Jewish Hall Of Fame

Rosh Hashanah Eve 5772-2012

By Rabbi Robert H. Loewy


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Isaac Bashevis Singer
Steven Spielberg
Barbra Streisand
Henrietta Szold

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Our Reform Agenda

DECEMBER 9, 2011

By Rabbi Robert H. Loewy


Friends, our Reform Movement is most certainly in a reflective mood approaching the largest gathering of the Union for Reform Judaism and Women of Reform Judaism in our history, with close to 6000 participants expected this coming week. We are at a pivotal moment in our history.

The initial upset and turmoil that has assaulted our national movement over the past few years was related to finance. The economic downturn prompted belt tightening by congregations and in turn impacted the funding of our national movement, which refers to both the Union For Reform Judaism (URJ), our congregational body and the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR), our seminary. But more than dollars, there arose a call for reassessment in the overall direction of our national movement.

What is this in response to? The numbers of affiliated Jews is shrinking for many reasons other than finance. 20s and 30s particularly seem to be seeking alternative paths to Jewish meaning. Interfaith couples either leave Judaism completely or are seeking something different. Jewish men are tending to stay away from synagogue leadership and life. Concepts of lifelong membership in synagogue have been replaced by a “serve us” mentality, as opposed to “service.” Needless to say, the situation is much more complicated than what I describe. Some of this relates to religious life in all of America, while our focus tonight is our specific expression of faith.

Rabbi Rick Jacobs has been selected to lead our URJ to address the new realities, but as he comes into office he and the reconfigured leadership of our Movement are doing a great deal of listening. This includes literally thousands of people engaging in “think tanks,” where we address key questions for our Jewish future. Our Board recently participated in part of the process. Many of you may have already read responses in the recent edition of Reform Judaism Magazine. Decisions that will be made in the coming years will certainly have ramifications for us as a Reform congregation.

For those who may not be clear, let me explain the relationship between our national organizations and us. Gates of Prayer is an autonomous organization, but by affiliation, which means we have a financial obligation, we are members of the URJ. As a member, we receive access to URJ services and programs, which include Chai curriculum material for our religious school, Jacobs Camp for our children in the summer, NFTY Southern for our teens, program resources for social action initiatives, caring committee guidance, worship and music enrichment resources, administrative structures, the template for our web site and much more. We cannot forget all the financial assistance, collected by the URJ and URJ congregations, distributed to us post-Katrina- close to $1,000,000. We also benefit by national advocacy on issues directly relating to synagogue life and the values that we as Reform Jews uphold through the Religious Action Center in Washington.

However, I would suggest that over and above the direct benefits we derive by membership, being connected to a specific religious movement is a statement: We are part of history and an approach to Judaism that is much larger than 4000 West Esplanade. We are linked to thinkers and leaders who spend a great deal of time focused on how to enhance, support and guide what it means to be Jewish in the 21st century. We are not required to follow the resolutions and programs suggested, as if it has come down from Sinai.

But I would argue with the advantage of hindsight that our Movement has effectively provided us with direction to respond to the changing realities of our world in the past, such as the role of women, integrating interfaith families and outreach, openness to LGBTQ individuals and families, advocating for social justice, appreciating the State of Israel, re-envisioning worship and much more. And with our input and involvement, we will address our current and future issues.

This evening, I invite you to reflect upon five questions, which have been posed to us by our Movement, questions which will be addressed throughout the country. The answers will not only help inform future direction, but I believe that they will directly impact this congregation. I will share my brief responses this evening and look forward to opportunities for all of us to think together.

  • What is the most valuable aspect of being a Reform Jew?

As Reform Jews we continue to champion autonomy with responsibility. We appreciate that the full menu of Jewish belief and practice is open to us. We enjoy the freedom to use our minds and spirits to draw upon Jewish tradition and teaching to apply to the realities of our everyday life. This intellectual and spiritual foundation principle is our greatest strength, but let me caution that it is also our greatest weakness.

When the focus is all about autonomy without responsibility; when mitzvah is thought of solely as a good deed that one chooses to do, as opposed to (not so much commandment that one has to do) but at least as a sacred obligation, a teaching of our tradition that one should seriously consider in light of history, then we dilute our basic message. When, “I’m Reform, we don’t do….” is our basic mantra; When we do not clearly embrace positive statements about what it means to be a Reform Jew, then our strength becomes our downfall.

  • What future possibility for Jewish life gives you energy?

At times even I can be pessimistic. I read of the 50% intermarriage rate, which 2/3 of the time results in a total disconnect from Judaism and I so appreciate and celebrate those families, such as our Bar Mitzvah’s, who make the choice to stay committed. When I contemplate so many young people who seem disinclined to stay linked to the Judaism of their youth, even among those who were committed as teens, or when I think of the many who were once members, but now have left, it can be disheartening.

Then I recall that every generation has had their fears and concerns and my usual optimism returns. With creativity and openness, grounded in faith and tradition, we have the opportunity to reinvent synagogue life and Jewish life in ways that will touch the heart, mind and behaviors of Jews. I reflect upon the previously unheard of groundbreaking ways that we have found to transcend denominational barriers with the Orthodox community, as we have successfully done on W. Esplanade, while maintaining and respecting different approaches to Judaism. I think of the energy that pervaded our Tot Shabbat experiences earlier this evening, even the fun of Sunday football in the Manheim sponsored by Brotherhood and I am optimistic. This leads to the next question.

  • In what ways would a Reform congregation be so compelling that it would be the center where you seek to explore your Judaism?

