A Genius, A Wall, and a Red Cow

A sermon written for Shabbat Chukat, June 30, 2017.

I’ve been watching the TV show Genius on National Geographic. This ten-episode mini-series dramatically chronicles the life and times of one of the most famous Jewish scientists, Albert Einstein. One of its themes is the fact that Albert does not like to follow rules. From his childhood daydreaming through class, to setting out on a life path that his parents disapproved of, to questioning authority, Albert is unconventional. Driven by curiosity, he lets his imagination guide him. For Albert, just because something has always been a certain way, does not mean that he cannot approach it differently; rules just get in the way. While his family and teachers insist on living according to the way things are, Albert insists on studying the universe by seeing its potential, what it can be.

This week’s Torah portion, Chukat, contains a pretty nonsensical rule, even to someone who is not Einstein: the law about the parah adumah, the red heifer. The Torah says that in order to purify a person who has become ritually contaminated, the children of Israel must bring a cow that is red in color, that has never done any work, and engage in an elaborate process using its ashes. This rule has become a symbol of an instruction that makes absolutely no sense. It is cited as an example of a biblical law for which there is no apparent logic. Why a red, unblemished cow? Why this process? What does this all mean?

Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz writes that laws that don’t seem to have any rational explanation, like the one about the red heifer, remind us that it is a big, mysterious world out there. We may be comfortable in our routines, following the rules in our lives, but then along comes a mysterious commandment about a colored cow to throw us off track. Just when we think we know what’s ahead, something completely unexpected appears and surprises us.

A contemporary nonsensical red heifer that continues to surface in our time are the rules surrounding the Kotel, the Western Wall. This holy place in Jerusalem has become a symbol of Judaism, yet many are divided on exactly how the space should be used. Following traditional rules stating that men and women should be segregated by gender when they pray, it has historically been divided to suit the needs of a specific Orthodox population. Women recently gained the right to wear kippot and tallitot in their section, and are still not free to read from the Torah. There is a small, egalitarian prayer space, but it is not directly accessible from the Kotel itself.

In January 2016, after three years of negotiations among parties from across the denominations, the Israeli government came to a compromise to create a larger, permanent and more accessible egalitarian section at the Wall. This would allow Jews from all backgrounds to pray together with their loved ones and communities, regardless of gender. However, just last week, after over a year of failing to implement this compromise, the Prime Minister of Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu, announced a suspension of this agreement. While many across the spectrum, especially American Jewish leaders, had hailed the compromise as a big step forward for the Jewish people, the ultra-Orthodox Haredi parties in power in Israel ultimately prevented it from moving forward.

The segregation of the Kotel seems like the ultimate red heifer, an ancient rule that makes very little sense to most people and continues to frustrate those who strive for Jewish unity and equality. At this point, though many Israeli and American leaders have written articles and made statements, it is unclear what will happen. Some have called for their constituents to distance themselves from Israel, others have demanded to put this issue before the Israeli Supreme Court, and most have asserted that this will cause further chasms between Israeli and Diaspora Jewry.

This recent setback on the road to unity reminds us that just when we think we’ve made a compromise, and are prepared for what lies ahead, the world does not always work in a way that makes sense. As a female, a future Reform Rabbi, and a Zionist, I have worked to share my love of Israel with my classmates and peers, and advocate that every Jew in the Diaspora should have a strong relationship with it.  The Kotel is symbolic. While the place is holy, the message behind the government’s recent actions is even more significant.  By preventing the compromise, Israeli authorities are showing progressive Jews that we are not equals in our own homeland. They are telling us that the status quo is perfectly acceptable, that we do not deserve to be able to pray all together, and that our Judaism is not legitimate enough to deserve a place at a sacred site.

As Reform Jews, we are like Einstein. We appreciate what came before us, yet strive to live in our own ways in our own time. We see values in the rules of our tradition, yet do not feel bound by them. This means that we have the sacred and difficult task of figuring out which rules we should live by. Many of these rules are handed down to us by previous generations.  We may not always know why we continue to attend High Holiday services, or use the special plates once a year at Passover, or recite certain prayers, but we continue to do so, because it gives us meaning.

