Wednesday, August 24, 2011
Eventually, if handled correctly by Israel and other interested parties (meaning the Saudis, Europeans, Egypt - yes, Egypt - and the Americans, everyone who wants Assad to fall) this flare-up will die down can return to the big story of Israel's summer, the Social Justice Movement. Inspired by the popular uprisings in the Arab world, though completely different in focus and NOT calling for the fall of the government, this movement began with a simple Facebook protest over the cost of cottage cheese. It has since taken the country by storm, with the focus being affordable housing. It is felt by many, including myself, that what's happening now in Israel is something that American Jews can connect with - especially those who might have put support for Israel on their personal back burner. Read about it and judge for yourself.
These links have been provided by the New Israel Fund. See Social Justice protest catches fire.
Good intent of those in tents (16 August 2011)
Israel's version of the French Revolution: Liberty, fraternity, creativity (11 August 2011)
The Other Israelis (10 August 2011)
Liberal U.S. groups back Israel protesters (2 August 2011)
Netanyahu's time is up (1 August 2011)
The People Demand Social Justice? A Background of the Protest Movement (Fact Sheet in PDF) (1 August 2011)
The protest wave has changed the face of Israel's political map (31 July 2011)
Hysteria in overdrive (29 July 2011)
Tent City Revival (29 July 2011)
Adva's Shlomo Swirsky explores the link between Israel's settlement policies and the economic protest (29 July 2011)
Israel's Affordable Housing Protest Catches Fire (28 July 2011)
Haaretz editorial: Netanyahu, listen to the demonstrators (28 July 2011)
Jerusalem Post: Uri Savir - Israel’s Facebook generation (28 July 2011)
Washington Post: Housing protests galvanize young Israelis (26 July 2011)
We didn't so much experience the earthquake itself as we did its human aftershocks.
When the earthquake hit, we were driving along Pennsylvania Avenue, from Georgetown, where we had just had lunch, toward the White House. We had decided to make a swing through downtown DC before saying goodbye to Dan and dropping him off at his new dorm.
At one point the car lurched forward. I thought little of it because I normally drive a Toyota. Time for another recall, I thought. Then I recalled that I was driving Mara's car, not the Prius. Still, I made little of it, and because we were in motion anyway, we didn't feel any significant movement, though we did hear what sounded like a loud, obnoxious truck.
Then, as we passed G.W. Hospital, we noticed people spilling onto the sidewalk on both sides of the street. By the time we hit the next block, the sidewalks were filled with people. A bomb scare, perhaps - or just the coincidence of thousands of people wanting to enjoy Washington's first humidity-free day in weeks.
Was a Presidential motorcade about to come through? But the President is on Martha's Vineyard. No chance. How about a parade? On a Tuesday afternoon? In Washington, the only thing that people would be celebrating on August 23 is that all the politicians are out of town.
We were now very close to the White House and both sides of the street were teeming with people on cell phones. No one seemed panicked but we were insatiably curious.
Then we heard the sirens, a police car sped past and, just a couple of weeks short of the 9/11 anniversary, worst case scenarios flashed through my mind. I rolled down the window and a man crossing the street in front of me shouted, "Did you feel it?"
We turned on the radio to hear the latest and turned right, heading toward the Washington Monument. It occurred to me that following an earthquake, that was probably the last building we would want to be near, so we skirted the Mall toward the Capitol. We saw no damage, but one fire truck had its long ladder extended to the top of a building downtown. The Capitol area was cordoned off and we had to take a circuitous route back up town. We made it back to American University unscathed, but gridlock gripped the city and after dropping off Dan it took us over two hours to get past the Beltway and safely on the road toward Baltimore. Traffic flowed smoothly after that, though I did hold my breath as we went through the Harbor Tunnel.
Friday, August 19, 2011
My Worst Enemy's Shiva
Friday, August 19, 2011
Q. The mother of my worst enemy just died and I'm not sure whether to visit during Shiva. In truth, I sincerely see this as a chance to reconcile (we haven't spoken in about five years but have a lot of friends in common). My only concern is that he would misinterpret the reason for the visit and kick me out of the house. I really don't want to cause him any discomfort. What should I do?
