At every Yizkor / Memorial Service I have attended, the rabbi has spoken about the tenderness of parents and the undying, unfailing love and respect we had for our parents and for other family members that we in the congregation had lost. The assumption made in countless Yizkor sermons and even by the prayers themselves was that we all had wonderful, loving parents and a healthy family. I knew it wasn’t true. In my life and career, I’ve encountered those whose trauma was such that it brought them to the point of refusing to attend a parent’s funeral or to recite kaddish for them.
Our Jewish communities have those who are reciting Yizkor for an abusive parent or spouse, for a family member who was a criminal, for a relative whose drug or alcohol abuse made them impossible to live with, for a parent whose mental illness prevented them from being a loving parent, for a loved one whose death showed that they were living a secret life they couldn’t or wouldn’t share, for a parent or spouse who abandoned them.
Those of us who lived with these traumas recite Yizkor differently than the rest of the community (when we choose to recite it). There might be love for those departed. There might be anger. There might even be hate. Almost certainly there is ambivalence. We know that our Yizkor memorial is not what the rabbi often describes, what the prayer book says, or what others around us experience.
It is for you (and me) that I share a personal prayer that I invite you to add to your Yizkor prayer (and to feel free to share with others, asking only that if distributing to large numbers, you please mention my authorship)
Our God and God of our Ancestors,
I stand before you at this time remembering those who have departed from my life (and from my family). I pray for the insight to learn from that which was positive in the live (lives) of [name/s of those departed]. Knowing that s/he suffered and was often led down wrong paths, I pray that s/he is now eternally at peace beneath your sheltering wings.
At this holy time, I pray that you heal my scars and pain and that you send healing to those around me who were hurt by the dysfunction we experienced. May I and all who suffered be blessed with the empathy and strength that can result from our experiences. As we bring healing to our selves, may we continue to grow to be a force for healing in our households, our community and our world.
– Rabbi Arnie Samlan
As synagogues began to carefully and slowly reopen for limited in-person services, I found that I and many others were not in a hurry to return, despite being long-time weekly, if not daily, participants. Being a traditionally-observant Jew and a rabbi, putting on a tallit at home, and davening/praying/reflecting, sitting on my front driveway, has been wonderful. And when thinking about what I missed (or didn’t) about being in synagogue, I was surpised at my answers. So, I reached out through my social media network for some reality testing.
“What do you miss about being in synagogue?” was the question. Responses clustered in two areas:
- Spiritual / Religious – People who genuinely missed the communal prayer experience
- Communal / Social – People who missed being with people to socialize, shmooze, share kiddush
To the fair, the split was 50/50. Full disclosure, I’m defintely more the social/communal synagogue person.
What really struck me was: Lockdown and pandemic have put these questions front and center: What are the value propositions of the American synagogue? What does being part of a synagogue add to my Jewish (and general) life?
During my years as a synagogue rabbi, not once did I ever ask a member: What do you most value about being part of this congregation and community? How does being here help you to lead a better life? What could we do better to help you get what you need from being part of the synagogue? And as a synagogue member, not once has a synagogue I’ve belonged to asked me any of these questions. The first time a rabbi did ask was when I zoomed into early Friday night services at a local Reform congregation during this pandemic. The following week, the rabbi, a total mensch, called me to say: I hope you enjoyed the services. What did you like about it? What would you have done differently? Well done, Rabbi!
Rant #1: In one community, we were visited by a leader of a local congregation. The visitor never asked what we were looking for in a synagogue. He never told me the value-added of being part of their community. His welcome to us was to tell us that the synagogue was great, and all the benefits of membership (including details of cemetery plots!). And of course, he handed us a membership application. The following weekend we visited a different nearby synagogue, where the humor and warmth permeated the walls. Needless to say, that was where we chose to join.
Rant #2: Don’t assume your rabbi or leaders in the congregation you belong to has been at shiva homes, checked in on those who are home-bound, or visited or called those who are hospitalized. Won’t go into personal details, just take my word on this. Some synagogues and rabbis are good at this. Others are terrible. Really terrible.
