Monday, December 22, 2008

Shalom TV - From their press release!

Our Jewish community now can enjoy an array of wonderful Jewish programs on Time Warner's FREE Video-On-Demand.

See Jewish Films; Children's Programs; Israel (News, Interviews, Travelogues); 92nd Street Y Presentations; Jewish Studies (Intro to Hebrew, Talmud, Kabbalah, Torah); Panel Discussions; Major Events; Leading Jewish Figures; Music & Entertainment.

To receive a weekly schedule of Shalom TV programming, please go to:

Shalom TV - American Jewry's National Cable Television Network - - can provide hours of viewing pleasure, pride in our Jewish heritage, and a broad perspective on Jewish life at no cost through:

Go to Channel 926 "Entertainment On Demand" and select Shalom TV

Available when you wnat it. Try it!

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

My Address to the Annual Meeting of the Buffalo Chapter of NFJC

First, I want to thank, Don, Mary and Lana for honoring me in inviting me to be todays speaker at this NFJC annual meeting. My association with NCCJ goes back to 1981 when I was a young assistant rabbi in Memphis, Tennessee. Upon my arrival here, I reunited with NCCJ and am proud to have been board member during our local chapter’s transformation into the NFJC. As we look back over these past few years since that transformation, we see first, that the leadership, both volunteer and professional has remained strong, second, that they have ensured that NFJC is at least as respected a name as NCCJ was for so many years and of course third, the evolution into NFJC has led not only to an even stronger local chapter but has enabled us to be in a position of strength as we see our community face the challenges of a changing economy, racism and bigotry that continues, youth violence on the rise and a level of poverty that in large part is reflected in the unbelievably high unemployment numbers in the so called minority communities.

It would be easy to sit back and continue to live with our problems unchallenged. To whine (or as we Jews might say - shrei) about the seemingly unsolvable issues that face us. We, who can afford to actually be here today and actually afford to eat here anytime we choose, could easily shut ourselves off from the world just outside the doors of this hotel. Jewish law dictates that when one builds a synagogue, the sanctuary must have windows, not just to let in natural light, but more importantly to help us remember that we cannot shut ourselves away in prayer, we need to see the world and its problem to remind ourselves that prayer alone cannot fix this world, rather, only our actions and concrete deeds can morph the world that is into the world we would like to see. Even though this room is windowless, we remember how blessed those of us in this room really are.

But how do we confront and overcome these seemingly overwhelming issues that face us? I don’t know. That is why among so many reasons I am proud of America for electing Barak Obama president I am proud of us for electing someone who is smarter than the vast majority of us and someone who is surrounding himself with others smarter than most of us and even some who are smarter than he.

However sufficient intelligence, commitment, and even wisdom may be to fixing our world, at its core we need hope. Without hope, we remove trying from our options and we might as well go sit in the corner like a bowl of jello. To begin to repair the tears in the fabric of our society we have to have a hope that tells us we can do it, each of us because for all that they may be, God, the government, society or others are going to do it for us.

This year on Rosh Hashanah I put it this way:

We all know that we cannot wait for others, even God to fix our world. In the wake of Katrina, Rita, Gustav, Ike and now Kyle, this classic story embodies a renewed poignancy.

Once there was a pious man who had never sinned sitting in a rowboat in the middle of the lake. The boat springs a leak and begins to sink. And so the man begins to pray: “Sovereign of Mercy, I have been your loyal servant my whole life, please save me.” Just then another boat comes by and throws the man a life buoy. “Grab the rope and we will save you!” “No,” the man replied. “God will save me.”

Time passes and the water is up to his waist. “Ruler of all” he prays, “I have been your loyal servant my whole life, please save me.” Just then a helicopter came by and lowered a ladder. “Grab the ladder and climb up and we will save you!” “No,” the man replied. “God will save me.”

The rowboat continues to sink and the man is submerged up to his neck. And so he prays one more time: “You in whom I place all my trust, I have been your faithful servant. I have lived a life free of sin. I have resisted temptation after temptation. Please God, save me.” Another boat comes by and threw yet another buoy. “Please grab the buoy and we will take you to safety.” “No,” the man replied. “God will save me.”

At that moment, the boat sinks and the man drowns. Suddenly he finds himself before God and the throne of judgement. “God” he cries. All my life I served you and lived a pure life. In my time of need I called to you and you let me die. Why God? Why?”

God looks and the man and replies: “I gave you three chances. I sent two boats and a helicopter.”

Living a life of hope means asking for the wisdom and strength to do what we must to repair our Community. We cannot wait for others to do the work for us. ... We look to God for strength and inspiration, but we look to ourselves and each other to grab onto the rope, pull ourselves into the boat and row together.

In a very real sense, Don stood on the shoulders of those who came before him and he not only lifted us to a higher level with his words, but by getting each of us to grab onto the rope. I know, as do you that Mary will take us even farther and bringing us yet another step closer to the day we look forward to - to the day when NFJC closes its doors forever because we have closed the door on racism, bigotry and hatred.

Mary, on behalf of each one of us here I ask you to challenge us and tell you that each one of us will grab onto your rope and respond as Moses responded to God’s call to bring freedom to the Israelites of old - Hineini - Here I am, you can count on me.

