Archive for the ‘Clergy’ category

Quad Cities Equality Rally Remarks

January 23, 2017

On Saturday afternoon, January 21st, as 100’s of 1,000’s of men, women, & children were gathering in Washington DC and in communities throughout the nation to protest the objectification of women and the growing dangers of bigotry and hate that have infected our land, in the Quad Cities, a rally was held to show our solidarity with all those throughout the country who were marching.  The rally, which was called an Equality Rally, focused both on the recent challenges to women’s rights and on how that challenge is inextricably connected to a complex of challenges to the rights of many targeted minorities in our society.  The rally was held in the meeting hall of the United Steelworkers Union, in Bettendorf.  The hall was filled beyond overflowing, as a mass of supporters were forced to stand out in front of the hall, due to lack of space inside.  Several inspiring individuals spoke, expressing the pain of women, Muslims, the LGBTQ community, African Americans, Hispanics, Indigenous Americans, and people with lifelong physical and mental disabilities.  I was among those honored with an invitation to speak from the perspective of our community’s newest human rights organization – One Human Family QCA (Quad Cities Area).  Below is a transcript of my remarks.

First off, thank you for the honor of allowing me to share these remarks with you today.

Before coming here today, my wife and I were attending a memorial service for Reverend Tom Kalshoven. Tom was the Executive Director of Churches United of the Quad Cities Area from 1973 to 1991. Those of you who knew Rev. Kalshoven know that he was a person profoundly committed to the causes of social justice. He marched with Dr. King. He served as the conscience of this community. I cannot help but think of how thrilled he would have been to see so many of you gathered here to affirm the cause of justice in our community.

We have come together because we are deeply concerned about what has been happening in our nation over the past year or so, and what might very well happen as we journey into the future. Let’s face it. Many of us are more than concerned. We are downright afraid, and with good cause.

This past Monday, I was similarly honored to offer a pastoral prayer at a local Martin Luther King Day celebration. There, too, those who were gathered shared our concerns and our fears. Being Martin Luther King Day, I built my prayer around one of the inspiring teachings of Dr. King. He said, “The arc of history is long, but bends towards justice.” Yet we seem to be living at a time when that arc has been diverted far off of its course, as it travels, not towards justice, but far away from it.

And that is what frightens us, for we have witnessed the forces of hate as they have freely crawled out from under the rocks which have hidden them for so long and have joyously reasserted their ideology of bigotry, and not without the encouragement of some of our nation’s most highly placed individuals. A dark and ominous cloud of prejudice is engulfing our nation. A virulent virus of discrimination is infecting it as the fever of intolerance burns hot in the minds and souls of far too many of our fellow Americans.

Part of what frightens us is that we see the profound dedication of people who hate to their hatred; people like Dylann Roof who is willingly ready to martyr himself in the cause of hate. Part of what frightens us that we have come to recognize that those who thrive on hate tend to be equal opportunity haters. They hate African Americans. They hate Muslims. They hate Jews. They hate Latinos. They hate those who do not share their sexual orientation. They hate those with lifelong mental and physical disabilities. They hate the defenders of the environment. They hate intellectuals. They may not hate women but they sure don’t look upon women as the equal of men. Rather, they prefer to look at women as mere objects placed on earth, primarily to fulfill the physical pleasure of men.

And now such people feel empowered. Now such people are empowered. And we are left with the question, “What are we going to do about that?” Of course, our natural instinct is to respond, “Protest!” but what does that really mean? We sign petitions. We post our feelings on Facebook. We gather for rallies, just like this one. But all these things; they are not really protest. They are but a prelude to protest. For true protest requires us to take action. Not for an hour. Not for a day. Not for a week. But ongoing action until we have achieved our goals. We need to work for change, with the emphasis on work; work until the job is done.

Nor can we stand alone. No one group of us can stand alone in our efforts to drive back the darkness. We need to stand together – men, women, young, old, laborers, professionals, people of every color, every race, regardless of sexual orientation, regardless of national origins, regardless of religious identity, regardless of political affiliations. We must cross lines and lock arms in common cause. On Monday, I shared with my fellow Martin Luther King Day celebrants, and I share with you now, the classic wisdom of Rev. Martin Niemoller, one of the founders of the Confessing Church in Germany, who bravely stood up against the Nazis. He said, “First they came for the Communists and I did not speak out because I was not a Communist. Then they came for the incurably ill and I did not speak out because I was not incurably ill. Then they came for the trade unionists and I did not speak out because I was not a trade unionist. Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out because I was not a Jew. Then they came for me, and there was no one left to speak out.” We do not have the luxury to think of ourselves as separate from others; as our plight being separate from their plight. Once again, to quote Dr. King: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” If we do not choose to stand together then we will not stand at all.

