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.”

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Thinking About Being Thankful and What This Means

It is Erev Thanksgiving and as an American Jew, I am truly aware of what I am thankful for in living in the United States of America. I, along with so many others, am now worried about our future on many levels and I think in the midst of this worry, we should reevaluate what exactly we are thankful for.

In my daily Gemara learning, I have read 66b among the pages I learned today from Masechet Ketuboth. I want to share this statement that really made an impression. I am reading about the daughter of Nakdimon Ben Guryon, said to be a rather well known and wealthy patrician of his time. Unfortunately as time goes on, misfortune befalls his family and his daughter is unrecognizable in her pauper clothes working in a disgraceful setting. Within their conversation about what happened to their reputed wealth, we read the following statement: “Rabban Yochanan Ben Zakkai wept and said, ‘Fortunate are you, Israel, when [you] do the will of G-dno nation or tongue will rule over [you] but when you do not do G-d’s will, G-d will deliver you into the hands … of the animals of a lowly nation.” Rabban Yochanan Ben Zakkai actually finds this daughter of wealth gathering kernels of barley among the excrement of animals and is shocked at how low she had fallen. As this is further explained, the question is posed regarding what exactly Nakdimon Ben Guryon did with his wealth – did he only use it for himself or did he share with others and provide for those less fortunate? What did his daughter learn in his household?

For those of us who live comfortable and well-padded lives, it is so important that we think of and remember others. This is required of us whether we are speaking of material belongings and basic needs, or about the safety that others can expect in the environs we call home. In the past few weeks there has been so much talk about our need to look beyond ourselves and consider the needs of others – those who do not have what they need and now, clearly those who may have their needs threatened. In the Gemara it is suggested that Nakdimon Ben Guryon would have expensive garments that would be spread on the ground upon which he walked and afterwards the poor would gather them up. What did he do for those less fortunate than he? It is further suggested that perhaps he did do for others but not enough.

What does it mean to do enough for others? I have always taught my students and children that when we give something, it needs to be what the other person needs not what we want to give them. At this point, we are acutely aware of the needs of food and shelter and clothing for so many. Hopefully we are all doing our part. That being said, there is another more imminent need that we must also attend to, namely are we safeguarding the well being of all those who are part of the American fabric of life who would hopefully be able to have much to be thankful for in this country?

I know that we as Jews have often brought these issues to our holiday tables, specifically through extra prayers for Soviet Jews, refugees in lands of distress, etc. as readings at our Pesach/Passover Seders. I am asking that all of us now bring prayers for the well-being of ALL WHO ARE PART OF OUR FAMILY AS AMERICANS – Hispanics, Muslims, people of color, refugees seeking asylum, those with various physical and other challenges, and every group who has been maligned in the past months by statements made publicly and who are presently living with fear – to our Thanksgiving tables and further that we continue to build important bridges and work together for the rights of freedom and liberty for all in this country we so love. For, we must remember that we are to share our goods with those who need them so that our daughters and sons will not meet the fate I learned about today in Talmud and further and more important, that all of us will remember that when any one group of us is threatened, it is a threat to all of us.

Happy Thanksgiving to All.

Friday, November 11, 2016

Can I Still Be Proud to be an American? November 9, 2016

I am proud to be an American because of our democracy; Hoping it will continue to work as it should with respect for the constitution, law and each other

I am proud to be an American because of our diversity; Hoping I can still be sure all will be protected under that established law and in the spirit of who we are

I am proud to be an American because of our freedom of speech; Wondering if our words are valued any more and have not become cheap and too easily thrown around

I am proud to be an American because of the possibility of individual aspirations; Wondering if people will keep their individual goals in mind while being aware of the impact of those goals on others

I am proud to be an American because of the integrity of our stated values; Worrying that people are forgetting what they are and how critically we need them

I am proud to be an American because of the calm the morning after a difficult election with shocking results; Praying that the calm will lead us to action and desire to be and do better

As An American I am duly worried and concerned; Fervently praying that reason will reign and a shared and ethical democracy will prevail

Tuesday, November 8, 2016

A New Thought About the First Chapters of Bereshit/Genesis and Noah

I love teaching because it is always as much about learning for me as for the students I am privileged to LEARN with at all junctures. “Teaching” is truly about facilitating the process of learning for all in the room, myself included, in my mind. I am presently working with students on the early side of the age continuum as well as much more seasoned and experienced learners. I want to dedicate this blog post to my First Graders at Perelman Jewish Day School and my Senior Life Long Learners in the Samuel A. Green House Community, for it is as a result of what I have been learning as a result of dialoguing and thinking with them.

With both groups, the Parsha – that is the weekly Torah reading – is part of our steady diet. So we are following the cycle of these weekly readings that began with the first chapters of Bereshit/Genesis two weeks ago. Within a very condensed period of time and relatively few words, we are reading about the Creation of all that is and then a quick process of falling off of the trajectory of progress and moving forward. A snake tempts Eve not to listen to explicit instructions, one brother kills his sibling (where are the parents?), corruption reigns, a flood comes and destroys all that is, generations proliferate, more conflict occurs, and so on.

For me, the most jarring part of the narrative is when G-d regrets and is so distraught by the most amazing part of Creation, that of humanity – that part of G-d’s Creation that was singled out as “very good.” We read in Chapter 6: 5 - 9 of Genesis/Bereshit:

5 And the LORD saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually. 6 And it repented the LORD (or G-d regretted) that G-d had made man on the earth, and it grieved G-d (he regretted doing so) in G-d’s heart. 7 And the LORD said: 'I will blot out man whom I have created from the face of the earth; both man, and beast, and creeping thing, and fowl of the air; for it grieves Me that I have made them.' 8 But Noah found grace in the eyes of the LORD. 9 These are the generations of Noah; Noah was a completely righteous man for his time and Noach walked with G-d.

These words that express this regret appear as one weekly reading ends and the solution is suggested by the very next words of the Torah, in proclaiming that Noach was an “ish tzaddik tamim b’dorotav” – that is a completely righteous man for his time. It might appear that G-d has answered G-d’s own dilemma regarding the misinformed path of humanity with yet another human being. A newly created being and new hopes that reflect the previous and initial ones when G-d declared that this creation of humanity was indeed very good and not just good as was all else that resulted from the Creation process as articulated in the first chapter of Torah.

We then proceed to read about Noah and how G-d instructs him to build an ark (“tevah”) for his family and animals because all of the earth will be destroyed due to the corruption of the wicked deeds of all of humanity; so horrible even the ground became tainted. After the flood, we see G-d’s regret seems to have turned into a type of resolution and reality check. We read in Chapter 8: 4 of Genesis:

G-d said within G-d’s self: Never again will I doom the earth because of humanity since there is too much evil in the thinking of humanity from his youth as is his nature: I will never again destroy every living thing.

Here we see the process of pain that gives way to reality and realization of what compromises must be made which in turn may actually lead G-d to a new sense of compassion towards humanity. Further, I would suggest that we have to be careful NOT to take any statement as declarative in and of itself but rather within the context of the greater whole. Whether we are talking about G-d’s feelings, Noah’s characterization, or the corruption of generations, I don’t think that it is the statements that we should expect to be eternal when we learn Torah; rather, I think it is the questions that remain and spur us on to try to be and do better with the resources and opportunity we are all given here as members of this earth community generally and as part of the Children of Avraham more specifically and as the Jewish Nation even more narrowly. It is of most worthy note, therefore to remember that this covenant never to destroy all again, is given for all of humanity.

G-d regrets having created the human being; and yet how can this be? The Lubavitcher Rebbe poses the question of how can G-d actually regret – after all, how can we consider that G-d makes mistakes!

Lets look at the word itself that is used (and often translated as ‘regret’) at the end of Parshat Bereshit for a hint at the answer: וינחם (VAYENACHEM)-- Usually, this word carries the meaning of “being comforted.” As indicated in the Brown Driver Briggs Lexicon, we achieve a better understanding of this word if we understand it as expressing “was comforted or consoled,” which is its rooted meaning. How can this be reconciled with the regret and the angst expressed in the verses we read? Join me as we think of this in our terms. We are parents, we are members of nuclear families, we are colleagues, we are members of community. To be sure there are extremely frustrating situations in which people we deeply love and greatly respect disappoint us. Is this on them or on us? When we read that Noah was a perfect righteous man in his generation, this is often taken as the solution to G-d’s problem, be it regret or need for consolation, but is it? Perhaps for that moment but what about in the long run? When we look back in perspective, Chazal point out that Noah only acted on his own behalf and not with concern for those around him. The Midrash suggests that Noah was told to build the Tevah so that everyone could see what he was doing and repent; they did not do so nor did he try to get them to do so. Rabbi Yitzchak and so many others actually conclude that Noah was therefore not praiseworthy when he did not pray for his generation to improve, as others had done throughout the narrative of the Tanach. In Islam, Noah is truly the hero and paradigm of complete compliance and submission to G-d. Yet, in Jewish thinking and understanding, it is Avraham Aveinu, the exemplar of social justice… that is thinking of and acting on behalf of others… that is our role model of so much of what it means to be human generally and Jewish specifically. And then we find that there are moments in which we do not understand his actions either, such as when he advocates for other populations but puts his wife’s life in peril or is prepared to sacrifice his son.

