The Enduring Power of Friendship

Today, I attended a Celebration of Life for my old friend, Jay Frank.  His death has helped me to realize something about the endurance of friendship.


I hadn’t seen Jay in years–in the past nearly 30 years since we graduated high school, I’ve honestly only seen him once or twice.  About 10 years ago, when in New York with Post Confirmation students at the congregation I worked in at the time and he happened to be in New York at the same time.  And maybe when we were in college.  But none of that matters.  My memories of him remain profound.  And the connection we had in high school has remained powerful–and has made this a difficult loss.  I don’t think I’ll ever get used to losing a peer.

Those of you who speak youth group will understand what I mean when I say that Jay was my first friend in JFTY, or NFTY, depending on your era.  I went to my first regional event because my camp friends from another region had an event at camp the same weekend.  Actually, it’s only appropriate that I’m watching the Sesame Street 50th Anniversary Special tonight–because it was upon watching a Sesame Street special on tv, a few nights before the event, that I decided I wanted to go–my friend group and I had some Sesame Street related memories and inside jokes, and watching it made me miss them.  So, I made it happen.  And there I met Jay.  And we became friends.

We lived in adjacent towns, so we got to see each other.  We’d talk on the phone regularly (these were the days of long distance calls costing money, and he was a local call) and got together now and then.  He was the one who convinced me to go to my 2nd NFTY event.  Which was the event that got me hooked.  It is no exaggeration to say that NFTY changed the trajectory of my life in many ways.  But what is most important, I believe, is the friendships I made there.  Which brings me back to Jay and the celebration of his life.

When the event was announced, there was no question in my mind that I would attend.  Because, while we hadn’t spoken in years, the connection remained powerful.  The memories of our friendship are strong enough that the connection endures through those memories.  Same with the amazing people I got to see at the event.  Dear friends–some I’ve been in touch with, but some I haven’t seen or spoken to in years.  One who I am pretty sure I haven’t seen since I graduated, whom I still feel powerfully connected to.  The hugs were just as important as if I had seen them just days ago.  Same with some dear ones who weren’t able to be there–even I haven’t seen them in decades, the connection remains strong.

I know this also because of people I’ve lost touch with who have come back into my life.  The love we had for each other originally comes pouring back when we reconnect.  The memories transcend the years in between, and we become connected once again as if that connection had never stopped.

And all that is what compelled me to write this.  Yes, it’s partly the power of memory, but it’s much deeper than that, I think.  It’s really about the power of friendship.  When we have a friend–a real friend, a dear friend–time doesn’t matter.  Deep friendship is eternal.  Even if we don’t actively see the person or talk to the person, the connection remain deep.  And the 2 friends continue to matter to each other in important ways.  And the friendship endures in a way that exists beyond the day to day.

And so that’s what I’ve come to realize, in the wake of grieving the death of my friend.  Friendship is important.  And friendship matters.  I plan to try to be better at actively nurturing the friendships I have–those old and those new–so that the time we didn’t spend together doesn’t become a regret.  And because I realize those friendships matter.

I am so grateful for the friends I’ve made over the years.  For the people who have become part of my life in powerful ways.  For the memories I’ve shared with them.  For the times they’ve helped me through. For the laughter they’ve provided.

I hope to share so much more in the future.  And even if not, I know that those friendships will endure.  Because that is what friendship is all about: unconditional love. And I cherish those friends I have.  And hope to see them all soon.  And will try to make sure that happens.

Thank you to those in that category–and those that will become friends.  I truly appreciate you, in so many ways.  Always.

Bullets Through the Bubble: Yom Kippur 5780

Here is my Yom Kippur sermon from this year–listen and/or read.  And may you all have a wonderful year to come!

It doesn’t take a great deal of conversation with me to know that I love camp—I often talk about its influence on me, and its power for so many young people.  Throughout my time as a camper, staff member, faculty member, and senior staff member at the 5 Reform Jewish summer camps at which I have spent time, each has displayed many aspects of the same magic—as well as a unique spirit.  In my most recent summers, I’ve had the opportunity to appreciate the particular magic of the URJ 6 Points Creative Arts Academy, a Jewish arts camp, near here in West Chester, PA, housed at the Westtown School—which I’ve had joy of experiencing with several campers from our congregation.  So, let me set the scene.

Creative Arts Academy is a place that breathes art.  In the fields between the lush, green trees—between the storied walls of the old buildings…It is there that creativity happens.  At CAA, young people discover who they are each day, trying new arts, honing skills, unfolding different aspects of themselves, exploring their world, and figuring out how they fit into it.  As faculty there, at so many moments of each day, I take in the camp community in soft focus—noticing us all as an ensemble—moving towards the same goal of creating a more beautiful world.

Each morning and each evening, surrounded by green fields, with the background of the blue sky of morning or the sun setting into pink and purple clouds in the evening, the camp gathers for ritual moments.  Between the beauty of voices joined together in spontaneous harmonies, through the prayers we sing each day, we share reflections on the values of camp and the theme of the summer.  This past summer, that theme offered 3 essential questions that seeped into all of our activities, quoting the great sage Hillel.  If I am not for myself, who will be for me?  If I am only for myself, what am I? If not now, then when? These questions are answered throughout the time at camp in myriad ways—through art and through actions.  In conversations and in contemplation.

It was in the midst of all of this that one evening, long after the evening program, after hours spent laughing and sharing and planning with the other faculty, that I read something on facebook that pierced the bubble of camp.  And I became instantaneously more grateful that the campers didn’t have access to screens, so that their bubble could remain in tact.  A musician friend of mine posted that while he had played at Gilroy the day before, he was safe.  

And as opened a tab on my internet browser to find out what had happened, and took a deep breath thinking about how we’d be taking the oldest campers to the county fair the next day,  I reflected on the fact that there was yet another incident to add to an ever growing list, and I simultaneously realized that this now adult had once been a camper in my unit when I was a counselor for Carmel—the youngest unit at Camp Harlam.  And I thought of another camper in my bunk that same year, who was in Las Vegas for a concert 2 years ago, and while not physically injured, will forever grapple with mental scars.  And I thought of my colleague who had been the student rabbi in Littleton, Colorado, just a few miles from Columbine High School.  And I thought of my colleague who is the rabbi/educator in Parkland, Florida.  And my several friends who work in the Jewish community in Pittsburgh.  And just days later, still holding on to the bubble of camp, despite the bullet holes that permeated it, I would think of who my friends were in El Paso and then Dayton.  And while I know that these personal connections don’t make these stories any worse than any other, similar stories, I know that they hurt more.  And sometimes, it is when ideas become personalized, that they become more real for us.  And when some ideas become more real, we have no choice but to respond. 

And with that, my mind returned in that moment, to the theme of the summer.  And I realized that I must be for myself, in order that my own realm be safer—the places and people I treasure.  I must be for others, in order to offer the same to those I do not know.  And that clearly, the time is now—and probably should have begun already.  

We have a problem in this country with gun violence.  And we have for a while.  In the places I mentioned—without even having to identify what happened in those places.  In so many other places where people have gone to shop, to see movies, to go to work, to pray, or to go to school.  Not to mention instances of gun violence that don’t even make national headlines, but are just as horrifying and important to acknowledge.  We have a problem.  

I’m not here to identify the specifics of that problem, or even to tell you what the solution is.  I have my ideas—I have no doubt that you do, as well.  I’d embrace the opportunity to engage in conversation about that.  But whatever you identify as the root of the problem, and whatever you think is the solution, I urge you to take action towards that solution.  Because approximately 100 people in the US die from gun violence every day. (  Because in the Jewish year of 5779, a year of 385 days, there were 403 mass shootings in the US. (  And those numbers are not ok.  And, most of all, because those numbers are not just numbers—each of those numbers is a collection of stories, and a collection of people connected to those stories, and of friends connected to those people.  This problem belongs to us all.