In our community, we have birthed a new organization. We call it One Human Family QCA. Some of you here today already have joined our ranks. Our stated mission is “to protect the life, dignity, and human rights of all people in all places in our community.” We are not looking to re-invent the wheel but to work cooperatively with many of the agencies and organizations that already exist to address issues of common concern. And when it comes to certain issues, for which no agencies or organizations exist, then we are ready to open new doors of dialogue and advocacy. Our organization provides but one opportunity to take your concerns and your values and put them into action in order to effect positive change and drive back the darkness that is engulfing us. There are many others dedicated to this cause; organizations like Quad Cities Interfaith and Progressive Action for the Common Good. The point is, when you leave here today, do not see this as an end to your protest but rather as a beginning of the very hard but important work of bringing the arc of history back on course toward justice. To quote a sage from my own Jewish tradition, Hillel the Elder, “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? But if I am only for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?” Our time is now and our cause is just. We only need to choose to act.


Endangered Childen and Community Conscience

July 27, 2014

There has been great debate throughout our nation concerning what shall be done with the hundreds of unaccompanied children who have in recent weeks crossed our border, seeking a refuge from the chaos and violence to which they were subjected in the homes in Central America.  Their parents sent them on that dangerous trek to the United States because they knew that if their children did not flee, more than likely, their children would wind up the victims of brutality, rape, and murder.  Today our country is divided between those who wish to welcome and protect these children and those who see them an placing an unacceptable burden upon our country’s resources and wish to send them back to from whence they came.

About two weeks ago, Bill Gluba, the Mayor of Davenport, Iowa – my community – put forth a proposal to  bring some of these children to our city.  Not surprisingly, the response to that proposal was mixed, marking us as a microcosm of the national debate.  There were those who gathered to plan on how we could best welcome these children, while there were those, including some alderman of our city council, who expressed there determination to keep them out of our town.  One alderman, on national TV, proclaimed his intention to stand in the middle of the street, blocking any bus carrying such children from entering within our city limits.

As those who know me can well imagine, I stand on the side of welcoming the children.  To that end, I have joined with other community clergy who are planning an event meant to declare an interfaith message of support for opening our doors to these young refugees.

Five days ago, I submitted an Opinion Page letter to the Quad City Times, expressing my particular perspective and feelings on the matter.  So far, my letter has not appeared in print or on their website.  They may yet publish it or they may never publish it.  I suspect that they have received many letters and cannot begin to publish them all.  Still, I want my voice to be heard, even if the audience is not nearly as large or as locally focused as it would be in our local paper.  Therefore, I have decided to share the text of this letter here in my blog.  While it speaks specifically to the question of whether or not the Quad Cities should open its doors and welcome these children, it also can be understood to address whether our nation itself should open its doors and welcome these children, declaring them “official” refugees from grave danger and persecution.  Here is what I wrote:

Prior to the outbreak of World War II, when the specter of the Holocaust loomed ever greater in Europe, and the borders of the free world were generally closed to Jews seeking to flee the coming destruction, there was one small ray of hope. That ray radiated out of England. While England, like the United States, would not open its doors to the endangered Jews, it did decide to open its doors to Jewish children. Boatload after boatload of Jewish children landed on British shores. With many tears and great anguish, their parents sent them away, knowing that they might never see them again, so that these children might not die at the hands of the Nazis. This valiant effort to save the children was called “Kindertransport” and it came to an abrupt end when England entered the war.

Holocaust analogies can easily be overplayed but sometimes they are truly appropriate. This is such an occasion. Today on our southern border there are amassed a large number of unaccompanied children from Central America who have been sent to our country by their parents, seeking asylum. Their parents, with broken hearts, sent them away because could not stand idly by while their children would have been beaten, raped, and killed. Like with the Kindertransport, these parents made an extremely hard choice in order to save their children’s lives.

Today, we in the Quad Cities are faced with a choice as well. Will we, like the people of England, open our doors and our hearts to these refugee children, or will we, like so many other nations back in the ‘30’s, choose to slam our doors shut on them and in so doing, condemn them to cruel suffering and death? In the years to come, which choice will we be better able to live with?

Sacrificial Offerings

September 17, 2013

As those of you who have shared Rosh Hashanah with us over the years know, every Rosh Hashanah morning I dedicate my sermon to a theme born of this morning’s Torah portion – the Akedah – the Binding of Isaac.  Over the years, I have drawn many lessons from various aspects of this text.  I have found meaningful messages in the roles of Abraham and Isaac, the roles of the servants who accompanied them, whom are tradition identifies as Ishmael and Eliezer; I even have found meaningful messages in the roles of the donkey and the mountain.  My Akeda sermons have been finessed and nuanced in numerous ways.  However, this morning I want to do something just a little different; a little different yet something old and classical.

I want to turn to one of the primary interpretations of this Torah text, as found in our tradition.  For the ancient rabbis were quick to see this strange story of Abraham and Isaac on top of Mount Moriah as being first and foremost a story about sacrifice.  That is what I want to talk about this morning – sacrifice.