Our commentators go on to present Avraham as the model to be followed for a Jewish sense of proper humanity, however this too is not a declarative statement but rather a question as we reflect on what it means to be human, and the context of the time in which one is part of humanity. Perhaps we are looking at the wrong comparison for Noah. Instead of comparing him to Avraham who leaves his homestead with all that he had as a somewhat wealthy man who takes his property, animals and all in his household with him, Noah is still in survival mode, trying just to get by from moment to moment. As my Senior Lifelong Learners and I discussed this at length, we compared this to the generations of immigrants who came to this country, the United States, escaping various lands of persecution, often with only the clothes on their back and perhaps a few treasures from their past lives. When people are so focused on survival mode, other ideal behaviors, such as concern for and acting for the benefit of others in one's community, may suffer a bit.

So now we return to the order of this early narrative and what I would like to posit as a paradigm shift in consideration of Noah. As we begin Bereshit/Genesis, we have a new world, literally with new beings who are not even sure what it means to be human. At this point, we are dealing with Adam, Eve, Cain and Abel and later others, with no indication of meaningful and constructive interaction. Where were Adam and Eve during that incident with the brothers in the field anyway? Its just a matter of each individual trying to figure out what it means to be “me,” not dissimilar to very young children first getting a sense of their world. At this point, there are attempted relationships but not a feeling of empathy or understanding. Adam blames Eve and denies anything done wrong on his part in the Garden of Eden, Cain feigns lack of knowledge of his brother’s whereabouts, and so forth. At this point, the closest we have to interaction are incidents more about missteps and miscommunication at best.

Next after the regret voiced by G-d, we meet Noah, who shows a sense of family and stays away from the troubled people of his generation, which while perhaps not the ideal, could be argued to be a few steps more evolved than actions witnessed in the earlier narrative. At this point we note that listening to G-d and familial loyalty are parts of the narrative given voice here. Not only that but when Noah goes astray, his sons know to act in the best way possible in a bad situation so as not to further embarrass or dishonor their father. So no, this is not as evolved as Abraham arguing on behalf of whole cities of people and welcoming guests and other interactive behaviors that he displays. However, if we look at this as a growing process, it makes more sense. Noah is still very much in survival mode and entrusted with the very beginning of the “reboot of humanity” as proposed by G-d.

Further, clearly Abraham does not act as we would like at all points. But again that IS THE POINT. Human beings are flawed; they are subject to the conditions and context of the time in which they live. Adam and Eve had to figure out how to be human (following this narrative, without addressing any scientifically informed issues), Cain and Abel did not know how to work together or cooperate, the generations that follow get progressively worse, Noah follows G-d’s instructions but does not know how to be empathic towards the larger human family while he does protect his own; and by the time we get to Abraham, we are looking at the larger picture and thinking about others.

This provides us with a paradigm for thinking of our own generations and their varied experiences. As time moves along, there will be ups and downs and resets continually. It is important to remember that we each may want to do and be the best we can be but that will be defined in no small way by the times in which we live. Perhaps we can look at Noah this way… not that he was okay given the corrupt generation in which he supposedly lived; but rather he did the best he could in the situation in which he was found.

Thursday, October 20, 2016

SUKKOT: Four Elements of The Thanksgiving and Identity Holiday

Here we are in the fall cycle of Jewish holidays and in the midst of Sukkot (with its many names), called the Festival of Booths, Festival of Ingathering (the Jewish version of Thanksgiving), Time of our Happiness and simply Chag or Holiday. It is a time of so much joy and interaction – with each other, with G-d, with the environment and its amazing resources and within ourselves. It is a time of great food, beautiful prayer services, my version of “Jewish camping” in our temporary huts that exist right outside of our permanent homes, and spending wonderful time with so many friends and family members.

This Sukkot, as always, I am in teaching mode at various junctures. That allows and gives me the opportunity to be particularly thoughtful and intentional about the meaning of the season, as I communicate that meaning to others through classes I teach and Shiyurim or Divrei Torah I give. The number FOUR is often prevalent in so much of Jewish life so I will use this little bit of teaching to focus on FOUR messages of Sukkot that I have been thinking about this year specifically, to parallel the FOUR species, if you like.

UNITY - As we hold the Four Species together and bless them in our Sukkah, we are reminded about unity – the unity of the Jewish people and their various levels of knowledge and engagement with the community and our many Mitzvot; and hopefully on some level all people with whom we interact. Further, we consider the unity we try to find within our deepest selves as we take on our various involvements through the days, weeks and years of our lives with our eyes (symbolized by the hadas), our mouths (aravot), our hearts (etrog) and our spines/backbones (lulav).

BALANCE - We are enacting the presence of balance in our lives on so many levels as we think about the fragile nature of life with the Torah readings of the season and the recitation of Kohelet (Ecclesiastes) on the Shabbat that occurs during this Chag while we admire the strength and perseverance that is part of us as well, perhaps best exemplified by the Lulav itself, the Date Palm. According to Avinoam Danin, z’l, the very well known Israeli botanist, the Date Palm is the oldest fruit bearing tree known in human history and it’s various components were used completely as food (dates), shelter (the strong branches), protection, and for medicinal purposes as well. Further, as Danin teaches, find a date palm in the desert and you can trace its roots to water sources. It was basically a self-contained survival kit, facilitating sustenance and meaningful existence. As I held my Lulav and Etrog this year, I have a newfound appreciation for the balance of its strength as well as the heart that forms the center of our strength as compassionate beings, exemplified by the Etrog.

THANKFULNES FOR OUR ENVIRONMENT - This is a most wonderful time for us to celebrate and acknowledge the very environment that supports and nurtures us. As the fall holiday season will end next week and we return to the beginning of the cycle of Torah readings in our Jewish community, it is so fitting to note that we begin WITH our environment in the first chapter of Bereshit (Genesis) as we read about the first total eco-system that functioned and was dependent (and remains so) on our thoughtful interaction with the various elements in our lives that we take for granted way too often. Sukkot as Chag HaAsif, or the Ingathering Holiday is truly a time to give thanks and to think about how we intentionally live our lives.

WATCHING OUR WORDS - Hoshana Rabbah is the seventh day of Sukkot. We are taught that it is on this day that the final gate is closed and judgment is sealed from the Ten Days of Repentence that spanned from Rosh HaShanah through Yom Kippur. It is on this day that we beat the willows, that of the Four Species that symbolizes the mouth, or if you wish, the words we speak with our mouths. How interesting it is that once again we are confronted by the deed of our speech as we look inside and consider our lives and the impact we make. It is also poignant that the very next day on Shmini Atzeret, we say the Prayer for Rain, which we know is the water we need for our very sustenance and for that of all that supports us in our daily lives.

I know there is a type of exhaustion that many of us feel during the time span that begins with Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur. There is a type of release that comes with the final sound of the Shofar after the Neilah service. However, it is not the release that allows us to just sit and relax. Rather, it is the release that allows us a new perspective, a fresh start and an opportunity to begin anew. It is immediately at that point that we begin to prepare for Sukkot which then occupies our lives for the next twelve days or so with its pageantry and many elements. As we cook, sit with friends, shake the Lulav and Etrog, welcome in the Ushpizin (guests from our past and present), and sit surrounded by nature and eat the foods that nature has provided us, we must hold onto that thoughtfulness of the earlier season of Repentence and RETURN to ourselves and our environment in a meaningful and intentional manner. Think about what your FOUR ELEMENTS of appreciation are at this season…. And Chag Sameach to all.

Friday, September 30, 2016

Using Our Words: Saying What We Mean and Meaning What We Say

Many times I have explained why TZEDAKAH (Hebrew word) is not the same as charity as these words come from two separate religious/cultural contexts. In the same way, defining GIBOR as hero can be misleading in a Jewish context and the full sense of KADOSH is not accurately captured by the word holy. So what? Who cares? I do, because I would not want to use words that are important and meaningful to collapse other traditions and belief systems that are meaningful to my friends and colleagues.

I love the breath and breadth of my life and the people in it. I am involved in a great deal of multi-faith initiatives and find it so wonderfully fulfilling. As I often say, there is so much that unites us, ultimately reminding us we share infinitely more than what may divide us. Many in the religiously observant world in which I live my life as a Jew disagree with me and think that I am engaging in building bridges that are not to be built. Such bridges of understanding and sharing are critical in our world today when those who take extremely narrow points of view are raising their voices louder and louder to try to drown out the rest of us who would prefer to maintain the integrity of our individual identities while forging meaningful connections with others who have identities of their own of which they are rightfully proud and to which they are appropriately dedicated. As I often say, there is so much on which we agree, and simply put, we can agree to disagree at appropriate points. But this is generative of meaningful discourse, NOT leading to the intense lack of empathy and understanding we see in our world today too often.

