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Opening Eyes Minds and Borders – erev Rosh Hashanah

September 13, 2015

The Louvre in Paris – 9 million.

The British Museum, London – 7 million.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City – 6 million

The Vatican Museums – 6 million

Tate Modern, London – 5 million

Reina Sofia, Madrid – 3 million

The Uffizi, Florence: 2 million

The Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam – 1.5 million

The Doge’s Palace, Venice – 1 million

and so too the Israel Museum, Jerusalem.

Those are some of the best known museums on a list of 105 most visited museums in the world based on data from 2013. The Louvre tops the list at 9 million visitors and The Cleveland Museum of Art rounds it out at half a million. The Philadelphia Museum of Art weighs in with 640,000 at number 98, a number most often associated with the temperature of a healthy body: heart, lungs, limbs, ears, nose, mouth and eyes. Yes, there is more, thankfully so, but let’s double back to the eyes. Let’s talk about perspective.

I have always been drawn to the Impressionists and so whenever an exhibit arrives at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, I’m there. And by “there,” I mean “in the moment.” By the way, a museum is probably a place you do not want to be with me because when I see a work of art that I like, I initially stand about 15 feet away and linger there for a while. Then I take a few steps forward, drawing ever closer a few feet at a time, and I always spend time rooted to the spot to fully appreciate what I am seeing. Then forward again, and yet again, until I am about four feet away, marveling at the colorful mountains of paint drops that speckle the canvas in ways that I had not appreciated before. Then I drift back to where I first started, once again standing still for a few moments, before moving on. Crowds of people make this more challenging, to say the least, and this seems like a perfect metaphor about life: the need for perspective. We see things differently when we stand at different compass points.

On this eve of the New Year, after a contentious year on the world stage with conflicts showing little sign of abating, I have some thoughts about perspective and gratitude that I want to share with you. Tonight in particular, I pause to count my blessings – as I think all of us should do – because I do not want to take things for granted. I count my blessings because I have never had an adequate answer to the question, “Why me?”

Why am I so fortunate to be surrounded by love – my wife and sons, family and friends – and to do what I love with members of a congregation, this congregation, that is filled with caring, talented and compassionate people, and why am I blessed to be a citizen of this nation?

For the past month, I have drawn aside members of our synagogue during meetings, over meals, in living rooms and hallways, and I have asked them to close their eyes and imagine this bimah on which I am standing, and to make a list of what they remember seeing. I asked people on our Board of Trustees, committee chairs, and members-at-large. Their responses – from 27 people – will not surprise you. However, while almost everyone wrote down “the ark, the eternal light, the pulpit and the chairs,” and a few listed “the small table on the right,” very few wrote down “the flags of the United States and Israel.” It is possible that when people thought about what is on the bimah, they were thinking in terms of “religious” or “ritual” and perhaps that is why the flags did not come to mind. Or perhaps we don’t really see them.

The American flag, for me, stands for so many things…so much that is good…and many discordant, divisive things. A few months ago, I came across a review that inspired me to read a book called “Violence All Around” by John Sifton. The review, in The New Yorker magazine, reads: “It has been fourteen years since the September 11th attacks…with actions or reactions that often seemed not just incommensurate with their consequences but utterly disconnected: nineteen hijackers commandeer four commercial airplanes; the United States drives the Taliban from Afghanistan; Osama bin Laden escapes to Pakistan; the Bush Administration invents a secret legal apparatus; the Taliban return; the U.S. invades Iraq, occupies it for eight years, then leaves; bin Laden is hunted down and killed; Arab states disintegrate; an obscure jihadist from Baghdad declares the restoration of the caliphate; the U.S. returns to Iraq.” {1}

This reads like a world map in flux and a foreign policy in disarray. It feels to me that we Americans are living through the lull before the storm: a fire sent from abroad that seems destined to arrive on our shores. Or perhaps it is already here, waiting to be unleashed. I fear for our country, and there is no place that I would rather be.

