All posts by admin

Annual Meeting Rabbi’s Report

MAY 6, 2007

By Rabbi Robert H. Loewy

            The Jewish calendar and the synagogue calendar are not always in sync, but occasionally they mesh just right. This Shabbat we will read the end of the Book of Leviticus, including a series of blessings that come from fulfilling God’s commandments and curses if one does not. Next week we commence with the Book of Numbers. So too, with this annual meeting we close one book, one administration of leadership and reflect on the year past, as well as look to the next administration and the year to come.

The Haftarah, from Jeremiah continues on the theme of blessings and curses with the verses: “Blessed are those who trust in the Eternal, whose trust in the Eternal! They shall be like a tree planted near water, sinking its roots into the watercourse, never noticing when the heat comes, its leaves green, careless of times of drought, never failing to bear fruit.” (Jeremiah 17:7-8)  The suggestion is that faith, not simply belief in God, but active faith, which includes prayer, study and ongoing acts of goodness, can be an anchor to people; faith, which links an individual with a community of likeminded men and women, can make a difference in people’s lives.

Interestingly, recent studies in our Jewish community have indicated the truth of this. Those who are faithful, who are linked to their religious communities, who attend services statistically feel less stress than those who do not, as they deal with the ongoing challenges of post-Katrina New Orleans. Specifically they have less trouble concentrating, sleep better (not during the services), have more energy, are not as nervous and have less difficulty settling down. While I would like to tell you that this is unique to the Jewish community, that would not be true. Nonetheless, this study simply validates what Jeremiah taught over two thousand years ago.

Our goal this past year, even more so than in other years, was to provide outstanding programs, recreate a sense of the normal, build upon the strengths of the members who are here and start thinking about the future. I believe that we have been eminently successful in our endeavors, as you will hear from our President Miriam Latter in a few minutes.

This was a year where lay and professional leadership really needed to step up and I believe all have succeeded. I begin with our lay leaders and as you read in our May bulletin, I cannot provide any more accolades for Miriam. Her caring soul was the perfect fit at this time in our congregational history. Through her commitment to outstanding programming, she has nurtured, fed, entertained and led us with excellence. She wisely surrounded herself with capable officers, board members and past Presidents, taking charge where she deemed it appropriate and strategically delegating as well. Chazak, you have been strong as you complete this term of leadership and with a new slate of officers to be approved later today, Chazak, we will continue to be strong as we move to the future.

Our professional team continues to be creative and responsive to the challenges of New Orleans synagogue life. The addition of Melanie Blitz as Nursery School Director has already lifted that program tremendously. Many of us knew Melanie primarily as a gifted caterer. However, her talents, insights and abilities extend beyond the kitchen.

With her life-long links to this congregation, she fit in perfectly with the total operation and the rest of the professionals. We continue to be blessed with Phil Gaethe as our Temple Educator and I am so pleased for him that this summer he will participate in the NATE Educators Seminar in Israel; with Victoria May, whose multiple talents both musical and editorial and care for this synagogue are apparent to all; with Louis Geiger, our Temple Administrator, who has the duty of managing this physical plant and the constant level of activity, making sure we are fiscally sound, while calming the nervous B’nai Mitzvah parents, who want everything to go perfectly. They all work hard and do a marvelous job, supported admirably by Dianne Green, Monica Dittfeld, Sheila Freedman, Jenny Ermatinger and Michelle Bassham, along with the various men and women who comprise our custodial staff. This is a big operation and it takes quite a team to make it run smoothly.

I must confess that as I look at the coming year, I am excited about the opportunities that are before us. Our members can continue to sink their roots.

Twenty years ago, we celebrated Israel at 40 with a year long program of activities relating to Israel on a variety of levels. This year, the entire community unites to celebrate Israel at 60. We will try to coordinate, so that the whole community can enjoy activities without overlapping on individual programs. Our Fall and Spring Continuing Education classes will relate to Israel and I am hopeful that our friend Rabbi Micky Boyden will be back to share a weekend of learning. I am encouraging Brotherhood and Sisterhood, always vital components of our synagogue life, to plan Israel related programs as well in addition to their other numerous possibilities.

I am pleased to see that our Friday evening worship attendance is picking up a bit. Tot Shabbats have been enhanced by the involvement of Melanie Blitz, who has created complimentary art projects to go along with the worship. Similarly our Family Shabbat services have been popular and well attended by and large.

However, I would like to introduce a new program a few times in the coming year called “Synaplex”. Just as you walk into the Cinemaplex of the Palace Theater and choose among a variety of options, the same can take place here on a Shabbat. All begin with dinner, but then there will be a variety of Shabbat activities from which you can choose: a Jewish theme related movie, yoga, Jewish meditation, a regular service, Israeli dance, Torah study, art activities and I can go on. This kind of program has energized many a congregation throughout the country and I would like to see us give it a try. I think it will be fun.

I envision new liturgy in the coming year. The much anticipated and delayed Mishkan Tefillah, the new siddur for the Reform movement, should be available shortly. We will examine it carefully and then decide if we would like to adopt it for the congregation. In addition our Yom Kippur Reflections service continues to be popular, but could use revision. I invite any who are interested in working on that project to let me know. We are also searching for new High Holy Day youth service options.

I’m also looking forward to renewing our Shabbat morning Torah Study program. Minimally it will entail me leading the study generally on the first Shabbat morning of the month, beginning with Bereshit in October. Hopefully the group will build and we will have weekly study offerings before we know it.


Our teens will be quite busy this Fall, as we host NFTY Southern’s Fall Conclave. With the theme of Jews Around the World, they will become more aware of what Jewish life is like beyond our borders. As a congregation we will have the responsibility of hosting teens from around the region, offering them home hospitality, so please be available the weekend of November 2-4. Phil Gaethe will present a special curriculum for Post Confirmation students and parents, called “Packing For College,” a URJ program to look at the Jewish challenges of selecting and going to college.

Katrina is still influencing who we are and what we do. We are preparing for the coming storm season with the lessons learned in the back of our minds. If you have not submitted updated contact information, please do so. The Religious Action Committee and Katrina Response Committee have provided us with opportunities to physically repair our city, gutting one house and building others. We continue to try and create a meaningful relationship with the Upper 9th and 7th Ward Women’s shelters. I am a bit frustrated that more of our members have not stepped up in these endeavors. I realize that some are still in the process of repairing their own lives, but many others do not have that excuse. In the year to come it is my hope that we will do better. Tikun Olam, repairing our world continues as one of our essential mandates.

Of course a fascinating outgrowth of Katrina has been the relationship with Congregation Beth Israel, which is still evolving. Last year we cooperated in one or two programs and I anticipate more of that in the coming year. They have hired their own rabbi, Uri Topolofsky, a man who is fully supportive of pluralism in the Jewish community. Truly, the linkage of our two congregations may be ground breaking in American Jewish life, but rest assured that it will not impact our approach to Judaism.

And so, as one year ends, a new one begins, just as in our ongoing reading of Torah. We pray that it will be another year of blessing.


Thank you



March 30, 2007

By Rabbi Robert H. Loewy

      We are in the midst of March Madness, the time of year when many of us become

avid fans of college basketball. I was listening to two sports reporters the other day describe a classic past battle between University of Michigan and Southern Illinois, teams which included NBA legends, Magic Johnson and Larry Byrd. The commentator recalled how while watching the game, his co-announcer said, “looking at these two teams, if I was to start an NBA franchise, I would select… Greg Kelso.” So much for insight and prognostication!

In a similar vein, but on a much more serious subject, I am here to say that I was

wrong! As many will readily tell you, I do not use those words too often, but tonight I am here to tell you that I was wrong. Granted I was wrong along with many others and I was wrong due to misinformation. Note, I am qualifying and rationalizing, but nonetheless I was wrong.

