Monthly Archives: June 2018

This Little Light of Mine

This week’s Before Shabbat is the last installment of the season. It goes on hiatus for the summer, and back again in September. As for me, I go on hiatus for July in the town of Orleans.

I had a friend who, as a badge of honor, never took a break from his work. Oh, maybe an afternoon here or there. But for the most part he never strayed far from the office.

I admired that dedication, that “duty first” mentality. It looked like the right thing to do. Somehow, the self-sacrifice seemed sanctified.

Only: he wasn’t happy. The world maligned him. His wife didn’t understand him. His kids didn’t respect him. The people at work were idiots. The administration was short-sighted. Yes. He was miserable. And no wonder…

We need time to think, time to replenish our souls with rest and love. Time to be with friends and time to be on our own a bit – a walk, a drive, a swim. All this time I’d admired my buddy and his dogged self-abnegation, until it dawned on me that he was poisoning his soul, choking his neshama to death.

Taking some time doesn’t have to be an elaborate 3-month trip around the world. It can be a weekend, even a day spent in pursuit of something that nourishes your soul. After all, even God takes a day off!

A growing body of scientific evidence explains what many of us have learned from unpleasant experience: Push yourself through too many hours or days of work and your brain starts to push back. Ideas that once flowed easily dry up, and tasks that you should be able to perform quickly become excruciatingly difficult–you need to give your brain, and yourself, some rest.

It would be easy to evaluate current events and then conclude that as long as there is such indiscriminate inequality in the world, no one deserves to take time off. There’s too much work to do. But we do no one much good if our souls are starved for spiritual oxygen. There are no awards for unhappiness, no extra credit for being dour.

“Life is too short” is a common axiom. And it is true. Take some time off this summer. Take time to appreciate your life. Burnish your soul to let the pure, divine spark within you shine brightly.

This world is so in need of light. That’s our task: to light up the world and lead the way.

What are your plans for getting away? For the summer? For a weekend? Let me know. Be healthy and purposeful in your recharging. I hope we all reconvene with strength and fullness of heart and spirit.

Shabbat Shalom


Thoughts for Our Annual Meeting

It’s hard to know where to begin as I contemplate the end of our year-long 20th-anniversary celebration. It has been, so soul-satisfying to reflect on all of the things we have done together. And we have done so much! A new Torah! The magnificent Dor l’Dor campaign. Collecting a truckful of supplies after Hurricane Katrina and sending two intrepid temple members to drive it down to Mississippi. The Peter Daniel Clark seders. MLK interfaith services. Derech Eretz. 5k and 10k certified races. Jazz Shabbat. So many special concerts, including Debbie Friedman and Julie Silver. The Newton Lane Scholar in Residence series. Elie Weisel. Dedicating our social justice energy to domestic violence work… Mitzvah days.

I could generate several pages of nothing but fantastic, well-received projects and lectures and classes and initiatives. I am so thankful for all the people who worked so hard to make these things happen: staff, lay leaders, temple members, community resource people, and many more. The amount of time and energy spent on these events is prodigious.

Not everything was successful. I sometimes tried to do too much without sufficiently consulting my staff partners. Sometimes I had an idea for a program or activity, put it on the calendar, and then promptly forgot about it. Sometimes I assumed people would be interested in a certain topic or speaker or class, without first checking in with you, for whom I was planning the particular program or event. There have been times when I was juggling so many professional and personal torches, that I came close to burning myself – and sometimes, burning you. I regret those times and any pain I inflicted on you, on my family, and on my staff.

In times of duress, when some sought to accentuate my failures, so many more of you lifted me back up and pointed me in the right direction. You have been patient and loving over these 20 years. You give me lots of room to do better, to reboot, to reconsider. I know not every congregation is so kind to their rabbi.

John Gottman, the preeminent Marriage therapist, says that his work has led him to claim that there are two things that every relationship needs to survive intact: kindness and generosity. Without these two qualities, there is strife and dissolution. Your kindness and generosity have been prolific and unstinting.

