God Bless America

FEBRUARY 11, 2011

By Rabbi Robert H. Loewy


Tomorrow will be February 12. So what’s the big deal about that date? While growing up that date along with February 22 were days off from school. As some of you recall, the first is Lincoln’s birthday and the second, Washington’s. Now both are combined on the third Monday of February for “President’s Day” and in New Orleans are pretty much lost in Mardi Gras season. I remember them as days that prompted us to focus on the meaning of what it is to be an American.

For many years we had a member of the congregation, who annually made a donation to the synagogue and insisted that it be worded precisely: “In memory of George Washington, the Father of our country and Abraham Lincoln, who preserved it.” In truth his donation was an expression of patriotism and a passive aggressive protest over the loss of distinct days for each, along with the fact that we close the synagogue office on Martin Luther King Day, but not President’s Day.

Indeed specific holidays elicit patriotism, but those feelings can also be prompted by places and events. Recently I experienced a confluence of both.

As part of our annual Confirmation Trip to New York, we take a brief boat excursion into New York harbor to visit Ellis Island. From 1892 to 1954 over 12 million immigrants passed through Ellis Island on their way to freedom and citizenship in America. In 1907 alone, 1.25 million entered the United States through Ellis Island. Many were part of the major Jewish migration from Eastern Europe to which some of you can undoubtedly trace your family roots.

On the way to this portal for a new life, immigrants sailed past the Statue of Liberty, perhaps America’s most prominent symbol of freedom. I know how excited all of my students were as we briefly docked alongside the grand lady en route to Ellis Island. The cameras were clicking, as a cacophony of tourist voices in multiple languages expressed delight and reverence to see the site. One can only imagine what it was like on board the steamers of the early 1900s.

They came from Germany and Russia and Poland, as well as Italy, Ireland, Turkey, Greece and every other European country. Admission was not automatic. There were physical exams that had to be passed, proof of economic potential to be offered and screening of political views to be overcome before being allowed entrance to the Goldene Medina, as our Yiddish speaking ancestors called this Golden Land. From 1917 on, America the great melting pot, placed a lid over the pot to limit who could enter, resulting in the deaths of millions of our people who sought entrance prior to and during World War II.

In truth there has always been resistance to allowing new immigrants to enter the country. Ironically, it is often from the more recent immigrants, who have forgotten what admission meant to them. Then, as is true for those who seek to immigrate today, their quest was for a better life, economic security and political freedom. As the new immigrants departed Ellis Island on skiffs bringing them to the shore of Manhattan, with Lady Liberty behind them, the uniform chorus was “God Bless America.”

A few days after visiting Ellis Island, I found myself back home in New Orleans, but symbolically on Ellis Island. The 24th floor of the Canal Place Office building, with a magnificent view of the Mississippi, houses the United States Immigration Court. I was there to testify on behalf of a young man seeking political asylum. His individual case was not unlike many people who have been resident in the United States for decades, but whose legal status is in question. This young man was originally from Bangladesh and has been raised and educated for 20 years in the U.S. Due to unusual family circumstances, he was not a citizen.

His particular story is unique in that for many of his formative years, though nominally coming from a Moslem family, he lived with and was nurtured by a Jewish family. In maturity he has been in the process of formally making the connection to Judaism through conversion. However, he was in one of those Catch 22 situations. He had no job and so the government sought to deport him, but he could not get a job, because he had no Green Card. I’m not going into the intricacies of the law, other than to say he was between the proverbial rock and a hard place.

My role was to testify to the fact that he was in the process of conversion and that I was confident of his sincerity. Another expert witness was prepared to testify that if he were to return to Bangladesh that he would likely become the object of hate and violence, based upon a documented record of persecution of Jews in his homeland. Sitting in the court that day were the attorneys, the judge, the young man seeking asylum and his Aunt and Uncle, who are citizens. Following my testimony, consisting of responses to questions from his lawyer and then cross-examination by the government’s attorney, the Judge paused the proceedings and surprisingly immediately ruled in his favor. Tears welled up in the eyes of his family and mine. I was transported back to Ellis Island in my mind and the immigration officer just granted permission for entry. The United States continues to be the “Goldene Medina” for many. We all recited, “God Bless America” to ourselves.

Just a few hours later, I found myself at Gates of Prayer’s Joseph Street Cemetery. The flag draped casket of Sidney Graff was in front of me and a Naval Honor Guard was to my left and right. Sidney had spent most of his professional career working for the Army Corps of Engineers, but the honor guard was present to mark his service in the Navy during World War II. Some of you may remember Sidney. He was short and thin, always polite and inquisitive. He grew up in New Orleans. I learned that he was in the first class of Fortier High School, playing the French horn in the band. He served in the Pacific during World War II. On one occasion he had the opportunity to leave the battle group and simply spend the rest of his tour of duty playing the French horn for the Navy Band in Australia. He chose active duty to safety. With the flag draped casket before me, recollections of my past days’ experiences in mind, an officer played Taps, while two other officers ever so precisely folded the American Flag to present to his daughter. In my mind, I said to myself, “God Bless America.”

The next night we began our three part series on interfaith understanding in our sanctuary among Jews, Christians and Moslems, which concluded last week. In truth this was an amazing program, the “best ever” according to one of our past Presidents. Sitting in the church and our sanctuary were approximately 150 Jews, Christians and Moslems, with the Moslems in the greatest number. Together we gained greater understanding of one another and our different faiths. No one was trying to convince the other, but simply develop relationships. I believe this is an important statement about the evolution of the faith community. In particular the message from the Moslem community was that we are your brothers and sisters; we are Americans originally from Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Pakistan, but we are Americans. Looking around the sanctuary, seeing the diversity of who we are as a community, all could easily say, “God bless America.”

Keep in mind the timing of all this was with the backdrop of the shootings in Arizona. While we know that the perpetrator was a mentally imbalanced individual, it came with the atmosphere of political intolerance. Arizona has certainly been in the spotlight of the immigration issues, passing laws that leave immigrants open to racial profiling; clamoring for stricter immigration enforcement. This week an attempt to change the law, so that those born in the United States are not automatically granted citizenship. It has been tabled, but it is likely not gone. The sin of xenophobia, fear of foreigners, is one that permeates all too many aspects of our society. One would think with our history in mind we would find ways to welcome new immigrants to America, instead of fearing them, steering them away lest they steal our jobs. Yes, there are those who entered America illegally. Many of our ancestors did the same. In truth much of the proposed immigration legislation is directed to legalize the reality of good, decent, hard-working people, who have contributed to this country for years, who have worked in our homes, built our buildings, harvested our crops and repaired our city. As we approach the Presidents Day observance it behooves us to remember that the foundation of our country is diversity, not xenophobia.

