Tuesday, November 24, 2015

A Prayer for all Those who have Immigrated, delivered Shabbat Vayetzei 11/20/2015

Mi sheberach avoteinu v’imoteinu, may God who blessed our immigrant ancestors, who left their homes and often their families because of the pain and violence inflicted upon them and who entered new lands facing challenges that could not be imagined, who left Egypt, who left Spain, who left Russia, Iraq, and Greece, who left Germany, Poland, and other beloved countries, bless them for their vision and for the sacrifices made.  Their courage and stamina laid a foundation that we stand upon today.
May God bless all who continue to come to this country seeking refuge, Jew and non-Jew alike, who come with the hope of finding first and foremost safety as well as opportunity.
Each and every Shabbat eve, we acknowledge our connection with the immigrant experience, zecher l’tziat Mizraim, we sing.  We recall not only that we were once strangers in foreign lands, but we praise God for bringing us out of Egypt, a place to where we had immigrated, and for carrying us back into the land of Canaan, a land that though understood as homeland was for the generation entering it, a new and foreign land filled with obstacles for this immigrant generation.
Let us acknowledge that we live in a country that holds itself out as a place of promise.
'Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the Golden door!'  --   The poet Emma Lazarus imagined Lady Liberty calling across the river to new immigrants arriving to this country at the turn of the twentieth-century.
 Let us also acknowledge that despite our pride in our country being a place of refuge for those in need, our immigration policies are broken.  They are far from satisfactory.
As we stand in the sacred presence of Torah on this Shabbat following a week in which our Governor has declared nothing short of a closing of Maryland’s borders to the stranger in our midst—May we not only remain open to the possibility of comprehensive change in our immigration system, but may we remain open to hearing the cry of the millions fleeing horrific conditions in Syria due to civil war.  We were once in not so different shoes.  Let us not turn a blind eye or a deaf ear to their pleas for refuge and their desperate need for safe haven. 
May we strive to balance our own concerns for safety, our own need for reassurance, with the very real and present needs of those actively seeking refuge.  Ufros aleinu sukkat sh’lomecha, May the Holy One of Blessing provide a sheltering presence to all who are in need, and may we not let our own fears stand in the way, amen. 
(This sermon/prayer is broadly adapted from a prayer written by Adam Stock Spilker for Rosh Hashanah worship, 2013.  His Mi Sheberach is published on rac.org)

