Thursday, September 25, 2014

Rosh Hashanah Morning 5775: A Congregation Of Learners

Once there was a student who struggled with his learning. (I know, right?) His father watched and grew more and more exasperated. He cajoled, he threatened, he took away every privilege he could think of but nothing seemed to motivate the child, who slipped further and further in his studies. Finally the father brought his son to the teacher. He complained mightily how nothing worked, nothing motivated him, and he expected the teacher to show his son what for. The teacher looked at the student, and said, ‘leave, I’ll take care of this.’ The father, satisfied that his son would learn real discipline left the room. The teacher went over, wrapped his arms around the student, and held him close for a very long time.

For more years than anyone dares count, Myrna Lawrence has been that embracing, calming, loving presence. Every year the students return knowing that Myrna will be there to encourage them, motivate them, and sometimes rebuke them, but always in a loving and supportive way. She has a way of bringing out the best in her students, be it in the classroom or the bar mitzvah lesson. She has calmed the nerves of many an anxious parent wholly focused over their child’s performance, while Myrna redirected that focus quietly and subtly to the child’s growth as a human being and a Jew. She has had the blessing of seeing students who knew her as Mrs. Pollack come back as teachers and as parents of new students themselves. And now, after more than thirty years in education and more than a decade as our Religious School director, Myrna is retiring. It is a rest well earned, and her legacy here is secure, having touched the lives of so many people—parents and children—in our congregation. It is bittersweet, as it places us at a crossroads, a crossroads between who we are and who we want to be.

Change, as Myrna has often joked, is a four-letter word, at least in this congregation. We get nervous about new directions. We are very proud of our history, and, as befits a more than century-old community, often focus on preserving who we are rather than thinking about who we might become. And with those challenges in mind, I feel like this moment provides us an opportunity, and as we begin our search process, we must embrace that opportunity to think about learning in our congregation.

Notice I didn’t say ‘the religious school’ or ‘education’; I said learning; congregational learning, lifelong learning. One of the reasons I came to this congregation is because of its varied and joyful learning experiences: the school and bar mitzvah programs to be sure, but also confirmation, youth group, the adult education programs, brotherhood and sisterhood, our speakers, the choir, and all the independent learning groups scattered throughout the community. Each one is wonderful and engaging, and each one has been cut off from the other, removed into its own peculiar silo separate from the rest of the congregational experience. I know this, and you know it too. I know this by the way many of you began to tune out the minute I mentioned the religious school. ‘What does that have to do with me? My kids are grown, out of the house; I did my part, after all.’ I know this by the way parents and younger empty nesters hear the words ‘adult ed’ or lifelong learning and assume we’re talking about someone else, someone other than them, someone retired, older, with different interests and needs. And I feel this most palpably in those brief moments when those siloes come down; when a confirmation class kid comes to Torah Study, when the 7th grade comes to hear a Brotherhood speaker, when an older person comes to volunteer in a classroom or offers to teach, or just comes to participate in a program supposedly geared toward the parents. In those moments I see a brief image of who we might be: a congregation of learners.