Rant #3: I seek inspiration and a little musar (instruction on character growth) from shul. I want to learn something about Torah, understand how to translate Torah to real life, be inspired to action. Too often I’ve instead received lessons on Zionism (which is very important to me, but not my primary need from shul attendance), frequent references to the Holocaust (very important to me, but also not what I focus on for my shul needs). I’ve sat through speakers going up on the bima and endorsing political candidates and rabbis making snide remarks about political figures they don’t like. Oddly enough, in the political “sermons”, never did the speeches include reference to the specific core values that the speaker found he had in common with the political figure. Just a generic “good for the Jews” or “good for Israel”. Forget about the fact that they are risking their tax exempt status, it’s just unacceptable.
Rant #4: Only a small hard core group of people sit engrossed through a 2-3 hour weekly service. The rest of us zone out periodically or spend quality time in the hall catching up with friends. Or (in my case), open a sefer (book of religious texts) and study, when services have dragged on. Here’s the thing: Those same synagogues that hold three hour Shabbat services are now finding ways to hold Rosh Hashana services that last one hour!
So, I’m going to be in shul on Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. We’ll all have our masks and social distancing. It will be good to see some people that I haven’t seen in months. I’m sure the one-hour service will be good. And when the holidays are over, I’ll have some deep soul-searching about what I actually do value about synagogue life, and whether I am getting it.
If you’re reading this and are a synagogue rabbi or leaders, think for a moment about what your people are looking for now. It may be the same as before the pandemic, but it may not be. Some of them have zoomed into other congregations and have found models and approaches they never knew about. Ask your people if they’re getting what they want and need. And listen. Please.
Wishing everyone a shana tova, a happy and sweet New Year!
It’s still a little early for Yom Kippur, but today I was thinking about the Al Chet confessional that we recite then. Specifically the part that says:
עַל חֵטְא שֶׁחָטָֽאנוּ לְפָנֶֽיךָ
For the sin we committed before You
with haughty eyes.
So here’s the thing: In 1973, I boarded an airplane for the first time in my life. And not just for a short flight, but I was travelling to Israel, the first time I had been outside of the United States. As we passed over the Atlantic, my mind was also flying. “Wait, the world is round”, “Oh, I’m not in America anymore”, “English isn’t the major language where I’m going (or in most of the world)”. It was an eye-opener for a 17-year old kid, who grew up thinking that the entire civilized world was the United States of America.
After spending that trip and the year that followed studying in Israel, my perspective was never the same. The realizations were that: there is civilization in other places, there is science and research throughout the world, people my age were going to universities everywhere, folks worked at deli counters like my dad and at law offices like my cousins not only in the U.S. And let’s be honest, we weren’t even building the best or coolest cars in the U.S.
And I realized that we Americans weren’t just proud of our country (a good thing), but we were flat-out arrogant about our country (not a good thing). Despite growing up seeing racism and poverty, I was taught that America was just the best country imaginable. Despite watching elected officials who took bribes, turned off the microphones of opponents at goverment meetings and knowing how serious voter fraud was in 1970’s Chicago, I learned that American democracy was just the perfect form of government. Despite knowing that our family didn’t have the money to send me to college, I heard over and over how any kid could get anywhere and accomplish anything in America. The lessons were inspiring. And not as true as I was led to believe.
Along came 2020 and the truth came out: All protestations aside, we didn’t have the “best testing”, or the “best research” or even consistent policies to combat a pandemic. The racism that we middle class white folks thought had magically disappeared with the civil rights movement was alive and well. The antisemitism that was just a childhood memory in which Jews couldn’t move to Kenilworth or join certain country clubs, ended its historic downward trend with a strong upsurge and with actual mass killings in synagogues. And many Americans shut their eyes to it all, preferring lies to truthful bad news.
Humility is a tough practice. Like many kids, my parents overpraised me and my abilities. And my rabbinic training gave me a hightened sense of importance. Humility has to be acheived through hard work, every day. But the only way we can ever achieve personal improvement is the recognition that “we are but dust”, balanced by the Talmudic affirmation that “for my sake was the world created”.
We can go into the High Holiday season as Jews (or whatever season for any human) in one of two ways: We can choose to continue to affirm personal, group, religious, racial, or national superiority. Or we can choose to recognize that the same blood pulses through the bodies of every human being. We can boast about being the best and continually compete with everyone else. Or we can accept the reality that we’re on this journey together, that nobody has all the answers, and that we and our countries need to learn to collaborate and cooperate.
