Monthly Archives: October 2015

Trick or Treat? Absolutely!

I have always loved Halloween. Walking around with my friends, in the dark, while dressed up in great costumes? All that and collecting candy, too? Come on! What could be better?
As I got older, I went from a small orange paper bag to a bigger paper Halloween bag until I achieved the ultimate storage method: a pillow case. Of course, I believed it to be my civic duty to fill the case, which I never accomplished, though not for lack of trying.
Despite the occasional stories that make parents and kids anxious: loose candy laced with LSD, razors in apples, etc., there has never been a reported case of poisoned or laced candy. There has never been a report of injury due to bobby trapped fruit. Why wouldn’t every kid in America be on the streets?
That’s certainly what it feels like on my block. We’ve become a destination Halloween street. Cars pull up disgorging kids from all over the greater Boston area. It’s like the Halloween scene in Spielberg’s ET!
So it always surprises me when our co-religionists get so uptight about Halloween. Today on the URJ website a featured story was titled, “How to Prevent Halloween from Overwhelming Your Family”, and it was written by a Reform rabbi! I felt badly for her. She refuses any Halloween decorations. She won’t carve pumpkins (do it on Sukkot she opines…). She will only allow her kids to go in their cul de sac (they’ll never fill a pillow case like that!). How sad for her kids that the true joy and fun of this day is minimized because “it’s not Jewish.”
It’s all good, clean American fun. Halloween has absolutely nothing to do with any direct religious observance. The Connecticut Council for Interreligious Understanding says that while Halloween “may have served a religious function in the past, today it is rather devoid of religious connotations; it serves much more as a civic celebration,” according to a statement from the group released by Co-Chair Ritu Zazzaro. “Halloween provides us all a wonderful opportunity for celebrating alongside our neighbors and joining together with the larger community. And we can all bring our particular religious values into a secular holiday like Halloween.”
So get out there and enjoy! With all of the things that divide us, how nice that there is still a tradition that transcends barriers of culture and religion and politics.

Talk Isn’t Cheap

Children of Holocaust survivors tend to be hypersensitive to any mention of the Holocaust. Just hearing certain words like ‘Nazi’, or  ‘Hitler’, or ‘concentration camp’, or ‘Gestapo,’ will cause a quickening of the pulse and a surge of adrenaline. And when one of these terms is used as a cheap metaphor that trivializes the Holocaust and thus its victims, we tend to scream.
Holocaust trivialization is so deeply offensive to so many people – in fact, to ALL people with respect for history and sensitivity to those who suffered and died. It is all despicable.Whether it’s PETA launching an animal rights campaign called, “Holocaust on Your Plate” that compared chickens in chicken farms to Holocaust victims, or a state representative in Arizona who referred to President Obama as “Der Fuhrer,” or any other number of examples.
Much of the time, the analogy is not so much an analogy at all, but rather an attempt to vilify someone or something that is disliked. When someone makes that type of accusation, you have to wonder: what do they actually mean? Does a Nazi simply imply a person whose ideology we disagree with? What makes the opponent Nazi-like, and why?
Inaccurately invoking Nazism creates a moral and emotional distance from the Holocaust that has evolved into something more dangerous: a distance to the truth. For those who have not properly learned what the Holocaust was, this can be their introduction to it. Intentionally or not, the abusers of the Nazi analogy are paving the way for false understanding.
In Israel, a country where the Holocaust casts a long and very dark shadow,  Jews are not above using Holocaust language to challenge or insult opponents. The use Israeli politicians make of the Holocaust… reduces Nazism and Hitler’s responsibility specifically and cheapens the Holocaust’s memory. It seems that if the real historical background doesn’t serve the political incitement, they invent “facts” and associations.
When the prime minister of Israel deliberately creates a Holocaust narrative that is utterly specious to justify a particular political position, it goes far beyond anything ever seen or heard before.
In a speech to the World Zionist Congress, this past Tuesday, the Prime Minister of Israel said:
“Hitler didn’t want to exterminate the Jews at the time, he wanted to expel the Jews. And Haj Amin al-Husseini [the Mufti of Jerusalem] went to Hitler and said, “If you expel them, they’ll all come here.” “So what should I do with them?” he asked. He said, “Burn them.”
This, of course, is utter nonsense, an invention. Every major Holocaust historian, regardless of their political bent, agrees that Bibi is simply not sharing facts. Instead, he is claiming that an Arab who hated Jews – a fact that is beyond any question – gave Hitler the idea to murder the Jews – which is ludicrously not true.
Why did Bibi make this assertion? Does he actually believe that the Grand Mufti was Hitler’s inspiration, his muse, to commit genocide? Or is it that by telling this story, he “proves” that the latest wave of Palestinian attacks on Israeli Jews is linked to the Nazi sympathies of a man who died 41 years ago, a man who had lost any real influence, even among Palestinians, decades earlier?   Bibi actually explained that his intention “…was not to absolve Hitler, but rather to show that the forefathers of the Palestinian nation – without a country and without the so-called ‘occupation,’ without land and without settlements – even then aspired to systematic incitement to exterminate the Jews.”
To manipulate history is to wreak havoc on how we determine truth. But playing fast and loose with the truth seems to be par for the course in the world of political discourse. In a world where Holocaust denial is an ever-present reality, the last thing we need is a prime minister of Israel pointing away from Hitler towards a hateful Arab as the instigator of the Final Solution. There is no direct line between the murderous attacks of random Palestinians on Jews and the Holocaust.

