Friday, January 8, 2016

Parashat Va'era: Star Wars, names and identity

Is it safe, finally, to talk about Star Wars? I have to say, I was amazed at how well the world did in not spoiling the movie. It took us a week to go see it after it was released—yes, my 18-year old self is disappointed—but it was worth the wait and no one managed to step on and thwart the surprises in the film.
And the film was a ton of fun. It was great to be able to take my 8-year old to see Star Wars the way my parents took me to see the first movies as a kid. It was wonderful to see these characters, like old friends, return to the screen. I loved the new characters, the effects, pretty much everything about the experience of seeing the movie.
And for me, there was a lot of Torah in the film, especially around identity and names. Finn, the Stormtrooper, doesn’t have a name, or a background, and needs to be given one by the pilot he rescues. Rey the scavenger girl’s name may be made up, disguising her identity. Kylo Ren is, of course, Ben Solo, Han and Leia’s child, but in taking a new name he distances himself from his family and the light, and in a quiet but powerful moment, when Rey and Finn meet Han Solo and ask if he is “the” Han Solo, he replies, sadly, “I used to be”.
These moments pass quickly in the film but they raise questions for us as well: what is our identity? What is our ‘name’? Or, more accurately, what are our names, our roles? How do we see ourselves viz-a-viz others? Do we allow others to name us and does that naming define us? Or do we choose our own self-definitions?
These are the questions that begin our Torah portion. We begin with God speaking, saying to Moses: “I am YHVH (the unpronounceable name of God). I appeared to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob as El Shaddai, but I did not make Myself known to them by my name YHVH.” Now, leaving aside the textual issue with this—for we know at least Abraham calls out God by name—what are we to make of this moment, this revelation? What is going on with God’s identity in this scene, and God’s relationship with Israel? Rashi points out: the text does not say ‘I did not make this name known to them’, but ‘I did not make MYSELF known to them by that name’. That is, I did not make myself known to them in My aspect of utter truthfulness and reliability, which is represented by the tetragrammaton, For I made promises but did not fulfill them.”
That’s a lot to unpack, but let’s put it this way:  by changing the name, God is changing the relationship, the dynamic, between God and Israel. Before, Israel’s patriarchs and matriarchs were getting a shallower, less authentic experience of God. Now, their descendants are getting the real deal, and because of that, Israel and God are going to interact differently than they had before. You change the name, you change the dynamic, change the interaction, change the relationship. You see the other differently.

So a week ago many of us made Resolutions. I know, New Year’s was really four months ago, back at Rosh Hashanah, and we should have made our resolutions then, but for some of us, January is when it happens. And for most folks, resolutions are all about changing—either ourselves or our relationships. Which means we need to look carefully at our names, our identities: in our families, our work, our circle of friends, our community. Do we choose a new name in order to hide our true selves behind a mask like Kylo Ren? Do we create a new name and a new future for ourselves, like Finn? Do we mourn a past identity like Han? Or are we discovering something new about ourselves like Rey? Only we can answer those questions, and in this new secular year, I hope we each find a way to share our truest names, our truest selves, as God does.  

Friday, December 18, 2015

Parashat Vayigash: In Protest (or Why Dreams Must Be Legal)

I was heartened to see that Nnamdi Chukwuocha and Albert Mills were named as the new poets laureate for the state of Delaware. As governor Markell noted in his announcement, this is an unusual but powerful appointment for two reasons. First, because they are the first identical twin brothers named as co-poets laureate, which gives them a unique voice and style, a kind of poetic duet; but more importantly, because their message is a very different one than one expects from official poets. Their expertise is not in bucolic landscapes, and while they do write slice-of-life pieces they aren’t exactly what you’d expect. They are born and raised in Wilmington, and as such, write about some of the deepest, most unnerving problems we have in our city. A beautiful example is their performance at Def Poetry Jam called “Dreams Are Illegal In The Ghetto” which is an absolute must-see. It does what poetry is supposed to do, as Samuel Johnson reminds us: it describes what is but with an eye toward what ought to be. It lifts up the reality of now, not to accept, but to teach, to educate, to challenge the status quo.

