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Saul Stern Cultural Series


JANUARY 13, 2006
What a night this has been! I cannot even begin to speak about it without thanking all those who so lovingly and thoughtfully prepared the Shabbat dinner before this service. I know more than a few people were involved all of whom would be impossible to list for fear of any omissions, but certainly I must mention my deepest appreciation to the Chairperson of the event, Sue Baum, to Carol Polinsky our chief gourmet caterer, and all their and to our president Roger Blau for his very warm and supportive words on my behalf. Actually, that’s a very fitting description of Roger’s entire contribution to this congregation for all of us as president – very warm, very caring and very supportive.
And even though he was unable to remain for this service, I cannot proceed without voicing the very deepest gratitude to Dr.Mel Raskin, even in his absence, who traveled here today from and to Miami just so he could share at least a part of this celebration, and I have rarely been more deeply touched, and I told him so, because he added a flavor to this event no one else could possibly duplicate. Mel Raskin was the leader of JCMI for almost as long as I have been here myself, and he is not even a rabbi. What finer tribute or example can there be to any person’s love and loyalty for Judaism?
And, of course, I cannt possibly complete this list without a singular word of deepest appreciation to Herb and Honey Soloway and to Roger for selcting such a splendid gift of sculpture for this occasion. As I mentioned to Roger, nothing, absolutely nothing, could be more fitting for me personally than a rabbi with a Kiddush cup!
This special Shabbat inevitably reminds me of another special Sabbath eve almost ten years ago here in this same place that was also designed for my benefit and Lenore’s. Then it was the first Shabbat together for all of us at JCMI, and it was intended to welcome Lenore and me into this JCMI family. We were ever so grateful then as we are now, and ever so mindful then as we are now of the singular quality of this congregation.
Then, of course, we were eager to succeed but totally unaware of what to expect, what the future might bring. I suspect that most of this membership was in the same predicament – eager to begin but not quite sure of where we were going. We were new to each other, much like a bride and groom after the wedding ceremony, pleased with each other butnot very certain of what to anticipate, or how it would all turn out.
Tonight, however, we celebrate a splendid record of achievement together. I think it is safe to say it has all turned out very favorably. I know at least it has for me and for Lenore.
But I believe it is also true for most of you as well. We have thought more, learned more and grown more together during these past ten years than we ever did before. We are a little older, but certainly at least a little wiser too, and we have strengthened each other more than a little both in times of joy as well as sorrow. We have made a difference in each other’s lives, and that is a distinction and privilege we could never acquire without a major expenditure of mind and heart.
And that is what has meant the most to me through all these ten years of our journey together. This is a unique congregation. It doesn’t exist anywhere else I know, at least not in exactly the same way.
Most congregations exist primarily for young families and their children. The emphasis is upon building the next generation and ensuring the future continuity of Judaism and Jewish life. Older adults may be part of that enterprise, but invariably they are an after-thought. “Oh, yes,” we often hear, “we also have programs for seniors as well.”
But here at JCMI we don’t have programs for seniors “as well.” Here seniors are all we have. What we do here at JCMI is also “building for the next generation,” but we do it by creating models of performance and observance for that next generation to follow. We don’t teach by telling younger people what to do; we teach by showing them what to do, by doing it ourselves. People come here to worship, to study and learn and celebrate not for their children’s sake, but for their own. And when they do, they send a powerful message that Judaism does not end in childhood, or even in young adulthood, that what happens tomorrow depends on what we do today and every day, that Jewish life is not just something to plan for in the future but to demonstrate here and now. And I revel in that distinction. It is part of what makes this place so unique.
I revel too in the “ruach,” the spirit, the emotional climate that suffuses and saturates JCMI. This is simply such a warm and pleasant place to be. I hear continually from guests and visitors almost every week that never have they found a synagogue so friendly and inviting. People act here, they say, almost as if they were part of the same family. And I always respond, “Actually, it’s even better than that, because in reality most actual families don’t act as well with each other as we do.”
Indeed, that attribute extends far beyond the membership of JCMI. It permeates the community as well. We are the ambassadors of Judaism to Marco Island and beyond. We have hosted and supported annual interfaith Thanksgiving services with our non-Jewish neighbors here. We have hosted and supported annual convocations to observe the anniversary of Krystalnacht under the auspices of the Catholic/Jewish dialogue and our own Jewish Federation of Collier County. We joined with other churches in a memorial service for the victims of 9/11 shortly after that calamity almost five years ago. We have always responded favorably every spring to the outstanding Holocaust memorial observance planned by the Roman Catholic diocese of Venice, Florida.
We have even organized a series of interfaith seminars with our friends at the United Church of Marco Island on the similarities and differences between Judaism and Christianity. Many of you have attended and contributed so splendidly.
