Friday, December 16, 2011

The president speaks

Now he moves to israel and the peace. He supports israel. Peace is in the long term interest of israel. A strong israel transcends all politics. He cites tikkun olam again. Unshakeable commitment to israel and its security, he proclaims. No administration in history has done more to secure israel than obama, he proclaims.
Iran now. Us will take no options off the table.
US was there to help israel . "Dont believe others who tell a different story. Those are the facts." Now he quotes from pirke avot. , we are not obligated to complete the task. Neither can we desist from it. Heneni he says. He will keep america's promise no matter how long it takes. Our best days are still to come.
The crow is applauding wildly.
Thats's it. Commentary to come later.

The president speaks

Compliments urj religious action Ooooo center. The crowd cheered.
He is talking about his daughter attending so many bar and bat mitzvah services. She is the expert on jewish ritual in the Obama house.

Now he is talking about this weeks' torah portion. He quotes the hebrew word heneni! Joseph is the central figure. He sees and feels that the biblical jewish story and his own story resonate together.
He quotes the term tikkun olam repairing the world. He has captured the convention.
Now he is talking about the value of change and how his administration hss made changes. Health care, gay rights, economic justice, ending the war in Iraq and so forth.
The crowd loves it.he speaks of the shared values that transcend all faiths. his mission is about about the struggle to enable all americans to enter the middle class. He says" heneni here I am. " he is willing to fight for all americans to achieve this objective.

The president speaks.

We have just spent the last hour listening to the Religious Action Center celebrate its 50th anniversary. Videos, testimonial speeches and a jazzed up version of America the Beautiful. We are still waiting. Patience.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Day Two the URJ Biennial Convention

Blogging the URJ convention: Day Two
It is after midnight. I am sitting outside of my hotel with my computer in the unusually balmy night here in National Harbor. So much to say and so little strength to say it at this hour. Maybe that is a blessing for all my readers.
One of the reasons why I love this convention is the kvell moment. I mean those precious moments where one can run into a dear friend be it a colleague or former congregant. But when suddenly a former youth in my congregation who I officiated at his bar mitzvah comes over to me and is now a junior in high school and gives me the biggest hug and with his wonderful smile greets me.  I feel the presence of the Eternal with me in this moment. To know that we are making a difference in the lives of our congregants is what it is all about. This teen is in the regional leadership of the reform movement and that makes me so proud. He has not only grown in stature but in his maturation as a young man. We are blessed to have such fine young people. Truthfully the URJ conventions are reunions of an extended family that defies the imagination. Years ago our relatives used to attend the cousins clubs. Now we have the Biennial convention. Here we are all cousins under the big tent of mishpachah.
Tonight there were three highlights. One was listening to the honorable Deputy Prime Minister of Israel Ehud Barak. What I shall remember about him was his posture, that is, the way stood with such pride and joy as the crowd stood up and applauded him. It was not that he was relishing the adulation and respect from us all. It looked as if he was this senior statesman and so proud of his country and his role. Think about the rough and tumble fisticuffs of Israeli politics. Here was a night when he could absorb progressive Judaism’s appreciation and respect for the man who has served Israel so honorably over the decades. He gave a great speech reassuring us that he was committed to Israel being a democratic state despite what we may read about the legislation in the Knesset. He applauded us for what we have contributed to the state. And he also acknowledged that it was important for him to listen to us. That is no easy task for an Israeli political leader or for any Jew given our penchant for verbal combat on the drop of a dime. Two Jews and three opinions proclaims the old adage. He said that in Israel it was two Jews and four or five opinions!
The next event was honoring the legal team of David Boies and Ted Olson both of whom received the Maurice Eisendrath Bearer of Light award. Both of these men are famous lawyers who have represented their respective Democratic and Republican parties in some of the most important legal cases of the last two decades. Remember they were adversaries in the election results of the Bush-Gore presidential election. Now they have joined forces to take on the state of California to oppose proposition eight which discriminates against same sex marriage. There are getting ready for their appearance at the Supreme Court and they are doing their best to educate the country that the government should no longer discriminate against its citizens regarding choosing a partner. The fact that these two giants of American jurisprudence could stand together and transcend the partisan divide on this issue was truly an inspiration to us all.
Finally the evening program concluded with resolutions. The most important one to mention was Reform Judaism’s stand on economic justice for all. Our temple President Ted David was invited to serve on that committee. Kudos go to Ted and the committee for his work to bring the resolution to the plenary.
I do not want to skip the fact that the Republican House Majority Leader Representative Eric Cantor spoke to the assembly.  The fact that he is Jewish was a wonderful addition to the role he was playing as the Majority leader of the House of Representatives. Briefly he assured the audience that his party and the congress would stand behind Israel and do everything in its power to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons. His received a warm welcome and applause. We were fortunate to have him at the Biennial. Tomorrow we shall here from President Obama.
I enjoyed going to the session this morning on Progressive Judaism in Europe today. We had several rabbis from Germany, Great Britain, and Poland talking about the challenge of maintaining Jewish life in these countries. There is the competition with Habad and the Orthodox establishment and the cultural differences of Jewish identity issues in Europe in a post Holocaust era and migrations of Jews from the former Soviet Union into Western Europe.  The World Union of Progressive Judaism works with our movement all over the world. Of course the governments in Europe support through taxes the different religions in Europe. What a challenge and yet more congregations and even a rabbinical school for liberal Jews in Germany are growing each year.
Last but not least I went over to one of the halls to listen to an Israel jazz group called Seeds of the Sun. Fantastic. The leader Mattan Klein who I know personally is a flutist. We have to find a way to bring them to Hilton Head one day. Good night to all and Good morning to you all.

Blogging the Union of Reform Biennial convention: Day One

On the road again with Rabbi Bloom at the Union of Reform Judaism Convention

I am driving on Interstate 95 in the Washington D.C. metro area heading onto I 295 into National Harbor, Maryland. To my surprise I see a charming convention city town. The Gaylord Hotel and its convention center is the centerpiece along with other nice hotels and boutiques settled along the Potomac River. National Harbor, Maryland and the Gaylord Convention center plays host to the Union of Reform Judaism Biennial convention.
Here there are 6000 Jews, the largest population to date attending the Biennial convention, gathered together to learn, celebrate, worship, study, socialize in myriads of workshops and learning sessions. Congregation Beth Yam is well represented with 10 participants. We should be proud of the commitment our leadership is making by joining this sacred community of five days.
In addition to the URJ convention the Women of Reform Judaism are having their convention concurrently with the URJ. Suffice it to say that the experience of so many reform Jews together in one convention center is sure to be a an enriching experience. For many it is a reunion and for the first timers the experience of walking through the enormous exhibition hall and seeing so many booths with fantastic Jewish artists and Jewish organizations from all over the world might feel overwhelming in a wonderful way.
This afternoon I entered a workshop of about 100 participants and listened to the panel discuss different ways congregations can welcome and integrate interfaith families. Our own Marcia Frezza was one of the panelists. The Outreach movement devotes itself to this effort to create the kind of environment inside congregations where families can feel like they really are part of congregational life.
Dinner followed and then we returned to the convention hall for the rest of the evening. All I can say tonight was that I felt like I was on a 3 and one-half hour tour without ever moving an inch. I say this because the diversity of activities on the program was so broad and diverse. Truthfully I could not see any real connection between these programs but they were, nevertheless, fascinating.
We heard from Rabbi Eric Yoffe, the retiring president of the URJ and he brought out the incoming successor Rabbi Richard Jacobs.  Rabbi Jacobs announced the new URJ initiative for the next ten years on youth engagement.   We listened then to a famous and incredibly humorous psychologist and author Dr. Wendy Mogel who gave an insightful and astute analysis on the state of Jewish parenting while making us laugh at the way Jewish parents today over indulge their children. “Good Jewish parents gone bad.”
After Dr. Mogel, we were watched the next speaker introduce Natan Scharansky. Remember he was the famous prisoner of conscience in the Soviet Union until he was freed in 1986. He became the symbol of the free soviet Jewry movement. He is a short man but a giant of Jewish conscience. Scharansky immigrated to Israel and eventually wrote several books, served in the Israeli cabinet and now heads the venerable Jewish Agency.  He spoke to us about the tremendous importance of sending young people to Israel with the birthright program that over 300,000 Jewish young people from America have gone on the Birthright program. He also spoke about the contribution that American Jewry has made to Israel especially in teaching Israelis about Jewish spirituality that they might not experience in Israel. Scharansky acknowledged that both Israel and American Jewry can benefit each other.
Next the program was going to honor the memory of the beloved singer of Israel Debbie Friedman. She died this past year.  She was an amazing soul who turned around the world of Jewish music for the synagogue and, therefore, the spirituality of Reform Judaism. The tribute to composer Debbie Friedman continues even to the point that the Reform movement’s Cantorial School was renamed as the Debbie Friedman School of music. A band performed one of her compositions. Then they announced the first Debbie Friedman award for someone who excels in Jewish music. The first recipient of the award was Theodore Bikel. At 87 years old, Bikel came out on stage and spoke about Debbie Friedman and in respect to Debbie; he sang three songs in Hebrew, Yiddish and ladino.
At that point the official activities concluded. I was grateful. Yet then the entertainment began with several prominent musicians entertained the late night enthusiasts. I would say that was enough for the evening.  It is an amazing and exhilarating experience to be here and we are just getting started!

