Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Yom HaShoah: Consider

You who live secureIn your warm housesWho return at evening to findHot food and friendly faces: 
Consider whether this is a man,Who labours in the mudWho knows no peaceWho fights for a crust of breadWho dies at a yes or a no.Consider whether this is a woman,Without hair or nameWith no more strength to rememberEyes empty and womb coldAs a frog in winter. 
Consider that this has been:I commend these words to you.Engrave them on your heartsWhen you are in your house, when you walk on your way,When you go to bed, when you rise.Repeat them to your children.Or may your house crumble,Disease render you powerless,Your offspring avert their faces from you.--Shema, Primo Levi

Tonight begins Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day, or "The Day of Catastrophe"). It is a day filled with meaning for Jews. For some, it is a painful reminder of what it means to be a people always chosen (as if the most recent antisemitism on American campuses and in Europe don't accentuate that idea). For too many, it is their primary mode of Jewish identification. For non-Jews as well, as if they are more comfortable with us as victims rather than active, joyful, principled partners in God's efforts of creation. And for some, it has become an excuse to be dismissive of identity, or a cudgel wielded to stifle dissent, or at least feared as such.

Nevertheless, it is there. It is present in the life of the modern Jew, even one removed by three generations from the Holocaust. It is present, and it demands something of us, not only as a community, but as individuals as well.

Tonight, the Hebrew School students will gather in our Holocaust garden at 5pm to light candles and say prayers and reflect. Tomorrow, our community (Jewish and non-Jewish) will gather at the Carvel State building in downtown Wilmington to learn and share and remember. All are welcome to both. And, as you sit in your homes, secure and warm, consider that this has been. Consider what these men and women, and their memories, demand of us.

Friday, April 10, 2015

Shemini: how do we correct?

Last week, before Pesach, I got a letter in the mail at the office. Well, not exactly a letter; it was my Orbit article (and blog post) about Israel and AIPAC that had been torn out of the newsletter, with grammar corrections in RED INK with the words "GRAMMAR IS IMPORTANT!" scrawled in the margin.  Thankfully there were only a few errors! Whew!

As a former English Major I totally agree, and was glad for some constructive feedback (though Red Ink dude?), but was surprised that I found no further note, nor even a return address on the envelope. Now, it may be that my mysterious grader simply forgot to include his or her contact information, or deemed it unnecessary. But I fear that, in this era when people hide behind anonymity on the internet to harass and demean others, to "correct" people in anger and self righteousness rather than love, this may have been an exercise in venting of spleen rather than loving kindness.

The text demands different behavior. Toward the end of Chapter 9 of Leviticus, Aaron, now nearly completely ordained raises his hands and blesses the people, then steps back into the Tent of Meeting with Moses. Then they both emerge, bless the people again, and God's Presence descends, consumes the offerings in fire (thus indicating the acceptance of the ritual and the newly-minted kohanim).

Why the repetition? It could be that one was the priestly benediction, found in Numbers, and the other was from Psalms, as the rabbis suggest. But there is an additional teaching, one perpetuated by my teacher Janet Marder: that Aaron, in his first time out as Priest, was unsure of himself, and didn't quite do it right. So Moses took him back into the Tent of Meeting, gave him a pep talk, showed him how to do it, and then came back out and did it with him.

Note what does not happen: Moses doesn't castigate his brother for doing it wrong. Nor does he let him just die on stage, as it were. He corrects, and also supports. And he acts in a way publicly to show his support, without undermining Aaron as the new High Priest.

So, kudos to the mystery grammarian for writing me in private! And constructive criticism is always a good thing. But, what would have happened if he or she had spoken to me (privately and personally)? What if we had had a conversation?  Frankly, what would happen if we all did that, rather than keeping score passive-aggressively or going for the jugular?

None of this is life-or-death and I don't want to make the point that I was offended; actually, I wasn't. But I'm taken with the idea that, instead of silently seething or correcting people anonymously--which only leads to suspicion of motive--we reached out to one another in a brotherly way?

After the second time, God's presence emerges and accepts the offering. Is it because Aaron got it right this time, or because Moses acted as teacher rather than judge? I'll let you explore that for yourself.

