Sermons: Rabbi Bruce E. Kahn, D.D.

משפחה— Mishpacha
Comments at 60th Anniversary Shabbat Service
Temple Shalom
April 24, 2020

משפחה — that is the title of my brief presentation to you this Shabbat night and it is the only point I wish to make. It is who we were from the start of Shalom, 61 years ago this coming July 2nd. It is what energized us and enables us to grow so fast that within two months we were large enough to engage the services of our first full time rabbi and have enough children enrolled for a complete religious school, start a Sisterhood and Brotherhood, begin a host of other ambitious programs and fell confident about what lay before us.

This משפחה held together when, at several points along the way, enormous stresses and strains, both long and short term, assailed us.

משפחה was the most dominant characteristic of this congregation that I noticed when, in May, 1980, I was selected to become the fourth rabbi to serve Shalom in its then twenty-one year history. Toby and I could not possibly have known at the time that I would remain a rabbi here for the next forty years.

And at Shalom משפחה is what is seeing all of us through the challenges, frightening realities and confounding unknowns confronting us so potently in these days. None of us has ever been through a similar experience: personally, as a congregation, as a society.

משפחה is what our Founders talk about in my video interviews with them, filmed by Alan Lewish and my wife Toby, and so expertly edited by Abby Landesman. You will see the finished product only moments from now.

משפחה is what the clergy, staff, and board — leg by Senior Rabbi Ackerman and President Mike Rubin — nurture so wisely and well each day. It is what we feel, welcome, savor about our ties here. It is what each of us brings to the soul of Shalom. It is what so beautifully preserves and intensifies the joy, the love, the sense of belonging that now for 60 and almost 61 years defines who and what we are more than any other word might reveal.

משפחה — congregational familyhood, congregational clan, congregational household united through sacrifice and celebration.
From day one of Shalom’s existence and onward through the easiest of times and the most difficult times, this congregation drew together and embraced one another as family. Past, present and indeed going forward the gift of Shalom is that we know at every stage and circumstance reached along the way we are משפחה.

This day as we pause to give thought to the great goodness of our Shalom story over these sixty years and almost ten months, a story in which we all share and have helped shape for however long or short a time, let us be moved this day to say together with the Psalmist: זה היום עשה יי נגילאה ונשמחה בו. “This is the day that God has made, let us rejoice and be glad on it!” (118:24)

Mazal tov! Amen! Shabbat Shalom!

Rabbi Bruce E. Kahn, D.D.
Rabbi Emeritus, Temple Shalom

Yom Kippur Afternoon 5782 (2021)

When the Light At The End Of The Tunnel 

Is From An Oncoming Train!

Greeting and then start the discussion.

The New England poet Robert Lowell, who passed away in 1977, had a deeply felt sense that his world was increasingly threatened and threatening.  As one thing after another came at him he wrote in dismay: "The light at the end of the tunnel is just  the light of an oncoming train." When Rabbi Jack Luxemburg recently brought this line to my attention, my instant reaction was: "That's it.  That is how it feels.  Every time we make some progress against one crisis, that crisis deepens and additional crises pile on.  The lights are from oncoming trains!  Is that what you see too? 

Covid 19, Delta, Kappa and more variants in the offing; anti-vaxxing and anti-masking; climate change, wars military and political, voting rights attacked, free and fair elections disbelieved by 60 million voters, women's health attacked, choice abolished in Texas, insurrection called for and then excused by a then sitting president and his treacherous, treasonous, seditious allies.  All of these calamities hitting all of us before we even start to take into account the  personal challenges weighing on and draining us.  I nearly died this past year and other loved ones did die.  Lord have mercy!  What are we to do?  

Covid: 664,000 fatalities -- just here in America!  One in every 500 of us killed!  You and I know that most of the deaths could have been prevented.  And 41.4 million infections, one among every eight of us.  Most of the infections...unnecessary.  We sustained 50% more deaths in 18 months than we sustained in combat during all of World War II.  Victimized not by some foreign enemy slaughtering us at will. No.  We were infected and killed by a disease advanced upon us by a heartless, mentally ill, evil president and his allies.  Leaders in elected office did it to us.  They permitted us to be sickened and killed and those same folks are not engaged in teshuvah, in repentance, in atonement, seeking forgiveness and correcting their transgressions.  No manner of conscience existed or exists within these politicians that would lead them to  protect the people, the country, the Constitution they are sworn to serve.  How much trust have they dissolved and deleted?

We have been there before in America...worse than now.  The disease and slaughter visited upon Native Americans,  genocide to be sure.  Slavery and the Black Holocaust.  But nothing such as what government did to us with Covid has happened in our lifetimes.  This is new for us.  And when the vaccine's light appeared to signal we were nearing the tunnel's end, we exhaled.  Then we faced the oncoming trains of Delta and Kappa. And along with them came the millions of anti-patriots and their political leaders who scream you can't force us to wear a mask and get vaccinated.  They believe they have to be free such that we are neither free nor safe.  They believe they have to be free to make us sick and kill us as well as themselves.  That is the warped reality of the anti-patriots' and their political leadership.

