Posted tagged ‘Tri City Jewish Center’

Standing at Sinai Today

May 19, 2012

This coming week, my congregation will join with our neighboring synagogue, Congregation Beth Israel, to celebrate the festival of Shavuot through the ritual of Confirmation for four very special young ladies: Gabrielle Gellerman, Michelle Larsen, Shai Mally, and Rachel Whiskeyman.

Confirmation is a life cycle ceremony which came “late to the game.”  It was the creation of Reform Judaism, with the original intention being that it would replace Bar Mitzvah.  The desire of those early Reform Jewish leaders was to move Jewish education beyond the age of 13, for at that time Bar Mitzvah marked the end of Jewish education for most Jewish children.  By placing Confirmation at the conclusion of 10th grade, they added three years to our children’s religious school studies.  These are a very important three years when you consider that these three years mark a period of significant growth in a child’s intellectual and emotional development.  It is during these three years that our children become far more capable of maturely understanding the fine nuances and complexities of Jewish beliefs.  They have finally reached a stage in their lives when it is no longer necessary for Jewish educators to “dumb down” and simplify the teachings of our faith so that they can understand and appreciate them.

The maturity of the students by the age of Confirmation was a very important consideration in framing this ceremony.  It was precisely because of their increased maturity that our early leaders decided to place the Con­firmation service on the festival of Shavuot, the third of our three major Pilgrimage Festivals, when in ancient days, all Jews made pilgrimage to worship at the Temple in Jerusalem.  They chose Shavuot because of what Shavuot means to Jewish life.  It is nothing less than the festival of “Matan Torah,” of “the Giving of the Torah.”  It is the festival when we celebrate our people standing at the foot of Mount Sinai in order to receive the Torah directly from God.

Through their celebration of Shavuot, and particularly through the act of Confirmation, our young people stand at Sinai to receive the Torah.  With somewhere between 10 to 12 years of formal Jewish studies under their belts, these young people, with full intention and a body of knowledge based up their studies and experiences, stand at Sinai and say: “Yes!  I willingly and joyfully accept the responsibilities and the gift of Torah; the gift of living a Jewish life, Jewishly connected to God, the Jewish people, and the world.”

Confirmation is a beautiful thing.  However, it is easy for us to deceive ourselves into thinking that Confirmation, and the power of the festival of Shavuot, are only intended for our religious school’s graduating 10th graders.  In truth, it is not only for them but it is also for all of us as well.

On Yom Kippur morning, in Reform synagogues, we read from the Torah, out of the book of DEUTERONOMY: “Atem nitzavim hayom kulchem lifnei Adonai Eloheichem, rasheichm shifteichem, zikneichem v’shotreichem, kol ish Yisraeil.  Tapchem, n’sheichem, v’gercha asher b’kerev machanecha, meichotev eitzecha ad sho’eiv meimecha.  L’avrecha bivrit Adonai Elohecha uv’alato asher Adonai Elohecha koreit imach hayom… V’lo itchem levadchem Anochi koreit et a brit hazot v’et ha’alah hazot.  Ki et asher yeshno po imanu omeid hayom lifnei Adonai Eloheinu, v’eit asher einenu po imanu hayom.” – “You are standing this day, all of you, before Adonai your God – the heads of your tribes, your elders and officers, every man in Israel, your children, your women, and the stranger in the midst of your camp, from the one who chops your wood to the one who draws your water – to enter into a covenant with Adonai your God, and into His oath, which Adonai your God makes with you this day… But it is not only with you alone do I make this covenant and this oath.  For with those who are here standing with us this day before Adonai our God and also with those who are not here with us today.”

This is a very important text when it comes to appreciating the Jewish understanding of what transpired at Sinai.  In order to unpack and decode it, we have to understand that the rabbis viewed every single word of the Torah as being sacred and important.  There was no literary fluff.  Nor could the Torah contradict itself.  When it appears to do so, that contradiction needs to be resolved.

So what does this text teach us about that moment when our people stood at Sinai?

The first thing that the rabbis point out is that the text reads “Atem nitzavim hayom kulchem – You are standing this day, kulchem, all of you.”  Why, they asked, does the Torah include the word “kulchem – all of you”?  Would it not have been enough just to say “You are standing this day”?  What meaning does the word “kulchem – all of you” add to the text.  The answer that the rabbis give is that it means “all Jews”; not just the Jews alive at that time but also all the Jews throughout the generations, those of the past and those yet to be born.  Every Jew, for all time, stood at Sinai.

But if that is the case, then later on, there seems to be a contradiction in the text, for the Torah continues to read, “those who are here standing with us this day before Adonai our God and also with those who are not here with us today.”  If there are Jews who are “not here with us today,” then how can all Jews be there?  The rabbis resolved this apparent contradiction by stating that the Jews who were not there, were just not there physically.  However, they were there spiritually.  All Jews throughout the generations were there, standing at Sinai, spiritually, if not our bodies then at least our souls.

We – each and every one of us – were present for Matan Torah, for the Giving of the Torah.  I was there.  You were there.  Every single Jew in our congregation who is not with us tonight to observe Shabbat was there.  Every single Jew in the Quad Cities.  Every single Jew in the world.  We all stood at the foot of Sinai.  We all heard God’s voice recite the words of the Ten Commandments; the same words which our Confirmands will read out of the Torah scroll during their special service.  And even more important than having heard, we also accepted.

While Shavuot is the festival of Matan Torah – the Giving of the Torah – there is yet another side to that equation.  It is Kaballat Torah – The receiving, and accepting, of the Torah.  A gift can only be given if it is also accepted.  Otherwise it is not a gift.  As important as it was that God gave us the Torah, it was even more important that we accepted it.

