About me: I’m a judicial officer. I’ve served on presidential and gubernatorial campaigns, and as counsel to my state Senate. I earned one academic degree in international relations, a second in public law and a third in public policy, and I’ve taught graduate law and policy courses. Even so, in my current role, judicial ethics bar me from publicly discussing most political issues. As such, this Jewish spiritual leader—trained for and steeped in public affairs—can’t publicly discuss the Mideast’s blow by blow. For talk of peace plans, war crimes, two-state solutions, one-state solutions, human shields and human pawns in Mideast politics, please look elsewhere.
Freed from adding my political voice to the Mideast cacophony – and given that most of us don’t readily absorb perspectives challenging what we already believe about the Mideast – my focus here can only be spiritual. So, in good rabbinic tradition, I’ll tell a story.
At bar and bat mitzvah ceremonies, clergy typically say nice things about young adults stepping into tradition. When I became bar mitzvah, I received a surprise. As I sat in front of my family and friends assembled for my bar mitzvah, the rabbi told them that, a few weeks earlier, he’d watched me punch another kid in the face. My blow broke the kid’s nose, which flowed with blood. For emphasis, the rabbi repeated the punch line: I broke the kid’s nose and his face flowed with bright red blood. My teenaged face must have turned bright red to hear this story, at my bar mitzvah, from my rabbi.
The rabbi’s point, he continued, wasn’t that I punched a kid or even that I acted in self-defense. What most got the rabbi’s attention was that he saw me cry while I delivered the knockout blow.
We’re called to cry when we cause pain. We’re called to cry for the fact that causing pain can be necessary in an imperfect world. We’re called to cry for the pain we inflict. We’re called to cry that we ourselves cause pain. We’re called to cry for the humanity of anyone who receives our blow.
Modern culture seems conflicted on crying. Once society held that “real men don’t cry,” but now some romantics seek “men who aren’t afraid to cry.” Some tears are bitter, but “laughter through tears” is a Steel Magnolia’s favorite emotion. Tears connote vulnerability; and often the real issue—the risk in crying—is the vulnerability and inner authenticity that tears depict. That’s one reason we blow the shofar on Rosh Hashanah—to simulate if not stimulate tears (Talmud, Rosh Hashanah 33a). On the other hand, often we judge an action wrong if it brings tears: in Hillel’s famous words, what is hateful to oneself, don’t do to another (Talmud, Shabbat 31a).
War is different, we’re told: “all’s fair in love and war.” It’s military gospel that waging war requires objectifying and dehumanizing people as “targets”: otherwise, most would find it impossible to fight. To be blunt, if purveyors of war let themselves cry, they might not be able to wage war or send others to battle. Psychologists understand this phenomenon in two ways. The first is social identity theory, by which we unconsciously tend to define ourselves by group affiliation. Even if groups are artificial (the classic experiment concerns color war teams at summer camp), in-groupers learn to dislike and even detest out-groupers, subconsciously deeming them inferior. The second, as Milgram’s classic experiment depicted, is conformity: we tend to defer to authority and view ourselves as conformist instruments of their will. Together group identity and conformity can reduce one’s sense of moral responsibility for behaviors that harm others. Such, in a nutshell, is the psychology of war.
Lest we cast scriptural tradition in more pious terms, even the Bible depicts war as psychological dehumanization. Steeling the Israelites for the military challenge of conquering Canaan’s peoples, Torah records God to instruct, “You will smite them. You will utterly destroy them … and show them no mercy” (Deut. 7:2). No mercy, no tears.
But if Jews must fight, Judaism asks more than merciless steel. To the Slonimer Rebbe (1911-2000), it was the Israelite slaves’ very “cry” under the weight of bondage (Ex. 2:23) that began the road to liberation – so Jews must cry for others, for Jews once were slaves in Egypt. One who steels oneself to another’s tears will “cry and not be answered” (Prov. 21:13). Even amidst destruction, the gates of tears never close (Talmud, Bava Metzia 59a). And one mustn’t glorify another’s demise: at the Egyptians’ defeat at the Sea of Reeds, God rebuked the celebrating angels: “My children are drowning and you sing praises?” (Talmud, Megillah 10b; Sanhedrin 39b).
