Saturday, December 14, 2013

Thanks and Not Enough

On Monday at 1 pm Central Time, I will be attending two very different funerals. One I will attend in person. One I will attend in spirit. Both are for wonderful human beings who had a tremendous impact on all who knew them.

In Des Moines, I will officiate at the funeral of Dr. Henry Corn. Recently turning 102 years old, Dr. Corn was a pediatrician who began his practice before there were antibiotics.  He brought health and joy into the lives of thousands of people over decades. No one ever heard him complain. Every time I visited, he said "Thank you" including on his last day right after I offered the Priestly Benediction.

A life of shalom. Completion.
Thanks and thanks and thanks.

At the moment that I help celebrate his long life another much shorter life will be celebrated a few hours drive away in Chicago. I will be there too with Phyllis and Michael Sommer, with their family, with their friends, with my rabbinical colleagues,  with medical providers, with angels. Tears and tears. Smiles for happy times. More tears. More and more.

EIGHT years! Superman Sam was so bright for those eight years! Thank you. Thank you. But not " Dayeinu." Not that. Not enough. Not enough at all.

Two very different lives. Two very different funerals. I will be at both of their funerals with tears for both lives lost. Celebrating life. Mourning that it is simply never enough. Not 102 years, but certainly not eight.

Again I wrestle with God this today. I wrestle with nature and life. This is Judaism. It and we as part of it, do not hide from life. We are Jews. We say "dayeinu" knowing that it never was and never will be enough for us.

Thanks, but not enough. Not enough at all.

May shalom come.

Friday, November 22, 2013

Maccagawea and the Thanksgivukkah Miracle

Was it a couple of millennia ago in the land of Israel, maybe a couple of hundred years ago in 1804 in the Northwestern Territory, or perhaps on a fall day in 1621 in New England, a woman from the SheineSheine family named Maccagawea [pronounced Mac-a-Jew-ee-oy because while in the northeast it would have ended "er" in the northwest it's "oy"] helped lead her people to victory over those who had determined that the biggest shopping day of the year should always precede Chanukah. Maccagawea prayed to God and filed suit to move the holiday so that the Jewish people could have the two Thanksgiving turkey drumsticks hold the Chanukah candles for the second night while allowing the people to use the turkey neck, often heretofore disposed of without use, to be used with the Shamash candle.  Miracle of miracles, it was made so, but because of scheduling problems only happens every 70,000 years or so.

Because of Maccagawea, this year Jews around the world will be getting great discounts and even door busters during Chanukah! 

In celebration of this great miracle, the Governor of the colony who was not named Antiochus and the Chief of the Wampamberg tribe, Squanto (the q is pronounced like “ch” in Bach), decided that the people should hold a great feast when the calendars align properly, light candles, and sing songs about gambling with spinning tops called dreidels while eating far too much and watching football.

For the Thanksgivukkah day meal eaten on the occasion of the confluence of the holidays of Thanksgiving and Chanukah, some say that it is customary to make Gefilte Fish out of Cape Cod and eat potato latkes with cranberry sauce.

We owe it all one heroic woman, Maccagawea. 

Maccagawea is also known for saying that 
April Showers bring Mayflowers.

 Happy Thanksgivukkah!!! 

Friday, November 15, 2013

Wrestling with God - In Honor of Superman Sam, Ethan Kadish, and Blake Ephraim

In Honor of Samuel "Superman Sam" Sommer, Blake Ephraim, Ethan Kadish and their Families

I thought that after Typhoon Haiyan brought devastation to the Philippines, and at a time when I am contemplating traveling to Indianapolis for a special fundraiser for Ethan Kadish, the boy who was struck by lightning while at camp this summer about whom I spoke on YomKippur, I might talk about how we react to forces of nature in our tradition even though that topic isn’t connected to our Torah portion this week. Then this week, two things happened.

The first is that I found out that earlier in the month, a sixteen year old active cheerleader from Kansas City with whom our Goldman Union Camp campers have attended camp named Blake Ephraim, suffered a debilitating stroke, cause as of yet unknown. Her sister was in the bunk next my daughter this summer. A sixteen year old active kid with no known risk factors having a stroke?

The second was the revelation this week that the eight year old son of friends from rabbinical school, Samuel “Superman Sam” Sommer, whose parents have chronicled his year and a half long battle with Leukemia and his recent bone marrow transplant through an inspirational blog kept daily,, has now lost that battle.

The posting on Wednesday from Sam's mother Phyllis that announced Sam’s relapse made untold numbers around the world burst into tears:
We are so desperately heartbroken and filled with sadness.
Sam has relapsed.
His ninja leukemia is so very strong... There is no cure.There is no treatment... [The doctors] are sad too. Terribly, horribly sad.
There is no cure.There is nothing they can do to cure our boy.
520 days ago we were told "your son has cancer." I never thought I could feel more pain than that day. I was wrong. He still feels well. We don't know how long that will last.We're going to "suck the marrow out of life" as long as we can.
Quite literally and figuratively.Capitalize on his good days.Fill them with joy and blessing and delight.Stick his feet in the ocean and his head in the clouds.Fill his days with wonder and love.
We have to tell Sam. Although we think he knows….he is wise.We have to tell David and Yael.These are the tasks that consume us today.How do we deliver such darkness into their shiny happy world?Love. We just remind them how much we love them. Over and over...
I can’t read yesterday’s post from the blog, entitled simply "Tears," out loud. It relays Sam’s thoughts after being told that his cancer is back and that there is nothing that can be done. The first line of that posting is more than enough, “I don’t want to die.”

Devastating. Heartbreaking.

We live in a world where it is now possible to repair DNA, to use stem cells for a wide variety of amazing, even miraculous, outcomes. We can restart hearts, fertilize human eggs, implant them, and turn them into wonderful children. We know and understand so much more, vastly more, than our ancestors did. But they understood something probably better than we do because they experienced it more often in their lives than we do in ours; 

sometimes things happen that we 
cannot control, 
cannot prevent, 
cannot change and 
cannot comprehend.