Liza and a fellow rabbi friend of ours make fun of me, calling me, “The happiest rabbi in America.” The thing is, I don’t get defensive about that – anymore, that is. I wear that label with honor and joy. Yes. Sometimes being your rabbi is exhausting, but since when did anyone do good work without, sometimes, feeling exhausted? It is a true blessing for me to know from the bottom of my heart that I am doing what God wants me to do. I know this because of the feeling I get every time I walk from my car to the doors of the temple. There is a great sense of at-homeness, a true sense of nachat ruach.

Nachat ruach is a desirable and pleasant emotional and spiritual state, connoting inner fulfillment and gratification of the spirit. And I get to feel that way when I come here. Yes, there are moments when I was sad or overwhelmed or angry or disappointed; but I never doubted whether I belonged here, because I do. This is where my spirit leads me.

Some years ago, when I got to perform Tevye in our temple’s performance of Fiddler on a Roof, I sat next to Beth Shuster, who played my wife. I said to her, “It’s a new world, Golda.” Tevye was right. The world he knew, the world he assumed would still be like his father’s world and his father’s father was utterly changing, morphing faster than he could even begin to understand it. One response to the revolutionary change was to try to avoid it, closing the windows, locking the doors, and pretending everything was just fine. But of course, it was not all fine, and would never return to the way it was.

Make no mistake. We are living in times even more revolutionary than Tevye’s experience. Thank God we are not confronted by violence and persecution. The changes are, in many cases, coming from within.

Statistic #1. A study, published by the Jerusalem-based Jewish People Policy Institute, found that only 50 percent of American Jews aged 25-54 (not including the ultra-Orthodox) are currently married. Among those, close to 60 percent married non-Jews.

Statistic #2. We estimate at least 20% of the Jewish population is racially and ethnically diverse, including African, African American, Latino (Hispanic), Asian, Native American, Sephardic, Mizrahi and mixed-race Jews by heritage, adoption, and marriage.

Statistic #3. In the Greater Boston Jewish community, 37% of households (44,200) belong to a synagogue or another Jewish worship community of some type. The rate of synagogue membership in the Greater Boston area is comparable to that of the rest of the country (39%) but has declined since 2005 (42%). The number of synagogue-member households in the Greater Boston area, however, is unchanged since 2005, when it was just over 44,000.

Statistic #4.  The proportion of Boston Jews who identify as Reform or Conservative has declined since 2005. Ten years ago, these two groups accounted for nearly three quarters (74%) of Boston Jews. Today, they are only 44%. By contrast, those who claim no denomination—that is, those who are secular, culturally Jewish, or “just Jewish”—have increased from 17% to 45% of the population.

Statistic #5. Engaged young Jewish adults resist what they see as coercive expectations. They see once widely accepted normative standards – such as in-marriage and support of Israel – as optional, tentative, and, at best, a means to express higher Jewish purpose.

Statistic #6 In 2010, 50%of our Sunday School students came from Spaulding School. This year the number is less than 30%.

Statistic #7 This past year, seven families in which neither parent was Jewish, enrolled their children in our Early Learning Center.

To quote another line from another temple play, “We’re not in Kansas anymore.” All of these statistics are simply a look at who we are now. What are we going to do about it? How will we respond to these findings, some welcome, some scary, all challenging us to change our assumptions and open our hearts to who we are becoming.

Our Beth Avodah story began on this land over 55 years ago in a Quonset hut purchased from the Salvation Army Home for Wayward Girls.  We were the temple in the woods, a place invisible from the road on a dirt driveway that was almost unpassable in the winter. The mortgage was guaranteed by the founders who put up their own homes as collateral. People heated the room before services by turning on the stove and setting a window fan to blow the heat into the room. The cleaning and planting and painting and upkeep was all sweat equity from temple members.

We are not about corporate Judaism. We are the boutique temple, the alternative to the big box temples around us. We strive to make TBA a place where everybody wants to know your name, a place where our culture is to be generous and kind. We are a place where the doors are open, and the light is on, light that pierces the darkness of spiritual loneliness and leads others to find here community and empathy and hope. We are committed to becoming increasingly relational and not transactional.

We are writing the next chapter right now. How will we engage our community? How will we respond to the statistics I’ve shared? What do we do with this rapidly changing demographic information?

