Yom Kippur Transitions and Remembrances

•October 5, 2014 • Leave a Comment

I wish you each a Ketivah v’chatimah tovah! A good inscription and seal in the Book of Life. And for those of you that are fasting a Tzom Kal, an easy fast.
In May of 1972 Judaism went through a dramatic transition. The Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion ordained its first woman rabbi, Rabbi Sally Priesand. This was a historical moment not only in the life of Reform Judaism but the entire Jewish world and in America. In the midst of the feminist revolution of the sixties and early 1970’s, Reform Judaism finally lived out its founding principles of equality between men and women in spiritual matters. The moment was hailed by liberal Jews world wide and condemned by Orthodox Judaism and even Conservative Judaism. Two years later in 1974 the Reconstructionist movement would ordain Rabbi Sandy Sasso. In 1975 Rabbi Jackie Tabick became Britain’s first female rabbi ordained by the Reform Movement there. Then in 1984 the Conservative movement jumped aboard a train that had already left the station. Rabbi Amy Eilberg became the first woman ordained by the Jewish Theological Seminary of the Conservative Movement. Each of these moments were transition moments in the history of Judaism. Fast forward to just a year ago when the Open Orthodox movement ordained its first rabbi, Rabbah Sarah Hurvitz. Plus there are a handful of other women who have been ordained in the Orthodox world, including here in Los Angeles, Reb Mimi Feigelson who teaches at the American Jewish University and my good friend, Rabbi Dina Najman who has her own pulpit in Riverdale, New York.
Each of these moments are holy moments, moments hailed by a community of Jews. For many of us it is hard to imagine Judaism without the voice of women as leaders both ordained and lay people.
This summer I went on a study mission with the American Jewish Archives and Jewish Women’s Archives and the first four American women rabbis to rediscover the life of Rabbiner (Rabbi) Regina Jonas. Since the fall of the Iron Curtain and in particular the Berlin Wall, the story of Regina Jonas has been rediscovered. It turns out that the headlines in 1972 were wrong. Rabbi Priesand was not the first woman ordained ever. But the first in America. It turns out the Rabbi Regina Jonas was ordained in 1935 in Berlin.
A group of 20 of us Women Rabbis and Women Scholars, Reform Movement Lay leaders traveled together to rediscover her life and her contributions to the Jewish world and to dedicate a memorial plaque in her memory at Terezin, the model ghetto city of the Nazis where Rabbiner Jonas ministered for two years before her death in Aushwitz in 1944.
We gathered in Berlin, went to the house she grew up in. Today a plaque stands outside her home. We visited the remnants of the synagogue she taught and lectured in. We had an opportunity to read her letters and documents from the small archives that are left of her materials. And when I say small, I mean no higher than an inch. This coming year will be 80’s years since her ordination which is a story in itself.
Born in Berlin in 1912, her father died when she was a young girl. She was raised in poverty by her single mother. But she was a bright student and loved Judaism. According to her biographer Elisa Klapchik:
In 1924, she matriculated at the Hochschule für die Wissenschaft des Judentums, founded in Berlin in 1872. This liberal institution admitted women as students…but Jonas was the only woman who hoped to be ordained as a rabbi. All her fellow women students were studying for an academic teacher’s degree.
Eduard Baneth (1855–1930), professor of Talmud at the Hochschule and responsible for rabbinic ordination, was the supervisor of Jonas’s final thesis, which dealt with the topic “May a woman hold rabbinic office?” Submitted in June 1930, this paper is the first known attempt to find a halakhic basis for the ordination of women.
Jonas’s thesis received a grade of “good” (Praedikat gut). Soon thereafter, Eduard Baneth died and his successor, Hanokh Albeck (1890–1972), proved unwilling to ordain a woman. None of the other professors of the Hochschule raised their voices on this issue…. As a result, Regina Jonas graduated only as religious teacher. In the following years, she taught religion at several girls’ schools in Berlin, where she was known to be a very popular and committed teacher.
In 1933, the workload for Jewish teachers increased tremendously, since the students who had to leave public schools due to anti-Semitism not only needed Jewish knowledge, but also needed to learn to be proud of their Jewish heritage.
Nevertheless, Jonas continued to pursue ordination. Finally, in 1935, Rabbi Max Dienemann (1875–1939), executive director of the Liberaler Rabbinerverband (Conference of Liberal Rabbis) agreed to the ordination, on behalf of the Verband. Her diploma of ordination reads: “Since I saw that her heart is with God and Israel, and that she dedicates her soul to her goal, and that she fears God, and that she passed the examination in matters of religious law, I herewith certify that she is qualified to answer questions of religious law and entitled to hold the rabbinic office. And may God protect her and guide her on all her ways. She has the heart of a rabbi.”
Jonas became the first woman to be ordained a rabbi. But soon the nightmare of the Shoa was upon them. As many Jews and rabbis fled the country and were rounded up-Rabbiner Jonas taught in many congregations, pastored the elders left in town after Kristallnacht and finally along with her mother was sent in 1942 to Terezin. There for two years, she taught and preached and held up the spirits of the Jews. She led worship and worked closely with Vicktor Frankel the great psychologist on a suicide watch in the camp.
In Terezin this summer, we saw the list of 24 lectures she gave while there. Lectures, adult education that you might have heard from me over the course of the years. Lectures on Shabbat and the holy days, Discussions about God and mitzvoth.
In a small sample of her writings that were left she writes:

Our Jewish people was planted by God into history as a blessed nation. ‘Blessed by God’ means to offer blessings, lovingkindness and loyalty, regardless of place and situation. Humility before God, selfless love for His creatures, sustain the world. It is Israel’s task to build these pillars of the world— man and woman, woman and man alike have taken this upon themselves in Jewish loyalty. Our work in Theresienstadt, serious and full of trials as it is, also serves this end: to be God’s servants and as such to move from earthly spheres to eternal ones. May all our work be a blessing for Israel’s future (and the future of humanity) … Upright ‘Jewish men’ and ‘brave, noble women’ were always the sustainers of our people. May we be found worthy by God to be numbered in the circle of these women and men … The reward of a mitzvah is the recognition of the great deed by God.