When we talk about standing at Sinai, we are talking even more about our acceptance than about God’s giving.  It is nice that God wanted to give us a gift.  It was very generous of God.  But it is essential that we accepted that gift, and with it we accepted all the responsibility that goes hand-in-hand with that gift.

Shavuot is a time when we are supposed to remember all the commitments that we made when all those years ago, we stood, as disembodied souls, united with all the souls of all the Jews for all time, at the foot of Mount Sinai.  It is a time when not just our children but also we, ourselves, are expected to confirm our devotion to the fulfillment of those commitments.  On Shavuot, we stand with all Jews, and we stand before God, and we say: “Yes!  I am a Jew, and I will live my life as a Jew, in thought and in deed, in beliefs and in values.”

Yet we also must remember that the values of Shavuot were never intended to be bottled up into one holiday celebration.  The holiday is to reinforce for us a lifelong, day-to-day commitment.  Just as our commitment to freedom should not be limited to the observance of Passover, and our commitment to repentance and atonement should not be limited to the observance of Yom Kippur, so our commitment to living our lives guided by the principles of Torah should not be limited to our observance of Shavuot.  Rather, from Shavuot, we should be renewing our sense of how beautiful and inspiring it was to stand at the foot of Sinai, in the presence of God, and to hear God’s commanding voice, and to be filled with that strong sense of this is how I wish to lead my life.  If we can accomplish that, then perhaps – just perhaps – we can find ourselves every day – every morning we wake up – filled with wonder of standing at Sinai.

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A Pebble in the Ocean

May 9, 2012

What do the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, Israel, Australia, Indonesia, Taiwan, Brazil, the Russian Federation, Saudi Arabia, Bulgaria, Papua New Guinea, Chile, Kenya, & India have in common?  They are just some of the 31 nations in which my internet blog has been read.  No.  I am not bragging – well maybe just a little.  Indeed, I was as surprised as you are, and maybe more so, when I checked the statistics of my blog only to discover that at least some of what I have written here in Iowa has been read in as many as 31 nations; in many places that I never in my wildest dreams believed that my thoughts and words would ever reach.  But there it was, staring me in the face, with both a list of the various countries  and a color coded map of the world showing that far more of the surface of this planet have been touched by my writing than remains untouched.

Quite some time ago, New York Times journalist Thomas Friedman wrote a book about “globalization.”  He told the reader that we have to come to grips with the fact that our world is truly shrinking; that we on Planet Earth are far more interconnected then we choose to assume.  He was right on target!  The international coverage received by my blog is but one small testimony to that truth.  But you may be further surprised to learn that what Thomas Friedman was espousing in modern times was anticipated by a Hasidic rabbi in the 19th century.  In TALES OF THE HASIDIM, Martin Buber shares some of the teachings of Rabbi Avraham Yaakov of Sadagora, who died in 1883.  Rabbi Avraham said:  “Everything can teach us something, and not only what God has created.  What man has made also has something to teach us… One Hasd asked dubiously, ‘What can we learn from a telephone?’  What we say here is heard there.”  From the statistics, it would seem that the readership of my blog testifies to the truth of Rabbi Avraham’s, and Thomas Friedman’s, teachings.  What is said here is heard there.

The point is that what each and every one of us say and do can, and indeed does, have an international impact.  We can, and do, make a difference in this world.  All too often we think of ourselves as small and insignificant when it comes to changing the world around us.  But in truth we are like the pebble that is dropped into the ocean.  Being so dropped, the pebble does create ripples which travel outward and ultimately  result in changing the very face of the entire ocean; whose impact is felt as far away as a foreign shore.  Like the pebble, our words and our deeds travel outward, and continue to travel, traversing great distances and touching countless people; people whose names and faces are completely unknown to us.  When we think we do not matter, we are merely selling ourselves short, for we do matter.  We matter greatly.

Recently, the students of my Jewish community’s joint religious school packaged meals for a program called Kids Against Hunger.  In the course of one Sunday morning, they packed the equivalent of 2,880 meals.  When you consider that the ideal goal is that every human being should consume 3 meals a day, every day, then doing the math, we discover that to feed one person adequately for one year, we need to provide 1,095 meals.  In the course of a morning, our small religious school provided almost enough food to feed one person for two years or two people for one year.  The representative of the Kids Against Hunger program informed our students that this program recently reached the 1 million meal mark.  In other words, they have created enough meals to feed over 913 people for a year.  This program has made a difference.  Our children, in the course of 90 minutes on one Sunday morning have made a difference.

Each and every one of us can make a real difference in this world.  Whether or not we do so is purely up to us.  Each and every one of us must come to recognize that it is within our power to change the world for the better, and then proceed to choose to work to bring such change into our world.

Terrorism Today: Up Close and Personal

November 8, 2010

In August of 1970, at Kennedy Airport in New York, I boarded a plane headed for Israel.  I was not alone.  There were about 60 other young men, some with wives, who boarded that plane with me.  All of us were headed to Jerusalem, where we would be the first full class of rabbinic students from the Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion who would spend their entire first year of study in Israel.  With us as well was a handful of upper classmen who had taken it upon themselves to enhance their own rabbinic studies by spending a year in Israel.

Two of the young men aboard that flight were Lawrence Edwards and Michael Zedek.  After the year in Israel, Larry would be among those who joined me in continuing our rabbinic studies at the New York campus.  After ordination we lost touch with each other until the summer of 2008, when we found ourselves together again in Washington, D.C.; the only rabbis invited to participate in a week-long seminar hosted by the Church Relations Department of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.  It was a great feeling to renew our old ties.  Michael was one of those upper classmen I spoke about.  Sunday afternoons in Jerusalem usually found me in the school library, struggling with researching a major theology paper upon which a significant part of my future as a student in the school would hang.  On one such afternoon, I felt the need to have my work reviewed by a neutral but informed party.  I looked around the room in search of one of those upper classmen, and there was Michael.  Up until then, our relationship had been cordial.  Yet in the course of that afternoon it evolved from cordial to friendship. While after Israel, Michael would return to his studies in Cincinnati, our friendship would continue and flourish.

