Rabbi Elliott's Blog
Rabbi Elliott Responds To Anti-Semitism Rise
03/02/2017 04:46:28 PM
The recent surge in anti-Semitism and attacks on the Jewish community is unprecedented in contemporary American life. These terrifying actions have included over 80 bomb threats to Jewish Community Centers and Jewish Day Schools. Each bomb threat requires preschool children to be removed from their classrooms, elderly and disabled individuals (for whom mobility can be challenging) to quickly exit, and many others to disrupt their lives because of the real potential for violence. JCCs and other institutions have had to dedicate resources to being prepared for possible threats and keeping their members and staff safe. This week a synagogue in Indiana found that a bullet had been shot through the window of a religious school classroom. All of this is happening at the same time as horrible desecrations of Jewish cemeteries in St. Louis and Philadelphia, and the spike in anti-Semitic graffiti in places as close by as South Orange. These actions are terrifying and should be treated with the same seriousness as any terrorist action.
It is painful and frightening to be living in a moment where anti-Semitism is rising on both ends of the political spectrum in the US. I am dismayed to live in a moment where I feel the need to clarify that fighting anti-Semitism and protecting Jews from discrimination is a central commitment of our community. I am disheartened to not see clear and universal denunciations of these incidents by all of our elected and civic leaders.
I do find hope in many powerful statements of support from the broader faith community. I am especially inspired by stories of Jewish-Muslim solidarity that keep rising to the surface at this moment. Organizers of the rebuilding of a mosque burned down in Tampa were initially mystified by the abundance of donations they received coming in multiples of 18, and were then moved to realize that all these gifts were coming from Jews. Likewise, it is profound to hear of the thousands of dollars donated by Muslims to repair desecrated Jewish cemeteries. I am inspired to hear stories from my many colleagues in Philadelphia of working side by side with clergy of all faiths to raise tombstones. These acts of solidarity feel especially important knowing there has also been a dramatic rise in hate crimes in recent months against many other minority communities.
Please know that Bnai Keshet was already in the process of reviewing and strengthening our security procedures, including meetings and calls with specialists from the ADL and our local police department. We are moving forward with heightened urgency and attention.
Bnai Keshet has always affirmed our commitment to klal yisrael – to the Jewish people as a central value. We stand in solidarity with our local JCCs and with our colleagues around the country who have been suffering on the front lines of these attacks. We must demand that our elected and civic leaders do everything in their power to root out this domestic terrorism. We will continue to look for ways to express our solidarity and to take action together as a community. I encourage you to take this opportunity to offer support to the ADL and to our local JCC. If you are not already a JCC member this is a moment to consider joining.
With Love & Courage,
Currently In Israel - Some Thoughts
02/03/2017 12:29:12 PM
Practicing ThankfulnessInterfaith Thanksgiving ServiceNovember 20, 2016
11/21/2016 10:53:56 AM
Thoughts on Election Results
11/09/2016 01:13:59 PM
Know that a person must pass over a very, very narrow bridge,
and the fundamental principle is not to make oneself afraid at all.
ודע שאדם צריך לעבור על גשר צר מאד מאד
והכלל והעיקר שלא יתפחד כלל
Nachman of Bratslav
Dear Bnai Keshet,
This morning we woke up with a real sense of fear and heartbreak. Having heard from many of you we know this apprehension was not because a Republican won and Democrat lost. Rather, there is a genuine sense of anxiety that the rhetoric of this election has attacked core American and Jewish values, and specifically the values of our community at Bnai Keshet.
While it is easy to get caught up in our own worries, we should acknowledge that some of us, some of our neighbors, some of our relatives, may have more reason than we do to feel afraid. Immigrants, people of color, Muslims have all been especially singled out during this campaign. There have been promises to roll back LGBT rights and reproductive rights. All of this has happened in an environment that included a strong undercurrent of anti-Semitism and misogyny. Now is a time for us to reach out with love to each other and to those who have reason to feel especially anxious.
Now we have a responsibility to come together. We have an obligation to stand with those who may feel attacked. We have an opportunity to replace the fear of fear with love and support born from our faith that every human being is a reflection of the divine.
Tonight we invite you to join us in reflection and prayer.
7:00 PM Bnai Keshet
8:00 PM First Congregational Church
We will be gathering first at Bnai Keshet to share and pray as a synagogue and then walking down the street to First Congregational Church for an interfaith prayer service with several other local congregations.
We will both strive to make ourselves available throughout the rest of this week if you need to call and speak with a rabbi.
Rabbi Elliott & Rabbi Ariann
Shema: Radical Outreach - From the Inside Out, Rosh Hashanah 2016
10/04/2016 06:24:23 PM
is Eloheynu Our God.
Back for Sabbatical
08/01/2016 11:54:43 AM
It is wonderful to be back at Bnai Keshet and to be welcomed with the warm embrace of our community! I feel such good fortune to be a part of this community and to serve as your rabbi. I want to begin by offering my deep gratitude to everyone who stepped up while I was on sabbatical and, in particular, Rabbi Ariann. I know that my sabbath from normal responsibilities meant more service for many. It is a testament to the strength of our community, volunteer leadership, and staff, that I can dedicate myself for several months to study outside the synagogue and that life within our synagogue can continue to thrive.
Many have asked what my sabbatical was like. The answer is: productive and meaningful. Sabbatical allows for time to do the important, sustaining work we all long for, but rarely carve out space for, both professionally and personally. My primary areas of focus were liturgy, music and, of course, my family. With these and other endeavors during this time, I tried to work on things that would continue to sustain and transform my service as your rabbi well after the sabbatical.
With Rosh Hashanah 5777 on the horizon, I am eager to continue our work together strengthening our community and doing our part to strengthen Judaism. I am so glad that as a rabbi I get to do the work of building our Jewish community and our Jewish future together with you.
I can’t wait to catch up with all of you personally.
With love and gratitude,
Letters regarding Rabbi Elliott's Sabbatical
01/29/2016 12:03:25 PM
7 Things I Learned About Teshuva From My Sabbatical
12/23/2015 03:58:51 PM
Rosh Hashanah 2010
Hello. Shannah Tovah! I missed you.
As most of you know I was away last year on sabbatical. My sabbatical was in many ways a life changing experience. My gratitude for this opportunity is enormous.
The fact that this time away coincided with our nation’s recession; a time when many in America, and some of you, were out of work or experiencing financial challenges changed the experience of my sabbatical. It heightened my awareness of my very privileged position. My awareness of privilege was further sharpened by the knowledge of poverty in the world which makes life so precarious for many that even taking a day off, never mind months, might mean considerable hardship. I tried to be constantly mindful of this privilege, working hard to take full advantage of this sabbatical opportunity to develop myself as a rabbi and as a person.
I am also aware, that I could not have this experience alone. My wife Sarah offered support and flexibility as we planned this time. I was offered mentoring and guidance from many teachers. I am thankful to Rabbi Darby for the grace and dedication with which he acted as the sole rabbi for Bnai Keshet during my absence. But most importantly I could not have done this without you.
This congregation had to commit significant resources to make my sabbatical possible and be willing to have a different kind of year while I was away. I know that many positive things emerged in my absence, and I am also aware that in certain ways this was a difficult year for the community. I also know this was an absolutely necessary experience for me. My gratitude to this community for making it possible is enormous.
