All posts by Stephan

Passover And The Presidential Race

April 18, 2008

By Rabbi Robert H. Loewy

At Purim time we had lots of fun this year. In our Purim spiel, with tongues firmly planted in cheek we connected Esther with Clinton, Obama with Haman, Mordecai with Huckabee, and Achashveros with McCain. There were many humorous parallels, none of which corresponded to full reality.

So, here we are at Passover and perhaps we can find more comparisons. How about Moses Obama- a young man willing to make change, though he certainly has no speech impediment. Then we have Miriam Clinton- the woman previously behind the scenes, who asserts herself on various occasions and Aaron McCain- the elder statesman. Again my analogies are not meant to be anything other than fun. So you can transform Pharaoh into whichever candidate you do not like.

Passover is our most contemporary holiday. Our Haggadah has always been a work in progress. It was established by the rabbis of the Talmud, but is always evolving. There are lots of activities for children with the search for the afikomen, four questions, lots of songs and frogs jumping all over. To whatever extent that you are able, as you sit around your seder table I encourage dialogue on contemporary issues, while reflecting on ancient themes. With a presidential campaign raging, once the slogans and pettiness are put aside, our values suggest some very serious issues. I hope that the candidates will address them, and we must do the same. Let’s look at three teachings:

We begin our seder with the invitation: “Let all who are hungry come and eat.” Poverty and hunger are real in America. There needs to be a concerted effort on behalf of  the less fortunate of our society. While the middle class cannot be ignored, Jewish tradition historically understood the concept of communal responsibility for those falling through the cracks. As I shared in this week’s e-mail message, by way of our Synaplex program last Shabbat, we provided food for three different groups in our community, who are hungry. Hopefully you regularly bring food to our Food Bank. Let us think about them all, raise our sensitivity and find ways to make a difference.

The Egyptians are not the only ones who have experienced plagues. Those who have been with me for seders know that I regularly ask people to mention contemporary issues plaguing us. We will often hear: Violence, FEMA, insurance companies, lice, substance abuse, cancer and more.

Perhaps one of the greatest contemporary plagues is our concern for the environment, including the greenhouse effect, global warming and diminishing natural resources. This is a national, even international issue, which needs to be addressed. I do not pretend to understand it all. Science was never my best subject. However there are enough scientists out there today, who are sounding alarms that we cannot ignore the issue.

As opposed to being overwhelmed by global responses, we can think locally. At my home I am using those new light bulbs. I actually think my electric bills are down a little. I bring my own reusable grocery bags to the supermarket as I of course use scrip for my purchases. I am looking forward to the return of recycling. Though I still have my gas guzzlers in the driveway, I am contemplating changes.

I would like to see this congregation become more “green.” Though I am not sure exactly what that means, I have raised the issue at the board level. I can’t say there was a resounding response of support. This can include our being more conscious of recycling paper and other items, using real dishes and silverware as opposed to disposable. We might even want to consider the feasibility of solar panels on our roof for electricity. Perhaps someone present tonight wants to take the lead in exploring possibilities. Of course we want it to be cost effective, which is to say it should not cost us more. Then again, can we afford the ultimate price that looms? Sitting around your seder table, explore your thoughts, share green ideas for our homes and our synagogue home.

The major theme of Passover is “From Slavery To Freedom.” We read in the Haggadah, “In every generation a person is obligated to see him/herself as bring freed from Egypt.” We Jews have a heritage of enslavement, discrimination and persecution which colors how we look at the world. Grounded in our faith we cry out against events in Sudan and Darfur, where tribes are being exterminated, families brutalized and modern slavery continues. In a global world, we cannot stand idly by while our neighbors bleed.

Yet, we are not the only people to have experienced slavery and oppression in this country. Last month Presidential Candidate Barak Obama addressed the issue of race in America. Just as our experience informs who we are as a community, I believe that he eloquently presented a message that deserves our attention. This should not be perceived as an endorsement on my part, but rather an appreciation of the issue that he has raised.

Yes, it was a political speech, as he attempted to differentiate himself from his Pastor, Rev. Wright, whose words at times have been inflammatory. It would have been politically expedient for Obama to simply repudiate the man, but instead he embraced his Pastor, but disagreed with some of his message. As a clergyman I can certainly identify with that. After almost 25 years as your rabbi, I imagine that I have said a great deal from this pulpit with which you disagree, taken positions you find abhorrent, but you know my heart. You know the context of my life and the ultimate values upon which I base my views, and you are still here. Senator Obama has done the same with his Pastor.

However, he has accomplished more than that, utilizing the opportunity to take a politically dangerous position. Though of mixed racial heritage, he clearly identified himself as a black man, an African American. That should be irrelevant in this day and age, but we know that it is not. And it is likely an obstacle to his election. Still he tackled the issue of race in America in a courageous way.

Part of his approach, inspired by his Pastor was based in faith, just as ours is. Describing the first time he went to his church he writes: “People began to shout, to rise from their seats and clap and cry out, a forceful wind carrying the reverend’s voice up to the rafters… And in that single note- hope!- I heard something else at the foot of the cross, inside the thousands of churches across the city, I imagined the stories of ordinary black people merging with the stories of David and Goliath, Moses and Pharaoh, the Christians in the Lion’s Den, Ezekiel’s field of dry bones. These stories- of survival, and freedom and hope- became our story, my story; the blood that spilled was our blood, the tears our tears; … the stories and songs gave us a means to reclaim memories that we didn’t need to feel shame about… memories that all people might study and cherish- and with which we could start to rebuild.”

Just as our Jewish narrative and this synagogue shape our members, his minister and his church have contributed to who he is as a man and as a clergyman; I can certainly appreciate that. He of course went on to discuss race in this country, which hopefully will be a catalyst for a higher level of dialogue. Racial divisions in this land continue to be a major concern. The legacy of segregated schools is inferior schools for African Americans. The legacy of discrimination in housing and jobs is poverty and the major income gap between blacks and whites. The legacy of the past has led to impoverished African-American neighborhoods, violence and the erosion of the black family. We certainly are aware of this in New Orleans and it is a reality throughout America.

Rev. Wright has been fighting these forces that have been putting down his community for more than a generation. Senator Obama correctly points out that part of his minister’s failure of vision is that he dwells in the past: “as if our society was static; as if no progress has been made; as if this country- a country that made it possible for one of his own members to run for the highest office in the land and build a coalition of white and black; Latino and Asian, rich and poor, young and old- is still irrevocably bound to the tragic past. But what we know- what we have seen- is that America can change. That is the true genius of the nation. What we have already achieved gives us hope- the audacity to hope- for what we can and must achieve tomorrow.”

Is that not the essential message of Passover that we will observe tomorrow night? As you sit around your seder tables, I urge that you take your time; think about the words you are saying; reflect on their meaning. Find the message of hope and how we can make a difference for those who are hungry, how to eradicate the challenges that plague us and truly identify with the enslaved.

In this way our Pesach will be truly meaningful.


Parting The Waters

January 18, 2008

By Rabbi Robert H. Loewy

A little boy came home from religious school one Sunday and his dutiful parents asked him what he learned. With great excitement he told them about the story of Moses and the Israelites and their escape from Egypt. “It seems,” he said, “that the Egyptians launched a direct assault upon the Israelites with tanks, troops and artillery, as the Israelites tried to flee Egypt. The Jews counter-attacked with swarming aircraft and cluster bombs. They then used huge amphibious vehicles to cross the Red Sea and blew them up as the Egyptians pursued, drowning the enemy in the sea.”

Upon hearing this version of history, they suspiciously asked if that is really what the teacher taught? The child hung his head and took a deep breath and responded: “Not really! But if I told you what she really said, you would never believe it!”

This is the week that as part of our regular cycle of Torah reading we review the incredible story of the exodus from Egypt, including the final plague on the first born, Pharaoh’s decision to relent and then his change of heart, resulting in his pursuit of the Israelites into the parted Sea and their demise in the waters. We have been recounting this story for thousands of years, not only once a year in its regular sequence and again at Passover, but three times a day in our worship service. When we sing “Mi Chamocha-Who is like You O God,” this comes from the climax of the tale as we exult over our victory.

Why is it that we repeat this particular story continuously and in a variety of times and occasions? First is in order to remember our history. While we are comfortable and prosperous in our current situation, it was not always thus. Recalling history provides us  the opportunity to appreciate where we are today and not take our status of freedom for granted.

Additionally, this episode is embedded with a variety of values and teachings basic to our religious tradition. When Moses challenges Pharaoh, this is the imperative to speak truth to power, the idea that we cannot be silent in the face of injustice. The whole story is premised upon faith with God. It is that faith which serves as an underpinning for  our ancestors. And clearly one of the most prominent messages is that no person should be a slave; no person should be oppressed. It is not a coincidence that one of the most repeated phrases in the Torah is the idea that we should not oppress the stranger, for once we were strangers in the land of Egypt. Whether we have suffered in our day or not, we identify with all who oppressed based on a reinforced memory through our stories.

One feature about this particular story as opposed to others is that at the end we win! There are all too many tales which describe our oppression, inquisition, expulsion and death. With the defeat of the Egyptians, we celebrate and feel good about who we are and what we have accomplished with God’s help.

And there are heroes galore to admire: It starts with the famous trio of Moses, Aaron and Miriam. These are the siblings who guaranteed the survival first of Moses from birth and then the Jewish people. Not as well known is Nachshon ben Aminadab of the tribe of Judah. When God directs Moses to tell the people to march into the sea, there is serious hesitation as one might expect. It was Nachshon who literally and faithfully took the plunge into the waters. Only after his brave act did the waters part. We all need heroes worthy of emulation.

