Emory: From the Outside In

I’ve had the honor of officiating Reform High Holy Day worship at Emory for the last 6 years. This year’s Yom Kippur worship segued into the abhorrent acts of antisemitism on Emory’s campus. I’m speaking specifically of the graffiti that vandalized the AEPi house and its surroundings.  The juxtaposition of Yom Kippur, a day of worship focused on renewal and rededication to our highest aspirations as human beings, and these acts of barbarism hasn’t been lost on me or anyone paying attention. That I have something say about it didn’t occur to me until today.

Looking back over the last 6 years I’ve gained some insight into Emory’s Jewish community from the outside in. I’ve seen quite a bit in the limited capacity in which I’ve served Emory. For example, I saw a Torah dropped on Yom Kippur, a person volunteer to read Torah right in the middle of Rosh Hashanah services with no hesitation, and more. I’ve been asked to incorporate obscure words like “folliculitis” (sp???) into my remarks and other such anecdotes. Here are some of my perceptions and observations, all based on my experiences there.

Emory’s Jewish community is a welcoming community. No one, it seems, is from Atlanta. It’s not uncommon that when a Jewish person moves to Atlanta they find themselves at Emory for the High Holy Days. That’s because Emory’s Jewish community is committed to the mitzvah of welcoming strangers and guests. Many people come to Emory for that first High Holy Days and end up coming back year after year. Similarly, students from all the area colleges come to Emory for High Holy Days.

Emory’s Jewish community is vocal and thoughtful. As the High Holy Day officiant one of my only absolute “demands” is that students do all the “sermonizing.” Year after year I, and all of those who attend Emory’s Reform worship services are nourished by the insights and wisdom of the student body. This year’s sermons focused on themes of reflection, authentic repentance, commitment, and much more. They drew on sources ranging from The Lion King to Deborah Lipstadt.

Emory’s Jewish community is reflective. There’s a healthy debate about Israel and other topics of vital concern to the Jewish people taking place on Emory’s campus.

 Emory’s Jewish community is vibrant. Each year hundreds of students descend upon Hillel for holiday meals, services, and simply to be in community with one another.

Emory’s Jewish community is hopeful. Each year a handful of families from my school, The Alfred & Adele Davis Academy, join for High Holy Day services. I always incorporate the kids (elementary and middle school) into the service by having them lead prayers and tell the rest of us how to make the world a better place. During these moments I look out at the congregation and I can literally see the hope and comfort that these children bring.

Emory’s Jewish community is shaping Jewish lives. This year I had the peculiar joy of running into multiple alumni of The Alfred & Adele Davis Academy, Atlanta’s Reform Jewish Day School. These students are thriving at Emory and other area schools. They are pursuing their passions and dreams and remaining active members of the Jewish community.

Lastly, Emory’s Jewish community is strong and resilient. Anyone connected to it will tell you as much. Plain and simple.

What’s true of Emory’s Jewish community is true of the broader Emory community. That’s why this crude and impotent anti-semitism is an anomaly. I’ll conclude with the following small anecdote…

At Kol Nidre I spoke of the importance of Jewish pride and suggested that we all derive strength from the fact that the Jewish people have endured countless hardships and existential threats during our long and inspired history. After sharing these remarks a member of the broader Emory community sang the Kol Nidre prayer with indescribable beauty and power.

That student, Julia Hudgins, is Catholic. She started singing Kol Nidre two years ago after I wrote to a professor in the school of music requesting his assistance in finding someone worthy of the beautiful and haunting melody that defines Yom Kippur. Two years ago Julia volunteered, without any compensation, to take on this project. After successfully making it through her first year of singing Kol Nidre she agreed to return for a second year. Not only that, but since she’s a senior, she took it upon herself to find a replacement to ensure continuity of experience for the Jewish community even after she’s left Emory.