The Benediction:

A story quoted in Gates of Prayer, the last Reform prayer-book.

Rabbi Chayim of Tsanz used to tell this parable: A person, wandering lost in the forest for several days, finally encountered another and called out: Friend, show me the way out of this forest!. The person replied: Friend, I too am lost. I can only tell you this: the ways I have tried lead nowhere; they have only led me astray. Take my hand and let us search for the way together. Rabbi Chayim would add: So it is with us. When we go our separate ways, we may go astray; let us join hands and look for the way together.

May we take each other’s hands and walk through the forest together.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Here are the links to this week's Torah commentary on Lech L'cha from the URJ - The Union For Reform Judaism

I write this the night before the 2008 elections. By 9:30 P.M. there have been 4 robocalls from local candidates each wanting to persuade me that they are the one "called" to take this leadership journey.

I only hope and pray that the winners really understand that;

1. Unlike Abraham, God did not call them to serve.
2. They work not for their own benefit and power but for ours
3. They have a responsibility to every citizen and not just those who "support" them

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Rosh Hashanah Evening 5769 - Under the Mishkan

This is our new Shabbat prayerbook, Mishkan T’fillah. The first Reform Movement prayerbook in over 25 years, we again have a prayerbook that unites the Reform Movement with a standard liturgy. Many people were involved in the creation of our in-house prayerbooks, Shabbat M’nucha and Shabbat Kedushah. Personally and as a congregation we owe them a great deal of thanks. Their creativity, spirituality and hard work brought worship at Temple Beth Zion into the late 20th/early 21st centuries.

We are also grateful to those who generously provided us with the means to acquire our copies of Mishkan T’fillah and to make sure that our upcoming B’nei Mitzvah students will each have their own copy from which to study and pray.

The title of the prayer-book, Mishkan T’fillah, translates to: Tabernacle or Dwelling Place of Prayer. Forty-two years ago, the membership of Temple Beth Zion built this sanctuary to be just that - a place where our TBZ extended family comes together to dwell in prayer - to focus on prayer - to understand that a congregation that prays together evolves into a community of caring.

As we wandered through the desert, there were several names for the sanctuary they built. HaMishkan - the dwelling place, the place where Moses and our ancestors experienced God; Mishkan Ha’eidut - the tabernacle of witness, a place of witnessing not only the presence of God but a court, a place to settle disputes; Ohel Mo’ed - the tent of coming together to meet God and learn the values that enable us to live together and the rules, the practical application of the values.

These names represent pieces of a puzzle that together define what it means to be a congregation, a community. For the ancient Israelites, the Mishkan literally and figuratively transformed our ancestral families into a holy nation.

What does it take to be a true community? Why did the Israelites believe that the Mishkan, the center of their community was the place where God dwelled and where Moses spoke with God? Two words - TRUST and HOPE. Trust that the motivation of those in our community, entrusted with our financial future, entrusted with our safety, entrusted with helping us teach our young and care for our elderly lies in a commitment to do what is good and right and does not violate our trust. Hope that when our trust is misplaced, we can still redeem our community and ourselves.

An Eastern European story: A farmer with serious financial problems bought a mule from another farmer for $100. The seller agreed to deliver the mule the next day. However, on the next day the seller drove up and said, "Sorry, but I have some bad news: The mule died."
"Well, then, just give me my money back," said the buyer.
"Can't do that. I spent it already," the seller replied.
"OK, then. Just unload the mule," said the buyer.
The seller inquired, "What are you going to do with a dead mule?"
"I'm going to raffle him off."
The incredulous seller said, "You can't raffle off a dead mule!"
"Sure I can. I just won't tell anybody he's dead."
A month later, the two met and the farmer who sold the dead mule asked the buyer, "Whatever happened with that dead mule?"
"I raffled him off just like I said I would. I sold 500 tickets at $2 a piece and made a profit of $898."
"Didn't anyone complain?" the incredulous seller asked.
The smug buyer replied, “Just the guy who won, so I gave him his two dollars back."

This story is obviously illustrative of what we have learned the past several weeks, that those we trusted with our financial futures often simply raffled off dead mules. (I know I have learned more about the workings of credit markets, stock markets, investment markets and insurance markets than I ever thought possible.) But this tale teaches a deeper lesson. Once we someone betrays our trust, it becomes easier for us to betray the trust of others.

In Leviticus, God commands us to act in holiness is by using honest weights and measures, paying people when their wages are due and not oppressing those who need to borrow funds to survive. Clearly, the trust in our economic systems has caused a rip in the Mishkan of our community.

This year our Mishkan has also been rent open by breeches by those entrusted with our safety. We have seen a Governor fall and threats to our country’s safety ignored while those whom we trust to protect us worry about shoe laces while not inspecting cargo containers and assault weapon and armor piercing bullets remain legal on our streets. Part of the tear was sewn closed by miscarriages of justice in our community undone and reopened by news of new exonerating evidence being ignored by others.

Our trust in the commitment of our schools to put our children's’ education first and for our seniors to be protected was severely damaged by self serving avarice. Resources poorly allocated. Personal ego thrusting aside fairness and equity.

