Author Archive: Arnie Samlan

Invitation to Talmud or, How Lenny Dykstra Inspired me to study Daf Yomi

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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.

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Burning Bush Moments – An Alternative to “Come to Jesus” Conversations

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 .

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. 


burning Bush grass in the Sahara desert, Morocco Stock Photo - 49138101


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.

Today the World Was Conceived

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’iThe 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.

Facing a Broken Country on Tisha B’Av

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.


Wearing Your Judaism on Your Sleeve…in Germany, in America

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.

Welcome to the New Jewish America

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!


You Want My (Jewish) Vote? Here’s What You Need to Do!

This week’s social media adventure began for me with a tweet from President Trump proclaiming that “Jews are leaving the Democratic Party” and declaring that the Democratic Party doesn’t “care about Israel or the Jewish people”.  This was followed by the usual meshuggenas who decided to let me know that the Democratic party is the “Party of Infanticide, Socialism and Jew-haters. In other words, Nazis”.

To be sure, there are issues with how the Democratic party is positioning itself on Israel issues (and there is tremendous diversity among its elected officials on these issues) and its response to anti-Semitism in its ranks have been less than fully convincing. But given the 50,000 votes a Holocaust denier in Illinois running on a Republican ticket gained in a recent congressional election, it’s fair to state that we have problems across the party divide.

Living in Florida and being registered as “no party affiliation” excludes me from voting next time around in a primary election. But I feel that I will want to. And I am, quite frankly, open to offers from any party. Six months before the primary, I need to switch to a party affiliation or be denied the right to vote in it. So here is the email that I intend to send to every presidential candidate before then:

Dear Sir or Madam:

I will be registering to vote in the upcoming presidential primary. In order to do so, I am required to select a party with which to affiliate. Despite a strong commitment to independent voting, I will do so in order to cast my lot with one of the candidates. If you would like my affiliation and my vote, I require your responses to the following:

  1. Would the people you work with, your friends, your children, and your spouse or partner consider you a genuinely decent person with a strong sense of values and a solid moral compass? 
  2. How should the health and well-being of American citizens, including its aging members and those affected by poverty , be taken care of in today’s and tomorrow’s world? Be specific and explain who is going to pay for what.
  3. What ideas do you have to ensure that today’s children are prepared educationally for a world that doesn’t yet exist?
  4. Do you believe that there is knowledge and expertise in science, academic research as well as experience of those in the military and foreign affairs that must be taken seriously as we look towards the future of the United States and our planet? If so, what are the threats you see (environmental, political, etc.) that concern you and how would you plan to address them?
  5. Do you unequivocally condemn anti-Semitism of all forms as well as prejudice and bigotry against all minorities or foreign groups?
  6. Do you support a strong and secure State of Israel? What steps will you take to bring Israel and the Palestinians to the negotiating table to move their conflict closer to resolution?

I look forward to your response and wish you the best as you compete to earn my vote.

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This is the End of the Innocence (for American Jews)

Since the mass murder at Shabbat services at Tree of Life (and no, the irony of the name and the events isn’t lost on me), the thought that keeps rising in my head is: The innocence of the American Jewish community died last week.

Having worked in Jewish organizations for my entire career, I have generally felt removed from anti-Semitism. Sure, there was always that stray person who would ask me “where are your horns?”, but they were few and far between. I felt far enough removed, as an American, from the world in which people believed the accusations of Protocols of the Elders of Zion, to occasionally joke about Jews controlling the media. After all, nobody actually believes that crap anymore, right? And the Christian, Moslem, Sikh, Hindu and Buddhist colleagues I interacted with were of the mentsch variety. None of them wanted to see me or my beloved Israel eliminated.  Most (not all) did not seem to worry about my eternal soul being damned because of being a Jew.

I live in a country in which even most of the holdouts that wouldn’t allow Jews to live in their communities (file under Kenilworth, IL) had given up and now have their Jewish peeps. And while I had marched against the American Nazi Party in Skokie decades ago, the memory of swastikas in Chicago was a faded enough memory for me to feel exceedingly safe.

When I moved to South Florida, I was shocked at the level of security around the Jewish Federation in which I used to work, the local JCC’s and our synagogues. There was incredibly limited access to the buildings and armed security guards. When I asked it was explained as part of the picture because so many of our Jewish community members had previously lived in countries like Argentina and Venezuela, which had experienced anti-Semitic or political violence, and because of my security-conscious Israeli neighbors. There was no reason at that time, five years ago, to imagine that an American Jewish community would need strict security were it not for the mindset of those who had come from more threatened communities.

The scene  for the Pittsburgh attack and for our loss of innocence was being set for a few years before we got to last Shabbat. According to the Anti-Defamation League, the recent rise in anti-Semitic incidents was the sharpest annual increase ever.  And of course, we had once again seen protesters marching while carrying flags with swastikas on them. But we continued, for the most part, to ignore the warning signals.

Then eleven individuals were murdered in a synagogue sanctuary and nobody could ignore the situation any longer. The anti-Semites, along with bigots of every make and model, have crawled out from under the rocks. And to blame any one politician or political party misses the point: Anti-semitism and its cousin – racism – has been there all along. But at long as we as Jews were able to get into the exclusive clubs and neighborhoods, we felt safe.

