Thursday, January 22, 2015

Tu Bishvat: A Mystical Opportunity to Repair the World

Living in the town of Tzefat in 16th-century northern Israel, Rabbi Isaac Luria dwelt among Spanish-Jewish exiles who traded heavily in the mystical concepts of kabbalah, ancient received wisdom. Rabbi Luria, sometimes referred to by his acronym, the AR”I (Elohi Rabbi Yitzhaq, the divine Rabbi Isaac), crafted a new approach to kabbalah which envisioned God’s tzimtzum (contraction) in creating the world. This tzimtzum caused the infinite light of God to be poured to overfilling into the vessels that had contained the ten sefirot (Divine emanations) of the Tree of Life, causing many of them to shatter. Some of these vessel fragments became bound up with sparks of the original light in impure qelipot (shells). Rabbi Luria saw one of our goals as Jews to be liberating those sparks from the qelipot, and thus repairing the world.

One ceremony which grew out of the Lurianic school of kabbalistic thought is the Tu Bishvat seder. Modeled on the Passover discussion and dinner that we all know, the mystical Tu Bishvat seder featured the consumption of shelled fruits and nuts as a physical manifestation of our task to repair the world through seeking and opening the metaphorical qelipot. Although Tu Bishvat is identified in rabbinic literature as the day on which all trees in the world turn one year older, the Lurianic kabbalists reframed it as an opportunity to celebrate not only the actual trees, but the Etz Hayyim, the sefirotic Tree of Life, and to return sparks to their primordial source.

We at Temple Israel will attempt to liberate a few sparks on the evening of January 30, as we gather for the N’ranena musical Kabbalat Shabbat service, followed by dinner and a mystical Tu Bishvat experience. Join us as we drink four cups of wine or grape juice, eat tree produce, chant a niggun or two, and connect with the Tree of Life. It will be a sacred moment for the entire family.

Rabbi Seth Adelson

Friday, January 9, 2015

Heritage Trumps Hatred

As we begin the book of Shemot / Exodus and recount once again our descent into Egypt as a family and our ascent from slavery as a people, I am reminded by current events of the enduring value of peoplehood, and how it is a source of comfort in dark times. Within the first few verses of this book, the Egyptian pharaoh describes us as "benei Yisrael," the people of Israel (Ex. 1:9), the definition serving to set us apart as the other, as distinct from the native Egyptian population.

With today's hostage-taking episode in a kosher grocery in Paris, resulting in at least four dead and five wounded, our "otherness" was once again served to us in a particularly cruel stew of terror and hatred. On the heels of the killings earlier in the week at the office of Charlie Hebdo, it is evident that bad actors in this world include both Jews and free speech in the same cross-hairs.

In moments like these, when our inclination might be to respond in anger, I look to our tradition for strength. We are not a vengeful people; we are not bloodthirsty. Rather, tragedies such as these should be met with the same response that Jews have always had to anti-Semitic acts: to rally around our heritage, our tradition; to return to our mitzvot, our Torah; to remain stubbornly proud of who we are and who our God is. Our pride is more powerful than their hatred.

We mourn for those fellow Jews who fell at the hands of terrorists; our hearts go out to their families, to those of the French Jewish community who are feeling ever more besieged, and to all lovers of peace and freedom throughout the world whose hearts ache over the events of the past week. And we reach once again for the story of our national foundation, invoking as we do every time we finish reading the Torah the words of Eikhah / Lamentations (5:22): Hashiveinu Adonai eilekha venashuva, hadesh yameinu keqedem. Return us to you, O God, and we shall return; renew our days as of old.

Let this be a Shabbat shalom, a Shabbat of peace, for benei Yisrael.

Rabbi Seth Adelson

Friday, January 2, 2015

One Big, Happy, Pluralistic, Dysfunctional Family - Vayehi 5775

I returned from Israel last Thursday, flying from Ben-Gurion Airport on Christmas Eve, which in Israel is known as “Wednesday night.”

My son and I spent two weeks having fun around the Kinneret (the Sea of Galilee). One day we went up to Mercaz Canada, the Canada Centre, in Metulla, which is a huge complex built entirely by Canadian Jewish communities. Its central feature, of course, is the regulation-size ice rink, where no professional hockey team ever actually plays, but there is a hockey school for kids and plenty of aspiring skaters come to practice. We spent some time on the ice there, and then warmed up by immersing ourselves in the jacuzzi. Soaking alongside us was an older Israeli couple, whom I will call Yossi and Iris. They were very talkative, and soon I knew everything about their family, of whom they were clearly very proud. At some point, they ascertained that I was a Conservative rabbi, and then Iris asked me, “Is it true that you have women rabbis in your movement?” I responded affirmatively.