And it is happening all over our country.  And that terrifies me.  I know I’m not alone in that fear.  And, while as adults we may know how to grapple with those feelings, it is often even more challenging our young people.  I know that so many of our kids are scared.  A friend of mine told me recently that her daughter, a freshman in high school, spent that morning in hysterics, having woken up out of a nightmare about being in a school shooting.   And her nightmare felt real to her.  And she was late for school that day, because her mother had to calm her down, so that she could even begin to get dressed, and go to the very site of her nightmare.  This is a mature, 15 year old young woman—who woke up from a nightmare crying.  Our kids know what is going on, and for many of them, walking into school is a daily act of courage.  

To our young people here, I want to say to you directly: we see you; we hear you; and we are here for you.  You are loved, and you are valued.  And we want you to be safe.  We are doing our best.  

And to all of you, adults especially, I really hope that we are.  Because we need to.   We need to listen to our youth—especially as many of them are becoming leaders towards finding solutions to this issue—and because they are clearly telling us that there is a problem and looking to us. And we need to recognize that we owe real change to these next generations.  And we need to take action.  We need to do our best.  As I said before, this is true no matter your politics, no matter your beliefs.  Whether you feel that we need better gun laws in this country; or that we need to mitigate the culture of violence that is so pervasive, as Rabbi Robinson spoke about on Rosh Hashanah; or that we need to provide better and more accessible treatment for mental health; or that we need to recognize that mental illness is more likely to make an individual a victim than a perpetrator, and that we must reduce the stigma of mental health care; or that too often, too many people are failing to recognize the humanity of others…all of those are real needs in our society.  And while any one of them alone is unlikely to solve the immense problem that we have, put together, they can lead to real change—and perhaps we can take the steps necessary towards real solutions.  Be for yourself, and fight for the solutions that you believe in.  Be for others, and recognize that the work of your neighbor towards the same ultimate solution.  And let’s not wait any longer to engage in this sacred work together.

Because it’s going to take a while and it isn’t going to be easy.  And I don’t know about you, but I’m already exhausted.  And each incident that pops up in the notifications on my phone exacerbates the feelings already present—and I’m weary.  And I’m angry.  And don’t want to live in a world where I need to spend professional development time with our religious school faculty on active shooter trainings; and where we have to have increased security in our building; and in which I find myself constantly looking around for potential danger; and where one can’t help but to live on edge, wondering where it will happen next time.  Because there is an assumption of there being a next time.  And even as we fight for solutions, we also need to recognize and soothe our own feelings, and the feelings of those around us.  I’d like to suggest that these very High Holy Days offer us guidance in multiple aspects of this struggle.

Throughout this season, we read the ancient words of the unetaneh tokef prayer.  The prayer speaks of Divine Judgment; of God examining the life of each being on earth, determining our fate for the coming year.  On Rosh Hashanah, according to this prayer, God writes our fate in the Book of Life.  On Yom Kippur, our fate is sealed.  The basic theology of these words is troubling at best, especially when considering issues of gun violence.  But the ultimate message of the prayer is not that God determines our fate, but that our actions can change the determination.  u’Teshuvah, ut’fillah, utzedakkah ma’a’virin et ro’a hag’zeirah.  “Repentence, prayer, and charity temper judgment’s severe decree,” as it is translated in our machzor.  The implication here, and the common understanding of this line, is that if we engage in acts of repentance, prayer, and charity, then our fate will be better—we’ll prevent the brokenness and the chaos.  But I don’t think that’s true; too many good people have been victims of gun violence for that to be the case.  However, looking at the words more carefully allows for a different interpretation.  These acts of repentance, prayer, and charity will not so much change fate, but they can help to determine our reaction.  We are hopefully all written in the Book of Life; the question, though, is if we are in the book of the truly living.  For in order to live, we must realize that bad things will happen around us and that bad things will have an impact on us; we need to have the tools to live despite the bad.  I want to offer a more nuanced translation: Repentance, prayer, and charity bring us through the evil of the decree—this more literal translation is perhaps a more accurate understanding of these ancient words.  These actions give us coping strategies for living with the challenges that life presents.  No longer do we wonder how these acts can change our destiny, but how can these acts change the way we react to those events that are beyond our control?

T’shuvah, t’fillah and tzedakkah bring us through the evil of the decree.

T’shuvah: our acts of turning inward, can help us to see what we must do.  To see how we can be better at creating a reality that is different from that in which we find ourselves.  By sharing in collective repentance for the cycle of gun violence that has pervaded these last decades, we can turn towards a better future.  T’fillah: while surely, thoughts and prayers are not the solution to the vast problem of gun violence in this country, prayer is not a bad thing.  And successful prayer can change us.  Whether it brings us towards moments of transcendence which inspire us, or towards moments of centering and calm within ourselves, which comfort us.  Prayer that is more than going through the motions of the words we recite, prayer that makes us feel a sense of something beyond our day to day, can transform us and enable us to perceive both ourselves and our world differently.  Tzedakah: through righteous giving, of our money or of our time, to organizations that do work towards solutions in which we believe, our impact can be greater than what any one of us can do individually.  And if we understand this term more broadly, we can also see it as our mandate towards creating righteousness in our world—to making right that which we see is wrong.  

If we each engage in T’shuva, T’fillah, and Tzedakah, our actions can bring us through the terror of this problem of gun violence.   Each piece an essential part of the answer, to get ourselves through these challenging times, and to move our society beyond them.  As these holy days inspire us towards bettering both ourselves and our world, throughout this new year.  

And I truly believe this is possible.  It is, in fact, at camp where I find reminders of that, to remember on the days when I believe that it isn’t.  

On the final Shabbat of this past summer, I had the opportunity to lead Havdallah with the Directors and Leadership Team, sitting on the stage of the theater building, looking out at the camp community gathered, along with several families and community members, who had come for the final showcase.  The camp community sang the blessings, through tear stained faces, knowing that the summer was coming to an end.  The campers hugged each other, swaying with their arms around each other, separating themselves from Shabbat, and even as they held on to each other, grasping at the edges of the bubble as if to beg it to stay a little longer, beginning the emotional separation from camp.  And at the end, as is the tradition at Creative Arts Academy, the community sang Rabbi Max Chaikin’s version of Eliyahu HaNavi, the song calling upon Elijah the Prophet to herald a time of perfection and calling upon ourselves to build that reality.  As I watched the camp community from the stage, I saw the campers singing loudly—almost shouting the words—jumping and dancing and raising their arms with the message—truly living out the enthusiasm inherent in the idea of bringing about, “a time to come, when injustice shall be gone, pain and violence will be no more, done with hatred, done with war.” (  And I knew, in that moment, that they really meant it.  And as they sang the words, “So we will not wait a minute more, to build the world we’re waiting for. Building starts with you and me,” (ibid) I knew they were right.  This all starts with you and me.  And this all starts right now, as the gates close on the year that has past, and we open ourselves anew.  May we open those gates towards a time in which we are better, a year in which the world is better.  May we walk through those gates towards building that world.  So may it be for us all.  

ken y’hi ratzon

Makom SheLibi Ohev, Sham Raglav Molichot Oti (The place that my heart holds dear, there my feet will bring me near): A Kutz Camp Elegy

Today I, along with countless others, received news that the Kutz Camp is closing.  I’m not alone in understanding that change is necessary.  Or that this decision is unfortunate.  And, mostly, in mourning the lost of this place–a place that I have long considered home.  This isn’t a post to talk about the decision, or what it means, or what I want to do to make a difference, or to create programs to make up for this loss.  This is about the loss itself.  And what it means to me. So here is my tribute.


