Thursday, September 26, 2013

Things I'm grateful for

The holidays are over. The mahzorim are back on the shelf. All that's left is to take down the Sukkot, change the Torah mantles back to their regular colors, and get the white robe dry-cleaned. But now that we're in the month of Tishrei's swan song, I'd be remiss if I didn't share some thoughts about this past month, mostly what I'm grateful for.

This has been an amazing month, possibly the best High Holidays I've experienced in my brief rabbinic career. Sermons were well received, Gift Of Life recruited over 100 people to the Registry, we collected nearly 5000 pounds of food for the Food Bank of Delaware. Lay participants were amazing, the music was amazing; from the High Holidays to the Festival, the beginning of Religious School and Simchat Torah and Confirmation, everyone brought their 'A' game. But for me, it was the little things, the personal things, the small moments that made the difference.

A lot of it goes back to my son. He insisted on helping me put up and take down the Sukkah. A few weeks ago he came to me wanting to listen to Shabbat music he found on Youtube. Before last night, he practiced the shema for Consecration with enthusiasm, then last night he wanted to read his little Torah for his bedtime story. We were reading a "Peanuts" comic and Schroeder was talking about "Fur Elise", so we listened to it on the computer, and I watched his eyes grow wide listening to the music. For school E's teacher wanted us to share our hopes for him for this year. So I wrote them down, but then E wanted to hear them. We talked about learning to try and not wanting to be perfect, to experience new things, to defend his values with his words, and he was totally tuned in. He's a 6-year old boy, not the Baal Shem Tov: he still wants to spend most of his time talking Pokemon and Lego Chima, but these last few weeks have been filled with amazing moments of sharing and joy.

Normally, the holidays are hell on a rabbinic family, but Marisa and I have been able to find time to share quiet moments, to go out and celebrate with friends, to support one another, and to have her wisdom and strength throughout.

People came this year with a positive attitude. I can't explain it, but I'm also not going to question it. People came to the holidays (largely) happy and engaged, or at least open to engagement. It makes all the difference.

Last Sunday I Skyped with a pile of my High School buddies, and for a few hours I was 17 again. I don't advise it regularly, but it was wonderful and renewing.

I'm sure if I thought about it, I could come up with more. But for all these, I am grateful.