In just a couple of weeks, the night before Thanksgiving, we will celebrate the first night of Chanukah, the Festival of Light. Chanukah is a celebration of hope and light amid darkness. As we gaze upon the bright flames of the candles, we will focus on their light and remember wondrous events involving our ancestors that have enabled us to reach this day. Let us also think of and be thankful for those “miracles” that happen every day in our lives. Let us appreciate what we have and what we lack that we’re happy we do not have.

This year, I’m going to pray for a few big miracles as I think of my friends and their loved ones, give thanks for the bright lights in my life right now, and cherish those flames etched in my memory that will forever give me light.

With all of this, I indeed found myself thinking of this week’s Torah portion. In it, the angel tells Jacob that his name “will no longer be Jacob, but Israel, for [he had] wrestled with beings divine and human, and prevailed.” This week, my colleagues, friends, and I are wrestling with issues divine and human. There is no battle in which to prevail, but we’re certainly struggling and I think living up to the name of our people, Israel, a name which means wrestling with God.

May this Shabbat bring comfort to the heartbroken and peace and well-being into houses far and near.

Shabbat Shalom.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

My Words of Prayer for The Iowa Holocaust Memorial Dedication

Words of Prayer for The Iowa Holocaust Memorial Dedication
October 23, 2013
Rabbi David Kaufman

I would like to start with a special thank you to Judy Blank whose persistence, energy, enthusiasm and commitment of time and resources have brought this memorial to completion. It is an honor and a privilege to be here today.

To all who have been involved in the process of its creation, especially to Judy:

Thank you, thank you, thank you- for the many hours of contemplation, discussion, design, debate, support, construction; for dollars generously given and well spent and for open space put to good use; for bipartisan support of something that affects all of us, every race, every nation, every faith; for remembering; for a willingness to confront the concept of evil among humankind; for the strength and courage not merely to say the words, “Never again”; and for striving to prevent this kind of evil from happening to any people in any nation ever again.

The Iowa Holocaust Memorial is far more than a memorial honoring those who died during one historical period: it is a tremendously moving educational resource focusing on humankind's potential for acting inhumanely toward others and of our capacity to rise up against evil. It is not a site that makes one consider past events alone. The memorial's greatest strength is that it makes each individual think, "What can I do?"

In that vein, the words of Rabbi Tarfon come to mind, “It is not up to you to complete the work, but neither may you desist from it.” We must try. And the words of Martin Buber:

When people come to you for help, do not turn them off with pious words, saying, ‘Have faith and take your troubles to God.’ Act instead as though there were no God, as though there were only one person in the world who could help -- only yourself.

It isn’t enough to pray, though we should. It isn’t enough to hope for help, though we should. We must act as if our action alone might make all the difference.

So the motto of the United States Holocaust Memorial and Museum, a simple four words, is meaningful for us today, “What you do matters.”

What I do, what you do, what we who are gathered here do, what our state does, what our nation does matters. The real power of this particular Holocaust memorial is that not only does it remember those who died and those who saved the living, not only does it make one think about the dark events of decades ago, educating us about what happened and why, not only that, this memorial makes us consider our world today and what we should do now.

We should care about people across oceans as Iowans have long done. We should care about those suffering in Darfur, Rwanda, Bosnia and the Nuba Mountains. “Never again” should not be allowed to become again and again, not on our watch.

So I offer this prayer today:

May the words of the Iowa Holocaust Memorial be felt in our hearts when we walk through it,

May it reflect the motto of the State of Iowa, “Our liberties we prize and our rights we will maintain,” as human liberties and human rights for all people everywhere,

May people of all faiths and of every nation who read the verses etched upon its faces, see his or her own face, his or her own faith, his or her own nation and people within them,

May this memorial inspire heroic character: a conscience willing to protest injustice, to advance the cause of freedom and right, and to promote peace and understanding,

May it teach of sacrifice, of hope and not despair, of courage in the face of evil,


May it inspire generations to come not merely to remember the past and never forget, but to remember why and not let it happen again.

And let us say, Amen.

Now as we dedicate the Iowa Holocaust Memorial, it is customary in the Jewish tradition to say this prayer at a time of dedication and because its meaning is so poignant on this particular day and for this particular event, let us sing the words of the Hebrew prayer Shecheheyanu, which means, “Blessed are you, O God, sovereign of the universe, who has kept us alive, sustained us, and enabled us to reach this day.” 

Sunday, September 15, 2013

When Lightning Strikes - Yom Kippur Morning 2013

On the afternoon of June 29, Shabbat, with not a storm cloud in sight, a bolt of lightning struck three campers who were playing Frisbee at Goldman Union Camp Institute GUCI including two nine year-olds, a girl from St. Louis named Lily Hoberman, and a boy from Louisville named Noah Auerbach, as well as a 12 year-old from Cincinnati named Ethan Kadish. The lightning strike that hit the camp was the only lightning strike in the area at all according to news reports and no storm at all was close to the camp at the time. Not only was it not raining, the skies were clear but for a few clouds. This was a "bolt out of the blue."

Rabbi Ron Klotz, recently retired as Director of Goldman Union Camp Institute, wrote in his blog a little over week later that:

I guess one could say that this is an ultimate teachable moment.  I've had numerous conversations this week with friends who question, "How could God let something like this happen?" and, "How can one have faith in the midst of so much doubt?"  With the High Holy days approaching early this fall, I know that many of us will be wrestling with such questions.  When we read the Unetane Tokef on Yom Kippur..."Who shall live and who shall die.  Who by fire and who by water, etc?" 