Side by side with Covid have come over the top storms and floods.  Over the top draughts and fires.  An existential threat.  Studies are done.  Pledges are made.  But is it enough?  And if not, what then?  More lights appearing more rapidly, as the disastrous trains of climate change pick up speed. 

These are but two of the inescapable disasters surrounding us, penetrating our defenses, threatening the survival of our life, liberties, and pursuit of happiness.  When have the untaneh tokef's questions about our coming fate in the year ahead seemed so frightening? 

Do we back out of the fight?  Run for it?  Hide?  Take a pass?  Are the lights shining at us from the end of the tunnel only oncoming trains...  It is time to hear from you.  What is your take on where we are with these crises and where we are going? Covid, climate change, terrorism, wars and the threat of wars, women's health and choice, the political divide, social media's assault on truth, voting rights weakened, insurrection and sedition abound....  

Do you see lights at the end of the tunnel?  Are they from oncoming trains?  When we seem to be catching a break do circumstances then worsen?  What are we to do? 

Or are there other lights out there meeting our gaze, illuminating next steps that we are capable of taking to find our way forward even in the face of what is going so terribly wrong?  What are these lights? From where do they come?  Will sources, both Jewish and not, guide us through the tunnel's end?  

What do you wish to say about where we are and where we are going?  It is time to hear from you. 

Passages to introduce into the discussion:

Rabbi Jack Luxemburg:  One of the deans of my rabbinical school, said something very important to returning students recently.   Her words struck a chord that I think we all need to hear, to resonate with, and consider sounding ourselves. “I can’t welcome you back”, she said, “I can only welcome you forward”.

Quote from Chris Bosh upon his induction this past Saturday Sept 11.  His hall of fame career was suddenly cut short by blood clots that stopped his career at the age of 31, in his prime.  

"I like to think that all of those tears---were not endings.  They were beginnings.  They weren't moments that made me want to stop working.  They were moments that made me want to work even harder.  They were more than tears.  They were the water that made it possible for the seeds of greatness inside me to grow."

George Bush at Shanksville on 9/11/2001

We saw that Americans were vulnerable, but not fragile – that they possess a core of strength that survives the worst that life can bring. We learned that bravery is more common than we imagined, emerging with sudden splendor in the face of death. We vividly felt how every hour with our loved ones is a temporary and holy gift. And we found that even the longest days end.

There is little cultural overlap between violent extremists abroad and violent extremists at home. But in their disdain for pluralism, in their disregard for human life, in their determination to defile national symbols, they are children of the same foul spirit. And it is our continuing duty to confront them.

  1. 235 Mishkan T'filah

When justice burns within us like a flaming fire, when love evokes willing sacrifice from us, when, to the last full measure of selfless devotion, we demonstrate our belief in the ultimate triumph of truth and righteousness -- then Your goodness enters our lives and we can begin to change the world.  And then You live in our hearts, and we, through righteousness, behold Your presence.

  1. 241:  The good in us will win, over all the wickedness, over all the wrongs we have done.

  2. 575 Gates of Prayer: An adaptation: 

Although we long for harmony, we cannot close our ears to the noise of war, the rasp of hate....The intelligent heart does not deny reality.  We must not forget the grief of yesterday, nor ignore the pain of today....If there is goodness at the heart of life, then its power, like the power of evil, is real.  Which shall prevail?  Moment by moment we choose between them.  If we choose rightly, and often enough, we can restore the broken fragments of our world to wholeness.

Pirkei Avot 2:16

It is not for you to complete the work, but neither are you free to desist from it.

Pirke Avot 1:14

If I am not for myself who will be for me.  If I am only for myself what am I?  If not now, when?

"The good in us will win."  Let's do it in alliance with other likeminded souls.  Let that be our Yom Kippur vow.  We can choose to avert the evil decree, we can make the oncoming trains disappear before it is too late.  We can restore the broken fragments to wholeness in the pursuit of life, liberty, and happiness.  

Kein y'hi ratson -- so may it be!  Shanah tovah!  G'mar chatimah tovah!


Each of us has our 9/11 story.  On this 20th anniversary of that horribly transformative day the Torah's command to REMEMBER compels recollections that remain so clearly visible in our mind's eye.  

The morning of 9/11 I was supposed to be interviewed by a reporter from Channel 8.  He called to cancel and yelled at me to turn on the television.  That was when I learned about the two planes hitting the World Trade Center at 8:46 and 9:03.  That day, over and over, we watched the never to be forgotten traumas unfold.  The devastation pummeled us again and again.  When American Airlines Flight 77 was crashed into the western side of the Pentagon at 9:37, I went to GQ, general quarters!  As a Navy Captain in the Ready Reserve Force, I got into my khaki uniform and called the chaplain's department at NNMC Bethesda (Bethesda Naval Hospital) to tell them I would be right over.  They said not to report.  No casualties were yet on the way.  Most of those at the point of attack would not require hospitalization.  As we learned later, they did not survive the impact. 