There are those who say that this account was included in the Torah as a polemic against human sacrifice; a practice that was very common among many Near Eastern religions in Abraham’s day, and throughout the biblical period.  In fact, just beyond the walls of the Old City of Jerusalem is Gei-Hinnom – the Valley of Hinnom.  As testified to by such great prophets as Jeremiah and Isaiah, it was in that place that Canaanite idol worshipers offered up their children to Moloch, the god of fire.  For the ancient Israelites, it was a place of fear because of the horrors that took place there.  It is even said that one of the ways Israelite parents would discipline their children was by telling them, “If you’re not good, I’m going to send you to Gei-Hinnom!”  It is spoken of in the Talmud as Gehenna, and there it is considered a frightening place of fire and death.  Indeed, Christ­ianity would draw heavily upon these images of Gehenna as it fashioned its own concept of Hell.

Therefore according  to some interpreters, this morning’s Torah text is meant to serve as a powerful Jewish rejection of those sacrificial practices.  For there is Abraham, willing to serve his God by physically sacrificing his child just as so many around him actually did sacrifice their children in the service of their gods.  Yet, at the very last moment, as the knife is about to fall, God’s angel shouts out, “Do not raise your hand against the boy nor do the least thing to him!” in a crystal clear statement that God is not interested in human sacrifice; that such an act is abhorrent to God.  For God, animal sacrifice is quite sufficient as Abraham finds a ram to offer in place of his son.

That is one interpretation of this story.

Yet for many of the ancient rabbis, this text was so much more than a proof text as to why Jews don’t prac­tice human sacrifice.  For understanding, they ask an all important question:  If God did not want human sacrifice, why did God ask it of Abraham in the first place?  God simply could have said to Abraham:  “I forbid you and those who follow after you from sacrificing children.  It is abhorrent to me, even worse than bacon!”  For these rabbis, there had to be more to the story than just a rejection of a religious practice which was common among Abraham’s neighbors.

For these rabbis, the heart of the story rests squarely on God’s request and Abraham’s response.  God asked of Abraham to surrender that which was most precious to him – “Take your son, your only child, whom you love, Isaac, and offer him up on a mountain that I will show you” – and Abraham was willing to do it without question or doubt because he believed in God so completely that even in this he would obey.  For these rabbis, this text challenges us, asking, “Look what Abraham was willing to sacrifice in the service of God.  What are we willing to sacrifice – not only to God, but also generally in the name of those ideas, or principles, or causes, in which we claim to believe and to which we claim to be committed?  Indeed, are we willing to give to anything until it hurts?  Even more simply, are we willing to give as well as to take, and if so, are we willing to give as much as we take, or even more?

These questions remain as pertinent today as they did when the ancient rabbis first posed them; perhaps even more so.  We are Jews who live in a time and a place of extreme blessings, and not just as Jews but as Americans.  No matter how much we complain about the state of the economy and taxes and the cost of gas at the pump, our lives are far more comfortable than the vast majority of people on our planet.  They are also far more comfortable than most of those of the generations that came before us.  I think of my own parents, of blessed memory.  It was only toward the end of their lives that they were able to enjoy such luxuries as an air conditioned home or a microwave.  Going out to a restaurant was a real treat for them while admittedly, I eat more meals in restaurants than I do at home.  For them, a vacation was going camping in the woods while for me, a vacation usually involves getting on an airplane.  I can only speculate as to how amazed they would be if they were around today to witness the marvels of dishwashers and K cups and computers and printers and cell phones and I Pads and cable or satellite tv – My father loved to watch tv.

We are a people whose pantries are filled, whose refrigerators and freezers are filled, whose closets are filled, whose garages are filled, whose lives are filled with a bounty of plenty.  Yet when it comes down to it, how much of that plenty are we willing to give up in support of those causes which we claim to be important to us?  How much are we willing to sacrifice?  Abraham was willing to give up his beloved – his only – son because God was important to him.  What are we, who have so much, willing to give up be­cause anything is so important to us?

In this day and age, that is an uncomfortable question for many.  We have so much, but we have grown so accustomed to having so much that we resist letting any of it go.  We do not wish to impair our comfort or even take the risk of impairing it.  While we are willing to give, how many among us are willing to give until it hurts?  How many are willing to give of their bounty to such an extent that it will actually alter, even if just a little, their lifestyle?  How many of us are willing to make such a sacrifice that as a result we would need to deny ourselves one less meal in a restaurant each week or each month, or we would need to hold on to that car for another year or so, or take one less vacation every few years, or find ourselves needing to wear some of last year’s fashions this year?

Now do not think that this whole question of sacrifice is about surrendering material possessions.  Of course that can be part of it but it is far from the whole.  In fact, many find that giving materially is far easier and far less demanding than giving in other ways.

