Monthly Archives: August 2015

Galaxy Quest Revisited

A friend posted a story on my Facebook page this morning. The story concerned the plans to produce a TV series based on the movie Galaxy Quest. That made me very happy. I loved that movie and chose to use it as the basis for a sermon before Yizkor, the Memorial Service on Yom Kippur.

Here is the sermon which I delivered on Yom Kippur 2007:



There is no question that for many of us prayer is a meaningful and life affirming, life enhancing and occasionally life sustaining activity.

Spontaneous prayer can bring about a sense of calm, a sense of peace and can give us the personal encouragement to be the best we can be. Whether or not we believe that prayer can actually in and of itself affect the reality of a situation that we face, we feel our prayers have a great impact on our lives.

But all of those benefits can elude us, especially when the subject turns to ritualized, standardized daily prayer.

While gathering in shul on Shabbat morning has benefits and meaning beyond the words we say, there is a problem with ritualized prayer and each and every one of us who ever comes to shul experiences it. For some, it is only an occasional concern. For others it is an overwhelming and sometimes seemingly insurmountable obstacle. No matter who we are, there are times during prayer when we feel we are going through the motions, when the words of the prayers seem hollow and meaningless, and when we feel like an actor playing out a scene which does not reflect what we really believe and which seems to be, frankly, a waste of time.

It is a familiar experience for all. No less a figure than Mother Teresa wrote in a recently published letter: “The silence and the emptiness is so great that I look and do not see, listen and do not hear, the tongue moves” — and she was referring here to prayer -– “but does not speak.” So we are in good company. And it happens to Conservative Jews more often than to others.

Our theology and our philosophy tend to bring into question and doubt, more than for Orthodox Jews, the traditional words of our faith; and yet we are clearly more tied to tradition than Reform Jews. The result is that, in general, we say more words that we have trouble believing in literally. We do not have quite the same level of spontaneity and innovation as Renewal Jews, and we are more reluctant than Reconstructionist Jews to overhaul the traditional liturgy, holding fast to the idea of the traditional hiyyuv, obligation to prayer.

Conservative Judaism occupies such a critical and necessary role in the Jewish community: holding on to tradition and embracing modernity. When it works it is priceless. But when it doesn’t, and it occasionally doesn’t, our ritual does become less meaningful. A little too often, perhaps, we feel like we’re going through the motions.

That’s the problem. And it is real. So, what is the solution?

There are many ways to address this issue, and I mentioned some last evening in a different context: we need to understand the concept of obligation more deeply, we need to find ways to connect ritual to our lives; we need to expand our spiritual horizons as we expand our communities; we need to learn more Hebrew; we need to learn to bring God into our lives and into our vocabulary so that these words take on more meaning, and we do need to do more to bring innovation into our prayer without violating traditional norms.

Those are all long-range solutions.

But, while we seek to change our attitudes toward prayer by considering all of those different points, I want to look at the problem in a different way this morning. I’d like us to consider that maybe it isn’t such a problem after all. Maybe it is just a reality to be reckoned with and understood. That occasional boredom, the lack of passion, is inevitable and shouldn’t sour us on prayer at all. Maybe it can, in fact, help us to appreciate one of the many and often overlooked purposes of standardized prayer.

In that spirit, I want to share with you a beautiful midrash on prayer and Jewish ritual in general, courtesy of Hollywood.

I love movies with creative story lines and a few months ago, some time in the middle of the night, amid the infomercials and reruns of programs which weren’t that good in the first place, I caught a movie that I hadn’t seen in a few years.

The movie is called “Galaxy Quest” and is about the cast of a cancelled fictional TV show of the same name, a show about a group of space travelers and “good guy” warriors, “Star Trek” if you will. The show had been cancelled but still had a loyal, passionate following. The cast members now spend their time traveling to fan conventions and other gatherings dressed as the characters, uttering their great lines and reliving plot lines from old episodes.

Most of the cast is clearly doing it just for the money; but the main character, played by Tim Allen, obviously takes this very seriously and loves the adulation since he really has nothing else of importance in his life. He plays his part with passion. However, his attitude changes when he overhears people mocking him and suddenly realizes what a phony he is and what a waste all of this is.

