Category Archives: Am Yisrael

Jerusalem still weeps this Shabbat

As the President of the United States declared Jerusalem the capital of Israel, the various players had expected reactions. Many in Israel cheered, Arab Nations jeered, but really nothing has changed. The President officially recognized the de facto situation; Jerusalem is the capital of Israel. However, peace had not been advancing between parties and it seems unlikely this declaration does anything to move it forward. The two sides remain filled with mistrust of the other and neither is willing to budge from their respective recalcitrant positions. The status quo remains. Jerusalem, the City of Peace, sadly is not at peace.

We welcome Shabbat singing Lecha Dodi. In this mystical song-poem, Jerusalem is anthropomorphized; we prayerfully exhort that she shakes off the dust and embarrassment of a world that has forsaken what she represents to Jews and to humanity. I sing those verses with an ambivalent heavy heart every Friday night, struggling with why peace has not yet come to the place where God dwelled.

Jerusalem remains a city divided and in a state of unrest. Sadly, she is unable to bring unity to her people Israel, or to brothers and sisters who also share a vision of belonging. She is mine, but she belongs to others too. Jerusalem, The City of Peace still remains an elusive dream. An outside declaration or moving an embassy changes nothing. Only the will of those who truly seek her can realize the dream that Jerusalem is a holy center for humankind and the aspiration of peace on earth.

Shabbat Shalom.

If not now? A call for change on Yom Kippur

#4 What do we do now- Be Kind

 

We come to the Third part of Hillel’s quote: If not now, When? The answer is NOW.

I have refrained from speaking directly about Charlottesville with you thus far.

I am sure that the public display of hate deeply pained you.

The horrible chants, torch-lit marching, gun-toting thugs,

40 Jews inside Congregation Beth Israel that evening,

spiriting their Torahs out the back door, expecting the Temple to be burned, it sickens me.

 

The Nazi march was vile and despicable behavior by people who live on the fringes of our society,

a group that trucks in hatred,

truly disenfranchised miscreants who crawled out from the dark underbelly of this great nation

and are mired in their own bizarre fantasies of violence and white supremacy.

I am very angry and deeply saddened by this horrific display.

And I am equally appalled by the lack of moral leadership on this and all issues at the highest levels in our land.

However, I am not fearful.

And in response to the horrors of Charlottesville

I have a one-word reply:

Houston.

 

Charlottesville and many other places make it clear we have a long way to go in the battle for life, liberty, and equal justice for all.

Again I say Houston. For there in Houston, there is hope.

 

In response to the devastating Hurricane Harvey that dumped floodwaters of biblical proportions on the region,

the very best of humanity showed up to the rescue.

There were only two groups in the city:

The rescuers and those in need of rescue.

Race, religion, color, creed, age, sex, gender identification, political affiliation, economic class, social class-

Nothing mattered except the need to save lives of people.

The Cajun Navy spontaneously appeared, people helped people, human chains literally reaching out into the floodwaters,

holding tight to each other

so that another life could be saved from the torrents of water. Everyone was on both ends of that lifeline.

In losing everything, the people of Houston found something truly precious, their humanity.

My response to the horror of Charlottesville is the beauty of Houston.

We seem to be at our best in the aftermath of a calamity.

Houston, Sandyhook, 9/11- these are only a few catastrophes to which we have risen up as a people,

United in bonds of love and fellowship.

Why must we reserve our best in response to tragedy?

This Yom Kippur, I suggest we preemptively deploy our best behavior in our everyday lives.

 

Let us shine light into the darkness

and illumine a path that leads out of the narrow places,

the Mitzrayim- the Egypt- those spaces both literal and figurative that both confine and oppress us.

Let us join together doing acts of loving-kindness.

Let us not sit helplessly and lament the world we long for.

Let us reach out to one another and build the world that should be. Let the humanity of Houston be our inspiration.

 

 

Together let us march forward

carrying love in our hearts and good deeds in our arms.

We have come to the proverbial edge of the Red Sea,

yet one more time in our history. Let us cross over together.

 

(And if I sound a bit like a Southern Baptist preacher, I can only say, Thanks, Grandma.)

 

How do we do this?

For you may say, I am only a single individual-

what effect can I possibly have?

I recall the story told of Mother Theresa,

that saint who tended the poorest of the poor in India.