Fast forward to 2014. At the moment of this writing, Mideast missiles stopped flying for now, but cries for war and peace continue to resound across social media, newspaper editorial pages and Cairo cease-fire talks. Meanwhile war’s innocent victims cry plenty.
But how about the tears from the rest of us, safely distant from the war zone, who either cry for war or cry for peace? If we defend the current Mideast violence, do we shed tears for its victims, or do we objectify them as out-groupers for whom suffering and death somehow are less tragic? If we condemn war’s spasms, do we shed tears for the grief that preceded it, or do we take moral refuge behind the price of war as if the status quo ante bellum caused no tears of its own? In short, are we crying the right tears of war and peace?
Crying isn’t enough, of course—the Mideast needs far more than our tears—but spiritually we each begin where we are. A Jew who throws a punch or advocates throwing one, but doesn’t cry for its resulting pain, misses Judaism’s higher calling. Conversely, a Jew who withholds throwing a necessary punch, or condemns throwing one because it would cause pain, might be no more justified because right action sometimes causes hurt. We dehumanize ourselves—we become less capable of moral choices—whenever we steel ourselves to pain we cause or decline painful acts that are necessary.
As a judicial officer I can’t take public sides on Mideast politics. But this much I can say: one who sheds no tears for victims of war has no right to advocate war, and one who refuses to cause necessary pain doesn’t know what real peace is. Those are truths for all of life’s battlefields – home, work, school, synagogue, family, everywhere.
And as for war and peace, if more of us cried the right cries of war and peace, then maybe soon there’d be less to cry about.
Is anti-Semitism like pornography? Do we know it when we see it? Absurd on the one hand, this analogy helps me make sense of my frustration with the recent quietude of some liberal Christians. Let me explain.
The idea that we know pornography when we see it is deceptive in simplicity. It suggests that there is one standard for pornography upon which we can agree. If this was the case there would have been no need for the Supreme Court of the United States to have heard Jacobellis v. Ohio to decide if the movie The Lovers was pornographic, which gave rise to the famous quote by Justice Potter Stewart. In reality, the line between art and exploitation is not fixed and does shift with the sensibilities of the viewer. And it is in this respect, that I see the similarity between anti-Semitism and pornography.
So I understand how liberal Christian groups like the United Church of Canada and the Presbyterian Church of the United States and I differed in our understanding of their denominational condemnations in recent years of the policies of the Israeli government. To be clear, I do not endorse the occupation; I favor a two state solution and disagree with many of the specific policies of the Israeli government. Nonetheless, I could not shake my sense the resolutions and public condemnations by liberal Christians of Israel but not of other oppressive governments such as that of China, Iran, or Russia was tinged with an element of anti-Semitism, the expectation that a Jewish State be held to a higher standard. Overlapping with liberal Christians on many political and theological fronts, I nonetheless feel that historic legacy of Christian anti-Semitism places upon them a special responsibility to consider how they approach modern Jews and Judaism. Calling out Israel as a unique oppressor of human rights cannot in my mind be separated from historic anti-Semitism. But my liberal Christian friends and colleagues were quick to defend their denominational policies and assure me that no anti-Semitic overtones tinged their these movement policies. Publically these denominations asserted that there was no condemnation of Judaism or special singling out of Jews. Where I saw anti-Semitism, they assuredly did not. They would know anti-Semitism if they saw it. Had they seen anti-Semitism, they would have certainly acted differently.
I wish I could be sure.
In recent weeks, since the fighting between Hamas and Israel has intensified, there has been a range of reactions to the conflict. But there have also been reactions, which while correlated with the conflict, seem to overstep its boundaries. Synagogues across Europe have been attacked. Flyers blaming all Jews for the war have been distributed in the United States. Calls for “death to the Jews” have been heard at rallies in Berlin, Amsterdam and Paris. Hashtags like “hitlerwasright” have been attached to support for the Palestinians. Writing recently for Reuters, John Lloyd, pointed out that Jews are unique in becoming targets for disapproval of the actions of a foreign governments. “We should mark how unique this is. There’s a very large, and often very rich, Russian community in London — and there are no attacks on Russians or their mansions, restaurants or churches because of the Russian seizure of Crimea and sponsorship of uprisings in eastern Ukraine.” Similarly, we have not stopped eating in Chinese restaurants because the Chinese government occupies Tibet. Jews, however, seem to be fair game. While we might disagree about how to understand the situation in the Middle East, surely liberal Christians would have no difficulty in seeing these attacks on Jews outside of Israel who are not Israeli as anti-Semitism.
