Category Archives: culture

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)

 

 

 

What Race are You?

What Race do you identify with?

Marathon

((Rimshot))

Actually, that isn’t the opening joke in my lounge act, but part of an important recent conversation.

I was asked this question in the Red Cross Blood Drive pre-screening. The inquirer, an African-American, was completing the questionnaire and asked me to identify myself by race. There was a time when I would have responded Caucasian/White. But I uncomfortably paused and then quipped Marathon. We laughed and then we skipped the question. But, I actually do not know how to answer that question anymore.

I am not ashamed of what is now called my “white privilege.” As a Jew in America, the ability to call myself Caucasian/White is on some level a sign that we made it and have gained popular acceptance. But perhaps this acceptance remains elusive. This simple gathering of data for statistical tracking purposes has become a marker of something more complicated and fraught.

The dream of some, where we entered the melting pot of America and assimilated into a homogenous culture was a vision of many immigrants. This vision propelled many to immigrate to the land where Emma Lazarus and the Statue of Liberty beckoned. America was something new, different and better accepting all of us, and creating unbridled opportunity and equality.   That, however, was the myth for most. The reality was quite different for people outside the mainstream culture who were marginalized, persecuted and oppressed. Our national aspiration to realize our myth has been a slow and often painful evolution.

I am a Jew. I am a proud American. But I do not fit into the “white box.” Or maybe I am not comfortable residing there. I have become more sensitive to the racial issues in our country. Perhaps it is because the privileged position I have enjoyed has come under fire, not from the political left, but from the ugly anti-Semitic elements that have become emboldened and found their public voice in this new chapter of the American experience. My schools, my community centers, and my people have been the subject of a new round of persecution. Our cemeteries are desecrated; our houses of worship and community are vandalized. It is a wake-up call that the civil rights we fight for in this country are truly our own.

I am compelled to stand up for the things I believe in, the values that truly make America great, and a devotion to equality under the law and of opportunity for all. We have made great strides, but we have so much further to go. It is a marathon. Run with me.

 

Time to sit down for a beer

I need to talk about the current ad Heineken has produced and also the talk about the talk surrounding the current ad.

For starters, we all need to acknowledge the ad is designed to promote Heineken beer. With this disclaimer, we can proceed. Bottom line, I found the ad had a positive message (beyond Heineken is a good beer to drink with someone). I believe the message was that people operate according to preconceptions whether or not they are fully informed or people hold opinions that keep them from hearing another viewpoint, but it does not have to be so.

The ad was a message about building bridges across those divides, seeing that the other is not merely stupid or a threat, or perhaps something even worse. We can find ways to connect ways to create relationships where they did not exist before; we can find that despite the things that differentiate, our common humanity can be something that brings us together.

The ad is precisely that, a four-minute frame into which the message of building bridges and the selling a product are interwoven. It is neither Shakespeare nor the Bible; although interesting, it is not the best of plots, or cinematic artistry, or even acting. But it is an important message none-the-less, one deserving of notice and embrace, not ridicule or cynicism.

I am struck that because I hold this opinion, some call me out as stupid for liking the ad and even stupider for not knowing how stupid I really am. People are reacting in a way that feels extremely condescending, or just smug,  contemptuous of anyone who does not have the incisive clarity that this dangerous insidious ad requires.

The ad can be scrutinized and might actually be a starting point for some of the serious conversations we need to have, including what the ad omitted, the subtle prejudices it contained, what are the important issues dividing us, etc. But a conversation is hard to have when only one viewpoint is acceptable. It seems like some of the people so vocal in criticizing the ad would have been good “before” characters for the ad. Consider that as a working premise, we share our common humanity. Then over a drink, let’s sit together to talk and listen.

We will be Okay

Will we be okay?

What do I tell my kids?wethepeople

Those are two questions that have been asked since the nation elected Donald Trump as President of the United States last night.

The answer to the first question is: Yes. And we will tell our children the following: On November 8, our country elected Mr. Trump to be our next President. For many of us, he was not the person we wanted but our nation has spoken in a way that makes this country extraordinary. We voted and we decided. Our process worked. Despite our deep disagreements, we all have a President-elect.

Now it is time to find a way to move forward. We will pray our new President embraces the idea that he is the President of all people of the United States and that the United States has unique responsibilities because it holds a unique role in the world. Whether we agree with Mr. Trump’s personal or political views, we hope for his success as the leader of our nation. At the same time, we need to embrace our important place to fight for what we believe to be right especially given the circumstances that brought us to this place.

