Category Archives: About

Making the Minyan – Why Community Counts

Rabbi Jeffrey Sirkman

Larchmont Temple


The call usually came just as we were sitting down for dinner. Living in our two family home with my grandparents right downstairs, frequently in Bobba’s kitchen. And when it came, my grandfather Solly never hesitated. Reaching for his hat in the hall closet and saying to my Bobba:

“Dora, I’ll be back in half an hour; keep it hot.”

By the time I turned 9, I’d postpone my meal as well and join him, Walking about 100 feet, to the chapel, right next door, at Temple Emanu-El in Haverhill, Mass., Where—now totaling ten,  my grandfather would make the minyan.

I remember thinking as a kid sitting next to him:“Wow. Solly must be some real macher;

They won’t start the service till he gets there!”

It wasn’t until a few years later I came to learn

That without a quorum of ten, not only was there no Bar’chu—no call to Worship,

There was no Kaddish either.

For the mourners then, my grandfather’s appearance was Elijah-esque;

A harbinger of momentary redemption, for he was the key to creating a community of prayer.

Indeed, without his appearance,  or the corresponding tenth,

Communal prayer was not [traditionally] possible.

And the minyan I witnessed and came to so value was the hub;

The Jewish community’s “communication central,”

The place for meaningful shmoozing & sharing.

At the minyan, you saw one another, for real; there was no place to hide.

[Growing up] a congregation without a daily minyan

was like a meal with no main course…You could eat, but you wouldn’t feel nourished.

The fulfillment derived, of course,

not so much from the prayer itself as from the face to face encounter,

where just seeing someone for that 20 minutes,

or looking into their eyes for 5 seconds,

you could read their mood—even their mind.

The Minyan was the sacred family room where congregational relationships

were forged & fortified—reconnected & renewed, bringing a spirit that was life-sustaining.

And though in most Reform congregations there is no direct daily equivalent,

Whether its the First Friday Kabbalat Shabbat crowd,

or the third Friday Pre-Oneg Wine-Cheese & Worship regulars,

or the Shabbat morning Chevrah Torah table learners,

or the Sat AM Family Shabbat Moms & Dad’s praying & crafting with their kids.

Or even the Bagel & Shmear shmoozers at the Brotherhood Breakfast table,

It is that weekly or monthly face to face encounter—the time spent together,

That helps us know our presence matters,

For the inter-dependence is not alone what we count on,

But attests how much each one of us count.

Face to face—punim to punim—eye to eye—heart to heart…

It’s what makes the Minyan!…..Or so we’d like to think.

Sherry Turkle, M.I.T. Prof. of Social Science & Technology, In her most recent release, Alone TogetherWhy We Expect More from Technology and Less From Each Otherposits that The Net makes it possible for us to communicate without ever really showing up.

“We friend strangers on Facebook; we text instead of talking.  We Tweet our emotional/mental states…

We connect with the Social Network at will and disengage without risk of reprisal.”          [NY Times, Book Review, Feb 22, 2011]

Show of hands:  If given the choice, how many of us would more readily send a text-message than make a phone call?

[Be honest…It’s the HH Days after all.]

Turkle sites large numbers of adolescents, and many adults for that matter

Who’ve developed a decided distaste for picking up the phone.

As one 11th grader put it:  “Talking on the telephone, too much might show.”


So if emotional investment is low and commitment for deeper connection unnecessary

When it comes to effective interchange on the Social Network,

Just what does it mean to connect to our community?

If we use Chat for meaningful enough conversation,

or share our newest life-challenge by updating our status,

or post a comment on our wall to open ourselves up for countless comments in return…

IF, in this Facebook Age we don’t really have to be present at all

to make our presence felt,  where does that leave our Minyan?


Now many of you are no doubt thinking,

“Come on Rabbi, the Social Network can’t replace Synagogue life!”

Well…Let me post a Jewish Communal Status Update.

The U.R.J.’s [Union for Reform Judaism] downsizing in national staff and infrastructure have been accompanied by several synagogue mergers, some even closing up shop…and, at one point, the question of reducing the campuses of HUC-JIR by one…President-elect Rabbi Rick Jacobs envisions “reinventing Reform” for a new globally-linked world.

In a Strategic Plan draft this past Spring, the Conservative movement’s data showed a 14% loss in affiliated families over the past decade, two times that percentage in the nation’s northeast region.

At R.R.C., the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College ordinees were urged, by the ordination speaker to “rethink their rabbinate in light of the shrinking market.”

Sociologist to the Jewish world, Prof Steven Cohen, asked to comment on American Jewish life in 10 words or less said:

“We are demographically distressed yet culturally creative.”

I’m not quite sure that brings the uplift it intends.

Yet, for all this justified Jewish worry, With the question of congregational life in flux, And the fastest growing segment of American Jews the Independent Minyan, It is President of HUC, Rabbi David Ellenson’s comment

From his piece on “American Jewish Denominationalism”

That is, so to speak, the most-telling Tweet:

“More and more American Jews are indifferent to denominational labels in their highly eclectic searches for meaning and community.  The distinctions in ideology and theology—so crucial to the elite leaders—are increasingly irrelevant to these Jewish folk …”

[And now the key take-away]

“I would assert the task that confronts denominations—whatever their ideological distinctions, is how to make Judaism relevant, compelling, meaningful, welcoming comforting and challenging to American Jews and their families who have infinite options, yet still ask that the need for connection to community be fulfilled.”

So, if movement labels—brand name loyalty, is no longer really the draw…

If, as seminal political scientists Robert Putnam & David Campbell conclude,

“that individual choice has become virtually as important as inheritance in explaining Americans’ religious affiliation, raising the stakes for religious marketing and innovation.” [American Grace, pg 160]

And if in our Facebook Age of a ‘porous peoplehood,’ you could virtually go anywhere,

what compels us to show up at all?…What could convince us that our presence counts?


Meet 3 Minyans,

Not technically prayer-quorums but sacred communities nonetheless,

The secret ‘tweet’ of what it means to make each, taken together,

creating the password for a Jewish community/congregation that counts.


Minyan 1—Abby’s Call…

Returning from our Congregational Israel Mission the 1st of the year,

The pile of newspapers awaited, but as I began to plow through, I was taken aback,

Greeted by a familiar face.

The front-page feature of the Jewish Week, on “Generation F,”

An article exploring the spiritual fluidity of the 20-30 somethings

on their Jewish journeys was using—as its prototypical subject

a girl from Westchester, now 37, living with her not Jewish husband and 2 young kids

in Park Slope……OMG…It was Abby Sher!

Citing the fluid nature of Jewish life,

And the extreme popularity among younger Jews of Independent Minyanim,

Open communities of Jewish praying and doing where members are empowered to take hold of shaping their own religious paths,  Abby was depicted as a spiritual drifter.

Portraying her Jewish trajectory, as opposed to her straight-line parents,

Who settled in Larchmont, and raised three now grown kids here at LT…

Abby’s spiritual life was a curve ball…Truth be told—it was much more like a circle.

I e-mailed Abby, with whom I am regularly in touch online, and asked her about the PR.

“Listen Rebbe, they just wanted a Jewish wanderer, lost in Brooklyn, so they took me.”

“But Abby, you’re telling me that there’s no place in Jewish Brooklyn

that you guys can find a Jewish home?”

“If you mean, like LT…nothin’ doin.”

I suggested to Abby that she & her husband Jay should not try to find our temple in Brooklyn, but a place that speaks to their needs as an interfaith, growing family.

A week-plus later, Abby, a successful writer/author, emailed again:

RebSirk…This Anita Diamant Author in Residence thing sounds very cool.

Can I come up and free-load?

To my delight, Abby joined us, along with her then 4-month old in tow.

When a couple of old-time congregants hugged her, one turned to me and whispered:

“Its so wonderful to see her here, home again…”

When Abby got her first post-college job as a member of Chicago’s Improv troupe Second City, she wanted to share it…so she called.

When her Mom Joan spiraled downhill and suddenly passed away,

She called to make arrangements…

When she got engaged to her wonderful Unitarian husband Jay,

Her life-saver, she called…

When her first little girl—the kid they call Moose, was born,

She e-mailed first photos…and I called.

When her book was about to be released, she e-mailed, and called…

When she wanted to memorialize her mom with a plaque on our Wall of memory,

She called…

And when she heard Susan was sick, she e-mailed and sent notes, and called…

“They’re not going to come to us,” says my colleague at WRT, Jon Blake,

“We need to create a synagogue without walls.” hoping, through S3K’s Next Dor initiative, to help that 20-30 something crowd engage in Jewish life.

Actually, they need not come to us,  but knowing our LT door is open,

That there is a temple-community that is like a second home, a rabbi you can always call,

The hope is that, for Abby and all of Generation F, navigating their Jewish journeys,

Motivated by the need to be part of a minyan,

they’ll know what a congregational home feels like when they find one…


Minyan 2—Buff’s Call…

One of the special evening programs in the Jewish leadership unit I run for 2 weeks every summer at Eisner Camp makes the 50 12th graders the Admissions Comm. of HUC’s Rabbinical School, tasked with the fictitious challenge of deciding which single candidate,

Out of the 5 applying, will get the last spot for the coming fall class.

Having strong-armed a combo of actual rabbis, serving with me on faculty, and Eisner senior staff to serve on my panel, this past summer I decided to reach out to the camp doctor’s husband, so I asked Buff.

A wonderfully friendly, curious, thoughtful guy with his own extensive collection of hashgachas—kashrut symbols, I figured he’d bring a different perspective…

I just had no idea how much!

More than anyone else on the panel, the two rabbis and two rabbinic students included,

Buff’s responses to these 12th graders’ questions challenged their assumptions

And prompted more questions…

And though he wasn’t the candidate chosen for admission,

Some of the kids thought he was the one who best understood the value of Jewish commty.

Imagine how surprised they were to find that his official time as a Jew was just over 6 months.

Buff Maniscalco converted on December 29, 2010,

though his spiritual journey has been filled with Judaism for over two decades.

Affirming his choice in witness of his entire congregation,

Temple Sinai of Springfield, Mass., here’s how Buff began his statement:

“12 years ago on a bimah—on the edge of the wilderness of Maine,

my friend Marissa stood before a congregation of Jews

and proclaimed herself to be Jewish, just as I will soon do.

Within that tiny gathering, our mutual Jewish friend Lois stood beside me,

turning to me afterwards and saying, “I don’t understand why anyone

would want to join something I’ve been trying to hide from all my life.”

In my heart I knew the answer…But everyone must choose his/her own time

to come out of the wilderness.  Today it is my time to come home.”

Buff innately understood:

It is far too easy to hide in broad daylight. We all must choose.

Jewish life is constantly calling, incessantly reaching out.

But to make the minyan, you have to reach back.


Minyan 3—Leo’s Call…

The first time I came to visit, he proudly showed me the book

he’d not alone authored, but illustrated: My First Book of Hebrew Things Book,

And I was hooked—a fan.

What other 5-year old kid with Leukemia

doesn’t really care that you’re the rabbi,

but thinks its pretty cool you can draw cartoons…

Leo was a character, sweet—but with that spicy side,

so filled with life that during his four months at NYU’s hospital,

even with all the scans and the treatments, the chemo injections and endless tests,

he did not for a minute stop being a 5-year old boy,

growing and laughing and living.

Leo was so filled with spirit that the night the news came that he’d relapsed,

weakened—as the doctors surmised—by the disease,

He and his sister Hannah danced again and again

to one of his favorite Lady GaGa tunes.

Because no matter what life throws at you—you can’t stop dancing.

So when he left this world in July, we all came to say goodbye…WHY?…

Perhaps we showed up because of his incredibly gracious, loving parents,

Caitlin telling me point blank just after he died:

“Leo’s life was not tragically cut short.

He got 5 ½ years, and filled them, every single day.”

Maybe the hundreds who came to his Funeral Service,

And even the cemetery, wanted the Israels to know that our hearts were breaking too…

That we had to be there for the minyan every night, spilling out the door of their home,

Because it was the least, and the most, we could do…

Our community showed up en masse:

Deb Frankel and the amazing teachers/Staff of LTNS,

The Israels friends, and friends of friends—a 30-something crowd

too young to be dealing with death, yet nevertheless, as supportive,

loving, as a community in mourning could be…

Rabbi Nathan and me, all of us crowded in 8 Shadow Lane

trying to pray and find a way to hold each other up.

We all came, but we didn’t make the minyan—Leo did…

His indefatigable, buoyant, undying spirit was bouncing around

From shoulder to shoulder, dancing as he always did, from heart to heart.

Sometimes a presence is so very missed

that our collective yearning brings them close.

As it did when one little 5 ½ year-old boy died,

but left us his joyous sincerity of spirit;

the life-celebration that remains his love…

And in the ‘Family Israel,’ that’s what holds us up…


In this Facebook World of virtual community,

some might view congregational life as almost counter-intuitive,

Trying to swim against the digital stream…

A few years ago, when Susan joined a Facebook writing group calledFARB Soup,

for all the time she spent in dialogue with people half-way around the  globe,

I dismissed it as pseudo-intellectual entertainment.

Sure, she related things to the core dozen or so folks on Farb

that she sometimes didn’t even share with her friends…

And though, through humorous and at times heated exchange,

The group members’ personalities came through,

I confess thinking, why invest the time, or depth of thought,

In people you’ll never really come to know or see?…

That was—until Sam’s wife died.