Yossi offered that he was very troubled by the extreme measures that some haredi Jews were taking to separate men and women: the gender-segregated buses, the separate sidewalks, and so forth. And then he told me something that made my jaw hit the warm, bubbly water: that there are now stores in Benei Beraq (a predominantly haredi city near Tel Aviv) where men and women shop separately.

“What, you mean that there are two sides, and the men get their cottage cheese on one side, and the women get their cottage cheese on the other side, from a separate refrigerator?”

“Yes,” he replied. We sat and soaked that one up. Iris, a calloused police officer, clucked her tongue and shook her head. She asked me if I had heard about Women of the Wall. “Of course,” I said.

Sitting there in the jacuzzi, I gave them a thumbnail sketch of what it means to be a Conservative Jew: like Orthodoxy, we understand halakhah / Jewish law to be valid and binding, but we account for modernity with conservative changes within the halakhic system. We accept men and women as being equal under Jewish law. We have a historical view of Judaism, understanding our tradition as having unfolded gradually in the context of many places and cultures, rather than having all been given at Sinai. We accept contemporary understandings of the origins of the Torah and of God.

Many of these ideas are not welcome in some quarters of the Jewish world, and some of the ideas that emerge from those quarters I find objectionable. But there is still, at least for now, some mutual sense of belonging. We are all still Jews. And as we soaked there in the hot tub, we shared what you might call a little pluralistic moment - an acknowledgment of the different ways of being Jewish.

We concluded the first book of the Torah today, and as Bereshit drew to a close with the patriarch Jacob on his death bed, each of his sons received some parting words. Some were flowery words of praise; others were clearly critical. For example:

Gen. 49:8 (re: Judah)
יְהוּדָה, אַתָּה יוֹדוּךָ אַחֶיךָ--יָדְךָ, בְּעֹרֶף אֹיְבֶיךָ; יִשְׁתַּחֲווּ לְךָ, בְּנֵי אָבִיךָ.
You, O Judah, your brothers shall praise;
Your hand shall be on the nape of your foes;
Your father’s sons shall bow low to you...

cf. Gen. 49:5-6 (re: Simeon and Levi)
שִׁמְעוֹן וְלֵוִי, אַחִים--כְּלֵי חָמָס, מְכֵרֹתֵיהֶם. בְּסֹדָם אַל-תָּבֹא נַפְשִׁי, בִּקְהָלָם אַל-תֵּחַד כְּבֹדִי:  כִּי בְאַפָּם הָרְגוּ אִישׁ, וּבִרְצֹנָם עִקְּרוּ-שׁוֹר.
Simeon and Levi are a pair;
Their weapons are tools of lawlessness.
Let not my person be included in their council,
Let not my being be counted in their assembly.
For when angry they slay men,
And when pleased they maim oxen.

At this stage, the Israelite nation is really only a family. Jacob is here driving home the point, at the end of his life and effectively the end of the family narrative, that our family has internal strife. (BTW, I am from the tribe of Levi!) Not only do we disagree with each other, we are sometimes openly hostile. Not too dissimilar today - our internecine struggles are effectively ancient.

Jacob Jordaens - Self-Portrait with Parents, Brothers, and Sisters. c. 1615. Oil on canvas. The Hermitage, St. Petersburg, Russia
In some ways we still retain the sense of family. The Talmud (BT Shevuot 39a) tells us that:
כל ישראל ערבים זה בזה
Kol Yisrael areivim zeh bazeh
All of Israel is responsible for one another.

We are all dependent on one another, all connected. We have always thought of ourselves in this way. We even have our own term for our connectedness: kelal Yisrael. Loosely translated, it means, “All of us Israelites.”

We are kind of like a giant cousins’ club. Since the late 19th century and the beginnings of the Zionist movement, some have called this phenomenon “peoplehood.” One of the major results of this sense of peoplehood in modern times is the State of Israel; a more mild form is the pride that American Jews used to take in playing “Spot the Jew”: knowing that the Three Stooges and and Dinah Shore and Kirk Douglas were all Jewish.

But the Jewish world is much more fractured than it used to be. I am not sure exactly why this happened, but I think it might be harder today for us to acknowledge that we are all connected, that our souls are bound together, that we have a shared destiny, common values, and so forth.

