Friday, December 23, 2016

An American Chanukah

Last Thursday I’m sitting in my Rotary meeting, and the president is going through announcements as usual. It sounds just as entertaining as all that. At some point he mentions a charity project for Christmas and the person next to me (not Jewish) leans over and says “doesn’t that bother you?” What she meant was the question of representation; why did Christmas have to be the default. Why couldn’t he be more sensitive.

I shrugged; honestly, I kind of assume that Christmas is where people’s heads are at, even today in a world where you can buy a menorah at Target in Wilmington Delaware (or even Shreveport Louisiana) and Ryan Seacrest mentions Chanukah first in his broadcast. What I find funny, and I’ve shared this with friends, is that when you stop to think about it, Chanukah is as quintessential an American holiday as you’re going to get. Think about it: what do we celebrate? Freedom, especially religious freedom. Freedom won by insurgents fighting off foreign influences. And how do we celebrate that freedom? Through fried food, gambling and lighting things on fire. I mean really, what could be more American than that?

Of course, the most important aspect of Chanukah, at least for me, is the idea of publicizing the miracle. We’re not just supposed to light lights in the privacy of our homes; we’re supposed to put those lights out, in such a way that people can see them, in order to let people know that, in days gone by, our people won its liberty and restored what was lost. This is despite our history of having to hide our identities or feeling uncomfortable broadcasting our Jewishness for fear of bigotry or reprisal; we put the lights out and remind the world of the importance of freedom and justice and goodness.

If that is true for putting the lights in our windows, so must it be true in our own lives as well. As Jews we must be, in our own lives, lights to the world, reminding those around us this season and every season of our values; supporting the vulnerable when possible, lovingly rebuking inappropriate and hateful behavior when necessary, and speaking truth to power always. As with any good American, any good Jewish holiday, lighting lights and singing songs only works if we are reminded of our task--to be a light ourselves, to speak out for what is right, and do what is right.

Tomorrow night we light the lights, we celebrate freedom. Let’s do it publically, joyfully. And let’s let the lights remind us of our tasks as Jews and Americans, to be a light of freedom and justice to those around us. To remind those around us that these were not just miracles that happened in that time in this season, but that we may fulfill that miracle ourselves, in our own ways. Amen.

Friday, December 9, 2016

Parashat Vayetze: Mitzvah Goreret Mitzvah!

So this past week I met Marisa at the new diner on Marsh Rd. There was a couple of women there with their kids, and the kids were being pretty terrible. Adorable. Sweet, but terrible. At one point one of the mom’s was letting her kid sit on the table itself. The waitress was clearly having a time of it. Now, what would you do? We could have sat in judgement, we could say something. When I got up to pay for our meal, I tipped our waiter, and then tipped the waitress of the kids table as well.  Was it the right thing to do? The best thing? No idea. But at least it was doing something to acknowledge that waitress.

When I was a teenager and I used to go to youth group events, my favorite song at song session was Mitzvah goreret mitzvah, by Andy Vogel. Like most kids reared on Debbie Friedman and Kol Beseder I learned my Pirkei Avot in the form of a song I could dance to with other nerdy Jewish kids like me. I never really thought about the lyrics—nobody did—we were too busy stamping our feet and injecting various “oh ohs” and the like. The words, of course, come from Pirkei Avot 4:2—One Mitzvah leads to another, while one sin leads to another, and when one acts justly it is very good.
It doesn’t get sung nearly as often these days—it’s thirty years old at this point—but I feel like we need to start singing it again. Or at least be reminded of the text: one mitzvah leads to another. Our kindness, our actions—no matter how small—matter. The way we treat each other matters. And we can choose to live in little bubbles insensitive to the needs of others, drawing up the drawbridge and hiding behind our own ramparts. Or we can choose in our everyday actions to acknowledge the needs of those around us.

We see that clearly in our Torah portion. Jacob has left Canaan, has dreamed his dream, and has come to Haran, whereupon he sees Rachel and sees the stone covering the well. It should say “there was a large stone on the mouth of the well” but that’s not the actual order of the text. It actually says “the stone was large on the mouth of the well.” The s’fat emet understands this as a metaphor: the stumbling block—our evil urge—may be everywhere, but it is heaviest and largest on the mouth of the well. What is the well? Our words, our mouths, our hearts, our intentions, our own actions, pick whichever one you want. The point is, once Jacob understands the situation, he by himself removes the stone from the well. He takes the action. Now, we know this is in part to impress Rachel, or at least inspired by Rachel, but so what? He does what is right in that moment. His actions improve the lot of the shepherds around him. His actions mattered.

Jacob’s actions matter and so do ours. When we chose to act with kindness, even if the action is small, it changes the life of that person. To do otherwise is to leave the stone upon the well, to allow ourselves to act selfishly, to allow people’s pain to persist. May we each find the strength to move that stone and live those words: then surely our lives will be just and it will be good. 

Friday, November 4, 2016

Parashat Noach: Do the Right Thing

So I’ve spent the week probably the way most of you have; furiously updating 538 or the online poll of your choice, combing through the newspaper and otherwise low-key freaking out about the election. Hoo, boy. So as a bit of dark humor found while poking around I found a fun thing to put up on facebook, a little game called “how much is Trump your fault?” It’s one of those silly quizzes but asks questions relevant to Trump’s chances of winning the election. As I didn’t vote in the Republican Primary and am not Vladamir Putin, I am apparently completely innocent! Ha-ha. Ha. What good fun! Now, if only that made me feel better.

