Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Abu Dhabi to Mumbai and the Bene Israel

From the initial decision to take this trip it has certainly been one of the most emotionally interesting of our travels. The motivation for signing up was to get back on the list for cruise chaplains so I took what was available. Abu Dhabi to Goa, India, to Mumbai, to Oman, to Dubai, and back to Abu Dhabi. Not a single place I ever wanted to visit and several where I was sure we wouldn’t be welcome. In fact, my first thought was, “If I have to bring a חנוכיה, a Chanukah menorah, how would I get it into Abu Dhabi?”

Then there was deciding how to get to Abu Dhabi. Royal Jordanian Air was the best choice. I was much more comfortable thinking about flying Royal Jordanian through Amman than landing in Abu Dhabi.

I never wanted to visit India. I have had and interest in the Bene Israel since I went to their synagogue in Lod for Tisha B’Av in 1971. Of course there is the history of Ghandi. Even so, it was never on my list of places to visit.

But, after booking the airfare, fighting the website for a visa for India and making all the other arrangements, we were on our way. Albuquerque to Chicago, 4 hour layover, Chicago to Amman, 4 hour layover, Amman to Abu Dhabi, to the hotel and finally at 3:00 AM local time, bed.

We planned an extra day in Abu Dhabi on both ends to help with the stress of travel. We stayed in our hotel and the mall next door. From landing in the airport, the sight of traditional dress and modern dress all blended together. During lunch at the hotel we watched 2 women in full burka “bubbling” (smoking from a water pipe) while people lounged around the pool in barely there swim wear. Of course there were Christmas decorations everywhere. On the way home we will do some touring including the new Louvre. I’ll be interested in seeing if being in the heart of the city is the same as being by the beach.

After boarding and sailing 3 days we arrived in Goa, India. Of course we had the wrong kind of visa and our ship, using the Mr. Scott method of timing (Scotty we need power now. Captain it’ll take 10 hours. Captain we got it done now!) getting the correct Visa was pretty easy.

We had booked a non-ship tour of Goa. Only 10 of us on the bus made the day very nice. Lots of good conversation and sharing about what we saw. My impression of Goa: it was nice. Lots of vacationers from around India, narrow roads, a huge contrast between middle class housing and shanties, and the richness of nature left a wonderful, colorful, and complex image.

The next day we landed in Mumbai. Again, we had booked a non-ship tour. This time a tour of Jewish Mumbai with city highlights. It was just the two of us and nothing like I expected. Our tour guide Hannah Shapurkar was incredible (contact me directly if you need a tour guide in Mumbai or around the country for her contact information.) A member of the Bene Israel community, married to another member of the community, provided us with a depth of understanding of the inner workings of the community and its history.

The Bene Israel arrived in India in 132 B.C.E.. They were fleeing from the oppression of the Seleucid Empire. Their boat was wrecked and only 7 families survived. Those seven families created a community that has lasted for over 2100 years. In the 19th Century the Baghdadi Jews arrived from Persia, Iraq, and what are now the Gulf States. Led by the Sassoon family, they built their own community and helped the Bene Israel with theirs. Many of the Baghdadi Jews left with the British but their legacy remains through their buildings and foundations they left behind.

We visited the 2 Bene Israel synagogues in Mumbai. In the first, the oldest dating from the 1700’s, I found myself infused with the soul of a 2100 year old community. Now, Sephardic in worship, their commitment to maintain their community is palpable. When we arrive home and I have a better internet connection I’ll post a video of the Synagogue.

We also visited the Sassoon synagogue and day school. A more elaborate building it too had its uniqueness. The school was built as what we would call a Jewish Day School. Now, there are only 12 Jewish students. The majority of the rest are Muslim and the balance are Hindu. The sight of Muslim mothers in full burkas waiting to pick up their children from a Jewish school instilled me with a hope for the future I have been missing.

While I did not care if I ever visited Mumbai, I am glad beyond words that I did.

