After The World Falls Apart
Rosh Hashanah Sermon 5783 (2022-2023)
By Rabbi Alana Wasserman
Shanah tovah! As many of you know, my love of Broadway musicals has seepedinto a High Holy Day sermon every year. This year, there’s a small twist. Today, I am beginning with a song that was recorded on a Broadway cast album but was ultimately cut from the show. In Disney’s Frozen, after leaving Elsa’s ice castle, Olaf, the magical snowman, literally physically falls apart. While Anna is upset and concerned about her friend, Olaf would have sung a song about how falling apart isn’t necessarily a bad thing. The song is called “When Everything Falls Apart.” Here is an excerpt of that song:
When everything falls apart
And I’m as broken as can be
I don’t get devastated when decapitated
No, it just helps me see differently
When everything falls apart
And the winds of fate seem cruel
What I’m most afraid of
Shows me what I’m made of
Which turns out to be pretty cool
(later in the song)
When everything falls apart
And it’s an awful, awful day
To sum up my thesis, when I fall to pieces
It’s a chance to look around and say
I’m gonna pull myself together in a better way
(later in the song)
When everything falls apart
It’s just the world re-shuffling
Rosh Hashanah is a time for us to begin again; to look at things from a fresh perspective. It’s our chance to “re-shuffle,” as Kristoff would say. Sometimes, it may seem like our lives are falling apart, or the world is falling apart. Despite all the ways that things can go to pieces, Rosh Hashanah affords us a chance to rebuild in a new and different way. That is the message of Olaf’s song.
During these last two and a half years, there have been numerous times where it seemed as though the entire world was falling apart, especially with regards to COVIDand all its waves. When the pandemic was declared a national emergency, the entire world went into lockdown. Fear and uncertainty spread. Some people lost businesses;others lost loved ones. Today, we are still coming out of this pandemic, with our lives forever altered. It felt like COVID caused the entire planet to collapse. My question is: What do we do after the world falls apart? Let’s look to our own tradition to find some answers.
One of the best examples I can think of is the holiday of Tisha B’Av. Actually, it’s the day after that really catches my attention. You see, Tisha B’Av is the holiday that commerates the destruction of both the first and second Temples. To the Jewish people living during the destruction, it probably felt like all was lost. In fact, after the second Temple was destroyed, 90% of the Jewish population decided to completely assimilate into the Roman Empire. They chose to give up Judaism. They could not see a way for it to continue without the Temple. It was the remaining 10%, a tiny minority,that decided to take action. They reinvented and revitalized Judaism. It was because of this small group that our religion did not die when the Temple was destroyed. Due to their actions, it was reborn anew. While the Judaism we know today does not look the same as it did in Temple times, we are still here. Even though Tisha B’Av is a significant day of mourning on the Jewish calendar, we must remember that the next day, people took the opportunity to recreate Judaism anew. That is something worth celebrating.
That is how we look at Rosh Hashanah – the day that we, both as individuals and as a community, begin anew. Many of us have experienced that feeling of the world crumbling around us, with work, school, finances, relationships, or other facets of life. When this happens, what can we do to get through it?
Personally, I think we need to start by following the examples of our ancestors. The first thing they did after the destruction of the Temple was allow themselves to express their feelings of grief; they mourned the loss of the Temple, and what Judaism used to be. Whether coming out of COVID, or any other difficult situation in life, we need to allow ourselves the opportunity to express our emotions, especially those of loss. It is often the first step in moving forward. After their mourning period, our ancestors decided to take all the aspects of Judaism that they thought were still pertinent and bring it with them into the future. We need to do the same. Rosh Hashanah gives us the opportunity to reflect on what has worked well for us in our lives, and what we need to change. As U.S. Ambassador to Japan, Rahm Emanuel, once said, “You never want a serious crisisto go to waste… And what I mean by that is an opportunity to do things that you think you could not do before.”
As we enter the year 5783, let us take these brave next steps in our lives: reflect on what was, say goodbye to what can no longer be, and work on what we want to come next. May this year be one of health, joy, happiness, peace, and rebuilding anew. Shanah tovah!
I Simply Cannot Do It Alone
Rosh Hashanah Sermon on the 50th Anniversary of the Ordination of Rabbi Sally Priesand & Women in the Rabbinate
By Rabbi Alana Wasserman
Shanah tovah! The Emmys were on TV just a few weeks ago. How many of you watched it? I enjoy watching these shows: the glitz, the glamour, the comedy, the fashion. But what I look forward to the most is the emotional thank yous. “I have so many people I’d like to thank!” they all say, some with tears in their eyes. Each and every one of these individuals knows that they have accomplished something amazing, but they are also keenly aware of the humbling fact that they did not do it alone.
I’m sure many of you have heard the phrase, “No man is an island.” I’ve been thinking about this a lot, especially as this year marks the 50th anniversary of the ordination of Rabbi Sally Priesand, the first woman rabbi to be ordained by a theological seminary. I’ve been thinking about her, as well as all the other people who paved the way for me, as well as the more than 1500 other women rabbis, and how we got to this point in history. This anniversary has also made me realize that our accomplishments in our lives are not merely our own. We must acknowledge the fact that none of us has been able to succeed without the help of others. When we accomplish something great, yes, we deserve the credit, but we must acknowledge the teachers who taught us, the people who came before us, and the friends, family and community that have supported us along our way. Without them, we would not be able to achieve our goals.
At the beginning of the summer, I received my copy of the CCAR Journal Summer 2022: The Reform Jewish Quarterly. For those of you who do not know, CCAR stands for the Central Conference of American Rabbis – the organization for Reform Rabbis, of which I am a member. This journal is a book sent out quarterly, filled with articles and poetry written by Reform Rabbis about various modern-day topics. This edition was devoted entirely to women in the rabbinate, in honor of the 50th anniversary. Not only is Rabbi Priesand the first woman rabbi in North America, but she is also the second woman rabbi in recorded history. While I have known about Rabbi Priesand for most of my life, I didn’t really know much about anyone else who helped pave the way for her to enter the rabbinate. Until recently.
