Category Archives: Jewish Holidays

The Serious Side Of Purim

February 26, 2010

By Rabbi Robert H. Loewy

Let’s play a word association game. I say one word and feel free to call out the first thought that comes to your mind: Purim..… grogger…. Hamantashchen….., megillah….. spiel….., drinking….. adloyadah…. costumes… Clearly there are lots of positive, fun connections with our Jewish holiday of Purim, which begins tomorrow night and will be celebrated Sunday morning at 10:30 with the Megillah reading and our own version of Purim Idol.

I have some wonderful memories of Purim. It starts in my childhood, as it does for many of you. I recall Megillah readings and the first Purim spiel in which I performed: West Side Shushan- “When you’re a Jew, you’re a Jew all the way, from your first Bar’chu to your last dying day.” As a student in Israel, the whole city of Jerusalem celebrated with an odd custom of patishim- little plastic hammers. You walk through the city and gently bop people on the heads. As a rabbi over the years, some of my most inspiring moments have come dressed in a variety of costumes: Incredible Hulk Haman, The Wizard of Shushan, Darth Haman and too many times in drag as either Esther or Vashti to the chagrin of my children. Purim is fun for all ages.

But only in New Orleans can one teach about Purim by referring to it as akin to Mardi Gras. Think about it: Costumes, drinking, the sanctioned breaking of all sorts of social norms, parades and more. There is another level upon which it can be compared. Mardi Gras is an unofficial, unauthorized response to the serious time of Lent, a last bash before dealing with issues of denial, repentance, death and resurrection. In a similar way, Purim is a communally blessed loosening of social norms, but also in response to some serious concerns. Before we have all the fun on Sunday, let’s spend a few minutes considering the more profound aspects of the day.

We begin by examining how we as Jews function in a non-Jewish society. In the Purim story, the locale is Persia. Jews were exiled from Judah to Babylonia and then migrated to Persia as the Persians took over Babylonia. Mordecai is described as having arrived in that fashion, as well as his ward, Esther. Their status in Persian society was ambiguous. They were treated fairly and based upon the fact that Mordecai seems to be highly positioned, they must have had access to power. He is later described as one of the King’s courtiers. Still, when it came time for Esther to be a potential Queen, we read: “Esther did not reveal her people or her kindred, for Mordecai had told her not to reveal it.” (Esther 2:10)

What is going on here and how does this resonate with us? Historically we recognize that in the past prejudice towards Jews existed, but many believed that if we blend in like all others, maybe we will go unnoticed. This was true in 19th century American history as my ancestors, the German Jews, wanted to be like everyone else. People changed names to be less identifiable or gave children good American names. For example one wealthy German Jew in the 1870s named his first son George Washington….. Seligman; the second was Thomas Jefferson….. Seligman, but then came the third son. He was all set to name him Abraham Lincoln Seligman, but decided not to do so. “Abraham” was too Jewish sounding.

Though we live in a time of great acceptance as Jews, there are still moments when we hide our identity. Sometimes it is for the sake of protection, lest we become targets; sometimes it is for advancement, when we are concerned that who we are might prevent what we would like to become, and occasionally it will be to avoid confrontation or simply conversation. Some of these reasons we can respect, while others not.

In our Purim story Mordecai’s advice and her decision to agree were strategic and eventually result in her being in a position to save lives. Though it is just a story, (I hate to break it to you. There is no factual base to this saga.) Still, like many good stories, it serves to instruct us. Their decision enabled them to save Jewish lives from the persecuting Haman. Perhaps that can become our guiding principle. Pikuach nefesh, the preservation of life is the only real justification for denying who we are as Jews.

The second and probably the most prominent concern found in the Purim story is that of anti-Semitism and genocide. This is the story of a man, who not only wanted to persecute Jews. It was his goal to totally eliminate us. We call this today, genocide. It all begins with Haman’s words to the King, words which have been reiterated in one form or another for centuries:

“There is a certain people, scattered and dispersed among the other peoples in all the provinces of your realm, whose laws are different from those of any other people, and who do not obey the king’s laws; and it is not in your Majesty’s interest to tolerate them.”