We have long relied on government intervention to address the issues and solve problems. However, for many in America, that did not work. They felt abandoned if not betrayed, with promises of protection broken and a system unresponsive to their needs. And for many others of us, we have been lulled into complacency and a false sense of security. This election is a harsh wake-up call and rouses us to action, not against the government, but aware of governments’ limitations to help the governed. It is up to us to create the change we seek now more than ever. Voting is only a first step in a process of engagement. Showing up at local meetings, petitioning Congressman, and holding the new president and every part of government accountable must ensue. Community organizing is vital. Our aspirations and goals are in our hands. We cannot relegate them to another’s care, certainly not now. Our community groups, both religious and civic, can use this moment in our history to reinvigorate and rededicate themselves, advancing important values of dignity, equality, and justice.

Yes, we will be all right.   The United States of America is strong and we her people are resilient.   But the future is in our hands. It is our work as Rabbis and other faith leaders to help guide and support the people as teachers, chaplains and champions of social justice and the values we hold dear. There is much to do and our work has never been more important.

What the Spies of Shlach ask us about ourselves

There is a TV commercial that distinguishes between simply monitoring and actively preventing identity theft. A violent bank robbery is in process. The monitor surveys the situation as the customers fall to the floor imploring this uniformed man to take action. He responds that he is merely a monitor; taking action is not his job. And yes indeed, there is a bank robbery underway.

shlachThe story of the spies in Parshat Shlach seems similar. Twelve men were selected and sent out to survey the land of Canaan and report back. They did what was asked and reported what they believed they saw. An insightful rabbi taught me that the answer to a question depends on the question you ask. It also depends on the nature of the respondent.

These were twelve men, “…one man each from his father’s tribe; each one shall be a chieftain in their midst” (Num. 13:2). They were leaders within their respective clans, but were they capable as conquerors? The Hebrew word is Nasi, or Prince. They were princes of the individual tribes but not necessarily the top dog, or the General of the Army to use a military term. So were these spies conquerors or bureaucrats, men of action or fearful men of complacency and conservatism?

Had the idea of freedom and freedom’s responsibilities permeated this new Israelite society? It

Spies Scout Out the Land by Yoram Raanan

Spies Scout Out the Land by Yoram Raanan

seems not; for only two spies, Caleb and Joshua believed they could actually overcome their foes and possess the land. It is possible that a deliberate selection of strategists and warriors as the twelve spies would have yielded a unanimous joining of Caleb’s assessment that they could vanquish the Canaanites. However, the spies’ ability to sway the people indicated that the Israelite people were not yet ready to enter the Land and receive the promise and responsibilities that go with it.

We also, both individually and collectively, need to ask ourselves which are we? Are we agents of change like Caleb and Joshua, or agents of the status quo? Are we willing to find ways to achieve lofty goals or fearful of the risks and unwilling to reach for more hoping to preserve what we have? Often, trying to maintain the status quo is riskier than taking the chance to make something better.  Although we should always be grateful for what we have, when it comes to values such as human rights, peace, justice, equality, and security, we can always aspire to something greater. The question remains, Are we willing to take the risk?

 

Every Leaving Always Late

Modesty and a seat too far

seating chart The current seating spat aboard El Al planes reminds me of seating elsewhere in the Jewish world. When planning the wedding, the seating chart seems to rank as important as the Chuppah. Aunt Sophie wont sit with Uncle Benny who would be upset if he didn’t sit next to cousin Terri who is rooming with Sophie’s daughter. The brouhaha about certain men refusing to travel next to a female other than his wife on a plane seems easy enough to overcome long before there is a confrontation on the airplane. This on board argument helps reinforce the old expression that EL AL was an acronym for “Every Leaving Always Late” and is an unfortunate commentary on our ability to get along.

 This is an issue for the men in question, not the rest of the passengers. The easiest solution is for men who have this need to be required to buy the seat(s) adjacent, if other El_Al_Boeing_777-200such observant men do not also book seats. Preflight booking can ask if this seating issue exists. If the yes box is checked, then a new level of scrutiny is developed. If the box is not checked, there is not consideration. The seating chart can be developed using computer algorithms. Alternatively, sections can be set aside for the observant. If seats are not available, the section can be expanded or the plane listed as sold-out for that section.  Maybe business class could be reserved for all women who find they are bearing the brunt of this bad treatment. Maybe we do a first come first served approach. The balagan that is the El Al boarding process would look much the same as it does now.

 There seem to be a multiplicity of solutions available long before boarding takes place. For a land touted as among the technology centers, this problem seems far from daunting.  To create an argument on the plane or make some passengers feel unwelcome seems to be the worst possible alternative.  My guess if that if the airline were held accountable, a workable solution would be quickly found. Maybe the pending lawsuit is the needed catalyst.

Nisiyah Tovah!