When Silence Becomes Sinful

Posted May 22, 2016 by Rabbi Henry Jay Karp
Categories: A Statement Against the Rhetoric of Fear and Intolerance, America, Anti-Transgender Laws, Antisemitism, Being Different, Bystanders, Collaborators, Fear, Hate, Holocaust, Homosexuality, Immigration to America, Interfaith Relations, Intolerance, Islamophobia, Islamophobia, Jewish Sacred Texts, Kristallnacht, Perpetrators, Prejudice, Protecting the "Stranger", Remembering the Holocaust as key aspect of Jewish identity, Shared Faith Values, Social Justice, The Righteous Among the Nations, Tikkun Olam, Uncategorized, Victims, Xenophobia

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As a child, it was not uncommon for me to receive from my parents the counsel that “Silence is golden.” They were far from alone in their positive assessment of the virtues of silence. The Hebrew Scriptures are filled with tributes to it. The Psalmist said, “To You, O God, silence is praise.” In Proverbs we read, “Even a fool, when he holds is peace, is counted wise.” The prophet Habbakuk proclaimed, “Let all the earth keep silent before God.” Nor does it stop there in Jewish sacred literature. In Pirke Avot, the great Rabbi Akiba said that “Silence is a fence for wisdom.” In Tractate Yevamot of the Talmud it states “Your silence is better than your speech.” The philosopher Baruch Spinoza wrote “The world would be much happier if people were fully able to keep silence as they are able to speak.” Even such a non-Jewish luminary as Mother Teresa sang the praises of silence when she said “God is the friend of silence. See how nature – trees, flowers, grass – grows in silence; see the stars, the moon, and the sun, how they move in silence.” Everyone seems to agree with my parents about the virtue of silence; how great it is!

But truth be told, as history has taught us, there are times when silence isn’t golden but rather toxic; when silence doesn’t praise God but rather denies God; when silence isn’t wisdom but rather foolishness, fatal foolishness; when silence doesn’t make the world a happier place but rather a far more painful place in which to live; when God is not the friend of silence but rather it’s mourner; when silence isn’t a virtue but rather a sin.

Who should know this better than we, the Jewish people? Is our collective memory so short lived – so narrow – that we are so quick to forget the toxic silence of the Holocaust? As I teach my students at St. Ambrose University, if we retell the story of the Holocaust believing that there were just the good guys and the bad guys, the victims and the murderers, the rescuers and the collaborators, then we do that story a great disservice. For there were others who were present in that time and at that place and though they never lifted their hands against a Jew, they still were far from innocent. We call them the Bystanders. These were the millions of people who stood by, watching the Nazis cart off the Jews to gas chambers, crematoria, concentration camps, and who stood by in silence. They may not have lifted a finger to help the Nazis but neither did they even utter a word of protest to save the Jews. They stood by, and in their silence and in their inaction, they allowed it to happen. It haunts me, and it should haunt you as well, every time I look at any one of the many photos taken on Kristallnacht in which crowds of bystanders are passively looking on as synagogues are being burned or Jews are being humiliated. So many silently stood by as 6 million of our brothers and sisters, infants and elderly and all those in between, were turned into ash and were sent up to heaven in dark and dusky smoke. We know from the history of our people that silence can kill.

The philosopher Edmund Burke said, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good people to do nothing.” And what is keeping silent if it is not choosing to do nothing? We have seen evil triumph, even if just for a while, aided and abetted by the silence of the multitude; by the inaction of the multitude. Now those who kept their silence may have been good people at heart, but they gazed upon the victims and said to themselves, “That’s not me nor is it my family, so it’s really not my problem.” But they were wrong. For it was their problem. For in their silence, they permitted it to happen unchallenged and unopposed, and for having so chosen, they bear their own portion of the burden of the guilt. In their silence and in their inaction, they became accomplices to the crime.

Now one could say, “That was then this is now.” Or is it? Perhaps with every passing day, “now” is becoming more and more like “then,” and we, who now live safely and securely in our own homes are finding ourselves in the role, not so much of the victim, but rather of the onlooker, the bystander. As such, with every passing day, we are being challenged – whether or not we acknowledge the challenge – we are being challenged as to whether or not we will say something; whether or not we will do something; whether or not we will keep silent and passive as we watch the world crumble around the lives of human beings other than ourselves.

Over the past few years, across our planet, we have experienced a frightening rebirth of the social acceptability of bigotry. And lately that disease has spread its infection within the very borders of our own homeland. No longer are expressions and actions born of prejudice restricted to the fringes of our society. Indeed there are those – some of whom are in high places – who encourage these expressions, these actions, and the attitudes that give birth to them, and wrap them in a so-called patriotic package they call protecting America and making America great again. But how can America be protected when certain Americans are openly attacked? How can the greatness of America grow when its seeds are sown in the soil of hatred and prejudice?

We American Jews have been lucky this time. Yes, there have been Jews who have been attacked on the streets of our cities and certainly, it is with fear and trepidation these days that we send our children off to college when antisemitism is definitely growing on the campuses of our colleges and universities. But all this is nothing compared to what is happening to the Jewish communities in Europe.  All that is nothing compared to what is happening to some other minorities in our own country.