Sunday, November 1, 2015

The Lesson of Halloween, delivered Shabbat Vayera, October 31, 2015

         Halloween is one of my favorite holidays.  I know, it’s a bit odd for me – a Rabbi, a Cantor – a Jewish leader, to admit from the bema, no less, of a synagogue.  Halloween, historically, is not at all a Jewish custom.  Our modern day celebration of scare, pumpkin, and candy grew out of an ancient Celtic holiday (Samhein) that marked the transition between the fall harvest season and winter.  The ghoul factor came into the picture due to the fact that in that period the transition between seasons was viewed as liminal space, a bridge, if you will, between the worlds of the living and the dead. 
         It is perhaps the fascination with the spiritual world of the dead that makes traditional Jews rally against the celebration of the holiday.   It simply isn’t Jewish to be concerned with such things.  Arguably too, its adoption by the Catholic Church as an erev precurser to All Saints Day hasn’t helped the Jewish community’s interest or desire to embrace this Festival of Candy.  Again, how dare Jews celebrate such a thing?
         Perhaps we need to get over ourselves.  Let us not forgot the origin of some of our own customs.  The Hashkivenu prayer of our evening liturgy came into being as a verbal amulet, of sorts, to protect us in our sleep from what may lurk in the night.  The use of spices in our Havdalah ritual may have roots in the idea that sundown on Shabbat was a scary time of transition (not unlike Samhein) where we needed protection from the underworld.  The walking dead is not a new idea.  The ancient Celtics weren’t the only folks to fear such things.  
         Our resistance against Halloween, I believe, stems more from a fear of giving into, of assimilating too far into American culture as if this holiday marks a boundary beyond which there is no redeeming us.  We’ve given into the reality that Christmas will over take December, so here we want to draw a line:  religious schools insist on being open on the evening of October 31st  when we educators know that few will attend; day schools say “oh, okay” to kids wanting to dress up but only as long as you stick to story book characters being studied.  No ghosts or goblins.  There is a concerted effort at controlling just how far we are going to cave into this pagan nonsense, as it is termed.
         It is time that we just accept the reality that Halloween isn’t so bad for the Jews.  Accepting Halloween will not be the singular factor that leads to the demise of the Jewish community in America.  If the demise happens, there will be plenty of things on which to hang the hat of responsibility.  It won't be due to our celebration of Halloween.  Our participation in it is, for sure, a sign of acceptance and acculturation. Halloween is an American pastime that is intimately tied to the passage of seasons in this country.  But, Halloween may also have some very redeemable Jewish value. 
         Halloween is one of the few times during the year when we as a general rule actually behave like Abraham in this week's Shabbat Torah reading.  When else do we stop what we are doing and rush to the door to great our neighbors and offer them food?  When I first moved to a suburban neighborhood, Halloween was when I met my neighbors face to face.  In another neighborhood, it was a time for festive communal gathering and sharing of goodies.  Everyone was welcome and included.  All you had to do was show up.  In a world where there is discussion of building walls between us and our neighbors, or where the rising Speaker of the House has to formally denounce any and all support for immigration reform, we could learn a lot from a holiday whose primary customs include going door to door to greet each other and share some sweetness. 
         So let’s talk about immigration.  How many of us can claim to be natives of this country?  I have roots on one side of my family that extend at least as far as the civil war era, and may reach back to the period of the American Revolution, still my ancestors were once foreigners.  The other side of my family is perhaps more like most of us with my dad and his sister being first generation Americans.  We were strangers here, so when did we forget how to be more welcoming to those who follow in our footsteps?  When did we forget how to open the door and be hospitable?
         An article by Matthew Hutson in this month’s The Atlantic ponders why Americans are so motivated by the idea, as he puts it, of “keeping just ahead of the Joneses.”  He has taken note of studies that seem to indicate that it isn’t sheer advantage that makes us tick but rather relative advantage.  An example of this is that people making just above the minimum wage are among those least supportive of a minimum wage hike.  We seem to prefer to be a step ahead of at least somebody.  I had a professor of American Jewish History hypothesize that the popularity of Chinese food restaurants among Jews in the mid-20th century was because visiting those new-immigrant owned establishments reinforced that sense of our having made it.  There was someone else who hadn’t quite gotten as far as we had. 
         I’m not sure I agree with this professor’s hypothesis, but I do wonder if our good fortune and success has caused us to become a bit callous towards others who are seeking similar opportunities that we have had.  Hard work isn’t the only ingredient to success.  Opportunity, luck, and arguably a big dose of welcoming hospitality are critical ingredients as well.

         Tonight, many of us will model Abraham and Sarah as we celebrate Halloween.  We will open our doors, greet and give candy to any one who knocks on our door – young, old, black, white, Hispanic, Asian, gay, straight, American, non-American.  We don’t ask.  It doesn’t matter.  We will greet everyone with equal hospitality.   Too bad, we don’t do that a little more often.     

Monday, October 5, 2015

A Response to Oregon in Place of Hallel, delivered Shabbat Chol ha'Moed Sukkot, Oct.3, 2015