Considering my ties to both of these men, one can imagine how taken aback I was when I read the news of the recent Yemenite terrorist plot to send a mail bomb to a Chicago synagogue, only to learn that the rabbi of the targeted congregation is none other than Rabbi Larry Edwards, and that his congregation, which has no home of its own, is hosted by a larger congregation whose rabbi is none other than Rabbi Michael Zedek.  All this is only compounded by the fact that this might very well be the first time pro-Palestinian terrorists have targeted a Midwest synagogue, nevertheless one that is a mere two and a half hours away from my home.

For many years, I have been one of those who have taken the threat of terrorism to Jewish institutions very seriously.  I believe that there are forces out there that truly have it in for the Jews and that as a result, Jews and Jewish institutions find themselves more at risk than others.  It has been 11 years since the infamous “Summer of Hate” (1999), which saw a string of hate crimes perpetrated by members of white “Christian” supremacist groups, many of them directed against Jews and Jewish institutions.  Much to my chagrin, for the most part, too many of my fellow Jews have chosen to forget that threat.  It was during those days that my own congregation instituted the practice of engaging off duty police officers to patrol our grounds whenever we held a worship service or our religious school was in session.  Now, every so often, we hear voices raised, questioning the need for such protection.  Indeed, there have been times of late when I feel as though there are those who now perceived of me as an alarmist and perhaps somewhat of a crackpot, if not worse, whenever I speak of such dangerous possibilities.  Even when I point out last year’s attempted bombings of two synagogues in Riverdale, New York, the failed Times Square bombing, and the murder of the security guard at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum by a white supremacist, not to mention the terrorist attacks in Mumbai, India of two years ago which included a Chabad center as one of their targets, I am met with the dismissive responses of, “But that could never happen here.  They would never do that to us.”

So often have my concerns been minimized that I have not been able to help but wonder myself whether or not I have gone somewhat over the top on this issue.  But just when I find myself struggling with my own self doubt, there is an account in the news of another attempt to do mayhem to a Jewish institution by those who hate us, with the recent news of the terrorist attempt, so close to my home, targeting the Chicago congregations served by two of my old friends being just one more example.  In this latest attempted attack, the intended victims are not strangers in some distant city.  They are friends who live and work just down the road from where I live.  Indeed the issue of terrorism and Jew hatred has not been as up close & personal for me since 1993 when Neo-Nazis, in response to the release of the film “Schindler’s List.” sent post cards to my congregation, the local Jewish Federation, the Davenport police and the FBI, threatening to blow up both my home and my synagogue, along with the offices of the Jewish Federation.

I suspect that my friends Larry Edwards and Michael Zedek, and their congregations, never seriously believed that their congregations would be the targets of a terrorist attack.  I am sure that while they entertained the possibility, still they felt that the odds were greatly against it.  That is normal.  In fact, that is how I feel.  While I entertain the possibility that my congregation and the other institutions of my Jewish community someday might be targeted by those who hate Jews, still I believe that the odds are greatly against it.  That being said, that chance – that possibility – no matter how remote, still exists.  It is that possibility, no matter how slight, which should inform the decisions and actions of every synagogue and Jewish institution.  While it should not paralyze us Jews with fear, it should motivate all Jews to take such dangers seriously enough so that we take wise steps to prevent them.  For while as Jews, we should not live in fear, neither should we bury our heads in the sand, denying the possibilities of dangers which may confront us.  In all of this, the Jewish attitude should be “hope for the best but prepare for the worst.”  That is the prudent course to take.  That is the responsible course to take.  For if Jewish institutions choose the path of inaction – the path of failing to defend our people either because of a refusal to accept the possible danger, or worse yet, because considering the odds, they do not wish to incur such expenses – then God forbid, should some ill befall such a Jewish institution, bringing injury and perhaps even death in its wake, then some of the burden of guilt will rest upon the shoulders of those who chose to ignore the possibility of danger as well as upon those of the attackers.

It is a sad thing to have to admit that even though we now live in the 21st century, there is still too much truth to the old Yiddish expression, “Schwer zu zein ein Yid! – It is difficult to be a Jew!”

Why I Love Being a Reform Jew: Part 1

October 21, 2010






Over the past several months, as my congregation has explored the possibility of merger with the other local synagogue – the Tri City Jewish Center – a congregation which used to be affiliated with the Conservative movement but now is not affiliated with any movement, one of the issues which has been discussed, and over which there will yet be a good deal more discussion, has been that of whether or not the resulting congregation should affiliate with a national/international umbrella organization, and if so, which one.  As part of the merger exploration process, the task force in charge of moving the process forward submitted to the two rabbis a series of questions, the rabbinic responses to which would be published, distributed, and discussed.  One of their questions sought our opinions on the issue of whether or not the new congregation should affiliate with any particular movement, and if so, which one and why.  In my response I stated that I favor belonging to the Union for Reform Judaism; the North American organization of Reform synagogues.  In support of that position, I offered all sorts of organizational reasons as to why we should belong to the Reform movement.  However, now I would like to take the opportunity to share my personal reasons for being a Reform Jew and wishing to remain one.

