Category Archives: Rabbi Robert H Loewy

Rabbi Robert H. Loewy is the Rabbi of Congregation Gates of Prayer in Metairie, LA. He assumed that position in August of 1984. Prior to that, he was the Assistant and then Associate Rabbi of Congregation Emanu El in Houston, Texas for seven years.

Rabbi Loewy is a native of Hempstead, N.Y. He received his B.A. degree from Cornell University in 1972, M.H.L. degree from the Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion in 1975, and was ordained as a Rabbi from that institution in 1977.

In addition to developing an active synagogue program, Rabbi Loewy is currently President of the Greater New Orleans Rabbinic Council, Program Chair for the Central Conference of American Rabbis and Board Member for the New Orleans Jewish Day School, Jewish Federation of Greater New Orleans, Henry S. Jacobs Camp and the East Jefferson General Hospital Pastoral Counseling Program.

In addition he has been President of the Southwest Association of Reform Rabbis, President of the New Orleans Jewish Days School, Chairman of the Community Relations Committee of the Jewish Federation of Greater New Orleans, Secretary of the Greater Houston Rabbinical Association, Executive Board Member of the CCAR, ARZA and Dillard University Center for Black/Jewish Relations, and Jewish Chautauqua Society Lecturer at University of New Orleans and Loyola University, .

Rabbi Loewy is married to the former Lynn Rosenfeld and has five children, Karen, and her husband David Widzer, David, Sara and Mica and one magnificent grandson- Judah Benjamin Loewy Widzer.

Gates Of Green

January 30, 2009

By Rabbi Robert H. Loewy


In the 1980’s I regularly attended meetings of our Jewish Federation’s Community Relations Committee. We tackled a number of significant issues:  Soviet Jewry, Anti-Semitism, abortion law, David Duke and more. But there was always one participant, Myron Katz, who was talking about the environment. We politely listened and then discussed the real issues. I had moved on from that issue by attending Earth Day at College, or so I thought.

It is not polite to speak badly of a classmate and colleague, but I have to tell you, I always considered Rabbi Warren Stone a bit of a nut. If he was not a “nut,” then he was a fanatic. Now I understand; he was a visionary. He was talking about the environment, ecology, energy preservation, and resource management, long before these topics were chic. To his credit, he has led his congregation, Temple Emanuel in Kensington, MD to be at the forefront of environmental activism and awareness. Even their web site is green ink! Through their programs and as they built their building, they did so with the environment in mind. As a result they have won numerous awards, including:

  • Caring for Creation Award of the National Religious Partnership for the Environment
  • “Green Menorah” Environmental Award
  • EPA Energy Star Congregation
  • National awards for Solar, Wind and Environmental Policies

They have also been featured on the Today Show after they rebuilt their synagogue making their sanctuary all natural with wood and other products, so that you feel as if you are in a tropical rain forest. Their Ner Tamid is powered by solar energy.

We can learn from Temple Emanuel by what they have already done and policies they have established. This includes: using thermostats more wisely and judiciously, dispensing fluorescent light bulbs to congregants, having a bike rack available for those who choose an alternative form of transportation to come to synaggoue, using flatware and biodegradable paper plates for Oneg Shabbatot, creating lessons for the religious school about the environment and our Jewish responsibilities, as well as programs for all the congregation. In addition, the Board of the synagogue has established a number of policies so that this is more than just changing light bulbs:

  1. Schedule an updated energy audit of the Temple’s facilities, seek regular audits every five years, and implement further energy conservation recommendations where feasible.
  2. Develop and implement a comprehensive landscaping plan for the Temple that takes advantage of native plant materials, avoids harmful chemical fertilizers and pesticides, conserves water, and provides aesthetic and environmental benefits.
  3. Complete and maintain a small biblically-inspired garden on the Temple grounds, and develop an educational experience relating the plantings to major Jewish holidays. Use native plants as substitutes wherever possible.
  4. Work with the various Jewish and interfaith organizations to promote environmental stewardship at the local, regional, and national levels.
  5. Review and evaluate Temple recycling programs and improve/expand recycling where feasible, including the use of high recycled content paper in the Temple Offices and Religious School.
  6. Inventory and evaluate the cleaning products being used by the Temple, eliminate toxic cleaners, and substitute environmentally-friendly products where practical.
  7. Explore the possibility of using “greening” strategies in the selection of food and the disposal of waste.
  8. Working with the Rabbi and their Green Committee, to promote environmental awareness and education for all Temple members by:
    1. Conducting an annual Shabbat service with an environmental theme, and a Tu B’Shevat service with a focus on environmental appreciation and healthful foods.
    2. Arranging periodic service-related environmental readings at Shabbat services.
    3. Providing environmental study opportunities through adult education courses, coffeehouse programs, book reviews, speakers, etc.
    4. Incorporating the Jewish dimension of environmental stewardship into the religious school curricula, including lectures, field trips, readings, discussion, etc.
    5. Conducting a periodic workshop on Judaism and the environment for religious school teachers.
    6. Promoting carpooling and other transportation alternatives that improve air quality and reduce congestion and parking problems.
    7. Working with the Rabbi and the Social Justice Task Force, to pursue opportunities for environmental advocacy.

Of course we need to ask ourselves, what is the Jewish angle on environmentalism? All of this falls under the category of what we call Tikun Olam, repairing our world. I am not going to go into the debate over global warming and shrinkage of the ozone layer. I will not pretend to understand the science involved, though many others do.

There are more obvious concerns to address: depletion of natural resources, dependence upon fossil fuels, chemicals which are hurting our environment, landfills that are overflowing, the so-called carbon imprint that each of us makes on the world around us and I could go on.

There is also an ongoing theme in Jewish tradition that starts with the Book of Genesis (2:15). When God teaches us that we have the earth to “till and tend it,” the rabbis then teach that God said to Adam: “Look at My works, how beautiful and praiseworthy they are! Everything that I created, I created for you. Take care that you do not damage and destroy My world, for if you damage it, there is no one to repair it afterwards.” (Midrash Kohelet Rabbah 7) Clearly caring for the world around us is a Jewish concern.

I’m pleased to say that our Gates of Green Committee, under the enthusiastic leadership of Susan Levin, who is out of town tonight or otherwise she would be with us, has begun moving our congregation in a similar direction. Many of the old adages still apply: Reduce, Reuse and Recycle. Specifically, we have ceased using Styrofoam cups, which most contend is non-biodegradable and instead we are using the ceramic cups leftover from last year’s gala, which have been sitting in boxes and gathering dust. Newspaper recycling is available by depositing newspapers only in the container in our parking lot. We are also being much more conscious of the kinds of plates, plastics and papers that we have in the building and when we choose to use them. This past summer we held an evening of Environmental awareness and the relation between God and God’s creation is part of our religious school curriculum. You will also note that in each monthly bulletin, there will be a helpful “green” hint.

I am looking forward to beginning recycling of paper, plastic and glass through the services of Phoenix Recycling. This will include all the junk mail, magazines, letters and envelopes that I regularly trash. We will have special receptacles throughout the building. It will cost us initially to retain the service, but there is the possibility that by reducing our waste, it will result in a lower cost for garbage removal. The goal however is Tikun Olam. Thus, if it costs a little more, so be it. Sadly, this recycling is only for what happens in the building. You cannot bring your paper, cans and plastics here.

Many of the items that Temple Emanuel is doing will be on our agenda for consideration. This includes an audit sub-committee, which will be working with our Temple Administrator Louis Geiger to evaluate energy consumption and product utilization throughout the building. If it is feasible, I would love to see us explore the possibility of solar energy to augment what we consume from Entergy. In all future projects, we will take into account the environmental impact of our actions. How about a bike rack?

