Mailing address:

Beth Chai

6301 River Road

Bethesda, MD 20817

Sunday School and Adult Education usually meet at Burning Tree Elementary School, 7900 Beech Tree Rd, Bethesda

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"Fellow Travelers"

September 24, 2018

Several of you asked that we post this inspired sermon delivered by Rabbi Cohen during Yom Kippur services. 


My first pulpit was a small congregation in Cary, North Carolina - a boom town right outside Raleigh fueled by the high tech industry. Everybody in Cary was from someplace else - New York, Chicago, LA, Washington, DC. In fact, the locals said that CARY stood for the "Containment Area for Relocated Yankees." That sort of sums it up. Being a small, volunteer-base, congregation in a town that didn't historically have a Jewish community - Well, congregants got to be very close - sort of like family.


Not unlike at Beth Chai, the members threw their hearts into the community. Take for example, the Hamburg family. Audrey was president of the Sisterhood. Mike was president of the Men's Club. Their two teen children volunteered in the religious school and found their best friends in the congregation. The congregation was the core of their family life.


My husband David and I grew close to the Hamburg family, especially to their children who sometimes would hang out at our home and dog-sit for us. Audrey was the talker, Mike the more reserved one. But, when Mike and I did talk, it tended to be about the congregation or his kids or Men's Club - not about him. So, Mike's background never came up.


After about 2 years of knowing Mike, though, Passover was approaching and I happened to ask him whether the family was going to his parents' home for the holiday or staying in town. "Staying here," said Mike. "My parents don't celebrate Passover, of course." I must have looked confused. "They're Christian, you know" he chuckled. "You didn't grow up Jewish?" I asked, somewhat surprised. "I'm not Jewish," Mike laughed. "Didn't you know that, Rabbi?" As it turns out, Mike grew up Protestant. When he and Audrey married, they decided to raise their family Jewish because religion meant more to Audrey than it did to Mike.


Mike had never felt the need to convert to Judaism. Still - he felt very much at home at our congregation and very much a part of the Jewish community. 2 I share this story not because it is unusual or surprising. Just the opposite. I share it because it is such a universal story in the Jewish community. Through my 20 years in the Rabbinate, I have met so many members of the community like Mike. Non-Jews, who have committed themselves to having a Jewish household and find friendship and meaning at the synagogue. Some people might call this diversity a "modern day phenomenon." But, it isn't just modern day.


Some people might call it a contemporary result of "assimilation." But, it is not just contemporary. From the days of the Bible onward, non-Jews have played an important part in the Jewish community. Take, for example, Zipporah - Moses' wife. She is Midianite. But, she lives her adult life as Moses' partner. Together, they raise two sons, who grow up fully part of the Israelite people. She leaves her homeland, casts her lot with the Israelites. Her father - a Midianite priest - becomes one of Moses' closest advisors. In fact, Jethro guides Moses in setting up a Judicial system. A weekly Torah portion is even named after Jethro - the portion that contains none other than the 10 commandments. Our ancestors didn't look down on Jethro - they embraced him and saw him contributing to the vitality of our people.


Now, I have to say that language and names are important. And, to me, non-Jew is jarring - when it refers to a person who has committed him or herself to our community. It feels exclusionary and focuses on who a person is not, rather who or she is. Instead of highlighting what the person contributes to the Jewish community, it focuses on what he or she doesn't. Non-Jew and Jew - there are just too binary. And, our ancestors felt the same say.


The Torah uses the term "Ger Toshav" to describe a person who make a home for themselves in the Jewish but does not chose to convert - there is a separate term "ger tzedek" for Jews by choice. The word "Ger" comes from the root "L'gor" or to live. Toshav come from the root "l'shevet" or sit or settle. Rabbi Gila Geysel Raphael suggests a spot-on translation. She translates Ger Toshav as a "fellow traveler" - a person who is not Jewish but is committed to supporting the Jewish people, finding a home among us and being an ally.


We can infer "Fellow Travelers" were fairly common in the ancient days. The Torah discusses Ger Toshav a half dozen times, all in very positive ways. The Torah tells us to "love" the Ger Toshav. In Leviticus, we read, "If a ger lives with you in your land, you shall not wrong him. A ger who lives (ha-gar) with you shall be for you like one born among you, and you shall love him as yourself." In Number 15, we read "There is to be one law only, and one statute for you and the non-Jew who lives among you." 


 The positive attitude towards Ger Toshav does not end with the Torah. Talmud describes a Ger Toshav as one who lived amongst the Jewish people, doesn't convert but is happy to be a part of the Jewish world and supportive of the religious and social framework of Jewish life. The Talmud says that he or she has a respected status, with many of the same privileges and obligations as Jews. Moving forward through Jewish history, respect for the Ger Toshav continues: The great Moses Maimondes, who lived in 12th Century Spain and Egypt, tells us the ger toshav should be treated with "loving kindness." And, Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan, whose philosophy gave birth to Reconstructionist Judaism in the middle of the last century, advocated redefining the requirements of Ger Toshav for today's world.


