As many readers of this blog already know, I resigned from Jewish Reconstructionist Congregation last August and have recently started a wonderful new gig as Midwest Regional Director for the American Friends Service Committee. I’m still sorting through a variety of emotions. The circumstances of my leaving JRC were complex and painful – and things were complicated yet further by a spate of (largely inaccurate) media articles about my resignation. I wrote about this subject at length in my Erev Rosh Hashanah sermon; of all the reports, probably the most thorough and accurate was this piece in the Chicago Jewish News.
I will undoubtedly share some thoughts about my experience in future posts. In the meantime, however, I am looking forward to the future with genuine excitement and am thrilled to be working for the AFSC, an organization I’ve known well for many years and whose peace and justice mission is so near and dear to my heart. I look forward to posting on this blog about my ongoing work with AFSC in much the same way that I did with my former job. My disclaimer, however, still holds: the positions and opinions I express here are fully my own and not reflective of my employer or any other organization with which I am affiliated.
For starters here is a recent “Introduction to the new Midwest Regional Director” that was recently posted on the AFSC website. I hope it conveys how blessed I feel to be continuing my rabbinate in this new and exciting way:
Please tell us something about yourself.
I’m a native of Los Angeles but have lived in Evanston since 1998, where until recently I’ve served as the rabbi of Jewish Reconstructionist Congregation. My wife Hallie and I have been married since 1987 and we have two sons, Gabe (21) and Jonah (18). Before coming to the Chicago area we lived in Philadelphia for five years (where I attended the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College) and in Denver for five years, where I served my first congregation.
While I suppose many might describe my demeanor as laid back, I tend to get very passionate and driven, whether it is books or movies that I love, relationships that are important to me, or causes that I believe in. When I think about the most important influences in my life, I’d say that my family and my upbringing bequeathed to me my deep connection to Jewish identity as well as my strong devotion to activism and social justice. For better or worse, unfairness and injustice tend to keep me up nights – and getting involved in progressive movements for social change has always felt pretty much unavoidable for me.
What has drawn you to work for AFSC?
During the course of my activist work, I’ve invariably found myself working with and marching alongside AFSC folks and progressive Quakers in general. AFSC has really been a fairly ubiquitous and natural presence in the circles in which I’ve traveled. As I’ve become increasingly involved with Palestinian solidarity work in particular, I’ve found wonderful colleagues and friends among the staff people in AFSC’s Middle East program, both here in Chicago and around the country.
I’ve been especially mindful and appreciative of AFSC’s deep engagement in Israel/Palestine justice work. Too often, I think, we in the Jewish community have maintained something of a proprietary relationship to that particular piece of land – and it has been important to me to learn that there are many other important “stake holders” in Israel/Palestine, including AFSC, which has been deeply invested there since well before the state of Israel was founded.
Having said this, I’m also struck that AFSC programs tend to focus on virtually all the issues I’ve been concerned about and involved in over the years: i.e. anti-militarism, immigrant and labor justice, mass incarceration, and issues of structural racism in general. Closer to home, I’ve also cultivated a nice relationship with Evanston Friends Meeting; I’ve spoken there on more than one occasion and have worked with some of its members in local Evanston peace actions.
Now that I’m officially a “Quaker Rabbi,” I’m eager to learn more about Quaker history, ideology and spirituality. From what I’ve learned already, I can clearly see important parallels between Quaker Testimonies and Jewish spiritual values. (I’m going to write more about this for AFSC’s blog “Acting in Faith,” so stay tuned….)
What’s your vision of peace and justice work in AFSC’s Midwest Region?
First and foremost, I share AFSC’s profound vision of “a world in which lasting peace with justice is achieved through nonviolence and the transforming power of love.” I don’t know how to say it any better actually and I’m grateful to AFSC for articulating this vision so simply and powerfully (and, I hasten to add, for implementing this vision around the world in transformative ways for almost a century).
In a more immediate sense, I’m eager to learn how AFSC’s social justice mission has been realized in the unique context of the Midwest Region. While the imperative to create “lasting peace with justice” is obviously a universal one, I’m also well aware that our programs in the Midwest have a history and culture all their own – and I’m excited to learn how this vision has been translated and realized in regional terms. I’m especially looking forward to meeting and getting to know our staff, Executive Committee members and volunteers to learn from them where we’ve succeeded, where we’ve encountered obstacles, and to envision together how to implement our shared vision in an impactful and sustainable way.
Having been involved extensively in programmatic work from my experience in congregational life, I’ve come to believe strongly that the best way to build successful programs is from the ground up, i.e., meeting our constituents where they are and not where we think they “should be.” Simply put, that means we need to be an integral part of the communities we serve, to build real relationships with those whose lives are most directly impacted by the issues we address.
I also believe that while we might separate issues from one another for good tactical reasons, we would do well to understand their intersectionality. To cite but one recent example: I was so struck – and in fact moved – when I read tweets this past summer from Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza to demonstrators in Ferguson, Missouri that explained how to concoct homemade remedies for tear gas inhalation. These simple gestures of solidarity were for me a reminder of the manner in which American militarism impacts lives both here and abroad – and why the proper response must ultimately be one that consciously connects these dots.
How do you take care of yourself in doing this challenging work?
Any form of caregiving work – whether pastoral or political – necessitates giving fully of our authentic selves. However, I’ve come to learn, from hard experience, that we will easily run dry if we don’t take real responsibility for refilling the emotional/spiritual wells which keep us going. I think many of us mistakenly assume that giving of ourselves is its own reward. And while this kind of work is undeniably gratifying, it is also by its very nature exhausting and depleting, unless we regularly take the time to replenish ourselves and our souls.
And so if we’re truly in this for the long haul, I believe we must constantly ask ourselves, “What replenishes my soul?” “How will I refill the well?” That answer will obliviously differ from person to person. For many of us, of course, it means cultivating a genuine and meaningful spiritual life – but even then, the specific answers to these questions will invariably change and evolve throughout our lives. But no matter what the answers might be, I do strongly believe that we must find the wherewithal to incorporate self–care into our lives if we want to make a difference in the lives of others and the world around us.
So, have you changed your allegiance from the Dodgers to the Cubs since your move to Chicago?
Oh yeah, I’m a fickle fan. But don’t tell anyone…
Here, below, is the Shabbat e-mail I sent to my congregation today in response to the recent violence in Jerusalem. Click here to read a letter I co-wrote with Rabbi Alissa Wise for Jewish Voice for Peace, addressing the political context of these tragic events.
In this week’s Torah portion, Parashat Toldot, Rebecca experiences great pain as her twins struggle in her womb. After inquiring of God, she is told that her two sons represent two warring peoples, one of whom will be mightier than the other. As she experiences her prenatal pain, Rebecca says, “If so, why do I exist?”
There are many ways to understand Rebecca’s comment; one interpretation views her exclamation as the endlessly desperate response of humanity to the seemingly unfixed and eternal nature of war and bloodshed between people and nations.
Such grief stricken exclamations have surely been issuing from the city of Jerusalem this past week – a city that has seen its share of bloodshed over the centuries. There is no denying that there is a political context to this recent violence – and like many, I have my own opinions about this context and what must be done to avoid violence in the future. Regardless of where we fall on this issue, I do believe that if we are honor the dead – of Jew and Palestinian alike – we must redouble our efforts toward pursuing a just peace in this land.
The question remains, however, how do we, as Jews, grieve amidst such such a context? How do we find a measure of comfort when violence occurs in a time that more often than not feels so endlessly, painfully hopeless? I’d like to offer you two Jewish responses that personally offered me a measure of comfort this past week.
The first is this message to the Jewish community that was recently released from the widows and families of the four Jewish victims who were murdered in a Jerusalem synagogue this past Tuesday:
A request from the grieving widows and families:
From the depth of our broken hearts and with tears over the murder of the holy victims, the heads of our families, we turn to our brothers and sisters, every Jew, wherever you are, and request that we all join together as one, to bring heavenly mercy upon us. Therefore, let us accept upon ourselves to increase our love and brotherhood with each other, between each of us, between different groups, and between different communities.