Rabbi Mordechai Kaplan, the founder of Reconstructionist Judaism, emphasized the idea that while tradition is informative, it does not have to be definitive. Kaplan wrote that “the past has a vote, not a veto.  Innovation need not entail the destruction of tradition; on the contrary, change is an important part of keeping tradition alive, as it has been throughout Jewish history.” The founders of Reform Judaism, too, strived to be both contemporary citizens and carriers of tradition. They posed fundamental questions that we still ask today: what does it mean to be Jewish in the modern world? How do we move forward while preserving our tradition? What rules are we supposed to keep? As we move through life, we retain what brings comfort to us, do our best to find stability in our own time, and strive to maintain similar systems for future generations. The nonsensical red heifers that appear along the way continue to remind us of the grandeur and mystery of the world in which we live.

There are more traditional Jews, too who recognize that, as Mordechai Kaplan said, change is an essential part of keeping tradition alive. In response to the Kotel decision, a group of American Orthodox Rabbis published a “Call for a Truly Pluralistic Israel.” They wrote, “we stand fully as allies with our sisters and brothers throughout the entire Jewish community in support of pluralism in America and Israel. We were disheartened to read that the Israeli government has rescinded its commitment to create a space for alternative and liberal groups to pray at the Western Wall… Imposing one narrow version of Orthodox Judaism as the official standard for prayer in Israel harms the unity of the Jewish people and it harms support for Israel in America. We encourage all Modern Orthodox Jews to publicly support freedom for multiple religious approaches to Jewish life.”

In the midst of my despair about the Kotel compromise, this article reminded me to remember to be open to the wonder in the world. I thought that all Orthodox Jews would be happy with the traditional rules that were in place. This call from Rabbis at a different part of the denominational spectrum encouraged me to ponder not what I think I know about the world, but what can be. Failure to compromise is a serious setback, but despite the current reality, many denominations and Israeli political figures are now even more motivated to work together and demonstrate support for one another. It is more important now than ever to work towards the Israel that we want to see, by imagining what can be.

Our big mysterious world full of red heifers prompts us to keep an open mind- to use the familiar to give our lives meaning, but also to remember that rules can be broken. Albert Einstein’s curiosity and wonder prompted him to see that while the rules mattered, there was more to explore. Sometimes this got him into trouble, and sometimes it helped him to discover and create revolutionary science.  Einstein was a genius because he constantly questioned the status quo. Instead of asking why things were the way they were, he asked “why not.” Why not continue to explore what we think we know, in order to find out more about the universe? Why not combine the rules of our past and the rules that we set for ourselves to inform our present and future in new ways?

Most of us don’t know too much about physics or the theory of relativity. But we can use our curiosity to aid us in navigating the rules, both the ones that make sense and the ones that don’t. Like Einstein, we can ask why not. Why not continue the traditions that have been passed down to us? Why not push ourselves to learn from different perspectives? Why not do our best to stay open to the red heifers that come our way, and try to learn from them, even if they aren’t completely logical? In the face of whatever comes our way, may we push ourselves to stay open to possibility, to use our curiosity, to learn from and then question the rules. Why not?

 

 

To my echo-chamber…

November 9, 2016.

We all knew that life in America would be different today. But we didn’t anticipate how terrible it could feel. I’m wondering when I will stop being nauseous.

I didn’t want to get out of bed this morning.

But I’m glad that I did.

As I walked down the street and took the subway to school, I saw many faces. And all I could think was, “I’m so sorry.” I thought that as the children tugged on their parents’ hands, as the delivery guy rode his bicycle down the sidewalk, as I watched the beautiful, diverse crowd pile into each other on the train. “I’m so sorry. I’m so sorry.”

I went to class, and my Professor sang us a line from the Psalms, “those who sow in tears will reap in joy” and told us that no one should grieve alone. And I was glad that I had gotten out of bed, because no one should grieve alone.

