“Nurse” – My Rosh haShanah Eve Sermon

My first year of rabbinical school was spent in Israel. It was 1973 and we were an eclectic bunch. We came from all kinds of Jewish, philosophical and academic backgrounds. We went through the Yom Kippur War together and honed our skills of support and empathy because we were all nervous about what would happen next while we were there. One of my friends during that time was Mark Mahler who was few years older than I and sort of a big brother figure. During the war and after, many a Shabbat meal was held at his apartment that he shared with his later to be wife, Alice. We created a bright space in their home, surrounded by the darkness of the war and its aftermath. The maturity of their relationship created a cocoon of safety and warmth for us. We became family.

As a result it wasn’t much of a surprise to me when I put two-and-two together and realized the “Jewish Emergency Room nurse” who treated the wounded Robert Bowers, the suspect in the Tree of Life synagogue shooting when he was brought to the hospital, was my old friend’s son. Leave it to Mark and Alice to help nurture a human who could rise to the emotional, medical, physical and moral needs of that moment.

Ari Mahler shared his experience in an online news outlet called “News and Guts”. In the article, he writes that he felt very alone in the days following the shooting. He knew others were writing and speaking about him and assuming things about him and his Jewish identity because of what he was…required to do? his job to do? willing to do? paid to do? had to do? compelled to do? commanded to do?

Nurse Mahler recalls that his soon-to-be patient shouted “Death to all Jews” as he was wheeled into the building. You can’t have that ringing in your ears and not have at least some questions, perhaps even misgivings about what will ensue. As he tells his story, Ari Mahler shares with us what he wants us to understand about him as a person, a nurse, a Jew and as an “RK”, a rabbi’s kid.

Ari tells us that the requirements of his job are “compassion and empathy over everything”. He surmises that the fact that he did the job the way he did it was newsworthy “…because [he’s] Jewish. Even more so because [his] dad’s a Rabbi.” On the other hand, Ari also says that when people find out he’s Jewish and that his dad’s a rabbi he tells them, “I’m not that religious” which he feels is like saying, “Don’t worry, I’m not that Jewish, therefore, I’m not so different than you.” Sort of seems like a contradiction in terms.

Let me tell you a story. I once was asked to fill in officiating a funeral by a colleague of mine who was ill. The rabbi and the deceased were personal friends so I called the my colleague to have him tell me about the gentleman we were remembering. The man used to attend the rabbi’s Passover seder every year and every year he would enjoy it so much! He enjoyed all the rituals, all the prayers – each word of the story. And…every year, the rabbi would say to him, “Come on! You love the Seder so much. Each year you come here and it’s so meaningful to you. You should come to synagogue. You should come to my classes. You should participate in being Jewish.” And…every year, the man would shrug, his shoulders and throw down his hand and say, “Nah. Not so much. It’s really not my thing.” Both my colleague and I were confused by what seem to be a contradiction in this man’s perspective. He LOVED Pesach! He ate it up. Maybe it was the food. Maybe it was the company. Maybe it was nostalgia. Still, other “Jewish” he didn’t want to do.

After I spoke with my colleague, I did more intake about the deceased – listening to his family and friends. They told me about how much they loved him…and why. One of the “why’s” about him turned out to be a “how”, that is, how he was in the world. He was very active in the community, putting his presence, energy and resources where his heart and mind were. He supported a host of liberal causes, working to put justice where it was absent and peace where there was strife. He never went to synagogue. He didn’t keep kosher or keep Shabbat. In fact, he had nothing to do with formal Judaism – except Pesach. So what was my answer to the seeming contradiction in this man’s life between his intense enjoyment of every component of a Passover Seder and the rest of his activities that were devoid of any Judaism at all? I themed his eulogy, “He Was Too Busy Being Jewish to Be Jewish”. In the ensuing years, it has not been infrequent that I have described others as “Too-Busy-Being-Jewish-To-Be-Jewish.” In fact, I realize there’s a large number of such Jews, especially within the American context, who are not Reform, Conservative, Orthodox, Reconstructionist or Renewal. They’re just Jewish – not by genetics (which is a misnomer, racist and even sexist) or because they “identify” is Jews. In fact, some of these people, depending on the circumstances, do not identify themselves as Jews, much like nurse Ari Mahler. They act Jewish. They behave Jewish. They do Jewish. They respond Jewish. For them, “Jewish” is not a label. It’s not a noun. “Jewish” a verb. In fact, by that definition, I know many non-Jews who, unaffiliated and unidentified with any religious tradition or institution, are “Jewish”, too.

Now, as a rabbi, would I like these people to come to synagogue more often? Would I like them to attend a class or two, find some meaning in Shabbat, holidays, holy days and keeping kosher? Would I like them to acknowledge that the values they espouse are rooted in centuries of Jewish debate among scholars and laypeople to determine what a Jewish reply is to a given personal, communal, national or global situation? Would I like them to discover that we can actually trace those discussions and lift out texts that strengthen these values because they are deep in our tradition and have the wisdom of millennia of practical application within them and that Jews who are “Too-Jewish-To-Be-Jewish” are not setting a precedent but standing on a venerable foundation of moral and ethical choices by millions of Jews before them? Would I like “Too-Jewish-To-Be-Jewish” Jews to realize that what happens in the sanctuary or within the walls of Barnum Hall is virtual prayer? That such prayer and ritual are only intended to inspire, to model, to speak in eloquent metaphor, to help us find and keep our moral compass – so that we engage in real prayer and real ritual when we leave the place we call or utilize as a sanctuary? Yes. An enormous “yes” to all my rhetorical questions.

