Endings and Beginnings

Before Richard Gere rides off on his chopper to go scoop up Deborah Winger at the end of An Officer and a Gentleman, he watches his drill sergeant (Lou Gossett, Jr), preparing a brand new group of officer candidates. He smiles as he listens to the sergeant’s familiar banter and looks at the new class, young and terrified.

I don’t ride a chopper, but I relate to that scene. One class graduates and the next class begins. It is like the sea, a rhythmic, infinite flow that never stops.

Ok, maybe it’s just that I’m being nostalgic. After all, tonight is Midrasha graduation. A number of our seniors will speak from the bimah tonight, sharing their thoughts on their Jewish journeys. It is an emotionally and spiritually meaningful experience to listen to our oldest kids share thoughts and feelings about their connection to Beth Avodah. Their ongoing relationship to their temple and the people with whom they’ve grown up will be a permanent part of their experience set. It will hopefully lead them to continue to embrace their Jewishness. It will also, I hope, help them stay clear on what it means to live a Jewishly ethical life.

I constantly complain to anyone who will listen (the number is pretty low), that we don’t have enough time with our kids. I wish we could do more studying together. I wish we could explore more deeply the most perplexing issues of the day. I wish we could get deeper into the meaning and contours of Jewish history. Alas, I am destined to keep on wishing…

But I don’t have time to be nostalgic, because a new group of students will step up. A new Israel trip will take off in February 2020. In fact, tonight, the current fifth grade will be officially recognized as moving into the on-deck circle on Monday nights as they begin preparing in earnest for their bnai mitzvah. Just as the sea continues to ebb and flow, so too does life in our temple community.

Having said that, I must hasten to say that with every wave of students at every transitional stage, we analyze who they are and what we can do to meet their needs. In fact, we try to do that with ALL temple planning and programming. A couple of generations ago, the central message was to keep everything status quo. The synagogue was about preserving eternal truths and practices. Change was a dirty word. Not anymore.

We understand that change is a necessary component of our work. Most congregants don’t want it to be the way it always was – whatever that means. We all expect beta versions of so much in our lives: the technology we use, the ways we communicate, the ways we determine what matters to people… How can we not respond to how the broader community is changing, and how our own temple community is morphing.

We are committed to shepherding TBA through this transitional time on a trajectory of change. Staffing changes, building changes, cultural changes; these are considerable determinants in how we chart our movement forward. And make no mistake: we will continue moving forward!

I’m looking at the list of graduates and remembering many of them from preschool days. Such nostalgia! And then I look at the list of fifth graders attending tonight’s service, and I’m thrust toward the future. That’s temple life.

There’s no standing still in this life. We are aware that seeking to preserve past ritual and programs that have lost their meaning for the sake of “that’s how we’ve always done it,” is dangerous and utterly counterproductive. Such behavior leads to a quiet, underutilized building. No, we’re not taking the “Judaism in amber” road. Reform Judaism demands that we continue to embrace change, even when it causes us some vertigo. Reform is a verb.

Join us tonight at 615 for Shabbat services. Come for the nostalgia. Stay for the future.

Shabbat shalom,

Rebhayim

PS I’m sure that, by now, you’ve read of the fires deliberately set at two Chabad centers. We are all horrified that such a thing might occur so close to home. I sent the following email to the Chabad Jewish Center in Needham:

Shabbat shalom to you and the leadership of the Chabad center. My congregation and I want to reassure you that we stand with you. This crime will not go unpunished, and we pray the perpetrators will be found quickly. In the meantime, if there’s anything we can do for you, know we stand ready and in complete solidarity. Shabbat Shalom,  Rabbi Keith Stern and the members of Temple Beth Avodah.

I also spoke to Rabbi Mendy Krinsky and reassured him that we are willing to help in any way we can. Knowing that we are aware and supportive during this time of tension and concern was deeply appreciated by Rabbi Krinsky.

The Tipping Point

Boy Scouts have always been told that whenever we departed from a campsite, we had to leave it in better shape than when we arrived. That ethic, that we are literally responsible for the world around us, that we are stewards of the earth, has always been a hugely important value in my life. This scouting rule nicely dovetails into Jewish tradition’s insistence that we see the Universe in which we live as a gift from God.  