Isn’t that what we do as Jews as well? To quote Rabbi Jonathan Sacks: “Judaism begins not in wonder that the world is, but in protest that the world is not as it ought to be” (The Letter In The Scroll p. 57). And we see that clearly on display in this week’s Torah portion. Joseph, hiding his identity, threatens to take Benjamin away from his brothers, the same ones who banished him so many years before, but Judah, not recognizing Joseph in the Egyptian Vizier before him, challenges the injustice, protests Benjamin’s apparent imprisonment, and offers up himself instead. In reality we see two protests: Joseph against what his brothers were (heartless, cruel, jealous) and Judah against this Egyptian kangaroo court. This is who we are. It is baked into our conscience: we are those who strive with beings Human and Divine and prevail.

This is what Nnamdi and Albert are doing, and what we need to do as well. We know our city has terrible problems, including problems of gun violence. And the legislature has offered help, money to put more police on the streets in high crime areas. It is not a panacea, and it is not enough; at best it is a salve, at worst a band-aid, and a temporary one at that. But it is a start, it is something. And so far Mayor Williams, for whatever reason, has not acted to accept the help, to accept the money. I have heard from Attorney-General Matt Denn, who has been advocating for community policing and doing what he can to put it into place, and right now his efforts are frustrated. Yes, there is political grandstanding. Yes, it feels like stepping on toes and it’s clumsy. BUT IT IS STILL HELP.

I don’t care who the mayor is, and I will not tell you who to vote for; I care that our citizens don’t die. I care that our police is given the tools to do the job that they need to do. I have sent a letter to our mayor urging him to accept the help, to not just accept the status quo of what is but see what we could be. I would ask you, humbly, to do the same. 

We have a voice and because of that we have an obligation to use it, to challenge what is as Judah challenges, as Joseph challenges, as Jews have always challenged. Because if we don’t, if we accept, then it is as if we sentence Benjamin to imprisonment; it means we accept that dreams are illegal in the ghetto. And I will not accept that.  

If you would like to respond to the Mayor, please write him at 
Office of the MayorLouis L. Redding City/County Building800 N. French StreetWilmington, Delaware 19801
Here's a sample letter: 
Dear Mayor Williams:
Jewish tradition teaches us that we must not “stand idly by while your neighbor’s blood is shed” (Leviticus 19:16). In keeping with the insight of this teaching, and as a concerned citizen, I ask that you and the chief of police provide the information required for the state to begin releasing $1.5 million in funds that are available to expand foot patrol and vehicle policing in the city of Wilmington. I urge you to work with the state legislature, attorney-general and governor in making our beautiful city a place that is safe for all.
Name and address

Friday, November 27, 2015

Vayishlach and The Blessing of Gratitude

A Hasidic story tells of a young man who presented his teacher with the gift of water from a spring. The teacher tasted it, smiled, and thanked the student for the sweet-tasting water. His assistant, however, tasted it and spat it out. “Why did you say it was sweet when it’s bitter?” he asked. “Ah,” said the teacher, “you only tasted the water. I tasted the gift.” (Hat tip to Rabbi Amy Scheinerman's Ten Minutes of Torah)
Yesterday was a day to give thanks: thanks for what we have, for who we are, for where we are and what we do with our lives. To be sure, many of us have our challenges and struggles, but it is a moment to appreciate our gifts, whatever they may be. It is a moment to choose to be sated in our lives; to fulfill the words of Pirkei Avot: "Who is rich? The person who is satisfied with his portion." We see it reflected in our portion this week as well. Jacob, on his return home, has sent gift after gift with the intent of mollifying his brother Esau, who he imagines to still be in a rage, bent on his destruction. But when the brothers finally meet, Esau says simply, "I have enough".

The idea of 'enough' is a powerful one in our society--and on a day--of conspicuous consumption. There is a peace with 'enough', and even a joy. But let it be one we hold onto. Let's taste the gift, not just the water, and in that way, count ourselves always rich and blessed. And if we strive for more, let us strive for more opportunities to give Thanks, more opportunities to share it with others. Amen.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Guest Blog Post by BESTY president Jason Kramer!

Jason Kramer is a senior in high school, a Kutz and Camp Harlam alumnus, out youth group president and an amazing teen leader. Recently he attended the URJ biennial with me and our Congregation Beth Emeth delegation. He shared this blog post on his experience.

I am a two time URJ Kutz Camp Alumni, President of my Temple Youth Group, BESTY, and have been to every single regional and North American NFTY made available to me. My entire focus at the time circulated around the youth. Engage the youth, get the youth to go to youth group events, get the youth to go to regional events, youth, youth, youth, youth. Although it was slightly overwhelming, I have never regretted any of this because I have been influenced tremendously by them. It is not because of the youth, though, that I was convinced to go to the URJ Biennial. It was because I was going to be treated as an equal.