Returning to the ship I lead the lighting of the first Chanukah candle, a symbol of hope and blessing. The perfect end to a perfect day.

We are sailing for Oman. Two days at sea before we arrive.


Sunday, October 1, 2017

Erev Yom Kippur 5778
Rabbi Harry Rosenfeld
Congregation Albert

Albuquerque, NM

Art Garfunkel just published a new memoir. So of course I have been thinking about my favorite Simon and Garfunkel songs. There was a time in my life when my favorite song was “The Boxer.” Its depth and meaning suffused my soul with young adult angst. And then, there was the mystery of the missing verse.

Yes, that illusive verse, that rumor held, was the final straw that led to the demise of the greatest duo of all time. On the original single and album versions there is that haunting flute solo, (pause for flute). But with the Concert In Central Park, the veil lifted and revealed some of the truest, most depressing words ever written:

Now the years are rolling by me
They are rocking evenly
I am older than I once was
And younger than I'll be
But that's not unusual
No, it isn't strange
After changes upon changes
We are more or less the same
After changes we are
More or less the same

(Invite everyone to sing La La La...)

If changes upon changes leave us more or less the same why do we come here each Yom Kippur, year after year, hoping, praying, dreaming to be better. To be different. Why is it that people, including every one of us, never seem to change?

Rabbi Shai Held of Mechon Hadar in Jerusalem posits four ways of thinking about this question. Why people do not change?

First - That’s just who I am. - I hate myself when I use this to explain my behavior. I was born this way (the nature argument) or, my upbringing made me this way (the nurture argument). In the 12th Century, the RaMBaM, Moses Maimonides wrote his code of Jewish law, the Mishnah Torah. The first two laws in the laws of repentance tackle the issue of nature versus nurture:

With regard to all the traits: a person has some from the beginning of his conception, in accordance with his bodily nature. Some are appropriate to a person's nature and will [therefore] be acquired more easily than other traits. Some traits he does not have from birth. He may have learned them from others, or turned to them on his own. This may have come as a result of his own thoughts, or because he heard that this was a proper trait for him, which he ought to attain. [Therefore,] he accustomed himself to it until it became a part of himself.”

This sounds as depressing as Paul Simon’s lyrics. We are born with or learn or take on negative characteristics. It is easy to say: “That’s just who I am.” But, what responsibility do we have if these things are embedded within us?

The television show E.R. answered this question for me. George Clooney’s character, Dr. Doug Ross, blames his father for all his negative traits. The womanizing, the difficulty forming lasting relationships, lack of impulse control. Clooney lays into his father on a bridge overlooking the Chicago river. At the end of the tirade establishing his father as the cause for all his issues, his father looks at him and says (and I paraphrase): Your first 18 years were my responsibility. Since then it is on you. You do not like who you are, be a grown up and find the strength to change.

Ah - were it only that easy. Our habits are deeply engrained in our being. Even if the will to change is strong, we may need help and support. Maybe that is why we gather as a community on Yom Kippur; to find that support.

Second - We are fixed and immutable. Here I am going to stick closely to Rabbi Held’s teaching. He refers to the verse in Deuteronomy when Moses says to the Israelites: “I was standing between you and God at Sinai that day.” The Hebrew used for the word “I” is - אנכי,(Anochi) not the simpler and more common אני. In fact, אנכי usually occurs when God speaks in the 1st person as in the 10 commandments! אנכי I am Adonai your God.

Rabbi Held points out that Chassidic tradition teaches that from his ego Moses’ uses the word אנכי as if to say: “I am on par with God.” From this perspective, in order to leave behind our negatives, we have to be willing to let go of who we think we are and let go of the stories we think define us.

Rabbi Held teaches that the Chassidic master, Rabbi Levi of Berdychiv would have the same conversation with himself each night. “Tomorrow I am going to behave differently, better.” One of his students overheard Reb Levi repeat this each night. Finally he approached the Rebbi: “Master, you said that last night.” the Berdychiver replied: “Yes, but tonight I mean it.” We want to change. Usually we do not. But we can. We are capable of change.

