Monthly Archives: June 2020

What Next

Robert Hunter may have said it best in one of his most famous songs, Truckin. “What a long, strange trip it’s been.“ So much has changed over these past months. So many of the things we took for granted as a matter of course are now precious acts we wish we could reclaim. Hugging people we love. Laughing with friends at a favorite restaurant. Grabbing a coffee and schmoozing. Working out in the gym. 

And, of course, being inside the temple. 

I think about the temple constantly. All of that beautifully renovated space along with a truly exquisite new community room. It sits there, just waiting for us. What will it be like when we can finally walk in? 

Of course, the fantasy is that when High Holy Days come we will enter together, laughing and crying and hugging each other. That feeling we get looking around at our community gathered together for a new year is a signature experience. Seeing old friends, sharing stories, remembering loved ones who are gone, singing familiar melodies, feeling gratitude… there’s nothing like it. 

 Alas… It’s just a fantasy. As much as we may want to enter, the fact is simply this: it’s too risky. There will be no High Holy Day gatherings inside Temple Beth Avodah for 5781.  

We’ve looked at this from a thousand angles and, in the end, our choices must be made from a collective perspective. We know that it’s not safe for our older congregants. It’s not safe for immunocompromised congregants. It’s not even safe to sing!  

There will be opportunities for small groups to one day be in the temple. Our Early Learning Center and our school will open, adhering to all guidelines for health and safety. But. We will always place the welfare of our congregants at the top of our list of concerns. We must be apart in body, but we will be connected by our deep sense of community and tradition. 

Our history as a congregation, our history as a people, has taught us many things about survival. We’ve learned a lot about resilience and courage. We’ve learned to create alternatives where there were none. COVID-19 will not deter us.  

This year the High Holy Days  will primarily use online platforms – a combination of pre-recorded and live content . We’ll provide you with the tools you need to be a part of our communal experience. It will be spiritually alive, provocative, embracing, joyful, reflective, and even more than that. That’s a promise . We will not gather  in the sanctuary, but we will have each other: online, on Zoom, and a whole variety of other platforms. We are in this together.  

Will it be utterly different? Absolutely. Will it be unlike anything we’ve ever done before? 100%. Are we creating a new paradigm for worship and congregational life? Yes, and it is immensely challenging and very exciting. When we emerge, we will be different; we will be transformed. We will remember to cherish things a little bit more, to hold the people we love a little bit closer, and to embrace even more firmly what it means to be part of an engaged, living community. The door to the heart of Temple Beth Avodah will always be open. The sacred light of our community will continue to shine. 


It’s staggering to think about all the things we never learned in school about the founding of our nation. We celebrated Columbus Day with the Nina, the Pinta, and the Santa Maria. We talked about how Columbus discovered America as if it were vacant land, waiting just for him. I thought it was the Mayflower and making friends on Thanksgiving. I really thought it was cowboys and Indians and war whoops. And while there was this thing called slavery for a few years in the South, we won the Civil War, and then the slaves were emancipated. And then everything just progressed from there. And sure, there was segregation and Jim Crow down in Mississippi and so forth, but not in my little city up North. 

The aphorism, “History is written by the victors,” has never been more starkly defined. We are so woefully unaware of anything that falls outside of the sanitized privileged retelling of our origins. For instance, no one told me that Columbus sailed home from his second voyage to the New World with over a thousand captives bound for slave auctions in Cádiz (many died en route, their bodies tossed overboard). No one mentioned that Columbus was the first transatlantic human trafficker. Like Rebecca West once said, “It is sometimes very hard to tell the difference between history and the smell of a skunk.”

Slavery in America was “a massive institution that shaped and defined the political economy of colonial America, and later, the United States” … an “institution (that) left a profound legacy for the descendants of enslaved Africans, who even after emancipation were subject to almost a century of violence, disenfranchisement, and pervasive oppression, with social, economic, and cultural effects that persist to the present.”

I didn’t learn that in school. I didn’t see the direct link between slavery and the bloody civil rights campaign of Martin Luther King. That was not in the 6th-grade curriculum. It didn’t occur to me – and how could it, given the information I had? – that the violence against Black people I saw on tv from Selma, police attacking nonviolent demonstrators with truncheons and dogs and fire hoses was a direct extension of slavery and the deep desire of some white people to keep Black folk in their place?

The long legacy of American slavery casts an appalling shadow on the character and substance of our country. The continuing violence against people of color underscores the deep roots of racism and the pathetic ongoing attempts to justify it or contextualize it.

Juneteenth celebrates a belated liberation. Enslaved people in the Confederacy who didn’t manage to escape across Union lines or find themselves in occupied territory were not all made free by Lincoln’s proclamation. They had to wait until the end of the Civil War to take their first free breaths. In isolated Texas, word of the official end of the fighting, the surrenders of Generals Robert E. Lee and Joseph E. Johnston, and the capture of President Jefferson Davis through May 1865 arrived late. Freedom finally came to Texas on June 19 of that year, after a proclamation by General Gordon Granger in Galveston solidified the emancipation of the quarter-million enslaved people in the state.