This is the question that asks us to dream about a congregation that would be engaging and involving and spiritually fulfilling. I believe the key concept in this is the word “connections,” as in: creating connections to other people in all that we do, being welcoming and embracing in multiple ways. Before we embark on any activity, perhaps we should ask the question: “How are we making connections between Judaism and God and our people?”

While Shabbat attendance is often used as a barometer of a synagogue’s health, it is important to remember that there can be many points of connection for individuals. For some it will be through caring community, others, ritual, learning, social justice or sociability at the Oneg Shabbat. We also need to be presenting the Jewish values and insights that provide direction and meaning to our people on a daily basis, as well as during the critical life cycle moments.

As was pointed out to me in our Board’s discussion of some of these questions, it is important for the rabbi to embody these values, to be open and caring, a facilitator of creating and encouraging connections. At the same time he/she needs to provide the Jewish compass. Through active welcoming, and providing multiple gates for access into Jewish life, a congregation can create a compelling atmosphere for Jewish commitment and fulfillment.

  • How could Reform Judaism transform the Jewish community beyond our synagogue walls?

This question calls upon us to develop a new mindset. With the increasing number of unaffiliated and disconnected Jews in our communities, do we perhaps need to be thinking of a synagogue and a movement reaching people who are not our members, yet, and may never be? This suggests that rabbis and congregations reconsider providing services and programs outside the synagogue. We already do social action and interfaith, but this new concept addresses reaching out and serving the unaffiliated Jews. Perhaps they will one day connect and join our synagogue, or if not ours, at least another, but there are no guarantees. Historically, we know that we have been appropriately insular, serving the people who pay their dues, who commit to the synagogue. This calls upon us to think beyond ourselves.

We are already doing some of this with technology. Right now, in addition to our members, there may be non-dues paying Jews coming to our services weekly, as we have begun live streaming. Once it is out there, it’s for everyone. There are unlimited opportunities for our programs to go beyond our walls through cyber-space. But this is more of a collateral benefit, not specifically targeting others.

I recently heard from a Reform rabbi who has been hired to work on a college campus to solely reach out to liberal Jewish students, who have historically disconnected from more traditionally perceived Hillel. His position has been funded by the Reform congregations of New Jersey. Additionally I am aware of programs, one called Next Dor (as in the next generation) where congregations have funded professionals to never step foot in their buildings, but spend all of their time meeting young people where they are to create Jewish connections.

While we may not embrace the ideologies of the Chabad Jewish movement, we can certainly appreciate, admire and emulate the efforts (personal and financial) they devote to reaching out beyond their walls to wine and dine and meaningfully engage fellow Jews of all ages and stages, regardless of their affiliations or levels of observance.

  • What could the Reform Movement do now to help you and your community?

They are already doing it. By having me and our leaders respond to these kinds of questions, they inspire us to not only think, but hopefully act upon what we consider. I look forward to learning from greater minds than our own, or at least be enriched by the insights and experiences of others, which will provide effective models for congregation and community strengthening.

Since much of this is dreaming, recognizing that all of this has a price tag and that our local resources are limited, it would be wonderful if our national movement could show us the way to additional funds.

My friends, we find ourselves at an important point in the history of our Reform Judaism as the agenda is being set for the future. I can tell you that a key word being tossed around is collaboration among the major organizations of our movement. Saving money is a goal, while unifying more in service to the Jewish people. Our community will benefit by such efforts and already is doing so in some areas. I detect a different attitude emanating from our national leaders, one which is more humble, but no less committed to creating a strong Reform Jewish community for the future. It may look a bit different than it has in the past, but the fundamental values and purposes will remain. It will require the commitment of all of us.


The Red Suitcase

KOL NIDRE 2011-5772

By Rabbi Robert H. Loewy


Friends, I stand here this evening awash in a sea of feelings. Like every year, I am energized as our community comes together and inspired by beautiful renditions of Kol Nidre. But perhaps the dominant emotion for the moment is gratitude.

I am grateful to be your rabbi, sharing in our 28th High Holy Day season together. The Hineni prayer with which I began this evening is a sincere expression of the honor I feel and recognition of the trust that has been bestowed upon me. Intertwined in one another’s lives, we have become like family in so many ways.

I am of course blessed with my actual family. I am especially pleased to have not only Lynn, Sara and Mica here this evening, but also my mother-in-law Ellen, and yes, you are seeing double, her twin sister Ruth.

Though still filled with gratitude, as most of you know, there is a subtext of sadness for me.  I am observant of sheloshim, the 30 day mourning period for my mother, Janet Loewy. Her seat in our sanctuary is empty for these High Holy Days. She, along with my father, so loved to be here. Yes, it was because of “her son the rabbi,” but also because of our service and all of you. During her last time with us for the Holy Days, she was celebrating her 95th birthday on Rosh Hashanah 2009. She died one week short of her 97th. Reflecting upon her years with gratitude, I am able to say with confidence that it was a meaningful life.

As has happened so many times over the years, I plan my holy day messages in advance, only to have storms, world events and life intervene. Upon reflection, is that not the reality that all of us confront? We plan, focus our attention in one direction, only to be diverted into another.

This evening my original concept was to discuss a teaching from our Jewish tradition. I will keep to that plan, but shift my emphasis. Perhaps you have heard of the lamed vavniks? From the Talmud we read:

Rabbi Abaye said that there must be at least 36+ righteous people in each generation. Usually there are more, lots more. The full Talmud text is as follows: Abaye said: The world must contain not less than thirty-six righteous people in each generation who receive Shechinah’s face, as it is written, “Blessed are all that wait for him.” (Isaiah 30:18); the numerical value of him -‘lo’ (lamed vav in Hebrew) is thirty- six.” From this little anecdote comes the legend of the lamed vavniks.