For centuries, Jewish texts have stressed the ironclad obligation to, and responsibility for, nature’s integrity. “Nothing that God created in the world was superfluous or vain; hence, all must be sustained. An aggadah [rabbinic legend], often repeated in the literature, says that God created the world by looking into the Torah as an architect into a blueprint.”  

The world in which we live is so majestic, so beautiful. Flora, fauna, snow and cold, desert heat… I could go on forever describing the ineffable wonders of the natural world.  Only it seems to be the case that not all of the marvels of the world will be going on forever. 

The recent report from the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services delivered a sobering message that was truly painful to read. I avoided looking at it for as long as I could. I treated it like ominous lab results from my doctor. But eventually I felt compelled to click on the link. I should’ve left it alone. The summary of the research is that, “Our planet is now in the midst of its sixth mass extinction of plants and animals – the sixth wave of extinctions in the past half-billion years. We’re currently experiencing the worst spate of species die-offs since the loss of the dinosaurs 65 million years ago. Although extinction is a natural phenomenon, it occurs at a natural “background” rate of about one to five species per year. Scientists estimate we’re now losing species at 1,000 to 10,000 times the background rate, with literally dozens going extinct every day. It could be a scary future indeed, with as many as 30 to 50 percent of all species possibly heading toward extinction by mid-century.”   

 The Report finds that around 1 million animal and plant species are now threatened with extinction, many within decades, more than ever before in human history. Ecosystems, species, wild populations, local varieties and breeds of domesticated plants and animals are shrinking, deteriorating or vanishing. The essential, interconnected web of life on Earth is getting smaller and increasingly frayed,” said Prof. Joseph Settele. “This loss is a direct result of human activity and constitutes a direct threat to human well-being in all regions of the world.”  One million animal and plant species are going to disappear – forever.

I can’t honestly compute the scope of such a loss. But when I do the math, two things become painfully obvious: 1) it won’t affect my life very much, and 2) it will dramatically affect the lives of my children and my grandchildren. And that breaks my heart.  

I’ve heard commentators who say that this extinction is the natural order of things, that it’s the price of freedom and free market capitalism. Of course, the most vociferous voices shrugging their shoulders in an “oh well” gesture are often the same ones who think climate change is a lie. Only climate change is real, and denying it has about as much legitimacy as the arguments of the anti-vaxxers.   This collapse, as Prof. Settele stated above, is primarily authored via the hubris of humans. It’s men and women creating absolute lies that will then be absorbed as fact. It’s a narcissistic rejection of responsibility for the world. It’s unJewish and – it’s unethical at the highest levels. 

I worry for my grandkids; not that they will never see a lemur or an orangutan, though that is horrible.  The worst part for the grandkids, and for all humans, aside from potential bee extinction and crop collapse, isn’t the end of any particular amphibian or reptile or fish or bird. The worst part is to live in a world where no one lifts a finger to save a threatened, small species of plant or animal. Because when we are nonplussed by the extinction of a species, how much do we care about the diminution or even extinction of a particular class or ethic minority group? In the future how will humans without money or power or a voice fare? If the only world I care about is the world according to me, then what are the chances for human survival, for cooperation and compromise?  

The extinction of any species, from snail darters to Indiana bats to polar bears to Mediterranean monk seals, is a disgrace and an ethical violation, because it is not inevitable. We’ve messed this one up. Can we fix it? Can we change this looming collapse? I don’t honestly know what to do next. Only this: we must do something. I’m open to suggestions. In the meantime, I’ll keep cleaning up the campsite.

Remembering to Never Forget


It happens at different times and in different contexts. Often it’s when the weather is bad. I bundle up in my warm black winter coat, wrap the scarf around my neck, pull on the gloves, grab the watchman knit cap and put that on, and finally start my car from my iPhone so the car will be nice and comfortable and the seat warmer will be fired up. 

As I walk to the car, insulated from the terrible wind and cold, it comes to me like a chyron at the bottom of a tv screen. What was such weather like for people in concentration camps? How did they endure the unspeakable cold dressed only in pajamas and wooden clogs? How did they tolerate standing in the cold every day as the SS guards did the daily count? 

When I read survivors’ accounts, it’s not as if they have a simple answer to the question, “How did you survive the concentration camps? How did you persevere? What was your secret?” They simply did whatever they could to stay alive. The angel of Death was so present in every second of every day. I doubt many believed that they would make it.

