Monday, January 31, 2011

Authority or Leadership?

Not my question, but one posed expertly in this article from the Alban Institute. Thanks to Hayyim Herring and Menachem Creditor for posting it first. Feel free to give it a read and respond! What's your preference in synagogue life?

Authority or Leadership?

by Dan Hotchkiss

In olden times, we like to think, society accorded great authority to clergy. Whether or not this rosy generalization stands up to scrutiny (it does not), we mainstream clergy certainly have lost some of the cachet our counterparts enjoyed from 1945 to 1965 or so. Many people then believed attending and supporting congregations to be just as much a part of being a good person as stopping at stop signs, dressing neatly, and keeping your lawn mowed.

I believe our loss of authority presents clergy with a great opportunity. Authority, appealing as it is, can also be confining. In the days of easy postwar growth, U.S. congregations fell into rigid patterns and became more similar to one another. Like an inbred, highly cultivated strain of livestock, they became vulnerable to common threats. The social changes of the 1960s brought death to many congregations, especially—I would say—those that depended too much on authority.

The opportunity for us lies in developing a new capacity for leadership. Ron Heifetz, in Leadership without Easy Answers, sheds light on the differences between authority and leadership, and suggests how by depending on authority less and learning to lead better, we can redevelop a more varied, robust, and disease-resistant strain of congregations in America.

Authority is the legitimate power to make things happen. Check-signing authority, for instance, is the power to compel the bank to release funds. The right to direct the work of others, to hire and fire, to sign contracts, or to choose sermon topics—all these are examples of the formal authority given by a congregation to designated leaders.

Authority can be informal also: when some people speak, others listen. Jesus "spoke as one with authority," and so do certain long-time, trusted leaders of a congregation, whether they hold office at the moment or not. Formal or informal, authority is always given to us by others

And sure enough, those who give authority expect something in return. Check-signers must sign only the approved and proper checks, congregations must provide expected services, and preachers are expected to give sermons people like. Anyone who has authority and wants to keep it needs to pay attention to the strings attached.

Leadership, as Heifetz defines it, is quite different. Leadership is not a personal trait, but an activity: getting the whole group to address its most important challenges. Leadership is measured not by whether leaders get their way, but by how well the resources of the congregation come to bear on crucial questions.

Authority can be a help to leaders, giving them the right to convene meetings, name issues, and hold the group’s attention. But the expectations that accompany authority can be a hindrance. People do not usually give authority in the hope that leaders will distress them by inviting them into hard conversations! Only certain people—call them managers—can use authority, but anyone, from any seat or pew, can lead.

Managers use their authority by making decisions; leaders exceed their authority by making others ponder troubling questions. Managers calm people by resolving ambiguity; leaders often frustrate people by refusing to decide quickly what can only be solved slowly. The most important challenges are too big for individual decision-makers to address alone. That's where leaders come in to bring the whole group's gifts to bear.

Which situations call for authority and which for leadership? One consideration is the nature of the challenge to be faced. If the furnace breaks, it must be repaired. The congregation needs to authorize someone to pick a contractor and spend money pronto. But a once-successful youth program that no longer attracts participation may need a cross-section of good heads to take whatever time they need to cook up a fresh vision of youth ministry.

A second factor in deciding whether to use authority or practice leadership is the amount of courage available. A "broken" youth ministry may be fixable simply by replacing one of the moving parts—for instance, a staff member. That's the easy course. But for a brave congregation, even a broken furnace could become the kind of challenge Heifetz calls "adaptive." Such a congregation might choose to interpret the cold sanctuary as a wakeup call, and ponder whether to install a new, "green" heating system.

The deciding factor often comes down to the fact that even the bravest congregations can deal with only a few adaptive issues at a time. Many congregations have no "bandwidth" for adaptive leadership at all, because their leaders are too busy using their authority. A clergy leader who cannot delegate to staff and volunteers soon has no time to address bigger issues. A governing board that is reluctant to delegate authority to staff ends up in the same position. Without a firm and mandatory plan for delegating authority, the decision-making demands that come with authority quickly overwhelm the people at the top of any organization. It is tempting, when this happens, to interpret every issue as a technical, decision-making matter.

The temptation to quick fixes is nowhere greater than in the fields of money, property, and personnel. A deficit, at one level, is merely a problem in arithmetic: expenses exceed revenues. The problem can be fixed by lowering one, raising the other, or a combination. Looking at a deficit this way leads us to ask questions of authority: Who can cut spending? What fund-raising methods will induce greater giving? When it comes to money, where does the "buck" stop?

