Category Archives: Rosh Hashanah

Living With Uncertainty

Rosh Hashanah Evening 2008-5769

By Rabbi Robert H. Loewy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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


Tallit Tale



            Friends, after 26 years of leading this congregation in High Holy Day Worship, I should have mastered the skill to craft a message for this moment easily. And this year in particular, with no evacuations, holidays arriving not too early or late, conditions for sermon composition were ideal. Three weeks ago I finished writing my sermons for Rosh Hashanah. I was quite pleased with my prompt preparation, but periodically doubts crept into my consciousness: Was I presenting a new insight? Challenging my congregation? Lifting them spiritually? This congregation deserves my best effort? Was I settling?

So, I reviewed my writing again. I wanted to believe that my message resonated with meaning, but a nagging apprehension told me otherwise. Lynn reconfirmed my fears. In truth, she offered fair warning a few weeks ago upon first reading, but I was reluctant to accept her critique. I could not sleep. I knew what I had to do. If God could create the world in seven days, I could certainly fashion a sermonic masterpiece in two.

Mica, my youngest daughter, who always likes it when I mention her in a sermon, just started the University of Georgia. This prompted recollections of my own college days, when I would labor over term papers. Up to the deadline for submission, it was a work in progress. What was true for term papers is equally valid for sermons, and is even more applicable to how we live our lives. We struggle with our achievements and relationships, our talents and weaknesses, striving for our best, but succumbing to paths of least resistance. The journey begins at youth and continues until our end of days. This season annually provides the opportunity to evaluate ourselves, cognizant that we are all works in progress.

As I reflected on my days, I realized that an article of Jewish ritual clothing might symbolize my own development: The Tallit, the simple or not so simple prayer shawl. In this month’s Temple bulletin and e-mail communications, I have encouraged our members, male and female, who own Tallesim/Tallitot to bring them and wear them for Holy Day and Shabbat worship. Or you can select from those that we provide in the back of the sanctuary. Draping a prayer shawl over one’s shoulders does not signify that one is more or less Jewish. However, I do believe that feeling the cloth on your shoulders and touching the strings is an irrational, tactile sensation, enhancing the prayer experience. During B’nai Mitzvah I regularly witness moments of memory and connection when a tallit representing family history is worn, linking multiple generations. In a similar way when we swaddle ourselves in a tallit, we connect to our ancestors and Jews around the world.

The origins of the Tallit are in the Torah, where we are instructed to wear a fringed garment. When we see the tsitsit-fringes, like a superstitious string wrapped around a finger, it will remind us of God’s commandments. The custom however is to only wear a tallit during daytime worship, for the practical reason that one needs light for the tsitsit to be visible, with the one exception being Kol Nidre Eve, which I will explain to you next week. The Book of Numbers command speaks of a blue thread, but the precise dye combination has long ago disappeared. However, the customary stripes often connected with the tallit are reminders of that blue color. The fringes are tied in a series of knots to symbolically represent the 613 mitzvot and a numerical equivalent to the statement that “God is One.”

In my minds eye, I envision myself standing upon the pulpit for my Bar Mitzvah, wearing a tallit for the first time. Wait there must be technical difficulties! There seems to be a problem with the picture. Perhaps it is still analog and not digital. According to my Bar Mitzvah album, I am not wearing a tallit. As an observant Reform Jew in the 1960s we wore neither kippah or tallit. The mantra then was, “It doesn’t matter what you wear on the outside; it is what is inside that counts.” So at least in terms of ritual garb, I entered Jewish life naked. Nonetheless, weekly religious school and family observance concretized a solid foundation of faith. We celebrated Jewish holidays and kindled Shabbat candles. I mastered the Hebrew prayers, though few in number in our old Union Prayer Book, knew numerous Bible stories, chuckled at Yiddish tales from the Wise Men of Chelm and understood that there were guiding values by which I should conduct my life. As a teen, entering adulthood, I was confident in who I was as a Jew and a person.

I purchased my first tallit at the age of 22, as a first year Rabbinical Student in Jerusalem. I scoured the shops of Meah Shearim, then the primary religious i.e. Ultra Orthodox section of the city, before selecting, as some of you can see, a  traditional, white wool with black stripes. As a student I grappled with Jewish tradition, seeking the right balance between liberalism and tradition, moral mandates and ritual practices, rational values and spiritual insight. I proudly wore that tallit throughout rabbinical school until ordination.

Then I donned the cleric’s robe, black for Shabbat and white for Holy Days, adorned with what we called “an atara.” The term actually refers to the neck band, which is often attached to most tallesim, but in this case described a slender tallit with delicate fringe attached. It was less a tallit and more a symbol of office, not unlike academic colors. In retrospect, it was part costume and uniform, designed to make an impression. I was now an adult, playing a role for which I was trained and committed, a realization which was both energizing and terrifying. Filled with youthful zeal, I was ready to spread Judaism to the Jewish masses. But at times, I have to admit it helped to have a costume which identified who I was to others and myself, perhaps even covering insecurities and doubts.

When I first came to Gates of Prayer in 1984, I continued to wear the robe and atara. After all, I had to establish myself as “the rabbi.” Within a few years, I shed the robe and simply wore the atara over my suit. I remained the same rabbi, while comfortably reducing some of the distance that the robe created.

Some of you may remember our previous sanctuary décor of midnight blue carpet and carrot colored seats. We then added a dramatic, thematic, comparably colored tapestry. Returning to Israel for a mission, I entered the Yaffo boutique to select a Gabrielli tallit, not quite the Armani of tallesim, but definitely stylish. Of course I selected orange and blue. I wanted to blend in, to be at one with our prayer setting. But, it also communicated that contemporary Reform Judaism was vibrant, marked by flexibility and change, growth and beauty.

As we celebrated my 10th year as rabbi of Gates of Prayer, I received a gift from the congregation. Hindsight reveals a not so subtle statement, as I was presented with a new tallit, silk as opposed to wool, in gentler colors with images of Jerusalem. I wear it now, to some extent because the white background looks better against the white robe, but also due to its messages. Israel and its importance to Jewish identity is a core aspect of what it means to be a Jew today. Trips to Israel, whether for teens or adults rejuvenate us all, and I include myself. Being there reaffirms our roots, links us to history and heritage, while providing a model of vital Jewish living.

On a personal level this new tallit expressed respect and appreciation, acknowledging an important relationship between rabbi and congregation. After ten years, we had adapted to one another. We enjoyed the comfort of knowing that we could weather periods of turmoil and stay committed to one another. The honeymoon was long past and in its place was a solid foundation for the future.

In 2000 we renovated our building and especially the sanctuary. Goodbye blue and orange! Hello beige and plum! Goodbye tapestry! Hello windows! It must be time for a new tallit! And so, while attending our URJ international convention, I selected an artisan to fashion a one of a kind tallit, mirroring the new symbols found in our sanctuary. The atara-neck piece is embroidered with our theme verse: Ivdu et Adonai B’simcha- Worship God with Joy, a guiding principle of what I teach and model and how we conduct worship and create congregational programs. Representations of Divine light and the stars of the covenant are reminders of a growing relationship with God.  That awareness continues to develop in my life.

Then two summers ago, while leading a congregational trip in Israel, I spotted a cute tallit depicting the story of Joseph. It included bright striped colors, images of his dreams with sun, moon and stars, along with sheaves of wheat and Pharoah’s dream of cows being devoured. I did not buy it, but my fellow travelers presented it to me as a gift. It’s a wonderful teaching tool for Tot Shabbat and children’s services. Not everything needs to be about me. Focusing on others brings joy and fulfillment.

