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“Stayed On Freedom”

March 23, 2017 Leave a comment

“I woke up this morning with my mind stayed on freedom.”

Civil RIghtsThis week, as part of the CCAR rabbinical convention in Atlanta, I had the opportunity to explore the Civil Rights movement, through a tour of the Center for Civil and Human Rights, lectures from leaders of the Southern Poverty Law Center and the NAACP, and a visit to the Temple, Atlanta’s historic Reform synagogue, which was bombed by White Supremacists in 1958.

Among other exhibits, the Civil Rights Center has a wonderful movie about the Freedom Riders, those black and white young people who spent the summer of 1961 riding integrated buses across the South, challenging segregation laws. Who endured beatings and arrests to make their point about the injustice of segregation. The film ended with a song from the Civil Rights movement: “I woke up this morning with my mind stayed on freedom.”

 

I know that song. I know every word of it! I sang it as a kid at Henry S. Jacobs Camp, the Reform Jewish camp in Utica, Mississippi, along with folk songs and Hebrew songs that expressed our Jewish values. In fact, it probably wasn’t until adulthood that I realized “Woke Up This Morning” wasn’t actually a Jewish song. I suspect that this Civil Rights songs had become one of “our” songs because the earliest counselors and campers of that Deep South camp, which was founded in the early 70s, had been immersed in the struggle for Civil Rights during the previous decade.

I grew up in the South, but since today I live far away in Canada, it’s easy to forget how real the Civil Rights Movement is – how recent, and how nearby. I was born in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, 16 years after Governor George Wallace stood on the auditorium steps in that city to block the integration of the university. The events described in the Civil Rights exhibit take place largely in the states where I was born and where I grew up, and largely within my parents’ lifetime. In fact, this past Tuesday as I heard Joseph Levin, Jr, tell – in his strong Alabama drawl – the story of how he came to co-found the Southern Poverty Law Center, I felt strangely at home. I grew up surrounded by those accents and those ways of thinking – by men and women who attended those universities and were members of those fraternities, who dress conservative but think liberal, who talk in old-fashioned Southern accents but act in courageous new ways in the fight for social justice. That is, in many ways, the Southern Jewish experience. It is something to be proud of.

Yes, I know the Civil Rights Movement isn’t about me, and it isn’t even about the Jews. It’s about the brave African Americans who stood up and demanded rights and equality. But it’s also about the white, black, Jewish, Christian, and Muslim allies who stood with them in the demand for a more just society. And it is about those of every place and time who know that our world is not yet as it should be.

I rarely encountered overt racism or anti-Semitism growing up in the South in the 80s and 90s. My Temple was not bombed. My schools were at least nominally integrated. My Jewish youth group and camp experiences were positive, happy, and healthy. And yet the old issues were not far beneath the surface. There were the occasional worrisome comments. The racial integration of our schools existed only on the surface – I remember distinctly that in one of the high schools I attended in Baton Rouge, the white and black kids essentially kept to themselves. When former Ku Klux Klan Grand Wizard David Duke ran for governor of Louisiana, I was floored by how many of my 7th grade classmates in New Orleans supported him. It is clear to me in hindsight that these were indications that the South is still struggling with issues of Civil Rights and racial equality. There is still work to be done.

Today I live far from the South. In fact, as a resident of Toronto, I live in a city that prides itself on being diverse, progressive, and welcoming. There is a level of diversity and coexistence evident on the streets, on the subways, and in my kids’ schools, that still astounds me every day. But that doesn’t mean that there isn’t hate. We have had our JCC bomb threats, our racially motivated killings, and our mosque attacks as well. We may not be Alabama in the 1960s, but neither can we fool ourselves that we are we living in a society free of bigotry. That is why we must continue to build relationships, why we must create bridges of understanding, knowledge, and acceptance between different faith and ethnic communities. And it is why we must speak out loudly – no matter who we are or where we live – against hate and injustice in all its forms.

