Category Archives: Jewish Holidays

God Will Gather Me In

Rosh Hashanah 5768 (Day 2)
Shmuel Herzfeld


I happened to notice a sign on the street advertising that Bob Dylan will be performing in concert in DC in two weeks.

Of course, I sent him an invitation to join us for a meal in our Sukkah.  I am still awaiting a response.

Bob Dylan was born as Robert Zimmerman, a nice Jewish boy from Minnesota. He led the life of a Rock Star.  He was a hit musician, brilliant poet, and inspiration to many people.  He was an activist and a symbol.  He also had a life of ups and downs.  He went through multiple relationships and periods of depression and despair.  He suffered one period where he broke his neck falling off a motorcycle and had to fight his way back to life.

Spiritually, he also wandered from his roots.  For a while he embraced all religions.  Then, in the late 1970s, he became a born-again Christian and produced albums celebrating his faith in Christianity.

But can anyone ever really leave their roots?  In the late ‘80’s Dylan seemed to reconnect to his yiddeshkeit.  And he seems to have remained with it ever since.  As late as 2005 there was an article noticing that he attended services at an Orthodox synagogue on Rosh Hashanah.  Who knows?  He might even show up today.

In the meantime, here is my favorite Bob Dylan story.  On February 20, 1991, Bob Dylan was given a Grammy award for lifetime achievement:

Dylan took his trophy from a beaming Jack Nicholson; he squinted, as if looking for his mother, who was in the audience.

“Well, my daddy, he didn’t leave me much, you know he was a very simple man, but what he did tell me was this, he did say, son, he said” – there was a long pause, nervous laughter from the crowd – “you know it’s possible to become so defiled in this world that your own father and mother will abandon you and if that happens, God will always believe in your ability to mend your ways.”
Dylan’s remarks were almost a verbatim account of the commentary of Rabbi Shimshon Rafael Hirsch: “Even if I were so depraved that my own mother and father would abandon me to my own devices, God would still gather me up and believe in my ability to mend my ways.” (Taken from Ronnie Shcrieber’s website.)
Rav Hirsch was a brilliant rabbi in Germany in the 19th century.  His comments (which inspired Dylan) were written for the words of psalm 27 which we recite every day in the month of Elul leading up to Rosh Hashanah, “ki avi ve-imi yaazavuni, va-hashem ya-asfeni, for though my father and mother forsake me, God will gather me in.”

This psalm is a psalm of King David who wrote it to express his loneliness.  King David was the most powerful man of his generation.  He was a great warrior.  He ruled all of Israel and conquered Jerusalem.  No one had been able to do that before.  He had six wives and many children.

And yet, David was a profoundly lonely man.  He was racked with the guilt of the sins he had committed and with despair from the losses he had suffered.  His first son from Bathsheva died as an infant.  Then, one of his sons, Amnon assaulted his own sister, Tamar.  David’s other son, Avshalom then killed Amnon and led a rebellion against David.  David felt betrayed by everyone around him.  He was all alone in the world.

David dies virtually alone—betrayed by everyone.  He cries out in pain, “Avshalom, Avshalom, my son.”

David put this feeling of loneliness to paper and he wrote a beautiful psalm which is the center of our liturgy.  In the psalm he expresses both his loneliness and his reliance upon God.  He cries, “ki avi ve-imi yaazvuni, va-hashem ya-asfeni.”  No matter what he has done, he feels that God will still embrace him and draw him in closer.  Even if his own parents give up on him, God still makes room for him.

Today we read the story of another spiritual giant who might have also felt David’s sense of loneliness and betrayal.

This morning’s Torah reading tells the story of the Akedah.  Abraham leads Isaac up Mount Moriah and binds him with his hands tied behind his head and his legs down to the ground.

When we analyze this story we often ask ourselves: “How could Abraham have done this?  How could he have had the strength to tie his own son up with the intention of slaughtering him?

But for just this morning why not think about it from Isaac’s perspective as well?  Imagine how Isaac must have felt as his own father—his only father, the one whom he loved—bound him and stood above him with a knife and drew close in an effort to slaughter him.

Even scarier than the knife which stopped just inches from his throat must have been the sense of abandonment.  Can you imagine?  Your own father abandoning you!

But, of course we all can imagine.  We have all been abandoned at one point in our lives.  And we will all be abandoned.  Our loved ones have died and will die; our friends have forgotten us and will forget us; our bosses or customers don’t appreciate us.  We can get very lonely.

At that moment Isaac might have thought: “Ki avi ve-imi yaazvuni, va-hashem ya-asfeni.”

We too cry out: “Ki avi ve-imi yaazvuni, va-hashem ya-asfeni.”

Even though everyone around us will abandon us, God will still draw us in.  We can return to God for a relationship.

Loneliness is something that is all around us.  Whenever I visit someone who is all alone in this world, I think of one of my favorite poems, Eleanor Rigby, by the Beatles.  “Ah, look at all the lonely people….”

Eleanor Rigby died in the church and was buried along with her name
Nobody came
Father McKenzie wiping the dirt from his hands as he walks from the grave
No one was saved

On Rosh Hashanah we are reminded that as long as we are with Hashem we are never alone.  Hashem will be there to comfort us and be our friend.  No matter how dark, Hashem is by our side.

Isn’t this what the sound of the shofar is really all about?

We often forget to focus on the original meaning of the shofar blast.  The Torah tells us (Numbers 10:7): “U-vehakhil et ha-am titkeu, when you GATHER THE PEOPLE you should blast the shofar.”

The basic—perhaps the primary–purpose of the shofar is to gather us in.  At its core, the shofar is a cry from Hashem calling us to Him; He calls to us and tells us to come home to His embrace.

In that same verse in the Torah, a secondary meaning of the shofar also appears.  The Torah continues, “utekatem teruah ve-nasau, you must blast the shofar and then you will travel.”

After the shofar was used to gather the people, it was then used to signal the start of the travels of the Israelites in the desert.

On a symbolic level we can understand this to mean that if we allow Hashem to gather us in we can then travel with Him.  We can journey with God, holding His hand, and ascend to higher places.

Once we allow Hashem to gather us in then we can travel with Hashem.
Perhaps my favorite verse from the Rosh Hashanah Mussaf is when we say the words of Jeremiah, zakharti lakh chesed neurayikh, “I remember the kindness of your youth…how you followed Me through the desert….” (Jeremiah  2:2).
Jeremiah is telling us that God remembers us how we once were—pure and innocent and like a child, he gathers us up and believes in us when no one else does.

God is like a parent always believing in us.  Parents always believe in their children.
Let us remember that on Rosh Hashanah we remind ourselves that God is King of the Universe.  Since God is King, then who are we?  We are of course princes, nobles with an awesome opportunity.  As Jews we believe that Hashem requires us to carry a unique message to the world—the message of Torah.  Since we have such an important message, we MUST carry ourselves with confidence on our path to serve Hashem.

If God believes in us and God knows what he’s talking about, shouldn’t we also believe in ourselves?  Shouldn’t we avoid the trap of loneliness and low self-esteem?  Shouldn’t we allow ourselves to be drawn in by the sound of the shofar?

Erev Rosh Hashanah 5771

In a fascinating book entitled How God Changes Your Brain, Neuroscientist Andrew Newberg tells us that if we add spiritual practices to the daily activities of our lives, we will enhance the neural functioning of the brain AND “improve our physical, emotional, and cognitive health, adding years of greater happiness to our lives.”

At the University of Penn’s Center for Spirituality and the Mind, Newberg teaches that setting our intentions, getting clear about our goals, being able to clearly articulate for ourselves what we want as our outcome – is the first step which enables our frontal lobes to more efficiently direct our motor cortex to carry out our desire.
That’s so cool that they know that!

Setting Intention, having Kavanah, is one element required to make the most of our special time, here, now.
So, What do you want from this Day of Remembrance? Yom Hazikaron. Hayom Harat Olam. … The Day the World was Conceived… what is waiting inside of you to be born?   What brings you back to a sense of the sacred, where new beginnings are possible? Where the once-unimagined is now manifest?
For some it’s a week in NY City, a Broadway play, a museum, listening to jazz, the lights of Las Vegas, a Jewish queer San Francisco.

What helps me to reconnect my heart and soul with the Divine is to place myself in nature.

Recently, I was fortunate to be able to travel with the Institute of Jewish Spirituality, to the Inside Passage in South East Alaska, and there for seven quiet days sea kayak and meditate, daven and pray, celebrate Shabbat, and practice paying attention – to EVERYTHING.

With wonderful teachers and a minyan of other seekers…. I was challenged to re-discover a Jewish spiritual life separate from my role as rabbi.

Instead of focusing on how to lead prayer for other people, I was asked to pay attention to my own personal prayer. Each morning awakening to a bell at 6am; Qi Gong exercises on the deck in silence; silent sitting practice 30 minutes, tefillah/davenning/blessing/, silent breakfast, silent time to walk, write, sit, clean. 10 am spiritual practice check-in and conversation; kayaking 11 to 4; mostly in silence. Paddling 30 minutes; and then taking long, silent, delicious drifts.  Lunch stop on an island to explore, learn about the habitat and head back to the water for more awesome, stunning encounters with the GREATNESS of CREATION.

Here, I remember that I am small. Very, very small. Brief and transitory, like a ripple in a vast ocean, like a bald eagle en route. Here, I am relieved of my own self-importance; the persistent allusion that I am at the center of the universe.  Here, I assume my proper proportion in the Cosmos. I remember: I am small in the face of God’s power, God’s eternity. I am comforted, relieved, panicked, terrified…really ALIVE!

Being half-immersed in the surface of the bay; gliding along, in silence, and then easing up from our paddling practice to enjoy some long, quiet drifts…  amidst the wildness, the grandeur, the refuge —   I remember the feeling of the oar in my hands and all of the questions in my heart agreeing to retreat as I concentrate on the subtleties of my stroke, my technique, my stamina, my joy.

Every now and then I start to worry…. What if my hands become blistered? What if my hunger doesn’t subside? What if it starts to pour and I can’t reach my raincoat? What if that helicopter is coming to find me because of a catastrophe back home?

My teacher invites me to notice when I’m in “Planning Mind,” thinking about the future. “Let go.”  “Be Here Now and trust in the Unfolding Mystery.”

It took two days for me to quiet down the conversations in my head, but when I did, I discovered an ability to pay attention that I had lost.  Eating in silence helped me to notice the way foods look on a plate, the distinct smell of a particular fruit, the mixtures of tastes that come in a meal, and most important, the incredible blessing of abundance in my life.  In the quiet of the silence, as I listened to the still, small voice, I could feel the divinity that flows through me and connects me to other beings.