These past months, this past year could leave us cynical and misanthropic. But as Jews, especially at this time of year, we know that we have the ability to commit ourselves to changing our world, repairing the defects that have been inflicted upon our Mishkan.

For we Jews are experts in hope! Not the generalized hope of which both Senators McCain and Obama speak. But rather, for us hope consists of the knowledge that our communal Teshuvah consists of more than feeling bad about our active and passive failings. Teshuvah is the expression of our hope that we CAN change ourselves and our world. For us hope motivates us to not only hem the ragged edges and sew the holes in our Mishkan, in our community but make it stronger and sturdier, working to ensure the Mishkan will never again be damaged.

The use of the first person plural used in our High Holy Day liturgy of responsibility for the problems in our world reinforces our understanding of the truth that sin in our community only exists because WE allow it to continue. As Jews Rabbi Tarphon’s teaching of 1800 years ago underlies our hope and our responsibility to reach out and change the world: “It is not incumbent upon you to finish the work but neither are you exempt from it!” It is incumbent on each of us, infused with a measure of hope, to work for the day when we and the whole world realize that we rise and fall together. Our true teshuvah and deep belief in hope infuse within each of us the knowledge that our success does not come from stepping on the backs of others but rather from understanding that even when, maybe especially when it looks the bleakest, we all work to repair the Mishkan together.

We all know that we cannot wait for others, even God to fix our world. In the wake of Katrina, Rita, Gustav, Ike and now Kyle, this classic story embodies a renewed poignancy.

Once there was a pious man who had never sinned sitting in a rowboat in the middle of the lake. The boat springs a leak and begins to sink. And so the man begins to pray: “Sovereign of Mercy, I have been your loyal servant my whole life, please save me.” Just then another boat comes by and throws the man a life buoy. “Grab the rope and we will save you!” “No,” the man replied. “God will save me.”

Time passes and the water is up to his waist. “Ruler of all” he prays, “I have been your loyal servant my whole life, please save me.” Just then a helicopter came by and lowered a ladder. “Grab the ladder and climb up and we will save you!” “No,” the man replied. “God will save me.”

The rowboat continues to sink and the man is submerged up to his neck. And so he prays one more time: “You in whom I place all my trust, I have been your faithful servant. I have lived a life free of sin. I have resisted temptation after temptation. Please God, save me.” Another boat comes by and threw yet another buoy. “Please grab the buoy and we will take you to safety.” “No,” the man replied. “God will save me.”

At that moment, the boat sinks and the man drowns. Suddenly he finds himself before God and the throne of judgement. “God” he cries. All my life I served you and lived a pure life. In my time of need I called to you and you let me die. Why God? Why?”

God looks and the man and replies: “I gave you three chances. I sent two boats and a helicopter.”

Living a life of hope means asking for the wisdom and strength to do what we must to repair our Mishkan. We cannot wait for others to do the work for us. Our Jewish communal values of , אל תפרוש את עצמך מן הציבור - Do not separate oneself from the community, צדקה, גמילות חסדים and of course תקווה demand we to work to repair our Mishkan through our votes, our participation and our dollars. We look to God for strength and inspiration, but we look to ourselves and each other to grab onto the rope, pull ourselves into the boat and row together.

A story quoted in Gates of Prayer, the last Reform prayer-book, that I have not found in Mishkan T’fillah:
Rabbi Chayim of Tsanz used to tell this parable: A man, wandering lost in the forest for several days, finally encountered another. He called out: Brother, show me the way out of this forest!. The man replied: Brother, I too am lost. I can only tell you this: the ways I have tried lead nowhere; they have only led me astray. Take my hand and let us search for the way together. Rabbi Chayim would add: So iti s with us. When we go our separate ways, we may go astray; let us join hands and look for the way together.
May we take each other’s hands and walk through the forest together.

Kein Y’hi Ratzon - So may it be God’s will.

Shanah Tovah.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Rosh Hashanah Morning 5769 - Connecting with God - Connecting With Each Other Facebook – “Sefer” Panim Yafot

Inspired by a sermon by Rabbi Arthur Lavinsky, Temple Beth El, Phoenix, Arizona

I recently found that while my comprehension of Hebrew conversation remains good, through lack of regular use my Hebrew speaking level had deteriorated to an elementary school level. So I signed up for a conversational Hebrew class on e-teacher. Every Sunday afternoon I turn on my web cam and have a conversational Hebrew lesson with a teacher in Haifa. If I miss a class, I simply go to the website and watch the recording of the class, do the work and sign in the next week.

One of the words I learned this past week סקר means survey. And as we all know, the secret to learning a language is to use it, I am going to conduct a quick 6 question ,סקר survey. Please answer by raising your hands: Be honest.

1. Who has a love/hate relationship with his or her cell phone? You can’t live without it but
you want to leave it at the bottom of Lake Erie so you can have some peace and quiet?
2. Who remembers thinking that calling someone and getting an answering machine instead
of a person was annoying?
3. Of those, who now grumbles when you call someone and they do not have voice mail or
an answering machine?
4. Who communicates by using text messaging and instant messaging?
5. Who has more than one email address?
6. Who gets more spam than real email?

