20 years ago, today, we woke up thinking it would be just another day, but 20 years ago, today, the world changed.
20 years ago, today, the world changed for almost 3,000 people murdered on planes, at the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, for their families and communities.
20 years ago, today, the world changed for the US, the UK, the world.
20 years ago, today, our lives and our great hopes for a century or even a millennium of peace collapsed in a few hours.
Today we are marking the Shabbat between Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur, a day most appropriate to reflect on change.
What is left after 20 years of our dreams we had before 9/11 and what will be? Can we restore our hopes, can we recreate, can we adjust?
20 years ago, I was not a professional Jew, but perhaps 9/11 pushed me in that direction. 20 years ago, was a day where I felt lost and shocked. 20 years ago, my world changed.
20 years ago, I left our apartment in Munich early in the morning. It was only a few days before the bookfair in Frankfurt and we had several meetings on the agenda this day to prepare for it. Chayim lived that time in Philadelphia, and we had our routine to talk usually around lunch time for some minutes. But not so that day. Because I had meetings scheduled for the whole day and Chayim knew about it, I wasn’t expecting a call from him.
At some point – I can’t remember the time – one of my colleagues who was known for making bad jokes at the wrong time – opened the door to the conference room and said, “New York is burning”. And the second thing he said “Chayim left a message at the reception that he is going home.”
Weird combination, which made only sense after we switched on the TV in the conference room. The meetings were over, and everyone went to their computers. At that time the internet had already collapsed. I tried to call Chayim to no avail. For your information, our apartment in Philadelphia that time was only one block away from the big sky-scrapers downtown Philly. With all the pictures that were broadcasted into our homes via the TV in an endless loop and the spare information available that also spoke about one plane which was heading towards Philadelphia missing, my day was over. I left the office to go home. Should Chayim try to call me, it was better to be at home.
Several hours later he called, a relief. But the hours in-between are burned into my memories and the pain is still real. And this is what I felt, 1000s of miles away.
Thankfully, no one I knew lost their life.
Nevertheless, this day still changed my life in a way I never anticipated.
That day, the way how people saw me changed.
Only a few days after 9/11, returning home from my place of work, which was literally only two blocks walk, two civil policemen stopped me in front of my door, asking for my papers. Asking them, why they stopped me, they were honest about it: I looked suspicious. I look somehow Arabic.
After 9/11 this happened often to me. The only thing that stopped them for checking my identity was wearing a kippah. Who have thought that wearing a kippah in Germany would actually save you from being racially profiled – at least in a way that you were not considered as an immediate threat.
20 years ago, everyone who was looking different was considered either a threat, a terrorist, or not. Many times, I ended up being seen as of the first category, and it wasn’t fun.
To be fair, I grew up in Germany with being considered not a “real German”, but before 9/11 it wasn’t that hurtful. Until then it was no “legally sanctioned” racism, it was only the usual day-by-day racism. 9/11 allowed the police (for a while) to check everyone who “didn’t look German. And if you complained the answer was that 9/11 changed the parameters and this is now what needs to be done, to prevent another 9/11.
And I am sure that my experiences where minor to what people who didn’t speak German and/or without a German ID document had to endure. But the fear that I – by mistake – left the house without my ID card was real. Still today, when I see police, my blood pressure goes up, just because I learned after 9/11 that I had to proof that I am not a terrorist. There could be dozens of people around me, only I and everyone else who looked like a “terrorist” had to show their papers.
I am not blind; I have seen what radicalised Islamic fighters have done to the world. I see what is happening in Afghanistan right now, I have mourned victims of terror attacks and I find it unbearable how women, men and children suffer day by day under an ideology that hates human diversity.
But I hate more that the terrorists of 9/11 succeeded in limiting our human freedom, hurting our human dignity, and destroying our hopes for a world in peace. I am upset that our society had to trade in a bit of our freedom in exchange of safety after each single terror attack. I hate that I feel traumatised by the reaction of my own society. With the twin towers some of the colours that made our world shining so brightly disappeared. The world became a bit greyer, a bit darker. I cry in the anguish of my hart because of that.
