Friday, December 18, 2015

Parashat Vayigash: In Protest (or Why Dreams Must Be Legal)

I was heartened to see that Nnamdi Chukwuocha and Albert Mills were named as the new poets laureate for the state of Delaware. As governor Markell noted in his announcement, this is an unusual but powerful appointment for two reasons. First, because they are the first identical twin brothers named as co-poets laureate, which gives them a unique voice and style, a kind of poetic duet; but more importantly, because their message is a very different one than one expects from official poets. Their expertise is not in bucolic landscapes, and while they do write slice-of-life pieces they aren’t exactly what you’d expect. They are born and raised in Wilmington, and as such, write about some of the deepest, most unnerving problems we have in our city. A beautiful example is their performance at Def Poetry Jam called “Dreams Are Illegal In The Ghetto” which is an absolute must-see. It does what poetry is supposed to do, as Samuel Johnson reminds us: it describes what is but with an eye toward what ought to be. It lifts up the reality of now, not to accept, but to teach, to educate, to challenge the status quo.

Isn’t that what we do as Jews as well? To quote Rabbi Jonathan Sacks: “Judaism begins not in wonder that the world is, but in protest that the world is not as it ought to be” (The Letter In The Scroll p. 57). And we see that clearly on display in this week’s Torah portion. Joseph, hiding his identity, threatens to take Benjamin away from his brothers, the same ones who banished him so many years before, but Judah, not recognizing Joseph in the Egyptian Vizier before him, challenges the injustice, protests Benjamin’s apparent imprisonment, and offers up himself instead. In reality we see two protests: Joseph against what his brothers were (heartless, cruel, jealous) and Judah against this Egyptian kangaroo court. This is who we are. It is baked into our conscience: we are those who strive with beings Human and Divine and prevail.

This is what Nnamdi and Albert are doing, and what we need to do as well. We know our city has terrible problems, including problems of gun violence. And the legislature has offered help, money to put more police on the streets in high crime areas. It is not a panacea, and it is not enough; at best it is a salve, at worst a band-aid, and a temporary one at that. But it is a start, it is something. And so far Mayor Williams, for whatever reason, has not acted to accept the help, to accept the money. I have heard from Attorney-General Matt Denn, who has been advocating for community policing and doing what he can to put it into place, and right now his efforts are frustrated. Yes, there is political grandstanding. Yes, it feels like stepping on toes and it’s clumsy. BUT IT IS STILL HELP.

I don’t care who the mayor is, and I will not tell you who to vote for; I care that our citizens don’t die. I care that our police is given the tools to do the job that they need to do. I have sent a letter to our mayor urging him to accept the help, to not just accept the status quo of what is but see what we could be. I would ask you, humbly, to do the same. 

We have a voice and because of that we have an obligation to use it, to challenge what is as Judah challenges, as Joseph challenges, as Jews have always challenged. Because if we don’t, if we accept, then it is as if we sentence Benjamin to imprisonment; it means we accept that dreams are illegal in the ghetto. And I will not accept that.  

If you would like to respond to the Mayor, please write him at 
Office of the MayorLouis L. Redding City/County Building800 N. French StreetWilmington, Delaware 19801
Here's a sample letter: 
Dear Mayor Williams:
Jewish tradition teaches us that we must not “stand idly by while your neighbor’s blood is shed” (Leviticus 19:16). In keeping with the insight of this teaching, and as a concerned citizen, I ask that you and the chief of police provide the information required for the state to begin releasing $1.5 million in funds that are available to expand foot patrol and vehicle policing in the city of Wilmington. I urge you to work with the state legislature, attorney-general and governor in making our beautiful city a place that is safe for all.
Name and address

Friday, November 27, 2015

Vayishlach and The Blessing of Gratitude

A Hasidic story tells of a young man who presented his teacher with the gift of water from a spring. The teacher tasted it, smiled, and thanked the student for the sweet-tasting water. His assistant, however, tasted it and spat it out. “Why did you say it was sweet when it’s bitter?” he asked. “Ah,” said the teacher, “you only tasted the water. I tasted the gift.” (Hat tip to Rabbi Amy Scheinerman's Ten Minutes of Torah)
Yesterday was a day to give thanks: thanks for what we have, for who we are, for where we are and what we do with our lives. To be sure, many of us have our challenges and struggles, but it is a moment to appreciate our gifts, whatever they may be. It is a moment to choose to be sated in our lives; to fulfill the words of Pirkei Avot: "Who is rich? The person who is satisfied with his portion." We see it reflected in our portion this week as well. Jacob, on his return home, has sent gift after gift with the intent of mollifying his brother Esau, who he imagines to still be in a rage, bent on his destruction. But when the brothers finally meet, Esau says simply, "I have enough".

The idea of 'enough' is a powerful one in our society--and on a day--of conspicuous consumption. There is a peace with 'enough', and even a joy. But let it be one we hold onto. Let's taste the gift, not just the water, and in that way, count ourselves always rich and blessed. And if we strive for more, let us strive for more opportunities to give Thanks, more opportunities to share it with others. Amen.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Guest Blog Post by BESTY president Jason Kramer!

Jason Kramer is a senior in high school, a Kutz and Camp Harlam alumnus, out youth group president and an amazing teen leader. Recently he attended the URJ biennial with me and our Congregation Beth Emeth delegation. He shared this blog post on his experience.

I am a two time URJ Kutz Camp Alumni, President of my Temple Youth Group, BESTY, and have been to every single regional and North American NFTY made available to me. My entire focus at the time circulated around the youth. Engage the youth, get the youth to go to youth group events, get the youth to go to regional events, youth, youth, youth, youth. Although it was slightly overwhelming, I have never regretted any of this because I have been influenced tremendously by them. It is not because of the youth, though, that I was convinced to go to the URJ Biennial. It was because I was going to be treated as an equal.

    The URJ Biennial is the most exciting five days in the reform Jewish movement. Over five thousand people came to Orlando, Florida to learn, pray, and interact with each other. Biennial is NOT a NFTY event. It is not planned by a regional board and it is not dominated by teens. We, the youth, made up about five percent of the participants at Biennial. While these all seem like put offs, these reasons are what made it so great.

Biennial had been a prevailing thought in my head since last may, when I was asked by my regional President if I would be attending. I had heard of it before and had looked into it enough to know that I would not financially be able to go, but not enough to read into what happened there. What I hadn’t realized was that the entire platform of the URJ was: Moving the Youth Forward. Literally, all of Biennial would be about ways to help the youth and increase our involvement in the URJ, not just NFTY. At the time though, I had a lot of other things on my mind and Biennial fell into the back of my head.

    As the big week(end) grew closer, I started to hear questions from my friends. Would I go? Would I be there? I can’t wait to see you at Biennial! I began to do more research again. While looking for more information that might be able to convince my mom, I discovered there would be no NFTY track. There was no immediate focus on the youth (or so I thought). I knew Biennial was traditionally for adults, but in the past there had been a section for teens. Why they changed it this year was perplexing to me, but I accepted it and hoped that adults would see me as an equal not a subordinate because of my age.

    During BESTY’s first youth group board meeting of the year, I started talking to my Rabbi about Biennial. Right then and there he made everything clear. Biennial this year had no aim at the teens because the Biennial Committee wanted us, the teens, to be more engaged with the greater community. No longer were we to be isolated from the adults who could learn from a new generation, and we to learn from their life experience. No longer would we truly be treated like teens, but like adults who had something valuable to offer.

    This is why I ended up going to Biennial. Because as a teen, I had the same opportunities as everyone else to learn, talk, and be a part of something bigger than NFTY. I was a part of the URJ.

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Some Reflections On Biennial

I'm writing this on the flight home from Orlando, traveling back with my family next to me. Normally when I  go to the URJ Biennial, I come back refreshed and renewed, having connected with colleagues and friends from around North America and beyond. This time is no different, with an additional sense of vitality and excitement for the work our Reform Movement and our congregation is doing. 

My head and heart are still swimming as I reflect on the experience I and our delegation shared. As I look at the texts and handouts and review the videos from various sessions it's clear that it's going to take me some time to unpack everything, but I have already have some initial thoughts. 