All of these marvelous technologies help us communicate on a business or personal level and have the downside of tethering us to them. The siren call of the ring (or vibration) of a cell phone, the signal that we have voicemail, the popping up of text and instant messages lure us off our course and into the raging waters of their demand to be answered. God forbid our need to answer these siren calls do not literally lure us off course and into oncoming traffic.

About a year ago, I realized that email and IM had run their course and our young people, high school, college and post college refocused their communication through social networking sites. So up went my MySpace page and a few months later, my facebook page. Through these sites I have not only connected with many of our young people, but to my great surprise, many adults as well! In fact, by paying attention to what people put on their page and tell the entire network, I learn more than I have ever known about not only what is happening in our congregational family but the people, issues, ideas and activities they most value.

Surprisingly, I find facebook reinforcing some of the lessons of these Days of Awe.

We are a community:
Rabbi Arthur Lavinsky of Beth El Congregation in Phoenix reminded me of the following teaching of Pirke Avot. He writes:
“we should greet all human beings “Bsever Panim Yafot” – with a cheerful face.“ He goes on to change the phrase slightly: “In 2008 many people greet one another “B’SEFER Panim Yafot” – literally “a book of cheerful faces”, in other words – FACEBOOK.”
Not every face on facebook is cheerful but I have to admit, I see more happiness, cheer and pure enjoyment among people in the virtual world of facebook than I do in this tangible world of our. Browsing through the pages of my facebook friends, (what is a friend is a topic for another time) I find pictures of people smiling, people playing, people doing what they enjoy most. Kids and adults, young and old, write about the happenings of their lives and what I read is overwhelmingly positive! It is the opposite of every Jewish stereotype! I love it because it seems as though everyone tries to follow my favorite commandment - Thou Shalt Not Whine. It is as if facebook is the polar opposite of most blogs: Positive and affirming not negative and disparaging.

Even more exciting to me is just how positively and supportive people react to each other’s happiness. Comments ranging from: “Your kids look adorable!” to “Awesome” make up other people’s responses to the happiness of their friends. It is as if facebook is the virtual embodiment of the Rabbi’s dictum from Pirkei Avot: “מצווה גוררת מצווה” “One mitzvah begets another mitzvah.” Appreciation and happiness beget appreciation and happiness.

Don’t get me wrong, facebook is not גן עדן, utopia on earth. The Messiah does not walk among us and perfection does not reign. One can find unhappiness and discontent in three distinct areas:

Politics on facebook parallels politics in the real world and everyone feels compelled to share her or his views.

Changes that the owners of facebook try to make to the site:
Think of someone coming into your home and rearranging your kitchen or your furniture because they like it better.

IMPORTANT life issues:
Here we see that we definitely do not live in גן עדן. Real people lose real jobs. Real people face real illnesses. Real people confront the serious real problems of life. On facebook no one has to ask: “How are you?” and receive a perfunctory “Fine” in response. Perhaps because of the virtual nature of the environment and people do not really “see” each other face to face, thus putting up a comment about a challenge facing you is easier and it seems as though people respond in a totally supportive manner. Perhaps the virtual world enables us to tear down the facades we put up for each other. Sincere messages of caring, empathy, sympathy and support pass through the ether at the speed of light finally alighting on the recipient’s page and lifting a bit of the burden off his or her heart.

Biblically Rosh Hashanah is called יום הזכרון - the Day of Remembrance. Torah does not tell us what we should try to remember. facebook also helps us accomplish this major task. We can look back at our own page and the pages of others to reinforce our understanding of the positive impact we have made on others and they have made on us.

Through a colleagues facebook site, I found the son of the senior rabbi I worked with in Memphis. From that connection, one of his childhood friends found and wrote me. As an assistant rabbi I helped train him for his Bar Mitzvah in 1982 (I’ll let you do the math) Needless to say he was not one of my best students. In fact, I would have given good odds that Judaism would not be a major part of his life. Yet, here is a piece of what he wrote me:

“We're in Canada -- my wife grew up here and we met on JDate while I was living in Virginia, but traveling every month for work to where she lived.
My wife, by the way, is a professional Jew. Her parents are survivors whose first language is Yiddish. She teaches and translates Yiddish, and she taught for 15-odd years at the Jewish day school here. This summer she left the school to take over all of the Holocaust education and memorial programs run by the local Federation and Jewish Community Center.
Lessons 2: Honestly, we have changed.
Since moving to Buffalo, I have been fascinated by the death notices in the Buffalo News. One thing in particular draws my attention: the pictures people choose to put in the death notice of a loved one. In a recent obituary of a woman with 14 great-grandchildren, yes that is 14 great-grandchildren, I found the picture of a woman who looked to be in her 20’s. Here too I find that those who use facebook understand another of the meanings of these High Holy Days - we all change. Other than a few people who use a piece of art work to represent themselves, the pictures of people you find on facebook are of who they are today - and it is not always flattering.

Judaism teaches us that life embodies change and that who we are today, as individuals and as a community, is built upon a foundation years in the making. During these Days of Awe, we do not just look back at the past year for specific acts to celebrate or rue, but to find the path to repentance, to be able to change our behaviors and lives for the better, we need to look farther back and see that significant change means knowing the path we took to today AND accepting the image we see in the mirror, the photograph, or our soul cannot be turned back like flipping pages on a calendar. A facebook picture of who we are today symbolizes an acceptance of our current reality and that brings us to the point where our journey to a better future begins. Each line, each gray hair, each missing hair, each extra pound tangibly represent our life’s journey. We can cover the reality up with make-up, dye, transplants and well tailored clothing, but we only fool ourselves into thinking that we, and those around us, do not know the reality.

