Wednesday, June 5, 2024

I Am Jewish

As my 37-year tenure as senior rabbi at my synagogue concludes in a couple of weeks, I’ve been reflecting on some of my most enduring messages, the ones that have returned to the surface again and again, in different forms, as my outlook has evolved over time.  Twenty years ago, in 2004, I devoted a sermon cycle to the question, “What does it mean to proclaim, “I Am Jewish?”

I presented a number of responses over the course of four sermons, based on the final words uttered by Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl before being murdered by terrorists in February of 2002. His beheading was a grisly, macabre ritual that has been repeated all too often since; but his final words remain a lasting tribute to his courage. “My father is Jewish. My mother is Jewish. I am Jewish.”

As a memorial to their son, Judea and Ruth Pearl decided to ask dozens of Jews to reflect on those final words, and their responses were collected into a book. I used those sermons to pay tribute to Pearl, as well as the many others who have suffered a similar fate, including many butchered last October 7 by Hamas genocidal terrorists.

As I reflected on numerous ways to expand upon Pearl’s final words, they all came back to this formula:

To be a Jew is to act, because we can, to be humble, because we should, to confront fear and evil, because we dare, and to love unconditionally, because we must. 

You’ll need to read (or listen to) the complete sermon cycle to fully get my drift. My High Holidays strategy has always been to develop a grand theme over the course of the four interconnected sermons, written and refined over the course of many months.  What you see below are the Monarch notes of my final summation, my Yom Kippur sermon. 


A Jerusalem story: One night during a congregational tour, several families in our group decided to stay back at the hotel in Jerusalem for a relaxed dinner. We sent the kids to eat at another table, where God knows what they ordered, but it was OK, because someone else’s kid told the waitress to charge it to the room.

Just after we ordered, the maître d’ came over to our table. He had heard us talking about Stamford and wanted to know if this was where we were from. We said yes. “I grew up there,” he said. We were thrilled – it always happens in Israel – I was meeting personal acquaintances all over the place—but here was a real landsman (someone from the same hometown)!  He started rattling off the names of streets in Glenbrook, and some of his most vivid memories of sledding down one of those hills leading down to Hope Street.

So I asked which synagogue he belonged to. He didn’t. Turns out his name is Kevin Dean and he wasn’t Jewish back when he lived here. Kevin’s story enthralled us. His mother actually had been a Jew, but he was brought up as a Christian.

How did his life’s journey possibly take him from the snowy slopes of Hope Street to the Inbal hotel in Jerusalem? He had moved around, ending up in Los Angeles, where he decided to convert to Judaism; at that point he met a red-headed Sephardic Jew (in itself a miracle), whom he had literally dreamed about the night before. The next day they were engaged, but she would only live near her family in Israel, so they ended up in Jerusalem, supremely happy and fulfilled, and there to greet us at the Inbal.


A rabbi, a priest and a minister were having a conversation about how each of them could help bring some peace and harmony to the world. What would each of them be willing to sacrifice as a gesture to global unity?

So the priest said, “OK, I guess we could give up our preoccupation with the Blessed Virgin.” The minister said, “Well, if it will bring true peace and harmony, we’ll give up all reference to Jesus and his uniqueness in respect to those faiths who don’t believe in him.

Then the rabbi scratched his beard for a while and finally said, “OK – but only if it could bring peace and harmony to the world…we’ll give up Yismechu in Musaf.”

For the uninitiated, Yismechu is a quick, five-line ditty in the midst of a brief collection of prayers (Musaf) appended to the service on Sabbath and festival mornings.  Hardly a proportionate response to giving up Jesus or the Virgin (he said, thoroughly ruining the joke). 

But here’s the very serious point (and especially for us now, in 2024, he added).

Sometimes in our myopic view of the world we expect others to reach out to us without seeing the need for reciprocity. Because there appear to be so many who hate us in the world, we’ve lost some of our ability to love the many that don’t. We’ve been tainted by the hate, and in that way the haters have won. We cannot let that happen. Muslims and Christians need to prevent that from happening too, but we need to hold up our end. 

When Abraham was given the command “Lech Lecha,” “Go forth,” he began a journey of three faiths, not just our own. And at the end of his life, his children Isaac and Ishmael came together to bury him.

As Jews, we must reach out to the stranger, because there is something about the stranger that is part of us, as I discovered from Kevin Dean.


On another trip to Israel my group made a stop at Yemin Orde, a youth village and absorption center near Haifa.  We walked into the cafeteria and saw children of all backgrounds, Ethiopians, Russians, Argentineans, native Israelis. Hanging from the ceiling was a huge banner containing two words from that week’s Torah portion – “Lech Lecha.” These latter-day Abrahams and Sarahs had in fact uprooted themselves. Lech Lecha – into the unknown, to a land of blessing.

I stopped to chat with a man we had met, the father of Noam Leibovitz, a seven-year-old girl from the youth village who had been killed by a terrorist sniper the previous June. Noam’s father works at Yemin Orde, and the school was devastated by the loss. The man has become a symbol of the inner strength of all the children, these children of Israel. And he shared with us a song, one that has become sort of an unofficial theme song at Yemin Orde, a song that they include in their Havdalah service every week.

The melody is one that many Jews have become familiar with, a haunting melody of Rabbi Nachman of Bratzlav, Gesher Tzar Meod, “The whole world is a very narrow bridge, and the essential thing is not to be afraid.”  Only they’ve changed the words. Instead of it saying that the whole world is a narrow bridge, the Yemin Orde version says: Kol haolam kulo gesher day rachav, v’haikar le’ehov chinam. The whole world is a wide, expansive bridge, and the essential thing is give love freely.”

Click to hear the end of the sermon and the singing of that song.


 And that, in the end is what it means to say, “I am Jewish?”

To be a Jew is to have the courage to traverse the narrowest of bridges on the highest of mountain passes – but then, to find it within our hearts widen that bridge, through the power of our convictions and the depth of our capacity to love.

To be a Jew is to act, because we can, to be humble, because we should, to confront fear and look Evil straight in the eye, because we dare, and to love, unconditionally, all people of all backgrounds, all over the world, because we must.

We are those children in Yemin Orde. And we are Kevin Deen, on a journey to fulfill his destiny, We are the cynic, coarsened by years of cynicism anger and self-hatred, our soul’s arteries hardened by the cholesterol of time. We exist in Exile, but we can taste the milk and the honey.

And we have the courage to declare, even in the face of unspeakable attack, unrelenting hatred and even some legitimate embarrassment…

I am Jewish.

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