What was I wrong about?…. Supporting the war in Iraq in 2003. Four

years have passed, more than the time of U.S. involvement in World War II. I’m not sure which is more frustrating for us in New Orleans, the governmental response to Katrina or the handling of the war in Iraq. There are many similarities. It began with high expectations, then plummeted by reality. Clearly we are witness to a failure of Federal Government to do what it says it will do. There has been open deception, which leads to suspicion and lack of faith in leadership. The big difference is that 3000 U.S. troops have been killed, along with hundreds of thousands of Iraqi civilians and there is no end in sight.

The War in Iraq is continually in the news, as it should be. Congress has now voted for a pullout with timetables. President Bush threatens a veto, trying to paint opponents as undermining the good men and women fighting for freedom and democracy and the War on Terrorism, appealing to a macho mentality when suggesting that his opponents simply wish to “cut and run” by surrendering.

Let’s be clear on what all of us support: We all care about our men and women, and other nations’ soldiers, who risk their lives for duty; this includes the chaplains who serve them. We all want to see continued funding for the troops who are in Iraq to be able to do their jobs. This includes armor, supplies and weaponry, some of which have not been adequately provided throughout this war. We also recognize the need for generous health care and benefits for military members and their families. The effects of war last long beyond the battlefield. The Veterans Administration must also be provided with quality facilities and funding in order to offer life-long care for the wounded and their families.

So far what I have said is no different than what you can read in the newspaper, Newsweek or Time. What is it that I can say that is different? You should know that I am prompted to speak at this time based on a resolution passed by the board of our Union for Reform Judaism in recent days. What is a URJ resolution? These resolutions are a way that we as an organized Jewish community bring the strength of numbers as we speak what we see as truth to power. Our message reflects an interpretation and application of Jewish values to critical issues of our time.

They are not simply Jewish Democrats outnumbering Jewish Republicans. As in all Jewish matters, there are different opinions, so that the resolution in its body makes it clear that it does not represent the views of every Reform Jew, nor does it imply that if you do not agree, you are a not a good Jew. It reflects consensus and is consistent with earlier resolutions.

In preparing for tonight I looked at my archives and the sermon I wrote for January 31, 2003. At that time, using traditional Jewish legal understandings, we spoke of a possible war with Iraq as a “milchemet reshut- a discretionary war.” This type of war was permitted, only when there was a clear threat, following serious and honest deliberation with appropriate authorities, and only then with a variety of restrictions. And so I wrote the following in 2003: “I believe it is fair to say that Iraq is a threat to the United States and its allies. Iraq has attacked Kuwait and Israel in the past, both allies of the United States. Iraqi links to Al Qaeda and other terrorist groups which have attacked either the United States or its allies seem clear. Whether it is an imminent threat or simply potential is no longer meaningful in our day… The goal is to rid Iraq of weapons of mass destruction. The goal is to end the regime of Saddam Hussein, to rid them of a reign of terror that has swept that nation for a generation or more.”

The problem is that not only me, but most Americans reached this same conclusion, but based on erroneous information. The bi-partisan 9/11 Commission has made it clear that “Saddam was not close to developing or obtaining nuclear or biological weapons, that his chemical weapons capacity was almost eliminated, and that he did not cooperate with Al Qaeda in attacks on the United States.” (URJ Resolution) I now believe that the Bush Administration had this information and did all in its power to mislead the American public in order to proceed with a tunnel vision agenda.

I am certainly no fan of Saddam Hussein and I might still have wanted to see him removed regardless of the faulty information, but the missteps that followed are grounds for a reassessment. David Saperstein, the head of our Reform Religious Action Center has put it this way: “The war has vividly demonstrated the limits of American power to reshape the world in accordance with our vision and interests…. Our bombs may be smart, but our tactics from the moment the occupation began, have not been. American setbacks curtail our ability to project our power and pursue our interests.”

So where are we now and how do our Jewish values speak to the situation? Jewish tradition teaches us to continually “seek peace and pursue it.” U.S. policy has been heavy on military and light on diplomacy from the very beginning. With the factional fighting, outside influences and a light base of support for U.S. involvement within Iraq, the diplomatic path is required, including to dialogue with those with whom we disagree.

The reality of the war has been that thousands of Iraqis have been killed. Their land is in turmoil including their agriculture and economy. The URJ resolution looks at the Jewish value of Baal Tashchit, the Biblical idea that we are not to destroy fruit trees in the course of war. In later Rabbinic teachings, this principle has evolved into the idea that “war should be fought in a manner so as to allow normal civilian life to resume after the war…. The failure of the U.S. government to secure the civilian infrastructure in the aftermath of the successful invasion and the failure in the following three years to rebuild effectively ignores these values.” (URJ resolution)

These are not simply the views of the URJ, but they are cited as a major reason of the failure of U.S. policy in Iraq by the bi-partisan Baker-Hamilton Report, a group created and then ignored by the Bush administration.

In halacha, Jewish law, we learn that if the rabbis apply law to a situation and unintended consequences are the result, then the implementation of the law can be changed or suspended. In other words, as any fool knows, “my mind is made up don’t confuse me with the facts” is not a sound maxim for foreign policy. There is a time to say “I was wrong.” and change course. The American people have voted to make that statement. Now the Congress reflects that vote. I concur with the URJ and many others that now is a time for a change in policy.

Last March in a statement on Iraq by the CCAR our Reform Rabbinic body shares our dilemma in trying to decide what is right. “Some who supported the war now think we should withdraw immediately, while some who opposed the war believe we cannot begin to leave until the situation stabilizes. Opponents of immediate withdrawal argue that the U.S. should not establish a timetable for withdrawal because if we withdraw too soon, Iraq will devolve into civil war and become a haven for terrorists. Opponents also note that if we set deadlines and then fail to meet them, we will be perceived as weak by our enemies. Supporters of a more imminent withdrawal argue that Americans and Iraqis continue to die as a result of the insurgency, and that rather than maintaining order in Iraq, the presence of the United States as an occupying power engenders resentment and resistance from the populace and creates sympathy for the insurgents to continue fighting.”

That was last March. This is now and hundreds of lives have been lost in between. I don’t pretend to be an expert, but can see that the current policy of our government is not the way. Stay the course, does not always reach the desired destination. Stubbornness and arrogance are closely related.

I support the basic message of our URJ resolution which begins by first calling for the moral and financial support of our troops in the field and when they come home, along with economic support for Iraq to rebuild its infrastructure. Most significantly the resolution states that the President should announce a clear timetable for the phased and expeditious withdrawal of troops from Iraq and opposes an escalation in troop strength. Third there is a call for reconciliation talks among all effected interested parties, including international involvement. At this time, this seems to be the prudent course of action to bring peace and a future to the region and the world.

Friends, I could be totally wrong again. But I can not be silent and we should not be silent. I approach this issue not in a partisan way, but according to the Jewish principles that I believe apply to this situation. I certainly can respect those who disagree and interpret tradition and the political possibilities differently than I do.

I conclude with the same words I wrote in 2003: “May God bless America with the vision to see the full diplomatic landscape with clarity, with the wisdom to discern between truth and deception, with the strength to bring greater peace and security to our land and the world. Oseh Hashalom- May the ultimate source of peace bring peace.”





The Carter Controversy

MARCH 16, 2007

By Rabbi Robert H. Loewy

Friends, I have just returned from Atlanta, the home of CNN, Coca Cola, Martin Luther King, baseball’s Braves, basketball’s Hawks and those dirty birds the Atlanta Falcons. It is also home for the Carter Center, founded by former President Jimmy Carter to advance human rights and alleviate unnecessary human suffering.