If you've never been to a biennial (this was my 10th) it may be hard to appreciate how important this gathering of some 5000 Reform Jews of all ages is. To be sure, it is a chance to learn best practices, compare notes with other board members, rabbis and educators, learn from URJ staff and HUC faculty, and celebrate Shabbat joyfully and musically. But so much more happens as well.

To illustrate why Biennial is important: I want to share with you a few of the things I'm bringing home on this morning flight. I'll be using the same rubrics that the URJ suggested on a notepad they passed out at sessions: Inspirational thought or idea, Partners in this Sacred Work, and Next Action Steps. 

I. Inspirational Thoughts or Ideas

The Power of Welcoming: so much of this (and the last) biennial was about the work of Outreach and Audacious Hospitality . Often, it seems as if we think about how to be welcoming as a one-time event, and the work of outreach as a combination of simple gestures. What's been increasingly clear is the need to always be looking at how we welcome others, regardless of circumstance, identity or background. It's not enough to say we're welcoming, and it's not merely for our survival as a congregation (more on that later) but because diversity makes us stronger. We ourselves brought 13 delegates, ranging in age from late teens to late 80s and everything in between, including those born and raised Reform, those who chose Reform having grown up in other movements, and those who were not born Jewish but chose Judaism and, as result, chose us. This reflected the diversity of attendees. The Resolution on welcoming Transgender individuals and the change in how we as congregations support the movement financially should not be merely a moment of kvelling  but also an opportunity for reflection. To whit: 

1. How do we make LGBTQ individuals feel welcome? Can we change our bathrooms to be more inclusive, our paperwork, the way we talk about involvement at the congregation? 

2. Is everyone able to learn, worship and participate at Beth Emeth regardless of ability? How can we do more to make that feasible? 

3. It is clear that we are doing a lot of things right when it comes to Stewardship: our fair share dues structure does a lot to guarrentee the dignity of others. We have a confidential process with no forms, no request for income tax or pay stubs, and (hopefully) no judgment. And we have multiple opportunities for our leadership to connect with our membership. But could we be doing more? Could we flatten our levels even further? Could we move toward a completely voluntary giving structure (while making clear what it costs per person to run the congregation)? Could we use our High Holiday calls to solicit feedback and make sure people are as connected as possible with their community? 

II. Partners in our Sacred Work

I am endlessly amazed and inspired by the work our movement is doing. This year, rather than offer mere babysitting, Biennial had daycamp (based on our own Harlam Day Camp). It was a great opportunity for people to see what camp does for our kids, but it was also a reminder of how our camps are not merely destinations; they are partners. Likewise learning from my former HUC professors reminded me not only of the joy of scholarship but how much HUC has to offer aside from degree programs. What opportunities for partnership with movement organizations are we leaving on the table? How can we leverage camp professionals and programming, and the faculty of the College-Institute to do more for our congregants? With HUC, there are online and distance learning opportunities designed for laypeople that we could include in our adult ed programming; with camp, I know that they will provide help and support for things like Purim Carnivals, but also showcase how we can reimagine the work we do. 

This Biennial also had more overlap with the Women of Reform Judaism and NFTY than ever before, which begs the question: rather than see our auxillaries (Sisterhood, Brotherhood, the Chavurot, BESTY) as separate, related entities, can we start to think of their work as our collective work? The partnering we're all doing for adult ed is a good example; could we do even more? 

And who says we have to do everything on our own? There are natural allies, such as those churches we've worked with in the past, plus organizations like Family Promise. And there are those synagogues here in town that we partner with from time to time. But we should also look to our friends in Philadelphia and its suburbs for help and support, and to share programming initiatives with. 

III. Next Steps: 

Over the next several months, we will be speaking as a delegation, as a leadership, and as a staff about what we can implement short term, how we can focus our resources appropriately, how we can partner with those around us. But most importantly, we--I--will need your help to think about these different ideas and values and how to make them real. Will you join me? 

I'll be talking more about my Biennial experience this Friday. Hope to see you there!

CORRECTION: Rabbi Koppel is preaching this week, but PS stay tuned!

Friday, October 30, 2015

20 Years Since We Lost Rabin: Parashat Vayera

Do you remember where you were 20 years ago? Do you remember where you were when you heard that Yitzhak Rabin had been shot, that he was assassinated? I remember. I was in my dorm room, at college. I remember two thinks specifically from when Rabin was assassinated.
One, I remember thinking “please, let it not be an Arab.” It’s hard to remember back then but I remember, there was violence and terrorism, incitement, hostility, all in the wake of Oslo, and all I could think, with my heart in my throat, was please, don’t let it have been an Arab.
I also remember going to Hillel for what was supposed to be a memorial vigil but ended up being the rabbi and Hillel director talking about heaven knows what. It was boring. It was meaningless.  It was clear that he had no idea what to do or how to make sense of what had happened. I had hoped for meaning, for hope, and instead got senselessness.
That senselessness has become the byword for a Rabinless world. SInat Chinam, senseless hatred. It’s not just the hatred, the sinah, that continues to define our era, but that it is chinam. Since Rabin was taken from us 20 years ago this week we see evidence of that Sinat Chinam everywhere: in the language of politicians, in the actions of settlers burning down homes and attacking rabbis, to say nothing of the murderous rage of Palestinians who had hoped in Oslo but were betrayed by their own leadership.
Lots of folks have been writing this week wondering what would have been if Rabin had lived. The Israeli Hip-hop group Dag HaNachash wrote a whole song about it. The truth is, I don’t know what would have happened. Perhaps we would be in the same place we are in. One thing is clear since we have lost him, as Asher Schecter wrote in Ha’Aretz last year, we have not had political leadership that was willing to challenge the status quo, willing to be proactive instead of reactive. Rabin was nothing if not decisive and clear-eyed; would that we had such leadership today.
In this week’s Torah portion, Vayera, which includes the binding and near sacrifice of Isaac, we tend to focus our attention at the build-up of that terrible moment: the journey, the walk up the mountain, the flash of the knife. We lose our focus once the angel stops his hand, but something interesting happens. Abraham lifts up his eyes, and then sees the ram. It’s not just that he sees the ram—he has to change his perspective; he has to see clearly, lift his eyes.

Our eyes have been downcast since we lost Rabin; and we have moved in a fog, acting as Abraham does, as if we don’t have a choice. We need to lift them up. Our vision of what might be is dimmed. It’s been twenty years too long. We need to look up. We need to lift our eyes again. May we have the strength to do so. 