How could the world forget a woman like this? How by 1972, could the world forget a rabbi, a teacher, a compassionate Jew whose selfless devotion to our people eased their comfort and pain in a most tumultuous time: in a transition time of Jewish life?
Our mission this summer tried to atone for that loss of her dignity and memory. We gathered in Terezin to dedicate a memorial plaque to her. In a solemn ceremony, with dignitaries from both Germany and the Czech Republic, European Jewish community leaders and the first four American Rabbis of each stream along with several other leading Women Rabbis and Women Scholars we dedicated a memorial to her in the Kolumbarium at Terezin. With the child and grandchild of a child survivor of Terezin: Helga Weissova-Hoskova playing the music, we read Rabbiner Jonas own words chanted the El Maleh Rachamim, recited the Kaddish in her memory.
This holy and extremely moving spiritual moment that I experienced taught me a great lesson. And one that I wish to share with you this morning on Yom Kippur. Memory is a fragile thing. If we do not share our memories, our stories, our remembrances, it could be as if we never existed. We cannot build the future fully if the past is forgotten.
Clearly Rabbiner Jonas had an important impact on the people she met. At one of the darkest hours in the life of our people, she brought love and compassion and dignity to their lives-and yet by 1972 no one knew or spoke of her existence. The deep shadows of the Shoa wiped out the remembrance of Rabbiner Jonas. She died in Aushwitz in October 1944. Deported from Terezin on Oct 12 with her mother, she arrived by train in Aushwitz on Shabbat October 14, 1944, the 3rd of Cheshvan. Scholars believe she was gassed the same day, Shabbat Bereshit. That is why next Shabbat we will observe her yarzeit. So that we shall never again forget the incredible and important contributions of this tenacious, loving, brilliant, caring Rabbi of our people. While her ordination was a tremendous transition point for Judaism, the Shoa and its darkness and pain was also a transition point.
I tell you her story on this Yom Kippur morning because she is a hero. She imagined a future in a time of darkness. If we forget the past completely, as we did Rabbiner Jonas, we may miss some important understanding and teachings that could help us along the way to imagining our present and future.
And on holy days such a Yom Kippur we are commanded to remember the past precisely for this reason. We will recite the Yizkor service later on this morning. We will recall our loved ones memories, their lives, and everything about them. We pray that their teachings and guidance they gave us will help ground us in the New Year. For some of you it will be the only time you ever say Kaddish for them. Your lives are seemingly too busy to take a Shabbat to recite the prayer for their memorial. But my friends this is the way of forgetting the past and excising them from your present and future. But you have the power in your hands to keep memory and history alive by the choices you make and in doing so shape a bright Jewish future.
Judaism as a whole is in another huge transition moment. Our institutions are reeling from the changes in attendance patterns and support; in generational interests that differ from the past. The recent Pew study confirmed for us in leadership what we already knew that Jews were marching with their feet to a different drummer. They were marching away from the synagogue and affiliation in the community. In an increasingly secular America, Jews are increasingly secular and non-observant. Many call themselves spiritual not religious. Perhaps like some of you, once or twice a year is enough. But it is not enough to sustain institutions dedicated to Jewish life yearlong. On this holiest of days I ask to you to consider if Judaism has relevance in your day-to-day life, if the values and teaching of our traditions have impact upon your actions, if the rituals of our year and life cycle speak to you? I ask you to turn towards the Jewish people and community and amid this time of transition in Jewish culture is to re-create and re-imagine how the synagogue and other Jewish institutions function. How they are funded; how they look; and perhaps even what their missions are all about. But it isn’t only the institutions that must take stock; but each of us. I am asking each of you, challenging each of you to be a more committed and connected Jew.
At this holy season of turning, of teshuvah, let us repent for the sin of indifference to Jewish life and the life of our Jewish spirit. Individual Jews, each one of us at this season must look inside to see whether our own actions contribute to this dramatic transition in Jewish life.
In this time of Jewish transition, as the world is less than safe for Jews, the Jewish people needs each one of you and your families whether your spouse or children are Jewish or not. We need your connection and involvement. The Jewish community and the synagogue are going through transitions but we cannot and will not survive the dark forces of assimilation and annihilation that lurk ever so close if each of you absent yourselves from the process. The Jews of Berlin thought they were safe as well and although we ultimately have survived and thrived. Much was lost and much not remembered as Rabbiner Jonas’ story demonstrates.
There is one more transition at this season that we must make mention. And that is of our beloved Cantor Saltzman. After today he will transition to that glorious position of Cantor Emeritus. After more than 40 years of cantoring—(he has been doing this since he was a young teenager in Barstow). His transition to retirement from the active Cantorate is not the end of a relationship with all of us but a new phase. This is a transition for him, and for our temple. For many of us his voice carries our prayers heavenward and spirit embraces us. I know you join me in wishing him b’hatzlacha, success, rest, creativity, joy, and lots of time in Italy with Walter! But he will always be a part of us even as we transition eventually to new musical spiritual leadership.
Yom Kippur itself is about transitions. The transitions in each of you. From the person you were in the past year to the person you are yet to become. This holy day through our prayers, our remembrances, our teshuvah, and tzedakah, we can bring out the person who we always hoped to be, we can be born anew and we can with the right imagination heal ourselves and the relationships we have entered into so that they may blossom with vibrancy.
Jewish life is still rich and alive even with its many transitions. Like Jonas and Frankl who sought to make meaning out of that dark time, we too are searchers for meaning in our own day and time. We look to create a sense of belonging when there is none, a sense of hope when we are hopeless, a sense of goodness when there is evil in the world. That is our Jewish task and this is what we try to do as we today on Yom Kippur as we cleanse our souls of the traumas, sins, and imperfections that marred our daily life in the past year. God, help us start fresh, Help us remember that which we have forgotten, Help us face our future with hope and strength, and embolden us to think and act with You, God in mind. Help each one of us transition in this New Year to being a more active part of the Jewish people carrying on the covenant of our ancestors. As our Torah portion this morning will tell us. You stand commited before Adonai Your God this day, Atem Nitzavim Hayom kulchem lifnei Adonai Eloheichem. Today we too must stand committed before our God to a life connected by our covenant to the Holy One of Blessing and a covenant to one another to strengthen our souls, our people, and ourselves. Ken Yehi Ratzon.

Israel, the Media and You: A new Commitment in the New Year

•October 4, 2014 • Leave a Comment

A CNN Reporter, BBC Reporter, and an Israeli commando were captured by terrorists in Iraq. The leader of the terrorists told them that he would grant them each one last request before they were beheaded.