And for any way in which my absence caused pain or harm to anyone here, I sincerely ask forgiveness.
When I shared insights about sabbatical with a small group of you this July and with others of you individually, I have reflected on the relationship of sabbatical to other examples of interruptions in people’s lives. Some of these like my own are welcome: a year in a new town, going off to college, starting a new career, having a baby. Others are unwelcome and painful interruptions: a year of divorce or repairing a broken relationship, a period of unemployment, time spent battling or recovering from illness. These periods of interruption can be profound when they lead us to re-evaluate who we are and how we exist in the world. They force us to examine what we care about most. Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are also meant to interrupt our lives in just this way.
With the hopes of sharing a little about my sabbatical with you framed by these Days of Awe, which are a kind of annual micro-sabbatical, I want to offer this list of 7 things I learned about teshuva – or personal change, while on sabbatical:
Don’t get let the trip you planned get in the way of the trip you are on.
We went to Israel for a lot of reasons but a major one was to strengthen our children’s sense of themselves as Jews and their connection with Israel. I worked hard to introduce my kids to the Jerusalem I love, the Old City, the shuk at Mahane Yehuda, the Western Wall on a Friday night.
But if you asked my kids what they loved about Jerusalem they would tell you first, the swimming pool on Emek Rafaim St., second, the abundance of ice cream and third the day we spent trying to escape the heat in Zedekiah’s tunnels where they pretended for hours to be archeologists.
We stayed in the Jewish Quarter in the Old City at a Bed & Breakfast. Every morning we were served breakfast on their roof which had a magnificent view of the Dome of the Rock. From the beginning the kids were attracted to the shiny golden dome that dominates the skyline of Jerusalem. Early in the morning, on our last day, I was finally went with my son Akiva to look at this holy Muslim site atop the Temple Mount.
It was remarkably quiet. Tourists are not allowed during Muslim prayer time, so there only a few Muslims present, and hardly any tourists. As we approached to within about 20 yards of the Dome of the Rock, Akiva said, “It is so beautiful, I could drop to my knees.” And then he did it, he dropped to his knees. My son was finally having a spiritual moment in Jerusalem it just happened to be at a holy Muslim site rather than a holy Jewish site.
And the truth is, it was a beautiful and holy moment. The contrast between this quiet serenity and the noisy, frenetic, crowded experiences we had at the Wall couldn’t have been greater. I came to this moment with my own history, with all the baggage you could imagine about Jerusalem, the Western Wall, The Temple Mount, and with my own hopes and expectations. All of this could have gotten in the way of me noticing or accepting this holy moment that was right in front of me.
It is so easy to get caught up in judging our experiences in relationship to old expectations, rather than simply being with what is. Often the experience or insight we are looking for is right in front of us but we have to be willing to be present with the moment as it is rather than as we had hoped it might be.
Rabbi Richard Hirsch told me– “You think you are taking a sabbatical, but in fact the sabbatical takes you.” Be open mindful on these days of awe, the experience you came to looking for may not be the experience you get. The experience you have may be the one you need.
Be wary of casting blame
We all have a lot of excuses for not working on our personal issues, but one of the most common and most accepted in our society is that we are busy. “Oh, I’d love to – FILL IN THE BLANK – but I am just so busy these days. Swamped at work! The kids are all over the place! I am so over-committed!” And of course it is true – which is what makes it such a dangerous excuse.
As I prepared for my sabbatical I had a lot of personal goals – things that I wanted to do in my life, that I felt I never had enough time for because I was so busy. Things like exercise more, deepen my spiritual practice, and work to make our house feel like more of a home. And though I wouldn’t quite have admitted it, I often excused my failure to do these things by blaming work.
Sometime around the end of October, I remember realizing – alright, I have more time, I have more spaciousness, I am not going to meetings several nights a week but yet I still haven’t improved these habits of self-care. I had to face the facts that however busy my normal life might feel, it was not solely to blame. With my normal excuse unavailable, it became clear that the responsibility for making these changes was my own. It was at this moment that I really got started.
On the Yamim Noraim our liturgy doesn’t leave a lot of room for blame. It doesn’t say, we have sinned before you by closing our heart or by deceit, but it wasn’t our fault. It simply says we have done wrong and we should change. Yes we should look carefully at what seems to get in the way of us making change, but in my own experience, it can be far too easy to stop once we have found this impediment rather than starting to figure out how to work around it. It is far too easy to say: “I have let myself down but – aha! I have an excuse! My work, my family, my personality is to blame!” When what we really need to say is, “Good! I think I figured out what is getting in the way of change, so now what do I do?” The problem, the challenge, the character trait – might or might not be to blame. What is important is our desire to change and renewing our effort to make that change.
Fake it till you make it,
One of the things I did last year was work part-time doing community organizing with Paterson congregations in the coalition New Jersey Together of which Bnai Keshet is a member. The need to take action in Paterson is as profound as the group is diverse. One of the biggest issues there is a feeling of insecurity and fear in the face of crime. I remember at one of our first community meetings a young teen stood up as said, she was angry that her parents wouldn’t let her go out at night because it was unsafe, but more angry that her parents were right.
In response we developed a Safe Streets Campaign. When Deputy Police Chief William Fraher came to our assembly to respond to our demands that officers be deployed to walk the beat in the 10 block corridor between and around our member churches of St. Paul’s Episcopal and First AME Zion, we could tell that we were not the type of community group he was used to dealing with. Unlike the perfunctory community police forums, with either narrowly defined interest groups or disconnected individuals, we had a room filled to capacity with over 150 Protestants, Muslims, Catholics, Jews, African Americans, Hispanics, Whites, and Arab-Americans, clergy and congregants across a diverse economic spectrum. And we ran the show. We set the agenda. After telling our story, we asked, Deputy Chief Fraher if he would commit to our Safe Streets plan with a simple, Yes or No.
You should know, in our preparatory meetings with Officer Fraher he had consistently represented himself as anti-community policing. Officer Fraher is a big, tall man, with a shaved head. He has a tough, no-nonsense way of communicating. To him community policing sounded too touchy-feely, like asking officers to join in basketball games and offer counseling to kids in need. But something in our action, perhaps our assertive but respectful dialogue or the stories of fear and crime that were shared, perhaps a projection of power; led him when we asked, “Will you commit foot patrol officer to be part of this partnership?” to say, “YES”. Our community policing plan has now been expanded throughout the city even in areas where we have no member congregations.
I’ll tell you a secret. We didn’t have a lot of power and we didn’t think he’d say, “Yes,” but we asked anyway. We did our research, we stated our demands, and we held the police and each other accountable to these demands.
When it comes to teshuva you don’t have to wait until you’re sure of your success to try. If you are unsure you can make the change in your life that you need, try any way. Fake it. Act as if you can. Take action and this will inevitably create a reaction. And in this action you may find your way to holding yourself accountable.
Sometimes the hardest thing to do, is nothing
I spent a lot of time last year meditating. In addition to my daily practice I went to two different weeklong silence retreats for rabbis. Yes you heard right – Rabbis – Silent – One Week!
We tend to think that when we are talking, we are really doing something. Many of us have jobs where all we do is talk. Many of us feel like we have to talk to understand ourselves. “Let me just talk this through with you.” Or “I’m just thinking out loud.” But I have noticed that very little of the noise in our lives, even the talking, is very real communication. For me at least, alI the talking, music, news programs, television, even silent voice in my mind, when I read newspapers and books can actually be an escape from being present with myself, my fears, my emotions. Talking can be used fill to up the moment, leaving no room for the fears that emerge when we remember just how narrow this bridge of our life really is.
