On October 5th at 5:55 p.m., Lea Plosker called to ask if I would accept the honor of being celebrated at this year’s gala. Will it surprise you to learn that, a) of course I said yes, and, b) I had written a draft of these remarks by 10:55 p.m.
Honor. Kavod in Hebrew. A word laden with meaning. A weighty topic. In fact, the word kavod comes from the root kaved- heavy. It’s literally a heavy subject.
I came to Arizona in 1987 and loved Temple Chai from afar. I was honored to speak at panel discussions and at the dedication of the sanctuary in 1992. I walked both my daughters down the aisle to their chuppah right next door on this bimah, and celebrated my own wedding in this very room in 2016. Kavod ha-Tzibbur, honoring the community, is a fundamental Talmudic principle. I honor this community and its members. I honor all of you who are here today, who have made Temple Chai the treasure that it is.
Our tradition begs us to honor every single human being as a tzelem Elohim, as the image of God. We are to treat each other with respect, give each other the benefit of the doubt, err on the side of compassion, forgive each other, believe in the possibility of teshuva, of personal growth, and shape ourselves into holy images of God.
We honor the Holy One- in the words of our prayer- “M’lo kol ha-aretz k’vodo- the whole earth is filled with God’s kavod- God’s honor, God’s glory.” (Isaiah 6:3) We honor all of creation and are reminded never to waste the earth’s resources and to respect all creatures. We honor each other by devoting ourselves to tikkun olam, advocating and working for freedom and justice for all.
Honoring teachers, AND, honoring students is basic to the Jewish way of life. We read in Pirke Avot that if we learn anything from another person, we are to honor them for that teaching. And we are urged to always treat our students with the greatest honor. (Pirke Avot 4:15, 6:3) “Who is wise? The person who learns from everyone.” (Pirke Avot 4:1) I have learned from my colleagues, and I honor them for their patience with ME as I grow and learn. I am so touched that Rabbi Sarah Leah Grafstein, a friend for close to forty years, joins us here this evening.
Special thanks to Cantor Ross Wolman, without whom I never could have survived and flourished in this past year. I learn so much from ALL of you and thank you so much for studying with me in so many varied forums. Teaching is one of my biggest joys!
Kibbud av v’em- honoring our parents, is so fundamental that it made it into the 10 commandments. I am proud to honor my parents at this moment. They were not exactly excited when I announced my desire to be a rabbi, yet they came around to be accepting and maybe even pleased. My dad Leo, alav ha-shalom, made a point of noting that it was at the age of 11 that I first announced my intention. He taught me by word and deed to honor friendships. My mom Sandy does me the honor of being here this evening, and don’t think it was easy to squeeze into her schedule. At 87, I still rely on her for wisdom and guidance, and she is still the most impatient person I ever met. Mom- thank you for supporting me all along the way, and making your peace with my career as a rabbi, even though you thought I should be a librarian or a gym teacher.
It is a mitzvah to honor ALL of our elders. The Torah tells us, “Rise before the aged and show honor to the elderly.” (Leviticus 19:32) We are reminded that as we age and perhaps lose some of our capabilities, that we continue to have a vital place in the life of the community. Being honored is a little scary- is this like a lifetime achievement award after which I am expected to retire? Just for the record, I’m not going away just yet! And, it’s comforting to know, as I age, that honoring elders is a priority value in Jewish tradition.
I want to honor my daughters. They will tell you that it is not easy growing up as a rabbi’s kid. Let alone a rabbi who was also a Soldier and could be deployed anywhere in the world at any time. Before any family outing, the refrain was, almost always, “but first we have to stop at the hospital.”
I honor them for surviving the real challenges and I honor them for the amazing women they have become. They are wives, they are the mothers of 4 of my incredible grandchildren, and they are accomplished professionals- Jessie Rubenstein, Director of Jewish Education at Temple Emanuel and Sarah Wypiszynski, a family physician. I could not be more proud of you and I am just thrilled to have you here tonight to share this special moment. I love you both SO much!
And Ron! Talk about someone who is supportive and patient. I first met Ron on the bimah of this sanctuary when he was the in-house drummer at our Kabbalat Shabbat service. We had a pleasant, cordial relationship, and nothing more. When his beloved wife Genevieve passed away, and then my beloved husband David died, it became something much more. An incredible partnership and 5 ½ years of marriage.