Most of us know the story of God telling Abraham and Sarah that a 90 year old Sarah would conceive a son with a 99 year old Abraham. Sarah’s reaction - she looked at the reality of her age and the wrinkled face of her husband and laughed at the absurdity of the thought. Perhaps the ancient Rabbis picked this story as the traditional portion for first day Rosh Hashanah to teach us that even if we accept who we are and how we got there, the possibility to change our lives still exists. We have to see ourselves in our true present state - show the world and ourselves a current picture as it were - in order to bring about a seemingly miraculous positive change.

People tend to minimize, facebook, MySpace and other social networking sites as only being virtual networks comprised of people who rarely if ever see each other and whose relationship consists of the thinnest thread of connection, being members of the same social networking site. Being Jewish, I do not. For Jews, community consists of a network of people crossing time and space whose only connection consists of claiming the identity of being a part of the same faith.

At the beginning of each month, we recite a blessing: May God gather us from the four corners of the earth, Israel all being friends.

Sounds like a Messianic promise. Jews not only feeling connected to one another, but being friends? Please God, soon and in our days! It is almost happening over the next 10 days. Here in our congregation, in congregations around the world praying for each other’s well-being. Sharing in dissimilar practices all connected by name and intent. Perhaps we those days are closer than we think.

Ok, is he serious? Does he really believe facebook exemplifies the lessons of Rosh Hashanah? Let’s review:

1. Commitment to put forward a better face to the world. - Check
2. Commitment to be supportive of members of our community in need. - Check
3. Commitment to honestly face ourselves and honestly present ourselves to the world. - Check
4. Commitment to connect more closely to others in our community. - Check

Sounds like Rosh Hashanah to me.

Shanah Tovah.

The Relativity of Time - Yom Kippur 5769

Inspired by a sermon by Rabbi Gerald L. Zelizer, Congregation Neve Shalom, Metuchen, New Jersey, and the teachings of Rabbi Harold Kushner and Rabbi Joseph Soloveichik z”l

Remember being 6 or 7 or 8 years old and you are playing a game? You shoot the ball, miss and cry out those immortal “Do over!”?

Just like when we were young, every now and then we find ourselves in that same place: “Do over!” The difference between then and now: we know that calling out “Do over!” not only does not work, it does not go over very well, except perhaps on the golf course.

Rabbi Harold Kushner teaches that this year, at 2 a.m. on Sunday November 2nd, we do get a kind of do over. Daylight savings time comes to an end and we reset our clocks back to 1 a.m.. Once a year, every year, it is as if we get to relive one hour! I remember as a child wanting to stay up with the television on and the TV Guide open to see what would happen as 2 a.m. magically became 1 a.m.. Would they begin a movie over again? Would they replay the 1 a.m. show a second time? Unfortunately, each year I would fall asleep long before time reversed itself. Now, year after year, I tell myself that I can “catch up on my sleep” with this magical extra hour, but of course, I just stay up later.

Most of us sleep through this so called extra hour, this do over time and yet don’t most of us have some time, an hour in our lives that we would like to do over? A word spoken in anger? A stranger in need passed by when we could have stopped and helped? A note of kindness or of friendship or of condolence or of thanks not sent? Yet each year we sleep through this blessed extra hour.

A lesson taught to me by Rabbi Gerald L. Zelizer of Congregation Neve Shalom, Metuchen, New Jersey. He writes:
Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik was for many years the Dean of modern Orthodox Judaism. In one of his essays he explains Teshuvah this way: In all other civilizations time flows from yesterday to today to tomorrow. The past shapes the present, and the present shapes the future. Cause and effect. Something happened yesterday or last year or ten years ago and because of that something will happen today, and that something today will cause something to happen tomorrow. The past determines the future.

But in Judaism instructs Rabbi Soloveitchik, it is the future that redefines the meaning of the past. Was something a tragedy, or was it a spur to growth? Was something a mistake or was it a learning experience? We cannot answer these questions today by examining what happened in the past. The answer does not only depend on what happened in the past. The answer is impacted by what we choose tomorrow and even today. Sigmund Freud taught us that we are shaped by the past, by our childhood experiences. Rabbi Soloveitchik teaches the opposite. The past is reshaped by our choices now and tomorrow.
In this observation by Rabbi Soloveitchik as taught by Rabbi Zelizer we see the essence of Yom Kippur, the essence of our season of repentance. In reality, no one gets a “do over”, as it were. Only in science fiction can we go back in time and actually change our past. In how many episodes of Star Trek did we learn the lesson, change the past, change the present, change the future? How Jewish is that!
Yet, while we cannot actually change the past from the present, what we do with the past is reshaped by what we do THIS day. The ability to reshape the past my friends, what we take from this time of teshuvah, this time of repentance, enables us to bring immensely positive changes to our world, or to diminish the world and all that dwell therein. As it we read in the u’netaneh tokef - “Let us declare the sacred power of this day: it is awesom and full of dread.

