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.

Happy Is The One…


By Rabbi Robert H. Loewy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Until your car or home is paid off

Until you get a new car or home

Until your children leave the house

Until you go back to school

Until you finish school

Until you lose 10 pounds

Until you gain 10 pounds

Until you get married

Until you get a divorce

Until you have kids

Until you retire

Until summer

Until spring

Until winter

Until fall

Until you die

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

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



The Bridge To Forgiveness

Yom Kippur Eve- 5768

By Rabbi Robert H. Loewy


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

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

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


Forgiveness is a path to be walked.

There are steps along the way:

loss, anger, acceptance, learning,

forgiveness, restoration.

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

When you step upon it, it will carry you,

support you, connect you to another side of life,

a side waiting to be discovered.

Forgiveness is a perpetual journey.

There are many bridge crossings.

Each restores a bit more of what you have lost.


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

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

There is good reason to be angry.

There is good reason not to be angry.

Anger can be like a river

that swells beyond its banks,

flooding and destroying everything in its path.

Or it can be like a river

that flows through your soul,

washing away all that needs to be gone.

Discernment is

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tonight I forgive you.

I am moving on with my life.

I will not let my resentments pull me down.

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

Tonight I forgive you.”

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



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

In The Footsteps Of The Prophets


By Rabbi Robert H. Loewy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Daily we should take account and ask:

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

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

Our concern must be expressed not symbolically, but literally;

not only publicly, but also privately;

not only occasionally, but regularly.

What we need is restlessness,

a constant awareness of the monstrosity of injustice.”

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


We Do Need To Be Perfected: A Response to Ann Coulter

By Rabbi Robert H. Loewy

October 19, 2007

My friends, God wants us to be perfect, so does Ann Coulter. However what God wants of us and what Ann seeks for us are two very different paths to perfection.

Let’s start with God in this week’s Torah portion. At the beginning of Genesis 17, the chapter that includes God’s call for circumcision as a sign of the covenant, we read the following: “Hithalech lifanai v’heyay tamim.” Translating this is a bit challenging. “Hithalech” means to walk, but it is a form of verb which implies that you are walking within yourself and with God at the same time. Following on earlier ideas, we might say that God calls upon us to walk within Divine footsteps, which will create a unique bond with the Eternal.

“V’heyay tamim” has been translated as be whole-hearted, pure hearted, reach for perfection, blameless, faultless.  Noah is described as an “ish tam- a whole hearted or perfect individual.” Later on we read of sacrificial animals that are “tamim-without blemish.” These are the animals that are appropriate for sacrifice. Some scholars suggest that by performing circumcision, we remove a blemish from a ritual perspective, rendering us as more appropriate to serve God.

I liken this term “tam” to the Yiddish word “mensch.” Mensch is a term of high praise for men or women, who are whole-hearted, righteous people. They fulfill God’s teachings and the world is a better place because they have been in it. I don’t know that they are “perfect,” which implies without any flaws or blemishes on their record, but they come as close to it as we can imagine. We should all strive to walk with God and be menschen.

So, why do I say that Ann Coulter also wants us to be perfected, but in a very different fashion? Many of you are aware that Ann Coulter is a conservative political commentator, who has been known to make a variety of what most consider to be “outrageous statements,” sometimes about Gays and lesbians, other times about immigrants, forced conversion of Moslems to Christianity or even about the widows and widowers from 9/11.

On October 8 she was on CNBC’s television show, “The Big Idea,” hosted by Donnie Deutsch, a wealthy businessman, who happens to be Jewish. As part of the interview he asked her to describe her perfect America, to which she responded, it would be like New York during the Republican Convention. With further prodding, some might say baiting, by Donnie, she said it would be better if all were Christians. She goes on to say that she would like us all to be Christians and thereby we would be “perfected.” As far as she is concerned, we can still be Jews, but we have to accept Jesus and then we will be “perfected.” As I stated previously, this is a very different perspective from our understanding.

I must confess that I have only seen Ann Coulter on rare occasions and each time I have heard her, I find her babble to be obnoxious and often mean-spirited. While some may agree with her, she really does not speak for anyone beside herself. She is a beautiful blond with long legs, who captures your attention however she can. Controversy is the way she gains notoriety and while promoting a new book, making headlines never hurts.

In truth I do not believe that she deserves the attention that she is receiving from some quarters and the only reason I am bringing up the incident is because I think we can learn from it.

Some call for her to be banned from the airwaves. We don’t provide advocates of violence on mainstream media. Why should we provide someone who is often a hate mongerer with a forum? You would think that since Jews control the media, we could keep her off the air. So much for that stereotype! While I do not want to see her on television, I prefer that audiences be the ultimate censors. Besides with all the various paths for communication today, there will always be a vehicle for her to communicate. Smart people can simply turn her off.

As you might imagine, the Anti-Defamation League issued a statement saying: “The Anti-Defamation League strongly condemns Ann Coulter for her anti-Semitic comment that Christians “want Jews to be perfected”…  During her October 8 appearance, Coulter suggested that Jews should convert, adding that, “we just want Jews to be perfected, as they say.  … That’s what Christianity is.”

I sometimes feel as though the ADL uses the term “anti-Semitism” too loosely. In this case, I don’t believe that Ann Coulter was making a statement about Jews as a people, which is usually the broad stroke of the term. Rather her comments are more about “anti-Judaism.” Correctly the ADL goes on to say:

“Ann Coulter may be a political pundit but she clearly knows very little about religious theology and interfaith issues.  Coulter’s remarks are outrageous, offensive and a throwback to the centuries-old teaching of contempt for Jews and Judaism.  The notion that Jews are religiously inferior or imperfect because they do not accept Christian beliefs was the basis for 2,000 years of church-based anti-Semitism.  While she is entitled to her beliefs, using mainstream media to espouse the idea that Judaism needs to be replaced with Christianity and that each individual Jew is somehow deficient and needs to be “perfected,” is rank Christian supersessionism and has been rejected by the Catholic Church and the vast majority of mainstream Christian denominations.”

Perhaps I am naïve, but in some ways I believe Coulter entered into an arena that she had no intention of going. However, she purports to be a fundamentalist Christian. Whether we as Jews like it or not, many Christian groups see it as their duty to bring Jews to Christ. It may not be PC, but it is a religious mission. Coulter claims to accept our Bible, which Christians refer to as the Old Testament or Old Covenant (an important term on this particular Shabbat.) as the old path to God. She sees the New Testament as what she called the fast track, Federal Express to salvation. For her perfection comes from faith.