As I said earlier, Rabbi Priesand was the second woman rabbi in recorded history. For many years, we thought that she was the first. Only when the Berlin Wall came down in 1989 did we find out that Regina Jonas was, in fact, the first. Just last month, The New York Times published an article from their “Overlooked” series, called “Overlooked No More: Regina Jonas, Upon Whose Shoulders’ All Female Rabbis Stand.” Rabbiner (that was the title given to her to use as a female rabbi) Jonas was born in Berlin in 1909. She studied at the Academy for the Science of Judaism, a seminary in Berlin. The topic of her thesis was why women should be allowed to serve as rabbis. She cited Halachah (Jewish law) to support her thesis. The rabbi she studied under was ready to ordain her when, unfortunately, he suddenly died. A few years passed before she was able to find another rabbi who was willing to ordain her. Rabbi Max Dienemann said, “I testify to her… that she is suitable to serve as a rabbi.” Regina Jonas was ordained on December 27, 1935. She died in Auschwitz in October of 1944.
Years before Rabbiner Jonas was even born, steps were already being taken towards the ordination of women rabbis. In her Founder’s Day address this year at Hebrew Union College (the Reform Movement’s Rabbinical School), Rabbi Sally Priesand gave a speech (which was published in The Reform Jewish Quarterly). In her remarks, she acknowledged individuals who helped make it possible for women to become rabbis. She mentioned Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise, the founder of Hebrew Union College. She said that he believed in women’s equality. In fact, in 1875, the inauguralclass of HUC had a female student. Her name was Julia Ettlinger. Unfortunately, Ms. Ettlinger died at the age of 27.
Rabbi Priesand also mentioned Rabbi Stephen Wise, a prominent Reform Rabbiin the early twentieth century, who was also a supporter of women’s equality. In 1919, he wrote a letter to a young woman who was interested in the rabbinate, saying, “the fact that no woman has served as rabbi is no reason why no woman should so serve.”
Rabbi Priesand went on to mention Dr. Nelson Glueck, president of HUC while she was a student there. She said Dr. Glueck was “the man most responsible for my ordination.” She knew that the decision to ordain her would be made solely by HUC,under his leadership, and not the Union or the CCAR.
In another article in The Reform Jewish Quarterly called “Wives to the Rescue: The CCAR’s Epic Decision to Ordain Female Rabbis in 1922,” by Rabbi Carole Balin, we learn about another early step taken towards the ordination of women rabbis. Martha Neumark was a student at HUC when the Nineteenth Amendment was passed, guaranteeing women the right to vote. Women were being ordained as Protestant ministers at that time as well. As Ms. Neumark continued her studies, the CCAR knew they were going to have to make a decision regarding the ordination of women. At the thirty-second annual CCAR conference, a decision was made thanks in part to the wives of some of these rabbis. While debating the issue, one of the rabbis decided to open up the discussion to their wives to get their opinions. According to the minutes of the meeting, three women spoke: Mrs. Frisch, Miss Baron, and Mrs. Berkowitz. All of them spoke in favor of ordaining women rabbis. The decision to ordain women was passed at that meeting by a vote of 56 to 11. Yet, despite this decision, Marth Neumarkwas not ordained. We still had a long way to go.
But we ultimately go there. Rabbiner Jonas and Rabbi Priesand broke the glass ceiling. However, they didn’t do it alone. They had everyone else I just mentioned (as well as others, I’m sure) to help them along their way. Just because no one did it before them does not mean that they did by themselves. They, too, had so many people to thank.
Recently, our synagogue’s book club read, The Year of Yes, by Shonda Rhimes. In her book, Ms. Rhimes shares the speech she gave when she received the Sherry Lansing Leadership Award at The Hollywood Reporter’s Women in Entertainment Breakfast. She said, “I was getting the award in recognition of my breaking through the industry’s glass ceiling as a woman and an African-American… But I haven’t broken through any glass ceilings… I’d have wounds… How many women had to hit that glass before the first crack appeared? How many cuts did they get?… How many women had to hit that glass before the pressure of their effort caused it to evolve from a thick pane of glass into just a thin sheet of splintered ice? So that when it was my turn to run… I didn’t have to fight as hard… And when I hit finally that ceiling, it just exploded into dust.Like that. My sisters who went before me had already handled it… Making it through the glass ceiling to the other side was simply a matter of running on a path created by every other woman’s footprints. I just hit at exactly the right time in exactly the right spot.”
Whenever we recite the Amidah, we mention our forefathers and foremothers: Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, Sarah, Rebecca, Leah, and Rachel. We recognize the importance of remembering those who came before us. Without them, we wouldn’t be here.
For me, Rabbis Jonas and Priesand opened the door, so that I, and over 1500 other women worldwide, could follow our dreams and become rabbis. Now, we must heed the words of our great sage, Rabbi Hillel, who said, “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am only for myself, what am I?” We stand at the ready to help open the door for others, whether it’s in regards to the rabbinate, or something else in our lives.
As we reflect back on the year that has past, I hope we all take pride in each of our accomplishments, both great and small. But I also hope that each of us takes the opportunity to acknowledge those who helped us on our way; those who came before us, those who taught us, who supported us, who helped us manage obstacles, and lessen the pain of breaking through. Let us acknowledge that they not only helped us to achieve our goal, but they continue to inspire us as we move on, and hopefully, help others in return.
Story Rabbi shared at September 16, 2022 Services
The Curse of the Blessings (click on the link)