Some things are very clear. We must leave Puddingstone Lane and bring word of our community to a larger population as the number of Jews moving to Newton continues to decline. We must engage the micro-communities within our temple. We must provide the physical space that will be conducive to attracting our temple community as well as those in the greater community. The architecture of our temple must express open arms and generosity. Kindness and comfort need to predominate.

I invite you – I implore you to join in writing this new chapter. It must be written by all of us, not by the staff or me or lay leadership alone. If the #metoo movement has taught us anything, it is that transparency and collaboration and inclusiveness must be the new norm for all people.

It’s a new world, Golda. We don’t have to do the cleanup or the painting or pave the driveway. But: we are the ones who must build the bridges to our larger community and open our hearts to our fellow congregants. We are the ones who write the next chapter, empowered to step up and make the difference. We believe in this temple in the woods, no longer hidden away but dynamically present in making a difference. We are the ones who must recognize how much we have changed and what we need to do with that information.

Our tremendously talented advisor, Nanette Fridman, once said that right now Beth Avodah has a long runway, with plenty of active, committed people ready to fly. I agree. We have the power and the vision for take-off.  I’m ready. Let’s go!


They Are Falling…

Preserving human life is among the highest duties in Judaism, and suicide is seen as counter to this fundamental value. Human beings are barred even from harming themselves — let alone ending their own lives. Moreover, in traditional Jewish thought, the body belongs to God. As such, ending one’s life is not considered within the scope of a person’s authority.

In traditional Jewish law, suicide is anathema. “No mourning rites are observed for a person who commits suicide, no mourning for him, no eulogizing him, no rending of garments, no removing of shoes, but people should line up to comfort the mourners and recite the mourners blessing and do everything out of respect for the living.” The rule seems to be that the suicide is denied certain honors that are due to the dead. This was later understood to include denying burial in the regular cemetery and burying the suicide in a special section of the cemetery reserved for suicides. It was made clear, however, that the public should participate in everything that is done out of respect for the living. The mourners were not to be denied the comforting that was due the bereaved.

This Jewish understanding of suicide surely seems harsh. How could anyone so callously turn their backs on those who commit suicide in the name of Judaism?

The answer is that, in practice, Jews did not and do not turn away from dealing with the issue of suicide and the families that must live on afterward. Despite Jewish law officially denying a shred of empathy for victims of suicide, Jewish practice is compassionate. Rabbi Yechiel Epstein, in his classic work the Arukh HaShulchan (Yoreh De’ah 345:5), written in the mid 1890s, states, “This is the general principle in connection with suicide: we find any excuse we can and say the victim acted thus because they were in terror or great pain, or their mind was unbalanced, or they imagined it was right to do what they did for fear that they would commit a crime…It is extremely unlikely that a person would commit such an act unless they were disturbed.”

 Kay Redfield Jamison writes, “The most common element in suicide is psychopathology, or mental illness; of the disparate mental illnesses, a relative few are particularly and powerfully bound to self-inflicted death: the mood disorders (depression and manic-depression) schizophrenia, borderline and antisocial personality disorders, alcoholism, and drug abuse. Study after study in Europe, the United States, Australia, and Asia have shown the unequivocal presence of severe psychopathology in those who die by their own hand; indeed, in all of the major investigations to date, 90 to 95 percent of people who committed suicide had a diagnosable psychiatric illness.”

Of course, I am moved to write about suicide today after losing Anthony Bourdain just a few days after Kate Spade’s taking her life. I didn’t know either of them, but I knew their work. Bourdain, a foodie’s favorite guy, was a fabulous raconteur who took viewers and readers everywhere imaginable to experience the world’s cuisines and the cooks who created it. He was handsome and profane and experienced and fun.

Kate Spade created handbags as bright and as bold and as fun as any ever created. Her name signified fun and flair and life. Her style bespoke a true eye for beauty and elan.

Frank Bruni, in the Times, discusses how powerfully their suicides speak “to the discrepancy between what we see of people on the outside and what they’re experiencing on the inside; between their public faces and their private realities; between their visible swagger and invisible pain. Parts unknown: That was true of Bourdain. That was true of Spade. That’s true of every one of us.