So let’s examine ourselves, our society, our countries, our world. during this season. The great leader Moses is praised not because of his giving of the law, certainly his greatest acheivement, but because he was the most humble human being. And that humility gave him the opportunity to be good and to be great.
And let’s make a choice, to be humble so that we can all improve, personally and societally. And work to make our world both good and great.
I know what you’re thinking: That I am going to tell you who I am backing in the 2020 presidential elections in the United States. I’m actually going to do better than than that! I’m going to tell you who I am voting for in the August primaries here in Florida, in the 2020 presidential elections and in every single election I will ever be voting in! Not only that, but it will be reflected through very Jewish lenses.
I am voting for candidates who:
- Demonstrate responsible leadership and management – Real leaders take responsibility and take charge. In the book of Shemot (Exodus), Moshe, the prince, witnesses a taskmaster beating and Israelite. He takes charge of the situation, responds, and accepts the consequences of his action (self-imposed exile). It is during that exile that it revealed to him that he has earned the right to the leadership of the Israelites.
- Empathy – Both Moshe and David in the bible are chosen for their roles as they are leading sheep. The Jewish lens is teaching us that if you can show concern for lowly animals, you will most certainly empathize and be able to lead human communities
- Ability to work with others, across all lines of authority and approaches. Two Jewish teachings: In the creation story, God actually consults with his “cabinet” before creating the first human (“Let US create…). And in the Talmud, the quote “These teachings and these teachings are both words of the Living God” remind us to value and respect differences of opinions. Without differing opinions, the Talmud doesn’t exist. Without Talmud, Judaism as we know it doesn’t exist.
- Love of humanity – In my experience I have seen educators who “don’t like children” and politicians who don’t love and respect those they lead. It doesn’t work. “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” applies to everyone. but it’s especially important to live that mitzvah in leadership.
- Honesty and Integrity – Personal and professional integrity matter. A LOT. Because the phrase Adonai Eloheichem Emet, which ends the rectation of the Sh’ma is often translated as “The Lord your God is true” is sometimes (also correctly) translated as “The Lord your God is truth” – that is, is manifested through truth. Oh, and a name for God is Shalom, peace. The word Shalom, derives from the root Sh-L-M, meaning complete and denotes integrity. I expect my leaders to demonstrate those Godly qualities.
- Values-driven – Those who are driven by consistent core values may be swayed in specific situations for political reasons, but will remain faithful to the values they hold dearest. Israelite leaders in the bible stray. Often. But the prophets move leaders like David and other kings back to their core values. And the good kings in the bible recognize that they’ve gone astray and find their way back.
- Humility – Good leaders never believe that they have all the answers. Looking at Moshe again, he readily accepts the constructive criticism of his father-in-law, Jethro, and fashions an entire system of justice around the advice he is given. The ultimate praise of Moshe appears later in the Torah, which describes him as the most humble of all people
- Stands on issues that matter – That’s right. This is the last on my list for a reason. Yes, I want to know that my political leaders care about healthcare for all. Yes, I want to know that my leaders will confront racism and bigotry wherever they raise their ugly heads. Yes, I want leaders that will support Israel (even if they disagree with specific policies of Israel). But politicians are gonna politic. And that means that there will be a lot of bartering because that’s how the game is played. So I will go with the leadership and character of candidates I will vote for, and expect that, when those considerations align, the specific policy platforms will fall into place.
And there you have it, my endorsements for this year and forever.
True story: The day after the siyum – celebration of the end of a unit of study – for those who had studied the daf yomi – two sides of a Talmud page daily, Lenny Dykstra (THE Lenny Dykstra) tagged me in a Twitter post, in which he congratulated those who had completed the 7 1/2 year cycle and challenged those who would be starting the new cycle. I’m a veteran of significant Talmud study but definitely not disciplined enough to have done the daily study. But, when Lenny Dykstra gives you musar, well, why would I ignore it? So in I jumped.