Saturday, September 14, 2013

Yom Kippur Sermon 2: We Belong Together

Rabbi Yair Robinson
Yom Kippur Morning 5773

Once upon a time there was a town with a tiny synagogue. They had no rabbi, a small building, and only enough Jewish adults that if everyone came to services, they could make minyan. So every Friday, every Shabbat morning, every Holiday, each adult would come to services, because they knew they were needed. They taught each other’s’ children, they celebrated together, said Kaddish together, broke bread together. Then one day, a new family moved to town, bringing up the number of eligible members of the minyan to 13. The community rejoiced—they hadn’t had a new family in years. They celebrated the new family together with a special Shabbat dinner and service. Everyone was full of joy. The following day, at Shabbat morning services, only eight people came.
What are we to learn from this story? There are many—an entire generation—that remember a time when, while the synagogue wasn’t 10 people, it was pretty close to this ideal. Everyone was the same generation, had the same experiences, and worked together intimately to create a sacred community. Everyone was needed, and everyone participated. Ask someone about the brotherhood breakfasts, the meetings in people’s living rooms, the marches, the favorite teachers, and you get the idea.
It’s easy to say, “Oh, we’re such a big congregation now. It doesn’t matter. We have staff, we have Clergy. We don’t count. Therefore, I don’t have any responsibility toward this. It’s someone else’s problem.”
Everyone in a congregation counts. Every dollar donated, every person who teaches, who volunteers his or her time, who shares the history of a congregation and preserves it for the next generation, who sings, who plays an instrument, who trains up new leaders, who even just brings a friend or a new family to a program or service. Everyone who contributes of his or her wealth wisdom or work moves this congregation forward. Everyone counts.
How do we count? We all contribute in different ways; Yehuda Leib of Ger reminds us that each person has a unique knowledge of God's greatness, and only that person can share that spark of holiness with the world. To withhold that talent, that ability, that spark from the congregation would be the equivalent of what happened in that story. We cannot assume someone else will do it; it is our task, all of us, to our ability and blessing.
I have spoken with people who describe themselves as spiritual, who talk about studying Judaism for themselves without any interest in participating in the larger community. I’ve spoken to people whose connection is through their chavurah, or their small circle of friends, but as a result now don’t know more than half the congregation, and feel less and less of a connection. There is a reason Judaism insists on a minyan for worship, especially the most critical prayers. Ours is a religion of community, not individuality. Jewish values fly in the face of American ideals of the rugged individual, all on their own. In Judaism, you didn’t build that—not on your own. You don’t suffer alone, in the dark, no matter what the joke about the light bulb says. In Judaism we come together, we share together. We cling to one another. And in fact, we don’t just count each other as a number; we recognize the specific holiness, the specific quality of the person before us. There is a tradition in Judaism that when we count a minyan, we don't count by number, we use the first line of Ma Tovu, the verses from Torah and the morning service, each syllable of the first verse = 10. We do this to remind ourselves that people aren't just numbers. We do this to remind ourselves that our house is fair only when everyone counts and everyone does the work.
If that’s the goal, if that’s how it’s supposed to be, then why don’t we feel it? Or why don’t we feel it enough? What’s missing? Last night I talked about how too often we have that sense that our kishkes aren’t being nourished. We come to services (or not), come to programs (or don’t) and too often feel alone in the crowd. I mentioned that there is much work for me and leadership to do to help alleviate this, but there’s another ingredient, another crucial piece: YOU.
 Ask yourself: what is your gift, your talent, your unique knowledge of God you could be sharing with this place. Then ask the question: Why aren’t you sharing it? Maybe it’s because no one asked. An officer of the Federation told me that he was at a congregational meeting, and a longtime leader of the community confided in him that he had wanted to get involved in Federation, but no one asked. Perhaps no one knew to ask, but it didn’t matter—that officer immediately asked for the leaders’ help. Perhaps it’s because you didn’t think this was a place where your talents would be valued, or perhaps you had a great idea in the past and were rebuffed. Perhaps you shared it in the past, and after a while, you got tired. No shame in that. But it’s time to share, or share again, Knowing that you are the one who allows us to make blessings together.
This past summer we had a gathering on a Saturday afternoon to talk about trends in the Reform Movement. In our discussion, we talked about what we should expect from a synagogue: that it is caring, respectful of our individual needs, a place where Jews could gather to worship, study, and be with one another, that it be a place that was part of the greater community. But we also spoke of what the congregation should expect from us. The list—generated by laypeople of all ages, backgrounds, and levels of engagement—ranged from the expected: fiscal participation, for example, to the unexpected. What I learned from that experience is that people want to feel needed, want to know that they matter, want to know that this place isn’t just a place of convenient Jewish experience, but meaningful Jewish experience.
So let me then, respectfully, tell you what is needed of us—ALL of us. And it’s very simple. We need to be here.
That’s it. We need to be here. We need to be present in each other’s lives. Don’t tell me “I have enough friends.” Don’t tell me “it’s inconvenient.” Don’t tell me “I can never make it anyway, I don’t use it anyway.” We need to be here. Being part of a congregation is not the same as joining a gym, or a country club. It’s a promise, a covenant. When I woke up this morning, I didn’t think to myself, “I wonder if I’ll be a husband today?” “I wonder if I’ll be father today?” or even “I wonder if I’ll be a rabbi today?” Why? Because I promised. When I married Marisa, when Elishai came into this world, when I stood on the bimah of the Plum Street Temple, I swore an oath; I made a promise, one that changed my identity radically and permanently. I made a commitment to something larger than myself—marriage, fatherhood, the rabbinate.

Each of us has, in one way, shape or form, reaffirmed a promise made by our ancestors. We read today, “Kedoshim Tihiyu”, you shall be holy. We assume it’s a mitzvah, a commandment, but really, it’s an affirmation by God of something we as a people had already said at Sinai. We said, “Kol diber Adonai na’asei”, all that God has said, we will do. Only by making that commitment, that promise, was God able to proclaim our holiness. By affirming and reaffirming our connection to Judaism, we are making the same promise our ancestors made on that desert morning long ago.
Likewise, each of us have sworn an oath:  to this community, to our family, to our people. It’s swearing an oath, to support others in time of trouble, to celebrate with others in times of joy. To take each other seriously, and assume the best in one another. To speak words of love and praise when we see a harried volunteer or teacher or staffer doing their best to make something work, to share words of concern when we see a fellow congregant in pain, to embrace each other fully and see the face of God in one another even—and especially—when we disagree with one another. To worship and study and gather and break bread with and party with and raise kids and grandkids with each other. Because we promised. We made a covenant.
Sounds too simple, right? That’s not how our world works, right? To join a synagogue is a consumerist activity; we choose a synagogue by going ‘synagogue shopping’. We decide that our connection is tenuous: how often we’ve heard people say, “Oh, I quit because my friends weren’t there anymore”, “we weren’t using it”, “and our kids are grown.” But we are not consumers—we are CONGREGANTS. And congregants congregate. Because we promised.

No, we can’t do everything and be everywhere, but it was the sages of the Chasidim who said: when I say I can’t do everything, let it not be in order to do nothing. Let it be, instead, merely a recognition that I don’t have to do everything, that other people too will do their part to right wrongs, just as they—and I—will try not to add to the wrongs we see done each day. And friends, your absence from one another’s lives adds to the wrongs we see done each day. Because I will tell you, when we are here only for a few state occasions, when we see each other less, when we’re in each other’s lives less, that is when we begin to see each other as non-essential, that is when we assume the worst instincts in each other, that is when this place—and its participants—becomes inconvenient, that is when our hearts grow hard and coarse and that is when we stop counting.
I began with a story about a small community that chose to make itself smaller, not only in terms of size but in terms of quality, a community of individuals who shirked their responsibilities, their promises to one another, who forgot that each was essential to the other, and that the whole was nothing without the individual. We can write a different story, you and I. We can write a story of hands touching hands, of lives and joys and gifts shared and people supported and music and prayer made together. We can write a new story this moment. We can affirm our relationship—our promise—to one another. The poet David Whyte reminds us “there is no house like the house of belonging.” In this house, with each other, we belong together. Amen.