I could hear angels calling.  (What? My last name is Angel! My parents Rabbi and Mrs. Camillus Angel. My sister, Naomi Angel…]  my ancestors, and those who one day will consider us theirs.
And I began to respond, “Hineini.”
“Hineini”  –
I am here. I am here now.
I am awake, fully awake – and this is awesome.
Yesh Nora HaMakom Ha Zeh!

A poem that I discovered on the trip and which expresses much of what I discovered in that time, entitled Lost by the North West poet, David Wagoner.


Stand still. The trees ahead and bushes beside you
Are not lost. Wherever you are is called Here,
And you must treat it as a powerful stranger,
Must ask permission to know it and be known
The forest breathes. Listen. It answers,
I have made this place around you.
If you leave it, you may come back again, saying Here.
No two trees are the same to Raven.
No two branches are the same to Wren.
If what a tree or a bush does is lost on you,
You are surely lost. Stand still. The forest knows
Where you are. You must let it find you.

I realize now that the trip for me was kind of like the journey we are all on, now; these ten days, when our tradition asks us to go to a deeper connection within ourselves; to deepen our connection to the universe, freshen our perspective and recalibrate our Kavanah.

IN that sacred place, B’MAKOM, in that sacred time, I came to a kind of stillness, in which I could begin to hear the still small voice and I awakened to what is important to me in a different way.

How can we, who are here now, get in touch with more of our senses?  Our sense of acceptance for all that is REAL? Our sense of Compassion for our human limitations; our sense of size and proportion in relationship to creation and Creator; our sense of hope for realizing that which is not yet actual but is becoming!
We are called to exert our selves, to stretch and expand. We are challenged to reach out with hands and hearts to do good. And to accept that not everything is in our HANDS to control.  We live in the WILD.

Being in my kayak, sometimes on my own, sometimes with a twin, half immersed in water, surrounded by evidence of a Force greater than me, allowed me to see things differently.
In the next ten days WE are going to be half immersed in prayer, in silence, in teshuvah work; sometimes alone, sometimes with others…. searching our hearts, looking for clues so that we might emerge with clear and renewed intention, kavanah.

As we paddle thoughtfully into the new year, what can we do to help ourselves get still; get quiet; and check in with the climate of our heart?

At times, our lives, our responsibilities, our sense of priorities –  Overwhelm us.
It’s the human condition.
Raise your hand if you’re not living with challenges?

That’s part of life.
We will always have times that challenge us.

If our desire is to live with balance,  silence is a structure that helps us cultivate awareness of what is happening in the moment. Shabbat is a practice that can help us create an oasis in the midst of the constant barrage of input in our lives.

I have found that Torah and mitzvoth, prayer and embodied meditation help me live with a Being-Here-Now quality of attention. Spiritual practices give me “eyes to see and ears to hear.” They hone my sensitivity to the potential of a miracle arising out of any ordinary day.
Often, we are just too caught up in the demands of the hour to perceive the miracle of which we are a part. Only later does understanding dawn and we realize that, in the words of our ancestor Jacob, “Truly, the Eternal is in this place, and I did not know it” (Genesis 28:16).
There are myriad ways to experience this sense of wholeness.
If you’re looking for ways to develop balance within yourself  … we’ll be offering several opportunities to practice in the coming year, including:  a daytime class in Embodied Judaism led by the adorable Zvi Bellin; a monthly, Spiritual Practices check-in group, that I’ll be hosting;  We have scheduled sitting meditation, chanting and learning with our beautiful cantor and other gifted spiritual friends and teachers.
We’ve got plans Shabbat morning hikes with Torah on the Trails, outdoor immersions in nature… and I’ve even reserved 10 kayaks for a Sha’ar Zahav Alaska Expedition, 2012.
Because I want company on the journey.

Out there on my kayak, I remember how good it feels to be guided, spiritually led through new terrain, new landscape and new ways of seeing.  I remember how lucky I am that I am part of a community striving together towards a shared vision, helping each other when we feel lost. And what’s more, I have this once-in-a lifetime opportunity to be your spiritual leader.  How cool is that!

As a way for us to pay deeper attention, now
To the sensations in our body, I’d like to lead you in a Guided Meditation.   (And for those of you ready to leap from your seats…. Take an extra deep breath and remind yourself…this too shall pass.)

Hands – Guided Meditation, adapted

Sit erect, feet flat on the floor, eyes closed, hands resting comfortably in your lap, palms up; take a moment to get in touch with your own breath.

I invite you now to become aware of the air at your fingertips, between your fingertips, on the palm of your hands.  Experience the fullness, strength and maturity of your hands.  Think of your hands, think of the most unforgettable hands you have known – the hands of people who have loved you well.  Remember the oldest hands that have rested in your hands.  Think of the hands of a newborn child – perhaps your nephew or niece or your own child or grandchild. Once upon a time, your hands were the same size.

Think of all that your hands have done since then.  Think of all the learning your hands have done and how many activities they have mastered, the things they have made.

There is a mystery in the hands of a person we love.  Through touch we say things we cannot say in any other way.  Our hands are sacred. They write love letters and Torah. We use a tiny silver hand to read Torah.

Now rub your hands together and feel all of this sacredness/energy. Slowly raise your left hand and place it softly on your forehead, where the tefillin are meant to rest.  Feel beneath your warm hand the electricity of your many thoughts, memories, dreams, the capacity of your amazing brain to think and feel and move your body through the world.

Now raise your right hand and gently place it over your heart.  Press more firmly until your hand picks up  the beat of your heart, that most mysterious of all human sounds, the rhythm of life itself. Now feel the aliveness of who you are in the space between your hands, shining, beating, alive. Now lower them to your lap very carefully, still feeling all of your aliveness.

Now, without opening your eyes, extend your hands on either side and find another hand. Do not simply hold it, but let your hand speak to it and let it listen to the other. Express your gratitude for this hand stretched out to you, and for the way that all of us are now linked together, hand to hand to hand.

Now bring your hands back again to your lap, continuing to feel the many ways in which we are connected.

Whose hand was that?  It could be any hand; it could be the hand of love, of the Creator.  Indeed, it was, for the Creator has no other hands than ours with which to do the work of creation.

May the words of our mouths, the meditations of our hearts, and the wisdom of our hands, be what makes a difference in the world as we enter together this new year.


Taking a Stand

Yom Kippur Morning

 September 18, 2010 / 10 Tishrei, 5771

Rabbi Charles K. Briskin


There’s a brief but memorable scene in the 1980 movie comedy, Airplane. The flight attendant, Elaine, asks an elderly woman if she’d like something to read. “Do you have anything light?” the woman asks. Elaine responds, “How about this leaflet; Famous Jewish Sports Legends?

While few of our people—Mark Spitz and Sandy Koufax notwithstanding—are legendary athletes, we do have some talented coaches and successful owners, and to be certain, legions of great fans. I was never able to hit a fastball, dunk a basketball, or toss a football very far but that never stopped me from cheering wildly for the Red Sox, Celtics and Patriots throughout my childhood. I’ve always stood by my teams, through the good years and the bad, and still do to this day.

Had we lived over two thousand years ago in ancient Palestine, we might have spent the afternoon in a Roman style coliseum. The “national pastime” was not baseball, but rather gladiator fighting. Two swordsmen, dressed in the regalia of their sport, one arm supporting a heavy iron shield, the other a sharpened sword, fought—often times to the death. Today’s mixed martial arts pales in comparison. Back and forth these ancient warriors sparred until one was killed or laid down his shield conceding defeat. If the defeated gladiator was still alive, the spectators were asked to judge: Had he fought valiantly?  Did this gladiator deserve mercy?  Did he deserve to live?

If so, the people raised their voices, calling out “release him!” thus sparing the gladiator’s life from the sword of his opponent. If the people thought otherwise, they voted with a quick gesture. . . the downward thumb. This vote of disapproval signaled the victorious warrior to slay his opponent in the presence of all the spectators.

The rabbis who lived in ancient Palestine were appalled by this barbaric sport. In fact, most of them prohibited Jews from attending this spectacle. They strongly believed that Jews—who value life above all and consider each human being to be a gift from God—could not be spectators at an event where life was so callously disregarded.

Rabbi Nathan disagreed. He believed that those in the stands had a critical role to play. Their vote would decide the fate of the defeated gladiator. Rabbi Nathan demanded that Jews be there, in the arena, if only to make their voices heard and save an endangered life.

Rabbi Nathan took a bold and unpopular stand against the prevailing opinion of the day. These gory spectacles were an integral part of Roman culture but sitting in the stands of a coliseum was not quite like watching a game at Dodgers Stadium (except, perhaps in the Top Deck section when the Giants are in town.)  The atmosphere in these death fights was fraught with sheer terror.

Today, when a football player lies injured on the field, the fans are hushed, gravely concerned, until they see the reassuring thumbs up from the fallen athlete. But when a gladiator was stabbed by his opponent, the spectators cheered wildly, calling for more blood. Yet, Rabbi Nathan insisted that Jews be present in these frightening battles because the consequences of their absence would be so devastating.

Two thousand years have passed, and the gladiators have receded into history. But Jews today face a question not unlike the one rabbi Nathan faced long ago. When should we be present and take a stand for something we truly believe in? How loudly should we raise our voices in the arena, with the words of our prophets and sages as our guide?

These should not be difficult questions. After all, Jews have been raising their voices for millennia. Just think of the words that the prophet Isaiah proclaims to us in the haftarah: “Is this the fast that I look for.?  A day of self-affliction?  Is not this the fast I look for: to unlock the shackles of injustice. . .to let the oppressed go free?” (Isaiah, Ch. 58). The ancient prophets of our tradition spoke the word of God. Their prophecies were often unpopular and often times ignored by the people and the leaders who needed to hear them most. Even so, they took a stand.

The prophetic voice has inspired Jewish leaders since then. Within the last one hundred and fifty years, we’ve heard the contrarian opinion of Rabbi David Einhorn of Baltimore preaching against slavery from within the slave state of Maryland prior to the Civil War and abolition.

We’ve heard Rabbi Steven S. Wise, a leading Reform rabbi advocating for a Jewish state in Palestine in the 1920s, long before Zionism was normative among Reform Jews. We’ve heard the great and revered Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel who marched with Martin Luther King to bring about full equality between blacks and whites.

There are, however, two crucial differences between the prophets of our tradition and the prophetic voices of our era: First; Isaiah, Jeremiah and Micah spoke the word of God. Einhorn, Wise and Heschel interpreted the word of God. They filtered their ideas through the lenses of our entire tradition, including the ancient prophets, and they incorporated their own experiences into their advocacy as well. They rooted their messages in a three-thousand year old tradition of justice, mercy and compassion and applied it to the pressing matters of their day.

