Thursday, August 17, 2017

Don't Play With the Nazis! Laugh At Them.


Dear Amy Schumer, Aziz Ansari, Chris Rock, Dave Chappelle, Eddie Izzard, Henry Cho, Janeane Garofalo, Jerry Seinfeld, Kevin Hart, Louis C.K., Margaret Cho, Maz Jobrani, Patton Oswalt, Sarah Silverman, Tig Notaro and Wanda Sykes:

America needs your help, right now. And we need all of your funny friends and colleagues who I did not name (I just chose the sixteen who make me laugh the most, and who also represent so many demographic groups hated by the Nazis) but don’t have room to include.

I have been reading about a number of places around the country where groups are applying for permits to have demonstrations similar in nature (to varying degrees) to the “Unite the Right Rally” in Charlottesville, VA last weekend. Some will be held this weekend. An old friend from my high school youth group days who lives in the San Francisco Bay Area had posted about one such permit request on Facebook. She was joining others who were asking friends to contact various public officials connected to the permitting process to urge them not to grant the permit.

Here is my response to her:
So when the Nazis marched in Skokie, Illinois in 1977, I lived in the area as a teenager. Skokie at the time had a huge Jewish population, including a lot of survivors. All of the youth movements joined the adult organizations in deliberating what to do in advance of the rally.

I will skip the long story. We all eventually agreed with ACLU that in America, we have to let them march and speak. But in America, we don't need to listen. We went out of our way as a community to empty the streets, leaving a dozen idiots with a megaphone on display to a bunch of journalists. And a handful of Kahane followers from the JDL. (At least that's who showed up when they finally marched in Chicago the next year. They never marched in Skokie even though they won the right to do so.)

It was beautiful. I am not critical of those who went to Charlottesville to protest the hatred. I stand with them. And if that is the decision in New York or Boston, I will stand there as well.

But I do wonder how much coverage these anti-American idiots would have gotten if there was no one for them to fight.

Maybe the best move would be to have an anti-Hatred comedy festival across the bay from these mouth breathers. Let them play in the park by themselves while everyone with a brain and true love for America and all it stands for and promises, with the whole spectrum of skin tones, faiths, identities, political preferences and countries of ancestral origin represented comes to hear the funniest people in America tell jokes about the fools who "don't want to be replaced?" (And who wants their places anyway? I am sure they smell by now.)
I do believe that these feckless idiots (yes, I am judging) have every right to march and speak. The Boston Common or a Park in San Francisco or the public land in Mountain View, CA in view of the Google campus are theirs as much as they are ours. And these open spaces are not crowded theaters. No one is shouting fire.

We love the Constitution and the First Amendment. They give us our lives and meaning as Americans. And if one group can silence another in the public arena, then in the words of Sir Paul McCartney, we are “Back in the USSR.” So yes they get to hold their little rallies.

So Amy, Aziz, Chris, Dave, Eddie, Henry, Janeane, Jerry, Kevin, Louis, Margaret, Maz, Patton, Sarah, Tig and Wanda (and friends) – this is where you all come in. We need you more than ever. We need you to put on a Summer of Love and Laughter. Many of you have been tweeting your outrage (and making us laugh). Let’s take the show on the road!

Maybe in small groups you can set up in a public space ten miles away from wherever the Nazis, White Supremacists and their fellow idiots (let's not give them the cover of calling them the "Alt-Right") get their permits. Invite everybody who stands against them to come out for a few hours of laughter. Invite food truck owners to serve. Invite other artists to perform. And give the Nazis an empty space.

In his commentary about the Charlottesville events and why David Duke and the Nazis like Donald Trump, John Oliver suggested that Nazis were a lot like cats. If they like you, it is only because you are feeding them.

So come on comedians – Unite! Starve the Nazis for attention. And help us laugh at them.

Sunday, April 2, 2017

The Neshama of Baseball - a New Season

A busy winter has kept me away from the blog. But it is time for spring, Pesach and Baseball (although it looks like opening day is a wash for the Cubs and Cards. One of my favorite Cardinals fans is Stephanie Crawley, who is a rabbinic student at HUC-JIR and who interns at our congregation. This was a D'var Torah she gave on November 4, the week before the election and the week after the Cubs won the world series. She agreed to let me post it for opening day. Please enjoy!




Each year at this time, Jews read the story of Noah, of the terrible flood, and of the miracle of the rainbow, which signified a better future for humanity. 

