Posted tagged ‘Jewish’

Your Identity is Showing!

February 13, 2020

I was raised as a Reform Jew, or more precisely, as a classical Reform Jew. My mother was also raised as a Reform Jew, but I never knew that until I started doing some genealogical research and found an announcement of her Confirmation service at one of the major Reform synagogues New York City. I knew that she felt it was important for our family to connect to our Judaism but she never really spoke about it. I do know that my sister, who was 6-years older than me, went to religious school at a nearby synagogue, but we never went to services, and my father, to my knowledge, never entered that synagogue until the day of my sister’s Bat Mitzvah. It was an Orthodox synagogue, and her Bat Mitzvah service was a class presentation on a Sunday morning, without the Torah ever being taken from the ark. After the Bat Mitzvah, my family resigned from the synagogue.

About 2 years later, my parents were approached by neighbors who were recruiting for a newly formed Reform congregation. I was in first grade and my mother must have been feeling angst over providing me with a Jewish education. So, I imagine she pressured my father into checking it out. I say, “imagine” because none of this religious tension was ever really manifested to my young self.

The congregation was renting a loft on a Bronx business street, over a stationary store and a Chinese restaurant. One winter’s day, my father took me there. As we entered the building, facing a long set of stairs going up to the loft, I took off my hat, for that was the polite thing to do when they enter a building. My father turned to me and said, “No, Henry. In a synagogue you are supposed to wear your hat.” So began my introduction to Judaism. Actually, as time would tell, in that congregation, being a classical Reform congregation, it turned out that no one wore a hat – except the ladies, for it was the 1950’s!

My father fell in love with that congregation and its approach to Judaism. When it came to my Bar Mitzvah, and my mother took me to the Judaica store – yes, in the Bronx there were independent stores that actually sold only Jewish religious articles – I was immediately attracted to the Bar Mitzvah boy mannequin decked out in a talit and a kippah. I must admit that the attraction was not born of any religious fervor but rather because I always loved costumes, and it just made sense that for my Bar Mitzvah, I should wear a “Jewish” costume. Little did I expect the repercussions of that choice. For reasons I did not understand, my father was livid! He would have none of it! My mother finally got him to agree to a compromise. I could either wear the talit or the kippah for my Bar Mitzvah service, but not both. I chose the talit, because, of course, it was a more obvious costume than that little hat.

Only later in life would I come to understand my father’s actions and attitudes. He was born in 1903, one year after his family immigrated to America from Austria. He, his parents, and his siblings lived with his mother’s brother and her father. Her father, my great grandfather, had been a noted Jewish educator in Austria, and so the whole family lived by the letter of Jewish law as followed by the Orthodox. My father’s Bar Mitzvah was not the major event that Bar and Bat Mitzvah celebrations are today. He went with his father to the synagogue on either a Monday or a Thursday morning – when the Torah is read – was called up to bless the Torah, then after the service, they served honey cake and schnapps, and off he went to school. He was one of those young Jews, raised Orthodox, who despised the restrictions of that form of our faith. While never considering converting, still he fled from it. It was not until he was introduced to classical Reform Judaism that he found a comfortable home in Judaism, and he dived into it with both feet. My mother was thrilled, and I was raised to love the life of a Reform Jew.

With the passage of time, and my continued study of our faith, its teachings and practices, my attachment to and appreciation of many of our traditions and symbols have grown deeper and more profound than merely a desire for Jewish costuming, and they have done so within the framework of Reform Jewish ideology. Of course, the experiences of my first year of rabbinic studies, in Jerusalem back in 1970-71, had a significant impact on my approach to all things Jewish. Mine was the first class that the Hebrew Union College sent as an entire body to study in Israel. The talit I am wearing tonight, and whenever I conduct worship, was purchased then and there.

It was as early as in my second year of rabbinic studies that I was introduced to the teachings of many of the great Reform Jewish theologians of the early 20th century. Several of those teachings have done much to provide me with an all important framework to my approach to Judaism, linking my emotional attachments to an intellectual appreciation of why those attachments move me so.

As a Reform Jew, I was especially taken by the ideas concerning mitzvot formulated by the theologian Franz Rosenzweig. Rosenzweig’s approach to mitzvot was fluid and filled with personal power. He walked a middle line between classical Reform’s near total rejection of ritual mitzvot and Orthodoxy’s adoration of them. Rebuking his fellow Reform Jews for their setting them aside out of hand, he encouraged them to study the mitzvot seriously; not just the mechanics of how to observe them but even more importantly, why to observe them; what is their underlying meaning. Doing that, he called upon Reform Jews to take on an attitude toward the ritual mitzvot of assuming that while there are those that I do not observe today, I may, in the future, discover meaning within them and choose to start to observe them. And as for those I do observe today, there may come a time in the future when I, no longer finding them meaningful, may choose to set them aside. This approach became one of the hallmarks of Reform Jewish thinking; the autonomy of each individual Reform Jew to choose what aspects of the tradition speak to them and enrich their lives as Jews. For the blind, rote observance of rituals does little, if anything at all, to lend power and meaning to our Jewish lives. It is in embracing the meanings behind those rituals that grant them their power. My father, as he grew in his own sense of Reform Judaism, embraced that idea, though I doubt that he ever heard of Franz Rosenzweig.

Remember that kippah that I did not get to wear at my Bar Mitzvah? Well, my relationship to that kippah was a testimony to Franz Rosenzweig’s approach to mitzvot. It was during my year in Israel that I, and many of my formerly classically Reform classmates, came to a point in our lives when we found that the wearing of a kippah during worship did enhance our worship experience. It somehow brought us closer to God in our prayers. The next Fall, when we arrived on the various U.S. campuses of the Hebrew Union College, the faculty did not quite know what to do with us. They sent us to Israel to learn Hebrew and to grow our attachment to the State, but this traditional ritualistic behavior, they were not counting on. In the end, they could not avoid the fact that basic to Reform Judaism was its commitment to change. Though they had envisioned that change to be forward moving, moving backward was just as legitimate. Thank you, Franz Rosenzweig!

By the time I arrived in Davenport, in 1985, there were very few congregants who questioned my wearing of the kippah on the bimah, though when my predecessor, a few years earlier, had announced his intention to do so, in a High Holy Day sermon he entitled, “The Rabbi Wears a Hat,” he was roasted on an open spit.

But my kippah journey was far from over. In 1999, the Central Conference of American Rabbis issued its “Statement of the Principles of Reform Judaism.” Among other matters, this statement addressed the ongoing sticky issue of the observance of the mitzvot within our movement. It emphasize that each Reform Jew must decide for him or her self which mitzvot carry meaning for them and therefore they choose to embrace, while at the same time it affirmed that those who choose to adopt mitzvot that Reform Judaism previously rejected are well within the spirit of Reform Judaism in doing so. That Statement of Principles might very well be considered the official birthplace of what we today call Reform Judaism’s “Big Tent.”

The rabbinic discussions which were a part of the framing of that document inspired me to act upon something I had been giving thought to for maybe a year; expanding my wearing of the kippah beyond worship and into daily living. I announced that decision to my congregation in a High Holy Day sermon and received very little pushback. So that became my new practice. However, the sea of life was soon to turn turbulent. When the Statement of Principles was approved, I was interviewed by the local newspaper. In that interview, I explained that according to the statement, and Reform Jewish ideology, we are instructed to evaluate each individual mitzvah on its own merits. Therefore, within that system, we are free to adopt any particular mitzvah without accepting other of the mitzvot. The example I gave was one I gave in my earlier sermon. I had chosen to wear the kippah daily, but I had not chosen to maintain the dietary laws of kashrut outside of my home.