A mid-western, congregationally connected conservative Jew

married to his Episcopalian wife for over 20 years, he’d been posting pictures

and talking to select members of the group,

about how hard it was to watch her fading away…

I remember walking in late from a Temple Trustees meeting

As Susan was giving Sam guidance on the Memorial Service he might create…

My wife was such a support, in fact, that when his beloved passed away,

she called him, someplace outside of Chicago,

and they talked—voice to voice—phone friends, for about an hour, heart to heart.

Even more surprising, five members of the online group made it to Sam’s wife’s funeral.

And since that time, over the past year and a half,

Almost 2 dozen FARB Soup members have gotten together,

Once stateside, once in London, some traveling from as far away as L.A. and Australia.


Because the ties sown by the technological, online community transformed,

with the mutual commitment of some to cross that threshold from virtual to real.

Far beyond Facebook,  ready to risk being seen as more than the words they post,

willing to let profiles be three-dimensional,

their relationships had morphed into being there,  face to face.


In an episode of the 90’s TV hit “Northern Exposure,”

Featuring a Jewish doctor from NY serving the tiny village of Cicely, Alaska,

The young Dr. Joel Fleishman’s uncle dies,

Requiring a minyan for him to say Kaddish…

Since no one in town is Jewish, maybe no one for miles around,

The shared mission becomes locating another 9 Jews to make the Doc’s minyan.

Poignantly, in the end, when they’ve almost reached the magic number,

Dr. Flieshman decides that he doesn’t need a minyan of Jewish strangers,

He’d prefer instead to say Kaddish in his community, with his friends & neighbors.

Rabbi Leon Morris, commenting on Jewish life in the 21st century suggests

That if this episode aired today,

Dr Fleishman would probably decide to stay home and say Kaddish on his own.

Or would Joel just V-Chat on his lap-top and have a virtual Minyan…

Maybe even join Second Life Synagogue,

the online Jewish Community where membership means staying right where you are—falling through your computer screens and letting your avatar lead the way…


And so, our ultimate challenge…

For all the effectiveness of Twitter to spawn revolutions,

and the Net to further freedom’s cause,

That with Blackberrys BBM-ing night and day,

Our I-Phones keeping us globally connected wherever we go,

Our F-Book friends in the thousands, and counting,

We’ll know everything about each other’s profiles,

But have no way of recognizing one another face to face…

In essence, we’ll perceive no real purpose in showing up.

Yet, being here together, just looking around,

We understand the profile that makes our minyan…


Abby’s Call—a congregation of personal relationship,

where it always feels like home.

Buff’s Call—a congregation where choosing is each person’s challenge,

if not sacred privilege.

Leo’s Call—a congregation sustained by the blessing of memory,

where the family of Israel, choosing life, holds each other up.

What I’ve come to realize watching Solly always say yes,

Whenever that call came, is that we don’t actually make the minyan.

The minyan makes us.


So May this New Year bring us the greatest blessing,

Continuing to create community in this place,

That, when it comes to this incredible congregation

we might each know our being here counts immeasurably,

heart to heart, hand in hand, face to face.                               AMEN

Four Stories for Four Children

Sermon delivered at the “Traditional Egalitarian Minyan,” Adas Israel Congregation, Washington, DC

Shabbat morning, Saturday August 9, 2014

Rabbi Arnold E. Resnicoff


Four Stories for Four Children

In 1982 my four-year old daughter Malka was attending her first day at a Catholic  pre-school in a small town in Italy.  I was stationed there as a Navy chaplain for the U.S. Sixth Fleet, and the hope was that Malka’s school would help her learn Italian and make some friends outside the base.

However, waiting for her school bus to return I began to wonder whether I had adequately prepared her for a school run by nuns in traditional black habits.  Did she even know what a nun was?

When the school bus pulled up, I could see her through the window, very excited, with the look she had when she couldn’t wait to share news.  When the bus door opened, she jumped out and shouted to me, “Abba – Abba – you’ll never believe it. All my teachers are from The Sound of Music!”

The stories we know become the prism through which we view the world: the foundation and framework for our vision.  Had she grown up with anti-Catholic stories, her first encounter with nuns might have been filled with fear or hatred, not happiness and excitement, in the way stories of “the other” prepare children in so many parts of the world, including the Mid-East.

An old saying teaches that we believe what we see, but the reverse is often true: we see what we believe.  And what we believe is often colored by the stories we’ve learned.

When Abraham told the story of one God creating the universe, the idea of history – the belief that we can learn from our past — was created. After all, if there were many gods, as so much of the ancient world believed, what happened yesterday might have no bearing on today, because we might be dealing with a different god.  But with one God there could be one plan and one set of rules, so learning from the past – from yesterday, from our parents, or from the lives of our ancestors – became both possible and essential. No wonder that the Tanakh, the Jewish Bible, not only records the victories of the Jewish people, like the hieroglyphics do for the Egyptians, but also our failures.  We must learn from both.

David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s first Prime Minister, understood the power of stories when he had Adolph Eichmann captured and publicly tried in the first televised trial in the history of television.  Ben-Gurion wanted the story of the Holocaust/Shoa told, so that misperceptions could be corrected and lessons could be learned.  He wanted a new generation of men and women who came of age after WWII, during a time when many of those who experienced the war or the Holocaust first-hand kept silent about them, to hear and to learn in a way that would make them remember.

Peoples, nations, cultures, faiths: all have stories that inform their vision and help shape their thinking.

For many Americans, our national story is one that was re-envisioned and re-imagined after the Civil War, through the words of leaders like President Lincoln: words so powerfully describing our nation’s new burst of freedom, and our government of the people, by the people, and for the people, that the frequently used phrase these United States would be set aside in favor of the more-straightforward, more unified the United States.

For many Christians, the world is seen through the story of death and resurrection. For many Muslims, through the image of struggle and war – at the very least, spiritual struggle and war – between Dar al Islam and Dar al Harb, the Islamic and non-Islamic “worlds.”  For Jews, our vision is one of leaving the slavery of the past, wandering through the wilderness of the present, and moving toward the promised land of the future.

Significantly, while so many other peoples spoke of “the golden age of the past,” Judaism’s story put the best of times in the future.  And so, whether or not Judaism and Christianity agree on the “identity” of the messiah, it is the Jewish vision that laid the groundwork for the belief in messianic times for so many people of the world.

So important is the Jewish belief in the power of stories – and in particular, our Jewish story – that four times in the Bible we are commanded to tell our story to our children, whether or not they ask to hear it.  Three times in the portion Bo in Exodus/Shmot we’re taught to tell the story, twice linked to a child’s question and once not; and once in the portion Vaetchanan in Deuteronomy/Dvarim, again as a response to a question.

This four-fold repetition of the command to tell our story raised questions in the minds of the ancient rabbis, teachers who believed that nothing in the Bible was superfluous: no extra word, and not even an extra letter, could exist without meaning.

Therefore, the rabbis taught, we are commanded to tell the story four times because we must tell it in four different ways, because there are four different kinds of children. One size does not fit all.  This teaching is the foundation for the haggadah’s four children section, traditionally referred to as the four sons.

In a way, the image of the four children is an early example of personality profiles like Myers-Briggs: a reminder that differences in individuals must drive differences in the ways we interrelate with them.  Educationally, it is linked to the verse in Proverbs/Mishlei (22:6) that teaches chanoch l’naar al pi darko – teach a child according to his or her way:  an approach that would eventually become the basis of today’s Montessori schools!

Based on the verses surrounding the four commands to tell our story, the haggadah’s personality profiles include:

  • hacham: wise
  • rasha: wicked or sometimes, “ill-mannered”
  • tam: simple or pure
  • sheh-ayno yodaya lishol: one who does not know how to (or does not care to) ask – the one I will call the detached child, not engaged or involved in any way.

The haggadah’s image of four children has sometimes been explained as stages in our life as we age, parts of our personality, or even, more metaphorically, as generational differences, as we’ve moved from “the old country” to (for those of us in the U.S.) life in America.

Of course, neither indicators like the Myers-Briggs personality types nor the haggadah’s four children should make us think that human beings – ourselves or others – easily or completely fit into any one category.  Instead, we are presented with archetypes that help us understand the trait or approach that is most prominent in a person’s general attitude or during a particular exchange.

To understand these four Jewish archetypes, it’s important to remember that “quadruples” in Judaism, sets of four, are often best understood based on the interplay (combinations and permutations) of two major factors or characteristics. So for example, the four species we use during Sukkot can be compared and contrasted through the characteristics of taste and smell:  the etrog or citron has both, the willow has neither, the palm has taste but no smell, and the myrtle has smell but no taste.  Similarly, individuals can be understood based on knowledge and good deeds: some with only the first or only the second, some with both, and some with neither.

This approach can be applied to the four types of children we have as well.

Towson University Professor Russell Jay Hendel has suggested that the two categories for the children might be knowledge and respect, but for me the best approach is head and heart: what educators might call cognitive and affective approaches to learning and teaching.

  • The tam – the simple or “pure” child – represents the heart without the head.  When a simple question is asked, a simple answer should suffice.  This might be a child for whom pure faith is enough, and who seeks a spiritual connection, not an intellectual understanding.
  • The rasha – the wicked — represents the head without the heart.  When the only connection is intellectual, it is easy to become a skeptic or cynic: an outsider with no emotional commitment to give foundation to a struggle to understand, let alone embrace, what is not yet understood.

The Bible’s description of this child’s words make those words sound like a question (“what is…?”), but the verb says is used, not asks.  For me, this child’s words represent so-called questions that are not questions at all: they are challenges, attacks, or put-downs.  Two people can ask the same “question,” but while one’s words sound like a request for information, the other’s make our blood boil, putting us on the defensive, and making us feel we are under attack.  That’s because we are.

When I worked on Holocaust remembrance materials for the military, one question that was frequently asked of me was why six million Jews should be remembered in a separate way from the millions of others who died during the war.  For a serious question, there was a serious answer.  But I knew that sometimes there was no question at all behind those words.

  • The hacham – the wise child – combines both head and the heart.  This child asks for information, but as an insider, part of the family and part of the community.  He or she asks about the testimonies, statutes, and laws that were commanded by “the Lord our God.”
  • Finally, the sheh-ayno yodaya lishol – the detached child, the one who does not know how to ask or is not interested enough to ask – is the one with no connection, neither head nor heart. The danger is that this child represents so many of our children today: perhaps not yet completely lost, but not at all involved.

Strengthening this understanding of the fourth child as non-engaged, Professor  Hendel (whom I mentioned earlier) writes that he heard the late Rabbi Dov Baer Soloveitchik give a pre-Passover lecture in March of 1971, teaching that “does not know how to ask” could also be translated as “does not care to ask.” Hendel explains that this translation might be based on the way the same verb is used in  Ex 2:25, “and God saw the suffering of the Jewish people and God cared.”

The late Lubavitcher rebbe once taught there is a fifth child: the one who does not come to the seder at all. But if we understand this fourth child as detached and uninvolved, then no discussion of a fifth child is needed. However, we should understand that while the Passover Seder might be our tradition’s foremost attempt to engage our children and tell our story, we should never believe this one night is sufficient. Whether or not a child is physically present at the seder, we cannot always be sure he or she is really “with us” as the story is told that night.

In any event, dealing with children who are so apathetic that they have no interest at all in our traditions and beliefs – in our story – presents parents and the community with the challenge to find other ways to engage.  But does not know how to ask can also describe an altogether different child: one who literally has never learned to ask because all past efforts have been rebuked; one who never imagines that his or her question might be heard or considered; one taught to remain silent, because he or she has nothing worthwhile to say.

Perhaps, like Abraham’s wife Sarah — about whom the midrash recounts that she died of a heart attack when she heard the news of the akedah (the binding of Isaac), learning that her husband had come so close to sacrificing their son – some individuals (or whole groups of individuals) are left out of the most important discussions and decisions of all. They are left to suffer consequences over which they had no power and no say.

In other words, some individuals are detached and apathetic because they have not yet been successfully engaged; but others are detached – bewildered, even, at the thought of asking a question — because they are so often ignored and excluded; or because they are brainwashed, battered, or numb.

It is important to note that even the so-called wicked child is still engaged. The Broadway musical Wicked, a play about the “Wicked Witch of the West” in the Wizard of Oz, makes the point that some individuals we call wicked might be misunderstood, even ultimately representing the best in us after all, challenging the system through engagement with it. The detached child, on the other hand, may not yet be lost, but without a connection to serve as lifeline to the Jewish story, that child may ultimately drift away completely, from the Jewish people and the Jewish faith.

Four times we are commanded to tell our story to our children, to pass along the Jewish message to the next generation.  It is a story that does not turn a blind eye to suffering, but it is one that sees hope in the future.  One lesson from our stories should be to keep faith that better times – the best of times – are yet to be.  No Jew should ever be taken in by the belief that “the situation is hopeless” or “things will never change.” Our story should drive our vision and our most basic belief: that the world can change for the better, and we can be part of that change.

But we should remember the lesson of the four children: we must work to understand each individual and hear each question before we respond. Otherwise, we may be providing answers important to ourselves, not those important to our students or children.

For example, when I was in college, many Jewish teachers were touting Judaism as “the most rational” of religions, demythologizing it to show how reasonable it was.  Partly as a result of that approach, I think, many of my contemporaries turned at least temporarily to faiths like Buddhism and Hinduism, in search of spirituality and mystery, not rationality.  Perhaps, at least at that time in their lives, the questions so many young people were asking were more those of the simple child than any of the others, but their questions were not answered, and probably not even heard.