During part of this past summer, I read Krista Tippett’s amazing book, Becoming Wise: An Inquiry into the Mystery and Art of Living. Among the important tools she identifies for good and constructive living are WORDS. You know, the most important tool of our shared trade of communication. How do we use words and do we use them to build and share or to destroy and build impenetrable walls? As I was reading through this wonderful set of conversations she shares that she was privileged to have with so many different people – of faith, political leanings, cultural backgrounds, and as many types of groups as you can enumerate, it was so apparent to me exactly how we must all think about our WORDS.

And then, the reality of the world in which I live strikes! How can I avoid the 24/7 exposure in these United States to the ongoing barrage of words that are meant to tear down, destroy and render so many as “the other” when I really had hoped we were so past that. Apparently, too many of us were so wrong on this account. The verbal bullying that is masquerading as a presidential election while we are trying ever so hard to sift through the diatribes and histrionics we are hearing in order to get to the real issues and support those candidates for various offices who are trying to do the same is horrifying and reminds me of WORDS so poorly used. It is easy enough to note that WORDS and SWORD are made up of the same letters; how sad that the former have turned into the latter. How do we keep trying to reverse this trend and heal what is breaking even further?

Throughout the Jewish days of observance of Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur that are approaching, we are told to think about our actions, our intentions, and most certainly our WORDS. In fact in the confessional prayer of Yom Kippur, the misdeeds of words far outnumber any other type. We know from Proverbs/Mishlei “Death and life are in the hand (power) of our tongue (the words we use and say).” I see this playing out daily, inside of our communities of faith, amongst our various communities of faith, political beliefs and cultural identities, within families and so on.

Here is a thought. People often ask why we have to repeat the same prayers and the same script so much? Maybe it is because we say the words but WE DO NOT MEAN THEM or totally understand them and the ramifications of those words on our actions! Maybe, regardless of how many syllables the words we use have and how articulate we may be, we are not as sophisticated or evolved as we think our word usage indicates. In Krista Tippett’s conversation with Vincent Harding, who helped Martin Luther King Jr. develop the theory and practice of nonviolent communication, he says as follows when asked about the meanings of “civil” and “civility” and the degree to which they are present in our world:

“… [how can we learn] to have a democratic conversation. That is what we need. We are absolutely amateurs at this matter of building a democratic nation made up of many, many peoples, of many kinds, from many connections and convictions and from many experiences. And to know after all the pain that we have caused each other, how to carry on democratic conversation that in a sense invites us to hear each other’s best arguments and best contributions so that we can then figure out how do we put these things together to create a more perfect union…. For me, Krista, it also opens up the question of what it means to be truly human…” (p.51)

In the Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur liturgy, we are not supposed to just SAY the words of the prayers that are scripted, but insure that they are fully intentional, that they come from our heart and our innermost being – that which we share with all individuals who were created in the image of G-d. We say “I am sorry” and “Please forgive me” to each other and we promise G-d and ourselves “I will repent, I will return, I will do better.” Do we mean it – are there actions to reinforce our words? Without the actualization of these words into the deeds of our daily lives, what good are they?

I find that all people of faith have the capacity and the tools for such reflection. Each of us will aspire to those goals that are articulated as the ideal within our chosen faiths. While there are differences in terms of whether we do things because we are commanded to do them, such as a Mitzvah – NOT a good deed per se in Jewish thinking, but a commanded action because G-d says so; or whether we call G-d as the One and Only or recognize Jesus as G-d’s son or Allah; or tithe our earnings for whatever reason in our respective communities; I would hope that ALL OF US CAN REFLECT UPON OUR WORDS and use them to build ourselves and each other up and not tear down what G-d and so many generations before us have worked to build and give us as a legacy.

I wish all of us meaningful reflection on our words and their use in the appropriate seasons. For those of us in the Jewish faith, that would be now. Shanah Tovah Tikateivu.

Monday, September 12, 2016

Is there really such a person as a Secular Jew? A Question for the Upcoming Season of Jewish Holidays

Elul has begun, the Hebrew month that precedes the month of so many celebrations – Rosh HaShanah, Yom Kippur, Sukkot, Shemini Atzeret, and Simchat Torah. As an observant Jew in every respect I am fully aware of how all plans and aspects of life are defined at this point as “things I MUST do before the holidays” and “those things that will have to wait until after the holidays.” Further, as the interfacing of the general calendar we all follow in our day to day lives and the Jewish calendar that marks our religious/spiritual/cultural life result in “a later season of Hagim” this year, nonetheless, so many in Jewish circles are rewarded by these later celebrations by being able to obsess for an additional month! Lucky us!

I am privileged to be able to work with and learn from and share thoughts with people from across the ideological divide within the Jewish community as well as with colleagues and friends of other religious traditions. It is so fascinating to watch an entire society go into an altered state of apoplexy during different seasons of the year as they prepare for the big Thanksgiving Feast, for the High Holiday Observance that is part of the Moslem Community, etc. and clearly this is the case with virtually everyone I know who identifies as Jewish on any level, including “secular Jewish” Israeli and/or culturally or religiously Jewish in our widest circles of community.

I wonder if this unified feeling of “I HAVE SO MUCH TO DO TO GET READY” is something to use as a rallying and unifying cry for All Jews, regardless of how they identify as persons of faith and/or practice. Clearly, it is easy enough to apply this to Moslem, Christian and other communities of shared practices and foundational beliefs on any level. In the month of Elul, we are aware of our relationship to G-d, with the letters of the month itself forming an acronym that references a verse in Hebrew, “Ani LeDodi v’Dodi Li,” meaning “I am to my beloved and my beloved is to me.” As we ready for our annual LOVEFEST of the Hagim/holidays of the month of Tishrei in the Jewish calendar, it reminds me of the mild to more intense hysteria that might be associated with planning a huge event or celebration, say a wedding! And we all want to be and are part of it!

I have been listening to and learning so much from wonderful discussions that are conducted by Dov Elbaum relating to the weekly Torah portions in Israel. Here is the link for those who want to access it, but note that these conversations are completely in Hebrew -- I love listening to how Dov, who identifies as a Secular Jew, interviews so many other Secular Jews, and pushes them to acknowledge that religion does factor into their identify on many levels. Clearly this is the case with him as well. One of his guests, as Israeli poet by the name of Haim Guri, tells the story of how in an Israeli Moshav (communal living entity – think condominium) there were people who were guarding the community during a time of concern. They heard a disturbance around the perimeter and readied themselves to defend their neighbors and friends. The outsiders shouted “WE ARE TZAHAL” – that is members of the Israeli army. The ones on guard were not certain and finally said, “Okay, prove it, what is the weekly Torah Portion?” This is funny to those of us who live by this marker as religiously observant Jews. The point is that secular Jews in Israel live by the same marker so often. Yossi Beilin, a well known political figure in Israel, who also identifies as “Hiloni” or a secular Jew, talks about how he LOVES the culture of being Jewish, including for him, study of Torah, Talmud, being in synagogue and so on – actions and involvements that many define almost exclusively as religious, but in fact they are so much more.

I love that the Lubavitch teach that every Jew does many Mitzvot (commanded Jewish actions) every day and that we are all religious in so many different ways. So many students of all ages have said to me through the years “Oh, I am not religious.” I often try to challenge them to think of themselves as religious but perhaps they might not be “ritualistically observant” which is one way to be religious. I share with them that in fact there are so many more options for one to identify as religious or a person of faith. This is what my Lubavitch friends are teaching and this is what Yossi Beilin, Dov Elbaum, and I along with so many others are trying to convey through our work and our lives.

Our identity as people of faith is part of our reality as human being. We are all people of belief systems, religion, if you will; even if, and perhaps especially when we do not feel connected to G-d for whatever reasons. We may and do certainly connect differently but we should all remember that we are all included in the larger entity. It is in this mode that Jews of many different types of religious identity, ritual observance and level of connection will approach the coming season of holidays. As for me, I would like to think the fact that we all connect in some way to each other, to community, to time-honored practices and traditions and to a Being Higher than We is what brings us together and unites us, not just the hysteria of preparing for the season in which we reflect upon all of this. A good year of health, happiness and fulfillment to all! Shanah Tovah!

Thursday, September 1, 2016

I raise my eyes to the mountains, from where comes my support?! (Tehilim/Psalms 121)

We just returned from an absolutely amazing week in Arizona. We used the excuse (or legitimate reason?) of taking our son Brian back to Northern Arizona University, where he is a student, to spend some time in Sedona and the Grand Canyon, two places about which too many people have said “You just have to go there.” So being the obedient child I am, we went!

To be in the presence of the mountains and the terrain that defines that area is truly awe inspiring to the highest degree. I never cease to be amazed by G-d’s artistry. As everyone kept stating that these are natural phenomena, I saw intricate designs and artistic effects everywhere and the references to G-d as the one who fashions, who is the potter, who is the crafter, etc. that we will state several times in the upcoming High Holiday liturgy just kept going through my mind. G-d is truly the most magnificent artisan of all and we are privileged to live as the beneficiaries of this magnificent work. But, too often, people forget that. Spending some time in either of these amazing locales cannot help but remind us. Yes, G-d did create the Heavens and the Earth, and as the clouds, stars, mountains and sunset and sunrise all meld together, it is so clear that the firmaments are there as well!