This evening, I stand before you and we all stand before God, the sum total of our life experiences. We all begin with the confidence of youth and then enter into periods of struggle, questioning and grappling with who we are and what is important to us. We assume positions and explore possibilities, even wearing costumes to strengthen us, while we deal with doubts and insecurities. At times we will simply try to blend into our surroundings. With the advantage of the years, we glean that people and places can expand who we are, that shared experiences will shape us and relationships can be forged from trials. Faith can connect us with that which is transcendent and fulfillment arrives as we focus on the needs of others. I look forward to the purchase of my next tallit and what it might represent. Whether wearing a tallit or not, we are all works in progress.


Avinu Malkeinu Or To Whom It May Concern

Rosh Hashanah Morning 5770

By Rabbi Robert H. Loewy


Let’s begin with a little word association game. When I say, “I have a little dreidel,” you think of what holiday? _____. Dadayenu and you think ______. Kol Nidre: _____. Last in our game: Avinu Malkeinu: ________.

Certain words, phrases or melodies automatically connect us, transport us, link us to moments in time. However, when we recite and hear the Avinu Malkeinu prayer, as we will in a few moments, it is important to realize that this is much more than a wonderful melody. It speaks to the heart of what this day is all about: how we relate to God and what is really important in our lives.

Some resonate to the literal message. For others, the words of this prayer may be theologically challenging, disconcerting, problematic, even upsetting. Our ancestors understood that when speaking of and to God, words merely open doors of communication. While they are all we have, we recognize that they are limiting. Historically, Avinu Malkeinu has been a prominent path to addressing God, loaded with multiple meanings. But if this particular salutation offends you, feel free to direct your comments and thoughts “To Whom It May Concern.” Let’s explore the possibilities together this morning.

According to the Talmud, during a drought, Rabbi Eliezer ben Hyrcanus, leader of the community, declared a day of fasting. He offered his prayers continually, but to no avail. Then one of the young rabbis, Akiba, by name, came forward. He began with the now familiar phrase: “Avinu Malkeinu, our Father our King, we have no King but You. Our Father our King, for Your sake have compassion upon us.” He concluded his petition and the heavens opened up. The Talmud goes on to explain that while both were great Rabbis, Akiba’s prayer was answered, because of his humility.

What are we saying in this prayer? Literally, Avinu is “our father” and Malkeinu is “our King.” Like much of our prayer language, God is described with male metaphors, but limitations of language ought not confuse us. Judaism has long maintained that God has no body. If God has no body, then how can God be a Father or a King? Clearly these are metaphors for God. We utilize the Hebrew, even in the English translation to come closer to its original meaning.

When we pronounce “Avinu Malkeinu,” in one phrase we are linking two opposite aspects of God- God’s closeness and intimacy as opposed to God’s transcendence and distance. Avinu speaks of God as a parent figure, a loving, caring creator, concerned about every aspect of our being. Related to this idea is one of God’s other names: Av Harachaman- God the compassionate one, with that word “rachaman” having definite feminine connections. These are all personal concepts, a God to whom we can pray, speak and relate in a direct fashion.

On the other hand, we have Malkeinu- our ruler. God is the standard setter, the God of justice and righteousness, who establishes the norms by which we live, the fundamental values for a just society. And at this time of year we think of God as the Judge. Rabbi Jacob Petachowski teaches that God as Melech is a way of saying that there is ultimate righteous rule in the world, as opposed to despotic kings/emperors from the past or the despots of our time.

These depict God, who is remote from us personally, but very much part of our world. Thus when we say Avinu Malkeinu we simultaneously embrace God’s immanence and transcendence. We can choose to relate to God in either fashion or both.

Then we begin our specific requests of God. Depending upon the mahzor, there are as many as 53 verses to this prayer. We present God with a shopping list of requests: forgiveness, pardon, renewal, compassion on us and our children, end of oppression, war, sickness and famine; strength for our people; answer our prayers and of course inscription in the Books of happy life; redemption and salvation; sustenance; merit; and forgiveness. Some think of it as in the fairy tales, “ask and God, the magical genie will grant our wishes” Others present their petitions, knowing full well that the act alone is a clarifying moment. My perspective is that our petitions can be a bit of each. We are permitted to hope for miracles and fulfillment, but simultaneously begin the work ourselves.

What is it that we want from God that we feel we need extra assistance to attain it? Let me suggest a few, which are not the usual health, wealth and well-being.

Too many people live by the value of “if it’s good for me, then I can do whatever I please.”  And so, let us pray: Avinu Malkeinu- guide us to live with integrity. Integrity demands the ability to face ourselves in the mirror and be able to say that we lead lives based upon values, teachings and morals of justice and decency, that our actions are consistent with those values. Most of the time, this should not be too challenging. However, there are moments when self-interest can push us away from paths of righteousness. We veer from what we know to be proper conduct because we want the lost object we found, the promotion at work, the leadership of that organization, that girlfriend or boyfriend, to be victorious. There is nothing wrong with desire or ambition, as long as we keep it in check, and achieve our goals with integrity.

Avinu Malkeinu- grant us strength to face adversity. We all confront difficult moments in life. No one is exempt: illness for ourselves or loved ones, broken relationships, unemployment, issues of aging, shattered dreams, loneliness, thwarted goals, death, disappointments, loss of self-confidence, frustration, the feeling that life is overwhelming. Most of the time we feel self-sufficient, but even the strongest of individuals needs support in adversity. We do not ask God to resolve our problems, to remove the pain, but when our personal batteries are low, our energy levels depleted, we can seek a boost in our spiritual resources. Often, simply the request reminds us that there is a source of assistance and we are not alone.

Avinu Malkeinu- open us to the needs of others. Friends, it can’t be all about me, my wants, my desires, my needs, my problems, for if it is, then we are leading shallow lives and are probably not very happy. It can start at home with our husbands and wives and partners, our sons and daughters, mothers and fathers, sisters and brothers. Sadly, we are all too often least sensitive to those who are near and dear. Let us not forget those beyond our own doors. In our community there are so many opportunities to make a difference in the lives of others: children to benefit from tutors, structures to rebuild, illnesses to cure, elders to visit, synagogue programs to plan, homeless to assist. The list is endless and the reward is great, adding meaning to our days.

Later in our worship as we read the traditional list, I will pause prior to the final line in our prayer to allow you to share some of your additional wishes either silently or aloud.

Yet all versions end with Akiba’s humble perspective: we are not really worthy- ein banu maasim- we have no deeds, at least not any that stack up to God’s. “What do you mean, ‘I am not deserving’? I’m ‘nothing or without merit?” Rather, we are powerful; the world revolves around us. We consider ourselves as the last word, the ultimate authority and refrain from relinquishing autonomy to anyone. Rabbi Yoel Kahn points out, “What does not work for so many today is the continual emphasis on God’s absolute power and our own frailty- an imagery of imbalance that is fundamentally dissonant with how we experience ourselves in the world and with our core Reform Jewish teachings about human responsibility and engagement.” Some call these old traditional Jewish beliefs a “theology of human inadequacy.” It simply does not resonate with many 21st century Jews.

