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Rabbi Marc E. Berkson - Yom Kippur - 2008/5769

Secure Your Mask First

Many of you have memorized the words offered either on tape or by a flight attendant as the aircraft backs away from the gate in preparation for take-off. After a seemingly unnecessary explanation of how to operate the seat belts come the following words: “In the event of a sudden loss of cabin pressure, oxygen masks will automatically drop from the compartment above your seats. To start the flow of oxygen, pull the mask towards you. Place it firmly over your nose and mouth, secure the elastic band behind your head, and breathe normally. Although the bag does not inflate, oxygen is flowing to the mask. If you are traveling with a child or someone who requires assistance, secure your mask on first, and then assist the other person.” In short, you are responsible for the other’s safety; on the aircraft, they cannot be safe if you are not safe. Yet the wisdom of these words extends far beyond the safety of the aircraft or the flight.

Surely these last days I have been waiting for an announcement along the lines of, “In the event of a sudden loss of stock value, oxygen masks will automatically drop from heaven above to ease your hyperventilation.” Hasn’t happened yet. But, on a more serious level, it was my colleague and friend, Rabbi Vernon Kurtz who, years ago, taught me the first of the more profound lessons these words before takeoff teach. Secure your mask first and then assist your child. It is a family lesson for Jewish education.

Consider our on-going attempts to create a successful supplemental Jewish education program. We keep playing with the 4 H’s of Jewish education—history, holiday, Hebrew, and Holocaust. Parents drop their kids off at the synagogue’s doors for two to four hours a week—and our kids will complain something along the line of “we had that before” or “we did that last year!” They muddle their way through B’nai Mitzvah and Kabbalat Torah and leave us with limited knowledge and little commitment to religious practice. So we decide that there must be something wrong with our curriculum. We solve it by moving Jewish history from sixth grade to eighth grade or by getting a new Hebrew curriculum or by creating a course on symbols that will tell ninth graders the significance of prayers and synagogue objects and Jewish art. And not much changes.

Or take this example from Rabbi Larry Hoffman with which some of us will be able to identify quite clearly. If we consistently separate little children from their parents at times of prayer, the children may learn by rote the rules of how to function as worshipers, but they will never achieve the warmth that comes from being with their parents at sacred times. If their highest emotional peaks are reached while watching a Brewers or Packers game with Mom and Dad, or riding bikes as a family, baseball and football and bike riding will become their most important moments.

Think of the most successful educational enterprise in Jewish life today—Jewish camping, be it the Union Institute camps of our movement or the Conservative movement’s Ramah camps and the JCC camps like Interlaken. It was our Rabbinic Scholar-in-Residence, Rabbi Herman Schaalman, who, so moved by his experiences of a Methodist church camp years ago one summer in Iowa, set out to create a Reform Jewish summer camp. He writes that, “On the invitation of the Jewish Chautauqua Society I participated in the Methodist summer camp in Clear Lake, Iowa. The impact of over 800 young people and 120 pastors interacting with each other in an informal setting was powerful. I decided then and there that we ought to have something like this for our own teenagers.” Yet Rabbi Schaalman had a larger vision, a vision “to strengthen the intellectual, the instructional phase by putting in top quality and to develop fond emotional responses to Judaism, to make Judaism exciting, vibrant, beautiful, and maybe even to some extent romantic in the sense that we really wanted to have the whole person involved rather than just merely the educational aspect.”

That is camp’s strength—for two or three or four or even seven weeks, the kids are immersed in an environment where Judaism is everywhere and everything and is not just two hours at the synagogue. In Chaim Potok’s poetic words, it is “education caught rather than taught.” Camp becomes a Jewish community–but we cannot bring camp home unless we can find a way to secure the children’s parents and grandparents masks first. You may remember the story of one who came to Menahem Mendel of Kotzk and asked how he could make his children devote themselves to the Torah. Answered Menahem Mendel, “If you really want them to do this, then you yourself must spend time over the Torah and they will do as you do. Otherwise, they will not devote themselves to the Torah but will tell their children to do it, and so it will go on….If you yourself forget the Torah, your children will also forget it, only urging their children to know it, and they will forget the Torah and tell their children that they should know it, and no one will ever know the Torah.

Jewish learning is a lifelong affair—and all the labels we use at Emanu-El B’ne Jeshurun reflect that. Help us to build those programs that empower parents and grandparents to be our children’s primary teachers. Join us a week from this Saturday night as we gather to build our sukkahmobile. Experience the excitement as three generation families gather to play, to pray, and to participate. Join our Shabbat Morning Study Minyan simply for the joy of Jewish learning. Embark on a two-year journey to Anshe Mitzvah which will truly make you not only a knowledgeable Jew but also a wonderful teacher. And, yes, come to summer camp at Oconomowoc next summer through the Lehrhaus program. Even adults get to come to camp. The person sitting next to you may not be your own child or grandchild. But he or she is one of our children and, as you become a teacher, can also become one of yours. All you have to do is put on your mask first.

There are still other lessons to learn from those profound words at takeoff. Secure your mask first and then assist the other person. It is a congregational lesson to help each of us care for this, God’s world. I spoke about food last Yom Kippur and I promised at Rosh Hashanah that I would do so again this year. But last year’s Yom Kippur morning sermon was entitled “You Are What You Don’t Eat,” for on Yom Kippur we are what we do not eat. That holds true today. But that means for all the other days of the year, we ARE what we eat. The phrase we used to treat lightly and with humor has now come all too true with rising rates of obesity and diabetes and heart disease, with societal changes paralleling these physical ones.