I remember a few years ago when we were in Boulder, Colorado, also being considered by our son for his college years, I had the same feeling. Wherever you walk, you see mountains, clear skies and generally calm people. As a person with my learning disability of DDD (Directionality Deficit Disorder) there was another benefit. Directions like “walk with the mountains, towards the mountains or away from that mountain range” actually worked… I felt much more grounded, pun perhaps intended! At any rate, I asked one person why the people are so different as I experienced personally that Western USA phenomenon that I knew intellectually exists. The answer I received was as clear as the air, “You see,” said the young man, “when you live alongside the mountains and not sky scrapers and buildings that are the result of human architecture, but rather natural architecture, there is much less hubris.” The quote is probably not exact with the passage of time, but pretty close… and it has definitely stayed with me.

People are different there, really they are nice, they stop to say hi to total strangers and conversations are easy to begin in random places with random people. The pace is different and so appreciated by this resident of the generally hyper Northeastern part of the United States. I totally GET why Brian loves that pace of life in that place and space; it is quite intoxicating in a wonderful way.

One of the topics that I have explored in my own learning and teaching and sharing is that of our connection to the Environment in which we live. We spent time with people who refer to the Grand Canyon as Mother Earth; we use the phrase in Hebrew IMA ADAMAH, and just yesterday I was spending yet another day learning about Native Americans and other peoples on a Museum date with a really close friend (yes JS that’s you!) and saw the French expression MERE TERRE…. The earth is truly our mother and the Creater of All parented her if we think of bringing together our faith traditions and the reality of the land that we way too often ignore.

I am beyond happy as a mom that our son has found his, as one of the locals had put it in January when we first took him there, his “happy place.” But to be honest and a little selfish, Brian, I am so glad that we now have a reason (not an excuse) to continue to come visit (not too much, I promise!) you and spend time in what many people call G-d’s country in which one indeed looks to the mountains for our source, our understanding of so much that is bigger than us and more. For me that is exactly what it is!

As for the rest of us, really YOU HAVE TO GO TO SEDONA and to the GRAND CANYON. And no, I am NOT getting any commission from any tourist bureau for saying so!

Tuesday, August 2, 2016


I have been here before; WE HAVE BEEN HERE BEFORE too many times. As an American, as a Jew, as a human being, as a woman, as a participating member of a democracy, I just shake my head and wonder how we got to this point with these choices for our next Leader of the Free World and the United States of America. I know that many others share my concern.

That being said, I am particularly horrified that so little respect for us as Americans and as human beings is being shown consistently by one of the candidates who seeks this office. What does this say about our country that we are in this situation, where a candidate for this office consistently maligns, offends, and makes fun of so many in our lives? For any of us who are immigrants or the children of those who came here for a better and more accepting life, who have loved ones who are women, LGBTQ, mentally challenged or different, in any way disabled, veterans who have suffered, who have people in our lives who are Muslims or members of any other faith, have non-American born family members, and are not rich and entitled, I do not understand how any of us can cast a vote for this individual. For anyone who does not believe that one can learn foreign policy from “watching the shows” or that “I am rich, really rich” qualifies one to take on such a daunting responsibility as that which is at stake, how can anyone vote for this individual? For anyone who understands that our world is complex and complicated and the threats that face us are beyond comprehensible, how can we “trust” one who sees things as problems he can solve just because he is! For anyone who is honest and law-abiding, both in terms of the letter and the spirit of our laws, how can we vote for one who abuses financial practices for his own benefit or who does not honor contracts he signed, and is not trusted by his own peers in business? ( I know, they are #@$### according to him as well!)

This situation is made even more difficult by the fact that we have a second candidate with low likeability ratings. Interestingly enough, according to Gallup Polls, likeability ratings for our Presidents have only been between 45% and 65% since they were calculated beginning with Harry Truman, with the sole exception of John F. Kennedy, who gleaned 70%. Obviously, given the tragic circumstances of his truncated presidency, more than a few experts have posited that had he finished out his term, this rating would not have been that high. Hillary Clinton is presently at the lower end of this range.

I often say that we all have to remember that 100% of the people will NOT be 100% happy 100% of the time. Further, each and every President or person in that type of office has stated that one cannot understand what is at stake until one is there; and I subscribe to the Jewish teaching of “do not judge your fellow until you have reached his (or her) place.” I totally agree that we have concerns across the board. Our world is indeed complicated and difficult and I often wonder how different Presidents in our past would have fared under the present circumstances. I loved the energy around Bernie Sanders’ presidency bid and the idealism he brought back to so many of us, whether we agreed or disagreed with him. It very much reminded me from the beginning of George McGovern in the 1972 campaign which I remember well. Interestingly enough, many commentators have made exactly that observation more recently. That being said, we need someone who has personal experience…. not from shows, not from opinion pieces, and not informed above all from hubris and the sense that “I can fix all of the problems.”

I am personally scared… that so many people in this country are responding to scare tactics, and forgetting basic reason and potentially putting all of us at great risk. A dear friend of ours (Thank you MS) asked me for Torah sources to respond to people who think that the candidate who plays on fear and conveys that candidate is the only one who can fix everything, taking a page, by the way, from the playbook of too many dictators that have caused our world to be in the precarious situation it presently finds itself in. I responded that there are so many, but I will choose one here – from a Parsha we will be reading the second Shabbat in September, Parshat Shoftim.

We read in Devarim/Deuteronomy 17: 18 – 19 the various standards for a ruler, amongst which is the necessity to keep the Law (Torah) by their side at all times to remind them that they are accountable and are not just ruling due to their own right. They are not to be excessively rich, because they will forget the injunction with which this weekly portion begins, namely “Justice, Justice you shall pursue.” While these words are directed to the People of Israel as they are readying to occupy their promised land and begin a new chapter in their lives, the sense that we are subject to the law and must abide by that law and KNOW that law is critical to any constructive leadership. THAT LAW talks about caring for those that are disadvantaged, and in fact, the entire well being of the Israelite nation is severely compromised when this is forgotten, as we see throughout the books and the diatribes of the Prophets. Judging fairly, paying one’s workers on time for work done, not speaking ill of others and other dictates are all clearly stated as part of this Law and its expectations.

Good and critically needed advice as we think about the future of the United States of America and its role in the world. We need the Bernies with their idealism and moral compass. We are part of a democracy where ALL voices are to be heard and considered with respect, not responded to by shouting down and kindergarten schoolyard level of name-calling and making distasteful faces. We need reason and dignity and respect for all, for if our leader is incapable of showing this for our own citizenry, what does that say about our position in the world? How are we better than any number of other countries with dictators and autocratic leaders who do as they please and would agree that they could go and shoot someone in the middle of the street and maintain their rule? Later, in Samuel I, chapter 8, the people of Israel do indeed ask for a King “so they can be like all of the other nations.” At this point, they are warned carefully about the excesses of one in such a position, who DOES NOT carry the law with him and know it well as well as understand his accountability to it. Indeed, this will come back to haunt the Israelites on their journey.

This is what we need to think carefully about at this hour. How do our values and lessons from our past inform what we are about to do? So many hard fought battles for women’s rights, respect for each others’ faiths and background, rights for those amongst us who are less able-bodies, LGBTQ inclusion, and so much more….. WE MUST PROTECT ALL OF THIS and understand the potential risks that face us with the wrong decision at this critical juncture.

As for Hillary Clinton, I would humbly suggest that she considers the urgency needed to truly respond to all points of view and not always lead with “That is not what I heard….” We need her to be more liked and more respected for integrity, for honesty, for collaboration, for an able mind and proper words and so much more. If anyone who is reading this has her ear, PLEASE convey to her the tenuous nature of the hour. I know… 100% of the people will never be 100% satisfied 100% of the time. That being said, we have to acknowledge that in this day of changed rules and instant messages and even more quick opinions, we must consider that it is not just a matter of what we do, but how we are perceived, and I would challenge all those working with her to think about how far a paradigm of steady hand and respectful reason (oh ues, and grace and grit) will go and are needed at this hour.

Thursday, July 14, 2016


Several weeks ago, I gave this D’var Torah for Parshat Shelach Lecha. As we are in the middle of the book of our travails and challenges (BaMidbar) in the cycle of weekly Torah readings in the Jewish community, I thought it appropriate to share the general contours of what I said then, with some changes appropriate for this setting as we all think about our difficult world today. Here is generally what I shared two weeks ago.