What is a congregation of learners? It’s a congregation that starts from a place of learning. Okay, rabbi, you put the words in a different order, what does that mean? It means that we become a place of curiosity, that doesn’t assume answers but asks questions, indeed a place that omeid b’she’elah, that stands as a question mark, that seeks out opportunities to engage from a place of inquisitiveness.
The obvious way to see what that means is as a place of solid, engaged, and interactive learning experiences. We should ask ourselves, why don’t religious school, adult education, sisterhood, brotherhood and youth group do more joint experiences? I’m not talking about surrendering ownership—each group does different programming that is incredibly successful and meaningful—the brotherhood speakers, the adult education classes, Torah study, books & bagels, etc. And each is good at saying the other, non-obvious participant is welcome. But that’s not the same as cross-pollenization. Why aren’t there more opportunities for the kids and adults to learn together? Why aren’t there more moments of shared learning? Why isn’t there more interactive learning? Not all of us learn with our tuchus in a seat—why isn’t there more art, more movement, more DOING? Why aren’t there more opportunities to learn with the other congregations, or the JCC, in a collaborative fashion? Because kids and adults can’t learn together? Because it’s too hard to find people interested to teach or engage more through movement or tactile learning than discussion? Because we’re just too different from the other congregations? Let me share three experiences that suggest otherwise.
When Beth Ranauto, one of our parents, sat down with me for coffee last fall (a conversation that emerged from my invitation to all religious school families to sit down one on one), she mentioned that she feels her most spiritual when she’s moving—yoga, but also hiking and running out doors, and she said wistfully “I wish Shabbat could be more like that. Why can’t Shabbat be outdoors moving?” To which I responded, why couldn’t it? So we planned a Shabbat hike for a Saturday morning. No Torah study, no service, but a hike with moments of meditation and study, and a Torah reading and Kaddish all built in. We’ve done three now, and each one has seen around 30 people—twice as many as we get on a typical Shabbat morning—and different people than might have come to a conventional Shabbat experience. There was Torah learned, there was Shabbat experienced, but out in the world, allowing us, to borrow a phrase from Abraham Joshua Heschel, to pray with our feet.

At Shavuot this past year, we were exploring how we could make it more meaningful, when the Cantor suggested that, since the holiday is commemorated with a ‘flower offering’ we plant something, maybe at a local nursing home or the like. Sonia Sloan suggested that we reach out to local community gardens that might need volunteers. That led us to a meeting with local leadership (herded by Sonia’s boundless energy), and dozens of people descending on Harlan Elementary school with supplies, tools, food (always food), and energy, to sing some songs and share with each other and with our local community. We got dirty with the students, none of whom were Jewish, and we explored what it meant to connect to a holiday and to Torah in a very different way—living Torah rather than just talking about it. And again, it brought out folks who would never have come to a Shavuot service, or a conventional study session.

Finally, this summer, Beth Emeth, along with Adas Kodesh and Beth Shalom, took a trip to Israel together. 33 participants from three congregations, including 7 children aged 6-14. Total age range was 6-80-something. So many things could have gone wrong, and everything went right. Conservative and Orthodox and Reform got along beautifully. Older participants adopted the kids like they were their own nieces and nephews.  From time to time we split apart—while the adults went to Yad Vashem, the kids went to the biblical zoo, and the like—but there was a sense that we were learning, each at his or her own level, together.

We could say those were unique, one-off experiences, and that’s true. But it also tells me that we can capture that energy and experience it in all our congregational programs. There’s no reason the 80 year old can’t learn with the 8 year old, no reason we can’t turn the learning experience on its head, no reason we can’t engage with our brothers and sisters in the Jewish community and wider community. No reason that we can’t build relationships with each other even as we learn and explore Torah together.

Those examples are a good start. I’m getting excited just talking about those programs and their potential and I hope you are too. But there is more to being a congregation of learners. As I said before, it’s not just about the programs, it’s about the attitude. We must stand not as if we know all the answers but bring forward good questions. That’s true about Torah and Jewish practice, but it should also be true about our interactions with each other. We should be curious about one another, engaged with each other in fellowship. The best study groups are the ones where, like Cheers, everybody knows your name, and people are genuinely concerned for each other’s welfare. While it’s certainly true that nosy is Delaware for “I care about you”, and the more private among us might chafe, part of being a congregation of learners is learning not just about the subject material but each other. I’m not speaking about more programs or organized projects. I’m talking about noticing when a participant isn’t there and calling her up to make sure she’s okay. I’m talking about offering rides to one another. I’m talking about sharing photos of grandkids and stories about trips and asking for help with work or the number of a favorite babysitter. I’m talking about being genuinely interested in one another’s welfare.

What does that have to do with learning trope or Talmud or listening to a speaker? When we engage with one another, when we’re curious about each others’ lives, that’s where trust happens. And when we trust one another, that’s when we can go deeper in to learning—we can encourage each other to challenge and push and get beyond our limits. That’s when we become a real community in the fullest sense of the word.

