Fire – I’ll Take You to Burn

`It is 3:30 AM and I am standing on the sidewalk in front of my home.  It is just 18 degrees outside but I am very warm. The house next door is fully engulfed in flames.  That house in only about nine feet from my house.

I am vaguely aware of my neighbors gathering near me on the sidewalk. They are all there. “R” asks me if I want to use his cell phone to call Michelle who is stuck in Atlanta because of the unexpected snow. I take him up on the offer. She does not answer.  Some of the others ask if I want to come inside from the cold. I wave them off. My feet are getting cold but I barely move from my spot on the sidewalk. I don’t really believe it but stand there as if my staring at the fire will keep it on the other side of the property line.

I am not sure how long I have been standing here. I awoke to a police officer banging on my door. The room as I awaken is a weird orange color. I look out one window and see nothing, but a glance out the other window shows the house there fully ablaze. I run to the door where the officer yells, “There is a fire get your stuff and get out.” I run back to my room and begin to get dressed. I am fully aware that people die of smoke inhalation when they stop to get dressed before leaving a burning room but I dare not go out into the hard cold night in pajamas. I pull on my jeans and a warm shirt, tie my sneakers and run from the room. The officer is back and he is screaming, “Get out now, now, NOW!” I grab my warm coat from the chair where I left it when I last came in from the snow and I am out the door. Is MY house on fire?

I take my spot across the street. There are flames from every window of the building next door. It is burning really hot. I look at my small house next to the flames as they light up the night sky. There is no way my house will not burn. I don’t have my wallet, keys, cellphone, nothing. There are two firefighters on my front lawn with a single hose. They are doing what they can to keep the flames away from my house. There is no way my house will not burn.

The house that is downhill from the burning building is now ablaze. I am told that the residents have gotten out. They called in the fire when it woke them up. I dimly remember that they were on the porch of the house across the street from their home watching the flames eat through their roof. Their shingles are older than my shingles. Will mine hold the fire back or will my roof catch next? I am also aware that the woman who was the last resident living in the building next door is not on the sidewalk. I pray that she is safe even though I know that if she is not…..

The hose that is saving my house goes dead. No more water. The firefighters back away from the blaze. I am sure my house is doomed. I think of all the things that are inside. They are only things but they are “my” things. They are the evidence that I have lived, loved, had children and accomplished some things. It will soon all be gone. The flames edge closer but suddenly the water cannon on the fire engine comes alive and there is water sprayed on my home.  It is safe for a few minutes more.

Another fire engine arrives, with a “cherry picker bucket” on the back. It moves into place behind the first engine. The street is filled with water that has frozen into a sheet of ice. The firefighters have a hard time walking in the street.

There is a large pine tree that reaches out over the burning building and over my roof.  If the tree catches my roof will probably burn. The flames are right under it now and it is starting to smoke. My home, I am sure, will be destroyed. Just as the tree starts to catch fire a second water cannon, mounted on the bucket has been raised into place and it is turned on the tree.  The tree does not catch fire; my home is saved for a second time.

I am so glad that Michelle is not here to see this. I picture her in my mind sitting on the sidewalk and crying. I feel like sitting and crying myself.  My neighbor from down the street, an Episcopal priest offers me a cup of hot tea.  I begin to realize how cold I am.  He asks if I want to warm up inside his home. I still will not move from my place. I call Michelle again and this time she answers. I fill her in on what is going on. I know she feels helpless being so far away but I tell her I am glad she is not here. It is very frightening and I am really afraid.

The two water cannons beat back the flames. We now see a bright ball of fire rising in the middle of the building. The gas line has broken and natural gas is now feeding the blaze.  From above the canon tries to put out the blaze. Finally they turn from saving my house to putting out the fallen parts of the building next door. I can see from my vantage point, however that the fire is spreading from the back of the building toward my house again. The firefighters can’t see it from my front yard. I want to yell to them, to run across the street to point it out to them but they are following the orders of the captain who is standing where he can’t see what is happening in the back. For a third time I believe that my house will be lost.

Water appears from nowhere against the flames. A third fire engine has taken its place in the alley behind my home and we have a three alarm fire. The fire is beaten back and for a third time my house is saved.

My feet are now painfully cold. The priest tells me he is going home. I take him up on his offer of a warm place to sit. His home is warm and pleasant. His son has taken some video from his phone and sent it to one of the early morning local news programs. They just showed it on air. There are news crews arriving to cover the fire. They seem to be set up in the back because the fire department has closed most of the roads. The ice on my street downhill from me is very slippery. They can’t get another truck up the street.

Some men in different uniforms start to dig a hole in the yard in front of the burning building. They are from the gas company. The shutoff valve for the building is in the basement and nobody can go there to shut the gas off. The men shut the gas off where it branches off the main line.  Finally the fire begins to go out. My home is safe. I return to the street. The cannons are shut off and the hoses are used to put out hot spots.  The sky is getting lighter. The news crews reset themselves on my street. They ask me if I would speak on camera. I do, knowing that the early risers in my congregation will see me on the news. At least they will know I am safe. (Actually, a congregant will only see a fraction of the interview and post of Facebook that I “lost everything” in the fire.  In a short time my friend, the synagogue Executive Director will call, get the whole story and then put the rumors down)

As the dawn breaks and we can see better, I am finally allowed to go into my house. I grab my wallet, keys and phone and leave again. I can now sit in my car and be warm. I turn it around so I can face the fire and wait. An hour later the fire is out. The building next door is all but gone, just two stone chimneys standing in the rubble. The house downhill has lost its roof and the back half of the house. I am sure it is total loss.  A fireman grabs a ladder and climbs up to the window in the upstairs unit where my neighbor, the only tenant in the building lived. She has died in the fire.  The police come to investigate; screens are put up to protect the site from sight seers. I start to take pictures of the damage to my house but the police think I am looking for a picture to send to the tabloids and demand I stop. I tell them I am only taking pictures of my home but I don’t want to make them angry. I put the camera away.