At morning services, I wrapped myself in my prayer shawl and in the warmth of my campus community as we sat in a circle and cried and stared at each other and prayed and cried and called out to God and sang “olam chesed yibaneh,” we will build this world from love. And our Dean told us that he loved us. And I was glad that I had gotten out of bed.

Even though I couldn’t look my classmates in the eyes, and even if I could, they couldn’t look me in the eyes, and we didn’t know how to say good morning, or hi, or how are you, I hugged everyone I saw. I found solace in the people around me, and I was glad that I had gotten out of bed.

At an interfaith rally in Washington Square Park, they spoke about love and we sang spirituals and screamed and handed out flowers and I wanted to believe that the words we were singing were true and that compassion would win. And a Rabbi said that all the pieces of our broken hearts could come together into one giant heart. These words comforted me for a few minutes, and I was glad that I had gotten out of bed.

My Pastoral Care Professor told us that we were in shock because no one knew what was going on or felt anything or could express themselves, and reminded us that Jewish tradition gives us time to grieve.

Here’s what I learned after I got out of bed today. We need to be angry. We need to be frustrated and disillusioned and sad and hopeless. Because complacency got us here. If there is any good that will come out of this horrific event in American history, it will be that people decide what they care about, and work to achieve those values. It will be that people actually get out their wallets and donate to important organizations. It will be that people learn that we are definitely and without a doubt stronger together.

Please be angry. Feel anything and everything. Talk to the people you love. Ignore the news, or obsessively read every word of it. Process. Rant. Breathe. Take your time.

And soon, after we take our time, we can act. Right now, we are in a state of mourning. Mourners need to feel before anything productive can happen. Let us come together in our shared place of extreme, unbearable brokenness. Let us sit here, and experience how this feels. Broken people voted for Trump. A broken country will elect him as President. And now, our hearts are broken, too.

In a stroke of uncanny timing, tonight is the anniversary of Kristallnacht: the night of broken glass, the night that is considered to be the beginning of the Holocaust. My colleague remarked earlier that she hoped there would be a different, better kind of broken glass today. But there isn’t. As surreal as this feels, we must make sure that history does not repeat itself. We must step out of our echo chambers, and hear the call of the other.

Min ha’meitzar karati yah…out of the depths, the narrowness, the dire straits, I called to God. I was glad I got out of bed today. Because we are all in those depths, that narrowness, the dire straits. We are there together. No one should grieve alone. And when we are ready, we will slowly make our way up. Championing the values of basic decency, kindness and compassion, remembering that each human being is created in the image of God, we will claw our way towards the light.

 

Let’s Go Mets

Here is the sermon I delivered at my pulpit, Congregation Beth HaSholom in Williamsport, PA, on Yom Kippur morning:

When I was 11 years old, I made a choice. Though it seemed small at the time, this choice would shape me as a person, and influence my life in unknowable ways. This choice was to become a Mets fan. That year, the Mets and the Yankees faced off in the World Series. My family had moved to New York a few years before, and attended both Mets and Yankee games. We had never felt a need to root for just one of them. But in fifth grade math class that morning, my teacher fatefully decided to use baseball as part of her lesson. She went around the room, and made tallies on the board. Who was a Mets fan, and who a Yankee? When my moment to declare my fandom came, all eyes were on me. I had no idea what to choose. “Can’t I root for both?” I asked. My classmates scoffed at this ridiculous idea. The pressure was on. I looked at the board and saw about a dozen tally marks in the Yankee column, and about three in the Met column. I knew what choice I had to make. I couldn’t take the easy way out and side with the majority. I added my tally to the Mets side, and sealed my fate.

I’m going to be upfront with you: this sermon could have gone two ways. I write this the morning after the 2016 National League Wild Card playoff game. After a season that started in a promising way, but then was riddled with injuries, the Mets clawed their way into a spot in a winner take all game to continue on in the post-season. I attended that game with thousands of others, held my breath through 8.5 innings, and was incredibly disappointed when our closing pitcher, one of the best in baseball, gave up a three-run home run to the other team at the very end. So while this sermon could have been happy, uplifting and inspirational, it won’t be, thanks to the Mets.