As a matter of full disclosure, I did say that I was perfectly comfortable about wearing my kippah and dining at Jim’s Rib Haven. Well, that did not sit well with the members of the Tri City Jewish Center, a more traditional synagogue on the other side of the Mississippi, in Rock Island. They rained their fury down upon me and the members of my congregation. So much so that, for the sake of community unity, my congregants placed enormous pressures upon me to recant the statement. The experience was so painful that rather than recant, I withdrew from my daily wearing of the kippah. The power of the way that daily wearing kept my consciousness closer to God was drowned out by the anguish that controversy brought me.

So, it was until recently. For many years now, I have been deeply concerned about the growing level of antisemitism around the world, and eventually here in our own country. I have been posting about it regularly on Facebook in a series I call “Antisemitism in Action.” The horrible attacks on Jews which took place in December just brought it to a head for me. More and more, I would be hearing of Jews who are now afraid to wear their kippot in public. What kind of world are we living in where people should fear displaying the symbols of their faith lest they suffer injury? As some of you may know, I am deeply involved in an anti-hate group in the Quad Cities called One Human Family QCA. I am one of its founders. A day or so after that brutal attack on the home of a rabbi in Monsey, New York, during a Hanukkah party, I received a call from Rev. Richard Hendricks, my co-founder of One Human Family. Rev. Richard Hendricks is the pastor of the Metropolitan Community Church, a predominantly gay congregation, and is himself gay. Rev. Hendricks proposed a program which would involve a community response to the epidemic of antisemitism. He called it Kippah Day. His plan was to hold a community event in which kippot were distributed to people of all faiths, who would be encouraged to wear their kippot on the next day – all day – to show their solidarity with their Jewish neighbors and their opposition to antisemitism, and hate in all its manifestations.

His proposal was very much in the spirit of One Human Family QCA, in that we believe that it is not enough for each identity group to stand up against the hate directed at their own group, but rather we must stand up for each other as well, regardless of which group is the target of the moment. For the disease that plagues us is hate itself. The various manifestations of hate – racism, antisemitism, homophobia, transphobia, Hispanophobia, xenophobia, misogyny, etc. – are but symptoms of the disease and not the total disease in and of themselves. The harsh truth is that those who hate are what we call “equal opportunity haters.” They have more that enough hate in their hearts to spread it around to many targeted groups at the same time. With that in mind, we need to act in the tradition of Hillel the Elder, the founder of modern Judaism, who said: “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?”

I have to admit, when Rev. Hendricks first proposed the Kippah Day idea, I was hesitant, and I told him, only if he can obtain buy-in from my successor, Rabbi Linda Bertenthal. She, who does wear a kippah on a daily basis, quickly agreed. The event was held. About 500 kippot were distributed on a Thursday night. They were worn by the participants all the next day. The Kippah Day culminated with the participants being invited to Temple Emanuel, for a Shabbat evening service. The sanctuary that night was filled; a sea of kippot worn by both Jews and friends of the Jewish Community.

It was during the planning of this event that I realized that the time had come. It was time for me to return to that earlier intention of wearing my kippah day in and day out instead of just when I worship. My wife soon was joking about how I was presenting the world with a kippah fashion show, as I started wearing kippot that matched to color scheme of my daily attire. In making this choice I was choosing to wear the kippah for all the spiritual reasons that led me to my earlier decision – helping to heighten my awareness on a daily basis, moment to moment, that I live my entire life in the presence of God – but I also for yet another reason; to demonstrate to the world that I am proud to be a Jew and that no thug is going to intimidate me into hiding from the public who I am and for what I stand.

My thoughts quickly returned to a day in 1993. The Quad Cities interfaith Yom HaShoah – Holocaust Remembrance Day – Committee had arranged to host a premiere showing of the film “Schindler’s List” as a fundraiser for local Holocaust education. Then one Friday afternoon, as the mail was delivered to the Temple, a deep, dark cloud suddenly hung over this enterprise. As I was going through the mail, I came across a postcard which read: “A Neo-Nazi group is planning to set off bombs in the theater during the Holocaust movie. Attacks are also planned for the home of Rabbi Karp and the offices of the Jewish Federation.” I immediately picked up the phone and called my friend, the Chief of Police, Steve Lynn. At first, the operator at the police station said that he was in a meeting and could not be disturbed. So I started to leave a message. The minute I gave my name, I was told to hold. The next voice I heard was that of Chief Lynn. It turned out that the meeting he was in was with agents of the F.B.I., and the topic of discussion was this very same threat. I appeared that a copy of the postcard was sent to the police. So I jumped in my car and joined them. During that meeting, I asked Chief Lynn whether we should consider canceling the showing of the film. What he said to me that day has been emblazoned in my mind. He said: “Rabbi, you are going to have to make that choice for yourself. However, if I were you, I would never cancel that movie, for if you do, then they win!” The movie was not canceled. The police and the F.B.I. did everything possible to protect against the threat; bomb sniffing dogs inspecting the theater daily, heavy police patrols around my home and the offices of the Jewish Federation, a small army of officers present at the showing of the film, both uniformed and undercover, in and out of the theater. The showing went off without incident and neither my home nor the Jewish Federation offices were ever attacked. But from that day to this, Chief Lynn’s words still ring in my ears, “If you do, they win!” We can never let them – the purveyors of hate – win! Not then. Not now.

There is an old Yiddish expression: “Schwer zu zein ein Yid und Schoen zu zein ein Yid – It is difficult to be a Jew and it is beautiful to be a Jew.” We live in a time when it can be difficult to be a Jew. Still, we must never forget or neglect, or avoid, just how beautiful it is to be a Jew. Now, more than ever, with antisemitism on the rise, especially over the last 6 years, every Jew needs to find the courage to show the world just who we are, and that who we are – JEWS – is something for which we can be justifiably proud and unashamed. The haters should never be allowed to win! Judaism is to beautiful a gift to our lives and to the world to allow it to be squashed out by the agents of evil. If my wearing of my kippah can serve to both remind me of how I live my life, day after day, in the presence of God, and at the same time, inform those who hate me for being a Jew that they will never win, then I will wear my kippah in prayerful subservience to God, in my pride of my Jewish identity, and in resistance to all who choose hate over love.

MEMORIAL DAY: Dare We Forget the Sacrifices?