This past summer, Susan and I were fortunate to spend two and a half weeks on the Adriatic and Aegean Seas, visiting countries that we had never been to before: Croatia, Greece and Turkey. Greece was reeling from austerity measures imposed as a result of its debt crisis, and the owners of a small shop near the Acropolis where we bought souvenirs were very grateful that we wandered in and spent money. The husband and wife told us that they believe it will take two years for the situation to resolve itself. I think they are optimistic, and perhaps they need to be.

We arrived in Istanbul two days later, and just two days after Turkey began bombing ISIS positions in Syria – and Kurds as well – and four days after Turkey gave the United States permission to launch fighter jets from its soil against ISIS. Shiite Muslims in Istanbul, incensed that Turkey had attacked ISIS, threw rocks and Molotov cocktails at police on the Asian side of the Bosphorus Strait, and while we only knew about it by what we read on-line, it was a dicey time to have been there. Just three weeks later, ISIS called for Turks to rise up against their government and to create the Islamic State’s caliphate “wherever you are and however you can.” {2}

Our guide during our two days in Istanbul was a professor at the university, and she identified herself as a liberal Muslim. She was an outspoken opponent of Turkey’s president, Recep Erdogan, and she was alarmed about the strident voices of Islamists in Istanbul and throughout Turkey for their militancy against women’s rights and democracy. Surprised by her candor, I asked if she had any concerns about her safety since the bus driver might be in a position to create problems for her if he reported her to their employer. She told me that it is important for people to know that there are voices like hers in Turkey because she believes that militant, anti-democratic Islam is ascendant there and a threat everywhere. She also said something that has stayed with me: “You Americans are so fortunate because you can say what you want without fear, and your only concern is not offending people.” I know that I take that for granted, and she reminded me of it.

Here’s another story about a personal experience, but this one dates back to 1995 and it also reminds me about what I take for granted. Exactly twenty years ago, our congregation took the first of our two trips to Cuba to fortify our relationship with our sister congregation in Camaguey, 300 miles south of Havana. Our guide was a marvelous young man named Aline and that was his first experience welcoming American Jews to Cuba. By the end of our trip, he was saying “Mazal tov” with wild abandon.

We traveled under State Department license, bringing medical supplies as well as purchases from Dollar One stores – pencils, crayons, notebooks, shoelaces, toothbrushes, toothpaste, combs and brushes – to Jewish and non-Jewish communities in Havana and Camaguey. One day we went to the Jewish section of the cemetery in Havana, the area defined by a monument dedicated to victims of the Holocaust. The Hebrew inscription on its base reads, “Here lie the ashes of those whose bodies the Nazis used to make soap during World War Two.” When we translated the Hebrew at Aline’s request, he was dumbfounded. Almost ten seconds passed in silence before he asked us to tell him again what we had said, so unfathomable was the information to him. I was reminded then, as now, about how grateful I am to have been born when I was and where I was. It is amazing what I take for granted, as perhaps you do as well.

I am also grateful that I live and work where I do. I am grateful that when I see a police officer, my assumption is that he or she is there to help me, not harass me. There are too many police departments in too many places in this country where racism and brutality directed at African Americans is systemic. One place is too many.

On November 24, 2014, grand jury testimony that followed the death of Michael Brown at the hands of police officer Darren Wilson was released. Michael Brown was shot 10 times on August 9th that year. In testimony before the grand jury, Dorian Johnson, a friend of Michael Brown who was with him that fateful day, said, “Every day, I hear different stories about peoples’ different encounters with Ferguson police. You need to be very mindful of the police around here. Whenever you’re coming outside your door, people are always giving you a warning: ‘They’re up the street now. They’re down the street.’ There’s something in that {he goes on to say} that basically keeps you aware of the Ferguson police.”

I hear that about different places in this country. I read about it. In response, people have taken it to the streets, not always peacefully, and one of their messages is ‘Black Lives Matter.’ They do, and so do the lives of police officers.

Ferguson matters, but not every city, town or township is Ferguson.