Six of my windows are broken. The blinds melted in the heat. Most of the water damage is minor, a few puddles on my floor to wipe up with a towel. The firefighters are really amazed that there is no more damage. I am so grateful that I shake everyone’s hand for the extraordinary job they did to save my home. They have sent for someone to come and board up my windows so the cold will not enter my house. I reenter the house say a prayer of thanks and find the number to call my insurance agent.

The firefighters of the Highland Fire Station, together with God saved my house.  My phone starts to ring with friends worried about my safety. I finally daven Shacharit at home, pausing to add a few psalms of Hallel that seem to reflect the gratitude in my heart. My insurance agent sends someone from a restoration company to help dry me out. He is amazed that there is so little for him to do. There is no smoke damage, no smell, almost no water damage. He just can’t believe it. I don’t believe it myself.

I call my children and the “moms” to tell them I am OK.

Michelle arrives back home just as the last of the fire engines pulls away.

A large backhoe arrives to knock down the stone chimneys so they will not blow over in a storm (and wreck my house if they did.)

On Friday night, we have a dinner at the synagogue. Michelle lights electric candles for Shabbat. She feels funny lighting candles and not being home to make sure everything is alright.

I agree.

Hodu LH’ Ki Tov – Ki L’olam Chasdo – Praise to God for God is good – God’s kindness is eternal.

Like a Prayer

In the Movie “Gravity” (no spoiler alert. Just one thought while watching the movie) Sandra Bullock asks someone to pray for her. She claims she does not know how to pray, that no one ever taught her.  There are many good lines in the movie but, when you are a Rabbi that is the one line of dialogue that jumps out at you.

We get that kind of a question/statement all the time. How can I pray if I don’t know how? How can I pray when I am not feeling prayerful? How can I pray if nobody ever showed me how to pray? Can I pray when I am not in synagogue? Can I pray if I have not been in synagogue for many years?

I have to thank my colleague, the famous Rabbi Harold Kushner for first showing me how to properly answer questions like these.  Until his lecture, I honestly didn’t know how to answer the questions. I know how to pray. I have studied prayer in school for almost ten years. I have been praying since I was a small child. I was taught to pray. I was trained by my teachers to pray and I have a very active prayer life. I had almost no conception about what it would be like to live a life without prayer.

Rabbi Kushner understood the question behind the question. He taught that asking how to pray is like asking how do I eat? Or how do I learn? Or how do I breathe? Everyone prays. It is a natural part of living.

Like everything else in life we assume that there are others who must be better at prayer than we are. Others who are more practiced, who are more religious, who are more spiritual, who can do prayer better than we can. But nobody can pray the prayers that are in our own hearts and only we have the needs that drive us to pray.

There is a story of a man who is preparing to serve as Shaliach Tzibor, as the prayer leader for Yom Kippur. This is the day when the prayers are so intricate and complicated that one must prepare carefully in order not to confuse yourself or the congregation. The man prepared meticulously, learning not only the words of the liturgy but the mystical meanings behind each prayer. Just before the service of Yom Kippur started, the Rabbi found the man in tears behind the synagogue.

“What is wrong?” asked the Rabbi. “Are you sick?, Are you hurt?” “No” said the man, “I prepared so hard for this service and I can’t remember a thing about the prayers or the mystical meanings behind them. I even wrote them down on a piece of paper so I would not forget and I lost the paper!”

The rabbi replied, “Where there is a fire in a house, the firefighters need to have the keys to the house, in order to open all the doors so they can rescue those inside and put out the flames. But there is one key that opens all doors, it is the ax. With an ax, they can open every door without waiting for the key. So it is with prayer. The mystical meanings are the keys that unlock the secrets of each prayer. But tears are the ax that can open every door. Your tears will assure this community of forgiveness and of the acceptance of our prayers.”

When our prayers are spoken with sincerity, humility and need, we can expect the pain in our heart to break through any door that would block our prayers from Heaven and it bring it right to the place where God can be found. It will bring is hope, courage and faith to help us find our way out of the darkness into the light.

Don’t say that you need someone else to pray for you. It is your own needs that make you an instant Baal Tephilla – a Master of Prayer.

I’m Still Standing

The SpillI keep reading the many different people who have been analyzing the information from the Pew Survey on Judaism in America and I just don’t see the crisis that so many of my colleagues seem to find in the numbers. I am a Conservative Jew, a Rabbi and a history buff, and the numbers just don’t send me into panic mode. I can’t say that the information makes me really happy; but I just don’t believe that the end is near.

The Jewish People are eternal. We have had some real threats to our existence over the centuries and somehow we are still standing. Some people call it a miracle. I certainly can it read that way, but I learned a long time ago in my study of History that you have to be very careful about predicting the demise of a movement.  When the Second Temple of Jerusalem was destroyed by the Romans in 70 CE, it was the end of the Israelite religion and the beginning of Rabbinic Judaism.  We came back stronger than ever as soon as we stopped quarreling with each other and after we had rewritten the interpretations of the Torah so we could live without the ceremony and sacrifices of the Temple. Priests were replaced with Rabbis, the central sanctuary was replaced by home ritual, sacrifices were replaced by personal and communal prayers and the Jewish people moved on.

The Rise of Islam, the Crusades and the Inquisition all gave Judaism the choice of convert or die. We did what we needed to do to survive and we moved out to places where we could feel more welcome. When that welcome ended, we moved on to somewhere else. We learned to keep our faith portable and we learned how to hide our rituals (and our bodies) when we needed to.

Over a third of world Jewry was murdered during the just six years of the Shoah. Some of our greatest teachers died. Hasidic dynasties were wiped out. Jewish mysticism and the Musar movement were all but exterminated along with the six million men, women and children.  Our people moved to Israel, to South America, to South Africa and to North America and Judaism found the freedom to grow and flourish again.

The Pew survey only speaks about Jews in the United States. It does not speak about Judaism in Israel, Europe and the rest of the world.  We have known for a long time that in only a matter of a few decades or so, Israel will be the center of the Jewish world. The low birthrate of Jews in America is causing our population to age and shrink. Even if there was no assimilation at all, Judaism in America would be in decline. Demographics alone are working against us.