The CNN Reporter said, ‘Well, I’m an American, so I’d like one last hamburger with French fries.” The leader nodded to an underling who left and returned with the burger & fries. The reporter ate it and said “Now, I can die.”

The BBC Reporter said, ‘I’m a reporter to the end. I want to take out my tape recorder and describe the scene here and what’s about to happen. Maybe someday someone will hear it and know that I was on the job till the end.” The terror leader directed an aide to hand over the tape recorder and dictated some comments. The reporter then said, ‘Now I can die knowing I stayed true until the end.”

The leader turned and said, “And now, Mr. Israeli tough guy, what is your final wish?”

“Kick me in the ass,” said the soldier.

“What?’ asked the leader, “Will you mock us in your last hour?”

“No, I’m not kidding. I want you to kick me in the ass,” insisted the Israeli. So the leader shoved him into the open and kicked him in the ass.

The soldier went sprawling, but rolled to his knees, pulled a 9 mm pistol from under his flak jacket, and shot the leader dead. In the resulting confusion, he jumped to his knapsack, pulled out his carbine and sprayed the terrorists with gunfire. In a flash, all terrorists were either dead or fleeing for their lives.

As the soldier was untying the reporters, they asked him, “Why didn’t you just shoot them in the beginning? Why did you ask them to kick you in the ass first?”

“What?” replied the Israeli, “and have you report that I was the aggressor?

For me that joke is no joke.  This was my experience this summer in Israel during Operation Protective Edge. No matter what channel I turned to Israel was the enemy rather than legitimately defending itself.

Increasingly, Israel has been painted into a horrible corner. On the one hand it must find a solution to make peace with its neighbors and end the military control over Palestinians. But Israel cannot let the extremists like Hamas committed to its destruction have the kind of weaponry that it has.  Israel is portrayed in the world press as the aggressor. Israel is portrayed as the one who stalls the peace talks, as the murderer of Gazan children.  Israel is portrayed as Nazis.  Nazis mind you—the very group that murdered our people as if we have a final solution to gas Palestinians with Zyklon B.

Israel is not a perfect country. It is as complex as the United States.  There are policies of our government that are good and there are policies I abhor.  So too in Israel. Israel has policies that I disagree with as well but it seems in the media and often in our own discussions that Israel is portrayed as a problem country.

The view of Israel from here and from there creates a very different perspective of Israel.  I want to share with you a few of my observations from the time I spent there this summer. And on this holiest of nights, ask you to stand with Israel, the Jewish state in her hour of need.  I want you on this holy night to become someone who even if you don’t agree with every policy of Israel’s government to pledge to work on behalf of our people’s homeland. And to work to create the kind of Israel that continues as a strong, vibrant nation.  And I am asking each of you tonight to become an advocate for Israel here in our own country.

Let me share with you some of my thoughts from my experience this summer and how you might engage yourself in supporting Israel and Israelis.

As many of you know I spent a chunk of my Sabbatical in Israel as I do each summer.  Again I had the privilege of studying at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem.  It’s hard to describe the experience of studying with more than 150 rabbis of all denominations.  But the mornings are like one big Yeshiva.  For those of you who may have grown up in that world or studied yourself in a Yeshiva at some point in your lives there is a certain cacophony in a yeshiva. It is the sound of voices reading and discussing a Biblical or Talmudic text.  At the Shalom Hartman Institute this summer we studied Jewish ideas and texts on War and Peace. The topic was chosen last January.  Perhaps it was a portent of things to come.

As we gathered at the beginning of our studies, Israel was already on edge for 18 days as the three teenager, Naftali Frenkel, Gilad Shaer and Eyal Yifrach   had been kidnapped and missing.  Everyone in the country was talking about the hope of their return, much like everyone held out hope for Gilad Shalit’s return a couple of years ago.  But that first night I was there the news interrupted the World Cup playoffs that the three boys’ bodies had been found.  People filed out of the restaurants, cars disappeared off the streets and a hush fell over Yerushalyim as if it was Shabbat.  The whole country was instantly in mourning. And the next day, our first day of studies, the tension in Israel could be felt everywhere at every turn.

The Hartman Institute that morning was muted. Our sense of communal loss colored by understanding the political implications of the murder of the three teenagers, Eyal, Naftali and Gilad made for a sad beginning to our studies. And framed the background of war and peace.  There were already daily disturbances in Shuaafat-a primarily Arab neighborhood in East Jerusalem not far from the American Colony Hotel and in other cities in PA.  Rocks and bottles were being thrown by young men, their faces wrapped in kaffiyahs.  During the 18 days of the missing teenagers, more than 350 Hamas loyalists were arrested in Ramallah and Hebron, and seven people died in the roundups who were resisting arrest or attacking the IDF. Everyone was on edge.

The world press from Sky News, to France 24, of course Al-Jazeerah condemned Israel for these actions.  They said this was an excuse by Israel to recapture those it had just freed from jail.  They reported that this was a stunt by Israel who simply wanted to oppress the Palestinians.  Nothing could be further from the truth.

As Israel prepared for the funerals of the three boys, the press played the Moked 100 audiotapes, this is the equivalent of 911.  You can hear Gilad whispering that he was kidnapped. You can hear the operator’s disbelief. And then you can hear the shouting in Arabic and distinctly hear the gunfire that surely killed them.

Against this background, a retaliatory kidnapping of a 16-year-old Palestinian boy, Mohammed abu Khadier, was murdered in cold blood. Burned alive in the Jerusalem Forest.  Jewish thugs, Jewish murderers were arrested and have already been prosecuted.  But now both Jews and Arabs were sitting shiva.  The Frenkel, Shaer and Yifrach families and the abu Khadier family in their mourning tent in Shuafat.  Israelis were outraged that this could happen. The Israeli press decried the cold-blooded murder of Muhammed.  How could Israelis, Jews, murder in cold blood?  These were the headlines in the Israeli press.  This picture of themselves to Israelis was deeply disturbing. “What was happening in Israeli society?” Israel’s free press decried the senseless murders of Muhammed and of Eyal, Gilad, and Naftali.

And there were so many unanswered questions. Why didn’t Bibi and the Israeli police already surmise that the three teenagers were dead if they had the audiotapes? Why did the IDF go door-to-door rounding up Hamas leaders? Was the kidnapping merely a pretext for harassing these Hamas members on the West Bank?

