Friday, December 14, 2018

With which I fully agree.

December 13, 2018 

Dearest Friends and Colleagues:

We write to you from the Texas border city of El Paso, Texas to express our concern for the stranger and the sojourner. Our moral responsibility, individually and collectively, calls upon us to carefully consider the situation of the United States’ immigration/asylum system(s), especially with regards to the detention of migrant children in our neighboring city of Tornillo, Texas. 

We are distressed that there are many from around the country who look at our region from afar and seek to use the Tornillo camp as a lightening rod for protest, anger and rhetoric. Their efforts, while well intentioned, seem to us to lack the broader thoughtfulness and self-awareness that our tradition would require of us when we seek to confront an injustice. Here in El Paso, we are keenly aware that the treatment of the stranger has been inhumane and antithetical to Jewish and American values for a very long time. 

Aware that there is a desire amongst many of us to see the Tornillo camp closed as quickly as possible, we are fearful that much of the horrifying reality migrants face in our immigration system is being missed. Immigrants are approaching the border and, despite the law, are being turned away. Families with children are being held in ICE holding cells for weeks at a time, only to be dropped off on the street and left to fend for themselves. Almost 15,000 lone migrant children are being detained around the country for periods that far exceed safe or reasonable despite the physical care that they might be receiving. 

What seems clear, regardless of where we fall on the American political spectrum, is that we are currently looking at the downward spiral of a broken system which is incapable of handling the needs of modern migration. This brokenness is leading to unnecessary trauma, suffering and disturbing injustice. The lack of efficiency and effectiveness of the current model is hurting people (including children) where it could be healing. 

The existence of camps like those in Tornillo, Texas (over 2000 children currently detained) and Homestead, Florida (around 1300 children currently detained) is indicative of a broken system. A system which, if not fixed, will only require more such “band-aids” with questionable transparency and limited resources. So, here in El Paso we are confused by efforts to “shut down Tornillo,” which do not seem to advocate for a more strategic approach to re-ordering our immigration system. These efforts may gain brief victory, but only ensure such camps re-open under similar circumstances and without sufficient regulation, oversight or transparency. We are concerned that Tornillo will be shut down, only to find some similar “last-minute need” in the days or weeks ahead that leads to a repeat of injustices which violate all we hold dear. 

We seek to remind you that closing Tornillo and Homestead should be the result of efforts and changes which will keep such camps closed forever. What is needed is the ordering of an immigration system which can handle with dignity and humanity each child who approaches our border in need, every asylum seeker or refugee who looks to our country with hope. This system should decide who gets citizenship and who does not with fairness, equality, compassion, efficiency and expediency. That is a system which can handle the waxes and wanes of modern migration without finding itself in crisis and sacrificing norms or regulations to detain children. 

Our Judaism inspires us to see all that our country is capable of. We are keenly aware that we live in one of the greatest and most prosperous countries on earth. We are therefore morally obligated to show dignity and care to those we exert power over. We are aware of the trauma that occurs while children sit and wait to learn of their fate. Drawing out that process needlessly for even an hour is a cruelty which violates our core ethics and flies in the face of our moral obligations. 

We encourage those from outside our region to stop treating Tornillo as the sole problem in our immigration system. While many are aware that Tornillo is a symptom, such simple, single-minded advocacy blinds many to the real injustices human beings are facing. If blind advocacy against Tornillo is purposeful, that is geneivat daat (purposeful deception). 

We call upon all people to exercise moral leadership, thoughtfulness, intelligence and compassion in the conversation about how we handle immigration and migration in our country. We urge our political leadership to create a strong, transparent and just immigration system which can manage the modern realities our country faces on the border. 

We believe in our country and remain optimistic that thoughtful changes to our immigration policies can enhance America’s economic, intellectual and societal strength while treating human beings with dignity and sanctity. We believe a system to handle immigration which can adapt to the realities faced by those in other countries is possible. We believe there are ways for us to work together to solve the problems of our generation in ways which will encourage our children to reflect positively on our righteousness and compassion. And we encourage all of our fellow clergy, Jews and Americans to believe with us. 

Until such time that our overall system is improved, if you would like to help us work with those who are providing direct services to asylum seekers (including those being dropped off by ICE on the streets of El Paso), we have included a list of these organizations with this letter. 


Rabbi Ben Zeidman, El Paso, Texas, Member: Central Conference of American Rabbis 
Rabbi Scott Rosenberg, El Paso, Texas, Member: Rabbinic Assembly

Las Americas Immigrant Advocacy Center 
You can help Las Americas who is providing direct legal services to the asylum-seekers. 

Annunciation House 
You can help Annunciation House who provides refuge and hospitality to migrants. 

Diocesan Migrant & Refugee Services 
You can help DMRS who is providing direct legal services to immigrant children. 

Detained Migrant Solidarity Committee 

You can help the Detained Migrant Solidarity Committee who is helping pay immigration bonds that release migrants from detention. 

Wednesday, November 21, 2018

Dear Friends,

We still have room on our trip to Jewish Spain October 10 - 20, 2019 and I’d love it if you could join us. For the Itinerary, Brochure, and Registration Forms, please email me at

We extended the registration deadline to December 15, 2018.

I’m happy to answer any questions you might have. I have also copied our tour agent Nir Nitzan on this email. Feel free to contact him directly for more information.

I really hope you will join us.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Monday, October 8, 2018

The one thing that the vast majority of Americans seem to agree about is that our country is more polarized than ever. We ask the question: “What ever happened to civil discourse and the ability to argue our position without demonizing those who disagree with us?”

Jewish sages of the past dealt with this problem. They argued their point vociferously and yet were able to understand that both sides were concerned with the betterment of the Jewish community and Judaism. Click on the link below to view this short video talks about the 4 principles they followed. It would serve us well to follow their example and encourage our politicians to do the same.

