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.