Isn’t that life, though? As much as we want things to go our way, and to lead ourselves to victory in every scenario, we know that we can’t win all the time. Even the Yankees, who have the most World Series wins ever, haven’t been to the playoffs in a while. Yet we still get invested. We still form sacred relationships. We still hold out hope that things will get better. As we grow, we learn to conduct our imperfect lives. We learn to be vulnerable and live with disappointment, while trying to create meaning and wholeness. This is what it means to be human.

The Torah portion that we read today, and the prayers that we say on Yom Kippur really exemplify this tension; this striving to lead successful and happy lives while knowing that we can’t win them all. In Nitzavim, God chooses us. God tells us that we are part of a sacred covenant. This special relationship comes with high expectations: do good, and you will be rewarded. Do bad, and you will experience God’s worst anger and wrath. This classic bible imagery is poetic and dramatic, but seems highly unrealistic. Not every choice is merely good or evil. Not every decision is merely sacred or terrible. And what about just being human? What about when we try, and fail? When we play with all of our hearts but don’t win the game? Can we still be a part of the covenant then?

Yom Kippur is all about acknowledging this gray area of imperfection. Naturally, we have done things wrong in the past year. We are supposed to admit that we have not done everything right, all of the time. We chant our alphabet of woe: ashamnu, bagadnu, gazalnu, we have been guilty, we have betrayed, we have stolen, acknowledging that we have not lived up to our highest hopes and expectations of ourselves. We have sinned. Yom Kippur is our reminder that we are human. We look into our hearts, and the faces of those around us, and see imperfection. We come together as a community to explore what it means for us, and resolve to do better. We allow ourselves to be caught in that grey area, between good and evil, between sacred and terrible.

Part of living in that grey area is navigating our participation in sacred relationships while knowing that they will never be perfect. Being a Mets fan, I certainly know that there were disappointments in the past year, and there will be disappointments in the next one. But that does not mean that I want to stop being involved. When I chose to become a Mets fan, I entered into my own covenant. No matter what they do, I now am deeply connected with them. When God tells us that we are entering into a sacred covenant, God knows that we won’t be perfect. When we form relationships with one another, we may hope that they may be perfect, but we are aware that nothing is. Rather than deny our problems or pretend they don’t exist, this time of year- the baseball playoffs and the High Holy Days- reminds us that it is essential for our growth to face them, and learn from them. Loving an imperfect baseball team has made me a stronger person. It has helped me to learn how to live with disappointment. It has helped me to feel part of a larger community, enthusiastically high-fiving strangers when things go well, and collectively sighing with thousands of others when things go not so well. I have had moments of extreme joy and extreme sadness while watching the Mets. I feel human when I watch the Mets, living with uncertainty and hope and anxiety all at the same time. That’s life- it doesn’t always go as planned. But we keep on building our sacred relationships, striving to find meaning in the brokenness we encounter along the way.

Judaism teaches that brokenness has been a part of life, even essential to it, since the earliest days of creation. Kabbalist Isaac Luria wrote that when God created the world, God had to contract to make room for what was being made. Then, God sent out ten vessels full of light. Too fragile to contain such holiness, the vessels shattered, and the pieces scattered all over creation. Without these broken vessels, the world would not exist. Without the brokenness that each of us contains, we would not be whole. As singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen tells us, “there’s a crack in everything- that’s how the light gets in.”

This year, let’s be more forgiving of ourselves and others- not just on Yom Kippur, but all year. We don’t immediately have to turn to wrath and anger when we sense wrongdoing, even though that’s what we see God threatening to do in the Torah portion we read today. We don’t have to have unrealistic expectations, demanding the sacred and good from others all of the time. Let’s use our brokenness to connect with one another, and see each other more clearly. And in the same way, let’s not have unrealistic expectations of ourselves. We sin, we go astray, it happens. There is no way we can be perfect all of the time. We live in a world somewhere between good and evil, between sacred and terrible. We’ve all experienced heartbreak. We’ve all been imperfect, whether it was on purpose, or unknowingly. We’re all human. Our cracks open us up.