I was pleased to see that there are great online as well as face-to-face communities banding together, through which people on this journey are supporting one another. There are podcasts, online guides and even specialized women’s resources to daf yomi that Rabbi Meir Shapira, who dreamt up the idea at his yeshiva in Lublin, Poland couldn’t have imagined. Personally, I’m enjoying the astonishment of the Talmud newbies as they discover the rather chaotic and stream of consciousness nature of the Talmud.
Now, while I’m not a newbie to Talmud study, I’m by no means a scholar. Nonetheless, for those who are less experienced, I am pleased to offer some reflections that I hope will be of value:
- The Talmud was a response to new realities on the ground. The nation that was Judea became a Roman province, Jewish self-government was gone, the Temple was destroyed, the priesthood became irrelevant, the prophetic period ended, “rabbis” or “sages” became the community leaders, the centers of Jewish life shifted to Yavneh, Tiberias, Babylonia.
- The Talmud was a revolutionary set of documents that transformed “Jewish” from a nation that included religious components into a culture that had religion and ethics at its core. It created a version of “Jewish” that could be put in a suitcase and unpacked wherever Jews would live.
- The Talmud is your extended Jewish family’s dinner (or Seder), if 500 years of relatives were invited to the conversation. Or Knesset meeting, if that’s your frame of reference. It’s the rabbinic equivalent of the Annie Hall scene where a Jewish family, living under the Coney Island Thunderbolt roller coaster, brings everything they want to talk about to the table. But with Jewish scholars and their guests.
- There is a lot of wisdom in the Talmud, as well as some mundane and sometimes outright disturbing content. There will be discussions of Jewish practice. There will be sharing of superstitions. There will be deep conversations about the course of history. There will be theological wanderings and wonderings about the nature of God. There will be gossip. There will be potshots at different nationalities. The rabbis and authorities will occasionally insult each other. What you’re watching is the drama of (re-)invention of what it means to be a Jew.through a dialogue that spans over 500 years.
- The Talmud is human. There are spiritual high moments and moments of pettiness. The characters that appear are intelligent, articulate, well-read, and yet, very human.
- The Talmud is a collection that reflects the values of its time. If you’re looking for gender equality, you’ll find some hints of it, but for the most part, that was not the value of that time. If you’re looking for universalism, it shows up occasionally, but that was not the primary concern of the sages.
- If you want to get a sense of how the diversity of who we are today as Jews – traditionalist/Orthodox, Reform, Reconstructionist, Zionist, anti-Zionist Jews, Hasidim, atheists/agnostics, converts, ba’alei teshuva – had a stage of development during an absolutely revolutionary era of Jewish history, you’re in the right place.
- Pet peeve: Mishnah is written in Hebrew. Gemara is mostly Aramaic with an occasional Greek or Persian work thrown in.
- The apocryphal story about a law school dean telling new students: “Look to your left and look to your right, because one of you will not be here next year” is going to be true for daf yomi learners. And that’s OK, because as far as you get, you’ve learned more Torah than you had coming in.
We’re in this thing together, my fellow travellers. Hope you see you along the journey and at the finish line.
B’hatzlacha, wishing you all success in your learning.
I was sitting in a meeting of the executive team at work, when a discussion about tough conversations began. We began to go to the typical way of referring to inviting people to such conversations – Come to Jesus Moment. Our CEO turned to me and said, “Rabbi, there must be a Jewish way to refer to these types of conversations”. It took me only seconds to respond with, “Of course, it’s a Burning Bush Conversation”.
The Burning Bush Conversation for God and Moses is described in Shemot / Exodus, chapter 3 -4, beginning at http://www.taggedtanakh.org/Chapter/Index/english-Exod-3 .
Here is what a Burning Bush Conversation looked like then, and the implications for our Burning Bush Conversations with colleagues, leaders, students and others that are part of our personal and communal Jewish journeys:
- A Burning Bush Moment begins with a person who is doing business as usual: “Moses, tending the flock of his father-in-law…drove the flock into the wilderness, and came to Horeb, the mountain of God. ”
- A Burning Bush Moment has a stimulus sent by the person convening the discussion, to get the attention of the other person. It could be “Hey, read this article and let’s see if we are doing this right”. It could be a question like “What was that charge on my charge card statement?” The Torah’s invitation to a conversation was far more dramatic. Ours doesn’t need to be, but we’re following a tradition of: an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a blazing fire out of a bush. He gazed, and there was a bush all aflame, yet the bush was not consumed. Moses said, “I must turn aside to look at this marvelous sight.”