And we have often served as warm and gracious hosts to a considerable number of non-Jewish visitors to our congregation periodically for Shabbat worship, and welcomed the opportunity to explain Judaism to them. We have filled a very obvious need in this interfaith community to understand and appreciate the significance of its Jewish roots. And we may be justly proud and pleased with the outcome of all our labor. We have made a major difference in improving the quality of inter-religious understanding for all our neighbors.
Maybe, however, the most enduring and enviable attribute of JCMI is not what we have done for others, but what we do for each other continually. I refer specifically to the respect, the kindness and consideration this congregation shows to its rabbi and its genuine appreciation for the challenge and demands of spiritual leadership.
I have served many people for many years in many ways as a congregational Rabbi. This coming June will mark my 44th year since ordination. I began my work as an assistant rabbi in Springfield Massachusetts in 1962 for two years. I then served my own congregation in Peabody, Massachusetts on the north shore of Boston for nearly five years. Then I questioned whether I really wanted to continue on this track, or whether I might prefer teaching Judaism on a university campus.
That’s when Lenore and I moved to Dayton, Ohio with our three small children where I continued at Temple Israel as its Director of Youth and Education while I also completed a program for my PhD in American Jewish history at Ohio State University.
When I finished, I decided my proper place was still in the pulpit, and so I accepted an appointment as rabbi of Congregation Ahavath Chesed in Jacksonville, Florida, where we remained for nearly 23 years.
Then we came here, and the rest, as they say, is history – our history together.
I mention this rabbinic journey only to emphasize that no matter where we ever lived before or what congregation I have ever served, nowhere and in no way have I ever found more loving, more caring and decent people than I have found here at JCMI.
The leadership of this congregation and everyone else as well have always showered me with every ounce of respect and support I could ever ask for. They have never failed to acknowledge the rabbi’s prerogative in religious affairs and even welcomed his judgment on other matters as well. In short, our level of trust and confidence in each other is one that most congregations envy and struggle to attain, but never actually achieve. We are truly blessed.
I would also be derelict in my responsibility in this context, if I did not state unequivocally as well my deepest and heartfelt gratitude to certain people here who have made my work so pleasant and so gratifying for all these years. I refer most especially to our cantorial soloist, Hari Jacobsen, who performs in such superlative fashion in so many ways, not just when I am here, but especially when I am not. She is without question one of our greatest human assets at JCMI, not just for her voice, but for her total, unqualified devotion to this congregation.
One additional, special person in this category is our accompanist Lucille Gaita. What Lucille does every week may not always trigger the superlative notice it always deserves, but when she is not here, we cannot help but notice her absence.
And, of course, I am forever thankful not just to our current superbly gifted president, Roger Blau, as I’ve already mentioned, but to so many other lay leaders of this congregation past and present who have been trusted allies and friends to me not just during their term of office, but ever since as well. One person who especially deserves special mention in that category is Bob Soloway who served as chairman of the Search Committee when Lenore and I first visited JCMI and sealed the shidach between us all. And our friendship has only blossomed and grown stronger and deeper from that very auspicious beginning.
Our sages once noted a long time ago, “Lo hamidrash hu ha-ikar ela hama-aseh,” – “What truly matters above all else is not what we may say, but what we actually do.” And what truly matters for me and Lenore through all these years is not what all of you may have said, but what all of you have done. Actions do indeed speak louder than words, and for this priceless gift, we shall forever be in your debt.
A – M – E - N

Rabbi Howard R. Greenstein
December 17, 2004

A sermon can serve any number of purposes. Sometimes it serves to educate, to broaden and deepen our level of knowledge. At other times, it may serve to inspire us on behalf of a worthy goal or cause or ideal. In any case, rabbis usually frame their sermons for the congregation and hope the message reaches their hearts as well as their minds. But every so often, I think rabbis compose a sermon primarily for themselves, because it's just something they need to say publicly for the record, even if nobody else listens.
I think my message tonight is in this latter category. I hope, of course, it may mean something to at least a few of you as well as me, but this sermon is mostly for me, so, for the next several minutes, if you want to read a book or listen to your walkman, I won't be offended.
The source for my subject tonight was prompted by a response from the social critic, Bill Moyers, to an award he received a couple of weeks ago. The honor was the Global Environment Citizen Award sponsored annually by the Center for Health and Global Environment at the Harvard Medical School. In presenting the award to Mr. Moyers, the actress Meryl Streep said, "Through resourceful, intrepid reportage and perceptive voices from the forward edge of the debate, Moyers has examined an environment under siege with the aim of engaging citizens."
Reverence for nature and the environment, of course, is nothing new in Judaism. In the very beginning, God tells Adam he will have dominion over all creation; Adam will be God's agent. And the Talmud adds that God told Adam not to neglect this responsibility in caring for the world, "for if you do," God warned, "There will be no one after you to set it right."
     For us then, ecology and the environment are religious issues. We even celebrate holidays like Sukkoth in the fall and Tu B'shevat in the early spring which consist entirely of planting trees and learning to live in harmony with nature.