On Wednesday night, an estimated 40 million people sat on couches, on bar stools, and on stadium seats, witnessing the Chicago Cubs make history.

For Noah, It rained for 40 days, and 40 nights.

For the Cubs, I did the math, and turns out that if you count the days, their 108-season World-Series losing streak amounts to just about 40 total years of baseball played.

For 40 years of day games and 40 years of night games, it rained on the Cubs.

Earlier this week, when the Cubs were down 3 games to 1, it seemed like the deluge of despair wasn’t going to end.

Noah anticipated his salvation. He had hope, sending out a raven to search for dry land.

The raven never returned, but like the Cubs’ fans, Noah didn’t stop hoping.

Noah sent out a dove who returned with an olive branch,

and the Cubs came back to tie up the series 3-3.

Noah’s ark finally came to rest on dry land after 7 months, on the 17th day of the month.

And the Cubbies finally broke their curse in the Game 7 of the world series, in their, wait for it, 17th postseason game.

Coincidence? Almost certainly. Creative mathematics? Maybe.
Or, perhaps, a sign of the magic that baseball and Judaism share.

Wednesday night was the stuff of legends, a game for the ages, baseball at its best—two underdog teams battling it out in a fantastical, impossible journey to win it all in the end.

Hearts jumped in simpatico as we watched home runs, stolen bases, errors, and even… a rain delay.

We were attending, what the classic baseball movie, Bull Durham, poetically describes: “the Church of Baseball.”

For as long as I have been a Jew, I have been a baseball fan. I am not unique in this respect. Much has been written about the love affair between baseball and the Jews. This passion can be attributed to the history of an immigrant community hungry to be a part of American culture.

But it is more than just historical correlation. Rabbi Jonathan Cohen enumerates the numerous parallels between baseball and Judaism: “both venerate tradition, both emphasize community, both attach importance to special foods (think of ballpark franks, and don’t forget the peanuts and Cracker Jacks). Both have their rituals – e.g., the ceremonial throwing out of the first pitch, the seventh-inning stretch. There are even baseball “holidays,” such as the All-Star game and the World Series.”[1]

One of my favorite jokes asserts that even God is a baseball fan. How do we know? Because the Torah starts with “In the Big Inning…”

But the most important commonalities have less to do with the superficial similarities like traditional foods or dates on the calendar. The parallels exist on a more spiritual plane. Love for a team, or a sport, like faith, can often seem irrational. A pure rationalist might look at the outpouring of tears and celebrations that took place on Wednesday night, or at today’s parade in Chicago and deem them “silly.”
                                   
“It is only a game,” they might say. “What’s all the fuss?”

My answer to that would be, that, at their best, baseball and Judaism are about experiencing the ineffable, about transcending the mundane. The religious or spiritual resides [in a domain beyond words.] In an age of gigabytes and picoseconds, we tend to live too quickly and to miss much that we might see. Baseball, as it turns out, can help us develop the capacity to see through to another, sacred space,” writes former NYU Chancellor, John Sexton, who taught a yearly seminar entitled Baseball as a Road to God, which he later turned into a book.[2]

Baseball provides an opportunity “to transcend the mundane experience of everyday life…”[3] Sexton writes.  “While the teams and players on the field may change each autumn, the game’s evocative power is continuous. Opening Day in the spring and the World Series in the fall are the bookends of baseball’s liturgical time, and within the rituals of each season, fans are converted to believers…and events become part of a mythology, forever remembered and repeated with the solemnity of the most beloved sacred stories. And inevitably, each season brings its moments of heightened awareness—divergent from ordinary time and place—in which some discover a connection to something deeper than the ordinary. Such moments are remembered not merely for what they literally were but for what they evoked in those who experienced them.”[4]

If we just changed a little bit of the vocabulary, I could make this very same statement about Judaism.

Our team is Judaism. The worship-ers and synagogues may change over time, but every spring, Passover still arrives, and we still have Rosh Hashanah every fall, we repeat the same stories over and over, and add our own stories to Judaism’s sacred narrative. And from time to time, when it really works, we may experience moments of heightened awareness, some kind of connection beyond our ordinary experiences.

We need these rituals in order to experience moments of ineffable power. As much as we may try, we cannot rationalize the feeling of 100,000 people holding their breath as they wait to see if the wind will carry the long fly ball into the stands for a home-run.