Those of us who remember 31 years ago, November 19, 1977 to be precise, understand this power. On that day we held our breath as Anwar Sadat taught us a great lesson when his plane landed in Israel. We held our breath that no harm would befall him. We held our breath to hear his words. Would his message be one of an outstretched hand of peace or would it be an outstretched hand of empty promises? In one of the bravest acts of Teshuvah, Sadat brought his message. He said:
I come to you today on solid ground to shape a new life and to establish peace....
No one could have ever conceived that the president of the biggest Arab state, which bears the heaviest burden and the main responsibility pertaining to the cause of war and peace in the Middle East, should declare his readiness to go to the land of the adversary while we were still in a state of war.
We all still bear the consequences of four fierce wars waged within 30 years. All this at the time when the families of the 1973 October war are still mourning under the cruel pain of bereavement of father, son, husband and brother.
But to be absolutely frank with you, I took this decision after long thought, knowing that it constitutes a great risk, for God Almighty has made it my fate to assume responsibility on behalf of the Egyptian people, to share in the responsibility of the Arab nation, the main duty of which, dictated by responsibility, is to exploit all and every means in a bid to save my Egyptian Arab people and the pan-Arab nation from the horrors of new suffering and destructive wars, the dimensions of which are foreseen only by God Himself.
After long thinking, I was convinced that the obligation of responsibility before God and before the people make it incumbent upon me that I should go to the far corners of the world, even to Jerusalem to address members of the Knesset and acquaint them with all the facts surging in me, then I would let you decide for yourselves....
Sadat’s coming to Israel embodied Soloveichik’s teaching. Sadat chose to reshape a past filled with war, hate, pain and death into a possibile future of peace. One year, 11 months later, those who instead of being willing to choose a different future chose to remain in the pain of the past. They murdered Sadat. But it was too late. A vision of Egyptian-Israeli peace, with all its promise and problems, became the new reality of the present.

We face this same choice each year on Yom Kippur and in fact everyday. Our choice most certainly does not hold the fate of peoples as did Sadat’s. Yet for us, each opportunity for Teshuvah, for reshaping the past, contains the seeds of healing our piece of the world.

Returning to un’taneh tokef, could it be that when it says: “who shall live and who shall die” its deeper meaning is: who will stay dead by living in a world shaped by the past or who will awaken to a new life by reshaping the past by choosing to create a new reality of the future? As we examine our past on this day, do we look at our past to dwell on the pain we inflicted on us or the pain we inflicted on others, or do we look at the past and ask the questions Rabbi Soloveichik posed: “Was something a tragedy, or was it a spur to growth? Was something a mistake or was it a learning experience?” On Yom Kippur Teshuvah means seeing the past as a spur to growth and a learning experience AND THEN committing to do the work to change ourselves, and to change our world for the better.

Each fall, we move our clocks back, a symbol hope for we are blessed with the opportunity to look back, seeing the past with fresh eyes and choosing an understanding of the future that leads to both personal and momentous change. Each spring, daylight savings time returns and we move our clocks ahead an hour and say that we lose an hour. It strikes me as odd that we lose an hour to save time. To me, losing that hour symbolizes giving up the hope for positive change. It saves time to skip the hour of reflection, the reviewing of the past, the reshaping of our tragedy into a lesson and commitment to choose to grow. Losing an hour to save time limits us, reinforcing the belief that our past shapes us and our actions into the present, dictates our future and keeps us stuck holding onto the pain we caused and the pain we received.

My choice, and I hope yours too, treasure this extra hour of reflection, choose to reshape the past through our Teshuvah today. Choose to commitment to a better world for tomorrow.

Kein y’hi ratzon.

Monday, October 6, 2008

Sarah Palin, Church and the Jews

While Governor Palin has come to the synagogue in Anchorage on at least 2 occasions I received the following email today from Shalom TV:

October 7, 2008


Call of McCain's co-chair on "Jewish Outreach" has been missed or ignored by both the secular and Jewish media
October 7, 2008 (Fort Lee, NJ) -- In a Shalom TV editorial, Rabbi Mark S. Golub, president of American Jewry's national cable television network, expressed his concern that both the Jewish and secular media has not asked Alaska Governor Sarah Palin to clarify her position on the intrinsic religious integrity of Judaism and the Jewish People.

Golub points out that Governor Palin is a participating member of The Wasilla Bible Church whose pastor publicly preaches the need to convert Jews to Christianity. More specifically, Governor Palin was in attendance when the visiting executive director of Jews for Jesus preached that Palestinian terrorism which murders and maims Israeli civilians is God's punishment of the Jews for not accepting Jesus. Governor Palin's pastor followed this sermon with a collection for Jews for Jesus and prayed that God would make their work of bringing Jews to Jesus successful.

The call for Governor Palin to clarify her own stand on whether Jews need to be converted to Christianity deserves prompt media attention since it comes from an official member of the John McCain presidential campaign, Fred Zeidman, who serves as the McCain campaign co-chair for "Jewish Outreach."