In speaking to those who were at Goldman Union Camp when the lightning struck and seeing what went on during the weeks that followed, I think it important to discuss with you another theme of Yom Kippur. Not about the Unetaneh Tokef with its stark treatment of life and death and its troubling assumption that God decides fates, but instead I would like to speak about the theme of the afternoon Torah portion, “It is not beyond you,” not too distant, not too difficult. I do not want to talk about why lightning may have struck. Today, I want to talk about what happens when it does.

For the past twelve years, I have spent two weeks each Summer at GUCI. Of those roughly 180 days give or take a few, I probably spent a hour or more on over 100 of those days at the pool or at the sports fields within a couple hundred feet of where the lightning struck. As I stand here before you this morning, I can imagine in detail the entire day. In my mind, I can see the campers shuffling in to the dining hall for the late wake up breakfast wearing pajamas, most with flip flops on their feet. They eat bagels and cereal set out on a buffet and sit with their friends at whatever table they like. Breakfast ends and there is a short time before services begin. They go back to their cabins and dress for the day gathering at the Beit Tefilah where GUCI campers enjoy music filled services.

After services, the camp would have Kiddush over very sweet and usually very warm grape juice and do the Motzi over tiny mostly dried out pieces of Challah. Then everyone heads to get lunch. During Shabbat lunch, one can sit wherever one likes outside near the dining hall. It is a relaxing time at camp. After a brief menucha, a rest period, campers change into their swim suits and head down to the pool and sports fields. From 1:30 pm to about 4 pm, every Saturday the kids play games on the fields, swim in the pools, and, if they would like, they can attend optional mini-groups which include everything from arts and crafts to discussions about the world of Harry Potter, singing popular tunes like an opera singer, playing your belly as a musical instrument and my kids’ favorite, the Clergy Kids Support Group.

That afternoon, like every Shabbat, at 1:30 pm kids were just entering the pool, a game or two would be just beginning on the basketball courts, and half a dozen to a dozen kids would begin playing Ultimate Frisbee. There were a few clouds in the sky but not many. The sun was shining. It was a warm and sunny end of June day.

Ethan Kadish was teaching Lily Hoberman and Noah Auerbach how to play Ultimate Frisbee. Suddenly, there was a flash of light and a loud bang. A neighbor said it sounded like artillery going off. The lightning did not strike the six story high climbing tower which was a couple of hundred feet away. It did not strike the line of trees near-by, nor the basketball courts, where a game was underway. Instead, the lightning struck three children playing Frisbee on a sun drenched field. From this point on, I cannot imagine. It is difficult for me to even visualize what happened next even after hearing about it from multiple people.

That is, however, what I think is vitally important to discuss. What do we do when there is a bolt out of the blue in our lives? Would we be prepared to face the challenge?

It just so happens that only a few days before the lightning struck, some members of the camp staff had finished their recertification for CPR. At least one of them was playing basketball not much more than a hundred feet away. There were a number of other staff members who also knew CPR who were nearby. All three campers received CPR within a minute and all three of camp’s Automated External Defibrillators or AEDs, were put into use shortly thereafter.

The Monday morning after the lightning struck, I had not seen much of anything written about what happened. I had seen the very brief statements from Goldman Union Camp and I listened to a conference call during which Rabbi Covitz read a prepared statement that offered less information than could be found in the Indianapolis Star. As it became clear that it was only the response of the staff of the camp that saved the lives of the three children and I read postings from friends on staff at the camp praising the actions of their friends that day, I was inspired to write an article about it on my blog. The article, “A Bolt Out of the Blue,” ended up being shared widely by the URJ and by Goldman Union Camp and read by thousands of people from around the world including hundreds of my colleagues and parents and alumni of camp. Most importantly, as I found out later, my article helped bring comfort to the leadership and staff at camp.

As I wrote in my article, when the lightning struck:

Life sometimes gives people the opportunity to demonstrate their best. On this day of challenge, in perhaps the most stressful moments of urgency that will occur during their lifetimes, [the first responders] showed that the preparation and training, compassion and passion, which have long been the hallmarks of Goldman Union Camp and its staff, when put into action can make a difference not just in theory but in real life.

Preparation, both preparing of appropriate skills and emotional preparation, helps. Feeling like you can accomplish the necessary task, feeling like you can make a difference, matters. Goldman Union Camp does a good job of making its campers feel empowered as Jews and ultimately as members of their communities. The staff of the camp includes many who have spent over ten summers at camp as campers, as part of Avodah, the camp service corps, as assistant counselors, counselors and leadership staff. Some on staff have spent upwards of fifteen summers at camp, coming as children with their rabbi parents and attending the camp for young children, Camp Katan. GUCI has had a major impact in developing the character of those who now serve on its staff.

As I wrote that day:

Every morning at GUCI, the camp sings “L’takein”, also known as the “Na Na Song” because of its introductory chorus. These are the words written by Danny Nichols [a well known Jewish musician who tours the nation every summer visiting camp after camp] someone who has been a part of the GUCI community since childhood. His words inspire the faculty, staff, counselors and campers at GUCI every day. [The song is but two lines long.]

Baruch atah Adonai Eloheinu melech ha’olam shenatan lanu hizdamnut l’takein et ha’olam!
Blessed are you, Adonai, our God, Ruler of the Universe, who has given us the opportunity to mend the world!

Sometimes, as the Summer drags on and the morning seems to come all too early, the hands may not be raised as high up in the air or sway as much from side to side, but the sentiment seeps into the thoughts of those who hear it. Each morning, those at camp hear, “I have the opportunity to mend the world today.”

Most of the time, the listeners probably think of large scale social action such as feeding the hungry or helping the environment. Some of them may realize that the words could apply to helping make their cabins better, their friends happier. Everyone at camp, all of the campers, all of the counselors, hear those words every morning. As I said in my blog:

Simply put, when [the] opportunity came with urgency on [one] Shabbat afternoon, people imbued with the concept that they could mend the world, saved the lives of three children.

