My American history teacher asked our high school class to offer the name of a hero. I recall my answer vividly and I’ll share that with you at the end. Thinking about the need for Jewish heroes, I worry about the lack of inspiring leaders for us and future generations.
I grew up in the 1970s; not a time of inspirational leaders. John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King, and Robert Kennedy were assassinated in the 1960s. In the next decade, heroes were harder to find. The American military conceded the Vietnam War. Israeli leaders were unprepared for the Yom Kippur War of 1973. Pol Pot was responsible for the death of 25% of the Cambodian people. In 1979, Brezhnev sent Russian troops into Afghanistan. No, the 1970s were not known for heroic leadership.
In the 1970s, Jewish leadership shifted from rabbis to rabble-rousers, some holy and some unholy. Meir Kahane brought a radical approach to demanding freedom for Soviet Jews. Michael Strassfeld, Sharon Strassfeld, and Richard Siegel published “The Jewish Catalog: A Do-It-Yourself Kit.” And “Battling Bella Abzug” was a representative from New York.
Reading Parshat Emor, we learn a lesson about how we regard leadership. The priests were elevated among the Israelites. The priests were holy to us because they are holy to God. Yet, the heroes of the Torah whose names we remember were national leaders – Moses, David, and Deborah. Later heroes were brilliant Rabbis, like Maimonides, Rashi, and Luria.
Who are the Jewish heroes of today? Perhaps they are the 212 Nobel Prize winners who claim Jewish ancestry. Or Perhaps the Jewish heroes of today are the philanthropists like Michael Bloomberg, David Rubenstein, and Lynn Schusterman.
I’ll apply the test of Parshat Emor. A hero to me is a person holy to God. Here are two heroes of our time.
Rabbi Mike Moskowitz has brought holiness to this world as an orthodox rabbi advocating for the health and dignity of gay and trans people. There is no room in his heart for prejudice. He sacrificed his pulpit job and jeopardized his personal life because he could not fathom rejecting a member of his family who had a different understanding of their gender identity. Over the past five years, Mike has saved lives, rescuing people from despair. Moreover he is repairing the frayed ties to Judaism for LGBTQ+ people and their families. He does this holy work wearing his black hat and sporting a full beard from a reform synagogue.
Another hero is Rabbi Michael Pollack. As a co-founder of March on Harrisburg, Michael sidestepped from a career as a rabbi to a career as a holy rabble-rouser. Michael speaks a holy language to legislators in Pennsylvania endeavoring to end corruption. His skills are based on Jewish values and he has made lobbying a holy profession. His selflessness is miraculous to me because Michael’s devotion to humanity is unending.
And my Jewish hero when I was a teenager in High School was Geraldo Rivera. Then he was a local newscaster uncovering the horrors of Willowbrook State School, an institution that warehoused people with disabilities. Sadly, he departed from that holy work to find “The Mystery of Al Capone’s Vaults.”
I hope that my current heroes don’t desist from being holy to us and to God.
Rabbi Evan J. Krame