Friday, April 27, 2012

Finding the right community

Finding My Jewish Community, or Making it Myself | Raising Kvell

These are the kinds of things I want to see in our religious school and in our congregation in general. Can't promise the tie die or the guitar (though I've got the beard down)! But I can promise fun and values! And thanks to Jenn Steinberg for sharing with me!

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

It’s official: Jewish camp strengthens Jewish identity | JTA - Jewish & Israel News

It’s official: Jewish camp strengthens Jewish identity | JTA - Jewish & Israel News

“Where camp has had its strongest effect has to do with its creation of an intense, temporary Jewish community,” said Cohen.
A nice reminder of the importance of Jewish camp, especially for those of us in the 302 who are most excited about the Happy Camper program coming to Delaware...

Yom HaZikaron

Remembering the 22,993 fallen defending the State of Israel today, and a reminder at what cost our Jewish State exists at all, not just in terms of our own blood spilled, but in terms of the blood of our 'enemies' as well.

“When peace comes we will perhaps in time be able to forgive the Arabs for killing our sons, but it will be harder for us to forgive them for having forced us to kill their sons.” Golda Meir

Monday, April 23, 2012

What does it mean to be Jewish, in Israel and abroad? - Haaretz Daily Newspaper | Israel News

What does it mean to be Jewish, in Israel and abroad? - Haaretz Daily Newspaper | Israel News

The answer of how we are to be Jewish is different for many people, irrespective of a person’s other national identities. For some, the answer is obvious: being Jewish means being faithful to mitzvot, God’s commandments, as understood in the codification of Jewish law. For others, being Jewish is about cultural expressions, perhaps in terms of certain foods eaten at certain times of the year. What is important, however, is that one’s Jewishness is expressed in some way. While I will not deny that a Jew-by-genes is a Jew, as a Jewish educator I strive to instill something stronger than that in my students.

The spoiled leftist radical - Israel Opinion, Ynetnews

The spoiled leftist radical - Israel Opinion, Ynetnews

That's when I realized that for many of those foreign peace activists, this is all just a game. And in this game we, the Israelis and Palestinians, are the pieces. They come from all corners of the world to a faraway country they have never been to before. They confront soldiers and policemen, blocking roads and holding signs. Moreover – as long as they have their cold beer by the end of the evening, as long as they lay their heads in a comfy and friendly hostel – they will continue to arrive.
They take advantage of what we're most proud of: Our freedom, democracy and the tolerance that we're so afraid to lose. They take advantage of the strange system we have developed, the one that lets us disconnect ourselves from reality and continue with our lives even when real fighting takes place so close to us.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Justice or Vengeance?