In contrast I would describe what many desire to be a “theology of partnership,” even equality, where God has a voice over our actions, but not a veto. God is our Friend, Teacher, Confidante, Buddy, but not Ruler or Superior. God can Judge, but we render the verdict.

So when we pray this essential prayer of the Holy Days, how shall we approach it? How will we relate to God: Father, King, Parent, Sovereign, Intimate One who cares for me, Transcendent One of the universe, Source of order, Wellspring of values, or with an open, but questioning heart and seeking mind, “To Whom It May Concern.” Ours are mere words and thoughts. All imagery reflects God, but ultimately does not limit God.

Then, let us remember that this prayer is one in which we present our requests, our petitions, our desires before God. Ira Eisenstein, a leading Reconstructionist Rabbi teaches, it is not so much to whom we are praying, but for what we are praying that is clarifying. When we pray the words, we recognize that there is always the possibility that we can change and our world can be transformed for the better.

And who are we that we even ask, seek, hope for something better? Ein banu maasim- Do we, limited by lack of righteous acts and worthy deeds in our personal portfolio, really have standing, a right to present our petitions? In a time when everyone emphasizes self-esteem, positive self-image, our tradition calls for humility, not necessarily exclusive of one another. We may be good, but we are never as good as we think we are or could be.

Still, we turn to Avinu Malkeinu and ask, invoking God’s attributes of tsedakah- justice and chesed-mercy, we hope You are listening. Judgment is taking place, if not by God, at least we are judging ourselves. This prayer reminds us of our fragility, but it also presents the positive message that God, however envisioned, wants us to succeed. God is rooting for us, as we root for ourselves. The story is told:

A retail merchant who dealt in fabrics made his way to a wholesale supplier to buy the goods he needed for his business. The wholesaler instructed his workers to wait on the merchant and to bring him all that he ordered. Standing in the middle of the warehouse, the merchant bellowed all sorts of orders and requests.

“I want 1,000 yards of that cloth, 2,000 yards of the blue velvet, 3,000 yards of that white silk,” he shouted, and on and on he went, requesting many other items. When it came time to reckon up the price of the goods and to pay the bill, the merchant took the wholesaler to the side and, very embarrassed, whispered in his ear: “Listen, I can’t give you any money for this right now. Please allow me credit until I can pay you.”

So it is with us, said the Dubno Maggid, an 18th century Rebbe: We shout out all sorts of requests to God in the Avinu Malkenu prayer. We want forgiveness, health, a good life, wealth, redemp­tion, and many other things. But when it comes down to the last verse (to pay the bill, so to speak), we whisper: “Avinu Malkeinu, be gracious to us and answer us, though we have no worthy deeds (with which to pay You for our large order) please grant us tsedakah and kindness, and save us.” *

May the words we humbly recite have meaning for us on this day.


Now let us pray:

* –Jacob ben Wolf Kranz, known as the Maggid of Dubno, a Hassidic master and teacher (1741-1804). Reprinted from Aaron Levine’s The New Rosh Hashanah Anthology, published by Zichron Meir Publications.





Sacred Season

Rosh Hashanah Eve 5771

By Rabbi Robert H. Loewy


My dear friends, at this particular time, on this date, we find ourselves in the midst of a sacred season, in truth it can be argued, 3 sacred seasons. We have recently observed the 5th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, an indelible event in our hearts, minds and spirits. Most will agree that it is good to have K-5 behind us.  Yet, personally and communally we are still healing. Of course tonight is Rosh Hashanah 5771, a new year, time for reflection on the past and preparation to approach the future. And I know the thought in the minds of many seated here, tomorrow night is the beginning of the 2010 Saints Football season.

As I do each year, I read a number of important books to prepare for this holy day season, to present the right messages. In some ways a Rabbi is like the Coach before the big game. So I read Sean Payton’s “Home Team.” I was fascinated to discover the numerous techniques he employed to motivate his team- movies, speakers and videos.

Some of you may recall that last year I resorted to my various tallesim to spark your thinking with a rabbinic fashion show. This year I was tempted to wear my black and gold jersey with #18, which simply reads: THE RABBI on the back. I wear it proudly on game days, but decided it was not quite appropriate Yuntif attire.

I needed something that would speak to the soul. So, my spiritual text for this year is not from Abraham Joshua Heschel or Reb Nachman, but is entitled “Coming back Stronger- Unleashing the Hidden Power of Adversity written by Rabbi Drew Brees with help from Chris Fabry. While Sean Payton’s work is essentially a football book, I found Drew Brees’ to be instructive and deeply spiritual. It includes aspects of theology with which I agree and some not, as he provides a retrospective on the last few years, not only of the Saints and Drew Brees, but of all New Orleans.

Some might think that referencing a football player’s book and the Saints’ Super Bowl victory seems mundane, even trite. I might agree generally, but truly believe that this past year’s Saints story was much more than about sports. The climactic moments- an overtime field goal in the NFC Championship and the interception at the end of the Super Bowl were transcendent spiritual experiences. They served as the metaphor for our community as we continue to heal from Katrina and confront our own personal issues.

The premise of “Coming Back Stronger” is that all of us face challenges. Drew Brees, not a tragic figure in any way, still had problems like all of us: a dysfunctional family with a mother whose mental illness and suicide haunted him; his talent being doubted throughout his career from high school, college and into the pros; debilitating injuries to the knee and a torn shoulder, either of which could have ended his career and losing what he thought was his dream job in San Diego. We may not be NFL quarterbacks, but we confront similar challenges- families that are less than ideal, sweet relationships that turn sour, physical illnesses and injuries that compromise our days and potentially limit our future, loss of jobs through no fault of our own or sometimes with fault; and storms of all varieties that come into our lives with which we must cope. Through a combination of his insights and Jewish wisdom we can gain perspective to deal with life’s challenges.

How do we theologically make sense when reversals come our way? I’m not sure that all will buy into his approach. I do not. Still, we all can appreciate that faith provides an anchor in a storm. In his words: “God, I know that if you bring me to it, you will bring me through it.

I know you have a plan, but quite honestly, I don’t see it right now. But I know it’s there. I know I have to believe. I know I need to have faith. I have to trust you. And I do trust you. But it’s hard right now.” (pp. xxi-xxii)

If that approach speaks to you, you are welcome to it. He embraces it as a good Christian, but there is nothing non-Jewish about it. Personally, I’m not a “It’s all God’s plan” kind of believer. Instead, I prefer the 23rd Psalm approach. As I walk through the valley of hurt, pain, loss and crisis, I seek a good companion and feel that God is with me. Or consistent with the 121st Psalm, I lift my eyes/my mind up to the mountain, believing that God will be there to help. I know that this theology has helped me as I absorb deaths in my family, crises in my life or major disappointments. Reflecting upon 5 years ago, my prayers were to help me take care of family and congregation with the faith that God would be there for me, not so much that it is God’s plan, but that adversity too is part of God’s world.

Theology is good for reflection, but we need a game plan to tackle life’s hurtles. Rabbi Brees provides a number of effective strategies, consistent with our Jewish traditions. As a child he was teased because of a prominent facial birthmark. He chose to see it as something that made him unique, not ugly. I am reminded of my nephew, who at the age of 5 lost all body hair, due to an auto immune disease. He has been totally bald since then, but never allowed it to impact his drive in life. He earned his BA and MBA, found a great job, met a wonderful woman on J-date, who easily saw past his lack of hair and just became a father. No matter our physical marks, perceived imperfections, which others use for ridicule, each of us is unique; each of us is created b’tselem Elohim in the image of God and no one can take that away from us.