At the conclusion of each of these week long retreats we had a ritual of re-entering into speech, in which each participant got to speak to group. In each case, I couldn’t speak without weeping. After seven days, I am finally asked to say a few words and all I could do was weep. I think for me, the experience of truly being with myself, of coming to peace with my own mind was so delightful and in its own way so heartbreaking, that tears were perhaps the only honest thing that I could have offered in the moment.
Being quiet is a great way to become reacquainted with ourselves and it is a good way to start noticing how our minds work. In silence we can notice message tapes that are constantly being generated by our minds. With a quite we can to consider if these messages are productive; if they are messages we want to react to. If you want to make change, being quietly mindful of your thoughts and internalized messages is a great place to start.
Sometimes the hardest thing to do, is nothing Part 2
So the truth is meditation is really not the same as doing nothing, meditation, at least at my level, is still a lot like doing something. But trying to stop being a congregational rabbi for a year, that was a whole other kind of learning to do nothing.
One of the deepest teachings for me of the last year is about what happens when I stop doing all the things that I usually do to affirm my purpose in life. A great majority of these can be summed up in the title Rabbi. Last year I stopped giving sermons, leading services, tutoring bnai mitzvah, performing weddings, counseling the bereaved, going to meetings at the synagogue, answering emails that begin “Dear Rabbi,” writing newsletters… You get the idea.
I’ll be honest, I often let my self-worth and self esteem rise and fall in relationship to my sense that I am impacting people, my community, the world. When things I am a part of go well, I feel energized, powerful and contented and when they go badly I blame myself. Regardless of the fact that my presence, my involvement may have been only one small factor in its success or failure. I am humbled by the obvious truth that the synagogue survived without me. Many of us work hard to assure ourselves that our lives have meaning and that our existence matters. Some of us work because we are afraid to stop, afraid of what might arise if given space.
We should work hard. And we should strive to have an impact, but we should do so with the humble understanding that we are but one, the world is large, and our successes or failures are not completely under our control. They are impacted by many other people and conditions. None of us are so critical or so important that we can’t stop, that we can’t cease from our constant labors.
If President Obama can find time in his day for basketball, time in his week for a date, and time his calendar for a vacation, so can we. If as it says in our tradition God worked for 6 days to create the world, but on the 7th day shavat vayinafash, God rested and was re-ensouled, shouldn’t we also find time to do nothing, to rest and find our souls?
Sometimes the change we need is just a break. Sometimes our rejuvenation will only emerge from rest.
The Text is For You.
As a rabbi I get to spend a fair amount of time studying Jewish texts, but very little of this is really for its own sake. When I sit down, to study the weekly Torah portion, I know I better find something to say pretty quick or I won’t have a devar Torah on Shabbat.
Last year I spent a lot of time studying Hasidic masters and in particular Levi Yitzhak of Berdichev. I was moved by what it felt like to read this text only for myself. To read commentaries on the weekly parsha and have the most important question be, how does this resonate with the life I am living?
Jewish prayer and Jewish ritual is filled with text. Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are experiences overflowing with texts. These texts, these prayers have power. They have thousands of years and millions of Jewish lives behind them. But this real power is dependent on how we treat them. Can we read and listen to these texts with the belief that our lives really do hang in the balance? Can we read them with the assumption that we are doing something profound and meaningful, rather than perfunctory or hollow?
Most of the prayers we do on Yom Kippur we repeat 5 times over 24 hrs. The assumption is that we might find truth in one of these prayers or for that matter in all these prayers, each time we read them.
When you are working to create change the texts of our tradition, the Torah, the prayers are your friends. When you are suffering, when you are faced with a challenging question, when you are in doubt, when you are looking for resolve, try sitting with a text – the liturgy or weekly parsha is a good place to start but really it could be any text. Sit with this text and look for connections to your life at this moment. You are bound to find it.
Our tradition instructs us regarding Torah, “Turn it and turn it for everything is in it.” The Jews have always used the Torah to speak to their lives and to express their values, and guess what?-- We are the Jews!
Number 7: What’s the Real Point Anyway?
More than two years ago, when Sarah I were hatching a plan for my sabbatical, we were taken off guard by how stressful it was. Here was this tremendous opportunity and yet judging by the tone of our conversations, you might have guessed it was an immense burden. What we discovered was that the many options opened up by this interruption brought to the surface all the aspirations and all the rough spots in our lives.
Should we go away for the year, or be home so that Sarah could develop her career? If we go to Israel or somewhere else will our children thrive or suffer? If I follow one passion, one area of study, what others will remain neglected?
At some point I realized that whatever the program, where ever we lived, whatever I studied, it would be secondary to the never ending work of learning how to be human. The things I wanted to work on most: whether study, meditation & organizing, or spending time with my family, exercising and eating right, were all important before the sabbatical and will remain important my entire life.
The word teshuva, means turning but it specifically has a connotation of returning. The assumption of Judaism is that we are all perfect the way we are, we were created in the image of God and that we all have our own unique mitzvah to perform in the world. But somehow we get diverted from our path, we get distracted chasing after pleasant things or running away from hardships.
Teshuva is at its core our effort to be fully alive. Of course we need a way to make a living, and we need to do things that are fulfilling, and of course we have obligations to fulfill, but none of that is really why we are here. We push ourselves to achieve, to accomplish, to accumulate but these things fade, as we also will fade. We are alive for such a short time and our lives will never be replicated. We are here to become fully human, fully ourselves, each in our own holy way.
The work of teshuva was important last year, and will be necessary next year, but we can only do it now. Teshuva is not about trying to be something we are not, but rather about being exactly who we are. It is not about getting somewhere else, it is about being here completely, right now.
Teshuva means coming back to this.
 My thanks to Rabbi Toba Spitzer for sharing her sermon, "Seven Things I Learned About Teshuva From My Sabbatical” with me. Many of her ideas were helpful to me in shaping my own thinking. In a few cases I have used her wording almost verbatim without direct attribution. Her sermon can be found at http://www.dorsheitzedek.org/divrei/5766/5766-erev-rh.pdf
 Pirkey Avot, 5:26
Coming together in response to a hard week
11/20/2015 02:52:43 PM
This has been a heart-wrenching week, with the bombing in Beirut, the bombing of the Russian airliner, the horrible attacks in France, yesterday’s attack in Israel and the hostage crisis in Mali.
Simultaneously we have seen a weakening of resolve to welcome Syrian refugees, themselves fleeing terror. Yet, the response of the organized Jewish community has been remarkably unified in its steadfast support of welcoming Syrian and other refugees fleeing persecution. Many of these statements of support point to the prejudice and fear that in 1939 lead the majority of Americans to oppose permitting even Jewish refugee children into the United States.
For more on what you can do to respond to the refugee crises click here for the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society. For a fuller discussion of our own family refugee stories and how this impacts our approach to this moment in history join us this Shabbat.