 To be fair to the survivors and to the ones who did not survive, bravery and courage didn’t have much at all to do with it. The simple fact is that, for so many survivors of the camps, it was all about luck. Sure, we know that victims did better when they had someone else to depend on. Two people scrounging for food, looking to grab an extra blanket from someone who had just died, and just looking out for each other was very powerful, and more efficient than being on one’s own. It also helped, according to survivors with whom I’ve spoken over the years, to have a friend who could remind you that you were still a human.

 With the capriciousness of every moment, just being in the right place at the right time was crucial. Which, of course, could not generally be planned for at all. An angry or bored SS officer could just as easily shoot someone standing in a line as he could walk right by them. One could get assigned a very dangerous work detail – or pick up stones from a field. Life was reduced to the most basic elements: stay warm, quietly obey orders, keep your eyes down, eat whatever you could find, keep moving. There was no moral order, no organizing principle beyond the imperative to keep breathing. 

As I reflect on the insufferable, detestable ordeals of our people during the Holocaust, I inevitably absorb these moments of horror, and I wonder: what would’ve happened to me? Would I – could I – have ever survived such unmitigated privation? I can’t imagine surviving a week in a concentration camp. Not to mention that so many people of my age were gassed right away. But in fact, the randomness of life and death, particularly in the camps, makes such speculation specious. Who in their right mind could ever imagine surviving in Hell? 

This much I know. I have been blessed in my life to know many survivors who came to this country, injured, traumatized, orphaned, alone. Some, like my father, were permanently damaged by their wartime experience of death and cruelty and loss. Others, who experienced far worse torture and pain than my father, ended up able to build a new life, despite it all. Such people have proven to me that it is actually possible for humans to move through deepest darkness and not succumb to the night. 

We officially remember the Holocaust on Yom HaShoah. But unofficially, there are those of us who think of the Holocaust every day. Because of the weather. Because we see smoke stacks. Because we hear a story. Because the Holocaust opened a wound the size of 6 million people. Because it’s testimony. Because the Holocaust is our story, a story that still reverberates across time.

Count the Omer Every Day

“You shall count from the eve of the second day of Pesach when an omer (an old Biblical measure of the volume of grain) is to be brought as an offering, seven complete weeks. The day after the seventh week of your counting will make fifty days, and you shall present a new meal offering to God (Leviticus 23:15-16).”
The 2 Torah verses above from Leviticus point out a tradition our ancestors have followed for millennia since the destruction of the Second Temple in 70CE. We continue to count the omer every year, even though we long ago gave up bringing harvest offerings to the temple in Jerusalem. Every day at evening services, until June 8th, we will pause and officially designate how many days and weeks have gone by, leading to Shavuot.
It’s a mystery as to why we continue to perform this mitzvah when we are no longer collecting grain offerings at the temple. What exactly, are we counting? Why does it matter?
To be perfectly honest, I don’t know the answers; I don’t think anyone knows. Yet even without a clear Jewish legal rationale, this counting of the omer continues to resonate deeply. It signifies a subtle truth, which is: we’re all of us, counting up every day. We will not live forever. We may say to our family something like, “I will always be here for you,” but of course that’s not true.
We are all counting up, every day. It’s not a maudlin or terrifying thought. It’s just the whole truth – unalloyed.What are we to do with our acknowledgment of mortality? We could get very anxious about it. We could be frightened by it. We might even deny it’s true. But all denial is futile. Which hasn’t stopped people from imagining another alternative.
In September 2013, Google announced the creation of Calico, short for the California Life Company. Its mission is to reverse engineer the biology that controls lifespan and “devise interventions that enable people to lead longer and healthier lives.” 
Then there’s Aubrey De Gray, a gerontologist who’s in the multi-billion dollar anti-aging industry, who says that, “It’s conceivable that people in my age bracket, their 40s, are young enough to benefit from these therapies. I’d give it a 30% or 40% chance that people alive today will live 1,000 years.”
I have absolutely no interest in getting involved with this anti-aging movement. The notion of living a thousand years feels terrible. A modern-day Methuselah? Why?
It makes so much more sense to me to make every day of living as meaningful as possible. Connect with friends and family. Read a good book. Take a nap. Go skiing. Go to San Francisco. Go to the MFA. Do nothing, but do nothing intentionally.
The most important advice on this subject comes from the book of Psalms, where it says, “Teach us to number our days, that we may attain a heart of wisdom.” Help us to appreciate the potential goodness in the world. Help us to embrace the time we have with those we love, and with those who can teach us about the value of the moment. We aren’t going to live forever. So the time is a gift. Count every day like it’s the counting of the omer. Assign some real value to the present tense.