Mark Shields of PBS put it succinctly in his analysis of events in Arizona, when he commented: “THIS is America, where a white Catholic male Republican judge was murdered on his way to greet a Democratic Jewish woman member of Congress, who was his friend. Her life was saved initially by a 20-year old Mexican-American gay college student, and eventually by a Korean-American combat surgeon, all eulogized by our African-American President.”

To all of this I can only say: “God bless America.”


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.


Parents And Children

August 11, 2006

By Rabbi Robert H. Loewy


It is so wonderful this evening to be in the presence of a number of our college students, both undergraduate and graduate, some of you studying here in New Orleans and many of you elsewhere, a few of you heading off to college for the first time. Your mere attendance this evening is a source of uplift for us all. We know that this past year has been difficult for you. Even if you have been away from New Orleans, your focus has been on your home town and how it will recover. You’ve lost houses and friends and familiar landmarks, been constantly identified and heard, “Oh, you’re from New Orleans. I’m so sorry.” Perhaps you had a typically great year and felt guilty when thinking about home. I hope you are aware that we do not begrudge you your joy in the least. In fact the opposite, it is what we wish for you.

As most of you know, I am not an impartial observer of this process. Monday morning, bright and early, Sara and I will be heading to Texas for her sophomore year. So my challenge for this evening was to present a message that will speak to the students, the parents and all in attendance without embarrassing my daughter too much. As is often the case, my wife Lynn came to the rescue. Earlier this summer she handed me a book with those famous words: “It might be good for a sermon.”

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 of 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 if he ever had watched his father shave. The young man smiled, then shared how as a child he would watch his Dad and occasionally his Dad would put shaving cream on his face and “shave” him. Many of us have similar memories I’m sure. The counselor urged the scarred young man to bring up that memory each time he shaved instead of how he was assaulted, 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 lasts 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 this book, Tim Russert speaks of his own son, who is heading off to college for the first time. His words could be our words to you our students and to all of us. “Study hard. Laugh often. Keep your honor.”



Jewish Days Of Mourning Shabbat Nachamu

AUGUST 4, 2006

By Rabbi Robert H. Loewy


My goodness, it has been two months since I have given a sermon. And so much has happened, which is grist for the homiletic mill. So, sit back folks, this has the potential of being a long night. I’ve heard it said that rabbinic sermons are our own form of self-persecution. But you can relax my friends, I am not one who believes that the Jewish people must continue to suffer. We have done that long enough. In fact suffering is a theme appropriate for tonight.

As some, but probably few of you realized, a relatively major Jewish holy day was on our calendar yesterday, Tisha B’Av. You missed it? Darn! Well, the good news is it will be back next year. Tisha B’Av, which simply means the ninth day in the Hebrew month of Av commemorates the destruction of the first and second Temples of Jerusalem, traditionally a day of mourning and fasting. Over time it has been linked with other events of suffering and persecution, most prominently the expulsion order of the Jews from Spain and the fall of the Warsaw Ghetto during World War II.

Personally and as a movement, we Reform Jews have had an ambivalent relationship with the observance. None of us still mourn for the destruction of the Temples of Jerusalem. I am not anxious to rebuild it, to bring back that old time religion with animal sacrifices, grain offerings, incense and libations. However, Tisha B’Av is more than the Temples. It marks the fall of the Jewish nation to the Babylonians and then later the Romans. I could mourn for that, except for the fact that Israel has been in existence since 1948. So, you will understand how I erred when planning our summer Continuing Education program, totally forgetting about Tisha B’Av and scheduling of all programs, one on Jewish Cooking for the evening of Tisha B’Av. Mea Culpa- I will say an extra Al Chet for that come Yom Kippur.

Still, Tisha B’Av can speak to us, providing a prism for how we see our world. After all, what can be more relevant than our Jewish homeland fighting for survival? Over two thousand years ago Israel and Judea were monarchies. Israel was destroyed by the Assyrians around 710 BCE. Then Judea became the sole Jewish independent entity. Ancient power politics involved deciding whether to align with Egypt, Assyria or Babylonia. Whichever you chose, the other was not pleased. Judea was often a pawn in a global political game. Babylonia conquers Judea, destroys the Temple in 586 BCE and exiles the leadership. 60 years later, Assyria defeats Babylonia and Judea becomes a reality once again, albeit tied to foreign powers. Later it will be the Romans, who exercise their might.

To some extent the reality of modern Israel is no different. It was founded as the fulfillment of Jewish dreams, but as a concession by world powers. While its birth pains and continued travails involve its Arab neighbors, Israel was first a pawn of European Imperialism, then the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union, and now I would argue between western values of democracy, as reflected by the United States and Israel, and Islamic Fundamentalism, as embraced by Iran and Syria. Israel and Hezbollah, Israel and Hamas are doing the fighting, but to some extent they are proxies. This does not change the fact that real death and destruction is currently taking place.

The current crisis is my fault. Some of my Gates of Prayer members may have noticed. The moment I put a message in our weekly e-mail newsletter about the possibility of spending Mardi Gras in Jerusalem, the fighting with Lebanon broke out. Sadly it continues. I certainly hope and pray that a meaningful and yes, “enduring,” cease fire will come soon, perhaps along the lines that we have heard with international troops providing a real buffer zone and Hezbollah being disarmed or at least moved away. There has been much too much death and destruction. I am not one who believes “Israel right or wrong”, but in this case I do believe that Israel was right to aggressively respond and I do not believe that it is “disproportionate”. After 9/11 the United States launched wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. While they have been criticized as foolish, we have heard few say they are disproportionate.

Hezbollah intentionally initiated the conflict by crossing into Israel and kidnapping Israeli soldiers. They knew full well that Israel would respond and were strategically waiting with their rocket launchers already aimed in the general directions of. Haifa, Tsefat, Nahariya, Kiryat Shmoneh, the civilian populations of northern Israel.

My main criticism of Israel has been its public relations. Israel operates under principles of Tohar Neshek- purity of arms, which means that they do everything in their power to spare innocent civilian lives, which is the opposite of the Hezbollah rockets and missiles and their aim. Their rockets are launched from apartment balconies. Their soldiers are housed in civilian homes. Israel drops leaflets, uses radio and all means possible to tell civilians to flee, while Hezbollah keeps them in harms way, using them as human shields. Civilians are not the innocent victims of Israeli bombing. They are cynically placed in danger by their own people as part of a conscious plot.  That message needs to be broadcast loudly. To date Israel has not been effective in this regard. Tisha B’Av reminds us that we must fight to maintain our independence in spite of what others may say about us.