- When inviting someone to a Burning Bush Conversation, it is important to acknowledge and honor the person being invited, while also clearly defining roles and rules for the conversation. It might be boss-employee, teacher-student, or in this case, God-Moses. And the rules can be who gets to speak and for how long, seating arrangements, or the dress code for the conversation: God called to him out of the bush: “Moses! Moses!” He answered, “Here I am.” And He said, “Do not come closer. Remove your sandals from your feet, for the place on which you stand is holy ground. I am,” He said, “the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.”
- The Burning Bush Conversation includes background to how everyone got to this point: I have marked well the plight of My people in Egypt and have heeded their outcry because of their taskmasters; yes, I am mindful of their sufferings. I have come down to rescue them from the Egyptians and to bring them out of that land to a good and spacious land, a land flowing with milk and honey.
- A goal of the Burning Bush Conversation is for the convener to communicate clearly how things must change and new roles adopted for success, such as “I have a new project for you” or “Your work needs to change in the future”. Or “Let’s work together and get an uprising going”: Go and assemble the elders of Israel and say to them: the Lord, the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, has appeared to me…I will stretch out My hand and smite Egypt with various wonders which I will work upon them; after that he shall let you go.
- Any Burning Bush Conversation will face inevitable resistance to change: Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and free the Israelites from Egypt?…When I come to the Israelites and say to them ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is His name?’ what shall I say to them?…Please, O Lord, I have never been a man of words, either in times past or now that You have spoken to Your servant; I am slow of speech and slow of tongue…Please, O Lord, make someone else Your agent.
- The Burning Bush Conversation should have the convener clarifying to the other that s/he will have support in achieving change and the new role: I will be with you; that shall be your sign that it was I who sent you…Thus shall you speak to the Israelites: The Lord, the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you.
- The Burning Bush Moment defines the tools and resources available to manage the new role. It could be a budget, new hardware or assigning a team: There is your brother Aaron the Levite. He, I know, speaks readily…put the words in his mouth—I will be with you and with him as you speak, and tell both of you what to do…And take with you this rod, with which you shall perform the signs.
In the Torah, the Burning Bush Moment sets the stage for success: the Exodus from Egypt. In our Jewish communal work, our successes are more modest but should set the stage for positive change that brings people – professionals, leaders, or volunteers, to more powerfully impact our communities.
During the Rosh Hashana Musaf service, the words “hayom harat olam” are recited at the sounding of the shofar. Most machzorim, High Holiday prayer books, have these three words translated with something along the lines of “Today the world was created” or “today the world was born. Neither translation is accurate. At all.
The word harat is taken from the Hebrew root H-R-H, to become pregnant, to conceive. That is very different from the word used in the Torah, B-R-A, an act of creation, or Y-Tz-R, forming.
To me, creation implies the totality of creation, and it has an end point. Indeed, the Torah version of the creation story concludes with Vayechulu ha-shamayim v’ha-aretz v’chol tzva’am, vayechal Elohim ba’yom Ha-shevi’i – The heaven and the earth were finished, and all their array. On the seventh day God finished the work that He had been doing. If the words sound familiar, it may be because they appear in the Shabbat services and in Saturday morning Kiddush all year long.
“Today the world was conceived” is far different than a creation story of “B’reishit bara Elohim”, in the beginning God created or the conclusion of the Biblical account, “The heaven and earth were finished”. What is the main difference? Bereshit Bara and Vayechal Elohim, God created and God completed imply a total completion. There is no uncertainty at the conclusion of the creation. The creation is total and, one would think, perfect, since traditional Jewish belief is in a perfect God.
Harat is totally different. In the words of the rabbis and writers of the machzor, the world was conceived. What do we think of when the words conception and pregnancy are used? We speak of something being “pregnant with opportunity”. Pregnancy is the ultimate sign of faith in a way: We don’t know how that life in formation is going to turn out. But we make new life in the hope and the expectation that we, as parents, will help to shape and guide that little life.
