said that it was because we were kind and welcoming to refugees. But in the world of the white nationalists/supremacists/racists, you don’t really need a reason to kill Jews. In their world, as in Nazi Germany, Jews are the reason for every problem.

But this time, in our country something different happened. In our Parsha this week Abraham asks the local government to allow him to buy property and establish a family burial site. As a stranger in their land, he has no right to do this and must ask their permission. Their answer to his request goes far beyond his expectations. They reply, “Hear us, Sir, you are the elect of God among us, bury your dead in the choicest of our burial plots, we will not withhold you from burying your dead”. They not only accept him as a citizen of their land, but they admire him for the quality of his faith. So too, this week, across this country and right here in Manchester, people of all faiths wrote letters, sent emails and appeared at our door to affirm that we are citizens of this country and are not feared but admired for our faith. Hate killed 11 Jews in Pittsburgh, but it did not kill the good will and friendship between our community and the other communities that make up our country.

Fred Rogers, the children’s television host lived in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood. He used to say that when he was a child and frightened and scared his mother always told him, “Always look for the helpers,” she’d tell me. “There’s always someone who is trying to help.” I did, and I came to see that the world is full of doctors and nurses, police and firemen, volunteers, neighbors and friends who are ready to jump in to help when things go wrong.”  This is what makes our world today so much better than anytime in the past. While hatred may always find a way to break out, good people will always be there to chase it away with love.

It is important to fight constantly against the hate that is always looking for a way to tear people apart. But it is even more important to look for the people who respond to hate with love. It is true that one person who hates can destroy a lot of lives, but people who love, people who care, people who respond to hate with kindness and compassion, they far outnumber those on the hate filled fringe. The people who hate may make the news more often, but the helpers, the volunteers, those who often work behind the scenes, are the ones that we can always point to when we are looking for care and compassion.

We are here today to honor our volunteers and to honor one special volunteer, Stacey Poutre, for her work, behind the scenes and out front where we all can see her. She is a working mother; actually all mothers are working mothers; but just because her daughters are grown, does not give her any leave to stop worrying about them. She has her home, her family and her work, and then she gives of her time here, mostly in the kitchen, making sure that after a service, if we go away hungry, it is our own fault.

How could we not honor Stacey? She is constantly worrying about what we will eat, if there will be enough food for the congregation and if there is chocolate for the Rabbi. She does not do it all because she wants to save the synagogue some money, or because she wants people to like her. She does it all because she loves this community. It is her heart of gold that we honor today with our Joe Davis award. It is Stacey’s smile and busy hands that we could never do without. It is not so much that she has a difficult job to do, but that she does it with so much kindness and grace.

Look to the Helpers, look for those who give of themselves for others. You can find them not only in times of danger but in every moment in every day. You can find them easily if we just look for them. We have to look for them because they are always trying to stay out of sight, always putting others’ needs before their own. Stacey always is there to take charge of the kitchen, how will the food be handled? Where will it come from? How can we make sure that everyone will have enough? But food is not all that Stacey is about. She attends minyan every evening. She shares in the joys and troubles of all her friends. She is never too busy to lend a hand when it is needed.

The last verse in the book of Proverbs says, “Give her the credit for the fruit of her labors, and let her work praise her in the gates.” Stacey Poutre, we give you today credit for your fruit and for the cake and cookies as well. It is my privilege to call upon Rebecca Rumbo, our past president, and Audry Davis,  who will make our presentations today. …

 

Sermon given by Rabbi Randall Konigsburg at Beth Sholom B’nai Israel on Saturday, November 3, 2018.

Wed, January 23 2019 17 Shevat 5779