We can recoil in horror about the state of Judaism in Israel but the reason I believe that matters of faith are so crazy there is because Israeli society needs to struggle with issues of pluralism, religious freedom and granting power to one group over another.  As Jews gather from the “four corners” of the world, there will have to be growing pains, conflicts that will hurt us and embarrass us. I have no doubt that we will find our way.

What about the Jews in North America? I don’t think it will neither assimilate away nor become an Orthodox stronghold. Don’t get me wrong; we have serious problems. We are not doing a very good job of teaching adults and children what Judaism is all about.  Jews in North America, especially those who are not Orthodox, don’t have a clear idea of what Judaism is and what the religion stands for. They don’t understand how the holidays of the Jewish calendar fit together, how they bind us to the cycles of nature and help us find God in each season of the year and each season of our lives. They don’t know and they don’t have a clear picture about the differences between Halloween and Purim, Thanksgiving and Sukkot, July Fourth and Pesach.  They are not clear that Judaism says that money, sex and hunger are not evil drives; they are just part of human nature and Judaism gives us the rituals of Shabbat, Taharat HaMishpacha and Kashrut to help us control our drives rather than letting our drives control us. Every human being has their religion. But Judaism, with its strong anti-pagan theology, will not let us worship the false gods of the Mall, the sports pages or Xtreme sports. Judaism insists that there is more to life than that. Life is not about what you get, it is about what you give; time or money or talent; when a Jew cares about others, both the giver and the receiver are changed forever.

There will always be Jews who think that our faith is about bagels, making money and sweetened Concord grape wine.  There will always be Jews who choose Hanukah or Christmas based on which one will get the most gifts. Given our mass media and “science” of advertising, we are as susceptible to the same enticements as any other Americans, and those who don’t have an understanding of any religion, like Judaism, that teaches us how to find meaning within ourselves rather in the way we purchase “toys”.

Will Moses recognize the Judaism that will be taught at the Jewish Theological Seminary 100 years from now; or will Moses be as lost in that class as he once was in the class of Rabbi Akiva (Talmud Menachot 29b)? Will we even recognize that Judaism? I can’t answer that question. I am only sure that there will be a class for Moses to sit in and Jews will still be learning about how Torah is important in their lives. I am sure because I believe in God, in Moses, in Torah and in the Jewish People. The spark of Judaism still burns within us and while it may falter from time to time, it will not go out.

They have told our people many times that we are dying.

I’m still standing.

Don’t Stop Thinking About Tomorrow

Yesterday, I signed a contract and rejoined the American Workforce. It was the end of a two year search. In some ways my search was not typical, I am a Rabbi and one does not search for a congregation the same way a salesman or a clerk searches for a company.  I was searching in the world of non-profit organizations, not the fast paced world of for-profit companies. In other ways my search was typical. I sent out more resumes than I can remember and got very few job prospects in return. It has not been a pretty picture the past two years, but as I regain my footing in the world of the gainfully employed, I find I have advice to share with those who are still struggling.

I began my search for a new job while I was still working for my old “boss”. My congregation notified me in June of 2011, that my contract, which expired in June of 2012, would not be renewed  as the synagogue was no longer financially viable, and I immediately notified the Placement Service that I would be looking. The director of Placement was kind but firm. This was not a good time to be looking for a position and there were a number of things that would be working against me. The biggest was my age. In my middle 50’s was considered “too old” by many employers. In addition, I was in Florida, not in the urban centers where most of the non-profit jobs could be found, and I did not have extensive experience in non-profit work, my background being almost exclusively in the world of synagogues.

I attended a seminar for rabbis over 50 and looking for a job. I met a number of friends there and realized that after years of friendship, we were now competitors. I was not happy about that. The leaders of the seminars told us that we did have some things going for us: That we had a great deal of experience and lots of contacts in the real world to help us in our search. We learned about the latest in writing resumes and social media.  Unlike many of my colleagues, I already had a presence in social media and I had a professional website. I had “analytics” on my site so I could see where my visitors were coming from, how they found my website, what pages they visited on my website and how long they stayed on a page.   A number of books were recommended and I read them all. I can tell you, the best of them was “What Color Is Your Parachute (2012 edition)”  by Bolles.

Bolles and the Seminar taught me more than just the nuts and bolts of a job search. They demanded that I be clear about what I wanted to do and what I did not want to do. The point of a job search is to find work you can enjoy and not work in which you will be miserable. I know people who applied to any job that came their way.  This annoyed me because it clogged up the system.  Employers got dozens of resumes and had to find a way to quickly winnow it down to a manageable size. It made life harder for an older rabbi to get noticed.  Over the two years I was job searching, I updated my resumes at least four times. I had three different resumes going at the same time; one for synagogues, one for religious non-profits and one for the secular non-profits. My daughter helped me get the first series put together and then, a year later, insisted that I update them again for my third revision. She helped me craft some of the many cover letters I wrote, an original letter for every resume sent out.

Another lesson from Bolles was to keep applying for jobs you want no matter what the status of any of them might be. Don’t stop applying while you wait for someone to notice what you sent out last week. I tried to average three resumes a week. This meant that I had to read some eight job boards each week and find something that interested me enough to want to apply. I found some really wonderful jobs on those lists, and I can tell you that I have been rejected by some incredible organizations. Some notified me that I did not meet their qualifications; some never contacted me at all. I would soon discover that there is a great prejudice out there against applicants over 50. Many non-profits would not hire rabbis lest they somehow make the organization “too religious”.  In spite of my training and experience, some were looking for even more experience in fundraising and in administration. Most of the time you never know why you did not make the first cut, or why you were cut on the second or third rounds, A couple of times I was a finalist for a job and it went to a younger applicant.  To be  honest, some who were advertising nationally for a position, really only interviewed local talent. They didn’t want to (or didn’t need to) bring in anyone from far away.