This is what the ADL is referring to as “supersessionism,” the idea that one Testament has superseded the other. They are correct when they say that this concept has now been rejected by the Catholic Church and many other mainstream Protestant groups. However, we have to realize two things. The fact that our testament, our covenant with God as Jews is now respected by the ecclesiastic authorities of a variety of churches does not mean that this new teaching has trickled down to the masses. Many more years of teaching will be necessary to break the impression left by centuries. Second is that this concept has not been embraced by many other “good Christians.” I use that term because these are good people (not necessarily Ann Coulter), but many are good people who have a very different view. They want to love us to death.

I am active as a rabbi in the interfaith community. A number of years ago we had a Continuing Education series to learn about other faiths. A Baptist Minister whom I had known for years came and taught. When asked about this issue of wanting to missionize to Jews, he responded respectfully: “I am here tonight because my friend Rabbi Loewy invited me to teach. I am here tonight because I want to share with you the perspectives of my faith and I am here tonight because in my heart of hearts I want you to find Jesus as your Savior.”

Rabbi Dr. David Sandmel, an expert on Christianity writes: “Christians who actively proselytize view the conversion of the Jews in entirely positive terms. Many of these Christians truly believe they love and respect the Jews — we are God’s chosen.  From their perspective converting Jews hastens the second coming, and/or is the fulfillment of a commandment in the New Testament, and/or, on a spiritual level, is understood to be act of love (who wouldn’t want to be perfect?), and/or is a way of doing what Jesus would do. (Yes, there are baser motivations as well.)  For many Jews, on the other hand, Christian mission to Jews is experienced as just a less violent form of genocide: its goal is to rid the world of Jews.  This creates a major “disconnect” and is source of great friction.”

So how do we respond to such people? As Donny Deutsch did, we need to let them know that we find what they have said is offensive and insulting, but we can be more forceful. The God of Abraham and Sarah, the God of Moses, the God of Jesus has taught us as a Jewish people to reach for perfection through our deeds. Faith alone does not make God’s world a better place.

My colleague Stuart Federow has devoted much of his rabbinate to this issue. He teaches that we can and should say, with all due respect, your text and testament and covenant is not a continuation of ours. “To the contrary, it goes in a very different path. It contradicts our text and our testament and our covenant. To say that our Judaism is not enough, that we still need perfecting, even if we follow our faith, THAT is what is insulting. Our faith is enough without Jesus.” These may be strong words, but sometimes people need to realize that we are serious about our faith, just as they are about theirs.

Yes Ann, we do need to seek perfection, but we will do so in consonance with the covenant of Abraham and Sarah, which we Jews reaffirm on this Shabbat.


Many Have Gone Forth

October 26, 2007

By Rabbi Robert H. Loewy


“I want to stay in your country and be a citizen,” said the older looking gentleman standing in front of the Immigration Officer.

Officer: “How did you get here?”

Applicant: “Easy, I crossed the border.”

Officer: “How old are you?”

Applicant: “I’m 75 years old.”

Officer: “Are you married?”

Applicant: “Yes”

Officer: “Do you have any children?”

Applicant: “Not yet, but I’m planning to have many.”

Officer: “Do you have any family already here?”

Applicant: “No”

Officer: “Do you have others with you?”

Applicant: “Yes, my nephew and a few slaves came with me as well.”

Officer: “Do you have a way to make a living should you be allowed to stay?”

Applicant: “A salesman can always make a living. I’ll get by. I hear there are lots of jobs if a man is willing to work hard. I can herd sheep. I’ll move around a lot.”

Officer: “I may have to take this application under advisement. Your name again sir is?”

Applicant: “Avram, but you can call me Abraham.”

Fortunately for us, Abraham, our patriarchal ancestor, did not have to be processed through immigration in order to enter the Land of Canaan many years ago. As we are currently reading in our weekly Torah portions he heard God’s call to go forth, brought his wife and family and settled in a new land. As an immigrant, he had his difficulties and conflicts with those who were already there. We will read next week how when trying to purchase a burial cave for his wife, he has to pay a steep price, explaining to the locals, “ger v’toshav anochi- I am a Resident Alien among you.” I doubt that this term had the same meaning then as it does now. Nonetheless, he was clearly the outsider needing to establish his status. Even when there is plenty of room for everyone, there is a natural tendency to feel threatened by newcomers, sometimes those feelings are justifiable, but often, they are not.

Our country is facing a similar problem today. There are approximately 11-12 million undocumented individuals currently residing in the United States. The vast majority are good, hard working people, who simply want to earn enough to care for their families. They dream the same dreams as those of the immigrants who preceded them. We all know who they are and many of us have had personal contact with them in recent days. Nationally they are the people who harvest the food we eat, provide labor on our construction sites, pave our roads and work in a variety of stores and factories. Locally, they are the people who clean our homes, installed our cabinets, put sheetrock on our walls, tile on our floors and roofs over our heads.

The issues relating to immigrants are multi-faceted. We need these people to perform important functions within our economic system. Unfortunately many have entered the country illegally and even after having lived here for years, contributing to the economy, including paying various taxes, they are still illegal. Ironically, some pay Social Security taxes, but they are ineligible to receive Social Security.

Governments and employers have winked an eye to their presence. As a sub-group in our society, many immigrants are caught in a cycle of poverty and violence, particularly in major cities. They place additional pressure upon community social services and educational resources.

Those seeking to come here legally face multiple barriers to their entry. The process of receiving a visa can literally take years, often resulting in the separation of family members. And the actual number of visas available is inadequate to meet the need for workers.

From a humanitarian perspective these people are often oppressed either by those who bring them into the country or those who employ them in sub-standard working conditions. Thousands have died simply trying to enter the country. Not being under the umbrella of federal or state protection laws, they suffer in the field and the factories. One news segment covering this week’s California fires showed illegal migrant workers staying in the fields, lest they lose their jobs and hiding from police, lest they be deported.

On the one hand, we cannot open our borders to just anyone who wishes to enter. Post 9-11 security has us appropriately concerned about the possibility of terrorists entering our country. And there are those who believe that the answer to immigration problems is to simply build higher-tech fences and walls. Alternatively immigration has been and continues to be the lifeblood of this country. Did we not just elect the son of immigrants as our Governor? We must find a fair and equitable balance between the need to protect our borders and at the same time integrate as citizens those immigrants who need to come here, along with those whom we need.

For us as Jews, immigration is both a spiritual and historic issue. It is not a coincidence that Jewish poet Emma Lazarus penned the poem that is inscribed on the Statue of Liberty. “Give me your tired your poor, your huddled masses yearning to be free” is a fundamental expression of the American spirit and reflects the American Jewish experience.