Friday, December 9, 2011

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Jewish ethics and history explain why Israel would trade Gilad Schalit for 1027 Palestinian terrorists

This is the link from the article I wrote in my recent monthly newspaper column in the Island Packet. I hope you  will click on the link and take a readand as always I welcome your comments.
ps. I never choose the title to the columns and this one is certainly problematic. Thanks Bill

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Arriving Home from Israel: The beginning of our Reflections.

Israel Trip Post- Returning Home
We arrived home right before Shabbat. Some remained in Israel and the rest left on our respective flights around 11:30pm. Each of us is adjusting to life at home. Surely we are glad to be home and resume the creature comforts of our normal life. No more deadlines to a meet a bus at 7:30am. No more worrying about where are next stop will be. No more concerns about the security. We are now back in charge of the pace of our lives. This is as it should be. It will take most of us a few days to a week to readjust to the time zone and to get the sleep we all need.  That will come and we can address ourselves to telling the stories of our trip to all our friends. And surely there will be many stories!
From my perspective, the trip introduced most of the first timers to Israel to a new perspective about Israel that transcends everything that the media reports and others who we know have visited Israel in the past have shared with us. We saw it with our own eyes. We experienced it with our hearts and souls. We listened to everyone’s perspectives and we saw a living and breathing civilization. It is a miracle of history yet we all understood that the challenges Israel still faces from internal and external forces are real too. We have embraced the dream and we saw some of the realities. They are all part of the tapestry of what Israel means to Israelis and to all Jews around the world.
We learned that Israel’s security is paramount in our mind but more than that is the culture and the spirit of the people that have created the miracle of Israel. When we visited the Herzl museum and learned about the beginnings of Zionism only about 115 years ago and then sat inside Independence Hall where David Ben Gurion declared the modern state of Israel and then standing on the Golan Heights overlooking the frontier of where Israel expanded its borders and defended them in the Yom Kippur War, and then standing at the graves at the Military Cemetery in Jerusalem. These experiences and many more we experienced helped us all to grasp the drama, the victory, the glory and the pain of israel’s birth and its struggle for existence. My sense is that this group has added a new perspective of how the Israelis have made sense of it all and that too is part of the miracle of Israel.
We also learned once again the time honored lesson that understanding history is part and parcel of our search for meaning. But this time it is not just about recent history but on this trip it was expanding our horizons about ancient history. We walked underground at the Wall in Jerusalem, beneath the tunnels in the City of David southeast of the Temple. We walked through the remnants of Herod’s world at Masada, Caesaria and the Holy Temple. We could experience the Dead Sea Scrolls at the Israel Museum. All of this and more proved to us that our presence in the land of Israel was established long ago. And in that way our sense of Jewish identity is no longer dependent upon our roots in Europe. Sure that is where we usually trace our identity. It is only natural to think of ourselves and our forbearers. But now it is time to go beyond to embrace our historic roots in the civilization of Israelite culture and the Bible itself. This is why the early Zionists, Ben Gurion particularly, emphasized the Bible as a historic map for our people and stressed its reading as a living document and the key to unlocking our past so that Jews would embrace the modern state of Israel as the legitimate continuation of the ancient Jewish and Hebraic civilization.
The Israel trekkers have much  to consider in their reflections upon how this trip has impacted their lives. My sense is that the new friendships that were made will become some of the long lasting benefits from this trip. In that way it makes for a stronger congregation at Beth Yam for encouraging this kind of commitment to Israel but also this trip builds a better congregation. I hope we can have more trips sponsored by our temple to Israel and to other Jewish communities around the world who are affiliated with Progressive Judaism.
It was my privilege to lead this group and I want to thank them and the leadership of the congregation for giving their blessing to organizing this trip. Thank God for bringing everyone back in good health. Keyn Yehi Ratzon. May it be God’s will.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Trip to Jordan

Trip to Jordan
We proceeded from Elat to the Yitzhak Rabin border crossing that would lead us into Jordan. Our tour guide Tamar and trusted bus driver Uzi drove us to the border crossing where they waved goodbye. We stood in line to exit Israel and then began what many in the group felt to be an uncomfortable experience of walking with our luggage across a corridor of about fifty yards into Jordan. Our trekkers expressed to me that they really felt vulnerable walking from one country to the next. Images of check point charley in the old east-west divide were conjured up into their minds. But that feeling started to disappear as our Jordanian tour guide Naim greeted us along with the new bus driver and a tourism policeman who accompanied us throughout the trip. Naim’s mission was to make us feel at ease and safe being in Jordan. He tried to ease our underlying uneasiness by assuring us that we were safe and that Jordan welcomed us. In fact Naim used his knowledge of Hebrew and fluent English to prove to us that Jordan and Israel were friends and valued our presence.
We began our trip to Petra which was about one and a half hours. Naim showed us the places of historic significance such as the Mt Hor which was where, according to the Torah, where Aaron died. Basically these two days in Jordan were geared to experiencing Petra and then heading north to Amman. At the same time we would be following the kings highway which is one of the oldest highways in history. Second we would be passing three territories that go back to the trek of the Israelites in their journey to the Promised Land. The first region surrounding Petra was the Edomites and then headed north into the ancestral lands of the Moabites with the final stop in Amman which was the land of the Ammonites.  At the same time through our stops at various places we would see the modern state and culture of Jordan.
Petra: We finally arrived in Petra. Our hotel was right next to the area of Petra. We began our descent into the valley of the Nabatean kingdom which build Petra, the city out of stone. It took about a mile or so to get to the famous “Treasurey Building” that Steven Spielberg made famous in one of his Indiana Jones movies. We walked down a narrow pathway with rock formations protruding and one can start to see  evidence of civilization and the remnants of  public art work that once decorated the entrance to the Nabatean kingdom. We finally arrived to the first level Treasury Building and one cannot help but gasp at the beauty of the structure with Greco roman pillars carved out of the rock. A few of us continued downwards and beheld the amphitheatre and other public buildings built into the rock.  Of course the Bedouin were there to let us ride horses or ride in a carriage for price down and up.  And if we wanted we could take a came as well. But none of us went in that direction –too stinky.
My sense was that Petra captured the imagination of the group and garnered the respect for the Nabatean civilization.  Naim did his best to offer theories about the Nabateans and what the various buildings might have been used for but only guesses. That seems to be a pattern in trying to decipher archaeology in the Middle East.
We walked all the way up back to the hotel and which was about a 2 mile trek. We had dinner t at the hotel. Everyone liked the hotel. The next day at 7:30 am we boarded the bus and began the last leg of the trip towards Amman. We made a few stops which are required by tour guides not only for the use of the facilities but to visit roadside stores with all of Jordan’s best products. It is just part of the process of touring the Middle East. Our first big stop was at the Crusader Castle near Madaba. Wow. What we saw was an enormous castle that enabled the crusader army (it housed over 5000 troops at one time) to see over the valley. We entered inside and could feel the sounds of the soldiers and imagined them and their horses and the community they formed. We felt no admiration for them personally but we definitely, after having visited the crusader castle in Acco, why Arabs use this imagery as a rallying cry against the west.  We had lunch in the city of Madaba and then to Mt. Nebo outside of Amman.
We also went to visit the St George Greek Orthodox Church with the famous 6thb century Mosaic of Jerusalem. That was special. The candles were lit and one could listen to the Greek Orthodox version of chanting that set the mystical tone as we entered and took our pictures. It also showed to us that there is a Christian presence in Jordan. They are a minority but one that lives beside their Muslim countrymen peacefully.
We got off the bus noting that Mt. Nebo is the mountain that God had Moses stand on to view the Promised Land showing him the land and reminding him that he would never enter it himself. He died there and was buried by God somewhere in the valley near Nebo. The land now is in the hands of the Franciscan Church.  I gathered the group together on Mt Nebo overlooking Israel. Since it was clear in the mid afternoon we could see the tops of buildings in Jerusalem. That was awesome too. But I explained to the group that this marked the end of the Israelite journey. In a sense it was our moment following in the footsteps of our ancestors in the Torah. We could see what they saw. We could imagine their eyes looking in great anticipation for the beginning of the promise fulfilled. We were in the Diaspora but just across the way from the Promised Land. What a feeling. It was not about our Ashkenazi roots in Poland, I explained, it was, however, about our roots in the land of Israel. Our historic roots as recorded in the Torah and in the Bible have been the underlying theme of this trip. It was about remembering all the touring we did in Jerusalem and the archaeological sites we visited of our civilization that once flourished. It was the vision that Theodore Herzl possessed to revive our roots in the soil. Our group could now see that this moment was going to be an appropriate conclusion and represent a full circle of the Exodus and the journey of the Jew in discovering his or her heritage.
We spent the rest of the night in Amman at the Marriot.  The next day we headed off to the final spot of the Roman city of Jerash. That was the city named for the emperor Trajan. I have never seen any Roman city like this one. One could walk down the Cardo and imagine that glory of this city in its day. The Roman amphitheatre, the columns and the religious sites all contributed to  a glimpse of history and what this region looked like two thousand years ago.  We were all stunned to see this Roman city preserved so well.
I just want to say something about Amman.  Remember Jordan is a country of about 6 million people. Half the population is Palestinian and the rest are Arabs who lived here before the Palestinians arrived. It is country that is about %85 percent barren dessert. Three million live in Amman. It is sadly a city struggling to be a major player but does not quite make it. Our people were taken back on the bus ride to Jerash at the amount of trash on the side of the roads we saw. On the other hands the peace treaty the Israelis and the Jordanians signed was a good thing because Jordan has definitely benefitted by tourism and USIA development funds to small businesses. So there is a respect for Israel and America in Jordan along with the respect and reverence for the King and his family. Naim was willing to talk to us about the politics of the Middle East and give us his perspective. He also talked about cultural life in Jordan such as the tradition that the grooms side of the family pays for the wedding of a son. His narrative of the process of giving his son a wedding was most enlightening.
We arrived at the Jordanian border and drove across to the Israeli side at the border crossing called the Allenby Bridge. Our tour guide Tamar and Uzi met us there and we headed back to Tel Aviv to get our bags and prepare for the farewell dinner and then off to Ben Gurion Airport.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