Friday, October 23, 2015

Lech Lecha: Our Shared Story

There’s a famous, apocryphal story about Ezer Weisman that when he was president of Israel he invited the Grand Mufti of the Waqf, which oversees the Temple Mount, or the Harm Al-Sharif, and the Chief Rabbi of Israel, to his official residence in Jerusalem. While there he asked them which of Abraham’s sons was sacrificed on the Temple Mount, The Noble Sanctuary, Isaac or Ishmael? The Chief Rabbi naturally said Isaac, and the Grand Mufti naturally said Ishmael, each citing their texts and their opinions, the conversation growing ever more heated. Finally, Weizman put a stop to it and, with a twinkle in his eye declared “you’re both wrong! It was a ram that was sacrificed up there!”
Today we see a similar debate taking place, only now the language is even more incendiary, and the results catastrophic. On the one hand the Palestinian leadership is stoking rumors online that Israel seeks to destroy the Al-Aqsa mosque and ‘Judaize’ the Temple Mount; rumors that are leading to young men and women, in their teens and twenties, flinging themselves with knives and guns at Israeli civilians to attempt to murder them. These are not just Palestinians—many of these kids are Israeli Arabs, with Israeli rights. These rumors have also led to attempts at the United Nations to declare the Western Wall, Joseph’s tomb (which was set ablaze) and other Jewish sites as Muslim, leading many on the Israeli right to declare that this is proof that the Palestinians don’t want coexistence, they want murder. This has led to Israelis buying guns to protect themselves, barring Israeli Arabs from working in schools in some communities, erecting temporary barriers in some neighborhoods, the mob-murder of an Eritrean immigrant in Beer Sheba, and Bibi Netanyahu putting his entire lower half into his mouth, declaring that the Grand Mufti of the 1930s was responsible for the Holocaust, resulting in Germany saying “actually, that was us. Sorry.”
There are two powerful, compelling narratives going on here, but really they’re one. And the narratives begin this week with parashat lech lecha. Avram, dwelling in Ur, already an old man, is told by God to go to some unnamed land, the land God will show him, and will bless him. His descendants will inherit that land and all the families of the earth will bless themselves by him. It is an audacious story; to uproot one’s entire life to journey to an unknown place for an impossible blessing, but Avram does so, and thus fulfills his name, becoming the father of many.
It is cliché at this point to note that Avraham is the father of us and the Muslims, the kind of reference one brought up in the heady days of the Oslo accords. But it’s cliché because it’s true. It’s a shared narrative and a shared land. As Sarah Tuttle-Singer wrote in the Times of Israel last week: we’re not going anywhere, and they’re not going anywhere.
Right now the World Zionist Congress is taking place. Thanks to our efforts, 40% of the delegates are from ARZA, our American Reform Zionist Association, who ran on a platform of moving peace forward. They are meeting and working toward that effort now. There are voices on both sides—drowned out by incitement—who are calling for peace and coexistence. We need to everything we can to lift those voices up, in spite of our anger and our fear. Not Pollyanna ideas or foolish notions that the Middle East will suddenly be Northern Europe, but peace and prosperity on the ground nevertheless.

There was an article in Ha’aretz this week citing several studies that pointed to how the Palestinians, Jews and Druze and Israeli Bedouin all share common genetic ancestry; we are closest to each other. There may not have been an Avraham as appears in the Torah, but we come from one ancestor. We are all mishpocha. So were Cain and Abel. So it’s up to us to decide whether we want to use our shared story to justify harm to one another, or to uplift one another. And we have to make that choice again and again, otherwise it won’t be a ram sacrificed, but all of our children. Amen. 

Friday, October 9, 2015

Genesis: For the sake of beginnings

Rabbi David Wolpe posted a question online this week: Does it ever seem that those with guilty consciences are good people and evildoers feel innocent?

I’m not sure how to answer the question, because as I understand it, it is a question of kavannah, of intent, of the internal person. Or worse, the exterior image of the internal person. That is; if I do something wrong and feel bad about it, then that makes me better than someone who does something wrong and justifies the action.

The problem, of course, is that the action remains the same, whether we feel guilty as a result or justified, ‘innocent’. The wrong has been committed, the toothpaste is out of the tube, and it’s never going back.

I lift up this question—deep, challenging, problematic—because it seems to me that so much of what’s going on in the world—going WRONG in the world—is not being addressed because we’re spending so much time dealing with intentions. What are Russia’s intentions in Syria? What are Iran’s intentions? What is the intention of the 17 year old Palestinian walking down the street, or the 40 year old Israeli settler? We assume we know. More than that, we assume the intention, not the action, is the most important thing. Want to bring this closer to home? Tony Allen and Dan Rich, in a presentation yesterday about Wilmington Schools and its educational needs, pointed out very clearly that too much energy around Educational reform has been bound up in fighting over who got it wrong and assigning blame rather than moving forward to do what is right.

The question of intent focuses us on the past:  what we ought to have done, or said, in the moment that is gone; or the future:  perhaps my guilty conscience will obviate me of further blame. But the past doesn’t exist. It’s ceased to be. Likewise the future doesn’t exist either: we don’t know what will happen twenty minutes from now, never mind twenty years. The only thing we truly have is this moment, this time.  Intent becomes a dead end—unless it changes behavior in the here and now.
The first words of Torah, bereshit bara Elohim, are strange words, not grammatically correct. God Creates ‘bereshit’, with ‘beginnings’. What does that mean?  For the Lekhivitzer Rebbe it meant in fact that “God created for the sake of beginning.” That is, every moment, and every action of every moment, is a beginning. We could use that time to dwell on what was, or fret about what will be. We could begin with love or with anger, or even worse, indifference. We could begin from poverty or justice. Our actions will decide the nature of those beginnings, and from them might emerge whole worlds, and if we are very careful, those words may be “tov”, good. May they be full of wisdom. May they be right.

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Yom Kippur Morning 5776: The Holiness of A Parking Lot

