Spiritual refugees, come home

Below is the text of my sermon for Kol Nidre 5776.

Spiritual Refugees, Come Home

There was a woman, Madeline, born 1918 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and she loved sports. An active participant in athletics in ways that were considered appropriate for the era, Madeline especially loved baseball. Madeline was a Jewish girl who lost her mother very young. Her father ran a grocery supply company and she worked in the business when she was finished with school each day. And still, Madeline loved baseball. She met and fell in love with Robert, an aspiring chemist. After they were married, they moved to Champaign, Illinois so Robert could pursue a Ph.D. It wasn’t so easy to be a Jew in small town Illinois. From Champaign the young family moved to Newark, Ohio where Robert found a job after facing much anti-semitism in the hiring process. And still, Madeline loved baseball. Their first child was born in Ohio, followed by a second. A job prospect presented itself in Los Angeles and the family moved. And after a number of years, baseball came to Los Angeles. Madeline had a new baseball team, the Dodgers. Now, it happened on more than one occasion that baseball season and the High Holy Days overlapped and Madeline was faced with a conundrum. There were no recording devices, smartphones, or play-by-play after the game until the next day’s newspaper and this just wouldn’t do when there was a big game for Madeline. Not going to synagogue was not an option. Madeline and her husband and four sons were active members of the congregation and it wouldn’t do not to show up on the High Holy Days. Jews of Madeline’s generation showed up at synagogue. So Madeline crafted a solution. She clipped a small, battery operated radio to her skirt and ran a wire up the back of her blouse and an ear piece to her ear so that she could listen to her Dodgers and be at High Holy Day services. Everyone won. Madeline loved baseball and she loved being Jewish. And I loved her, because I didn’t call her Madeline, I called her Grandma.

This Yom Kippur is one for baseball lovers. It was 50 years ago tomorrow that the first game of the World Series was to take place in Minnesota, Dodgers against the Twins. The best pitcher in baseball was the Dodgers’ Sandy Koufax and he was scheduled to start.  There was just one problem: the first day of the World Series was Yom Kippur and Sandy Koufax is a Jew. The question on everyone’s mind was would Sandy Koufax pitch the opening game? The answer of course, was no. Koufax did not play, just as he didn’t play on Rosh Hashanah or Yom Kippur in the preceding ten years. And we know that he would pitch in games 2, 5 and 7 and win the Most Valuable Player in the series that the Dodgers won.

Sandy Koufax, already idolized as a great pitcher, became the hero of the Jewish community. ““There was no hard decision for me,” Koufax said later in an ESPN documentary… “It was just a thing of respect. I wasn’t trying to make a statement, and I had no idea that it would impact that many people.””[i] He showed every person that one could be a great baseball player AND an adherent of Jewish tradition. He was the ideal American Jew: assimilated yet faithful, athletic yet principled.

But Sandy Koufax was not the first great Jewish baseball player. Hank Greenberg, the Detroit Tigers first baseman also refused to play on Yom Kippur in 1934. 81 years ago the United States and the world was in the midst of the depression, anti-semitism was alive not only in the Weimar Republic, but the United States and Hank played in the heart of Henry Ford and Father Charles Coughlin territory, these were two were perhaps the most virulent anti-semites in the country at that time. But baseball fever hit the Motor City with the Tigers in the hunt for the pennant for the first time in 25 years and Hank Greenberg and his .339 batting average lead the way. The Tigers lost that Yom Kippur game and the next day, on the first-ever complete recording of a radio broadcast of a baseball game, “…Ty Tyson, the Detroit broadcaster, noted with a tinge of delight in his voice that Greenberg was back. “Hank was out yesterday observing Yom Kippur,” he said. “And I believe undoubtedly, his big bat was missed out there.””[ii]

These two great Jewish baseball players are the stuff of legends. But tonight, I want to talk with you about a different baseball player. This player, Caleb Summers, will be an MLB prospect in 2020. A lefty like Greenberg and Koufax, Caleb is already honing his skills. He plays baseball in every season, attends showcases, and meets regularly with a pitching coach, a hitting coach and somehow finds time to go to school, too. The problem is that Caleb is 13 and this year, 5776 should be the year Caleb is called to the Torah for the first time as a bar Mitzvah, except Caleb’s been too busy playing ball for Judaism. What if Caleb makes it to the majors and is confronted with the choice of observing Yom Kippur or pitching in the World Series? I shudder to think about the choice he might make. I worry for Caleb and the kids like him that we all know. Caleb is a spiritual refugee.[iii]

A spiritual refugee is a person who flees looking for a spiritual home, someone running from self-help book to self-help book, from EST to Landmark, from the latest workout craze to the next, or focuses on one activity almost to obsession in order to fill up the spiritual emptiness deep inside. Material possessions and casual relationships don’t fill the void. Neither do low ERAs, names in spotlights, or acceptance letters. Spiritual refugee adults do not have the skills and experiences necessary to have a sense of awe and wonder, mystery about the world, God or Judaism because they weren’t provided for us or we didn’t learn them. And now, we are raising a generation of children who are also lost because they are not learning these skills through studying and living their Judaism.

We all know a Caleb Summers. He or she might not play baseball, she might be a gymnast, or an aspiring actor or dancer, a soccer player, or a student so devoted to his studies only activities that will assure admission to an Ivy league school are permitted. Sports, music lessons, and scouting teach our children a lot of important skills and so does our Jewish tradition. It is time to set some priorities and Judaism must be one of them. Caleb might not always be able to throw a baseball 95 miles per hour, he will always be a Jew.

