All posts by Stephan

The Message Of The Mezuzzah


By Rabbi Robert H. Loewy


My friends, I invite you to behold the humble mezuzah. You may think of it is a mere trinket, a bit of Jewish decorative art, but it is much more than that. Its essence and how we use it represents a model to solve the world’s problems. Therefore, in addition to it being hung on the doorposts of your house and my house, I propose that one be affixed on the White House and the doors of every congressman and senator. While we are at it, Mahmoud Abbas and the leadership of Fatah, along will the leaders of Hammas need them. Though Benjamin Netanyahu and his fellow leaders undoubtedly already have one, we might buy them new ones in order to grab their attention.

So what is the chochma, the wisdom, embodied in our little mezuzah? It is really quite simple. Have you ever wondered why a mezuzah is always at an angle on the right side of the doorpost? This custom for Ashkenazic Jews goes back to the Middle Ages. Rashi, the great French commentator taught that a mezuzah should be hung vertically, with the top pointing towards the heavens. But his grandson, Rabbenu Tam, also a great scholar, argued that it should be placed horizontally, just as the tablets of the law had rested in the Holy Ark in the Temple. After much discussion, the great decision evolved to hang it on the diagonal with its top inclined toward the inside, allowing peace to rein in a Jewish home in 12th century France. Our humble mezuzah teaches us the importance of compromise.

Social scientists study the art of compromise, the act of people cooperating to make society and organizations possible. Kenneth Thomas and Ralph Kilmann discuss five possible orientations to conflict: competition, collaboration, compromise, accommodation, and avoidance. They believe that each of the five orientations are appropriate under certain circumstances and that one should choose an approach to conflict resolution based on the nature of the conflict, not the style that you find most comfortable. Thomas and Kilmann noted that compromise is the appropriate conflict resolution mode when the cost of conflict is higher than the cost of losing ground, when equal strength opponents are at a standstill, and when there is a deadline looming.

Like many of you, I find myself frustrated and angry by the political process and tone of our nation at this time. The debt ceiling debate was only the most recent debacle, where partisan political positioning seems to have taken priority over the national good. Personal attacks from the right and the left only serve to demean the individuals involved and diminish the effectiveness and confidence in elected officials. When our elected officials announce in advance that they do not plan to attend a joint session of congress where the President speaks, this reflects close mindedness and disrespect for the basic institutions of our nation. The whole subject of civility in our society is one that I have addressed with you before and I urge you to let our elected officials hear of your disgust.

More than that let them know that gridlock on the major issues of our nation is not acceptable. We certainly can respect advocacy for positions of conscience, for pursuing the best paths to reach goals, but there is a higher standard that must be paramount, the economic, political and social health of our nation. Whether we are talking about the debt ceiling, immigration reform, taxation, health care or any number of contentious topics, responsible leaders must realize that in a democratic system compromise is the only way there can be progress. During times of war, that consensus is more readily reached. Perhaps our national leaders need to grasp the urgency of our present moment in history. Compromise is the key tool to the effective functioning of our government in service to the people.

Avishai Margolit, a professor at both Princeton and Hebrew University, in his book “On Compromise and Rotten Compromises,” refers to compromise as an “ambivalent concept.” One is often praised for reaching an accord to preserve friendship and peace or reviled for acceding. With historical examples, he points out that compromise can be pragmatic and strategic, consider the resolution of the Cuban missile crisis; or compromise can be cowardly and weak, consider the appeasement policies during the rise of Nazi Germany. The book deals with political compromises, those deemed morally acceptable and others, which he defines as “rotten.” A rotten compromise is taken to be a compromise with a regime that exercises inhuman policies, namely systematic behavior that mixes cruelty with humiliation and/or treats humans as inhuman. He will argue that sometimes even justice must be compromised for the sake of peace, but never when it is a “rotten compromise.”

