These are exciting times for Jewish social justice. This past week, an interfaith group of ministers, led in part by the Jewish group Bend The Arc, staged a dramatic die-in at a Capitol Hill cafeteria as part of the #BlackLivesMatter effort. American Jewish World Service has become a leading global advocate for combating gender-based violence, promoting LGBT rights, and empowering girls to end child marriage. Tru’ah coordinated an active rabbinic presence in Ferguson and is a leader in combating modern slavery and human trafficking. Hazon has galvanized the Jewish community around issues of local farming, health, and environmental sustainability. Uri L’Tzedek, has brought social justice education and advocacy to the Orthodox community. I could go on and on.
But beneath this profligacy of Jewish social justice activism lies what is, to me, an unsettling reality: “tikkun olam,” literally “repair of the world” or, more contextually, “social justice,” is losing resonance at the congregational level. Fewer and fewer synagogues are willing to embrace advocacy as part of their spiritual mission. To put it more dramatically, if the 1963 March On Washington was held today, how many synagogues would participate? Would yours?
This notion of waning congregational interest in tikkun olam work might seem shocking to some. After all, “tikkun olam” has become such a ubiquitous phrase that even President Obama has used it in outreach to the Jewish community; most shuls have social justice or tikkun olam committees; and we continue to teach students in our religious schools about pursuing justice.
But in my efforts first as rabbi of a synagogue and, later, facilitating the outreach efforts of numerous synagogues across a suburban Federation region, I have witnessed an alarming decline in synagogue tikkun olam participation. There is a growing chasm between what I will term “social action” and “social justice.” By social action I mean direct service such as canned food drives, clothing drives, or volunteering at elderly homes or homeless shelters. Social justice, in contrast, refers to advocacy directed towards changing systemic injustices in our society, whether legally or culturally. The Civil Rights movement, and more recently the effort to sanction same-sex marriage, are examples of social justice.
Our synagogues, often through tikkun olam committees, do a tremendous job providing donations and services and should be applauded for doing so. The amount of goods contributed from community gardens, or the number of collective hours spent tutoring disadvantaged inner city school children, represent shining examples of the altruism and beneficence of our shuls. But these same synagogues, especially in suburban or exurban areas of the country, are becoming increasingly skittish about getting involved in social justice advocacy.
A case in point: I recently received a phone call from the leader of a social justice committee at a nearby shul. She wanted her synagogue to support a campaign calling for municipalities to use their collective purchasing power to get gun manufacturers to start producing safer, smarter guns. She (and I) thought this would be a no-brainer. After all, saving a life (pikuah nefesh) is one of the highest values in Jewish law, trumping even Shabbat. Conversely, in the Talmud, the rabbis reject the use of weaponry on Shabbat, even for mere ornamentation (BT Shabbat 63). Her committee’s response?No way—this was far too political an issue for them.
So why are shuls largely pulling back from social justice advocacy? After all, the Civil Rights movement, and more recently the Save Darfur campaign, show that synagogues and their rabbis have been active in social justice efforts in the recent past, taking prominent, visible roles. So why not now?
I think there are at least three reasons for the decline. First, the emergence of effective and specific Jewish social justice organizations, such as those discussed above, has enabled the Jewish community to outsource our concern for the welfare of those beyond our neighborhoods. Worried about women in Africa? Send an online donation to AJWS. Want to take a stand against human trafficking? Click on a Tru’ah online petition. We don’t need our synagogues to get involved in these efforts because we now have alternate points of engagement.
Second, we should acknowledge that Jews in many places have grown wealthier in recent generations. This means that membership–and especially boards–of synagogues have grown slightly more conservative. For example, I had a congregant complain that I sermon I wrote was too liberal when I was merely addressing the mitzvah of pe’ah! How much latitude can a rabbi have to engage her community in social justice if major donors are opposed to doing so?
Third, in this hyper-politicized culture in which we live, some rabbis avoid addressing social justice topics from the pulpit because their congregants want a sanctuary—quite literally—from politics. Shul-goers want a respite from the cacophony of cable news and talk radio. So rabbis steer clear of political issues and instead focus on more spiritual messages.
I firmly believe, however, that more synagogues should adopt a commitment to addressing social justice as a complement to their social action work. From a practical standpoint, many synagogues are hemorrhaging membership, especially disaffected teenagers and young adults. Yet the millennial generation highly values social justice commitment. Looking at an innovative synagogue like IKAR, which has integrated social justice into its mission, shows how effective tikkun olam advocacy can be for stimulating new membership in our houses of worship.