Many of you have asked how the students affected by the lightning are doing.
Noah Auerbach from The Temple in Louisville, Kentucky suffered relatively minor injuries. When he returned to camp with his family for the final Shabbat of the first session so that he could thank the first responders and say a proper good bye to his cabin mates, counselors, and other good friends, he showed off the burned area on his foot where the lightning left his body.

Lily Hoberman from Congregation Shaare Emeth in St. Louis suffered slightly worse injuries, including more burns. On the Friday night that Noah Auerbach visited camp with his family, Lily Hoberman attended Shabbat services at home and in front of a very packed congregation there to support her, recited the Birkat Hagomel, the blessing for one who has recovered from a serious illness. Imagine a nine year old girl whose heart had stopped beating a week earlier standing in front of her congregation reciting these words:

Baruch Atah Adonai Eloheinu Melech ha'olam, ha-gomel l’hayavim tovot sheg’malani kol tov.
Blessed are You, Adonai our God, ruler of the world,
who rewards with goodness,
and who has rewarded me with goodness.
According to an article in the St. Louis Jewish Light,

Michelle Hoberman, Lily’s mother, said of the swift response of GUCI’s camp counselors and staff, “they literally saved her life. One young man, a wilderness specialist at the camp from Pittsburgh, administered CPR and shocked Lily back to life. He was the angel who saved her. Another young man from Cincinnati, Ohio, a college student, was there to assist him. Without those first responders, without those counselors, the result would not have been the same. They were trained so well. I am so happy that we got to meet the people who saved our children.

The Hobermans, along with the parents of the other two campers who were injured, the Auerbachs of Louisville, Ky. and the Kadishes of Cincinnati, issued a joint statement thanking camp counselors and staff.

“Their extensive training and the camp’s preparedness allowed them to be life savers when the urgent need arose. The way in which URJ quickly responded by bringing together the support staff and senior leadership was phenomenal and we are grateful for them for maintaining the safety and security of our children and for other concerned campers.”

With an outpouring of support and a desire to donate funds following the event, the three families created the Miracle Kids Medical and Rescue Fund at GUCI to help fund the annual rescue training of the staff and to provide new and additional medical equipment for camp.

The leadership of the Union for Reform Judaism demonstrated a high level of caring and concern both for the families of the affected children and for the staff at camp. Immediately after the event a senior staff team including the Director of Camping and a leading crisis counselor came to GUCI to provide support for the staff there as they addressed the psychological impact of the event on both their campers and themselves.

While the recoveries of Noah and Lily were relatively swift and complete, Ethan Kadish faces many challenges ahead. Evidently taking the brunt of the impact of the lightning, Ethan’s injuries were much more severe and his recovery will be measured in increments over many months and years. He suffered a traumatic brain injury in addition to other ailments that have left him unable to speak or move voluntarily as of yet and he requires hours of therapy each day. The URJ recently sent out a letter asking for funds to be donated to Help Hope Live, a catastrophic injury fund, in the name of Ethan Kadish to help the family pay for his extreme medical bills in the years ahead, bills that have and will continue to dramatically exceed the cap of available insurance coverage.

One morning, while I was at camp, Danny Nichols, who spent the week at camp, and Camp Director Mark Covitz drove to Cincinnati to visit Ethan and his family in the hospital. Ethan’s younger sister was also there with her parents and brother. She had been attending camp along with her brother and had remained at camp during the week after the lightning strike. The family members, associated with GUCI for many years, are big fans of Danny Nichols and are particularly fond of his song, “Chazak.” Danny recorded a special version of the song and dedicated it to Ethan. The chorus of the song is “Chazak, Chazak, v’nithazek. Be strong, be strong, and we’ll strengthen one another.” These are the words we traditionally say when we finish reading a book of the Torah.

Danny Nichols sang the song with the family at Ethan’s bedside and I can only imagine the strength of the emotions present. Recently, I contacted Alexia Kadish, Ethan’s mother, letting her know that our congregation sends its prayers to her family and for her son’s continued healing. The family greatly appreciates the outpouring of support that they have received from our congregation and from many others. Today, we continue to think of the Kadish family and wish them strength and courage as they face the challenges ahead. I think as well of Rabbi Sissy Coran and the rest of the staff of Rockdale Temple in Cincinnati who have been of immense support to the family since the lightning struck. Chazak, Chazak, v’Nitchazeik. Be strong, be strong, and we will strengthen one another.

I concluded my article written two days after the lightning struck with words in which, having heard more about what happened since, I have even more confidence. That Monday, I wrote:

There are going to be times in our lives, hopefully very few, when we will be struck by a bolt out of the blue, suddenly confronted by a difficult challenge. For most of us, those words will only be idiomatic. For three children on a Shabbat afternoon at camp, it literally happened to them. When such an occurrence happens to us, may we be blessed to be among those who have the compassion and care to reassure us as we face the difficulty and the ability to help us to overcome the challenge. [That] Saturday afternoon, Goldman Union Camp Institute proved what I have known for many years: that it is such a place. It is why I send my kids to camp, why I spend time on faculty at camp, and why I encourage others to send their kids to camp. GUCI is a special place and its faculty and staff are exceptional people.

It is my hope that I, our staff, and you the members of our congregation and our community will be able to provide compassion, caring, support and comfort to each one of us individually and to each of our families during our times of need as well. That is the kind of environment that we work to create and maintain.

When lightning strikes, we put our preparation into action. We rely on the people with whom we have surrounded ourselves, our friends, our neighbors, our congregation, our community. We pray and we hope. We cry. We hug. We seek out support. Like the Kadish family does through Ethan’s Caring Bridge page, we offer thanks for the blessings that we have even amid the curses we have faced. We go on, though it may be difficult or more than difficult.