    The URJ Biennial is the most exciting five days in the reform Jewish movement. Over five thousand people came to Orlando, Florida to learn, pray, and interact with each other. Biennial is NOT a NFTY event. It is not planned by a regional board and it is not dominated by teens. We, the youth, made up about five percent of the participants at Biennial. While these all seem like put offs, these reasons are what made it so great.

Biennial had been a prevailing thought in my head since last may, when I was asked by my regional President if I would be attending. I had heard of it before and had looked into it enough to know that I would not financially be able to go, but not enough to read into what happened there. What I hadn’t realized was that the entire platform of the URJ was: Moving the Youth Forward. Literally, all of Biennial would be about ways to help the youth and increase our involvement in the URJ, not just NFTY. At the time though, I had a lot of other things on my mind and Biennial fell into the back of my head.

    As the big week(end) grew closer, I started to hear questions from my friends. Would I go? Would I be there? I can’t wait to see you at Biennial! I began to do more research again. While looking for more information that might be able to convince my mom, I discovered there would be no NFTY track. There was no immediate focus on the youth (or so I thought). I knew Biennial was traditionally for adults, but in the past there had been a section for teens. Why they changed it this year was perplexing to me, but I accepted it and hoped that adults would see me as an equal not a subordinate because of my age.

    During BESTY’s first youth group board meeting of the year, I started talking to my Rabbi about Biennial. Right then and there he made everything clear. Biennial this year had no aim at the teens because the Biennial Committee wanted us, the teens, to be more engaged with the greater community. No longer were we to be isolated from the adults who could learn from a new generation, and we to learn from their life experience. No longer would we truly be treated like teens, but like adults who had something valuable to offer.

    This is why I ended up going to Biennial. Because as a teen, I had the same opportunities as everyone else to learn, talk, and be a part of something bigger than NFTY. I was a part of the URJ.

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Some Reflections On Biennial

I'm writing this on the flight home from Orlando, traveling back with my family next to me. Normally when I  go to the URJ Biennial, I come back refreshed and renewed, having connected with colleagues and friends from around North America and beyond. This time is no different, with an additional sense of vitality and excitement for the work our Reform Movement and our congregation is doing. 

My head and heart are still swimming as I reflect on the experience I and our delegation shared. As I look at the texts and handouts and review the videos from various sessions it's clear that it's going to take me some time to unpack everything, but I have already have some initial thoughts. 

If you've never been to a biennial (this was my 10th) it may be hard to appreciate how important this gathering of some 5000 Reform Jews of all ages is. To be sure, it is a chance to learn best practices, compare notes with other board members, rabbis and educators, learn from URJ staff and HUC faculty, and celebrate Shabbat joyfully and musically. But so much more happens as well.

To illustrate why Biennial is important: I want to share with you a few of the things I'm bringing home on this morning flight. I'll be using the same rubrics that the URJ suggested on a notepad they passed out at sessions: Inspirational thought or idea, Partners in this Sacred Work, and Next Action Steps. 

I. Inspirational Thoughts or Ideas

The Power of Welcoming: so much of this (and the last) biennial was about the work of Outreach and Audacious Hospitality . Often, it seems as if we think about how to be welcoming as a one-time event, and the work of outreach as a combination of simple gestures. What's been increasingly clear is the need to always be looking at how we welcome others, regardless of circumstance, identity or background. It's not enough to say we're welcoming, and it's not merely for our survival as a congregation (more on that later) but because diversity makes us stronger. We ourselves brought 13 delegates, ranging in age from late teens to late 80s and everything in between, including those born and raised Reform, those who chose Reform having grown up in other movements, and those who were not born Jewish but chose Judaism and, as result, chose us. This reflected the diversity of attendees. The Resolution on welcoming Transgender individuals and the change in how we as congregations support the movement financially should not be merely a moment of kvelling  but also an opportunity for reflection. To whit: 

1. How do we make LGBTQ individuals feel welcome? Can we change our bathrooms to be more inclusive, our paperwork, the way we talk about involvement at the congregation? 

2. Is everyone able to learn, worship and participate at Beth Emeth regardless of ability? How can we do more to make that feasible? 

3. It is clear that we are doing a lot of things right when it comes to Stewardship: our fair share dues structure does a lot to guarrentee the dignity of others. We have a confidential process with no forms, no request for income tax or pay stubs, and (hopefully) no judgment. And we have multiple opportunities for our leadership to connect with our membership. But could we be doing more? Could we flatten our levels even further? Could we move toward a completely voluntary giving structure (while making clear what it costs per person to run the congregation)? Could we use our High Holiday calls to solicit feedback and make sure people are as connected as possible with their community? 