Our hope is that all our children – every Jew – will be connected to our people and our faith with head and heart, but we should begin to teach and begin to share based on where each child and each person is now.

Jewish teaching explains the verse “the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob” – as opposed to “the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob” – as a lesson that each of us must struggle with faith until that “faith relationship” becomes personal: becomes our own. We must never forget that we are part of a community, learning the lessons of the past and the stories passed down to us. But we each must wrestle like Jacob did with the angel, even to the point that it hurts or wounds us to do so, until our relationship with God, with Torah, and with Israel becomes uniquely ours. That faith relationship must be one that touches our minds and our hearts: our lives and our souls.

Then, through us – as individuals and as a people — our stories will continue to touch, inspire, and eventually even repair the world.

The Nature of Dignity or What it means to become an Adult

Rabbi Mordecai Miller


Congregation Beth Ami

January, 2014

 The Nature of Dignity  or  What it means to become an Adult

On the surface, we know that they still have many years to go before they can really speak about being an adult, but how many of us pause to consider what it really means to “become an adult”?  How does that relate to the ceremony of Bar or Bat Mitzvah, and beyond the opportunity it offers for celebration – (not to be sneezed at by any means!) – of what profound significance does it really have?For those of us well past the age of thirteen; we can appreciate the irony when the Bar or Bat Mitzvah says, “Today I am a man,” or “Today I’m a woman.”

What does it mean to become a “Bar” or “Bat Mitzvah” ?

In Hebrew the term is an idiom which denotes that such an individual has reached a point in their development where they understand the consequences of their behavior in society.  Traditionally, there is a b’rachah to be recited by the parents of a child who reaches this stage.  “Baruch … she’patrani me’onsho shel zeh.” “Blessed art You … Who has absolved me of the consequences due to this person.”

In other words; up to this point in the child’s development, the parent is held responsible for their child’s actions (read “misbehavior”); from this point on, the child is now held accountable.  To put this in “Jewish” terms: since Mitz’vot (i.e. “Divine Commandments”) define the responsibilities of the individual – what  their Creator obligates them to do and what their Creator forbids them to do; becoming Bar or Bat Mitzvah means that person has reached the stage in their life where they are capable of understanding and complying with these obligations.

Speaking this kind of language puts in perspective the significance of each individual’s role in society.  This comes to the original title of this article: “The Nature of Dignity”.  I would like to suggest that every human being has an innate yearning to be significant: a raison d’être. There are very few – if any – who are satisfied being mere “cogs in a wheel”.  The truth, however, is that very few of us will ever achieve the immortality of a Shakespeare or a Beethoven or a Moses, and even those individuals haven’t achieved universal significance.  What chance, then, do we have?

A profound discovery occurs in the life of an individual when they realize that the nature of dignity – of self-worth – lies in being of service to others.  This fundamental truth, which flies in the face of natural human impulse, is suggested by the English word “knight”, which comes with the title “Sir…”  The word is directly related to the German “Knecht” (Yes, “gh”was once pronounced “ch” as in the Scottish word “loch”!) which means “Servant”!  In fact one of the mottos of England is “Ich Dien” which translates to “I serve”.

So the question shifts to “Who or what do you serve?”  To who or what do you devote your life?”  The more encompassing the answer, the higher the level of self-worth or human dignity.

Putting this together: becoming an adult essentially means taking on the responsibility to serve others; ones family and society. “Giving back!”  Again, from the Jewish perspective, there can be no greater service that represents such “giving back” than serving the Creator of the Universe – by performing God’s commandments: mitzvot.  In the process of discovering those commandments and in serving God by ones devotion to family and society, a “mere mortal” achieves universal significance!


Mordecai Miller

Tales of the Blue Wizard

Rabbi  Steven J. Lebow,
Temple Kol,Emeth
Marietta, Atlanta Georgia

December 21st, 2012.

Tales of the Blue Wizard

Or… How I hated Hebrew School and why you can, too!wizard_crystal_ball_c190660_s_0

In a town, not so long ago. In a place not so far away…. There lived a people who were blue. Or, at least, they were blue-ish. The people wanted their children to learn to be “blues”, but they had no idea how to begin to lead a blue-ish life, so they approached the wizard and asked him to teach their children the blue-ish ways.

“I’ll try,” said the wizard, sheepishly. And he took on the blueish children as students. They came to him and to his assistants every week for blueish instruction.

He tried to teach them how to levitate, but they were only fair. He tried to teach them how to turn invisible, but that was almost a complete disaster. They never quite got the hang of it and only their heads would disappear. The rest of their bodies were completely visible. He taught them how to cast spells, but they almost always got the words wrong and the spells turned out to be, well, at best interesting.

He taught and taught magic all day and all night long, but the blueish students just looked at him and yawned.

“Will this be on the test?” one of them asked. “Life is the test” the blue wizard grumbled.

“My mother says I have to be excused early today,” said another student, as he broke his concentration on his spell.

“I don’t like wizardry school,” said a third student. “My father says he hated it when he was a kid and that’s why I have to go now. But he also said, ”she continued, “that when I pass my introductory wizardry test that I don’t have to go to wizard school anymore!”

The blue wizard grew more and more frustrated.

Until one day, a delegation of parents approached the blue wizard.

“Our children are not learning wizardry the way we thought they would,” said the president of the delegation.”

“Yes,” mumbled the blue wizard, “i can see that. But let me ask you something, he turned to one of the parents.

“What else do your children study, besides wizardry?”

“Oh, my child practices the clarinet for four hours every day,” said one parent.

“Ah well my child studies rhythmic gymnastics for 6 hours a day,” beamed one proud parent.

“Well, we had to give up band and gymnastics,” admitted one parent, “but now my child is on a traveling softball team for 32 weeks a year.”

“Ah yes,” said the blue wizard at last, “I think I see a pattern emerging. You want your children to learn how to become wizards, or at least how to use wizardry in their lives. But it seems like everything else comes first. And yet, you know that one day, they’ll no longer play the clarinet, one day they won’t be in gymnastics and one day they won’t care that they ever played on a traveling softball team!

But they’ll always be blueish,” said the wizard. “And  I only get them at the end of the day,  when all else is said and done, I only get to teach them wizardry for an hour or two every week…

“Look,” continued the wizard in his most  jovial manner, “Let me ask you a question. “Who here practices wizardry at home, with their children? You know, instead of just dropping them off for an hour here or there, expecting me and the other wizards to teach them. Who here, actually talks about being blueish in front of their children, at the dinner table?”

A few of the parents sheepishly raised their hands.

“Well,” said the blue wizard, “ I would venture to say that yours are the children who will see the connection between what we teach in wizard school and what really happens in real life.

“After all” concluded the wizard, “my teacher used to tell me, the dinner table is the greatest classroom of all…”

The parents were quiet for a moment. They drunk in the wizards lesson that they were a team. That wizards and parents had to work together. That wizardy had to be taught in the home. That if parents practiced wizardry, then the children would learn by watching them, instead of just being shipped off to wizardry school.

Some of the parents understood the implicit wisdom of training their own children in wizardry. Some of the parents got it and they determined to become better skilled at being bluish.

Some of the parents got it and some never would.

“Are you sure you’re a wizard?” Asked one parent. “you know, you don’t even look blueish,” said another.

“And are you sure we have to practice wizardry too?” Asked one angry  parent. “I thought we were hiring you to teach our children everything they need to know!” 

“Ah,” said the wizard, with a twinkle in his eye, ““It isn’t my job. It’s your job to make sure your children turn out blueish.”

“I can’t do it all myself,” said the wizard, with a twinkle in his eye. “After all,” said the old man, “I told you I was a blue wizard, but I never told you I could do magic!”


Superman and Batman, You and Me

Rabbi Steven Lebow

Temple Kol Emeth 

Superman and Batman, You and Me


As everyone who has ever studied super-heroes knows, almost every super-hero (with the notable exception of the Fantastic Four) has a secret identity. An alter ego. As the poet T. S. Elliot would say, “They prepare a face to meet the faces that they meet…”

The traditional reason for having a secret identity is that “My enemies will strike at the ones I love!” Hence, Superman doesn’t want Lois Lane hurt and Peter Parker is defensive of his elderly Aunt May.

In examining Superman and Batman, it is clear that the concept of a secret identity is different for these two archetypes. Bruce Wayne is the REAL person. It is Batman who is his alter ego. Bruce Wayne, burdened by the Oedipal loss of his parents, takes on the guise of a mystic creature of the night.

Superman, however, is the REAL person. He came to earth with powers and abilities far beyond those of mortal men. He has always been Superman and always will be. It is Clark Kent that is a disguise, a made up persona. Clark Kent, wearing geeky glasses and always stooping is supposed to fool you into thinking that he is a wimp, when in fact he could bench press… well, he could bench press an entire planet, should he choose to do so!

Bruce Wayne is real. Batman is a disguise. The inverse is true; Superman is real. It is Clark Kent that is the disguise.

And as I was saying about the High Holidays… Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur is all about the faces that we wear each day, in order to meet the faces that we see on the street. One hopes that the face we wear is the true one, but then, different circumstances and conditions can elicit a change in face, or personality, at least temporarily.

In fact, the Hebrew word for prayer, “tefillah”, means quite simply “to look at one’s <face> in the mirror…”

Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur call us to look directly into the mirror of our lives and to ask ourselves “Am I the person that I was meant to be? Am I the best father/mother/child that I could be? Where have I erred and where have I gone off track?”

It is not necessarily a pleasant task to look intently in that mirror, particularly if we find something in our souls that is wanting. We don’t always live up to our own best intentions.

Maybe we could have done better this past year. Maybe we should try harder in this coming year?

This difficult soul-work is what makes Judaism more a philosophy than a Western-style religion.

Christianity is a western style religion. It has happy holidays; Christmas and Easter. Judaism has somber Holy Days; the Days of Awe and the Days of Judgement.

In English we use the phrase “People celebrate Christmas.” Imagine fitting Yom Kippur into that phrase. No one I know “celebrates” Yom Kippur!

Christians, it is said, celebrate their holidays. Jews observe theirs. One isn’t better than the other. It is just that they have a different emphasis.

For this reason, no one that I know looks forward to Yom Kippur. Who wants to spend the day beating their breast, looking into the mirror, and wondering how they might have done better?

And yet, every Jew I know feels cleansed after the Holy Days have come and gone. On Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur we stand revealed, no mask and no disguise to hide us from our Creator or ourselves. On the holidays we are most assuredly neither Superman, nor Batman.  We have no Bat Cave and no Fortress of Solitude to which we can escape.

The Jewish Holy Days- no mask, no cape.  Just us. Just you. Just me.

And all that we can do at the Holidays is sit in the synagogue for a few hours, stripped of all disguises and secret identities and we ask ourselves, “If I leave my disguise behind… who do I want to be this year?”

Bar Mitzvah Preparation for the Learning Disabled Child of an Interfaith Family

Rabbi Steven Lebow

Temple Kol Emeth 


Bar Mitzvah Preparation for the Learning Disabled Child of an Interfaith Family


The first time I heard Michael Graner read Hebrew I knew I was in for trouble.

 As a congregational rabbi it is my job to make sure that every child is adequately prepared for the bar/bat mitzvah.

Bar/Bat Mitzvah tutoring is not the most prestigious or glamorous part of my job. Nevertheless, I pride myself on being sure that every child can read the Torah blessings and Parsha (Torah portion) fluently.

When Michael came to my office that fall to have his Hebrew fluency evaluated I had no reason to expect that he would be any different from my other students. I had observed Michael during Mid-week Hebrew over the years and I remembered him as a normal, boisterous twelve year old.

“Go ahead and read the Torah blessings,” I said to him.

“O.K.,” he said. “Rabku at Edonee…” He stopped and looked up sheepishly.

“What?” I said. “Read it again.” It was late in the afternoon and I assumed that fatigue was affecting my hearing.

“Rabku at Edonee,” he read once more.

I winced at Michael’s mispronunciations and seeming disregard for the Hebrew vowels and even its consonants.

“No,” I said gently. “The first word of the Torah blessing is ‘Barchu’, not Rabku. You’re reading it backwards. Try it again.”

“O.K.,” Michael said agreeably. “Rabku at Edonee Haboregard…”

We were in deep trouble. Michael had been in Hebrew School for three years and had somehow managed to escape learning any Hebrew. In truth, he seemed to know some Hebrew, but he persisted in confusing one Hebrew consonant for another.

It was now October and his Bar Mitzvah service was seven months away. Faced with the almost insurmountable task of teaching Hebrew to Michael in seven months I took a deep breath.

“Try it again,” I said to Michael.

It was going to be a long afternoon.

For a moment I began to wonder why I had never applied to law school…

To add one more wrinkle was the fact that Michael came from an interfaith family who desperately wanted him to have a Bar Mitzvah but who lacked any ability to reinforce Michael’s Hebrew studies at home.

“Rabbi,” said Michael’s mom, “I’m not from a Jewish background, so I can’t really help him prepare for his Hebrew studies.”

“We know he can’t read Hebrew well, if at all,” said his father, but I’ve already forgotten most of the Hebrew I learned thirty years ago when I had my bar mitzvah.”

“What should we do?” the mother asked me.

“Well,” I suggested, “We could arrange for a private tutor for him.”

“Rabbi,” said the mom, “It’s expensive to be Jewish. We would hire a tutor for him, but our budget is already stretched tight.”

