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Yizkor 5775

"Yizkor 5775 – Jewish Heroes, Book 3"

By Rabbi James Gibson
Yom Kippur Yizkor
October 4, 2014

As a child, I loved stories and story books. Opening the cover of a book was the gateway to entering into a world unknown and unseen. It was the first throw of the die in Chutes and Ladders, the first move in Tetris (how’s that for old?). The thrill I felt in opening past the title page to chapter 1; well, that may be the reason I don’t use Kindle. But as we say often in our Shabbat morning minyan when sharing personal stories, this is not therapy.

As a kid, my favorite story books in the world were by Sadie Rose Weilerstein, Jewish Heroes, Books I & II. They followed the saga of our people from the time of Abraham all the way through to the revolt against the Romans.

Written at a fourth grade level, Sadie Weilerstein managed to draw on dozens of traditional midrashim to give the men, women and children of our history life and passion and purpose. I read these books dozens of times. I still ask my conversion students to read them to get a sense of the “stori-ness” of the Jewish people.

After the last story in Book II, you’d feel proud and sad; proud that our people did such amazing things under such difficult circumstances; sad that they were gone, or worse, had died defending the faith they bequeathed to us.

Of course, the line of Jewish Heroes did not end with the last rabbi who died resisting the Romans. We have more Jewish heroes than we can ever catalogue. Some did mighty deeds for us all. Others lived more quiet lives, their heroism emerging from the day to day struggles of life.

Steven Sotloff was just such a hero. Most of us had never heard of him until his capture and execution by the brutal forces of ISIS. Many, like me, figured that no Jewish reporter, much less one with Israeli citizenship, would ever place him or herself in that setting, where hatred of Jews and Israelis pours like water from either side of the fight.

Steven Sotloff was a proud Jewish man, the grandson of Holocaust survivors. He was raised in Florida, worked at a Reform Jewish pre-school, did advanced study in Herzliya, Israel and eventually took Israeli citizenship. He was drawn to journalism, believing, as most Jews do, in the power of the pen to do good and thwart evil.

He was unafraid, undaunted by the dangers of his beat. He reported from the battlefronts in Benghazi, Turkey and Syria. He discovered and reported the name of the man who perpetrated the attack on the US embassy in Libya. He saw his pen as his weapon against the cruel barbarity he witnessed on all fronts of the Arab world. He believed that using his words to prick the world’s conscience was worth placing him in mortal, and in the end, fatal danger.

After his capture, his friends, led by Pittsburgh’s own Greg Roman, head of the Jewish Federation’s Community Relations Council, led an incredible, international effort to erase any mention anywhere of Sotloff’s Jewish or Israeli identity, as this would lead to his immediate execution as a spy.

This meant scrubbing social media sites and even expunging Sotloff’s record from the university in Herzliya. And, though, Steven Sotloff was brutally murdered on camera, it was because he was American reporter. According to the sources I’ve seen, they did not execute him because he was Jewish, unlike Daniel Pearl, whose last recorded words on the video of his execution were, “I am Jewish.”

Steven Sotloff’s courage allowed us to see the real face of Islamic extremism, its reliance on terror, murder and rape. He was motivated as a Jewish man to try to rally the world to oppose those who snuffed out human life as easily as they would blow out a candle. Steven Sotloff is a Jewish hero and we mourn with his parents, Arthur and Shirley this first Yizkor after his death. He belongs in the next book of our people’s heroes, to be read by a nine-year-old in years to come, just like I read of our early ones.

Another Jewish hero died this year. Her name is Jane Licht Siegel. She was the walking, living, breathing life and spirit of Temple Sinai and Women of Reform Judaism. She was a constant presence here, involved in virtually every aspect of synagogue life.

Every Friday she would come to services, sometimes a little late from work, go immediately to the kitchen to make sure that everything was set and then sit right back there. I would smile at her and she would smile back. Her presence meant that all was right with the world, at least in our world at Temple Sinai.

She was brilliant in her field, an innovator who traveled widely to share expertise, especially in Latin America. She traveled the world many times over, but this, here, was her home. Here at Temple Sinai, where she always thought of the good of the community, even when we weren’t so clear about it ourselves.

Jane served on the board of trustees here. She helped forge and mold new leadership for the Women of Temple Sinai. She was elected to the national board of the Women for Reform Judaism. Jane was also a vital force in our Tikkun Olam Center for Jewish Social Justice, especially when it came to the issues surrounding gun violence in our community.

Jane believed with all her heart that when someone said, “that can’t be done,” they just weren’t trying hard enough or thinking creatively enough.