In exchanging thank you emails with Julia we had the following exchange. It speaks, I think, to the “real” Emory and therefore I’ll conclude with it…

 

Julia,

There are no words to y express my gratitude for the work you did these last two years. In light of the anti-Semitic events at Emory following Yom Kippur your participation took on extra meaning in the spirit of building bridges of tolerance, respect, and partnership. I wish you all the best in your grad school aspirations and would be happy to help you in any way that I possibly can as a debt of gratitude! Keep singing Kol Nidre– you’re GREAT at it.

WARMEST REGARDS,

Micah

 

To which I received the following reply:

 

Micah,

The event was such a disgrace to our community. In my four years at Emory I have never seen signs of anti-semitism and I was horrified that someone could even think to do such a thing. I have always been a believer that there is no reason for intolerance, and I was honored to help serve the Jewish community at Emory. I can only hope our future includes greater religious tolerance and respect.

Thanks so much!

-Julia

 

 

Who Resurrects the Dead

When I greet a Jewish friend that I haven’t seen in a very long time I typically say, “Mchayei Meitim.” It literally means, “who resurrects the dead.” Weird huh?

It’s less weird if you know that “Mchayei Meitim” is the conclusion of a traditional Jewish blessing that thanks God for, yes, resurrecting the dead. Some Jews take this blessing literally and recite this blessing x3/day as an affirmation of God’s limitless power. When greeting an old friend it’s a way of saying something like, “It’s great to see you” and “Let’s pick up right where we left off.”

I don’t put much stock in the traditional Jewish view that one day the dead will rise and be gathered back together in some sort of “Zion.” But this week the dead literally came back to life for me and my family.

I’m writing this post mid-journey so some of the details are still a bit fuzzy, but here’s as much of the story as I feel I can meaningfully share right now…

A couple of months ago I received an email from an active member of The Davis Academy grandparent community named Carol. She wrote to ask me if I was related to a man named Morris Lapidus who lived in Syracuse, NY. Like most Lapidus’, I’m fairly accustomed to being asked if I’m related to such and such Lapidus from such and such a place. It happens a couple of times a year and I typically respond by saying, “Not that I know of, but I’m sure we’re distant cousins somehow.”

As far as Morris Lapidus from Syracuse is concerned– well he’s my great grandfather. I’m named after him. So you might imagine my surprise and curiosity when out of the blue came an email asking if he was a relative.

Carol, who I have known for many years, was sitting with her friend, Ann, at Shabbat services at their synagogue– B’nai Torah. Coincidentally there was a Davis Academy student who was becoming Bar Mitzvah that morning. At some point during the service the Bar Mitzvah family said something along the lines of “Thank you Davis Academy and thank you Rabbi Micah Lapidus.” Upon hearing my name, Ann, who recently celebrated her 90th birthday, turned to Carol and asked, “Lapidus? I wonder if Rabbi Lapidus is related to Morris Lapidus?” Carol replied, “I don’t know, but why do you ask?” At that point Ann shared that Morris Lapidus rescued her and her husband from the displaced persons camp in Europe after World War II. Morris Lapidus was their sponsor, bringing them to the States, and helping them settle in Syracuse, NY. All this because Morris Lapidus’ first wife, whose name none of us recall at the moment, was Ann’s husband’s aunt.

I can’t speak for the rest of my family, but I can say that I knew none of this and I’m pretty sure that most of my cousins don’t either. What I’m saying is that this week I was reunited with family I never knew I had who live right here in Atlanta.

This week I met Ann and her daughter Hilda. They were kind enough to come and visit me at The Davis Academy. Together we started to unpack the story of our family. Preliminarily I learned a few things….

 

Hilda, Ann, and Micah
Hilda, Ann, and Micah

I learned that when Ann and her husband got off the boat in New York my grandfather Harold met them at the docks and escorted them via train back to Syracuse.

I learned that my great grandfather was an “entrepreneur” who owned various rental properties and was also a very learned man, always reading.

I learned that, at his medical school graduation, my grandfather downplayed the fact that he was at the top of his class saying that he had an unfair advantage because he had served as a medic in the war and was therefore older and more experienced.