The take-away, if you will - welcoming the ger toshav - fellow travelers into our community is nothing new. It dates back to the beginning of our community, our history, our peoplehood. Today, I think that the Ger Toshav should be especially celebrated. It takes a certain unselfishness and confidence to be a "fellow traveler." You really need to know who you are. I am giving this sermon this morning because I think that all too often there is a notion that diversity is a new phenomenon threatening and weakening our Jewish community.


Through the years, I have met Jews who feel the greater Jewish community is endangered by diversity, who question the place for non-Jews in our midst. I see it differently. The Jewish community become insular in large measure because of anti-Semitism. For many centuries, being insular was not the ideal - but the reality and a urvival method. Especially in Europe, Jews of the Middle Ages onward stayed to themselves because the outside world was just too threatening and closed to them. Genetic studies have shown the Ashkenasic Jewish community to be particularly insular. A 2014 study suggests that all Ashkenasic Jews today can trace their roots back to the same 330 people. Sephardic Jews have more genetic diversity but also, by and large, experienced less anti-Semitism. Whereas our ancestors in the shetls of Europe kept to themselves, this was not always the case for the Jewish community. Scholars says that both during the Roman period and the Golden Age of Spain, the Jewish community often intermingled and intermarried with the non-Jews. Moving back even further through the centuries, Moses is not the only one to bring a non-Israelite into the community - Joseph marries an Egyptian, King Solomon marries a slew of foreign women, Rahav throws her lot with the Jewish people, so does Tamar and Naomi. And the list goes on. . . Being a fellow traveler, a ger toshav is part of the Jewish tradition, dating back, well to the beginning. I like borrowing symbols from Jewish tradition and redefining them for today.


So, let me tell you about the tradition called Eruv. An Eruv is a wire or fence put up to define the borders of a Jewish community. Most 4 often a wire is suspended on electrical or telephone poles. In Manhattan, the Eruv extends from Harlam to Soho. In downtown DC, the eruv has an 18 mile circumfrance. When a Eruv is constructed, symbolically it makes private space into public space - one's neighborhood becomes akin to their home.


This is important because observant Jews are not allow to carry items outside their home on Shabbat. But, with an eruv, the whole neighborhood becomes "home." Inside the Eruv, an observant Jew may walk with a purse, push a baby carriage and carry a casserole dish to your neighbor's house. Outside the Eruv, he or she can't. So, in our area? Montgomery County has 8 eruvs - one in Olney, Rockville, Potomac, Bethesda and Chevy Chase. And, three in Silver Spring. The Bethesda eruv extends from Bradley Boulevard to Wisconsin avenue. Sorry, here on River Road, we're not in it. And, if you live in Northern Virginia, you are out of luck - no Eruv. But, an initiative is underway in Northern Viriginia to build one. Initial price tag $75,000. So who knows what the future holds. The traditional purpose of an eruv has little for most of us. But, I like the symbolic purpose. Defining community. Make private space into public space.


If I were to set up an eruv, a boundary or border for the Jewish community, I'd set it up wide. It would encompass people with diverse backgrounds. Anybody who wanted to live within the Eruv - live within the community - could. Intention and involvement would be much more important than lineage. Within the Eruv, all of us born-Jews, Jews-by-choice, fellow travelers - would find a home.


This Yom Kippur, think about the communities to which you belong - synagogue, neighborhood, workplace, clubs. Where and how is the erev, the border, drawn? How do people find the gate? Does the eruv, the border primarily exclude or include? In the book of Numbers, the non-Israelite prophet Balaam looks down from a hill top and sees the Israelite camp. He proclaims, "Ma tovu ohalekha Ya'akov, mishk'notekha Yisra'el." How beautiful are your tents, O' house of Jacob, your dwelling places, Israel." The sages say that Balaam was inspired by how the Israelites had laid out their camp. They had put up their tents in a way to inspire community. The tent were laid out in a circular fashion, to facilitate sharing and communal experience. But the tent doors were facing away from each other to enable privacy and modesty.


The Talmud explains: Balaam saw that the tent openings of the Israelites do not face each other; rather each opening was behind the next one, so that no one would look in the house of his friend. (BT Bava Batra 60a) The tents of Jacob, our Jewish community at its best: diverse, welcoming, non-judgmental and intentionally based on mutual respect and consideration for others. May this be the community that we know in the coming year. May we learn from each other, celebrate one another, support each other - no matter our background or path that brought us to Beth Chai. And, may the new year be a good one for all of us. 

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