I remember one year when Shira was in college and it was time for the students to move out of their summer apartments and into their winter ones.  Now in Madison, Wisconsin, where Shira went to school, every student moved out on the same day and every student moved in on the next.  So I went up to Madison to help her move.  It was chaos and it was exhausting.  On the second day, as we were moving Shira into her winter quarters, I took a break outside of her apartment building.  Soon I was joined by a set of parents of another student who was moving in as well.  In shared agony, we struck up a conversation in which that student’s father commented, “These two moving days make paying tuition seem relatively painless!”  And he was right!  For while giving away or spending money may be momentarily painful, chances are good that we will be earning more money and the pain will quickly fade.

Giving time.  That’s a whole other story, for our time is not a renewable resource.  When we spend it, it is gone and it is not coming back.  Trust me.  When you reach a certain age, you begin to wonder where it all went, and how did it fly by so quickly.  Time is a precious commodity, so it stands to reason that many would prefer to give money than to give time.  But even as our time is precious to us, it is also precious to others.

Our time is most certainly precious to our family.  So many of us claim that our family is the most important thing in our lives.  But is it really?  A good measure is to be found in how much of our time do we devote to them, and how much do we spend in other pursuits.  It is a source of a certain amount of embarrassment to me that when Shira was young, there were too many occasions when she had some special event, and I missed it because I was here at the Temple teaching a class or attending a meeting, or whatever.  What do you think about a dad who lets his neighbor from across the street escort his daughter to a Dad-Daughter Date Night at school?  That dad was me.  However by the time it was Helene’s turn,  I came to recognize how incongruous that was with my values.  I discovered that I could say, “I’m sorry, I cannot attend that meeting because Helene has such-&-such an event” or “I’m sorry but we will not be holding class on this or that date because I need to be with Helene for a program.”

Not only is our time precious to our family but it is precious to others as well.  Worthy organizations with noble goals are always starving for volunteers.  Whether or not people step forward to fill those spots can make all the difference in the success or failure of those organizations, and more importantly, whether or not those noble goals are met.  Just think about our own efforts when it comes to addressing world hunger.  Is there anyone here who would say that they do not give a hoot or a holler about all those people starving across the world?  Of course not.  We all think that it is a shame; a travesty.  We all wish that everyone had enough food to eat.  Yet how many of us are willing to sacrifice a Sunday afternoon in October to walk in the CROP Walk?  The more people who walk, the more money we raise.  The more money we raise, the more lives we save.  It is all a matter of sacrificing a little time in order to make a great difference in the lives of many people.  And yes, pledging some money as well.

We can give of our money.  We can give of our time.  But what about giving of ourselves?  That, perhaps, is the hardest sacrifice of all, save literally giving of our lives.    To give of ourselves means to truly care about something or someone other than ourselves.  It means being willing at times to put them first, before us and our wants and our needs.  It means being willing to step forward, be counted, and even take risks on their behalf.  It means stepping off the sidelines, stop being an observer, and start being a participant in the quest to bring about righteous change in the world.

Walter Friedlieb was Susie Rothbardt’s father, Greg Rothbardt’s grandfather.  Walter was also one of those German Jews who was able to escape Nazi Germany before it was too late.  He knew first hand what it meant to be on the receiving end of prejudice.  I remember so well his telling me with great pride about how he and his Chicago rabbi, David Polish, went down South to participate in a civil rights demonstration, and how, as a result, they wound up in jail.  He could have stayed home in Chicago, reading the newspapers and watching the news, sharing with others his disdain for racial discrimination in conversations over cups of coffee but he chose to act instead of just talk.  He chose to put himself on the line in the cause of racial justice.  He chose to help make change happen rather than just hope for it to happen.  He chose to give of himself, willing to accept the consequences of his sacrifice.  And he did help to bring about a positive change in his world.  How many of us can say of ourselves, we have done the same?

Abraham was willing to sacrifice everything – and believe you me, Isaac was everything to him – because he believed it was the right thing to do.  To this day, the story of Abraham and Isaac which we read from the Torah just a short while ago, challenges us to ask of ourselves, “What sacrifices would I be willing to make in the name of those people and ideas and values and causes which I hold to be near and dear?  What sacrifices would I be willing to make in order to do my part in making this world a better place for all who live here?”


