Rabbi Nickerson's Shabbat Message - November 17, 2023

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Rabbi Nickerson's Shabbat Message - November 17, 2023

Hatikvah, the national anthem of our Jewish homeland, is translated as “The Hope.” The late Lord Rabbi Jonathan Sacks z”l wrote, “To be a Jew is to be an agent of hope in a world serially threatened by despair. Every ritual, every mitzvah, every syllable of the Jewish story, every element of Jewish law, is a protest against escapism, resignation, or the blind acceptance of fate. Judaism is a sustained struggle, the greatest ever known, against the world that is, in the name of the world that could be, should be, but is not yet. There is no more challenging vocation. Throughout history, when human beings have sought hope they have found it in the Jewish story. Judaism is the religion, and Israel the home, of hope.” Our children are another source of hope in our world. As adults, we carry much of the pain of what is happening right now with us all day, every day. But our children, even when they see glimpses of pain, tend to remain bright and hopeful. 

Recently, I was asked to speak to the student body at St. James Episcopal School, a K-6 school in Koreatown. We have a wonderful relationship with this community. Every year, their 6th graders visit our historic sanctuary and I speak to them about Judaism and our synagogue’s history. Our Brawerman East 6th grade class visits their beautiful sanctuary and speaks with their Rector, Rev. Dr. Kate Cress.

I attended their weekly chapel service this week, and it was the first time I have had the opportunity to speak to their entire student body. In a time when we, as Jews, feel so alone and isolated, this was an important opportunity to connect with our non-Jewish allies and share our story with them.  

How do you share what the Jewish community is experiencing right now with a predominantly non-Jewish audience and in a way that is age-appropriate for Kindergarten through 6th-grade students? You tell the truth, and you focus on hope. Below is my attempt to capture the essence of what I shared with the students of St. James Episcopal. I share it with you today because I think it is essential for each of us to find our own ways to share the current Jewish experience with our non-Jewish friends, colleagues, peers, and acquaintances. Yes, there are groups protesting in the streets and spewing hate on college campuses, but there are far more people who have little to say and even less understanding about what we’re all experiencing right now. Now is the time for us to connect, to educate, and to ask people outside of our community for their help and support. 

Speaking with their Head of School, Peter Reinke, before the service, he told me that he wanted me to share the Jewish experience with his students and that he empathized with what we are going through right now. He acknowledged how difficult it must be to speak about this with children. I stood in front of a sanctuary full of hopeful children, waiting to hear from a rabbi about our world. How do I share the truth and hold their hope in the same breath? After listening to a few beautiful hymns and hearing some readings led by several adorable young students, the Head of School introduced me. The following is my attempt to recreate what I shared with the next generation of allies and friends:

I want to tell you all a story. A long, long time ago, God spoke to Abraham and told him to leave everything he knew - his home, his family’s land, and to go to a new place; a place that was going to become the home of Abraham’s descendants - his children, his grandchildren, his great, great, great, great, great-grandchildren. Abraham went to this new place and it became his new home. That place was the land of Israel, and it has been the home of the Jewish people ever since. A little later on, the Jews became slaves in Egypt and they were ruled by a very evil man named Pharaoh. Pharaoh said, “These Jews are not good! We can’t let them succeed because if they do, they might want to rule over us and so we must keep them slaves!” That was the first time we learned that someone hated the Jewish people. And right now, we are sad and scared because even today, there are people who don’t want us to be here. On October 7th, there were people who tried to get rid of the Jews in Israel and they did bad things. Because of the ages of all of you, I’m not going to go into the details, but ever since then, the Jewish people have been scared and very sad. See, the Jewish people have two homes. We have our home in Israel, where we are from, and we have our home wherever else Jews live in the world.  

In a few weeks, we’re going to be celebrating a Jewish holiday that has to do with light. Does anyone know what that holiday is? Yes, Hannukah. Hanukkah is about another time when there were people who wanted to get rid of the Jewish people. They came and destroyed our Temple in Jerusalem thousands of years ago, but Jews don’t just stop and put our heads in our hands. We don’t just sit down and give up. You might have heard the story of the miracle of oil. The Jews wanted to light the lamp in the Temple (there wasn’t any electricity back then so they needed to use oil to light candles) and they only found a little bit of oil. They thought it would only last one night but it lasted for eight nights. That is one of the miracles of Hanukkah. But even more important than the idea of the oil lasting for eight nights, what’s most important about that story is that the Jews didn’t give up. They had hope. In Hebrew, the word for ‘hope’ is 
tikvah. It’s actually the name of the Israeli national anthem. Jews always have hope, even when things are dark. See, Hannukah takes place at the darkest time of the year. Just like right now, things are feeling really dark and scary for the Jewish people. We’re having a really hard time. But even when it’s really dark, we don’t give up. We have the holiday of Hannukah that reminds us that even when things are really dark, we need to bring light into the world. And that’s why we need you.

Did you know that Jews are only 0.2% of the world’s population? That’s less than 1% of the entire world! We are such a small group and we haven’t survived this long without having friends who are not Jewish standing by our side. That’s why we need you. We are all made in the image of God, that’s what the Bible teaches us in the very beginning - that God made humans in the image of God. Everyone deserves to have a home, right That’s why it’s so hard for us right now because there are people who don’t think we should have a home and there are people who don’t think we should be here. So we need you. Even when it’s very dark, we have to find the light and we need you to help us bring more light into the world. Thank you for helping us.

Following my remarks, as I sat back down, two young girls came up to the microphone and sang “Papa, Can You Hear Me?” from Yentl. There couldn’t have been a more appropriate song for the moment. We need the world to hear us. We need to share our story. I hope you can find your own way to do just that.

Shabbat Shalom and Am Israel Chai,

PS - Not only is it essential for us to find allies, but it is also crucial for us to continue to do the vital work of serving as a support system for others. This Sunday, hundreds of volunteers from our Wilshire Boulevard Temple community will gather at our Glazer campus in Koreatown for the Karsh Family Social Service Center’s annual Big Give. We estimate that Sunday’s event will provide healthy and complete Thanksgiving meals to over 4,000 people in the Los Angeles area. Even during one of the most challenging times in modern Jewish history, we don’t stop. We don’t neglect our obligations to the broader world. Thank you in advance to all the Karsh volunteers and dedicated staff members. Wishing you all a gratitude-filled Thanksgiving.

PPS - For more resources on how to speak with your children about the current crisis in Israel, please see the link to our program with Dr. Sivan Zakai, an expert in the field. (You can find the video of her talk HERE).