But a deficit invariably points beyond itself to deeper issues. Perhaps the congregation has become overly dependent on endowment revenues. Perhaps it is still trying to engage people in outdated concepts of membership. Perhaps it clings to a grand style of congregational life that no longer fits the values or lifestyles of potential members.

Questions like these deserve the sustained attention of a varied group of leaders, information from outside, and time for conversation, prayer, reflection, and decision. Who will do this? Unless the senior clergy and governing board have freed themselves by delegating some of their authority to others, they will never get around to dealing with the most important matters on their plate.

Fortunately, anyone can lead. While it is far from the ideal solution, when official leaders fail, then leadership can still emerge from the periphery: from ad hoc planning teams, from voices crying in the wilderness, even from the mouths of babes.

Friday, January 28, 2011

"I am 70 years old, I am going to die, but these people have to fight to live"

Things are clearly heating up in Egypt, now four days into their unrest, itself a response to the unrest in Tunisia that lead to successful regime change (well, the change part is successful; whether it leads to long-term democratic institutions and social justice, that's a different question).

On a certain level, we knew this day would come. The regimes around the Arab world have been playing a dangerous game of populism, demagoguery and dictatorship for 30+ years now, maintaining the status quo, inciting and directing popular anger against Israel (while doing nothing to alleviate the Palestinian situation, with a few notable exceptions), watching their partially state-run economies stagnate, supporting the army (which is often the only strong institution aside from the regime), and convincing the west that it was either their governments or chaos, all the while hoping it wouldn't come to this. And yet it was, to some degree, inevitable. After years of anxiety about the Arab Street, the Maghreb has exploded (or rather, self-immolated).

Someone asked me whether this was good for the Jews, by which I assume she meant Israel. I didn't have a good answer for her. For those of us who love Israel, we want stability, and the fear of the Muslim Brotherhood taking control of Egypt (as Hezbollah has with the Lebanon) is a frightening prospect. After over 30 years of peace, though hardly friendship, it's almost impossible to think of going back that way again.

At the same time, how can our hearts not go out to those who have been in their own captivity for so long? As people (Jews, Israeli, American) who hold the ideals of justice, equality under the law, and liberty, we can't help but marvel at this terrible and violent desire for tzedek being realized. In the same way 22 years ago we stood amazed and anxious as protesters in Tienanmen Square stared down tanks or East Berliners took hammers in their hand to hack away at the wall that imprisoned them for generations, we do the same today.

I don't know if this will be 'good for the Jews' or 'good for Israel' in the short term, long term or anything in between. Egypt and Tunisia could become the Czech Republic, or Lebanon, or Iraq, or Iran (all of which are, I'm sure, terrible analogies for demographic, geopolitical and religious reasons) or the same old Egypt and Tunisia, just led by different strongmen. Or a hundred, a thousand other possibilities. Is it pollyanna to hope that the best possible outcome might happen, with great effort and struggle? Is it too much to hope?

"...they cry to me, I will surely hear their cry..." (Ex. 22:22). Perhaps we should, through our worry and concern and suspicion, listen to their cry as well.

Article from Ha'aretz on the uprising can be found below.

Egypt sends army tanks into cities as curfew goes unheeded - Haaretz Daily Newspaper | Israel News

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Snow Day Awesomeness and Sadness

When I find out my son's school is canceled and the synagogue building will be closed, I dig my driveway out and hunker down for the day. My youth director, on the other hand, messages all the families and kids in the congregation to see if they want to have a snow party on the synagogue's front lawn, complete with hot chocolate. Now that's programming! Thanks Brett Schwartz! I'm sure we'll see pictures imminently.

On a much sadder note, condolences to my neighbors Jim and Nancy McFadden, whose adult daughter Denise died today in a horrible snowplow accident. Hamakom Yinachem etchem: may they find comfort and solace in the days ahead.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

A confession

I missed most of the State of the Union Tonight; between an executive committee meeting and catching up with my wife, I only caught bits and pieces, and I won't comment politically here. However, I know there was a lot riding on this speech and that there is a general air of concern in their now as there was last year and the year before, a constant state of worry, of anticipation. Despite my dislike of it nearly 20 years ago (really?!) when it was delivered at Bill Clinton's inaugaral, I find myself returning to this poem by Maya Angelou and being drawn to its message of hope and renewal. And I am reminded that, even when I disagree with people, even when things seem very low, I am incredibly proud of the people I'm privileged to encounter, the children of God who surround me every day.

A Rock, A River, A Tree
Hosts to species long since departed,
Marked the mastodon.

The dinosaur, who left dry tokens
Of their sojourn here
On our planet floor,
Any broad alarm of their hastening doom
Is lost in the gloom of dust and ages.

