Yom Kippur Service Sermon from Rabbi Conover

Shabbat Shalom.

Has anyone here ever heard of SCOTT GINSBERG?  On a whim one night in college nearly 14 years ago, he decided to wear a name tag that said: “Hello, My name is Scott” 24 hours a day, seven days a week.  He never takes it off.  He carries spares in in his pockets.  Just about five times a day someone asks him: “What’s with the name tag?”

And here’s his response: “It represents friendliness in the midst of strangers.”

So today, we sit in this beauty of this awesome sanctuary.  We pray this day together, but I am sad to say that sometimes, even amidst so many others here, we still feel like strangers.  That is not a way to start a new year.  We are not wearing name tags, so in just a moment, I will ask you to introduce yourself to those sitting around you.  And if you already know your neighbors, ask them this question: “What do you hope this sermon is about?”  Put another way: What message do you need to hear at this season this year?

And… go!

Alright, now that you’ve introduced yourselves, set your hopes for the message of this sermon, let’s see how I do…

For those of you who time sermons, you can start—now… with a story from Rabbi Yehiel Poupko.  His grandfather was the rabbi of a shul in a shtettl in the Russian countryside.  There was no electricity there and during the harsh winter, the sun barely shone.  Hence, not just one menorah, but dozens and dozens of candles lit the shul. After every Shabbat, a man gathered the wax left over from the used candles that had melted and hardened all over the shul.  He gathered it up and put it under the Aron Kodesh– the ark that housed their Torah.

On the night before Yom Kippur Rabbi Poupko’s grandmother, along with the venerable women of the community, would come to the shul late at night.  They would take the box of seemingly discarded candle wax from underneath the Aron Kodesh. With this wax they would knead and mold, with new wicks, the candles that would light the shul on Yom Kippur with the light of a year of prayers and good deeds, of baby namings and bris’s, the light of those devoted to taking cared of the poor, the brides, the elderly, the light of committees organized to care for the needs of the people of the congregation– all of them known, most of them liked– in this small sacred community.  All the radiance of this community, interconnected, intimately woven together through years of sacred moments and responding to one another’s needs, lit up this tiny shtettl shul on Yom Kippur.

So many of us yearn for this kind of community in a world that often feels isolating, harsh, distracting and broken.  In fact, the heart of Scott Ginsberg’s action to wear a name tag all the time is more than mere schtick.  He actually holds this radical notion that this whole world could feel a little less lonely, a little less isolating, more (not his words, mine) like a shtettl shul by the simple gesture of openness, of knowing one another’s names….

He said: “A nametag is a celebration of identity, an invitation for openness and a declaration of social belonging.”[1]

And don’t we all want to find a place where we truly belong?

Some years ago, my friend Emma visited me in Tampa.  Now, Emma lives by Scott’s credo.    We went on a walk very early one morning– not too long after the sun had risen.  As we walked through a nearby neighborhood, we saw a man sitting off to one side of the sidewalk, wearing nothing but grimy jean cut-offs and beat-up workman’s boots.  He said hi and then just as we were about to pass him, he stopped us.  He introduced himself as Woody—short for Woodruff and then said, “Listen, can you do me a favor?”

What do you think his favor was?

He looked at Emma and again said, “I just got one favor to ask.  [PAUSE] Will you shake my hand?”

Not the favor you expected?  Mine either.  As Emma shook his hand, he explained that most of the time, people avoid him—averting their eyes.  But he wanted to feel connected to another human being– he wanted to feel friendliness in the midst of strangers, belonging in an often rejecting world.

What kind of world do we live in when someone has to ask for us to pay attention to them, for us to meet their eyes when we pass by them, for us to say hello?

Well, I guess the real world.  And I know that ignoring others and only focusing on what separates us is nothing new.    Many of us know the folk story about a rabbi who, while studying the laws of when to begin morning prayers, asked his students: When can you tell that morning has come? Each response from his students was about separation and isolation:  It’s when you can look at the horizon and can distinguish one person’s field from another’s.  It’s when you can make out one house from the next. It’s when you can tell your ox from your neighbor’s cow.  All of the students thought the light was there to show distinctions.