However, in good rabbinic tradition, another rabbi, Rava, cites a different verse which suggests that there must be 18000 righteous souls in each generation. What a surprise- rabbis can’t decide if it is 36 or 18000 righteous people in the world. The only point upon which they can agree is that we are dealing with a derivative of 18.

Who are these righteous ones? How will we know who they are? Naomi Bremen, in her book, “My Grandfather’s Blessing,” shares the teaching as she learned it from her him:

“Only God knows who the Lamed-Vovniks are. Even the Lamed-Vovniks themselves do not know for sure the role they have in the continuation of the world, and no one else knows it either. They respond to suffering, not in order to save the world but simply because the suffering of others touches them and matters to them.

He went on to explain “that Lamed-Vovniks could be tailors or college professors, millionaires or paupers, powerful leaders or powerless victims. These things were not important. What mattered was only their capacity to feel the collective suffering of the human race and respond to the suffering around them. “And because no one knows who they are, Neshume-le, anyone you meet might be one of the thirty-six  
for whom God preserves the world,” my grandfather said. “It is important to treat everyone as if this might be so…Without compassion the world cannot continue. Our compassion blesses and sustains the world.”

With this legend of the lamed vavniks, I then planned to speak about what it means to truly lead a meaningful life, an appropriate theme for this holy day. Then life intervened, but perhaps only slightly. My friends, I cannot say for sure that Janet Loewy, my mother, was one of the lamed-vavniks, but just perhaps… As taught, we never know who they actually are, but we do know that the world is better because of them, and that how they conducted their lives can serve to teach us how to fill our days with meaning.

So, this evening I feel compelled to tell you about my mother and the life she led. To some extent I do so out of my own need to mourn and share with my congregational family, or simply to examine one whose life is worthy of emulation, as we reflect upon being inscribed for meaningful living.

Mom was a spiritual woman. She truly believed in God and the power of prayer. It provided her with strength, comfort and insight. This did not mean that God was answering or directly responding to her words and thoughts. Rather, for her prayer was a way to check in with God, to feel linked, whether expressed in the sanctuary or in her solitude. Though surrounded by others, who loved her and cared for her, she appreciated feeling that God was there too.

As she awoke each morning, she would recite a verse from the Book of Psalms: “This is the day the Lord has made, let us rejoice and be glad in it.” It may have been part of the formula for her longevity, reflecting a positive attitude: Each day is a new beginning, a new opportunity. Each day has the potential for joy. Each day is a blessing from God. Even when life can be challenging, there is always a new day, not a denial of problems, but the optimism that comes with knowing there is going to be something good in each and every day.

I should point out that to be a lamed vavnik does not mean one is an ascetic and denies the pleasures of life. On the contrary, one sage of our tradition teaches that in the world to come we will be asked about the legitimate pleasures we denied ourselves in this world, just everything in moderation. This past summer, I had a great deal of time to talk with my mother. Even when she was feeling well, she accepted the reality at age 96 that one does not live forever. Reflecting upon her years, she spoke of how much she enjoyed life, the places she had travelled, the opportunity to grow and learn, to meet a variety of people, to savor all the best life had to offer. A meaningful life includes expanding one’s awareness, moving beyond our own little corner of the world, as wonderful as it is, and opening ourselves up to the many other potential experiences that are waiting for us.

According to folklore, Lamed vavniks are usually anonymous. No one, not even they know who they are. Certainly Mom would not have defined herself as one. She dedicated herself in public and private ways to making a difference. I can share a long list of organizations Jewish and secular, where she was a leader. But let me tell you two stories: As I grew up, Lil, a school librarian by profession, was a woman who belonged to our congregation. She had no children and when her husband died, was all alone, a bit of a strange woman in truth, at least from a teenager’s perspective. I remember her because she became a weekly fixture at our dinner table, as did many others who Mom thought of as being alone in the world.

Another story- while working for the social service department of Nassau County as a volunteer, she was assigned the case of a man, who had been a Cantor. Suffering physically, emotionally and financially, alone in the world, she was able to help him receive the kinds of public assistance he needed to maintain himself. That was her job, but she did not stop there. She would cook for him and regularly reach out to him. And when he died, she along with my father, took it upon themselves to arrange a proper Jewish burial attended by a total of three, my mother, father and the officiating Cantor.  It’s the little, quiet, anonymous acts of loving-kindness that we perform which likely resonate on high the loudest.

In her lifetime, Mom received many awards and accolades. But it was one plaque in particular, which she received that captured her essence, so much so that she expressed the desire to be buried with it. It simply read: “Others.”

One of Mom’s primary areas of involvement was synagogue caring committee, similar to what we call Lev B’lev, heart to heart. She had her committee functioning the way I would love to see ours operate: assisting families in times of mourning, responding to illness, aiding individuals who are home bound, ensuring that everyone has a home for holy day meals and any other way that can be supportive of others. If you see yourself as someone who can help make a difference in the lives of others in this way, let me know and I will pass on your name to Marilyn Bernstein, the new Chair of the committee.

