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The Answer Is Yes

by Rabbi Matt September 4, 2015

10 years Ago

Rosh Hashanah 5766 (October 2005) Sermon

Shanah Tovah.  May the New Year which now begins be a good year, a year of health and happiness, a year of peace and prosperity, a year of blessing and a year of sharing, with others, the blessings we have. 

One of my teachers - he also taught my father - Rabbi Jacob Marcus, of blessed memory, had a list of Marcusian Rules of the Rabbinate.  One of them had to do with the sermon.  “Boys,” he used to call us... whether we were men or women... Dr. Marcus was in his mid-90s when he taught our class.  “Boys, when Mrs. Goldberg leaves the service, if she cannot explain your sermon to her friends in one sentence, then the whole exercise has been a waste of time.  The sermon is not a lecture... it is to be inspirational and must be able to be discussed as your congregants sit at the dinner table or nosh at the oneg.”  Thus, in honor and in loving memory of our great teacher, I am telling Mrs. Goldberg (and everyone else in attendance) this morning’s sermon is easily explained.  All you have to know is... the answer is YES.

Last night, we talked about how the world is divided into two groups of people.  This division is not what you might think.  The division in NOT between the haves and the have nots.  Rather, the world is divided between those who ARE grateful and those who ARE NOT grateful.  

We heard the story of Debbie, who was dying of liver cancer and yet left a voicemail message for a newspaper columnist to thank him for the gift of his writing.  His columns had lifted her spirits... had given her hope.  Before she died, she just wanted to call and say how grateful she had been for his writing.

We heard the letter which a young woman sent me a couple of years ago.  I did Marc and Laree Stone’s wedding in Shreveport, LA in 1993.  And she wrote about their years together.  They had endured many hardships... or they seemed difficult at the time.  But when her husband was diagnosed with lymphoma in 2003, they realized not to sweat the little stuff.  They realized to be grateful for the blessings of each day, for the gifts of each day.  I spoke with Marc and Laree just before Rosh Hashanah and, thank God, Marc is still in remission.  Laree’s grateful attitude, which she took the time to write down... that she made the time to write and share it... THAT was the gift... otherwise I would not have known how she felt.  Marc said, it sounds funny, but I am grateful that I learned to be more grateful and to share more with others... I’m glad I learned it at 35 years old and not at 75 years old.  I have 40 more years to make a difference.  

As we know, gifts are meaningless if we keep them to ourselves.  Gifts are meant to be shared with others.  This Rosh Hashanah, we should take the action, do the deed... share our gifts with others.  When we share, there is more meaning, there is more goodness, there is more Godliness.  When we share there is an impact, there are changes which improve life.  

This morning, let us be grateful for life in Cleveland.  Quite often people kvetch about life here.  They kvetch about the weather most vigorously.  However, as a friend commented in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, “we may complain about the weather, but at least I know, when I go home tonight, the house will still be there.  It will not be under 10 feet of water.  I will have a house to go home to.


On my way to Services, Friday evening, September 2nd, I checked the voicemail as I usually do.  “Hi, my name is Stephanie and I’m friends with Lorraine Adell -- she’s a member of your congregation -- well, my brother lives in Baton Rouge, LA and he told me his congregation needs help.  Lorraine told me, ‘just call my rabbi’ so I am calling you.”

On my way home late Friday evening, I called Stephanie, and YES her brother’s congregation in Baton Rouge now had 25 people taking refuge and living in the social hall.  As Hurricane Katrina approached the Gulf Coast and hit on Monday, August 29, the 400,000 in Baton Rouge more than doubled.

Stephanie’s brother, Bob Singer, had moved from Cleveland years earlier.  Bob is a member of Congregation B’nai Israel.  Lest you think he is the president of the congregation or something... he is not, he is just a member with no kids in the religious school.  But he saw things needed to be done and he jumped in.  “We’re living in a war zone down here.  There is almost no electricity.  There is no gasoline.  The shelves are empty in grocery stores and other stores.  We need everything you take for granted.  Toiletries, diapers, shoes, clothes, personal needs items....  Can you help us?”

With no hesitation... with little idea what would be awaiting us in the weeks to come... there was only one answer... the word issued forth from my lips... and had you been talking with Bob... the answer would probably have been the same.  “Bob, yes, we can help.”