He goes home distraught. The next morning, he awakens with a terrible hangover only to be greeted in his home by four people who turn out to be aliens. They have seen what they call the “historical documents,” the episodes of the show which have been beamed into space. They are convinced that the cast members are real space warriors and, based on what they saw in these documents, they believe “Galaxy Quest” crew members are the only ones that can save their planet from destruction by their enemy.

In an obvious stretch of the imagination, the crew accepts the challenge and goes into space. They go for fun, but they quickly realize that real life is different from TV acting. They realize that they are completely out of their league dealing with real space warfare, and confess their inability to accomplish in real life what they did on the stage. But the aliens have no concept of acting, and encourage the crew to keep at it and to take to heart the show’s catch phrase: “Never give up. Never Surrender.” Without any other choice, the crew carries on clumsily; and with one small and unexpected success, those words which sounded so hollow take on new meaning. Suddenly, they gain confidence and begin to see their situation as an extension of the show’s plots. They make all the right decisions, creatively solve new problems and, of course, save the day.

What a great story.

And it is our story.

Yes, occasionally, we are just acting. Occasionally, we are playing a part. The ritual and the prayers do not always mean what the philosophers tell us they mean, they don’t always mean what we tell our children and our students they mean. Occasionally when we come to shul, we are playing the part of a Jew seriously invested in ritual and prayer when we might not be there in real life at that moment.

If that is true, for what possible reason would we continue to play these scenes?

One reason we do — and it is a very critical reason to recognize — is that we continue to play the part because the moment is going to come when it will not be just a play. The time is going to come when what sometimes strikes us as devoid of meaning will suddenly become real, when we will desperately need to connect with the tradition in a meaningful way to be reassured by the presence of God and our connection with the divine. And when that moment comes, if we have rehearsed the part well, we will find the words are there for us, tripping more easily off of the tongue. We will find ourselves comfortable in the synagogue and in the arena of Jewish tradition; and we will be able to access, to our great and lasting benefit, the wisdom and the purpose of our tradition, even that wisdom and purpose which eluded us on those long days of play acting. The long hours of acting suddenly are worth it when the lines help us respond to real needs.

Sometimes those moments are unexpected. They awaken us out of our rote reading of the siddur when a word or a phrase resonates in ways we couldn’t have anticipated even a moment before. And it is those moments that every person who prays anticipates … and believe me, they happen often.

But sometimes, they don’t come “out of nowhere”. Sometimes we fully expect those moments of meaning. With nowhere else to turn, we turn to the words of the tradition and hope beyond hope they will help us confront the experiences in life that are difficult. And they are more likely to help us do that when we have, through long periods of rehearsals (some of them less inspiring than others), learned the words to say.

There are times when these words sustain us as human beings, save us from our enemies, enable us to at least envision a happy ending at times of difficulty. Just the other day, I was speaking with a colleague whose religious faith does not have standardized prayers which respond to specific situations, and he was recalling how difficult it was after the attacks of September 11, 2001 to figure out exactly what to say with his congregation. He envied, he told me, any faith — and Judaism is certainly one — which has structures in place, structures which people are familiar with to respond to situations. And he realized how important it is to have practiced those responses and to be ready to use them.

We all have moments when we need them. And, of course, the most obvious moment is when we confront the death of a loved one.

When life demands of us that we rise above the situation we confront and attempt to make sense of it or at least accept it, these words and these rituals are most needed. It is for those moments that we rehearse day after day and week after week.

The words don’t always do the job completely. We know that. We depend also on community, on family and friends to help us through. But the words help point the way.

How different is it to say the words of the Kaddish at the graveside when you know them well enough so that you don’t stumble over them, but you know them well and you understand the meaning they can have.

How different it is to walk into this room for a funeral, knowing you have been here so many times before. It might make it just a small bit less difficult to face the horrors of the death of a loved one when you are on familiar ground.

And, as one who has said the Shema with or for a person who lay dying, I can see clearly how much peace it can bring at this time of transition both for the individual and for the family, how it can reach through layers of confusion or unconsciousness or sadness and reach deep into a person’s soul … but not if the words are foreign.