By retelling the tale of the exodus from Egypt, we provide hope for the future. Initially our plight seemed overwhelming, but we prevailed. Theologically, we speak of redemption. Once we were slaves and then we were free. Yet, we know that the story is not complete, we are still completing it. We look forward to ultimate redemption, which we equate with freedom, redemption for us and all people.

Indeed, we are blessed with a tradition, rich in stories. Each community has its stories, its foundation myths, whether based in fact or legend, which play a similar role for them and their journey.

I experienced another such story recently, by viewing the film, “The Great Debaters.” Starring and directed by Denzel Washington, it is a drama based on the true story of Melvin B. Tolson, a professor at all black Wiley College in Marshall, Texas in 1935. He inspired his students to form a debate team, which in the film went on to challenge and triumph over Harvard, a black school over a white. It was one small step on the road to dignity and freedom for African Americans, a road that included the obstacles of bigotry, oppression, attacks and discrimination. It is a fictionalized version of a real event. In truth the team did defeat the reigning national debate champs, the University of Southern California, not Harvard, but they did not officially defeat them, since at the time they were not recognized as a real team. Blacks were not included until after World War II. However, actual people were depicted. One in particular was James Farmer Jr., who later went on to head CORE, the Congress of Racial Equality. I distinctly remember his role in the Civil Rights Movement and hearing him speak, the last time being at the anniversary memorial for the three slain civil rights workers in Mississippi.

Sitting in the theater that day, I kept repeating to myself, “What a great story!” It was an OK movie, but a great story for African Americans fulfilling the role of what stories do for a community. And it had an important message for all of us. As Jews we have a 2000 year head start on stories to bring us together, the African American Community is comparatively just developing theirs.

These include slavery stories chronicling how people came to these shores and what they did and contributed upon their arrival. There are the tales of heroism and bravery from the Civil rights movement, as well as the role that African Americans have fulfilled in the wars of this country, the Tuskeegee Fly Boys just being one of them.

Jews have been observing holidays that mark our stories for centuries. The African American community is evolving their sacred times. Kwanza, recently passed, links them to their African roots and values from the past for the present. And their community is coming to appreciate many heroes, men and women to remember, honor and emulate: Booker T. Washington, George Washington Carver, Rosa Parks, Thurgood Marshall, Shirley Chisholm, Michael Jordan, Oprah Winfrey and now Barak Obama. Of course, this past Tuesday was the birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King with the national holiday in his honor and memory this coming Monday. He is at the top of the current list of modern heroes. It is no wonder that there was upset with even the perception that his star might be diminished by comments from Hillary Clinton. Though I am convinced she meant no disrespect, but was speaking historically, still there is great sensitivity. Just as we Jews are continually alert to the slightest affront to Jews and Judaism, so too the African American community has every right to be. Racism continues to be alive and strong in America today.

We have certainly seen it here in our home State of Louisiana. The noose is a powerful symbol of hate and intimidation rooted in a history that included lynchings of blacks by white. Whether on a tree outside of a school in Jena or displayed in a public office in Jefferson Parish, it is a not so subtle message. Even an offhand link of the word “lynching” with Tiger Woods by a Golf Network reporter sets off alarms. Many have of course argued that much of the delay in responding to the Katrina catastrophe was the result of racist attitudes, placing the value of black lives at a lower priority.

In some cases racism results in discriminatory action, which in this day and age is illegal. But it also manifests itself in attitudes. Not long ago I was sitting in a barbershop, when the banter between the barber and another customer included a suggestion that he should have had his “Closed” sign up a few minutes earlier when an African American patron had entered. “You should have told him you don’t cut nappy hair.” As you can imagine I was not very comfortable. Then someone launched into what was sure to be a racist joke… “A colored man walked into a shop.. at which point I stood up and interrupted with…. when he saw the rabbi, who wasn’t going to laugh at the joke.” An awkward silence ensued, but they got the point.

Three weeks ago we must have had about 15 college students staying at our home over New Years. They celebrated New Years Eve in the Quarter. Two of them, unable to find a regular cab to bring them back to our house, wound up taking a ride with a random man, who offered to drive them for a fee, not a brilliant idea of course in the light of day. While telling everyone how they stupidly risked their lives getting into this car with a black guy, my daughter questioned, what difference did it make that he was black? It didn’t. Had it been a random white guy, would they have been any less foolish? Prejudice can be expressed in subtle ways.

We are living in historic times with the campaign of Barak Obama for the White House, the first African American with a legitimate prospect for victory. Many fear racism could block that reality. In the New Hampshire primary Obama entered election day with a huge lead in the polls, only to see victory by Hillary Clinton. We all know that the only poll that counts is an actual election. However it is disturbing to read that many experts believe that when responding to pollsters people will provide what they intellectually believe is the politically correct unbiased response, but when actually voting allow their bias to have sway. Political observers suggest that Bobby Jindal’s loss to Kathleen Blanco four years ago can be attributed to the fact that many voters were opposed to a candidate of color. I can only hope that his recent election as Governor is an indicator that the electorate is ready to vote based on quality of candidates, not the color of their skin.

Fifty years ago speaking to a Jewish audience Dr. Martin Luther King wrote: “My people were brought to America in chains. Your people were driven here to escape the chains fashioned for them in Europe. Our unity is born of our common struggle for centuries, not only to rid ourselves of bondage, but to make oppression of any people by others an impossibility.”

May his words be our resolve as we continue to make the waters part for all to be redeemed and free.


Ishmael And Isaac: Struggling Brothers

November 9, 2007

By Rabbi Robert H. Loewy


Like many of you, I have a brother. And like many of you there have been times, when the two of us have not been on the best of terms. Fortunately, most of those occurred when we were young children, so that today we are close. He lives outside of Hartford, CT and is a big fan of University of Connecticut sports. Earlier this week he e-mailed me with excitement as the Sugar Bowl Committee was actually scouting out the Connecticut Huskies to possibly play here on New Year’s Day. Somehow, I don’t see an LSU/Connecticut game in the near future, but stranger events have happened. If that transpires, we will have to clash once again.

This week’s Torah portion includes the classic brother conflict between Jacob and Esau, but even before that was the rift involving Isaac and Ishmael. Both saw themselves as the rightful heirs of the Abrahamic tradition, but it was Isaac according to our faith who was the ultimate carrier of the covenant. However, for Islam it was Ishmael’s descendant, Muhammed, who would be God’s most important prophet.

Next Sunday, November 18 from 1:00 to 5:30 will be an historic gathering in our community, when Jews, Christians, Muslims and members of the Bahai faith, all of whom are linked to Abraham, will come together for study and fellowship. This is not the first program of this kind. The “Festival of Abraham,” as it is called, has convened on four previous occasions, but always in a neutral, university setting. This time, we will meet at the Muslim Academy in Gretna. As our Muslim neighbors open their doors to us, I believe it is time for us to open our minds and hearts to them, but there are a number of obstacles in our way.

First is our prejudice and fear. As Jews, our primary link to Muslims is that they want to destroy Israel. That made them our enemy. U.S. troops have been battling Muslim soldiers on and off since the First Gulf War. Then along comes 9/11 and the entire country thinks of them as the enemy. While we cannot dismiss a threat to our nation that is posed by Muslim supporters of Osama Bin Laden, or the violent words of Iranian leaders, we cannot assume that the entire Muslim population of America, estimated to be somewhere between 2.8 and 6 million people, is in agreement and/or out to destroy us.

The vast majority of Muslims, one of the newest and fastest growing populations in America, follow in the footsteps of other immigrant groups who went before them. Based upon a Pew Research Center study we glean that they are here to work hard and succeed financially. They are happy in their communities and recognize the need to adapt to American customs and values, while maintaining their faith. This should all sound very familiar to us.

My guess is that many of us have Muslim friends or acquaintances. They are our doctors and cab drivers, professors and store clerks, neighbors and classmates. They are our fellow citizens.

Yet especially following 9/11 they have been subject to discrimination, slander and profiling. How embarrassing and disrespectful it was when Keith Ellison was elected to Congress and there was an outcry about him being sworn in using the Qu’ran! Muslims have had to endure numerous indignities and challenges from both law enforcement and the general public.

How many of us see Arabs or Muslims boarding a plane or walking down the street with a long coat and think to ourselves that they might be terrorists? Do we refrain from hiring them in our businesses, bringing them in as consultants, connecting with them as possible friends? Our fear is real, but we cannot allow our prejudices to undermine our American spirit of fair play and equality. “Not all Muslims are terrorists, even IF most terrorists are Muslims, but which clause in that statement shall we emphasize as we live our lives?” (Rabbi Howard O. Laibson)

The second obstacle is our ignorance. What do we really know about Islam as a religion? I learned a great deal simply preparing this sermon. Upon examination, you will find many similarities to Judaism. Islam is based on six basic articles of faith.

For starters, Muslims, which is the term for those who practice the religion of Islam and means “those who submit to God,” believe in Allah, the Arabic term of the same one God, we call Adonai or Elohim. As is often taught in Judaism, Allah is eternal, omniscient and omnipotent, and Allah alone created the universe. Allah has no body and is just, rewarding the righteous and punishing the wicked, but balanced by mercy.

Assisting Allah are angels, who interact with human lives. They consist of light and have a variety of roles that they play on earth. Of note is that each person has two angels who follow you. One records your deeds of goodness and the other your sins.

Four books are holy to Islam: the Torah, Psalms, the Gospel of Jesus Christ and the Qur’an. The last is the most significant. It is the word of God spoken by the angel Gabriel to the prophet Muhammad It was in oral form during the life of Muhammad and written down following his death. It is infallible and without error.