Yes, there are others in our own land who are not so fortunate as we have been. They are today’s victims. Foremost among them probably is the Muslim community. Islamophobia has become a wildfire, blazing out of control. In my community, at a recent interfaith dialogue program entitled “The Toxicity of Fear,”two deeply disturbing stories were shared. One was caught on film outside of a Starbuck’s in the Washington D.C. area. A Muslim woman, in traditional garb, was sitting, checking her phone, bothering no one, when a Caucasian woman accosted her, screaming obscenities in her face. The Caucasian woman briefly walked away, soon to return in order to dump a cup of smelly liquid over the Muslim woman’s head. The other story struck even closer to home for it involved a well known member of our local Muslim community. One night, in the recent past, she was driving home from western Iowa, along Interstate 80, wearing her traditional head covering, when she found herself being followed very closely by a beat-up pickup truck. She sped up and so did her followers. So she pulled over and slowed down to let them pass. As they passed, they opened their window and shouted at her all sorts of obscenities and hate filled remarks about her being a Muslim. A little while later, they pulled off the road and waited for her. As she passed them, then threw beer cans and other garbage at her car. Incidents such as these are happening all over our country. How can we as Jews remain silent in the face of them?

Nor are they the only victims, as we witness a resurgence of homophobia, especially as it has been directed at those with a transgender sexual orientation. This prejudice has manifested itself both privately and publicly, in word, in deed, and even in law. How can we as Jews remain silent in the face of it?

Yes, there are times when silence is indeed golden and discretion is the better part of wisdom. But there are also times when silence becomes sinful and we, by our very silence, become greatly diminished as moral human beings and in the sight of God. Of all the people on the face of the earth, we Jews know how very lethal silence can be, for our kindred suffered and bled and died while others remained silent to their plight. If there is a commanding voice coming out of the Holocaust, then it is the same commanding voice that came out of our ancestors’ slavery in Egypt. For as the Torah demands of us again and again, “Do not wrong the stranger for remember that you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” We Jews have been victims of hatred, prejudice, bigotry, and sometimes we still are. Therefore we, of all people, must take up the cause of today’s victims. In the language of the Holocaust, God expects of us that we should become the Rescuers rather than the Perpetrators of even the Bystanders.

It was with all this in mind that a group of us who have a special interest in promoting Holocaust awareness – Jews and non-Jews alike – put together a statement entitled “A Statement Against the Rhetoric of Fear and Intolerance.”  We have been inviting those who share our concerns to add their names to our call for decency and the respect of human dignity.  As of this writing, we have collected over 200 names, but it is going to take far more than that to make enough of an impact to effectively get our message across.  I have posted that document on my blog, where you can find it immediately preceding this post.  I invite you to read it and if your agree with its message, add your name to it by simply stating your name in a “comment” to the blog.  Speaking out is the first step to putting an end to the toxic bigotry which is spreading across our country and around the world.

Against the Rhetoric of Fear and Intolerance

Posted April 26, 2016 by Rabbi Henry Jay Karp
Categories: Uncategorized

We the undersigned take seriously the lessons painfully learned from the Nazi Holocaust and because of those lessons, encourage resistance in our own time to circumstances like those which led to the Holocaust. Being people of many faiths and traditions, we affirm that our shared values call upon us to show compassion for the afflicted and appreciation for those of other religious and ethnic backgrounds or sexual orientation. It was the absence of these values in much of Europe and the United States during the 1930’s that led to the Holocaust in the first place – and to the senseless death of millions of innocent children, women, and men from 1933 to 1945.

Given these values, we vigorously condemn a growing attitude of intolerance and hatred aimed at those seeking refuge in the United States – often based primarily on the religion and/or ethnicity of those refugees. We find it disturbingly reminiscent of the attitudes in our country and in other nations which resulted in the slamming of the doors of escape to those attempting to flee the Nazis.

America is a nation of immigrants. We have grown and prospered over the last 240 years through the talents, experiences, as well as cultural, religious, and ethnic diversity of those, who – often at great personal peril – have come to our shores to make America what it is today.

To bar or substantially obstruct any group primarily on the basis of their ethnic background and/or religion is therefore hostile to the very idea of America. It likewise could sow the seeds of intolerance and fear that led to the terrible events in Europe 70 years ago.

Accordingly, we encourage our fellow Quad Citians to reject the rhetoric of fear, intolerance, and any stereotyping based on religion and/or ethnicity or sexual orientation. Instead, we encourage our fellow citizens to advocate principles of compassion, understanding, and courage that collectively make up what Abraham Lincoln referred to as “the better angels of our nature.”