In rabbinical school, when there were virtually no women rabbis, we used to be asked the question- “What do you call the husband of the rabbi?” Our standard answer was, “Lucky.” Today we say, “Hubbazin,” and I want to give honor to my husband who has become an amazing partner in this holy work. Truly, I am the one who is lucky! A very special and personal thank you to David’s sister, Laurie, and her husband Michael, who are here with us tonight from Vancouver, Canada.
I became a part of the Temple Chai family formally in 2006, when I was hired for a one-year position as your rabbi. When the year came to a close, I cried. No, I mean I bawled my eyes out. Marilyn Starrett tried to console me, “But you knew it was only for one year.” “Yes,” I replied, “but I fell in love.” I fell in love with Temple Chai, with all of you, and it’s been a love affair ever since.
It is humbling to feel that you want to honor me. As Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks expressed it, “The real honour is not the honour we receive but the honour we give.” The best way that you can honor me, then, is to reflect on whom do YOU honor, and why? What are the qualities that you deem most worthy of honor? Kindness? Generosity? Devotion to Learning? Spiritual Growth? Tikkun Olam? Let’s all treat each other, our beautiful world, our community, with the deepest honor – that is the greatest gift we can offer. My humble request- find someone here tonight whom you honor, and share with them what you admire most about them.
At Kabbalat Shabbat we reflect on the week that is drawing to a close. My week has been consumed by images of Afghanistan, where I was privileged to spend Chanukkah on two separate tours, in Kandahar, Bagram, and an obscure Forward Operating Base on the border of Pakistan.
I think about singing, laughing, and telling stories with Soldiers for hour upon end, and disseminating Chanukkah cards made by our own Temple Chai Religious School students. I recall SGT Secord saying, “I didn’t realize how much I was longing to connect with my people.”
When I first received the invitation to make this journey, Jessie was in her first year at Kenyon College. Before I said yes, I called her to ask how she would feel if I was not there for her winter break. Her reply? “They need you more than I do.” The answer of every military family, who sacrifice time with their loved ones in service of the United States of America.
I’m thinking about the naïve vision of bringing the blessings of democracy and freedom to the people of Afghanistan. Chanukkah- the celebration of freedom of religious expression. What could have been a more meaningful time to make this journey? We even called in “Operation Enduring Freedom.”
I‘m thinking about sitting in a C-130 at the Kabul airport, my only care- when the heck would Sen. John Kerry and HIS entourage show up so that we could finally take off. No one so desperate that they were chasing after the plane, risking their lives to be on board.
Blood and treasure. Blood and treasure. Blood and treasure. I think that every veteran of Afghanistan is nurturing a broken heart heart at this moment, wondering, “For what?” I am grateful to my colleague, Rabbi Irv Elson, who shared these words, written by Jen Sarno of the Semper Fi Fund- “To all my OEF friends- please know that your service in Afghanistan over the past 20 years is invaluable. Your service to the freedoms of the Afghanistan people and to our own Countrymen is valuable beyond estimation. Your service is not defined by policy but is a representation of your heart and soul – protecting those that cannot protect themselves.
Please know your service was valuable.
PLEASE DO A BUDDY CHECK TODAY.
Oy. And I’m thinking about the women, the girls. What is to become of their hopes and dreams? The right to an education? To be proud of their bodies and wear what they choose? To make their own decisions about whether to marry and to fall in love with whomever they choose? I fear for their future.
Finally, I am haunted by the death of Private Jason Hasenaur, whose memorial ceremony I attended in Kandahar. One of his friends talked about how they used to play rock, paper scissors in the DFAC to see who had to get up and get the next round of soda. Another brutal reminder of the youth of these Soldiers.
There are many military traditions which are so moving. After the prayers, speakers and scriptural readings, the “Last Roll Call”. From the rear of the sanctuary, the First Sergeant calls the name of a few soldiers, and they respond, “Here, First Sergeant”. SGT Smith? “Here, First Sergeant.” LT Jones? “Here, First Sergeant.” Like that.
Then they call the name of the soldier to whom we pay tribute. “Private Hasenauer”. Silence. “Private Jason Hasenauer”. Silence. “Private Jason Daniel Hasenauer.” Silence. A 21 gun salute and taps. It was not easy to keep a stiff upper lip. It is barely manageable even as I am writing about it. After this, file by the front and render a final salute to the display which includes his boots, his helmet, his dog tags and his weapon. The weapon stands up in the boots, the dog tags hang off of that, and the helmet, (or in this case, his red beret, as he was in special forces), sits on top of the weapon.