We request that each person endeavors this Friday afternoon before Shabbat Parshat Toldot to sanctify this Shabbat (Erev Rosh Chodesh Kislev) as a day of causeless love, a day on which we all refrain from talking about our differences and grievances against others, and refrain from any slander or evil gossip.
Through this may there be a great merit for the souls of the fathers of our families who were slaughtered for the sanctity of God.
May God look down from above, and see our grief, and wipe away our tears, and proclaim ‘enough with the suffering!’, and may we merit to see the arrival of the Messiah, may it happen speedily in our days, Amen.
Chaya Levin, and family
Brayna Goldberg, and family
Yakova Kupinsky, and family
Basha Twersky, and family
I also encourage you to read this post from Lew Weissman, a traditional orthodox Jewish blogger whose writings I’ve followed for many years and whose teachings I have found to be profoundly wise and compassionate.
Here is an excerpt:
When I see the picture of a man in tallit and tefillin (like me every morning) shot dead in a pool of blood in synagogue (where I too customarily go every day) I am overcome with a wave of nausea followed by a surge of anger. I don’t have words for the fury and the fear at the thought of a person charging into our place of worship and hacking a fellow Jew, who, like me, appears before God in tallit and tefillin, to death. If he weren’t just like me would I feel the same? I don’t know. I look at the black pants, the white shirt, the build of the man, the black striped tallis that I wear and this is deeply personal. This brutal monster has killed one of US and I am furious.
In that, I am just the same as the person who taunts me.
Where I differ is that while I get that I am going to feel more intensely when I have an affinity for another human being as a fellow Jew, I also strive to see all human beings as “in the image of God” (so to speak, trust me on this my Muslim friends, this really is NOT a blasphemous notion- its metaphorical). Each human being is a reflection of the Divine majesty and precious to their Creator. Where is that well of outrage when every single day human beings are being hacked, torn, shot for every possible excuse? Where are my tears for the innocent of every color, race, language, and faith?
…Where I differ is that as much as I sometimes want to, I don’t believe that I have permission to give up. I feel compelled by the example of Abraham, who pleaded to God for the murderous idolaters of Sodom. My struggle, like his, is to strive to uplift humanity in any way that I can, not to wish for its destruction, not even the destruction of the worst of us. Abraham believed that even a few righteous people could turn around an entire world gone crazy. So I reach out to the righteous, encourage the good where I can because it’s the only plan I have got.
May the memory of all the dead be for a blessing.
Like many I’m sure, when I heard about the death of courageous Iraq war veteran/anti-war activist, Tomas Young last week, I felt deep sadness at the loss of one more precious voice for peace and justice in the world. At the same time, given the grievous chronic pain he endured as a result of his war injuries, I found some comfort in the knowledge that he was finally free from his suffering.
And, yes, I also felt a sense of rising anger that while I read the obituary that described his legacy of sacred witness, I was all too aware of the reports that our government was gearing up to send combat troops back into Iraq.
I first learned about Tomas Young from the 2007 documentary, “Body of War” a profound and at times unbearably painful testimony to the human cost of war. Upon hearing of his death, I re-watched the film and re-read Young’s searing 2013 essay, “A Message to George W. Bush and Dick Cheney from a Dying Veteran,” which he wrote after deciding to enter hospice care and refuse nutrition through a feeding tube. (He later changed his mind, citing the love and support of his second wife Claudia). “Message” is, quite simply, one of the most important anti-war documents of our time:
I write this letter on behalf of husbands and wives who have lost spouses, on behalf of children who have lost a parent, on behalf of the fathers and mothers who have lost sons and daughters and on behalf of those who care for the many thousands of my fellow veterans who have brain injuries. I write this letter on behalf of those veterans whose trauma and self-revulsion for what they have witnessed, endured and done in Iraq have led to suicide and on behalf of the active-duty soldiers and Marines who commit, on average, a suicide a day. I write this letter on behalf of the some 1 million Iraqi dead and on behalf of the countless Iraqi wounded. I write this letter on behalf of us all—the human detritus your war has left behind, those who will spend their lives in unending pain and grief.
“Body of War” is both an intimate document of Young’s painful post-war odyssey and a damning exposé of political hypocrisy. The film is framed by the Congressional debates on whether or not to grant President Bush the authority to invade Iraq; as we witness Young pay the costs of this misbegotten war, we watch as one by one, Democrats and Republicans alike line up to parrot the Bush administration lies that led us into Iraq in 2003.
And now we learn that our nation’s military adventures in Iraq are not over by a long shot. Just days after Young’s death, in fact, Congress has begun gearing up for a debate on whether or not to grant President Obama the authority to wage war in Iraq and Syria. While the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff has said he might recommend sending combat units back into Iraq, the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee has declared that any authorization of force that ruled out the use of US ground troops in Iraq would be “dead on arrival.”
Please don’t let Tomas Young’s suffering and death be in vain. Watch “Body of War.” (The full movie is available on YouTube) Read “Message From a Dying Veteran.” Read this moving description of his final days by Chris Hedges. Then sign this petition that rightly declares:
Forgotten in the rush to war is the fact that we have been at this abyss before. The US invasion of Iraq in 2003 preceded the growth of Al Qaeda there. ISIS became its malignant offshoot in Sunni regions repressed by our client state in Baghdad. Is this not a case where the military medicine worsens the disease? The last Iraq War led to long-terms costs in thousands of lives lost and trillions of dollars wasted which should have been spent on the environment, education and jobs. We simply cannot afford to repeat the past…
We call for a full debate on whether to authorize the widening new war in Iraq and Syria. A congressional vote will allow citizens to hold their elected representatives accountable now and in 2016. Since President Obama already says there is no military solution and the war will last at least three years, we urge a No vote. If the new war is authorized, the following conditions must be debated and voted on:
1. A narrow definition of “the enemy” – the Islamic State – no loophole to a wider war as occurred in the war-on-terrorism, where an open-ended mandate led to wars and quagmires in many countries
2. Keep the presidential pledge that there will be no American ground troops; already that promise has changed to no “combat” troops;
3. A sunset provision ending the war authorization in one year, thus requiring another Congressional approval before 2016;
4. An independent reporting mechanism for all casualties, civilian casualties, direct and indirect taxpayer costs, and measurements of progress;
5. A primary emphasis on diplomacy aimed at power-sharing among disenfranchised communities and a prohibition against funding sectarian war.
Wars are easy for politicians to approve. But history shows that lives and resources are needlessly lost, and careers ruined, when they become quagmires.
I had planned to write this post several months ago, but when circumstances in my personal/professional life recently took a dramatic turn, I took an extended hiatus from blogging. I’m happy to say I’m finally coming up for air – and that readers of this blog can fully expect to see increasing posts in the near future. I’m leading with one that deals with an event from this past summer. Although it deals with news that are now a few months old, I believe it is a story that remains tragically relevant.
Back on August 21, I participated with a small group of activists from Jewish Voice for Peace – Chicago that disrupted a fundraiser sponsored by the Jewish United Fund of Metropolitan Chicago (JUF). At the time, Israel’s military onslaught on Gaza was in full swing and the JUF, like many Jewish Federations across the country, was actively raising funds for the war effort.
It is important to note that Jewish Federations are more than merely a network of social service agencies; they seek to serve as the official face of the Jewish community. Given their prominence as community spokespeople, their unquestioning, knee-jerk support of Israel’s policies and actions has been painfully problematic – particularly when it comes to a war as controversial as Israel’s “Operation Protective Edge” this past summer.
It is safe to say that increasing numbers of us in the Jewish community were morally repulsed by Israel’s actions during the months of July and August. We understood full well that this military onslaught was a war of choice, not self-defense. We watched as the Israeli military killed 2,100 Palestinians in two months, the overwhelming majority of whom were civilians – including 500 children. We listened over and over as the Israeli government and its apologists justified its bloodshed by claiming that Hamas used its civilian population as “human shields” – a false claim that has been repeatedly disproved by human rights observers.