Additionally, to be intellectually honest, those who care about social action should also care about social justice. If we care about gathering food for food pantries, shouldn’t we likewise advocate to adopt policies expanding access to food stamps and other forms of food aid? If we gather clothes or volunteer at homeless shelters, shouldn’t we also seek to address systemic causes of poverty, such as by raising the minimum wage so that those who work full time don’t live below the poverty line, as they currently do? Social action is wonderful and I applaud all those who give of their time and resources to help others. But drawing an arbitrary line between direct service and policy is simply minimizing our impact on issues that clearly matter to us.
Finally, our prophetic heritage should compel us to pursue social justice from our congregational platforms. There is a reason we read the Haftarah in addition to the Torah every Shabbat. Judaism mandates conscientiousness both about our internal ritual lives and the values we express publicly. This spirit of societal rebuke and a refusal to accept the status quo is inherent to our tradition. It began with Abraham standing up to God; continued with Moses standing up to Pharaoh, and later extended to a host of prophets standing up to wayward Israelite kings. This spirit became enshrined in Jewish law, such as the following passage from the Talmud: “We sustain the non-Jewish poor with the Jewish poor, visit the non-Jewish sick with the Jewish sick, and bury the non-Jewish dead with the Jewish dead, for the sake of peace.” (BT Gittin 61a) In short, if we want to be a light unto nations, let’s start acting like it!
Our synagogues, and especially the rabbis who lead them, continue to do tremendous work striving to enrich the spiritual lives of those in our communities. They also do a fantastic job sharing their communal resources through social action efforts. But I yearn for the day that our synagogues will see themselves, too, as vehicles for societal transformation. Perhaps then we will truly make inroads in the arduous, daunting, yet inescapable task of repairing our broken world.
My boys are getting psyched for the upcoming release of the blockbuster Exodus: Gods And Kings. Exodus promises to be this generation’s The Ten Commandments or The Prince of Egypt, a theatrical rendition of the biblical exodus from Egypt that will resonate for years, if not decades. And, like any depiction of biblical material, it is already sparking controversy: both for its failure to include non-Caucasians in leading roles and for its depiction of God as a moody and demanding child. For eight and 11- year-old boys who attend Jewish day school, though, Exodus is a dream come true: matching the biblical narrative of yetziat Mitzrayim (redemption from slavery in Egypt) they have studied at length with a Hollywood director’s imagination and 3D special effects. Though both the plot and the acting are reported to be somewhat shaky, the digital cinematography will surely be breathtaking.
I plan to return to a discussion of the substance of this movie in my next blog, after I have had a chance to see and analyze it. But there is an aspect of the movie, and its relationship to the biblical narrative, that I want to discuss today because I think it addresses many of the most pressing social and racial issues of our times. Simply put, I hope the movie Exodus spends a good deal of time depicting the horrors of slavery that the Israelites endured before it moves on to the heroic tale of Moses and Aaron standing up to Pharaoh and the climactic battle at the Red Sea. One of the central tenants of Passover, in which Jews commemorate the exodus story, is that we are supposed to feel as if we, personally, were slaves in Egypt. The Torah, too, returns again and again (Exodus 12, Exodus 13, Deuteronomy 5, Deuteronomy 15, and Deuteronomy 24) to the injunction that we remember the experience of slavery in Egypt. Why? Why such a fixation on the bad part of the story of redemption, rather than just the celebration of God’s deliverance? I believe the answer is that we are compelled to feel empathy. We, as Jews, are not allowed to forget what it feels like to suffer, to feel powerless, to be subject to the whims of others.
As a society, we are suffering from a paucity of empathy. The story of Ferguson, I believe, is largely about this inability to experience empathy with what it feels like to be a young African-American in an urban environment. Lost in the cacophony over whether Officer Darren Wilson was justified in killing Michael Brown is this larger narrative of the persistent, systemic racism that results in young black males being seen as threats to law enforcement and thereby justifies their disproportionate incarceration and killing by police. As my colleague Rabbi Rachel Gurevitz recently put it, any effort to move forward after Ferguson requires us “to ask the difficult questions about what kinds of systemic or cultural biases lead to the taking of some lives more often than others.” The exodus story compels us to listen to the pain, the humiliation, and the anger of those of us who are enslaved to this system of injustice.
