Pirkei Avot/Ethics of the Fathers is a collection of timeless lessons offering advice on ethics and honesty. Sometimes referred to as the “Bartlett’s” of Judaism, Ethics of the Fathers is a handy and accessible guide to moral ethics that any of us can pick up and study. English trans-lations abound including a new translation by Rabbi Gordon Tucker, our White Plains neighbor and friend.
The fifth Mishnah (statement) in the second chapter of Pirkei Avot opens with the statement above from the great Hillel: Do not with-draw from the community. Be connected to the community. Note that Hillel does not specify whether the community is the Jewish community or the wider community. Perhaps, it is written this way on purpose? Hillel, unlike many of our ancient Rabbinic teachers, lived both in the Diaspora and in the Land of Israel. He was born in Babylonia – and lived amongst not-Jewish neighbors – and then migrated to the Land of Israel to study. It was in Israel that he eventually be-came a great teacher and leader. His early years in Babylonia, how-ever, surely impacted his later leadership. I imagine that Hillel’s statement, to be connected to the wider community, also means to maintain relationships with the wider not-Jewish community.
I think that the great Rabbi Hillel would be proud of the work that our synagogue does in this area. I am certainly proud of the work that many of our members do in our local, wider community. We assist many of the local social service agencies. Synagogue families are active supporters of local hospitals and other healthcare institutions. Local cultural institutions also see leadership coming from within our ranks. We are also involved in politics – on many levels including the leadership of our local public and private schools. And this is all separate and apart from the many wonderful commitments our mem-bers make to Jewish causes and institutions, locally, nationally and overseas (including in Israel, of course). In short, we follow the great Rabbi Hillel’s teaching – we connect to our wider community in many ways.
A Rabbi-friend of mine, Rabbi Balter, once told me that there are two ways to be a Rabbi – to be the Rabbi of a synagogue or to be the Rabbi of a town. He always saw himself as the latter – being rabbi and serving his entire town. Rabbi Balter believed that being the rab-bi of a town meant that his synagogue would be strengthened through his various commitments beyond its physical walls. By be-ing deeply involved in improving the institutions of the wider commu-nity, he believes that his own institution – the synagogue – is en-riched. In many ways, I seek to follow Rabbi Balter’s Rabbinic ad-vice – just as I seek to follow the good examples of our members’ commitments to the wider community.
As your rabbi, I have taken on a number of positions in our town. You may know that I am the Chaplain of the Harrison Volunteer Fire Department. Note that I am not the Jewish Chaplain – I am the Chaplain. We should be proud that our synagogue is represented
in this way, particularly given the percentage (you can guess the number it is) of Jewish members of the department. Similarly, I was recently appointed as Chaplain of the Harrison Police Depart-ment; they, too – you can guess – do not have many (!) Jewish members. And that’s the point – that our synagogue (that I am hon-ored to represent in these roles) cares very much about what hap-pens locally, regardless of religious identification. You may wonder what these Chaplain roles involve. Typically, they are ceremonial positions – reading a prayer, installing an officer. I always try to add in some Hebrew – they think it is exotic! – and to share a reading from the Bible. On occasion, though, I have been called in in seri-ous/emergency situations.
Finally, I was honored to accept an appointment recently to the Harri-son Public Library Foundation, where I sit alongside other members of the congregation. Our local library is named after a beloved mem-ber of the congregation – Richard Halperin, of blessed memory – and counts many supporters amongst our members. There is no better way to represent our synagogue than in support of our local public library.
The Great Rabbi Hillel would be quite proud and impressed, I imag-ine, that the Jewish Community Center of Harrison embraces our wider community to the extent that we do.
I hope to see you soon – at shul!