Tag Archives: Reform Judaism

Challenges of Yom HaShoah

Monday evening, local synagogues gathered to jointly commemorate Yom HaShoah. There was power in our being together. This moving event included an insightful author, powerful readings, and a beautiful choir performing stirring and poignant music. I could not help but notice three things that were missing. There weren’t any young people; although there were four congregations gathered, the sanctuary was barely full; and the program was very particular, focused on the Holocaust as a Jewish event without broader implications.

Were it not for the choir, there was barely a handful of young people (under 55, let alone kids) in the audience. The meaning of this seminal event of the Jewish people cannot be lost when first generation witnesses and their children die. How do we keep the message of remembrance alive and relevant?

With four congregations gathered, the sanctuary should have been filled to overflowing. The choir took a substantial portion of the sanctuary space. Judging by attendance, the Holocaust is becoming a distant detached part of our past. The March of the Living has become increasingly popular, but this is a minuscule percentage of the Jewish people actively remembering every year. We are challenged to find ways to connect to the world that is disconnecting from the memory of the Shoah. Why is it so easy to forget and what does that say about us as a community of caring people?

The Holocaust is an event unique to the Jewish people. But genocide is not. The particular experience of the Jews needs to become a universal cry to humankind for humanity. This explains perhaps why survivors speak to all children everywhere sharing their stories, not just with Jewish children at Jewish schools. Part of the Shoah’s power is that it happened in a time and place where it seemed unimaginable to many, and it was permitted because of silence and complicity in the atrocity. It happened to the Armenians, it happened to others, and it is happening now even as I write these words.

Do we have the moral courage to speak out and act, or will we find a rationalization to ignore the carnage that does not directly affect us? It is the great question for the civilized world and the great teaching moment of the Shoah. Will we learn and effect change from our experience?


Saying goodbye to a dear old friend

April 15 will be the final day in the life of Temple Beth El in Spring Valley. That was my home growing up. She has merged with another and is now part of the new Reform Temple of Rockland County. Her time has passed, but it is so difficult to say goodbye to a place that is so much a part of me. I learned so much there, developed friendships that still endure, knowledge of my heritage that connects me, a lens through which to look at life and understand it, giving me the foundation upon which to build a meaningful life. It was in this place that I learned about things greater than myself, what it meant to be Jewish, what it meant to be a mensch. My rabbi, Rabbi Frishman z”l, and my cantor, Cantor Weinflash z”l, were towering figures then and still serve as guides along my path. Saying goodbye to this special place is very hard.

The building was much more than a structure; in many ways it was as much home to me as the place I went to lay my head at night. Temple was a place of extraordinary and wonderful experiences. I learned in the classrooms and to teach there as well, to sing in the choir box, to pray in the pews, to engage in the community, to champion important values and causes, to learn about culture and art, to develop a love of Israel and the Jewish people, to ponder great questions and explore the answers, to find meaning under the watchful care of those who loved and nurtured me.

At Temple I became Bar Mitzvah and was married. At Temple I said goodbye to my parents. Our family names adorn the honor wall and Yahrzeit plaques, my dad’s name on the panel of presidents, pictures of me and my brother and sister standing on the bima as part of our confirmation classes, art contributed by my parents, and on and on and on. Words alone are inadequate to express the depth of my emotional attachment this place represents. Almost every corner of the building has a memory of my time there growing up. I am truly blessed to have been there and been a part of it.

On April 15, we will gather one last time in the Sanctuary of Temple to welcome Shabbat and celebrate a place so many of us called home. Temple Beth El lives on in the people who received the gifts from being involved there. Times change and once useful buildings can outlive their purpose, but the relationships and the beauty created in this special place will endure. This is the blessing of Temple bestowed upon us.

Welcome to Elul

 The month of Elul precedes the High Holidays.  We use it to prepare for these Days of Awe. It can be a magical time.

 The preparation is the mental and spiritual “getting ready” so that the holidays take on deeper significance. Almost anything we do is done better if we are prepared for it. So how do we prepare?

 Traditionally each day starts with the blowing of the Shofar at the conclusion of morning prayers. The awesome penetrating sound is called a “wake up call” by one of our great sages Maimonides. For those of us without ram’s horns, each day still can have moments where we weave emotions and thoughts, heart and mind, and contemplate who we are. It could be formal learning like reading a Psalm, I will share some ideas going forward. Try Psalm 27 (read it at the end of this essay) or maybe Psalms 4, 5 and 6 if you would like to follow our Hasidic friends tradition. For others a moment in front of the mirror might work.

 A quiet conversation with ourselves might work better for many. Where are we in our life? Is it where we expected? What is our unfinished business and what do we need to do to complete the task? What about our personal relationships? Who do we need to forgive and, at least as important, who needs to forgive us? This introspective process during Elul leads to the “Day of Judgment.”