This is just the beginning of what we will be doing at 4000 West Esplanade Ave., but what about in our homes? If you have not already replaced your old light bulbs with the new energy savers, by all means do so. The higher cost of the bulb is made up quickly with the amount of energy that you save.

We can lobby for the Parish to restart recycling, but in the meantime Phoenix recycling can come to your home every two weeks. It has truly bothered me to not be recycling since Katrina. I have felt guilty. $15 a month is a low price to assuage that guilt. I have also personally been conscious of my water consumption in the morning, when I brush my teeth and when I shave. The faucet really does not need to be running the whole time. You just have to adopt a different pattern. Let us be more conscious of how we use our cars and not allow the lower price of gasoline to blind us to the reality. We can walk more often or ride bikes. I know oil helps to fuel the Louisiana economy, but at least let us wean ourselves from dependence on foreign oil. Disconnect items like phone chargers from the wall when you are not using them; they are consuming energy for no purpose. Our parents were right all along; turn off the lights when you do not need them. Contrary to the myth, turning them back on does not require more energy, though I believe that it did have an impact on the filament of the old style of bulbs. As we purchase our next car or new appliances, let energy efficiency be one of the variables we consider. There are thousands of possibilities. It is simply a matter of educating ourselves and establishing a mindset that says, “I care about the world around me and I need to do my part to repair it.”

There is a classic Jewish folktale of two people fighting over a piece of land. Each claimed ownership. Finally they brought the dispute to the learned rabbi, who sat and listened, but could not render an opinion. Finally the rabbi said, “Since I cannot decide to whom the land belongs, let’s ask the land.” The rabbi put an ear to the ground, and after a moment stood up. “My friends, the land said it belongs to neither of you- but that you belong to it.”

And so, as we tackle this overwhelming subject, let us play our role in repairing the world. This is not an all or nothing proposition. Rather we should do as much as we can within reason. We are only limited by our creativity and commitment. For our rabbis teach, “It is not up to us to complete the whole task, but neither are we free to desist from fulfilling our share.”


Bernard Madoff: Jewish Perspectives

December 19, 2008

By Rabbi Robert H. Loewy


Michael Milken, Jack Abramoff, Ivan Boesky, Meyer Lansky and now we have Bernard Madoff to add to the Jewish Financial Hall of Shame. Historically we Jews have prided ourselves on financial acumen and success. Many of the prominent investment houses of 20th century America bore Jewish names. I believe that we can still be proud. Note how many in the Obama financial team marshaled to respond to the current fiscal crisis are Jewish. These are honorable men and women, who will be striving to do what is right. Then along comes Bernard Madoff, once Chair of NASDAQ, now a name of pain and embarrassment.

How does $50 billion dollars disappear overnight? It doesn’t. Over decades one man has been conning thousands. At this time it is not clear who else was involved. “Bernie,” to those who knew him, was the kind of person people trusted. He was interconnected with an economic strata of America, especially Jewish America, that provided him with unprecedented opportunity. Through word of mouth and friendship networks he was entrusted with enormous sums of money. I know that many of us who are ignorant of finance turn to “experts,” people whom we trust will not steer us astray. That trust was what was so horribly violated.

What did Madoff do? As I understand it, he simply accepted money from individuals and institutions for investment and over time instead of investing, he provided them a return on their dollars by giving other people’s money, a so called Ponzi scheme. I am sure it is much more complicated than that, but the bottom line is that the money they gave him, that they invested for security, safe keeping and future support, is now gone. Perhaps some of it is in secret accounts around the world or spent by Madoff and some can be recovered. But it certainly is not invested or earning interest.

Of particular concern to us as a Jewish community is the estimated $1 billion impact upon the Jewish philanthropic world of which we are rightly proud. His major investors list reads like a who’s who of Jewish institutional and charitable agencies, family funds and numerous prominent Jewish individuals: Yeshiva University- perhaps as much as $100 million in endowment, Steven Spielberg’s Wunderkinder Foundation, Elie Wiesel’s foundation, Hadassah, a Massachusetts Foundation that gave funds for teen Israel trips- now closed, a California fund to assist at risk youth in Israel- closed; 30 million from philanthropist Mort Zuckerman who is involved in cancer care, education, scholarship, food for the poor; The Shapiro Foundation in Boston, which donated $25,000 to us after Katrina lost $145 million; numerous Jewish Federations (Los Angeles Federation $6.4 million, Washington DC- $10 million of endowment lost); along with many individuals who entrusted life savings and retirement to this man.

We are really just beginning to ascertain who has been hurt by this crime. The immediate reality is that programs are being cut, people are losing jobs and there will be a similar ripple effect over the next year as budgets, already stressed by recession, will be decreased.

How can we respond to this moment, other than with shock and disgust? We realize that this is the anti-Semite’s delight. It confirms all their negative stereotypes of cheap Jews, who will cheat their own mother. Of course it ignores all the philanthropy and good that is now lost and is the dominant theme of our community.

We feel great sadness, for this is what we call in Jewish tradition, a “Chilul Hashem- profaning the name of God.” We are proud of communal accomplishments and positive contributions to our world. On Yom Kippur we recite our sins as a community and so when something like this happens, we feel shame as a community, even if we had nothing to do with it. We who are a God intoxicated and God guided people profane God’s name when one of ours does wrong. Judaism provides numerous teachings on thievery, business ethics, caring for the poor, and being responsible with others’ possessions. Madoff’s actions are anything but in keeping with Jewish tradition.

Appropriately we demand “Din- justice.” Bernard Madoff and any others involved should be prosecuted to the full extent of the law and stripped bare of any funds, so they can make up for their sin. Justice also involves determining how the SEC or other supervising agencies failed to safeguard the public and ensure it does not happen again.

Next arises a call for “rachamim- compassion” for the many hurt by this crime. People are suffering and fearful. We can certainly empathize with them. Rabbi Brad Hirschfield of CLAL surprisingly advocates compassion even for Madoff, who he believes was initially helping people with profits. His theory is that when profits decreased, out of shame and arrogance that the all-powerful financial genius could not continue with success, he devised his scheme. My inclination is that Hirschfield is being way too generous of spirit. I’m guessing greed may have been a more powerful impetus for his actions. Regardless of his motivation, compassion may lead to understanding, but not forgiveness.

If this was a member of our immediate family and I have been involved in something similar on a vastly smaller scale, we would try and help. And so aside from anger, incredulity and embarrassment, I suggest that another response for us as individuals and as a community is to step up and fill the philanthropic lacunae that have now been created. There are enormous holes in the Jewish communal network of needs. We did not cause it, but the needs do not go away. We are not billionaires, but whatever we can do, we should. Many have already begun to respond in this way. Of course this could not come at a worse time in our economy. “Chaval- Too bad!” We do not have the option of choosing when crises will arise, but we do have the choice on how we will respond. We are a people who confront adversity with creativity. Let Bernie Madoff’s crimes and shame be transformed into something positive, turning our communal shame into pride.


A College Remembrance

April 17, 2009

By Rabbi Robert H. Loewy

         It’s all Tory’s fault. She is the one who pushed me into the Facebook age, utilizing the computer to have ongoing dialogue with all sorts of people, with many others aware of your conversation. Her argument was that this would be an additional way to connect with members of the congregation. And she has been correct.

However, like many of you, Facebook has reconnected me with friends and acquaintances from across America. This includes Warren and Tony, two guys who were on my freshman college dormitory floor in 1968, with whom I had no contact or to be honest even thought about in 40 years. The timing was appropriate as my daughter Sara is about to graduate from college and my last child, Mica, will begin her freshman year in August.