In the absence of a reason, you learn to make up your own reasons. You change wording on the resume, you make changes in the website (eventually I would do a whole upgrade on the website, bringing in a paid advisor),  you get advice from your family and you read every tip on Linkedin.

After a while, you discover this black hole that is following you around, all day every day. As the days go by,  and the rejections pile up and the whole process gets tiresome, you begin to think that crawling into that hole might be a good idea. You don’t have to worry anymore about wording, or cover letters , you don’t have to worry about anything, you can just sink into sweet depression. Every day I looked at that hole and made a decision that I was not going to go there today. It was not easy.

When I got a rejection, I would “let” myself feel bad for an hour or so, and then send out another resume. I figured that feeling bad would not get me a job.  Some jobs would be a stretch for me but I kept applying. You never know. Meditation helped keep me focused on the present and kept me from worrying too much about the future. (Worry is a waste of good imagination.)

In the end, I insisted that three places that had rejected me, and had still not filled the position, needed to give me a personal interview to really see what they were missing. To one I sent a copy of my references and challenged them to call and see just how good a Rabbi I was.  They called, and heard some of my success stories.  They thanked me for my persistence. They invited me for an interview.

From the moment I touched the ground I attended meeting after meeting with officers, staff and members of the search committee. I told them that they had brought me in to work, and, like a consultant, I was at their call. I conducted services, and gave a major sermon.  I came home.

Within a few days they offered me a fair and balanced contract and with just a few minor wording changes, I signed.

My children say that I am a different person now that I am back on the pulpit. That my old self is back and they can see how happy I am.

I am thankful for all those who gave me a kick in the pants when I needed it.

I am thankful for those who spoke up on my behalf when my being disqualified made no sense

I am thankful for a placement service that kept me going, believed in me, trained me in how to job search better and for making sure that I always knew that my plight was not mine alone. They were there for me.  It made a difference.

I am thankful for the good people of Birmingham, Alabama who took a chance on the persistent rabbi  and were able to see clearly how we belonged together.

I am thankful for my family and the encouragement and support they gave me during my search.

I am thankful for my wife who always believed that I would get the job I wanted.

I am thankful to God for keeping me alive, supporting me and bringing me to this happy conclusion.

Mir Zaynen Do – We are Here

This is a speech I gave at a Yom HaShoa (Holocaust Remembrance Day) at a ceremony sponsored by Hospice of Broward County an amazing caring organization. It was delivered on Tuesday April 9 at the Court of Palm Aire in Pompano Beach, Florida. It was an interfaith gathering and I decided to name this after the Yiddish partisan’s song that was sung at the program by a non-Jew, in Yiddish. Perhaps the lessons of the Holocaust have penetrated more hearts than we know.

Mir Zaynen Do – We Are Here

Good afternoon.   Thank you for that warm introduction.  It is an honor to be here today and to be a part of this important commemoration.

Let me begin with a story.  It is told by Yaffa Eliach in her book, “Hasidic Tales of the Holocaust”

Near the city of Danzig lived a well-to-do Hasidic Rabbi, scion of prominent Hasidic dynasties. Dressed in a tailored black suit, wearing a top hat, and carrying a silver walking cane, the rabbi would take his daily morning stroll, accompanied by his tall, handsome son-in-law.

During his morning walk it was the rabbi’s custom to greet every man, woman, and child whom he met on his way with a warm smile and a cordial “Good morning.” Over the years the rabbi became acquainted with many of his fellow townspeople this way and would always greet them by their proper title and name.

Near the outskirts of town, in the fields, he would exchange greetings with Herr Mueller, an ethnic German. “Good morning, Herr Mueller!” the rabbi would hasten to greet the man who worked in the fields. “Good morning, Herr Rabbiner!” would come the response with a good-natured smile.

Then the war began. The rabbi’s strolls stopped abruptly. Herr Mueller donned an S.S. uniform and disappeared from the fields.(*) The fate of the rabbi was like that of much of the rest of Polish Jewry. He lost his family in the death camp of Treblinka, and, after great suffering, was deported to Auschwitz.

One day, during a selection at Auschwitz, the rabbi stood on line with hundreds of other Jews awaiting the moment when their fates would be decided, for life or death. Dressed in a striped camp uniform, head and beard shaven and eyes feverish from starvation and disease, the rabbi looked like a walking skeleton.

“Right! Left, left, left!” The voice in the distance drew nearer. Suddenly the rabbi had a great urge to see the face of the man with the snow-white gloves, small baton, and steely voice who played God and decide who should live and who should die. His lifted his eyes and heard his own voice speaking:

“Good morning, Herr Mueller!”

“Good morning, Herr Rabbiner!” responded a human voice beneath the S.S. cap adorned with skull and bones. “What are you doing here?” A faint smile appeared on the rabbi’s lips. The baton moved to the right – to life. The following day, the rabbi was transferred to a safer camp.

The rabbi, now in his eighties, told me in his gentle voice, “This is the power of a good-morning greeting. A man must always greet his fellow man.”

There is a lot in this story that we need to remember when we think about the Holocaust and the way it has changed our world forever.

Until World War II, It was common for Americans to believe that people were basically good inside and that the evil that men do, was often the result of outside influences. The Nazi’s  buried this idea forever. One could not review the history of Nazi Germany and believe that Humans were basically good. In fact, it did not require much to transform a normal person in the street into a cold blooded killer. Since 1945 there have been all kinds of scientific research on how it is possible to reverse a lifetime of moral training and the results have shown that it is relatively easy. Our need to fit in, to be one of the gang, to not make waves, apparently trumps our religious and moral training.

Nazi Germany was not a backwater country in 1935. It was not Cambodia, The Central African Republic, or Rowanda; places where other genocides have occurred. Germany was a modern democratic state. German Jews had fought and died in World War I defending the German homeland. The victims of the Nazi’s paid taxes and were law abiding citizens. None of this saved them from the hands of their oppressors, people who were once their neighbors suddenly were filled with bigotry and hate.

