12 September 2017

Standing in the Rain/Speaking Truth to Power

Temple Sholom congregant David Richmand* just shared with me David Brooks' latest OpEd in the New York Times about the universal imagery and lessons of the flood narrative.

As always, I find Brooks to be knowledgeable and willing to go beyond the surface level in his thinking - especially in areas concerning morality.  While the texts about Noah are not new to me - and hopefully not new to our congregants (I've cited them a few times in classes and sermons.) - he does explain them well and they are very useful to bring forward.

Rabbinic commentary goes back and forth about Noah.  As a human being in an extraordinary situation, there is sympathy for what he is able to do.  On the other hand, with the benefit of hindsight, the comparison with Abraham (vis a vis standing up to God to reconsider the punishment) is highly critical.  I view this dichotomy with one lens and two lessons.  The stories that have been preserved for us in Jewish text are those that we are meant to learn from.

The first lesson is that we should show compassion and understand the humanity of others.  Our tradition has a concept that what might be proper to say before someone makes a decision, might not be the right words after the decision is in the past.  We have guidelines on how to behave - prescriptively; and then a process for repentance (t'shuvah) when we realize that we may have made the wrong decision.  We act with sympathy, even if we disagree with the decision.

The second lesson, that Brooks brings out, is that we are called upon, by our tradition, to speak up for others.  Abraham becomes a model for that - compared with both Noah and Abraham's nephew, Lot.  They are not condemned by the text. Rather, Abraham is held up, in that instance, as a better model.

Brooks' takes this argument in a bit of a different direction - that the lesson is that we must not blindly accept ANY authority.  Remember, as we will read next week at Rosh haShanah, Abraham later follows God's command to offer his son, Isaac, as a sacrifice, without an explicit word of protest.  (Rabbinic commentary does attempt to find an implied argument in God's detailed description of who is to be sacrificed.)  Living under Roman authority and trying to find a way to justify a Jewish Rabbinic authority at the same time, the Rabbis walked a tightrope.  I would read the more nuanced idea that we should not blindly follow authority that acts in contradiction to the morals that we have been taught to not only espouse, but bring into the world.

An early shanah tovah to you all.

*Update - Natalie Darwin also called to let me know about this article.

02 May 2017

Israel, Thy Very Name is Struggle - Yom haAtzma'ut 5777

Today is Yom haAtzma'ut - Israeli Independence Day.  In Genesis, when Jacob receives his eponymous name for our people, we are told that it means the one who struggles with God and humanity.  [Gen. 32:28]  Nowhere else is this more apparent than in our modern day redemption in the state of Israel.

For millennia, our people have lived by the oft-repeated Biblical exhortation to remember that we were strangers in Egypt, and to empathize with those not in power; who felt like strangers in their own land.  Without political and state power, there was little to put this maxim to the test.  For the past 69 years, Israel has given us the blessing of a real, physical homeland - a source of pride and the ultimate redoubt for our people. However, we have also been given the opportunity to apply the politics of  minority to the power of the nation-state.  In many ways, we have succeeded.  Israel is a democracy, surrounded by dictatorship.  Yet, not only does the shadow of religious fundamentalism tinge the democracy of its Jewish citizens, but the increasing insularity of the Jewish populace continues to encroach on the rights of all the non-Jews - citizen and non-citizen alike - who find themselves sheltered with Israel's borders.

This year is also the fiftieth anniversary of the miraculous victory of the Six-Day War, which brought with it the dubious benefit of increased territory and a vast refugee Arab population.  When its neighbors washed their hands of responsibility, Israel became the breeding ground for a Palestinian resistance - one which dominates the political landscape of Israel - both within its pre-1967 borders and without.  The miraculous underdog of 1967 and 1973 is now perceived as the bully of the Intifada. Israel has failed to find a solution for the Arab population that it finds itself in control of, and we are being changed in ways that only a few (Moshe Dayan, for example) imagined.  Force and repression have become our only tools.

The Palestinians, separated now by name from the rest of the Arabs in the Middle East, have become the underdogs.  Americans, always sympathetic to the underdog, are torn. Many American Jews turn away from an active engagement with Israel because the situation is too divisive, too fraught with difficult moral issues, so different from the David and Goliath story of 1948, 1967, and 1973.

Yet, today is Yom haAtzma'ut.  Atzma'ut - independence - comes from the root ayin-tzadi-mem - which is not only the self-reflexive term in Hebrew, but is also the root for "bone".  Israel is in our bones.  We, as Jews, no matter what our genetic origin, pray for the peace of Israel at every service, and long to return to mythic Jerusalem at every seder.  We cannot ignore our connection with Israel, lest we lose our backbone, our support and structure.

We are Israel - those who struggle with God and with humanity; nowhere more evident than in the modern state of Israel.  Right struggles with left; Ultra-Orthodox with Reform and Conservative; Ashkenazic with Sephardi/Mizrachi/Indian/Ethiopian; Jew with Arab; Diaspora with Sabra.  The struggle is not new.  Judaism teaches us that - but also that we engage in the struggle with certain values to guide us - love your neighbor as yourself; help even your enemy with his fallen burden; and treat the stranger as the native.  The passage in Genesis says that Jacob not only struggle with God and with humanity, but that he prevailed.  Prevailing is not necessarily winning.  Let us hope that we, too, can find a way to prevail  - a way that preserves not only our own rights and dignity, but those of the ones we, today, find as enemies.  Then we can truly live up to the name which has been bequeathed to us by the generations - Yisra'eil.

30 January 2017

Hevel, Hevel, haKol Hevel and I'm Not Sure What's New under the Sun

I have a tallit that my family made for me to wear when I planned to march with the NAACP's Journey for Justice in the summer of 2015.  I could not make that trip, due to illness, but I wore it one or two times at rallies since then and at at the opening of the Reform Movement's Nitzavim campaign in August.

Since last week, I've decided to keep it to hand in my car.

I had a congregant angry at me yesterday because I did not tell her in the morning that I would be speaking at an immigration support rally that afternoon.  That morning, I did not know.

