Listen to Rabbi Miriam Berger’s Kol Nidre Sermon, followed by Cantor Zöe Jacobs and Mich Sampson singing Adonai Roi, composed by Debbie Friedman.
Kol Nidre 5780
I remember my dream vividly from the night of October 27th, 2018, because I dreamt the same dream the night after and the one after that. It’s particularly vivid at the moment because, having not returned to it for almost a year, it woke me with the same fear and trembling on the 26th September this year.
In the nightmare, I am standing on the Bimah at FRS staring out at a community I know so well. Only the most familiar faces are in the congregation: all people I care about deeply. Over their, or really, your heads, as it’s these same people that I can see for real as I lead this service tonight – over your heads, I see a man armed and ready to open fire. Each of the nights that I saw this awful image in my nightmare, I was immediately reminded of a particular Bar Mitzvah boy who celebrated back in January 2016, in whose home his parents used a method called “non-violent communication” of which he spoke in his Friday night reading.
I couldn’t have told you I’d even remembered this Bar Mitzvah reading particularly until, in my nightmare, I was coaching myself to remember what he had said and to use this method. I speak over the community’s heads to the gunman trying to keep the room calm and the gunman looking at me. I tell the gunman that shooting us will make society feel sorry for us, and he would be better to come and take his place on my Bimah and educate us about what we are doing wrong; then we can live our lives in the way he would think better. “Don’t kill us,” I tell him. “Help us to think like you do.” Each time I have woken at that point, always feeling it too scarily real, but thankfully never knowing what horrors come next.
It’s fair to say that the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting affected me greatly – not because it was the first or the worst, but because it made me question whether I am doing right by you.
Using an online social network, Bowers, the gunman, had earlier that day posted anti-Semitic comments against HIAS, a Jewish American, not for profit organization that provides humanitarian aid and assistance to refugees. The Tree of Life community in Pittsburgh were supporting participants of this programme, and their rabbi was an outspoken advocate. The gunman had posted this shortly before the attack: “HIAS likes to bring invaders in that kill our people. I can’t sit by and watch my people get slaughtered. Screw your optics, I’m going in.”
Bowers did not simply target the Jews in that Tree of life synagogue because they were Jewish, although his anti-Semitic vitriol is well documented in his social media postings as well; he chose that synagogue, the synagogue whose name we share, because of its work with Muslims and refugees.
When we at FRS first opened our doors to the Somali Bravanese for Ramadan, we did so with a complete embargo on publicity. I somewhat flippantly quipped to the leadership at the time about keeping it off the radar, to avoid handing the EDL a “two for one deal”. And yet as time went on, not only did our confidence grow but we saw what an impact the story had on others. Over the last five years, the number of synagogues hosting Iftars has multiplied in the most amazing way. We have been recorded in Hansard, with politicians using the story as an example of community cohesion, and by the Mayor of London countless times, to show what this city can achieve.
As I said on Erev Rosh Hashanah, it could and should be simply a source of pride. It could have simply been a kind gesture by us for them, but in order to enable the act to be truly meaningful, for it to bring about societal change, people had to know about it. And yet, since Pittsburgh, this pride has been tainted with fear.
As I saw the likes and shares on Facebook totting up on the 26th September this year following the opening of their new building, and after receiving texts from friends and family saying they had seen me on the news, I felt full of fear and questioning. Was my ego motivating the publicity or did I genuinely believe that the story needs to be shared, in order to prove that those who try to destroy are often the catalyst for a deeper and richer regrowth? Was I really telling the arsonist who put a small refugee community on the map and gave them the support of the local council, the Metropolitan Police and a whole host of Barnet synagogues, that acts of hatred don’t break people? Was I reminding myself that as Brené Brown teaches, “We will not be characters in our stories. Not villains, not victims, not even heroes….There is no greater threat to the critics and cynics and fear mongers…than those of us who are willing to fall because we have learned how to rise.”
We have enough personal stories, as well as a collective narrative, showing us on our knees; but we have learnt how to rise. And not only can we do so again and again, but we’ve taught others how to do so as well. We only lose this ability if we stop doing things for fear of failing. If we know we know we can overcome anything, we reach further, try harder and dig deeper.
My fear is real, and with it I would like to build high walls around this community whom I care deeply about; and yet I know that high walls don’t prevent harm or allay fear. They simply cut one off from doing good.
Rabbi Jonathan Perlman, who witnessed his members’ massacre in Pittsburgh, shared a part of the Yom Kippur liturgy that he recently adapted. One of its verses reads: “We buried our bodies. And upon them we wept. And even so, this did not break us. Nonetheless we were steadfast in our place. And we continued to stand.”