Wednesday, September 19, 2018

Yom Kippur Evening, 5779: We Were Strangers

“My sweet daughter-in-law, I love you as if you were my own blood but, you cannot come with me it is illegal.” “Mother, I will not leave you. I will risk the danger of crossing the river. Whatever the future holds, I will not leave your side.” “But my daughter!” “Hush, I know the danger but I trust in you, your family, your people.” “It will not be easy child. The only work you will find will be picking crops.” And so they traveled together. The young daughter-in-law seduced a man. They married and had an anchor baby. Who had a son. Who had a son who became the greatest leader in our nation’s history.

Too subtle? Ruth the Moabite, a people that Torah law states should never be allowed in our community, flaunts that law to stay with her mother-in-law, Naomi. Eventually her great grandson, David, rises to the kingship of Israel and, becomes the progenitor of the Messiah. Why was Ruth’s great-grandson chosen for this honor? Because he knew our people’s story of being aliens in a foreign land, and his great-grandmother’s story of being an alien in our land.

We Jews, of all peoples on this planet, should not need commandments to welcome the stranger, to love the stranger as ourselves. Why? Because, as we say each Pesach, we were aliens in the land of Egypt and we know the heart of the stranger. Thus, our hearts and our actions must reflect our understanding of the needs of others who must flee their homes to escape oppression, or rape, or death, or to provide a better life for their families.

If there is one thing I miss from Gates of Repentance, it is the listing of the sin of xenophobia, the sin of fear of strangers. As I said on Rosh Hashanah: “We are all guilty of this….You know you are guilty of this. I know I am…. We all, without exception, make assumptions about people who are from other countries, people who are poor, people who are rich, people who are a different race,… The list goes on.”

We are not only Jews, we are Americans. It breaks my heart seeing hope in America being shunted aside and, xenophobia, rule. We began to shut our doors with the immigration laws of the early 1920’s. These laws were specifically designed to keep out Southern and Eastern Europeans. In their immediacy, these new immigration laws kept out Jews trying to escape the Communist revolutions and counter revolutions. Later, our the United States used these immigration laws to turn away Jews escaping the coming horrors of the Shoah, the Holocaust.

A true story. On Thanksgiving eve 1938, Secretary of State Harold Ickes, a Christian and a Republican in Franklin Roosevelt’s cabinet, gave a speech proposing a plan to resettle Jews on farmland outside Anchorage, Alaska. He said this could be: “a haven for Jewish refugees from Germany and other areas in Europe where the Jews are subjected to oppressive restrictions."

Bills were introduced in the Senate and the House but never passed. The charge to defeat the resettlement was led by Alaska Territorial Governor, Ernest Gruening, a Jew. Gruening did not want these kinds of Jews with their strange dress and accents in his state.

A year later, in 1939, the United States turned away the ship St. Louis, forcing its Jewish passengers to return to Europe and the Nazi’s final solution. Even those who survived the camps and the war suffered fear and trembling. Can you ever forget the pictures of those Jews crowding, beseeching, on the St. Louis’s deck?

In 1942, fear, especially xenophobia, again raised its ugly vile head as President Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066 authorizing the round up of people who were at least 1/16 Japanese and placing them in concentration camps. Close to 60% of these internees were American citizens by birth or by naturalization. 1/16th, Japanese means having a Japanese great-grandparent. That number 1/16th should echo in your souls. King David was 1/16 Moabite. Hitler determined that anyone who was 1/16th Jewish would be subject to the final solution. 

Incredibly, many of the interned Japanese Americans volunteered to fight in the war. The military established the 442nd Regimental Combat Team and sent them to fight in Europe. The 442nd became the most decorated unit in United States military history. It also suffered large numbers of casualties.

I learned this story about one of the casualties, Sgt. Kazuro Masuda from Rabbi Ed Feinstein of Valley Beth Shalom in California. Sgt. Kazuro enlisted while interned at Manzanar Concentration Camp in Orange County, California. In Italy, on the night of July 6, 1944, he turned back two major counteroffensives and inflicted heavy casualties after firing at the enemy for twelve hours. Eventually, Sgt. Masuda was killed in action. In 1945, General Joseph Stilwell, flew to the Manzanar concentration camp.  There, on the porch of the shack in which the Masuda family was forced to live, General Stilwell pinned the Distinguished Service Cross on Sgt. Masuda’s sister Mary.

At that ceremony was an army Captain who spoke these words: “The blood that has soaked the sands of a beach is all of one color. America stands unique in the world; the only country not founded on race, but on a way and an idea. Not in spite of, but because of our polyglot background, we have had all the strength in the world. That is the American way.”

Forty three years later, that Captain, Ronald Reagan, now President signed the Civil Liberties Act of 1988 providing redress and restitution to the Japanese who had been interred in the camps. At that ceremony he said: “… (W)e gather here today to right a grave wrong. More than 40 years ago, shortly after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, 120,000 persons of Japanese ancestry living in the United States were forcibly removed from their homes and placed in makeshift internment camps. This action was taken without trial, without jury. It was based solely on race, for these 120,000 were Americans of Japanese descent.He then told the story of being present for the presentation to the Masuda family. Two years earlier, President Reagan, signed the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 which reformed our immigration system, allowing thousands upon thousands of people to come out of the shadows with no fear of being forced to leave their homes in America.

President Reagan, the archetypal Republican, decided that, when it came to people who made it to our shores, America should be built on hope and not on fear and hatred of the other. Quoting John Winthrop on the Mayflower President Reagan said: “We shall be a city upon a hill….” He continued: “America has not been a story or a byword. That small community of Pilgrims prospered and driven by the dreams and, yes, by the ideas of the Founding Fathers, went on to become a beacon to all the oppressed and poor of the world.”