When life takes unexpected twists: you don’t land the desired job; you’re rejected by the college of your dreams; you lose the election, are not chosen for the committee chair or the promotion you deserved- how can you react. Drew Brees confronted such disappointments. As a Texas High School All Star, he had dreams of playing at the University of Texas or perhaps Texas A & M. They were not interested and instead he travelled to Indiana to play for perennial loser Purdue. He expected to be a first round pick in the NFL draft earning big bonus dollars, but instead was chosen in the second. Later as a professional free agent, Brees thought the Miami Dolphins would become home, but instead was relegated to storm ravaged New Orleans.

How did he respond? “I could get stuck in disappointment because I hadn’t gone in the first round like I envisioned, or I could be thankful I’d landed in the right place. Sometimes it’s not how you get to your destination that’s most important. The key is ending up in the right place…” (p. 43) He made it so.

In 1977 when I was ordained, I assumed I’d be a rabbi in the northeast. Instead, I landed in Texas for seven years with wonderful colleagues and teachers. It became the right place. I accepted this pulpit in New Orleans in 1984, thinking I would remain a few years and then move elsewhere. Instead we have shared 27 years of a close, caring relationship. Gates of Prayer was and is the right place. I’m not going to say, “we plan and God laughs.” I will say that one never knows what will become the Promised Land.

In response to those in San Diego, who doubted his ability as a football player, Brees could have adopted an “I’ll show them, chip on your shoulder” attitude. Being “dissed,” not respected, motivates many, but it is negative. Brees assumed a more positive stance: “I made a choice: instead of spurred on by those who doubted me, I’d be motivated by those who had faith in me. These were the people who mentored me, supported me, and believed in me, everyone from my parents to my teachers, coaches, mentors, teammates, and now the City of New Orleans.” (p. 66)

Jewish tradition teaches that vengeance is not the right path for living. Getting even, showing others how wrong they were may bring temporary satisfaction, but not real fulfillment. Negative energy can be very draining, while positive energy is invigorating.

And when we stumble, make mistakes, disappoint others and embarrass ourselves, how shall we respond? Certainly we can dwell upon them if we like. More importantly we must learn from the fumbles and interceptions of life. These holy days focus on that theme of teshuvah, repentance, recognizing mistakes, correcting them, asking forgiveness of those who may have been adversely impacted by our deeds and committing not to repeat them again.

For Drew Brees and for so many of us, New Orleans became the ultimate challenge. Looking for a new football home he envisioned Miami. New Orleans was a consideration, but under the circumstances, a new coach, history of being losers, a city barely functioning, he was dubious at best. Then he and his wife Brittany came for a visit. They were wined and dined at Emeril’s. Keep in mind, though, this was January of 2006, when our world was still topsy turvy. Driving back with Coach Peyton from the North Shore, they inadvertently detoured through devastated Lakeview. Perhaps it was fate, as Drew and Brittany, like so many others who have chosen to settle here in recent years, felt a sense of being called. They arrived here recognizing that life is bigger than football, with a faith commitment to give back and help in the healing process. We call that Tikun Olam in our tradition.

Following his own personal shoulder rehabilitation, Brees understood that the September 2006 first game back in the Dome held great psychological significance. I was present and remember the evening distinctly. Tears filled my eyes as the team ran out onto the field. Their mere presence was a statement. An early blocked punt and Saints touchdown lifted us. Yes, it was just a game, but it served as a transcendent spiritual moment towards recovery and Brees appreciated its significance that night, as well as in the Miami Super Bowl victory, when he wrote:

“Whether you’re talking in terms of the physical, the emotional or the spiritual, healing has its own timetable. When there is a tragedy in your life- perhaps a health crisis or the death of a family member or something else that upends your world- there is a mourning period you have to go through in order to cope with it and come out on the other side healthy and mentally whole.” (p. 120) Jewish tradition has always understood this reality, which is why we have prescribed periods of mourning over time. We never fully cease mourning.

Healing requires time and can be very frustrating. How well we know. I have always opined that it will be at least 10 years before this community can say it is recovered. We are at the half-way point with a city government in which we have some faith, revival of Lakeview and other areas, public education improving, medical infrastructure being rebuilt and many other  hopeful signs, cognizant that there is still much more to be done. As a congregation our numbers are not what they were, but our strength and vitality may be even greater than before. We have learned many lessons along the way, especially in our relationship with Beth Israel, which has become a model for the nation.

On this evening of Rosh Hashanah, we find ourselves in the midst of sacred seasons. Drew Brees’ mantra of last year- “Finish Strong”- seems to apply to our city, how we conduct our lives and to our beloved football team. He comments: “The story isn’t over for New Orleans. We’ve made a lot of progress, but it’s too soon to relax. It’s not like every part of the city has suddenly been rebuilt overnight… the story of our recovery is still being written.” (p. 299)

Rosh Hashanah and our entire High Holy Days are an opportunity for us to reflect and prepare for the year to come. We can learn from the past, knowing that we can cope with whatever is presented to us. Our story is still being written and we are doing the writing. And with tomorrow’s kick-off, comes the reminder that the game continues for us all. L’shanah Tovah Tikotevu.. May it be a good year, one of continued growth and recovery, appreciating the spiritual sources that enable us to succeed.


200 Years And Counting

Rosh Hashanah Morning 5771

By Rabbi Robert H. Loewy


There is a new phrase circulating around the Jewish world- “Post Denominational.” Individuals do not want to be identified with any one of the particular movements, so they are Not Reform, Not Conservative or Not Orthodox, but – “Post Denominational.”

Other self-definitions that I have heard or perceive include:

  • Cultural Jews, who love dancing the hora at weddings or B’nai Mitzvah or at least mindlessly whirling in circles numerous times, as long as they don’t have to step foot in the synagogue
  • Spiritual Jews– “I’ve got that Jewish feeling.” They believe in God, as long as they don’t have to step foot in the synagogue.
  • Gastronomic Jews love lox and bagels, chopped liver, matzah balls and all Jewish foods, as long as they don’t have to step foot in the synagogue, except to eat.
  • Cardiac Jews claim to be Jewish in their hearts, as long as they don’t have to put the rest of their bodies in the synagogue


You can hear the common theme in all four. Rabbi Stephen Pearce of San Francisco addressed this post denominational phenomena at a recent gathering of the Central Conference of American Rabbis (1), adding a number of additional categories, some serious, some not, including:

  • “Not very Jewish Jews”, who know little, are detached from organizational life, but may occasionally pop up when they need something, then quickly disappear.
  • “Formerly affiliated,” who voluntarily drop membership, (No one has to resign. This synagogue always works with need issues.) but who still speak of “my synagogue” or “my rabbi” and have no qualms about asking for, if not demanding services as needed
  • “Very Jewish Jews,” who affiliate, support and participate. They just can’t get enough. Rabbis love these folks.
  • “We’ve always done it that way Jews” for whom however it’s been done is the absolute norm- it’s tradition; any changes –“you’re ruining the congregation.”
  • “Suddenly Jewish Jews” are people who find a Jewish ancestor on their family tree and realize they are Jewish, embracing it with fervor;
  • “Jews by Choice” are similar, formally converting and actively living as Jews.
  • Half-Jewish Jews with one Jewish parent, often raised with no religious instruction or a little of each, resulting in a confused identity.
  • Non-Jewish Jews, precious people who have not chosen Judaism for themselves but are supportive of their Jewish family, often participating actively.
  • Unconventional or Renewal Jews are generally young and disconnected from traditional Jewish institutions, technically savvy, environmentally aware, programmatically creative and care deeply about Jewish life.