Yom Kippur Sermon 1: Standing Together, Standing Apart.

I want to share an experience I had with you some time ago, one that I suspect you can relate to. If you remember, a few years ago I went to the AIPAC conference. In case you’re worried, by the way, this isn’t an AIPAC sermon. That said, it was unlike any other experience I’d ever had, and I’ve been processing it ever since.
Now, a word about me and large gatherings of Jews: I’m really comfortable with them. I’ve been going to the URJ biennial since 1991. That doesn’t overwhelm me. Being in a room with five or seven thousand other Jews for services, or just milling around energizes me. Heck, I probably know half of the people in the room. Between my camp, HUC and youth group experiences, Biennial becomes Trafalgar square. Add to that my comfort in gatherings in general. Without popping my collar, I know how to work an oneg. Been doing it my whole life. In fact, Marisa and I frequently joke that, when we’re at a gathering of people we don’t know, we go into ‘oneg mode’ and just wade into the crowd, introducing ourselves, making conversation and connections.
But AIPAC was different. After going through security and getting my credentials, I walked down to the main convention floor, and suddenly realized that, other than the Delaware delegation and a couple of colleagues sprinkled about the 10,000 attendees, I didn’t know a single person. I was overwhelmed. I was alone. And I was miserable.
As I said, I’ve been spending a lot of time thinking about that experience. It’s not that the work we were doing wasn’t important—I bought into the reason for being there. It’s that I didn’t have enough points of connection with the other people there. For me, there wasn’t a sense of community. I made small talk with a couple of new people, exchanged business cards, and got to meet Shmuely Boteach, but otherwise felt like I got nothing out of the experience.
Notice what I just said. Because I didn’t make meaningful connections with people, I didn’t feel like I got anything out of it. Meaningful connections weren’t the reason for being there—it was never the point. The point was to learn about issues affecting Israel and advocate for the Jewish state on Capitol Hill. But that lack of engagement with others meant a lack of engagement with the program itself. I’m sure for those who are regulars they were ‘at home’, and no one was mean or explicitly rude, but for me it felt cold, distant and off-putting.
So why have I been thinking about it for the last two years? Because I worry—no, I know—that for too many of you, that’s your experience HERE. You want to be here, you want to make a connection. You’re good at connecting with others—you have a circle of friends and loved ones, and have no trouble schmoozing in your given circle. But when you come here, you’re alone, and miserable. Not because someone treated you explicitly poorly, and not because you’re not committed to the idea of being a part of the synagogue—you’re here, after all. But there’s a lack of engagement, a lack of comfort, a lack of connection. So you come, you have some chitchat, and you leave disappointed rather than renewed.
And so, increasingly, being a part of the synagogue doesn’t mean being a part of the synagogue, it means being apart from the synagogue. I can’t tell you how many people I talk to who leave the synagogue who say it’s because the kids are gone or they don’t use it, but in conversation we eventually get around to “my friends aren’t here anymore” or “I don’t feel connected to anyone here”. A lack of meaningful connection means a lack of engagement with the synagogue itself.
My friends, this is a problem. It’s a hard problem to see, because we look so successful, and in many respects, we are, or to borrow the punchline from the joke about the Jewish businessman, we’re comfortable. We have a beautiful building, a religious school filled to the brim, and a calendar so chock-full of programs it gives me a headache. Our pews are not empty on Friday night. But the problem is there. It’s there when I see people once active start to back away and eventually disappear without an explanation. I see it in folks who come to services but don’t stay for oneg—and not because they’re going out with a group from the Temple for a drink. I see it in Chavurot that are lovely to each other but seem to have very little connection with the synagogue itself. I see it in the folks who, despite this being my FIFTH high holidays, have never had so much as a conversation with me over a cup of coffee. And I see it in the occasional assumption of mistrust that no one wants to talk about: that new board members won’t know the history, while longtime leaders are trapped in the past, that the young and the old in our congregation work at cross purposes, and that we can’t speak truthfully AND sensitively at the same time.  
Friends, it’s not about the building—buildings exist to serve our needs, not the other way around. Programming, as wonderful as it is, can only do its job if people are engaged with each other, and not just the event. And knowing each of the different groups in the congregation, no one is trying to pull a fast one on anyone else. And by the way, the problem we face isn’t a catastrophe, not a crisis—yes, believe it or not, not every issue is a crisis! Ours is a good congregation, a healthy congregation, a normal congregation.  But we can be better. We can do better. We are good—we can be great. But it won’t happen if we don’t work together on this fundamental problem: a problem of relationships.
What do I mean? I mean that we’ve been spending a lot of energy—spiritual, financial, programmatic and emotional—on the wrong set of outcomes. For many of us, for too long, we’ve thought the goal was transactional: to belong to a synagogue in order to educate the kids, bury loved ones, participate in programming, have a place for the high holidays. But it’s no more about the programs than it is about the building. It’s not about giving the kids a bar mitzvah, or High Holiday tickets. Ron Wolfson articulates it well: The goal is…to become a Relational Jew, a Jew who views Judaism as impacting virtually all of one’s relationships.” 
Think about that: your Judaism impacting—in a positive way—your relational choices: at work, at school, at home, with your friends, with your family, with yourself and—dare I say it—with the still small voice of God within you. Belonging to a Jewish community, then, is not about getting an outcome, it’s about engagement; it’s about relating to your fellow Jewish man or woman.
The question is how.
The first part requires all of us to be a little more optimistic, a little more hopeful, and a little more kind in our interactions with each other. Let’s assume good intent toward one another. Let’s assume we’re all here to help and support one another, to love one another the best way we know how—not necessarily the way we want, but the way we can. True, a new board member doesn’t know the history of what happened here in the 1970s, but she still works for the good of the congregation and to benefit her members. The parent who comes in bedraggled from a schedule packed to the gills is looking for help, but also for meaning, he just doesn’t always know how to ask for it. That doesn’t mean he wants the place to crumble. The phone call that comes from a stranger sometimes is about checking up and making sure you’re okay. And the good suggestion you want to share with the rabbi may just get heard and implemented—but only if you share it.
The second part is one of engagement. Much of it rests on me. As I said, this is my fifth high holidays, and too many of you I’ve only met once, or not even once. You’re going to be hearing from me. You’re going to get personal invitations to connect—here in the synagogue and out of the building, connected to a program and unconnected to anything except an opportunity to build relationships. We owe it to each other to deepen that connection, so when you get that envelope or phone call, say yes; to coffee, to wine-and-cheese before services, to a chance to study together. Say yes.
The third is going to require your help. We need to deepen our relationships with each other, to know one another better. Ask each other: what keeps you up at night? What gets you up in the morning? What crossroads are you at this week? But that means more than just showing up, it means reaching out and touching each other. If you have a suggestion how that can happen—great! Bring it forward. My answer will be yes. Let me say that again—it will be yes.
So why bother? Why do we need to do this? Is this just about dues, about preserving the institution? Nothing could be further from the truth. Those who know me well know that, while I’m loyal to the people of Beth Emeth, I’m not one for perpetuating institutions for their own sake. If Beth Emeth were failing its members, utterly failing, I’d be among the first and the loudest to say it was time to pack it in. We are not failing. We’re doing good work, we’re serving needs. But it’s time to take it to the next level. It’s time to ask the question “why are you here” and not answer “because I get this, that or the other thing” out of my dues, but to answer “Because we need each other, and the greater community needs us.” “Because by sharing in study, worship, singing, and gathering with my fellow Jews, I feel renewed, energized; I grow as a person when I’m there.” “Because this is where my friends are: we support each other.” “Because my voice and experience matters.”
Two years ago I asked the question: Why are you here? Tonight I ask the question again. Are we here out of a sense of obligation, or to get our money’s worth, or are we here with a great and heavy ambivalence? Or are we here because, on this holiest day of the year, it’s essential to touch and be touched by people who share our people’s values, because we love each other deeply and fiercely? I hope the answer to the latter is yes; but I appreciate that for many, getting to yes will take time and effort. Tonight we ask the question, tomorrow we explore more deeply how we’re going to get there. But for now, we end with a prayer:

Hear, O Israel-
On this Sacred Day we Stand:
We stand together,
We stand apart
Our hearts ache to reach toward each other,
But we don’t know how.
We are seeking one another
We are seeking our God in each other’s eyes
May our efforts be received with love
May our Kavannah, our intention, be shared
And may we come to fulfill the words of Our Torah
That we stand Facing one another
And thus facing the God who loves this people

And calls us to love each other. Amen. 

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Wise Counsel, and a prayer for forgiveness

From the Wisdom of Ben Sira, as recorded in the Birnbaum High Holiday Prayerbook: 
Reverence for the ETERNAL is the root of wisdom,
and the branches of wisdom are long life.
Do not exalt yourself, or you may fall
And bring disgrace upon yourse.f
He who provides for his father atones for his sins;
He who honors his mother is like one who gathers treasure.
My child, help your father in his old age;
do not grieve him as long as he lives.
As water will quench a blazing fire,
So kindliness will atone for sin.
My child, do not defraud the poor of their living;
do not make the eyes of the needy wait long.
Do not pain a hungry heart;
Do not anger a man in distress.
Listen to what a poor man has to say,
and give him a peaceful and gentle answer.
Do not put off turning to the ETERNAL;
Do  not postpone it from day to day.
Do not be known as a whisperer;
do not set an ambush with your tongue.
Do not follow your impulses,
But refrain from your longings.
Do not indulge in too much luxury,
And do not be tied to its expense.
Flee from sin as from a serpent,
For it will bite you when you come near it.
Do not be angry with  your neighbor,
And overlook men's ignorance.
Forgive your fellow man his wrongdoings,
Then your sins will be forgiven when you pray.