          If there is indeed a God, that pays astute attention, I can only imagine him rebuking us for our ineptitude.  Maybe that’s why he hides his face in a rock before Moses in our Shabbat Chol Ha'moed Torah reading: he can’t even stand the look of us at the moment.
Here we stand poised ready to sing praises to this God – Hallel, ancient words of poetry that we have made sure get passed down l’dor va-dor, from generation to generation.  Even as an increasing number of Jews are disconnected from worship and disaffected from traditional images of God, still our prayer book mandates the recitation of these psalms. We make the effort to keep these words present even if they may indeed be the only thing left to stand in the window of the synagogue to chant over the world's tears.
            This Shabbat Chol ha-moed, however, I cannot lead us in Hallel.  I can’t participate in the rejoicing that Hallel entails.  Yes, Sukkot is our z’man simchatenu -- you’ve heard me every year since 2008 remark from this bema that this is the one holiday where we aren’t just supposed to rejoice, we are commanded to do so: u’samchtem, our Torah demands that we rejoice even as we sit in our sukkot, dwellings that provide at best fragile and tenuous shelter from the elements.  We are to rejoice despite the insecurity and uncertainty of life. 
But, how on earth can we rejoice on this Shabbat chol ha’moed that falls on the heels of yet another mass shooting in our country? Gun violence is not some uncontrollable phenomenon like the weather or the unpredictability of our harvest.  It is not like Joaquin whose exact path keeps us guessing until it actually gets here. 
How can we stand and rejoice on this festival in light of our constant witnessing of gun violence, of intentional mass and violent murder.  This is, to reference the comedy flick that became one such tragic scene this past summer, a trainwreck.  Gun violence and mass shootings are becoming so commonplace in the United States that we tune out all but the most outrageous and horrific.  We should be ashamed at our silence, at our failure to pass better laws that restrict access to violent weapons, and at our scapegoating the mentally ill when it is clear that mental illness exists in every other country, even in those that don’t have gun violence being perpetuated on a daily basis by its citizens. 
           President Obama was correct on Thursday to scold our nation for allowing gun violence to become routine.  We have become numb.  We are no longer shocked; and, that in and of itself should at the very least unsettle us.  I spoke about this very issue during the High Holidays three years ago, and nothing has changed.  We should be ashamed at our collective inertia.  We are responsible.    
Using the definition employed by an index called the Mass Shooting Tracker, there has been at least one episode of gun violence directed at 4 or more people every day so far in 2015.   If there is indeed a God that pays astute attention to our actions, he doesn’t care about our Hallel.   He doesn’t want us rejoicing in the face of constant violence perpetrated by our own human hands.   Recall, we are, according to our High Holiday Avodah liturgy, the species adorned with: “a mind alert, a heart alive to love, a soul aspiring to know and to fulfill, a destiny governed by wisdom” these are attributes that distinguish us as humans from the rest of the animal kingdom.  It’s time we activate these divine gifts.
So in place of Hallel, in place of praise, I share this prayer – a prayer I’ve shared now more that I wish I had occasion to.  Let us consider its words.  Let us then be reminded that prayer is just lip service if it fails to motivate us to action.  We must get angry.  We must be willing to feel discontent, and then be prepared to stand up, speak out, and cast our vote against the proliferation of guns and gun violence in our country.


Sunday, July 26, 2015

Creating Shaddai, July 26, 2015

אני (I)
עולם (world)                                     Intuitive
                        Tikkun Olam
                                                Bina (understanding)

                                    El Shaddai    Support
Adonai     Covenant
Elohim   Eternity

יהוה (God)