In our funeral liturgy, on Yom Kippur, and at other moments of vulnerability we turn to Psalm 23,
יְהוָה רֹעִי, לֹא אֶחְסָר.
perhaps made more famous by its Christian usages, “The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want”. However, a translation and interpretation by Martin Cohen allowed me to hear this psalm in a different way.
Verse 4 reads, “Even though I must sometimes pass through dark valleys, I fear no harm for You are with me; indeed, Your crook and Your walking stick are sources of constant comfort for me.”
Cohen explains that even though the destiny of the lamb in the psalm would have been prescribed in temple times (when this psalm was first used liturgically) as being “slaughtered; by having their blood poured out as divinely ordained libations, and by having their lifeless carcasses burnt to ash, the lamb experiences in its lifetime the enjoyment of rich green pastures under the watchful eye of a Guardian whose staff is there to fight off wolves, not to strike the sheep when the darkness of the mountain’s shadow temporarily immobilises them with fear, or when the contemplation of their destiny unnerves them and fills them with feelings of crippling anxiety.”
I’m in no way suggesting we martyr ourselves like lambs waiting to go to the slaughter, but I do know that even though dark valley moments are an inevitability in life, there are ways of engaging with the fear and the embodiments of those fears.
How can I be equally worried about a no-deal Brexit as I am at the idea of finding a legal loophole resulting in no Brexit at all? Because I am worried about the potential civil unrest being a result of either. We know that many of the most disenfranchised members of the British public voted for Brexit. It was a strong statement for radical change for what, in their view, was to be a solution to the challenges they live every day. What happens when they feel democracy has overturned their voice, because those they already know to have left them struggling at the bottom of the pile think they know best and have inevitably made choices to serve their own best interests not those of the most needy in society. We can say, “We know best”. We can say, we are trying to “prevent something that will cause disruption for us all”. But this doesn’t work for toddlers, so why would it work for fully grown adults who were given a democratic voice?
I sat with numerous friends this summer who have gone through the process of acquiring passports for other countries, to which their family heritage entitles them. I can defiantly say that I don’t think it’s necessary, that I don’t think the UK will ever be somewhere we need to flee from for economic reasons or that of anti-Semitism. But maybe I say it because my family history doesn’t afford me the luxury: we have been rooted here in the UK for too many generations.
Fear needs to make our voices louder – that’s a given; but I worry that actually, it should enable us to use our ears even more effectively too. I’m aware that messages at the moment are so much about taking action and making our voices heard, protesting, voting…But what if everyone listened a little more? Tried to understand the person behind the view? Told our stories rather than giving our opinions?
Why did our story about inviting a Muslim community into our synagogue for Ramadan make the headlines again and again? Why does that publicity bring me fear? Because many will see two groups of people who represent different things. One that represents power, money, the oppressor; another that represents the immigrant, the leech, the fundamentalist. Only the few will see that we each have a story of struggle and fear, of determination bringing success. So how do we find the moments to listen to those we don’t even know and enable our fear to turn into learning?
In my terrible dream I am heroic and brave – able to turn the most horrifying moment into a learning opportunity. I never want to be tested to know how I would really respond. Yet we do need to stop shouting and flailing around and start engaging and listening.
Brené Brown, the author and storyteller, has written a testimony to the importance of vulnerability in enabling something meaningful. It’s called the “Manifesto of the Brave and Brokenhearted.”
“There is no greater threat to the critics and cynics and fearmongers
than those of us who are willing to fall because we have learned how to rise.
With skinned knees and bruised hearts;
we choose owning our stories of struggle, over hiding, over hustling, over pretending.
When we deny our stories, they define us. When we run from struggle, we are never free. So we turn toward truth and look it in the eye.
We will not be characters in our stories. Not villains, not victims, not even heroes.
We are the authors of our lives. We write our own daring endings.
We craft love from heartbreak, compassion from shame, grace from disappointment, courage from failure.
Showing up is our power.
Story is our way home. Truth is our song. We are the brave and broken hearted.
We are rising strong.”
May this Yom Kippur give us each the opportunity to acknowledge our fears and that which brought us heartbreak. Let us use this year to look truth in the eye and, through our own stories, remind ourselves that we can pick ourselves up and stand tall. Over-reaching is the secret to success; yet we can only allow ourselves to over-reach when we are not scared of losing our grip and falling. It is bravery, not naivety, it is vulnerability and the willingness to expose ourselves that change us and move us; that open us up to listening and to encounters which ultimately strengthen us and become a great source of pride.
יְהוָה רֹעִי, לֹא אֶחְסָר.
May we want for nothing, for Adonai is our shepherd.
May we experience a divinity who lets us lie down in pastures of grass and who leads us to calm waters to restore our spirits, who walks us in level pastures as befits a shepherd of sound reputation.