Shabbat Shalom

When I was asked or more accurately had my arms twisted to speak about “My Jewish Heroes & Mentors”, I thought that the subject would be one to easily be addressed. By the way Rabbi Azriel, due to the twisting of arms, you are temporarily stricken from my hero list!

In answering the question , my first thought was how have other people defined “heroes”?

I believe my friend Barry Grossman would see the definition of a hero in some of his favorite comic books, many from Jewish creators.

Superman  

Superman can fly, see through buildings and listen from large distances. He can run quickly and lift large weights. More importantly his alter-ego is modest about his abilities. With so many excellent qualities, why wouldn’t Superman be a good role model?

The problem with Superman, as it is with every role model that tries to be perfect, is that he doesn’t exist. Supermen don’t exist, nor do superwomen. I believe it is better to have incomplete and imperfect role models than to try to idealize a hero without any flaws who we can never have the hope of imitating.

Batman –Bruce Wayne isn’t capable of amazing feats of heroism because of alien DNA, a radioactive spider bite, or an overdose of gamma radiation.  With no super powers, Wayne relies on human strength, ingenuity, and intelligence to accomplish his missions. He reminds us that extraordinary success is the result of extraordinary effort.

But Batman is not a perfect hero!  

Bruce Wayne is manic depressive and as a boy should have gotten counseling but instead has brooded over his parent’s murder for years and is a vigilante exacting his version of justice without care for the actual law.  Even if he has the tacit approval of the police force, that doesn’t make what he does right. He routinely infringes on people’s civil liberties to accomplish what HE believes is the right result for everyone. As a lawyer and a former public defender, a life motivated only by revenge cannot meet my definition of a hero.

So, My heroes do not wear capes, but does he or she necessarily need to wear a uniform?

Not to take away from a football player’s accomplishments in any way—but I found nothing about a sports figure attributes on the field to be “heroic.” They may be at the top of their game but there is no quest, no pursuit that they have undertaken that is solely for the benefit of others. We are so enthralled with our sports heroes we care little about what Martin Luther King called the “content of one’s character.” Behavior & integrity due matter.

To take a line from the play Man of LaMancha, a hero needs to be willing to “march into hell for a heavenly cause, to fight for the right without question or pause.” To be Heroic, requires a willingness to make a personal sacrifice for the benefits of others.

How about Other Uniforms:

Fireman, Police Officers and our Men and Women in the Armed Forces. A somewhat obvious choice.  

Despite that voice that says ‘run and be safe’, they charge into danger for someone else. Despite their actions not being entirely ‘voluntary’ they begin to bring into focus a clearer picture of what my idea of a hero is. I call them my “duty bound” heroes.

But …Not all of my Heroes Wear Uniforms!

What Jewish values do these  heroes and  mentors possess? Will we recognize them when we see them?

Role models are the people who come into our lives in a personal manner and enrich our experience. They give advice, teach, coach, encourage, support and protect those things within their sphere of influence.  They may not be able to influence world events but they represent “acts of grace, refinement and beauty.”

Role models are intimately interested in our spiritual and psychological growth. When we are vulnerable, role models assist us in building confidence and character.  When we are sad they lighten our spirit. When we are blue, they will try to dislodge whatever we are choking on! They elevate us rather than diminish us!

I think most of my heroes are reluctant heroes: seemingly ordinary people placed in extraordinary situations; sometimes doing extraordinary things, sometimes doing what may seem mundane with extraordinary results.

A few examples:

Parents:

 Parents who are worthy mentors struggle to help their children find meaningful and enriched lives. These role model parents, who practice and actually live, “ethically –willed lives ” so that their children can understand there is more to life than making money, more to life than building a resume.  Living an ethically-willed life addresses people’s need to belong , to be known, to be remembered, to have one’s life and legacy make a difference, to bless and be blessed. Creating an ethically-lived life is certainly a Jewish value.

While most parents at some point hear that voice to “flee” most don’t. They are in it for the long haul!  They are ordinary people doing extraordinary things.

I’ll talk about my parents in a moment.

Foster & Adoptive Parents: …not only are they making the sacrifice that biological parents make, but they are doing it for someone’s children! Foster parents take on these often broken and damaged children, and slowly …mend them, and nurture them back to physical and mental health and put back the pieces to make them whole again. They give these children hope! When appropriate, they give the biological parents time to learn to be parents.  Foster Parents are committed to repairing the world, Tukun Olam , one child at a time. Surely, giving a child a sense of family, a sense of belonging, a sense of purpose must be Jewish values.

School Teachers both public and religious:

Who would choose to go into a room and be challenged with the task of preparing children for a world no one can fully yet envision? In conjunction with their parents, they are charged with teaching skills that will set them on the road to fulfillment, happiness and a little financial success? How many of us can recall a teacher who impacted our lives beyond the schoolroom? How do you teach children to live Jewishly? 