My family’s story while similar to many of yours. has a unique twist. My grandfather immigrated to Canada from Russia sometime before 1913. There he met my grandmother, also a Russian immigrant. They married and, in 1913 had a son, my father, to go with my grandmother’s two daughters from a previous marriage, his half sisters, Lil and Mae. Six months after my father’s birth they moved to Philadelphia to be with the rest of my grandfather’s family and had a second child, my aunt Ruth. Several years later, my grandfather applied and became a United States citizen. My father and his sister were minors and therefore were naturalized under of their father’s citizenship.

My father spent 18 years of his life serving in the military both overseas and in the States. After serving in the Pacific theater for the entirety of World War II, he was honorably discharged in 1945.

In the fall of 1971 I spent a semester in Israel. My father, who had never left the United States except under the auspices of the United States military, decided to visit me in Israel. In the spring of 1971, taking his birth certificate and his naturalization papers, he applied for his first passport. His application was denied. The reason? He had been naturalized on his father’s papers and not on his own. The Government, after 58 years of living in America, 18 of which were in the military, declared he was not an American citizen. I will never forget the pain in his voice and on his face when he told me what happened that day. Thankfully our Rabbi reached out to our Congressman who arranged another interview for my father. Before the interview he had to obtain sworn and notarized affidavits from his two older half-sisters, Lil and Mae,  and others who had known him throughout his life to swear that he was in fact the Nathan Rosenfeld who arrived in America at the age of six months, and that he had never become a citizen of another country. A year later, long after I was home, he finally got his passport which sat in a drawer unused until the day he died.

When I read last week that our government started revoking the citizenship of Americans born in Texas, stripping the citizenship of people who were legally naturalized, and established a “Denaturalization Taskforce,” I felt a hot poker pierce my heart and soul. We have surpassed the sin of xenophobia and moved to the sin of hating the stranger, the one who is different that lives among us. We learn from the easy way the Nazi government revoked the citizenship of German Jews, that one day it could be us. While first it may be people from our southern border, unless we and our neighbors publicly draw a line and stand up for the strangers living among us, it could easily one day be us in this sanctuary. How do I know? Just ask Gwyneth Barbara of Fairway, Kansas. On September 10, a mere eight days ago, in an interview on KCTV Ms. Barbara told how she was denied a renewal of her passport because she was born at home and not in a hospital her birth certificate, with its official raised seal from the county, did not constitute proof of being born in the United States. The passport office in Houston told her that she could submit any of the following as proof of citizenship: “Border crossing card or green card for your parents issued before your birth.” She had neither as both her parents had been born in the United States, as had her mother’s family since the 1600’s and her father’s family since the 1700’s. The passport office also said she could provide early religious records or a family Bible as proof of citizenship. Her family was not religious so she did not have those either. In America, a government official decided a Bible or Baptismal record was better proof of citizenship than a birth certificate. Finally, she turned to her Republican Senator Jerry Moran’s office for help. A few days later she received her passport with no explanation or apology. If the government can deny Gwyneth Barbara’s citizenship, it can certainly deny yours or mine. Suddenly it is no longer just about the stranger, it is about our neighbors and us.

We know the heart of the stranger for we have been the stranger. We are commanded to love the stranger as we love ourselves. We are not commanded to fear, hate, or oppress the stranger, as we have been feared, hated and oppressed.

We are taught that atonement, does not come from our prayers on Yom Kippur. Atonement only comes when we take positive action to change ourselves and undo the wrong we afflicted upon others. Let us stand up to fear. Let us confront bigotry and hatred. Let us rebuild hope and kindness within ourselves, within our nation and our world. Paraphrasing Isaiah: Let my house, my country, my world be a house of hope for all peoples, not just those like us.

Monday, September 10, 2018

Rosh Hashanah Morning 5779

As we do every Rosh Hashanah we will read in this morning’s portion: “And it came to pass after these things, that God tested Abraham, and said to him, Abraham; and he said, Behold, here I am. And God said, Take now your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah; and offer him there for a burnt offering upon one of the mountains which I will tell you.”

I have told you before, I believe Abraham failed the test. At the pivotal moment, Abraham stands over Isaac bound on the altar, knife in hand, ready to strike the final blow. Were it not for the Messenger of God, Abraham setting his ethics aside, would have murdered his son because God commanded it.Thus he failed the test. How do we know? While Abraham continues to grow in wealth, remarries after the death of Sarah, and has more children, God never speaks to him again. Let us take a closer look at this story and its implications for our world today.

Last night, I spoke about Rabbi Donniel Hartmann’s book: Putting God Second: How To Save Religion From Itself. In his old age, Abraham suffers from the other auto-immune disease of religion; what Rabbi Hartmann calls God Intoxication.

According to Rabbi Hartmann: “For the God-Intoxicated person, the awareness of living in the presence of the one transcendent God demands an all - consuming attention that can exhaust one’s ability to see the needs of other human beings. This religious personality is defined by strict nonindifference (sic) to God. The more we walk with God , the less room we have to be aware of the human condition in general , and consequently , our moral sensibilities become attenuated. (Hartman, Donniel. Putting God Second: How to Save Religion from Itself (pp. 45-46). Beacon Press. Kindle Edition.)

In this morning’s Parasha, Abraham suffers from God Intoxication. The Abraham we are more comfortable with is the younger Abraham who argues with God to save Sodom and Gomorra. The older, God-Intoxicated Abraham does not argue, does not object he unquestioningly obeys.

God-Intoxication explains much going on in our world and our country. For most of us what readily comes to mind is ISIS or Al Qaeda, suicide bombers, Islamic terrorists.