The Stages

Reading about the violence in Israel this week is almost unbearable. It makes me crazy. It exhausts me. It confounds me. I actually go through my own sort of modified Kubler-Ross stages dealing with it all.
First, I feel enormous anger at the perpetrators. These criminals are holding Jews hostage. People are afraid to leave their homes. My friend, Lior, talks about his teenage daughter and how scared she is to get on a bus. His brother, who owns a restaurant in Jerusalem, is distraught over how much business he’s losing. “I’ve been in an active combat regiment. I’ve been in the thick of war. And even I don’t like the creepy feeling of walking by myself on the street. It really is scary.”
Next I ask, why? How has this horrible state of affairs come to be? There are no simple answers – I wish there were. It would make it easier to contend that the violence is being systematically planned by Hamas, that these knife wielders are being trained. But so far, that does not appear to be the case.
Maybe what’s moving these random people to commit random acts of violence is the pernicious Islamist interpretation of violence as a holy deed. To become a martyr leads one to eternal reward. So why not?
Or perhaps the violence is the result of a steady diet of nothing but despair for Palestinian young people. There has been almost nothing produced in the last several years that gives even the glimmer of hope. When the world becomes monochromatic, nothing is worth living for, but a lot becomes worth dying for.
Then I get even angrier as I look at the profound weakness of political leadership in the Middle East. Abbas is utterly inept at best. At worst he repeats the hateful rumors of the street as his own justification for leadership. He claims that the Israelis want to take total control of the Temple Mount (a complete lie). He also said that Israel murdered a 13-year-old attempted murderer (there are actually photos of him alive and well in the hospital in the newspapers).
On the other side, Bibi has clung to the status quo, believing that as the world’s attention shifts to Syria and ISIS, he can stoke the Israeli economy and not even say the word Palestinian. Of course, he was correct. He could – and did get away from having to pay any serious attention to any dealings with the Palestinians. He could have used these past months to demonstrate bold leadership, to point to Israel as an evolving democracy willing to live up to its promise of bringing together all peoples of Israel.
My next stage is can we fix it? And I don’t know that either. As an Israeli opined on CNN, “We need to believe that Palestinians accept the basic concept of sharing this land. But weeks like this shake that foundational belief. We’ve seen too many ordinary people — a municipal worker, an employee at the phone company — perpetrate incomprehensible acts. We already live together, work together, walk past each other on the street every day. How can we be working toward a resolution, toward peace, if we fear the next passerby may just pull out a knife? We want to believe Palestinians have co-existence in their hearts.”
Without a possibility of resolution, we are left with nothing but continuous struggle, hatred, and death. That is a possibility, a true outcome. But the price is so high and so dark. This leads to the next stage, which is to look for any signs of hope. And there are still signs: Kids 4 Peace, a program that brings Jewish and Palestinian kids together, says, “We don’t know what to say or do.  The violence spreading across Jerusalem has filled the streets with suffering and fear.  It can leave us paralyzed and speechless. As a community of Palestinians and Israelis, together with friends from around the world, we feel the pain of both sides like almost no one else. We have learned to trust and respect and love each other.  We cling to our common humanity, our hope for peace, our rejection of violence, and our bedrock commitment to see the holiness – the image of God – in every human person, even our enemy.”
Another sign of hope is Yad B’Yad – Hand In Hand: “Our Mission at Hand in Hand is to create a strong, inclusive, shared society in Israel through a network of Jewish-Arab integrated bilingual schools and organized communities. We currently operate integrated schools and communities in five locations with 1,100 Jewish and Arab students and more than 3,000 community members. Over the next ten years, we aim to create a network of 10-15 schools, supported and enhanced by community activities, altogether involving more than 20,000 Jewish and Arab Israeli citizens.”
[We’ll be hosting a Palestinian parent and an Israeli teacher from Yad B’Yad during Friday night services on October 30 at 6:15]
That there are two or two hundred such programs in Israel does not erase the current fear. These programs do not make years of occupation evaporate. They do erase years of hatred preached from mosques and mullahs. And yet. Perhaps the greatest tragedy in this latest wave of attacks is the extent to which it pushes us further away, rather than closer to, a solution. And with all that, we are unwilling to give up hope. We can’t. We have to believe there is a solution. one of these programs is a potential source of
And this where I end up, my final stage: I’m not willing to give up on the people. On the political hacks and opportunists, yes. But not the people, not the ones actually daring to step up beyond the status quo. I will continue to hope in them and with them, for something resembling peace.