Second, when the prophets of our tradition spoke, the message often fell on deaf ears. When these modern-day rabbis spoke, people listened. They filled lecture halls, theaters and even arenas with eager people absorbing every word, ready to act.  They stood for freedom, Zionism, justice, equality and peace, all deeply rooted within a Jewish context.

Einhorn, Wise and Heschel inspired others to stand with them. Who do you stand with today?  And what do you stand for?  This question is important on Yom Kippur as our sacred texts of this day reveal. This afternoon we read the narrative of Jonah who was punished for his failure to raise his voice in the arena. When God told him to warn the people of Nineveh of their impending destruction, he fled. This afternoon’s Torah portion, the Holiness Code of Leviticus reminds us of our sacred responsibility to care for our poor, vulnerable and disenfranchised and to love our neighbor as ourselves. In this morning’s haftarah, Isaiah chastises the people for their lack of business ethics, despite their punctilious ritual observance.

The Torah portion that we will read shortly gathers the entire community of Israelites to enter into the covenant that God is giving to them, and to us. These verses and all of today’s texts inspire us to take a stand and make our voices heard.

Atem Nitzavim Hayom, kulhem lifnei Adonai Eloheichem—You stand here today, all of you, before Adonai your God.”  So begins this morning’s Torah portion. The choice of the Hebrew word for stand, nitzavim, is unusual. The more common form for standing is omeid, which is used a few verses later, as the entire community stands together, eagerly awaiting their charge from Moses. Omeid suggests waiting for something to happen, letting the action come to you. It’s passive. Nitzvaim is active. We see this form in the Book of Genesis too, when Abraham hastens to take care of his three visitors. Nitzavim suggests being prepared, ready to leap into action, being more proactive. It also means standing your ground, remaining strong and resolute.[1]

Omeid and nitzavim. On this Yom Kippur, how do we move from the more passive form of standing, omeid to the more active form, nitzavim?  What do you stand for? I hope you’ll join me in standing for two important values: tolerance and diversity.

Do you stand for tolerance?  I hope so, because we need all the tolerance we can muster. Too many are far less tolerant of other ideas, opinions, and people. We harbor such deeply ingrained stereotypes of others, and others of us that we reduce individuals to caricatures. We attribute negative qualities and prejudicial attitudes that are viewed as acceptable yet seem to justify terrible behavior towards others. We Jews have been the object widespread intolerance. We, too, have objectified others. We’re all guilty of this in some respect. I know that I’ve had to overcome this attitude myself.

One group has helped me is the Peninsula Interfaith Fellowship, a group of clergy and other professionals who work with faith communities. I am one of the leaders of this group. We meet monthly for food, camaraderie and learning. Over the past several years I have developed close relationships with my colleagues including Catholic priests, Presbyterian ministers, a Unitarian pastor and a Sufi Muslim. Conversations about controversial issues that might be difficult to have with others are much easier and more forthright with this group because we know and respect one another, even when we don’t always agree.

Despite some valuable interfaith work, we’ve not yet developed our relationships with local Muslim leaders. So it was with a bit of trepidation that I accepted the invitation of my friend and colleague Reverend Reinhard Kraus to join last week at St. Luke’s Presbyterian Church for an hour of Qur’an study with Christians, Muslims, and a few Jews. I had to overcome my misgivings. Reverend Kraus organized this community gathering in response to the Florida Pastor who threatened to burn the Qur’an. Kraus thought that studying the Qur’an was a better choice.

My trepidation quickly vanished once I arrived. It had been quite some time since I was with such a diverse group of people. The Muslims in the room were from Pakistan, India, Syria and Houston. The Christians from Palos Verdes and Rolling Hills Estates. I saw just one other Jew, that I recognized, at least. Some Muslim women covered their heads, others did not. There were young people, older people, American born and immigrants. Men and women studied together and learned from one another.

This one hour of learning reminded me powerfully that dialogue with others creates greater understanding, appreciation and mutual tolerance. It was an important first step especially because too often we treat the entire Muslim community as a single monolith. We base our prejudices on a single caricature that many of us continue to see. We stereotype the entire Muslim community as extremist Arab Wahabis who are out to conquer the West through acts of violence and terror. Unless of course we’re friends with a Muslim; then we see the person, not the caricature. It’s our personal relationships with others that make us more tolerant because it’s harder to demonize a friend.

The Muslims I met at St. Luke’s were born and raised in America, or emigrated from elsewhere. Some were Arabs, most were not. They were all faithful to their tradition yet moderate in their expression of it. I can just about guarantee that no extremists were present because, after all, extremists don’t do interfaith dialogue. Extremists don’t engage; they demonize.

Reinhard Kraus helped us move one step forward in breaking down the barriers that separate our communities. He helped us recognize the diversity of our community which is, in pockets at least, comprised of tolerant people of faith.  Those who gathered want to learn from and better understand one another. We want to reduce our shared suspicions of one another and better appreciate one another’s aspirations. Those who participate in interfaith dialogue know that the conversations are not always easy. We recognize that our disagreements will persist. However, if we can begin first by uncovering shared understandings, then move our conversations forward by discussing our differences openly, safely and face to face, only then can we make progress in building a more sustainable culture of tolerance and mutual respect.

Reinhard Kraus stood up for tolerance. He raised his voice in the arena and fought against intolerance and extremism with words and dialogue. I stood with him because I know and respect him. I’m not sure I would’ve attended had it not been organized by someone else. But my relationship with him helped me overcome some of my own biases, not only what I thought of them, but also what I perceived they thought of me.

Do you stand for ideological diversity?  Can you respect, like or even love people who express ideas that are very different than yours?  Or who make choices for themselves than you may not choose to make for yourself?  Accepting ideological diversity requires patience, a willingness to listen to one another, and a commitment to respect the other person even if your beliefs are fundamentally different.

I have come to understand much about this congregation in the last five years. One is that we express a wide range of values and attitudes. One person shared with me a conversation he had with another congregant at an oneg Shabbat a few years ago. The first was mentioning something he had heard from the conservative talk radio host Dennis Prager. The other congregant looked at the first one and said cautiously, “You listen to Dennis Prager?”  The first congregant braced himself, not sure what the other person was thinking. He was put at ease quickly when the second congregant whispered to him, “I do too. I love him.”

Temple Beth El is a member of the Union for Reform Judaism, the national organization representing Reform congregations. The URJ is known for its historical commitment to liberal and progressive values, born out of its leaders’ interpretation of Jewish tradition. Nevertheless, an increasingly large number of Reform Jews including a significant percentage our congregants do not consider themselves liberal; far from it.

The ideological diversity within our congregation leads to passionate and sometimes heated exchanges. People have been known to get quite upset. Many of you appreciate when I take a stand on a pressing issue of the day whether it is the health care debate, immigration reform, or gay marriage. Nevertheless, I know that many people prefer I just sit down and lower my voice. I’m sorry I can’t do that. I wouldn’t be true to myself or to my rabbinate. Yet, I respect and will listen to the opinions of others who disagree with me. That’s the Jewish way.

I expressed this in a recent e-mail exchange with a congregant. I told this person that one of my many rabbinic responsibilities is to speak publicly to the pressing issues of the day, as viewed through a Jewish lens. It is what rabbis have been doing since the time of the prophets. It’s what Einhorn, Wise and Heschel did. It is what many of my colleagues continue to do. We represent our three thousand year old prophetic tradition to the people we serve. We take a stand and raise our voices in the arena.

I pride myself on being fair and reasonable when I preach on contemporary issues. I ground my teaching within Jewish texts, both ancient and modern. My primary goal is not to convince or convert but rather to initiate a conversation among smart and thoughtful people who don’t often agree, yet are willing to look at a different side of a familiar issue. I don’t imagine I’ll change one’s mind; I just hope to open it a bit more.

We will always have a seat in the arena, raising our voices for the principles and values that matter most to us. It’s what Jews do. We’ve been doing so since the time of Rabbi Nathan. My hope and prayer for our entire community is for us to take a stand, yet to be mindful and tolerant of those who choose not to stand with us. I want us to raise our voices to issues, yet refrain from raising our voices against the individuals with whom we disagree. Our community is big enough to accommodate a variety of opinions and ideas. So, as we move through this new year of 5771, I humbly ask; can we find new and helpful ways to create an environment of tolerance and mutual respect?”  Is that really asking too much?


My thanks and appreciation to my friend, Steve Beitler for his thoughtful analysis, and to my friend and colleague Rabbi Zachary Shapiro of Temple Akiba, Culver City, CA for our fruitful exchange of ideas in the weeks leading up to the High Holy Days.

[1] Thanks to Rabbi Cookie Lea Olshein for sharing this interpretation of nitzavim and omeid in her d’var Torah on Parashat Nitzavim prepared for the American Jewish World Service and referenced on the website,

Rosh Hashanah Evening 5768

Temple Beth Zion

Buffalo, New York

Rabbi Harry Rosenfeld


Throughout our Torah, God exhorts us to remember those among us, either least able to care for themselves or easiest for us to forget. Over and over the Torah reminds us to, in its ancient language: “care for” or “not oppress” the widow, the poor, the stranger and the orphan.  For us today, these categories represent those who still need an extra measure of our consideration, recognition, outreach and perhaps even help. Over the course of these High Holy days, we will look at each of these categories of people and our modern obligation to them. Tomorrow morning we will talk about the needs of children, on Erev Yom Kippur the poor, and on Yom Kippur afternoon the mourner. Tonight we begin by examining what I consider to be the overarching category, what it means to care for and  not oppress the stranger.

The Torah gives but a few reasons behind the Mitzvot, the Commandments. Not oppressing others because: “we were strangers in the land of Egypt” ranks in the top two most frequent reasons the Torah does give. We often talk about the Exodus as our Meta story, the story which defines us as a people. Yet we also often forget that before we could move to freedom we lived as slaves, as strangers in a strange land. The Egyptians defined us as “other” as “strangers” enabling them to take away our freedom and impose forced labor upon us. In essence, our humanity became and remained invisible to the Egyptians.

Repeated through human history, the phenomenon of defining the stranger as other is almost a constant. Some of the most egregious recent examples include: the African slave trade, our American Constitution’s original definition of African Americans as 3/5 of a person, denial of suffrage to women in America until the 20th Century and of course the Nazi definition of Jews, Roma, homosexuals, and people with limited intellectual capabilities as being sub-human.

