Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Life Journeys: Stepping Back and Moving Forward – The Publication of My Book

During the second week of February this year, my book Life Journeys: Stepping Back and Moving Forward was published. The work of writing the essays in this book and in fashioning its total effect was done over the course of about a decade, reflecting parts of lessons, observations of events in my life personally and in our public domain and so much else. It was in every sense of the word a process and it still is a process with each chapter ending with questions for discussion that I hope will be taken up in this forum or in another one at a future point. It is my hope that we will all join together in understanding that the questions we ask are often more important than answers we take on, and in fact, approaches may be better suited to the complexity of our queries. We acknowledge that to one such inquiry there may and no doubt will be a plethora of approaches, all worthy of consideration and thought. The discussion in which I hope you will join me concerns religion, our foundational beliefs, the history and the chapters of that history attributed to others that form the basis of our reality today and our concerns and hopes for our present situation and the future. At the center of this discussion is religion – those beliefs and truths that each person, each people, each collective hold onto as part of their humanity.

I do not have illusions about this book becoming a best seller or achieving the type of popularity that would place it on the front of Barnes and Noble’s book displays. I will humbly say it would be nice because I think the message is critical. As critical as that indicated by Omar Saif Ghobash in his book Letters to a Young Muslim or in Charles Kimball’s book When Religion Becomes Evil and other treatises that look at what has gone so terribly wrong with the very institution that is supposed to inspire us to be our best and want the best for all of humanity. The focus is both as true to the value and legitimacy of holding onto a system of beliefs while recognizing and appreciating the good in other such systems as the Dalai Lama or Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks and so many others would ask of us to do. I do think it would be an important read for those who are concerned with interfaith relations, with how we hold onto what is wonderful about our religious traditions while being honest about potential challenges and shortcomings, and for all of us who are so concerned about what is going on in our world today around the increased perceived danger of holding an ideology. I think it would be most valuable in classes as a text for advanced high school students, college and graduate school courses on the Value of Religion in our Society Today.

It is the conversations begun here that I hope will spark other conversations that we all engage in as we purposefully and intelligently realize that religion can be gentle and kind and not, as the extremists and radicalists amongst all of us would have it, vicious and vindictive. It is about the religion that I love as an observant Jewish woman; it is about the ideology I share with so many monotheists and about the ethical core that is the possession of the collective called humanity who believe that what is in your heart is as valuable as what is in mine. I ask you to join me on this journey and to use this space to share your perspectives and thoughts as you read through the pages of these thoughts and ideas that I bring together from the arts, from the different Monotheistic Faiths, from Native Americans, from the Eastern world and from my own spiritual home, the faith that we trace all the back to Abraham in Canaan.

For ordering information please go to https://www.amazon.com and search for Life Journeys: Stepping Back and Moving Forward by Dr. Saundra Sterling Epstein. It is available both as a paperback and as an e-book on Kindle.

Please use this space to begin discussions that will be continued… And for more thoughts and writings from my blog, please go to http://callingalljew-jus.blogspot.com/ May we all continue to work for a peaceful world of understanding and sharing of humanity, accountable to The Creator of All (or to whatever Source you deem appropriate for you). And now, please do discuss in our virtual room without walls …

Thursday, February 9, 2017

A Jewish Community Response to the Refugee Crisis of Human Beings in our World Today



A while back, one of my daughters and I were speaking and she was explaining to me that shuls/synagogues have offered to sponsor and take care of refugee families in her city, which is a Sanctuary City, but found out that a family that was supposed to come, will not be allowed to do so. What should the synagogue do?

It is indeed troubling that freedoms and aspects of life that we took for granted are not at risk. It does feel like we have jumped back several decades, unfortunately and sadly; so let me suggest an approach from the 70s and 80s. Any of us who remember the days of fighting for the rights of Soviet Jews, remember so many actions that we all took.

There were public rallies on behalf of Soviet Jewry; long and concentrated letter writing campaigns to our Congressman, Senators and other officials; shuls/synagogues would “adopt” a Soviet Jewish family and make their pictures public, speak of them constantly and try to maintain whatever contact was possible; there were bracelets we all wore with names of Soviet Jews on them; ceremonial mention of families at our Sedarim and our family Semachot. Mostly, we KNEW THOSE NAMES and they were part of our lives until they could live their own lives freely and within the parameters of basic human rights without fear for their safety and well-being.

