April 13, 2024 -

Candlewicks Waiting To Be Lit

This sermon, Candlewicks Waiting To Be Lit, was shared by Rabbi Robert Nosanchuk at the March 15, 2024 Shabbat Service, after the historic vote to merge by members of Anshe Chesed Fairmount Temple and The Temple-Tifereth Israel.

 

It’s not just Shabbat. It’s the 6th of Adar. From here to the Adar II 14, the clergy, teachers and teens on our two Beachwood bimahs will lead raucous Purim celebrations. There’s nothing like Jews and Purim, a holiday during which I can be found smack talking the merits of Purim hamantashen over Chanukah latkes. Why? Because hamantashen are better! Also, Purim commands us to lighten up and find levity. Anguish is forbidden, despite a narrative featuring a monstrous Haman throwing a symbolic rope to us, to hang us from the gallows. It’s hard to resist the Purim villain and not grab the end of the rope tethering us to Haman, Hitler, Hussein, Hamas, or whoever’s next.

The forces who want us dead are supported today by winds of hostility against Jews. Israel is responding with a ferocity to back up its value of self-determination. Jews worldwide are coping with the trauma of hostage-taking, murder, mutilation and assault added to the missiles aimed at Jews, missiles funded by nations who intended their resources be used to bring aid to many innocent Palestinians in Gaza caught up in war. Purim faces long odds in getting laughter. Like no moment ever in my lifetime, antisemites on the right and left have yucked the yum of my celebrating Purim miracles.

This holiday is supposed to help us recall our escape from harm. But escape from harm in this moment just doesn’t seem plausible. Megillat Esther itself records antisemitic lies spewed by a chief lieutenant to the Persian King, who says: “There’s a certain people, scattered among us…whose laws differ. These people do not obey the King; and it’s not in the King’s interest to tolerate them.” [1]

The King believes these ugly aspersions, ignoring that Haman offered no details to back up his malevolence. Why offer evidence when propaganda more effectively stirs up consuming rage? No, Haman grabs power by lying about Jews. It works. After all, Jews at his time were largely assimilated into the majority Persian culture. They were invited to exclusive royal celebrations and decadent feasts. Jews held positions of prominence in commerce.

That’s why Mordecai demanded we not bow to Haman! For he knew the tempting freedom [2] that beckoned Jews to deeper commitment to their Persian culture than their Jewish heritage. Ultimately, Mordecai would dramatically plead with fellow Jews of his time to take responsibility to kindle Jewish light and hope. He admitted that whether he liked it or not, a new era had risen. The world changed. Rather than sit in denial, he imagined a new light-filled path that might help our heritage to endure. For Mordecai believed there are historical moments in which our lives are placed to bring about redemption and avert oppression.

I applaud the composers of Esther who believed Jews are on earth for redemption. It is in scriptural teaching we find signs of loyalty to one’s community co-existing with fidelity to a proud heritage. The Torah demonstrates how imagination, patience, and courage are what make that work.

If these values sound familiar, they should. Just last week, our two temple presidents, Beth Dery and Michele Krantz, who themselves should be praised for imagination, patience, and courage, thanked the hundreds of members who voted concerning the proposal to unify our temples. In overwhelming numbers, your votes determined that our tomorrow must be different than today. Beth and Michele and every past president of each of our temples know how passionate we are in commitment to the values of tiferet (glory) and chesed (kindness). They know the depth of connection we have to our spiritual homes. But while these terms animated our history, the exploration teams led by Julie Raskind and Ken Hochman, believed that our members, like it or not, realize that a new era has risen, with challenges and opportunities.

How did the era change? Well, for the longest stretch of time, our two temples were led by singular clergy leaders towering over our communities with influence. But the era changed. Our communities long ago left behind that focus on iconic singular leaders at the top of the organization. What has shined brightest in recent decades is when our lay leaders have partnered with clergy to be catalysts, helping members of our congregational families to be both thoroughly modern and totally committed to a fulfilling practice of Judaism.

Look around! If you’re praying online, look back in your memory to the last time you prayed in this chapel at The Temple-Tifereth Israel or in our chapel at Fairmount Temple. You are all part of what has been best in Jewish Cleveland. Individually you’ve faced challenges with your optimism and creativity. Throughout history, you’ve learned the power of honest soul-searching. In the last several months, you’ve approached the proposal of founding a new congregation with gravity and respect. You’ve listened critically to our clergy vision of a Mishkan Or, a dwelling place of light. You’ve also told us with clarity that inspirational Hebrew phrases, while rich in meaning, aren’t a definitive statement about what your community and your Jewish values stand for in your life.