Yet long before Emma Lazarus, our Torah taught us that we should “not oppress the “ger- the stranger, i.e. the immigrant,” for we know what it was like to have been a ger- a stranger in Egypt.” That sentiment and reminder is repeated numerous times in one form or another in the Torah. One of my rules about Torah study is to recognize that when a prohibition or exhortation for certain conduct is found, that means it was deemed necessary to respond to the way people were behaving. (You don’t install a traffic light where there is no traffic.)

Just as our ancestors may have forgotten what it was like to have been enslaved in Egypt, all too many of us have forgotten that once we were an immigrant people. In the 1800’s and early 20th century when most of our families arrived in America, we ran into a variety of barriers. Those who were already here resented the newcomers. It was an “us” vs. “them” mentality and we were “them.” This was not only an issue of Christian America not being open to Jews, but the first wave of Sephardic Jews not being happy about the arrival of the German Jews, then the Germans being resistant to the Eastern European Jews. We all too easily fall into the sin of xenophobia, the fear of others and their differences, the fear that they will upset the order of life as we know it.

At the same time we do not wish for others to take advantage of us. This Shabbat we read of the origin of the mitzvah of being hospitable to newcomers. There is a wonderful midrash that teaches when visitors come you should feed them choice plump fowl on the first day, then meat on the second day, fish on day three, dairy on day four and veggies on day five. In other words there are limits as to how far hospitality is required and this recognizes that when newcomers arrive it can be a drain upon the support system.

In fact from the opposite perspective the Talmud provides guidelines for those who move into a new town as to their communal responsibilities: If a person resides in a town for 30 days, he must give to the soup kitchen; after three months to the tsedakah collective; by six months, additionally to the clothing fund; after nine months to the burial society and at the end of twelve months to the repair the town walls. (Talmud Baba Batra 8a) Many immigrants legal and illegal are already meeting their societal responsibilities.

As with so many issues, there needs to be a balance between compassion and justice, an appropriate understanding of the conditions and realities of people’s lives  along with the need to comply and maintain the law. From the beginning our tradition recognized that tension. A midrash on creation itself compares it to a king who had some empty glasses: The King reasoned “If I pour hot water into them, they will burst; if cold, they will contract and snap.” What did the King do? He mixed hot and cold water and poured it into them and so they remained unbroken. Even so, said the Holy One, “if I create the world on the basis of mercy alone, its sins will be great; on the basis of judgment alone, the world cannot exist. Hence I will create it on the basis of judgment and mercy, and may it then stand!”

This principle of balancing judgment and mercy surely applies to the debate concerning immigration legislation. In the previous Congress attempts to amend the laws in a just way failed. Following national elections, there will be renewed activity to pass meaningful immigration law reform. Taking a cue from our national Reform movement’s Religious Action Center and a coming resolution that will be presented at our Biennial Convention in December, I believe that the following principles should be incorporated into whatever legislation is passed:

  1. Border protection policies that are consistent with American humanitarian values and effective against illegal migration, thereby allowing the authorities to carry out the critical task of identifying and preventing entry into the United States of terrorists and dangerous criminals;
  2. Opportunities for hard-working immigrants who are already contributing to this country to come out of the shadows, regularize their status upon satisfaction of reasonable criteria and, over time, pursue an option to become lawful permanent residents and eventually United States citizens;
  3. Reforms in our family-based immigration system to significantly reduce waiting times for separated families, who currently must wait many years, to be reunited with loved ones; and
  4. Legal avenues for workers and their families who wish to migrate to the U.S. to enter our country and work in a safe, legal, and orderly manner with their rights fully protected.

My friends let our voices be heard on this critical issue of our time. Shame on us, if we fall into the easy comfort of excluding those who rightfully have a place in our economy and society, failing to remember that once we were strangers in the land of Egypt. Long ago our ancestor Abraham went forth to a new land. We walk in his footsteps.


In preparing this sermon I benefited from the sermon “Give Me Your Tired, Your Poor” by Rabbi Norman Cohen of Bet Shalom Congregation , Minnetonka, MN, along with the URJ proposed resolution on Comprehensive Immigration Reform and  a position paper from the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism.

Passover And The Presidential Race

April 18, 2008

By Rabbi Robert H. Loewy

At Purim time we had lots of fun this year. In our Purim spiel, with tongues firmly planted in cheek we connected Esther with Clinton, Obama with Haman, Mordecai with Huckabee, and Achashveros with McCain. There were many humorous parallels, none of which corresponded to full reality.

So, here we are at Passover and perhaps we can find more comparisons. How about Moses Obama- a young man willing to make change, though he certainly has no speech impediment. Then we have Miriam Clinton- the woman previously behind the scenes, who asserts herself on various occasions and Aaron McCain- the elder statesman. Again my analogies are not meant to be anything other than fun. So you can transform Pharaoh into whichever candidate you do not like.

Passover is our most contemporary holiday. Our Haggadah has always been a work in progress. It was established by the rabbis of the Talmud, but is always evolving. There are lots of activities for children with the search for the afikomen, four questions, lots of songs and frogs jumping all over. To whatever extent that you are able, as you sit around your seder table I encourage dialogue on contemporary issues, while reflecting on ancient themes. With a presidential campaign raging, once the slogans and pettiness are put aside, our values suggest some very serious issues. I hope that the candidates will address them, and we must do the same. Let’s look at three teachings:

We begin our seder with the invitation: “Let all who are hungry come and eat.” Poverty and hunger are real in America. There needs to be a concerted effort on behalf of  the less fortunate of our society. While the middle class cannot be ignored, Jewish tradition historically understood the concept of communal responsibility for those falling through the cracks. As I shared in this week’s e-mail message, by way of our Synaplex program last Shabbat, we provided food for three different groups in our community, who are hungry. Hopefully you regularly bring food to our Food Bank. Let us think about them all, raise our sensitivity and find ways to make a difference.

The Egyptians are not the only ones who have experienced plagues. Those who have been with me for seders know that I regularly ask people to mention contemporary issues plaguing us. We will often hear: Violence, FEMA, insurance companies, lice, substance abuse, cancer and more.

Perhaps one of the greatest contemporary plagues is our concern for the environment, including the greenhouse effect, global warming and diminishing natural resources. This is a national, even international issue, which needs to be addressed. I do not pretend to understand it all. Science was never my best subject. However there are enough scientists out there today, who are sounding alarms that we cannot ignore the issue.

As opposed to being overwhelmed by global responses, we can think locally. At my home I am using those new light bulbs. I actually think my electric bills are down a little. I bring my own reusable grocery bags to the supermarket as I of course use scrip for my purchases. I am looking forward to the return of recycling. Though I still have my gas guzzlers in the driveway, I am contemplating changes.