Third: We see freedom as a right. - When it comes to Liberty and Justice For All, freedom is a right. When it comes to our personal behavior we do not have the right to act anyway we please. For most of our history, Judaism extolled the blessing of free will. Judaism also taught that with free will comes responsibility for our choices and accepting the consequences that result.

The great Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik taught: “Free will should implant in man [sic]... a continuous awareness of maximal responsibility… without even a moment’s inattentiveness!... It is a positive commandment to be conscious of the existence of free choice which makes man [sic] responsible for his actions... One is forbidden to take one’s mind off the principle of free choice, for it was not given to man [sic] only from without or by tradition; it is also something in the nature of self-discovery and must always remain part of the self—the knowledge that man [sic] can create worlds and destroy them.”

How to cultivate responsibility? Start slowly. Look at the ice-cream case. Decide what you would like and walk away. Ice-cream does not do it for you? Pick something that does and work your way up from there.

Fourth and finally, We are reluctant to delve deeply into ourselves. - we know that everybody recites each of the על חייט (Al Cheit) confessions even if we did not commit that sin, just in case we did, and it is certain someone in our community did. “The ways we have wronged You by hardening our hearts...through gossip and rumor...through violence and abuse, through dishonesty in losing self control”

Conducting business honestly may be easier than not losing self control, but both represent deeper parts of ourselves that need repair, that need healing. 

If you have a crack in the foundation of your house, you can seal it. It is not hard. Even I can do it! But, chances are that another crack will open if you do not find the cause of the crack. Sealing the crack is like changing a behavior. Preventing other negative behaviors from replacing it requires a deeper inquiry into who you are. Fixing the manifestations only allows other manifestations to surface. We need to go deeper into ourselves to find what is broken and mend it.

Another example: We talk about people who quit smoking eating more. This is based in reality. The presenting addiction, smoking, is replaced by a seemingly more benign addiction, eating. But, as most recovering addicts will tell you, they are still addicts.

Making deep and lasting changes requires courage. Looking into our own abyss is scary and we risk getting lost. We know that courage does not equal being fearless. Courage is about how one deals with the fear. Again, perhaps we join together on Yom Kippur to support each other in facing our fears. When asked how do two people find their way out of a forest, the Kotsker, Rabbi Menachem Mendl of Kotsk answered, “Join hands and find the way together.” 

Looking into ourselves, we ask “Who am I?” If you know the answer, your ego, your אנכי is getting in the way. The proper answer, the liberating answer, to “Who am I?” - “I’m not sure.” Uncertainty, combined with curiosity and a desire to be better drives us deeper to really change. And then, once you repair that level of depth, the curiosity and desire to be better drive you deeper to a new place of “I’m not sure.” and you find something else needing change.

Another time the Kotsker was asked: “What does it mean to really take awe of God seriously.” He replied: “Working on myself. It is a great sin to see yourself as a finished product.”

When a student asked: “Who is a good Jew?” He answered: “Anyone who wants to be.” The student asked: “Who would not like to be a good Jew?” The Kotsker answered: “Someone who thinks he already is.”

This Yom Kippur may we face ourselves. May we go deep. Let us hold each others’ hands as we find our way together. May we be blessed that after changes upon changes we are no longer more or less the same.
Yom Kippur Morning 5778
Rabbi Harry Rosenfeld
Congregation Albert

Albuquerque, NM

Michele and I invited some friends from out of town to come with us on the congregation’s Israel trip this coming April. (There is still time to sign up. Information is on the table in the rotunda!) They sent an email a few weeks ago outlining the reasons they did not want to go.