Nonetheless, I believe we are indeed still one people. We are all Jews, even if large fractions of the Jewish world do not accept other large fractions. And certainly, the rising tide of anti-Semitism in some quarters of the world might serve to remind us all that those who hate us surely do not care about our divergent approaches to halakhah or whether or not we ordain female rabbis or call women to the Torah.

Let’s consider where we are as a people.

Orthodox, Reform, Conservative, Chabad (they get their own category), Reconstructionist, Humanist, secular, apathetic. Yes, the demographic studies of recent years continue to show that we are on a continuum with respect to religious observance and other measures of engagement. But we are also deeply divided, and to some extent, that is the Jewish tradition. From the moment that the Israelites left Egypt, when they began to complain to Moshe Rabbeinu about the lack of food in the desert, continuing through to the Talmudic tradition of rabbinic argument (Beit Hillel vs. Beit Shammai, etc.), to the response to modernity that gave us the range of movements and synagogues and political and cultural rivals, we like to disagree.

Even so, it seems to me that the rift between Orthodoxy and non-Orthodoxy is still growing. It used to be that most American Jews, regardless of their level of Jewish observance, kept a kosher kitchen so that anybody could come over and eat. That is hardly the case today; I suspect that not too many Orthodox-identified Jews would even eat in my house.

Perhaps the greatest point of fracture is intermarriage. You know the numbers, at least anecdotally: two-thirds or more of American Jews marry non-Jews. Yes, that statistic is lower for Conservative-identified Jews (roughly ⅓ of those who grow up in our movement marry out), and much lower for Orthodox. But the reality is inescapable. We are not going to stem the tide of intermarriage. That ship has sailed. The question facing us all now, and particularly here in the Conservative movement is, how can we stay true to our principles of accepting the validity of halakhah and yet not lose all of those Jews?

A colleague of mine, Rabbi Wesley Gardenswartz, the senior rabbi of a large Conservative congregation in suburban Boston, recently floated a trial balloon about intermarriage. As you may know, Conservative rabbis are bound by a standard of rabbinic practice not to perform weddings between Jews and non-Jews. His idea was to perform such weddings, with the proviso that the non-Jewish partner commits to raising Jewish children.

Immediately after going public with the idea, there was an uproar in his congregation that compelled Rabbi Gardenswartz to backtrack.

And furthermore in the “uproar” department,just last week at the USY International Convention, the student leadership of USY voted to change the language in its policy regarding inter-dating for regional officers. While the policy used to say, “It is expected that leaders of the organization will refrain from relationships which can be construed as interdating,” the new language is, “The Officers will strive to model healthy Jewish dating choices. These include recognizing the importance of dating within the Jewish community and treating each person with the recognition that they were created Betzelem Elohim (in the image of God).”

Not exactly a ringing endorsement of interdating, but certainly not quite as strong as the original language. (I actually prefer the newer language because, rather than merely being prohibitive, it actually challenges our teens to consider the aspects of holiness in human relationships.) Coverage in the Jewish press has been scathing (the JTA wire article on the subject was titled, perhaps unfairly, “USY Drops Ban on Interdating”).

The issue goes right to the heart of who we are today, not as Conservative Jews per se, but as American Jews. Do we see ourselves as Americans who occasionally dip our toes into the sea of Judaism, or does halakhah infuse all parts of our lives with holiness? Obviously, this issue is so trying because some of the members of our cousins’ club see any tolerance of intermarriage and intermarried Jews as a threat. In their minds, this is not Hillel vs. Shammai; this is Hillel vs. Antiochus and the hellenized Syrians of yore.

Nonetheless, I am convinced that the concept of kelal Yisrael, of the Jewish sense of shared heritage, destiny, and values still resonates. We have made certain strides right here in Great Neck, and that bodes well: the recent Shabbat Project, the joint study and siyyum in memory of those massacred in a Jerusalem synagogue in November, and the ongoing friendly Rabbinic Dialogue are all good signs of healthy, pluralistic engagement and cooperation.

Pluralism means that we should tolerate each other, acknowledge each other. We who call women to the Torah will never agree with those who must walk and ride and shop in single-gender environments. Those of us who support the State of Israel with all our hearts will never understand our fellow Jews who protest its very existence. We do not have to agree, but we have to at least acknowledge each other as fellow members of the tribe. And I think that we are still doing that. We may be a dysfunctional family, but we are still a family.

We have to continue to work together, for the benefit of our extended cousins’ club. I very much hope that we will.

Shabbat shalom.

Rabbi Seth Adelson
(A variation of this sermon was originally delivered at Temple Israel of Great Neck, Shabbat morning, 1/3/2015.)

