I want to share a story with you. It’s a Kol Nidrei story. There aren’t all that many stories that focus on Kol Nidrei, so I thought that this would make a good start to a sermon.
This story was told to me and a small group of other rabbis at a small conference I attended. It is about the son of his senior rabbi in Boston. Josh grew up, was educated, and taught high school in the Boston area. A few years ago, he was awarded a Fulbright fellowship by the U.S. government to study in South America. He was assigned to go to Pasto, Columbia, a small city in the southeast corner of the country, high in the Andes, close to the border with Ecuador.
Josh enjoyed his time there. As a Fulbright recipient, he had a connection to the university in Pasto where he studied and worked. There’s no synagogue in Pasto, Columbia. In fact, Josh determined that there weren’t any Jews in Pasto at all. As the High Holidays approached, he decided to go to Bogota for Rosh Hashanah, where there are several synagogues of various denominations
Shortly after he returned, a member of the medical school faculty approached him. Word had gotten around that this visiting American graduate student was Jewish. After all, he had left Pasto for Rosh Hashanah. The professor told Josh that although he himself was not Jewish, he was part of a group in the area that got together to celebrate Shabbat and other Jewish holidays. Would Josh like to join them? Josh readily agreed.
The group met in the home of one of the families. The room had been renovated as a large open space with chairs that they set up when the group meets. When he arrived, Josh found a very warm and welcoming group of people who were delighted to meet him.
The members of the group didn’t claim to be Jewish. They were individuals who felt a kinship with Jews and an attraction to Judaism. Some of them came to these feelings as a result of what they believed was long-lost Jewish ancestral heritage. Others were just finding their way religiously. The group members were sincere about learning and practicing.
The members of the group were not religious freaks drawn to Judaism. They were not messianic Jews trying to present Christianity in Jewish terms. They were doing this for themselves. They were accomplished members of the community. The man who approached Josh was a physician. Another was a female judge who was committed to working for the empowerment of women in this underdeveloped region of Columbia. She traveled great distances as a “circuit rider” in dangerous parts of the country where she was called upon to handle many difficult cases, including acts of terrorism.
Josh had a great time. Yom Kippur was only a day or two away, and so, as he was leaving, they invited him to return for Yom Kippur. But they coupled their invitation with a request. They had heard about the Kol Nidrei prayer. Could he come and chant Kol Nidrei for them?
What are the chances that the Fulbright scholar who would happen to be posted to Pasto would not only have a very good Jewish background and be very familiar with the liturgy but would also have studied voice? How could one have predicted that he would know Kol Nidrei well, and appreciate its melody? So, instead getting on a bus for many hours and going back to Bogota or spending Yom Kippur by himself, he agreed to come back to this group, to chant Kol Nidrei for them, and to spend Yom Kippur with them.
So this Columbian community heard the Kol Nidrei prayer sung by a talented Jewish Bostonian, who just happened to be in their town on the eve of Yom Kippur. It was the first time these people had heard Kol Nidrei chanted live. Josh spent Yom Kippur with the group, a day on which they had planned an intense day of study and prayer.
That’s not the end of the story. Josh subsequently joined the group for their sukkah building and for many shabbatot and other gatherings during his year there. This home-grown group truly became his non-Jewish, Jewish community, which he had never expected to find in the isolated area to which he had been sent.
This is an amazing story. What does it have to do with us?
Well, first of all, one lesson I take away from this experience is, “You never know.” You never know when or where you’re going to have a Jewish experience. You never know when you’re going to have the opportunity to teach, to learn, or to connect with someone else. You never know when or where adventures—Jewish adventures—are going to take place. So the lesson is the Boy Scout’s motto, “Be Prepared.”
We should all be prepared. For we never know when or where the opportunity will arise. For Josh, it was on Kol Nidrei night in an isolated town in the Andes. Who knows when or where it will happen to us?
Somewhere, sometime, when we least expect it, someone may ask us what it means to be Jewish and what it means for us to be a Jew. How will we answer these questions? The service will be over soon, there won’t be a Kiddush or an Oneg, and this is the perfect Question to reflect on this evening. What does all this mean to us? Nobody forced anyone to come here tonight. I didn't hear anyone being dragged in kicking and screaming; although that may have happened at home and not here. In general, we’re here because this is important to us on some level. This matters to us. The questions are "How," and "Why?" Why does it matter to us?
One possible answer is, “I don’t know. It’s a mystery.” “I don’t know why I am drawn here to this people, this tradition, and this way of life.” That’s fine. Judaism has never demanded that we have a fully worked out understanding of our place in the world. We are told that to be a member of the household of Israel is to be, like Israel, like Jacob, one who wrestles with God. To wrestle means being comfortable with not having all the answers all the time. However, I do think it is edifying to explore this question. It increases our self-understanding to do so.