Our rabbinical social scientists of the Talmud approached the issue somewhat similarly: We have been taught: “Justice, justice shall you pursue.” (Deut. 16:20) The first mention of justice refers to justice based on law, the second, to justice based on compromise. (Sanhedrin 32b)

Like many rabbis across America, knowing that the Palestinians were bringing their request for a Unilateral Declaration of Independence, I have been waiting until the last minute to fashion my comments for today. As I have said to you before, I do not pretend to be either an expert or a prophet and I am open to interpretations of the situation that differ with my own. I have been monitoring the news, reading and listening to people who have unique access to events, trying to assess developments as best I can. So far, it has been much ado about nothing. Mahmoud Abbas brought his request. It will not pass in the Security Council, either for lack of votes or the promised veto by the United States. Unfortunately that does not make the issue disappear.

The Middle East has changed dramatically during the past year. Egypt is even less of a source of peace and security for Israel than it was before. Diplomatically, Israel is more isolated than in the past with the break of relations with Turkey. Violent and non-violent uprisings in the Arab world have been successful in overthrowing regimes. The one large scale non-violent Arab demonstration that Israel faced resulted in the deaths of demonstrators. This may serve as an omen for the future. Domestically, Israel has had its own massive protests over lack of housing, food prices, jobs, the disparity between rich and poor, inclusive of the disproportionate government funds spent on settlements. Israel and lovers of Israel face a great challenge.

Sad to say, many of the same problems that plague national issues can be found within the American Jewish community. There are those who passionately love Israel, but are totally intolerant of those whose approach to what is best for Israel differs from their own. When Rabbi Rick Jacobs was announced as the next President of our Union for Reform Judaism, his selection was denounced by some who questioned his Israel credentials, not his creativity, scholarship, commitment and insight to lead the Reform movement, but his Israel credentials. I met Rick for the first time in 1998, as we studied together in Israel, something that he does annually, based in a home which he owns and maintains in Israel, as he actively raises funds for a variety of Israel initiatives. So, what is the complaint? That he does not toe the right wing party line that is often espoused by other Jewish organizations. Just as we cannot tolerate this kind of ideological intolerance nationally, neither should we do so within our Jewish community.

This is a pivotal time in Israel’s history. Though there is not an imminent threat to Israel’s survival and well being, the lingering danger remains. Israel analyst, Rabbi Donniel Hartman explains that Israelis face two threats of pikuach nefesh- challenges to Israel’s ultimate physical and spiritual well-being. For some external enemies- Iran, Hezbollah, and Hamas are Israel’s primary challenge. However there is a counter narrative, which maintains that with the continuing occupation of the West Bank and the expansion of settlements, the central challenge is “us,” creating a country that is contrary to who we are and what we believe- an Israel that is not democratic, nor pluralistic. Both threaten Israel’s survival.

The difference between lovers of Israel in North America and Israelis themselves is that here the debate tends to be one or the other. In Israel they know that the West Bank is occupied and contrary to principles, but that pulling out is also an external threat. Unilateral declarations will not change facts on the ground. Willingness by Israel AND the Palestinians to sit down and negotiate with one another is the only way ultimately. This is the message that the Secretary of Defense, along with the quartet of world leaders, is delivering this week. All else is politics and window dressing. There will have to be land for peace; settlements dismantled. However, in exchange there must be the kind of security and economic viability arrangements that will be guaranteed. Israel cannot have the West Bank be like Gaza. And hostility from Gaza must cease. Only then will Israel be able to function as the kind of democratic, pluralistic State that it aspires to be and Palestine achieve independence.

I know that many have concerns with positions taken by the Obama Administration. Overall, I do not. Earlier this year I had an opportunity to be on a phone call with Dennis Ross, a senior advisor on Middle Eastern matters in multiple administrations, including this one. He stressed that for those worried that President Obama’s proposals might weaken Israel, keep in mind that all plans are within a context of an unshakable and iron-clad commitment for Israel. This includes providing Israel with the military edge, such as the new Iron Dome missile system, capable of destroying Hamas rockets. The President’s comments from the Spring included security arrangements, no terrorism, no arms, border security and what would be a mutually agreed upon adjustment period. The bottom line U.S. position is that it will not leave Israel vulnerable and must ensure that Israel can defend itself by itself. I can embrace this approach.