For many of you, it was at Silver’s Temple or Brickner’s Temple or Lelyveld’s Temple, you first found your point of inspiration. You don’t have to let that go! Just because our communities have resoundingly voted for change doesn’t mean you have to set aside the inspiration you once felt at Silver’s Temple on Ansel Road, or Brickner’s Temple on Euclid or Skovill Avenue or on Eagle Street. Just walk with us. Walk forward with your clergy and we’ll traverse an incredible trail we can blaze in the months and years ahead.

This is not a game of “follow the leader.” We want you at our side! Eight days before Purim, eight days after a transformational vote to merge, I have a privilege. I’m a guest at Silver’s Pulpit but inside Sebo’s Temple. This is also Dadoun’s Temple, Klein’s Temple, and Block’s Temple. Soon, these clergy whose names I’ve honored, will join efforts with us and our staff teams as partners in repairing the world as it is seen at Muhlbaum’s Temple, Caruso’s Temple, Lapin’s Temple and Sager’s Temple.

Don’t get me wrong! Our new temple will not be known by any single leader’s signature. Nor are we intent to only focus on new programs and initiatives. This will be Ganon Gil’s Temple and the temple featuring the Maltz Museum and Performing Arts Center. It will also be the temple that years ago, embraced the Chevrei Tikvah LGBT Community. It will also be the community kitchen’s temple and the temple that identifies Dr. King’s January holiday each year as sacred, high and holy as any Jewish festival.

What I’m trying to say is that we’ll bring the best of what we know on this new venture. For we are your inaugural clergy team, and you are our founding members. But each of us must learn to take new paths together to make as deep an impact as we want on Jewish life. At Congregation Mishkan Or, we intend to do so with unprecedented outreach to millennials and Gen Z, who are a very taken-for-granted generation in Jewish life. We also intend to help every generation raise its commitment to learning and leadership training and assessment and evaluation.

Our new congregation can help spiritual practice flourish. But just as Mordecai, we also believe the Jewish community has a unique message. Yes, the message includes levity when it is Purim! But we’ll also seek out abundant joy in celebrating secular simchas. Congregation Mishkan Or expects to beam with light the next time Cleveland players chase a pennant, hoist an NBA trophy, or put Super Bowl rings on the Browns’ fingers.

If it seems like I’m dreaming, that’s because I am living a dream! How so? First, I live with the greatest woman alive, Joanie Berger! Second, my children are honest and soulful people whom I’ll love and admire forever. And…I’m alive. Alive! I get to do work that is valuable to me. I am a rabbi with a clergy team and staff, who will now grow in talent and skill and depth and with our new team in place, I believe we’ll win multiple championships. The clergy around me in particular have been sources of courage and vision. They’ve reminded me how since I first learned to take Reform Judaism personally, I’ve been drawn to the Hebrew prophets. I want to do whatever it takes to help “justice roll down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.” [3]

In every community I’ve served, the best people with whom to walk into such mighty streams of righteousness have been my interfaith allies.

In Cleveland, due to the visionary leadership of Rabbi Josh Caruso, we have deep allyship within the GCC, the Greater Cleveland Congregations.

Because of the work of Rabbi Muhlbaum, we enter our new congregation led by the key rabbi and force to be reckoned with in Cleveland’s incredible Freedom of Choice coalition. She is also an outstanding leader within the abortion access network of Ohio’s Religious Action Center. With hundreds of volunteers, I am confident our we can envision a world repaired and then with our allies, repair it!

Recently I heard Rabbi Yael Dadoun speak at this pulpit about not shrinking our Judaism when we walk for justice. The room was captivated by her vision and how she addressed this contemporary challenge. Similarly I watched the link to Rabbi Klein’s Rosh Hashanah remarks and have since heard him continue to reflect on the dialectic between holding onto tradition and also engage in substantive change including partnering in creating a new temple.

In November, I was moved to join our wonderfully inspired leader Cantor Lapin and his predecessor, the incredible Cantor Laureate Sager, at the concert benefit in Cleveland raising support for emergency care in a State of Israel battered with trauma. The day this fall when that concert occurred, Cleveland was graced that Cantor Sebo is its native daughter. She was placed in that moment like Esther in her time, taking the lessons of Purim to heart. In the shadow of threats on us, we still sing in vibrancy and unity.