The same is true when it comes to the issue of President Obama’s recent executive action on undocumented immigrants. Most of the debate in the media and on Capitol Hill revolves around whether or not President Obama overstepped his constitutional authority in deciding not to deport approximately five million undocumented immigrants. But where is the discussion about what it feels like to live under the constant stress and duress of being forcibly removed from one’s family? To put down roots in a community, day after day, year after year, while knowing that these roots can be torn apart at a moment’s notice? About having to decide between reporting an abusive spouse and risking arousing the attention of law enforcement versus keeping silent to remain under the radar? The exodus story compels us to listen to the fear, the frustration, and the suffering of those enslaved to an intransigent, unjust, and nonsensical immigration system.
Today is #Giving Tuesday, a day dedicated to giving back to our communities following the gluttonous consumption of Black Friday and Cyber Monday. Donating one’s resources to charities is, of course, a wonderful mitzvah. But, as my colleague Rabbi Amy Small recently wrote, writing checks of offering other financial support is not enough. “The real impact on our world and on our life’s purpose comes through generous acts of doing.” Doing generates empathy. You can’t click your way to experiencing what it is like to go hungry by dropping off a can of soup to your synagogue’s food pantry collection, but you can if you participate in the Food Stamp Challenge, spending a week (or even just today) trying to live on the $29.40 per week that those receiving food stamps (SNAP benefits) have to spend on food. Or you can spend time working at a food pantry, talking to those who are recipients, hearing their stories.
Judaism commands us to remember, to experience anew, so that we can empathize with those who are still struggling. May we be leaders in urging our society to experience what it feels like for those of us who are marginalized; for those who suffer through the systemic injustices of our current society. And in doing so to defeat the Pharaohs of our own day and to help us transform our own society into something a little bit more holy. Now that’s a message I want to teach my boys.
Today likely is going to be a rough day for liberals. Election prognosticators are predicting that Republicans will win enough Senate elections to re-take majority control of the Senate. This will give the Republican Party control of both houses of Congress for the first time since the Bush Administration.
This result will be painful to many liberals because it is based not on an ideological change in the electorate, as occurred in 1994, but on the success of Republican obstinacy and effective ineffectiveness over the past two years. This Congress is on pace to become the least effective Congress, in terms of bills passed, in U.S. history! The Republican Party has been transparent in its desire to block any Democratic domestic legislative proposals, even those that hold strong support nationally. As Senator Mitch McConnell, who is poised to become the new Majority Leader of the Senate, famously remarked in 2010, “the single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president.” There is little effort to pass constructive, pro-active legislation. Instead, the Republican Party has been fixated on events of political theater such as the House of Representatives voting 54 times to repeal, defund, or otherwise thwart the Affordable Care Act (“Obamacare”).
It can feel dispiriting to see obstinacy and ineptitude rewarded with more power when there are so many critical issues in need of resolution. Competent governance, isolated from petty politics, would come up with a way to pass middle-of-the-road measures such as gun control laws requiring that anyone who purchases a gun first passes a background check; comprehensive immigration reform that includes a slow but transparent path to citizenship for the eleven million undocumented residents currently living in America; climate change legislation, whether via a cap and trade program or a carbon tax, to make a significant reduction in our carbon emissions; funding to update our crumbling infrastructure and our archaic electronic grid. These (and countless others) are issues that ought not be liberal or conservative issues. They are the type of progressive, moderate legislation that is necessary to keep our country safe and vibrant. And they are all pipe dreams in a Republican Congress.
So what is a despondent progressive to do today? I was thinking about this last night as I attended a lecture by the Israeli journalist Ari Shavit, author of the bestseller My Promised Land. Shavit was discussing the events of this past summer in Israel and what his vision is for Israel’s future. One thing he said, in particular, struck me. Shavit declared that Zionism is all about being active. Zionism rejects apathy and passivity. It is based on the premise of making the impossible possible. It is about dreaming the dream and then grounding that dream in reality through blood, sweat, and tears. The miracle of Israel’s creation, and its continued existence, is testament to what Zionism can achieve.
I do not mean to suggest that a midterm election is on the same par as the 2000 year struggle to reclaim the Jewish homeland. The political and theological impact of the creation of Israel is incomparable. But I do believe there are instructive lessons from Shavit’s depiction of the modern Zionist struggle that those who are in political mourning would do well to learn. First and foremost, to those who are feeling despondent,don’t give up. Don’t feel defensive about the Affordable Care Act, income inequality, or the need for enhanced environmental regulation.Don’t take this election as a repudiation of your values and aspirations. Continue to dream and hope. Come up with a vision for the society you want to create, and then go about the hard work of realizing this vision pragmatically and skillfully. After all, starting tomorrow, the battle for 2016 begins anew!