the 48 war for independence

We left the hotel today about 7am. Saying goodbye to Jerusalem, we headed along highway 1 towards Tel Aviv. The climate was balmy and warm. The theme for the day was tracing the amazing stories and history of the people who ushered Israel to victory in the 48 War of Independance. Our first stop was at the Ayalon Institute. This was the place that functioned in the forties as a real life kibbutz but in reality it was used as an underground bullet making factory. We went down spiral steps into the bunker that was the size of a tennis court and heard the story how these kids for two years alluded the British and made thousands of bullets for the soon to be War of Independance. we were all amazed at their story and their discipline how this clandestine operation worked successfully. just imagine a kibbutz right under the british noses hiding these teens who risked life and limb to perform this vital function to make ammunition for Israel.

then we headed over to Yafo and briefly toured the area. beautiful stores and history of arabs and jews living together and world powers like napoleon who visited YAFO on his way to Eygpt.
our next stop was Independance Hall where David ben gurion declared the state of Israel. the movies we saw and the presentation we heard were stirring and inspirational.
we stopped to have lunch and then headed off to the Palmach museum which was the museum that honored the work of this elite group of the Hagana that led many missions and gave their all to usher israel into a modern army. there we witnessed an exhibiton following the lives of one troop of palmach soldiers from their training to the battle for independance.
my sense is that our group really could grasp the modern history of the birth of israel and the miracle of how few resources they actually had to defend the state against the armies of the arabs. it truly was a miracle. finally we had dinner at a time honored middle eastern favorite restaurant in yaffo called dr. schackshukah. awesome and delicious.
tomorrow we are off to haifa and caesarea.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Catching up and leaving jerusalem

Good evening everyone. Sorry I missed a day but I just ran out of time and steam. This has been our last night in Jerusalem. I will try to cover two days worth of history. Jerusalem is all about fighting for history. Whether it is an ancient relic demonstrating our presence two millennium ago or the battle ground of Ammunition Hill in the 67 war we have learned that history is just as precious as water in the Middle East.

Yesterday we set out to visit Masada. Of course we paid homage to and purchased many products at the Ahavah factory outlet store. Mostly Russian Jewish Israelis helping us. The women will be even more beautiful and their skin soft like ancient Israelite women were because of these Dead Sea products. The mud masks alone will make us feel renewed.
We arrived at Masada and entered the visitors center where we too the gigantic tram to the top. You should know that serious historians are really at odds about what Eliezer and the Zealots really did to their own people when the Romans breached theWalls. The telling moment that the story we all grew up with is doubtful is whe the Israel tank core stopped having their induction ceremonies on Masada. (they now do it at Latrun)
Anyway we heard all kinds of theories from the tour guide knowing full well that the debate continues on this subject.
The weather was great and toured Herod's winter palace. We imagined the lifestyle that went on there and then 60 or so years later the zealots taking over the plateau. Herod had everything a monarch could use to survive including a water sisters,plenty of grains and communal building to sustain life for as long as he needed. Aside from the story recorded in the pages of Josephus about Masada, one could not help but respect the building vision of Herod even if by all accounts he was a vicious man and a murderer.
Of course we discussed the importance of the story of Masada in building the self confidence of the burgeoning new state of Israel.
Afterwards we we had lunch at the visitors center and traveled to the Dead Sea. Yes some of our folks had the courage to cover themselves with mud. They looked great. We relaxed and enjoyed the balmy weather. Lots of Russian Jews there basking in the mud.
So we finally returned to Jerusalem. A very nice day.

We left for touring Jerusalem. First we went to Hadassah Hospital at the Ein Kerem campus. Many of the women have been involved in the organization. Proudly Bet Yam members have their names listed on plaques for their tzedakah. We made a visit to the maternity ward.then we entered the synagogue and listened to a cd tour and explanation of the history of the Chagall windows and their Meaning. For a moment we gathered in a circle and recited and then chanted the prayer for healing. Very moving.
Our next stop was Ammunition Hill where learned about the battle to take all of Jerusalem. Many of us were hearing the details of this battle for the first time. The Israelis prevailed but sustained enormous casualties in those six days of June 1967. The courage and bravery of Israeli soldiers became emblazoned upon our hearts and minds.
Now we changed the mood to another miracle of history.we drove to the Israel Museum and had lunch first. fYI the museum underwent a major renovation. From that point we went outside to see the model city of ancient Israel in Temple Days outside. This was fantastic. It is a huge model that is enormous but precise to every detail. Jerusalem must have been such a spectacular city!
We the descended into th Shrine of the Book meaning the scrolls called the Dead Sea Scrolls. People were practically stunned. Just think that these texts,a little over 2000 years old has transformed biblical studies. Our presence and history repeats itself again and again. The texts were amazing not just for the age but for the quality of the message and the scribal art. I cannot say enough here about the excitement of viewing these texts.

The last stop was the Knesset the Israeli parliament. Since it is in session right now we could not enter. But we did visit the famous menorah across the street which is the national emblem of Israel.we took pictures. As we left and headed towards the bus, the school kids who were also there ran over to us. It was fantastic. They surrounded me and a few others throwing questions to about what we thought about Israel. I was speaking Hebrew and English at the same time. Wow! The children and the soldiers who were also there represented the chain of tradition
That must be preserved to protect and defend Israel.
Is that enough?
Off to Tel Aviv in the morning.
Rabbi Bloom

Monday, October 31, 2011

Women at the Wall: Jerusalem is the city of possibilities

We were out the door on the bus at 7am headed over to the southwestern motel otherwise known as Robinsonn's Arch. Two women in our congregation Judi and Kathy became bnot mitzvah and read from the Torah,co-officiated with me along with Judy B as cantor and delivered sermons on the Torah portion. It was truly a sacred moment for all of us. I am so proud of them. I cannot say enough.robinson's arch is simply an extension of the western wall. It is blocked by construction at the archaeological site so the orthodox leave it alone. This means girls and women can have their services close enough to the wall without being harassed by the religious police. The officials we worked with gave us conservative prayer books and a Torah but they asked that the women not hold the Torah even though they did not stop them from reading it. Jerusalem is a city of contradictions.
This was definitely a highlight of our trip. We were all moved from their faith and commitment. This was a life changing moment on many levels. More will come from this experience reading from the Torah and praying towards the Wall. Awesome!
We then changed the mood and went over to the tour of the Wall going in the opposite direction underground beneath the Arab quarter. Archaeology was the theme the rest of the morning. The history of these structures built in King Herod'time is overwhelming.just how far down the Walls go is mind blowing. It is a must tour. Many orthodox young adults pray along these underground walls. They probably are praying psalms but they are standing together. Very interesting.
We returned to the Jewish quarter for lunch. We visited the Burnt House excavation of a Herodion house.
Afterwards we toured special historic sites in the Jewish quarter including a visit to the long awaited reconstruction of the Hurva synagogue. Absolutely spectacular in capturing the old Jewish world of synagogue architecture in a modern setting.
Finally the group went shopping for a while.
The last event was a meeting and conversation with my wife 's cousin Dina Rand. She has lived in Samaria for over 24 years. She was fantastic as she spoke so eloquently of her views about Israel especially religious pluralism , Arab and women's issues. Dina was engaging, articulate , sensitive and humble. The group was impressed. Enough for today and tomorrow we head off to Masada.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Holy sites in modern Israel.