Coordinating Committee

Dr. Marrietta Castle

Janina Ehrlich

Linda Golden

Rev. Richard Hendricks

Cantor Gail Posner Karp

Rabbi Henry Jay Karp

Lisa Killinger

Most Rev. Dr. Bruce D. LeBlanc

Rev. Richard Priggie

Rev. Dr. Mary N. Pugh

Dr. William Roba

Rowen Schussheim-Anderson

Mark Schwiebert

Kai Swanson

Rev. Jay Wolin

Supporters

Rev. Charles Adam

Christine Aden

Ferdaus Ahmad

Robin A. Anderson, PhD

Steve Anderson

Dr. Amir Arbisser

Dr. Lisa Arbisser

Stacy Astrove

Steven Bahls

Maureen M. Baldwin

Michael Beaderstadt

Allen Bertsche

John Bowman

Kathy Bowman

Elizabeth Brook

Rev. Elder Pat Bumgardner

Sheri Carnahan

Tom Carnahan

Jane Cassidy

Joe Chambers

Shelly Chambers

Linda Clewell

Richard A. Clewell

Rev. Dr. Matthew J.M. Coomber

Jeff Coussens

Judith Crompton

Michelle Crouch

Daniel Culver

Deborah Dakin

Rev. Becky David

Dr. Traci Davis

Kirsten Day

Carol DeVolder

Richard M. Dienesch

Sharon Dodd

Marcy Doyle

Brenda Drew-Peeples

Lucia Dryanski

Nora Dvorak

Dr. Dan R. Ebener

Dr. Janet Abbott Eckhart

Bill Estes

Jim Farber

Paul-Thomas Ferguson

Barry Ferm

Pastor Stacie Fidlar

Gale Francione

Marjorie Froeschle

Alan Garfield

Phyllis Garfield

Ann S. Garton

Richard E. Geiger

Samuel M. Gilman

Rita Oetkin Gustafson

Wilma Hauser

Cheryl Heimberger

Wendy Hilton-Morrow

Nancy Hines

Loxi Hopkins

Aaron Humble

Bea F. Jacobson, PhD

Paul K. Jacobson, PhD

Kathy Jakielski

Georgia Jecklin

Michael J. Jerin, PhD

Christopher M. Jones

Dr. Andrew Kaiser

Dr. Judy Correa Kaiser

Brian Katz

Linda C. Kelty

Richard N. Kennedy

Mary Kilbride

Peter Kivisto

Sydney Anderson Krispin

Emil Kramer

Elaine Kresse

Sam Kresse

Marion Lardner

Pareena Lawrence

Bob Lee

Rev. A. Parker Lewis III

Gina L. Livingston

Pamela Carlson Long

Patricia Madden

Rev. Mariah Marlin-Warfield

Henry F. Marquard

Eric Mathis

Denise Mattes

John Mattes

Kathryn McKnight

Craig Mekow

Juleann Miller, RN

Carol Mizeur

Dr. Julia Moffitt

Margaret Morse

Rev. Katherine Mulhern

Ann Ney

Long Nguyen

Sue Normoyle

Rev. Kristen Glass Perez

Woody Perkins

Clayton C. Peterson

Dan Portes

Rebecca A. Pracht

Megan Quinn

Rev. Kathy Remley

Margaret Ristau

Jennifer Robb

Beth Roberts

Lori Roderick

Jayne Rose

Barbara Roseman

Nimala S. Salgado

Bill Schmidt

Art Searle, MD

Dr. Rachel Serianz

Judy Shawver

Maynard Siegel

Jeffrey B. Simpson

Joyce Singh

Marsha Smith

Dr. Keith Soko

Deborah A. Soodhalter

Andrew Starenko

Steven Stickle

Chris Strunk

Vince Thomas

Paula Tigerman

Mary M. Todtz

Jeff Transou

Bill Tubbs

Sharon M. Varallo

Jeanneth Vázquez-Valarezo

Anne Wachal

Richard Weinstein

Rachel Weiss

Joyce Wiley

Rev. Dr. Randy Willers

Rev. Elder Nancy Wilson

Dr. Corinne Winter

Dr. Michael B. Wolf

Susan Wolf

Maggie Woods, NBCT

Peter T. Xiao

Michael Zemek

A STATEMENT AGAINST THE RHETORIC OF FEAR AND INTOLERANCE

Posted April 26, 2016 by Rabbi Henry Jay Karp
Categories: Uncategorized

We the undersigned take seriously the lessons painfully learned from the Nazi Holocaust and because of those lessons, encourage resistance in our own time to circumstances like those which led to the Holocaust. Being people of many faiths and traditions, we affirm that our shared values call upon us to show compassion for the afflicted and appreciation for those of other religious and ethnic backgrounds or sexual orientation. It was the absence of these values in much of Europe and the United States during the 1930’s that led to the Holocaust in the first place – and to the senseless death of millions of innocent children, women, and men from 1933 to 1945.

Given these values, we vigorously condemn a growing attitude of intolerance and hatred aimed at those seeking refuge in the United States – often based primarily on the religion and/or ethnicity of those refugees. We find it disturbingly reminiscent of the attitudes in our country and in other nations which resulted in the slamming of the doors of escape to those attempting to flee the Nazis.

America is a nation of immigrants. We have grown and prospered over the last 240 years through the talents, experiences, as well as cultural, religious, and ethnic diversity of those, who – often at great personal peril – have come to our shores to make America what it is today.

To bar or substantially obstruct any group primarily on the basis of their ethnic background and/or religion is therefore hostile to the very idea of America. It likewise could sow the seeds of intolerance and fear that led to the terrible events in Europe 70 years ago.

Accordingly, we encourage our fellow Quad Citians to reject the rhetoric of fear, intolerance, and any stereotyping based on religion and/or ethnicity or sexual orientation. Instead, we encourage our fellow citizens to advocate principles of compassion, understanding, and courage that collectively make up what Abraham Lincoln referred to as “the better angels of our nature.”

 

Coordinating Committee

Dr. Marrietta Castle                      Janina Ehrlich                                         Linda Golden

Rev. Richard Hendricks               Cantor Gail Posner Karp                        Rabbi Henry Jay Karp

Lisa Killinger                                Most Rev. Dr. Bruce D. LeBlanc          Rev. Richard Priggie

Rev. Dr. Mary N. Pugh                 Dr. William Roba                                   Rowen Schussheim-Anderson

Mark Schwiebert                           Kai Swanson                                          Rev. Jay Wolin

 

 

Supporters


Rev. Charles Adam                       Christine Aden                                       Ferdaus Ahmad

Robin A. Anderson, PhD             Steve Anderson                                     Dr. Amir Arbisser

Dr. Lisa Arbisser                           Stacy Astrove                                        Steven Bahls

Maureen M. Baldwin                    Michael Beaderstadt                              Allen Bertsche

