The New Year, Israel, and Two Powerful Sermons

by John Podhoretz
September 29, 2014

As Jews gathered last week to celebrate Rosh Hashanah, one major question haunting the American Jewish community was this: How would its rabbis handle the issue of the summer’s war and the response to it here and abroad? Everywhere, one heard the complaint that Israel has become a divisive topic in synagogues, so much so that rabbis are too frightened to speak on it for fear of alienating someone. In New York City, the epicenter of the community (it and its environs are home to 40 percent of America’s Jews), two rabbis would not remain silent, and they deserve every blessing.

Elliot Cosgrove holds the pulpit at Park Avenue Synagogue—the largest conservative shul in the city (with a storied history that includes the tenure of Milton Steinberg, the novelist and community leader who was the model mid-century American rabbi). His beautiful, wrenching sermon can be found here in its entirety. He begins with the story of his British cousins, set upon violently as children 20 years in the city of Manchester by anti-Semitic thugs who shouted “kill the Jews” as local residents shut their doors and refused to help. All four eventually moved to Israel; two fought in the war this summer:

I wondered if Rafi, uniform on and rifle in hand, called on to defend his nation, was remembering the day when he–a yiddische boy in his school blazer–banged in vain on a neighborhood door crying for help. Never again would he allow his safety and the safety of his brothers to be dependent on the kindness of strangers. And I wondered if Benji, now in his third tour of duty, was recalling that day when he froze in horror, believing that somehow his enemy would play by the same moral standards as he did. Never again would a naïve belief in the goodness of humanity lead him to hesitate in fulfilling his obligation to defend himself as his attackers prepared their assault. It would be his decision–his and his country’s alone–to choose the moment and manner by which his destiny would be shaped and his safety secured. I wondered if, twenty years later, my cousins could see the accordion-like nature of their personal history playing out in the events of their lives……


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