The True Challenge

My friend Marcus and I were in rabbinic school together. He was a rebel, a guy who reflexively said no if anyone said yes. No one could tell him what to do. He was raised in a predominantly Jewish community in New Jersey that unceremoniously fled en masse for the suburbs when the first black family moved into town. (We don’t like discussing this, but Jewish families were certainly in the first waves of white flight). He says that he was the only white kid whose family stuck around. Within four years, he was the only white kid on the block. This, Marcus says, is the crucible in which he learned to be his own man.

Marcus exercised his rebellious philosophy at various times in rabbinic school. His biggest ‘no one can tell me what to do’ was his girlfriend, Nonnie. Nonnie was not born Jewish. She came from a hippie family that lived for a time on a commune and who worshiped the sacredness of the cosmos in a pretty eclectic way that included cannabis and ‘shrooms. Nonnie was what demographers call unchurched. She rarely went to Jewish/school events with Marcus. Then again, Marcus rarely went.

When the dean of HUC took Marcus aside a year before ordination and told him that to be ordained Nonnie had to convert, he was, as you might imagine, a tad exercised. Marcus fought and cursed, but in those days the notion that a rabbi could have a non-Jewish significant other was ludicrous. But Nonnie converted, albeit without much joy. They got married, had a kid three years later and divorced two years after that. It still makes Marcus angry that he was forced into a series of actions he opposed.

According to Professor Steven M. Cohen, a sociologist at HUC known for demographic studies of American Jewry, “in-marriage” has historically “been central to what it means to be a Jew.” Its modern importance, he explains, is amplified because of the ongoing population decline among non-Orthodox Jews, which he attributes largely to intermarriage.

Cohen also argues that American Jews put “rabbis at the top of the symbolic hierarchy.” As a result, “it is logical for rabbinical schools to hold rabbis to higher standards.” While Cohen affords some merit to the suggestion that intermarried rabbis could serve as models for interfaith communities, he cautions that “we don’t know for sure what the impact of having intermarried rabbis will be upon those families.” We do know, he says, that “intermarried rabbis will have no chance of teaching the next generation the importance of marrying Jews.” Or at least, so he said in 2009.

Nearly all of the country’s rabbinical colleges have firm policies that prohibit the admission and ordination of students who are in committed relationships with non-Jewish partners. Even as interfaith couples are increasingly being welcomed into congregations of all denominations, they are effectively barred from pursuing the rabbinate.

But as Bob Dylan adjures, “the times they are a’changing.” The Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, which ordains rabbis for the denomination’s more than 100 congregations across the country, just ended their policy prohibiting applications from students in interfaith relationships. Says Rabbi Deborah Waxman, Ph.D., president of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, “We believe that the only strategy that will work in today’s world of choice is one that engages rather than polices, one that actually welcomes and provides role models for intermarried Jews rather than one that disowns them.

And Keren McGinity, a former member of TBA opines, the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College’s new policy to welcome and graduate Jewish students who are in committed relationships with partners of other faith backgrounds is an excellent, forward-thinking decision.

But Jane Eisner, editor of the Forward, disagrees with McGinity’s assessment and she disagrees with the RRC as well. Eisner, a friend and fellow Wesleyan grad who spoke here for the Margaret Miller Memorial Lecture series, hangs onto the atavistic belief that intermarriage is the biggest crisis for American Jewry. She writes that letting interfaith people get too involved, too close with Jewish life is dangerous. She says that “… at some point… inclusion leads to diminishment. At some critical point, boundaries become so porous that they no longer function as boundaries, and standards become so vacuous that they lose all meaning. This decision brings the Reconstructionist movement to that point, and to the degree that it places pressure on other denominations — and history suggests that it will — then it risks damaging our religious, moral and spiritual leadership at a time when we need it the most.”