Every time I step onto the bimah I remember my first time leading services as a rabbinic student. It was in the chapel at the Hebrew Union College, and there I stood before what felt like the entire student body and faculty, including many of the future luminaries of the movement. An intimidating moment, and, needless to say, I don’t remember a whole lot from the experience, but I do remember that feeling of awe and trembling, whether before God or the congregation. That feeling has never left me, and even now, standing before all of you, I feel that sense of yirah, of awesomeness, of trembling, of deep abiding reverence for the congregation I am leading. I am feeling it even now.
That said, I am increasingly convinced that the sanctuary, dramatic and powerful as it is, is not the most sacred or important space for this congregation. Nor the classrooms, library, certainly NOT my office. No, I have come to believe that the most important space is the parking lot.
In fact, I would go so far as to say that the parking lot is the most important space at congregation Beth Emeth. Why? That is both the first and last place we encounter each other. It is in the parking lot we first ask after each others’ health and well-being. It is in the parking lot where invitations for Shabbat dinner or lunch are extended.  It’s where hugs and handshakes and stories are shared, where parents kiss their kids goodbye on Sunday mornings, and when more than a few prayers are recited as people dodge traffic. The parking lot is where the meeting AFTER the meeting takes place, as friends catch up with each other or process what just happened. It’s where we collect food on the holidays and offer support to one another and where volunteers work on the landscaping, and Barry Kittinger takes the kids into the garden. It’s where new members and guests have their first impression of this place and its membership. And it’s where the religious school used to gather to have their picture taken by the photographer standing on the roof. It’s where we line up in cortege to process to graveside.
I’m not trying to be cute. So much of what makes us a holy community takes place outside the realm of worship and study or even programming. It’s about relationships: relationships between members, relationships between the past, present and future, relationships between our memory of who we were and our aspiration of who we want to become. Pulling into our parking lot is, for many people, an emotional moment as they remember and reconnect and prepare themselves for what is to happen inside. The parking lot really is that first point of contact for people, and for me, that makes it sacred space.
So, how can we do more of that? How can we build on our parking lot experiences and unscheduled, informal interactions? How can we move what happens in the parking lot and move that into the vestibule, the hallway, the classrooms, the board room, the social hall, and the sanctuary? How do we take all of those things we love about our experience here at Beth Emeth—our stories of love and learning and support—and use them to move this congregation forward, to move from good to truly great?
In part, we need to rededicate ourselves to understanding and clarifying our mission as a congregation. I spend a lot of time talking about mission, and what our mission is together in Temple life, which sometimes earns me funny looks. It’s a synagogue, and don’t we know what synagogues do? Or even worse, I hear from some that mission is just pablum, something to throw on the website that is so broad it does very little. And there’s some truth to this. We have a mission statement—do you know what it says? And it isn’t just us: if you looked at nearly every synagogue’s mission statement they’d all look basically the same. You know, house of study, house of gathering, house of worship, yadda yadda yadda. We all carry a sense of what synagogue is about, and it is about services, educational experiences, and opportunities to meaningfully gather. But those are the means, not the ends in and of themselves.  
I said before and have said repeatedly that it is all about the relationship; that what resonates is not just the service, but the invitation to dinner that takes place afterwards. It’s not just the study, but the chance to sit next to your friend. If that is true interpersonally, then it is certainly true with the community as well. There is a relationship between us as individuals and us as a collective, a kahal, and that relationship cannot be either a matter of providing a good or a product, it cannot be transactional, but rather TRANSFORMATIVE. And by transformative, I don’t just mean for us alone, but for the community in which we dwell. I believe we need to reimagine this relationship, this dynamic as a means to transform our lives; all of our lives. If that’s the case, then we need to come up with new language to talk about this relationship. To paraphrase educator and business consultant Peter Drucker, our “product” at the end of the day is not to create programming, not to bar mitzvah your kids, to throw Chanukah parties and Purim Shpiels. It’s not even worship services. At the end of the day our product is changed human beings. It’s the bar mitzvah student who comes back to chant Torah again and again, and as a result becomes more confident. It’s the service that leaves the worshipper ready to connect with his family differently. It’s the Purim Shpiel and Chanukah party or Sunday morning experience that teaches the Jewish parent who hated religious school that Jewish learning is full of joy. It’s the moment a social justice program transitions from feeding a stranger to helping a friend.
If our work is to facilitate dynamic spiritual lives, doesn’t that mean we need to take our experiences, our stories, into account, recognizing that we all may need to take different paths to get to the same place? Judaism, after all, is not one size fits all—The Torah we are about to read makes that clear. We read: “You stand here today….to choose” But the ‘you’ is plural; atem nitzavim. You—all of you—all of us, gather to choose holiness, to choose life. All of us stand here today, not only those here but those yet to be, to make that choice. To make many choices. And we do. We love to make choices; so why shouldn’t we as a community do everything we can to help each other make sacred choices? Isn’t that what community is all about?  
So, what does that mean for us? This means we need to look very carefully at what we’re doing, at who we think we are and who we want to become. For 110 years, Beth Emeth has stood for a kind of constancy, of tradition, and we do an excellent job of engaging our past. Starting now, and I do mean now, we need to cast aside our assumptions together and move into a process of reflection and discernment; we need to engage our future. We need to share our stories of transformation and engagement, so we can learn how to do that even more, and even better. It is clear that we are doing many things that are engaging: our Shabbat hikes, Torah study, our partnership with Family Promise, are just a few examples of experiences that people find transformational. I have no doubt there are more, but we don’t know what they all are, and we don’t know WHY they work. And when we’ve created or changed experiences, we’ve done it based on gut instinct and a need to move quickly, assuming there was some kind of problem that needed fixing. Case in point: Up until this past June, Shabbat service time had nearly always been 8pm, until this past year, as we saw regular attendance drift ever downward, as fewer and fewer people found the timing working for them. This summer we began an experiment with an earlier time, 6:30, with a Nosh beforehand. Not only have we seen attendance up, but it has brought in a more diverse group, and more engagement with the experience. For example, instead of passively receiving the oneg, people are making plans to gather for Shabbat dinner after services, and inviting each other along. It all looks great—except I don’t know why it’s working. Is it the time change, or the change in schedule Is there another factor in play? Were people looking for a different way to celebrate Shabbat, and is there more we should be doing? Are there things we should be doing for those who are disaffected by the change in time? Honestly, I don’t know. None of us in leadership do. So we’re collecting feedback, but again, it assumes that there was something wrong.
But what would it look like if we had a way of sharing our stories, our experiences, and affecting change in a positive way? What would it mean if we looked not for problems, but to what we’re already doing right, and simply do more of that? What would it mean for us—all of us—to dream together, to envision together, to share in a conversation about what it is we might become? And when I say all of us, I mean—just as Moses means—all of us standing here today, and all who are not gathered today but are a part of our community, our congregation.
Friends, you’ve heard me say over and over again that, however good we are, we could be great. Truly great, a place of deep spirituality, learning and transformation for ourselves and others. The leadership of the congregation agrees. We are at a turning point, with new senior staff—including Rabbi Koppel as our new director of lifelong learning—and new leadership at every level, as well as legacy leadership—board members, teachers—who are deeply invested in the future of this congregation. We have the opportunity to pivot, to move toward being a place driven by a mission to change people’s lives.
And what does that look like? To be honest, I haven’t a clue. Seriously. We have pieces here and there that we know are working, we have a sense, a gut feeling, we’ve had staff and leadership try to, essentially throw things against the wall to see if they stick, but we truly, honestly, don’t know. What’s more, there’s stuff we’re doing that we have no way of knowing if it’s transformational or not. They may be well attended or poorly attended, cost us a bundle or be self-sufficient, but we can’t evaluate whether or not they work, whether or not they change people’s lives.
Which is why I’m very proud to announce such an initiative called Engaging Our Future, endorsed and led by the board and guided by Alan Ebner, Connie Kreshtool, Jason Horowitz, Jenn Steinberg  and Ruth Rosenberg, and this initiative begins now. Right now. Starting now and moving over the next several months, every single one of you is invited to a session, hosted and facilitated by members of our leadership. At these sessions, we want you to share your stories. Stories of what works, of what’s good, of why you engaged before and why you engage now and how you can engage more. From these sessions, from the stories you tell, we’re going to look at what we’re doing right, how we’re doing good and fulfilling that sense of mission, and move those experiences and encounters to the center of what we do. We are going to build our future around what we do best.
For some folks in the room, that may sound Pollyanna, like some kind of feel-good fest. It doesn’t give us a chance to talk about our problems. That’s true, it doesn’t.  Shouldn’t we talk about what we aren’t good at to make that better? The answer, audaciously enough, is no. We shouldn’t. Why? Because to quote my friend Pastor Josh Snyder, we can look at our deficiencies and pour all our resources into fixing them, and at the end of the day we’ll be mediocre. Or we can pour our resources into what we’re good at and become truly great. Case in point: I love art; I volunteer to work in the art shack at camp every summer. I love being surrounded by artists and speaking with them, looking at art, listening to the stories of artists’ experiences. I am not an artist. Kindergartners sculpt better than I do, and I can barely paint a wall all the same color.  I will simply never be even a good artist, never mind a great one. And thankfully, I’m not evaluated as a rabbi on how well I can draw or throw a pot. I have other skills and abilities. What I can do, however, is take that love and appreciation for art and use that as my pivot point, my way of improving and enhancing my relationship with art, even if I am not a creator myself: I can go to museums and exhibitions, encourage artists to display, including in our small display at the entrance to the building, curated by Riva Brown, support artists whose work I appreciate, and teach on art. I can even judge competitive interpretive art as a part of this year’s Maccabiah at Camp Harlam—yes, it was a real event!

So it must be with us. We need to start where things are good in order to make them great, start where we already have good experiences and good feelings we can build upon and pivot from. In the same way Ron Wolfson challenges us to ask “what gets us up in the morning?”, rather than “what keeps us awake at night?”, we need to ask the question “what brings us to this place? Why do we enter this parking lot, and why do we tarry long after it’s time to leave?” Each of us has story that binds us to this place. Let’s share our stories together, let’s engage our future together. 

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Erev Yom Kippur: If Not Higher