Perhaps it is also appropriate to be talking about my college years on this Shabbat, where we read the commandment for the Priesthood prohibiting the drinking of wine or any other intoxicant. I’ll send that rule with Mica as she goes to Georgia.

My college years came at a particularly tumultuous time in our nation’s history. United States forces were enmeshed in what was by then an unpopular Vietnam War. Campus riots had broken out at Columbia and other universities across America as the children of privilege identified with the disenfranchised of our country. During the Spring of 1968 we experienced first the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King and then a few months later, Robert F. Kennedy. The concept of America as melting pot was itself melting. The civil rights era of cooperation was over as African Americans called for “black power.” Individual groups were advocating for their unique identities- feminists, gay activists, Latinos, Native Americans, Italian Power, Irish power, even Jewish power.

With that as background, I began my freshman year at Cornell University in beautiful Ithaca, NY. I know that everyone thinks that their campus is the most magnificent in America, but I would argue that Cornell could certainly be in anyone’s top ten. Located in the Finger Lakes region of Upstate New York, the campus is situated between two magnificent gorges atop a large hill overlooking the valley below. Magnificent old tall tress dot the campus. The quads are flanked by ivy covered buildings, hence the name “Ivy League.”

It was in this idyllic setting that I began my college years. Cornell students tended to be pretty bright with a good awareness of the world, but still we were college kids. We were there to learn and have a good time. My freshman floor reflected much of America, mostly white Christians, a number of Jewish students primarily from the New York metropolitan area, one African American student, geographically diverse (I had never heard of Bemidgi, Minnesota), some rich, while others not as rich. We were a campus community like many others.

Then, as I was reminded by my Facebook reconnection, 40 years ago this week- April 19, 1969, black students occupied Willard Straight Hall, the main student union building during Spring Parents’ Weekend. They were protesting racial issues on campus; lack of minority recruitment, irrelevant curriculum, the lack of an African-American studies program and general racist attitudes in the administration and student body. This would not be the first building takeover, nor the last, but it was noteworthy. Upon resolution of the dispute the students emerged with right arms raised in what was then known as a “black power fist,” but holding weapons with the left. That picture spread across America on the cover of many a newspaper and magazines, making the Cornell takeover different for all others.

I remember the weekend distinctly. In my mind, I had been raised precisely for this moment. My hometown of Hempstead, New York on Long Island was not your stereotypical Jewish suburb, in fact the opposite. Though my section of the community was white, primarily Catholic with a few Jews, the central high school was about 80% black. My parents had been leaders in interfaith and interracial relations. I’m not going to say I had a large number of African-American friends, but I certainly had many classmates. I’m sure it will not be a surprise to any of you that my primary social activity revolved around synagogue youth group and my NFTY region, hence what I do to this day. Still, based upon my background and my religious values, I sympathized with the cause of the students who took over the building.

But did it have to be Parents’ Weekend! Of course my parents were there as events unfolded, made more poignant since my father was an alumni. They had arrived on Friday night; the takeover occurred over that evening; we woke up to the news on Saturday morning and followed events all day. Saturday evening we went out for dinner, attended a concert and then they dropped me off at my dorm. Word spread that some of the so-called “jock fraternities” were planning to attack the Straight and evict the demonstrators. (After the fact we learned that weapons were not initially brought in, but were smuggled in when those rumors became known.) I decided to become part of what was referred to as a “defense perimeter,” wimpy white students like myself, who hoped by our mere presence to prevent any kind of an attack. I of course even then had no idea what I would do if I had actually been confronted. Fortunately, the night transpired uneventfully.

I returned to my dorm and the next morning met my parents for breakfast, somewhat dreading the conversation about why I was so tired and my previous night’s activity. I had the feeling they would not be pleased, so I decided a good offense was the best defense. I explained that they had been wonderful parents, instilling within me strong values of rights, fairness and equality. With that as a basis, I felt as though I could not stand idly by. (Yes, even then I threw in Torah terminology.) I am not sure whether it was with admiration or begrudging acceptance, they responded, “well Robert ( at times like this I was “Robert”), you have to do what you think is right. Just be careful.”

As I recall, the takeover ended without incident a day or two after that night. Prior to its conclusion,  I attended a massive rally led by SNCC- the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, along with thousands of others. There was wide-spread support for the African-American students. I stood outside the Straight as the demonstrators emerged, holding my arm up in the air in support of their cause. However, upon seeing the guns, for we did not know they had them until that moment, my arm slowly retracted. I supported their cause, just not the potential for violence.

I still support the cause of race relations in America. 40 years have passed and much good has been accomplished with the most prominent sign of it being the election of Barack Obama as our President. Yet there is still much work to be done, as became apparent during the Presidential campaign. Though the economy and the war in Iraq are taking precedence, it is my fervent hope that the document offered by President Obama during the campaign on race relations will not be forgotten. There is still prejudice and racism prevalent in our society, in our New Orleans community and our Jewish community. We of all people should know that long-held perspectives cannot be eradicated over night, but must be confronted within both the white and black communities. The feelings and results of generations of discrimination, repression, poor education, fractured families, disenfranchisement and poverty do not disappear with the election of a black President. It is a hopeful sign for the future, but our neighbors still bleed and we cannot stand idly by.

And what happened at Cornell? The University now has one of the finest programs in Africana Studies and established the Africana Studies & Research Center. As with all universities in America, the number of black students has increased significantly. Awareness and sensitivity to issues of race continue to be on the community agenda, though beyond the minorities themselves, very few white students take advantage of the various ethnic studies programs, this in spite of the rapidly changing demographics of America. The SNCC leader from that time is now a Professor in California. My African-American dormitory friend recently retired as US Attorney in Brooklyn and has been a strong advocate for civil rights through the law.

On this Shabbat following Passover and upon the 40th anniversary of the Cornell University takeover, we all still realize that redemption is not yet complete. We must work towards that end.


Graduation Relections

MAY 29, 2009

By Rabbi Robert H. Loewy

            During the Shabbat of Passover, I spoke on the great Jewish meaning of “redemption.” So when faced with the bulletin deadline 6 weeks ago, realizing that this Shabbat fell either right after Shavuot or for the Orthodox/Conservative world on the second day of the holiday, I naturally turned to the Jewish idea of “revelation,” the way God is revealed to us in our lives. Knowing how busy this week would be for me personally, I prepared a few pages of notes on the subject, looked at them and said to myself, this is not where my heart is for this night. Having experienced two graduations in less than a week, I choose to share that perspective of revelation, for in truth, our children are revealers of the Divine.

As I wrote in my monthly bulletin article, one does not need a ceremony to go through a life cycle event. You can experience the birth of a child without a brit, a birthday without a party, even earning a degree from college without an actual graduation. However, these rituals lift the moment. And so as I attended Sara’s graduation from the University of Texas, along with 7474 of her closest personal classmates, and Mica’s from Isadore Newman School, in a class of 87, I experienced a variety of thoughts and feelings.

Obviously I have an appreciation for pageantry, whether religious or civil. In the case of a graduation you can recognize analogies to various Jewish life cycle events. Honorees wear ritual garb- caps and gowns; and they process to liturgical music- commonly “pomp and circumstance;” At the conclusion they receive a document, not a Ketubah or Bat Mitzvah certificate, but a diploma. And of course there are parties and presents.