So the other night, at our congregational Seder, I was talking with a congregant who told me about an upsetting incident the previous night at his home. He had invited a non-Jew, a friend to the seder, which is a good thing. But when they got to the part about the plagues, this friend completely freaked out. How can you imagine such a punishing, such a vengeful and hateful God?! He asked. And so the rest of the seder was spent dealing with this one issue: how could God be so vengeful, so mean, and how could we find inspiration in such an angry deity?
It’s an issue that seems to come up in every crisis, and is great fodder for the likes of the late Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins among others, and it’s the issue of one of this week’s Holiday portions. The song at the sea and the destruction that builds up to it are recounted, and the song itself is triumphant and joyful. But is it vengeful? Indeed, one could see the plagues not as vengeance but as punishment: it was the soldiers of Egypt who drowned Israel’s boys, so now they themselves are drowned as an act of judgment. The plagues punishment for those Egyptians who accepted the status quo of Israel’s suffering rather than strive to alleviate it in some way. But our tradition does not celebrate the plagues, the death of the firstborn, or the drowning of Egypt in the Sea. Rather that celebration is deflected, mitigated. We pour out our wine and offer libation—libation!—to those who died in tormenting us. We read the Midrash and God’s rebuke of the heavenly court: “My children are drowning in the sea, and you sing praises?”  Our tradition, unique in the world, does not celebrate the destruction of our enemies; we mourn their deaths, even today.
So let me ask this in a different way: what if God had intervened directly after the Holocaust? What if God smote 6 million, or even 11 million Germans, Austrians, French and Poles: those who perpetrated violence on Israel—as well as Gypsies, Gays, and other so-called ‘undesireables’—as well as those who were silent in the face of destruction. How would we feel today? Would we see that as an act of Divine Justice? Would we see it as vengeance, retribution, wrath poured out onto the charnel-houses of Europe? Is this a far-fetched question? Look at the way we respond to the Bombing of Dresden in World War II. If anything could be called an act of retribution, that would be it, but we tend not to take solace in that other conflagration. Rather, for the most part, we see it as a tragedy, more death and killing. We recognize the divinity of the victims. Yes, we sing praises of the liberators and the Righteous Gentiles, but we also pause and recognize the burning of God’s children.
We are unique of all Creation in that we strive for Justice. In calling for George Zimmerman’s arrest, the parents of Trayvon Martin were not asking for vengeance: they were seeking justice, for the case to be brought before the law. Heschel writes: Man is born to be concerned with ultimate issues. The Haggadah and these verses of Torah stand, as all prayer stands, to (again, quoting Heschel) overthrow and to ruin the pyramids of callousness, hatred, opportunism, falsehoods. When we sing, “Mi Chamocha Ba’elim Adonai”—Who is like you among the Gods? We remind ourselves that divine justice—indeed, comprehension of God at all—is beyond any of us, and to ferret out God’s intent or reduce our own free will is to give in to the anguish within our own hearts. And while we desire justice and strive for justice—for it is through justice that peace is truly achieved—we still mourn the loss of life and the potential holiness of those lives, in our seders, in our Torah teaching and in our lives. To do otherwise is to fail to accept God’s challenge: to choose life.
Our Haggadahs are back on the shelf, the pesadik utensils back in the basement. But If we did our seders right, those conversations—especially those of controversy and those that challenge our relationship with God—still resonate, still haunt, still force us back again and again to revisit the argument, still drive us to tears. We must continue to ask the question that the child asks in Torah and our Seder: “why?” And continue to answer with patience, with understanding, and a healthy sense of our own limitations. When we do that, we become God’s witnesses, as Shimon Bar Yochai meant it: you are my witnesses, I am God; if you are not my witnesses, I am not God.“… In this world God is not God unless we are His witnesses, and without God, there is no Justice, nor compassion. Let us bear witness and bring Justice into the world,  and mercy, and pour out our cups and hearts. Amen. 

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

America's Real Top Rabbis - My Jewish Learning

Well, this is interesting. A 'nominate your own top rabbi' effort. Not sure if this is any better (or worse) than Newsweek's efforts, but it does keep people talking about what makes a person a 'good' or 'effective' rabbi. And that's always good! Link and quote are below. 

America's Real Top Rabbis - My Jewish Learning

Who's the top rabbi in America?
Newsweek and the Daily Beast just released a list of, ostensibly, the best rabbis in America. But are those really THE top rabbis? "We...admire rabbis who keep their heads down and do their pastoral, spiritual or organizational work year after year," the Beast noted. "But if we only rewarded consistency, the list would be unwieldy, fixed, and dull."
We'd like to respectfully disagree. Our top rabbis are the ones we call when we don't understand something about Judaism, or when we don't agree with Judaism. Our top rabbis teach classes, pull us aside, help us through the joyous parts of our lives (births, bar/bat mitzvahs, weddings), the difficult parts (divorce, mourning)--and the everyday stuff, too.
Send us your pick! Nominate your favorite rabbi. Tell us in four or five sentences why he or she is a credit to the clergy. Why do they inspire you? What's one way that he or she helped you, or someone you know? We'll feature the most compelling entries on
And then we'll turn it over to you to vote. The top vote-getting rabbi will receive dinner for two and a massage, and we'll foot the bill. Being a rabbi is hard work, and God knows they deserve a little thank-you.
So, go ahead! Nominate your favorite rabbi -- fill in these short answers and email us a photo!

Monday, April 9, 2012

Well, okay then...