Thursday, January 1, 2015

A New Year's Day Fast

For the first time in recent memory, the minor fast day of the Tenth of Tevet coincided this year with the first day of the new solar year, yielding an arguably odd integration of the secular and religious. This curious combination draws a few observations into stark relief.

While Judaism marks its new year, Rosh Hashanah, as a joyous celebration, one where families gather for prayer and meals and reflect on our hopes for the year to come, it is surely also a solemn time. Rosh Hashanah demarcates the beginning of the Ten Days of Penitence, the period of reflection and introspection leading to Yom Kippur. The former is clearly an introduction to the latter, a day on which we afflict our souls with the hope of achieving spiritual cleansing, when we appeal to the Qadosh Barukh Hu for another chance, for an opportunity to move forward with a clean slate even though we are not worthy.

Compare that with our modern conception of January 1st. How do Americans mark this transition? By celebrating with no higher goal than partying with abandon. Yes, there may be some who make resolutions for self-improvement, but one must wonder how deeply these resolutions penetrate the soul of the resolved.

Meanwhile the Tenth of Tevet, one of a handful of minor fast days sprinkled through the Jewish calendar, commemorates the beginning of the siege of Jerusalem at the hands of the Babylonian empire in 587 BCE. Nineteen months later, Nebuchadnezzar’s forces destroyed the First Temple, laid waste to the rest of the city, and exiled the Israelites to Babylon (today Iraq). But we live in a world with a Jewish state in the traditional land of Israel, a much-rebuilt Jerusalem under Jewish and democratic sovereignty. There are those that say that we ought to dispense with fasts related to Jerusalem laid waste; we are no longer lamenting like Jeremiah, or yearning like our ancestors did for 2,000 years. The flip side of the Tenth of Tevet, the Seventeenth of Tammuz, and the Ninth of Av is Hatikvah, the national anthem of the State of Israel.

And so, on this particular fast day, we may recall the opportunity for a second chance that the Jewish New Year promises, an added foil to the debauchery engendered by the secular new year. As we look toward Tu Bishvat and Pesah, which the Mishnah (Rosh Hashanah 1:1) identifies as two of the four Jewish new year dates, we remember that we do not live from party to party, but from milestone to milestone and season to season as we continue to rebuild.

Friday, November 28, 2014

Ferguson and the Empathy Gap - Vayyetze 5775

I have to make a confession. I am guilty of something. I failed to empathize.

Actually, it was not merely a failure to empathize, but rather a failure to pay attention at all to the news out of Ferguson, Missouri regarding the events of the past summer.

In my defense, I was busy paying attention to Israel - the rockets, the bomb shelters, the tunnels, the scenes of destruction and death, the body counts, the anti-Semitic demonstrations, and so forth. I was wringing my hands all summer long, glued to my computer screen, waiting for the next piece of bad news.

So somehow I missed the story that resurfaced, somewhat unpleasantly, this week - the story of Michael Brown, the young man who stole a $46 item from a convenience store, and was subsequently shot and killed by police officer Darren Wilson in that suburb of St. Louis. I was only dimly aware that the community of Ferguson erupted in mid-August, and that it attracted attention all over the world. All of that was crowded out because my head and heart were in the Middle East.

Michael Brown Ferguson

I have not spent the subsequent three months following the story - the protests, which endured for weeks afterwards, the investigations, the grand jury. I was busy with the EmptiNesters retreat, the holidays, the Shabbat Project, the Rabbinic Management Institute that I attended in LA two weeks ago, and so forth.

Besides, I’m a rabbi. My position demands of me to pay attention to issues affecting the Jewish community, right? Why should this story be so important? Most of the world has no concept of the complexity of the situation in Israel, and it is my responsibility to be aware of and speak to that. I only have so much time and brainpower.

OK, so I have a long list of excuses, none of which are very good.

I should have paid more attention to this story because it speaks to the very heart of who we are as a people, and what our tradition teaches us about caring for the disenfranchised in our midst. A better reason, however, has really nothing to do with the particulars of this case, but it has everything to do with our role in American society.

I think we - not just we the Jews, but all Americans - are running an empathy deficit. I think we are so wrapped up in ourselves that we are failing to pay attention to those around us who are in need. This is not just about civil rights or race or ethnicity or religion or gender issues or the fragmentation of the American family, but it does include all of those things. There are so many things that divide us today that it is easy to just give up - to throw in the towel, as it were, and just look out for number one, or become desensitized.