I learned that my grandfather wrote a note to Ann when my grandmother, Florence, passed away in 1997. In that note he expressed his anguish and heartbreak.

I learned that my grandparents sent Ann and her second husband Rosh Hashanah cards every year, a few of which Ann still has and was able to share with me.

I learned that thinking about my grandfather, and particularly the fact that I officiated his funeral, isn’t something that I’ve fully processed on an emotional level.

During my visit with Ann and Hilda I learned a bit about their family as well. I heard a few of Ann’s stories from the war. I heard about how Morris Lapidus had helped her husband learn to become a kosher butcher, which became his profession. I learned that Ann and her husband opened a kosher butcher shop when they moved to Atlanta in the 60s.

A few times during our meeting Ann looked at me and told me that, when she looked me in the eyes, she could see my grandfather.

That’s about all I have to report at the moment. Hopefully there’ll be more forthcoming.

But the amazing thing about all this is the coincidence of Ann being at synagogue on the day when the Davis family mentioned my name from the bimah. I don’t attend many Saturday morning services of Davis Academy students but I’m fairly certain that I am only rarely mentioned by name at any of them. That this particular family said my name is the fluke that led to this whole discovery.  I’ve been living in Atlanta for 6 years now and Ann and her family have been here much longer. Who knows if we ever would have found one another if Ann hadn’t been at synagogue that morning and if my name hadn’t been mentioned?

The Davis Academy and the Snow Storm

On Tuesday morning The Davis Academy 8th grade joined with their counterparts at The Marist School for the culmination of a series of meetings focused on interfaith dialogue, understanding, and community service. Blissfully unaware of what Tuesday afternoon would bring to the greater Atlanta area, students from the two schools spent the morning volunteering at Books for Africa, The Atlanta Community Food Bank, Medshare, as well as at The Davis Academy. In a few short hours they processed more than 6,000 pounds of food, 16,000 pounds of books, and 2,500 pounds of medical supplies. They prepared more than 700 sandwiches for Project Open Hand, wrote more than 500 get well, holiday, and birthday cards for area nursing homes, and jointly painted a prayer canvas with both schools’ logos that will help line the route of the upcoming Boston Marathon. It was a typically atypical morning at Davis. A day that engaged students in the kind of learning that, to paraphrase Haim Ginott, makes us ‘more human.’ Or as we put it at Davis, a day of menschlichkeit.

These sandwiches made it to a local shelter by Tuesday night.
These sandwiches made it to a local shelter by Tuesday night.
Davis and Marist students join forces.
Davis and Marist students join forces.

As Marist students boarded their busses the first flurries of snow were falling. Regarding the subsequent hours, each of us has a story. To the best of our knowledge all members of The Davis Academy community found safe haven by Tuesday evening, even if they weren’t in their own homes. Over the last couple of days, members of The Davis Academy administration have been privileged to hear some of the many stories of our community members. We have heard about students helping to warm stranded motorists with cups of tea. Families opening their homes to strangers who simply needed to make a phone call or use the restroom. Alumni who provided emergency medical services to individuals who were cut off from emergency vehicles. Teachers who spent the evening pushing cars up hills. From every corner of our community we have heard tales of selflessness, compassion, and bravery. We have been sacred witnesses to indescribable acts of menschlichkeit.

Davis 8th Graders serve coffee to stranded motorists.
Davis 8th Graders serve coffee to stranded motorists.

To be sure Davis Academy students, families, alumni, and teachers weren’t the only heroes on the streets in recent days. But upon reflection, it cannot be denied that our kehilah instinctively knew that action was required and responded in kind. We knew that the extraordinary circumstances required us to think not only of ourselves, but also of others. We answered Rabbi Hillel’s two thousand year old question, “If I am only for myself, what I am?”

