The haunting, powerful melody of Kol Nidre lingers on. Tonight is a night of emotion, emotion born long ago in our Jewish history, emotion born of memory, emotion born of spiritual quest. Tonight we are vulnerable, for if tonight we cannot rise above all our daily thoughts and focus on the less mundane, then when? Our souls tonight are open and we examine them with the relentless probe of conscience. Tonight we are vulnerable – as a people we are vulnerable. Tonight in history our enemies have plotted our destruction. A people whose past has no strength they think. A spiritually sensitized people who have no resistance they think. A people who beats its breast and say "Al Chet"meaning "for the sin that we have sinned before You…" A people who might have done better during the past year, has no courage and no will, and is unprepared, they think.
Therefore tonight is a night of attack in Jewish history. Throughout the centuries, in Poland and Europe they razed synagogues to the ground on Yom Kippur. In Russia the czar delighted in promoting pogroms on Yom Kippur. In Spain and Portugal the armies of the inquisition reached deep into cellars of private homes and routed out Jews while the Kol Nidre was warm on their lips. Name a time in history – name an enemy. Tonight he strikes! We don’t have to go far back in history; either, ancient history and recent history are all the same. We do not have to resurrect images of 14th century or the persecutions in the 1600’s or even of the Nazis just a few generation ago. An example is 1973, just 37 years ago we remember, on Yom Kippur, that four Arab nations backed by 14 more surprised us, fooled us, found us vulnerable and attacked us. We don’t have to go back into ancient history at all. 1977 – The great synagogue in Moscow filled with the old and not quite old. A thousand Jews inside –and outside army and police of 2,000 or 3,000 swept the area beating and arresting, until there were hundreds arrested and sent to jail. The crime? An age-old crime – an unforgivable crime, the crime of being Jewish.
Throughout history they pillaged and plundered and persecuted and imprisoned Jews on Yom Kippur. So it occurs to me – what will happen, G-d forbid, if on this night on Yom Kippur, you were arrested for being Jewish, would there be enough evidence to convict you?
When I say you, I am not excluding myself from this game. Oh no, the Rabbis always stand indicted with their Jewish brothers and sisters as the high priest asks forgiveness for his sins before he prayed for the entire community, so too the Rabbi asks forgiveness for his failure first and only then leads the congregation in worship. I used "you" because each one alone and individually faces charges. Each of you must muster evidence of your own and answer the indictment. Now I have no doubt that nearly every one of us would plead guilty to the charge. After all, if we were to plead innocent to the charge of being Jewish, why would we be here tonight?
Now for the evidence; to be convicted there must be evidence against you. What makes us Jewish? Well, you say you were born Jewish or chose to keep Jewish traditions. If there was a judge presiding would he proclaim "insufficient evidence?" What do you add to Judaism? What does your heritage mean to you? How much do you care about the continuation of Judaism? Will your family have more than a vague inkling of their past? Many Jews of the past have had the same value attachment, but in each generation a significant percent fell by the wayside. Since, each person who acts this way represents an average loss of some 50 people in only three generations – the number doubles with each succeeding generation. Imagine, had every biological Jew born in the past 200 years remained an integral part of the Jewish people, raising his family to follow in our heritage and our traditions, there would be close to 150 million Jews in the world today. Perhaps, Hitler would not have dared to harm a hair on our heads. Israel would be many times her current size – anti-Semitism would be unthinkable as a threat, and the intellectual climate of the world would be significantly different from what it is now. But instead, we Jewish people number 13.3 million people… which is smaller than the smallest statistical error in the Chinese census.
Today, the most growing Jewish community is…in Germany! Today, Germany is the fastest growing Jewish community of any size. Approximately 115,000 Jews today return and live in Germany! In Russia today, it’s estimated that about two million of our people are becoming a culturally neutral position because of social and political situations – meaning that about two million of our people in Russia are becoming merely biological Jews. Although there are some dissidents, from intensive acting of some Jewish organizations, yet the reality is that the next generation, many of them will know nothing of our heritage. Those who deny the present, those who plead guilty of being a Jew merely because they were born, so and for no other reason, are certainly not guilty of being a Jew, the evidence is insufficient, the judge will dismiss the case.
