Thursday, October 31, 2013

The Rabbi Speaks: Reflections on the Islamic Society Service

Monday is my day off. My plan had been to do some odds and ends, help my son with homework, and watch the Red Sox beat the Cardinals and take the series back to Fenway Park. Instead, after dinner, I put on a jacket and tie and, along with members of my congregation, drove out to Newark Delaware to the Islamic Society of Delaware’s Center. 

I went because a couple of days earlier, some kids decided to wreck the place, vandalizing the building, putting up an ersatz cross with pieces of fence, and causing a lot of damage. 

The Islamic Center is a place of study, of worship, and of gathering. They have a school, a multi-purpose room used for meals and worship, and host a variety of programs. They also do a lot of interfaith work, participating with other houses of worship in the Newark area in a host of social justice and worship initiatives, and in the past have collaborated with Congregation Beth Emeth, Christ Church, Mt. Lebanon Church and others for pre-Thanksgiving Meal packing for those in need. It’s a very well kept building, but nothing elaborate. The kind of place you create when you’re just creating a community, and when you don’t exactly want to draw attention to yourselves. 

It was only stuff that got broken and damaged. Expensive, but only things; no people were physically hurt. But, having lived through seeing my own childhood synagogue vandalized a few times, it’s not the physical pain that matters most. 

What matters is the loss of dignity, that sense that this place that you’ve created, a place where you go to practice your faith and gather with others like you, is no longer safe. What matters is the fear, the reminder that, no matter how well-meaning others are, how much people say you’re a part of the larger community, you are a minority, with all the exoticness and concern that goes with that. What matters is the sadness, the conversations with kids who don’t understand why their beloved school is damaged, or why the police are there. The feeling that a lifetime’s worth of work building relationships with the greater community may have all been for naught. 

I’m proud to say that, despite all of those feelings—each perfectly appropriate—there was an antidote.
The Society got the word out to its interfaith partners very quickly. Soon, churches and synagogues were denouncing the violence, and publicizing the website where you could go to donate for repairs for the Center. Governmental officials and law enforcement came together. But much more than that, the community began to rally—first online, and then in person. 

So Sunday afternoon the word went out that there was going to be a service of unity and support for the Islamic Society on Monday night. I got the word out to the Jewish community as quickly as I could. As it happened, there was a program going on at the University of Delware Hillel (more on that in a bit), but I knew my place was to be at the Islamic Society service. They needed people to be there—and they needed Jews to be there. Why? Because we know what it’s like to be a religious minority—to have people question the authenticity of your place in society, to know that you see the world differently. Because while it hasn’t happened in Delaware (thank God), we know what it’s like to find damage done to our house of worship. Because usually, when people talk about the Children of Abraham—the descendants of Isaac and the descendants of Ishmael—the emphasis is when we’re in conflict with one another, forgetting always the moments when we’re in harmony with one another. Really, where else should I have been, could I have been, except with my brothers and sisters to show them our support? 

The first thing I noticed upon arrival was the hospitality. No surprise, really. Like the story of Abraham in Genesis, the commandment in Judaism of hachnasat orchim, the Islamic culture emphasized hospitality, welcoming the stranger. Here, it manifested in the repeated insistence to find a place, and all refusals to any help. 

We were blessed to have Senator Chris Coons speak—he made a bee-line from Washington to Newark to be with this community. A representative from Senator Tom Carper’s office (who happens to be Jewish himself), from the County Commissioner’s office, and Lt. Governor Matt Denn all came to speak. The Imams lead us in prayer and recitation of the Koran, their sacred scripture, and emphasized the importance of peace to their tradition—‘not to make us happy’ as the imam said, but because it’s true. 

Then they opened the floor to speak. Ministers from various denominations or religions stood up to speak and offer support. I stood up to speak. I talked of how when Abraham died, Isaac and Ishmael came together to bury their father together. All of us spoke of how we come together in a crisis, but as real friends, we ought to come together in times of joy as well. No matter; we were together, we were there, all of us—christian, muslim and Jew—filling their space with our presence and our voices. 