You haven’t lived until you have sat with 40,000 parents and family members on the south mall of the UT Campus, all of us present to witness our loved ones graduate. Mercifully they did not call all by name. I was in awe of the choreography of the moment in Austin, music, lights, video screens and fireworks. I would not call it intimate, but it was inspiring. If I heard it once, I heard it fifteen times: “The eyes of Texas are always upon you. Hook’em horns.”

Newman’s graduation was much more personal and southern, with girls in white dresses and boys in white dinner jackets. Half the class has been part of the school since kindergarten. Mica, of course started in 9th grade after attending the New Orleans Jewish Day School. My guess is that few of the graduates realize that Newman’s roots from a century ago were as a training school for the children of the Jewish Orphan’s Home. Who knew that Peyton and Eli were Jewish? Seated in McAllister Auditorium on Tulane campus was also an intimate moment, initiated with Mica’s singing of “America the Beautiful.” In both venues I was a proud father, appreciating God’s gift of children, recognizing that many of my prayers have been answered during the course of their lives.

The Commencement speakers (you don’t graduate, you commence.) at both graduations could not have been more different. Striding to the podium in Austin, wearing cowboy hat, boots and jeans under his academic robe was Robert Rodriguez, a film-maker, who had actually dropped out of UT in the 1990s to pursue his craft. This past year he completed his degree.

In the interim he produced, wrote and directed such action films as El Mariachi, Desperado and Sin City, along with the Spy Kids series. His style was in your face and a bit profane. In the other corner was Governor Bobby Jindal, button downed, intellectual, educated at Brown and Oxford, not known for his oratorical skill. Though their styles were vastly divergent, their messages shared much in common, with concepts from which all can grow:

Both called upon students to keep their minds open to new ideas, not to be satisfied with the way that it’s always been done. Take the attitude that you do not know what can’t be done and be willing to fail if necessary. Second was the wisdom that one needs to be true to values that become the guiding principles of life. Knowledge is good, but living by truths like justice and equality is more important. With the economic crisis in front of us all, both pointed to greed as an ill of our time, to be avoided. Finally came encouragement to be dreamers and not stop. To be labeled a “dreamer” need not be a pejorative. Without dreamers around us, where would we be, how would progress be made?

Numerous speakers added the idea that one does not reach graduation alone. It requires dedicated teachers, men and women who will serve as mentors. One concept that caught my attention was that “peer group and peer pressure” need not be a negative. Finding worthy friends who will challenge you to be better can make all the difference in the world for a person. While these lessons from life were intended for new graduates, they speak to us all.

However graduation is also an emotional moment. Just as today, many of you are surrounded by family for this simcha weekend, so too, I had the opportunity to be with my children and grandchildren, along with much of Lynn’s family. In our mobile society where many of us live great distances from one another, it is important to make the effort to be together for special occasions.

As most of you know, I am an old softy, and so these graduations were highly emotional for me. I so distinctly remember how each of my girls began their freshman years. We brought Sara to college on August 22, parked our car overnight at the hotel to move into the dorm in the morning. We came out to find that thieves had broken into the car and stolen most of her possessions. Not to worry, two women, Sara and Lynn, armed with a list and charge card, made quick work of replacing much of what was stolen. Still this was an inauspicious way to begin college, a harbinger of what was to come later in the week. We returned home on August 24 and evacuated August 27 for Katrina. This is the year of the Katrina class graduations. For Mica, the story was similar to many of yours, she essentially began her Freshman year three times- a few days before Katrina, then in Houston at the Emory Weiner School a few weeks later and again in January, when she returned.

While in the midst of that storm and its aftermath, I dealt with calm and purpose most of the time. For me these graduations, remembering how the journey began have prompted me to recall how traumatic it all was. Tears readily came to my eyes. A Newman student speaker addressed how challenges make classes stronger and how the obvious great challenge of her class was.…. the change in the dress code. She went on to say how the Katrina experience became the springboard for growth. This was a class that was displaced for 6 months to a year.

Graduations brought back many of the memories, but also served to dramatically teach how we can all respond to the most extreme challenges.

And graduations provide an opportunity to think about parenting. Parenting is comparable to God and the mystical story of creation. Initially, all was simply God. Creation was the act of tsimtsum, God contracting to allow space for creation in the world. So too as parents, as our children grow we have to pull back more and more to allow them to expand their experiences, make their mistakes, enjoy their successes. I often explain this reality to B’nai Mitzvah parents, as this life cycle marks the maturity process. It is even more true at graduation time.

In our family, we have evolved a custom of writing notes to our children at milestones. Sometimes it is in the form of the parent’s prayer at B’nai Mitzvah. For me they are actual letters to my children as they move on to the next steps in their lives. Lynn’s practice is a little more humorous, but equally as effective as she prepares and frames a set of commandments. Sara’s were in burnt orange and black ink and Mica’s are in Georgia red and black. This practice is comparable to Jewish ethical wills, when individuals outline the values they wish to pass on to loved ones prior to their death. You can do so with clear statements of values and expectations without laying on guilt. Only this practice begins much earlier. Even when we are away from our children, we can leave a message.

So where was God in the presence of all this observance? Interestingly, there were no formal prayers at either event, but many prayers answered at each. God was revealed in the natural unfolding of the cycle of life, as parents bring children into the world and watch them grow towards independence. God can be found in keen minds seeking wisdom and in the foundation of values upon which we all stand. God was present in the love that permeated the surroundings and was the recipient of many expressions of gratitude. And God will be with all of the students and all of us as we commence to whatever comes next.


Gates Of Prayer-Beth Israel Celebration

AUGUST 30, 2009

By Rabbi Robert H. Loewy

Friends, as I look out, how wonderful it is to see so many of you who are friends, to our two congregations, to our community and to one another. Today is an historic occasion in so many ways. We mark the fourth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, a storm, an event, whose impact and aftermath was traumatic for each and every one of us who lived through it and continues to resonate amongst all who are now part of our community. Institutionally it left Gates of Prayer in shambles and Beth Israel in ruins. We both have certainly come back strong since then! We celebrate that reality today.

When I think of the relationship between our two congregations before the storm, we shared common links, but to be honest we viewed the other from afar. We knew that we were in the same family, but did not really wish to be connected.

Still, in times of crisis family reaches out to family. It was the right action to take, the moral, just and Jewish position to pursue. I know from our perspective, we were pleased we could assist, as we regularly stated that it was important for our community to have a mainstream Orthodox Jewish presence. Perhaps we recognized that if you were not here, we would miss you. Distances began to be bridged and it was our honor to invite Beth Israel to temporarily utilize our multi-purpose room, as an oasis for regrouping.

Over the course of the first few months some fascinating realizations occurred for all of us. Though intellectually we may have known it all along, we emotionally accepted reality: We were really not so different, as we came to appreciate what each other represented. In lieu of your rabbi, I was honored to assist some of your families through life cycle events, something that would never have happened prior to the storm.
I distinctly recall a magical moment during Kol Nidre 2006. In the midst of our service I received a surprise message that Beth Israel’s visiting rabbi wanted to come and speak to our congregation. With a bit of trepidation I agreed. Rabbi Friedman stood on our pulpit that night to express his appreciation for what we were doing. He utilized the imagery of the Prophet Isaiah, who describes angels to the right and left of God’s heavenly throne. When each set of opposing angels fully unite and stop their competition for God’s attention, we will find ourselves in messianic times. He likened the evolving relationship between our congregations as a harbinger of future wholeness. It was an inspirational moment in the life of our congregation. Whereas traditional theology speaks of the coming of the messiah, Reform thinkers speak of a messianic age, when all work together to bring about a peaceful society. Our two congregations are modeling that possibility.