I see people like Caleb or his parents in my office all the time, often when I’m wearing my kippah as Director of Religious Education here at TBH. Just the other day Ruth came to my office to explain why her son will not be able to continue in religious school. Ruth’s son, a 2nd grader is already overwhelmed with homework and between soccer and scouting there are just too many extra-curricular activities and Religious School just isn’t important enough. While I am the first to admit that Religious School is not a perfect solution, it is better than nothing. Jewish tradition has much to teach about living a life of meaning, holiness and study and nourishing the soul. Every time a parent, grandparent, or member of our congregation says that religious school or membership at TBH is not a priority they’re joining the pilgrimage of refugees searching for the next best, most convenient thing. And every time this conversation takes place, it breaks my heart.

Last year I told you the story of another spiritual refugee, Franz Rosenzweig. On Kol Nidre 5674, 1913, Rosenzweig entered a small Orthodox synagogue in Berlin for what he expected to be the last time he would attend worship services as a Jew. Rosenzweig … had become convinced, as did many modern Germans of his day, that the path to success and acceptance in German life was as a Christian. He was raised, with modest exposure to Jewish life and Jewish learning. He viewed Judaism as an anachronism – a faith not in touch with the contemporary world of Western Europe. So he decided that he would attend Yom Kippur services to say farewell to his Jewish identity and the Jewish people.

Something entirely unexpected happened to Rosenzweig in that synagogue that night and it changed his life. He wrote a friend: “After prolonged, and I believe, thorough self-examination, I have reversed my decision … I will remain a Jew.”

What he thought he could find in the church only, faith that gives one orientation of the world, he found on that night in the synagogue. His refugee crisis was over. For the rest of his life, Rosenzweig devoted himself to Jewish study and teaching, and became one of the outstanding Jewish thinkers of the twentieth century.[iv]

Tonight, on the holiest night of the year we are sitting among spiritual refugees like Franz Rosenzweig and Caleb Summers, we might even be a spiritual refugee. People are here because someone, a parent, guilt, a partner, a sibling, a friend, brought you here, to this holy place and our sacred community, welcome.

Yom Kippur is the holiday of spiritual refugees because today we can begin anew and find our spiritual center. This is precisely what the prophet Jonah teaches us. Tomorrow afternoon we will hear his amazing story, but let me give you the Cliff’s Notes. Jonah ben Ammitai gets a call from God who tells him, “arise and go to Nineveh, that great city, and cry out against it, for their wickedness has come up before Me.”[v] Jonah shirked this responsibility and in an effort to get away from what he believes to be God’s dominion, he heads to Jaffa and gets on a boat headed for Tarshish. Once on the boat, the seas get terribly rough, so rocky that the sailors fear the boat will be ripped apart. Each of the fear-filled sailors prayed to his own god and started to throw overboard any extra cargo. In the midst of this tumult, Jonah goes down to the hold of the ship and falls asleep. He is awakened by the commotion of the sailors casting lots and Jonah is thrown overboard and the seas calm and Jonah is swallowed by a fish. He spends three days in the belly of the fish and after three days, offers a prayer of repentance. Jonah is spat out of the fish and ends up on dry land and then, the story starts over again. God calls to Jonah and this time Jonah responds as God requests. Come back tomorrow afternoon to find out how Jonah ends his refugee crisis.

The Book of Jonah teaches us each year that we have the power to end our own refugee crisis. If you were only planning on being with this community tonight, come back tomorrow. Open yourself up to the possibility of prayer, repentance, meditation and soul-stirring music.

If you used to be a member of TBH and now only purchase High Holy Day tickets, come home. Turn your ticket into membership. We need you. The Jewish people need you and we miss you. This congregation, the multitude of schools, programs, and learning opportunities need your physical, spiritual and financial support to continue providing for this generation and the next. If your children or grandchildren are of the right age, come to talk with me after Yom Kippur about signing them up for Religious School and make it a priority in the hectic weekly schedule. Remember they may not become an Olympian, but they will always be a Jew. Don’t we want our children and grandchildren have the skills to be successful mensches? To make choices like Rosenzweig, Greenberg and Koufax?

Most of all stop running away. Whether or not you believe in God or a higher power, or a force that connects all life in the universe or the whole God-thing doesn’t work for you, the Jewish people need you. We need you in our organizations and institutions to ensure that the beautiful communities we’ve constructed live on. We need you at our services and festivals to celebrate and comfort and live Jewishly. And we need you to be a proud Jew doing whatever it is you do professionally. Who knows? You might be the Hank Greenberg or Sandy Koufax of our generation.

My friends, on this holy night, may the gates of repentance be open for us so that we might be like Jonah the prophet and make true repentance. And may the Caleb Summers in our midst and in the circles of our communities find their way to the stories of Hank Greenberg and Sandy Koufax and my Grandma Madeline and the Jewish community and put an end to the spiritual refugee phenomenon.

G’mar chatimah tovah—May our names be sealed in the Book of Life.

Ken y’hi ratzon.




[i] http://www.jta.org/2015/09/08/life-religion/why-sandy-koufax-sitting-out-a-world-series-game-still-matters-50-years-later

[ii] http://www.usatoday.com/story/sports/mlb/2015/09/17/sandy-koufax-yom-kippur-hank-greenberg/32549633/

[iii] This is a term that I created to describe the phenomenon of many spiritual seekers in our country today.

[iv]. Adapted from a beautiful sermon by Rabbi Howard Jaffe, http://www.templeisaiah.net/Resources/Sermons/Read_Sermons/ArticleId/168/Kol-Nidre-5774-2013-Rabbi-Howard-Jaffe.aspx.

[v] Jonah, 1:2.

About rabbisteinman

I am a rabbi living in North America. I was ordained from HUC-JIR. This is my blog.
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