Very soon we’ll gather with our families for Thanksgiving—and some of us, Chanukah. We will gather to offer thanks for the safety and security of our homes, for our health, for our place in society, and football. I would ask you, as you prepare for your holiday, to think about how we can support others, and especially the Islamic Society, reminding them—and us—that they really are a part of our community.

Saturday, October 26, 2013

Parashat Chayei Sarah: "So what did you do?"

Years ago, when I was still in rabbinic school, I was visiting my inlaws and reading the paper, when my eyes glanced down to the obituaries. There, next to a picture of an older man, was the kind of tribute you would expect for a local politician, a writer of some renown, a local character, or sports hero. This man was none of those things. He was a retired postman who’d lived and raised a family in the same suburb of Washington DC his whole life, in all respects indistinguishable from any other retired postman, save one detail. He spent his life giving his money away to those in need. Now, I don’t mean he was a great fundraiser, or gave to various charities. I mean he gave every spare dollar he ever earned away to actual people—sometimes in person, sometimes finding out through a newspaper story about their plight—hundreds of thousands of dollars, all on the salary of a mailman. And he gave willingly, happily, knowing that those people—the mother with a sick child, the person who’d lost his job, the child who’d barely survived a car crash—needed the money more than he did. 

It was a remarkable story, and I still reflect on it from time to time today. As you might imagine, in my line of work, I spend a lot of time talking to people about how they want to be remembered, or how they remember their loved ones. So here’s this otherwise unassuming man willingly supporting others, and as a result, lovingly remembered. He was recognized as making an impact far beyond that of postman, or parent, or human being. He was remembered for his choices. 

The truth is, what’s remarkable about that obituary is not necessarily what he did, but that he represents a reality we rarely lift up. All of us are remembered, and we are remembered for our actions, for our choices.  We tend to think of our actions as bespoke, as once-in-a-lifetime events that then disappear into the ether. But they aren’t. Our choices have legs, our actions are remembered. I don’t even mean the Book of Life we agonize over at the High Holidays. I mean the people we encounter remember what we do, who we choose to be, and that becomes who we are, forever. 

If that’s true—and I believe it is—how does that change our behavior? How should it? If we know we’re going to be remembered by how we treat others—our actions are not going to fade into obscurity—do we behave differently? Or, to put it another way, how do we want to be remembered by those around us?
And Sarah’s life was a hundred years and twenty years and seven years, these were the years of Sarah’s life. That’s the literal translation of the first line of our torah portion. The Torah doesn’t say “Sarah lived 127 years”; rather it drags the length of her life out. Though the details of her life are left out, Each year is carefully drawn forth, as if to say ‘the years—and the actions—matter.’ Sarah’s life mattered—to Abraham and Isaac, to her family and her People, and to those around her. Her life had impact and meaning, and the Torah wants to make that clear for all of us, to teach us to make our choices count, as they will be remembered.
I remember a few years ago running into a woman, about my parents’ age, with her toddler grandson at a Restaurant once and asked what they were up to. “Making memories” she said with a glint in her eye. All our actions make memories, whether we intend them to or not. So, what did you do to make memories? Are they the actions you want remembered in your obituary? What will you do to be remembered? For we all surely will, and God-willing, our choices and years will count for something.

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Parashat Vayeirah: Hidden From View

