Friday, September 14, 2018

"Through the narrow passage" (Sermon for 2nd day of Rosh HaShanah, 2018)

The story is told of a rabbi, a priest, and an imam who all receive a message from God.  The message is that God has finally had it with all of humanity’s sins once and for all. And in six months time, God is going to punish everyone with a flood, but there will be no Noah’s Ark this time. The religious leaders go to their people to share this grim news.  

The priest and imam say to their people:  “We now have six months to purify ourselves before we meet our God. We have six months to pray, to beg for forgiveness, and hopefully our God will be merciful to us.”

And the rabbi goes to his people and says, "Fellow Jews:  we now have 6 months to learn to breathe under water."

Why was I thinking of this old old joke throughout the summer?  Because of a story in the news that you certainly saw. In a year full of so many terrible news stories, with so much sadness and heartache, there was at least one news item that everyone could celebrate - even though it was so stressful when it was going on.  It took place in Northern Thailand.  As you no doubt remember, there was a youth soccer team in Thailand who spent what they were hoping would be a fun day exploring some local caves.  However, they got seriously lost, and then the rains came and the caves started to get filled up with water. For almost 2 weeks, there were intensive searches to find them. Many feared the worst, that they would not be found alive. But then, two expert cave divers discovered them, alive and relatively safe, but miles deep in the cave.

However, this is when the real international drama began. Because  so many of the cave passageways were flooded, and efforts to drill new holes into the cave were not successful, the initial plan was that the only way for them to get out of the cave was for them to engage in some of the most challenging cave scuba diving that could be done anywhere in the world, going through some narrow passages under water that were only 15 inches wide.

And so they started the process of teaching these kids the skills of scuba diving - skills that none of them had, but skills that it was expected that they would need in order to get out of the cave alive. Then in a remarkable demonstration of international cooperation of thousands of people,
after 18 days of captivity, all the boys and their coach were successfully rescued.  (As it happens, the boys did not have to put into practice any skills of swimming or diving, as it was decided that it would be safer if they would be entirely in the care of professional divers during their journey.)

There are so many implications of this incredible story that have spiritual import. The 25 year old coach, who had previously been a Buddhist monk, teaching the kids techniques of prayer and meditation so that they would consume less oxygen and have an easier time dealing with their lack of food day after day. (As someone who had engaged in a lot of fasting as a spiritual discipline, he was able to guide the kids about what fasting would feel like so they wouldn’t panic.)  After being discovered but before being rescued, the coach sent a note of abject apology to the parents, acknowledging that he had made a terrible mistake in authorizing this visit to the cave.  And the parents sent a gracious message back to him in the cave, to let him know that they were so relieved that he was there together with their children and that they were so thankful that he was keeping them safe.  (Which truly he was, in ways that the parents would not learn until after the rescue.)   And after their rescue, the boys spent several days taking temporary vows of Buddhist monkhood in memory of the Thai Navy SEAL who had died trying to rescue them, and also in tribute to the role that prayer and meditation had played in keeping them safe.

So all in all, this is a story about prayer and meditation and fasting and apology and forgiveness, and self-sacrifice and cooperation and generosity, and doing acts of kindness in memory of the deceased.

Or in other words, there is absolutely NO theme from the HH that is absent from this story!

Wednesday, September 12, 2018

"Listen to the Stories" (Rosh HaShanah sermon at the United Synagogue of Hoboken, September 10, 2018)

I have absolutely no interest whatsoever in astrology.  With one exception.

I find it very moving that the astrological sign for this time of year is Libra - the scales - which have been a symbol of justice for so many centuries.

One nickname of Rosh HaShanah is Yom Ha-Din - the day of judgment.  Throughout the high holiday season, our prayers use the image of a courtroom.  This is the day when, from the perspective of Jewish tradition, we each feel judged, and we make every effort to judge ourselves.  In the stirring prayer Unetaneh Tokef, we confront the elaborate metaphor that each of us has our verdict inscribed in a fearsome heavenly book, determining our fate for the coming year.

So for the sages of our tradition, who were more interested in the zodiac than you might have thought, it was no surprise that the astrological sign for this time of year is Libra - the scales of justice - which our sages referred to by the Hebrew name - ‘מאזניים Moznayim.’  For them, this was yet another demonstration that this is the time of year when all of creation passes before God one by one -   תעביר ותספור ותמנה ותפקוד נפש כל  חי - “You take note of and count and attend to every living thing.  ותחתוך קצבה לכל בריאה - and You determine the fate of every creature.”

As we stand today in the presence of these scales of justice, I want to tell you a story of how the scales of justice have a different meaning for me this year נecause of an troubling experience I had this year in an American courtroom.  This story, which some of you already know, has political implications.  But I am sharing this story with you not because of its political implications but because I think it helps us to better understand one of the themes of Rosh HaShanah.  Fortunately we’re not the kind of synagogue where people get up and dramatically walk out when the rabbi says something they disagree with.  (Or if we are that kind of synagogue, you have never done it dramatically enough for me to have noticed.)   But I want to promise you that, first of all, we have a politically diverse community and on this and other issues I respect where you’re coming from whether I agree with you or not, and I deeply believe that the story I am sharing with you can help you to better  understand Rosh HaShanah whether or not you and I are in sync politically.