As frustratingly slow as it can be, change sometimes arrives. Almost a year after a scathing Justice Department report on civil rights abuses in Ferguson and court systems in St. Louis County that targeted African-Americans to increase the income lines of municipal budgets by minor traffic offenses resulting in “a cascade of heightened fines and penalties, license suspensions and arrests” {3}, a new municipal court judge in Ferguson “ordered that all city arrest warrants issued before this year for traffic offenders be withdrawn, with accused drivers to be directed to what he promised would be a more just system that specifically bars jail time for minor offenses” {4}. New reforms order all municipalities in St. Louis County to adopt higher professional standards for police officers, particularly in the use of force.

I’ve been a police chaplain with the Cheltenham Township Police Department since 2006. I go on ride-alongs and attend seminars with the police officers. I have been with them on traffic stops and alarm calls. I have been with them when they have arrested people and, far more often, when they have helped people. I have seen them display astonishing patience when faced with abusive language or confronted with ‘attitude’ that would push me to the edge. I know that we read about bad cops, and I know that they do not represent the legion of law enforcement officers throughout our country and here in our township who day after day place their lives on the line to help us and protect us.

So the next time you see police officers in this township, or neighboring townships, I ask you to do something that will take very little time but will go a long way. I’m asking you to say “Thank you” to them for what they do to keep all of us safe. Their dedication should not be taken for granted.

I urge you to do the same when you see military personnel in airports or train stations, or wherever you might be. Whether I support or oppose our nation’s policy where they are stationed, I know that they serve our country and I am grateful for that. They help keep me and my family safe, and you and yours as well.

Above all, I am grateful to God, and I am so grateful that I am Jewish.

Paul Johnson, a Jesuit by training and author of A History of the Jews as well as A History of Christianity writes, “It is almost beyond our capacity to imagine how the world would have fared if the Jews had never emerged. Certainly the world without the Jews would have been a radically different place. Humanity might have eventually stumbled upon all the Jewish insights, but we cannot be sure. To them we owe the idea of equality before the law, sanctity of life, dignity of the human person, social responsibility, and peace as an idea. Without [the Jews], the world might have been a much emptier place.”

This world might have been, in Johnson’s words, “a much emptier place” without us, but that just means that we have to work harder to fill it with more love, more dignity for others, more consistent equality before the law, and more social responsibility.

Let’s take a step back to gain some perspective – as I suggested is important when I began speaking – because I would like us to focus our attention in the name of social responsibility – or social justice – not on a work of art by the Impressionists, but on a photograph that has made an indelible impression on the conscience of many people throughout the world: the photo of a little boy in a red t-shirt, blue shorts and Velcro sneakers, found face-down on a Turkish beach.

You know that photo.

His lifeless body is carried in the arms of a Turkish paramilitary police officer. The little boy’s name was Aylan Kurdi and he was just three years old. He came from the Syrian city of Kobani and he was one of 23 Syrians who set out on two boats for the 13 mile journey to the Greek island of Kos, seeking refuge from the horrors of the civil war in Syria that has raged for four years at the cost of the lives of over 250,000 children, women and men. Four million Syrians have fled their country. Thousands have died on the perilous journey across the Aegean, Ionian and Mediterranean Seas. Earlier that day, Aylan’s mother had dressed him and his 5-year old brother for their journey to freedom, having paid smugglers for spaces on small boats.

The boats capsized.

He died. His mother and brother died. Five children are reported dead.

Aylan’s father, Abdullah Kurdi, recalled what happened: “A wave came and flipped us over. I grabbed my sons and my wife and we held onto the boat. We stayed like that for an hour, then the first son died and I left him so I can help the other. Then the second died, so I left him as well to help his Mom and I found her dead. My wife is my world and [now] I have nothing…I am choking, I cannot breathe. They died in my arms.” {5}

The United States, the United Nations, the European Union and the Arab League – unable to address and resolve the tragedy of the civil war in Syria – wring their hands over the refugee crisis that stems from it. Roads, highways, train stations and trains are flooded with refugees arriving in Greece and Italy, and streaming toward Germany, the latter scheduled to absorb 800,000 refugees this year and asking the rest of Europe to do its share.