My heart is open to the hearts of others.
I forgive those who have wronged me this year.
May they not stumble on my account. 
I ask forgiveness of all I have done. 
May I live up to their--and my own--expectations.
O God we plea before you: give us wisdom, love and kindness
 to forgive each other and ourselves.  Pardon the iniquities of this People, of all people.
May we all live up to the words of your Torah, fulfill Your Sacred word:
"The ETERNAL said: 'I pardon according to your plea.'"

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

On September 11th

 קֹטֶר הַפְּצָצָה       

קֹטֶר הַפְּצָצָה הָיָה שְׁלֹשִׁים סֶנְטִימֶטְרִים
וְקֹטֶר תְּחוּם פְּגִיעָתָהּ כְּשִׁבְעָה מֶטְרִים
וּבוֹ אַרְבָּעָה הֲרוּגִים וְאַחַד עָשָׂר פְּצוּעִים.
וּמִסָּבִיב לָאֵלֶּה, בְּמַעְגָּל גָּדוֹל יוֹתֵר
שֶׁל כְּאֵב, וּזְמַן, פְּזוּרִים שְׁנֵי בָּתֵּי חוֹלִים
וּבֵית קְבָרוֹת אֶחַד.  אֲבָל הָאִשָּׁה
הַצְּעִירָה,  שֶׁנִּקְבְּרָה בַּמָּקוֹם שֶׁמִּמֶּנּוּ
בָּאָה, בּמֶרְחַק לְמַעְלָה מִמֵּאָה קִלוֹמֶטְרִים,
מַגְדִּילָה אֶת הַמַּעְגָּל מְאֹד מְאֹד,
וְהָאִישׁ הַבּוֹדֵד הַבּוֹכֶה עַל מוֹתָהּ
בְּיַרְכְּתֵי אַחַת מִמְּדִינוֹת הַיָּם הָרְחוֹקוֹת
, מַכְלִיל בַּמַּעְגָּל אֶת כּל הָעוֹלָם
וְלֹא אֲדַבֵּר כְּלָל עַל זַעֲקַת יְתוֹמִים
הַמַּגִּיעָה עַד לְכִסֵּא הָאֱלֹהִים
וּמִשָּׁם וָהָלְאָה וְעוֹשָׂה
אֶת הַמַּעְגָּל לְאֵין סוֹף וְאֵין אֱלֹהִים

The diameter of the bomb was thirty centimeters
and the diameter of its effective range about seven meters,
with four dead and eleven wounded.
And around these, in a larger circle
of pain and time, two hospitals are scattered
and one graveyard.  But the young woman
who was buried in the city she came from,
at a distance of more than a hundred kilometers,
Enlarges the circle considerably,
and the solitary man mourning her death
at the distant shores of a country far across the sea includes the entire world in the circle.
 And I won’t even mention the crying of orphans
that reaches up to the throne of God and
beyond, making
a circle with no end and no God.

-Yehudah Amichai

Thursday, September 5, 2013

Erev Rosh Hashanah 5774: The Gift of Life

Rabbi Yair Robinson
Congregation Beth Emeth
Erev Rosh Hashanah 5774: Gift of Life

When in your time on earth have you had the opportunity to save someone else’s life? How often have you had the opportunity to save another person’s life? If presented with the opportunity to save a life, would you do so?

It’s a challenging question, and I’m sure you’re thinking of this time you had to drive a loved one to the hospital, or that time you called in a traffic accident, or perhaps a time you used the Heimlich maneuver or CPR on a person.

As a people, we take life seriously. The principle of pikuach nefesh, of saving life, trumps all other mitzvot, all other Jewish laws and traditions. If observing the Sabbath would prevent you from saving a life, you violate Shabbat. If performing ritual circumcision might jeopardize the child because of family medical history, you don’t circumcise the child. Donating organs is permitted so long as it will save lives and the ‘discarded’ organ is buried respectfully. Doctors, nurses, and other professionals tasked with saving lives are not required to sit a full seven days of shiva. Indeed, I once had a surgeon come to me who agonized over missing Yom Kippur because of his call schedule, and I told him that he needed to be in that hospital, that it was his sacred obligation to be in that hospital because of pikuach nefesh. Pikuach Nefesh even holds true in challenging and upsetting circumstances: if you have the means to stop someone who has a weapon and is pursuing another individual, even if that means killing the armed assailant, you do so, to save a life. Likewise, abortion in the case of a mother whose life is in jeopardy, even very late in a pregnancy, is required in order to save the life of a mother. That’s not Liberal Judaism folks, that’s Judaism—from the Mishnah to Maimonides to the Shulchan Aruch.

So let me ask again, and let me ask this way: what if I told you there was a way  you could save someone’s life, right now. A way to fulfill the mitzvah of pikuach nefesh. Would you do it? To save someone who, without your help, would certainly die.

There is a way, and it’s right outside this door. It’s called “Gift of Life” . Gift of Life is one of the nation’s public bone marrow registries helping children and adults find donors for bone marrow transplants.   What does that mean? It means that children and adults who, without a bone marrow transplant, would die of leukemia, or some other blood cancer, are able to be cured. Someone like Sam.

