Monthly Archives: November 2018

Gathering All Together

Liza and I received an invitation in the mail late last week to a Hanukkah party in Dallas, Texas. Even though we moved to Newton 21 years ago, we remain on the list of invitees. Every year, from 1986-1996, my children, my wife, and I would attend. It was a big, and always expanding group of adults and kids from Temple Emanuel in Dallas, the temple where my wife had her first pulpit position. The food was consistently great. There was always music and general fun. And the piece de resistance was always a Hanukkah piñata for the kids – this is Texas, after all. I have nothing but warm memories of those parties and the hosts who were always so genuinely gracious and kind.

This year’s invitation was a picture of a Hanukkah candle lighting from a recent party. Nina, the hostess, is in the foreground. Around her are a number of young children and a few adults. I recognize no one else.

So much time has passed since I attended their Hanukkah party: 22 years, in fact. In that time, so much has changed for all of us who are still on the party mailing list. Some of our kids are married. Some of our parents are dead. Some of us have grandkids. Some of us have been successful in our chosen professions. Some of us have been through tragedy and anguish.

I don’t think I’ve spoken a word to Nina and Bob, the hosts of the party, since 1996-7. Are they retired? I can’t imagine, but maybe they are. Are their daughters all married or single? Do they have grandkids? Are they healthy?

It’s obvious that we are no longer friends. At least, we’re not friends as the term is commonly understood. Whatever connection we had – and it was a really good and strong connection – has faded to a blur, as happens for so many of us who have moved around a bit.

So why, if that is the case, did I feel this wave of nostalgia wash over me like a warm bath of love when I opened the invitation? Why didn’t it go right to recycling with a comment like, “That’s nice”? Why is the invitation still sitting on the kitchen counter? Because time collapses when face to face with experiences of love and God and community. Even though we do not talk, the love from those years still exists.

I so appreciate this invitation, because it shows thoughtfulness and kindness. It means at some point when Nina printed out the address labels, she looked at our name and thought of us, if only for as long as it takes to stuff an envelope. I certainly think of Nina and Bob and their daughters as I look at the picture on the invite. I am transported back to the years we attended. I remember my son, Jonah, wildly swinging the piñata bat. I remember my daughter, Sara, swinging on the swing in the backyard. And I remember the sense of community we shared. The camaraderie of voices joined in Hanukkah prayers and then a rousing Rock of Ages, and the warm, fuzzy feeling of connection and love and family ties.

Such moments, such memories, do not ever disappear. They reinforce our shared feelings of connectedness. They give our lives a kind of direction, a sense of meaning and agency. Sure, it’s fine to be with one’s own family for any given celebration. But the sense of unity, of sharing something sacred and timeless with others can bring us peace of mind that we can only obtain when in relationship with others. That’s why gathering just for the sake of gathering is so important in our tradition. That’s why in Hebrew, the word for synagogue is beyt Knesset, house of gathering. This is what Jews do, all over the world. And we love to share it with anyone who wants to absorb the glow of the candles and the beauty of being in community, in connection.

Our years of Dallas Hanukkah celebrations remain not only as good memories fraught with nostalgia for yesteryear, but also as cherished experiences of Jewish life lived fully and in concert with others. Perhaps that’s our most important task at TBA: to build positive memories of Jewish meaning within community. The ritual or the activity is, in a way, secondary to the profound feeling we derive from gathering with purpose. In such a context we can learn what it actually means to be-here-now. And that is a priceless Hanukkah gift for which I will be thankful for the rest of my life. Come build some memories.

Shabbat Shalom


Thanks on Thanksgiving

The world is too much with us, according to William Wordsworth. I couldn’t agree more. There is such a swirl of frenetic activity all around us, much of it dark and foreboding. It creates a kind of low-level anxiety that is always playing in the background. Dripping like a faucet, we can’t seem to get it out of our heads, even for a little bit.

But… tonight is the first snowfall of the season. It is a quiet snow, and everything looks beautiful in the glow of streetlights. As it covers the street and the sidewalks I begin to recalibrate a bit. I breathe.

Despite a creeping sense of vulnerability following Pittsburgh, the murders in Thousand Oaks followed by unparalleled fire damage and fatalities, missiles, and mortars in Israel, Ebola reappearing, and so many more disquieting facts and situations… the snow looks beautiful. What does this prove? That even in a dark, ugly time, there is still exquisite beauty in the world, still things that bring us a feeling of gratitude and even, dare I suggest it? – a sense of hope.

Elie Wiesel once wrote, “I believe it is possible, in spite of everything, to believe in friendship in a world without friendship, and even to believe in God in a world where there has been an eclipse of God’s face. Above all, we must not give in to cynicism. To save the life of a single child, no effort is too much. To make a tired old man smile is to perform an essential task. To defeat injustice and misfortune, if only for one instant, for a single victim, is to invent a new reason to hope.”