This High Holidays, I have spoken to you four times. On Rosh Hashanah, I noted that we should care about what is going on in the world and act to make our world a better place. Last night, I spoke about what it means to “Love your neighbor as yourself.” All of the sermons that I have offered this year tie in to this one. They are all at their heart about one theme: preparing yourself to be ready to help others and to give them strength when they most need it. If you are ready to care and ready to act, you can be of help when lightning strikes. You can help to strengthen others.

Today we join with those around the country sending strength and comfort to the family of Ethan Kadish and let us make the promise to work to strengthen one another. It is not beyond us, nor too distant, nor too difficult.

May this year be a year in which we bring blessings into the lives of others.

Gamar Chatimah Tovah, may we help to inscribe one another in the book of our lives for a good year. Good yom tov.

Whatever Happened to Love Thy Neighbor? Kol Nidrei Sermon 2013

I have to admit that I am a big fan of Mel Brooks’ comedies. They are anything but politically correct, making fun of stereotype after stereotype. From the Producers  to Spaceballs, from History of the World Part I to Blazing Saddles, Brooks’ movies make us laugh, but they also make us think about the world in which we live and how we treat one another. Often, they make us cringe. As a recent PBS documentary noted, “Mel Brooks never met a stereotype he couldn’t upend.”

Perhaps, his most politically incorrect work is Blazing Saddles. Released in 1974, the film starred Cleavon Little as a Black Sheriff named Bart, no doubt after the famous outlaw “Black Bart.” Bart is full of Yiddishkeit and sophistication. He works alongside sidekick Gene Wilder and the people of a small western town to oppose the machinations of Harvey Korman aided by a very racist and ignorant Slim Pickens. Along the way, racist stereotype after racist stereotype is confronted head on. Brought to light, they appear absurdly ignorant and silly, but throughout the movie the viewer is confronted with the reality that some people really act this way and believe this stuff.

There are many verbal exchanges in the film that are very funny, very pointed, and very much inappropriate for a High Holiday sermon, but there is one story that I would like to share. It begins with a knock on the side window of the Sheriff’s office.

[Bart gets up and sees the same woman who insulted him earlier]

Elderly Woman: Good evening, Sherriff. Sorry about the (Insult and racial epithet) I offered earlier.

[Many of you know the exact words of that insult. Tonight, on Kol Nidrei, let us operate under the Jewish premise, Hu mei-vin Ya-vin, the one who understands will understand… She continued].  

I hope this apple pie will in some small way say thank you for your ingenuity and courage in defeating that horrible Mongo.
Bart: Well, uh... thank you, much obliged. Good night.

[Bart closes the window and smells the pie... but returns to the window when he hears another knock]

Elderly Woman: Of course, you'll have the good taste not to mention that I spoke to you.

Bart: Of course.

Elderly Woman: Thank you.

The bigger picture, pardon the pun, within the movie is a very Jewish narrative. Bart and his fellow railroad workers, all with dark skin of course, are driven by a taskmaster who does not value their lives at all. Bart strikes the overseer and flees. The narrative diverges of course, the move is a cowboy spoof, but throughout—with its outlandish violations of political correctness—one theme develops: When people of all sorts work together, they can overcome those who discriminate and hate. That message remains as appropriate for today as it was nearly 40 years ago.

Tonight, I would like to talk a bit about discrimination in our day and age and then I will answer two questions. How do we overcome hatred based upon difference? And bringing it into the context of Yom Kippur, whatever happened to ‘Love thy neighbor as thyself’, the directive that we read in tomorrow’s Torah portion?”

Where we are today?

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. famously said, “The moral arc of the universe bends toward justice.” In response, at the 50th anniversary of March on Washington and Dr. King’s “I have a Dream speech,” President Obama stated that, “The arc of the moral universe may bend towards justice, but it doesn’t bend on its own,” one of the better statements concerning civil rights that I have heard.

As I look back at this past year with Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman, with battles over Same Sex Marriage and Immigration Reform, with voter restriction efforts reminiscent of the early 1960s, I wonder how much of an arc there is at all. It appears as if the arc of the moral universe has been running pretty much parallel to justice for a very long time, never getting too close or at times rebounding in the other direction. In fact, sometimes, like when discussing the absence of concern about children dying in conflicts overseas, one wonders whether or not the “moral arc of the universe” curves at all.

I would more confidently say that there is a “moral arc within our lives.” We relate to those around us, to our family, our friends, but not necessarily to our universe, to all of humanity or all of creation. We are far more angered by relatively small injustices close to home than by massive injustices committed at a distance. We tend to care much more about our neighborhood and our neighbors than about others further away. We care even more by things affecting people whom we have met in person. Our personal moral arc is more likely to bend toward justice for them.

So what happens when our lives consist of waking up in the morning, driving to work alone in our cars, working in a cubicle or small office, interacting in person with few others at work to any substantial degree and then returning home? We might interact with a few people on Facebook, send a few emails, make a few phone calls, but too often for most of us, our actual person to person interactions are very limited both in number and duration. While we may indeed interact with those who are different from us, we are almost certain to avoid talking about that difference, especially if it makes us uncomfortable.

I’m not telling you to go out and act like the Elderly Woman in Blazing Saddles by confronting difference by airing discriminatory views, but I am going to tell you that avoiding addressing them or only doing so by looking at Google search results online, as those of us who are younger are wont to do, is not going to have the same impact as personal interaction. There is a big difference between speaking to a Sudanese refugee from Darfur about what it is like being an African Muslim in Des Moines and looking up “African Muslims in America” online. You may get a very different answer if you ask a Muslim woman why she is wearing a Hijab, a head scarf, than you would if you look it up with Bing. And if you look up different views about issues related to Judaism, after scrolling down through multiple links taking you to ultra-Orthodox websites which make no effort to represent Reform or Conservative perspectives, what answers you may find may not only confuse you, but could well mislead or anger you.