     Clearly then Jews cannot be oblivious to the accelerating deterioration of the environment. The dangers are enormous, and not just because Bill Moyers or Harvard Medical School says so. Just about every respectable scientist says so. The greenhouse effect already shows signs of melting the Arctic icecap. It is releasing so much fresh water into the North Atlantic that even the Pentagon is worried that a weakening gulf stream could wreak havoc on current coastlines and radically alter our security requirements.
     But there is a far more ominous issue than just the environment. What Moyers tells us troubles him most (and what frankly troubles me most) is the ideology that governs official policy today in America. "One of the biggest changes in politics in my lifetime," he stated, "is that the delusional is no longer marginal. It has come in from the fringe, to sit in the seat of power in the White House and in Congress. For the first time in our history," he adds, "ideology and theology hold a monopoly of power in Washington."
     Let me add just a brief footnote here and remind you that Bill Moyers is no enemy of religion. He is an ordained minister. He was in fact for many years a church pastor in one of the mainline Protestant denominations before he turned to a career in public affairs. His growing alarm then about government being held hostage to faith is the apprehension of a social critic sympathetic to religion, not opposed.
     He knows as well as anybody else that when ideology and theology combine, their offspring are not always bad, but they are always blind. And there is the danger: both voters and politicians alike are oblivious to the facts."
     If the Gallup poll is accurate, one-third of the American electorate, that's nearly 40 million people, believe the Bible is literally true. Another astounding statistic is that several million voters in the last election believe in the "rapture index." You know what that is?  According to its own web site, the rapture index is designed to measure the type of activity that could serve as a forecast for the second coming of Christ. They have formulated a whole list of impending catastrophes all over the planet which will hasten the end of the world as we know it. In other words, the worse things can get, the closer we will come to the time when Jesus returns.
     A major pre-requisite for this Second Coming is the return of Israel to all its "Biblical lands," which includes, of course, the entire West Bank. Then the forces of the anti-Christ will attack Israel and trigger a final showdown in the valley of Armageddon. Jews who have not converted to Christianity are then incinerated, and the Messiah then returns for the rapture. That means true believers will be literally lifted out of their clothes wherever they are, at home - at work - even in their cars - and they are transported instantly to heaven. There they will be seated by the right hand of God while they watch their political and religious opponents suffer unspeakable afflictions during several long years of tribulation that follow.
     The followers of this faith declare solidarity with Israel, not because of what Israel stands for, but because of what they believe God requires. The invasion of Iraq was for them a "warm-up act."  War with Islam is not something to be feared but to be welcomed - an essential catastrophe on the road to final redemption. Right now the rapture index is over the top - beyond the critical threshold when the whole thing will blow, the son of God will return, the righteous will enter heaven and sinners will be condemned to eternal hellfire. These believers therefore insist with absolute conviction that environmental destruction is not only permitted but necessary as a sign of the coming apocalypse. What a fitting message I say for this seasonal spirit of "peace on earth, good will toward men."
     We are not speaking here about a small fringe group of lunatics either. This faithful band on the religious right has won the support of nearly half the U.S. Congress. 231 legislators are backed by the religious right, more since the last election. Forty-five senators, including the majority leader Bill Frist, and 186 members of the House, including Speaker Dennis Hastert,  have earned 80-100% approval ratings from the three most influential Christian right advocacy groups.
     In one of the history books this movement assigns for its schools, students are told "the secularist  has a limited resource mentality and views the world as a pie…that needs to be cut up so everyone can get a piece," but  "the (believing) Christian knows that the potential in God is unlimited and there is no shortage of resources in God's earth…while many secularists view the world as over-populated, Christians know that God has made the earth sufficiently large with plenty of resources to accommodate all of the people."  In short, don't worry about wasting our resources. God will always provide, in spite of the fact that millions of people everywhere are starving to death because of too many children and too little food.
     This increasing control of the religious right over the public agenda in this country is more than a little disturbing, but the battle is far from over. Indeed it has just begun. But it won't be finished until and unless we decide to fight.
     We need to fight for the future we want.  We need to fight for a government that is not held hostage to religion of any kind. The issue in America now is not freedom of religion. The issue is freedom from tyranny - religious tyranny or any other kind.
We need to fight for a public policy grounded in reason, not in fanciful flights of blind faith.
     We need to fight the outlandish claim that American values are the exclusive property of the religious right. To the contrary, the bigotry and intolerance of that movement is a shameful betrayal of those ideals, and we must not hesitate to say so.
     We need to fight for  a future that appeals to the best ideals that unite us, and not the worst fears that divide us. And we need to fight the outrageous notion that any nation, including this nation, can possibly know the will of God and even worse pretend its leader governs by God's favor.
     What we need to match these tenuous times is what our sages simply called, chochmah, genuine wisdom, the capacity to see, to feel and then to act as if the future depended on every single one of us. Because, believe me, dear friends, it does.   AMEN