Thursday, July 19, 2018

Political Civility: Rethinking Bar Kamtza

After Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders was asked to leave a Virginia restaurant earlier this month, I was asked: Is there any classical Jewish parallel to such an incident? I responded that a close parallel may be a story that is well-known to many Jews, especially at this time of year.

The Talmud relates that the city of Jerusalem was destroyed by the Roman Empire as the culmination of a series of tragic incidents that all began with an incident at a party. According to the Talmud: A certain man had a friend named Kamtza and an enemy named Bar Kamtza. He once made a party and said to his servant, "Go and bring Kamtza." However, the servant got confused with the similar names and made the mistake of bringing Bar Kamtza. (In a study group I led this month, someone quipped: “That’s like if I wanted to invite Sarah Huckabee Sanders to my party and I invited Bernie Sanders by mistake.”)

When the host found him there, he said, "You are my enemy!” [alternate translation: “You tell tales about me!”] What are you doing here? Get out."

Bar Kamtza responded: "Since I am here, let me stay, and I will pay you for whatever I eat and drink."

The host said, "I won't."

"Then let me give you half the cost of the party!"

"No!" said the host.

"Then let me pay for the whole party!"

The host still said "No!" and took him by the hand and threw him out of the party.

Bar Kamtza then said: "Since the Rabbis were sitting there and did not stop him, this shows that they agreed with him. I will go and inform against them to the Government."

Bar Kamtza then contacted the Roman Emperor and said, "The Jews are rebelling against you." When the Emperor was skeptical, Bar Kamtza proposed a test: he invited the Emperor to donate an animal for a sacrifice in the Temple in Jerusalem and see if the Jewish leaders would accept it. While transporting the animal, however, Bar Kamtza blemished the animal to render it unfit for sacrifice, with the knowledge that the Jewish leaders would probably refuse to offer it as a sacrifice, which would lead the Emperor to conclude that they were being disrespectful to him.

This is only the first chapter of a multi-part story, but it is the most famous part of the story. I have had numerous opportunities to teach this story to adults and children alike, and I always ask: what were the “off-ramps” that were missed in this story? What could each of the characters done to prevent the unfolding disaster?

Consistently, people answer: the host of the party is primarily at fault. He should have welcomed Bar Kamtza, or at least taken him up on his generous financial offer. Alternately, the rabbis at the party should have spoken up for Bar Kamtza to spare him the embarrassment of being thrown out of a party. The Talmud indicates that this was Rabbi Eleazar’s interpretation of the story as well: “Rabbi Elazar says: Come and see how great is the power of shame, for the Holy Blessed One assisted Bar Kamtza in destroying God’s Temple and burning God’s sanctuary.” (BT Gittin 57a) This story is often used as an illustration of the sin’at hinam, “causeless hatred,” that was the ultimate cause of the destruction of Jerusalem. In this story, a petty interpersonal conflict festers into a conflict between peoples and ultimately leads to death and destruction, because of the host’s intransigence.

As time goes on, however, I have started to think about this story differently -- and over time, my empathy for the host has grown, as my empathy for Bar Kamtza’s humiliation has diminished.

A first textual clue is that Bar Kamtza is introduced as a בעל דבבא ba’al devava - a phrase that is often translated as ‘enemy,’ but can also mean ‘tale-bearer.’ And in fact, that is what Bar Kamtza does: immediately after being thrown out of the party, he contacts the Emperor and makes a false report about the Jewish people.

Bar Kamtza’s later actions give us some indication of his character, his connections, and the role that he apparently plays in Judean society. That he has access to the Emperor places him at the upper echelons of society, aligned with those who already have a conflicted relationship with the leaders of the Jewish community. When Bar Kamtza has a grievance, he responds immediately by crafting a plan of deception and manipulation, with the goal of provoking a regional catastrophe, and he has the high level connections to make it happen. It is possible that some of these qualities are the reasons why the host was not excited to have him at the party in the first place.

This leads me to suggest an alternate reading of the story. Bar Kamtza is not at all “embarrassed” to be thrown out of the party. Rather, he is a political operative who knows how to exploit every mis-step of his opponents. Such a person is skilled at harnessing umbrage and using it for political purposes. I picture Bar Kamtza receiving the invitation to the party, realizing that it must have been received in error, and rejoicing that he has an opportunity to exploit his enemy’s mistake. Of course he is going to attend the party, and of course he is going to respond with crocodile tears when he is asked to leave, with the goal of provoking an overreaction by the host. And of course he is going to use the experience as a pretext to pursue the goal that he had already established - but this time with the appearance of the moral high ground.

What would have happened if the host had welcomed him into the party, or taken him up on one of his offers of payment? My sense is that Bar Kamtza would have found some way to exploit this as well. He might say, for example, that it is a sign that the host is unprincipled and materialistic. Or he might overhear some information at the party that he could use to pursue his goals. Or he might simply wait until tomorrow for another chance to pursue his goals. I used to empathize with Bar-Kamtza over his embarrassment at being disinvited, but now I feel that even if he is coddled, he will always manage to find something to take umbrage about, at a time and place of his choosing.

The implications of this reading of this classic story are challenging in light of the current debate over “civility” in the United States and elsewhere. I would still counsel civility as the wise choice in almost every interaction with people with whom one disagrees, even if the disagreement is vehement. A person like Bar Kamtza is trying to provoke an overreaction from the other side, which is a good enough reason not to overreact. But I am increasingly convinced that Bar Kamtza does not deserve our sympathy. And sadly, our world is full of those who will exploit apparent minor slights with the goal of magnifying them into serious conflicts -- and that, too, is a manifestation of the sin’at hinam, “causeless hatred,” that we are cautioned to avoid.