When Beth Israel decided to hire a new rabbi and was fortunate enough to select and woo Rabbi Uri to come to our community, we took another giant step forward. In Rabbi Topolosky you chose a warm, energetic, insightful, bright and visionary leader, whom I have come to respect, admire and love. He has become my teacher and friend, just as he is yours. I am only a little envious. I seem to recall that I was once his age.
Rabbi Uri and I have worked together to move our two congregations forward, to bring healing to brokenness, to rebuild where there has been destruction and to create bridges of understanding, where once were great divides. Instead of accentuating our differences, we emphasize commonalities, stressing what unites us and respecting those areas where we differ in our approaches to Judaism.

We have held joint Selichot programs, where we have sung, learned and danced together; offered Continuing Education programs with films, lectures and classes of mutual interest; advocated jointly for Gilad Shalit and other common Jewish causes; arose before dawn for Birkat Hachama- as we jointly led a ritual of the sun; and shared guest speakers and meals- Yes, Reform Jews can eat Kosher. How wonderful it is that we have been able to learn, socialize, grow and appreciate one another in ways that before the storm would have been impossible.

However, let us each be clear about the future. Gates of Prayer is not about to become Orthodox in its rituals and practices, nor is Beth Israel turning to Reform Judaism. We will continue to embrace our separate approaches to Judaism, but we will find ways to be Jewish together with great respect for our distinctiveness. Through our example, we can send a positive message to our Jewish community, and even more to Jews throughout the United States and the world. We celebrate what unites us and honor our differences.

Friends, we have come a long way since August 29, 2005. Now we look to tomorrow. Later today we will hear about Beth Israel’s future plans. Gates of Prayer looks forward to continuing a warm, caring association, as you relocate alongside us. However, I have a concern. The Book of Deuteronomy shows that Moses had the same worry as the Israelites were approaching the Promised Land. He reminded them and I remind all of us, that we must never forget how we have reached this point in our journey. Let us continue to banish former negative attitudes and permanently embrace feelings of unity. Let us always remember the harmony which was forged out of adversity, as we build for a better tomorrow for our congregations, our community and the Jewish people.


Tallit Tale



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Avinu Malkeinu Or To Whom It May Concern

Rosh Hashanah Morning 5770

By Rabbi Robert H. Loewy


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Now let us pray:

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





Who Shall Live…


By Rabbi Robert H. Loewy


At this juncture of our worship, we approach, Unetaneh Tokef, a theologically controversial prayer of the Holy Days. “Who shall live, who shall die, who by fire, who by water…” Many have strong feelings about this prayer. Let’s take a brief poll as to whether or not we should even read it: Raise your hand if you would like us to NOT read the next prayer? Raise your hand if you would like us to read it?

As I participated in recent meetings about a future Mahzor for our Reform movement, there was a great deal of debate regarding this prayer with its traditional theology of: God who determines all; God who is Judge and Shepherd; who reviews our permanent record, rewarding and punishing accordingly. Is that the kind of God in whom we believe? For some the answer will be, “yes,” but for many others, “no.”

Albert Einstein once wrote: “I cannot imagine a god who rewards and punishes the objects of his creation.” Isaac Mayer Wise, the 19th century founder of Reform Judaism, eliminated this prayer from his prayer book and that continued into the small black Union Prayer Book II. Recognizing that this prayer engenders distress, even anger and tears, Dr. Larry Hoffman, Reform Judaism’s most eminent liturgist writes: “I deliberately omit the God of Unetaneh Tokef, the God who seals our fate with death by fire, water and strangulation.” (even though we try and hold onto it and make sense of it)… good classical reformers should simply say.. “it causes unnecessary pain and is therefore wrong. We can willingly believe what we know is not true; we cannot happily abide what we know is hurtful.”

Rabbi Marc Saperstein does not want the 11 year old girl sitting before him on Rosh Hashanah thinking that with teshuvah, tefillah and tsedakah she has the power to remove her mother’s cancer. A simplistic reading could prompt that conclusion.

Still, in discussing this prayer and reading about it, others find it quite meaningful, even essential to their High Holy Day experience. One individual wrote, “I never saw it as a negative, blame the victim poem. To me it was actually comforting.” In our current Mahzor, it is one of the only prayers with an introduction, almost an apology for including it. On Rosh Hashanah it provides historical reference and Yom Kippur, practically a disclaimer. Before we decide if we will read this prayer this morning, I would like to unpack the text, its history, implications and application.

Commonly attributed as Rav Amnon’s poem from the Middle Ages, its roots are much older. In the Mishnah we read that four times a year we are judged, with Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur being the time that we pass before God, like troops marching in review or sheep passing muster. It further speaks of Yom Kippur as the Day of Judgment, with the Book being open and God rendering a verdict, accompanied by the great shofar sounding. However, before final sentencing, if you will, you can influence the Judge. The Babylonian Talmud suggests this can be achieved by four acts: tsedakah- charity or righteous deeds and tefillah- prayer, two of the elements we find in our prayer. Additionally, crying out, a form of confession or lament, plus changing one’s name and behavior can impact judgment. That is to say, you have the ability to transform yourself and your actions. These two additional aspects are what we mean by teshuvah- repentance. Thus we appeal to God’s merciful nature as our fate is in God’s hands.

Rabbi Margaret Wenig advocates for its inclusion, but not that it should be read literally. She first points to the figurative language of the poem and believes the message to be that our deeds have repercussions. While many escape consequences of behaviors, (I can think of one octogenarian who proudly proclaims, I’ve been smoking, gambling and drinking for years.) some do not. At the same time, the inverse is not a given. When one suffers from disease, it is ridiculous to ask what sinful behaviors caused the illness.

To this point, one person writes: “A belief in the power of repentance, prayer and charity is at the core of our religion. I don’t take this prayer to be a literal bargaining, but a profession of faith- that my life, which is like a particle of dust, matters; that my acts make a difference. It’s not that they buy me time or health, but that they give me life for the time that I have.”

Rabbi Wenig further argues that liturgy sometimes requires strong imagery.

Powerful language grabs our attention. Good liturgy is an amalgam of traditions and voices. It does not all have to be comforting, telling us how good we are. Sometimes it can smack us on the head. “I know that we are judged, that our deeds have consequences, that some of our fate appears to be in our hands and much of it does not, that some mistakes we can fix, others we simply have to live with.” (p. 57)

Rabbi Shlomo Riskin teaches that repentance, prayer and charity will not avert the evil decree, but will mitigate the bitterness of the decree – After performing these acts, we connect with something bigger and become more accepting of what life decrees for us. We all occasionally experience life as evil, bad, sad, challenging… life and death, reversals and pain. Accept it and deal with it, not asking, “why me?”, but knowing that the world is still better because of us.

One of the phrases in this poem/prayer that confronts us most dramatically is “who shall live and who shall die.” I heard it invoked, during a conference call along with 1000 other rabbis in preparation for the Holy Days, by President Barack Obama. Let me share how surreal it was sitting at my desk, phone in hand, with the President of the United States speaking to me! Talk about a Day of Awe! Regardless of one’s politics, this was the President of the United States, our country. Just as I previously attended a New Orleans gathering when invited by President Bush, I accepted the invitation to hear what our President had to say to me.

As you can well imagine, the issue he addressed with us was the need for Health Care Reform in our country. He was not asking us to support his plan or any of the specifics in the various proposals that have come forth. He outlined broad principles that he and many others believe are essential if we are to improve the plight of our fellow Americans, reiterated in his speech to the joint session of Congress. And then our President asked me to address this issue with my community as I saw fit. I am honored to do that in the context of this prayer.