Israel: Opening our Hearts
10/16/2015 04:23:42 PM
Ratzon & Purpose Rosh Hashana 5776
09/17/2015 02:03:47 PM
Ratzon & Purpose
Rosh Hashanah 5776 – September
Rabbi Elliott Tepperman
And you may find yourself living in a shotgun shack
And you may find yourself in another part of the world
And you may find yourself behind the wheel of a large automobile
And you may find yourself in a beautiful house, with a beautiful wife
And you may ask yourself
Well...How did I get here?
And you may ask yourself
What is that beautiful house?
And you may ask yourself
Where does that highway go to?
And you may ask yourself
Am I right?...Am I wrong?
And you may say to yourself
My God!...What have I done?!
Thank you, David Byrne.
Leshana Tovah to you and to all of the Talking Heads.
It is that time of year again where we ask:
How did I get here? Where does this highway go?
How am I right? How am I wrong?
What have I done and what am I meant to do?
The Slonimer Rebbe, Shalom Noach , tries to help us think about our purpose in life by commenting on the following teaching:
[matai yagi’u ma’asai lema’asei avotai]
“Each and every Jew must ask: When will my deeds reach those of my ancestors, Abraham, Isaac & Jacob.” [And we will add] “Sarah, Rebecca, Leah & Rachel”
Shalom Noach asks, “How is this even possible?”
How could our deeds ever reach the greatness of our ancestors?
These are the founders our religion?
And our ancestors are also our parents, grandparent, great-grandparents –
generations who immigrated to America, who fought wars, who pursued freedom and equal rights.
And we have inspirational ancestors like Martin Luther King, Golda Meir, Adrienne Rich, Mordecai Kaplan, Leonard Cohen.
We are obliged to ask:
“When will my deed reach those of my ancestors?”
Shalom Noach begins his answer by saying: “Truthfully we don’t really expect to reach their level of greatness, we just have to try to connect at our own small level to their actions.”
Or perhaps the important thing is not reaching the level of their deeds, but simply aiming high.
We are obligated to say: “When will my deeds reach the greatness of my ancestors?”
to assure we don’t fail by setting our sights too low.
From the moment we are created each one of us has a unique role and purpose in repairing the world, a unique mission given to us from Heaven.
No one can fulfill someone else’s mission.
Even the simplest person has a unique mission that no one else is able to complete.
Every person, though their role is small and simple must see to fulfilling their mission completely.
Happy are they who, while in this world, discern their earthly mission and fulfill it properly….
This is what it means that “Each and every Jew must say: When will my deeds reach those of my ancestors?”
Just as our ancestors, our heroes and our role-models fulfilled their remarkable and holy purpose, so too must we complete the mission that only we can do.
Most of us, most of the time, don’t give a lot of thought to what our purpose is.
We may find ourselves, letting the days go by…
Lives filled with tasks, some of our own choosing and many that feel imposed:
commuting to work, paying the bills, doing the laundry, making dinner, helping kids with homework, staring at email, fulfilling social obligations.
The banality of our daily life does not inspire us to look too deeply at our purpose.
And truthfully it can be a little frightening, this business of looking closely at our lives, let alone asking what our unique purpose might be.
But there are moments… perhaps at a reunion with old friends, when the question arises: “How did I get here?”
Or at the funeral of loved one, contemplating the meaning of their life and our own, when we find ourselves asking: “Where am I going?”
Or after reading an extraordinary book…
“Is what I am doing right?
Am I missing what I might uniquely offer to the world?
What do I want do with my life?”
But though the question of our personal purpose may enter our mind for a moment, we rarely reach a point of clarity and the urgency of the question fades.
The Days of Awe, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur interrupt our daily routines with an opportunity to think about the why of our lives.
Our liturgy asks us not only to contemplate our wrongs but to consider our renewal, to return to what matters most, to know that on this day our world and all its options can be reborn.
The Days of Awe are meant to be a mini-retreat for considering our purpose.
A couple of years ago I had the opportunity to be part of a program for Jewish social justice professionals.
We were tasked with articulating our personal purpose.
As should be obvious by now, I am encouraging you this Rosh Hashanah, to see if you can articulate your own purpose.
Since I am asking, I feel obligated to share what I wrote at that retreat, though I am a little embarrassed by its predictability.
I wrote: “My purpose is - Spiritual, courageous and loving pursuit of shalom and justice for all people.”
Honestly what else would you expect from a rabbi like me?
Maybe that it is obvious is a good thing, but every time I say it out loud it makes me feel vulnerable.
On Yom Kippur we read the story of Jonah and the whale.
God speaks directly to Jonah and tells him:
“Your purpose is to be a prophet and to help the people of Ninveh repent.”
Jonah famously runs away in the opposite direction of his God given purpose.
Maybe Jonah runs away because acknowledging his calling was just too uncomfortable.
Because it made him feel exposed.
Announcing a personal sense of purpose can feel contrived and flies in the face of cool nonchalance.
Honestly, I have always been a little suspicious, or maybe just jealous of people who seem to have it all figured out and know exactly what they want in life, pursuing it with a single-minded purpose.
I remember in college feeling somewhat in awe of friends who would say things like: “I am studying linguistics because I’ve always known I want to do work with artificial intelligence.”
I had no idea what I wanted to do. No sense of a clear calling.
I majored in American Studies, very much the major of those who only knew they should finish college.
But at that retreat for Jewish justice leaders, I thought a lot about my purpose.
I tinkered with it, adding and subtracting words like “humble” and “Jewish”, “dedication” and “truth”. I chose “shalom’ because it meant “peace” but, even more so, “wholeness.”
Part of what I like so much about the Slonimer Rebbe’s teaching that each of us has a unique mission, is that we don’t have to get obsessed with a grand purpose.
It might be that the expression of our purpose is quite simple.
I like how my articulation of purpose applies to the work that I am doing now as a rabbi but also to the work I did before I was a rabbi.
What I really like about this articulation of purpose is that it feels equally clarifying to me as a parent and a friend.
As you consider your purpose this Rosh Hashanah, here are a couple of simple questions suggested at that retreat to test your articulation of purpose:
1. Does living into this purpose bring me joy?
2. Does living from this purpose contribute to the world?
3. By investing my creativity and my precious life energy into living this purpose do I contribute to myself as well as others?
4. Even in the face of disappointment or failure and when the world is looking hopeless, does my purpose motivate me to continue forward?
Judaism addresses the question of purpose by asking:
“What do I yearn for in my life?”
“What does God desire for me?”
Both of these ideas are described in prayer and in rabbinic writing using the concept of ratzon.
Ratzon is a hard word to translate to English because it can mean so many things.
It means both the wish for something and the willingness to achieve it.
It implies yearning with love and deep joy.
Ratzon includes physical and practical wanting. It is the desire for a perfect peach or a glass of water on a hot day.
Ratzon in prayer is deep wanting, yearning for a better life, for love, for success, for meaning and for certainty of purpose.
If you are familiar with the word ratzon, it is likely from hearing it in prayer.
Ken yehi ratzon is kind of a more formal amen, usually translated “May it be God’s will.”
When we put our arms around each other and pray for safety, happiness and peace – the same blessing that parents offer to their children on Shabbat, we conclude each line with ken yehi ratzon.
Rabbi David Jaffe teaches that imbedded in the word ratzon is the root ratz – to run; to want something so clearly that we run towards it naturally, sometimes independent of our thoughts.
Increased yearning and desire, is both a goal and a vehicle for spiritual growth. Cultivating the awareness of the distance between the world as it is and our desire for the world as it could be.