John Bowman                               Kathy Bowman                                      Elizabeth Brook

Rev. Elder Pat Bumgardner          Sheri Carnahan                                       Tom Carnahan

Jane Cassidy                                 Joe Chambers                                         Shelly Chambers

Linda Clewell                               Richard A. Clewell                                Rev. Dr. Matthew J.M. Coomber

Jeff Coussens                                Judith Crompton                                    Michelle Crouch

Daniel Culver                                Deborah Dakin                                       Rev. Becky David

Dr. Traci Davis                              Kirsten Day                                            Carol DeVolder

Richard M. Dienesch                    Sharon Dodd                                         Marcy Doyle

Brenda Drew-Peeples                   Lucia Dryanski                                       Nora Dvorak

Dr. Dan R. Ebener                        Dr. Janet Abbott Eckhart                       Bill Estes

Jim Farber                                     Paul-Thomas Ferguson                           Barry Ferm

Pastor Stacie Fidlar                       Gale Francione                                       Marjorie Froeschle

Alan Garfield                                Phyllis Garfield                                      Ann S. Garton

Richard E. Geiger                         Samuel M. Gilman                                 Rita Oetkin Gustafson

Wilma Hauser                               Cheryl Heimberger                                 Wendy Hilton-Morrow

Nancy Hines                                 Loxi Hopkins                                         Aaron Humble

Bea F. Jacobson, PhD                   Paul K. Jacobson, PhD                          Kathy Jakielski

Georgia Jecklin                             Michael J. Jerin, PhD                             Christopher M. Jones

Dr. Andrew Kaiser                       Dr. Judy Correa Kaiser                          Brian Katz

Linda C. Kelty                              Richard N. Kennedy                              Mary Kilbride

Peter Kivisto                                 Sydney Anderson Krispin                     Emil Kramer

Elaine Kresse                                Sam Kresse                                            Marion Lardner

Pareena Lawrence                         Bob Lee                                                 Rev. A. Parker Lewis III

Gina L. Livingston                        Pamela Carlson Long                             Patricia Madden

Rev. Mariah Marlin-Warfield       Henry F. Marquard                                Eric Mathis

Denise Mattes                               John Mattes                                            Kathryn McKnight

Craig Mekow                                Juleann Miller, RN                                 Carol Mizeur

Dr. Julia Moffitt                            Margaret Morse                                      Rev. Katherine Mulhern

Ann Ney                                       Long Nguyen                                         Sue Normoyle

Rev. Kristen Glass Perez              Woody Perkins                                      Clayton C. Peterson

Dan Portes                                    Rebecca A. Pracht                                 Megan Quinn

Rev. Kathy Remley                      Margaret Ristau                                     Jennifer Robb

Beth Roberts                                 Lori Roderick                                         Jayne Rose

Barbara Roseman                          Nimala S. Salgado                                 Bill Schmidt

Art Searle, MD                             Dr. Rachel Serianz                                 Judy Shawver

Maynard Siegel                             Jeffrey B. Simpson                                Joyce Singh

Marsha Smith                                Dr. Keith Soko                                       Deborah A. Soodhalter

Andrew Starenko                          Steven Stickle                                        Chris Strunk

Vince Thomas                               Paula Tigerman                                      Mary M. Todtz

Jeff Transou                                  Bill Tubbs                                               Sharon M. Varallo

Jeanneth Vázquez-Valarezo          Anne Wachal                                         Richard Weinstein

Rachel Weiss                                 Joyce Wiley                                            Rev. Dr. Randy Willers

Rev. Elder Nancy Wilson             Dr. Corinne Winter                                Dr. Michael B. Wolf

Susan Wolf                                   Maggie Woods, NBCT                          Peter T. Xiao

Michael Zemek

 

 

Pre-Caucus Reflections

Posted January 30, 2016 by Rabbi Henry Jay Karp
Categories: America, American Politics, Iowa Caucuses, Partisan Politics, Political Campaign Rhetoric, Presidential Campaigning

