Eric Dangott is excited and proud to serve as Surf City Synagogue’s new Spiritual Leader starting in July 2013. Eric is a Huntington Beach native, and his Jewish youth was spent not far from Surf City’s Livingstone Campus location, at Temple Sharon. At Temple Sharon his initial interest and enthusiasm in Judaism blossomed under the guidance of numerous teachers, including our own Pnina Stein and Tanya Klugman.
After graduating from the University of California, Santa Cruz, with Bachelor’s degrees in Politics and Psychology, Eric spent a year teaching English in South Korea. A career in financial services took Eric from Orange County to San Diego, where his spiritual hunger was renewed. Surprisingly, the rabbi of the congregation closest to Eric, Rabbi Leonard Rosenthal, was the last rabbi at Temple Sharon, and leading the service when Eric celebrated his Bar Mitzvah.
Ultimately Eric became active in Gesher, San Diego Hillel’s graduate student and young professional group, as an officer and regular lay leader. When a professional opportunity took Eric to Tustin, as a Business Systems Analyst at SchoolsFirst Federal Credit Union, he happily transferred his skills from Gesher to Surf City Synagogue.
Eric has started initial studies at the American Jewish University, and looks forward to immersing himself as a full time student in the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies starting in Fall 2014. It is extremely meaningful for Eric to support and develop the Jewish community in the exact place his seeds of Jewish love were first planted. He looks forward to encouraging that same love of Judaism with the Surf City Congregation, allowing each member to tap into their Torah.
A couple weeks ago, in parshat Shoftim, we read one of the shortest, most powerful phrases in the torah: tzedek, tzedek tirdof, commonly translated as justice, justice, you shall pursue. The simplicity of the message cannot be ignored, but the phrase also attracts plenty of commentary. Why is tzedek mentioned twice? Some commentators say it is emphasis; justice is that important. Rabbi Bunam of P’shis’cha interpreted it as one should pursue righteousness righteously. In other words, the ends do not justify the means. I offer a third explanation, that true justice can only be accomplished when we look both outward and inward. It is far too easy to give a detached, knee jerk opinion. We often start our analysis of a situation emotionally, saying how horrendous an act s/he committed, believing we could never act that way. Instead we must balance that outward view with genuine introspection, appreciating how we might act in a similar circumstance, and imagining how we’d want to be treated.
How did you respond when you were overcharged for something at the grocery store? Perhaps a few words of frustration and a return visit to the cashier requesting a correction? In 2008 Walmart paid $1.4 million to settle a civil lawsuit brought by the San Diego District Attorney and the California Attorney General, alleging numerous price overcharges. Was this justice? The last time you were undercharged, or realized that a price tag was incorrectly marked with a lower price, did you notify the clerk? Was there justice?
Before dawn on March 14, 2009, a drunk driver with a blood alcohol level of .12 hit and killed Mario Reyes as Reyes ran across the highway to catch a bus. Charged with DUI manslaughter, the driver agreed to a plea deal, receiveing a sentence of 30 days in jail, 1,000 hours of community service and 8 years of probation, along with a life-time suspension of his license in the state of Florida, where the incident occurred.
Some additional details help illuminate the story further. The driver was Dante Stallworth, then a wide receiver with the Cleveland Browns. In addition to the criminal penalty, Stallworth was suspended by the NFL for a year. He reached a financial settlement with Reyes’ family, avoiding a civil suit. One year later Stallworth was reinstated by the NFL and resumed his professional career. There was a public outcry and media scrutiny, that an athlete, a celebrity, was once again barely slapped on the wrist. To them the sentence was a travesty of justice.
What made this story extraordinary is that most people did not realize that Stallworth’s lawyers advised him the facts of the case gave him an excellent chance of being found innocent. Stallworth, however, instructed his attorneys to accept a plea deal that convicted him of a felony. He said Reyes’ death was enough of his fault that there shouldn’t be a trial and Reyes’ family shouldn’t have to sit in a courthouse and relive his death all over again. In a day and age where commercials on the radio repeatedly say, “Friends don’t let friends plead guilty,” Stallworth’s response to his own incident casts a different light on justice. What would you do if you were in his shoes?
With Rosh Hashanah starting next week, in a similar vein, we can also say teshuvah, teshuvah tirdof. Repentance, repentance you shall pursue. It is a focus of the Yamim Nora'im, the Days of Awe, and must be approached with integrity and honesty. Repentance must be made to G-d, and to the people we have wronged. According to Rambam, the 12th century philosopher and scholar, repentance is a multi-step process: You must recognize you made a mistake, experience remorse,and then you must ask forgiveness. Additionally, repentance must be offered with vulnerability, and it must be accepted with an open heart.
I encourage you to remember tzedek, tzedek tirdof, incorporating it as a regular mantra in your life. As we enter the High Holiday season, one of the most powerful times of the Jewish calendar, one aspect of justice is teshuva, repentance. It is not an easy process; it is work. Hard work, however, leads to a clean slate and the opportunity of a new year. May it be a good year and a sweet year for you and your family.
L'Shanah tovah u’metukah