May 24, 2012

Back in 2006, several members of the Quad Cities clergy joined Rev. Ron Quay – the Executive Director of Churches United of the Quad Cities Area – and me in putting out a call for a return to a positive focus when it came to political campaigning.  Below is a petition document that we compiled and which, in its final form was co-sponsored by the Quad Cities Progressive Clergy and Churches United of the Quad Cities Area.  We did get the support of our local media, both electronic and print.  In fact, it was published in both of the local papers.  Unfortunately, out of a local population of some 350,000 people at the time, we only were able to amass some 400 signatures.  That low number was quite disappointing, considering how much complaining we hear from the public about negative campaign ads.  We attempted to put it forward again, in 2008, in anticipation of the Iowa Presidential Caucuses.  Once again, while we received media and clergy support, we were disappointed with the lackluster response from the community.  With the nominating conventions of both political parties not that far away and as the 2012 Presidential Political Campaign season is about to begin in earnest, I thought that I would share with the readers of this blog, the text of our hopeful and heartfelt petition.  Back in 2006, one reporter asked one of my colleagues whether or not he thought that this effort was a bit Pollyanna-ish.  My colleague responded by saying, “Yes, but what is wrong with that?  Sometimes people have to be fools for truth.”  My personal prayer is that when it comes to negative political campaigning, one day the good people of our country will rise up and with a loud, strong voice, proclaim:  “ENOUGH ALREADY!  We want our candidates to speak honestly about themselves and stop denigrating their opponents.”  I share with you our original petition, for whatever it is worth:

We, the undersigned, are deeply disturbed by the character and tone of the vast majority of political campaigns which are being conducted during the election season of 2006.

The overwhelming use of negative campaign strategies and attack ads constituted nothing less than a national disgrace.  Negative campaigning erodes the moral fabric of our society.  In the eyes of the public, it not only diminishes the stature of the candidates, but also the importance of the offices which they seek.  Such campaign tactics generate an environment of distrust of public officials.  Even worse, by forcing the voters to choose between what is presented as “the lesser of two evils,” these strategies serve to dramatically discourage citizen participation in the electoral process.

The American people need and deserve far more from its political candidates.  We need and deserve to have the candidates’ attentions focused on positively presenting their positions on the pressing issues of our day.  We need and deserve to hear thoughtful dialogue between the candidates on these issues.  We need and deserve to know what our potential future leaders stand for, and what they intend to accomplish should they be elected.

Therefore, we the undersigned, believing that negative campaigning is destructive to the American democratic electoral process:

  1. Call upon political candidates to responsibly present to the public their own positions on the pressing issues of our day, refraining from irresponsible and misleading interpretations of the positions held by their opponents.
  2. Call upon political candidates to cease and desist from attacking the character of their opponents.
  3. Call upon political candidates to distance themselves from and denounce any political ad run by an independent source which supports their candidacy, but which also engages in the destructive practices mentioned above.
  4. Call upon the American public to withhold financial support from political campaigns that engage in a strategy of negativism.
  5. Call upon the news media to monitor and report upon the successes and failures of political campaigns to adhere to these principles.

A National Holiday for Prayer

April 25, 2012

Just when you think that you are familiar with all of our national holidays, you find out about one that you never heard of before.  So it probably is for many of you when it comes to the National Day of Prayer.  That’s right – the United States of America actually has an official national holiday dedicated to prayer!  If falls on the first Thursday of May.

The history of this holiday is interesting.  It was officially designated by Congress as a national holiday in 1952, as a day when the American people are asked “to turn to God in prayer and meditation.”  Each year, the President signs a proclamation in which he reaffirms the purpose of this holiday.  However, its historical roots sink far deeper into the American tradition.  The first proclamation calling for a National Day of Prayer was issued by the Continental Congress, in which it declared July 20, 1775 to be “a day of publick humiliation, fasting, and prayer.”  Subsequent declarations for individual National Days of Prayer were issued by Presidents George Washington, John Adams, and Abraham Lincoln.  But it was not until 1952 that it became an annual event.

In my community of the Quad Cities, which straddles the Mississippi River uniting Iowa and Illinois, for several years now, there has been a group which has sponsored an annual National Day of Prayer breakfast.  Not surprisingly, the organizers of this breakfast are exclusively Christian.  Therefore, the tone of this event also has been exclusively Christian.  A little over four years ago, Rev. Ron Quay, the Executive Director of Churches United of the Quad Cities Area, approached these organizers and proposed that they broaden the religious base of their event by inviting non-Christian faith groups to participate in it as well.  After some deliberation, their response to Rev. Quay’s request was that while non-Christians are always welcome to attend, the nature of their event will continue to remain exclusively Christian.

Upon receiving that response, Rev. Quay approached Rev. Roger Butts (then minister of the Unitarian Church) and me to consider joining with him in organizing an interfaith National Day of Prayer event.  And so we did.  For the last three years, Temple Emanuel has hosted an Interfaith National Day of Prayer luncheon which was primarily targeted toward community clergy.  We chose to do this as a luncheon because, while we wished to provide an interfaith alternative to the exclusively Christian event, we were not interested in competing with it.

This year, the sponsorship for this event has been taken up by our newly formed Interfaith Clergy Caucus.  Yet once again, Temple Emanuel will be the host institution.  However, this year we are instituting a significant change. Instead of restricting the event to clergy, we are opening it up to the general public.