But do not think that God-Intoxication only infects some Muslims. It infects Christians who believe everyone needs to structure their lives to follow their idea of Christian morality. They work to enshrine their morality as the law of our land.
God-Intoxication infects Jews. The assassination of Yitzhak Rabin by a Jew, the slaughter of Muslim worshippers in Hebron and the Al Aqsa Mosque by Jews. The domination of the Orthodox Rabbinate in Israel. The calling of non-Orthodox Judaism not real Judaism by some Orthodox Jews in America. The calling of Orthodox Judaism anachronistic by some non-Orthodox Jews, constitute just a few examples in the Jewish community.

In fact, Judaism has a long history of God Intoxication from Abraham to the present day. All of us here have been guilty of it. The God-Intoxicated follow the verse: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” (Lev. 19: 18) They love God and only only those who are like themselves. In their xenophobia they ignore the verse: “you shall love the stranger as yourself for you were aliens in the land of Egypt.” (Lev. 19:24)

You know you are guilty of this. I know I am. Using the derogatory names Goyim, Shiksa, Sheigetz, when speaking about people of other faiths. We all, without exception, make assumptions about people who are from other countries, people who are poor, people who are rich, people who are a different race, people who are a different gender or different gender identity, people who belong to a different political party, people who have jobs we look down on, people who have physical or mental illnesses or disabilities. The list goes on.

In our society God-Intoxication has a new sibling, America-Intoxication. Just like different people are intoxicated with their own God, we are intoxicated with our own Americas. Surveys show conservatives only watch Fox News and liberals MSNBC and CNN. Conservatives see liberals wanting to destroy all boundaries and liberals see conservatives as always trying to add restrictions. We hear endless lamenting about the absence of civil dialog. How can there be civil dialog when we do not live in the same America? How can there be civil dialog when, to paraphrase Rabbi Hartmann: America-Intoxication creates individuals who yearn to show indifference to themselves and others as evidence of their nonindifference to America.

As Jews we are blessed. Our tradition calls upon us to put ethics and good deeds over God. Next week, we will read the Yom Kippur morning Haftarah from Isaiah 58. On the holiest day of the year, while supposedly deep in prayer to God and self reflection Isaiah conveys the message that ethical behavior takes precedence over religious practice. Isaiah quotes God saying: “Is not this the fast that I have chosen: to loose the fetters of wickedness, to undo the bands of the yoke, and to let the oppressed go free...? Is it not to distribute your bread to the hungry, and bring the poor that are cast out to your house? When you see the naked, that you cover him...?”

Rabbi Hartmann writes: “Isaiah’s message can be summarized in this way: Your prayer and fasting are worthless to me (sic) as long as there are hungry, poor, homeless, and naked people suffering just outside with walls of your religious sanctuary. Get out of synagogue and create a society of justice!” (Hartman, Donniel. Putting God Second: How to Save Religion from Itself (pp. 56-57). Beacon Press. Kindle Edition.)

For me, saddest part of the High Holy Days is the necessity of the annual food drive. Because of the pervasiveness of hungry people in our community, we must feed them. But feeding the hungry is like putting a band-aid on a cut that needs dozens of stitches. It is no where near enough. We should be working together to solve the root causes of poverty and hunger, working to put the food pantry at Shalom House, the Storehouse, Roadrunner Food Bank out of business. We should be on the phone with our leaders, working together to eliminate the scourge of hunger, coming up with solutions that defy political concerns and focus on ideas that will actually work.

When we read ובכרת בחיים - “choose life that you and your descendants may live” (Dt 30:19) we need to understand it as choose ethics and justice above God or nation. To do otherwise is to turn God into an idol or a nation into a god.

The thought of trying to solve the large problems of our world can seem overwhelming. Not feeling up to working to solve hunger or poverty? This is a true story.

One of our families was driving to Shabbat morning services with their son who was celebrating becoming Bar Mitzvah that morning when they saw a woman on the other side of the street trip and fall. On the one hand, God was calling them to worship like God called Abraham to worship by murdering Isaac. On the other hand, a woman needed help. Unlike Abraham, they put ethics and justice above God and made a u turn to help the woman.

What would you like to think you would have done?

What would you have actually done.?

Sunday, September 9, 2018

Erev Rosh Hashanah 5779

You can hear the sermon and entire service on the Congregation Albert page on Mixlr.

My Facebook page has parts of the sermon and service on Facebook Live.

Someone asked me to teach a class entitled What Is The Motivation To Be Good In This World: Why Be Good If There Is No Heaven Or Hell? I agreed it would be a good topic for a class and so I pondered it for a few frustrating weeks. I found the appropriate sources from our historic Jewish literature. I reread some philosophy. And ultimately I ran into that preverbal brick wall. So I did the most logical thing: I decided not to teach it and set the class aside. But, the frustration remained. I don’t believe in an afterlife in which we are rewarded or punished for our actions in this world. I know that our place in this world as Jews is to work to perfect our world and our community. But that is too simple an answer.

Then I found the book: Putting God Second: How To Save Religion From Itself by Rabbi Donniel Hartmann. Rabbi Hartmann’s book answers  the question “Why have religious people in the past, and today, and probably into eternity, done such horrible things in the name of religion?” In answering that question he also answers the question: What is the motivation to be good in this world if there is no heaven or hell.

Rabbi Hartmann writes: “While there are multiple causes for the moral inadequacy that so often typifies human existence, a significant and largely unobserved challenge lies squarely within religion itself. We must acknowledge that many religious systems, while commanding their adherents to act morally, also cultivate perspectives and predispositions that undermine this very goal. This inner conflict between faith in God and the moral imperative to become people who are not indifferent is at the core of religion’s autoimmune disease.

He then enumerates the two “auto-immune diseases of religion; God Intoxication and God Manipulation. Tonight we will focus on God Manipulation.

“God Manipulation, aligns the identity and will of the One with the interests and agendas of those who lay claim to God’s special love…. Within this way of thinking, we may embrace the obligation to love our neighbors as ourselves, while redefining neighbors to include not those among whom we live but rather the much smaller circle of those who share our particular set of religious beliefs. God Manipulation extends a blanket exemption from truly seeing anyone outside our religious community. (pp. 45 - 46. Hartman, Donniel. Putting God Second: How to Save Religion from Itself. Beacon Press. Kindle Edition.)

