Monday, June 30, 2014

An overall anomaly
Just before Pesach, five colleagues and I went to Los Angeles for an immersion program at Beit T'shuvah (BTS). I will write a great deal more about BTS in the near future. It has taken me this long to begin to put into words I can share - in way that woudl be meaningful for others - and I promise it will be worth it. Not because my words will be so special or awe-inspiring. It will be worth it because I want you to get to know BTS and the amazing people who are there. They help people who are addicts (of all kinds) take control of their lives. And to live spiritually fulfilling lives in the real world. 

I know. Who are you and where is Ira? We will explore those questions later. 

For today, I want to share the blog of my friend Rabbi Mark Borovitz. He is "Spiritual Leader, Head Rabbi, COO, and overall anomaly" at BTS. We have been studying Heschel's "The Insecurity of Freedom" - and just being a chavruta pair via skype since I got back from LA. He blogs weekly through the Jewish Journal under the title Addicted to Redemption. Here is his posting from last week. My comments are at the end.


All week I have been thinking about this blog. I am upset, frustrated and angry. All this has to do with what is happening both inside of me and outside of me. Inside, I am upset, angry and frustrated that my message is getting lost because of my bombastic nature. As my friend and teacher, Rabbi Ed Feinstein, has said about me, I am more prophet than Rabbi and there is not a huge market for Prophets these days. At any given time, I am prone to outbursts of angry speech. I cover it up by saying I am just passionate, yet, in truth, it is anger. I am angry inside when I know that there are better ways to live than some of the ways I am living and in some of the ways the world is living. I know that I have no control over people, places and things, yet I also know that I matter and, therefore, can influence others. This paradox frustrates me and I get upset when I don’t live in the tension of this paradox.

I have been Blessed with great vision and the ability to see the soul/God-Image of others and myself. I get upset with myself when my vision of my own Soul/God-Image gets cloudy and I know that I am not perfect. I get frustrated when I KNOW what is the next right/God-Like action to take and I don’t, either because of my own foibles/ego or because I am hampered by others. The same is true when my vision is cloudy in dealing with other people and/or I am unable to find a way to speak to another in a way they can hear. All of this causes me to be upset, frustrated and angry with me. I am writing this to all of you because I am sorry when this happens, I am working on myself to be better in this area and I acknowledge that my Prophet voice is not going away. I do commit to manage it better, however.

Why am I writing about this, you may ask. I am writing about the frustration, anger and upset inside of me because some of it comes from the outside actions of the world. Over 2 weeks ago, 3 young boys in Israel were kidnapped. What is the world doing about it? NOTHING! Where are all of the people who care about humanity? Why are the countries of the world who are, supposedly, trying so hard for “peace in the Mideast” not rallying around Israel and “forcing” Hamas and the PLO to release these teenagers? I am angry, frustrated and upset because, again, Jewish lives are not as “worthy” as others. Where is the justice and compassion for these teenagers? Where is the “caring world” when it comes to Jewish lives?

I am not just speaking about Jewish lives, however. I am upset, angry and frustrated that more is not being done to protect women in Nigeria, the Congo, the United States, and throughout the world. Like Jews, women must be considered not as worthy as men. If there were hundreds and thousands of men being tortured, raped, killed, kidnapped, etc., there would be war happening to save them. Yet, where are the Nigerian women? Where is the justice and change in status for women all over the world? Where is the “caring world” when it comes to the plight of women?

I am not just speaking about Jewish lives and women, however. I am truly frustrated, angry and upset that last Saturday was the 50th Anniversary of the murders of Goodman, Chaney and Schwermer AND the Supreme Court dismantled the Voting Rights Bill they died to bring into fruition. The Congress has done nothing to rewrite this bill. So many people died, were injured, jailed and fought for everyone to have the right to vote in this country. Yet, 50 years later, we sit on our hands, don’t show up to vote and allow some of the basic rights that our soldiers died to uphold just go away.

Where is the justice and compassion for the poor and the downtrodden? Where is action of “all people are created equal”? Where is the “caring world” when it comes to people other than “them”?