Finally, the European countries outside of Germany who supported the Nazi effort to kill all the Jews, Homosexuals, Gypsies and Communists, those countries had enormous numbers of Jews and others killed. In Poland, Austria and Hungary, where there was local support for genocide, vast numbers were murdered. Genocide came late to Hungary but a half million were killed in this short time because the Hungarian gentiles helped round up their Jewish neighbors. In Denmark, where the population rallied to protect their Jewish citizens, only a handful of Jews died.

It is not a pretty picture. The technology of the middle twentieth century was turned on the Jews and with German efficiency, six million Jews and 4 million others were murdered in five short years. And if you might think that the United States was not complicit, I must remind everyone here of the voyage of the St. Louis, the infamous “Voyage of the Damned”  filled with Jews who were refused refuge in this and many other countries, and showed Hitler that nobody would care if he were to kill Jews. 1935 was not a good time to be a Jew.

It is an old story, divide and conquer. Get everyone to be concerned only with themselves and you can pick them off one at a time. As the Protestant minister Martin Niemöller wrote in his famous poem:

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out–
Because I was not a Socialist.

Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out–
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out–
Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me–and there was no one left to speak for me.

This was Europe during World War II.  This is Historical fact. We can like it or we can blush with embarrassment but it was real, all of it: the murder, the brutality, the inhumane medical experiments, the starvation, the forced labor, the random killings, the extermination of entire villages, all of it is true and it remains a shameful stain on all of Humanity, that we had to discover in this brutal way, how depraved our species can be.

But the inhumanity of Nazi Germany is not the whole story.

This year we observe the 70th anniversary of the Jewish Rebellion in the Warsaw Ghetto. The Jews who were imprisoned in this slum at this time of year, found a way to stockpile guns and grenades and for almost a month they held the Nazi war machine at bay. Only by systematically bombing each and every building in the ghetto could the Nazi’s end the rebellion.  And this was only the largest of the rebellions. In Auschwitz they managed to destroy two of the five crematoriums. Jews escaped from their captivity and fought as partisans in the forests and in the cities. One can only push another human being so far and then we begin to push back. We rebel against our oppressors and fight for what we know is right.  Evil can triumph for a while, but eventually the moral and the good will arise and fight back. This too is an important lesson from the Holocaust. Psychologist Viktor Frankl, who himself was a prisoner of the Nazi’s, discovered that you can take everything away from a human being but you can’t take his self respect and you can’t take the meaning out of his life.  These are enduring human traits.

Another part of the story is found in a statistic. The country that lost the most Jews was Poland. There were more Jews there than almost anywhere else and the Poles helped the Nazis round up and kill all the undesirables. And yet, at Yad VaShem, the Holocaust Memorial in Israel, there is a grove of trees planted in memory of all the non-Jews who helped save and protect Jews. One tree was planted for every righteous gentile. It is a small forest on the slope of the hill. Which country has the most righteous gentiles? Poland. A Catholic country, the immorality of the treatment of the Jews was not lost on these pious people They gave food and shelter and protection for those who were persecuted, often at the threat of personal harm and harm to their families.

A Rabbi who survived the war was once asked why the other clergy did not rise to defend the Jews. The Rabbi looked puzzled and said, “ we had no relationship with other clergy. They lived in their world and we lived in ours. We never spoke or shared anything.”

What a stunning indictment of society. It is not hard to kill others if you have no connection to them. Once you know their name, once you have lunch or dinner with them, one you learn together and share ideas, it is much harder to ignore and to hate. Bigotry needs darkness to grow. Shine a light on each other and prejudice can’t survive. This is a complete endorsement of interfaith activities. When religions understand each other, there is no room for discrimination.  Even something as simple as a cheerful “good morning” each day, makes it harder to harbor hate.

The lesson of Herr Muller and the Rabbi is that any moment of connection with another human being pushes the forces of darkness back to the hole that is there home. If we want insure that genocide will end, then we need to make friends with our neighbors of every background. It is not about random acts of kindness, it is about being constantly kind to every human being. With love and understanding comes life, for ourselves and for everyone else. Perhaps if we can build the bridges between those who are different we can create a new poem;

When they came for Michael, Michael was my neighbor who helped took care of  my plants when I was on vacation so I helped him escape.

Then they came for Miriam who worked beside me when we would feed the hungry so I warned her and she got away.

Then they came for John, but John and I used to sit in the park and discuss history and while I never agreed with him, I made sure that they couldn’t find him.

And when they came for me, I stood up to fight and suddenly, Michael, Miriam and John were by my side and together we stood against the evil.  Soon others joined us and the evil was destroyed. So once again life was good.

This doesn’t have to be a dream of the future; we can make this happen now, just by extending our hands to each other, and walking together in peace.

If we can thus bring peace to our hearts, we can also bring peace to the world.

That is my prayer, my hope and my dream, as we remember the victims and the heroes on this Holocaust Remembrance Day.


Turn, Turn, Turn

For all can see that wise men die, that the foolish and senseless all perish and leave their wealth to others. They think their houses will remain forever; their dwellings for all generations; they give their names to their estates. But man, despite his splendor, does not endure.  [Psalm 49]

Derek Penwell wrote an article for the Huffington Post called “What if the Kids Don’t Want our Church”  and it cuts to a question that every generations asks each other; “Will our children really care about the things we value most?” it is a hard question. I look at the things my wife, Michelle and I have collected over the years and to almost all of it we have meaning and memories attached to it. We must only remember that these meanings and memories are our own, and our stuff may not have the same meaning or memory to our children who are now finding meaning and memory in their own lives. I admit to a certain curiosity of what things my children may want from the stuff we have collected and when, someday, I have grandchildren, I know that they will have their own memories of stuff they played with and saw at their grandparent’s house and perhaps our grandchildren may keep some of our stuff for their own reasons.

But there are things that I am sure my children will keep for as long as they are alive. They will keep our insistence on honesty. They will treasure our lessons on kindness. They will remember for a long time the lessons we tried to teach them about life and they will bring their own interpretations of our practical wisdom to meet whatever new situations in which they may someday find themselves.