What a day! In Jerusalem there is a burning fight not just for land but for truth and a battle for memory. Holy sites exist on all sides. No one can be neutral about Jerusalem. Anyone who claims to be objective is either a liar or a fool.
So let's begin today's journey when we met up with Amir cheesiness a retired army officer and former advisor on Arab affairs to the late mayor of Jerusalem Teddy Kolleck. This man was a no nonsense military man not a diplomat. He focused his lecture to us on the Arab Israeli problem of demographics in Jerusalem. He discussed the impact of the well known security fence upon Jerusalem Jewish Arab ratio. Apparently the gap is narrowing from a 75-25percent Jewish Arab population ratio to a %67 to %33 ratio in the next few decades. In fact Arab residents who live on the other side of the fence have their yellow card pass through the checkpoints and go to work in Israel. Also the affluent ones are now buying from Israelis their expensive homes in places like the once totally Jewish French Hill section of Jerusalem. We learned many more facts on the ground never reported in the press. His outstanding talk gave us much to be concerned about regarding the demographic threat to Israel's territorial integrity.

Off we went to start the journey of the heart. We arrived at Yad V'Shem the Holocaust memorial and museum to the 6million. We received an introduction by our guide at the avenue of the righteous Gentiles who risked their lives to save Jews. Most had been to the Washington memorial museum.people commented that Yad V'Shem felt tame compared to thewashington monument. Our group was certainly affected each in their own way.We traversed the exhibition until we arrived at the end. I could see in their eyes the sadness and the heart wrenching emotions rising to the surface as we gathered together. At that point we entered the Yad VShem synagogue. They let us come in and in this beautiful wooden contemporary style with a magnificent ark from Europe.our soloist Judy Bluestone sang and Felicia Pascal read from Jewish poetry on the Shoah holocaust. We needed to express ourselves spiritually in ways where just plain talking about our feelings would not suffice.
Lunch in the cafeteria was ok and a necessary break from this vigil into the kingdom of night.Afterwards we prepared ourselves to enter the heartbreaking memorial to 1.5million children who the Nazis murdered during these years of the Shoah. We walked into a dark winding pathway where we could here a voice out of the darkness say the name and age of the child. As we heard this voice recite an endless list of names, we gazed at the lights of 5 candles refracting against the glass so that it looked like a million lights. I
Will not say anymore on this subject. Needless to say Yad V'Shem opened up many eyes and continued the learning process. I do not want to forget to mention the numbers of soldiers who came to learn about the holocaust. In fact Tamar says it is required for every soldier to visit Yad V'Shem
Next we drove to mt Herzl to visit the grave of the founder of the modern state of Israel Theodore Herzl. The exhibition and movie teaching his life were excellent. The movie traced the story of an Israeli actor preparing for the role of Theodre Herzl in a movie. Creative approach to what could have been a tedious approachbut the movie was contemporary while teaching about his life and the times he lived in that led Herzl to make a huge contribution to the history of Zionism. Not Done yet!
Our final stop was at the national military cemetary. That took many of us by surprise our guide Tamar took us to the grave of the famous and beloved Israeli war hero johnathan Yoni Netanyahu. We felt the shivers as Tamar narrated his story. There it was this respected icon of holy sites and precious memories. As tired and emotionally drained everyone was we all felt we had done the right thing by pushing ourselves to visit these graves of Israel's fallen.
A final ride back to the hotel for a respite and then we walked over through the unbelievable Mamilia street open Mall to a restaurant called coincidentally enough Herzl. You can put it on your restaurant to go visits.
We were drained emotionally from today. It was ok nevertheless.
Shalom from yerushalayim
Rabbi Bloom

One would think that was enough.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Shavua Tov a good new week from jerusalem

Shabbat is over and the city is pulsating with young people in the streets. The cafes are bustling with business and the buses back in action. So what have we been doing over Shabbat?
Let's start back on Friday. I left us after our trip to the frenetic Mahaneh Yehudah the Jewish market. We regrouped and our bus took us to Shabbat services at the reform congregation kol haneshamah.
We sat down with about 100-130 people. Most of them are American ex-pats,some native born Israelis and pilgrims like us. This is not a service that the group would have expected in a typical reform Jewish service in the states . The rabbi sat at a table on a slightly raised platform dressed in total white informal cantor to sing the music of the liturgy. There was no shtick or gimmickry. He simply sat at the table and chanted the service with beautiful, easy to sing and meditative melodies. There was no doubt the he was the center of the service. Yet his style was subdued as he was leading them without exhibiting any effort to get the people involved. It just seemed natural and and comfortable. Rabbi Kelman spoke in hebrew to us in his sermonette. The prayer books were either hebrew only or English -hebrew. The reaction of the group was quite positive. Some folks felt it to be a little cultish but most felt uplifted and renewed even those who do not know hebrew or a bit rusty. The board member welcomed us from bet yam.
We returned to the hotel Leonardo and had our sabbath meal. Bruce freeman and his family,son of Harold and Barbara Freeman, who has lived in Israel for over20 years joined us and discussed politics in Israel and gave a dramatic and passionate explanation about why Israelis feel so emotional about Gilad schalit.
Shabbat morning
We walked to Hebrew Union College and attended Shabbat morning services there. This service was led primarily by rabbinical students and a cantorial student along with faculty members from HUC. This was also primarily a hebrew worship experience along with piano accompaniment. I was given one of two aliyot or blessings recited over the Torah reading.a great honor for me and our community.
After the services rabbi JoelOseran, long time staff member of the world Union of progressive Judaism, spoke to us about the challenges and mission of progressive Judaism around the world. He gave us a tour throughout the beautiful campus and bid us farewell.
Even more to come. Tamar our guide led us on a walking trip into the old city through the Jaffa gate. We walked into the Arab quarter and had a delicious lunch. We ordered either felaphel or lamb schwarma. Satiated and happy Tamar guided us through the holy Sepulcure church one of Christianity's oldest holy sights. It was packed with Christian pilgrims from all over the world. The main attraction was the small but ornate chapel where, according to Christian tradition,Jesus was crucified. Very intense and sacred holy site.
The group returned to the hotel for rest and dinner.Ijoined one of the groups who ,ate at a restaurant called Adon. Everyone enjoyed themselves.
Is that enough for one day?

ShavuaTov Tov

Friday, October 28, 2011

Friday was a day of going down and ascending to holy places

It is Erev Shabbat in Jerusalem. You can feel the pressure as everyone is shutting down and getting ready for Shabbat. I am happy. Our last stop today was walking through the Jewish market. We have the sweetest tasting ballot in the world. We ate felafel and just felt the energy of the excitement and the packed crowds buying their Shabbat groceries. The men in their booths shouting out their prices. The different spices and the aromas! Reach nichoach a sweet aroma to Shabbat. Machaneh yehudah is the largest outdoor Jewish market in the world. We walked and we ate. We are resting now before the bus picks us up to attend services at kol haneshamah the reform congregation in Jerusalem. I will tell you more after Shabbat is over.