It would be wonderful to find a true whipping boy for the various phenomena that plague postmodern American Jewry. If we could just say intermarriage is the cause of our troubles we can spend a lot of money trying to fix it, lest we damage “our religious, moral and spiritual leadership” beyond repair. But as Rabbi Waxman says, “For those of you still fighting, the battle was lost years ago. The Pew report, citing that 58% of marriages since 2005 are intermarriages, has disabused all of North American Jewry of the notion that Jews intermarrying can somehow be stopped by pressure from families, rabbis, or editorials from editors of Jewish publications.”

Reconstructionist rabbis will choose the partners they choose. If their partner is Jewish, I hope their partner will support them in their work. If their partner is not Jewish, I hope their partner supports them in their work. Intermarriage will not make or break American Jewry. The more open hearted a temple is to welcoming interfaith families, the more likely that synagogue and their interfaith families will thrive.

The genuine threat to American Jewry, and to mainline Protestant denominations and to Catholicism is the extent to which Americans consider religious and church/synagogue affiliation relevant. More important than soccer practice, ski trips, or sleeping late on weekends. For Jews, a synagogue must be a place that provides meaning and community and connection and fun. A synagogue must be like Cheers, where everybody knows your name. That’s the real work of Jewish survival, not who the rabbi is married to. And to provide that kind of institution is hard and will only become harder.

It would be so much easier to make intermarriage the bugaboo. But it’s not. To make a synagogue relevant and worthwhile for millennials as well as baby boomers is complicated and will require more and more nontraditional solutions. Eisner’s idea that too much inclusion leads to diminishment is an outdated Conservative movement cry – that has led them over the cliff.

As Tevye said to Golda, “It’s a new world.” That must be our mantra now as we consider our trajectory as American Jews, and as a Reform temple in Newton, MA. We are going to have to be courageous and audacious as we dare to move in new ways. Looking back with yearning is not a recipe; just ask Lot’s wife.

Secrets of S’chach

There are several Jewish laws surrounding how to build a sukkah and where you can build it. The walls of the sukkah have to be sturdy enough to stand up against normal weather conditions. You can get away with three walls. You can put the walls up and then leave them standing forever. The walls of a sukkah can be made of any material, provided that they are sturdy enough that they do not move in a normal wind. You can use wood or fiberglass panels, waterproof fabrics attached to a metal frame, etc. You can also use pre-existing walls (i.e., the exterior walls of your home, patio or garage) as one or more of the sukkah walls.

The most important part of a sukkah building contractor’s plan is the roof; it must be made of s’chach. What exactly is S’chach? A good question! I used to think that it was Hebrew for the stuff I would collect with my youth group buddies along the shoulders of Route 91 in Middletown (which I believe was actually bamboo – the state highway guy gave us half an hour to do it and disappear…). It is, officially, anything that grew from the ground and has been detached, is not edible, and was not manufactured to be a utensil (such as a wooden ladder or shovel handle). Thick, roof-like slats, and tied bundles of foliage cannot be used. You can’t use branches with leaves as s’chach with leaves that will shrivel as they dry out. You can use evergreen tree branches because they don’t shrivel and die.

Temple Beth Avodah uses corn stalks that, as you can see from the laws, is perfectly fine as s’chach… But, if there’s corn on the stalk as opposed to Indian corn that is only ornamental, you must remove the corn from the stalk, because – yes, it’s edible.

The truth about s’chach is that it’s not fit to make a roof at all. Sure it must be thick enough to provide shade from a hot Sukkot sun (which sounds nice as today’s chill enters our collective bones). But if you cover the top of the sukkah too well, then you’re messing with the dominant theme of the holiday.

After Yom Kippur, which is all about being indoors and focusing on our individual shortcomings and fasting and, in general, feeling deeply immersed in internal space, the first thing we do is drive the first nail to build the sukkah. And Sukkot is all about bursting out of the internal! It’s about harvest and the sweat of collecting the Fall harvest. It’s all about relating to our ancestors who wandered in the wilderness and had no permanent place to call home for a long time. It’s all about the glory of the Universe and the fact that we have been given a new year in which to find our best selves.

But… and here’s the rest of the theme of Sukkot: the roof and therefore, the sukkah itself is impermanent. And so are we. We look up at the stars and celebrate the beauty of the world. And through the very same spaces between the s’chach we can get rained on. This life is filled with awe and majesty and beauty, and it’s filled with sweat and sadness and pain. It’s never either/or; it’s always both/and.

The sukkah reminds us that it’s up to us to appreciate every blessing that comes our way, whether we deserve it or not. Life can be precarious and mysterious. We can just sit in the rain and moan. Or we can look up through the s’chach and give thanks for this crazy world and our chaotic, fabulous lives.

Shabbat Shalom