Hassidim tell the story of the second Lubavitcher Rebbe, who was once so intent on his studies that he failed to hear the cry of his baby son. His father, R. Shneur Zalman of Ladi, heard and went down and took the baby in his arms until he went to sleep again. Then he went to his son, still intent on his books, and said, “My son, I do not know what you are studying, but it isn’t the study of torah if it makes you deaf to the cry of a child.”
Think about this week as you went about your business. What were you focused on, what were you attentive to, and what did you miss? Did you find yourself, upon reflection, realizing that you had, perhaps, focused on the wrong thing? That you were focused in the wrong direction?
We read this week: God appeared to [Abraham] at the Oaks of Mamre, in the heat of the day. Looking up, he saw three men standing near him. The rabbis understand this to mean that God was present tending Abraham after he circumcised himself, at the end of last week’s portion.  Other commentators point out that when Abraham looks up, he sees the three guests who will foretell Isaac’s birth, the ones who make Sarah laugh, so Abraham sees God is in the party. But what if there’s another meaning here? What if Abraham saw the three travelers, and seeing them, turned away from God to tend to their needs? Let me say that again: God is there, and Abraham blows God off in order to run—RUN! As a person pushing 100—to take care of these folks.
Actually, this shouldn’t surprise us. The Talmud teaches us that hospitality to wayfarers is greater than welcoming the divine presence, and Aaron of Karlin states that, when we turn our attention to others, we’re actually doing God’s will. God doesn’t want us fawning all over the divine self with ritual (you can hear Verna’s voice now asking “is this the fast I ask for”) but that we recognize the Godliness in each other and respond to it.
So what would that look like? It might look like stopping before saying something hurtful. It might look like noticing someone new at a gathering—like this one—and greeting that new person before going to your friends. It might look like not only thinking of the people we haven’t seen in a while but picking up the phone and calling them, or even writing a note to them, to let them know we care. It might be taking a deep breath when someone all of a dither distracts us from our oh-so-important task so we can focus on their needs.
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks wrote: “To live the life of faith is to hear the silent cry of the afflicted, the lonely and marginal, the poor, the sick, and the disempowered, and to respond.” To hear them, and to see them. To lift our eyes and see the people before us, so we can do God’s will. To see the work that is needed around us, rather than rushing off to our own task. Lift up your eyes this week. What will we see, and how will we respond? May we respond with the power God has given us—to mend what is broken, to lift up those who are fallen, to heal those who are hurt. Amen.

Friday, October 11, 2013

Lech Lecha: Walking the Walk

One day in the synagogue, Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berdichev seemed to be observing a group of his Hasidim as they prayed. When they were finished, he approached them with a hearty greeting, "Shalom aleichem!"
They looked startled to hear their rabbi pronounce the greeting traditionally given after returning from a long journey. "But Rabbi," they said, "we have not been anywhere!"
The rabbi continued to shake hands with them, as though they were travelers arriving in Berditchev. He said, "From your faces it was obvious that your thoughts were in the grain market in Odessa or the woolen market in Lodz. None of you were actually here while you recited the prayers, so I was glad to welcome you back once you stopped." 
This week we read: Adonai said to Avram: Get out from your country, from your family, from your father’s house, to a land that I will show you; And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, and you shall be a blessing; and I will bless those who bless you and curse him who curses you; and in you shall all the families of the earth be blessed.
Normally when we read these verses we tend to emphasize the going: as if the journey was some kind of quid-pro-quo for receiving the gift of the Land and the People; that the blessing is in response to the going. But one commentator suggests that we look at the blessing itself more carefully, for if we do we’ll find something else—that this is not a reward, but a command, a mitzvah, a sacred obligation. You and your descendants MUST live as to be a blessing.
I’m sure this week you’ve seen at least an article describing the Pew Foundation study on Jews in North America. If not, I encourage you to read the report itself. Most of the articles have involved the kinds of things you’d expect: the wringing of hands and the gnashing of teeth and the focus, as one writer for the Forward opined, about what we’re not. Apparently, according to the study, we’re not as religious as we used to be, we’re not lighting candles anymore, or focused on God, or affiliating. It’s as if the writers of those articles are focused not on where we are, but again are looking forward to the boogieman of a future without a Jewish people. But what if we focused on what we are today instead: that 94% of Jews are proud of their Jewishness, 70% feel connected to Israel, 73% feel remembering the Shoah is essential to their Jewish identity; and 69% feel the same about living ethically? What would happen if we looked at Jewish living not as something to do to get a reward of mere survival, but looked at our Jewish experience as essential to our own living, that to be Jewish is to be compelled to live one’s life as a blessing. Or, as Tolstoy wrote: ‘the Jew is that sacred being who has brought down from heaven the everlasting fire, and has illumined with it the entire world.’ What if we lived and expressed our Judaism in that way? Would we invest in moments of greater inspiration, or persist in creating gimmicky programs meant to bring people into the building? Would we take each other more seriously and invest in the individual and her experience, and seek to find ways to create meaningful community, or would we as a people continue to pour resources into preserving institutions or events? Will we see the present as an opportunity to invest in people seeking an authentic Jewish connection, or will we pine for the past and agonize about the future?
Perhaps those questions aren’t fair. There’s a lot of data to comb through, after all, and a lot of room for interpretation. But it seems to me that we could either see this report as a source of consternation or as an opportunity: to build relationships with individuals and Jewish community, among individuals who are craving inspiration, to better understand the blessing we are and live that way.