I am not just speaking about “the others”, women and Jewish lives. I am also angry, frustrated and upset about our Veterans. We have treated these young people abominably. We send them off to fight and teach them to not trust anyone they come into contact with except ‘their own’. What do we do to help them re-integrate into society here when they come back? Very little!! We don’t even help them when they seek help. Where is the justice, compassion and gratitude for their service? Where is the “caring people” when it comes to serving those who serve us?

I know that I am being bombastic again. Yet, I believe deep in my soul that I am speaking a Truth that few of us want to face. I don’t have all of the solutions to these experiences and challenges. I do know and believe that “Evil flourishes when Good People do nothing.” I know and believe that just as in the 50’s and 60’s we are in need of a grassroots movement to effect change in the way we are living. I do know that this movement has to begin inside of each of us first. One of the lessons of History for me is that the movement of past generations and eras doesn’t take hold unless the changes and the movements are rooted in the souls of each of the leaders and participants of the movement.

My commitment is to keep working on my insides and outsides. This is how I live Addicted to Redemption. I am asking you to help me keep this commitment and to join me and make your own commitment to Redemption so that we can make the world Addicted to Redemption and bring about the world that has been envisioned in every Spiritual Discipline.

When Mark shared his blog on Friday I had a visceral reaction and shared it with him:

Wow. Stunning. I am reading about Mark the Prophet and remembering that most prophets did not end so well. It left me worrying for you and forgiving anything you might imagine I could forgive you for. (Actually there is nothing - your prophetic voice inspires me in ways that my hyper-rational self cannot believe!)

Then you make a sharp turn into the real issue - how "never again" is made into a hollow phrase by all of us every day. I leave on Sunday to chaperone a group of teens on the first phase of their Israel trip - by visiting Prague and Poland. We will be exploring and learning about over 1,000 years of Jewish life and then visiting Therezin, Krakow (and Schindler's factory), Auschwitz and the memorial to the Warsaw ghetto. With all of the evils you spoke of, from three young men in Mississippi to 3 young men near Kfar Etzion, the entire meaning of this journey changes.

Trips like these began in order to teach lessons like "never again." They continued to teach how the Third Reich was Egypt and Israel is again the Promised Land. 125 years ago, the early Reform rabbis in America mostly disagreed with the idea of a Jewish State being reestablished. They felt America was the promised land. In the 30's and 40's, most who held that opinion relented and the movement became staunch supporters of the Zionist dream and later of Israel. But they still held to the idealized view of the United States. I am angry with you. The lessons have not been learned. By anyone. Not just the three Jewish boys in Israel. Not just the women in Africa and in other places.

Our job as Jews, as Americans, as Humans is to protect those who need protection from evil. It is to stop genocide. It is to help one another reach our potential.

This Shabbat, I am sad angry with you. By next Shabbat in Poland, I pray that the teenagers with whom I am traveling will teach me about hope and show me the potential for good and for bringing redemption.

Shabbat shalom,



Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Jumping in the Lake: Blessing the Campers

This past erev Shabbat (June 20) our congregation invited our youngsters who would be attending Jewish summer camps to put on their camp t-shirts when they came to services. Our rabbi, Evan Schultz and our cantor, Sheri Blum were joined by one of campers on guitar and a CIT on the tof (drum) as they led the service. Over 20 campers (going to Eisner, Crane Lake and a number of other area overnight and day camps) and their families joined us for Kabbalat Shabbat outside as the sun began to set. This is Evan's drash. Enjoy!

Rabbi Evan Schultz and I with our campers and counselors
Camp Shabbat 2014

There I was – 14 years old, standing on the dock of the lake, or the agam, as we called it, at Camp Yavneh in Northwood, New Hampshire.

Friday afternoon, the cool breeze of the afternoon swimming across the lake.

I looked around, my bunkmates all standing there, peering towards the water which, even on the hottest day, always seemed freezing to us.

Our counselor, David, brought us out to the lake before Shabbat try something wholly new to many of us, to take a dunk in the mikveh, the Jewish ritual bath.