It doesn’t help that we read parashat Noach right before the election, a torah portion that contains not one, but two calamities, both familiar to us. The first is the flood of course, and the second the Tower of Babel. The flood is as apocalyptic a vision we can imagine; behind the cute images of a giraffe or elephant poking out of a boat, there is the reality of the entirety of the world being wiped out due to corruption and violence, with only Noah and his family surviving. Why Noah, because he is ish tzadik tamim b’dorotav: he is a righteous and blameless man for his generation. That’s what it says. But what does that mean? We tend to conflate the two, but they really are quite different, aren’t they? Often what appears to be righteousness is really blamelessness: we throw up our hands and say, “I didn’t have anything to do with that. I don’t know anything about it. It’s beyond my pay grade. Not my circus, not my monkeys.” It’s easy to claim righteousness when we can claim no to have no responsibility; we’re just bystanders, after all. And that might make us blameless, but it doesn’t make us righteous. Righteousness means, I think, that we can say, honestly, I’ve done everything I can to fix what’s wrong. I may not have direct ownership, but I still have a role to play by making it better. That is, after all, what our democracy is founded upon; the idea that all of us have a piece of the puzzle, and our obligation to one another and ourselves to put those pieces together. Call it the Common Weal. Call it Civic Responsibility. Call it Mitzvah, it doesn’t matter; as Abraham Joshua Heschel said: Few are guilty, but all are responsible.

So let me ask you: what are you doing to make the world around you better? How are you not only avoiding blame, but taking responsibility? I don’t just mean the election, by the way--because God knows, after the election, no matter who wins, the sense of profound brokenness, the sense that we are speaking totally different civic languages, that our speech is confounded just as it is in the story of the Tower of Babel, will still be with us. How are we helping our city, our children, our community? How are we helping refugees, the homeless, the hungry, the environment? This Tuesday I’m going to vote. I’m also going to get together with a bunch of confirmation class kids and help clean up Brandywine Park. I’m not telling you this to humblebrag, but to remind us that the work is not just to not do bad, it is also to do good. Or, as Rep. John Lewis just said this past week, “Ours is not the struggle of a day, a week, a month, or a year--it is the struggle of a lifetime. Be persistent & consistent.” Let us strive to be righteous, not just blameless.

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Erev Yom Kippur: I Am Not God

Erev Yom Kippur 5777

Yehuda Amichai: The Children:

Every day the children run on the playground

They run on their little legs, which rotate the planet like a circus

They want to be acrobats and magicians

Every night the children thank us for having brought them into the world

With beautiful politeness, they take their gifts and with their small arms they

Cling to the future stubbornly, as they cling to their parents, and their toys.

Then they lie on their backs 
In order to paint beautiful skies
Like the ceilings of the synagogue...

I sit next to the children until they fall asleep

And I say seven times
As the closing prayer of Yom Kippur
“I am not God.”

Seven times
“I am not God.”

There is an account in the Talmud (Bavli Eirusin 13b):
For two-and-a-half years the house of Shammai and the house of Hillel argued. Shammai said:
Better for man never to have been created than to have been created. And Hillel said: 
Better for man to have been created that not to have been created. 
This is an extraordinary debate: would it be better for humanity to exist, or not to exist?
It is especially extraordinary for the times we are living in, as we anxiously raise the question, fundamentally: whose life matters? Does my life matter? Does anything matter?
In the end, they counted and decided: 
Better for man never to have been created than to have been created. Now that he has been created, he should examine his actions.
We spend so much of our lives trying to be God, trying to be in control: over our own lives, the lives and choices of others, the lives of our children, perhaps especially our children. And we curse and criticize those who struggle with their inability to be God over their own lives.

We try to pretend that we are in control.

But we are not God. And no matter how tempting it may be, we cannot be. We oughtn’t be.

We do this because we see the space between our is and our ought to be and we struggle with that space. We try to cover it up, to pretend it isn’t there, to make that space seem very small, because we are afraid that, should we expose it, should we let people see, if we exposed it, we would plummet into the chasm between what is and what should be.

We can’t be God. But that doesn’t mean we don’t matter. It doesn’t mean our choices don’t matter. Rather, we can choose to live our lives and examine our actions carefully. We can take that space, that wide space of our failings, and leave it open. We can keep ourselves open-hearted. We can say to each other, to our children: I am not God, I am not perfect. Nor am I merely accepting my failures either. I’m struggling, just as you are. And I accept your struggle, and hope you accept mine.
Rabbi Eliezer Berkowitz, in his book Prayer, wrote: “appealing to God’s mercy and lovingkindness, we ourselves must believe in mercy and lovingkindness, otherwise, there is no ground left of us on which to stand…” And it’s true. We must believe in mercy and lovingkindness; for ourselves AND FOR OTHERS. Otherwise, what right do we have?

My friends, on this day of Atonement, let me say: you matter. Each and every one of you matters, deeply and profoundly.

Our choices matter, and our choices must be examined, sifted through carefully.

Our forgiveness matters.

Our ability to be open-hearted matters.