“If it were for summer camp,” said his Methodist mother, “I could probably get my parents to chip in and help with the expenses. But my parents are Protestant and they have no clue about the importance of this day in Michael’s life!”

“Rabbi, we know how important it is for interfaith families to affirm their child’s Jewish identity. But we just can’t afford the additional Hebrew tutoring. What should we do?”

“Oh,” I said. “Well, in that case, I will tutor Michael privately, at no charge.”

“”How hard could it be?” I wondered to myself.

Two months went by, very slowly. His reading of the Torah blessings was still deeply flawed. Close, as they say, but no cigar.

Michael’s Torah and Haftarah portions were in even worse shape. Michael could barely make his way through the first couple of words. How would he ever learn his parsha? How would I ever be able to train him to read directly from the Torah?

I honestly did not know how to teach Hebrew to someone who learned differently.

Law School was looking better all the time.

That October I had lunch with a friend who is an educational consultant. I described my frustration over Michael’s inability to grasp Hebrew.

“He’s obviously got Dyslexia or some kind of Language Processing Disorder,” she said.

“What do you mean?” I asked.

“You know,” she said to me. “His brain is not processing language in the way same way that you or I do. He’s probably very bright,” she said. “But he’s got to learn a language in a different way.”

“Put the Torah blessings on YouTube, and let him listen to them over and over. Have him write the Hebrew out phonetically in English. See if that helps jumpstart him.

“He’ll get it eventually,” The consultant said to me. “He is going to learn the parsha a little differently than other kids. Just have faith.”

I went home that afternoon thinking about learning disabilities and wondering what else I didn’t know about teaching Hebrew. The weeks went by and I tried new techniques every week.

I posted the blessings on line and made Michael listen to them every day. I recorded a sound file of his parsha and downloaded it to his iPod. Michael listened to the sound files every single day, as if they were the newest lectures from Tony Robbins or some other motivational speaker! I taught Michael to recognize syllables, instead of just words. I had Michael whisper the prayers and then I experimented with having him shout them at the top of his voice.

I tried at every Hebrew lesson to have faith in Michael. And even on the days that he faltered and failed to recognize any of the Hebrew I tried to just put my faith in, well, You-Know-Who..

Keep trying,” I told him as we were struggling with the Torah portion one day. “Never give up,” I said to him. “Never give in.”

A month later when he learned to sing the Torah Trope Michael’s face brightened. My educational consultant had suggested that this might happen. Some kids with learning disabilities do better when they sing, than when they read.

“Go and figure,” I said to myself. “I’m a congregational rabbi, not a neuropsychologist!”

One day in February Michael walked into my office. He opened his siddur and without a word of introduction he sang in a clear voice “Barchu et Adonai…”

“What?” I asked incredulously.

He then again repeated the Torah blessing fluently and without a mistake. Just like that. One week he couldn’t do it and then the next week he did it flawlessly. Michael had gone from not knowing it to getting it. I couldn’t credit my inspired teaching or even the advice from the consultant I had used. It was almost as if a miracle had happened.

“How did you finally learn it?” I asked Michael.

“I just practiced like you told me,” he replied. And then Michael looked down and began to chant the “V’ahavta”.

A few months after that Michael came to the bima and chanted the entire service effortlessly. He then chanted his aliyot, without a mistake. Only a few people in the room could truly know what a triumph that moment must have felt like for Michael.

Of course Michael’s Jewish grandparents were moved by the bar mitzvah of their grandson. But even Michael’s Methodist grandparents were touched by the importance of Jewish values their daughter had helped give their grandson.

I learned many lessons from tutoring Michael that year.

Learning disabled kids are just like other kids. They need help and they need love. And interfaith families are the same as all Jewish families. They need to know that their rabbi will support them in what can be the difficult task of raising Jewish children when one parent isn’t Jewish.

As Michael was chanting his haftarah I caught a glimpse of his parents, their faces bathed in pride. I looked away, my own eyes starting to mist. We were watching a young boy begin the long odyssey from ignorance to literacy, from confusion to commitment.

Watching Michael that day I marveled at the strength that God gives us to overcome whatever flaws or deficits we may have. Having conquered his inability to read Hebrew, Michael was now over the hump.

I guess I was, too.

The legal profession was safe from me, at least for the time being. The rabbinate had suddenly become fulfilling again.

Sleeping and Awake

Rabbi  Steven J. Lebow,
Temple Kol,Emeth
Marietta, Atlanta Georgia


“I always take a nap, just before I go to sleep…”

I am dreaming and here I am.

I am 8 years old and my parents, Doc and Rita, have driven 12 hours from South Florida to Cleveland, Georgia.

(I had driven to Georgia only once before this and that is a story for a different memoir. The story of my first trip to Atlanta, in 1963, is a sad tale, full of sand and tears. That story will simmer on the stove for some other time.)

We pull into Camp Coleman and there is no sign at the entrance. In 1965 the Klan was still bombing synagogues and churches. There is no UAHC Camp Coleman sign and there are no Jewish stars. No visible signs at all, except for the mile markers my father instructs me to count.

We drive down a dirt road and there it is. Just the Ad Building- what is now called the Misrad. The Administration Building (Misrad) of the camp sits by a lake. I had never seen a summer camp before.

If truth be told, I had never seen a lake, either.

As a child I was fascinated by that lake. I sat by it, dreaming and daydreaming, for hours. Only years later did I discover it had a name, “Lake Shalom”.

And then, it was many years later, when I looked down at the lake from the Ulam Gadol (Elishva), that I realized that the lake was shaped, vaguely, like the state of Israel.

I was only 8 years old the first time I sat by that lake. It could have been shaped like Rhode Island for all I knew.

But that lake was not shaped like Rhode Island. The lake was signified, like so many other things at Coleman, Jewishly.

Everything at that camp, outside Cleveland, Georgia, was signified as Jewish. I see that looking back, awakening from the dream of the middle of my middle age.

The food at Coleman was Jewishly significant. It was blessed in Hebrew. I had never heard Hebrew songs before. In fact, I had never heard the Motzi, the blessing over the bread, either.

I had been the only Jewish 3rd grader at Sunset Elementary School, in Ft. Lauderdale. No one at the school cafeteria in 1965 blessed their lunch room meals. And no one, I am sure, sang the Motzi at my gentile school.

But that first summer at Coleman everyone in the dining hall was Jewish. As I looked up and down the lunch room bench, at Coleman, it suddenly occurred to me that everyone was Jewish. And everyone that first summer I spent at camp sang the motzi.

Looking back, I guess that hearing that Motzi must have changed my life, in ways germane, but ineluctable and inchoate to me then.

Looking back, I see that 8 year old who returned home from that first summer at camp. I see him, small for his age- in fact, small for any age. I see that young boy, now in the fourth grade, singing the Motzi at every lunchtime, for many years to come. Singing Jewishly wherever he went.

Jew-less in Gaza, as the poet sings.

That young child sang the Hebrew blessings out loud and unashamedly during the final years of elementary school. He sang off key, but at least with gusto.

For fifty years, that little boy has sung the same Hebrew melodies that he learned fifty years ago. Now he is 58, but yen he was only 8 years old.

And now, both late at night and early in the morning, dreaming and awake, the melody of those Hebrew songs come back to him.

I know those Jewish melodies still sound on and on and on. I know, because I hear them still.

No matter whether I am dreaming, or awake.

The Call to Bridge the Wall – Judaism in the Jewish State


Rabbi Jeffrey Sirkman

Larchmont Temple

The very first picture my son Gabe sent last month from his Birthright trip, undoubtedly the first place they took the group of 40 was, of course, The Wall.

But Gabe didn’t just send us a picture postcard I-Phone snapshot. He wanted us to be there with him, so he sent us a short video, capturing the scene; a panorama of all the people, swaying to the rhythm of their prayers, then panning upwards, scanning the  full length of the top tier of the Wall itself.

And as Gabe’s video spans the 2,000 year old stones, still listening to the sounds of petitioners below, as if those ancient rocks carry the call of generations long gone, we feel their hopes somehow rising…

Watching, the ancient stones calling, I tear up at the transcendent power that iconic place magically holds. Having stood there before—I am there yet again. Touching the Wall, I feel a heartbeat; the lifeblood of our people pulsing… For a moment, my heart beats in sync.

…..But [even with that great I-Phone V video clarity] the emotional high does not last very long…

Whose Wall Is It Anyway?… the headline in both the ‘Jerusalem Post’ and ‘The Jewish Week’ at the start of summer, poses a concern at the heart of our sacred center.  As on numerous previous occasions, trying to gather on the New Moon for prayer, when, observing Rosh Chodesh Av last fall, The Women of the Wall were greeted by busloads of Ultra-Orthodox girls, Brought there to block their way, and crowds of Haredi [Ultra Orthodox] young men,

Hurling words you could hardly believe you were hearing, as the Women of the Wall sang Mah Tovu,  Haredi men actually shouting “Heil Hitler.”

Even more: a couple of months later, as they began their monthly service, Anat Hoffman’s arrest—for wearing a tallit in that public prayer space, was accompanied by a physical roughing up by the police meant for some hardened criminal they are trying to crack.

Just what was Hoffman’s crime? That she had been a 16-year member of the Jerusalem City Council, A lawyer who insisted on pursuing justice for all citizens… Or that as Founder of Women of the Wall, And the head of our movement’s Israel Religious Action Center,

Pioneering the fight for equality, she has advanced the conversation in the public square to a place most Israelis never thought possible?

So, with all of this hullabaloo last Fall, trying to calm the storm, Netanyahu appointed the exemplar of our people’s fight for freedom. And though Natan Sharansky’s proposal is a stroke of political savvy, Even pluralistic ingenuity, it still might be just shy of a sacred affront.

The compromise: to extend the “Western Wall Plaza” all the way through to Robinson’s Arch—the very far right of the Kotel itself, with one entrance for all, but dividing the area, the current “Wall” would remain a prayer space with gender separation, while the newly designated extension would be a place for pluralistic prayer.

Thus, recognizing the divergent ritual paths & maintaining historic diversity, As Sharansky frames it, this would be “One Wall for One People.”

Nice try, but it’s really not…

Two pluralistically minded Zionist thinkers, American born/Israel-dwelling, went toe to toe a number of months back. Their point-counterpoint highlights the much larger implications of the issue at hand.  Just a bit of the back & forth, and you’ll get the gist.

My colleague, VP of HUC-JIR, Rabbi Rachel Sabath-Halachmi:

“Yossi…Women of the Wall has captured the minds & souls of Jews worldwide, because it symbolizes the sacred desire of the entire Jewish people to be equally at home in the Jewish State. It is no wonder that many Jews, both men & women, Do not feel that they can call Israel their homeland precisely because of lack of access to the sacred…”

Great journalist/author/teacher—Yossi Klein-HaLevi:

“Rachel…As the state founded by Zionism, the ideology of Jewish Peoplehood, Israel must not cede Judaism to any one denomination’s control. The ongoing monopoly of Orthodox prayer at the Wall is a painful symbol of Zionism’s failure so far to fulfill its promise of inclusive peoplehood.”

[Both are clearly on the same pluralistic page, but Klein-HaLevi continues:]

“The real question is, how to bring change…”

Seeing the futility of fighting the Ultra-Orthodox establishment, Klein HaLevi suggests the “Extension Option,” insisting:

“Robinson’s Arch is no less the Kotel… Who’s to say their part of the Wall is more sacred?”

But the Rabbi is not satisfied in settling:

“Yossi…It’s not about some political victory, it’s about the capacity to cling to God in the fullest sense of who we are!”

But KH closing critique echoes the greater concern:

“I, too, wish that there were no need to divide the Kotel, that it could be a symbol of our wholeness, rather than our fragmentation. But we have returned from exile shattered, and a wise people knows how to manage its divisions, rather than force an artificial wholeness which would result in even greater devastation.”  [‘The Jewish Week,’ 12.21.12]

The Temple [capital T] was destroyed, the Rabbis teach, due to seven sins, the last two of which were: “failing to settle disputes through compromise and sin’at chi-nam—baseless hatred.”

We know well where divisiveness, a “my-way-or-the-highway” intransigence leads, for such is the way of religious intolerance/extremism.

SO maybe Rachel is right: This is a matter of all the people Israel feeling at home; that they have a sacred space, same as every Jew, in the Jewish State.

AND maybe Yossi is right:  What’s at stake is much more than spatial relations. Our ability to recognize our differing paths, yet respect our peoplehood, will either bind us as Israel, or tear our people apart.

Now, you could pause at the question…

Is it not of greater urgency to explore Israel’s prospects for peace, or, at the least, normalization of relations with the Palestinians, especially when face to face talks, thanks to heavy Kerry arm-twisting,

Are on again/off again—on again?

And with a post-Morsi Egyptian political process imploding, hundreds of protestors dead, a military challenged to keep its power in check…

And with Syria’s intense civil strife, the Assad regime turning on its own people, beyond the bombardments, inhumanely, with chemical weaponry?…

Knowing US military response could further incite Assad, shouldn’t we be dealing with the security implications?

And need I mention that 4-letter word: Iraq?

Much as the pressing political concerns remain critical—our hope for progress on two-state negotiations, and, somehow, for sanity to prevail in Egypt and Syria… The ultimate outcomes are largely beyond our control. External realities notwithstanding, the heart of the matter for us, when it comes to Israel, especially in these days of inner reflection, is the state of being Jewish in the Jewish State.