That evening, I spoke with Rabbi Weinstein, he had spent all Shabbat day trying to find people’s relatives... driving people from here to there and there to here.  There are still more than 1,000 children hoping to be reunited with families, somewhere.  Rabbi Barry said, “you’ll help?  Baruch Hashem, thank God... we need everything” and then he went on to list more of what Bob Singer had told me.  “Yes,” he said, “I know the Federations are telling people to send money.  In time, we will need the money.  But between you and me, by the time the Cleveland Federation gets the money to the New Orleans Federation which is now housed in Houston.  And then they get the money to the Baton Rouge Federation... by the time this little congregation gets the money... well, we need a lot of things right now.  You’ll send supplies?  Great, we’ll talk soon.”  With that the Rabbi and I finished the call.

It was now Sunday, September 4th and I wrote an e-mail which the temple office would send on Tuesday, the 6th... the office would not be open on Labor Day.  We would e-mail the congregation and Religious School families  ...and by the way, there are many of you for whom we do not have updated e-mail addresses... e-mail us your updated info, the temple’s e-mail is on the bottom of the announcement sheet....   On Tuesday, we would e-mail the congregation and do a collection on the first day of Religious School, Sunday, September 11th.  It was a week away and we would have time to gear up for the effort.

The next morning, the phone rang.  In another example of what is termed “the invisible lines of connection between people.”  I do not pretend to understand it, but I know we all have experienced it.  Monday morning the phone rang.  “Matt, this is Peter...”  Peter and I had NOT spoken in more than a week.  He continued, “I was just watching MSNBC and Martin Savage is standing at the Super Dome in New Orleans.  If he can get down there, that means some roads are open.  If we can get a big box truck and fill it with supplies, I’ll drive it down to Louisiana.”  When I told Peter about Bob Singer and Rabbi Weinstein in Baton Rouge, and their congregation, and the people living in their social hall, and our religious school was going to send down supplies, he was excited and said, “I’ll drive to Baton Rouge.”

Their question, “can you help us?”  Our answer, “yes, we will help,” took a big turn in magnitude.  Peter and I started to think about where to get a big box truck he could drive.  On Tuesday, Wendy forwarded the ever changing information to our congregation.  She took the information over to Lander School so that they could join-in to help us fill the 26 foot truck we were expecting.

On Tuesday, Peter called... “I know a guy, who knows the guy who owns Joshen Paper and they will have their shipping company take care of the shipping to Baton Rouge.  They will donate use of a trailer and pay the driver.  The semi will be at temple sometime Wednesday afternoon.”

Everything seemed to be falling into place.

Wednesday, I had the good fortune to be at the Education Directors’ Network at the JECC  (Jewish Education Center of Cleveland).  The EDN is where the Religious School Director’s of Reform and Conservative congregations network, share ideas, and grapple with issues.  At the end of the meeting, I shared our planned response to those suffering through Katrina’s aftermath.  They were so grateful that somewhere, people were doing something that their students could get involved with.  Thanks to religious school directors’ embrace of this teachable moment and tzedakah opportunity, virtually every congregation in the area knew what was going on at 1732 Lander Road.  

It was Wednesday afternoon, and the semi was due to arrive.  I telephoned Mayor Peg Egensperger and asked if we could park the semi out front where passersby would see it.  She expected complaints if we parked it out front, and suggested I call the City Building Supervisor.  I did.  He asked me to fax him a little drawing of our proposal... then he called back.  “Rabbi, if you park the semi on the driveway in front, will two lanes of traffic still be able to pass it?”  I said, “no, ”then asked, “Mr. Sokolov how about letting us park it on the front lawn?”  There was silence on the other end of the line... then he said, “okay.”  

And thanks to the City of Mayfield Heights, the semi was parked on our front lawn, Wednesday afternoon.  To collect donated items, sort them, box them, label them.  To make our own pallets, was a tremendous effort.  And, at times, this tzedakah effort appeared to be totally out-of-control.  But there is more than enough evil this world.  Out-of-control goodness was a welcome visitor and she stayed at our congregation for 2 weeks.  And what’s more, she brought beautiful weather... there was no rain to speak of... it was sunny as we were doing God’s work to help and love one another.

And by the way, there were no complaints to Mayfield Heights City Hall... there were several calls of praise and thanks for letting us provide this opportunity to local residents, and passersby, to lend a helping hand to Americans in dire need.