I am so moved by these teammates, and hundreds I’m meeting with at living room conversations. You all give me hope! Together we can engage in unparalleled advocacy to secure peace in a safe and Jewish State of Israel. This should be a twin commitment with our efforts to confront hatred and indifference. Fighting hatred means both protecting the hurt that hateful conduct causes. But it also means fighting the face of indifference and hatred when it is the face looking back at us in the mirror. This is because Jews are often complicit in systems that harm others who are vulnerable..

Am I nervous to raise up such a sensitive concern tonight? Yes, I am! But is it part of an important agenda for our community? Also, yes! Steadying me are the wise teachers and devoted laity of our new congregation. I get to be on their team and the honor of leadership as the first Senior Rabbi of Congregation Mishkan Or. One day, when I’ve completed my career, I want to be part of this community as a congregant, led by many of my current work colleagues. While I know that it is unusual to name such a dream aloud, tonight that plan is the essence of what is in my heart. And…we have to speak with and confide in one another. We have an opportunity before us to do this honestly and with great deliberation. But this is our shot. Let’s not throw away our shot! Beginning this July, we get to be the first group who will pray in our light-house, our Mishkan Or, a radically inclusive congregation, a place where our pulpit will be and has been free for teachers and guests to speak the truth as they see it.

If that sounds ambitious to you, good! It is! We didn’t propose to merge because we were forced. No, the bravest part of the expert leadership of Julie Raskind and Ken Hochman was that before any of this exploration got under way, each living past president of The Temple-Tifereth Israel and Anshe Chesed Fairmount Temple gathered. Individually, they acknowledged what I want to verify right now. It is this: for a long time, our two temples acted as competitors. Honestly, that competitive instinct worked for a time.  But our most dedicated temple leaders realize that it is no longer what serves us! It is simply no longer a relatable paradigm suited to inform a vibrant sustainable future.

Acknowledging that truth is very difficult. It carries ramifications. But as we have multiple times before, our temples have courage. Why shouldn’t they? After all, together, they represent two congregations which have been places intent on transforming the world to be more fair and just. Look back on me to the leaders of The Temple-Tifereth Israel when they hired Rabbi Abba Hillel Silver in 1917 and supported his grand vision of a future state of Israel, and his passionate commitment to Zionism that ran counter to the culture established here by Rabbi Gries and within the  Reform Jewish movement. The significance of Rabbi Silver’s counterparts at Fairmount Temple, have helped us to develop programs whose significance stands out in history. Under five years later, TTTI’s decision influenced Anshe Chesed to hire our first Zionist Rabbi Barnett Brickner.

Rabbi Brickner, locally, and Rabbi Silver, internationally, symbolized Cleveland’s lasting reputation. Our community in Cleveland is a place in which Jews light new paths and face hard truths. Our temples have long been striving in various ways to see the trajectory of careers that began in congregational advocacy and the organizing of power. For more than a century after tenaciously seeking a more secure homeland for Jews and a freer U.S. for people of all backgrounds must be secured.

As we in the U.S. face reports of spiking anti-Jewish sentiment, it should give us confidence when we remember how Beachwood, OH, in the 50s didn’t want temples to be built here. But the Anshe Chesed leaders of that generation fought back! They took religious freedom seriously and they fought to build a temple on Fairmount Boulevard all the way to the Ohio Supreme Court. I am so grateful to serve in the community that paved such a path. I’m also grateful for how our Fairmount Temple community responded to Rabbi Lelyveld when he shared that if anyone, it should be Jews willing to stand as allies against segregation and racism embedded in the structure of society.

Also, during Rabbi Leylveld’s era, one of the things that transformed our community was his belief in the power of music to transform ordinary prayers into sublime communications with the Eternal. Most important to fulfilling that vision was in 1980 when Rabbi Lelyveld met Cantor Sarah J. Sager and offered her the opportunity to bake from scratch the first of two incredible eras in our cantorate. A decade and a half after Cantor Sager arrived in Cleveland, The Temple-Tifereth Israel similarly placed their investment in sacred Jewish music as central to their spiritual life. They placed that responsibility into the big heart of their first Cantor Kathy Wolfe Sebo. We all should be so grateful to both Cantor Laureate Sager and Cantor Sebo, two leaders who model deep and abiding commitment to spiritual and humane wisdom. Cantor Sager and Cantor Sebo also know how to get new initiatives moving in Cleveland, and I’m thrilled they are here with us!