However, I mentioned that 9/11 brought me also a bit closer to my Judaism. Chayim might share with you after the service how 9/11 was for him, and how his congregation in Philadelphia came together in the days after, first to console one another, and then also to celebrate the High Holy Days in a world that seemed to fall apart.
Also in far-away Munich, the community got closer together, and the teaching of repairing the world after such a catastrophe still rings in my ears, outbalancing the human disappointments of the weeks and months after.
I understood that it is on me and everyone else around me to restore human dignity. I can mourn the many times I felt hurt and feel diminished because of political agendas or pure racism or anti-Semitism, it happened, and it will happen again. But I learned that I could comfort someone who was hurt too, I could restore hope, I could and can re-create dreams, and I could and can bring healing.
Yes, the terrorists of 9/11 accomplished to take away a hurtful amount of liberty and human dignity with their heinous acts, but they have not won. And my Judaism teaches me not to let them win. Tikkun Olam is a real thing. As long as we see in the other a human being, they cannot win, as long as we don’t treat others who don’t look, act, love, pray or whatever like us automatically as threats and evil, they cannot win. As long as we constantly remind us that we, as individuals, as any other human being are a true reflection of the divine, they cannot win.
In my Rosh Hashanah sermon, I spoke about creating spaces where people not only feel welcome, but safe too, and where they truly belong, regardless of their origin, way of Jewish observance, or whatever…
With every step we go towards the other, we bring back the colour that disappeared on 9/11. And hopefully, the world will shine in all its diversity again, soon, in our days.
9/11 changed our world, but we can and must change it too.
G’mar chatima Tovah.
The Wimbledon Synagogue, which is the largest in South London, is delighted to announce Rabbi Adrian Michael Schell as their newly appointed Rabbi to lead and guide their congregation. Rabbi Schell joins The Wimbledon Synagogue, having served at one of South Africa’s largest Progressive Reform Jewish congregation (600 members), the Bet David Synagogue in Johannesburg.
Since 2014, Rabbi Schell has been the solo Rabbi of Bet David Synagogue and will now join The Wimbledon Synagogue after the High Holy days on the 1st November 2020. Rabbi Schell was ordained by the Abraham Geiger College, Potsdam/Berlin in Germany. During his six year tenureship at the Bet David Synagogue, Rabbi Schell was responsible for increasing the previously declining congregation by welcoming new families and individuals to join the Synagogue.
Founded in 1949, The Wimbledon Synagogue draws its 850 members from across South West London, Surrey and beyond. A vibrant and welcoming community, Wimbledon Synagogue is a member of the Movement for Reform Judaism and is home to a cosmopolitan & diverse membership which also boasts one of the largest cheders with over 100 pupils.
Rob Glaser Chair of The Wimbledon Synagogue commented “Rabbi Schell is the ideal fit for Wimbledon Synagogue. He shares with us our traditional values and commitment to the community, I know he will be instrumental in guiding us forward. I am delighted to be a part of our synagogue’s next journey with Rabbi Schell as our spiritual leader.”
Rabbi Schell shares Wimbledon Synagogue’s commitment to the community by ensuring the shul is a Jewish home for everyone. Alongside the congregation, he will ensure the shul provides a space for families, singles, seniors and students, people who identify as LGBTIQA+ and those who feel comfortable in a traditional Jewish setting. His beliefs in value-based Judaism, which expresses itself in social action, tikkun olam, and interfaith dialogue has been the principle of his rabbinate journey.
Says Rabbi Schell “I am thrilled to announce my appointment by The Wimbledon Synagogue, to become their new Rabbi. I am blessed beyond words for this incredible chance to open the next chapter in my rabbinic journey and Chayim’s and my life.”