Determining our personal ratzon –noticing what we most yearn for in our life is hard because so many of us are cut off from knowing what we honestly want.
Because others – teachers, parents, friends, siblings, advertisers, society in general –
put so many of their own expectations on us that we confuse what we want with what others want for us.
The spiritual practice of ratzon is recovering our sense of what we deeply want.
The sweet spot in the Venn-diagram of “search for purpose”, is finding the place where our yearning desire overlaps with God’s yearning desire.
We learn in Pirkey Avot:
Align your ratzon –with God’s ratzon so that God may act through you.
Adapt your ratzon –to God’s so that God may impact the ratzon of others through you. - Avot 2:4
Let’s think about the question: “What does God desire for me?”
I realize that to even consider that God has a will or that God has a purpose for us is moving into theologically challenging territory for many of us.
A short tangent on Reconstructionist theology: Mordecai Kaplan, the founder of Reconstructionism, could not believe in a God that was somehow separate from the universe and able to act independently and directly in the world.
Rather, he understood God to be woven into the actions of the universe and somehow more than the sum of their parts. He described God as the force that propels our experience towards wholeness, peace and meaning.
He uses the word “force” to help us move away from the understanding of God as a noun and towards an understanding of God as a verb that we experience through the realities of our existence.
Aligning our will with God’s will means responding with integrity to the truth of the forces that shape our existence and honestly acknowledging all the claims that reality makes on our life; both its limitations and its possibilities.
Rabbi Rami Shapiro commenting on ratzon as described in Avot 2:4 suggests:
“God’s will is reality, the way things are at this very moment. Aligning with God’s will means working with what is rather than what you wish things to be.
Adapting your will to God’s will means acting in accord with reality.”
Our congregant Alma Schneider started her own cooking business & blog, “Take Back the Kitchen”. She also started “Parents Who Rock”, a terrific community program and fundraiser. She has 4 kids, one with a complicated special need’s diagnosis - Prader Willi Syndrome.
So I asked her – “Would you want to write a little about where you find purpose as one of our congregant speakers on the topic this Rosh Hashanah?” After a little emailing back and forth, she wrote:
“Hi Elliott and sorry for the delay. As much as I would love to do this, I have to be honest; I have had a really rough end of summer with my son and every time I think about doing this, I imagine myself bursting into tears. I am so raw with him. Can I take a rain check?”
Clear purpose comes from recognizing the truth of what is.
Clear purpose comes from serving those we love.
For many of us this is the window into what into what it feels like to find the alignment of our ratzon with God’s ratzon.
It is the feeling to look for as we search for purpose in all aspects of our life.
I encourage you to think about where your deep yearning aligns with God’s as you understand it.
If you prefer, where your ratzon aligns with reality.
Let’s consider the story of Esther and Purim.
We aren’t told a whole lot about Esther’s motivations for entering the competition to marry King Ahashveros.
Perhaps she was just trying to respect the wishes of her Uncle Mordechai?
Or maybe she was just trying to assure herself a good life?
A life of security and luxury under the King’s protection.
Maybe she had always dreamed of being Queen?
When she first hears of the Kings decree to kill the Jews, she seems unwilling to accept it.
Mordechai sends Esther a message charging her to plead with the King for her people.
Esther thinks her uncle is crazy.
Doesn’t he know that anyone who approaches the King without being summoned can be killed? She reminds him that she has less power than he might imagine, that she has not been summoned for 30 days.
Why should she risk her own safety for a task that is so great, so insurmountable?
“Do not think that your fate is separate from ours.
That you alone can escape the reality of this decree.
Wake up! Pay attention! We are in real danger!
Who knows, perhaps you have attained a royal position for just this purpose?!” (Esther 4:14)
It is often the choices we make without really knowing their meaning – accepting our first job, moving to a particular town, having a child, that determine how our purpose will be expressed.
And just as often, realities we have no control over and do not chose, innate skills and preferences, the ups and downs of the economy, our health, and the needs of a family member.
Just as often these realities determine our purpose.
Circumstances, not entirely under Esther’s control: becoming queen and the decree to kill her people determined Esther’s purpose.
Esther’s story is not told from God’s perspective. In fact, God is absent from the story of Purim.
The Jews have to figure out how to save themselves, how to act in alignment with God’s will all on their own, without directions.
Esther has to evaluate the reality of her power and its limits, the dangers to her and her people, and discern her purpose.
Similarly, our own stories are not told from God’s perspective. Our task in life is to look honestly at the reality we live in and the yearnings of our hearts and ask: “what purpose might we serve?”
I would like to end with the words of one my favorite prayers said at the conclusion of the Amidah.
Yehiyu leratzon, imrey fi, vehegyon libi lefanecha Adonai tzuri vegoali
May it be that our ratzon,
aligns with THE ratzon.
That our purpose is expressed by the words we speak.
May it be that the yearnings of our hearts will be acceptable.
That we come to know and feel its alignment with reality.
May our unique purpose be revealed to us.
May it be redemptive for us, for our people and for the world.
Ken yehi ratzon
1 Thank you to Rabbi Jonathan Slater and the IJS for sharing this text with me.
2 Thank you Selah, Bend The Arc, and Rockwood for this set of questions.
3Rabbi Shlomo Wolbe, Aley Shur II, p. 257-258
4According to Rabbi David Jaffe, “this dynamic affects women in a particular way. One aspect of women’s oppression is that many girls and women are taught that their complete worth lies in taking care of others. This message can make it difficult to know what one really wants separate from the needs and desires of others.”
5Rabbi Rami Shapiro, commentary Ethics of the Sages
Last Challenge Lab! Go Study! Oh and take a nap.
05/21/2015 11:26:31 AM
Shabbat Challenge Lab 6 Sing! Chant! Make music and enjoy the silence
05/14/2015 01:23:58 PM
Shabbat Challenge Lab 5: Finding Time for Your Soul: Pray, Meditate, Breathe, Refresh & Re-Soul
05/07/2015 09:54:56 AM
Shabbat Challenge Lab 4 Go Outside!
05/01/2015 10:23:35 AM
Shabbat Challenge Lab Experiment 3 - Avoid Spending Money
04/22/2015 02:24:46 PM
Shabbat Challenge Lab Experiment 2 - Shabbat Unplugged
04/13/2015 09:00:38 AM
Shabbat Challenge Lab Experiment One: Light! Beverages! Food!
04/10/2015 01:01:02 PM
Shabbat Challenge Lab
04/10/2015 01:00:02 PM
Israel Hitlamdut - Rosh Hashanah 5775
09/29/2014 08:06:13 PM
Many thanks to Rabbi Toba Spitzer. Her writing and ideas about frameworks and narratives for discussing Israel very much influence my own approach to this sermon.
Swimming and Teshuva - Erev Rosh Hashanah 5775
09/29/2014 07:58:33 PM
Some of you know that since my sabbatical I have taken up swimming.
I discovered swimming by accident.
When my kids were little I had to put on my own swim suit to get them into the water for their swimming lessons at the JCC. If things went well, I would do laps in the open lane. One day I swam 12 laps, the next week 14. No big deal but after a while I noticed I felt more awake and energized on days I swam and I started going when the kids didn’t have lessons.
In the past I had always found swimming boring, but perhaps because I was also learning about meditation, I found the experience of being in the water to be peaceful and even spiritual.
