By Rabbi Robert Nosanchuk – URJ Kutz Camp, Rabbinic Dean of Faculty
(These words shared at Shabbat Worship at Kutz Camp were written in memory of Jordan Greene z’l and Michael Nosanchuk z’l)
If you look carefully, you’ll see daring and uncommon acts of courage occurring around you. You’ll see moments when someone stands against the cultural tide and declares an inspiring new way of looking at life.
At Kutz Camp, we believe it is vital that we recognize such acts of uncommon courage and kindness of spirit. We try to acknowledge when someone took a risk and acted for the greater good. You have to be looking carefully… for the acts of which I speak often fly below the radar. This is particularly true when you witness someone who is willing to take the heat arising in the kitchen of Jewish life, because he or she believes in a more hopeful vision beyond the current moment of conflict.
Let me explain. One time, when I was a youth group advisor for a temple near my university,
I brought a scholarship request to the endowment board of the synagogue for a NFTY student to support their attendance at the NFTY national convention. I couldn’t believe how heated the discussion became including the words shared by an extremely strong-willed board member who spoke against using temple resources for that scholarship. So my request got denied. I left the temple building deflated and dejected…thinking “How could they turn me down?”
Just as I walked out discouraged, the most vocal of the opponents to my scholarship request walked up to me in the parking lot to shake my hand. Honestly, I didn’t want to shake the hand of this guy. At the moment, I was thinking the he was kind of a dirtbag. But it was a Thursday night, we were in a synagogue parking lot and he was offering me an early Shabbat Shalom.
When I shook his hand I felt something pass from his palm into mine, and looked down to see that it was a personal check from him to the student with a post-it note attached that said: “I just don’t think that we should spend the funds of the temple right now. Use this check to pay for the scholarship. We simply don’t have the funds for scholarships. But when we’re out of this budget crisis, I promise I’ll personally start the fund. Now go, and build a great youth group for temple.”
It struck me then the same way it does now… this man was willing to take an unpopular position on principle- and to privately pay for his views. He would speak up and take whatever heat and scathing that would come his way including from me. But he was also literally putting his money where his mouth was, earning my change of heart and permanent respect. He changed my perspective in one quiet act of bravery and generosity. And now I’m reminded of his attitude toward leadership- to be willing to be the one who takes position on principle and is willing to vote yes when everyone votes no, or the reverse, just to be sure the right thing happens.
Has anyone ever done that for you or for a cause you love? Has anyone really stood up out of the crowd of leaders you know, and committed an unexpected act of bravery no one could have asked for- but that really got your attention? What does it mean to show such courage, kindness and resistance against the cultural tide?
I say it means you have uncommon kindness and courage. It means you are willing to assert your individuality…When you commit to being such an uncommonly kind and courageous leader, you are in effect saying “I don’t care what the rule is or what social convention tells me. It doesn’t matter if my decision makes me less popular. I know what I know…and I know what my guts are telling me to do.
This view was evident a couple of weeks ago – in the decision by Mick Jagger and the rock group The Rolling Stones to fend off criticism from others in the music industry poisoned by the thinly disguised anti-Israel hate rhetoric of the B.D.S. movement. The Stones rejected a call from the popular tide to boycott performing in Israel, where B.D.S. and other rock groups such as Pink Floyd have called Israel a racist Nazi regime and advocated for steps that would lead to the end of Israel as a Jewish state. Jagger stood his ground against such anti-Israel propaganda lobbed in his direction. He rejected an increasingly passive attitude the world has toward anti-Israel propaganda masking clearly pronounced anti-Semitism. Then he doubled down on his commitment to bring the Stones to Tel Aviv. I for one- say the concert the Stones held in Israel two weeks ago was the Stones way of putting their money where their hearts are.
Now Mick Jagger is famous. But what does uncommon kindness and look like when it is offered by someone you know personally? It could be a decision made by a friend or a group of people to show an extra measure of personal concern to you when you need a steadying force when things fall out of control.
Three decades ago when I was a camper here one of my fellow participants suffered the death of his father, while he was a participant at camp. I remember seeing a group of more than 200 fellow students who only met him a few days earlier show my friend the embrace of a community as if they’d known him his whole life. I watched as our counselors shared prayers in solidarity and sympathy with him. When he returned into the activities of camp, people quietly stopped by to see him at free time or visited with him after a song session. They shared hugs with him and asked him more about his father’s life.
It is a risk to approach a stranger to you who you know is hurting and show them a personal concern. You are not always sure what to say or what to do. But those of us who were here that summer were learning first hand that the value of chesed – the Jewish value of kindness is simply the way we turn our empathy into action. When someone feels chesed from the community around them, even from a stranger, it allows them to know they are not alone.