Sam is the son of friends of mine, fellow rabbis. Those who follow me on Facebook or Twitter have probably seen their posts. Phyllis and Michael, Sam’s parents, are rabbis in Chicago, classmates of mine. They have four children. Sam is their third. He’s seven. He loves superheroes and hanging out with his grandparents, videogames and everything you’d expect a 7-year old to love. He has a pet turtle named Speedy. He also has acute myeloid leukemia. This is a rare form of Leukemia, at least for children. He was diagnosed around two years ago, and has been fighting it with chemo and radiation since then. Chemotherapy and radiation alone will not cure him of his leukemia. In fact, he’s had a relapse just this past spring, and after three months out of the hospital, had to return for inpatient treatment. He needs a bone marrow transplant.

As of right now, there are fewer than 300,000 registered donors with Gift of Life. They have matched over 10,000 individuals and facilitated nearly 2500 transplants. And you could be one of those registered donors. How does this work? It’s something I’ve done myself, years ago. On Yom Kippur, you will see a station. There you’ll find volunteers, led by HarrietAnn Litwin, who will ask you to fill out some minor paperwork, and take a swab of your cheek. It’s a giant q-tip that they rub inside your mouth and then bag. Anyone ages 18-60 is eligible to be a donor; anyone of any age could be a volunteer. Those giant q-tips are bagged carefully and sent to Gift of Life with your paperwork, adding you to the registry. It may be days, or weeks, or years before you receive a call verifying that you are a match for someone, and then asking if you would be willing to donate bone marrow or stem cells.

What does donation look like? For bone marrow, they bring you in, and an anesthesiologist puts you in a twilight state. They use a needle to extract the bone marrow from your hip. When you come out of the anesthetic, it’s a little uncomfortable, like you were kicked in the side, and you take some Advil and go home. For stem cells, it’s much like donating blood, or more specifically, donating platelets. You’re injected with a medication that encourages the stem cells to move from the bone marrow to the bloodstream. A cell-separating machine filters out the stem cells, which can then be infused in the recipient. It takes between 60-90  minutes.

One or two hours of inconvenience in order to save a life. A couple of Advil to save a life. Is it worth it? The answer is unquestionably yes. For a kid like Sam, the answer is yes.  On the holiest day of the year, will you fulfill the mitzvah of pikuach nefesh, of saving a life? I hope the answer is yes.

This past spring, I got a phone call. As I told you, I was cheek swabbed some years ago. They think I might be a match, and wanted to know if I was willing to be a donor. After a few questions exploring the possibility, I said yes. I haven’t heard back—it may be that they don’t need me, that someone is a better match. But how could I say no? How could any of us say no, knowing that in our marrow, in our blood, may be the key to bringing someone to a complete healing.
I strongly encourage you to go to the Gift of Life website, to pick up a handout on your way out of this service, to ask questions, and then come and add yourself to the donor registry on Yom Kippur. And I encourage you, on their website, to go and read the donor stories there, stories of people who lost their friends to cancer, who felt called to help these young people with cancer, who added themselves while at camp, on a birthright trip, at synagogue, in some way to fulfill the mitzvah of pikuach nefesh, who simply donated because it was the right thing to do. And if you cannot donate due to age or for a medical reason, I strongly encourage you to think about how else you can help.

Sam is lucky--he has a donor, he has a match; he had his transplant last Monday. Too many people are waiting for that match.

We read in Talmud Sanhedrin: if you save a single life, scripture ascribes merit to you as if you saved the entire world. Each life is a world of its own, and we have an obligation to protect and secure that life. I hope you’ll choose to join me on the Gift of Life register and help fulfill the mitzvah of pikuach nefesh, of saving lives.

Rosh Hashanah Morning 5774: What Does It Mean To Be A Jew?

