Sign In Forgot Password

Yom Kippur morning  sermon

09/19/2018 01:00:33 PM


Rabbis Allison Berry and Laura J. Abrasley

Rabbis Abrasley and Berry delivered the Yom Kippur  5779 morning sermon as a series of six letters on Sept. 19, 2018.

Dear Zayde,
Your trunk is made from cedar and has black leather straps. The leather is now worn and cracked, but the wood is still in good condition. Your trunk lives in my basement wedged between boxes of baby clothes and old picture albums.

Over 100 years ago, you and the trunk left a little town in Russia, never to return. When you departed the land of your parents and grandparents to make a new life, I wonder if you ever looked back?

In my favorite musical, Hamilton, composer Lin Manuel Miranda writes, “What is a legacy? It’s planting seeds in a garden you never get to see. I wrote some notes at the beginning of a song someone will sing for me. America, you great unfinished symphony, you sent for me. You let me make a difference. A place where even orphan immigrants can leave their fingerprints and rise up..." (1)

Zayde - you lived in a world where there was no safety or space for nostalgia, softness or even memory. I write you this letter because I am the one who can glance back. I am the singer of the songs you composed. I am your legacy. And today, I wonder, what will be mine?

You arrived in America and became a Hebrew teacher. In your photos you no longer wear Kippah or Tzitzit. You wear a suit and formal expression as you marry my beloved great-grandmother, Esther.

Your obituary, published in August, 1935 in the Worcester Telegram reads, “Rebbe Smith represented a line of “rebbes” whose influence on the minds and education of Jewish youth was most marked at a time when immigration to this country was at its height.” It continues, “The picture of “Rebbe” Smith seated at the head of the table, one eye following the text, and the other watching to see that everyone was studying and not misbehaving...will never vanish from our memory.” (2)

Zayde, your daughter, my grandmother, who is now 97 years old, speaks of you with longing and love. She recalls with sadness and regret that you taught the Holy Hebrew tongue only to boys. So unbeknownst to you, she hid in the pantry and listened to your lessons in secret.

So what do you make of me, Zayde, standing here on the bimah this morning a teacher of Hebrew - a “rebbe” of your generation - a holder of the texts and letters of our tradition? Would you turn your eye to me, and approve of this synagogue, and this life I have chosen? Would you celebrate this moment as I step up to lead Temple Shalom?

I’m not sure you could imagine our vibrant Jewish community today. Men and women study side by side. Girls read from Torah. I even went to Israel this summer to fight for the right for women to pray alongside men at the Western Wall.

I hope you would approve-- Nana says you would…I know I will make you proud.

With respect,
Your loving great-grandaughter

(obituary is of Rabbi Berry's grandfather, "Rebbe" Smith, from the Worcester Telegram, 1935)

Dear Nanny,
An image of you has been floating around in my head. It was the very last time I saw you, a few weeks before you died.

You were home, as you requested; the hospice nurse out of the room. Your 3-year-old great-grandson Noah and I were in your big bed while you slept in the rented hospital bed next to us. Noah was squirmy. Not content to lay still with me. I looked up just in time to watch him get into your bed. In one glorious moment, I saw my future merge into my past, snuggled together content and giggling. I so wished he had more time with you.

I loved being your first grandchild. The first to escape to your house for sleepovers, ice cream and generous helpings of support. I came to treasure your advice.

Writing this letter is so bittersweet. What I really wish is that I could send you an invitation to my upcoming installation as co-senior rabbi of Temple Shalom. You, out of every member of our family, would be so thrilled with the news of my success.

You always supported my dream of becoming a rabbi. You never doubted my abilities. You reminded me I stood on strong, resilient family shoulders. I wonder if you knew those shoulders belonged to you?

In 1939, you escaped Germany to begin a new life in Houston, Texas of all places. You were fifteen years old. An immigrant forced to leave a comfortable, well-to-do life when your parents realized that even their influential, politically connected friends could not save you from the Nazis. You made straight A’s in your new high school even though you could barely speak English. You encouraged me to develop similar strong study habits. I still read with a dictionary close by. Whenever I look up a word, I think of you.