Early every Friday morning, at the time of the Penitential Prayers, the rabbi of Nemirov would vanish.
He was nowhere to be seen - neither in the synagogue nor in the two study houses nor at a minyan. And he was certainly not at home. His door stood open: whoever wished could go in and out; no one would steal from the rabbi. But not a living creature was within.
Where could the rabbi be? Where should he be? In heaven, no doubt. A rabbi has plenty of business to take care of just before the Days of Awe. Jews, God bless them, need livelihood, peace, health, and good matches. They want to be pious and good, but our sins are so great, and Satan of the thousand eyes watches the whole earth from one end to the other. What he sees, he reports; he denounces, informs. Who can help us if not the rabbi!
That’s what the people thought.
But once a Litvak came, and he laughed. You know the Litvaks. They think little of the holy books but stuff themselves with Talmud and law. So this Litvak points to a passage in the Gamara - it sticks in your eyes - where it is written that even Moses our Teacher did not ascend to heaven during his lifetime but remained suspended two and a half feet below. Go argue with a Litvak!
So where can the rabbi be?
"That’s not my business," said the Litvak, shrugging. Yet all the while - what a Litvak can do! - he is scheming to find out.
That same night, right after the evening prayers, the Litvak steals into the rabbi’s room, slides under the rabbi’s bed, and waits. He’ll watch all night and discover where the rabbi vanishes and what he does during the Penitential Prayers.
Someone else might have gotten drowsy and fallen asleep, but a Litvak is never at a loss; he recites a whole tractate of the Talmud by heart.
At dawn he hears the call to prayers.
The rabbi has already been awake for a long time. The Litvak has heard him groaning for a whole hour.
Whoever has heard the rabbi of Nemirov groan knows how much sorrow for all Israel, how much suffering, lies in each groan. A man’s heart might break, hearing it. But a Litvak is made of iron; he listens and remains where he is. The rabbi - long life to him! - lies on the bed, and the Litvak under the bed.
Then the Litvak hears the beds in the house begin to creak; he hears people jumping out of their beds; mumbling a few Jewish words, pouring water on their fingernails, banging doors. Everyone has left. It is again quiet and dark; a bit of light from the moon shines through the shutters.
(Afterward, the Litvak admitted that when he found himself alone with the rabbi a great fear took hold of him. Goose pimples spread across his skin, and the roots of his sidelocks pricked him like needles. A trifle: to be alone with the rabbi at the time of the Penitential Prayers! But a Litvak is stubborn. So he quivered like a fish in water and remained where he was.)
Finally the rabbi - long life to him! - arises. First, he does what befits a Jew. Then he goes to the clothes closet and takes out a bundle of peasant clothes: linen trousers, high boots, a coat, a big felt hat, and a long, wide leather belt studded with brass nails. The rabbi gets dressed. From his coat pocket dangles the end of a heavy coarse rope.
The rabbi goes out, and the Litvak follows him.
On the way the rabbi stops in the kitchen, bends down, takes an ax from the bed, puts it into his belt, and leaves the house. The Litvak trembles but continues to follow.
The hushed dread of the Days of Awe hangs over the dark streets. Every once in a while a cry rises from some minyan reciting the Penitential Prayers, or from a sickbed. The rabbi hugs the sides of the streets, keeping to the shade of the houses. He glides from house to house, and the Litvak after him. The Litvak hears the sound of his heartbeats mingling with the sound of the rabbi’s heavy steps. But he keeps on going and follows the rabbi to the outskirts of town.
A small wood stands just outside the town.
The rabbi - long life to him! - enters the wood. He takes thirty or forty steps and stops by a small tree. The Litvak, overcome with amazement, watches the rabbi take the ax out of his belt and strike the tree. He hears the tree creak and fall. The rabbi chops the tree into logs and the logs into sticks. Then he makes a bundle of the wood and ties it with the rope in his pocket. He puts the bundle of wood on his back, shoves the ax back into his belt, and returns to the town.
He stops at a back street besides a small, broken-down shack and knocks at the window.
"Who is there?" asks a frightened voice. The Litvak recognizes it as the voice of a sick Jewish woman.
"I" answers the rabbi in the accent of a peasant.
"Who is I?"
Again the rabbi answers in Russian. "Vassil."
"Who is Vassil, and what do you want?"
"I have wood to sell, very cheap." And not waiting for the woman’s reply, he goes into the house.
The Litvak steals in after him. In the gray light of early morning he sees a poor room with broken, miserable furnishings. A sick woman, wrapped in rags, lies on the bed. She complains bitterly, "Buy? How can I buy? Where will a poor widow get money?"
"I’ll lend it to you," answers the supposed Vassil. "It’s only six cents."
"And how will I ever pay you back?" asks the poor woman, groaning.
"Foolish one," says the rabbi reproachfully. "See, you are a poor, sick Jew, and I am ready to trust you with a little wood. I am sure you’ll pay. While you, you have such a great and mighty God and you don’t trust him for six cents."
"And who will kindle the fire?" asks the widow? "Have I the strength to get up? My son is at work."
"I’ll kindle the fire," answers the rabbi.
As the rabbi puts the wood into the oven he recited, in a groan, the first portion of the Penitential Prayers.
As he kindled the fire and the wood burned brightly, he recited, a bit more joyously, the second portion of the Penitential Prayers. When the fire was set, he recited the third portion, and then shut the stove.
The Litvak who saw all this became a disciple of the rabbi.
And ever after, when another disciple tells how the rabbi of Nemirov ascends to heaven at the time of the Penitential Prayers, the Litvak does not laugh. He only adds quietly, "If not higher."
We are called to holiness. We are called to lift those around us up, to help the needy, not only because it is right, not only because a great and mighty God compels us, but because it is through us that God is revealed.
 Tonight, as we begin the Day of Atonement, I ask you: what work have you done to elevate those around you and in return, yourself? Who have you served and provided for? How have you climbed to Heaven?

May our actions this year lift each of us up, to heaven, if not higher. 

Sunday, September 13, 2015

Erev Rosh Hashanah: The Challenge of BDS

When I was a kid my mother used to read to me from a collection of Israeli children’s stories. One story I still remember vividly is one where a child at a Kibbutz sees telephone wires that extend over the Jordan River, built before the founding of the state, and tries to use them to contact anyone who will listen. Despite his efforts, he doesn’t even receive static, as the adults in his life tell him that not only that no one is listening, but that the lines were cut years ago. They couldn’t listen even if they wanted to.

It seems to me that this story from my childhood is more relevant than ever. It seems to me that all of us who care about Israel and Israel engagement are talking, but no one is listening at the other end; that our dialogue about Israel is increasingly a series of monologues. We have watched liberal and traditional voices in Israel fail to bridge their gaps, Palestinian and Israeli negotiators fail again and again to come to a peaceful arrangement for a two-state solution, and now, different sides in this country debating the Iranian agreement with increasing hostility, threatening to ruin the previously bipartisan nature of support for Israel.

Nowhere do we see this more blatantly than in the BDS movement on college campuses. BDS, for those who don’t know, stands for Boycott, Divestment and Sanction movement. Using the same language as was used against South Africa in the 1970s and 1980s, BDS activists advocate for investors to divest from Israeli companies or companies that do business in Israel, boycott Israeli products, and even sanction Israeli individuals—scientists, scholars, artists, musicians. The stated goal is to force Israel into a two-state solution, and it has gained increasing popularity, with Alice Walker refusing to allow her works to be translated to Hebrew, Roger Waters of Pink Floyd refusing to play in Israel, academic groups banning Israeli scholars from participation or membership, and both the national Presbyterian and United Church of Christ organizations voting to affirm BDS. When confronted, they will say that they are trying to encourage dialogue—indeed, when I confronted BDS advocates at my alma mater, Oberlin College, I was told exactly that, and dismissed somewhat huffily. They insist that they are not anti-Semitic and have even recruited Jews to the cause.

The reality is that, while the individual students and activists involved may have the best of intentions, in reality, this is thinly veiled antisemitism. Witness the Spanish concert organizers that, in August, tried to disinvite Matisyahu from participating unless he endorsed a Palestinian state. Matisyahu is not Israeli—he’s a Jew who grew up in the New York Suburbs, and lives in LA. Yes, he sings about Jewish topics, but if they aren’t anti-Semitic, what was that about? Why did they not ask the same of the non-Jewish performers? Likewise the student at UCLA who, when running for office in student government had her ‘objectivity’ questioned because she was Jewish.

Indeed, the Anti-Defamation League and Hillel International are both registering increased antisemitism on campuses. Whereas once BDS was the kind of thing you only experienced at small liberal arts schools, it’s become an issue on campuses across the country. And the tactics are increasingly confrontational, with ‘die-ins’ and fake eviction orders targeting Jewish students, and anti-Semitic graffiti attacking Jewish fraternities and other organizations on campus. Attempts to actually dialogue by Jewish organizations on campus are met with disregard, violent shout-downs and protests.

Why does this matter? Because support for Israel is losing on campuses, which means it will lose public support in the future. I’m not speaking of support for Israel at all costs—many of us believe Israel should be taken to task for some of its policies, not only regarding the Palestinians, but the rights and role of women and minorities, liberal Judaism in Israel, the dominance of the Ultra-Orthodox rabbinate, and the like. No, even progressive Zionists are being seen as suspect, with the Presbyterian Church producing a document ridiculing the late Rabbi David Hartman, founder of the progressive, peace- and dialogue- encouraging Shalom Hartman Institute, as liberal a voice in Israel as you’re going to get.