I Saw a Black Hole

Ask me about first-century Judaism, and I’m all over it. Bring me a question about aspects of modern and post-modern Jewish history, and I will not disappoint. But the moment we veer from my Judaic comfort zone into hard science, I am pathetically inept.

I have tried. God knows how hard I’ve tried, to figure out some of the basic principles of the Universe. But no matter how much I read about quantum physics or string theory or the theory of relativity, I am so out of my league. It doesn’t compute.

I read, and re-read the same pages over and over again without success. And the moment I see a mathematical equation, I hyperventilate. The numbers and the symbols just don’t speak to me. I may as well be looking at hieroglyphics!

But I will say this: even though I don’t understand how they got it (even after reading several explanations) when I saw that picture of the black hole the other day, I actually got teary. Since I was a kid, I so wanted to see this mythic object in space.

As a tried and true baby boomer, I was completely enamored of the space program. From the age of 7, I watched the live Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo liftoffs. I sent away to NASA, explaining how much I wanted to be an astronaut. They responded with an enormous package –first true parcel sent personally to me in the mail! – Of pictures and charts and maps and who knows what else. And I went everywhere with that stuff, showing it off, proudly listing the names of the first astronauts.

By fifth grade, I had learned that one needed to know something about advanced mathematics and engineering and – the killer of dreams – one had to go through a bruising array of physical challenges, including getting slammed upside down into a deep pool and then unbuckle the seat belt, swim to the surface, and not die. That wasn’t going to work for me. So my flying days were over before they began. But that did not stifle my curiosity about the great beyond.

When I look at that picture of the black hole, I feel the same chills and thrills I experienced when I watched Neil Armstrong walk on the moon. Up to that point, space travel and event horizons were all speculation and science fiction. But the moon landing and the black hole have presented us with extraordinary truths about our Universe, its grandeur and depth and remarkable beauty.

These unspeakably astonishing discoveries also point out the greatness of humanity. Just when I am filled to overflowing with revulsion regarding people in leadership at home and abroad who are so venal, so transparently ignorant and disdainful of humanity, I look at that black hole picture, and I qvell (swell with pride and appreciation).

Albert Einstein created the theory of relativity and knew there just had to be black holes and used terrifying advanced math to try proving it. The math was even too hard for him until another German Jewish genius named Karl Schwartzchild came to his rescue and solved Einstein’s equations. These 2 humans figured it out! How? A young MIT Ph.D. grad, Katie Bouman, along with many others, worked together to capture the image of the black hole. How did she do that? How did this team of big egos, little egos, big geniuses, not such geniuses, different colors and cultures do it?  

As benighted and as foolish as so many of us are, what a joy it is to know that there are also people so smart, so enlightened, so open-hearted, that they seek to open up the Universe to all of us, not for profit, not to exclude others, but as a gift of knowledge. This gift reminds us that we all share the fullness of life on this little blue marble called Earth.

Who will be victorious in the end? Is it the yetzer tov or the yetzer ha-ra? Is the evil impulse stronger than the good impulse? Does selfless genererosity win? Or does pernicious narcissistic self-interest declare victory?

Of course, no one knows. And, truth be told, maybe we just keep bouncing between those two poles, endlessly buffeted by the collisions of truth and lies. I suppose that’s how it’s always been. But wouldn’t it be nice to awaken one morning and find that all of us agree that humanity is created in God’s image? That kindness just makes sense? Such a moment might even dwarf the picture of a black hole. Such a moment would light up the Universe. Amen.

Have a sweet Passover, filled with matzah balls, laughter, stories of freedom, and promises to embrace the good by doing good.

Passover Lessons

Many years ago I was a guest at a large seder in Jerusalem. Around the table, in great Yerushalmi style, was a sampling of all the classic residents and tourists. Some were American, some native Israelis, some Yemenites, some religious, some heretics, some crazy. Old, young, and in between. It was a classic scene, and I loved it. There was lots of wine and drama.

