“Our differences bring us together:” Rosh Hashanah 5777/2016 Morning Drash by Rabbi Lisa Edwards
It was one of those moments. I’m sure you’ve had them too. I was prowling-the-web-in-the-middle-of-the-night-when-I-should-have-been-sleeping. Well, at least i wasn’t tweeting! For some reason I thought to search for the lesbian couple who ran the summer camp I attended in Colorado in the 1960s.
No one talked about them as a lesbian couple of course. Not back then, or since, at least not in anything I found on-line. But I did discover that these “ladies” met in 1941 in Dallas, TX where they had both gone during the war to become Rosie the Riveters (Rosies the Riveter?).
Amy Lou, whose nickname was “Skip,” had already run a summer camp for girls in the Ozarks, and after the war she took Elizabeth — nickname – “Lib” — back there with her. But summers were too hot in Missouri (they said), and the pair soon moved to Colorado where they bought a run down but beautiful acreage that they turned into a splendid girls camp. I spent one very happy summer there. They were wonderful camp directors.
In 1970 they retired to Denver, where Lib continued her wintertime job as a violinist with the Denver Symphony Orchestra.
Whether Skip and Lib ever described themselves as lesbians, or as a couple, whether they had a community of friends who knew who they were, I don’t know. I did find on-line photos of each of their gravestones [findagrave.com], presumably side by side. Judging from their matching gravestones [slides projected], I figure they were together 52 years – from 1941 until Skip died in 1993. How many lives they touched in those decades as camp directors — they were adored by campers and counselors alike.
Skip and Lib weren’t the only fabulous lesbian teachers, camp directors, advisors I had in my life. I went to another summer camp that had been run by a lesbian couple (actually by the time I was there, one of the couple had died), but Miss Jones (we called her Jonesie when she wasn’t around) carried on admirably. I had lesbian 7th grade science and art teachers, a high school English teacher.
People knew, or there were rumors anyway, but no one seemed to care much. Some of you have heard Tracy’s stories of her lesbian teacher too. And of course there’s BCC’s own Harriet Perl — that’s Miss Perl to you, Mark Miller — of blessed memory. Harriet was the closeted high school English teacher for several of you.
Such a different world now from when “no one spoke about it.”
Such a different world now from when BCC was founded 45 years ago and the membership list contained first names and last initials only.
Such a different world now from the world of Skip & Lib & Jonesie and Miss Perl. Now there are out proud camp directors at camps for queer kids and trans kids and we wouldn’t think of asking a teacher or counselor to be closeted (would we?)
Inspired by my midnight reveries about the influential lesbian teachers of my youth, I want to ask you all a few questions his morning. Please respond no matter where you are on the various gender or sexuality spectrums:
Will those of you who are now or have ever been paid MONEY or in material goods to be a teacher of young people please stand?
How about camp counselors? directors?
Family social workers?
Foster care workers?
Children’s court officials?
Who else? I’m looking for people paid to work with children?
Please stay standing.
Look around, everyone — some heroes in this sanctuary. A grateful nation (grateful rabbi, anyway) salutes you.
Speaking of heroes, Let’s add some volunteer positions to these. Have you ever been a volunteer who works with children or young people?
Volunteer tutor, babysitter, music teacher, BIG BROTHER/BIG SISTER? How about a Literacy teacher?
I’m not — yet — placing parents in either of these categories, by the way — PARENTS, you get your own category.
Not among those who get paid or those who don’t get paid, but those who pay to spend time with children!!
Again look around, everyone, at those whose avocation and/or vocation calls them to work with children.
A grateful rabbi salutes you.
Before I let some of you sit down, what do you notice about the group that’s standing?
[Answers included: more than ½ the room]
Now, if you’re a parent, please stand — a parent of a human being, that is — I KNOW YOU PEOPLE, I’m not talking about your pets right now. And if you’re not a parent, please sit down.
What do you notice about the group that’s standing?
Answers included: far fewer than ½ the room;
a lot more than there used to be;
2 of 3 BCC clergy among them
Parents — go ahead be seated — you need to conserve your strength!!!!!
NOW those of us who are not parents — please stand.
what do you notice about this group that’s standing?
