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Unacceptable

Whenever, and I mean, whenever, a name appears in the media of a person who’s done something significant or especially heinous, I ask the question. I know: it’s going to sound a bit chauvinistic, self-involved, and defensive. But I quietly say, “Is this person Jewish?”

You would be utterly justified to pose the question: “What difference does it make whether or not they’re Jewish? Does it change the facts? Does it mitigate or glorify the particular behavior mentioned in the story?” And you’d be correct to say this. We are all people, given to heroism, cowardice, altruism, and supreme selfishness. Isn’t our ethnic or religious background secondary to our identity as human beings?

I would say yes. Why magnify the differences between people when we share so much in common? But… for me, the ‘are they Jewish’ factor looms large. Because when push comes to shove, I take a Jewish person’s behavior personally. It reflects on the rest of the Jewish community and me. I am much more deeply connected to them simply because we’re both Jewish and historically linked in good times and bad.

For much of American Jewish history, the fear that a Jewish person’s behavior will be bad for the Jews is largely unfounded. A striking example of this is the Ponzi schemer, Bernie Madoff, who rapaciously stole millions and millions of dollars from Jews and people who were not Jewish. His crimes fit so neatly into the stereotype of Jews and money. I was convinced there would be a calamitous backlash. But there was not.

Or how about when Donald Sterling, the former owner of the LA Clippers, was banned for life and had to pay out a lot of money in 2014 for making various lewd, inappropriate, and racist comments? He was horrible. Again I was convinced we would all be tarred. Of course, there was Internet buzz in the murky zones, but there was no rise in antisemitism, no ‘you people are all alike’ accusation.

And now, the owner of the Phoenix Suns(NBA) and the Phoenix Mercury (WNBA), Robert Sarver, is the latest member of the tribe who’s been outed and punished for despicable behavior. In this case, I do not fear a backlash. Instead, I am feeling, most of all, a deep sense of shame. This is not how we Jews behave. We don’t use the n-word. We don’t make nasty comments about women’s anatomy or where they belong. We don’t use wealth and power as leverage to treat people with contempt.

Only – sadly – sometimes we do. Our communal response must be that degrading another human being is defaming God every time in every place. Sarver’s conduct is a sacrilege.  

Is it right or fair to hold Jews to a higher standard? Yes. Absolutely. Our tradition is based on empathy. We are commanded to care for the powerless. We are taught in the very opening of Genesis that we are all created in God’s image. It’s never acceptable – EVER – to diminish someone else in order to feel superior. That’s a lesson we learn and teach as fundamental and non-negotiable. We must expect more from ourselves. If not, why bother raising these values? L’dor va’dor, from generation to generation, is not a slogan; it’s our mission.

Rolodex Brain

The older we get, the more memories we accumulate. Ok, I know – this isn’t a particularly innovative insight, but hear me out because it’s one thing to know that this is true. But living it? That’s a real and abidingly complex experience of life.
When we can’t precisely place a name or face, it’s not the beginning of the end. It’s not dementia or Alzheimer’s. Instead, it’s a full Rolodex brain (I know, the reference is, at this stage, archaic), bursting with information: names, numbers, pictures, business cards, and, generally, obscure references.
To further complicate things, there’s not a very good filtering process for this data. Rolodex brain just sits there with names of the long-deceased, businesses that have been closed for decades, authors I want to read, musicians whose music I want to hear… along with an unbelievable collection of trivia.
The other day at a beautiful temple wedding, a couple approached me. They were, like me, in that late 60s range. “Remember us?” they said. I looked at them and smiled with, I’m sure, deer-in-the-headlights eyes. The Rolodex brain got into gear, rifling through the cards as fast as I could. Like the classic rotary file, the one with the big black knobs you use to flip through contacts, I was spinning as fast as I could.
I was about to concede when, for obscure reasons, my Rolodex brain stopped at the first letter of their last name. I couldn’t get any further. I apologized. But they gave me an A for effort. It had been more than 20 years since they had been temple members. They were still in the Rolodex brain.
The TBA Rolodex brain collection is 25 years old. It’s filled with names, many of which are surrounded by an event, a conversation, a ritual, laughter, tears, travel, and more. Reviewing the myriad contact points and people with whom I’ve communed over the years is sobering and inspiring.
And it’s joyful, too. That wedding I mentioned, the one where I desperately sought to recall a distant thread of connection, was extraordinary for many reasons. Most meaningful, when it comes to discussing names and memory, was the bride. The bride: a sweet young woman with whom I sang Bim Bom Shabbat Shalom 23 years ago – or was it 24? – sitting on the bimah steps with her Super Star poster in her hands.
There we were, on the same bimah, only she was holding a bouquet, not a poster. For a moment, time collapsed. There was a remarkable merging of past, present, and future into a sacred space of connection. There was no need to sort through any cards. We were connected, even to the bimah. I felt so lucky to be present, to be alive.
I am blessed to carry around this Rolodex brain, filled with so much that is deep and soulful. It’s an honor to have so much to remember, so many cards, from a letter in the alphabet to Bim Bom to the smile of a bride. It’s all there, all in the cards of my Rolodex brain.