To be honest, the Torah used the term Ger – Stranger to indicate “non-citizens”, resident aliens in modern parlance. Rabbi Michael Goldberg in his book Why Should Jews Survive echoes the historic Jewish practice of the past 2000+ years to not take our texts literally but to find in them ways to expand their application in each time period to contemporary Jewish life. Using the example of counting women as equal to men in the minyan as a metaphor for the inclusion of women in every aspect of Jewish life he says: “…as the Exodus master story tells it – and as the minyan retells it every day – it is through the surviving presence of the community of the Jewish People in the world that God’s own presence is most clearly made known to the world. As Jewish women were counted among those God rescued in the Exodus from Egypt in ancient days, so, too, in our day they ought to be counted in the minyan among those who can rightfully proclaim God’s saving presence to the world.”

The Torah teaches that our Brit, our covenant with God includes all Jews alive and present at Sinai as well as those yet to be born, old and young, women and men, the so called upper crust of society and those whose work many consider menial. If all Jews count, then all Jews count!

Further, we are also taught that along with the Israelites, many non-Jews attached themselves to our people as they left Egypt. Thus today we include in our congregation non-Jews who choose to affiliate with us as a full part of our family.

If Torah teaches us to include all, then why do we still see some as strangers, as other? Part of the answer lies in our unintentional, and yes at times intentional blindness. As our eyes scan those around we tend to see only what stands clearly in our line of sight. We assume everyone resembles us or, we have yet to grow to perceive those that feel “strangered”, who feel unseen for what their uniqueness adds to our community.

For most of us, our cultural upbringing limits our vision. Some of you have heard me discuss the book: Gentleman’s Agreement written by Laura Hobson, a non-Jewish woman, in 1947. If you read the book or saw the movie you know Ms. Hobson tells the story of a non-Jewish newspaper reporter who poses as a Jew and experiences first hand the subtle, not quite below the surface, anti-Semitism of the post World War II era. The protagonist meets a divorced woman with a career whose ideal of being a complete, fulfilled woman means giving up her career for marriage and motherhood. A non-Jewish woman with incredible sensitivity and understanding of anti-Semitism could not see beyond the definition of ideal woman of her time period. How prescient must have been the leaders of the abolitionist, civil rights and gay rights movements to be able to see beyond their reality to identify others, or even themselves, as living as strangers in society?

Throughout our 157 years and particularly in the past four score plus years, our congregation and its leadership reached out to and tried to embrace the strangers among us. From Rabbis Fink and Goldberg’s leadership in the areas of civil rights and interfaith relations to our more recent efforts to reach out to the intermarried and those new to our community, we traveled on a road of welcoming the stranger. Not only accepting those who are different from us but striving to hear, appreciate and understand the uniqueness they add to our congregational family’s life.

But, others live and worship among us and still feel estranged, left out. Even though on a policy level we consistently “do the right thing”, on the personal level, on the individual level we sometimes fall short. My parents, especially my father, taught me to treat each person the same regardless of race, religion or background. Just as Michael Goldberg says in the quote above, it is my natural tendency to expand that “same treatment” to other groups of which my parents could not conceive. Feminism as a concept was as alien to them as it was to many of their generation. Homosexuality was buried so deep in the closet that the gay community was the only group I ever heard my father speak of disparagingly.

Just as my feminist awakening took place in rabbinic school, so did the beginning of my acceptance of the GLBT community. During my years in seminary, don’t ask don’t tell would have been considered a huge step forward. If a student came out as gay or lesbian, expulsion was automatic. But of course there were gay and lesbian students in my classes. Not as an open secret, but only acknowledged in quiet whispers behind the closed doors of dorm rooms or apartments. How far our Reform movement has come! The rabbinate now includes, not only gays and lesbians but the first transgender rabbi will be ordained in the next few years.

On an official level, Temple Beth Zion has moved with the times. In all of our staff searches since I arrived, the issue of sexual orientation has not been a factor in determining who we hire. While we have not, as of yet, hired gay or lesbian clergy, in our clergy searches, each search committee committed itself to the understanding that the sexual orientation of our candidates would not determine who we would bring into our congregational family. We have for other program and professional positions hired gay and lesbian men and women. And when it comes to lay leadership, just as they do in so many ways, our young people have led the way by not only electing gay and lesbian YPS/TBaZy members to positions of leadership but supporting their gay and lesbian members when they feel some want them to remain strangers.

Consistently, we reaffirm that policy stand. We perform same sex commitment ceremonies and I am a proud and active member of the New York State Pride Agenda working toward the day when marital rights and marriage itself will be available to all members of our society. Our withdrawal from the Buffalo Jewish Review has in part, led to the Review reevaluating its decision to not even mention the words gay or lesbian in its pages. Just a few weeks ago, the editor of the Review ran a notice that in light of the Conservative Movement’s decision to ordain gay and lesbian rabbis as well as the Gay Pride service at Temple Sinai, the Review will now cover events involving, gay, and lesbian and yes also transgender Jews. I will be meeting with the editor of the Review after Yom Kippur to discuss this change in their policy and, if appropriate, see how TBZ can be supportive of their new position.

If God redeemed every Jew alive at the time or yet to be born in the Exodus and all stood at Sinai and entered into the covenant between God and the Jewish people, then clearly all Jews became and remain a part of that covenant regardless of race, gender, social standing AND sexual orientation. Just look at the Confirmation pictures on the wall at the Broder Center and look around this room. It is easy to see Jews of different races. It is easy to see Jews of different genders. It is not as easy to see Jews of different social standing. It is nearly impossible to see Jews of different sexual orientations. But they are in the pictures and they are in this sanctuary tonight. Therefore we must take our “official position” and make it personal.

Have we done enough as a sacred community to recognize, accept, reach out and meet the unique needs of the GLBT members of our congregational and our Jewish communities as we have with for example our youth and our intermarried households?

The answer is: no we have not. But beginning with this sermon, we take the first steps. After airing their concerns, some of our members have graciously agreed to set up opportunities for Rabbi Schwartzman and me to listen to the voices of GLBT Jews and we have agreed to actively listen and hear as they tell us their stories. Then together we will begin to plan how to provide an extra measure of our consideration, recognition, outreach to meet the needs of GLBT Jews, who too often feel like our ancestors in exile; strangers in a strange land. We are also committing ourselves this year to take a serious look inward. Are there others who feel as strangers in our midst? How can we transform TBZ into a congregation that has no strangers, a congregation in which all are recognized for the unique qualities they bring to our community and our people.

If we do not follow the command to know and accept the stranger, then we are guilty of abandoning our identity as Jews – those who understand the heart of the stranger because we were strangers in the Land of Egypt. If we do not follow the command to know and accept the stranger, then we become the Egyptians, seeing some of those among us as “less”. In the ranking of sins, this falls among the most egregious.

One year during these days of awe, the Baal Shem Tov, the great founder of Chasidism passed near a small shul. The baal habatim, the leaders of the congregation, rushed out to meet him and invite him in to pray with them. The Baal Shem Tov agreed but when he reached the door of the shul he stopped and did not enter. “What is the problem?” they asked him. “Why do you just stand here and not enter to pray with us?” The Baal Shem Tov answered: “There is no room for me. Your words of welcome and prayers of teshuvah, of repentance and change cannot rise to heaven. They fill the room from wall to wall, from floor to ceiling.” “What can we do?” the people asked. Gently he replied: “Match your actions to your words, welcome the stranger, reach out to help those in need and truly direct your prayers to God and then your prayers will ascend in a whirlwind to heaven.”

This year and every year, may our actions match our words. May we reach out to those who feel as strangers among us, get to know them and help them become strangers no more. And then may our prayers ascend in a whirlwind to heaven.


Reform Judaism at 200

Rosh Hashanah 5771/2010

Rabbi Kenneth Milhander

 Magen David

Rabbis Levy, Samuel, and Kosiner were “progressive” Reform rabbis and were talking one day about the recent advances made by their synagogues.  Rabbi Levy said, “We’re very modern – we allow cell phones to be used during services – we even have recharging points all over the synagogue.”

“Well,” said Rabbi Samuel, “we’ve installed a snack bar at the back of the synagogue for those who feel hungry or thirsty during services – we serve falafel in pita and hot salt beef with latkes and new green cucumbers.”

“That’s nothing to what we do, my friends,” said Rabbi Kosiner.  “We close our synagogue for the Jewish holidays.”

Okay, so we all know some jokes about Reform Jews or Reform rabbis, which usually focus on a lack of belief or observance, or a lack of Jewish knowledge, or a disregard for Jewish tradition.  These stereotypical jokes are often funny and as is true with most stereotypes, they have some minute element of truth to them, but overall, I think we sometimes get a bad rap.

Reform Jews and Reform Judaism are well ingrained into the fabric of American Jewish life, and our long history bespeaks of our incredible accomplishments, especially in the area of civil rights and advancement for women, gays and lesbians, and all minorities.  It is Reform synagogues that still stand in small towns across this nation and it is Reform Jews more often than not in those small towns and big cities alike that echo the Torah’s call for justice, righteousness, and peace.

This past summer marked the two hundredth anniversary of the official beginning of Reform Judaism in Germany.  On July 17, 1810, Rabbi Israel Jacobson, the then-president of the Jewish Consistory in the Kingdom of Westphalia, dedicated a small temple building erected adjacent to his educational gymnasium in Sessan.  Back in those days, they built the school building first, and the temple second!  It shows you where their priorities truly were.  Jacobson’s little temple is considered the first house of Reform Jewish worship because it introduced what was then considered pioneering liturgical changes: prayers and sermons in the vernacular, accompaniment by choir and organ, and mixed-gender seating.  On that day, before an audience of Jews and non-Jews, Jacobson spoke these words: “On all sides, enlightenment opens up new areas for development.  Why should we Jews alone remain behind?”  And ever since that day, not only have we not remained behind, we have been far out in the lead with respect to new areas of development that continued enlightenment has opened up.

Now, I have always held the radical idea that Reform Judaism did not begin with Jacobson in Sessen.  It did not begin with the philosophical foundations proposed by Mendelsohn a generation before Jacobson.  It did not begin with Baruch Spinoza, the seventeenth century Dutch Jew whose heretical-for-his-time views of modern biblical criticism, using Euclidean methods to demonstrate a metaphysical concept of the universe with ethical implications, led to his excommunication in 1656.  No, from my point of view, Reform Judaism began with Judaism itself.  Yes, Abraham, Moses, the prophets, and later, the rabbis, were all good Reform Jews.  Where do I get such a crazy notion?