We entered the old city today through the dung gate. Tamar and I provided an introduction to the history of the Wall and the El Aksamosquue and the dome of the rock. Men and women went to their respective sides separated by a fence. Some prayed. Some watched the orthodox davenport or pray fervently. The men's side of the Wall has a cave win extensive library and portable arks. One could see several minyanim going on at the same time. It is always interesting to listen to the varied reactions of people toward the western wall.
Since I am going backwards in time we were taken to visit the new excavation to the south of the old city. These are called the city of David. It was there that we descended downwards through the tunnels and witnessed with our eyes the amazing engineering feat of ancient Israelites who cut out of Jerusalem stone underground tunnels to preserve water for the city. King hezekiah directed this project which kept Jerusalem safe from the aAssyrian army in the 8th centuries. Yes it was a challenging walk through narrow passageways. But we coulée the genius of our ancestors at work in ancient times. Remember water is a very precious commodity in the middle east.
Everyone was tired and then we
We headed up to the wall as I mentioned. Drinking water and staying hydrated was critical.
Oh I forgot to mention we ad the famous Israeli breakfast at the hotel. That must have given us the energy to get through the walking up an down the hills of Jerusalem.
Now time for Shabbat. Tomorrow morning we will go to Hebre Union College for services with lunch and casual strolling through the Arab and Christian quarters.
My people earned their Shabbat.
Shabbat Shalom from our group to you in yerushalayim
Rabbi Bloom

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Arrived in Jerusalem

I can see the king David hotel, the YMCA, the old city and the panorama of jerusalem at night. Our wonderful group from the Hilton head area are all here safe and sound albeit a little tired from the trip.
Where does one begin this trip blog? Our tour guide is a nice young lady named
Tamar. I am sure we will learn more about her as the trip proceeds. We are an energetic group with a good sense of humor. Some of us are hear for the first time and others are veterans of Israel. We will a learn from each other. I am not concerned.
Besides having dinner at a nice restaurant tonight on King George, we drove to a scenic vista of the old city. it was Becoming dark and so we could marvel at the city lights but we could not behold that sunset radiating down upon the dome of the rock or the El Aksa mosque . But we said our blessings of thanksgiving made a kidding and delighted in the most delicious Hallah in Jewish history.
My main point tonight was that I hoped that we as a group would allow ourselves to move beyond being a tourist and embrace this trip as a journey as if we were real life pilgrims. No matter our age a trip to Israel calls us to listen and watch carefully how the past shapes our future.
Tomorrow we will go to explore the jewish quarter, the western Wall, excavations on the south side of the Holy Temple and , of course, we will make our way beforee Shabbat commences to theJewish market. Watch out hallahs! then we will worship at Kol HaNeshamah, the exciting and inspiring reform congregation in Jerusalem.
Shabbat Shalom

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Emotions are Real: A Perspective on Grieving the loss of a loved one

Yizkor Yom Kippur: Day of Atonement Memorial Service

Aaron, the brother of Moses, had just lost his two sons, Nadav and Abihu. The Torah tells us in the book of Leviticus that God sent a strange fire and took them both out for apparently not following directions set out by God in the Torah for making sacrificial offerings. Aaron’s response was; “Vayidom Aaron,” And Aaron remained silent.” What did that mean? What does silence mean as compared to weeping or as other biblical patriarchs did which was to cry, throw dirt upon them and tear their garments? Yet with Aaron, the high priest, it was silence. It feels unusual. The reaction is not typical of how most people react to the death not just of children but towards any loved one. Yet this is the situation of Aaron and it feels like a mystery to us because we don’t know what is beneath the surface. His silence almost invites us to ask questions about what he was really feeling. Surely there is a connection for us to see that reacting to grief varies and we all struggle with different means to accept the loss of a loved one.
I think there are many occasions when people exhibit emotional reactions that leave us perplexed as they mourn a loved one. Sometimes it is silence and other times it is a non-stop mourning that goes beyond Judaism’s 11 month initial period of mourning. Everyone mourns differently and we should resist making too many judgments about someone else’s way of mourning and determining what is appropriate and inappropriate. All that is really important is that the mourners are truthful with themselves and the issues they are facing as a result of losing their loved ones.
I remember a man who lost his teenage son to cancer. Joshua was his name and the father used to take his chair out to the cemetery and read or sit there and talk to the grave as if he was speaking to his son. People in the community used to comment to me about how strange that appeared to them after the first year. He continued to visit his son’s grave for some time afterwards. We all use different ways to cope in the short run and the long run with the death of a child or a loved one.
There is so much that life can teach us about handling our careers, parental roles, our financial responsibilities, and so on. But what course do we take and what books do we read and what tv reality show do we watch that will instruct us how to mourn the loss of a loved one? What college or university teaches how people can mourn their loved ones? The truth is that none of these are either appropriate or enough for us to expect to learn how to mourn and how to cope with long term grief.
Judaism has an  established a  process of one year  for mourning starting with the laws and rituals that guide us from the moment we hear of the loved one’s death to the washing of the body in a ritual specific way to the final interment. Judaism gives us the 7 days of shiva and asks us to take time out and get our bearings and receive the comfort of the community. Thirty days or shloshim comes next from the time commencing with the interment. Then the unveiling and the obligation to recite mourner’s kaddish for a loved one each day for 11 months. Mitzvot such as giving tzedakah in their memory, starting programs in the memory of the loved one or getting involved in the causes that they loved or the causes that were responsible for their deaths is also typical. People tell me all these things help.
The challenge is a deeper one which is confronting the long term journey to live without their presence.  All of us understand what I mean when a grief-stricken spouse says’ life just does not feel the same since he or she passed.’ We understand the internal meaning when a senior adult confides; “my friends are all passing. Who is left?’ We know what it means to experience multiple emotions like anger, frustration, comfort and release in one setting and feel exhausted afterwards.
How did Abraham react internally when he had to bury Sarah? He purchased a cave called Mahpelah in the ancient city of Hebron to give her a proper resting place. Jacob made sure that Rachel was buried and provided her with a separate tomb from the rest of the Patriarchs and matriarchs buried in the Cave of Mahpelah. And it was God who laid Moses down to rest and with a kiss let him enter life eternal on the plains of Moab burying him in a place where no one would ever know.  Still the Torah is quiet about exposing emotions. The children of Israel cried when Moses died. But we do not usually get a sense of the internal emotions at work inside the matriarchs or patriarchs.
Nevertheless, Judaism provides us with a framework to cope. It offers us a year of ritual and structure to transition. Beyond that we have the opportunity to remember, as we are doing right now in worship, three times a year at the festivals and particularly at Yom Kippur. Yet there is a difference between what all the rituals in the world can do, and we should not underestimate their efficacy, to the internal resources we all must summon up inside ourselves. The strength to grieve and mourn long term is not about suppressing emotions inside ourselves. It is not about lashing out at the world even when we want to do so and feel justified in doing so. It is not about exhibiting anger at everyone who we believe or imagine could have or should have done more for us or our loved ones. The strength is about seeing inside ourselves where the real needs are and recognizing how to address those secret emotions rather than let them become toxic to us and others.
Silence is not a bad thing. Crying and screaming is not bad either if we know when to exhaust those emotions and move on to living life.  Silence does not means being stoic and unfeeling just as emoting does not mean being out of one’s mind. When we are trying to comfort friends and family who are struggling with the loss of a loved one then one of the important values is trust that the mourner will display the emotions they are most comfortable using to deal with the death of a loved one.
And all we can pray to god for them is that they are truthful with themselves. Grieving a loved one in the short or long term means that mourners face hard truths.  Some of those truths are about emotions such as loss and loneliness and our need for security and identity. Some of those emotions are about frustrations. They are all real issues.  The challenge is to understand the emotions we are experiencing. And the same challenge for us who comfort mourners is to respect those emotions. 
May God comfort you amongst the remnants of the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem. May our loved ones be remembered for blessing.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Yom Kippur Morning Sermon