The Blessing and the Curse

“Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never harm me.” I first heard that bromide when I was just a little kid. This maxim is always uttered in a singsong fashion, probably because saying it in a normal voice would reveal the sheer stupidity of the statement.  

Anyone who’s ever been bullied can tell you that the physical abuse is terrible, but eventually, it’s over. The name-calling, the put-down, the isolation, and the despair last a lifetime. The barbs of a defamatory nickname or a hateful comment about… well, anything! – lodge so profoundly that it’s impossible just to let it fade. The harm from names leaves scars.

My research indicates that this saying first appeared in print in the mid-1800s in a British publication, which is not surprising. Sticks and stones…etc., conveys that stiff upper lip attitude so valued in British culture. Americans were all too eager to adapt it for domestic usage. It fit so well with the Calvinist notion that diligence, discipline, and frugality result from a person’s subscription to the values espoused by the Protestant faith. It also matched the cowboy ethic: a man is terse, defended, and not emotional. Not to mention Frankie Valle’s 20th-century admonition that big girls don’t cry (which even he admitted was just an alibi…).

We acknowledge that “sticks and stones” is facile, destructive, and just plain wrong. Words wound us deeply. But the converse is also true. Words can lift up spirit and soul. Words can inspire us to action and remind us of our worth. Words can heal and bless us.

The truth of kind words emerges from this week’s Shabbat Torah portion, which includes the Priestly Benediction: The Eternal bless you and protect you. The Eternal deal kindly and graciously with you. The Eternal bestow divine favor upon you and grant you peace. There’s nothing complicated here, no hard-core if/then scenarios, no punishment meted out for failure to perform any number of mitzvot. It’s about wishing someone else good health and luck and hoping they receive love, grace, and kindness.

This shouldn’t be so difficult to accomplish, wishing someone well with words of blessing. But kindness is in short supply as anger and bullying grow by the second. Sharp, bitter words of condemnation saturate every corner of our lives. Whatever that brief, shining moment was during Covid, when we tried to live by the notion that we were “all in it together,” has dissipated to almost nothing. Every issue is toxic, making any interaction with a fellow human being fraught with anxiety.

We have a choice between offering up a blessing or a curse in so many moments. Do we engender cruelty or kindness? It’s so easy to surrender to the forces of pessimism and privilege. But it’s not our destiny. It’s not our way. Who knows better than we do about the destructiveness of hate speech? Opt for blessing.

The Voyage of Meaning

We are voyagers journeying across the spacetime continuum. The Universe in which we travel is expanding. Which means that the destination we are reaching for will eternally be beyond our reach. But we are enroute, in motion.

There are no signposts pointing the way, no pre-assigned pathway through the mysterious, unseeable landscape up ahead. There is no one looking out for us. There is no unseen hand guiding us, no puppeteer, no strings.

God is not some cosmic pilot. God is the force of life and consciousness. We receive inspiration from the Holy One. But God is not a beacon or a searchlight but rather the light within us. God accompanies us but does not clear the way. Every one of us on our own unique voyage is tasked with being a trailblazer, hacking away at the darkness.

Jews aren’t big on fortunetellers or soothsayers. We’re not convinced that tarot cards or crystal balls are anything more than a scam. It’d be a welcome relief to have some information about tomorrow, some inside track. But tomorrow is not accessible. God cannot tell us what happens next.

As we speed forward without any brakes, we can feel overwhelmed. How do we make sense of the finitude of life in an infinite Universe? How is it that the Universe literally just goes on and on and on… and we don’t? That all we have is just on loan? That we take nothing with us…? Is there any sense to be made of our lives? What does our voyage even mean?