 The Day of Judgment we know from our childhood stories is a time when the ledger book is opened up in Heaven and the Almighty determines who will live and who will die. But let me offer another interpretation:

 If we are given the gift of life for another year, how will we use it? If life is truly a precious gift, how will we cherish it and make the most out of it? What can we do this year that will permit us to look back upon it and say it was time well spent?

 Let’s spend the time now preparing for an awesome year to come.

Psalm 27 (JPS Translation)

The LORD is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear? The LORD is the strength of my life; of whom shall I be afraid?

When the wicked, even mine enemies and my foes, came upon me to eat up my flesh, they stumbled and fell.

Though an host should encamp against me, my heart shall not fear: though war should rise against me, in this will I be confident.

One thing have I desired of the LORD, that will I seek after; that I may dwell in the house of the LORD all the days of my life, to behold the beauty of the LORD, and to enquire in his temple.

For in the time of trouble he shall hide me in his pavilion: in the secret of his tabernacle shall he hide me; he shall set me up upon a rock.

And now shall mine head be lifted up above mine enemies round about me: therefore will I offer in his tabernacle sacrifices of joy; I will sing, yea, I will sing praises unto the LORD.

Hear, O LORD, when I cry with my voice: have mercy also upon me, and answer me.

When thou saidst, Seek ye my face; my heart said unto thee, Thy face, LORD, will I seek.

Hide not thy face far from me; put not thy servant away in anger: thou hast been my help; leave me not, neither forsake me, O God of my salvation.

When my father and my mother forsake me, then the LORD will take me up.

Teach me thy way, O LORD, and lead me in a plain path, because of mine enemies.

Deliver me not over unto the will of mine enemies: for false witnesses are risen up against me, and such as breathe out cruelty.

I had fainted, unless I had believed to see the goodness of the LORD in the land of the living.

Wait on the LORD: be of good courage, and he shall strengthen thine heart: wait, I say, on the LORD.

It is Time to Stake our Claim on the College Campus

It is time for the Reform Jewish Community to answer the call to the college campuses across the country. It is time that we commit to placing a Reform Rabbi on each campus with a significant Jewish student population. The goal should be to establish an endowed position so that the Reform voice will be heard. This Reform Rabbi will work with Hillel, but not for Hillel, freeing the rabbi to speak and act according to the best ideas of Reform including inclusivity, embracing modernity and Israel. Funding will come from donors who have a vested interest in their school of choice and the students who live and learn there. These groups include: Parents of Students, alumni and the students themselves.

 There is an active battle underway for the hearts and minds of the college students. College is a critical juncture in their development as thinking, feeling people. We have a profound investment in the outcome. These young people represent the future of the Jewish people in America and therefore an important future voice of world Judaism. If they do not develop connections with their Jewishness or with the state of Israel, then this generation will not embrace either their Judaism or Israel when they take the reins of leadership from us. If we do not demonstrate in meaningful and tangible ways that we care passionately about our young people, it is left to others to influence the conversations on campus during this critical period of identity formation of our students.

 We know that we can act boldly and when we do, we offer a vision that others will see and support. Whether or not you agree with him, Mr. Sheldon Adelson has clearly demonstrated both a passion for what he believes, and the ability to galvanize others into action, raising vast sums of money for his limited college vision. We are equally invested in our children and the future, which rests on their shoulders.   It is time we rise to the occasion and stake a claim on our kids and our future.

 Rabbi David M. Levin

this letter was sent to the leadership of the Reform Movement including CCAR, HUC and URJ

Looking in the mirror- an Elul Reflection

“They hate us,” “they want to hurt us” are two often heard refrains in the Jewish community.  Sadly this view of “the other” has had basis in truth.  Our history has too many incidents of another seeking our persecution or our annihilation.  From this comes a certain wariness of the other.  Xenophobia has roots and fertile soil. But when we view others through this lens, we too can become the very perpetrators of the animosity we find repugnant and threatening in the other.  Instead of searching for ways to coexist, we look for ways to protect ourselves from them.  We isolate them hoping to insulate us.  But instead, we isolate us and foreclose the possibility of building a bridge that might somehow connect us.

So during this time of Elul, the month of introspection leading up to the sacred Yamim Noraim, the High Holidays, let us take the time to look in the mirror at ourselves.  Let us dare to look our own faces in the mirror and see what really is staring back.  The opportunity for peace can exist only if we are first willing to take the risk of learning the truth in ourselves.  Then we can see the truth in the other.  And only then is there a prospect to build together.

On the international stage, we have witnessed in the ongoing Gaza conflict the perpetuating cycle of hatred.  It is very difficult indeed to sit and have a coffee with someone who is dedicated to your eradication.  And certainly there those who are so dedicated.  But has such hatred created in us the belief that everyone on the other side is dedicated to our destruction?  What happens when we begin to speak in sweeping terms that everyone is the implacable enemy?  Arab devolves into an epithet used to describe the enemy, the modern-day Amelek of our Torah, the embodiment of evil.  We lose sight that there are many on the other side also seeking to live their lives peacefully and with hope for a brighter tomorrow for their children.  We lose the ability to reach out and seek a peace for all.