My guess is that each and every one of us could identify with one or more of these categories. Yet here we are as one congregation on this day, one community. Though there are those who proclaim that we are in a “post denominational era”, I will argue that all of us can sit under the same umbrella of our particular denomination, Reform Judaism, which this year can claim to celebrate its 200th year.

Specifically on July 17, 1810, Israel Jacobson a wealthy German Jewish community leader built and dedicated a small “temple” building next to an educational center he constructed in Seesen, Germany. Jacobson’s first goal as a leader was to have Jews receive full civil rights as German citizens. With his school and synagogue he advocated that Jews be modern, maintain their Judaism, but also fit into surrounding society. Borrowing from the Christian Church’s practices, he initiated organ music, choral song, German language prayers and sermons as part of the typical worship service. Confirmation on Shavuot became a new ceremony as young people affirmed their beliefs as Jews, first just boys then soon after to include girls, as opposed to Bar Mitzvah, which represented adherence to Jewish law.

Michael Meyer (2), a leading historian of early Reform Judaism, describes the dedication ceremony as unique, bringing Jews and Christians together in a way that was previously impossible. He summarizes Jacobson’s message from that day: Speaking to Jews: “He assured his coreligionists that he was a faithful and observant Jew who did not desire that Judaism should disappear or be merged into a universal religion of reason.” To Christians: “He asked that they accept the Jews into their midst without prejudice, and he thanked God for creating man as a rational autonomous being.”

Along with many other lay and rabbinic leaders, Jacobson began the process of reforming Judaism, beginning with ideas that were revolutionary in their day and are now conventional convictions. But it was a challenge for Reform to fully develop in Europe, where State governments appointed committees to oversee Jewish matters and controlled finance. Dominated by old guard traditionalists, who opposed reforms, growth was limited. In that environment, where there was not a full modern alternative to be Jewish, many of Jacobson’s grandchildren ultimately were not Jewish, contrary to his vision.

German Jews brought reform to America, a totally different religious climate. Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise lobbied for a single unique expression of Judaism for this new land, embracing both German reforms and traditionalism. He published a German/Hebrew and later English/Hebrew prayer book, called “Minhag America- the Custom of America,” organized a congregational structure for all synagogues, the Union of American Hebrew Congregations and a modern American seminary- Hebrew Union College. However, one united expression of American Judaism was not to be, especially with the influx of Eastern European Jews starting in the 1880s, who were so very different from the Germans.

And so a distinctive path for Reform Judaism was outlined by Reform’s leading rabbis in 1885, historically known as the Pittsburgh Platform. Like Jacobson, American leaders wanted Jews to be Jewish and part of the society in which we live. Among the ideals they stressed were:


  1. The belief in God as an Idea, taught and developed by Jewish texts and teachers
  2. Recognition that Scripture and science and modern scholarship are not antagonistic
  3. Here comes a major break from tradition in the realm of Jewish law: moral laws are binding, ritual laws are not; Related to this is the idea that rituals and customs are good if they speak to us. They supported ceremonies that elevate and sanctify our lives, but specifically rejected Kashrut and ritual garb as being anachronistic.
  4. Our identity as Jews and our covenant with God is not dependent upon a land, Zion. Rather, we looked upon ourselves solely as a religion like everyone else.
  5. They embraced the hope for a better world by committing to a messianic age, not a personal messiah.
  6. Related to that hope came a pledge to partner with brother and sister religions to establish a reign of truth and harmony, to be involved with alleviating separations of rich and poor, dealing with the problems of society based upon justice and righteousness. For decades we called this Prophetic Judaism.


Keep in mind, this was 1885. Reform Judaism has evolved from those early days. One of my pet peeves is when we are referred to as ReformED Jews, when the term is Reform. We changED and continue to change. Our relationship with Israel, politically and spiritually is a prime example, as it is basic to our understanding of what it means to be a Jew in the 21st century. What our Reform ancestors rejected, we now often reclaim, embracing ideas and practices once deemed anachronistic and anti-modern, now seen as relevant and uplifting, reshaping customs to address our needs. While rationalism was a foundation of Reform, we have sought the spiritual as well. Subsequent official statements about Reform more clearly delineate who we are and what values we uphold. As opposed to what happened to Jacobson’s family and in response to those who criticize Reform as the last stop before leaving Judaism, we have many Jews who are second, third, fourth and fifth generation Reform Jews. I am among them as are many seated here this morning.

After 200 years I truly believe that our Reform approach to Judaism is relevant, inclusive of a wide spectrum of people, interests and needs, yet still distinctive and compelling. Over the past few months I conducted an exercise, first with our Board and then a group of teenagers at Jacobs Camp, where I asked them to list what it particularly means to be a Reform Jew today, then compared it to a statement by Rabbi Eric Yoffie (3), President of the Union For Reform Judaism. Responses were essentially the same.


  1. We view the Jewish tradition as growing, evolving and always changing, and we celebrate creative change in all areas of ritual and practice.
  2. We assert that the equality of women in Jewish life is non-negotiable.
  3. We draw the boundaries of Reform so as to include rather than exclude, and we welcome gays, lesbians, the intermarried, non-Jewish spouses and all who bind their fate to that of the Jewish people.
  4. We embrace Jewish worship that is creative, dynamic, vibrant and participatory.
  5. We see tikun olam-repairing our world as an essential element of our Reform identity- in fact, as the jewel in the Reform crown.
  6. And we believe in real partnership between rabbis and lay people as essential to our Jewish future.


These concepts are underlying principles of Reform Judaism. They are descriptive, but

not prescriptive. As important as it is to know where you stand and what you believe, actions are the key. To be what I will simply call a “serious Reform Jew,” not just a twice a year Jew, who makes excuses or self-justifying rationalizations as to why you are not behaving in a way that you intellectually believe is the right way, consider the following:

  1. Struggle with how you think about God- don’t sit pat with childhood beliefs; don’t absent yourself from Jewish life due to adolescent rebellion still raging years later; stop blaming God for perceived injustice, either personal or global; Instead- read, reflect, accept, reject, reconsider; When you find a comfortable personal theological position… struggle some more
  2. Grow educationally. Ignorance is nothing we tolerate in jobs, raising children, evaluating current issues, purchasing major items. Instead, we study, research, explore and then commit. Why should we do less in our Jewish lives, short-changing ourselves of the wealth that is our inheritance? Participate in adult learning- Shabbat mornings, Continuing Education programs; learn Hebrew; search the internet, but be careful of sources; read a book, two books, one every month from the Lake Library.
  3. As you have done today, set your watches, Palm pilots, I-phones and Blackberrys according to Jewish time with a primary focus being the 7th day of the week, Shabbat. On that day rest, break away from routine; renew your spirit; come to synagogue; reflect upon the week that is past with appreciation; rekindle important relationships with your partner, your children, your friends, your community and recharge for the week ahead.
  4. Serious Jews live by morals and values that are distinctly, though not uniquely Jewish- standing up for the oppressed- the widow, the orphan, the stranger; caring for parents, family and friends, pets and the environment; opposing bigotry of any kind- racial, religious, sexual, xenophobic; having compassion for those who suffer whether from the ravages of illness or nature or human failures; Outrage is good, but action is better. Conduct your daily activities and relationships with integrity, honesty and humility.
  5. Celebrate life as a Jew. Recently, Irl Silverstein, a long-time congregant, invited me to visit his home as he surprised his wife for their 40th anniversary with a ketubah. In 1970, their Reform rabbi did not use such a document. With tears in his eyes and a quavering voice he read words of love and commitment surrounded by a devoted family shaped by Jewish tradition. A few weeks later there was not a dry eye in the house, including my own, as I performed an impromptu renewal of vows for Larry and Judy Rudman as they celebrated their 50th anniversary. Ivdu et Adonai b’simcha- As Reform Jews, we can serve God, not out of fear or dread or guilt or solely a sense of obligation, but with joy.

