Dreaming in Harmony: On the Third Yovel of the Anshe Emet Synagogue

Yom Kippur | Rabbi Michael Siegel | September 27, 2023

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Rabbi Michael Siegel | Anshe Emet SynagogueYom Kippur 5784 | Blum 

Robert Desnos was an influential French poet in the first half of the 19th Century. Desnos was also Jewish. During World War II, he served in the French Underground. Eventually, he was captured and sent to a concentration camp. The story of what happened there was reported by a witness, a woman by the name of Odette. One day, without warning, Desnos was rounded up with a number of others and forced on to a transport truck. As the truck lumbered forward, everyone knew what was happening. Trucks always left the barracks full and came back empty. As the truck moved forward, the mood inside was understandably grim. In what they believed were their final moments on earth, everyone was lost in their own thoughts or prayers. When the truck arrived at a gas chamber, the prisoners slowly and silently descended, as if in a dream or a trance. Even the guards fell silent. But then the poet Desnos suddenly jumped up, grabbed the hand of the man next to him, and with great enthusiasm began to read his palm. 

“I am so excited for you! You are going to live a very long life! You are going to have three children! A beautiful wife! Wealth! So fantastic! So wonderful!” 

His excitement, and the sincerity with which he told the fortune, was electric. First one man and then another thrust out their hand. “Read my fortune!” they cried out. Each one received the same sort of prediction: long life, children, wealth, etc. As Desnos read palm after palm, the atmosphere was completely transformed. The prisoners were smiling, laughing, patting each other on the back; their burden was lifted, their reality transformed, at least for the moment. 

Even more astonishingly, the guards were affected, jerked out of their dark stupor where marching men to their slaughter was a normal and acceptable daily occurrence. Confused and disoriented, undone by the absurd, jolly scene in front of them, they could not go through with the execution, so they marched the prisoners back onto the truck and sent them back to the barracks. 

This amazing true story illustrates the power of imagination. Desnos transported people destined for death to another place through the passion of his words. The spirit of the moment, the power of a dream, was so contagious that the guards could no longer serve as their executioners. Without this flight from their dark reality to a place of hopeful fortunes, all of those people would have died. It is truly a remarkable story. 

On some level this story of Robert Desnos gives us insight into the power of religion. Each tradition calls upon its followers to imagine a world that does not presently exist. Each religion imparts values, norms, ideals, and actions that seem impossible, idealistic, out of reach to those living in the “real world.” As the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. used to say, “Find a way where there is no way.” 

What would Judaism be without an ability to engage our religious imaginations: to cause us to dream together? 

On Friday nights as the sun goes down, Jews around the world enter another dimension called the Sabbath, which is called Me’ein olam habah, a taste of the world to come. It is populated by the Bride Shabbat and Angels to accompany us during that holy day. Over our history, the Jewish people have had the courage to enter the world of Shabbat in the most difficult of circumstances and find a place of beauty and wonder. Each holiday has its own story, its own moment of Jewish imagination. The French have a term, Folie a deux, which translates to “shared madness”, or “madness for two”. It refers to a condition where one person’s delusion is believed by one or more people. Jews would call it LeHalom L’shalom, to dream in harmony with others. In the same way that Desnos’ imagination saved those on the truck, our dreams have been part of our salvation until this very day. 

A beautiful example of the Jewish approach to a shared dream is an institution called the Yovel, or the Jubilee year. Every 50 years the Shofar would be sounded on Yom Kippur and a societal transformation would take place. Other nations, who might have observed the Yovel, might well think that the Jubilee represented a shared psychosis. 

  • The land would lie fallow for the year; no sowing, or reaping, or storing of anything that grows. 
  • All Israelite servants were released from their servitude. 
  • All loans were forgiven. 
  • All ancestral lands were returned to their original family owners. 
  • Imagine such a moment in time, a reset of nature, allowing the land to replenish itself. 
  • Imagine disrupting the cycle of poverty where families could start again and not be forced to pass down poverty from generation to generation. 
  • Imagine releasing people from their servitude in the 50th year because it was your obligation to God. 

Now, there is no evidence as to how the Yovel was practiced, or if it was ever put into effect. What we do know for certain is that every 50 years, the Jewish people were obligated to dream of what a moral and equitable society would look like. The Yovel was not the dream of one individual, one community, but the Hiyuv, the obligation that the people of Israel dream together, in harmony. L’halom l’shalom. 