Friday, March 27, 2015

Parashat Tzav: The Anniversary of My Bar Mitzvah

It was a dark and stormy night. No really, it was! On Friday, March 24th, actually 26 years ago, the rain came down in sheets, and the thunder shook the little synagogue on Winter Street in Hyannis. The room was full to overflowing, with the moveable walls opened up like the high holidays, congregants cheek-to-jowl with friends and family from all over. And on the bimah, trying not to tremble with every thunderclap, stood nearly thirteen year-old me. With my birthday five days away, I led services and read Torah in my new blue blazer and polo tie, my grandfather’s kippah on my head and my great-uncle’s tallit on my shoulders. And after chanting from parashat tzav (though not half as well as you will, Brooke) and reading the haftarah, I spoke about responsibility—my responsibility as a person and a Jew, and our responsibility as a member of the community. I talked about the sacrifices listed at the beginning of Leviticus 6—the burnt offering, the meal offering—and the specificity of each ritual, and how that demanded us in our day to pay attention to the details of what we do and how we do it. At least as well as a thirteen year old can speak on the subject.
You may be wondering why I led and read on a Friday. At the Cape Cod Synagogue, as in many Reform congregations, Torah was read on Friday. Saturday morning services were not a regular thing, but were an option for bar and bat mitzvah, and it was offered to me as it was offered to my classmates. But somehow that didn’t sit right with me. It felt wrong to have some kind of special, private service. I remember at the time leading up to my bar mitzvah that I asked to lead a ‘normal’ service, a regular service, a congregational service. I didn’t want special treatment (very New England of me) but there was something about the idea of leading what the congregation expected, of being a part of that experience, that resonated with me. And I was proud for having led a regular congregational service for my bar mitzvah. It was only as an adult that I found out that Friday night had been used as a lesser-than experience for women.
I bring this up at a time when the bar mitzvah is evolving, at breakneck pace. Increasingly families are choosing to create bespoke experiences, often outside the synagogue, sometimes for educational purposes, and sometimes because they want what they want, and they can find a rabbi or a cantor or a ‘spiritual leader’ who is happy to create the experience that child and that family wants. At the same time, synagogues are looking at their bar mitzvah programs and services and are asking the question—is this creating the right experience, the right education, the right kind of Jewish person we want to create? The Reform Movement a few years ago started what they call the Bar Mitzvah Revolution as a way of encouraging congregations to re-imagine how they do teen engagement. If that weren’t enough, the bar mitzvah is coming under fire not just from without but within, as folks like Rabbi Patrick Aleph of Atlanta wrote a couple of years ago that we should ban the bar mitzvah, describing it as an impediment to educational and liturgical engagement and merely a revenue stream for synagogues, an addiction that must be broken.
For a long time—even as a teen—I’ve felt we invest too much capital into one experience, one day, in a Jewish adolescent’s life. I remember giving advice as a high schooler classmates of my sister telling them that it was just one day and not to get too worked up over it, and I hear the same advice given by many well-meaning adults to kids today. Sometimes I chafe when I hear my own teenage words used today but really, we do invest so much energy, time, and emotional bandwidth into this one life cycle event. And suffice to say there’s room for improvement in the whole experience, from educational process to logistics to the day itself, no matter how wonderfully we as a congregation may handle it. And if I may be so bold, I’d like to suggest my experience 26 years ago may give us a model for what it should be like.
First, there was the communal element. I wanted to lead a regular service with the congregation present. No gimmicks. No themes. No bells or whistles. Everyone invited to the oneg, everyone participating in their normal service. Perhaps the idea of having a 13-year old on the bimah gives some of you pause, but what does it say when we allow the bar mitzvah to be a private, family event instead of welcoming the child into the minyan as a community? As I led services—with my voice breaking and my kippah falling off my head at one point—I still understood that this was the congregation’s service, and that I was entrusted with leading it adequately. I think I did okay, but there’s tremendous power in that, and in being welcomed into communal Jewish life that way. You can’t have that experience in a ballroom somewhere.
The next was choice. I wasn’t given an option of whether to do one, but how, and when. I chose what to talk about for my bar mitzvah. I chose whether to have it on a Friday night. That level of choice required that I be involved from the beginning—at a 13-year old’s level—in the liturgical process. Not just learning the prayers but understanding the service structure and making some decisions about my involvement. For people on the cusp of adulthood, being given that choice is a powerful thing. What teen doesn’t want choice, after all? Choice takes into consideration the individual and their needs. Choice means trust. Choice is empowerment.
But with that choice comes responsibility. Of course, that’s what I preached on that night, but there is a responsibility to standing on the bimah. There are expectations and requirements to fulfill—not just my own or my family’s but the congregation’s as well. I had an obligation that night, as the rain came down, and really, every bar and bat mitzvah has that same obligation---to be there for the rest of the community, in prayer, in study, in support and in times of need. That is the point of it all.