This brings me to the discussion to which I had the privilege to listen between Leon Wieseltier and David Wolpe about the Jewish people today when I attended a program for rabbis put on by AIPAC in Washington DC in August. Wieseltier began with an observation that defines our age. He said that:

“The Internet is the greatest attack on human attention—and Judaism is largely based upon attention and constancy of mind.” ADHD is not the disorder. Attention is now the disorder.

It is certainly humorous, but the implication isn’t. By this, Wieseltier meant that the practice of Judaism in general is under threat because Judaism requires regular participation in person and over a period of time. We, especially the younger generations, hardly do anything regularly over a period of time. Further, Judaism mandates that we be focused on what we are doing, that we pray with intentionality. In the internet age, we are easily distracted. We quickly click and look and then click and look away just as swiftly.

But the threat from the internet that Wieseltier noted is greater still:

You don’t support institutions with a click. You don’t support institutions by visiting the webpage. You support institutions by maintaining the boiler. Judaism operates in places and places need maintaining. We are a physical people.

Obviously, he was more than implying that there is an essential financial component. We need institutions and we need to be able to maintain them. We are also a people with the concept of a minyan. In the Jewish tradition, when ten Jews gather, the presence of God is with them, the dynamic changes. Connection to other Jews is vitally important and the primary place where that connection should happen is in our synagogues.

At the recent opening of this year’s Sunday school program, it was noted that an individual child being absent from class does not just affect that child’s ability to learn, it impacts others as well. In small groups, the absence of one child can make all the difference in another child feeling comfortable in attending or participating. We know this affects youth group activities as well. Kids want to know if their friends will be attending.
This doesn’t stop when we graduate from high school. Even as adults we feel much more comfortable seeing friendly faces and this is all the more true when we are feeling sad, insecure, or have something we are excited to share. Think for a moment about the times when people feel the greatest need to attend services. You got it. It is exactly at those times when we feel sad, insecure, or when we have something going on in our lives that we feel excited to share. The basic reason for a congregational community to exist is to be there at those moments. That is part of fulfilling the commandment “Love thy neighbor as thyself.” If we want that support, we should be there for others.

In that vein, there is the story of the supposedly religious Jew and avid golfer who decides to play golf all by himself on Yom Kippur instead of sitting through services and hits a hole in one. He’s so excited that he can hardly contain it. He shouts to God, “Thank you God! I’ve played for many years and finally, finally, I hit a hole in one. I thought, ‘God will strike me down for playing on Yom Kippur,’ but look! Look what happened today. The sun is shining. No one is out here to slow me down or hurry me up. And I hit a hole in one! You are so gracious, God. Thank you for not punishing me. I finally hit a hole in one!”

A voice calls down from heaven, “Who are you going to tell?”

We want to share our accomplishments and our joys. It is torturous for the golfer who hits a hole in one on Yom Kippur not to be able to share his joy. It is not all that different for those of us who have something we are eager to share to have no one with whom to share it. And let’s be honest, sharing it online isn’t the same as getting a high five from a good friend. We know well that there is an essential dynamic when we gather with other people, especially with our friends, that isn’t there when we are sitting alone in front of our computers at home or in our office. Hanging out with friends in person is far superior to a Google Hangout and that is much better that clicking the “like” button when your friend posts something on Facebook.

When it comes to liking life, clicking “like” isn’t going to get the job done.

It is not just that we need to put into action the directive to “Love thy neighbor as thyself.” We need to make sure we have neighbors in our lives. We need to interact with other people.
A significant nuance should not be overlooked. The term “v’ahavtah” does not mean “love” as in “like” or “appreciate.” It really means “be devoted to” or “act like you care about.” It is not an emotional term but a term of action. The “V’ahavtah” reading which follows the Sh’ma in every service is not about “Liking God no matter what you are doing,” though that is a nice sentiment. It is about “acting like you care about what God expects of you” no matter what you are doing or where you are or when. V’ahavtah l’rei-ekha kamokha, “Love thy neighbor as thyself” really means “Act like you care about your neighbor as much as you care about yourself.” It is a statement about how we should treat other people more than it is about how we should feel about them.

The problem, of course, is that we all too easily develop the belief that very few people whom we know well, or only a certain kind of people, qualify as our neighbors. We equip ourselves to treat others differently than we would want to be treated. The Jewish tradition is constantly working to correct that and throughout the year, we are reminded to “Remember the stranger for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”

We were just like those different people over there. We were just like the new people who moved into our neighborhood, the new kid at school, the new employee at work. We were just like that woman dressed differently, that man from a distant land having trouble speaking our language. We have been the “them” for generation after generation. We know what it is like to be oppressed and yearn for freedom. We know what it is like to be bullied and praying for strength. We know what it is like to not be called “neighbor” and to not be treated with care. We know from over three thousand years of history how that feels. It is in that context we are to hear “Love thy neighbor as thyself.”

I am not going to tell you to stop sharing your joys and your sadness with “friends” on Facebook, some or many of whom, you may not really know. I am telling you that you need more than that in your life. I’m reminding you that life is much better lived not in isolation but among friends and neighbors. And that if you work at getting to know strangers, you might make them neighbors and friends.

And one last thing—a vitally important thing to mention on this night: tonight we come before God asking God to be gracious to us, to pardon our failings, to treat us kindly and generously, to be merciful. Our tradition challenges us: How can we ask that for ourselves if we are not willing to act that way toward others? To an extent, this day is all about those five words, “Love thy neighbor as thyself.”

Shanah Tovah and G’mar Hatimah Tovah!

May we all be inscribed and sealed in the Book of Life for a good and happy year!

Thursday, September 5, 2013

Difficult Choices: Israel, America, and Syria

Rosh Hashanah Morning 2013-5774

This Rosh Hashanah, we are concerned about events in Syria and in particular about upcoming votes in Congress related to President Obama’s request to intervene in Syria to stop the use of chemical weapons against the civilian population.

Israelis from across the political spectrum have reacted similarly. In fact, outrage and calls for action are coming most strongly from traditional doves.

