Monthly Archives: March 2018

Shalom, Haver

What a full-tilt couple of weeks it’s been for me and so many of my temple family. There was the March 10 20th anniversary celebration, including great food, a beautiful video presentation, speeches, jazz, and so many members of the TBA flock, not to mention old friends from many years ago. And a week later we were saying goodbye to our rabbi emeritus, Bob Miller.
I was so sad when Rabbi Miller told me he wasn’t feeling up to attending the party on Saturday night. First, I know he loved a good party. Second, his loving support of my rabbinate has been a true gift.We had a bond of friendship and common cause. We both loved Beth Avodah, and we loved and appreciated each other.
Rabbi Miller’s dedication to Beth Avodah was and will remain deeply inspiring. It’s in that spirit that I share the eulogy I delivered on Sunday, March 18th.
.נולד אדם – הכל שמחין, מת – הכל בוכין. ואינו כן
When a person is born, we all celebrate, and when a person dies, everyone cries. But it shouldn’t be this way. Rather, when a person is born, it’s not appropriate to celebrate for him because no one knows what his portion will be and on what deeds he shall stand, whether he will be righteous or wicked, good or evil. But when he dies, we should indeed rejoice, for he has passed away with a good name and left the world in peace.
It is like a parable of two ships near a harbor. One was going out to sea, and the other was coming in from its voyages. Everyone around the harbor was celebrating for the one setting out, while no one celebrated the ship coming in. Someone came up and said, “These actions are backward! We shouldn’t celebrate the ship that’s first starting out on its journey because none of us knows what it shall encounter out there: how long will it last, and what storms will it face? Likewise, we should celebrate for the one that’s returning home because it enters in peace.”
From Kohelet Rabba 7:4
Rabbi Miller always loved a good text. No matter what the occasion: a bar mitzvah, a wedding, a Shabbat service, a funeral: he found just the right citation. He did it without Google or a software package. Rabbi Miller had a great memory for Torah and Torah commentaries. That had something to do with his Yeshiva background, as well as his training at HUC for the Reform rabbinate. He absorbed it all – it was in him. No, it WAS him.
With all his heart, he believed that his rabbinate was a sacred calling. Rabbi Miller’s generation of Reform rabbis saw themselves as teachers of the tradition, as living transmitters of the ancient teachings of Judaism. But they also carried a heavy responsibility as creators of an all-new, post-war, post-Holocaust, postmodern Judaism that now included a state of Israel.
Rabbi Miller also loved rabbis. He went out of his way to gather with them, shmooze, study, learn with them. His colleagues, still active or retired have written to me praising his memory, his kindness, his menschlichkeit, his humanity, and his laughter.
Rabbi Miller took that mantle of the rabbinate seriously and wore it with pride all of his days. He was a gifted teacher and a skilled homilist. He spoke with insight and passion, and always with a good text. He knew his way around the liturgy and never felt as if he had to look over his shoulder at his more traditional contemporaries. His background gave him the vocabulary to daven with the Orthodox and the traditional Conservative communities. In fact, this knowledge base gave him a valuable carte blanche enabling him to enter different circles of the Jewish community. He strongly supported the establishment of the JCC in Newton and the Rashi School.
Rabbi Miller’s erudition was unassailable. But he didn’t lead with that aspect of his rabbinate. Yes, he loved Judaism. But more than that: he loved Jews. It was why God put him on this earth: to serve the Jewish people. He loved our mores, our culture, our unique ways of living our lives. Nobody could shmooze like Bob Miller. Nobody could interrogate a complete stranger with such innocent wonder.
Rabbi Miller cared about his flock. He held them close and loved them. He treated them with compassion and understanding. He listened with warmth and concern. When people had difficult issues in their lives and came to him with their tzuris, Rabbi Miller listened and did not hold back when he believed they were headed in the wrong direction. He was an authentic, unpretentious man who loved his life and the people in it.
Having said all this, I don’t want to leave the impression that Rabbi Miller cared only about Jews. He did deeply believe that all men and women were created in God’s image. Which is to say that he was an equal opportunity schmoozer. I can recall so many times when we were together, and if a Hispanic person were working near him, he’d look at their name tag and begin a conversation in a terribly butchered Spanish. But it worked every time.
As much as he loved being a rabbi, he approached retirement without much ambivalence. He had literally given himself to his congregation for so many years and realized, to his chagrin, that he had missed so many important moments with his kids and grandkids as well as with his partner, Margaret.
Margaret was an essential part of Bob’s life. She was his companion, ever present and ever vigilant. She was his fierce defender. Margaret brought Bob the soft edges he lacked. She introduced him to the broader world of art and music. She adored Bob. And he thought himself to be a lucky man to have such a classy, beautiful, erudite wife.
They had big plans for his retirement, which included being designated clergy on a cruise ship around the world. It was during that cruise that Margaret began to show symptoms of what would be diagnosed as Parkinson’s. They had to leave the ship and come home.
I know how this terrible confluence of events broke his heart. He told me that he had waited too long, that he had done a disservice to Margaret and the kids. But most of all, his heart broke for his Margaret. She was supposed to be the stronger one. She was supposed to take care of him. Whenever we spoke of Margaret and the terrible ravages of Parkinson’s, he would shake his head in disbelief, as if this could not be happening to her. He shlepped her to doctors’ appointments, picked up medications, spoke with her physicians, got her to PT. He devoted his life to her. And he never ever once complained, never once bemoaned his fate. He said his heart wept for Margaret every day.
When he had the accident, landing face first at the bottom of the steps in their home, we all feared that he would die. Then we feared he would have brain damage and perhaps paralysis. When I saw him at the hospital the day after the accident, he looked terrifying. That he fully recovered is truly miraculous. It was a combination of stubbornness and his reluctance to leave Margaret that kept him going.
Margaret’s death devastated him. I watched it wash over him like a tsunami. The waters of grief receded to the horizon and then rose and overwhelmed him. He had to reconfigure his life from the center of a large congregational family to becoming a widower with grown children. The steadfastness of his children was his lifeline, his reason to keep going. Your love, your empathy helped your dad survive. He missed so many events in your lives, but he never doubted your love for him, nor did you ever doubt his love for you.
Bob’s move to Newbridge was a brilliant decision. It was a new chapter in his life, one he adapted to with vigor and joy. Rabbi Judi Ehrlich of Newbridge is here this morning and will speak of his life there. Suffice to say that those of us who loved Bob found such solace in his new life there. Walking with Bob down the hall, in the cafeteria, anywhere on the grounds of his new home, was like being with the mayor of Newbridge.
Twenty-one years ago, as Bob prepared to retire from the temple he loved so much, he said to his people, and often repeated the words, “You can love two rabbis.” It wasn’t a suggestion; it was a subtle request. What a gift that was to me, a gift I will never forget.
This past year at Rosh Hashanah, Bob blessed me on my 20th anniversary. He came up to the bimah and said how great it was to celebrate two big events: the 20thanniversary of my tenure at Beth Avodah, and the 20th anniversary of his retirement. Then he laughed that laugh, that right from the belly, unexpurgated laugh: so loud, so unrestrained, so him! His kindness and his loving approbation were in his words, in his laughter, in his embrace.
Bob and I spoke last on Wednesday. He was foggy and exhausted, yet he wanted to know how the 20th-anniversary celebration had gone. I described the event, and he kvelled. I told him that I had acknowledged how I had come into what had been his world for almost three decades and proceeded to change things: a lot, and that I didn’t get it right all the time. He shook his head. “Every rabbi has to be true to himself. I brought new ideas with me when I got to Beth Avodah. You did the same; it’s the only way it can be.”
Even at the end of his life, he was full of affirmation and kindness.
Bob Miller was a loving son and brother, a passionate husband and father and grandfather. He was a learned, great and kind rabbi. He loved Temple Beth Avodah with a deep and abiding strength.
Bob Miller was my dear friend. He was my rav muvhak – a teacher of rabbis. He was a delight. And I will miss him with all of my heart.
הכל צריכין
לשמוח ולשבח שנפטר בשם טוב בשלום מן העולם הוא
So it is when a person dies. Better to rejoice and celebrate, for he has left this world in peace and with a good name.