I would like to see this congregation become more “green.” Though I am not sure exactly what that means, I have raised the issue at the board level. I can’t say there was a resounding response of support. This can include our being more conscious of recycling paper and other items, using real dishes and silverware as opposed to disposable. We might even want to consider the feasibility of solar panels on our roof for electricity. Perhaps someone present tonight wants to take the lead in exploring possibilities. Of course we want it to be cost effective, which is to say it should not cost us more. Then again, can we afford the ultimate price that looms? Sitting around your seder table, explore your thoughts, share green ideas for our homes and our synagogue home.

The major theme of Passover is “From Slavery To Freedom.” We read in the Haggadah, “In every generation a person is obligated to see him/herself as bring freed from Egypt.” We Jews have a heritage of enslavement, discrimination and persecution which colors how we look at the world. Grounded in our faith we cry out against events in Sudan and Darfur, where tribes are being exterminated, families brutalized and modern slavery continues. In a global world, we cannot stand idly by while our neighbors bleed.

Yet, we are not the only people to have experienced slavery and oppression in this country. Last month Presidential Candidate Barak Obama addressed the issue of race in America. Just as our experience informs who we are as a community, I believe that he eloquently presented a message that deserves our attention. This should not be perceived as an endorsement on my part, but rather an appreciation of the issue that he has raised.

Yes, it was a political speech, as he attempted to differentiate himself from his Pastor, Rev. Wright, whose words at times have been inflammatory. It would have been politically expedient for Obama to simply repudiate the man, but instead he embraced his Pastor, but disagreed with some of his message. As a clergyman I can certainly identify with that. After almost 25 years as your rabbi, I imagine that I have said a great deal from this pulpit with which you disagree, taken positions you find abhorrent, but you know my heart. You know the context of my life and the ultimate values upon which I base my views, and you are still here. Senator Obama has done the same with his Pastor.

However, he has accomplished more than that, utilizing the opportunity to take a politically dangerous position. Though of mixed racial heritage, he clearly identified himself as a black man, an African American. That should be irrelevant in this day and age, but we know that it is not. And it is likely an obstacle to his election. Still he tackled the issue of race in America in a courageous way.

Part of his approach, inspired by his Pastor was based in faith, just as ours is. Describing the first time he went to his church he writes: “People began to shout, to rise from their seats and clap and cry out, a forceful wind carrying the reverend’s voice up to the rafters… And in that single note- hope!- I heard something else at the foot of the cross, inside the thousands of churches across the city, I imagined the stories of ordinary black people merging with the stories of David and Goliath, Moses and Pharaoh, the Christians in the Lion’s Den, Ezekiel’s field of dry bones. These stories- of survival, and freedom and hope- became our story, my story; the blood that spilled was our blood, the tears our tears; … the stories and songs gave us a means to reclaim memories that we didn’t need to feel shame about… memories that all people might study and cherish- and with which we could start to rebuild.”

Just as our Jewish narrative and this synagogue shape our members, his minister and his church have contributed to who he is as a man and as a clergyman; I can certainly appreciate that. He of course went on to discuss race in this country, which hopefully will be a catalyst for a higher level of dialogue. Racial divisions in this land continue to be a major concern. The legacy of segregated schools is inferior schools for African Americans. The legacy of discrimination in housing and jobs is poverty and the major income gap between blacks and whites. The legacy of the past has led to impoverished African-American neighborhoods, violence and the erosion of the black family. We certainly are aware of this in New Orleans and it is a reality throughout America.

Rev. Wright has been fighting these forces that have been putting down his community for more than a generation. Senator Obama correctly points out that part of his minister’s failure of vision is that he dwells in the past: “as if our society was static; as if no progress has been made; as if this country- a country that made it possible for one of his own members to run for the highest office in the land and build a coalition of white and black; Latino and Asian, rich and poor, young and old- is still irrevocably bound to the tragic past. But what we know- what we have seen- is that America can change. That is the true genius of the nation. What we have already achieved gives us hope- the audacity to hope- for what we can and must achieve tomorrow.”

Is that not the essential message of Passover that we will observe tomorrow night? As you sit around your seder tables, I urge that you take your time; think about the words you are saying; reflect on their meaning. Find the message of hope and how we can make a difference for those who are hungry, how to eradicate the challenges that plague us and truly identify with the enslaved.

In this way our Pesach will be truly meaningful.


Parting The Waters

January 18, 2008

By Rabbi Robert H. Loewy

A little boy came home from religious school one Sunday and his dutiful parents asked him what he learned. With great excitement he told them about the story of Moses and the Israelites and their escape from Egypt. “It seems,” he said, “that the Egyptians launched a direct assault upon the Israelites with tanks, troops and artillery, as the Israelites tried to flee Egypt. The Jews counter-attacked with swarming aircraft and cluster bombs. They then used huge amphibious vehicles to cross the Red Sea and blew them up as the Egyptians pursued, drowning the enemy in the sea.”

Upon hearing this version of history, they suspiciously asked if that is really what the teacher taught? The child hung his head and took a deep breath and responded: “Not really! But if I told you what she really said, you would never believe it!”

This is the week that as part of our regular cycle of Torah reading we review the incredible story of the exodus from Egypt, including the final plague on the first born, Pharaoh’s decision to relent and then his change of heart, resulting in his pursuit of the Israelites into the parted Sea and their demise in the waters. We have been recounting this story for thousands of years, not only once a year in its regular sequence and again at Passover, but three times a day in our worship service. When we sing “Mi Chamocha-Who is like You O God,” this comes from the climax of the tale as we exult over our victory.

Why is it that we repeat this particular story continuously and in a variety of times and occasions? First is in order to remember our history. While we are comfortable and prosperous in our current situation, it was not always thus. Recalling history provides us  the opportunity to appreciate where we are today and not take our status of freedom for granted.

Additionally, this episode is embedded with a variety of values and teachings basic to our religious tradition. When Moses challenges Pharaoh, this is the imperative to speak truth to power, the idea that we cannot be silent in the face of injustice. The whole story is premised upon faith with God. It is that faith which serves as an underpinning for  our ancestors. And clearly one of the most prominent messages is that no person should be a slave; no person should be oppressed. It is not a coincidence that one of the most repeated phrases in the Torah is the idea that we should not oppress the stranger, for once we were strangers in the land of Egypt. Whether we have suffered in our day or not, we identify with all who oppressed based on a reinforced memory through our stories.

One feature about this particular story as opposed to others is that at the end we win! There are all too many tales which describe our oppression, inquisition, expulsion and death. With the defeat of the Egyptians, we celebrate and feel good about who we are and what we have accomplished with God’s help.

