Friday, May 15, 2020

Reopening, Masks, Fear, and Courage

Friends, I appreciate all of the support and appreciation for what I said at the event for faith leaders (I speak 36 minutes in) and what I said on CNN with Don Lemon the other night. It's always nice to feel appreciated. I feel I need to clarify a few things.

First, I truly appreciated the opportunity to be able to share my thoughts and those of the Jewish community with the Vice President, Governor, and our Senators. That is an opportunity that doesn't come around very often in any circumstance. I am thankful and feel honored that I was considered and invited. I thank Gov. Reynolds and the White House for giving me the opportunity. We need dialogue that includes different points of view. That needs to be encouraged, especially in this polarized political climate. That said, even more diversity of respectful viewpoints would have been better. I was the only non-Christian clergy member in the group.

Second, I wore a mask at the event because as I stated on CNN Tonight, I wear one whenever I'm going out and going to be around people I am not normally around. Having survived bypass surgery, courage is going out and doing things while wearing a mask. It doesn't require being foolhardy and taking unnecessary risks. The greatest thing we have to fear, isn’t fear itself, it’s reality. We all need to address our reality in our own way. Those who have health concerns should consider wearing masks regardless of whether or not they're significantly afraid of getting COVID, just like people with risk factors for heart disease should consider keeping their Cholesterol low whether or not they think they’re at high risk for an immanent heart attack. Adapting to risk isn’t a sign of fear, it’s wisdom.

Those who have been around people who are known to have COVID should consider wearing masks, not because they think they're ill, but because they want to protect the health of those they come into contact with in case they are ill. A cloth mask may reduce your risk of inhaling viral material, though it is not as effective as a medical grade n95 mask, but it definitely helps prevent you from breathing, coughing, shouting, singing, or sneezing large droplets across a room.

Peer pressure, including political peer pressure, can be dangerous here, if it discourages those who should be wearing a mask from doing so, because they want their friends to like them, because it isn't comfortable to wear a mask and any excuse not to is easy to take, or because "they don't want to appear afraid."

Additionally, there are people who can't or shouldn't wear a mask because of their own health concerns. Rather than suggesting that such people not go out of their homes or that they accept grave risk, those of us who can wear a mask can do so to lessen their risk of catching COVID from us.

Third, I do not understand why wearing masks around our state and national officials is not required standard security protocol right now. We can debate whether or not the President, Vice President, or Governor should wear a mask themselves during a press conference or program and under what circumstances, with all sorts of arguments that can be made that they should be able to speak without them with certain protective measures like proper social distancing having been taken, but it really makes little sense at all that others who are attending in whatever fashion, as staff, as journalists, as clergy sharing their thoughts, or in any other way should even have the option not to wear one when around those leaders. 

Our elected officials have security personnel in place to prevent harm from coming to them and many measures are taken to prevent disruptions in the chain of command. A single person with COVID, even without a fever, could start coughing and within days put a political leader in the hospital or worse. Don't get me started about the obvious fact that people can take medicine to lower their temperatures, making the on the spot tests at events and programs highly unreliable, and expel a huge sneeze in a room full of important people. Even if the leaders just have to self-isolate for a few days, it is a disruption in leadership. Why isn't wearing a mask around them then a security issue? And around the VP and President wouldn’t it be a matter of national security? In fact, one could argue that this would be the case around the vitally important leaders of the task forces that are in place to help us fight the epidemic as well.

Wearing masks around people who might be vulnerable, and you may well not know who is vulnerable, should be expected, not just encouraged, for anyone who cares about the health of other people. In other words, for a while to come, in crowds of strangers, everyone should be wearing masks when they can and maintaining physical distance, especially if they can’t wear a mask or if they choose not to wear one for whatever reason, such as will be the case for diners in reopened restaurants.

Fourth, mitigation efforts were put in place to keep our hospitals from being overwhelmed. Restrictions on freedom are not tolerable for long and the idea that states of emergency can be maintained indefinitely without any legal challenges is anathema to democracy. We consider those concerns alongside the principle of pikuach nefesh in the Jewish tradition, saving a life. Our synagogues and temples aren't going to swiftly return to normal just because we're free to do so, if we wanted. Could is not Should.

We have significant numbers of people who attend our in-person services who are particularly vulnerable because of age or medical conditions. Many are elderly. No few attend because they’re facing health challenges. Others come because they’re thankful for finally overcoming them. We like to hug, which we cannot do right now. We like to have communal meals, which we cannot do right now. Our services are based on singing and chanting, which we cannot do right now.

We urgently want to return to anything like normalcy, but right now what we’re able to do in online services, singing and seeing each other’s smiles, celebrating Kiddush at the end of services with glasses held high together, is much closer to normal than what we would be able to do in person with social distancing, masks, and concerns about choral and communal singing. We have a history of adapting to challenging environments and we are up to the task in this one as well.

We will need to have people able to get back to work. The calculus that I’ve seen of “even if it saves one life” doesn’t work. Lockdowns are costing lives as well, some from depression and anxiety, some from people not going to the doctor or not taking care of their health in other ways including not being able to easily get away from abusive situations at home, and others will be lost from the impact of economic hardship in the aftermath of this, including ones lost because state and federal income along with income of vital institutions will be severely impacted until well after the economy begins to recover, harming the ability to maintain and fund helpful programs,. So many beloved communal institutions that are desired and needed are being crushed by extreme financial shortfalls.

Yes, if we open too soon and without proper precautions, we could see a return to concerns about rising cases. We could open up and then have to close down again. We know that spread will increase as we reopen our economy and people physically interact. That is certain. But there are also grave consequences for remaining closed.