  1. Prime Minister Netanyahu’s right wing government’s treatment of Israeli Arabs and obvious disdain of any kind of meaningful peace process.
  2. The numerous corruption scandals concerning Prime Minister Netanyahu and his family, including his son’s recent anti-Semitic online posts, and his using the defense of “it is my enemies spreading fake news.”
  3. The Israeli government’s kowtowing to the Orthodox parties for decades and denying equal rights to non-Orthodox Jews most recently by reneging on an agreement to establish an egalitarian prayer area at the Kotel - the Western Wall.
  4. Prime Minister Netanyahu’s claim to be the Prime Minister of all the Jews.  They did not have the opportunity to vote for him so he cannot represent him. (I know Mr. Netanyahu claims that title, but I cannot imagine anyone actually wanting it!)

I agree with every single point except the part about not going to Israel. Like many of you, my consciousness of Israel began in 1967 with the Six Day War. Looking back, I can count on one hand, with fingers to spare, the number of years there was an Israeli government the majority of whose policies I agreed with, and yet, the current government is, in my opinion, the worst and most corrupt ever. When I recently addressed the Southwest Hispanic Leadership Council of AIPAC I said so clearly and without hesitation.

And now, to paraphrase the immortal Paul Harvey, here is the rest of the story which I also told it to the Hispanic Leadership Council.

I love Israel. Let me tell you about the Israel I love.

Fifty years ago this past June, the Israel I love rescued 300 Vietnamese boat people. In fact it was Menachem Begin’s first official act to instantly make them citizens of Israel.

The Israel I love brought to Israel and saved 135,000 Ethiopian Jews and many of their non - Jewish family members. Their integration into Israel has not been perfect and often times difficult but they are full and equal citizens. 

The Israel I love sponsors camps, schools and nature programs bringing diverse groups of young people together to see each other as human beings and break the cycle of indoctrinated hate. Camps like ILAN bring disabled Jewish, Arab and Palestinian children together across the country. Wings of Peace brings Jewish and Arab middle and high school students together throughout the year and for a week each summer to learn to see each other as individuals.

The Israel I love comes up with cutting edge treatments for cancer, Alzheimer’s, ALS and Parkinson’s.

The Israel I love sends humanitarian aid and assistance to any country that needs it and will accept it. They have sent rescue workers to Haiti, numerous African countries, Japan, and even the United States. They work in Gaza bringing humanitarian aid.

The Israel I love is providing life-saving medical treatment to over 3000 Syrian refugees. Ismael Haniyeh, the leader of Hamas who has sworn to destroy Israel, sent his mother-in-law, daughter, and granddaughter to Israeli hospitals. They were admitted and treated without hesitation.

The Israel I love will take in me, and every other Jew, if, God forbid, we ever need to flee.

The Israel I love is the only place in the Middle East where the LGBTQ community has equal rights and can live openly. There are pride parades in almost every major Israeli city, including Jerusalem.

The Israel I fear for has ISIS, Syrian, Russian, and soon, Iranian forces on her borders.

The Israel I fear for is one that continues to be led by those who think the only way to survive is to copy the militaristic and discriminatory regimes of the Middle East.

The Israel I yearn for transforms me from a member of a minority into a member of the majority sensitizing me to understand what it means to be both a minority here and, as a caucasian, a member of the majority.

The Israel I yearn for no longer needs to be a refuge for the oppressed of our people and all others.

The Israel I yearn for is no longer seen as a pariah.

The Israel I yearn for is home to some dear friends.

The Israel I yearn for is my home and yet it is not.

The Israel I hope for finally grants religious freedom to all, including non-Orthodox Jews.

The Israel I hope for looks into its ethical heart and finds a way to make peace with its Palestinian neighbors.

The Israel I hope for leads the world in pursuing justice and making peace.

The Israel I hope for is one that fulfills the prophecy of being a light unto the nations.

כן יהי רצוןSo may it be soon and in our day.

Saturday, September 23, 2017

36 Hours In NY

Here is a post I wrote in April 2012 but never uploaded.


