If you have been here before on the second day of Rosh HaShanah, you
know that I am willing to do a little bit edgier stuff. When I say
edgier, you hear offensive. So let me own up to it right away. Some
of you – many of you – are going to decide to be offended at what I
have to say. Please try to withhold your indignation until you hear
me out. Believe me, it is not my intention to single you out, or you
and others like you, for offense with this sermon.
I want to talk about children.
In particular, I want to talk about the need for more Jewish
children. So let me begin by acknowledging a few very important
The first is, more than half of the households in this congregation
do not include children who are currently the primary responsibility
of a parent. That number includes empty nesters, singles, newly
marrieds, people who have not had their yearnings for children
fulfilled and people who have never had a yearning for children. Of
that number, about a third – eighty or so – are people who live in
households in which there were never any children.
So while it is true that most of the members of this congregation are
parents, it is not true that most are in the care-giving years of
It is also important to acknowledge that quite a number of households
in this congregation, perhaps as many as fifty, have faced obstacles
to becoming parents, even though they have wanted children. For some
of them, the obstacle has been finding a life partner. For some of
them, the obstacle has been physiological. Among them all, some have
sought out options in promoting fertility that exist only because we
have the good fortune to live in the times we do. Others have
fulfilled that desire by adding children to their families who were
born to other parents – adoption, foster parenthood or less formal
arrangements involving the children of close relatives.
Our prayers are with those whose yearnings are as yet unanswered, and
our gratitude is with those who have found the children meant to be
theirs in other states, other countries, other continents.
The second thing we need to acknowledge is this: the overwhelming
number of participants in the adult programming we do at this
congregation come from households with no children at home. You pick
the program – Men's Club and Sisterhood, Life-long Learning, even our
Board of Directors – and they will count the majority of their
participants as people who are not changing diapers, helping with
homework or needing to miss time at the office to make an appointment
with the pediatrician.
I begin with these acknowledgments because I don't want you to think
that I am out of touch with your reality. For most of you,
childbirth and childrearing are not immediate concerns. Yesterday I
spoke of Israel, which is everyone's concern. Next week, I will
speak of other matters that are everyone's concerns. But it is
entirely possible for most of you to decide you don't need to pay
much attention to what I am about to say.
If so, please change your mind. Because I think it's just awful when
I have to begin a sermon like this by making excuses.
There was a time when there was no question that we did everything
for the children. We are instructed to build a school building
before a house of prayer. We married not for love and personal
fulfillment, but for children. We stayed in marriages that were sad
or difficult or loveless for the children. We made a lot of babies,
and we made them the way people vote in Chicago – early and often.
The architects of our tradition – men, all of them, to be sure –
taught in the Talmud that if a man takes a wife and lives with her
for ten years and she bears no children, he is to divorce her and pay
her the value of her ketuba. Why? Not because she has somehow
disappointed him, as you might suspect, but because he might not have
the merit to father children by her. (Yev 64a) She should have the
chance to marry a man more worthy of her.
The founders of our tradition were all about the kinder. When
Abraham and Sarah were childless for decades, she insisted he cohabit
with her maidservant, Hagar, so that there would be a child in the
family. Isaac, meek and mild Isaac who never asked for anything,
entreated God on behalf of his wife because they so desperately
wanted children. Jacob, known as Israel, fathered 13 children by two
wives and their maidservants, and in admiration for his efforts to
build the people of God, we have become known by that legacy – we are
the children of Israel.
My father's generation had 48 first cousins. He would have had more,
but some of them were related to him twice, since a variety of
members from two families married each other. My generation has
fifteen. My kids' has eleven. Two of my first cousins are
Baptists. Three of them are married to non-Jews and are raising
their children mildly Jewish. Four of my cousins are not married,
though one of them adopted a child, but has no particular Jewish life
to speak of. I love them all and I honor the choices they have made –
I report these anecdotes to you because they illustrate that even in
my family, in three generations we have dwindled from a swarm to a
group to a joyful event every couple of years.
In this congregation, we are seeing the same phenomenon. Membership
in Agudas Achim has never been larger than it is today. There are
enough of you sitting here who can remember when the Valley Drive Co-
op Preschool met here, founded and run by members of this
congregation. It was necessary because of all the kids we had. We
had so many kids that the religious school under Sol Rabinowitz had a
satellite campus and split shifts to accommodate all of the
children. And my contract, like Rabbi Elster's before me, which is
otherwise vague about the specifics of my rabbinic duties, requires
me to teach our children and teach our children well.