None of this is simple. We need to work together. It is important to “reopen” safely and responsibly. We need to focus attention on those who are most at risk, but understand that everyone, including children, is at some risk, potentially other than those who have immunity from having had COVID and recovered from it, if that really provides lasting immunity (and assuming we have a reliable test). We need readily available PPE and we need easily accessible rapid testing. Some things realistically can't happen until we have a vaccine. 

We cannot go through life avoiding all risk. But we don’t need to be foolhardy either. 

Wear a mask appropriately. Keep social distancing. Keep washing your hands.

Reach out to your family and friends. Support those who are in need.

Take care of your health, mental and physical.

Be gracious to people as well. We don’t all see things the same way. Some readers are without a doubt thinking of arguments against some of the points that I have made. Be willing to listen to the views and concerns of others as much as you are to share your own opinions. And give people a break! 

We’re all stressed out. Even though you may be super on edge, others may even be worse off. That stressed out grumpy person in the store may be unable to visit a family member in the ICU or maybe just lost a job and is wondering how they’re going to pay for groceries next month.

People who you know are going to get sick. You might, yourself.

People who you know may even be hospitalized. You might, yourself.

Many of us already have had people near and dear to us die of COVID.

This has been an awful experience for many people.

All lives are precious.

Be gracious. Be humble. Remember the words of Hillel, “When those around you are not acting like human beings, be a human being.” Try to be a mensch.

It isn’t going to be easy to get through this. Getting through it isn’t going to be about not being afraid, when fear is appropriate. It’s going to be about courage, facing our fears, and about wisdom, facing our fears in the wisest of ways, responsibly. It is not courageous to deny reality. Courage is accepting the challenges that reality presents and taking them on. Wisdom is understanding if, when, and how to do so.

We don’t need to take unnecessary risks, but living life is in part about taking them.

In our highly polarized environment, this is precisely a time for moderation. I am glad that I have been able to play a part in finding the right path. I hope that we as a nation will be able to work together. We will make it through this because we acted wisely and courageously, with concern about the possible rapid spread of illness and impacts upon those who are vulnerable and concern about freedom and the economy, not only focusing on some of these and not the others.

Love your neighbor and 

Love yourself.

It will be dark for a while, but a new dawn will rise before long.

Friday, May 8, 2020

Statement on the Possibility of Returning to In Person Services at the Meeting with the Vice President - May 8 2020

This is the text that I prepared for my statement. I offered a slightly different statement live in the actual meeting. You can find it at this link on the C-Span website with my part beginning at about 36:30. Here is my prepared statement:

Thank you for inviting me to participate, today. I appreciate having the opportunity to express the thoughts and concerns of the Iowa Jewish communities this morning about resuming in-person worship.

The leaders of the Jewish communities across Iowa have been holding a weekly online meeting to check in with one another about what is going on in our communities and what concerns we all have. Additionally, my congregation just had a meeting to discuss possible parameters for reopening at some point in the future. There is uniform agreement that it would be inadvisable for us to do so in the near future and especially not with rising case counts in our communities.

First, the population that regularly attends worship is significantly comprised of people who are vulnerable, either people over 70 years of age or people who have or are recovering from illness and are seeking spiritual support amid their health battles or attend to offer thanksgiving for recovering from them. None of those people should attend such gatherings right now and that would significantly impact any return to in person worship. With added concerns about younger people also having complications after contracting COVID, we cannot ignore risk to younger members of our communities as well.

Some of us in the clergy are also high risk ourselves from other medical conditions. I am recovering from Quadruple Bypass surgery that I had at the end of August.

Second, we are a people who like to hug, to eat together, and perhaps most relevant of all, to sing together. Public singing right now in any sort of confined space is very problematic. Singing increases spread of germs and may result in the rapid spread of illness through congregations, especially among members of choirs.

Third, while online worship doesn’t offer the same sense of fellowship that in person worship does and we miss that greatly, we can conduct our services with singing in a safe environment while gathering spiritually. When this crisis is over, we will continue to live-stream our services so that those who are unable to attend physically for whatever reason are still able to join us. This is also true for educational programming. We have also found ways to adapt life cycle events to online platforms, though they are perhaps a bit awkward.

The Jewish community statewide doesn’t see a pressing need to resume in person worship services. We will create new programs, services, and religious experiences to adapt to current needs. It’s what we have done through numerous times of difficulty in the past.

Finally, opening up will functionally require an end to a need for social distancing, and antibody testing to know who may be immune. Without these, it will be difficult, if not impossible, for us to return to something like the situation prior to March of this year.

There is perhaps no one who wants to return to normalcy and celebrations of communal joy and communal support for mourners than the Jewish community and we eagerly look forward to the day when we’ll be able to celebrate together in large numbers in person. Our tradition greatly values communal worship and the concept of the minyan in which the presence of God is found when ten or more are present. We urgently wish to return to worship in person.

We just do not believe that time is now or necessarily in the immediate future and are currently considering alternative plans for the celebration of the Jewish High Holidays in the fall.

Saturday, October 12, 2019

Thankful for Every New Moment - My Heart Bypass Story

The last weekend in January, I took a few days of vacation to run the Arizona Rock ‘n Roll Half Marathon in Tempe, Arizona. I raised several hundred dollars for St. Jude’s Childhood Cancer research. My time was a bit slower than my normal, but I figured maybe I was just a bit off from having flown in the day before.

The second weekend in April, I drove down to Kansas City and finished the Garmin Land of Oz Half Marathon. By the end, I was dragging. I finished nearly a half an hour off of my best time. I’ve finished 15 Half Marathons, 13.1 mile races, and one Marathon, 26.2 miles, over the past 5 years. Six in the calendar year, when I finished the race in April. Though, I wasn’t exactly setting land-speed records, I thought I was in pretty good cardio-vascular shape.