But today, the Rock cries out to us, clearly, forcefully,
Come, you may stand upon my
Back and face your distant destiny,
But seek no haven in my shadow.

I will give you no more hiding place down here.

You, created only a little lower than
The angels, have crouched too long in
The bruising darkness,
Have lain too long
Face down in ignorance.

Your mouths spilling words
Armed for slaughter.

The Rock cries out today, you may stand on me,
But do not hide your face.

Across the wall of the world,
A River sings a beautiful song,
Come rest here by my side.

Each of you a bordered country,
Delicate and strangely made proud,
Yet thrusting perpetually under siege.

Your armed struggles for profit
Have left collars of waste upon
My shore, currents of debris upon my breast.

Yet, today I call you to my riverside,
If you will study war no more. Come,

Clad in peace and I will sing the songs
The Creator gave to me when I and the
Tree and the stone were one.

Before cynicism was a bloody sear across your
Brow and when you yet knew you still
Knew nothing.

The River sings and sings on.

There is a true yearning to respond to
The singing River and the wise Rock.

So say the Asian, the Hispanic, the Jew
The African and Native American, the Sioux,
The Catholic, the Muslim, the French, the Greek
The Irish, the Rabbi, the Priest, the Sheikh,
The Gay, the Straight, the Preacher,
The privileged, the homeless, the Teacher.
They hear. They all hear
The speaking of the Tree.

Today, the first and last of every Tree
Speaks to humankind. Come to me, here beside the River.

Plant yourself beside me, here beside the River.

Each of you, descendant of some passed
On traveller, has been paid for.

You, who gave me my first name, you
Pawnee, Apache and Seneca, you
Cherokee Nation, who rested with me, then
Forced on bloody feet, left me to the employment of
Other seekers--desperate for gain,
Starving for gold.

You, the Turk, the Swede, the German, the Scot ...
You the Ashanti, the Yoruba, the Kru, bought
Sold, stolen, arriving on a nightmare
Praying for a dream.

Here, root yourselves beside me.

I am the Tree planted by the River,
Which will not be moved.

I, the Rock, I the River, I the Tree
I am yours--your Passages have been paid.

Lift up your faces, you have a piercing need
For this bright morning dawning for you.

History, despite its wrenching pain,
Cannot be unlived, and if faced
With courage, need not be lived again.

Lift up your eyes upon
The day breaking for you.

Give birth again
To the dream.

Women, children, men,
Take it into the palms of your hands.

Mold it into the shape of your most
Private need. Sculpt it into
The image of your most public self.
Lift up your hearts
Each new hour holds new chances
For new beginnings.

Do not be wedded forever
To fear, yoked eternally
To brutishness.

The horizon leans forward,
Offering you space to place new steps of change.
Here, on the pulse of this fine day
You may have the courage
To look up and out upon me, the
Rock, the River, the Tree, your country.

No less to Midas than the mendicant.

No less to you now than the mastodon then.

Here on the pulse of this new day
You may have the grace to look up and out
And into your sister's eyes, into
Your brother's face, your country
And say simply
Very simply
With hope
Good morning.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Volunteering in Israel.

When I was at Shir Ami two of my congregants (who I'm still in touch with) told me about Volunteers for Israel. It's an organization that recruits volunteers (young and old, including retirees) to go to Israel to work on projects, including on IDF bases or in nursing homes.

Now, of course, one can volunteer their wealth, wisdom and work anywhere, and the commute isn't exactly easy. However, I've always thought it was a great way to experience Israel (for people who know the country as well as Israel 'newbies') and learn the land and the people in a more intimate and thoughtful way than just taking a bus tour or doing Birthright (which now does partner with VFI as well). Getting one's hands dirty and making a difference while learning Hebrew in an Ulpan and exploring the country--sounds like a win-win to me!

The schedule is up for 2011-2012, so if you're interested, click on the name of the organization above or go here: (bonus points for Shir Ami or Temple U. folks if you recognize who's in one of the pictures on the website...)

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Some thanks and a book review

Sorry for going dark there; this week turned out to be a tad more challenging in terms of time management than I usually like.

A big thanks to those who responded to my questions on what to teach a church group about "Basic Judaism". Great, wonderful and insightful answers and very very helpful! I'm not teaching until February 2nd, but I'm going to use many of the suggestions and report back after my experience.

I've been back in a reading mode for the first time in a long time; before the new year I'd been doing a very bad job of actually reading books (either for work or pleasure) without finding myself bogged down or distracted. I was perhaps getting through 3-6 books a year. Well, since January I've gotten through 6 already, and I thought I'd share some of my thoughts on the more relevant texts.

