Monthly Archives: May 2019

Endings and Beginnings

Before Richard Gere rides off on his chopper to go scoop up Deborah Winger at the end of An Officer and a Gentleman, he watches his drill sergeant (Lou Gossett, Jr), preparing a brand new group of officer candidates. He smiles as he listens to the sergeant’s familiar banter and looks at the new class, young and terrified.

I don’t ride a chopper, but I relate to that scene. One class graduates and the next class begins. It is like the sea, a rhythmic, infinite flow that never stops.

Ok, maybe it’s just that I’m being nostalgic. After all, tonight is Midrasha graduation. A number of our seniors will speak from the bimah tonight, sharing their thoughts on their Jewish journeys. It is an emotionally and spiritually meaningful experience to listen to our oldest kids share thoughts and feelings about their connection to Beth Avodah. Their ongoing relationship to their temple and the people with whom they’ve grown up will be a permanent part of their experience set. It will hopefully lead them to continue to embrace their Jewishness. It will also, I hope, help them stay clear on what it means to live a Jewishly ethical life.

I constantly complain to anyone who will listen (the number is pretty low), that we don’t have enough time with our kids. I wish we could do more studying together. I wish we could explore more deeply the most perplexing issues of the day. I wish we could get deeper into the meaning and contours of Jewish history. Alas, I am destined to keep on wishing…

But I don’t have time to be nostalgic, because a new group of students will step up. A new Israel trip will take off in February 2020. In fact, tonight, the current fifth grade will be officially recognized as moving into the on-deck circle on Monday nights as they begin preparing in earnest for their bnai mitzvah. Just as the sea continues to ebb and flow, so too does life in our temple community.

Having said that, I must hasten to say that with every wave of students at every transitional stage, we analyze who they are and what we can do to meet their needs. In fact, we try to do that with ALL temple planning and programming. A couple of generations ago, the central message was to keep everything status quo. The synagogue was about preserving eternal truths and practices. Change was a dirty word. Not anymore.

We understand that change is a necessary component of our work. Most congregants don’t want it to be the way it always was – whatever that means. We all expect beta versions of so much in our lives: the technology we use, the ways we communicate, the ways we determine what matters to people… How can we not respond to how the broader community is changing, and how our own temple community is morphing.

We are committed to shepherding TBA through this transitional time on a trajectory of change. Staffing changes, building changes, cultural changes; these are considerable determinants in how we chart our movement forward. And make no mistake: we will continue moving forward!

I’m looking at the list of graduates and remembering many of them from preschool days. Such nostalgia! And then I look at the list of fifth graders attending tonight’s service, and I’m thrust toward the future. That’s temple life.

There’s no standing still in this life. We are aware that seeking to preserve past ritual and programs that have lost their meaning for the sake of “that’s how we’ve always done it,” is dangerous and utterly counterproductive. Such behavior leads to a quiet, underutilized building. No, we’re not taking the “Judaism in amber” road. Reform Judaism demands that we continue to embrace change, even when it causes us some vertigo. Reform is a verb.

Join us tonight at 615 for Shabbat services. Come for the nostalgia. Stay for the future.

Shabbat shalom,


PS I’m sure that, by now, you’ve read of the fires deliberately set at two Chabad centers. We are all horrified that such a thing might occur so close to home. I sent the following email to the Chabad Jewish Center in Needham:

Shabbat shalom to you and the leadership of the Chabad center. My congregation and I want to reassure you that we stand with you. This crime will not go unpunished, and we pray the perpetrators will be found quickly. In the meantime, if there’s anything we can do for you, know we stand ready and in complete solidarity. Shabbat Shalom,  Rabbi Keith Stern and the members of Temple Beth Avodah.

I also spoke to Rabbi Mendy Krinsky and reassured him that we are willing to help in any way we can. Knowing that we are aware and supportive during this time of tension and concern was deeply appreciated by Rabbi Krinsky.

The Tipping Point

Boy Scouts have always been told that whenever we departed from a campsite, we had to leave it in better shape than when we arrived. That ethic, that we are literally responsible for the world around us, that we are stewards of the earth, has always been a hugely important value in my life. This scouting rule nicely dovetails into Jewish tradition’s insistence that we see the Universe in which we live as a gift from God.  

For centuries, Jewish texts have stressed the ironclad obligation to, and responsibility for, nature’s integrity. “Nothing that God created in the world was superfluous or vain; hence, all must be sustained. An aggadah [rabbinic legend], often repeated in the literature, says that God created the world by looking into the Torah as an architect into a blueprint.”  

The world in which we live is so majestic, so beautiful. Flora, fauna, snow and cold, desert heat… I could go on forever describing the ineffable wonders of the natural world.  Only it seems to be the case that not all of the marvels of the world will be going on forever. 

The recent report from the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services delivered a sobering message that was truly painful to read. I avoided looking at it for as long as I could. I treated it like ominous lab results from my doctor. But eventually I felt compelled to click on the link. I should’ve left it alone. The summary of the research is that, “Our planet is now in the midst of its sixth mass extinction of plants and animals – the sixth wave of extinctions in the past half-billion years. We’re currently experiencing the worst spate of species die-offs since the loss of the dinosaurs 65 million years ago. Although extinction is a natural phenomenon, it occurs at a natural “background” rate of about one to five species per year. Scientists estimate we’re now losing species at 1,000 to 10,000 times the background rate, with literally dozens going extinct every day. It could be a scary future indeed, with as many as 30 to 50 percent of all species possibly heading toward extinction by mid-century.”   