And that reality not only impacts our personal connections, but is one in which we might actually have a say, and surely have a stake!

…And it’s all about a Wall…

Let’s do some Haredi Meshugas Multiple Choice.

Which of the following actually happened in Israel in the recent past?

  1. Sephardi Chief Ultra-Orthodox Rabbi Shlomo Amar, protesting the Israeli Supreme Court ruling recognizing Reform & Conservative Rabbis serving in rural communities called Reform Jews “enemies of God.”
  1. Commenting on the possibility of recognizing civil marriage in the Jewish State, Rabbi David Stav—the more open-minded candidate for Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi—stated that such a choice “would push them and their descendants out of the Jewish people.”
  2. The heads of “Od Yosef Chai Yeshivah” in Jerusalem authored a Halachic manual, sanctioned by the state Rabbi of Kiryat Arba, called Torat HaMelech, the King’s Torah, approving the killing of non-Jews who might hamper the living of Torah Law.
  3. Walking on their way to school, a group of middle school Ultra-Orthodox girls are spat upon and called dirty whores [because their below the knee length skirts are too short] by a group of Haredi men, tallit bags in hand, themselves returning from morning prayers.
  4. At the funeral of her 86 year-old father, Rosie Davidyan, the deceased’s daughter, herself an observant Jew, is stopped from reciting the Kaddish, or reading the eulogy she stayed up all night writing, by the Haredi rabbi officiating, who instructs her brother: “You read. In our tradition, women are not allowed to speak.”

IF you wisely/sadly guessed all of the above, and then some, you begin to sense the imposing wall of obstructionism, unintentionally enabled by Ben Gurion at the founding of the State, with his acquiescence to maintain the religious status quo; a ‘wall’ keeping mainstream Judaism out, or, keeping the UO in.

SO in this sacred season when the sins of any part of the body of our people, wounds us all, how do we respond?

Hear 3 Visionary Voices turning us around as a people, calling us to bridge that wall and repair Israel’s neshoma—our people’s spirit, from the inside out,  and the outside in.

Voice of Vision 1…

“The Haredi Spring is coming to an end and not a moment too soon.”

Who better to turn to for hope than the leading American Jewish model of religious pluralism, founder of CLAL, pioneering bridge-builder, Modern Orthodox Rabbi Yitz Greenberg. Rav Yitz sees the heart of the problem as an unnatural clash between Torah & Democracy.

“They preach that the laws of God should decide the general law, and even override national law.  They did not internalize that democracy required full respect for others.

Nor do they grasp that democracy gives full rights to woman, to minorities…and is predicated on a fair-sharing of national burdens like taxes and army service.” [J.Wk, 7.5.13]

Rav Yitz has a problem, and rightfully so, with the longstanding Haredi exemption from military service.

The greater problem [however] is exacerbated by Haredi entitlement, so entrenched that—with the Israeli government’s recent plan to begin enlisting young UO men [with a volunteer force of almost 2,000 Haredi men already in the IDF]

A poster campaign appeared in Mea-She’arim, the UO neighborhood in Jerusalem, featuring black & white cartoon caricatures, equating the Israeli soldier to the Nazi storm-trooper, calling those who would enlist Chardakim—a combination of Haredi, God-fearing and Charakim—insects.

Greenberg’s core concern, that among the Haredi community, “universal rights were taking 2nd place to tribal versions of halacha,” has best been countered by what Rav Yitz sees as the wake-up call by Women of the Wall.  “They spoke up and challenged the exclusion of women—and by implication, of all non-Orthodox at the Wall.  And starting from that dream of religious freedom, hopefully the Modern Orthodox community can regain its classic commitment to democracy and religious moderation.”

You could not frame this vision more forcefully than Modern Orthodox Chief Rabbi of Efrat, [Rosh Yeshivah of Ohr Torah]  Rabbi Shlomo Riskin.

“One of the great thrills of living in the State of Israel is the extraordinary mix of Jews from around the world…It’s not only a geographical mix; our country is blessed with Jews from every possibly branch of Jewish philosophy.  And because underlying unity does not insist on uniformity, it permits room for differences of opinion…There are many legitimate, even if differing paths, to approach the Divine.” [Jewish Wk. 8.2.13]

The call to bridge the Wall begins within the world of tradition itself—the balance of an Orthodoxy that is observantly Jewish, and genuinely democratic—self-aware enough to realize, there must be room for both!

Voice of Vision 2…

Repairing the state of religion in the Jewish State requires that the call likewise come from the 80% of non-Orthodox Israelis.  But what could possibly compel steadfastly traditional Jews to listen? What if this visionary was somehow speaking their language!…?

The unexpected win of 19 Knesset seats by a new political player in the most recent elections,  Yesh Atid—[literally, There is a Future] now part of the ruling coalition government, made room for what its leader, popular TV journalist turned MK, Ya’ir Lapid framed as:

Changing the priorities in Israel with emphasis on civil life, economic efficiency, social justice, 2 states for 2 people, and greater religious pluralism…

None of this new party’s members captures the spirit or speaks with a more resonant voice—one that both secular Zionists and observant Jews can relate to—than Ruth Calderon.

Founder of Elul, the first “secular yeshivah” in Israel, where traditional and non-observant, male and female learn side by side, master educator, a self-described ‘non-halachic’ woman with a doctorate in Talmud from the most rigorous Hebrew University, [and, btw, our own Amy Seife’s cousin!] this thoughtful intellectual with outgoing charm understands her new political leadership role uniquely, for she did something unheard of on the K’nesset floor in her opening GA address:

Ruth Calderon taught Talmud!

No party platforms nor political rhetoric, but a tale from Tractate Ketubot; A curious story she magically made into a metaphor for bridging what many regard as impassable walls….

Rabbi Rechumei was constantly before Rava in Mechoza. He would habitually return home every Yom Kippur Eve. One day, the topic of study [in Mechoza] drew him in. His wife anticipated his arrival, saying: Here he comes…Here he comes. [But] he did not come.  She became upset, and shed a tear from her eye. Rechumei was sitting atop the roof. The roof collapsed under his weight, And he died.

Now, you are undoubtedly saying what most uninitiated in the world of Talmudic legends might say: WHAT!?…..But Calderon draws out a message which speaks to the moment.

Here’s what she teaches….

…Rechumei—his name, in Aramaic, means love, and derives from “rechem” Hebrew for “womb”

So he is someone who knows how to make room/accept others. But where does he spend all his time?  Studying with the Rabbi. He would only go home to his wife, however, of all times, on YK eve, which didn’t exactly make for romance, but his wife yearned just the same.

As Calderon describes: “One can hear the aspirant tone of her words.  With every phone call, every footstep, every text-message, every knock, you are certain, it’s him. “Here he comes.”

But he never does….and a single, sad tear falls.”

“Now,” she continues, “imagine a split screen.

On one side the yearning woman; a tear streaming down her cheek.

On the other, Rechumei, dressed all in white, up on the roof, studying Torah, feeling so close on this Day of Awe to Heaven.

And as the tear falls from her face, at that instant, the roof caves in as he falls to the ground.”

Then the crucial question, as Calderon asks:

“What can I learn about this place and my work here from Rechumei & his wife?”

The entire K’nesset is on the edge of their seats; a lesson they can all take to heart.

“First, I learn that one who forgets he is sitting on another’s shoulders will fall.

I learn that being a Tsadik, a virtuous Jew, does not mean following Torah

at the expense of sensitivity to humankind….Then I learn that often, in a dispute,

both sides are right.  And I understand that both my disputant and I feel

they are doing the right & responsible thing, both—that they are safeguarding home.

Sometimes we feel like the woman, waiting, serving in the army, doing all the work

While others sit on rooftops studying Torah.

Sometimes those others feel that they bear the entire weight of tradition,

of our cultural heritage while we go to the beach [a hotspot for many secular Israelis on the Holy Days]…

Both I and my disputant feel solely responsible for home.

Until I understand this, I will not perceive the problem properly,

and will not be able to find a solution.”  Now her powerful bridge the wall call:

“I invite all of us to years of action rooted in thought,

And dispute rooted in mutual respect and understanding.

I aspire to create an Israel where Torah study is the heritage of all Jews,

Where all young citizens take part in civil & military service.

Together let us build this home.”

Then, as Calderon—a woman teaching Talmud on the K’nesset floor,

Finished with a prayer for her and all Israeli leaders to be given strength and integrity,

at peace inside & out, with God’s help…at that moment, Yitschak Vaknin,

a member of Shas, the right-wing religious party, responded with a spirited: AMEN.

The call to bridge the wall means every Israeli reclaiming a heritage the large majority had long-ago ceded to surrogate holy men, recognizing yet again: the ancient text is timeless,

And its story is speaking to our 21st century lives…

Voice of Vision 3…

The third voice is the hardest for us to hear,

For it is too easily drown out by what Peter Beinart’s recent book, The Crisis of Zionism,

terms a dramatic distancing of young American Jews from Israel, largely due to the disconnect between the liberal values they hold and the conflicting political policies of the Jewish State.

Though Beinart softens his disengagement dilemma cry a bit from what he said in his oft-cited NY Review of Books article a few years ago, [in no small part influenced by the reality of over 350, 000 college/post-college kids who’ve bonded meaningfully through Birthright]

There is no denying his thesis: that the “illiberal Zionism” forged by a 40+year occupation

And the role it forces Israel to play Jeopardizes Israel’s democratic integrity.

Beinart sees this great crisis as “the battle for Israel’s soul,” calling for a new generation to

“recalibrate the imbalance, to fuse religious commitment and liberal values.”

Yet his approach is askew.

Where some see a quandary,  others envision a critical reason to act.

Thus, the call meant for us all; to reclaim “Zionism” as it connects to our core identity

as diaspora Jews, and helps determine the Jewish character of the Jewish State.

The voice who, since his days as Executive Director of ARZA [Association of American Reform Zionists]

to his 16-year tenure as President of our movement, has spoken out with compelling clarity of vision is none other than Rabbi Eric Yoffie. So he speaks:

“The time has come to reclaim the term “Zionism” from the political and psychological cobwebs with which it has become entangled.”

Asserting that our link to Israel is neither a question of our alignment—right or left;

That our support for Israel’s continued existence is not contingent on the sometimes unpalatable decisions of its political leadership, Yoffie extends the call:

“Zionism is a movement that was created by the entire Jewish people, is sustained by the entire Jewish people, and belongs to the entire Jewish people.”

Which means that residence is not the determinant—though the Law of Return reminds

any Jew anywhere that homeland is just an El-Al flight away.

If, as Yoffie envisions, “Israel is not primarily the state of Israelis, but the state of the Jewish people, then it invites every diaspora Jew to engage in its affairs and participate in its debates, whether in the form of generating support for its policies or offering criticism.  And though final decisions will be made by the citizens of Israel…if American Jews wish to have their say about Israel, no special permission is required.  The right to do so is inherent in the Zionist mission…Zionism bestows on Jews everywhere a role in determining the Jewish character of the Jewish State.”[Ha’Aretz, Op Ed, 6.28.13]

WHY is Yoffie’s vision a voice we need not alone hear, but take to heart?


If Israel is to remain a Jewish State that is, at one and the same time, a democracy, as it must…

If Israel is to reflect those values—“freedom of religion and conscience” envisioned in its Declaration of Independence, as it daily aspires…

Who better to foster a place where multiple pathways to Jewish peoplehood are affirmed;

A place where justice for all citizens, Jewish or not, is second nature;

A place where the texts of our tradition tell a story that includes us all today…

Who should be more intrinsically motivated—who better equipped, to bridge walls of religious intolerance;

To embrace difference & celebrate diversity…than Zionists like us…?!


Gabe had a great time on Birthright; just ten Days…It was transformational.

I’ve never seen him more engaged in Israel’s daily happenings,

Never felt him more inspired by the tales he heard of Israel’s trials,

Never more ready to connect with other 20-something Reform Jews seeking a community tied by shared values and common purpose.

And it is by no means because he’s an RK [a Rabbi’s Kid]

That’s how nearly every kid walks away from the journey; walls of alienation and unawareness transcended—the relationship is suddenly for real.

But barring a Birthright program for kids in their 40’s or 60’s or 80’s…

We at Larchmont Temple will spend the coming year—our Covenant of Learning, exploring Israel from every which way…Rabbi Nathan & Cantor Scher; both leading specialized missions,  can even help you get there…

Our New Year’s call echoes from the inside out—but must be answered from the outside in.

Do not let a wall…of political differences, of religious injustice, of spiritual indifference;

Of long-distance, haven’t felt close in years relationship keep you from reaching, from struggling, from exploring, from connecting…

Israel’s soul is at stake as never before; the religious core of our peoplehood. The spiritual character the Jewish State carries depends upon us.

As Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel understood:

“Israel is the tree—we are the leaves. It’s the clinging to the stem that keeps us alive.”

So May our concern, our support, our critique, our commitment help to create a Jewish State where every Jew—each of us—has a place…

equal footing in the footsteps of our mothers & fathers; an Israel driven by mutual respect, democratic purpose and diversity of practice, where each of us feels whole enough—holy enough, to call it Home…..

Ken Yehi Ratson…So with the Holy One’s Help….May it Be                                                AMEN

Death as Inspiration


Rabbi Jeffrey Sirkman,

Larchmont Temple

In shtetl days, and long before, when someone died, most often with generations gathered, [and seldom at what we’d call a ripe old age,] no matter the circumstances, they were never left alone.