Teachers, who empower their students to care about other people, meet my definition of everyday heroes!

The child who stands up to the playground bully: What motivates a youngster to risk physical and mental torment to prevent another child from being bullied? What makes this youngster choose to NOT be a bystander and simply let someone else deal with the problem? The child hero inside this person chooses to “do the right thing” even when no one else is looking. This champion of the playground, this champion of standing up for the little guy, fits my definition of a hero a proper role model.

My father. Many of you know my father was Judge Cooper. He came from Chelm, Poland at the age of eight not speaking English and no knowledge of the American legal system. My father studied hard and he came to believe in the “rule of law”, the principle that society should govern itself not by arbitrary decisions of individual government officials, but laws that applied to everyone regardless of status. He taught me to respect the law and have compassion for the people who come before the law. I believe these are inherent Jewish valves.

Every day of his long career, he dealt with a side of society so many of us wish not to see; the murders, child molesters, petty thieves, neighbors arguing over fences, car accidents and he observed people suffering from the devastating effects of alcoholism, domestic abuse, child abuse, poverty and racism.

Yet he may have been the least judgmental person I have ever known. He constantly looked for the good in everyone even in though he was seeing them in their darkest hours. He believed in redemption and in the human spirit and in the ability of people to improve their lives and thereby improve the life of their communities. And when he sent someone to jail, he felt somehow not only had that person not lived up to their potential, but that society had let this person fall through the cracks and that the grandeur of the community was diminished  for this failure. Atoning for mistakes {Teshuva} and communal responsibility for one another, are Jewish values he taught me.

I recall a story about the Judge where a man was arrested for stealing a package of lunch meats by placing them down the front of his trousers and walking out of the store. The amount of the theft was small but he had stolen food in the past. He was brought before my Dad having already spent a week in jail as there was no one to put up bail for him. Realizing that this man was simply hungry and alone, he asked all of the attorneys in the room to kick in a few dollars and help this man. Not because the “law require it” but because humanity required nothing less. Going above what the law required and taking care of the poor-another core Jewish value.

He raised four semi-well-adjusted children. The four of us have each raised a family of our own. He instilled in us a love for Judaism, a love for learning and a love for political debate of the topics of the day. Have an opinion but be informed.

All of his children believed that they had a ‘happy and fulfilled’ childhood and we all pray that our children will say the same thing about their childhood someday, that it was ‘happy and fulfilled.’  While he could not leap a two-story building he was big in my eyes, and he kept his family strong and together and his positive approach to life and people were clearly Jewish approaches. He was a man of integrity and simple desires. He practiced acts of kindness.  These attributes fits my definition of a Jewish hero, a Jewish mentor.

My Mother:  she too embodies numerous Jewish values I find worth emulating. She is warm and sensitive and despite a Jewish stereotype of being “talkers”, she is a good listener. And if she could not find the words, her warm embrace takes away some of the pain and uncertainty of life. Parents who talk to their children are mentors.

While not college educated, she is an avid reader and advocate for all types of learning. We had books and magazines throughout the house. This belief in education is a fundamental Jewish value. She made us go to Hebrew school even when we didn’t want to because she thought a Jewish education was important to being a well-rounded, grounded and moral person. She welcomed spouses, grandchildren, great-grandchildren and friends into her home and when people come to her house, they feel they are at home.

She was a member of the Chevra Kadisha, the Jewish Burial Society for many years. She showed the Jewish value of respect for the deceased by performing ritual bathing and dressing of the deceased, devoid of any ulterior motive as the deceased cannot thank her for this last act of kindness and honor. She performed this quietly and un-assumedly. 

She attended to my great aunt at the Doctor Sher home and she willingly had her mother-in-law live with us for several years as a sign of respect for the aged and I think as a sign of respect for life in general.  She loved my grandparents and honored my father with her affection towards them. She lives by the Jewish creed to honor one’s mother and father and show reverence to the aged.

She worked for years at the Anti-Defamation League because she believed in the fight against discrimination in any form. I think this fulfills the Jewish obligation to welcome the stranger in your midst.

She cared for my father throughout his life but especially when he became more frail and dependent in his last few years. She believed in the vows “in sickness and in health” which I believe are very Jewish values in the commandment to respect the bride and the groom.

Her Jewish values are strong and demonstrated to her children daily.

This congregation:

And I think the people in this congregation meet my definition of everyday heroes. You have built this wondrous place and provided a caring and professional staff where I can come to feel safe, warm, feel secure, where I feel a sense of community and belonging. You have welcomed me and my family and made us feel a part of something so much bigger than ourselves. Your selfless act of building a community, a Jewish community is worthy of praise.

My wish is that you continue to be “everyday heroes” to someone, even if you are reluctant heroes– as the world is in desperate need of more heroes!

Shabbat Shalom