It was a perfect powder keg following the failure of the nine months of Kerry talks trying to work out a solution between the PA and Israel.  And the final straw for Israel was when Abu Mazen entered into a so-called Unity Government with Hamas. This made it near impossible for Israel to finalize any progress made because there was no discussion in the agreements about Gaza and demilitarization. Once Hamas was party to the PA government-the negotiations would change. And it made it impossible for Netanyahu to contain his right wing flank that is part of the government.  Remember Netanyahu, is a politically weak Prime Minister. He put a government together barely and his party doesn’t hold a majority in his own coalition.

And then the rockets started to fly- not just in the south of Israel near the border with Gaza but aimed toward the major population centers near the middle of the country. Tel Aviv, Modi’in, Jerusalem, all the way north to Nahariya outside of Haifa.  Almost nowhere in Israel felt safe from the long-range missiles of Hamas.  It was Hamas’ bid to shift the attention from their failures. Hamas had been isolated. Was out of money. With the coup in Egypt and the trouncing of the Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas no longer had Egyptian benefactors. Al-Sissi the general who took over in Egypt closed the smuggling tunnels from Egypt to Gaza and closed the Border with Gaza at the Rafah Crossing. Hamas couldn’t pay its soldiers because the Muslim Brotherhood of Egypt was one of its protectors and financers and so had to turn to its rivals, Fatah, and Mahmoud Abbas for help. That is why it agreed to enter into the Unity Government.  And Abbas wanted back into Gaza.

But Hamas took advantage of the tensions in Israel and in the Palestinian Authority and murders in Israel to gain sympathy for its cause by launching its offensive. And because Abu Mazen only gave them small portfolios, it launched its war without regard for Abbas, shifting attention away from finding a solution and peace agreement for Palestinians.

By July 8. I had joined an AIPAC, mission of Progressive Rabbis.  The first of its kind. And after an amazing first dinner together with reporter and author Yossi Klein HaLevi overlooking the Old City, upon return to our hotel the sirens in Jerusalem went off. At first I didn’t know what it was.  I was already in my room.  I had the Television on. There was a siren on the TV and outside my room. I thought oh it’s a police siren, then no, it’s a fire truck, and then I really tuned in to what the TV was saying…. It was a red alert.  I jumped into shoes and headed out of my room.

Jerusalem has 90 seconds from launch to hit. Unlike the southern towns in Israel that have 15 seconds.  I can tell you 45 seconds went by in my just trying to decode and figure out what was going on.  I went into the

 

reinforced stairwell and waited at least another 10 minutes for the all-clear signal.  And then with my heart palpitating I went down stairs to find my fellow rabbis coming out of the miklat-the shelter on the first floor with other hotel guests. Crying children, shaken adults, including me.  One family from Columbia with two little girls asked us to pray with them because they were so upset. I don’t know for whom it was more calming for, them or me?

Throughout the next week of my trip all over Israel and meeting with Ministers from the government, from the Foreign Ministry, Deputy director of the UN Mission, Director of MASHAV, – Israeli AID around the world- My group had several close encounters. Running to bomb shelters, hearing the booms of the Iron Dome missiles system shooting rockets out of the sky.  Comforting Israeli family and friends whose children and husbands and boyfriends and daughters were called up as Operation Protective Edge went into effect.  Everyone serves in the military reserve and so the country in effect shuts down. Commerce is interrupted because people are called up into the military and not at their desks. University classes and finals had to be rescheduled because the students were called to their tank divisions and computer brigades.  For the first time ever –American and European airlines shut down operations for two days succumbing to the successful portrayal of Hamas in the press.

I tell you this because in the media you experienced a lot of rhetoric about Israel. The pictures coming to you from Gaza didn’t tell the whole story.  Oh yes, there was damage and sadly people died in a war.  Innocent civilians along with Hamas soldiers.

But there is more to this story than the world press would have you believe.  Why was there a round up of Hamas loyalists? That seemed to trigger the missiles from Hamas?  Was it the kidnapping? Perhaps it was in part.  But something bigger was going on—and it only came to light later in the summer, in August after it was declassified.  Hamas tried to oust Abbas. Hamas tried a coup d’etat in the West Bank. Israel’s roundup of Hamas loyalists was about protecting Abu Mazen.

But that story isn’t the story that gets told.  The story on CNN and the BBC was only how Israel the aggressors caused this war. And Abbas at the UN reinforced that message to the leaders of the world.

Yes there was damage inflicted in Gaza and it will have to be rebuilt. People were wounded.  Children died. It is a war. It is heartbreaking. One that for now is quiet. And sadly everyone on both sides expects it to happen again. Israel tried to be careful.  But Hamas’ military rules of engagement explain how to use civilians and how to launch missiles and rockets from schools and residential areas.

Israel regularly tried to warn the citizens of Gaza to flee.  Israel would first drop leaflets telling them when exactly it would bomb. Then it called all of their cellphones. Then it would shoot what they call “a knock on the door” a kind of shell that explodes above the building as a warming and then finally take aim at the building.  Of course the press here and around the world didn’t report those steps. The headlines in the International Herald Tribune simply read Israel targets residential buildings or schools.  Nothing about the tunnels built under the buildings. Or the stockpile of missiles on floor 10.  They wrote nothing about the UNRWA –UN Schools serving as missile launching sites. Or the staged photos that only after the war was over was uncovered by an Indian reporter from New Dehli.  None of that matters.  It is always Israel that does the damage and is the one to blame.

War is hell.  It is a terrible thing.  Those of you that served in the military and saw battle action know that how awful war is.

But I can assure you the US in its airstrikes over Iraq and Afghanistan did nothing like this to mitigate civilian deaths.  And as reported by CNN on Thursday just yesterday, “New rules meant to temper the civilian death toll from unmanned U.S. drones won’t apply in the fight against terrorists in Iraq and Syria, the White House says.” (http://www.cnn.com/2014/10/01/politics/wh-isis-civilians/index.html)

As we go after ISIS we will not pay attention to civilian deaths?  Where is the outcry now from the Arabs and the Palestinians? This is a double standard applied to Israel but not to others.

My friends, Israel needs your support. Supporting Israel doesn’t mean that you agree with everything Israel does. I too still believe that Palestinians should have their own land and that there has to be a freeze on building in the Palestinian territories.