Yom Kippur Day
 A High Holy Day Prayer that opens the door to Jewish history and to ourselves.
Recently at Shabbat services I led a discussion focusing on one of our prayers, the Unatane Tokef prayer. A member of the congregation commented that he remembered how his mother would cry when she read that prayer each year. The tears streamed down her face to the point that the page was basically yellow over the years as she returned to the prayer at the High Holy Days.
The generation of my grandmother who either came from the old country or whose parents were immigrants understood that life was a fragile thing. They were regular people; they had no college degrees nor did they hold important positions in the corporate world or in the professions. They did have courage and strength to break the chains of their oppression in Europe and immigrate to America. They inherited the belief that Rosh Hashanah was a blend of contradictory experiences. One was joyous welcoming the New Year with apples and honey. The other was unsettling believing that God hears us and judges us especially at this time.
The prayer Unatane Tokef is one of the most poignant examples of the High Holy Day drama of God who sits on high and opens the three books to determine our fate. Yes, it is hierarchical. But we do have the opportunity to change our fate. We have choices and we have the opportunity to make corrections through Prayer, Repentance and Giving to those in need. But there is a sub text in this prayer where history plays a role in our thinking about how vulnerable we are. Second there is a struggle today to come to grips to find a way to understand this prayer if we do not accept the literal and traditional notion of God as arbiter of our fate.
Last night on Kol Nidre I spoke to us about belief in god. It is a theological challenge. But what I want to focus on today is another question; how does Jewish history influence the development of our spiritual life? We need to be aware of and understand what was meant when some of our most important high holy days prayers were written.  The prayers do not normally reveal their historic origins but the Unatane Tokef is an exception. And by exploring this one prayer and its historic origins we can better come to grips with a modern interpretation not only of the Unatane Tokef for our times but also for the entire experience of the High Holy Days.
If we peruse the pages of the High Holy Day Mahzor, particularly on Yom Kippur, we never see a preface about the history of any prayer except one prayer- the Unatane Tokef prayer. The prayers are  supposed to be anonymous so that we should not cast them into any one time period. The goal is so that they should be timeless and not constrained to a particular time period which could narrow their meaning for future generations. That makes sense.
Yet if we examine the Unatane Tokef, we see the exact opposite. We read a preface regarding a story of Rabbi Amnon of Mayence who basically committed an act of martyrdom, and before going to his death he wrote this prayer. It leaves us with an impression that this rabbi was German and lived in medieval times.  And the invoking of a historic context sets a tone that our history is very much connected to our prayer experience no matter when the prayers are recited.
In a newly published study of this prayer, one which offers us new interpretations for our times, the story of Rabbi Amnon is discussed. As might be expected there are lots of different scholarly views about him and the history of the prayer. Yet the predominate view is that the story is at least from the 11th century even if its roots go back even earlier. But the historic times of this period was the Crusades and the story goes as follows. Apparently the bishop of the community in Germany summoned Rabbi Amnon and requested that he convert out of Judaism into the Bishop's faith tradition. The rabbi responded that he would consider the request and get back to the bishop in three days. Almost immediately the rabbi realized that it was a major mistake to leave that opening. So the rabbi decided not to return with an answer. Afterwards the agitated cleric had Rabbi Amnon brought to him and decreed that his fingers and his toes would all be cut off.
Rabbi Amnon was brought back to his home. When Yom Kippur came, after he was carried into the synagogue, in a moment of divine inspiration he recited this prayer Unatane Tokef. That is basically the primary story of how this prayer came to be. Some scholars say that it came from Germany. Others will argue that its origin was in Italy and then France but the German origin stuck for all time. It was the one prayer that captured the feeling of vulnerability of the Jewish population in medieval Europe in the aftermath of the Crusades which impacted them in no less a traumatic way than the Shoah did in our time. Notice that if any or all of this is true that there is no evidence of hatred or bitterness. It is a prayer that acknowledges that life is unpredictable and that we are vulnerable on so many different levels.
We have no corroborating evidence about Rabbi Amnon but we know that the root letters of his name mean faithful one. How appropriate for this story of a martyred rabbi who defied the religious authorities that tried to force to him to convert out of Judaism. Whether the rabbi actually existed or not is not the issue. If he is a metaphor or a representative symbol of an entire generation we sense the dignity of his thoughts despite the unfathomable pain he experienced in his suffering. How does all this fit into our modern day mind set?
Putting aside the issue of defining our belief in God, modern people struggle with too much negativity in general and in religion as well. Do we not like things that are positive and the glass half full rather than deriving spiritual energy from someone else’s suffering? Who wants to be reminded of the traumas of our history? Yet that is exactly what the congregant’s mother understood who cried each year when she read the prayer. Her generation and those who preceded her understood and lived that kind of anti-Semitism. It was real for them and for us in America it is not real. Except for the remnants of Holocaust survivors, we have lived in a relative cocoon of security.
This may be one reason why modern Jews, particularly on the progressive side of Jewish  life, ask how this liturgy relates to us. Have we lost something valuable or precious from our past that numbs us to the underlying meaning of our prayers?  This question is not about God. This is about us and our connection to our history. This is about making an island in America believing that we are different and that we do not have a vested interest in our past. I fully respect that there are limits to how much we can relate to the history of prejudice and bigotry against the Jewish people. But can we abandon such a history? Do we strip the prayer of its roots especially when our rabbis wanted us to focus on this meditation of Rabbi Amnon before chanting Unatane Tokef?
My view is that during the High Holy Days we need to reconnect with a Jewish past. The issue is not simply judging the efficacy of the prayers in the Mahzor based upon how relevant they are to our lives. How can we make such a judgment unless we gather in a broader historic context to evaluate it?  The High Holy Days are, in my estimation, a series of sacred moments in the lifecycle of our year when we receive a reminder that we are products of our history which does not mean we are automatically obliged to relive it and, I fear, we will experience a kind of spiritual amnesia of our past if we do not strive to learn our history.  That thought worries me.
We come to these prayers with divergent beliefs in God. We enter the Holy Days with different expectations about what we are to get out of the long hours of worship. Our tradition says the Days of Awe are about a sense of reconciliation on multiple levels. We are supposed to ask not only God but ourselves some hard questions about our behavior and face the uncomfortable task of making peace with people who we have offended and those who have hurt us.  There are religious and social reasons which motivate us to attend services.  For some the purpose is social, that is, to be seen in the pews and for others the purpose is to reaffirm our communal connections in this spiritual convocation. We are even supposed to fast which can be painful and then within hours change our mood to break the fast with joy and lots of good food. There is a communal solidarity that motivates us.
What is most important is that we engage the prayers on whatever level we can as compared to reading them without any sense of investment or personal interest in the prayers. Unatane Tokef reminds us that god is the shepherd and we are the flock. The prayer is also a wakeup call that human achievement is still limited and cannot determine the outcome of everything that happens to us. This time honored prayer gives us a pathway how to make things right and avoid the justice that may be coming our way. There are a multitude of options today about how modern people can interpret this prayer and the role of God as judge over us.  But there is another lens that we should wear when we read this prayer. It is a lens of memory. It is a lens that makes us remember that someone else like us long ago also read this prayer in a synagogue.  Rabbi Amnon created it in a time when Jewish survival was a real question in the Crusader world of medieval Germany. His heart and soul should not be lost in the voice of our prayers.
Do we remember our parents reading this prayer? Or maybe it was our grandparent’s generation that evoked that unforgettable pathos that touched us so deeply? I like the idea of having the prayerbook my parents used to pray at High Holy Days.  I would hope that we could own a prayerbook and one day bequeath it to our children and grandchildren.  It isn’t much different than having a parents’ cherished possession after they die so that we can feel the memory in the object. It connects us to them. It provides comfort even when we miss them so much. These objects bring our loved one back to life. And it is not too different if we were to open their prayerbook. Their fingers touched the pages. Their eyes recited the words and their thoughts pierced the words of the book.
The idea of connecting to our past and personalizing that past with our loved ones is the main point. We need to reconnect that past like wearing the spiritual jewelry of our loved ones.
I would like to read this poem to you by Dan Pagis, a survivor and a famous Israeli poet.
Hidden in the study at dusk,
I wait, not yet lonely.
A heavy walnut bureau opens up the night.
The clock is a tired sentry,
Its steps growing faint.

From where?  In Grandfather’s typewriter,
An Underwsood from ancient times,
Thousands of alphabets are ready.
What tidings.

I think that not everything is in doubt.
I follow the moment, not to let it slip away.
My arms are rather thin.
I am nine years old.

Beyond the door begins
The interstellar space which I’m ready for.
Gravity drains from me like colors at dusk.
I fly so fast that I’m motionless
And leave behind me
The transparent wake of the past.
The prayerbook is the old typewriter with lots of letters and ideas. But it was grandfather’s typewriter which connects to that nine year old curious boy.  And we all, regardless of our age, hurry throughout our lives to work, raise children, pay our bills, go to parties, visit the kids and the grandchildren. Yet that typewriter and the memory of Grandfather is the point of departure that is what connects that kid to his grandfather years later.
 I associate Rabbi Amnon’s prayer with Pagis’ image of the grandfather’s typewriter. It is also a link to his age and to his generation’s tragedy. It is more than that because Unetane Tokef ultimately proclaimed a message to the future of Judaism that we could prevail in hard times. Our own personal code of conduct would not diminish no matter what a hostile world was prepared to do against the Jewish people. Our relationship with God would never disappear. Our faith is steadfast no matter what curves and challenges life hurls at us and in particular what people or countries that dislike us will do to us. Unatane Tokef prayer captures the pride and courage of holding fast to our values even when the darkness surrounds us.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Yom Kippur Kol Nidre Sermon