Without question our Torah and our Tanach contain some of the highest moral imperatives and ethical laws. From “love your neighbor as yourself” (Lev. 19:18) to  just a few verses later: “the stranger who dwells with you shall be to you as one born among you, and you shall love him as yourself; for you were aliens in the land of Egypt; I am the Eternal your God” (Lev. 19:24)

On the other hand, our Torah and Tanach contain commands to restrict, oppress or kill those who are different. God commands that we commit genocide, treat women as less than men, kill our own children for drunkenness, and put people to death for traveling more than 4500 feet from their homes on Shabbat.

Fortunately, as early as the first Century B.C.E, our spiritual ancestors deemed these horrific laws unethical and thus inapplicable. Thus evolved our people’s propensity for interpretation. We live in a real world with real challenges. Judaism understands that with new situations, new technology and an ever increasing body of knowledge, people evolve and change. In the last sixty years our understanding of equal rights for all races, genders, and gender identities has grown and continues to grow. Without an evolving Judaism, grounded in moral principals and ethical actions, Judaism would have died with the destruction of the Second Temple by the Romans 1948 years ago.

An evolving Judaism seemingly stands at odds against those who believe in a perfect, infallible, eternal God, who gave the Torah to the Israelites through Moses,  Would not Torah have to be perfect?

The answer is a resounding no. Logic dictates that if you believe God is perfect, and infallible, God could only give the Torah in a way that our ancestors could understand? Michele and I were once at a party and a coworker told us that her seventh grader was studying studying Immanuel Kant. Having studied Kant over the past 4 decades, regardless of how smart a seventh grader may be, she or he cannot understand Kant the way an adult, with years of life experience can understand Kant’s views on the world. In other words, if Moses did receive the Torah from God on Sinai, what he received was what he could comprehend.

As Rabbi Hartmann more eloquently writes: “But what if it were possible for a perfect God to give an imperfect scripture? What if, upon further consideration, imperfect scripture is the only scripture imaginable?

‘Sacred scripture, while purporting to provide for humankind a window into the will of God, at its core is an anthropocentric (human centered - my comment) endeavor. Its aim is theocentric (God centered - my comment), in the sense that it purports to serve as a foundation for the average believer to live with God… Scripture is thus inherently constituted as a compromise between divine will and human limitation.”  (Hartman, Donniel. Putting God Second: How to Save Religion from Itself (p. 123). Beacon Press. Kindle Edition.)

As Americans we are familiar with this concept. We understand that when the writers of the Declaration of Independence and Constitution wrote of the rights of all men, they really meant only white men who owned land. No non-Europeans. No renters. No women. Over time, especially the past 60 - 70 years, our understanding of what they wrote does include these forgotten groups. To revert to the founders understanding of “men” would be unthinkable today.

So too in Judaism. Torah and Rabbinic Literature teach that to be a witness in a trial, one must be a Shabbat observing, male Jew. So then to be a rabbi who more often serves as a witness than anyone else, one must be a Shabbat observing, male Jew. The first woman rabbi was a 17th Century Kurdish woman named Asneath Barzani. She gained the title of Tanait, the equivalent Kurdish term for Rabbi. In 2010, the next known Orthodox woman, Rachel Isaacs, was ordained. Today, women Rabbis occupy some of the most prestigious pulpits and, along with talented lay women, lead some of the major organizations in the Jewish world. Our definition of who can be a rabbi can never go back and exclude women. To do so would be unethical, regardless of any of God’s laws in the Torah.

Our heritage calls on us to continue on this same path. We are called to evolve our understanding of what it means to be good and the acts we need to perform even when it contradicts specific Divine laws in Torah.

Nonetheless, we must take great care to ensure that when we say we are putting the ethical above God, the ethics we promote increase good in the world and not just our own self interest. Ultimately we can only know in hindsight if we increased good in the world. This compels us to take care and at the same time not ignore the need to put the ethical above God.

So let us return to the original question: Why be good if you do not believe there is reward or punishment after death and to take it a step farther, you do not believe in God? Allow me to again quote Rabbi Hartmann: “Does one have to believe in God in order to be good ? Certainly not....The question then becomes, what forms of doing or believing, or both, constitute the standard of the ‘good Jew’"?(Hartman, Donniel. Putting God Second: How to Save Religion from Itself (p. 144). Beacon Press. Kindle Edition.)

To answer the question Rabbi Hartmann cites the story of the person who comes to Hillel to convert to Judaism with the requirement that Hillel teaches him all he needs to know while the person stands on one foot. We all know the story. Hillel agrees and answers with what he knew to be the essence of Judaism: “What is hateful to you do not do to another.”

Hillel does not mention belief in God, an afterlife, or even prayer. For Hillel, to be a good Jew one has to be ethical and just.

Judaism indeed places doing good above believing in God. It is one of many things that make me proud to be a Jew.

Friday, August 24, 2018

Let's Go To Spain for Sukkot!

I'm very excited that in October, 2019 I'll be leading a trip to Jewish Spain. We'll view our history there, both the good and the bad. More importantly we'll get to see the rebirth of Jewish life on the Iberian Peninsula.

Click on the links below for more information.

Shabbat Shalom and Shanah Tovah!