Hours went by until the Passover meal was served and the afikomen successfully hunted down. Right before the 4th cup of wine is blessed and then imbibed, the door is opened for Elijah. From past seders, I remembered singing “Eliyahu Hanavi” – Elijah the Prophet – into the night.

But there is another tradition, that does not include that plaintive song. It is instead a very tough reading that goes: Pour out Your wrath upon those who do not know You and upon the governments which do not call upon Your Name. For they have devoured Jacob and laid waste his dwelling place (Psalms 79:6-7). Pour out Your fury upon them; let the fierceness of Your anger overtake them (Psalms 69:25). Pursue them in indignation and destroy them from under Your heavens (Lamentations 3:66).

At that Jerusalem seder, there was a particular older man, a Holocaust survivor, as it turned out.  He was thoroughly enjoying the food and the wine and the Passover story and all the attendant festivities. But when it got to this particular passage, something happened.

When the door was opened, he quickly elbowed his way through the throng of people to the threshold and began to recite the imprecation above. Actually, reciting is not accurate. He screamed it, he bellowed it into the Jerusalem night, shaking his fist and crying. All those years since the crushing brutality and privation, decades since his liberation from Dachau, the pain of captivity still constricted his soul. I will never forget how he screamed and wept.

When I recall that story, I remember a line from the movie, Forrest Gump, when Jennie, now an adult, comes upon her old, vacant childhood ramshackle home where she’d been beaten and raped by her father. She looks at the place in silence, and then suddenly breaks into a sob, throwing her shoes at the hovel. Out of her mind with grief and anger, she throws stones at the windows and then collapses on the road. Forrest, narrating the scene, only says, “Sometimes there just aren’t enough rocks.”

The liberation from Egypt may have been one moment in history. But just because we left Egypt does not mean that Egypt has entirely left us. The residue of servitude is hard to eradicate. All of the work people put into finding the chametz and cleaning it out before Passover is a metaphor for our own struggles with the past and how it clings to us. We can’t be complete when we are dragged down by remnants of the past.

We keep telling the story of Passover for a dual purpose. First, it reminds us of the bitterness of servitude and the therapeutic value in symbolically casting it out, much like the crumbs of Tashlich. And second, it tells us that we are not the only people who have suffered. Even as we acknowledge our long trek from slavery to freedom and the damage it did—and still does – to us, we see others who are not as far along on the road to freedom.

Some years ago, Solomon Burke sang None of Us Are Free, which includes the lyrics,

There are people still in darkness,

And they just can’t see the light.

If you don’t say it’s wrong then that says it right.

We got try to feel for each other, let them all know that

We care.

Got to get the message, send it out loud and clear.

None of us are free.

None of us are free.

None of us are free, when one of us is chained.

None of us are free.

This is the truest message of Passover. We were once slaves, embattled, beaten, murdered. Avadim hayinu. But now we are free. Ata b’nai horin. We sluff off the shackles of our oppressors. We work out the trauma of our past and enter into history fully present and engaged. And that engagement along with our empathy leads us to work for the liberation of all.

I know – it’s pretty high-minded stuff. But we are here for a reason. We are the hands of God, the outstretched arm helping others find their way to hope. Passover is not only telling stories of the past. It’s also sharing the undying hope that somehow, all of us will be free at last.

Yin Yang

Getting Better is one of my favorite Beatles songs. First, Paul McCartney’s voice on this recording is perfectly captured. Second, the harmonies with John Lennon are spot on. Third, the instrumentation is so clever; between Paul’s bass line and the tamboura that George Harrison plays about half way through the song, is captivating. Fourth, the quality of the recording is exceptional: the harmonies, in particular, stand out. It’s worth getting headphones to listen to this song. But there is something else; it’s the message of the tune.

Paul started writing the song and famously played the chorus for John. He sang, “I have to admit it’s getting better/A little better all the time.” To which John added in his classically cheeky, subversive, cynical style, “It can’t get no worse.” And so the song was created, co-written by Paul and John, yin and yang personified. The song, deceptively simple, exemplifies the duality in our lives and times. Or as Dickens wrote, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way – in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.” 