But at what cost to Israel? Hope is fading quickly for a two state solution in Israel.  And this latest battle between Israel and Hamas will erupt again unless the world takes seriously the call to demilitarize Gaza.  Hamas wants there to be no Israel.  And it has already issued a call to arm again. It is building tunnels again. Even though Israel destroyed more than 32 tunnels that were dug under the Israeli border in order to attack and kidnap Jews. Which Hamas did during this latest exchange.  Israel foiled an attempt for a mass invasion.

The view from here in Los Angeles is very different than being on the ground in Israel.  The war between Israel and Hamas is no different that the war being conducted now against ISIS.  Hamas and Isis share much in common including core values one of which is a commitment to the destruction of Israel and Jews.  The country of Qatar has funded both Hamas and Isis as has Turkey both supposedly US Allies.  Turkey has refused to allow the US to use our Airbases there to stage attacks on ISIS. And both Turkey and Qatar have housed Hamas leadership and continued until today.  Who are our allies we must ask?

And let’s not forget Iran in this picture.  Iran and North Korea both have supplied Hamas with major military arms in particular the Fajir missiles, which are warhead capable. As well as other long range missiles. Imagine now if Iran gives Hamas nuclear material? What will happen to Israel? We cannot let Washington take its eye off of Iran. They still supply money to Hezbollah and Hamas. And when they attain nuclear weapons which is only a matter of spinning a few more centrifuges-they have the capability already-the world will have even greater problems as will Israel and the whole region. Because Saudi Arabia will not let Iran be the only power in the region with out nuclear arms—and they will acquire them as well.  This makes the whole area a greater powder keg.  What if ISIS then topples the monarchy in Saudi Arabia and obtains nuclear weapons.  It won’t just continue to behead Americans and Britains or the French or shoot Jews in Brussels. But now Israel’s story is not in the focus of the media.

Israel needs and will continue to need America’s support.  Syria as a country is gone. More than 2/3 of Syrians are refugees in Lebanon, Turkey or Jordan or Iraq and another 4.25 million Syrians are displaced in what is left of Syria. My heart aches for the people of Syria. Isis controls a significant swath of both Iraq and Syria and even a part of Lebanon. Hezbollah has been fighting in Syria. Lebanon is weak.  Jordan is shaky and has Syrian and Iraqi refugees and Isis pounding on its eastern border.  Saudi Arabia is nervous because of Iran and Isis because it shares a huge border with Iraq. Turkey is worried about the Kurds and the truth is there is no more Iraq-Isis controls large sections and the Kurds another section.  The nations that surround Israel are either non-existent or on very shaky ground.  Already Israel said if ISIS makes more incursions into Jordan they will protect Jordan.  Israel is already treating Syrian refugees who come over the border with shrapnel injuries, missing limbs, and infections due to malnutrition and war injuries. More than 1200.

But this is a story you will never hear of at CNN. Israel’s humanitarian aid to Syrians and in Palestine and Gaza.  Even during the war this summer during the height of fighting between Hamas and Israel-Israel was shipping into Gaza for its citizens, water, food, electricity, gasoline, medicine and other basic necessities.  But no BBC reporter talked about that.

And yes, Israel has to stop building settlements. But at the moment, Israel cannot just simply walk away from the West Bank as it did Gaza in 2005 because if it does, Abbas will be toppled.  He is already 79 years old, smokes a pack a day.  Hamas will rule the West Bank and then the rockets and missiles won’t just be coming from Gaza but from Ramallah too. It is 12 miles from downtown Ramallah to Downtown Jerusalem.

The situation is complex.  Even more complex than time will allow me.  But there is something you can do about all of this.  GET INVOVLED.

Israel needs advocates.  Over the last number of decades as the Jewish birthrate has fallen off dramatically, we have become a smaller and smaller percentage of the American population.  We are less than 1 percent today.  And though you may live here in Los Angeles the second largest Jewish population in the United States-I want to assure that most Congressional districts in America have no identified Jews at all. Think for yourself-what Congressional district has a majority of Jews?  One in NYC?  One in Brooklyn? Maybe on the Westside of Los Angeles—the one Henry Waxman held all these years?  The answer is not even one! If we want America and Israel’s relationship to remain strong in the face of all these threats to our Jewish and Western values then we have to be strong for Israel in our political system—no matter which side of the aisle you are on.

Disagree with a policy of Israel, and make your voice known.   But at this time we cannot and must not as a Jewish community and lovers of Israel advocate to Congress to withdraw much needed funds that go to Israel’s protection from these everyday threats. Without the funds Israel gets from the US-there would have been no Iron Dome missile system that protected much of Israel. I saw it in action-and was saved by this miracle technology.  Israel still does not have enough Iron Dome batteries to protect the whole country.  It needs the US and its aid.

In truth the number of Jewish Senators and Congresspeople of either party is diminishing.  Israel needs each of us to become advocates for Israel there. If we want a strong Israel and we want to influence Israel to do the right things we need to make sure America and Israel’s bond remain strong. And we can do that by reaching out to not only California Senators and Congress People but those in other states. And by understanding and explaining Israel’s strategic importance to the United States, our long history of friendship, and the common values of true democracy, a free press, representative government, and value of human life that we in this room share together.

Even with all these problems. Israel has much to celebrate.  World class universities, and Arts and Culture. Israel has solved its water crisis through advanced desalinization technologies, which are being exported to California to help us deal with the drought.  Israel has more companies listed on NASDAQ than any other foreign country.  Israel has developed technology that will make paraplegics walk, cancer detection available to all easily, and is building the largest cyber center in the world in Beer Sheva that puts Israel on a par with the worlds biggest nations, China, Russian and the US! Israel is becoming energy independent with the largest Natural Gas field in the world—larger than the Saudi’s oil fields and will be able to supply many nations.

And yes, Israel has issues and problems. Just like here. Income inequality, treatment of foreign workers, the control of the rabbanut-that continues to exclude Conservative and Reform rabbis although with each passing month-more in roads are being made.  And Israelis are getting impatient as well.