Wiesel was always my touchstone of hope. His ongoing testimony to the capacity of men and women to commit abominable acts of cruelty, and his affirmation of life and living was a tightrope walk I have long appreciated and learned from. It’s never just one or the other. Even in Hell, there is a not-Hell. Even amid sadness and loss, there is not-sadness and not-loss. Life and the blossoming of new ideas and the embrace of friends and family and community members are waiting.

This all comes as I watch the snow falling, remembering the fantastic joy the first snowfall brought me as a child. As lost as I may have felt, as vulnerable as I truly was, getting out there to the snow was an urge that pulled me from my sadness and worries with profound magnetic force. The sounds of nylon and zippers and buckled boots, the feel of the hat and the gloves, the edge of being overheated before getting outside, this is a transcendent mélange of memories.

Along with the snow is another fact, another memory set: Thanksgiving is coming. In less than a week, Liza and I will host a yearly convocation of the kids, the grandkids, and dear old family friends. We will sing and laugh and laugh some more. We will eat a fabulous meal that I will cook, and we’ll think about where we’ve all gone since our first meal together for Thanksgiving decades ago. And we will sing from our songbook and laugh some more. And all this: despite the slow spread of neo-fascism, the dreaded effect of climate change, the fire fatalities, the new normal that no longer chokes on mass murder and guns, and… well, fill in the blank…

All we’ve got is this world and this life. And all we can do in it and with it is to make decisions that affirm life, justice, dignity, and equality. It is, sometimes, next to impossible to know what to do. But leaning into righteousness is never wrong.

Enjoy your Thanksgiving. And for God’s sake, before you dig in and celebrate, take a moment to give thanks: for love, laughter, community, resilience, and each other.

Shabbat Shalom


Eighty Years

On the night of November 9, 1938, violent anti-Jewish demonstrations broke out across Germany, Austria, and the Sudetenland region of Czechoslovakia. Nazi officials depicted the riots as justified reactions to the assassination of German foreign official Ernst vom Rath, who had been shot two days earlier by Herschel Grynszpan, a 17-year old Polish Jew distraught over the deportation of his family from Germany.

Over the next 48 hours, violent mobs, spurred by antisemitic exhortations from Nazi officials, destroyed hundreds of synagogues, burning or desecrating Jewish religious artifacts along the way. Acting on orders from Gestapo headquarters, police officers and firefighters did nothing to prevent the destruction. All told, approximately 7,500 Jewish-owned businesses, homes, and schools were plundered, and 91 Jews were murdered. An additional 30,000 Jewish men were arrested and sent to concentration camps. Nazi officials immediately claimed that the Jews themselves were to blame for the riots, and a fine of one billion Reichsmarks (about $400 million at 1938 rates) was imposed on the German Jewish community.

On November 9, 1938, my father, Hans Stern, was an eleven-year-old living in the Baruch Auerbach Jewish orphanage. His parents had committed suicide a month or so before he was placed there. I have often wondered what it must have been like to be so vulnerable to uncontrolled, uncontained violence. To hear the noise of the mob, the antisemitic chanting, the smell of smoke in the air.

As I have previously shared with you, my father never spoke of his life. His day to day existence is essentially a light blur across a screen. The more I have learned about trauma and PTSD, the clearer it becomes to me just how tortured a soul my father had. He was angry, unpredictably violent, and lost in a terrifying world. When I try to put myself into his eleven-year-old mindset, I can only do so for a moment or two before I shut down.

Kristallnacht was a pogrom, a state-sponsored act of terrorism enacted throughout Germany. In her book, Between Dignity and Despair, Marion Kaplan writes that during the pogrom, Germans displayed “… a mixture of rampant viciousness, studied ignorance, and occasional kindness… What were the reactions of Germans not immediately involved either in the destruction or in helping the Jews? While most approved of, or went along with ‘moderate’ antisemitism, many disapproved of the open barbarism of the November Pogrom… Still, there are almost no cases of public opposition to it.”

After Pittsburgh, I thought a lot about our current vulnerability as Jews in America. I thought about our connections to the American zeitgeist and our contributions to the heart and soul of America. And I am ineluctably drawn to confidently assert that we are blessed to be citizens of the United States.

The number of people who are not Jewish, who, after Pittsburgh, declared themselves allies, is legion. The outpouring of sympathy has been heartfelt and authentic. In no way, shape, or form, is it open season on Jews in America.

I am much more worried right now about simply being an American, vulnerable to people like the Pittsburgh shooter, or the Thousand Oaks shooter, or the Las Vegas shooter, or… the list is endless. These are disturbed male loners, mentally ill and able to legally purchase deadly weapons and special ammo magazines that maximize the kill per bullet ratio. Their psychopathology leads them to feed on hatred, which is in no short supply. Their paranoid delusions about mobs of unknown evil people out to get them are stoked every day by a president who uses fear as a potent get-out-the-vote message. They get inspiration from neo-Nazis, fascists and rabble-rousing haters to go out and destroy the enemy: Blacks, Jews, gays and lesbians, Sikhs, Hispanics – in short, to destroy the Other.