So what if we, as a nation, decided to adopt Juneteenth as a national holiday? What if we used that day for reflection and commitment to change? What if Juneteenth became a new line in the sand, a marker for when we finally started to right wrongs and engage in social action and legislative change and connection to the world as it is and as we wish – as we demand – it become?

Various civic leaders across the US have begun talking about adding Juneteenth to the canon of US holidays. I listened to mayor of Boston, Marty Walsh, give a rather lukewarm nod to the possibility of such a thing happening in Massachusetts. He was concerned that it may be difficult. “it would add to costs in the city, because it’s overtime, and we’d have to work it into all the contracts… I mean, I support it. If the Legislature does it, I support it wholeheartedly. But we’d have to look at how does it happen — does it fall on a date, does it fall on a weekend? You know, the date might be in the middle of the week. . . So there’s a lot of conversation.”

Yes. There is a lot of conversation, as there should be. And I hope the response to those conversations will be action. There is so much to learn and so much to do. We will engage on both levels as we move forward in earnest. We cannot go forth a la Don Quixote, tilting at windmills. We must be deliberate. We must study together to be truly able to write the new American story. This is it. Time’s up.

Juneteenth is the purest distillation of the evils that still plague America and a celebration of the good people who fought those evils. It is tragedy and comedy, hope and setbacks. As a national holiday, Juneteenth, immersed as it is in both the canon of old history and the ongoing struggle for civil rights, would be the only one that celebrates liberty in America as it actually is: delayed.

A New Narrative

I have become a sort of answer man for my grandson, Caleb — something I dearly love (which will come as no surprise to anyone who even vaguely knows me). “Hey Bebop [my grandfather name]”, Caleb will say, and I know a question is coming. “Hey Bebop, why do people pray in Hebrew even if no one understands it?” “Hey Bebop, are monkey brains the same as human brains?” You know, easy questions… not.

This past week as we walked along the Brewster Flats, Caleb looked out at the incoming tide and asked, “Hey Bebop, does the same water come back every day?”The question was so simple — and so profound. What about it, Bebop? How does one even define the terms of the flow of the ocean, the water molecules, the salt content, the effect of storms and erosion? How to even begin to truly understand that it is never the same ocean two days in a row, that the circulation of water from the sea and under the sand make it all brand new every day, every moment? How lucky I am to share my wonder with the Universe with my grandchildren, who are wonders of my Universe…

Jonah and Maggie sent me a few pictures of my grandkids last week. Caleb and Sylvie were holding signs at a demonstration against racism and police brutality. I was at once proud and crushed. Proud, because as a child of the 60s and a believer in living a life of social justice, seeing 2 generations of my progeny making a statement was a thrilling affirmation of their values and beliefs. Crushing, because my grandchildren in particular, at their young age, are facing one of the most horrible truths of American life: long-standing, sanctioned systemic racism. And the more they learn about it, the more they will feel betrayed by a false narrative that has been stoked by bigots and haters and ignorant politicians — and me, too. Through benign neglect and looking the other way and just not wanting to think about it, I play a part in the betrayal.

I’m not convinced a lot of white people like me beating our breasts and acknowledging our ignorance and neglect and complicity in the systemic racism of American justice in all its variations is what’s currently called for. There will be time to share our sense of shame and disappointment and failure. And I know that acknowledging the depth of those sins is key to building a whole soul, not to mention a whole nation.

But what’s called for now is not a confessional movement. Instead what’s called for is a dedication to action, to truly engaging in our tradition’s declaration of Tikkun Olam. Let’s learn how to be anti-racists. Let’s engage with projects and people that will begin to shift the narrative. Let’s push hard in the upcoming elections to choose leaders who will acknowledge the systemic racism of America and then dare to build a new narrative of equity.Status quo is so easy, so simple. But we are living in a period of transformation. It’s time to pull down the statues that praise a fake past. The American narrative has to be actively engaged and widened to include the stories of those men and women of color and the indigenous peoples who were forcibly silenced over hundreds of years.

It’s going to be painful and uncomfortable. It’s going to make us squirm sometimes. But it will ultimately give us a nation of honest interchange, a new opening to a dynamic that will make us all stronger and wiser as a collection of races and creeds and genders. It will unite us.

I want this for of all those who have suffered. I want this for George Floyd and the scandalously long list of those who have been murdered and beaten for the crime of being Black. I want this as a Jew with a long history of oppression and murder who now has power and the will to make a difference for those who suffer as my ancestors once suffered.

And I want this for my grandkids. I want to have a conversation with them someday about what changed in 2020, in the midst of a crazy pandemic. I want them to teach me about the America that is finally being taught in their classrooms, the home of the free and the brave — and the enslaved and the oppressed. One day I hope Caleb or Sylvie will ask, “Hey Bebop, so what changed in 2020?” I hope I can answer, “We did.”