Particularly heart-rending are these words spoken by a Syrian father: “The Arab world is 5 million square miles. When my son was born, among the worst thoughts was how it has no space for him.”

Tomorrow {September 14th} there will be an emergency session of European Union ministers to try to find solutions to the crisis. I cannot help but think that Russia’s Vladimir Putin and Syria’s Bashar al-Assad are laughing at the inability of the free world to resolve this heartbreaking dilemma as a direct result of the civil war in Syria that has been raging since 2011.

What can we do to help, to make a difference? The answer to that question is found on fliers on a table in our lobby. By partnering with our local HIAS {Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society} office, you will learn that there is much that you can do. The back of one flier titled ‘A Guide to the Syrian Refugee Crisis’ responds to such questions as, “What is our own government doing to address this crisis?” and “Why is this a Jewish issue?” This flier will be available throughout the High Holy Days, as well another flier that urges you to call the White House and our Senators, asking them to admit 100,000 Syrian refugees to our country.

Of course some of them represent threats to our country, but many of them are children who do not have the strength to wander the globe, and their parents do not have an endless reservoir of hope. I urge you to call Senators Casey and Toomey, imploring them to have our government fast-track entry for refugees desperate to save their lives. We can pool our resources and dollars to help families upon their arrival in this city. We can partner with HIAS to provide those families with food and find them shelter. We can give generously. We can pound on the doors of local and national Jewish organizations asking what they are prepared to do to help. In a world where tempers are rising and walls are going up, let us build bridges. Information about what you can do to help awaits you in our lobby.

One of the best known Hebrew phrases in the Torah is tied to the Passover narrative: Shalach amee/”Let my people go!” {6}. It was the demand of Moses to Pharaoh. Now, let us say to our leaders in Congress, Poe’tay’ach ha’delet/”Open the door” to let people in! Poe’tay’ach ha’delet!

Tomorrow morning, we are going to hear the sound of the shofar, our call to God. It is also a call to conscience: to hear the voices of those who, tired and famished, speak in whispers; to hear the cries of children, seeking solace in sleep.

In conclusion, I want to revisit words that I shared with you last year at this time. The central symbol of Rosh Hashanah is the shofar, and yet it is not the blowing of the shofar that is the mitzvah: it is the hearing. What we hear in its different notes is the sound of the human condition. As the sound of tekiah rises, it calls us to rise to meet the challenges that face us. And then we immediately hear shevarim: three blasts that disturb the calm ripples left behind in the wake of tekiah. That is precisely the point: shevarim wakes us up to remind us about things we have too easily forgotten: relationships that yearn for healing, and broken promises that tug at our conscience. And just when we return to our ‘default mode’ of saying that we will eventually get around to the very things shevarim has reminded us about, here come the irritating, shattering, nine-fold blasts of teruah. Those sounds are spiritual alarm clocks without snooze buttons, demanding that we act in the name of decency, honesty and integrity. Nine times we hear the message to reach for our higher selves. Then the tekiah gedolah. This final, long note arrives to signal an end that is a beginning: the end of procrastination and the beginning of a new resolve to do everything possible to create a bright and meaningful future. The sounds of the shofar are the sounds of our soul.

Tomorrow morning we will hear the sounds of the shofar, and then let us do everything we can on behalf of those who need us most.

Take a step back: look at the land in which we live, where we are proud to claim citizenship, though we are not always proud of what happens within our borders.

Take a step back and thank the people who protect us.

Take a step back, bow your head, and thank God for the blessings that surround you.

Take a step forward into tomorrow by helping those who need us today.

Rabbi Elliot J. Holin

{1} July 20, 2015

{2} The New York Times, August 19, 2015, p. A9

{3} The New York Times, The Editorial Board, September 7, 2015

{4} ibid.

{5} ‘That Little Syrian Boy: Here’s Who He Was’ NPR Parallels, September 3,


{6} Exodus 10:3