II. Partners in our Sacred Work

I am endlessly amazed and inspired by the work our movement is doing. This year, rather than offer mere babysitting, Biennial had daycamp (based on our own Harlam Day Camp). It was a great opportunity for people to see what camp does for our kids, but it was also a reminder of how our camps are not merely destinations; they are partners. Likewise learning from my former HUC professors reminded me not only of the joy of scholarship but how much HUC has to offer aside from degree programs. What opportunities for partnership with movement organizations are we leaving on the table? How can we leverage camp professionals and programming, and the faculty of the College-Institute to do more for our congregants? With HUC, there are online and distance learning opportunities designed for laypeople that we could include in our adult ed programming; with camp, I know that they will provide help and support for things like Purim Carnivals, but also showcase how we can reimagine the work we do. 

This Biennial also had more overlap with the Women of Reform Judaism and NFTY than ever before, which begs the question: rather than see our auxillaries (Sisterhood, Brotherhood, the Chavurot, BESTY) as separate, related entities, can we start to think of their work as our collective work? The partnering we're all doing for adult ed is a good example; could we do even more? 

And who says we have to do everything on our own? There are natural allies, such as those churches we've worked with in the past, plus organizations like Family Promise. And there are those synagogues here in town that we partner with from time to time. But we should also look to our friends in Philadelphia and its suburbs for help and support, and to share programming initiatives with. 

III. Next Steps: 

Over the next several months, we will be speaking as a delegation, as a leadership, and as a staff about what we can implement short term, how we can focus our resources appropriately, how we can partner with those around us. But most importantly, we--I--will need your help to think about these different ideas and values and how to make them real. Will you join me? 

I'll be talking more about my Biennial experience this Friday. Hope to see you there!

CORRECTION: Rabbi Koppel is preaching this week, but PS stay tuned!

Friday, October 30, 2015

20 Years Since We Lost Rabin: Parashat Vayera

Do you remember where you were 20 years ago? Do you remember where you were when you heard that Yitzhak Rabin had been shot, that he was assassinated? I remember. I was in my dorm room, at college. I remember two thinks specifically from when Rabin was assassinated.
One, I remember thinking “please, let it not be an Arab.” It’s hard to remember back then but I remember, there was violence and terrorism, incitement, hostility, all in the wake of Oslo, and all I could think, with my heart in my throat, was please, don’t let it have been an Arab.
I also remember going to Hillel for what was supposed to be a memorial vigil but ended up being the rabbi and Hillel director talking about heaven knows what. It was boring. It was meaningless.  It was clear that he had no idea what to do or how to make sense of what had happened. I had hoped for meaning, for hope, and instead got senselessness.
That senselessness has become the byword for a Rabinless world. SInat Chinam, senseless hatred. It’s not just the hatred, the sinah, that continues to define our era, but that it is chinam. Since Rabin was taken from us 20 years ago this week we see evidence of that Sinat Chinam everywhere: in the language of politicians, in the actions of settlers burning down homes and attacking rabbis, to say nothing of the murderous rage of Palestinians who had hoped in Oslo but were betrayed by their own leadership.
Lots of folks have been writing this week wondering what would have been if Rabin had lived. The Israeli Hip-hop group Dag HaNachash wrote a whole song about it. The truth is, I don’t know what would have happened. Perhaps we would be in the same place we are in. One thing is clear since we have lost him, as Asher Schecter wrote in Ha’Aretz last year, we have not had political leadership that was willing to challenge the status quo, willing to be proactive instead of reactive. Rabin was nothing if not decisive and clear-eyed; would that we had such leadership today.
In this week’s Torah portion, Vayera, which includes the binding and near sacrifice of Isaac, we tend to focus our attention at the build-up of that terrible moment: the journey, the walk up the mountain, the flash of the knife. We lose our focus once the angel stops his hand, but something interesting happens. Abraham lifts up his eyes, and then sees the ram. It’s not just that he sees the ram—he has to change his perspective; he has to see clearly, lift his eyes.

Our eyes have been downcast since we lost Rabin; and we have moved in a fog, acting as Abraham does, as if we don’t have a choice. We need to lift them up. Our vision of what might be is dimmed. It’s been twenty years too long. We need to look up. We need to lift our eyes again. May we have the strength to do so.