And conception? Yes, we “conceive” of a new idea, a thought. There are no guarantees, but the desire to conceive and innovate moves our world forward.
In the Kabbalistic literature, the creation story, unlike the assumption of the Biblical account, is imperfect and even incomplete. In its version, there a flaw is exposed in which vessels meant to capture all the goodness of creation shatter, with sparks of holiness spread and often hidden across creation. God doesn’t intend to create a perfect world, God conceives a world of possibilities, but one in need of what the Kabbalists refer to as tikkun, repair. In this version, the completion of creation doesn’t begin and end with God, it begins with God but ends with us. We, Jews and human beings, are responsible for gathering and bringing together holiness. And I believe that the authors of Musaf had a similar idea in mind when they deliberately chose “conception” for our service’s understanding of the creation story: That, as we enter a new year, just as the universe entered creation, it is full of possibility, but also full of pitfalls.
Maimonides developed the idea that there are 13 basic principles of Jewish belief. The last of them is: Ani maamin be’emunah shelemah b’viyat Ha-Mashiach, I have full faith in the coming of the Messiah. It’s actually something all Jews agree upon conceptually, even as we disagree about the method of delivery. Is it a somewhat supernatural event and individual, with links to the kingdom of David? Is it a process that unfolds gradually? Or perhaps a totally human and historical phase that we bring to fruition by totally natural means of making the world one of peace? On that, we disagree. But the faith that the world does and must head towards tikkun, repair, is universal. And it’s articulated in the closing words of the Malchuyot, the verses of Musaf that declare God’s kingship: l’taken olam b’malchut Shaddai, to repair the world [to become] a Godly kingdom.
Everything that happens and every choice we make, individually or as part of a society or group, either furthers that goal or moves us farther from it. If you aren’t paying attention, and I think most of you are, the year since the last Rosh Hashana has highlighted sinat chinam, baseless hatred in public and private domains. In what need to be civil discussions about how to make our world better, interactions have disintegrated into name calling and disrespect for anyone with whom we disagree. These so-called discussions violate every Jewish value about lashon hara, evil speech.
We have witnessed mass murders occur and, rather than working together to prevent this violence, the murders become overly politicized and we lose the opportunity to make meaning of those that have died.
Hayom Harat Olam, on this day the world was conceived. It is our obligation to complete the work of creation. This is the time to decide: How are we going to take the actions that move the world towards that messianic destiny? What actions will we take to insist that disagreements are aimed towards solving problems rather than creating new ones? What are the Jewish ideas that need to be introduced to our Jewish community, to Israel and to the world, so that we can get back to rowing in the same direction?
May the words of Hayom Harat Olam, the world being “pregnant with opportunity” inspire us today to make the commitments to moving the world to a state of tikkun and may our actions serve to bless all of us with a shana tova u’metukah, a happy and sweet new year.
The fast day Tisha B’Av presents a challenge to today’s Jews. Historically, we mourn the capture and destruction of Jerusalem and of the Holy Temples in ancient times. And yet today, Jerusalem is not only rebuilt, but expanded beyond belief. And we have beautiful synagogues in Israel and around the world, albeit without animal sacrifices (if that’s your thing…no judgement). And so the relevance of the days leading up to Tisha B’Av and of the fast itself becomes questionable.
This is not the only time period in which Tisha B’Av was being questioned or reexamined. The Talmud (Megilla 5b) suggests that Rabbi Judah Ha-Nasi wanted to cancel the holiday (and there is then a discussion about whether he meant to do away with the fast, or just in years when it falls on Shabbat). In the years after the Holocaust, there was a movement to integrate remembrance of the Shoah into the religious observance of Tisha B’Av, while Israel went down the road of creating Yom HaShoah as a separate and secular day of remembrance. And the Talmud and Midrash posit the idea that the seeds of redemption took root even on Tisha B’Av as the Temple was being destroyed (and that Tisha B’Av itself will, in the future, become a festive holiday).