And yet there has been no broad scale condemnation. There have been no circles of solidarity created around Jewish centers by Christians to stand physical guard against anti-Semitism. Liberal Christian groups have not flooded social media with calls for civility in interactions with Jews living outside of Israel. There have been no official letters of support or condemnation of firebombings and personal attacks.
This silence and lack of action undercuts Church claims to hate the occupation just as much as they hate anti-Semitism. I am left to wonder what kind of anti-Jewish action would have to take place before it might be viewed as anti-Semitism and worthy of response. Anti-Semitism is no small charge. It is one that I am loath to trot out. My own personal experience with anti-Semitism has been limited to a few uncomfortable playground incidents when I was a child and the odd off hand remark in my adult life. Working in the field of inclusion and diversity, I have long seen those kinds of incidents as part of the complex residue of unfamiliarity that often fosters distrust of the “other.” But there is a line between misunderstanding/misinformation and outright hatred/brutality. There is no question in my mind that the recent events in Europe and in France in particular are the latter. And the deafening silence from Christians in the face of overt anti-Semitism is in and of itself a form of action and complicit endorsement. It is time that Church groups, who have attempted to distinguish between condemnation of Israel and anti-Semitism, to show moral leadership and take a stand against this current wave of anti-Semitism.
The context was a class on the gun violence epidemic in Chicago. I had finished the presentation by mentioning some of the grim statistics of people injured and killed by gun violence throughout the city. After the class an individual approached me and said, “Rabbi, why should I care if people who aren’t Jewish are dying because other non-Jews are shooting them?” I was, of course, flabbergasted by his question. It occurred to me though that while this person had the audacity to ask the question, many more people probably quietly think along similar lines, even if not exactly in the same formulation. The question remains for many: Why should I care about people who are not part of my community? Is there a Jewish mandate to care about others?
This is an important question primarily because those of us who do believe there is a value to caring for people who are not like us need to spend time unpacking that priority. It is always worthwhile to explore our own value systems and be able to more clearly and cogently articulate why they are so. People can turn to many different sources for inspiration and guidance, as a rabbi I turn to Jewish texts and to Jewish tradition.
Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, the first Chief Rabbi of the British Mandate over the Land of Israel and the great 20th century Jewish philosopher and mystic, in his work Orot HaKodesh links the commandment to “love God” with love of the world. A person who truly loves God cannot help but love the world and God’s creations. God as Creator saw fit to create each and every human being and was therefore deserving of His love, thus how could we not love all humanity?
Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, the eminent leader of Modern Orthodoxy, articulated a philosophy in his essay, Confrontation, of existing in two “confrontations:” the universal human struggle to overcome wickedness and the things that bring humanity down and an equally powerful connection to our own unique covenantal relationship with the Divine. Neither confrontation is abrogated by the other. Both are vital.
The early rabbinic text, the Tosefta, states that “we [Jews] eulogize and bury the dead of non-Jews because of the ways of peace, and we console the mourners of non-Jews because of the ways of peace. (Gittin 3:14)” Maimonides in his legal code, the Mishneh Torah, extended it further and stated it was a commandment to visit non-Jewish sick and feed the non-Jewish poor because “God is good to all and His compassion is on all His creatures” and “The Torah’s ways are ways of pleasantness and all its paths are peace. (Laws of Kings 10:12)”
This is by far not an exhaustive examination of the subject. It also does not represent the entire spectrum of Jewish thought. There is a strand of thought that does diminish our obligation to care about those not like us. However, the objective here is not to present a complete exercise in the study of the subject from all angles but rather to make the case that believing there is an inherent value to caring about people who are not Jewish and devoting oneself to the betterment of all people is an integral part of Jewish tradition.