When I go to camp, in July, I take some time to run. This year, I tried. I could run for a bit, but mostly had to walk. I thought I had bronchitis, which I probably did. My doctor called in a prescription for anti-biotics and soon my cough went away.

A few days after I returned to Des Moines from camp, we flew to Orlando, to Universal Studios, for a family vacation. We walked all over the parks. Probably six miles a day. I had to rest every now and then, but we rode just about every ride, including going on some of those “People with Heart Problems are discouraged from riding this ride” roller coasters multiple times in row. Yes, I am a roller coaster fan. The faster and more time spent upside down the better!

We went to Volcano Bay, Universal Studios waterpark, and of course, I had to go on the fastest, most intense water slide, right away. Over 200 steps up and a straight vertical drop for a couple of seconds. You reach the bottom pool in seven seconds. I had to stop and rest to catch my breath about ¾ of the way up the stairs, each of the five times that I climbed them. Since, I’ve been running long distances, I have gotten fairly used to never being tired unless I’ve been doing something fairly intense. I was a surprised at being tired.

We were back in Des Moines for a few days and then we flew to North Carolina for my wife’s family’s reunion. With a brother in Japan and nephews in France and Switzerland as well as in a couple of different US states, it isn’t often that they’re all together. As it is, one of the French nephews couldn’t attend.
One of the things one does in the mountains is hike. When we went hiking, I found myself winded pretty easily. I couldn’t keep up. I started to suspect that a medicine that I had been taking for a while might be preventing my heart from working as fast as it needed to work. I didn’t feel bad, just tired, and I was fine after I slowed down. I called to set an appointment to meet with my doctor about it after I got back. The appointment was a couple of weeks out.

We got back to Des Moines in time for the state fair. I went three times. Each time, I was tired pretty easily walking around. I never went up the hill this year. On the way back to the car, the second time I went, I had to stop several times to catch my breath. Again, after resting a bit, things seemed okay. That night I was winded walking up a flight of stairs at home.

Now, I was quite concerned. It’s scary to not be able to breathe.

I didn’t want to wait for my scheduled doctor’s appointment, the next day. I called and asked to see whomever was available. I got in with a different doctor that afternoon.

My EKG was normal. My heart sounded normal. My blood pressure was slightly up, but not high. My cholesterol was good. He wasn’t sure what was going on, but said, “If this is only happening when your system is under stress, we should get a stress test. It might be something electrical. The stress test would show that.” The first available stress test was nearly a week out on Wednesday.

The next day, we went to the fair again, on our 25th wedding anniversary, we went to see our favorite comedian perform. Again, I had to stop several times on the way back to the car. It felt like I was under water too long. But again, after resting a bit, things seemed okay.

The day before the stress test, I drove three other local Jewish professionals to Cedar Rapids, over 2 hours each way, for our Iowa Jewish Professionals meeting.

The next day, Wednesday, I took my stress test.

They started off giving me an EKG, which was again clear. They did an Echocardiogram as well, which looked good. Then they had me get on the treadmill. It was fairly clear fairly quickly that something was wrong. My heart rate needed to get up to 90% of my max, but well short of that my EKG started to get wonky. They stopped the test and had me lay down to do another Echocardiogram. A few minutes later, I was downstairs in the cardiologist’s office.

They did another EKG then, which came back normal.

A few minutes after that, the doctor came in to see me:

I think it fairly certain that you have a blockage and I’m fairly certain that it’s in a pretty bad location. You need an angiogram. They’ll inject dye into your veins and that will show them where the blockage is. My guess is that you’ll need a stent and probably will have to stay overnight at the hospital. Normally, I’d ask you which doctor and which hospital you want, but you’re lucky. You get to have the first available appointment! As long as your EKG stays normal, you can go home tonight, but if you feel like you have felt when you’ve been short of breath, don’t call your wife or me, call 911.

On Thursday morning, I went downtown for the angiogram. They explained what they were going to do and all the risks. If they found something, which they anticipated, they would put in a stent if they thought that would work. Otherwise, if things were bad, they’d stop and we’d reassess for treatment another day. Then the nurse put in the IV line. They wheeled me into the OR and I was out like a light.

I woke up a while later and the doctor came in to see us. “We had to stop. You have several major blockages. You need bypass surgery.” Another doctor told me that one of the blockages is normally discovered by the forensic pathologist and that I was extremely lucky.

They weren’t going to let me go anywhere. Rather quickly, I was given a room and put on a blood thinner. They scheduled the surgery for Monday, an expected Triple Bypass, but told me that if anything happened in the interim, I’d be going to surgery right away.

My cardiologist came in and told me that I’d had this condition to a pretty severe degree for a very long time. My heart had created natural bypasses, collaterals, veins that went around the blockages. Those were what was enabling my heart to perform okay on a resting EKG. They just weren’t providing enough blood flow to allow my heart to do anything more than that at this point, because blood flow was so limited.

That Saturday, I walked a little in the hallway with my IV pole in tow. I could walk about 100 feet before I was very tired. I was afraid that I would need the surgery right away; that I wasn’t even going to make it to Monday. But I did.

People kept asking me if I was afraid about the surgery. I really wasn’t. I had been afraid all of those times when I couldn’t breathe. I was upset that I had made my family stress out. When I started running in early 2015, I did so because I wanted to prevent exactly this sort of thing. I wanted to get myself healthy and thought I had done a pretty good job of it, shedding weight and getting my heart in shape. I didn’t know that by that point, most, if not almost all, of the damage was already done.

I just kept thinking of all of the times, running dozens upon dozens of examples through my mind, when the worst could have happened. I thought about how miraculous it is, in fact, that it didn’t happen, all things considered. How many times had I gone on long runs? How many trips had I been on? Several times to Israel. Long drives in the car by myself? Those times when I was running by myself on the sports’ fields at camp while everyone else was at lunch. No one else around for an hour. And on and on.