I was in Atlanta attending the 118th annual convention of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, of which I had the honor and responsibility to be chair. This has been a project on which I have been working for two years. We had one controversy going into the event. We planned a variety of pre-convention trips to various Atlanta sites, one of them being the Carter Center.

Then along came President Carter’s book, released this Fall, “Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid.” The title alone is offensive and incendiary, so much for even handedness. My committee recommended we not go to the Carter Center and the CCAR Board created and distributed a statement as to why. Of course one group of rabbis felt this was wrong and decided they were going on their own, that by not going we were making the wrong statement, either because they felt Carter was right or at least that we should engage in dialogue with those with whom we disagree. I, and my committee, and the vast majority of the reform rabbinate disagreed.

Much has already been written on this book. You may have read about it in the Deep South Jewish Voice. I could have delivered this sermon based upon all the articles written. However I wanted to be open minded, so I hesitantly purchased the book and read it over Mardi Gras. After all, this is Jimmy Carter, not a great President but a contributing past President, always a seemingly just and upright human being, a religious man, without trying to impose his religion upon others, a great humanitarian, working on human rights around the world, and a strong supporter of Habitat for Humanity. He deserved my openness to what he had to say. And so I read it and was absolutely disgusted.

What was so offensive? It starts with the title and the picture on the cover. His title indicates that there will either be peace, which will come from those peace loving Palestinians, you know, the ones who turn down every opportunity for peace, the ones who send in suicide bombers into hotels, schools, restaurants and markets, which Carter acknowledges, but barely OR when the oppressive Israeli government withdraws to pre-1967 borders and ceases its persecution and denial of human rights to the Palestinian. For Carter it is the Israelis who have created apartheid- a heavy laden term indicating suppression of a people in its own country. For Carter that country is Palestine, the land on the other side of the 1967 borders, currently occupied by Israel. He totally discounts Israeli attempts to forge peace in the past including the withdrawal from Gaza. He ignores the fighting and bloodletting amongst the Palestinians.

Rather he shows a picture of what Israeli’s call the “security fence” and which Carter calls the “imprisonment wall”, a combination fence and wall which Israel has created as a defensive measure to limit access by would be terrorists, an unfortunate eye sore and regrettable strategy, but one that has proven effective in saving Israeli lives.

Then there is a picture of him looking at the wall and the Palestinians who are blocked out of coming into Israel. Perhaps this image is the whole book, for all Carter sees is the suffering Palestinian.

Friends, I do not support all actions of the Israeli government. I particularly see the continuing creating of West Bank settlements as an obstacle to peace, The War in Lebanon was a horrible miscalculation and abuse of military power. A recent picture of Israel’s Defense Minister looking out on the battlefield, with covers still on the lenses says a great deal. At the same time, Israel has bent over backwards, taken courageous positions for the sake of possible peace.

Let me share with you some of his positions in his own descriptions and words. Early on after describing in a fair handed way, what some of the basic issues are for there to be peace he writes: “It is Israel that remains the key, the vortex around which swirl the winds of hatred, intolerance and bloodshed.” (p. 17) This refers not only to the crisis between the Palestinians, but that all wars in the Middle East are because of Israel and Israel’s supporters.

Looking at the Camp David Accords, when Israel returned the entire Sinai Peninsula and offered Gaza, but was rejected, he writes: “We all knew that Israel must have a comprehensive and lasting peace, and this dream could have been realized if Israel had complied with the Camp David Accords and refrained from colonizing the West Bank, with Arabs accepting Israel within its borders.” (P. 53) He discounts the response in the Arab world, including the assassination of Anwar Sadat.

He spends time describing the key players with a very sympathetic description of the Palestinians, but when coming to describe the Israelis he begins with their connection to the land with 19th century Zionism, ignoring centuries of national hope through prayer and ritual, discounting a continuing but small Jewish presence in the land, limited by expulsions, not willingness and depicting Israel’s leaders in unsympathetic ways. He describes the many Palestinians “forced out of Israel”, but makes no mention of the thousands of Jews expelled from Arab lands.

There is a chapter on the other neighboring countries, which have impact on the situation, but barely refers to Iran the nation that pays rewards to the family of suicide bombers, which provides arms and funding to Hezbollah and other terrorist groups.

He often makes reference to his religious roots in Hebrew scripture. Pre-1967 Israel was the good Israel, moral and cultural, just as in the Good Book. Post 1967 Israel- has “policies shaped by a refusal to acknowledge and respect the basic human rights of the citizens.” (P.112) again failing to acknowledge the reality that the people he wants respected desire Israel’s demise and actively work towards that end.

There is a full chapter on visits with the Palestinians as they share tales of persecution, validated by Carter by a left wing Israeli group hyper critical of Israel-

which can happen in an open society. In Palestinian territory anyone who dares to be supportive of Israel or critical of Palestinian leaders is killed. There is no chapter on his visit with Israelis and their tales of losing sons and daughters.

He attributes the perceived Christian exodus from the Holy Land to the Israeli government, again not referring to the Islamic attacks on Christians in Bethlehem and Nazareth. His reading of every peace initiative from Oslo onward depicts Israel as the winner and the Palestinians made to suffer.

He does mention how Arafat and the PLO may have squandered opportunities for peace, but never does he detail what Arafat and other Palestinian leaders told their own people, nor the anti-Semitic propaganda taught in the schools and spread through the media.

Not until p. 147 of the book does he mention suicide bombings that gave Netanyahu the election over Peres, who would have continued the path of peace established by Rabin.

Carter blames all the woes of Gaza since withdrawal upon Israel. In his chapter on the most recent Israeli and Palestinian elections, he dedicates 10 pages on Hamas being elected as response to Fatah corruption and ineffectiveness and one paragraph on Ehud Omert’s election and what it represents.

He saves the worst for last. Describing the wall/fence, he writes: “Utilizing their political and military dominance, they are imposing a system of partial withdrawal, encapsulation and APARTHEID on the Muslim and Christian citizens of the occupied territories.” He refers to it as a unilateral border, which ultimately it may be, but there is no mention of any Israeli perspective, how Israel’s courts at some points have modified the path, and how terrorism incidents have decreased since its creation.

Carter believes if Israel recognizes the Palestinians and creates a state, it will bring full recognition from all the Arab world. Somehow I don’t see Iran, Malaysia and other Islamic countries jumping on that band wagon. It’s all Israel’s fault: “Israel’s continued control and colonization of Palestinian land have been the primary obstacles to a comprehensive peace agreement in the Holy Land.”(p. 208)

Then in what sounds like good old anti-Semitism, he writes: “because of powerful political, economic and religious forces in the United States, Israeli government decisions are rarely questioned or condemned, voices from Jerusalem dominate in our media, and most American citizens are unaware of circumstances in the occupied territories.” (p. 209) The “religious forces” may refer to the religious right as well as that Jewish lobby. And of course there all those powerful Jews who control the media. .

I am sorely disappointed by this book and the man who wrote it, someone I admired and I am not alone. Dr. Kenneth Stein was one of President Carter’s key advisors on the Middle East. A Professor at Emory University he was one of the first directors of the Carter Center, accompanied the past-President on his early visits to the Middle East and has now publicly resigned his relationship with the Center, along with 14 other members of a community board. I’ve known Kenny Stein, son of Holocaust survivors, since I was in Junior High. He was a friend of my older brother’s. I recall having lunch with him in Jerusalem in 1973, as I was a rabbinical student and he was pursuing his doctorate. I can only imagine how difficult it was for him to dramatically break from and criticize a man he had admired.

In a scathing, scholarly article in the Middle East Quarterly he writes of  this book and President Carter as follows: “He does what no non-fiction author should ever do: He allows ideology or opinion to get in the way of facts. While Carter says that he wrote the book to educate and provoke debate, the narrative aims its attack toward Israel, Israeli politicians and Israel’s supporters. It contains egregious errors of both commission and omission. To suit his desired ends, he manipulates information, redefines facts and exaggerates conclusions. Falsehoods, when repeated and backed by the prestige of Carter’s credentials, can compromise an erroneous baseline for shaping and reinforcing attitudes and policymaking.