As our urban centers are plagued with gun violence (particularly in Chicago) and as people face numerous challenges related to poverty, access to quality education and discrimination we ought to be a part of the work towards a solution. We must be involved not just because it is the good thing to do but because it is very much the Jewish thing to do.
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Last Thursday, Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, founder of the Jewish Renewal movement, passed away, leaving his bodily existence for…well, for whatever comes next.
Reb Zalman, a creative and challenging teacher with a twinkle in his eye, was a tremendous pastoral presence for many people, who adopted him as a spiritual father or grandfather. His influence is reflected in our approaches to tikkun olam, prayer, study, meditation, music, gender equality, spirituality, environmentalism, interfaith outreach and more.
When people ask me to summarize the Jewish Renewal movement al regel achat, (literally, “while standing on one foot,”) i.e., in one sentence, I usually say, “It’s liberal Judaism with an emphasis on spirituality.” Fifty years into our founding, we have more than forty affiliated synagogues, in North America, South America, Europe, Australia, and, of course, Israel. We have a seminary, a retreat center, a rabbinic association, a publishing project and more. Our umbrella organization is the ALEPH: Alliance for Jewish Renewal.
Reb Zalman was an extraordinary individual who appeared at an extraordinary moment in time, and helped shape a response. In many ways, all of Judaism today is a renewed Judaism. We are only 70 years—less than one lifetime—past the end of World War II, only 70 years past the murder of six million European Jews, only 70 years past the destruction of a huge cultural infrastructure: Jewish schools, libraries, printing presses, synagogues, social centers, towns and neighborhoods where parents passed on traditions to their children simply by practicing them together. Or, to put it positively, we are 70 years into the project of renewing Judaism.
After the Holocaust, it took several decades just for survivors to come back from the brink: to count their losses, to find their way, as many did, to the newly established state of Israel, to North America and South America, and to build new lives in alien cultures. The re-establishment of our cultural institutions has fallen largely to our generation. Many of my age-peers (I’m in my fifties) have been asking, “How does one practice Judaism? How do I reconnect with my historical traditions?”
Many answers have been offered, and here I will contrast only two of them. Yes, of course it is an oversimplification, but perhaps one that will provide helpful categories for understanding contemporary Judaism and the Jewish choices each of us makes.
Some religious leaders have said, “How does one practice Judaism? Here are the guidelines. Follow this checklist of holidays, prayers, foods, clothing, and more.” Many people find it reassuring to have a clear set of guidelines; they buy guidebooks, learn from teachers and peers, and they practice with passion. This is a popular path. Jewish Orthodoxy is on the rise.
Some religious leaders give a different answer to the question, “How does one practice Judaism?” They say, “Awaken your spirit! Ask your questions, share your yearnings, and find out how traditional teachings and practices can speak to your deepest needs.” This is a more challenging path. After inter-generational trauma, it may not be easy to open to spiritual questions. Yet we know that when a person is ready, this opening is a gateway to healing. The Jewish Renewal movement emphasizes this second path.
Reb Zalman taught that the two paths are not mutually exclusive. Both are traditional. And both are needed to activate the whole human being. Drawing on kabbalistic language, Reb Zalman spoke often of four worlds of human consciousness. Simultaneously, we are involved in action, feeling, thought, and spiritual being. Ritual practices ground us in action; recognition of our yearning for meaning activates our emotion; intellectual study shapes our questions; God answers by moving us spiritually.
Sometimes Jewish movements argue fiercely over which approach will best renew and re-establish our religious culture. But for me, the best conclusion is Reb Zalman’s: each individual is unique; we need to reach all souls, at all levels; and every entry point is a holy one.
Rest in peace, my teacher and spiritual zayde, and travel with joy.
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A few weeks ago Elad Nehorai of Pop Chassid posted a provocative piece entitled, “Jews, It’s Time To Abolish The Word ‘Orthodox’“. This article made its way through my Facebook newsfeed at the time of its posting with people agreeing with his idea and those disagreeing. This conversation: The utility of labels and the cost/benefit analysis of the term “Orthodox” is one that I have been party to on numerous occasions. The discussion is usually colored by the intra-denominational tensions within Orthodoxy and where the people who are conversing fall in those larger debates. This question is often used as a tool to either bolster or tear down another person’s identity claims in order to delegitimize or add legitimacy to their approach and philosophy.