But our religious school enrollment today is not significantly
different than it was when our membership was half of what it is
now. The Valley Drive Co-op meets up the street in Fair-Park Baptist
Church. When I arrived here, we had sixty kids in Jewish day
schools. I doubt that the number is half that 18 years later.
Folks, this is a wonderful congregation. Sure, we have our share of
financial concerns and our collection of characters – so does every
congregation. But we have gone twenty years without a major
congregational conflict, and you have built a reputation for
integrity and quality that is known quite literally around the
world. We could do a lot of things better, but pound for pound, this
place is about as good as it gets.
Except for one thing.
We don't have enough children. I make no criticism of the quality of
the children we have – they are, person for person, better then the
above-average children of Lake Woebegone. I make no criticism of the
way they are being raised – all but one of you are doing a
magnificent job, and I only mention the one so you won't get smug and
slack off. We simply do not have enough.
Perhaps I should just dismiss you with instructions to try again.
Those of you of a certain age are probably horrified by the
prospect. Those of you who have tried achingly without success are
probably insulted. Those of you who are the only adult in your
household are probably readying some barb to sling at me about
motives and opportunities. And those of you with little ones at home
are planning to flag my number in the synagogue directory so you can
call me at 3 in the morning and say, "your sermon wants to talk to
Relax. Most of you are off the hook. Don't forget the demographics
I mentioned at the beginning of this talk – your circumstances won't
change just because I say they should.
Instead, we have two things to do. The first has to do with the
message we communicate to the children we are blessed to raise and
educate. Some of you remember a sermon I gave fifteen years ago or
so entitled "the ten things Jewish parents don't say enough to their
children." Here is number eleven, though I think it fits just
below "here's what I believe about God," which was number 1. Have a
large family. Three children should be the minimum we encourage our
kids to have. If their physical well-being allows, they should have
Don't be taken aback by that suggestion, and don't be upset by it.
We tell our kids to study hard so they can go to a good college, and
not all of them are smart. We tell our kids to work hard so that
they can succeed and make a good living, and not all of them do. We
tell our kids to marry Jews, and not all of them marry Jews – some of
them don't even marry at all. It is not harsh judgment to express
our values and to let our children know that they are responsible for
maintaining those values by personal action and a certain amount of
self-sacrifice. And just as I hope you do not convey the message
that if your child does not go to college, does not succeed in
business, does not choose a partner who is your ideal, you will
somehow love her or him less, I insist that you not append "or else"
to the message that you would like to be a grandparent many times
I have not mentioned population surveys and world-wide demographics
at all, and I won't. People do not live their lives in statistics,
they live them in anecdotes. The only statistic that matters to the
individual is the one that guarantees 100% uniform results.
Otherwise, this crazy gene we have that makes us hope and dream
convinces us that each of us is the exception to the rule. So never
mind about birth rates and marriage rates and mortality rates.
But I will mention anecdotes, just to stimulate your thinking. How
old were your parents when they were married? How old were they when
they began having kids? And what about your grandparents? Virtually
without exception, though exceptions there are, the age when marriage
and children were expected has been climbing steadily.
As Jews, we have discovered an amazingly effective form of birth
control. It is called graduate school. Because we have effectively
communicated how important education and self-actualization is to our
children, they have taken us seriously and postponed considering
children until late into their twenties and sometimes late into their
thirties. By the age many of them get around to having their first
child, my father's generation had produced 48 first cousins. We can
correct that if we will only return to valuing children as highly as
we value the education we give them.
Listen, those of you who are single and those of you who married
later in life and those of you who have tried without success to be
parents – I know that you are rolling your eyes or holding back tears
or waiting for an opportunity to say "how dare you." With all due
respect, with all love and honor for you, I say these words: get over
yourselves. As a community, we value your life, your circumstances,
your contributions, your wisdom, your presence, your leadership to
the last ounce. As a person and a rabbi, I do not judge or criticize
the circumstances you are in. As a congregation, we continue to
provide for you the lion's share of opportunities to serve and be
served by the synagogue. But when I die or retire, you are going to
need another rabbi. When Elisheva reaches her 120 years, you are
going to need another hazzan. When those babies we welcomed
yesterday have babies of their own, we are going to need rabbis and
hazzanim and teachers and youth group advisors and camp counselors
for them. We value those babies as much as we value you, and we
value you as much as we do those babies. But there's no point in
contributing money to the Jewish Theological Seminary if we have no
students to contribute.
And as for you who are blessed to be married and healthy and secure
and able to produce beautiful, wonderful kids, here's the other shoe
you have been waiting to hear drop: have one more than you planned.