So much of the practice we do is for moments like those when we confront our greatest enemy: the enemy of death. The words are our weapons against despair and loneliness. They are our support, and being trained in their use will make them more effective.

But that is only half the story.

The practice is not just for moments when we confront death. It is for moments when we wish to address the happy times of life as well.

So many of our prayers are about the glory of creation; we say them quickly and move on. But what happens when we say Baruch Sheamar, the hymn to God as creator, while standing on a mountaintop watching the sunrise? Suddenly it isn’t just a script, it is a real thought coming from the heart.

Think about the psalms we say that talk about God’s protection. If we have felt that we have been saved from a difficult situation, how different those words suddenly sound.

The day we become engaged to be married, the day our children are born, the day we celebrate a significant birthday or anniversary … each of these are moments when the rehearsed words suddenly mean something, and that meaning justifies every moment we spent thinking we were only play acting.

Every time we say Yizkor, I begin with the reading that we will say in a few moments: We remember them.

The reading by Rabbi Jack Riemer and Rabbi Sylvan Kamens should be familiar to you:

At the rising of the sun and at its going down

We remember them.

At the blowing of the wind and in the chill of winter

We remember them.

At the opening of the buds and in the rebirth of spring

We remember them.

At the blueness of the skies and in the warmth of summer

We remember them.

At the rustling of the leaves and in the beauty of autumn

We remember them.

At the beginning of the year and when it ends

We remember them.

As long as we live, they too will live;

for they are now a part of us

as we remember them.

When we are weary and in need of strength

We remember them.

When we are lost and sick at heart

We remember them.

When we have joy we crave to share

We remember them.

When we have decisions that are difficult to make

We remember them.

When we have achievements that are based on theirs

We remember them.

As long as we live, they too will live;

for they are now a part of us

as we remember them.”

As you look at this reading, ask yourself: who or what is the “them?” Of course, it is the people we remember. That’s the p’shat, the intended meaning.

But let me offer you a different meaning. This time read the prayer as if the “them” were not the people we remember, but the words of our tradition, the traditional words of prayer.

At the rising of the sun and at its going down, at times of new life and at times of death, we remember the words and find them meaningful. When we are lost and are sick of heart, and when we have joys we yearn to share, at sad times and at happy times, we remember the words and feel the support and the wisdom our tradition has to offer. With the warmth of summer and chill of winter, at beginnings and at endings, we remember the words and they help us accept and find comfort in the cycles of time.

In a moment we will begin Yizkor, and at the end we will say Kaddish. I know you rehearse for this moment. I see you moving your lips to the words of the Kaddish even when you do not have yahrzeit, even when you are not mourning. God willing, your time to use these words as a mourner will not come this year or anytime soon. But when you need to say them, you will say them more easily and they will be more meaningful.

But remember, it is not only at times of sadness, it is at times of happiness as well that we need to find these words more accessible and more meaningful, and we have to look for opportunities to use them.

And we, as a shul, must provide you more opportunities to say them.

And, that brings me to my final comments before Yizkor. They may be a bit out of place and, truthfully, I had thought of sharing them after Yizkor. But now is the time.

I have, together with the Religious Committee, developed a means to help us all find more meaning in daily prayer and, by doing so, solve a very specific pragmatic problem as well: never again should we have a problem getting a minyan in the evening.

Here is the solution: beginning tomorrow evening, we will conclude the minyan not with the mourner’s Kaddish but with the shehecheyanu. We invite each and every one of you to accept the obligation — as you do to say Kaddish when mourning or at yahrzeit — to come to the daily minyan either on the day of, the day before or the day after your birthday, the birthday of your child or grandchild, your anniversary, the day you recovered from a serious illness, whatever it might be. We ask you to come to minyan on the happy occasion just like you come at a time of sadness because those moments, too, are the ones you rehearse for. Those moments, too, are the moments when the words make more sense. Those moments, as much as the moments of sadness, are the moments prayer was made for.

And what we all will find is what we find again and again and again: when we daven in community and there are those for whom the words are personally more meaningful, that sense of meaning is contagious. It helps us all believe that we, too, can find the meaning in the words we say.

When you say Kaddish, we too think about our loved ones. And when you say shehecheyanu, we too will think about how much we all have to be grateful for. And suddenly, the words will become more meaningful for us as well.