I could go on, but I’d much rather you hear from a voice of someone on the front lines, a former student and member of this congregation who has seen BDS up close and personal. With that, let me introduce you to an amazing young woman named Katy Barrett, who will tell you her story.

[Begin Katy Barrett's part of the sermon]
Thank you so much, Rabbi Robinson, for giving me the opportunity to speak tonight. My Beth Emeth education began in September of 1999 when I walked into this building as a kindergartener, eager for my first day of religious school. Beth Emeth has been with me every step of the way, from my bat mitzvah in 2007 and confirmation in 2010 to my two years of cadet aiding for Mrs. Wilk’s fifth grade class prior to my graduation from Wilmington Friends in 2012. When college decision time came, I chose to head to Ann Arbor, or, as my parents would say, the frozen tundra, to attend the University of Michigan. Suddenly, I was no longer one of only three Jewish students, as I had been in my class of 66 at Friends; Michigan boasts an undergraduate Jewish population of about 4500 students. I fully embraced my newfound community, joining Alpha Epsilon Phi, a nationally Jewish sorority, getting involved in a wide variety of clubs at Hillel, and visiting Israel for the first time on a Michigan Hillel birthright trip in May of 2014. Though all of these activities have figured prominently in the formation of my college experience, perhaps the most impactful has been my involvement with the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, both within WolvPac, our group at Michigan, and on the national level. AIPAC has provided me with innumerable amazing opportunities and connections: student conferences, Policy Conferences, some of my best friends on my own campus through WolvPac and at schools across the country through the Diamond Summer Intern class of 2015, and even (I hope) an Advanced Advocacy trip to Israel this winter break.For my first three semesters in Ann Arbor, I believed that the acceptance of Jewish heritage as an integral piece of the campus culture meant that a love of Israel would also be ingrained in the student body. I was proven wrong one frigid morning in December 2013 when I awoke to a frantic text from a good friend of mine, a young man who is now our AIPAC campus liaison and a student government representative, detailing a mock eviction notice that had been slipped under his dorm room door while he slept, telling him that he had mere hours to evacuate the building before it was to be demolished and going on to connect the action to the treatment of the Palestinian people by the State of Israel. Later that day, I found out that Students Allied for Freedom and Equality or SAFE, Michigan’s arm of Students for Justice in Palestine, had placed flyers not just in my friend’s hallway or just in his dorm, but in six different dorms across campus, specifically targeting residences with large populations of impressionable freshmen. I was at once livid and heartbroken. I was angry that a group of students could spew such vitriolic hate and use it to infiltrate the one space that is supposed to be completely safe. I was sad because it did not feel new.Before I say anything else, let me back up and talk about my Friends School education. Even in the Lower School, the faculty at Friends work tirelessly to impress upon their students the importance of Quaker values like equality, community, and stewardship. My days on the hill in Alapocas were spent learning to question everything, searching for my passions and figuring out how to use them to make the world around me a better place. As a Friends alumna, I am acutely aware of the impact I can have and am a better activist for that precise reason. Unfortunately, this amazing education came with a pitfall: Peace class. The course description for the class now called Global Peace and Justice on the Friends website says that students are pushed “to analyze peace and justice in our interdependent world, to realize the power of individuals, and to learn how Quaker testimonies have influenced social change.” Much of this work is done through the examination of case studies, and one such scenario that was selected for my class was the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In this particular class section, I was the only Jewish student and it seemed as though I was the only student who entered the unit with a pre-established opinion. This part of the course was taught with an unapologetically pro-Palestinian bent and I received minimal, if any, support from my teacher in discussions where I was usually the only pro-Israel voice. I was shocked that a person who preached acceptance and diversity of opinions could make me feel so silenced, and the discovery of the eviction notice years later brought the same sense of panic that I felt at age fifteen.The better part of two years has passed since the mock evictions and activity at Michigan surrounding the conflict has not slowed down for one moment. In March 2014, SAFE put forward a resolution to our Central Student Government calling for the University to divest from companies doing business with Israel like General Electric and Caterpillar in line with the International Boycott, Divest, and Sanction Movement. At the first meeting, supporters of the resolution interrupted the assembly and wielded verbal barbs so fierce that another one of my male friends felt it was necessary to shield my face with his arm as we walked out of the room. After the resolution was tabled, another review meeting was set for the next week. My parents were concerned enough about the state of affairs that my dad asked me not to walk anywhere on campus alone. This time, thousands of students lined up for a meeting that eventually took six hours. I spoke and was specifically called out for cultural appropriation because I referenced Bayard Rustin, a gay African-American Quaker who taught Martin Luther King Jr. about non-violent action and who was also an ardent supporter of the State of Israel. The resolution did not pass. In the wake of Operation Protective Edge, the conflict rose to an even higher profile on campus as we returned to school last fall. First semester featured SAFE’s Palestinian Awareness Week, complete with a mock checkpoint at the central point of campus. When SAFE brought BDS back to campus this past spring, we were much more prepared. This time, I was on the leadership team of Wolverines for Peace, a group formed by executive board members from four of Michigan’s largest pro-Israel student organizations in order to galvanize the anti-divestment community. We launched a massive social media campaign in the weeks leading up to the student government hearing, including a comprehensive web page modeled on sites from Northwestern and Stanford, a collective Facebook and Twitter reach of over 900 people, and over a thousand signatures on our open letter, which rejected absolute blame, recognized the universal right to self-determination, and called for dialogue among student groups on campus. Over the course of a five-hour meeting, SAFE decried our efforts as disingenuous, called us bigots, and flat-out rejected any suggestion that they sit down and talk with us. The resolution still did not pass.Our fight is not over. SAFE has promised to bring BDS resolutions to student government every year until one passes. Luckily, I, along with thousands of AIPAC-trained campus activists across the country, understand the importance of being proactive rather than reactive. Through events like our Wolverines for Israel conference, for which we brought in experts on the political climate of the region from Michigan and from other schools, and Birthday Bash, a Yom HaAtzmaut celebration in the middle of campus complete with music, falafel, and birthday cake, we run a campaign that strictly highlights the positive aspects of Israel rather than focusing on any Palestinian faults. Drawing from AIPAC’s Campus Creed, we in WolvPac know that people engage other people much better than any speaker ever could and that genuine relationships with the student leaders of today create sustainable access and influence as we all move into adult life. This spring saw the election or re-election of eight student government representatives and an executive slate who we had previously identified as members of the pro-Israel community. When tasked in June with the creation of a leadership statement in opposition to an unfavorable nuclear deal with Iran, our team of four Michigan students interning at AIPAC was able to contact hundreds of leaders and emerge in less than a week with over forty signatures; though that number does not seem particularly high, it is important to note that ten signatories are student government representatives in addition to signatures from the current and immediate past student government presidents and the current vice president. The issue at hand was and is highly controversial, and our ability to garner visible support from such a large number of leaders was greatly aided by the pre-existing relationships we have worked to maintain.There is no doubt in my mind that students today have the desire and the capacity to affect major change. We are more connected to the world around us than any previous generation and therefore we have an outsize commitment to bettering that world. In a recent lobbying meeting with Congresswoman Debbie Dingell of Michigan’s twelfth district, she turned to me and my friend specifically to tell us that “young people are 25% of today and 100% of tomorrow.” For my fellow students, there are going to be older people who will try to delegitimize us and the things we care about and the work that we do simply because we are young. More often than not, our biggest hurdle is finding people and organizations who believe in and are willing to support our passions, no matter how big or crazy our ideas seem. AIPAC has an entire department dedicated to the engagement of high school and college students that they call Leadership Development because they believe so firmly in young people as the future of pro-Israel advocacy. Hillel International dedicates all of its resources to building campus Jewish communities that serve the needs of every student. This covers the entire spectrum of Jewish life on campus, from the kids who only go for High Holiday services to the ones like me, who actively seek out a judgment-free pro-Israel community and whose siblings have asked them if they, in fact, live in the Hillel building. In the weeks leading up to the most recent divestment vote, I sat in over ten hours a week of meetings that sometimes stretched late into the night but that were always attended by at least one member of the Michigan Hillel staff. Rather than completely shaping the campaign for us, they guided us through the entire process, providing advice on how best to articulate our viewpoint, emotional encouragement when the battle felt unwinnable, and even financial support for such necessary items as web hosting and pizza. I cannot stress enough the importance of the work that Hillels across the country do on their respective campuses, and I encourage any adults concerned about the state of Jewish life on campuses to contribute to the solution and strongly consider supporting Hillel. Whether you choose your child or grandchild’s school, your alma mater, or even a local school like University of Delaware, you are empowering students like me and enabling us to stand up for ourselves and for a world in which we want to live.Michigan Hillel is housed in a beautiful facility, and on its walls are three plaques listing names of donors who contributed to the construction of the current building. Across the top is the most famous quotation from the foundation’s namesake, Rabbi Hillel: “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am only for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?” We, the young people, the inheritors of the world, the generation that wants to see peace in our lifetime and is ready to work for it, will stand together for ourselves and for each other. We are ready now.
[End Katy's Sermon]
The task before us is clear. We need to listen to our young people, and hear their questions and concerns. We need to support Hillels and Jewish organizations on campus that promote dialogue, including our own Donna Schwartz and the Hillel at University Of Delaware. We need to prepare our students for the conversations to come. We need to confront our alma maters and ask them what they are doing to deal with such antisemitism, and perhaps rethink our alumni contributions if we find the answers wanting.