Once the Baal Shem Tov commanded Rabbi Zev Kitzes to learn the secret meanings behind the blasts of the ram’s-horn, because Rabbi Zev was to be his caller on Rosh Ha-Shanah. So Rabbi Zev learned the secret meanings and wrote them down on a slip of paper to look at during the service, and put the slip of paper in his pocket. When the time came for the blowing of the ram’s-horn, he began to search everywhere for the slip of paper, but it was gone; and he did not know on what meanings to concentrate. He was greatly saddened. Broken-hearted, he wept bitter tears, and called the blasts of the ram’s-horn without concentrating on the secret meanings behind them. Afterward, the Baal Shem Tov said to him: “In the habitation of the king are to be found many rooms and apartments, and there are different keys for every lock, but the master key of all is the axe, with which it is possible to open all the locks on all the gates. So it is with the ram’s-horn: the secret meanings are the keys; every gate has another meaning, but the master key is the broken heart. When a person truthfully breaks his or her heart before God, he or she can enter into all the gates of the apartments of the Ruler above all Rulers, the Holy One, blessed be God.”

Today, we break our hearts before God, one another, and ourselves. In doing so, we give ourselves permission to enter into all the gates of being human. We cannot be complete without having experiences that hurt us, without straying off of the path of righteousness once in a while. By praying to be forgiven for our wrongdoings, and fasting, we acknowledge our own extreme humanity. We look our worst qualities and offenses in the face: Ashamnu, bagadnu, gazalnu, we have been guilty, we have betrayed, we have stolen. Our mistakes and failures have shaped us, and made us who we are. Our relationships with imperfect people, and sports teams, help us to learn how to love, and grow when the outcomes aren’t always what we hope for.

There’s a crack in everything: that’s how the light gets in. Mets starting pitcher Noah Syndergaard, who played an incredible Wild Card game, tweeted the following after his team lost: “Baseball has a way of ripping your heart out, stabbing it, putting it back in your chest, then healing itself just in time for Spring Training.” May we not be afraid to open up our hearts to the world, even when we know it will disappoint us. May we embrace living in the gray area between good and evil, sacred and terrible. May our brokenness and our blessing intertwine, leading us to wholeness.

 

 

Come Together: AIPAC Policy Conference 2016

In the midst of a busy conference, I was thinking about this blog post. I was a bit sad, because this year’s Policy Conference marks the end of my 18-month experience as a Leffell Israel Fellow with AIPAC. I was going to reflect on my two policy conferences, trip to Israel, and relationships with fellow rabbinic students from 7 campuses. All of these travels and interactions have broadened my horizons, made me think, helped me to define and shape my values, and will make me a better Rabbi. I have learned about AIPAC, seen how it functions, and thought about how I can use it in my future rabbinate. I have really had an incredible experience as a Fellow, and I am grateful.

And then, I attended the general session at which the Republican presidential candidates spoke. I did not walk out. I sat in the room, because it is not AIPAC’s fault that a racist, arrogant (I could go on and on) extremist is a contender for President of the United States. Who knows, I may have congregants who are Trump supporters one day. While he was speaking, I read a text sheet about dignity and integrity that the Reform Movement had provided me.  And after the session was over, I felt disgusting. I felt physically dirty. Trump’s words (and Cruz’s, too) had made me feel nauseous and gross. And so did the reaction of the crowd. Trump got tons of applause, and multiple standing ovations for saying terrible, baseless, even non-sensical things, including words against President Obama. That was the truly scary part. How could thousands of Jews stand and applaud for that man? I began to doubt everything. For over a year, I’ve worked to learn about AIPAC, and support it. I believe its mission is important, and I’ve tried to give it a good name to my classmates and non-Jewish friends. After that session, I wanted to throw that all out the window. I went to bed that night feeling disheartened, hopeless, frightened and sad. I wanted to support and advocate for Israel with all my heart, but I did not want to be in the same group as those people who had stood for the very things that Jews are supposed to stand against.