Gratefully, Elad does not engage in that conversation but rather opens us up to thinking about whether it is time to abolish labels that are unnecessarily divisive. He wonders whether embracing a label implies spiritual and religious stagnation (i.e. “I’ve made it!”). These are important questions. Yet, I do not believe the problem is the label. As people we live in a world ordered by labels and categories. The entire pursuit of taxonomy in the scientific fields allows us to delve further into the biological world. Taxonomy, the pursuit of classifying in order to understand, is not an inherently negative notion. It is a necessary fact of life and the way we as human beings think.
Similarly, an undeniable part of the transition from pure science to humanities is one will have a harder time of achieving absolutely consistent definitions. There will be at times inconsistencies. Sociologically, different groupings of people, even within a similar religious culture, will use the same title and mean slightly different things. Thus, when one sees different types of Orthodox Jews claiming the title Orthodox and yet they have differences in belief or practice that does not ipso facto mean the label is worthless. There are a myriad of ways of broadly being Jewish and yet we do not say the term “Jewish” or “Jew” is meaningless because there are differences amongst Jews.
My main contention with this article though is the non-personal nature of it. What do I mean by that? In claiming that the title ought to be abandoned Elad (and others who say the same thing in conversations) disregard the meaning the title holds for people who claim it as an identity construct. It may not be helpful, meaningful or useful for you but that is not the same thing as saying it is therefore not helpful, meaningful or useful for anyone else. In fact, to do so is to be dismissive of other people’s identity and the way they form themselves in the world.
I am Orthodox. The Orthodox title is useful for me in conceiving of how I go about in the world. It is helpful for me in framing my particular sub-community within the Jewish religious world. It is meaningful for me to describe not the journey that I have completed (contrary to Elad’s claim) but rather the journey I am still on. Furthermore, as a person with some ancestral connections to the German Jewish experience, I find inspiration, motivation and wisdom from the intellectual vibrancy, spiritual probing and engagement with the world offered by figures such as Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch zt”l and Rabbi Dovid Tsvi Hoffmann zt”l among others.
The term historically arose as a pejorative for the traditional in a post-ghettoized Europe but that does not mean there are many, including myself, who have come to embrace it. The label may be home to intense intra-fighting but that has always been the case since the dawn of the label (e.g. the German Neo-Orthodoxy in contrast to the Hungarian Ultra-Orthodoxy debates of the 19th century). I respect the decision of those who choose to no longer identify with the label or who no longer find it helpful or meaningful but I ask that those same people respect my decision to maintain it.
“Yes,” I told the baffled American immigration official, “I was in Belarus for a roots trip.” But this in no way captured my experience of touring in the environs of Minsk with a German speaking group out of Austria. One of the challenges for me starting the journey in Austria is the automatic connection I feel with the place. I was very close with my grandmother who was born and raised in Vienna. She spoke German, ate Austrian foods, used cosmetics that had a European appeal. As complex as it is, I resonate strongly with the smells, flavors and sounds of Austria. Austria is one of my “homelands.”
By contrast Belarus, which was home to so many many Jews, is completely foreign to me personally. I spent 5 days in Belarus, which was 4 days more than my great grandmother. Reisl Hanni Brody was deported from Vienna, September 14th, 1942. Four days later she arrived in Minsk, was taken to Maly Trostinec and together with all the other Jews in her transport shot. The language and the culture of Belarus do not resonate with me on an individual level. The only thing that connects me to this place is pain and death. This distinction is profound. When I am in Austria I feel compelled to better understand this culture from which I come, in Belarus I felt largely disconnected. Ironically, this disconnect was part of what made the overwhelming and challenging content of 5 days of Holocaust touring, bearable.