In order to better understand from whence I speak, I need to wax a bit biographical.  Many in my congregation and in the Quad Cities Jewish community assume that I was born and raised a Reform Jew.  Well, that was not the case.  When my mother was a child, her family belonged to a Reform congregation, but her parents were not very involved.  My father was raised as an Orthodox Jew.  In fact, whenever I conduct our congregation’s B’nei Mitzvah Family Program I tell the participants about my father’s traditional Bar Mitzvah, which took place during a weekday morning minyan, on either a Monday or a Thursday, when Torah is read.  He went to services with his father, was called to bless the Torah, and after services enjoyed a light oneg of sponge cake and schnapps – his first taste of alcohol, other than Shabbat and Passover wine of course – and then went off to school.  As an adult, he had no love of Orthodox Judaism, and wanted no part of it.  This is somewhat surprising considering the fact that in Europe his grandfather was a very important Orthodox educator.  While in my youth I did not understand the source of his anger, today, as an adult, I have to wonder whether or not his animosity toward Orthodox Judaism had something to do with the fact that his beloved Uncle Jack – the son of this renown Orthodox teacher and the man who took primary responsibility for my father and his sisters after their parents died – married outside of the faith, and therefore was rejected by the very same Orthodox Jews who honored the memory of Uncle Jack’s father.  Whatever my father’s reasons, as a result my parents were among the many New York Jews who were unaffiliated.  For them, being Jewish was simply a title, not a life style.  In fact, for a while our family even celebrated Christmas.  We had lights on our house and a tree in our living room, with presents under it on Christmas morning.  If you do not believe me, ask my wife, for she has stored away a photo of young Henry Karp sitting on the lap of a department store Santa and has threatened to reveal it to the world, should I ever become too arrogant or self-righteous about my Jewish identity.

There is a certain irony that it was my mother – this woman who was raised as a minimalist Reform Jew – who was the one who came to feel that there needed to be more to our Jewish life.  So when my sister (who was 6 years older than me) came of religious school age, my mother insisted that we join a synagogue and send her to religious school.  My father acquiesced, but made it clear that he would have nothing to do with it, other than pay the bills.  So my mother enrolled us in the closest synagogue; an Orthodox one.  My mother, who was one of those lovers of organizational involvement, dove into membership in the Sisterhood and support of the school.  But my father, true to his word, never entered the building until the day of my sister’s Bat Mitzvah.  While I had entered the building on several occasions with my mother, I never attended a worship service until that Bat Mitzvah.

Now that Bat Mitzvah was not like the ones we contemporary liberal Jews are used to.  It was a group event, somewhat like our Confirmation services.  It took place on a Sunday afternoon, at a time which did not conflict with traditionally scheduled services.  The girls all wore identical dresses.  There was no Torah blessing or reading.  In fact the bulk of the service was in English.  And after it was over, so was our affiliation with that synagogue, my father insisting that I would never be sent to that synagogue for my Jewish education.

It was but a short time later that my parents were approached by some neighbors – Alan & Muriel Billig – who were out recruiting for members for a newly established Reform congregation; Judea Reform Temple (later to be renamed Temple Judea).  With great enthusiasm, the Billigs described how their form of Judaism differed from Orthodoxy.  They must have been successful, for my parents agreed to give it a shot.  The congregation was small.  It met in a loft; a set of rented rooms, on the second floor, over a stationary store, a Chinese restaurant, and a kosher butcher shop, on a busy Bronx commercial street.  Right outside the windows, the elevated subway trains rumbled by constantly.  I remember clearly the first time I entered this synagogue.  Right inside the glass entry door there was a long set of stairs.  No sooner was I through the doors and starting to climb the stairs then I took of my hat – as I had been taught that was the polite thing do when entering a building.  But my father stopped me, saying, “Henry, in a synagogue you are supposed to wear your hat.”  Soon both he and I would learn differently.  Thus began my life as a Reform Jew.

The members of that synagogue quickly became like family to us.  Both of my parents got deeply involved in its activities while I quickly made friends in the religious school, some of whom I still keep in contact with today.  It seemed like everyone came to Shabbat services.  Of course in those days, all Reform congregations were what we today call classical Reform.  Services were conducted primarily in English, using the old Union Prayer Book.  To listen to the adults speak about our services, it was clear that they loved the fact that they could understand the prayers they were offering and were far more able to participate in reading along.  They also loved the fact that men and women sat together.  As for us children, we sat together too, usually close to the first row, with parents sitting behind us, ever ready to whack us on the back of our heads should we become too talkative.

While at the time, I fully appreciated the warm and wonderful life we had at that synagogue, it would not be until I was older and more comprehending that I came to realize that what made the life of that congregation so wonderful was its spirit of inclusiveness, as well as its refusal to be Judaically judgmental of its members.  It was not only in that particular synagogue, but it was and is inherent in Reform Judaism itself.  All are welcomed, Jews and non-Jewish spouses alike.  Members aren’t judged by how closely they adhere to the particulars of Jewish tradition but rather, they are encouraged to discover for themselves those aspects of the tradition which are particularly meaningful to them, and then they are valued for their efforts in that search, whatever its outcome.  For in Judea Reform Temple in those days, and in Reform Judaism itself, both then and now, there was and is plenty of space for the diversity of individuality when it comes to the practice of Judaism.  So when it came time for my Bar Mitzvah, I wanted to wear both a kipah (yarmulke) and a talit, both of which were never seen in our synagogue.  My father wanted me to wear neither.  Ultimately we compromised, and I wore the talit without the kipah.  And to top it off, my father was allowed to audio tape the service on Shabbat.  Where else but in a Reform synagogue would such choices be allowed?  This was the Reform Judaism of my youth.

In Part 2, I will share with you how the emotional bonds to the Reform Judaism of my youth were only to be strengthened and deepened as I grew to intellectually appreciate the values and principles of the movement.

Long Days, Short Years

May 20, 2010

I wrote this piece two years ago, as a synagogue newsletter article.  From the day I first penned it, I have had a particular affection for it and always have wanted to provide it with a wider audience.  So now I wish to share it with you, here on my blog, in hopes that it may be read by some who never got the chance to do so before.  Taking an author’s privilege, I have made some slight alterations to it and have made it current in its references to the passage of time in my life.