On this day of Atonement, I ask you to say, seven times, before the gates close:

I am not God
I am not in control: of my circumstances, of everyone around me
But I have choices, I have freedom.
And I matter
And my choices matter.  
And the people around me matter.
I am not God,

But I matter. 

Monday, October 3, 2016

Rosh Hashanah Morning: Truly Hearing

A man is standing outside the Republican National Convention in Cleveland. He is standing next to a sign that says “free listening”. Mostly what people have shared are stories about their travels to Cleveland for the convention, their family and work lives, mundane stuff, but soon a woman comes over, looks carefully at the man, and says that she doesn’t believe that abortion should be legal, that it is murder.

What would you do? Would you challenge her statement? Would you smile weakly and thank her for her response, and let her go on her way? Would you get into a shouting match? Would you post angrily to social media or share your disdain for this person with your friends?

This man did none of those things. Instead, he invited her to share her story. To tell him how she came to that conclusion. He offered to listen more.

The woman, at first defensive, then went on what we might call a rant about why she thought abortion was wrong and terrible. And then, at some point, her speech shifted, and she began to talk about how she was told as an 18 year old woman that she couldn’t have children, that she would never have children of her own. She talked about her sense of unfairness, of lack of justice, that other people who could have kids were choosing not to, while she was left barren.

I’ll be honest with you, when I first read about this from the blog post by Benjamin Mathes, I struggled mightily. I struggled because I think of myself as a pretty good listener, someone who does this professionally, after all, and I’m not sure I would have had the willpower or ability to stand there and listen to this woman’s story. And I suspect many of us are in the same boat, especially over something as controversial as abortion. I know I would want to rush in and tell my stories—the texts I’ve studied, the learning I’ve done, the stories of friends and loved ones who have each had to struggle with this issue from a personal, rather than a political or academic posture. And sometimes it seems that’s how we all are, fighting to get a word in edgewise, or waiting until we have the perfect response and sharing it later on Facebook. After all, we already know the right answers, don’t we? We, jaded and world-weary, exposed to so much media, so much data, so much raw information, have already come to all of our own conclusions. Sometimes it seems like we have nothing more to learn from one another, and even if we did, would we want to teach it anyway? Or do we merely want acknowledgment and affirmation of our own truth? Do we really want to sit in judgment of the people around us?

 And yet, I think it’s clear that Mathes’ approach—letting this anonymous woman tell her story without judgment or interruption—was valuable. It was loving. It allowed both of them to get to the truth of the matter, to get to, what he calls, the biography, not just the ideology. It was forgiving. It was sacred.

This is a strange time of year for us as Jews, and a strange time as Americans. We are in the midst of our days of judgment and our days of awe, but when we call them that, when we talk about this being the time when even the hosts of heaven are judged, we are reminded that WE are not doing the judging. We are, in fact, the ones coming to be judged—by God, by our own consciences, reflective of the past year and the choices we’ve made. But it is also our time of forgiveness, of atonement, when we release others of their sins, and we look for release ourselves. We cry out “Shma Koleinu”: hear our voice! And I suspect many of us worry—or already presume to know—that no one is listening.

I believe that God, however we understand her, is listening. That someone hears our cry; hears us when we second guess our choices, when we look back on the year and focus so much—too much—on where we stumbled, hears us when we turn our victories to defeats, hears us when say we want to do better, to be better, but we don’t know how to get there. I truly believe this, even if it is only the part of us that we hide away, that we dare not reveal, that hopes beyond hope that we can live up to our best selves, that still small voice within us, I believe with perfect faith that we are heard.
But I would suggest that part of the reason we worry that there is no audience for our cry is because we have stopped listening to each other. And I mean really listening, listening in the way that Benjamin Mathes did. We don’t hear each other’s stories. We don’t create space for dissent, for difference, to be challenged. We can only be right.

It’s very American, isn’t it? And has been for years—this is not a new phenomenon. Even Alexis de Tocqueville wrote back in the 1800s that Americans don’t discuss, they don’t even argue, but make speeches at one another. And that’s what we’re used to, that’s what we’re trained to do, we make parallel speeches in the same way that toddlers parallel play alongside one another, not really engaging the person in front of us.

It’s very American, but it isn’t very Jewish. In fact, I would argue that there is nothing Jewish about the idea of not listening to the other person. Even when they disagree. Especially when they disagree. Especially when they say things that challenge us to the core of who we are. I’m not speaking of antisemetic attacks or slander, now, but rather the kind of discourse that happens in a free society between diverse people. Jewish tradition has always been about listening. Think of how often in the Torah we read the word shema—hear! Hear O Israel! Hear the voice of God! Hear the voice of the Mitzvot! Hear the voice of the generations that came before; the voice of conscience within ourselves. Again and again we are compelled to listen, and listen deeply. Words are precious to us as Jews, more than any other art form, and we take those words seriously. Think of the generations of Jews who study Torah not cloistered in some room as an island alone, but with a study partner, the text between them, sharpening their thoughts against each other, challenging each other, each bringing their own perspective and world view and experience to the other in order to arrive at a new understanding, a new idea. We joke that it is Jewish to disagree, and it is true; but in saying that we acknowledge that it isn’t Jewish to dismiss the voice of the other, or to make the person across from us the other at all.