In true rabbinic fashion, I have to answer that question with a question:  What is it that Reform Judaism seeks to do?  If you understand Reform Judaism as the attempt to apply Judaism to the world in which we live, then that is what Jews have always sought to do.  That is until it really happened a few hundred years ago, when there was then a backlash against modernity, against enlightenment, against progress, and against the outside world.  That backlash ultimately became what today we call Orthodoxy – that is, Orthodox Judaism as a movement along the lines of the Reform and Conservative Movements.

Now I know my Orthodox colleagues, at least those who recognize me as a rabbi, would vehemently disagree with my assertions, and perhaps my theories are way off base.  But since I am not trying to defend a PhD thesis or sell any books, I reserve the right to have my own opinions just as I give that right to others.  So, let me provide just one historical example of what I consider to be Reform ideas and principles at work long before Jacobson and his little temple introduced what was then revolutionary liturgical changes.

Last night, I spoke about Rabbi Hillel, the first-century scholar of the Second Temple period.  Along with teaching a non-Jew the whole of the Torah while he stood on one foot, Hillel is credited with many other familiar teachings, most notably among them: Im ein ani li, mi li / If I am not for myself, who will be for me?  Uch’sheani le’atzmi mah ani / If I am only for myself, what am I?  V’im lo achshav eimatai / And if not now, when?  The following story is told about the famous Rabbi Hillel, known as Judaism’s model human being:

Every day, Hillel used to work and earn one tropiak, half of which he gave to the doorkeeper at the House of Learning, the other half he spent for his food and that of his family.  One day he found nothing to earn and the guard at the House of Learning would not permit him to enter.  He climbed to the building’s roof and went over to the skylight to hear the word of the living God from the mouths of the great scholars, Sh’mayah and Avtalyon.  It was Friday evening, in the winter, and snow fell upon him from heaven.  When the dawn rose, Sh’mayah said to Avtalyon: “Brother Avtalyon, on every day this house is light and today it is dark; is it perhaps a cloudy day?”  They looked up and saw a man’s figure in the window.  They went up and found him covered by four feet of snow.  They removed him, bathed and anointed him – acts not normally permitted on the Sabbath – and placed him opposite the fire, and they said: “This man deserves that the Sabbath be violated on his behalf.”  Within a few years, Hillel was Sh’mayah and Avtalyon’s successor, and acknowledged as the greatest scholar of his generation.

However, Rabbi Hillel’s greatest legacy is a revolutionary reform he instituted.  In order to prevent the creation of a permanent underclass of debtors, the Torah commands that all personal loans must be forgiven every seventh year.  Unfortunately, the result of this utopian law was that it hurt the very class it intended to help.  Imagine today if mortgages, auto and business loans, and all personal debts were forgiven every seven years.  I, for one, would love it.  But the banks would stop lending money, especially near the end of the seven-year cycle.  And that is exactly what happened in Hillel’s time as well.  Hillel realized that the Torah’s own legislation was destroying the Torah’s ethic of helping the poor and for providing for a stable economy.  So, Hillel in essence did what we Reform Jews do today.  He found a way of applying Torah to the world in which he found himself, given all its realities and complexities.  Hillel found a way around the biblical law by instituting a procedure that became known as the Prosbul.  He noted that the Torah only cancelled personal debts, but not debts due in a court in the seventh year.  So, he created a legal fiction whereby the lender only had to note before the court that he was going to collect his debt.  Having made such a legal declaration, the debt was simply transferred automatically from the lender to the court.  The Torah’s law was upheld along with the ethic of helping the poor.  The Talmud even later praised Hillel and his Prosbul procedure, saying that it was mipnei tikkun olam / for the betterment of the world.  Many later Jewish principles were also based on this idea, that tikkun olam sometimes takes precedence over tradition.

That is in essence, ironically, the tradition that I believe Israel Jacobson and the early Reformers in Germany were following.  They were responding to the new realities and complexities of the world in which they found themselves.  And today, we are the inheritors of that tradition, a set of ideals that once seemed ominously revolutionary but have become eminently conventional convictions.  Such erstwhile radical assertions are today the bedrock and foundation of Reform Judaism, pioneering values that the vast majority of modern Jews now embrace, regardless of their denominational affiliation.  There are many, of course, but let me name just four.

First, the early Reformers insisted that the modern Jewish prayer service must include more than mere rote recitation of meaningless words.  They adapted and changed the Jewish prayer service to include meaning, inspiration, comprehensibility, and personal relevance.  Now two hundred years later, these ideals have become so widely accepted that we are prone to forget that these values were once frighteningly unconventional propositions.  But they are not unheard of in Jewish tradition.  Even the rabbis in the Talmud taught that one must not pray in a fixed manner alone.  The Jewish worshipper must also have what they called kavannah or intentionality in addition to keva or rote recitation.  Today, that Talmudic notion has been expanded to include new prayers, new ways of praying, new interpretations of traditional prayers, and perhaps most importantly, the use of music and in Reform congregations, musical instruments to inspire and uplift the Jewish soul.  Our new prayer book, Mishkan T’filah, is designed to guide the worshipper on a personal prayer journey while at the same time making the ancient Hebrew words accessible to those who cannot read them so they can fully participate in the communal prayer experience at the same time.  Even in Conservative and Orthodox congregations, there is a concerted effort to make the worshipper feel welcome and included and to use texts that are what today we call user-friendly.

Second, contemporary Jews of all stripes embrace modern science.  This was not always the case.  Not long ago, modern science and religion were seen as incompatible systems of thought.  But the early Reformers were among the first and staunchest advocates of what was once a controversial contention.  Today, no matter what one’s level of piety, few if any argue that one’s religious life requires the abandonment of free scholarly inquiry.  Some Jewish communities in America and throughout the world may shun certain symbols of modern life, but the basic notion that science and religion are in conflict with each other has long been decided in the Jewish world.  And that is due in no small measure to the actions of the early Reformers who embraced Wissenschaft des Judenthums, the scientific study of Judaism, insisting that the tools of modern scholarship actually render Judaism more compelling and intriguing to present day Jews.  Almost no one today challenges that assertion.  As an ancient people, we have one foot firmly and solidly planted in our history, our tradition, our sacred values, teachings, and ethics.  But as Jews living where and when we do, given the incredible changes and challenges of the past 300 years or so, we have the other foot just as firmly and solidly planted in reality, modernity, and science.  How we balance and how much weight we put on each of those two feet is a matter of degree, personal preference, community standards, one’s upbringing, and a host of other factors.

Third, the Reform Movement has relentlessly promoted and pursued the value of religious equality, not just internally but externally as well.  Among the very first generation of reformers back in Germany, there were already those who recognized that without the full and equal participation of women, the synagogue would never achieve a truly vibrant future.  Unfortunately, it took at least another 150 years to achieve full and equal participation on the bima and in many leadership positions, but today women rabbis, cantors, synagogue and organizational leaders are not the exception or oddity they once were.

We have continued to expand the tent of Reform Judaism by welcoming the children of Jewish fathers, non-Jewish spouses, non-Jews interested in conversion, gays and lesbians, those with mental and physical limitations, and so many others once placed at the periphery of society and Judaism itself.  We have reinterpreted many ancient rituals and introduced new ones to address life events not considered by traditional Judaism.  We have also espoused loud and clear, perhaps louder and clearer than anyone else, the notion of religious equality not just for ourselves but for all of God’s children.  If you look at the make-up of interfaith groups throughout the nation, more often than not, it is Reform Jews who participate and who take up the mantle of leadership.  Equality is not just a sound bite or a nice catch-phrase we put on a bumper sticker.  Equality is the bedrock upon which we live our lives, and despite it once being a revolutionary idea, it is today widely accepted as the norm.

Finally, and to that point, Reform’s early thinkers insisted that Judaism’s distinctive ideals, teachings, and religious precepts exist not only for the benefit of the Jewish people, but also to promote the betterment of all humankind.  We have always sought to balance the notions of particularism and universalism.  While at the same time having to care for the well being of Jews throughout the world, we have used our traditions and teachings to inspire others raise the banner of hope, to light the way forward for all God’s children, and to work towards the fulfillment of the essential messages of the Torah, the prophets, and our Sages.  The idea that we – a mere two percent of this country, and an even smaller one-third of one percent of the world’s population – that we have something to offer the entire world is a remarkable assertion, but one that must be fulfilled.  We have been and will continue to be champions of justice and righteousness in this world as we have been for the past two hundred and two thousand years.   For the next two hundred and two thousand years, I know that, whatever the makeup of the Jewish community, there will always be Jews who uphold and fight for our essential principles, who take the words of Torah to heart and seek advancement, progress, healing, and betterment not just for themselves, but for all of God’s creation.  I also know that there will always be plenty of jokes about Reform Jews and Reform rabbis.  May they continue to be funny, but may we also continue to confront the issues and challenges we face with honesty, dignity, sincerity, a sense of history, and an embrace of modernity.


Happy Is The One…


By Rabbi Robert H. Loewy

This evening I wish you “L’Shanah Tovah”, while in English we say Happy New Year.” These are not exactly the same. “L’Shanah tovah” implies all will be well, but also that you will live a good life to be worthy of blessing and inscription in the book of life. I want that for you, but this evening I wish you a Happy New Year as well.

It is my sincere hope that you can find happiness in the year and years to come. Times have been challenging the past two years. All of our lives have been turned upside down. Uncertainty is an ongoing theme in our community. Recognizing and accepting that reality, we seek to live meaningful, fulfilling lives. As your rabbi, someone who has known many of you for decades, I want you to be happy, but first we have to determine what happiness is, how to attain it and avoid impediments to maintaining it.

This past summer, while working with some of our children at Henry S. Jacobs Camp, I was asked to describe one of my happiest moments. This was an easy recollection. Eight years ago we were celebrating Karen, my oldest daughter’s, wedding. During the reception, I was dancing the hora in the center circle with Lynn, and all of our children. Twirling around, I recall the thrill of celebrating this life cycle event, being immersed in the moment. We were surrounded by family and friends. I clearly remember saying, “it doesn’t get any better.”

There is a verse from the Talmud, that the world is like a wedding hall, which Rabbi Hanoch of Aleksandrov explains with a story:

A man came to an inn in Warsaw. In the evening he heard sounds of music and dancing coming from the next house.

“They must be celebrating a wedding,” he thought to himself.

But the next evening he heard the same sounds, and again the evening after that.

“How can there be so many weddings in one family?” the man asked the innkeeper.

“That house is a wedding hall,” he answered. “Today one family holds a wedding there, tomorrow another.”

“It’s the same in the world,” said the rabbi. “People are always enjoying themselves. But some days it’s one person and other days it’s another. No single person is happy all the time.”