The first one I wanted to talk about is Judith Shulevitz's The Sabbath World. It's gotten very good reviews and won some awards, and I was both curious and hesitant to read it. Curious because I'm always interested to see how modern Jews are struggling to make the tradition relevant, and hesitant because, well, I was afraid that it was going to be too much of a self-help book (it seemed in that vein) and at least partly because my old alt-rock instincts tell me to be wary when others say something is a good thing.

I was therefore pleasantly surprised when I cracked the book open (okay, I read it on my Kindle, so I didn't do any cracking, but I don't have a better metaphor, so there). While Shulevitz admits her own ambivalence toward the notion of Sabbath and shows us her own struggles to find meaning throughout various points in her life (her childhood observance, her attempts to be shomer shabbat, her explorations of a congregational life, etc.), it is also a careful, albeit non-academic, survey of historical trends and values regarding the Sabbath throughout history. She does a very good job of looking at Jewish and Christian Sabbetarianism in Europe, the Middle East and North America, and while she doesn't use that analysis to point to trends or defend a thesis per se, she does analyze the sociology of the Sabbath; specifically, why the idea has raised such staunch support, but also opposition, through the ages. She writes:

"Americans, once the most Sabbatarian people on earth, are now the most ambivalent on the subject. On the one hand, we miss the Sabbath. When we pine for escape from the rat race; when we check into spas, yoga centers, encounter weekends, spiritual retreats; when we fret about the disappearance of a more old-fashioned time, with its former, generally agreed-upon rhythms of labor and repose; when we deplore the increase in time devoted to consumption; when we complain about the commercialization of leisure, which turns fun into work and requires military-scale budgeting and logistics and interactions with service personnel--whenever we worry about these things, we are remembering the sabbath."
If I have any quibbles with the book, it would be two. Firstly, for such a 'popular' book it has some pretty awkward turns of phrase, and a clear ambition towards academia. While the efforts themselves give the subject greater heft, the voice of the author merely weighs the book down, with her need to reference Habermas, Freud and Harold Bloom. Stephen King, in his Entertainment Weekly column, describes a particular kind of affect in writers as "look ma, I'm writin'!" This could be described more as, "look professor, I'm writin'!"

The other issue--though I'm not sure it is one--is that in her conclusions and recommendations, she maintains that ambivalence toward Sabbath, even to the very end. She writes: "Keeping the Sabbath as our forefathers did strait-jackets us in an identity that we do not choose and for which we may not want to take the consequences. It goes against our yearning for a world of infinite possibility. It exposes us to violence, ridicule, prejudice, ostracism. On the other hand, we are often as irrationally opposed to ritual as ritual is irrational in its demands upon us...Rituals are not just idealized visions of how things can be. They are also artifacts of history." (emphasis mine) In some ways, it's terribly unsatisfying: you want her, as a reader, to plant a flag somewhere. On the other hand, there's something intellectually and spiritually honest about her lack of assuredness, and I think many of us struggling with how to intertwine modern and traditional values can appreciate this refusal to be consistent or certain for its own sake.

So, worth a read. And more than that, worth asking the questions she asks herself: what does it mean to observe a Sabbath, and what happens to our lives (and our society) when the Sabbath is absent?

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Oh what a day!

The good: Mini-Mitzvah day/Pajama Day a wonderful success! Got a person back into the synagogue! Raised some money to help with the Carmel fire. Got to put my son down for his nap. Getting to watch (hopefully) some football.

Not so good: the sewer line that needed clearing as it was pumping stuff into our basement.

All better now; Horizon cleared the line (yay!) and the water's draining out thanks to the sump pump, and we're just waiting for the cleanup crew. But oy!

On a more relevant note, this article on NPR on the two political parties integrating the seating up between them rather than sticking to one side or the other makes me happy. I know there's no 'content' to that, and it's purely symbolic, but symbols have power, and if it can help create a more collegial atmosphere, I'm all for that.

Hope to post a couple of book reviews later this week. We'll see if the basement gives me permission...

Friday, January 14, 2011

So I got myself in trouble again

So yesterday, Gary Soulsman emailed me from the News Journal, writing about the 'blood libel' comment from Palin. So I emailed him back. And then I find out that the article is on the front page.

It's a nicely written article, with good quotes from Rabbi Michael Beals, among others. But again I find myself going, "how did I get in the middle of this?"

Hooo, boy...

Anyway, have a great Shabbat!

Thursday, January 13, 2011

So what should I teach?