We fool ourselves when we believe that the stuff we accumulate will live on after we are gone. The symbolic meaning we attach to it is very personal and perishable. The late Rabbi Jacob Chiel in one of his books tells a story of a mother who valued her stuff over her children, banishing them from the living room lest they break her valuable treasures. Now her daughter is sitting in the house while her mother is dying at the hospital and she looks around at all the stuff that her mother worked so hard to preserve and it has no meaning for the daughter at all. In fact, she has learned to despise all the things her mother scolded her to not touch all the years she was growing up and again when the grandchildren came over. Now, at the end, the stuff her mother had ‘saved’ was all “for nothing.”

This applies to our homes, and it applies to our churches and synagogues. What good are all the things we leave behind if we don’t leave behind memories, ideas and lessons for living? The next generations will not care about stained glass windows or who donated them if they never did anything worthwhile in their shadow. Why should they care about a building if nothing of substance was ever done inside?

I have said many times in my own sermons and on this blog, it is not about the stuff, it is about the relationships. We treasure the people we love and the meaningful activities that make a difference in the world. Rabbi Akiva once said to the wealthy Rabbi Tarfon that he had a good investment if Tarfon was willing to put some money in. Tarfon agreed and Akiva then gave all the money for scholarships for students. Later Rabbi Tarfon asked about the investments and when he might see the return on the investment. Rabbi Akiva took Rabbi Tarfon to the academy and showed him the students who were learning there. “Here is the return on your investment”, Akiva said. Rabbi Tarfon had to admit that his investment in Torah learning would pay important dividends even if it did not put more money in his pocket.

Our children don’t need our buildings, our architecture or our pews. They need to know about our faith, our acts of Hesed (kindness) and the important lessons of our religion. These they will carry no matter where they may go and no matter what they may do, and they will treasure in their own hearts  and in their own way these moral values no matter if the buildings we build will survive or not. The most important part of the building is what the people are doing inside.

It is interesting to see what happens to a building over the generations, the transitions it goes through and the transformation of its neighborhood. Israeli archeologists have uncovered some extraordinary ancient synagogues and a great many dedication inscriptions that are an important part of Jewish history. These synagogues were all lost and forgotten. The faith practiced in those buildings, however, has remained eternal though the buildings have not. Our ancient faith is still being taught, not in the old ruins but in new places. It would be a real tragedy if our children don’t find their own love of the values and lessons of faith they learned in our synagogues and churches. Our stuff comes and goes but the lessons of life are eternal. Our buildings and our “stuff” are only as important as the relationships to God that are forged inside.


When I was younger, so much younger than today,
I never needed anybody’s help in any way.
But now these days are gone, I’m not so self assured,
Now I find I’ve changed my mind and opened up the doors.  (Beatles: Help)

Cyd Weissman in in her blog LivingLOMED, wrote an article called “Surprisingly Easy to Quit my synagogue”. I don’t want to misrepresent her feelings about leaving the synagogue where her family had been members for 20 years. I think it is important to click on the link to her article and hear, in her own words, what happened that brought her to leave.

Her article sparked many thoughts in my head. I have been a pulpit rabbi for over 20 years and I can create, in my mind, what might be going on in her former rabbi’s head. I have been there. I understand. Maybe, years ago, I may have thought the same way. Maybe someone out there who is reading my blog can actually remind me of a moment when I insisted that there be only one service at the synagogue on a Saturday morning. I can only say that it was wrong then and it is “more wrong” now. Not because of the feelings of those who commented on her post. I can feel their pain; and not because she felt she had to quit over the issue of not being able to have the program she wanted at the time she wanted it. It is wrong because it reflects a concept of what a synagogue should be, and that model is, at best faulty, and at worst, a terrible wrong turn of history.

In centuries past, when a rabbi in the community only spoke twice a year, the rabbi could compel the entire community to come hear what he had to say. Today, when a rabbi speaks twice every weekend, to insist that all attend the Saturday morning service is no more than an attempt to force the community to come hear him speak. If he spent all that time preparing his sermon, well, you better be there to hear it! But this is just like the professor who comes to the department head and says, “The students are not registering for my class, we need to make it a requirement.”

If we are talking about a half century ago, maybe the need for conformity would trump the individualist streak Ms Weissman and her fellow students represent. I would have thought that the rebellions of the 1960’s would have put that kind of thinking to bed long ago. While Ms Weissman may be of a younger generation, I suspect that an older “baby boomer” would feel the same way. A synagogue can’t be everything to everybody and still be true to its mission. But there are realities in the “marketplace” (I don’t like that term, thus the quotation marks, but I don’t quite know what else to call it) that you just can’t avoid. If you close the parking lot on Shabbat, the Jews will park around the corner and then walk to shul. You can send your children to a kosher camp for the summer and the first thing the parents will do, on the way out of camp is to stop at McDonalds for lunch. If you have a group of people who are coming to shul on Shabbat, you don’t tell them that they are no longer welcome to come to learn, that they have to come to pray. You have to be grateful, in this era where all Jews are “Jews by choice” that they come for a good Jewish reason on Shabbat (and not just to see what kinds of  fashions people are wearing).

What really pains me is that we are creating a generation of Jews who have been rejected by their congregation. That you can see in the comments after the blog. Why is this happening? It happens because history does not change instantly. I like to teach that the two important dates in American History are 1492 (voyage of Columbus) and 1620 (Pilgrims land at Plymouth). Yet there was an entire century of exploration in the “new world” that somehow is ignored.  Every rabbi must, by now know that the model of synagogues, the one that was once the most successful model of synagogue in history, has succumbed to changing demographics and changes in society. Everyone knows this model must change, but not everyone is ready to do something about it. The change is spotty. Some congregations are already very successful in their response to changes in the way Jews live, in the way society has changed and in the way we are all affected by technology. There are also congregations, however, that have looked at the issues of falling membership and financial woes and have tried to go back to the “pure” model of the 1950’s, where all Jews joined a shul at age 21 so they could give their children a good Jewish education and “have a Bar Mitzvah”; a world in which they don’t have to deal with gay marriage, singles of any age, serious adult education and serious efforts at social action.