So how to get involved? First I want to invite you to join me-at AIPAC’s National Policy Conference March 1-3 in Washington, DC.  Together we will lobby Congress on Israel’s behalf. It is the largest gathering of Israel supporters in N. America.  More than 15,000 people come there to learn more about Israel and its successes and challenges. The top people in government in the US address the plenum and the top people in Israel address it as well.  The latest technology and advancements are featured and then you are trained to advocate with your legislators on behalf of Israel.  It is energizing and amazing and the most bi-partisan experience I have ever had.  Information on the Conference is in your bulletin.  I want you to join me in this experience.
You can come to Israel with me. I am looking for a minimum15 people to head to Israel with me in mid June.  We will be meeting in October for an exploratory meeting.  If you are ready to go send me an email with the subject line I’m in. It’s been a few years since Kol Ami has traveled to Israel together.  But Israel needs our presence. We need to help Israel bounce back economically. And nothing will do that like our going to Israel.  We will sight see, meet experts, and yes, shop and we might even squeeze in a bit of relaxation on the beach!

There are lots of organizations that support Israel, Jewish  National Fund, Israel Bonds, and of course ARZA –the Association of Reform Zionist of America. If you aren’t already a member—it is only $36 dollars a year to support Reform Judaism in Israel. It is the largest support of the Israel Movement for Progressive Judaism. It is also the largest support of the Israel Religious Action Center headed by the feisty and fabulous Anat Hoffman who has through their legal work-leads the way for liberal Judaism gaining equality in Israel, and battles for women’s rights at the Kotel, and help Bedouin women and girls get equal due in the Israeli education system.  Through ARZA membership we help create the kind of Israel we know can lift up the whole nation!

And then later after the first of the year will be the elections for the World Zionist Congress.  You will hear more from me then. But we will need each of you to vote in these elections because a large portion of money is allocated to the organizations and denominations in Israel that get the most votes. This is our chance with our votes at the WZO Congress to help shape a progressive and inclusive Israel in a direct way.

On this holy night of Kol Nidre, we have the opportunity to shape our future by atoning for the sins of the past. This year we ask for forgiveness for not being a stronger advocate for Israel and repenting by committing to do one of these things in the New Year to strengthen our Zionist resolve and strengthen the state of Israel to be everything that we have always dreamed it could be. Reflecting not only the golden sun on the hills but the golden ideals of peace, and friendship for all its citizens and residents. A shining example of Or’L’goyim –as our Torah teaches A light to the nations.  May this be our goal and may each of us help Israel to get there. Ken Yehi Ratzon.

Time to ask for Forgiveness

•October 2, 2014 • Leave a Comment

It is almost Kol Nidre.  The time to be ask and pray fervently to be released from vows and to turn our

hearts in Teshuvah, in repentance, for all of the sins of the past year. Sin is a heavy word.  When I come face to face with that word I hear evangelical Christian ministers.  Yet there are sins that each of us have committed. Errors, hurts, transgressions of appropriate behavior.  We have chosen wrong over right. And sometimes we even knew it.  We didn’t observe Shabbat. We didn’t honor our parents. We stole. We gossiped. We stabbed someone in the back or plotted revenge.

Perhaps you didn’t do all of these. But each of us has something to ask God to forgive us from and the truth is each of us has something to ask our loved ones for forgiveness from the sharp word when we were tired and cranky to spending to much time at work and not enough with the family.

Take a few minutes between now and the end of Yom Kippur to make that call, to pull someone aside at the office, or even have the courage to walk across the sanctuary on the Holy Day of Yom Kippur and put out your hand and say I’m sorry to your ex.

Don’t carry it all with you during the New Year.  It just gets heavier and heavier.

Here is Yosselle Rosenblatt singing Kol Nidre from 1912 to inspire you to ask and grant forgiveness.

Awaken My Soul/We Shall Overcome

•September 26, 2014 • Leave a Comment

The musical piece that followed my Erev Rosh Hashanah Sermon is below.

Cantor Mark Saltzman and Jeremy Gimbel  with Alec Milstein on Bass

http://youtu.be/XyyIcfp27PQ

Awaken My Soul: A sermon for Erev Rosh Hashanah

•September 26, 2014 • Leave a Comment

Shana Tovah

Wow! Wasn’t this something.  Thank you Cantor and Jeremy and the Kol Ami New Year’s Band for such an uplifting beginning to our Rosh Hashanah 5775!

 

We all need awakening for the New Year.   Tonight we can say goodbye to the tzoris of last year.  For the last few months I just wanted to pull the covers over my head and keep sleeping.  I wanted to pretend that the turmoil of the world was not my concern. So many tragic happenings: War on Israel and the Gazan people who are hostages to Hamas, Ferguson, Mo and the turmoil there; drought, Children fleeing as refugees from violence to America only to be treated horribly warehoused and becoming a political football; ISIS and beheadings, Anti-Semitism in Europe and around the world, the Ebola virus growing in Africa. It is enough to crawl away and not deal with it.

But this time of year-calls us, calls each of us to wake up and anticipate the possibility that with the New Year blossoming before us tonight, together Jews around the world might coach out our eternal prayer of hope for us and for the world.

We are a people who have been schooled in tragedies throughout our history. And yet, we the bearers of Jewish history, custom, tradition and values, time and again, believe that the world can be better. We cannot and must not give up the hope that through our prayer and our actions we can affect positive change.  This New Year’s arrival calls us to implement change within ourselves and in the world around us. The sounding of the shofar is vehicle for teshuvah, repentance. Its sound—the sound of a child sobbing in search of the parent he has abandoned—wakens our hearts to return to God and restore and intensify the relationship we have damaged with our transgressions.

I have taught you time and again that Teshuva, means not only repentance but also turning around.  This holy day period- this Asseret Yamei Teshuvah, These Ten Sacred Days of Turning-means that we turn ourselves around, we repent of those words and deeds that harm ourselves and our families, our world, and we turn it over to create a new life for ourselves and our world.  Think of this as a holy dance to the sacred music of the Shofar. This is the hope of our people.  We believe humanity can be better. We believe the world can be better. We believe that we can strive to walk in the ways of goodness, righteousness, and compassion. We believe that we can triumph over evil.

These are our values and the Shofar is our clarion call.

A story:

A professor walked around a room while teaching stress management to her students.

As she raised a glass of water, everyone expected they’d be asked the “half empty or half full?” question.

Instead, with a smile on her face, she inquired: “How heavy is this glass of water?”

Answers called out ranged from 8 oz., 12 oz to 20 oz.