A recent survey of Davis Academy alumni confirms something we are very proud of here at Davis—that our graduates thrive at the high school of their choice and that they leave Davis ready for the next step. The stories you’ve shared, and the stories we hope that you will share in response to this note, help us understand what the “Davis Journey” is all about. We are helping children become mensches. It’s not just smart people, not just well-prepared people, not just well-rounded people, all of which might lead us to say ‘dayeinu’ . We are helping our children become more fully human, to become mensches. We are helping them to become leaders and mensches who see in their fellow human beings an ethical obligation—to care, to help, and to honor.

Help us understand the story of The Davis Academy in response to this week’s snowstorm by hitting reply and sharing your story. Please let us know if we have your permission to use your name in subsequent communications.

 

Shabbat Shalom,

 

Rabbi Micah

Fixing a Hole

Rosh Hashanah came two days after Labor Day. On Labor Day we hosted a little get together. Our little get together coincided with a massive plumbing problem. Pregnant wife, potty-training 2 year old, company, holidays, no flushing toilets– unsustainable.

Fortunately I’d already had a few plumbers come give quotes to fix the problem and I called the one that I thought could get the job done. So today, amidst all the Rosh Hashanah preparations that take place in a two-rabbi household we also had a tractor in our front yard along with an 8 foot deep hole. And then there were Darrell and Cody– fixing the hole.

I came home from work to find Darrell and Cody up to their necks in the hole. I was carrying my shofar, it being Erev Rosh Hashanah. First Darrell tried to pull one on me by telling me he was going to have to rip up my entire driveway. Then I asked Cody about his awesome tattoo– a Gibson guitar with a dove. It was an homage to his grandfather who taught him to play on a Gibson– a Gibson Dove. Then Cody asked me about my shofar. I explained and then gave it a blow– rabbis can’t resist teachable moments. At that point Darrell chimed in that his grandmother had a hollowed out bull’s horn that she used to call in the boys from the farm. Between Cody’s Gibson (I’ve got a Gibson as well) and Darrell’s grandmother’s shofar, I know we all were thinking how much we have in common even though our paths would’ve never crossed if they weren’t there to fix my sewer line. I think I made a comment to Darrell along the lines of, “If you go far enough back all that stuff is connected” by which I meant his grandmother, Cody’s grandfather and all our ancestry. All this with Cody and Darrell down in the hole.

Eventually I went inside and greeted my wife, who thought that my shofar demo was just about the funniest thing she’d ever heard. We had a good laugh. Then I accidentally flushed the toilet, flooding the hole in which Cody and Darrell were standing. It’s a good thing Yom Kippur is coming up because I feel pretty bad about that.

Later that evening I made my way to Emory to lead the Reform High Holy Day Services. Before “Shalom Rav,” the evening prayer for peace, I took a moment to reflect on the horrible war in Syria and also told the story of the common humanity I’d found between me, Cody, and Darrell. I also took a moment to dwell on the idea of “roots.” Roots are important– they’re what ground us and make us feel connected to community, faith, tradition and so on. But roots can also cause problems. Cody and Darrell entered my life to remove a root that was clogging my sewer line. Part of the trouble we face as a species has to do with roots. Take Syria– how can we ever get to the root of the conflict there? Short of pulling up the rotting and dangerous roots, how can we ever expect to see meaningful peace, or at least an end to the senseless killing?

Judaism takes roots very seriously. They’re the foundation of our faith and also the building blocks of the Hebrew language. We also take peace very seriously. One of the reasons I’m able to be authentic as a rabbi is because every Jewish communal prayer experience has at least one, if not multiple prayers for peace.

So the image of Cody and Darrell digging up the roots in my front yard, and the little piece of common humanity we found in one another, is an important image for me this High Holy Days. Maybe it’s because I had to deal with a plumbing emergency on Erev Rosh Hashanah. That’s certainly memorable enough.  But maybe it’s because there’s something to the idea of getting to the root of our problems by celebrating the roots of our common humanity.

If you need a plumber let me know. I’ve got a good one I can refer you too…