As night fell on 9/11, the call came from the Office of the Navy Chief of Chaplains.  I was ordered to active duty.  Immediately!  "Get over to the Navy Annex -- now!"  It was on the hill overlooking the Pentagon."  As I approached I saw the Pentagon still on fire.  I pulled over to the side of the road and cried.  I remember shouting in horror, pain and disbelief: "My Pentagon!  My Pentagon!"

Security was way beyond tight.  Somehow I got through.  Casualty Assistance Calls Officer (CACO) teams were being assembled and assigned to families of personnel unaccounted for.  Each team of three consisted of a chaplain, a representative of the missing person's command, and an advisor on how Navy rules and procedures might be of help.  I was the only rabbi among all the chaplains, but that really did not matter.  In the military each chaplain is prepared to provide ministry to everyone. 

My CACO team was briefed and sent to the home of Lieutenant Commander Robert Elseth, a Methodist, a reservist serving one week on active duty in the Navy Command Center, right where Flight 77 struck the building and exploded.  He was married and had a six year old daughter named Faith.  That December, Faith was one of two children selected to light the National Christmas Tree.  

For days the CACO team practically lived at the Elseth home.  One member of the team was an aviator who pulled out his cell phone and called his buddies to arrange for Bob's mother to be flown on a military cargo plane from Berlin, Germany to Andrews Air Force Base and then escorted to the family's home.  She arrived before top level government officials were able to return to Washington from overseas.  You may recall that commercial air traffic was banned in the days following 9/11.  The time came when the Navy most reluctantly changed LCDR Elseth's status from missing to killed.  His DNA had been found and identified.  I made the notification, as I did to the families of three other sailors who perished at the Pentagon on 9/11, one such call being made on Rosh Hashanah -- not the first time that had happened in my career.  

In addition to providing ministry to 9/11 families, I was tasked with providing chaplain assistance to responders, and to Pentagon commands, and to individual survivors who lost shipmates that day.  One such command, Naval Computer and Telecommunications Command, had a number of offices in different locations around the Pentagon and D. C.  In one of those Pentagon offices seven sailors died and seven survived.  One of the survivors had gone outside to smoke a cigarette.  Another had decided to use a bathroom down the passageway from a lavatory much nearer to his office spaces which were obliterated that morning.  The survivors needed to answer why they lived when their shipmates -- with whom some of them worked and roomed and socialized -- did not.  

Early in October, 2001 the Navy Chief of Chaplains, Rear Admiral Barry Black, the current Chaplain of the US Senate, asked me to represent the Jewish community in a memorial service that would take place one month to the day after 9/11.  (See photo below)  On a balcony overlooking the sprawling grounds of the Pentagon, where a congregation of 27,000 had gathered, I sat directly behind President Bush and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Air Force General Richard Myers.  During the service President Bush was visibly shaken and, when the names of those who died were read, his tears fell.

For most of the remainder of 2001 and for much of 2002 I was heavily involved in military chaplain duties.  For example, in December I received orders to fly to Camp Pendleton, CA and provide chaplain support to the personnel of MAG39, Marine Aircraft Group 39, as they prepared to deploy to Afghanistan.  The group of nine squadrons normally had four full time chaplains assigned.  But when I reached the base I discovered quickly that two of those chaplains had deployed in advance of the group, one was getting ready to deploy, and the fourth chaplain billet was unfilled.  Before I arrived I had already studied the names,  photos and bios of the leaders of MAG 39, as well as the history of the group, and the layout of their part of Pendleton.  So I was able to hit the ground running.  

After having served for 28 years as a Navy chaplain -- active duty and reserve -- I retired in June, 2002, piped over the side from the Constellation in Baltimore's Inner Harbor.  The speaker was a warrior, Rear Admiral Mimi Drew.  We had worked together often through the years, but never so dearly and crucially as during the weeks in the aftermath of 9/11.  

And then, in the fall of 2003, the Navy called me back from retirement to send me to the Iraqi theatre during the High Holy Days and Sukkot.  I was  attached to United States Naval Forces Central Command in Bahrain and then to Expeditionary Strike Group One deployed on the amphibious assault ship PELELIU, within swimming distance of the Iraqi southern pipelines near Basra.  At that time there just were not enough active duty Jewish chaplains to meet the need.  So two years after 9/11, with Jewish personnel in harm's way and wanting a rabbi with them at this very time of year in a part of the world that our ancestors knew as Babylonia, I accepted non-pay orders, gathered my uniforms, and headed out -- of course with Toby's permission.


Rabbi Bruce E. Kahn D.D.

Rabbi Emeritus

After serving Temple Shalom as its rabbi from 1980-88 and as its senior rabbi from 1988-2001, on August 15, 2001 Rabbi Kahn (he/him) became the first and only Temple Shalom Rabbi Emeritus, a lifetime appointment. As our emeritus, he continues to volunteer rabbinically in a host of ways in service to the congregation.  Ordained from Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in 1974, he spent the next two years on active duty as a US Navy Chaplain. He then continued his military career in the Navy’s Ready Reserve Force while he accepted the pulpit of Congregation Or Ami in Richmond, Virginia before coming to Shalom in 1980...

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