Joanie Plous Bayer Young Leadership Honorary Award Acceptance Speech

I can only say thank you! I was so surprised to learn that I had received this award! And am so happy to share this with Rabbi Yammer, of whom I have heard so many wonderful things.  I am honored to have met you this evening.  I would also like to thank everyone here for attending and particularly to my congregation who have driven down from Huntsville to Birmingham. It is wonderful to see you all.


When Richard Friedman spoke at the Temple in Huntsville last spring in honor of Yom HaAtzmauot, he spoke of our rich Alabama history of hiring such strong rabbis like Rabbi Grafman and Rabbi Yammer and having faithful Jewish communities.  In a sense, because we are few in number, especially in the South, we have had to work harder to create strong and vibrant Jewish communities.  I pray, as has happened in our history, when faced with adversity, as we are currently around the world and on our college campuses here at home, lights of hope will emerge from the darkness and bring warmth and comfort to those around us.

The richness of Southern Jewish Life is not well understood in other parts of the country. I have been deeply blessed since I came here to be part of this rich heritage and to take my small part in its leadership.  This part of my life’s journey has been nothing short of a blessing for me and for my family.  I am grateful to be the leader of such an amazing congregation – Temple B’nai Sholom in Huntsville AL. I am grateful for the support and love of my friends and family – thank you to my husband Uzi, and children:  Aiden, David and Daniel along with my parents and extended family and friends.  I am grateful that this special community in Huntsville has shown and continues to show holy hospitality by welcoming in the stranger.  This community has taught me at their bed sides, simchas and sorrows how to be a rabbi today in the South; and I am eternally blessed simply to be in their presence in a daily basis.

I want to share with you this evening just a few short thoughts.  One of the things which has always guided me has been the centrality of love.  We are taught in our Torah: “to love your neighbor as you love yourself. (Lev. 19:18).

This is probably one of the hardest commandments to follow in the entire Torah.   It is difficult because many of us don’t love ourselves and the faults we see in others are actually mirror images of our own.  It is easier to find fault in others than to turn the lens of introspection onto ourselves and work to change our own behavior. Yet that mitzvah is the foundation of how I understand Judaism – I have worked hard to grow to become an example of living an authentically modern Reform, life.

Rabbi Heschel wrote in an essay explaining his involvement in the peace movement that he was powerfully aware of a lesson from our prophetic literature: “that morally speaking there is no limit to the concern one must feel for the suffering of human beings…that regard to cruelties committed in the name of a free society, some are guilty, while all are responsible. [1]

We must continue to strive for a more just and whole world – a world where we remember that we are all created betzelem Elohim – in the image of God.  Adam and Eve the first people God created were not black or white; rich or poor; Gay or Straight; Republican or Democrat; abled or disabled; Muslim or Jewish or Christian, instead they were simply the children of God.  When we treat everyone as a child of God, when we welcome them into our sacred spaces and share with them our teachings, then we can become better ourselves.  Ben Zoma famously said “who is wise, one who learns from all” (Peirkei Avot 4:1).  When we share with them then we can learn from them and we can become who we are truly supposed to be:  Or LaGoyim A light to the nations.   Thank You!


We have gathered this evening to honor and celebrate leadership. We have learned about different types of leaders and that we are in a challenging time.  It is imperative in these modern times to see the value of the sacred in our lives.

Rabbi Heshel said: “It is customary to blame secular science and anti-religious philosophy for the eclipse of religion in modern society. It would be more honest to blame religion for its own defeats. Religion declined not because it was refuted, but because it became irrelevant, dull, oppressive, insipid. When faith is completely replaced by creed, worship by discipline, love by habit; when the crisis of today is ignored because of the splendor of the past; when faith becomes an heirloom rather than a living fountain; when religion speaks only in the name of authority rather than with the voice of compassion–its message becomes meaningless.” (Abraham Joshua Heschel, God in Search of Man: A Philosophy of Judaism)

I pray that we once again see the relevancy that religion and God can play in our lives.  I pray that we are able to come together to build the community that we dream –  As the prophet Isaiah described: “The wolf also shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid; and the calf and the young lion and the fatling together; and a little child shall lead them.”(Isaiah, 11:6)

We pray for our brothers and sisters

Whose home are in Israel, our sacred homeland, in spite of terrorism.

We pray for their safety and their peace.

We pray for those who have been injured

That they have a speedy recovery of body, mind and spirit

Courage to continue to live and the ability to coexist in harmony with those around them

We pray that our leaders have the wisdom to lead

That instead of having their own interest, they have the interest of the people at heart

May they have the ability to see the path that needs to be taken and the courage to take the first step

We pray that the world’s eyes are open to see the suffering of our people

May they have the courage to work toward justice for all and act in mercy

May they be given the strength to defend against terrorism

Instead of being fearful of knives flying through the air

May they be turned into pruning hooks

Instead of being fearful of cars driving toward a bus or a crowd

May they be turned into carriages of peace

May the fundamentalists all over the world be given the ability to see the other

May we once again be able to form a community united in a Zionist ideal – a home for the plurality of Jews

May we then be able to be a light to the other nations of the world, demonstrating how to live in peace and prosperity together

El Male Rachamim, O God of Compassion please bless us to have the strength and the courage to grow and become the best of who we can be.  Please spread over us Your shelter of peace and speedily have compassion on us as we go through this harrowing struggle.

[1] Abraham Joshua Heschel, Moral Grandeur and Spiritual Audacity, essays edited by Suzannah Heschel. p.225

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