I’ve carried that experience—that sense of what it means to be part of a community, what it means to be entrusted by that community, and what it means to be obligated to the community—for 26 years. It has defined my Judaism in so many ways, and would have regardless of my calling. The thunder didn’t hurt, either. And as we prepare for another child to celebrate bat mitzvah for this portion, the day before I turn 39, I would ask you this: does your Judaism have space for community? Does it have room for choices—for yourself and others? Does your Judaism give you a sense of Obligation—to your community, to your people, to God? Because it’s not just about one day—it’s about every day. Every day we’re called to make choices. Every day we’re called to be part of a community. Every day we are reminded of our obligations. May we fulfill them meaningfully, to the betterment of all. Amen. 

Friday, March 13, 2015

All Together Now: Parashat Vayakheil

Reflections on the Torah Portion for this week's sermon: 

I have to tell you it was truly awesome—in the most authentic sense of that word—to have so many gathered for a simple Shabbat dinner tonight. There was an energy to having folks together breaking bread and celebrating Shabbat, veteran members and new members, young and not-so-young, blessing children and blessing each other. And I want to thank, again, Amy Harrison, Marisa Robinson, Jenn Steinberg, Jan Goodman and Sybil Schwartz for their efforts putting it together.
We gathered to make Shabbat, and that’s how our Torah portion begins too. The portion begins: “Vayakhel”, he gathered. Moses gathers everyone to create the mishkan, the tabernacle. Everyone is invited to participate, just as everyone was invited to participate in tonight’s dinner. And yet the first instruction is not where to put this item or that item, or how to assemble this component or that component, or even what materials to use. The first instruction is to observe Shabbat, just like we’re observing Shabbat now.
Seems like an odd way to begin a project, doesn’t it? Shouldn’t we get right to the nitty-gritty of how to create this sacred space? Not unless we know why we’re creating it. The space—and the project to create the space—has to reflect the values of the community. It’s all well and good to invite everyone to participate; surely that builds community. AND, community will be that much more meaningful if we can articulate our values.
So it was tonight and the energy in tonight’s Shabbat dinner. To be sure some of that awesome energy was the size of the group; but I don’t think that was the whole of it. It was the reason we were gathered. There wasn’t a complex agenda; it wasn’t about the food, as delicious as it was, or about celebrating one group or individual over another. It was, fundamentally, about coming together and making Shabbat. Not honoring folks. Not for a specific program. No gimmicks, no schtick, just celebrating our values. That’s it. But that’s all it has to be, too.
It sounds so simple, doesn’t it? And yet, how often do we forget that our values drive our purpose, and not the other way around.  We do a lot of dinners, and programs; we have a lot of meetings and conversations. Each one is wonderful and attracts a different kind of person, but our purpose isn’t to have programs, and dinners, and meetings and conversations. We don’t fill the space for its own sake. Our purpose to come together is to celebrate and support each other, to worship together, to learn together, and to make a difference in the world. Those programs, meetings, dinners and conversations are what goes into creating meaningful engagement with each other—all of each other, not just one or another group.
In the book Ministry Is A High Calling: Aim Low, the author, Kurt Schuermann talks about walking a bride-to-be and her mother through the sanctuary to prepare for an upcoming wedding. They went off by themselves to discuss whether it was a good space or not, and came back and asked if he could move ‘that thing’. That thing was the cross at the front.
Now, we don’t have that specific issue, but the ikar of the story is relevant. When we gather only to nourish our own selves, only to satisfy our own wants and needs, we forget our values, and the space becomes just another space, no matter what it may mean personally; real empowerment becomes impossible, because the space is too crowded with individual wants and desires. When we come together because of shared values, then we can actually create the space to live those values, and all our contributions—from staff to volunteer, organizer to contributor—are held as good and equal and valid.
We gather—we gather to celebrate Shabbat. We gather to celebrate each other. We do it together, by creating that space for one another. We lift our voices together to share our values. May it always be so.

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Yes, And: A Framework For Thinking About Israel Engagement

If you know anything about improv, you know the first rule is ‘yes-and’. Improv is all about collaboration, and telling a story together. “Yes” accepts the reality our partner is creating; “and” gives us the opportunity to share ourselves in the process.