In our world today, we are painfully aware of the results of harmful reports. I was thinking of the many times I sit with different friends in my Orthodox Jewish world of observance and we talk about what has been going on in the world. I find myself in these settings too often sharing the need with others to constantly remain objective and to not vilify any group of people because of the actions of individual members of that group, a teaching that can indeed be found in our own code of language practices, Shmirat HaLashon. Obviously, there has been much in the media for some time about Islamicists, that is extremists and radicalists, not to be confused with good honest caring Moslems, of which I count quite a few amongst my personal friends and colleagues through the years. Within these discussions among my more religiously observant Jewish friends, I too often get challenged with something along the lines of “Tell me, Sunnie, you don’t really believe there is any such thing as a good Moslem, do you?” Sadly, I get this type of question way too often in my life, given the intersection of people in religious communities, political affiliations, ethnicities, etc. that are part of our personal and communal lives. I then proceed to share wonderful stories about people in my life who happen to be Moslem, and yes, they are quite good Moslems in the same way we hope to be good Jews but unfortunately not everyone in that grouping is necessarily practicing what is considered good and correct according to our sacred texts either!

Harmful reports. This is how we begin Parshat Shelach Lecha, with the Israelites sending members of their group to check out the land they are about to enter – Canaan historically, for our purposes today, what we call Israel. Nechama Leibowitz poses the question as to why the Israelites preferred to rely on the scary and off-putting reports brought by their chosen reconnaissance team as opposed to what they had already been told by G-d. She speaks of this adventure as an opportunity to check their own prejudices and fears, while remembering who they are as human beings and members of the Jewish Nation. We are left with many opinions regarding the degree to which they succeeded or failed in this undertaking.

“Send for yourself people [to scout]” Rashi makes a point that we must remember that these individuals had to be men of distinction (not just rank and file members of the group as אנשים might convey in other cases in which this seemingly non-descript term is employed). Nechama and many others also point to the fact that the people who were sent were indeed of known repute. As Nechama teaches, the preferred policy would have indeed for them to have relied on what G-d had told them; but given that this was the way they chose to go, G-d held back as G-d often did and did not interfere. Therefore, when these chosen leaders in whom the collective ישראל בני had placed their trust come back and talk about giants, and exceedingly huge grapes and terrible terrain, there is fear that might be expressed in the question, “So tell me, is there anything good about this land?” Even the two members of the reconnaissance team that did give a report that was not negative were not necessarily enough to dispel fears that had been mounting. Fear is definitely a most explosive element that leads to a tendency to believe in harmful reports.

Then of course, we have to look at the players who create and facilitate the chaos that can be caused by such harmful reports and their aftermath in this drama as reported in the words of our Torah. We have the people who choose the reconnaissance team, a piece of the story that we see in the version that is repeated later in Devarim (1:6 ff) but is not indicated here. Then there are the leaders who are chosen to go and check out the land; the people waiting for the report and the various circumstances that provide the backdrop in which these findings are reported. We could clearly have had a narrative that was cast quite differently, having the leaders return and talk about people who are so healthy and large, fruits that are large and sweet, and land that is just waiting to be tilled, but this is not the spirit in which the report is handed over nor how it is heard. Alternatively, the leaders could have returned having discussed and offering a strategy of how this people, the Israelites could go and settle the land that they knew was theirs and do so given that other nations knew about them and their G-d, their successes. This too did not happen, apparently.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks asks the following question, almost incredulously, How is it that the Israelites of whom others were afraid feared them? What happened; what had they lost? How do we note that they even thought the grasshoppers could not be overpowered by either them, or even G-d, according to some of the commentaries distillation of what happened?

Rabbi Sacks clarifies what he believes is going on according to a teaching that he hands over from the Lubavitcher Rebbe:

The spies were not afraid of failure, he said. They were afraid of success.

What was their situation now? They were eating manna from heaven. They were drinking water from a miraculous well. They were surrounded by Clouds of Glory. They were camped around the Sanctuary. They were in continuous contact with the Shekhinah. Never had a people lived so close to God.

What would be their situation if they entered the land? They would have to fight battles, maintain an army, create an economy, farm the land, worry about whether there would be enough rain to produce a crop, and all the other thousand distractions that come from living in the world. What would happen to their closeness to God? They would be preoccupied with mundane and material pursuits. Here they could spend their entire lives learning Torah, lit by the radiance of the Divine. There they would be no more than one more nation in a world of nations, with the same kind of economic, social and political problems that every nation has to deal with.

Isolationism is something we are seeing more and more in our world today – religious isolationism, political isolationism, socio-economic isolationism; and it is too often this isolationism that breeds fear. While taking the approach that the King does in the 1946 film Anna and the King of Siam, it is so much easier to think that you are the only one who is right, who is best, who is the most, who simply is! It is much more difficult to listen to the “OTHER” who Anna is taken to be and to learn about other nations who are bigger than you, who have different ways than you and who may look differently than you. How will you negotiate with them? How will you live with them? Will you become lesser by doing so?

Interesting enough, I am quoting a screenplay that clearly told a story of a world in which this dynamic of collective whole and individual sovereignty were playing out as dynamics that were not necessarily complementary to each other. And here we are 70 years later watching this old battle play out yet again. So how do we as Jews today think about this dialectical relationship and the balance of the maintenance of our collective while joining other communities of faith in shared visions and goals?

Rabbi Sacks continues by teaching as follows:

But that (isolated sovereignty) is not the Jewish project, the Jewish mission. God wanted the Israelites to create a model society where human beings were not treated as slaves, where rulers were not worshipped as demigods, where human dignity was respected, where law was impartially administered to rich and poor alike, where no one was destitute, no one was abandoned to isolation, no one was above the law and no realm of life was a morality-free zone. That requires a society, and a society needs a land. It requires an economy, an army, fields and flocks, labour and enterprise. All these, in Judaism, become ways of bringing the Shekhinah into the shared spaces of our collective life.

The receiving and settling of this land is a responsibility and a privilege to be earned, not a right to be assumed. Gunther Plaut and so many others point to the failure of the B’nai Yisrael to acknowledge that their time had come to grow and mature and take on the next part of their journey. They were just not yet up to the task. Perhaps G-d had to pull back a bit and not make it so easy for them, you know, take incremental steps of teaching them how to fend for themselves. We will continue to see this play out in the weeks to come.

So, here we are, with an opportunity to look deep into ourselves, and our fears, and not take the easy way of saying “We are right, they (whoever they may be) are wrong!” As David Hartman and Nehama Leibowitz constantly teach in their various drashas, to look at ourselves with the myopic view of always being right and righteous is to MISS THE POINT of what Jonathan Sacks has identified as our mission. WE ARE TO BE PART OF THE WORLD and to interact with others, work through challenges, accept that there will be hard and difficult steps along the way and always stay true to the mission of being involved with the nations of the world, not be afraid of them.

Just as the B’nai Yisrael had to NOT BE AFRAID and report generalizations that were indeed daunting, so too we today have a responsibility to not react with fear in a similar manner to what we hear and pass on harmful reports. Let us instead be true to our mission to be a light amongst all of the nations who have lights of their own to shine for us as well and recognize the good that G-d placed in all of us. Further, let us remember that people such as Balaam, who will bless the nation of Israel in two weeks in our Torah reading, Jethro who was a treasured advisor, and so many others DO SHOW US DIFFERENT WAYS OF HOW TO remain who we are and interact with others who are different than we are. This does not TAKE AWAY from our identity but can add immeasurably to it. THIS IS MOVING FROM OUR COMFORT ZONE TO OUR COURAGE ZONE and to take ALL THAT WE ARE into that zone as we work to better understand others.

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

My Memories of Elie Wiesel

Motzei Shabbat (this past Saturday night) we all heard that a giant for all of us, Elie Wiesel, passed from his sojourn on this earth. In the obituary that appeared in the New York Times, people were asked to share memories, so here I go. While this is a name that is known to all, I have the particular Zechut (privilege) of having had several meaningful interactions with Elie Wiesel through my life and I would like to add these little snipets to what we know about this amazing human being who was truly G-d’s gift to us all, not just for his memories of how horrible mankind can experience but how honorable and amazing we can aspire to be.

My first experience was in 1970 during one of the huge Soviet Jewry rallies and protests in Washington D.C. I was staying with my girlfriend (Hi JK, if you are reading this) in Silver Spring and we were planning to go to the rally. My parents did not know of my plans but there was no way I was not going to be part of this important event. So off we go, at the age of 17 to this amazing and very emotionally charged gathering. Elie Wiesel was one of the leaders of the march and as it turns out I was standing not too far behind him. This was one of the famous (infamous?) gatherings at which everyone sat in the middle of the street and the police arrested every fourth person they counted. It turns out that while I was actually involved intimately in one of the planning committees for this Rally, I was rather young and looked younger, so no one was carting me off to jail. However, friends of mine told me that I was on the television because they were filming exactly where I was standing behind the man that was leading our very large and noisy group. I called my parents to tell them not to worry and lets just say they were not pleased, actually more than that! I will not even repeat what my sweet father said to me on that occasion! But I remember being so taken by the commitment of the crowd and the stature of this quietly powerful man who was rallying us on.