In the words of Israeli President Shimon Peres:

The world cannot accept genocide and slaughter of children and women… Assad is not his people’s leader – he is a murderer of children.

Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu, certainly not a dove, said:

The events in Syria prove that the world’s most dangerous regimes must not be allowed to gain possession of the world’s most dangerous arms. 

Ari Shavit, veteran analyst from Ha’aretz, Israel’s very much left leaning daily and very much a dove argued that:

If civilians can be gassed to death in 2013, we face the end of the world. It’s the end of the world that purports to be moral and enlightened.

Secretary of State, John Kerry, speaking to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Tuesday said that:

This is not the time to be spectators to slaughter. Neither our country nor our conscience can afford the cost of silence.

Silence in relation to the mass killing of civilians is of significant importance to Jews in the aftermath of the Holocaust. We should care. Holocaust survivor Eli Wiesel stated in his 1986 Nobel Prize acceptance speech:

I swore never to be silent whenever and wherever human beings endure suffering and humiliation. We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented … There may be times when we are powerless to prevent injustice, but there must never be a time when we fail to protest.

Speaking of protesters, an article from NBC News on Tuesday noted that:

Several anti-war protesters interrupted the Senate hearing on Tuesday, prompting [Sec.] Kerry to say the day's events reminded him of his 1971 testimony about the war in Vietnam.

"Nobody wants this war! Cruise missiles, launching cruise missiles means another war -- the American people do not want this!" said Medea Benjamin, [the founder of Code Pink], one of the protesters. 

[Sec. Kerry then continued speaking to the committee noting], “You know, the first time that I testified before this committee, when I was 27 years old, I had feelings very similar to that protester, and I would just say that is exactly why it is so important that we are here having this debate. And I think we all can respect those who have a different point of view, and we do.”

Two things of note: first, our own Elton Davis was there Tuesday protesting against the proposed use of military force alongside Medea Benjamin; second, on the Code Pink website, there is an article noting that Medea Benjamin herself protested in front of the Syrian embassy in April of 2011 and said at that time, almost a year and a half ago:

The shameless slaughter of Syrians civilians by their own government has been making headlines for months. We call upon the Syrian embassy to demand its government stop this senseless violence and give the people of Syria the freedom that they seek.

The senseless violence has become far, far worse since then.

Addressing concerns that the reports of chemical weapons use might not be factual, Sec. Kerry noted:

We are especially sensitive, Chuck [meaning Secretary of Defense, Chuck Hagel] and I, to never again asking any member of Congress to take a vote on faulty intelligence...I repeat here again today that only the most willful desire to avoid reality can assert that this did not occur as described or that the regime did not do it. It did happen. And the Assad regime did it.
Senator Robert Menendez, Chair of the Committee and a New Jersey Democrat, said in response:

I voted against the war in Iraq and strongly support the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan. But today, I support the president's decision to use military force in the face of this horrific crime against humanity.

The Senate resolution authorizing President Barack Obama to use military force against Syria as it is currently worded would bar American ground troops for combat operations and limit the duration of any action. Some members of Congress and I am sure members of this congregation disagree with any military action by the United States in Syria. Others may agree with Senator McCain that what is proposed is not strong enough. This is far from being a simple choice.

How do the choices we have made in the past affect us as Jews? As Americans? How do we address the challenges confronting us? Those are the questions that are before us today.

Forty years ago, Israel faced some of those difficult choices.

Six years after the seemingly miraculous victory of the 1967 Six Day War during which Israel tripled in size, conquered the historical capital of Jerusalem, and defeated the combined Arab armies with relative ease, a level of pride, contentment, complacency and even arrogance reigned. Then came Yom Kippur Day, 1973 and the Yom Kippur War.

Egypt moved its forces deep into the Sinai and Syria attacked Israeli defensive positions in the Golan. Israel was not prepared and lost ground quickly. But the tide of the war changed rapidly and Israel regained and then gained ground.
Two weeks after it began, the War was over with Israeli forces poised to attack both of the capitals of its enemies, being within forty miles of Cairo and ten miles of Damascus.

In relation to most military conflicts throughout history, this war would be seen as an overwhelming military victory. Yet, it is not seen that way by most Israelis and the reason why is vital to understand.

During the 1973 War Israel lost 2,500 soldiers. That is proportionately like the US losing 250,000 soldiers and all of those soldiers died over barely more than two weeks, most within the first hours of the war! In addition, there was the realization that the situation could have been much worse.

The impact of the Yom Kippur War upon the psyche of the people of Israel was profound and has endured. The political left and right responded in two primary ways which have defined Israeli foreign policy ever since.

The political left came to believe that the war happened because of Israel’s arrogance and its dependence upon military strength. Thus, the Labor party began a pursuit of improved relations with Israel’s neighboring states and a focus on diplomatic efforts more broadly. Eventually, this point of view led directly to the Oslo Peace Process and outreach to Egypt and Jordan.

The political right came to believe that the war was a result of Israel letting its guard down, a result of complacency and weakness of will. They believe the same was the cause of the 2nd Intifada following the failed Camp David negotiations in 2000 and the various Gaza conflicts over the past decade. Thus the Likud, while believing that good relations with Israel’s neighbors are important, has acted from a “security first, diplomacy second” position, believing that a secure Israel is in a better position to relate to its neighbors.

Of vital importance, support for seeking American approval before Israel takes action in its defense, something that prevented it from striking the assembled Syrian and Egyptian forces before they began their assault, is virtually non-existent across the political spectrum. If Israel feels that it must act on its own to ensure its security, it has and will in the future. This is true whether a left leaning or right leaning administration is in power in Israel or in America. That said Israel greatly appreciates American support if it feels a need to act against perceived threats and is reassured when it feels that it can trust that promises about maintaining Israel’s security made by the United States will be kept.

Needless to say, the widely varied positions taken by Israelis on any issue are reflected in the diverse opinions of Jews worldwide on those same issues, but with important differences.