Rather than bring peace, they can further fuel hostilities, encourage retrenchment and hamper peacemaking.” Stein then methodically demonstrates how this occurs throughout the book.

President Carter has responded to some of the criticism. In most instances he stands by his words, his recollections and methodology. He does regret one phrase, where he seems to actually endorse terrorism, but it is too late.

I am sad to say that this book will have negative impact on the attempt to find peace in the Middle East. My colleague Jeff Salkin in Atlanta reports that it has already precipitated anti-Israel and anti-Semitic statements, including Jewish teens being harassed. Granted this is Atlanta, the focus city of the controversy. Others point out that this is part of an overall movement to blame Israel for all the problems in the Middle East. As if to say, if Israel and the Palestinians work out their problems, the Sunnis and Shia of Iraq will bury the hatchet; the King of Jordan will feel secure; and Saudi Arabia will end its authoritarian regime denying rights to its people.

Our role is to respond, to make it clear that Israel is not the villain in this ongoing saga. Rather, Israel continues to be the victim of false information, an international Islamic effort to isolate it. Let us do all we can to encourage our government to continue in its support for Israel, not uncritically, but realistically. Groups like Hadassah are pivotal in spreading this message. I encourage travel to Israel, inclusive of our congregational trip this June or the community trip in October. In the face of falsehood, we must not be silent.


Kindness: A Jewish Value

November 10, 2006

By Rabbi Robert H. Loewy


I’ll confess. I’m a television watcher. Among my regulars are ER, Desperate Housewives, Grey’s Anatomy and Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip. With my schedule, I’m not able to watch every week, though DVR is now helpful. I like the fact that all of these programs begin with a brief recap of what happened last week.

Since I know that some of you may have missed last week’s Torah portion, let me catch you up.

Poor Abraham! His life has been anything but easy. God tells him to leave his homeland. He leaves his homeland, but must deal with the Canaanite nations. God promises him that he will have many children, but he and Sarah have infertility problems and then all sorts of family issues. God assures him that he will be part of a covenant and then adds, “By the way, you will have to circumcise yourself, all the other males in your entourage and all future males on the 8th day.” Perhaps this is not much of a challenge for the babies, but Abraham was 99 years old; they had stone utensils and no anesthesia. Ouch!

Which brings us to this week’s Torah reading. We find Abraham sitting outside his tent recovering from what must be considered “major surgery,” when he sees visitors coming from afar. The rabbis while reading this immediately assume that they are there to perform the mitzvah of Bikkur Cholim, visiting the sick. They root this precept of Jewish law to this incident in the Torah. Indeed, it is an act of kindness to visit the sick, to bring them food, flowers, reading material, to find ways to alleviate their pain or at least pass the time during recovery.

However, Abraham was not about to sit on his tuchus and let people come visit him. These would be guest after all. He quickly calls out to Sarah to let her know company was coming. Bring out the china. Put up a pot of coffee. Go slaughter a lamb for dinner. Again our rabbis will read this story and explain that this is the basis of the mitzvah of hachnassat orchim, hospitality to strangers. Indeed, it is an act of kindness to be hospitable, to welcome newcomers to the community into your home, to make sure that others have a place for holiday meals, to be gracious and welcoming of others as you cement relationships.

In tomorrow morning’s liturgy, Easton will read that there are a variety of mitzvot, acts that we should perform continually. A few of these mitzvot might be considered acts of kindness- not only the two already mentioned, but also l’vayat hamet-attending funerals, hachnassat kallah– sharing in weddings and then a catch-all category of gemilut chasadim-acts of loving kindness. Our tradition calls upon us to live our lives with a mindset that says we should look for opportunities to be kind to others, not shy away from them.

Some of you may recall a few years ago, it was popular to call for “random acts of kindness.” It seems that in Marin County, CA a billboard was placed on an interstate reading: “Perform Random Acts of Kindness Today”. Not coincidentally, during the next six months in the County reports followed of unusual acts: people paying tolls for others, stopping to help stranded vehicles, even a slight drop in crime.

In one instance a man was stuck in traffic. His cell phone not working, he typed a message on his computer, printed it on his car fax and stuck it up on his window: LATE FOR ANNIVERSARY DINNER. CALL MY WIFE AND TELL HER I LOVE HER with the phone number. He arrived home an hour late: 70 people had called; one sent flowers, and another a voucher to a local restaurant. The man went from the doghouse to the penthouse.

When we hear of tragic stories on the news, it is not usual to learn of kind and generous responses. From the old world we have the following story: “A cartman’s horse suddenly stumbled and fell dead. To the cartman this was a major catastrophe. His livelihood was threatened. A crowd gathered, observed the poor man’s plight, shook their heads sympathetically, mumbling, “too bad, too bad.”

A rabbi among the observers took out a paper bag, placed $10 in it and said, “Friends, I’m sorry for this man, $10 worth. How sorry are you?”

When the crowd followed suit, they moved from observers to doers, from people with feelings to givers of tsedakah, acting upon their instincts for kindness. (Rabbi Geoffrey J. Haber)

From our world, I have the following true story. A woman I know, while living in Houston, temporarily there due to Katrina, found herself in traffic night court. She describes the scene as being similar to what many of you remember from the television sitcom- with a surly bailiff, imposing security, but a judge with no sense of humor. He began by telling all parties not directly involved to leave the courtroom and there was to be no talking or you would be held in contempt of court. Case after case was disposed with a usual plea of guilty and requirement to pay the fine in cash immediately. As the woman was sitting she observed another who was caring for a gaggle of children, clearly not all her own. She could see that the other was becoming more and more anxious until her time to stand before the judge came. The source of her fear was that she did not even have $20 to pay her fine, which she shared with the judge in tears. Very quickly the woman I know reached into her purse and gave the woman not only the $20, but all the rest of the money she had in her wallet. The silent courtroom responded with appreciation.

I’ve read of another woman, by the name of Irene Goldfarb, who describes how one day while grocery shopping, she was embarrassed to discover she was 10 cents short at the cashier’s line. All of her groceries were already bagged. She was trying to decide what item to return, when the woman behind her offered her 10 cents. She now was not only feeling embarrassed, but humiliated.

She responded that she could not accept her money and that she would leave something behind. The second woman explained, “Oh, I’m not giving it to you. Just take it and pass it on.” That seemed reasonable so Irene accepted the 10 cents and left the store with her purchases and inspired by the whole idea.

You know what is coming. Two weeks later Irene was in the same store, but this time second in line at the cashier, when the woman in front of her was 10 cents short. Irene offered her 10 cents, which she politely refused, only accepting it with the understanding that she would take it and pass it on.

Our rabbis teach that the world stands upon Torah, Prayer and Gemilut Chasadim- acts of kindness. Kindness can be contagious. Many of us certainly experienced random acts of kindness in the past year or two.

Unfortunately, our world does not consist of all goodness and kindness.  Neither was this true for our friend Abraham’s world. His visitors had another purpose as well. They were there to tell him of the impending destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. It was a place of corruption and cruelty. Hospitality and kindness were not on the communal agenda, prompting Elie Wiesel to share the story of the one righteous man of Sodom. He was ridiculed and abused: “Why do you continue your protest against evil and perform acts of kindness? Can’t you see that no one pays attention to you or cares?” The man responded, “at first I thought I would change the people and the city. Today I know I cannot. By continuing my protest and performing acts of kindness though, I’ll keep them from changing me!”