What has happened to our public sphere? Why are our politics so broken? One possible reason is that we have all stopped caring about each other. What happens in suburban Missouri stays in Missouri. I’m just going on about my life here in Minneapolis, or Miami, or Michigan, or Manhasset. And yes, we in the Jewish community are just as guilty as all the rest of us.

Maimonides tells us (MT Hilkhot Matanot Aniyim 7:13) that in matters of tzedaqah / charity, we are first obligated to our family, then to the needy of our own town, then to those in another town. While many of us may find ourselves moved and challenged by the events in Israel, our family, we should also be concerned with affairs in our own backyard.

Many of us have known anti-Semitism personally and globally. Certainly the events of this past summer have awakened within the Jewish community concerns that not too long ago seemed somewhat passé. But most of us are not personally experiencing discrimination on a daily basis. But are we aware of the discrimination that others face?

Please consider this thought experiment for a moment:
  • You’re leaving work. You’re wearing a suit. You try to get a cab. Not a single one stops for you, even those that are carrying no passengers.
  • You’re trying to find an apartment to rent. You call landlord after landlord, only to find that every single one has curiously just been rented, even the less desirable ones.
  • You’re a professor at one of the most prestigious universities in the world. You have returned at night from an overseas trip, and your front door jams. As you struggle to open your own front door, a neighbor calls the police, who come to arrest you.

Imagining ourselves in these situations is not so easy; these kinds of things do not happen to most of us. But they do happen on a regular basis to black Americans, who all suffer from various forms of discrimination and humiliation throughout their lives. With respect to their interaction with the police, this reality has resulted in relatively frequent incidents where an officer shoots a young, unarmed black man in a situation that has gone awry.

Consider Amadou Diallou, the 23-year-old Guinean immigrant with no criminal record, shot outside his apartment in the Bronx in 1999 because he was mistaken for a serial rapist.

Consider Sean Bell, the 23-year-old resident of Queens who was leaving his own bachelor party in 2006 when he and his two friends, all unarmed, were shot by police because they thought they overheard one of the men say, “Yo, get my gun.” Bell died.

Consider John Crawford, a 22-year-old man shopping in a Wal-Mart in Ohio who was shot and killed by police, just a few days before the Ferguson incident,  because he was carrying an air rifle that he had picked up from a shelf in the store and was carrying it around while shopping.

In all three of those cases, no police officers were convicted of any crimes. Now these are merely anecdotes, and I am not in a position to evaluate these cases in any responsible, legally-correct way. But there are plenty of other examples, and the pattern is undeniable. We have to feel for the families who lost these young men. We should not excuse, but perhaps we can understand the violent reaction that black Americans had to the news surrounding the Ferguson case. We have to grieve for our society as a whole. And we have an obligation to change that reality.

In a report presented to the UN Human Rights Committee by the Sentencing Project, an advocacy organization, statistics show that it is true that young African-American men are more likely to commit certain types of crime. However, it is also true that they are much more likely to be convicted of crimes than whites or Hispanics who commit the same crimes. The report adds the following:

“... [H]igher crime rates cannot fully account for the racial disparity in arrest rates. A growing body of scholarship suggests that a significant portion of such disparity may be attributed to implicit racial bias, the unconscious associations humans make about racial groups...
“Extensive research has shown that in such situations the vast majority of Americans of all races implicitly associate black Americans with adjectives such as “dangerous,” “aggressive,” “violent,” and “criminal.” Since the nature of law enforcement frequently requires police officers to make snap judgments about the danger posed by suspects and the criminal nature of their activity, subconscious racial associations influence the way officers perform their jobs.”

Ladies and gentlemen, we are all saddled with bias. We all make spot judgments about others, consciously or unconsciously, based on their appearance. Any human being who denies this is lying. But one of our tasks as Jews as reinforced over and over throughout the Torah, is to remember what it’s like to be an outsider, as when we were slaves in Egypt, and to treat others accordingly. It is our responsibility to empathize with the plight of the sojourner, the widow, the orphan, the poor, because we understand that as a nation. We may not be able to eliminate our own internal prejudices, but we can certainly challenge ourselves to feel for others and act appropriately.

And this is only heightened by our contemporary reality. Despite the rise of anti-Semitism in the world, we are still living pretty well in America. Except for the rare sideways remark, we are accepted as white (something that was not always true); all doors seem open to us. But that does not give us license to ignore those in our midst for whom many of those doors are still closed. It is all too easy to forget that justice is not necessarily evenly meted out in our society.