As many of you know, the Cantor and I will be leaving tomorrow to attend the annual meeting of the Mid West Association of Reform Rabbis. This particular gathering is without question my favorite of all my professional meetings and that is not just because it takes me annually to sunny and warm Scottsdale, Arizona in the midst of our Mid West winters. However, as much as I enjoy this annual gathering, this year it also makes me sad. It makes me sad because it will be pulling the Cantor and I, as well as the other Iowa Reform rabbis, away from the Iowa Caucuses. The Cantor and I have lived in this community for over 30 years and this will be the first time that we will not be attending the caucuses, and I feel very bad about that.
The Iowa Caucus experience is one of those “You-Had-To-Have-Been-There” type of events. It is not something that you can fully explain to others; at least not so that they can truly appreciate it. Our congregation draws from both sides of the River and how I wish we could give our Illinois congregants guest passes to the Caucuses just so that they can have the experience and not just assume that it is a glorified primary, for it is not. Indeed, on a personal level, being a registered member of one of the political parties, still I have this fantasy of being a fly on the wall at a caucus meeting of the other party, if for no other reason, the entertainment value of it all.
When the Cantor and I first came to Iowa, no political process could have been more foreign to us than the Caucus process. Growing up as we did in big cities of big states – New York and Detroit – our exposure to the political process was always rather impersonal and mechanical. Only once in my 25 years of living in New York City did I ever get to even see a presidential candidate in the flesh. It was Lyndon Johnson, back in 1964. He made a stump speech on the corner of Fordham Road and the Grand Concourse in the Bronx. Thousands crowded the streets and from my vantage point, he looked about a 1/4 inch tall and there was no way I could even begin to make out his facial features. Since we have come to Iowa, we have not only experienced candidates in small groups but have enjoyed personal face-to-face conversations with several of them and even have had some of them, like John Kerry serve us food at a pancake breakfast. Now how many Americans can say that they have had the current Secretary of State plop a couple of pancakes on their plate?
But as exciting as all of that is – and you have to admit that it is very exciting to enjoy the exposure and the access that we have to these stars of the American political scene – in the end it does not even begin to compare with actually participating in the caucus itself. For attending and participating in a caucus is almost like stepping back in history, to a time when America was a more intimate place and the political process was really very personal; when not only your vote counted but also your voice.
I have to admit that at the first caucus we attended, we were pretty much thrown for a loop. We didn’t know what to expect and we surely did not expect the small group dynamics which is the heart and soul of the caucus event. There we were, with this mass of people in this site when we were told, “Those who are caucusing for this candidate meet in this corner and those who are caucusing for that candidate meet in that corner…” and so on. So, a bit disoriented, we walked to where the supporters of our candidate were gathering. Honestly, I cannot remember whether or not the Cantor and I were supporting the same candidate. A head count was taken and then we waited to find out whether our group was viable; whether we numbered enough to meet the minimum required percentage of the total population of our caucus site.
Well, we did, but other groups didn’t. So, somehow or other a leader of our group arose – I am not quite sure how – and he started tasking us on how to approach the members of the non-viable groups and convince them to join our ranks. So we went out to hock our wares; to convince these people to throw their support behind our candidate. Suddenly we found ourselves being not just voters but campaigners; advocates for our candidate, promoting the strengths of our candidate’s platform. In other words, we were called upon to be informed of the issues and where our candidate stood on them. We were called upon, not only to present to others where our candidate stood on the various issues but also why we personally felt that our candidate’s take on those issues were so important for the future of America.
Then there came the point where we had to gather with our new “converts”, take a new head count, report it to the officials so it could be submitted, and the rest was history.
There are those in other states who mock the Iowa Caucuses and shake their head in disbelief that such a small and unimportant state should have such a significant say in the future of our nation. I am sure that part of their mockery is pure jealousy, but most of it is pure ignorance; ignorance of what the caucus process is really like. Back in their states, they will vote on candidates without ever having set eyes on them except on television. Some of them will seriously explore and compare the platforms of the various candidates but most of them will depend upon those horrible, back biting, blood thirsty, campaign ads for the making of their decision. They may or may not ever engage in a conversation about the issues and which candidate holds what position on them. With little or no serious discussion, they will walk into a voting booth and cast their ballot.
But we, on the other hand, have received the greatest gift democracy can offer; the opportunity to become highly informed on the issues, to seriously grapple with the different stands of the candidates, and to participate in an electoral process which is not just isolated and solitary but is vibrant and interactive, and most of all, one that challenges us to be the most responsible voters we can possibly be.
This coming Monday I will surely miss participating in that process but if you are an Iowa resident, you need not miss it. I implore you not to miss it, no matter what party you identify with. In our democracy we say that our elections are the voice of the people. No where is that more true than in Iowa during the Caucuses. So make your voice heard! Don’t be one of those pathetic Americans who, after all is said and done, rants and rails about their bitterness, and complains that they did not have a say.

Standing On the Border of Tragedy and Hope

Posted December 9, 2015 by Rabbi Henry Jay Karp
Categories: America, Antisemitism, Appreciating the faith of others, Churches, Evangelical Christians, Giving of Our Time, Giving of Ourselves, Gun Violence in America, Hate, hope, hunger, Hunger, Interfaith Relations, Iowa, Kids Against Hunger, Prejudice, Quad Cities, Racism, Religious Diversity, Shared Faith Values, Social Action, Social Justice, Syria, Syrian Civil War, Syrian Refugee Camps, Syrian Refugee Crisis, terrorism, Volunteerism

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It was a remarkably beautiful day for December. The sun was shining and the temperatures were moderate. I arrived at the Waterfront Convention Center at just about 7:30 in the morning, looking ahead with both anticipation and anxiety about the day which was yet to unfold. Our own LINDA GOLDEN, LISA KILLINGER of the Islamic community, and I had been spearheading an effort to encourage Quad Citians to join in assembling meal packs to be sent to Jordan to feed the Syrian refugees in camps there. The actual assembling of these meal packs would be taking place for much of the day, with teams of 10 working in 1-hour shifts, from 8:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. At any given time, we had set ups for up to 16 teams working at once. Going into the morning, we were thrilled by the numbers of Quad Citians who had already stepped forward to help in this humanitarian effort. We had slots for 1,600 people to assemble meal packs and we already had 1,550 people sign up to do so! As the day progressed many more volunteers walked through the door. We enlisted the organization, KIDS AGAINST HUNGER, to do their magic in setting up and administering the project. In the past, Linda, Lisa, and I had wonderful experiences working with them as they put on their program in our religious schools. We were fully confident that they would do a great job. However, they had never put together a program this large or complex. So, as confident as we were, we still prayed that it would all come together smoothly, and it did.

We publicized the event as an interfaith effort and it was shaping up to be true to that name. We had Catholics and Protestants, Evangelicals and Unitarians, Jews and Muslim, Hindus and Buddhists, people of all sorts of religions and people of no religious affiliation, all having signed up to do their part to feed starving Syrian refugees. It was wondrous to see these various faith groups working side-by-side. At one point I had to chuckle for there was a group from the Jewish community that was awaiting the group ahead of them to finish working at their assigned table. The group that kept them waiting were the Buddhists. How often do you see something like that?