Bearable however, is a relative term. Over the 5 days, I heard so many horrid things that my capacity to distinguish between mass murder, horrid brutality and interesting fact has eroded. For example, from Vienna to Brisk, the urbane Jews of Austria travelled in the relative comfort of passenger trains. This helped Jews buy into the imagined hope that they really were,as the Nazis promised, relocating. Only after days of disorientation and hunger were they transferred to the cattle cars that carried them to their death. By this point they could barely protest. Apparently this ‘interesting fact,’ out of the context of other things I learned (which makes it seem kind of mild), comes across more on the horridly brutal when shared over a cup of tea.
Even the positive day of our trip offered little relief. We saw first hand the 200 meter long tunnel dug in 1943, which allowed 250 Jews to escape from a prison work camp near Novogrudok. The work, perseverance and imagination this took is astonishing. Miraculously, most made it to the woods and were able to the join Bielski resistance detachment made famous in the movie Defiance. I am inspired by the acts of heroism in face of horrific odds and grateful for every life that was saved, but the suffering and horrific circumstances and that led to the need for heroism cannot be redeemed.
There is so much that will never be recovered. Belarus sits between Ukraine and Poland, in a place where borders were not so fixed. Nearly the entire Jewish population was destroyed. Some of the greatest Yeshivot, such as the Mir Yeshiva and the Brisk Yeshiva were located here. This was the birthplace of Marc Chagall. Historian Lucy Dawidowicz put the number of Jewish dead at 375,000.
The Jewish devastation is an important piece, but nonetheless only one piece, of the destruction that took place in Eastern Europe during WWII. While there is no consensus on the total numbers of the general population that died, it is estimated one third of the total population-Jews and non-Jews- lost their lives. Those who survived often did so by collaborating. Old ethnic tensions were excuses for violence that the Nazis were all too glad to exploit. The property damage was extensive. Almost nothing remains of pre-war Minsk. It was all destroyed at the start of the war by the Germans. These types of scars do not heal easily. We see them on show today in the Ukraine.
Those of us whose relatives lived in this part of the world, and took the chance emigrating in the 1880 or thereabouts, should be eternally grateful.
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The prayer book Siddur Eit Ratzon includes a contemporary prayer for Israel. “We affirm that it is possible for Jews and Arabs, for Palestinians and Israelis, and for Jews and Jews, to work together to build a shared future.”
“Jews and Jews”—that line catches my attention. Anyone who is active in Jewish community, or part of a Jewish family, knows how profound our inner rifts can be. Anyone who speaks about politics with Israelis has heard the opinion, “The Palestinian issue will be solved. But differences between Ultra-Orthodox and secular Jews might destroy our country.”
Last week I attended a local Canadian prayer service in support of the three Israeli teens kidnapped in the West Bank, Naftali Fraenkel, Eyal Yifrach, and Gilad Sha’er. Three rabbis, representing Conservative, Orthodox, and Reform synagogues took turns at the podium. One of the speakers, an Orthodox rabbi, told us about his personal connections with the yeshivot the boys attended. I was moved to see how personally shaken he was. He described the leaders of the school as visionaries, and of Gush Etzion as the heart of the Jewish goal to return to the land. Yes, Gush Etzion was founded legitimately in the 1920s and some of my closest childhood friends live there, so this should not push my buttons…but did he have to identify an Orthodox movement as the core of the Jewish state?
He went on to speak about the unity of the Jewish people within the diversity of the Jewish state. He described the yeshiva movement’s emphasis on learning as the salvation of the Jewish people. This, he said, does not diminish the work of the secular Jews who serve in the army. Both groups must work together, weaving together the two great visions for the state of Israel.
On the one hand, he simply told it like it is: despite the complexity of Israeli life, political discourse tends to polarize people into two groups. On the other hand, his telling made me uncomfortable. I wondered: Are the two visions really equal? No, I thought. Is studying Torah and transmitting the culture as much a praxis as guarding borders, and mobilizing in response to civilian emergencies? No. Is learning religious Judaism within a fairly closed community as valuable as learning about one’s country by working together with a diverse group of young fellow citizens? No. Suddenly, I realized that my negative reaction to his version of Jewish ideology was so strong, it led me to feel protective of the army, forgetting the many criticisms I have of Israel’s extreme militarization. And then I felt even more uncomfortable, realizing how I was swept into the very dichotomy the speaker criticized.