The first time I went to the Kutz Camp in lovely, scenic Warwick, Ny was in junior high school with my temple for a retreat.  As the bus pulled into the parking lot, carsick from going up and down hills as we approached the site, I vomited.  So, my first memory of Kutz is going into the (long gone) TC Dining Room to have a drink of water and wash up.  Let’s just say that my time there improved.


It was years later that the TC Dining Room became the front office, and one of the rooms in the hall my office.  But that’s getting ahead of things.  It was in NFTY that I fell in love with Kutz. While I was never a camper, I spent many weekends there.  Through memories of sleeping (or not sleeping) in the lobby, laughing with friends on long nights in the wing, watching the sun rise from the Tron, skipping through various spaces in laughter, sledding down the hill, and countless other memories, it became a place I treasured. It became a place where I continually discovered myself and my potential.


Even now, when I go back, when I see certain places, I relive some of those moments.  Rewinding back in the recording of my memory–hearing dear friends say certain lines we still quote to each other.  Listening to the wise words of other friends, with whom I haven’t been connected in years–but still feel the connection.  Tasting Teddy Bread and buying some to take home.  Learning more about myself and my Judaism than I did, perhaps, at any other location.  And that was only the beginning.


It was a few years later, that I moved there.  Literally, living at camp for 2 years.  I remember one night, when all the power blew out, and spending time in my cabin with 2 of my favorite human beings–when the power came back on, turning the lights off because we wanted to preserve the ambiance.  I remember learning that Rabin had been assassinated.  I remember driving down the hill in a snow storm, to send in my application to rabbinical school–and a month or so later, standing in the dining hall and being told I had been accepted.  I remember wondering if the lake was really frozen, and spending a fall afternoon walking around the lake just for the sake of it.  I remember weekend after weekend of groups coming in–spending time with the staffs and smiling as I served kids their food.  I remember friendships that I developed. And learning how to have a real, adult job.  I remember many tears and even more laughs.  I remember knowing every corner of that space, and knowing it was my home.  I remember some of the most important conversations I’ll ever have.  And I still know how to pick most of the locks and where to find just about anything.


Later, in several summers in various roles, as well as throughout the year on retreats, it continued to be my home. Even as new buildings were built and others were torn down (or burned down).  Memories were formed and continued to form.  It’s hard for me to count how many people I know from those times–some of whom I met there, others of whom I met in other places and connected more deeply there.  And yet others whom I encouraged to go there, knowing they would find a home there.  And others I met later on, with whom I was able to establish an instant connection, because we shared that place over different times.


And so, I have so many thoughts, memories really: flashes of services in the Tron, teens surrounding the perimeter during the Amidah, as they found their kavanah (or, perhaps, prayed to the Lake God); watching tv shows in a closet while eating Chinese food; walkie talkies interrupting conversations; echoes of prayers sung and song sessions; the program room shaking underneath the NFTY Cheer in the chadar ochel; excavating the JFTY Chapel, several times, and praying there; the first program I ever wrote; the best program I ever wrote; Program Planning Committee Meetings, late at night, during the quiet of camp; nights where the raccoons made me yelp in fear, while trying to show strength while on Shmirah; trips to the Creamery; literally running through fire; impossible challenges; great accomplishments; laughing until it hurt; crying until my eyes ran dry; hugs and love; mourning the loss of those that died too soon; friendships I continue to treasure.


All of that, to me, is Kutz.  And I will miss it.  Yes, I know, the people and the memories are greater than the place–but still, I’ll miss the place.  And I still believe that it is magic.  Places that continue to be and those that are no longer: the Wing, Mickey Mouse House, the Tron, the Beit Am, the lobby, Rambam, Rashi, Hillel, Shammai, Esther, Vashti, the library, the infirmary, the TCs, the Hill cabins, the Batim, the pool, the old pool with the backwards U, Pagodas Isaac and Jacob, and even Pagoda Abraham, Lake Rolyn, the Willows, Jackie Robinson, Chock Full O’Nuts, Fac Row, the Program Room, the Old Canteen, and everything else.  Shalom, Chaver.

Yom Kippur Morning 5779: Are We Awake? Are We Prepared?

wordcloud sermon 5779

My sermon from Yom Kippur this year.  Listen, read, or listen and read.

This sermon began this summer at camp.  I had the opportunity to spend time this summer at 2 different Reform Movement camps—first returning to Camp Harlam—the camp where I grew up—as faculty and also serving on faculty during the inaugural summer of the new URJ 6 points creative arts academy.  At both camps, in addition to the satisfaction and inspiration of working with the campers and staff, I found (as I often have in my years as a rabbi at camp), that the time spent in conversation with the other faculty was equally meaningful.

As we shared in sacred conversations throughout the day between camp activities, walking from place to place on camp, at meals, and late at night—often over a campfire—we’d cover any number of topics, ranging from the goings on of camp to the happenings in our congregations…from making plans for services to making plans for a “faculty outing”…from ideas for programs to insight on our lives.  In my mind’s eye, I imagine that this is how the Talmud was written—through snippets of conversations of the ancient equivalent of rabbis, cantors, educators, and youth advisors.  Pieced together across generations.  Discussing, interpreting, learning—creating new tractates through our sharing.

In one of those conversations, we had just been singing Noah Aronson’s introduction to the Bar’chu, as we often sing/just sang here: “Am I awake, Am I prepared, Are you listening to my prayer, Can you hear my voice? Can you understand? Am I awake? Am I prepared?”

My friend took issue with the middle portion of the intention: “Can You hear my voice, Can you understand?” saying that it was liturgically problematic because it denied that God can hear and understand.  But, I countered, I think that many who say these prayers have had  doubts that God in fact can do any of that….My friend continued with the idea that it didn’t make theological sense within the context of liturgy.  I continued with my assertion that it didn’t have to—that our prayers were, at least in part, an expression of our own thoughts.   The conversation ended there, as camp conversations sometimes do, before we had any chance for resolution, but I’ve been thinking about it ever since.

Because, I believe that most of us have moments, even when we sit here in the sanctuary, perhaps especially when we sit here, when we don’t believe, or when we have doubt, when we honestly aren’t sure that there is a God at all, much less One that can hear or understand any of this.  To me, it is profound to express that sense of doubt within our prayers themselves—our very doubt transformed into liturgy.  

Indeed, this struggle with belief is nothing new, nor is the expression of doubt.  Even in the Psalms, our people’s earliest expressions of prayers, we see this.  In Psalm 13, we read:

How long, Adonai; will You ignore me forever? How long will You hide Your face from me?

How long will I have cares on my mind, grief in my heart all day? How long will my enemy have the upper hand?

Look at me, answer me, Adonai, my God! Restore the luster to my eyes, lest I sleep the sleep of death

lest my enemy say, “I have overcome him,” my foes exult when I totter.

It seems to me that the essence of these words is similar to the essence of Aronson’s: Will you ignore me forever? Can you hear my voice? How long will I have cares on my mind, grief in my heart all day? Can you understand? 

And as we read the end of this Psalm, we again find similar echoes: 

But I trust in Your faithfulness, my heart will exult in Your deliverance. I will sing to Adonai, Who has been good to me.

I see the message of a complete apparent turnaround in theme as twofold—first, despite the doubt, we pray anyway.  Second, we recognize the dichotomy inherent in the first response, and we embrace it—we allow faith and doubt to exist symbiotically, each fueling the other even as they stand in opposition to each other.  We recognize that the struggle doesn’t remove us from Judaism or even from the act of prayer.  As my teacher, of blessed memory, Dr Eugene Borowitz writes, “What I thought was some secret difficulty of mine with God not only occurred to some Jews centuries ago but has long been an accepted part of Jewish religious life. …Many people feel their disbelief so keenly they cannot give much credence to their occasional sense that there is a God…In Judaism faith in God is that dynamic; it is not an all-or-nothing, static state of being.”  

