Synagogue Maintenance As A Sacred Endeavor

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Bialystoker Synagogue

Can sweeping the floor be sacred? Is it possible to view repairing the HVAC system as holy work? Synagogues have a lofty mission: To continue the Jewish journey of engagement with God and Torah into the next chapter of the story of generations. Synagogues are a place where the bereaved come to mourn their beloved. Synagogues are a place where babies are brought into the covenant of Sinai. Synagogues are the meeting ground where people come to experience a taste of the infinite, a touch of the Divine.

Yet, all too often, that meeting ground is in a state of disrepair. The cobwebs are to be found in every corner. The floors are scratched, the carpets are stained. The roof needs to be replaced. The boiler is 3 years past its replacement time. When we envision the sacred work of synagogues do we allow for the necessary work of maintaining the physical spaces that we are drawn to? Do synagogue boards allocate the proper attention to facilities maintenance? Does the budget reflect investing in the upkeep of the building along with the programmatic agenda? Are there enough maintenance staff and are they treated with dignity and paid a living wage?

These are vital questions that are regularly ignored for the far more compelling avenues of scholar in-residence programs, social activities and other engagement opportunities. However, the most basic truth remains: If the synagogue’s physical plant collapses due to neglect there will be no place to hold even the most dynamic of educational programs or the most engaging of scholar in-residence weekends.

Shlomo Carlebach z”l once challenged us to think in a different paradigm. He reminded us that even in the most sacred space in all of Judaism, the Holy of Holies, a place where no one but the High Priest was permitted to enter, this place was actually visited by someone else even before the High Priest: “The holy builders“. The people who created the space and who made sure it was functioning so that in all the glory and awesomeness of the moment the High Priest could entreat God on Yom Kippur for the forgiveness of the nation.

Synagogue executive directors and other professionals are crying out for the rabbis and lay leadership to once again invest in “the holy builders” and to set aside time and resources to addressing the aging infrastructure of so many of our synagogues around the country. Deferred maintenance is not the answer. Ignoring the problem is not the answer. Rather, a cultural shift is called for that sees the regular maintenance of our special sacred spaces as important and worthy of our investment.

Posted on April 24, 2015

Are We Clean Enough?

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mother and child April post Are we clean enoughThis week’s Torah portion, Tazriah, includes the stipulation that, following the birth of a child, a mother must separate herself from the community for up to almost three months. I cannot think of this bit of our ancient law without bringing to mind the great teaching of Rabbi Phyllis Ocean-Berman who has forever transformed what might seem a troubling segregation of the post partum mother into a safeguard for the preservation of interiority at a time of recovery and nurturance.

The Levitical sequestering of a post partum woman, barring her from the cultic site, was mandated at a time when a wife’s role seems to have been to birth and raise twice as many children as would survive to early adulthood, as well as to manage  a household, property, flocks and crops. Forbidding a new mother from entering the Temple grounds suggests an understanding that there will be a lull in her active engagement in the public arena as she narrows her focus to the intimate sphere of family, her newborn the center of her attention.

The Torah denotes her as “tameh,” “unfit,” a designation also given her during menstruation and given to anyone who comes in contact with death or is suffering an affliction as extreme as leprosy. These, too, are natural times of reserve when the individual might feel unfit for the demands of social interaction and performance of public functions. Phyllis Berman says that “tumah” is a state of holy being wherein the inner divine light narrows its focus to a bright singular beam. In returning to “taharah,” holy “fit-ness,” our divine light expands to a broad glow that engages the larger world.

Reb Phyllis’s teaching heals the term tameh, taking it from “unclean” to “unfit” to differently fit – temporarily fit for one aspect of life and not another. But as I digest the violence that erupted, this week, at the remains of our Temple site, Jewish men wrestling to regain a torah passed to the women’s side of the mechitzah at the Western Wall, I have to wonder – are we ever deemed fit?

Progressive Jewish men passed the torah through a portal in the mechitzah, sustaining injury as they stood to protect the women from bombardment. Sympathetic Jewish men contributed eye-witness accounts that clearly iterate their own excited weeping in advance of the torah’s transfer to the women, and their own devastation in the face of the shoving, yelling and desecration of holy time and place that ensued. But fear of female energy in the sacred space and in contact with the sacred object persist in the Jewish world.

Approaching the Torah portion of Tazriah, this year, I continue to hear Reb Phyllis framing a woman’s unfit-ness to partake in Temple ritual in terms that normalize the female experience to includes periods of holy narrowed focus, and I also hear Anat Hoffman, leader of Women of the Wall, promoting our taharah, our fit-ness to step into the holy site, indeed, to render it all the more holy by participating in public reading of the Torah, female divine light beaming big, broad, and strong. Our Torah portion’s clarification that there are times when a woman might step back from religious life surely intimates that the norm was her presence and involvement.