Last month, when 6 worshippers tragically lost their lives in a hate-motivated attack on a mosque in Quebec City, synagogues throughout Toronto organized “Circles of Peace” around the local mosques, singing and praying in solidarity with our Muslim brothers and sisters. The members of my congregation wanted instead to attend Friday prayers at a local mosque with whom we have a relationship. And when we did, and when we were warmly welcomed by our friends at the mosque, we discovered that 2 churches were also in attendance. On that Friday, Muslims, Christians, and Jews sat together, raising their voices in prayer that someday our world will be a place of tolerance and freedom for people of all races, religions, and backgrounds.

“I woke up this morning with my mind stayed on freedom.”

There are moments in history that call for clarity of purpose. May we look to the examples of the past, to the brave men and women who have fought for justice and equality, and may we be inspired to stand together with those who are different from us, and to stand up for what is right.

“For You Were Strangers”

January 28, 2017 2 comments

I am an immigrant. An American born in Alabama, I have lived all over the United States. And for the last 5 years, thanks to a rabbinical position that brought me to the Toronto suburbs, I have made my home in Canada. I love both of my countries – the one in which I was born and have lived most of my life, and the one in which I currently reside. In many ways they are very similar. This week they feel very, very different.

My grandmother was also an immigrant. In 1933 at the age of 8, she and her family fled deteriorating conditions in Poland and made their way to America. She had it harder than I did as an immigrant – her father had preceded her to New York by several years, and she had to learn a new language, start the First Grade over again, and build a new life for herself. It is a common immigrant story. With the exception of Native Americans, every one of us can find something like it in our family history.

Every one of us.

The America I know is built on immigration. It is a country made strong by the ingenuity and determination of people who came here from elsewhere to build a life for themselves and their families. It is a country that has not always had a rosy relationship with immigration (we closed our doors to refugees during World War II also), but that has been stronger when its doors were open. These are the values of the United States of America.

They are also the values of Judaism. The Torah reminds us over and over again that we were strangers in a foreign land. And it exhorts us over and over again to treat the stranger – the foreigner, the immigrant, the refugee – with respect and dignity. It says this explicitly in Leviticus 19:34: “The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as one of your citizens; you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”

Today, I am appalled and frightened by the actions of my President. My values – both American and Jewish – teach me the importance of diversity and of welcoming the stranger. A ban on immigrants from Muslim countries is thinly veiled racism and an affront to American values. A ban on refugees is nothing less than abhorrent, especially when so many are fleeing danger and seeking a better life.

As Jews, we know the experience of being the stranger. We know it from our ancient history, and we know it from our much more recent history. It was not even 100 years ago that our own families were fleeing persecution and genocide. The fact that President Trump issued this horrifying Executive Order on International Holocaust Remembrance Day lends it a sad irony that cannot be ignored.

As a Jew, an American, and the grandchild of am immigrant, I want my country to welcome newcomers of all backgrounds, and to recognize that they represent a continuation of the American story.

As a Jew, an American, and the grandchild of an immigrant, I demand that my government NEVER discriminate on the basis of religion. This is abhorrent and an affront to our way of life.

As a Jew, an American, and the grandchild of an immigrant, I want my America to value and encourage diversity.

The ancient Rabbis noted in the Talmud that according to Jewish tradition, humanity started with only a single person – Adam. Why, they ask, did God not create a whole tribe or a whole nation to begin with? So that no person could say to another, “My ancestors are greater than yours.”

May we work together to build a world where the barriers between us are lowered, not raised. And may this country of strangers and immigrants hold fast to its true values of tolerance, diversity, and pluralism.

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Between Holy and Ordinary (or “Why I Turn Off My Work Email on Shabbat”)

January 23, 2015 Leave a comment

Once we were slaves. Now we are free.

Shabbat is Zecher Liy’tziyat Mitzrayim – a reminder of our Exodus from slavery. On Shabbat, we are meant to embrace freedom, to throw off the shackles of the things that enslave us.