I recently had the privilege of serving on a Beit Din (Rabbinic Court) for an individual who was converting to Judaism. It was, as I have found all prior instances, a powerful and deeply moving experience. Listening to this individual explain his Jewish journey and the reasons he wanted to convert nearly moved me to tears. His story affirmed, for me, all the spiritual and social good Judaism can provide at its best. As his face beamed with pride as he emerged from the mikveh, I knew that he had made a decision that would bring him immense meaning and joy.
But there was one aspect of my conversation with the individual that troubled me. Part of the Beit Din process involves asking the conversion candidate a variety of questions, both about his past and his present. While he answered most questions capably and with passion, there was one question I asked him for which he lacked much of an answer: “who is God to you?” I was curious to learn more about his theology and wanted to know what metaphor of God he most resonated with. Not only was he unable to verbalize anything concrete, but he also seemed to suggest that this hadn’t been a point of emphasis in his conversion course. I am both not surprised and deeply disappointed.
The Jewish community has just emerged from our annual crash course in theology. It is impossible to read the High Holy Days Mahzor and not think about God. The primary metaphor of Rosh Hashanah is of God as sovereign sitting in judgment over our deeds from the past year, while the primary metaphor of Yom Kippur is of us asking God to exercise mercy and restraint in judging us. Perhaps the fundamental challenge I face in leading High Holy Days services is both offering the metaphor of God in judgment, for those with whom it resonates, and critiquing that metaphor, for those with whom it is deeply alienating. (Full disclosure: as a process theologian, I reject both metaphors and prefer a partnership model.) I spend a good deal of my English speaking roles during the service explaining the liturgy and offering alternative ways to understand the liturgy that speak to different views of God.
But regardless of which approach of God one embraces, I think it is fundamental that one embrace (even temporarily) a view. To ignore theology, on the High Holy Days, dilutes (though does not eliminate) the efficacy of our experience. If God is irrelevant, then the only reasons to come to services on the High Holy Days are: 1) cultural/social (“because that’s what Jews do on the High Holy Days”) or 2) purely personal (i.e. a self-improvement contemplative practice). oth of these goals are worthwhile in and of themselves, but the process is incomplete without God. That’s why I am saddened when I read posts that take God out of the High Holy Days, and why I cannot be a Rabbi In Favor Of Atheism. Grappling with God (along with Torah and Israel) is an essential component of what makes us Jews; we cannot abdicate this struggle. To be clear, there is no single approach to understanding God that I am advocating; only that one commit oneself to having a view about who or what God is to them and letting that view inform the way he or she engages with the world around us.
So I challenged the conversion candidate to keep thinking about God. I gave him a few different metaphors for God to consider and urged him to keep thinking about it, to keep struggling with trying to articulate who or what God is for him. I advised him that this journey never really ends, and that he might find himself holding radically different views as his life circumstances change. And I encouraged him that the struggle is worth it and will add richness and depth to his new Jewish identity.
I am emotionally fatigued by all the heartbreak of this past summer. I am drained by the tragedy of the bloodshed spilled in Israel and in Gaza. I am exhausted by the constant reports of slaughter and barbarism from ISIS, the civil war in Syria, and the separatist fighting in Ukraine. I am overwhelmed by the suffering of those stricken with Ebola in West Africa or with grief and anger in Ferguson. It seemed impossible to turn on the news this summer without some moral travesty dominating the headlines.
But with Rosh Hashanah rapidly approaching, I don’t want to stay focused on tragedy and heartbreak. I want to usher in the New Year with hope and optimism. And that is why I am joining thousands of other Jews in heading to the People’s Climate March in NYC on September 21st.
My wife recently asked me, “why do you care so much about climate change, when there are so many pressing issues that need to be addressed?” My initial reaction was to explain to her that I agreed with her that there were many issues demanding our national attention: from immigration reform to the minimum wage; from armed engagement with ISIS to fixing our failing schools. But of all these issues, none poses the existential threat of climate change. Rising sea levels, ferocious storms, and devastating droughts threaten billions of lives. The sheer enormity of the consequences requires us to prioritize climate change.