While JUF Chairman Bill Silverstein made the claim at the fund raiser that “world Jewry is standing behind (Israel),” there were, in fact, a myriad of public Jewish protests against Operation Protective Edge throughout the US. In addition to Chicago, Jewish Voice for Peace chapters organized protests in New York, Los Angeles, Washington DC, Boston, San Francisco, Detroit, Raleigh/Durham, St. Louis, and San Diego, among others. In a protest against one prominent corporate enabler of Israel’s war machine, the Seattle chapter of JVP staged a “die in” at Boeing headquarters in Tukwila, WA, temporarily closing the entrance to their facility. Here in Chicago, JVP staged an act of nonviolent civil disobedience inside Boeing’s corporate office, resulting in the arrest of five activists (video here).
In addition, “If Not Now When?,” an inspirational new grassroots initiative spearheaded by young Jews, held public prayer vigils at Jewish communal institutions across the country. INNW’s dramatic inaugural vigil in New York City was held on July 28 in front of the offices of the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations. After a statement was read, memorial candles) were lit and placed on the ground. Nine activists were arrested during this prayerful act of Jewish civil disobedience (video here). It was my honor to participate in such a vigil here in Chicago, which took place on August 7 in front of the JUF offices downtown (see pic above).
While all these actions differed in approach and tone, together they provide evidence of a growing movement of Jewish conscience against Israeli militarism and the devastating human toll it has exacted in Israel/Palestine. During Israel’s similar military onslaught on Gaza in 2009/09, this movement was barely in its nascent stages; by the summer of 2014 I think it safe to say it found its voice in an immensely powerful way. It was particularly notable that many of them were organized by young Jews in their 20s, reinforcing the findings of an August Gallup poll that found a majority of Americans between the ages of 18 and 29 considered Israel’s actions in Gaza to be “unjustified.”
It is also important to note that these protests have been deeply rooted in Jewish values, symbols and liturgy. The JVP Chicago members who organized and carried out the disruption at the JUF fundraiser were most certainly motivated by the sacred Jewish imperatives that exhort us not to stand idly by, to pursue justice, to not follow the multitude to do wrong. And I was particularly proud that our group was multi-generational, ranging in age from 20s to 60s.
While I did not participate in the actual disruptions, I was present in the Hilton Towers ballroom to give my fellow protesters support, to film the action taking place and tweet pictures of the disruptions as they unfolded. As you can see from the video clip at the top of this post, there were a series of five disruptions during the course of the evening. The first occurred as Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel was speaking; two members of our group stood up, held up a banner that read “Shame on Israel,” and repeatedly chanted, “We are Jews, shame on you. Stop killing children now!”
Security grabbed their banner away immediately and they continued chanting as they were escorted from the room. Three other pairs of protesters and an Israeli-American also disrupted speakers at various points during the program. Each time time, the response of the crowd grew angrier – the final pair of activists were physically struck and had water thrown in their faces by attendees. (I myself was eventually asked to leave and was also escorted from the room by security. I can only assume someone from JUF recognized me and outed me to the program staff).
Speaking personally, I will say without hesitation that my participation in this action was a profound, even sacred experience. It took place during a terrible, tragic time in which I, as a Jew, was being implicated in crimes that were being committed by a state purporting to act on behalf of the Jewish people. In my hometown of Chicago, the organization that claimed to represent my community was openly urging on the war effort and was publicly raising funds to support it.
It is difficult to describe the sense of anguish and alienation I felt as I sat in that room, listening to speaker after speaker urge on the war effort without expressing an iota of concern over the scores of innocents that Israel was killing daily. The only mention of the Gazan dead arose when speakers defensively and cynically wielded the canard of “human shields.”
I was sitting directly behind the first pair of disrupters. They stood up just as Rahm Emanuel had announced that he and his wife were pledging $5,000.00 to the JUF’s Israel Emergency Campaign. (Why exactly the mayor of Chicago was so publicly and dramatically taking sides in a international conflict is another troubling question for us to ponder). I must say that when I saw my friends stand up, point their fingers at Emanuel and exclaim “Shame on you!” it truly felt like a redemptive moment. It was if my own soul as a Jew – indeed, as a human being of conscience – had finally been given back its voice.
Following the action, I heard criticisms from some that our disruption ran counter “to the values of dialogue.” If we were looking for convince members of the Jewish community of the worthiness of our cause, we were told, this kind of jingoistic, disruptive sloganeering was just not the way to do it.
Of course such a critique utterly misses the point of our protest. We were not seeking “dialogue” with members of our community; on the contrary, we were protesting war crimes being committed in our name. We certainly did not have any illusions that our action would convert anyone in that ballroom to our cause. Our target audience was not the attendees of the JUF fundraiser – rather, we sought to send a message to the world at large. To state loudly and openly that the entire Jewish community is not, in fact, marching lock step in support of Israel’s war effort.
We also heard the critique that our actions was just downright rude: rude to our civic leaders, rude to the speakers and guests, rude to decorum of this function and rude to the JUF as a whole.
Yes, our action was disruptive – that was, in fact, its point. But if these disruptions felt rude and impolitic, the discomfort felt in that room was beyond miniscule in comparison to the horrors that were being inflicted at that very moment on the people of Gaza. Our protest was at its very core, an act of tochechah (“reproof”), hearkening back to the Biblical dictum “You shall surely rebuke your neighbor and incur no sin because of that person” (Leviticus 19:17).
When I think of this kind of criticism, I can’t help but think back to Dr. Martin Luther King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” in which he addressed a very similar critique leveled at him by liberal clergy who urged him not to “cause tension” through public acts of nonviolent civil disobedience in their city.
As King wrote to his Birmingham colleagues:
Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community which has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue. It seeks to so dramatize the issue that it can no longer be ignored. My citing the creation of tension as part of the work of the nonviolent-resister may sound rather shocking. But I must confess that I am not afraid of the word “tension.” I have earnestly opposed violent tension, but there is a type of constructive, nonviolent tension which is necessary for growth. Just as Socrates felt that it was necessary to create a tension in the mind so that individuals could rise from the bondage of myths and half-truths to the unfettered realm of creative analysis and objective appraisal, we must we see the need for nonviolent gadflies to create the kind of tension in society that will help men rise from the dark depths of prejudice and racism to the majestic heights of understanding and brotherhood.
It is now three months since the ceasefire that ended the carnage of that terrible summer. And of course, we have already forgotten about Gaza. With the increasing shortness of our news cycles and attention spans, it has all but disappeared from our view.
But of course, the tragedy continues on. The death and destruction inflicted on the people of that tiny strip of land still reverberates: through pain and agony of the injured and the traumatized and through the grief of so many who lost parents, siblings, children and friends. As a Gazan friend recently told me, no one – no one – in Gaza is untouched by the pain of grief.
As a Jew I will never forget the tragedy of those two months, nor will I remain silent over the crimes that continue to be committed in my name. But I am heartened by those in my community who are increasingly finding the courage of their convictions. It is truly my honor to be counted with the disrupters, the “nonviolent gadflies” who seek to “dramatize the issue so that it can no longer be ignored.”
One of the most celebrated rabbinical debates in Jewish tradition comes from the Midrash, as a commentary on the book of Leviticus. Rabbi Akiba and Rabbi Ben Azzai, two 2nd century rabbinical sages are going at it, each challenging each other to pick the one verse that sums up the essence of the Torah. Rabbi Akiba opens by quoting Leviticus 19:18: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” For his part, Rabbi Ben Azzai chooses the verse from Genesis 5:1: “When God created humankind, God created humankind in God’s image.”
There are many interpretations of this Midrash: one of the more common ones views Akiba’s approach as the more particularistic philosophy: Judaism is rooted in the idea that we should love those around us – our family, friends and community – as we would love ourselves. Ben Azzai’s, one the other hand is more universal: Torah teaches that we should respect and honor all people whether we are in direct relationship with them or not.
Even beyond the content of this debate, however, I find its very premise to be extremely interesting. These two rabbis are doing more than just playing a pedagogical game here: they are challenging each other to offer their own personal take on their spiritual tradition. They are urging each other to take a stand – to go out on a limb and say out loud once and for all what they believe Judaism ultimately stands for.