There was that one evening that I found myself sitting in the library of the Tri City Jewish Center, in Rock Island.  It was 7:10 p.m. and I was waiting for people to arrive for a 7:00 p.m. meeting.  Tapping my fingers impatiently on the library table, I was filled with the thought that it had been a long day and I was more than ready to see it end.

Sitting there, the thought of long days brought to mind a piece of wisdom shared with me by a good friend on the day of Shira’s (my eldest daughter) Brit Chayim ceremony.  As my wife’s and my parenting adventure was just getting started, he told me that parenthood was a matter of long days and short years.  I have never forgotten that statement and to this day I often share it with new parents as we plan for welcoming their first born into the Jewish community.  With each passing year, I find the truth of that statement increasingly reaffirmed.  With my eldest having received her master’s degree and my youngest (Helene) in high school, at times I am overwhelmed by the thought of how long were several of those days yet how short were all of those years.  Nora am I alone in this.  Ask any parent who has sent a child off to college.

As I sat in that library, waiting for the rest of that committee to arrive, eager myself to end the day, it likewise struck me that my friend’s wisdom is not restricted to parenthood.  For what is true of parenthood is true of life itself.  Our lives are a matter of long days and short years.  For me, many are the days that I do not return home until 9:00 or 10:00 p.m., sometimes even later.  Yet here I sit, 60 years old, having been both a rabbi and a husband for 35 years, having been a parent for 29 years, and rabbi of Temple Emanuel for almost 25 years.  Still I cannot fathom where the time has flown.  It seems like only yesterday that I arrived in Iowa; like only yesterday that Shira was born; like only yesterday that my wife and I stood under the chupah; like only yesterday that I was ordained; like only yesterday that I wa a child myself living with my parents, my grandmother, and my sister on Astor Avenue in the Bronx, going to school, sleigh riding down the Wickham Avenue hill on winter afternoons and playing baseball on the green space next to Pelham Parkway and going to Orchard Beach in the summer.  I am not an old man, though at times I may sound like one.  Still, with more years behind me than ahead, I am astounded by how all my long days have amassed themselves into all those short years.

It gives one pause to consider what really counts in this life.  The years are so short that we must never undervalue how precious is our time on this earth.  Yet when it comes to our days, while they may be long, to judge them solely, or primarily, by their length is a mistake; a profound mistake.  At the end of each day, the question we should be asking is not “How long was it?” but rather “How good was it?  How much did we accomplish during it?”  and most important of all, “How much of a positive difference did we make in the course of it?”  Long days are not so bad if, at the end of those days we can say to ourselves, “My efforts today have made a difference for the better.  I have touched the lives of others, and by so doing have their lives a little easier or a bit more pleasant.  I have not only dwelt upon my own needs and interests but also have made a little investment in a brighter future for all people.  I have spread at least some seeds of love and caring, gentleness and kindness, knowledge and wisdom, insight and inspiration.  I have been grateful for the people I have encountered and conducted myself in such a manner that just perhaps they are likewise grateful for having encountered me.”

Whether or not we are of a theological bent, if we live our lives in such a manner, then we are truly God’s servants on earth, spreading God’s messages of love, respect, and responsibility.  As our short years fly by, may we be able to reflect on them with pride, knowing that we filled them with quality living.

Chabad in the Quad Cities

January 9, 2010






Since 2004, the Jewish community of the Quad Cities has been attempting to deal with the introduction and activities of Chabad in our town.  Unfortunately, the coming of Chabad has generated far more controversy than stimulation in our Jewish lives.  Recently, our local Jewish Federation was thrown into a crisis over this issue.  On Erev Shabbat, January 8, 2010, I delivered a sermon addressing this matter.  I wish to share with my readers an EXTENDED version of this sermon.

UPDATE ON CHABAD AND THE JEWISH FEDERATION

Yesterday, the Board of the Quad Cities Jewish Federation received an email from our Executive Director, Allan Ross, stating that the Federation had just averted a crisis concerning Chabad.  I do not exaggerate when I say that the crisis in question had a very real potential to tear apart the Federation and perhaps even destroy it.

However, before I share with you the nature of that crisis and how it was averted, or at least averted for the moment, I need to take you on a journey; a journey down the road to this crisis.  For before I can share the crisis itself, I need to share the history which led up to it.

But even before I can do that, I need to rectify an important misconception about myself.  In our community, we have had a lot of controversy surrounding Chabad, and admittedly I have been, and will continue to be, a key player in those struggles.  However, there are those who believe that I am simply anti-Chabad; that it is part of my essential nature as a Reform Jew and a Reform rabbi to oppose them.  That is the misconception that I wish to clear up.  While it is true that at this point in time I have significant issues with Chabad, it was not always so.  Indeed, there was a time when I was a friend to Chabad.

Back in the 70’s, as a rabbinic student intern in a large New York suburban congregation, I used to take my Confirmation classes – classes of over 60 students – to Crown Heights, Brooklyn in order to spend a weekend – to spend Shabbat – with the Lubavitcher Hasidim.  Indeed I met and prayed with Menahem Mendel Schneerson, the last Lubavitcher rebbe.

While serving as a rabbi here in the Quad Cities, there was a time when I definitely was Chabad friendly.  There was a time when I invited Chabad representatives from Postville to come into our synagogue and conduct family education programs.  They conducted a program on the baking of matzah and another on the making of a shofar.  Then there was the time when I invited them to do a program on the making of Torah scrolls.  They cancelled on me twice, with the last cancellation coming less than an hour before the scheduled event.  Yes, I was angry.  Those of you who know me well can imagine just how angry I was.  But still, I did not hold it against Chabad in general.  I attributed this problem to the fact that the Chabad rabbi in question was simply a jerk.