I should get this out of the way, as a swimmer I have no great ability. If you want to know something about how to be a good swimmer don’t ask me. But as a rabbi it is my job to think about teshuva. Teshuva is the work of aligning our actions with our best intentions and I find it comes up a lot as I swim laps.
Seven things I have learned about Teshuva while swimming:
1.Don’t be self-centered.
The truth is, no one really wants to hear about swimming. It took me a little while to realize that for the most part when people asked about my swimming, they were just being nice. This question is just so kind when I think about it. It usually means that whoever I am talking to is really trying communicate something like,
I care about you and want to connect enough to inquire after your interests. It is a shame that in response to such kindness I often would obliviously launch into an answer about all the recent details of my swimming life. This is not such a nice thing. I have learned that the thoughtful thing to do after a brief response is to ask the person I am talking to about what they care about. If they truly are interested in swimming, which is rare, they will come back to it.
Teshuva requires that we start by taking responsibility for ourselves but we aren’t supposed to stop there. Our internal gaze and focus is meant to be transformative so that we can change the way we impact others.If you aren’t at all interested in swimming, keep in mind that almost everything if we pay attention to it, teach es the same lessons. Running, hobbies, your vacation, your job, raising kids. The important part is paying attention
2.Balance is more important than strength
Body size is not a great predictor of how well someone swims. It didn’t take me long to realize that there are swimmers who in one way or another didn’t appear to be in great shape who could swim much faster than folks who were slim and muscular.
For almost a year I swam with no instruction. I used my arms like giant propellers attached to a surfboard. I kicked furiously. Over time, I found that I was able to swim longer and longer distances, but my speed remained slow. It turns out that swimming hard isn’t as important as balance. With proper technique the body moves more into alignment and glides more easily through the water.
Teshuva is about finding balance. For most of us the goal isn’t to never be angry, but to be angry less and to balance that anger with compassion. Judaism teaches that we should mindfully search for balance. Even good things like humility and tzedaka-giving financially, can be over done.
Sometimes we get so caught up in striving to do better that we don’t stop to consider how to find balance? We expend extraordinary effort doing what we have already done but with more energy and we wear ourselves out. Instead we need to consider, how can my behaviors move more into alignment so that I can appropriately glide through challenges.
3.Everyone in the world is our coach
It is hard to imagine that I could have figured out any of this on my own. As a gift, a friend paid for me to meet with a swim coach.
(As an aside, I am sure this was at least in part so that I would stop asking her if she had any swimming tips – another reminder that no one, even other swimmers, really wants to hear about exercising.)
The coach not only taught me better technique, but she was able to see what I was doing in ways I couldn’t. One thing she would tell me to do (and she told me this for years) was to lift my elbows higher out of the water. It could be pretty dispiriting on a day when I thought I had been doing this really well to hear her tell me I had a long way to go, but she was right. She could see my elbows and I could not.
The people in our life, who give us feedback, sometimes with kindness and tact and sometimes so harshly that we have to work hard to consider the message – they are our coaches. They may not always be right but they see us in ways that we cannot.
Part of the work of Teshuva is to assume that we can learn from everyone. To mindfully consider the messages that come to us from others. In particular, when people we love and trust tell us through words or actions that we need to do something different, it is a good sign that we have more work to do.
4.Who you surround yourself with makes a big difference
There are days when the other swimmers in my lane are slower than me. On such days it seems like I finish each set of instructions with ease. I have time to wait for others to catch up and I feel pretty good about myself as a swimmer. There are other days when I can barely keep up with swimmers in my lane. I am at the back of the line and just catching up when the next set of laps begins. Over time I noticed that I could swim at the exact same pace and feel radically different about myself and my ability, because I was judging myself in comparison to whoever happened to be in my lane.
The self-satisfaction that I feel when others are swimming more slowly and the self-judgment I feel when others swim faster than me often has nothing to do with the reality of my own effort, technique or progress.
It is our nature to judge ourselves in relation to those around us, but when it comes to teshuva we need to be able to find independent measures of our own progress. Some teachers suggest that we should actually write down the things we have done well or not so well each day, so over time we can notice trends and notice progress. This is called heshbon hanefesh - an accounting for the soul. And like good accounting it is supposed to give us a more honest measure of our moral challenges and progress.
Also, since we are bound to measure ourselves in relation to those around us any way, it really is important to consider who you are spending your time with. Maimonidies taught that it is natural for a person’s character and actions to be influenced by the norms of their friends and associates. Therefore we should make a point of to be in the company of good people.
5.Leading is harder than following
In my swim class we are all divided more or less by ability into different lanes. In each lane the faster swimmers are supposed be in the front and the slower in the back. Sometimes I have to work hard just to keep up at the back of the lane. But sometimes, I can help lead. And you know what, it is much more challenging to be the first person at the front of the line leading than to be second in the line following. I don’t know how much is about hydrodynamics and how much is psychological, but leading is harder.
When it comes to teshuva there is no shame in following. If someone you know is great at helping others, or giving tzedakah or fighting for social justice and you can improve your own effort by joining them and following their lead, that is great. Go for it.
But sometimes you will find that you are the best person to lead. That there is no one but you who can do the right thing in this circumstance or that you are in some way uniquely qualified to help others do what is right. And you know what, it is harder to be at the front of the line or to blaze a path. It requires having confidence in your own abilities. It means accepting that you will work harder. But it gets easier and you learn faster and you get stronger when it is your turn to lead.
6.Everything matters but I can usually only focus on one thing at a time.
It seems obvious but every part of our body is interconnected. I have learned what I do with my arms or where I position my head, how high I lift my elbows or how I swivel my hips – all these things impact how I swim. Ideally the body should move gracefully, with the fluid rhythm of a great dancer.
But though everything matters – most of the time I find the best I can do is to carefully focus on one aspect of swimming at a time. So I focus on my breathing for a lap or two, then my stroke and then my alignment and so on. After a while I try to do it all at once, but I am really relying more on muscle memory and in some ways just hoping it all kicks in. Concentrating on everything at once more closely resembles trying to just stay aware of what I am doing without letting my mind wander.
This year, the synagogue will be engaging in a practice called Tikkun Middot –repair or strengthening of our ethical character traits. We will as a community work to strengthen traits like humility, kindness, organization, honoring others and trust. And though all of these things matter and they are all inter-related
we will work on them one at a time.
Each month, we will have classes and talks, readings and practices that we can bring home with us to help us to focus on just one of these traits.It is not that we will forget about kindness when we enter the month of patience. But by having worked hard on this technique and this ethical muscle in particular we will be more able to use it when it is called for. And since everything really is connected, the work you do on one trait will inevitably help you when turn to the next trait.
7.There is a lot to learn if you really pay attention
All last year I was studying this Tikkun Middot curriculum. Experiencing for myself what it felt like to work on these soul traits that I would be teaching to the synagogue. So for a month at a time I would be trying really hard to pay attention to honoring others or being kind or patience. I was surprised how week after week, the interactions I had in the pool, which were often only a few seconds long, were the ones I most noticed.
No matter which middah I was working on the quiet of the pool and the lack of outside stimuli between laps helped me to notice that even very short interactions could be improved. I had to figure out, how can I remain polite and respectful as we figure out who should lead and who should follow? Or, when being asked what lap we are on, I might notice the difference between turning to face someone while answering and turning away when answering, so that I could begin my next lap more quickly. These aren’t the most important things in the world but for that hour, in that lane it can make a difference.