A. Do you think this would be the first time that two people at a shiva had unresolved issues? It happens all the time, usually involving people from the deceased’s family who are barely on speaking terms. I’ve seen amazing moments of reconciliation happen during the period of grieving. When someone says “over my dead body,” sometimes that’s precisely the most likely location for enemies to reunite, as happened to Isaac and Ishmael when they buried Abraham.
But I add this disclaimer: If you poisoned his Akita or stole his birthright, I might hold off until the time is right. Jacob’s journey back to Esau was paved with gifts and trepidation. It took decades before each party was ready. In any event, if you do go to the Shiva, I’d avoid visiting during peak periods, when the mourner might feel you are simply making an appearance for show. If the guy shows signs of being uncomfortable with your presence, or worse, begins to make a scene, I’d make a hasty exit and not take it personally. The rabbis explained that the second Temple was destroyed because of the resentment of a person humiliated in public by his worst enemy. Don’t let that happen to you. It’s also OK to wait until after shiva, when you might call and meet for coffee in a quite spot. Or maybe the best strategy would be to write a heartfelt letter.
I believe that all conflicts have an expiration date. Even the Hatfields and McCoys signed a truce just a few years ago. If you could reconcile with your worst enemy and become a true pursuer of peace, echoing the words of Psalm 34:15, you will make the world a better place. And an enormous weight will be taken off your shoulders.
Wednesday, August 10, 2011
SIXTY FIVE members of our community - representing Chabad of Stamford, Congregation Agudath Sholom, Temple Beth El, Temple Sinai, Young Israel of Stamford - and the UJF and BJE studied a seminal Tisha B'av text together at the inaugural "Texts that Tie us Together" program, co sponsored Young Israel's Kollel. It was a pleasure for me to participate with a number of our congregants. As an added bonus, as you can see below, I had the pleasure of meeting the new rabbi from Temple Sinai, Rabbi John Franken, for the first time.
Only in Jewish Stamford could the Conservative rabbi meet the Reform rabbi for the first time at Chabad on Tisha B'Av!
Friday, August 5, 2011
Shabbat Shalom! It's good to be back and I look forward to seeing everyone at our outdoor Kabbalat Shabbat service this evening at 6:30. I want to thank everyone for holding the fort while I was away, including those who gave divrei Torah and led services. I'm especially appreciative of Cantor Mordecai and Rabbi Michelle Dardashti for their efforts. BTW, you can see a nice welcoming piece on Rabbi Dardashti in this week's Jewish Ledger.
If you haven't had the chance to take a look at some of the photos I took in South Africa, you can find them here. I've thrown in a few more (but thankfully not all 3,000).
Since the last O-Gram, several pieces I've written have appeared and may be of interest, including one highlighting our Friday night service: Laugh. Cry. Love: Liberal Judaism Lives. JTS Chancellor Arnold Eisen has also addressed the issue of worship renewal in a two part essay: See Meaningful Tefillah in the Synagogue and Meaningful Tefillah in the Synagogue, Continued, and join in the conversation that follows his comments.
One suggestion he makes is that we take time to learn about the prayers. I'll be doing that during Shabbat morning services this month. Join us tomorrow for the first of the series, "Prayer and Purpose," where we'll be focusing on "Prayers of Light and Love," the two prayers that precede the Sh'ma in the morning service. In this way I hope people will begin to feel more connected to our traditional liturgy, able to find personal meaning in our ancient words. Join us in the chapel. And tomorrow morning we'll also have an ufruf for Laurel Schwartz and Harlan Neugeboren, who will be married next week. It's especially fitting because they met at services here last High Holidays and they will be married just before Tu B'Av, the Jewish Valentines Day.
Also, see these recent articles from the Jewish Week's "Hammerman on Ethics" column:
Q - I have always been under the impression that cremation and tatoos are forbidden by Jewish law. Yet the recent funeral for Amy Winehouse was very Jewish in nature although the singer - who was amply tattooed - had asked to be cremated. Is cremation now accepted in Jewish quarters?
Q - The recent police detainment of prominent right wing Israeli rabbis accused of incitement has been in the news lately. At issue is the halachic tract "Torat Hamelech," (the "Torah of Kings") which allegedly condones the murder of non Jews in some circumstances. This is horrible, but how is it different from any artist or politician making an outlandish statement? Certainly those on the left have said equally inflammatory things. Are we discriminating against the rabbis? Aren't they entitled to freedom of speech?