As a Reform Jew, I take seriously the mitzvah of Shamor et Yom Hashabbat – safeguarding Shabbat by refraining from work. Traditional Jews refrain from all manner of “work” on the seventh day: driving cars, flipping light switches, cutting paper, sewing buttons. But these are not the activities that enslave me. These are not the activities that eat away at my time, or from which I need to be liberated.

No, what enslaves me is something different. Something less solid, but more ubiquitous. It is the constant connectedness to the outside world, to my professional life, to the everyday needs and tasks that assault me through the device that I carry in my pocket.

In the 21st century, we are surrounded by information in ways that previous generations could not have fathomed. It’s exciting: technology keeps changing; screens keep getting bigger; download speeds keep getting faster. But the danger of the information age is in the blurring of boundaries. Where previous generations would “leave work at work,” we carry our work with us. Where our parents and grandparents differentiated between office time and leisure time, we struggle to draw that distinction. Our professional obligations have the power to permeate every place and every moment… just like the Egyptian taskmasters of old.

I’d like to say that on Shabbat, I turn off my cellphone. I’d like to say that one day a week, I disconnect from the outside world. But I don’t: I text with friends; I occasionally check Facebook; I am available for congregational emergencies. As a genuine technology addict, I cannot bear the thought of being without it for 25 hours. (And actually, connecting with friends is an important part of Shabbat.) But I CAN bear the thought of being without my work email, of tuning out the ordinary needs and tasks that rule my life on a daily basis.

And so that is what I have begun to do. Every Friday, as the sun begins to set, I open the email settings of my iPhone and simply flip the switch from “on” to “off.” It is the most liberating, most empowering, and perhaps holiest moment of my entire week. It is my way of fulfilling the task of Shabbat, l’havdil bein kodesh l’chol – to distinguish between holy and ordinary.

It is a start.

Kaddish for Jastrow

January 29, 2012 8 comments

It was about a month ago that our dog Jastrow died. He was 3. He escaped from the yard and got hit by a car. Our kids were devastated. So were we.

Jastrow’s name was the proof of my rabbi-nerdiness. (Only other rabbis realized that he was named for the Marcus Jastrow Dictionary of the Talmud.) But beyond the name, he was never my dog – he belonged squarely to the kids. Jastrow would play with them, sleep in their beds, lick their faces, and sit right on top of them. We called him our therapy dog because he was always good for providing our  son who has Aspergers with the “deep pressure” he needed on rough days! Jastrow was the young, fun dog while April (our 10-year-old lab mix) was the old, boring dog.

So the kids were hit really hard when he died. This was, thankfully, their first real experience with death. (When their great-grandmother died nearly four years ago, they were too young to really be aware of it.) Their reaction was both heartbreaking and fascinating. You could see Kubler-Ross at work as they shuffled wildly between angry shouting, hopeful bargaining, tearful storytelling, and asking the same questions over and over again….  In the end, what they wanted was to “do something” for Jastrow. Maybe we could say a prayer for him, they suggested. Or maybe draw pictures and tell our favourite stories, and find a place in the woods to “visit” him. Without knowing the words Shiva, or Kaddish, or Funeral, our 3, 6, and 7 year old boys were asking instinctively for some ritual to help them through the mourning process.

Even our older dog was mourning. April’s sleeping and eating patterns changed, and she kept trying to run out the front door, apparently in an effort to go find her friend. It was as though she also needed something to happen – some kind of closure to let her move on.

Our need for ritual is deeply ingrained in our psyche. Judaism offers us ceremonies to help mark the emotional moments of our lives – the Brit Milah/Brit Bat, the wedding ceremony, the funeral and mourning rituals. This is part of the particular genius of our way of life – that it is able to provide us with guidance during these universal moments in which we all need it. And if you leaf through the Reform movement’s On the Doorposts of Your House, or search the works of Marcia Falk or the pages of ritualwell.org, you’ll find hundreds of new ceremonies and blessings for moments of life that were never before ritualized: retirement, miscarriage, menopause, sending a child to college, quitting a job, ending a relationship. Some of these are hokey and contrived, but they speak to a need that is very real and very powerful.

I never saw that as clearly as I did while watching my kids mourn their dog. May his memory be a blessing.