Taking a Breath

Whenever someone asks me how I’m feeling, I have to stop and consider the question. Physically, I feel fabulous. My health Is tip-top. My numbers, as they say, are excellent.

But I’m exhausted by this long trek in the desert of Covid. I’m missing the loving connections of hugs. I’m aching over the tragic murder of George Floyd. I’m raging over the systemic racism that has allowed people of color to be so continuously undervalued by every conceivable measure. I’m measuring all the ways I have not done even nearly enough to ameliorate the wreckage of racism in America, which makes me feel guilty and complicit. How am I? My soul is tired.

How are you?

I sense most of you feel the way I do. Stop the world, I want to get off. It’s too much to take. The sadness is deep. The problems appear too vast to tackle.

Sometimes its like a bruise you just keep bumping, or a place on your lip you just keep biting. It hurts! It’s aggravating. And it seems so random.

And so I feel defeated and overwhelmed. By the sheer intensity of evil and what seems like the sheer weight of history. It’s that metaphor so often used, of how hard it is to change the direction of a ship. It’s so hard and so complicated…

I fully intended to use this week’s Before Shabbat to announce, as I usually do around this time, that I was beginning my summer writing hiatus. I figured I’d pick up Before Shabbat again in September. After all, I wanted to say, I need to take a bit of a break. I planned to say that I needed some room to just sit back and breathe.

You picked it up too, right? The word, ‘breathe’. I have the room, the privilege to take a breath. But George Floyd did not. All he wanted was to breathe — and he was prevented from doing so. His breath his neshama, which is the same word as soul, was robbed from him. In broad daylight. By an agent of the state.

So now is not the time to sit back and take a breath to massage my sore soul. Let my breath be for speaking words of compassion for my fellow citizens of color. Let my next breath be for speaking out against intolerance and injustice. Let my next breath be an admission that I can do more in the name of justice.

So no breaks just yet. There’s too much to be done.

This Sunday we are honored to be joined by Darnell Williams, the former head of the Urban League of Boston, and Keith McDermott, the former head of he Reggie Lewis Center. Both of these men have made profound contributions to the lives of Black and Brown citizens of Boston. I anticipate listening to their stories, learning their stories, and being challenged to do the right thing.

Eldridge Cleaver once wrote, “If you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem.”

These Times

Have you ever been in a car that’s running out of gas? the gauge ominously rests flat in the red. You’re sweating with anxiety as you watch the road for a sign of redemption. But there’s no place to pull over. The car jerks as it sucks down the last bit of fuel and vapor… and finally stalls out. Our nation is stalled on the side of the road. The tank has been emptied by weeks and weeks of Covid19. All the sickness, the angst, the stories, the deaths of over 100,000 Americans… How to stay safe. How to protect others. When to wear a mask. What about gloves? Who can you hug? And what about opening up businesses again? What are the rules? And if that were not enough to deplete the gas tank, there’s the unemployment numbers. Then: the murder of George Floyd. I watched the bystander video shortly after it was released. I wasn’t prepared for what I saw: a brazen acting out of the awful legacy of racism in our country. No amount of cheering, “USA! USA!” will drown out a grown man’s cry for his mother as he is being tortured and killed by men in uniforms and badges. What a terribly hard week it has been… the cloud of smoke from protests turned to riots turned to violence and looting mixes with the cloud of pain and sadness that hovers above our nation.
We are stalled on the side of the road. And we can’t call for roadside assistance. No one is coming to save us. The profound lack of leadership and the even more appalling lack of empathy from Washington, force us to find our way forward. We are the ones who must decry racism and its deep hold on a segment of our nation. We are the ones who must acknowledge the extent to which Black lives have not and do not matter. We are the ones who must decide what the future looks like and how we’ll get back on the road. Yvonne Abraham recently wrote a fabulous, informative op-ed piece in the Globe. She reminds us that we are all disgusted by the vandalism and looting that occurred in Boston and many other American cities. But if that’s as far as we take it, we will have missed the larger takeaway of this past week. That justice deferred is justice denied. That there is a reckoning, long overdue, that must be acknowledged. We have to move forward in peaceful dialogue. There is no room for defensiveness or name-calling or finger-pointing. This a time for truth, a central pillar of civilization that has been actively assailed and ignored in recent years. We are the ones who must be brave enough to listen to the ways injustice has ruined lives, has taken lives. There’s a lethargy that can set in when stalled by the side of the road. It’s scary and overwhelming. But it’s time to start thinking about what we can do now, how to start pushing ourselves in a new direction, and there find the fuel of compassion and understanding. We’ll figure out how we can do our share in this new period in the life of our country. We will all surely lean into our prophetic tradition, to “do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God.” There is a better way — let’s find it. rebhayim

Here are some links to investigate. To be continued… Statement from the URJSomeplace to donate fundsStatement of the Anti Defamation LeagueWhat can you do?