And yet, and yet, that is what we are doing, at every level, macro and micro. And not just about the election. We do it around Israel. We do it around the way we express our Judaism, what movement we affiliate with. We do it around policy and programming. We do it, fundamentally, around each other’s stories. When we dismiss an idea or a position, when we try to change someone’s mind, when we argue passionately against the person in front of us, without intending it, we run the risk of dismissing their story, their journey to where they are. In our own anxiety at being right, we lose the opportunity for understanding.

I’m as guilty of it as anyone else. And it’s hard; this kind of listening takes time, it takes patience, it takes a willingness to put aside our need to be right all the time, and our own anxiety that, deep down inside, we may be wrong.

Friends, I don’t know what you have resolved to do in this new year of 5777, but if you choose nothing else, I would ask you to listen more, and listen better. To invite people to share their stories, to speak to their believes and ideas, to not rush to judgment or to win. Someone posted online, you don’t need to attend every argument you’re invited to; wouldn’t it be great to, yes, respond with regrets to those arguments, but also find ways to make them real discussions, a chance to share beliefs? When we talk about the value of African American lives, before we respond with our own dismissal and anxiousness, can we ask where they’re coming from? When someone says they don’t know how they feel about Israel, can we ask them to tell their story? The same for the way they worship, the way they vote, the way they live their lives and make choices. It doesn’t mean we need to be persuaded by their arguments, or change our mind; it doesn’t mean we need yield ground on an issue we care deeply about. It does mean we need to let our guard down and acknowledge and accept—really accept—that the other person’s experiences, the other person’s life, is sacred. And in doing so come to a greater understanding.

Sunday, October 2, 2016

Blog Elul Day 29: Home

The New Year

Related Poem Content Details

Rosh-Hashanah, 5643
Not while the snow-shroud round dead earth is rolled, 
And naked branches point to frozen skies.— 
When orchards burn their lamps of fiery gold, 
The grape glows like a jewel, and the corn 
A sea of beauty and abundance lies, 
Then the new year is born. 

Look where the mother of the months uplifts 
In the green clearness of the unsunned West, 
Her ivory horn of plenty, dropping gifts, 
Cool, harvest-feeding dews, fine-winnowed light; 
Tired labor with fruition, joy and rest 
Profusely to requite. 

Blow, Israel, the sacred cornet! Call 
Back to thy courts whatever faint heart throb 
With thine ancestral blood, thy need craves all. 
The red, dark year is dead, the year just born 
Leads on from anguish wrought by priest and mob, 
To what undreamed-of morn? 

For never yet, since on the holy height, 
The Temple’s marble walls of white and green 
Carved like the sea-waves, fell, and the world’s light 
Went out in darkness,—never was the year 
Greater with portent and with promise seen, 
Than this eve now and here. 

Even as the Prophet promised, so your tent 
Hath been enlarged unto earth’s farthest rim. 
To snow-capped Sierras from vast steppes ye went, 
Through fire and blood and tempest-tossing wave, 
For freedom to proclaim and worship Him, 
Mighty to slay and save. 

High above flood and fire ye held the scroll, 
Out of the depths ye published still the Word. 
No bodily pang had power to swerve your soul: 
Ye, in a cynic age of crumbling faiths, 
Lived to bear witness to the living Lord, 
Or died a thousand deaths. 

In two divided streams the exiles part, 
One rolling homeward to its ancient source, 
One rushing sunward with fresh will, new heart. 
By each the truth is spread, the law unfurled, 
Each separate soul contains the nation’s force, 
And both embrace the world. 

Kindle the silver candle’s seven rays, 
Offer the first fruits of the clustered bowers, 
The garnered spoil of bees. With prayer and praise 
Rejoice that once more tried, once more we prove 
How strength of supreme suffering still is ours 
For Truth and Law and Love.

Saturday, October 1, 2016

Erev Rosh Hashanah: Finding Small Community

When I was a rabbinic student, what seems like a hundred years ago, I served a small congregation in Muncie Indiana. This was a congregation of roughly 60 people. Not families. Not units, PEOPLE. The rabbi’s office had enough room for a chair, a book case and a small desk, right off the side of the sanctuary. The building wasn’t so different from our building, but shrunk down about 75 percent. It’s a lovely congregation full of Ball State professors and doctors and basketball coaches and firefighters and retirees and college kids and store clerks. Some have come  to that part of Indiana from other parts of the world, and some were born and raised. The kind of place where the same kindly old lady was still serving coffee at the oneg just as she had since her children--themselves now grandparents--were young, where everyone pitched in to help lead high holiday services or mow the Temple lawn or make the charoset for the congregational seder, and where everyone in the congregation was not only invited to the bar mitzvah, but came!

Amazingly, this congregation wasn’t the only synagogue in the area. There were a few other reform communities in Richmond, Marion and Kokomo (yes, when the Beach Boys are singing about Kokomo, you won’t find it in the Caribbean but Northeast Indiana), and each of these were served by a student-rabbi as well. At some point, we got together and decided to try to have a joint Shabbat experience. So we planned and we organized and the day finally came when we brought these congregations together. And a curious thing happened. As we gathered for Shabbat dinner and we identified ourselves to the folks from other congregations they kept saying, “oh, you’re from the BIG Temple.” Again and again, “You’re from the BIG Temple.” Imagine that, 60 people, and it was the big one!