Nor can we articulate the awesome power of hearing the blast of the shofar, or watching a Bar or Bat mitzvah chant from the very same book that our ancestors read.
This world series brought joy, comfort, and escape in a difficult time in our divided nation.

In his famous speech in the film Field of Dreams, James Earl Jones’s character declares the saliency of Baseball in our nation: “The one constant through all the years, Ray, has been baseball. America has rolled by like an army of steamrollers. It's been erased like a blackboard, rebuilt, and erased again. But baseball has marked the time. This field, this game, is a part of our past, Ray. It reminds us of all that once was good, and it could be again.”

I don’t know what the outcome of Tuesday’s election will be. But I take comfort in the fact that in 149 days, my beloved St. Louis Cardinals will repeat the sacred cycle, and have another chance on opening day.

There will always be another year, more awe-filled moments, and a reason to hope.



[1]Sermon by Cohen, Rabbi Jonathan. "Baseball and Jewish Values. http://www.mishkantorah.org/rabbi-jonathan-cohen/baseball-and-jewish-values.
[2] Sexton, John, Thomas with Oliphant and Peter J. Schwartz. Baseball As a Road to God: Seeing Beyond the Game. New York: Penguin Publishing Group, 2013. p. 5.
[3] Sexton, 9.
[4] Sexton, 14.

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

God was in this place...

Elaine Clayton is an adult who became a Bat Mitzvah in our congregation this past Shabbat. This is her D'var Torah in word and visual art. The images are full size paintings she brought to the chapel. She writes and illustrates children's books also including books by Jane Smiley (Pulitzer Prize winning author) and Gregory Maguire (who wrote "Wicked") and is also the author of Making Marks: Discover the Art of Intuitive Drawing.

Kol Hakavod, Elaine!




December 10, 2016

God Was in This Place: Dreaming of Jacob 

by Elaine Clayton  

And so Jacob said, “Goodbye Everyone”
And went to Haran
Copyright Elaine Clayton 2016
To wander and wonder
In the wilderness
Bewildered
And I saw him there
“Jacob,” I called out, “How are you?”
“Oh, so-so,” he said in his endearing way
“Why only so-so?” I asked him
Jacob answered, “I didn’t sleep well. For one thing
My pillow was as hard as a rock, and I mean as hard as a rock.”
“I’m sorry, Jacob,” I said, “Did you remember any of your dreams?
And Jacob said, “No. No, I don’t dream. I don’t remember my dreams.”


It is Shabbat morning in the year 5777
I wake up feeling a longing and sadness
Thank, God, it was only a bad dream
I whisper to myself
Of course Jacob had a dream
And of course Jacob remembered his dream
Its in Torah!
I say to myself
Jacob knew God was in this place
That place
Because where he rested his head
He slept and where he slept
He dreamt
And where we dream, God is

Half asleep, I still hear Jacob talking to me
He says, “I was only kidding about not dreaming!
You can do Freud, or Jung
You can say you ate something
Or saw a movie
That’s why you dreamed what you did
But keep your dreams close by”
He says
“The Talmud states that a dream not interpreted
Is akin to an unopened letter
Some dreams are messages of love
Some are bills
Some are junk mail
Some are invitations
Some are solicitations
Some are citations
All of them are letters
Given to be opened and read
Signed, sealed, delivered
They’re yours”
He says

“They’re your fears
Your desires and impressions
For ordinary time spent
And extraordinary actions
All of your comings and goings
Nobody can dream as you do”
He says
And I say
But some dreams we share
Like the one about going to work with no pants on
Or arriving late to the most important class
The one about flying
The one about monsters
Or lovers
Or things we are glad did not really happen

On the way to the temple on I-95
Jacob sits silently in the passenger seat
I say, Jacob, I am getting to know you
To learn from you
What are you thinking about?
“Just keep your eyes on the road,”
He says

Still sleepy at the temple
I whisper the blessing
And kiss the tallit on its embroidered hem
Swirl it like the world around me
And let it surround me
I clasp it over my shoulders as though
I just emerged from the sea
And close it over my heart

I am wrapped in
Where the sea meets the sky
Where the tides of life
Crash at my feet
Soaking into the dust of the earth

I see the lines on the tallit
Like the waves at sea
And like the rungs on Jacob’s Ladder
I see the waves coming
I sense the desire to
Capture them
To reach for them
Swimming or pulling myself upward
I go rung to rung
Feeling waves of emotion