Yes, there are many other things we could do with the time every day or on Shabbat evening or morning. And I think that it is perfectly reasonable to say that sometimes staying home and reading, engaging in some Shabbat-appropriate act of loving kindness, or just taking a walk and enjoying the beauty of this world may be a reasonable choice to make instead of coming here. But that doesn’t negate the power of what we do here each and every evening and each and every week. We come here because at every moment these words have meaning, whether actual or potential, present or future; and that is why we need to keep saying them. They need to be said constantly, for in that way we can be sure that they will always be there to bring us meaning when our lives will be changed, our challenges met, the moment elevated when we remember them.


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This morning, I wish to share my thoughts about an important issue that I have not yet addressed from the bima. I have written about it and talked about it with many of you. However, this is the first and I hope the only time I will address it from the bima.

The issue is the proposed “deal” with Iran.

Right from the start, I want to make it clear that I will not tell you whether you should support or oppose this deal. I leave it up to you to decide. You are all well aware of the issues and I am no better informed on any of the details than you.

But I do have some important things to say and I want to say them today rather than on the High Holy Days. I don’t want to talk about Iran on the holidays as I think that one of the ramifications of spending so much time, energy and resources on this one critical issue is that other areas so important to our people and our faith are being ignored. There are many, many Jews who don’t want to hear about this from their rabbis on Shabbat, let alone on the holiest days of the year. Instead, they are looking to their rabbis to inspire them from a spiritual perspective. We need to be sure synagogues are engaging people who look to Judaism for spiritual and traditional guidance in their lives not focusing only on political issues, as important as they may be.

But, I have felt for a while that there is a piece to this issue that I, as an American rabbi, must address from the bima and will do so this morning.

Before I get to that point, there are four other statements that I wish to make as background.

First, I believe that it is a Jewish value to do everything we possibly can to live peacefully in this world and to avoid military confrontation if at all possible. Attempts at diplomacy and negotiations must always come first. But, diplomacy and negotiations do not always yield successful results and we need to analyze any proposed negotiated settlement to evaluate its wisdom. We must not feel obligated to accept any negotiated settlement as a positive step if it doesn’t achieve what it is intended to achieve.

Secondly, we must accept the fact that Iran is a dangerous nation, a sponsor of terror worldwide. I do believe that there are significant numbers of Iranian citizens who truly want their country to be a responsible member of the world community and look for opportunities to end its isolation. But, Iran’s leaders and many of its citizens continue to spew threats against Israel, against the US and others. Because of this, the threat Iran poses, God forbid, as a nuclear power is immense and horrifying.

But, I absolutely believe that our nation’s leaders understand this. I believe that those who negotiated this plan on behalf of the United States sincerely believe that this negotiated agreement is the best way possible at this time to insure that Iran does not develop usable nuclear weapons. You may agree with them. You may disagree with them. However, I absolutely reject the statement that this “deal” reflects an administration that is full of anti-Semites who take Israel’s security concerns lightly or are apathetic to Israel’s needs. Every time those accusations are raised about our administration or about supporters of this agreement, it just makes the situation that much more tense and adds fuel to an already smoldering fire. It is lashon hara.

Finally, it goes without saying but needs to be kept in mind for what I will say in a few moments; a loyal American does not have to support this treaty just because President Obama supports it. How one feels about this “deal” can not be a litmus test of national or even political party loyalty. This, as all issues, should be looked at objectively by all of us.

With all that being said, let me share the one point that has been on my mind continually for the past six months and, as a leader in an American Jewish community, I feel it must be stressed.

I believe that despite any legitimacy his words and his thoughts contain and they are due serious consideration, the decision by Prime Minister Netanyahu to directly address American Jewish leaders and American Jews in general in urging us repeatedly and publicly to oppose this deal is a dangerous strategy with potentially significant negative implications for all of us.

Because of this tactic, it now appears to many that American Jews are expected to take marching orders from a foreign leader and that is a very troubling development in our attempt to balance our love and commitment to this country with our concern for and strong connection with Israel.