A cynic asked her how she intended to feed the overwhelming masses who were hungry- she responded simply,

One Mouth at a Time.

And that is how we do it.

Each of us has the power to effect change.

The V’ahavta prayer says VeLo Taturu.

Never underestimate the power to make a difference- each of us.

It is about meeting people, one person at a time.

It is about individuals building relationships with one another

and building these connections into bigger connections,

building a community with shared values and purpose.

And it all starts with one simple idea: You.

 

Rabbi Hillel says in Pirkei Avot,

“In a place where there are no men, strive to be a man.”

As Jeffrey Goldberg of the Atlantic insightfully translates,

it means to be a mature, courageous human being;

it also means to be a mensch. So I sum it up and say simply to you: Be Kind.

 

In an age and culture where we have become coarse and combative,

BE KIND.

In a world filled with overwhelming loneliness and alienation,

BE KIND.

In a world quick to cynically chastise and separate with fractiousness and divisiveness,

BE KIND.

Hillel condensed all Torah to this:

“What is hateful to you, do not do to another.”

BE KIND. This as our call to action.

 

Start with yourself.

Let us free ourselves from the shackles of guilt and sin keeping us mired in the past.

Learn from it to live next year better.

Be kind and forgiving of your self. Starting now.

Promise yourself to engage.

 

Jews are taught to awake with the words “I am Thankful.”

“Modeh Ani Lifanecha, Elohai Nishama Shenatati bi tihora hi.” ‘Thank you God for restoring my pure soul.”

What a beautiful intention to start the day.

A fresh slate, built on gratitude for our blessings

and hopeful for the possibilities that await us.

Use the day to engage in the things that motivate you- your Why. Actively support something you believe in,

a philanthropy or a cause,

be part of something greater than yourself.

 

End your day with a bedtime Shema- prayer.

Go to sleep knowing

you are in the sheltering arms of the One who loves and protects you.

 

Nurture your relationships.

Be compassionate and forgiving; for they too are as flawed, seeking wholeness and love.

BE KIND.

 

Find your community and

BE KIND.

We need a caring community to support and comfort us

During times of celebration and sorrow.

Temple Micah is an extraordinary community to find people with shared values.

And together we can make a difference

rising up our voices as one,

speaking with more power than one alone to affect greater change. Give to the food bank,

give to help the suffering victims on Puerto Rico.

BE KIND.

 

Our greater communities, both our nation and the world,

need people to champion our values now more than ever.

Your voice, your time and your money are all necessary

to champion the things you believe in.

There is no shortage of need, and we cannot be silent.

 

“Kol Arevim Zeh BaZeh.”

All Israel is responsible for each other.

Whether you see Israel literally or metaphorically,

you can make a difference in

the genocide of the Rohingya, happening as we speak,

climate change, Israel, healthcare, the political debate both national and local.

These issues are our issues.

Find the one that resonates with your and pursue it.

 

We need to build a better world.

I believe it can happen.

But only if we are willing to roll up our sleeves and do the work necessary,

for it cannot happen on its own.

As it says in Psalm 89 verses 3,

Olam Chesed Yibaneh. “We will build this world with love.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

Jewish Love is not romantic love.

We learn Jewish love in the Shema and V’ahavta prayer.

Love is an active verb.

Jewish love is not a state of being, it is a state of doing.

The prayer instructs us to Love God by living the commandments, teaching them to our children

and fully embracing them in all of our thoughts and actions.

Jewish wisdom sees the Heart as the guide to emotion and action.   I am the change I want to see.

This is the empowering message of the Torah.

It implores us to embrace that

only through our own action will we begin to build the world that should be.

 

The people of our nation have always had to fight for the values we hold dear;

from the moment we first expressed them through the present day. This amazing country of ours is both resilient and great.

But we remain a work in progress with a long way to go before all of her children will enjoy the aspirations of our foundational documents, including the Declaration of Independence, the Bill of Rights and Emma Lazarus’s poem on the Statue of Liberty.

Life, liberty, and equal justice for all remain the promise we still strive to achieve.

This promise is the beacon of light shining from on top of the hill to the other nations of the world.

We will build this nation on love.

Olam Chesed Yibaneh. We will build this world on love.

