The Sin of Temple Beth-El

Sermon given on Yom Kippur Eve, 5763, September 15, 2002, by Rabbi Barry H. Block


I am the Rabbi of the greatest congregation in North America. Walk into our Religious School on a Sunday morning. You will feel the energy, a shared mission to make Judaism come alive, right here in San Antonio, Texas, a deep covenant between congregation and its members. Step into either Shabbat Service on a Friday night. The presence of God is palpable, in joyful sound, across the generations. A community comes together to serve God, to experience God, to know God’s love. Ask a new Jew-by-Choice. She will tell you. Despite many challenges, she has found a community here; he has drawn his faith here; he has met his God here. Attend a Bar or Bat Mitzvah. You will be in awe of the knowledge and inspiration of our youngest Jewish adults. Get on the bus with SAFTY, on the way to a Conclave; I dare you. You will find more than a score of Jewish teenagers, their committed advisors and their diminutive Rabbi, on a mission to have fun and learn more Judaism, all at the same time. Or come to the Temple on Kol Nidre night, surrounded by the majesty and sanctity of this awesome Sanctuary. Our diverse congregation has gathered once again, to confront the commanding presence of the Torah, as sinners in search of a better future.

In the Haftarah that we shall read tomorrow morning, the prophet Isaiah speaks to a congregation as satisfied with itself as I think we can be here at Temple Beth-El. The people have brought their sacrifices. They are fasting. The rituals of self-affliction are scrupulously observed. And yet, the prophet finds the people wanting. God rejects their offerings.

The problem does not lie in the congregation’s ritual service of the Lord, but in its morals and ethics. Even on their fast day, the worshipers of ancient Israel turn away from the hungry in their midst. Even on their Day of Atonement, our ancestors focus on their business, not their repentance. Even on Yom Kippur, robed in their fine whites, they oppress their workers.

I do not stand before a congregation like Isaiah’s. The sin of Temple Beth-El, is not the wanton selfishness of its members. Our congregation includes hundreds of men and women who spend themselves in the service of people in need. Some of the greatest volunteers in San Antonio are members of Temple Beth-El. We have Blue Birds at Methodist Hospital. We have health care professionals who offer free care to Jewish immigrants from the former Soviet Union. Where would the Cancer Center Council be, without the women of Temple Beth-El? I could go on and on.

And yet, when I am with my friends and colleagues of the Christian clergy, I am quietly ashamed. I am acutely aware of the sin of Temple Beth-El. If an elderly member of one of their churches needs a ride for weekly grocery shopping, another parishioner does the driving. When the homeless began sleeping on the steps of First Presbyterian Church, that congregation created a shelter within its own walls. That shelter later grew to become SAMMinistries. When some members of Travis Park United Methodist Church became uncomfortable with the presence of homeless people entering their building on Sunday mornings, the congregation created a new program of breakfast and Bible study for their transient neighbors.

Our Christian friends think well of us. Without a doubt, they assume that our good works match theirs. Occasionally, a Christian colleague will praise the Temple’s caring for the needy; certainly, none has ever told me that we do too little. They are too kind. The prophet Isaiah would agree; the sin of Temple Beth-El is all too clear: If an elderly member of our congregation needs a ride to the doctor, a fellow congregant is not on call to take her. Our congregation has done little to alleviate the poverty and suffering in the very shadow of our dome. Temple Beth-El, as a congregation, does precious little to reach into the community of need. Social action is sorely lacking here. As a Temple family, we have failed to fulfill our greatest purpose: tikkun olam, repairing God’s world.

Helen Jacobson, who loves this congregation as much as I do, has told me that this sin of our Temple is older than she is, perhaps as old as the congregation itself. Just as God teaches us that we human beings are never too old to change our ways, even Temple Beth-El, at the age of 128, can repent.

Our record is not all bad. Temple Beth-El has engaged in some splendid good works over the years, from Health-o-ramas to Mitzvah Days. More quietly, we have helped at the SAMM Center; we have cooked for the Food Bank in our Temple kitchen; for a while, we provided the sheet rock crew for Habitat for Humanity. We are all aware of the Purim Hunger and Homeless Campaign, and we shall participate tomorrow in our annual Yom Kippur Food Drive.

Perhaps our most successful social action program is almost a secret, even within our congregation. Our Kimmelman Fund provides scores of scholarships each year, permitting young parents to provide quality child care for their children, while they seek to get ahead. We could not do this mitzvah, without the generosity of Mr. Kimmelman, the guidance of Rabbi and Helen Jacobson, the stewardship of Richard Goldsmith through the years, and the work of Casey Lieberman through United Way. Each year, a devoted committee of congregants spends countless arduous hours, selecting the recipients from a large pool of qualified applicants. Hopefully, in the years ahead, we will be able to expand this program, and share our secret, finding additional dollars from new sources, to add to the Kimmelman funds in meeting more of the child care need among the less fortunate in our community, as they begin to build better lives.