So what would that look like? I’m not entirely sure, but let me paint a picture for you. Imagine for a moment a congregation filled with opportunities to learn: weekly Torah studies, ongoing learning experiences, and short or even episodic encounters, classes for children and parents and adults, Jews and non-Jews, led by clergy, by laypeople, by teens. Imagine some of those offerings being collaborative, where instead of one person at the front of the room telling people what and how to learn, the participants shared their best selves and supported one another. Imagine if there were online materials—not just schedules but articles, videos, interactive materials—that were posted that supported those experiences. Imagine if all those learning experiences were held together with a theme that stretched from religious school to adult ed to youth group, sisterhood and brotherhood. Imagine if they were open to the community, and we cross-listed our programs as well as learning experiences throughout the community with our own. Imagine if there were opportunities for adults to learn with the kids and kids—especially those post bar mitzvah or confirmation—to come learn with the adults. Imagine if, through these experiences, we grew close to one another, building relationships, friendships between and among generations. Imagine if these experiences led us to build deeper understanding within ourselves, that what we learn cultivates in us different ways of interacting with the world and how we see our Judaism. Now imagine this vision was being shaped and guided by a person, a director of lifelong learning, who was knowledgeable, loved this congregation fiercely, and loved the learners who are a part of it. And by learners, it is understood that everyone in the congregation, from the newborn babe to the 100-year old great grandfather, is a learner. And loved and embraced each learner the way Myrna does, speaking to them in the way they needed, embracing them for who they are and gently nudging them to go further, deeper, to challenge themselves.

It’s a lofty vision, in some ways not so different from what we are already doing this year and previous years, and in some ways very, very different indeed. And we as a congregation are going to be looking for someone who can create this vision, enhance it, make it their own, and put it into practice with love of Torah and love of Israel and love of each of us, every single one of us. I know we can find that someone. We have a search committee, led by Susan Detwiler, and a leadership team filled with competent people, loving people, knowledgeable people, each committed to what’s best for us as a congregation. They’ll be looking for someone who is organized, thoughtful, visionary, knowledgeable, a mensch. They’ll be looking for someone who is most likely clergy, a rabbi, who can engage the tradition and be a presence on the bimah even as he or she is a presence in the classroom and engage the individual, the family, the community. They’ll be looking for someone who can lead us to be a congregation of learners, looking to engage with each other and create loving community with one another.

I can say without hyperbole that this search will be one of the most important things we do as a congregation. It points us in a new direction, and has the potential to be transformative. This is more than just a new school director, or keeping our kids engaged; this is about nourishing each and every one of our neshamot, our souls. This is about each of us being Myrna, the teacher that embraces all. This is how we will continue to serve the Delaware Jewish community for generations to come.

Rabbi Eliezer said: In the light that God created on the first day, a person could see from one end of the world to the other. When God foresaw the misdeeds of future generations, God hid this light from them, reserving it for the righteous of the future.

Asked the disciples: "where was it hidden?"
He replied, "In the Torah."
They asked, "If so, will the righteous find something of this hidden light when they study Torah?"
He replied, "They will find and continue to find."
They asked, "If so, what should the righteous do when they find some of this hidden light in the Torah?"
He replied, "They should reveal it in the way they live." (From Martin Buber's Or HaGanuz)

The light is there, waiting for us to reveal it—through our learning, and through our actions, through our sharing. We will reveal that light as we pursue lifelong learning, a director of lifelong learning, and may we find and continue to find in that light not only Torah, but each other. Amen. 

Erev Rosh Hashanah: We Still Have Hope

An Arab shepherd is searching for his goat on Mount Zion and on the opposite mountain I am searching for my little boy. An Arab shepherd and a Jewish father both in their temporary failure. Our voices meet above the Sultan's Pool in the valley between us. Neither of us wants the child or the goat to get caught in the wheels of the terrible Had Gadya* machine.
Afterward we found them among the bushes and our voices came back inside us, laughing and crying.

I don’t like flying. I am, honestly, afraid of flight. The idea of getting into an aluminum tube held aloft by physics alone sends my heart racing. It’s been like this for a long time. The only thing that calms me down is reciting t’fillat haderech, the travelers’ prayer, and reciting psalms that begin ‘shir Hama’alot’—a song of ascents. And when I am absolutely convinced I am going to become a statistic, I plead that I have too much more work to do.