The attack on Tree of Life shattered our innocence. In hindsight, we should have known better. We had seen comments about Jews controlling (fill in the blank with: media, Congress, weather) things. Some of those comments were made by elected officials. Holocaust deniers and individuals who would deny the right of a secure Jewish homeland in our world have been there. And now we see them. In plain sight. And even on tomorrow’s ballots.

The innocent age of American Jewry died. And we have work to do. I am not in any way the expert on what we, as American Jews, do now. But, as a simple Jew, I’d like to invite you to create a dialogue on our next steps. Here are my humble suggestions:

  1. Be prouder than ever to be Jewish. We brought ethical monotheism to the world. Our ethics and values, which have evolved throughout history, reflect the words of our prophet, Micah “act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God”.
  2. Learn about what it means to be Jewish. Find a class, take a Jewish trip, read a book about Judaism, learn to read Hebrew, visit Israel. Go deeper.
  3. Add to the broader societal conversations. Our deeply divided world needs the wisdom of our tradition. Bring your Jewish game to the table, add value to our society and make sure everyone knows that you’re making a difference because you’re Jewish and that’s what Jews do
  4. Show up for Jewish. The most powerful sermon I ever heard was as a child when a Hasidic rabbi made the bold statement on the High Holidays that people should be in synagogue, not because of ritual, but because that’s the place where Jewish people come to know what it is important to know as a community.  I’ll expand that. Important Jewish community conversations take place in the gym at the JCC, in Hebrew School carpool lines, and in (often non-Kosher) bagels places and delis. [Yes, this rabbi just encouraged you to be in the places where are people are to be found, Kosher or not].
  5. Give up the idea that Jews are just WASPS who don’t happen to believe in Jesus. We aren’t. We are an ethnic and religious minority. And many of the same people who hate one minority hate all minority groups. Stop running from it. Embrace it.
  6. Find and embrace allies. Over the past week, I’ve found empathy with religious leaders from the Black Christian, Moslem, Sikh and other communities. And I’ve witnessed good people reaching out to Jews in Pittsburgh and other Jewish communities with prayer, with flowers, with love.

The New Normal for American Jewry is here. What are YOU going to do about it?


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It’s Not Your Fault and It Is Everyone’s Fault

As the director of security at my workplace said: It was bound to happen, it was only a question of when and where. It was yesterday and it was at Tree of Life, a congregation in Pittsburgh.

The finger-pointing and blame game began almost immediately.

It was the president’s fault.

It was the fault of the liberals who want gun control.

It was the fault of the victims, because their synagogue didn’t have armed guard (I have no idea whether it did or not, by the way).

It was the fault of Israel’s policies.

It was the fault of all Jews for being too complacent.

It was the fault of the mental health system.

It was the fault of one single person with hatred and bigotry and weapons.

These are the absolutely unconstructive, if not outright dysfunctional responses from people trying, unsuccessfully, to make sense of something that cannot be rationalized away. Like the Holocaust or natural disasters, if we can explain it, it will put our minds at ease. But, like the Holocaust or natural disasters, we cannot.  So, we bicker over our responses and come up with all sorts of ways of avoiding what we really have to do today – mourn, and what we have to do tomorrow – act.

The individuals who are creating chaos in our society are not monolithic. They are responding in horrible ways to very complex times. To expect their motivations to fall into one single category is absurd. As a result, the appropriate responses (both in mourning and in action) are going to be complex.

Here is the only simple thing: All those who are conducting acts of terror and of mass murder are creating chaos and festering more hatred and violence.

We are in a war, but probably not the one you think:  It’s the war that the Dead Sea sects of the Jewish people spoke of in ancient times: The Sons of Darkness against the Sons of Light. But unlike the tribal designations for who are the forces for darkness and who are the forces for light, today the forces for darkness are those who promote anger, dissent, violence and terror. Today’s forces for light are those who are, to use the words of the Jewish tradition: rachamanim b’nei rachamanim, merciful humans who are the descendants of merciful ones. In other words, those whose characteristics of mercy are so ingrained on their souls, that it is practically part of their DNA.

Today, the Jewish community and its allies sit shiva. We mourn, comfort the mourners and each other.

Tomorrow we mobilize for action. We join the war on the side of the Sons of Light through acts of kindness, increasing mercy and love, decreasing the capacity for violence, and taking necessary measures to protect our community and our society.




Staying Off Balance to Find Meaning


By this point, those of us who are fairly traditional Jews begin to get confused every year.

These weeks are disorienting, as we work for a few days of each work week, take a few days off, work again and off again — all while trying to do a full week’s work in half the days.

A similar disorientation is actually part of the holiday of Sukkot that begins late Sunday:  Then we go out to the Sukkah to eat, come back inside, go back outside.

In both of these situations, our Jewish traditions keeps us a bit off balance, but also keeps us on or toes.

If, as I believe, the purpose of the Jewish tradition is to transform who we are as humans, then this off-balance piece makes perfect sense: When we are in secure and predictable places and times, there is little incentive to change and to grow. On the other hand, the on-again off-again work week pushes us to rebalance our work-life lives and moving between the sukkah and the home is a reminder that even “the roof over our head” is not to be taken for granted, but is something that needs to be re-valued. Indeed, for many people, there is no roof or home and food isn’t even a given.

So, while we struggle to remember what day of the week it is (when the next work week begins on Tuesday or Wednesday) and whether we’re going to be feasting outdoors or living inside, let’s learn from it. This is the time to be creatively off-balance and to use this opportunity to re-calibrate our lives and our values.

Shabbat Shalom and Chag Sameach!