We are at 200 years and counting. Are we at a turning point in history, a new Post Denominational Era? Will Reform be a footnote in history like other approaches to Jewish life from the past? Only time will determine the ultimate answer, as we write the history by our commitments and actions. To be continued..


  1. Pearce, Stephen, “Postmodernism Cultivates Postdenominationalism,” Presented to the CCAR Annual Convention, San Francisco, March 7, 2010
  2. Meyer, Michael, Response To Modernity.. A History of the Reform Movement in Judaism

p. 42

  1. Yoffie, Eric, Comments to CCAR Annual Convention, March 9, 2010

Our New Technological World



            (Rabbi takes out his cell phone and sounds the Shofar with an App)

The world is changing my friends! It always has and it always will. Rosh Hashanah is known as the birthday of the world and indeed we are coming to realize technologically that we are entering a whole new world, some of us more slowly than others. Though, “new” is often scary, while “old” is comfortable, “new” can also be beneficial. So, the question I raise this Rosh Hashanah morning is how are we to embrace the new technologies of our time and do so as Jews? What values of our tradition can guide us as we navigate this newest of worlds?

We already have a related ritual expression that has evolved in recent years. Prior to services, weddings and funerals we remind everyone to turn off or minimally silence phones. (Yes, you can check now if you forgot earlier.) Yet even with the announcement, there is always one that undoubtedly rings at the most inopportune moment, invariably during the silent prayer. Please note that I do understand when accidents happen. On one occasion I was conducting the Bedecken ceremony prior to a wedding, when my phone rang. I thought it was off, but I had obviously not held the button down long enough … oops! Another time, I had definitely turned my phone onto silent mode, while conducting a worship service at the New Orleans Jewish Day School. What I did not realize was that while it silenced incoming calls, it did not silence the daily morning alarm I had set.

These being the Days of Awe, I can honestly say that I am in awe of the advances from which we all can benefit. Just when I start to feel comfortable with computers, along come these absolutely amazing hand held devices. For many of us, what we remember as science fiction is now reality. During my time away this summer: if I wanted to know the weather- check my phone; Need directions-GPS; Someone seeks me- they just call or e-mail (except when I am in a dead zone); looking for a local restaurant on the highway, that is not fast food- use the I-pad; E-mail Communication with the office, friends or family- check my phone; when bored- there are games to play either by myself or with someone far away; want to share our whale watching moment? …click a picture and send. Truly we are all blessed by the constantly amazing and evolving opportunities available to us through technology. Reb Nachman taught that the world is a very narrow bridge, but the essence of life is not to be afraid. So to those who are hesitant to make the leap into the world of the 21st century, “Lo l’fached- do not be afraid.”

Let us embrace the world, but do so wisely. Last year there were reports around the country during the High Holy Days that Jews in the pews were texting. Can you imagine? Certainly not at Gates of Prayer! Let me paraphrase the Book of Ecclesiastes: “There is a time to text and a time to refrain from texting.” While we pride ourselves in the ability to perform multiple tasks simultaneously, we sometimes do ourselves a disservice. For prayer to be meaningful, we teach the idea of Kavanah, directing oneself, being focused on the task at hand.

Prayer is challenging enough without the distraction of messages from your friend in the back row, or checking the score or simply the usual chit chat from someone who does not realize that you are engaged in sacred time.

When teaching college students at Loyola, it is frustrating, even insulting when I see the phone out or notice that the computer is on, but not for taking notes during my lectures. I know of some instructors who do not allow computers to be used for taking notes as a result. This sort of behavior is rude to the instructor or any presenter in a variety of situations, but you are also doing yourself a disservice.

Many consider multi-tasking to be a great skill, but often it can be detrimental and may in fact be impossible. Edward Miller, a professor of neuroscience at MIT, is quoted as saying, “People can’t multitask very well, and when people say they can, they’re deluding themselves. The brain is very good at deluding itself… Think about writing an e-mail and talking on the phone at the same time. Those things are nearly impossible to do at the same time.” What we do, neuroscientists tell us, is shift our focus from one thing to another and back again – to be sure, with remarkable speed – but shifting nonetheless, and losing both time and focus in the process.”

The term that describes what we are actually doing is “Continuous Partial Attention” (coined by Linda Stone in 1998). It works when one of our tasks is fairly mindless (e.g. folding laundry), but not when both activities require thoughtful attention or the same brain function.

Trying to perform more than one task is certainly not new. How many of us have said, “I can watch TV, listen to my music or the radio and still… (Fill in the blank).. do my homework, write letters, balance the checkbook, prepare my brief or report.” I can remember being one of those teens, when life was low-tech. On one occasion my 9th grade English teacher returned my paper on Shakespeare with two words circled in red: “Reingold Beer” I had been listening to the Mets baseball game while writing and guess who was their sponsor?

Warning: technological multi-tasking can be a matter of Pikuach nefesh, preservation of life, both yours and others. I watch men and women driving, with one hand on the steering wheel and the other actively engaged on the phone in conversation, children in the back seat, making wide left turns in busy intersections.

What can they be thinking? Even with hands free devices, we are easily distracted. Driving is not a mindless activity.

This past semester I had a student who missed class for a week. With a degree of embarrassment she shared that she had suffered a concussion by walking on campus and talking on her phone, as she collided with a tree. Walking is also not a mindless activity. We all need to use better judgment as to when we use our technology and when we refrain.

Warning: technological multi-tasking may be a danger to “shalom mishpacha-family harmony.” A typical family scene from the 1970s might include everyone sitting in the family room. Television is on. Dad is reading the paper. Mom has a book. One child is engrossed in whatever is on the screen, while the other is listening to a walk-man.

A typical scene from today has the television still on, just that now it is bigger and flatter.

One family member is plugged into an I-pod, another is reading from a Kindle and another has the computer open monitoring the mundane details in the lives of hundreds of people. We call this “quality time,” when it is of course far from it. Today we simply have more choices of how we can isolate ourselves from one another.

I am not calling upon us to shun technology, far from it, just use it more judiciously. One congregant experimented with Shabbat as a day to break away from electronics, not out of the traditional sense, but for the sake of relationships. She was delighted with the result. I’m not advocating for even that radical a concept. Rather, I want to raise the awareness that we have the ultimate control.