May 24, 2014

It is Memorial Day weekend and so many of us are looking forward to the holiday; a 3-day weekend for most with plenty of sunshine (hopefully), as we relax with family and friends, basking in the Spring weather. Perhaps we will have or attend a barbeque. Perhaps a graduation party. Perhaps we may hit the road for a mini-vacation. Perhaps we will take advantage of all the holiday sales. What a wonderful holiday Memorial Day is for us!
While it is a wonderful break, especially after such a long, hard winter, it seems that in the midst of all our relaxing and partying, we may have forgotten something. We may have forgotten the reason for the holiday; what the holiday is supposed to be about. It’s not barbeque day. It’s not bask in the sunshine day. Its not take a mini vacation day. It’s not shop the sales day. It is MEMORIAL Day. It is a time when our thoughts should be turning to some very, very special people; people who were dedicated, brave and self-sacrificing. Indeed, these people made the ultimate sacrifice for us. They gave up their very lives so that we can continue to live in freedom.
On the Yahrzeit board in my synagogue’s sanctuary, in the bottom right-hand corner, there are eight plaques with stars next to their names. The star is there to acknowledge that each of these individuals was killed while in service to our country. One of them died in the First World War and seven in the Second World War. On this Memorial Day Shabbat, I will be including their names in the list of those others being remembered as we recite the Kaddish.
I am assuming – rightfully or wrongly – that this is a short list of those members of Temple Emanuel who over the years made that ultimate sacrifice. It is definitely a short list of those who served our country in time of war. With our congregation having been founded in 1861, I suspect that there were members of our congregation who fought in the Civil War, some of whom may have been in killed on the battlefield. Perhaps some of our number fought and maybe fell in the Spanish American War. Perhaps also in the Korean and Viet Nam wars. The members of our community have always been willing to serve, and if necessary, die for our country.
When we consider the history of our people, with all its pain and suffering, with all the prejudice, persecution, and bloodshed, the freedoms this nation has offered to us most certainly should be cherished. When practically no other nation on earth would welcome us, nevertheless give us full and equal rights and protections under the law, America stood out to us as a beacon of hope, security, and dignity. For our people, America was the exception to the rule, and continues to be the exception of the rule. Since before the birth of this nation as a nation, Jews have not been considered aliens or hardly tolerated guest but rather we have been welcomed as full partners in the American experiment.
With the Holocaust and all its horrors now being almost 70 years in the past, and the generation who lived through those dreadful years growing fewer and fewer with the passage of time, it is all too easy for us Jews who were born in the safety and security, and especially the full inclusion, of American life to take our freedoms – our acceptance – for granted for we have personally known no other existence. We have never been thrown into a ghetto or worse. We have never been denied our rights to vote or get an education or live in a particular neighborhood or work in a particular profession or for a particular employer. We have never felt the sting of living in a society permeated by the hatred of us; a hatred sponsored by the state itself. Yet these are precisely the things about America that we should not take for granted but rather cling to and value to the highest degree. Our gratitude should ever continue to be boundless; as boundless as the wonderful opportunities we so readily enjoy in this land.
All this brings us back to what Memorial Day should mean for us as Americans, and particularly as Jews. As easy as our lives are today, we should not deceive ourselves into believing that the freedoms we take so much for granted were easily gained or easily maintained. For they were not. In every generation from the birth of this country to this present day, there have been those who sought to destroy all that we have; those who sought to destroy the promise of America. In every generation, Americans have had to take up arms in order to protect the American way of life. They have had to take up arms to protect those very freedoms which we enjoy today and which have meant so much to us as Jews living in this land of freedom. Along the way, many of them have sacrificed their lives in that cause. They fought and their died so that we could gather in our synagogues on Shabbat and holidays, worshiping God in our own way – in the Jewish way – and free to do so without fear or dire repercussions. They fought and died for the freedom of American Jews and American Catholics and American Protestants and American Muslims and American Unitarians and Hindus and Buddhist and Sikhs. They fought and died for the freedom of the Whites and the Blacks and the Hispanics and the Asians of our land. They fought and died for the freedom of all Americans, regardless of race or creed or gender or age or sexual orientation. That freedom, which we too often take for granted, was more valuable to these military martyrs than was their lives. That we are who we are today is in no small way owing to their ultimate sacrifices. How could we ever adequately express what should be our gratitude?
Perhaps we can start by taking the time before we leave this building tonight to go over and look at those eight Yahrzeit plaques and consider all that they stand for. Perhaps as we look at those plaques we can say in our hearts, or maybe even out loud, “Thank you.” In any event, in the midst of all our leisure and pleasure on this holiday weekend let us try to set aside some time to reflect upon the great debt that we owe to America’s warriors and especially to those who have fallen in the line of duty. But if we truly want to render proper honor to the memories of these brave people, then we need to retrain ourselves in such a way that we never again take for granted that for which they so willingly sacrificed their lives.

Love: Jewish Style

February 15, 2014

“How lovely are your feet in sandals,

O daughter of nobles!

Your rounded thighs are like jewels,

The work of a master’s hand.

Your navel is like a round goblet –

Let mixed wine not be lacking! –

Your belly like a heap of wheat

Hedged about with lilies.

Your breasts are like two fawns,

Twins of a gazelle.

Your neck is like a tower of ivory,

Your eyes like pools in Heshbon

By the gate of Bath-rabbim,

Your nose like the Lebanon tower

That faces toward Damascus.

The head upon you is like crimson wool,

The locks of your head are like purple –

A king is held captive in the tresses.

How fair you are, how beautiful!

O Love, with all its rapture!

Your stately form is like the palm,

Your breasts are like clusters.

I say: Let me climb the palm,

Let me take hold of its branches;

Let your breasts be like clusters of grapes,

Your breath like the fragrance of apples,

And your mouth like choicest wine.

‘Let it flow to my beloved as new wine

Gliding over the lips of sleepers.’”[1]

Now some of you may be wondering if just because it is Valentine’s Day, does that give the rabbi license to stand on the bimah on Shabbat and recite to the congregation erotic love poetry, with thighs and navels and breasts and lips and rapture?  A valid question, especially considering that not only is Valentine’s Day not a Jewish holiday but in its earlier incarnation it was St. Valentine’s Day; a Roman Catholic Saint’s Day.

Well, if you have not already figured it out, this is not just any erotic poetry.  This text is from SHIR HASHIRIM, the SONG OF SONGS, sometimes called the SONG OF SOLOMON.  This text comes from our own Hebrew Scriptures.  Not only that but SONG OF SONGS is one of the Five Megillot – the Five Scrolls – each of which is assigned by our tradition to be read on a particular holiday.  And not only that!  Of the Five Megillot, there is only one scroll which is assigned to read on two holidays, and guess which scroll it is.  SONG OF SONGS, the scroll which is read on Passover and also on Shabbat, by husbands to their wives.

Now some may ponder how strange it is to find erotica in our Scriptures.  What were the ancient rabbis thinking, back in the 2nd century before the common era, when they decided to include this book, with all its blatant sexual imagery, in the collection of our sacred writings?  Were they just a bunch of dirty old men and this was their version of pornography?

Actually, they weren’t a bunch of dirty old men.  Quite the contrary.  Rather they were profoundly pious, deeply spiritual, remarkably open minded, wonderfully realistic, positive, God loving men of faith.  They did not see this book as “dirty” but rather as inspiring.  That was because they did not look at human love, in any of its manifestations, as being something dirty.  Quite the contrary.  They looked at the pleasure we receive from love, in all of its aspects, including its physical aspect, as being a gift from God, and therefore sacred.  They asked themselves the simple and obvious question: Why would God create us with the capacity to derive so much pleasure if God did not intend for us to enjoy it?  The very fact that God made this so pleasurable clearly indicates that this is something God encourages us to do.

They also recognized that even the best of things in our lives can become the worst of things.  It is all about use and abuse.  When given such gifts, how do we use them properly and employ them for the good, and how do we avoid misusing and abusing them, turning them into something bad?  Of course, when it came to the physical pleasures of love, for the Rabbis, the answer was simple.  Marriage.  Physical love and sexual pleasure was never intended to be an end in and of itself.  That is not the human way.  That is the way it is among the lower species.  For us humans, it was given as way to enhance and intensify the love relationship which exists between two people who are so attracted to each other that they yearn to share the totality of their lives together.

This is a good thing, not a bad thing.  Since God created us with the capacity to love another, it becomes our sacred responsibility to maximize that love in all of its manifestations.  Like any other gift we receive from any other source, one of the truest ways to demonstrate our gratitude for that gift is to make the most of that gift.  If someone were to give you a sweater, and you really liked that sweater, and therefore you wore it often, every time the person who gave you that sweater sees you wearing that sweater, they know how very much you have valued their gift.  It is the same here.  In fact, that is why our tradition teaches us that lovemaking between a husband and wife, on Shabbat, is counted as a double mitzvah.

Why was human love so important to the rabbis – silly question! – and more importantly, why did they feel that it was important to God?  Because the rabbis saw the love between human beings as not something separate from God but rather as the model of human love for God.  Do not get me wrong!  It is not that they ever considered the idea that humans could engage in physical love with God but rather that we should aspire, in our love of God, to reaching the intensity of connectedness between us and God that, in much the same manner, exists in a full and healthy love relationship between husband and wife; a relationship which has the power to take two separate individuals and transform them into one whole and completed being.  How often a husband will say to a wife, or a wife to a husband, “You fulfill me!” and mean it.  That was the rabbi’s ideal, and remains our Jewish ideal, for what should be our relationship with God.  God should fulfill us, and if God fulfills us, believe it or not, we fulfill God.