Friday, July 13, 2018

I never thought I would witness a mass trial in the United States (trip to Laredo TX, part 3)

Monday July 9, 2018:
I have no photos of the mass trial we saw, as photos are illegal in the courtroom, but this (illegally taken) photo published in June 2018 in various news publications accurately reflects the courtroom scene that we witnessed on July 9 in Laredo.  See 

On Monday morning, our group went to Federal Court in Laredo TX to observe immigration cases.
I have no photos of this because it is illegal to take photos in the courtroom, but please look at this (illegally taken) photo and article - - , as it basically accurately represents what we saw: a group of more than 70 defendants in a mass trial for illegal border crossing.

The first thing the judge had to do was arrange the defendants in the courtroom in rows so that the taller people were in back and the shorter people were in front. Defendants we saw were mostly men but some women, almost all of whom appeared to be in their late teens or 20s, from Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador.

Over the course of the morning, we saw some defendants wearing street clothes and some wearing orange jumpsuits; some were chained and some were not. (My guess is that this has something to do with whether it was a misdemeanor charge (border crossing as a first offense) or a felony charge (border crossing as a subsequent offense). The article says that the defendants were told to answer the judge's questions in unison - however, what we saw was each person answering the judge's questions, one by one, row by row: 'si si si si si si si si .....'. 'No no no no no no no ....'. (Defendants wore headsets for Spanish translation- though apparently some of them speak other regional languages and are not proficient in Spanish).

The article also says that the court-appointed public defenders have less than 2 hours to meet with all the defendants to prepare for the proceedings - translating to less than 2 minutes of individual time per defendant. This is exactly what we were told about the cases we saw on Monday, based on conversations with people who work at the court. (Yet every person, when asked 'do you fully understand the charges against you and the rights you are giving up by pleading guilty,' answered 'si si si si si si si si si si ....')

Obviously I am not a lawyer, and I have almost no experience in courtrooms, but I was disturbed by this scene that seemed so different from what I would expect from the American judicial system. The lawyers and law students in our group were especially appalled, with some saying that they felt they were witnessing due process violations.

All the people we saw pleaded guilty of illegally crossing the border between June 26 and July 6, by walking/swimming/taking a boat/raft/inner tube across the river (as they each pleaded guilty, one by one, they were asked to say how they crossed the border, and everyone answered using one of these means of border crossing), and the next step for them is 'removal proceedings' (i.e. deportation). It is possible that some of them will request asylum during that phase of the process. (from media reports, it seems likely that at least some of them are fleeing violence.) we don't know, however, about the quality of their legal representation and to what extent they understand this part of the process. As far as I can tell from my notes, 'asylum' was not mentioned even once in the court proceedings that we saw.

Presumably each of these people has a story that never got heard. Some of them may have been coming for economic opportunity; some may have been repeat border crossers but this is the first time they had been caught. Some may have been criminals or gang members. Some - especially those from Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador- may have been fleeing desperate and dangerous situations in their home countries. But no aspect of their stories were part of these proceedings, other than their names, the dates that each crossed the river, and the means by which they did so. I presume that the court-appointed lawyers also did not have the opportunity to hear their stories.

When we asked Bishop Tomayo of the Diocese of Laredo how we can be most supportive to people in this region, he answered: "Tell their stories." This has been a theme of my trip here: everyone has a story. We met Border Patrol officers who were eager for us to understand that they are each individuals underneath their uniforms, and each one has a unique perspective and motivation for pursuing the work that they pursue. We met immigration activists who each have a story about how they came to be involved in this work. Even at the church in Sutherland Springs, not directly related to the rest of our trip, we met a number of people who were eager to share their stories of being in a community that is recovering from tragedy. And similarly, every person who makes the dangerous decision to cross the border illegally has a story of what brought him or her to do so. The first and most basic step is a small step - to listen to each person's story.

Detention centers, religious leaders, immigrants and asylees ((trip to Laredo TX, part 2)

Part 2:  Sun July 8

Photos from the South Texas Family Residential Center in Dilley, Texas. This is the largest family detention center in the US, with room for 2400 detainees. ‘Family residential’ is basically a euphemism for the detention of women and children. We were not allowed to enter (we did not expect to). One of the leaders of our group, however, is an immigration attorney who has various clients who have claimed asylum status and are now detained at Dilley. Mothers and children are detained together while they await their hearings to determine if they meet the criteria for asylum.
The attorney in our group noted that increasingly, these hearings take place by video, with the asylum seeker in the detention center, the judge in another location, the attorneys in yet additional locations, and translators on the phone. She suggested that the overall effect of this is that the hearings are chaotic and the judges are then less inclined to regard the asylum seekers as trustworthy - and as a result, people who clearly meet the criteria for asylum in her opinion are less likely to be successful in their hearings.
She also noted that most of the large detention facilities are managed by for-profit companies. Dilley is managed by CoreCivic, until recently known as CCA (Corrections Corporation of America). We also briefly visited another detention facility managed by Geo, another for-profit prison management company. We noted various difficulties of the for-profit prison system, including that prison management is incentivized to maximize profits by reducing the cost of detainee/prisoner care. The security and safety record of these private prisons is frankly terrible. In mid-2016, the Justice Department determined that all contracts with for-profit prisons would be concluded because they did not provide the level of security and safety as the Department of Corrections’ own prisons. After the presidential election, however, the attorney general reversed this decision. (Google ‘Geo Group’ for more info about this.) (This episode is a reminder that, from the perspective of the people we have been speaking with, the US immigration system has been terribly broken for many decades, and no one should think that problems began with the current administration (though the current administration has adopted many policies that seem particularly heartless). Dilley was built under the previous administration, and the dramatic expansion of for-profit prisons also took place under previous administrations.)