Rabbi Kass Abelson, one of the great rabbis of our generation, calls
them mitzvah children – he has been calling them that for fifty
years. I have met many adults who have told me with great pride, "I
am one of Rabbi Abelson's mitzvah children."
If this were the sum total of my message to you today, then there
would have been no point in delivering this sermon. I could have
sent a short note to less than half the congregation with a Barry
White album. But there is something else we need to do.
Childrearing is no different today than it has been for the last
5,766 years. But the circumstances of childrearing bear no
resemblance to what used to be. I don't need to tell you that it
takes a lot of money to live in Northern Virginia, usually more than
one person can earn just for him- or herself. The opportunities we
have created for women of all ages and circumstances to be a part of
the work force have turned into expectations. The expectations we
tried to create for men to share childcare responsibilities have
turned into regrets. And the village that it takes to raise a child
no longer exists. The streets of this neighborhood are patrolled
during the day by a variety of childcare providers pushing strollers
with their tiny charges. Mom and Dad are at work; Grandma and
Grandpa live in another state or are not of an age to handle a
toddler. Cousins, aunts and neighbors are looking for their own help
during the day, or are leaving for their jobs at 6:30 in the morning
and returning exhausted after beddy-bye time for the baby. The
Valley Drive Co-op is not so co-op anymore.
Our encouragement to others to have children must be matched by our
willingness to provide the support that mothers and fathers need to
raise those children. I will not fall into the trap that so-called
pro-life groups have by suggesting that human rights begin at
conception and end at birth. Affordable, appropriate childcare for
our precious Jewish children is the responsibility of every member of
the Jewish community. Those of us who cannot contribute the babies
must contribute the resources to care for the babies. That includes
money, time and allocation of resources.
In the general community, that means advocating for and supporting
leaders who promise to fully fund the broadest range of public
education and childcare opportunities. In the Jewish community, that
means advocating for and contributing to institutions like the JCC
that have the facilities and the facility to care for lots of kids.
At Agudas Achim, that means prioritizing the Agudas Achim Performing
Arts Pre-school, the best hope to provide the missing piece in this
congregation's otherwise excellent program.
About twelve years ago, when Gesher moved out of Agudas Achim, the
building fell silent during the day. Those of us on staff and lay
boards who jostled elbows with the expanding day school were guiltily
relieved when the school was gone. The building was easier to
maintain, our classrooms were our own again, the space we had
surrendered was returned to us.
I work here almost every day. I never realized how quiet this place
had become, how desolate it seemed, until the first week in September
when our doors opened to our first classes of students. The joyful
noise that fills our hallways now is the finishing touch our
renovation has needed for ten years. There is singing and laughing
and crying and shouting and clapping. I can step out of my office
during one of the many bathroom breaks each day, sit cross-legged on
the floor and hear amazing news about pets, siblings, Jewish
holidays, body functions and subjects that make no sense at all, but
still require full attention and heartfelt affirmation.
I am grateful that these children are here. And I am equally
grateful that they are not my children. I acknowledge on behalf of
all of you who are finally sleeping through the night and going to
the movies on a whim and displaying your breakables lower than four
feet off the floor that I am relieved that these are someone else's
But I am also grateful that I have been given another chance to be a
part of the best adventure I ever had – exploring the world through
the eyes of innocence and helping those eyes to make sense of what
they see. Jewish life, Jewish practice, Jewish values and Hebrew
language are making a permanent imprint on the souls of these tiny
treasures because we, this congregation of 275 childless households,
are making it possible.
Our pre-school is not an add-on; it is not an independent operation.
We run a pre-school because it is a necessary part of running a
synagogue. When we added an Executive Director to our staff thirteen
years ago, when we added a full-time hazzan to our staff twelve years
ago, we integrated them into our program and our budget right away.
When we added the Florence Melton Adult School and the Jewish
Theological Seminary Torah Institute to our program, we assumed that
the in-kind contributions of meeting space, maintenance, office
support, volunteer time, utilities and staff hours would be absorbed
by the shul and parceled out of our resources. In a literal sense,
we have never recouped the loss that hiring me caused this
congregation. It would be a lot cheaper to let me go, or to put me
on part-time status, and I would appreciate it if those of you
vigorously nodding your heads would stop.
But absent a place for the smallest among us, absent a tangible
encouragement to our members and our non-members to bring their
babies here, absent a willingness to do our part to help support the
courageous and loving people willing to bring another member of the
covenant into this world, we ought to declare ourselves a hospice and
plan to close our doors when the number of first cousins in a
generation is smaller than the number of siblings in your
Let me tell you about Shimon ben Azzai. Ben Azzai was a beloved
disciple of Rabbi Akiva and one of the brightest students he ever
had. Akiva was so impressed with Ben Azzai that he offered him his
daughter in marriage. Remember, it wasn't about love back then.