Born in 1973 and raised in Frankfurt Germany, Rabbi Schell is married to Dr.Chayim Schell-Apacik. Starting out his career as a bookseller he went on to owning and running the Apacik & Schell Bookstore in Munich. He then became a Sales & Marketing Manager at Germany’s leading publishing house in Munich, before deciding on a career change to the rabbinate. He was ordained as a Rabbi in 2013 and has led many progressive congregations in Germany and abroad during his rabbinic training, including a year at the Conservative Yeshiva in Jerusalem. He worked as the National Youth Director at Rosh Netzer, Germany for the Progressive Jewish movement (UpJ) and served the Progressive Jewish congregation in Hamelin, Germany as Rabbi, before moving to Johannesburg. Rabbi Schell has a Master of Arts degree in Jewish Studies and Bachelor of Arts degree in Jewish and Religious Studies. His thesis dealt with adoption of children in the Hebrew Bible, and in the context of religious Jewish law (Halacha).
Neilah Sermon – Farewell Address by Rabbi Adrian M Schell – Yom Kippur 5781/ 2020
My dear friends, chaverot and chaverim,
The doors are closing. Figuratively as we end Yom Kippur – our liturgy reminding us, that our time to repent is getting shorter and shorter – and literally, as I will close the doors of Bet David behind myself for the last time, very soon.
And so, I want to open my last sermon for this High Holy Days by recalling for us the story of Korach. While the story has a lot to teach about our inner urges, which challenge us on our path of righteousness, it also has a wonderful story between the lines, I’d like to elevate this evening:
This dramatic story tells of Korach, Moses’ first cousin, stirring up a rebellion against Moses and Aaron, with the aim of replacing Aaron as High Priest. Korach had a number of followers, one of whom was called On the son of Pelet – At the last moment, so the story, On dropped out of the dispute, and thus was spared the terrible fate of Korach and his supporters.
The Talmud asks: What saved him?
Apparently, it was On’s wife –She convinced her husband not to join the rebellion. She understood that the effort was misguided. In doing so she saved her husband and her entire family from destruction. When highlighting this episode, Scholars teach that On’s wife exemplifies the special gifts given to women at the time of creation saying- “An extra measure of understanding was given to the woman,” Women have a special spiritual power. It is a Divine gift.
Along this line, the Rabbis teach – regarding the generation of Israelites who were slaves in Egypt –that while the men had fallen into hopeless despair which would lead only to destruction, the women had hope and faith and therefore succeeded in preserving the existence of the Jewish people. Through their merit were the Israelites redeemed.
Indeed, this is borne out by the 4 women of the Exodus. The story begins with Batya, Moses’ adopted Mother. She was the daughter of Pharaoh, bathing in the Nile one day when she finds a child. She knows he must be an Israelite and should be killed according to her father’s decree.
But, she can’t do it. When she sees the baby, the text tells us she took pity on the child. The Midrash teaches that because she adopted this child, God adopted her. Batya personifies compassion and feelings, understanding the needs of others.
The story continues with Yochevet, Moses birth mother. Batya hires Yochevet to nurse the child. Our sages explain that she was the one who taught him Jewish values during the most formative years of his life. She reminded him who he was and where he came from. Yochevet represents the Jewish value of teaching our children.
And then there was of course Miriam. Moses’ sister was a feisty, bold, organisational woman. She had a mouth and she used it—to sing, to challenge her brother and to lead the community. Miriam was the first public female figure in Jewish history.
And finally, there was the fourth woman in Moses’ life who made a quite different choice. Zipporah, Moses wife. a stay at home mom who raised two sons, nurtured her family and upholding the Jewish tradition. And more so, she was the bridge between the Israelites and their neighbouring tribes.
4 different women,
4 different ideals in our Jewish tradition.
And I have had the privilege of encountering all 4 at Bet David, both personally and professionally.
I have found a home and a community. I have grown as a rabbi, as a partner and as a Jew.