In a truly intimate human love relationship, each one can often anticipate the other.  We know what they are thinking.  We know what they are feeling without having to ask.  We know because it is important to us; they are important to us, and more often than not, more important to us than ourselves.  Our pleasure is to be found in giving them pleasure.  Their very presence in our lives is our primary source of joy.  This is the type of intimacy to which Judaism encourages us to aspire in our relationship with God.

The Jewish philosopher-theologian Martin Buber understood this very well.  In his famous work, I & THOU, he tells us that in the realm of relationships, there are two major categories – I-It relationships and I-Thou or I-You relationships.

I-It relationships are one directional.  They are all about how the other party can meet our needs.  They have little if anything to do with how we can meet the needs of the other.  Of course we have I-It relationships with objects like chairs.  We are concerned with how the chair meets our needs but we never give a thought to whether or not the chair has needs which we can meet.  But we also can have I-It relationships with people.  Just think about how you often relate to servers in a restaurant or cashiers in a supermarket.

I-Thou relationships are, to one degree or another, two directional.  They are about mutually meeting each other’s needs.  Of course they vary in degree.  An I-Thou relationship with an acquaintance is not nearly as giving as an I-Thou relationship with a friend.  The more intense the relationship, the more connected we feel to the other and the more priority we give to the meeting of their needs.

For Buber, the most intense human experience of an I-Thou relationship is the relationship which exists between loving spouses.  It is this relationship which Buber points to as a model for his third category of relationships – I-Eternal Thou; the desired relationship between the individual and God.  What a statement that makes!  If we could only love God as much as we love each other!  If we could only love God as much as we love the person we love the most!

This all brings us back to SONG OF SONGS.  When the Rabbi’s hotly debated whether or not to include this book in the Hebrew Scriptures, it was no less a personage than Rabbi Akiva who absolutely insisted upon its inclusion.  He was reported as saying, “for all the ages are not worth the day that SONG OF SONGS was given to Israel; for all the Ketuvim (all the Writings) are holy, but the SONG OF SONGS is the Holy of Holies.”[2]  Why did he claim this?  Because Akiva did not just see this book as the description of a deep love between a man and a woman, but more importantly, he saw it as a beautiful testimony to the love which should exist between God and Israel.  That is why we read it on Passover, when God showed us unbounded love through the act of our liberation from Egyptian slavery.  That is why we read it on Shabbat, when we show God our unending love by observing this day as God’s day, week after week after week.

It is Shabbat and it is Valentine’s Day.  As we celebrate the love that we share with each other, let us likewise celebrate the love that we share with God.


[1] SONG OF SONGS 7:2-10.

[2] MISHNAH YADAIM 3.5.

One Jew Reflecting Upon Christmas

December 29, 2013

Well, we made it through another one!  Christmas has come and gone – except for the post-Christmas sales – and Jews can breathe a sigh of relief as once again we can consider ourselves part of the mainstream of American life.

For quite some time I have had a love-hate relationship with Christmas.  Believe it or not, there is so much that I, as a Jew and as a rabbi do love about the holiday.

My earliest recollections of Christmas prominently include my father taking my sister and me for a Christmas eve drive around our neighborhood so as to enjoy the beauty of the lights decorating the homes of our Christian neighbors.  I still enjoy going on those light tours, which of course today include visiting some of those over the top houses with their complex musical light shows.  I have to admit that as garish and as energy extravagant as those light shows are, they are fun to watch; that is as long as such houses are not on my street, tying up traffic, and especially not across the street from me, flashing its performances into my windows every half hour on the half hour.  But even as I revel in the beauty of the lights – and they are so beautiful – I cannot help but ponder that it is near unto impossible for me to conceive of any Jew who would actually choose to get out their ladder in the late November or early December cold in order to climb up on their roof to string lights, only to climb up there again on a frigid January day in order to take them down.  Most Jews would label that meshugah!  We call that cultural diversity.  Perhaps that is why when you come upon the occasional Jewish home whose residents have felt a need to decorate their house with blue and white lights for Hanukkah, those  displays are always pretty lame.  Yet when all is said and done, I am profoundly grateful to my Christian neighbors for bringing such beauty and light to the dark and gloomy nights of early winter!

While my love of the lights were born of childhood experiences and have remained with me ever since, they are not the only aspects of Christmas that I have come to appreciate.  Growing older and more thoughtful, my love of Christmas has extended to so many of its messages.  While “peace on earth, good will to men (all)” has become so much a cliche, I still find it to be a powerful expression of this holiday’s aspiration that the spirit of pure love and human unity take hold in the hearts of all God’s children.  To me, this is Christian teaching at its finest; in its most ideal state.  While, as a Jew, I do not personally believe that Jesus was anything other than an historical figure, I do believe, based upon my studies of the Gospels, that these are the values which he preached and by which he lived.  They are the aspect of Jesus that all people – Christian and non-Christian alike – can embrace and aspire to live up to.  From a Jewish perspective, it is precisely these types of teachings which confirm Christianity as a legitimate religious expression; as one of the truly valid spiritual paths to God.  As a Jew, my path to God is through Torah.  For Christians, their path is through Jesus.  Whichever path we choose, it is meant to lead us to the same God.  It is meant to lead us to a God who loves all humanity and who expects us, people of our respective faiths, to share that love.

In fact, that is why I love Christmas movies.  Not all Christmas movies, but several of them; the ones that I consider to be the really good ones because they embody such uplifting and hopeful messages.  As a rabbi, I freely admit that for me Christmas is not Christmas unless I watch at least one such movie.  Top on my list is Frank Capra’s “It’s a Wonderful Life.”  George Bailey is the personification of the message of Christmas.  George Bailey is the personification of the message of all ethically based faiths.  Christian, Jew, Muslim, it matters not where we pray or in which language we pray.  In the end, our various faiths call upon us to live our lives as George Bailey lived his, caring for his neighbors, striving to do his part to help make their lives at least a little better.  The same can be said for the number two movie on my list – any version of Dicken’s A CHRISTMAS CAROL, though from a purely entertainment perspective I do prefer both the Alistair Sims and the Bill Murray versions.  The question we all must confront is “How much are we like the Ebenezer Scrooge from the beginning of tale and how much are we like the Ebenezer Scrooge of its conclusion?  In this day of growing corporate greed, where the income gap between executives and employees grows exponentially greater, where for the sake of profit companies outsource their jobs to nations that fail to provide legal protections for the rights of their labor force, the evolving character of Ebenezer Scrooge has so much to teach us.  Recently, I encountered a quote from Walter Bruggerman, the imagery of which really touched me.  He spoke of “eating off our hungry brother’s and sister’s table.”  How guilty are we of such an act; of filling our stomachs at the expense of those in need; of taking from them in order to increase our own luxury?  These are the types of ethical challenges which Christmas places before us as it calls upon each and every one of us – Christian and non-Christian alike – to make of ourselves better human beings; to transform ourselves from being the Ebenezer Scrooge who appears at the beginning of the tale to the one who appears at its end.

While I am deeply moved by the universal nature of the ethics of Christmas, I am also moved by its spirituality.  Even though, as a Jew I do not accept in any way, manner, shape, or form a belief in the divinity of Jesus, still I can have a profound appreciation for the spiritual forces born of those beliefs which so inspire my Christian brothers and sisters and draw them closer to God.  True faith is a beautiful thing, even if it is not your own faith, as long as that faith carries one to acts of righteousness, justice, and love.  Perhaps being a person of faith myself helps to make me more attuned to and appreciative of the spiritual power of other faiths.  The function of a true faith is to help us actualize God’s caring presence in our lives.  For those of us who actively seek that presence through the practices and values of our own faith traditions, it may be easier for us to recognize and acknowledge when the practices and values of other faith traditions actualize the Divine presence on the lives of those who adhere to those traditions.  Such is the case when I witness those who truly observe Christmas; the real Christmas – the one observed in the church and the home more than in the shopping mall and the big box stores.