Yair D. Robinson
Yom Kippur Morning 5774: To be a Jew

A man imprisoned and cast into a spell.
A man condemned to be the snake
Who keeps watch over infamous gold.
A man condemned to be Shylock
A man bent over the earth in hard work
Knowing that once he stood in Eden.
An old man with his eyes put out who will bring down the walls.
A man condemned to wear a mask,
A man who in spite of man is Spinoza and the Baal Shem and the kabbalists.
A man who is a book
A tongue that praises from the depths
The justice of the skies.
A salesman or dentist who spoke with God on the mountaintop.
A man condemned to be the object of ridicule
The abomination, the Jew
A man stoned, set afire,
Asphyxiated in death chambers,
A man who endures and is deathless,
Who has now returned to his battle,
To the violent light of victory
Handsome as a lion in the twelve o’clock sun.
The words of Jorge Luis Borges, from the poem “Israel”, first published in 1970.
What does it mean to be Israel? What does it mean to be a Jew in today’s world, where identity is fungible, not fundamental, personal, rather than communal or tribal? What does it mean for you, for me, to be Jewish?
I suspect that is a question that’s on your minds today, especially today. And I would guess there are others of you who would rather not dwell on that question, those who are here regretfully, out of some ethnic or familial allegiance, but reluctantly, perhaps even resentfully, whose Jewish identity arises only when others call attention to it, frequently in the negative.
What does it mean to be a Jew? Is the question—that is to say, are we, relevant anymore? There is a lot of hand-wringing in the organized Jewish world today over that very question. Once barred from schools, professions, and civic organizations, we clung to each other, or when we did reach out, we did so with an explicit understanding that we were bringing our corporate values to the public square. We were speaking up as Jews for an issue—be it liberalizing school holidays, or policies in the workplace, or causes that were near and dear to us. I’m not necessarily describing religious values, but values that perhaps any minority would embrace: tolerance, acceptance, diversity, room for divergent voices where before people spoke only as one. I think of folks like Henry Schenker, who activelyengaged in interfaith dialogue, of Rabbi Drooz and Nardy Ableman, who made a point of going to Rotary club, and other countless individuals who were explicitly representing us. For them, what it meant to be a Jew was clearly defined: it was ethnicity, it was tribe. It was civilization: it was about being with your own people, your own kind, and promoting their welfare here and abroad, facing hostile enemies and threats.
But that was two generations ago. My father’s generation faced little persecution; I experienced almost none, despite growing up in a community where there were nearly no Jews at all. It has been two generations since intermarriage was stigmatized; today, it is normative. It has been two generations since Jews had no choice but to seek out other Jews; today, regardless of whether you grow up in Muncie Indiana or Monsey New York, whether you grow up fully assimilated or a Satmar Hasid, you can chart your own course. A generation ago you could discuss the differences between American values and Jewish values; the generation coming of age today—and their parents—don’t understand the question. The values of individual experience and autonomy trump tradition and text. Today, we as liberal Jews may find that we have more in common with our friends at Hanover Presbyterian in terms of how we live our lives and the expression of our daily values, than we do with our friends at Chabad on Silverside Rd., despite the fact that the National Presbyterian Church has for years been anti-Israel, and despite our friends on Silverside being members of the Tribe.
 A few years ago Alan Dershowitz wrote a book entitled “The Disappearing American Jew” (it seems we’re always disappearing, aren’t we?). What he failed to understand was that the American Jew wasn’t disappearing—it was merely a kind of American Jew that he recognized. For him, the American Jew was one who grew up in a Jewish neighborhood, who joined Jewish institutions reflexively, who married within the tribe, raised kids within the tribe, who shared cultural and ethnic markers with one another. Today, that doesn’t hold water at all. I often share an article with folks called “Judaism is not Chicken Soup”. Written by a Jew-by-choice, it laments that image. He didn’t grow up with Yiddish and kneidlach. His Judaism isn’t ethnic, or tribal. It’s spiritual, it’s personal, and it’s rooted in the choices he made. But because he wasn’t  raised as an ‘insider’, he laments that he may ever feel like an outsider. And we know that too often this is true. How many times have I heard people say, “oh, it’s an intermarriage—the Bride converted.” As if her commitment to a new faith, a new set of traditions, a different way of looking at the world wasn’t somehow enough to count her in?
What does it mean to be a Jew today? How often do we base the question not on belief, or spirituality, or theology, or connection to text, but on actions that may be irrelevant to our lives. In Inventing Jewish Ritual, The writer Vanessa Ochs laments [quote here]. Is that really how we define our Jewishness? Should those pieces be what defines our Jewishness? And if we don’t do them, is our Judaism even relevant? At the same time, how often have we heard—in fact we may ourselves have expressed—Jewish values reduced to ‘just be nice to one another’ or ‘follow the ten commandments’? Is that even Judaism anymore? What makes that Jewish, as opposed to just being a nice person?
What does it mean to be a Jew today? It means a whole host of diverse experiences and understandings, a myriad of different voices coming together or separating us based on values shared and in conflict. The liberal Jew, the secular Jew, the traditional Jew all on a continuum of practice and understanding, all too frequently questioning one another’s authenticity, creating false boundaries because of hidebound fears. Fears of the empowerment of women—in the case of the Orthodox establishment in Israel, fears that experimenting with tradition, with kashrut, with taking Torah seriously—not literally but seriously—will get one pegged as ORTHODOX, and therefore to be viewed with suspicion by the liberal community. It means existing in silos, duplicating efforts, fearing boogiemen, remembering those who have died because they were Jews without giving people reason to LIVE as Jews. It means creating program after program hoping desperately that our children—marrying older, having children later—will raise up another generation without taking the time to either empower them to create experiences and community for themselves, just as every other generation has.
What should it mean to be a Jew today? It means to live up to our mission, to God’s vision for us, a vision and mission we read this morning. We shall be holy. We are a chosen people, a light to the nations—not to be better, but to be exemplars. We are chosen to do work in the world, to redeem it, to heal it, to root out injustice and remind each other of our diversity and our unity. We are chosen not to be elevated except to shine a light—Israel is not on a pedestal, we’re a lighthouse.
That means accepting the past without smoothing it over or pretending the past doesn’t bleed into the present. We have been an oppressed people. There is still hate and ignorance today throughout the world and in our own community. To many, we are still Fagin and Shylock, we are still slaves in Egypt, and to pretend otherwise is to do a disservice to the generations who came before, and the other myriad minorities in our midst who can’t laugh off a joke and ‘pass’ for the majority. We were strangers once, we are strangers still, the consummate outsider, the prophetic people: when we see ignorance or injustice—in the way women are treated in the workforce, in the casual Jew joke, in the double standard black men are held to in this country—we must speak out, we must speak loudly, and we must act. We must act with a courage greater than ourselves—to speak out at injustice slight and great, to remind the people around us that they were created in God’s image and that means something.
And that means we need each other. To be a Jew is a communal experience. There is a reason we join together in minyan. We study together, we break bread together, we pray together, we mourn together, we rejoice together. We’re good at rallying together when we’re in jeopardy—we don’t come together enough in Joy: to dance at Simchat torah, to sing at Shabbat, to celebrate another child’s bar mitzvah or our confirmation class when they are called up to the Torah. We treat those as private events, meant for a specific group or family. Worse, we sometimes communicate that to each other. We don’t invite all our kids’ classmates, we don’t expand our circle of friends and invite them to sit with us at services, we get uncomfortable when older people come to Kabbalat Shabbat or young children come to services and act like children. The widow or single person too often sits alone, and goes home alone. And frequently, those who are happy to help others reject the loving extension of support when they’re the one in need. For the Jew, these are all communal experiences, meant for everyone, but they only work if everyone embraces each other fully and extends the invitation. Not just leadership, or clergy, or staff, but everyone.
And that community must extend beyond the one we make for ourselves. Israel may not be perfect, but it is ours. We may be angry with our Orthodox brothers and sisters for their rejection of us and their frequent attempts to stymie our progressive values, but our anger must the anger of family members, and not the indifference of strangers. Because the reality is that the challenges are so great we cannot tackle them ourselves. And that is true of non-Jews as well. There is too much poverty, too much damage to our planet, too many people young and old who are suffering from violence and neglect. Vision and mission are never for ourselves alone; to act as such would be an act of tremendous ego, of hubris, mistaking the lighthouse for a pedestal, shining the light in the wrong direction. We must lift those around us up, we must educate in word and in deed, we must make as much of a difference as we can, TOGETHER.
And that means keeping hope. To be Jewish is to be sarcastic, we know that. Our humor is black, and sharp, and speaks to our past disappointments. But sarcasm is different than cynicism. Indeed, we could argue that sarcasm is the humor of hope. We cannot grow cynical, cocooning ourselves away from the plight of the world, ignoring those around us who disappoint us. So long as we see our individual needs as primary above our mission as a people, then we will always be disappointed by those around us, and see them as obstacles, inconveniences. Our mission reminds us: we shall be holy, we may be holy, but we are entitled to nothing. We were chosen for a task; we must fulfill it, and we cannot let our own experience get in the way, our anticipated dissatisfaction get in the way.
What does it mean to be a Jew? It means to struggle mightily with beings human and divine, and it means prevailing. It means remembering that we are a prophetic voice in the world, and that we stand together. It means turning to the tasks of life not only for personal fulfillment but to reshape the world, to heal it entirely. It means at last stepping up out of our doldrums, taking up our mission, and returning to our battle, handsome as a lion in the noonday sun.