Waves of despair
Waves of anger
Waves of joy
Waves of days come and gone
Waves of mercy
Waves of grief
Waves of love and sorrow
Waves of gratitude
And lessons learned

Reciting the Shema
The tallit settles like clouds
On my shoulders
Keeping my dreams
Upon me softly
A witness to the dream-letter opened
By Jacob

Chanting V’ahavta
I gaze at the heart of my own days
And close my eyes
Through waves of doubt and hope
And wonder if a ladder will
Appear for me
As it did for
Jacob

I play with the tassels
613 twists and turns
In the dreams of God
His for us, and ours for Him
Wave after wave
Dream after dream
With or without me
The dreams keep arriving
And disappearing

Our dreams of peace
For our children
Our dreams of justice
For us all
Our dreams of our place in the world
As crazy as the world is
We still dream
God is One

The Ark opens
My heart dares to open also
The prayer chants take us
High and low
Ascending and descending
On the Jacob’s Ladder
within each of us
And what is this ladder within?
Is it the Tree of Life?
Is it the twisting ladder of my DNA?
Is it the way I hold emotions

In my crown
At my mind’s eye
In my throat
In my heart
In my stomach?

I feel myself soar and dip
Slipping and gripping
Through the prayers
A malach is with me
A messenger
On each rung
As I rise and fall

Closing my eyes
During Kaddish
I see Jacob in Haran again
He is wandering expectantly in the darkening twilight
He places his head on
ha-evan, the stone
His pillow
I take off my tallit
And wrap it around him
As he gently falls asleep
Under the stars
To dream
To come to know things
To wake soon and wrestle
With his new name:
Yisrael

Thursday, December 8, 2016

Now what?

The following was originally published as a Facebook post by Timothy Snyder, the Housum Professor of History at Yale University and author of Black Earth: The Holocaust as History and Warning.

My Friend Josh Mason Barkin tweeted the link to Quartz, a blog that ran the piece. It ran there under the title "A Yale history professor’s powerful, 20-point guide to defending democracy under a Trump presidency." I have re-titled it in the interest of not using a headline to pour gasoline on a fire. I do believe he is right on all of these items. (#21 might be to maintain a valid passport for every member of your family.) I also believe we have to be very timely in declaring that the sky is falling. To soon, and we are chicken little. Too late and we can only hope to be survivors.

The video at the top of the page is a lecture by Professor Snyder called "What Can European History Teach Us About Trump’s America?" It was delivered at Yale on December 5, 2016.




A Yale history professor’s powerful,
20-point guide to defending democracy


Americans are no wiser than the Europeans who saw democracy yield to fascism, Nazism, or communism. Our one advantage is that we might learn from their experience. Now is a good time to do so. Here are twenty lessons from the twentieth century, adapted to the circumstances of today:

1. Do not obey in advance.

Much of the power of authoritarianism is freely given. In times like these, individuals think ahead about what a more repressive government will want, and then start to do it without being asked. You’ve already done this, haven’t you? Stop. Anticipatory obedience teaches authorities what is possible and accelerates unfreedom.

2. Defend an institution.

Defend an institution. Follow the courts or the media, or a court or a newspaper. Do not speak of “our institutions” unless you are making them yours by acting on their behalf. Institutions don’t protect themselves. They go down like dominoes unless each is defended from the beginning.

3. Recall professional ethics.
When the leaders of state set a negative example, professional commitments to just practice become much more important. It is hard to break a rule-of-law state without lawyers, and it is hard to have show trials without judges.

4. When listening to politicians, distinguish certain words.

Look out for the expansive use of “terrorism” and “extremism.” Be alive to the fatal notions of “exception” and “emergency.” Be angry about the treacherous use of patriotic vocabulary.

5. Be calm when the unthinkable arrives.
When the terrorist attack comes, remember that all authoritarians at all times either await or plan such events in order to consolidate power. Think of the Reichstag fire. The sudden disaster that requires the end of the balance of power, the end of opposition parties, and so on, is the oldest trick in the Hitlerian book. Don’t fall for it.

