Tag Archives: Jewish

The Sukkah and the Pope-e-que

Our Sukkah is underway.  This Sunday, erev Sukkot, we will celebrate.  In honor of the Pope’s arrival to Philadelphia we will have a combined Sukkah Decorating and barbecue, that we have affectionately dubbed the Pope-e-que.  IMG_0737

The Pope’s presence is bringing havoc to the area with the faithful throngs coming to see and hear him while the roads are shut down for security purposes.  Rather than be cynical, I am thrilled by his message of hope, love, joy and action to make a better world.  He is a disruptor in the best of ways.

Although your schedule is full Your Holiness, you are most welcome to Lashev baSukkah, grace us with your presence and enjoy some of the best kosher beef ribs around!

Chag Sameach and Shabbat Shalom!

The Time for Common Heroism is upon Us.

Heroes, it is said, act without thinking of the fear before them. Fear can paralyze, placing us in what we classically describe as Mitzrayim, the narrow places. Although most of us are not heroes, most of us are people who respond with empathy and compassion to those in need.

 When we rise above our fears we can achieve great things. When we act out of fear, we are reflexive and often myopic and ultimately selfish in our self-protectiveness.

 The unfolding tragedies in the Middle East, the hopes of an Arab Spring becoming, to extend the metaphor, the harshest of Winters, have left hundreds of thousands dead and millions displaced. What was once considered home is now an impossible place of hopelessness and despair.

 As Americans, as Jews and as human beings we are compelled to answer the immediate desperate cry for help. World governments, first and foremost the United States, must tackle the underlying causes of this devastation work to resolve these problems. But you and I can make a difference to the people in immediate risk for their lives. We can support humanitarian efforts to provide sanctuary, medicine and food and further we can actively support efforts to resettle refugees.

 Refugees are carefully screened before granted permission to come to the United States. HIAS is in the forefront of coordinating with government agencies after these people are vetted. Our fear cannot let us turn a blind eye and keep us from engaging in the compassionate work our tradition commands.

 L’Shana Tova

V’Etchanan- Our Legacy, What Do We Leave Behind?

Moses continues his review of the journey through the wilderness in this week’s Torah portion, V’etchanan. He recalls the trials and tribulations and what it means to be in relationship to God. Moses tells the people that he will remain behind; Moses will die here in the desert and they will move forward to the Promised Land. Moses reviews the Law and we encounter a core Jewish teaching, the Shema followed by the V’ahavta.

We all know the words to the V’ahavta. It has been committed to our memory due to the recitation more times than we are able to count. In it we learn that loving God requires the active practice of the laws we have been given and that active practice requires that we teach these laws to the next generation, our children. We hear Moses recite this prayer to the people, but how might it sound if Moses internalized the V’ahavta as he accepts his fate preparing B’nei Israel to leave him?

If Moses was speaking personally, the language of the V’ahavta prayer might change. He might wonder if his children, the fledgling nation of Israel, have learned the lessons he spent his life living and teaching. In that, Moses resembles us, or rather, we who are parents resemble him. We invest our lives nurturing and teaching our children, hoping we instill good values so they may find a meaningful life based on a solid foundation. Are they ready to “fly on their own from the nest” is a question we all ask. We look back on our lives as parents and wonder; “Did I do it well enough? Were these lessons embraced?” I imagine Moses’ personal V’ahavta entreaty, and ours as well, might go something like this:

“I pray I have taught you well.
I hope the lessons and values I shared you have embraced,
And you will carry them and me in your heart
Down whatever path you choose for your life.
May these principles guide you
In the choices you make and the actions you take
From the moment you wake in the morning
Until it is time to rest at night.
Wear them proudly in your deeds and in your thoughts
So that everyone you meet will know
They have entered the presence of someone who tries to live life
Virtuously and with integrity.”