How is all of this negative press possible, when we all know that Jews control the media and are the cause of all wars? Thank you, Mel Gibson. I needed something else to talk about on my first week back. Let me simply say that this event is not surprising. His family background includes a father who is an unapologetic anti-Semitic Holocaust denier. His response to Jewish criticisms of his movie the “Passion of the Christ” reflected at best insensitivity and as now seems evident, deeply felt hostility towards Jews and Judaism. He has exposed himself and his prejudices. I’m sure that Mr. Gibson is sorry for what happened, but at this time his words are self-serving and meaningless.

He has appealed to meet with the Jewish community and reportedly received an invitation to speak to a congregation on Yom Kippur, which is ludicrous. I do believe that one can repent and change, but it is a process that must be entered into with sincerity and proven through appropriate words and deeds over time, not over night. Our Tisha B’Av prism reminds us that there are those who hate us and to some extent we must be wary.

Of course for all of us, we have another frame of reference through which everything is refracted and that is Katrina. Tisha B’Av commemorates destruction and exile, followed by return, rebuilding and renewal. Those themes certainly speak to us. I don’t believe I have to spell it out any further. I have previously used the language of Jewish bereavement to help us move forward in coping with Katrina. At Yom Kippur Yizkor, we were still in sheloshim the initial month or so of mourning. Now we are in the 11th month. Traditionally, this would be when one conducts an unveiling and ends daily recitation of Kaddish. The focus is no longer what we lost, but where we are heading in the future, while honoring the past. Perhaps Tisha B’Av this year can serve to mark that next stage in our process.

“Nachamu, nachamu ami- Be Comforted, Be Comforted O My people.” These are the words of Isaiah spoken each Shabbat after Tisha B’Av. We pray that the people of Israel and Lebanon will soon know safety and security once again. We pray that all who endure destruction and loss, may find comfort and hope.


Rededication Shabbat

APRIL 7, 2006

By Rabbi Robert H. Loewy


            Mah tovu ohalecha- How Goodly are your Tents O Jacob, your dwelling places O Israel! I look out tonight and bear witness to the power of renewal. Since August 29 we have been immersed in Refuat Haguf, physical healing and Refuat Hanefesh- spiritual healing of our congregation.

After 3 feet of water turned our sanctuary into a well, and inches of water spread throughout the building, countless individuals have worked non-stop to bring us back physically, to restore our prayer space, revive our learning centers, re-activate our business systems. Those who have participated in tonight’s service deserve particular attention, as I have mentioned earlier. I have maintained for years that as a rabbi, I have been blessed with outstanding lay leadership. In the face of an enormous crisis, Miriam Latter, her officers and board rose magnificently to the occasion. She entered office with her agenda of spirituality and caring, to have it replaced by search and rescue. I know that as we start looking to next year, spirituality and caring will take on a whole new dimension.

Special mention must be made about the outpouring of support that has come to us from the entire Jewish community. The role of our organized Reform movement through the URJ has been nothing short of fantastic, providing us with both resources and expertise to navigate through the morass. Through Katrina Relief and the SOS Fund combined with our local Jewish Endowment Foundation, we have received hundreds of thousands of dollars to meet many of our expenses. In addition to that we received $125,000 from the American Jewish Committee to rebuild our sanctuary and thousands more from numerous synagogues and individuals from across America. Though no funds have yet been directly forthcoming from the Federation movement, we are anticipating that as well. All of this has enabled us to repair our building, assist our members and prepare for the future. It has been both humbling and gratifying. Refuat Haguf- the physical recovery and healing of our building is almost complete and we could not be more delighted.

Refuat Hanefesh, the healing of our spirit takes longer, but we are on our way. Looking out each week and seeing so many returnees lifts us as we rebuild our congregational family. Each new face at Shabbat services adds to our strength; watching the children as they walk into the building on Sunday; sitting down with our Zekenim our elders for lunch and friendship; realizing there are added members deliberating around our board tables; sharing with adults gathered in study; processing all those walking into the building to buy scrip and saying hello; meeting with Nursery School children on Friday mornings and B’nai Mitzvah students during the week culminating in their leading worship; These are the real signs of healing. The doors are open and it is invigorating to return to business as usual.

Perhaps it is not quite as usual.  We are cognizant of those of our friends and family who have not returned yet or may not return at all. For those who are here and have returned home, we are fully aware that home is not the same. Many if not most of you are not living in the same conditions as you were on August 27. Homes have been damaged and destroyed. Businesses and jobs have been ruined, disrupted and diminished. All of us continue to suffer financially, emotionally and spiritually and that will not change over night.

Know that your synagogue is here to help. Coming at the end of this month and throughout May, we will be offering four different support groups, one for those struggling with family issues- helping their children and grandchildren to cope and/or dealing with multiple generations under one roof; another group specifically for business people to receive professional business coaching; a third designed for those who feel as if they are too old to deal with all of this, but have to anyway; and a fourth for all those just feeling the stress, anxiety and worry of our Post Katrina life. All four groups will be led by qualified professionals. I hope you will take advantage of these opportunities.

On a more delicate subject, I and the entire congregational leadership are fully aware that many are suffering financially. Income has been lost, or even if it has not, all sorts of expenses have increased. I have received thousands of dollars, as well as gift cards for a variety of stores to share with my members. Please don’t feel as though this is intended for someone else. Recognizing that one is in need and accepting assistance is a positive act of healing.

On this Shabbat we officially rededicate ourselves to the mission that this congregation has fulfilled for 156 years to be the spiritual home for our members, as always, committed to reaching out to God, studying Torah and embracing Am Yisrael- the Jewish people.

I look out tonight and envision beyond, enabling me to say that which the prophet of old pronounced as he scanned the Israelite encampment- Mah Tovu Ohalecha Yaakov: How goodly are your tents O Jacob, your dwelling place O Israel. So, may it be.


Taking Stock Of Where We Are

March 24, 2006

By Rabbi Robert H. Loewy


In New Orleans, we say: “Where y’at?” Others ask: “How are you?” On one of my favorite television shows, Joey’s line is: “How you doing?” In one form or another it is the question that all of us are asked by friends and family, or we are asking of ourselves. It has been almost seven months since, what Chris Rose has labeled, “The Thing”, or what some simply refer to as “The Storm”, while others use the name, “Katrina” descended upon us.

This Shabbat we read  Vayakhel/Pekude, the last portion in the Book of Exodus. It includes a review of the events in the life of Moses and the Israelites. With the portion as backdrop, we too can avail ourselves of the opportunity to take stock of where we are in our journey on the road to recovery, something we need to do periodically.

In case you had not noticed, rabbis don’t think like normal people. We are always on the lookout for parallels between life and text, seeking God’s hidden messages for us to manage our daily affairs in meaningful ways. Reflecting on the Book of Exodus I find a number of parallels to what we have all endured in the past few months.