My friends, our world is not Sodom, but there is much apathy and violence. We look the other way all too often. We pass on opportunities to make a difference, even a little one, in the lives of others. Kindness is a fundamental Jewish value and we can act in quiet and significant ways.

And like my television shows, this story will be continued next week.




Parents And Children

August 11, 2006

By Rabbi Robert H. Loewy


It is so wonderful this evening to be in the presence of a number of our college students, both undergraduate and graduate, some of you studying here in New Orleans and many of you elsewhere, a few of you heading off to college for the first time. Your mere attendance this evening is a source of uplift for us all. We know that this past year has been difficult for you. Even if you have been away from New Orleans, your focus has been on your home town and how it will recover. You’ve lost houses and friends and familiar landmarks, been constantly identified and heard, “Oh, you’re from New Orleans. I’m so sorry.” Perhaps you had a typically great year and felt guilty when thinking about home. I hope you are aware that we do not begrudge you your joy in the least. In fact the opposite, it is what we wish for you.

As most of you know, I am not an impartial observer of this process. Monday morning, bright and early, Sara and I will be heading to Texas for her sophomore year. So my challenge for this evening was to present a message that will speak to the students, the parents and all in attendance without embarrassing my daughter too much. As is often the case, my wife Lynn came to the rescue. Earlier this summer she handed me a book with those famous words: “It might be good for a sermon.”

In the spring of 2004, Tim Russert, NBC journalist, best known for his interviews on “Meet the Press”, wrote a book entitled, “Big Russ and Me.” It details his relationship with his father, a sanitation worker from Buffalo, New York. As a result of that book, he received hundreds of letters from men and women telling their stories. And so he collected them into a second volume: “Wisdom of Our Fathers- Lessons and Letters from Daughters and Sons.” As parents we communicate what is important to our children knowingly and unknowingly, through our words and our deeds. I will share a few of these anecdotes that speak to us all and go beyond the parent/child relationship.

The first involves a young man, who unfortunately received a facial scar as the victim of a violent crime. He confided to his therapist that every time he shaved and saw that scar, it triggered painful memories. The therapist asked him to change his frame of reference and if he ever had watched his father shave. The young man smiled, then shared how as a child he would watch his Dad and occasionally his Dad would put shaving cream on his face and “shave” him. Many of us have similar memories I’m sure. The counselor urged the scarred young man to bring up that memory each time he shaved instead of how he was assaulted, to which the young man wrote: “Precious memories are made in an instant and last forever. I am so thankful that my Dad had the patience back then to let me ‘shave’.” My comment is simple enough. We never know when we make a memory. The most insignificant act can make a difference.

A second story teaches us that the behavior we model can teach more than many words. In 1990 a father and young son, both of whom were football fanatics had four tickets for the NFC Playoff Game between the New York Giants and the San Francisco 49ers. They went to the game planning to sell the extra two. Arriving early, they enjoyed a tailgating experience with at least 25 people trying to buy the tickets, but his father did not sell them. The boy figured his father was holding out for a higher price closer to game time.

As they approached the gate to enter, he observed his father scanning the crowd of would-be buyers. To his amazement he witnessed his father approach another obvious father with his young son and sold those tickets at face value. Years later the son writes: “I did learn something that day- something about having principles and doing what is right. I know today that my father got more enjoyment out of seeing that father and son watch the game right next to us than if he had sold each ticket for a small fortune. In doing so, he taught me a lesson I will never forget.” Indeed there are some moments that are more precious than thousands of dollars.

Of course parenting involves the mindset that there are teachable moments upon which we must seize. One Sunday morning a father and son were walking together in New York City, when they passed in front of Riverside Funeral Home, one of the major Jewish funeral homes in the City. They stopped for a moment, interrupted what they had been talking about and the father asked his son what time it was and what did he see? “It’s 10:30 and I see lots of people walking into the building.” They continued their conversation, but the boy realized they had not moved.  A little later, his father again asked the same questions. “What time is it and what do you see?” He responded, “10:50 and I see people leaving the building.”

The boy was confused as his father explained, when someone dies, there is a funeral which lasts 20 minutes, to which the boy asked, “Why are you telling me this, I am only 11?” The father responded, “Because I hope you will live a long and productive life, that you will be aware of your surroundings, that you will stay out of trouble, and that you will be thoughtful and cautious. And above all, that you will always know in the back of your mind that someday your entire life will be summed up in twenty minutes.” We each need a measure of humility as we approach life. We are all part of a much bigger picture and contribute our part to the world.

We can choose how to approach life and its challenges. The final story is illustrative of this point. An 85 year old man was stricken with cancer. He instructed his doctors that he wanted to do all that was possible to fight the disease. One day while sitting at the hospital with his daughter waiting for some blood work, he turned to her and said: “You know, I’ve had a very good life. True I was in a concentration camp for five years and lost my first wife and child, but all in all, I’ve had a very happy life.” To which his daughter wrote: “What could I say? He did have a happy life, because he believed he did. I put my hand on his and we waited quietly together.”

It was the Jewish psychologist, Viktor Frankel, a survivor himself, who wrote about how it is up to us to deal with adversity. Horrible moments may come into our lives, but it is our choice as to how we will deal with them. Certainly that is a precious insight for us all.

One last word… In the introduction to this book, Tim Russert speaks of his own son, who is heading off to college for the first time. His words could be our words to you our students and to all of us. “Study hard. Laugh often. Keep your honor.”



Jewish Days Of Mourning Shabbat Nachamu

AUGUST 4, 2006

By Rabbi Robert H. Loewy


My goodness, it has been two months since I have given a sermon. And so much has happened, which is grist for the homiletic mill. So, sit back folks, this has the potential of being a long night. I’ve heard it said that rabbinic sermons are our own form of self-persecution. But you can relax my friends, I am not one who believes that the Jewish people must continue to suffer. We have done that long enough. In fact suffering is a theme appropriate for tonight.

As some, but probably few of you realized, a relatively major Jewish holy day was on our calendar yesterday, Tisha B’Av. You missed it? Darn! Well, the good news is it will be back next year. Tisha B’Av, which simply means the ninth day in the Hebrew month of Av commemorates the destruction of the first and second Temples of Jerusalem, traditionally a day of mourning and fasting. Over time it has been linked with other events of suffering and persecution, most prominently the expulsion order of the Jews from Spain and the fall of the Warsaw Ghetto during World War II.

Personally and as a movement, we Reform Jews have had an ambivalent relationship with the observance. None of us still mourn for the destruction of the Temples of Jerusalem. I am not anxious to rebuild it, to bring back that old time religion with animal sacrifices, grain offerings, incense and libations. However, Tisha B’Av is more than the Temples. It marks the fall of the Jewish nation to the Babylonians and then later the Romans. I could mourn for that, except for the fact that Israel has been in existence since 1948. So, you will understand how I erred when planning our summer Continuing Education program, totally forgetting about Tisha B’Av and scheduling of all programs, one on Jewish Cooking for the evening of Tisha B’Av. Mea Culpa- I will say an extra Al Chet for that come Yom Kippur.

Still, Tisha B’Av can speak to us, providing a prism for how we see our world. After all, what can be more relevant than our Jewish homeland fighting for survival? Over two thousand years ago Israel and Judea were monarchies. Israel was destroyed by the Assyrians around 710 BCE. Then Judea became the sole Jewish independent entity. Ancient power politics involved deciding whether to align with Egypt, Assyria or Babylonia. Whichever you chose, the other was not pleased. Judea was often a pawn in a global political game. Babylonia conquers Judea, destroys the Temple in 586 BCE and exiles the leadership. 60 years later, Assyria defeats Babylonia and Judea becomes a reality once again, albeit tied to foreign powers. Later it will be the Romans, who exercise their might.