Sunday, July 29, 2018

URJ 6 Points Sci-Tech Camp West: Judaism, Science and Values

I am home from the Union for Reform Judaism's (URJ) 6-Points Sci-Tech West camp. The past several days have been remarkable and I find myself at a loss for words.
For three days I watched 7 - 15 year olds creating computer games, grasping the basics of astrophysics, robotics, statistics, roller-coaster engineering, and so much more. They synthesized the science they learned with their Jewish identities.
The camp embodied its six values: Jewish Heritage, Curiosity, Innovation, Radical Acceptance, Patience, and Persverance. The staff affirmed and honored every camper, embracing their differences and respecting the individual skills.
As a member of the Rabbinic Faculty I had the challenge of connecting Judaism to science. First thing in the morning I took one of the traditional morning blessings and talked about it's relationship to science and the camp's six values.
I also taught J-Lab, an activity based session about Judaism and science. I chose to connect with their astro-physics workshop. We looked at the constellations of the zodiac and learned their Hebrew names. Then I had the campers think of their Jewish heroes and rename, or create constellations that honored them. When the campers needed help finding Jewish heroes and famous Jews, at the suggestion of a staff member I played version four of Adam Sandler's Chanukah song. Learning Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe) is Jewish sent the kids over the top with excitement.
While the campers thought the evening "Big Bang" (Click here to see a Big Bang video) was the highlight of the day, for me, the best part of camp was sitting and talking with the kids and camp staff, getting to hear their stories. Why science thrilled them. How they saw the world. Sitting with them while they worked on their projects humbled me. I was a pretty good science student back in the day. My technological literacy is good for my generation. Yet, these campers' science and tech skills surpass anything I could ever imagined.
These campers are our future and it is a future I want to be a part of.
If you are a student who loves science or, have a child or grandchild that loves science, I definitely recommend the URJ 6 Points Sci-Tech West.

Sunday, April 29, 2018

Some Final Thoughts About Our 5778 Congregation Albert Israel Trip

Having been home for 40 hours I have been thinking back on our Israel Trip. Here are some of my reflections:

1)  This was the most diverse group I've ever travelled with to Israel. Over two weeks I marveled as this disparate group morphed into a community. Some friendships were created, others deepened. Even those who will never be more than acquaintances watched over each other with care and concern.

2)  What made the trip particularly meaningful to me was meeting "ordinary" Israelis who are doing extraordinary yet simple things to transform their communities and the country for the better.

3)  Gratitude:
     To Michele for keeping me sane and pushing me to find even more new places.
     To my partner on this trip Rabbi Paul Citrin for making most of the arrangements.

     To our guide Frances Oppenheimer who shared her personal insights and stories. She was not just our guide but a treasured member of our community. Not to mention we share the same sense of humor.

     To our bus driver Shalom. I have had many bus drivers over the years but Shalom surpassed them all. Not just backing up a mountain with a hairpin turn or navigating narrow roads in a giant bus but for his kindness to everyone in our group.

     To the whole group for your appreciation, patience, and acceptance.

     To all of our speakers and guests who added learning and personal stories thus enhancing our experience.

     To my friends Michael and Sally for a wonderful dinner and 47 years of friendship.

     To my partners at Congregation Albert, especially Cantor Barbara Finn for holding down the fort.

4)  This was my umpteenth trip to Israel over 47 years including one for six months and one for a year. Each time I see new wonders and the same old problems. I see people who persevere, laugh, mourn, celebrate, and live their lives with dignity. America is my country and my home yet, while I cannot see myself living there, Israel is too.

Until next trip - L'hitraot.

An Undaunted Spirit pt. 3 - Israel Guide Dog Center

In the mid-1980’s Israel’s only trainer of guide dogs retired. From that moment Israeli blind and visually impaired people were told they needed to learn English and go to the United States to get a guide dog. Fresh out of the army, Noach Braun wanted to change Israel for the better and committed his life to creating a center for the training of guide dogs. Noach did not know blind people but he began a quest that took him to the United States, Great Britain, and back to Israel to learn how to train guide dogs and train others to do the same. Starting with next to nothing, today the Center has expanded to training 40 plus dogs a year with a goal of training 60 dogs a year within the next two to three years.

We have been supporters of the Center for over a decade so Michele and I decided to leave our group for a morning and visit the Center to see for ourselves the work they do. Of course the puppies were adorable. These puppies are four weeks old and will be sent out to foster homes in another 4 weeks where they will begin their socialization which will last about 14 months.

Upon returning to the Center,  the dogs begin their rigorous four to six month training to become guide dogs. Only 40% - 50% of the dogs are suitable to guide the blind or visually impaired. The vast majority of the rest are trained to be service dogs to people with physical impairments or  emotional support dogs for former soldiers or  terror victims diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome. Of course there is a small percentage of dogs who are not suitable to be working dogs and they are adopted out as pets.

After a long day of training the dogs get to play.

Noach Braun is one of my Mitzvah Heroes.

Saturday, April 28, 2018

An Undaunted Spirit pt. 2 - S’derot

S’derot is another development town. What makes it unique is that it sits a mile east of the Gaza border and about 10 miles from Gaza City.

We were there on the 17th anniversary of the the first Hamas rockets raining down on the town. For 17 years, every week, or several times a week the warning comes and the residents have 15 seconds to reach shelter. Over the years, the roofs of every school and all new construction have been reinforced to withstand the assault. All buildings have safe rooms and shelters dot the streets. Yet, not only are the residents not deterred but the city has a positive growth rate especially among young adults. How many rockets have fallen? Here is but a small fraction.

We met Shoshana and Adi at a preschool. Both have young children and described for us how they are raising them given the reality of life in S’derot. Combining lessons in safety and optimism they are part of a thriving, growing town. Imagine living on a border and being shelled year after year with no end in sight. How many of us could withstand the pressure, the possibility that the next rocket could hit your home or your child’s school? Yet here they live their lives with hope.

An Undaunted Spirit pt. 1 - Yad L'kashish, Yerucham

A couple of people asked me “Why would a young person leave behind the life they know and make Aliyah?” Obviously, there are as many answers as there are individuals. But, our last few days in Israel add a most important answer as we met people who took and are taking advantage of Israel’s entrepreneurial spirit to create positive social change.

