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Reeh: How to Have Difficult Conversations about your Faith and Make Jewish Decisions in a Non-Jewish World

08/27/2022 12:00:58 PM


Rabbi Dan Dorsch

The past week or two has been a week of new decisions and experiences for the Dorsch family. With that in mind, I want to share two stories, talk about their connection to the parasha, and explain what I believe Torah can teach us about how Jews can make better Jewish decisions living in a largely non-Jewish world.

Story #1 took place on Sunday morning a little after 8 o’clock in when I taught my first bible study class at Johnson Ferry Baptist Church. I want to say that we here are lagging way behind on attendance for bible study. I get twenty five on a good day…they bring hundreds.

Some of you may know that for years, while I’ve enjoyed nice relationships with other churches, I’ve avoided even attempting to make any contact with Johnson Ferry Baptist. Mostly, because of my self-perception of their theology as being closed minded to others not like them. Yet over the years I’ve developed a relationship with a lovely person who attends the church. He leads trips to Israel and is a mensch. He’s even been here for Kol Nidrei “undercover” and a community Seder. And so when he invited me to teach his sunday bible study, I decided that against my previously conceived notions that I should go. Here’s what happened: I taught. Not one asked me why I didn’t believe in Jesus. I got interesting, respectful questions. I blessed the crowd. I was thanked. It was a lovely experience.

Story #2 took place a month ago when Amy and I made a decision to sign up Zev for a little League that meets about a half a mile from our home. We’d been reluctant for years to sign him up. Some of the games are on Shabbat. But also, because we’d heard horror stories about this league’s reputation for weekend warrior coaches living vicariously through their children (I don’t even need to tell you what this league this is, you all know already). However, the JCC no longer runs baseball for my kids’ age group and traveling to Dunwoody is increasingly challenging (he’s already playing Flag Football there two days a week), Amy and I sat down, and discussed how we would navigate making this choice. Again, I want to be candid here. Having spoken to many of you about your own challenges, we were scared half to death. How could we tell Zev’s future coach, who we assumed would be named Dansby or Rex or Travis, and not Shlomo or Chaim, that Zev was not going to make it to any Friday night or Saturday morning games and practices?

We didn’t say anything during the first practice. At the second practice, Amy explained to the coach that Zev was Jewish and Sabbath observant–we did not drop the “r bomb,” (the word “rabbi”)--and that he was going to miss friday night and Shabbat morning practices. What do you think the coach said? “ No problem. Not every kid makes every game or practice. Just register on the cellphone app so we know when he is coming.” His wife who is co-leading the team added, and “we know what Sabbath observant is, we have neighbors down the street, who do that too” (thank you to whomever that is!).

Parashat Reeh talks about the power of making decisions. Reeh Anochi Noten Lifnechem. We are told to choose between living our lives as a blessing and a curse. Living in the twenty-first century in Marietta, Georgia, I suspect that making Jewish decisions was probably a lot easier when our people were in the desert. There weren’t so many choices. It is probably also a lot easier to make Jewish choices if you are living in Israel or New Jersey or New York. Yet as Jews enjoying the southern experience in twenty-first century America, it is not always so clear for us what choices will lead us to blessings, and what will lead us to curses? Is it a blessing if your kid misses school on the second day of Rosh Hashanah because he will strengthen his Jewish identity, or is it a curse that they are missing material? Is it a blessing when your client calls you and tells you she needs the work done by 10pm Erev Kol Nidrei, and you get that work done, and they are thrilled with you, or is it a curse that you missed Kol Nidrei?

Perhaps, you may say, Rabbi Dorsch, it’s not fair: you got lucky not once but twice. You found a nice, accepting, guy from the church and a coach who kind of knew what Shabbat was! What a bracha. Maybe. But I think it’s more than luck. I actually believe that I learned through these experiences two things about Jewish decision making that I want to share with you today. I do so in the hope that I can help you to make your choices, brachot, blessings, while helping you to avoid the klalot, the pitfalls that I know so many of us deal with when it comes to being a Jew in a non-Jewish world.

First, and foremost, I learned that we must keep in mind that when it comes to making Jewish decisions, whether with regard to your children or your own life, that with few exceptions, the way you imagine difficult conversations about our faith going is probably way less worse than it actually is. That’s not to say that there aren’t exceptions. There will always be a band leader (yes, even band leaders), boss, coach, who is myopically passionate about what they do and who is incapable of understanding the world through any other lens. I hate to tell you this, but there are rabbis who are that way too. I wish we lived in a world where everyone knew what Shabbat was, or where everyone understood why Jews “just can’t believe in Jesus.” And yeah, it stinks that we sometimes need to be ambassadors to our neighbors’ ignorance. But generally, I find that these conversations create opportunities for growth and learning and blessing: both our own, and for our non-Jewish neighbors. Because when we show commitment to our religion, people respect you more and not less.

For years I avoided a conversation directly with our school district. That was a mistake. Only now, I want to share with you the language that I crafted with input from colleagues locally that will be sent to all Cobb principals of all of the schools to be sent to teachers about absence on Yom Kippur. Much of these facts were unknown to them and would have remained that way had we not opened up the conversation:

Dear Faculty:

Please anticipate widespread absence among your Jewish students for their observance of Yom Kippur, which goes from the evening of October 4, through October 5 this year. As many students will be absent and attending synagogue for the duration of the holiday, we ask that you do not schedule major assignments or exams due on those days. Additionally, because this observance customarily includes a 25-hour fast (no eating or drinking), we also ask that any “make-up work” not be scheduled to be due “the day after the holiday,” to give our students the best chance at success. We thank you in advance for showing sensitivity to our Jewish students and supporting their observance of Jewish holidays.”

Yet friends, there is also something else that my experience with Little League and Johnson Ferry has led me to understand. And that is that when you do encounter a curse, ignorance, or a pitfall that makes you question your values, the response can’t be to conform with what they want you to do, the answer has to be with Jewish pride, with what you want to do. Don’t ask them whether it is “okay:” inform them what you are doing. When a band leader tells you that if your child misses even one rehearsal it will be a curse, say “Gee, I am committed to my religion, and that is a blessing. My child may miss a few sessions because of religious school. I hope it’s not going to be a problem for you…because it’s not a problem for us.” If you encounter a teacher who is so insistent that Yom Kippur is a day when they want to teach new material, remind them that Sandy Koufax missed pitching a world series game on Yom Kippur, so yeah, your kid will figure out third period physics class. As Jews encountering ignorance of Judaism we spend too much time letting others put on the onus on us to be uncomfortable. Yet when we express our pride, we put it on them: and I promise, what you will see is that most people will actually be more understanding than you give them credit for. If they are not, call me. They are going to learn to be understanding. “It’s a new world Goldie.”

I am so glad that at long last, Zev is playing baseball nearby and that I made my “pilgrimage” to Johnson Ferry Baptist. Not only have I learned to better connect some of the struggles that you have, and I am now more sympathetic to them, but I hope I have shared, through my own experience, a way we can bring blessings to our lives and to the world in which we live. A few bad apples can’t lead us to expect the worst in people. And when we do encounter the worst, we can’t let their being yutz change us, we will only move the needle by being proud of who we are.

Reeh Anochi Noten Lifnechem. God says, there are no shortage of opportunities for us to bring blessing to the world. May all of us live our lives as a blessing. Amen.

Wed, September 28 2022 3 Tishrei 5783