Within the United States opinions regarding Israel are generally, but not always, filtered through a Republican or Democratic lens, through our nation’s history of military action, successes and failures, or through our individual perspectives as Jews. For Americans, three different events have come to define our political psyche and our attitude toward difficult foreign policy choices in particular. Forty and a half years ago, the last American soldiers were withdrawn from Vietnam. Twelve years ago next week, on September 11, our nation was attacked by Al Qaeda affiliated terrorists. Then a decade ago, the Bush Administration along with some of our European allies made the case for war based upon the belief that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction and we went to war in Iraq.

These past choices and impactful events significantly affect the way that each of us, Israeli and American, view the world and the difficult choices we face today.

All of us Jews can speak of two thousand years of oppression, persecution, exile and genocide, but in Israel there is always the fear of being in the sights of those who could try to make it happen again. We American Jews can draw on collective histories, familial histories, perhaps even personal histories, of traumatic experiences as Jews, but these same issues impact Israelis differently because of Israel’s strategic situation today.

While we American Jews look at the situation facing Israel and focus ongoing peace talks and our hopes for a swift resolution, Israelis are primarily thinking about three things, “The Iranian proxy regime in Syria, the Iranian backed militia in Lebanon-Hizballah, and the Iranian nuclear weapons program.” “Iran, Iran, Iran.” To dialogue about Israeli security concerns without beginning with Iran is, to many Israelis, like talking about lawn care with someone whose house is in danger of burning down. Though, increasingly you could add growing concerns about Egypt into the discussion.

Today both the arrogance and complacency present in Israel prior to the Yom Kippur War are gone. Both sides of the spectrum are anxious about the future, very much so in fact, not only in the long term but in the relatively short term, which brings us back to the present.

On Tuesday, the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations came out in favor of the administration’s position that some response to Syria was necessary. The Obama Administration as well as leaders of both the Democratic and Republican parties in the House and the Senate had urged American Jewish organizations to offer support for the lobbying effort.

AIPAC, which stands for the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee, issued a press release about Syria which stated that:

Simply put, barbarism on a mass scale must not be given a free pass…

No few on both sides of the political spectrum have noted that there are dire implications of having President Obama say that Syrian use of chemical weapons would cross a “red line” and then having Secretary of State Kerry discussing the severe consequences of such an action be followed by “We didn’t really mean it.” That could do massive damage to American deterrence in relation to every conflict for a long time to come and undermine the confidence in America among friends and enemies alike.

Some have asked, why have we not strongly protested or even acted when these weapons were used in past conflicts? Or why does it not matter equally when large numbers of civilians are killed by conventional weapons or by intentional starvation as they are in Sudan? To me, the answers are we should have protested and it very much does matter. That is part of why I do the anti-genocide work that I do.

Some have asked, “What is our strategic objective in Syria?”

AIPAC stated what appears to be the strategic objective of the Obama Administration, namely to deter the Assad regime in Syria from ever using WMDs again and to discourage anyone else from ever using them. I think we all realize that is an ambitious goal and that limited action might not achieve it. There is certainly valid debate about how we may protest and how we may take action.

To me, the situation comes down to three words to which I have a visceral emotional response: “Government, Gassing, Children.” I cannot advocate for America to stand idly by, even though I feel that we need to avoid significantly involving ourselves in a civil war being fought by two sides that are both hostile to us, an Iranian backed Syrian government and Muslim Brotherhood dominated and heavily Al Qaeda influenced rebels.

Yet, we cannot allow weapons of genocide to be used without consequence or else we will see them used more often in more places. They are weapons of convenience for superior military powers, allowing willing governments to kill everyone in a geographical area without risk to their own forces. Modest use will become frequent use if there is no response at all.

Some will say, “But we cannot be the police of the world.” The Jewish tradition says that in a place where there are no human beings, be a human being. Our mission is to be the light unto the nations, not to accept being part of the darkness.

Fifty years ago, Rabbi Joachim Prinz spoke at the March on Washington immediately before the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. gave his “I have a Dream speech.” Speaking of injustice, Rabbi Prinz offered these words:
When I was the rabbi of the Jewish community in Berlin under the Hitler regime, I learned many things. The most important thing that I learned under those tragic circumstances was that bigotry and hatred are not 'the most urgent problem.’ The most urgent, the most disgraceful, the most shameful and the most tragic problem is silence.
A great people which had created a great civilization had become a nation of silent onlookers. They remained silent in the face of hate, in the face of brutality and in the face of mass murder.
America must not become a nation of onlookers. America must not remain silent. 
We will differ on how the United States should act. But we agree, Code Pink and AIPAC, that there is a shameless slaughter ongoing in Syria and it must be stopped. Our difficult choice is not whether or not to do something, to protest, to respond, but how we must respond.

Between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, we contemplate choices that we have made and those we are considering today. This morning, we read the story of the Binding of Isaac, a story of Abraham’s choice to follow what he believed he must do to please the divine and of Isaac’s willingness to follow. On Yom Kippur morning, we read of blessings and curses, hearing that the choice is ours. “Choose life,” we are told, so that we and our descendants may endure.

As a collection, the stories that we hear during the High Holidays remind us that sometimes we face challenges and decisions that we would rather not have to make, that our choices affect the blessings and curses in our lives and even whether or not we continue to be blessed with life itself.

Sometimes the choices and challenges that confront us in life are very difficult indeed. Not making a decision is also a decision. The consequences of our inaction, of our silence, of our neutrality would be profound now and into the future.

Should our nation choose to act against Syria, we hope that innocents in Syria will not suffer on our account and that the people of the nation of Israel will not have to pay the price in retaliation for our actions. May there not be a second Yom Kippur War.

Shanah Tovah Tikateivu!

May we all be written in the Book of Life for a good, sweet, peaceful and happy New Year!