If you are like me, you are probably disgusted by the way the health care debate has devolved, perhaps even a little frightened. It has become obnoxiously partisan, with each side using scare tactics, advertising, false information, even intimidation to defeat the opposition. I am deeply concerned about the tenor of the attacks. While I do not believe that opposition to the President’s plans is tantamount to racism, any more than opposition to Israeli policies is automatically anti-Semitism. But I do know that many mask their anti-Semitism by opposing Israel. Similarly, I firmly believe that racism does play into the current debate.

We who lived through David Duke should recognize that reality. He too spoke of big government, those who might be taking advantage of the system, immigrants stealing jobs from real Americans. Duke’s heyday was during a time of economic uncertainty and fear for our future, not unlike our own. Otherwise good people linked themselves to his candidacy as he voiced their frustrations. We may be experiencing similar phenomena in America today and must be vigilant.

As happens all too often with serious issues, it is more a battle to see who can defeat whom and not, what is in the best interests of the American people. Yes, this is a political subject, but it is also very much a moral, religious issue, one that is already impacting many of us and deserves our attention this morning.

Without breaking any of the HIPPA confidences, let me ask by a show of hands:

How many here have not been covered with health insurance at some time during the past 2 years?

How many have altered your lives in order to keep coverage?

How many have been denied coverage by your insurance companies for procedures or drugs deemed needed by your physicians?

How many feel you are paying way too much for health insurance?

How many wish to see all Americans covered by health insurance?

As you can see, the Healthcare debate is not simply an intellectual exercise. If we, who are here today, generally a more affluent, advantaged segment of our society are impacted, how much the more so as it effects the poor, the widows and orphans, the disadvantaged of society to whom we as Jews have always felt a deep commitment and religious obligation of concern. Combine that with the economic downturn in our country, where we all know of friends and family who have lost jobs or cannot find jobs, and with it the health insurance concerns. Million of Americans are underinsured or have no health insurance at all.

So what is it that the President asked of me and that I ask of you this morning? In the tradition of the Talmudic rabbis, let us respectfully listen to all sides of the healthcare debate and cease demonizing those with whom we differ. Let us find those areas of greatest concern, upon which most will agree (it is simply not realistic that all will agree on anything), but at least most agree and try to address them. I believe this includes:

First- a plan that enables all people to have access to quality medical care

Second- every American needs to be able to purchase affordable coverage, regardless of illness, age or pre-existing conditions.

Third- it needs to be affordable with Providers receiving a fair income and Recipients paying a fair price.

Fourth- Affordability includes a system of sustainability for the government to perpetuate the program without the periodic scares that by such and such a date, we will run out of money.

These are among the most basic aspects that belong in a Health Care plan and which I believe a large majority would like to see enacted. The details are where the politics and the lobbyists come into play. There are religious voices that are also calling for exemptions for some health professionals to not be compelled to perform any procedures that compromise their faith. I can respect that, as long as those same voices allow those procedures to be freely offered for those whose faith beliefs are not opposed. I am obviously referring to abortion, but also other issues. The loudest shouts do not mean they are a majority, perhaps not even in Louisiana.

Friends, health care reform is not simply a political issue. It is a moral concern and a matter of faith. As Jews we have deep commitment to healing for all. Compassion for the poor, the widows and orphans, the have-nots of society is an essential message of our tradition. Speaking out for those whose voices are weak is part of our prophetic calling. This issue has galvanized groups in our country, as no other in recent years. We need to be educated about it and let our elected officials know our feelings, even if their public stances are opposed to our own. Insist that partisanship and posturing are unacceptable. Demand reasonable, respectful, honest debate.

When it comes to the question of who shall live and who shall die, as raised in our Unetaneh Tokef prayer, we realize that what we do and say, or don’t do or say, can make a difference in our world. Certainly that is the case as our nation debates health care reform.

I will also add, as I have from this pulpit previously, that we personally have the ability to impact our own health. Recently I received generic birthday greetings from my insurance company. Not so gently they suggested that since I am aging, please be sure to receive all the appropriate tests, including annual check ups, blood tests, eye exams, colonoscopy, mammograms for women, chest x-rays, blood pressure and more, along with a battery of shots. There are those in this room with health insurance who fail to do the minimum. I can testify that there are also countless people sitting here, who are healthy because they took the initiative to be examined, catching problems before they became critical. In addition with proper diet, and even moderate exercise we improve our chances for longevity. One of our members, an avid fitness enthusiast, recently shared with me following cardiac bypass surgery, that while his regimen did not prevent the need for surgery, it delayed it to his late 70s, instead of early 60s as was the case with previous generations in his family. Our actions can personally influence how we live and when we die.

Applied to the grand scheme of life, the answer is not as clear. As one of my colleagues has written: “Unetaneh Tokef is an artistic wrestling with impermanence and death, with deeds and their consequences, with power and powerlessness, with fear and reassurance, with mistakes and second chances. Perhaps the ultimate paradox is that life hurts, but is still worth living.” (p. 150)

In a moment we will read and listen to our confusing prayer. I invite you to apply whatever interpretation of its words brings meaning to you. Or perhaps you will choose to simply skip over it theologically as totally irrelevant to what you believe. However, none of us are free to ignore its mandate for action in this world.



* The insights of Rabbi Margaret Moers Winig in her article “The Poetry and the Power of Paradox”- CCAR Journal, Spring 2009 were very influential in shaping my thoughts for this sermon.



The True Judge


Rabbi Robert H. Loewy

            Friends, today is known as Yom Hadin, the Day of Judgment. So let me begin my comments this afternoon with the story of a Jewish man appearing before a judge. He was suing for personal damages due to severe injuries sustained in a car accident. It seems he was driving down the highway at a legal rate of speed, when a horse bound onto the road in front of him. It was a horrific accident!

The police officer who arrived immediately on the scene testified that he approached the crash site and quickly evaluated the situation. When the officer asked the Jew if he was injured, at the time the man responded that he was a bit shaken, but otherwise feeling just fine. He indicated no medical problems.

The Judge questioned the man, asking why he initially said he was fine, but now claims that he was profoundly injured, to which the Jew replied: “Your honor, what the officer reports is absolutely true, but he left out some details. He came upon the scene and saw that my car had pummeled the poor horse. He evaluated the horse’s condition, removed his pistol and put the shattered animal out of its misery. Then he came and asked me how I was feeling. Nu? What would you say?”

On this day and in all days, our tradition teaches that we stand before the Judge. It is not so much our words that will be evaluated, but our deeds. During these Days of Awe we metaphorically speak of the Sefer Hachaim- The Book of Life, which bears the imprint of our signature. Our actions do the writing. It is not so much that God decides who will live or die, rendering a verdict, as it is how we conduct our lives that will leave the lasting impression.

So too, at the time of death, we recite a prayer: Baruch Dayan Haemet- Blessed is the Judge of Truth, or the True Judge. Some suggest that this simply refers to God, who launched the hard and fast laws of physical creation: No one lives forever. Bodies break down. Accidents happen. Accept that verdict.

Still others take the approach that when we die, our full body of work, how we filled our days is open to scrutiny and evaluation. Is it by God? Perhaps! Is it by those we leave behind? Most certainly!

Recalling those who have died during Yizkor has an impact upon all of us, beyond the sense of loss that we feel. From the negative perspective it is taught that it will subdue our yester harah- our evil inclination. When we contemplate the deaths of others, reflecting upon their lives, a lingering fear comes into our hearts. If there is eternal reward for the righteous, will we merit it or will our negative, sinful behaviors preclude that possibility? If so, there is no better time than the present to change our ways.