And we need to engage ourselves. Even if we have serious questions. Even if we aren’t sure we have the answers ourselves, we need, as individuals and as a community, to model what it means to be in real dialogue with Israel.

Today we are the child trying to communicate, seeing if there’s someone on the other side.  The sadness is not that the lines of communication aren’t open; there are lots of opportunities to engage, to talk, and to really communicate if we choose. Today the sadness is that, while those of us who care about Israel’s future are talking and listening, they are not. Not yet. But we mustn’t give up; we must continue to engage, to support, and to ask our questions. We must, for Israel’s future and our own. 

Friday, September 4, 2015

Parashat Ki Tavo: Themes of the High Holidays

You will know it’s my retirement year when, for Rosh Hashanah, my sermon is one word long: REPENT! The Days of Awe approach and we are supposed to reflect inwardly, to take a cheshbon hanefesh, an accounting of our souls, and take stock in our various transgressions and sins, and make atonement for them. This is the moment where we submit ourselves to Divine judgment and turn back toward what we know is good and right and away from all that we have done wrong; or, to paraphrase Harold Kushner, to turn away from our false selves and back toward our best selves.
And so we carefully list all that we have done wrong: Al cheit shechatanu milfanecha: for the sin we have committed before you, O God…and list one failing after another. And while the traditional list is generic, we can see ourselves and our own failings reflected in the words: the times we were dishonest, or hurtful. The times we prioritized ourselves over others. The times we were judgmental of those who needed our support.  
Of course, a real accounting would look at both sides of the ledger: not only debits but also profits—and here I don’t mean Isaiah. But at this time, we never look at that side of the book. We assume our efforts at doing good in the past year were wanting, insufficient. Is this because we don’t want to slip into easy justifications or delusions of ego, or is it actually easier thinking about the bad stuff? Well, if you’re like me, it’s much easier to focus on the bad: the unspoken word of kindness, the hastily spoken word of cruelty. If you’re like me, the capacity for guilt and regret is pretty high. And this time of year, I find the practice of reflecting on the past year and its sins pretty easy: I can conjure up a pretty decent list of moments where I did the wrong thing, said the wrong thing. And our culture has a very strange dynamic when it comes to reflecting on the good we do.  We now know that many people have trouble hearing compliments or praise; that reflecting on the good one does makes some people uncomfortable, as if they are pressured now to live up to unrealistic expectations.  We are ambivalent about praising children, wrestling with how much is too much, with all kinds of articles about how trophies for showing up are undermining civilization. And we know women in the work force are less likely to receive praise from supervisors and less likely to identify their own successes in their reviews. Clearly, we don’t feel comfortable talking identifying our successes.
And yet, there were moments of goodness too. Moments where everything went right, where I was supportive, or kind, when things actually went according to plan. Moments when I felt…well, good. Why don’t we spend time on that as we approach the high holidays? Why do we spend so much energy at the high holidays focused on our transgressions, and no time at all focused on the good we have done in the world?
We see this reflected in our torah portion, Ki Tavo. In it, after Israel crosses the Jordan, the people are divided and sent up two different mountains, with the Levites in the middle. The Levites then recited blessings and curses, a reminder of the covenant and responsibilities of the people, and everyone must say amen. The litany begins with the curses. And it might be easy to dwell on them, but we don’t. We move on to the curses. Yes, everyone has to say ‘amen’ to the curses (which, traditionally, are recited quickly, and in a hushed voice), but we say ‘amen’ to the blessings too; we affirm the good that we have done and that we are going to do.
There was a recent Kveller article that challenged people to make up a ‘mitzvah’ list to go alongside the ‘regret’ list, an alternative to the Al cheits we recite: “For the good that I performed in this world by doing or saying…”. I think this is a marvelous idea. For this is as important, if not more important, by giving us the energy, the encouragement to do more of the same, to in fact affirm our best selves. We need to affirm our own goodness.

Rosh Hashanah is a week away. Yes, we are obligated to look inward and correct and repair what is wrong; but let’s also take the time to look at the other side of the ledger. Let’s reflect on the year and all the moments of good that we’ve done: when we were good parents and children, good friends and neighbors. The moments we supported people in need, whether we knew them or not. Whether we liked them or not. The moments we turned away from what was easy and chose instead to do what was necessary. So I offer Rabbi Joseph Telushkin’s prayer, one that mirrors the al cheyt: For all these things, God, please remember and inspire us to do more acts like these in the year ahead. Amen. 

Thursday, September 3, 2015

Parashat Ki Tetzei: Last Week's Israel Sermon

The Place Where We Are Right 
by Yehuda Amichai
From the place where we are right 
Flowers will never grow
In the spring.

The place where we are right
Is hard and trampled
Like a yard.

But doubts and loves
Dig up the world
Like a mole, a plow.

And a whisper will be heard in the place
Where the ruined
House once stood.

I was really hoping to not talk about Iran, but like Michael Corleone, every time I try to get out, they pull me back in.
In the last week or two I have attended a briefing with Admiral Ami Ayalon, former director of the Shin Bet, I attended Senator Coons’ bagels and briefings hosted by Federation and the JCC. Alan Ebner’s thoughtful, PERSONAL article about his feelings on the Iran deal came out in the Orbit, and I’ve gotten lots and lots of emails from various organizations jockeying for position, and some pressure to take a stand one way or the other.
And then the Reform movement put a position out. Which felt, at first, like a cop-out. But the more I think about it, the more I think it was the absolute right thing to say.
First, it recognizes that there is no consensus on this issue. There are wise and thoughtful people who both support and oppose this deal, and a significant number who, for various reasons, find the Iran deal odious, but don’t see another viable option. And while many of the current leadership of secular Jewish institutions are taking stances against the Iran deal, many prominent leaders of the community—including both Eric Yoffie, former head of the URJ, and Ischmar Schorch, former head of JTS, have leant the deal their support. So there is no clear choice.
Second, and more importantly, the movement called for civility in dialogue. And this is important because the debate is becoming increasingly shrill, with the voices for the Iran Deal calling opponents traitors (as was the case with Senator Chuck Schumer) and opponents accusing the supporters of marching Israel to the death camps of Auschwitz. We can differ, even passionately, but there is a real fear that this level of aggressive, partisan animus will irrevocably undermine Israel’s relationship with the United States, and destroy the growing partnership and collaboration between Jewish organizations. Even worse, it runs the risk of marginalizing voices on both sides to such a degree that the next generation of Jews—who largely support the deal—will disengage entirely from organized Jewish life.
This isn’t a cop-out or a no-stance; it’s a warning, a very adult reminder that we can do lasting—perhaps permanent—harm.
Our Torah portion this week reminds us to guard what comes out of our mouths (Deut. 23:24): Whatever our feelings, however passionate we are on this issue, we must choose our words carefully. I am not an expert in proliferation. And I am not a prophet. I cannot predict the future. I am a rabbi, and as a rabbi I know that we cannot allow our words to divide America from Israel, to demonize others, or to make permanent opponents out of those who feel differently. We must act in a holy way. We must carefully watch every word that comes from our lips, lest we be left with hard and trampled ground and ruined houses. May the words of our mouths be acceptable in God’s—and each other’s—hearing. Amen.