Last Thursday, I attended a meeting of statewide clergy to talk about the sanctuary movement and how I could help to keep people from being deported.  I learned at that meeting that a man that I had helped to keep from deportation three years before was now being called in for an emergency meeting with ICE.  Two days later, my colleagues and friends were demonstrating at airports all over the country to let people with valid papers who had already arrived leave airport detention.  The next day, I marched with groups focussing on both issues - "No Ban, No Wall."

Many of the faces that I am seeing at these meetings and rallies are those of people I have met in local interfaith groups, testifying for marriage equality in New Jersey, organizing for reproductive rights, rallies against hate.  Are we preaching to the choir, or is it strengthening to standing with stalwart companions?

I am also seeing congregants, colleagues, college and high school classmates, former congregants, parents of my children's friends, old youth groupers.  Faces that are new in these places are a joy to behold.

On Facebook, there is live video feed from friends all over the country chanting and marching in separate places, together.

Today I had a phone call with an organizer I have worked with in the past and all that kept running through my head was that the old organizational math was no longer valid.  What used to add up now subtracts, and the rules of the political game seem to be quaint memories.

I do not know what to do - and I have spent a life time learning.

I do not know what is next - and each news item spins me in another direction.

Kohelet, the voice of the book of Ecclesiastes begins by saying, "Hevel, hevel, ha kol hevel" - the King James' Bible translates this as "Vanity, Vanity, All is Vanity!".  The new Jewish Publication Society as "Utter futitilty!"  Mist, unsubstantial mist - we are tilting at shadows, sparring with ghosts.

And yet, the book ends, in what I would argue, is a fourth-wall breaking wink, "The making of many books is without limit, and much study is wearying of the flesh."  We can only rail in our libraries for so long and then the time comes to put down the book and go out into the world.

You'll find me out in the cold.  I hope you join me there. We'll warm each other with the fire of righteousness.

16 October 2016

The Collateral Damage of Love-Bombing

Susan Sedwin forwarded this NPR article  to me:
Black and Jewish

Black, Jewish And Avoiding The Synagogue On Yom Kippur

My first thought is that I do not have an answer that will either heal the deep pain and alienation felt by the author, or, more importantly to me as a synagogue rabbi, that will avoid replicating this experience for other non-white Jews entering our places of worship.

My second is to say to Leah Donnella, "Please come back.  The organized Jewish community is not so good at this, but we are really trying to get better.  If you have the strength, we'd love for you to teach us how to do better."

My third, upon reflection, is to remember a story from our own congregation that comes from a different vector, but really illustrates the same problem.

When I came to our small suburban New Jersey congregation almost twenty years ago, we thought we were a very welcoming congregation.  The truth was that we really were not so good  - for very real, human reasons. A ninety year-old congregation of around two hundred families, our members did not actually know each other that well.  Most members knew some other members, but they did not know everyone.  Therefore, on a given Friday night, one member might be reluctant to introduce themselves to someone else at the oneg (the after service fellowship), because they feared embarrassment in showing their ignorance in not recognizing a long-term member.  People who were guests, because members assumed they were long-term members they just did not know, were not welcomed or sometimes even spoken to.  The bright shining exception was the day a black woman walked into services.  Immediately, she was surrounded by well-meaning congregants who wanted to show her how the prayerbook worked, introduce themselves, explain the blessings before we ate the oneg cookies, and on and on.  [Thank you to April Baskin, VP of Audacious Hospitality from the Union for Reform Judaism for informing me that this sometimes intrusive and overbearing behavior is called "love-bombing".]  I imagine the thought process went, "Well, she's black, so she's not Jewish, so she's not a member, so, thank God, I can welcome her and show us how nice and welcoming we really are."  Thank God, she was not Jewish - otherwise she might have been having exactly the same reaction and experience that Ms. Donnella recounts in the article above.  My point - even though we were attempting from the bottom of our hearts to be well-meaning and welcoming - our assumptions might often give the opposite effect.

The sad truth is that Jews who do not fit the internal stereotype are often supposed not to be Jews by the Ashkenazic majority present in the synagogue.  The reality is that Jews never have and certainly not in today's America all look the same.  We should have learned from my great-aunt Mary that there are many people in our community without Jewish sounding names - now reflected in Hendersons, McNallys, Wangs, and Christiansens listed on our membership rolls.  Jews with Asian ancestry have been telling us for a generation that when they walk in the synagogue and show some familiarity or expertise with Jewish practice others assume that they were adopted or converted to Judaism.  I even admit, as a rabbi, that from the bimah, I have to remind myself when I speak of Jews and our relationship with the African-American community that it is not us and them, but that there are some of us who are both.

[I just interrupted typing this post to step out of my office, this Sunday morning, as I listened to a teacher teaching about American Jewish history, say, "Most of our ancestors came from Russia" to change that to "Many of us", and mention ancestors of all different types from all different places, some Jewish, some not.]

We have a long way to go - and there are some who, justifiably, may have neither the patience for us to change, the fortitude to help us make the necessary change, or the forbearance to deal with those who have not yet heard or will not change.

We - all of us - Jews of all backgrounds - can only try to do what we should in most situations - live up to the dictum to love your neighbor as yourself, by truly placing ourselves in their perspectives.  We need to ask ourselves, how is what we say, in the best of intentions, being heard?  Because we truly want to be welcoming, not to push people away.

10 August 2016

Do Not Let Baseless Hatred Destroy Our Society

Because most synagogues have less activity (including no religious school) in the summer, the holiday of Tisha b’Av (the Ninth of the Hebrew month of Av) often passes by unremarked.  While most Jewish holidays celebrate a massive deliverance, Tisha b’Av* marks not just one national tragedy, but several.  It is believed that the first Temple in Jerusalem, built by King Solomon, was destroyed on this date in 586 BCE by the Babylonians under King Nebuchadnezzar.  The second Temple, built by Ezra and Nehemiah after the return from the Babylonian Exile (and rebuilt by Herod), was also destroyed on this date by the Romans under Titus.  The Arch of Titus in Rome is a commemoration of this Roman victory.  Jews, however, mark this moment as the beginning of the Diaspora, when the Jewish community, previously centered in the land of Israel (the Roman province of Judea) is spread out all over the known world.  Since that time, Jewish traditions of mourning have included not using musical instruments in worship, lessening the celebration and joyous occasions, and fasting for twenty-four hours on this date.