And how can I not help but love the great value Christmas places on family?  It is a time when the bonds of familial love are so strong that family members are magnetically drawn together, even across the miles, and sometimes across the planet, to share their Christmas experience; to reaffirm the power of family love in their lives.  “I’ll be home for Christmas” so says the song.  Homecoming is as much a part of Christmas as is the Christmas tree – even more so.

And yes, one of the things I love about Christmas is egg nog, and it matters not whether it be the alcoholic or non-alcoholic version.  It is the consummate seasonal drink, only to be surpassed, according to my taste buds, by that Arabic winter drink, sahleb.  Once again, cultural diversity!

These are just some of the aspects of Christmas which I as a Jew and a rabbi truly love and perhaps even envy, though each and every one of them are also to be found in my own faith, that is if you would accept the substitution of egg nog for matzah ball soup.

But as I stated earlier, my relationship with Christmas is one of both love and hate.  Sadly, there are other aspects of Christmas – particularly Christmas in America – which I freely admit evoke in me anger and bitterness.  For there are those who have chosen to set aside the universalistic Christmas message of love and respect for all of God’s children and have replaced it with a sort of perverse imperialistic parochialism.  For whatever reasons, these people have come to believe that Christmas will be somehow diminished unless all people, Christian or not, are required to engage in its observance.  When non-Christians like myself tell them, “Go, enjoy your beautiful holiday but leave me and my children out of it,” we become the enemy; we become the embodiment of the Grinch Who Stole Christmas.  I for one don’t take kindly to that.

I have always tried to be a live and let live type of guy.  You lead your life and I will lead mine and we should respect each other for our uniqueness and individuality.  That is why it has so deeply offended me when others have tried to impose their observance of Christmas, especially the religious aspects of Christmas, upon everyone, Christian and non-Christian alike.  As a Jew, I have always wanted my Christian neighbors to enjoy the fullness of their Christmas holiday, but what I have never wanted is for my neighbors to turn around and expect me, or my children, or any non-Christian adult or child, to join them in their Christmas observance.  I am quite happy witnessing Christmas from the outside, looking in, appreciating all that is beautiful and wonderful about it.  I don’t need to be on the inside, I don’t want to be on the inside, and I resent any attempt to force me or my kind to be on the inside.  I don’t mind listening to your Christmas songs as they are broadcasted wherever I go in the month of December, and often I enjoy their melodies even if I cannot accept the message of their lyrics.  But do not expect me to sing them.  Do not expect any non-Christian to sing them, especially non-Christian children.  These songs speak of a faith that we do not nor cannot accept.  When public school music teachers force such expressions from the lips of our children, what they are doing is nothing less than spiritual child abuse.  Ironically, it also diminishes the Christian beliefs which those songs are intended to lift up.  For what does it say of the purity of Christianity when the tenets of its beliefs are forcibly falsely uttered by those who reject those very beliefs?

A painful vignette:  When my youngest daughter was in 7th grade, my wife and I, being loving and dutiful parents, attended her school’s winter music concert.  The first group to sing was the 6th grade chorus.  Standing among them was a little Muslim girl, dressed in traditional Muslim garb.  When the songs they sang were essentially Christian in nature, she stood there still and silent, standing out like a sore thumb.  It was heartbreaking yet uplifting to witness this child resist the enormous social pressure as she refused to publicly denounce her faith by proclaiming another.  The next year, when we attended the concert, I was particularly interested in hearing the 7th grade chorus sing, being curious to see whether or not that Muslim child would be among them, and if so, what she would do.  As that chorus took to the stage, it soon became clear that the Muslim girl was not not to be seen.  What a tragedy!  Why should a child who happens to be a Muslim or a Jew or a Buddhist or a Hindu or an atheist in America – a nation which at least theoretically holds on to the principle of separation of church and state – be forced to choose between participating in a public school music program and remaining true to the tenets of his or her faith?

While this issue of celebrating Christmas, a religious holiday, in what are supposed to be religiously neutral public schools has been a source of contention for many years, going back to my own childhood, over the last few years this struggle has taken on a new and even more invasive and sinister dimension.  I speak of the so-called “War on Christmas.”  Those crusaders who claim themselves to be the defenders of the sanctity of Christmas, led by such zealots as Bill O’Reilly and so many of his colleagues at Fox News, have vigorously invested themselves in the cause of claiming black is white and fiction is fact.  In their own insidious way, they have attempted to turn the tables on us non-Christians who have worked so hard to convince our Christian neighbors that our participation is neither essential nor desirable for their own celebration of their sacred Christmas holiday.  All that we have asked is that our fellow Americans acknowledge and respect the wondrous religious diversity of our land.  Yet these Christmas crusaders have decided to redefine such respect as being an affront to Christianity and a direct assault on Christmas itself.  For them, there is no middle ground.  To say “Seasons Greetings” or “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas” is an offense equal to spitting in the face of Jesus.  They have taken this struggle over Christmas beyond the public schools and out into the shopping malls and the grocery stores and onto the media – radio, TV, and print.  This year, they have even made it into a racial issue, claiming Christmas and Jesus to be the primary possession of the white Christian race.  Emphatically they have insisted that Santa is white (even though the original Santa Claus came from Turkey) and that Jesus was white (even though historically he was a Middle Eastern Jew) and that any other perspective is nothing short of a vicious lie.  Indeed, they have given a completely new meaning to the phrase “I’m Dreaming of a White Christmas,” a song which, by the way was written by the Jew, Irving Berlin.

In all of this, look at what obviously has been lost.  The true meaning of Christmas.  The essential teachings of Jesus, whose birth Christians are supposed to be celebrating.  They have become Dicken’s A CHRISTMAS CAROL in reverse.  Instead of the spirit of Christmas transforming a mean spirited, narrow minded bigoted Ebenezer Scrooge into a lover and care giver for all humanity, they have been working to transform the loving humanistic spirit of Christmas into a festival of partisanship and xenophobia.  What they claim to be our War on Christmas is in fact their War on Non-Christians; their war on those children of God who have chosen not to share their religious beliefs.  As one such non-Christian, I cannot help but be angry and resentful.

The saddest part of all is that there is a War on Christmas, but definitely not as the Bill O’Reillys of the world describe it.  The real War on Christmas is the war to secularize it; to diminish if not strip away entirely its fundamental religious nature.  It is a war which seeks to transform a sacred season into a shopping season and the worship of God into the worship of materialism.  Box stores instead of churches become the centers of holy gatherings.  Baby Jesus and the person he would grow to become is being supplanted by that heavy set man in the red suit who fills the houses with games and toys for children of all ages.  Peace on earth, good will to all is utterly forgotten in the crush of the early morning stampedes on Black Friday.  Christmas as a family day – not so much so any more.  It used to be that Christmas day for Jews meant Chinese food and a movie.  The Chinese restaurants were the only eateries open and the movie theaters were also open but relatively empty as our Christian neighbors gathered with their families around their trees and their festive dinner tables.  At a time of year when it is typical for Jews to feel left out, having the movie theaters mostly to ourselves did serve as somewhat of a healing balm.  In fact, when I was a rabbi in Lincoln, Nebraska – in the days before multiplexes – I had one congregant family who prided themselves on their ability to travel from theater to theater to theater, catching several films on any given Christmas day.  But over the past few years, the theaters have not been so empty.  This year, our local multiplex was literally packed.  It saddened me, not so much because we had to fight the crowd, but more so because of what it represented about the changing face of Christmas in America, as the movie theater replaced the home as the central gather place for Christians on Christmas day; as spending Christmas day with the latest Hollywood releases replaced spending it at home, around the tree, around the fire, around the dinner table, with family and friends.  This is the true War on Christmas and it has nothing whatsoever to do with saying “Seasons Greetings” or “Happy Holidays” rather than “Merry Christmas.”  Rather it has to do with materialism, commercialism, and secularization.  Sadder still that it is so obvious to a Jew like myself, someone on the outside looking in, while for so many others, for whom Christmas is their holiday, they don’t even see it.