We arrived in NYC via Newark airport, something I hadn't done in a decade. After checking into the hotel we walked to dinner at the TriBeCa Grill. Still being Pesach (Passover)our restaurant choices were a bit limited so a steakhouse seemed like a great choice and it was. The atmosphere was vibrant but warm. People conversed between tables and of course the food was superb.

Thursday we had 3 missions in order of importance:

1). Find light fixtures for the dining room and entry.
2). Buy theatre tickets for that night and when we get back at the end of the month (love those Playbill discounts and avoiding the TKTS lines).
3). Do something fun before dinner and the show.

So after matzah brei at Katz's for breakfast it was off to the lighting store where M accomplished her mission before I finished 10 games of sudoku on my phone.

Taking the train to Times Square we got the tickets we wanted at a reasonable price for Broadway and then headed up to the American Museum of Natural History for their special exhibit "Beyond Planet Earth". I was a great examination of space travel to date, near term plans and longer term objectives. It was quite impressive.

Dinner was at Blue Fin at the Hotel W. the food was good (although I'm looking forward to trying it again when it's not Pesach), the atmosphere a bit loud but manageable,but the high light og the decor was the entry from the restaurant into the hotel. Go see it, it is worth it on its own.

We saw the play ”Gore Vidal’s The Best Man”. It was the perfect thing to see in this most mean spirited election year. Can politicians put aside thei own ego for the true good of the country? The cast was superb led by James Earl Jones, John Laroquette, Candace Bergen, Angela Lansbury and Eric McCormick. I am curious to see what changes if any they made to the script. Each issue presented still rings true today.

That's the beauty of good art. It's themes stand the test of time.

Thursday, September 21, 2017

Rosh Hashanah Morning 5778
Rabbi Harry Rosenfeld
Congregation Albert
Albuquerque, New Mexico

While procrastinating writing this sermon, I calculated that over my six year tenure at Congregation Albert I have saved 85,000 emails, deleted 10’s of thousands more and received about 22,000 junk emails for a total close to 150,000 - 200,000 emails or about 25,000 - 35,000 emails a year. That does not count the 10’s of thousands I received and read on my personal email accounts. I am not citing these numbers to whine about how busy I am or brag about how hard I work. I know that the vast majority of those emails are from you and contain the important details of your lives, your families, your hopes, and your dreams. I also know that most of you receive at least that many emails each year and many of you far more.

Before email, none of us received 1/10 of the number of phone calls and letters combined as we do emails today. Email is the greatest time suck ever invented.

Juliet Funt, yes the daughter of Allen Funt of Candid Camera, teaches:
  1. Most of us who are working spend 100% of our time on exertion, i.e. doing and 0% of our time on thoughtfulness.
  2. We are too busy to become un-busy
  3. With ever present screens, TV, computers, phones, pads, game consoles, email, texts, Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, Twitter, WhatsApp, iMessage, and so much more, we have become uncomfortable with The Pause, moments of quiet, moments of reflection.

Ms. Funt reflects that at work we have lost the permission “think the un-thunk thought” and at home,  one day, we will rue the precious moments we miss because we are busy.

She shares a story she heard about a woman who turned down the opportunity to spend the day driving and picnicking with her family. Her spouse and children enjoyed a marvelous day. Two weeks later her spouse died. According to the woman’s daughter, for the rest of her life she repeated: “I didn’t take the ride.” We have all missed at least one drive because we were “too busy”. I am among the worst culprits.

We believe there are forces in this world that compel us to tie ourselves to the ground and not let our spirits and our lives soar. These forces may include our own egos or our image of what makes us important, as well as others. Yes, there are times we need to work, to struggle, to be busy. But, we also need to let go, to pause and allow ourselves the freedom to think, the freedom to grow spiritually.

My friend and colleague, Rabbi Larry Malinger, uses this example: “When we start to fly and are struggling against these forces [eg. gravity and inertia], there is a lot of noise. Sometimes, it is an external noise…. Other times it is an internal noise…. It is true, for the first ‘10,ooo feet” it is hard, it is noisy, you cannot use approved electronic devices, your seat belt must remain fastened…. Then the noise slowly fades and you keep climbing. You can now use electronic devices. Having reached cruising altitude, you can get out of your seat and move around. Nonetheless, turbulence, or other complications [occur] and you will need to refasten your seat belts just to stay safe.”

