Friday, November 26, 2010

Thanksgiving in Mississippi

We went to enjoy Thanksgiving at two homes yesterday in Ocean Springs, Mississippi. How many ways can one prepare pumpkin pie? Stuffing, of course, is the critical element for making or breaking the actual meal itself. I should mention the other essential piece which is whether or not the Turkey is moist. There is nothing worse than a dry Thanksgiving Day Turkey! Yes, food and football are part and parcel of our Thanksgiving Day ritual. We were fortunate to enjoy outstanding cuisine both homes.
At the first home our hosts asked each one of us at the table to offer a thought. One guest said that he was grateful to be with his extended family. Even though he only sees them once or twice a year, it is always a special treat and something he truly values. It did not matter that we did not know the other folks, except for our hosts, all of us resounded with gratitude for being with our respective families.
I am sure we all feel that way too. The truth of the matter is that being away from our family during the course of the year and traveling so many miles is not easy but it is a worthwhile pilgrimage. Our daughter and her boy friend came in from Arizona. I drove almost 600 miles from Hilton Head. Yet, sitting at that table with my family regardless of who was sitting across the table brought home that magical moment of Shalom. Oh how we need that peace and tranquility especially in these unpredictable times. One does not  have to be a rabbi or philosopher to understand and affirm that family is sacred to us all.
It is frustrating that in America families are so spread out. How blessed are the ones who have their extended family members living nearby. But no matter how far apart we are and no matter how much we miss each other these moments like Thanksgiving reinforce the deep love that is there every day as it is on this special holiday.
Thanksgiving is my favorite American holiday because it brings out the best in all Americans and does not get bogged down in religious factionalism. This holiday is religiously neutral. We can all give thanks each in our own way and not make one particular religion the focus. Thanksgiving is about the hope that Americans can learn how to get along with our neighbors. The pilgrims and the Indians began the narrative of a long history of diverse groups struggling to share this blessed land.
The same narrative still exists with the challenges we all face in adapting to a changing religio-ethnic base of newly arrived Americans from all over the world. Maybe if we can learn to eat turkey together we can learn to enjoy each other’s presence and respect the traditions we all come from that make up the beautiful tapestry we call America. That is the promise that our forefathers cherished because they knew back then that it would be the secret of America’s prosperity and longevity.
Happy Thanksgiving

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

FBI issues hate crimes report: A challenge for the Religious Community to make a difference

According to the FBI, hate crimes went down by 15 over the course of the year 2009. The FBI claims that there were 6,604 criminal acts which had 7,784 “bias motivated offenses.” Almost 20 percent of the crimes were religiously motivated criminal acts. Of the 1303 criminal acts of religious bigotry 931 were anti-Jewish,107 were anti-Islamic, 51 were anti-catholic, 38 were anti-protestant and 10 were anti-Atheistic /Agnostic. Finally in 2008 there were 1608 religiously motivated hate crimes.
What does all this mean? Well, one could say that hate crimes are going down and pray they continue in this pattern. Another aspect is the amount of anti-Semitic attacks which make up the largest category of religious hate crimes. Jews should feel at home in America and breathe easy that we have the most secure way of life that any Jewish community has probably ever experienced in the history of our people. Yet, that stream of anti-Semitism still exists and will always pose a risk factor to our well being. It just comes with the territory and the job.
It is hard to tell whether the numbers will increase regarding anti-Islamic hate crimes. We all know the tension out there in America regarding the Muslim population.  My sense is that the statistics will not change much unless we have a terrorist attack (Please God, no!). 
The Anti-Defamation League came out with a statement welcoming the decrease of hate crimes but also pointed out that 60 cities with populations over 100,000 did not participate in the survey. That is an obvious problem which makes the report appear to be skewed. We need accurate data before we can make pronouncements about the state of hate crimes in America. This fact calls into question the reliability of the FBI’s statistics.
This is the time for religious groups to build bridges with and to each other. When we do so we are protecting our communities from misunderstanding if and when an incident occurs which can trigger other crimes. Community leaders have an obligation to talk to each other even if there are issues which we share opposing opinions. We all live in the same community and should have a vested interest in preserving the peace.
We are a great nation for many reasons. We have the ability to make a difference and show the world how America can deal with its religious diversity in a way that does not tear at the fabric of our society. Sure we have profoundly difficult issues to deal with that relate to race and religion.  But we do have the capacity to transcend divisive issues and work for a better understanding amongst religions.  The volunteer boards of Mosques, churches, synagogues and other religious institutions should encourage their clergy to make those connections and show pride when clergy succeed at fostering a greater understanding between the religions.
I pray that this Thanksgiving we take a moment out to say that we are blessed in so many ways because we live in America. Yes, we are going through a terrible time in our economy. At the same time let us rededicate ourselves to the hope that we shall never cede the moral high ground. Please God, imbue us with the determination to live up to the teachings of our faith and cherish all life and the religions that give us understanding and faith to live our lives to its fullest potential.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

The district conference of the Reform Movement in Atlanta

We just finished a brief weekend kallah, the first one in the new district model that resulted from the organizational restructuring of our national movement. Over 150 volunteers, rabbis, cantors and educators attended a busy schedule of activities held at the Marriot near the Atlanta airport.
This kallah (conference) gave evidence of the enthusiasm and the desperate need for community at the local and regional levels if Reform Judaism is going to survive. The enthusiasm was there and we met some of the Union of Reform Judaism’s specialist’s staff in areas such as adult education and early childhood education.  The rabbis and cantors who attended did a fine job inspiring us with our favorite contemporary songs and with exciting teaching sessions.
Rabbi Dan Medvin gave a fine talk about Judaism and Technology helping us to envision how we can enhance so much of our communal worship by employing the latest techniques in computer graphics that will enable us to engage our families in the worship experience and thereby inspire them to take us to the next level of high tech and high touch.
There is no question that the reorganization of the movement has had a disorienting impact upon the movement’s identity and direction.  I should exclude the bedrock of reform’s success story as exceptions such as the camping movement and NFTY (the youth movement) when drawing these conclusions.
The staff is doing its best. They have enthusiasm, knowledge and experience to prove that the movement is going forward. But they can’t do it by themselves. What was missing was a strong representation from the highest ranks of the reform movement. I am referring to the absence of the URJ’s top national leadership  cadre of volunteer and clergy leadership.
District conferences that stretch over a thousand miles across the country face a challenge to connect everyone. I am not yet convinced that the district model is the way to go in fashioning a permanent organizational structure. It is too early to make a final appraisal. A movement like Liberal Judaism needs to grow and renew those time honored bonds that grew out of the previous regional model in order to influence the agenda nationally.
Kudos to the union for putting together this long needed first try at organizing the conference. I think they really need to broaden the participation and do a much better marketing job to recruit people to attend. If the top tier of volunteer and professional leadership hope to inspire giving to the Union ,both in terms of time and financial resources, then maybe they should  think about showing up and demonstrating that they really care about the folks they serve.
The success of this weekend’s retreat proves that they are on the right track even though there is a lot more work to be done. The Union of Reform Judaism needs to promote more face to face contact of people with likeminded interests.  There are social networking strategies that many of us are already employing within our congregations. The more we can meet others from around the district and the nation the greater collaboration and enthusiasm we can build for the future of the URJ. We need to create the spark. This weekend was the beginning. Let’s keep up the momentum.