Those questions, my beloved congregation, define why we are here. We gather to acknowledge shared traditions and history and culture. We gather and share matzah balls and shabbat chicken and challah.  We gather to make minyans to lift up the hearts of those in mourning. We create rituals and ceremonies. We share Jerusalem and St Petersberg and Odessa and Leghorn and Rabat. We share the birth of Israel and the Holocaust and the Inquisition and the Exodus.

We are Jews, a people with a deep and complicated past, flecked with strength and loss. Diaspora dwellers, outsiders, bound and determined to define our own lives as precious.

We build purpose, and hope. We make meaning with Jewish stories and values and menus and tools. Our raison d’etre is to provide stability and strength in times of darkness and anxiety. TBA isn’t a club or a community center or a school. It’s a crucible for making mensches, a place of justice and forgiveness and laughter. It’s home. It’s a collective beating heart.

When our educators show our youngest students how to make a spice box, they’re not seeking to indoctrinate them into a halachic practice, to learn ritual for ritual’s sake. It’s rather a mind-opening exercise of translating the scent of cinnamon and cloves into an appreciation of the earth and the gift of the senses. It’s about connecting them to a deep past and a comforting present. They are making meaning.  

On Friday mornings, the youngest kids spread out their challah covers on the floor in the foyer or on the blacktop outside in the Meisel tent. They arrange their kiddush cups and candleholders and participate in a Shabbat ritual. We sing, laugh, and hear from a talking challah. We break bread and we sing prayers of gratitude.

We signify life in those moments. We acknowledge that sacred moments exist. We make life holy. That’s what we do.

There’s been nothing slow or gradual about how the world has changed over the past few years. It’s been turbulent and often scary. The sheer enormity of Covid, and its ongoing hold on us, body and soul, is impossible to quantify. The rise of authoritarianism across the world and with it the rise in antisemitism and hate crimes casts a troubling shadow. The advance of climate change and the lack of alarm in the boardrooms where real change is possible is disheartening. The threat to women that they will lose the right of autonomy over their own bodies is unspeakable. The carnage in Uvalde, Texas, caused by a kid who walked into a gun store and legally bought ammunition and weapons whose sole purpose is to kill multiple victims, is almost too much to bear.

We need our temple now more than ever. We need our common heart to beat with humanity and compassion for each other and for the world. We need to establish a sukkat shalom, a shelter of peace.

We commiserate, and then we reach out for life. We make meaning. We don’t look down – we look ahead. We do so not in a naïve way, but instead in a resolute way. We don’t know – we can’t know – what is going to happen out there. But we can decide who we want to be. We don’t find meaning: we make meaning.

We cannot rely on what we were 15 years ago to define what we will become as an evolving congregation. The stakes are different. The challenges feel particularly daunting. We will dare to do things we’ve never done before. This congregation has never shied away from innovation.

We are voyagers journeying across the spacetime continuum. And this place, this community, this Jewish life, provides solace and support and shelter from the storm. Come and we will build meaning and community and hope.

Don’t Look Down

It’s a critical moment in the movie. Two people are escaping, climbing a rope or a scaffold or a fence. They dangle there in space, high up. Or two people are running over a narrow bridge, below them a yawning chasm. They must cross if they want to live.

We’ve watched these scenes so many times. Often, we’re perched on the edge of our seats, breathless and scared. Some of us can’t watch; it’s too real, too terrifying. Inevitably, the more heroic of the pair will turn to their quaking partner and say, “We’ll be okay. Just don’t look down.”

I don’t know any mountain climbers or skyscraper construction workers. I’ve never asked a high diver nor an acrobat about what it feels like up there, so far from the surface. Do people dangling in the air, by choice or necessity, follow the same credo? Is the general rule of thumb to not look down?

There is so much bitterness and angst in our lives right now. The Uvalde massacre has pierced our hearts to the core. That such brutality and evil exist in our world is inconceivable. It literally makes no sense. But then, it didn’t make sense when we read about mass murder in Buffalo or so many other places.

What is there to say? Which, by the way, is the title of an editorial in this Thursday’s Boston Globe. It is a pastiche of quotes from editorials over the last 20 years, decrying gun violence and mass murder, and the deaths of innocent children. It is a poignant and sorrowful document to read because, after all, what has changed? What has the Federal government done to curb gun violence?