When University of Iowa journalism professor Stephen Bloom published his best selling book, POSTVILLE, I reviewed that book from this very bimah.  Some of you might even remember hearing that review.  I panned the book.  I criticized the author for engaging in excessive exaggeration.  I accused him promoting harmful stereotypes; stereotypes both of Hasidic Jews and of Iowans.  I stated that if the images he drew of the Hasidic Jews of Postville were anywhere nearly as inaccurate as the images he drew of Iowans in general, then what he wrote at least bordered on bigotry, if it did not actually cross that line.  But I now admit that I was wrong.  If I were to review that book today, it would be substantially different.

The point is that I did not start off being an opponent of Chabad.  However over the years, the circumstances, and particularly the circumstances in our own community, have been such that I have become one.

While I am certainly troubled by some of the more global issues concerning Chabad, I will not focus on them tonight.  There is no question but that they do contribute to my attitudes on this subject.  I am deeply disturbed by that major segment of Chabad that professes that the late Lubavitcher Rebbe was the Messiah and that he will return.  I truly believe that such a profession carries them outside the realm of Judaism and into a faith all their own, like Christianity, which of course holds similar views about the person of Jesus.

As you all know, the legal and ethical abuses perpetrated by the Chabad owners and managers of the Agriprocessors Kosher Meat processing plant in Postville offend me to the very core.  Their actions were completely contrary to everything I understand about how our Judaism instructs us to live our lives.  I am proud that I was the one who authored the resolution of the Central Conference of American Rabbis which addresses the issue of adhering to Jewish ethical standards as well as ritual standards in the preparation of kosher food.

But I will not dwell on those global topics now. Rather I wish to dedicate the remainder of my remarks to the activities of Chabad within our local community and why those activities have led to a crisis which threatened to undo our Federation.

Our journey began in the Fall of 2004.  It was a Monday, my day off, when I received a phone call from our Federation’s Executive Director.  He had a visitor in his office; a representative of Chabad.  This man had come to the Quad Cities to “explore” the possibility of creating a Chabad presence in our community.  He wanted to meet with me.  I told him that while I could not meet with him on that day, I would be happy to do so on the next.  However, since he was only here for a day, we wound up meeting on the phone.

It was during that phone conversation that I witnessed a the very first hint of the problems that would quickly arise between our two local synagogues and Chabad.  The Chabad representative told me, as he told others, that it was the intention of Chabad to work in cooperation with the local synagogues.  They would not be replicating the services provided by the synagogues nor would they be recruiting from among the synagogue members.  He said that Chabad possessed a list of over 2,000 names of unaffiliated Jews living in our small Jewish  community.  This, and this only, would be their target population.  Of course, every local Jew with whom he spoke – myself included – told him that he was sorely mistaken.  While there are unaffiliated Jews in our community, the numbers are not anywhere near what Chabad projected.   Indeed, the total number of Jews in our community – unaffiliated and affiliated together – were not anywhere near what Chabad projected.   Still he persisted in insisting that these numbers were accurate.  So I pressed him on Chabad’s commitment not to recruit from current synagogue members.

I spoke to him of the Jewish legal principle of Hasagat G’vul, the respecting of organizational boundaries.  This is a principle which governs inter-congregational relations in most, if not all, Jewish communities around the world.  Simply put, local congregations agree not to recruit from those who are members of other local congregations and rabbis agree not to provide rabbinic services for other rabbis’ congregants or take actions which would undermine the relationships between other rabbis and their congregants.  Unaffiliated Jews, of course, are fair game for everyone.  But when it comes to affiliated Jews, it is strictly hands off.  It is in this way that local congregations are able to establish and maintain cooperative and hopefully harmonious relations, for it is important to have confidence that when congregations work together they are not unwittingly providing opportunities for one congregation to prey on the membership of others.  Such a predatory environment would be toxic to the well being of any Jewish community.

It was his response to my pushing this issue which sent up red flags.  Of course, he assured me that Chabad would not be doing this.  But then he went on to say that he did not understand why I was so concerned.  After all, if Chabad was going to be drawing members away from any congregation in our community, it would be from the Tri City Jewish Center, the traditional congregation, and not from my Reform congregation.  After all, Chabad’s form of Judaism would be more attractive to traditional Jews than to Reform Jews.  So why was I worried.  Indeed, in many communities, Chabad enjoys a wonderful partnership with Reform congregations and Reform rabbis.  It was as if he was giving me a wink and nod, implying that we could be partners in the dismantling of the Tri City Jewish Center, and it would be to the benefit of both of our organizations.  Suffice it to say that he did not evoke from me the reaction he obviously anticipated.  I would have no part in such a conspiracy.

It would be a few months before Chabad would actively pursue their plans of establishing a presence in our community.  In December they held their first community informational meeting.  They held it at the Blackhawk Hotel.  Just as I had feared, it was not their list of unaffiliated Jews who received phone calls, inviting them to attend, but rather affiliated Jews from both congregations.  They held their second meeting on Tuesday, January 11, 2005 – five years ago this coming Monday – and I attended.  There were no unaffiliated Jews there.  All, with the exception of myself, were members of the Tri City Jewish Center.  Once again, in my conversation with the Chabad rabbi that evening, I pressed for adherence to the principle of Hasagat G’vul; respecting institutional boundaries.  This time I was told that this principle does not apply to them for they are not “in the same business” as the local synagogues.

In March of that year, leaders from our two congregations and the Federation held the first of several formal meeting with Chabad leadership, in order to work out our differences.  That particular meeting was with Rabbi Yossie Jacobson, the chief Chabad rabbi of Iowa.  We told Rabbi Jacobson that of course we understood and respected the fact that this is a free country and, as such, Chabad most certainly was free to set up shop wherever it choses.  However, if Chabad was going to come to our community, we wanted the Chabad organization to respect the same rules of the road as are followed by our other local Jewish organizations including the halachic principle of Hasagat G’vul.