Many Jews, to symbolically cleanse themselves before Shabbat arrives, jump into this body of fresh water, to ready themselves for the Sabbath.

David, who was kind of a hippy Orthodox Jew, with his scraggly beard, sidelocks, and big yarmulke, asked our bunk if we wanted to jump into the lake before Shabbat, and of course we replied with an enthusiastic, “heck yea!”

That’s what’s great about camp – everyone is up for a new adventure, there’s a willingness to try something new, because your bunkmates are there by your side, and your counselor wants to share with you something special about the world that you may not have the opportunity to experience at home.

I remember that sound of our bare feet walking along the metal dock on the lake, walking toward the water, David attempting to teach us the blessing that one says upon dunking in the water.

We were excited – while the rest of camp was off showering and getting ready for Shabbat, we were going to the lake.

I stood there for a moment, everyone around me quieted down, and then we jumped – one orchestrated huge splash – the water was as cold as I thought it’d be – but something was different about it.

It wasn’t the same water from our morning swim lessons or afternoon free swim – there was a different peacefulness to it – as I went underwater I felt this surge of what I can only think was God, surrounding me in that moment, energizing my spirit and my body , cleansing me with Jewish Clorox, I felt happiness, I felt like I was in a holy space, with my closest friends, like I was at home in that lake, I still remember it so vividly.

From that Friday onwards, our bunk had a tradition of jumping in our lake mikveh every Friday afternoon before Shabbat – nobody ever missed it – it became our group ritual, our unique way of bringing in Shabbat – and that memory has stuck with me ever since.

We each learn so much at camp, about ourselves, what we’re capable of, we are fully immersed – it’s like a mikveh – just as I was surrounded by the water – I was surrounded by friends, counselors, staff, all kinds of people all the time who helped to create this unbelievably transformative space.
I recently read an article in Tablet magazine entitled, “Camp Puts Jewish Values to the Test—That’s Why Camp Friendships Endure” The author of the article, Marjorie Ingall, talks about this immersive nature of camp, she writes,

“Because overnight camp is an immersive, shared experience, it feels hyper-real and intense. You’re with your friends 24/seven. You see them in multiple contexts: You see what they’re good at and what they struggle with; you gain insight into your own accomplishments and struggles. You and your bunkmates fight and you make up, because the intimacy of camp means you can’t (and don’t want to) fight indefinitely. “An hour in camp is like a month in the outside world,”

Camp is a beautiful mikveh – you jump in and just can’t anticipate all the feelings and emotions and rushes that you’ll feel, but you know something special and transformative is going to happen.

So with that, I want to call up all of our campers for a special blessing as you are about to make this journey:

Dear God:

We offer a prayer for this children going to camp this summer
As they jump into this mikveh, this immersive experience
May they be surrounded by amazing friends
Counselors who will open their eyes to new possibilities
Senior staff who ensures their safety and well-being

May each of them discover their unique talents
Gain insights into their own special core
And look around each morning
and every night to see the spark of the divine

Give them energy to be present in each activity and program
The will to be open to new people
and new ways of seeing the world

Please make sure they rememberto take a shower every once in a while

And of course it would be great for them to return home
with at least some of the stuff they brought with them

May they each return with a story, a memory, that makes them smile
Friendships that last way beyond those two months of summer
And may that dirt of camp never fully wash off.


Monday, June 23, 2014

Arguments for the sake of heaven...

40 years ago...
Forty years ago this past weekend, I became a Bar Mitzvah. Randy Weingarten and I read from Parshat Korach. This past Shabbat I again read from Parshat Korach to celebrate the anniversary. 

What follows is my d'var Torah - from this time around!

Pirkei Avot 5:17 tells us:

“Every argument that is for the sake of heaven will endure, and if it is not for the sake of heaven, it will not endure.” It goes on to give us examples each kind of argument. The debates of Hillel and Shammai are given as being for the sake of heaven. Throughout the Mishnah, these rabbis of first century BCE Judea and their students wrestled with hundreds of issues. Shammai only wins six times. Yet no matter how heated things got it was always clear that the argument was about how to best do what God commanded, how to help us be the best Jews we could.