I am a Jew and I love my faith and I love my people.  My religion has given me so much joy, pleasure, and inspiration. Its observances – daily, Shabbat, holidays – have so greatly enriched my life.  My gratitude knows no end.  I wish that all people could receive such gifts and that they should receive them from the values, teachings, and practices of the faith of their choosing, whatever that faith may be.  I know that all true faiths freely offer such gifts to their adherents.  For my Christian neighbors, Christmas is most certainly one such gift; true Christmas, Christmas as it was intended to be celebrated.  As a Jew, I marvel at its wonder and its beauty and all that is good about it.  I see it for all it is and all it can be yet I am puzzled why, for so many Christians, that does not seem to be enough.  Why is it not enough for them to bask in their gracious holiday celebration?  Why do they somehow feel incomplete as Christians if they fail to drag others who do not share their beliefs into their observances?

As the outsider looking in, I freely admit that I love Christmas for all it was intended to be yet hate the aggressive and mean spirited holiday into which some have re-framed it.

Is American Judaism Going Down the Toilet?: Reflections on the Recent Pew Study of the American Jewish Community

November 14, 2013

The Pew Research Center is a highly respected institute that conducts many serious studies about the nature of religion in contemporary American life.  Last month they issued a 200 page report entited “A Portrait of Jewish Americans.”  It is the first such comprehensive study of the state of the American Jewish community to be released since the last National Jewish Population Survey, back in 2001.  For this study, 70,000 screening interviews were conducted, covering all 50 states in their search to identify Jewish respondents.  Of that group, they conducted fuller interviews with almost 3,500 Jews.

The results of this survey have generated a tremendous amount of conversation within the American Jewish community.  One writer claims that as his of his writing, over a million words have been published evaluating those results.[1]  I suspect that his estimate is low.

While it is impossible for me to give you all the results of the Pew Study in one posting, let me hit upon some of its highlights, both the good news and the bad news:

  1. 94% of those Jews surveyed claimed that they are proud to be Jewish.  That, of course, is very good news.
  2. The percentage of adult Americans who say that they are Jewish is a little less than 2%, which is about half of what it was in the late 1950’s.  Unfortunately, the American Jewish community is shrinking.
  3. 22% of those interviewed claim that they have no religious identity.  It should be noted that this statistic is very much in line with another statistic from a Pew survey of religious identity in general in America, where 20% of Americans claimed to have no religious identity.  Yet it should be of little comfort to us that we Jews are like the rest of our fellow Americans, moving further and further away from our religious roots.
  4. Among those Jews who claim no religious identity, it should be noted that they are far more represented among younger adults than older adults.  If you break it down by generation you find that among the Greatest Generation – those born between 1914 & 1927 – only 7% claim no religion.  Among the Silent Generation – those born between 1928 & 1945 – the number goes up to 14%.  Among Baby Boomers – those born between 1946 & 1964 – the number is 19%.  For Gen X’er – born between 1965 & 1980 – the number is 26%.  And finally, among the Millennials – those born after 1980 – the number is 32%, almost 5 times greater than the Greatest Generation and almost twice as great than Baby Boomers.  To say the least, this trend is frightening and should be of profound concern to us Jews who wish to see our faith survive long into the future.
  5. When asked if being Jewish was more about culture and ancestry than about religion, 62% of the respondents said that their Jewish identity was exclusively about culture and ancestry; 15% said it was about religion; and 23% said it was a combination of all three.  Such statistics do not bode well for those of us who work for the continued existence of synagogues like our own.
  6. The rate of intermarriage is also up.  60% of those who married since the year 2000 are intermarried, as compared to 40% of those who married in the ‘80’s and 17% of those who married in the ‘70’s.  Considering the fact that only 20% of intermarried couples raise their children as Jewish, this poses yet another challenge for the future.
  7. Regarding denominational identification, Reform Judaism is the largest denomination among American Jews, with 35% identifying as Reform.  The next largest group, with 30%, are those who claim no denominational identification.  18% claim to be Conservative, 10% claim to be Orthodox, and 6% claim to be other, such as Reconstructionist or Jewish Renewal. However, it should be noted that the Orthodox, though small, have many more young people and generally raise larger families.  So we can expect to see this percentage grow for the Orthodox in the future.
  8. Passover remains the most practiced Jewish observance with 70% claiming they participate in a Passover Seder.  However, that is down from the 78% which was reported in the National Jewish Population Survey.
  9. 69% of those surveyed stated that they feel an attachment to the State of Israel.  This statistic remains unchanged from the National Jewish Population Survey.  We would have hoped to see this number rise as a result of programs like Birthright.  At least we are holding our own.
  10. When asked, “What Does It Mean to Be Jewish?” 73% said remembering the Holocaust; 69% said leading an ethical and moral life; 56% said working for justice and equality; 49% said being intellectually curious; 43% said caring about Israel; 42% said having a good sense of humor; 28% said being a part of a Jewish community; 19% said observing Jewish law; and 14% said eating traditional Jewish foods.  It is deeply disturbing that so many more Jews view having a sense of humor as more essential to their Jewish identity than either practicing our faith or being part of a Jewish community.

These statistics but scratch the surface of this study.  Yet, as a synagogue, they should give us much to ponder.  Reactions to this study have run the gamut from anxious hand wringing to almost joyous jubilation, depending upon one’s perception of American Jewish life in the first place.

One writer applauds the grim aspects of this report.  He claims that the reason most cultural Jews keep any Jewish traditions or identity is because they feel guilty on account of their parents.  He then goes on to announce that it is time for Jews to get over their guilt and drop these meaningless observances.[2]  While another author recalls how one edition of Look Magazine, back in 1964, had as its cover story “The Vanishing American Jew” and predicted that by the 21st century there would no longer be any Jews left in the United States.  He then joyfully quotes Mark Twain who said, “The reports of my death are greatly exaggerated.”[3]

There are those who look at the report and offer sage advice.  A rabbi who was formerly a social scientist recalls one of her earliest research lessons; that correlation does not always mean causation; that statistics can only show us the present situation and cannot, by themselves, reveal the reason for that situation.  Indeed, I loved her analogy.  It was that a survey of shoe size and reading ability among Americans would reveal that the larger the shoe size, the higher the reading level.  However, before those statistics mislead us, we must remember to take into account the factor of age, for infants have very small feet.[4]

Then there is our own URJ President, Rabbi Rick Jacobs, who reminds us that when it comes to denominational breakdown, those Jews without religion are only second in number to Reform Judaism.  That they claim no religion, yet affirm their Jewish identity, indicates that within that group there is a great untapped potential if we can only find the key to attract them to Reform Judaism, Reform Jewish beliefs, and Reform Jewish practices.[5]

Then there is the writer who wrote a response to the article celebrating the imminent demise of Judaism.  She points out that most Jews lack basic Jewish literacy.  One cannot abandon what one never had in the first place.  Therefore, the challenge before us is to transform what the first author considered to be “intrinsically meaningless” into something deeply meaningful.  This, or course, is done through more effective Jewish education.[6]

Of all the statements I read on the subject, the one I really resonated with the most was by an author who said: “I look forward to… well, to most things, because there really isn’t any other direction in which to look.”[7]  That is precisely what the synagogue world needs to do.  We need to look forward to our future.  We need to seriously examine these statistics, come to an understanding of where today’s American Jews are coming from in terms of their Jewish identity, and then do some serious reworking of synagogue life so as to draw them back to an attachment to our religion as well as our culture.  No, we should not resign ourselves to becoming mere Jewish cultural institutions, for Jewish identity cannot long endure as a testimony to bagels and Seinfeld, as one author framed it.  For it is our faith, when properly approached, which gives our Jewish identity, and particularly our Jewish values, their foundation.  Without that faith, the rest is built on shifting sand.  We cannot keep any synagogue building open for long if the primary purpose of our existence is merely to keep our buildings open.  We must mean more than that to our members. We must mean more than that to all those Jews out there who consider themselves “spiritual but not religious.”  We must become the spiritual home they are seeking.  We must become a center of vibrant and meaningful Jewish life.  The statistics of the Pew Study tell us where we are today so that we can better plan where we need to go if we are ever to see tomorrow.