So, the answer is YES.  And there are a couple of Jewish teachings which make it so.  (1) The Holiness Code — which is Leviticus chapter 19 — there are dozens of mitzvot which describe how we can be holy, just as God is holy.  In verse 16 we learn, “you shall not stand idly while your neighbor bleeds,” (Lev. 19:16) in other words when you see someone suffering, you must act to alleviate the suffering.  If you know the person... or if the person is a stranger to you... the obligation is to alleviate that suffering.  As a Jew... as a person... we are not allowed to be bystanders.

(2) The silence after Katrina (no electricity, no lights, no cars, the loss of life) reminded me of a place in the Torah which was silent too.  When the Lord said to Cain, “where is your brother Abel?”  Cain responded, “I do not know.  Am I my brother's keeper?” (Gen. 4:9)  

Then comes the silence... God does not answer Cain's question.  Which leads us to ask:  why is God silent at that point?  This question resonates through the millennia.  A partial answer is illuminated in light of humanity's God given gift of choice... God gave us the gift of free will.  God offers us a choice, every moment of every day.  The choice is between doing good or doing evil.  We have been granted moral freedom and moral responsibility.  It is our duty, as God's creations, to choose good and thereby sanctify our Creator.  

And there is another choice... a path too many people take... just do nothing... neither good, nor evil.  Just stand by and watch.  That is not really a choice to do good, or to do evil... is it?  Well, when we choose not to do good OR to do evil... it is a choice not to get involved.  But it also has consequences, if it is a bad situation and we do NOT act to improve it... I would say, by our inaction, we are allowing evil to win the day.  And if it is a good situation and we do NOT act, then we are not doing our part to improve the world and make it better... we are not doing our part to improve our country and make it better... we are not doing our part to improve our city and make it better... we are not doing our part to improve the Jewish community and make it better... we are not doing our part to improve our congregation and make it better... we are not doing our part to improve our interpersonal relationships and make them better.

We have been commanded, through our religious teachings, to choose actions which will enhance life and bring blessing upon ourselves and others.  And if humanity is to survive, in anything resembling a peaceful condition, we must choose to live positive Jewish lives... and we must choose to improve the lives of all of God’s children, of every race, creed, and color.

The silence — after Genesis 4:9 when Cain asked God, “Am I my brother's keeper?” — issues a challenge to us.  What shall we do?  We will fill that silence with our response.  The answer is Yes.  “Are we our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers?”  Yes.

And so, for many people, the answer was YES.  Peter Freimark and his son Adam were here everyday for more than 12 hours.  People drove by and dropped off items, them came back and helped sort items.  

We had a mother and her daughter volunteer every day for over a week.  They arrived early in the morning and stayed until late in the evening... carefully sorting and folding and packing.  

The third and fourth grade teachers brought over their classes from our next door neighbors, Lander Road Elementary.  They had been studying “citizenship.”  After we told them how this whole thing came about, they went to work sorting and boxing... putting their learning into action.  A New Orleans family which drove up to Ohio has 3 daughters in Mayfield Schools.  Their fourth grade twin daughters were among those who sorted and packed... and their mother came by to help as well.  They gave of their time and they received of our quality items.

The Mayfield Heights football team came over one evening after practice to help move boxes.  The Recreation Department Director came and volunteered on his lunch hour.  People who didn’t even know our congregation existed, stopped just to say thank you.  Then they came back with donations.  Some dropped off homemade cookies, others gave beverages.  Local businesses provided lunches and dinners, packing tape and markers.

These volunteers worked to comfort people they would never see, people they would never know.  They did it because they believed, as we do, that we ARE our brothers and sisters keepers.  

The amount of donated items which we sorted and packed was incredible.  A semi holds tons of items, between 20-24 pallets of goods.

The first semi arrived, Wednesday afternoon the 7th, it was filled with pallets and ready 2 days later on Friday afternoon, September 9th.  

Before dinner on Friday, the second trailer arrived and volunteers worked through Shabbat services (Matthew Robbins Bar Mitzvah), some went out to help after services.  We worked throughout the day on Saturday.  There were so many items and such efficient work that the second semi was filled and packed by the very next evening, Saturday night.  

Some might ask, “work on Shabbat... on our front lawn?”  It is a good question.  Yes, there is a prohibition against work on Shabbat, but there are mitigating circumstances... there are things which happen in life which allow you, even command you, to push aside such prohibitions.  When you are presented with the opportunity “to save a life” — pikuach nefesh — to save a soul, or to save a life... it takes precedence over the prohibition to refrain from work.  There is little doubt our efforts were saving lives.