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Devarim– Moses teaches about him and us

 Devarim is the great repetition that isn’t.  Moses’ speeches in Devarim are a wonderful retelling of a story, but so much of it is not true; at least much of is does not comport with the stories of the previous books of Torah. So what is going on with Moses?

 Viewing Moses as a person and not the mythic Prophet, Teacher and leader, Moses is doing what so many of us do. He is trying to understand his place in history, trying to figure out whether his teachings and leadership from slavery to peoplehood was really worth it. In simple language, Moses asks himself what we ask ourselves in the sunset of our lives: “Did I do good, did I make a difference?” Even the great Moshe Rabbeinu seems to question if he did the right thing and if ultimately he will make a difference in the world. For us, the answer is an unequivocal yes, but for him in that place, he was unsure.

 Moses’ stories are retold with a tweak here and an embellishment there. In these Deuteronomy versions, Moses recalls himself prominently and his actions are above reproach. Here at this place in his life, Moses knows he is at the end of his journey and what he has done is all that he can do. There is a sense of authority in his voice, as he needs to reassure the people who will continue forward without his leadership, and there is a sense of desperation as well as he needs to reassure himself.  It is here that we can relate to Moses the man, as we sometimes find our loved ones doing as he did.

 For those of us with older parents or grandparents we too see similar behavior in their retelling of their exploits during the journey of their lives. And the subtext of their stories echoes the issues and fears of Moses. We are our most compassionate when we lovingly hold them and respect their stories as recounted. It is our way of saying to them yes my dear one, you do matter, you did make a difference to me. I will love you and remember you for these and all the other gifts you have shared.

The Chain of Tradition Continues if we are a Solid Link

 A meaningful connection between our elder generations of age 50+ and our synagogues has profound implications in keeping our tradition vibrant and alive. Active embrace of these cohorts is a key to Jewish continuity and enriching succeeding generations. We can accomplish this provided we are prepared to actively engage them in our tradition.

 We are inheritors of a great tradition. Accumulated wisdom and insight has been passed from one generation to the next, being revised and revived at each step along the way. We view ourselves as links in a sacred chain. As we have received the tradition, we too shall pass it on. This is the Shalshelet HaKabbalah. But transferring our legacy is not automatic. But it is a challenge however to pass on the values successfully since the next generation often speaks a different language and lives within a different culture.

 The synagogue has traditionally been a part of this process. But as choices continue to open up to us in our modern society, expressions of meaning and community do not necessarily happen by joining synagogues. We can seek meaning and community elsewhere. And so we see the Baby Boomer generation leaving synagogues and their children not joining.   We can still connect however through actively embracing those who remain connected and most visibly need us, namely the elder cohort, dubbed “The Longevity Generation” by Rabbi Richard Address. We can offer access to community and meaning-making that clearly demonstrates the value of Jewish community in connection to a synagogue. The Shalshelet HaKabbalah or Chain of Tradition is a model that still works as an expression of continuity and community but only if we fully embrace it.

 The Longevity Generation is in the greatest need of the services and community that we offer. Teaching, pastoral care, community and social engagement, end of life care including hospital visits; hospice and end of life life-cycle events are all important services to this age group. If we give this generation all that they need, providing a rich and meaningful engagement with Judaism, they are not the sole beneficiaries; the value flows to their adult children as well. Further, this is not limited to current synagogue members. It can be an effective outreach to the older unaffiliated as well. It is an investment of time and caring that might yield dividends.

 The significance of our service and community support is understood and appreciated by the Boomers through the meaning we give their parents and the burden we help to share through our caring presence.   As the Boomers live through this experience they hopefully are drawn into it, provided caregivers, the congregation, and we the rabbis purposefully reach out to them while we are reaching out to their parents. Besides the support we provide the elder generation directly, we can help facilitate the often-difficult conversations that need to occur, from ethical wills and end of life decisions, to the shift away from independence to more dependent forms of living and the sharing of personal stories and family history as legacy. We invite the Boomers to be a part of a caring community and continue the conversations with us, others like them and hopefully those who have yet to experience these important transitions.