Muhammad is the last and greatest of Allah’s messengers or prophets. Preceding him were Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses, David and Jesus, as well as others. Interestingly, often when Muslims mention Muhammad, they immediately say, “peace be unto him,” in the same way that we use the expression, “alav hashalom,” when referring to one who has died, which means the same.

Fifth is the belief in afterlife, which includes resurrection and judgment. Those who have followed Allah and Muhammad will go to heaven; those who did not, go you know where.

Last is the belief in predestination. Allah determines what will happen to us, but this does not mean that our free will is taken away. Rabbi Akiba said the same.

With this is as the basis of belief, a Moslem fulfills his/her duties through publicly testifying with the words: “There is no God but Allah, and Muhammad is the Prophet of Allah.” Muslims pray five times a day in the direction of Mecca. They are required to give at least 2.5% of their income to the needy, fast during the month of Ramadan and at least once make a pilgrimage to Mecca.

Just as in Judaism and Christianity, there are a variety of expressions of Islam. As we know from the news, one sect does not readily recognize the other as fellow Muslims and open conflict ensues. With perhaps as many as 1.1 billion Muslims in the world, Sunni are the largest with 940 million followers.

They are considered the mainstream traditionalists who are linked to Muhammad’s primary successor. They have been comfortable pursuing their faith and adapting to secular society.

The Shia or Shiites followed a different successor to Muhammad with approximately 120 million followers throughout the world. Iraq is divided between majority Sunni and large minority Shia, which accounts for much of the ongoing warfare, while Iran is predominantly Shia, supporting the minority in Iraq. Sunni is also the majority in Israel, Jordan, Syria and Egypt.

While certainly there are aspects of Islam that are problematic for us as Jews, there is much in Islam that is compatible with Judaism and we can admire. Historically there have been periods when Jews and Muslims lived alongside one another and thrived, most prominently during the 9th – 11th centuries in Babylonia and the Golden Age of Spain. However, there have also been moments when we suffered under Islamic oppression. There is much more for us to learn.

The final obstacle to opening ourselves to connecting with the Muslim community is our love for Israel. When we consider the history of the modern state, some feel it is an act of disloyalty to even be civil to those perceived as Israel’s enemies. Yet without dialogue there is not even a chance for peace. Earlier this year, Rabbi Eric Yoffie, the President of our Union for Reform Judaism, spoke to the Annual Convention of the Islamic Society of North America, the largest organization of Muslims in the United States.

Eric is not one who minces his words. He was both tactful and direct. Addressing the issues of the Middle East he made it unequivocally clear that American Jews have “an unshakable commitment to the State of Israel.” At the same time he acknowledged “the ties of Muslim Americans and Arab Americans to the Palestinian people.” He then outlined his vision of a fair and lasting peace by saying:

“For peace to be achieved, territorial compromise will be required of Israel. Unconditional acceptance of Israel as a Jewish State will be required of the Palestinians. Jews will need to accept the reality of Palestinian suffering, and understand that without dignity for the Palestinians, there can be no dignity for Israel. Muslims will need to accept the reality of Israeli vulnerability, including the vulnerability of that tiny nation’s ever-threatened borders.”

To reach these goals he called upon Jews and Muslims alike to embrace three ideals. First is to support our government’s attempts to bring about a fair settlement. We will be hearing much more about this in coming days with a peace conference scheduled but not absolutely confirmed to take place in Annapolis.

Second is the idea that the conflict between Israel and her neighbors needs to be approached as a political issue primarily and not a religious one. Judaism is certainly not at war with Islam and we need to urge our Muslim brothers and sisters to approach us in a similar way. All too many Muslim extremists, as well as some Jewish extremists advocate for Holy War, as opposed to acknowledging a conflict over land and water. If their will prevails, all is lost.

Lastly Rabbi Yoffie calls for both communities to categorically reject acts of terrorism, where innocent men, women and children are murdered in the name of God. He teaches,

“You cannot honor a religion of peace through violence; you cannot honor God if you do not honor the image of God in every human being; and you cannot get to heaven by creating hell on earth.”

At the upcoming convention of our Reform movement, the leader of the Islamic Society will come to speak to us, an historic first. We can only hope that his words will similarly build bridges of respect and understanding, and that he will share those words not only with us, but his community as well. Dialogue requires real partners.

I am not so naïve to believe that all we have to do is sit down and meet with others with peace and harmony resulting between our two communities. There are serious long term issues that must be addressed, trust to be established, relationships created. As Rabbi Yoffie concluded his comments, so will I: “Interconnected since the time of Abraham, thrust into each other’s lives by history and fate, and living in a global world, what choice do we really have? Surely here, in America, as Muslim and Jew, we have a unique opportunity to reclaim our common heritage and to find a new way and a common path. Brothers and sisters, let us begin.”

Ken yehi ratson… May this be God’s will and our resolve.



This sermon benefited by the writing of Rabbi Eric Yoffie and his “remarks to the Islamic Society of North America,” Rabbi Howard O. Laibson’s September 12, 2007 sermon, “Peace Between Cousins: Muslims and Jews in America,” and internet research on Islam   and

Explaining A Stereotype: Jews And Money Lending

May 16, 2008

By Rabbi Robert H. Loewy


All of us have heard the comments: references to “rich Jews” or “cheap Jews.” Sometimes we hear the expression “Shylocks,” when describing someone who is a loan shark and occasionally even the verb to “Jew down” in lieu of haggling. Then there are all the jokes about Jews and money. Sometimes we even tell them ourselves. Please know, they are NOT funny.

Last year I was teaching a small class of social work students, none of whom were Jewish, about how to be sensitive to the future Jewish clients they might be serving. I began by asking the group what kinds of personal connections they had had with Jews. One student mentioned a boyhood friend and being in his home for Jewish holidays. The second mentioned her professor at LSU. The third said it was his stockbroker. Naively I at first thought it was odd that a social work student would have a stock broker, then realized it was his attempt at humor. It took a while for him to realize that it was not humorous at all.

So from where do these negative stereotypes come? Some of it actually starts with Torah, evolves into Jewish law and needs to be seen in the context of history.

This week’s portion, Behar, includes laws relating to the Sabbatical and jubilee year. On those years, the land is returned to its original owners and there are warnings about not taking advantage of others when conducting business transactions related to the Sabbatical. There are specific references to making loans with and without interest. We read in Leviticus 25:35 “If your kin, (achicha) being in straits, comes under your authority…. Do not exact neshech-advanced or tarbit- accrued interest… Do not lend your money at advanced interest, nor give your food at accrued interest.”

This text raises questions. First is the reference to Achicha- your kinsman. What about those who are not your kinsman? We will see. What is meant by these terms for interest: Neshech and Tarbit/Marbit. Neshech is related to the word “to bite,” so when borrowing with interest involved, you are putting the bite on someone or taking a bite out in advance. This is of course from the perspective of the borrower. Marbit is connected with word for “increase,” since interest increases the cost of what is borrowed.

Some say the terms are interchangeable. Others believe that Neshech is for payment with silver or a cash exchange, while Marbit is a demand for payment in food products. Keep in mind that all of this is in the context of an agricultural society during a Sabbatical year.

In the Book of Deuteronomy 23:20, there is further discussion about to whom you can and cannot make loans. We learn that you shall not take Neshech (put the bite on) your kinsman, whether regarding food or silver/money. You shall not take any form of interest. But it is different for the Nochri- the foreigner, the non-community member. From him you can take interest.

This is seemingly discriminatory, but we have to keep in mind the context of who was the Nochri as opposed to Achicha. Achicha-kinsman was the person you knew and saw. He was part of your community and there were communal obligations towards the individual in your town. The Nochri- foreigner was transient, likely in the community to do business and then move on. He borrows in order to invest in merchandise and make a profit. In the Torah time there was no moral imperative to remit loans or forgo interest for the Nochri. This was business, not a matter of need. In the context of the Ancient Near East, the same applied for Jews doing business outside of their home territory. Similarly, they would be charged interest.

Discussion continued in Talmudic times about making loans for interest and generally the rabbis followed the lines of Torah. Some forbade charging interest to the Nochri as well as the kinsman. It was for them a matter of being fair. As a proof text they would quote the Psalm verse: “Who may ascend the mountain of the Lord, Who may stand in God’s holy place? Those with clean hands” which meant one who did not charge interest.

However, most of the rabbinic authorities permitted making loans with interest as a Hetter Iska, a permissible business matter. However as opposed to seeing the making of loans as taking advantage of someone, there is a great deal of discussion about how this is to be avoided. There is even a specific rate of interest considered permissible, but beyond which it is inappropriate. You shall not oppress means taking more than 1/6 of interest on a transaction. 16% is higher than some charge cards, but lower than others.

The real stereotype develops during the Medievil Period of the 12th and 13th century among Ashkenazic Jews of Germany, France and England. As the European economies expanded, capital was needed for business ventures with a money economy evolving. Jews were forced out of many trades by the guild system. There were Christian money lenders, such as the House of Lombard in Italy. But since Jews were not restricted by Catholic Church strictures they filled a necessary role in society. This was further complicated by the secular rulers who encouraged Jews to lend money, since they received a tax or fee on the income Jews raised. Just as today, the loan business entailed risk. These were not charitable loans, but investment loans, so people could make money, part of the cost of doing business. It can also be mentioned that the nobility also employed Jews as tax collectors, another popular occupation.