And there are heroes galore to admire: It starts with the famous trio of Moses, Aaron and Miriam. These are the siblings who guaranteed the survival first of Moses from birth and then the Jewish people. Not as well known is Nachshon ben Aminadab of the tribe of Judah. When God directs Moses to tell the people to march into the sea, there is serious hesitation as one might expect. It was Nachshon who literally and faithfully took the plunge into the waters. Only after his brave act did the waters part. We all need heroes worthy of emulation.

By retelling the tale of the exodus from Egypt, we provide hope for the future. Initially our plight seemed overwhelming, but we prevailed. Theologically, we speak of redemption. Once we were slaves and then we were free. Yet, we know that the story is not complete, we are still completing it. We look forward to ultimate redemption, which we equate with freedom, redemption for us and all people.

Indeed, we are blessed with a tradition, rich in stories. Each community has its stories, its foundation myths, whether based in fact or legend, which play a similar role for them and their journey.

I experienced another such story recently, by viewing the film, “The Great Debaters.” Starring and directed by Denzel Washington, it is a drama based on the true story of Melvin B. Tolson, a professor at all black Wiley College in Marshall, Texas in 1935. He inspired his students to form a debate team, which in the film went on to challenge and triumph over Harvard, a black school over a white. It was one small step on the road to dignity and freedom for African Americans, a road that included the obstacles of bigotry, oppression, attacks and discrimination. It is a fictionalized version of a real event. In truth the team did defeat the reigning national debate champs, the University of Southern California, not Harvard, but they did not officially defeat them, since at the time they were not recognized as a real team. Blacks were not included until after World War II. However, actual people were depicted. One in particular was James Farmer Jr., who later went on to head CORE, the Congress of Racial Equality. I distinctly remember his role in the Civil Rights Movement and hearing him speak, the last time being at the anniversary memorial for the three slain civil rights workers in Mississippi.

Sitting in the theater that day, I kept repeating to myself, “What a great story!” It was an OK movie, but a great story for African Americans fulfilling the role of what stories do for a community. And it had an important message for all of us. As Jews we have a 2000 year head start on stories to bring us together, the African American Community is comparatively just developing theirs.

These include slavery stories chronicling how people came to these shores and what they did and contributed upon their arrival. There are the tales of heroism and bravery from the Civil rights movement, as well as the role that African Americans have fulfilled in the wars of this country, the Tuskeegee Fly Boys just being one of them.

Jews have been observing holidays that mark our stories for centuries. The African American community is evolving their sacred times. Kwanza, recently passed, links them to their African roots and values from the past for the present. And their community is coming to appreciate many heroes, men and women to remember, honor and emulate: Booker T. Washington, George Washington Carver, Rosa Parks, Thurgood Marshall, Shirley Chisholm, Michael Jordan, Oprah Winfrey and now Barak Obama. Of course, this past Tuesday was the birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King with the national holiday in his honor and memory this coming Monday. He is at the top of the current list of modern heroes. It is no wonder that there was upset with even the perception that his star might be diminished by comments from Hillary Clinton. Though I am convinced she meant no disrespect, but was speaking historically, still there is great sensitivity. Just as we Jews are continually alert to the slightest affront to Jews and Judaism, so too the African American community has every right to be. Racism continues to be alive and strong in America today.

We have certainly seen it here in our home State of Louisiana. The noose is a powerful symbol of hate and intimidation rooted in a history that included lynchings of blacks by white. Whether on a tree outside of a school in Jena or displayed in a public office in Jefferson Parish, it is a not so subtle message. Even an offhand link of the word “lynching” with Tiger Woods by a Golf Network reporter sets off alarms. Many have of course argued that much of the delay in responding to the Katrina catastrophe was the result of racist attitudes, placing the value of black lives at a lower priority.

In some cases racism results in discriminatory action, which in this day and age is illegal. But it also manifests itself in attitudes. Not long ago I was sitting in a barbershop, when the banter between the barber and another customer included a suggestion that he should have had his “Closed” sign up a few minutes earlier when an African American patron had entered. “You should have told him you don’t cut nappy hair.” As you can imagine I was not very comfortable. Then someone launched into what was sure to be a racist joke… “A colored man walked into a shop.. at which point I stood up and interrupted with…. when he saw the rabbi, who wasn’t going to laugh at the joke.” An awkward silence ensued, but they got the point.

Three weeks ago we must have had about 15 college students staying at our home over New Years. They celebrated New Years Eve in the Quarter. Two of them, unable to find a regular cab to bring them back to our house, wound up taking a ride with a random man, who offered to drive them for a fee, not a brilliant idea of course in the light of day. While telling everyone how they stupidly risked their lives getting into this car with a black guy, my daughter questioned, what difference did it make that he was black? It didn’t. Had it been a random white guy, would they have been any less foolish? Prejudice can be expressed in subtle ways.

We are living in historic times with the campaign of Barak Obama for the White House, the first African American with a legitimate prospect for victory. Many fear racism could block that reality. In the New Hampshire primary Obama entered election day with a huge lead in the polls, only to see victory by Hillary Clinton. We all know that the only poll that counts is an actual election. However it is disturbing to read that many experts believe that when responding to pollsters people will provide what they intellectually believe is the politically correct unbiased response, but when actually voting allow their bias to have sway. Political observers suggest that Bobby Jindal’s loss to Kathleen Blanco four years ago can be attributed to the fact that many voters were opposed to a candidate of color. I can only hope that his recent election as Governor is an indicator that the electorate is ready to vote based on quality of candidates, not the color of their skin.

Fifty years ago speaking to a Jewish audience Dr. Martin Luther King wrote: “My people were brought to America in chains. Your people were driven here to escape the chains fashioned for them in Europe. Our unity is born of our common struggle for centuries, not only to rid ourselves of bondage, but to make oppression of any people by others an impossibility.”

May his words be our resolve as we continue to make the waters part for all to be redeemed and free.


Ishmael And Isaac: Struggling Brothers

November 9, 2007

By Rabbi Robert H. Loewy


Like many of you, I have a brother. And like many of you there have been times, when the two of us have not been on the best of terms. Fortunately, most of those occurred when we were young children, so that today we are close. He lives outside of Hartford, CT and is a big fan of University of Connecticut sports. Earlier this week he e-mailed me with excitement as the Sugar Bowl Committee was actually scouting out the Connecticut Huskies to possibly play here on New Year’s Day. Somehow, I don’t see an LSU/Connecticut game in the near future, but stranger events have happened. If that transpires, we will have to clash once again.

This week’s Torah portion includes the classic brother conflict between Jacob and Esau, but even before that was the rift involving Isaac and Ishmael. Both saw themselves as the rightful heirs of the Abrahamic tradition, but it was Isaac according to our faith who was the ultimate carrier of the covenant. However, for Islam it was Ishmael’s descendant, Muhammed, who would be God’s most important prophet.