No, I wasn’t afraid of the surgery so much as relieved for having made it to surgery and hopeful that it would be fixed. One doctor told me that with decent blood flow to my heart, I would likely find myself able to do far better at my running than I had before. I was hopeful.

I ended up having Quadruple Bypass surgery, which they tell me, went extremely well.

Recovery isn’t and hasn’t been easy. I have been able to get moving a little easier than most people would. The rest of me was in pretty good shape. But coughing and laughing hurt for a while. Sneezing, hurt a lot. And a week after surgery, when my kids decided to play some funny videos on their phones and were laughing, it hurt when I joined in. I had to ask them to stop making me laugh and I love to laugh.

It’s was especially hard for me not to be able to do all of the things I would like to do with my family and friends over the past few weeks. No, I am not going to be running the Des Moines Half Marathon again this month. I deferred my entry to next October. It’s also been difficult for me to not be able to be there for you as rabbi as much and in the ways that I would have liked since this began. Being tired while recovering is a real thing.

What has made it all better for me is the tremendous amount of support that my family and I have received. So many people have reached out in concern. Again, your support has meant a great deal. Thank you.

Today, Yom Kippur, it is said that we Jews rehearse our death. We contemplate what will happen when the end comes. What will be accrued to our benefit? What to our detriment? Have we had a positive impact on people’s lives? Can we do better? If we heard eulogies about us, what would they say?

Over the past couple of months, I have had the opportunity to hear some of these things about me. Thank you for all of your beautiful sentiments, heartfelt thanks and concerns, and wishes for a full and speedy recovery.

I have also had ample opportunity to imagine not being here today. To not have been here, to not have experienced so many wonderful things over the years, to not have been able to be there to help others either. It’s been quite a time of Cheshbon Nefesh, of an accounting of the soul.

This morning, we read, “Atem Nitzavim hayom kul’chem lifnei Adonai Eloheichem,” “You stand this day, all of you, before Adonai your God.” It is a passage that reminds us that today, we should humble ourselves, recalling the dictum of the rabbis, “Da lifnei mi atah omeid,” “Know before whom you stand.” Think about what it means to be where you are. For me, this is not just about before whom, but how and why.

Why are we here today? What has our journey been to reach this place? Thinking not only of physical movement, but of thoughts and feelings. Am I appreciative? Do I want things to change? Am I willing to do what is necessary to bring about the changes that I would like to see? In my life, what do I stand for? How did I arrive here at this moment? Would I like to be in a different place physically, spiritually, mentally?

This afternoon, during our Healing service, I will come up to stand before the open ark thanking God for allowing me to reach this day, for the many miracles, far too many to count, that have enabled it to come to pass, for the skill of my healthcare providers, for loving family and friends who lifted my spirits and may well have given me a lift in their cars to go out as well, and for all of those whose thoughts and prayers helped bring me healing of spirit as well as body. It will be all the more meaningful a service this year and every year going forward for me.

I have come to realize that every moment is one deserving a Shehecheyanu:

Baruch atah, Adonai Eloheinu, Melech haolam, shehecheyanu, v'kiy'manu, v'higiyanu laz'man hazeh.”

“Blessed are you, Adonai, our God, Ruler of the Universe, for keeping us alive, sustaining us, and enabling us to reach this moment.”

L’shanah Tovah tikateivu v’teihateimu.
May we all be inscribed and sealed in the book of life for a good and healthy new year.

Unetaneh Tokef. Life Happens.

***Six weeks before delivering this sermon, I had quadruple bypass surgery.***

Many things have happened in this past year, some good, some not so good. On the bright side, this past year, over the past couple of months, I learned to be less concerned about having my blood drawn.

I am thankful to be able to be here today. I’m not 100% yet. It isn’t an easy or short recovery. My voice isn’t what it normally is and you’ll have to bear with me coughing now and then.

Before I continue, I wanted to thank you for the tremendous amount of support that my family and I have received. So many people have reached out in concern, sent notes of support, and made donations for my recovery. Your support has meant a great deal. Thank you. 

[Personal thank yous to my family, friends, and congregational leaders followed, which I have not included here.]

Today, in the context of what happened to me, I want to talk about a traditional prayer that is difficult for most of us to deal with conceptually. The Unetaneh Tokef prayer tells us that God determines not only who lives and who dies, inscribing some in the Book of Life and not others. We are told:

On Rosh Hashanah it is inscribed,
And on Yom Kippur it is sealed.
How many shall pass away and how many shall be born,
Who shall live and who shall die,
Who shall reach the end of his days and who shall not,
Who shall perish by water and who by fire,
Who by sword and who by wild beast,
Who by famine and who by thirst,
Who by earthquake and who by plague…
The statement concludes:
But repentance, prayer and righteousness avert the severe decree.
Most of us do not believe in this sort of theodicy, this sort of understanding of divine judgement, the causing of blessing or curse, with reward or punishment. I have long argued against this concept as traditionally understood. With my recent ailment, though I’m still not a believer in this idea, I’ve come to see this portion of our service in a slightly different way.

The purpose of this prayer is truly to try to help us to find order in what otherwise would appear to be chaos, seemingly random chance. We know that bad things happen. We know too that they don’t just happen to bad people; they happen to good people as well. And more importantly than this abstract conception:

They happen to us and they can happen suddenly.