And so we ask—Am I awake? Am I prepared? Are we ready to move forward within our struggle-filled Jewish expression, and attempt prayer, even if we do not know to Whom or for What purpose we are praying? Whether our words reach Some Hearing and Understanding Entity, or hang as vapors.  And so, we at least attempt prayer.  Because we know that Judaism is a religion of action over faith—and prayer, after all, is an action.

Which brings us back to the struggle, for many, of sitting here in services, reading and listening and singing.  And the doubt that is evoked by those very actions. And yet we show up—surely, some of us today intimately know this struggle, but we are all here.  Perhaps we feel some amorphous sense of obligation. Or we know that Goldberg comes to talk to God and we come to talk to Goldberg.   Or because we hope that it will be meaningful or inspiring.  Or because there are parts of it that we love.  Or because we recognize that, especially on these High Holy Days, the sounds, the words, the symbols—are all designed to stir up for us the ancient memories of our people, while at the same time calling upon us to return ourselves to the people we were meant to be.  Or, perhaps, because recognize that potential exists.

105 years ago, Franz Rosenzweig, who would later become one of the greatest and most influential Jewish theologians of modern times, had decided to convert to Christianity.  But he wanted to do so as a Jew—taking a closer look at the things from which he was choosing to separate himself—he wanted to “go through” Judaism to get to Christianity.  And so, as one final step of leaving the religion of his birth, he attended Yom Kippur services at a small synagogue in Berlin, understanding the Day of Atonement as a necessary action in his preparing to take on Christianity.  At that service, he found himself profoundly moved—and realized there was no need for him to find salvation outside of his own religion.  And he chose, that day, to remain Jewish.  

As described in a 2013 article in Tablet Magazine: 

In effect, Rosenzweig experienced a paradoxically non-mystical enlightenment on Yom Kippur 1913: 

A “meta-historical” breakthrough, yet at the same time one solidly anchored in time; a theoretical, yet thoroughly pragmatic epiphany; a revelation irreconcilable with Christian religion, yet committed anew to Hashem via the Neilah service, the final prayers spoken on the Day of Atonement. Just as it is not possible to “unring” a bell, Rosenzweig clearly could not “un-sound” the shofar he heard in 1913.

Clearly, the experience of worship during these days of awe can work and sometimes does work.  

But, at the same time, sometimes it doesn’t.   Someone’s struggle with the faith-doubt dichotomy may prevent them from fully entering the experience.  Someone may feel disconnected.  Someone may feel as if they were on the outside looking in, even surrounded by community.   For many reasons, for many, the experience of High Holy Day worship doesn’t always entirely grab them.  And this isn’t something we often talk about, or acknowledge, or give permission for.  But the truth is these days can be fraught with obstacles.  It’s important to recognize that, whether we are the person that isn’t connected or we are the person that is.

Sometimes, the experience might feel too unfamiliar…because it’s different from what we grew up with or because we didn’t grow up with these holidays.  Or because many of the prayers, the melodies, the content, the aesthetic, are not what we are used to or comfortable with.  Or because we happen to be distracted by the rest of life.  Or because of our doubt or the ambiguity of our personal connection to Judaism.  Or because the God we do believe in doesn’t seem to be reflected in the prayers, overshadowed by the God we don’t believe in.  Or, because we harbor anger towards God, or haven’t been able to forgive God.  

And much of the text doesn’t necessarily resonate for everyone.  The liturgy of these days is full of metaphors that don’t make the connection for many of us that they were designed to make.  We don’t live in a world where kings and shepherds are figures we regularly come across outside of stories.  Some of the intent of the words is lacking for us—the power that the symbols are meant to evoke can be lost.

And, for many, the liturgy brings pain.  Unetane tokef, in particular, can be a hurtful moment—hearing the words can wound us.  

I still vividly remember reading those words on Rosh Hashanah 17 years ago, days after the planes hitting the towers gave new meaning to the very idea of “Who shall live and who shall die,” and reading through a blur of tears, many lines of that section of the text hit like shrapnel.   A moment of catharsis for some, and of blinding pain for others.

And in any year, for someone who has had loss, for someone who has survived, for someone who is ill, or for someone who loves someone who is ill…those words, as well as others in the liturgy, can be painful.  And those moments of pain can tear us away from the experience.

For many reasons, for many people, the experience of these services can be difficult—and the words of our lips do not match the meditations of our hearts—and we find ourselves unable to connect.  And yet, even if we are going through the motions of worship, we might find for ourselves a moment where our worship becomes prayer.   

And perhaps, the purpose of all of this is discovering those moments.  Finding just one prayer, one melody, one insight, one moment of peace, or even one moment of deep feeling—that can be a effective worship experience.  

Judaism has never been an all-or-nothing religion.  Very few people find every single moment of any given service meaningful—that should be neither our expectation nor our standard.  

If we find just one instant of transcendence, then we have succeeded.  And even if we don’t, and we won’t always, it need not be a failure.  For worship can inspire us towards action, even if it doesn’t transform us in that moment.

Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote in Man’s Quest for God, “Ultimately the goal of prayer is not to translate a word but to translate the self; not to refer an ancient vocabulary in modern terminology, but to transform our lives into prayers.”  And that is our challenge and our opportunity.  

To take a liturgy, parts of which may seem alien, and to determine the truth, the wisdom, that is inherent in its words—even if that truth is buried, and to then take that truth outside of the service.  To make those messages part of our living.

Feeling remorse, facing adversity, hoping for the future, fearing the unknown, wanting what is best for ourselves and for those we love and for the world at large, appreciating that which we have in our lives—all of that is at the heart of our prayers.  We can, and we should, take the opportunity to find for ourselves ways through which to express those ideas.  

And especially when a prayer is troubling us, is disconnecting us, we can read it with the intention of determining its truth, its meaning in a greater context, and determine what we can say, or better yet, what we can do, that will meaningfully convey that message for us.

We all connect in different ways: through spirituality, or action, or learning, or community, or nature, or music.  I challenge you to integrate your mode of connection with your Yom Kippur experience.  

It doesn’t have to be today, but find a time to take one aspect of what today is about—one piece of what our liturgy speaks of—and bring that aspect to the way that you do connect.  Whether that’s taking a walk outside and truly enjoying and appreciating the world around us, or hand writing a letter to someone who has been helpful to you, or volunteering your time, or giving food to someone who is hungry, or reading a book, or having a conversation with a friend, or whatever it is that you find meaningful, don’t let your Yom Kippur worship experience end when you walk out the door. 

Let us not forget, after all, that one of the main themes, the main actions, of this season is t’shuvah, repentence—turning within, truly examining our lives and seeking forgiveness for those times when we’ve missed the mark.  And while we can do the self-reflection portion of t’shuvah while we pray, the other portions necessitate leaving the worship setting.  

To give someone a meaningful apology or to truly forgive another, one must be in conversation and one must be fully present.  And to really determine for ourselves how we can act differently—to engage in real change—that takes a lot longer than the timeframe of services; even when we are here all day.  

We must allow the opportunity to find meaning to extend beyond this timeframe and beyond this space.  And by expanding this experience beyond this moment, we can, perhaps, find other moments through which we can both transform worship and prayer, and for that worship and that prayer to transform us. And by engaging with the worship, by appreciating the moments when we do connect, and by allowing ourselves to have moments of disconnect…we can each have a Holy Day Experience which calls us—be it through the sound of the shofar at Neilah or through the still, small voice whispering to us amidst the cacophony of the liturgy.  