We can all so absolutely relate to those opening words from A Tale of Two Cities, a book published in 1859 about the French Revolution, which transpired in 1789. But this then begs the question: Is our deep familiarity with this yin/yang as described by Dickens or later sung about by Lennon/McCartney, pathetic or encouraging? Or both? 

Let’s be frank: sometimes it’s hard to look at the general situation of our planet and the people and animals on it, and not feel the panicky desire to find the nearest exit. It’s all so overwhelming; “can’t get no worse…” We can feel the cold wind blowing from the abyss, the certainty of our mortality. We see and hear so many terrible things. We witness suffering as well as experiencing our own losses and traumas. And yet there is a force that drives us forward. As Jews, that cosmic, Divine force has made all of the difference. “The Jews’ assigned task within humanity has been, despite everything, to endure and abide in perfect faith and trust: to hope. That is what it has meant to be Israel.”

Rabbis Emil Hirsch and Joseph Jacobs sum it up: “For all its realism, Judaism never advised passive resignation, or the abandonment of and withdrawal from the world. It rejects the theory that the root of life is evil, or that humanity and life and the world are corrupt as a consequence of original sin. Its optimism is apparent in its faith in the slow but certain uplifting of humankind, in the ultimate triumph of justice over injustice, and in the certain coming of a Messianic age.” Or, as Lennon/McCartney sang, “I have to admit it’s getting better/ A little better all the time.” 

There is a great Hasidic aphorism attributed to Reb Simcha Bunim that stipulates, “Keep two pieces of paper in your pocket at all times. On one: “I am a speck of dust,” and on the other : “The world was created for me.”” Both are true and finding a balance point helps us stay sane. The struggle between these dual truths is our struggle to find meaning every day. Every day we ask, why bother? And the answer is, why not? It can’t get no worse. And the answer, according to Bob Marley, is, “Every little thing’s gonna be alright.” These days I feel pushed up against the wall as I survey my world. The despair, the divisions growing more pronounced, the hatred and the bigotry louder and more vitriolic than ever. It can’t get no worse. But spring is coming and the holiday celebrating our redemption will be here soon. And who can scoff at the promise of springtime and a bowl of matzah ball soup? You see? Yes, I admit it’s getting better all the time.

Empathy

I was invited to join a panel of professionals at Mass Bay Community College to discuss the subject of empathy before an audience of academics and college administrators. It was fascinating to explore how different people express empathy, and why. The panel included a psychology professor from Mass Bay, a high school guidance counselor, a minister who teaches at a university and maintains a pulpit presence, and me.

There was little disagreement about defining empathy. We all subscribed to the notion that empathy is viscerally feeling what another feels, as opposed to sympathy. The main difference is that when you have sympathy, you are not experiencing another’s feeling. Instead, you can understand what the person is feeling. We identify empathically when “our entire consciousness is projected into another person, so the feelings that inhere in others act upon us.”

Theresa Wiseman, a nursing scholar, noted four attributes of empathy:

Perspective taking refers to walking in the other person’s shoes and trying to think like them.

Staying out of judgment means not making comments that infer their emotions or response was invalid or wrong. Such as, “that’s stupid. Why did you get so upset?”

Recognizing the emotion is looking within yourself and identifying that feeling the other person could be feeling. It’s okay to check it out with them ask if you’ve got it. For example, you could say, “Sounds like you are feeling sad.”

Communication refers to being expressive about understanding their emotion and validating them.

The ability to connect empathically with others—to feel with them, to care about their well-being, and to act with compassion—is critical to our lives, helping us to get along, work more effectively, and thrive as a society.

As I thought about empathy before, during, and after the presentation, I came to feel an enormous sense of sadness and despair about the world we’re living in right now. Empathy is in short supply. Instead of listening to others and attempting to enter their concern, we seek ways to cut them off and shut them down. As Stephen Covey famously said, “Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply.”

Our tradition teaches us to listen carefully to those who are dispossessed, those who have no voice. We are enjoined to look out for the widow and the orphan and the strangers in our midst. God tells us that we are responsible, that we must do something to ameliorate social inequities. And more: God says we have a special obligation to engage in the act of reaching out to the Other. We know the heart of the stranger, because, as God reminds us 36 times in the Torah, “we were strangers in the land of Egypt.”