Life is What Happens

John Lennon sang these words in his sweet song, Beautiful Boy, “Life is what happens to you while you are busy making other plans.” I had planned to share with you today some thoughts about my 20th-anniversary celebration last Saturday night and all the joy and naches that washed over me. I was filled with such gratitude for all that has come to me through the love of my congregation and by God’s grace. I also had planned to share my 20th-anniversary remarks with you.
While I was busy making plans, our beloved rabbi emeritus, Bob Miller, died today. I don’t know quite what to say. It did not come as a shock – I knew he would be dying soon. It’s the actual finality of it all, the reality of this loss, which hurts so much.
We assume that some people in our lives will always be there for us, that they will never leave. Rabbi Miller filled up so much space. His fabulous laughter. His warmth and desire to really know people. His voice, which got louder as his hearing diminished. How could such a vibrant soul not be there always, like a beacon, a warm source of goodness?
But, of course, this feeling that someone will never leave is selfish – and wrong. There are no guarantees. In fact, the only guarantee is that we are finite; we will all die.
Rabbi Miller and I spoke last on Wednesday. He was foggy and exhausted, yet he wanted to know how the 20th-anniversary celebration had gone. I described the event, and he kvelled. I told him that I had acknowledged how I had come into what had been his world for almost three decades and proceeded to change things: a lot. He shook his head. “Every rabbi has to be true to himself. I brought new ideas with me when I got to Beth Avodah. You did the same; it’s the only way it can be.” Such a gracious soul…
“Life is what happens to you while you are busy making other plans.” I didn’t realize that today I’d be dealing with the death of my mentor, my emeritus, my friend. I am so sad. And I am so grateful that our lives intersected. I will never forget his kindness, his wisdom, and his teachings. I pray that his memory shall always be a blessing.