The Biblical books of the Prophets, especially Jeremiah, explain that the reason for the destruction of the first Temple was that the Israelites were not worshipping correctly.  However, the Rabbis of the 1st century knew that the rituals of the Temple were being properly followed, and determined that the destruction of the second Temple was a result of a different sin - sinat chinam - or baseless hatred.  Hatred of others without cause is what the founders of rabbinic Judaism considered to be the reason that the Jewish polity was destroyed.  Sadly, we see the signs of modern polity being destroyed by the same cause.

Baseless hatred, in our time, is not hating others without a justification.  Sadly, we can often find justification for any hatred - of those who have more money, or those who have less; of those who speak differently, look differently, or worship differently; of those who came to this country a generation or two before or after our ancestors; of those who have strongly held opinions different from our own.  Rather, baseless hatred is hatred without need.  There are things which we need to hate - injustice, poverty, hunger, disease  - things which sap our strength and we can combat.  People, we do not need to hate.  Other people, we need to understand.  Baseless hatred destroys our society by moving us apart.  We do not listen to those we hate.  We do not see the pain in their hearts.  We do not acknowledge that though we disagree with them, they come to their beliefs with their own passion and logic.

The subtle wickedness - the perfidy - of baseless hatred, is that it allows us to justify ourselves and those whom we believe are with us, while we can ignore those who we think are not.  But, this realization gives us the key that we need to fight baseless hatred.  If we decide not to assume that everyone with a different opinion is a moron; if we stop de-friending those whose posts rankle us; if we take even a moment to listen to the deeply-held feelings of others, we break through that hatred.  Importantly, even if we disagree, we need to listen with an attitude of empathy.  

Do not be the one who shuts the other out; who denies another person their voice.  That is the true hatred - the walling of those we disagree with - and we should be building bridges, not walls.  Open up a conversation, and close the door on hate.

*Tisha b’Av will be marked this year beginning the evening of Saturday,August 13th - actually the 10th of Av, because the 9th is the Sabbath, when fasting is generally prohibited.

Rabbi Joel N. Abraham is the spiritual leader of Temple Sholom of Scotch Plains/Fanwood, a Reform congregation.  He is a past-President of the Scotch Plains-Fanwood Ministerium, and co-founder and current Vice President of Social Justice Matters, Inc..  He is also part of the leadership of Rabbis Organizing Rabbis - a national group of Reform Rabbis working together for racial and economic equity.

11 September 2015

We Must Speak Out against ALL Terrorism (Even When It Hurts)

Natalie Darwin brought this article from yesterday's New York Times (Israeli Terrorists, Born the USA) to my attention. Just like many stories we see in the headlines, she hoped it wasn't true.

Sadly, regarding some American Jews living in Israel, I believe it is.

I lived in Israel and was there the Purim that Baruch Goldstein opened fire on innocent Arabs.  That year, I had a large beard and looked American.  Every time I went into the Mashbir (the big department store in downtown Jerusalem) and other stores, the security guards would look at me and ask if I was carrying a gun - as many of the settlers did and still do.

Don't get me wrong, there are many American (and other nationality) Jews living beyond the green line, in territory captured by Israel in 1967, who are good people - and would never dream of carrying out a "price tag" attack.  Yet, even in those communities, even twenty years ago, I heard the demonization of the Arab population; the children taught to think of their neighbors as "other", not quite the same, dangerous.

There are those who move to this Israeli frontier with the goal of making the land a permanent part of Israel, and to whom the current inhabitants are an infestation, and who need to be encouraged (however strongly) to leave.

We cannot stand silent when such violent acts are perpetrated by others in our name.  We cannot allow Judaism - the religion and culture that we hold dear - to be used as an excuse to attack others, to terrorize, to burn families out of their homes.

This is not Judaism.  I stand with the President of Israel, Reuven Rivlin.  These are crimes, and those who carry out these actions are terrorists - and should be treated in the same way that the state of Israel treats all terrorists (and if that leads to a re-examination of those policies, so much the better).

The path to peace and safety for all is not through violence and escalation.  We should be ashamed of this New York Times Op-Ed - because it had to be said, and we should be loud in our denunciation of such acts as well.

01 August 2015

An Opportunity to Pray with Your Feet

[E-mailed to Temple Sholom members on 7/31/15]

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, the modern American Jewish prophet, famously said of his time spent on the Voting Rights March in Selma, Alabama, in 1965, that "I felt my legs were praying."  We pray a lot in the synagogue, sitting and standing, but perhaps we do not take enough time to walk the walk; to pray with our feet.
Along with (at latest count) 150 other Reform Rabbis, I have been asked to participate as part of the Reform Movement's contingent in the NAACP's America's Journey for Justice March which begins tomorrow, August 1st, in Selma, Alabama.  Over 40 days (a number which has great resonance for us as Jews), this march will continue to Washington, DC, where it will conclude with a rally on September 16th.  I, along with Rabbi David Levy from Temple Shalom in Succasunna, and Rabbi Tom Alpert of Temple Eitz Chayim in Franklin, MA will be carrying a Torah scroll (which is making the entire journey) on Friday, August 21st. 
I invite you to join me.  I hope to travel down to Greenville, South Carolina on Wednesday, August 19th, to join the state rally at noon on Thursday, August 20th.  I will march on Friday, August 21st, and celebrate Shabbat with the Greenville community - leaving either Saturday evening or Sunday morning.  If we get enough people, we will rent or borrow a van to drive down together.  Local worship communities have offered free floor space, or there are rooms that can be reserved at local hotels.
Sunday, August 16th begins the Jewish month of Elul, the last month before Rosh haShanah.  Traditionally, we, as Jews, are asked to examine our conduct in the past year as we begin our journey to repentance.  What better way to prepare for the High HolyDays than standing up and walking forward to make our country a better place for all its citizens?  What better way to fulfill the prophetic calling of Isaiah that we read on Yom Kippur, than to work to build civil rights protections for everyone?
If you are interested in joining me for this historic journey, please let me know, and register on the link through the Reform movement. If you cannot join us, but would like to contribute to our effort - please make a designated donation to the Temple Sholom Rabbi's Discretionary Fund, which I'll use to defray the costs.  You can also support the march as a whole through the NAACP site.  
Thousands of years ago, Jewish tradition teaches us that we all marched together to Mount Sinai.  Every Jew who ever was or will be shared in that moment.  There have been many moments since then, when Jews have stood together - with each other, or with other communities in solidarity and shared belief.  This is one of those moments and your presence counts.  
On the front of our building, we have placed the words that God has given us as a challenge to live in our daily lives - Create Justice, Love Mercy, Humbly Follow Your God.  The word "follow" can also be translated as "walk in (God's) path" - let us walk this path together.