And where do we fit into all of this discussion. First we have a responsibility as Jews to be knowledgeable of the complexities of the Middle East. Let us express our support for Israel through our donations, our political advocacy and our physical presence. Once again I would like to see a group from Gates of Prayer go to Israel and I am proposing the Fall of 2012, after the holidays. Let me know if you are interested. Perhaps most importantly, we need to respectfully be ready to embrace diversity of opinions within our community and be prepared to accept reasonable compromises that will assure the physical and spiritual health of Israel.

If compromise is essential for the United States, our national home, and for Israel, our spiritual home, how much the more so is it needed within our actual homes and in our everyday relationships? As we recite our al chet prayer, we might want to include:

For the sin of stubbornness in dealing with others

For the sin of always having to be right

For the sin of diminishing people in the eyes of others

For the sin of thinking less of others because they disagree with us

For the sin of taking and never giving in problem solving

For the sin of failing to compromise


Yes, my friends, there is a great deal to learn from the little mezuzah. In addition to its subtle message for compromise, there is something else as well. Inside each mezuzah is the parchment, which contains the words of the Sh’ma prayer. We are instructed to role the parchment in such a way that the first word, Sh’ma, is visible, a reminder that in all that we do, we must listen for the voice of God and the voices of others.



Greif Is A Great Teacher

By Rabbi Robert H. Loewy


One of the meditative readings that has been part of our Reform liturgy for decades reads, “grief is a great teacher, when it sends us back to serve and bless the living.” We all have many teachers. When it comes to assisting families facing death and loss, Rabbinical school trained me on the technicalities. Years of practical professional experience enabled me to prepare a booklet that we make available to our members. But as is true for many of us, life continues to be the best teacher. As I near the conclusion of the sheloshim mourning period and in truth what has been four months of intense dealing with the coming of death and then the reality, let me share what I have learned that can perhaps be helpful to you, cognizant that each situation is different.

I recognize that I have been blessed. Both my father and my mother lived into their 10th decades of life. During their earlier years, they were somewhat superstitious, never celebrating a birthday before its date. More recently, Mom shifted her focus and after her 96th birthday described herself as being in her 97th year, realizing that one must accept the clock winding down.

Though my brother, sister and I live hundreds of miles apart, we remained close and united in our concern for our parents and especially for Mom after my father died in 2008. We divided responsibilities. My brother Joe was overseer for all of Mom’s financial matters. Sister Susan was the organizer and focused on health concerns. Being the furthest away, I was the spiritual advisor. Cooperation was a key to coping.

All of us, including Mom, were realistic about what was to come. No one lives forever and making preparations for the realities of life does not hasten death. We knew Mom’s medical wishes and all three of us had medical power of attorney, to put those wishes into effect if needed. We each had a copy of her DNR- “do not resuscitate” form.
And we discussed her funeral wishes, which serve as guidelines, but not as absolutes. I do not believe that one has to wholly follow someone’s last wishes, since the Jewish funeral rites are not only to honor the deceased, but also to comfort the mourners. For example, Mom initially wanted a graveside service. I knew that there would be a large crowd of people who would want to attend and on Long Island cemeteries are not necessarily close. I also know from my experience that during a hot time period, I don’t want to be standing at a graveside for a long period of time. Each family has to balance the needs of the deceased with those of the mourners. I should add that my siblings and I made funeral arrangements months before we thought we would need them, so as not to have to be involved in business when all we would want to do is grieve.

No one ever knows when death will come, so it only makes sense to take advantage of the time that you have with loved ones. In truth this applies to each and every moment of each and every day, since we all know of situations where one dies suddenly. Many often debate the relative preference of dying quickly and the inability to say goodbyes versus experiencing some form of lingering illness, but having time to share. It’s really one of those pointless arguments, since we do not have choice as to what will come.

