Wednesday, June 20, 2012

An Open Letter to Alice Walker

WARNING: Some folks aren't going to like this, are going to seek to read between the lines, and the like. Apologies in advance. But read the lines themselves. :)

Friday, June 15, 2012

Refuah Sheleimah

Phyllis and Michael were among the first of my classmates in Rabbinic school to get married (excluding such wonderful folks as the Katz and Linder families, who came celebrating anniversaries already). They were the first in our class to bring new life into the world, their son David, in the fall of our fourth year. We spent our downtime in CPE talking about how she wanted to fill a minivan with children. So it was natural that she and Michael, now serving congregations in Chicago and among the rising stars of our movement, would have four children, two minivans, and the kind of joyous, chaotic household that seem to only appear on television.

So it was with the most profound sadness that they announced that their second child, Sam (age 6) was diagnosed with leukemia. As a parent, as a colleague, as a friend, it sends my head spinning and makes me sick to my stomach, so I can't imagine how their world has turned inside out.

They're blogging their experience (Phyllis has always been very social media and technology oriented) so that people know how to support them. The blog can be found at In the meantime, please offer prayers of healing for Shmuel Asher ben (HaRav) Pesach Esther.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

In praise of beer at annual meetings

"So B. and I were thinking about getting beer? Thoughts?"

Believe it or not, this was the text I got an hour before our annual meeting from S., a board member and one of the organizers. 

Now, let me explain. 

This year, our intrepid president Jan decided that our normal format for the annual meeting (weeknight, light dessert, no one comes) should be eschewed in favor of a Saturday night Havdallah picnic, outdoors, complete with grilling (we own a grill as a congregation for such events). We'd had barbecues for the beginning and end of school, and Selichot, so it wasn't out of the realm of possibility, and most people thought it was a Very Good Thing. So good, in fact, that we had 100 RSVPs and the membership committee made it into a prospective member event. 

So we were planning on a casual evening, with beautiful weather, a camp-style Havdallah service, and goodies on the grill, when this text came in. 

My response was immediate: "Sure!" And so there was beer at the annual meeting, or rather, the picnic that proceeded it. 

I'm sure there are those who would poo-poo such a thing, encouraging drunkenness (I think a few people had all of two beers, and that was the max) but let me tell you why it was a good idea. 

Our tradition is one that believes in moderation (go as Maimonides), and beer in moderation is something that adults enjoy. More than that, seeing the beer, even if people didn't imbibe, signaled to people that this was more like a family gathering--a reunion or summer barbecue--than a stuffy, formal 'synagogue' event. It's not about the alcohol, it's about the tone that's set, and seeing a Sam Adams Summer ale in the hands of the rabbi (or one of our oldest members) signaled to people that they could let their hair down and relax a little, and behave as if they're in someone's backyard and not an 'annual meeting'. 

And it did have a backyard feel: kids running around and playing, older 'family' members reminiscing (some with a bottle in hand), a wonderful mix of longtime and our newest (and even some prospective) members milling about and sharing with one another. 

I'm not saying we need beer at everything (though I think it would make our onegs more interesting!); what I am saying is that an annual meeting--or any gathering at the synagogue--should have that feeling of family and friends and neighbors coming together--COMMUNITY coming together, and sometimes you need simple signifiers--like what's available to drink--to help people achieve that sense of belonging. Or, to misquote Ben Franklin: Beer is proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy. 

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

David Bryfman on The Consequences of Free | eJewish Philanthropy: Your Jewish Philanthropy Resource

David Bryfman on The Consequences of Free | eJewish Philanthropy: Your Jewish Philanthropy Resource: "
“So congratulations to all of you out there who have managed to get large numbers on your free programs. All you’ve managed to do is prove the point that people will do absolutely anything for free. And the numbers are staggering. But now ask yourselves, why would anyone who has been thrown free Jewish life milestones now think they are valuable enough to pay for others of more or greater significance?… Are we as a community brave enough to hit ‘pause’ if not reset’? Can we take a step back and look at the consequences of free and see if we can utilize its undoubted power, its magnitude, to really transform the Jewish community as a whole?”"