At the end of each hour, as the shift was ending, the energy level of the people finishing their shift was high for the very act of helping others increased their energy and lifted their souls. Sitting as I was at the donation table, each shift ended with people crowding the table, wanted to extend their good feelings by giving cash or writing checks to further help the cause. So many of them were so grateful for our having provided them with the opportunity to do this act if kindness. So many of them commented on how bereft they felt in the wake of the violence of the attacks in Paris and San Bernadino; how hopeless they felt coming into the Convention Center, but how filled with hope they felt as they left.

Paris, San Bernadino, Colorado Springs, ISIS, Syria, terrorist violence around the world, including the knife intifada in Israel, all have served to cast the dark shadows of tragedy and hopelessness over our little planet. Yet for that one Saturday, at the Waterfront Convention Center in Bettendorf, Iowa it seemed that a bright light had pierced through that darkness and filled our space and our lives with brilliant rays of hope. How could it be otherwise when people of such diverse backgrounds, theologies, and ideologies come together in order to serve a greater good; in order to further the wellbeing of total strangers, people they may even disagree with on political issues? In a world filled with hatred and violence, pettiness and strife, even if just for a moment, there were all these people who gathered to live up to the best of human potential and to create an oasis of caring, respect, and fundamental human decency. There is hope for our future!

Holding On and Letting Go: Yizkor Sermon

Posted November 6, 2014 by Rabbi Henry Jay Karp
Categories: Change, Consolation, Creating Balance, Dealing With the Death of a Loved One, Eulogies, Family, Fear, Funeral, Giving Comfort, Grief, Hebrew Union College, Helene Karp my mother, Holding Onto Grief, Honoring the Memory of Loved Ones, Human Relations, Letting Go of Grief, Memory, mourners, Mourning, Moving On With Our Lives, Personal Experiences of Loss, Rabbinic Professional Training, Refusing to Confront Loss, Relationships, Remembering, Samuel Karp my father, Spiritual Recovery, Temple Emanuel of Davenport, Uncategorized, Wounds That Never Fully Heal, Yizkor