The midrash understands the words lech lecha-go—to mean “betake yourself”, meaning go forth and find your own authentic self, be who you are meant to be. So, who are you meant to be? What does it mean to be a blessing? How would this world be different if you lived that way, and how can we help make that happen? We must answer these questions for ourselves and together. Otherwise, the opportunity is lost, and the journey will only be in our heads. 

Monday, October 7, 2013

Book Review: Jerusalem: A Family Portrait

When I was in 6th grade, my father took a sabbatical in Jerusalem, so I finished elementary school there. I was an awkward kid at the time, had been bullied pretty heavily throughout the last years of elementary school, so it was great to get away from that. In Israel, I found a classroom dynamic that was radically different from the one I experienced back home, with a lot more freedom (walking to school every day, exploring the city on my own, pretty much organized chaos at recess). It was almost unreal how much kids were allowed to get away with, and it didn't make much sense to me until we took a field trip to the Cinemeateque to see the film Roveh Choliot (The Wooden Gun).
There were no subtitles in that showing and my Hebrew was weak at the time, but I understood it was about children growing up in 1950s Tel Aviv, in the shadow of the Holocaust and the War of Independence. With every adult scarred from their experiences and unable to talk about them, and with memories of childhood cut short by both conflicts, kids were given free reign, parents and teachers both incapable and unwilling to stop them until things turn deadly. 

The film was a sucker punch. While I'm sure it was meant to provoke a discussion about the Shoah or the War of Independence, instead I found myself processing everything through my own situation back in the US, where I knew I would have been the one on the receiving end of the beatings, never part of the gang, the bullied, not the bully, unable to understand his parents' brokenness. 

That same feeling came back to me as I read Jerusalem, A Family Portrait by Boaz Yakin and Nick Bertozzi. Set in Jerusalem in the late 1940s in the transition from Wartime British Mandate through the War of Independence, the graphic novel in aching black-and-white takes us through the lives of the Halaby family. Two sons fight for the Jewish Brigades in World War II; one, Avraham, becomes a communist, and because of his friendship with Arabs is labeled a traitor.  The other, David, after rescuing Jews from the Shoah and smuggling them to Palestine, becomes a Palmachnik, and is assigned a command on the assault on Latrun. A third son becomes a member of the Stern Gang and participates in the bombing of the King David Hotel and the massacre at Deir Yassin. The fourth son, Motti,  is too young for heroics, but is filled with anger that he takes out on schoolyard kids, british soldiers, his teachers, and succeeds in becoming quite the thief who brings home whatever the family needs, all the while watching his classmates die violently during the siege. We see the riots of 1947, the venomous antisemitism of the British soldiers, the daily sacrifices and compromises Jews and Arabs made to survive. 