Connecting us each to something—to the community around us, to the generations before us and those yet to be, to the acts of building a world inspired by our dreams, to Something Beyond ourselves, to our doubt and our faith, and even to the prayers.  Connecting us to our sacred texts, our insights becoming part of the sacred conversation that has been going on for thousands of years. 

And in doing so, we write another page for ourselves in the Book of Life, inscribing ourselves for a meaningful and engaging year, a year of being awake and prepared, a year of connection. 


#BlogElul #Remember: Bringing the Summer Right Back

I know I’m behind on my #blogelul posts, but I’ve been considering the themes, and sometimes that’s enough.  I’m also a few days late on remember, but these words come from day 13, and I just got the video, so I’m using them now.  


This past weekend, I had the chance to celebrate memories at URJ Camp Harlam‘s 60th Anniversary Weekend.  Harlam @60 was a year long celebration of the camp’s history–from its earliest days, to its present, and also its future.  As a past camper and staff member (and current faculty member), it was a wonderful opportunity to be at camp again, with some of my dearest friends, and experience camp in a different way than I do when I go up to camp these days.

I also had the honor and opportunity to help lead part of Shabbat evening services.  In my remarks, the iyyunei t’fillah (prayer introductions) that I offered, I had the chance to reflect on camp.  Just like the campers do over the summer, I had the chance to reflect on a theme (in this case, memories of camp) and connect them to the prayers.  To remember can be powerful; and I love that I was able to do so, and to share that experience with others.

In case you are a Harlamite who missed the weekend, or if you went to another camp and want to reflect on the camp experience, or even if you’ve never been to camp and just want a taste of what it’s like for those of us that did, here are my remarks:

Before Bar’chu

Shabbat, we are told, is a taste of the world to come. This weekend, we are being given a taste of what I think is the real flavor of Shabbat.  If Shabbat looks like the world to come, I believe that such an existence looks like a time of eternal camp.  Where our memory of this place includes a stream of white, walking up the hill. Where our Sabbath Prayer is as heartfelt as it is loud and rambunctious—where we protected and defended because of this place.  Where we are all free to become ourselves, even as we discover what that means.  In this place where we are all Joseph and Betty’s children, a lineage that allows us to consider the possibility of a better place than the world we live in the rest of the time.  A world where it’s not 10 months for 2, because the 2 months are always.

As we rise for the Barchu, may we rise not only to our prayers, but to the world in which we know is possible.  And may we all take that taste, take this Shabbat, take the spirit of this place, and take that which we know into our lives, as we remember to build that world.  Na Lakum (please rise).

Before Ma’ariv Aravim

I’m in the car, driving. My friend says from the passenger seat, “I love this song,” as they turn up the volume, and we both start singing along. And all of a sudden I notice that my friend is looking at me as if I have sprouted feathers. And says, “uh, what are you singing?”

And it is only then that I realize that the words coming out of my car speaker are not the same as the words that I’m singing, clearly, loudly, and enthusiastically.

And I am momentarily confused by the fact that the radio is playing the song wrong.

And then I just smile sheepishly, because I know that my friend won’t really understand.  My friend won’t understand that this song changed since this recording.  This song changed, when it was the fight song during maccabiah one year. And my friend won’t understand why I start crying during that other song that no one else thinks it’s sad because it was my alma Mater that same year.

Because my friend can’t understand the magic of camp that changes the reality of the space time continuum. So that songs actually become different, and hours become days become weeks become months become years. And summertime is forever.

My friend doesn’t understand that as soon as that song started playing, I was no longer sitting in the drivers seat of my car on a sunny day, but was instead cramped into a stuffy room, long before air conditioning at camp, wearing white, surrounded by cheers intermingled with tears. And that it was no longer this year but that year.  And day had rolled into night.  And in that moment, as in so many moments, the days and nights roll into each other—the memories intermingled with reality—creating cycles of their own.

And that by having been in that place…this place…I knew the magic.  And I still know the magic.  I think we all do—and even those we have not yet met here, they know it too.  And it connects us.  Bringing us together across generations and across time—giving us a bond that connects us to truths and to cycles that no matter how close we are to other friends, they don’t really understand it.

But we know.  We know how the cycles of nature keep so much the same, season after season, even when the faces change and the songs are a little bit different.  We know that really, they are the same too.

And we know, that just like friends return to us like the tide, we can return and we do return and we have returned, not only to them but to there.  To here.  To this moment.  Bringing those moments into this one.  Creating an eternity within a moment.

Rolling the generations that have been into the ones of the future.  Rolling each sunset over those hills into the one before it.  Rolling each Shabbat into the next, into a lifetime of memories which connect to the memories of so many others.  Connecting us all to each other.  To this place.  And to the cycles themselves.

Before Ahavat Olam

A text from the midrash Avot D’Rabbi Natan,

“’And acquire yourself a friend,’ (Avot 1:6), In what manner? It teaches that a person will acquire a friend for themselves to eat with, and to drink with, and to read with, and to study with, and to lodge with, and who will reveal all of their secrets–the secrets of the Torah and the secrets of the way of the land.”

I’m convinced the rabbis went to camp.

As we celebrate those friendships this weekend, and the place that brought us all together, may we all have the chance to consider those secrets, those absolute truths and understandings of Judaism that we have come to because of our time here—and those things we understand about how to live and how to be and how the world works, and should work—all off our secrets that have been shaped by this place.


Would you be mine…Could you be mine…


I just came home from watching Won’t You Be My Neighbor, the new documentary about Mr Rogers.  Sitting in theater, between tears (of which the movie brought many), I reflected that Mr Rogers influenced me as a rabbi and as a teacher, more than I realized.  I also remembered that I preached about him, on the Shabbat following his death 15 years ago.  It is actually a pretty good sermon (some of you may know that I tend to be rather critical of my early sermons).  It meanders a bit, but I think I have a good point.  In reading it, I was also surprised to read about a basketball player protesting the National Anthem!!! Amazing how relevant things from the past can be (also a running theme of the film).  I highly recommend that you go see the film–it was excellent on many levels.  And I share my sermon on him with you now.  

Shabbat  Evening Sermon

February 28, 2003      27 Adar A, 5763

A strong childhood memory: curled up on the couch in our den, covered in an afghan, my mother beside me with her needle-point on the bean-bag.  I would watch the PBS afternoon line-up with wide eye, eagerly anticipating every moment of Mr. Rogers Neighborhood, Sesame Street, and Electric Company.  My mother would fall asleep 10 minutes into Mr. Rogers, even though it was her favorite.  It was because of these memories that yesterday, when I heard of Mr. Rogers’ passing, that I immediately called my mom.  We reminisced about those times, long ago, when I learned so many important lessons from watching TV.

This is not to say that I was raised by the television set; my parents also instilled important values in me, and family activities were always more important than staring at the small box in our den, but I’ll freely admit that I learned a lot from watching tv.  And I enjoyed watching tv.  I still do.  But the lessons I learn from the small screen these days aren’t nearly as potent as those I learned when I was young.  From Sesame Street, I learned my letters, my numbers, a little bit of Spanish, and that no matter what color your fur—we’re really all the same; from Electric company, I learned grammar, phonics, that reading is fun, and that Spider Man is cool; and from Mr. Rogers, I learned how to be a good friend, that ritual is important, that it’s okay to have bad feelings, and that I can never go down the drain.  Looking back, I think that the lessons that Mr. Rogers taught me were probably the most important.  With his life, Fred McFeely Rogers taught generations of children how to be confident, feeling, good people.  