More importantly by choosing to be mindful of one single character trait, I found I had the opportunity to learn about it no matter what I was doing. That spiritual practice didn’t have to be tacked on as another task but could be a part of my activities all day. Maybe swim class isn’t the most important place to practice faith or trustworthiness. But noticing how much I could learn even from these very brief and simple interactions, helped me realize much room for improvement there must be in the more complex relationship and emotionally rich places of my life. Not only that, my efforts to pay attention to these characteristics in the pool spilled out into the rest of my life.
Mordecai Kaplan the founder of Reconstructionist Judaism taught that the Torah we study within the synagogue walls should impact our lives outside the synagogue.
So whether you swim or run, walk the dog or paint, study the sports page, cook or eat at fine restaurants, play poker or just have a deep commitment to napping – I encourage you to look at that activity and ask yourself, what does this thing that I am already doing have to teach me about the rest of my life? How can I make what I am already doing my spiritual practice? And how can I use this hobby, passion or habit to practice being a mensch, to deepen the character of my soul?
Wishing you a sweet year! Leshanah Tovah!
Jewish Renewal and Reconstruction in Israel - July 22, 2014
07/22/2014 05:24:17 PM
One of the most inspiring things about this trip has been to see the flourishing of creative Jewish life. We had the opportunity to learn with the recently elected Knesset member Ruth Calderon, inside the Kneset as part of her weekly Bet Midrash. It is, in no small number of ways remarkable to have a non-Orthodox woman teaching Talmud in the halls of the Knesset.
At the end of our trip we got to sit in on a daily Talmud study lead by Kobi Oz, lead singer of a very popular band Teapacks. Though not quite as popular, imagine sitting in on daily Talmud class with Bob Dylan. Kobi Oz, a Tunisian Jew who grew up in Sderot and is at home in contemporary hipster Tel Aviv sat with a minyan of secular Jews studying Talmud for its own sake. This is an open group at Alma (also founded by Ruth Calderon) that we were able to join.
We also heard from Reform, Conservative and Reconstructionist leaders here in Israel about how the question was no longer one of only fighting to be acknowledged as a legitimate form of Jewish practice. This they said was a battle that was being won, with increasing, though still small numbers of rabbis even being paid by the Israeli government. The World Union of Progressive Jews, an international organization to which but the Reconstructionist and Reform movement in North America are members, has doubled in size Israel.
Rabbi Gilad Kariv, the leader of the Israeli Movement of Progressive Judaism said that our work has moved beyond just being accepted and that we have to play a serious and strategic role in protecting not only pluralism but democracy. That too often Judaism is used as justification for an anti-democratic discourse in Israel. He said that we are the ones that can rewrite that discourse so that Judaism is understood as supporting democratic values and human rights. In other words he said our battle has moved from one of about our status to one about our values.
He was explicit in saying we need to do this not only for Jews but for the 1.5 million non-Jewish residents of Israel. He was also the first person I heard who spoke instead of speaking of the tragic death of three Israeli teens and one Palestinian, said simply, "We must mourn the four Israeli boys who died."
I have more that I might mention - the wonderful and moving "secular" davening of Bet Tefillah Israeli, or Nava Tehillah founded by former Bnai Keshet Rabbinic Intern Ezra Weinberg. More about the kindergartens at Mevakshei Derech, a Reconstructionist congregation that is helping to bring the synagogue into relationship with Israelis who might never have entered in such a synagogue in the past. But the big story is that progressive Judaism is flourishing and taking up space here in ways that would have been unimaginable a decade ago and suggest great possibilities for the next decade.
Sirens and Red-Alerts in Tel Aviv - July 18-21
07/21/2014 02:55:15 PM
Since arriving in Tel Aviv we have experienced a handful of alerts. It is a surreal experience. One evening I was having a beautiful dinner at the Namal/Port overlooking the Mediterranean Sea, when our meal was interrupted by a siren. We got up quickly and went into the safe room connected to the kitchen. After only a few minutes the sirens stopped. A couple of minutes later we were all back at our tables, the sea on one side, with pleasant food and company. We checked our phones for information only to see the news of then just announced ground invasion into Gaza.
Each subsequent alert, some longer, some with the clear sounds of the explosions associated with the Iron Dome defense system followed a similar pattern. You are aware that the country is at war, but in so many ways life goes on as usual. One is aware that here, despite the sirens, we are really quite safe but that farther South, where the sirens do not provide sufficient warning, preschools just spend the day in safe rooms. That even farther South in Gaza, Israel's efforts to stop the missile attacks in Gaza often have severe collateral damage and that now, also in Gaza Israeli soldiers are risking their lives as part of this mission to destroy Hamas' ability to continue firing these rockets that almost never land.
Amongst our group of rabbis, one of my colleagues has a son now serving in the IDF and likely in Gaza. As we go about our program we all think of this young man, who I know from his summers at Camp JRF. We were also told by the owner of a Druze restaurant we stopped at in the Galilee that he had two sons serving in Gaza.
So the real danger for these soldiers is often on my mind. I pray that their service is in fact leading towards greater safety. Last night, while watching the Israeli news I saw snippets of the funerals of other IDF soldiers. The images, with words from family and children were incredibly emotional. Each day it gets a little harder to bifurcate, between the tour and experience that is right in front of us and the broader knowledge of the current situation.
Visiting the Greenhouse at Kibbutz Ein Shemer - July 20
07/20/2014 04:01:41 PM
The Greenhouse was started by Avital Geva. His story is shared in Dreamers written by Yossi Klein Halevi (Avital shared with us that he had not in fact yet read this chapter). "At this ecological greenhouse we are working to improve the environment, create energy, educate and do a little tikkun olam." "We have more than 400 Arab and Jewish Israeli kids coming here from the area each week. Much of this education is side by side rather than integrated. But some motivated by parents is integrated. He holds a corn sprout in his hand. He says that with its seed, sprout and root it contains the entire Torah. "We try to teach teamwork rather than money or ego without saying it explicitly."
The sign in Hebrew is a play on words based on an Arik Einstein song. It says, "algae and I will change the world".
The Greenhouse will be exhibiting at the NY JCC this autumn.
Yihab and Yuval in Yaffo - July 18
07/20/2014 03:42:42 PM
I am touring Yaffo with Yuval, an Israeli guide who moved here during Oslo inspired by the hope at that time. His son goes to the Weizmann school in Yaffo, which is split equally Jewish/Palestinain.
Also with Yihab our Palestinian guide who was born here in Yaffo. His family has lived in Yaffo close to 600 years. But most of his family fled in 48 and now are scattered throughout the Arab and Western world.
Yihab tells a remarkable story of growing up angry but coming to find himself in relationship with Israelis. Building enormous, sulcha-dialogue groups (thousands of people) during the 2nd Intifada. He tells an amazing story of his family disowning him for this, but finally participating in this dialogue. Here he tells of his greatest m test from God, falling in love and eventually marrying an Israeli. After having a child he started a Jewish/Palestinian pre-school in his father's home. Everyone understands how surreal it is to tell this story in the current circumstances.
Yuval speaks to us in English and Yihab in Hebrew.