Bishop James Tomayo, Bishop of the Diocese of Laredo, joined our group for Shaharit /morning prayers yesterday morning and at various points throughout our visit..He was one of the many religious leaders we met who are working hard to care for the residents of this region. Bishop Tomayo showed us the coat of arms of the Diocese of Laredo, which has an image of a river running through it - echoing the Rio Grande that separates the twin cities of Laredo, Texas, and Nuevo Laredo, Mexico. 

across the border from Laredo TX to Nuevo Laredo Mexico

Thursday, July 12, 2018

Resilience in the face of tragedy: my visit to Sutherland Springs, Texas (Texas trip part 1)

My next several posts will describe my trip to Texas in July 2018 to learn more about the current immigration crisis and some other issues. 

Part 1:  Sun July 8

I am spending today and tomorrow in Texas, visiting sites in the Laredo area that are connected to the current immigration crisis. I am grateful to my friend and colleague Rabbi Neil Blumofe of the Jewish community of Austin for inviting me to participate in this group with members of his community and some other visitors from out of state - and so grateful to the organizers of the trip.
Our first stop, however, was the Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, TX - the site of the horrific massacre last fall in which 26 of the members of their community were murdered during a church service - a huge percentage of this small community. (The total population of Sutherland Springs is about 500 people.).
We were guests of the pastor, Rev. Frank Pomeroy. He and his wife were out of town on the day of the massacre, but one of the victims was their 14-year-old daughter Annabelle z”l.
THe church building has now been converted into a memorial - with 26 chairs set up in the locations where the victims had sat on that fateful day. (Church services are now held in an adjoining temporary building.) The church deacon who showed us around the memorial noted, “I am the only deacon left. We lost a lot of deacons on that day.”
I found the community remarkably friendly, and clearly they worked hard to cultivate an atmosphere of joy and gratitude even amidst the backdrop of sadness. Among announcements about vacation bible camp and study groups was an announcement that a photographer would be coming to the church next Sunday - to take family portraits for anyone who wished, at no charge, with the option of incorporating photos of deceased relatives in the background of the portrait. On a regular basis the church receives gifts from communities around the world that they pass on to the parishioners (see photo of one such gift that was placed on every seat).
The community is clearly welcoming of visitors while also being upset at the constant presence of the news media. They appreciate those who want to stand with them in their sorrow, while being annoyed by those who seem to be gawking and exploiting - much like anyone experiencing tragic loss.
Not surprisingly, there were various indications that this is a community that is quite distant from me religiously, politically and culturally. (It should not come as a surprise that they are not looking at their terrible tragedy through the lens of gun-related issues, and I don’t imagine that their perspectives on guns have changed following their tragedy.). The pastor’s sermon made it clear that they have not had many visits from non-Christians, if any. What we have in common, however, is what is most important to me at this moment - including dreams for the welfare of our children and communities. One of my hopes for this trip is to listen deeply to people with whom I agree and with people with whom I disagree - and always to find some way to demonstrate how we are connected despite difference.

Thursday, May 17, 2018

Yanny and Laurel on the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict

The internet phenomenon of the hour is a mysterious computer voice that some people hear unmistakably saying the word “Laurel,” while other people hear the same voice saying the word(?) “Yanny.”

Is the voice actually saying “Yanny” or “Laurel”? Like so much else in the world, it depends on your prior context and what you are primed to hear -- and it also depends on what audio frequencies you are hearing most strongly. Thanks to a quirk of audio processing, the higher frequencies in this audio clip incline a person to hear the voice saying “Yanny,” while the lower frequencies make a person more likely to hear “Laurel.” And a particular person’s balance of low and high frequencies will be determined by various factors, including the audio equipment one is using, the quality of one’s hearing, and one’s psychological expectations. Two people can listen to the exact same voice at the same time and hear that voice saying different words. (There is even a tool that one can use to adjust the frequencies to make it more likely that one will hear one word or the other.)

Throughout this week, my thoughts have been turned to Israel and Gaza. I realize that discussing this conflict in the same breath as an internet meme runs the risk of trivializing this weighty and tragic situation, which is the last thing I would want to do. And yet I see the ambiguous computerized voice as a powerful metaphor for different understandings of the intractable conflict between Israelis and Palestinians, including different understandings of this week’s events.

One of the characteristics of the Yanny/Laurel voice is that people who hear one of the two words are often incredulous that anyone could possibly hear the other word. And yet, over time, it is possible for a listener to stretch oneself and even to force oneself to hear the other word - or at least to concede that hearing the other word is plausible.

Even the mere suggestion that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict could be similar will, I am sure, prompt outrage. Many supporters of Israel, in Israel or throughout the world, will find it absurd that anyone could possibly and genuinely take the side of the Palestinians in this or any other dispute, when Israel so clearly holds the moral high ground. And similarly, for many supporters of the Palestinians, the justice of that cause is so abundantly clear that anyone who supports the Israelis in this struggle is obviously operating under political and/or religious delusions.

