A haimish (homey, folksy) Rabbi David Wolpe used humor and storytelling to entertain and enlighten a crowd of more than 500 at the Jewish Federation of Southern Arizona’s “Together” event on Feb. 12 at the Tucson Jewish Community Center. “When I grew up Jewish schools were called parochial. I want to dispel that being Jewish means being parochial,” said Wolpe, the rabbi at Sinai Temple in Los Angeles. “The more Jewish you are the more universal you can be,” carrying out acts of kindness in your community.
Wolpe has written seven books, including “Why Faith Matters,” and is known for his outreach in both Jewish and non-Jewish communities around the United States. He’s also known for the personal style of his sermons and his vision of dynamic synagogue life, which were both on display in his Tucson talk, sponsored by the JFSA 2014 Community Campaign.
What other country in the world would go thousands of miles to pick up people of a different race, he asked, referring to airlifts of Ethiopian Jews to Israel. In the former Soviet Union Jews were rescued “because we screamed persistently,” he said, which also contributed to bringing down the Soviet Union in 1989.
“Jews are a worldwide people,” said Wolpe. “Everywhere you go you’ll find a Jew. We’re not a religion. We’re not an ethnicity because you can’t convert out of an ethnicity. We’re part of a religious family.”
And families also squabble. Wolpe recalled visiting his friend Pastor Rick Warren at the evangelical Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, Calif. “What shocked this rabbi about the church was … parking. Nobody got in front of anybody. At my synagogue all the SUVs makes it look like Rommel’s invading,” he joked. “It’s because everyone knows everybody there, which has a beautiful upside and also has a downside. But Judaism forces families to get back together. Judaism,” he said, “is a system that doesn’t make life perfect, ideal or frictionless.
“Think about it. In the five books of the Torah it’s all about the Jewish people getting to Israel. But in the last book, Deuteronomy, they’re still in the desert,” said Wolpe, adding that the Jewish people must support each other. “Part of the message of Torah is ‘you live in the wilderness.’
“When people tell you that Jews have survived because they’ve been persecuted, that’s ridiculous,” he said. “Lots of people have been persecuted but haven’t survived. The way Jews survive in this world is because someone you don’t know is your brother or sister.”
What have we learned along the way? Wolpe illustrated the event’s theme of togetherness with a story about Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, who went to Russia with his guitar to help in the plight of Soviet Jewry in the mid-1960s. Only one old man invited Carlebach into his house. Carlebach told him, “I understand why people don’t want to hear a singing rabbi from the West. What I don’t understand is why you?” The old man said that when he was a child during World War I there was a rumor in his village about the Cossacks coming. All the children were brought to the village rabbi’s house to hide. “It was bitter cold. The rabbi put his cloak over me. It’s been almost 80 years since then, but that cloak still keeps me warm.”
Wolpe asked the audience how many people had been touched or had their lives changed by an act of kindness, without ever thanking the person responsible. “We all have the power to change other people’s lives. There are lots of ways of being cold and being scared,” Wolpe said. If you help others anonymously, “you may never know what you do, but that makes the mitzvah even greater.”