Who knows why – Ben Azzai accepted the betrothal, but never completed
the marriage. He remained a bachelor all his life. I leave it to
you to speculate on the reasons, but I can report to you a midrash
that purports to explain it. The midrash comes with a warning –
those of you unhappy with this sermon so far won't be any happier to
hear the midrash.
We have been taught that Rabbi Eliezer said: One who does not engage
in fruition and increase (that is, in having children) is as though
he has shed blood, for the verse, "Whoever shed's another's blood, by
human beings shall his blood be shed" (Gen 9:6) is followed
immediately by the verse, "Be fruitful and multiply" (Gen 9:7).
Rabbi Akiva said: Such a person is as though he diminished the image
of God, for the verse "In the image of God, [God] made the human
being" (Gen 9:6) is followed immediately by the verse "Be fruitful
and multiply." Ben Azzai said: He is as one who BOTH sheds blood and
diminishes God's image.
What a hypocrite! Ben Azzai, who had the chance to marry the
daughter of Rabbi Akiva and produce children from the two brightest
teachers of the time, instead devoted his life to scholarship. You
might expect such a man to leap to the defense of those who were
childless, but instead he compounds the condemnation. What possibly
could have been going through the man's mind?
The point was not lost on Rabbi Eliezer.
Rabbi Eliezer said to Ben Azzai: Such words sound fine when they come
from the mouths of those who practice them. There are some who
preach well and practice well. Others practice well, but do not
preach well. You preach well, but do not practice well.
Ben Azzai, you will recall, was a student of Akiva, and therefore a
student of Rabbi Eliezer as well. It took a certain amount of
chutzpah to begin with to speak up in front of his teachers, but to
respond to this rebuke from Rabbi Eliezer – well, that's another
story still. But respond he did.
Ben Azzai replied: But what shall I do, seeing as my heart yearns for
Torah? The world can continue through others. (Yev 63b)
We don't know a whole lot about Ben Azzai other than the details I
shared. He is one of the four brilliant scholars who entered
Paradise, and whether actually or symbolically, he died when he
beheld the glory of the presence of God. I don't know whether Ben
Azzai was simply consumed by his love of learning, or whether he felt
sexually inadequate, or whether he was gay, or whether he was
infertile. I don't know if he figured he had plenty of time as a
young man and then found out otherwise. But I do know that Rabbi
Eliezer did not have an answer for this childless single man who had
an opportunity to marry that did not come to fruition.
But I do. And the answer is from Ben Azzai himself in his response
to Rabbi Eliezer. What shall I do, seeing as my heart yearns for
Torah, he asks? It is to make sure that the world can continue
through others. It's not just a matter of numbers, though numbers
are important. It is also a matter of the quality of the life we
provide for each one of those numbers. Some people, plain and
simple, cannot or will not be the parents of children. But the
inability to be a biological father or mother, or the inability to be
a single parent or adoptive parent does not mean that the importance
of children is lost on the Ben Azzais of the world.
I know what the good and dear members of this congregation do, those
whose hearts yearn for Torah and children, but can realize only
Torah. They teach, they comfort, they baby-sit, they donate, they
encourage. The individual actions they take and the actions they
take as individuals are as genuine and enthusiastic as Ben Azzai.
And I know the transformative effect that becoming a parent, a
grandparent, an uncle or an aunt has on the good and dear members of
this congregation, of any community. I remember hearing from a
friend who is a congregant of a synagogue a long way from Washington
about the rabbi at his shul. The rabbi was known throughout his
years as a gruff and unforgiving presence in the pulpit. He was
famous for interrupting his sermons to ask parents to remove fussy
children from the sanctuary, and it was a cold day in August if a
child ascended the bimah. And then one day, his two-year-old
grandson, visiting from another city, broke away from the rabbi's
wife and went running down the aisle and up to his grandfather in the
pulpit, yelling "Zaide" at the top of his lungs. The congregation
held its breath, only to see precedent of forty years collapse in an
That's what five minutes with the Agudas Achim Performing Arts Pre-
school will do to you.
And so, you whose hearts yearn for Torah, who come to learn and to
discuss and to seek wisdom and inspiration, who deliberate the future
of Torah commentary and fiscal planning, who have given love and who
have love to give, what shall you do?
You shall make the crowning jewel on the head of this congregation
our commitment to making sure this world continues – our brand-