Yom Kippur Evening: What about God?
I was standing in front of a class on religion, a guest lecturer, at Mississippi State University during a visit to my rabbinical student pulpit some thirty years ago. The student asked me, “You do believe that the Bible is true? You believe that the bible is the word of God, right?” All of sudden I looked like the deer staring into the headlights of an oncoming car. I gazed over to the host instructor, an Episcopalian priest, who looked back at me, and, with a little smirk taking shape on his face motioned me to answer the question. I began to fashion a response that parts of the Torah and the entire Bible were probably written in by human beings, even if we assume that some form of divine inspiration was involved in their writing. One could feel the tension in the room rise as if I was pronouncing blasphemy. Needless to say the students blasted me expressing disappointment and bemusement at my thoughts. Surely a rabbi believes in the inerrancy of the Scriptures, they imagined.
The truth is that it is difficult for Jews to define ourselves in a theological sense. Our Christian neighbors often react curiously when we describe ourselves as a mixture of ethnic group, religion and nation state when responding to their questions about what we believe and how God belongs to our theology. We just do not fit into mainstream western categories o f religion. We are a blending of several forces in the society at large. And if we think people from outside of Judaism are perplexed by our attempts to explain ethnicity and religion together then just imagine how we sound to ourselves when trying to define what Judaism means.
A current example of this creative tension is the one sponsored by the popular Jewish magazine called Moment. In its Fall publication it ran a symposium interviewing scholars, poets, teachers on one question.  Can there be Judaism without a belief in God? Just imagine the multitude of answers given on this question. And I believe that if we held the same symposium here at Beth Yam we would probably encounter a broad spectrum of viewpoints as they did in the pages of the magazine.
This question is fair because we are sitting here tonight most likely holding the same level of practices and viewpoints as to whether or not God is absolutely essential for us to even have High Holiday services. No doubt Jews are going to disagree on everything except about what someone else should believe. But the moment is the High Holy Days and is it not fair to ask ourselves whether a faith tradition like ours needs God and whether Judaism would be Judaism without God? My view is that Judaism can handle a wide variety of viewpoints that do not include those who believe in god. Yet in the long run Judaism cannot sustain itself if God is taken out of the language and the conversation and the dialogue that we have in the realm of worship and spiritual dialogue.
Because Judaism is a faith tradition that focuses more on external acts, be they ritual acts or quite simply actions of ethnic solidarity, rather than depending strictly upon internal tenets of belief we have been able to dodge that bullet of theology. But when it comes to the High Holy Days this is one of the moments of the year when we, as a community, are obliged to face our beliefs or lack of beliefs about God, Judaism and any other aspect of the Jewish experience and ask ourselves these questions: not just whether Judaism needs God, but, if the answer is no then what exactly enters our minds when we utter the words out of the prayer book like Adonai Hu HaElohim-the Eternal is God?”
It is not unusual for those who would disavow belief in God to find themselves rising with the congregation to recite the Kaddish or the Shema or singing the Kol Nidre or Avinu Malkeinu. Why not? We know that Judaism as system of laws and rituals focused its energy primarily on establishing a fence around the Torah which meant that first and foremost the priority of our sages and the community was to secure the practice of law and ritual. Our sages were much more flexible about what we thought or believed in as compared to what we actually did with our laws and rituals.  I remember a rabbi explaining to me that by practicing rituals it would lead to belief as compared to waiting for belief before practicing rituals.  
Not surprisingly the scholars over the centuries could not agree on the basic tenets of Jewish belief. Yes they would agree about fundamental Jewish practices but not about an absolute list of basic beliefs. Great medieval scholars like Moses Maimonides, Gersonides, Bayah ibn Pakudah all debated each other over the centuries to create the ultimate list of what every Jew should believe. The result was that no one ever created that uber list of Jewish doctrine that everyone would subscribe to in order to be a believing Jew.
There are lots of Jews who discarded their beliefs in God when they came to this country. The Jewish socialists and Yiddish secularists celebrated Jewish culture and ignored Judaism. The same people who founded and led the movement to settle Palestine in the early part of the 20th century also came from primarily secular backgrounds. Thus, Theodore Herzl, the founder of modern Zionism, was a completely secular Jew from Vienna, Austria. They focused on the new Jewish state in a way where religion was present but it did not define the character of the new Jewish identity burgeoning into the modern state of Israel. We still see that clash of culture today between so-called secular Israelis who do not believe in God vs. those religious or dati Jews for whom the only credible Israel is an ultra-Orthodox Israel.
In America we call ourselves a religious nation but are Jews God fearing people? The answer is mixed and the spectrum as broad as the number of Jewish opinions. Besides the mainstream branches of Judaism there is even a Humanistic Judaism movement of temples that declare they do not believe in a deity but still have services anyway. This movement was considered so outside the box that the normally liberal reform movement refused to admit their congregations into the movement decades ago.
In the symposium article entitled, “Can there be Judaism without God?” Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, the greatest Talmudist of our times, said, “Judaism without belief in God is like humanity without life- A collection of dead bodies, cemeteries and memorials.” Rebecca Goldstein, an atheist and highly regarded author and philosopher said, “”If an open-minded look at the world makes a person conclude that this is a godless universe, does she have to renounce the culture she grew up with, that has done so much to develop a moral outlook and human values? The answer, for me and many others, is no.” Rabbi David Wolpe commented, “Judaism without God exists. “It can last a generation or two, but will disappear without the roots that gave it nourishment. Absent a connection to God, Judaism cannot sustain itself.” Noah Feldman, professor of international Law at Harvard responded, “You can be a culturally committed Jew, for whom the ritual is symbolic; a Diaspora Jew, committed to the practices of Jewish life outside Israel; or a Zionist Jew, connected with Jewish life in Israel.  So, while those who believe that Judaism cannot exist without God, there are clearly those who think it can and should.
Part of our challenge is recognizing that we don’t fit into the neat theological litmus test of belief that our friends in the Christian community have developed in their faith tradition. It is the reverse situation where they focus on belief and practice is secondary. We are seeing in America a long term effort to make America a more God-fearing country and we can see the repercussions of this type of strident religiosity in our political culture. But Jews just are not wrapped that way.  We struggle with God. We wrestle with the Divine. We are always probing and testing ourselves and our beliefs. And that is not any different than what our ancestors did since biblical times either.
For us we can say “I’ don’t believe in God but I still rise to recite the Shema.” We can listen to the music of Kol Nidre and not think about the meaning of the words themselves. It is the music that carries us to a place of history which inspires us to remember the hard times and the defiance our ancestors demonstrated in the face of bigotry and hatred towards us. We can sing Avinu Malkeinu and there is no belief in God neither as “Our Father” nor as “Our King” yet we still sing the melody and the words and it resonates deeply in our souls. Does it make sense? No. But does it work? Yes.
Elie Wiesel tells the story of the trial against God conducted by a rabbinical court in one of the concentration camps. He recalls that they held a trial to condemn god for not saving the Jews. The rabbis debated and came up with a verdict.  God was judged guilty of the crime. After the decision was announced that a rabbinical court found God, guilty of silence in the Holocaust, the chief rabbi of the court exclaimed, “Now that the decision has been reached the court will break so that we can pray the evening service.” Only with the Jewish people.
But what about us? We are not all scholars who write Torah commentaries or philosophical treatise on the existence of God. We have our histories. We have the years and life experience. We do not have the threat of eternal damnation hanging over our heads if we do not swear absolute homage to God. We are free thinkers. But do we take God seriously? It is not about absolute belief. It is about not giving in to the inertia of forgetting what is sacred in our lives. It is about not forgetting the pain and the beauty of what makes our life worth living. It is about having seen suffering and wondering why have I survived these years? What is my purpose? Are these questions less important as one accumulates years?
It is true that Judaism is more than only the focus on God. It is about the struggle to understand, to question everything, to pursue learning and to see how the presence and idea of god follow us no matter how much we may want to ignore the Holy One. Judaism is a culture. It is a tree with many branches extending out from it. But the trunk of that tree contains the presence of God and that we cannot ignore. Judaism needs God, I believe, in the same way that a tree needs the soil which it is rooted and without which it cannot survive.
I do not believe we can always give the answers to our grandchildren and children that they want to hear when they ask us about God. We may even disappoint them with our answers. But what we should not do is to think that being a Jew provides the option to forget about God and to ignore the conversation about God that is part and parcel of our lives to the last breath whether we admit it or not.  Just because we can accept non theistic viewpoints in the synagogue does not mean that we don’t cast God out like the goat which carries our sins on Yom Kippur into the wilderness! We need that religious and spiritual grounding even if we cannot always fall in line into the kind of God fearing people we admire.
A congregant came to the Rabbi, “Rabbi,” he complained,
“I am struggling and I cannot resolve my God issues.”
“What are the issues?” the rabbi asked.
I keep struggling about whether there really is a judgment and a judge.”
“What does it matter to you!”
“Rabbi! If there is no judgment and no judge, then what do the words of the Torah mean?”
“What does that matter to you?” the rabbi quipped.
“Rabbi! ‘What does it matter to me? What does the rabbi think? What else could matter to me?”
Well, if it matters to you as much as all that,” said the rabbi, “then you are a good Jew after all-and it is quite all right for a good Jew to struggle: nothing can go wrong with that person.”
Whether Judaism or something we choose to call “Judaism”- can survive without god remains, alas, an open question for some. For me, however, Judaism without God would have to be called by a different name, and I pray, that day will never come. Judaism can tolerate and embrace all kinds of perspectives as long as we do not give up on the struggle to define, understand and believe or not believe in God. It is the questioning that counts. Always the questioning.
Shabbat Shalom, Shana Tova.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Rosh Hashana Evening Sermon 2011: Finding the Innermost Point in the soul of the Synagogue