  • ·      We live in a world in which we can set the temperature of our homes and cars to whatever temperature we like.
  • ·      We can wear clothing that is impervious to rain, keeping us dry in the worst of downpours.
  • ·      We can have food from just about every restaurant in town delivered to our homes for a nominal delivery fee or even for free!
  • ·      We know about and can monitor and treat high cholesterol and high blood pressure.
  • ·      We can use a laser to fix our eyesight in addition to wearing glasses.
  • ·      We have ways to treat some of the worst of diseases, ones that once would have taken lives before we were even aware of them.
  • ·      We can ask a wireless device in our homes to turn on the lights, open the shades, play our favorite music, read us a book, change the channel, or order us a new pair of jeans to be delivered free of charge to our doorstep in less than two days. We can even do these things from wherever we are on our cell phones.

We appear to be in control of our lives, much of the time. But we’re not. We’re truly not. It’s an illusion.

Life happens. Some people prefer to use a different word than “life” in that statement, especially when the results are not good ones. Life happens and sometimes what life brings isn’t remotely ideal.

This High Holidays, Jews around the world remember those who were killed over the past year, simply because they were Jews. It has not been a good year for us as a people.

Lori Kaye was shot and killed in the shooting in Poway, California five months ago. It’s hard to believe it was only at the end of April. Lori evidently confronted the shooter near the door. In addition to supporting the synagogue, Lori was heavily involved in raising money to combat Childhood Cancer and for Chai Lifeline which aids families with seriously ill children. By all accounts, she was an eishet chayil, a woman of valor, a woman of courage. She fought her own battle with illness and was doing well. A few months prior, she celebrated her 60th Birthday and posted about it on Facebook. She wrote:

"Fearless at 60! As I enter a new decade, I am full of "gratitude" & thankfulness for the many blessings in my life. As I said on my 40th & 50th birthdays:
Life is not measured by the breaths we take, but by the moments that take our breath away."

Unetaneh Tokef. “The moments that take our breath away.”

So many of us here have our own lived examples and those of our loved ones, times when life happened. Unetaneh Tokef is a painful prayer. It makes us remember. It makes us think about seeming randomness, chaos, and things beyond our control that happen to us, to our friends and family members, or to others. It’s both the hurricanes far away from us and the whirlwinds that strike our homes.

Some of us have had the opportunity to live in times of blessing, of prosperity and relative security. For others, the Kol Nidrei prayer, for which this evening’s service is named, was a way of coping with being forced to face and do what they neither wanted to face or do. Living under threat, they had to swear oaths that they did not believe and act as they would not or could not act.

Unetaneh Tokef. Life in the places and times they lived brought them challenges, difficulties, threats, not just opportunities and blessings.

The Unetaneh Tokef prayer is both about those who died before their time and those who lived ad meah v’esrim, to 120. It’s about those whose businesses became successful and those who tried, tried again, and failed over and over. It’s also about those who have been struck with illness. Some of us, this past year, found out that we weren’t quite as healthy as we thought and suddenly faced severe challenges.

Unetaneh Tokef. You need surgery. Or
Unetaneh Tokef. You need radiation. Or
Unetaneh Tokef. You need to radically change your diet, your lifestyle. No more fried cheesecake at the fair for you! No more rushing from task to task while barely taking the time to breathe or taking time to care for yourself.

New priorities---- breathe. Take time for yourself to make yourself what you need to be. Prioritize your health.

But Unetaneh Tokef. Sometimes, no matter what you do… Life happens.

You can get out there and run, three times a week. Three 10Ks a week. You can run Half Marathons. You can be on the right medicines and seeing a doctor regularly.

Unetaneh Tokef. Do you have a family history? Yes.

“You won the lottery,” the doctor said, “Genetics.” Control is a delusion. No matter how much control we think we have, we really don’t have the ability to bring it all under our control. We may not have much of an ability to control at all.

Unetaneh Tokef. Life happens.

What we can do is do our best to adapt to it in the best ways. How we respond when life happens is really what defines who we are.

  • ·      It’s not difficult to smile when everything goes our way. It may be difficult to remain humble when everything and everyone around us seem to elevate us.
  • ·      It’s not difficult to feel depressed or sad when everything is going wrong, when bad things have happened. It may be difficult to react with hopefulness and seek happiness, when they do.
  • ·      It’s not difficult to avoid action when action is painful. “Doctor, it hurts when I do this.” “Don’t do that.” So easy. But it may be difficult to get moving and endure it as we move on and get better. Rehab can be painful and tiring. But after rehab, hopefully, less pain and more energy.

Unetaneh Tokef. Life happens. The challenge before us when it does happen is to do what is difficult.

L’shanah Tovah Tikateivu v’teiteimu.

May we all be inscribed and sealed for a good and sweet and healthy and blessed New Year.
But if the coming year doesn’t bring some or even any of these things,
May we do our best to do the difficult and
Help and support each other as we do so, 
Just as you have done for me and for my family.

We’ll make the next year and the years to come, the best that we can make them.

Good yom tov.

Monday, April 29, 2019

All Too Prophetic - The Night BEFORE Poway

I offered this sermon the night before a 19 year-old man entered a Chabad Congregation in Poway, California, killed an Eishet Chayil, Lori Kaye z"l, and injured Rabbi Goldstein and two others.

Dvar Torah on Sri Lanka Attacks
April 26, 2019

Last weekend, on Easter morning in Sri Lanka, a series of explosions at Churches and at upscale hotels sent the overwhelmingly Buddhist country into panic. Over 250 people were killed in the terrorist attacks carried out by a Muslim Ethno-Nationalist terrorist group that had affiliated itself with Da’esh, the Caliphatist Terrorist group often commonly called “ISIS.”

Da’esh claimed that this attack was carried out in response to the attacks against mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand. In that attack, of course, a Christian Ethno-Nationalist attacked worshippers at mosques. Following on the heels of a Christian Ethno-Nationalist attack on the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, we have been increasingly concerned about rising violence based in religious conflict.