A few years go by and it is the winter of 1972-73 (I think I have that right). Elie Wiesel was being awarded a citation by B’nai Brith International, and they chose the Presidents of the Hillel campus organizations of University of Maryland and George Washington University to present the award to him. I was the President of the GWU Hillel at the time and therefore was chosen to be able to honor him. I remember snipets of the event, his wife, Marian who was a rather striking woman (and taller than him in high heels) with a great deal of class in a beautiful fitted red dress with her hair in what would now be called an up do. The other student and I were standing with Elie and Marian Wiesel after the presentation and were able to have a conversation about life and their perspectives. I distinctly remember them telling us they would NEVER have children because as survivors who had seen what they saw, they could not subject a child to the horrors of this world. I was so sad because I thought they more than deserved the joy of bringing a new life into the world. So, as the saying goes, “man plans and G-d laughs.” At the time, Marian was already pregnant and their son, Shlomo Elisha would be born later that year. I remember thinking how glad I was that these two soulful people brought another soul into this world. I am pretty sure that this would be what G-d had in mind, if I could be so presumptuous.

More years pass and it is now the mid-eighties. I am being given an award by the Second Generation Children of Holocaust Survivors for curriculum I had written and programs I had created for meaningful Holocaust education. Guess who the speaker is! You guessed! After the program, I had the opportunity once again to stand with Elie Wiesel and I shared my story with him. I asked him, “Do you remember when you received your award from B’nai Brith International?” Of course, he replied, I remember it was one of (if not) my first awards and it was in Washington D.C. I then asked if he remembered who presented the award. He did not but remembered there were students there. So I explained who I was and what I remember him saying and then wished him Mazel Tov on Elisha’s Bar Mitzvah because he would have been 13 by now. At this point, Elie Wiesel was in tears and hugged me. One friend wanted to know what I did to the poor man because as he put it, “He makes others cry, what did you do to make him break down in tears?”

Some years after that, in the later 90’s I was a speaker at a conference in Baltimore, where Elie Wiesel gave the Keynote Address. Afterwards, we spoke and again acknowledged our passing connection in the shared space that brought us together in earlier years. That would be the last time I would see him.

Elie Wiesel was indeed a soulful and important voice for all of us, our children, and for those not even here yet as well. He was and will continue to be a most important voice for our collective memory as we consider the terrible injustices mankind can inflict on us if we are not careful. This was precisely why he led that Soviet Jewry Rally so long ago and why he has continued to be a voice for all injustices that are inflicted on various groups in our human family. It is now on all of us to continue to tell his stories and to continue sharing his voice with others. In this way, WE WILL NEVER FORGET!

Elie Wiesel, thank you for all that you have been and done and will continue to do through those who have learned so much from you. Now rest in peace and may your memory always be for a blessing.

Friday, June 24, 2016


Three weeks ago, during the Shabbat of June 3rd through June 4th Rabbis Aviad Bodner and Gavriel Bellino welcomed a community group for a Shabbaton in their respective shuls in New York. This group was ESHEL, the Orthodox consortium for LGBTQ Jews. As a result, a group of about six Orthodox Rabbis shouted loudly and vehemently that these two Rabbis should be put in Cherem and should not be considered Rabbis for accepting LGBT community members and validating them. Rabbis Bodner and Bollino stood their ground and took the heat. The Shabbaton was an amazing success, I am told.

Two weeks ago, my husband, Ken and I were at a wonderful gathering of about 300 Jews from all parts of the continuum of Jewish observance as part of the Center City Kehillah’s Tikkun Leil Shavuot for the Greater Philadlephia area. People in our home community of Elkins Park, Pennsylvania as well stayed up all night to learn, share and think seriously and intentionally about what it means to be who we are in a real and personal way. We did as so many Jews did around the world did -- as we re-enacted the waiting for the receiving of torah, as Shavuot commemorates for us annually. In the early morning hours, news began to sift to all of us about a horrible tragedy in Orlando. We were stopped in our tracks – within the joy and uplifting nature of the celebration of which we were in the midst.

Rabbi Shmuel Hertzfeld, an Orthodox Rabbi in Washington D.C., quickly responded as follows to the tragedy that occurred:

When our synagogue heard about the horrific tragedy that took place at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, it was at the same time that we were celebrating our festival of Shavuot, which celebrates God’s giving of the Torah.

As Orthodox Jews, we don’t travel or use the Internet on the Sabbath or on holidays, such as Shavuot. But on Sunday night, as we heard the news, I announced from the pulpit that as soon as the holiday ended at 9:17 p.m. Monday, we would travel from our synagogue in Northwest Washington to a gay bar as an act of solidarity.

We just wanted to share the message that we were all in tremendous pain and that our lives were not going on as normal. Even though the holiday is a joyous occasion, I felt tears in my eyes as I recited our sacred prayers. I had not been to a bar in more than 20 years. And I had never been to a gay bar. Someone in the congregation told me about a bar called the Fireplace, so I announced that as our destination. Afterward, I found out it was predominantly frequented by gay African Americans.

Approximately a dozen of us, wearing our kippot, or yarmulkes, went down as soon as the holiday ended. Some of the members of our group are gay, but most are not. We did not know what to expect. As we gathered outside, we saw one large, drunk man talking loudly and wildly. I wondered whether we were in the right place. Then my mother, who was with me, went up to a man who was standing on the side of the building. She told him why we were there. He broke down in tears and told us his cousin was killed at Pulse. He embraced us and invited us into the Fireplace.

Here in our community of Elkins Park/Cheltenham, my colleagues Rabbi Lance Sussman and Dr. Ruth Sandberg immediately began to plan a Memorial for Orlando service on Sunday, waiting for me to finish my observance on Monday night to finalize plans. We had 24 hours to plan a service for Wednesday night, at which I am told by some who counted we had about 140 in attendance. Moslems, Jews and Christians – gay and straight – people of all colors – people across the Jewish spectrum – and just human beings all came together to mourn, to share and to gain strength from each other as we all work together to reboot after yet another assault on who we are as members of the family of humanity. As one gay woman said to me afterwards, “This was really important, I hadn’t thought about how this had an impact on the Moslem community.” That says it all – this impacted all of us in different ways, and our respective recoveries will take time and while they may follow different trajectories there is so much we will all share.

So, what would Yitro think? You know, the Midianite Leader that was Moshe Rabbeinu’s chief advisor! We have often read and discussed his advise to Moshe, his Jewish son-in-law. In this week’s Parsha, BeHaalotecha, we confront a question that began in the Parsha that carries his name and has followed us up to this point regarding Yitro, that is fundamental to our understanding of who he was and appreciation of what he did.

We read as follows in Chapter 10 of this week’s Parsha: 29 And Moses said unto Hobab, the son of Reuel the Midianite, Moses' father-in-law: 'We are journeying unto the place of which the LORD said: I will give it you; come thou with us, and we will do thee good; for the LORD hath spoken good concerning Israel.' 30 And he said unto him: 'I will not go; but I will depart to mine own land, and to my kindred.' 31 And he said: 'Leave us not, I pray thee; forasmuch as thou knowest how we are to encamp in the wilderness, and thou shalt be to us instead of eyes. 32 And it shall be, if thou go with us, yea, it shall be, that what good soever the LORD shall do unto us, the same will we do unto thee.' 33 And they set forward from the mount of the LORD three days' journey; and the ark of the covenant of the LORD went before them three days' journey, to seek out a resting-place for them.

It is of note that we read texts dealing with both יתרו and רות during שבועות which we all just observed and it is the journey of רות that is chosen for our model of conversion and affirmation of faith while יתרו comes to teach us something completely different in our reading today. While some of our commentaries such as Rashi want to pitch the idea that יתרו did convert (for how could we have a Midianite priest be the chief advisor to the leader of the B’nai Yisrael – it just would not look right! – and here point to his name used -- חובב – to indicate his unwavering love of Torah and Ramban proposes that this was the new name he took upon his conversion in שמות to indicate his love of the Jewish people, here we are taught by these and other commentaries of the same ilk that יתרו is given many reasons by Moshe not to leave the people and to return to his land where he knows he has designated property. His knowledge of the Jewish people, familiarity with other nations, witnessing to the greatness of HaShem are all good reasons, actually GREAT reasons for him to stay. YET, the Torah DOES NOT DEFINITIVELY LET US KNOW the end of this interchange. These commentaries assume he stayed with the Jewish People for the self-same obvious reasons. However, others, such as Sforno, say NO – he did indeed return to his people.

Sforno finds colleagues who are willing to take this perspective in more modern iterations of interpretations of the Torah text. In the Etz Chaim edition of Torah commentary, for example, we are actually confronted with a question regarding Moshe’s motivation, namely “Why does Moshe plead with his non-Israelite relative to be their guide?” Notice that this question presupposes that Yitro did NOT convert back in the series of events narrated in Sefer Shemot. Yes, Yitro, according to this reading, heard all of the wonderful deeds that HaShem did for Moshe and his people and did in fact join in celebration with Moshe’s brethren but does this effect in toto conversion, as Rashi would have it? Clearly there is not agreement on this point.