Our situation worked well for us. Like any 96 year old, Mom was aging and her level of activity diminished in recent years, but overall her health was good. We knew she would not be with us forever, but we enjoyed her presence and activity for as long as we could. In mid June she was hospitalized briefly, and we could see that this might be the beginning of the end. Though her body was failing, her mind was clear. She had been living in her own apartment on Long Island with a full time caregiver for the past two years, maintaining an amazingly active lifestyle, but now it was time for her to live with my sister, who devoted herself to her.

We all knew that these were her final days. As opposed to wallowing in sadness, the entire family seized the time as an opportunity. From the moment that she took ill until her death, she was connected with all of her children, grandchildren and great grandchildren, either with personal visits, multiple phone calls and regular skyping.  She was even entrusted with the secret that her 8th great grandchild was on the way, something I only learned later. We shared our “I love yous” many times over, along with stories and review of family history. Mom didn’t have lots of possessions, and she had already given away many of her precious items earlier, but she specifically designated what remained. That was the same day when she made it very clear as to which outfit she wanted to wear for burial, the one she wore to her youngest great grandchild’s baby naming.

Perhaps one of the most significant lessons I can teach is the simple importance and power of being there with a loved one, when you have the opportunity. It was beshert that this was my sabbatical summer, when I had blocked out two months for a variety of activities. Plans changed, but that was fine. I was able to be with Mom, handle some of the care-giving responsibilities with my sister who shouldered the most. I recall one day. Mom was weak, but still enjoyed going out. So we spent a few hours one afternoon just sitting on a bench at a pond watching nature. Just breathing fresh air gave her pleasure.

In truth we did not anticipate that she would decline as rapidly as she did. By the middle of August hospice care began. I have a great deal of respect for what the men and women of hospice programs do. In Jewish tradition when it seems that death is inevitable, we are called upon to remove obstacles. Whatever would make her comfortable was what we wanted and we truly believe that she did not suffer. Consistent with hospice care we continued to let Mom know of our love for her, our pledge to continue to be a strong family, but also our willingness to let go, giving permission for her to do the same when she was ready. They say it makes a difference. Who knows for sure? Medically, people die when organs fail; spiritually when God is ready to be with them in whatever comes next.

On Friday afternoon September 9th I received the call from my siblings that the end was near. I debated whether or not to go. I had services that night, B’nai Mitzvah Club in the morning, the first day of Religious School on Sunday. I had said my goodbyes. I’m so glad that I decided to hop on a plane the next morning. One never knows for sure if she was waiting for us all to be together, but knowing her, we had the sense that she was. If nothing else it made us feel better to be together. When I arrived she was in a constant sleep state, perhaps what one would describe as a coma. She had not been responsive in over 24 hours. Still, I thought I perceived a flicker of an eye when she heard my voice for the first time.

We sat in the room with her surrounded by pictures of the multiple generations of her family. As I have shared, Mom was a spiritual woman. For her sake and my own I recited the traditional prayers that are to be said for the gravely ill. They derive from Yom Kippur worship. First comes a confession of sin, asking forgiveness of those who we have wronged in life, but also expressing hope that we accomplished enough good to be worthy of God’s ultimate protection and care. Then we recite the same words that we will pronounce in a little while at the conclusion of Neilah- the Shma and Adonai Hu haelohim- Adonai is our God. That was a particularly poignant moment for me. Later that day, listening to labored breathing I found myself reciting the El Male Rachamim prayer, which is our request of God to watch over our loved ones who have died. In this case I simply changed the sense to encourage God to take her. Clearly she was ready, but at the time we could imagine that she might linger much longer. We did not want that for her or selfishly for us. It’s OK to be honest with our feelings. Within a few hours of that prayer, early on the morning of September 11, the difficult but sweet moment arrived as she simply breathed her last.

At this hour of Yizkor, I stand before you and with you. Each of us has a story
to tell. I hope that my sharing with you will be helpful. No two situations are precisely the same, yet they are all essentially the same. We live with our grief, hopefully not as a burden. Rather let our treasure trove of memories inspire us. Let us use the lessons learned to serve and bless the living.