When we forget that once we were dispossessed, abandoned, cruelly treated, and persecuted by various governments and peoples, we lose our Jewish spark. When we fail to engage, to empathize, we fall in with the darkest impulses of humanity. And, God knows, there is so much darkness in the world.

With apologies to Burt Bachrach, what the world needs now is not love, it’s empathy. We don’t have to love those who are disenfranchised or needy or broken. But we must affirm their humanity, feel their pain, and without judgment, express our solidarity with them as fellow human beings.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern of New Zealand is a living example of how to respond with empathy in a highly charged atmosphere of mistrust, contempt, fear, and hatred. She has shown the world what an empathic leader can do. Wearing a black headscarf was a beautiful, empathic gesture to the Muslim community. Refusing to use the name of the killer was a powerful empathic response to the nation of New Zealand, affirming citizens’ feelings about the criminal by refusing to popularize him for other deranged mass murderers. Banning military-style semiautomatic weapons and assault rifles was a powerful step in responding empathically to the overwhelming sentiment for such an act by the vast majority of Kiwis.

Prime Minister Ardern reminds us that empathy is more than a series of kindnesses. Our tradition reminds us that, “We were strangers in the land of Egypt.” This is not just a throwaway line. It’s not just a Passover topic. It is a call to action.

Beyond Belief

Again.

I’ve read so much about the Holocaust, looked at Nazi propaganda, and wondered how educated people could look at us and then decide that because we are Jewish, we are, ipso facto, subhuman. Why are there people for whom our existence is an insult?

No matter how much I try, no matter what I read, I remain utterly clueless as to how it is possible for a person to plan methodically, and then carry out, a mass murder against people who have committed no crime, whose only “sin” is to be of a different color and/or religion.

I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about Omar Ilhan, her statements that some see as antisemitic at most, and at least, insensitive to Jewish interests and historical trigger words. But I’m not worried about her comments. She’s a first-year representative; we’ll see how she does and the extent to which she’s interested in Jewish concerns. No, she’s not seeking to inspire a race war; she’s not glorifying mass murder.

What worries me, what keeps me up at night is white nationalism and the twisted ideology that fuels it. A hodgepodge of ugly, ignorant thinking riles people up who feel disenfranchised, left behind in a multi-ethnic future. These deluded people – mostly men – are motivated—at least in part—by the fear that whites are in the process of being demographically outnumbered and replaced. Hence the chants in Charlottesville, Virginia, of “Jews will not replace us! Blacks will not replace us! Immigrants will not replace us!”

You may have noticed that, when it comes to white supremacists, we Jews are not considered white at all. For the men who gathered in Charlottesville, Virginia, we are an enemy, a historical relic that must be destroyed, because we are Jews. For the shooter in New Zealand, for Dylan Roof, and some of the other sickos engaged in this despicable behavior, the Jewish people are no different than the folks sitting in the mosque, praying to Allah.

Now more than ever, we must acknowledge that we are a part of an alliance comprised of Moslems and people of color. We are in the same circle as Honduran refugees, eager to find safety. We share a real vulnerability to this kind of hatred and rage.

The phrase “white genocide,” a mythological conspiracy created by white supremacists – contends that people of color – and that includes us – are plotting to destroy the white race. Get used to hearing this absurd, stupid claim. It is the clarion call of the alt-right. It’s used all the time now.

We know white nationalist violence is here to stay. The real question is whether the United States and other governments will treat it with the seriousness it deserves and work together to counter this growing international scourge.

In the meantime, we stay vigilant. We monitor the hate groups and support organizations that get us accurate information. We extend ourselves to our allies and our friends, to all who, like us, are under threat from a small group of deluded and insecure men who work out their insecurities in violent, anarchic acts of murder and mayhem.

And of course, we send our condolences to the families of the victims in New Zealand. We pray with them and promise to do what we can to stand against these foul racists and murderers and their supporters.

The Western Wall and WOW


Netflix isn’t a streaming service. No. It is an alternate Universe of entertainment and education. Movies. Documentaries. Limited series. Old tv shows. Going to Netflix is like entering a casino with old familiar games and new ones you’ve never played before. I’m sure there’s a systematic way of surveying what’s available… but I don’t know it.