6. Be kind to our language.

Avoid pronouncing the phrases everyone else does. Think up your own way of speaking, even if only to convey that thing you think everyone is saying. (Don’t use the internet before bed. Charge your gadgets away from your bedroom, and read.) What to read? Perhaps The Power of the Powerless by Václav Havel, 1984 by George Orwell, The Captive Mind by Czesław Milosz, The Rebel by Albert Camus, The Origins of Totalitarianism by Hannah Arendt, or Nothing is True and Everything is Possible by Peter Pomerantsev.

7. Stand out.

Someone has to. It is easy, in words and deeds, to follow along. It can feel strange to do or say something different. But without that unease, there is no freedom. And the moment you set an example, the spell of the status quo is broken, and others will follow.

8. Believe in truth.
To abandon facts is to abandon freedom. If nothing is true, then no one can criticize power, because there is no basis upon which to do so. If nothing is true, then all is spectacle. The biggest wallet pays for the most blinding lights.

9. Investigate.

Figure things out for yourself. Spend more time with long articles. Subsidize investigative journalism by subscribing to print media. Realize that some of what is on your screen is there to harm you. Learn about sites that investigate foreign propaganda pushes.

10. Practice corporeal politics.

Power wants your body softening in your chair and your emotions dissipating on the screen. Get outside. Put your body in unfamiliar places with unfamiliar people. Make new friends and march with them.

11. Make eye contact and small talk.
This is not just polite. It is a way to stay in touch with your surroundings, break down unnecessary social barriers, and come to understand whom you should and should not trust. If we enter a culture of denunciation, you will want to know the psychological landscape of your daily life.

12. Take responsibility for the face of the world.
Notice the swastikas and the other signs of hate. Do not look away and do not get used to them. Remove them yourself and set an example for others to do so.

13. Hinder the one-party state.

The parties that took over states were once something else. They exploited a historical moment to make political life impossible for their rivals. Vote in local and state elections while you can.

14. Give regularly to good causes, if you can.

Pick a charity and set up autopay. Then you will know that you have made a free choice that is supporting civil society helping others doing something good.

15. Establish a private life.
Nastier rulers will use what they know about you to push you around. Scrub your computer of malware. Remember that email is skywriting. Consider using alternative forms of the internet, or simply using it less. Have personal exchanges in person. For the same reason, resolve any legal trouble. Authoritarianism works as a blackmail state, looking for the hook on which to hang you. Try not to have too many hooks.

16. Learn from others in other countries.
Keep up your friendships abroad, or make new friends abroad. The present difficulties here are an element of a general trend. And no country is going to find a solution by itself. Make sure you and your family have passports.

17. Watch out for the paramilitaries.

When the men with guns who have always claimed to be against the system start wearing uniforms and marching around with torches and pictures of a Leader, the end is nigh. When the pro-Leader paramilitary and the official police and military intermingle, the game is over.

18. Be reflective if you must be armed.
If you carry a weapon in public service, God bless you and keep you. But know that evils of the past involved policemen and soldiers finding themselves, one day, doing irregular things. Be ready to say no. (If you do not know what this means, contact the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and ask about training in professional ethics.)

19. Be as courageous as you can.
If none of us is prepared to die for freedom, then all of us will die in unfreedom.

20. Be a patriot.
The incoming president is not. Set a good example of what America means for the generations to come. They will need it.


Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Valuing Life

Last week I was given the honor of giving a D'var Torah at Shabbat morning services. The Parshah was Chayei Sarah. The first half of what I wrote has been percolating for a long time. I am convinced Abraham failed the Akedah. The second half has been a long time coming. Midge vVas Nunes was already a matriarch of our community when we arrived in 1995. She became a very important person to me and my family. Life was hard as she entered triple digits, as her mind and body both began to let her down. We celebrated her life this past weekend. I am honored to share a bit of it.



Shabbat shalom.


Our parshah this week Chayei Sarah – begins with the death of Sarah. Some commentators speculated that her death, coming right on the heels of the binding of Isaac, was a direct result of her waking up and discovering Abraham and Isaac had departed. They suggest she knew that Isaac was to be sacrificed and it broke her heart.


I want to suggest that her heart was broken. Not because she believed that her husband was about to kill her only child. I am pretty sure that she expected that God’s promise that her son would be the beginning of a great nation would come true. I think she was heartbroken by Abraham’s failure.