Today marks the beginning of the third Yovel of the Anshe Emet Synagogue, our 150th anniversary. While we are not in the business of freeing people from loans, or indentured servitude for that matter, what we can do is be a place where Jews continue to feel empowered and inspired to dream about the ways their world could be transformed, what a Jewish community can be, and how we can make that dream into a reality. 

So let us dream together on this Yom Kippur day. Today, I want to consider the dreams of this congregation at its first Yovel in 1923, its second Yovel in 1973, and peer into the future in 2023. What are the dreams, whether they be practical, visionary, or audacious, for the next 50 years? The reality is that many of us will not be physically present at the Yovel of 2073, but since the time of Moses, Jews have been obligated to dream of a better world for our children, for our people, for Israel, for all people everywhere, and to take the steps to achieve it. 

On the Jubilee of 1923, the Anshe Emet community gathered on Patterson Street, a few blocks south of here. Most of those in attendance were immigrants to this country, and because they were interested in being true Americans, they hired their first Rabbi who would conduct services and teach the children in English. His name was Rabbi Philip Langh, a truly gifted Jewish educator. On that Yom Kippur, they dreamt of a Yovel 

  • where their children would become fully American and remain Jews 
  • where they would live the American Dream of opportunity 
  • where they dreamed of the end of anti-Semitism around the world and in this country; a day on which there would be no more restricted clubs, no more Leo Franks, no more Ku Klux Klan 
  • Many sitting in that synagogue dreamt of Israel, a Jewish State becoming a reality, while others sitting in that same room feared how a Jewish State might affect them and their standing as Americans. 

How could I know what their dreams were at that time? Because a few years after that first Yovel, Anshe Emet, now under the dynamic leadership of Rabbi Solomon Goldman, moved to this location and put those dreams into stained glass. 

There is a window in our sanctuary that portrays the transmission of Torah. In those years the congregation followed that dream and created one of the finest religious schools in the country and the first non-Orthodox Jewish day school. They created a community filled with Jewish culture, study, prayer and creativity that was a model for other congregations around this country. 

There is a window devoted to persecution and martyrdom. Many of those joined together for that first Yovel had firsthand knowledge about the pogroms, but no one in that Sanctuary could have ever imagined the nightmare that awaited our people in the form of the Shoah. People in this community raised their voices, Rabbi Goldman led a boycott of German goods, and when the survivors came to this country, this congregation opened its doors to welcome them and help them settle. 

There is a window that portrays the Jews settling the land of Israel. When it was installed in the 1930s, who could have imagined that Herzl’s words would be fulfilled just a few years after the war: Im Tirzu Ayn zo Agadah – If you will it, it is no dream. The power of the religious imagination made manifest. 

There is a window of Washington and Lincoln and the New York Harbor. The original windows contained a creation scene, but it was shattered in an anti-Semitic attack in 1940. Rabbi Goldman decided to replace the original windows with ones containing this country’s greatest Presidents and a ship of immigrants passing the Statue of Liberty as it comes into port. To those who said that we are not welcome in this country, our Anshe Emet community responded in the spirit of the dream of the first Yovel: We Jews have made our home here, and we are Americans. In the years following, those people gathered in this synagogue sent their sons to war and upon their return lived the American Dream. 

Such is the power of imagination. Such is the power of a Halom L’shalom.

In 1973, Jews gathered in this synagogue at its second Yovel, on the congregation’s 100th anniversary. 

The war in Vietnam ended, and the America people dreamed that this country would heal from years of protests and division. But that seemed unlikely to the people gathered for that service because Watergate was in full swing. The Vice President would resign a week after that service and the President within the year; public trust in the institutions of this country was rapidly waning. Racial issues continued to be a major concern. 

Roe v. Wade was passed early that year and many dreamed of a different reality for women. Here in this synagogue women were taking on greater responsibilities on the bimah and B’not Mitzvah had moved from Friday night to Shabbat morning. But they were dreaming of something more.

Those gathered that night no longer dreamed about their kids becoming Americans. They were very comfortable in this country. What the parents and grandparents worried about was whether they would remain Jews. 

