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Yom Kippur Sermon Rabbi Koppel

10/11/2019 09:52:11 AM


Rabbi Koppel

It doesn’t take a great deal of conversation with me to know that I love camp—I often talk about its influence on me, and its power for so many young people.  Throughout my time as a camper, staff member, faculty member, and senior staff member at the 5 Reform Jewish summer camps at which I have spent time, each has displayed many aspects of the same magic—as well as a unique spirit.  In my most recent summers, I’ve had the opportunity to appreciate the particular magic of the URJ 6 Points Creative Arts Academy, a Jewish arts camp, near here in West Chester, PA, housed at the Westtown School—which I’ve had joy of experiencing with several campers from our congregation.  So, let me set the scene.


Creative Arts Academy is a place that breathes art.  In the fields between the lush, green trees—between the storied walls of the old buildings…It is there that creativity happens.  At CAA, young people discover who they are each day, trying new arts, honing skills, unfolding different aspects of themselves, exploring their world, and figuring out how they fit into it.  As faculty there, at so many moments of each day, I take in the camp community in soft focus—noticing us all as an ensemble—moving towards the same goal of creating a more beautiful world.


Each morning and each evening, surrounded by green fields, with the background of the blue sky of morning or the sun setting into pink and purple clouds in the evening, the camp gathers for ritual moments.  Between the beauty of voices joined together in spontaneous harmonies, through the prayers we sing each day, we share reflections on the values of camp and the theme of the summer.  This past summer, that theme offered 3 essential questions that seeped into all of our activities, quoting the great sage Hillel.  If I am not for myself, who will be for me?  If I am only for myself, what am I? If not now, then when? These questions are answered throughout the time at camp in myriad ways—through art and through actions.  In conversations and in contemplation.


It was in the midst of all of this that one evening, long after the evening program, after hours spent laughing and sharing and planning with the other faculty, that I read something on facebook that pierced the bubble of camp.  And I became instantaneously more grateful that the campers didn’t have access to screens, so that their bubble could remain in tact.  A musician friend of mine posted that while he had played at Gilroy the day before, he was safe. 


And as opened a tab on my internet browser to find out what had happened, and took a deep breath thinking about how we’d be taking the oldest campers to the county fair the next day,  I reflected on the fact that there was yet another incident to add to an ever growing list, and I simultaneously realized that this now adult had once been a camper in my unit when I was a counselor for Carmel—the youngest unit at Camp Harlam.  And I thought of another camper in my bunk that same year, who was in Las Vegas for a concert 2 years ago, and while not physically injured, will forever grapple with mental scars.  And I thought of my colleague who had been the student rabbi in Littleton, Colorado, just a few miles from Columbine High School.  And I thought of my colleague who is the rabbi/educator in Parkland, Florida.  And my several friends who work in the Jewish community in Pittsburgh.  And just days later, still holding on to the bubble of camp, despite the bullet holes that permeated it, I would think of who my friends were in El Paso and then Dayton.  And while I know that these personal connections don’t make these stories any worse than any other, similar stories, I know that they hurt more.  And sometimes, it is when ideas become personalized, that they become more real for us.  And when some ideas become more real, we have no choice but to respond.


And with that, my mind returned in that moment, to the theme of the summer.  And I realized that I must be for myself, in order that my own realm be safer—the places and people I treasure.  I must be for others, in order to offer the same to those I do not know.  And that clearly, the time is now—and probably should have begun already. 


We have a problem in this country with gun violence.  And we have for a while.  In the places I mentioned—without even having to identify what happened in those places.  In so many other places where people have gone to shop, to see movies, to go to work, to pray, or to go to school.  Not to mention instances of gun violence that don’t even make national headlines, but are just as horrifying and important to acknowledge.  We have a problem. 


I’m not here to identify the specifics of that problem, or even to tell you what the solution is.  I have my ideas—I have no doubt that you do, as well.  I’d embrace the opportunity to engage in conversation about that.  But whatever you identify as the root of the problem, and whatever you think is the solution, I urge you to take action towards that solution.  Because approximately 100 people in the US die from gun violence every day[1].  Because in the Jewish year of 5779, a year of 385 days, there were 403 mass shootings in the US[2].  And those numbers are not ok.  And, most of all, because those numbers are not just numbers—each of those numbers is a collection of stories, and a collection of people connected to those stories, and of friends connected to those people.  This problem belongs to us all.


And it is happening all over our country.  And that terrifies me.  I know I’m not alone in that fear.  And, while as adults we may know how to grapple with those feelings, it is often even more challenging our young people.  I know that so many of our kids are scared.  A friend of mine told me recently that her daughter, a freshman in high school, spent that morning in hysterics, having woken up out of a nightmare about being in a school shooting.   And her nightmare felt real to her.  And she was late for school that day, because her mother had to calm her down, so that she could even begin to get dressed, and go to the very site of her nightmare.  This is a mature, 15 year old young woman—who woke up from a nightmare crying.  Our kids know what is going on, and for many of them, walking into school is a daily act of courage. 


To our young people here, I want to say to you directly: we see you; we hear you; and we are here for you.  You are loved, and you are valued.  And we want you to be safe.  We are doing our best. 


And to all of you, adults especially, I really hope that we are.  Because we need to.   We need to listen to our youth—especially as many of them are becoming leaders towards finding solutions to this issue—and because they are clearly telling us that there is a problem and looking to us. And we need to recognize that we owe real change to these next generations.  And we need to take action.  We need to do our best.  As I said before, this is true no matter your politics, no matter your beliefs.  Whether you feel that we need better gun laws in this country; or that we need to mitigate the culture of violence that is so pervasive, as Rabbi Robinson spoke about on Rosh Hashanah; or that we need to provide better and more accessible treatment for mental health; or that we need to recognize that mental illness is more likely to make an individual a victim than a perpetrator, and that we must reduce the stigma of mental health care; or that too often, too many people are failing to recognize the humanity of others…all of those are real needs in our society.  And while any one of them alone is unlikely to solve the immense problem that we have, put together, they can lead to real change—and perhaps we can take the steps necessary towards real solutions.  Be for yourself, and fight for the solutions that you believe in.  Be for others, and recognize that the work of your neighbor towards the same ultimate solution.  And let’s not wait any longer to engage in this sacred work together.