Q - Is the release of Gilad Shalit worth an exchange of a thousand Hamas prisoners, including some who have blood on their hands and could well kill more innocent Israelis (and others)?
Q - I frequently use a 10-trip punch card on the LIRR. Often the conductor fails to appear to punch the card before I get off. What is my obligation here? Should I tear up the card before it runs out to make up the difference or am I free to use it again as it is the responsibility of the railroad to collect the fare? This does not involve deception since I am ready to pay the fare.
Q - I have some sympathy for gay marriage, just legalized in New York, but I can't understand how anyone who takes the Torah seriously could consider it the proper moral choice. I mean, the book of Leviticus is rather explicit in describing homosexuality as "an abomination." How can anyone get around that?
This Monday evening is Tisha B'Av, the saddest day in the Jewish calendar. In Israel right now, there is much reflection on the basic of social justice, how a society should take care of its own. It has led to mass demonstrations and growing tent cities of protesters. See this Masorti Statement on the Israeli Social Justice Movement and Tisha B'Av. For the basics, see, from My Jewish Learning, Tisha B'Av 101. And join us in the social hall on Monday at 8 PM for the traditional chanting of the book of Lamentations with gorgeous slides of destroyed and rebuilt Jerusalem displayed on our huge screen (no, I won't sneak in some cute photos from my safari). Bring a flashlight! Also, for the first time ever, we'll be having an afternoon service on Tuesday, Tisha B'Av day at 1:30 PM, in addition to our regular morning minyan.
Warm wishes to you and to the entire Jewish people for a Shabbat of deep meaning and reflection on this Shabbat of Vision, Shabbat Hazon.
Thursday, August 4, 2011
Amy Winehouse And Cremation
Q - I have always been under the impression that cremation and tatoos are forbidden by Jewish law. Yet the recent funeral for Amy Winehouse was very Jewish in nature although the singer — who was amply tattooed — had asked to be cremated. Is cremation now accepted in Jewish quarters?
Wednesday, August 3, 2011
The Masorti movement in Israel will designate Tisha B'Av as a day of solidarity with the “tent protest” movement. On the evening of the fast, and for the duration of the day, we will hold events connecting the destruction of the ancient Temple with this struggle for the future of our homeland; linking the “senseless hatred” in their time with the gaping economic disparity in Israel today.
The Masorti movement emphasizes that social justice is among the most basic principles of Judaism and that for thousands of years the Halachah has harkened to the cry of the weak. We see the emerging shift of national priorities and the renewed vitality of the people in its land as the fulfillment of Zionism. The Masorti movement, as a religious movement, calls upon the government of Israel to concern itself with the welfare of the weak and disempowered in the society - not from the perspective of charity, but from that of justice. We call upon Israel to repair the historic failures which have brought the middle class to the brink.
The continuing erosion of the middle class in the State of Israel in the last few years strikes at the heart of democracy. It requires the government of Israel to alter the national priorities in a profound and comprehensive manner; to be attentive to the cry of the people, and to make decisions which will enable young families, and all those who experience the challenges of Israeli life, to see their future in the land.
The State of Israel is the expression of the longing of the Jewish people through the generations. An engaged citizenry should be a point of pride for any democracy. As such we seek to strengthen the hands of the protestors and believe that change will surely come.
You can see part one and respond to this essay at http://jtsa.edu/prebuilt/blog/tefillah-continued.html. See his JTS bio andf home page here.
What shall we do to facilitate high-quality tefillah in Conservative synagogues, by which I mean tefillah that encourages encounter with God and reaches to the deepest layers of the self?
There is no one formula, of course. Jews bring different needs, backgrounds, beliefs, interests, and aesthetic sensibilities to the synagogue. They are lifted up in prayer by more than one kind of service. What "works" for me may leave you uninspired, and vice versa. Some congregations respond to this diversity by offering a variety of minyanim on Shabbat morning, making sure to bring all congregants together periodically so as not to lose the sense of being part of a single community. The following four guidelines for tefillah seem to me essential, regardless of a congregation’s size or the style of its worship:
1. Make sure the synagogue is a real community. Have you ever wondered at the opening words of the Mah Tovu prayer "Address fellow Jews . . . " before turning to address God? Encounter with the Creator is facilitated by our sense of connection to the fellow creatures gathered around us as we pray. Our kavanah is increased as a result of theirs; our burdens are eased, our spirit liberated.
