Shaarei Shamayim

A Place of Comfort, Companionship and Healing




Once a year, the eyes of the whole world turn to Hollywood...and a distinguished movie star opens an envelope...and announces the name of the best actor of the year....and the audience goes wild with excitement as the movie star hugs those that are sitting near him, and then, to tumultuous applause, climbs up to the stage and receives the Oscar.

And once a year, the eyes of the whole world turn to Hollywood…and a famous television star tears open an envelope and reads the name of the best actress of the year in a television program and the audience goes wild as an excited actress hugs the people she is sitting with and then comes up on the stage to receive an Emmy.


And once a year, in an office somewhere, Buddy Selig, the commissioner of baseball, announces that the votes have been tallied, and so and so has received the MVP, the most valuable player award.

And once a year, the eyes of the whole world turn to Congregation Shaarei Shamayim on Sukkot, and before a congregation that listens with baited breath...I announce the “Lulav Of The Year Award.” What is the “Lulav Of The Year Award?” (With thanks to Rabbi Jack Reimer for the thought.) And why does it have that name?

It’s the award that I will give to that person who has shown the most courage during the past year or so. Why do I call it “The Lulav Of The Year Award”? Because while a Shofar you can hide in your pocket, if you want to, and a tallis, you can carry in a bag, even a plain brown paper bag...and no one will know what you have inside…but a lulav you can’t hide. A lulav sticks out, and stands tall.


The Jerusalem Talmud tells us that in ancient times, the residents of Jerusalem would take a lulav with them wherever they went on Sukkot. It was a strong affirmation of who they were, for a lulav can’t be hidden. The Midrash teaches us that a lulav is symbolic of the spine. And therefore it is an appropriate symbol to give to a person who has the spine to stand up tall, for what he believes is right.

And now the envelope, please. And the winner is…it’s a tie. It goes to Donny Steinberg, Yitz Lieberman, Kevin Alter, Seth Schlussel, Kevin Hakimi and Aly Raisman.


Aly Raisman you know from Olympic fame. But who are Donny Steinberg, Yitz Lieberman, Kevin Alter, Seth Schlussel and Kevin Hakimi? Let me set the scene. (With thanks to Rabbi Mitchell Wohlberg who pointed this out to me.) It took place during the week of Labor Day weekend when the eyes of the sports world were focused on Queens, New York, where the U.S. Open Tennis Championship always takes place. This is one of the 4 tournaments—the others are the French, Australian and British Opens—that make up tennis’ Grand Slam. While I know many Jews who enjoy playing tennis, the fact is there have been very few Jewish professional tennis champions. Dick Savitt in the 1950’s is the only really notable one I can think of. But while watching this year’s U.S. Open you could not help but notice the Jewish presence on the courts. No, it wasn’t the tennis players…it was the ball boys—the ones who run and pick up the tennis ball when it goes into the net, or supply the tennis player with a towel when he/she needs one. And there they were, these Jewish ball boys…Steinberg, Leiberman, Alter, Schlussel and Hakimi. And the millions upon millions who were watching knew that they were Jewish. How? They all wore yarmulkes on their heads! When I saw them on television, I must tell you that I couldn’t believe it! I kvelled


Let me tell you why I found this scene so unbelievable: 1st, it wasn’t so long ago that the U.S. Open was played at the Forest Hills Tennis Club which barred Jews…Jews could not be members. And now we see Yiddishe kinderlech are running all over the court! 


2nd, it wasn’t so long ago when I was a kid growing up in New York and when I went to a sporting event, my mother would tell me to take off my yarmulke and wear a hat. And there are plenty of Jewish mothers all over Europe who still have to tell their children to do the same! The Chief Rabbi of France issued an edict tell Jews not to wear kippot in the street because of Muslim violence. And here we have the U.S. Open being shown all over the world and Yiddishe kinderlech are running all over the court! 


3rd, the truth of the matter is, they really didn’t have to be wearing their yarmulkes. Imagine how they felt when they tried out for the job and how they stood out with their kippot on their heads. They could have worn a baseball hat. Other ball boys do. And yet, here are these Jewish young adults doing it on their own for all to see. 


What a beautiful picture! And for me, that is the major point of it all: if someone is asked what picture comes to mind when you hear the words “Religous Jew,” inevitably the answer is: “Black hat, black coat and beard.” In fact that’s how Hollywood and the media portray it. When asked why a reporter explained: “If we show a picture of a Conservative or Reform Jew how will anyone know they’re Jewish?” But Steinberg, Lieberman, Alter, Schlussel and Hakimi have provided a new distinct picture of a religious Jew—not an ultra-Orthodox…not separated from the world, but engaged in the world…not wearing black pants and a white shirt…but white tennis shorts. For having pride in being a committed Jew and for standing up tall and not being afraid to show the world who they are, they have a share in this year’s Lulav of the Year Award.


