Monthly Archives: January 2016

Thirty years

Thirty years ago I was home from work, watching tv. It was around 1000am Tulsa time and I wanted to see the space shuttle Challenger take off. First of all, I am an inveterate manned space travel fan. I followed NASA’s work from the Mercury program and then to Gemini, then Apollo and then the to space shuttles. Outer space just gets to me, and I only wish I’d had the right chops to go.Second, I was hooked on the first teacher in space. I thought Christa McAuliffe was a remarkable woman. She was smart, charismatic, and a superb teacher. I imagined how wonderful it would be to watch her teach thousands, maybe millions, of kids about science live from space. Third, there was Judith Resnik, the first Jewish astronaut. I was so taken by this brilliant electrical engineer, a daughter of Holocaust survivors with real drive. What a remarkable woman to talk about in Sunday School with the kids. I also kind of liked the fact that she applied to be an astronaut on a whim. She had just gone through a divorce and was Essentially in a bit of a funk. Someone said that she should become an astronaut. So she thought, why not give it a shot – and they liked her. Resnik had already gone into space, but I was still cheering for her.

I will admit that I was subsequently really saddened to learn that Resnik hated the “first Jew in space” appellation. Despite a very Jewish upbringing including all nine yards of Hebrew School and a Bat Mitzvah, Resnik said that she wasn’t Jewish. But by me, she was Jewish, no matter how much she may have protested. I just wish I could’ve learned where her rejection came from.

I watched tv as the crew walked toward the shuttle. I loved that both McAuliffe and Resnik had Farah Fawcett hairdos. They were just so springy and young and so promising. I cheered them by calling out the mid80s version of “You go, girl!” As I watched them the camera cut to the VIP bleachers where the astronaut families and invited guests of NASA were waiting for the launch. It was so cold that morning in Florida; in fact, there were record lows. The spectators were all wearing parkas and thick winter coats.  This weather anomaly in Florida would end up being one of the factors in the accident about to occur.

Th camera spent an inordinate amount of time on McAuliffe’s parents in the VIP area. They were An attractive older couple, so excited to ba a part of the day. I imagined how profoundly thrilled they were to see their daughter bravely making history.

At the launch, the rocket surged upward so beautifully in a scene that gets me every time. It still amazes me that humans figured out how to leave Earth in my lifetime, breaking the bonds of gravity with enormous power and energy. But then, 73 seconds later, without warning, the entire rocket broke apart. We watched in utter horror as everything went wrong. We watched Christie’s parents cope with the shocking loss of their daughter. We realized, later, that the unusually cold morning made the o-rings, the gaskets between the rocket stages, stiff and less flexible which in turn allowed jet fuel to spray over the stages below causing the flame up. We also learned later that people knew it was potentially dangerous to launch in the cold, but engineers were afraid to admit that there might be a problem. And then we learned that the astronauts, those brave men and women, didn’t instantly die in the air, but likely survived until their crew cabin hit the water at over 200 miles an hour.

Thirty years ago is a long time. I had so many dreams that day, and so many of them were dashed. So much was lost due to human error and worse, hubris. But I still give thanks for the crew of the Challenger and what they meant to me. I still feel beholden to them and their bravery. I just want to believe that we can still dream as a nation, to do great things together.



My grandson, Caleb, is facing a new world. For his first 2 1/2 years,  he’s pretty much lived an ideal Garden of Eden existence. As an only child, he got all the attention and the presents and the lunch and the love. Everything was fresh and immediate with minimally delayed gratification. But now, there is a new baby on board. Of course, he still gets lots of love and attention. But sometimes he has to wait. Sometimes her needs come before his. Caleb doesn’t like it.

I don’t blame him for his anger and a short fuse. As a fellow first born, we share a common experience of displacement. Just when we were enjoying our most favored child status, someone came along and broke our bubble. And it’s worth stating the obvious here: the change is permanent.

It used to be that one of the chief roles of religion was to offer a sense of unchanging permanence. No matter how much the world warped and woofed, the church, or the synagogue, or the mosque would provide a kind of immutable home base. This is religion’s conservatizing power: to stay the course.

Of course, there is a problem with the of immutability of religion. Technology pushes the envelope on where we can go and what we can say and hear. New ideas emerge as contact with other cultures increases. Artists begin to experiment with new forms and possibilities. Science questions long-held assumptions about the Universe and its origins. And suddenly religion becomes the ally of those who would like to freeze time in all regards. “Give me that old time religion!” becomes the rallying cry of those who feel assailed by the changing world. “This isn’t the way we used to do it!” becomes a warning to the curious and adventurous.

Reform Jews hold onto certain key Jewish teachings. We believe in social justice. We believe in living an open and ethical life. We believe that we are in the world to serve God by caring for others and ourselves. We tell our unique Jewish stories about servitude and liberation and redemption.  While we don’t believe that we are chosen as in superior to others, we do believe that as Jews we have a unique role to play in the world. We believe in learning. We believe that human knowledge evolves and that we evolve. So we utterly reject the hurtful words in Torah about homosexuality among other topics.

There is much in traditional Judaism that we postmodern Reform Jews reject. We do not feel tied to the past but rather liberated from it and its darkest misconceptions about God and humanity, about the roles of women and nonJews, about the vastness of human knowledge. We feel ennobled by ancient teachings that provide us with a sense of self and with a sense of community that create a context for who we are and what we do.