Since last spring, Bobby Rosenthal has spearheaded a new Social Action initiative, with Nancy Gerson, our talented Membership Coordinator, providing hands-on staff support. Committee members have established projects, which are beginning to serve those in need, in the name of Temple Beth-El.

I am delighted to inform you that Temple Beth-El is now a distribution point for Meals on Wheels. We have a team of volunteers, headed by Paulette and Larry Goodman, delivering meals to the needy in our neighborhood, five days every week, rain or shine. Most of our volunteers engage in this mitzvah weekly; I have the privilege once a month, on Wednesday, when I get into Allison Zeller’s car, and accompany her on her rounds. Allison’s car seems to know the route automatically; she knows the men and women who receive these meals by name, and they now know Temple Beth-El, and regularly express gratitude that they get their meals dependably and on time. With more volunteers, we could handle two or three routes, bringing meals to scores of currently unserved needy folks in our part of town.

Also in the neighborhood, through the good work of Marissa Schlaifer, we are now a partner for Mark Twain Middle School. We learned that few community organizations have formed bonds with Middle Schools. Some people think the kids aren’t as cute as Elementary School Students. The students and their families have more problems. All that means, though, is that they need us more. Already, we have provided two teacher appreciation events at the school, something so simple, but deeply appreciated by a previously neglected faculty. What’s more, Robert and I had fun baking brownies for them. We look forward to a career day, featuring Temple members who went to Mark Twain in generations past, and we shall have a clothing drive for school uniforms. We are eager to expand this partnership to reach into the heart of our neighborhood Middle School and its families, for many years to come, but this neglected school will remain without friends, unless more volunteers step out of these pews.

Dr. Amy Benedikt has put together a wonderful project for Temple parents and children together. Once a month, families go to SAMMinistries’ Transitional Living Center on Blanco Road, to throw a birthday party for children living there who are celebrating their birthdays that month. What a great way for families of our Temple to touch the lives of families in need. With more family volunteers, more family projects may be developed, more Temple children will touch the lives of other children in crisis.

Closer to home, Cathy Rosenthal has founded a critically important endeavor she calls Yad B’Yad, “hand in hand.” So far, Cathy and her team have begun with visits to home-bound congregants and to those living in Golden Manor and other area facilities. With more volunteers, this project is ripe for expansion: rides to the grocery store, the bank, and the doctor, and yes, to Temple. The Rabbis still visit, but the touch of a fellow congregant communicates a critical message: We are a Temple family; no member is alone. Recently, two of our projects combined in a beautiful way, as students at Mark Twain made Rosh Hashanah cards to be delivered by our Yad b’Yad volunteers. What a mitzvah!

Even as we revel in these marvelous new initiatives, the stark reality is that these few projects can barely sustain themselves. Doing more is only a dream. Nancy Gerson is the most upbeat, outgoing recruiter I know, and she continues to drum up volunteers for these efforts, in the Bulletin, on the email, by phone, whatever. Too often, her pleas fall on deaf ears.

So let us confess the sin of Temple Beth-El. We have failed to hear the prophet’s call, to reach out, as a holy congregation, to the needs around us. The projects I have described today are only an early beginning, just a taste of so much more to come. Share my dream; join the vision of your Social Action Committee. Let Temple Beth-El be a true community for every member of our congregation and a beacon of light for the needy throughout our city. Let us be known, for our service to God, for our study of Torah, and for our performance of good and noble deeds in God’s world.

Let us be the congregation that Isaiah envisioned: providing bread to the hungry, bringing the homeless poor into our home, clothing the naked, never hiding from our own flesh. “Then shall thy light break forth as the morning…Then shalt thou call, and the Lord will answer; Thou shalt cry, and God will say: ‘Here I am.’”

Yes, God calls us, for God needs us to do divine labor here on Earth. In the beginning, God judged creation “good,” even “very good.” This world, though, is not perfect. Every day, we experience pain; we see poverty; we witness suffering. The message is clear: in making man and woman, giving us free will, God gave us God’s own power to improve upon creation. Let us fulfill the purpose of human life; let us do God’s work on Earth, the mitzvah of tikkun olam, changing the world for the better, beginning at home in our Temple, right here in San Antonio, Texas.

As you leave tonight, the ushers will hand you a paper, asking for your commitment. Please return it here tomorrow, or mail it to us after Yom Kippur. This form doesn’t ask for money. Your Temple needs your time. Your community needs your gift of yourself. Let us repent of the sin of Temple Beth-El. Let us do tikkun olam, heavenly work on Earth, for we are God’s most sacred congregation of sinners.

Amen.