From the more positive position, we look at lives marked by distinction and excellence. They inspire us to walk in those paths.

Have you noticed? There seem to have been a rash of deaths involving prominent individuals in the past few months, even days: Patrick Swayze who thrilled us with his dancing and Mary Travers who delighted us in song, Les Paul, who invented the electric guitar, Football Star, Steve McNair, apparently murdered by a girlfriend, and of course Walter Cronkite, Michael Jackson and Edward “Ted” Kennedy. Some were people who lived long full lives, while others’ days were shortened. Some died of natural causes, others’ at the hands of perpetrators.

I could have gone on, since death is a constant part of life and I will read our list of names shortly. The last three received a barrage of press coverage, their lives scrutinized, analyzed, evaluated and reviewed.

The gift of memory is wonderful. We can select those aspects of lives that are worthy of praise and adulation, rejecting that which is not. All three had strengths and weaknesses. There is a play on words based upon two portions of Torah read together on certain years; one called Acharai Mot, starting with Leviticus 16, describing what happens after the deaths of Aaron’s sons and the other Kedoshim, laws of holiness, beginning with Leviticus 19. Place the two portions together, and you have Acharai Mot- Kedoshim: “after death all are holy.” Indeed that is the compassionate way to look at people’s lives. We emphasize that which is exemplary and admirable. But when rendering a verdict, the full life must be considered.

Television journalist Walter Cronkite was tagged as “the most trusted man in America,” the result of his long career at CBS News. Those who are old enough can vividly remember his solemn, anguished expression reporting the death of President Kennedy, accompanied by one discreet tear, the excitement he communicated while narrating the early days of space exploration, and the power of his editorials on Vietnam. In retirement he became America’s educator. His was a life of accomplishment.

Few, if any of us, really knew him, personally. One friend of 30 years remarked when asked what Cronkite was really like, that “he’s just the way you hope he is.” Co-workers described him as driven, but fair, someone who worked hard, but loved to laugh and be one of the guys. Looking at his life, hearing the eulogies, there is little that one would not want to emulate. As reported, he was a great newsman, sailor, friend and father. Undoubtedly there were some aspects of his person that were not as laudable, but standing before Divine and human Judges, he seems to be worthy.

Michael Jackson presents a more challenging case. The accolades and outpouring of love for him were quite astounding. Without question, he was one of the outstanding, innovative, creative entertainers of our time. I remember his early years, harmonizing with his brothers, followed by his explosion as a singer, dancer and performer. The energy, skill, voice and verve that he brought to his performances, whether live or video will resonate for years to come. Viewing the various broadcast and print tributes, he was depicted as a good friend to those with whom he was close. It should also be pointed out that his impact upon the African American community was particularly poignant.

But there is of course the other Michael, his constantly changing appearances, quirky personal habits, allegations of child abuse, questionable parenting skills and so much more. His death appears to be linked to his lifestyle. We will learn more. Time will determine his worldly legacy and Ultimate Judgment will come as well.

The life of Senator Edward “Ted” Kennedy played out on the world stage for all to view. The scion of a wealthy, politically connected family, he was, as we all know, the youngest brother, the light-weight, carefree bon vivant. The brothers were destined for greatness with gifts of intellect and oratorical skill. History would intervene. Ted’s life was marked with highs and lows, triumphs and defeats, great virtues and tragic flaws. On the one hand he was a cheat in college, a lady’s man, an alcoholic and the death of Mary Jo Kopechne at Chappaquidick will be an indelible black mark on his record.

He faced great personal crises: the death of his brothers, a plane crash that nearly took his life, leaving permanent damage, the failure to win the Presidential nomination and severe illness for his children.

Then as we all heard repeated in the hours of homage following his death, he conquered his personal demons, rose to confront and overcome crises, and made a substantive difference in this world. Within his family he was father and uncle, the bedrock of the clan. A fierce liberal ideologue, a champion of the poor, he was involved in numerous pieces of legislation that continue to shape the landscape of America today, mastering the art of political diplomacy, the arduous intricacies of the legislative process. His constituents loved him as expressed by their votes. In the process he garnered respect and friendship among his colleagues from both sides of the political aisle. He was a man of his word, whose personal charm, warmth, and huge laugh endeared him to many.  I was particularly touched by his anonymous, less public deeds: tutoring a young girl in a DC Public School, sponsoring a teenage intern for college, and bringing a bit of earth from his brothers’ graves to Jerusalem for Yitzchak Rabin’s funeral.

Ted Kennedy’s life was marked by contrasts. Some aspects were reprehensible, while others praiseworthy. It can be argued from a Jewish perspective that he repented, eschewing early flaws and tragic errors to move forward. Looking at the full body of his life the natural tendency is to venerate and forgive. Each individual will reach his/her own conclusion, as will God.

As we review the lives of all three men, we find great talent, dedication, loving relationships and achievement. We also discover grievous mistakes: errors of judgment, immoral and illegal behavior. Before we rush to judgment, let us also think of our loved ones, whose memories we summon at this time, including the full spectrum of their years. Let us also bring to mind the course of our own lives, the days past and those yet to come. Hopefully we can appreciate quality moments and embrace them into our character. Simultaneously we extend compassion and understanding to others, seeking the same for ourselves. May we be humble enough to realize that ours is not the Ultimate Judgment.

Baruch Dayan Ha-emet- Blessed is the True Judge.


Promises To Keep


By Rabbi Robert H. Loewy


     Yom Kippur Eve…We make every effort to arrive on time. Latecomers

are few. No one wants to miss Kol Nidre, perhaps the most powerful religious moment in our liturgical calendar. It has been known to impact the course of people’s lives in mystical ways. The choral and instrumental renditions transport our souls. It is all about the music.

Yet, ironically the literal meaning of Kol Nidre is all about words, specifically

promises and vows. We ask that they be annulled, either for the year past or year to come, depending upon which version of the prayer is utilized, Ashkenazic or Sephardic. Does this mean that we are can break our commitments freely?… of course not, we who cherish honesty and integrity. Our petition applies to forced vows, impetuous words, rash comments, unintentional and not carefully thought through, hasty words that can break relationships: “I swear that I will never speak to that person again.”  Words that prevent us from doing teshuvah are the vows that need to be absolved.

Kol Nidre is often associated with the Middle Ages and particularly dark times when the Golden Age of Spain was tarnished. Jews were forced to convert either by communal pressure or the point of a sword. Secretly recited, Kol Nidre would lighten the spirits of these so called Conversos or Marranos. Hence we darken our lights to recall ancestors who prayed in darkness, lest they be discovered.

In truth Kol Nidre predates Spain. The Talmud provides a formula to appear before a Bet Din, a rabbinical court, of three judges for nullification of vows when made either under abnormal circumstances, i.e. impulsively or recklessly, or if sworn when unaware of certain circumstances or consequences. We call this “finding a loophole” to extricate ourselves from the commitment. Our prayer first appears in the 9th century and evolves into a quasi legal/religious ceremony. A preamble to the prayer arrives in the 13th century by Rabbi Meir of Rothenberg, as we will read, calling us to stand before both the Yeshiva shel Maalah and the Yeshivah Shel Mattah, the heavenly and human court, along with all other transgressors as we ask that we be released from our vows. Since one can not hold court proceedings during a holy day, the custom is to begin Kol Nidre before sundown, which is the reason that this is the one evening to wear a tallit. The three-fold repetition of Kol Nidre is consistent with court procedures before a minimum of three judges. The Torahs being held by our leaders represent that we testify before God.