In the beginning, why did Rev. Quay, Rev. Butts, and I feel that organizing such an event was so important?  Why have the members of the Interfaith Clergy Caucus decided that it was important to sponsor such an event?  It is because we believe that the National Day of Prayer does not belong to any one faith group exclusively.  It belongs to all people of faith who enjoy the blessings of living in this American democracy.  Indeed, it is a time for us of many faiths to come together to thank God or the Divine Powers, whatever our beliefs, in our many ways for the blessing we share in this land.  It is a time to celebrate the wonder and the beauty of the religious diversity of America.  That is what it was ALWAYS intended to be.  In fact both John Adams and Abraham Lincoln said as much in their particular proclamations for the day.  To quote Abraham Lincoln’s proclamation:

“Now, therefore, in compliance with the request, and fully concurring in the views of the Senate, I do, by this proclamation, designate and set apart Thursday, the 30th day of April, 1863, as a day of national humiliation, fasting, and prayer.  And I do hereby request all the People to abstain, on that day, from their ordinary secular pursuits, and to unite, at their several places of public worship and their respective homes, in keeping the day holy to the Lord, and devoted to the humble discharge of the religious duties proper to that solemn occasion.”

All the people… at their several places of worship.”  This day was never meant to be the exclusive domain of one faith or another but is the possession of all people of all faiths.

While Americans today do not face as great a crisis as we did in 1863, still there is ample call for praying for our country; praying for justice, praying for equality, praying for peace, praying for prosperity.  Let us pray that no America need ever go homeless or hungry or jobless.  Let us pray that no American ever need suffer from discrimination, hatred and intolerance.  Let us pray that no American ever be denied health care or education.  Let us pray that the day will soon arrive when no longer will we need to sacrifice the lives of our sons and our daughters on the battlefields of this planet.

On May 3, 2012, let us as a nation composed of many people of varied faiths once again raise our voices in prayer as we rededicate ourselves to building a better tomorrow for all.

The Prayer of Breath, the Breath of Prayer

February 26, 2012

There are many reasons why people come to Shabbat services.  Some come to remember loved ones who have passed away.  Some come to take the opportunity to actively affirm their Jewish identity.  Some come because they find Shabbat worship to be a meaningful way to start a weekend of leisure.  Some come to connect with Jewish friends or with the Jewish community as a whole.  Perhaps some come because they have nothing better to do on a Friday evening.  There are many reasons why people come to Shabbat services, but I suspect – indeed, I hope – that perhaps the most common reason is that in one way or another they wish to try to establish some sort of connection with God.  At the least, they may view the very act of leaving their home on a Friday evening and making the physical effort to come to the synagogue for prayer as a means of showing God that they care.

To me, the saddest aspect of contemporary American Jewish life is that in most synagogues, like my own synagogue, many of the seats of our sanctuaries remain empty Shabbat after Shabbat after Shabbat.  For the empty seats serve as a painful testimony to the fact that most of our people rarely or no longer feel the desire or need to connect with God.  They are Jewish.  They probably believe in God.  But they have little interest in pursuing an active relationship with God, particularly through prayer and worship.

But be that as it may, we cannot force people to want to connect with God; to want to engage God in their lives through prayer.  We can only try our best to provide them with the opportunities and the inspiration to do so.  The rest is up to them.  As the old adage says, “You can lead a horse to water but you cannot make it drink.”

However, as for the people who do choose to come to Shabbat worship, to stretch that analogy a little further, they are the horses who have chosen to drink; to drink from the wells of spiritual refreshment and Divine connection which Shabbat worship can offer.  It is precisely to these people that every synagogue has a responsibility; the responsibility to assist them – to work with them – in the search to find ways to make their prayers a more effective vehicle for connecting with God.

This past December, I traveled to Washington, D.C. in order to attend the biennial convention of the Union for Reform Judaism.  While at that convention, I had many wonderful and meaningful experiences.  Among them was a workshop entitled “Making Prayer Real.” It is upon that workshop which I wish to reflect.

First off, I have to tell you that I found the title of that workshop to be odd.  “Making Prayer Real” implies that our prayers are not real, and I do not believe that to be the case.  I believe that the prayers of any person who takes the effort to come to synagogue on Shabbat are real.  They may not be as effective as they could be, but they definitely are real.

That aside, I found the workshop  – particularly one aspect of the workshop – to be enlightening.  It was some­what meditative, but it was more than mere meditation.  I say “mere meditation” because I believe that while meditation techniques can assist us in prayer, they cannot replace prayer, especially in a Jewish setting.  For Jewish prayer is predominantly, though not exclusively, communal, while meditation is almost exclu­sively, if not exclusively, personal.  While there is a place for meditation in Jewish prayer, the greatest power of Jewish prayer is to be found in what we do together as a community of worshipers.

But back to the workshop.  At this workshop, one of the presenters – Cantor Ellen Dreskin, with whom I used to serve on faculty at the NFTY National Camp in Warwick, New York – conducted an exercise involving God’s name and breath.  As most, if not all of you know, we Jews are not permitted to pro­nounce the actual name of God.  It is a four-letter name composed of the letters Yud-Hey-Vav-Hey, and when we see it in the texts, we say “Adonai” in its stead.