So there we were at the beginning of the book, dwelling in Egypt, minding our own business, not bothering anyone. We were happy, content, perhaps a bit self-absorbed. Then along came an oppressor, who would steal our tranquility, rob us of our sense of security, and turn our lives upside down. On Purim, I equated Haman to Katrina. Tonight, Pharoah’s name is Katrina. She rose up to oppress us and we needed to escape.

Most of us departed and made the waters part to find the dry land in Houston, Memphis, Baton Rouge, Atlanta and various other points on the globe. Initially we felt safe and secure. I recall leading a service in Houston on the Monday night after the storm, before we knew about levee failure and canal overflow. At that time, like the Israelites reciting the Song of the Sea, having reached dry land, we thought we had dodged the bullet once again. And we were spared to some extent, but there was more hardship to come.

Then we began our wandering. For some it was from city to city, or from hotel to apartment, or from temporary shelter to a house. Our eyes would glance back in disbelief to what had been our home town. We were and still are incredulous over the extent of destruction and suffering.

And so, like the Israelites, we were forced to temporarily reorganize ourselves. In the Torah this is the period of formulating laws for guidance. For us it involved creating contacts, finding schools, re-establishing work habits, reaching out to others, and fashioning homes. All the while, we gazed towards the Promised Land, hoping to return to our real home in safety and security.

In the meantime, God instructs us to build a Tabernacle, a temporary abode for our wilderness travel, a place where we can connect to what is really important. That is where we find ourselves tonight in Torah and for most of us in our lives.

As the concluding portion in the Book of Exodus it includes a review and description of the building of the tabernacle and an accounting by Moses on exactly how all the donations were applied. Review, accountability and reflection are the elements that speak to us tonight.

“Vayakhel Moshe: And Moses gathered all the congregation of the Children of Israel and said to them: These are the words which the Lord has commanded, that you shall do them.”

Two different commentators look at this text calling for gathering the people and offer us related perspectives. The first (Or Penei Moshe) writes, “As is known, the Second Temple was destroyed because of senseless hatred. Division and disputes always serve to undermine foundations of the social order. Therefore, before erecting the Sanctuary, Moses gathered all the people of Israel. The completion of the Sanctuary/Tabernacle depends upon the unity of the people.”

Prior to Katrina our community was also filled with sinat chinam, senseless hatred, regional parochialism, bickering, racism, cronyism and more. It all contributed to poverty, illiteracy, unemployment, violence and crime. We can revert to our former ways and if we do, we will surely fall. Katrina literally changed the landscape of our community, providing us with an opportunity to make a difference, to rebuild and improve, to get involved, but we must be unified in that vision first.

Another commentator adds (Mi-ginzeinu Ha-atik) “When it comes to gathering together people, there is no problem: there are countless committees and conferences, meetings and sessions, morning, noon and night. They speak and debate, argue and discuss, without end. That was why Moses commanded: ‘that you should do them.’- the purpose of all your meetings must be action.”

Meetings and committees are a rabbinic occupational hazard. I know that I am not the only one to suffer from this malady. However, of late I have participated in two committees of our congregation, both dedicated to making the lives of our members in Post Katrina time better. The energy, level of participation and involvement in those meetings were extraordinary. Most significantly, arising from the gathering will be a series of actions. That is what our commentator had in mind.

Certainly throughout New Orleans there have been a plethora of talking heads and meetings. The Bring Back New Orleans Commission worked hard to present a report and strategy to rebuild our city and I say “our city”, because regardless of where we live, the City of New Orleans is the engine that drives our communal life. We need to support the efforts that will initiate well thought out action plans into place as soon as possible. People have their lives on hold and are dependent upon clear understandings of the future. Yes, there will need to be necessary sacrifices and areas that do not rebuild. Those of us, who are white and affluent, tend to be more accepting of this than those who are black and poor, according to a recent poll. We need to be sensitive to this.

With city elections on the horizon, we need to hold the candidates accountable and demand specifics on what they will and will not do, recognizing that they are not autonomous. Nonetheless, we need people who will act, not simply deliberate and support those who we feel will do the best job, whether we live in Orleans or not.

Now is a time to gather the people for rebuilding. But our portion provides us with an additional thought. Immediately after calling for the gathering, we receive a caveat, a reminder that we must have our personal priorities in order. “Six days will work be done, but the seventh day is Shabbat.” Yes, we need to rebuild and plan for the future, but not 24/7. We need to be good to ourselves, take breaks, find pockets of pleasure and release.

Shabbat is holy time that we set apart for rest. I suggest that we create holy time, when we say or do nothing about or even peripherally related to Katrina. We can’t ignore her and her aftereffects, but neither do we have to allow her to dominate every aspect of our being. Go to a movie; enjoy a meal; watch sports; exercise; listen to music; take a weekend away; read a book; escape. She will still be there when you return to confront her reality.

Victor Frankel was a famous psychologist, who survived the concentration camps. Among his great teachings was that the Nazis could take everything away from him, except his capacity to choose how to respond. Katrina and her aftermath destroyed property and life as we knew it, but it is ultimately up to us to determine how we will react and cope. She can disrupt us, but she does not have to transform us, force us away from the lives and community we hold dear.

As we gather on this Shabbat, celebrating the first Bar or Bat Mitzvah in almost seven months, we look back and take stock. We have traveled a long way in that time and endured a great deal of turmoil and suffering. But we also have been blessed with bountiful gifts and support from family, friends and countless anonymous individuals, who touched our lives. We have discovered internal resources that we never knew we possessed. Like our ancestors we hold onto a vision of wholeness as we seek to personally rebuild and return to our Promised Land. May God give us strength as we continue the journey!



What Do We Mean By Redemption/Salvation?

APRIL 22, 2011

By Rabbi Robert H. Loewy


At this time of year, there are a few theologically loaded words that are tossed around a great deal in both the Jewish and Christian community. Specifically, I am speaking of the English words: salvation, redemption and deliverance. What these terms mean to us may differ from how they are utilized across the street. (To be clear that is a St. Clement of Rome reference, but it might also apply to Chabad.)

At our seders, we lift our cups four, even five times to mark God’s promises of redemption. We speak of how God “redeemed us from Egypt with an outstretched arm and saved us from the fists of tyrants.” Perhaps we know what these words mean, but then again we will discover that their emphasis has evolved over time.

Our Christian friends are observing Easter this weekend, marking the death and resurrection of the savior/redeemer. It is relatively clear for them: Jesus, whose name is a derivative of the Hebrew word, “savior,” died for human sins. Through belief in him, one is saved from death and the sinful nature of humanity. For Christians, being saved implies world to come, unity with God, and all to be sealed in a second coming.

