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. 

Friday, October 23, 2015

Lech Lecha: Our Shared Story

There’s a famous, apocryphal story about Ezer Weisman that when he was president of Israel he invited the Grand Mufti of the Waqf, which oversees the Temple Mount, or the Harm Al-Sharif, and the Chief Rabbi of Israel, to his official residence in Jerusalem. While there he asked them which of Abraham’s sons was sacrificed on the Temple Mount, The Noble Sanctuary, Isaac or Ishmael? The Chief Rabbi naturally said Isaac, and the Grand Mufti naturally said Ishmael, each citing their texts and their opinions, the conversation growing ever more heated. Finally, Weizman put a stop to it and, with a twinkle in his eye declared “you’re both wrong! It was a ram that was sacrificed up there!”
Today we see a similar debate taking place, only now the language is even more incendiary, and the results catastrophic. On the one hand the Palestinian leadership is stoking rumors online that Israel seeks to destroy the Al-Aqsa mosque and ‘Judaize’ the Temple Mount; rumors that are leading to young men and women, in their teens and twenties, flinging themselves with knives and guns at Israeli civilians to attempt to murder them. These are not just Palestinians—many of these kids are Israeli Arabs, with Israeli rights. These rumors have also led to attempts at the United Nations to declare the Western Wall, Joseph’s tomb (which was set ablaze) and other Jewish sites as Muslim, leading many on the Israeli right to declare that this is proof that the Palestinians don’t want coexistence, they want murder. This has led to Israelis buying guns to protect themselves, barring Israeli Arabs from working in schools in some communities, erecting temporary barriers in some neighborhoods, the mob-murder of an Eritrean immigrant in Beer Sheba, and Bibi Netanyahu putting his entire lower half into his mouth, declaring that the Grand Mufti of the 1930s was responsible for the Holocaust, resulting in Germany saying “actually, that was us. Sorry.”
There are two powerful, compelling narratives going on here, but really they’re one. And the narratives begin this week with parashat lech lecha. Avram, dwelling in Ur, already an old man, is told by God to go to some unnamed land, the land God will show him, and will bless him. His descendants will inherit that land and all the families of the earth will bless themselves by him. It is an audacious story; to uproot one’s entire life to journey to an unknown place for an impossible blessing, but Avram does so, and thus fulfills his name, becoming the father of many.
It is cliché at this point to note that Avraham is the father of us and the Muslims, the kind of reference one brought up in the heady days of the Oslo accords. But it’s cliché because it’s true. It’s a shared narrative and a shared land. As Sarah Tuttle-Singer wrote in the Times of Israel last week: we’re not going anywhere, and they’re not going anywhere.
Right now the World Zionist Congress is taking place. Thanks to our efforts, 40% of the delegates are from ARZA, our American Reform Zionist Association, who ran on a platform of moving peace forward. They are meeting and working toward that effort now. There are voices on both sides—drowned out by incitement—who are calling for peace and coexistence. We need to everything we can to lift those voices up, in spite of our anger and our fear. Not Pollyanna ideas or foolish notions that the Middle East will suddenly be Northern Europe, but peace and prosperity on the ground nevertheless.

There was an article in Ha’aretz this week citing several studies that pointed to how the Palestinians, Jews and Druze and Israeli Bedouin all share common genetic ancestry; we are closest to each other. There may not have been an Avraham as appears in the Torah, but we come from one ancestor. We are all mishpocha. So were Cain and Abel. So it’s up to us to decide whether we want to use our shared story to justify harm to one another, or to uplift one another. And we have to make that choice again and again, otherwise it won’t be a ram sacrificed, but all of our children. Amen. 

Friday, October 9, 2015

Genesis: For the sake of beginnings

Rabbi David Wolpe posted a question online this week: Does it ever seem that those with guilty consciences are good people and evildoers feel innocent?

I’m not sure how to answer the question, because as I understand it, it is a question of kavannah, of intent, of the internal person. Or worse, the exterior image of the internal person. That is; if I do something wrong and feel bad about it, then that makes me better than someone who does something wrong and justifies the action.

The problem, of course, is that the action remains the same, whether we feel guilty as a result or justified, ‘innocent’. The wrong has been committed, the toothpaste is out of the tube, and it’s never going back.

I lift up this question—deep, challenging, problematic—because it seems to me that so much of what’s going on in the world—going WRONG in the world—is not being addressed because we’re spending so much time dealing with intentions. What are Russia’s intentions in Syria? What are Iran’s intentions? What is the intention of the 17 year old Palestinian walking down the street, or the 40 year old Israeli settler? We assume we know. More than that, we assume the intention, not the action, is the most important thing. Want to bring this closer to home? Tony Allen and Dan Rich, in a presentation yesterday about Wilmington Schools and its educational needs, pointed out very clearly that too much energy around Educational reform has been bound up in fighting over who got it wrong and assigning blame rather than moving forward to do what is right.

The question of intent focuses us on the past:  what we ought to have done, or said, in the moment that is gone; or the future:  perhaps my guilty conscience will obviate me of further blame. But the past doesn’t exist. It’s ceased to be. Likewise the future doesn’t exist either: we don’t know what will happen twenty minutes from now, never mind twenty years. The only thing we truly have is this moment, this time.  Intent becomes a dead end—unless it changes behavior in the here and now.
The first words of Torah, bereshit bara Elohim, are strange words, not grammatically correct. God Creates ‘bereshit’, with ‘beginnings’. What does that mean?  For the Lekhivitzer Rebbe it meant in fact that “God created for the sake of beginning.” That is, every moment, and every action of every moment, is a beginning. We could use that time to dwell on what was, or fret about what will be. We could begin with love or with anger, or even worse, indifference. We could begin from poverty or justice. Our actions will decide the nature of those beginnings, and from them might emerge whole worlds, and if we are very careful, those words may be “tov”, good. May they be full of wisdom. May they be right.