To some extent the reality of modern Israel is no different. It was founded as the fulfillment of Jewish dreams, but as a concession by world powers. While its birth pains and continued travails involve its Arab neighbors, Israel was first a pawn of European Imperialism, then the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union, and now I would argue between western values of democracy, as reflected by the United States and Israel, and Islamic Fundamentalism, as embraced by Iran and Syria. Israel and Hezbollah, Israel and Hamas are doing the fighting, but to some extent they are proxies. This does not change the fact that real death and destruction is currently taking place.

The current crisis is my fault. Some of my Gates of Prayer members may have noticed. The moment I put a message in our weekly e-mail newsletter about the possibility of spending Mardi Gras in Jerusalem, the fighting with Lebanon broke out. Sadly it continues. I certainly hope and pray that a meaningful and yes, “enduring,” cease fire will come soon, perhaps along the lines that we have heard with international troops providing a real buffer zone and Hezbollah being disarmed or at least moved away. There has been much too much death and destruction. I am not one who believes “Israel right or wrong”, but in this case I do believe that Israel was right to aggressively respond and I do not believe that it is “disproportionate”. After 9/11 the United States launched wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. While they have been criticized as foolish, we have heard few say they are disproportionate.

Hezbollah intentionally initiated the conflict by crossing into Israel and kidnapping Israeli soldiers. They knew full well that Israel would respond and were strategically waiting with their rocket launchers already aimed in the general directions of. Haifa, Tsefat, Nahariya, Kiryat Shmoneh, the civilian populations of northern Israel.

My main criticism of Israel has been its public relations. Israel operates under principles of Tohar Neshek- purity of arms, which means that they do everything in their power to spare innocent civilian lives, which is the opposite of the Hezbollah rockets and missiles and their aim. Their rockets are launched from apartment balconies. Their soldiers are housed in civilian homes. Israel drops leaflets, uses radio and all means possible to tell civilians to flee, while Hezbollah keeps them in harms way, using them as human shields. Civilians are not the innocent victims of Israeli bombing. They are cynically placed in danger by their own people as part of a conscious plot.  That message needs to be broadcast loudly. To date Israel has not been effective in this regard. Tisha B’Av reminds us that we must fight to maintain our independence in spite of what others may say about us.

How is all of this negative press possible, when we all know that Jews control the media and are the cause of all wars? Thank you, Mel Gibson. I needed something else to talk about on my first week back. Let me simply say that this event is not surprising. His family background includes a father who is an unapologetic anti-Semitic Holocaust denier. His response to Jewish criticisms of his movie the “Passion of the Christ” reflected at best insensitivity and as now seems evident, deeply felt hostility towards Jews and Judaism. He has exposed himself and his prejudices. I’m sure that Mr. Gibson is sorry for what happened, but at this time his words are self-serving and meaningless.

He has appealed to meet with the Jewish community and reportedly received an invitation to speak to a congregation on Yom Kippur, which is ludicrous. I do believe that one can repent and change, but it is a process that must be entered into with sincerity and proven through appropriate words and deeds over time, not over night. Our Tisha B’Av prism reminds us that there are those who hate us and to some extent we must be wary.

Of course for all of us, we have another frame of reference through which everything is refracted and that is Katrina. Tisha B’Av commemorates destruction and exile, followed by return, rebuilding and renewal. Those themes certainly speak to us. I don’t believe I have to spell it out any further. I have previously used the language of Jewish bereavement to help us move forward in coping with Katrina. At Yom Kippur Yizkor, we were still in sheloshim the initial month or so of mourning. Now we are in the 11th month. Traditionally, this would be when one conducts an unveiling and ends daily recitation of Kaddish. The focus is no longer what we lost, but where we are heading in the future, while honoring the past. Perhaps Tisha B’Av this year can serve to mark that next stage in our process.

“Nachamu, nachamu ami- Be Comforted, Be Comforted O My people.” These are the words of Isaiah spoken each Shabbat after Tisha B’Av. We pray that the people of Israel and Lebanon will soon know safety and security once again. We pray that all who endure destruction and loss, may find comfort and hope.


Rededication Shabbat

APRIL 7, 2006

By Rabbi Robert H. Loewy


            Mah tovu ohalecha- How Goodly are your Tents O Jacob, your dwelling places O Israel! I look out tonight and bear witness to the power of renewal. Since August 29 we have been immersed in Refuat Haguf, physical healing and Refuat Hanefesh- spiritual healing of our congregation.

After 3 feet of water turned our sanctuary into a well, and inches of water spread throughout the building, countless individuals have worked non-stop to bring us back physically, to restore our prayer space, revive our learning centers, re-activate our business systems. Those who have participated in tonight’s service deserve particular attention, as I have mentioned earlier. I have maintained for years that as a rabbi, I have been blessed with outstanding lay leadership. In the face of an enormous crisis, Miriam Latter, her officers and board rose magnificently to the occasion. She entered office with her agenda of spirituality and caring, to have it replaced by search and rescue. I know that as we start looking to next year, spirituality and caring will take on a whole new dimension.

Special mention must be made about the outpouring of support that has come to us from the entire Jewish community. The role of our organized Reform movement through the URJ has been nothing short of fantastic, providing us with both resources and expertise to navigate through the morass. Through Katrina Relief and the SOS Fund combined with our local Jewish Endowment Foundation, we have received hundreds of thousands of dollars to meet many of our expenses. In addition to that we received $125,000 from the American Jewish Committee to rebuild our sanctuary and thousands more from numerous synagogues and individuals from across America. Though no funds have yet been directly forthcoming from the Federation movement, we are anticipating that as well. All of this has enabled us to repair our building, assist our members and prepare for the future. It has been both humbling and gratifying. Refuat Haguf- the physical recovery and healing of our building is almost complete and we could not be more delighted.

Refuat Hanefesh, the healing of our spirit takes longer, but we are on our way. Looking out each week and seeing so many returnees lifts us as we rebuild our congregational family. Each new face at Shabbat services adds to our strength; watching the children as they walk into the building on Sunday; sitting down with our Zekenim our elders for lunch and friendship; realizing there are added members deliberating around our board tables; sharing with adults gathered in study; processing all those walking into the building to buy scrip and saying hello; meeting with Nursery School children on Friday mornings and B’nai Mitzvah students during the week culminating in their leading worship; These are the real signs of healing. The doors are open and it is invigorating to return to business as usual.

Perhaps it is not quite as usual.  We are cognizant of those of our friends and family who have not returned yet or may not return at all. For those who are here and have returned home, we are fully aware that home is not the same. Many if not most of you are not living in the same conditions as you were on August 27. Homes have been damaged and destroyed. Businesses and jobs have been ruined, disrupted and diminished. All of us continue to suffer financially, emotionally and spiritually and that will not change over night.

Know that your synagogue is here to help. Coming at the end of this month and throughout May, we will be offering four different support groups, one for those struggling with family issues- helping their children and grandchildren to cope and/or dealing with multiple generations under one roof; another group specifically for business people to receive professional business coaching; a third designed for those who feel as if they are too old to deal with all of this, but have to anyway; and a fourth for all those just feeling the stress, anxiety and worry of our Post Katrina life. All four groups will be led by qualified professionals. I hope you will take advantage of these opportunities.

On a more delicate subject, I and the entire congregational leadership are fully aware that many are suffering financially. Income has been lost, or even if it has not, all sorts of expenses have increased. I have received thousands of dollars, as well as gift cards for a variety of stores to share with my members. Please don’t feel as though this is intended for someone else. Recognizing that one is in need and accepting assistance is a positive act of healing.

On this Shabbat we officially rededicate ourselves to the mission that this congregation has fulfilled for 156 years to be the spiritual home for our members, as always, committed to reaching out to God, studying Torah and embracing Am Yisrael- the Jewish people.