Then there are other Jews who claim they are Jewish because they feel Jewish. It is a gut feeling that defies definition. Judaism makes them proud. When one of ours does something important, they just puff up all over. Imagine the deeds of a Doctor Salk or an Albert Einstein and thousands of Jews like them, their discoveries and their exploits in the laboratories in every area of life, on the stage or in journalism, in literature, Isaac Boshevis Singer, won the Nobel Prize in literature that makes them feel even more Jewish. The six day war, the raid on Entebbe, Israel successes make them stand taller. There is also the gastronomic feeling that links them to Judaism, something about lox and bagels on Sunday morning, cheese blitzes, chicken soup, Jewish penicillin and knaidlach – potato latkes, matzahbrie. It is a good feeling to see a Jewish wedding and to hear the old songs and to dance the dances of our people. Yes, it’s good to feel Jewish. But it is a tenuous attachment if that is as strong as your commitment goes. Does your cardiac attachment to the Jewish people apply to all circumstances and conditions? Or will you be the first to abandon ship when conditions are less favorable? Would you support Israel even when she flies against the face of public opinion? Would you support Israel even if she chooses to go it alone? Would you express your opinion to others regarding a world in which Hamas and Hezbollah refuse to recognize Israel’s right to exist, a world in which there is an Iran pursuing nuclear weapons which it threatens to use to annihilate Israel? Would you say yes to human rights and no to nuclear rights?
Will you stand up against those people who step all over your values, your holidays and your beliefs and your heritage? Do your feelings run that deep? You may be declared barely guilty and sentenced to a minimum sentence.
Then there are those who feel that Judaism is a synagogue religion and they work and support it, or that Judaism is interested in social justice and the message of the ancient prophets is alive today. They espouse the right causes, they work on behalf of all ethnic groups and minorities, are politically and culturally active in all ways and they say: we live our religious social message as Jews should. This sounds like real evidence. Yet, do you use the synagogue constructively? Or do you use it as a crutch? Do you bring your children or relatives there often and share experiences with them or is it merely a dropping off place and you go on your own way. Do you take the message of the synagogue into your home and practice Judaism there? Are your prayers merely lip service or do you have a private feeling as well? Then there are alimony Jews who say "I’ll give to it, I’ll support it, but I don’t want to live with it. Here’s my money but don’t make me work for the cause, don’t ask me to come to the services, don’t ask me for anything more." Now we must understand, we should work on behalf of the community, because of the needs of the community not because of the power and possibility or convenience it brings, your evidence is not fully accepted.
So, what evidence is there to find you practicing Jewish traditions, being a proud involved member of the tribe? If anyone were to look in your windows on Fridays, would they see Shabbat candles and challah on your table? Would they see your Kiddush cup overflowing or dusty from neglect?
In the final analysis, what is Judaism? It is the belief in one G-d and the study of the Torah which the Almighty gave us. It is our contribution to civilization. Without involvement in its study, without concern for the books of our faith how deeply indeed we can understand the Jewish values and traditions? Does sense of rootedness come with this? Judaism is a combination of all of these things, it is feeling, it is worship, it is a social concern, it is communal concern, it is charity, and each must lead to the other. On this Kol Nidre night, how do we plead? Have we in the past year acted in keeping with our convictions? Let us all in the year to come evaluate ourselves over and over again through our actions. Tonight we welcome all of our new members among them Mr. and Mrs. Jeffrey Buchalter and their 2 beautiful children. Jeffery, 26, is an Iraq war veteran who was severely wounded in June 2007 during a special forces mission on the border between Iran and Iraq. After suffering 9 months in a coma, Jeffrey received 3 purple hearts and a bronze star.
May the Kol Nidre night find us next year even more truly involved with our people, with our history, and with our religion. "Turn us O Lord unto thee and we shall return. We are Thy people and Thou art our G-d." "Hashiveinu Hashem Eylecha Venashuvah…Ki Anu Amecha Veata Elokiynu…"