I am fully cognizant that I am the beneficiary of an amazing legacy of goodness. Going through her apartment and possessions following her death, my brother, sister and I each chose different mementos. Two in particular are quite symbolic and speak to what it means to lead a meaningful life. The first was the 65th anniversary ketubah, signed by all of my parents’ children and grandchildren. My parents had an amazing love for one another and a happy marriage for 69 years. As I have shared previously, the secret to their success was devotion, respect, supportiveness, friendship, caring, sensitivity, patience, open communication, shared values and goals, and a deep abiding love. While it seemed to come naturally, we all know that meaningful relationships, whether with partners or spouses, children or friends, don’t just happen. They require personal dedication and a desire for them to succeed, along with the ability to be forgiving and understanding.

The other memento is not so sentimental, but equally powerful in its message. It is the red suitcase you see next to me on the pulpit. Shortly after my father died in 2008, an event that we feared would be devastating for Mom, she told me she wanted a new suitcase. My father had previously dissuaded her, saying the old one was good enough. Dad was now gone and she wanted a new one with wheels. So, together we went to a local luggage store and she selected, not just any suitcase, but a bright red set with her initials inscribed. This was her statement that one can indeed overcome great adversity and continue in life, even when her heart was broken. With that suitcase she travelled here many times, was present in Chicago and Boston for the naming ceremonies of her sixth and seventh great grandchildren, celebrated and danced at the B’nai mitzvah of two others and if that was not enough, took a ten day vacation in Cancun with my sister and nieces. When life throws us unbearable challenges, when we might allow ourselves to feel as though we can’t go on, each of us needs to summon the strength to purchase a red suitcase.

Friends, I know how blessed I was to have had a mother, and in fact both parents, who demonstrated daily the essence of what it means to lead a meaningful life. I am also fully aware that there will now be a tremendous void in my life. I can only hope that by sharing these stories it will inspire each and every one of us to lead lives of meaning. I believe that all of us are linked to God, entitled to enjoy life, implanted with the potential to make the world a better, more caring and compassionate place in big and small ways, while staying connected with the ones we love. I know this because, I have been taught by the best.


The Message Of The Mezuzzah


By Rabbi Robert H. Loewy


My friends, I invite you to behold the humble mezuzah. You may think of it is a mere trinket, a bit of Jewish decorative art, but it is much more than that. Its essence and how we use it represents a model to solve the world’s problems. Therefore, in addition to it being hung on the doorposts of your house and my house, I propose that one be affixed on the White House and the doors of every congressman and senator. While we are at it, Mahmoud Abbas and the leadership of Fatah, along will the leaders of Hammas need them. Though Benjamin Netanyahu and his fellow leaders undoubtedly already have one, we might buy them new ones in order to grab their attention.

So what is the chochma, the wisdom, embodied in our little mezuzah? It is really quite simple. Have you ever wondered why a mezuzah is always at an angle on the right side of the doorpost? This custom for Ashkenazic Jews goes back to the Middle Ages. Rashi, the great French commentator taught that a mezuzah should be hung vertically, with the top pointing towards the heavens. But his grandson, Rabbenu Tam, also a great scholar, argued that it should be placed horizontally, just as the tablets of the law had rested in the Holy Ark in the Temple. After much discussion, the great decision evolved to hang it on the diagonal with its top inclined toward the inside, allowing peace to rein in a Jewish home in 12th century France. Our humble mezuzah teaches us the importance of compromise.

Social scientists study the art of compromise, the act of people cooperating to make society and organizations possible. Kenneth Thomas and Ralph Kilmann discuss five possible orientations to conflict: competition, collaboration, compromise, accommodation, and avoidance. They believe that each of the five orientations are appropriate under certain circumstances and that one should choose an approach to conflict resolution based on the nature of the conflict, not the style that you find most comfortable. Thomas and Kilmann noted that compromise is the appropriate conflict resolution mode when the cost of conflict is higher than the cost of losing ground, when equal strength opponents are at a standstill, and when there is a deadline looming.

Like many of you, I find myself frustrated and angry by the political process and tone of our nation at this time. The debt ceiling debate was only the most recent debacle, where partisan political positioning seems to have taken priority over the national good. Personal attacks from the right and the left only serve to demean the individuals involved and diminish the effectiveness and confidence in elected officials. When our elected officials announce in advance that they do not plan to attend a joint session of congress where the President speaks, this reflects close mindedness and disrespect for the basic institutions of our nation. The whole subject of civility in our society is one that I have addressed with you before and I urge you to let our elected officials hear of your disgust.

More than that let them know that gridlock on the major issues of our nation is not acceptable. We certainly can respect advocacy for positions of conscience, for pursuing the best paths to reach goals, but there is a higher standard that must be paramount, the economic, political and social health of our nation. Whether we are talking about the debt ceiling, immigration reform, taxation, health care or any number of contentious topics, responsible leaders must realize that in a democratic system compromise is the only way there can be progress. During times of war, that consensus is more readily reached. Perhaps our national leaders need to grasp the urgency of our present moment in history. Compromise is the key tool to the effective functioning of our government in service to the people.

Avishai Margolit, a professor at both Princeton and Hebrew University, in his book “On Compromise and Rotten Compromises,” refers to compromise as an “ambivalent concept.” One is often praised for reaching an accord to preserve friendship and peace or reviled for acceding. With historical examples, he points out that compromise can be pragmatic and strategic, consider the resolution of the Cuban missile crisis; or compromise can be cowardly and weak, consider the appeasement policies during the rise of Nazi Germany. The book deals with political compromises, those deemed morally acceptable and others, which he defines as “rotten.” A rotten compromise is taken to be a compromise with a regime that exercises inhuman policies, namely systematic behavior that mixes cruelty with humiliation and/or treats humans as inhuman. He will argue that sometimes even justice must be compromised for the sake of peace, but never when it is a “rotten compromise.”