While intentionally separating ourselves from others is nothing new, I worry about the ways we unintentionally isolate ourselves from other people today, so dependent have we become on the tiny bright screen that seems to compel us more than brightest eyes of a thousand people. Author Jonathan Safran Foer wrote in a recent New York Times editorial:

Psychologists who study empathy and compassion are finding that unlike our almost instantaneous responses to physical pain, it takes time for the brain to comprehend the… moral dimensions of a situation. The more distracted we become, and the more emphasis we place on speed at the expense of depth, the less likely and able we are to care.[2]

How often have we been to restaurants, movie theaters and, yes, synagogues, where someone is so busy texting he or she is completely oblivious to the present moment? I am as guilty of this as anyone.  The other night I was sitting with my husband on the couch just after we put our boys to bed.  As I was scrolling through my e-mails, I heard the whistle of a text message.  It simply said “hi.”  Who was it from?  Yep, my husband.

Safran-Foer puts a fine point on this message through a story he shared at a commencement address to the 2013 graduates of Middlebury College.[3]  It begins the way many of our stories do these days: One day, when I was busy with my i-phone…

You see, he had arrived a bit early to a breakfast with a friend in Brooklyn, so he sat outside on a park bench to wait.  While waiting, he had the experience that most of us have had before, he saw a stranger crying in public…She looked to be college-aged and she kept saying into the phone in her hand: “I know, I know” over and over.  Then she said, “Mama, I know.”   Again, “Mama, I know,” and she hung up the phone.

At that point, Jonathan explains, he had a choice.  He could either make her life his business or he could respect the boundaries between them.

So, he said, he chose to approach.

Instead of commenting on her crying, he commented on the weather.  They had a brief back and forth and then he said, “Look, I don’t mean to bother you, and if you tell me to mind my own business I will, but if there’s anything I can do…”

Through a brief conversation, he learned that she was about to meet her birth mother for the first time.  She wasn’t even on the phone with anyone.  She was just practicing what she might say to the mom who raised her.

He pressed a bit further, sensing that she was making room for him to:

“You kept saying, I know, I know– what was that an imagined response to?”

“I imagined that my mom was telling me that she loves me.”

Then Safran-Foer told the Middlebury graduates and their families:


He explained:

It’s harder to intervene than not- and vastly harder when we are scrolling through our contact list or… whatever your I/eye-distraction happens to be… The phone didn’t make me avoid the human connection, but it did make ignoring her easier and more likely.

Yet we must connect—in person, face to face, eye to eye, heart to heart.

Earlier I shared the beginning of the folk story about the rabbi whose students could only think of light as a tool for separation—to distinguish one field, house or one farm animal from another.  I told you of the students’ responses to the rabbi’s question.  However, I did not tell you the rabbi’s response. Here’s what he said:  “You can tell the morning has come when there is enough light for you to notice the person in front of you and see the Divine light reflected in their eyes.”

On this Yom Kippur, we can aspire to be more, to connect more, to notice the Divine light that connects all of us.

It begins by being present.  Pay attention. Or as we sometimes say in America: Open your eyes!

Yet seeing is not enough, it requires a response.

That’s why I love the way Israelis say “pay attention.”  Not “Pitchu enayim– open your eyes– not even pitchu oznayim, open your ears.  But simu lev— take to heart or more literally: put your heart into the situation at hand.

So how might we do this?

This kind of paying attention, this kind of presence– being at the ready to respond to others– requires effort, it’s true, but not heroic feats.

One of my favorite texts that I studied this summer at the Shalom Hartman Institute—and there were a lot of them!—is from Tractate Taanit.[4]  In the passage, the sages discuss the proper individual response when members of a community are in distress.  As an example par excellence, chazal comments on the passage from Torah when Amalek attacks the Israelites. Moses goes atop a hill and holds the Divine staff above the battlefield.  As long as he keeps the staff aloft, the Israelites will prevail.  The Torah continues: “But Moshe’s hands were heavy; so they took a stone and put it under him and he sat upon it.”

The sages question: “Why did Moses sit on a stone? Did not Moses have a bolster or a cushion to sit on?”

But this is what Moses meant to convey: “As the people of Israel are in distress, I too will share with them.”

Not through heroic acts like fighting alongside them on the battlefield or binding their wounds, but by acknowledging their pain by sitting not on a cushion but a stone.

Sometimes small gestures mean so much.  Standing or- in this case- sitting in solidarity.  Showing soldiers in the Gulf War that we remembered them by tying yellow ribbons around trees. Or wearing colored ribbons to identify with people suffering…   The artists who created the red lapel ribbon explained that the ribbon is a visual expression of compassion. They wanted to make people feeling isolated know that they had support.   So many of us at different times have worn red, pink, green, or just a few days ago, black ribbons.