The Talmud tells us that no matter how different their philosophies were (think strict constructionist and loose constructionist for a wildly oversimplified summary), the sons and daughters of the members of the two schools would still marry one another. And to this day we remember their arguments. Do we add a candle each night of Chanukah or take one away? (Add) Hillel taught us that. And do we load the candles from left to right or from right to left? (right to left) Shammai taught us that. Their arguments were for the sake of heaven and they endure.

Our parshah gives us the example of the

– the argument that is NOT for the sake of heaven. Korach is Moses and Aaron’s first cousin. His father was their father’s younger brother. In Parshat Bamidbar, Elitzafan – another first cousin, the son of the youngest of four brothers, was appointed the prince over the family. While we know that the Torah is filled with younger sons rising above their older brothers (ummm… let’s see…Abraham – younger..Isaac – younger…Jacob – younger…Judah –younger…you get the idea), Korach clearly thought he outranked Elitzfan. As the oldest son of the next oldest brother, the midrash suggests that he thought he should have the next honor after Aaron and Moses. Another Midrash says that Korach had a fairly high ranking job (for a slave) back in Egypt, and so was used to being treated as one with authority. So he challenges Moses and Aaron for the leadership. Essentially saying “You are not the boss of me!” and claiming the right to be the leader.

For Korach it is “all about me.” He reminds me of the wicked child in the Pesach Hagadah who excludes himself from the group. He is told that if had been in Egypt he would not have known redemption. Korach may have made it out of Egypt, but he doesn’t really get redeemed! On the other hand, for Hillel and Shammai, it is “all about us.” They are like the wise son, trying to figure out how to make peoplehood work.

Follow the reading and you will see that Korach and his pals (and 250 others who joined them) end up swallowed by the earth in front of the whole community. They did not endure, and their argument is not one that we find useful today. Respect and the right to lead is earned, not grabbed. May we continue to be led by leaders who have earned it.

There was still a lot of wandering after Korach’s mutiny. Another 38 years – bringing the total to forty years in the wilderness. In that time we learned to leave the slave mentality behind and began to develop a sense of peoplehood.

It was forty years ago – tomorrow – when I was first called to the Torah to read from Parshat Korach. It sure doesn’t seem like it was that long ago. Gone are the baby face and the orange and brown plaid sport coat and the burnt umber and white saddle shoes with the tall stacked heels. Gone is pepper from my salt and pepper hair as well.

I have not spent the past forty years in the wilderness, although it has been a long and amazing journey. The wandering actually stopped after eleven years when I met Audrey in December of 1985. The journey since then has been wonderful and deliberate. It helps that she is willing to stop and ask for directions! I have spent nearly half of the last forty years with you. And it continues to be an adventure. I am happy to say that our congregation is one where nearly every argument is for the sake of heaven. And I hope we have many more of them!

 Kein yehi ratzon!

Friday, June 6, 2014

The Persistence of “Identity”

I have been struggling with writing. I read in Heschel recently "Words have become pretexts in the technique of evading the necessity of honest and genuine expression."  (The Insecurity of Freedom, p. 17.) So I have been trying to carefully consider my use of words. I will write again very soon. Until then I want to share something published by the Mandel Center at Brandeis University and picked up today by eJewishPhilanthropy. It was written by Jonathan Krasner, an outstanding teacher with whom I have been fortunate to learn on a few occasions. I think it is fabulous. Discuss it over Shabbat dinner!

The intro was written by of the Mandel Center. The original posting is here.

Jonathan Krasner
This guest post is by Jonathan Krasner of Hebrew Union College. He is a visiting scholar at the Mandel Center this year; next year, we will welcome him to Brandeis as the Jack, Joseph and Morton Mandel Chair in Jewish Education Research.

In 1994 Leon Wieseltier declared in the New Republic that identity was “an idea whose time has gone.” Twenty years later the Jewish identity industry is still going strong.

