I often joke with my kids about how old I am. (Truth be told, it's not as much of a joke as it used to be!) But the fact of the matter is that if you live long enough you gain an appreciation of the profound changes that happen around us. As a younger man, I was impatient for change and persuaded it was constantly out of reach. With the gift of hindsight, I have renewed faith in the inevitability of progress.
Two examples appeared in my world during the last days of 2011. Those of you who came to synagogue on the last day of the secular year were surprised along with me to meet Sophia Mittleman in shul. Sophia had visited us nineteen years before (on the same Shabbat) as a newly-arrived immigrant to the United States from what was then the Soviet Union. She had come then to thank us for the lifelines of cards and letters we sent thanks to the advocacy of our beloved Ann Sanders of blessed memory. Her English was limited, but her sentiments clear. And now, her son has settled in Alexandria and given her a first grandchild. She came to thank us again and to remind us of how a postage stamp can save a life, and of how the blessings of America, occasionally hard to find, are nonetheless miraculous for those who once despaired of a future.
And then I received a link to video of the final address by the outgoing International President of United Synagogue Youth, Daniel (DJ) Kaplan. You will find it below. In it, he keeps a thousand teenagers spellbound with his own story of embracing his same-sex orientation and finding acceptance in USY that eluded him in his public high school.
It was not so long ago gays and lesbians were denied employment by United Synagogue - by some of the same people who still hold executive positions. It was not so long ago that men and women of same-sex orientation could not become Conservative rabbis and cantors. It was not so long ago that two people of the same sex willing to commit to each other in sacred ritual were denied the opportunity by Jewish law.
You may agree or disagree with the need for this kind of change - and some few of you have done so very vocally and publicly. But however you consider the values involved, it is impossible to watch and listen to this young man, with his deep commitments to Jewish life and human kindness, and not take pride in his wisdom, compassion and courage.
When I was his age, a girl could not get elected to be USY International President. She could not enter the Rabbinical or Cantorial School. She could not count in a Mininyan. Today, both the President and Executive Vice-President of the Rabbinical Assembly are (remarkable) women.
Change is rarely abrupt. It happens in increments that can be measured in postage, in votes, in youth group programs aggregated over the years. Change is not always positive, but mostly it is ... when people of good will and open minds consider the possibilities of progress and take tentative steps toward a better world.