Rosh Hashana Evening

A rabbi assumed the pulpit of his new congregation. As he was speaking with the leaders of the congregation he was asking questions regarding the congregation’s minhagim or customs on the High Holy Days such as blowing the Shofar during the preceding month of Elul after the morning minyan. This custom is about helping the congregants to prepare for their prayers and getting ready for the penitential season. The Rabbi commented to the leaders, “We have to have everything in place. The synagogue must be ready too. All the chairs and tables must be set in their place. The building committee must oversee all the details to make sure it all runs smoothly as Rosh Hashana arrives. “But even with that kind of preparation”, the Rabbi continued, “there comes Satan into the congregation and he extracts from the soul of the community, the innermost point. Everything remains as it was and the wheel keeps on turning only that the innermost point is missing.”   The rabbi spoke passionately when he raised his voice and exclaimed, “But, so help us God, we cannot ever let that happen here!”
Who knew that Judaism had its own character of Satan? Yes we do and while Satan, as defined by Jewish tradition, does not resemble the Christian concept of Satan,  yet, the Jewish view of Satan can upset the spiritual equilibrium not only of a person but of an entire community on multiple levels. We know of and quite possibility belonged to such congregations in our lifetime. A beautiful edifice and talented clergy with capable and savvy leadership should be all that it takes to make a synagogue successful. Yet quite often it is not that simple because a synagogue or temple can be dragged into matters that can distract and move the community away from ever touching souls.
 So what does the term ‘innermost point’ mean and how does it directly affect us as a congregation? How can we hold onto to that point in our congregation especially as we celebrate Beth Yam’s 30th anniversary? What I see here is that there is a spirit in this congregation of great talent and devotion. Our challenge is to tap into the souls of people in ways that bring us to experience Judaism in ways we would never have imagined. We should be creating an environment that says stretch ourselves educationally and spiritually and don’t be afraid to grow in our feeling towards Judaism and its people. We are doing this already by producing our new Torah Shelanu book. We have other projects that keep our hand on the pulse of the innermost point. It requires us to understand how heart, memory and conscience work together and balance the normal focus on the upkeep of our congregation. We want to continue to help our congregants to have choices to grow themselves educationally and spiritually.
Judaism typically portrays the High Holy Days as people making choices between behavior that is either good or not. God opens three books and we, through our prayers and actions, will determine whether or not God will inscribe and seal us into the Book of Life. But think about a different set of choices. Suppose the issue is not about good versus bad behavior. Let’s imagine that the innermost point that Satan would steal from a community was forgetting about the spirit or the values that makes for a healthy and vibrant temple. Maybe the synagogue where the temple organization works but the spirit is dormant is exactly what the rabbi in the story was afraid could happen to his new community. It is possible that the story is teaching us that we need and want stability in our lives and in our temple too. But when we focus exclusively on the structure and lose perspective about what makes a community sacred then the innermost point the rabbi referred to is missing and then we may remain in a limbo rather than being sealed in the book of life.
I feel confident that that this past year our temple made great strides in keeping that Satan from stealing the innermost point from us at Beth Yam. We commissioned the writing of a brand new Scroll of Esther as well as purchasing and refurbishing a beautiful Torah. We had learning sessions with our scribe Neil Yerman and we dedicated it and wrote the holy letters in the Torah.  We also embarked upon a special project which you have received tonight. It began with about 18 adult writers and we learned for three sessions engaging in creative writing exercises based upon a theme in the Torah. It was an intense and for some mystifying experience, particularly  for those who had no prior experience in studying Jewish texts let alone trying their hand at  creative or spiritual writing. The group of truly faithful students created a momentum and produced a collection of poems, memoirs, essays and even a recipe. They were amazed at the effort that they could never have imagined doing in their lives. But the circle grew and we invited visual artist in the temple and they began to create their art. The circle widened even further and we engaged teachers and children in the religious school to do their writing and behold we now present you with the “Torah Shelanu” Our Torah representing Congregation Beth Yam’s efforts to capture and hold onto the innermost point of the Temple Community.
I do not believe that if we had never done this project our temple would have been any worse for it. No one would have missed it. We would be carrying along with the same momentum we are used to doing here at the Temple. But this project did happen and it involved many generations of people from all over the world that belong to our Temple. I hope you will peruse and eventually read the book. We had participants who spoke of their experiences immigrating to this country, the aftermath of the Holocaust growing up in the Bronx, mourning an Israeli soldier killed in Lebanon, straddling between living Jewish life in New York vs. the low country. The project involved tapping into people’s memory and trying to make sense of their lives in the here and now. We know these people, but, did we realize what was in their souls. Did they themselves understand what they would find? That sense of reaching inward and discovering not only what we could write or what visual art we could produce is exactly what the rabbi was talking about when he spoke of the innermost point in the temple. It is the spark, the creative spirit the ability to surprise ourselves by what heart, memory and  conscience can reveal to us.
This project also taught us that it takes an ability to remember how small things often reconnect us to the big picture of the temple and preserving Judaism. I think we need more opportunities to stretch our vision and give people the chance to shine and to learn new skills no matter their age. We also should be more in tune with sustaining our temple’s reputation with doing new and creative activities that are outside the box. Our work in social action and Outreach to the interfaith and the national awards we have received should be a continuation of a culture at Beth Yam that is building a spiritual infrastructure that is as beautiful as the physical infrastructure that envelops us when we enter this temple.
If any temple or our congregation focused only on the mechanics of operating a congregation and that became the center of our focus then, symbolically speaking, the presence of Satan has prevailed. Satan, in rabbinical thought, does not challenge God for supremacy, but, likes to dislodge us and distract us from fulfilling the commandments of the Eternal. We see many rabbinical stories about Satan. Even one of the most famous has Satan trying to prevent Abraham from taking Isaac to Mount Moriah when God commands him to sacrifice him. Satan represents not the personification of evil or the devil but rather a malaise, a single minded conformity, the resistance to grow in knowledge and spirit not just for a person but for a community. That is what the rabbi was thinking about when he exclaimed, “But we will not let that happen here!”
If we take out the Torah Shelanu book and examine the verse that we chose to inscribe on the front cover, we will see its message for this day of Rosh Hashana. We chose Genesis 2:9 When God exposed Adam and Eve for violating his command of eating from the fruit of the forbidden tree. God goes directly to Adam and asks him, “Ayechah” where are you?” Did God mean to ask if Adam knew where he was literally? What did God mean from that question, Where are You?”  Scholars have been interpreting that question since the beginning of Torah.
But I will give you one story that exemplifies that “Where are You, “applies to each of us. Almost two hundred years ago Rabbi Schner Zalman was arrested and jailed in St. Petersburg. Actually his own people accused him of instigating Jews to more spiritual growth and it threatened the Orthodox authorities who went to the gentile authorities and had him arrested. 
While the rabbi was sitting in his cell, the guard spoke with him. The rabbi could see the distress in the face of the guard and how he was afflicted with many concerns. The guard started to ask the rabbi questions that he had always wanted to understand about Scriptures. Finally he asked the Rabbi, “Why did God ask Adam, “Where are You’ in the garden of Eden?”
“Do you believe,” answered the rabbi, “that the Scriptures are eternal and that every era, every generation, and every person is included in them?”
“I believe this,” said the guard.
“Well then,” said the rabbi, “in every era, God calls to every person:  “Where are you in your world?  So many years and days of those allotted to you have passed, and how far have you gotten in your world?’
The guard smiled and said, “Bravo Rabbi! Then his heart trembled.”
This story can speak to us because ‘Rosh Hashanah is challenges us to ask this question ‘, Where are You?’ And to ask this question that God asked Adam is to admit we need to make a change and think carefully about how we are living. It is the same question that the writers of the Torah Shelanu project asked themselves. It is the question that every temple should pose when evaluating how well we are doing as a congregation.

And as we celebrate our temple’s 30th  anniversary we can ask this question of ourselves. I am personally happy and pleased to be continuing with you in the years to come and I look forward to joining you in the continuing saga of finding, and preserving that innermost point of this congregation. It brings us all great satisfaction when we can embark on projects that brings out the best in people, when our members who are sure what the end is but have faith believing that the vision will become clear. And that is what happened in Torah Shelanu and often times in life that kind of faith is necessary to meet life’s challenges.
Thirty years old means a person who is old enough to make it on their own and reflect upon their past enough to understand how they want to live in the future. So to it is with us. Where are We? How do we want to go into our thirties and build the congregational family that will bring us nachas and preserve the innermost point of the congregation’s soul?  This congregation has so much to give to itself and to the community, locally and nationally. We have already done so. Now we move forward seeking a deeper understanding of who we are and ultimately securing the attention of god and being sealed in the book of life. May it be God’s will that we find that innermost point for us and for the future of Jewish life in the low country.
Shana Tova.