Alas, it is not so simple and straight forward for us as Jews. An article by my colleague Rabbi Ken Roseman analyzes the variety of Jewish understandings. We start with the Hebrew root, yod, shin, ayin, usually translated to save, with nouns being savior or salvation. But then we must also look at peh, dalet, heh or gimmel, alef, lamed, connecting to being redeemed or redemption. Salvation and redemption in Jewish parlance seem to be twin concepts with the concept of deliverance also linked. The problem is that over time the terms are used interchangeably.

Let’s begin by focusing on the Yud, shin, ayin root. Rabbi Roseman applies linguistic analysis, discovering that it is found in one form or another, 201 times in the Bible. Keep in mind that our Bible was compiled over hundreds of years and reflects different stages in our history.

In those books that pertain to times before we were exiled to Babylonia, it appears 75 times and always relates to victory over our national enemies, the Philistines, Midianites, Ammonites etc. In these cases salvation, redemption or deliverance is from an external oppressor. Never is it focused on the fate of an individual. One example: I Samuel 4:3- “Let us fetch the ark of the covenant of the Lord out of Shiloh unto us, that God may come among us, and save us (v’yoshe-einu) from the hand of our enemies.”

In the “Exilic literature,” reflecting the times when we were captive in Babylonia, 2/3 of the utilization of the term focus on victory over an oppressor, but 1/3 are more personal. Jeremiah 17:14 provides the famous line: “Heal me O Lord and I shall be healed, Save me (hoshi’eini) and I shall be saved (ve-i-va-sheia).” This relates to a changing understanding of the nature of the covenant. In the pre-exilic it is all about the nation, but during the exile it becomes more personal.

Then in the Post-exilic sources, those books that were written upon our return to Judea from Babylonia, we find 102 uses of the verb, with the majority shifting from victory over oppressors to victory over personal issues, internal enemies. Psalm 34:19- “The Lord is near to all who are of a broken heart and saves (yoshe’a) such as are of a contrite spirit.”

Thus we can see that the Biblical evolution of yud, shin, ayin starts with a focus on other nations, but then salvation is about personal troubles, internal difficulties, anxieties, statuses such as poverty and humiliation.

The Rabbinic perspective, by which I mean the sages of the Talmudic era, post-Biblical, will follow along similar themes to the Bible, offering both understandings, collective and personal. However, as opposed to using the yud, shin, ayin verb, the rabbis prefer to use gimmel, alef, lamed, lest there be confusion with Christianity, where Jesus’s very name relates to salvation. Though personal salvation is mentioned, it is more often the idea of collectively being saved. This too might also be in contradistinction to Christianity. Jews are living in exile in Christian Europe and Babylonia and they yearn for deliverance. George Foote Moore, a Christian scholar, discussing the rabbinic period, writes, “The idea of the salvation of the individual was indissolubly linked with the salvation of the people.” This concept continues for centuries, with kibbutz galuyiot, the gathering of the exiles as the basic meaning of salvation, not an other-worldly belief, nor an individualized status.

That was then, but what about now. In Jewish historical terms modernity began with the emancipation, starting in the late 18th and early 19th century and continues to this day. This is the time period where Jews no longer see themselves as living in exile, but are part of the countries in which they live, especially Germany, France, England and America. Not surprisingly we will again see a shift from collective to individual salvation. In the newer approaches to Judaism, Reform and Conservative, the focus is upon the individual. No longer do we cling to a hope for a personal messiah who will save us, but we place our faith in individuals banding together for a messianic age. Instead, the “isms” of the 19th century, as I like to call them, socialism, communism, utopianism, and Zionism became the vehicles for bringing about group salvation. Meanwhile, traditional Jewish thinkers call for keeping the mitzvot, gathering the exiles, hoping for the messiah and this is what salvation is all about.

So, how are we as modern 21st century Jews going to understand the idea of salvation? Some will cling to the idea of a personal messiah and personal salvation. It may not necessarily be a rational approach to faith, but it may simply feel good and comforting. Not everything has to make sense. Others turn to God in the hope that there will be Divine intervention, either direct or indirect, to bring victory over external enemies. This may be challenging to accept in light of history, but we cling to many beliefs that do not always bear fruit. A number of modern thinkers provide us with alternative approaches:

Rabbi Harold Kushner comments on vanquishing human evils in the world, when he writes:

“I see Messiah as being the collective will of the people to bring about the Messianic Age. For me, the belief in the Messiah is not expectation of a gifted, supernatural person. It’s sort of the Jewish equivalent of Murphy’s Law. Murphy’s Law is the law that everything that could go wrong will. The Jewish belief in the Messiah says that anything that can go right, ultimately will. Wait long enough, do the right thing, and sooner or later this world will become the kind of world God originally wanted it to be. For me, that’s what the Messianic world means.” (Searching for God in America)

His idea is essentially, “a notion of Jewish messianism that does not depend on divine intervention, but on human activity to accomplish what we understand to be the ethical and moral will of God.” This is perfect for many non-Orthodox Jews.

Martin Buber takes a more mystical perspective on redemption. He envisions “a completely intimate, encompassing and unbreakable bond between people and God, a state of affairs never before experienced, but for which we devoutly and passionately hope.” He describes how we are often lost in difficult moments of life, “but suddenly we feel the touch of a hand. It reaches down to us, it wishes to be grasped—and yet what incredible courage is needed to take that hand, to let it draw us up out of the darkness. This is redemption. We must recognize the true nature of the experience proffered us: It is that ‘our redeemer lives’ (Job 19:25), that He wishes to redeem us—but only by our acceptance of His redemption with the turning of our whole being.” (On the Bible) His is a deeply personal, intimate and spiritual approach.

Abraham Joshua Heschel, the Jewish philosopher who when marching with Dr. Martin Luther King on Shabbat, explained that he was praying with his feet, believes that the redemption of all people depends upon their serving God’s will. We do this by. performing the mitzvot. For him, redemption is an ongoing reality occurring daily in little ways: “Every man is called upon to be a redeemer, and redemption takes place every moment, every day… the world is in need of redemption, but the redemption must not be expected to happen as an act of sheer grace. Man’s task is to make the world worthy of redemption. His faith and his works are preparations for ultimate redemption.” (God in Search of Man)

Rav Kook, the early Chief Rabbi of Israel, very naturally understood the re-establishment of the modern state as a step towards and a sign of redemption, enabling the ingathering of the exiles.

Last I share the thought of Milton Steinberg with a quotation that you will find in our Mishkan tefillah siddur: “Salvation is the Jews’ victory over human limitations: ignorance and insensitivity. It is the conquest of sinfulness, of the evils resident within the self: pride, selfishness, hate, lust, cynicism, the deliberate rejection of goodness and truth.” Clearly for him, we each have the ability to bring about salvation.