I wish to God I knew some wise response to these random acts of hatred. I wish the Parkland aftermath and the youth crusade had made a dent in gun violence. But the NRA and its allies knew that if they just kept quiet and refused to acknowledge these young people, the gun control push would slowly ebb and fade away. They knew they could count on Congress to do absolutely nothing.

Antisemitism is one manifestation of growing intolerance and violence in this nation. So is racism. So is the move to rescind rights for transgender people. There are not enough security guards in the world to protect America from the creep of fascism and hatred. We, along with our allies, must say no to extremism. We must say no to singling out those who are different. We must say no to those who spew hatred for profit. We must say yes to rational gun laws, yes to better mental health intervention, yes to educating our children in the strength of American diversity.

Eighty years ago tonight, was the official notice that Jewish life in Germany was going to end in tragedy and violence. Pittsburgh is not a message of an ending. It is not a signal to hide, to make our Jewish institutions castles with moats and gun turrets. Pittsburgh is a challenge to the Jews of America to remember the past and never succumb to fear.


Trying to Breathe

The Holocaust has been a part of my consciousness as a Jew since I was 13 years old. Not a day goes by without some image or song or phrase evoking a Holocaust reference. I know – it sounds excessive, perhaps OCD. It is a wound, a scar that never goes away. This Holocaust-centric consciousness is a burden that darkens many private moments in my life. But it also daily inspires me to be an upstander, and not a bystander to world events.

As hyperconscious as I am about the Holocaust, I have always been among those who find any attempt to use the past as an indicator of the future to be facile and ultimately uninformed. History does not repeat itself, but it does often rhyme. It is true that given similar situations, similar outcomes often occur. But History is like a river. Always flowing and never the same.

Deborah Lipstadt, a professor of Jewish history at Emory, about whom the movie, Defiance was written, was just interviewed in the German weekly, Der Spiegel. She said, “What we fight today is not fascism — or maybe, not yet fascism. It is populism, from the right and from the left. I am wary of Nazi comparisons, but what I see is a kind of ugly populism whose hateful rhetoric reminds me of how the National Socialists in Germany came to power. It’s an ethnocentric populism, it feeds a dangerous mood, a sort of tyranny of the mob. Many Americans think Hitler came to power by a revolution, but he won elections. We should not forget that.”

And as Abraham Foxman, former head of the Anti Defamation League, said recently, “We used to say, you want to find out the level of democracy in a country? Ask the Jews. The Jews are the canary in the coal mine of democracy. But the reverse is also true. If you want to know how Jews are faring, take a look at the level of democracy.”

Antisemitism is certainly on the rise in Europe as well as in the United States. We know from our own experiences in Newton that even in our bubble there are people who hate Jews, drawing swastikas in public schools and writing offensive antisemitic graffiti. This is real.

But – this is not the beginning of the end. It is exactly the right time to reject apocalyptic thinking. instead, we must actively work in ways that will strengthen our local Jewish community, as well as the entire American Jewish community. Wringing our hands will not do us any good. Indulging in anxious fantasies about the bad guys and seeking to transform synagogues into armed high-security enclaves is self-defeating.

So you want to know what’s next…? Me, too. I want to know what’s going to happen out there. How will the American conscience respond to this antisemitic attack? How will the Jews of America respond? Will we be able to band together? Or will we be hopelessly out of synch and out of time like we usually are?

Yes, this is a time where cynicism can easily become the predominant way of seeing the world. It’s tempting to assume the worst. So, when we get spooked by a disaster such as Pittsburgh, it’s not just a function of our present fear, but a recognition of our cherished past. We’re shocked because something about Pittsburgh felt so un-American, so foreign.

It’s easy to forget all this while our ears are ringing with cries of a rise in anti-Semitism; … Anti-Semitism may still be alive and well and growing in dark corners, but let’s not overlook the enormous outpouring of love and concern for the Jews from across the country. This should serve as a reminder of how fully integrated we have become in American society.

I was heartened to read a powerful sermon by Rabbi Julia Appel, Senior Jewish Educator and Campus Rabbi for Hillel at the University of Toronto. She is a Beth Avodah alum. Her parents, Neal and Barbara Appel, are members. She writes: “I refuse to walk through this world afraid. I refuse to walk through this world responding to the violence done to my people with a closed tent or a closed fist. 4 Because that is how they win. I will live my one Jewish life to walking through this world with the values given me by our people, our traditions, our families: Love the stranger. Remember where you come from. Do what is right…”

Her words remind me of the prophet Micah, who taught us that God requires from us just 3 things: “To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.” (Micah 6:8) When we combine Micah’s words with Rabbi Appel’s words, we have a roadmap into the unknown. The heading on the map is pointing towards dignity and courage and justice. It points to voting. We will move forward together.

This Shabbat evening service is being called #Show up for Shabbat. We will use our evening to pray and contemplate quietly as will synagogues all over the USA. This will be an important service to attend.