When you commit yourself to such acts of uncommon goodness and empathy, when you share an act of chesed with someone who is troubled… you don’t have to say anything too complicated. You simply have to show confidence that they will get to the other side of the border they are trying to cross. You are saying, “you are going to get there. You will make it across the border, because on your way I will shelter you with my kindness.” My friend whose dad died while we were campers received that kind of shelter- and he made it across the border. Today he is a father himself to three beautiful girls who are right now attending URJ Camp Coleman. For four of you here today, he is your rabbi. Rabbi Fred Greene of Temple Beth Tikvah in Roswell, Georgia…he and I were campers together. We were counselors together. We took our first jobs after college together. We studied at rabbinical school together. And tonight I remember that summer three decades ago when his dad died, and I was with him when he had a hard time believing he’d ever get through the wilderness to a land of promise.
The leaders in our Torah also encountered death- but even worse they faced rebellion and heartache, disunity and disheartening betrayal from hundreds of Israelites they were leading. All this made it hard for Moses to believe that his people would ever cross the border from crisis into uncommon courage. In this week’s portion- God’s intervention helped them face down a serious drought. In last week’s portion, Moses fended off a mutiny on the part of his cousin Korach. And in the portion we studied just 2 weeks ago, the fear-stricken reports of 10 of the 12 scouts Moses sent into Canaan nearly destroyed the community’s resolve to hold onto its faith. But two up-standers among the scouts, Caleb and Joshua stood up against the tide of those plagued by an impassable fear, and shared their unbridled counter-cultural optimism in our people’s ability to make it across the border.
The scene around the scouts after their scouting mission of Canaan nearly turned every one of the Israelites hostile to the idea of going forward. The climate of rebellion had clearly spooked Moses and Aaron and the chain of command. But Caleb and Joshua did not show their anxiety at reports of Goliath-like Anakites in the land.
What did they do? What did they say? Caleb and Joshua simply exhorted the Israelites with an uncommon hope-filled message. They said: Ha’aretz Asher Avarnu Vah Latur Otah Tovah Ha’aretz Meod meod. The land we have scouted is good. It is good! They continued to explain that if the Israelites would just show unity and faith, God would bring them into that land, a land which flowed with, what did the land flow with? Milk and honey… right… milk and honey! Caleb and Joshua said that if we stayed together, that God would bring our people into a land that flowed with milk and honey.
Friends, I would posit to you that there is a reason you remember that the land was flowing with milk and honey! There is a reason why you in today’s NFTY leadership remember this view of the path ahead to a world of promise, rather than the bitter complaints of most of the scouts of how weak and small they felt in Canaan. I believe there is a reason you remember the optimistic description of a land flowing with milk and honey rather than the discouraging report of a land that devours its settlers. And what is that reason?
It is because ours is a tradition of hope. We long to look at the world through the lens of optimism…through what can be accomplished…through how we live and not how we die. So even if you’ve never faced such a situation where the stakes were so high as to need uncommon bravery and courage, most of us have faced at each major change of season- the task of changing our clocks when it comes time for daylight savings time.
You tell me. Which is harder to do. To set your clocks back in the fall, or to set them forward in the spring? Of course it is more difficult in the spring! It is that way in growing your work as Jewish leaders as well. It is hard to let go of the past and spring forward to lead us in the future. Yet I am here to tell you who gather here at Kutz celebrating the first Shabbat of our season- we need you to spring forward tonight…as hard as that is! We need you to spring forward and lead our people! So much can be achieved in the hours and days and moments ahead. For the philosophy of Judaism tells us in no uncertain terms- we must spring forward and make tomorrow different from today. For yes,we live in a world of realpolitik, a world of conflict and a world riddled with violence. But olam chesed yibaneh… we are here to build this world with chesed…with love…so that God can build this world from love!
That phrase, Olam Chesed Yibaneh- we will build this world from love- which we have sung throughout tonight’s service, must ring true in our hearts going forward. We simply must build this world from chesed, from possibility, from an open heart, from a belief in what can be and not simply what is. And we must realize the need to perform acts of kindness that are not random acts. No, we need intentional, purposeful acts of uncommon kindness. “Extremely unrandom acts of kindness” as a friend of mine, Rabbi Stephanie Kolin calls them.
The type of action is no sure thing. It might not work. But it is kindness delivered to the people we encounter every day and those whom we have never met. It is purposeful, intentional kindness offered with bravery, courage and a measure of resistance – that will help us to go from the wilderness where we are- to the land of promise where we are striving to go.