Because of this strategy, many in the Jewish community now approach this whole issue primarily as a matter of choosing between supporting Prime Minister Netanyahu and our identification with Israel on the one hand or President Obama and our identification as Americans on the other.

That is not what this debate should be about. It should simply and clearly be about the question of what is the best way to prevent Iran from having usable nuclear weapons given current realities and possibilities.

Opposition to this deal is legitimate. But, the opposition should have been expressed from the beginning through our American political system by our elected officials, not principally by Prime Minister Netanyahu. This has been an issue since his speech in the capitol building in this spring. The Prime Minister should never have addressed the issue in that setting in the way he did. It was too visible an intrusion into our political process and it put American Jews, supporters or opponents of the plan, in a potentially precarious situation.

And, to bring up a more general point, in this situation and in others recently, Prime Minister Netanyahu has said in so many words that he speaks on behalf of Jews worldwide. Regardless of how one feels about exactly what he or any prime minister says at any given time, this is not true.

The Prime Minister of Israel, whomever he or she is, can not speak for all Jews. Each Jewish community must trust its own leaders to guide them on how to address political issues that arise in their particular community. We certainly should be listening to what people are saying in Israel but no one speaks for Jews throughout the world and the claim that that is the case is misguided.

Sadly, I think this tactic shows a clear lack of understanding or respect on the part of Israel’s leadership to the reality of Jewish life outside Israel and how diaspora Jewish communities conduct themselves in their home countries. American Jews have for decades carefully balanced our deep concern for Israel with our proud identification as American citizens and I am afraid that we have lost our balance in recent months due to this debate.

I am heartsick over the tone of this debate. I absolutely believe it is a critical issue and Israel’s security should certainly be a factor for all of us as we consider this question. But, the way in which the debate has been held is wrong.

The date of the vote can’t come soon enough. Then, whatever happens, in addition to being vigilant about Iran’s nuclear capability, we can set about trying to restore the precious, nuanced, and carefully balanced relationship that the American Jewish community has built over the decades, as we remain loyal to our country while we care deeply for Israel.

Meanwhile, I urge you all to educate yourself, make a decision if you haven’t already, contact your elected officials and pray for peace for all.

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A Journey for Family

Today, in the small city of Preili, Latvia, a ceremony will be held to dedicate the newly restored Jewish cemetery. The cemetery had fallen into disrepair over the decades and through the efforts of many of the descendants of the Jews of Preili and with the support and cooperation of the local authorities and citizens, the cemetery has been restored.

Here is the sermon I gave on the Rosh Hashana following my trip to visit Preili in 2011:


Let me begin this morning with a verse from a song called Sunday Morning Sunshine, written by Harry Chapin. In many ways, it describes some of what I feel, looking back on my 25 years here in Ann Arbor:

I came into town with a knapsack on my shoulder

And a pocket full of stories that I just had to tell.

You know I’d knocked around a bit and I’d had my share of small town glories.

It was time to hit the city and that crazy carousel…

These streets were never highways. I had not known the sky above.

These days were never my days for I had not known your love.

It’s funny how a city can put on a different face. When it holds the one you care for.

It becomes a different place

You brought your Sunday Morning Sunshine here into my Monday morning world.”

I have grown to know and to love this community. It holds the ones I care for, all of you whom I have gotten to know over 25 years. And, of course, the one whose love sustains me every day.

I did come into town with a pocketful of stories. Some were the classic rabbinic stories rabbis pick up along the way, but some were personal stories I chose to tell during classes or occasionally from the bima. Now, many years later, I have many more stories to share and today, I want to tell you the story of one of the most significant experiences of my life.

It is a story about darkness and a story about sunshine.

One Shabbat morning in January, I was at home, having taken that Shabbat off for vacation, when the doorbell rang. The mail carrier was at the door with a registered letter.

I had been expecting the letter. It was from the governmental archives of the nation of Latvia. A few months before, I had submitted a request for information about my paternal grandfather’s family. My grandfather came to America from Latvia in 1907 and died when my father was a young man.

Our family had been fascinated with the history of the Dobrusins for decades and the search for information had been a true adventure. Despite significant effort, we were unable to find any meaningful information about the family until an extraordinary experience brought progress to our search for our roots.