My own perspective on this conflict does not simply split the difference. I align myself with Israel.  While I have my critiques of various Israeli policy decisions, I strongly support the right of Israel to exist and to defend itself.  (Ultimately, I hope and pray for a future in which everyone in the region can live in peace and security with their human rights and national rights respected - ideally in a two-state solution, as remote as that dream may seem now.)  I recognize, though, that those who disagree with me on anything I have said above are not delusional; rather, they are focusing on a different blend of frequencies from the ones I am focused on, whether because they are getting their news from different sources from me, or they are emphasizing different aspects of the situation and de-emphasizing other aspects, or because they (like me) are primed to hear what they expect to hear.

Some would say that in an intractable conflict like the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, it is a sign of weakness and disloyalty to even consider the perspective of the other side. (I am confident that this post will attract angry comments from both left and right, saying exactly this and proving my point.) But I side with those who say that understanding the narratives of the other is a sign of strength, not of weakness. I appreciate what I have learned from some inspiring teachers - including Rabbi Hanan Schlesinger, Antwan Saca and Ali Abu Awwad of Roots/Shorashim/Judur, as well as Yossi Klein Halevi and Imam Abdullah Antepli of the Hartman Institute. All these teachers have taught me that growing towards peace involves a confrontation with the perspectives with which we may feel primed to disagree, and a recognition of the data points that we may feel inclined to dismiss.

Any political conflict can be compared to a scatter plot full of numerous data points, with different sides in the conflict connecting the dots in different ways. In the current conflict, I note the large number of facts that are not in dispute, some of which will be emphasized by one side and some of which will be emphasized by the other side -- just as those who hear “Yanny” will be focusing more on the higher frequencies and those who hear “Laurel” will be focusing more on the lower frequencies.

Supporters of the Palestinians, for example, will focus on the fact that the recent protests at the Gaza border began as grassroots, non-violent protests, and the overwhelming majority of those who have participated -- including some of those who have lost their lives -- have not ever engaged in attempted acts of violence against Israel. And supporters of Israel will note that Hamas has encouraged and funded these protests, which have included acts of violence, including armed people trying to cross the border with the express aim, by their own admission, to commit acts of violence and even murder of Israeli civilians. Supporters of the Palestinians will note the egregious living conditions in Gaza, with the poverty and hopelessness that has inclined so many residents towards suicidal acts. Supporters of Israel will note, however, that this zeal is also fomented by the religious and political ideology of Gaza’s Hamas leaders, who share in the responsibility for the desperation of Gaza’s residents. (This article catalogues 13 “inconvenient truths” about the Israel/Gaza conflict and is sure to include at least one detail to make every person uncomfortable.) Supporters of Palestinians will be inclined to blame the collapse of the peace process on Israeli settlement building, while supporters of Israel will be inclined to blame this collapse on Palestinian terrorism and lack of Palestinian acceptance of the legitimacy of any Jewish presence in the Middle East. And so it is with every aspect of this complex and painful conflict: Of the wide array of data points, each side focuses on the data points that best support its own position, and each side seeks to deemphasize the strongest data points of the other side. This is the strategy that is usually employed by both sides when debating the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

But maybe the problem is that “debate” is the frame we often use to discuss these issues. There is another way, which is to embrace dialogue rather than debate. Unlike a debating strategy, where the goal is to emphasize one’s own strongest points and ignore or discredit the strongest points of one’s opponent, the goal in a dialogue is to listen to and understand the other side. In a dialogue, encountering and listening to the other is not a sign of disloyalty but is a sign of strength. Debaters seek to simplify the situations they discuss, while those who dialogue are comfortable to understand their complexity -- and since the situations are truly complex rather than simple, those who engage in dialogue are coming to a fuller and truer understanding. Debating opponents often walk away feeling dismissed and devalued; dialogue partners ideally walk away feeling heard, their humanity affirmed.

I find it so sad when some people refuse to ‘normalize’ their adversaries, refusing to listen to them or dialogue with them. There may be a time to use such an intellectual boycott tactic, but hopefully only for adversaries of the very most heinous variety. I side with the interfaith activist and writer Eboo Patel: I want to exclude the smallest number of people from my potential circle of dialogue partners.

There remains a role for both debate and dialogue, and dialogue cannot solve all problems. Many people are jaded or stung by unsatisfying dialogue experiences they have had, which sometimes disinclines them from engaging in dialogue again. But those who are hoping that the Israeli/Palestinian conflict will be solved by the complete defeat and capitulation of one of the sides are mistaken. Whatever a better future for the people of the region will be, it will demand a higher level of mutual listening and mutual understanding - by Israelis and Palestinians, and by their advocates around the world.

Thursday, April 19, 2018

"Al Kol Eleh" - "For all these things": Thoughts on Israel's 70th birthday

In honor of Israel's 70th Yom Ha-Atzma'ut this week, the organization Koolulam released this video of 12,000 Israelis singing together. In a stadium in Tel Aviv, they learned and performed the vocal parts for the classic song "Al Kol Eleh," "For all these things."

If you haven't seen the video yet, you might want to pause to do so before reading the rest of what I have written about it.
In 1980, to comfort her sister Ruth on the loss of her husband, the Israeli songwriter Naomi Shemer dedicated a song to her sister called “Al Kol Eleh” - “For all these things.”   It has become one of the most popular songs of contemporary Israel.