I love this analogy. Even though the noise fades it is not gone. If you let it, the noise fades into your unconscious until “we begin our descent”. The time between reaching 10,000 feet and beginning our descent is a pause. You allow yourself to simply go along for the ride. You let go of control. True, someone is flying the plane, but it is not you. “The descent” itself is a wonderful metaphor. The plane begins its descent back toward earth just as we, at the end of the pause, return to the busyness of life.

This morning we read of Abraham answering God’s call with the word “הינני, I am here, I am ready to take on the task as awesome or as awful as it may be.” Throughout Torah and the entire Hebrew Bible, our ancestors answered the call with “הינני, I am here, I am ready.”

Mostly, “הינני, I am here, I am ready” responds to an external call; whether the voice of God or, more likely, the alert on our phone. Our ancestors understood the importance of responding to that external call. They also understood the need to respond to the internal call with “הינני I am here, I am ready”. Therefore, they gifted us שבת, the Sabbath, a day of pause, a day to put aside the roar of the engine, the alert of our phone, and take control of our time.

Rabbi Maligner writes: “In a world full of distractions, the proper way to translate ‘Hineni’ today is  ‘I am fully present.’ I am fully present in my life.” Ms. Funt reminds us that the moments of creativity and insight occur when we are fully present and able to create WhiteSpace in which to consciously pause.

Let’s be honest. We all know what happens when we are not fully present, when we do not pause. We crash; we hit the wall; we burn out - pick your metaphor. We get irritable. The important people in our lives feel ignored. We lash out. We do a lousy job. And of course, we are SO much fun to be around.

Think you are different, that you do not need the pause? Think you are superhuman and able to do it all 24/7/365 (or 6)? Our ancestors knew better even if we do not. From its outset, Torah teaches the importance of the pause. Even God, whom Torah saw as omnipotent, took a break after six days spent creating the world. Continuously in Torah, Tanach and Rabbinic Literature, the importance of Shabbat is reiterated over and over and over and over. The Torah, and later the Rabbis, reiterate the punishment for ignoring Shabbat is the ultimate punishment, death. While Torah sets the sentence to be carried out by stoning, we know dying from exhaustion and stress was, and is, more often the cause of death.

As we wrote you earlier this month:

It does not have to be the Shabbat of your great-grandparents. Be creative and daring. Find a way to make Shabbat meaningful for you. A quiet dinner with family or friends, or going for a hike in this incredible place we are blessed to call home. Call friends and family to reconnect and show your caring. The possibilities are endless. This first time experimenting with Shabbat may not open new doors or create a spiritual high. But, perhaps, with time and repetition you may discover things about yourself that can only come to light in the space that Shabbat can provide...Find or create your own way of observing Shabbat. 

Historically the Jewish community observed Shabbat on Friday night and Saturday. My teacher Rabbi Alvin Reines, since he worked every Friday night and Saturday, observed Shabbat on Thursday night and Friday. I do not suggest you follow Rabbi Reines’ example any more than you follow your grandparents’. Find your own path. Draw from the core of our tradition, understand the purpose of Shabbat and revel in the pause. Use the WhiteSpace of Shabbat to center yourself and re-find your creative, introspective true self. Do not be afraid of the descent back to the busyness of life. Your landing will be much smoother because you took the time to pause.

Making time to pause and understanding our priorities allows for the growth of opportunities. Our own personal WhiteSpace of Shabbat helps us to know who we are, and what we are truly meant to do. We can be blessed with the luxury of identifying the path we need to take in life, realizing what is important to us and most important, who is important to us. When we know that, things fall into place.

Find the strength to pause and may you never have to say: “I didn’t take the ride.”