Christians generally respond differently to these kinds of attacks than we Jews do. To an extent, this is based on collective memory. We know well that when hatred of Jews becomes violence against Jews, it can spread quickly if we do not assert ourselves and have allies join us. We cherish our allies. When we have lacked them or they have failed to stand with us in generations past, our meager number has been overwhelmed time and again. Jews represent 0.2% of the world’s population. Two-tenths of one percent.

And we respond as a people, not as a diverse faith community as Christians do. We connect to members of Jewish communities everywhere, no matter what kind of Judaism they practice or if they practice Judaism at all. We feel their joy and their pain. We know the struggles of persecuted minorities.

It has been our role in many nations, to lead the fight to defend minority rights, to not only stand at the forefront of the cause of immigrants, but to walk into the waters of hatred, like the midrash tells us that Nachshon did when the sea split, demonstrating faith and courage. We walk into the waters of hatred with faith and courage that we will make those waters split too. We will part the waters of hatred and march ever forward toward the promised land in which our house will be the house of all peoples, welcoming, embracing. Not all of our brethren, of course, are similarly welcoming, but the vast majority are, around the world.

Others do not share this vision. Ethno-nationalists who believe that people who are like them are the only ones who should be able to live among them and who are willing to engage in violence to make that happen are among the greatest of threats to peace wherever they are.

There are certainly very fine people who are devoutly religious Christians, Muslims, and Jews. We know that. But there are no fine Ethno-Nationalist advocates for violence against anyone not of their in-group. It is not acceptable to allow political correctness or concern about harm done to the image of the broader group to avoid both severe condemnation of and taking action against Ethno-Nationists.

We condemn Kahanists. Those who preach Meir Kahane’s hatred were banned from the K’nesset for decades. A party that is somewhat related to it rose up and was again condemned even though it did not take close to the same position. Israelis and American Jews alike are concerned to even have one representative of that political party in the Knesset, as a member of the United Right party, and attention will be paid not to allow hateful views to impact how Israel treats its minority populations. Just as we will all pay attention to how confrontational rhetoric that at times may have crossed the bounds into overt bigotry will or will not result in changes in policy.

We also perceive the threats coming against Jewish communities from Christians and from Muslims in different parts of the world. We cannot understand attacking innocents. The lone example that people can name, Baruch Goldstein, stands out in glaring uniqueness in our people’s long history.

Never have we as a people believed that sacrificing ourselves to harm others will benefit us in the world to come. We’ve never had a tradition in which Jews would willingly sacrifice their own lives to harm members of other religious or ethnic communities. It didn’t even happen before or during the Holocaust when such extreme action under duress may have made some sense. Instead, our tradition repeatedly stressed, even then, “Whoever saves a single life, it is as if they saved the entire world.”

So it is all the more difficult for us to look at what happened in Sri Lanka and understand, how wealthy and successful educated people could, based on their religious views, calmly walk into the midst of innocents and commit atrocities. How a pregnant mother could do so, ending the lives of her two children as well in order to harm police officers. In our tradition, there is no question that we would rather die ourselves. That much has been proven by our history.

We respond to that level of evil, evil that we have seen in generation after generation, so often affecting our community—we respond to that evil with a commitment to not follow it with our own hatred as pained as we have been at many of those times.

Having just come through the holiday of Passover, we easily recall the story to mind. “Let my people go,” we said. “We cried out time and again.” “We walked away.” “When horse and chariot came against us,” we did not turn. “We walked on.” “When Amalek attacked the weak and vulnerable,” we pledged to remember. Only once from the time we entered Egypt to the time we left and wandered the wilderness did any Israelite lift a hand, and Moses fled for having done so. God fought our battles for us.

This Wednesday is Yom HaShoah, the day on which we remember and mourn. We do not do so with pledges of retaliation and vengeance, nor with anger and hatred. We remember to remind ourselves that it is our duty to never let it happen again, to never again allow that kind of hatred that could result in the slaughter of innocents to occur. This year, we not only mark the day amid a time of rising Antisemitism, but at a time when the world mourns the effects of irrational hatred.

It reminds us, as we look back into the darkness of the past and out into the darkness of the world around us, that our mission as a people has long been, “To be a light unto the nations,” a beacon in the darkness. And as Hillel said, “At a time when there is no humanity around you, be a human being.” That is our challenge. Let us be lights of caring and love amid the darkness of indifference and hatred.

Shabbat Shalom.

Sunday, November 11, 2018

Dvar Torah for 80th Anniversary of Krystallnacht

Tonight marks the 80th anniversary of Krystallnacht, the Night of Broken Glass  a day on which the persecution of the Jews of Germany took a giant leap toward the Holocaust to come. 276 Synagogues and 7,500 businesses were set aflame, countless homes were destroyed, 91 people were killed and 30,000 Jewish men were arrested and imprisoned in camps.

It was a night of mass intimidation and brutality. And whereas, many Jews had assumed that others would rise to their defense, if attacked, it was a night not just of shattered glass, but of shattered hopes and perceptions, a shattered sense of well-being; a loud awakening to a frightening reality. It was also a night that shattered the idea that in the modern Western world, the pogroms of the old world could not and would not happen. We heard similar sentiments expressed about the recent attack at Eitz Chayim Synagogue. “I never thought it would happen here.”

Yesterday, I found a video of Peter Pintus, former Assistant to the Rabbi at the Temple, who passed away some years ago now, speaking about his experiences during the Holocaust for a class at Iowa State. I heard him talk about his experiences numerous times and remember clearly what he said happened on Krystallnacht. They lived in Berlin. Peter’s father was a wealthy Jewish industrialist. His mother was a Christian.

