ROSH HASHANAH 5776 DAY 2
THE GREATEST GENERATION In December, 2004, there was an issue of “The Omer,” (that’s our synagogue newsletter) that was dedicated specifically to “all our unsung heroes.” On the cover was a picture of our adorable 4 year old preschool class with little Bayla Jaffe, now nearly 16 and who chanted yesterday’s Haftarah portion, believe it or not, holding up a sign which reads “Thank You Jack.” The editor at the time, Jon Golding, that’s the tall guy filled with ruach who davens at minyan and is himself one of the great unsung heroes of our congregation, wrote that, in soliciting articles and names for this issue one name came up over and over again—and that name was Jack Coulter. Jon knew that Jack would be embarrassed by all the accolade, and I am sure he is even more embarrassed right now that I am doing the very same thing on the High Holidays, but let me read you some of what was said at the time Sid Shaeffer wrote that
My hero is Jack Coulter. After minyan he can be seen going to the office basement (I never even knew it had a basement) or some other equally exotic locale to check something out. He does it quietly without any fanfare. If you haven't yet had the pleasure, try to meet Jack. You're in for a treat.
Yes, Jack can be found in the basement, between the walls, and on the roof, because for nearly 50 years, Jack, along with his buddy Dave Siver of blessed memory, was responsible for the electrical work, wiring, and many other mechanical things, which they did gratis. Yes, Jack is a treat, this regular shul goer at Shabbat morning, Monday and Thursday minyanim, Torah study—four times a week, at least, he still makes his presence known to us.
At the risk of embarrassing Jack, I bring him up, not only because he deserves such accolades, but because he epitomizes an entire generation here at Temple Beth Abraham and in America itself. This is the generation Tom Brokaw identified as “the greatest generation” in a book by that name. The majority of the synagogues in America were built by this generation. This generation, born between 1914 and 1929 grew up in the shadow of the Great Depression and became adults before, during and just after World War II/ This is a generation who gave their whole lives in service to others—be it their family, their community, or their synagogue. Here’s how Brokaw puts it in his book:
It may be historically premature to judge the greatness of a whole generation, but indisputably, there are common traits that cannot be denied. It is a generation that,
by and large, made no demands of homage from those who followed and prospered economically, politically, and culturally because of its sacrifices. It is a generation of towering achievement and modest demeanor, a legacy of their formative years when
they were participants in and witness to sacrifices of the highest order.
Or, put more colloquially by tongue-in-cheek reviewers Brett and Mary McKay of the website “The Art of Manliness,” “there may never have been a generation when the ratio of honorable men to slackers was higher.” Forgive the reference to “manliness” here, because the general principles of this generation transcend both gender and class. Men and women, rich and poor, white collar and blue collar all exhibited these traits in ways that are unmatched by any generation before or since. And Jack is a shining example for them all.
Continuing the theme of lessons we can learn from all people and matching them up with prayers that we recite during the High Holidays, today I want to explore the things we can learn from this “greatest generation.” What was it about them that made them such builders of community, that made them really ask, as John F. Kennedy suggested, “not what their country could do for them, but what they could do for their country” or synagogue or church or school or community? What qualities do they have that we can replicate? Looking ahead to the liturgy we will be reading on Yom Kippur, I can think of at least four.
Lesson #1. Take personal responsibility. This is a generation that took pride in their personal responsibilities—whether as parents, as soldiers fighting in a war, or as volunteers running a project. They said what they meant and meant what they said. They held themselves accountable. I am not sure they could relate to Kol Nidre, the prayer that essentially absolves us or our responsibility to keep promises. There are Biblical, historical, and folkloric reasons for this strange prayer, and the tune is magnificent, but to utter a prayer that absolves you for promises you are about to make? That is completely foreign to the greatest generation. If you have a promise you keep it.
Lesson #2. Be frugal. These people grew up in the Great Depression, so they knew the value of a dollar and then some. The building you are sitting in right now was completed in 1929, right on the eve of the Great Depression, so at TBA we immediately had to tighten our belts. This generation also knew the meaning of sacrifice. When the Israelites bring their offerings in the Maftir portion of the Torah we read on all the holidays, a bull, a ram, and seven lambs, all unblemished and with choice flour and oil mixed in, they were giving up significant material goods. The greatest generation did similarly. They didn’t eat out, they didn’t drink cappuccinos, they didn’t buy their children Wi’s or Ipad’s or private coaching lessons. If something was broken and they couldn’t afford a new one; they fixed it. If there was no fix available, they invented one. Brokaw tells a story in the book about how when he was a young man in need of spending money he mentioned how many more lawns he could mow if he had a power mower. He showed his father a picture of a snazzy new model from Sears Roebuck. Instead, his father built him a mower using an old washing machine motor, a hand-tooled blade, and discarded toy wagon wheels mounted on a plywood platform. I’m not capable of anything remotely like that. Jack, well, he could build almost anything.