Many will argue, “What I do is up to me.” And Judaism agrees, “If I’m not for myself who will be?” But then our teaching continues to remind us that we are not in this world alone- “If I am only for myself, what am I?” What we do touches others. Come Yom Kippur, we will confess our sins in the plural, because we are all linked. Using your device in the synagogue, movies, theater, restaurant or other venues may diminish your experience. That is your choice, but it also impacts those around you. (My wife is self-deputized as part of the cell phone police at Elmwood and Clearview Theaters. Watch out!) Within Judaism, there is a concept of Kibud hatsibur, honoring the public, recognizing their rights. No one wants your light in their eyes in a darkened theater or hear your personal conversations. Many of you will recall the story of the man who adamantly defends his prerogative to drill a hole in the boat under his seat. We are all in this same boat together and must respect the rights of others.

As Jews we have a deep respect for words. With e-mail, blogs and all the social media Facebook, Twitter, and whatever comes next, we increase the venues to interact with others. Friends from long ago are reunited. Distant family members are now connected. Potential business assets are linked. We are able to respond caringly when someone is hurting or celebrating. These are new wonderful tools for our modern age, but let us use them wisely. Our words heal and help, but they can also wound and inflict pain. Simply because something is in our heads does not require that it be replicated on our screens. Reflect before making a comment or responding.

All of us are familiar with people who find themselves in either interpersonal or even legal trouble because of messages they send, sites they visit, choices they made.

From this past year’s headlines we can recall a Congressman, who we shall call a Hebrew National, who did not answer to a higher authority. Just because we can write it does not mean we should send it. Whereas once we spoke of life and death being in the power of the tongue, now we must include the idea that it is at our fingertips.

There are those who use new technology as a shield, a way to avoid more direct, potentially uncomfortable communications. Sending an e-mail, a tweet or a message on Facebook might be the coward’s way to express a difficult message: “you’re fired!” “I don’t want to see you anymore.”- a 21st century ‘Dear John’ letter, “I’m sorry for X, Y or Z.…  However, before you do so, ask yourself the simple question, based upon Rabbi Hillel’s teaching, “that which is hateful to you, do not do unto others.” Would you want to receive this kind of message electronically or would the more decent communication be face to face, or at least verbal? Let us use our new tools wisely, with discretion and compassion.

We Jews cherish knowledge and learning. Our potential awareness of the world and world events has also now expanded exponentially. It is difficult to accept the idea that books may be a thing of the past. College students can go four years without entering a library, since information is digitized. There is so much good material out there, but we have to be discerning of sources. We are discovering more and more how messages are manipulated, with such items as unbiased product reviews being anything but. I regularly call upon Rabbi Google with questions, but carefully screen the sites to which I am sent. The internet provides a wealth of information on all topics, by which we can learn and grow, but we need to be cautious.

And technology is impacting world events, hopefully for the good. All agree that the so-called Arab Spring was fueled by the ability of young people to communicate. Regimes cannot hide their oppression, since we instantly learn of their deeds from eye witnesses and view their acts on You Tube. Even local news is influenced. Everyone is a potential reporter with camera in hand. Our world, how we learn about it, how we interact with it, is now very different.

And what of our Jewish world? One of my colleagues recently looked into his crystal ball and envisioned worship services not from books, but from i-prays; We might all be sitting together or in our homes, but with individual earphones. We can pre-select which melodies we want to hear, the sermon topic we want addressed and of course how long we want to be sitting. Learning opportunities can expand with holographic re-creations of the past where you can go on rounds with Maimonides, eat a meal in Abraham and Sarah’s tent or study with Rashi.

Here at Gates of Prayer we are doing our best to keep up. Our old style bulletin is still printed, but most receive it on line, along with the weekly e-newsletter. You can also find us on twitter and Facebook. (You should know I’m not great on that venue yet.)

Still more and more are using it for learning about us and responding to invitations. We have conducted a number of virtual services without siddurim, but projecting the words. Our web page has been updated and is much more informative and user friendly. We are also experimenting with “live-streaming” our services including at this very moment, not to give you an excuse to stay home, but for those unable to be here. Soon we will be exploring new forms of interactive learning.

Technology presents us with opportunities and challenges, blessing and curse in religious language. In a moment we will hear the shofar, for real. An i-phone app may be fun, but does not fulfill the mitzvah. Later, we will wish each other l’shanah tovah tikotevu, may it be a good year and may we be inscribed in the Book of Life.

We have always taught that what we do, write and say goes on this metaphorical record. Now we can add, what we send, tweet and post. May we lead our lives in this new world according to our highest Jewish values.



I am appreciative of the insights of Rabbis Richard Levy and Ed Goldberg, who assisted me in the creation of this sermon, also the insights of Rabbi Amy Scheinerman, gained from my rabbinic listserve and Rabbi Avi Schulman in his article on the Future of Jewish Life 2111 in the Spring 2011 Journal of Reform Judaism.




Jewish Hall Of Fame

Rosh Hashanah Eve 5772-2012

By Rabbi Robert H. Loewy


“So, rabbi, where did you go on your sabbatical? Israel? What did you study? Philosophy? History?” During previous sabbaticals, I would have responded affirmatively to those questions.

But this summer, I opted for a different path to educational and spiritual enrichment. I studied by reading a variety of journals and books that have been calling to me for a while, participating in on-line seminars on ethics and Israel, as well as attending a conference on homiletics. However, this break from my usual routine emphasized family time, relaxation and cooler temperatures. To achieve this goal, Lynn and I packed our car and drove north, accumulating over 4000 miles before returning. In the process, I also fulfilled one quirky desire, what some might refer to as a “bucket-list item,” visiting the professional sports Halls of Fame for basketball, baseball and football in Springfield, MA, Cooperstown, NY and Canton, OH.

I have been a sports fan from childhood, starting with the New York teams of my youth, but then transferring my allegiance to the Saints and Hornets. There are those of us who can play and those who can watch. I’m in the latter category. I’m sure that many of you have your favorite teams, as well as others who could care less about sports. Still there are universal and specific Jewish lessons to be gained even at a sports hall of fame.

All three begin their exhibitions with history, detailing the origins and remembering those trailblazers, who laid the foundation for what is now a multi-million dollar industry.

History includes challenging issues: gambling scandals that corrupted the game, societal bigotry as reflected by separate leagues for blacks and whites, but also breaking down those walls with Jackie Robinson in baseball or the West Texas State basketball team, the first all black squad which won the NCAA Championship.

As Jews we regularly resonate to an appreciation of history. We recall our origins annually through the reading of Torah and our holiday cycle. We celebrate triumphs and mark calamities. On the grand scale, as with sports, this holy day season calls upon us to embrace our past, recognize how it has impacted our present, before we move forward into the future.

All three of the museums celebrate individual and group accomplishments. Championship teams are highlighted, but also thousands of individual players, who enjoyed outstanding single seasons or in some cases brief shining moments. Though they played long before my time, it was a vicarious thrill to stand in front of Lou Gehrig’s locker and view Babe Ruth’s homerun hitting bat. In Springfield I laughed at the display of a victory cigar, which was the trademark of Red Auerbach, the championship winning Jewish NBA coach of the Boston Celtics.

There is often a tendency to root for the underdog, David over Goliath. Throughout history, the Jewish people have often been in that role. Perhaps that is one reason we identify with the oppressed, those less fortunate, who have the deck seemingly stacked against them. In Canton, which was probably my favorite of the three Halls, a number of exhibits especially resonated for me. But it was a small item to which I reacted most strongly- a wrist bracelet worn by Tom Matte of the Baltimore Colts in 1965. Matte was a runner forced into the role of quarterback, a position he had not played for years, after both Hall of Famer Johnny Unitas and his back up, Gary Cuozzo, suffered season ending injuries.