From the recital of Psalms to the ritual washing of the body to the burial itself, we as Jews would accompany our dead to their final resting place.

But it went far beyond the Jews…

Historically, from early Medieval times, in our desire to tap into death as a life-force, we built churches & temples atop the tombs of the departed.

And the greater the life, the tighter our grip in death…

We still couldn’t leave them alone.

When Galileo was exhumed in 1737 to transfer his tomb, several fingers, a tooth, some even say a vertebra were plucked as revered relics. Descartes skull was stolen before he could be reburied in France. Alexander the Great’s mummy was regularly kissed by Roman emperors on their way to battle. Lest you think, “so not Jewish”…Remember that Israel carried Joseph’s bones out of Egypt to pave their way to freedom.

Others may have gone a bit too far…

The Victorians made lockets from the hair of dead loved ones; The Romantics kept the hearts of their greatest poets as cherished vestige. The widow of the writer/adventurer Sir Walter Raleigh kept his embalmed head, after he was executed, in a prized case in the living room.

Macabre—morose—meshug?…Maybe, not at all. Bess Lovejoy, author of the book Rest In Pieces puts the human preoccupation in perspective:

“Taken as signs of their times, displaying an intimacy with the dead,… its possible that ages past actually show a healthier relationship with death. Despite advances that have removed death as a constant presence in our lives, it remains inevitable, and many of us are ill-prepared when it comes.” [NY Times, Op Ed, 10.28.12]

With the proverbial Book of Life still open before us, our consideration this night is much more than metaphor…

What is this day’s implicit [ironic] message?

HOW we deal with death: the reality that life is filled with loss, that crazy things happen every day, far beyond our understanding— certainly beyond our control, is the framework for how we deal with life. Even more pointedly; the way we face the prospect of that earthly end brings life perspective that may alter the outlook we bring to each new day.

Though most days we assume otherwise, we are not invincible. The burdens we carry, the brokenness we bear, can leave us with a sense of life-despair that is self-defeating.  Yet that is not the sensibility these sacred days are meant to convey! “Repent one day before your death,” R’ Joshua instructs his students.

Note—the day before!…Thus the students rightly reply:

“But how do you know what day that day will be?”

And the rabbi’s wise retort: “So make it today!”

But most of us don’t…WHY?

Because it’s easier to go through life denying death, thinking it has someone else’s name on it… that the magical prayer we utter daily during our morning shower or before falling to sleep is our Heavenly protection, as if we’ve got God covered in some under the table pay-off racket. Then we arrive at these Yamim Nora’im—literally “Dreaded Days” This Atonement Day in particular, and our worst fears are confirmed.

“B’Rosh Hashana Yikateyvun—On RH it is written; U’v’Yom Tsom Kippur Yecheteymun—On YK it is sealed… How many shall pass on, how many shall come to be. Who shall live and who shall die. Who is the fullness of years; who before her time?”

Death happens, whether we like it or not, and seldom in accord with our schedules.

Psychiatrist Mark Epstein speaks the sentiment of where we all now stand:

“I like to say that if we are not suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, we are suffering from pre-traumatic stress disorder. There is no way to be alive without being conscious of the potential for disaster. One way or another, death, and its cousins—old age, illness, accidents, hang over us all. Nobody is immune. Our world is unstable and unpredictable, and operates to a great degree, and despite scientific advancement, outside our ability to control it.” [N.Y. Times, Op-Ed, 8.4.13]

Like that warning label on the underside of the couch: “Do not remover except under the penalty of federal law,” Comes this counterintuitive life-warning label: “CAUTION: Death’s immanence may be beneficial to your life.”

What most of us regard as a dreaded fear—embracing life’s end, can be the ultimate teacher in helping us learn what it means to be alive.

WHAT is life? …All depends on whom you ask.

A recent feature piece in Bostonia [my BU Alumni magazine] Polled a panel of academics, each sharing a unique response.

The biologist viewed life through the lens of chemical/physiological processes giving rise to living cells about 4 billion years ago. The astrophysicist, describing human beings as “walking bags of salt water with organic molecules inside,” understood the universe as chemical systems which all store and extract energy to stay alive. The neuropsychologist suggested a life-death continuum whose hard line will be blurred with advances in cryogenics and cloning.

Only the philosopher, with Aristotle as his muse, Approached the question by considering what it is that keeps us alive. IF we are more than the sum of our elements, something even more significant than science is required. Aristotle called that animating life-energy: Psuche—the breath of life; What some would call “soul.” For Aristotle, inseparable from the body in life, yet still transcending the temporal, even when we die, a life-force lives on.

These days summon us to CHOOSE LIFE, Even at times when that choice seems not to be an option.

Yet, when death’s inevitability looms large, we can still face it as life’s ultimate teacher. It all depends on how we respond…

In her watershed work On Death & Dying, Swiss psychiatrist Elisabeth Kubler-Ross outlined a 5-staged model of grief that brought the conversation, back then, out of the closet, and eventually normalized our post-mortem mourning response.

Problem is, in radically altering the ways we react to loss, she constructed a model which has, for better or worse, become the “mourning stages standard.”


Yet Kubler-Ross’ five pronged process can be misleading, because one person’s stage can be another’s passing phase.

And since mourning has no time-table, her presumed progression does not govern our grief.

Dr. Erica Brown, Scholar-in-Residence for UJA-Federation in D.C., Author of the powerfully poignant new book, Happier Endings, takes even greater issue with Kubler-Ross’ classic formulation.

“My problem with her ladder of loss is that it is missing its most important rung. The last, most potent stage within the framework of loss is not “Acceptance,” It is INSPIRATION…I humbly believe Kubler-Ross missed something in her categorization that may be the key to the fine art of “dying well”…” [Happier Endings, pgs 6-7]

In Brown’s reframing, it is our acknowledgement of how unprepared we are to deal with death that opens up the possibility of this final transformative phase; [And] What remains as a result is the enduring gift of a love stronger than death.  Consider three very different responses along the life journey, each bringing us the “Inspiration” of facing death yet still “choosing life.”

INSPIRATION I…April 15, 2013

I was walking into the doctor’s office waiting room as I saw everyone glued to a TV newscast in the corner.  It was just before 4PM, and reports coming in were still sketchy.  What they knew was that 2 blasts had gone off, one right near the finish line of the Boston Marathon. And what they saw was a horror:

body parts strewn onto the street—human carnage, shattered windows sending broken glass flying all over Copley Square; spectators running every which way—runners down or stopped in their tracks.

“Chaos,” the older gentleman next to me in the waiting room whispered.  But much as those two Chechnyan brothers who turned out to be backpacking terrorists had hoped—it wasn’t.

Marathon volunteers sprang into action, becoming runners themselves, Shuttling the injured to a constant stream of ambulances, or nearby hospitals.

Mass General’s trauma head, Dr. Peter Fagenholz said that several amputations were necessary, reporting 18 in critical condition with a total of almost 170 treated….The city—physically—was torn apart.

So what does Boston do?…Facing death, senseless acts of terror, Boston bands together—they reach…resolutely, for life.

Boston Police—State Police—the FBI—the US Military; The cooperation to catch the killers is unprecedented.

And though, a few days in, as Gov. Duval Patrick urges residents to stay inside, Boston Commons and the downtown district looking like a ghost town, [never mind that the Sox postponed their day game] as the manhunt zooms in on Franklin Street in Watertown, the nation watches SWAT teams move from door to door, finally cornering the surviving suspect in a backyard boat.

And as the capture is caught on TV for all to see, the real victory scene is in watching the residents of Watertown, Pouring into the streets, American flags in hand…

And with each passing armored vehicle, or fire truck, or police cruiser, bursts of applause and cheers erupt…Impromptu block-parties spring up, as neighborhoods feed anyone in uniform.

Folks meet one another in the street, and just hug; so grateful to have their streets back—thankful for the life they share.

The Marathon bombings sought to destroy the Patriot’s Day spirit, Yet their hateful terror resulted in just the reverse,

Spanning a series of emotional moments over the next week or so, when, in memory of the four victims, little 8-year old Martin’s smile flashing on the giant screen at Fenway, David Ortiz of the Red Sox took back Beantown with a most fitting expletive exclamation! “This is our…town!”

And the life-spirit lingers…4 months later, As Gabe and I sat near the Pesky Pole in right field for a Sox game in late July, everyone was wearing hats & jerseys with the slogan turned spiritual truth: BOSTON STRONG. When, between innings, I ran over to the Fenway gift shop, the clerk saw my disappointment that they were all sold out.

“I so wanted to wear Boston Strong back in New York.”

His response said more than he knew: “Listen bud, we wear the words right here [pronounced hee-yah]. ” Inspiration in the face of death, by reaching out to hold one another up; by seeing beyond the hate to all that makes us humanly connected. Journalist Charles McGrath who, like me, grew up watching the Marathon, reflects on the core of that life-strength:

“Boston’s is a toughness born, in part from a history of neighborhood clannishness, class resentment and an attitude that people here take care of their own, because you can’t trust anyone else to!…But the Marathon was our antidote to that kind of isolation, linking the city, its neighborhoods and suburbs together like beads on a single string.” [New York Times, 4.21.13]

Our Inspiration comes from an 8-year old boy, inexplicably killed, His life cut terribly short, but his heart still reminding us why we’re here…

As the sign Martin Richard painted in school read just the week before: “No more hurting people.” His life spirit lives on in that hope.


INSPIRATION II… January 4, 2013… 5:12 in the afternoon

My mother died the way she lived, almost without giving it a second thought. And with a pledge to tomorrow that was as unwarranted, As it was unwavering.

Having had more than her share of life-tsoris: A marriage to my dad, a man she deeply loved, but could not quite figure out how to live with, ending in divorce after just over 20 years, compelling her—a 45 year-old woman who didn’t even have a driver’s license, to claim her independence, never mind having to earn a living to pay rent…  All the while, right around that time, becoming the primary caretaker for her aging parents who lived half an hour away.

Reason to feel a heaviness of heart might have weighed her down…

But Leona Sirkman was resilient, almost joyous, Delighting in what she had—the grandkids up the street she so loved, and the 4 far-away ones in Larchmont…

Singing in 2 choral societies to entertain the elderly. And, despite battling melanoma over the course of 5 years, undaunted, still meeting her girlfriends at the all-you-can-eat salad bar at Wendy’s every Wednesday…If you tried to call her after 9AM, too late; Mom was already out and about on her daily errands.

Even with the health concerns of post-cancer treatment this past year, Mom was here to celebrate my D.D. last May, and was looking forward to what I promised would be an 85th As I often joked, “Ma, that’s Honolulu, one way…”

So when my sister called the day after our mother’s 81st,

“Mom wasn’t right, so I took her to Mass General.

They’ve been doing tests all day… Jeff, you won’t believe it.”


“She has brain tumors…malignant.”

“Seriously?…After all this!?”… My sister Rhonda explained the diagnosis

and the surgeon’s suggestions. “Where’s Mom?”

“They put her in a room. She’s right here…”

“Mom, it’s me, your favorite son.” That laugh was her all right.

“So Mom, what do you want to do?”

“Well Jeffrey, it’s like this: If I want to live, I have to let them try and operate.

What other choice do I have?”

“Mom, you could just enjoy whatever time is yours…and…”

birthday trip for her to Hawaii,


“What, and sit around waiting? No, Jeffrey, I want to live.

Let the doctors try; I’m not afraid…”

“OK Mom….If that’s what you want to do….I love you.

See you tomorrow at Mass General.”

“Love you too honey. Drive careful…”

My mother was so cautious in life. She taught me, as a kid, to stay clear of stray dogs and be wary of strangers. She was apprehensive of new

technology and was never one to take undue risk…

But she was fearless in death. Because she would not live, to her, what could be a highly compromised existence…knowing how full her days were with people/places she loved, given the option, grateful alone at the possibility, Leona Sirkman chose life.

…Mom never opened her eyes again; Never fully regained brain function or consciousness. The body withered, days in Neuro ICU…her face sunken, as we sat around her and told stories of a life gone-by…

Mom had already left us…Yet, we knew, lying there amidst the medical machinery as any hope of life faded from view, she never for a moment stopped loving us…

So as we, her kids & grandkids gathered, finally watched her breathe her last— indomitable spirit, she was still choosing life….



I have never met anyone to whom time matters more than my wife.

On our third date, after having hung out in her backyard pool, in her sitting room, our lips locked pretty passionately, her eyes suddenly popped open with a question:

“How long before we can have babies?”

Flabbergasted, but appreciating what her fast-track trajectory meant for our relationship, I suggested it would be a while, and we both broke into laughter.

Susan was 16 ½ and I 17 at the time. Fast forward 38+ years together later, and we calculate by a different clock.

Truth is, time takes on added significance when we are reminded we are mortal, and there’s no reminder quite like cancer.

Confronting life-threatening illness can weigh heavily on many. For some, it is paralyzing, impeding life’s forward progress.

The days pass and you wake up to each new morning frozen by the unchanging reality: it’s still there. Others get so wrapped up in the medical management of disease that life itself becomes secondary.

Some face the very thought of it with disbelief, as famed author William Saroyan once commented: “Everybody’s got to die, but I always believed an exception would be made in my case.”

So we cope by running the other way, as if we can…. Still others face the prospect of sickness with fear.  The uncertainty of what the future holds, of not being here to watch generations unfold, of meeting our final end before they, or we, are ready.