Because it’s going to take a while and it isn’t going to be easy.  And I don’t know about you, but I’m already exhausted.  And each incident that pops up in the notifications on my phone exacerbates the feelings already present—and I’m weary.  And I’m angry.  And don’t want to live in a world where I need to spend professional development time with our religious school faculty on active shooter trainings; and where we have to have increased security in our building; and in which I find myself constantly looking around for potential danger; and where one can’t help but to live on edge, wondering where it will happen next time.  Because there is an assumption of there being a next time.  And even as we fight for solutions, we also need to recognize and soothe our own feelings, and the feelings of those around us.  I’d like to suggest that these very High Holy Days offer us guidance in multiple aspects of this struggle.


Throughout this season, we read the ancient words of the unetaneh tokef prayer.  The prayer speaks of Divine Judgment; of God examining the life of each being on earth, determining our fate for the coming year.  On Rosh Hashanah, according to this prayer, God writes our fate in the Book of Life.  On Yom Kippur, our fate is sealed.  The basic theology of these words is troubling at best, especially when considering issues of gun violence.  But the ultimate message of the prayer is not that God determines our fate, but that our actions can change the determination.  “u’Teshuvah, ut’fillah, utzedakkah ma’a’virin et ro’a hag’zeirah.”  “Repentence, prayer, and charity temper judgment’s severe decree,” as it is translated in our machzor.  The implication here, and the common understanding of this line, is that if we engage in acts of repentance, prayer, and charity, then our fate will be better—we’ll prevent the brokenness and the chaos.  But I don’t think that’s true; too many good people have been victims of gun violence for that to be the case.  However, looking at the words more carefully allows for a different interpretation.  These acts of repentance, prayer, and charity will not so much change fate, but they can help to determine our reaction.  We are hopefully all written in the Book of Life; the question, though, is if we are in the book of the truly living.  For in order to live, we must realize that bad things will happen around us and that bad things will have an impact on us; we need to have the tools to live despite the bad.  I want to offer a more nuanced translation: Repentance, prayer, and charity bring us through the evil of the decree—this more literal translation is perhaps a more accurate understanding of these ancient words.  These actions give us coping strategies for living with the challenges that life presents.  No longer do we wonder how these acts can change our destiny, but how can these acts change the way we react to those events that are beyond our control?

T’shuvah, t’fillah and tzedakkah bring us through the evil of the decree.

T’shuvah: our acts of turning inward, can help us to see what we must do.  To see how we can be better at creating a reality that is different from that in which we find ourselves.  By sharing in collective repentance for the cycle of gun violence that has pervaded these last decades, we can turn towards a better future.  T’fillah: while surely, thoughts and prayers are not the solution to the vast problem of gun violence in this country, prayer is not a bad thing.  And successful prayer can change us.  Whether it brings us towards moments of transcendence which inspire us, or towards moments of centering and calm within ourselves, which comfort us.  Prayer that is more than going through the motions of the words we recite, prayer that makes us feel a sense of something beyond our day to day, can transform us and enable us to perceive both ourselves and our world differently.  Tzedakah: through righteous giving, of our money or of our time, to organizations that do work towards solutions in which we believe, our impact can be greater than what any one of us can do individually.  And if we understand this term more broadly, we can also see it as our mandate towards creating righteousness in our world—to making right that which we see is wrong. 


If we each engage in T’shuva, T’fillah, and Tzedakah, our actions can bring us through the terror of this problem of gun violence.   Each piece an essential part of the answer, to get ourselves through these challenging times, and to move our society beyond them.  As these holy days inspire us towards bettering both ourselves and our world, throughout this new year. 


And I truly believe this is possible.  It is, in fact, at camp where I find reminders of that, to remember on the days when I believe that it isn’t. 

On the final Shabbat of this past summer, I had the opportunity to lead Havdallah with the Directors and Leadership Team, sitting on the stage of the theater building, looking out at the camp community gathered, along with several families and community members, who had come for the final showcase.  The camp community sang the blessings, through tear stained faces, knowing that the summer was coming to an end.  The campers hugged each other, swaying with their arms around each other, separating themselves from Shabbat, and even as they held on to each other, grasping at the edges of the bubble as if to beg it to stay a little longer, beginning the emotional separation from camp.  And at the end, as is the tradition at Creative Arts Academy, the community sang Rabbi Max Chaikin’s version of Eliyahu HaNavi, the song calling upon Elijah the Prophet to herald a time of perfection and calling upon ourselves to build that reality.  As I watched the camp community from the stage, I saw the campers singing loudly—almost shouting the words—jumping and dancing and raising their arms with the message—truly living out the enthusiasm inherent in the idea of bringing about, “a time to come, when injustice shall be gone, pain and violence will be no more, done with hatred, done with war.”[3]  And I knew, in that moment, that they really meant it.  And as they sang the words, “So we will not wait a minute more, to build the world we’re waiting for. Building starts with you and me,”[4] I knew they were right.  This all starts with you and me.  And this all starts right now, as the gates close on the year that has past, and we open ourselves anew.  May we open those gates towards a time in which we are better, a year in which the world is better.  May we walk through those gates towards building that world.  So may it be for us all. 

ken y’hi ratzon

Thu, June 13 2024 7 Sivan 5784