My twist on Reb Phyllis’s teaching is to say that perhaps it would be best for those with a narrow perspective to temper their communal engagement. Perhaps none of us are fit to step into the holy space of community unless we enter able to appreciate the broadest spectrum of divine light as reflected in all the paths of Torah the Jewish People represent. Rabbi Yochanan, of the Talmud, taught that when God spoke Torah at Sinai, God’s voice was seven voices and the seven voices were heard in seventy languages (Shemot Rabbah 5:9) so that every man, woman and child could claim Torah as his and her own. V’chain yehi ratzon – May it be so.

Posted on April 23, 2015

Yom Hazikaron in the USA: What Israel’s Memorial Day Can Teach Us About The Holidays

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Have you ever been abroad on Memorial Day? If so, have you even noticed that it was Memorial Day? Did you take time to recite the Pledge of Allegiance or sing America the Beautiful? My guess is no.

Yom Hazikaron, however, is different. Israel’s Memorial Day, which begins tonight, is a visceral, poignant, and deeply personal time for Israelis. Places of public entertainment are closed, school children dress in blue and white, and, perhaps most dramatically, a siren goes off throughout the country as the entire nation observes two minutes of silence and cessation of activity.

What is even more striking, though, is the continued resonance Yom Hazikaron holds for Israeli expats. It has become a time when Israelis in America flock to JCCs and other communal institutions for services and vigils. Even as enthusiasm for Yom Hazikaron is tepid, at best, for American Jews, Israeli expats go out of their way to populate–and often lead–communal gatherings. And this continued resonance is not surprising. After all, most Israelis are related to someone or otherwise know someone who has died fighting in defense of Israel. Israelis continue to serve in the Israeli Defense Forces via a mandatory draft after high school. And Israel continues to face existential threats from a chaotic Middle East that is far less stable today than it was at Israel’s founding in 1948.

I admit to being of two minds about the ongoing resonance of Yom Hazikaron for Israelis. On the one hand, I am saddened that the day continues to be so personal, so relatable, to so many Israelis. I yearn for a time that Israel will experience enough stability and erosion of hostility that it can treat its Memorial Day as we do ours here in America.  I hope that Israel, soon, will be able to treat Yom Hazikaron in an historical rather than present-day context.

But I also think there is a deep lesson we, as American Jews, can draw from Yom Hazikaron. The force that makes Yom Hazikaron so powerful to Israelis is its existentialilty, its visceral nature. What if we were to begin to treat the Jewish holidays here in the same way?  What if we were to teach and celebrate Hanukkah, Purim, and other core Jewish holidays not as (quasi-)historical remnants of our tradition but as living, breathing embodiments of our present-day Jewish identity? We could treat Hanukkah as a time to grapple with the challenges we currently face between assimilation and Jewish particularism; Purim as a time to assess both the fragility of Jewish life in anti-Semitic locations and the degree of zealousness with which we should or shouldn’t combat our foes. And on and on. This is the challenge we just addressed over Passover, when our Haggadot implore us to experience the exodus as if we personally were there. But it is so much more than that. It is the challenge for all of us who care about Judaism’s future in America–to create a living, breathing Judaism that makes our traditions and heritage come to life. A Judaism that, wherever we might find ourselves geographically located, will compel us to come together in worship and fellowship.

Posted on April 21, 2015

A Multi-faith Tree of Incomparable Beauty

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tree pendantRecently, a new artisan storefront opened near my Main Street home. As I like to support local artisans, I wandered in for a look. “Our name is Just Jewellery,” said the salesperson. “We specialize in silver and semiprecious stones, featuring the work of several local artists…”

But I could not focus on her words. Instead, images of divinity overwhelmed me. I saw Ganesh, Hindu god of wisdom, carved in jade; Buddha, sculpted in a granite-like paste; a Kabbalistic network of triangles drawn with sparkles; a Cross embellished with garnet; a bold Indigenous Eagle, etched in silver.

This store was a festival, but I was not sure what kind. A deeply multi-faith festival, celebrating devotional artistic intent? Or a superficial spiritual-not-religious marketplace, baiting buyers with aesthetic beauty?

“Please, take a closer look at something,” the seller begged, “Even if you don’t want to buy today!”