Since it became public that we were contemplating partnership, so many have reached out to ask me what values made this vision come to fruition. I’ve responded with words familiar to you, but not from the Torah.  The words are: “In Northeast Ohio, nothing is given, everything is earned. You work for what you have.”

It was (“Rabbi”) LeBron James saying this a few years back. But LeBron wasn’t talking about radical transformation. He was saying: “I’m coming home.”  Last week, 94% of our votes were from folks who said: “Yes. I’m ready for radical transformation, I think.” I say that because I believe you voted in such overwhelming numbers, guided by the knowledge that whether we like it or not, a new era has risen.

Responding to a proposal for a new setting for congregational life, with new partners and new vision and new resources, your votes said to me: “I’m coming home.” The home we both yearn to come back to is one that sees and accepts us. It is, I pray, a home intent on reaching every generation. Our home in our new Congregation Mishkan Or will sometimes face challenges that force us to take a longer route in our travels. This is especially true when we face storms that frighten or block us.

But just ask yourself: how does one get home when sailing on tumultuous stormy waters? You build a lighthouse, a Mishkan Or! You let the light from that house guide your path. That requires courage, perhaps in our case we can consider the courage we find in the legacy of the founding members of Anshe Chesed and Tifereth-Israel. They had plenty of courage. But you can’t simply win such courage as your own by gazing at the people in your history. No, you must look forward! You must look for the lighthouse and let it guide you to where you must yet go: home!

20th century Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote: “living as a Jew means feeling the soul in everything, in others and in our own existence.” [4] That’s what I need from you: to feel the soul of this incredible moment. History has shown us that Haman was hardly the last to throw us a rope to hang us. So many others have come after him, and we’ve survived them all. But to what end? So that we could feel the soul in everything, in others and in our own existence!

Rabbi Heschel said that the soul of each Jewish person is a “candlewick waiting to be lit… Like candlewicks, so do we wait for a flame holding a slight bit of pure intention, a grain of refinement. In each of us flickers a longing for Shabbatness, for beauty, for serenity.” [5]  When I think about how Rabbi Heschel and his Torah were saved by a Reform Jewish movement [6] striving to doing something to help keep Hitler from killing Judaism along with six million Jews, that makes me take Heschel’s message about candlewicks even more personally.

Rabbi Heschel’s teachings, especially to clergy ordained in the Reform and Conservative movement, were highly influential. His passionate articulation of Jewish ideals and values moved and in a way, deputized disciples to carry on leading in his spirit, after his life ended. Similarly, in the Book of Numbers Moses realized he needed successor leaders. At God’s instruction he asked people he trusted around him, just as I will, beginning July 1, ask all of my clergy teammates to help me to govern and guide and coach up our community when it is weary in sojourns ahead in our wilderness. If you examine Moses’ action in Torah, you see that his commissioning of disciples and partners investing in their spirit. He affected the passing of some of his authority to them by bringing his torch to light their torches. I would even go so far as to say: Moses himself became a Mishkan Or M’at in the Book of Numbers. He became “a small dwelling place of light.” For it was Moses who allowed the Holy One’s radiance to exude from his own beaming complexion. He didn’t seek out the mission of his life. But when it became clear what he was responsible to do, Moses became the Torah’s best exemplar of conducting oneself in quiet, humble, lonely moments, when no one sees us. In those quiet, humble moments, Judaism demands us to act responsibly. We are bidden to realize that even a modest bush on our path might suddenly feel the heat of burning flames, the way it did for Moses. He didn’t know it until God told him. But Moses was standing on holy ground!

It’s important for us to realize that such holy experiences as the ones that happened for Moses didn’t only occur in ancient history. No, it was modern essayist Annie Dillard in her book, For the Time Being, who so beautifully explained that it is not too late for us to touch and feel the Most High. Ms. Dillard writes: “The absolute is available to everyone in every age. There never was a more holy age than ours, and never a less.”

Deep in my soul, I believe Annie Dillard. I believe her because at an important moment in my life, a rabbi who entered it changed me in immeasurable ways. I had an incredible rabbi growing up who became a mentor that literally showed me how to touch and experience holiness when I needed it most in my life. My Rabbi’s name is Dannel Schwartz, and as I grew from teenage into adulthood, Rabbi Schwartz became a protective second father to me. His coaching and mentorship and ability to get in my face to guide my discernment of critical life decisions altered my outlook forever. That’s not even counting how many things he taught me in classes and services!