To that end, I would like for our reaction to the case of Michael Brown to be something like the moment that occurs at the end of Jacob’s dream at the beginning of Parashat Vayyetze, which we read this morning. Our hero wakes suddenly after dreaming about angels going up and down the ladder to heaven, and is struck with the realization that, אָכֵן יֵשׁ ה’ בַּמָּקוֹם הַזֶּה; וְאָנֹכִי, לֹא יָדָעְתִּי. “Surely the LORD is present in this place, and I did not know it.” (Gen. 28:16)

Jacob’s new awareness leads him to commit to a new relationship with God. In the same way, the Ferguson events might elevate our connection with God by raising our own awareness of what some of our fellow citizens endure every day. That awareness should spur us to action.

My point here is not to excuse either Michael Brown, an alleged petty thief who may have resisted arrest, or Officer Darren Wilson, who may have overreacted to the situation. This is not about race. Rather, my goal on this Shabbat Thanksgiving, a time that we as a nation remember to be grateful for what we have, is to remind us that our gratitude can only be amplified when we remember to feel for the other. It is a primary goal of the Torah to help us to see beyond ourselves, to consider how our actions affect others, and to be aware of our interconnectedness to all our fellow citizens as a part of this society, in short, to be empathic. Even though we all arrived here on different boats, some of us enthusiastically and some of us in literal chains, we are all in the same boat when it comes to building a just society.

Our tradition believes that all people, not just the Jews, are obligated to the Sheva Mitzvot Benei Noah, the seven mitzvot given to Noah following the Flood. One of those mitzvot is the commandment to foster justice. Maimonides suggests that if you do not live in a place with an honest justice system, then you should move away. I do not think that anybody could credibly make that charge about these United States. However, it is surely worth noting that our society is still a work in progress, and that cultivating empathy for all people, and not just our people, will go a long way toward building that nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.

Rabbi Seth Adelson
(Originally delivered at Temple Israel of Great Neck, Shabbat morning, 11/29/2014.)

Friday, November 21, 2014

Click and Clack and the Shabbat Project

I was very surprised and saddened a few weeks back to hear that Tom Magliozzi passed away at the age of 77. Tom and his brother Ray were the hosts of the long-running show “Car Talk” on NPR. For the benefit of those who were not familiar with the show, it was ostensibly about car repair - people called in to ask questions about their cars - Tom and Ray were expert mechanics, both alumni of MIT who had opted to work in car repair rather than the corporate world. But inevitably the advice that was dispensed, in their humorous, irreverent, Boston-inflected style was more often about the relationship issues of the callers than about the cars themselves. Car Talk was really only a pretext to get to the really important stuff.

Tom Magliozzi's laugh boomed in NPR listeners' ears every week as he and his brother, Ray, bantered on Car Talk.

Tom had a warm, inviting, and frankly quite infectious laugh, and for every hour-long episode of Car Talk, the listener would probably have heard Tom laughing for a good 20-plus minutes in aggregate. That laugh just sucked you in. It simply grabbed you by the ears and pulled you into the conversation. Everybody listening to Car Talk, whether or not they had any interest in cars or car repair, felt like they were a part of the conversation.

The ability to welcome callers and listeners into a conversation about people and their relationships using the “bait” of car problems is really a very clever idea. And really, it’s a nice model for how a synagogue should function. Let me illustrate this in the context of a recent community-wide success, the Great Neck Shabbat Project.

Ostensibly, the major goal of the Shabbat Project was to involve as many members of the community into a Shabbat experience. We did that. By providing a full complement of activities, targeted to a wide range of people and interests, by personally inviting everybody to participate through various means, including direct, individual outreach, we welcomed many more people into our midst than would ordinarily participate on an average Shabbat. There were close to 1,000 people (women and men!) at the challah workshop at Leonard’s on Thursday evening. There were 600 people at Shabbat dinner at Temple Israel on Friday night. There were more than 150 at the Camp Shabbat service for 5th and 6th graders and their families on Shabbat morning. There were 200 people for se’udah shelisheet, the third Shabbat meal on Saturday afternoon. And hundreds attended the concert Saturday night, preceded by a havdalah service led by rabbis and laypeople from across the ideological and ethnic spectrum of Jewish Great Neck. And there was even more.


But the real accomplishment was not the very impressive numbers. The actual intent of the Shabbat Project, as it is with everything we do at Temple Israel, was to create and nurture relationships among members of the community, and between us and God. And we did that, too - by providing multiple forums for people representing different subsets of our community to rub elbows; by creating an environment in which many were sharing Shabbat together openly, and on a grand scale; by hosting discussions on parenting and being a Jewish college student and our own personal journeys within Judaism.