So I looked, and I bought a pendant: a silver tree, with flowing roots and branches, reaching down to earth and up to heaven. Etched around the tree were Sanskrit words. It seems the artist had meditated on the ashwattha tree from the Bhagavad Gita, the banyan tree whose expansive growth symbolizes the ever-expanding universe.

But my mind transmuted the words into Hebrew.

Trees are classic Jewish symbols. Etz chayim hee, we say of the Torah: she is a tree of life. During the Omer season, we reflect on the tree of sefirot, pausing to note seven spiritual fruits. This week in synagogue we read from Parshat Tazrialiterally “sprouting” but in context, “giving birth.” Variations on the root zera, seed, appear ten times in Genesis chapter one, celebrating the unpredictable nature of growth.

My desire to read the symbol as Jewish surprised me. Given my theology, I should not care whether a spiritual symbol is Jewish or not.

God is, in Kabbalistic Hebrew, Eyn Sof, Infinity. All human expressions of spirituality circle within the Infinite God. Every religious word, concept, sound, or ritual may turn us towards God, but cannot fully encompass the divine. God is, as Father Matthew Fox might say, the “one river” of spirit, bubbling up in “many wells” of tradition. God is, as depth psychologists say, “psyche” — a totality of all possible experiences and influences. Psyche surrounds us, appearing to us as consciousness, while also directing us beyond consciousness. God is, as I learned in yoga, Brahman, infinite energy, mirrored in atman, the individual soul.

A tree growing deep into the human heart and reaching for a higher reality could express any of these teachings. And each teaching points to the others.

So why do I feel drawn to a Jewish interpretation of the tree? Even though it may not reflect the artist’s intent?

The tree is a beautiful spiritual symbol. And I want to broadcast the beauty of my own spiritual tradition. I love to say that our living tree of Torah nourishes us, that spirituality grows like a healthy tree, that growth is filled with surprises. In my imagination, friends and acquaintances say, “What a beautiful pendant!” And, in response, I teach Jewish ideas about the Tree of Life.

This artisan store is badly named. It is not about “just jewellery.” It also raises questions of universality and particularity. Questions about cultural appropriation and group loyalty. Is it really okay for me to read an Etz Chayim into a banyan pendant? But if I don’t reinterpret it, can I wear it?

I confess, beauty has seduced me into an impulse buy. But beauty has also seduced me into some big questions. And this third week of the Omer, focused on the sefirah of tiferet (beauty) is a good time to be directed by beauty.

Photo credit: Laura Duhan Kaplan

Posted on April 21, 2015

How To Know Which Candidate Can Lead

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Presidents_Race_2006-07-26Oh, how I wish the race for the presidency were month or two long. I grow tired of the endless advertising and press coverage in the two-year-long drama. What do we need to know that we couldn’t learn in a shorter, focused campaign?

There is much that is broken in the American political system: Paralyzing partisanship, big money and lobbyists exerting untold influence. But we wouldn’t trade American democracy for anything. We cherish it, even in its imperfection. So how can we make wise choices in the midst of this?

Many things influence our reactions to candidates, including unconscious feelings about a person’s appearance, accent and image. We may have strong feelings about our political leanings, party loyalty, or issues that move us. Ultimately, we need to make a choice when we step into the voting booth.

With the race now in full gear, I am thinking about leadership. Whom do we believe is best suited to lead our nation?

What are the character traits we need from a leader?

We want leaders who are demonstrably honest, compassionate and intelligent; who are flexible, but also firm in resolve. We want leaders with integrity, who are not bought and sold by outside interests, and lead with a broad view of what is best for nation. We want leaders who care about the issues that are important to a wide range of folks, and whom we believe truly care about the people. We want leaders who have a vision of a better tomorrow, and help us contribute to repair of the world.

We want leaders who learn from mistakes, and take responsibility when they stumble. The book, The Phoenix Project, A Novel About IT, DevOps, and Helping Your Business Win (Kim, Behr, Spafford) presents an important insight about leadership. Contrary to conventional wisdom, being vulnerable is a prerequisite to earning trust.

Above of all we need leaders who demonstrate and evoke trust, even from those who oppose their positions. Jeff Jarvis, in What Would Google Do?, writes that before we can trust the powerful, the powerful must learn to trust us:

Posted on April 19, 2015

The Sounds of Silence

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Hello darkness, my old friend.

I’ve come to talk with you again
Because a vision softly creeping
Left its seeds while I was sleeping,
And the vision that was planted
In my brain still remains
Within the sound of silence.

 – Simon & Garfunkel

Stereotypes can be risky, but it’s probably safe to say that Jews aren’t best known for collective quietude. The ceaseless chatter of Jewish debate and dissent evokes a chorus of intellectual beauty and strength that has called history forward in countless wonderful ways. Against this backdrop of ceaseless sound, it’s all the more important – and challenging – that this week’s Torah portion (Shmini) beckons us into the sounds of silence.