Gold medalist Aly Raisman we all now know and love. Aly is a nice Jewish girl from Needham, Mass. Her family still belongs to the synagogue in which she celebrated her Bat Mitzvah. She could have picked any music she wanted, but she chose to perform her gold winning floor routine to Hava Nagila displaying to the entire world…to the Olympic Committee that refused a minute of silence for the 11 Israeli athletes who were slaughtered in Munich 1972…her pride in being Jewish.


Listen to this letter that was posted on her Facebook page by an Israeli soldier who watched her performance. It was sent to me in an email by Barbara Ribner:

Dear Aly,

I want to tell you about how you became the hero of a gym full of Israeli soldiers. The same Israeli soldiers who have to deal with Iran’s nuclear threat to the Jewish state. The same ones who serve 2-3 years of their lives, because we have to; because there’s no one else that would do it besides us, because our neighborhood sucks, and when the leadership next door in Syria massacres their own people, there’s no way we would let them lay hands on our kids, as foreign dictators have done for thousands of years.

You picked a song for your floor routine in the Olympics that every Jewish kid knows, whether their families came from the shtetls of Eastern Europe, the Asian steppes of Azerbaijan, the mountains of Morocco or the Kibbutzim of northern Israel. It’s that song that drew almost everyone at the Israeli army base gym to the TV as soon as the report about you came on the news this morning. After showing your floor exercise to Hava Nagila, the announcer told about your gold medal with unmasked pride, and of your decision to dedicate it to the Israeli athletes who were killed in the Munich Olympics in 1972.

There were some tough people at that gym, Aly. Men and Women, Battalion Commanders from Intelligence, Captains from the navy, Lieutenants from the Armored Corps and more. You probably understand that words like “bravery” and “heroism” carry a lot of weight coming from them, as does a standing ovation (even from the people doing ab exercises.) There was nothing apologetic about what you did. For so long we’ve had to apologize for who we are: for how we dress, for our beliefs, for the way we look. It seems like the International Olympic Committee wanted to keep that tradition. Quiet, Jews. Keep your tragedy on the sidelines. Don’t disturb our party. They didn’t count on an 18 year-old girl in a leotard.

There wasn’t one person at the gym who didn’t know what it was like to give back to our people, not one who didn’t know what happened to the good people who died in 1972, not one who didn’t feel personally insulted by their complete neglect in the London Olympics, the 40 year anniversary of their deaths, and not one who didn’t connect with your graceful tribute in their honor.

Thank you for standing up against an injustice that was done to our people. As I was walking back to my machine at the gym, I caught one of the officers give a long salute to your image on television. I think that says it all.
Dan Yagudin, Officer, Israeli Defense Force


There’s nothing more to say. For standing up tall with pride in being Jewish, Aly Raisman, you receive along with Donny Steinberg, Yitz Lieberman, Kevin Alter, Seth Schlussel and Kevin Hakimi the Congregation Shaarei Shamayim Lulav of the Year Award. May Hashem bless all of you.


Today we recite Yizkor. Why do we come to shule at the end of every festival to say Yizkor? Aren’t festivals a time of joy and happiness—especially Sukkot and Shmini Atzeret which are called, z’man simchateynu, “the time of our joy,” in our tradition? I think it’s the same message as when we dip the maror, the “bitter herbs” into the sweet charoset on Pesach. The lesson is that for every sweet moment in life, there is often, at least a taste, of bitterness. For us at the end of a festival, the sweetness of the holiday is challenged at the end with the bitter realization that there are loved ones who we can no longer share the joy of the festival with. And so we recite Yizkor to remember them and be with them in spirit, if not in body. And honoring the memory of our departed loved ones is a great mitzvah and elevates their souls. For this alone, Yizkor is a very precious moment.


But I think that there’s another reason why we recite Yizkor and that is to think about these questions: what will it be like when my time to die comes? Who will care and who will come to say Yizkor for me? And what should I do between now and the last days of my life, whenever they come?


I think we should all be inspired by this year’s Lulav of the Year recipients and do those things that show that we’re proud of being Jewish—unafraid to stand up tall and show the world who and what we are. In fact, I think that just by coming here this morning, you have made a terrific start for this New Year. Here we are, it’s Monday morning and you are here in shule and not at work. You stood up tall like a lulav and demonstrated your pride in being Jewish, you’re your pride in your loved ones whom you come here today to honor. You know what? I give all of you a share in this year’s Lulav of the Year Award and bless you that all your actions this year be worthy of this award and May Hashem bless you for it. Amen!


                                                Rabbi Mark Hillel Kunis


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