The children can teach us so very much.  Hand-in-Hand schools, Seeds of Peace, Project Harmony-Israel and The Galilee Circus show us how Jew and Non-Jew can live together peacefully sharing and building.  We also see Arab children taught the canards of Anti-Semitism in the public schools of Gaza and other Arab Countries.  And sadly, we see the Jewish Israeli children taught the canards of animus and distrust of Arab neighbors, viewing them as second class citizens without legitimate voice or aspiration.  Hatred is often taught and hatred is a learned response to the world around us. But there is another perspective.   Elul is the time for us to look in the mirror and see ourselves.

Closer to home, these words of introspection apply to our daily lives as well.  So often we find ourselves at odds with family or friends, cross words lead to harsh actions and harsher words and crosser actions in response.  We can be estranged from the very ones with whom we should be closest because of what they said or what they did or what we perceived.  But their actions might be a response to what we have said or done. Pride keeps us apart and the passing time only builds the walls separating us higher and wider.  Might a close look in the mirror reveal something about our true selves that could be the bridge toward understanding?  What could we have said that precipitated their reaction?  And even more importantly, is the lost relationship worth the stand on principles or protected ego?

Things do not change by themselves or even quickly.  We can only hope that both sides will put aside the vitriol to seek another way. If even if they cannot, we still can.  We can control our actions.  We can understand that protracted animosity only perpetuates the status quo, a status quo that leaves us living in anger or fear of brother or neighbor, fear of each moment, paralyzed and unable to more forward.  For our brethren in Israel, the status quo requires the periodic sacrifice of their children in defense of their home; And for us, that we are alienated from others when it is precisely their relationship that we need.  Maybe there is a better way.  Maybe there is a brighter tomorrow for our children and us.  And maybe we can be the ones to begin that process of change so that we all might someday live in peace.

Elul is the time to look in the mirror and see our stark reality and also to realize that today can be the new beginning if we are willing.

Remembering- Seders past and Yizkor

Yizkor Pesach 2014

The Seder Table at my grandparent’s houses was one of those interesting affairs.  The table started in the dining room, made its way past the wall into the living room and hung a right turn into the foyer.  This was unlike my great-aunt on my father’s side, where the table started in the living room, ran through the dining room and into the kitchen, where the kids sat.  Now I realize why the two families never got along; I always thought it was because one was Galitziana and the other Litvak…

At Nanny and Grandpop’s house, my mom’s parents, the table seemed to groan under the weight of the Seder Plates and bowls of salt water and bottles of wine and the platters upon platters of food. The table was laden with a stuffed breast of veal and brisket, homemade gefilte fish and chicken soup with dill and soft matzoh balls that my father mocked because they were not hard enough.  My mom made them like rocks, which according to my father who actually loved them, could be used by the Israeli army as provisions to be eaten or if necessary as a weapon to be thrown.  I recall my hand being slapped by my grandfather as I tried to take the Afikomen a bit too early in the affair.  I eventually would get it, but only after an appropriate amount of time and tries had elapsed according to his calculations.  I recall the mixing of English and Hebrew, the raucous noise of talking, singing, laughing and of course arguing, and sharing the story from the Hagaddah. The three major denominations of Judaism were all represented and all joined together to celebrate this mix of religion and family at the festive table.

I can trace my life through my movement along that table.  I moved from the kids table, where I once chanted the “four questions,” to the main table where I chant the Kiddush, and ultimately now to sit at the head of the table to help lead the Seder.  And there I sat this year, with my wife’s family.

They have their own interesting rituals and traditions, as does each family.  But one is particularly worth noting.  At the conclusion of the Seder, my mother-in-law plugs in the cassette player with a very special recording.  They recorded her mother on one of her last Seders at the table, telling stories sharing recollections of times past and a poem.  My mother-in-law sits transfixed, the voice carries her someplace else as she listens to her mother re-tell the telling of the Exodus.  She drinks in her mother’s words and for those brief moments, Rose Mandel comes alive for her.  That is truly the high point of the Seder.  And why we need to commemorate those we loved this Yizkor.

For Yizkor is our time to remember.  It is our time to reflect back on those we loved.  This is our time to recognize how much they continue to mean to us.  Often they fade into the background.  We are so caught up in the day-to-day things that fill our time.  Kids, food, shopping, the house, the spouse and our own selves, just to name the short list.  But now is our time to remember them.  Those we loved, those who we have lost, often too soon.  Oh to have a few more moments of them.  For when we remember them, we remember the blessings they brought to our lives.  The richness that is ours because of them, the history that is uniquely our individual own because of the way they shaped and influenced our lives.  We remember to offer gratitude for their being in our lives.  We remember their best as a means to help propel us to be our best.  And therefore we remember them as we strive to create the memories for those who come after us as the legacy we leave to them in an unbroken chain of loving and caring.