Exiting my Shabbat this week and finding that another act of domestic terror had taken place in the United States moved me further to seek meaning of the “Nine Day of Av” that we are in the midst of. What can we learn and do that reflects this period on the Hebrew calendar and that responds to today’s challenges and disasters? My suggestion: As the fast’s historical commemorations seem less relevant, Tisha B’Av’s metaphorical significance becomes more important than ever:
Tisha B’Av recognizes the eternal challenge of brokenness of communities, cultures and countries.
In ancient times in Israel and Jerusalem, it was the political brokenness of loss of self-governance, and the religious brokenness of loss of a central focus of spiritual life that was to be commemorated.
For me, as an American Jew, it is the brokenness of our society that has lost its way and is allowing and even promoting the sinat chinam, baseless hatred, that the rabbis of ancient times blamed the destructions on. And more specifically, we face the brokenness of a culture that places the “right” to purchase firearms with minimal screening and to own firearms that are designed specifically for destruction and not for protection above the rights of people to live in safety.
What do we, as American Jews, need to do during this period?
- Update the tradition of examining how we communicate with others, and expanding it to examine the values that our elected leaders, media figures, and even social media connections are promoting. There can be no neutrality. Everyone is either part of the solution to what ails our society or is part of the problem itself. Weed out the haters from public office and from your own networks.
- As we give tzedaka during this period, continue to give, but also to look at what the causes we support are and how they are helping to rebuild and to anchor us in the values we believe in.
- Move from theoretical rebuilding of the Temple to practical action to rebuild every culture in which we are part.
- Recognize that America is in crisis and that each of us living here must respond. The Temple’s destruction led to the re-invention of Judaism through the rabbis and their literature. Today, we must all join in a renaissance of values-based society through practical action (including but not limited to political action) to bring the United States back to sanity and civility.
- And, most practically, act for sensible gun laws that protect the rights of law-abiding citizens to own guns while reducing the odds of guns being used in domestic terror, and in racist, anti-Semitic, and anti-LGBTQ mass attacks.
Through our actions over these days, may we bring an era of positive values and security back to our country. May we all rebuild the broken spaces together.
In an interview that went public on Saturday, Dr. Felix Klein, Germany’s Commissioner for Jewish Life in Germany and the Fight Against Anti-Semitism, stated that “I cannot advise Jews to wear the kippah everywhere all the time in Germany”. This started an uproar in Germany and beyond: How can anyone suggest that today that it might not be entirely safe in certain places and at certain times in Germany to wear a kippah (or, by extension, any sign that publicly announces that you’re Jewish)? Have we just accepted that anti-Semitism remains alive in Germany? In Europe?
It seems that the only people who were not surprised or even offended were those who, like myself, wear a kippah most of the time [or a tichel, a woman’s hair covering, or a chai necklace, etc]. Know why were weren’t? Because it wasn’t a news flash, and it’s certainly not about Germany.
I’ve been wearing a kippah most of the time for the past 47 years. Guess how much of that time I’ve thought about whether it’s perfectly safe to wear a kippah where I’m going during the course of the day? 47 years. Every single day. Everywhere I’ve lived: Chicago, Jerusalem, Atlanta, St. Louis, Providence, and even the New York area.
Generally, I get it right. The vast majority of times that I’ve decided that its safe to wear a kippah publicly, I have not had negative experiences. But there was that road rage incident in Chicago, where someone blocked my car in, ran over to my car, yelled anti-Semitic slurs and threatened me. And the time in Warsaw where someone gave me a “Heil Hitler” salute. But these were exceptional, probably because just about every week, there was at least one location in which my good judgment led me to either don a baseball cap or simply to go bareheaded.
Throwback: The idea that observant Jews would wear a kippah at all times was limited until the Six Day War in 1967 led to an explosion in Jewish / Israel pride. Until that time, Jews were guided by the recollection Charles Silberman writes about in his book A Certain People. There, he talks about leaving a funeral while still wearing his kippah and his aunt reminds him to “take your yarmuka off…it’s not nice.” The Orthodox American Jews I knew, at least in the 60’s, typically took their kippah off when leaving the house for work and put it back on when they returned home. In this, they actually had the support of a number of prominent American rabbis.