Yet there are many Hebrew words and names that incorporate elements of this name in order to include some sort of connection with God.  So, for example, the Hebrew name for Elijah is “Eliyahu.”  “Yahu” comes from that four-letter name of God, and the name “Eliyahu” means “Yud-Hey-Vav-Hey is my God.”  There is also a very well known Hebrew word which also includes an element of God’s four-letter name.  That word is “Halleluyah” with “Yah” being the God part.  The word means “Let us praise Yah; Let us praise Adonai.

Yet when you consider “Yah” it is a sound that is made up of nothing but breath – “Yah.”  So Cantor Dreskin had us do an exercise.  She asked us to take a deep breath and hold it.  Hold it as long as we could.  And when we finally let it out, we were to let it out with a “Yah.”  Dear reader, try that now then do it again.  “Yah” – God – is breath, and without the eventual “Yah” – without God – we cannot continue to breathe.  When you think about it, God is present in our every breath.  Every time we exhale, God is there.  For as long as we breathe, God is an integral part of our every moment, both waking and sleeping.

Then she turned our attention to that word: “Halelu-yah – Let us praise Yah.”  So we took a deep breath and held it, and then let it out saying “Halelu-yah.”  Dear reader, try that then do it again: “Halelu-yah.”  With our breath, we are praising God.  Our every breath should praise God, for without God, we would have no breath.

There is probably nowhere in Jewish texts in which this is better expressed than in Psalm 150, which is included in the Shabbat morning worship service.  For in verse 6 of that psalm it says, “Kol haneshama t’haleil Yah, halelu-Yah! – Every breath praises Yah, so let us praise Yah!”  Of course Cantor Dreskin had us sing this verse, but if you cannot sing it, then at least say it:  “Kol haneshama – t’haleil Yah, – halelu-Yah!”

This is not just a prayer nor is it just a meditative technique.  What it is, is a life perspective; an important spiritual life perspective.  For if we want to truly connect with God, we have to honestly come to the realization that God is just not present to us in the sanctuary, but is present to us every day, every hour, every minute of our lives, with every breath we take.  God is our constant companion, and every breath – every moment of life – is yet another gift from God; a gift for which we should be grateful.  It is only when we begin to view God in this way that we can begin to start to pry open those gates which seem to keep us from God and God from us.  The Hasidic master, the Kotzker Rebbe, once said, “Where is God?  Wherever you let God in!”  When we begin to recognize God’s presence in our every breath – that our every breath is a prayer – then we will have begun to let God into our lives.

So if our every breath is a prayer, why come to the synagogue?  Why come to services?  I once heard a dear friend and colleague of mine, Rabbi Stephen Pinsky, give a sermon about prayer.  It was back in my New York days.  In that sermon he said, “People ask me, ‘Why do I have to come to the synagogue to pray?  I can pray in the middle of Central Park.’  To this I respond, ‘If you find yourself in the middle of Central Park then you better pray!’” His point was telling.  People say that they can pray anywhere but the fact of the matter is that unless the situation is such that it evokes prayer, they rarely if ever pray.  The Shabbat worship service offers us the opportunity to set aside some time for the act of praying; for actively reaching out to God, and opening ourselves up to receive a God who is reaching out to us.

It is not unlike our love for our dear ones.  We know we love them.  We feel our love for them con­stantly, but we don’t always express it.  We don’t always marry word and deed to intention.  We don’t always say to them, “I love you,” nor do we always demonstrate through our deeds the love we hold for them.  Yet there are times like birthdays, anniversaries, Valentine’s Day, which provide us with the opportunities to express in word and deed that which is always in our hearts.  So it is with Shabbat and worship.  It offers us the opportunity to open our hearts and express to God that which is always there, and perhaps even open our souls and receive God’s reciprocating touch.

Sensing God in our every breath – praising God with our every breath – and praying to God on Shabbat are by no means alternatives but rather they exist in a symbiotic relationship.  Our constant experiencing of God in our lives fuels and vitalizes our prayers.  It makes them meaningful.  It endows them with wings with which to fly to Heaven.  And as for our prayers, they give voice – a clear and beautiful voice – to the connection we feel to God with our every breath.  They enable us to announce to the world, and most importantly to God, those profound feelings we carry in our hearts.  For in the end, prayer is not just a matter of reading words out of a book but rather attaching those words to that which is in our hearts, so that together they can rise to Heaven and draw Heaven to us.

Snow What?

January 27, 2012

Friday, January 20th was not a wonderful weather day here in the Quad Cities.  Indeed, it was actually quite miserable, with cold and snow falling all day into the early evening.  It most understandably was one of those days when, having arrived at home after a long day at work, for most people, going out again was probably one of the farthest things from their minds.  Here at Temple Emanuel, during the course of the day we wrestled with whether or not to cancel services.  However, since by mid afternoon, we only had about 2 inches of snow on the ground, we decided to hold them.  After all, Shabbat is Shabbat, and 2 inches does not a blizzard make.

