Rabbi Analia and Rabbi Mario, thank you for inviting me to speak here today. I am really glad to be here at Or Hadash. It’s nice to be back.
I have to admit that I am neither a rabbi nor a scholar. And less a month ago, I was just like all of you: a member of a conservative congregation, who tried his best to get to shul most Saturdays.
In fact, a little over a year ago, I never thought I would be working in the Jewish community at all.
I was working in what, in many ways, was a dream job. After years as an entrepreneur, starting and then selling companies, I was asked by President Obama to run the White House’s social innovation efforts — steering how we use private-public partnerships and creative policies to tackle problems from job creation to the environment. Then, I got the call.
Would I be interested in being considered to lead ADL?
I was flattered. I once interned at ADL as a student in college. My wife – who is sitting over there and originally came to this country as a political refugee from Iran – worked for years in our Los Angeles office.
But the truth is that ADL has been led by the legendary Abe Foxman for decades. The organization is more than a century old. Why would a serial entrepreneur and activist be interested?
Yet, I was intrigued. One meeting led to another. One call to another. And, lo and behold, I am here today as the new national director of ADL.
And this transition comes at an interesting time in our calendar. Today is Rosh Chodesh Elul, the beginning of the month leading up to Rosh Hashanah, the Yamin Noraim, and Yom Kippur.
It is a time of change – of ending one year and beginning a new one.
It’s a month in which we start a spiritual accounting of who we are – as individuals, and as a community. It’s interesting that in Hebrew it’s called, “Cheshbon ha-nefesh.”
And even if you speak as little Hebrew as I do, you know that at the end of a meal in Israel, you ask for the “Cheshbon” – the check.
And just as the waiter adds up how much you ate and drank…how many plates you may have broken…and what needs to be boxed up for later, now is when we tally up all that we have done the past year – good and bad -- assess where we are, and look ahead to how we may change.
This accounting is so important that starting tomorrow at Shacharit, we will sound the Shofar each and every day. As a wake-up call. To jar us from our day to day so that we may step back and tally up that Cheshbon.
And when I look at where we are as an American Jewish community, I see that there is a lot of work left to do.
First, if your Facebook feed is anything like mine – or any other Jew’s in America, you know how consuming the Iran deal is.
Let me be clear: I do not want to debate its merits or faults, or even discuss it today.
But it is worth noting that the final vote on this deal will happen during those days of awe between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.
And whichever way it goes, we – as a Jewish community – will still have time before the end of the High Holidays to decide what the future for us may hold.
We will have time to look back and look forward…look back at what the debate around this agreement has done to our community…and look forward to what we can do to repair the breach.
I must admit that my heart breaks when I see how this debate has torn apart the Jewish community.
Those that are for it? Naïve. Self-haters. Stooges for the president.
Those against it? Warmongers. Traitors. Stooges for the prime minister.
We are hurling epithets at each other rather than focusing on who may be hurling things at us.
We have very big issues that we must face -- from hate groups that still raise their ugly heads to a BDS movement that has taken hold in too many of our college campuses… from an older generation that needs our support and aid as they age to a younger one that feels distant from the organized community and the faith itself.
Yet, we cannot begin to tackle these challenges, build and strengthen American Jewish life, if we are at each other’s throats.
That is why we should take this month of Elul to think about what we can do to come together as one, to finish this debate without name-calling, and to start thinking about what we need to do to bring “Cal Yisrael” back together again.
Second, as we look beyond the confines of the Jewish community and look out at the country we love, we also see that despite all the distance the United States has traveled, we are still in pursuit of “that more perfect union.”
While an African-American sits in the White House, we still have seen tragedies unfold in just the past year in Ferguson, Baltimore, and Charleston.
While the Supreme Court has affirmed that anyone can marry, our friends in the LGBT community can be fired from a job just because of who they are.
While we commemorate the 100th anniversary of the lynching of Leo Frank, and that horrific crime feels like ancient history, the anti-Semitism that fueled it has not entirely disappeared. Whether it’s BDS activists on campus or white supremacists online, it’s still there.
And despite all the progress made in Georgia since Leo Frank, and in our own lifetimes, it is still one of only five states that lacks a hate crimes law.
Some may say, “Why is this concern? We Jews have our own problems.”
From its founding in the wake of the Leo frank trial more than a century ago, ADL has believed that combating the “defamation of the Jewish people” and securing fair treatment and justice for all are two missions inextricably tied together.
When fair treatment is secured for all Americans, that is good for its Jewish community.
And when the Jewish community can live safely and securely, that is good for the country.
This mission is a century old, but it is as relevant today as it was in 1913. It guides me in this new role. And it will guide me in the New Year to come.
Let me close by noting something interesting that I learned about Leo Frank. While he was killed here in Marietta, he was buried in New York…in a cemetery in Queens.
The tombstone is small and unassuming.
On it is Leo Frank’s name, his date of birth and death, and just two words:
“Semper Idem” – Latin for “always the same.”
Honestly, I do not know why his family included that on his tombstone. But I think it represents the exasperation of a family beaten down by anti-Semitism, tired of fighting, and believing that a life living in fear, with limited opportunities is the best that Jews in America can do.
Perhaps his family – sitting there in 1915 -- felt that anti-Semitism, prejudice, and hatred would always be the same across the United States.
Thankfully, we can say that they were wrong.
We live in an extraordinary country during extraordinary times.
Our challenge as we approach the new year is to focus on what needs to change going forward --what we can do to improve ourselves, to strengthen the Jewish community, and to help move our country closer to its founding ideals of equality and justice for all.
Thank you, Shabbat Shalom, and L’Shanah Tovah U’metukah.