I have been blessed to share simchas with many of you: weddings, Bar/Bat Mitzvahs, births and birthdays and anniversaries. It never becomes old or boring or repetitive to see the glow in a father’s face, to hear the joy in a mother’s voice, to feel the love and excitement of a young couple. The high simcha moments are few and far between. I urge you, when it is your time, embrace the experience as much as you can.

When you are invited to be with others for their milestones, by all means attend. You add to their happiness and can access your own at the same time. It’s a mitzvah.

The study of achieving happiness is now its own field of legitimate psychological study. Who knew? “Positive Psychology” focuses on mental wellness, as opposed to mental illness. You can see how this might become quite popular, studying what is good in life, not just our psychoses and neuroses. The Intro class in Positive Psychology at Harvard had 855 students, the most attended class in the university.

Martin Seligman of the University of Pennsylvania, one of the trailblazers in the field, has determined that each of us has a set range of happiness, some are more open to being happy than others. Our common experience tells us that there are some people who feel life and react to it more deeply than others. The goal is to learn how to live at the top of our set range.

Based upon extensive testing in Happiness Research, Professor Ed Diener of the University of Illinois focused on three ingredients that are vital to happiness:

1. Family and Friends- the wider the grouping and the deeper the relationships, the higher will be the level of happiness. Those who are or have been parents of teenagers know how significant friends are in their lives. We may think that this changes as we age, but it does not. According to the studies, friendship, correlated with happiness, even seems to protect us from disease. Specifically, marriage, potentially the ultimate close friendship, adds 7 years to the lifespan of men and 4 years to the life span of women. (With the difference between men and women, I’m sure there is a joke in there, but I’m not about to touch it, at least not if I want to go home tonight.)

2. Meaning in life- This is when you embrace a belief in something bigger than yourself. Formal Religion, disciplined spirituality or holding steadfastly to a particular philosophy of life provides the structure for happiness. You’d have been disappointed had I not re-discovered that religion can make a qualitative difference in your happiness quotient.

3. Happiness comes when you have clear goals and values towards which you dedicate your life. This includes jobs, projects, hobbies that are both interesting and enjoyable, which call upon you to use your strengths and abilities. Albert Schweitzer once said: “Success is not the key to happiness. Happiness is the key to success. If you love what you are doing, you will be successful.” And when you are successful, you will be happy.

Judaism has understood these ideas for quite some time. In particular the Psalmist provides a variety of prescriptions for finding happiness. In the very first Psalm and the very first verse we read: “Happy is the man who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked and does not stand in the way of sinners, or sit in the seat of the scornful.” In other words, if you want to be happy, first choose your company wisely. You obviously don’t want to be with people who will lead you astray down the wrong paths of life. Every parent regularly monitors those with whom their children associate. But we also need to be aware that there are those who drag us down either by their values or with their pessimism and negativity. These too are people to avoid.

The Psalmist continues: “rather the teaching of the Lord is his delight, and he studies that teaching day and night. He is like a tree planted beside streams of water, which yields its fruit in season, whose foliage never fades, and whatever it produces thrives.” (Psalm 1:1-2)  What a surprise, the Psalmist calls upon us to study Torah, the teachings of what it means to be a good Jew, how to lead a meaningful life. Then, when we are well grounded, and live according to the values we know to be right and just, we are able to face each day with a sense of equanimity and happiness.

We often equate happiness with wealth and pleasure. There is a Talmudic teaching, which many of you have appreciated over the years. We learn: “Enjoy life while you can. When you face your Maker, God will ask why you did not partake of the pleasures of life which were available… and you’d better have a good explanation.” (Yerushalmi) Judaism does not call upon us to withdraw from the world’s pleasure, but neither should we overindulge.

However, pleasure seeking does not necessarily result in real happiness.

Positive Psychologist Todd Kashdan helps his college students discover that feeling good , whether through sex, drugs, drinking or most other forms of  pleasure seeking actually only creates a hunger for more pleasure. After exploring the limits of pleasure seeking, they learn that doing good for others leads to a more lasting form of happiness and they back this up with research.

During our trip to Israel this past summer, we visited a 3rd century synagogue and homes in the village of Tsippori, where part of the Talmud was written. I came across a lesser known bit of Talmudic wisdom. There was a bedroom and not far from it, what we would refer to as an outhouse for which the rabbis wrote: “Happy is the man who has a privy near his bed.” As some of us get older, we appreciate that saying even more. Clearly having some of the basic creature comforts of life engenders a feeling of happiness. As many of us were forced to renovate our homes, we added those little touches that were not there before, but which provide us with pleasure: the flat screen television, nicer kitchen appliances and countertops, perhaps in keeping with the teachings of the Talmud, we even upgraded our bathrooms.

However, the Positive Psychologists teach that being richer does not make us happier, once you have the basics of life- home, food and clothes. Why is it that money and material things do not ultimately make us happier? Scientists say it is first because we adapt to pleasure. We enjoy short bursts, whether chocolate or a new car, but then the joy wears off. We also tend to compare ourselves; while richer people feel happier compared to poor, the poorer do not feel happier as they look up and there is always someone richer than we are.

Real wealth according to our tradition comes to those who are happy with their portion in life. It is a matter of attitude. One man who brought laughter and happiness to millions had this philosophy: “Each morning when I open my eyes, I say to myself: ‘I, not events, have the power to make me happy or unhappy. I can choose which it will be. Yesterday is dead, tomorrow hasn’t arrived yet. I have just one day, today, and I’m going to be happy in it’.” Along with the wit, we now have the wisdom of Groucho Marx and you can bet your life on it.

The problem is that we tend to put up barriers to our own happiness. Some of us are worriers. “Yes, I’m healthy now, but you can never tell about tomorrow.” “Yes, there are more restaurants and life is pretty much normal, but all it takes is one more storm.” “Yes, the kids are doing well right now, but will it last?”

To all of the worriers among us, the Talmud teaches: “Do not worry about tomorrow’s trouble, for you do not know what the day may bring. Tomorrow may come and you will be no more, and so you will have worried about a world that is not yours.” (Yevamot 63b) In other words, deal with life’s challenges when they come. Don’t allow them to diminish the happiness and contentment of the moment.

Of course greed and envy are twin traits, which easily tear away at our happiness. We see what we have, but all too often try to compare to others, diminishing our own lot in life by doing so. “Yes, I like my Camry, but it’s not a Lexus.” “Yes, I have a good job that I enjoy, but I could be earning more if I were promoted.” “Yes, I made the team, but I should have been chosen Captain.”

Don’t misunderstand what I am saying. There is nothing wrong with having high goals and aspirations, but when they cloud your appreciation of the moment then you are diminishing your potential for happiness. A Chasidic saying puts it well: “while we pursue happiness, we flee from contentment.”

Another barrier is a guilty conscience. We cannot be happy when our sins weigh upon us. Once again the Psalmist hits the nail on the head: “Happy the one whom the Lord does not hold guilty, and in whose spirit there is no deceit.” (Psalm 32:1-2) This is one of the basic themes of our High Holy Days- teshuvah, repentance.

We are called upon to use this season to come to terms with misdeeds, confess to God and those whom we may have wronged by word and deed, action and inaction. Let us make amends where possible. The reference to the spirit where there is no deceit, suggests that we must mean what we say and do. A clear conscience opens the path to happiness and contentment with who you are.

We put up so many obstacles to feeling happy and enjoying life. So stop waiting…

Until your car or home is paid off

Until you get a new car or home

Until your children leave the house

Until you go back to school

Until you finish school

Until you lose 10 pounds

Until you gain 10 pounds

Until you get married

Until you get a divorce

Until you have kids

Until you retire

Until summer

Until spring

Until winter

Until fall

Until you die

Now is a time to appreciate the happiness that is in your life and seek it with all you ability.

This evening we are here as a community and I truly wish you a New Year in which you find abiding happiness. As was indicated by the positive psychologists, just being here creates that possibility. A Psalm which is frequently utilized as a prayer begins: “Ashrai yoshvai vaitecha, od yehallelucha sela- Happy are those who dwell in Your house, they forever praise you.” (Psalm 84:5-6) By spending regular time in the synagogue, whether connecting with God and all that is eternal or socializing with the person sitting next to you, psychologists suggest and tradition teaches that you can increase your happiness. So may it be this holy day. So may it be throughout the year as you enjoy a Happy New Year.



The Bridge To Forgiveness

Yom Kippur Eve- 5768

By Rabbi Robert H. Loewy


My dear friends, the plaintive call of Kol Nidre reaches out to us, as we entreat God to forgive us for all that we have done wrong in the year gone by. At the same time we are called to be forgiving of others. Forgiveness is the basic theme of the day.

The author, Naomi Remen, describes how one year she attended Kol Nidre worship and the Rabbi was giving his traditional forgiveness sermon, when he paused to pick up his squirming one year old from his wife’s arms, then continued his message. She was adorable, making faces as he spoke, at one point grabbing his tie, sucking upon it. Then she grabbed his nose. At that point, he departed from his printed text and asked, “Think about it. Is there anything this beautiful baby can do that you could not forgive her for?” Then she grabbed his glasses and burped. “And when does it stop? When does it become hard to forgive another? At 3? At 7? At 14? At 35? How old does someone have to be before you forget that everyone is a child of God?”

This evening, let us once again explore this topic of forgiveness. Rabbi Karyn Kedar has written an entire book on the subject, which I will draw upon, beginning with her opening poem entitled “The Bridge:”


Forgiveness is a path to be walked.

There are steps along the way:

loss, anger, acceptance, learning,

forgiveness, restoration.

And along the way, you will come upon a bridge.

When you step upon it, it will carry you,

support you, connect you to another side of life,

a side waiting to be discovered.

Forgiveness is a perpetual journey.

There are many bridge crossings.

Each restores a bit more of what you have lost.


This whole process begins with a sense of loss. When we are wronged, someone offends us, hurts us, is cruel or uncaring, and we feel loss. How could she do that, taking away my position, undercutting me in such a way, messing up everything? How could he say that, when it’s not true and is so insensitive? How could he act in that fashion? We lose trust in those, who we felt would not behave in such a manner. Our security is shattered, since we felt comfortable and safe. And the loss is more poignant since it is often inflicted upon us by those who are dear to us, friends and family, trusted associates and co-workers, professionals upon whom we relied. At times we even lose faith, questioning how God can allow this injustice to occur, whether the sudden illness that invaded our body or the storm that blew through our lives, changing us and our community forever. Something good is taken from our lives and we are diminished.

And then we become angry. Of anger Rabbi Kedar writes:

There is good reason to be angry.

There is good reason not to be angry.