Next Sunday, November 18 from 1:00 to 5:30 will be an historic gathering in our community, when Jews, Christians, Muslims and members of the Bahai faith, all of whom are linked to Abraham, will come together for study and fellowship. This is not the first program of this kind. The “Festival of Abraham,” as it is called, has convened on four previous occasions, but always in a neutral, university setting. This time, we will meet at the Muslim Academy in Gretna. As our Muslim neighbors open their doors to us, I believe it is time for us to open our minds and hearts to them, but there are a number of obstacles in our way.

First is our prejudice and fear. As Jews, our primary link to Muslims is that they want to destroy Israel. That made them our enemy. U.S. troops have been battling Muslim soldiers on and off since the First Gulf War. Then along comes 9/11 and the entire country thinks of them as the enemy. While we cannot dismiss a threat to our nation that is posed by Muslim supporters of Osama Bin Laden, or the violent words of Iranian leaders, we cannot assume that the entire Muslim population of America, estimated to be somewhere between 2.8 and 6 million people, is in agreement and/or out to destroy us.

The vast majority of Muslims, one of the newest and fastest growing populations in America, follow in the footsteps of other immigrant groups who went before them. Based upon a Pew Research Center study we glean that they are here to work hard and succeed financially. They are happy in their communities and recognize the need to adapt to American customs and values, while maintaining their faith. This should all sound very familiar to us.

My guess is that many of us have Muslim friends or acquaintances. They are our doctors and cab drivers, professors and store clerks, neighbors and classmates. They are our fellow citizens.

Yet especially following 9/11 they have been subject to discrimination, slander and profiling. How embarrassing and disrespectful it was when Keith Ellison was elected to Congress and there was an outcry about him being sworn in using the Qu’ran! Muslims have had to endure numerous indignities and challenges from both law enforcement and the general public.

How many of us see Arabs or Muslims boarding a plane or walking down the street with a long coat and think to ourselves that they might be terrorists? Do we refrain from hiring them in our businesses, bringing them in as consultants, connecting with them as possible friends? Our fear is real, but we cannot allow our prejudices to undermine our American spirit of fair play and equality. “Not all Muslims are terrorists, even IF most terrorists are Muslims, but which clause in that statement shall we emphasize as we live our lives?” (Rabbi Howard O. Laibson)

The second obstacle is our ignorance. What do we really know about Islam as a religion? I learned a great deal simply preparing this sermon. Upon examination, you will find many similarities to Judaism. Islam is based on six basic articles of faith.

For starters, Muslims, which is the term for those who practice the religion of Islam and means “those who submit to God,” believe in Allah, the Arabic term of the same one God, we call Adonai or Elohim. As is often taught in Judaism, Allah is eternal, omniscient and omnipotent, and Allah alone created the universe. Allah has no body and is just, rewarding the righteous and punishing the wicked, but balanced by mercy.

Assisting Allah are angels, who interact with human lives. They consist of light and have a variety of roles that they play on earth. Of note is that each person has two angels who follow you. One records your deeds of goodness and the other your sins.

Four books are holy to Islam: the Torah, Psalms, the Gospel of Jesus Christ and the Qur’an. The last is the most significant. It is the word of God spoken by the angel Gabriel to the prophet Muhammad It was in oral form during the life of Muhammad and written down following his death. It is infallible and without error.

Muhammad is the last and greatest of Allah’s messengers or prophets. Preceding him were Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses, David and Jesus, as well as others. Interestingly, often when Muslims mention Muhammad, they immediately say, “peace be unto him,” in the same way that we use the expression, “alav hashalom,” when referring to one who has died, which means the same.

Fifth is the belief in afterlife, which includes resurrection and judgment. Those who have followed Allah and Muhammad will go to heaven; those who did not, go you know where.

Last is the belief in predestination. Allah determines what will happen to us, but this does not mean that our free will is taken away. Rabbi Akiba said the same.

With this is as the basis of belief, a Moslem fulfills his/her duties through publicly testifying with the words: “There is no God but Allah, and Muhammad is the Prophet of Allah.” Muslims pray five times a day in the direction of Mecca. They are required to give at least 2.5% of their income to the needy, fast during the month of Ramadan and at least once make a pilgrimage to Mecca.

Just as in Judaism and Christianity, there are a variety of expressions of Islam. As we know from the news, one sect does not readily recognize the other as fellow Muslims and open conflict ensues. With perhaps as many as 1.1 billion Muslims in the world, Sunni are the largest with 940 million followers.

They are considered the mainstream traditionalists who are linked to Muhammad’s primary successor. They have been comfortable pursuing their faith and adapting to secular society.

The Shia or Shiites followed a different successor to Muhammad with approximately 120 million followers throughout the world. Iraq is divided between majority Sunni and large minority Shia, which accounts for much of the ongoing warfare, while Iran is predominantly Shia, supporting the minority in Iraq. Sunni is also the majority in Israel, Jordan, Syria and Egypt.

While certainly there are aspects of Islam that are problematic for us as Jews, there is much in Islam that is compatible with Judaism and we can admire. Historically there have been periods when Jews and Muslims lived alongside one another and thrived, most prominently during the 9th – 11th centuries in Babylonia and the Golden Age of Spain. However, there have also been moments when we suffered under Islamic oppression. There is much more for us to learn.

The final obstacle to opening ourselves to connecting with the Muslim community is our love for Israel. When we consider the history of the modern state, some feel it is an act of disloyalty to even be civil to those perceived as Israel’s enemies. Yet without dialogue there is not even a chance for peace. Earlier this year, Rabbi Eric Yoffie, the President of our Union for Reform Judaism, spoke to the Annual Convention of the Islamic Society of North America, the largest organization of Muslims in the United States.

Eric is not one who minces his words. He was both tactful and direct. Addressing the issues of the Middle East he made it unequivocally clear that American Jews have “an unshakable commitment to the State of Israel.” At the same time he acknowledged “the ties of Muslim Americans and Arab Americans to the Palestinian people.” He then outlined his vision of a fair and lasting peace by saying:

“For peace to be achieved, territorial compromise will be required of Israel. Unconditional acceptance of Israel as a Jewish State will be required of the Palestinians. Jews will need to accept the reality of Palestinian suffering, and understand that without dignity for the Palestinians, there can be no dignity for Israel. Muslims will need to accept the reality of Israeli vulnerability, including the vulnerability of that tiny nation’s ever-threatened borders.”

To reach these goals he called upon Jews and Muslims alike to embrace three ideals. First is to support our government’s attempts to bring about a fair settlement. We will be hearing much more about this in coming days with a peace conference scheduled but not absolutely confirmed to take place in Annapolis.