23 July 2015

A Lamentation and a Journey

עַל אֵלֶּה | אֲנִי בוֹכִיָּה עֵינִי | עֵינִי יֹרְדָה מַּיִם כִּי רָחַק מִמֶּנִּי מְנַחֵם מֵשִׁיב נַפְשִׁי הָיוּ בָנַי שׁוֹמֵמִים כִּי גָבַר אוֹיֵב: פֵּרְשָׂה צִיּוֹן בְּיָדֶיהָ אֵין מְנַחֵם לָהּ
For these things, I cry out.  My eye, my eye pours down water, because the comfort that would restore my soul is far from me. My children are desolate, because the enemy has prevailed. Zion spreads open hands, but she has no comfort. Lamentations 1:16-17a

Churches are burning again in the United States, and I am swept back two decades.

It was June of 1996 and I had just arrived back on the East Coast and was trying to integrate into my community at Hebrew Union College in New York.  I received a note from Rabbi Nancy Weiner, one of the faculty at HUC, who invited anyone who was interested to travel with her and some other student volunteers to Boligee, Alabama.  There, working out of a Quaker Workcamp, we would volunteer for a week to help re-build some of the churches burned in a wave of hate-filled arson that had swept through black churches in the South.

The experience was transformative.  Travelling with cantorial and rabbinic students, I felt proud that this could be my job - to travel with my congregants to place ourselves and our hands in service of others in need. The hospitality was humbling. The church women refused to let us bring our own food the jobsite - they insisted on cooking for us, every day.  They said it was the least that they could do.

I felt good about the spackling and sanding that I was doing, but I did not quite understand until Tisha b’Av.  Named after the date at which we are told that the Babylonians destroyed the first Temple in Jerusalem in 586 BCE and the Romans burned the second Temple in 70 CE, it is the only other full day of fasting and mourning in the Jewish tradition, besides Yom Kippur.  As a Reform Jew, the holiday had been of historical interest to me, but I failed to grasp the visceral impact of losing one’s house of worship - until our group decided to hold our Tisha b’Av commemoration at the former site of the church we had come to rebuild.

These churches were small - hardly more than a central room for worship, an office, and a kitchen.  We stood on the blackened ground of the sanctuary and, as the sun set, were surrounded by the grave markers of at least a century of parishioners.  These local churches were small in population as well - only a few families, who had been members for generations, whose families were buried surrounding their worship home.  The law did not allow this community to build in what had become a cemetery, and so their new house of worship - although strong and clean, would stand alone several miles down the road, without the presence of loved ones.

For me, that was when it hit home.  I thought about how I had felt when I lost the synagogue that I grew up in - the loss of a place to come home to at the High HolyDays; the place that I had known I would see the same faces (a little older), in the same seats.  But, that Temple still exists, I was just no longer a member.  How much more the loss by our ancestors, with no place to travel to at each pilgrimage holiday, no direction to turn when praying, no high hill to stand on and look out over the capital, the graves of ancestors, the history of generations, the promise of a people.

Three years later, in my first year at my present congregation, we learned of a fire set at a friend’s congregation.  That Tisha b’Av, I asked each congregant to find a place in our building where they had a special memory.  We travelled from room to room, picking up people and hearing their stories, building a mental map of our Temple.  Finally, we each made a fabric square, illustrating and completing the phrase, “A Temple is a House of....”, which were sewn together into a quilt which we sent to Congregation B’nai Israel in Sacramento.

We see Tisha b’Av as a grand historical moment - the transition from animal sacrifice to prayer and rabbinic Judaism.  Our Reform forebears saw it as a moment to be celebrated - the beginning of our mission into the greater world, to be a light among the nations, not apart.  And yet, there is the personal sense of loss that we have forgotten: the pew no longer present; the yahrzeit plaque melted into slag; the prayerbooks scattered and burned.

In reaching out to others, I rediscovered the loss of my people.  In feeling that loss, I was able to see not only what they had lost, but what it meant to them for us to be there, just to show with our physical presence that they were not alone, not abandoned, that not everyone wanted to wipe their home of worship from the earth.

On Tisha b’Av, we read from what is called in English, Lamentations, in Hebrew, Eicha.  Eicha is a barely articulate cry - “How?”  How can this have happened?  How can I deal with this loss?  How can I face a new reality, when my rock has been shattered?  We may have no answers to this plea, but we have actions to share the burden.  We will walk from Selma to Washington, DC with the NAACP’s Journey for Justice and we will say: Tell us of your pain.  We may not be able to fully understand it, but we can listen; we can try to carry some of that weight.  We can say, we will not let someone do this to you again, without putting ourselves in their way.

Eicha - how?  How can we do anything else?