Yes, I said failure. Last week the Torah told us that the Akedah was a test. When I went to Hebrew school, we were taught that Abraham passed the test. He was prepared to offer his son, proving his loyalty to God. The angel came and stopped the killing, saying “for now I know you are one who fears God, as you did not withhold your son, your only son, from Me.” Personally, I think the angel was offering the consolation prize, basically saying “thanks for playing.”


You see, only a chapter earlier, Abraham argued – ARGUED – with God to save the lives of a city full of strangers. Most of whom had been judged wicked by God. Abraham had demonstrated that he understood that God valued life more than anything else. It is what distinguishes Torah from all previous legal codes. But as soon as God “tests” Abraham, out comes the knife. Seriously.


And then what happens?


One.

Abraham comes down the mountain to return home with the servants. Where is Isaac? I assume anywhere far from his father and his knife. Some commentators say he went to study at the academy of Shem and Eber – Noah’s son and great grandson, somehow still alive after 8 generations – near Tzvat for three years and the end of chapter 23.


Medieval commentators, writing at the bloody time of the crusades suggest that Isaac actually died on the mountain top and went to heaven. Later, in mercy, God restores Isaac to life – reflecting the fears and reality of those writers.


Rabbi Jonathan Kligler, in Woodstock, NY, suggests that Isaac went to visit his brother Ishmael. He suggests that the brothers were very close, until Sarah forced Abraham to send Hagar and Ishmael away. Isaac couldn’t go home with his seemingly homicidal father, so he went to his brother.


Two.

Sarah dies. She must have heard about the debate over Sodom and Gomorah. She understood that their God was a God of life, not death. The Torah doesn’t say whether Abraham told Sarah what God had asked him the night before he set off with Isaac. It also doesn’t say he kept it a secret. Abraham and Sarah were together a long time. I am certain – based on my experience – that marriages built on keeping secrets don’t last that long.


God has been talking to Abraham for as long as Sarah has known him. The story of the Akedah is the tenth conversation. Previous conversations caused them to leave their homeland. I have trouble seeing Sarah just going without some kind of explanation. (Of course I am layering my own 21st century values on them. But that is what we do with interpretation – we put ourselves in the text. And God does include Sarah in at least one of those conversations – when her coming pregnancy is announced. So I think she gets what God is talking about.

When she gets up in the morning and sees they have left, she must have shried “Gevalt!” because she realized then that Abraham had missed the point of the lesson. If God is willing to spare an entire city of deviants if there are ten righteous people among them, certainly God has no intention of killing the young man whom God had given them to live out the promise of more descendants than stars in the sky. She knew that Abraham’s identity was completely interwoven in his relationship with God. And she now knew Abraham had failed the test. And it broke her heart, because she knew this would break the man she loved. Why?

Because Three.
  • God never speaks to Abraham again. Ever.
  • After that, Abraham seems to just be going through the motions of life.
  • Our portion today begins with Abraham in mourning.
  • He rises up from shiva and negotiates the purchase of a field with a cave to create a cemetery.
  • He sends his servant Eliezer back to the old country to find a wife for Isaac once he returns.
  • He takes a new wife, Keturah and has children with her. We hear nothing of his or their lives, just that they existed.
  • He leaves almost everything he has to Isaac and then dies.

I think his heart must have broken when he realized how completely he had failed. And I suspect God was also bereft, at least until he turned to Isaac to continue the covenant.

Finally.
Our portion begins “Sarah lived to be 127 years old … and Abraham proceeded to mourn and cry for her.” Later in the parshah, after his return, Isaac moves into Sarah’s tent and mourns her as well. By all accounts Sarah lived a very full life. She lived and loved and was loved. And she gave birth to the Jewish people. And we miss her.

Midge vas Nunes lived to be 104 years old…and tomorrow we will bury her remains as Abraham did Sarah’s. And we will mourn.

When I first came to Bridgeport, among of the first people I got to know were Manny and Midge. Midge always described their story as one of the great eternal loves, like Antony and Cleopatra, or Romeo and Juliet – although with far less drama. She described Manny as Sephardic royalty and was proud that their wedding was conducted by the great Rabbi David de Sola Pool, of the Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue in New York. They were blessed with a long and rich marriage.

Midge often regaled me with stories of her family and B’nai Israel.

She has seemed to me to have many of Sarah’s qualities. She will be missed by many, whether they know it or not. I will leave you with my favorite story, one she delighted to tell and retell.