Second is the idea that the conflict between Israel and her neighbors needs to be approached as a political issue primarily and not a religious one. Judaism is certainly not at war with Islam and we need to urge our Muslim brothers and sisters to approach us in a similar way. All too many Muslim extremists, as well as some Jewish extremists advocate for Holy War, as opposed to acknowledging a conflict over land and water. If their will prevails, all is lost.

Lastly Rabbi Yoffie calls for both communities to categorically reject acts of terrorism, where innocent men, women and children are murdered in the name of God. He teaches,

“You cannot honor a religion of peace through violence; you cannot honor God if you do not honor the image of God in every human being; and you cannot get to heaven by creating hell on earth.”

At the upcoming convention of our Reform movement, the leader of the Islamic Society will come to speak to us, an historic first. We can only hope that his words will similarly build bridges of respect and understanding, and that he will share those words not only with us, but his community as well. Dialogue requires real partners.

I am not so naïve to believe that all we have to do is sit down and meet with others with peace and harmony resulting between our two communities. There are serious long term issues that must be addressed, trust to be established, relationships created. As Rabbi Yoffie concluded his comments, so will I: “Interconnected since the time of Abraham, thrust into each other’s lives by history and fate, and living in a global world, what choice do we really have? Surely here, in America, as Muslim and Jew, we have a unique opportunity to reclaim our common heritage and to find a new way and a common path. Brothers and sisters, let us begin.”

Ken yehi ratson… May this be God’s will and our resolve.



This sermon benefited by the writing of Rabbi Eric Yoffie and his “remarks to the Islamic Society of North America,” Rabbi Howard O. Laibson’s September 12, 2007 sermon, “Peace Between Cousins: Muslims and Jews in America,” and internet research on Islam   and

Explaining A Stereotype: Jews And Money Lending

May 16, 2008

By Rabbi Robert H. Loewy


All of us have heard the comments: references to “rich Jews” or “cheap Jews.” Sometimes we hear the expression “Shylocks,” when describing someone who is a loan shark and occasionally even the verb to “Jew down” in lieu of haggling. Then there are all the jokes about Jews and money. Sometimes we even tell them ourselves. Please know, they are NOT funny.

Last year I was teaching a small class of social work students, none of whom were Jewish, about how to be sensitive to the future Jewish clients they might be serving. I began by asking the group what kinds of personal connections they had had with Jews. One student mentioned a boyhood friend and being in his home for Jewish holidays. The second mentioned her professor at LSU. The third said it was his stockbroker. Naively I at first thought it was odd that a social work student would have a stock broker, then realized it was his attempt at humor. It took a while for him to realize that it was not humorous at all.

So from where do these negative stereotypes come? Some of it actually starts with Torah, evolves into Jewish law and needs to be seen in the context of history.

This week’s portion, Behar, includes laws relating to the Sabbatical and jubilee year. On those years, the land is returned to its original owners and there are warnings about not taking advantage of others when conducting business transactions related to the Sabbatical. There are specific references to making loans with and without interest. We read in Leviticus 25:35 “If your kin, (achicha) being in straits, comes under your authority…. Do not exact neshech-advanced or tarbit- accrued interest… Do not lend your money at advanced interest, nor give your food at accrued interest.”

This text raises questions. First is the reference to Achicha- your kinsman. What about those who are not your kinsman? We will see. What is meant by these terms for interest: Neshech and Tarbit/Marbit. Neshech is related to the word “to bite,” so when borrowing with interest involved, you are putting the bite on someone or taking a bite out in advance. This is of course from the perspective of the borrower. Marbit is connected with word for “increase,” since interest increases the cost of what is borrowed.

Some say the terms are interchangeable. Others believe that Neshech is for payment with silver or a cash exchange, while Marbit is a demand for payment in food products. Keep in mind that all of this is in the context of an agricultural society during a Sabbatical year.

In the Book of Deuteronomy 23:20, there is further discussion about to whom you can and cannot make loans. We learn that you shall not take Neshech (put the bite on) your kinsman, whether regarding food or silver/money. You shall not take any form of interest. But it is different for the Nochri- the foreigner, the non-community member. From him you can take interest.

This is seemingly discriminatory, but we have to keep in mind the context of who was the Nochri as opposed to Achicha. Achicha-kinsman was the person you knew and saw. He was part of your community and there were communal obligations towards the individual in your town. The Nochri- foreigner was transient, likely in the community to do business and then move on. He borrows in order to invest in merchandise and make a profit. In the Torah time there was no moral imperative to remit loans or forgo interest for the Nochri. This was business, not a matter of need. In the context of the Ancient Near East, the same applied for Jews doing business outside of their home territory. Similarly, they would be charged interest.

Discussion continued in Talmudic times about making loans for interest and generally the rabbis followed the lines of Torah. Some forbade charging interest to the Nochri as well as the kinsman. It was for them a matter of being fair. As a proof text they would quote the Psalm verse: “Who may ascend the mountain of the Lord, Who may stand in God’s holy place? Those with clean hands” which meant one who did not charge interest.

However, most of the rabbinic authorities permitted making loans with interest as a Hetter Iska, a permissible business matter. However as opposed to seeing the making of loans as taking advantage of someone, there is a great deal of discussion about how this is to be avoided. There is even a specific rate of interest considered permissible, but beyond which it is inappropriate. You shall not oppress means taking more than 1/6 of interest on a transaction. 16% is higher than some charge cards, but lower than others.

The real stereotype develops during the Medievil Period of the 12th and 13th century among Ashkenazic Jews of Germany, France and England. As the European economies expanded, capital was needed for business ventures with a money economy evolving. Jews were forced out of many trades by the guild system. There were Christian money lenders, such as the House of Lombard in Italy. But since Jews were not restricted by Catholic Church strictures they filled a necessary role in society. This was further complicated by the secular rulers who encouraged Jews to lend money, since they received a tax or fee on the income Jews raised. Just as today, the loan business entailed risk. These were not charitable loans, but investment loans, so people could make money, part of the cost of doing business. It can also be mentioned that the nobility also employed Jews as tax collectors, another popular occupation.

So, why the antipathy towards Jews as money lenders? If you think about it, everyone loves to receive their loans, being able to purchase your house, buy the car or start your business, but no one really likes to pay up, to have to meet the interest charges. And then come the problems when you default on the loan. We think of the cruel bank, the hard hearted moneylender who took advantage of you. Of course no one asked you to take out the loan in the first place, but when it’s due there is antipathy. People delude themselves into thinking that once they have money loaned to them it is theirs.

Perhaps you recall your High School English class when you read the Merchant of Venice. This evolved into Shakespeare’s version of the stereotypical moneylender, Shylock, who wants his pound of flesh, when of course the story is much more complicated than that.