A friend from college whom I hadn’t been in contact with for 30 years suddenly emailed me one day telling me that she had just learned that her husband’s maternal grandmother’s maiden name was Dobrusin. She wondered if we might be related. It turned out her husband’s grandmother was my grandfather’s sister. We were second cousins. A rift in the family had occurred in the 1940s and there was very little contact between the first cousins for decades. Now, through this coincidence, a generation of second cousins a generation removed from the rift found each other and combined our knowledge about the family’s past.

Then, in another extraordinary coincidence, I found out that a good friend’s father had come from the same city of D’vinsk that my family had come from, and he knew exactly to whom I had to write to get the information I wanted.

And here the letter was in my hand.

I sat for a few moments staring at it and then opened and began to read.

The letter contained the details of the family from the Russian census of 1897. It listed my great grandparents Itzik and Hilda, whose father’s name was Hayim, and apparently the one for whom my father was named. It listed four sons and daughters; Julius, my grandfather; and his two siblings, Annie and Louis, who also came to America. It noted their sister Rebecca who died at a young age in Latvia. The census records listed their occupations, education level, and even their street addresses in D’vinsk (now known as Daugavpils). Immediately I decided I had to go to Latvia and stand on those streets and see where I came from.

But something was missing. We knew there was another brother. We knew his name was Shael. Where was he?

I turned the page and found that, in fact, Shael and his family had moved to a different town. He had moved with his wife and children, one of whom, my father’s first cousin, shared his name Hayim, to a town called Preili, 30 kilometers to the north. There, Shael lived with his wife Luba who was to die young, three children, their spouses, and three grandchildren.

So what happened to them? According to documents taken from the Soviet Archives of the 1940s, Shael, his children, and his grandchildren were all killed during the first days of the Nazi occupation of Latvia in a massacre of the Jews of Preili on August 9, 1941. All of them were murdered simply because they were Jews.

You might know of a TV program which deals with genealogical searches of celebrities called; “Who Do You Think You Are?” At that moment, I realized my answer to that question “Who Do You Think You Are?” had forever changed. I could no longer say as I had said for years: “No one in my close family died in the Holocaust.” In that one moment, the Shoah became more than the Jewish story. It was now my family’s story and virulent anti-Semitism was not just a concept but a family reality.

Now, I had to go Latvia, go to Preili to stand in that place, and immediately after Shabbat, I began to make plans to go during the summer.

In the next months as I did more research, I learned quite a bit. First, I discovered that my great uncle’s and cousins’ deaths had been recorded at Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem, and testimony was accessible on the Internet. Why hadn’t we looked? No one in our family had thought to look at the records of Yad Vashem in searching for information about Shael. Were we escaping what we knew in our hearts to be true?

Those Yad Vashem records also contained the name of the man who had submitted the testimony concerning my family. He was a resident of Preili who was in the Russian army at the time of the massacre. He lived in Haifa, Israel and I found his phone number and called him. After a moment of hesitation, he spoke to me briefly and he acknowledged that he knew my family. He said: “Shael Dobrushin was the gabbai (the assistant to the rabbi) in the old shul in Preili.”

When I heard him call my uncle by his name, I cried.

I also learned that there was a Holocaust memorial in the town of Preili, alongside the abandoned Jewish cemetery, the site of the massacre where my family members were slaughtered. The names of the victims were buried in a capsule under the monument and my family’s names were there.

At that moment, the focus of my planned trip became Preili and one June day, after a four-hour train ride from Riga, and a 45-minute bumpy drive across the back roads of southeastern Latvia, I arrived in Preili.

As I walked from the car to the monument, a line from a movie suddenly came to my mind. It was an odd movie to think of at that time. It wasn’t Schindler’s List or any other Shoah movie. Rather, it was a line from the children’s movie “Lilo and Stitch” which at one time was a favorite in our family. The movie features a comment on the Hawaiian word for family: “Ohana means family. Family means no one left behind or forgotten.”

I thought of that line and cried again. My family members had been left behind. But now they would no longer be forgotten.

I walked up to the monument and performed the simple act of remembering: placing stones I had brought from Ann Arbor on the memorial. Then, I stood for a few moments in silence.