Answers included: more than ½ the room;
fewer than the other groups; 1 of 3 BCC clergy standing
[please sit down]
Another thing we might consider about this group is that some of us are not parents by choice and some not by our choice. Some in this room would have liked to be parents, but know they won’t be doing that. And I want to acknowledge that conversations like this or watching the BCC children in our midst can sometimes be difficult for those with that particular ache in their hearts.
Yet Rosh Hashanah calls us to reflect on our lives — the joys and the sorrows, the wrongs and the rights. It calls us together that we might consider our life in community, in Jewish community, in queer community, in this City of Angels, in these United States in these days.
These Days of Awe call us to consider not only who and what we are, and have been, and are becoming, but also who we aren’t, haven’t been, won’t be. It calls us to consider not only the lives we are living but also what some people call — “the unlived lives in us all.”
So you might have been hearing lately or witnessing this morning, that The GAYBY BOOM has arrived at BCC! Among BCC members we’ve had 8 babies born in the past 18 months or so — and at least two more on the way. Mazel tov to all these families!!!
Rabbi Heather is starting a baby conclave for babies/toddlers and their adult companions. See Rabbi Heather if you want to know more — get on her mailing list!
And our youth contingent — the ones no longer babies — continues to grow as well. Children who have arrived in their families in every which way you can imagine, and some ways you haven’t imagined. Our Ohr Chayim family Shabbat program is thriving.
And earlier this morning for the first time in over 2 decades, we combined our family service with our main service. We wanted to see if we could be an intentional intergenerational community — we always talk about everybody being welcome at BCC — is everybody?
We hope you enjoyed our intentional intergenerational few minutes together…
— We wanted on this Rosh Hashanah to bring us all not just under the same roof (of Temple Isaiah), but also into the same sanctuary. We want for this sacred space to be an actual sanctuary for all of us.
We realize it’s a little risky.
The kids might find it annoying to have so many grown-ups in one room.
Whether smiling and waving or sullen and serious, adults can be so distracting to children trying to pray, trying to learn about Judaism and its holidays and values….
But we decided to take the risk, and to remind ourselves that as a congregation we are made up of many people of many ages, and that’s a good thing, and best celebrated with all of us together.
And I, as Senior Rabbi and as someone who has been around BCC for just over half of BCC’s 45 year existence, as someone who has gone from a middle aged BCCer to an elder, and as someone without children, I wanted us this morning and this year to really look at and consider some of the changes — challenges and blessings — that are coming upon us as a congregation.
We are both graying [pointing to my gray hair] and youthening (i made up that word).
Many in our community are recalibrating their lives. Some are retiring — some happily, some reluctantly. Some have had health challenges, others – career challenges, and of course some are happily growing in their careers and their family choices. There have been this year, as every year, the break ups and the get togethers; and this year a few too many deaths – thank goodness for the “quite a few more” births. We’ve had relationships forming and disbanding, or just changing, new people coming into our community, and some leaving.
And a lot of people who also called their year status quo — not much has changed — and some of you like it that way, and some of you find that difficult or dull.
I say all this in part to remind us that what we’re experiencing may not be what the person next to us is experiencing. What we come here seeking may be different from the seeker sitting beside us. The compassion – chesed – that Rabbi Heather called on us last night to take up in earnest, can be practiced right here in our annual gathering.
And of course with the re-calibrating of individual lives, comes, we discover, some re-calibrating of community life. Our volunteer members and leaders, our staff and our clergy have been and will continue to work hard at finding what will work — what will keep BCC functioning at its best and continuing to be a place of delight, where social events and social justice, and music and art and Jewish learning and prayer can bring us intellectual and spiritual growth — challenge and blessing. A place where real community — intentional community — grows every time any of us gather together.
Of course sustaining all this financially is always a challenge, as is organizing it, figuring out how to get people here or there or wherever we’ve invited them to be. If you’ve ever taken part in helping organize something at BCC, you’ve gotten a glimmer of the many moving parts, and how much there is to consider and to do. All of you who help us in any and all of what we do, including those of you who just come to stuff, I am grateful. And if in the year to come you might be inclined to help again or more or in different ways, talk to any of our board members or staff or clergy, we’ll be happy to try to match you up with what’s right for you, or just let us know if you know already.