Maybe this is why Torah always sets up the older sibling to lose out to the younger one (Cain and Abel, Ishmael and Isaac, Esau and Jacob, Aaron and Moses and on and on..). Maybe the first born represents a more fragile person, less able to change and cope with the vicissitudes of living. As a first born, I don’t subscribe to the notion that we are slow to change. At least, not always…

Everything must change. Reform Jews understand that to be a fundamental truth even when it means doing things differently: Hebrew, women rabbis, interfaith involvement, contemporary music, gender-free language, concepts of God, and so much more. Our core values are the rudder that helps us to stay upright even as we plow ahead.

My grandson is having a tough time of it right now. Large-Scale change is hard. But as his life evolves he will find sources of strength and sustenance to bolster his own evolving circumstances. I hope one source will be the life-affirming resilience of Judaism. It’s been good for me… and I hope for you, too.

Still Dreaming


I’ve been listening to some of Martin Luther King’s speeches as a way of getting into the spirit of observing this weekend’s holiday.  My God! What an extraordinary orator. The intensity of his rhetoric and the depth of his faith created a kind of energy that to this day continues to inspire me and so many others.

I wonder: if MLK had been born a generation later than he was, what kind of impact would he have? In a world of fumfering, inarticulate politicians, would MLK be appreciated? Or would he be derided as unrealistic or too vague? Would his speeches be deemed too much dream, too little substance?

The Jewish people are very comfortable with dreams and dreamers. Jacob’s dream of the stairway to heaven and the angels going up and coming down inspires us every time with thoughts of timelessness and the proximity of the sacred. Joseph’s interpretations of the Pharoah’s dreams changed his life and altered the destiny of the Jewish people.

Tachlis, the Yiddish word for “the bottom line,” is a crucial component in a successful society. But without the dream, without the vision, all we have is the quotidian, the humdrum of daily life without much in the way of excitement or more importantly, inspiration.

Inspiration comes from the Latin that means to take air into one’s lungs. I get it. Without inspiration, we die. And if we consider that biological truth and then parse its metaphorical strength it makes a lot of sense. Without inspiration, without a particular someone or something that moves us, our souls grow dark.

A collective dream can inspire us to do amazing things; it can motivate us to change the world. Theodor Herzl had a dream about a Jewish state. It was utterly crazy, but he never abandoned it. Herzl’s dream inspired Jews who were desperate to find a raison d’etre, a new sense of meaning and purpose in their lives.

MLK had a dream, too. His was a dream of justice and equality. His dream was about America as a beacon of hope and freedom for the rest of the world as well as for its citizens. He dreamt about racism fading away into love and the acknowledgement that we are all created in God’s image.

MLK was a dreamer who also believed in tachlis. His legacy to keep dreaming and to keep working remains a powerful message. MLK inspired us: he breathed life and vitality into a torn, lost nation. We best honor MLK’s memory by renewing our commitment to his legacy.

Sunrise and More


My first trip to Israel was in 1972. I was with 50 wild and crazy high school graduates all of whom were a part of Young Judaea Year Course. The adventures – and misadventures – of that group could easily form the basis of a great HBO series. There was little supervision. But, an occasional Lord of the Flies episode notwithstanding, we did ok.

We travelled all over Israel, including the Sinai peninsula which was still in Israeli hands.  The second day of the Sinai trip we got to Dahab, our next destination, late at night. It was pitch black and all we knew for sure was that we were supposedly on a beach. The vague sound of distant gentle ocean waves beckoned, but it was dark and we were all exhausted. We unrolled our sleeping bags on the beach, climbed in and collapsed.

The next morning at dawn, I looked up from my sand-encrusted pillow, and there I saw the sun rising over the Red Sea. It was magnificent. No, more than that; it was life changing. Because in that moment, I became aware of time and timelessness. That as minute as I was compared to this ancient place, I was now a permanent part of it, that my essence was now absorbed in this remote place in the middle of nowhere. And, even more amazing for me: this moment of sunrise on a beach on the Sinai peninsula was now a part of me and my story. This sunrise would always exist inside of my consciousness.

All of which is to say that when I held my new granddaughter, Sylvie Rose, born on 12/30/15, 6’10”, I felt similarly changed. The first time I held her I experienced a connection over time, a realisation that this tiny baby existed in my consciousness long before she showed up. Or, as I say now at B’nai Mitzvah, as a rabbi AND as a grandfather, to the celebrant: “Your grandparents loved you before you were even conceived.”

Our sense of love and connection in the past and the future is so deeply mysterious. We generally don’t feel it. But every once in a while, the corner gets lifted back and we see things and hear things that give us pause. Even for the most sceptical and fiercely rational amongst us, there must be some allowance for the deeper truths of our lives.

The birth of a grandchild reveals just how deeply rooted in the past we are and just how magnificently we extend into the future. Claiming a grandson and a granddaughter is to declare the continuity of Jewish life, that we are still here. Declaring grandchildren is also a kind of spiritual casting of the line into the future. Yes, it is dark, relentlessly dark out there. And yet we can contemplate our progeny bringing the light. In that warm light, there is faith, as crazy as it may sound.

I am blessed with a new grandchild in whose eyes I can see something remarkable, something for which I give thanks, something I want to share with you all for the rest of my life. In Sylvie’s eyes, I see the reflection of my grandparents’ eyes – the ones I knew and the ones I did not know. I see my parents’ eyes. Of course, I see Sylvie’s sparkle and even the faint reflection of her children’s eyes. And in all of them, I see hope. It is a sight more beautiful even than sunrise at Dahab.


Shabbat Shalom