A synagogue’s success as a house of prayer correlates directly with its standing as a house of assembly, a community of shared responsibility, celebration, and meaning.
There are many well-known, surefire ways to build community. Tefillah improves markedly as a result.
2. Make the synagogue a house of study. Prayer is rarely achievable without effort, despite the fact that prayer is at times the most natural thing in the world. For one thing, synagogue services use a fixed order of prayers that seek to channel individual kavanah and unite an assembly of disparate pray-ers into a congregation that—as one—rises and chants blessing to God. What is more, prayer does not come easily to modern men and women who do not normally make God a part of the way they account for things that happen in the world.
Study of the siddur helps to bridge the gap. The more we know and reflect on the Jewish texts and history from which the siddur arises, the more we know the meanings found in and brought to the prayer by Jews over many centuries; the more we ponder the tefillot and discover personal meanings in the words, the more tefillah can help us stand before God.
The Hebrew language assists mightily in that effort. It helps that my great-grandparents said these same words in the Ukraine and my cousins say them still in Israel and Argentina. I hope my children will say them after I am gone.
Learn Torah. Torah study, divrei Torah by rabbis or congregants, and discussions of the weekly portion and haftarah likewise help each of us to remember with gratitude "before whom you stand."
Focusing in depth on particular passages is a particularly effective means to increase kavanah. It puts in boldface, as it were, the passages that mean the most to us so that they rise in greeting and welcome as we make our way through the service on subsequent encounters. One such passage for me is, "It [Torah] is a tree of life to all who take hold of it"; another, describing the angels who model prayer for us mortals, calls them "all beloved, all clear-headed, all masters of their own desires, all doing with awe the will of their Creator."
Bring (metaphorically, at least) stereo headphones to shul. These enable you to hear the words on the page in one ear, and the meaning you have learned to attach to those words, with the help of shared learning, in the other ear. The playlist on your stereo will change over time. A verse you hardly noticed for years jumps out at you one day and gives you pause. New meanings may appear suddenly. You may find yourself singing a melody you cannot recall learning.
Add new voices to the prayers. The Rabbinical Assembly’s Mahzor Lev Shalem is so effective, I think, because it includes reflections by a range of contemporary authors, men and women of diverse beliefs and sensibilities. Our Sabbath services should do likewise.
3. Fill the synagogue with good music. This is urgently important for Conservative shuls. I cannot think of a single congregation that achieves meaningful tefillah in the absence of good music. A hazzan who knows how to reach into the depths of the soul makes all the difference to a congregation, modulating melodies that have stirred Jews for centuries with new tunes that capture who we are in this place in this generation—and infusing both with personal kavanah. Unfortunately, cantors who function as solo performers on the bimah have sometimes turned prayer groups into audiences and led many Jews to prefer services without professional cantors. With or without a hazzan, the point is to have music that speaks to the spirit in a way words never can, and that combines with the words on the page to achieve states of joy and devotion otherwise unattainable.
Musical instruments have of late revived Sabbath worship in quite a few Conservative synagogues. Congregations opposed to the use of instruments on halakhic or aesthetic grounds need to work extra hard—by means of a cappella groups, choirs, or commitment to learning melodies during the week so they can be sung with fervor on the Sabbath—to make sure that worshippers are not deprived of good music and the successful davening to which it is essential.
The sanctuary space must be suited to uniting its worshippers in song—not too large for intimacy, not cold or off-putting, well-designed acoustically.
4. Leave room for silence. Words and music sometimes cannot reach depths of feeling or insight as well as silence can. We come to shul for respite from the week’s incessant din of sensations and demands. Music, words, and silence, working together, can enable Jews for whom belief in God is difficult or fleeting to put aside their doubts for a moment, and pray.
I’m grateful every time this happens, in whatever kind of service, and frustrated when it does not occur. I am certain that great davening can take place in Conservative congregations, large and small, because I have experienced tefillah that "works" in all these settings on many occasions.
We owe it to ourselves as Conservative Jews to expend whatever effort is required to make all our congregations houses of prayer that arouse Jews, upon leaving them, to say "Ma Tovu" to one another. "This is a really good tent of Jacob, you know, a place where I am happy to dwell, an honest-to-goodness house of God."