Our rabbinical social scientists of the Talmud approached the issue somewhat similarly: We have been taught: “Justice, justice shall you pursue.” (Deut. 16:20) The first mention of justice refers to justice based on law, the second, to justice based on compromise. (Sanhedrin 32b)

Like many rabbis across America, knowing that the Palestinians were bringing their request for a Unilateral Declaration of Independence, I have been waiting until the last minute to fashion my comments for today. As I have said to you before, I do not pretend to be either an expert or a prophet and I am open to interpretations of the situation that differ with my own. I have been monitoring the news, reading and listening to people who have unique access to events, trying to assess developments as best I can. So far, it has been much ado about nothing. Mahmoud Abbas brought his request. It will not pass in the Security Council, either for lack of votes or the promised veto by the United States. Unfortunately that does not make the issue disappear.

The Middle East has changed dramatically during the past year. Egypt is even less of a source of peace and security for Israel than it was before. Diplomatically, Israel is more isolated than in the past with the break of relations with Turkey. Violent and non-violent uprisings in the Arab world have been successful in overthrowing regimes. The one large scale non-violent Arab demonstration that Israel faced resulted in the deaths of demonstrators. This may serve as an omen for the future. Domestically, Israel has had its own massive protests over lack of housing, food prices, jobs, the disparity between rich and poor, inclusive of the disproportionate government funds spent on settlements. Israel and lovers of Israel face a great challenge.

Sad to say, many of the same problems that plague national issues can be found within the American Jewish community. There are those who passionately love Israel, but are totally intolerant of those whose approach to what is best for Israel differs from their own. When Rabbi Rick Jacobs was announced as the next President of our Union for Reform Judaism, his selection was denounced by some who questioned his Israel credentials, not his creativity, scholarship, commitment and insight to lead the Reform movement, but his Israel credentials. I met Rick for the first time in 1998, as we studied together in Israel, something that he does annually, based in a home which he owns and maintains in Israel, as he actively raises funds for a variety of Israel initiatives. So, what is the complaint? That he does not toe the right wing party line that is often espoused by other Jewish organizations. Just as we cannot tolerate this kind of ideological intolerance nationally, neither should we do so within our Jewish community.

This is a pivotal time in Israel’s history. Though there is not an imminent threat to Israel’s survival and well being, the lingering danger remains. Israel analyst, Rabbi Donniel Hartman explains that Israelis face two threats of pikuach nefesh- challenges to Israel’s ultimate physical and spiritual well-being. For some external enemies- Iran, Hezbollah, and Hamas are Israel’s primary challenge. However there is a counter narrative, which maintains that with the continuing occupation of the West Bank and the expansion of settlements, the central challenge is “us,” creating a country that is contrary to who we are and what we believe- an Israel that is not democratic, nor pluralistic. Both threaten Israel’s survival.

The difference between lovers of Israel in North America and Israelis themselves is that here the debate tends to be one or the other. In Israel they know that the West Bank is occupied and contrary to principles, but that pulling out is also an external threat. Unilateral declarations will not change facts on the ground. Willingness by Israel AND the Palestinians to sit down and negotiate with one another is the only way ultimately. This is the message that the Secretary of Defense, along with the quartet of world leaders, is delivering this week. All else is politics and window dressing. There will have to be land for peace; settlements dismantled. However, in exchange there must be the kind of security and economic viability arrangements that will be guaranteed. Israel cannot have the West Bank be like Gaza. And hostility from Gaza must cease. Only then will Israel be able to function as the kind of democratic, pluralistic State that it aspires to be and Palestine achieve independence.

I know that many have concerns with positions taken by the Obama Administration. Overall, I do not. Earlier this year I had an opportunity to be on a phone call with Dennis Ross, a senior advisor on Middle Eastern matters in multiple administrations, including this one. He stressed that for those worried that President Obama’s proposals might weaken Israel, keep in mind that all plans are within a 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, capable of destroying Hamas rockets. The President’s comments from the Spring included 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. I can embrace this approach.

And where do we fit into all of this discussion. First we have a responsibility as Jews to be knowledgeable of the complexities of the Middle East. Let us express our support for Israel through our donations, our political advocacy and our physical presence. Once again I would like to see a group from Gates of Prayer go to Israel and I am proposing the Fall of 2012, after the holidays. Let me know if you are interested. Perhaps most importantly, we need to respectfully be ready to embrace diversity of opinions within our community and be prepared to accept reasonable compromises that will assure the physical and spiritual health of Israel.

If compromise is essential for the United States, our national home, and for Israel, our spiritual home, how much the more so is it needed within our actual homes and in our everyday relationships? As we recite our al chet prayer, we might want to include:

For the sin of stubbornness in dealing with others

For the sin of always having to be right

For the sin of diminishing people in the eyes of others

For the sin of thinking less of others because they disagree with us

For the sin of taking and never giving in problem solving

For the sin of failing to compromise


Yes, my friends, there is a great deal to learn from the little mezuzah. In addition to its subtle message for compromise, there is something else as well. Inside each mezuzah is the parchment, which contains the words of the Sh’ma prayer. We are instructed to role the parchment in such a way that the first word, Sh’ma, is visible, a reminder that in all that we do, we must listen for the voice of God and the voices of others.