But on that Yom Kippur the people were likely not focused of any one of those things. Their minds were transfixed by the Yom Kippur War that had just begun and had caught Israel virtually unprepared. The people of Anshe Emet had shared in the euphoria of the 6 Day War just 6 years earlier and no doubt shared the belief that the Israel supermen of ‘67 were invincible. That day, those gathered in this building were praying that Israel would survive the onslaught on the holiest day of the year and continue as a Jewish State. I cannot even fathom what it was like when Cantor Silverman chanted the Unetaneh Tokef and came to the words: Mi Yicheyeh umi, yamut: who will live and who will die. 

Those gathered on Anshe Emet’s 2nd Yovel would scarcely believe what has transpired over the next half century. Despite its many challenges, Israel would survive the war and become a great power in the Middle East, and the Startup Nation. 

Women would become full participants in Jewish life. Rabbis, Cantors, and people of different sexual orientation would be welcomed into the synagogue and honored in leadership positions. They would scarcely believe the number of opportunities that this congregation offers, or the technology that it uses. They would have to be impressed with the type of social justice work that this congregation does, and its engagement with the Black community. 

In 1973, the intermarriage rate was 9%; in 2023 the rate is at 72% in the non-Orthodox community. Not only would they be being shocked at the number but would also be unprepared for the reality of how many interfaith families belong to the synagogue and engage in synagogue life. Nor would they have been able to predict the remarkable work that this congregation does in welcoming Jews by Choice into the community. 

This Yom Kippur, we mark the third Yovel of the Anshe Emet Synagogue. What shall we dream together? What is our Halom L’Shalom as we continue to build a dynamic, caring Jewish community? 

We share elements of the dreams from the first 2 Yovels. 

We dream for our children: of a Judaism that speaks loudly to the relevant issues of our day. A Judaism that feeds their Jewish souls. A Judaism that inspires them to make this world better than the one that was given to them as Jews. We want our children to be committed to Israel and love Israel enough to be critical when warranted. Whether they choose to engage Jewishly because of a covenant of faith or because of our shared history, a covenant of destiny is of little consequence. What matters is that they are committed to the Jewish present and future. Like those who came before us, let us do more than dream in harmony. Let us act in unison, strengthening our Jewish schools and our homes for the good of our children and the generations to come. 

We continue to dream about an Israel that is secure from its enemies and is at peace with itself. Where the dynamism of the State emanates from the values of its declaration. A country that celebrates the diversity of the Jewish people, welcomes Jews of the Diaspora with love and respect, and is committed to finding a just solution for the Palestinians that guarantees Israel’s safety as a Jewish State. At this challenging moment, let us continue to lean into Israel and not away from our only Jewish State. Let none of us be complacent about what the State of Israel represents to the Jewish people now and in the future.

We continue to dream of a world free of anti-Semitism. What we know is that the cancer of the hatred of the Jew can only be confronted head on. Looking back over the first two Yovels, the tools that we have at our disposal, the organizations that are at work on this issue, the access that we have to elected officials and law enforcement, is so far and above what those who gathered in this congregation in years past could avail themselves to. Let us at Anshe Emet engage fully, in order to blunt the rising anti-Semitism and intolerance in this country and never be silent. 

Like those who came before us, we appreciate what America has represented to the Jewish people and we dream of the America that can yet be. It is a dream that can only be fulfilled by each of us joining in our participatory Democracy and working to create an America that fulfills its promise to all of its inhabitants. Working together to elect leaders capable of inspiring us to dream of an even better America based on the confidence in this nation’s mission, as well as the power that a nation of immigrants represents. 

Earlier, I referred to one of the most powerful statements that any Jew ever made in regard to dreaming. The words of Theodore Herzl: Im Tirzu, Ayn Zo Agadah: If you will it, it is no dream. To fulfill one’s dreams, one must will them into being through action. As someone once said: A dream without action is just a wish. 

The inspiring story of Robert Desnos is a reminder of what can happen when people dream audaciously and act with passion. While Desnos dreamed from a place of weakness and desperation, it is our privilege to dream from a place of strength. Tonight, when the shofar is sounded, we will officially begin our third Yovel. Let us dream dreams worthy of this great synagogue and continue to build on the strong foundation that the people of this community have created over the past 150 years, innovatively and creatively. So that when this congregation gathers at its next Jubilee on Yom Kippur of 2073, let those who follow us do what we did today: look back with pride at the work that those who came before them did, and then dream in harmony, L’Halom L’Shalom, of a future for Anshe Emet that none of us can even imagine. 

Shana Tova.