The more we dwell on the seeming futility of real change, the more we go down the path of anger and anguish about what politicians and leaders are doing to benight the world. It beggars the mind to realize that they genuinely want to transform our nation into a dominant, dominating white Christian culture. What hangs in the balance? A woman’s right to choose and the folks who help them. A gay person proudly living their life with dignity. Parents supporting their trans child and the village that helps them: teachers, medical teams, and neighbors. Affordable health care. The rise of antisemitism. The false claim of a rigged election.

All of this is connected. All of it is terrifying. Reviewing it feels like getting sucked into a black hole. The weight of it all is too much to handle.

So I say: don’t look down. As hopeless as it feels, we must keep looking ahead towards the horizon. Not hoping is a surrender to the malevolence in the world around us. Shaking our heads and succumbing to despair – as natural and justifiable as that would be – will destroy us.

Don’t look down. The Bratslaver rebbe said over 200 years ago, “Jews! You are forbidden to despair!” He knew a lot about pain and sadness and struggled with the dark places. He didn’t teach that we should cover our eyes and pretend that everything was copasetic. Instead, he said that we must keep our eyes and our hearts open, acknowledging the pain and possibilities in the world.

Don’t look down. Amid the darkness, we gather the light and then raise it up. We become like Havdalah candles; many smaller wicks all woven together to cast a brighter light. It is easy to traffic in cynicism and curse the darkness yet perpetuate the pain by only speaking of what is not rather than what might be.

We are all climbing a mountain in a raging storm. It is steep, and it is cold and scary. We must keep going. Keep hoping. Keep working for the change. And don’t look down.

Closing the Box

Do you know that experience when you empty a neatly packed box and then try to fit the same contents back in the same box – and it just won’t fit? It’s maddening! It becomes a test of your sanity. You know with absolute clarity that it should be simple to put everything away. And you can’t do it.

But you keep trying anyway. Folding and refolding. Wedging stuff in. Turning it onto every side. Without success.

At a certain point, you reach the prime frustration moment. My experience at this stage is to throw the entire mess in the box and then tape the whole thing up with duct tape, even though the box is bulging at the sides and on top. Just to be done.

I’ve been trying to stuff Covid back in the box it came in. I don’t want to think about it anymore. I want it swept away and filed with other historical periods of pain and woe. I want it in a file box next to the other ones: the Vietnam War, Assassinations in America, 9/11, and a few more.

Covid is turning out to be exceedingly difficult to stash away. The lid won’t fit. Because the coronavirus is constantly mutating. While some variants seem to vanish, causing little ripples of surges in their wake, others have kept driving large outbreaks. Experts say a new form, BA.2.12.1, is spreading rapidly and will become the dominant form of the virus in the United States in the next few weeks.

BA 2.12.1. They’re not even bothering to give it a Greek name. Because no one wants there to be a new subvariant, and if it doesn’t have a name, maybe it’s not real…?

I want to stop thinking about Covid. I don’t want to talk about it or write about it. I want it to be done. Yes, it’s wishful thinking. And it’s such an ardent wish.

But I can’t move on. Not when, in just a few days, we will be mourning the 1millionth victim of Covid in America. It’s a number so preposterously high as to be almost absurd. But when discussing death, it would be profane to use the word ‘absurd.’ We can bemoan how many of those deaths were avoidable. We can say it’s a shanda – disgraceful. For those who still mourn, there is nothing absurd about their losses.

We know extremely well that there’s no such thing as simply moving on. As much as we want to put it all away, we acknowledge the extent to which Covid is so present. We must consider who we lost and what we lost. We must be cognizant of how Covid has messed with our children’s lives, how their schoolwork and their social development came off the rails.

Covid is a puzzle piece that fits into everyone’s puzzle. It’s a part of what we are. And even if we want it to be done, it is not done with us.

I will not look away as we approach that dolorous one million mark. I will continue to say kaddish for those whom we have lost. I will continue to beseech my fellow Americans to get vaccinated and boosted. This box cannot yet be closed.

Books

I go to my favorite bookstore, Newtonville Books, all the time. Mary Cotton, the owner and the guru of book suggestions, always greets me so warmly, as she does all of her customers. Mary is the bookstore host par excellence: open, funny, smart, and, along with her staff, ridiculously conversant on any number of current and not-so-current literature.

Newtonville Books provides deep access to disparate genres. You can find titles on everything from young adult literature, to bios, to mysteries and speculative fiction, to a fabulous array of history, to, well… go see how widely their stock stretches.