The kosher meat industry has not been immune from these changes. And it is to Postville and Agriprocessors that I wish to return this morning. Run by the Rubashkin family, the company transformed that small Iowa town when it purchased a shuttered slaughterhouse and converted it into the largest kosher meatpacking plant in the world. I wish to believe that the Rubashkins’ intentions were admirable. They wanted to provide affordable fresh kosher meat throughout the country. Yet, to put it mildly, they forgot one of clear principles of Jewish business ethics—dina d’malkhuta dina—the law of the land is the law. A raid by Immigration and Customs Enforcement in May detained almost 400 undocumented workers. Many of the undocumented workers did not even know that they were illegal. Others had $50 withheld weekly from their paychecks for what was labeled “immigration fees.” Employees were often denied bathroom usage during 10-hour shifts; were rarely paid appropriate overtime; and suffered verbal and physical abuse. Today, the company faces over 9000 counts of child labor violations. Yet more. For kashrut is Judaism’s compromise with the ideal of the Garden of Eden, of obtaining food without killing (in other words, we were all vegetarians until Noah). And part of that compromise was that we cannot take the deaths of any of God’s creatures lightly; we must take those lives with compassion, with as little pain as possible. And there is ample evidence that Agriprocessors inflicted horrible pain in their mistreatment of animals. Suffice to say that the situation in Postville has been in the news on a regular basis and is, to be succinct, a shandah.

Rabbi Morris Allen from the Twin Cities took on Agriprocessors two years ago. And his work has unified and even electrified the Conservative movement for the first time in years. In addition to visiting Agriprocessors several times and joining in various gatherings there to protest Agriprocessors treatment of their employees and to offer support to the many uprooted families due to immigration issues, Rabbi Allen is in the process of developing a Heksher Tzedek, a justice certification, for the Conservative movement. The intent is to issue an additional heksher, an additional kosher certification, to ensure that any kosher product so marked was made in compliance with a set of social justice criteria. My guess is that the Heksher Tzedek will be mentioned as part of a sermon in almost every United Synagogue congregation during these High Holy Days. Check with your friends at Beth Israel.

Rabbi Allen put it most eloquently, “As concerned as we are about how an animal gets killed, we need to be equally concerned about how a worker lives.” They are words one would expect from a Reform rabbi, words out of the Reform movement. It is rare that the Conservative movement takes the lead in any matter of social justice; other than a resolution from the Union for Reform Judaism and from the Central Conference of American Rabbis endorsing the Heksher Tzedek initiative, we have been silent. Yes, our endorsement included these words—“those who keep kosher, including the growing number of Reform Jews who are embracing the observance of kashrut, should not be forced to choose between their ritual observance and their ethical values. Abusive labor practices constitute a hillul Hashem, a violation of God’s name…” Labor law we can talk about; dietary law we remain acutely uncomfortable about. The Director of our movement’s rabbinic program at the Hebrew Union College in Los Angeles, Rabbi Richard Levy, came right out and asked, “Why are we still so fearful of embracing traditional and contemporary Jewish dietary concerns, especially since we know that food habits learned while growing up tend to remain with one throughout life?”

Consider the questions we at Emanu-El B’ne Jeshurun should be pondering as we look ahead to our new building, a new building with a wonderful kitchen. Should we choose to purchase only fair-trade certified coffee to ensure that farmers get a fair price for their coffee beans? Might we consider a Community Supported Agriculture partnership with a local farm, paralleling what has taken place some dozen times through Hazon, the New York based Jewish environmental group? One has already been formed in St. Paul! Can we discuss a move away from plastic and Styrofoam not only with a return to our wonderful china and glassware and silver but also supplemented by biodegradable foodware? The Midrash tells us that when God created the first human beings, God led them around the Garden of Eden and said: ‘Look at my works! See how beautiful they are—how excellent! For your sake I created them all. See to it that you do not spoil and destroy My world; for if you do, there will be no one else to repair it.”

Our Building Committee, led by Stacy Kohl, and our architect, Phillip Katz, have worked long and hard in creatively ensuring that our new building will have many green features. Now the opportunity is ours to see how we can carry on their work as we plan the use of our new building and its kitchen. Imagine, if you will, a group of our congregants gathering to begin to make these plans. It becomes a chance, if you will, to plant a tree, an opportunity for certain congregants to put on their masks first and then teach all the rest of us. Perhaps some of you will volunteer.

Yet one more lesson from those words at take-off. Secure your mask first and then assist the other person. The words now become a lesson for the rabbi to help all of us this day.

The apologies I need to make are many. To my wife, for never ever going to a movie without seeking sermonic inspiration. More seriously, to those of you who needed me—and I was not there for you; to those of you whose gatherings I missed, gatherings that were or should have been on my calendar; to those of you who were sick or ill or confined at home or in a facility who felt neglected because of my absence; to those of you for whom my words were inappropriate and or for whom my silence was deafening; to those of you whose words I misheard or misunderstood, who came in search and I misled. I need to put on that mask first and go to them seeking forgiveness. Yet, as I do, let me help you put your masks on. And you can do the same. Go to those you have hurt. Apologize to them for all you have done wrong. In so doing, we help God write that book, the book of life. So, instead of silence, let us hear this room fill with words—words that write the book. As we do, may we all be sealed in that Book of Life.


Tue, June 18 2024 12 Sivan 5784