This is an irrational fear, one rooted in nothing more than my own anxiousness. Today, I have other fears that, once upon a time, I would have thought irrational, even inconceivable.

Today I fear for Jews around the world and at home being attacked exclusively because they are Jews. I fear individuals and groups attacking Jews or those believed to be Jews, with the express purpose of doing them harm because they are Jews. I am afraid that our People is under assault in a way we haven’t been in 70 years.

Today I fear for the survival of the Jewish state, a fear my generation has never known. I fear for its survival against an insidious evil that is sweeping across the Middle East. I fear inaction or worse, wrong action from a West that has lost the ability to differentiate right from wrong, up from down.
Today I fear that well-meaning people of faith and without faith, who see suffering and want to accept easy morality tales, who subconsciously continue to use Jews and the Jewish State as the blank canvas to cast all they find repugnant in their own countries, are giving succor to anti-Semitism. In doing so, organizations like the Presbyterian Church USA that have so often been our natural partners in social justice are needlessly unspooling decades of good will and good work that may never be repaired, certainly not in this generation.

I fear that Israel, in its grief and anxiety for the future, may be losing its moral core. I fear that in mourning children, Israel and Israelis are lashing out with rage. That in defending itself righteously, voices of intolerance and hate in Israel are gaining strength, and in supporting settlement building by fringe elements, Israel is losing the ability to speak truth to power.

Today I fear that children in this country are not safe. Jewish children, black children, white children, are not safe. We have allowed our fears to isolate us and violence to tear communities apart. A person is shot blocks from the synagogue and no one says anything; even the residents of the apartment complex are too concerned to get to work to worry about the blood stains on the street. We look at each other with suspicion, and assume the worst; of our teachers, police officers, of people different from us, of people we’ve known for years.

I fear the voices that say it’s too late to save our world: we are too violent, our political system too broken, our climate too polluted, our world too competitive.

I am even afraid for me and my colleagues, rabbis who want to speak out about Israel from a nuanced and thoughtful perspective, but are convinced they will be shouted down, or ignored, or even have their job threatened because they are perceived as having the wrong stance on the Jewish State.
And it’s not only my fears. I speak with teens who are afraid about what has been happening in Israel, who don’t understand why their friends don’t see what Hamas is doing. Teens who are combating anti-Semitism in places like Ridgefield, New Jersey and Pine Bush, New York, places with large Jewish populations where nevertheless, kids are assaulted and verbally abused and swastikas are painted on walls and school administrators respond too often with a shrug.

Friends, there is a generation growing up with fear, who are increasingly convinced of the bleakness of the future in a way we haven’t seen in some time. They are afraid, and that fear is partly our doing. We have become paralyzed ourselves. We don’t know how to act, we aren’t sure of the right steps to take. We don’t want to do the wrong thing for fear we will fail. And we are told again and again that there is no hope—there are no partners for peace, that Europe, to quote Sylvan Schwartzman, is “a bloody trap.” That people are the way they are, that injustice is a natural part of the world, that the only thing people respond to is strength, and by strength we mean force. We sacrifice our hope and moral compass to defeat that which is hopeless and morally bankrupt. We fight fire with fire.

Tomorrow morning, you and I will read a story about a goat and a child; we will read a story about sacrifice in the hills of Jerusalem. We will read a story we call the Akedah—the binding, but perhaps should be called the Nisa—the Test, when Abraham takes his son Isaac (though some say Ishmael), his only, his beloved, his first born, to offer on the mountains of Moriah, the mountain later called Zion. It is a test I fear we are still taking in Jerusalem, one still involving children, sacrifice, and our temporary failures.

It would be so easy for us to give up. To give up on the well-meaning critics of Israel: the Presbyterians and the college students and the Europeans. It would be easy to give up on the Palestinians themselves, their hearts clearly filled with hate and rage and fear. It would be easy to give up on Israel, even; to divorce our love for the Jewish people from the Jewish homeland. Perhaps it’s even better to tune out the entire Middle East, to change the channel whenever news about Syria or Iraq comes on.