So, why the antipathy towards Jews as money lenders? If you think about it, everyone loves to receive their loans, being able to purchase your house, buy the car or start your business, but no one really likes to pay up, to have to meet the interest charges. And then come the problems when you default on the loan. We think of the cruel bank, the hard hearted moneylender who took advantage of you. Of course no one asked you to take out the loan in the first place, but when it’s due there is antipathy. People delude themselves into thinking that once they have money loaned to them it is theirs.

Perhaps you recall your High School English class when you read the Merchant of Venice. This evolved into Shakespeare’s version of the stereotypical moneylender, Shylock, who wants his pound of flesh, when of course the story is much more complicated than that.

With modernity we have the evolution in the 1800s of the major Jewish investment banks, the Rothschilds in Europe and a variety of families in the United States.  Yes, the American Jewish community today is relatively affluent. We are not nearly as wealthy as some like to think, but we are certainly in a stronger financial position than many others. Some of the stereotypes about us all go back to Torah. We continue to believe and act upon the idea that our community has special obligations to our kin. Post Katrina in New Orleans we re-established an old institution, the Free Loan Society within the community for the needy. In addition we create a variety of organizations to assist our own, but none of that refers to business dealings, only situations of need.

Many of you have heard the joke about the difference between Jews and Non-Jews. “Non-Jews pay retail.” This relates to times past, not so much the present, when Jews were the shopkeepers and store owners. Everyone was family; all were related and it was understood that you had a responsibility to your kin. Everyone else pays retail and everyone else pays interest.

I think that we as a Jewish community can be rightly proud of our reputation as business people. Our success has been remarkable and exemplary. In the process we have extended ourselves in special relations with our kin. At the same time, we certainly have been caring and giving to all in need. How many stories have I heard of the Jewish shopkeeper who gave away his wares or extended credit, ran a tab! I believe that as we have become integrated into a larger society, we look upon everyone as our kinsman, our brothers. This is one of the explanations for the disproportionate level of Jewish giving to all philanthropy. The connection between being Jewish and how we use our wealth is really a point of pride, not shame. It all starts with Torah.


Tim Russert Remembered – Father’s Day

June 13, 2008

By Rabbi Robert H. Loewy

Early this afternoon many of you probably heard that NBC journalist Tim Russert

died of a heart attack in Washington at the age of 58. I did not know him personally, but like many, I felt as if I did. He was in my home regularly. I appreciated his journalistic skill and seeming integrity. He had a direct style of questioning, which was respectful, but also very effective. Many of us looked forward to his analysis of the presidential campaign. From what I have now heard, I gather that not only was he an outstanding journalist, but a fine human being. He is certainly someone who will be sorely missed.

I’m not sure why I feel his death so deeply as I do. Perhaps it is his age, so close to my own or more likely due to the losses in our own family in recent days. I found myself very teary as his colleagues paid tribute to him on the nightly news. Then, I remembered that in August of 2006, I gave a sermon based upon a book he wrote and thought that instead of what I had originally prepared for this evening, I would reprise my earlier work. The topic was fathers, an appropriate subject this weekend. So, it is both in memory of Tim Russert, and also in honor of all the Fathers.

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 as 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 asked him if he ever watched his father shave. The young man shared how as a child he would watch his Dad and occasionally his Dad would put shaving cream on his face and “shave” him. The counselor urged him to bring up that memory each time he shaved instead of how he was scarred, 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 last 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 his book, Tim Russert addresses his own son, who is heading off to college for the first time and as we now have learned graduated from Boston College this past month. His parting words to him as he went off to college were. “Study hard. Laugh often. Keep your honor.” Tim Russert did just that. That too is part of his legacy to us on this Father’s Day weekend.


Bible And Baseball

MAY 30, 2008

By Rabbi Robert H. Loewy

It is a well-known fact in Biblical scholarship that contrary to the belief that baseball was invented by Abner Doubleday in the 1800s, baseball has its true roots in the Bible. One need merely cite a number of passages to prove the point:

Genesis Chapter 1- When did creation occur? In the Big Inning

Genesis Chapter 6- Noah was actually a curve ball pitcher. We read how he “pitched the ark, inside and out.”

Later we learn that Adam and Eve were actually playing baseball in the Garden of Eden. After all as regards the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, Eve stole first and Adam stole second.

Finally we have the story of David and Goliath. Conventionally it is thought that David used a slingshot to slay Goliath. Once again, the contest was really baseball, as we read how goliath was put out by David.

Okay, so maybe I’m stretching things a bit. I do have this tendency to see the world with Jewish eyes, gleaning religious teachings from domains which normally are not considered Jewish and extrapolating Jewish value lessons from them. The world of sports is particularly ripe for this.

Basketball season is over as far as New Orleans is concerned. I know the playoffs in the NBA are still going on, but our level of interest is not as great. The Saints are certainly in our minds, but it is not even exhibition season. But with the Memorial Day Weekend now past, the “great American pastime” of baseball takes center stage, even if they have actually already been playing for over a month and half. So this evening I would like to find my message in three baseball stories that have occurred this year.

The first took place on opening day at Fenway Park in Boston. The Red Sox were going to celebrate their second World Series victory in recent years and to throw out the ceremonial opening pitch of the season, they selected Bill Buckner. Though baseball is a team game, individual performances make a big difference. What moment could be more  triumphant, than hitting a homerun to win a game and watching the big “H” light up on the scoreboard? In spite of a long and accomplished career in the major leagues, Bill Buckner is best known for the opposite. For when you make a mistake in baseball, everyone sees it and a big “E” for error flashes on the scoreboard. How many of us could handle our mistakes being publicly shared?

Bill Buckner’s ignominious moment came in the 6th game of the 1986 World Series against the Mets. At the time the Red Sox had not won a World Series since 1918. It was the sixth game of the series against my New York Mets and Boston was ahead 3 games-2 in the series. The game was in extra innings and the Red Sox had a two run lead with two outs in the bottom of the 10th. Victory was within reach. New York tied the game with three straight hits. Then with a runner on third base, the ball was hit on the ground towards Buckner at first base, rolled under his glove and into right field for an error, allowing the Mets to score a run, win the game and opened the door for them to win game seven and the series.

Once again the Red Sox were losers and Buckner was pilloried by fans and media as the cause of it all. Ignore the fact that their ace relief pitcher had allowed two earlier runs to score. Buckner was to blame. “Some murderers didn’t face as much criticism as I did,” Buckner would say. “I couldn’t believe it. It’s like I did nothing in my career except commit that error.” In truth without Buckner’s 102 RBIs (runs batted in), the Red Sox might never have been in the series in the first place, but one error caused that all to be forgotten. Some consider this error to be one of the biggest sports stories of the past 25 years.

Fast forward to April 8 of this year. Forgiveness is the theme of the moment. Bill Buckner is called forward for the opening day first pitch and received a 4 minute standing ovation. It was deeply moving. Of course it perhaps only could have occurred after the Red Sox finally had two World Series championships to soften the old pain.

However, it raises the question of how we treat those who make errors and their impact upon us. If what they have done is malicious or intentional, it is one thing. But what about the person who accidentally spills something on us, who miscalculates a sum effecting our bill or perhaps a grade at school, our co-worker who forgets to do something, which means we have to work harder on the project and I could go on. Do we harbor that anger and withhold our understanding? We need to be forgiving of those who commit errors that impact upon us. Their hearts are in the right place. They just made a mistake.

Buckner had to do some forgiving as well. First, he had to forgive himself for making that error. I’m sure he will never forget that moment, but it was only one in a 22 season career. Over time, he accepted that reality. But on October 8, he came to terms with a related issue, as he explained: “I really had to forgive, not the fans of Boston, per se, but I would have to say in my heart I had to forgive the media, for what they put me and my family through. So, you know, I’ve done that and I’m over that.” I think all of us can relate to his pain and recognize him as a sports hero and a model for the value of forgiveness.

Our second story involves the Jewish value of rachamim-compassion. Rachamim is the basis for our caring and reaching out to other people in their times of need. We don’t have to do it, but as we share a human condition, we feel for others as they face trial and difficulty. It is rachamim that prompts us to donate for the relief efforts in China and Myanmar. It is rachamim that causes individuals to respond to the human interest stories periodically broadcast in the local media. But one does not usually think of rachamim on the baseball diamond, but clearly that was the case just about a month ago.

Sara Tucholsky was a part-time starter in the outfield for Western Oregon University’s women’s Division II softball team. Western Oregon was playing against Central Washington in a game that would determine a possible berth in the NCAA tournament, something neither team had ever accomplished. In the second inning with two runners on base, Sara hit a home run. Unaccustomed to hitting home runs and very excited, she missed first base as she circled the basepath, and turned back to touch the bag. In the process she twisted her knee and crumbled to the ground. According to baseball rules, no one from her team could come and assist her. For a home run, she had to touch all the bases. Her Coach was ready to put in a pinch runner for her, but that would have only meant she’d be credited with a single.

Then Mallory Holtman, the first baseman for the other team and the career homerun leader in her school’s history, asked if she could assist Sara. Along with shortstop Liz Wallace, the two Central Washington players assisted Sara to make it around the bases and register her only home run in four years of college softball. As it turned out, Sara’s was the winning run in the game, costing Central Washington the chance to win. Though they did not win the game, clearly Mallory and Liz and her Central Washington teammates are winners in the ultimate game of life. Not only was this exemplary sportsmanship, it is a model of how people can be compassionate towards others, even when it might cost you something in the process.