So while we did not have Tom Magliozzi’s inviting laughter, we did have members of our community reaching out directly to others to raise the Shabbat bar, and although we did not talk about cars, we did talk about Shabbat as a platform to deepen our relationships. The results were tremendous in terms of community building and social capital. Kol hakavod to all who made it happen! (And may Tom’s memory be for a blessing.)

Rabbi Seth Adelson
(Originally published in the Temple Israel Voice, November 20, 2014.)

Friday, November 7, 2014

Pray for the Peace of Jerusalem - Vayyera 5775

I am a big fan of Israeli pop music, particularly the way it tells the story of Israel. Not necessarily the explicit story, the history-book story, but the implicit story of who Israelis are, where they came from, what they value, and what life is like in Israel. Back in the ‘80s, when I spent a few summers at Camp Ramah in New England, and participated in USY, Israeli pop tunes saturated my life, particularly the Eurovision festival entries (Halleluyah, Abanibi, Hai, etc.) and the “Hasidic” song festivals (Adon Olam, etc.). As an American Jewish teenager who loved Israel, these songs created something of a background soundtrack to my life. And there was no song more resonant than Yerushalayim Shel Zahav, the song by Naomi Shemer that told the story of loss and reunification of the holiest place in Israel, the city that occupies such a special place in the hearts of so many of us. To this day, it seems that this song is the best-known and best-loved of the entire Israeli pop canon, at least in this hemisphere.

On Wednesday morning I heard about the Palestinian man with links to Hamas who plowed his car into a group of innocent Israelis waiting for a train at the Shim’on HaTzaddiq station on the new light rail line, killing one and injuring a dozen more people. This follows a similar attack two weeks ago in which a three-month-old baby girl and an Ecuadorean tourist were killed, and another incident in which an American-born rabbi, Yehuda Glick, was shot and critically wounded for advocating to allow Jews to pray on the Temple Mount.

And I realized that I had no choice but to pause to grieve for Jerusalem, the city whose name may be derived from ‘Ir Shalom, the City of Peace.

Jerusalem of Gold - Jean David

Where is the Yerushalayim Shel Zahav, the Jerusalem of Gold that we all know and love? Does that song merely capture a fleeting dream, a candle of hope and unity that only flickered briefly before being snuffed out by the intractable reality on the ground? Is the zahav, the gold, merely that of a rising flame of tension, disunity, and instigation?

I lived in Jerusalem in the year 2000 for about seven months, for my first semester in Cantorial School at the Schechter Institute for Jewish Studies, just before the Second Intifada broke out. It was a relativly peaceful and even optimistic time in Israel. Just a few years after the Oslo Accords, peace was coming. Areas of the West Bank and Gaza had been turned over to the Palestinians. There was new development and cooperation on matters of security and trade. No part of Jerusalem seemed unsafe, and I walked the streets of East Jerusalem and the Arab quarters of the Old City without fear.

But oh, how things have changed. It was, you may recall, the failure of the Camp David summit in July of 2000 that ultimately led to the Intifada. I had just returned to New York to continue my studies at the Jewish Theological Seminary when the City of Peace became the city of bus and cafe bombings.

Things cooled down again after a few years. Israel built the separation fence (which in places is a wall), which worked quite well in keeping would-be attackers out of the Jewish population centers. Jerusalem’s brand new light rail line, which took years to build, opened in 2011, and the optics of a, thoroughly modern commuter train running alongside the Old City walls built by the Ottoman Turks in the 16th century are truly inspiring. I have been on the train a few times, and am always captivated by its tri-lingual scrolling sign, announcing the next station in Hebrew, Arabic and English. The cool thing is that, since English goes from left to right and the other languages from right to left, the info scrolls in both directions.

But it is this light rail system, originally built to serve both Arab and Jewish neighborhoods of Jerusalem (the population of which is 37% Arab), that has unfortunately been a focal point of some of the recent violence. It was the target of attacks in July by Palestinian youths, who sacked the stations in their areas. So the municipality stopped running the trains there. The two deadly car attacks of the last couple of weeks took place at rail stations, easy targets for terrorists. This symbol of old and new, of coexistence and cooperation and shared economy and destinations, of progress and promise, has devolved into a symbol of hatred and resentment, of failure and intransigence, of murder and riots.