One of the calls which we received during the day, asking whether or not we would be cancelling services was from the associate pastor of a local Presbyterian church whose Confirmation class had been scheduled to attend our worship that evening; a church which has been sending its Confirmation class to our synagogue for a “Jewish worship experience” for so many years I cannot begin to count them.  When I told her that services would be held as scheduled, she sounded quite pleased rather than disappointed.

That service was planned as a special one for our congregation.  Not only were we hosting these visitors and longtime friends of our congregation, but we also were hearing from those of our congregation who had the privilege and pleasure of attending the recent joint biennial convention of the Union for Reform Judaism and the Women of Reform Judaism, as they shared with us their insights and reflections on that gathering.  On top of that, we were observing the first Yahrzeit of beloved modern Jewish music composer, Debbie Friedman, by including in the music of the service many of her settings for our prayers.

No sooner had the Cantor and I pulled into the parking lot than the students from the Presbyterian church started arriving in car-after-car-after-car.  While some of our congregants arrived later, when the service began, the Presbyterians were in a significant majority.  Though the numbers gap shortened as the evening progressed and a few more of our people arrived, I strongly suspect that had it not been for the special reports and music, we would have remained far outnumbered.  At the beginning of the service, I made a quip about how it seemed as though the Presbyterians were made of far hardier stock than the Jews, but we all know that it is more than that.

Our congregation serves as host to many different church groups in the course of any given year.  One thing that most of these groups hold in common is that they are in awe of what they experience here.  They are captivated by the very sound of the Hebrew prayers.  They find our melodies enchanting.  The text of our services really touches them.  They are both fascinated and moved by our Yahrzeit boards, our obser­vance of Yahrzeits, and especially when mourners share some reflections on the people they are remembering that Shabbat.  And when the ark is open, and they see the Torah scrolls they are wide-eyed in mystical wonder, and especially so when they are fortunate enough to attend on a Shabbat eve when we actually take the scrolls out of the ark, carry them around the sanctuary, and read from them.  For so many of these church members, attending our services constitutes a spiritual, or even mys­tical, experience.

This is truly one of the great ironies of American Jewish life; that Christians have a far greater appreciation of Jewish worship than do Jews.  They find so much more meaning in our worship than do our own people.  Nor is this odd imbalance limited to the worship experience.  I find it so whenever I speak or teach about Judaism to a non-Jewish audience.  The non-Jews flock to study Judaism while the Jews seem to flee from the opportunities to do so.  In speaking with the folks at our own Federation, they, too, acknowledge that while their public programs have met with great success, it is not so much the Jews who attend them but rather the non-Jews.  Indeed, for as long as I have been in our community, that has been the greatest complaint that I have heard about the massive crowds who year in and year out attend our Interfaith Yom HaShoah observances; “Where are the Jews?”

I have to tell you that our community is not alone in this Jewish malaise.  According to a study done by the Pew Forum, which is an organization devoted to studying all aspects of religious life in America, we Amer­ican Jews have a pretty pathetic showing when it comes to the appreciation of our religious oppor­tunities.  So, for example, while the national average for those who attend worship services weekly or more than weekly is 39%, out of 14 different faith groups, with Jehovah’s Witnesses ranking 1st at 82%, American Jews are tied with “Other Faiths” for 12th and 13th place – just above the “Unaffiliated,” with 16%.  According to that same survey, when it comes to how important people feel religion is in their lives, with the national average for those who feel that it is very or somewhat important being 84%, and with Historical Black Churches ranking number 1 with 98%, we Jews rank number 12, with 71%, just above “Other Faiths” and the “Unaffiliated.”

One cannot help but feel sad in the face of these statistics, and in the face of the reality that not only our synagogue but almost all American syna­gogues face on an ongoing basis.  Why is it that so many of those who are not Jewish have such a great appreciation for the rich and wonderful heritage which is our own, while we Jews look at it and yawn?  Perhaps it is the fault of the synagogues.  Perhaps it is the fault of the rabbis and the cantors.  Perhaps it is the fault of our religious schools.  Perhaps it is the fault of our obsessive desire to “fit it” with the rest of our society and not to be viewed as “different” or “alien” by our non-Jewish neighbors; to be with them, wherever they are, whenever they are there, doing whatever they are doing, and not to let our Judaism get in the way of that.  But more likely, it is all of these reasons, and even more.

There are those who say that competitiveness is a Jewish trait.  Maybe it is.  But if it is, then we as Jews cannot be satisfied being near the bottom of the list when it comes to religion; just one or two steps above those who openly profess that they do not care at all about religion.  So what are we going to do about it?  Whatever it is, we have to start doing it together.