I kind of get the feeling. I grew up in a small congregation not so different from the one I served in Indiana, one where everyone knew each other, where everyone pitched in to make the Charoset for the seder, where the same ladies served coffee at the oneg just as they had done years earlier, where all the teachers were volunteers and everyone came for the bar mitzvah. And so when I first served larger congregations, first as an intern and then as an assistant rabbi, I was terrified. The buildings were HUGE! And there were so many people! I remember that my first Rosh Hashanah service as an assistant rabbi there were so many people in the room there was an actual split-second delay between the back of the room and the front of the room reciting the same verses. It was overwhelming, and gave me a hint of what it must have felt to stand at Sinai. And that feeling has never really left me. In fact, even today, it takes my breath away seeing all of you gathered in this room, and it probably always will.

I bring this up because I know how, for so many who come to this congregation, and for so many who were raised here at Beth Emeth, it’s easy to feel a little lost. Again and again I hear from new members looking to make connections and longtime members who come missing their friends and still find this place so transformed that they all but actually squint to see the sanctuary they celebrated their wedding or bar mitzvah in.

This isn’t to say that lots of us aren’t finding opportunities for connection, either as volunteers, or through worship or study, as teachers and caregivers and just plain hanging around.  Nothing makes me happier than walking through this place on a Sunday morning or Friday at the Nosh and seeing people here engaged and enthusiastic about creating community together. And yet, how many of us feel as if this place is just...too...big? And you know what? I get it. It makes me sad. And I get it. And it tells me that we need to make this place feel smaller. Note that I said “Feel” smaller. More intimate. More like that small community we’re all seeking.

And that makes sense for us. As human beings we crave smaller, more intimate gatherings. We want to know that, when we walk into a place--be it the Brew-Ha-Ha up the street or the doctor’s office or the synagogue, the folks in the room know us, and we know them. We want that feeling of being in a village, a neighborhood, even if the community itself is large. As our interactions, be they banking or shopping or dining, are increasingly through an app on our phones rather than with a live human being, we want that intimate moment of connection, to know that we matter.

And there’s a spiritual dimension to this as well. Think of our Torah: so many of the models we have are personal, familial, or tribal. For every scene of Moses speaking to Israel on the mountaintop, we have God speaking to him face to face. Again and again the Torah points to sacred encounters that are pretty intimate, in contrast with massive gatherings of faceless individuals. Even those scenes where Moses is speaking to multitudes get reimagined by the rabbis as personal; rather than have him speak from on high, the Midrash sees Moses speaking personally to each Israelite, in the way he or she could best understand. And even the language surrounding the yammim noraim, these Days of Awe that are marked by myriads sitting in synagogues full to the gills, is the language of intimacy. The mitzvah is not for the shofar to be sounded but for each person to hear the shofar; the prayer unetaneh tokeph speaks of each person having their encounter with God; and at Yom Kippur, the image is that of the Avodah service, where there was enough room for each and every single Israelite to gather at the Temple in Jerusalem and bow low before God, for each one to have a place of their own.

So how do we achieve that? How do we create and foster intimate community? How do we create this feeling of being in a village? Joining me on the bimah this evening is our longtime friend Donna Schwartz. Herself a member of this congregation, and a past assistant director of the JCC, she is the Executive Director of our University of Delaware Hillel, and knows a few things about creating that sense of community. I’ve asked her to share her wisdom, her story, her experience.

The following are Donna Schwartz' remarks:

Do you remember your first week at college? Do you remember the feeling of being lost, overwhelmed and a bit anxious? I remember moving into my dorm where I knew nobody and that feeling of will I make friends and what will life be like for me for the next few years. I remember walking into my first class which was in a lecture hall with over 500 people in it and looking around and wondering if I knew anyone or where should I sit?

This was a strange feeling for me because I grew up in Boca Raton, FL going to school with the same kids since I was 5 years old. We all knew each other and had for a long time. I belonged to the largest synagogue in town where all the Jewish kids from my school which was the majority of us (It is Boca Raton after all) went to Hebrew school together. I went to the JCC for camp from the time I was 5 till I become the Teen Director as my first professional job. During high school, I joined BBYO become president of my chapter and was elected to the regional board. To say that I was involved Jewishly was understatement.

Fast forward to almost 3 years ago, I took the job as the Executive Director at Hillel. Hillel wasn't a part of my college experience and frankly I knew very little about its mission except I thought it was  "like the JCC for college students." I learned very quickly that Hillel was not exactly like a JCC for college students.

Imagine trying to engage 2000 people in Jewish life every year and each year 500 people graduate and 500 new people come in. It's a daunting task. The weight of the task was made real when I read that 85% of all Jewish High School graduates go to college. Think about that. 85%. What would life be like if 85% of Jewish children went to a Jewish Preschool, Jewish Day School or attended Religious school. College is the one and only time that that many Jewish people are doing the same thing. (I mean except for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur at a synagogue)

So here’s what I’ve learned in my short time at Hillel:
Developing meaningful relationships builds community and builds a better Jewish community.  Students today are looking to build micro communities with peers focusing on issues and ideas that are personal to them.  It’s not Bubbie’s Judaism that excites them.
Michelle Lackie, Hillel International’s Associate Vice President recently wrote about Hillel’s engagement methodology.  She said “it empowers students to build relationships with other Jewish students on campus to help them form personal connections to Jewish life. Through interactive training, Hillel teaches students the skills of active listening, empathy, paying attention to what is relevant to their peers and using that as the basis for designing Jewish life.
Ultimately, Jewish life is focused around the needs of students, not the needs of the institution. This is the essence of relationship-based engagement: Relationships first. Design second.”
 As students get to know other students, their Jewish exploration comes to be about them, not the people in charge, about their Judaism and not our Judaism. As students have more opportunities to explore, they build their Jewish self-confidence, increase their Jewish knowledge, feel more connected to Jewish peoplehood and community, and create more positive Jewish memories. Ultimately, these actions and decisions about their own lives help each student take ownership of their Jewish experience.