Now, it’s very nice for Germany’s Bild newspaper to print a kippah and encourage all Germans to wear one as a sign of solidarity. It is a beautiful, symbolic gesture. It will not change any prejudices that exist in Germany, Europe or for that matter, America. And it will not make a difference when I leave my home for work or play. I will still think about where I am going and the likelihood of encountering anti-Semitism on my day’s path.
So, Dr. Klein didn’t acknowledge anything new: Germany and much of the world is a tough place to be a Jew. I wish it wasn’t true and will gladly work to try to change that reality. In the meantime, I’m going to heed his advice and stay a little bit safer.
Good morning, my friend. I’m writing to you, and hope you don’t mind my sharing this with others. I know that your heart is broken as you learned about yet another murderous attack carried out here in the United States at a synagogue during religious services. As Professor Deborah Lipstadt pointed out, while the media described the killer as having “acted alone”, that is far from the truth. Murders against Jews that are motivated by the simple fact of their Jewish identities aren’t acting alone. They act having been influenced by what they read in online anti-Semitic, bigoted and racist websites. I’d go a step further. Once a person becomes a murdering anti-Semite he is not a lone criminal. He has united himself with anti-Semitic ideas that have crawled around western civilization for centuries. He can find an ideological home in the Inquisition of the Catholic church, in the thinking of Martin Luther, the founder of Protestantism, in the German ultra-nationalism that led to Auschwitz. He gets to share many of his beliefs with American racists, most of whom included Jews among the groups they pour out hatred towards.
My friend, your family and mine escaped the old country, fleeing oppression and poverty. They came to America and believed that they were not a minority group here. After all, President Washington had written a letter to the Jews of Newport RI, greeting their community and congregation and promising that the land in which they lived would give “to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance…only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens”. And while it took some years until our people were able to break down barriers to living in certain neighborhoods, being accepted to certain schools or joining certain country clubs, these were inconveniences at worst. And yes, while a few kids would be beaten up while walking to Hebrew School back in the day, this tended to be the exception, not the rule. Nothing was even close to the pogroms that our families had once survived.
Life was good in America. We became safe, upwardly mobile, comfortable. We celebrated Israel, most of us from a distance. We knew that Jews from other countries had moved there to escape persecution. But not American Jews. Those of us who moved there went out of pure idealism. Not for a moment did we think of Israel as our insurance policy. It was, for those of us who stayed in the U.S., our Jewish Disney World, where we could visit, tour, study, shop, eat, dance, play and then return to our wonderful American Diaspora.
Unexpectedly, the rug got pulled out from under us. Oh, it’s still mostly safe to be Jewish here. I put on my tallit and tefillin while waiting for a flight at Fort Lauderdale – Hollywood International Airport and didn’t give it a second thought. Before I knew what was happening, two other guys had tallit and tefillin on and were reciting their morning prayers. And nobody gave us a second look. As far as I know.
But, over the past few months, our working assumptions were blown up, with the lead taken by two anti-Semitic white supremecists armed with assault weapons. Now, when I walk to synagogue, I look around myself a little more to see who is around me. Now, I no longer laugh when my wife, whose mother left Germany just before the Holocaust struck, would warn me and the kids to always have up-to-date passports. Now I make sure to greet the North Miami Beach cop who sits in his patrol car outside the synagogue and the (armed) Israeli security guy who sits just inside the locked entrance of our synagogue, letting people in one-by-one every Shabbat and holiday.
In my optimistic heart and mind, I do not expect America to be overrun by anti-Semitic violence. But something has started here. Something that President Washington promised wouldn’t happen. And, for the first time in many years, you and I are off balance. Our steps are a little less certain.
Today, I lead a group on the March of the Living. We land tomorrow in Poland where a once proud Jewish community of 3 million now exists as a small community of a few thousand. It happened because something small began in a town in a neighboring country a few decades before the proverbial sh*t really hit the fan across Europe. So, while I want to believe in the “never again” affirmation, I’m no longer so naive as to ignore a few “isolated” incidents. And I mourn the lost innocence.
Today, I stand proud as a Jew. I stand in unity with each and every Jew. I value each and every ally who stands with me against a rising anti-Semitism. I stand with absolute faith in the belief that the Jewish people have an important role to play in human history and that we will continue to play that role faithfully.
Am Yisrael Chai — The People Israel Live!