Yad L’kashish: Providing Dignity To Our Elders

In the 1960’s a few young people saw the growing number of elderly poor in Jerusalem. Rather than walking by with downturned eyes they opened a workshop to train these people as bookbinders to provide them with meaningful paid work and ensure they had at least one good meal a day. From that creative but humbling beginning Yad L’Kashish has expanded to teach people how to embroider, weave, make brass ritual objects, and most importantly, providing each of their clients with new creative skills and a deep sense of dignity. Today they have a shop where people can buy the goods the clients make and enable Yad L’kashish to help even more people. They sell beautiful items which thankfully many of our group purchased. Of course some of of what they make reflects the beginning skills of their workers.

Yerucham: From Developement Town To A Meaningful Place To Live

In the 1950’s, Israel created the so called “development towns” throughout the south to build the population of the desert and to provide homes for new immigrants mostly from the Arab world. Minimalist housing was built and whatever work there existed was minimalistic. With the mass immigration of the Russian Jews in the 1990’s these towns saw a brief influx of new residents and government resources and then found themselves abandoned again by the government and the exodus of their young. But in the last few years, a new generation arose who knew not, or cared not, the legacy of the past and determined to control the future of their homes. Yerucham is the vanguard of this new reality.

We were privileged to meet with two women leading the change. The first, Perach Lilach is a 25 year old woman who returned to Yerucham following her army service with a dream to change the lives of Yerucham’s residents left behind. After convincing her “big city” boyfriend to return to Yerucham, Perech works with Atid BaMidbar (The Future is in the Desert) Perech helping young people to find their to help build Yerucham while she attends school in nearby Be’er Sheva. Her enthusiasm for her home is contagious.

We also met with Deputy Mayor Tal Ohayon who became the youngest Deputy Mayor in Israel eight years ago at age 26. She started her adult life by returning to her family’s ancestral home in rural Morocco to work with the remaining Jews to build their work skills and improve their own communities. She returned to Yerucham with the same dedication to change her home town for the better. With a vision of a Yerucham filled with young people who return after college to build their home community and attracting new high tech businesses, or workers who can telecommute, she has been transforming her home. This week she announced her campaign for mayor so she can continue changing the community she loves.

One of the brilliant programs in Yerucham, Mevashlot Yerucham pays retirees to feed visitors like us. They open their homes and provide feasts. We were blessed to meet Jojo and Mazal who not only fed us but entertained us with their life story and leading us in song.

We were privileged to witness Ben Gurion's dream of Jewish life flourishing in the desert.

Sunday, April 22, 2018

Transitioning From Sadness To Joy

It has taken me several days to process Yom HaZikaron (Memorial Day), Yom Ha’atzmaut (Independence Day,) and the transition from sadness to joy.

In America we not only do we separate Memorial Day and Independence Day by just over a month, for most Americans they have lost their prime meanings and have become days of sales and picnics. For most of us, the only thing that is different between these two days is the lack, or the presence of fireworks.

In Israel the opposite is true. Maybe it is because Israel is a mere 70 years old or because everyone has either lost a loved one or their next door neighbor has, these days have not lost their meaning. Maybe the adjacency of the two helps reinforce the power of the days and the difficulty of transition from mourning to life.

We began Yom HaZikaron by standing for the evening sirens. Cars stop on the road. People stand at attention and silence. Some with heads bowed. Others with eyes brimming. Others with both. We gathered in our hotel in Tzvat as our guide Frances talked about her life, read us Israeli poetry, and discussed with us the personal loss each Israeli feels. Quietly we returned to our rooms.

Up early the next morning we began our journey to Jerusalem, aware of the pall in the air. At 11:00 a.m. the bus stopped and again we stood for the sirens marking Yom Hazikaron. We drove through Tiberius, where Rabbi Judah HaNasi compiled and published the Mishnah around 200 C.E. in order to reinforce the unity of a Jewish people scattered throughout the world. The Mishnah represents both a final acknowledgment that Israel had been lost to the Romans and, the understanding that while they needed to mourn, they understood the need to ensure the Jewish people would survive and, if possible, thrive.

Just south of Tiberius we stopped at the Kineret Cemetery. There, overlooking the waters of the Kineret, the Sea of Galilee, we visited the graves of Moshe Hess, Rachel, and Naomi Shemer. Hess, a founder of Labor Zionism in Europe, died and was buried in Cologne in the late 1890’s. In 1961, his remains were moved to the land of his dreams. A dream fulfilled after death but, nevertheless, a dream fulfilled.

Rachel, a great Israeli poet, lived her life with depression, however, she wrote some of the most moving, soulful poetry. Her poetry touches the depths of the heart as it came from the depths of her heart.

Naomi Shemer, the voice of Israeli music in the 60’s and 70’s, set the words of others, and her own, to music that touches the heart. Her renditions of Eli Eli, and Yerushalyim Shel Zahav, are her best now works but, barely scratch the surface of her work.

Hess, Rachel and Shemer now rest near each other in the peaceful green overlooking the waters of the Kineret.

Driving to Jerusalem marked our early transition from Yom HaZikaron and Yom Ha’atzmaut. No drive is more powerful for me. Driving along the Jordan River with Palestinian towns and Israeli checkpoints, reinforces the complexity of Israel. Understanding, the need for security and the need to uphold the highest Jewish values of understanding the heart of the stranger for we were strangers in the land of Egypt, tears at the mind and the heart.

Our arrival into Jerusalem on Mt. Scopus, which, between 1948 and 1967 was an Israeli “isle” in the midst of Jordan echoes from the past to the alternate reality of today. But, doing Kiddush and Shehechiyanu overlooking the city of our past, present, and future, makes the heart soar like few other places/views can. 