The next morning, AIPAC leadership came onstage at the general session and made a statement that they did not condone attacks against the current President of the United States. This statement was unprecedented. While it did not undo my lingering negative emotions from the previous day, it made me feel better. There is a lot of rhetoric involved with any political group. That statement, and the many notes and articles that came out immediately following the conference about how those who cheered for Trump were not representative of Jews, and even shameful for them, helped me to see that AIPAC does try to be bi-partisan. And it showed me how important it was for me to attend Policy Conference, and be a part of the pro-Israel movement.

As citizens, members of various groups, and humans in general, we care about things. Being a part of AIPAC has shown me how important it is to show up, express ourselves, and advocate for those things. If we leave the room, if we don’t attend, if we don’t raise our voices when things bother us or interest us, we cannot be part of the conversation. And it is crucial to be part of that conversation, especially in today’s world where common human decency and respect are at stake. I was quite inspired when Rabbi Denise Eger, President of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, told us how important it is for us Reform clergy and our congregants to go to the AIPAC conference. It made me wonder- what if more liberals had come this year? There would have been fewer people cheering for a terrible man. It is crucial for us to be attendees, and add our Progressive Jewish voices to the mix. If we don’t do it, who will?

By being part of the Leffell Israel Fellowship, and AIPAC, I have been challenged. I have faced difficult questions, both in examining my relationship with Israel, and with fellow rabbinical students from different movements. Interacting with others who have a wide range of views has compelled me to reflect on and strengthen my own identity, and continue to shape my values. I am so grateful to have built connections with rabbinic colleagues from across the movements. I am so grateful to have been forced to grapple with tough questions. I am so grateful that those connections have helped to support me, and given me the strength to not walk away from the tough questions.

If you care about something, read about it, donate to it, show up. If you don’t think you belong, all the more reason to express yourself. Your voice can only be heard if you use it. This Fellowship taught me that my presence- a Reform Jew, liberal, future clergy person, who cares deeply about Israel- matters as part of the conversation. There is great power in community, but only when each of us comes together.

 

 

Leffellows in Israel

I didn’t truly understand why my Rabbinical School program requires us to spend our first year in Israel until I returned again, a year and a half after leaving, thanks to the Leffell Rabbinic Fellowship and AIPAC. The first two times I went to Israel, for Birthright and my first year of HUC-JIR, I definitely felt at home when I arrived. This time, though, was different. In the days leading up to the trip, I was deeply excited and anxious. As the plane took off, my heart fluttered in anticipation. As I watched our descent into the Holy Land, my palms were sweaty and my stomach did flip flops. I wasn’t just on an educational seminar, I was reuniting with a country with which I had an intimate bond. I had lived there, had special places I longed to return to, felt a deep emotional connection, hated some of the things that went on there, and adored others. I was visiting a part of my family. I was home.

I just returned from an incredible, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. And, after six whirlwind days delving deeper into issues, hearing many stories from all different kinds of people and discussing thoughts and feelings with 27 other rabbinical students from the Reform, Conservative and Orthodox movements, I have developed and shaped my own thoughts and feelings about Israel. I have explored my identity as a Jewish American, a Jewish woman, a Jewish leader. I am ready to state some of my truths about this place (keeping in mind that I just got off a plane after 7 days of very little sleep, and this probably won’t be the most articulate thing in the world):

I love Israel. This means that it exhilarates me when I get to live on Jewish time, hear Hebrew spoken everywhere, and absorb all of its wonderful elements. This means that it infuriates me when I feel that it is being unjust to Palestinians and Arabs and Progressive Jews. Love doesn’t mean that I think that Israel is perfect, just as we know that our friends and family who we care about are deeply flawed and make mistakes. And as much as we want the best for the people and things we love, we know that nothing is without faults. I desperately wish that many things were improved about Israel, internally and externally. That doesn’t mean that I don’t care about it with all of my being.