-originally posted for Rabbis Organizing Rabbis on CCAR's Ravblog

17 April 2015

Returning to Auschwitz Again, and Leaving with Hope

Motzei Yom haShoah 5755

    It is dark now in Krakow.  The sun set while we ate our dinner after hearing the trumpeter blow the traditional peal at 7pm.  Yesterday, erev Yom haShoah, the five students in our Confirmation class, a congregant chaperone, and I held an early evening service in Birkenau - praying and reading El Malei Rachamim by Crematorium Number Two.  I have been leading this trip for sixteen years.  It is my fifteenth time taking fifteen and sixteen year olds away from their comfortable suburban New Jersey homes and dragging them on a whirlwind tour through Central Europe with three pedagogic goals - to learn about the long Jewish history of this part of Europe, to find out about the destruction of that community, and to discover the living Jewish communities of today.  To accomplish that difficult task, we tour the Jewish sites of each of our stops, some of the regular tourist sites, the Holocaust sites and memorials, and, if possible, meet with local youth to learn about their lives.  Over the years, we have traveled to Warsaw, Krakow, Prague, Bratislava, Berlin and Budapest.   In Budapest, we have built a sister congregation relationship with Szim Salom, one of the Progressive Jewish congregations there.  

    Today, encouraged by the sign outside the JCC in Krakow reading, "Stop in and say hi", we did.  We were also amused by the sign that said, "Hey, March of the Living! Come inside and see Jewish LIFE."  The sign is a tongue in cheek prod to the thousand of Jews traveling this week through Poland, visiting all the sites of the Holocaust, on their way through a mandatory march from Auschwitz to Birkenau on Yom haShoah (Holocaust Remembrance Day), to culminate in celebrating Yom haAtzma'ut (Israeli Independence Day) together in Israel.  We met with the American born director of the JCC, Jonathan Ornstein, who told us that there is some frustration on the part of the Jews of Poland that March of the Living focusses on former Jewish life to the exclusion of present Jewish life.

    He was also quite proud to tell us that, in his eyes,  Krakow is the safest place to be Jewish in all of Europe.  The JCC of Krakow has no guards.  There is no password.  No membership card is required.  The door is wide open to anyone who wants to walk in.  There is no other Jewish institution, he told us, that is as open and free to enter as this one, which he called the JCC next door to Auschwitz.  The JCC is the most open in another important way as well - anyone who wants to affiliate is welcome, no matter how tenuous their status.  In Poland, like in Hungary and the Czech Republic a few decades before, young Poles are discovering that they have Jewish connections - a grandparent who was Jewish.  All the Jews of Poland - ALL the Jews of Poland - are survivors, or the children or grandchildren of survivors of the Holocaust and, on top of that, survivors of the secularization of Communism.  

    The main square of Kazimierz, the Jewish section of Krakow near where the JCC is located, is filled with Jewish themed restaurants.  In these locations, not run by Jews, not kosher, you can get "Jewish-style" food, surrounded, sometimes, by pictures of Jewish families and Judaica (or in one odd case, by the stuffed heads of game animals).  The entertainment is always Klezmer music, which is hugely popular in Krakow.  There are many Klezmer groups, but most are not Jews.  A few years ago, I decided to stop patronizing such restaurants, appalled by imagining where the photos and Judaica had come from; haunted by thoughts of what might have happened to former owners.  I asked Jonathan about the restaurants.  He said, that yes, they are like Epcot Judaism and that they might be tragic, if they were not surrounded by a revival of actual Jewish life, and of how they often served as a gateway for the large Krakow student population beginning to explore the possibility of a Jewish connection.  Two blocks away, with bright paint, inviting posters of hip events, and a sign that says, "Stop in and say hi" is the JCC of Krakow.

    Jonathan said that the way that the JCC commemorates Yom haShoah is to remain open and run their regular programming.  The best answer the Jews of Krakow have to the Holocaust is to live Jewish lives, and to make that as growingly ordinary a phenomenom in Poland as they can.

    Kol hakavod.  We were touched to have been welcomed inside, for the director to have come down and shared his vision with us, to have met the staff.  What, then, could we do but join ourselves?  Temple Sholom is now an overseas member of the JCC of Krakow.  We joined right there, in the lobby, on Yom haShoah, and helped to mark this day of mourning by lighting not a yahrzeit candle, but another flame of hope. What a gift, to be able to leave this evening, not only in sadness, but with hope as well.  We will be back again - and, whether with adults next year or Confirmation students the year after.  We will say the Kaddish at Birkenau, and we will rekindle our hope with a stop at the JCC in Krakow.

26 October 2014

Stam Ish - I'm Just One Ordinary Person

Recently, I have imagined myself living in the nexus of a multi-generational debate over an interpretation of a passage in the Torah.  My teacher at HUC in Israel, Rabbi Ben Hollander (z’l), brought us the text of a pivotal moment in the Joseph story.  Joseph is sent by his father to seek the welfare of his brothers, who are off with the flocks.  Joseph arrives in Shechem and they are nowhere to be seen.  A helpful stranger asks Joseph what he seeks and, hearing he seeks the missing brothers, reveals that he has overheard that they have moved on to Dotan. (Gen. 37:12-17)  Without this stranger, who happens to be in just the right place at just the right time, Joseph would not find his brothers; they would not cast him in a pit; he would not be sold to slavery in Egypt and therefore not be able to save his family during the famine, nor set the events in motion that result in the Exodus, and thence the Israelite people standing at Mount Sinai - all because of this one man.  Early in Jewish history, the Targum (translation) Onkelos translates the Hebrew of the Torah text (which says ish or “a man”) as the angel Gabriel disguised as a man.  A thousand years later, the great Torah commentator Rashi agrees with this interpretation.  Such an event could not have been left to chance; the angel whose role was to protect the Jewish people stepped in to direct the course of history.  But, as Ben Hollander showed us (in my favorite commentary on a Torah text), Rashi’s contemporary Ibn Ezra says, stam ish “it’s just a person”.  At the time, I was impressed by ibn Ezra’s rationalism: Just read the text as it is written.  If the Torah says it’s a person, then it’s a person.  