The idea of improv, the playfulness of improv, the value of “yes-and”, informs my approach to Judaism. Judaism, at its best, is an opportunity for playfulness, a chance for members of a community to create and enhance one another’s stories. Our best moments as a community, as a people, are when we are able to engage in “yes-and”. The joy of "yes-and" is that they are affirming, inclusive, and participatory not merely from an obligatory but from an invitational stance as well. 

I bring this up mere moments after attending this year’s AIPAC policy conference in Washington DC, the same day Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu gave ‘THE SPEECH’, one that has wrung out our collective kishkes for months.  This, on top of Israel’s elections, the increasingly shrill voice of the BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanction) movement, and the World Zionist Elections, may lead us to a sense of ambivalence or fatigue on Israel. There may be a sense that Israel’s story is not our story, or there is no room for our story in Israel’s story; the role of settlers, the ultra-orthodox, the extremist right, the politically manipulative all give us pause.

And, regardless of our feelings about various individual political leaders, we have an obligation to maintain our relationship with the Jewish state; through Israel Bonds, and our own travel.

And, we must use our voice to speak to our legislators so that our country’s relationship with Israel is affirmed and sustained, and the real, existential threats to Israel are kept at bay.

And, we must deepen our commitment to the Israel we believe in by voting for ARZA in the World Zionist Congress elections, and supporting the Reform Movement in Israel, always remembering that Jewish and democratic are not oxymorons, but complementary ideals.

And, we must teach our children to cultivate their own meaningful relationship with Israel, and give them the tools to respond to anti-zionism and anti-semitism whenever and wherever they encounter it, including in the classroom and the campus.

And, we must remember that we are not witnesses to history, but actors. That we have an opportunity to teach those around us about what Israel means to us, and why we support and sustain it.

I won’t claim that AIPAC is a conference filled with opportunities for nuanced discussion. Nor will I claim it’s apolitical; it is, by definition, political, in the best sense of the word. 

And, it is the best opportunity for we as Jews to learn about Israel, advocate for Israel, and deepen our commitment to Israel. 

And, participation does not preclude our commitment to J-Street, ARZA, or IRAC; the latter two are present at AIPAC, and our voice is increasingly heard in the AIPAC community. Rick Jacobs, David Saperstein, Jonah Pesner and Rick Block were all present, along with 160 Reform rabbis and rabbinic students. Donniel Hartman of the Hartman institute, a progressive organization committed to reconciliation between Jews and Palestinians, was present. Ari Shavit, who we heard from some months ago in Delaware, was present. We as progressives have a voice at AIPAC, a chance to add our story to theirs, to make it one story of our support for Israel. But only if we make the commitment to be present.

I have already registered for AIPAC 2016. I would encourage  you to join me next year. And, I hope you will seek out every opportunity to support the Jewish State, and help dream and realize the Israel we want to see; a truly Jewish, democratic and progressive country in every way. 

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

What was supposed to be this week's sermon

So I ended up talking about Israel and freedom of expression, but this was supposed to be this week's sermon. Enjoy!

There’s been a lot of people asking the question: Why synagogues?
Is there a better way to bring people together to do Jewish? Do we spend too much time on programs, on the building, on this demographic or that demographic?
Last week mentioned Tent Peg Business etc.
There are some really cool models out there of alternatives to synagogues, but I think that’s the wrong question.
It presumes that synagogues need justification, validation.
Rather we should ask: how synagogues?
How do we make synagogue life work? What does it mean, what are the necessary ingredients to good synagogue.
What are they?
For me, the key ingredient is: Participation from all, freely given
From that element flows: mission, vision, transparency, enthusiasm, a sense of purpose. It stops being about the program for its own sake and becomes about programs that help people do synagogue, and do Jewish.
If it’s only about an elite, or a select group that cares; or if the focus is not on how to create opportunities for participation but how to ‘force’ engagement—through gimmicks, through programming, through beautiful buildings, etc.—
In Terumah: The Eternal spoke to Moses saying, Tell the Israelite people to bring me gifts; you shall accept gifts for Me from every person whose heart so moves him.
We spend a lot of time with this text asking why: why a tabernacle? Why ask for gifts? Why make them free will, yet indicate what they should be?
The question that’s more interesting to me is how: Participation from all, freely given. No one was forced, nor was it only the leadership. If the Tabernacle, the Mishkan was to be where God would dwell among us (vs 8), then it had to be for us, by us.

So let me ask you: not why do you do synagogue, or do Jewish, but how. Are you happy with the way you do Jewish, or do synagogue? Could you do more? Could you create space to let others do more? Are there people here that you wish came and did more? And how are you going to make that happen? Are we making a sanctuary for God to dwell among us? Because if we’re not, then what are we doing? 