 Through helping the Longevity Generation we help and embrace the Boomer Generation who experience the value of Jewish Community. This understanding inclines them to share the meaning that they have known. In this context of values and community, the Boomers can be prompted to reframe the congregation experience from one of obsolete Institutional membership to a relational community of belonging.

 Our elders have much to teach us. Beyond learning their wisdom, we can also learn about our own humanity through the sacred service I describe. Our elders are valuable and important parts of who we are. The Longevity Generation deserves our honor and respect. As we engage in these behaviors of lifting them up, the integral and vital values of Judaism are naturally transferred to the next generation.

Hazak Hazak v’nitchazek

We are strong and together we are strengthened.

Mission Israel

I had the privilege of joining 17 other rabbinic colleagues on a mission to Israel. The Federations of Greater Philadelphia and Metro West as well as the WZO (World Zionist Organization) sponsored this mission. It was a four-day whirlwind; up, north, down, south, east and west, I felt like the rabbinic equivalent of a Lulav. It was a very interesting trip, as much for what was said as for what was not said.

 The WZO agenda tried to create a narrative for us. But the story they tried to tell was different from the one I took away from the trip. There was no shortage of Hasbara. The and WZO tried to portray a society that is accepting and growing, wanting peace with those who want likewise (the Druze we met along the Lebanon border in the town of Hurfeish), and ready to take on the civil issues (the Ethiopians we met in Rishon LeZion). More troubling issues remained off-limits however, and the conversation regarding the Palestinians issues came down to better advocacy (a presentation by Stand with Us) and Ambassador Alan Baker’s legal explanation about why Israel is in the right and the Palestinians are acting without legal justification.

 We also were witness to the nascent rise of spirituality in the secular society through the establishment of an Israeli Seminary and an organic lay-led movement creating a “Minhag Israeli” distinct and apart from American transplants. Along with this was a conversation about redefining Zionism in the modern context to appeal to the current generation and acknowledge current realities.

 For me, these dots and created a picture of a society that is in many ways engaged in an internal existential struggle for its soul. As Israel has achieved the vision to become a Nation like other Nations, Israelis are finding this place insufficient. Realizing the dream has created a reality that leaves the heart and soul of the aspirational mythic idea of Israel unfulfilled. There is a struggle to find more. The Palestinian issue seems to be eating away at the hearts and minds of many Israelis as are many other issues creating a deep profound yearning. I saw and felt this when I visited last year during the war as well.

 That struggle is present here in the US; we struggle to understand Israel and our connection. We are challenged to do a better job of facilitating the conversations and fostering relationships that are deep and enduring. I believe that the WZO approach appeals to a segment of the American Jewish Community already sitting in the pews of that denomination. But that leaves many of us standing outside and unsatisfied with the offering and that number is growing.

 I was encouraged by the visits to the projects we support through Federation including our sister city, Netivot. At a youth center one of our more gregarious rabbis got down on the mats and wrestled a couple of the kids. Although Seth had the boy by several pounds, the short-lived match was great. We also saw the planned mural for the water tower of Netivot being created by our very own Philadelphia treasure, the Mural Arts Program. I have been a fan of Mural Arts for a while, watching its artists transform an often blighted urban landscape into a place of culture and hope one wall at a time. We can take pride in the many good things we do but I wonder how those things might be expanded further.

 One important highlight, was the camaraderie and collegiality this trip fostered. Our rabbis represented a spectrum of beliefs and cut across denominations. Although our religious views and practices are substantially different, we found common ground to learn together, to create friendships together and to talk together. Of particular note was the insistence of our Orthodox colleagues to stop our trip for a Mincha service so that one of us, a reform woman rabbi, could say Kaddish for her father. So there we were on a playground davening Mincha together, a truly profound moment and an important lesson for us all.