She replied, “The absolute weight doesn’t matter. It depends on how long I hold it.

  • If I hold it for a minute, it’s not a problem.
  • If I hold it for an hour, I’ll have an ache in my arm.
  • If I hold it for a day, my arm will feel numb and paralyzed.

In each case, the weight of the glass doesn’t change, but the longer I hold it, the heavier it becomes.”

She continued, “The stresses and worries in life are like that glass of water; think about them for a while and nothing happens. Think about them a bit longer and they begin to hurt.  And if you think about them all day long, you will feel paralyzed – incapable of doing anything.”

So too with our sins and transgression and the problems of the world in the world. The longer we hold on to them the more incapable we become of doing anything about them.

This is what we hear in the blasts of the Shofar—tekiah, teruah, shvarim, tekiah—wake up you and you and you, wake up world, awaken your soul, and turn around. Get rid of those things that are chipping away at your soul. The sounds of the shofar are calling us to focus on hope and the New Year rather than our worries.  It’s calling us to get rid of the errors, the lies we tell ourselves and others. It is telling us through each note:  Hate evil and love what is good, as our Prophets Amos and Micah taught.

The holy days are here to shake up your soul to engage in Teshuvah and to help restore hope in yourself, the Jewish people and the world!

The Baal Shem Tov, the great founder of Chasidic Judaism, taught that just as one can grasp a physical thing by holding on to it, so can one grasp the soul by calling its name. For this reason, a sleeping person wakes up when his name is called,  (Toledoth Yaakov Yosef, Shemoth (42d)  Sefer Baal Shem Tov  Bereshit 121 Keter Shem Tov 104).

Tonight and tomorrow, the Shofar is asking you to awaken-it is calling your name out loud… Jew.  Tekiah, Jew wake up. Teruah-it’s time to turn and change, Shvarim, it’s urgent now. Tekiah—don’t go back to letting your soul sleep- awaken your soul, its time to overcome- and restore faith and hope in yourself, God, the Jewish people and in the world!

Maimonides the greatest of our Jewish philosophers and legal interpreters wrote in the opening to the Laws of the Shofar in the Mishneh Torah,  “It is a positive mitzvah of the Torah to hear the blast of the shofar on Rosh Hashanah, as it is stated: “It shall be a day of blowing the horn to you. (Mishneh Torah, Laws of Shofar, 1:1)

The mitzvah, your responsibility is hearing the notes of the Shofar. Maimonides continues “Although the sounding of the shofar on Rosh Hashanah is a Torah decree, there is an allusion in it as well. It says: “Be roused, sleepers, from your sleep, and slumberers, wake from your slumber; search your deeds and return in teshuvah…” remember your Creator and return to God in repentance. Do not be like those who miss the truth in pursuit of shadows and waste their years seeking vanity. Look well to your souls and consider your deeds; turn away from your wrong ways and improper thoughts.” (Mishneh Torah 3:4)

Maimonides understood exactly what I am saying tonight to each of you. Wake up people.  Wake up Jews.  Wake up world.  We cannot sit idly by without hope for if we do we will succumb to the evil and the horror that is present.  It will incapacitate us. In fact the Hebrew root of the word Shofar, L’hishtafer means to make better, to improve…. The Shofar is calling us to make ourselves and improve the world!

And there is evil in the world right now.  We see it every day in the headlines.  Judaism has struggled for a long time with the notions of good and evil.  But evil doesn’t exist as a separate entity challenging God.  It’s not like “the Devil made me do it!”  The Jewish truth is that human beings have the capacity to do evil. We have the moral responsibility to make a choice. And our Torah is very clear—Choose life over death. Choose goodness over unkindness; our system of Torah, our mitzvoth, our values try to elevate the human soul, shape the human soul so that we aspire to being honorable and righteous rather than to evil.  This New Year being together, hearing the shofar is a hedge against those evils.

The problem of evil also played an important role in the Jewish philosophy of Martin Buber. For Buber the source of evil was the failure to enter into relationship with others and God, and conversely evil can be redeemed by the reestablishment of relations. (Hu)Man(ity) is not evil by nature, but the misuse of (human) nature generates evil. (Some) can carry evil so far as to give it a kind of independent quality. However, evil is never an independent entity but such (people) crystallize it into a perverse resistance to the individual’s self-fulfillment in relation.

The late great poet and author Maya Angelou reflected on evil

We need the courage to create ourselves daily, to be bodacious enough to create ourselves daily — as Christians, as Jews, as Muslims, as thinking, caring, laughing, loving human beings,” she says. “ I think that the courage to confront evil and turn it by dint of will into something applicable to the development of our evolution, individually and collectively, is exciting, honorable.”

Both Maya Angelou and Professor Buber understood that the courage to confront evil and immorality that lurks in human beings has the power to elevate us. On this Rosh Hashanah, the sound of the Shofar urges you to detach your soul from those actions that literally pull you into the chaos of our times.  Hear the call of the shofar pulling you back toward balance.  Hear the call of the shofar urging you to improve. Hear the sound of the Shofar calling for your essential beauty.  Hear the sounds of the shofar awakening you to do teshuvah. And that teshuvah is turning inward so we can turn outward. Teshuvah will allow us to redefine ourselves. We are no longer the person of the past: the person of weakness; the person who couldn’t control herself; the one who harmed others with words or actions. The process of teshuvah urged on by the sound of the Shofar will call us toward repentance of our sins and will help us restore our connection to ourselves, to God and our place in the world.  True repentance returns us to spiritual balance.

It was a snowy night and Robert was recalling the time two springs ago when he was determined to paint the family room. Up early, he was out the door, to the hardware store gathering the gallons of red, the wooden mixing sticks, the drop cloths, and the one-time brushes that always harden, no matter what you soak them in.

He mixed the paint outside and waddled to the door with a gallon in each hand, the drop cloth under his arm, and a wide brush in his mouth. He began to chuckle in telling what happened, “I teetered there for minutes, trying to open the door, not wanting to put anything down. I was so stubborn. I had the door almost open when I lost my grip, stumbled backwards, and wound up on the ground, red gallons all over me. I lost my balance carrying too much”

At this point, he laughed at himself, as he has done many times. Amazingly, we all do this, whether with groceries or paint or with the stories we feel determined to share. We do this with our love, with our sense of truth, even with our pain. It’s such a simple thing, but in a moment of ego we refuse to put down what we carry in order to open the door. Time and time again, we are offered the chance to truly learn this: we cannot hold on to things and enter. We must put down what we carry, open the door, and then take up only what we need to bring inside.