Anger can be like a river

that swells beyond its banks,

flooding and destroying everything in its path.

Or it can be like a river

that flows through your soul,

washing away all that needs to be gone.

Discernment is

knowing when to be angry and when to let it go.


Anger is natural and necessary as a response to loss leading to forgiveness. It is the first reaction. When we are angry, it is difficult to think or speak rationally. Our spirit burns from what we see as an assault, whether it be the unkind word, an undermining act, unfair criticism or simply unacceptable behavior. When we are undone, anger often is our first line of defense. It tells us that this is wrong and forms a shield around us, protecting us momentarily.

The problem with anger is that it can be destructive, not constructive when it permeates our response to a situation. A midrash teaches, “when the kettle boils, it spills hot water down its side.” So it is when we boil over with anger. We merely scald ourselves. We feel so hurt and disgusted that we cannot move on with our lives.

For some, being the victim is a comfortable role. It allows you to feel as though you deserve goodness, wholeness and love. However, remaining in that role denies you the possibility of growth. Anger is healthy, but only as a first step to healing and forgiveness.

Sometimes we will have to realize that we are angry with a spouse, a parent, a brother or sister, a friend, co-worker, angry at ourselves, even God, before we can move on to forgiveness. Forgiveness will mean letting go of our anger, leaving the darkness that is our reality in order to gain control of our spirit.

Then comes acceptance as part of the forgiveness process. “Acceptance is the compassionate embrace of yourself and your place in the world: without judgment, without fear, without regret.” (p. 5) We suffer loss and initially respond with anger, but ultimately if we are to heal, we accept our reality. There is frequently no choice. The illness strikes; the storm arrives; the mistake has been made; the job is lost; the marriage is no more; the death is real, whether we like it or not. Life does not always turn out the way we desire. Sometimes it is our own fault, sometimes due to others and sometimes by forces beyond our control.

Acceptance does not mean that the pain, the hurt goes away completely. To some extent it is like the athlete, who during the week is sidelined by an injury, but when game day comes will play through the pain. As some of you know, I often am subject to headaches. However, I’ve observed an interesting phenomenon, that being, when I am on the pulpit or busy with some activity, the headache seems to abate. Later when life calms down I might feel the pain afresh. So it is with our emotional pains; when we accept them we can lead our lives more fully, though on occasion they will give us a jab.

One of the challenges of acceptance is how to deal with the question of “why” something has happened, but as most of us are aware there is no answer. Sure we know the meteorology of storm tracks, but not why it came our way; we understand that cancer attacks cells in the body, but not why those cells belong to me or my loved one. In trying to deal with this question Rabbi Kedar writes: “I do not know why some die too soon, or others never find love, or how others are able to forgive. This, I do know: that it is only in this state of not knowing that I am humble enough to approach the mystery. To forgive you must embrace the mystery.” (p. 81)

For some the “mystery” is that part of reality, which is chaotic, that part of the world we simply cannot comprehend. It is randomness. For others it is God. We can blame God, be angry with God, but then turn to God as well for the strength to accept that which is our lot in life.

Coming out of acceptance is the opportunity to learn and grow. Forgiveness can be an evolving understanding. We learn from loss, from anger, from survival and perseverance. When we release the pain of the past we can then learn to be open to what the future can bring.

Literally, while sitting at my desk preparing this sermon I heard the ring, telling me an e-mail had arrived. It was from a woman I have not seen or to be honest even thought of in over 30 years. She saw my name on a list of former staff members of the URJ Eisner Camp and wanted to make contact. Janice wrote: “I remember you helping me through a rough time at camp in 1975. Do you remember Allan Z?  Well, he DUMPED me that summer, and I fell apart!!!  I have a memory of you letting me hang out in your room and looking after me.  I’m happy to say as soon as camp was over, I met a new boyfriend, and we just celebrated our 26th anniversary. I’ll never forget your kindness….” We never know when we make a difference in someone’s life.

I do recall how torn, angry and inconsolable she was at the time. I was her camp supervisor, but she just could not function as a counselor for a while. She needed time to recover, but ultimately was able to pull herself together, accept where she was, forgive Allan for the hurt and move on effectively. Clearly she learned and prospered from what was a calamity at the time.

When we are in the midst of a painful moment, it is difficult to find that silver lining, to glean understanding or wisdom, to grasp a greater lesson. Forgiveness involves learning. In some cases it will be intellectual growth, prompting us to better evaluate and analyze future situations. Emotionally we will grow, counterbalancing devastation with hope. Even spiritually we can come to realize that making the Divine connection is possible and does not have to only be a refuge of last resort. That connection is open any time you want it to be. Pain can be a powerful teacher.

Friends, forgiveness is not a matter of unconditional love: forgive and forget. “There should be no forgetting of evil acts, no condoning of offense, sin, hatred. To forget is to run the risk of allowing these evils to happen again. Yet at the same time, to hold within us the horror and pain of every offense diminishes our lives.” (p. 3) We recognize our loss, allow a period of anger, accept our reality and even learn from the experience. Forgiveness is not condoning the wrong in the world or the offense inflicted upon us. It is not forgetting. It is a state of being that allows us to move on and be restored.

Ultimately that is our goal. We want wholeness in our lives. We know we cannot go back to where we were before our equilibrium was disturbed. Our world is never the same after we have suffered a hurt, but it can be reconstructed, perhaps even better than before. Through full forgiveness we restore our faith and trust in others, in ourselves and God. For a while all seemed dark and ugly. With forgiveness we can once again find a sense of beauty. Where briefly all seemed lost, we can regain optimism and hope.

I invite you now for just a moment to close your eyes and envision those who have hurt or angered you the most this past year. You may need to address this to yourself. Try out these phrases:

Tonight I forgive you.

I am moving on with my life.

I will not let my resentments pull me down.

I give up my anger which has been holding me back.

Tonight I forgive you.”

May this Day of Atonement that we begin tonight provide us with the opportunity to make the spiritual journey across the bridge of forgiveness.



Much of this sermon was based upon the writing of Rabbi Karyn D. Kedar in her book The Bridge of Forgiveness.

From A Mother To Her Girls

Yom Kippur Yizkor 5768

By Rabbi Robert H. Loewy


This day of Yom Kippur is intended to help us grow as human beings, created in God’s image. We do this by introspection, evaluating how true we have been to the values instilled within us, and where we fall short, make amends. If we are honest, we will admit to those areas of our behavior that have been sinful, commit to remedy them and seek forgiveness. If we are observing this day with depth and integrity, we confront the quality of how we live our lives with the backdrop of our own mortality.

The primary other time when this kind of soul searching occurs is when we are facing our own deaths or that of loved ones. The following poem, written by Rabbi Karyn Kedar, whose thoughts informed my Yom Kippur evening sermon, entitled “From A Mother To Her Girls,” speaks to this moment. It is written from a daughter’s perspective and the connection between parent and child seems to have been strong and positive. I believe it addresses many of our losses. You will not relate to all of what she writes, but perhaps some of it. She begins:

“The morning you wake to bury me

you’ll wonder what to wear.

The sun may be shining, or maybe it will rain;

it may be winter. Or not.

You’ll say to yourself, “black, aren’t you supposed to

wear black?” Then you will remember all the times we went

together to buy clothes: the prom, homecoming,

just another pair of jeans,

another sweater, another pair of shoes. I called you my Barbie dolls.

You will remember how I loved to dress you.

How beautiful you were in my eyes.


When we lose loved ones, especially when we have experienced the gift of years with them, we immediately recall time shared. While often they will be major events- weddings, birthdays, B’nai Mitzvah, or anniversaries, but frequently they will be the more mundane moments- time spent shopping, enjoying a meal, holiday observance, a story that was repeated over and over, a childhood experience, a trip that was shared. Then after specific recollections will hopefully arrive a sense of calm: the knowledge that there was a special relationship, one that will be missed, but whose memory provides a warmth and glow. Rabbi Kedar continues:

The morning you wake to bury me

you will look in the mirror in disbelief.

You’ll reach for some makeup. Or not. And you won’t believe that

this is the morning you will bury your mother.

But it is. And as you gaze into that mirror, you will shed a tear. Or not. But look. Look carefully, for hiding in your expression, you will find mine.

You will see me in your eyes, in the way you laugh.

You will feel me when you think of God,

and of love and struggle.

Look into the mirror and you will see me in a look, or in

the way you hold your mouth or stand, a little bent, or maybe straight.

But you will see me.


When loved ones die, we are disoriented. The simplest task is difficult to accomplish. Tears flow one moment, while at other times we feel like we want to cry, but the tears do not come. They are gone and our world is just not the same.

At the same time our loved ones live on in us. When it comes to parents and siblings, there is often physical continuity. We look like them, walk and talk like them. If you want to see what I will look like when I am in my 90’s (I should be so fortunate to reach that age in health), just look on the pulpit. But beyond physical links, we all carry aspects of dear ones who are gone within us, whether we realize or not. It can be in an expression, facial or verbal. It can be in situations, where we have learned from the best how to respond. When relationships are solid and healthy, we can even grow from our losses. Rabbi Kedar teaches:

So let me tell you, one last time, before you dress,

what to wear. Put on any old thing. Black or red, skirt or pants.

Despite what I told you all these years, it doesn’t really matter.

Because as I told you all these years, you are beautiful the way you are.

Dress yourself in honor and dignity.

Dress yourself in confidence and self-love.

Wear a sense of obligation to do for this world,

for you are one of the lucky ones and there is so much to do, to fix.

Take care of each other,

Take care of your heart, of your soul.

Talk to God.

Wear humility and compassion.


We honor our loved ones most by leading our lives fully. There is a time to mourn and a time to rise up from mourning. Loss is something that each of us incorporates and even compartmentalizes in our lives. It has its place, but cannot dominate our being, for that would not be a way to honor loved ones.

Deeds of goodness are the more lasting tribute.  They were not saints. They had strengths and weaknesses, moments when they were endearing and others that simply had to be endured. Still we take the positive lessons they taught by word and deed and incorporate them in our lives. The fact that we are here and they are not is a gift to be appreciated and out of tribute we can make a difference.

Lastly we honor them by preserving that which was most precious- families, friendships and your relationship with God. Then Rabbi Kedar concludes:

When you wake to bury me,

put on a strong sense of self, courage and understanding.

I am sorry. Forgive me. I am sorry.

Stand at my grave clothed in a gown of forgiveness,

dressed like an angel would be, showing compassion

and unconditional love.

For at that very moment, all that will be left of me to give is love.