Sunday, August 30, 2015

#BlogElul Days 14-15: Learn and Change

When Rabbi DovBer of Lubavitch was a young man, he lived in the same house as his father, Rabbi Schneur Zalman. Rabbi DovBer and his family lived in the ground floor apartment, and Rabbi Schneur Zalman lived on the second floor.
One night, while Rabbi DovBer was deeply engrossed in his studies, his youngest child fell out of his cradle. Rabbi DovBer heard nothing. But Rabbi Schneur Zalman, who was also immersed in study in his room on the second floor, heard the infant's cries. The Rebbe came downstairs, lifted the infant from the floor, soothed his tears, replaced him in the cradle, and rocked him to sleep. Rabbi DovBer remained oblivious throughout it all.
Later, Rabbi Schneur Zalman admonished his son: "No matter how lofty your involvements, you must never fail to hear the cry of a child."
What is the point of learning if not to facilitate change? Yes, learning for its own sake (lishma) has its rewards, but learning must lead to change, to transformation. We should find our perspective different, our way of engaging the world different, and most importantly, learning should lead us to improving the world, engaging the world for the better. If learning cuts us off from the needs of others, we have failed. If it makes us more sensitive and responsive, then it can be said that our learning is truly lofty. 

Friday, August 28, 2015

#BlogElul Day 13: Remember

Rabbi Nachman of Breslov taught:
Always look for the good
in yourself.

And remember:
Joy is not incidental to your spiritual quest;
it is vital.

For so it is written (Isaiah 55:12): "You will go out through joy,
and be led forth in peace."
Focus on the good in yourself;
take joy in what is good,
and you will be led forth from inner darkness.

(From Likkutei Mohoran). 

Thursday, August 27, 2015

#BlogElul Day 12: Forgive

"We are moral creatures; we are vulnerable creatures; vulnerability wins. This is the realest thing anyone will ever tell us in ritual."

Hoffman, Lawrence A., Ph.D.. Who by Fire, Who by Water: Un'taneh Tokef (Prayers of Awe) (p. 163). Kindle Edition.

Forgiveness is a moral and vulnerable action. It is moral in that it releases the Other from further obligation. To forgive someone is to tell them that they have paid in full the debt they owe us on account of the pain they caused. It recognizes and celebrates the act of accountability on the part of the Other.

(In this case the Other can also be the Self; that is, the aspect of the self  that, having done harm, is alienated from the Self, and requires forgiveness to be reunited).

It is also a vulnerable act. This we understand intuitively. To not forgive is to armor the self in righteousness and indignation. But forgiveness, that means laying the pain bare, exposing the self to further possible harm, it means releasing the hold over the Other. And, dare I say it? We open ourselves up to our own role in whatever hurt we experience.

The time to forgive is not Yom Kippur. The time is now. The liturgy of the holidays reminds us that it is the moral thing to do, even as it exposes our vulnerability. The question is whether we are strong enough to be both.

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

#BlogElul Day 11: Trust

He Sleeps in a StormA farmer needs a new foreman.  He advertises all over the place, but no one applies for the job.  Finally, one day, a man shows up. He has no resume, no letter of reference.  When the farmer asks him about his skills, he replies that people often say “he sleeps in a storm.” Well, this doesn’t sound very encouraging, but the farmer is desperate so he hires him.  Some time later, there is a big storm.  The wind is roaring, the rain is pelting down, there is thunder and lightning.  The farmer is frightened.  He looks for the foreman, but the foreman is sound asleep.  The farmer is furious and he runs out to the barn.  In the barn, the animals are safe with plenty of food and it is warm and secure. Not a single animal is frightened by the storm.  The farmer runs to his fields and sees that the bales of hay have all been covered with tarp and are tied down securely.  Everything he checks is safe, secure and solid.  Then he finally understood.  The foreman sleeps well in a storm because every night before he goes to bed, he makes sure that everything he has done that day is finished, wrapped up, safe and secure.  May we all strive each night to “sleep in a storm.”           
(From "Toldot --Telling Stories: A Collection Compiled by AVODAH 2010" URJ Camp Newman with the assistance of Abra Greenspan)
As we approach the holidays and begin to think about 'trust', it's often with the idea that we should be more trusting--in God, in ourselves, in each other. And that is a noble goal. But trust is different than faith. I have faith in God, faith that the people around me are interested in doing what is right and are doing the best that they can. But trust is earned. For me to trust, I need to see not only intent but action. To sleep in a storm, I need to know that everything has been taken care of, is safe and secure.

Who did you learn to trust this year? And whose trust do you need to (re-)earn?

Monday, August 24, 2015

For when the Iran conversation becomes too heated...

The Place Where We Are Right
by Yehuda Amichai

From the place where we are right Flowers will never grow
In the spring.

The place where we are right
Is hard and trampled
Like a yard.

But doubts and loves
Dig up the world
Like a mole, a plow.

And a whisper will be heard in the place Where the ruined
House once stood.

(Thanks to Rabbi Michael Latz for reminding me of this poem).

#BlogElul Day 9: See

When I was at Shir Ami the children's High Holiday books all had a mirror in the back (really a flimsy piece of reflective paper) with the line "What do you see?" below it.

It would be interesting if, on every day of Elul leading up to Rosh Hashanah, we had to look at ourselves for a full ten minutes. Every day. Not in the same way we take selfies, which are effervescent and fluid, nor in the way we look in the mirror, which distorts the image. Nor even looking at a static picture of ourselves, but really, truly look at ourselves for a full 10 minutes every day.

It could be the opposite of our mourning practice, where we refrain from looking at our reflection. It could be a celebration of the self--not vanity, but the real self, so often contorted and masked. It could also be a "Dorian Grey" moment as we, in true introspection, finally see ourselves for who we are: our flaws and our joys.

Take a look at yourself today. I mean, really look at yourself. What do you see?

Sunday, August 23, 2015

#BlogElul Day 8: Hear

דברים כא׃יח Deuteronomy 21:18
כי־יהיה לאיש בן סורר ומורה איננו שמע בקול אביו ובקול אמו ויסרו אתו ולא ישמע אליהם׃
If a man has a stubborn and rebellious son, who will not obey the voice of his father, or the voice of his mother, and who, when they have chastened him, will not listen to them...

When we read this passage from this week's Torah portion and the passages that follow, we tend to dwell--with horror--on the punishment for the rebellious child: death. Public death. How could parents willingly submit their child, no matter how poorly behaved, to die? The rabbis of the Talmud twist themselves in knots trying to First mitigate, then nullify, this bit of Torah, and we as progressive moderns might be inclined to dismiss it.

But Elul gives us a chance to read this text metaphorically. Are we not, so often, rebellious? Rebellious against God, against our best selves, against the truth of our experience? I don't mean here being punk rock or iconoclastic, but rather those moments when we know we're doing harm, we know we're being hurtful, we know we need to change course, and we proceed along our path of destruction anyway. We chastise ourselves (perhaps friends and trusted mentors get in on the action too) and we dig in our heals and keep on keeping on.  Doesn't this feel like the "death of the soul" the Mahzor speaks of? Do we not, in failing to hear or heed the needs of others--or even our own needs--leading ourselves to a kind of all-too public demise: of our relationships, of our regard for ourselves?

As literal Halakah, we should find this text appalling; and we should remember the consequences when we fail to hear "Mother's" and "Father's" voices--the still, small Voice within, the Voice of judgment without--that otherwise guide us.