'via Blog this'

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Sermon from Friday: T-Shirts and Torah

For those who missed my sermon from last Friday, here it is!

As those who see me regularly at the JCC gym or in my ‘civvies’ can attest, I am a fan of the snarky T-shirt. Oh, don’t get me wrong, I enjoy my vintage nerd t-shirts as much as the next Gen X-er, with Star Wars and Marvel Secret Wars shirts pulled out for special occasions. But it is the ones with text-based silliness that make me the happiest; T-shirts that say, for example, “White Text on a Black Shirt”. Then there’s my “Rabbi-Ninja” shirt, of course. Or Debra Steinberg’s favorite: the one that looks like an old Apple query box that asks “would you like to destroy the universe?” with “OK” highlighted, ready to be clicked on with an imaginary mouse. Or “Republicans for Voldemort” for you Harry Potter fans (and those who aren’t can ask those who are). I have yet to get the T Shirt of ultimate disambiguation (it says “NO”) but it’s on the list. My latest and most favorite shirt at the moment, however, reads “Non Flammable? Challenge Accepted.” 
I love this shirt, not only for its adolescent bravado and promise of pyrotechnics—although that’s good too. I love it because there is a deeper meaning to the shirt as well. In our tradition there is a word—‘farbrent’, literally on fire, and to be called farbrenta is to be passionate, in Hebrew, Kanah. Fire is often used by the Chasidic writers to indicate passion, but not just for any thing or person. It means, for them, passion for God, for holiness, for that pure, unadulterated joy that comes from deep connection to the spiritual and living that connection in everyday life. And this week, we read of people who were full of that passion: the nazir. Nazirites, if you recall, were people who pledged to take on extra restrictions and responsibilities for a set period of time—a year, for example—out of their piety. As a sign of their status, they were to wear their hair long, and refrain from drinking alcohol, and avoid contact with the dead. They are to be, as the text says, holy to God. 
Often we look askance at the passionate person, much as we look askance at the person cackling while holding the book of matches. Kanah, of course, also means ‘zealous’, and we have no stomach for zealots. After all, as Winston Churchill wrote, they can’t change their mind and won’t change the subject. But for the Chasids, passion, fire, was a sign of piety, a sign that you took God—and God’s world—seriously. Not dourly, mind you: taking God’s world seriously means taking everything in full measure, including happiness, love, delight, celebration. And so if you could inspire that burning, that yearning, that fire in someone else, if you could encourage another to be passionate, encourage another to be holy to God, then you were a successful Chasid indeed. 
And so this T-shirt I see as not just a challenge to see if I can light the tablecloth on fire (which a confirmation student did one year, don’t ask). Rather, it’s a call to light people’s hearts on fire, to encourage them to be holy for God. 
And why not? It seems to me that so many of us strive to keep our hearts non-flammable. We resist moments of emotion, of connection, calling them ‘sentimental’, or knowingly resort to humor to dampen any perceived enthusiasm. We have been fooled too many times, watched too many heroes fall, gotten our hopes up only to have them dashed to the ground. As the Who sings famously: We won’t be fooled again.
And yet…when we do that, when we damp down the fires in our hearts, when we leave them cold to the warmth of prayer, of compassion, of connection to our fellow person, really we cheat ourselves out of the opportunity to warm others, to repair God’s world, to fulfill our nature as God’s creatures! We yearn for warmth and closeness, and can’t helped but be moved when we encounter real connection with another. And if you don’t believe me, hold the hand of another person, even for a minute, and tell me you don’t feel something. God wants us to be farbrenta for each other, and when we let cynicism enter our hearts instead, we put out the fires, and leave ourselves and each other, in the words of Ruth Brin, craven and cold. 
But, I can hear you say, it’s just a silly T-shirt! You’re making something out of nothing! Perhaps, but I would argue that Torah is where you find it, and that seeking, that yearning, requires us burn with love for one another and bring each other into the light—the warmth—of compassion and care. Would that we all sought to light on another’s’ hearts on fire, to walk by the light of our God. That is our challenge. Challenge, God willing, accepted. Amen.