So my colleague Jeff Goldwasser posted this experience from 2nd Night Pesach at the CCAR group (I really wanted to write message board, which shows what kind of grognard I am): 

After leading the congregational seder tonight, I listened to a message on my voicemail at the synagogue (big mistake). It was a three-minute speech from an 81-year-old Christian woman who did not give her name (of course), telling me about how she is so angry at rabbis because they were the ones who told the Romans to crucify Jesus. She also explained that she has nothing against Jews in general because she has a son-in-law who is a "nice Jewish gentleman." (Poor fellow.) She just felt like she had to get this long-held, bitter complaint off of her chest. ("I just had to say that, and now I have.") 
I am dumbstruck. What, if anything, do I do about this? Just ignore it as the rantings of a crazy person? (But, I'm afraid, that there are so many others.) Do I take it to the newspapers or to my Christian colleagues? (But, I'm afraid, that this would only confirm negative assumptions about "pushy Jews" among the very people I want to reach). Are there any colleagues with advice on how to deal with such a thing?
Consensus among colleagues was that this should go into the mental 'circular' file or equivalent, maybe process it with some colleagues (Jewish or non-Jewish) that could help him process (not to point fingers or the like).

In addition, however, it seemed like everyone had a similar story, mostly taking place around Passover. It seems like the Easter-Pesach continuum brings out all kinds of responses, from anonymous phone calls like this to people asking if they could come see a real Pesach sacrifice to dressing up like Jesus and coming to the synagogue to accuse the folks inside of Deicicde and the like.

It occurred to me that this isn't the purview of clergy alone. I've heard from congregants who've had similar experiences, as I did when I was growing up--when I was in kindergarten or first grade I actually had a whole conversation about why I didn't celebrate Christmas because I was Jewish, at which point the other kid asked if I killed Jesus, to which I responded by asking who this Jesus fellow was 'cause I never met the guy.

So, what kind of experiences have you had? Non-Jewish friends--have you ever seen anything like this or do you have equivalents? What do you think one should do with something like this?

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Blogging the Exodus: Questions

Questions are what we as Jews are all about (and what this blog is about, fundamentally). That's what I reminded the kids of last night at the model seder. And Reform Judaism, as David Aaron, liked to remind us, is rooted in ambiguity and questioning. 

That's why I'm sharing this blog article by Rabbi Danny Allen of ARZA. As we pray at the end of the Seder to next year be in Jerusalem, the line becomes increasingly poignant, as we in the Jewish world struggle with Israel's existential challenges, both internal and external. Perhaps these questions will lead all of us to greater understanding and connection--and ultimately commitment. 

Thank you Rabbi Allen for your thoughtfulness. 

Israel and Zionism should be at the core of our Passover observance. The Exodus from Egypt had a goal not just of freedom for the Jewish People but a return to our own land, our own sovereignty, and our own Jewish ways of living. We are required to make the story meaningful for every generation; hence we should be asking four important questions about Israel and considering four kinds of Zionists. 
All countries have governments, borders, neighbors, culture, language(s), economies, their own internal politics, and legitimacy within the family of nations. Why is Israel the only country whose legitimacy as a sovereign state is challenged in so many ways by so many people? 
On all other nights we may think of places all around the world we would like to visit. Why on this night do we say only “Next Year in Jerusalem?”
On all other nights we may consider the advantages or challenges of the country of our citizenship. Why on this night do we consider what makes Israel different from all other countries?
Most countries and societies need and welcome the voluntary sector in order to achieve their declared dreams. Israel’s Declarations of Independence challenges us all to “ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex; it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture; it will safeguard the Holy Places of all religions,” as well as to make peace with her neighbors. Why, on this night, are we not working more diligently to assist Israel in achieving its stated goals of equality for all her citizens, to build a more inclusive democratic society and peace with all her neighbors?
Questions are answered by individuals with a point of view and a particular perspective.  
Questions about Israel are often answered by four kinds of Zionists. 
The activitist Zionist – what does he/she say in response to these questions?
He/she first analyzes the questions, thinks through all the historical perspectives, centers the answer based where one fits within Zionist ideology, and then decides on strategy and tactics including which organization is best equipped to handle the response. While all of this activity is important and needs to be supported, sometimes what is needed is a simple answer, one that is the essence of one’s being. 
On April 1, 1933, the Jewish Review of Berlin, a Zionist newspaper, editorialized about what should be the response to the new Nazi law requiring Jews to wear a yellow star which was meant to mark Jews as illegitimate: The Jewish (Zionist) answer must be that briefest of sentences Moses spoke to the Egyptian (when his legitimacy was challenged): Ivri Anochi. I am a Jew. 
Wherever we fall on the broad Zionist spectrum, we are all Jews in the big tent of supporting Israel.
The disillusioned Zionist – what does she/he say?
Why is Israel really important anymore? She has not lived up to my dreams, to what I learned in summer camp, to the very ideals upon which the state was founded. I have worked for years and still Israel has so many problems, peace has not yet been achieved and I am tired of the struggle. 
To this person you should answer from Pirkei Avot: “You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to desist from it (2:21).” In a brief 64 years Israel has brought home millions of Jews, created a vibrant country, defended itself from military and terrorist threats, and contributed positively to the world. Rededicate yourself to the Israel with the spirit of the summer movement for social change; “The people demand a just society”. 