I believe that the Jews and Palestinians should each have their own state, mutually recognized and respected by each other and by the world. I believe that the people residing in those states, no matter what their religion or ethnicity may be, have a right to live in peace and safety, without fear of attack or violation of their human rights. I am really sad when I think about how long it will probably take for this to happen. We met with top negotiators from both sides during the trip, and each of them expressed a strong desire to save lives by finding a compromise. Each of them was frustrated with their own perceptions of the failings of the other side to help make it happen. Each of them had his own narrative that he brought to the table. I so appreciated the nuance of these conversations, which gave me hope but also made me strongly question why this hasn’t happened yet, since each of them said that they wanted it to. This leads me to my next point…

If you think its simple, you’re so stupid” (as said by one of our speakers, a prominent academic and scholar). There is no single correct statement that can solve the conflict. It frustrates me when Americans just pick a side and say its right, especially when they have only read one media source, or haven’t even been to Israel to see what is going on firsthand. The word “complicated” was used by practically every single speaker on the trip and in all of our processing sessions, so much that it became our joke within the group. The situation is complicated. This conversation is complicated. It is not fair to Israel or to the Palestinians to make generalized, one-sided statements about what is wrong and/or what should be done to fix it.
The complication was emphasized by the broad range of speakers and stories we got to hear on the trip. We listened to a representative for Peace Now, a settler, an Israeli Arab, two members of the Knesset, Israeli generals, the police spokesman, journalists, a political analyst, a rocket scientist, and so many more. They spoke their own truths, yet they were all speaking different languages. All of them were right in their own ways, and they displayed very different images of what daily life in Israel is like. There was no one speaker I can pick out who is the “correct” one. We toured the security fence, and visited a border crossing. We saw documents in the National Archives, and discussed the Temple Mount. Israel is a place with a rich history, which includes many valid and passionate voices. It is important and crucial to listen for all of them.

 
Israel needs empathy and openminded-ness. It is held to a different standard than most other countries. It is not even 70 years old yet, and is still adjusting to its existence and the challenges of being the only democracy in the Middle East. And, it needs to protect itself from unprovoked bombings, stabbings and other attacks. One of the journalists we met with said that Palestinian deaths are an easy headline. The world tends to villainize Israel, but look around. There are terrible genocides happening in other countries. There is terrible racism happening in America. We are not living up to our claim of providing “liberty and justice for all”.  It is not fair to hold Israel to a different standard. Especially when there are a good deal of people and organizations that don’t want it to exist, and don’t think that it has a right to. Plus, many forget that Israel is more than violence and occupation- what about all of its achievements in technology, security, culture, etc? Yes, my gut instinct as a Jew is to be protective of my homeland. But I think there is lots to identify with and be proud of, no matter how it is depicted in the media.

We have a lot of work to do. As an American Jewish leader, I feel the challenge and responsibility of continuing this conversation with my colleagues, and my congregants, and anyone else who wants to be a part of it. This trip was a unique opportunity for Conservative, Orthodox and Reform Rabbinical students to come together and listen to each other’s voices, along with the stories of the speakers. When we processed and debated about Israel, some internal Jewish issues surfaced as well. As a people, and as humans, we have many wonderful values, but we don’t always live up to them. After this trip, I have some new insights, and many questions. I would love to talk, debate and share more with whoever wants to discuss. This seminar showed me that there is always more to learn. Even though I feel at home in Israel, I am still uncomfortable with many of the things that happen there. There is a lot to despair about, and even more to work towards and hope for.

For another perspective, here is an article written by one of our Rabbis-in-Residence on the trip: http://blogs.timesofisrael.com/an-open-letter-to-the-aipac-leffell-fellows/

Happy Hanukkah

The front page of today’s Daily News reads “God Isn’t Fixing This”.

I understand why many people feel that way. The recent acts of violence in our country, and in our world- the ones we see all over the media, and the ones we don’t- are horrible, devastating acts. They have left me in a permanent state of sadness, that permeates my heart and makes me shake my head at humanity. We are supposed to be so progressive and civilized. Why is this happening?