What distinguishes Yitro in terms of the decisions he makes, when compared with say Avraham when he states that he WILL LEAVE all of those familiar places to which Yirto wants to return and Ruth when she claims that she too WILL LEAVE all that is familiar to join with Naomi and her people and place? Can we carefully consider the text at hand with minimal interpretive lenses? Maybe, just maybe, Yitro comes to teach us something completely different also needed in our lives.

Sharon Sobel teaches as follows (on the Reform Judaism website) regarding Yitro:

The Torah portion …Yitro, teaches us that we must look beyond the superficial qualities when it comes to choosing a good leader. It helps us understand that there are certain criteria for leadership that transcend political, ethnic, and socioeconomic boundaries. Parashat Yitro enables us to make a distinction between the characteristics that make a great leader and those that make only a good leader. Ultimately, these qualities enable leaders to create meaningful relationships with those around them so that together they can work for the betterment of all.

Yitro provides us with two models of excellent leaders: Jethro, the Midianite priest who is also Moses' father-in-law, and Moses. Jethro is an example of a wise and seasoned leader. He is an impartial observer who is willing to share his knowledge, understanding, and wisdom with Moses. Moses is still in the first stages of his career as the leader of the Jewish people. He is a reluctant leader who ascended to his position only at God's insistence. Moses is humble: His ego does not get in the way. He is an excellent example of a leader who is able to listen to and learn from others. One of his great strengths is that he listens carefully to Jethro's wise advice and does not hesitate to integrate and incorporate that advice into the manner in which he leads.

So Yitro teaches us about outside impartiality and wisdom and Moshe teaches us the value of listening to everyone, both inside our camp and outside! These are two very valuable lessons.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks and so many others teach often about the value of interfacing with and listening to others as we build bridges of understanding. He points to anthropological research in terms of the value of listening to our innermost beings in understanding who we are and balancing that with what we learn about ourselves from the objective outside. Perhaps this is what Yitro teaches us – the value of advising from the outside and appreciating the anthropological value of the people whom he was advising while acknowledging at the end that his place was really with his own. Does this make him any less of a role model for us … or perhaps even more so an important model?

Rabbi Shmuel Hertzfeld was definitely someone from the outside when he walked into the gay bar in Washington and yet he built really important bridges as an outsider. Many of us who were involved in Memorial services these past two weeks crossed numerous lines of gender identity, religious belief, ethnicity and nationality, sexuality and so much else in becoming part of these collectives. YET NO ONE SUFFERED THE GENUINE NATURE OF THEIR IDENTITY BY LISTENING TO AND INTENTIONALLY SHARING SPACE WITH SO MANY OTHERS. This helped ALL of us through very difficult days.

I think that Yitro understood this. When Moshe implored him to stay with these words from 7:31:

31 And he said: 'Leave us not, I pray thee; forasmuch as thou knowest how we are to encamp in the wilderness, and thou shalt be to us instead of eyes.

Yitro responded…. Well, as already indicated, we do not know how he responded. I personally suspect that if he joined the B’nai Yisrael, this would have been reported as such given the general tone and choice of topics we find in the Torah. I do believe that he returned to his people, understanding that we can all come together in times of pain and angst and hardship and help each other while never negating who we are. We do NOT need to leave our people to be helpful to others. While Ruth may serve as the DUGMA of the Convert for us, I think we need to think of YITRO as the DUGMA of the leader from another people with whom we can negotiate. Both of these models are so important when we think of the giving and receiving of Torah in our lives and how we apply it’s teachings. Rabbi Sacks is always asking us and challenging us to be on the lookout for such leaders and to be that ourselves when we join public spaces with others. This I believe is the lesson of Yitro and it is a lesson that the Rabbis who threatened Rabbis Bodner and Bollino, and others who refuse to understand someone “other” than themselves would do well to learn. And those of us who do frequent these shared spaces are hopefully here to teach precisely this lesson through our actions and so much more.

Shabbat Shalom.

Sunday, June 5, 2016


This week we finished the third book of the Torah, ויקרא ספר . This past Wednesday, I taught my last Parsha Shiyur of the year to an adorable group of Kindergarten and First Grade students at Perelman (other side of town). When we completed the Parshiot of שמות several months ago, one of these budding scholars asked me what we were going to do the rest of the year. I was a bit perplexed and just said we will continue to learn the Parshiot. But, he replied, the next book is VaYikra and we are too young to learn that part of the Torah – our teachers do not allow it. So, I quickly replied, tell your teachers and parents this is an HONORS CLASS and we are continuing with VaYikra!

Now, I knew where this was coming from. We think that the details and the focus on so many levels of reaching often difficult to attain degrees of קדושה are better left to older students; of course the reality is that too many of our students, even graduates of Day Schools, NEVER GET TO this book of rules and regulations. What a shame! Actually, long ago, children at a young age BEGAN their intentional study of Torah with this very text. And I am happy to report that my cute little students have done well, learning about how we are supposed to behave, the reality of how we often behave, the standards set for us by Ribbonu shel Olam, why those standards are set, how we can incorporate them in our lives and so on. Most of all, they have learned about the values of intentionality, sincerity and honesty in our actions in our daily lives and how these values are so rooted foundationally in our Torah.

During this last session of the year, I ended our study together with an important lesson from Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, one of my favorite teachers, as you have by now figured out no doubt. Rabbi Sacks teaches a most important lesson about these verses that was not lost on my students. We focused on the following verses:

I will bring despair into the hearts of those of you who survive in enemy territory. Just the sound of a windblown leaf will put them to running, and they will run scared as if running from a sword! They will fall even when no one is chasing them! They will stumble over each other as they would before a sword, even though no one is chasing them! You will have no power to stand before your enemies. (Lev. 26: 36-37)

After scaling back the language just a bit and sharing this, I asked the kids, So who or what is the enemy territory and the enemies of which Rabbi Sacks speaks? THEY GOT IT! The enemy that will cause us to stumble is not always external, it is not always THEM; rather it is too often internal, it is US! It is US when we do not act according to the standards that are set for us. It is US when we are not intentional about our doing Mitzvot. It is US when we take ourselves, G-d, our land and each other too casually and doing what we do out of some misguided sense of perfunctory duty instead of truly understanding and considering what we do and its impact on all aspects of the equation we call LIFE!

This text appears as part of the profound warnings given us in this Parsha. We are told in these verses and those preceding as well as after them that the entire system that G-d has put together needs us to maintain it – otherwise, it will fall apart. If we do not observe the Sabbatical year as we are adjoined to in verse 34, then the appeasement (or תקנה if you will) will be we will lose the land and it will rest in our absence. If we are not scrupulous in observing laws of ownership and redeeming land, we will lose our sense of being. If we do not remember our accountability to and for each other, than we will be fighting each other as we have just read in the painful words, באחיו איש וכשלו – we will become weak because of and with each other instead of strengthened by the ties that bind us – worse than the enemy from external sources, the real threat to our well being is to become the enemy within!

In short the entire system of G-D, COMMUNITY, LAND and INDIVIDUAL that is so carefully scripted throughout the words of TORAH and specifically, Sefer VaYikra, will be destroyed, and there will be no one to blame except for ourselves. So now what?

Rabbi Sacks explains as follows:

[We must remember] that there is nothing unique to Judaism in the idea that we are all implicated in one another’s fate. That is true of the citizens of any nation. If the economy is booming, most people benefit. If there is a recession many people suffer. If a neighborhood is scarred by crime, people are scared to walk the streets. If there is law and order, if people are polite to one another and come to one another’s aid, there is a general sense of well-being. We are social animals, and our horizons of possibility are shaped by the society and culture within which we live.

All of this applied to the Israelites so long as they were a nation in their own land. But what happened when they suffered defeat and exile and were eventually scattered across the earth? They no longer had any of the conventional lineaments of a nation. They were not living in the same place. They did not share the same language of everyday life.

So how did the members of the Jewish nation maintain or lose those features that defined them --- US --- as a people – this is Rabbi Sacks’ fundamental question? Let us look back for a moment at verses 21 and those that follow in Perek כו.

קרי עמכם אני אף … קרי עמי תלכו אם If you behave XXX with me (and my Mitzvot) I will behave XXX with you…

Specifically, I want for us to consider the word קרי, which appears five times in the short span of 8 Pasukim AND ONLY at this point in the Torah, no other! After verse 41 of this chapter, we will not see this word again. Rashi takes this word to mean “casual” as in קרה or מקרה all of which share their derivation – this is the definition appearing in most of our texts that follow Rashi’s interpretive translation. Onkeles, on the other hand, indicates that there is a sense of contrariness or rebellion here, preferred by the BDB in its explanation and in other translations that are not beholden to Rashi. How do we get from such a benign meaning to one that is potentially explosive or why did Rashi take the kick out of the word? What was CONTRARY about what the Jews were doing here? Was it that they were not observing and practicing according to all of the carefully laid out plans, or was it something else? What does it mean if we go with Rashi on this and take the word קרי to mean CASUAL? What could possibly be the problem?