We tremble at the thought. It’s a devastating blow. We dwell…in the dying. Then there are uniquely inspired souls, who face their illness, even the possibility of dying, by emphatically living.  They refuse to let treatments, or the accompanying ill-effects, limit them.

And with a determination to greet each new day and fill it with purpose, disease becomes secondary. Fearlessly facing life, choosing it over death, no moment is meaningless, and no encounter insignificant.

Mark Twain once mused: “The fear of death follows from the fear of life. A man who lives fully is prepared to die at any time.”

“The capacity to live in the present and maximize it softens the scare of not existing at all. If we really feared death,” Dr. Erica Brown intuits, “we would make sure to get it all in quickly before time runs out. The gift of death is that we don’t know when it is, so we spend each day in exceptional states of love, generosity and sanctity because time matters so much.” [Happier Endings, Dr. Erica Brown, pg. 161]

The life-expectancy calculator [originated, as you might guess, by life-insurance brokers] is an easy-to-download app which, in exchange for inputting answers to all kinds of personal questions…

[My favorite: Of the 10 items on the stress list, _____ of them happened to me in the past 12 months?…….I was 9 out of 10…OY]

As you input your answers the calculator generates your life-span projection. Some sites even provide an added feature: a personal mortality stop-watch to start the countdown as soon as you click “OK.” [Brown, pg. 151]

Of course, it is not OK…depressing, if not morose, on many counts. Yet for a person in the throes of chronic/terminal illness, alongside the morning alarm, the mortality clock flashes…

Today of all days we are well aware, that clock ticks for us all. Yet it’s all a matter of how you tell time….

For those of you who’ve been there, or who are there; or those caregivers close by, you understand:

It is not about counting the days, but approaching our time with an intentionality of presence that makes each day count.

Why is it that when someone on the street, could be an acquaintance, a congregant, even a perfect stranger, asks a question, my wife does not simply answer, she takes the time to have a conversation, to thoughtfully, with her whole being, respond?… Same reason, if she’s not shepherding a friend through a family conundrum, or advising a fellow traveler in treatment, Susan is more often than not, knitting. Not merely a hobby, mind you; some pleasant way to pass the time.

Susan’s response to treatment, approaching three years ago when it started, was to do something that kept her hands busy and somehow helped others.

Thus Neckandy—her homespun start-up was born:

Especially designed handcrafted scarves, in willy-nilly, beautiful blends in exchange for your donation to MSK of $150. [or more if you’d like] Specifically earmarked to help fund the liaison her oncologist, Dr. David Kelsen, has forged with the Weitzman Institute in Israel.

No—this is not a YK Tsedakah solicitation. [Though, if you’re interested, shoot her an email]

Susan’s got a good half-dozen on back-order… But when her craft creations had generated over $10,000., gaining her an invite to a special donors-reception back in May, it was beyond gratifying.

Unfortunately, treatment persists—third time around… Fortunately, with current chemo effective, things are heading in the right direction.

Either way—there’s no denying, it’s a tough road.

Yet, because Susan fills her time, as she always has, with determined devotion to helping others…to being a life-force for good to be reckoned with; because she is no less demanding of those closest to be better, to do right, to reach higher….than she was when we were in high school…

With outreaching honesty and fervent sincerity of heart, my wife, I call her Dolly, affirms her life purpose and, inspires us with her impassioned presence every day.

Just being with her, time matters more….

DEATH…an Inspiration?… Heschel once said that in the presence of death there is but “silence & awe.” [Moral Grandeur, pg.366]

Silence, because words fail in the face of life-loss. Any Rabbi or Cantor who tries to explain when someone dies falls inevitably short.

What we must offer is the reverence of acknowledging there are no words…

Just being there, presence, is what matters most…

And Awe, because, as the Sages taught:

“Life and death are separated by a very thin veil.”

The line between this world and the next, between what we experience as our earthly existence and the soul’s flight to what may await, that veil is paper thin. On a night like tonight, when generations mystically merge and we are but little lower than the angels, the veil seems virtually transparent….

Yes, Death, even the horrendous loss we may have gone through;

Even the tragic taking of lives before their time, or the saga of protracted illness…

Death can be an inspiration…

The Latin source reveals the secret: In-Spirarie—To take in breath!

For what is it that transcends the end, as Aristotle suggested,

P’suche—the breath of life…The breath that comes from Beyond,

From a “breathing in of life” that connects our most elemental act,

every moment—every day, every breath, to the Creator Herself….

Holy One—Breath of all Life, Hope beyond all we know & see…

In this hour when life & death hangs in the balance, grant us strength to hold one another up in the face of loss; empower our resolve to transcend illness by reaching beyond it to help others; give us the courage to embrace the life we are given, filling it with such love, such endlessly caring heart, such spirited celebration of the everyday, such inspiration, that even in the face of death, we will still be choosing life….

With hopes for a sacred seal in the Book of Life for us all…

Ken Yehi Ratson…

So May it Be God’s Will: AMEN

God is Not One

star of david stain glassRabbi Jeffrey Sirkman

Larchmont Temple


A rabbinic Monday morning, two weeks ago…Not the lo-key, late August morning I anticipated.Two encounters—one hour after the other, neither calendared, but both openly received, not alone for the opportunity to help which they afforded me,

But for the insight they brought…on the meaning of this moment.

10-ish…A young 20-something seeker, a Bar Mitzvah 10 or so years ago,

whom I had not seen since, yearning for spiritual meaning…

With music as his passion,

he’d taken a dip in the soothing wading pools of Hinduism and Buddhism;

read the New Testament and attended Church,

coming away touched by the compelling force of Christianity;

and was up to his waist in the language and musical tradition of the Sufis,

hoping to travel to Pakistan and experience the transcendence firsthand.

Yet, as his inner longing was to come home to Judaism,

One problem persisted:

“All of these other religions seem to have something I can hold onto…

Jesus is such a source of love; Mohammed a mystical model…

Buddha a tangible ideal.  What’s Judaism’s answer?

I mean, what can it give me to hold onto Rabbi?”

So I told him: “Judaism’s answer…What can you hold onto?…

I would have to say—the question…”

Around 11:30 AM, coming back from a crucial coffee run,

There waiting was Cantor Lanie Katzew, accompanied by a camera-toting woman.

“Jeff, the URJ is teaming with the Odyssey Network in producing

90 second messages in celebration of International Peace Day, September 21st.  Can you tape a spot now?”…..Not exactly advance notice…

But after being miked up and getting into position, all the while thinking about the right message from our tradition,  the producer gave me the set-up:

“OK Rabbi,  How will you bring the world together for Peace Day?”

So I began my 90 second spot:

“World Peace begins when we recognize…we are NOT all the same.”

Both the young 20-something seeker and the World Peace producer

were looking for an answer I could not quite give.


Huston Smith, Philosopher of Religion, wrote The World’s Great Religions

back in the  early 90’s, [a reprint from 1958] where he asserted,

in reference to the spectrum of faiths: “It is possible to climb life’s mountain from any side, but when the top is reached, the trails converge…Differences make for diverse starting points, but beyond them, the same goal beckons.”

Yet it is in this faith fallback position, comforting as the notion might be,

that ‘all religions lead to the same place,’ where our trouble arises.

For if we believe that the debates on essential details do not matter;

If the core spiritual questions, the ritual practice, the theological propositions

Are but minor issues, easily enough resolved,

then we are not only doing a disservice to religious diversity, but failing to comprehend a truth that is key to understanding most every faith-related question confronting our world…

and to knowing our true spiritual selves.

Much as we believe otherwise, as Jews—religiously speaking, GOD is not One….

In his recent book of the same name, B.U. Prof of Religion

Stephen Prothero explains why…

“You cannot practice religion in general any more than you can speak language in general…What the world’s religions share is not so much a finish line as a starting point.  And where they begin is with this simple observation: something is wrong with the world…They diverge when they move from diagnosing the human problem to prescribing how to solve it. Christians see sin as the problem, and salvation from sin as the goal.  Buddhists see suffering as the problem, and liberation from suffering as the religious goal…For Islam the problem is pride,

the solution is submission. For Confucianism the problem is chaos, the solution is  social order…For Judaism the problem is exile, the religious goal is return to God.”

[God Is Not One, pgs 9, 11-12]

The particular path a faith-system forges on its climb may lead to very different peaks,

Or, at the very least, to seeing what’s at the top from diametrically opposed perspectives.

Christianity’s God is frontal—a meeting that’s face to face…

Islam’s God is standing over—a kneeling view looking up…

Judaism’s God is a glimpse from the back, or maybe just the feet…

For Hinduism, God is a prism projecting assorted images…

For the Buddhist, the mountain-top is empty. God is simply not there…


Our tendency as human beings longing for interconnection,

is to diminish difference, to sweep it all under the rug.

But it need not take the horror of 9/11 to remind us that

Recognizing just how different religions are—in life-perspective and practice;

In the way they approach problems of relationship;

In their read on reality and the vision to which they aspire,

Will enable us to better deal with our world.

“Even if religion makes no sense to you,

you need to make sense of religion to make sense of the world.”

When one of Gabriel’s best friends since middle school, Mattie Z.

Asked me a few years back what he’d selected as his major at Georgetown,

It only took me 8 guesses to figure it out.

“Religion…Really?  I was a Religion major at BU, but Mattie, you?”

So he wisely explained:

“Rabbi, if I really want to understand the world, I have to understand religion.”

WHY is it so easy for the New Atheists to write-off faith

as not simply foolish, but the root of all evil?

Because they conveniently, naively, lump all faith-systems into one.

So Prothero posits:

“Is religion toxic or tonic?  Is it one of the world’s greatest forces for evil,

or one of the world’s greatest forces for good?”

His astute answer: “Yes and Yes.”

Difference matters immensely, not simply between religions but within them,

and our ability to discern a religion’s core questions & the discrete path that paves,

as well as to draw distinctions between families of a single faith,

will prove more important to our collective well-being than we could possibly imagine.


Consider two faith-systems in question, unrelated at first glance, yet when you get to the heart of the matter,  both with the same principal, surprising answer: GOD is not One.


Question 1…To build or not to build?

When it comes to the 13-story Islamic Center—mosque included,

Two blocks north of the World Trade Center, that is the question.

Proponents make the claim that it would be a space for interfaith dialogue and bridge-building, [based, btw, on the model of JCC’s like the 92nd Street Y].

In an impassioned speech with Lady Liberty as his backdrop,

Mayor Bloomberg pleaded for American values to win the day.

“The attack [9 years ago] was an act of war. Our first responders defended not only our city but our country…We do not honor their lives by denying the very constitutional rights they died protecting.”

Trying to block the project just doesn’t make sense;

it goes against the principle of freedom that we, as Americans, stand for.

Of course, when you lost a loved one on 9-11, just how much can you stand for?…

Emotions trump rational argument hands down.

Bill Doyle, whose 25 year-old son was killed, described his feeling:

“High up in the air you have a 13-story mosque, outshining the memorial itself.

Its almost a slap in the face.”

Speaking on behalf of the Islamic Center’s opponents, ADL National Director

Abe Foxman defended the right of victims’ families, arguing:

“Their anguish entitles them to positions others would characterize as irrational or bigoted.”

Reason has little to do with it.

Even the head of an organization dedicated to combat bigotry

draws the line for religious freedom when it crosses the heart.

And so we are left with battle lines drawn—with the faith/freedom conundrum.

Are we sanctioning a tribute to terrorism, or affirming a monument to tolerance?

Is this a question of preserving democratic ideals or upholding human decency?

Or is it the ultimate real estate catch 22: “Location, location, location…?”

Before you reject the emotional impact of selected space, remember that Polish Carmelite Catholic convent built on the blood-drenched grounds of Auschwitz?

The one Jews demanded be moved from the Nazi Death Camp,

And whose protracted protest/counter-protest aroused shameful prejudice on all sides?…

For if NIMBY [not in my back yard] is the operative principle, how very far we have come from the words George Washington penned to the Touro Synagogue, [in Newport, R I]

sanctioning the start of our building the American Jewish community, when he wrote:

“The government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction,

to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection

should demean themselves as good citizens.”

Which is why no comment could be more “off” than decidedly good citizen

Republican gubernatorial candidate Rick Lazio’s statement,

“This is not about religion; its about this particular mosque.”

Of course the question is about this particular mosque,

which is why it is ALL about religion!  Islam, to be exact…


“WHEN Americans are asked for a word that sums up Islam,

“fanatical, radical, violent and terrorism” spill from their collective imagination.”

[Pew Forum on Religion, Sept 25, 2007]

Yet, just a bit of basic Hebrew will get you from Shalom to its Arabic cognate, Salaam,

embedded in Is-Slam’s very name. Thus, to be part of this faith-tradition

is to be “one who submits to God,”  reinforced five times a day in prayer,

as the worshipper bows low, ideally at the mosque—in Arabic,

the Masjid—“the place of prostration.”

Of course, our nagging question remains—to what God does the Muslim bow down?

And here is where we get into trouble, for it all depends who you ask…

Over a billion people profess Islam as their religion,

around 1/5 of the world’s population [pg. 28].

And though we form our impression based on the conflict ridden countries of Iraq & Iran,

Only two of the ten largest Muslim populations come from the Middle East [Egypt, Iran].

Leading the list with almost 180 million Muslims,

Indonesia hardly registers on our religious radicals radar-screen.