Small gestures speak volumes. They open up worlds and hearts: sharing our names, shaking hands, speaking to crying strangers, sitting on stones– or, according to the beautiful Alex Graham who now rests in peace, doing something even simpler than that.  Fifteen years ago, at the age of 17, Alex, who suffered a devastating cancer, made a short Public Announcement through Make A Wish Foundation.[5]  The message?  Having cancer is hard enough.  Do something small to acknowledge our pain.  Just make the effort to smile at us.

Our world and the people in it call out to us often in subtle ways.  On this Yom Kippur, I call on us to respond.

And what is the first gesture of response? Listening.

Shema! Moses urges us time and again in Sefer Devarim.

Shema– listen!– Notice the world around you!

Shema– listen!—Take it in with all your heart.

Shema, Yisrael,– Listen you people of Israel:

Adonai Eloheinu— Adonai, the God of Compassion, is our God.

Adonai Echad– Adonai, our One God, calls on us to see the unity in all things.

Notice the Divine light reflected in another person’s eye.  Notice the person suffering or celebrating next to you and far away.  Notice and then respond– listen.

This command- to listen- is so important it should inform every action we take: when we go to sleep at night and when we wake in the morning—when we go forth from our homes and when we return, when we do business outside the gates of our city.  We must be so present, it’s between our eyes, ready at our hand… Our parashah this morning tells us that this teaching is not far from us, it’s in our hearts.

It’s right here in Temple Sholom.  Every day, we have been trying to live by this teaching.  We’ve been trying to listen, to respond. And for all the times that we have gotten it wrong in the past, and in the present, when I have gotten it wrong– I’m sorry.

Today, we stand here at this historic moment—guided by extraordinary leaders with our new senior rabbi, Eddie Goldberg whose intellectual, warm, and poetic spirit brings new light to this community.

For the past year, we have intentionally begun the work of visioning—of listening– of asking how we can do the fun and sacred work to—even in a large urban setting—feel like an intimate community that puts equally at our center: the values Torah that have inspired our people for thousands of years and the needs of the people who make up our community.  It started with twenty-five people—a small sampling of our community that included people who are single and coupled, empty-nesters and newly married, gay and straight, Jew and non-Jew, active participants in synagogue life and those who have not been involved.  Led with immense wisdom by Sherry Weil and David Lipschultz, over the course of the year, we engaged in learning, sharing, and laughing together as we explored current and ancient trends in Jewish life. We have sought to wrap are our arms, minds and hearts around the notion of what a sacred community, what this sacred community is and will become.  Interspersed with stories of feeling part of communities in the past, we began to find the elements that must be part of this community in the present:

  • You feel welcomed when you enter
  • You know others and are known to others
[And, by the way, this is what I love Scott Ginsberg—he didn’t expect everyone to know his name—he graciously shared his name.  He created the kind of culture he wants to enjoy.]

The list continues:

  • a place where you can share your thoughts-you are not judged, you can be yourself,
  • where people participate because it is meaningful to them;
  • it’s not a hierarchical place– everyone is important;
  • a place where you can use your talents/gifts because they are recognized by the community and it is fulfilling to use them in this community;
  • it is fun to be here- joyous and synergistic;
  • it’s resilient to outside pressures, and inside pressures as well because its parts are held together by its own internal integrity.

This is not just any special community, this is a sacred community—a community nourished by Torah and nurtured by The Divine Life Force, whom some of us call God, Adonai.

As someone from the original visioning group offered:

This is a place where I can talk to God, and talk to my friends and not be laughed at.  It’s a place where I am accepted, appreciated, encouraged, cherished, where I can get what I need.

Someone else explained:

It’s not enough that the values and ethics emanate into all that we do within our congregation, they must emanate into the outside community as well.

We then faced an awesome task—to try to construct a Shema statement for Temple Sholom that, like the Jewish people’s Shema statement, will inform everything we do.

We got off to a slow start with slogan-sounding statements that while apt, might not have been quite aspirational enough…

Come doubt with us!

You’ve got answers, we’ve got questions!

Slowly, slowly, l’at, l’at, we began to realize that we wanted a statement that would capture who we are at our best–that shows how we strive to become a community that celebrates the diverse people and ideas within our congregation—that makes ancient Jewish wisdom new again as we use it to guide our lives  through uncertain times—that reaches beyond the magnificent walls of the synagogue to better our world….