Rabbi Schwartz once shared with me a story which demands of me to turn my life toward noble ideals and humane service. The story is one that, as legend would tell, happened years ago, on a dark night in a rural town. According to the way my Rabbi told me the story, there was a man in a car who felt he simply had to get where he wanted to go quickly. So rather than wait the extra time as the law required, the man took a chance and crossed a set of train tracks speedily, even though a train could be approaching. Spoiler alert: this turned out to be a fatal decision. A train struck his car and the driver was killed. But I promise: the story doesn’t end there!

You see, the driver’s widow sued the railroad company and her case concluded with the testimony of a key witness: a night watchman whose job was to wave a lantern at the crossing, to warn drivers of trains coming. The watchman testified telling the judge: “As the car approach from down the road, I took my lantern out of the booth. I went to the road. I waved my lantern back and forth.  The train came up and I waved my lantern to warn the car, but it just kept coming. It got closer. I waved. But the man driving to the tracks didn’t slow. I waved my lantern furiously, back and forth. But the driver went onto the tracks. He then said aloud in horror: “I saw that man killed by the train.”

When the testimony was finished, the plaintiff’s attorney walked toward the witness. He said: “I have just one question: was the lantern lit?” The watchman trembled and tears poured down his check. The question went unanswered, for his silence said it all. The one person whose job it was to guard the flame, he just didn’t know if it was still kindled.

Friends, it’s eight days before Purim in the second month of Adar in 5784. I’m telling you that story because I am afraid. I am afraid that it has been too long since someone truly guarded our flames. I know that we have carried our lanterns and carried the containers for our flames in a safe manner. Through study, prayer and activism, we’ve grabbed what generations before us handed down. I’m absolutely certain of that.

Just look at me! I’m standing tonight at Rabbi Abba Hillel Silver’s own pulpit!  Symbolically, I’m here to wave my lantern with great vigor. But, I have to tell you: there is also a train coming at me, and I need your help. Join me to be sure that thousands of candles, the ones you and your loved ones carry, will glow very soon against the darkness of our night sky. Please help us be sure the light in our light house stays kindled. Friends, it is critical that we shed light on a tumultuous world that needs our light. I believe we can protect the world from seeing again what we saw five months ago, a pogrom with the same deadly force as a train hitting us full-speed.  In founding this new congregation, I believe we can live up to our highest sense of human purpose, kindle the light in each of our lanterns and help thousands of souls radiate like a beacon, a beacon that helps us to find our way home. Friends, let’s go home, for in the safety of the space we are creating there, we can be sure to help the entire household of Israel, fill with light.

Rabbi Robert Nosanchuk

 

[1] Scroll of Esther 3:8

[2]Lazarus Kohn, teacher to the 19 Bavarian Jews who traveled from Untsleben, Bavaria to Cleveland and who founded the Anshe Chesed society (precursor to Anshe Chesed Fairmount Temple, used this phrase, “this tempting freedom” to raise his concern that the immigrants from Untsleben, Bavaria, would stay close to the religion of their ancestors. His letter said: “You are traveling to a land of freedom where the opportunity will be presented to live without compulsory religious education. Resist and withstand this tempting freedom and do not turn away from the religion of our fathers. Do not throwaway your holy religion for quickly lost earthly pleasures, because your religion brings you consolation and quiet in this life and it will bring you happiness for certain in the other life. (The entire letter from Lazarus Kohn is in a monograph posted by CSU’s Cleveland Memory Project at https://clevelandmemory.contentdm.oclc.org/digital/collection/general/id/6348/.)

[3] Amos 5:24

[4] These words of Rabbi Heschel are found in a book of his essays, Moral Grandeur and Spiritual Audacity, edited and published by his daughter Susannah Heschel.

[5] This quote is also from the book of Rabbi Heschel’s essays, Moral Grandeur and Spiritual Audacity.

[6] A program of the Hebrew Union College helped Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel have a sponsoring college in the United States to seek his scholarship and teaching which enabled him to escape death in the Holocaust had he stayed in Europe. For more insight on this aspect of the entire leadership of Rabbi Heschel, see this link: Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel: A Man of Peace.