Efrat - July 16
07/20/2014 03:19:25 PM
We spent an afternoon in the region of Gush Etzion. This is part of the land that was occupied after 1967 and is called Judea by its supporters. Historically it includes much of the territory included in biblical Judea. This term might also be applied to Jerusalem. This is part of the most dense areas of Jewish settlement outside the 1967 borders and is widely considered an area that even in a land for peace deal would be incorporated into the larger Israel. We met there with Bob Lang in the settlement/village of Efrat. Bob was one of the founders of this community and has been a significant leader in the movement to develop this area as part of the greater project of Israel.
Bob said many attractive things. He condemned, "price tag actions" violent and destructive attacks on Palestinians, carried out by more extreme parts of the settler movement. He also spoke of his own efforts to work closely with local Palestinians. We saw a joint economic zone (see photos) where Jewish and Palestinian residents shopped and worked side by side. It was indeed a vision of what a post-peace Israel/Palestine might look like. And his vision for moving to that peace by annexing the West Bank/Judea and Samaria and giving the Palestinians full citizenship, was inspiring in its democratic if perhaps messianic vision (he did not speak to whether he would be willing to take this step in Gaza).
I would have liked to talk more with him and might on a future trip, as I experienced significant dissonance between his vision and my own understanding of the situation. His comments seemed to only acknowledged the Palestinian facts on the ground in ways that were convenient to his project. For instance he seemed more confident that most demographers I have heard that Jewish birthrate could keep up with Palestinian birthrate. Also, it is hard for me to imagine that the Palestinian population would agree to be annexed without significant violent resistance or allow for such an agreement without even symbolic acknowledgement of the right of return. The right in Israel often calls the left naive for imagining it has a partner in peace. It seems equally naive to imagine that an occupied population, living in poverty without full rights will not resist. And while his embrace of full citizenship for Palestinians seemed sincere it is hard to understand how it lines up with a more nationalist and often prejudiced rhetoric associated with the broader settler movement. It is also, a much rosier vision of the possibility of full rights and equality for Israeli Palestinians than has so far come into existence 20% of the Palestinian Israeli population.
It is also curious that his vision of a one state solution lines up very closely with the vision of the farthest left Palestinian supporters. This leaves me wondering if it has more hope than realize or if their agreement is its own argument for the more centrist two state solution.
Berlin - July 14, 2015
07/16/2014 05:38:48 PM
Yossi Klein Lalevi - July 15, 2014
07/16/2014 05:33:23 PM
Red Alert : Israel
07/09/2014 06:34:11 PM
I had set aside time this morning to write the first of what I hope will be several posts about my upcoming trip to Israel. As mentioned in my last letter, I am very much going on this trip, with my fellow Reconstructionist Rabbis, as your rabbi. I had wanted to share with you more details of my itinerary so that in some small way my own trip might help be a bridge to Israel for our congregation, so that you might have a better chance of sending me questions or comments that could better help me represent you and help me bring back my experience when I return.
However, with the ongoing missile attacks from Gaza and the recent responses to those attacks from the Israeli Defense Force, my mind is in a different place. Last week a Bnai Keshet congregant shared with me an [Apple] app called Red Alert : Israel which I encourage you to download. This app alerts you with a brief alarm any time a red alert is sounded anywhere in Israel. If you were in an area hearing this alert you would have sometimes only seconds to seek the safety of a bomb shelter. For the residents under red alert this is needless to say a harrowing experience which reverberates long afterwards. Having the alert on my phone was a minor inconvenience. Sometimes the app woke me in the middle of the night or interrupted a meeting, but it forced me to mentally exit the safety of Northern NJ and to face the challenges of living with red alerts. I find my mind wandering to my own experiences during past years spent in Israel of incursions and attacks. My colleagues, some already in Israel, have shared with me what it feels like to have their day interrupted and instead of hitting mute, to quickly find the nearest bomb shelter.
Though reports vary, over the last week there have been over 250 missiles fired from Gaza. Thank God, there have been no casualties. Though the IDF’s initial response was restrained, since Monday they are reported to have struck 150 targets. These targets are described as tunnels used for smuggling weapons, locations used to store and fire rockets. These targets are what most of us would call legitimate when facing similar attacks and Israel often exceeds international norms in efforts to warn civilians about such strikes. Still, it is sobering and painful to hear that since Monday’s airstrikes at least 29 Palestinians had died. I am not aware of an app that monitors the Palestinian experience of such strikes. (A couple of sources: Leaflets - NY Times and Rocket Jerusalem Post)
I remember once before a congregational discussion about the situation in Israel commenting to a Bnai Keshet member that I hoped that with proper effort it would be a thoughtful dialogue. That despite airing of real differences in opinion we could do so without angering each other. He stopped me mid-sentence saying, “Forget it! Impossible! As soon as you publicly say the word Israel, someone will be mad at you.” The truth of this observation speaks to the emotional, spiritual and political importance of Israel in Jewish life and as a part of Jewish identity. Just saying the word Israel to Jews often touches our feelings about Jewish survival, the Holocaust, the nature of our religion, our core values, and the list goes on.
It seems inevitable that the more I write to you about Israel the more likely I am to make some of you angry. I want to apologize in advance for this. It is precisely because it is so important and so central to the future of Judaism that I think our synagogue and by extension your rabbis must feel like safe places to freely engage in discussions, fears, hopes, and questions about Israel. It is my hope that my own comments will serve to initiate just such conversations. But I know that no matter how careful I am, something I say might lead to you, a congregant I serve, feeling alienated. I hope that you will give me the benefit of the doubt, that my thoughts are shared with respect. I hope that if this happens you will seek me out and that we will find the time to sit together and regardless of any differences of opinion, work toward repair.
I also want to apologize because, as your rabbi, our relationship to Israel is but one of the things that connects us. I also want to be fully present with you for study, prayer, pastoral counseling, tikkun olam, lifecycle events and more. Because I hold this work as sacred, I try to be particularly careful when I know something I say might be agitational. If I am risking saying or doing something that might temporarily distance our relationship, I want to be certain that it is toward a goal that serves our community, the Jewish people, and/or humanity. Especially when it is unintended I hope that any agitation my comments cause nonetheless serve such a high purpose.
All this being said, over the next few weeks I will error on the side of being forthright rather than guarded. It is an experiment. I hope that you will take my thoughts and observations as opinions worthy of your time. I hope that my comments will model, however imperfectly, how to engage in such a conversation. It is my hope that such musing will be offered with a tone of inquiry rather than judgment. I hope that this effort will be a small step in our ongoing dialogue as a community. As with any experiment we will learn as we go.
So my itinerary will wait, but hopefully not too long. I want to share it with you not only so I can bring your questions but because I feel like too often our discussions about Israel are projected only through the lens of conflict. But Israel, in its glory and in its challenges, is far more than this. It is why so many of you, like me, have gone to Israel and keep going to Israel. We love Israel for all its diverse impacts on Jewish life and the world. And loving Israel means far more than coming to its defense and/or seeking peace only in relationship to its conflicts.
A difficult Week
07/03/2014 05:34:12 PM
The bereaved family of Naftali Fraenkel issued a statement this morning:
"There is no difference between blood and blood. Murder is murder, whatever the nationality and age. There is no justification, no forgiveness and no atonement for any kind of murder."
If you agree, use our form to write to the families of Eyal Yifrach, Naftali Fraenkel, Gilad Sha'ar, and Muhammad Hussein Abu Khdeir to express your condolences.