 The Report finds that around 1 million animal and plant species are now threatened with extinction, many within decades, more than ever before in human history. Ecosystems, species, wild populations, local varieties and breeds of domesticated plants and animals are shrinking, deteriorating or vanishing. The essential, interconnected web of life on Earth is getting smaller and increasingly frayed,” said Prof. Joseph Settele. “This loss is a direct result of human activity and constitutes a direct threat to human well-being in all regions of the world.”  One million animal and plant species are going to disappear – forever.

I can’t honestly compute the scope of such a loss. But when I do the math, two things become painfully obvious: 1) it won’t affect my life very much, and 2) it will dramatically affect the lives of my children and my grandchildren. And that breaks my heart.  

I’ve heard commentators who say that this extinction is the natural order of things, that it’s the price of freedom and free market capitalism. Of course, the most vociferous voices shrugging their shoulders in an “oh well” gesture are often the same ones who think climate change is a lie. Only climate change is real, and denying it has about as much legitimacy as the arguments of the anti-vaxxers.   This collapse, as Prof. Settele stated above, is primarily authored via the hubris of humans. It’s men and women creating absolute lies that will then be absorbed as fact. It’s a narcissistic rejection of responsibility for the world. It’s unJewish and – it’s unethical at the highest levels. 

I worry for my grandkids; not that they will never see a lemur or an orangutan, though that is horrible.  The worst part for the grandkids, and for all humans, aside from potential bee extinction and crop collapse, isn’t the end of any particular amphibian or reptile or fish or bird. The worst part is to live in a world where no one lifts a finger to save a threatened, small species of plant or animal. Because when we are nonplussed by the extinction of a species, how much do we care about the diminution or even extinction of a particular class or ethic minority group? In the future how will humans without money or power or a voice fare? If the only world I care about is the world according to me, then what are the chances for human survival, for cooperation and compromise?  

The extinction of any species, from snail darters to Indiana bats to polar bears to Mediterranean monk seals, is a disgrace and an ethical violation, because it is not inevitable. We’ve messed this one up. Can we fix it? Can we change this looming collapse? I don’t honestly know what to do next. Only this: we must do something. I’m open to suggestions. In the meantime, I’ll keep cleaning up the campsite.

Remembering to Never Forget

It happens at different times and in different contexts. Often it’s when the weather is bad. I bundle up in my warm black winter coat, wrap the scarf around my neck, pull on the gloves, grab the watchman knit cap and put that on, and finally start my car from my iPhone so the car will be nice and comfortable and the seat warmer will be fired up. 

As I walk to the car, insulated from the terrible wind and cold, it comes to me like a chyron at the bottom of a tv screen. What was such weather like for people in concentration camps? How did they endure the unspeakable cold dressed only in pajamas and wooden clogs? How did they tolerate standing in the cold every day as the SS guards did the daily count? 

When I read survivors’ accounts, it’s not as if they have a simple answer to the question, “How did you survive the concentration camps? How did you persevere? What was your secret?” They simply did whatever they could to stay alive. The angel of Death was so present in every second of every day. I doubt many believed that they would make it.

 To be fair to the survivors and to the ones who did not survive, bravery and courage didn’t have much at all to do with it. The simple fact is that, for so many survivors of the camps, it was all about luck. Sure, we know that victims did better when they had someone else to depend on. Two people scrounging for food, looking to grab an extra blanket from someone who had just died, and just looking out for each other was very powerful, and more efficient than being on one’s own. It also helped, according to survivors with whom I’ve spoken over the years, to have a friend who could remind you that you were still a human.

 With the capriciousness of every moment, just being in the right place at the right time was crucial. Which, of course, could not generally be planned for at all. An angry or bored SS officer could just as easily shoot someone standing in a line as he could walk right by them. One could get assigned a very dangerous work detail – or pick up stones from a field. Life was reduced to the most basic elements: stay warm, quietly obey orders, keep your eyes down, eat whatever you could find, keep moving. There was no moral order, no organizing principle beyond the imperative to keep breathing. 

As I reflect on the insufferable, detestable ordeals of our people during the Holocaust, I inevitably absorb these moments of horror, and I wonder: what would’ve happened to me? Would I – could I – have ever survived such unmitigated privation? I can’t imagine surviving a week in a concentration camp. Not to mention that so many people of my age were gassed right away. But in fact, the randomness of life and death, particularly in the camps, makes such speculation specious. Who in their right mind could ever imagine surviving in Hell? 

This much I know. I have been blessed in my life to know many survivors who came to this country, injured, traumatized, orphaned, alone. Some, like my father, were permanently damaged by their wartime experience of death and cruelty and loss. Others, who experienced far worse torture and pain than my father, ended up able to build a new life, despite it all. Such people have proven to me that it is actually possible for humans to move through deepest darkness and not succumb to the night. 

We officially remember the Holocaust on Yom HaShoah. But unofficially, there are those of us who think of the Holocaust every day. Because of the weather. Because we see smoke stacks. Because we hear a story. Because the Holocaust opened a wound the size of 6 million people. Because it’s testimony. Because the Holocaust is our story, a story that still reverberates across time.