In addition to all the practical reasons I enjoy shopping at Newtonville Books, there’s a vast collection of tchotchkes: t-shirts, pens, coffee mugs, Moleskine notebooks, magnets, and other goodies that are simply irresistible to booklovers. The ambiance is so strikingly familiar and comforting. It’s the smell of new books, a combination of ink and glue and paper. It’s the feel of a new paperback. Speaking of which… some years ago they changed the kind of paper finish on paperback book covers. Instead of the smooth, glossy feeling, it is now more of a matte finish, a thicker feel to the touch that some describe as rubbery.

I had been imagining that this book cover issue was in my head. But as it turns out, it’s a thing! This is actually a real subject of conversation.

The fact is that I love the heft of a book. It’s reassuring to pick it up, to absorb its weight in my hands. Of course, books can be a pain to read while you’re sitting in a restaurant, trying to keep it open without putting one’s oily fingers on the pages. And when you’re traveling, a hardcover can really add weight to the carry-on.

And yet, though I read the Times and the Globe and the New Yorker and Atlantic online, I prefer my literature on paper. It’s not rational. It’s a throwback to what it felt like to own a book and then slowly fill a bookshelf and then a bookcase and then a floor to ceiling installation. It’s a feeling of knowledge and dynamism I get with a book in my hands.

What are you reading now? Right now I’m into Ruth Ben Ghiat’s Strongmen, a sobering analysis of authoritarian political leaders, from Mussolini to Trump. It’s a cautionary history. I’ve also just started The Immortal King Rao, by Vauhini Vara, a dystopian novel that sounds remarkably prescient. Talking books is so satisfying.

I admit it: I’ve ordered a lot of books through Amazon. It’s so easy and so addictive, and the discount is welcome. And I am not anti-Amazon, though I’m told I should be. I wish Jeff Bezos no ill-will. But I do wish Mary Cotton and Newtonville Books continued success. I am pledging to order my books from them from now on. Because, in a world that has so many sharp edges and anguish, it’s nice to duck into a local bookstore to browse, touch covers, find some peace, and smell the sweet aroma of the written word.

Shabbat Shalom,
rebhayim

Passover!

Getting ready for Passover is a series of steps. There are, of course, several lists of Pesach preps online because the Internet loves lists. This is my latest attempt to cull them and then share them with you. I stress the rules – there are a lot of rules on Passover. I describe them here to help you decide what you might do for the holiday. There’s no judgment. There is no Passover Police.

  1. Cleaning. In traditional homes, this means an aggressive, violent war fought against chametz using steel wool, blowtorches, boiling water, chemical solvents, and vacuum cleaners. It also requires severely beating rugs and pillows and cushions, etc. This is all done to make certain that there are no leavened products or crumbs stuck in the couch, on the counters, in the bedrooms, and so forth. No corner of the house is exempt. Good luck. And no, the Stern house is not assaulted with severe and backbreaking cleaning before Passover.
  • Shopping. It’s all about the “Kosher for Passover” labels. You cannot use open products in a kosher for Passover home. Everything from sponges to cleansers to detergent to dish soap to bar soap to spices… In other words, anything potentially “contaminated” by hametz cannot be used during the holiday. Milk and eggs should be bought before the holiday and don’t need certification. Yogurt, cream cheese, etc. do require certification. It’s a Herculean task, and the expense is no light load!

Speaking of spending, I always suggest going to Whole Foods (my favorite market), and spending a small fortune on a few ‘out there’ matzos, made from different kosher for Passover grains that I don’t recognize. We always buy a box of shmurah Matzo too, which costs a fortune because it’s a handmade, artisanal product. As near as I can tell, it looks like matzo did 2000 years ago. It also tastes like it was baked 2000 years ago… Apparently, the shmurah matzo business is a mess due to Ukraine and some other factors I don’t understand. Kind of like the rise and fall of the stock market.

  • Haggadah. The right Haggadah is important. If you don’t like it, you feel like your seder is being held hostage by a book. Well, don’t let your celebration get bogged down by readings and songs you don’t know or don’t like. There are so many options now, at least 60 on Amazon! Call me if you need a hand. I can’t give a blanket opinion without knowing who’s coming to dinner…
  • Cooking. Cooking a beautiful Passover meal is a big part of the holiday. Don’t forget, we are to sit – no, loll around the table as if we were Roman aristocracy. That’s why we recline when we drink the wine – we are lords and ladies who are not in a hurry to finish to get back to work. We are free men and women and children; no one is telling us what to do.