Her grandfather was a dry goods merchant on Golden Hill in the 1850’s and one of the founding members of B’nai Israel. She said he was no taller than her. He told her that he had been entrusted with acquiring our first Torah scroll just before the civil war.

It was purchased through a broker from a family in Europe and arrived by ship in the port of Bridgeport – the name is not a coincidence. When he came to collect it from the customs agents, he realized it was too heavy for him to carry back up the hill by himself. So he left it with the agents, walked to his shop, and returned with his stock boy. He was not a boy but a man, an African American, free man. She said her grandfather described as a shtarker – a big, strong man. And she giggled with delight describing this hakafah – a Torah procession of two: a short, stout Ashkenazi Jew leading a tall, muscular black man carrying a Torah scroll as they climbed Golden Hill. And she would often ask me to take that scroll out of the ark for her to touch.

Our portion begins “Sarah lived to be 127 years old … and Abraham proceeded to mourn and cry for her.” As we read from Chayei Sarah, I invite you to remember the life of Midge vas Nunes.

Saturday, November 12, 2016

Encountering Truths, Opinions and One Another

I have I have waited to post about the presidential election results. I wanted to make sure that what I said here is what I truly want to say. I will likely share several postings on the topic. One thing I have decided is that since my blog is primarily about Jewish Education, I am not going to focus on the politics of the elections nor my concerns for what will happen next politically. At least for now.

Although there are protests going on in several places, until something changes through legal means, I am going to assume that on January 20, Donald Trump will be sworn in as president of the United States. And I do know that there are several educational and spiritual issues before us. 

I serve with two rabbis, Evan Schultz and Jim Prosnit. They are my partners in education and teachers in spiritual connection. Reeves Shabbat Lech Lecha, the first following the election, Evan shared the following sermon. I believe he captured some essential truths and rephrased how we need to think about politics, ideas and one. Another in a way that is brilliant, authentic and right.




My words to our community this evening:

Lech L’cha 5777

“Now Melchitzedek king of Salem brought out bread and wine. He was a priest of God Most High and blessed him, saying “Blessed be Abram by God Most High, who has given your foes into your hands.”

I share this verse with you tonight, just days after a presidential election that has in so many ways deeply separated us as a country, that has brought us to realize there are so many in this country who we in no way understand, that has brought many here this evening scared and deeply anxious about the acts of hate, antisemitism, and bigotry that already are plaguing our schools and our streets.

Many of us have undoubtedly read countless articles and opinion pieces on why the election went as it did, and no matter where each of us stands politically, there now is a sense of soul searching and real questioning as to where we want our country to go and what we want it to be.

As I too engaged in this process over the past two days, and undoubtedly will for weeks to come, the realization I have had is this one:
I surrounded myself with people who shared the same ideas as my own and dismissed those with alternate views.  I read articles that furthered my own beliefs about the election and the future of this country, and dismissed any other point of view.  I stereotyped and generalized and characterized those who did not agree with my point of view as ignorant, stupid, and gullible.

As I dug deeper, I realized the world that I had created for myself.
A world in which I had, at some point along the way, mistaken my own beliefs and opinions for truth.

I, a Reform Jew, who joined this movementprecisely because we outwardly state that we do not have a stronghold on the truth,
have over time staked many truths firmly in the sand.  I turned a blind eye to those with other opinions, I dismissed them.

Just yesterday, as I sat in a room full of Reform rabbis and educators at Eisner camp, I realized how I have never shared with our kids and teens an opposing opinion on many social issues.
We take our tenth graders to the RAC, The Religious Action Center in Washington, DC,and they hear the Jewish position on social issues such as women’s rights, on gun control, on abortion.
We have presented these not as our opinions, not as our beliefs, but as truths to our children.  As if there is only one right way to think about this issue.

I recall a couple of years ago, on our trip to DC with our teenagers,
a student from another congregation, who I did not know, told me he was pro-life during one of the issue sessions.  I didn’t know what to say to him, there was no space for him in a room filled with teens committed to a women’s right to choose. And this was another Reform Jew.  I didn’t ask him why.
I didn’t try to understand him.
I didn’t raise my hand and point out there’s a student with a different opinion.
I shut the door on him.  Shame on me for that.

And I know the same thing happens on the other side.  Each side has essentially turned opinion into truth, we’ve staked our ideas deep into the ground, and look at the result, look at the dangerous world we’ve all now created.