Who Knows One

This is the run-up to Passover, which is, hold onto your seats, three weeks away. I can hear the strains of Dayenu wafting through the air right now.  Of all the Jewish holidays on the calendar, Passover holds the most memories. Sitting around the table, year after year, the cast of characters shifting, growing, contracting, growing again.

The seder has morphed for lots of us. In the old days, many of us had some old guy at the end of the table interminably mumbling in Hebrew as the guests around the table surreptitiously noshed or listlessly rolled their eyes,  overwhelmed by ennui. At the kid’s tables, there was a slow squirming right before the silverware percussion began. It was a dangerous scene, parents warning the kids to cease and desist, or else no afikomen prize…

Now the seder is a much hipper scene. This is reflected in the sheer number of hagadot on the market today. Everything from  A Passover Haggadah, prepared by the Central Conference of American Rabbis, to The Passover Haggadah: The Feast Of Freedom, prepared by the Rabbinical Assembly of the Conservative Movement, to A Night Of Questions, for The Reconstructionist Movement. There’s A Different Night: The Family Participation Haggadah , published by the Hartman Institute in Jerusalem, New American Haggadah, edited by Jonathan Safran Foer, and about 200 others, from hardcore ultra-Orthodox no mixing matzo with water, to Like An Orange on a Seder Plate: Our Lesbian Haggadah by Ruth Simpkins, to Ma Nishtana: A Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender, Questioning, Ally Haggadah, to the Global Diversity Haggadah. I’m sure there are still old guys mumbling at the table, but more and more, there are seders that include Martin Luther King and Eli Weisel, seders where the music of Bob Marley and The Redemption Song, resonate beside Adir Hu and Who Knows One.

The Sixties was a turning point for seder tables around America. Somehow Jews began to realize that the words in the Haggadah, the true meaning and substance of the text, was about change and liberation and the end of subjugation.  We are a strange nation that moves to the beat of a different drummer. Maybe it has something to do with the Passover story; maybe it didn’t even happen. But I think most Jews believe something may have happened. Surely this has something to do with the fact that Jews the world over, frequently of imperfect faith, have gathered sometimes awkwardly and even resentfully around Seder tables annually and retold their ancient narrative. They have sung and talked about an almost broken people who were remembered and redeemed … for a unique role and an existential mission. They all told a similar story of hope, obligation, and gratitude, expounding upon (but not changing) the universal format of Pesach, Matzo, and Marror, no matter how wonderful or horrible things were, regardless of their legitimate doubts.

The scary thing about change is that you can never know what the next stage is in the metamorphic process. We know about caterpillars and butterflies, about tadpoles and frogs. But we humans are an utterly unpredictable species. Once we acknowledge that we need to change with the times, where, as Tevye once asked, does it stop?

This is a continuation of the Judaism 2.0 trope. What was once the answer no longer works. We are challenged to make our Judaism a relevant part of our lives, not culinary nostalgia for a bowl of matzah ball soup, then business as usual. The seder must be a place where good food is accompanied by good conversation and relevant controversies. Otherwise, the ride is over, and Judaism becomes an atavistic footnote, as quaint and “odd” as Amish in buggies. Make it real!

Shabbat Shalom,


PS This Saturday night is my 20th anniversary with Temple Beth Avodah. Twenty years?? It has been a ride of a lifetime, and the good news is there is still more to come! I am so grateful for this moment in time. I will put my remarks up online. In the meantime, Shabbat Shalom – and thank you.

The Jewish Heart and Soul

The medieval poet, Yehudah Halevy, is most known for his treatise called, The Kuzari, and for this poem:

My heart is in the east, and I in the uttermost west–

How can I find savor in food? How shall it be sweet to me?

How shall I render my vows and my bonds, while yet

Zion lies beneath the fetter of Edom, and I in foreign chains?

A light thing would it seem to me to leave all the good things of Spain —

Seeing how precious in mine eyes to behold the dust of the desolate sanctuary.

Halevy here describes a deep longing, a yearning for the land of Israel that is palpable. Like a young man who is far away from his love, just thinking about his object of affection causes a loss of appetite. He just cannot think of anything else – he’s useless. As good as the best things in life are in Spain, he would abandon them all to just to see the dust of the remnants from the 2nd Temple. That’s some obsessive yearning. He would simply say that it’s true love.