At first, Rabbi Jacobson said that the principle of Hasagat G’vul should not apply to Chabad because Chabad is not a synagogue.  Since it is not a synagogue, it cannot be considered in the same category as the local congregations nor could it be held to the same standards of behavior.  I pointed out that, like a synagogue, Chabad was intending to offer worship, study, and communal activities.  Therefore, if it looks like a duck, walks like a duck, and quacks like a duck, you have to treat it as if it is a duck.  As odd a duck as Chabad might be, for the well being of our community, it still must abide by inter-synagogue rules.  When Rabbi Jacobson did come around to stating that he was not adverse to abiding by such principles, it was pointed out to him that these principles were already being violated, in that the Chabad rabbi from Iowa City was providing Bar Mitzvah training to a child whose family belonged to the Tri City Jewish Center.  While Rabbi Jacobson stated that he would investigate the matter and put an end to such violations, when all was said and done, he took absolutely no action.

When Rabbi Shneur Cadaner, our local Chabad rabbi, arrived in our community, matters did not get better.  In fact they got worse.  Soon after his arrival, Rabbi Cadaner would say one thing to Rabbi Michael Samuel (of the Tri City Jewish Center)  and another thing to me.  Only when Rabbi Samuel and I talked did we begin to realize that we were getting mixed messages.  We tried to resolve these differences by asking Rabbi Cadaner to meet with the two of us together.  However, Rabbi Cadaner insisted that he would not meet with us together, but only alone.  He claimed that he did not want us to “gang up on him.”  When one of my congregants made a similar request of him – that he sit down with the rabbis of the two synagogues and work out our differences – he responded by saying “I don’t believe in organized crime.”

It was not long before Rabbi Cadaner started approaching Jews who belonged to one congregation or the other.  He would visit them in the hospital.  He would visit them in their homes.  He would visit them at their work places.  Now many people would say, “What’s wrong with that?”  Let me explain.  There are valid reasons why rabbinic professional ethics forbids rabbis from performing pastoral services for the congregants of other rabbis.  Those reasons involve both the the possibility of congregants receiving conflicting pastoral counseling as well as the unfair psychological impact of such visits.

The dangers of conflicting pastoral counseling are very real and very serious.  My own experience with with the Chabad rabbi in such a situation serves as an excellent example.  One of my congregants was a wonderful woman who did much for our congregation and our community, and was beloved by all.  Unfortunately, one morning she collapsed.  She was rushed to the hospital where it was determined that she had major arterial blockages.  While the doctors did their best to clear them, her brain was deprived of oxygen for too long and she was basically brain dead.  So she lay as a vegetable in the Intensive Care Unit, with her loving family and friends continually by her side.  When it was clear that her situation was hopeless, her family decided to accede to her stated wishes and remove her from life support.  Enter the Chabad rabbi.  He proceeded to tell her youngest son that Judaism considers it a sin to remove her life support; that the family needs to seriously reconsider its decision.  This was in direct contradiction to the supportive counseling which they had received from me; counsel which had a strong foundation in our sacred texts.  Fortunately, the family was strong willed and determined enough to set aside the Chabad rabbi’s counsel.  Yet strong willed or not, who in that situation needs to be subjected to that type of doubt and guilt?  When, later that day, I learned of what this Chabad rabbi had done, I felt deeply violated!  How much more so must that family have felt it?

That type of violation is manifest as well when one rabbi takes it upon him or herself to make uninvited visits to the congregants of another rabbi, as did and does our local Chabad rabbi.  For when a rabbi visits his or her congregants in the hospital or when they are homebound, while the congregants do appreciate those visits, still in a way they also expect it.  After all, part of their rabbi’s job is to visit them.  However, when another rabbi visits – a rabbi who is not “paid” to do so by these congregants’ dues – then that visit tends to be considered especially virtuous.  “It was nice that my rabbi visited me but how wonderful of this other rabbi to come and visit me as well!  After all, he did not have to do that!”  Such visits do unfairly interfere with the relationships between rabbis and their congregants.

Just as such actions interfere with the relationships between rabbis and their congregants, so do they interfere with the relationships between congregations and their congregants for, right or wrong, congregants start feeling that they are being better serviced by the other rabbi and his institution than by their rabbi and their congregation.

Along these lines, another serious bone of contention has been Chabad’s insistence upon sending publicity flyers to members of the two synagogues; sending these flyers without specifically being asked by these congregants to be included on the Chabad mailing list.  This is but another form of illicit congregant solicitation.  Once again, it is a standard of inter-congregational relations that synagogues do not include members of other congregations on their mailing lists unless those individuals have specifically requested to be included.  This, too, is an issue of creating a predatory environment.

When it comes to our local Chabad rabbi, he claims that he only sends his publicity materials to the names and addresses on the list of Jews which Chabad purchased in advance of its coming to our community.  However we know that is not an accurate statement.  There is evidence that he has used, without permission, the Temple’s membership list, if not the membership list of the Tri City Jewish Center as well.  How do we know this?  Because Betty Cottrell, our non-Jewish retired office administrator, whose name and address appears in our Temple Directory, receives Chabad mailings.  There is very little, if any chance, that her name appears on any other compiled Jewish list.  The odds are extremely high that the only way that Chabad could have gotten her name on its mailing list was by taking it off of our mailing list.  And that was done without our permission.  That is highly unethical.

It could also be considered unethical when the local Chabad rabbi started befriending on Facebook the children of families belonging to the two synagogues.  To him, these children were complete strangers, yet as Jews they seemed to be legitimate targets.  Of course, anyone can choose to befriend anyone they want on Facebook, but at the least, his doing this was more than a tad creepy.