I recently had occasion to reread Wieseltier’s article in preparation for a conference on “Rethinking Jewish Identity and Education” at the Jack, Joseph and Morton Mandel Center for Studies in Jewish Education at Brandeis University. Listening to the various panel presentations and the vigorous discussions that ensued, it was clear to me that Wieseltier underestimated the enduring power of identity as a concept, particularly within the North American Jewish community. As the opening conference statement made clear, “With the possible exception of ‘continuity,’ identity (and the attendant fears of its disappearance or weakening) has driven more philanthropic initiatives and educational policy than any other single concept.”

With funders and community leaders eager to shore up the Jewish identities of millennials and their younger siblings, there is plenty of money to be had and made in the Jewish identity industry. Hence my quip at the conference that “Jewish identity has basically become the crack cocaine of the Jewish educational world.” Everyone from Birthright trip venders to Jewish boutique camp directors is fishing for a piece of the action. And who can blame them? Many of these good folks are incubating innovative and potentially transformative initiatives. If wrapping themselves in the banner of Jewish identity enrichment can win them dollars in a time of otherwise dwindling resources, where is the harm in shopping their products as Jewish aphrodisiacs that will encourage endogamy and result in lots of Jewish babies?

ID block quoteBut let’s return to Wieseltier. Before we chuckle at his obtuseness we should pause to revisit his reasoning. By 1994 it was clear to Wieseltier and others, including the late cultural theorist Stuart Hall and sociologist Herbert Gans, that longstanding assumptions about identity were outmoded, particularly in western societies. It turned out that identity was fluid rather than stable, transient rather than enduring, hybrid and overlapping rather than distinct and impermeable. Moreover, individuals inhabited multiple identities and often treated ethnic identity symbolically. Decisions about which one(s) to emphasize were provisional, situational and circumstantial in nature. Wieseltier, who was by no means sanguine about these revelations, logically reasoned that if developmental psychologist Erik Erikson was correct that “identity formation begins where the usefulness of multiple identification ends,” than identity as a concept was past its expiration date.

Erikson introduced identity in the 1950s as an antidote to anomie and alienation, the scourges of modern civilization. But if the self turns out to be protean rather than fixed, then why has identity endured? Part of the answer is supplied by Wieseltier himself: Even if identity is a fiction, it is a useful fiction. In describing the modern condition he pointed out that “we are unprecedentedly dispersed and unprecedentedly distracted.” This is even truer today than it was twenty years ago, as a result of globalization and advances in information technology. Even memory, “which confers a sense of continuity … is disappearing beneath the assault of associations. We are carrying too much. We are falling out of our hands. We need a basket. The name of the basket is identity.” Wieseltier is providing an important insight into why much of the contemporary discourse on identity has been patently ignored by Jewish educators on the front lines. Parents, educators, communal leaders and funders want to believe, and even need to believe in the basket called Jewish identity. The alternative is too messy, too overwhelming, too threatening.

As much as some of us, including myself, chafe at the persistence of identity and the simplistic way that it often conceptualized by stakeholders within the Jewish community, we ignore its continued allure at our peril. The price of abandoning identity discourse may be our irrelevance, that is, the continued chasm between the academy and the street. We can try to influence that discourse in ways that seek to educate practitioners, funders, community leaders and others.

Perhaps the message we should be driving home is that in the post-modern world, when identity can be merely symbolic and momentary, identity becomes a poor substitute for lived experience, for practice. Measuring people’s feelings might have been an important corrective for sociologists whose survey instruments measured identity purely in relation to ritual practices and friendship patterns. But people’s feelings do not get us very far. The vast majority of North American Jews have positive feelings about their Jewishness. But that does not mean that Jewishness plays an important or even meaningful role in their lives. As Wieseltier writes, “An affiliation is not an experience. It is, in fact, a surrogate for experience. Where the faith in God is wanting, there is still religious identity. Where the bed is cold and empty, there is still sexual identity. Where the words of the fathers are forgotten, there is still ethnic identity. The thinner the identity, the louder.”