During my tenure here, you have shared your lives with me- I thank you all that you have formed this congregational family by including all of us in your joys and sorrows, in your hopes and dreams. In opening your hearts for me, in “adopting me” into your lives, we all became Batya.
You have inspired the Yochevet in me to pass on our beautiful tradition to the next generation. I thank Giddy, Kendyll, Thandi, Kani and Diane for their talent and creativity and for allowing me to share my passion for Judaism and in some small ways to help shape the Jewish identity of children and Jews by Choice.
The past 6 years have been a time of growth and innovation in our congregation. You have invited my input and included me in the planning of many new initiatives. You have embraced the skills of Miriam in me. I sincerely thank Desmond and Eric and the many members of ManCom for allowing me to serve as your rabbi.
At this point, I must thank Glynnis a million times for having my back any given time and keeping me organised. I am sure most of you remembered when I asked in a children’s service who my boss is that the answer was “Glynnis”. Nothing wrong in there, still.
Thank you to Di, to Justice, Sipho, Elias, Dorcas and to the many past staff members of BD. Bet David has always had a strong professional team, working hand in hand, and it was a great pleasure walking with you these past years.
A special place in my heart is reserved for Kehillah. While I only could play a little role in their holy work, it still makes me proud and humble at the same time to see that Bet David is more than a building.
Here we have a spark that brings light into the world. You are the Zipporah of Bet David nurturing those who are often forgotten by the world.
If you share my sentiment that a rabbi should internalise those four divine gifted ideals, then you will also share with me that a rabbi needs inspiration in order to nurture them…and my husband, my role model and my best friend, Chayim, surely has been an inspiration to me- I thank you Chayim for serving as my unending well of strength and helping me become the rabbi that I am.
Chaverim, as much as my heart feels heavy because of my departure from you, the closing of the door to this chapter, the lighter tone of the Neilah liturgy reaffirms in me that a new door, a new chapter will open right behind the first one, and that I – we all – will walk though that door, knowing that we are so very blessed by the Divine gifts that Bet David has bestowed upon us. You all have brought joy and holiness into my life.
Thank you and Gmar Chatima Tova.
This Shabbat is a time of endings and new beginnings: It is the last Shabbat of 5780, opening the gateway to Rosh HaShanah We are bidding farewell to the past, and moving forward into something new. Like the ancient Israelites we are poised to enter what is metaphorically a new land; our new buildings and a brand new year. Have you ever thought what an appropriate season this is to begin a new year?
Spring is a time for looking both forwards and backwards. As we see nature awakening, and the new flowers blossoming, and the sun shining brighter and lighter than before, we prepare for the next season as well. And so it is with our lives. In the days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur we seek to rid ourselves of the habits, the thoughts, the actions that blemish our lives, and we enter new paths, leading us to become better people.
How can we bring more light and colour into the new year? One way is through teshuvah. Teshuvah is far more than repentance. “It is,” argues Adin Steinsaltz, “a spiritual awakening to the possibilities within us. It is not just remorse, but a profound change of one’s life, a break, a reformation. We alone of all creatures have this power to turn, to recreate ourselves anew. Teshuvah at its heart is a creative process. It is not a turning back, but rather a turning forward, a turning to a new creation. Our teshuvah allows us to turn to who we have always possibly been and indeed are meant to be, but have not yet become. We turn to the growth and possibility that is inside us, but which has lain dormant. Like the sculptor who creates a work of art from what appears to be a block of stone, we create the person we truly are but which we may have kept locked inside us, not knowing how to release it or perhaps even afraid to do so.”
This process is not always easy. We might face both an intellectual and emotional block to our teshuvah, yet, teshuvah, though sometimes painful can also be joyous. As we create our true selves, we truly become partners with God in the process of creation.
We all stand here in the doorway of a brand new year. What will we do? We have the opportunity and the potential to create both ourselves and the world anew—today, tomorrow and in this new year.
May you be inscribed and sealed for a good new year
Rabbi Adrian M Schell