That night, the NAZIs came to the family apartment for his father, “the Jew Pintus,” who had heard about what might happen, and spent the night riding the subway instead of returning home. The Nazis who showed up terrorized and intimidated Peter and his mother. They damaged the furniture and tossed the apartment, but didn’t harm them. When the NAZIs visited their elderly Jewish neighbor, a single woman whom Peter had recalled collected Hummel figurines, they shattered every single piece in her prized collection, gleeful at the destruction, and the emotional turmoil that it caused her.

Peter talked of walking the streets near their home, seeing what had been wrought that horrible night. There was a burning synagogue with firemen outside, not trying to put out the flames in the synagogue, but protecting the surrounding buildings from catching on fire. Perhaps, some were distressed by not being able to do their jobs. But they let the synagogues burn.

Peter talked of passing by Jewish businesses, the glass windows shattered into the streets, anti-Jewish slogans scrawled in yellow paint on the walls.

It’s hard to imagine the level of fear that Jews in Berlin would have felt that night and in the days, weeks, months, and later years to come. They were forced to come to the realization that all that they had built up could so easily be taken away and destroyed, that so many people who could have helped, who could have said or done something, instead said and did nothing, and that so many others joined against them.

“Zachor!” “Remember!” is one of the most important themes in the Jewish tradition. We remember our journey from Egypt, from slavery to freedom. We remember how Amalek came after those who were vulnerable and we celebrate a holiday to remember the events in the story of Esther. We remember our family members and our martyrs during Yizkor services multiple times a year. We are constantly urged to remember.

Our tradition doesn’t just believe that “He who forgets history is destined to repeat it.” Instead, our tradition believes that history often repeats and those who forget or ignore the lessons of history, how to cope with threats as they unfold, will not long survive when they do.

Having seen the truth of our errors, we are a people who nonetheless strives to see the best in others and often, having trusted in others to stand up to evil, find ourselves far too regularly disappointed. We are like Rabbi Jacob Rader Marcus, a professor at Hebrew Union College, who wrote in 1935 of the Rise of the Nazis to power in Germany:

There is doubt, however, that the fear of widespread pogroms at the present is well-grounded. It is probable that the masses of the Party, if not some of the leaders, original envisaged a program which would wipe out the entire Jewish community. The response of the world to the atrocity reports made it clear, however, that such a policy could never be put into execution.

It was so clear to him that the world would rise up in condemnation and action.

Over the centuries, we’ve learned all too well that people who threaten to do us harm and have the means to do so must be taken at their word. The greatest sin of our age is not indifference to the suffering of others, it is indifference to threats that lead to the preventable suffering of others and even of ourselves. It is seeing rail lines on their way to camps and not bombing them. It is watching genocide unfold and forming committees to discuss the events while hoping that sanity will prevail in the interim. Failure to act against those who threaten has time and again led to a byproduct of that failure, to discussions of how we should not “stand idly by” as those future threats are put into action.

We strive to make true the words of Professor Yehuda Bauer in reference to the Shoah, “Thou shalt not be a victim, thou shalt not be a perpetrator, but, above all, thou shalt not be a by-stander.”

We have both a justifiably paranoid tradition and a tradition that believes in miracles and preaches hope amid darkness. We too are like Anne Frank, a young woman hiding in an attic during some of the darkest days of our people’s history, saying, “Despite everything, I believe that people are really good at heart” and “I must uphold my ideals, for perhaps the time will come when I will be able to carry them out.”

Amid our fears and sadness over the past couple of weeks, we have seen great compassion and goodwill, outreach from across the religious spectrum. Perhaps, the strongest support we have received has come from the Muslim refugee community here, people who know persecution and oppression.

We saw perhaps 1,000 people gather for our community vigil, including dozens of members of the clergy and political leaders from both parties. It was a tremendous showing of love and concern and we appreciated it very much.

But as we seemingly face both rising antisemitism and an increased willingness to act upon hatred, our challenge is to go beyond thoughts and prayers to effective actions.

The darkness of the age old hatred of Jews yet endures. We cannot ever forget that it is there, neither because it regularly resurfaces, nor because we always must be mindful that it could flourish in the right conditions.

On this anniversary of the night of broken glass, we must remember that our Shalom, the peace in our lives, which our tradition likens to a Sukkah, is very much like crystal glass as well. The whole shatters when but a small piece is pierced. We have learned through the generations to sweep up, to make repairs, and to go on with life. But we go on remembering, ever mindful, ever aware.

Tonight, as we remember the events of 80 years ago and those in recent weeks, we also need to remember what has happened since, that we have survived the utter darkness and we once again thrive as a Jewish people.
·      We have made a difference and brought goodness into the world.
·      We re-established a Jewish nation a decade after Krystallnacht.
·      We have gathered threatened exiles from a myriad of nations and helped them create new homes with new hopes.
·      We danced Hava Nagilah on the streets of Tel Aviv and Jerusalem within a few years of the last flames of the furnaces being extinguished.
·      Our culture thrives.
·      Our religious traditions are maintained and expanded.
·      Our contributions to science and the arts have been taken to yet new heights.
·      The Jewish state is strong and secure, as is the Jewish community in the United States of America.
·      There is a bright Jewish future.

But tonight, around the country, the Jewish community is fearful enough that security is a priority and armed guards are seen by many as an absolute necessity. In Europe, for many years now, that has been the case. I do not know that our community will always feel that necessity, but we feel it now. We feel a need for the extra security cameras and the locked doors as well.

This Shabbat, as we read of the story of two nations battling each other in Rebecca’s womb, of Jacob and Esau, each representing competing characteristics, let us choose to be joyful and idealistic instead of sad, angry, and fearful. Let us, like Ann Frank, go forward trusting in the goodness of those who show us caring and not allow ourselves to so easily succumb to cynicism.