I would suggest that Jewish communities, schools, shuls and synagogues, JCRCs, Jewish Federations and so many other agencies should consider these actions. We are taught that each and every one of us should see ourselves as if WE LEFT EGYPT so that we remember the experience of not having agency in our lives and G-d taking care of us. There is a Jewish teaching that G-d gives us resources and blessings so that we can use them responsibly to help others.

For those of you who may say “But that was for Jews…” let me remind you that first of all, NOT all of those Soviet Jews were in fact Jews given so many mixed marriages and other factors; and secondly We are commanded to NOT OPPRESS and take care of the OTHER person as Jews no less than thirty six times in the Torah; and thirdly, and most important we are to help all of G-d’s created members of humanity. And here is our opportunity to act responsibly and do so.

So I recommend taking out those files from 40+ years ago and so and consider you plan of action. If your files are missing, contact me. I still have mine! Let us all work together in meaningful and foundationally faith driven ways to show our concern for our fellow human beings, for if one is threatened, well, you know the rest….

Please note that I do not normally put up more than one post every two weeks or so, but this is of timed importance.

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Beyond Google: Why We Are In the Place We Are or Are You My Shul?



I have often said that our lives and what happens to us is as much about timing and place as anything. Those who watch and go by the stars or astrological signs say something so similar. I have been doing wonderful things in the past several years professionally and am really enjoying the path my life is taking at this point as I continue my passion of teaching (i.e. learning with) people of all ages in so many different settings. That having been said, I have often felt that if I was not located in this place – Elkins Park, Pennsylvania in the Greater Philadelphia area, my life would have been so much more gratifying professionally. Why did G-d ordain that this was where I was to play out the involvements and elements that are my life? In terms of both my profession and personal life as a Halachically (referring to the laws and dictates) observant and well-educated Jewish woman and as one who truly believes in Klal Yisrael – that is all Jews are part of this community regardless of where they identify ideologically, and beyond that as one who believes in the rights and our responsibilities toward all human beings as all are created by G-d and in the image of G-d – BeTzelem Elokim, Philadelphia has not been an easy place for me to be, to say the least. That being said, I have been fortunate, humbled, and honored to be involved in the facilitation of learning experiences and programs for tens of thousands of fellow Jews and human beings of all ages and in all settings through the years (decades, actually). For me this has been enough…. On many levels more than enough and it fills me with an ongoing sense of awe and gratitude.

That being said, when people ask me “What shul (synagogue) do you belong to and what community provides sustenance for your personal Jewish soul and experience?” -- which is a normative and expected question for someone like me, I really do not know what to say. What shul do I belong to anyway? While the answer should be simple enough, I always feel like the ongoing message of the three little bears and Goldilocks – except I have a hard time finding the fit that is “just right” on any level. I teach in one place, I feel embraced in another place and I belong everywhere in general but nowhere in particular. My shul of choice is located in another community and I do go there as much as possible (Go Mekor!) but I live in the community I live in and have resisted moving away from because there are so many other things I LOVE about where I live – as a community of intentional diversity, long standing relationships and friendships, beautiful and peaceful environs, and so much else. I am so committed to and enmeshed in this location. These connections are to me critically important components of the community I want to live in so I gave up on finding THE SHUL that works for me and just deal…

Nonetheless, I have recently figured out the answer to this quandary and know now why I am supposed to be here at this place on the Google Earth map, confined to walking distance in finding MY community for Shabbat, indeed a special time for me as a Halachically observant Jew. We have such a special group at our home one Shabbat a month on Friday night to doven and enjoy each other’s company over Shabbat dinner, bringing together a wide swath of Jews with different levels of observance and affiliations – and WE ARE community! I, as an observant Jewish woman can and do exercise my right to doven (pray) as an individual not bound by or to the parameters of a specific prayer quorum. So I take my Koren Siddur (thank you Rabbi Jonathan Sacks) and spend Shabbat in an array of different communities, being part of a group and simultaneously praying on my own to G-d, no different than Rebbe Nachman of Bretslov (for those who understand that reference), praying alone in his corner. And then lo and behold, I found a true treasure about four months ago. It turns out that there is this lovely little Conservative Movement identified shul (Yay MBIEE) that IS JUST LIKE THE SHUL I grew up in as a Jewish Law/Halacha Abiding Jew in my youth in Baltimore. There is a full Torah reading, prayers for the State of Israel and for the country in which we abide, full dovenning, and so much else. I sit down in this space with my Siddur and I feel embraced by the memories of my childhood, in which I learned and was schooled in what it means to be a knowledgeable and committed observing Jew, while also being concerned about and involved in the world around me, putting the foundational Jewish values I hold so dear into important and needed action. I now feel like there is a place where I belong in addition to being able to travel in and out of the different shul communities that exist within the Shabbat boundaries that contain my movement. I am happy!