So on this holy weekend, with its theme of salvation and redemption, what are we to believe as Jews? We can embrace the traditional ideas of God as redeemer/savior, who brings victory over our enemies, who promises a time to come of ultimate peace and wholeness. We can hearken to the Prophet Malachi, who describes messianic times as being when hearts of parents are turned to children and children to parents, or perhaps Maimonides, who envisioned an era when there will be neither famine or war, neither jealousy nor strife, culminating in the coming of the messiah. Then we have the more modern perspectives: a messianic age where we help to bring about the kind of world that Maimonides described, as part of our covenantal responsibility with God.

And where do I place myself on this spectrum of theological possibility? Being an occasional gambler, I think I’ll hedge my bets. As we do the work of redemption, it brings us that much closer to salvation. If at some point in time God mystically chooses to intervene in a miraculous way, then so much the better. Until then it is up to us.



Most of this sermon has been based on the article by Ken Roseman, “With a Clear Prayer We Could See Forever,” CCAR Reform Jewish Quarterly, Fall 2010.

Israel Reflections 2011

April 15, 2011

By Rabbi Robert H. Loewy


This Shabbat is known as Shabbat Hagadol, the Great Sabbath prior to Pesach. Its focus is the verse predicting messianic times by the Prophet Malachi, when the hearts of parents and children are at one with each other. Tonight is certainly symbolic of that reality for one family. Another aspect of messianic times is our link to the land of Israel. On Monday we will lift our cup of Elijah in expectation of that promise and conclude our seder with “Next year in Jerusalem.” As opposed to next year, this evening I will focus upon “last week in Jerusalem and Israel.”

As many of you know I am fresh from my most recent Israel sojourn with the New Orleans Kehillah Community Mission, organized by our Jewish Federation, and there is so much to share. Combine that with some of the major addresses I heard at the CCAR Convention the week before my departure, and we could be here all night. But out of great compassion for the Jewish people, who have been known to be long suffering, I will strive to limit myself this evening to a few points.

As always when speaking of Israel, the first focus is the peace process and issues of security. I look forward to the day when that will not be the case. Between the CCAR and the trip, I learned from a variety of experts. Everyone has an opinion and no one can really know what comes next. In recent days we have witnessed regime change in Egypt and Tunisia, civil war in Libya, rioting in Syria, demonstrations in Jordan, Bahrain and Yemen, possible Hezbollah takeover of Lebanon and who knows what in Iran. The whole region is one big question mark. Could this have been anticipated? Former Ambassador to Egypt and Israel, Daniel Kertzer explained it as if all the hard drives of experts have crashed. No one saw this coming in this way. Hindsight can now analyze why it is happening, but still not predict what comes next. Kertzer cautions lest we lump all the countries together, as they have very different histories and societal structure. He is most optimistic on Egypt’s prospects of emerging with democracy and progress, but doubtful that this will be the case elsewhere.

Many argue that this is the optimum time for Israel to offer a bold peace initiative, but the ongoing reality of unstable partners on the other side of the negotiating table results in grave doubts of success. Voices on the left argue that the continuing occupation of the West Bank undermines Israel’s ability to live according to its own basic Jewish, moral and democratic values. Voices on the right argue that security is the only issue. All else is secondary. Previous negotiations provide a blueprint for peace, but finding the political will to execute the plans is another matter.

One looming issue on the horizon will be the attempt to declare an independent Palestinian state unilaterally with the blessing of the U.N. General Assembly in September. It is a foregone conclusion that they have the majority of votes with all the Islamic and third world nations to pass. However this does not mean that they will have the support of the powerful nations of the world. Israel’s diplomatic goal will be to assemble a significant group of nations, who will not support the resolution, thus weakening its impact. The U.S. will play a pivotal role.

I’ve noticed that every time I am in Israel, there are a number of significant news stories or events that emerge. I do not take it personally, but recognize it as a function of the fact that Israel is always in the news. The first major topic on this occasion was the recanting by Judge Richard Goldstone, who was part of a U.N. Committee evaluating Israel’s conduct in Gaza last year. His report charged Israel with purposely targeting civilian populations. Goldstone, a South African Jewish jurist, previously affirmed that report, but now believes it was erroneous. Unfortunately the damage is done and there will be numerous diplomatic hoops to be jumped if it is to be reversed. Like most retractions, it will appear on the back pages of the news and not the front.

Sadly, attacks from Gaza’s militants and counter-attacks by Israel are ongoing. Israel targeted Hamas bomb makers. Then an Israeli school bus was hit with an anti-tank missile, killing at least one student. Israel responded with pin point attacks in Gaza. Hamas continued to launch rockets and mortars into southern parts of Israel, for which Israel’s new anti-missile defense shield was effectively used for the first time. Perhaps this feels like ping pong, but this is no game and lives are at stake. Sadly, I see no end in sight on this front.

My words are ominous, but at the same time, let me share that at no time did I feel unsafe or vulnerable while travelling. In fact, it was just the opposite. The reality of living in Israel is similar to our own, when we wake up each morning to news of a shooting in the 9th Ward or a murder in Marrero. These are all horrible, but we still feel secure, unless we find ourselves in these embattled areas.

Let me shift my focus now a bit, as I bring news that will likely not upset you too much. You will no longer be able to purchase that God awful, sickly sweet, imported, Carmel wine for your Passover seders. If that is your taste, you can still buy domestic. The good news is that Carmel and other Israeli wineries are now producing top quality, international award winning vintages for our seder and year round pleasure. Our group sampled a wide variety providing many a spiritual high.

Let me also tell you that the Israel national bird is no longer the chicken, as in chicken soup. Rather it is the Crane, as in building cranes all over the country. Israel’s economy is booming. Whether in Tel Aviv or Jerusalem, Ashdod or our sister city of Rosh Ha’ayin, wherever we were, we witnessed significant economic development. In particular, it seemed as though each community had a high tech industrial zone with all the worldwide labels represented. In the past Israel was known for its produce, especially those Jaffa oranges. Now the oranges come from Spain and the rest of the world is the beneficiary of Israeli creativity and intellect.

One of Israel’s original goals was to be a homeland for the oppressed of our people. We had the opportunity to visit a number of programs, devoted to absorption of new immigrants, funded in part by our donations to Jewish Federation. Historically, Israel has brought in literally millions of Jews from the Arab world and the former Soviet Union. The most recent group adapting to Israeli life are the Ethiopians with 125,000 in the land and approximately 8,700 awaiting rescue. In candor it will require at least a generation before this group will be fully integrated into Israeli life. These programs help to prepare for that eventuality, while providing assistance and support. One cannot expect people to move from rural villages, with no education, modern skills or even exposure to 21st century life and then immediately become part of high tech modern society. Talk about culture shock, especially for those over the age of 40! Still, we can already discern that the children of the immigrants are successfully making the leap. If we reflect upon the Eastern European Jews who came to America from the shtetls in the beginning of the 20th century, we realize the same pattern can be discerned.