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When I was in seminary, rabbinic students were required to take only one course in what was then called “Human Relations.” Its purpose was to teach us that being a rabbi was not just about scholarly matters such as acquiring a command of Hebrew and becoming knowledgeable in Jewish laws and customs but it also was about developing our human interaction skills so that we could be better serve our congregants in both their times of need and also in the daily round of manifold synagogue activities; serve them with sensitivity, compassion, and understanding. Of course, folding all of that into only one course is a tall order, impossible to fill. Thankfully, today the rabbinic students at the Hebrew Union College receive far more training in this important field.
As I recall that course, it seemed that our professor invested a majority of our time discussing issues surrounding death and funerals such as the mechanics of writing a eulogy and the dynamics of the conversations that take place in the limousine during the ride from the funeral to the cemetery, which may not make much sense to us here in the Quad Cities but does have some relevance in a community like New York City, where such a drive can take a considerable amount of time.
After ordination, it did not take my classmates or me long to discover that there was very little relationship between the content of that course and the reality of the interpersonal dynamics – the Human Relations – which are to be found in synagogue life. Indeed, considering how much time we spent exploring the role of the rabbi within the grief and mourning process, it was remarkable how out of touch with reality our curriculum had been.
So I, like most of of my contemporaries, found that whatever skills in matters of grief and mourning I would require, I would have to acquire on the job, so to speak. Over the years, I would learn from a growing body of experiences attained by standing beside so many grieving families as I attempted to offer whatever comfort and consolation I could. Yet still it require my own personal experiences of loss to take me to the next level; to understand, not just with my mind and my heart, but with every essence of my being, what it truly meant to lose someone you love.
Having assisted and supported so many mourners as they have accompanied their loved ones to the grave, I have had the opportunity to make many observations about how people deal with their grief. Of course, no two people are exactly alike in anything, and that includes how we deal with grief. Still patterns emerge, some of them good and what I consider to be healthy, and some not so much so.
One of the most difficult challenges I have seen mourners struggling with – and by mourners here, I do not just mean those who have suffered a recent loss but also those of us who have suffered loss whether it be recently or in the distant past – is the challenge of finding a healthy balance between holding on and letting go; holding on to our love and attachment to the one who is now gone and letting go of that person, not entirely but yet enough to enable ourselves to move on with our lives.
In my experiences, I have encountered those who cling so dearly to their loss that years go by and their grief is as fresh and as painful for them as it was on the day of their loved one’s passing. As strong as is their love, the memory of the one they love remains mostly a source of tears and pain for them. Often they bemoan, “How can I go on? Life will just never be the same!” Such people never allow the memory of their loved one to evolve into the warming presence that can bring them smiles and maybe even some laughter as well as tears. It remains more like a knife cutting into them rather than a loving companion, invisibly accompanying them with wisdom and insight as they continue their life journey.
How could we not admire such a profound love? What a testament it is to the person now gone. How could anyone in good conscience counsel, “You need to love that person less”? Yet these people hold on so tightly to their beloved dead; so tightly that their grief winds up strangling them. Somewhere along the line, they seem to have forgotten that this is probably the last thing the departed ever would have wished upon them; that they live the remainder of their life enveloped in grief and misery because of their loss.
Such people are so determined to hold on to what they can of their loved ones that they cannot begin to conceive that it is also perfectly permissible to let go of them as well. Not to forget them – God forbid, not to forget them – but to let go of the intensity of their grief and to permit those feelings to evolve into something more livable.
There is a story about a man so stricken with grief at the passing of his wife that on her headstone he has inscribed the message, “The light has gone out of my life!” Time passes and as fate would have it, he meets another woman and they fall in love. He wants to remarry but is wracked with guilt over the thought of betraying his first wife, especially considering the inscription on her headstone. So he goes to his rabbi for counsel. He tells the rabbi of his feelings and of the inscription. The rabbi thinks for a moment and then suggests, “Why don’t you have an additional inscription added to the stone right below the first?” Puzzled, the man inquires, “An additional inscription? What should it say?” The rabbi responded, “It should say, ‘But I struck another match.’”
So it should be with those among us who hold on so tightly to the pain of our loss and struggle with the very thought of letting go, even if just a little. We, too, need to “strike another match.” We need to discover ways of letting go – not forgetting – but letting go enough so that we can bring some semblance of joy back into our lives. For this is not just what we need but it is what our loved ones would wholeheartedly want for us.
Just as there are those among us to who hold on too tightly to their loss and have trouble letting go, there also are those who are too quick to let go – too eager to let go – as if they are afraid to hold on to anything, perhaps because they fear that holding on will prove to be just too painful for them. I know that type of fear. Up until the day my mother died, there was nothing I feared more on this earth than the passing of my parents. There was a time when I and two friends were caught in a crossfire between the Israeli army and Hezbollah terrorists, and that did not frighten me nearly as much as the thought of losing my parents. I could not begin to imagine what the world would be like without those special people who had always been there for me throughout my life. Having felt the fear, I can understand how for some that fear becomes so overwhelming that the only way they feel they can deal with it is by refusing to confront their loss, making every effort to put it behind them as quickly as possible and get on with their life.
As a rabbi, too many have been the times when I have witnessed this type of reaction on the part of mourners. I cannot tell you how deeply saddened I am when someone from the congregation passes away and their children, living out of town, come to me with a request like, “Rabbi, our flight lands at 9:00 in the morning. Would it be possible for us to hold the service at 10:00 so that we can catch a 1:30 flight back home? I can’t afford the time away from the office and the children need to get back to school.” While there is a part of me which wants to scream at them, “Isn’t the memory of your mother / your father worth your spending at least one night in the Quad Cities? Can’t you leave a little time in your life for mourning?” still I want to believe that they truly are not so heartless, so uncaring as people that they view their parent’s passing as nothing more as a gross inconvenience in their lives. I want to believe that they love their parents and that their parent’s passing hurts them deeply; so deeply that they convince themselves that the only way they can deal with it is by not dealing with it; by getting the funeral over and done with as quickly as possible and returning to their normal routines, making believe nothing has changed. All they want to do is let go and move on, or so they think.
But in reality, when we lose a loved one, much has changed in our lives, whether or not we wish to admit it. Because of it, we cannot just let go and move on. We cannot attempt to bury our pain, along with our loved one, for our pain will not go away. We can strive to jam it into the background, but it will keep popping out – painfully popping out – whether we like it or not.
When our body is injured, we understand the need to create space in our lives for physical recovery. The same is true for our souls. The loss of a loved one is an injury – a deep wound – to our souls and our souls need time to recover. They need time to adjust to their changed condition, especially when you consider that the injury to soul inflicted by the death of one so dear will never completely heal. We will carry a part of it with us for the rest of our lives. Making believe that no wound exists is foolishness, for it does exist and we cannot simply wish it away. We must learn how to live with it. We must learn how to transform it from intense pain to a duller pain that carries with it its own gifts; the gifts of warm memories of all that was good and loving in the relationship we once shared. There is much we need to hold on to, for holding on in such a way can enhance our lives rather than detract from them. Such holding on keeps the deceased alive on this earth, through our memories and our sharing of those memories.
So it is the balance of holding on and letting go which we should be seeking in our lives. For if such a balance we can discover, we can both render proper and fitting honor to the memories of those we loved, and we can live our lives more fully and meaningfully, as those memories help to guide us as we seek to make the most of our lives. It is to the task of finding that balance that this service of Yizkor is dedicated, for it calls upon us to both remember – for the word “Yizkor” means “Remember” – and to move forward with our lives, carrying those memories with us in positive and constructive ways.

Three Striving to be One

Posted November 3, 2014 by Rabbi Henry Jay Karp
Categories: Becoming a better person, Change, Confronting our Flaws and Shortcomings, Ego, Forgiving Others, Forgiving Ourselves, Giving Others the Benefit of the Doubt, Giving Ourselves the Benefit of the Doubt, Healing Relationships, How Others Relate to Us, Introspection, Our Finer Qualities, Our Strengths, Relationships, The Person Others Perceive Us to Be, The Person We Aspire to Be, The Person We Think We Are, Uncategorized, We Can Be Better, Who Am I?, Yom Kippur