The final story is one of hope- tikvah. Hope is certainly one of our most basic Jewish values. Now I’m not suggesting that we start praying for the Saints to win the Superbowl. Yes we can be hopeful, but this story is a bit different. It involves Jon Lester of the Boston Red Sox. Ten days ago at the age of 24 he pitched a no-hitter, which is an amazing feat for any baseball player. But for those of you who are sports fans and even many who are not, you know that this is a story bigger than sports. In 2006 when Jon Lester entered baseball, there were high hopes for his career. Then, he was diagnosed with non-Hodgkins lymphoma, a form of cancer. Fortunately, this is a treatable form of the disease, when caught early enough. In his case it was. Still he went through all sorts of therapy to beat back the illness, most of which would sap the strength of any man. He would not allow that to be the case. Lester was back in a Red Sox uniform last Fall and actually pitched the winning game in the World Series.

I don’t think that any of us here tonight are going to pitch major league world series victories or a no-hitter, but each of us faces challenges. Some are medical, others emotional. Some are financial and others personal. We can allow ourselves to be worn down by our trials, setbacks, moments of misfortune or we can face them with a sense of hope and move on to triumph. Jon Lester could have given into despair, but he had a dream, a vision, a purpose and harnessed to hope, he succeeded. We can do the same.


May we be committed to live by the values of our tradition and inspired by the examples of those in the world around us.



One Nation Under God

JUNE 20, 2008

By Rabbi Robert H. Loewy

At the recent funeral of a veteran, I was reminded of the great respect and ritual that is connected with the flag. Hearing the playing of taps as the Marine Honor Guard respectfully and precisely folded the flag reminded me of my summer camp days, when each morning and evening we would gather around the flag pole to raise and lower the flag. In Jewish terms, there is a lot of halacha, law (though it may be more custom) as to how the flag is to be treated, including: where it is to be placed in a room, when and how it is to be displayed daytime and night, how it is to be stored and ultimately disposed of. You might argue, it is just a piece of cloth, but its meaning transcends its essence.

There is something powerful and majestic to see a flag flapping in the wind, such as the huge version at Veterans and Causeway. Flags are an ancient symbol. Our Torah mentions how each tribe marched behind its own flag.

In addition to flag ceremonies at camp, one of my earliest memories of the flag, and perhaps yours as well, is reciting the pledge of allegiance to the flag. The origins of the pledge can be traced to Rev. Frances Bellamy, a Baptist minister and socialist, who wrote it in 1892. It originally did not mention either the United States of America, simply the Republic for which it stands, nor did it include the phrase “under God.” It was intended as a salute to the flag, the Republic, the concept of One nation, which had been fought over just 30 years earlier, and that it should be indivisible. Its foundation was to be liberty and justice. Interestingly, it did not include “equality” as was part of the French Revolution mantra, since neither women nor blacks were to be equal for quite some time.

The addition of the phrase “under God” was not inserted until 1954. At the urging of the Knights of Columbus and in the shadow of those godless Communists, Dwight Eisenhower lobbied for the inclusion of the phrase for what was the official national version of the Pledge of Allegiance.

America has danced around the subject of mixing religion and government from the beginning of this nation. One of the foundation myths of this country is that it was established to create religious freedom for those who had been oppressed in Europe. This was partially true. People came to America with their religious group, which had been persecuted in the Old Country with the desire that they no longer should be oppressed, not necessarily that those who differed with them should be free, just that their group should not be oppressed. Each group wanted their faith to be the religion of the land.

But with Quakers in Pennsylvania, Congregationalists in Massachusetts, Catholics in Maryland and different Protestant groups, not to mention a smattering of Jews throughout the colonies, a compromise was needed, which led to the idea of freedom of religion for all.

With that as the historical reality we are truly blessed with the First Amendment of the Constitution. “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof?” Its basic idea is that government cannot favor any one religion, act in a way that establishes any one religion or religion in general, nor interfere with the practice of religion. This constitutional guarantee has enabled the flourishing of religion in America. As a result the United States is one of the most religious countries in the world. From the perspective of the Jewish community, there has never been a country where Jews as a minority have been as safe and as prosperous as they have in this land. Still, we continue to struggle over the role of religion in America.

The great tug of war is between those who want religion to have a strong voice in the public arena and those who feel it has a voice, but not absolute authority. Recently Senator Ted Kennedy was diagnosed with brain cancer. Among the many praying for his healing was Cal Thomas, conservative columnist and former spokesman for Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority, clearly not political allies. Thomas admiringly wrote of how Kennedy essentially invited himself to speak at Liberty University and proceeded to address issues of faith, truth and tolerance, saying:

“I am an American and a Catholic; I love my country and treasure my faith. But I do not assume that my conception of patriotism or policy is invariably correct, or that my convictions about religion should command any greater respect than any other faith in this pluralistic society.”

“When people agree on public policy, they ought to be able to work together, even while they worship in diverse ways. For truly we are all yoked together as Americans and the yoke is the happy one of individual freedom and mutual respect.”

“Separation of church and state cannot mean an absolute separation between moral principles and political power: The challenge today is to recall the origin of the principle, to define its purpose, and refine its application to the politics of the present.” That is the position I personally embrace as well.

This brings us to two kinds of issues. The first involve those which are subtle or not so subtle attempts to circumvent the first amendment. Included in this group are subjects such as school prayer, the placement of the ten commandments in the public domain and a current concern- school vouchers/scholarships for private school education.

School vouchers or as is being touted in Louisiana right now “scholarships,” are still under legal scrutiny. Most will agree that public education is not what it needs to be, prompting many families to select private schools, many of which are parochial. Voucher legislation is an attempt to funnel governmental funds from failing public schools to assist families to pay for private school education, whether parochial or secular private. While being expressed as a scholarship for families, it is a boon for the private schools. I will not go into the question of private or public schools as the answer to educational quality. That is a whole different subject. My main qualm is that government has no business funding religious education. As most of you know this is coming from a founding member and Past President of our New Orleans Jewish Day School.

Do I want to see our Jewish community parochial school have more students and receive more funding? Certainly! Do I want that money to come from public coffers? From your hard earned taxes? Absolutely not!

I recently learned of another overzealous attempt to intermingle government and religion. It seems that in South Carolina, like many states, you can purchase license plates that promote certain causes- education, save the manatee, brown bears or support organizations- your favorite university, veterans and more. Usually the plates cost a little more and some of the money goes to the cause. The South Carolina legislature unanimously voted to create religion license plates with a big cross against a stained glass window. Now they were wise enough to realize that they could not be collecting money for these plates and then donating it to the church, but have no problem essentially saying the State of South Carolina supports Christianity. The Governor refuses to sign the law, but it will go into effect anyway, undoubtedly leading to costly litigation. Please understand that I am not opposed to an individual wishing to promote faith, but the state should not be the vehicle for that program. Print as many bumper stickers as you like on your own.

The second category of issues includes those where some voices are attempting to impose their religious views on all others, insinuating that anything different is sinful, immoral and abhorrent. One of the great challenges of America is how to differ over policy and still be respectful of differences.

A prime example which is happening right now is an oldie, but goody: Creationism vs. evolution. Perhaps you thought it went away with the Scopes trial decades ago, but it’s back. Instead of being called creationism, its first new name is “Intelligent Design.” Intelligent design (ID) suggests that life on earth is too complex to have evolved through natural selection alone, and therefore must have been “guided” by a “supernatural” or “intelligent” force, which is to say, God. Opponents of teaching intelligent design in public school science courses, argue that ID is little more than an attempt by certain religious groups to continue to promote the concept of creationism in public schools, despite the fact that it has repeatedly been found unconstitutional. Rather, they advocate the teaching of the theory of evolution, which most mainstream scientists agree has been well-tested and supported. One is science; the other is religion. It has been ruled illegal in some states.

Not to worry, our Louisiana legislators have simply given it another new name: “science education.” Who can oppose that? A current bill that is now on the Governor’s desk to be signed calls upon school boards and state authorities to allow the use of “supplemental materials when teaching subjects such as evolution, global warming, cloning and the origin of life.” Proponents argue that this is simply a way to broaden honest discourse of science. Who do they think are they kidding? Teachers have always been free to bring in legitimate supplementary material. This is another way that the religious right is attempting to bring their religious views on creationism and when life begins into the classroom. Again, this is not science or education, but religion. It belongs in the church and synagogue, but not the public school. Once again our legislators with religious agenda have passed unnecessary and inappropriate legislation, which I can hope will only lead to the waste of tax dollars as it is defeated in court. We need to urge Governor Jindal, with his biology degree from Brown University, to veto the law.

My friends, let us celebrate all the freedoms we enjoy in this country. And let us continue the struggle when governmental bodies attempt to teach religion, endorse religion or impose one religion’s views upon us all. We need to speak out and let our legislators know that we differ with these attempts to break down the protective wall that has served this country well. Even if we know our protests seem futile, we cannot be silent. We are One nation and we are blessed by God, but the great strength of this country is the unity we enjoy, because of our respect for diversity. May God continue to bless America as we fully respect each others’ freedoms!


The Other Abraham


By Rabbi Robert H. Loewy


This morning I would like to speak of the famous legislator from the State of Illinois, a man renowned for his engaging oratorical skills, who rose from humble origins. Perhaps he is best known for being on the cutting edge of race relations in America, breaking down traditional barriers, as well as from the beginning of his political career being opposed to a popular war on the grounds that “you can’t allow the President to invade a neighboring nation… whenever he may choose to say he deems it necessary.” This would be the kind of man to lead America during a time of great peril. I am of course speaking of….Abraham Lincoln.

Gotcha!! It was President Polk’s war against Mexico that he opposed.