I know there are extremists on both sides, I’m not here to talk about them tonight.  We know that bigotry, hatred, anti-semitism and misogyny are deep manifestations of evil and it is our obligation to fight that with no hesitation.

And I do know there are certain issues which have been irresponsibly turned into matters of opinion, such as climate change, and it is certainly our job to call out people who deny what science has proven over and over again.

I’m talking tonight about the many people who shut out the other side on issues that really do have two sides, who live in their own Facebook feed, who characterize the other side as just plain wrong, or even worse, idiots for believing any other way.

Our country is in need of healing.  And that is why I started with the biblical verse that I did.

This verse, from Genesis chapter 14, is a rare moment in the Biblical text.  Abram, who has just come victorious from battle, sits down with a non-Israelite king-priest name Malchitzedek.  The two come from opposite sides, opposite peoples, opposite places.  And what does Malchitzedek do, he breaks bread with Abram.  He pours him a glass of wine. And he blesses Abram.

Talk about a calling for what we need right now.

Yesterday I thus committed myself to two things.

One, more face to face conversations with people who have opinions and viewpoints different from my own.

Two, reading more literature and books that take me outside of my own ideas and opinions.

I am not naïve, I know there is immense work to be done and a great deal to be concerned about after Tuesday.  But in times of uncertainty I look to the Torah.  And if anything this verse pushes me to sit down and break bread with those who have different opinions and viewpoints from own.
It prompts me to listen.  To remind myself that my positions on many issues are opinions, they are deeply held, strong beliefs, but they are not Truth with a capital T.

I have begun the work.
This week I’ll be sitting down with a person from our community who holds positions very different from my own.  I said to him, I don’t want to talk issues. I don’t walk to talk policies.

I just want it to be two human beings, sitting down,trying to understand each other.
He agreed and welcomed the talk.
I know it is not going to change the world.
But it’s a small step in rebuilding a bridge that has fallen apart.

Our Torah portion this week begins with the charge to Abram –
“lech l’cha m’artzecha,” Go forth from your land. In other words, now is the time to slowly step outside of our own circles of ideas and opinions – and I say this to both sides, both sides who are here in our synagogue and community.

Now is the time to offer an invitation, to reach out, with a sense of curiosity and empathy, with a hope of repairing the bridge,
with a faith that like Abram and Malchitzedek, there is good in breaking bread together,of offering blessing to one another.
It is a first step on the journey as we go forth.

Please God, give us the strength and courage to do this work,
help us to see the path we need to forge together. Amen.

Friday, November 4, 2016

The Morning After

My friend Mark Borovitz, rabbi of Beit T'Shuvah in Los Angeles is a lifelong fan of the Cleveland Indians. We fantasized about attending one of the World Series games together. And he actually made it to game 1 in Cleveland along with his brother and sister. I made it to games 3 and 4 in Chicago, attending with my uncle Stanley, 3 of my first cousins and my college roommate and his wife. Mark and I spoke as I walked to the train for game 4 and talked about how the family connections are what brought a spiritual connection to the series and our appreciation. He posted this on Facebook on Thursday morning, following game 7. Thank you Mark. You are right - as usual.

The Neshama of Baseball (Bonus Edition)

The Morning After

Mark (center), his Brother Neil and sister Sheri
on their way to Game 1
I am sad and elated today. After watching my Indians give everything they had and losing by 1 run, I am elated that they never gave up! The Cubs played a Great Game! We Indians Fans have nothing to be ashamed of... Our team played it's heart out and this was as exciting a 7th games as ever played in my lifetime!

I have watched the ways that all of the fans, Cubbies and Indians, have come together as One Family. I know that we can build on this energy to bring all of us Americans, humans together to BE ONE FAMILY.

Families have differences AND we come together to help each other. Families can fight with each other and be there in good times and bad. I believe that we, Americans, need to come back together in love, Justice, Truth, Kindness and Compassion rather than the bifurcation and hatred that has been rampant over the past decades. We have the technology- Team Spirit; we have the path- what our country was founded on; and the only question left- do we have the will to surrender to God's Will of finding ways to live together, fight together, argue together and love together?

I am sad that my Indians lost this game and so elated and proud of all they accomplished with the odds against them! I am elated that the Cubs Fans are celebrating their victory. Lets join each other in both commiserating and celebrating for both teams and use this as the model for how we deal with victory and defeat! Doing this makes us all winners.

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