After checking into our rooms we met with my classmate and friend Rabbi Bill Berk who led us through a transition from the sadness of Yom HaZikaron into the joys of Yom Ha’atzmaut. We then left the hotel to find various celebrations around Jerusalem before the conflicted message of our next day, visiting Masada

The Zealots of Masada decided it was better to die than to live as a defeated people, perhaps as slaves. If all had taken that path Judaism would have ended there and then. 

Thus, celebrating Yom Ha’atzmaut on Masada seemed odd to say the least. Our guide for the day, Doron, Rabbi Citrin and, I each gave our own perspective on Masada and Yom Ha’atzmaut. As we prepared to descend, three squadrons of fighters flew overhead putting a final explanation point on the holiday. 

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Days Two and Three in Israel

I’m having a harder time than usual putting into words the past two days. I think it is a combination of being here for Yom Hazikaron, Israel’s Memorial Day and in contrast watching our group get to know each other and begin to bond.

Yom Hazikaron looms large over Israel and me. We began yesterday two kilometers from the Syrian border listening to Nir Atir who, at that very spot, with three tanks and 27 fellow Israeli soldiers delayed dozens of Syrian tanks and hundreds of troops until reserve forces could arrive during the 1973 Yom Kippur War. He told part of his story in the bunker where he and the other wounded survivors waited with the bodies of their dead comrades spent hours waiting to be captured or killed. Hearing his story while in that bunker touched each and every one of our souls. 

Part of the story was of the soldier who volunteered to leave the bunker waiving his white tee shirt and lead the surrender to the Syrians. After he left the bunker, shots were fired and they assumed he was dead and the Syrians would kill them too rather than take them prisoner. After the Israeli reserves arrived and pushed back the Syrians, the wounded were taken to hospitals. A year later, Nir went to visit the parents of his friend who tried to surrender. After knocking on the door, his friend answered. He had been taken prisoner after all and survived. We were uplifted and our eyes brimming as we heard his tale.

From the Golan we drove to Tel Dan, one of the oldest cities excavated in Israel and now an incredible nature reserve. The city dates from the 8th Century B.C.E.. It was built on that spot because it was near the Dan River, part of the head waters of the Jordan River. It was at Tel Dan that the oldest mention of King David was discovered.

The fortifications of this 3000 year old city are amazing but pale in comparison to the power of the river itself. Watching the river flow, bringing life to the land served as the symbol of life we needed as Yom Hazikaron was approaching. Sitting by the water, our wonderful guide Frances read to us from Psalms connecting our deep past with our vibrant present.

From Tel Dan we headed toward Magdala to see the excavation of a Second Temple synagogue. A woman named Miriam is the most famous person from Magdala. Better known as Mary the Magdalen, this would have been the synagogue she attended. 

Notice the symbols in the pattern of the floor

Returning to Tzvat we visited the synagogue of Isaac Luria. Notice that every light fixture is dedicated to someone’s deceased relative. Donating lights to the synagogue morphed into the tradition of lighting a candle at home on a relative’s yahrzeit.

A “quick” walk through the shops of Tzvat brought us back to the hotel to prepare for Yom Hazikaron, Israel’s Memorial Day.

Monday, April 16, 2018

Our First Day In Israel

It is hard to believe that it has been nine years since we were last in Israel. Being here in anticipation of Yom Ha’atzmaut - Israel Independence Day, Israel’s 70th birthday, is invigorating.

After the normal endless flight to arrive in “Ha’aretz” (The Land), we met up with our group in Herzliya. The last time I had spent time in Herzliya was in the late 1970’s. Then it was Israel’s Beverly Hills. Luxury condos  and homes. Israel’s first golf courses. The home of wealthy Israeli’s and long term visitors. Today Herzliya is a hub in “Start-Up Israel.” Computer companies abound. The streets are full of commuters. Change comes even to the enclaves.

After dinner and a good night’s sleep, at least for me, we headed up the coast and a bit inland to Pardes Hana.

At Shabbat services Friday night in Albuquerque, we began by singing Eli Eli. While the music was written by the iconic Israeli singer, Naomi Shemer, the words were by the poet and hero, Chana Senesh. Senesh lived in Israel during WWII and the Shoah. She, along with other members of the the Haganah, parachuted behind Nazi lines to try and rescue at least some of Europe’s Jews. She was captured, tortured and killed by the Nazis. Not only does she live on through her poetry but, through this village named in her memory and the incredible organization there, Nevei Michael.

Nevei Michael is a home, school, and crisis center for Israeli children, Jews, Muslims, and Christians, from the most severely broken homes. Some were victims of abuse. Others, had mothers who were murdered by their fathers or fathers murdered by their mothers with the murderer now in jail. Nevei Michael provides them not only the basics, food, clothing, and shelter, but life skills, self-esteem, parenting models to break the cycle of violence , and most importantly, love. Outside of the school building is this sign:

My translation goes like this: “We believe that every child has the power, to learn to be self-aware (open) and to go be strong. We work to identify and cultivate the strengths and skills unique to every child. Thus, at the conclusion of his/her studies, s/he will graduate with values and be well grounded, and will see him/herself in the best possible way.”

Hava and her daughter Rachel have worked for decades and have seen the success of their children. Some have become professionals, others laborers, but each has become a mensch.

Of course, they treated us with the same kindness they show the children in their care. From their limited budget they set out food and drink for us.

Leaving Pardes Chana we continued north to two places of Jewish resistance, Zichron Yaakov and Atlit. Zichron was the home of the Aaronson family who established a spy ring in WWI to help the British oust the Ottoman Empire from Palestine. Ironically, at Atlit the British established a detention camp to imprison Jewish refugees fleeing Nazi and post-Nazi Europe.

Finally, we arrived at our hotel in the mystical city of Tzvat in time for a beautiful view of the holy mountain Meron and a pre-dinner nap.