 

As we move toward the end of our prayers today

we will hear that the gates are closing and also

that the gates of repentance are never closed.

These two seemingly contradicting ideas both live in our texts.

I believe that with Ne’ilah, our closing prayers,

the liturgists are exhorting us to act.

It is the urgency of now. We cannot wait.

The prophetic tradition that is ours,

The fragility of life that makes each day a gift-

they combine to say “don’t wait another minute.”

So here is this sacred space, as we conclude our services this day,

I encourage everyone here to smile at one another,

kiss and embrace your loved ones,

and kiss and embrace whoever is near you.

This is the start of something new.

We will build this world with love.

 

G’mar Tov- May you be sealed for Good

Olam Chesed Yibaneh  (sing)

 

 

 

The Rabbi Walked out on the Shiva

 

nancySchon

Minyan by Nancy Schon

I recently went to pay a Shiva call. Among the small group was an orthodox rabbi. We chatted and waited for a minyan to arrive. We made a couple of phone calls as the minyan was not materializing. To the surprise of some people in the room, the orthodox rabbi announced he was leaving. How can he do something so outrageous, someone demanded to know of me?  It is so disrespectful; just who does he think he is anyway?  On the contrary, I answered. The rabbi is acting with respect for the mourners.  How can you say that? Because I continued, the rabbi cannot share certain prayers absent a minyan and he cannot be counted in a minyan unless it includes only men. We will only have a minyan if we count the women, so the rabbi did the only thing he thought he could do under the circumstances, he left and essentially gave us permission to proceed. It might seem strange to some, but he was being respectful of both his beliefs and those who were in mourning. In that moment, he found a way to uphold both.

 minyanThere is room here to reflect on whether the decision was the correct one. Could not the rabbi have permitted himself to be counted for our purposes, never considering for himself that he has fulfilled his obligation? Wouldn’t his presence as a close family friend as a source of comfort override his interpretation of his obligation to his particular personal practice?

 The important point is he found a workaround that in his mind upheld his competing duties as he understood them. Then it was up to me to be respectful of the decision whether I agreed or not. Here was a moment that could have created separation as easily as it could create community. It required both “sides” of the conversation to decide which one it was.

The Kotel Compromise- A win or pyrrhic victory?

kotel-black-and-white-0The Kotel is a special place. As a remnant of the Temple, we have gravitated to it to feel a special closeness to our history, to a Divine place, the home for the Almighty that we built. We feel a deep emotional and often mystical connection that draws us into the space. Otherwise it is nothing more than a large brick wall.

 I recall arriving in Jerusalem for my first year of rabbinical school in Israel. I got off the plane, hopped into the sherut to Jerusalem dropped off the bags and then headed to the Wall. It was late. I had traveled for what seemed like days and although exhausted, I was compelled to go to the Wall. The emotions welled up from deep inside. I stood in the plaza gazing upon this place. With the kind of intense reverence and awe that happens rarely, I slowly approached the Wall. It was powerful. The thing that happened to me was an extraordinary moment, an encounter between my history, my people, my God and me. But the Kotel is not the sole place of my Judaism. The Makom or place of my Judaism extends beyond time and space and includes the idea of a Jewish people. This vision of Judaism however is compromised by the very compromise announced to create separate spaces for different kinds of Jews to pray.solitary wall prayer

 The arrangement for the space at the Wall has in many ways undermined what the space itself means for Judaism. Each denomination of Judaism now has a place it can call its own. The Wall of the Temple has been segregated, sliced and diced so each sect has an area where it can feel comfortable. The gain of a place for egalitarian Jews at the wall however is also the loss of the symbol of the Wall for us all as a place of unity; for these partitions are along the fault lines of Ashkenazic observances segregating us from each other instead creating a place accessible to everyone. The remnant of where God dwelled amidst the Jewish people has become a place of division and discord within God’s people.

 We have all seen the photographs of the wall at the turn of the century. Men and women were 1891amonthinpalestineandsyriathere together. The Wall was a private space to connect individually in a public place. How you practiced or the community with which you identified did not matter. In the early post-1967 days that sense of Klal Yisrael permitted a similar experience. It was fleeting, and sadly, it has devolved into staking territory in a turf war. Although liberal Judaism may have won something important in getting a place at the wall to pray, we must regretfully acknowledge that in this agreement something else important continues to elude us, namely the unity of the Jewish people.