Last month while hunting Netflix for something to watch, I came upon an Israeli series called Shtisel. It follows the ins and outs of the Shtisels, a haredi (ultra-Orthodox, non-Hasidic) family in Jerusalem. As they speak a very stylized Hebrew and Yiddish (there are English subtitles), we learn about a unique, and little known Jewish sub-culture. We follow their complicated lives, observing their universal struggles through a very particular lens.

In so many ways, the show humanizes this Jewish sect that is generally seen as fundamentalist and extreme in behavior and ideology. Yes, we bump up against the sharp edges that are a part of haredi life, and the generally low opinion they have of the secular world – which is, essentially, everybody that is not them. But we also encounter a family’s deep love for each other, the loneliness of old age and widowhood, the ease with which they lie without any seeming pangs of conscience, the restrictive ways the rules bind and chafe at them.

As I watch Shtisel, I feel a kind of affection for the family and their humanity. I see the struggles that are a part of preserving their world, and the difficulties with living up to impossible expectations. It is a moving show.I thought of the Shtisel Family today as I watched coverage from Jerusalem of the Women of the Wall (WOW) celebrating the 30th anniversary of their movement. Or at least they were trying to celebrate. Unfortunately, ultra-Orthodox yeshivot and girls’ schools sent thousands of young students to block public access to the woman’s side of the Wall and ‘assigned’ the students to do whatever they could to disrupt the approximately 150 Women of the Wall and their supporters who showed up.

Anat Hoffman, the director of WOW, was there, proudly proclaiming the rights of all Jewish women to express themselves freely as Jews. She is a true champion of religious pluralism and of the rights of all Israeli citizens to equal treatment under the law. All they want is to read from the Torah, to wear a tallit, and to proclaim their love of God and the Jewish people. It is a public space of equal significance to all Jews.On her Facebook page, Melissa Carp, a member of our temple, a first-year rabbinic student, and an intern at WOW, wrote the following:

Today was probably one of the scariest days of my adult life. I have been anticipating Rosh Chodesh Adar II, that coincides with International Women’s Day and the 30th Women of the Wall Nashot HaKotel anniversary for months. I came ready to daven with revolutionary women that have been dedicated to this fight for over three decades. Instead I was greeted by 8,000 people in opposition, with such hate in their eyes they seemed completely soulless.Young girls were praised for their effective technique of bulldozing WOW supporters with their bodies, giggling and smiling at the older women that they had successfully knocked to the ground. I was almost trampled by these thousands of girls dozens of times, my feet in pain from using all my strength not to fall over.I’m tired. I’m tired of the word “Reform,” the denomination of Judaism that I hope to one day serve being used as an insult. I’m tired of the monolithic control of the Orthodox Rabbinate. I’m tired of panicking over the well being of my classmates at Shacharit. Yet, after today, I’m even more motivated. I’m even more motivated to repair today’s devastation and so grateful for the people I am lucky enough to stand with.

I watched film clips of the confrontation at the Wall. I watched ultra-Orthodox girls spitting on women, scratching their faces, pushing them down. I watched ultra-Orthodox men pushing, shoving and grabbing at the men who were there to support WOW. It was what Reb Shulem Shtisel would’ve called ‘a shanda,’ a shameful event. Yet it is also likely that the fictional rabbi would’ve sent his students to harass the Women of the Wall.

I’ve never managed to understand how it is possible to call oneself a Jew and then seek to destroy or to defame other Jews. I’m not naïve… I’ve seen it throughout Jewish history right up to the present day. It is a case where we are, once again, our own worst enemy.Until there is a willingness to talk, until we are able to see our shared history as a bond and a gift rather than a millstone around our necks, this madness will continue.

I wish Reb Shtisel and his family a gut shabbos. I wish they would respond with love and not violence. I wish words of kindness would flow from their lips instead of spit and revilement.

We are so proud of Melissa Carp and the other men and women who walked into the plaza of the Western Wall,outnumbered and vulnerable. The police did little to protect WOW, and stood by as they were abused by the crowd. But Melissa stood tall and proud. We salute her and wish her well.

When Anat Hoffman comes to TBA on March 29th, I hope you will join us at Friday night services to get her take on her recent experience as well as to hear Anat’s remarks on the future of pluralism and democracy in Israel. This is something around which we must all unite.