The Lubavitch Jewish community has this concept called and lived as Shlichut. Mormons call it their Missions. What is this? It is when individuals are sent or placed in specific communities to live as an exemplar of the foundational values and teachings of this way of life to which they ascribe. The Rabbi of this wonderful little shul, Rabbi Charles Sherman (who it turns out I met very long ago when I was a USYer and part of one of the last LTF cadres of that group) referred to me as a Community Jew. Yup, that’s me, a Community Jew in a Community of Jews…. And this is my place and now I feel like I have landed. I am indeed comfortable anywhere and everywhere but it is nice to know that there is a “base” that you can feel is yours. For me that has always been my family, which is also the case for Lubavitch and Mormon communities, by the way. That being said, its important that we all have various spaces to feed our soul in the many different ways we need.

So here is my challenge to all of us. I do believe that we all have our mission or Shlichut in this world. Hold onto that and maybe, just maybe, you too will figure out why you are where you are on the Google map and what it is you are supposed to do there to make a difference as well as how to find the surprise place that will feed your soul.

Monday, January 23, 2017

Let’s Take A Collective Spiritual Breath Filled With Faith and Consider What It Means to Be a Person of Observance



Last night I listened to an interview with Omar Saif Ghobash about his book Letters to a Young Muslim regarding his perspective on what it means to be a good, observant Muslim and what our children and youth have to understand about that goal in a time and context in which there are many messages that would not extol the value of moderation and in fact would convey the notion hat the only way to be a good Muslim is to be the strictest Muslim possible, whatever that may mean. Does this include obliterating the notion that everyone else who is not a Muslim does not have a right to believe and live as Muslims do? No, clearly no, says Ghobash, who teaches that being Muslim is not antithetical to being human but reinforces and is reinforced by it.

In a review written on this book by Aymann Ismail, the following is stated by a self-identified devout Muslim:

…whenever news breaks of a terrorist assault on a church in the name of Islam. I understand how alien and unfriendly Christianity can feel to young Muslims. When an entire generation of Muslims is getting inundated with anti-Muslim imagery while being taught only rules and not given the tools to actually study and interpret the Quran, it leaves many young Muslims vulnerable to terrorist groups with evil political goals. This is an uncomfortable truth mostly deflected within Muslim communities. It’s easy to say that monsters don’t and shouldn’t represent us, but what are Muslims doing to protect their children from radicalism?

Simultaneously, within the last few days I read a piece by a wonderful Rabbi whom I have come to know in my work around inclusion of all members of the Orthodox community and for whom I have come to have great respect. Rabbi Haim Ovadia, recently wrote in his own daily blog that his concern with increasing degrees of strict levels of adherence to Jewish law that go beyond the parameters of law as it has come down to us, may regrettably lead us to the point where we have less and less Jews who are observing more and more laws. In my own daily learning of Gemara, I have recently come across the following reference from the Yerushalmi (9:1) “’Is what the Torah prohibits not enough for you, that you seek to amend new prohibitions for yourself?” We learn clearly in Devarim/Deuteronomy 12:32, “Do not add to and do not subtract from the words of the Torah.” Further we are taught that the virtuous and humble Jews would avoid making such additional restrictions, while those with ulterior motives were more quick to do so. Clearly, there is an important message in these individual sources and in their interfacing in the past few days.

At the same time, it is hard to look at the news these days without being confronted by the Christian Right (Alt-Right?) and their attempts to once again exclude so many people in this country – from rights to their bodies, from safety in the public square and from basic rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness (fulfillment?) that are the hallmark guarantees of what it means to be an American.