The Jewish calendar has an uncanny way of resonating with what is going on in the world. Hanukkah starts in just a couple of days. I don’t know about you, but I could really use some flickers of light in what seems like insurmountable darkness. The story of the small gang of fearless Maccabees triumphing over a huge, evil army gives me hope in a world where we see daily headlines about violence and terror and cold-hearted politicians who refuse to let helpless people take refuge in our land.

The Maccabees didn’t win because God controlled their steps, or because God liked them more than Antiochus and his cronies. They won because they were scrappy. They won because they stuck together. They won because they had something powerful to fight for.

I have never believed in a God that dictated everyone’s every move. I laugh when people thank God in awards speeches, because they think that God appreciated their performance more than the other person’s. I think God is too busy to help us score well on our tests, or get a seat on the subway.

But, I believe in God.

I believe that God is awareness of the miraculous world we live in, and how lucky I am to be typing this and you are to be reading this. I believe that God  is the love we have for our friends, family and partners, and the compassion that we are capable of possessing for other people. Guess what? Those are all things that WE do. Whatever force created us gave us those tools, and the capacity to experience those emotions. But it is up to us to act on them. Judaism teaches that each of us has a spark of God within us. When we recognize that every single one of our fellow humans possesses that spark, and strive to truly connect with one another, then God is present. We are partners with God in making the world whole.

So no, Daily News, God alone isn’t fixing this. But maybe God can fix this, through us. Republican candidates’ prayers themselves won’t do anything to change our reality (and frankly, it annoys me that they are giving prayer such a bad rap). But we can use our holiness to bring holiness into the lives of those who need it. God is present within us, but it is us who need to take action. Some of the things we can do are: read multiple news sources to stay fully informed, sign petitions, contact congress people, and donate to organizations we think are doing meaningful work.We can exercise our right to vote, when the time comes.

You or I cannot singlehandedly stop all the awful, despicable events in the world, even when we wish with all of our hearts that we could. But like the Maccabees, we can work hard. We can stick together. We have something powerful to fight for.

 

 

Moving Forward

Like everyone else, I was shocked and horrified this morning to hear of the murders of some newspaper staff by terrorists. The event was outrageous and terrifying, and one of many, many recent signs that this world is not so modern and sophisticated as we would like to think we are.

The shooters believed strongly in their ideas, so strongly that they thought others processing their own ideas through their own art deserved to die, because that art happened to contain thoughts that showed the shooters’ beliefs in a different light.

This should not have happened. People in a civilized society do not go on rampages against writers and artists who use their basic right of freedom of speech to comment on whatever they see as deserving of a comment. We are individuals, we are allowed, and should be encouraged, to process, to express ourselves, to create. This is what makes us human. We make sense of the world however we can. Doing this should not cause us to fear shooters bursting in to our place of work and killing us.

But, I have to say this: one way of that making sense of the world, that processing, expressing ourselves and creating that is so vital to our humanity is religion. And I am deeply saddened that one of the results of this and other recent tragedies is a backlash against religion in general. You hate that religious extremism caused these and so many other senseless deaths. So do I, believe me. I’ll be the first to admit how much destruction religion has caused throughout history. But when people say that all religion is as awful as what happened this morning, they are thinking in a similar vein as those extremists, who maintain that everyone who does not believe the way that they do is wrong.

We need to practice the open-mindedness that we wish existed everywhere. Muslims didn’t cause the events of this morning, ignorant, intolerant, awful people did. And sadly, those kinds of people will never go away. That’s also part of being human. We will never be able to fix these terrible issues, or solve all of the world’s problems, but in this big, beautiful world, so full of potential, we can strive to be the best versions of ourselves and not let tragic events transform us into the ones who hate. We can’t bring those people back by placing blame, so let’s honor their memories by appreciating our own abilities to process, express ourselves and create, and those of everyone else, however they wish to do so.