[1] Schick, Marvin, “The Problem With the Pew Study”. Tablet Magazine

[2] Roth, Gabriel, “American Jews are Secular, Intermarried, and Assimilated.  Great News!”, Slate Magazine.

[3] Blech, Rabbi Benjamin, “The Vanishing American Jew?”, Aish.com.

[4] Gurevitz, Rabbi Rachel, “The Pew Study: What the Stats Can and Can’t Teach Us”, Rabbis Without Borders.

[5] Jacobs, Rabbi Rick, “Don’t Give Up on Jews Who Care About Being Jewish”, HaAretz.

[6] Glick, Caroline, “Why Bother Being Jewish?”, the Jerusalem Post.

[7] Ibid, Gurevitz.

Inside, Outside

September 15, 2013

It always does my heart good to step out onto the bimah on Rosh Hashanah Eve and look out into the sanctuary and see such a packed house!  Would that it could be so on every Shabbat.  But that’s a rabbi’s fantasy and we all know that the reality is much different.

When I was younger – like all young rabbis – I was convinced that I just needed to find the magic formula to make it so; that if I just tweaked the Shabbat service here and tweaked it there, made this change and that change, that eventually I would come upon the right formula that would bring the Jews flocking back to Shabbat, week in and week out filling the sanctuary as if it were the High Holy Days.  But, of course, I never succeeded.  Very few, if any rabbis, really do.

With the passage of time, I came to realize – all rabbis come to realize – that it is not necessarily that we failed but that there are forces at work here that are only minimally impacted by whatever efforts we take, no matter how heroic, to bring Jews to Shabbat.  That does not mean that we can’t do better.  God knows, we can, and many of us sincerely try!  Sometimes we even succeed in growing the Shabbat crowd.  Yet our success is measured not in miles but in inches; not in hundreds but in 5’s and 10’s.  That is indeed a victory, for more often than not, the reasons that draw you to tonight’s service in such large numbers, and keeps so many of you from our Shabbat services are not so much to be found in what happens on the bimah or in the sanctuary as they are to be found elsewhere.

So why do Jews pack the house on the High Holy Days?  Of course there is no one answer, for there are many reasons.  Different people come for different reasons.

There are some who come because they are seeking spiritual fulfillment.  Reciting the ancient prayers, chanting the sacred melodies, listening to the words of the Torah and Haftarah and the sounds of the shofar tomorrow, have the effect of opening up their souls and strengthening their sense of connection to God.

Others may have be drawn here by the power of memory.  Childhood memories of going to synagogue with their family on the High Holy Days wash over them.  So much so that returning to the synagogue for these services helps them to feel closer to those now gone.

Then there are others – many others – who have come here tonight because there are certain times during the course of the year when their sense of Jewish identity is stirred.  At other times it is there, but pretty much below the surface of their consciousness.  Yet at these times – times like the High Holy Days – it pushes its way up to the surface and ensnares them with a need to assert their Jewish self by coming to the synagogue and gathering – reuniting – with their fellow Jews and engaging in an act that is profoundly Jewish.  It is their Jewish fix, and their need for it is almost instinctual.

There are many reasons which draw us here tonight.  None of them are wrong.  They all are right in their own way.  Each of us has different needs which we seek to fill, and each of our reasons for coming here speak to those particular needs.

Yet we know, or have been told, that there was a time when Jewish life was much simpler.  Jews knew who they were as Jews, and they knew what they had to do as Jews, and they went ahead and did it.  In those days, the synagogue could be as full on Shabbat as it was on the High Holy Days, for Jews were Jews 24/7.  Their Jewish identity never slipped below the surface of their consciousness.  It was always right there on the top.  Some of us had parents like that, or grandparents, or even great grandparents.  But we are not them, just as our times are not their times.

We are truly the product of our own society; the one in which we grew up and the one in which we live in the present.  In so many ways, it has been a society of blessing for us.  As Jews, we do not live in fear as so many who came before us did.  While we may read or hear about the brutal hatred which marred the lives of so many of our ancestors rearing its ugly head in other lands, rarely, if ever, do we witness it in our own.  Here we feel fully accepted.   Clubs and schools and neighborhoods and jobs once closed to our fore-bearers, now welcome us with open arms, and have been doing so for some time.  As we find ourselves fitting so comfortably into the various aspects of the general society, while our sense of being Jewish does not leave us, it continues to fade deeper into our background.  We have come to feel that while being Jewish is part of our understanding of who we are, it is not nearly the totality of who we are, nor does it have to be.  We do not see this as a bad thing.  Indeed, we see it as a good thing, for it is wonderful to be accepted by others.

Yet our sense of Jewish identity can fade so deeply into our background and sink so far below the surface of our consciousness that it can almost disappear.  Not completely, but almost.  It can almost disappear to the point that we know that we are Jews but we are no longer sure of what that even means.  And there, for most of our days, it lies dormant until at special times, under special circumstances, it awakens and it struggles to assert itself, and for but a moment, our Jewish identity becomes important enough for us to do something about it, like going to synagogue, as we do on the High Holy Days.

Back in 1985, Herman Wouk wrote a book about this phenomenon.  He called it Inside, Outside.  It is the story of a American Jew in the mid-twentieth century – Israel David Goodkind – and his multi-generational family, born of Russian Jewish immigrants.  Raised in a household steeped in Orthodox Judaism, with every passing year David moves further and further from his Jewish roots.  He chooses Columbia over Yeshiva.  He becomes an attorney and chooses to be identified as I. David Goodkind, instead of Israel.  Later he even drops the “I”.  He winds up in Washington as a special advisor to the Nixon White House.  All the time he is struggling to figure out who he is as he is torn between two worlds – the inside and the outside; the inside world being the Jewish world in which he grew up and in which his family resides and the outside world being the secular world in which he conducts his professional life.  Which world will take primacy in his life?  How can he strike a healthy balance?

In so many ways, we are David Goodkind.   We have our “inside” – our Jewish side – and we have our “outside” – our secular side, and we, too, can struggle with how to juggle and balance them.  The very fact that we are Reform Jews, rather than Orthodox Jews, in and of itself makes a statement about some of the decisions we have made.  For us, living in the secular world is important.  We want to be in harmony with our non-Jewish neighbors.  We want to share in their lives and we want them to share in ours, and we see absolutely nothing wrong with that.  Yet at the same time, we are not willing or interested in letting go of our Judaism.  We acknowledge, and may even embrace, that side of our identity, and while we can sublimate it, we are not interested in eliminating it.  Yet the allure of the outside world can be so great that either consciously or subconsciously, we can let the inside world – the Jewish world – shrink within us to practically nothing.

So where do we go from here?  In fact here is a good place to start; here, on Rosh Hashanah, when our Jewish sense of self has broken through enough to bring us to the synagogue and has awakened within us the desire to be among Jews.  Here, when we have been reminded of the fact that a not so insignificant part of who we are is that we are Jews.

This is a good time for us to reclaim a better understanding of what it means for us – each of us individually – to be a Jew.  We know that we are Jewish, but do we know why or understand why it is still important to us?  It is one thing to have an identity but it is quite another to understand what that identity means to us.  That’s the quest that we need to start at this time of the year.

Coincidentally, this question of Jewish identity has been a topic of discussion for some months now with­in my own congregation.  We started talking about it in our Ritual Committee when one of our members proposed the idea of holding a Hebrew Naming Service.  That led us to questions like “What do you mean by a Hebrew Naming Service?” and “Why should we do one?”