According to him, the goal of his program was to encourage in his audience self-esteem, self-control, imagination, creativity, curiosity, appreciation of diversity, cooperation, tolerance for waiting, and persistence.  There are few, if any, children’s programs today that claim such lofty goals.  Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood not only set forth these goals, but persisted with them throughout its run as the longest running children’s show on television, and seems to have succeeded in fostering these qualities in its viewers.  Mr. Rogers was never cool, but so many loved him anyway.  Even Eddie Murphy, who lampooned the television program on Saturday Night Live with his recurring Mr. Robinson’s neighborhood sketch, is said to have hugged Mr. Rogers when they met.  That seemed to have been the reaction that many had to meeting the man who spoke to them through the TV.    

It’s not hard to remember what so many of us learned from Mr. Rogers through his life—for he truly lived the messages that he taught.  His life was a lesson for us all.  Americans mourn today the loss of one who was an influence on so many—we have lost a member of our communal family.  We learned from his life—but what can we learn from his death? Perhaps his passing can be a reminder to us of the lessons we learned so long ago.  While we all know these things on a certain level, some of these lessons are easy to forget—that it’s okay to be afraid, or angry, or sad; that every person is special; that each of us is special; and that friends are supposed to take care of one another.  Perhaps the lesson of his passing is the lesson of the sanctity of life.  

As we remember Mr. Rogers, let us each change our shoes, put on our cardigan, and go forth in order to bring these lessons into reality.  As he sang at the end of every episode, “It’s a good feeling to know you’re alive.”  Let us each appreciate life as the precious, fragile gift that it is.  Let us each teach each other and teach the younger generations of today the important lessons that we learned when we were younger.  And let us examine the lessons that are taught from today’s television.

I don’t believe that all television is bad.  I don’t believe that the very act of watching television is destructive to children.  I don’t believe that we need to completely restrict the programming that is offered on TV.  I do believe, though, that we need to restrict our children in what we allow them to watch.  And that this is true for those of us who are parents, and for those of us who are not.  It is our communal responsibility to teach those younger than ourselves the lessons that we want them to learn.  We must instill in them pride, and confidence, and tolerance.  And we must instill in them Judaism.  We must teach them to place these lessons in their hearts, and to live them with every step they take.  We must make them aware of that which exists in our world, and of what should be important.  We must encourage them to stand up for themselves, and to fight for their beliefs.

I found myself very interested this week in the news story about Toni Smith, the Manhattanville College basketball player who turned her back on the flag during the National Anthem, in protest of, “the inequalities that are embedded into the American system” and “the war American will soon be entering,” according to a statement that she released recently.  While I may disagree with her beliefs, I applaud Smith for her willingness to not compromise that which she feels most strongly.  I certainly support those who have protested with American Flags of their own at each game that she plays—they, too, are standing up for that which is important to them.  Both sides have the right to protest—the right to peacefully demonstrate those ideals which we hold most dear.  I pray that our own young people are able to articulate their own beliefs and to behave accordingly.  If they choose to turn their own backs on the American Flag, I will be sad, but proud.  It is another sort of turning that concerns me more.  I pray that the young people who are my students never choose to turn their backs on Torah.

Hashiveinu Adonai, Turn us Eternal One, towards Torah and towards you, so that we may be able to help those around us turn, as well.  Traditionally, we never turn our backs on the Torah when it is out—we face it always, even during the hakafah, as we circle around the room with the Torah, as we remove it for reading.  We touch the Torah as it passes us, so that we may bring it close to us.  There are few sights that I like more during services, than watching a parent hold us a child, so that they may touch the Torah, as well.  May we always teach our children—all our children—that the Torah is theirs, and that it should always be near to us, facing us.  When the Torah disturbs us, when God disturbs us, we must not turn away, but we must face forward.  In order to wrestle, one must face the opponent.  When we struggle with tradition, we must face it, as well.  And as we raise a generation of young people who are not likely to visit Israel, let us encourage them to not turn their backs on Israel, either.  Let the news from Israel be as important as the news from America.  Let the voices of our children sing forth the words of Hatikvah, the Israeli National Anthem, “So long as still within the inmost heart a Jewish spirit sings, so long as the eye looks eastward, gazing toward Zion, our hope is not lost—the hope of two thousand years: to be a free people in our land, the land of Zion and Jerusalem.”  May we teach our children to gaze towards the east, facing the Israeli flag, so that the hope will always be a reality.

Mr. Rogers taught us that we all live in one neighborhood.  As Jews, we live, actually, in two: the worldwide community of the Jewish people and the global community, more real than ever in the Age of the Internet.  We must be active participants in both communities, so that these communities will be ones in which we will want future generations to live.  We must engage in tikkun olam, so that those broken pieces of the world are mended.   We must take the hand of the children beside us, leading them toward the future, and never letting them turn their backs on what is truly important.  

May we all recognize the lessons of Mr. Rogers: that every person in the community is important, even in the Neighborhood of Makebelieve; that our feelings are important, even when they are uncomfortable; and that when we care for one another, every day can be a beautiful day in the neighborhood.  And on that day, every home can be a mishkan, a tabernacle; every family a k’hillah kedosha, a holy community; and every person can be a B’tzalel, the artist who puts it all together.

#BlogExodus 4 Nisan: The Ones Who Have Helped Me To Grow

Reblogged from RavBlog: Reform Rabbis Speak:

I’m at the CCAR Annual Reform Rabbi’s Conference this week and had the chance to write a reflection for the CCAR blog.  I wanted to share it here, as well.  It also worked as a #BlogExodus piece, as I prepare myself to welcome Pesach!

Yesterday morning, Rabbi Aaron Panken, President of Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR), the school at which most of us here at the CCAR Convention—indeed, the vast majority of Reform clergy—went to seminary (and at which I am also currently in Cohort 6 of the Executive Masters program to get a Master of Arts in Religious Education) addressed the Conference at our annual alumni breakfast. We had the chance to study some text, and then we got to what is, to me, the best part.

There are few things that will get hundreds of rabbis, many of whom stayed up much later than usual catching up with friends, awake and eager at 7:!5 am. This is one of them. During the breakfast, as we do every year, we engaged in Roll Call, which Rabbi Panken described this morning as, “That interesting ritual that should be fun.” The origins of this ritual are a mystery, but are steeped in tradition: each year, a representative of the Alumni Association calls out each year of classes ordained from HUC-JIR, and everyone present from that class stands. From the current students who are present to those who were ordained through the decades (at least those who got up for breakfast). Each class stands, to applause from the group as a whole—from current students all the way to someone ordained 60 years ago. Many classes show spirit by waving to each other or cheering. Some classes are gathered together at a table or two—others are spread out, and you can see that some of them have only just seen each other. It’s amazing to see the generations of rabbis, gathered together through a collective memory, while celebrating the unique relationship of each class. We honor our own experience, as well as the chain of tradition that links every person in that room.

The night before, our class had also gathered for dinner (as many classes did)—those ordained in our year, as well as those with whom we shared our year in Israel. I hadn’t seen some of these people since our Israel year, 21 years ago. Others I see regularly. But all of us being together—that’s something truly special. All of us together at breakfast, a significant way to celebrate our connection.

Each year, this breakfast is a reminder: I absolutely come to convention for the inspiration and the learning. To learn from some of the great minds of our time. To gain wisdom from incredible speakers. To delve into text study and ideas in a way that I don’t often get to. To grapple with the challenges of contemporary life. To commiserate over challenges, and argue in debates for the sake of Heaven. To pray in a truly unique and holy community. But, really, if I’m honest, more than all that, it’s about sitting side by side with my colleagues.