Temple Sholom:

A sacred community that embraces, inspires, and matters.

The visioning could not be contained.  We began to have listening house parties (without the techno music)—we gathered in small groups in people’s homes and invited others who had not been part of the visioning.  We shared our stories, our hopes and dreams of what a sacred community could be.  One woman shared memories of going from one family friend’s lap to another during services when she was little.  She wondered if her own children could have those same warm memories and feelings of connectedness at Temple Sholom.  Another man spoke of the true celebration of life that happened around a dying family member’s bedside.  In the humble hospital room, through a few day period, nearly a hundred loved ones came to share their stories, to laugh and cry together.  He thought of that hospital room as a microcosm of who this community is at our best.

So, in this next year, we will continue to share stories, to listen to each other—to notice the Divine light reflected in one another’s eyes.  Step by step, we will make sure this light is reflected in Temple Sholom, our sacred community that embraces, inspires and where you matter.  We have six house parties planned through February—where our very special senior rabbi will listen and share his own stories and aspirations as well. We would like for each of you to be involved…  but if you do the math, you can imagine that six meetings will not accommodate all of us – at least not through small groups.  So, if you would like to be involved in this kind of listening and reflection—which I hope that each one of you will— I suggest doing one of the following:

1. After this service, in person or by e-mail, tell me or Sherry or David that you would like to be involved.  God-willing, this process will go on and on so that we will be able to hear from everyone in our community in this way.

2. Hold a house party on your own.  In fact, tonight many of you will be involved in a break fast at someone’s home.  You can either share stories about times when you felt yourself part of a community or when you felt yourself touched by the Divine—or, in the spirit of a new year, a new day, and a new era, ask this question:

What’s a part of myself that I would like to shine more in the coming year? 

If you think of it, shoot me an e-mail and tell me what you said. (I promise not to read that e-mail when sitting on the couch with my husband—I’m more likely to read it in synagogue.)  I would love to post some of your responses anonymously on our website so that as a sacred community, we can celebrate your light.

I began this morning by sharing a story about a small shtettl shul and the candles that lit up their sanctuary on Yom Kippur.  Now, I want to end by telling you a story about a menorah that holds the candles of this large urban shul.  Most of you are not sitting close enough today to see it, but our menorah on this bimah has a very different shape than most menorot.  How many times have I looked at it over the years and never noticed that its shape is not merely decorative?  It was not until last year, when Rabbi Knobel pointed it out in his remarks to a group that it hit me, the branches of our menorah spell out “Shema.”

Listening literally lights up our congregation.

So next year, on Erev Yom Kippur, when we enter this sacred space, more of us will know each other’s names, our passions,  why we cry and what makes us laugh, we will have celebrated with each other, mourned with each other…

When members of our community come to light the candles on our menorah at our Kol Nidre service, they will represent the light of a year of listening, the Divine light reflected through one another’s eyes into this congregation—the light of prayers and good deeds, of baby namings and bris’s, the light of those of us who devoted ourselves to taking care of the poor, the brides, the elderly, the light of committees organized to care for the needs of the people of our congregation– all of them known, all of them liked– and the light of those who have made sure that the light emanating within these walls improves the lives of others in the larger world.  The radiance of this community, interconnected, intimately woven together through this year of sacred moments and responding to one another’s needs, will light up this sanctuary on Yom Kippur.

May this be a year of paying attention- simu lev– of putting our heart into the lives of the people around us.

May this be a year of listening- shema yisrael– of responding to the needs of the people around us.

May this be a year of seeing the reflection of the Divine light in the eyes’ of the people around us.

And, most of all, may this be a year of nurturing that light in our homes, in our schools, in our sanctuary and in our lives.

Ken y’hi ratzon, may this be God’s will.


[1] You can watch a 20/20 interview with Scott Ginsberg in which he makes this statement on YouTube at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cPk-alYqQrE.

[2] Safran-Foer, Jonathan. “How Not to Be Alone.” New York Times 8 June 2013.

[3] The commencement address can be found on YouTube at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RgGzz3fKINA.

[4] Babylonian Talmud Taanit 11a

[5] Alex’s Public Announcement can be viewed on YouTube at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cz3SnPMja9k.


Rabbi Shoshanah Conover is Associate Rabbi at Temple Sholom of Chicago.