We try and engage all 2000 students each year through relationship based engagement.  That number is daunting especially when I started and we only had 3 staff members.  While staff are an important equation in making meaningful experiences, you can see that it’s really based on engaging students on their own Jewish Journey and having them build their own small communities.
Every year, we hire 8-10 Campus engagement interns. This elite group of students meet weekly to learn from each other, discuss Jewish current topics and learn new leadership skills. The CEIs main responsibility is to engage in these peer to peer conversations. Each CEI has a community that they are connected with. For instance this year, we have CEIs focused on the Greek community, sports, Israel, and summer camp. Each CEI is responsible for 60 coffee dates within their community. That's 600 coffee dates a year with unengaged Jewish college students.
The goal of each coffee date is to ask "Ayekah?" Where are you? Ayekah was G-ds first question in the Torah. G-d asks Adam Ayekah? I have to believe that G-d knew exactly where Adam stood in the garden but was actually asking where are you in this world? How do you fit in?
Ayekah is the perfect question to ask college students on these coffee dates. Our CEIs are taught to listen and ask open ended questions about where are they on their own Jewish Journey.

Let me tell you about Stacey whom I've gotten to know well over the past few years. Stacy a young woman from California is a very typical Jewish college student. She was bat mitzvahed but didn't do much else Jewishly after that. Stacy never went to a Jewish summer camp and was not in a Jewish youth group. She came to UD early and participated in Freshmen Fest but that's it. During Freshmen fest, she made friends but it didn't turn into a real community for her. She attended High holiday services and Passover and on occasion went to other programs during her Freshmen year. At the end of her first year, one of our CEIs took her out for coffee and asked her Ayekah? Stacey's response was that she was missing that Jewish connection and wanted to get involved. The CEI and Stacey put together a plan for what Stacey was interested in and from their Stacey become a CEI her sophomore year and got involved in planning Freshmen Fest and various other programs. Last year Stacey took on even more responsibility. She saw a problem that we have this great Freshmen Fest program but no continuation of it throughout freshmen year. She and a group of students built a new community called FYSH (First Year Students at Hillel). This group pairs upper classman and freshmen who have similar interests to guide them, be a friend and a mentor.
Time and time again we see the power of our CEI’s, not only for the impact that they are having on Jewish life at UD but on themselves.  Stacey says that CEI opened up her “Jewish Pandora’s Box.”   From there on out she was committed to making sure freshmen understood that Hillel was not just a place of worship, it is a place where you can do homework, have leadership opportunities, catch up with friends and make new ones, engage in text study or a cooking class, and talk with the amazing staff. Hillel had become a home for her, and she wanted others to have the exposure to the amazing home it could offer them before they could create a stereotype in their head. My favorite quote from Stacey is “Hillel has given me the opportunity to be an entrepreneur, a leader, a spokesperson, a friend, a student, and most of all, Jewish.”
That’s the impact of relationship based engagement and the power of coffee and asking a simple question of where are you on your Jewish Journey!
CEI is one of many ways Hillel is building micro-communities.  Last year, we realized that while it’s great for a group of students to throw a Chanukah party for their fellow students.  We weren’t giving them the tools to “do it yourself” to more than those few students who were planning the event.  We went out on a limb and developed a new program with a group of student interns called “DIY Holidays.”  We offered the idea to students to host their own Shabbat in their dorm, apartment, or public space.  20 students took us up on our first offer and hosted Shabbat across campus for their friends.  We supplied the basics, food, candles, challah and grape juice and it was up to them to design the Shabbat experience they wanted.  Almost 300 students participated and helped create Shabbat experiences from Vegan to Outdoor Shabbat to Music to Traditional and everything in between.  It was beautiful.   Our DIY program brought students together around their own interests and taught a larger group of students how to do it themselves.  We did the same thing for Chanukah last year and many sororities and fraternities asked if they could host Chanukah parties.  Not just AEPi and AEPhi, NON JEWISH GREEK HOUSES hosted Chanukah and Shabbat dinners.
We have 7 communities that are led by student boards all with their own purpose: Hillel Student Life focuses on outreach to the greater Jewish community on campus, Kesher our reform group, Koach our conservative group, Project Change who does all of the community service projects, Israel U focuses on cultural activities around Israel, Blue Hens for Israel which does all the political action programs, and Challah for Hunger who bakes Challah every week, sells it and donates the profits to Mazon.
Dayenu?  And if that wasn’t enough. We have over 150 interns working and learning as a community on things like Leadership development, Marketing, Graphic Design, Social Media, Philanthropy and the list goes on.
These micro communities are all fueled by peer to peer engagement, coffee, a wanting to connect and a need to figure out where they are on their Jewish Journey
Hopefully, our work at Hillels across the country will change the face of how Jewish institutions do “Jewish” in the future.  We shouldn’t feel like we need to hide like Adam and Eve did after eating the forbidden fruit because we feel guilty for not coming to services or that we should be doing this or that.
Instead, when you are asked ayekah- where are you?  Hopefully, you can say Heineini- I am here!  Here in my community that connects me Jewishly to what’s important and impactful to me and the world around me.
L’shana Tova from my family, our staff at Hillel and 2000 grateful UD Jewish students for the amazing community that surrounds them.