Our heroes are those who extend the bounds of the possible and touch our hearts in the process. Jane Licht Siegel was such a hero. She died prematurely this summer of cancer and our community misses her terribly. I miss her daily, as does Rabbi Symons, Sara Stock Mayo, her dearest friends here, throughout the country and abroad. She deserves her own chapter in the book, Jewish Heroes, Book II.

The losses of Jane and Steven are painful. But you and I know that they are not the only Jewish heroes we bring to mind today, are they? Not just those who left us this year, but those whose memory we bring to mind each year at Yizkor time. Even when it is painful, we remember them, because they meant so much to us, they were heroes of heart and mind. They were our own Jewish heroes.

A mother who supported us in every imaginable way, from filling our tummies, to raking leaves with us, to bucking our spirits when we doubted ourselves. A father, who threw a ball to us in the backyard, still wearing his tie from the office or did the dishes with us. An aunt who listened to our problems even though she had no earthly idea what we were talking about. And Uncle who took the time to take us to a Pirates or Steelers game or just watch our soccer match, though we were not the stars and never would be.

Heroism is not only about being willing to enter a war zone for the sake of the truth. It is about living out our dearest, loving truths in the crush of the every day, the sometimes soul-draining demands of working and living and getting up in the morning to do it all over again.

Who are your heroes? Who comes to your mind this Yizkor? Whose remembrance fills your heart and eyes at this sacred moment?

Is it a grandfather who died young? A grandmother who was a constant presence in your life that you didn’t appreciate until she was gone? Was it a brother or sister who, even at this moment, you expect to turn around and speak with, because it is impossible to believe they are no longer at your side? Was it a child, who filled your heart with joy and whose death drained it of life and joy?

This moment is so sweet and bitter at the same time. At Yizkor, their memories dance in our minds and hearts as though they had never died. Yet when we reach for them we cling to empty air. And though our heart and memory burst with love and smiles and sweet, salty tears, we realize that they are trying to tell us something today. They are guiding us still, urging us not to remain in grief but to be a hero by walking out into the world and going on. Getting up tomorrow and living our lives can be, whatever our age, a heroic act.

Getting up tomorrow through the pain of arthritis can be heroic. Walking out of the house tomorrow despite a heart heavy with responsibility and challenge can be a heroic act. Keeping one’s patience with a toddler who has spilled the orange juice for the third time in one meal –

that’s heroic! Holding back from a scathing comment when someone we love has let us down yet again, that is a special kind of heroism that will never be recorded or held up for praise.

These are simple, small acts. They do not seem heroic in and of themselves. But if we think of them as acts in honor of, in memory of, in living praise of those whose lives we remember today, they can be.

We write our own versions of Jewish heroes today as we remember those who touched us so deeply and so well. That is what Yizkor is about – relighting the flame of memory, though we know it will sputter out. Light against the eternal darkness is always a heroic act.

I cannot end these brief words without mention of two other Jewish heroes in our community who have passed recently.

Mayor Sophie Masloff was the most cantankerous, yet effective Jewish civic hero Pittsburgh has ever seen. Who did not feel just the tiniest beam of pride when she plastered her street cleaning trucks with the phrase, “Sophie’s Choice – A Clean City?” Who, despite mourning our Pirates loss the other day, does not marvel at her vision in wishing for us a baseball stadium like PNC Park at a time when other leaders thought her crazy? Mayor Sophie Masloff was a Jewish hero who touched every part of our community and made us proud, our grandmother come to office to lead us to be our best selves.

And Sally Kalson! Her death still lies heavily on our hearts. Passionate, articulate, willing to fight for a cause even when the odds were stacked against her, the very definition of a hero. It almost didn’t matter whether or not you agreed with her. Sally grabbed us by the shoulders and made us look at what we wanted to avoid.

Mayor Sophie Masloff and Sally Kalson remind us that there are still Jewish heroes among us, even if we are called to simpler acts of courage.

At Yizkor we bring them to mind, we call them to life once more, even if only for these few, precious moments. And we hear them calling to us not to be discouraged, to try again, to pick ourselves up and not to concede defeat in our lives.

If we meet over the next weeks, do not be surprised if I ask you who your hero is, whether they are still in this world or not. Please share. I really would like to know.

Heroism is of the heart as well as the hand. Benjamin Disraeli once said, “To believe in the heroic makes heroes.” We still believe in our heroes, though they have been gone for 50 years and more. And in some way we will never understand, they believe in us. They believe in us and our gifts and our willingness to better ourselves in their name. In their honor. Our heroes. Our heroes.

Sun, October 1 2023 16 Tishrei 5784