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Sometimes business is good, too.

So it's been a while since I blogged, and not because I haven't been chewing on stuff. There's actually a blog on b'nai mitzvah on deck...eventually...I hope.

But I'm posting now because I've been seeing a lot of talk about the 'real' role of rabbis, and the many distractions that come from synagogue life. Rebecca Sirbu guest post on my teacher Hayim Herring's site on Disrupting the rabbinate; Joel Alperson's Op-Ed in JTA on our love affair with buildings (or, as many a rabbi has referred to it, our 'Edifice Complex"; Nina Badzin's post at Kveller on dues not being the only obstacle to affiliation, and Noa Kushner's fabulous update of her father Larry's manifesto The Tent Peg Business, all are raising a hue and cry that we have heard, now, for decades in one form or another. For years, we have been anticipating the death, disruption, defeat or otherwise demise of the synagogue. And, like the joke about the dying man who emerges from his deathbed to have a taste of mandelbrot only to have his hand swatted away by his wife declaring 'these are for shiva!', the synagogue just refuses to die.

None of these are new issues. None of these should surprise us. The role of the rabbi has been shifting since there were rabbis, and as David Ruderman points out in his book, this has been especially true since the 1600s, and certainly increasing since the 19th century, as communities sought rabbis less as halakhic experts and community adjudicators and more as teachers, role-models, and 'ministers'. So in one generation the rabbi is the Ph.D, the next the social worker. Then the programmer, the CEO, the guru, the rebbe. This is just as true as for the synagogue. The shteibel becomes the grand hall, then the Jewish Center, or the "shul with the pool", followed by the converted house with beanbag chairs, the rented space, and back to the shteibel again (perhaps).

And in each generation, we shake our heads, we gnash our teeth, we rend our clothes as the old model fades away against the luster of the new, which itself is destined, eventually, to fade.

So here's the deal. I'm in the Judaism business. That means I need to engage with those who are interested in Judaism. Historically the people who were interested enough in Judaism to do Jewish were called "Jews". Historically these Jews tended to congregate amongst themselves: to learn, to share, to be with each other, and to pray. These sharing spaces were called synagogues. It didn't matter how many, or how big, or what size or shape they took (both the "Jews" and their "synagogues"). The rabbi (the person in the Judaism business) was compelled to serve them.

Sounds simple, right? Of course, it's not.

Sometimes we get bogged down and focus on the wrong stuff; we spend too much time talking about the personalities of the Women's Club, the leaky roof, how this or that program is or is not serving my needs. We forget that the Women's Club does important tzedakah work, that the building is here to provide us a space to worship, study, and celebrate; that the Torah, not the budget, is our sacred document; that those programs keep people together and help build relationships.

And sometimes the acquaintances specifically sit together because they're both saying kaddish, and hold each others' hands. And sometimes the building is filled with laughter and joy and dancing. And sometimes the rabbi has the blessing of consecrating a child, then being present at the bat mitzvah, then standing with her under the chuppah, and many years later, standing again, with her child. Sometimes the person with an idea finds a voice and a role in leadership and it transforms their experience and their family for the good. Sometimes the donor gets to kvell over the good work being done in their name.


Look, the easiest thing in the world with any relationship--familial, professional, marital, and Jewish--is to look for the exits. To vanish. To walk out the door when things get hard and complicated or worst, boring. That's the easy thing. And lord knows, we Jews aren't good at easy relationships; we're too nosy, too expert in everything (or so we think), too negative, too MUCH. How good it would feel to walk away from talk of dues and budgets and carpeting and programs and calendars and service times and on and on and on. But hands need to touch hands. And Jews need to express gratitude, and explore, and delve, and express pain, and be surrounded by others who get it, without need of explanation. Without justification. Without embarrassment. But with love and humor and real JOY.

So fine, let's do the Timewarp again. Let's deconstruct the synagogue--and the rabbi--again.  But let's also not give up--on it or each other. And let's remember that the opposite of not giving up is commitment--full throated, unrepentant, unhesitating, enthusiastic commitment. To be 'all in'.

Remember what the Baal Shem Tov taught: "Your fellow human being is a mirror for you. If there is love and compassion in your soul, you will see the goodness in others. If you see a blemish in another, it is your own imperfection you encounter. Take careful note of the flaws you perceive in others. This is a lesson for you: they are your own flaws set before you, a reminder of your own spiritual work."

And remember: none of us can do that work alone.