As the head chef for Passover, I like to serve traditional dishes; for us that includes matzo ball soup, gefilte fish, chopped liver, brisket, apple matzo kugel, and tzimmes. I also add a few new things every year. I find that Epicurious.com is a great source of ideas, as is https://cooking.nytimes.com.

  • Prepping yourself. It’s easy to get so wrapped up in the meal and the seating and the family issues that sometimes arise. And while that’s all real, so too is the underlying reason for us all to gather. We are retelling an ancient story of journeying from one place to another, from one state of being to another. We move from the constricting limits of enslavement and oppression to the vast openness of freedom. We were once slaves – but no longer. However, there are still people in our world who cannot make the same claim, and their pain must lessen our loud shouts of joy. Solomon Burke sings, “None of us are free/When one of is chained/Then none of us are free.”

He’s right, of course. And how can we avoid thinking of the refugees in the world now, people struggling to find a safe place for themselves and their children and their parents? The HIAS Passover supplement includes these words: “Throughout our history, violence, and persecution have driven the Jewish people to wander in search of a safe place to call home. We are a refugee people. At the Passover Seder, we gather to retell the story of our original wandering and the freedom we found. But we do not just retell the story. We are commanded to imagine ourselves as though we, personally, went forth from Egypt – to imagine the experience of being victimized because of who we are, of being enslaved, and of being free. As we step into this historical experience, we cannot help but draw to mind the 65 million displaced people and refugees around the world today fleeing violence and persecution, searching for protection. Like our ancestors, today’s refugees experience displacement, uncertainty, lack of resources, and the complete disruption of their lives.”

And of course: Ukraine. Our hearts break over this and not to mention it at our seder tables is unthinkable. Click on this link for a beautiful prayer that will enhance your Passover.

How can we not include some of this in our seder?

  • Enjoy. Feast for our freedom! Celebrate our liberation! And then commit to doing something to make a difference for those who know what we knew about loss and fear and rejection. Where some say no, we must say yes. Where some close the door, we must open it. We can’t change the world or make significant policy decisions. But we can – we must – do the work of social justice. Because if we don’t, who will? Because if we don’t, we’re headed right to Egypt again.

Shabbat Shalom

rebhayim

On Not Staying the Course

“Stay the course.” It’s a formidable command supposedly given by the captain from the bridge of a ship in a storm. In recent decades, it has been used to describe a political strategy described by William Saffire as persisting in an action or policy or remaining with a plan despite criticism or setbacks.

A part of Jewish life is all about staying the course. In the opening verses of Perkei Avot (The Ethics of Our Ancestors), it advises us to “build a fence around the Torah.” Hold tight, the text tells us. Make sure the lines are clearly demarcated. Or, as Tevye says in Fiddler, “Without our traditions, our lives would be as shaky as a fiddler on a roof!” If it was good enough for Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, it’s good enough for me.

Except it’s not good enough. Leaning back into the past for balance and precedent is not a winning gambit. Instead, it’s a slow fade to mediocracy and obsolescence. Stay the course is doubling down on the status quo. Staying the course does not follow a most fundamental part of life itself: evolution.

I think that’s why fundamentalists despise the science of evolution so much. It’s not really about the way evolution challenges the inerrancy of the Bible. It’s the notion that the process of change is built into the very fabric of the Universe. Change is guaranteed.

Trying to stop evolution is ultimately impossible. Trying to stop evolution creates revolution. As Jeff Goldblum says, “Nature finds a way.”

The catchphrase, “going back to normal,” is au courant. It is also misleading. There is no such thing as going back. There is no future in staying the course unless you’re a purveyor of the past. I know that nostalgia sells. But it’s all inert; it’s symbolic, a reminder of what once was. And reminders can be invaluable.

Jewish tradition is built on our past, honoring it, taking the most valuable lessons we have learned over the millennia, and propagating them. But we don’t survive through memory. We thrive when we acknowledge what we want to be and where we want to go. We take the path through the template of our past and then emerge in a new place, a place we can’t know until we’ve arrived… and then get ready to jump again.

There is no staying the course. It’s like building a sandcastle at low tide. You finish, and it’s beautiful, and you’re so proud. And then the waves start to come in. And when you’re a little kid, you believe – you really do! If you keep bailing the moat, building higher walls, your creation will be saved. Which is impossible.