The nominal Zionist, the “Jew in the pew” — what does he/she say?
What’s all the fuss about? I live a comfortable Jewish life here in America and Israel does not really affect my life. 

Then you should remind this person that American attitudes toward Jews changed for the better after the 1967 Six-Day War when the world saw Jews who had reclaimed Jewish destiny in Jewish hands; that the technology for the cellphone they use was created in Israel; that Israel has painfully made peace with its two largest neighbors and is committed to a two-state solution: a Jewish State of Israel and a Palestinian state for the Palestinians living side by side in peace, which, when it happens, will further peace for everyone in the world; and that it is Israel that stands at the cutting edge of defending the West against terrorism and fanaticism. 
The not-yet Zionist, the one who does not know about Israel, the success of the national liberation project of the Jewish people, the good that Israel has brought to the world, and the amazing story of a people repatriated, a land reclaimed and a language renewed: For this person you shall begin with the words of God to Abraham:
Go forth from your native land and from your father’s house to the land (Israel) that I will show you and I will make you a great nation, and I will bless you… and all the families of the earth shall be blessed in you.
In answer to all the questions and in response to all the kinds of Zionists we are reminded of what Chaim Weitzmann, the first president of Israel, once said: A nation does not receive a state on a silver platter.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Added a new blog to my blogroll

Go check out Alan Cook's Cookie Crumbs (check the blog roll). That is all...

Blogging the Exodus, the right day! Numbers and counting

So I posted this to Facebook already and it's been around pretty quickly, but this week Newsweek/Daily Beast posted their Top 50 Rabbis for 2012. Aside from Final Four bracket jokes and being "number 51 again" etc., it's interesting that it comes out at this time of year, when we as a people are so focused on numbers: counting plagues, times to say 'dayeinu', the various number games of the Haggadah, and of course the counting of the Omer, beginning Saturday night and running until Shavuot, the holiday celebrating the Barley Harvest and the giving of the Torah.

I first noticed the list a couple of years ago. At first, it was a nice way to celebrate some colleagues' achievements. And it seemed like a good bit of American fun (we have so many top 10 lists, thank you Casey Kasem and David Letterman). Now I worry about it. Not too much, but enough to raise an eyebrow. Is it an ego thing now? Is it meaningful? I suspect most of the people on the list don't have time to process that they're on the list, they're just knuckling down and doing the work that many of us do in our own congregations (just not quite at that scale). And I suspect it's not worth wringing our hands too much, except that it does help us ask the question: what does it mean to be a 'good' or 'successful' rabbi? I know many colleagues that struggle to figure out what the right 'metrics' are for evaluation: is it about bringing in new members (or retaining members)? Raising money? Running successful programs? Preaching meaningful sermons? Taking risks? Bringing kavod to the congregation? All of the above?

Which leads me to this article posted by my friend Ilan (who's blog is on my blogroll...somewhere. Dude, update man!). The article from the United Methodist Portal, is on how to better evaluate church performance, and the parallels are there for us. While we focus easily on numerical growth (and drive a lot of what we do in our congregations toward that, for obvious reasons) he asks a simple but incisive question: what would happen if we evaluated our congregations (and rabbis) based on how we provided opportunities for spiritual growth, for opportunities to connect with the sacred? In other words: did we offer enough Torah? Enough music? Enough davening? Classes to help people develop their spiritual practice--meditation, kabbalah, worship, dance? Did we organize around compassion and justice?