I look out tonight and envision beyond, enabling me to say that which the prophet of old pronounced as he scanned the Israelite encampment- Mah Tovu Ohalecha Yaakov: How goodly are your tents O Jacob, your dwelling place O Israel. So, may it be.


Taking Stock Of Where We Are

March 24, 2006

By Rabbi Robert H. Loewy


In New Orleans, we say: “Where y’at?” Others ask: “How are you?” On one of my favorite television shows, Joey’s line is: “How you doing?” In one form or another it is the question that all of us are asked by friends and family, or we are asking of ourselves. It has been almost seven months since, what Chris Rose has labeled, “The Thing”, or what some simply refer to as “The Storm”, while others use the name, “Katrina” descended upon us.

This Shabbat we read  Vayakhel/Pekude, the last portion in the Book of Exodus. It includes a review of the events in the life of Moses and the Israelites. With the portion as backdrop, we too can avail ourselves of the opportunity to take stock of where we are in our journey on the road to recovery, something we need to do periodically.

In case you had not noticed, rabbis don’t think like normal people. We are always on the lookout for parallels between life and text, seeking God’s hidden messages for us to manage our daily affairs in meaningful ways. Reflecting on the Book of Exodus I find a number of parallels to what we have all endured in the past few months.

So there we were at the beginning of the book, dwelling in Egypt, minding our own business, not bothering anyone. We were happy, content, perhaps a bit self-absorbed. Then along came an oppressor, who would steal our tranquility, rob us of our sense of security, and turn our lives upside down. On Purim, I equated Haman to Katrina. Tonight, Pharoah’s name is Katrina. She rose up to oppress us and we needed to escape.

Most of us departed and made the waters part to find the dry land in Houston, Memphis, Baton Rouge, Atlanta and various other points on the globe. Initially we felt safe and secure. I recall leading a service in Houston on the Monday night after the storm, before we knew about levee failure and canal overflow. At that time, like the Israelites reciting the Song of the Sea, having reached dry land, we thought we had dodged the bullet once again. And we were spared to some extent, but there was more hardship to come.

Then we began our wandering. For some it was from city to city, or from hotel to apartment, or from temporary shelter to a house. Our eyes would glance back in disbelief to what had been our home town. We were and still are incredulous over the extent of destruction and suffering.

And so, like the Israelites, we were forced to temporarily reorganize ourselves. In the Torah this is the period of formulating laws for guidance. For us it involved creating contacts, finding schools, re-establishing work habits, reaching out to others, and fashioning homes. All the while, we gazed towards the Promised Land, hoping to return to our real home in safety and security.

In the meantime, God instructs us to build a Tabernacle, a temporary abode for our wilderness travel, a place where we can connect to what is really important. That is where we find ourselves tonight in Torah and for most of us in our lives.

As the concluding portion in the Book of Exodus it includes a review and description of the building of the tabernacle and an accounting by Moses on exactly how all the donations were applied. Review, accountability and reflection are the elements that speak to us tonight.

“Vayakhel Moshe: And Moses gathered all the congregation of the Children of Israel and said to them: These are the words which the Lord has commanded, that you shall do them.”

Two different commentators look at this text calling for gathering the people and offer us related perspectives. The first (Or Penei Moshe) writes, “As is known, the Second Temple was destroyed because of senseless hatred. Division and disputes always serve to undermine foundations of the social order. Therefore, before erecting the Sanctuary, Moses gathered all the people of Israel. The completion of the Sanctuary/Tabernacle depends upon the unity of the people.”

Prior to Katrina our community was also filled with sinat chinam, senseless hatred, regional parochialism, bickering, racism, cronyism and more. It all contributed to poverty, illiteracy, unemployment, violence and crime. We can revert to our former ways and if we do, we will surely fall. Katrina literally changed the landscape of our community, providing us with an opportunity to make a difference, to rebuild and improve, to get involved, but we must be unified in that vision first.

Another commentator adds (Mi-ginzeinu Ha-atik) “When it comes to gathering together people, there is no problem: there are countless committees and conferences, meetings and sessions, morning, noon and night. They speak and debate, argue and discuss, without end. That was why Moses commanded: ‘that you should do them.’- the purpose of all your meetings must be action.”

Meetings and committees are a rabbinic occupational hazard. I know that I am not the only one to suffer from this malady. However, of late I have participated in two committees of our congregation, both dedicated to making the lives of our members in Post Katrina time better. The energy, level of participation and involvement in those meetings were extraordinary. Most significantly, arising from the gathering will be a series of actions. That is what our commentator had in mind.

Certainly throughout New Orleans there have been a plethora of talking heads and meetings. The Bring Back New Orleans Commission worked hard to present a report and strategy to rebuild our city and I say “our city”, because regardless of where we live, the City of New Orleans is the engine that drives our communal life. We need to support the efforts that will initiate well thought out action plans into place as soon as possible. People have their lives on hold and are dependent upon clear understandings of the future. Yes, there will need to be necessary sacrifices and areas that do not rebuild. Those of us, who are white and affluent, tend to be more accepting of this than those who are black and poor, according to a recent poll. We need to be sensitive to this.

With city elections on the horizon, we need to hold the candidates accountable and demand specifics on what they will and will not do, recognizing that they are not autonomous. Nonetheless, we need people who will act, not simply deliberate and support those who we feel will do the best job, whether we live in Orleans or not.

Now is a time to gather the people for rebuilding. But our portion provides us with an additional thought. Immediately after calling for the gathering, we receive a caveat, a reminder that we must have our personal priorities in order. “Six days will work be done, but the seventh day is Shabbat.” Yes, we need to rebuild and plan for the future, but not 24/7. We need to be good to ourselves, take breaks, find pockets of pleasure and release.

Shabbat is holy time that we set apart for rest. I suggest that we create holy time, when we say or do nothing about or even peripherally related to Katrina. We can’t ignore her and her aftereffects, but neither do we have to allow her to dominate every aspect of our being. Go to a movie; enjoy a meal; watch sports; exercise; listen to music; take a weekend away; read a book; escape. She will still be there when you return to confront her reality.

Victor Frankel was a famous psychologist, who survived the concentration camps. Among his great teachings was that the Nazis could take everything away from him, except his capacity to choose how to respond. Katrina and her aftermath destroyed property and life as we knew it, but it is ultimately up to us to determine how we will react and cope. She can disrupt us, but she does not have to transform us, force us away from the lives and community we hold dear.

As we gather on this Shabbat, celebrating the first Bar or Bat Mitzvah in almost seven months, we look back and take stock. We have traveled a long way in that time and endured a great deal of turmoil and suffering. But we also have been blessed with bountiful gifts and support from family, friends and countless anonymous individuals, who touched our lives. We have discovered internal resources that we never knew we possessed. Like our ancestors we hold onto a vision of wholeness as we seek to personally rebuild and return to our Promised Land. May God give us strength as we continue the journey!



Restoring Holiness to Our Communities

Rabbi Oren J. Hayon
Temple Emanu-El
September 12, 2008
Elul Sermon #2:
Restoring Holiness to Our Communities
This evening our purpose is to explore the ways we can restore holiness to our communities. The notion of the synagogue as an institution of holy purpose is one that is deeply familiar and dearly cherished by members of this congregation in particular. All of us are acquainted with a Jewish concept that is central to this idea: the concept of tikkun olam, acts of social justice undertaken when a motivated individual or an inspired group of like-minded souls get together to bring meaningful change to the places they live.

Doing religious repair work on our communities has been at the heart of Reform Judaism for decades, and it boasts the same inspiration that drove the grassroots success of other social movements in our country and around the world throughout history.