“Why,” continued the speaker, “did God choose these three boys to be kidnapped?” I found this question jarring, and absolutely alien to my theology. I do not believe that God directs daily events, tweaking here and there to meet a Divine goal, using us as puppets in the plan. Nor do I believe that God chooses specific people to be harmed in order to bring about a mysterious greater good. Instead, I believe in free will, knowing that many people use it badly, harming others intentionally and unintentionally. I believe that God has gifted us with intellect and imagination, so that we may see the results of our actions, and create positive alternatives. As I reflected on the speaker’s question, it began to dawn on me that, while we share a religious tradition, we do not share a theology.
The speaker answered his own question. “God chose these boys in order to bring about the unity of the Jewish people. All over the world, Jews are gathering to pray for them. It doesn’t matter to us if they are someone else’s children; we will pray for them as if they are our own.” His good intention spoke to my heart. Yes, I thought, even if we don’t share religious beliefs, we are part of an ethnic group, a single nation spread across the globe, and we must work towards unity.
Then we prayed and sang. Together, we prayed for the boys and their families, and we sang Hatikvah. We did not pray explicitly for peace in the Middle East. We did not pray for Palestinian boys incarcerated in Israeli prisons and separated from their families. Perhaps some in our gathering felt drawn to support their fellow Jews, or preferred to narrowly focus the prayer on the issue at hand, or—most likely —did not even notice the omission. But to me, steeped in the human universalism of my favorite Biblical prophets, the omission was glaring.
As we were leaving, people thanked the organizers personally; offered words of appreciation to the speakers; and helped the young volunteers collect the leftover psalms handouts. Rabbis from all the streams of Judaism greeted one another in friendship. Truly, I love my local Jewish community. Despite our political and theological differences, we create the personal relationships that make us whole.
Still, I am haunted by the Talmud‘s pronouncement that the second Temple was destroyed in the year 70 CE by sinat chinam, senseless hatred. Having read the works of Josephus, I know that the Jewish political parties did not work together until the Romans breached Jerusalem’s walls. I fear that, despite our inner work and outer friendships, my colleagues and I share these faults.
I pray that these fears are misguided. I pray for the safe return home of Naftali, Eyal and Gilad, and of young adults, in Israel, Palestine, and all over the world. I pray for peace. May all those whose pain drives them to conflict find healing. May we thus build new worlds instead of allowing ourselves to destroy this one.
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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.
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As someone who has written articles about issues impacting the Jewish community for publications like The Huffington Post, The Denver Post and The Boston Globe I have heard the following complaint several times: “Why do you need to take our internal problems and advertise them to the non-Jewish media? Why do you need to air our dirty laundry to the world?” I have often thought that this particular complaint was a curious one. It has recently once again come up as one of my dear teachers and mentors wrote an opinion piece for The New York Times on what many consider to be an internal Jewish communal issue.
There are several layers that need to be unpacked within that particular sentiment. First of all, the notion that Jews have only recently taken their issues to the non-Jewish or secular media is not true. The polemics around the birth of Zionism, the rise of Jewish denominations in Germany and a plethora of other issues have been debated in the presses of the general media and in the halls of world parliaments. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (1808-1888), the Orthodox rabbinic leader of the community of Frankfurt fought for Orthodox communal independence from the Reformers in the Prussian Parliament, as just one example of many.
Secondly, a significant desired impact of debate around important topics is to influence the hearts and minds of people. In order to do so one needs to reach those people. Jews have for quite a long time not confined themselves to only reading Jewish publications. More Jews read The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times than The New York Jewish Week and The Jewish Advocate (even though they are both excellent publications). If you want to influence public opinion amongst fellow Jews one needs to reach them where they are and for an increasing number of Jews they are not to be found perusing the pages of their local Jewish weekly.
In an era of instant communications and where “internal” Jewish publications like Hamodia or even websites published in “private” Jewish languages like Yiddish can be translated in a moment with Google Translate there is no such thing as private only for the community news and public general media. We fool ourselves when we think that our communal conversations on Jewish blogs, Internet forums and community websites are for our eyes only.