Greif Is A Great Teacher

By Rabbi Robert H. Loewy


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


The Resident Alien Among Us

November 18, 2011
By Rabbi Robert H. Loewy


Picture the scene- Head bowed, with hat in hand, in great humility, our patriarch finds himself in a humiliating position, standing before the local leaders: “My name is Abraham. My wife, Sarah, just died. I have been living amongst you, the Hittites, for some time, but I am not originally from here. Ger v’toshav anochi b’toch’chem- I am a resident alien among you, but I need to bury my wife. Please, I’m willing to pay top dollar for the right. All I want to do is bury my wife.”

That, my friends, is essentially the presentation that our patriarch had to make to the Hittites in order to bury his beloved Sarah. The term, “Ger v’toshav,” meant more than literally, “I’ve been living and dwelling” amongst you. More likely it was a statement of status. A modern commentary on our story suggests that historically: “Disposal of real estate to an alien may upset the local demographic balance, impair social cohesion, and weaken the community in its relationship with neighboring cities and tribes.” Abraham must humble himself in order to perform what most of us would consider a basic human right because he is not a citizen.

This anecdote from our Biblical history is indicative of an ongoing theme in the history of the world and our own country. The “haves” are less than welcoming of the “have nots.” Those who currently live in a particular city, state or nation are resistant to newcomers. We certainly know this from our own Jewish history.
When the first Jews arrived at the Dutch Colony of New Amsterdam, Peter Stuyvesant, Governor of the colony petitioned the Dutch West India Company, writing as follows:

“The Jews who have arrived would nearly all like to remain here, but you should know that they, with their customary usury and deceitful trading with the Christians, are repugnant to the rest of us…Due to the fact that they had been captured and robbed by privateers or pirates, they might become a charge in the coming winter. Therefore, we have, for the benefit of this weak and newly developing colony, deemed it useful to require them in a friendly way to depart. We ask most seriously in this connection, for ourselves as also for the general community of your subjects, that the deceitful race-such hateful enemies and blasphemers of the name of Christ-be not allowed further to infect and trouble this new colony.”

Fortunately for Jewish history, the Board of the Dutch West India Company had a few Jews on it. The reply to Stuyvesant was essentially, “you don’t have to like them, but you do have to keep them.”
The greatest migration of Jews to America came in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Jews along with many other immigrant groups arrived seeking freedom and economic security. While we often romanticize that period, we should realize that all these new immigrants were not received with open arms. In 1912, Reverend AE Patton wrote the following:
“For a real American to visit Ellis Island, and there look upon the Jewish hordes, ignorant of all patriotism, filthy, vermin-infested, stealthy and furtive in manner, too lazy to enter into real labor, too cowardly to face frontier life, too lazy to work as every American farmer has to work, too filthy to adopt ideals of cleanliness from the start, too bigoted to surrender any racial traditions or to absorb any true Americanisms, for a real American to see those items of filth, greedy, never patriotic stream flowing in to pollute all that has made America as good as she is- is to awaken in his thoughtful mind desires to check and lessen this source of pollution.”

So much for Emma Lazarus’s famous poem on the base of the Statue of Liberty: “Give me your tired your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” Recently I had the opportunity to learn from Dr. Jana Lippman of Tulane University, who outlined trends in American immigration policy, inclusive of the inconsistency between professed values and legislation. In particular, during the past two centuries there has been a clear pattern of xenophobia, not just towards Jews, but also towards Chinese and other Asians in the 19th century, Italian and Irish Catholics, really towards whomever the next new ethnic group might be. Four primary fears seem to be at play.

First is the fear of those with different religions- Protestants toward Catholics, Christians toward Jews, now everybody against Moslems. Next are fears of radicalism, those outside agitators who are coming to tear down the American democratic ways of life, historically including Communists, anarchists, socialists and now terrorists. In much of this we can find fears of race. Originally only those considered “white” were allowed to immigrate, but “white” meant Northern European WASP. Definitions of who is considered “white” have changed, but color of skin continues to be an element. Finally, there are economic fears: The usual refrains are: “They are coming to take away our jobs,” when we know that new immigrants are often the ones to take the least desirable positions in society, jobs that no one else will perform. “They are going to be a drain on our society,” when we know that most are hard-working men and women, who simply seek opportunity for physical and economic security.

When looking at the issue of immigration policy in our country today, as Jews, we need to not only recall our history, but we have to consult our basic values. The Torah teaches us to reach out to and care for vulnerable populations, including non-citizens and resident aliens: “If your brother, being in straits, comes under your authority, and you hold him as though a resident alien, let him live by your side” (Leviticus 25:35). We are repeatedly commanded to care for the needy within our extended family: “If there is a needy person among you, one of your kinsmen in any of your settlements… do not harden your heart and shut your hand against your needy kinsman. Rather, you must open your hand and lend him sufficient for whatever he needs” (Deut. 15:7). Rabbinic Judaism also entitled non-Jewish individuals to financial and emotional support from the Jewish community in order to create a harmonious society: “Our rabbis have taught: ‘we support the poor of the non-Jew along with the poor of Israel, and visit the sick of the non-Jew along with the sick of Israel, and bury the poor of the non-Jew along with the dead of Israel, in the interests of peace’” (BT Gittin 61a).

Today, we are in need of a fair, just and humane immigration policy. Let us not irrationally pander to fears, but realistically open our doors to those who want freedom, to those who share the same kinds of dreams that our ancestors envisioned, to those who are fleeing from political and economic oppression. Let it be one that realistically screens and protects us from those who seek to undermine our country, but not discriminate against those who might one day be our leaders, thinkers, creative geniuses, as well as those who will perform the basic tasks that make our lives easier and fill critical positions in construction, agriculture, hospitality and retail, to name but a few.