Looking back at the list, it seems to me that many of these individuals were focused on exactly that. Not gimmicks, not 'better marketing', not programs for their own sake, or to bring people together for 'mere' socialization, but with sacred purpose. After all is said and done, is the secret 'sauce' ma really just be authentic encounters with God and each other. In which case, we in congregational life should find more opportunities to be communities of intention, rather than 'merely' count heads.

Blogging the Exodus: Day 8 (out of order): Faith--in God and Each other

Today at the JCC fitness center I overheard a couple of people talking when one said to the other, “well, God made you different, huh.” I thought to myself, indeed, God made us all different! There’s a wonderful midrash (yes, I think of midrashim at the gym. Be glad you’re not me) that compares God to a king. While a king puts his image on coins and they all look the same, God puts the divine image on all of us, and we’re all profoundly different from one another.

It is through those differences that we find meaning, for different perspectives and experiences challenge us to be more creative, more thoughtful, more compassionate. Because I don’t know what it means to suffer in homelessness, I cannot naturally sympathize. But I am forced—obligated—to recognize my lack of experience and say to the other, ‘how can I help’. So it is in the study of Torah: the tradition is to study in pairs, with both individuals defending their interpretation of the text as vigorously as possible—often as energetically as possible (we Jews do like to argue)—but always remembering that we are both created in the image of the living God. And so it is with prayer. There is a reason we pray with a quorum of 10; the ideal is not for the service to be performed at the front of the room to an attentive (or inattentive) audience, but rather a polyphony of voices—all different, all engaging with and responding to the liturgy differently, all singing the same words.

The question, to paraphrase Harold Kushner from his presentation at the CCAR conference, is not to convince ourselves that we believe in God, to be so assured of our answer that questions, challenges, diversity all become meaningless. Rather the question is: how do we recognize when we encounter God? And to quote Rabbi Kushner further:

When you are forgiven, you have the experience of encountering God who Forgives.

When you couldn’t do something and then you can, that is encountering God who allows us to grow.

That first day when you’re not sick after being sick, encountering God who is rofei cholei yisrael: the healer of Israel.

When we take on a challenge: discovering how strong you are. God is Hanotain l’yaef koach: who gives strength to the weak.

And when we encounter one another and challenge each other respectfully, God is she’asani betzelem Elohim: the one who creates me—and all of us with our myriad differences and experiences and abilities—in the image of God. May it be so, as we receive the Torah, as we affirm our confirmands, as we move forward. Amen.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Blogging the Exodus: Plagues

After a crater erupts, volcanic ash may blacken
the sky and make the sunsets lurid for months; 

There are eclipses of the sun, the stinging
darkness of dust storms, and the totality of

All of these remind us of the Egyptian darkness,
so thick it could be tasted and felt.

Could the children of Israel, rebellious and 
frightened slaves, have lit their homes with
the symbolic light of faith or good deeds? 

Perhaps they cherished a glimmering hope
that man could achieve greatness on earth,
rather than in the pyramids of the dead. 

Perhaps they blew on the spark of their hope
that Israel, the lowliest of peoples,
might achieve freedom. 

In the thick darkness of the Egyptian night
they could not foresee how often the nations
would shoulder them out into the shadow,

How often their freedom would be reduced
to a flicker, burning for a moment
after the oil is gone. 

We pray God renew this miracle for us: 
that in the darkness of our age, in blackout
and rejection, in fear and ignorance,
He will cause a light to burn for us,

A light of learning, a light of freedom, 
a light of faith, a light of good deeds. 
These are the lights we pray will burn together
to make a bright blaze of hope for mankind. 
--Ruth Brin, from Interpretations. 

Monday, April 2, 2012

Blogging the Exodus Day 10: Greenery

Another pic for this one! Or in this case, a set of pics. Specifically, pictures my son took while we walked the dog around the neighborhood. Interesting to see things from his vantage; his height, what he thinks is important (he's also pretty good with a digital camera for a 4-year old). How do you see things differently?

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Blogging the Exodus Day 9: Spring

Yes, I skipped Day 8 (Faith and Strength): just didn't get around to blogging on Shabbat (funny that). I'll circle around to it, probably on Day 14.

In the meantime, Spring.