It’s so thrilling to me that we live in a place and a time where people have so many choices, and that BCC can continue to be so much and mean so much to so many people.
May it always be so.
Hmm, If we just look at a list – our problems and our blessings can sound so mainstream: More babies! Less money!!
Yet the profiles of our congregants and congregation stands out from the crowd in lots of ways.
For example, of the 15 students at Ohr Chayim so far this year, 14 of them are adopted. Our families are multi racial and multi ethnic, and interfaith, queer and straight(ish). Some have 2 parents, some have 1 parent, some of the parents are no longer a couple with each other, and other parental figures are entering the mix. Even if “rainbow” wasn’t already a word we use to describe our community, we could use it as a descriptor of our religious school families.
And then there’s the new babies — not adopted — but most are not exactly run of the mill arrivals either, even if they’re being born into the family that will raise them.
But in all this we would do well to notice and remember that we come from a long tradition of remarkable family-making.
And today — Rosh Hashanah — may be the best day of the year to talk about all this because according to tradition, not only did God conceive of the world on this day, but also on Rosh Hashanah all the best people were conceived. Well, that’s a slight exaggeration, but according to midrash — Jewish legend — on Rosh Hashanah God took note of our ancestors: our matriarchs Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, and Hannah, all of whom had longed for children and had difficulty conceiving — and nine months later Isaac, Jacob & Esau, Joseph, and the prophet Samuel arrived in the world. And we read about all of them in the Torah and Haftarah portions our sages chose for us to read today and tomorrow.
And there’s more — consider the Torah family we read about every year on both days of Rosh Hashanah.
We begin with Abraham and Sarah (the patriarch and matriarch of the Jewish people). Together as a couple for a long time, unable to get pregnant themselves, they decide to see if one of them can impregnate a surrogate. They succeed, but their relationship with the surrogate (Hagar) gets a little strained, and she runs away.
God convinces her to return. A child is born to them — Ishmael — but the relationship with Hagar remains difficult [Genesis 16]. Sound familiar?
Even in those days there was little support for non-conforming family structures — one dad, two moms, and two half-brothers provided plenty of parenting challenges.
Later God reveals to Abraham that, at age 100, he will father another child, this time by Sarah (age 90).
His response? What would yours be?
He throws himself on his face and laughs. And Sarah laughs when she hears about it.
God demonstrates a sense of humor too and tells Abraham to name the son “Isaac,” meaning, “he laughed” [Genesis 17:15-19].
We pick up on the story in the Torah reading this morning with the birth of their child Isaac. As well as the story of the strained relationship between Sarah and Hagar and Ishmael, the surrogate and the first born son of Abraham. Sarah doesn’t like the behavior of Ishmael, son of her maidservant Hagar. Why not? We’re not sure, she saw him mitzakhek — a word related to her own son Isaac’s name, but the meaning is unclear. Is he laughing? Making fun of Isaac? Bullying Isaac perhaps? Or something sexual? Whatever the reason, she wants mother and son banished, and God tells Abraham to go ahead and do so. They wander into the wilderness and nearly die from thirst.
Why did our ancestors choose this story for Rosh Hashanah or the scary one we read tomorrow? We can speculate, but we’ll never know for sure. Among the reasons I like the choice is precisely because of the difficult relationships and the odd challenges they face — which turn out to be kind of familiar challenges really.
Another reason I like it? Hagar and Ishmael did not perish in the wilderness — instead God reached out to them too, sending a messenger, telling Hagar not to give up on the life of her child: “Stand up, lift the boy, and hold strongly onto him with your hand — for I will also make of him a great nation.”
We are not the stand alone chosen people of God —
Just as Abraham and Isaac are the ancestors of the Jewish people,
So are Abraham and Ishmael the ancestors of the Islamic people.
And our tradition reminds us of that right here, to be read every year on the Jewish NEW YEAR — and this year also on Islamic/Al-Hijri New Year which lands today by coincidence on Rosh Hashanah —
How timely for us — can we use part of this Day of Remembrance, this day of judgment, this day of sounding the shofar — calling us to remember our history and to consider our lives today to remember Hagar and Ishmael whose story is part of our tradition too?
Hagar — her name means “the stranger,” is cast out here from the fold.