I believe their challenge is our challenge as well. Jewish tradition is a rich and vast sacred repository – and one that can mean many things to many people. In a sense, I think we all remake Judaism in our own image, depending on our own particular predilections. Another sage, in a famous verse from Pirke Avot says this about Torah: “Turn it over, turn it over, because everything is in it.” In truth, you can find pretty much anything in Jewish tradition to support your worldview. Like Rabbi Akiva and Rabbi Ben Azzai, each of us must make hard, conscious choices about those aspects of Judaism we will choose to celebrate and carry forward. For those of us who identify as Jews and with Jewish tradition, the question before us is not so much “what is Judaism?” but rather “what is the Judaism we will affirm?”
For this, my final sermon as your rabbi, I’d like to try and answer this question personally; to leave you with a few final thoughts about the kind of Judaism that I choose to affirm. By my count, this will be my 68th sermon as rabbi of JRC – and whether they’ve inspired, enraged or bored you over the years, I will say the High Holidays have given me the amazing, often humbling opportunity to express myself publicly to my community. Of course, like all of us, my Jewish sensibilities have always been a work in progress. I know I wouldn’t have given the sermon I’m giving now before I entered rabbinical school, nor would I have given it precisely this way when I came to Evanston to be your rabbi seventeen years ago.
But this is, I believe, as it should be. After all, as Reconstructionists, we hold that Jewish civilization is an ever-evolving organism from generation to generation. So too, it seems to me, that each of us is developing a sense of Judaism informed by our own growth, our own ongoing experience and changing sense of the world around us.
At the same time, however, it’s fascinating to me to chart the common denominators that remain firm over time, the parts of our vision that remain sacred and unshakable – the essence that Rabbis Akiba and Ben Azzai were so keen on uncovering together.
So with this in mind, I’d like to start by reading to you an excerpt from a sermon I gave during my first High Holidays at JRC, back in 1998. I’ll confess that I’m not in the habit of re-reading my sermons – and having just done it, I think I now know why. There were more than a few times in which I rolled my eyes at my own wisdom. Thankfully, however, there were also some parts that truly felt as if I had written them yesterday.
Here’s the excerpt:
I would also claim that the power for renewal and rebirth is woven into the fabric of our lives. There are times for all of us where pain is all we know – times when it its impossible to envision the darkness ever truly lifting.
Those who have lost loved ones know this experience well. The first year of bereavement is considered to be a time of intense and sometimes crippling emotional pain. There is a gamut of uncontrollable feelings, from shock to rage; guilt to sadness and despair. It is also a time of isolation, when the mourner feels as if he or she dwells in a different emotional kingdom than the rest of the world.
Still, when we grieve in a healthy way, we eventually discover an eternal, almost miraculous truth: the heart heals. Like a deep physical wound, there is pain and there is trauma, but there is also healing if we manage to recuperate properly. In the case of grieving, this means finding a way or a place to express our emotions honestly. It means finding outlets through ritual. It means attaching ourselves to a community or support system. Most of all, it means allowing ourselves to be mourners, and giving ourselves the time and the permission to heal.
In any kind of healing however – whether it be physical, emotional or spiritual – we need to let go of the expectation that we’ll will end up the exactly the way we were. Pain is transformative in ways that we often don’t fully understand. Though there is healing, the physical and emotional scars will still remain. We have found our way back, but our lives have been transformed. We are not the same people any more.
Still, this transformation is not a wholly negative one. I am often told by people that they never really felt they had a spiritual life until they experienced some kind of pain or loss. To be sure, pain and loss are not certainly not pleasant experiences, and they are not they kind of things we would wish on ourselves. Nevertheless, through our trials we often manage to get in touch with parts of ourselves, parts of our souls that we never knew existed. Pain can offer us a spiritual opening. As we read in the Psalms, “Karov adonai l’mishbarei lev” – “God is close to the broken hearted.”
Judaism, at its core, is a tradition that affirms meaning in the face of disorder. It affirms our ability to overcome the chaos that often enters our lives. We may not always have faith in our tradition, but our tradition does have faith in us. As surely and inevitably as the cycle of the seasons, we have the power to start anew, to emerge whole from our hurt and our losses and our pain.
As I re-read these words, I believe I can honestly say they reflect a critical aspect of Judaism that I’ve been carrying forward for most of my adult life. I believe Judaism at its core is a tradition that affirms order in the face of chaos; a tradition that affirms, despite all indications to the contrary, we can heal what is broken. I’d like to think that if I was playing the debate game with Akiba and Ben Azzai, I may well have chosen that gorgeous line from the Psalms as my verse: “Karov adonai l’mishbarei lev” – “God is close to the broken hearted.”
I do believe that this verse has been weaving its way through Jewish tradition and Jewish history, in a sense, for time immemorial. We might date it back to the paradigmatic moment in which Judaism itself was forged, the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, a mythic moment of brokenness that resonates in so many ways in our collective psyche as Jews and as human beings.
We might well look at the moment known as the Churban as one of those paradigmatic “push/pull” moments I spoke of on Rosh Hashanah. The destruction of the Temple represents a timeless moment of pain and blood and turmoil that sent us out of the land and birthed us into the world as we know it.
It certainly represented the beginnings of Judaism as we now know it. After the destruction of the Temple, Judaism became, in a sense, a kind of spiritual road map for charting the reality of exile. But Jewish tradition didn’t only respond to the physical reality of exile – it viewed exile (or “galut”) as a spiritual and existential reality. This, I believe, represents the intrinsic beauty and genius of the Jewish conception of peoplehood: we took our own unique experience and universalized it into a spiritual statement about the human condition. Because one way or another, we are all wanderers. One way or another, we all know the experience of being strangers in a strange land.
And so, from this moment of tragedy and pain, we grew up. We transformed an ancient cultic civilization into a worldwide spiritual peoplehood. We spiritualized the concepts of Temple and homeland and became a globally based, multi-ethnic, multi-cultural nation that viewed the entire world as its “home” and sought to perfect it. Our experience of exile became, as it were, a spiritual prism through which we viewed the world and our place in it. It might well be claimed that centuries of Jewish religious creativity resulted from this profound existential mindset.
In one of my very favorite midrashim, Rabbi Akiba teaches, “Wherever the people of Israel were exiled, the Divine Presence was exiled with them.” I find this notion – the concept of “God in exile” to be such a powerful and radical theological image. Again, “Karov adonai l’mishberei lev” – “God is close to the broken hearted.” Judaism as we know it arose to assert that no matter what happens, God is with us wherever we go. Despite the experience of exile, the Jewish people would always be “home.” God was no longer geographically specific to one building or place. God was the place – HaMakom. Spiritual meaning and fulfillment could now be found throughout the world, wherever the Jewish people might travel and create community.
I also believe that the destruction of the Temple birthed another central Jewish ideal, the idea best summed up by the famous line from Zechariah: “Lo b’chayil v’lo b’koach” – “Not by might and not by power but by My spirit says the Lord of Hosts.” In a way, when the Jewish people finally fell victim to the mighty Roman empire, this ironically marked a victory for a central rabbinic precept: there is a Power even greater than the mightiest empire. That in the long run, those who put their faith in the physical might of powerful empires are, if you will, betting on the wrong horse.
This, in fact, is one classical rabbinic interpretation of the story of Jacob’s dream. According to a well-known midrash, the various ascending and descending angels on Jacob’s ladder represent the rising and falling fortunes of the various empires to which the Jewish people would be exiled. First the angel representing Babylonia ascends 70 rungs, (for seventy years of exile) then descends. Next the angel representing the Persian Empire ascends and falls, as does the angel representing the Greek empire. Only the fourth angel, representing the Roman Empire keeps climbing higher and higher into the clouds. Since Rome was represented in the Rabbinic imagination by Jacob’s twin brother Esau, Jacob fears that his children would never be free of Esau’s domination. But God assures Israel that in the end, even the mighty Roman Empire will fall as well. And so it has been – throughout the centuries, many powerful empires have come and gone but the Jewish people still survive. Why? Because we put our faith in a Power yet greater. Greater than Pharoah, greater than Rome, greater than the myriad of empires we’ve seen enter and exit over the centuries.