It's not all history lessons: we're introduced to the Halaby brothers in their French class at the Ratisbone, a monastery in Jerusalem I used to walk passed every day on my way to class. There's flirting with girls, Avraham (the communist brother's) friendship with Elias from Deir Yassin, those same British soldiers in the pub missing home, and a city straining under the weight of it all. The shuk in Machane Yehudah comes alive as we see the most senior Halaby try (and fail) to sell sweets. Kids are given free reign, as their childhood may be cut short--either by having to bring home wages, being pressed into service as a courier for one of the Jewish groups, or a bomb attack by either side. The characters are portrayed in a clear-eyed fashion, and the atrocities are put into a context that takes none of the horror away while avoiding false equivalency or attempts at fair portrayal. The anger is real, the despair is real, the blood is real, the joy is real, and it leaves one with both a clearer and messier understanding of what went on in that first war for Independence.  Finishing a chapter leaves you gasping for air. We are given exactly what the title promises: a family portrait, filled with the complexities of one family's life, but also the complexities of living in Jerusalem at the violent light of the beginning of the Jewish state. In an era where we look for easy answers to the Palestinian-Israeli peace process, this book--like the film I saw in Sixth Grade--reminds of of how many intricacies and ghosts remain from the very beginning. 

Saturday, October 5, 2013

The Towers We Build

Rabbi Yair D. Robinson
Congregation Beth Emeth
Parashat Noach 5774 October 4 2013
One of the many joys of my career is that there’s enough flex in my schedule that I can, at least a few times a year, go volunteer in my son’s class. So I was thrilled that we and the other parents got a special invitation last week to “Pizza Friday”. What’s pizza Friday? On the last Friday of the month, the kids get to have lunch in the classroom rather than the cafeteria, and the parents are invited to join them. But there’s a catch: our job is to demonstrate appropriate conversational skills to the kids; engaging with them and each other and showing them how people are supposed to talk to one another.
So I’m sitting at a table, my knees up to my chin, talking to my son and a handful of other six-year old boys about what they did at recess, their favorite cartoon characters, what projects they’re working on in art class, all the while showing how to speak politely, respectfully ask and answer questions, and the like.
What struck me, though, were the other two dads at my table. One spent almost the entire time on his phone. The other tried to converse with the kids but clearly got overwhelmed. As we were walking out of the classroom the dad next to me said, “I don’t know how teachers do it, talking to kids all day long. It’s too nerve-wracking for me.”
Now, I get that Lego Chima, Pokémon and ninjas aren’t the most scintillating topics, and I understand that conversation is a skill, and some people are made anxious in social situations: I get all that. Nevertheless, this experience made me sad. This was an artificial mealtime conversation, I get that. But how many families experience the same thing, where the parents don’t know how to talk to the kids, therefore aren’t teaching them how to converse meaningfully, how to share their thoughts and words and ideas? How many are learning that the phone, the screen, is more interesting than the person across from them? What happens when those kids become adults and have to impart ideas to others—in a class, or a job interview, or work? What happens when they encounter someone they disagree with? How will they share their viewpoint? Will it be an act of sharing at all, or will it be two individuals speaking past each other, pushing their own argument without hearing the other? Or will they even open their mouths at all?
This week’s portion describes the building of the Tower of Babel. How was the Tower created? We’re told that the People were all of one speech and the same words, and they wanted to make a name for themselves. The rabbis understand that this meant that generation suffered from groupthink; they had no diversity of opinion or perspective, didn’t know how to share a difference of thought, and they needed their speech confounded so they could really talk to each other, disagree meaningfully with each other. That was their tower, but I fear we are creating a new tower, a different tower, one where the speech is at best trolling one another without meaningful listening or worst, anxious silence.

It’s not just first graders who need to learn to talk to one another, it’s all of us. We need to make a commitment: to share ourselves meaningfully, to connect with one another. How much do we really know about our co-workers? How much do we know about each other, sitting in this room together? What do we talk about around the dinner table—do we even talk around the dinner table, or are our noses and eyes directed at our screens? It’s a new year: let’s commit ourselves to looking at each other and engaging in meaningful conversations—with our colleagues, our friends, our family and yes, here at the synagogue, before our tower grows too tall. Amen.