Inappropriate congregant visitations and recruitment have just been the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the transgressions of our local Chabad rabbi.

There have been those occasions when he has misrepresented himself to the general community as speaking for all Quad City Jews.  Soon after his arrival, he went around to several local businesses, soliciting paid ads in a calendar he was producing, telling these business people that his was the ONLY calendar which would be published in the Jewish community.  He said that, in spite of the fact that both of the synagogues also distribute calendars.  Indeed, at that time, the calendar of the Tri City Jewish Center included paid advertisements.  This type of  inappropriate approach to the non-Jewish community repeated itself during his first winter holiday season in our community.  It was then that he went to the officials at the Moline City Hall and insisted that since they had a Christmas tree in their lobby, the Jewish community demands that they display a Hanukkah menorah as well.  In this, he was not only not speaking for the entire Jewish community but he was, in fact, speaking in a manner contrary to the generally held position of our Jewish community; a position strongly in support of the separation of church and state; one which definitely would not want to see a Jewish religious symbol displayed on public property.  The damage done by this request was only compounded by the fact that he delayed for so long in removing that menorah from their lobby that the Moline city leaders decided not to have any holiday displays in their lobby in the future.

There are other aspects of his relationship with our non-Jewish neighbors which I find deeply disturbing as well.  For example, one day he met a local monsignor; a man of great public distinction and deservedly so.  Not only that, but this priest has been a long time friend of our local Jewish community.  When the priest extended his hand to shake, Rabbi Cadaner rejected it, stating that “We do not do that”.  Well, soon after that incident a member of the Jewish community intentionally offered to shake the Chabad rabbi’s hand, and they did.  So the message seems clear.  From his perspective when he says “we do not do that,” what he probably means is “we do not do that” with non-Jews.  As a small Jewish community, we depend heavily upon the good will of our non-Jewish neighbors.  Such prejudicial behavior hurts us all.

Likewise, when we held a community interfaith service in response to the terrorist attacks in Mumbai, India, the Chabad rabbi turned down an invitation to participate.  I cannot help but wonder:  Was it because he would not pray with non-Jews?  Was it because the service was held in the sanctuary of the Reform congregation?

Of course, our Chabad rabbi’s attitudes about the local synagogues and their clergy have not helped resolve our problems.  They have only exacerbated them.  My colleague, Rabbi Samuel, reported to me that in one angry encounter, the Chabad rabbi told him that he (the Chabad rabbi) was the only “real” rabbi in our community and that he would still be here long after Rabbi Samuel and I were gone.  Then there is the matter of his total disrespect for the clergy status of our cantor, who also happens to be my wife.  We met in seminary.  She is a fully credentialed cantor.  Still, Rabbi Cadaner refuses to recognize her clergy status and won’t even respond to her communications.  At one point, he requested that she be excluded from any formal meetings between the Jewish community leaders and Chabad.

Over the years, both congregations and the Federation have tried to make it very clear that in order for Chabad to truly be considered a part of our community, then it must abide by the rules which govern our community.  Unfortunately, time and again, Rabbi Cadaner has refused to accept that offer.

And this is what brought us to the recent crisis.  According to the bylaws of our Federation, the rabbis of the local synagogues are granted automatic seats, with voting rights, on the Federation Board.  In recent months, Rabbi Cadaner and the supporters of Chabad chose to insist that this provision be applied to Chabad as well the synagogues, and that Chabad itself be considered a synagogue.  Of course, that claim contradicts what Chabad had been saying all along; that our inter-synagogue rules do not apply to them because they are not a synagogue.  However, now claiming to be a synagogue, Chabad still claims that inter-synagogue rules do not apply to them because they are Chabad, and as such are unique.

The issue of whether or not to grant Rabbi Cadaner a seat on the Federation Board created a great rift in our community.  So much so that those on both sides of the issue threatened to withdraw their financial and human support of the Federation, should the decision go against them.  The supporters of Chabad threatened to do so, claiming that such a contrary decision would deny the Orthodox community representation on the Federation Board.  The opponents of Chabad threatened to do so, claiming that if the Federation officially recognized Chabad, it would also tacitly be  granting its seal of approval to Chabad’s continued violations of the rules of inter-congregational behavior; it would officially be approving Chabad’s predatory practices.  Such an abandonment of the long established local synagogues would simply be unacceptable.  It seemed as if, for the Federation, this would be a lose-lose situation, with them losing significant, perhaps vital, financial support no matter what they did.

This crisis was averted, thanks to the efforts and creative thinking of Jeff Goldstein.  It was Jeff who suggested that if the Orthodox community feels unrepresented, then let them be represented by a lay person on the Federation board.  In that way, our Federation could avoid being caught in the middle of a bitter struggle over the actions of Rabbi Cadaner.  Those of us who were opposed to Rabbi Cadaner’s being seated on the board, and by so seating him apparently granting Federation approval to his objectionable actions – myself included – had no qualms about the Orthodox community itself being represented.  Therefore, we had no problem with a lay representative.  But the ball rested in Chabad’s court.  Would they accept a lay representative in place of Rabbi Cadaner?  They were presented with the proposal, considered it for some time, and in the end, finally accepted it, turning a lose-lose situation for the Federation into a win-win.

Now it is time for us as a community to move forward.  And so we hope to do so.  However, we do so recognizing that our problems have not gone away, and they will not go away until Rabbi Cadaner and Chabad agree to become community team players and change the way in which they do their business; until they come to recognize and accept that they too are expected to abide by the very same rules and principles which govern the behaviors and inter-relations of both the Temple and the Center.  We have asked nothing more of them than we expect of ourselves.  We pray that someday soon they will decide to live up to those expectations.