After those few moments, I found myself wanting to say something to Shael and his family and the words that came out of my mouth surprised even me. I said: “I am ashamed that in over 70 years no one from the family came to visit you. I apologize but I came as soon as I heard.”

“I came as soon as I heard.” Those were the words that came to me – words that we say to people when they think we haven’t cared when in fact we didn’t know. But sometimes we don’t know because we don’t try hard enough to know and, deep in my heart, I knew we had blinded ourselves for several decades. We should have known. Whether we knew the details or not, we should have realized what had happened to our family.

After saying the memorial prayer and walking around the abandoned cemetery for a few minutes, I left and, truthfully, if I had gone right back to the airport in Riga and had flown home, my trip would have been worthwhile. But I was in Latvia for another few days and so I visited Daugavpils, my grandfather’s birthplace.

With the help of my guide and a local Jewish historian, I learned about the city, a place of great Jewish learning and serious intellectual debate. It was the town where my grandfather came to reject his family’s Jewish tradition and embraced socialism and Zionism. It was the town where his eyes had been opened to seeing something more than the closed, shtetl-like Judaism of his father and his brother, the gabbai of Preili. It was the town from which he left to come to America, and that is exactly what occurred to me while standing on the street where the family lived in Daugavpils.

I didn’t think to myself: “This is where he lived” but “This is the town he left.” This is the town he escaped from to start a new life in America. After seeing what there was to see, I couldn’t wait to join him in leaving.

It was a pleasant enough city and people were friendly, but it was not my place. There was no one and nothing there that made it my place. To paraphrase Harry Chapin: “Those streets were never my ways and I had not known this sky above.”

I spent my second and last night in Daugavpils tossing and turning as voices I didn’t recognize and didn’t understand bounced around in my head. Some of this was brought on by the exhaustion of travel but it was more likely emotional turmoil as I felt as if my grandfather and all of the others who left like him were telling me to go home, back to America, the place they came to. I couldn’t stop thinking about it or watching the clock. It was the longest, most unsettling night of my life. As much as I had needed to go to Daugavpils and as much as I was glad I had done so, that was how deeply I needed to leave.

It was raining when I boarded the early morning express train to Riga. I fell asleep almost immediately, a deep blessed sleep. I woke up when the train made its first stop an hour and a half later to see the sun shining. I smiled from ear to ear.

That day, Friday, was a great day. I thoroughly enjoyed Riga: a lovely city. The sun was shining. I went to the city’s central market and on an architectural walking tour and basked in the sunshine of the city which was once called: “The Paris of the North.”

On Shabbat morning, the sun was still shining when I went to the one active shul in Riga to say Kaddish for Uncle Shael and his family.

As I was settling into my seat, I looked around the synagogue and my eye was drawn to the Hebrew inscription around the aron kodesh. It shocked me. It wasn’t the type of quotation you usually see above the ark, expressing spiritual yearning or simple faith. It was a verse from Psalms: “Blessed be God who did not abandon us to become prey for their teeth.”

Being survivors defined this community’s existence as Jews and I could not turn away from the inscription.

I focused on two Hebrew letters: nun and vav,“us,” who did not abandon us. I asked myself: how had the knowledge I had gained in the past six months changed me? Who do I think I am? Am I part of that us?

In the sense that all Jews are intertwined, of course, we are all part of that us. But beyond the platitudes, what does the story of my great uncle’s death mean to me? Am I now, in some distant way to consider myself and my family as survivors? How does knowing the fact that there were more second cousins that I would never meet because they died in the most horrible ways imaginable affect who I am and how I see the world?

That was the key question for me. I started thinking: does it still make sense to do what I have done more ardently as the years have gone along: embracing the liberal perspective of the late 20th century American Jewry I was raised in, idealistic attitudes that were influenced by freedom and comfort? Here I am working for interfaith causes, spending time on more global concerns, believing we can form alliances with people who used to hate us or still may. Here I am now serving as the co-chair of T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights, an organization which believes that high on our agenda as Jews, we must be addressing the human rights of all peoples throughout our country and throughout Israel and the territories? What do I say now that I am confronted with my family’s history? Is this a path I have to reconsider? Can I be as positive about the future? Should I still find time to reach out beyond the Jewish world in the work that I do? Or do I think of my great uncle and his family and focus entirely on the survival of our people knowing that the world stands against us and – that “if I am not for myself who will be for me”?