In addition to Ethiopia, we were exposed to the trickle of Jews arriving from Venezuela, Argentina, Iran, Turkey and Morocco, as well as the significant numbers coming from France. As anti-Semitism increases in France, so do the numbers of immigrants.

Friends, this was my 9th or 10th trip to Israel with my first visit being for my initial academic year training for the rabbinate in 1972-73. Much has changed in Israel since then. The euphoria of the Six Day War victory, followed by the triumph in 1973 has given way to a political and military stalemate that has ensued for almost 40 years. From an American perspective, Israelis were often known for their arrogance, their attitude that if you do not live in Israel, then you are no longer a real Jew.  To be a Zionist, one had to be totally committed to living in the Jewish State, or short of that being fully supportive of everything that Israel does. During this Israel trip in particular, I sensed a major shift in the thinking of Israelis regarding themselves, their relationship to the rest of the Jewish world and even to history.

Emblematic of that development is a name change. On the campus of Tel Aviv University, you can tour a museum called Bet Hatefutsot, what used to be called, The Diaspora Museum. Its exhibits provide a history of the experience of Jews who have been scattered throughout the world over the centuries. But its subliminal message had always been: “this is where we were; these are the problems we experienced and now the diaspora is over for us. We have Israel,” essentially negating 2000 years of Jewish life.

The institution is still called “Bet Hatefutsot” in Hebrew, but its English name is “The Museum of the Jewish People.” This reflects a greater sense of partnership between Israel’s Jews and world Jewry and diminished superiority and triumphalism. One might conclude that since the name was only changed in the English and not the Hebrew, that there is one message for internal consumption and another for external, but I do not believe that to be the case. Rather there is a greater message of real partnership and mutual respect that has grown between Israel and world Jewry. In addition, there is recognition that many Israelis really do not understand North American Jews. An article in the Jerusalem Post described the establishment of a new committee of the Knesset dedicated to helping members gain a fuller appreciation of the realities of North American Jewish life. Hopefully, this will reduce or eliminate insulting legislation emanating from the Knesset, relating to Jewish status and a greater respect for religious pluralism, which continues to be a bothersome issue.

This was the shortest time I have spent in Israel. But as you can see, even in seven days, there was much to be learned and appreciated. Keep in mind I did not even mention digging for archaeological remnants from the period of the Maccabees, riding all terrain vehicles in the blessed rain in the Galilee or bicycles along the Mediterranean, eating more good food than should be allowed to any human being, remembering the Shoah at Yad Vashem, worshipping at the Western Wall, experiencing Shabbat in Jerusalem, shopping at Kippah Man on Ben Yehuda St. where I restocked my kippah collection, and much more. The bottom line is that I will just have to go back and I hope that many of you will do the same, perhaps travelling with me or another experience.

Friends, I do not view Israel uncritically, but I do look through a prism of  love. It is a struggling democracy with real security issues and numerous challenges. The quality of education has decreased. There are issues regarding the numbers of eligible men and women participating in the work force and troubling gaps in the social fabric between rich and poor; serious identity issues as the younger generation struggles with religious and Zionist identity and problematic divisions between Orthodox and non-Orthodox. Maybe we have lessons to teach on that subject. At the same time it has in fact fulfilled the dreams of the earliest Zionists to embrace the oppressed of the Jewish people and to be a cultural and spiritual center for world Jewry. We are not living in messianic times yet, but perhaps we are a little closer than in the past.


What’s Next For Israel

May 27, 2011

By Rabbi Robert H. Loewy


This past week I have received numerous phone calls and e-mails or have been asked to react or respond to questions: What’s going on in Washington? What is Obama doing? Why is he selling out Israel? Did you hear Netanyahu? What do you think? And so, though I had originally planned to speak about Jewish War Veterans on this Memorial Day Weekend, I feel it is important to address this issue of “What’s next for Israel?”

Many are confused, dismayed, angry and even scared. To the hyperventilators my suggestion is that it is time to step back and breathe. Recognize that this is part of an ongoing attempt to bring about peace in Israel. And there will be upset from all sides, if they are ever to come to an accommodation with one another. That is the essence of compromise. Keep in mind that we only are privy to what is being said publicly, but not privately.

And isn’t it wonderful how everyone has an opinion! We hear from those who wish to exalt the President as the savior, the world leader who will cobble together disparate groups to find a common solution and those who wish to depict him as the newest embodiment of Amalek, the destroyer of the Jews. No one is fully objective. We all have biases. I include myself. But people have asked me what I think, so let me first issue a disclaimer: I am not a prophet or the son of a prophet. I am not a diplomat, nor do I have specific academic credentials that inform my comments. God has not told me how to figure this all out. What I bring to the discussion is insight from having been to Israel, listened to many smart people, read a lot and ahavat Yisrael, love for the State of Israel and the Jewish people. However, I am not so arrogant as to believe that I am right and others are wrong. I can only share my perspective. With that as background what are we talking about?

The latest episode on this subject begins with a series of statements by President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu. President Obama’s came in the forms of an address to the world on his views regarding the Middle East, inclusive of thoughts for the next round of negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians, followed by an address to AIPAC, the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee, a major lobbying group for Israel. Prime Minister Netanyahu met with President Obama, reacted to his first speech, then made two presentations of his own, first to AIPAC followed by a masterful oration to the United States Congress.

Let me begin with President Obama’s presentations. My analysis is primarily my own, but is also informed by reading the reactions of others. Yesterday I had a unique opportunity, by virtue of the fact that I am currently an officer in the CCAR, to be on a phone call with Dennis Ross, President Obama’s key advisor on the Middle East, as he was to the two previous administrations. Though our focus tonight is primarily Israel, we need to remember that his initial address was to the world and discussion of Israel came in the context of major changes occurring: the death of Osama Bin Laden, the demonstrations and revolutions in Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, Bahrain, Yemen, Syria and throughout parts of the Arab world.

Israel came at the end of the speech. The President shared what many of us feel, that both sides have contributed to the impasse and that perhaps now IS the time to push the sides to negotiate. The recent rapprochement between Fatah and Hamas is problematic. He clearly expressed great concern about Hamas, which has never accepted Israel. If they are to be party to this, then they must unequivocally renounce violence and reverse their position. Whether they can be trusted is another story, but negotiations can go nowhere otherwise.