This is the classical presentation of Jews as “Other.” We are perceived as different, all over the world. We don’t play by the same rules, worship God differently, have different holidays, customs, values, and are therefore to be feared, certainly not tolerated. Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, one of the great Talmudists of our time writes:

“It was the first display of anti-Semitism in history. Haman and all his collaborators were indeed defeated, yet over the generations we discovered that anti-Semitism may have started with Haman, but it did not end with him. Amalek’s seed is still in the world, and it flourishes even in our cosmopolitan and enlightened era.”

The Purim story prompts us to ask the question: Why has there been and does there continue to be anti-Semitism? Over the years as I have taught on this subject, I provide a number of approaches, to understand the origins of antipathy toward Jews, none of them definitive.

First is nationalism. From the time we were a nation, like all nations there have been conflicts and competitions, attempts to defeat and conquer us. I think of the Biblical stories of the Egyptians, the Philistines and the Babylonians in this way. Similarly, though we speak of religious freedom, the roots of Chanukah are really more of battle between two nations. Jumping two thousand years, I would argue that much of the rhetoric and violence in the world today towards Jews by Moslems is really more nation based than religious.

Of course religion has played a significant role in anti-Semitism, particularly after we had no national base of our own. Judaism and Christianity were competing ideologies at the beginning. However, once Christianity was adopted by the Roman Empire and became the dominant faith of Europe, anyone who did not embrace that position was a heathen. I need not go into all the various attitudes and teachings about Jews that have been the result.

Suffice it to say that for centuries and for some, but NOT ALL, even to this day, the continued existence of Jews and Judaism is an affront and an ill that needs to be eradicated.

Contrary to popular opinion, Jews do not have all the money. However, going back to the Middle Ages, we have been depicted as avaricious and unscrupulous. The origin of this is the roles in which we were placed: Money lenders- where we all know how much we like to receive loans when needed, but dislike when the loans come due with interest; Tax collectors- a role which to this day, though necessary, is always looked down upon. Ask anyone who works for the IRS. Merchants- in a time when the middle class just started, we became the intermediaries between the rich and the poor. We supplied products, which were attained by bargaining over price, where each side haggled to gain position. Again, I allude to the comparable modern attitude towards car salesman. From those roots and the relative success of Jews in America come the contemporary stereotypes with which we are familiar.

In the 19th and 20th centuries, concepts of race evolved out of Darwin’s teachings on evolution. A biological observation and theory mutated into a formula for Nazi genocide.

I can go on with explanations as to the origins and continued reality of anti-Semitism, prejudice towards us, discrimination and acts of violence. The various explanations over the years mix and mingle depending upon the time and the incidents. However, understanding origins does not change or justify reality. To some extent we delude ourselves if we think that rationality and education can eradicate prejudice. While it might be successful in most cases, it certainly will not in all.

Rabbi Steinsaltz comments further: “The fact such explanations are so numerous proves there is no truth to them and that they merely serve as a veneer for a more basic and hidden matter. That is, just like the existence of the people of Israel, despite all the suffering and distress, is an inexplicable mystery, anti-Semitism is also mysterious.”

This is a rather fatalistic attitude. He argues, that no matter what we do, anti-Semitism will reappear in one form or another. Our continuing challenge is that we know the disease, but not the cure. Sad to say, like many diseases there is no absolute cure, only strategies to work on prevention and then approaches to deal with outbreaks.

We turn to educational programs like the Jewish Chautauqua Society, providing education about Jews and Judaism on the college campuses; Like the Anti Defamation League’s programs on tolerance and understanding; Like Tulane’s Southern Institute, which for many years has brought Holocaust survivors to high schools throughout the south, bursting myths and creating connections.

When anti-Semitism rears its ugly head whether locally, nationally or internationally, we must label it for what it is. We cannot hide or gloss over it, as we have learned that that posture is ineffective. Like Mordecai, we adopt strategies which can deal with it and fight against it. We can use the laws of our land to denounce it for what it is, seeking like minded allies, people of all faiths, in the process. We can enlist our government to deal with global expressions. Ultimately we have learned that we must protect ourselves, lest we underestimate those who would do us in.