One of the great joys in the rabbinate is being invited to speak at churches to non-Jews interested in Judaism. It really is a wonderful honor, not only to represent Judaism to those less than familiar with it, but also to speak to those who are honestly curious about us.

Of course, that joy is intertwined with challenge. In this case, I've been invited to a local church speak on Basic Judaism (their title). Format is a half-hour lecture plus a half-hour of Q&A. Age of the group is mixed. When I pressed them to be a little more specific ("Basic Judaism" could take several years of study, after all!), the organizer replied: "I think those attending would be most interested in what is the core of Judaism, what do Judaism and Christianity have in common, and what are the major differences."

Hoo, boy. So let me ask y'all (Jews and non-Jews): where should I start? What would you want to study, or present? I do have an idea of where to go with this, by the way (I would never ask you to do my work for me!) but I'm curious as to what y'all think.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

I'll just let this one speak for itself.

This is the article from the JTA on Palin's use of the term blood libel.

Yeah...that was a bad choice of words...

What I find very interesting is Abe Foxman's rather gentle touch (at least as presented in this article) compared to his more aggressive approach to others who raise his ire. Hrmn...

(JTA) -- Sarah Palin's use of the term "blood libel" to decry blaming conservatives for the Arizona shooting has raised the ire of some in the Jewish community.

In a video statement released Wednesday, Palin said that “Acts of monstrous criminality stand on their own. They begin and end with the criminals who commit them. Especially within hours of a tragedy unfolding, journalists and pundits should not manufacture a blood libel that serves only to incite the very hatred and violence they purport to condemn. That is reprehensible.”

The blood libel refers to accusations that began in the Middle Ages that Jews used the blood of murdered Christian children to make matzah for Passover.

"The blood libel is something anti-Semites have historically used in Europe as an excuse to murder Jews -- the comparison is stupid," Hank Sheinkopf, a Jewish New York-based Democratic political consultant told Politico. "Jews and rational people will find it objectionable. This will forever link her to the events in Tucson. It deepens the hole she’s already dug for herself. … It’s absolutely inappropriate.”

Palin has been criticized since the shooting for using images of a gun crosshair to identify vulnerable districts in the November elections, including U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.), who was shot in the head and seriously injured in the Jan. 8 attack at a Tucson shopping mall that left six dead and at least a dozen injured.

Jewish Funds for Justice President Simon Greer pointed out in a statement that the term blood libel is not a synonym for false accusation but rather refers to a specific false accusation, adding that Palin's usage is "totally out of line."

"Sarah Palin did not shoot Rep. Gabrielle Giffords. Only the perpetrator can be found guilty for this act of terrorism," Greer said. "But it is worth pointing out that it was Rep. Giffords herself who first objected to Ms. Palin’s map showing her district in the crosshairs. Ms. Palin clearly took some time to reflect before putting out her statement today. Despite that time, her primary conclusion was that she is the victim and Rep. Giffords is the perpetrator."

Jewish Americans for Sarah Palin said the politician was justified in using the term.

"Sarah Palin got it right, and we Jews, of all people, should know a blood libel when we see one," said Benyamin Korn, director of Jewish Americans for Sarah Palin. "Falsely accusing someone of shedding blood is a blood libel--whether it's medieval Christians accusing Jews of baking blood in Passover matzos, or contemporary Muslim extremists accusing Israel of slaughtering Arabs to harvest their organs, or political partisans blaming conservative political figures and talk show hosts for the Tucson massacre."

J Street President Jeremy Ben-Ami also criticized Palin's use of the term blood libel.

"We hope that Governor Palin will recognize, when it is brought to her attention, that the term 'blood libel' brings back painful echoes of a very dark time in our communal history when Jews were falsely accused of committing heinous deeds," he said in a statement. "When Governor Palin learns that many Jews are pained by and take offense at the use of the term, we are sure that she will choose to retract her comment, apologize and make a less inflammatory choice of words."

David Harris, the president and CEO of the National Jewish Democratic Council, said that "All we had asked following this weekend's tragedy was for prayers for the dead and wounded, and for all of us to take a step back and look inward to see how we can improve the tenor of our coarsening public debate. Sarah Palin's invocation of a 'blood libel' charge against her perceived enemies is hardly a step in the right direction."

While saying that he wishes Palin had not used the term blood libel, Abraham Foxman, ADL national director, focused on the politicization of the shooting tragedy

"It is unfortunate that the tragedy in Tucson continues to stimulate a political blame game. Rather than step back and reflect on the lessons to be learned from this tragedy, both parties have reverted to political partisanship and finger-pointing at a time when the American people are looking for leadership, not more vitriol," Foxman said in a statement. "It was inappropriate at the outset to blame Sarah Palin and others for causing this tragedy or for being an accessory to murder. Palin has every right to defend herself against these kinds of attacks, and we agree with her that the best tradition in America is one of finding common ground despite our differences."