While true, I don’t think this answer does justice to the cause. There is something deeper, more amorphous, and less scientific that I believe animates me to care so much about climate change: its universalism. The climate doesn’t care if you are a believer in climate change or a skeptic; if you are religious or secular; wealthy or poor. It impacts all of us. And, conversely, climate change is not something any of us individually—not even the President—can remedy. It will take a movement, not unlike the Civil Rights Movement of the 60s, the Women’s Rights Movement of the 70s, or the Gay Rights/Marriage Equality Movement of the 00s to galvanize a resistant and inert populace to change. The solutions to our warming climate are fairly simple—we need to reduce our consumption of fossil fuels, notably coal, and increase our usage of renewable sources of energy. But we have run out of time to do so one Prius at a time, one solar panel at a time, one LED lightbulb at a time. Climate change cannot be just a political or technocratic issue. We need to sound the proverbial shofar to alert us to the moral repugnancy of our present energy policies. We need to create a groundswell of righteous indignation!
Finally, as a rabbi, I find environmental advocacy to be theologically profound. My basic running theology is that God wants us to act as partners in bringing about the world God envisions. Perhaps nowhere is this relationship made more explicit than in Genesis 2:15, when God took Adam “and placed him in the Garden of Eden, to work with the land and to protect it.” God entrusts us to be the stewards of the created world, so climate change advocacy, to me, is a sacred duty we dare not abdicate.
This brings us back to the People’s Climate March. Religious leaders from multiple faiths, along with secular environmentalists, labor leaders, and others, have convened what may well be the environmental march in history. The March will precede a critical UN summit on the climate crisis, and the hope is that if enough world leaders are overwhelmed by the power and passion of those at the March that they will be willing to take courageous action to sign a new climate treaty. But even if this doesn’t happen, even if no treaty emerges from the UN, we still can succeed. Through moral suasion, through “praying with our feet,” as Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel once said, we can make climate change into the next great transformative movement. May God grant us the wisdom and courage to make 5775 the year the world finally turns from stagnation to action. I hope to see you on the 21st!
We Jews are great at gathering together in times of crisis, but how often do we get together to celebrate joy? This was the illuminating challenge a mohel offered at a bris I recently attended. And it rings true. We are doing a tremendous job of rallying support for Israel solidarity gatherings during Operation Protective Edge. Jews of many religious stripes make a point to show up to services on the High Holy Days, where we sit for hours in solemn reflection, penitence, and apprehension. Perhaps largely due to the recurrence of tragedy and persecution in Jewish history, we have learned to do sad well.
But where are Jewish audiences on Simhat Torah, a day dedicated to rejoicing at arguably the most important feature of Judaism—the ongoing engagement with the Bible? How often do we get together with friends or relatives to celebrate milestones and accomplishments? As I plan a birthday party for my daughter, I wonder when it became fashionable to stop having birthday celebrations as an adult. As I begin a new position this summer, I wonder why we only commemorate the end of past jobs and not—Linked In notifications aside—rejoice communally at new ones.
I write this post with Robin Williams’ death weighing heavily on my mind. Though I never met him, I feel like Mr. Williams was a big part of my life. As a Gen Xer, I grew up with Mork and Mindy, Comic Relief, HBO specials, Dead Poet’s Society, and Good Morning Vietnam (at the risk of dating myself, if you happened to miss the 80s, I highly recommend you download the above). His talent was so breathtaking, his wit so lightning-fast, and yet so heartfelt and genuine, that I often found myself laughing so hard I didn’t realize I was crying as well. His comedic virtuosity was “manic, uninhibited, seemingly barreling along on an arbitrary stream of consciousness but actually arranged carefully around subject categories: drugs, politics, sex, marriage, fatherhood, among the many.” Later, he managed to play off of this exuberant, hurricane-in-a-bottle ability by taking on subdued roles. As the New York Times film critic A. O. Scott put it in this obituary, “Watching him acting in earnest, you could not help but be aware of the exuberance, the mischief, that was being held in check, and you couldn’t help but wonder when, how or if it would burst out. That you knew what he was capable of made his feats of self-control all the more exciting.”
WIlliams’ ability to mine comedy from tragedy, to inspire and encourage, was not only his signature talent but also his biography. He was plagued by addiction to cocaine and alcohol, watching his close friend—and fellow comedic giant—John Belushi die of an overdose. He also was thought to suffer from depression and bipolar disorder, which might well explain his apparent suicide. But Williams somehow refused to let his mental health, marital, and other problems obfuscate his prodigious talent. He used his personal demons as fuel for his stand-up routines, showing the courage to discuss mental illness and addiction when few comedians did. He helped raise millions of dollars in his charity work. And he showed that a comic doesn’t have to demean or insult others to bring a smile or a laugh.