And then there is the Purim approach, where when dealing with hatred towards us, we laugh at its absurdity as a way of coping, lest we make ourselves paranoid. We make fun of the perpetrators. We use humor. Recently I heard a recasting of an old joke:

Two Israelis were on a bus each reading a newspaper, when one looked at the other and asked, how could he be possibly reading a Palestinian newspaper. The man responded, “when I read Haaretz, I hear about Jewish struggles, violence and economic woes. When I read the Palestinian paper I read that the Jews are a united community, who control the world, have all the money and all the power. I like their version of us better than our own.” The first time I heard this joke it was about two Jews riding on a subway during World War II and one was reading the Bundist paper. The more things change, the more they remain the same.

My friends, we are Esther. When danger to the Jewish community loomed on the horizon, Mordecai told her, she should not think that she is immune. Rather he asks: “Who knows perhaps you have attained to royal position for just such a crisis?”

Reflecting upon our relative comfort and safety here in America, we can ask ourselves the same question. We are not as powerful as others think, but neither are we impotent to respond and react when needed.

Let us celebrate Purim with song and joy, silliness and fun. Shake our groggers, laugh at the Purim shpiels, drink until we do not know, eat lots of Hamantaschen, but let us also remember the serious concern that is at its root.


Sacred Season

Rosh Hashanah Eve 5771

By Rabbi Robert H. Loewy


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


200 Years And Counting

Rosh Hashanah Morning 5771

By Rabbi Robert H. Loewy


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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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

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


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


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

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

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

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


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

p. 42

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

Just What We Need: Two More Jewish Holidays

APRIL 29, 2011



What is it about us as Jews? In the fall, we squeeze in not one, not two, but four holidays in a three week period. OK, we don’t have a lot of choice in the matter. After all, it is in the Torah. This is not something we chose or can change, for it is written, “don’t mess with Torah.”

Then, what do we do to ourselves in the Spring? The matzah is barely through our digestive systems and lo and behold, we add two more Jewish Holidays to our calendar. I say, “we,” because these are not in Torah, but are based in modern history. I am referring to two events, which are perhaps as critical to who we are as Jews as the story of Chanukah, the destruction of the Temple and other significant moments. But do we really need two more Jewish holidays? One to mark the Shoah and the other Israel’s Independence? Of course, my answer is…. “yes.”

Not surprisingly, my recent trip to Israel reminded me of the importance of Israel, but also provided a different perspective on the Shoah. This Sunday morning at 11:00 as a congregation and at 7:00 in the evening at the Uptown JCC, we will mark Yom Hashoah. I invite you all to be present. You might ask, after all these years, what new insights might be possible?

Any visit to Israel requires a stop at Yad Vashem, Israel’s National Holocaust Memorial. The term “requires” implies a sense of obligation. In truth every Head of State, every dignitary and all foreign military officers visit Yad Vashem. Protocol requires it. But more than that, I would argue it is a moral imperative for all visitors.

Yad Vashem provides a frame of reference to understand the necessity of Jews having their own nation. Had there been an Israel in the middle of the 20th century, 6 million Jews would not have been exterminated. Perhaps it is as simple as that. That was certainly the subliminal, if not primary message of Yad Vashem in the past. However, the museum was significantly remodeled in 2005. Over time it needed updating in the styles of presentation, like all museums. They had to keep up with Washington’s Holocaust Museum and many others.

We learned however, that the renovations involved much more than new flat screens and modes of display. Rachel Corzine, a Holocaust Educator, spoke to our group. She pointed out to us that coming out of the 1950s, Israelis looked at the Shoah, those who died and those who survived, with embarrassment. And so the museum depicted the Jews of Europe, primarily as hapless victims. From a post-independence, Israeli mindset, it was incomprehensible that Jews did not go down fighting. The old museum honored the memory, but its message was that, “had there been an Israel, this would not have happened.”