The Resident Alien Among Us

November 18, 2011
By Rabbi Robert H. Loewy


Picture the scene- Head bowed, with hat in hand, in great humility, our patriarch finds himself in a humiliating position, standing before the local leaders: “My name is Abraham. My wife, Sarah, just died. I have been living amongst you, the Hittites, for some time, but I am not originally from here. Ger v’toshav anochi b’toch’chem- I am a resident alien among you, but I need to bury my wife. Please, I’m willing to pay top dollar for the right. All I want to do is bury my wife.”

That, my friends, is essentially the presentation that our patriarch had to make to the Hittites in order to bury his beloved Sarah. The term, “Ger v’toshav,” meant more than literally, “I’ve been living and dwelling” amongst you. More likely it was a statement of status. A modern commentary on our story suggests that historically: “Disposal of real estate to an alien may upset the local demographic balance, impair social cohesion, and weaken the community in its relationship with neighboring cities and tribes.” Abraham must humble himself in order to perform what most of us would consider a basic human right because he is not a citizen.

This anecdote from our Biblical history is indicative of an ongoing theme in the history of the world and our own country. The “haves” are less than welcoming of the “have nots.” Those who currently live in a particular city, state or nation are resistant to newcomers. We certainly know this from our own Jewish history.
When the first Jews arrived at the Dutch Colony of New Amsterdam, Peter Stuyvesant, Governor of the colony petitioned the Dutch West India Company, writing as follows:

“The Jews who have arrived would nearly all like to remain here, but you should know that they, with their customary usury and deceitful trading with the Christians, are repugnant to the rest of us…Due to the fact that they had been captured and robbed by privateers or pirates, they might become a charge in the coming winter. Therefore, we have, for the benefit of this weak and newly developing colony, deemed it useful to require them in a friendly way to depart. We ask most seriously in this connection, for ourselves as also for the general community of your subjects, that the deceitful race-such hateful enemies and blasphemers of the name of Christ-be not allowed further to infect and trouble this new colony.”

Fortunately for Jewish history, the Board of the Dutch West India Company had a few Jews on it. The reply to Stuyvesant was essentially, “you don’t have to like them, but you do have to keep them.”
The greatest migration of Jews to America came in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Jews along with many other immigrant groups arrived seeking freedom and economic security. While we often romanticize that period, we should realize that all these new immigrants were not received with open arms. In 1912, Reverend AE Patton wrote the following:
“For a real American to visit Ellis Island, and there look upon the Jewish hordes, ignorant of all patriotism, filthy, vermin-infested, stealthy and furtive in manner, too lazy to enter into real labor, too cowardly to face frontier life, too lazy to work as every American farmer has to work, too filthy to adopt ideals of cleanliness from the start, too bigoted to surrender any racial traditions or to absorb any true Americanisms, for a real American to see those items of filth, greedy, never patriotic stream flowing in to pollute all that has made America as good as she is- is to awaken in his thoughtful mind desires to check and lessen this source of pollution.”

So much for Emma Lazarus’s famous poem on the base of the Statue of Liberty: “Give me your tired your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” Recently I had the opportunity to learn from Dr. Jana Lippman of Tulane University, who outlined trends in American immigration policy, inclusive of the inconsistency between professed values and legislation. In particular, during the past two centuries there has been a clear pattern of xenophobia, not just towards Jews, but also towards Chinese and other Asians in the 19th century, Italian and Irish Catholics, really towards whomever the next new ethnic group might be. Four primary fears seem to be at play.

First is the fear of those with different religions- Protestants toward Catholics, Christians toward Jews, now everybody against Moslems. Next are fears of radicalism, those outside agitators who are coming to tear down the American democratic ways of life, historically including Communists, anarchists, socialists and now terrorists. In much of this we can find fears of race. Originally only those considered “white” were allowed to immigrate, but “white” meant Northern European WASP. Definitions of who is considered “white” have changed, but color of skin continues to be an element. Finally, there are economic fears: The usual refrains are: “They are coming to take away our jobs,” when we know that new immigrants are often the ones to take the least desirable positions in society, jobs that no one else will perform. “They are going to be a drain on our society,” when we know that most are hard-working men and women, who simply seek opportunity for physical and economic security.