Lesson #3. Be humble. It’s not atypical for children of members of the greatest generation to find war medals in their attics belonging to their fathers. They never talked about their heroics in the war, not because it was too painful but because they believed they were just doing their duty. Yom Kippur is the essence of humility. Look at the prayer Ki anu amecha.
We are your people, and You are our God. We are Your servants, and You are our master. We are your flock, and You are our shepherd.”
That’s a tough metaphor for us today. We don’t want to be the servant or part of the flock. We want to be in charge. But Yom Kippur reminds us to be humble. There is a story about a man named Mr. Goldberg, who, every year on Yom Kippur, observed the Rabbi and Cantor of his synagogue bowing before the ark and saying “I am nothing before you God, I am nothing before you.” The next year Goldberg went up right next to the rabbi and Cantor and joined them in bowing down and saying, “I am nothing, I am nothing before you.” From somewhere in the back Mr. Shapiro says to Mr Stein: “Look who thinks he’s nothing.”
Lesson #4. Work Hard. We work hard too. We do. After all, we are busier than our parents and grandparents were, right? They had more time to volunteer. But it turns out that we have less time not because we work harder than the greatest generation did. It’s because we have more distractions, more entertainment options. Most studies show that the amount of time spent away from work has been fairly consistent over the decades. What varies is what we do with our leisure time. Instead of going to synagogue and rotary clubs and chamber of commerce meetings, we watch more television (or Netflix), spend more time on social media, or take our children to hundreds of organized activities in lieu of having them doing the same kinds of activities in the street. Look at all the examples of physical work in the prayer Ki Hineh kachomer, like clay in the hand of the potter, stone in the hand of the mason, iron in the hand of the blacksmith, cloth in the hand of the draper.” Though the poem is about our relationship to God, the metaphor is begging us to think about hard work. Our forebears not only did these physical labors, they put this same energy into synagogue life. To volunteer to run an event at the synagogue was an honor and a mark of prestige. You should see the elaborate dinners they put on, the full scale productions of musicals, the memory and ad books they put together. Don’t get me wrong. We have an amazing cadre of volunteers here, especially when compared to other synagogues I know about. We are very lucky. But I can’t tell you how much rejection I face when trying to find someone to run a committee or chair an event. I haven’t faced that much rejection since I was a 9th grade boy trying to date. I am so thankful for the leaders and workers we do have, miles above most synagogues, but if any of you have the wherewithal to lead, please find me. We could use you.
These are some of the important lessons we can learn from the Kol Nidre prayer, the Torah reading about animal sacrifice, the Ki Anu Amecha hymn, and the Ki Hineh kachomer poem, as well as the greatest generation in American history: take personal responsibility, be frugal, be humble, and work hard. I don’t mean to overstate the case here. By no means do I believe that things were all rosy then and doomsday now. There were many things that went along with these old-fashioned values that I am glad we left behind—the latent racism, sexism, and homophobia. We have made tremendous progress in these areas. And, in terms of our synagogue, just ask Aaron Paul or some of the other past, past presidents what things are like around here in the seventies and eighties. They were just trying to keep the doors open. As Carly Simon said, in many ways, “these are the good old days.” We should enjoy them while they last. But there is so much we can learn from the Greatest Generation, so much about how they thought and lived that we can apply to our own lives and community today.
Finally, I want to add I get to relive these lessons over and over again. I have had the painful privilege of burying over 100 members of the “greatest generation” here at Beth Abraham. I know how many of you dread getting that fateful e-mail with the line “sad news” in it. I knew when I came here 14 years ago that this is part of what I was signing up for. And yes, it’s difficult and painful. I shed a lot of tears. But I also get to learn about these incredible people’s lives. So as painful as that is, it is an honor and a privilege and a blessing. So, Jack Coulter, please stand up. Pinky Pencovic, please stand up. Could every other person who is here who was born before 1930 please stand up? Ad meah v’esrim, but let us say, while all of you are still here, thank you, thank you, thank you.