Indicative of this societal ambivalence, there was great debate as to when to commemorate the Shoah in Israel. Most said, “Tisha B’Av,” which has historically been the religious day that marks horrible destructions in our past. Israeli politicians refused. “Too religious!” was their response. Keep in mind there has always been a divide in Israeli society between the religious and the secular. Early on, the religious had political power, but not nearly as strong as they are today. Instead, the Knesset chose the current date on the calendar, coming a week or so before Independence Day, which also coincided with the start of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising. From a 1950s Israeli perspective, that was a bright moment to remember, instead of all the death. Hence, the date and the name of this holy day is, “Yom Hashoah U’gevurah- Day of the Shoah and Bravery.”

Fast forward to the 21st century. Time provides some perspective. Since the 1950s, much has been learned about the Shoah, with multiple stories of heroism, resistance that came in all forms, physical and spiritual, the insidious methods used by the Nazi’s to delude and deceive the Jews of Europe, the abdication of morality by the allies, art and literature created by Jews, even in the midst of it all, faith that was able to triumph over barbarity. A new generation of Israelis has grown up, including the children of survivors. Along with the devastation and destruction of European Jewish life, these are the stories that are now told in the new museum, which not only records the history, but honors the memory as never before. Our responsibility is to continue to do the same, out of respect and as a source of inspiration

The end of the story is still Israel- literally. Both the old and new museums have visitors physically emerge from the abyss by taking in a massive, beautiful panorama of 21st century Jerusalem. Since 1948 Israel has become the home to millions of Jews needing rescue. Without it, who knows what would have become of them

Just as attitudes about the Shoah have evolved, the Israel we celebrate next week on Yom Ha’atsmaut is a different Israel than the one that began 63 years ago. How could it be otherwise? Disturbing studies on the attitudes by Diaspora Jewry towards Israel indicate that over half of Jews under the age of 35 stated they would not view the destruction of Israel as a personal tragedy. This reflects that young Jews do not feel a deep personal connection to the land, intellectual, spiritual, historical perhaps, but not personal. Jewish historian, Jonathan Sarna, observes, “Young Jews today often view Israel through the lens of contemporary media. They fixate on its unloveliest warts.”

At the recent CCAR convention of Reform rabbis, held here in New Orleans, the concluding presentation was a lively debate between Peter Beinart and Rabbi Ammi Hirsch. Beinart, a young Jewish journalist, is the author of a major article and subsequent presentations, which have engendered criticism and controversy. He stresses his love for Israel, but warns that Israel’s actions, especially on the West Bank and settlements cannot be accepted uncritically. He also points to the growing strength of the political and religious right wing in Israel and actions that they have taken, inclusive of laws that discriminate against Moslems, calls for loyalty oaths, and legislation that would delegitimize non-orthodox Judaism and even liberal expressions of orthodoxy. For him it is not surprising that while 79% of young Orthodox Jews feel close to Israel, only 18% of young liberal Jews feel similarly. He argues that one cannot expect young Jews, who generally champion causes of freedom, oppose discrimination and were raised in liberal Jewish homes, to embrace and identify with an Israel that is dissonant from their basic values.

Beinart’s message is that the American Jewish establishment must embrace these young Jews, who feel disconnected from Israel. More importantly, we need to champion the issues that we see as dysfunctional for the Jewish State. We need to hold Israel accountable for its own proclaimed values. If it is to be the only real democracy in the Middle East, then let it fully act as one. Parenthetically, on my recent Israel trip, we heard a similar message from a former editor of Israel’s Haaretz newspaper, a message that was not well received by some of our participants.

Ammi Hirsch, Israeli born, former Director of ARZA, and now the rabbi of the historic Steven S. Wise Free Synagogue of New York, responded. He perceives the alienation by the young as symptomatic not of attitudes toward Israel alone, but as part of larger issues of disconnection from organized Judaism. He then returns to the ongoing, necessary theme and concern of security. It is of course difficult to act based upon democratic values when the other side is not playing by the same rules.

He also argues that whether Jewish critics of Israel like it or not, their positions play into the hands of those who would delegitimize Israel and there are many throughout the world, successfully doing just that in the court of public opinion. The new Jewish Zionist organization, called “J Street,” has come under particular scrutiny and criticism for its public positions, which do not support every action taken by the State.

