I sat alone in the sanctuary, welcoming my free-flowing thoughts. It was one o’clock and the rest of the family either had gone back to the house to prepare lunch or to pray in the parallel service being held in the synagogue’s Simcha Room. As a result of celebrating Rosh Hashanah for eighteen of the last twenty years at my brother’s shul, I was comfortable there – even as I sat alone – wrestling with a myriad of emotions as the final hour of the Musaf prayer service was winding down.
My brother’s sermon was particularly poignant this year. As he talked about the Jewish identity of Americans versus Israelis, he recounted an incident that took place when we all were in Israel this summer. The situation he described was bad enough when we experienced it, but reliving it now – hearing it told by a rabbi through the ears of a congregant – was excruciating.
Here’s my version of what happened…
* * *
My nephew, Yuval, was becoming a Bar Mitzvah in July and many family members from the States chose to travel to Israel to celebrate. Since so many of us planned to be there, a cousin (a.k.a. the groom) decided to get married during the same week. The Bar Mitzvah was scheduled for a Thursday morning in Jerusalem and the wedding for early Friday afternoon at my sister’s home on the moshav. My brother was asked to officiate at both simchas.
About two weeks before we all arrived in Israel, however, my brother received a troubling phone call. It seemed that members of the bride’s family were concerned that the upcoming wedding would not be “100% kosher” in Israel if a Conservative rabbi presided over the marriage ceremony. So, with heartfelt apologies, he was stripped of his title role and offered a conciliatory part instead; the honor of giving one of the seven blessings – Sheva Brachot. The ultimate mensch and perpetrator of shalom bayit – keeping peace in the family – my brother said nothing.
The day of the wedding came and we all behaved properly as the “groom’s side of the family”… that is until my brother was introduced under the chuppah. The Orthodox rabbi from Tzohar (an organization allegedly interested in shaping the Jewish character of Israel through dialogue about pluralism and the search for common identity elements) called him up as MISTER Craig Scheff…not RABBI Craig Scheff. All at once, my mother and sister were heard shouting, “Rabbi…not Mister!!!”
Although he didn’t say it at the time, my brother was deeply wounded by all of this. Between law school, rabbinical school, and twenty years on the pulpit, he has demonstrated time and time again that he is a learned, qualified person of integrity. He has officiated at a countless number of weddings and funerals; conducted years’ worth of classes and services; taken numerous groups to Israel; and has been a successful fundraiser for many Jewish organizations – including Israel. His dedication and commitment to his congregation, the Jewish people, and the State of Israel cannot be questioned or denied. It therefore is unconscionable – and highly offensive – that someone would blatantly disregard his identity as a rabbi…especially in front of family…especially in our beloved land of Israel.
* * *
The ram’s horn – the shofar – blows like a trumpet. Tekiyah! The loud noise snapped me out of my reflections. Shevarim! The three successive cries focused my consciousness. Truah! The nine sharp piercing sounds quickened my heart. Tekiyah gedolah!!! The long, final blast caused me to hold my breath.
The shofar offers our collective wake up call. Its sounds demand that we pay attention. Whether in America or in Israel, we all must work at being Jewish and living according to Jewish values. We must respect each other as individuals and come together as a pluralistic Jewish people. There is much to be worked on. With the resurgence of anti-Semitism around the world, we should not take each other or our Jewish heritage for granted. We must stick together and fight for what is right. We cannot afford the current decline in Diaspora-Israel relations. If we don’t act now, then when?
It’s a new year. It’s time to wake up. We have to be better. We have to do better. We have to remember that we are responsible for one another…”Kol Yisrael arevim zeh la-zeh.”
Happy birthday, Rabbi. I love you.