It’s an amazing thing, this connection, and one of the quirkier aspects of what is, in myriad ways, a quirky career. As we train for this, we spend 1 year in a foreign country, engaged in an immersive learning environment, followed by 4 years with 1/3 of those people—in a really small and really intense graduate school program. And then we all get scattered around the country (and even further). Thanks to technology, we have a sense of what is going on in each others’ lives—and maybe we see some of these people at other times during the year at other events—but this is the time when we all come together.

The chance to see these classmates, these friends, once a year is precious. Some come nearly every year—others only occasionally. In each case, the convention offers a chance to have an annual reunion of sorts. To catch up with people who have been with us from the very beginning of our careers. To see how we have each grown (and how we haven’t changed). To laugh at old memories. To cry at shared sadnesses. To offer each other a sense of camaraderie and collegiality which is often hard to find.

And, yes, to make connections with those from other generations. To meet senior colleagues whose work we have admired…to see people we went to camp with…to see the rabbis from our own formative years—when we became inspired by Judaism in a way that made us want to become rabbis…to see students who have themselves followed this path.

It’s an amazing thing this annual convention and the conference that forms it. It’s a chance for us to connect to our own experience, to reflect on where we have been and where we are and where we are going, and to remind ourselves of all the folks with whom we get to share this journey.


Dear Ms Winfrey,

I have long admired you.  As a young person, I’d enjoy your afternoon talk show nearly every day, after General Hospital, at a friend’s house or my own–you were a vital part of our after school ritual. That was my introduction to you.  And I enjoyed you, and the way you connected with people, and brought out interesting stories.

But what really made me appreciate you was your work in the decades that followed: your amazing depiction of a character in the amazing story of The Color Purple; your raising awareness of so many issues; your sharing of your own struggle with body image and ultimate acceptance of the body you were meant to have, while also encouraging healthy lives; your helping people find their honest truth and live that truth; your getting people to read; your appreciation of the finer things in life.  All of these helped me to appreciate you.  Over the years, I’ve learned from you, been inspired by you, and admired you.

And tonight, as I watched your speech at the Golden Globes, as you won the Cecil B. DeMille Award, I was again in awe.  And as I listened to you, I recognized your wisdom.  And I realized you as the leader I have long known you to be.

By speaking up for racial justice, by speaking against sexual harassment, by speaking of the value of the press–you articulated the message that is so needed in our society right now.  You are the leader we need, as well as the one I hope we deserve.

I’m writing this because I know you are already a leader.  And I know you have spoken before on and off about running for office, and largely dismissed that idea (although you seem to have left room for the idea recently).  But this is me asking you to run for president.

In another year, you might not be the right nominee.  You aren’t a typical candidate, for many reasons.  But, that’s exactly why you are the candidate we need right now.

Because you have the skills, and the albeit non-traditional experience, and the wisdom, and the ability to speak with people, and the compassion, and the judgement, and so many other skills that are those that we need in the leader of our country.

I hope that you will consider this idea.  We need you.

Yom Kippur 5778: Doing Better

Here’s my sermon from today–didn’t get audio and waiting for the live stream to be up in the archive to share the video.Screen Shot 2017-10-01 at 11.12.10 PM

When I was in sixth grade, a classmate of mine drew a swastika on the cover of one of my text books.  I’m not going to name him, because it doesn’t really matter.  And because I don’t think he really understood what he was drawing.  And because he’s a nice person.  And because we’re facebook friends and I don’t want to shame him.  I saw him at our last high school reunion and had a great conversation about religion and our own personal journeys.  I think that, at the time, when we were in sixth grade, he wanted to pick on me, knew I was Jewish, and knew that drawing that particular symbol was a way he could accomplish that—I doubt he really knew why.  I don’t really remember how I responded.  I think I erased it and tried to move on.  I’m fairly certain that I didn’t tell a teacher or my parents.

The phenomenon of victims of hatred based acts, due to any kind of hate, no matter how small or large the act, not saying a thing, is a common one.  More than half of hate crimes go unreported, according to the Department of Justice.  Perhaps because those who are the receivers of such acts don’t want to make waves, or are embarrassed that something happened to them, or because they don’t think anything will realistically be done about it…too often, things happen and no one says a thing.  Which has the effect of the perpetrator of the act never learning that what they did was wrong.  And of any sort of real, systemic change being slow, because few realize or recognize the reality of what happens to individuals.

For this particular instance I shared, I think I just wanted to move beyond it.  Maybe to pretend it didn’t happen.  I’m fairly certain that this man does not recollect this incident—I don’t think it was a defining moment of his childhood, and I don’t think he did then or does now actually hate Jews.

But quite frankly, the fact that this was a fairly innocent act, and not a hate fueled statement, actually makes the whole thing all the more frightening to me.  Because it shows that a swastika is a common enough symbol, that even someone who was neither Jewish nor a Nazi knew that it was antisemitic.  Because casual antisemitism was a thought that crossed the mind of this boy in the mostly white middle class suburb where we grew up.  Because such an act of hate was not something that likely had a lasting impact on him.  Because while I understood that this symbol on my book would worry the adults in my life, I wanted to hide it.  Because, to this day, I still think he’s a nice guy.  A nice guy who drew a swastika on the cover of my text book.

Antisemitism, prejudice, various forms of hatred have existed in this country since the beginning of its history.  But we’ve been able to largely pretend that they no longer exist, or that they aren’t at all wide spread.  Until recently, at least.

When our JCC had repeated bomb threats earlier this year. When news of swastikas defacing all sorts of places became regular news stories, including some drawn on message boards outside of some dorm rooms at my alma mater, Brandeis University, just this week. And this summer, when we all watched images of torch bearing white nationalists, wielding confederate flags and nazi flags, marching in the streets of Charlottesville, VA.  Shouting, “Jews will not replace us.  YOU will not replace us.”  Forcing the members of a synagogue that was along the path of their march to leave Shabbat services through a back door, sneaking the Torah scrolls out to keep them safe, as well.  I don’t need to go into the violent details of that day,  which woke a lot of us to a realization that racism in this country is a real and present problem.

For many of us, the color of our skin does not mark us as different, so we often don’t think of ourselves as victims of racism.  But, in fact, by virtue of our connection to Judaism, our whiteness is conditional.  We, of course, are able to hide our Judaism—we are able to pass as white. But our passing whiteness doesn’t remove the hatred that exists. Charlottesville made it clear that racism and antisemitism not only go hand in hand, but are one in the same.

We live in an odd time, in which Jews can and have risen to the highest of positions, but at the same time, face roadblocks and hatred.  While the glass ceiling may have been shattered for us, we still exist within glass houses, and have been taught not to throw stones.  Which, when stones are cast in our direction, becomes challenging.  And when stones are cast at others—because of their difference—we may want to help, but we don’t want the hatred to spread to us.  And we’re not the ones who are hating.   And we’re not sure what to do.  And, all too often, we do nothing.

The words of Martin Niemoller echo in our heads:

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.

Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out— 

Because I was not a Trade Unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out— 

Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.

A message both powerful and troubling, speaking to the need to speak out for others—and yet limited to speech and so focused on inaction, that they serve more as a confession than as an inspiration.  Earlier this year, my friend and colleague, Rabbi Michael Latz wrote the following in response to Martin Neimoller (z”l):

First they came for transpeople and I spoke up — because God does NOT make mistakes!

Then they came for the African Americans and I spoke up—

Because I am my sisters’ and my brothers’ keeper.

And then they came for the women and I spoke up—

Because women hold up half the sky.

And then they came for the immigrants and I spoke up—

Because I remember the ideals of our democracy.

And then they came for the Muslims and I spoke up—

Because they are my cousins and we are one human family.

And then they came for the Native Americans and Mother Earth and I spoke up—

Because the blood-soaked land cries and the mountains weep.

They keep coming.

We keep rising up.

Because we Jews know the cost of silence.