There is an old story told from the earlier days of email and technology. Someone approached his Rabbi asking why the various Mitzvot as prescribed were so detailed and complicated? The Rabbi explained that every detail and every precise element had a purpose and for the total effect to be felt, all details had to be included in the whole entity. The person inquiring just continued to indicate disagreement with this approach and became first careless in his reasoning and then moved on to being contrary. At this point the Rabbi said, okay, lets stop this conversation because I have to leave. I will email you the rest of my response. The Rabbi did as he promised, but did not hear from the individual with whom he had the discussion. He then began to bombard the Rabbi with emails asking why he had not heard. The Rabbi continued to resend his original response. Then the phone call came. “Why did you not answer me? Does that mean I am correct about the details not being important?” The Rabbi said he definitely responded and began to read back the email to the person. Everything was correct in the address except for one problem – the “.” Was missing before the last letters “org” in the address. The individual was completely frustrated with the Rabbi, who simply responded “but it was only one little dot – such an insignificant detail!”

We may not always understand the details. Or those details may not be beneficial to us individually. But if we are casual in their observance and then move to being careless in observing them and so forth down that slippery slope to fighting their very existence, the entirety of our work may very well be for naught. To not care or to not be attentive to the details of our lives as caring and responsible people – this could potentially lead us to become our own worst enemies – acting in a way that is contrary to the intended way we are to be. As we repeated the words upon completing this book of our Torah (until next year) indicating strength in our learning (CHAZAK CHAZAK V’NITCHAZEK) let us remember that the strength of our identity is indeed in the details of that identity and it is KAVANAH we strive for, not to be קרי or casual in our observance . Shabbat Shalom!

Tuesday, May 31, 2016


I have the amazing privilege of serving along with a treasured colleague as co-President of our area’s Multi-Faith Council. We come together monthly for programs and support and to share our sense of faith and belief along with the spirituality that is at the core of our members as we discuss an incredibly wide range of challenging issues, including prevention of gun violence, inclusion of LGBTQ members of our community, environmental sustainability, the place and voices of women in religious spaces, relationships amongst the various communities of faith and so much else.

I have to thank my son Brian for bringing this group into my life, for it is through his Track coach, who introduced me to his wonderful wife, that this amazing collection of ministers, Rabbis, pastors, etc. came to be part of the total of my ongoing involvements. I have often said that I have the most in common with people of faith whose approach to their beliefs and religious lives are similar to mine, motivated by my faith in G-d as well as the notion that G-d wants the best from all of us and that includes our most vulnerable aspects of self, our most foundational beliefs about what it is that we are here to do and be.

Interestingly enough, it is this sense of spiritual awareness and understanding of self that often separates me from too many members of my membership community, that is the shuls or synagogues to which we have belonged through the years. Too often and sadly (for me), in the Orthodox Jewish world in which I live, spirituality can be quickly dismissed as empty of religion and devoid of meaning. I have always bristled when I hear people talking about something I hold so dear in such derisive terms. I firmly believe that my adherence to Jewish practice and the laws and teachings that define it is based precisely in my belief in G-d, in the notion that there is a Higher Being to whom I owe gratitude and show that gratitude by living intentionally and with thought and care. One of the most powerful names for G-d in Jewish texts is The Compassionate One (Rachmana); and this is what I think we are here to model – truly caring for each other, seeing the pain that others are in, and in trying to do something to make our collective situation better for all who are created by G-d. This I have taught my children along with the many details that mark our lives daily as religiously observant Jews – the two elements are inextricably tied together for me.

Last month, our Multi-Faith Council decided to have our program dedicated to a discussion about loss in our lives. This was precipitated by a particularly painful loss of the child of one of our members. Several others of us had discussed how we process this part of living and what it does to our sense of faith and spiritual being at various points during the many conversations we have had at various meetings and programs. So we decided to spend the two-hour meeting (which actually went almost three hours) discussing what we, who are often called upon to support others when they experience loss of loved ones, do to give ourselves strength and fortitude at such times in our lives. What was quickly discovered was that in this group of Jews and Christians of many different denominations, there was a shared culture of appreciation of life and holding onto the legacy of those who are no longer with us in powerful and ongoing ways. Many rituals were discussed, as was the notion that these rituals may come from our texts and our respective faith’s codes of practice as well as from places very deeply set in our hearts.

There was a certain quiet and calm in this discussion, and I for one, found it amazingly healing; dare I say it was one of the most powerful exchanges I have had this year as I continue to mourn the loss of both of my parents nine and ten months ago respectively. I felt that I could freely share what I was FEELING more so than in spaces that are dictated for us to process such losses according to the myriad details of praxis found in Jewish law. We were all just there, truly holding on to each other with care and compassion and understanding. I felt as though I had just been at a retreat of some type and it has stayed with me for the month since this occurred.

I think that sometimes, in spite of the best and most noble of intentions, that we get so caught up in what we are supposed to do that we lose that we just FEEL certain things and need to process them in individuated and unscripted ways. This is where I think spirituality is fundamental to our faith, and for this Halachically observant Jew, it is anything but empty. I have often said when people look at me puzzled when I speak of G-d that I think that G-d could be considered as THE ONE who fills up all of the spaces that we can’t account for in our universe. I think that for those who do not understand spirituality, maybe that’s what fills up the spaces that we can’t account for in our own individuated beings. All I know is that I am grateful to G-d and grateful to this group of which I am part for the spiritual space we can create together.

Tuesday, May 17, 2016


Our daughter Rachie called me one night a while ago and asked what I remembered about Israel and the various conflicts that confronted it in the early 1990’s. I love how our children and I can speak freely and often about important issues and she just simply needed some information – since she was a toddler through five years of age during the time she was asking about and just did not remember…. (Silly Rachie!) I then shared various stories of wonderful interactions between Palestinians and Israeli Arabs and Israelis; Jews, Christians and Arabs and so on.

One particularly funny memory was when Rachie and Talie were approaching their fifth birthday and we were in Israel along with Yoella, my eldest daughter at the age of nine. The four of us were walking through the shuk and I realized all of a sudden that Rachie and Talie were not with us but had gone ahead and that we were in the Arab shuk which had reopened recently. I was not worried because in the earliest part of the 90s people did not feel a need to do so generally. Anyway, we kept walking and about ten stalls in Rachie and Talie were playing with two little boys under the watchful eye of their grandfather, who explained to me that he thought we should marry them off to each other. We all had a good laugh. Now this seems implausible today for so many reasons beginning with what type of horrible mother would not keep a careful eye on her young daughters in the Arab shuk, much less go there to begin with…. But such were the times of the early 90s in Israel.

In the meantime, my husband Ken brought the following article from The Forward to my attention within hours of this conversation. It is a revisiting twenty years later of seven children who were the stars of the series “The Children of Jerusalem” produced by the Canadian National Board of Film, about their lives now that two decades have passed. You can see this article here:

After reading this article, go to this site to see the actual documentary segments about their lives. I have done so and the three and a half hours you will spend meeting these children will be so worthwhile; I promise.^UX^xdm787^YYA^us&searchfor=Beverly+Shaffer%27s+Children+of+Jerusalem

You will meet Ibrahim, Yehuda, Tamar, Gesho, Asya, Yakoub, and Neveen. Through their eyes and walking with them through their streets and garnering insights into their days, we are reminded of the reality of life in the early nineties. Yes, there were concerns but it was a time when parents sent children on buses with their pelephones and they were to call when they arrived at their grandparents. Children (including mine) would wander the Ben Yehuda area all hours of the night on Motzei Shabbat or Thursday nights while their parents (including me) would sit and chat at Atara (remember that?). It was a different time and it was a time when so many people in all of these different groups thought that if we retained our relationships and told people about our friendships and our respect and regard for each other, maybe, just maybe, the threatening storm of divisiveness and fear would not get worse but would be obliterated.

As we know all too well now, this is exactly what did not happen. There are too many conflicts, too much anger and hurt and too many loose cannons amongst our people and all groups in Israel as well as elsewhere that cause this threat to indeed be so much more a matter of concern today, twenty years later. How sad!

This is particularly evident in the sad story of Neveen. To amplify her pain, I just read another chilling article about the Shuafat Refugee Camp in The Jerusalem Report. Too much has indeed gone wrong. While Yaakoub talks about his hopes that when he gets older he will ride his bicycle in the streets and just in circles in his courtyard, we see that things did not improve. Then there are Yehuda and Tamar, both of whom have their own story about their religious journeys that took them away from so much of their childhoods as observant Jews.

There is too much to be sad about and mourn here. Yet, I continue to think of the large numbers of people in all of these groups who are still working together to continue to build important bridges. The growth of the Yad b’Yad schools make me hopeful; the continuing successes of the Galilee Palestinian-Israeli Circus, the sports leagues and so much else I have written about here all allow me to hold onto the hope today that so many in the early 90s had but have sadly lost. There is too much at stake to not work together and to continue to hope that the threat of all that can destroy does not do so.