Could it really be that simple? Invite each other for coffee, ask each other about our lives, share in each others' joys and sadnesses? Is that all it is? Yes. I beleive with perfect faith that the answer is yes. More than that, I believe wholeheartedly, completely, that it isn't about some program, it isn't about a new gimmick, it's about our willingness to be authentically present with each other, to answer God's question, our question--Ayekah, where are you?--with affirmation:  we are here, we're willing to connect, we are willing to touch each others' lives. We are willing to take the leap of faith in one another, to open ourselves to one another, to build those connections with one another. In the Zulu language, the response to hello is: "I see you". I would add that in Judaism, in the Torah, the response to a greeting is "Hineini" "Here I am". May we truly see one another, may we truly be present for one another. And when we hear, in a myriad different ways, 'where are you?" May we be willing to answer the call. I see you, I hear you. Amen.

Blog Elul Day 28: Give

A Child is Something Else Again

Related Poem Content Details

A child is something else again. Wakes up
in the afternoon and in an instant he's full of words,
in an instant he's humming, in an instant warm,
instant light, instant darkness.

A child is Job. They've already placed their bets on him
but he doesn't know it. He scratches his body
for pleasure. Nothing hurts yet.
They're training him to be a polite Job,
to say "Thank you" when the Lord has given,
to say "You're welcome" when the Lord has taken away.

A child is vengeance.
A child is a missile into the coming generations.
I launched him: I'm still trembling.

A child is something else again: on a rainy spring day
glimpsing the Garden of Eden through the fence,
kissing him in his sleep,
hearing footsteps in the wet pine needles.
A child delivers you from death.
Child, Garden, Rain, Fate.

Friday, September 30, 2016

Blog Elul Day 27: Bless

To A Panhandler Who, For A Quarter, Said  "God Bless You"
--David Wagoner

You held out your hand, expecting (on the average)
But when I crossed your palm with copper in an alloy
Newly minted by God's Country, you laid a misfortune
On me not even a prime-time gypsy would have
thought of.

God bless me? Me be one for the cloud-capped, holy-
For-showbiz, smug, sharkskinny, hog-certain, flowery
gold G-strings?
I couldn't stagger, let alone clodhop, to such music.

You could have said, Heaven tempers the wind to the 
shorn lamb
Or Heaven will protect the working girl or Heaven
Lies about us in our infancy. I half-swallowed those saws
Once. Their teeth stuck in my craw. Now I take wisdom

Shorn lambs and working girls and infants over the years
Have taught me something else about Heaven: it exists
Maybe when the Corner-cutting Fleecer, the Punch
With the Time-clock, and the Unmilkable Mother aren't

If God knows what's good for Him, He won't listen to you
About my anointment. He'll oil some squeakier sinner
And pour me an ordinary straight-up natural disaster.
Here's two-bits more, palmer, to help I'll be worth a damn.

Thursday, September 29, 2016

Blog Elul Day 26: Create

The birthday of the world
By Marge Piercy
On the birthday of the world
I begin to contemplate
what I have done and left
undone, but this year
not so much rebuilding

of my perennially damaged
psyche, shoring up eroding
friendships, digging out
stumps of old resentments
that refuse to rot on their own.

No, this year I want to call
myself to task for what
I have done and not done
for peace. How much have
I dared in opposition?

How much have I put
on the line for freedom?
For mine and others?
As these freedoms are pared,
sliced and diced, where

have I spoken out? Who
have I tried to move? In
this holy season, I stand
self-convicted of sloth
in a time when lies choke

the mind and rhetoric
bends reason to slithering
choking pythons. Here
I stand before the gates
opening, the fire dazzling

my eyes, and as I approach
what judges me, I judge
myself. Give me weapons
of minute destruction. Let
my words turn into sparks

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Blog Elul Day 25: Intend

If You Look At The Stars And Yawn
--Aaron Zeitlin

Praise me, says God, I will know that you love me. 
Curse me, I will know that you love me. 
Praise me or curse me, 
I will know that you love me. 

Sing out my graces, says God.
Raise your fist against me and revile, says God.
Sing my graces or revile.
Reviling is also praise, says God. 

But if you sit fenced off in your apathy,
Entrenched in "I don't give a damn," says God,
If you look to the stars and yawn, says God, 
If you see suffering and don't cry out, 
If you don't praise and don't revile, 
Then I created you in vain, says God. 

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Eulogy For Al Green

Today our congregation mourned the passing of past president Al Green. A few folks have asked me about my eulogy from today. I present it below

What do you stand for? That’s the fundamental question Torah asks us this week as we read parashat nitzvaim. We read: you stand this day...but the stand is not just a casual positioining of the self. To ‘natzav’ is to be firm and resolute, immovable, like a rock. It is to stand at attention, with intention; it is, in short, to stand for something.