So in other words we begin this most holy of days by saying, “O.K. God, just kidding! I didn’t mean it. Do over! Let me off the hook…. Please!” Understanding the literal meaning of this prayer, you can appreciate attempts to eliminate it from our liturgy over the centuries. Conceptually, it is abhorrent to many. Words do matter! Vows should be taken seriously! What will others think of us? They’ll say, “You can’t trust those Jews.”

Regardless, Kol Nidre persevered, perhaps due to the fact that it is in Aramaic. Who knows Aramaic anymore? Along came the early Reformers, who translated everything. Doing so, they were aghast at what they read. Those who prayed from the Old Union Prayer Book might recall that instead of printing the prayer in Aramaic and English, as in our current mahzor, it simply read in bold letters with white space around them: “Kol Nidrei is chanted.” In other words, “just sing the darn prayer. Don’t worry about what it means.” I am not letting you off the hook so easily. We will hear the words intoned in a moment, setting the stage for our 24 hour period of teshuvah. First let us ask how its history and message speaks to us?

Like the Conversos of Spain, perhaps we all lead secret lives in one way or

another, feeling compelled to portray ourselves in one fashion to others, but in our heart of hearts, knowing we are not who we project to be. I think of the brave homosexual men and women who serve our country in the military, who must deny their sexual persuasion due to the ludicrous “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy. I sincerely hope that this will be reversed soon. In the meantime we can see how Kol Nidre can be helpful.

Beyond the military context, many other gay and lesbian men and women feel they must hide who they are in fear of social stigma, rejection and/or discrimination. Towards those among us who suffer in this way, let us open our arms, minds and hearts, as surely as I believe God does. I look forward to the time when they will have full rights and freedom, including marriage recognition. While I do not see that happening soon in Louisiana, we can be receptive, welcoming and supportive as individuals and as a congregation. For these men and women, we can reflect upon our society and understand why Kol Nidre might be needed, but let us hope and pray for a time when it will not.

Many others lead secret lives. Suffering from drug, alcohol, gambling and other addictions, they pretend as if nothing is wrong, deceiving others, deluding themselves and hiding from God. Often they do not realize that their addiction impacts all with whom they come in contact, co-workers, friends and family. The only one who is not aware of the ramifications, who thinks that the addiction is well disguised, under control, is the addict him/herself. For them, Kol Nidre does not apply. It will not annul commitments and excuse behaviors that one might feel are necessary, but in fact are not. Only the paths of repentance will achieve that goal.

And what of those who act falsely, cognizant they are not who they represent themselves to be: the individual who knows everything, the man who is always right, the woman who insists she understands situations better than anyone else, the person who commands leadership roles …..They have a compulsion to be the masters of certain situations, knowing full well that they are not, masking insecurities and inadequacies. These too are leading secret lives, not covered by Kol Nidre, requiring soul searching confrontation with self, forgiveness seeking teshuvah towards those who are offended, with a commitment not to be that person anymore.

However, self-deception, acting in ways we do not truly feel, is not always negative. Pretending to be who we are not can sometimes be positive, even praiseworthy. When facing great challenges, afraid of what comes next, we can don a mask of bravery, which will assist us in addressing what lies before us. Many of us did just that when dealing with Katrina. In contrast, during moments of triumph, upon achieving great success, when victorious over an opponent, pride and boastfulness are the norm.

Instead, we should consider wearing a cloak of humility, even a false cloak, to rein in unappealing arrogance.

The Talmud emphasized vows made impetuously or without fully appreciating the implications of our commitment. While Kol Nidre might annul those words, our goal should be to avoid uttering them in the first place. The five second rule not only applies to items dropped on floors, but words that issue from our mouths. When angry with someone, hesitate before unleashing a diatribe that you will later regret. Belittling a child for a foolish error, embarrassing a spouse for failing to meet your expectations, castigating a loyal employee for a bungled task, shaming a friend for a miscue will rarely achieve anything positive. Just because you enjoy a close relationship and assume it will blow over, does not make it pleasant for the recipient. Words do hurt! Before volunteering to take on a project or offering to perform a favor, be sure you are ready to fulfill the task. When asking another during their difficult times if there is anything you can do for them, be prepared to accept the task that is requested. Otherwise you have offered empty words and created false expectations.

“But you promised” are famous words commonly connected with the mouths of our children. Sometimes they apply to actual promises made to share time together, to visit a favorite destination or purchase a desired item. Parents have a responsibility to keep those promises as much as is humanly possible. Don’t make them just to placate a child for the moment and then renege. You will have done more harm than good, eroding a fundamental relationship of trust and dependability. And if the circumstances have changed, conditions are altered or complications arise, explain the new reality, asking for forgiveness. You may understand why you cannot fulfill your promise, but do all you can to make sure the one you promised does as well. If true for children, how much the more so this applies to older family members and friends. Kol Nidre does not annul false commitments, only those sincerely made.

Children (and perhaps the child in each of us) will often reshape words into promises, or wishes are so strong they become transformed into promises. “We’ll see,” becomes “You promised.”  While one cannot be responsible for how others understand or react to what we have said, we can be sensitive to their feelings. Often our “we’ll see,” is the hope that we can fulfill a wish and when unable to do so, our own disappointment is expressed harmfully: “You’re nuts! I never said that.” as opposed to “I realize how you concluded that way. I had also hoped to be able to meet your desire, but was unable to do so.” Words will not change reality, but they can either inflame or placate. Implied promises are also part of Kol Nidre.

As we think of promises that have been broken, it is difficult not to examine the current economic crisis. We focus upon crooks like Bernie Madoff, heads of major financial institutions, whose lavish lifestyles and squandering, reckless business practices placed our country and many of us individually into precarious financial predicaments. Kol Nidre does not forgive or annul the promises they made.

The promise of America: work hard and save and you will be secure for the future has been compromised. Jobs have been lost and finding meaningful employment is difficult. Some can’t meet weekly or monthly obligations. Others must renege on pledges to charitable organizations, dependent upon donations for sustenance. Retirement funds have diminished in value. The promise of a secure future which we made to ourselves and our loved ones may be difficult if not impossible to fulfill.

Kol Nidre is a statement of understanding and we hope that this synagogue will be a haven of support and comfort.

Last are the vows we have made to ourselves. Some are broad life goals, visions that we have of where we want to be, perhaps forged in youth, but frustrated along life’s path. Others are more immediate, some life changing, others, life enhancing: weight to lose, habits to kick, activities to experience, behaviors requiring change, relationships to forge, books to read, subjects to explore, individuals and organizations to assist, services to attend more often… Feel free to fill in your own shortfall. Kol Nidre offers temporary clemency, allowing us to forgive ourselves for non-compliance, while reminding us that life is not complete. There are promises to keep.

In a moment we will hear Kol Nidre, a prayer of the ages. Not only does it set a tone for our full day of worship, it moves us to be honest with ourselves as we contemplate our lives. The words of poet Merle Feld could very well be our own:

Kol Nidre

I am so grateful for this,
a moment of truth,
grateful to stand before You
in judgment.

You know me as a liar
and I am flooded with relief
to have my darkest self
exposed at last.

Every day, I break my vows,
to be awake in this moment,
to be a responsible
citizen of the world.

No one sees, no one knows,
how often I become distracted,
lose myself and then lose hope—
every day, every day

On this day, this one day,
I stand before you naked,
without disguise, without embellishment,
naked, shivering, ridiculous.

I implore You—
help me to try again.



The preceding poem by Merle Feld appears in Four Centuries of Jewish Women’s Spirituality A Sourcebook, edited by Ellen M. Umansky and Diane Ashton (Brandeis).