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The liturgy of the Yom Kippur service continually calls upon us to take stock of our lives. It implores us to look into our souls and measure our deeds, to consider our lives in the year that has passed, cutting through our self delusions, and honestly confronting our weaknesses, our fault, and our misdeeds. It demands of us that we take a hard look at ourselves and, having done so, make the commitment to strive to be better in the year to come, starting right here and now as we sincerely seek to heal whatever wounds we might have inflicted, either intentionally or unintentionally, on others.
When you strip away all the florid language of the High Holy Day prayer book, what are our prayers really asking of us – aside from vowing to become better people – what do they want from us? They want us to ask ourselves what might appear to be a simple question, “Who am I?” While that might appear to be a simple question, in truth, it isn’t.
When confronted with such a question, it is easy for us to rattle off a list of adjectives and proclaim “This is who I am!” Man. Woman. Parent. Child. Sibling. Young. Old. Tall. Short. Thin. Fat. Married. Single. Heterosexual. Homosexual. Transsexual. Jew. Christian. Muslim. Hindu. Buddhist. Atheist. Agnostic. Merchant. Professional. Employer. Employee. Unemployed. Student. Housewife. House husband. Retired. Social. Reserved. Kind. Generous. Loving. Loyal. Liberal. Conservative. The list goes on. “This is who I am” we readily proclaim.
But perhaps the answer is not so simple. Perhaps it is more complex than we are willing to imagine. Perhaps finding the answer to that question “Who am I?” does demand that we take a harder look – a more intense self-examination – than most, if any, of us are comfortable taking.
Many years ago I came across an article that said that while people tend to think of themselves as one person, in actuality each and every one of us is made up of three distinct individuals – the person we think we are, the person other people perceive us to be, and the person we aspire to be. That definitely should supply us with food for thought, especially on Yom Kippur.
There is so much truth to that analysis. We tend to see ourselves in certain ways and the ways in which we see ourselves are definitely colored by our own egos. While we may be too humble to inflate our perceptions of our strengths and our finer qualities, most of us are prone to playing down our weaknesses and our shortcomings. We can be very forgiving of ourselves. After all, as we so readily profess, “I’m only human!” How peculiar it is that we are so far more forgiving of our own weaknesses and shortcoming than we are of the weaknesses and shortcomings of others, even when those weaknesses and shortcomings may be some of the very same as our own. We are always ready to give ourselves the benefit of the doubt and truly believe that we deserve the benefit of the doubt, but when it comes to others, granting them the benefit of the doubt we find to be far more difficult. So often, while we think the best of ourselves, and expect others to think of us in that way as well, we tend to be all too ready to attribute to others the worst of intentions. So chances are, the way that we see ourselves may not be how others see us.
If we are to grow as people, as Yom Kippur calls upon us to grow as people, one of the challenging tasks which lies before us is to try to discover how others see us as compared to how we see ourselves. Of course we could go around and ask everyone, “What is your opinion of me? How would you describe me as a person?” but to say the least, that would be a bit awkward. I suspect that if we were to ask people such questions, whatever their opinion was of us before, it will have gone down afterwards, as they add to their list of descriptive adjectives of us such terms as “egotistical” and “self-centered.” So the direct approach probably won’t work.
If we are going to be able to make any self-assessment like this, we are going to have to do it the hard way. We are going to have to start paying closer attention to the way that other people relate to us, for the way they relate to us will definitely be influenced by what they think of us. When they encounter us, are they happy to see us? Is there a smile on their face? Is there energy in their greeting? Is there enthusiasm in their voice? Or is it more or less a dull “Hello. How are you?” Do they want to spend time with us? Go to a restaurant. Go to a movie. Come over to the house for an evening. Take a trip together. What do they talk about with us? Do they restrict the conversations to small talk? Do they ask about our family? Do they share what is happening in their lives? Do they confide in us or are they guarded when talking with us? Do they converse with us comfortably or are they hesitant and uneasy? Do we sense that they consider us or they want us to be their friend, an acquaintance, or someone they just know in passing? It is not just what they say. It is also what they do. Their body language. For example, do they look us in the eye or stare away? There are multiple, subtle tell tale signs that people exhibit which communicate both on a conscious and an subconscious level how they feel about others.
We need to attune ourselves to become more aware of those signs. Now understand that once we start with this, we may find ourselves facing some unpleasant surprises. We may discover that some people don’t think as highly of us as we think of ourselves. But as painful as that might be, that is a good thing. It is a good thing because it helps us to focus on the tasks that lie before us. It helps us to begin to understand what we are going to need to do in order to close that gap; to present ourselves to others in a manner which helps them to think of us more in the way that we tend to think of ourselves. For when people think of us in much the same way that we think of ourselves, that is when we begin to truly understand the people that we actually are.
Yet the gap between the way in which we think of ourselves and the way in which others think of us is not the only gap we need to close. There is another gap as well. A very important gap. That gap is the one that exists between the that person we are today and the person we aspire to be.
Who among us has little or no desire to be a better person? Who does not wish to be kinder, gentler, wiser, more sensitive, more caring of others, more attentive to their loved ones, more dependable, more trusted, more respected, more admired, more loved? If there is such a person in this room today then I have to be frank and say to them, “You are wasting your time sitting in the synagogue and observing Yom Kippur, for Yom Kippur, and Judaism in general – indeed, religion in general – is all about helping us to become better people than we are today. It is all about guiding us to become richer people, not in material possessions but in spiritual possessions. If you think that you have gone as far as you can go – that you have reached perfection as a human being – then I am sorry for you, for you are deluded, since no person is perfect. Every single one of us has the potential to become better. The uncomfortable question before us is whether or not we have the desire to become better.
If we possess that desire then the goal before us is deciding upon what it will take to move us closer from the person we are today to that person we aspire to be. It is not something that is going to happen as a matter of fact but it is going to take a concerted effort on our parts. We have to want it and we have to be willing to work for it. For only then can we draw near to achieving it.
As that article so wisely stated, every person is in fact three distinct individuals – the person we think we are, the person others perceive us to be, and the person we aspire to become. On Yom Kippur, we need to dedicate our lives to the task of reuniting those three into one, so that the person we think we are is not only the same as the person others perceive us to be, but that person is also the person who draws ever closer to the person we aspire to be.


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