Tuesday, August 9, 2011

This I Believe

As many of you know, our theme for this Summer Speakers' Series has been "This I Believe" based on the NPR program of the same name. I had asked Jan Goodman, our new congregational president, to speak on community and personal service, as she's quite passionate about that subject. Below you'll find her sermon. I leave it without commentary, except to say this--I love it when the president of the congregation sounds as rabbinic (or more rabbinic) than the rabbi! It's a wonderful thing.


I went to a wonderful liberal arts college in rural Central Pennsylvania – Dickinson College. For a small school Dickinson had some pretty incredible offerings, academic as well as extra-curricular. I chose Dickinson because of the rigorous International Studies curriculum and particularly the focus on studying abroad, as I hoped to one day to live and work overseas. The school’s foreign language program was and still is very well-respected, which definitely appealed to me. I was especially excited about the chance to join the Swimming team. And there were so many club activities that interested me that I really didn’t know where to begin. One offering that I had never seriously considered, however, was a program called ROTC – the Reserve Officers Training Corps.

Soon after I arrived at Dickinson and was pouring through the course selection guide with my roommate, she convinced me to try this elective called ROTC. Margaret had Swiss citizenship, her brothers served in the Swiss Army, and she thought it would be fun to see what the military was all about – but she didn’t want to take the class alone. I agreed to join her because ROTC seemed like a great elective – lots of hiking, skiing, camping, canoeing, climbing and other adventures, a perfect complement to all the studying I was anticipating. I’m pretty sure the course description – at least that first year – pretty much glossed over the military service component of the class. Well, to make a long story short, Margaret lasted only one semester in ROTC, and I was commissioned as a 2nd lieutenant soon after I graduated four years later.

Since that time, so many people have asked me – sometimes with total shock on their faces – why a nice Jewish girl would choose this path. My quick answer to this question is always the same: “To meet a nice Jewish boy, of course!”, for as many of you know, it was during my active duty years that Rob and I first met.

The honest reason, however, is more complex. I was raised by a family, a community, and a faith that believes in service and I was taught from a very young age that service – however you define this – was an obligation, perhaps even a requirement for being a citizen in this world. To me, military service was as much about good citizenship and representing our nation positively overseas as it was about our tactical mission. Although my unit’s role was to defend a border in Germany that doesn’t even exist anymore, I’m hopeful that the way in which I represented my country, and even more importantly my country’s ideals and values, made a positive impression on people in far-away places.

Judaism teaches us quite simply that being part of the community means working to better the community. We are taught to question injustice and act to eliminate it. Our most important mission is Tikkun Olam (repairing the world) and we are commanded to pursue Tzedakah (justice) and G’milut Chasadim (acts of loving kindness). Performing these mitzvot is fundamental to who we are, as individuals and as a people. Not only does this give us a stake in improving our environment, but it allows us to play a role in reducing injustice and evil in our world. Helping those in need in some capacity, no matter where they are or what they need, is crucial and, in my opinion at least, perhaps even sacred work.

So clearly one of the most fundamental Jewish commandments – if not the most critical one – is to be of service to others, in our own communities, in our cities, in our nation, and globally. But what exactly does service really mean… that everyone should join the Army as I did? Probably not, although I have some pretty strong opinions about the value of mandatory national service that we can discuss some other time. I think everyone needs to define service in a way that has meaning in their life. I understand service as freely sharing some combination of time, money and personal talents with the intention of helping others.

This is what Judaism has taught me and I’m proud that our synagogue incorporates these mitzvot into much of what we do. A key part of our recently-developed Vision statement reads: “Beth Emeth aspires to be a welcoming congregational family that supports and celebrates each other as we, among other things, lead and inspire the greater community through Tzedakah and Tikkun Olam.

Beth Emeth’s teachers incorporate these values into almost every class; we’re active participants in our community’s Mitzvah Day; we help to support a synagogue in Russia; we collect and serve food for our community’s hungry; and so, so much more. And I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that we now have a volunteer coordinator at Beth Emeth – please let Van Olmstead know if you’re looking for service opportunities in our synagogue and I’m sure he’ll be happy to help you! Through all of these activities we’re teaching our community about caring and service here at Beth Emeth, and this is a very good thing.

But even more than teaching these obligations, it is important that we – each of us individually as well as communally – continue to “live” this message. For me, it has been the example of those I respect most that has inspired me to make the choices I’ve made. I can’t truthfully remember my parents ever lecturing me about the importance of volunteering. Instead, I’ve learned from how they live their lives. My father’s 30 years of military service, his commitment to improving the quality of life in my home town, and his involvement with programs such as Big Brothers. My mother’s community activism, advocacy for children in the foster care system, and other volunteer commitments too numerous to share. And especially the very humble example of my grandmother. When she passed away years ago, I saw the following words on her refrigerator:

Do all the good you can,

By all the means you can,

In all the ways you can,

In all the places you can,

At all the times you can,

To all the people you can,

As long as ever you can.

You see, serving others was how Gram chose to live her life. Even as the aging process took its toll, helping others is what inspired her to wake up and look forward to each day.

So let’s return now to my original question – what led a “nice Jewish girl down the path to military service”, and expanding on this, why do I continue to search for ways to serve others?

I take very seriously the fact that in our tradition, it is imperative to act out of concern for the greater good and do our part to make the world a better place. Helping others, locally and sometimes on a much more global scale, gives our lives value and meaning and, hopefully, inspires others to do the same. Each of us needs to define for ourselves how and where to make a difference – in our family, our community, for our country, our world – but serving others and making a piece of this world a better place is our obligation. And teaching this commitment to service through our example to the next generation is one of the most important things we can do.


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