You taught me to love travel and theatre. And to put family first. You gently warned me about the dangers of assimilation and anti-Semitism. “There are those that hate indiscriminately. Be proud of your Judaism.”

I know your thoughtful advice will serve me well as I step up to lead this congregation with my friend and rabbinic partner in crime, Rabbi Allison Berry.

We are two strong women working in sacred partnership. Honoring the past. Innovating for the future.

We follow the smart advice of women who we admire, like you. We love our community. We study late into the night. We laugh often and do not shy away from difficult decisions. We remember to make time for our beloved families. And we believe in ourselves.

Any chance I can swing by for a burger and your keen listening ear? I’ll bring yours from that place you like. And I’ll make sure it has only mustard, pickles and fried onions.

I know we will make you proud. I miss you every single day!


p.s. You would really like Allison. She sings showtunes in her car!

(Above photo is of Rabbi Abrasley's grandparents Harry and Ellen)

Dear Noah,
I promised myself I would never become one of those rabbis who tells stories about their children for the sake of a sermon. And yet, this letter is for you. So here goes …

It happened in the most casual of circumstances. An ordinary, busy morning in our house. Our conversation turned to your new school. You asked about the Jewish classes you’d be taking. I remember saying:

“Well, you’ll have t’fillah - prayer - every morning. A class on Tanach, the Hebrew Bible. Oh, and you learn to read Hebrew. Which will help you prepare for your Bar Mitzvah in a few years.”

And then you made the most remarkable statement. One that I doubted I heard correctly until Mommy confirmed it later.

“That’s good,” you replied. “Because I might want to follow in your footsteps.” (pause)

Nothing, my sweet, earnest boy, would make me happier than to have two Rabbi Abrasleys in our family. I might suggest you start on this career path a bit earlier than I did. And if I can be so bold, here are a few additional pieces of advice:

Number 1: A good rabbi listens. A prayer I know you love reminds us of this trait. Shema Yisrael Adonai Eloheinu Adonai Echad. Many people translate it: Hear O Israel, Adonai is our God, Adonai is one.

But I prefer to translate the word Shema” as “listen” as opposed to “hear” While both of these verbs are appropriate, one makes more sense for rabbis. The verb “listen” requires our active concentration whereas “hearing” happens by chance. A rabbi listens first. To her congregants. To her community. To Jewish history. To God.

Piece of advice number two: A good rabbi learns all day, every day, from everyone who crosses her path.
Rabbis must model the value of lifelong learning. Open to new experiences and unexpected perspectives.

Useful-advice-should-you-decide-to-enter-the-rabbinate number three: A great rabbi is a visionary leader ready to take her congregation on a sacred journey.

Judaism’s story is filled with visionary leaders. Some names you know: Moses. Miriam. Hannah. Some you will learn about soon. Maimonides. Abraham Joshua Heschel. Sally Priesand.

These were and are people who were bold and resilient, willing to venture into the unknown. They wanted to be part of something greater than themselves. Our people thrive today in part because of this long line of risk takers who reimagined Judaism over the centuries. And yes, risks are scary but oh so worth it.

Noah, may I offer one more piece of advice before I sign off on this letter? No matter what direction your blessed life takes you, know that the Jewish people need you. And not because you are the future of Judaism but because you are its powerful present.

Bring your best self to Judaism. Be like the Biblical character whose name you share. “Noach ish tzadik tamim hayah b’dorotav. Et haElohim hithalech Noach. Noah was a righteous man, blameless in his generation. Noah walked with God.”

Noah, you are my bright star. You will grow and become whoever you are supposed to be. Mommy and I will love you always.

I love you!