Lessons Learned from the 2015 ACC Convention, delivered on Shabbat Pinchas

            I spent the week leading up to last Shabbat with over 100 of my cantorial colleagues at our annual meeting of the ACC, the American Conference of Cantors.  This annual convention also includes our musical partners in the GTM, the Guild of Temple Musicians, an organization that supports accompanists, synagogue musicians, and choir directors that serve Reform congregations throughout the country and beyond.  The ACC and the GTM meet together every year at the end of June.  The location of the gathering travels throughout the country and Israel allowing cantors to get a taste of regional differences, take advantage of scholars and resources in various areas of the country, and to allow cantors to show off their local communities to their colleagues.   This year’s meeting was in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.  It was a good conference; still, I never again want to visit south Florida in late June. It was a good thing the only free time was in the early morning or after dark!  We think it is hot and humid in Baltimore during the summer?  Luckily, the offerings of this year’s conference were excellent, so it was easy to avoid the hot midday sun of south Florida in June.
            The theme of this year’s ACC convention was the future of Reform Judaism.   One of the center pieces of the conference was the unveiling of  Shirei Mishkan haNefesh, a musical companion to the Reform movement’s new High Holiday machzor, Mishkan haNefesh.  Our congregation is sticking to the Gates of Repentance, a book published by the Reform movement in 1978, for at least the near future, but this new musical work still provides us an opportunity to inject some musical innovation into our High Holiday worship even if we are not ready to change our machzor. 
            Other highlights of the convention included a panel that addressed the “Future of Our Institutions, Our Movement, and the Community.”  It featured the current President of the Reform movement’s seminary, the Hebrew Union College; the CEO of the Reform movement’s Rabbinic arm, the Central Conference of American Rabbis; the President of the ACC; the Director of Communities of Practice, a new project of the Union of Reform Judaism; and, the current director of Jewish Community at New York City’s 92street Y (who also is a retired Reform Rabbi with years of congregational experience).
If I had to sum up the 2-hour plus panel presentation on one foot, I’d say there were two take aways that are relevant to our situation at Temple Emanuel.  One, we are not alone.  In fact, we are far from alone, hence the need for such a panel at a gathering of Reform leaders. Reform congregations throughout the country are struggling just as we are.  Reform congregations throughout the country are seeking ways to respond to a new reality, namely that synagogue membership is no longer considered part and parcel in the definition of Jewish survival.  Gen X-ers and certainly Millennials are simply not joiners when it comes to religious institutions.   They do not, and more importantly, they will not – not matter how much we ask or beg - express their Jewish identity in the same manner as their parents and grandparents. 
            Second, there is no magic pill that will fix what we see as a problem.   No one has the solution that will solve today’s synagogue woes, but all agree “the solution,” so to speak, must be dynamic, multi-dimensional, and flexible.   It cannot be reduced to a compelling program, a charismatic clergy person, the right musical instrumentation, or a shiny marketing campaign.  If it were that simple, there’d be no need for the conversation itself.  One thing is clear, the solutions require a willingness to change and to perhaps change big.  It requires vision, innovation, and frankly money to back that up.  The solutions also require letting go of old vision and of unrealistic expectations.   And, any "solution" must recognize that it is only a problem when viewed from within the synagogue looking out.  The folks who choose not to affiliate or prioritize synagogue life are not looking for a fix to any problem.   Before we try to "fix" anything, we have to be willing to recognize that stark fact, to consider the reality that synagogue affiliation is simply not a primary – nor automatic - vehicle for the expression of Jewish identity for an increasing majority of Jews.  And, we can’t keep functioning under the premise that it is. 
            Another highlight of the ACC convention, one that can remind us of the most important ingredient of Jewish life, was worship itself.  When Reform Jewish leaders gather, we not only study, we pray twice daily: shacharit and ma’ariv, morning and evening.   And, it is an experience that can only be described as awesome: literally as an experience filled with awe.  Imagine, over 100 professional voices joining together as one kahal in song.  The constantly changing blend of harmonies become melody infusing the words with meaning lifting them far off the 2-dimensional page.  The music becomes the kevana – the spontaneous intention demanded of our tradition.  There is no question in my mind that our voices transformed that hotel ballroom into sacred space.
            This indeed is a primary goal of worship: the transformation of space into sacred space.  It isn’t the sanctuary or chapel that makes our worship sacred.  It isn’t a specific location, it is us.  We are that necessary ingredient.  We have the power to create holiness, and a primary way we do so is by coming together as a community to worship.  Without us, it is just an empty room.   Without us, the Torah becomes a relic.  Without us, the prayerbooks remain unopened on the cart to gather dust.  The room helps – a lot, but ultimately, it is up to us to engage and choose to create our own harmonies.