Al Green stood for a great many things. He stood for responsibility. He stood for caring, for seriousness and service. He stood at his place in this congregation and this community to act as a role-model for others. He stood for what was right. And to many, to me especially, he seemed to be a permanent fixture, a tamid, alway here, immovable, ready to serve.

Where did this devotion to service and resolute determination come from? Perhaps it came from his father, a poor railroad worker, who himself was devoted to serving others, including volunteering to fight both in World War I and, as a forty-year old, in World War II. Perhaps it came from being the eldest of five siblings during the Great Depression, where his sense of seriousness and responsibility to his family was driven by the scarcity the family experienced. Perhaps he was just a serious and intense guy, which he was. Some, I would guess, would wither under the pressure that he placed on himself; instead, this drove Al harder. He graduated high school at 16, went to university at University of Delaware and had his masters degree by age 21. At this point world war II had broken out, so he entered as a lieutenant and served in the Pacific all the way through the end of the war, and continued in the reserves, finally retiring as a colonel. It was during the war while he was deployed that he saw a photo of Florence Ferber, who had just acted in the Wilmington High School senior play. He wrote to his sister that, when he returned from the war, he was going to meet and date this girl. And so, when he got back, he hopped a flight to Michigan to meet her at school. She was dating someone else, but when he saw Al’s persistence and determination, he quickly got out of the way. They were married in 1947, and he was profoundly devoted to her. He loved her deeply, fiercely, even at the end of his life worrying who was going to eat with her, or drive her, or take care of her. They would raise three children together: Penny, Karen and Andy.

While he had a head and an interest in medicine, and while Florence’s parents offered to help support that dream, he felt that, with a family, it was time for him to start his career, to take care of his family. So he went to work as a chemist, working for National Vulcanized Fiber for 35 years, eventually as a senior executive.

But as ambitious as he was with his work, his devotion was to his family, and to serving others. His children were everything. He was there in his quiet, steady way, and often shared letters so they knew how he felt. He was eloquent in his writing in a way that he wasn’t as a speaker--always direct and to the point in conversation, he could express his feelings more freely on the page. This best illustrated his dual nature. Al could be tough--he had high expectations and high standards, worried constantly about others, and going against him was something you did very very carefully. He wanted what was best for his kids, and believed truly that his children, including his daughters, could be whatever they wanted to be, and supported their dreams and hopes.  He could be tough on his kids and a tough person to talk to, but he also was upset when they were upset or hurt, concerned for their welfare. He could be loving and caring, and had a soft spot for babies. He had to be the first person to meet his first grandchild in the hospital, and would perk up whenever his great-grandson was brought up or came to visit. And it didn’t have to be in the family, either. He’d go over to babies in the restaurant to visit and have a chat.

As he was with his family, so he was with his community. His was a life of service to others, informed by his Jewish values. He volunteered at St. Francis well into his 90s, and was a beloved presence there. Florence remembered how one time, when she fell, he brought her to the emergency room and came in with her, nearly carrying her, and the staff rushed over to make sure HE was okay. He served as a volunteer with Federation well into his 90s and was given a lifetime achievement award in 1991. He was president of the Temple, president of the memorial park, volunteered with SCORE, Camp Pinemere, the JCC. Basically you name it, he did it, and was still hard at work doing it--signing checks, checking in with people--up until only a few years ago. And while he was awarded time and again for his efforts, he wasn’t interested in the accolades or the applause; it was the work that gave him the greatest satisfaction. It was doing what was right fulfilling the words of the prophet etched in our wall: doing justice, loving mercy, and walking humbly with God.

And he did walk humbly with God. He was, as I said earlier, always here. Friday nights with Florence, and Saturday mornings, wearing his tallit long before that was acceptable in Reform circles, eyes closed as we sang the liturgy, ready to cheer on the bar mitzvah student, as much there to support them as to derive support from the service. I always knew that, if I needed to check about a name on the kaddish list or find out how things were, I could rely on Al, as did the rabbis who came before me. In one of the notes he wrote Andy, back in 1982, he talked about Saturday, Shabbat morning, being a day of relaxation, of reflection and renewal, a chance to pray, to visit his mother-in-law in the Kutz Home (which he did every saturday), and ended the note: that it was a great day to be alive.

Al passed one week from his 96th birthday, a full life, an exemplary life, a life that was truly great.
Now it falls to us to stand as, once, he stood, in the place he stood, to live up to his memory and his example, to be inspired by his devotion and his determination, to stand as he did, fulfilling the words we say to each of our b’nai mitzvah students, bowing low before God, standing upright before mortals, loving peace and pursuing it, and bringing all to God’s Torah. May this be his blessing to all of us as we say, amen.

Blog Elul Day 24: Hope

Dreams Are Illegal In The Ghetto
By Nnamdi Chukwuocha and Al Mills

(They'll be joining us for Yom Kippur by the way. Hope you'll come see them)

Monday, September 26, 2016

Blog Elul Day 23: Beginnings

Beginning -By Lia Purpura 
In the beginning,in the list of begats,one begatgot forgot:work begets work(one poembearsthe next).In other words,once there was air,a birdcould be got.Not taken.Not kept.But conjured up.