Category Archives: Jewish People

Choking on the Apple

gan eden friezeI wasn’t at The People’s Climate March in New York on Sunday. I wanted to be, but I was, instead, writing a sermon for the holidays about… you guessed it…. the woeful state of the environment.

And thinking… about the Garden of Eden, when Adam and Eve took things into their own hands— literally and figuratively. And the more I ponder it, the less I think the story has anything much to do with fruit (yes, I know it wasn’t an apple), or a serpent, or temptation, or Adam’s and Eve’s innocence of foolishness. Nor the idea that they wanted to be god-like. Quite the contrary.

I think it’s about their deciding that they were just fine without listening to or being grateful to God, thank you very much. They asserted their independencebut not because they had to evolve emotionally so we wouldn’t be stuck forever in the garden (to me, a pretty scary thought, since I tend to picture the glassy-eyed beings from H. G. Well’s The Time Machine). But because they decided that they knew better. So they were unceremoniously booted out of paradise, and ever since, we have been abusing the bounty and blessings of what once was perfectly balanced creation. So yes, perhaps the sins of the fathers are passed down to the thousandth generation.

We have gloried (in pride? or in shame?) in our efforts to make the most of the consequences of the expulsion. We thrill at the results of our labors (which were, as you will recall, punishment for the sin in the Garden).

Now, as the unhappy fruits of our self-serving labors are ripening fast, the stakes are higher than ever. And we, as a nation, like Adam and Eve, when they were found out… are hiding and making excuses. And we turn our faces away from all who suffer because of our behavior. Not just the endangered wild plants and animalsbut all life all over the worldand for all who are yet to be born.

And all because we, the created, have decided that we know better than our Creator.
We’re choking on that “apple” still.

And now, on Rosh Hashanah, which our sages tell us is the day of the creation of humankind, what do we say again and again? “Hashiveinu Adonai, elecha, v’nashuvah, chadesh yameinu k’kedem“Return us to you, Adonai, and we will return, renew our days as in days of old.”

Perhaps this yearand maybe alwayswe can read his verse as a call to return to the essential teaching of the Garden. To remember that we need to regain humility and stand in awe of our Creator and all creation. That everything we have is a blessing and a gift and that we are obligated to care for and sustain it. In this way, as partners with our Creator, we can renew all creation as in days of oldfor ourselves and all living thingsl’olam va’edfor all time.

Like this post? Join the conversation through MyJewishLearning’s weekly blogs newsletter.

Posted on September 23, 2014

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

Meeting My Palestinian Neighbors For the First Time

Nine months ago I opened the front door of my apartment in Alon Shvut and took a 20-minute walk that began to change my life. My wife asked me to reconsiderit might be dangerous, she saidbut I went anyway. My heart beat just a little bit faster than usual as I walked through the Arab fields and vineyards that surround my home in the Judean Hills.

Israeli and Palestinian Kids Playing Together

Israeli and Palestinian kids playing together

Just a few days earlier I had sat in my living room with a Protestant pastor from the US who had come to the Holy Land in order to meet Palestinians, meet Israeli settlers, and then introduce them to each other. He listened to my story of biblical Zionism and of passionate connection to the rebuilding of Jewish life in the biblical heartland. He heard of my identification with our forefather Abraham, with Isaac and Jacob and with the whole panorama of Jewish historyand then he invited me to a little gathering on a Palestinian farm plot at where Palestinians and Israeli settlers might be able to begin to get to know each other.

Never before had I met a Palestinian as an equal, never before had I socialized with one or broken bread with one. I knew nothing about them. We live so close to each other, and yet we are so far apart.

For us the Palestinians are the consummate other. The other that you ignore, that you never see. The other that you would never give a ride to, the other that you would never invite into your home. The other from whom you are completely distant, the other of whom you are thoroughly suspicious.

For 3 hours or more I chatted with them and ate with them. I looked into their faces from up close, and sawdespite my prejudiceshuman faces. And I heard stories that were so different from my stories, stories that created strange unfamiliar narratives from the same building blocks as my own narrative, but which I could not reject out of hand. The stories I heardof deep connection to the land, of exile, of suffering, of humiliation, of loved one lost in the conflictwere authentic and they were real. Never before had I heard such stories. And they affected me deeply.

One Palestinian manwho turned out to be a very close neighbor, except that a very high chain link fence separates between our homestold me of the fear evoked in the hearts of his children when they saw a settler with a big kipa and long beard like mine. I didn’t get it, until he explained that the kipa and beard were often accompanied by a rifle. And then I began to understand. I blurted out to him, “You say that you are afraid of us? No, we are afraid of you!”

As it began to get dark and there were about 25 or 30 of us left, we sat around in a circle and heard the life story of Ali Abu Awwad, former militant turned nonviolent peace activist. He spoke of nocturnal raids by the Israeli military, of rights denied, of prison. And I knew it was true. I had suppressed my memories of participating in those raids and guarding those prisoners decades ago as a young soldierand it all came back to me, flooding my consciousness.

Ali’s reality made its way into my heart … and I will never be the same. His truth has not made mine any less true, rather it has shown my truth to be only part of the complex web of the reality in which we live. My life has become so much more complicated as I hold within my consciousness two conflicting truths that are both valid. Loose ends are dangling within me. I have become much more fragmented yet much more whole. As I embrace more and more partial truths, my horizons expand in the direction of the Infinite One, within Whom all truths find their proper place.