Lastly, and perhaps this strikes at the heart of the issue, we ought not be afraid of arousing either state sponsored or mass popular anti-Semitism in our society. Numerous high profile Jews have been arrested and charged with large money laundering schemes and political corruption that has been splashed across the front pages of every major newspaper in the country and not one anti-Jewish riot, thank God, was initiated because of it. To the contrary, when we seek to cover up our issues and hide them that is when appearances of conspiracies begin to surface. Openness and transparency are important values in our culture and we should not run away from those values.
On Friday, I visited with a group of 18-year olds participating in Habonim-Dror [Jewish Youth Movement] Workshop, a nine-month program of learning and service in Israel, with a liberal Labor Zionist perspective.
If you worry about the future of liberal Judaism, an hour with this group can heal you.
If you can’t make it to Israel for your hour of healing, read about my interview with one of the workshop students.
Tell me about one great educational aspect of your Workshop program: Jewish education doesn’t feel forced. I chose to be part of this program and I am enjoying it. Our learning is discussion-based. We took a serious Judaism course. We read some texts by Amos Oz. In one, he talks about the difference between a museum religion and a living religion. A museum religion you leave on the shelf; admire it; dust it off once in a while. A living religion changes with the times. It adapts; it is always being adapted.
What is the core of being Jewish? If I had to choose a core, I would say: Jewish values like “love your neighbor as yourself.” They lead to a Jewish way of life. Obviously, mitzvot about how we treat other people are value-driven. But so are the more ritual ones. Even practices like kashrut [keeping kosher], for which no one knows the reason, bring us back to values. These practices are mysterious so that we question them. They bring us to the intrinsic Jewish value of questioning everything.
What are your thoughts on God? I don’t know. Any conclusion I come to is not a real conclusion, because it’s not possible to know whether God exists or not. Someone can say they don’t believe in God, but believe the same thing as people who do say they believe in God. Belief is a lifestyle choice; it gives you a sense of meaning.
“The old man in the sky” is not the Jewish view of God. A Jewish view is more like the one I learned in elementary school: God is all around you; God is the air; everything has a piece of God. Judaism doesn’t have only one view of God.
Why do you think Judaism is important? Judaism feels important to me because it’s a part of me. Sometimes I think that religions have caused a lot of conflict. But then I realize people cause conflict, using religion as an excuse. I am still struggling with this question, to be honest. No matter why I think it’s important, it exists. I could not break myself off from it; I will always be associated with Israel and Judaism.
Why do you think Israel is important? Jews live in disparate, disconnected Jewish communities around the world. In some ways, Israel is a unifying factor among Jews around the world. It brings people together. In my mind, why ask if Israel should exist? It does exist. It is a Jewish state. It could be a really positive amazing place. I want it to be positive and I feel a sense of responsibility for it.
Israel today has a lot of issues. Religious and secular Jews do not always respect each other. Mizrachi Jews and migrant African workers are mistreated. Ideological settlers carry out price tag attacks [against Palestinians]. There is government corruption.
What do you think about the future of the Jewish people? Someone’s got to take responsibility for it.
Would you make aliyah? Maybe. I don’t know if aliyah is the best method for taking responsibility. We read some interesting texts in our Habonim-Dror history course. One said that the ultimate hagshamah (actualization) of the movement is aliyah. Another talked about how the movement started in Europe. One youth leader was running a Jewish club, but came to realize it was just a club for Jews; they weren’t doing anything Jewish. So they started doing Jewish activities but the club still had no center. So, he put Israel in the center. Originally, Israel was a method, not a value. The real value was the empowerment of young Jews.
Maybe there are other methods of empowering young Jews. You know that survey that came out this fall that said a lot of Jews are intermarrying and assimilating? A lot of people used it to say that Judaism is dying. We had an Orthodox rabbi come and tell us that Diaspora Jewry is dying. He said, if you’re not Orthodox and you don’t move to Israel your kids won’t be Jewish. I don’t agree.
There’s a lot we can do to enliven Judaism.
Image: Habonim-Dror semel (symbol). Cross-posted at On Sophia Street.