The major theme of this day is forgiveness, always a challenge. When death comes, forgiveness is more possible than ever. Perhaps we were hurt by them. We need no longer carry that baggage. What would be the purpose other than to continue as victim? Put it down and grant forgiveness. Reciprocally, we can ask forgiveness for what we have done wrong with the knowledge that it can never happen again.

What does endure is love. Even when they are gone, the love we have and the love they gave continues to be a source of positive spiritual energy within us.

On this Yom Kippur afternoon, may the lessons of this day and those of memory,  bring us comfort and strengthen us for our New Year.


In The Footsteps Of The Prophets


By Rabbi Robert H. Loewy

            This morning I want to tell you about some real people whom I have met in recent days. I think of them as “mitzvah heroes.” Some are even seated on our pulpit this morning. They have heard the message of the Prophet that we just read and internalized it. Fasting is good, but it’s not enough. Words and sentiment are good, but it is not enough. What God requires of us are deeds, actions that make a difference in this world.

From our tradition we have the story of the cartman’s horse, which suddenly stumbled and fell dead. This was a catastrophe for the cartman, as he sat in the street in tears, for this was his livelihood. A crowd gathered, observed the poor man’s predicament, shook their heads sympathetically, mumbling, “too bad, too bad.”

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

When the crowd followed suit, they moved from observers to doers, from people with feelings to givers of tsedakah. We all can be such people and when we use the term tsedakah, this is not just donating our dollars, but also includes the pursuit of justice in our world.

Our Haftarah began with God telling the prophet: “Cry aloud; do not hold back, let your voice resound as a shofar.” There are a variety of ways we can cry out against injustice. At Jacobs Camp this summer I became reacquainted with Jen Marlowe. She had been a counselor and Unit Head many years ago. Since then her path has taken her around the world, where she has been an activist involved in creating and implementing youth co-existence programs between Israelis and Palestinians, Turkish and Greek Cypriots, Indians and Pakistanis among others. She was working with a theater group in Seattle, when she connected with an old friend in 2004, who was planning to make a film about Darfur.

This was early on in the fighting and Jen like the rest of the world was unaware of the genocide taking place. She collaborated with two others, helped raise funds and journeyed to Darfur and throughout Sudan to make the film, to let the world see and hear the reality. “Darfur Diaries” presents the personal narratives of the people who have been attacked, displaced and are fighting for basic dignity. The only words spoken are by the people of Darfur as they tell their story to the world. Jen and her two co-workers dialogued with dozens of Darfurians either in their villages or in refugee camps in Chad. We learn about their history, hopes and fears, the tragedy and resilience of their everyday lives. By meeting real people with full lives, a rich culture and heritage, their story becomes more than a 30 second sound bite on the nightly news.

Jen screened her film to the older campers and shared how she pursues tikun olam, the betterment of our world. She is continuing her mission and is back in the Sudan making a second film. In addition she is diligently striving to keep a number of individuals who are depicted in the first film from being killed by the Sudanese government. Her movie has been shown around the world, so that no one can say, we did not know. Individuals can make a difference. Walking in the footsteps of the Prophets, Jen is a mitzvah hero.


Then we read that part of our prophetic duty is “to unlock the shackles of injustice, to undo the fetters of bondage, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every cruel chain.”

Let me tell you about Kristine Smith. Kristine initially came to see me to discuss issues of Jewish identity and her family history. Then she began to share one of her great passions. With her baby slung around her, she described how she is a one woman campaign to create a law that would ban the sale of products designed to inflict pain upon children.

I had no idea that there are companies around the country selling whips, rods and paddles, specifically designed to beat children. One in Oklahoma markets “The Rod,” buttressing their advertising with quotes from the Book of Proverbs:

22:15- “Foolishness is bound in the heart of the child; but the rod of correction shall drive it from him.”

23: You shall beat him with the rod and shall deliver his soul from hell.

Their ad goes on to promote their product with bullet points such as:

  • Less likely to cause injury
  • Less confusion to the child
  • Belts are for holding up pants
  • Spoons are for cooking and eating
  • Paddle ball paddles are for games
  • Hands are for loving
  • Rods are for chastening

This last item is written in bold letters, with a little smiley face instead of bullets. It goes on to describe that this is a rod of love and how to effectively beat your child.

Another Arkansas Company sells the “Rod of Correction” a spanking stick with Biblical verses on it. Joey in Pennsylvania of “” began his mission to sell spanking paddles, when he became filled with God’s spirit while praying in his shower.

I’m not going to tell you that this is one of the most pressing issues of our time.

What impressed me so was Kristine’s passion. She had stacks of cards ready to be sent to Rep. Jindal, which she personally stamped with her resources with a goal for him to be one of the supporters of legislation that would ban the sale of these products. Along with similarly minded people around the country, that legislation is now before congress. Individuals can make a difference. Walking in the footsteps of the Prophets, Kristine, who is not Jewish, is still a mitzvah hero.

Earlier we learned “If you remove the chains of oppression, the menacing hand, the malicious word… then shall your light shine in the darkness, and your night become bright as noon.” Ben Kfir is a big strong Israeli, who has had to face great darkness.

His beautiful, bright and artistically talented daughter Yael was killed by a Palestinian suicide bomber. By all rights he could be filled with anger and vengeance. Over dinner in Jerusalem he detailed how initially his reaction was withdrawal. He stayed in bed, rarely leaving his apartment in Ashkelon.

Then a friend told him about a group called the “Parents Circle,” now renamed “Family Forum.” The goal of the organization is to avoid further bereavement as a result of the lack of peace between Israel and the Palestinians. A reconciliation process between the two communities based on the conviction that pain and suffering are common to both peoples is their goal. Using bereavement as a universal experience, they strive to alleviate the hatred between the two communities, while educating toward peace and tolerance.

Specifically they connect Israeli parents who have had children killed in the fighting with Palestinian parents whose children have also died. They commiserate with one another and build bridges to end the demonization of each by the other. In teams of bereaved parents from both sides of the conflict, they create dialogue encounters at colleges, high schools and community centers in Israel and Palestinian territories. In some cases it is the first time that a Palestinian speaks to an Israeli who is not in uniform with a gun or an Israeli meets a Palestinian, who is not seen as a possible terrorist. The hope is for tolerance and reconciliation instead of hatred and revenge.

I asked Ben why he does this, literally risking his life on some occasions to speak in places such as Ramallah, a Fatah stronghold. For Ben it is not a matter of forgiveness, but rather to make his daughter’s death mean something.

Shutafim l’kaev-shutafim l’tikvah- Sharing Pain-Sharing Hope. There are now some 500 families involved in this human effort. Individuals can make a difference. Walking in the footsteps of the Prophets, Ben is a mitzvah hero.


There is little more compelling than the exhortation “to share your bread with the hungry, and to bring the homeless poor into your house or when you see the naked, to clothe them.” We hear these words and cannot help but think of the enormous needs in our community, many related to Katrina, but others that pre-date that catastrophe.

In this regard we have many mitzvah heroes within the congregation already. Matt Tarr, who chanted the Torah blessings headed our Religious Action Committee last year. Working with Marc Beerman, who led our Katrina Response Committee, he went out into the community gutting homes. Carol Asher, who chanted the Haftarah blessings, labors tirelessly for the Tipitina’s Foundation to bring musical instruments and musicians back to New Orleans. She and her husband, Harold, are both active board members for two different Charter Schools, Carol with Lafayette Academy and Harold with Langston Hughes Middle School. Buddy Bart, who read the Haftarah translation, is busy promoting positive developments in our community through a television show on Cox cable. I also salute Mindy Caplan, whose Pajama Program literally puts clothes on the backs of children. Rick Streiffer took a leave from his medical practice in order to help lead the effort to restore primary health care for the State. Gary and Suzy Lazarus have led a number of clean-up and rebuild projects, including one recently on behalf of Federation. And I’m sure others of you are heroes in your own right and I may not be aware of what you are doing. As I learn of you and your activities I will be pleased to share that good news with the congregation through our newsletter.

However, Gates of Prayer became particularly linked to one project to make a difference through the efforts of the Silverman family. Shortly after Katrina, Jeffrey Silverman returned for a visit home for a year and volunteered for Common Ground and their Women’s Shelter; his mother, Jackie, then started helping out, Jackie who does not know how to say “no” when she sees people in need. Her years of experience at Jewish Family Service prepared her. She could see that the shelter was running poorly; the building was dilapidated and ill-equipped and there was little leadership. That’s where her husband Dan entered the scene, to apply his organizational skills honed by years in synagogue leadership, including renovating this building in 2000 and again in 2005.

They mobilized a variety of members of this congregation to provide beds and bedding, carpeting, proper electrical and plumbing, food, clothing, medical care and more for the women and children flowing through the facility. We can be proud how with their initiative, we have risen to meet a need.

That need continues. Recently, what was called the Upper 9th Women’s Shelter linked to Common Ground has been spun off by Jackie and Dan to become an independent operation and will be known as The New Orleans Women’s Shelter. A better and larger house, two doors down from the old, has been rented and will be able to serve more residents. Jackie and Dan, working with a number of people to ensure its quality, are committed to helping one group of underprivileged Katrina victims regain independent living.

The facility now operates as a family-style transitional women and children’s home with a focus on helping women stabilize, obtain proper medical treatment and other locally available social services, enroll children into school and day care, register for job training classes, secure employment, locate affordable permanent housing and move on to successful independent living. Since October of 2005, over 200 different women and children have been served.

This Shelter is a wonderful opportunity for our congregational community to make a difference. We are looking for major donors both here and outside our community, who can help underwrite the basic monthly operational costs for rent, utilities, food, transportation assistance, pharmacy and medical assistance, general housekeeping and facility maintenance. In addition we will be collecting food, cosmetics and toiletry items on a regularly announced basis; Brotherhood and Sisterhood have agreed to periodically cook for the shelter members in our kitchen and then bring the food to the Shelter. At holiday time we will engage in projects to make the season joyous. We can all make a difference. We can all be mitzvah heroes.

On Rosh Hashanah evening I wished you a “Happy New Year,” teaching that real happiness can come by being engaged in worthy projects, doing for others. This is one such opportunity. There are hundreds of other possibilities in our community as well where one person can make a difference.

We truly walk in the footsteps of the prophets. It was Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel who wrote:

“Daily we should take account and ask:

What have I done today to alleviate the anguish, to mitigate the evil, to prevent humiliation?

Let there be a grain of prophet in every human being!

Our concern must be expressed not symbolically, but literally;

not only publicly, but also privately;

not only occasionally, but regularly.

What we need is restlessness,

a constant awareness of the monstrosity of injustice.”

May we be inspired to respond to the challenge on this Yom Kippur.


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.