Bourdain’s and Spade’s deaths happened in a week when newly released government statistics revealed a staggering increase in suicides by Americans of more than 25 percent from 1999 to 2016, when nearly 45,000 Americans took their own lives. Experts worry that this trajectory reflects a breakdown in social bonds, in community. It’s unclear how or if Bourdain and Spade fit into that picture.”

In fact, it is unclear how and why people take the most drastic step possible when confronting pain or madness or loss: to end it all. For those of us who have been in the terrifying valley of the shadow of death, we know what it’s like to dread the next day. We bemoan the darkness. We languish in the pain. And eventually, with lots of help and love and patience and sometimes medication, we slowly reemerge into the light. But sometimes people end up caught in such stultifying depression that they cannot move. And they fall.

Bourdain was one of those people about whom others said, “I had no idea he was suffering!” And it’s true. As a great therapist once taught me: “There are 2 things you will never know: what someone else is thinking or feeling.” That invisible existential wall that separates us can sometimes be 100 feet tall.

I wish I knew what pushes people to end their lives, people who seem so together, so with it… It is such a mystery and I have no good answer. After doing lots of research, no one else seems to either. There are symptoms and precipitating events. But what leads one person to go and one to stay is shrouded in the fog of the uniqueness of the human soul.

I mourn the loss of Anthony Bourdain and Kate Spade. I mourn the loss of Karen Douglas, Katie Stack, and Roee Grutman. I mourn the loss of thousands of people I did not know who, soul sick, took their own lives. We must keep our hearts open and our arms outstretched to provide shelter from the storm. A warm and loving community is not the answer, not the sole antidote; but it’s a beginning.

If you’re struggling with thoughts of suicide, please contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline  at 1-800-273-8255, available 24 hours a day, every day.

Shabbat Shalom


Creating Balance

While living in Los Angeles, I experienced my first earthquake in a big food court across the street from HUC. I was sitting by myself at a small Formica table, eating a sandwich and reading a book while slurping a cup of coffee. There was a loud noise followed by the sensation of movement. Then it wasn’t just a sensation. Everything started moving. Everything. The ground, the suspended light fixtures, the floor, the walls: everything. I didn’t know what the next step was supposed to be, other than searching out the nearest exit. I waited and watched how the native Angelenos were going to handle it.
Nobody kept eating. People made their way to the exit, so I made mine. I staggered a bit, seeking some steadiness, something to hold onto. But there was nothing to hold on to that wasn’t already moving. There was no stability to be found.
It feels like I’m living in an earthquake zone. I keep trying to find firm footing, only to be struck with a sense of vertigo. The institutions I have always looked up to for direction and authority, whether I agreed or disagreed with them, are mired in controversy and scandal. The national institutions of justice are criticized as partisan and crooked. The press, the guardian of democracy, is accused of being ‘fake news.’
Collaborative government, consensus building, compromise, are all dead on a national level. We are left with a vital question: where is there stability? What’s happening?
When a mentally unbalanced tv actress tweets that a black woman is the spawn of the Muslim Brotherhood and an ape, and there’s anything other than a mad rush to condemn her awful racism, something is wrong. That her tweet could be compared to Samantha Bee’s odious comment about Ivanka Trump, or to Bill Mahrer’s statement that the president is an orangutan, is willful ignorance. Bee’s statement was crude; Mahrer’s was foolish. But Roseanne’s comment was straight up racism, and she deserved to be canned.
Then, of course, there’s the embarrassing fact that she’s Jewish. I don’t care who she votes for, and I don’t care who she makes fun of for a laugh. That’s her job. But when she – or anyone else – spouts racist or antisemitic sentiments, as she has in the past, by the way,  that’s where we part company. That’s where we, as a community, draw a line. It’s not a bold thing to say, I know. But it is a necessary statement to reiterate.
To call oneself a Jew is to acknowledge a special obligation to the world. It’s not an exclusivist phenomenon. It’s a response to being a light to the nations. And being a light is not passive. Of necessity, it puts us in front, on the ramparts. That’s where Jews belong, seeking to be a light, rather than adding to the darkness.
That’s why we’re here: to do our best to be a rudder, a correcting force in the face of a full assault on diversity. It’s a big job, and someone’s got to do it.