So you learn how that works, and maybe you build it up the beach. Using the same substance you’ve always used. It’s not the same sandcastle. It’s a new one. And it will last… until, because of wind or rain or a mean kid knocking it over, it’s gone. All castles made of sand fall in the sea, eventually. And then it’s time for a new castle.

Ultimately, we know that our lives ARE as shaky as a fiddler on a roof. That’s not a negative statement; it’s just the way it is. Everything will follow the arrow of time. There’s only one direction, and it’s forward.

We are not who we were 25 years ago. It’s helpful to know the norms and expectations of the past. But it would be utterly contraindicated to seek the shelter of the past. We are living at a pivotal moment, one in which we are mandated to lean forward, uncomfortably forward. Sometimes we will lose our footing. We can – we must – embrace the past while we simultaneously evolve. That’s a tricky dance. But we can do it, not by staying the course but rather by daring to use our creativity and intuition. Tevye was right: it’s a new world. Every day.

Shabbat Shalom,

rebhayim

An Open Letter of Frustration and Sadness

If you are a parent or guardian of a child who attends Newton South High School, you received this email from that school’s principal, Tamii Stras, on Wednesday afternoon, March 23rd.

This afternoon, a student reported an antisemitic slur written on a bathroom wall. We have contacted the Newton Police Department and are conducting a full investigation. In addition, we have also reported this incident to the Anti-Defamation League. We take this incident very seriously and are following our established protocols and procedures.

 Antisemitism has no place at South. I am horrified that this happened in our school community and that we are continuing to struggle with incidents of hate, harassment, and discrimination.

 We will be offering spaces for students and adults to process this incident this week and next. Our South Human Rights Council, in conjunction with our Jewish Staff Affinity Group and our Jewish Student Union, will be taking the lead in facilitating this work. We will share more specific information about these opportunities with students and staff.

 I want to assure you that we as a school and district are deeply committed to addressing issues of hate and discrimination. I am confident our South community will come together during this difficult time and hold steadfast in our values of listening first, showing respect, taking responsibility, and most of all, choosing kindness.

This is the fifth reported antisemitic incident in the Newton Public Schools in just the past few weeks. I am perplexed and angry, speechless. I am, as the idiom expresses, at my wit’s end.

As a commissioner on the Newton Human Rights Commission, I am deeply concerned about this persistent expression of hate and what it says about our city. It’s like an infection that slowly poisons the system. Who are the perpetrators? What are they thinking? What factors motivate an adolescent to act out by scrawling a swastika on a bathroom wall or scratching it on a desk? Why do these noxious acts continue?

I know these antisemitic incidents vex the leadership of our city. I know they care deeply and want to take whatever the necessary next steps might be. But… what are the next steps? What are the policy guidelines to prevent hateful acts of antisemitic vandalism in our schools? What aren’t we doing?

As a rabbi, I am intensely angry. When some student chooses to smear a swastika in a local school, they are making a terrible threat and causing deep pain and fear. Any antisemitic act touches a wound centuries old that has still not healed. That Jewish families anywhere ever experience this kind of aggressive display is unforgivable. And when it cuts so close, it becomes almost unbearable.

As a rabbi, as a Jew, I am appalled. I want this to end. I can’t tolerate this mean-spirited, persistent ugliness. I want to find answers and justice and comfort for my people.

And I know this is not the first time I’ve written about this and my ongoing search for the next steps. There is a part of me that feels so discouraged. I wonder if I should just accept that the Newton schools will be plagued with this obscenity every week or so, and I need to get used to it. Someone will see some antisemitic graffiti, report it to the principal, who will report it to the police, who will report it to the Mayor’s office. The principal will inform the school community and, hopefully, like Tamii Stras, make it clear that this behavior is offensive to Jewish students and indeed to all students who care about fairness and inclusivity. Tamii Stras is to be commended for stepping up as she has done and going deep on this plague.

The hard part is not to get numb. The desire to just throw up my hands and walk away, chalking it up to ignorance and divisiveness, is strong. But I must resist. We must all resist. We need to work on a different response that shows that Jews and their allies are united against this ongoing crisis in an active way.

It’s about getting the right people in the room. It’s time to look for new answers and develop new strategies for confronting hate. This is not easy work.

I am resigned to the likelihood that the letter I included in this essay will not be the last announcement I receive about a swastika in a school. But I am committed to the proposition that we can actually do something about it, something that is clear and cogent. In times so filled with vitriol and bitterness, as exhausting as it may be, it is up to us to turn the tide.