A few weeks ago, a small group of rabbis attempting to form a New Jersey division of Rabbis Organizing Rabbis, met with a family in need of help.  Catalino Guerrero had lived and worked in the United States since the 1980’s.  Early on, he unknowingly received some bad legal advice and was unable to regularize his status, though he worked and paid taxes.  Now older and with children and grandchildren, he is ill and the United States has been attempting to persuade him to voluntarily return to Mexico, leaving his home and family.  With help from a local group from the national community organizing group PICO, he was trying to receive a new stay of removal to avoid being deported the following week.  We were asked to call the New Jersey office of ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) and let them know that we knew about Catalino’s plight and that he had community support.  The next day, several of us called and left messages or spoke to a helpful officer in the department.  However, Catalino still had an appointment early that Monday morning, and, late Sunday evening, we were asked to show our support by attending that meeting with him and his family.  I was conflicted and would probably not have gone, had my wife not, serendipitously, been watching a social justice video created by my colleague, Rabbi Rob Nosanchuk and his congregation, Anshe Chesed Fairmount Temple in Cleveland.

So, I went. There was a small press conference.  Catalino spoke, as did his daughter, and representatives of other organizations.  Later I went in with Catalino and hand delivered a letter from the NJ-ROR rabbis to the helpful ICE officer.  Although I was told that my presence, as a rabbi, made a great difference, I felt that I had been more helpful by providing a chair for Catalino when he needed to sit, than that I influenced a vast government bureaucracy.  In the end, there was good news for Catalino and his family - he received a one year stay.  Since then colleagues have told me what a hero I am, and how great that I spent a few hours in the heat in Newark, but, I say, stam ish. I’m just one person, and I’m not sure that I did so much.  Joseph - or in this case, Catalino - is the real hero.  I’m just an extra in this scene.

Since then, however, I have been thinking.  I still do not know whether my presence, or the phone calls and letters of my colleagues, made a difference, or whether the facts of Catalino’s story would have led to the same result.  Much as others may think (and we may secretly wish) there is no powerful “rabbi card” that one can play to suddenly redirect the forces of the US government.  When I first read Ibn Ezra’s commentary, I thought it was a tour de force of rationalism; an argument not to mistake coincidence for Divine intervention.  Further reflection has changed my interpretation of what Ibn Ezra might have been teaching.  Lawrence Kushner (in Honey from the Rock) imagines that each of us carries not only the pieces of our own puzzle, but, unknowingly, the pieces needed for others’ as well.  In that chance encounter when we provide that piece, we are “a messenger of the Most High”.  What I learn from Ibn Ezra is that each of us, normal human beings, may be going about our own business, and, yet, unknowingly be the catalysts in the stories of others.  I hope that we were able to help Catalino Guerrero and his family.  I know that our presence made a difference to him, personally - and that is enough.  I do not need to play a greater, more heroic role.  Stam ish - I’m just one person.  So are you.  Maybe that is all that is needed.

26 August 2014

haTikvah - Don't Lose the Hope!

A member of the congregation challenged me to read this OpEd by Antony Lerman in the New York Times Sunday Review.  I was telling her that I thought her views on Israel were probably very close the mainstream of the congregation.  She said that she had read this article and had felt great sympathy with its point of view and therefore was probably out of step with our suburban New Jersey Reform congregation.  I replied that while some of the more outspoken members of our congregation were probably farther to the right on Israel, there was a large group who felt confused, alienated, and afraid to speak or even think about Israel at such turbulent times.

I agree with Mr. Lerman through much of this piece. I think the liberal Zionist voice is caught as the public voice of Israel becomes more restrictive, as recent polls show that Israeli children are sounding racist (mainly, I would opine, because they no longer encounter Arabs in their daily lives), as the reality of terrorism and reaction erodes the possibility of the emergence of moderate Palestinians. He says:

Liberal Zionists must now face the reality that the dissenters have recognized for years: A de facto single state already exists; in it, rights for Jews are guaranteed while rights for Palestinians are curtailed. Since liberal Zionists can’t countenance anything but two states, this situation leaves them high and dry.

But, I disagree with his defeatism and that the idea of a two-state solution is gone for all time. Perhaps it reflects the eternal optimism of the liberal, but I am not yet at Mr. Lerman's state of hopelessness. I do believe Israel can be not only a state of Jews, but a Jewish state, reflecting Jewish values about treating the stranger among you as the citizen.

I am fearful, however, of the weakening of the Israeli-Diaspora connection and nod as Mr. Lerman (and, as often, Peter Beinart) state:

Today, neither the destruction wreaked in Gaza nor the disgraceful antics of the anti-democratic forces that are setting Israel’s political agenda have produced a decisive shift in Jewish Diaspora opinion. 

I agree that the current situation actually pushes us further apart, rather than closer together.  Fear is a temporary glue.

He concludes with a message that I do find hopeful:

In the repressive one-state reality of today’s Israel, which Mr. Netanyahu clearly wishes to make permanent, we need a joint Israeli-Palestinian movement to attain those rights and the full equality they imply. Only such a movement can lay the groundwork for the necessary compromises that will allow the two peoples’ national cultures to flourish.

While I join in his hope for the like-minded of both sides to come together, I do not agree with his next statement:

This aspiration is incompatible with liberal Zionism.

I hope it isn't.  I hope there is still a place for liberal Zionism.  Herzl, who held together the largest open tent of Zionists in history in order to build the dream of the land of Israel, would have had it so.  Im tirtzu, ein zo agadah. If this is something we truly desire, then it will not remain a fantasy.

25 July 2014

Israel - What I Know and Don't Know - with credit to Rabbi Donniel Hartman

Other than from the bimah at services, or when people have asked directly, I have not made any public statements about the current situation in Israel, but I have come to the conclusion that sharing my thoughts may help members of the congregation, who are also concerned, to validate that there are others who are disturbed, concerned, confused, etc., about what is going in Israel, the land that we also call our homeland, for which we carry love and bear some responsibility.

There have been many worthwhile articles and commentary around the regular and social media.  One of the people whose words I often turn to is Rabbi Donniel Hartman, of the Sholom Hartmann Institute (You may remember that I often quote his analysis of Israeli/Diaspora relationships.)  His latest column in the Times of Israel is another attempt to take a step away from the rhetoric and focus on the reality of the situation and the long-term moral effects of the actions that are taken out of necessity.

In commenting on Rabbi Hartman's editorial, I would also like to share what I know, and what I do not.