There were millions of people, those very Americans, who have been protesting and have been gathering peacefully (in mostly all cases) to remind all of us that to be a person observant of any faith and ideology DOES NOT mean exclusion of others, vilification of those with whom we do not agree, or increasing the level of strict adherence to whatever we hold as true because …. well, because we decide to or listen to those who decide to.

I have always been a firm believer in the texts that define who we are, whether those foundational texts that are recorded for our benefit are the Tanach (Jewish source) the Holy Bible – Old and New Testament (Christian source) or the Koran (Muslim source). These texts remind us to do as the Prophet Micah instructs and “walk humbly with our G-d” and to “love your neighbor as yourself” [VaYikra/Leviticus] and to “not oppress” ANY vulnerable party, an instruction repeated 36 times in the Five Books of the Torah. That is all about who we are as OBSERVANT MEMBERS of our chosen communities. So, as we settle in to this next chapter of American history and the fears many of us share about our world, let those millions of people who have stood up for these fundamental truths now take action. We are taught that “it is not for you to do all of the work that needs to be done, but do not stop from doing your part.” [Avot 2:21] Only then will we all show that spiritual motivation and the value of faith truly are behind who we are as people of observance, regardless of which path that observance takes.

Monday, January 9, 2017

A New Year, A New Set of Words and Utterances



In my present daily learning of Gemara, (Talmud) I am going through Masechet Ketubot, which is so much about contracts and the words that we speak that turn into shared understandings with implications. There is a rather long and complex discussion about when spoken words are enough to seal a contractual understanding and when it needs to be confirmed by the written word, and finally, when signatories to the written words are needed. At various points in the discussion, the phrase “If X is said in such and such a case, it is as if nothing was said” appears, indicating that the spoken word may or may not be enough to seal an understanding. Intention counts and there is the usual mix of so many different elements in these discourses that show the importance of the honor of one’s word and the potential harm that ill placed words can do.

In the meantime, I also just completed reading a wonderful book entitled I Am The Grand Canyon by Stephen Hirst about the Havusupai Native Americans and their very long battles to hold onto and then reclaim ancestral lands, the empty promises made to them and the loss of faith in humanity that plagued them on so many levels. These people of the Grand Canyon, for whom the earth was their grandmother and grandfather were and are a simple people of the land whose relationship to all of the earth is taken very seriously and that relationship and its centrality to their identity was lost in a series of contracts and written agreements that ended up being “as if nothing was said” regardless of who the signatories were and the sophistication and precision of the language.

One could be tempted to make the point that this is a nod to contract lawyers who make sure that words are ever so carefully crafted so as to protect the rights and responsibilities of signatories whose names are properly affixed and witnessed. But alas, I had one of those some years ago that was as legally binding as the written word could be not to mention the verbal statement that “I had nothing to worry about” and yet the other signatory never paid me a hefty amount owed for professional services rendered, almost $90,000 to be specific. Clearly that hurt in a significant way. These words were treated by that party “as if nothing was said.” So much for contract law!

So intention is everything. Whether spoken or written, the question is do we intend to honor our word? And how important is it to do so? We constantly read in our Torah “G-d spoke to Moshe saying, Speak to the Children of Israel and say to them…” And then we read both this instruction and then the relaying of the message. Our commentators explain that this is important to insure that the words transmitted are indeed the words intended. This is also the case with the generational stories of the Havasupai. We are taught often that our words DO MATTER! In many communities, and I have written about this before, there are campaigns to watch our language and insure that we do not hurt others by those words – that is to be honorable in how we speak and to be sure that our words count and ARE NOT AS IF NOTHING WAS SAID.

I have always loved Meryl Streep. I think she is regal, immensely talented and a true mensch! Last night (as I watched the Golden Globe Awards) I was crying right along with her as she asked us to think about our words and be careful in using them. There is no need to go into the highly publicized reaction to her heartfelt speech and sincere words. I agree with the commentator who sometime ago asked both candidates for the Presidency if they thought they were good role models. We have seen many instances where our children do look up to people in important positions and want to emulate them. What type of imitation can we even hope to illustrate when the one who holds the highest position in our country and in the free world does not apologize for hurting people, is vigilant about attacking anyone who disagrees with him by demeaning them (or trying to anyway), and continues to not think before he speaks or tweets. This is NOT about politics; it is about basic decency minimally and accountability and the persona we present at most.