With modernity we have the evolution in the 1800s of the major Jewish investment banks, the Rothschilds in Europe and a variety of families in the United States.  Yes, the American Jewish community today is relatively affluent. We are not nearly as wealthy as some like to think, but we are certainly in a stronger financial position than many others. Some of the stereotypes about us all go back to Torah. We continue to believe and act upon the idea that our community has special obligations to our kin. Post Katrina in New Orleans we re-established an old institution, the Free Loan Society within the community for the needy. In addition we create a variety of organizations to assist our own, but none of that refers to business dealings, only situations of need.

Many of you have heard the joke about the difference between Jews and Non-Jews. “Non-Jews pay retail.” This relates to times past, not so much the present, when Jews were the shopkeepers and store owners. Everyone was family; all were related and it was understood that you had a responsibility to your kin. Everyone else pays retail and everyone else pays interest.

I think that we as a Jewish community can be rightly proud of our reputation as business people. Our success has been remarkable and exemplary. In the process we have extended ourselves in special relations with our kin. At the same time, we certainly have been caring and giving to all in need. How many stories have I heard of the Jewish shopkeeper who gave away his wares or extended credit, ran a tab! I believe that as we have become integrated into a larger society, we look upon everyone as our kinsman, our brothers. This is one of the explanations for the disproportionate level of Jewish giving to all philanthropy. The connection between being Jewish and how we use our wealth is really a point of pride, not shame. It all starts with Torah.


Tim Russert Remembered – Father’s Day

June 13, 2008

By Rabbi Robert H. Loewy

Early this afternoon many of you probably heard that NBC journalist Tim Russert

died of a heart attack in Washington at the age of 58. I did not know him personally, but like many, I felt as if I did. He was in my home regularly. I appreciated his journalistic skill and seeming integrity. He had a direct style of questioning, which was respectful, but also very effective. Many of us looked forward to his analysis of the presidential campaign. From what I have now heard, I gather that not only was he an outstanding journalist, but a fine human being. He is certainly someone who will be sorely missed.

I’m not sure why I feel his death so deeply as I do. Perhaps it is his age, so close to my own or more likely due to the losses in our own family in recent days. I found myself very teary as his colleagues paid tribute to him on the nightly news. Then, I remembered that in August of 2006, I gave a sermon based upon a book he wrote and thought that instead of what I had originally prepared for this evening, I would reprise my earlier work. The topic was fathers, an appropriate subject this weekend. So, it is both in memory of Tim Russert, and also in honor of all the Fathers.

In the spring of 2004, Tim Russert, NBC journalist, best known for his interviews on “Meet the Press”, wrote a book entitled, “Big Russ and Me.” It details his relationship with his father, a sanitation worker from Buffalo, New York. As a result of that book, he received hundreds of letters from men and women telling their stories. And so he collected them into a second volume: “Wisdom of Our Fathers- Lessons and Letters from Daughters and Sons.” As parents we communicate what is important to our children knowingly and unknowingly, through our words and our deeds. I will share a few as these anecdotes that speak to us all and go beyond the parent/child relationship.

The first involves a young man, who unfortunately received a facial scar as the victim of a violent crime. He confided to his therapist that every time he shaved and saw that scar, it triggered painful memories. The therapist asked him to change his frame of reference and asked him if he ever watched his father shave. The young man shared how as a child he would watch his Dad and occasionally his Dad would put shaving cream on his face and “shave” him. The counselor urged him to bring up that memory each time he shaved instead of how he was scarred, to which the young man wrote: “Precious memories are made in an instant and last forever. I am so thankful that my Dad had the patience back then to let me ‘shave’.” My comment is simple enough. We never know when we make a memory. The most insignificant act can make a difference.

A second story teaches us that the behavior we model can teach more than many words. In 1990 a father and young son, both of whom were football fanatics had four tickets for the NFC Playoff Game between the New York Giants and the San Francisco 49ers. They went to the game planning to sell the extra two. Arriving early, they enjoyed a tailgating experience with at least 25 people trying to buy the tickets, but his father did not sell them. The boy figured his father was holding out for a higher price closer to game time. As they approached the gate to enter, he observed his father scanning the crowd of would-be buyers. To his amazement he witnessed his father approach another obvious father with his young son and sold those tickets at face value. Years later the son writes: “I did learn something that day- something about having principles and doing what is right. I know today that my father got more enjoyment out of seeing that father and son watch the game right next to us than if he had sold each ticket for a small fortune. In doing so, he taught me a lesson I will never forget.” Indeed there are some moments that are more precious than thousands of dollars.

Of course parenting involves the mindset that there are teachable moments upon which we must seize. One Sunday morning a father and son were walking together in New York City, when they passed in front of Riverside Funeral Home, one of the major Jewish funeral homes in the City. They stopped for a moment, interrupted what they had been talking about and the father asked his son what time it was and what did he see? “It’s 10:30 and I see lots of people walking into the building.” They continued their conversation, but the boy realized they had not moved.  A little later, his father again asked the same questions. “What time is it and what do you see?” He responded, “10:50 and I see people leaving the building.”

The boy was confused as his father explained, when someone dies, there is a funeral which last 20 minutes, to which the boy asked, “Why are you telling me this, I am only 11?” The father responded, “Because I hope you will live a long and productive life, that you will be aware of your surroundings, that you will stay out of trouble, and that you will be thoughtful and cautious. And above all, that you will always know in the back of your mind that someday your entire life will be summed up in twenty minutes.” We each need a measure of humility as we approach life. We are all part of a much bigger picture and contribute our part to the world.

We can choose how to approach life and its challenges. The final story is illustrative of this point. An 85 year old man was stricken with cancer. He instructed his doctors that he wanted to do all that was possible to fight the disease. One day while sitting at the hospital with his daughter waiting for some blood work, he turned to her and said: “You know, I’ve had a very good life. True I was in a concentration camp for five years and lost my first wife and child, but all in all, I’ve had a very happy life.” To which his daughter wrote: “What could I say? He did have a happy life, because he believed he did. I put my hand on his and we waited quietly together.”

It was the Jewish psychologist, Viktor Frankel, a survivor himself, who wrote about how it is up to us to deal with adversity. Horrible moments may come into our lives, but it is our choice as to how we will deal with them. Certainly that is a precious insight for us all.

One last word… In the introduction to his book, Tim Russert addresses his own son, who is heading off to college for the first time and as we now have learned graduated from Boston College this past month. His parting words to him as he went off to college were. “Study hard. Laugh often. Keep your honor.” Tim Russert did just that. That too is part of his legacy to us on this Father’s Day weekend.