It would be easy for us to give up hope that things may ever change, to harden our hearts, to assume the worst, to let our anger and fear and angst rule us when we talk about Israel. That may be the hardest part of the test we face.

Friends, just as Isaac was bound, so are we bound. Just as Abraham was tested, so are we now tested, and while the answers elude us, we must keep at it with our hearts open, or we will surely fail.
Now is not the time to give up hope in a Jewish state. Now is not the time to give up hope in the Israeli citizen craving peace—perhaps not Shalom, wholeness, but at least sheket—quiet. Now is not the time to give up hope on the Palestinian who nurses his hurts and wounds but is still has a place in those hills. Now is not the time to give up hope on our neighbors and the non-Jews in our lives and assume each would wear a red armband were this the 1940s.

When I speak of hope, I don’t speak of blind faith, or naiveté. I don’t pretend that Gaza will suddenly turn into Norway, that Hamas will magically become Canadians. Israel is in a tough neighborhood. Nor will I pretend and wish away the issues internal in Israel; while the majority of Israelis want the Jewish state to be also a democratic state, we have members of the government who are uninterested in nuance. While most Israelis were horrified by the murder of Muhammad Abu Kheder, too many members of the government or political parties within government acted sanguine. And this is not to say anything of the hostility from the settlers in Hebron toward native Arabs. While most Israelis want a two-state solution, many of them are wrestling with the thought that it may be a one-state solution, with another failed state or no-state on their border. All of this in a larger picture of ISIS, the Syrian civil war, Iran, and an intensity of anti-Semitism not seen in the postwar period. When I say hope, I recognize that it’s awfully hard to be hopeful.

Nevertheless, we must have hope. The same hope that Abraham carried in his heart as he brought Isaac, his son, to be sacrificed on a mountain in the desert. We read tomorrow as Abraham says to Isaac, “God will see to the sheep for the sacrifice.”

We must have hope, and we must act on that hope. Hope, not force is the remedy to fear. Hope, not rage, will give us the strength to respond. Not grief, not anger, not even certainty, but hope.
Hope gives us the strength to respond to our non-Jewish friends to show them that Israel is neither an apartheid state nor should be the source of their angst. Hope gives us the will to stand up to the anti-Semite with calm and grace. Hope gives us the power to reach out to the stranger and build community, to plant roots together and secure a future together. Hope makes the sacrifice worthwhile.

We must have hope and act on that hope—in the streets, in our lives, all the time—if we are to see justice done in this world, to see bigotry finally banished not only from public discourse but private thought, to see the world we imagined for our children. We must have hope to see a new religion born on the hill, of freedom and righteousness and equality for all. For if we don’t, if we give in to fear, then the sacrifice will be our children after all, and we will set their future ablaze.
We must remember that Israel’s anthem is “Hatikvah”, the Hope, a hope that has sustained us for millennia. And in singing about that hope, we focus on the wrong words. We emphasize lihiyot am chofshi b’artzeinu, eretz tzion yeriushalayim: to be a free people in our land, the land of Tzion, Jerusalem. That is what we sing the loudest, what we sing twice.  But the most important line is before that, the one responding to the Prophet Ezekiel: Od lo avda tikvateinu: we haven’t given up our hope. We mustn’t give up our hope. We may not give up our hope, for to give it up means to give up on Israel, on our Jewishness, on the world, on each other.

I have read that Israeli soldiers, on their way into Gaza, sang the Hasidic song Kol Ha’Olam Kulo: all the world is a narrow bridge; the important thing is not to be afraid. We must not be afraid. More than that, we must have hope, hope to see us through the fear, hope to see us through our temporary failure, hope so that our voices return to us, laughing and crying. Od lo avda tikvateinu, we haven’t lost our hope. May it always give us strength, strength to overcome fear. Amen. 

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

#BlogElul Day 29: Return

Shana Tovah All!