The rabbis also knew all too well that prior to the destruction of the Temple, the last Jewish dance with empire was a fairly ignoble story in the annals of Jewish history. I’m talking about the Hasmonean kingdom that was established in the wake of the Maccabees victory. The Hasmonean dynasty, a priestly family who had fought against the Hellenized Jews of its day, eventually became fairly Hellenized itself. And when they weren’t persecuting the rabbinic Pharisees (our spiritual ancestors) they were busy killing one another and waging ill-advised wars of conquest against surrounding nations.
In the end, it didn’t take long for the Romans to move in and mop up. All in all, the Hasmonean period of Jewish independence lasted less than one hundred years. It’s not a coincidence that the rabbis chose Zechariah – and the verse “not by might and not by power” to be read as the Haftarah portion for the Shabbat of Hanukah.
And what is at the core of this Power we speak of? I’ll return to my earlier verse: “Karov Adonai l’mishbarei lev” – “God is close to the brokenhearted.” I believe this this theological statement, so resonant on a personal and pastoral level, is equally powerful on a political and prophetic level as well. In other words: in every generation, God stands with the oppressed and calls out their oppressor. God is the Power that gives the gives strength to the marginalized and the vulnerable; the Power that causes even the mightiest of persecutors to eventually fall.
I think there is a profound message here for all religious communities. When it comes to the political use of religion, I believe the fusing of religion and empire has historically represented religion at its very worst. Jews historically know this all too well. But when religion is wedded to movements that speak truth to power and make demands upon it – whether it be the civil rights movement in this country, the struggles against the juntas of Latin America, or the White Rose movement in Nazi Germany – this is when we’ve witnessed religion at its very best.
My own thinking in this regard has been influenced significantly in recent years by reading the works of liberation theologians – Christian religious thinkers who promote this theology on behalf of liberation movements throughout the world. Liberation theology has its roots in Latin American Catholic figures of the 1950s and 60s, but it has since expanded to include African-American, feminist and Palestinian Christian theologies as well.
Lately I’ve begun to do some thinking and writing about what a Jewish theology of liberation might somehow look like – and as I’ve considered it, it seems to me that so many of these themes are deeply embedded in Judaism already: the Biblical imperatives to protect the stranger and the poor, the prophetic denunciation of the hypocrisy of the privileged, the rabbinic rejection of the corrupt power of empire, not to mention our historical experience of marginalization – an experience that has influenced our collective Jewish identity in so many profound ways.
This, I would submit, is one of the most central challenges of Judaism in the 21st century – particularly American Judaism. In an era in which we enjoy the benefits of power and privilege in unprecedented ways, will we affirm a Judaism that unabashedly proclaims God is close to the broken hearted and the down-trodden, or will we venerate the God of physical might and power over others?
I know I’ve asked versions of this question in a myriad of ways during the High Holidays – they have certainly been central to my work as a rabbi, both inside and outside the congregation. But in the end, if I was to identify one central sacred value in my work, it has been this: Judaism teaches that there is nothing so broken in our lives or our world that cannot be made whole once again.
Whether you agree with what I’ve said, in whole in part, or not at all, I’m grateful as always for the opportunity to share these words with you. Please accept them with the encouragement, as I said at the outset, to think more consciously about what Judaism you affirm, what Jewish values you consider to be the most sacred and unshakable – and how you will bear witness to them in the world. What is your Torah – and how will you advocate for it in the year and years to come?
I’d to conclude on a note of thanks – for the honor of letting me into your lives and for being allowed to guide this very special community. I’ve spoken many words to you from this podium over the years, but words cannot do justice to the myriad of emotions I’m feeling on this final High Holidays with you all.
I’ll end now with a short poem, my recent reworking of Psalm 66 – which probably says what I’ve been trying to say here today better (and much more briefly):
shout aloud for the one that is mightier
than any human power, soaring farther
than any eye can see, than any mind
can possibly fathom.
close your eyes just for a moment and see
if you are able this plenitude that
never ceases, this grace-filled universe
that gives and gives again but
is never depleted.
give glory to the one that cannot be contained
by any ideology, dogma or creed, greater than
religion, greater than god, do you think
you possibly can?
now empty your mind of judgment and
send up praises for this pain,
for this soul that can be trampled but
never broken, this spirit that endures
through white-hot fire and raging torrents
only to be reborn anew.
Thank you all.
According to legend, the U’netaneh Tokef – the High Holiday prayer in which we publicly ponder “who shall live and who shall die” in the coming year – was originally written by Rabbi Amnon of Mainz, Germany. As legend would have it, this 11th century sage was pressured to convert to Catholicism by the Archbishop. The rabbi asked for three days to think it over, presumably as a delaying tactic, and later refused to respond to the Archbishop. When he was brought before him, Rabbi Amnon asked that his own tongue be cut off to atone for his sin of even considering conversion.
The Archbishop ordered something even more ghastly: he decreed that Rabbi Amnon’s arms and legs to be amputated limb by limb as punishment for refusing to come when ordered. At each point, he was given the opportunity to convert – and at each point, the Rabbi refused. As this was the eve of Rosh Hashanah, Rabbi Amnon asked to be brought to the synagogue where he composed and recited the U’netaneh Tokef prayer in his dying breath. Three days later, the Rabbi’s spirit appeared to one of his rabbinical colleagues and asked that this prayer be included as part of the High Holiday service. And so, the legend tells us, U’netaneh Tokef became part of the regular liturgy of this season.
It’s not the most heartwarming legend – but then again, U’netaneh Tokef isn’t exactly the most heartwarming of prayers. It’s actually among the most emotionally raw prayers in Jewish tradition: a collective crying out against the randomness of our world and the vulnerability of our lives. It might well be called the quintessential prayer of the High Holiday season.
It also seems to me that this legend is a commentary on the ways that the U’netaneh Tokef is a product of the Jewish communal experience. This prayer might well be viewed as the liturgical expression of a people that has experienced more than its share of randomness and vulnerability over the course its collective history. Indeed, it’s not difficult to read the words “who shall live and who shall die” and not imagine how they must have resonated for Jews living under the very real existential threat of anti-Semitism throughout the centuries.
For the majority of 21st century Jews, this resonance is far less powerful than it has been for previous generations – perhaps than at any other time in Jewish history. Still, I’m sure there are those who would claim that the words “who shall live and who shall die” have been gradually taking on renewed power for the Jewish people in recent years.
I’m speaking in particular about the reports of a significant rise of anti-Semitic attitudes and incidents in Europe. In past year in particular, press reports and polls have been painting an alarming picture. In a recent survey by the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights, 66% of the Jewish respondents felt anti-Semitism in Europe was on the rise. 76% said anti-Semitism had increased in their country over the past five years. In the 12 months after the survey, nearly half said they worried about being verbally insulted or attacked in public because they were Jewish.
Much of this ominous news comes from France. According to France’s Society for the Protection of the Jewish Community, totals of anti-Semitic acts in the 2000s are seven times higher than in the 1990s. This past summer, during the war in Gaza, there were disturbing reports that protests against Israel’s actions spilled over from anti-Israel calls into anti-Jewish rhetoric and even violence. Over a two-day period, protesters marched through the streets of the predominantly Jewish suburb of Sarcelles, reportedly chanting “Death to Jews” and “Gas the Jews.” Protestors also firebombed Jewish-owned businesses and two synagogues and one Jewish-owned pharmacy was burned to the ground.
Last May in Belgium, a country with a much smaller Jewish population, a gunman murdered four people in front of the Jewish Museum in Brussels. And this past month, during a Holocaust Memorial dedication on their European Day of Jewish Culture, youths hurled stones and bottles until the police arrived. Three days later, a fire erupted on an upper floor of a Brussels synagogue; the authorities investigated the incident as arson.
In Germany, there have been reports of similar incidents, including the attempted arson of the Bergische synagogue in Wuppertal. In an interview with the Guardian magazine, Dieter Graumann, president of Germany’s Central Council of Jews, said:
These are the worst times since the Nazi era… On the streets, you hear things like ‘the Jews should be gassed’, ‘the Jews should be burned’ – we haven’t had that in Germany for decades. Anyone saying those slogans isn’t criticizing Israeli politics, it’s just pure hatred against Jews: nothing else. And it’s not just a German phenomenon. It’s an outbreak of hatred against Jews so intense that it’s very clear indeed.