Of course, I recognize that many who came out of the Shoah are dedicated to those same idealistic values and, in some cases, it was the experience of the Shoah which led them to those commitments. But it does seem obvious that the values of trust and idealism are easier to come by if you have not experienced such pain. I have been told very often by people in this congregation that I would likely feel differently about the world if my parents had been born in Europe or if I had sat in the lap or at the feet of those whose had suffered unthinkable harm at the hands of the Nazis. I know it is not true for all survivors or children of Holocaust victims, but it is true for many that the pain and agony has led them, quite understandably, to be less open and trusting of others in the world. I understand and I acknowledge that. But how does this apply to me, and is the answer different than it was before I read the letter from Latvia and sat staring at the inscription in the Riga shul?

So I struggled with this question and tried to figure out where I fit in. I thought of what it means to grow up in freedom, what the benefits and potential dangers are. I thought of my parents, my teachers, my colleagues who have inspired me to fight against the apathy and selfishness that good fortune sometimes brings. Then, I thought of so many of my colleagues who see things so differently from me.

I spent several sleepless nights wrestling with these questions and after weeks and weeks of wrestling I came up with an answer. I cannot change who I have come to be.

Of course, this experience will have an impact on my thinking. It will strengthen the obligation I already feel and hopefully share with all of you to respond to incidents or threats of anti-Semitism at home or elsewhere. I will, I assume, respond a bit more quickly as my words to Shael: “I came as soon as I heard” echo in my mind.

This experience will also further solidify my commitment to Israel as I was reminded again how much safer a world this is for Jews with a Jewish state.

But even though that is true, I still worry about linking Israel too strongly with the Shoah. It is not enough to think of Israel solely from the perspective of Yad Vashem. We have to think about Israel in other ways than just a response to or the prevention of another holocaust. Jewish survival is not enough. We need to think about the values we embrace, the way we live, what we do with our survival, and what we teach the world.

This trip didn’t change how deeply I feel that. I am still an idealist.

Because my grandfather came to this great country, I have had the blessing of security which has given me a completely different set of experiences and a completely different perspective on what it means to be a Jew than Shael might have had.

So, ultimately, Shael’s life and death will never be as great an influence on my life as the story of my grandfather Julius.

When Grandpa Dobrusin left Latvia, he left for a place where he could give his children and grandchildren a better life, a place where three generations later, we live safely as Jews in a multi-cultural, more universalistic society. I have grown up nurtured by that freedom and that dream. That is who I am. And nothing, not even the tragic story of Shael’s life is going to change that. Nor should it.

I think of Mordecai Kaplan’s words; “The past has a vote but not a veto.”

My experience in Latvia will have a vote in how I view the world and my role as a Jew.

But it will not have a veto.

Whether I am part of the “us” who was saved from the Holocaust could be debated. But what can’t be debated is that I am part of the “us” whose life has been lived in freedom and comfort, and that has fostered in me to a set of priorities which I feel are critical and necessary for the Jewish people and for the world at large. Just as our people must hear with great reverence and respect the stories of those who have experienced anti-Semitism most directly to remind us of the threats to our people and urge us to be vigilant and protective of our own needs, so too do our people need to hear our stories: the lessons of those of us who have been blessed with a safer life and who have worked to advance the ideals and possibilities life can hold for us and all people. We need to tell our stories and to continue to embrace the perspective with which we have been raised.

I am indebted beyond words to my grandparents for giving me the opportunity to be who I have come to be. I didn’t do anything to deserve that gift, but I will not apologize for it. My life in America has been one of Sunday Morning Sunshine and my trip taught me not to take the sun for granted.

I am my grandfather’s grandson, and while I will never forget and never abandon my great uncle and his family’s memory, I will always be guided by the sunshine that has graced my life because my grandfather came here. I hope and pray that those of us who have been as fortunate as I have will be grateful for the sunshine that shines on us and find ultimate meaning, self definition, and obligation in that blessed light.


eed to grow up but never so old that we stop questioning who we are.

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