Like many iconic songs, many regard it as hackneyed and cliched.  But there’s a reason why it became such a popular song. It reflects powerfully deep wisdom.

The opening words of this song, ‘Al hadvash ve-al ha-oketz, al ha-mar ve-hamatok,’ ‘For the honey and the sting, for the bitter and the sweet,’ have their roots in a midrashic comment on the Book of Numbers (Tanhuma Balak 6).  

The midrash pictures a person who sees a bee, and says, ‘Bee, get away from me!  I have no use for you. Lo mi-duvshakh, ve-lo me-uktzakh.  I don't want your honey, and I don't want your sting."

In its context in the midrash, this phrase cautions against things that look attractive but are actually bundled together with strong negatives, such that the bad far outweighs the good.  The prudent course implied by the midrash is to avoid the bee’s honey, because it is accompanied by the bee’s sting.

But Naomi Shemer’s song turns this midrashic phrase on its head.  Naomi Shemer realized that as a life strategy, “I don’t want your honey, and I don’t want your sting” is deeply flawed.  Such a strategy can lead someone to avoid any endeavor that includes the possibility of pain or failure.
Which is why in her famous song, Naomi Shemer thanks God al kol eleh - ‘for all these things,’ al hadvash ve-al ha-oketz, ‘for the honey and for the sting.’   Shemer says: don’t avoid the honey because of the sting.  Rather, appreciate the honey despite the sting.

Today’s 70th anniversary of Israeli independence is an opportunity to take stock of the entirety of the experience of Israel, the honey and the sting, the bitter and the sweet.  

It is breathtaking to behold how much Israel has accomplished in its few short decades:  reconstituting a Jewish national community; becoming a place where Israeli culture is normative, where Jews and Judaism are at home.  Being a place of refuge for Jews experiencing persecution around the world, who otherwise would have nowhere to go. Building a society that is animated by Jewish values, as well as by the values of the democracies that have been the places where Jews have been most likely to to thrive in freedom.  Becoming a center for the world-wide Jewish community, and the home to the largest Jewish community in the world. Reestablishing a deep Jewish connection to the land of the Bible, where so much of Jewish history took place. Becoming a leader in worldwide technology and innovation. Granting freedoms to its citizens, of all religions, that are so far beyond the freedoms that they could experience anywhere else in the entire region.  Expressing deeply held humanitarian impulses as it responds to crises around the world and endeavors to play its part in making the world better. The list of everything sweet about Israel goes on and on.

But the honey is accompanied by the sting, the bitterness that is often overwhelming.  The dream of return to the land of our ancestors has been realized - but the dream of being accepted in the Middle East has not been realized.  Every Israeli family and community has experienced the sting of the violent deaths of loved ones, often in the prime of life, in the struggle for the legitimacy of an official Jewish presence in its historic homeland.  Enough of Israel’s neighbors have not yet accepted its presence that the spectre of an attack upon Israel - even an attack with nuclear weapons - must be seriously considered and prepared for. Whereas criticism of Israel is not always the same thing as antisemitism, much of the criticism of Israel in our world is thoroughly intertwined with antisemitism.  

And the thus-far intractable conflict between Israelis and Palestinians stings so deeply:  terrible losses on both sides, and the corrosive effects on both sides of long-term war and the long-term subjection of a civilian population to military control. Israel is not totally responsible for this predicament, but it shares in both the responsibility and the consequences.  Implications of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict also cast thorny questions on the character of Israel’s future: will it be a Jewish and democratic state as it strives to be, as per the vision of its founders? Or will it compromise its democratic character in order to remain Jewish, or compromise its Jewish character in order to remain democratic?  If Israel pursues either of these paths, what will be its future and what will be its risks? As I see the children of my Israeli friends reaching military age, and as I see the Israeli friends of my children reaching military age, all these questions are not at all theoretical; they burn with an intensity that nearly matches the sweetness of all of Israel’s achievements.

Some respond:  lo mi-duvshakh ve-lo me-uktzakh. Israel, I don’t want your honey, no matter how sweet, because I don’t want your sting.  

But I sing along with Naomi Shemer:  Al hadvash ve-al ha-oketz.  I take the honey despite the sting, even as I do what I can to minimize the sting.  

Israel is the most significant Jewish project of the current era. As the Israeli writer Amos Oz likes to say, Israel is a dream come true, which is why it is flawed. Dreams come true are always flawed, and the only way to keep a dream in its pristine condition is to never attempt to bring it into reality.  A dream come true, like a milestone birthday, should prompt both celebration and introspection -- both prayers of gratitude and prayers for guidance to chart a wise future. On this 70th anniversary of Israel’s independence, my gratitude overflows - as do my prayers for guidance.

In the words of the Prayer for Israel in Siddur Lev Shalem:

“We pray for God’s blessing upon the State of Israel, her government, and all who dwell within her boundaries and under her authority.  

Grant her leaders the fortitude to keep ever before us those ideals upon which the State of Israel was founded.   Grant courage, wisdom, and strength to those entrusted with guiding Israel’s destiny to do Your will.

Be with those on whose shoulders Israel’s safety depends and defend them from all harm.