There have also been reports of similar incidents in Italy as well as throughout the Netherlands. A few months ago, a Dutch Jewish watchdog group reported a 23 percent increase in the number of anti-Semitic incidents in the Netherlands since 2012. In Malmo, Sweden, for instance, there has been a rise in anti-Semitic violence over the past several years, causing some members of the Jewish community to emigrate.
My very good friend, Rabbi Rebecca Lillian has lived in Malmo for several years and has reported frankly to me about the impact of anti-Semitism on her adopted hometown. In 2012, the Malmo JCC, where Rebecca lives, was vandalized by heavy rocks and an explosive device that thankfully did little damage. In a recent e-mail to me, she described the issue of anti-Semitism in Europe as a “festering sore,” adding “it’s ugly.”
Rebecca added that the recent upswing of incidents in Malmo, as in the rest of Europe, was mostly in response to the violence in Gaza, which she said “naturally spurred a lot of random, violent hate directed at Jewish people and Jewish places.” She said the Chabad rabbi there was attacked several times, but fortunately was never hurt. Another one of her friends, a modern orthodox Jew who wears a kippah, was so tired of being harassed that he has taken to wearing a baseball cap over it. She wrote to me, “Even I was a bit fearful of, for example, taking a taxi to the JCC where we live. I would ask to be left on the corner, even with luggage.”
What do we make of reports such as these? As Jews, as people of conscience, what should be our response to news of a resurgence of anti-Semitism throughout Europe? There is, of course, one answer on which I believe we can all agree: we must call it out. As with any form of racism or prejudice, silence equals assent. When we hear these kinds of reports, it is our sacred duty to speak up – and to act.
Beyond this basic answer, however, it gets more complicated. When confronted with the reality of anti-Semitism in this day and age, what we say and do will depend on our analysis of its causes. I would go even further and suggest that the nature of our analysis may well define what kind of Jews we want to be – and what kind of Judaism we seek to affirm.
Many Jews will look at the resurgence of anti-Semitism in Europe and conclude that this demonstrates the critical importance of the state of Israel. After all, Zionism itself arose in response to European anti-Semitism. Political Zionists dating back to Theodor Herzl have posited that the only thing that could effectively safeguard the collective security of the Jewish people is a Jewish state of their own. And since its founding Israel has become the symbol of Jewish empowerment: a Jewish nation-state with a Jewish army that ensures the security of Jews not only in Israel, but around the world.
It is not uncommon today to hear the claim from some in the Jewish community that Israel is a kind of “Jewish insurance policy” – that if (or when) things invariably go bad for the Jews anywhere in the world they will always have Israel to go to. For many Jews, in fact, the critical importance of a Jewish state is the central lesson of the Holocaust. Never again will we depend upon other nations to keep us safe. For so many in our community, a Jewish state is our island of security in a dangerous world.
While I certainly understand the logic and psychology of this response, particularly living as we do in the post-Holocaust era, I find this narrative to be problematic in many ways – grounded more in ideology than reality. At the end of the day, I simply don’t believe that statehood has provided us with a real or effective answer to the problem of anti-Semitism.
In some ways, it might be claimed that the exact opposite has occurred. While Israel was largely created to ensure Jewish safety and survival, it has become, ironically enough, the one Jewish community in the world that lives in a near-constant state of vulnerability and insecurity. Indeed, for all of the troubling reports of European anti-Semitism this past summer, the most indelible images of Jewish insecurity came from news footage of Israelis traumatized by missiles coming from Gaza, running for bomb shelters at the repeated sounds of air raid sirens. This was not – to put it mildly – the picture of a “safe haven” for Jews.
I believe these images sadly drive home the tragic reality behind the Zionist dream. Israel, the nation that was created to be a safe home for the Jewish people, has been in a perpetual state of war since its’ founding. Israel, the nation founded to normalize Jewish collective existence, routinely characterizes itself as a small country surrounded and besieged on all sides by hostile enemies. Whatever else we might believe about how a nation can achieve safety and security in the 21st century, I would posit that the founding of Israel has not provided the Jewish people with a panacea.
It is certainly true that Israel has historically opened its arms to oppressed Jews around the world – and we certainly should not understate its importance in this regard. More recently it has been reported in the media that European Jews – particularly Jews from France – are starting to immigrate to Israel in response to rising anti-Semitism. The predominant narrative here is that there is now a new European exodus of oppressed Jews to the Jewish state.
Again, however, I believe these reports have more to do with ideology than reality. According to data from the Israel’s Ministry of Aliyah and Immigrant Absorption, there has indeed been an increase in the number of immigrant from Western Europe in recent years: from 3,339 in 2012 to 4,694 in 2013. What many news reports fail to mention, however, is that Israeli Jews are immigrating to Western Europe at nearly the same rate. In fact, the number of Israeli Jews living abroad has been estimated at 1,000,000 – with most émigrés citing the economy and war-weariness as their main reason for leaving Israel. Berlin alone is home to 17,000 Israelis, according to the German embassy in Tel Aviv. Though it is remarkable to even contemplate just decades after the Holocaust, there is a thriving and growing Israeli expat community in Germany, with its own radio station and cultural arts scene. When we take a close look at what is really going on, then, the reality is much more complex that what the media has been reporting.
When all is said and done, the tragic reality is that Israel was born in conflict and has lived with conflict as its daily reality for its entire existence. Since 1967 Israel has been militarily occupying another people – and I don’t believe it is a stretch to suggest that this ongoing, often brutal occupation impacts attitudes toward Jews not only in Israel but worldwide.
By every indication, whenever violence connected to the Occupation has risen, so too have the incidence of anti-Semitic attitudes and acts around the world. I’ve already mentioned that European anti-Semitism spiked during the Gaza war this summer – as it did during the Gaza wars of 2012 and 2009 as well as the First and Second Intifadas. But it is also worth noting that this linkage works both ways. During periods of peace and diplomacy, particularly during the optimistic days of the peace process under Yitzhak Rabin, in the early 1990s period, global anti-Semitism was at an all time low. As much as violence begets violence, so too, apparently, does tolerance beget tolerance.
What should be our response as we read these reports of rising European anti-Semitism? I would suggest that the answer is not to put our faith in nationalism and militarism to keep the Jewish people safe. I believe our first response should be to understand that anti-Semitism is but one form of racism and prejudice – and as such it is no different than the intolerance that is directed toward any people or group in the world who are perceived as “other.” The appropriate response, it seems to me, is not to recede behind higher walls or build stronger weapons, but rather to find common cause and solidarity with all who are being targeted in this way. To publicly affirm that the well-being of the Jewish people is irrevocably connected to the well-being of every group victimized by racism.
Here’s an concrete example of this response in action: back in 2012, Rabbi Rebecca Lillian wrote that when the Jewish Community Center in Malmo, Sweden was attacked, she was appalled to read quotes by American Jewish leaders proclaiming that Malmo was an unsafe travel destination for Jews and that they should prepare to flee to Israel or another country. In fact, Rebecca pointed out, immediately after the attack, Malmo’s Network for Faith and Understanding held a solidarity vigil, in which women, men and children gathered in front of the JCC with candles. Leaders of several Christian churches, two Muslim groups, and other spiritual and social organizations came together and offered public speeches of support and solidarity.
Indeed, while much attention is paid to the fundamentalist Muslim perpetrators of anti-Semitic attacks throughout Europe, relatively little is devoted to the local actions of Jews and Muslims who come together to stand up against the bigotry that ultimately affects both communities. I was heartened to hear from Rebecca that despite the recent uptick in anti-Semitism in Malmo, their interfaith group is “stronger than ever.”
As she wrote to me in her e-mail:
Even during the (Gaza) war, we spoke candidly about the need to work together to fight any type of hate crime. At a panel discussion, I spoke as a Jew for humanitarian aid to Gaza and for an end to the killing and injuring of civilians. The Imam on the Board spoke about the need for Muslim youth to not attack Jewish people and property. We all spoke of co-existence. In the words of my friend who wears the kippah, the answer lies in education. We need to learn about one another. And the good news is that is indeed happening.