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Blogging Elul Day 28: Giving and Receiving

As you can tell, my postings have gotten more sporadic than I'd like. Probably to be expected--the holiday is that much closer. Synagogue life is picking up. Preparations, before conducted in earnest, are now at a fever pitch. Selichot services were beautiful, as always. The sifrei Torah are now covered in their High Holiday whites. On top of that, we've mourned with two families in the last week.

And yet everyone is wonderfully calm. And I've managed to carve out some 'normal' time--I had my fantasy football draft (really, an excuse to 'hang out' with my old high school buddies), we introduced the boy to Star Wars (Episode IV, natch) and got to watch my son's mind get totally blown away. The dog's getting walked and the family is having dinner together, what more can one ask?

It was watching my son watch Star Wars (and watching it again for the first time in far, far too long) that I remembered how whimsical it can be, and how mysterious, two qualities I wanted my boy to have as part of his life from the very beginning. And as I watched him play with friends or do a project with me, I was reminded that, in our mad focus to make the holidays 'perfect' or 'just so' for everyone else, we miss the point of the holidays themselves. To make us stop and wonder, as Abraham Joshua Heschel might say, in radical amazement at the world and our role, however small, in it.

I don't know whether I'll get a chance to blog again before tomorrow night, so I'll leave you with the words I shared with my colleagues in DERECH (Delaware Rabbis and Cantor's Association, where I'm president this year):

As we each put the finishing touches on sermons and services and programs, prepare to gather with family and friends, and carve out time for—God-willing—real cheshbon hanefesh, may we find in our ‘work’ the avodah God desires and that nourishes the kol d'mamma daka--The Still Small Voice--within each of us.

Wishing you and  yours the renewal that comes with the New Year, and profound hope for a meaningful year to come.