But later in Jewish tradition — ha – ger comes to mean not stranger, but convert, Jew-by-choice – to be honored, celebrated, not cast away. And we learn that as Jews we are to take in refugees and wanderers, not create them. Something we might do well to consider in this new age of refugees and wanderers.
Remember all those questions I was asking you a few minutes ago — who among us works with children? Teaches them? Spends time with them?
Jewish tradition long ago recognized the importance to our world of teachers who are not themselves parents, or who do not give birth to the children who become part of their families.
The Talmud makes it clear that adoption is equal to conception:
“Whoever brings up an orphan in his home is regarded as though the child had been born to him.” (Sanhedrin 19b)
And in the second paragraph of the V’ahavata prayer (the one, unfortunately, that Reform Jews seldom read), the Talmud takes note that the phrase: Teach them to your children” is written in Hebrew in the 2nd person plural v’li-ma-d’tem otam et b’nei-chem, meaning, says Gamla the High Priest, children’s education is everyone’s responsibility — and we are each of us and all of us their teachers. It’s the Jewish version of “It takes a village.”
May it become the Talmudic description of BCC.
Many of you remember Rae Chalin, the daughter of our Cantorial Emerita Fran Chalin and her spouse, Rob. Rae started college a couple of weeks ago. But I bring her up because of something she said about BCC a few years ago when she became bat mitzvah.
Having grown up at BCC, Rae has a keen perspective on what’s special about the place, and in reflecting on it, she said to me:
“At BCC our differences bring us together.”
In her bat mitzvah talk to our congregation, Rae joked about how as a little kid she would repeatedly ask why she couldn’t have two mommies, like most of her BCC friends. “That must have made my dad feel great – sorry, Dad,” she said, but she also noted more seriously that it was at BCC that she came to understand the meaning of family, how it’s bigger than just the people you live with. BCC is also one of the places where she learned to question authority (including God), challenge ideas (her own and other people’s), and take ownership of her life.
I haven’t asked Rae recently about whether her wise words still resonate with her, but they do with me.
At BCC our differences do bring us together. And the more we come together, the more we’ll find to keep us together.
There was a sign hanging in the theatre at Skip and Lib’s summer camp. On it was a quotation that included this line:
“The secret of the JOY of living is proper appreciation of what we actually possess.”
I think about the secret lives lived by so many who helped make it possible for the rest of us to live our lives openly in families and in community of our own design.
In this New Year may we come, as individuals and as a community, to appreciate what we do actually possess — a congregation, a community that not only let’s us be who we are, but embraces us as we strive to become all we can be.
And may that realization bring us joy.
 The Audience by Peter Morgan, Missing Out: In Praise of the Unlived Life Adam Phillips, etc.
 Also: Praiseworthy are the guardians of justice, who perform charity at all times. (Tehillim 106:3) Now, is it possible to perform charity at all times? R Shmuel bar Nachmani said: ғThis refers to one who raises an orphan boy and orphan girl in their house and marries them off. (Ketubot 50A)
 Bava Batra 21a Apply the last part to the children of the school, from the time of the decree of Yehoshua ben Gamla** and on.
[**A High Priest in the decade before the destruction of the Temple.]
For Rav Yehuda said in the name of Rav:
However, remember this man for good, namely Yehoshua ben Gamla, for if not for him, Torah would have been forgotten from Israel.
For originally, whoever had a father, [the father] would teach him Torah; whoever had no father would not learn Torah.
What was expounded?
(Deuteronomy 11:19) “And ye shall teach them (‘otam’).”
“And you yourselves (‘atem’) shall teach.”
They decreed that teachers of children should be set up in Jerusalem.
What was expounded?
(Isaiah 2:3) “For out of Zion shall go forth the law.”
But still, whoever had a father, [the father] would bring him up [to Jerusalem] and teach him; whoever didn’t have a father would not go up and learn.
They decreed that [teachers] should be set up in each and every district.
And they would bring them in at around age 16 or 17, and anyone whose teacher was angry at him, [the teacher] would kick him out.
Until Yehoshua ben Gamla came and decreed that teachers of children should be set up in each and every province and in each and every city, and [that] they are brought in at around age 6 or 7