It is a basic human sequence: gather, prepare, put down, and enter. But failing as we do, we always have that second chance: to learn how to fall, get up, and laugh. (http://www.marknepo.com/books_awakening.php)

This is the time of year for Jews. This is the time to put down the past and enter the New Year, pull away from temptations, have the courage to face the inner self ushered and strengthened by the sounds of the shofar.  The shofar is calling us to awaken.

 

The challenge this New Year’s Eve-is the same for each of us.  Through Torah, prayer, reflection, and meditation; by rebuilding our relationships to one another, to the Jewish people and to God we can restore balance to the world. We can as Professor Buber teaches us overcome the evils that human beings create by committing to live a different kind of life.  By setting down the past, and walking through the opening of a new day and a New Year; through this holy day season and for the next Ten days try to restore our spiritual balance. Through making teshuvah and the call of the Shofar we can awaken to a new day and yes, a new world.  By recommitting to our covenant, our Jewish responsibilities we too will have a stake in restoring balance to the world and ourselves.  At this New Year we must awaken ourselves, our souls to the cause of justice, and hope. Of combating the evil we create. We can heal the world if we begin to heal ourselves through teshuva.

May this be our prayer.

So said the Holy Blessed One to Israel.

“My beloved children. I lack nothing that I should ask of you.  So what do I ask of you? Just that you love one another and respect one another and be awed by one another. (Tanna de be Eliyahu 2b).

This indeed is our task-so let the shofar awaken our souls to love one another.

Ken Yehi Ratzon

Erev Rosh Hashanah 5775

Universal and Particular

•September 17, 2014 • Leave a Comment

The Universal and Particular

Next week we will be observing Rosh Hashanah. I look forward to greeting each of you at our magnificent High Holy Day services at the Artani Theatre at the Japanese American Cultural and Community Center (JACCC )in Little Tokyo, Downtown Los Angeles.  Our New Year’s observances are different than many other cultures. Most are big celebration with fireworks, parties of wild abandon and some even parades.  Our New Year begins with introspection and culminates at Yom Kippur, our day of atonement.  Our ancestors recognized that if we are going to really start afresh in a New Year that we cannot bring the hurts, grudges, resentments, sins, and impurities with us into a new calendar.

These two holy days  of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur work hand in hand.  They rely on one another. Rosh Hashanah, the celebration of creation has with it an emphasis on universalism.  Its themes are a celebration of human dignity for all people.  Yom Kippur, ten days later focuses on the individual, on the particular.  It is a time of rebirth for the individual person who at the close of the gates of Heaven at Neilah, can now enter the New Year as a new you!   You can’t have one without the other because then you get a skewed view of this Season.  Rosh Hashanah and its themes and prayers and reflections move us from the universal to the particular and by end of Yom Kippur we move from the particular back to the Universal.  You can see this pattern in the Torah and Haftarah portions for the High Holy Days.

On Rosh Hashanah we will read from Gensis 21 and 22.  The first is the story of Sarah and Hagar, Ishmael and Isaac and Abraham.  We will learn about difficult family dynamics which is universal. We will learn about the fulfillment of the promise to Abraham that he will father many nations since Ishmael becomes the link to the Arab nations and Isaac to the Jewish people.  And in Genesis 22, read together with Genesis 21 we learn about the value of children in our lives and what we must do to protect them.  These are universal themes: Parents who must protect their children, many nations tracing their ancestry to Abraham.  On Rosh Hashanah God answers the prayers of Hagar, Sarah, and in our Haftarah, Channa.  God is not the exclusive God of just men or just Jews.  But God hears the prayers of all people and all nations.  Our Haftarah on the second day reminds us however in a particularistic way that God does love the Jewish people too.

Contrast that with Yom Kippur Torah readings which remind us about our specific covenant with God.  “You stand before Me this day….” This is our particularistic Jewish covenant with God and the way in which we must “stand before the Eternal this day”, one to one, to ask for atonement for our wrongdoings, to renew our covenant and to be reminded in the afternoon how we, the Jewish people must live out our ethical and moral worldview in everyday life.  This is reinforced by the prophet Isaiah in the Haftarah of the morning service reminding us that our covenant with God means nothing if we are so focused on the ritual that we forget how to act in the world caring for the hungry, the naked and the poor.  The afternoon portion teaches us “Be holy for I Adonai your God is holy.” The Jewish way of being in the world is definitely a higher standard.  We are reminded on Yom Kippur of that standard and as we enter the New Year, forgiven, cleansed and spiritual purified we are sent on our way with a reminder of how we should act in the New Year.  But the Haftarah on Yom Kippur returns us to the Universal in contrast with the Haftarah on the second day of Rosh Hashanah.  The story of Jonah reminds us that repentance, teshuvah is necessary but this is not only a Jewish ideal but God’s compassion extends to all people even the sinful people of Nineveh.  It teaches us that even though Jonah is the chosen prophet of God, God is still responds to all people.

Thus our holy days work together beginning with the Universal on Rosh Hashanah and on Yom Kippur we atone in very specific, particularistic ways.  Their message speaks to us of the importance of being a moral and ethical human being in everything we do.  The holy days teach us to rise above our baser instincts and act in the world accordingly.  This is the Jewish task. And this is what we remind ourselves of and pray for during this High Holy Day season.

I look forward to sharing this New Year time with you.  Join us to kick it off with Selichot, this Saturday night, Sept. 20 for a great “Nite at the Improv” as we explore through improvisation, the Biblical stories of the High Holy Days creating our own modern Midrash.  It begins with Havdallah at 7 pm at Kol Ami.

I hope to see you there.

Sex and the Jews

•September 16, 2014 • Leave a Comment

This is an important Review of the New book The Sacred Encounter: Jewish Perspectives on Sexuality.  It is edited by Rabbi Dr. Lisa Grushcow of Montreal, Canada. It is published by the CCAR Press .  I have two chapters in this collection one on Taharat HaMishpacha-family purity and another on the history of LGBT inclusion within the Reform Movement.  I hope you enjoy this review and purchase the book.  It is a definitive collection!

Sex and the Jews.

 
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