Spread over Israel and all the world Your shelter of peace, and may the vision of Your prophet soon be fulfilled: “Nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore.” (Isaiah 2:4)


Rabbi Rob Scheinberg

Tuesday, April 10, 2018

Thoughts on Yom HaShoah 2018 -- in memory of Kurt Rosendahl, Frieda Brown, Mirielle Knoll z"l

Dear friends,

Tonight begins Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day - the day when we remember the effort by the Nazis to obliterate the Jewish people -- and how they nearly succeeded in their diabolical plan, murdering ⅔ of the Jews of Europe, approximately 6 million men, women, and children. The Holocaust continues to exert an influence on the life of our community today, as so many of us have family members who are survivors and so many of us have family members who were killed during that terrible era. (Click here to see a video of how Yom HaShoah is marked in Israel today -- with a two minute siren that brings the entire nation to mournful standstill in tribute to those who were killed.)

Tonight and tomorrow, many of us are lighting memorial candles in memory of those who have died. Additionally, many of us will gather on Sunday afternoon April 15, 4pm, at Congregation Bnai Jacob (176 West Side Avenue in Jersey City) for a moving tribute to those who died, including musical presentations by the USH Choir. Our older Learning Center students in grade 6 and above are having special programs this week focusing on remembering the Shoah.

Each year on Yom HaShoah, I reflecting on the memories of people who died since last Yom HaShoah, whose lives were touched by the Shoah. As we experience the loss of the generation of Holocaust survivors, the responsibility to tell their stories shifts to the rest of us.

Today, I think of Kurt Rosendahl, grandfather of our friend and member and trustee Adam Berkowitz, who died in February 2018. Adam wrote this in memory of his grandfather:

"Kurt Rosendahl was born in 1920 Aachen, Germany, with dreams of following his father into a very successful family pharmacy business. As the Nazis took power, my grandfather and his family left for Belgium, with my grandfather and great-grandfather fleeing to France to join the resistance. They were ultimately captured by the Nazis. My grandfather spent time in multiple camps, surviving Auschwitz, a death march through Poland, and finally Buchenwald where he was liberated by the Americans. At one point he suffered gangrene in his foot, had a non-surgical amputation of a toe, and only survived because his friends carried him back and forth to work each day. He met my grandmother in Belgium after the war (I told that story during Yom Kippur), and they eventually moved to the US, settling in Manhattan and then Long Island. They enjoyed traveling the world and meeting new people everywhere- visiting 6 of the 7 continents and numerous countries. But what they loved most was their family- Two daughters, 5 grandchildren, and 2 great-grandchildren [LC students Marissa and Tori Berkowitz] (with a third on the way) are what made them most proud. Just last weekend he was able to celebrate his 98th birthday with his family and friends.

At my mother's funeral, my grandfather spoke the following: "In sleepless and endless nights and nightmares, in the filthy barracks of Auschwitz, I had a dream. I had the impossible dream that I would survive the Shoa which we call the Henim. I dreamt that I would meet Helen and that together we would create a new family and new life. When Diane was born, it was the fulfillment of an impossible dream. She was our first born and the beginning of a new family and new life. There is a concept in Judaism that one life is the equivalent to the entire world. Diane was the beginning of a new world.""

Kurt Rosendahl spent much of his life speaking and writing about his Shoah experience; he told his story to a group of teenagers just a few weeks before he died. We pray that Kurt’s memory be a blessing always, as we extend continued wishes for comfort and peace to Adam and Lindsay and Marissa and Tori and all who mourn the loss of Kurt Rosendahl.

Also on my mind is Frieda Brown, a dear friend of our community who died in July 2017. Frieda Brown, mother of our friend and member Alicia Weinstein, was born in the notorious concentration camp of Bergen-Belsen, shortly after the war was over and it had been converted into a displaced persons camp for survivors of the Holocaust including her parents. A good portion of Frieda’s childhood was spent caring for her younger siblings, in part because her mother was in ill health with aftereffects of her Holocaust experience. We pray for continued comfort for Frieda’s daughter Alicia, son-in-law Jim, and grandchildren Mimi, Grace, and Evan.

We also join with the worldwide Jewish community in mourning the loss of Mirielle Knoll of Paris, age 85, who was brutally murdered just a few weeks ago in what authorities are calling an act of anti-Jewish violence. As a child, Mirielle narrowly escaped the roundup of Parisian Jews in July 1942. She lived a generally happy and quiet life and raised her family in France. In later years, she had Parkinsons Disease and was mostly confined to her home. Just three weeks ago she was murdered -- the key suspect is a neighbor whom she had known since his childhood, and there are indications that he and his accomplices were motivated by their anti-Jewish beliefs. How agonizing that the anti-Jewish hatred that had upended her childhood returned to cruelly and tragically end her life in violence. Mirielle’s death, along with other murders of Jews in France in recent years, are horrifying reminders that the hatreds of the past are still with us. And seeing thousands and thousands of people in Paris two weeks ago, marching against hatred in Mirielle’s memory, hopefully reminds us that not everyone embraces the hatreds of the past; we have many allies in our desire to create a world of kindness and tolerance.

In this country, this year as well, we are so alarmed by the events in Charlottesville and other indications that the spiritual heirs of the Nazis are more confident and assertive than they have been in many decades. The Anti-Defamation League’s report of extremist murders in the United States in 2017 notes that the number of murders in the United States perpetrated by white supremacists has doubled in the last year. Here, too, we can take comfort in the number of allies we have -- people who prize diversity rather than being threatened by it -- but we know that we must continue to be vigilant.