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Chris Coons at CBE!

We were INCREDIBLY lucky to have Senator Chris Coons and his foreign and defense policy advisor, Halie Soifer, come to Beth Emeth this past Sunday for a joint Confirmation program with our kids, plus the kids from Beth Shalom and Adas Kodesh (plus their parents). It was a great morning, talking about the importance of confirmation, what it means to be politically and socially active, and Israel. Only in Delaware! Below you'll find the write-up that's going in the Jewish Voice by moi (with editing help from Michelle Miller of Federation, Bob Pincus, and Ms. Soifer). Pics by Cantor Mark Stanton.

On Sunday, January 09, 2011, Senator Chris Coons and Halie Soifer, his foreign and defense policy advisor, came to Congregation Beth Emeth to address Jewish teens and their parents on Israel, advocacy and the importance of confirmation.

The group of over 100—the combined confirmation programs of Congregation Beth Emeth, Congregation Beth Shalom and Adas Kodesh Shel Emeth, and their parents—listened and asked questions as Senator Coons and Ms. Soifer talked about their own religious journeys and the importance of confirmation to them personally. The Senator talked about his many connections in college and law school with Jewish peers and his trip to Israel to visit friends, and how that transformed his view of the importance of Israel to the Jewish people. Senator Coons also discussed how Jewish teens have a special gift, an ability to serve as ‘witnesses’ to their friends and peers and heal the world around them. Additionally, he offered his thoughts and concerns for the assassination attempt on Rep. Gabrielle Giffords on Saturday, and his own hope for her recovery. Ms. Soifer discussed her own political awaking as a little girl, watching her father advocate for Soviet Jewry in the 80s, and what we can do to stay informed and involved. Both took questions and the Senator posed for pictures, including a group photo with all the teens.

The group was welcomed by Rabbi Yair Robinson. Rabbi Michael Beals offered a prayer of Shehecheyanu, along with a prayer for healing for Rep. Giffords and Debbie Friedman, the noted Jewish songleader and composer. The program concluded with Cantor Mark Stanton leading the participants in a prayer for peace.

Monday, January 10, 2011

A Special Shabbat Service Remembering Debbie Friedman

(Thanks to Cantor Mark Stanton and Michelle Miller for the wordsmithing)

A Special Service for Debbie Friedman – Congregation Beth Emeth will have a special Shabbat service and Sermon-in-Song remembering Debbie Friedman, z”l, a pioneer in Jewish music who passed away last week. Debbie revolutionized worship within the Reform movement and many Conservative synagogues as well. Her version of the “Mi Shebeirach,” the healing prayer, is now sung at countless synagogues and Jewish gatherings. Participants will sing Debbie’s version of “Song at the Sea” and “Miriam’s Song” and learn more about her music at this service. Start time: 8 p.m. Congregation Beth Emeth is located at 300 W Lea Blvd., Wilmington, DE. For more information, call 302-764-2393. To hear a song by Debbie, go to her website at:

Live Stream of Debbie Friedman's Funeral

There will be a live stream of Debbie's funeral tomorrow, thanks to URJ camp Olin Sang Ruby Union Institute (the camp where Debbie got her start). You can go here for it. if the link above doesn't work.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Gabby Giffords: Refua Sheleima

It's been an emotional weekend, and I've been having trouble trying to put my thoughts and feelings into words regarding the assassination attempt on Gabby Giffords: a proud, independent Reform Jew. Every time I want to say something, it gets too angry, too political (of the wrong variety--the shrill, finger-pointing kind that I can't stand), too depressed, too exhausted. So instead, I'll share Scott Simon's thoughts from NPR , since he's friends with the congresswoman. That's he's able to be this cogent amazes me.

Weekend Edition Saturday host Scott Simon and his family are friends with Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and her family.

Gabby Giffords has true grit. I don't mean the kind you see in movies, but the grit to work hard, love your family and serve your country. She is smart, sharp, funny and, as so many of her colleagues have noted over this past day, brave.

The next time you're tempted to mock members of Congress, you might think about Gabby, who flies back and forth across the country every week, losing sleep, missing her family and wearing herself down — but determined to cast tough votes and fly back home to answer for them.

Our families are friends. But we don't talk a lot about politics when we get together, as much as about kids and parents, great quesadillas and all the new movies we never get a chance to see. We swap jokes and dreams.