#BlogElul Day 28: Give

A basic principle of the laws of property is that “matters [that are only] within the heart are of no significance” (literally: “are not matters”) (See T.B. Kiddushin 49b). If your intention is serious, if you really plan something, say it (italics mine). As long as man has not confessed, his ‘repentance’ is not considered complete. He may think in his heart: “From now on I shall observe the Sabbath, I’ll close my store at the start of the Sabbath, I shall be straight and honest in all my dealings and cheat no one, I’ll study Torah at regular and set times.” All these are commendable thoughts, but as long as they are not expressed verbally, they do not comprise an act of repentance. Confession is the climax of the process of repentance; only after confession has been made can repentance be effective… 
Thus, according to Maimonides, confession is the concretization of repentance. Speech, the verbalizing of confession, endows the thought of repentance with reality. It is the climax and final chord of the long and tortuous internal process of repentance. 
-From On Repentance: The Thought and Oral Discourses of Rabbi Joseph Dov Soloveitchik By Pinchas Peli

We think of the act of repentance as work, and in many ways, it is; if we're doing it right, if we're really turning within ourselves, turning to those around us, and turning to God, we are exhausting ourselves Spiritually, emotionally and physically. We come away from the experience transformed and, like birth, the effort leaves us drained.

But also like birth, repentance is an act of tremendous generosity. When we verbalize our intent, we are giving ourselves the chance to take our life back rather than let it stew in the sin we have committed. We are taking ourselves seriously, as capable of transformation and renewal, and not forever defined by the hurtful action or word. When we ask for forgiveness, we are giving ourselves over in humility to the person we have offended. And when we forgive, truly forgive, letting go of the offense, we release the person from the sin they have committed.

In these last moments of preparation, think and reflect of who you need to be generous with, and how you can ask for generosity for yourself. What do you need to do to make that happen?

Monday, September 22, 2014

#BlogElul Day 27: Intent

At night, alone, I just sat and waited. Once again I found myself contemplating what I should be doing to do something of worth. Everything I came up with seemed irreverent or irrelevant.
--Patti Smith, Just Kids

 Saturday morning in Torah study , as we were discussing Nitzavim and the idea of having one time a year to stand and account for ourselves, one of the participants said, “but shouldn't we do that all the time?”

Of course the answer is yes; we shouldn't wait until Rosh Hashanah for cheshbon hanefesh, the accounting of the soul. Of course we shouldn't wait until Yom Kippur for tshuvah, the turning that returns us to God, ourselves and each other. At the time, I said that, despite that fact, most of us wait until the last minute. We’re spiritual procrastinators, afraid to look ourselves in the mirror, afraid to make a full accounting. As with much else in life, we need a deadline, and the first ten days of a New Year are as good a time as any.

The Days Of Awe raise the question of our intentions. It’s one thing to go through life with our only inner monologue justifying our actions, our choices. It’s one thing to avoid or escape self-reflection. It’s another thing entirely to carve time out to really listen carefully to the still, small voice within.

Rosh Hashanah comes and our intentions are questioned as much as our actions. Did we mean to do the right thing, or to do the convenient thing? Do we mean to do something of worth, or something of self-satisfaction? Surely our actions require reflection as well, but without proper intention—focused intention—our actions, no matter how praiseworthy, will fail to nourish our spirit. 

#BlogElul Day 26: Hope

How can we educate and empower a generation of Jews to take hold of their tradition? Can we shift from a mentality of survival to one of meaning? How will we recognize and meet the overwhelming demand for an engaged Jewish life? Can we imagine a new Jewish world?
 Ellie Kaufner, Empowered Judaism
Where do you find meaning? Where is it located? Within or without? And how does it relate to your Jewishness?

Saturday, September 20, 2014

#BlogElul Day 25: Begin

At the edge
Of a world
Beyond my eyes
I know Exile
Is always
Green with hope-
The river
We cannot cross
Flows forever
-"Promised Land" by Samuel Menashe

Where do we begin? How? The New World always seems so distant, so far from where we are, so hard to reach given what we think we're capable of. But it's beautiful, isn't it? The idea we have of who we might yet be. Perhaps we never get there. Perhaps we can never truly be that person, but we look out across the river at him, at her, and we yearn.

And we begin to become that person, ever so slowly.