In fact, The large majority of Muslims in Turkey, Nigeria, Lebanon, refuse to accept suicide bombings as a form of submission to Allah—for the Quran commands:

“Do not kill yourselves.”

Yet for the 70% of Muslims in Gaza who see martyrdom as sacred,

they simply point to “fight the unbeliever, slay him who is near to you,”

as living proof-text worth dying for.


Now you could counter by noting the ‘all-faiths cast of characters’ that appear in the Quran, from Adam to Jacob to David, Isaac & Ishmael, to Jesus, Joseph & Mary…

And, let’s not forget the father of Muslim faith—our guy, Abraham.

But the storylines are fundamentally altered…

Abraham, “a man of pure faith…will be among the righteous in the world to come.”

But he only gets in because he converts and becomes a true believer…of Allah.

Central as the path to Paradise is in Islam, how you journey makes all the difference,

As the Quran implores:

“to give of one’s substance to kinsmen, and orphans & beggars; to ransom the slave;

to perform prayer; to do righteous deeds…for them awaits the great triumph.”

Sounds almost Jewish!?…Till you throw in “Jihad”…?

For the Muslim, contrasting the spiritual inner struggle with the external fight for Islam’s faith, the question of Jihad underscores the challenge of its practitioners,

to resist those who take it to the extreme.

And it brings us back to our question: To build or not to build?

Which is actually the wrong question.

Let’s rather ask: What call does Allahu Akbar proclaim?

The answer: GOD—even Allah—is not one.

Painting a broad-strokes portrait of any religion creates an abstract

Where the face of faith is impossible to discern, and can easily be distorted..

Why do Sunnis decentralize religious authority, placing it in the hands of the Muslim community, while Shia hand over jurisdiction to the Imam…?

How could Bin Laden issue a fatwa—a legal ruling,

in ’96 & ’98, calling the presence of US military in the Arabian peninsula

“a declaration of war,” while Muslim clerics in Spain later [‘05] issued a fatwa condemning

“the terrorist acts of Osama Bin Laden [and Al Qaeda] as against Islam…” ?

Thus our informed response to the request [as if it is up to us to deny]

For those who’d build an Islamic Center in the neighborhood

Where the nightmare of 9-11 still looms dark,

Must be to acknowledge, Abdul Rauf, the Imam behind the center

Is not alone a long-time moderate Muslim voice but a bridge-builder.

His Sufi spirituality affirms all faiths as paths to the divine.

And rather than yearning for an otherworldly Paradise,

He perceives God’s Presence in the goodness we make real in the here & now.

The name chosen by the Immam, the Cordoba Center, leaves the question in our hands:

Will it be the place where Muslims—Jews & Christians not merely co-existed but shared the richness of their cultures and philosophies,

or the place where an Inquisition punished all people who did not share the chosen faith?

Guilt by association is a slippery slope.

…One of the eight Imams who just returned from a recent trip to Germany & Poland,

Yasir Qadhi, leader of a New Haven Islamic center,

Who himself years ago authored a book that stated,

“Hitler never intended to mass-destroy the Jews,”

Said just week before last: “One of the greatest lessons I learned at Auschwitz

Was the need for all of us to make sure that we never stereotype and dehumanize another group of people.”  [Jewish Week, Aug 27, 2010]

Of all places to discover that truth….. “Location, location, location.”


Question 2… WHO is a Jew…?

That query which has persisted for millennia as an open-ended debate

could have received an unfortunate answer: “almost no one.”

The Knesset bill, approved in committee, and slated to be brought to the floor for a vote,

was thankfully tabled, in no small measure, due to the political courage,

or perhaps savvy, of PM Netanyahu, who clearly saw the writing on the Diaspora wall.

Sponsored by the Russian-immigrant heavy, zealously nationalistic Yisrael Beiteinu Party,

The Conversion Bill, conceived by MK David Rotem, sought to deal with the dilemma of some 300,000+ former Soviet Union Olim, who serve in the army,

settling into life as loyal citizens of the Jewish State,

except for one small detail: they’re not Jewish—at least according to halacha.

As they, and more critically, their children marry Israeli Jews,

Unbeknown to them—they would be intermarrying!

This is all easy enough to remedy if you alter the way conversion happens in Israel.

But in attempting to solve the relatively micro-concern at hand,

The bill unleashed the macro-monster.

For while giving municipal rabbis a greater role, Rotem’s legislation grants ultimate control for all conversions to the Chief Orthodox Rabbinate.

Such a dangerous precedent—of an Israeli democracy placing its citizens’ status solely in the hands of the most fundamentalist-Haredi rabbis,

sets up not simply a potential Church-State showdown,

but an international—inter-denominational battle.

Netanyahu’s own words should be taken literally:

“This legislation could tear apart the Jewish people.”

When we met Knesset member David Rotem at Kol Ami in White Plains late in April,

7 Westchester Rabbis along with URJ Prog. Officer R’ Elliot Kleinman,

going around the table to introduce ourselves, I had no clue who I was talking to.

Sure, he was a judge who’d authored some meshuganneh bill,

ceding all responsibility for conversion to the Chief Rabbinate,

Not merely making non-orthodox in Israel now null & void,

But ostensibly invalidating prior conversion wherever they were performed.

This would transform the Law of Return—granting every Jew [by birth or by choice] full rights, into a Do Not Enter sign. [Jewish Week, July 23, 2010]

For if the zealously orthodox Chief Rabbinate determines WHO is a Jew,

If you’ve previously converted with a Reform or Conservative rabbi,

Or even most all Modern Orthodox, the answer will be “Not you!”

But Rotem had to understand the bill’s destructive impact.

Why else would he travel all this way to meet with us?

…After giving us his read on the legislation, he asked/demanded: “So, what do you want?”

Sitting next to me, Rick Jacobs [Rabbi at WRT] leaned forward:

“For the conversions, the weddings, the religious work of Reform & Masorti—Conservative rabbis to be respected and recognized as sacred in Israel.”

Rotem likewise leaned in, unapologetically squinting in reply: “In Israel, these are questions of halacha for the rabbinate to decide, so we both know—this is not very likely.”

Was he clueless as to the influence and impact of non-orthodox Diaspora Jewry?

What about the extensive support of UJA-Federation whose own families

could be cut off by such a law?

What became clear was that Rotem envisioned a different Jewish world,

One in which progressive Jews were hardly part of the picture…

Even more disconcerting, he could not comprehend our cause for alarm…

When Rabbi David Saperstein, head of our RAC—along with key movement leadership,

Went to meet with Knesset members in the week leading up to the vote,

it was not until the Rotem Bill was all but tabled that its author sought Saperstein out.

Beckoning the Reform Rabbi, known political activist to his table in the Knesset cafeteria, the two talked for an hour, Rotem offering to soften the statement a bit,

or change a word or phrase…But Saperstein came away acknowledging that the two of them

were speaking different languages, because their core question was not the same.

WHO is a Jew?  All depends who you ask…

What is certain, however, is that for centuries,

ever since Hillel offered to convert a heathen while he stood on one foot,

its been an open-ended question, as each historic Jewish community

applied the body of teaching and tradition to its own contextual time-setting.

Formalizing a central religious authority in Israel’s Chief Rabbinate today

would not alone close the gate on the large majority of converts, disenfranchising Diaspora Jewry,

but would silence the dialogue of the ages. For just this has always been the secret:

It is not so much the definitive answer at which we arrive,

but our asking the question, and the sincerity/integrity of our search that counts…

Our cacophony of covenant is the source of our survival.

For when it comes to living Torah, yesterday as today,

with divergent paths up that same sacred mountain, for Judaism—GOD is not always One.


I grew up with a split-level spiritual system, all in the same House of Worship.

I attended early morning minyan with my grandfather Solly, downstairs in the chapel;

a traditionally minded service using Birnbaum, the old conservative movement prayer book, and then at 8PM on Friday night, I’d sit in the pews of the sanctuary

as my mother sang in the semi-pro choir—hidden in the balcony above,

Using the Old Union Prayer Book, the classical Reform siddur you could hold in one hand.  I can still hear Rabbi Abraham Isaac Jacobson’s voice imparting liturgical instruction

as if from on high: “We rise as one in proclaiming the Watchword of our Faith…”

Rather than attribute this dual approach to a mixed message,

the fact that such diversity existed in the same Reform temple was fundamental…

How do I judge the vitality of our movement?

I see it affirmed every Thursday, as I head in to the city to teach the 5th year seniors at HUC,

and make it in just in time for the second half of morning services…

The sanctuary holds as diverse a spectrum as you could contain in a single shul.

A minyan or so students—men and women, are clad in tefillin and tallit gadol…

Some wear just kippah and tallit…Others a kippah alone…and plenty of people,

nothing at all…And beyond ritual garb, there’s the music.  One prayer the cantor

[a 2nd or 3rd year cantorial student] is singing a classical composer’s setting,

and the very next we get a Debbie Friedman or Craig Taubman tune

complete with drum, keyboard and clarinet…And the Rabbi’s sermon [a different 4th year rabbinic student each week] the past two: Last week—Embracing the Jewish entrepreneurial spirit,

This week’s—Getting back to our traditional roots.

Now you could see all of this as somewhat troubling.

If Reform Jews want to ensure their growth…and get their message out,

they’d better all get on the same page!

But for our intent and purpose as Jews, that would entirely miss the point…

This year marks a Bicentennial anniversary that help us appreciate

the indispensable vitality of why this diversity is Divine.

In Westphalia in 1810, as Israel Jacobson was setting up a Temple for his vocational school,

The first ever of its kind: with the bimah at the front and an organ at the side, with the rabbi in a clerical robe, with hymns and sermons in the vernacular and prayers pared down for public consumption, the thinker who’d give Reform its intellectual substance was also born.

Rabbi Abraham Geiger, framing Judaism as an ever-evolving faith,

set the tone for the spirit of Reform.

Geiger’s revolution, forged by Wissenchaft—the Scientific Study of Judaism,

called not only for critical study and examination, but the reformation of Jewish life

which would do away with outworn rites and rituals,  modalities and mindset,

enabling Judaism’s loftiest universal ideals to shine forth for all to see…

For Geiger, the pre-eminent model of Judaism’s historic purpose was born two millennia before him.  As he wrote:

“Hillel conveys to us the image of—and this term will not degrade but ennoble his memory,a true reformer.  Some may have asked him: “Why would you want to make changes?

How can you take upon yourself the right to make innovations?” Thus Hillel replies: “If I am not for myself, who will be for me?…

Should recognition be accorded only to that which already exists?…”To which others may have countered:

“But why should you seek to make such changes for the entire community?”So Hillel would say, “As if the idea were not a living force which impels us to connect, for

if I am only for myself, what am I?  Is it not the entire community that seeks new Jewish life?”But they would say, “Leave these things alone, my friend; you are too rash.”

Still, Hillel would insist, “Every age must create and recreate. If not now, when?”  [Lectures, Breslau, 1864-1865]

So the seeds of Jewish reformation were sown in Germany and replanted in America

towards the end of the 19th century, only to sprout as Classical Reform.

The high-church German composers and hierarchical services

created a veritable Protestant-Jewish aesthetic. America was Reform’s new Zion.

But by the mid-late 30’s with Reform leaders calling their Jews

to make real their mission by living prophetic ethics,

the likes of rabbinic giants Abba Hillel Silver & Stephen S. Wise lead to a seismic shift,

as Reform Jews endorsed Zionism and Israel’s rebirth…

And with each new generation, even beyond the creation of new prayerbooks,

the struggle to answer a slightly different question: not WHO is a Jew but HOW [is a Jew]

has brought a continuous grappling with core issues of the day;

an increased quest for spiritual meaning, and a renewed consideration of tradition’s place.

So perpetual has the progression been

that Prof Michael Meyer, teacher of Jewish History at HUC in Cincy,

asked the obvious question.  [, “For Reform, Change Is the Constant,” 7.16.10]

“What, then is the scarlet thread that binds Classical and contemporary Reform together?”

As if it is any surprise to us, he responded: “One can glimpse it in Geiger’s principle…

Change is endemic to our character and essential to our survival.”

If Reform Jews are so diverse—IF you can gain access through so many different doors,

what’s the constant that connects us?…

Change—the operative assumption that Judaism’s struggle

to make the world a bit more sane/sacred than we found it by employing the life-values and core teachings of our tradition means unending transformation—multiple voices with differing vision, all speaking at the very same time.

For when it comes to being Reform,

with an array of sometimes contrary ways to connect to covenant,

GOD is not [quite]One…

And thus, the take-home teaching we must make our daily lens on 21st life…

“Pretend pluralism” may be a noble intention,

yet it leads to a false premise and a very dangerous place.

Our highest hope—if we aspire to remake ourselves—and our world,

Is not simply to learn what our faith system teaches,

But to understand how & why the rituals & responses of other religions

are not at all the same.

As Prothero urges: [God Is Not One, pg 335]

“In relationships as in religions, denying differences is a recipe for disaster.  What works is understanding the differences and then coming to accept, or perhaps even revel in them…”

This New Year…

May the journey up that mountain help us to appreciate that there are multiple paths,

Age-old and well-tread, which lead to very different perspectives at the peak;

And may the discovery of such difference be not cause for alarm, Heaven help us,

But more often a call for humility,  moving us to acknowledge:

With no single vantage point the ultimate sacred vision

it is only by sharing faith-perspectives; by seeing within & beyond ourselves

that we might ever imagine God as [truly] One…

So someday, cherishing difference as Divine, May It Be…………………….AMEN