I’ve been home from Israel for five days. And I’ve made enough round trips to and from Israel to keep my yearning at a tolerable temperature. When I went to Israel for rabbinical school in 1978, I fell in love with Israel. Hard. I even know when it was.

I went food shopping one afternoon at the Supersol in Jerusalem. I was going to prepare a beautiful, fancy meal and wanted to make saffron rice. Real saffron is very expensive. It’s made from the threads that grow in a crocus. It supposedly takes 20,000 crocuses to make an ounce of saffron. The woman at the cash register was tallying up my purchases, commenting as she did so. “This is good bread – better than the bakery across the street. This avocado… did you squeeze it first? Eat it soon or else”, and so forth. When she picked up the saffron and eyed the price, she stopped. She looked at me – very seriously. “You’re a student, right?” “Yes”, I answered as the shoppers in the vicinity leaned in, without shame, to hear her castigate me for my costly little vial of herb. “You can’t buy this. It’s too expensive. Use turmeric instead.”

I was in love. “This is where I want to live!”, I thought, “I want to be in a nation where everybody has an opinion about what I spend on spices. I want this kind of intimacy and connectedness.”  Later I would learn the adage that the thing that you love most about your partner, in the beginning, is the very thing you come to hate 20 years after…

The real issue that ended up preventing me from making Aliyah was my chosen profession. There wasn’t a lot going on for American borne Reform rabbis in Israel in the late Seventies. I didn’t want to be an English teacher for Israeli high school students. The dream of being a rabbi was too deeply planted by then to replace my love for this country that so touched me to the core.

The wild love I had for Israel slowly attenuated to something a bit more manageable. Sometimes I can’t help but wonder what if I had taken that other path and followed that other passion. In the end, though, I know I made the right decision. Because of my wife and family. Because the work of the rabbinate is my calling. Because in my heart I am an American Jew.

I don’t feel myself a stranger in a strange land as Halevy did. There are no chains on me. Living in Israel is simply not the only authentic choice for a Jew in the 21st century.  So I live that split level Jewish life, my heart and soul in the east … and in the west.

Bringing Home So Much More

We’ve reached that point in traveling when the ratio between clean clothes and dirty clothes has most definitely fallen into the latter category. It’s a sign that the trip is almost over. And what a joyful trip it’s been.
I’ve been lucky enough to travel for the past 10 days with an extraordinary group of TBA adolescents – thirteen of them. Sometimes they remind me of those old WWII movies. There’s always the tough guy with a heart of gold; the quiet one who is just waiting for someone to reach out; the funny one who must crack wise; the loud one who never learned to whisper; the curious one who must know what’s next; the one who hates the food – or the bed – or the bus; the one who quietly shares a hard story they’ve never shared before, and so on.
Now before you try to guess who is who, let me stress here that all of the travelers, including me and my fantastic TBA team of Becky Oliver and Francie Weinberg, were never just one of these. In fact, like the Four Children of the Passover Seder, we were all a little bit of all of those caricatures.
The fact is, this is a complicated world to grow up in and our kids are trying desperately to keep up. If I were a teen, I would bury my face in my smartphone, too. It’s a scary world out there. And precisely because it is so scary, we have to expose them to it, like treatment for allergy desensitization. Hiding the facts of love and war, of greed and altruism, is no good for them or for the world they will inherit.
That’s ultimately what this Israel trip is about. Opening doors to vistas our kids have never seen before. Showing them difficult political and social problems with the added complication of it being based here, in the Jewish State. Challenging them to begin going deep instead of floating on the surface of an issue of relevance. We are daring to move beyond the old stories and create new ones. We honor the tales of the past, the tremendous sacrifices of the early Zionists, the unthinkable reality of surviving the Holocaust with no place to go, the fortitude and courage of the Israeli people and their determination to become an open, Jewish democratic state.
With these stories we are proudly moving for, ard to be a people with integrity. We can’t cloak ourselves in history and coast along. We have to be present in the here and now. We must work for an Israel of social justice, living up to the words of Israel’s Declaration of Independence.
I sincerely hope our kids bring home not only a strong desire to be part of Israel’s future. I hope they take this inspiration and apply it to our nation, too. I hope they see that as Jews we are commanded to take a stand, even if we are ridiculed and threatened. As we see the kids from Parkland, FL demanding justice, it’s all about choosing to speak up.
This fact was emphasized so many times by so many adults we met, adults whose lives are dedicated to peace and understanding – in a real way, not in a superficial lip service way. But today, when one of the Israeli kids from Haifa quoted President John F. Kennedy, saying “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country”, I thought, “We might make it.”
Tonight is our second Shabbat in Israel. Our kids are tired and ready to come home. Tomorrow we will pack up the dirty clothes and the gifts and the shoes and so forth. But believe me: we will be bringing home so much more.