So today, despite the tenuous cease-fire in Israel/Gaza, despite the general mayhem that continues to unfold in the Middle East, despite the ebola outbreak in Africa, despite the immigration crisis in America, despite the global crisis that is global warming, and on and on, I am going to take time out to listen to Robin Williams, zichrono livracha (may his memory be for a blessing). I am going to gather my family together tonight and we are going to laugh, heartily and with gusto. And in his honor, I am going to dedicate myself to seeking opportunities to celebrate happiness and gratitude in the coming year. I hope you will join me.
I used to think that there were two different mindsets when it came to living Jewishly: the experience of those living in Israel and the experience of those, like myself, living in the Diaspora. But the virulence of anti-Semitism that has erupted over the past few few weeks in response to the Israel-Gaza conflict, as I will describe below, has shaken this paradigm in my mind. And it has caused me to think about a brand new question: What does it mean to be a Jewish-American at a time when Israel is strong and secure but when fellow Jews in other parts of the world are being persecuted for being Jewish?
The response in many parts of the world to the latest outbreak of Israel-Gaza violence has been nothing short of stunning. In Turkey, a columnist from a leading pro-government paper wrote a letter to the Chief Rabbi of Turkey in which he said it was not a bad thing for Jews to be killed just for being Jews and that those who “come out with your Jewish identity” and support Israel deserve “an eye for an eye approach.” Paris has broken out in spates of anti-Jewish violence that are eerily reminiscent of Kristallnacht, with pro-Palestinian mobs targeting Jewish shops, lighting smoke bombs, and throwing stones and bottles at riot police. Nine synagogues have been attacked in France since Israel launched Operation Protective Edge, prompting a resurgence in the vigilance of Jewish Defense Leagues there. A leader of Germany’s Jewish community said some of the German demonstrators have shown an “explosion of evil and violence-prone hatred of Jews.”
In fact, things have gotten so bad in Europe that the foreign ministers of Germany, France and Italy on Tuesday condemned the rise in anti-Semitic protests and violence in their countries over the conflict in Gaza, saying they will do everything possible to combat it. By castigating native Jewish populations in the press merely for being Jewish; by rioting, pillaging synagogues, and shouting anti-Semitic screeds, those who, before, claimed that being anti-Israel was distinguishable from being anti-Semitic now have removed their facades. The degree of anti-Semitic hate in the world recently reported by the Anti Defamation League (they found that more than 25% of those surveyed harbor deeply anti-Semitic attitudes) is, tragically, being confirmed in real time through actual—not to mention social—media.
Yet here I sit, in the U.S., and I don’t feel any of this animus. To be sure, there are episodic bouts of anti-Semitism here, such as the tragic shooting at the Kansas City JCC a few months ago, but I never have felt an existential threat to myself, my family, or my community merely for being Jewish. To the contrary, as has been assessed ad naseum, 94% of U.S. Jews feel proud to be Jewish. And, a more recent Pew study found that Judaism is more accepted than Catholicism, Evangelical Protestantism, or any other faith in America. Not only are Jews thriving in America, but we also live in a country whose political elite strongly endorse Israel. Unlike the criticism and acrimony in Europe and the Middle East, the House and the Senate both passed unanimous resolutions supporting Israel in its response to Operation Protective Edge.
How, then, should I reconcile the psychological dissonance of my own security in my Jewish identity at a time when fellow Jews are being threatened for holding to that same identity? Obviously, empathy and support for our beleaguered brothers and sisters, through the Joint Distribution Committee, the Jewish Federations of North America, and other major organizations, are important. So, too, is vigilance in showing the world when anti-Israel attitudes really are anti-Semitic. But there is more soul-searching I feel I need to do, more theological and philosophical struggle to try to come to grips with what it actually means to be a Jew today in light of this reality. I encourage you to send me your thoughts on how you have dealt with this struggle, and I pray that peace will soon return to our Holy Land.
The Jewish world is full of debates. Get the latest in MyJewishLearning’s weekly blogs newsletter.
I don’t normally see myself as a curmudgeon. Ever since I can remember, I have erred on the side of being iconoclastic and even a little bit irreverent. Rules, norms, and social mores, to borrow from a Jewish context, generated a vote but not a veto on my conduct.