This week we complete the book of Bereshit/Genesis. The question has been posed as to why Yoseph is not properly honored as the fourth Patriarch, having held such an important place in our history. The answer suggested by many including Rabbi Shlomo Riskin is that for all of his leadership success, he missed the mark in intentionality of his actions and his words. Riskin says as follows: “.I believe it was the great Prof. Nechama Leibowitz, of blessed memory, who pointed out that Moses is the great fighter against injustice, whether it is perpetrated by Egyptian (gentile) against Hebrew (Exodus 2:11), by Hebrew against Hebrew, or by Midianite (gentile) against Midianite (gentile).” Riskin explains Yoseph did not get this – that we have to act in honorable and thoughtful ways in all that we do. That definitely includes our speech.

So as we embark on our lives in this new secular year of 2017 and for those of us who have already slipped in our “new Year Resolutions” let us commit to being resolute in this way: We will watch and take care with our words and insure that they heal and build and not hurt and destroy. Let our words show how we can be wonderful role models.

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Thinking About What It Means To Be A Person of Faith



As many of you know, I have had the privilege for the past one and a half years to serve as co-President of our area’s Multi-Faith Council, along with a treasured colleague of mine, Ruth Sandberg. We meet monthly, program for our population of clergy and lay leaders and for the larger community, and are now creating a variety of partnerships in our region to insure safety and inclusion for all at a time when so many feel threatened and that hard won battles for inclusion and acceptance in past chapters of our history may be challenged or set back, G-d forbid.

What is so heart lifting to me is how members of this group who are leading and participating in various faith communities in our area are thoughtful, intentional and wonderful role models of the best that religion can be and bring into our lives at a point in time where we hear the words “extremism,” “radicalism,” and the like associated with the religious way of thinking so many of us hold so dear – with dignity, humility and gratitude.

As we enter an important time of celebrations for Christians and Jews everywhere as well as other groups (interestingly enough Christmas and Hanukkah come exactly at the same time this year due to the loony machinations of the luni-solar calendar when interfaced with the Gregorian calendar with which we are all familiar), it is my hope that we think carefully about what makes us “people and communities of faith” who yield to what is greater than us individually and even collectively in terms of looking for direction on how to speak with each other and create bridges of understanding and sharing with those who are believers though belief systems vary widely. I love that we do this in our monthly meetings and would hope that so many more of us can do this as a general element in our multi-dimensional lives of faith and belief.

Here is a thought from a seminar I taught recently. We know that each of these celebrations is so riddled with materialistic elements that too often, the foundational meanings of their annual observance can be lost. What if we think carefully and intentionally about the values that are so much a part of who and what we are and teach and talk with each other about their meaning? I just imagine sitting around a fire, the Hanukkah lights or a Christmas scene and sharing what makes us as people of faith, hopefully leading us to live better and care more about all human beings, rejoicing in our triumphs and sharing our challenges while trying to fashion meaningful and compassionate solutions. Material gifts may run their course, but stories we tell and legacies we pass on will withstand the vicissitudes of so many generational changes.

We speak of Hanukkah as “Chag HaGevurot,” the observance of inner strengths that insure our survival and continuity. For those who observe Kwanza, we know that each candle stands for a value. What if we all do that – take each candle or each day and attach stories of values and wonderful exemplars of those values to them and share these with our families and friends? In the session I taught I did just that and here are the associations I shared based on research about Hanukkah and the stories of heroism and defiance that are attached to it: Beginning with the first candle and moving through the entire eight days the values I suggested are (1) Light; (2) Wisdom; (3) Rebellion; (4) Dedication; (5) Devotion of individual and communal spirit; (6) Rejecting Injustice (7) Communal Strength; and (8) Unity. These values are meant to be cumulative and I shared stories of “Gevurot Yisrael” – those inner strengths that are so important with all present. There is nothing sacrosanct about these choices but I invite all to do this exercise in a way that is meaningful for your own families and lives.

For Kwanza, which begins December 26, in order the values associated with this celebration are (1) Unity; (2) Self-determination; (3) Collective Work and Responsibility; (4) Cooperative Economics; (5) Purpose; (6) Creativity; and (7) Faith.