It is time to stop speaking about “illegal aliens” as if they are criminals, who are robbing us. Yes, there are men and women in this country, without proper documented immigration status, who are working in all sorts of jobs, most of them positions that no one else will fill, as the State of Alabama and Georgia recently discovered, when there were not enough workers to harvest crops. Some of our ancestors did not enter the country through official channels either. And what of families who have lived, worked and paid taxes here for decades, whose children were born here? A fair solution to their ambiguous status must be reached.

Some of the legislation that has been passed in states around the country reflects the fears alluded to earlier but not the reality of our nation. In some cases it is mean-spirited and justifies bigotry and discrimination. My colleague, Deacon Priscilla Maumus writes, “Arizona and Alabama citizens were told it was a criminal offense to transport an undocumented immigrant to school, to church or to the hospital. This applied to families, too who are often a blend of documented and undocumented immigrants. A teenage son who is a citizen could not drive his undocumented grandfather to the hospital in the event of a heart attack or his aging grandmother to Mass on Sunday without risking arrest and arraignment. Blended families, with some legal and some undocumented immigrants, are still liable to be separated and a mother deported, while her children remain in the United States.” Parts of the laws in those states have been struck down by the courts, while others remain.

And talk about racial profiling! Can you imagine being stopped for a traffic violation and have to prove your citizenship? This is not likely to happen to anyone who looks like most of us, but if your skin is a darker complexion or if, God forbid, you have a slight accent, that could be the case. For that matter most of the conversation about “illegals” that I hear focuses on Hispanics or Arabs. Funny, how we don’t hear much about the Israelis who are here without proper papers, or the thousands from the former Soviet Union, who are busy caring for our elderly throughout the northeast.

There is no question that national immigration reform is necessary. Our borders need to be secure, so we know who is entering and monitoring them. Many proposals are before our state and federal legislators. Our laws need to enable longtime undocumented residents to earn their legal status and eventual citizenship. Families should be unified not torn asunder. Workers require protection from exploitation and provided with due process.
Our role is simple. We need to monitor state and federal legislation on immigration. I realize that much of it is confusing, but our task is to ensure that what is passed will appropriately address the real issues, not the fears, that people will be treated humanely according to the highest standards of our nation and our religious values. Let us embrace the applicable exhortation, cited in scripture numerous times,  “You shall not oppress the stranger, the resident alien, for you were gerim/strangers in the land of Egypt.” It all started with our patriarch, Abraham, in this week’s portion.


Restoring Holiness to Our Communities

Rabbi Oren J. Hayon
Temple Emanu-El
September 12, 2008
Elul Sermon #2:
Restoring Holiness to Our Communities
This evening our purpose is to explore the ways we can restore holiness to our communities. The notion of the synagogue as an institution of holy purpose is one that is deeply familiar and dearly cherished by members of this congregation in particular. All of us are acquainted with a Jewish concept that is central to this idea: the concept of tikkun olam, acts of social justice undertaken when a motivated individual or an inspired group of like-minded souls get together to bring meaningful change to the places they live.

Doing religious repair work on our communities has been at the heart of Reform Judaism for decades, and it boasts the same inspiration that drove the grassroots success of other social movements in our country and around the world throughout history.

For us as Jews especially, the roots of spiritual revolution lie deep in the earliest layers of our biblical heritage. Our literature and legends are filled with tales of inspired people rising up to change and improve their world. The dramatic stories of Abraham smashing his household idols, of Moses defying Pharaoh and the cruelty of Egypt, of the Israelite prophets willing to stand up in the face of corrupt and shallow religious institutions, to point accusing fingers and condemn them for their flaws, at risk of censure and exile and even death: this is the legacy of Jewish tikkun olam, of an individual’s potential to personally bring needed change to the world.

But our topic tonight is slightly different. Tonight we are talking about another element of the relationship between self and community, another way of bringing repair and restoration to the places that are broken or neglected. And in contrast to tikkun olam, this is an area that is largely overlooked by much of progressive Judaism today. And it’s too bad that that’s the case, because this idea is just as critical to the way that community develops its sanctity, which is, of course, precisely what we are charged with exploring in this installment of our Elul sermon series.

I want to talk tonight about the moral pressure that a community can bring to bear on its members, rather than the other way around. We all know plenty of stories about heroic and memorable people bringing extraordinary change to the places they live, but what about the converse, what about the ways that the values and priorities of a holy community can push its members to become better human beings?

It might sound simple, but it is an idea that is sometimes hard for us to embrace, and I think that’s true for a couple of reasons. First, we live in the United States of America – and in Texas. The culture of our nation and our state are solidly built on the myth of the rugged individual. Our heroes are cowboys, pioneers, solo entrepreneurs and visionaries. “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance” was John Wayne and not Jimmy Stewart; we learn by the end of the movie that freedom is really won by the lone gunslinger, not by the politician.

But it’s not just directors of western movies who favor the strength of the individual over the community; anyone who’s worked in the Jewish community has encountered this too. There’s more than a small kernel of truth at the center of that old joke about two Jews and three opinions. We Jews, and especially we Reform Jews, often chafe against the idea that we should compromise our individual autonomy for the betterment of the community or the movement. After all, the whole basis of Reform Judaism, it can be argued, is the existence of the sovereign self, the rational individual governed by the gifts of his own mind and his soul. Being a Reform Jew means being able to stand up to any tyranny – of politicians or law – or rabbis, for that matter – and say no: I know better than you do what is right!