As we pause to remember those who were cruelly murdered during the Shoah, as well as those who survived, we pray that their memories will inspire greater kindness and tolerance and love in our world.


See below for an inspiring response to the Shoah - video of 600 Holocaust survivors and their children singing the Israeli song 'Chai' - "We are alive."

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Seder Trivia - 2018 / 5778 edition

At our synagogue's congregational seders for the last few years, we have played the following game:  I have collected unusual Pesach stories, and shared three such stories with the community:  two true stories, and one fictional story.  Participants then have to guess which two stories are true and which one is false.   (If you listen to Wait, wait, don't tell me, you get the idea, except that only one story is false.)

You can see previous editions of this game here

This is what was presented at our congregational seder in 2017.  2 are true; one is fictional. Answers at the bottom!

2 stories are true, one is fictional. 

What is everyone’s favorite Passover dessert?  Like you have to ask.  Your favorite Passover dessert is Matzo Toffee Crunch, otherwise known as Matzoh Caramel Buttercrunch.  If you have had it before, you know that it’s your favorite.  If you have never had it before, that is the only reason it is not yet your favorite.  

These cookies, made from matzo coated in caramel made of butter and brown sugar, topped with melted chocolate and then refrigerated, are easy to make and also so addictive that in some circles they are known simply as ‘matzo crack.’

You may have thought that you remember this recipe from your grandparents who brought it with them to Ellis Island … but food writer and pastry chef Marcy Goldman has done some research on this Passover tradition, and her research reflects that this recipe was invented by one specific person -- food writer and pastry chef Marcy Goldman. She says she developed this recipe in 1985, she says she can prove it, and it’s time for her to start getting credit for it.   

So when the Manischewitz Food Co  put a recipe for Matzo Toffee Crunch on its matzo boxes, she asked that they indicate that she was the original inventor of this recipe.  They declined, noting that recipes can’t be copyrighted.

But increasingly Marcy Goldman has been getting appropriate credit for the invention of this recipe, the first truly new food to truly break into the pantheon of Passover classic dishes in many decades -- even though it might be better not be known a the inventor of ‘matzo crack.’
The seder plate is getting crowded.  Along with the traditional shank bone and egg and parsley, some Jews have had the tradition for the last 30 years to add an orange to the seder plate - in solidarity with Jewish women, or with the Jewish LGBT community, depending on whose version of the story you believe.  More recently, advocates for farm workers have suggested putting a tomato on the seder plate.  Advocates for Israeli-Palestinian coexistence have encouraged putting olives on the seder plate. And Reconstructionist Judaism has encouraged adding a pineapple to the seder plate as a symbol for refugees.

But as of last week, the newest addition to the seder plate is an unbroken apple peel - to express solidarity with the millions of people around the world, and thousands and thousands of Jews, who are left-handed.   That’s according to Joel-Aaron Levine, the founder of “Left-Handers Anonymous,” as well as the moderator of its “Jewish Left-Handers” Facebook page.  According to Levine, this is the way that attention can be drawn to the daily indignities suffered by people who are left-handed, who find that desks, musical instruments, the computer mouse, and especially kitchen utensils were not designed with them in mind.

And why should the apple peel be the symbol for these people?  Says Levine:  “If you’re a lefty, you know that it’s going to be harder for you to use a regular vegetable or fruit peeler to peel your apples to make Haroset.”  But Jews have a special responsibility to reach out to the southpaw community, especially on Passover.  As Levine notes, there is a robust debate in rabbinic literature about which way left-handed people should lean at the seder -- to the left, like everyone else, or to the right.

Does Levine have any hesitation about mentioning the suffering of slaves in Egypt, contemporary migrant laborers, refugees, and LGBT people in the same breath with the challenges of people who are left-handed?  “We’re not implying that everyone’s difficulties are the same,” he says.  “But Jews are taught not to rest until everyone has equal rights - or equal lefts, as the case may be.”

Each year at the seder, we remove ten drops of wine from our cups as we remember the ten fearsome plagues that befell Egypt -- including the plague of boils.  The plague of flies.  The plague of lice.  The plague of darkness.  The plague of crocodiles.  The plague of….. What’s that you say?  You have never heard of the plague of crocodiles?

The second plague described in the book of Exodus is צפרדע - Tsfardei’a - usually translated as ‘frogs.’  But some traditional commentators say that really, the Hebrew word tsfardeia refers to crocodiles. After all, frogs are unlikely to be as destructive and fearsome as the plague of tsfardeia is described as being.  And crocodiles famously inhabit the Nile River, and crocodiles were even worshiped as gods in ancient Egypt.  This is enough evidence for the Spanish-Jewish sage Isaac Abravanel to conclude that the plague of tsfardeia actually refers to crocodiles.

If Rabbi Isaac Abarbanel is right, we may need to stop singing one of the most beloved children’s songs for Passover, because if we change the Frogs song to ‘crocodiles on his bed and crocodiles on his head, crocodiles on his nose and crocodiles on his toes,’ it would probably earn a PG-13 rating for gory violence.

So instead we’ll have to teach our preschoolers to say:
“Where’s the seder, alligator?”
“In the Nile, crocodile!”



B is false (though the references to the orange/tomato/olive/pineapple are all true, as is the fact that there is a debate in rabbinic literature about which way left-handers should lean at the seder.) 

C is true (or at least, that's what Abravanel thought, though his is a minority opinion.  See