When looking at the issue of immigration policy in our country today, as Jews, we need to not only recall our history, but we have to consult our basic values. The Torah teaches us to reach out to and care for vulnerable populations, including non-citizens and resident aliens: “If your brother, being in straits, comes under your authority, and you hold him as though a resident alien, let him live by your side” (Leviticus 25:35). We are repeatedly commanded to care for the needy within our extended family: “If there is a needy person among you, one of your kinsmen in any of your settlements… do not harden your heart and shut your hand against your needy kinsman. Rather, you must open your hand and lend him sufficient for whatever he needs” (Deut. 15:7). Rabbinic Judaism also entitled non-Jewish individuals to financial and emotional support from the Jewish community in order to create a harmonious society: “Our rabbis have taught: ‘we support the poor of the non-Jew along with the poor of Israel, and visit the sick of the non-Jew along with the sick of Israel, and bury the poor of the non-Jew along with the dead of Israel, in the interests of peace’” (BT Gittin 61a).

Today, we are in need of a fair, just and humane immigration policy. Let us not irrationally pander to fears, but realistically open our doors to those who want freedom, to those who share the same kinds of dreams that our ancestors envisioned, to those who are fleeing from political and economic oppression. Let it be one that realistically screens and protects us from those who seek to undermine our country, but not discriminate against those who might one day be our leaders, thinkers, creative geniuses, as well as those who will perform the basic tasks that make our lives easier and fill critical positions in construction, agriculture, hospitality and retail, to name but a few.

It is time to stop speaking about “illegal aliens” as if they are criminals, who are robbing us. Yes, there are men and women in this country, without proper documented immigration status, who are working in all sorts of jobs, most of them positions that no one else will fill, as the State of Alabama and Georgia recently discovered, when there were not enough workers to harvest crops. Some of our ancestors did not enter the country through official channels either. And what of families who have lived, worked and paid taxes here for decades, whose children were born here? A fair solution to their ambiguous status must be reached.

Some of the legislation that has been passed in states around the country reflects the fears alluded to earlier but not the reality of our nation. In some cases it is mean-spirited and justifies bigotry and discrimination. My colleague, Deacon Priscilla Maumus writes, “Arizona and Alabama citizens were told it was a criminal offense to transport an undocumented immigrant to school, to church or to the hospital. This applied to families, too who are often a blend of documented and undocumented immigrants. A teenage son who is a citizen could not drive his undocumented grandfather to the hospital in the event of a heart attack or his aging grandmother to Mass on Sunday without risking arrest and arraignment. Blended families, with some legal and some undocumented immigrants, are still liable to be separated and a mother deported, while her children remain in the United States.” Parts of the laws in those states have been struck down by the courts, while others remain.

And talk about racial profiling! Can you imagine being stopped for a traffic violation and have to prove your citizenship? This is not likely to happen to anyone who looks like most of us, but if your skin is a darker complexion or if, God forbid, you have a slight accent, that could be the case. For that matter most of the conversation about “illegals” that I hear focuses on Hispanics or Arabs. Funny, how we don’t hear much about the Israelis who are here without proper papers, or the thousands from the former Soviet Union, who are busy caring for our elderly throughout the northeast.

There is no question that national immigration reform is necessary. Our borders need to be secure, so we know who is entering and monitoring them. Many proposals are before our state and federal legislators. Our laws need to enable longtime undocumented residents to earn their legal status and eventual citizenship. Families should be unified not torn asunder. Workers require protection from exploitation and provided with due process.
Our role is simple. We need to monitor state and federal legislation on immigration. I realize that much of it is confusing, but our task is to ensure that what is passed will appropriately address the real issues, not the fears, that people will be treated humanely according to the highest standards of our nation and our religious values. Let us embrace the applicable exhortation, cited in scripture numerous times,  “You shall not oppress the stranger, the resident alien, for you were gerim/strangers in the land of Egypt.” It all started with our patriarch, Abraham, in this week’s portion.