Integrity, honesty, humility, upholding of personal convictions, civic responsibility, love of God, love for others, and sharing what one has are some of the values that I have always associated with this season for my Christian friends and individuals of faith. Focus on home, family, doing for others, and appreciation of what we have are lessons that are found in the music and literature associated with this observance.

So it is for all of us. I have found this to be true for Christians, Muslims and Jews in our multi-faith dialogues and know it to be true for so many other people of faith I have been privileged to meet and interact with in the various paths my life journey takes me. Religious observance and adherence reminds us of humility, the need to care for others, to stand up for what we believe to be right assuming that we respect that right for others and do no harm in our own advocacy. We are all created by G-d and as such, have a responsibility to each other to cherish and value all that is part of our lives. THIS is the most important gift we can give our friends, family, children and all those who are dear to us. So for this holiday season, give everyone a story and a value as your most thoughtful and intentional present for those you love and hold dear. Chag Sameach and Happy Holidays to all!

Monday, November 28, 2016

The Trouble Begins with Words or Lack Thereof



There is a story with which we are all likely familiar. A group of people are on a boat, and one of the passengers begins drilling a hole under his seat. The rest of his “boat community” get very upset and try to get him to stop. “What are you doing,” they want to know. “I am drilling a hole under my seat.” They yell at him that this will endanger the whole boat. “What are you worried about,” he asks,” its only my seat.”

Yesterday, we picked up the Sunday newspaper and it was remarked that there should have been news about the fires in Israel. My first thought was how many people felt slighted because there was no information about the fires that are burning across the country so many of us feel so connected to. My second thought was how many tragedies happen daily in our world of which we are not informed and to what extent do we feel connected to them? Then I think of last week and what I read from Jewish press sources about how the Jewish community should not get so upset because of the recent appointments to the proposed Cabinet of this country’s President-Elect because they are not anti-Semitic. Don’t get me wrong – I am sure I do not have to convince anyone how committed I am to Israel and to my Jewish faith community. That being said, I was offended by the report that we should not be worried because the upcoming cabinet members are not anti-Semitic. I would feel better if I knew they were also not anti-Black, anti-Hispanic, anti- Muslim, anti-sexuality and gender spectrum, anti-Immigrants, anti-Public Education and anti-a lot of other groups and sentiments that make up the fabric we call the United States. Of this, unfortunately, I am not so sure, so you will excuse me if I say yes, I am very worried.

The Southern Poverty Law Center has counted more than 700 cases of hate crimes in the United States during the week after this country’s election. There wasn’t anything about this in the paper either. So does this fall into the same category as the earlier missing topic?

We are all also probably familiar with the statement that so many tragedies in our human history do not begin with guns but with words. People are now emboldened to share their various points of view that may indeed be anti-whatever group they do not like. I think it would do us all well to remember what Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, whom I often quote in these musings, says about how the welfare of good people everywhere must be our concern. Yes, we may feel more for the groups with which we are aligned – that is natural and how it should be. However, one important lesson we can all take from Secular Humanism is that the threat to any one group will ultimately harm us all, so it is indeed in our own selfish interest if nothing else (though I would hope it is much more than that) to be concerned about anti-anyone speech or action. So yes, I worry about how too many around us have been lulled into accepting diatribes against so many groups as “just words” and lets see what happens. Think carefully – this approach has NOT worked in the past! I do NOT have much faith in it when thinking about the campaign just run by the President-Elect of these United States and those who support his diatribes and “just words.”

Brush fires are burning across Israel and my friends and family and all good and honorable people with whom I feel affinity there across lines of religion and national identity there are worried and scared. Hundreds of hate crimes are burning across the United States and all good and honorable people with whom I feel affinity here across lines of religions and national identity are worried and scared. It would do us all good to feel this vulnerability and THINK EVER SO CAREFULLY not only about the actions we set in motion but the words we send out into the air.

We CANNOT drill holes under our seats in the boat and we must not drill holes that harm with our words either. As we end the daily Amidah prayer in the Jewish faith community, “G-d, guard my tongue from evil and my lips from speaking falsehood. … May the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable to you G-d, my Rock and my Redeemer.”