The Reykjavik Summit and Yom Kippur

Rabbi Resnicoff with his daughter Malka, who wears a souvenir of the 1986 Reagan-Gorbachev talks

In 1986, Rabbi Resnicoff was sent to Iceland to lead Shabbat and Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement) services during the historic Reagan-Gorbachev pre-summit meetings.

Some US Jews lamented the timing of the summit taking place on one of their holiest days. Rabbi Resnicoff considered the timing “unfortunate” at first.

My mind changed, though, and I thought how appropriate it was. On the High Holy Days, we think about the idea that we have to make a decision as individuals, and as nations, whether to repeat old cycles or break out of them, or with a new year, whether to go in a new direction. I thought, “How wonderful that at this time, when the two most influential men in the world are meeting, Jews around the world are praying for just such events.”

Once the timing was set, with Yom Kippur to begin a few hours after President Reagan’s scheduled return to the US, the White House inquired about the availability of services in Iceland, but there were none. So Rabbi Resnicoff was sent to offer Sabbath services on Friday night, and Yom Kippur services on Sunday and Monday. Yom Kippur begins a few hours after Reagan is scheduled to return to the United States. (Jane Leavy, Washington Post, Friday, the Rabbi Was in Reykavik (October 10, 1986)) Rabbi Resnicoff’s participation was read into the Congressional Record.

Article from The Providence Journal Bulletin, Navy rabbi to join Iceland team, (October 8, 1986) was read into the Congressional Record by Senator Claiborne Pell (D-RI) (October 9, 1986)

Below is the text of the sermon he delivered:

For individuals and for peoples. Yom Kippur brings a message, a challenge, and a warning.

The message is that we can change — and, through our actions, we can affect and change the world.  The challenge is that we must change; break free from the past, and build a better future.  The warning is that change will not be easy: the world is not perfect, and we cannot act as if it is.  It is filled with the bad, along with the good.  And so our goals — our resolutions — must be touched not  only by dreams of what might be, but also by an awareness of how things are.

The Biblical prophets teach of this tension between dream and reality.  They speak of swords changed to ploughshares, and spears to pruning hooks.  But they also teach that ploughshares must sometimes become swords, and pruning hooks change to spears. [Joel]

The challenge before us is to hold onto tomorrow’s dreams, but to struggle with today’s reality: to learn from faith that dreams must give plans and actions direction; but to learn from life that reality must give them foundation.

The challenge is to hold onto world dreams, but not to live in dream worlds.

There is a story about a zookeeper who opened a cage where a lion and lamb were lying down together, true to the Biblical promise.  After some days, a reporter pressed him for his secret.  “It’s easy,” heand answered:  “Every morning we put in a new lamb.”  

We cannot make peace with the lions of the world, or the bears, if the price of that peace is sacrificing lamb after lamb; if the cost is abandoning nations threatened by aggression from other powers, or peoples deprived of freedoms and human rights within their own lands.

We cannot think the world is so good that our strength no longer matters.  And yet we must hope that nations see that terrible strength brings its own terrible danger.  From Samson, we learn that power which destroy an enemy may mean our own death, as well.  “Mutual destruction” is not a modern idea.

And so we must strive, as individuals and as nations, to be strong enough to keep our dreams, and brave enough to take those first small steps, so that the long and difficult journey might still remain a possibility.

It is appropriate — indeed, perhaps providential — that the US-USSR meeting was scheduled for these Jewish “High Holy Days.”  For Jewish dreams are in the air, and the Jewish challenge of Yom Kippur is on our minds.

May the prayers and dreams of Yom Kippur touch us all, so that we each might take some small step in our own lives: so that we make some contribution in the year ahead to goodness and righteousness in our communities.

And may our prayers and dream touch world leaders, as well: so that, with no wishful thinking, their thinking might nonetheless be filled with wishes — and with vision: wishes for freedom; visions of peace.

May the world remember Iceland as the place, and Yom Kippur as the time, when we took one small step toward the biggest dream of all.

Reprinted in Baltimore Jewish Times, Small Steps Toward Big Dreams (November 7, 1986)