For us as Jews especially, the roots of spiritual revolution lie deep in the earliest layers of our biblical heritage. Our literature and legends are filled with tales of inspired people rising up to change and improve their world. The dramatic stories of Abraham smashing his household idols, of Moses defying Pharaoh and the cruelty of Egypt, of the Israelite prophets willing to stand up in the face of corrupt and shallow religious institutions, to point accusing fingers and condemn them for their flaws, at risk of censure and exile and even death: this is the legacy of Jewish tikkun olam, of an individual’s potential to personally bring needed change to the world.

But our topic tonight is slightly different. Tonight we are talking about another element of the relationship between self and community, another way of bringing repair and restoration to the places that are broken or neglected. And in contrast to tikkun olam, this is an area that is largely overlooked by much of progressive Judaism today. And it’s too bad that that’s the case, because this idea is just as critical to the way that community develops its sanctity, which is, of course, precisely what we are charged with exploring in this installment of our Elul sermon series.

I want to talk tonight about the moral pressure that a community can bring to bear on its members, rather than the other way around. We all know plenty of stories about heroic and memorable people bringing extraordinary change to the places they live, but what about the converse, what about the ways that the values and priorities of a holy community can push its members to become better human beings?

It might sound simple, but it is an idea that is sometimes hard for us to embrace, and I think that’s true for a couple of reasons. First, we live in the United States of America – and in Texas. The culture of our nation and our state are solidly built on the myth of the rugged individual. Our heroes are cowboys, pioneers, solo entrepreneurs and visionaries. “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance” was John Wayne and not Jimmy Stewart; we learn by the end of the movie that freedom is really won by the lone gunslinger, not by the politician.

But it’s not just directors of western movies who favor the strength of the individual over the community; anyone who’s worked in the Jewish community has encountered this too. There’s more than a small kernel of truth at the center of that old joke about two Jews and three opinions. We Jews, and especially we Reform Jews, often chafe against the idea that we should compromise our individual autonomy for the betterment of the community or the movement. After all, the whole basis of Reform Judaism, it can be argued, is the existence of the sovereign self, the rational individual governed by the gifts of his own mind and his soul. Being a Reform Jew means being able to stand up to any tyranny – of politicians or law – or rabbis, for that matter – and say no: I know better than you do what is right!

That is exactly why we are so skilled in the art of tikkun olam, of changing what is wrong in the world out there. But what we are significantly less good at is acknowledging the potential of our communities to change us. We are much less comfortable at the art of surrender, at the spiritual practice of allowing ourselves to be changed in substantive and long-lasting ways by the places we live and pray. But if we can do that, hard as it may be, we will have helped our communities achieve new heights of effectiveness and sanctity.

Any adolescent – and anyone who has parented or taught an adolescent, for that matter – can share plenty of stories about the power of peer pressure. The students in our schools are constantly under pressure from their classmates about academic performance, about who to socialize with, about what to do with their leisure time. They can tell you exactly how destructive – and also how irresistible – those forces can be, even if they are driving the student to behaviors and values he or she personally knows to be wrong. But they can also tell you that when kids form relationships with the right kinds of friends, with encouraging teachers, enriching sports or clubs, they will do anything they can to uphold the positive values and priorities that those communities promote. A student that moves in social circles where it’s actually cool to be a leader or a scholar will develop self-motivation toward leadership and learning much stronger than she would otherwise receive from her parents or teachers.

In the same way, when our religious communities exert social pressure on us to act in ways that are right and good, the result is not only that we do better things with our energy and our time, but that we absorb Judaism’s time-tested values about what is right and wrong in the world. Eventually all of us, as members of the community, reinforce its social enticements and rewards for behaving in loving, nurturing, ethical Jewish ways.

We are taught by Jewish tradition that it is a mitzvah for us to accept from our community what is called tochachah – admonition or rebuke. This is a well-established but largely-ignored principle: that we are commanded to help the community carry out the obligation to correct its members when we see them going astray. When we see a friend or a colleague or a family member going down the wrong path, we have to gently and lovingly reprove them if their action threatens the community’s ideals. We automatically have a stake in the well-being of the people we love and the people we share community with; we have an obligation to them. We have to help let them know when they are missing the mark so that we can all get back onto the right path together.

There is an intriguing commentary on the Shulchan Aruch – the exhaustive 16th century collection of Jewish law – which addresses a fascinating legal inquiry. The question is asked: Is it sufficient for a Jew to follow the commandments simply because he sees his friends or his family doing them, and not because he believes that the tradition insists upon it? The commentary responds: No. Even if you are following the actions of righteous people who are doing everything right, your obligation is not discharged until you acknowledge that the reason for acting Jewishly is that you are a part of a holy community, not that you are imitating holy people. Without knowing that mitzvot come for the purpose of serving God and strengthening the Jewish people, you might learn to value the individual over the community, which might in turn lead you to haughtiness and a disregard for Jewish values, to the sin of what Alan Morinis calls “spiritual mediocrity”.

Despite all the good that it can do, and all the good it has done, tikkun olam can be a narcissistic religion when practiced alone. If we conclude that our only Jewish calling is to change the world in ways we think are positive, then we may never learn to be self-reflective or open to spiritual growth. But working to cultivate the virtues of humility and modesty, on the other hand, acknowledging that there are ways the community can change us for the better – that is an entryway to Jewish enrichment and development.

This month of Elul is a time of our most earnest moral self-scrutiny. Next week at this time we’ll be learning together at our congregational observances of Selichot. Dr. Morinis will share with us the tools and the techniques of the Mussar movement, which were developed precisely for this reason – to help Jews recognize the traditions and resources outside of ourselves that can help make us better people. It is a deeply important subject for to spend time on as this reflective month of High Holy Day preparation draws to a close.

Judaism’s gifts of spiritual self-improvement can help prime us for the approach of the High Holy Days, but its regimen is not necessarily comfortable. The hard work of teshuvah – repentance and apology – does require some abdication of the ego, which always hurts a little. But in the end, the High Holy Days are not about tikkun olam; they are about tikkun atzmi – not repairing the world, but repairing the human self with the guidance and support of our community. Allowing ourselves to be changed by our community and not the other way around is often uncomfortable, but it is always worth it.

There is a wonderful legend told about Rabbi Akiva, the wise ancient sage of the Talmudic world. As the story goes, Akiva – before he was Rabbi Akiva – had reached the age of 40 without ever having amassed a single piece of Jewish knowledge. One day, he was walking near a natural spring and he noticed that a slow drip of water had over time worn a hole through a large stone. At once, Akiva was enlightened. He said to himself, “If something as soft as water can bore its way through something as hard as stone, then the words of Torah can certainly penetrate my soft heart of flesh and blood.” He returned home and immediately committed himself to learning the traditions of his people.

We are all free individuals, and we are all at liberty to live our Judaism in the ways that our own hearts and consciences compel us. That is at once the marvel and the challenge of Reform Judaism. We have to discover that our freedom does not override the obligations that come along with living in relationship with others. It is an art more than a science, but we can find ways for our sprawling spiritual liberty to be shaped by the wisdom and the goodness of our Jewish community.

We do this by learning about what our tradition teaches, what its texts really say, about justice and truth and morality. We do it by allowing ourselves to be swept up and embraced and yes, changed, by the marvelous traditions and the penetrating wisdom of Jewish life. By continuing to work toward strengthening relationships and connection with other human souls, by standing alongside them and helping lift them up with our presence and our love and by realizing how it feels to have ourselves moved and improved by being a part of something this large.

And in that way we can cultivate the spiritual heart that Rabbi Akiva felt beating within him, the soft and pliable spirit that allows the goodness and the promise of Judaism to change us. That is the imperative of this month of Elul and of the entire Jewish year: to see and make real the vision of our selves as better than we are – loving, kind, spiritual beings, privileged to be a part of, and changed by, this beautiful Jewish community of faith.

May this be God’s will. Amen.