Gabrielle Giffords went to Scripps College and Cornell, was a Fulbright scholar in Mexico, worked in New York finance, and came back to Tucson to run her family's tire business before entering politics.

Her husband, Mark Kelly, is an astronaut — and the family member that people usually worry about.

But last spring, after Gabby voted for health care overhaul, somebody shot a pellet gun into the glass of her Tucson office. The next day, former Gov. Sarah Palin's political action committee posted a map that spotlighted 20 districts represented by people who had voted for the bill, including Gabby. It had the cross hairs of a gun scope imposed over each of the districts.

Sarah Palin issued a statement yesterday condemning the shootings and saying she and her husband were praying for Gabby Giffords. But imagine what it's like to be a family that sees the name of your loved one on a website illustrated by the cross hairs of a gun sight.

I don't think I violate any confidences to say Gabby has worried that intemperate people — I'll call them nuts and cranks — are poisoning politics in the state she loves.

She seems to cherish the sometimes curmudgeonly independence of her district. I've heard her complain about the constant strain of raising money and getting middle seats on long airplane flights, but never about meeting with her constituents, even if it's just to hear harangues.

The people who were shot alongside her yesterday, including those who died, were her friends and neighbors. I know her family wants the media to pay attention to them, too.

Gabrielle Giffords has always had close, fierce election battles in which she's been counted out, but comes back to win. She's fighting for her life now. But she knows how to do that. A lot of people have learned: Never count out Gabby Giffords.

Thoughts on Debbie Friedman, Z"L

The Jerusalem Post, among others, is reporting on the death of singer-songwriter Debbie Friedman.

Singer-Songwriter isn't quite the right fit, nor is 'composer'. Debbie may not have been the first songleader, but she turned it from something that was done strictly at camp into the way many Jews experience prayer. In large measures, she helped bring camp-style and more casual worship to the synagogue, integrated Hebrew with English in a Reform movement struggling with how to blend the two, feminized the liturgical voice to a large degree, and, well, gave the last couple of generations of Jews permission to experience prayer as joyful .

She could be prickly (Shir Ami members will remember when she yelled at the delegation at the 2003 URJ Biennial because they were DANCING TOO SOON), and I've talked to many cantors and rabbis who disliked her music for this reason or that, but no one can doubt the influence she's had on worship in the 20th-21st centuries. Before her, there might have been prayer, but certainly not spirituality. The idea of offering a healing prayer in a Reform synagogue was simply bizarre before Debbie. She gave a generation of seekers a voice. I'll quote Cantor Rosalie Boxt from the above article:

“The reason so many around the world feel close to Debbie, and call her “friend” is because she, in leading worship or performance, gives us permission to feel deeply,” Boxt said. “She gives fully of herself and has opened a door for many to share their deepest hurts or their purest joy. She asks people to be open to their truest hearts, to their longing for the Divine, and for the need we have for love and friendship and for each other. There is no pretense with Debbie, and her music and spirit have created a growth in expression in Jewish music, liturgical and non, that speaks to a Jewish community that wants to be fully engaged in prayer, in song, and in learning.”
Without Debbie, Jewish music and Jewish prayer would look very, very different. You can't go to a service in almost any movement without hearing her melody--from her Havdallah to shehecheyanu to so many others. And I would argue that our spiritual and musical experience would be poorer had it not been for that kid writing music at Olin-Sang Ruby and Kutz camp.

In remembering her, everyone is quoting from her "Miriam's Song", most especially because she died as we begin the reading of that Torah portion that deals with the song of the Sea, Parashat B'shallach. But I think another Torah portion-related song fits the moment better: her song on parashat Lech Lecha. So I'll leave you with the last stanza:

Lechi lach and I shall make your name great
Lech li-cha and all shall praise your name
Lechi lach to the place that I will show you
Li-simchat chayim, li-simchat chayim
Li-simchat chayim lechi lach.

And you shall be a blessing, you shall be a blessing
You shall be a blessing lechi lach.

May she be remembered for blessing.

Tooting my own horn

If you missed my "The Rabbi Speaks" this morning, here's the text. A little more tongue in cheek today.

Promise to have the text from my article on Chris Coons' visit to CBE later in the week. Many thanks for his participation, along with Rabbi Beals at Beth Shalom and Rabbi Saks at AKSE!

Who doesn't love a good stand up comic? I remember going with my father to the clubs in New York when I was in High School, or staying up to watch the Half-hour Comedy Hour on MTV to catch those of the quick wit. While certainly Bea Arthur (z'l) had little good to say about the profession in "History of the World Part I" (sorry, Not safe for print), we gravitate toward the comic, especially the observational comic who, in the best tradition of Mark Twain and Dylan Thomas, or even many of Shakespeare's characters, speaks uncomfortable and inconvenient truths in a way we can hear them.