As the person who proposed the idea pointed out, sad to say, many Reform Jews don’t have a Hebrew name.  In fact, many don’t even know that there is such a thing as a Hebrew name.  Yet a Hebrew name is very important for our own sense of Jewish identity.  It really is an “Inside, Outside” thing.  In a tra­ditional setting, Jews are known by their Hebrew name, while outside of the Jewish community, they are more commonly known by their secular name.  So, for example, to the world at large I am Henry Jay Karp, yet within the Jewish world I should be known as Chayim Ya’akov ben Shmuel V’Chavah.  In many synagogues, if I am called to bless the Torah, my Hebrew name would be the name they would use.  Indeed, on the day of my funeral, when the “Eil Malei Rahamim” prayer will be recited, it will include my Hebrew name as it offers my soul before the presence of God.  For it is our Hebrew name which encapsulates our Jewish identity, over and above our secular one.  To use our Hebrew name is to affirm who we are as Jews.

So why have a Hebrew Naming Service?  To affirm that we are Jewish and embrace our Jewish identity.  We have a handle on who we are as members of the secular society, for our secular name captures our secular uniqueness.  Is it not about time that we get a handle on who we are as members of our Jewish community; a uniqueness which we would be able to capture by taking on or affirming our Hebrew name?

Nor did our congregational conversations about Jewish identity conclude with our Ritual Committee’s discussions.  Rather this question has been carried forward to our Temple Board.  However, their discussion did not center on the question of the Jewish identity of the individual.  Rather it focused on the question of the Jewish identity of the group; in our case, the “group” meaning our congregation.

A significant question was posed.  What is Temple Emanuel’s Jewish identity?  Yes, we are a Reform con­gregation and have been so for almost as long as Reform Judaism has existed in America.  Yet, what does that mean?  Especially in this day and age, what does that mean?  We in Reform Judaism are proud to proclaim that we are a big tent; that because we believe in freedom of choice and personal autonomy, we welcome into our fold all sorts of Jews with widely varying approaches to Judaism, whether it be in the realm of theology, philosophy, or practice.  So, for example, praying exclusively in English is most certainly acceptable within the framework of Reform Judaism, but so is praying exclusively in Hebrew.

Today’s Reform Judaism is not monolithic but represents a wide spectrum of beliefs and practices.  While individuals within our congregation can stand anywhere they choose along that spectrum, there needs to come a point when the congregation itself figures out where we, as a congregation, stand along that spectrum.  Though we wish it could be otherwise, we cannot be all things to all people.  Rather, we must establish a concrete Reform Jewish identity for ourselves as a group, and that identity must, as accurately as possible, reflect the perspectives of as many of our congregants as possible.

Our Board has decided, and rightfully so, that we need to determine for ourselves what is the Jewish identity of Temple Emanuel.  We call the process “Defining Our Congregation’s Approach to Reform Judaism,” and we have a task force assigned to lead us through this process.  For this, we most certainly will need the cooperation and participation of our congregants.  Throughout the course of the year, we will be attempting to engage them in this process through surveys and discussions forums, and in whatever way we can so that they can share with us your perspectives on what makes our congregation a Reform congregation, and on how they would like to see our congregation exemplify our approach to Reform Judaism.

We gather on the High Holy Days because, for one reason or another, we have each of us felt the need to affirm that we are Jews and that our Jewish identity is in one way or another important to us.  Even though this heightened sense of being Jewish may only last us for the moment and may fade back into the background of our lives with the setting sun on Yom Kippur, let us grasp this opportunity to take advantage of our present heightened Jewish awareness so that it feeds our desire to grow our Jewish identity into something that we can more fully understand and appreciate.  Perhaps, just perhaps, it may even come to play a little bit of a larger role in our lives.  May our inside world grow even while our outside world thrives, and may they come to nurture each other.

The Gift of Birthright

June 28, 2013

Yesterday I went to the Moline airport to pick up my daughter, Helene.  She and 5 other young women from our congregation were returning from a Birthright trip to Israel.  What great satisfaction I experienced in learning that they all had a marvelous time!  What great pride I felt in the fact that our small Iowa synagogue fielded the largest contingent from any one congregation in their tour group.

For those Jews of my parents’ generation who lived through the days when Israel was born, and for those Jews of my own generation who lived through the days when Israel struggled for its very survival during the 6-Day War and the Yom Kippur War, and when she astounded the world with the rescue of th0se Jews held hostage by terrorists at the Entebbe airport in Uganda, feeling a bond of love and pride, and a strong commitment, to Israel was natural.  However, today we have an entire generation of Jews who have not experienced an Israel struggling to survive; who have not had to confront the very real possibility of there no longer being an Israel.  Many of them tend to take Israel for granted and fail to feel that strong connection between all Jews and the Jewish state.  For those Jews, Israel is little more than just another nation on the face of the planet.  They have never developed that sense of Israel as being a Jew’s home away from home; the land of our history and our heritage.  It is not even high on their priority list of places to visit.  Indeed, among them there are those Jews who are more ready to criticize Israel than defend her.  There may even be some embarrassment  attached to the fact that she is not perfect – that at times there is injustice within her borders – yet they as Jews are automatically identified with her.  That no nation is perfect, including our own; that no nation on earth has cured all its social ills, does not seem to mitigate that embarrassment.  At best, we have allowed a generation of Jews to arise for whom Israel is not a very important part of their Jewish identity.  At worst, we have allowed a generation of Jews to arise among whom there are to be found too many who spurn Israel and who paint her in the vilest of colors.

Then along came multimillionaire Edgar Bronfman, with his profound love of Israel and his vast financial resources.  He may not have been the first to recognize this dilemma but he was the first to take very serious action to address it.  He dug deep into his own pocket and gave birth to Birthright; that magnificent program which offers free 10-day tours of Israel for young Jewish adults, ages 18-26, who had not yet in their lives enjoyed the benefit of having participated in a formal youth tour of Israel.  His goal was simple.  Remove the barriers of cost and bring young Jews to Israel and trust that Israel will weave its spell upon them.  Raise up a generation of Jews in whom are rekindled that special loving connection with the land and the nation of Israel.  The attribute of Ahavat Tziyon – the Love of Zion/Israel – has always been an essential aspect of Jewish identity.  For a while, on too many contemporary Jews it has been lost.  It was Bronfman’s dream to help the future leaders of the Jewish community to rediscover it.

From its beginnings, Birthright has proven to be a great success.  In the early days, when it was totally funded by Edgar Bronfman, there were long waiting lists of applicants for these trips.  Since even his funds were limited, there were some who had to apply 2 or 3 times before they made it onto a trip.  But, thank God, so many Jewish organizations decided to join him in his efforts.  Under the principle that nothing succeeds like success, more and more funds from more and more sources became available.  Now the number of Birthright trips is remarkable and even more so, the number of young Jewish adults taking advantage of this wonderful opportunity is astounding.  They literally flock to Birthright.  The cynic could say, “What do you expect?  Who in their right mind would want to pass up a free trip to a foreign destination?”  But that very same cynic cannot deny the fact that the overwhelming majority of these young Jews may go for free but they return filled with a love of Israel that they will carry with them the rest of their lives.

Thanks to the vision and the efforts of Edgar Bronfman, a new generation of Jews is arising who once again carry Israel in their hearts.  For them, Israel will no longer just be another nation.  It will be their home away from home.  When Israel is in the news, they will pay attention.  When Israel is wronged, they will stand up for her.  When Israel is in the wrong, they will lovingly try to do their part to help her find a better path.  Though their Birthright trip may have been their first pilgrimage to Israel, it will not be their last.  They will return to her soil, most likely again and again.  When they marry, they will want to share it with their spouses.  When the become parents, they will want to share it with their children, and eventually with their grandchildren.  Why?  Because now they understand that no Jew’s sense of Jewish identity can truly be complete without having stood on that sacred soil; without having stood where the heroes and prophets of our people have stood; without having prayed where they prayed.

The Jewish people and the Jewish future owe Edgar Bronfman a profound debt of gratitude.