It is not surprising that both Barack Obama and John McCain try to lay claim to the legacy of this great American. Senator Obama announced his presidential race and later introduced his Vice Presidential choice on the steps of the Illinois State House, as did Lincoln before him. Senator McCain frequently invokes the idea that Republicans are the party of Lincoln.

But why speak of Abraham Lincoln today? This is not my typical High Holy Day sermon topic. As you will be hearing more this coming year, Abraham Lincoln was born Feb. 12, 1809. Thus it will be the 200th anniversary of his birth prompting reflection on the man and his pivotal role in American history. Earlier this year at the CCAR national convention of Reform Rabbis, I had the opportunity to hear presidential scholar, Doris Kearns Goodwin, discuss, and later I read, her book, “Team of Rivals” the story of Lincoln’s rise to the Presidency as he competed with his political opponents and how once in office, melded these same men into the team, which led the country.

As Lincoln entered the White House, our country was deeply divided over the issue of slavery. I do not believe divisions in America are as bad today, but still there are major issues that need to be addressed. We Jews are a people who learn from history, not limited to Jewish history. With Presidential and congressional elections approaching, the qualities that Abraham Lincoln exemplified throughout his life are attributes that we might like to see in those men and women, who seek to lead our country. On a more personal level, he possessed traits applicable to our own lives. Is that not one of the purposes of being here today, to reevaluate how we interact with others and conduct our daily affairs? Teachers come from many places.

Many of you are familiar with parts of Lincoln’s life story. His childhood was challenging as his mother died when he was 9 years old, so that his sister Sarah helped to raise him. She, too, later died at a young age during childbirth. He had a total of 12 months of formal education, since he needed to earn for the family, working on the river barges and famously splitting rails and building log cabins. Physically, he was tall and gangly, with sharp not necessarily attractive facial features.

Though judged by history as one of the greats, Lincoln endured numerous failures throughout his years. At one particularly low point early in his life, he suffered from a broken engagement, the collapse of one of his pet projects as a state legislator, and his dearest friend, Joshua Speed, was leaving town. Clearly he was depressed and the friend was concerned lest Lincoln be suicidal. To relieve Speed’s worry, Lincoln confided that to that point in his life he had “done nothing to make any human being remember that he had lived, and that … to link his name with something that would redound to the interest of his fellow man was what he desired to live for.”  (p. 99) He wanted his life to make a positive difference in the lives of others. Years later, following the Emancipation Proclamation he stated, “I believe that by this measure my fondest hopes will be realized.” (p. 501)

So who was Abraham Lincoln and what were some of his attributes that we might seek in our elected officials or find admirable and worthy of emulation for ourselves? In many ways he was an exemplar of the “middot- Jewish values” for quality living.

Though his formal education was limited, he was always learning. Reading was his window to the world of knowledge from classics to contemporary literature and philosophy, fiction and non-fiction. He understood that the science and technology provided great avenues for advancement of civilization, knowledge that became quite useful in the execution of the Civil War. As Jews we know that the person who continues to learn continues to grow.

The Talmud teaches that we should receive all people pleasantly. Lincoln knew this intuitively. Following his election it was the President’s role to screen potential job seekers within his administration, not just the Cabinet, but the myriad of other positions in government. Hour after hour he met with would-be office holders, yet with a positive demeanor. It prompted a journalist to report: “he is the very embodiment of good temper and affability. They (the seekers) will all concede that he has a kind word, an encouraging smile, a humorous remark for nearly everyone that seeks his presence, and that but few if any, emerge from his reception room without being strongly and favorably impressed with his disposition.” (p. 281) Lincoln came into office with many doubters, winning many over simply with his warmth of personality, treating all people decently.

Torah teaches us to love others as we love ourselves. In other words a starting point in human relations is to be empathetic, to put ourselves in others’ positions, not to assume that we have the absolute high ground when it comes to differences of opinion.  Slavery was of course the great issue of his day and he was opposed to it. Still, unlike others, he did not demonize or castigate those with whom he differed. As a pragmatist he initially was willing to allow slavery to continue where it was, but opposed its spread into new territories as the country grew.

In framing his speeches against the spread of slavery he sought common ground with those with whom he differed. Reflecting on the founding principles of the country, he argued: “No man is good enough to govern another man, without the other’s consent.” (p. 167) He recognized that slavery had been in existence for years and that the southern economic way of life was dependent upon it. Rather than demean southern slaveholders, he identified with them saying, “They are just what we would be in their situation. If slavery did not now exist amongst us, they would not introduce it.” He chose empathy as a means to advance his position, saying: “To win a man to your cause, you must first reach his heart, the great high road to his reason.” (p. 168)

When the rabbis of the great academies debated points of law, they respectfully maintained the ideal of “Eilu v’eilu divrei Elohim chaim- these and these are the words of the living God.” While there was competition among the rabbis to win their points of law, they respected their opponents. The same was true with Lincoln. He refused to denigrate his opponents with negative campaigning. In fact he and Steven Douglas, with whom he debated and to whom he lost the senatorial election, were good friends.

The thrust of the Goodwin book, “Team of Rivals,” is to emphasize how Lincoln competed with William Seward, Salmon Chase and Edward Bates for the presidency, men who were very different from him. In truth they generally looked upon him contemptuously, as the unsophisticated, uneducated country bumpkin. Yet, when he formed his cabinet of the best men he could find, the first became Secretary of State, the second, Secretary of the Treasury and the third, Attorney General.

Earlier in Lincoln’s life he also met Edwin Stanton, a leading litigator of the time. Lincoln had been hired to argue the biggest case of his career in Ohio, spending hours preparing his brief. Stanton was later called into the case to lead the legal team and pompously opined about Lincoln: “Why did you bring that long armed ape here?… He does not know anything and can do you no good.” Lincoln was then dismissed from the case. As President he would appoint Stanton, Secretary of War. Stanton came to respect and love the “long armed ape” more than any person outside his immediate family. (p. 175) His former rivals became his trusted counselors providing real wisdom, not serving as “yes” men. Our tradition teaches us to learn from all people and turn our enemies into friends.

Lincoln knew that life needed its lighter moments. He could spend hours listening to and telling stories. As serious as life could be, it requires moments of levity even in the darkest of times. Prior to revealing the Emancipation Proclamation to his cabinet, a document that would change the course of human events in America, he read from a light hearted story book. When Lincoln faced a reporter’s criticism of one of his most successful generals for drinking too much, he asked what kind of whiskey it was, so that he could send it to some of his other generals. When someone told him he was “two faced,” he responded, “if I had two, would I keep this one.”

Like the rabbis of old, he employed parables to make a point. On one occasion, following a series of highly critical newspaper articles lambasting his leadership, he responded with the following: “A traveler on the frontier found himself out of his reckoning one night in a most inhospitable region. A terrific thunderstorm came up to add to his trouble. He floundered along until his horse gave out. The lightning afforded him the only clue to his way, but the peals of thunder were frightful. One bolt, which seemed to crush the earth beneath him, brought him to his knees. By no means a praying man, his petition was short and to the point: “O Lord, if it’s all the same to you, give us a little more light and a little less noise.” And this was long before blogs, internet and cable television.

Though Lincoln may not have known the word “teshuvah,” he certainly understood the concept. First he was one who readily acknowledged his own errors and was willing to learn from his mistakes. When the Union Army was routed at Bull Run at the beginning of the war, he accepted responsibility and went about ensuring that nothing similar would happen again. On a number of occasions he accepted the blame for blunders by his Cabinet members, even when he was not directly responsible. He realized that we are all responsible. Similar to the way we will recite “for the sin that WE have sinned on Yom Kippur, he discussed the sin of slavery for which all must share in his famous 2nd Inaugural address.

We all have moments of weakness. On some occasions when Lincoln gave in to his temper, he regularly followed up with sorrow and sincere apologies. He was wise enough to recognize that sometimes frustration with others could be best expressed by highly critical letters that never are sent.

And Lincoln had the ability to forgive. Many individuals during his lifetime acted against him. Some would say that he could be too forgiving, but mostly this attribute enabled him to stand out from others. Salmon Chase performed his role as Treasury Secretary admirably, arranging for the finance of the War, but he continued as a critical thorn in Lincoln’s side. Finally, when Lincoln could stand no more, he eased him from office, but shortly thereafter appointed him to the Supreme Court, prompting one of Lincoln’s aides to observe: “Probably no other man than Lincoln would have had the degree of magnanimity to thus forgive and exalt a rival who had so deeply and so unjustifiably intrigued against him.” (p. 680)

As the war was drawing to a close, Lincoln’s message became one of forgiveness and reconciliation. In his own family, he invited his sister-in-law, whose husband fought and died for the South to come and live in the White House. He arranged for Robert E. Lee and all the southern soldiers to return to their homes with dignity. Rather than prolong the pain of war, he secretly allowed Confederate political leaders like Jefferson Davis and Judah P. Benjamin to live out their days in exile, rather than face trials for treason. Sometimes forgiveness involves simply moving on after the pain.

When Lincoln first ran for office at the age of 23, he wrote to his possible constituents: “Every man is said to have his peculiar ambition. Whether it be true or not, I can say for one that I have no other ambition so great as that of truly being esteemed of my fellow men, by rendering myself worthy of their esteem. How far I shall succeed in gratifying this ambition is yet to be developed.” With the hindsight of the years, we can all agree that he was successful. But more than that, as we enter our new Jewish year, we can be inspired by his goal, instructed by his example and strive to emulate the qualities of the man who came to be known as “Father Abraham.”



This sermon was based upon and all page references are from Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, by Doris Kearns Goodwin, Simon & Schuster Paperbacks, 2006.