That is exactly why we are so skilled in the art of tikkun olam, of changing what is wrong in the world out there. But what we are significantly less good at is acknowledging the potential of our communities to change us. We are much less comfortable at the art of surrender, at the spiritual practice of allowing ourselves to be changed in substantive and long-lasting ways by the places we live and pray. But if we can do that, hard as it may be, we will have helped our communities achieve new heights of effectiveness and sanctity.

Any adolescent – and anyone who has parented or taught an adolescent, for that matter – can share plenty of stories about the power of peer pressure. The students in our schools are constantly under pressure from their classmates about academic performance, about who to socialize with, about what to do with their leisure time. They can tell you exactly how destructive – and also how irresistible – those forces can be, even if they are driving the student to behaviors and values he or she personally knows to be wrong. But they can also tell you that when kids form relationships with the right kinds of friends, with encouraging teachers, enriching sports or clubs, they will do anything they can to uphold the positive values and priorities that those communities promote. A student that moves in social circles where it’s actually cool to be a leader or a scholar will develop self-motivation toward leadership and learning much stronger than she would otherwise receive from her parents or teachers.

In the same way, when our religious communities exert social pressure on us to act in ways that are right and good, the result is not only that we do better things with our energy and our time, but that we absorb Judaism’s time-tested values about what is right and wrong in the world. Eventually all of us, as members of the community, reinforce its social enticements and rewards for behaving in loving, nurturing, ethical Jewish ways.

We are taught by Jewish tradition that it is a mitzvah for us to accept from our community what is called tochachah – admonition or rebuke. This is a well-established but largely-ignored principle: that we are commanded to help the community carry out the obligation to correct its members when we see them going astray. When we see a friend or a colleague or a family member going down the wrong path, we have to gently and lovingly reprove them if their action threatens the community’s ideals. We automatically have a stake in the well-being of the people we love and the people we share community with; we have an obligation to them. We have to help let them know when they are missing the mark so that we can all get back onto the right path together.

There is an intriguing commentary on the Shulchan Aruch – the exhaustive 16th century collection of Jewish law – which addresses a fascinating legal inquiry. The question is asked: Is it sufficient for a Jew to follow the commandments simply because he sees his friends or his family doing them, and not because he believes that the tradition insists upon it? The commentary responds: No. Even if you are following the actions of righteous people who are doing everything right, your obligation is not discharged until you acknowledge that the reason for acting Jewishly is that you are a part of a holy community, not that you are imitating holy people. Without knowing that mitzvot come for the purpose of serving God and strengthening the Jewish people, you might learn to value the individual over the community, which might in turn lead you to haughtiness and a disregard for Jewish values, to the sin of what Alan Morinis calls “spiritual mediocrity”.

Despite all the good that it can do, and all the good it has done, tikkun olam can be a narcissistic religion when practiced alone. If we conclude that our only Jewish calling is to change the world in ways we think are positive, then we may never learn to be self-reflective or open to spiritual growth. But working to cultivate the virtues of humility and modesty, on the other hand, acknowledging that there are ways the community can change us for the better – that is an entryway to Jewish enrichment and development.

This month of Elul is a time of our most earnest moral self-scrutiny. Next week at this time we’ll be learning together at our congregational observances of Selichot. Dr. Morinis will share with us the tools and the techniques of the Mussar movement, which were developed precisely for this reason – to help Jews recognize the traditions and resources outside of ourselves that can help make us better people. It is a deeply important subject for to spend time on as this reflective month of High Holy Day preparation draws to a close.

Judaism’s gifts of spiritual self-improvement can help prime us for the approach of the High Holy Days, but its regimen is not necessarily comfortable. The hard work of teshuvah – repentance and apology – does require some abdication of the ego, which always hurts a little. But in the end, the High Holy Days are not about tikkun olam; they are about tikkun atzmi – not repairing the world, but repairing the human self with the guidance and support of our community. Allowing ourselves to be changed by our community and not the other way around is often uncomfortable, but it is always worth it.

There is a wonderful legend told about Rabbi Akiva, the wise ancient sage of the Talmudic world. As the story goes, Akiva – before he was Rabbi Akiva – had reached the age of 40 without ever having amassed a single piece of Jewish knowledge. One day, he was walking near a natural spring and he noticed that a slow drip of water had over time worn a hole through a large stone. At once, Akiva was enlightened. He said to himself, “If something as soft as water can bore its way through something as hard as stone, then the words of Torah can certainly penetrate my soft heart of flesh and blood.” He returned home and immediately committed himself to learning the traditions of his people.

We are all free individuals, and we are all at liberty to live our Judaism in the ways that our own hearts and consciences compel us. That is at once the marvel and the challenge of Reform Judaism. We have to discover that our freedom does not override the obligations that come along with living in relationship with others. It is an art more than a science, but we can find ways for our sprawling spiritual liberty to be shaped by the wisdom and the goodness of our Jewish community.

We do this by learning about what our tradition teaches, what its texts really say, about justice and truth and morality. We do it by allowing ourselves to be swept up and embraced and yes, changed, by the marvelous traditions and the penetrating wisdom of Jewish life. By continuing to work toward strengthening relationships and connection with other human souls, by standing alongside them and helping lift them up with our presence and our love and by realizing how it feels to have ourselves moved and improved by being a part of something this large.

And in that way we can cultivate the spiritual heart that Rabbi Akiva felt beating within him, the soft and pliable spirit that allows the goodness and the promise of Judaism to change us. That is the imperative of this month of Elul and of the entire Jewish year: to see and make real the vision of our selves as better than we are – loving, kind, spiritual beings, privileged to be a part of, and changed by, this beautiful Jewish community of faith.

May this be God’s will. Amen.