So I was surprised to find myself, this past week, bemoaning the lack of decorum during the recitation of the Birkat Hamazon (Grace After Meals) at a summer camp I was visiting. For those who have never experienced Jewish summer camp, singing is usually a boisterous affair. Songs and prayers are sung loudly, with catchy tunes to make them easier for campers to learn and remember. Hand gestures and more ornate choreography are created to accompany the singing. The Birkat Hamazon, whose length creates challenging opportunities for young campers to learn, is particularly susceptible to these embellishments. I generally applaud these efforts, and remember fondly the frenzied cacophony that was the singing of the Birkat at the Camp Ramah I attended in California.
But there was something that agitated me here: in the midst of the prayer, on several occasions, the students would toss their kippot or hats into the air in celebration, as if they were graduating from college. I thought this was going too far. I spoke with a few other guest rabbis in attendance and they all murmured their agreement. It’s one thing to sing loudly, we thought, and another to take an object of ritual significance and throw it in the air in the middle of a prayer (during which they should have their heads covered at all times). I was tempted to speak to the camp director and tell him about our concerns for this display of irreverence and disrespect.
And then it (or, more accurately, the 10 year-old version of myself) hit me: how can I, or any rabbi, complain about young Jews demonstrating too much ruach, too much spirit, while praying? So what if they threw their kippot in the air a few times—they were praying, feeling connected to one another and to our tradition, and enjoying it! With Jewish institutions all over America struggling to engage the next generation of Jews, here, at this camp, were hundreds of children and teenagers singing and dancing together, in Hebrew, without any signs of complaint. College-age counselors were teaching elementary school students fun and creative ways to get into the prayer and actually understand what the Birkat is saying!
I reminded myself of the story of Eldad and Medad. They were two individuals who were overcome with prophecy in the Israelite camp. Joshua, appalled at their lack of decorum, urged Moses to restrain them. Moses responded, “If only all the Lord’s people were prophets!” (Numbers 11:29) To which I’d like to add: If only all our Jewish youth had the exuberance of these campers!
May the Jewish community—from funders to communal institutions—continue to find ways to enable more of our children and teenagers to taste the passion and delight of engaged Jewish experience that summer camp provides. And may old fogies like me pause from our propensity to judge critically what the kids today are doing so that we can appreciate the beauty and rarity of this passion and delight. To quote from Elsa, the latest sage from Disney, “let it go!”
The Jewish world is full of debates. Get the latest in MyJewishLearning’s weekly blogs newsletter.
On Sunday I helped organize a rally at our JCC in support of the three teenagers, Naftali Fraenkel, Eyal Yifrach, and Gilad Sha’er, who were kidnapped last week in Gush Etzion. As part of our advertising, we used the Twitter hashtag “#bringbackourboys” that was developed to bring world attention to this horrific kidnapping. During the rally, one of our speakers made reference to this hashtag and its famous predecessor, “#bringbackourgirls,” created in reference to the nearly 300 schoolgirls who were kidnapped in Nigeria in April 2014 by the Islamist group Boko Haram.
And then I looked around the room. Perhaps I had been too nervous before then—nervous about what I was going to say; nervous about whether enough people would show up to fill the chairs—to notice that there was no one in the audience under the age of 50. No one. Not a soul.
The #bringbackourgirls campaign captured the attention and enthusiasm of Americans young and old, religious and secular, politically active and indifferent. It captivated world attention with its moral resonance and clear message. But where were the young Jews in the crowd yesterday? Why did the kidnapping of students their own age not resonate enough to take 30 minutes out of their Sunday evening?
I’m sure there are communities that have held vigils where teenagers and young adults have shown up. Particularly in more frum communities, where studying in yeshivot in Israel as teenagers is more common, the connection to the kidnapped boys (especially to the American, Naftali) might prompt a better young turnout. But I imagine that the experience in my community was more, rather than less, common. And it is not just at this event. Look around you at Yom Hazikaron or Yom Hashoah gatherings and see who is with you: the elderly, those who went to Zionist summer camps generations ago, and a handful of Israeli expats. In another generation or two, will we even commemorate these days in America?