So I was struck when I stumbled upon a Louis CK routine from an appearance on Conan O'brien's show. You can find it on Youtube, and a transcript on Slate in a segment by Farhad Manjoo, but this is radio, so you'll forgive me as I deliver it poorly.

"Everything is amazing right now, and nobody's happy," he says. "When I was a kid we had a rotary phone. We had a phone you had to stand next to, and you had to dial it. … If they called and you weren't home, the phone would just ring lonely, by itself. … This is what people are like now: They get their phone, and they're like, Ugh, it won't … Give it a second! It's going to space! Can you give it a second to get back from space?"

Well, then. And while we laugh at the absurdity of it all (and really, it's pretty absurd that we went from rotary dial maybe 30 years ago to making restaurant reservations and taking pictures with our phones), he does make a good point. As he puts it, "We live in an amazing, amazing world and it's wasted on the crappiest generation of spoiled idiots."

As a rabbi, hearing this sends me to thoughts of the generation that fled Egypt. If they had a motto, it would be "what have you done for me lately?" From the moment the Sea of Reeds crashes behind them until they pass away in the wilderness, they constantly gnashing their teeth. Their response to freedom is to look at the wilderness and declare, with great drama, "but what will we eat?! Did you bring us out of Egypt TO DIE!!?" As readers, we roll our eyes and think, "yes, that's right, the God that just laid waste to Egypt and redeemed you with many a promise forgot to pack snacks." A generation of spoiled idiots indeed, they will harass Moses and Aaron and God and each other throughout the next three books, kvetching that everything is terrible, and in fact, they sound a lot like us. Freedom? What good is freedom without working internet? Covenant? that's great, but why does tech support have to be so lousy? A modern midrash imagines two of the Israelites, on their way through the parted sea, never looking up at this amazing miracle, but rather looking down at their feet, complaining bitterly about the slippery, muddy path. Everything is amazing, but no one is happy.

Of course, on a certain level, we're being unfair. Faith is hard. It's hard to look across the Sinai, your entire way of life shattered, and think, "yep, all is well, that looks great. Unknowable God who let us rot for 425 or so years now wants to give us a homeland? Sure!" And if it's hard for a people who knew only hardship and depredation to have faith in this God and his prophet, a former Egyptian muckety muck, how much the moreso for us in our modern day, with our, shall we call it, healthy sense of doubt and righteous indignation? As a generation, we have watched political language justify the bankrupting of the future, and ignorance and fear-mongering validate the persecution of those unlike us--even to the point of mass murder. We walk around with an attitude that people owe us something, with expectations that problems can be solved instantly, and that because we have so many choices in life--an embarrassment of riches--there is clearly one choice that is superior to all others. And when anything seems out of sorts with our choice--be it a meal, a cell phone, a job or a partner, we are wracked with remorse. There is a reason Rabbi Joseph Soleveitchik described the one who believes as the lonely man of faith.

And yet, that would be a pretty lame message of Scripture: faith is hard, and people are ungrateful. I know when my great-uncle gave me that kind of "kids today" speech it made me want to rush out and write thank you notes. Or not. What hope is there in such a message? Rather, there is something else we should be focusing on--not at our feet, but at the amazement around us. There is doubt in our lives, and challenge to be sure. We have lofty expectations. But more often than not we choose to be part of the solution, rather than the problem. We can be spoiled to be sure, but we, like Israel, are learning how to be responsible, not just entitled. Sure, cynicism get's us to look at that 'hopey changey' stuff with disdain, but we still get choked up by it and find ourselves wishing we lived in those moments more, living in our higher moments.

So we began with humor and I'll end with humor. A man is driving a brand new sports car along the switchbacks of a mountain highway, when a bend in the road takes him by surprise. The car plunges over the side, but miraculously, somehow, the man escapes, and is now hanging off the ledge. He struggles, knowing that letting go would mean certain death. He finds himself pleading to God--something he's never done before--and much to his surprise, a voice responds."

"Oh, thank God!" Cries the man, "Please save me!"

"certainly." Says the almighty, "but you have to do one thing for me."

"absolutely, anything!"

"Let go."

Are we ready to let go and take a leap of faith, in ourselves, in those around us, in God? Or are we going to cling to the materialism and pseudo-needs that around us? Not sure, don't worry, help is on the line. Please hold for the next available operator. Or check out the website, if your connection is working."