Living With Uncertainty

Rosh Hashanah Evening 2008-5769

By Rabbi Robert H. Loewy

            How wonderful it is to be together for this Rosh Hashanah evening. Earlier this month I was concerned we might not be here. I refused to believe that history was going to repeat itself, but there was definitely the distinct possibility.

As Gustav approached I scrutinized every report, each path projection. I remember turning to Lynn in exasperation saying: “Why can’t they just tell us where it is going?” Of course I knew the answer. Prognosticators were providing us with every bit of information possible, but experience has taught us that after all is said and done, these storms seem to have minds of their own. And so, with dire predictions possible, I pursued the appropriate path like most of you: evacuation.

At first we went to Jacobs Camp and how wonderful it is that our URJ camp is available to all of us in this situation. It was our first refuge. Then when it seemed clear that we would not be returning home any time soon, we traveled to my in-laws who have a dairy farm in Waco, TX.

Fortunately, Gustav weakened, moved west from Greater New Orleans, resulting in much less damage than anticipated. Still, it would necessitate a few days away from home. Sitting in Waco, I began to go a little stir crazy, first waiting to learn when we would be allowed back, and then whether or not we had electricity. I was clearly not my normal, in control self. Rather, I was anxious and for me, a bit irritable.

I was bored, frustrated and wanted to be home, to see that all was well and pursue my usual activities in this busy season of the year. But that was not to be. Of course residing on a dairy farm is radically different than refuge at a hotel, in camp or someone’s home. So one afternoon in order to relieve stress, I spent a few hours accompanying my nephew as he plowed a field. I got to drive a huge tractor with a GPS system for creating straight rows. In other words, any idiot city boy could do it.

Then there was “big excitement.” The phone rang as a neighbor reported that a cow was loose from the pasture and roaming in the road. Now, you should know that on a dairy farm, this is a regular occurrence, but not for your city boy rabbi. We all jumped in the car, found the cow and I single handedly saved the day. Actually, as soon as I exited the car, it saw me and headed back to the pasture. All I had to do was open the gate.  I’d say this is “no bull,” but it was.

Passing the time was a challenge. I tried working on a sermon for this evening. Ironically, it was the same sermon I had been preparing in the summer of 2005. I had researched and taken notes on the subject, but it was just not coming together. For diversion I tried watching satellite TV with hundreds of stations, but nothing captured my attention. I read one of my professional journals…boring!

Then I picked up another book, which I had brought with me entitled: “Yearnings: Embracing the Sacred Messiness of Life” by Rabbi Irwin Kula. Rabbi Kula has the marvelous ability to apply our Jewish teachings to daily living, elevating mundane challenges to the sacred. As I read through a chapter entitled, “Dancing With Uncertainty,” it all clicked. He was speaking to me and hopefully to all of you for this moment.

It was the uncertainty of the situation that had me so ill at ease. Most of the time, we are in control of our world, or at least we think we are. Then along comes a Katrina or Gustav. We quickly appreciate that there are forces well beyond our manipulation. We can react to what happens, but even then we cannot be sure we are making the right decision. Do I evacuate to Jacobs Camp or Texas, Birmingham or Baton Rouge? Which route will deliver me with the least traffic? On the one hand uncertainty can be a source of great distress, but as Rabbi Kula points out: “Doubt is a prerequisite for any meaningful journey. When we can acknowledge the built-in anxiety rather than maintaining the illusion of certainty, we become humble- which in turn creates a new and more authentic confidence.” (p. 89) By accepting uncertainty as a natural part of life, we can better cope with the challenges that come our way.

Uncertainty is actually built into some activities and we would have it no other way. While I root for our Saints and Hornets and want them to win, I watch or attend the games because of the uncertainty. I am not sure of victory until the game is over. The closer the game, the more fun it is. If we know who wins in advance, it is not nearly as enjoyable.

The same is true with television, film and literature. We watch television, view movies and read novels expecting the unexpected, delighting in the uncertainty. We hate it when we DVR a show, plan to see a movie or read a book and someone informs us of the ending in advance. Describing a plot as “predictable” is often a reviewer’s most devastating criticism.

But most of the time life is uncertain, unpredictable. One of life’s great challenges is learning to live with uncertainty. Consider parenting for a moment. Is there anything certain about being a parent? It starts with trying to conceive. For many this can be a great challenge. Then once that fetus is there, the worrying begins. Is it a boy or girl? Some find out, while others do not. Will the baby be healthy? Nothing is certain and this is just the beginning.

Every parent wants to make the best choices for his/her child. When should we start Gates of Prayer Nursery School? (Note the shameless plug.) This will be the first of many academic choices. Then comes: public or private? If private, Jewish, secular or Christian parochial? We agonize over these decisions, striving for the certainty that we are ensuring the quality of life for our children. After all this decision will be the difference ultimately between Harvard and Podunk U. (At least we act that way.) Sometimes we are correct and sometimes not. With perspective, we realize that most decisions are not irreversible. When one school doesn’t work out, there is always another. So, Karate may not be little Chaim’s forte. Instead he is a natural at soccer, or dance or piano. At one moment we wrestle with the uncertainty of our decisions, believing them to be so significant. Ultimately we may reach a point and say to ourselves, “what’s the big deal?’ and we go with it.

Friends, life is a journey and it is filled with uncertainty. Our Biblical ancestors understood this reality. Did Abram really know his future when he departed his homeland based upon a promise from some invisible God? Babylonia was comfortable and civilized, while Canaan was “the sticks.” Filled with uncertainty, he took the risk and became the father of the Jewish people. Similarly Moses had no idea what would happen when he spoke truth to power. He could have been killed on the spot. Instead, he was able to lead the people to the Promised Land.

They both had moments of doubt, turning to God for the assurance that they were on the right path. They wanted certainty, but neither really receives absolute answers. Rather they moved forward with the best insights available and with the faith that sometimes that will have to be enough.

In many situations, we know what we are doing and what the results will be, but sometimes that is not the case. “Uncertain times create anxiety, fear and vulnerability.” We confront life challenges and questions, some more significant than others: selecting the right restaurant for dinner or a location for vacation, how to respond to another in a sensitive moment, deciding which candidate to support, what college to attend, which job to accept, finding a life partner, when to change jobs, leave one career and venture forth to another, or eventually to retire. For some whether the choice is momentous or not, the desire to be certain can be overwhelming. Rabbi Kula teaches that we can be paralyzed by uncertainty or harness it as we realize we can all move forward. The anxiety of failure can disable us or it can motivate us to make decisions, but recognize that failure is not the worst thing in the world.

I remember when I accepted the position to become rabbi of this congregation, now almost 25 years ago. It happened very quickly. Talk about decisions and uncertainty! I was very comfortable in my role as associate rabbi in Houston and had plans to stay there for many years. Then a call came on a Tuesday morning in June: would I consider submitting my name? On Thursday night I had a phone interview with the Search Committee, flew to New Orleans on Sunday for a personal meeting and had a job offer on Monday morning. This was not the usual rabbinic placement process. We were filled with uncertainty, fear and excitement as we arrived in August of 1984. I think I can safely say that it seems to have worked out well for all concerned. And if it had not, then an alternative would have to go into effect.

An important lesson in all this is that we do not have to be 100% certain before we make decisions and act. Maybe 60%, even 51% is good enough. When opportunities arise, challenges are before us, decisions need to be made, we weigh the pros and cons, without seeking absolute certainty. By this process we can be good to ourselves and compassionate to others as they make choices. We should also realize that success may be temporary. A right decision today may not continue to be right for tomorrow. We make the best choices possible and when they don’t develop the way we imagined, we can always change without beating ourselves up in the process. Rather, we begin anew.

Rabbi Kula writes: “It’s not that life is a crapshoot. It’s that vagaries and uncertainties are a part of the human drama. Our journey presents us with catastrophes, traumas, losses, gains, wonders and miracles. And in the end we must act on faith, not that it will all work out as we want, but that our best guess is good enough, that it will somehow lead us to a place of discovery, of new perspective, of a wider self.” (p. 91)

Rosh Hashanah celebrates the birthday of the world. In rabbinic literature there are stories that when God began to create the world, God created and destroyed ten worlds before settling upon this one. Early on God saw that this one was not perfect either, but finally realized that even for God there is no certainty. Just because you create something does not mean you have control.

During this season of the year we say, “L’shanah tovah tikotevu” to one another. Within those words is hope that we will be inscribed for a good year, a year of life, but there lingers the possibility, the implication, that it might not be. Help us O God to live with this and all other uncertainties.



All quotations are from Yearnings: Embracing the Sacred Messiness of Life, by Rabbi Irwin Kula, Hyperion Publishing, 2006.


I am Jewish

Yom Kippur Eve 5769

By Rabbi Robert H. Loewy

Hearing Kol Nidre…. sitting in the sanctuary…. scanning the room…. These are the sights and sounds and senses, which remind us of who we are. We are linked to those around us, those who preceded us and who will follow after us. This embracing moment enables most here tonight to comfortably say, “I am Jewish.” I say, “most,” since I gratefully acknowledge that our congregational family includes a number of wonderfully supportive men and women for whom this is respectfully not their faith tradition, but are very much part of our congregation.

This evening, let us ask what it really means to say, “I am Jewish?” I know that may seem like a straight line for any number of jokes, but this evening I present it as a challenge. During the course of the next 24 hours, I invite you to reflect upon your answer to this essential question. Through words of prayer, teaching from this pulpit and your own private pondering, I hope that as we conclude our worship tomorrow afternoon you will have formulated a response that is both meaningful to you and will prompt your actions in the year to come.