These days leading up to Rosh Hashanah are days of teshuvasoul searching and penitence. May my teshuva this yearthe most intense and the most paradigm-shattering I have ever experiencedbe acceptable before God.

Postscript – The events described above gave birth to Roots/Shorashim/Judur – The Israeli Palestinian Initiative for Grassroots Understanding, Nonviolence and Transformation. For more information, go to www.friendsofroots.net

Moved by this post? Join the conversation through MyJewishLearning’s weekly blogs newsletter.

Posted on September 19, 2014

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

The Destiny of the American Jewish Community: Assimilation or Isolation?

In the great story of humanity there has always been the forces that compel us to assimilate amongst each other and those that urge us to maintain our differences. When we collapse the contours that are the map of the human family into one straight path our journey becomes simple and uncomplicated. Yet, what do we give up when we venture down the path of assimilation?

AssimilationWhen we turn our attention to the Jewish community we find these polarizing forces very much at work. This dilemma has presented itself at numerous junctures in history. Whenever the larger environment was hospitable to Jews, the tension between blending in and maintaining community surfaced.

I would argue that the answer to this question lies between the extremes. In the 19th century European Jewry gave rise to multiple approaches to emancipation. One approach asserted that with a more tolerant society the time has come to withdraw to the most particularistic parts of our selves.

Alternatively, in the first platform of the Reform movement composed in 1885, it was declared: “We recognize in the Mosaic legislation a system of training the Jewish people… and today we accept as binding only its moral laws… but reject all such as are not adapted to the views and habits of modern civilization.” Similarly, the early members of Reform hopefully declared that their era was “the modern era of universal culture of heart and intellect.”

On one hand, we  encounter the forces that would have us all live in complete isolation from the world and on the other hand a movement whose foundation is an embrace of assimilation. Like in so many instances the solution rests in grappling with the liminal space in between the parts.

jacob_wrestles_angel_rembrandt_harmensz1659The answer cannot be assimilation. The four millennia-long journey of the Jewish people has produced ideas worth perpetuating along with a people that can carry forward those ideas. Jews are not a people of monuments but rather a people of ideas. Our greatest contribution to the progressive development of humanity does not exist in architecture but in the shaping of the moral intellect. The very beginning of our people finds itself in a call to “go forth.” The map of Jewish experience is shaped by experiences of exile and return, of reaching the promised land only to find ourselves shortly thereafter sitting by the waters of Babylon.

The birthright of the Jewish people is the very ability to live with ideas, to grapple with ideas, to test and retest the contours of moral reasoning. It is the challenge to “go forth” and to discover a touch of the Divine in the spaces we live in and the bodies we exist within.

Yet, this need to perpetuate and grow the legacy must be counter-balanced with engagement. No community exists absent other communities. What are we afraid of? Are we afraid that a tradition that survived the tumult of nearly four thousand years will wither in the face of dialogue? Do we lack that much self-confidence in the vitality of this great experiment initiated by Abraham, continued by Moses and then the Sages and thinkers of every era? A Judaism that exists only for itself fails to exist to its full potential.

When one looks at the results of the 2013 Pew Forum study on the American Jewish community one finds, broadly speaking, two growing and competing trends in the American Jewish landscape. There is an ever-increasing rate of disaffiliation. The “universal culture of heart and intellect” that the early Reformers described has no apparent need for a particularistic identity.

AP120520062965-635x357The other trend is a growing rate of Ultra-Orthodoxy. This is the Orthodoxy that argues the answer to modernity is to retreat. In 2012 CitiField was filled with 50,000 members of the haredi community pledging their resistance to the Internet.

These are disturbing trends. What will be left of those who occupy the space in between the parts? What will be left of those who exist firmly planted in the ideas and traditions of Judaism while extending a hand to the world beyond our borders? I am neither a sociologist nor a prophet so the answer to that question will be revealed only by time. What I can do is declare that retreat is not the solution. That liminal space is the birthright of the next generation and all future generations of the Jewish people.

Like this post? Join the conversation through MyJewishLearning’s weekly blogs newsletter.

Posted on September 12, 2014

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

Time for Christian Voices Against Anti-Semitism

antisemitismIs 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.

Posted on July 31, 2014

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

Should We Care About People Not Like Us?

tikkun-olamThe 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.

The Jewish world is full of debates. Get the latest in MyJewishLearning’s weekly blogs newsletter.

Posted on July 18, 2014

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

A Special Person at a Special Time: Reb Zalman’s Jewish Renewal

Leningrad_Codex_Carpet_page_eLast 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.

Moved by this post? Join the conversation through MyJewishLearning’s weekly blogs newsletter.


Posted on July 7, 2014

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

I Am Orthodox: Why Labels Matter

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.

identitySimilarly, 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.

Posted on July 4, 2014

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

Explaining the Unexplainable in Minsk

sacred books“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.

Moved by this post? Join the conversation through MyJewishLearning’s weekly blogs newsletter.

Posted on June 26, 2014

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

Can Jews Unite?

shutterstock_159077903The 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.

Moved by this post? Join the conversation through MyJewishLearning’s weekly blogs newsletter.

Posted on June 23, 2014

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

Requiem for a Suburban Shul

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.req2

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.

Posted on June 10, 2014

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy