I pray that your celebration of Thanksgiving was fulfilling for you and your loved ones. Did you happen to notice, in this week’s HaEtone, the inclusion of an event entitled The Inner Light of Hanukkah: A Celebration of Practice and Learning? Bet Shalom will be hosting a live-stream, world-wide broadcast on Sunday, December 8between 12:30-2:00 pm Central Time presented by the Institute for Jewish Spirituality. Let me tell you a little bit about it and why you might want to attend.
In 2002-3, I had the privilege to attend four, week-long retreats that featured mindfulness practice, Hasidic text study, spirited singing, yoga, silence, prayer, and deep conversations with rabbis and cantors from around the country and from multiple denominations. Although I had already worked as a full-time cantor for over 10 years, my participation in the Institute for Jewish Spirituality’s 18-month program profoundly affected my faith, broadened my perception of Judaism as a spiritual path, and helped me recognize how blessed I am to be a cantor.
My life continues to be nourished by teachers and colleagues of the Institute who are attuned to their inner lives and committed to guiding others in deepening their connection to Judaism through prayer, words, actions, and song. Although the Clergy Leadership Program remains its centerpiece, IJS offers bountiful opportunities for any person interested in creating “a vibrant, enduring Judaism now and for generations to come.” To mark its 20th anniversary, the Institute is presenting this live-stream event to celebrate with those who have benefited from its work and provide those who are curious with an opportunity to experience some of what IJS offers. The program will include, among other things:
-A guided meditation led by Rabbi Sheila Weinberg
-A reflection by Rabbi Arthur Green
-An accessible Hasidic text study with Rabbi Jonathan Slater
-Inspirational music with Cantors Benjie Ellen Schiller and Richard Cohn
Please accept this invitation to join me and other Bet Shalom-ians for this unique, cost-free event. If you plan on attending, please RSVP to Rachel Calvert and arrive at 12:20pm.
I was in utero during the 1973 Yom Kippur War and born a month later. That was just 25 years after Israel’s founding and 28 years after the official end of the Holocasut. My religious identity formation was marked by the refrains of “Never Again” and “Am Yisrael Chai…the People of Israel lives.” I have only a few overt memories of Israel though I am certain it was a constant subject in Religious School. I remember a third grade simulation that included boarding a pretend airplane in my childhood synagogue’s social hall and “touring” the Promised Land. And I vividly remember Israel’s 35th birthday. Each year we participated in the “Walk for Israel” when the whole community would come out and walk around Lake Bde Maka Ska with signs and posters and singing. We’d get sponsors and raise money from our friends and neighbors. I particularly remember the Walk for Israel at its 35th birthday because we all got posters to bring home from Sunday School. It was in contemplating my poster on my wall in my bedroom that it occured to be that my father was older than the Modern State of Israel. What struck me as so funny then has been a reminder to me ever since of how new the Modern State of Israel really is.
I was in utero on Israel’s 35th birthday and born a few months later. And so even though I missed this particular “Walk for Israel,” these Walks were also an important part of my earliest memories and connections to Israel. Though I don’t recall the exact year, perhaps it was Israel’s 45th birthday, I vividly remember the excitement of arriving at the Milwaukee JCC at the end of that year’s Walk for Israel to find camels, yes, real live camels, just waiting for us kids to ride them. It was at this moment, high in the air on a camel’s back, with blue and white face paint on my cheeks and Am Yisrael Chai blaring from a boombox, I started to dream about a foreign land that someday, I knew I would call home.
My first “real” visit to Israel was the summer before my Junior year in High School. I was 16 and ambivalent about going because I really just wanted to stay home and hangout with my friends. But an opportunity materialized that I couldn’t pass up and I travelled with a group of 20 American teens and 20 Israeli teens, first for a week in Poland and then 5 weeks in Israel. That experience changed the course of my Jewish identity and my understanding of Israel in profound ways. On the level of Jewish Peoplehood, I made connections that summer that remain part of my life today. 30 years later, I am still in contact with others in that group, both American and Israeli. And as significant in different ways, I remember realizing how small the country was on the day we drove from Mt. Hermon in the Golan Heights to Eilat. And if I had been aware of the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians as a teenager, I didn’t really understand the geography of it until that drive from north to south when we joined an army escort through the Jordan River Valley with an armed soldier on our bus which was common in those days. And when we came near Hebron…I just remember a lot of chain link fence. I also remember a sunrise hike on Mt. Shlomo along the Egyptian border when we shared food and water with an Egyptian soldier posted on the other side of razor wire. I keep a photo of that exchange in my study here at Bet Shalom.
When I was in High School, I watched in envy, as many of my friends returned home from summer in Israel programs, impacted perhaps more by the social implications of having not had an experience that all my friends were having, than by a true understanding of what I was missing out on. But by the time I got to college I experienced a profound feeling of disappointment when just as I was preparing for a semester at Hebrew University through the University of Minnesota’s Study Abroad program, the U decided to cancel and discredit all study abroad programs to Israel because of the escalating violence of the Second Intifada. So instead of journeying to the land I had been taught was a safehaven for the Jewish people, I traveled instead to Prague, a place where so many Jews had either left or been murdered, but was, according to the University of Minnesota in 2003, a proper safehaven to learn about Jewish history and culture. The irony was not lost on me and only heightened my yearning and my resolve. And so, as I immersed myself in the rich and beautiful story of Eastern Europeran Jewry, I found myself connecting to the Zionists who came before me, feeling like a 21st century version of the 12th century Spanish poet Yehudah Halevi when he wrote, libi bamizrach, v’anochi basof ma’arav, My heart is in the East, and I am at the edge of the West.
1999/2000, the year Debbie and I lived in Israel, during my first year of Rabbinical School, was one of the most peaceful time periods in a decade before it, or since. Yitzchak Rabin was assassinated just three years before we moved into our Jerusalem apartment. Within a year of our moving to Cincinnati for my second year at Hebrew Union College, there would be 25 suicide attacks with dozens murdered and hundreds injured. While we lived there, there was a palpable hope in the air. It felt like peace. Ehud Barack was the Prime Minister and it seemed as if there was going to be peace with Lebanon. On Shabbat, my friend Sami who lived in Ma’alei Adumim would walk toward Jerusalem and Debbie and I would walk toward Ma’alei Adumim and we’d meet up in a Palesitian village somewhere in between for fried cheese and baklava. Once on Shabbat, we drove with Sami deep into the West Bank, going village to village on dirt roads and we stopped to help a family harvest olives from their trees. It felt so free and secure.
I arrived for my year in Israel in the summer of 2007, a year after the Second Lebanon War and a few years after the Second Intifada. Ehud Olmert was Prime Minister and there was an atmosphere of nervous calm in the air, a sense of relative peace and security… but with a lot less hope for lasting peace, and a lot more fear that things could break at any moment. People openly talked about being afraid to ride city buses, but most of us did anyway. My classmates and I didn’t live our day-to-day lives in fear, we still had dinner at the best restaurants in East Jerusalem, built relationships with Arab Israelis, and walked freely in the city that became our home. But even still, there were moments when we were reminded of the fragility of peace, and the reality of terror. We had practice drills in the bomb shelter at HUC and would occasionally receive emergency alert messages through our phones, which keep in mind, were not yet smartphones.
When I was a rabbinical student in Cincinnati, I went on a solidarity mission with the Federation during the height of the suicide bus bombings…when more than 40 of these terrorist attacks were occuring on average each year. Groups came from all over North America. I ran into Rabbi Cohen and Rabbi Sim Glaser at the Western Wall.
In the 12 months that I lived in Jerusalem, I had only one moment of true panic, of seeing, and being part of how Israel responds to what initially felt like terror. I was at a soccer game with some classmates and one of our professors. A scene, which under normal circumstances, is enough to produce panic from fan enthusiasm alone… when suddenly there was a large boom and all the lights in the stadium went out. Announcements were made that the game was canceled and everyone must exit the stadium. There was fear but also action, leadership, surprising order, and calm. We found out after the fact that it was an electrical malfunction and not a terror attack, but the response was emblematic of a country who was ready, almost expecting, this exact moment.
I have had the privilege of spending more than two years of my life in Israel when you add it all up. I love our Holy Land as much as anyone who has not made Aliyah. And at times I’ve considered that too. For sure Israel has issues. There is no Garden of Eden. But, “libi B’mizrach…My heart is in the East.” During college, I spent a summer in a leadership program and we met with Palestinian Authority officials in East Jerusalem. I will always remember when we were ushered into a conference room that had a huge map on the wall of the Middle East. It said Palestine and did acknowledge Israel. I remember how viceral my response was. I was so angry. And I have the same response to this day when I walk into a Jewish classroom and see a map that doesn’t show the West Bank and Gaza as separate from Israel. I have believed in a Two State Solution…dividing up the land into two countries, one for Israel and one for Palestine…since I remember being aware of the idea. And it has been the agreed upon approach to the conflict for much longer than I’ve been alive. In 1947 it was called the Partition Plan, negotiated by the League of Nations and accepted by the Jewish World.
I have also believed in a two state solution for as long as I can remember and have been continuously distressed about the expansion of settlements that slowly, year by year, make the potential for the establishment of a Palestianian state less and less possible. So when I traveled to Yeshivat M’kor Chaim, a High School in K’far Etzion, which is part of the larger Gush Etzion settlement bloc of the West Bank, just south of Jerusalem, I was uncomfortable. This visit was in 2011, when I spent the summer in Israel as part of a fellowship with the HUC School of Education that sought to push and expand our notion of Jewish peoplehood. It was almost like a test to see how reform rabbinical students and yeshivah boys would interact. What we experienced that day in K’far Etzion was a true human connection with Jews who understand Judaism and Zionism in a fundamentally different way than we do. We heard more than one person say “this is my land and I deserve to live here.” We heard a confident expression that Gush Etzion is, and will be, accepted as greater Israel, even by the left… Both because of the important historical role it played in the narrative of the 1940s and also because there is already such a firm stronghold in the settlement bloc, that their expansion is natural growth, not new people coming in from the outside. That night I returned to Jerusalem with more questions than answers about the role of the settlements in any future two state solution. And also questions about my role as an American Zionist and soon-to-be rabbi in engaging and educating about the complexities and challenges that stand in the way of peace.
We don’t talk about settlements or suicide bombs with our first graders. It isn’t developmentally appropriate. We talk about Israel with children the same way we talk about Noah and his Ark, or the splitting of the Sea. We tell big foundational stories that we hope to build on throughout peoples’ lives. We hope that each person’s theology grows with them. When you are three you need to be able to believe the Sea split. When you are 30, you need to believe you are still a “good Jew” even if you no longer believe in those kinds of miracles. Regrettably, we’ve done a better job over recent generations of transmitting Ahavat Yisrael/the love of Israel associated with traditional Zionism than a nuanced understanding of Israel’s geo-political situation and challenges. Not long ago, a young woman came to me and expressed anger that we never taught her the whole story…that we only celebrate the many Israeli Nobel prize winners and the Startup Nation ingenuity. We praise Israel’s tech genius, drip irrigation and the cherry tomato developed there. But we haven’t talked enough about the Occupation or Jewish religious extremism.
In recent years, we havestarted to integrate more of these conversations into our curriculum with our older teens in Confirmation and Post-Confirmation. They are difficult discussions and ones that teens who have gone through our program are ready for. It is why we say that the milestone of b’nai mitzvah marks a transition toward a deeper exploration of Judaism. It is a beginning, and not an end to the lifelong pursuit of struggling with all that pulls at our heads and our hearts. My love for Israel is unwavering. And it is precisely this love that compels me to also explore and express my concerns and my criticism. As my relationship with Israel continues to unfold, I pray that I will continue to fall in love with, and be challenged by, the country, land, and people who are so much a part of who I am.
This morning we have shared parts of our personal stories. I experience a magnetic east in my life…a pull toward Jerusalem…as so many Jews before me have for thousands of years. I feel so fortunate to have been able to cultivate such a deep and personal relationship with Israel during my life. I am excited to return there this February with many of you. Politics and security are just one part of a much bigger story and connection. I hope that in this year ahead, you’ll take time to consider the space the land of ancestors, stories and prayers holds in your identity. We have many opportunities in our program over the coming months and we hope you’ll join us. We look forward to learning together and sharing in our Ahavat Yisarel – Our love for Israel.
We conclude with a prayer for peace in the Middle East by Alden Solovy:
Hineinu. Here we are.
We have joined together in perhaps one of the most important events of
the Jewish communal year. We’re here in
our sacred space…we’ve taken the Torahs out…the heart of the Jewish people and
perhaps in this moment…God’s stand-in…and
we’ve begged for mercy. We’ve asked forgiveness
for our sins which we have atoned.
I think that says something about us. I think it
says that we have faith in forgiveness.
It says we have faith in ourselves and that we hear that call to do
better. We didn’t come here to ask God
to fix us. Or to fix our world. We come here to fill our tanks and rebuild
our reserves in order to right ourselves.
So that we may fix the world.
Since we last came together on Kol
Nidre, 385 days ago, many things in our lives and in our world have gone the
wrong direction. The situation with the
environment is worse than we realized.
The political environment is unprecedentedly negative. We stare at our phones more, we talk to each
other less. The gun violence plague grows
daily. Addiction is rampant. Poverty, food and housing insecurity
continues for too many. Our collective
level of happiness feels lower. There is
less kavod – respect for each other, respect for ourselves. The list is almost endless.
One of my favorite children’s stories
is about the Aron Kodesh, the ark in which synagogues keep the sacred Torah. The story is a true one of Rabbi Lawrence Kushner
giving a tour to the preschool of the sanctuary. He had saved the ark for last, but then got
called away right as he was about to pull back the curtain to reveal the Torah
scrolls. He told the kids that
unfortunately he’d have to show them another time. Later the teacher of the classroom told him
that the little ones had a great debate after he left about what was behind
that curtain. One kid argued it was
empty. Another suggested there’d be a
brand new car. One did guess correctly that
it held the Torah scrolls. But another
insisted they were all wrong. That when
the rabbi opens the curtain, there will just be a big mirror.
There might as well be a mirror in
there because the Torah is like a mirror in so many ways. We read it over and over and over again. Every year we roll it all the way back to the
beginning and read the same words again.
The words stay the same, but we change.
And the world changes. Sometimes
for the better and sometimes not.
It’s as if the past presidents of
this congregation just held those Torahs up to our faces, but not because God
is literally in them judging us and granting us atonement. They held them up so that in those reflections
we can remember who we are. And they don’t
just reflect us…they reflect the whole world.
The Torah, the story of our
people from thousands of years ago, held up to recount and reflect and remind
us of the story of our world over the last year…and right now.
On July 27, 1656, Rabbi Baruch
Spinoza was put in cherem by the Amsterdam Jewish Community, which means excommunicated. We don’t really have anything like it in
non-Orthodox Jewish culture today. But
back then it was like death. If you were
put in cherem, not only were you completely removed from the community, but
anyone who maintained contact with you was in danger of also being put in
Spinoza was cast out not because he
killed someone or coveted his neighbor’s wife.
He didn’t desecrate the Sabbath or ignore some significant Torah law.
He did what rabbis have done since
the days of the Torah. He was making
sure the right questions were being asked.
In a sense, the question he asked was, “Does Anochi Adonai Elohechem…I
am Adonai your God…mean what you think it means?” Spinoza was guilty of suggesting that the
reality of God in the world wasn’t like the Creator God in the Bible. That God and nature could not be
separated. In a period of great misery
and despair for our people, his thinking suggested that perhaps God couldn’t directly
change the course of historical reality.
God couldn’t stop the misery. Or
at least wouldn’t. Because if God
created the world, and there was bad stuff going on in the world, and God
didn’t fix it…then God either didn’t want to…or couldn’t. Maybe Spinoza was not so different than the
average member of the Jewish community of his time. Maybe he wasn’t so different from Jews in any
age trying to understand what life means and how to cope with difficult and
uncertain times. Spinoza was asking the
right question at the wrong time.
There was a theological war afoot
during the 16th and 17th Centuries in Europe, which led
to real wars, between those who held different ideas about how God interacted
in the world and what that meant for human behavior. These theocracies made life particularly
difficult for the Jewish community in the big cities.
Jews had been exiled from England in
1290. In the 1600’s a few were allowed
return…but true English Jewish emancipation didn’t happen until the 1800s. And there were different versions of this
same history and experience throughout Europe including inquisitions in Spain,
Portugal and Rome. Jewish existence was
tough. Anti-Semitism was rampant. Jews were not citizens of the lands they
lived in. They had few civil rights or
property rights. Only a few attained any
semblance of wealth.
Jewish extremism was influenced by
Christian extremism. In his letter to
Oliver Cromwell asking for Jews to be allowed back into England in the 1600s,
Rabbi Manasseh ben Israel mentioned the coming of the Messiah. Messianism swept the Jewish community…life
was so bad…it had to be a test. And if
they could just pass that test, God would have to send a reward by way of the
redeemer and Messiah to perfect the world.
On Rosh Hashanah in 1665, Shabbatai
Tzvi was declared the Jewish Messiah.
Though he managed to convince a surprising number in the Jewish
community that he was God’s chosen one, he was false. A false messiah because here we sit and the
world is far from perfected. I wonder what Spinoza was thinking looking on from the world
outside just ten years after his own excommunication. This was the exact thing he had been teaching
Was he surprised? We’ll
never know. But I imagine him shaking
his head in sadness that the community was still looking in the wrong place for
answers to the wrong questions. How and
when will God fix the world instead of how and when will we fix it?
The recent novel “The Weight of Ink,”
by Rachel Kadish, is based in this same time frame, and masterfully weaves
aspects of history and the Jewish experience.
The book tells the story of Baruch Spinoza, but Kadish tells it through
the eyes of a fictitious 17th century female scribe name Esther whose
life was full of existential difficulty.
The narrative alternates between Esther and a
graduate student named Adam Levy in the early 2000s who was trying to save Esther
from historical obscurity. Hundreds of
years apart, their worlds were different, but their desire for meaning and
strength and to understand the world was no different. In Adam’s own despair, he went to synagogue
for the first time in many years and while there, observing the service goers,
he had the following realization, “It seemed to him that the god these people
had just prayed to was the present: A world in which they felt compelled to act,
stepping into the history flowing right in front of their feet; making choices
in the knowledge that they might fail.”
This work of fiction is full of
truth. That for time immemorial,
people…our people…have wondered how an all-powerful God could let the world be
so full of suffering and despair.
I think it is the wrong question. We should not be
asking how God allows such suffering in the world. The question really should be; how do we allow such suffering to exist in the
We live in a time with incredible
access and freedom to speak our truth.
Spinoza lived in a different time and he spoke his truth and paid the
price with his identity. It we look
honestly into the mirror of Torah, we can see that our identity is on the line
too if we don’t speak our truth. This
moment in history feels heavy and difficult and unsure. In difficult times like these people turn to
God for help. So let’s restore our souls
together. We join together in prayer for
spiritual sustenance. But not in the hope
for a messiah. Fixing the world is our
Rabbi Menachem Menedel Schneerson was
the most recent Lubavitcher Hasidic Rebbe and he died at 92 years of age in
1994. But the Hasids have not selected a
new rebbe because many people believe that Schneerson was the messiah. And that he will return. I don’t believe he was the Messiah…I don’t
believe in that kind of messiah…but I think he was a brilliant rabbi and
scholar. In our Rosh Hashanah Machzor
you’ll find his words. He once said,
“If you see what needs to be
repaired and how to repair it, then you have found a piece of the world that
God has left for you to complete. But if you only see what is wrong and what is
ugly in the world, then it is you yourself that needs repair.”
He didn’t say God will come to fix
the errors and incompletes in our world.
He taught that we are born with the ability to discern between holy and
mundane…between wrong and right…and that it is we who need to do the work.
We live in tough times, and as I said
before, the to do list just feels so big and insurmountable. And speaking for myself, I feel so small at
times…like there is so little I myself can actually do.
If you’ve read Tuesdays with Morrie,
you’ll remember the story of the two waves in the Sea. “There was a little wave, bobbing along in
the ocean, having a grand old time. He’s enjoying the wind and the fresh
air — until he notices the other waves in front of him, crashing against the
“‘My God, this is terrible,’ the wave said ‘Look what’s going
to happen to me!’”
“Then along comes another wave. It sees the first wave,
looking grim, and it says to him, ‘Why do you look so sad?’ “
“The first wave says, ‘You don’t understand! We’re all going
to crash! All of us waves are going to be nothing! Isn’t it terrible?’ “
“The second wave says, ‘No, you don’t understand. You’re not a wave, you’re part of the
“Part of the ocean,” he says. “Part of the ocean.”
Whatever it is that keeps you up at
night, I am sure it does feel at times like we are just waves crashing against
the shores of history.
But I am not a wave, I am part of the Ocean. You each are part of the Ocean too.
We are part of something bigger than
ourselves. And when the world seems so
dark, the responsibility seems so great.
Maybe too great. But as Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson writes, you can “Become what you worship here today…become
hope and faith and love and justice.”
God is how we are becoming. God is in how we are coming together. God is how we live. God can be a verb or an adjective, not just a
May we in the year ahead, in whatever
way we each can…in every way we each
can…bring God’s adjectives into the world…comfort, sustenance, warmth,
security, acceptance and so many other descriptors that increase both humanity
If you see part of the world that
needs repair…let’s together get to work on repairing it. And that will be the true beginning of the
perfection of our world…perfection that we have prayed for since the first
prayer was ever uttered.
G’mar Chatimah Tovah – May you
speedily inscribe yourself in our collective and sacred Book of Life.
Paraphrased from “The Mirror in the Ark” By Rabbi Laurence Kushner in, “God was
in this Place”
now you may have noticed that our cabinet here in front where we usually keep
our Holocaust Torah Scroll is empty.
That Sefer Torah was saved
from the ashes of the Klatovy Jewish community in today’s Czech Republic…a
Jewish community decimated in the Holocaust.
Every Torah is a symbol of the Jewish people…but that Torah is a
different kind of symbol. That Torah saw
the very worst of the Jewish Experience…the darkest days in our collective
history…and it survived those horrors to sit here with us for all of these
years and to be witness to the beauty and richness of Jewish life in these
times. The mirror in that cabinet lets
us see what it sees.
that Torah never forgets those dark times…it remembers them for us. And it serves as that crossover point in our
collective memories…the crossover from bad to good. From destruction to re-construction.
cabinet is empty, but the Torah isn’t missing.
It is being restored.
family in our Bet Shalom community felt that our Klatovy Torah should be more
than just a symbol…it should be used by us, the living and breathing Jewish
community, so they are sponsoring its restoration. We will welcome it back with great ceremony
when it is completed…probably in February.
You’ll hear more about that soon.
even as a restored “living” Torah…it will always be a symbol and reminder of
those dark days which most of us can’t remember. In our own day, when arguably we have the
freest most developed Jewish community in history, we remember the darkness
through which this Torah came to us.
for many of us…that darkness has a triggering affect. We can imagine
what it saw and experienced. And when we
see images like what we imagine…we are triggered.
like burning synagogues. This month we
saw those horrific images on the news from Duluth. Adas Israel Synagogue, the 3rd
Str. Shul, combusted and burned in the dark morning hours of a September Monday
and was totally destroyed. If you trace
your roots through Duluth, then I am certain that you have at least one memory
wound up in that building. Even more-so
if you grew up at the feet of your grandparents there. To our Duluth families
in the Bet Shalom community, we are all so sorry for your loss. My hope and prayer is that your children and
grandchildren and great grandchildren, who come after you, have the same kind
of positive memories of you and Bet Shalom wound together, just as you do of
your families and Adas Israel.
while the news of the fire was breaking…so many of us couldn’t help but wonder
about the cause. The image of a burning
synagogue tears our hearts. Hearts that
remember what we haven’t personally seen…memories the Torah carries for us. There was a collective sigh of relief when it
turned out to have been an accident…a poor soul trying to keep warm and his
fire got out of control. We were bracing
for it to be antisemitism…and he was bracing against the cold. In this era…both have become systemic problems.
Anti-Jewish sentiment AND people on the streets with nowhere to turn for
warmth and security.
is close to home…Minnetonka High School is closer. Last winter an image surfaced of a teen
asking her boyfriend to a school dance using various Hitleresc puns and symbols
on a poster board. And it went
viral. The Jewish community was rightfully
up in arms.
next day I received a phone call requesting that I meet with the teens in the
photo to help them understand why what they had done was so wrong. Reluctantly, I agreed to meet with them
before Shabbat services that Saturday morning.
I explained to them that the photo of them was like ripping off a bandage
for our community that was covering a wound that would never heal. I stood with them here in the sanctuary, in
front of that cabinet with the Holocaust Scroll and while we stood there and
talked, and I found them open to its truth.
might disagree with how I responded to this situation. But in that moment, I decided to forgive
them…to offer them my love instead of my anger.
I decided to help them see that they had a higher purpose and that they
could take their mistake and try to do right by it. What they did perpetuated anti-Semitism no
doubt…every such act opens the lid on Pandora’s box just a little more. But they are not anti-Semites…they are teenagers
who did a dumb thing.
the next several months, I met regularly with them and I taught them about
Judaism, about our history, and about the wound into which they dumped
salt. Thanks to the Jewish Community
Relations Council (JCRC) who supported my efforts, I was able to travel with
them to Washington DC to accompany them to the Holocaust Museum. I watched
them change. Perhaps the most
memorable moment we shared in DC was standing at a table in the lobby of the
museum where survivors sit and talk with museum guests. At the table that day was a woman in her 90’s
from the same town as Anne Frank…she had been friends with Anne Frank…It was
like looking at and speaking with Anne Frank if she had survived. It was then I believe they truly connected
the dots from what they had done to the real world. To our world.
And I know they repented their actions.
am not naïve. Every member of the Jewish
community alive today is still directly, or indirectly, affected by the
Holocaust. I’d like to think I honor
those who died, and all of us who still live, by leaning into love instead of
hate. The anger and venom from our own
community toward these kids was perhaps justified in the moment…who can blame
an angry emotional reaction? But vengeance is different than anger. And as Rabbi Crimmings taught us last night,
anger can be good when it moves us forward.
it seems like it just keeps coming. Only
days, there was another rash of vandalism against synagogues around the country…one
of which is in Racine, Wisconsin. That
synagogue was spray painted with swastikas and other Nazi symbols. That wasn’t ignorance or an accident. That was blatant antisemitism. The result is the same though…it triggers our
disgust and our fear.
first thing that many of us think about when we talk about anti-Jewish
sentiment is safety. Some in our congregation worry about coming to Bet Shalom
in our country’s current atmostphere. The
security of our community is something I take very seriously. And so does the other clergy, our staff and
our Board of Trustees. We are secure here. For years, our staff have regularly reviewed
our safety policies and coordinated directly with the Jewish Community
Relations Council which is the central organizer of security for the Jewish
community. With the JCRC’s help, Steve
Barberio, our Executive Director has secured a $100k grant from the Department
of Homeland Security to upgrade our systems and procedures for the
building. None of it is in your face
because it doesn’t need to be. Bet
Shalom is secure and remains a haven from the darkness in the world. This building is an extension of your home
and it is a secure place to be.
am not here to say in any way that anti-Semitism isn’t a problem. In fact, I believe the opposite is true. The recent rise in anti-Jewish acts of hatred
is a scary problem. Our children who ensure the future of our
tradition have seen more images of burning synagogues and Nazi Propaganda than
most of us could have imagined outside of history class. And they are far more likely to experience
anti-Jewish sentiment in school than any adult is at their place of work.
is an affront to the democratic ideals on which our country was founded. Maybe that is why we don’t like to think it
can happen here. That America, for all
our issues, is too enlightened for a blight such as baseless hatred to take
is a societal problem, not just a Jewish problem. A human problem. And it comes from every direction…from the
right and from the left. It comes from the ignorant and from the educated…We
see it in politicians of every persuasion and we have to call it out even when
it is coming from “our side”. No one
gets a free pass.
see it in the intersectionality of social activists who say our love for Israel
cancels out our passion for social justice.
That a love for Israel means we are somehow less loyal to this country…or
that we disregard human rights.
see it in the white supremacists and white nationalists who consider our
concern for the immigrant treason against our country.
are not living in Germany in the 1930s…or France during the Dreyfus Affair in
the 1890s before that…or during the Cossack Uprisings in Poland, Lithuania and
Russia during the Middle Ages before that…or the Inquisitions that reached from
London to Amsterdam and beyond during the centuries before that…It may be hard
sometimes to ignore parallels, but we are living in the 21st Century…in
the United States of America…during the freest time our people have ever known
in the modern world. Yet we can see
ourselves, at least our ancestors, in the experiences that the Holocaust Torah
symbolizes, not just in the mirror behind it.
year after the tragedy at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, we gathered
here for Shabbat, and our sanctuary was filled with Bet Shalomians AND our
friends in the community. If only we
could bottle that spirit and let a little out each day into the world. Think of what we can accomplish when we join
together with others who share common values…people with different religions,
culture…people from different socio-economic levels…different races…people born
here or elsewhere…united under the shared goals of a safe and peaceful
single time there is an act against the Jewish community we hear from those who
won’t stand for it. My inbox fills with
messages from local Christian and Muslim leaders. Just as Antisemitism paints the entire Jewish
world with one exaggerated and dishonest brush stroke…we have to be careful not
to do the same to others. When our right
to be who we are is threatened, their right to be who they are is threatened
too. Those who do hateful things DO NOT
represent the whole…they are the minority.
the values of Torah that have survived trough so many thousands of years to be
in our midst, we can join arm in arm with those who hold up the Christian Bible
or the Koran as their own source for illuminating the human spirit… and not
only to stand against threats that
injure our nation, but we can stand togetherfor something. From the ends of our driveways talking to
neighbors, to interactions with our co-workers…in our city halls, in op-eds, on
our Social Media feeds…we can stand for
the kind of democratic pluralism that makes our country so different from all
the other places in which our ancestors have been oppressed.
maybe the world is finally starting to wake up to it. Just this week the United Nations
finally…finally…released a report on combatting anti-Semitism defining it as an
international problem and it describes the activities of the BDS movement as
fundamentally rooted in anti-Semitism, the movement advocating for Boycott,
Divestment and Sanctions against Israel.
It isn’t enough…but it is rare for the United Nations to stand up for
Israel or the Jewish people and it is a good thing.
don’t want to be up here on this bima talking about anti-Semitism. I’d rather be here talking about some finer
point of Jewish liturgy or Jewish practice that brightens our lives and the
world…not this issue which makes it darker…this issue that affects our
children…and every member of our community.
rather be celebrating the work our congregation does as a sponsor of the Beacon
Interfaith collaborative fighting for those who need housing and job
support. I’d rather be celebrating the
good that comes from our support of the ICA…the Inter Congregation Association
that provides food and resources for people in need here in our neighborhood.
while we work to achieve that world, we have to continue to address anti-Jewish
sentiment and anti-Semitism. We have to
recognize it and call it out when we see it.
If you experience some sort of anti-Jewish bias, we are here to support
you. We want to help you process it and
we want to make sure the JCRC and proper authorities know about it.
in community helps. Our teens create
safe space to discuss these things because they are with each other every week
and have built trust. Adults can create
that space here at Bet Shalom too. Our
love of Judaism and our relationship with Israel are holy parts of who we
are. We should celebrate them…not be treated
differently because of them. And neither
should we have to be scared to express them.
Weiss is an opinion writer for the New York times who writes convincingly about
Jewish identity and recently wrote, “In these trying times, our best strategy
is to build, without shame, a Judaism and a Jewish people and a Jewish state
that are not only safe and resilient but also generative, humane, joyful and
may not be so simple, but it is a great goal…in a sense she is saying that in
order to fight those that hate us…we need to be more US. We need to rebuke those that need to be
rebuked…but turning from anger to love when we find we can teach teenagers who
make mistakes. Being US
means immediately turning our anger to love when we find out the man who burned
down a synagogue did so by accident trying to stay warm and then making sure he,
and others like him, have shelter.
being us also means that we have to constructively use the full force of
our anger when we find that it wasn’t a mistake when someone makes anti-Semitic
comments. or jokes, with hate in their heart…or when a gang defaces our holy
spaces…then we need to act. As Eli
Wiesel taught…the opposite or love is not hate…it is indifference. We cannot be indifferent, but hate isn’t the
right response either.
just a few minutes we’ll hear the words of the Akedah, the story in the Torah
that describes Abraham attempting to sacrifice his son Isaac. When God calls it off, Abraham sees a ram
thrashing in the thicket. Our sages teach us that in that
moment, God told Abraham, “Thus are your children destined to be caught in
iniquities and entangled in misfortunes.” Abraham turned to God and implored,
“Master of the World! Will it be like this forever?” God replied, “In the end,
they will be redeemed by the horns of this very ram.”
coming April will be the 75th anniversary of the liberation of
Auschwitz. There is indeed more light in
the world today than the darkness of
those days. And even though we may at times still feel
like we are stuck in the thicket, the sound of the Shofar comes to remind us
that redemption is in reach…but we must use our own hands to push back that
thicket that entangles the world.
the year 5780 be bright. May we honor
the memories that the Holocaust scroll holds for us and may we reflect, as that
mirror does, all the good in the world…may that mirror be a prism that
magnifies the light of Torah as we, together…a community filled with joy and
light…work to close pandora’s box and to make this world the better place we
know it can be.
Please join us for an extraordinary celebration. On Saturday night, June 8, at 7:00 PM in the sanctuary at Bet Shalom, we will reenact on the bima the moment when our tradition teaches us that Moses received the Torah on Mount Sinai so many thousands of years ago. At that time, we will celebrate as our tenth grade Confirmands reaffirm publicly, and as a community of young adults, the commitment they each made when they became Bar and Bat Mitzvah just a few years ago.
Our tradition teaches us that the holiday of Shavuot – the Feast of Weeks, which occurs 49 days after the beginning of Passover, recounts the culmination of the journey the Israelites took from servitude to Pharaoh to their acceptance of Torah. That journey…those 49 days…marks one of the greatest advances our ancestors experienced…from the lowest of lows in Egypt to the highest of highs of Torah on Sinai.
And it is on this holy day that Reform Judaism assigned the celebration of Confirmation. As some of you may know, Confirmation was borrowed by the early Reformers in Germany, in 1810, from Protestant Christianity as a way of instituting a communal celebration for our emerging young adults and future Jewish leaders. Some communities over time even favored Confirmation to Bar and Bat Mitzvah which experienced a great decline in Reform Judaism in the first half of the 20th century. But today at Bet Shalom we believe both are important rites of passage.
As a 13 year old crosses the threshold of Jewish adulthood in becoming Bar or Bat Mitzvah, they publicly declare that Judaism and the Jewish Community is important to them. It is a magical moment in the life of the synagogue and our families…but there is no magic involved. A youngster works hard to demonstrate that they have begun to assimilate Jewish life skills that assure us that they will be prepared to take the mantel of Jewish responsibility from those that came before them, care for it, and pass it on to the generation that follows – their own children. This is symbolized so powerfully as we pass the Torah through all the living generations of a family to the Bar or Bat Mitzvah as they formally take their place as a link in the chain connecting all future generations back to Moses on Mount Sinai.
But it doesn’t end there. If it does, that chain of connection has been diminished. And this is the reason we have so much to celebrate on Shavuot…that another generation of youngsters have hung on and continued to learn Torah and to participate in our congregation. In High School, Judaism can be studied in a very adult way and as our students grow and develop we have the opportunity to help them evolve their beliefs and practices in ways appropriate for adults. We cherish this experience as rabbis and know our students do, too. Studying Torah is a lifelong adventure…in some ways we never actually reach the top of the mountain…but we do pause from time to time to celebrate important moments in the Jewish Life Cycle…and Confirmation is one of those moments. Please join us as we honor these students, and their families, for their dedication, their commitment and their learning.
We will also gather for Yizkor on Sunday morning at 10:00 AM. This is also a time for memory. In moments of joy such as we experience during Shavuot, we are also instructed by tradition to remember those who came before us, on whose shoulders we stand.
Confirmation has a rich and unique history, tracing its roots back to Europe. At Bet Shalom, Confirmation is so much more than learning. We aim to have students connect with their peers and their community through leading services and participating in events. Confirmation students also participate in our Annual Flower Sale, raising funds to give back to Bet Shalom. Throughout Bet Shalom’s history, we’ve received many interesting and thoughtful gifts. Here are just a few of the gifts that have been given to Bet Shalom:
1985: Bima copy Plaut Torah Commentary
2003: Folding machine donated to Bet Shalom offices
2007: Plants for the Front Entrance
2008: Mishkan T’fillah: When Bet Shalom bought the new prayerbooks, the Confirmation Class contributed over $1,000
2009: Added to the murals downstairs, apple trees by the Holocaust garden, and contributed to the Paul Thomas Fund Bar/Bat Mitzvah Tutoring fund
2010: Added to the murals downstairs, contributed to the 1993 Class fund (scholarship for youth group), and named star in Bet Shalom’s name
2011: Provided new hearing-impaired devices for the sanctuary, sensory table for the preschool, and donated $1,000 to the endowment fund
2013: Flagpoles for the Israeli and American flags
2016: New candlesticks for the sanctuary
2018: New furniture for the Youth Lounge
We are grateful for the gifts the Confirmation Classes over the years have given to Bet Shalom. And, maybe the next time you look up at the stars, you’ll be reminded of Bet Shalom.
Every summer, Rabbi Locketz, Rabbi Cohen, and I each spend two weeks serving on faculty at our Reform movement’s regional Jewish overnight camp, OSRUI, in Oconomowoc, Wisc. During our two weeks, we work with counselors to prepare for services and integrate Hebrew- and Judaic-themed programming into camp culture… but that is not all we do. We also spend time informally with our Bet Shalom campers and dive into camp life, whether that means eating s’mores around the campfire, or painting toe-nails before Shabbat! Every moment is a sacred opportunity to connect, teach, engage, and inspire.
This summer, close to 100 Bet Shalom young people will be heading off to Jewish summer camps, including OSRUI, Herzl, TEKO, Olami, Butwin, and Interlaken. The experiences our children will have at all these amazing camps have the potential to transform the way they understand, live, and express their Jewish identity. If your family is not yet participating at OSRUI, but is considering it in future summers, OSRUI is opening its doors almost every day this summer for interested families to come see the magic at camp. Please contact Rabbi Locketz or me to discuss if you would like to set up a visit.
As they are packing their bags and preparing for a summer of fun, we are also preparing to send them off with blessings for a summer of inspiration, meaning, joy, and growth. Please join us on Friday, June 14, for a special camp treat during the kabbalat panim at 5:30 PM followed by services at 6:00 PM, where we will invite all our campers to come up for a blessing.
A few weeks ago, I shared with the congregation our
increasing focus on the importance of volunteers as key contributors to the
health and vitality of Bet Shalom. There are many who help out as ushers,
landscapers, committee members, kitchen helpers, and in so many other ways who
deserve to be recognized for their contributions.
At our Kabbalat Shabbat service on Friday, May 3, we will
recognize the many ways our members have contributed to programs and activities
at Bet shalom. We’ll begin the evening with a Kabbalat Panim at 5:30, followed
by the evening service, and then a light dinner afterward in the social hall.
If you contributed your time as a volunteer in the past year, please join us.
This is, by no means, an exhaustive list of areas people
volunteered in the past year, but if you engaged in any of these activities,
please join us:
-Serving on the Board or on a committee
-Ushering during Shabbat or on High Holy Days
-Helping out at the fall block party
-Working the concession stand at a Minnesota Twins game
-Serving snack at Religious School
-Helping out teachers and staff at Relgious School
-Giving time and expertise in support of Bet Shalom Yeladim
-Helping organize the storage room and other spaces at the synagogue
-Donating time in the kitchen as a helper or cook
-Doing office work in support of the administration
-Volunteering at a fundraiser or other event
It’s entirely possible that I’ve missed at least one area
that people have volunteered, but on behalf of the Board of Trustees and the
staff, we are so grateful for the contributions being made by our members. So
join us on Shabbat on May 3 to be recognized for your generosity.
Please RSVP by April 30 if you plan to join us after services for dinner by clicking HERE.
Israel’s election this week ended neck-and-neck with the political party, Likud, which is led by the sitting Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and the Blue and White party led by Benny Ganz almost too close to call. Voting was very close, separated by only 15,000 votes, and both parties claimed 35 seats in the Knesset, Israel’s parliament. But victory goes to the party with the greatest ability to create a coalition with other political parties to claim the majority of the 120 seats in the Knesset. The coalition with the majority names the Prime Minister. In this case, Blue and White does not have a clear path to a coalition, while the Likud does. Thus, Netanyahu enters his fifth term as Prime Minister.
As with any election that the Jewish people watch closely and care about, in Israel and in the global Jewish community, there are people who are elated with the results, and there are those who are not. There is tremendous disappointment for those who saw Benny Ganz, and his left of center Blue and White party, as a harbinger of change after ten years of Netanyahu’s conservative coalition. For certain, Netanyahu is emboldened by the results and seems on the path to an even more stable coalition than before with right of center and far right leaning partners who support his nationalist agenda.
There will be plenty of time to digest, analyze, and debate the implications of this election cycle in the months to come. Even so, I can’t help but fear this is a further blow to religious pluralism in Israel, as well as to productive dialogue on peace between Israelis and Palestinians, among other concerns.
A few weeks ago we were visited at Bet Shalom by former Minneapolis Shaliach, Shlomo Weinish, who shared a preview of this election with us. While he discussed a number of the important issues of the day, he repeatedly implored us to find our voice with regard to Israel. As an Israeli, and as someone who intimately knows our community of American Jews, he acknowledged that we should have a voice in Israel on issues important to us.
Many of you in our Bet Shalom community have shared with me your desire to better understand the current situation in Israel. That you want to have a deeper relationship with this part of our Jewish identity, sitting here in the West, with hearts tugged toward the East. You want to grapple with Israel in the modern world, and its place in the identity of Jews in America. Let’s all be part of this great discussion and debate.
I commit to you that we at Bet Shalom are going to make safe space in the coming months and years for you to explore these concerns through study, prayer and sacred community. Stay tuned as we develop these opportunities. In the meantime, consider joining us for Shabbat morning services on May 4th when we will begin the conversation. And if you are interested in joining Bet Shalom’s next trip to Israel (no date set yet), join me for an organizational meeting at Bet Shalom on June 4th at 7pm.
May the wholeness of peace on high be here for us too.