 Perhaps we should re-focus the issue as one regarding the kind of ceremony and ritual that are generally permitted in this public private space. The kinds of rituals that permit us to be together could be more important in the grand scheme of things than the particular observances that create schisms among us. In my experience I was solitary but in communion with Am Yisrael. Under our current circumstances an experience at the Wall might require we visit both areas, one to be among those who share our beliefs and practice and the other to be with another part of our people, to taste their experience and ponder the ideas of the Judaism values that guides us all and strive to create a Judaism that connects us all.

Am I my Brother’s Keeper?- Israel and Me

The haunting question from Cain’s lips in response to God was the rhetorical non-answer when asked of Abel’s whereabouts. Cain and God both knew what had become of Abel and Cain’s response has been read as a guilt-ridden deflection from the true answer: Yes.connection

 As a Diaspora Jew, so too, I am responsible to my Israeli brothers and sisters. The understanding of our relationship as family contextualizes the obligation. I cannot force my sibling to act, but I am certainly invested in her welfare. I do not walk in my sibling’s shoes, but if I see him appear to go astray I am duty-bound to voice my concern. Whether my perspective is accepted or rejected, I am compelled to share my thoughts because I care. This is harder to do however when I feel my voice is rebuffed or my views disrespected, when it feels as though my sibling acts with the arrogance of the prodigal son.   But my love for my brothers and sisters obliges me to speak nonetheless.

PeoplewithJoinedRaisedJoinedHands It is in that tension that we find ourselves now. Chemi Shalev, the eminent Israeli journalist, is right to express his concern that we in the United States are not speaking up forcefully enough. But an Israel Prime Minister that foments the political divide among American Jews and a Chief Rabbinate that expressly refuses to acknowledge my practice of Judaism are but two ways my voice is repressed.   And yet I must speak.

 I care deeply about Israel, both the state and the aspirations it represents. Israel is a homeland to my people. It is deeply rooted in my narrative creating profound meaning. Israel is also a refuge for my people from a hostile world. Equally important, Israel is also a place where Jewish values might live and thrive. These values include belief in the sanctity of human life and a system of laws that guide just behavior. These principles guide a place where they can be lived and realized, no longer the province of a powerless people. Rather than a nation like all other nations, Israel is a light unto the Nations.Screen Shot 2016-01-07 at 1.04.44 PM

 Israel can be a beacon of hope, striving to better herself through the proper treatment of her citizens and the protection of the weak. She is to be a nation of laws equally applied, a country striving towards the highest moral standards internally and externally in her treatment of friend and foe alike. Sometimes Israel falls short. It is our responsibility to lovingly speak out when she does, based on our deep caring for Israel and what Israel means to us and to the world. And we must continue to speak up undeterred by those who might find us an annoyance or at odds with their particular worldview.

 I am my brother’s keeper.

Klal Yisrael- Unity against hatred and bigotry

BOR letterFortunately there is pushback

 The rise of Islamophobia in our country is deeply troubling. All people who embrace American Ideals should be troubled, speaking out and pushing back against this racism. Only those overwhelmed by fear or hatred can find the anti-Islamic message comforting. We Jews find this particularly problematic because our history is rife with persecution of the most horrific kinds.

 Klal Yisrael is speaking out. All our denominations, all of our respected institutions are renouncing acts of hatred and the perpetrators. Whether it is the desecration of a mosque in Philadelphia or the vitriol of hate mongers, Jewish values do not abide the despicable acts that are eerily similar to those historically experienced by our people.

 Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, The Union for Reform Judaism, Rabbinical Reconstructionist College, Jewish Theological Seminary, Rabbinical Assembly, Rabbinical Council of America and the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America, Aleph, just to name a few, have spoken against xenophobia and hatred.   Our own Board of Rabbis of Greater Philadelphia and our Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia’s JCRC under the leadership of Adam Kessler have also expressed support of the Moslem community in response to the Mosque desecration.

 I am heartened as an American, as a Jew and as a Rabbi that we reaffirm our Jewish values at this time. Regardless of how we practice, our Judaism commands us to take this principled stand. Although Chanukah has passed, the miracle of light continues to shine for all of us.