It is amazing the way nurse Ari Mahler, who will always be known as “The Jewish Nurse that cared for Robert Bowers” wrote about his experience. Ari recounts that when he grew up in Pittsburgh “it was a different time”. He remembers that he “found drawings on (school) desks of [his] family being marched into gas chambers, swastikas drawn on [his] locker, and notes shoved inside of it saying, ‘Die Jew. Love, Hitler.’” Partially because of his childhood traumas, Ari was not surprised that the mass killing at Tree of Life synagogue took place and is downright cynical about feeling that anything will change. He writes, “it’s only a matter of time before the next one happens. History refutes hope that things will change. My heart yearns for change, but today’s climate doesn’t foster nurturing, tolerance, or civility. Even before this shooting took place, there’s no real evidence supporting otherwise. The FBI and the Southern Poverty Law Center note that Jews only account for two percent of the U.S. population, yet 60% of all religious hate crimes are committed against them. I don’t know why people hate us so much, but the underbelly of anti-Semitism seems to be thriving.”

Nurse Ari displayed remarkable courage when he took care of Robert Bowers and was courageous again when he revealed this part of himself to the world. Here is Ari’s response to those who tried to determine why he did what he did. “I’m sure he had no idea I was Jewish. Why thank a Jewish nurse, when 15 minutes beforehand, you’d shoot me in the head with no remorse? I didn’t say a word to him about my religion. I chose not to say anything to him the entire time. I wanted him to feel compassion. I chose to show him empathy. I felt that the best way to honor his victims was for a Jew to prove him wrong. Besides, if he finds out I’m Jewish, does it really matter? The better question is, what does it mean to you? Love. That’s why I did it. Love as an action is more powerful than words, and love in the face of evil gives others hope. It demonstrates humanity. It reaffirms why we’re all here. The meaning of life is to give meaning to life, and love is the ultimate force that connects all living beings. I could care less what Robert Bowers thinks, but you, the person reading this, love is the only message I wish instill in you. If my actions mean anything, love means everything.”

The film, “The Quarrel”, which I always show to my Introduction to Judaism class for the session on the Holocaust, takes place in 1948 Montreal on Rosh haShanah. Early in the film we meet Chaim Kovler, a secularist Yiddish writer who, because of the traditional import of that day and several events that occur to him, has an internal spiritual debate.  Chaim escaped the Nazis and had lost his faith when he was in yeshivah. As he sits by a pond in a park watching Jews performing the Rosh haShanah afternoon ritual of tashlich, he suddenly sees an old friend whom he hasn’t seen since they learned and argued together long ago in Bialystok. The friend is Hersh Rasseyner, who survived Auschwitz and whose faith was strengthened by the ordeal. The two walk together, reminisce, and passionately continue their old quarrel, and their friendship. In what is for me one of the most beautiful exchanges in the script, Chaim tells the story about meeting an old Lithuanian atheist woman who risked her life to help Jews during the war. She did this, she says, because she believes in human beings and loves them. He says, “This is my faith, too, that people must help one another.”

Ari Mahler could have said that. All Jews should say that. Would it really be so bad if we whittled Judaism down to such basic notions – that “people must help one another,” and that “The meaning of life is to give meaning to life, and love is the ultimate force that connects all living beings.”? Jews don’t really do that, do they? Hillel the Elder said that the principle, “What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor” expresses the essence of the entire Torah. The rest of Jewish law, he maintained, is commentary on that core idea. Rabbi Akiva said, “Love your neighbor as yourself” might well be the central commandment of the Torah. Another commentator says that true reading of the phrase should be, “Love your neighbor who is yourself.” Perhaps you believe that God is in everything or believe that God is everything, then loving your neighbor and avoiding doing to your neighbor that which is abhorrent to you, is behaving that way to God.

For Jews who are “Too-Busy-Being-Jewish-To-Be-Jewish” the God stuff doesn’t matter. For them, behaving is believing. So, yes, I want you to participate with and belong to this synagogue. I want you to be inspired by our music, our words and our messages. I want you to study with us and learn the long and glowing history of how, despite all our persecutions and the near destruction our people, we maintained and acted out our values of tzedakah and Tikkun Olam. And that’s not enough. Even if it’s Shabbat and there’s an protest against our obscene immigration policies or a women’s march or a beach clean-up or school that needs painting that day, I want us to be the kind of Jews who will pray with our legs, feet, mouths and hearts and show up. I want us to leave this hall and be Jewish in ways that transcend categories and labels. I want us to leave this hall and be Jewish in ways that come from an internal sense of mandate. I want us to leave this hall and be Jewish in ways that broadcast that our actions have Jewish roots. I want us to be Jewish in ways that demonstrate that despite our sufferings we refuse to treat others as we have too often been treated. I want us to leave this hall and be Jewish in ways that exude love.

Do I want us to be Jews-Who-Are-Too-Busy-Being-Jewish-Too-Be-Jewish? I’m your rabbi! I believe in the power of Jewish ritual and holy moments like this gathering. I want us to be VERY Jewish. Yes, I want us to be Jews who are inspired by Jewish holidays and Holy Days, by the messages that they hold. And…I want us to be Jews who are busy being Jews in all the ways that create Tikkun, Tzedek, and Tzedakah, healing, justice and righteous giving. I want us to be Jews who by deed, prayer and heart live with love and compassion on this day and every day.

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