There’s a famous story about Louis Brandeis. When he was a law student at Harvard, quotas were in effect and many law offices were completely closed to Jewish attorneys. Fellow students would say to him, "Brandeis, you're brilliant. If you weren't a Jew, you could end up on the Supreme Court. Why don't you convert? Then all of your problems would be solved."
Brandeis did not respond to such comments, but on the occasion of his official induction to an exclusive honor society at the law school, Brandeis took the podium and announced, "I am sorry I was born a Jew." His words were greeted with enthusiastic applause, shouts, and cheers. When the noise died down he continued. "I'm sorry I was born a Jew, but only because I wish I had the privilege of choosing Judaism on my own." In the world we live in, we are all Jews by choice, because today, we must choose to be Jewish—to be different from the society that surrounds us. It is all too easy in today's world to opt out and blend in.
We are heirs to a precious legacy. Think about it. What we can learn from the experience that Josh had in the Andes is that Judaism is appreciated by people who may not have been born Jewish, may not have been raised as Jews, and may not even know any Jews. This is not just true in Pasto, Columbia; there are people all over the world who are drawn to Judaism. Sometimes, it seems as though people who aren’t Jewish can be even more curious about Judaism than Jews. Think about the success of our Food Festival. Many people come for the food, but for many others they are curious about who we are and what we believe. Perhaps, this can motivate us to give Judaism a second or even a third look. Sometimes, those of us who are Jews by birth take Judaism for granted. It is what we have always known. Sometimes, we can be intimidated by those who have chosen Judaism, because they are often more knowledgeable about our religion. Instead of being intimidated, maybe we should try to see Judaism through their eyes and with their passion. It can take hearing how others get excited about Judaism for us to realize how exciting it can be for us.
There’s a third lesson I think we can glean from this experience, but to appreciate it, I have to tell you one more thing about this group of philo-Semites in Pasto. I mentioned that they don’t have a synagogue building; they meet in somebody’s house in a room that accommodates their group meetings. The room contains what looks like an ark. The ark is covered with an old-fashioned navy-blue velvet parochet or ark cover.
Josh took a close look at the ark cover, and noticed that it was embroidered with gold thread. It looked very traditional. Along the bottom he saw that there was gold embroidered Hebrew lettering stating that it was donated by the “so-and-so” family in memory of “so-and-so.” There were stereotypical Eastern European names on it.
They told him: “We had it made for us. We downloaded a photo from the internet and we gave it to a seamstress to embroider.” At that moment, he realized: They had no idea what the writing said. They didn’t know that the writing said that the ark curtain had been donated by the “so-and-so” family. To them it was some holy Hebrew inscription! When Josh moved the curtain aside, he discovered something else. There was no Torah inside. The ark was empty.
Yes, that community had some ritual objects, and they knew some songs and some blessings that were written out for them, that they were teaching their children, even as they learned about Judaism, but they didn’t have a Torah.
Think how motivated these people were—and are. Even without a Torah, without Jewish books, they are gathering, worshipping, and transmitting love and appreciation for Judaism. We are lucky to be part of a community that can afford multiple Torahs and plenty of prayerbooks. It should make us realize how lucky we are. Is our community perfect? Absolutely not. Yet, despite whatever challenges may face us, we need to remember to be grateful for everything we do have.
There’s one final lesson I derive from this experience: It’s never too late. Almost all the people Josh met were adults. As I’ve mentioned, one was a doctor; another was a judge; still others were professionals in other fields. They may know very little about Judaism, but that’s not stopping them from pursuing Jewish learning, Jewish engagement, and Jewish connections. Similarly, we shouldn’t be inhibited either. We should study with energy and enthusiasm and gusto. This coming year, I will be offering a number of different adult education classes on a variety of topics. In one we will discuss the theology of God and the myriad of ways that Judaism has understood and taught about God. Another will focus the book of Jonah that we will read during the service tomorrow afternoon and what meaning its message can have for our lives in the twenty-first century. There will be a course on Jewish ethics and how can Judaism inform the decisions we make in our workplace, in our community, and in our homes.
In the gift shop at the Tenement Museum in New York, I saw a magnet that asked an important question. It said: “A year from now what will you wish you had done today?” Where will we be during the coming year? Whom will we encounter? What questions will we be asked? How will we answer them? How well do we understand Judaism and our connection with it? How well will we explain Judaism to others? Can we explain it, and what it means to each of us?
I hope that we will devote ourselves to better understanding who we are and where we came from; what it is that unites us as a people; and what are the values that we aspire to promote. I pray that we will study, reflect and learn to translate our thoughts into words and our words into action so that, if and when the time comes, we will know what to say, and we will say it with conviction, grace, energy, and enthusiasm.