The diagnosis for this inattention is far easier, I fear, than the treatment. Younger generations lack the experiential connection to the Holocaust and to Israel’s wars for existential survival. They/we don’t have relatives who survived the Shoah and probably never have heard a survivor speak. They didn’t stay up at night, on pins and needles, afraid that Israel might be wiped out in 1948, 1967, or 1973. Without these experiences, we lack a visceral connection to Israelis as a people. What happens in Israel is a news item, something to note, perhaps, and then go on with our days here.
So how do we build a deeper, emotional connection to Israel and its people? I’d love to hear your ideas.
The Jewish world is full of debates. Get the latest in MyJewishLearning’s weekly blogs newsletter.
How do you close a synagogue? This is the question I have been confronting for the past few months as the shul I have served these past two years edged closer and closer to our final Shabbat this past weekend. I offer the following reflections of what I fear will be an increasingly frequent phenomenon in American Jewish life.
Once we concluded that it was no longer financially feasible to remain an ongoing synagogue, we—our board of directors, led by our President, our staff, and myself—made sure that we would move forward with transparency and dignity. We sent a letter to all our congregants informing them of our situation and that we wanted to hear from them. We gave them three options: 1) merge with another existing synagogue; 2) downsize to a small space and eliminate our overhead, including our religious school staff, and try to keep on going as a Havurah; or 3) close down and help members transition to new synagogues. After numerous conversations, it became clear that the vast majority of our congregants preferred option 3.
We spoke with a local Reform synagogue and a nearby Conservative one to apprise them of our situation and coordinated open houses so that our members could see what Shabbat services were like at each. We did not push affiliation at either venue but encouraged our members to make their own decisions, based on their individual needs, and to let us know once they did so we could keep the community in the loop. Once people began to make some decisions, we held a synagogue-wide meeting so that we could acknowledge the emotional trauma of closing down; let people know what others were thinking; and answer additional questions people had about the process going forward.
I also felt that it was important that we finish off our synagogue year with integrity. Though morale was low, our indefatigable religious school director and I made sure that we carried forward with our curriculum, including various innovative end-of-year events, and didn’t let talk about who was going where seep into our students’ in-class conversations. When the media got wind of rumors about our troubles—before any final decisions had been made about our future—we reiterated again and again that we were open and active through June and would get back to them if and when any final decisions were made. We also spent a good deal of attention planning for a Bat Mitzvah that was set to take place a week before we closed; focusing on the joy of this life-cycle event was a bulwark against the pessimism of our impending closure. We arranged for our three Torah scrolls to go to happy new homes, arranged for our Yahrzeit plaques to go to another synagogue where Kaddish could be said annually, and invited our congregants to come reclaim items they had donated or items that held personal resonance for them.
As we drew closer to our closing, we thought it best to have a farewell Shabbat service. We invited current and past members to attend, catered a Kiddush, and held a lovely tribute service. We honored various groups with aliyot, from our founders to our teachers to those who cooked and cleaned for our events. We had our Bnai Mitzvah alumni help lead the Torah service and had our current religious school students end our service with a rousing Adon Olam. I also gave time during my sermon for people to share their memories and say their farewells. In my final address, I did not shy away from the sadness I, and many others felt, at our inability to live up to our potential. But I also thought it was important to acknowledge all those who had sacrificed so much time and treasure to make this a kehilla kedosha, a sacred community, these past fifteen years. And I ended with a kernel of hope, suggesting the metaphor of a supernova:
“Kol Ami [the name of our synagogue] is like a supernova. A supernova is what happens when a star dies; it is an explosion so bright that it blocks out everything else around it. Similarly, sadness from Kol Ami’s closing is all we can think about right now, overwhelming us from finding anything positive to express. But the remnants of a supernova explosion, the elements that emerge after the explosion cools, form the very particles needed for the creation of new stars and planets. Just as our world could not have been formed without a previous star exploding, it is my hope and prayer that we will take precious remnants from our history at Kol Ami and use them to form new planets of Jewish existence and engagement in the coming years. Every end is also a new beginning.”
The closure of any synagogue is tragic for its congregants and a loss for the broader community. While we have found new homes for most of our families, I worry about the empty-nesters in our midst who don’t want to start over with a new shul but yearn for the fellowship of the community they have come to enjoy. I also fear that our shul closure is the proverbial canary in a coal mine alert about the prospects for observant Jewish communities in suburban and exurban America. But by attempting to close our shul with mindfulness and derekh eretz, I hope that we at least were able to mitigate some of the pain and anguish our congregants experienced.
Moved by this post? Join the conversation through MyJewishLearning’s weekly blogs newsletter.