We had to wait until Monday for the third semi to be delivered.  Items continued to be donated however, so we sorted and boxed them up and then put them in the social hall.  The next morning was Sunday, 9/11 and the opening session of Religious School.   We assembled, did the pledge of allegiance... talked about the importance of commemorating and remembering those lives lost on 9/11, the heroic safety workers, the others.  And another example of the invisible lines of connection...  A Jewish woman came to volunteer wearing a blue NYFD t-shirt.  On 9/11 she had been in New York City and had helped in the horrible aftermath.  It was 9/11 again and she was driving by and thankful to find a place to be doing something... to be doing Tzedakah.   

After the assembly, younger grades wrote and colored letters of encouragement.  The older grades boxed them and prepared them to send down to our new friends at B’nai Israel Synagogue.  The social hall was filled with boxes, from in front of the simcha tree, half way to the door.  We formed a “bucket brigade” of students to move the boxes through the social hall door and to the front lawn.

The third semi arrived Monday morning and was packed and ready to go by Wednesday afternoon.  

The fourth semi was packed and ready to go by Saturday the 17th.  Once again we worked through Shabbat and through a Bat Mitzvah... Allison Fox.  

The fifth truck was not supposed to be a semi, but the outpouring from people was so overwhelming, we had sufficient donations to fill a fifth semi.  Thus by mid-week, September 21st... two weeks after we began... we filled 5 semi tractor trailers and sent them to blanket the gulf coastal region.

The first semi was a donation, and as people dropped off their items, they asked, “how are you paying for the trucks?”  Peter told them each semi was $2000 and we would gladly accept any gift they would make.  The second semi was donated by Mr. and Mrs. Anonymous when she dropped off a check in the amount of $2000.  The rest of the trucks were financed by many gifts, of various quantities, and one whopping check of $2300 collected by several student organizations at Mayfield High School.  

This has been a wonderful example of community building and cooperation between religious and secular, public and private, elderly and young, men and women, Jew and non-Jew.

On Wednesday, September 21, Bob Singer called from Baton Rouge, our semi had arrived.  He emailed pictures to us and all the Hebrew school students came into my office to see!  The second and third semis are on their way to the Ascension Lutheran Church in Jackson, Mississippi, a distribution center.  The fourth and fifth semis are on their way to the Daphne Alabama Civic Center, just a few miles from Mobile.

You may have heard some people say, don’t send any more items down there... they are being overwhelmed down there with stuff.  Let me tell you what that means... and it is not what you might think.  The small synagogues, churches and shelters are NOT being overwhelmed with sorted, boxed and organized items.  However, they are, in fact, overwhelmed with unsorted, unorganized items tossed into the back of a truck.  And... I cannot believe that people, however well intentioned, do not think beyond sending the items... I cannot believe they do not think about how best to send the items so that the people on the receiving end can actually use them.  

Can you imagine needing shoes and then having to look through 10 garbage bags just to find a pair of shoes?  In short order, the gymnasium of whichever little church that gets such items, looks like a huge laundry pile.  

So, when we spoke with Nina at the Daphne, Alabama Civic Center -- now a shelter with 87 people living in it and having 3 squares a day -- when we spoke with her and told her everything was sorted, folded, boxed and organized... all she could say was... “yes, send it... please.  You have two semis to send?  Yes, yes, send them both.  We will have no problem getting the items to the people who need them.”  She told us they were in need of styrofoam food containers, utensils and etc.  Things we would never have considered by ourselves.  With some of the monetary donations we received, several boxes of the containers were purchased... so, when they open the trucks in Daphne, the semis will be filled with useful items organized and ready to be distributed.

In the coming weeks we will access how best to follow up with our gifts to those unfortunates who suffered so mightily from Hurricane Katrina.

We will talk to our contacts down south and see if they need our help as their story moves off of the front pages of the newspapers and from the lead stories on the television.  And if they ask us to help... and if anyone should ask you for your help... whether it is someone you know or someone you do not know... even if it is a member of this holy congregation.  Will you help?  Please deeply consider it and respond... the answer is yes. 

God bless one and all.  May this new year be a good one.  

A M E N. 


Addendum:  After 2 weeks, we concluded our efforts with a sixth-semi sent in the direction of the Daphne Alabama Civic Center.  We gathered the remaining donations, purchased non-perishables, and sent the semi after Rosh Hashanah 5766, September 2005.  Before the semi arrived in Daphne, we agreed to let them divert the semi to another location which distributed the goods.

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