This modern world is one in which one size does not fit all. This modern world is inclusive, not exclusive. This modern world does not want to go back and fight the same old battles of gender, sexual orientation and social expectations. You can’t go back in time. There is a reason that a car has a large windshield and a small rearview mirror. We need to look back, but we also need a vision of the future. Some congregations get that. Some smaller minyanim are experimenting with new approaches to membership, High Holy Day seating and having multiple entrances to Jewish life. The sad part is knowing that there are rabbis like the one in Ms Weissman’s former synagogue, who may understand what is going on but, as one colleague said to me, “That is just not the kind of rabbi I want to be.”

I can only say that, slowly but surely, the Jewish world is coming around. What is a decade or two when we have a 4000 year history? Still, the world moves faster and so does the pace of change. I take heart that 20 years ago a colleague stood up at a convention of rabbis and declared “I think children in the service should be quiet or be escorted out.” That rabbi got a chorus of “boos” from the other rabbis present. Change is happening, we need to find new ways to navigate a new world or we risk losing members of 20 years or more.

I don’t know who Ms Weissman’s rabbi was and I really don’t want to know. His issue is between himself and Ms Weissman. I can only add my voice to the chorus and say, “BOO!”

Janie’s Got a Gun

 [In Commemoration of Gun Control Shabbat]

The title is from a song by Arrowsmith about a girl who is the victim of incest. Today, it seems to apply to far too many in our country who believe they have good reasons to own and use a gun.  This year, 2013, however, seems to be the year when we finally ask ourselves, isn’t it time for some sensible gun control?

Janie’s got a gun, as so do a whole lot of other people. Some of them have mental illness and we can’t seem to find a way to keep guns out of their hands before they kill themselves and/or kill others.  We have criminals in the streets that have more firepower than those who are sworn to protect us.  Guns are so easy to obtain that the laws we have to restrict gun ownership are laughable. And we protect our “right” to own a gun as if it is identical to our right to free speech. It is not. Our right to free speech end where words begin to physically hurt others. Guns have been physically hurting and killing others at a sickening pace. Where does this right to own a gun end?

People say that we will never have sensible gun control because the gun lobby is too strong. Once upon a time we were content with a steadily rising automobile death rate. One day we declared that death rate indefensible and we have saved countless lives with safer cars, car seats and driving laws.  When will the steadily rising rate of gun violence bring us to declare the rate indefensible? Will it be after the High School in Columbine? After the movie theater in Aurora?  After  Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown? After the Sikh Temple in Oak Creek?  After one more senseless death on the streets of an all American city? After another abusive man turns his gun on his wife and family?

Maybe crazy people don’t buy guns; perhaps it is the guns that make them crazy. How many gang members feel “empowered” by the firepower they are packing?

Do we really need automatic weapons to defend our homes and families? Do we really need large ammunition clips to feel  safe? Are we prepared to say we don’t have the technology to flag those gun sales, commercial and private sales, to those who have lost their right to buy guns?

In the same way we make bartenders responsible for serving liquor to those already clearly intoxicated, perhaps we should hold the sellers of arms and ammunition responsible for what happens with the guns they sell, not just the big retailers of guns, but even the guys who sell their collections privately. Maybe we should require liability policies for those who own guns, to make sure they are used and stored properly. If the government can’t control guns, maybe it will take a financial obligation to get people to make reasonable decisions regarding their guns.  How we do it is only the technical part of  our need to make reasonable gun control happen.

It is time that clergy and religious people everywhere stand our ground to end this war in our streets. If we believe in a God of Love, we need to work to get these instruments of hate off of our streets.  If we believe in a “right to life” then we need to apply that right not just to the unborn, but to those who are born as well.  (will we do anything to save the life of an unborn child and do nothing to save the life of a natural born child?) If we believe that God gives us daily a choice between life and death, and we must choose life,  then we need to stand up to the merchants of death and draw the line between what is reasonable defense of home and person and to work hard to eliminate the free fire zones on the streets and public places in our cities and suburbs.

Our country was able to move to end senseless deaths on our highway by making strict licensing laws, mandating seat belts, air bags and child safety seats. We can end the senseless deaths from guns by mandating strict background checks (or strict licensing of gun ownership that includes such background checks) and taking automatic and semi-automatic guns out of circulation together with large ammunition clips. We need to make gun owners liable for whatever damage that can be linked to their guns.

We can do this. We must do this. How many more children and adults must die needlessly before we do what we know we should have done long ago?

The State of Connecticut complained this week that the movie “Lincoln” wrongly indicated that they had voted against the sixteenth amendment to the Constitution that ended slavery. History clearly shows that the state delegation voted in favor of the law. One hundred years from now, will history show clearly that we stood on the side of sensible gun control?

Now is the time to lift our voices.

Living in a Material Word

As Fashion week came to and end in New York, and the New York Times put out its spring edition of T magazine with all the latest fashions for the next season, I began to reflect on what it means to be in style.

On the one hand, nobody wants to be out of date. Ties may grow wide or thin, lapels may be large or small, hemlines may rise and fall and we had to decide if we are going to join this new trend or not. It is not just clothing. We are constantly checking to see if we have gone out of style in one way or another. We look to see how others (or models in magazines) are wearing their hair. If we are shopping for a car we look to see what our friends are driving. We visit new restaurants based on where others are eating. We watch television shows that are creating “buzz”. We want to see whatever movie that “everyone else is seeing”.  And if our technology fashion is based on  Apple standards, we just have to have the latest release from the company that Steve Jobs built.

To be sure there are those who do not want to be trend setters. We are the last to see the movie, buy a fashionable outfit or own the latest gadget. Still we do care that we do not fall too far behind. There are many pragmatic reasons to not always be first in line. Still there is a measure of ignobility if we fall too far behind that others may laugh at what we own.