I know that it is difficult for us as American Jews to connect to what is going on one-third of the way across the planet, even if we mention that tiny nation as our homeland at every religious service.  It is difficult for us to understand what it means to live in a nation long surrounded by enemies pledged to erase it from the map, and yet still strive to have peace, not only with the nascent nation of Palestine, but with the individual Arabs who are neighbors.  I do not know the moral impact of wanting to live in peace, but having to not only train, but to engage in war - both hot and tepid.

I do know some of the frustration felt by Jews in Israel and around the world when Israel is expected to live up to a standard of behavior which no other nation on earth, except occasionally the United States, is expected to achieve.  I know this because I, too, expect Israel, my homeland, the light among the nations, to be a standard bearer for all I believe that Judaism teaches is right and just.  I cringe when I see an image of innnocents killed or wounded and comparison is made to out of context quotations of the Torah.

I know the frustration of listening to the media when the Palestinian spokesman says that all that needs to happen is for Israel to end the occupation, and the BBC reporter does not follow up by pointing out that Israel ended the occupation of Gaza, removed all troops, and every Israeli citizen, and the Palestinians not only failed to give credit but, more tragically, failed to take advantage and begin to build a strong, independent, and viable state.  I do not know what can be done to encourage Palestinians to find cooperative economic solutions, rather than those which are violent and self-destructive.

I know that Israel needs to destroy the tunnels which we have discovered were the result of all the cement that the world insisted Israel allow into Gaza to build schools and hospitals.  I do not know who will step in to build those desperately needed schools and hospitals.

I know there are times when Israel is wrong and there are times when the Palestinians are right.  Those times may not coincide, but no one has a monopoly on good conduct, and no one is correct all the time.  And I believe, strongly, that humanity is not evil, and there is no group that does not have at least the redeeming feature of trying to make a good life for itself and its children.

Finally, I know that it is easiest for us Americans and American Jews to shut our eyes and ears to what happens in Gaza, in Syria, in the Ukraine, in the Sudan, in Kenya, in China, and around the world, because we cannot imagine that we can help.  I know that is not true.  And, even if I don't know what the solution is, I know that our caring and our action might not only make a positive contribution in those places, but that it is necessary for us, if we would call ourselves human beings.

Hillel said, "B'makom she'ein anashim, histader l'hihiyot ish."  This is usually translated as "In a place where no one is acting humanely, try to be humane."  I would rather read this in a way that does not exhort us to be like Noah - only relatively good in our generation, and to dehumanize those who surround us, but rather - "In a place where no one is acting humanely, strive to bring humanity."  Let as act to our ideals not to be better than others, but to help us all better ourselves.

I know this is a difficult time.  I know that in difficult times, we are called to do more. I do not know how else to ask.

04 April 2013

Mannequin Judaism

Thank you to Lucy Taub for bringing this exhibit to my attention - through this article  (I also read this article from the JTA newsfeed from Salon.com.)

Briefly, the Jewish Museum in Berlin (also known as the Liebeskind Museum, after the architect who designed it) has set up a temporary exhibit (through September 1, 2013), in which volunteers, who are Jewish, are asked to sit in a three-sided plastic box for two hours to answer questions from museum patrons.  The display is part of a larger exhibit called "THE WHOLE TRUTH... everything you always wanted to know about Jews".

As I said to Lucy, Berlin is an edgy place, and this kind of in your face exhibit is not a surprise.  The museum itself, and its striking architecture, are a physical symbol of how Berlin has chosen to confront its past, and think about its Jewish community.

I take the Confirmation class to Berlin (and will be at the Museum next Tuesday, where I will see the exhibit) to not only see the location of Nazi capital, but also to learn about its Reform tradition, the current Jewish population, as well as to experience how Germans today relate to their Jewish history.  Most of the Germans we meet are affiliated with tourism, so the population is a bit skewed.  Our non-Jewish German guides have talked about what happened to the "German Jews" - identifying them as fellow citizens.  This commonality is different from what we have seen in Poland, where Pole and Jew are still seen as different nationality.  Our Jewish guide last year thought it was much better to be Jewish in Germany, where anti-Semitism is illegal, than to live in the United States, where anyone can say anything about anyone.

Finally (until I see the exhibit next week), I think this exhibit brings into focus one of the issues that challenges our students on the trip.  In the Jewish museum in Krakow (Kazimierz, acutally), there used to be a mannequin dressed in a black coat and streimel - a typical Jew.  It strikes me that Jews have become a diorama - you can't see a real Jew, but here's what they used to look like.  I saw the parallel when we visited the local museum in Michelle's home town of Yreka, CA and saw the diorama of the native Americans and wondered how the tribe living on the reservation just outside of town felt about their historic preservation.  It is uncomfortably like the Nazi idea of creating a museum to the lost race in Prague.

Perhaps by bringing the ideal of museum Jewry into contrast with real, living German Jews, this exhibit will bring us out of the box.

21 December 2012

Women Rabbis - Who Needs to Be Comfortable?

Thank you to Marc Leibowitz for bringing to my attention this exchange on the Atlantic blog, following up on an Op-Ed in the Washington Post about how we view women clergy.

I will add my limited wisdom here:

First of all, on the other side, I cannot tell you how many times (with different congregations), I have heard the story of the religious school child who asked the question, "Boys can grow up to be rabbis, too?".  

I am only too grateful for the pioneering women who became rabbis, paving the way for a more gender inclusive Judaism, as well as chevre for me as a Reform Rabbi.  While there are still many things that still need to be fixed (pay equity, for one), there is no way that I could enumerate all the benefits of having Rabbi Regina Jonas (z'l), Rabbi Sally Preisand, and my friends Rabbi Shira Stern, Rabbi Julie Wolkoff, and Rabbi Sue Levi-Elwell (to name just a few) to pave the way so that I could have so many female rabbis as mentors, models, and colleagues.

I will add that I am not one who fears the "feminization of the rabbinate" or feels the need for men to recapture Jewish ritual, the bimah, or the leadership of the Reform movement (still overwhelmingly led by men). 