The Four Children (of Star Wars)

April 19, 2011 7 comments

In the section called the “Four Sons,” the Passover seder very wisely recognizes that different children learn differently, depending on their disposition, level of knowledge, age, etc. Here’s how I got my kids to care about the Four Sons at our seder last night:

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The Wise Son

The wise son almost always follows the rules.  He wants nothing more than to learn from his teachers and to use his learning for the good of others. A lifelong learner, he embodies the spirit of tradition, and uses his skills to live those traditions and pass them on.

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The Wicked Son

Why is he wicked? Not because he is not learned; he knows enough to ask questions! And not because he doesn’t care; he is sitting at the seder table (or the Jedi council, as the case may be). His problem is that he separates himself from those around him, and in so doing, he becomes increasingly self-centered. The wicked son’s choices are about what is best for him and him alone. If others have to suffer to accomplish this, so be it.

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The Simple Son

The simple son is not the cleverest or most knowledgeable, but his heart is in the right place. He asks unsophisticated questions, but he cares deeply about what is right. If we explain simply, and encourage him to participate as an equal, he will grow in his understanding and skill and can make a real contribution.

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The Son Who Does Not Know How to Ask

The fourth son has not had the benefit of having been taught. Either because he is too young, or because he simply had no access to the proper education (or because he was being hidden from his Sith Lord father in an effort to save him and the galaxy from destruction). He is not simple, and he is not wicked, but he lacks the knowledge that he needs and does not even know where to begin asking questions. He can be taught, and he can become a great leader, but he needs guidance.

G-dcasting the Torah

March 12, 2010 1 comment

Check out this very cool visual D’var Torah from http://www.G-dCast.com. Each week they post a similar commentary on the parasha, written and narrated by leading thinkers from across the Jewish spectrum. Shabbat Shalom!

Parshat Vayakhel from G-dcast.com

More Torah cartoons at www.g-dcast.com

The Old Shall Be New and the New Shall be Sacred

March 8, 2010 1 comment

This quote from Rav Kook (the first Chief Rabbi of Israel) is the theme for this year’s convention of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, which I am attending in San Francisco. The convention, obviously, is about embracing the future and all of its social implications for Judaism.

For example, we heard yesterday from Joe Green, the founder of the Facebook CAUSES application. (That’s the one where you can raise money or awareness or invite people to join your particular cause. The causes on my profile include the camp where I grew up, our sister Reform congregation in Israel, rebuilding New Orleans, saving Darfur, and something called the Crayon Campaign that I don’t remember joining.) Green spoke about that application as a kind of grassroots community organizing, which allows regular people to organize their friends and others for the good of causes that matter. He challenged synagogues to be able to think in those terms, and not to be afraid of the immense power of social media.

Green also challenged our notion of the role of the internet as somehow separate from real life. He said that in the past (i.e. 2 or 3 years ago) we used to talk about “going online,” as though “online” was somewhere different – somewhere to go. Today, we talk instead about “using the internet.” We’re not going anywhere, because the the internet is in our pockets all the time! And what’s more, we’re no longer using pseudonyms and handles and email addresses – which mask our true identities – to connect to others online. Instead, on Facebook, you are your true self and your friends (for the most part) are your real friends with whom you have some level of relationship in real life also.

So what does this mean for Judaism. First of all, people of my generation don’t know what it means not to be connected to the internet. It’s the way that we make plans, make friends, and make connections. It also means that social networking media have the potential to be a very powerful organizing tool for Jewish life – to bring people together in very real ways around causes and events and ideas that are important to them. And to allow organic, grassroots efforts to happen more easily and more effectively. (Another big topic here is the “independent grassroots minyanim cropping up in big cities – a topic for another post.)

This week’s Torah portion is Vayakhel, we means “he (Moses) gathered the people.” The word Vayakhel comes from קהל or “community.” When we gather people around Judaism – no matter how we gather them – then we create holy community. In that way, technology and social media are an instrument of holiness, and “the new becomes sacred.”