When we contemplate our response to this new anti-Semitism, I believe we should also take pains to differentiate between individual anti-Semitic acts and the much more serious phenomenon of state sponsored anti-Semitism. While we should be alarmed and should rightly protest whenever we hear about anti-Semitic incidents and attacks, historically speaking the most insidious and deadly form of anti-Semitism has been the legislated variety. We must not forget that the Holocaust, like all genocides, occurred when a government directed it own state institutions and resources against minorities in its midst.
Thus, as troubling it is to read of shootings and firebombings, I believe we should be far more disturbed when we hear reports of far-right and even neo-Nazi candidates being elected into Parliaments throughout Europe. My friend Rebecca referred to this phenomenon as the “dark underbelly” of Swedish anti-Semitism. She pointed out that in recent elections, “a relatively large percentage of the voters went for Sweden Democrats, a hard-line anti-immigrant group that has roots in neo-Nazism. There is a group of thugs that are equal opportunity haters, who are fans of neither Muslims nor Jews.”
For all of the recent news coming out of Europe, we should be heartened by the knowledge that there are no longer and Jewish communities anywhere in the world that are collectively targeted and oppressed by its government for being Jewish. And we should be likewise heartened when we hear the heads of European governments pledging their support to minority communities plagued with hate crimes. In response to the recent anti-Semitic incidents in his country, for instance, French Prime Minister, Manuel Valls, has publicly said, “to attack a Jew because he is a Jew is to attack France. To attack a synagogue and a kosher grocery store is quite simply anti-Semitism and racism.” Likewise, at a recent rally, Germany’s chancellor, Angela Merkel, has called the recent incidents “an attack on freedom and tolerance and our democratic state.”
In the end, this may well be the most important, profound and effective response of all. The answer to anti-Semitism, as with all forms of racism is not to adopt a victim mentality or to circle the wagons, but to demand more democracy, more civil rights, more humans rights for all. As American Jews, we should know this better than anyone. We should understand that our new-found engagement with the world has resulted in freedoms truly unprecedented in our history. Today, in our globally engaged 21st century world, I believe we of all people should be on the forefront of this call.
I’d like to conclude now where I began: with the U’netaneh Tokef prayer. As it happens, the legend of the martyred Rabbi Amnon turns out to be precisely that: merely a legend. Scholars tell us that in fact, this prayer was actually composed several centuries earlier, and was likely an edited product of many different authors, influenced by a variety of early Christian hymns. As always, the reality is more complex than our often fatalistic mythology would have it.
And in the end, I believe it is a more hopeful reality. Yes, as this prayer reminds us, the world can be a dangerous place. No, we do not know what this new year has in store for us. It may be a year of blessing or a year of curse, or more likely something in between. But no matter what emotional or historical baggage what we bring to this prayer, we would to well to remember that we always end with the uplifting words, “U’teshuvah, u’tefillah, u’tzedakah ma’avirin et ro’ah ha’gezeirah” – “Repentance, Prayer and Tzedakah lessen the severity of the decree.”
In other words, we must respond to the often harsh nature of our world by engaging with it. Not by hiding from it or fighting against it, but acknowledging all that is good and right and just about it – and then by fighting for these values in no uncertain terms.
In the coming year, in all the years to come, may we do what we can to mitigate the harshness of the decree.
This past year marked an important milestone for our congregation – our 50th anniversary, JRC’s Jubilee Year. During the course of the year, we celebrated in a variety of different ways at events organized by our inspired Jubilee Year Committee. Among the most memorable for me were a series of Friday night services held throughout the year to honor the various generations of our congregation. At each service, we highlighted a different group of members, from longtime to the most recent. And at each service, I invited them to share their memories of JRC with one another: an anecdote, a story, an event that still remained significant to them.
I found these remembrances to be enormously, often unexpectedly powerful. In particular, it was humbling to consider how far our congregation had come since its founding. The cumulative effect of these services drove home for me just how far JRC has traveled in its first 50 years.
Congregants shared about the early days, in which JRC first met, originally as a Reconstructionist study group founded by Anshe Emet members. We heard about the so-called “Shlep-a-Shul” days, when JRC met in members’ homes and later in churches and Chute Middle School. We heard about the hiring of JRC’s first full time rabbi, Arnie Rachlis, and the purchase of our first permanent home at 303 Dodge. Members shared their memories of our fateful decision to start our first Capital Campaign, the construction of our new synagogue facility and the day we learned it had been awarded LEED Platinum status, making it the greenest house of worship in the country.
As I listened to these memories, it occurred to me that one secret to JRC’s success has always been its fearlessness – its culture of openness to change. Not simply change for change’s sake, but rather the kind of change that exemplified the philosophy of Reconstructionist Judaism. Change that stems from the understanding that Jewish civilization has always been a dynamic and evolving organism – and that successful congregations are the ones that are willing to make the changes necessary to remain relevant to ever new generations of Jews.
I remember first learning about JRC when I was in rabbinical school in the late 1980s. I actually visited here as a student intern in 1991 to lead programs at JRC’s annual Memorial Day retreat, or Kallah. It was Rabbi Rachlis’ last Kallah as rabbi, and the beginning of a new chapter at JRC. Unbeknownst to me at the time, it was the beginning of a new one in my own life as well.
I know I’ve shared with some of you that when I was in rabbinical school I consistently swore up and down that I had no intention of being a congregational rabbi. I was pretty cynical about congregations and believed them to be more akin to middle class membership organizations than spiritual communities. But in my final year as a rabbinical student, I had some wonderful experiences with congregations that knocked me right off my cynical high horse – and my weekend at the JRC Kallah was certainly one of them. I was so deeply impressed by the seriousness of its members, its experimental spirit, its openness to embrace new ideas and ways of experiencing Jewish tradition.
As it turned out, I became a congregational rabbi immediately upon graduation from rabbinical school – and to date it’s the only kind of rabbi I’ve ever been. I’ve been a congregational rabbi for over 20 years – most of them here at JRC. And while I’m still critical of congregational Judaism in many ways, I also know from first-hand experience that congregations do have the potential be places of spiritual inspiration, of transformation and change.
First and foremost, until I started to serve at congregations, I never fully understood the power of Jewish community and Jewish tradition to change lives. As congregational rabbis, we are let into people’s lives in a way that I can only describe as “spiritually intimate.” We’re invited into our families’ joys and sorrows and everything in between – and in so doing we bear witness to the ways Jewish tradition represents a spiritual roadmap for the most profoundly charged moments in our lives.
Words cannot do justice to the honor I have felt to have shared such moments with you in so many ways over the years. To put it simply, we have been through so much together. When I think back on my years at JRC, I know that my first memories will invariably be these myriad of life moments: B’nai Mitzvah, funerals and shiva calls, weddings and baby namings and the countless simple moments when I was able, in some measure, to be part of your lives on behalf of your spiritual community. It has enriched my life immeasurably and for it all I will be forever grateful.
And when I think of these past seventeen years in the collective sense, I am struck by the numerous ways JRC has shown me how congregations can become Jewish laboratories for the work of Tikkun Olam – for social justice at home and around the world. I can’t even begin to tell you how many times rabbinical colleagues have approached me over the years to tell me how much they admire our congregation in this regard. I’ve been asked by countless rabbis and lay people about the secret of our success, and how they might plant the same kind of passion for Tikkun Olam in their own synagogues.
And while I’d love to claim the credit, the real truth is that this passion has always been an indelible part of JRC’s culture. Here’s a little bit of history from the early days of my tenure here. I do believe it’s a piece of congregational history that deserves to be honored and remembered:
Shortly after I arrived, I heard in no uncertain terms from a number of members that JRC’s social action programming had been languishing in recent years. Other than our participation in the monthly soup kitchen, there was really no ongoing Tikkun Olam activity in our congregation to speak of. From the very beginning of my tenure here, I sensed a deep and palpable desire to revitalize JRC’s involvement in the arena of social justice.
So with the help of some inspired JRC members led by Gail Brodsky and Reggi Marder, of blessed memory, we decided to rebuild JRC’s social action program from scratch. We started by dissolving the social action committee. We did away with the common congregational system that delegates social action priorities to one relatively small group of congregants – and in its place we created a more grassroots approach – one that was grounded in the ideals of community organizing rather than organizational programming.