Comortable? After all, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel (supposedly) said that is a rabbi's job to  “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable".

17 December 2012

HaKotel, The Western Wall

Dear Prime Minister Netanyahu,

I regularly subscribe to the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs webblast, and so I read with interest the Cabinet Communique from yesterday  morning (16 December 2012).  The headline quoted you as follows:

PM Netanyahu: The Western Wall symbolizes the foundation of our existence here for thousands of years. We will stand steadfast in the face of all those who want to expel us from here. The State of Israel, Jerusalem and the Western Wall will remain ours forever.

In this hope and commitment, I agree with you one-hundred percent.  Yet, I find it ironic that you made this statement about lighting a menorah at the Western Wall (haKotel), in the very same week that a new ordinance has prohibited women from bringing ritual objects to that site.  Golda Meir, or any other future female Israeli PM, would be unable to complete that same action, according to the latest regulation.

When I read your statement, I would like to interpret the "we" to include not only myself - a male, but also my colleague, Rabbi Elyse Frishman, who was detained (along with three other women) at the Kotel on this past Friday for attempting to pray with Nashot haKotel on Rosh Chodesh Tevet. (http://www.jta.org/news/article/2012/12/16/3114626/women-detained-at-western-wall-for-entering-with-prayer-shawls)

Rabbi Frishman shared a powerful statement with her congregation, which you may not be aware of (http://www.arza.org/Articles/index.cfm?id=2456) and which I am sharing with my congregation, along with this letter.

Please know, Prime Minister, that my congregation is a strong supporter of the State of Israel, and an equally strong supporter of the rights of ALL Jews to feel at home in our homeland.  We, too, "will stand steadfast in the face of all those who want to expel us from here" and we hope that we will all be able to stand that way together, in person, and soon.

Thank you, and Chodesh Tov,

Rabbi Joel N. Abraham

Rabbi Joel N. Abraham

Temple Sholom of Scotch Plains/Fanwood, NJ
(908) 889-4900

"The more Torah, the more life" - Hillel

18 December 2011

Temple Sholom of Scotch Plains/Fanwood, NJ - 8th Grade - L'Atid Lavo Future of Reform Judaism Resolution 2011

We, the next generation of Reform Judaism, in order to build upon our current religious practices realize that we must take the old and turn it into something new and relevant while keeping the general values and ideas of the Reform movement alive.

For our services, we agree we should keep Hebrew due to the overall connection to other Jews and lack of direct translation. But we should incorporate the vernacular language so everyone fully understands our prayers.

As long as our congregation engages in the words of Torah, it doesn't matter how we engage as long as we do because Torah brings forth many of our morals. We support Torah forever being translated differently.

Mitzvot are always going to be a part of Jewish life. As times change, so do mitzvot. As Jews, we feel that it is important to carry on the tradition of mitzvot.


We commit ourselves to continuing our Jewish education.

We are committed to educating younger generations on the traditions and values of Judaism as a whole.

We are committed to using Jewish morals in our everyday lives to set an example for all others to follow.

We are committed to looking for as many mitzvot in our daily lives as possible no matter how big or small.

signed this 18 of December 2011, in class assembled, while participating long-distance in the URJ Biennial plenary:

Ethan Lyte
Jordan Cooke
Tori Sciara
Elizabeth Smith
Isaac Amador
Harry Wachtel
Zachary Fechtner
Cassandra Teschner
Jamie Abar
Dylan Abar
Sydney Brown
Matthew Baker
Eva Isaacs
Alex Frier

12 September 2011

Is there a difference between empowerment and DIY Judaism?

I want to, with 3 cautions, recommend an article by Jay Michaelson in the Jewish Daily Forward ("Don't Call the Rabbi, Make Your Own Rituals" - 9/8/11).  Reform Judaism is based on the idea of informed choice - so the more that you are empowered and educated in your own Judaism the better.   I am proud that we are studying the lifecycle throughout the congregation for this trimester, and the evidence of understanding for our Sunday program students will be to create a lifecycle ritual together as a class.

The first caution is - PLEASE call the Rabbi.  Ask any couple or family with whom I have created a lifecycle ritual.  We work together to create appropriate and meaningful Jewish rituals.  The first thing that I assign is homework - so that we are all on the same page and using the same terminology.  Then we talk about what they would want or need and I make suggestions, based on my experience. I also have certain requirements for my participation - based on my own religious standards and practice.

The second caution is - about most Rabbis the author knows "dreading heading off to another lifecyle event".  I don't think I know him, but, as you hopefully have heard me say on many occasions, that is why I am in this job.  Not that I am happy to have to officiate at funerals, but I appreciate that death is part of our lifecycle and am fulfilled by my part in being able to be there for a family whom I know and can help.  One of my greatest joys this year is that I was able to officiate at the wedding of child of the congregation at whose Bar Mitzvah and Confirmation, I also officiated.  This spring, I look forward to officiating when one of the first children whom I welcomed (with her family) in the covenant with B'rit Bat will become Bat Mitzvah.

Final caution - and most important - the downside of Do-It-Yourself Judaism, as opposed to empowered Judaism is the possible loss of community.  There are parts of Judaism that you can do by yourself - struggle with the Divine, engage in self-reflection, seek challenge to make the world a better place, even pray.  However, there are many parts that can only be done in community - whether it is the family community where you make Shabbat or create a seder, or the congregational community which celebrates with you and, ideally, serves to comfort you in sorrow.  Even if we don't literally count the minyan in Reform Judaism, we still acknowledge the value of meeting regularly as a community to pray together.

 - and, an invitation - Study with us so you, too, can empower your own Judaism.  If you want to study on your own - great.  I am happy to recommend resources and to meet with you, if you want, to discuss them.  But, Pirke Avot tells us to, in study, to find ourselves a chaver - a friend, or comrade to study with us.  Judaism has  always said that the byplay and interaction as two study together is not only better for the learners, but also brings in the Divine Presence.  Shameless plug - we also have plenty of opportunities for you to study with others in our Eitz Chayim program.

DIY?  OK.  But doing it with your community has its benefits too.