To quell the angry mobs of Palestinian protesters last week, Israel ordered a full shutdown of the Temple Mount for a day, the first time since the summer of 2000, igniting even more tension within the city as well as angering Israel’s mostly-cordial Arab neighbors in Jordan, who are still somewhat in control of what goes on on top of the Temple Mount plaza. Jerusalem is at a rolling boil of hatred, anger, fear, and grief.

Among the many, many things I learned about in rabbinical school are the basic principles of “family therapy.” Family therapists see each family as a system of interconnected personalities, and that when a family system is not functioning in equilibrium, then one or more of the people in the system misbehave and cause emotional damage. Often, the way to fix such a family system is to make a significant change in the structure. The hard part is knowing what must be changed.

The parashah that we read today describes the residents of Jerusalem as being from the same family - Abraham’s sons Ishmael and Isaac are the patriarchs of the Jews and the Arabs, respectively, and the Torah presents both of them as having a certain role to play in the world, siring two great nations. Let’s face it - Muslim, Christian and Jew, Israeli and Arab, we are one big family system that is misfiring all over the place.

As if to draw a fine point on this picture, Israel’s new President, Reuven Rivlin, a right-wing politician who supports settlements and rejects the two-state solution, said in a speech two weeks ago (as quoted in an article in the current Jewish Week): “The tension between Jews and Arabs within the State of Israel has risen to record heights, and the relationship between all parties has reached a new low. We have all witnessed the shocking sequence of incidents and violence taking place by both sides… It is time to honestly admit that Israeli society is sick - and it is our duty to treat this disease.”

With every terrorist attack, we, the Jews, the Israeli public are driven further away from seeking a negotiated resolution to the current situation. And that is an understandable response. As has often been noted, whenever Israel has retreated, terrorist groups have been emboldened.

But this observation is always made from the position of defeatism. The message is, “Nothing should change, because change has never been good for us.” I cannot accept that message.

President Rivlin lays a wreath at memorial for the victims of Kafr Qasim

Returning to President Rivlin, I offer his words given at an amazing speech in Kafr Qasm, an Israeli Arab town, where he spoke at the annual commemoration of the 1956 massacre of 48 Arab residents of the town by Israeli troops. He acknowledged the discrimination that Israeli Arabs have faced at the hands of the Jewish majority, and exhorted Arabs and Jews to take a step forward together based on “mutual respect and commitment”:
“As a Jew, I expect from my coreligionists, to take responsibility for our lives here, so as President of Israel, as your President, I also expect you to take that same responsibility. The Arab population in Israel, and the Arab leaders in Israel, must take a clear stand against violence and terrorism.”
The current escalation threatens the very foundations of the City of Peace, and it will not go away until there are fundamental changes in the family system. Those changes will have to be that, for the sake of Jerusalem, the Palestinians renounce terrorism, that PA President Mahmoud Abbas stops making inflammatory statements that seem to sympathize with terrorists, that Israel ceases demolishing homes, even the illegal ones, in the Arab neighborhoods of Jerusalem, and at least temporarily stops issuing building tenders for new construction for Jewish homes in disputed areas, and that both sides return to the table. As a family, we have to talk to each other.

We have no other choice. The only other option is the status quo, and we see how well that is working. The family system is broken.

We read this morning one of the most well-known and controversial stories in the Torah, the Aqedat Yitzhaq, the Binding of Isaac. Tradition tells us that it takes place on Mt. Moriah, which we today know as the Temple Mount. It is the Torah’s way of telling us that Jerusalem is the holiest place in the world, the location where a paradigm shift in our relationship with God took place. And, of course, Christians and Muslims believe this city to be holy as well.

Prayer, ladies and gentlemen, is not just a request for things that we want, it is also a blueprint for a world that could be. We should pray for those killed and injured in this conflict. But we also have to pray for the holy city of Jerusalem, and hold out hope that this situation will change.
שַׁאֲלוּ שְׁלוֹם יְרוּשָׁלִָם; יִשְׁלָיוּ, אֹהֲבָיִךְ.  יְהִי-שָׁלוֹם בְּחֵילֵךְ, שַׁלְוָה, בְּאַרְמְנוֹתָיִךְ.
Pray for the peace of Jerusalem: “May those who love you be at peace. May there be well-being within your ramparts, peace in your citadels.”
(Psalm 122:6-7)
Giving up hope is not an option. We must continue to sing Yerushalayim Shel Zahav, but also to invoke Psalm 122, to pray for the peace of Jerusalem, and to continue to place that before us as a goal. We must hope that change will come; if we give up that hope, then there will never be peace in the City of Peace.

Shabbat shalom.