And yet there are some things that just never go out of style. Like a tuxedo or your basic black party dress, somehow the basics always stay in style. Young people may always go for what is new and different, but somehow as we mature (and I am not talking senior citizen here, just your basic adult)we find ourselves attracted to what is enduring.  We get this sense that there has to be something that is the foundation upon which we can rely. The world can’t always be a rocking ocean, sometimes we need to find a quiet harbor where we can weather a storm.

And that is exactly why faith never goes out of style.

Religion is the foundation upon which we can build our lives. It is the important base that makes all the impermanent things in life, useable.

There seems to always be people who declare that religion is hopelessly out of date.  Those people in the Bible, they may be quaint but They will never be as sophisticated as we are. What the Bible calls “miracles” are just signs as to how ignorant those ancient people were. Don’t forget, why in the world would we need laws that just outright forbid lying, adultery and theft? Our world today is more “grey” than that.

There are also people who say that religion is actually immoral. All that indiscriminate killing, the death penalty, and the idea of a “jealous” God who forces Pharaoh to sin so God can punish him and his entire country, what kind of a faith is this? Look at all the hatred and war that religion has brought upon the world. Who needs this? What kind of a Bible preaches love but then encourages discrimination against blacks, women and homosexuals? “No thanks”, they say, “give me a good secular culture any day.”

Judaism is my faith and certainly there are things that are on record of which I am not proud. There are moments in every age in history where there are ideas and incidents that I think I could easily live without.  Certainly there is, in Judaism, enough to criticize and bow our heads in shame.

But religion is not meant to be perfect. It is the record of how humanity and God have tried to understand each other. It  is a choppy history, one that is full of mistakes, blunders and wrong turns. The record of Judaism is filled with conflict and power grabs. That is, of course, the human way.  But Judaism keeps on going  because underneath all the problems, is a core that we Jews understand is God trying to show us how to live better lives. Sometimes we get it right, sometimes we fail to understand, sometimes we go on a wrong turn that lasts for centuries. But in the end, no matter how many circles we go around, there is still some progress toward a better world and better human beings. It does take time to get some moral growth out of our selfish and deluded brains.

But God has all the time in the world. God is not bound by our restrictions of time and space.

God has high expectations that have had to come down sometimes to our level. We have a long way to go to raise ourselves up to where God wants us to be. So we struggle, we try, we aspire and we experiment with what we think God wants from us.  What looks good on paper often does not work in real life. Real life sometimes demands that we update what we have put down as moral certainty on paper. The moral fads eventually give way to what will become classics, the understanding of life that includes morality, fairness, understanding, justice and love.

God’s light shines brightly on our world, and as we draw closer to the source of that light, our lives can shine brighter too. The point of faith is not to be perfect, but to try harder every day to bring more light into our lives and into the lives of those who lives touch our own.

Good Music and Good Friends

I have been blessed over the years with good friends. They check in on me when they don’t hear from me in a while. They send me pictures and messages on Facebook that they think I would like. They send emails about what is going on with them and their families and ask me about my children and my work. In good times and bad, I am blessed to have good friends I can rely on.
One of the things that make our friendships strong is that we don’t base our relationship on external things. I don’t care what kind of a car they drive or what color they paint their home. They don’t have to dress to impress me since what we value is on the inside.  It is our values and character that drives our friendship, the rest is interesting but not crucial. When you have good friends, you overlook the details because the inside is so precious.
This past Shabbat, I realized that the same thing can be said about prayer. One of my teachers was amazed about how I could find so much spirituality in my prayer. After all, they are the same words, recited every day ; how could I pray every day in my minyan, davening at or near the speed of light, and still have them pierce my heart and move my soul?  I explained that, to me, each prayer is like an old friend. I get to greet him each day and see what he has to say to me.  Sometimes we just nod a greeting to each other, but other times I find important wisdom in his words or he sparks an idea in my head that unfolds like a flower. The daily Shacharit, Mincha and Maariv converse with me like old friends and I never tire of their company.
But just like my personal friends, I don’t worry too much about what is on the outside. I know that there are those who pray and who love to pray in exactly the same way every day. They have their favorite tunes, favorite siddur and favorite place to sit in the synagogue. It is not the same if anything is changed. They claim that it undermines the service if someone should sit in their seat, use a different book or sing a new melody. I see their point. Changing the music or the siddur does change the experience of prayer, but that is not a bad change. Like turning a diamond to see the different ways the light is refracted in the gem, so too, when we make minor changes in the liturgy, or the way we sing the liturgy, we can discover new ways to understand our prayer and our relationship with God.
It is easy to try this. Take a favorite prayer and change all the masculine pronouns for God and turn them into feminine pronouns. The prayer suddenly will have new things to teach. Or replace all gender terms for God with neutral terms, “He” or “She” becomes just “God”. How does this change the way we think about God in our lives? When I use an older prayer book, I change the “thee” and “thou” to “you” and “your” and suddenly the prayers take on a more contemporary feel.  Adon Olam has thousands of tunes you can sing it too, and each one lends a different flavor to that moment at the end of the service. Do we end the service reverently? Cheerfully? Whimsically? It is all in the tune we choose.
Think of the song, “Lean on Me” sung by Bill Withers. In its original melody, it is an ode to friendship. Take the same words and give them a reggae beat and it becomes a celebration of friendship. Take the words and give them a gospel sound and the lyrics become a spiritual prayer. The music is like a different costume, a different look, but the changes in music change our perspective on the words. The changes in style set the words free.
Just as our friends grow and change, a development that matches our own growth, so too can we discover new meaning and life in old prayers if we let them grow and change over time like us. Holding our prayers stagnant over time is like trying to hold down our dear friends. They may enjoy our company and the extra time with us for a while, but eventually they will grow restless and feel the need to move away. Just because we let them go away, does not mean that the friendship is over. It only means that we have given it the space it needs to grow deeper and stronger.
Changes in the service should be welcomed and embraced. The old have not been discarded. My friends, the prayers, are still there to embrace me with their warm hugs each morning and evening.  They are just wearing different clothes, and I have a chance to see them in a new light and from a different point of view. As always, I am richer for the encounter and my heart is filled with the love we share.