I felt like I was at an ideological ping pong match, agreeing with point one from one side, but then a point from the other. Both were scoring with me, but at the end of the discussion and with the influence of my most recent Israel experiences, I found myself leaning more towards the Beinart position. While in Israel, we heard multiple times how the relationship with diaspora Jewry is critical and honest feelings are appreciated. I cannot check my liberal political and religious values at the gates of Jerusalem. I cannot live with myself if I do, nor do I believe that it is in the best interests of an Israel that I love. It is precisely because I have a personal connection with Israel, that even more so, I am required to follow a path of support that I deem appropriate. And I hope that my position opens the door for my community to find its way to be both supportive of and advocate fully for Israel with intellectual integrity.

And that is why we need Yom Ha’atsmaut, to show our support and concern regardless of how we evaluate Israel’s current positions. Our community service on Monday, May 9 at 7:30 at Temple Sinai is an appropriate venue and forum to demonstrate ongoing commitment and personal connection.

Do we really need two more holidays? Obviously, my answer is, “Yes.” One recalls the past, honors memory, allowing us to marvel at the ability of human survival in the face of utmost depravity. The other is a day to remind us of the miracle of the Jewish State, to appreciate all that Israel has accomplished in 63 years, but also a day to recognize that the work of redemption is not yet complete and that we are all partners in the efforts to foster that reality.

Ken yehi ratson- May it be God’s will and our resolve.


Our New Technological World



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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




Jewish Hall Of Fame

Rosh Hashanah Eve 5772-2012

By Rabbi Robert H. Loewy


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Isaac Bashevis Singer
Steven Spielberg
Barbra Streisand
Henrietta Szold

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Greif Is A Great Teacher

By Rabbi Robert H. Loewy


One of the meditative readings that has been part of our Reform liturgy for decades reads, “grief is a great teacher, when it sends us back to serve and bless the living.” We all have many teachers. When it comes to assisting families facing death and loss, Rabbinical school trained me on the technicalities. Years of practical professional experience enabled me to prepare a booklet that we make available to our members. But as is true for many of us, life continues to be the best teacher. As I near the conclusion of the sheloshim mourning period and in truth what has been four months of intense dealing with the coming of death and then the reality, let me share what I have learned that can perhaps be helpful to you, cognizant that each situation is different.

I recognize that I have been blessed. Both my father and my mother lived into their 10th decades of life. During their earlier years, they were somewhat superstitious, never celebrating a birthday before its date. More recently, Mom shifted her focus and after her 96th birthday described herself as being in her 97th year, realizing that one must accept the clock winding down.

Though my brother, sister and I live hundreds of miles apart, we remained close and united in our concern for our parents and especially for Mom after my father died in 2008. We divided responsibilities. My brother Joe was overseer for all of Mom’s financial matters. Sister Susan was the organizer and focused on health concerns. Being the furthest away, I was the spiritual advisor. Cooperation was a key to coping.

All of us, including Mom, were realistic about what was to come. No one lives forever and making preparations for the realities of life does not hasten death. We knew Mom’s medical wishes and all three of us had medical power of attorney, to put those wishes into effect if needed. We each had a copy of her DNR- “do not resuscitate” form.
And we discussed her funeral wishes, which serve as guidelines, but not as absolutes. I do not believe that one has to wholly follow someone’s last wishes, since the Jewish funeral rites are not only to honor the deceased, but also to comfort the mourners. For example, Mom initially wanted a graveside service. I knew that there would be a large crowd of people who would want to attend and on Long Island cemeteries are not necessarily close. I also know from my experience that during a hot time period, I don’t want to be standing at a graveside for a long period of time. Each family has to balance the needs of the deceased with those of the mourners. I should add that my siblings and I made funeral arrangements months before we thought we would need them, so as not to have to be involved in business when all we would want to do is grieve.

No one ever knows when death will come, so it only makes sense to take advantage of the time that you have with loved ones. In truth this applies to each and every moment of each and every day, since we all know of situations where one dies suddenly. Many often debate the relative preference of dying quickly and the inability to say goodbyes versus experiencing some form of lingering illness, but having time to share. It’s really one of those pointless arguments, since we do not have choice as to what will come.