In an interview on Shalom TV, Zeidman stated that Governor Palin not only owes an explanation of her views to the American Jewish community, but also owes an explanation to the American community at large--in the same way that Senator Barack Obama owed the American people an explanation of his affiliation with the Reverend Jeremiah Wright and the Trinity United Church of Christ.

For Golub, the lack of a Jewish follow-up to Zeidman's call raises serious questions. Are American Jews reluctant to make an issue over possible anti-Semitic church movements? Are American Jews resigned to a double standard that would condemn anti-white bigotry but not anti-Semitism?

And for Golub, the issue goes far beyond the Jewish community alone.

"It may well be that Governor Palin does not share the views of her church, her pastor, or the executive director of Jews for Jesus," said Golub from his New Jersey office. "But Jews in particular, and all Americans who care about church-state separation and religious tolerance in the United States, have a right to ask Governor Palin to clarify where she stands on the need to convert Jews. In America, one would not expect any public official to view any religious group--not Muslims, not Jews, not Christians--as a community of lost souls that must be converted. Yet this is the view of Governor Palin's pastor and church community, and if the governor does share her pastor's perspective on Jews--or on any other non-Christian group in America--one may wonder how her views might effect her public policy decisions were she to be elected in November." ...

Shalom TV, Inc. | P.O. Box 1989 | Fort Lee | NJ | 07024"

Given that Governor Palin has been taking Senator Obama to task about his church and pastor, isn't only fair that she respond to the same level of charges against her?

The reality is that neither should be held responsible for the words of their pastors, not to mention, religious tests for holding elected office are illeagal on the national level and in all 50 states.

Friday, September 19, 2008

S & L Redux

There was an blurb by John Sparks in the September 22, 2008 issue of Newsweek about a new book: Slackonomics: Generation X in the Age of Creative Destruction by Lisa Chamberlain.( It says:
Not only have those born between the baby boomers and the boomers' kids had to struggle to make themselves felt as a cultural force, they've also got stuck on the wrong side of every big economic trend in the past 30 years. Stagflation of the 1970s meant their parents couldn't afford to indulge them as children. Graduation from college during the "jobless recovery" of the '90s got many careers off on the wrong foot. Boomer-driven bubbles pushed homeownership out of reach just as Xers were looking to settle down.
As a baby boomer (albeit from the tail end of the "boom"), I too have experienced all of the above except for the homeownership bubble although that was made up for by the rampant inflation of the Ford and Carter years, the first oil crisis (I remember swearing that I would never pay more than $0.75/gallon) and the S & L scandals. Even the "jobless recovery" was a factor in my life as I looked to move to a new position in the late 90's and many people did not think of it as a recovery so the number of open rabbinic positions declined. So as I look around me at this latest economic nadir, on the one hand it seems familiar. Large banks failing. American banks and car companies looking for bailouts. On the other hand, it is clear that deregulation, and a seeming return to laissez faire economic policies combined with many unlearned lessons from the 1920's, 70's, 80's and 90's have combined to make this economic "event" much more pronounced.

One intro course in economics at the University of Alaska Anchorage (UAA) certainly does not make me an economic expert and I do not claim to have pat, easy or complex solutions. However, growing up living on the economic edge and years of working with social service and government agencies dealing with poverty and homelessness give me an appreciation of the consequences of our current economic situation and the impact we will see it have on individuals and communities. Thus I am confused by the administration's plan to bailout the financial institutions, including foreign ones (where are their governments) but not directly help individuals on the brink of homelessness and the edge of bankruptcy. I also do not understand where we are going to get the $700 billion to pay for the program. Borrow more from China and the Arab Emirates?

My recent trip back to Anchorage reinforced the disparity in our society. As a whole, Alaska is in the midst of another boom cycle. Oil prices are high. The State is flush with money. Real estate has risen with the national trends. In 6 years the house we sold in Anchorage was sold again for 2.5 times what we sold it for. The list goes on and on.

(דבר אחר - An aside: I remember in the "bust" that followed the Alaska boom of the late 70's early 80's bumper stickers appeared on cars: "God, please let there be one more boom. This time I promise I won't p%^$ it away." I wonder how many people are keeping that promise.)

Yet, I was told that one of our members went to the Food Bank to help out and saw that the shelves were bare. The question is: Was it because so many people needed food that they emptied the shelves or was it because their donations are down because people are feeling less secure and therefore contributing less and the the governments have fewer resources to make up the difference or some combination of the two?

Since Buffalo missed out on the boom of the 90's and early 2000's and regularly ranks as one of the 5 poorest cities in America, when a bust comes there isn't far for us to fall. The impact on the real estate market in Western New York is minuscule compared to the rest of the United States. These large economic trends impact on Western New York in direct ways because of indirect problems. Since New York State relies so heavily on tax revenues generated by the various parts of the financial sector, in times like these when income is down State aid also must decrease due to the lack of funds.

However, the rise in people's anxiety about their financial future, losing their homes, job security, retirement security, the reliability of their insurance companies is in itself a problem. The less secure we feel, the less we support others whose situations are actually worse than our own. But this is the time when we must find ways to support them.