It feels like TAPS for Afghanistan. (Taps is played by Gabriel Kovach)
How do you feel about speed bumps? I don’t like them. I struggle with patience in general, and pretty much rebel against ANYTHING that gets in my way. When I was in the Army and had to do a physical fitness test, I rounded the track with my head down and my arms pumping. If I pretended I was back on the sidewalks of NYC, moving forward with alacrity, I never had to worry about passing the test. The goal was to get where I was going as fast as possible!
This past year and a half has been one speed bump after another. We wanted to move forward in our lives, yet the pandemic kept putting obstacles in our way. We were forced to slow down, to adjust our pace, to focus on being in the present, not knowing what the future would look like.
These days of Elul are kind of like spiritual speed bumps. Let’s embrace them. As we move towards the High Holy Days, we take the time to reflect on our relationships, our personal growth, what direction we are heading and how we might adjust our course. We step back from our never-ending rushing. In 3 weeks we will gather to welcome a new year with new possibilities. Let’s take the time to welcome and explore this moment of slowing down the hectic pace of our lives and the opportunity to look within.
Rabbi Bonnie Koppell
Rabbi Bonnie Koppell serves as Associate Rabbi to the Temple Chai community in Phoenix, Arizona, where she also directs the Deutsch Family Shalom Center. A native of Brooklyn, New York, she is a graduate of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College where she received a Doctor of Divinity degree in 2006. She holds a Master’s Degree in Religion from Temple University. She was granted a Bachelor of Arts degree from Brandeis University and graduated Magna Cum Laude with High Honors in Philosophy. In 2013 she earned a Master of Strategic Studies from the US Army War College. Rabbi Koppell was one of the first women in the United States to be ordained as a Rabbi.
Rabbi Koppell was recognized as “Outstanding Young Leader of the Year” for the City of Mesa, Arizona in 1994. She was the recipient of the City of Mesa Martin Luther King Celebration’s “Spirit of Unity” award and received the “Celebration of Success” award from Impact for Enterprising Women. The Arizona Cactus Pine Girl Scout Council awarded Rabbi Koppell its “World of People” award. She has served as Grand Marshal for the City of Mesa Veteran’s Day Parade and was Mesa’s “Woman of the Year” in 2004. In 2007 she was invited to the White House to offer the opening prayer at a meeting of Jewish leaders with the President of the United States, George W. Bush. In 2010 she was named as one of the Forward’s “Sisterhood 50 – America’s Influential Women Rabbis.”
Rabbi Koppell is very active in the greater Phoenix community. She has served as president of the Board of Directors of the East Valley Child Crisis Center and is Past President of the Board of Rabbis of Greater Phoenix. She helped to draft the City of Mesa’s ethics code, served on the Boards of the Jewish Family and Children’s Service, as well as the Jewish Community Relations Council.
Rabbi Koppell served as a Chaplain (Colonel) in the United States Army Reserve for 38 years. CH Koppell was commissioned as a 2LT Chaplain Candidate in 1978. Upon her ordination in 1981, she became the first female Rabbi to serve in the U.S. Military.
Chaplain (Col) Koppell has received many military awards, including three Meritorious Service medals, two Army Achievement medals, Army Physical Fitness Excellence awards, and an Army Commendation medal. She served a year of active duty in support of Operation Noble Eagle and was awarded the Global War on Terrorism medal for her service in Iraq in 2005. She is also a member of The Quartermasters Association Honorable Order of St. Martin. Chaplain (Col) Koppell spent Passover in Iraq in 2005, Chanukkah 2005/2006 with Jewish service members in Kuwait and Afghanistan, and was deployed to Iraq for Passover 2006. She returned to Afghanistan in 2008/2009, celebrated Passover in Kuwait in 2010, and in 2014. In 2012 she was awarded the Legion of Merit by the 63D Regional Support Command. She received a second Legion of Merit from the 807th Medical Command (Deployment Support) in 2016. Rabbi Koppell received the annual Jewish Military Professional’s Award from the JWB Jewish Chaplain’s Council in 2018. She was inducted into the Army Women’s Foundation Hall of Fame in March 2019.
Rabbi Koppell’s writings have been published in numerous books and journals. She is a frequent newspaper columnist and much sought-after speaker. She was married to David Rubenstein, PhD., of blessed memory, and is the parent of two daughters, Jessie and Sarah, and grandmother of Helena Ruth, Michael David, Leon Brom, and Lily Phyllis. She married Ron Kushner in December 2016.
You can contact Rabbi Koppell at email@example.com.