Do you recall the tragic story of Daniel Pearl? He was the Wall Street Journal reporter, who in 2002 was captured and executed by Al Quaida terrorists in Pakistan. Videotaped moments before his execution, he stated, “My father is Jewish. My mother is Jewish. I am Jewish.” Then, his life was snuffed out. Why he expressed what he did, we will never really know, but we are free to examine its potential meaning. In death he left behind his parents, Judea and Ruth, a sister Tamara, and his pregnant wife Mariane, who would later bear his son, Adam. This past year, Mariane’s book on the subject, “A Mighty Heart” became a film starring Angelina Jolie.

In response to this horrific act, Alana Frey, a 12 year old Bat Mitzvah girl launched a project to collect writings from people she knew on what it means to say, “I am Jewish.” This was to be a gift to Daniel’s newborn son, Adam, that he might know the possibilities of what his father meant by those words. Inspired by this, Daniel’s parents similarly solicited responses from a cross section of Jewish men and women around the world to create the book, I Am Jewish- Personal Reflections Inspired by the Last Words of Daniel Pearl. This too would be a gift for Adam, but for all of us as well. By exploring the responses of others, perhaps we can formulate an answer for ourselves, which will motivate us for the future. There is of course no single definition to the question, but one can discern a number of patterns to the responses.

For many, to say “I am Jewish” is a matter of identity. It all starts with biology. When your parents are Jewish, it automatically connects you to being Jewish. If even just one parent is Jewish, you feel linked in some way, whether or not you are raised as a Jewish child. In my Judaism class at Loyola University, invariably a few of the students enroll because they have a Jewish parent or grandparent and feel a kinship with being Jewish. It is also not unusual when one who approaches me for conversion, there lurks a Jewish ancestor somewhere in the family tree.

Being Jewish by “identity” implies that we are part of a large Jewish family for good and for ill. We identify with our fellow Jews wherever they are. We’re all cousins. This often comes up in connection with oppressed Jews or acts of anti-Semitism. The reality is that prejudice and persecution of Jews continues in our world, whether in diatribes from Iran, violence in Europe or incidents here at home. I believe this to be a negative, even destructive base for identity. Martin Peretz, Harvard educator and long time editor of the New Republic states, “Jewish meaning is made out of life, not out of martyrdom.” (p. 60) I believe we are stronger as a community when we focus on what we have done, not what has been done to us.

From our own recent experience, we identify with Jewish communities in a different kind of trouble- nature. As Jews we relate to all victims of natural disasters, but to say “I am Jewish” prompts us to identify with our particular people, like family. As the poster in our lobby so magnificently depicts, we were the beneficiaries of thousands of Jews who reached out to us following Hurricane Katrina. This past year, we in turn have responded to the Jewish communities in San Diego, devastated by fires, Iowa deluged by floods, and most recently in Texas, ravished by Hurricane Ike.

“I am Jewish” also means that we identify with individual Jews as they achieve success and fame in secular realms, including Jewish athletes, celebrities, performers, Nobel or Pulitzer prize winners, politicians, authors, composers and many others. Their prominence may have little or much to do with their being Jewish. Regardless, they are part of our family, and so we identity with them, even bask a bit in their glory. On the flip side, when we discover Jews behaving badly, we feel personally embarrassed and ashamed.

However, I argue that simply being Jewish as a matter of identity is not enough to sustain us as Jews. Modern reality demonstrates that Jews freely enter and exit our community at will. There must be something more than a biological identifying link. Certainly that is true for the wonderful, dedicated members of our community who have come to us through conversion!

Many speak of heritage as the key component of what it means to say, “I am Jewish.” We relate to past historical trials and triumphs, the teachings we have contributed to civilization and accomplishments we have attained, while hopefully building upon them. For example, Larry King, like many others, describes himself as a “cultural Jew.” He writes: “I love the Jewish sense of humor. The shtick of the Jewish comedian burns in me. I love a good joke.” Though he doesn’t observe High Holy Days, he admits to a certain reverence at that time of year as he thinks about his parents. (The rabbi in me hopes it is guilt, not always such a bad feeling, when it prompts us to do what is right.) He goes on to say, “It’s an imprint I carry with me everywhere. I was taught to hate prejudice. I was taught the value of loyalty- the value of family…I was certainly embedded with strong Jewish values of education and learning, no matter what the form.” (p. 52) The problem I have with this approach to being Jewish is that while it gives meaning to his life today, it will neither transcend him or be transmitted to a future generation.

German born Michael Blumenthal, former Secretary of Treasury and now President and CEO of the Berlin Jewish Museum, also embraces heritage as his link to being Jewish. He writes: “Without strong religious anchors there was a time when still young, I wondered whether my Jewish heritage was only a burden to be borne, rather than a privilege and blessing to be acknowledged with pride….The Jewish religion is the foundation for the sum total of ethical and moral values of the Western World. Jewish men and women, wherever they lived, have contributed enormously to every facet of human life. It is a tradition and a heritage to be cherished and valued.” (p. 54) For him, “I am Jewish,” combines appreciation of the past leading to responsibility for the future.

Similarly, Daniel Gill, a childhood friend of Daniel Pearl’s, draws upon heritage as a rallying cry for action. He states: “Being a survivor is not what I think when I say ‘I am a Jewish’.. I think about how we’re different.. We are a people of the book, of law…We question, challenge, debate, extrapolate, construct and deconstruct… We focus on this life, not what comes after…Being Jewish means striving for Tikkun Olam, a repairing of the world, of hesed and rachamim and tsedakah…We built nations, changed the histories of music, arts, science, law and jurisprudence, politics, academia, philosophy, finance, agriculture, every field imaginable. We marched with Martin Luther King Jr. and made Duck Soup and E.T.” (p. 86) We can proudly reflect upon our heritage and say, “we are different and we have made a difference.” Heritage can be a source of nostalgia or a foundation for the future.

Many express their being Jewish through “Tikun Olam- repairing the world.” Numerous respondents stressed that saying “I am Jewish” is an imperative to make the world a better place. In many ways, this was Daniel Pearl’s kind of Judaism. A history of oppression and martyrdom becomes the impetus to shape this world as less cruel and more humane. “I am Jewish” is to side with the oppressed, rather than with the oppressor.” (p. 165) For others- “we are raised to believe that the world can be made better. That the work of creation is a joint venture, with God and humanity partners- maybe even equal partners.” (p. 203) To say “I am Jewish” means to stand upon our Judaism as the foundation for improving the world.

Tomorrow afternoon we will read the story of Jonah. It teaches that God’s love and our concern extends beyond our own particular community. We care about the Ninevites, who were our enemies, even the vegetation which we did not plant. Tikun Olam is the Jewish mandate to be universalists.

Identity, heritage, Tikun Olam are all important. They are significant aspects of what it means to be Jewish, branches and limbs of the Jewish tree of life. However, I believe that the trunk and roots lie in our covenantal relationship with God, which is linked to the faith of Judaism.

Rabbi Harold Kushner discusses how heritage and identity focuses on the past, while the statement of “I am Jewish” needs to address the present and future. “To say ‘I am a Jew’ says something about how I will live this day: how I will treat other people in my life, how honest will I be in my business dealings, how much of my income will I set aside for tsedakah, will I find time in my day for prayer and study? And it says something about the future: what sort of world do I envision and work for? What are the most important values I will strive to impart to my children and grandchildren?…“Life’s challenge is to realize that divine potential in me and the Torah is the instruction manual to guide me to do that.” (p. 165)

My friends, this kind of Jewish self definition does not just happen. It is not achieved by eating Jewish food, socializing with fellow Jews, or even donating to Jewish causes. Rather it requires an investment of self in prayer and ritual to connect with the God, who is understood in so many different ways in our faith; it springs from studying Jewish texts to appreciate the values that will guide our lives; it is inspired by spending significant time in the land of Israel to feel a greater link to our past and current history;

I know that the concept of “requirement” sounds onerous, burdensome. It does not have to be that way. We begin most of our services with the words emblazoned on our gates: Ivdu et Adonai B’simcha. Serve God, whether through prayer, study, daily activity, tikun olam, but serve God with a sense of joy.

7 year old Jade Ransohoff says it so well: “I am Jewish means having fun being a Jew.” This is why so many of you and our children loved going to Jewish cultural summer camps. It can be fun being a Jew. Our Nursery and Religious Schools embrace that philosophy as well. One of the many reasons I became a rabbi was that I concluded, “what could be more fun and fulfilling than being Jewish as my life’s work?” I encourage you to venture forth, experience and celebrate Jewish life with joy.

So what do I mean when I say “I am Jewish?” It begins with indebtedness to my parents, who by their words and deeds made it clear to me who I was. Through formal and informal education I have come to appreciate that I am part of a history and community much larger than myself. The historical episodes of the past, both the valleys of travail and the peaks of triumph are part of my Jewish family heritage. All of this is rooted in a relationship with a loving God, who in mysterious ways instructed our people in the past and continues as an active presence in the future. Through God inspired teachings I possess a moral compass that guides my daily activity and prompts me to realize that I am linked and have a responsibility to all people. And as I navigate my way through each day, I am able to serve God with joy.

Part of Daniel Pearl’s legacy was his final words. They were perceived as an expression of community, a challenge to his executioners, an acceptance of his fate. They have become a source of inspiration for us. I invite us all to consider what it means to say, “I am Jewish” throughout this holy day and then live accordingly in the year to come.



Quotations in this sermon are from I Am Jewish: Personal Reflections Inspired By the Last Words of Daniel Pearl, edited by Judea and Ruth Pearl, Jewish Lights Publishing, 2004.