Our situation worked well for us. Like any 96 year old, Mom was aging and her level of activity diminished in recent years, but overall her health was good. We knew she would not be with us forever, but we enjoyed her presence and activity for as long as we could. In mid June she was hospitalized briefly, and we could see that this might be the beginning of the end. Though her body was failing, her mind was clear. She had been living in her own apartment on Long Island with a full time caregiver for the past two years, maintaining an amazingly active lifestyle, but now it was time for her to live with my sister, who devoted herself to her.

We all knew that these were her final days. As opposed to wallowing in sadness, the entire family seized the time as an opportunity. From the moment that she took ill until her death, she was connected with all of her children, grandchildren and great grandchildren, either with personal visits, multiple phone calls and regular skyping.  She was even entrusted with the secret that her 8th great grandchild was on the way, something I only learned later. We shared our “I love yous” many times over, along with stories and review of family history. Mom didn’t have lots of possessions, and she had already given away many of her precious items earlier, but she specifically designated what remained. That was the same day when she made it very clear as to which outfit she wanted to wear for burial, the one she wore to her youngest great grandchild’s baby naming.

Perhaps one of the most significant lessons I can teach is the simple importance and power of being there with a loved one, when you have the opportunity. It was beshert that this was my sabbatical summer, when I had blocked out two months for a variety of activities. Plans changed, but that was fine. I was able to be with Mom, handle some of the care-giving responsibilities with my sister who shouldered the most. I recall one day. Mom was weak, but still enjoyed going out. So we spent a few hours one afternoon just sitting on a bench at a pond watching nature. Just breathing fresh air gave her pleasure.

In truth we did not anticipate that she would decline as rapidly as she did. By the middle of August hospice care began. I have a great deal of respect for what the men and women of hospice programs do. In Jewish tradition when it seems that death is inevitable, we are called upon to remove obstacles. Whatever would make her comfortable was what we wanted and we truly believe that she did not suffer. Consistent with hospice care we continued to let Mom know of our love for her, our pledge to continue to be a strong family, but also our willingness to let go, giving permission for her to do the same when she was ready. They say it makes a difference. Who knows for sure? Medically, people die when organs fail; spiritually when God is ready to be with them in whatever comes next.

On Friday afternoon September 9th I received the call from my siblings that the end was near. I debated whether or not to go. I had services that night, B’nai Mitzvah Club in the morning, the first day of Religious School on Sunday. I had said my goodbyes. I’m so glad that I decided to hop on a plane the next morning. One never knows for sure if she was waiting for us all to be together, but knowing her, we had the sense that she was. If nothing else it made us feel better to be together. When I arrived she was in a constant sleep state, perhaps what one would describe as a coma. She had not been responsive in over 24 hours. Still, I thought I perceived a flicker of an eye when she heard my voice for the first time.

We sat in the room with her surrounded by pictures of the multiple generations of her family. As I have shared, Mom was a spiritual woman. For her sake and my own I recited the traditional prayers that are to be said for the gravely ill. They derive from Yom Kippur worship. First comes a confession of sin, asking forgiveness of those who we have wronged in life, but also expressing hope that we accomplished enough good to be worthy of God’s ultimate protection and care. Then we recite the same words that we will pronounce in a little while at the conclusion of Neilah- the Shma and Adonai Hu haelohim- Adonai is our God. That was a particularly poignant moment for me. Later that day, listening to labored breathing I found myself reciting the El Male Rachamim prayer, which is our request of God to watch over our loved ones who have died. In this case I simply changed the sense to encourage God to take her. Clearly she was ready, but at the time we could imagine that she might linger much longer. We did not want that for her or selfishly for us. It’s OK to be honest with our feelings. Within a few hours of that prayer, early on the morning of September 11, the difficult but sweet moment arrived as she simply breathed her last.

At this hour of Yizkor, I stand before you and with you. Each of us has a story
to tell. I hope that my sharing with you will be helpful. No two situations are precisely the same, yet they are all essentially the same. We live with our grief, hopefully not as a burden. Rather let our treasure trove of memories inspire us. Let us use the lessons learned to serve and bless the living.