Dear Micah and Zachary,
Today, as we observe Yom Kippur, this most sacred day of the Jewish year, Rabbi Abrasley and I stand together on the Bima. Today we are a team. The first women rabbis in America to lead a large congregation together. We are the unfulfilled dream of your great-grandmothers, who never learned Hebrew nor read from the Torah but loved Judaism with their whole hearts.

Boys, I love being a rabbi. I am lucky to bear witness to the most important moments in people’s lives - sometimes happy and sometimes very sad. One of the most meaningful parts of this calling is when I open the door of our tradition and make it accessible. I know I’m adding to Jewish life, when I say yes and welcome to interfaith couples, when I teach a B’nai Mitzvah student with a disability to sign the words of Shema, and when I connect a lonely seeker to a Jewish text that brings them meaning and comfort. I couldn’t imagine doing anything else. My wish for you as you grow, is that you too will discover your Jewish voice.

Micah and Zachary, my hope for you is not necessarily that you will be a Jewish scholar or a rabbi (I think one of those in our family might be enough!), rather that you will be a literate Jew and that you will love our traditions.

Whenever I pass the wall of Confirmation pictures in Temple Shalom’s hallway, I see you up there. I can’t wait for you and all of your friends to join the ranks of these smiling young men and women who have stood on this bima and affirmed their respect for our roots, and history, and values.

My two kind, caring and inquisitive children, do not be afraid to ask hard questions. Jewish tradition teaches that we should never accept the status quo. It is when we ask questions that we open our minds to other points of view. Have the courage to listen to the answers. In this way you will lead us in building a better world.

May you come to love Israel as much as I do--the land, the language, the people, the history and (of course) the food.  I'm not sure how you will accomplish this — it sounds simple, but advocating for Israel is a complicated task. I know you can and will navigate these waters.

As you grow, most importantly, always be a mensch. According to the rabbis the entire world is sustained by gemilut hasidim--acts of loving kindness. There has been a lot of sibling rivalry in our house this year, and dad and I are constantly reminding you to be kind. My wish for you on Yom Kippur, is to understand that kindness begins when you let go of small and sometimes large hurts. Be gentle and forgiving not only to others but to yourself. Let’s strive together as a family to cultivate kindness, not hold grudges, to always say we are sorry --and mean it!

Micah and Zach, wherever you go, whatever you do, may you wake up each day with a sense of gratitude and hope. I too will strive to live these values and be a loving mom. Sometimes I will stumble, and sometimes succeed. I know you will stand proudly with me.

Today and every day, I remind you of this blessing: Heyeh asher tihyeh — veheyeyh barukh ba'asher tihyeh. Be who you are — and may you be blessed in all that you are.” (3)

Boys, you are our legacy. The Jewish future is bright. I love you both. Mom.

Dear Laura,
I haven’t had the chance to share this story with you - as you know, Micah, who is eight, likes to come to Shabbat services with me. This summer, we were walking into the temple when he stopped and said, “Mom, I love your job.” Of course, I assumed, he loved my job because he gets to eat unlimited treats at oneg. However, he quickly set me right. He shared, “Mom, I love that you get to do something that helps people. I love that you get to work with Rabbi Abrasley and that both of you are doing something no team of women have ever done. You make me proud.”

Laura - I agree whole-heartedly with Micah. I am proud to work with you. I am proud you are my friend and colleague. I am proud of this community who saw the potential in both of us and embraced a new model of - as a friend puts it - horizontal hierarchy. I am proud that our three boys are watching and they see their moms standing tall.

I know we will each bring our strengths to Temple Shalom - we will be responsible for our own portfolios, and work in partnership on particular projects. You will fulfill your pieces of the work with integrity and kindness, as will I. I ask your forgiveness for the mistakes I will make and the times I will falter. I know you will be patient when I am impatient. And thank you for that. Sometimes we will cry together and there will be times we will laugh and find joy in our shared belief that Jewish life can lift us up and create meaning when times are tough. I know we will encourage each other, and the community around us to dig deeper, and simply put to be better.