We remember where we came from.

And we will link arms, because when you come for our neighbors, you come for us—

and THAT just won’t stand.

Indeed, the hatred we see in our world cannot stand—we must speak out and we must stand up.  Whether the hatred is against us because we are Jews, or against others because of the color of their skin, racism is real and we cannot stand for that.

We can do better.

We can start by listening.  To noticing hateful acts when they occur.  And to really hear when others point out racism that they’ve seen or experienced.  To not argue against it but to accept that the person experienced it, and consider how we can help them, or even how we ourselves can act differently.  And maybe even ask questions so that we can learn more. And enter into dialogue to better understand.

It’s been virtually impossible this past week to not be aware that something is happening with the NFL, other than football games, as some players from every team knelt or stood arm in arm with teammates during the National Anthem, in solidarity with Colin Kaepernick, who started kneeling during the anthem last year, to protest racial oppression.  At first, he sat during the anthem.  But then, Nate Boyer, a former green beret and NFL player, wrote a public letter to Kaepernick, in which he expressed, “Even though my initial reaction to your protest was one of anger, I’m trying to listen to what you’re saying and why you’re doing it.”  Kaepernick responded by inviting Boyer to sit down and have a conversation—and then the men talked.  Eric Reid, another player, joined them.  According ESPN, “Boyer, Kaepernick and Reid agreed that the divided nature of the country right now is making it difficult to communicate clearly about complicated issues. They hope that people see and understand their conversation, and that it will lead those who can effect change to have similar discussions.”  It was out of that conversation, honoring the views of each of the 3 men, that the 3 men collectively decided that Kaepernick should kneel instead of sit—an act still problematic to many, but one that was formed out of 3 people having a complicated conversation, which can lead to others having such discussions, which is the only way that we can see change.  And they’re right.

Change needs to happen.  And change is difficult and sometimes messy.  But change is necessary.  And we can only see that change when we hear each other, when we listen to each other, and when we try to understand the perspective of another.  To learn to use the experience of others in order to notice and respond to the racism around us.

We should do better.

Let us be aware that this is a problem that exists even within the walls of synagogues.  A rabbinical student, my friend Eric Uriarte, in his recent student sermon at Hebrew Union College in Los Angeles, spoke about his experience as a Jew of Color.  He said, “When we take off our Jewish garb, our skin color and our ethnic markers continue to make us the target of white supremacists.  But when we put them on, I’m sorry to say, those same elements can make us feel excluded in Jewish spaces.”  His experience is not unique.  For many Jews of color, they have been welcomed into Jewish spaces with questions of their legitimacy as Jews—what they are doing there, what their Jewish background is—or assumptions are made that they do not know how to follow a service.  That they must be at the synagogue for another reason, other than to pray.  That because of their color, they must not be Jewish—or not really be Jewish.

None of these stories are ones that I have heard about this community.  But I’ve heard enough such stories—and even witnessed some—that I recognize Jews of color not feeling included is an ongoing challenge for the Jewish community as a whole.

We must do better.

I am not suggesting that racism is the fault of any of us.  I am not suggesting that any of us are racists.

But let us remember that the Hebrew word for sin, het, actually means missing the mark—it’s an archery term.  And that definition recognizes that even when we are trying our best, even when we are aiming to get things right, sometimes we make mistakes.  We must be open to that idea, and we must determine to continue to try.  We must know that even though we are not racists, we might sometimes do something or say something that has been perceived by a person of color through the lens of race.  Just like we can name moments at which someone innocuously said something to us or around us that we experienced as antisemitic, even though they didn’t mean it, we must be open to the idea that sometimes we have unintentionally participated in racism.

And I do believe that we bear a communal responsibility.  Our liturgy on these High Holy Days reminds us of that with the plural language of our confessional prayers; words that we all read, even if we ourselves have not committed a particular act.  We have gone astray.  We have sinned.  We have done these things.  We might not have acted through hatred based prejudice, but we still confess.  We might not be racists ourselves, but we know that there are others who are.  We may not be the cause, but we still participate in, and sometimes even benefit from, a system in which racism is inherent and bias is real. Al chet shechatanu l’faneicha—for all the ways through which we have missed the mark in ending racism, we pray for forgiveness.  And we resolve to change.

We will do better.

We must speak out.  Just as thousands are marching against racism in Washington today, as Rabbi Robinson spoke about last night, I am protesting racism through my words today.  I hope that we all take our place in the chain of Jewish tradition of Kivie Kaplan and Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner and Abraham Joshua Heschel, and speak out against the systemic racism that still exists.  This is the prophetic voice that must inform us.  This is the fast, as Isaiah reminds us, that is demanded.

We must speak out and we must also speak up.  We must not stand for racist comments—and let it be known when we observe racism happening.  And we must do this for ourselves, as well.

Allie Gurwitz, a student of mine from San Antonio is now at Georgetown University.  In response to swastikas being painted around her campus, she recently posted the following:

I don’t normally post things like this on Facebook but as Elie Wiesel said, “Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.” To whatever individual or group is responsible for the growing number of swastikas being painted in different locations on campus: I am not afraid. We are not afraid. The Jewish community at Georgetown is strong and proud. Your hate has no place here and will not be tolerated. Spread love today.

She’s right.  We must speak out.  We must not be afraid.  And we must combat hate through love.  And darkness through light.  To pursue justice is our sacred mandate.  Our holy task is to bring the light of justice into our world.  We are taught so many times in the Torah that we must care for the stranger, for we were strangers in the land of Egypt.  Through our communal history, and through our personal experience, we must remember that we will not stand for hatred expressed towards us nor towards anyone else.  We must act in accordance with building the world that we want to see—to be the light for justice so that we can know a world of justice.  A world of righteousness.  A world of peace.

Ken Y’hi Ratzon, may this be God’s will.

Ken Y’hi Ratzeinu, may this be OUR will.

#BlogElul Speak

I had the distinct joy yesterday of being at a NFTY event.  The Pennsylvania Area Region held its Leadership Training Institute, and I had the chance to attend, along with our synagogue’s Director of Youth Programs and 3 of our teen leaders.  I’ve been deeply involved with NFTY for decades–first as a participant and later as an advisor and rabbi.  I even worked for the Youth Division of the Reform Movement at 2 different points in my career.  Yesterday was no different in that it inspired me, reminded me of my own experience as a Jewish teen, and helped to reframe my own thinking about Jewish leadership.

In one workshop I sat in on, about Public Speaking, the following video was shown:

It’s a brilliant video.  It makes a lot of points without overly describing those points–a lesson I think many of us can learn.  It uses humor.  And it pokes fun of what successful presentation looks like, while also pointing out what is effective public speaking.

It’s a great lesson in how we teach–and a reminder in making sure we have something to teach, beneath the presentation itself.  It’s important to know how we are presenting learning, but it’s even more important to know what we want that learning to be.

What do we want our learners to come away with?

What do we want them to remember?

What do we want them to do with that?

As the Director of Youth Programs and I took the kids home, we facilitated a conversation about the day.  And what the kids said was amazing–on several levels.  They got it and were able to articulate it.

At one point in the conversation, one of the teens said something about part of leadership being getting others to act.  I was reminded of one of my favorite leadership lessons.  That of the First Follower.  This idea teaches that as much as the leader is important, it is really the first person to follow that leader who has the greatest authority.  It’s counterintuitive, but true. Watch:

It’s important to know how to get others to follow.  But it’s also important to inspire others by being the first person to do the action. Both roles are important–either role is arguably more important.

As we enter this school year and this Jewish year, I wonder who our leaders will be.  And who will be the first to follow. There are so many lessons to teach, so many lessons to learn–how do we figure out how to balance it all?