After 9/11 President Bush told us that the best thing we could do as Americans was to go out and spend money to support an economy suffering from the fallout of the terrorist attacks. Buy more goods. Buy homes and if you already own a home buy a bigger one... And the financial institutions let us by lending us the money. Forget how easy it is to get a new credit card. Upon moving to Buffalo I was shocked at how much money banks were willing to let us borrow to buy a home! What kind of fools would lend that much money to people earning what we earned? Now we know.

I keep hearing talk about how if people are carrying too much debt or bought homes for more than they could afford it is their own fault. Granted, borrowers carry a large share of the responsibility for the situaitons in which they now find themselves. But those who extended the credit to them also bear a large share of the responsibility. I have no MBA or a degree in finance yet, I know that if I were to loan out money it would well secured. Residential real estate found itself sucked into the vortex of a vicious cycle. The higher and faster prices rose, the more money one could easily borrow to buy a home which created a bigger demand for homes which drove prices higher...

Exodus 22 teaches us:
24 If you lend money to My people, to the poor among you, do not act toward them as a creditor; exact no interest from them. 25 If you take your neighbor’s garment in pledge, you must return it to him before the sun sets; 26it is his only clothing, the sole covering for his skin. In what else shall he sleep? Therefore, if he cries out to Me, I will pay heed, for I am compassionate.

Leviticus 25 echoes this:
35 If your kinsman, being in straits, comes under your authority, and you hold him as though a resident alien, let him live by your side: 36 do not exact from him advance or accrued interest, but fear your God. Let him live by your side as your kinsman. 37 Do not lend him your money at advance interest, or give him your food at accrued interest.
And Proverbs 28:
8 He who increases his wealth by loans at discountor interest
Amasses it for one who is generous to the poor.

(Biblical translations from: JPS HEBREW-ENGLISH TANAKH THE TRADITIONAL HEBREW TEXT AND THE NEW JPS TRANSLATION-electronic version of Second Edition)

The texts seem clear to me. It lender has the responsibility for consequences of the loans s/he makes. One can take advantage of borrowers and therefore should suffer a negative consequence, or, one can get a bigger return by making loans that help people sustain themselves.

To quote the great Yogi Berra: "This is like deja vu all over again." And I would add: "Only worse."

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Back to the future

Here I sit again in Anchorage. This time I came back to help celebrate the 50th anniversary of the congregation. The current Rabbi, Michael Oblath, my predecessor here, Lester Polonsky, and their recent interim Rabbi, Fred Wenger are all here for the festivities. Many of the living past presidents and some former residents along with the current members of the congregation are all here to celebrate as well.

Before Shabbat evening services the organizing committee set out three notebooks containing the congregation's history. Just out of curiosity, I have been keeping an eye on how many people have flipped through them. To my surprise, they have sat largely untouched.

For me, observances like these provide opportunities to reflect and learn the past which then gives us insight on the present and the foundation to build toward the future. My teacher Dr. Eugene Mihaly, z"l, used the phrase "our moorings and our reach" to describe this process. Like a ship we are moored in our past. It grounds us, teaches us and hopefully inspires us but does not tie us down. Rather, our past provides the steady base upon which we stand as we reach out in the present to create the future.

Mashal (A story) - A new rabbi comes to a community and finds the community split over whether or not to stand for the Shema. Each side lobbies the rabbi to back its position. The rabbi, being wise, (Aren't all rabbis in these stories wise?) sought out the most senior member of the congregation to determine the origin of the dispute. This member tells him that the congregation fights this fight because it has always fought this fight. It is part of the congregation's identity.

Knowing the past enables us to see the system in place. Once we know how the system developed to its present state, we begin to see the path to moving the system, in this case the congregation, forward.

In reality though, there are "many pasts". That is different people experienced the past differently and remember it even more differently. Therefore, it is important to learn as many different views of the history of the congregation as we can.

Another lesson from this weekend is that people may not change but they do move on. People are often creatures of habit. We like continuity and often find change, no matter how positive, disconcerting or alienating. But as it has been said, change is the one constant in the universe. As we grow, or at least as we age, our primary interests change and we move on to places that fulfill that new place. And as we know nature hates a vacuum, our movement from the center allows space for others who now find themselves where we were to fill our former place. However, even when our primary interest moves on, a part of us remains connected to where we came from, to our moorings and when we pass near those places, we are drawn to them and seem to want to feel the warmth and welcome our moorings provided us in days gone by. When we find that the tides of time have change the moorings we remember, we can feel lost or ill at ease. At those times we need to see with fresh eyes the beauty that those who followed us have added to where we once were and bask in the glow of knowing that we added to the foundation upon which they now stand and build. We can share our stories with them but we need to listen and hear theirs as well.

Over the weekend many people reflected on why they feel they "are Congregation Beth Sholom." Reflecting on what first drew me to CBS I see it is still there today and is stronger than ever. CBS is a place that empowers and allows it diverse membership to explore, develop and determine its life. CBS is a congregation of doers who desire to be self-sufficient and loved for that quality. If more congregations had that same desire, Judaism would be much stronger and more vibrant.

The last lesson for this post: Congregations are more alike than they are different. As I look at Temple Beth Zion and look back at Congregation Beth Sholom the same people are in both places. The actual people are obviously different but in each place someone fills each role. As we move to new places, it behooves us to use the lessons we learned about how best to deal with each person and their role to move more easily through our new home.