Laura, when we look to the future, there are so many goals I know we can achieve. We will need a broad and large plan to get there - but together with the congregation we can accomplish so much.

We are ready to experiment with new modalities for prayer; new classes to teach. The list of possibilities grows along with my excitement when I think about next year’s synagogue renovation. Imagine drop-down screens on either side of us that project art designed to enhance our prayers, an accessible bimah, new seating, and a reimagined social hall where we can truly celebrate as a community.

We will have the honor and privilege of watching the children of Temple Shalom grow and take their place as the next generation of thinkers and leaders. Maybe even one or two of the kids here will become rabbis or cantors...Just saying...

Together we will support and learn from our incredible staff. And--this is so very important, I know how much we will learn from the founding generations and boomers of this congregation who are so dedicated to Temple Shalom’s growth and success.

Laura, we are only the third generation of Jewish women allowed to become rabbis. Neither of us take our professional achievements for granted. We have worked very hard. Thank you for agreeing to take this leap. Thank you for believing in me. I am certain of my belief in you.

At this sacred moment, we stand on the shoulders of generations of Jewish women - of Regina Jonas, Rabbi Sally Priesand, Rabbi Sandy Sasso, and my friend, Rabbi Debra Newman Kamin. They are women who changed the world. They are our models and guides. May we endeavor to be numbered among them.

With appreciation,

Dear Allison,
According to Wikipedia’s page on friendship, (I know, it’s a ridiculous place to get any real information – feel free to mock me later), a“friendship is a relationship of mutual affection between people. It is a stronger form of interpersonal bond than an association.” (4) 

Sometime over these last 18 months while we were working together, we went from supportive colleagues to real friends. We built an honest friendship and collaborative partnership as we began to carve out our vision of what an intentional, radically inclusive Jewish community could look like here.

What a privilege to work with you every day! I am so proud of our commitment to this congregation’s sacred history. It allows us to boldly dream about a dynamic future.

Our relationship is not incidental. We are taught that Jewish text is best studied in pairs, called chavruta. You know this Hebrew word, in its root form, means friend. Our tradition encourages, dare I say prefers, this study method. According to rabbinic teachings, Jewish ideas comes to life when a pair engages collectively to understand ancient words. They work together to claim these teachings as their own. The Talmud praises this method, noting, “Two scholars sharpen one another.” (5) Clearly, Temple Shalom agrees! How wonderful my favorite chavruta is now just around the corner from my office!

Allison, as co-senior rabbis we have a transformative journey ahead of us. I am confident that together with our talented professional staff and committed lay leaders we will design and implement an amazing ‘who, what, where, when, why and how’ strategic plan.

We’ll ask questions like:

What does innovative, participatory worship style look like?

Where can our community fulfill the mitzvah (commandment) to pursue justice and effect meaningful change in our world?

How do we best infuse Jewish values and teachings into relevant, hands-on, creative Jewish learning for all ages?

One last Jewish text for the journey. From Pirkei Avot. “Aseh l’cha rav, ke’neh l’cha chaver – Make for yourself a rabbi, acquire for yourself a friend.” (6) Rabbi Berry, you are my rabbi, my friend. You teach me. You challenge me. You make me laugh. You make me a better rabbi.

May we be blessed to be rabbis, and more importantly friends, for many years to come.

With love and admiration!

1. Hamilton: An American Musical. By Lin-Manuel Miranda, directed by Thomas Kail, 21 Apr. 2016, Richard Rodgers Theatre, New York, NY. Specific lyrics from song, “The World Was Wide Enough.”

2. See photo of obituary below: Worcester Telegram, 1935.
3. Marcia Falk's blessings excerpted from The Book of Blessings: New Jewish Prayers for Daily Life, the Sabbath, and the New Moon Festival, Harper 1996, © 1996 Marcia Lee Falk.
5. BT Ta’anit 7a
6. Pirkei Avot 1:6

Sun, November 17 2019 19 Cheshvan 5780