Torah depicts a haunting scene. Aaron’s sons Nadav and Avihu offer God a “strange fire,” and God’s fire consumes them (Lev. 10:1-2). Aaron, High Priest of Israel and father of two sons struck down before his very eyes by the God he lives to serve, responds with utter silence: vayidom Aharon (Lev. 10:4).

Tradition hears Aaron’s silence as shock, dismay, grief, role conflict and much more. Tradition allegorizes Aaron’s silence to a prophet’s “silent sigh” (he’anek dom) transcending death (Ezek. 24:17). Tradition also uplifts Aaron’s silence as wise response to the incomprehensible: Aaron’s silence inspires Jewish tradition not to speak to a mourner observing shiva until he or she speaks first (Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh Deah 376:1). When words fail, it can be better to hold silence. And yet, Holocaust survivor and advocate Elie Wiesel railed against silence: “I swore never to be silent whenever and wherever beings endure suffering and humiliation. We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.” Wiesel might have challenged Aaron, “Why didn’t you rail at God?”

Not all silence is heavy like Aaron’s at the edge of death. Silence can be sweetly contented, like the quiet (domem) of a weaned child (Ps. 131:2). Silence can be anticipatory, like the soul’s silent (dom) alertness awaiting God (Ps. 37:7). Silence can be submissive, like the silent knowing (vayidom) of core truth (Lam. 3:28). Silence can evoke awe, like the “total quiet” before the splitting of the Sea of Reeds (Ex. 14:14). Silence can invite holiness, like the soul’s stillness (dumyah) that heralds deliverance (Ps. 62:2). More than inviting holiness, silence can be holiness itself: to the prophet Elijah, God emerged not in the noise and tumult but in a “still small voice” (kol d’mamah dakah) (1 Kings 19:12).

Posted on April 16, 2015

The Challenge of Yom HaShoah

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Tonight is Yom HaShoah – Holocaust Memorial Day. Last night I was discussing remembrance with my ninth graders at our weekly High School program at my congregation. Specifically, we got into a discussion about the nature of remembrance and the importance of people continuing to tell the stories that emerged from this dark chapter of history, especially now that so few Holocaust survivors remain with us.

For most of us in the Jewish community, we have understood our role, at least over the past few decades when survivors began to speak more about their experiences, as carriers of these experiences, ensuring that history is accurately conveyed by continuing to tell the stories. My students described what they perceive as a real challenge of carrying this responsibility when they find themselves to be in a minority of one or two in a local high school classroom where their fellow students know nothing of the Holocaust.

While we may find this situation to be shocking (and I am describing the reality in Central MA where we have some of the most highly rated public schools in the state), a recent video campaign, highlighting how few States require Holocaust education to be on the curriculum, demonstrates how easily we have arrived at this moment.

As we discussed the nature of this challenge, we also looked more broadly at the ways that human culture memorializes events once there is no longer anyone with first hand experience to say ‘I was there and this is what I saw’. We recognized the ease with which documentary evidence – even video evidence – can be challenged as doctored or fabricated as deniers seek to to introduce doubt into what should be self-evident. We discussed why some countries in Europe have made Holocaust denial a crime (and why such a law would even be necessary).

Finally, we revisited the debate that took place within the Jewish community as to whether the Holocaust was an event of such significance that it should receive its own day of remembrance or whether Tisha B’Av already existed as the day to which we could add one more tragedy to befall our people.

Posted on April 15, 2015

A Lack of Choice – A Disturbing Trend in American Politics

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Freedom from choice is a disturbing trend in American politics today, and both Republicans and Democrats are guilty of it. Two examples come to mind. One is the partisan division on Israel, and the other is the presumptive nomination of Hillary Clinton as the free and clear Democratic candidate for presidency.

My own opinion on the re-election of Bibi Netanyahu as Prime Minister of Israel is that it is a good thing. It is true that his antics preceding the election were embarrassing to the State of Israel, and that his racist comments on the day of the election were ill-considered, especially for a head of state. His post election ‘walking-back’ of his divisive comments will ring hollow and untrue to both political friends and enemies. Nonetheless, I do believe that only a hawk such as Netanyahu can deliver a peace agreement and parallel Palestinian state. The left likes to hold up Itzhak Rabin, z”l, as the Israeli Prime Minister peacemaker willing to negotiate an actual Palestinian state. But, that was only possible because of his Long standing military, hawkish political background. I don’t like Netanyahu’s politicking, but I will hold out hope that he can rise to the occasion.