Comparably for today’s Saints, this would be as if Drew Brees and Chase Daniels were both injured, puh, puh, puh and Tyler Lorenzen, a tight end who played quarterback in college, led the offense. Matte, wearing this wrist band, inscribed with a list of plays to run, did just that and almost brought his team to the Super Bowl, one of the great underdog stories in sports history. More than that, it personifies the message that in challenging moments, we can rise to meet the crises of life.

Each of us has crises as well, bouts of ill health, reversals of economic fortune, confrontation with the literal storms of life, relationships that fail, loss of loved ones and so many more. How can we respond? Like Matte, we improvise as creatively as possible. We dig down and rediscover previous experiences upon which we can draw. Yet perhaps most importantly, we are never alone. There are teams of others who are there to guide and support us, if we are willing to let them into our lives. We look upon those moments, not as defeats, but opportunities for us to triumph.

Aside from the exhibits, I especially enjoyed watching the young people walking through the halls, absorbing the history, appreciating unique athletic feats, perhaps dreaming that one day they might be remembered for something similar: little league teams in Cooperstown, admiring teens in Springfield, big burly Ohio high school football players walking with their coach in Canton.

This serves to remind us all that there are always others watching and observing us as potential role models. Children obviously mimic the behavior and attitudes of their parents. Students look up to their teachers. Young professionals seek mature colleagues for guidance. New organizational members are inspired by experienced leaders. Here at Gates of Prayer, Confirmation Class pictures are now displayed in the back hall of our Religious School for your viewing pleasure, but also as inspiration for younger students to achieve that status.  Exemplary behavior and accomplishment is not limited to the realm of sports.

A goal for many athletes and sports professionals is not simply to have one feat commemorated in a Hall of Fame, but to be enshrined. This requires a long, full career of consistency and achievement, to be known for playing hard and according to the rules, a professional lifetime of excellence. That is the ultimate goal for them and I would argue for each of us as well: to live our lives with integrity, contributing to the world around us through the wealth we have earned and personal involvement, by actively engaging in Jewish life, to lovingly nurture meaningful relationships with others, We may not see our names enshrined, but we can all strive for a lifetime of achievement.

Perhaps we need a Hall of Fame for Jews, proud Jewish individuals for us to admire and emulate. Well, as a matter of fact, there is such an institution. It was on my summer itinerary, but unfortunately events forced me to bypass it. Still, I thought I would like to describe it to you.

The National Museum of American Jewish History opened this year in Philadelphia and is dedicated to the American Jewish experience. Its core exhibit is the recounting of the history of Jews in America from 1654 to the present. Like the sports Halls of Fame, it begins with history, focusing upon the foundations, dreams and challenges of freedom. The last floor is listed as “Gallery/Hall of Fame.” 18 individuals were selected from a variety of fields and the museum will add others over time. So, who is on the list?… Names you will recognize and some you may not, Jewish men and women who have made a difference either in Jewish life in particular or American life in general:

Irving Berlin
Leonard Bernstein
Louis Brandeis
Albert Einstein
Mordecai Kaplan
Esteé Lauder
Emma Lazarus
Isaac Leeser
Golda Meir
Jonas Salk
Menachem Mendel Schneerson

Isaac Bashevis Singer
Steven Spielberg
Barbra Streisand
Henrietta Szold

If you were counting, that’s only 15, let me focus on three who I have not yet mentioned.

The first is one of my favorites: Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise, the organizational giant of what became Reform Judaism in America. He initiated many of the reforms to worship that are a mainstay of liberal synagogue life today, choral singing, Confirmation and men and women sitting together.

Wise’s dream was actually not to create a Reform movement in America. Rather, he envisioned a Judaism unique to this country, embracing modernity and tradition. Based in Cincinnati, Ohio, where there was a vibrant, wealthy German Jewish population, open to innovation, but also respectful of tradition, he created a siddur for this land and called it Minhag America (the customs for America). Next he brought together those synagogues throughout the country that shared his vision and formed the Union of American Hebrew Congregations in 1873. Notice the word “Reform” is nowhere in the name. For there to be a uniquely American expression of Judaism he advocated for American trained rabbis. So, with the funding of the UAHC and its members, Hebrew Union College (HUC) was created in 1875. His final creation consisted of all the graduates of HUC forming a rabbinical organization, the Central Conference of American Rabbis in 1889 of which he was the first President. However, it seemed clear that this group and all of Wise’s projects would not serve the totality of American Jewish life, but only that segment which we know today as the Reform movement.

We are the heirs of his creativity, as we proudly maintain our position as committed American Jews, embracing our tradition, while playing a full role in our society. But let us note that like Wise, we may not always fulfill our dreams: attend the university we chose, earn as much as we had hoped, achieve the positions to which we aspired, create the family unit we envisioned. Forces beyond our control intervene. We make mistakes or are simply reaching beyond what is possible. Perhaps we will never give up on our dreams, but at the same time be satisfied with what we accomplish in pursuit of them.

The second name was one, which in truth I had not remembered: Rose Schneiderman. Born in Poland, she came to America and was a major fighter for human rights and women’s rights, specifically as a labor organizer, working tirelessly to improve wages, hours, and safety standards for American working women. She saw those things as “bread,” the very basic human rights to which working women were entitled.

But she also worked for schools, recreational facilities, and professional networks for trade union women, because she believed that working women deserved much more than a grim subsistence.” (Annelise Oreck)

She was President of the Women’s Trade Union League from 1926-1950. As an intimate friend of Eleanor and Franklin Roosevelt, she had a major influence upon many of the New Deal labor policies and programs. She was also a proud Jew, an ardent Zionist, who with fiery oratory raised awareness of the plight of the Jews in Nazi Europe. If Wise was the embodiment of the modern American religious Jew, Schneiderman represents that model of many American Jews who utilize their Jewish values in an activist way, to make a difference for all people. Through our revitalized Social Action Committee, I hope to see our congregation step up its involvement in our community.

And what would a discussion of both sports and Jewish Halls of Fame be without…. Sandy Koufax? A typical Jewish boy, born in Brooklyn, at age 19 he signed to play baseball for the Brooklyn Dodger organization and the rest is history. His baseball credentials are impressive:

3 Cy Young Awards as best pitcher in the league, four no-hitters including a perfect game, and over 2000 strike outs in a career shortened by arthritis,  which warranted him being elected as the youngest man to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1972. But in the Jewish community he is of course best known for being proud enough and respectful enough of his tradition that he chose not to play baseball on Rosh Hashanah or Yom Kippur, even during the World Series. Tonight all of us are here, but what about tomorrow morning? Next week on Yom Kippur? Can we act like Koufax?

Friends, it is not too late for each of us to lead lives worthy of enshrinement. I’m not suggesting that any of us will be in Springfield, Cooperstown, Canton or Philadelphia, but we can strive for excellence in all of our fields of endeavor, inclusive of the jobs for which we are compensated, our pursuit of a more just society, the way we conduct ourselves as Jews,

our engagement in Tikun Olam to repair our world, the relationships we establish with others, those which are casual connections, along with those which are intimate and of course with those we love, our nearest and dearest. Perhaps that is what was really meant by the rabbis with our seasonal expression of hope: L’shanah Tovah Tikotevu- May it be a good year and may you be inscribed and enshrined.