We designated members as Tikkun Olam coordinators, who then put out a call to the congregation, announcing that JRC would now support any social action initiatives that congregants saw fit to organize. We reached out to members who had passion, experience, or skills in any particular field of social justice work and gave them the wherewithal to do it Jewishly, under the auspices of their congregation. Our members responded to this call almost immediately. And it’s not an exaggeration to say our new system had a transformative effect on our congregation.
Here are two examples: One of JRC’s very first initiatives was our Environmental Task Force. When it began, it concentrated largely on internal policy issues, congregational education, consciousness-raising about JRC’s use of recyclables, etc. However, when JRC started to explore the prospect of building a new facility for our congregation, the Environmental Task Force broadened its vision. It met with our Board and proposed that we build our new home as a green building.
Now this was back around the year 2002 or so, when environmental consciousness was not yet so firmly planted on our national radar screen. Many of us had only the vaguest notion of what a green building even was. But to their credit, our leaders educated themselves and our community about and sustainable construction and energy efficiency – and about the very complicated LEED certification process. Then we took the leap and committed to building a new building at the highest LEED status feasible. At that time, none of us had any notion what that might mean. We certainly didn’t dream we would eventually achieve a Platinum rating – the highest rating possible.
While today JRC has a well-deserved reputation as a green congregation, it’s important to keep in mind that our congregation didn’t have a long history of environmental activism. Our accomplishments were a direct product of our new culture of Tikkun Olam – an approach that invited our members themselves to take ownership of our congregation’s social justice values and priorities.
Here’s another example. Another one of our earliest task forces was our Global AIDS Task Force. When it began, it was also largely educational in orientation – it sponsored an annual World AIDS Day program and helped raise funds and awareness about the efforts to fight the HIV/AIDS pandemic at home and abroad. But after a few years of this work within our congregation, the leaders of this task force decided it was time to take things to the next level – and organized a service trip to Africa.
Again, up until this point, JRC did not have a history of organizing international service trips. I certainly never dreamed that as a rabbi, I would some day accompany my congregants to work with NGOs in rural Africa to serve communities ravaged by AIDS. To date, JRC has now visited Uganda and Rwanda three times and has created lasting relationships with courageous important NGOs such as Rwanda’s We-Act and CHABHA. But again, we were only able to accomplish all of this when we made the decision to give Tikkun Olam back to our members themselves.
When I look back over the most recent chapter of JRC’s life, I personally believe this will be its most important legacy: the creation of this new congregational culture for the work of Tikkun Olam. And as JRC enters its next chapter, I encourage you to continue to nurture it – and build upon it. Despite what JRC has already accomplished, I can’t help but think we’ve only just scratched the surface. Learn more about these initiatives and support them. If any of you who may have passions or experience or skills in a particular aspect of Tikkun Olam, please know that this congregation can be your laboratory for doing this sacred work. I can tell you from first-hand experience these initiatives have the potential to make a very real difference in the life of our congregation – and more importantly, in the world around us.
I’d like to address another aspect of JRC’s Tikkun Olam work that I believe has been crucial in its most recent chapter – and it is one I believe will only become even more critical in the years ahead. And that is, namely, the issue of Israel/Palestine. This is, of course, not just any other Tikkun Olam issue; in so many ways it is the issue for the Jewish community. Last night I spoke about the ways I have evolved on this issue – and how my evolution has impacted on our congregation. And while I know it has been painful – and that this issue was eventually instrumental in my decision to leave JRC, I do believe it has also led our congregation to respond and grow in courageous ways.
Another bit of history: several years ago, in response to the growing tensions caused by my Palestinian solidarity activism, the JRC Board reached out to consultants to help us to create a process for civil discourse on this issue; to build a culture of openness to all views and the development of safe spaces for conversation and programming on Israel/Palestine that truly reflected the range of our members’ views and concerns. This work resulted in what we eventually called the “Sicha Project,” in which we trained JRC members to become group facilitators to be used whenever we addressed difficult or potentially controversial aspects of the Israel/Palestine issue together as a community. At the same time, we created an Israel Program Committee charged with the creation of a wide variety of programs on this issue.
The Sicha Project was, I believe, a truly courageous approach to a deeply difficult issue that most congregations generally deal with in one of two ways: monolithically or through abject avoidance. And for a time, at least, I do believe JRC’s approach provided an important model for a new kind of congregational engagement on Israel/Palestine.
I’m sorry to say that this initiative broke down over the last few years. There are many reasons for this. I believe we failed to remain as vigilant as we should have been in bringing new leadership aboard and I believe the work of our first Israel Program Committee became paralyzed and left to languish. But whatever the specific causes of this breakdown, I don’t believe for a second that it was due to anything inherent to the model itself. Now more than ever, our congregation needs to come together to discuss this issue openly and I do have faith that we have the wherewithal to make it succeed.
Over the past year, a new Israel Program Task Force has been hard at work revitalizing and rebooting this process. It has created a new policy for inclusive Israel programming that has been presented to and approved by the Board. And we are now poised to restart the Sicha Project once more. Despite the immense challenges of such an initiative, I believe this is still the model of how congregations can respond to this difficult issue with sensitivity and courage.
I would also suggest that if JRC wants to remain on the leading edge of trends in American Jewish life, it would do well to face this issue head on. There is every indication that attitudes about Israel in the Jewish community are widening. Studies show us over and over that the younger Jewish generation is questioning the role of Israel in their Jewish identity in fundamental ways. We can ignore or fight against this phenomenon – or we can face it head on. This is our Jewish future – and unless congregations create communities in which all views can be included and respected, I believe they will soon find themselves on the road to irrelevancy.
One of the most important bellwethers of this phenomenon is the Open Hillel movement – a grassroots initiative of university students who have organized in response to Hillel International’s very narrow guidelines for what they consider to be appropriate Israel student programming on campus. Over the last few years, this movement has exploded in Jewish student communities across the country. Individual Hillels have been declaring themselves to be “Open Hillels” that allow a wide tent of points of view on Israel – next month it will be holding its first national conference at Harvard.
In its mission statement, Open Hillel says the following (listen to the young people now):
Open discussion and debate is a Jewish value, and we are proud of our culture’s long tradition of encouraging the expression of multiple, even contradictory, views and arguments. However, Hillel International’s current guidelines encourage Jewish students to avoid seriously engaging with Palestinian students or other students on campus with differing views on Israel-Palestine. This is detrimental to the goal of encouraging mutual understanding, cooperation, and peace. Thus, we believe it is essential that Hillel-affiliated groups be able to partner with other campus groups in order to share perspectives, cooperate in those areas where we agree, and respectfully debate in those areas where we disagree.
Our congregations would do well to develop this kind of manifesto. Perhaps it could provide us with the nucleus of a nascent Open Congregations movement, in which Jewish congregations openly declare their willingness to create a safe and wide tent for all points of view on this issue within their congregations.
Although I’ve personally made the decision to leave congregational life professionally, I still do believe in congregations. And I’ll admit, I say this selfishly: quite frankly, Hallie and I would love to find a congregation in which we ourselves can make a comfortable Jewish home. But even more than this, I do know from over 20 years of first-hand experience, that congregations can be exciting, relevant places that don’t just hold on to a Jewish past but mold the Jewish future. I know it can be done.
But we if we do decide to throw our weight behind congregational Judaism, we should have no illusions about the challenges this will entail. To put it bluntly, liberal Jewish congregations are not a growth industry in America. Every Jewish community-sponsored study tells us the same thing over and over: the overwhelming majority of American Jews do not affiliate with congregations. Synagogue membership is shrinking considerably, and increasing numbers of congregations are closing their doors. And while I know that there are many complex reasons for this, I am convinced that the only way we can respond is to take a good hard look at the reality of the Jewish community – and to create congregations of relevance and meaning that will lead us into our Jewish future.
I know for a fact that JRC can be one of those congregations. It’s been doing it for the past 50 years and I’ve seen it with my own eyes for the past 17. I thank you for providing me and my family with such an exciting and vibrant Jewish home. I have no doubt you will go from strength to strength and I look forward to watching it happen.
Shanah Tovah to you all.