In the wake of Netanyahu’s visit to the United States, I am concerned about what seems to be a new Republican litmus test. There is no room for any disagreement in the Republican Party on Israel. “Are you with Bibi or are you against America?” Is there any room for debate on the Republican side regarding Israel? Or, foreign-policy in general? I fear not. The lack of any serious disagreement on foreign policy, regarding the State of Israel in particular, is a myopic of the Republican Party.

Where there is no dialogue, no contrast of subtle opinions, there is very little room for serious democratic progress. The lack of even subtle disagreements on the Republican side seems especially crafted to identify any differing position as dangerous. I believe this trend weakens the Republican Party, and has dangerous divisive consequences beyond the beltway regarding how Israelis perceived.

Posted on April 14, 2015

Who Knows Four?

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The Wise Son

What number comes to mind when you think about a Passover seder? Probably four. Four cups of wine. Four questions. Four sons. Especially those four troublesome sons. But they are challenging in the best possible way because they furrow our brows and engage and embarrass us, awake and inspire us. To paraphrase very simply:

– The wise one asks how to observe Passover, and is taught the laws and statutes.

– The wicked one asks: “What is this service of yours?” and is taught that because he did not include himself, he would not have been redeemed from Egypt.

– The simple one asks what this celebration is about and is taught that the seder commemorates their being taken out of Egypt.

– The one who does not know how to ask is engaged in conversation and taught that he is participating in a celebration
about the parent having been redeemed.


The Wicked Son

The answers the haggadah instructs us to teach the four sons are supposed to be according to each one’s ability to understand, but still, they do not seem very helpful. That is, if we imagined what it would be like to be in each of the children’s places and receive these answers, would we be satisfied by them? I doubt it. Indeed, the answers seem to imply that they will simply reinforce the outlook of each and not bring about any change at all. And so, I suspect, precisely for that reason, that we are not to accept them at face value. Especially since it seems that we all have elements of each of the children in us – wise in some ways, wicked in others. We can be uneducated or unable to ask – and sometimes we don’t even know the questions. That is, the answers are not simple answers at all. Rather, they inspire us to deeper questions.


The Simple Son

Ever since my husband, Jewish artist Alan Falk, painted “The Four Sons” his images of them shuffle, clack, scuff and pad around in my mind (see illustrations). In his vision, they represent four generations of assimilation. The wise patriarch who survived the Holocaust and is committed to his faith. His hard work and struggles are visible in his bent hands. He is bewildered and sad. The wicked son, who turned away from his father’s teachings, sits in his seder seat as if it is filled with needles. The simple son, who received no wisdom from his father, experiences the Passover seder as not much more than a dinner with wine. And lastly, the son who does not know how to ask, for his father had no wisdom to impart, is lost. He does not know how to be in the world at all.

Posted on April 10, 2015

A Jewish Obsession With Counting

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Maybe you can relate. For the last few months I’ve attached a small device that counts my every step. At the end of the day, I can always tell just how far I’ve gotten and how much progress (or lack thereof) I’ve made. It is a good feeling to be able to see the forward motion.

Now I’ve added another layer of counting and accounting. The moment we finished the 13th verse of “Who Knows One?” and had enumerated Judaism’s many values, we turned our attention to counting days. Because in reality, miraculous liberation is just the beginning.

Starting on the second night of Passover, Jewish tradition teaches us to count the days and the weeks until we reach Shavuot. In ancient times Passover held a place in a holy threesome, which in the days when the Temple stood in Jerusalem included Sukkot and Shavuot. Each of these were pilgrimage holidays, which saw householders filling wagons and walking for days with their families, servants, and animals. It must have been an extraordinary sight, part carnival, part spiritual journey. Counting down to these events must have come naturally, integrated into the preparation from Passover to Shavuot.

For most modern Jews, by contrast, Passover is the main event. Shavuot is really an after thought, a minor holiday.

Still I’m not ready to let go of the counting. The simple ritual of numbering the nights and then the weeks from Passover to Shavuot, is a reminder that liberation is not just an end in and of itself but also a beginning. At Passover we celebrate the ability to break free of that, which enslaves us.

We all have our burdens. And Passover celebrates the idea of being able to miraculously free ourselves from those burdens. But it is never that simple. Liberation takes work. There may be that miraculous moment but as the Israelites learned, walking through the sea was just the beginning. They would have to recommit themselves daily to the trust in God, to the power to move forward. And every day that passed, every day brought them further from their enslavement and closer to revelation.

Posted on April 9, 2015