There is indeed evil in the world. We don’t need to look too hard to find it.
Our challenge, today, as it has been time and again in our past,
Will be to not become lost to our fears,
But to maintain our commitment to our values:
To welcome with audacious hospitality rather than wariness,
To respond to hatred with Remember the stranger and Love thy neighbor,
Rather than to become haters ourselves,
To kindle light amid the darkness and
Even walking through the darkest valleys,
The valleys darkened by the shadow of death,
May we ever focus on that light.

We are Jews.
We remember.

Shabbat Shalom.

Words Offered at the Vigil for Tree of Life Synagogue

I stand before you, a descendant of immigrants from Eastern Europe. Warfare, economic hardship, and persecution forced them to leave lands where their ancestors had lived for generations. My 3 year old grandmother crossed borders guided by her 9 year old sister, smuggled out by beneath blankets by their mother in the back of wagon, under the cover of darkness, all afraid for their lives.

Eventually, they made it safely to America. America is a nation of immigrants, many of whom fled religious persecution in search of freedom. We are a nation who so prized our welcoming nature as to enshrine it on the Statue of Liberty in the words of Emma Lazarus’ “New Colossus,” words that greeted my grandparents as they came to Ellis Island:

Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door

These words do not come from nowhere. They are based on the words of the Prophet Isaiah:

Isaiah 58 This is the fast I desire: to unlock the fetters of wickedness and untie the cords of lawlessness; to let the oppressed go free and break off every yoke. It is to share your food with the wretched and take the poor into your home; When you see the naked, clothe them and do not ignore your own kin. Then will your light burst through like the dawn and your healing will spring up quickly. [When] your higher-self leads you, the weight of God is behind you. Thus [now], when you call out, God will answer; When you call out, God will say: Hineni, here I am.

We are all God’s children. Jewish tradition tells us that we are all created in God’s image. Sometimes, too often if you ask me, that image is reflected with more than a bit of distortion, emphasizing the worst aspects of our nature.

We Jews have seen the hate-filled faces before, through many generations in many countries. Too often, historically, the torches of hatred have entered Jewish neighborhoods and set synagogues, businesses, and homes aflame.

We don’t knock down or abandon places where violence has happened. We mop up the blood. We patch the holes in the walls. And we live with the holes in our hearts. In synagogues, like the one in Pittsburgh and so many others through the ages, we have stood holding the Torah, our tree of life, in those now sanctified places where people died, Kedush HaShem, martyrs in sanctification of God’s name. And God is right there with us, as we return the next day, and offer the same words of prayer and song, of peace and love, and of thanksgiving, words that have inspired generations.

Most of the time, historically, it has only been a small percentage of the local population that was involved in the violence. The vast majority of people, good people, stood by and watched.

Maurice Ogden wrote a poem called “The Hangman.” It’s a bit long for me to read to you this evening, but its theme is very important. Ogden’s poem is about a Hangman who comes into a town and begins to single out people for hanging. He begins with the weakest minority and then keeps dividing and dividing, singling out and singling out, until the very last person is finally hung upon the gallows.

The one who did nothing to offend, nothing to get in the way, of the one promoting violence and hatred of the other, of the immigrants, of racial or political minorities, of Jews or of other faiths. We will not be like the Hangman’s faithful servant. We will not stand by and allow age old hatreds against Jews to rise again unchallenged. We will not allow hatreds of any kind to spread.

*It was wonderful and, oh so appreciated, to see so many people there, over 1,000, including at least 150 members of the clergy representing numerous faiths, to support us and to have heard from so many who reached out in care and concern. It is our nature to be there for others in times of need, and we value the caring and support of our friends in the interfaith community in return.

We are a people who care deeply about everyone else. Caring for those who are ill and otherwise in need is a big deal for us. We are a people who see ourselves in Henny Youngman’s brief joke.

“A Jewish woman had two chickens. One got sick, so the woman made chicken soup out of the other one to help the sick one get well.” That is us.

We Jews know that human beings can and too often do act cruelly and inhumanely toward one another. Our tradition tells us that when we find ourselves among those not acting humanely, even if no one else is, our job is to be a mensch, to be a human being. As Hillel taught, “Bamakom sh’ein anashim, hishtadeil li-hiyot ish.”

“In a place where there are no human beings, strive to be a person.”
Jewish doctors and nurses treated the shooter when he was brought to the hospital. It’s what we do. It’s who we are.

And we expect the best of this country and its leaders.

We are like Moses Seixas, a Jewish congregational president in Newport, Rhode Island, who wrote a letter to the first President of the United States, George Washington, checking to see if the new nation’s leadership would indeed “give to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance.” And we expect that our government will live up to that ideal to this very day.

We are a people who look at a world filled with violence, a world filled with hatred, a world in which age old prejudices surface again and again, and believe, we can, with the help of our friends change it. We are a people who believe the words of Theodore Hirzl, “Im tirzu, ein zo aggadah,” “If you will it, it is no dream,” because we have seen our hopes amid the darkness become reality.

Confronted time and time again with opportunities to join the majority, to bring an end to difficulty, oppression, and great suffering, we have remained true to our beliefs.

Before Kings and Priests, before soldiers with swords or guns and mobs with torches, who all wanted us to say something else, believe something else, or simply to vanish from the face of the earth, we bravely uttered, “Shema Yisrael, Adonai eloheinu, Adonai echad!” “Here, O Israel, Adonai is our God, Adonai alone!”

Tonight, we come together to declare that we will not allow ourselves to remain silent as hatred is offered. We will not be cowed into silence. This is our country. This is our home. May it always be truly both the land of the free and the home of the brave… and let us be brave.
We will not stand idly by. No more. Never again!