I want to tell you a story. It is a story of an “extremely unrandom act of kindness” that happened to me. My story begins this past January when my dad, Michael Nosanchuk, who together with my mom ever made it possible for me to come to this blessed place, died after a ten year battle with dementia.
I have to tell you. Until my dad died, I just didn’t realize what it is like to be on the receiving end of such uncommon kindness, compassion and empathy. So many people reached out to me- much like I first witnessed in Judaism when complete strangers in this camp- became a holy community of comfort three decades ago for a friend suffered the death of his father.
I think I was especially moved because I knew this sadness was drawing near for some time… and I was really hoping that people like you from my Kutz Camp community, would be there for me when I needed you. But my story isn’t about you. It’s not even really about me. It’s about a lady in Connecticut whom I’ve never met.
Her name is Lotte. And her letter arrived at my office two months after my dad’s death, marked “personal.”
Honestly, most people don’t write the rabbi personal letters anymore. Mostly we get emails. Typically when I get an envelope with someone’s personal written by hand and marked personal… it is hate mail for one of the social action causes we’ve taken up. Sometimes it is a letter telling me what Jesus wants me to preach about next week. I have a whole drawer of such letters. I had half a mind to throw this note into the drawer unread… but thank God I didn’t.
I opened it. What I found inside was a sympathy note written by hand of the widow of a rabbi who had served the temple my dad grew up at in the 1950’s. This woman must be in her 80’s. But she had written to describe to me the Michael Nosanchuk she knew when he was just my son’s age. She told me in the letter about my dad as a young man, and then went on to describe how compassionate my Zayde, my dad’s dad, Dr. Joseph Nosanchuk had been to her when he delivered both of her now-adult children into this world as her physician. She described his dedication and his decency.
And then she gave me two of the best gifts of all. The first is she sent two pictures- one of my Aunt Laurie’s confirmation class… and the other of my Zayde at roughly my age– gathered with the men’s club of his temple. The second gift is this: She told me that her grandson has been a student of mine over the last several years at Kutz Camp, and that he has taken classes I’ve offered right here in this space in this holy community.
I’ll never forget that beautiful letter… that sacred message of uncommon kindness sent in anonymity to me- on the chance that the rabbi teaching her great grandson at Kutz might receive it and read it with love. And I’m so appreciative to Lotte. For in just a few moments of her time, she reminded me that while I thought I was on the receiving end of chesed, I was really giving chesed back into the world through my work here at camp.
She wrote at the end of her letter how saddened she was reading of my dad’s death, and then she mused briefly about her husband’s recent death three years ago. She said death is “unavoidable…at times impossible to fathom.” Then she concluded with the following words: “The song goes on but some of the melody is gone.”
The song goes on but some of the melody is gone. Talk about words of comfort. Talk about an uncommonly kind and courageous way to show courage and bravery and kindness when others need it most. And if I were to translate the letter Lotte sent me into Hebrew I’d sing: Olam Chesed Yibaneh. We must build this world from love.
For sometimes you have to hear that kind of life-affirming message from a complete stranger…or from the least likely person in the room- in order for it to really reach inside you. It often takes that kind of a person- someone you’ve never even met. But someone who believes in you not because you are you- but because you are your son’s father and your grandfather’s grandson.
Friends, that kind of chesed is so powerful. But it only works if you care enough to go against the culture of anonymity that pervade so much of our lives.. You have to be willing to risk that the recipient of your letter might not ever see it… or that they may not understand it. But there is also a chance that Olam Chesed Yibaneh… that they will build this world from love, and then God will build this world from love.
And so I ask you tonight – on this Shabbat- in the coming hours and days and months… just do one thing. Surprise me. Surprise yourself. Or even better, surprise someone else neither of us know. Strive beginning this night to become known for uncommon, intentional purposeful acts of kindness and courage to the people around you. I beg of you. Take this precious time in your life and remember that you- the leadership of NFTY – you are not just a generation of leaders we are counting on to rise up and lead us forward. No, you are living proof that there is another side of the border. You are capable of leaping over the obstacles thrown in your path. You can do it. You can make it. I know you can.
How do I know it? Why am I so confident? Because I went into the land before you. On this Shabbat, I can assure you that this land, this place of activism and leadership you’ve scouted… this is a good land. This camp- this land- this community- it flows with milk and honey. So go out and drink the milk, taste the sweet honey. For God’s sake, go out and get the land… so our community will be blessed- not just tonight, not just tomorrow but forever, Amen.