I know that in diplomacy, each word and nuance is analyzed and overanalyzed, but what I heard contained much that I’ve heard for years. He called for two states each with clear borders. Those borders would be based on the pre-1967 borders, but with mutually agreed upon land swaps. Much has been made of the Presidents reference to the 1967 borders, as if he was saying that Israel had to return to precisely what was the reality then, untenable, indefensible borders, which would not take into account the almost 650,000 Jews who now live beyond the Green line, the old border. But that was not what was said and was subsequently clarified. Mutually agreed upon land swaps would mean that many, if not most of those living beyond the Green Line, primarily in the suburbs of Jerusalem and Tel Aviv would be in Israel, though some of the settlements would not, and in return Palestine would receive other land. From Israel’s perspective I’m guessing this would probably include what they always claimed was not a        de-facto future border, currently outlined by a security fence and wall. Palestinians would attain one of their most basic goals, to have clear territory that is their own. The concept of a contiguous State between the West bank and Gaza is a challenge, but I am aware of discussions regarding a roadway and/or tunnels that might be involved.

What Israel requires is security. In his initial speech, the President said, “Israel must be able to defend itself -– by itself -– against any threat.  Provisions must also be robust enough to prevent a resurgence of terrorism, to stop the infiltration of weapons, and to provide effective border security.” Its other gain as far as I am concerned is to be relieved of the horrific administration of “occupied territory,” which is not only a financial drain, but has placed Israelis in challenging moral positions, forcing compromise on essential Jewish and democratic values.

Jerusalem and the fate of so-called refugees will come later. This is a change in strategy from previous attempts of settlement. The hope is that by building agreement in the first area, this can then be the basis for moving forward on the other two, which are more emotional, but with creativity can be addressed IF there is a will. What President Obama seeks is “A viable Palestine and a secure Israel.”

Prime Minister Netanyahu reacted to the President’s proposal, first in a meeting at the White House, then at AIPAC and Congress. He was very effective and eloquent. While initially he seemed to bridle at the mention of the ’67 borders in what I believe was a necessary response for the right wing in his own government, his later comments were much more supportive of the proposals, as he staked out his position.

He pointed out that Middle East turmoil has nothing to do with Israel and everything to do with corruption, intolerance and poverty in the Arab world. The shadow of Iran and its influence, not only as it effects Israel but the entire world needs to be confronted. He recognized that freedom may be possible in Egypt and Jordan, the two countries with whom Israel has peace agreements, but only if their economies are supported. He stressed his desire for lasting peace with the Palestinians and his support for a 2 State solution, which he only embraced in recent years. And he repeated his willingness to make painful compromises, reaffirming ancient claims on Judea and Samaria, which might be sacrificed if need be. As a positive harbinger of the future, he cited the growth and modernization of the West Bank Palestinian economy in recent years with Israel removing literal barriers and roadblocks.

Speaking to Congress, he raised the question: “Why has peace eluded Israel?” His answer: “Because so far, the Palestinians have been unwilling to accept a Palestinian state, if it meant accepting a Jewish state alongside it…You see, our conflict has never been about the establishment of a Palestinian state. It has always been about the existence of the Jewish state…They were simply unwilling to end the conflict.  And I regret to say this: They continue to educate their children to hate. They continue to name public squares after terrorists.  And worst of all, they continue to perpetuate the fantasy that Israel will one day be flooded by the descendants of Palestinian refugees.”

Just as he has accepted the idea of a Palestinian State, he called upon Mahmoud Abbas to publicly say, “I will accept a Jewish State” and then there can be progress. An obvious challenge for him is that Hamas, as it is currently constituted, is no partner for peace.

To my ears, his comments on the border and the status of those living beyond the Green Line, as well as the absolute need for security did not essentially differ from the President’s. I know, “the devil is in the details.” Though he spoke of his approach to Jerusalem and the refugee issue, he did not say that they had to be on the table as well initially; ultimately, “yes,” but initially, “no.”

Then come all of the analysis by friends and foes alike. The critics of President Obama’s position point out that land for peace has not worked, with Gaza as a prime example. Others argue that not addressing Jerusalem and the refugees is like planting a bomb waiting to go off. And as long as Hamas is involved, there can be no trust or settlement. By accepting the outlines of President Obama’s suggestions, Israel would be putting itself into a weaker position and would have to hope for the best.

Bret Stephens of the Wall Street Journal, highly critical of the President and questioning his basic support of Israel writes, “What, then, would a pro-Israel president do? He would tell Palestinians that there is no right of return. He would make the reform of the Arab mindset toward Israel the centerpiece of his peace efforts. He would outline hard and specific consequences should Hamas join the government. Such a vision could lay the groundwork for peace. What Mr. Obama offered is a formula for war, one that he will pursue in a second term, assuming, of course, that he gets one.”

In an article circulated by “We are for Israel” a centrist group of rabbis, led by our friend Rabbi Micky Boyden in Israel, Prime Minister Netanyahu’s address to Congress was analyzed. In particular the initial disharmony between the two leaders was bridged, as the Prime Minister acknowledged all of the support the President Obama has provided on multiple levels. He also embraced many of the ideas offered by the President, though offering different approaches and interpretations of the situation. Where he could have been a hawk, he chose not to be.

Listening to Dennis Ross provided insight and context. He stressed that for those worried that President Obama’s proposals might weaken Israel, all was spoken of in the context of an unshakable and iron-clad commitment for Israel. This includes providing Israel with the military edge, such as the new Iron Dome missile system, which has successfully shot down incoming rockets in flight. The President’s comments spoke of security arrangements, no terrorism, no arms, border security and what would be a mutually agreed upon adjustment period. The bottom line U.S. position is that it will not leave Israel vulnerable and must ensure that Israel can defend itself by itself.

Perhaps most significantly, the address was in response to efforts to delegitimize Israel internationally. With no movement on the diplomatic front, there is every reason to believe that European countries will vote in favor of the unilateral declaration of a Palestinian State, which is likely to be proposed and approved at the United Nations this Fall. However, without the support of the European countries, it will be seen merely as an irritant. President Obama made his proposal, not only prior to AIPAC, but also on the eve of his European travel. He is currently garnering support for his position in Europe, which is crucial for Israel.

The new realities of the Middle East also require that the general populations be addressed. In Egypt, as long as Mubarek was willing to support peace, the treaty was strong. I believe the treaty is still secure for the time being, but public opinion has to be wooed. No movement on negotiations is not in Israel’s best interest. This is true in Palestine as well, where their Facebook generation can perhaps be reached. Let the Palestinians be perceived as the intransigents if need be. The recent demonstrators on Israel’s borders could be an omen for the future.

Friends, I wish I could tell you that all will be well, that I have absolute faith in the proposals that have come from Washington. I cannot. But I can tell you that leaving matters as they are is no solution either. I do have faith that this President and the administration and Congress are wholeheartedly supportive of Israel and its security. Nothing else has proven effective so far. Perhaps these new ideas will jump-start the stagnant process. We continue to pray for the peace of Jerusalem.


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.