Rosh HaShanah Sermon by Julia Feller

5777 - TaSTY Sermon
October 3, 2016

Shanah Tova. The parsha we read during Rosh HaShanah, the Akedah, tells the story of God calling out to Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac. Abraham does not ask any questions of God, and is about to perform the sacrifice when an angel stops him and praises him for his complete dedication to God. God blesses Abraham and all his descendants, saying that they will find the capability to overcome their enemies. This story can be interpreted as either an important lesson in loyalty to God and the Jewish people or an unnerving story from which many are appalled by God’s request and Abraham’s actions. However, the sacrifice itself stands out most to me in this story. Why do we not get to hear any of Abraham’s thoughts before he makes the decision to sacrifice his own son? He must have had to weigh his options heavily before deciding to bring Isaac up to Moriah. I would like to think that everyone thinks through decisions as big as these, because I certainly know I overthink everything to the point of making myself crazy. The language of the text suggests that Abraham could have been confident or apprehensive, brave or scared. Nonetheless, he is taking a risk.

Just last weekend, I attended the Dana Gershon and Rabbi Jonah Pesner Northeast Leadership Summit, which brought teens from New Jersey all the way up through Maine together to learn about how to spearhead our own projects and be leaders in our congregations. Over 250 students chose workshops that taught about certain current events issues (Jewish and not) and shaped possible ways to be a leader. Then, each of us worked in a team to formulate and concretize ideas that investors interested in Jewish leadership put real money into so that we could each bring our ideas home to implement. These ideas ranged from app designs meant to connect girls with positive female mentors to hashtag challenges to combat misinformation about different cultures to initiatives to establish gender neutral bathrooms in all URJ camps. As Rabbi Jonah Pesner remarked in his opening speech, taking risks is the most important part of leadership. Each attendee was allowed to take a risk because we were encouraged to take a small concept and, for the first time in most of our lives, make the idea even bigger than we can potentially handle. Just as Abraham had to risk his son for the bettering of his spirituality (as well as many others’ spiritualties after him), we each learned what taking risks meant by hands-on action throughout the weekend.

My team, which included Sam S-T, decided that a major social change issue that needed to be addressed was racial injustice. I attended a workshop called “Privilege, Power, and Jews” that forced me to think deeply about my white privilege, but also how being Jewish can connect me to this issue in some specific ways. I know that we were once enslaved ourselves, and I know that in places other than New York we are often victimized for being a minority, yet I also know that in modern America you can hide your Judaism meanwhile you cannot hide the color of your skin. New York generally has very similar views to the Reform movement on this topic, which is helpful, yet we are a global denomination and know there is more to be done around the country. In Akedah, God says to Abraham: “and through your offspring all nations on earth will be blessed, because you have obeyed me.” Because of Abraham’s commitment to God, he assumes the leadership role that helps us to assist other minority communities in modern day. Our project, The Write to Vote (w-r-i-t-e), will be an event consisting of a panel discussion and a letter writing campaign about the Supreme Court case that ruled against the section of the Voting Rights Act that requires the federal government to approve changes to state voting systems. This case took place only three years ago, which shocked us as we looked for a specific political problem to write letters about. Our vision was to inspire people of all ages and religions in the greater New York City area to push elected officials towards creating universal online voting registration and other accessible means of voting. However, lobbying out-of-state officials is very difficult and New York, as mentioned earlier, is quite liberal. To solve this, our investors pushed us to think bigger, and our goal now (if all goes well) is to create a national committee of teens that can discuss this issue in their own communities and execute events like this all over.

TaSTY is going far in this New Year, whether or not we decide to focus on racial inequality as a social justice topic. We are at a historic crossroads with the upcoming elections, and issues such as racial prejudice are very prevalent. As young minds in a value-heavy, religious community, our group has the potential for incredible discussions and events. I envision a TaSTY in which every single person, no matter the age, is engaged with something they personally are interested in. I envision all of us finding connections of topics of engagement between 8th graders and 12th graders, whether it be racial injustice or the love of a common TV show. There is a multitude of leadership risks to be taken in the realm of Judaism and social change, many of which we can stem from some of our earliest Torah stories like Akedah. If I know one thing about TaSTY, though, it’s that there is no real disadvantage to taking a risk because there is an entire group of supporting individuals to spot your fall.

On that note, here is my call to action for each and every one of us. First, find something you are passionate about and try to get involved or launch an initiative. Reach out to me, reach out to Hope, reach out to the Rabbis or Cantors, or reach out to any of our board members right here in this room and ask us to help you with your project.  Second, be present at Shaaray Tefila. Let this be a place that makes you feel welcomed during the holidays but also be a place where you are actively part of the community. Try an event or two with us if you are in high school or 8th grade. If you are younger, join the junior youth group for an upcoming event this fall. As we head into this New Year, both in the Jewish calendar and school calendar- let my call to action be to meet us here, at Shaaray Tefila. We don't need a traumatic call from God for a sacrifice to get our attention; I think we can create own our Jewish connection and not wait for our parents, our teachers, or anyone else to push us. We can make the decision here together that we own this sacred community. I wish you and your family a happy and healthy New Year.