14 April 2014

Passover Message

14 April 2014
14 Nisan 5774

Dear Friends,

With another Spring upon us and Brooklyn in bloom, we gather at communal tables this evening to celebrate Passover and tell our people's redemptive story from servitude and liberation and praise.

For generations this telling has animated our existence.  In tasting the matza and maror, we embody not just the remembrance but the experience of slavery's restrictions on the human spirit.  In lifting up our cups of wine, however, we also claim that we are to "revere, extol, acclaim, adore and glorify God who for our ancestors and for us took us from slavery to freedom, from despair to joy, from mourning to celebration, from darkness to light, from slavery to redemption."

The promise is in the telling.  In the telling there is the reification of the covenant that even in the darkest times there is hope.  And in the journey from Egypt to Sinai--from the idolatrous servitude toward a cruel master to the sublime devotion through Torah, Prayer and Deeds of Loving Kindness--we have sustained ourselves and will continue to sustain ourselves for all time.

Our hearts are heavy this evening as we offer prayers of comfort to the families in Kansas City who fell victim to the cruel violence of a madman.  "In every generation," the Hagadah reminds us, there will be those who rise up in hatred.  The suspect in the shooting had been tracked by the Southern Poverty Law Center in Montgomery, Alabama, an organization our CBE high school students visited in March on our Civil Rights tour.  It is humbling and chilling to realize that such hatreds remain and a sobering reminder of the work that remains for us all.  Our task, our role in this world, is to remain ever vigilant as well as a beacon of hope and light for our own people and all humankind.  This is Elijah's hope. This is the Cup of Redemption.

In a world with so much need, with individuals and families seeking material, spiritual and emotional sustenance, we must always offer this Cup of Hope.  We offer this cup to those who are hunger and in need of shelter; to those whose spirits are broken and require our love and support in community each Shabbat; and we offer this cup to those seeking a connection to the Jewish story, a way in, to join us on the sacred journey.

From our brothers and sisters seeking to live in peace in Israel to our community and neighbors here in Brooklyn, the Hagadah exhorts that this night is a "season of liberation."  So it may be.  May our efforts bring us that much closer to peace.  May our efforts bring us that much closer to eradicating hunger and homelessness.  May our efforts bring healing to the hearts of those in need.  And may our historic community in Brooklyn at Congregation Beth Elohim remain a sanctuary of goodness and kindness for all who seek a meaningful connection to our Jewish tradition.

In these endeavors, may we "soar with arms like eagle's wings and run with the gentle grace of swiftest deer."  And may each of you blessed with good health and joy in this season of liberation.

Hag Sameach.

Rabbi Andy Bachman

31 March 2014

Showing Up

A good friend.
A helping hand to those in need.
A lover of books.
He dreamed of his people's redemption
And dedicated himself to this day and night.

These are the favorite of the lines from the acrostic poem my great-grandfather wrote about himself, had painted on to ceramic and attached to his gravestone, which still sits in a cemetery on the South Side of Milwaukee.

Chaim Siegel, an immigrant to Wisconsin from Kopel, Minsk, Belarus in 1899, was by family legend a "rabbinical student" who instead ended up working in business in Milwaukee's center city, not far from the Golda Meir School at 3rd and Walnut.

When I did a college tour in February with my daughter, we rolled through town and pulled up to the school to take a look.  It's where my grandmother was educated to be an American; it was from there that Goldie Myerson picked her up for babysitting; and it remains a symbol of our family's roots in both Minsk and Milwaukee--roots that are now deeply planted in my own kids' lives, so that they will one day tell the stories of where they origins.

Chaim Siegel never became the rabbi he had hoped to be but nevertheless he founded two synagogues was president of the Mizrachi Zionists, a small but meaningful contribution to the building and eventual founding of the Jewish state.  Perhaps more important than his erstwhile desire to fulfill his service as a rabbi, he was a Jew who always showed up.

When I decided to become a rabbi, the great-grandfather I never met was foremost on my mind.  Honoring his memory, exercising the privilege of Jewish leadership that perhaps economic circumstance prevented him from fulfilling, pushed me forward to Israel, rabbinic school and service.  My life's work, solidified while saying Kaddish for my own father back in 1983, was alloyed to his.

Alloys, as far as the characteristics of metal are concerned, are generally stronger and more durable than the simpler, pure metals from which they are made.  And the rabbinic career I wrought for myself these last thirty years has been one such mixture of sorts--sacred text and political activism; popular culture and deep spiritual traditions; deeply American and proudly Zionist.  I have always strived to give life to the many dimensions of what it is to be a Jew in our age.  And have, consequently, taught others to do the same.

Our lives are mixed up with each other, aren't they?

Since announcing my departure from the pulpit rabbinate of CBE last week, some people have asked me questions about my motivations for making this shift in my career.  Will you stop being Jewish?  Are you no longer a rabbi?  And, the most often asked, will you do my funeral?

My Jewish soul is alloyed to wiry body.  They are inextricably bound.  I will forever read and teach and talk and argue and laugh about the many-faceted aspects of the improbable and inspiring reality of the Jewish people.  As I told my Shabbat morning Torah study class, I will always teach.

As for being a rabbi, I'll say that with great pride I plan on remaining a rabbi; and am both fascinated and inspired by the notion of what it will mean to me to carry my rabbinic service out to the greater citizenship of my hometown here in Brooklyn.  Wherever I land professionally in a little over a year from now, I may very well not retain the title of rabbi, but it doesn't mean that the work won't fundamentally be about service, learning, and the ethical and moral dimensions to what it is to live in community.

Just as Simeon the Righteous taught the "world stands on three things:  Learning, Service, and Deeds of Loving Kindness," I see the rabbinic dimension at play in whatever I'll do because I know that equally central to the next professional chapter of my career will be that great sage's wisdom as well.

The ancient prophets were quite clear that the Jew was to be ethically attuned to both the particular aspects of his Jewish soul as well as the universal calls to serve others.  I always have and always will take that prophetic mandate seriously.

Rabbi Tarfon, another great sage, comes to mind as well.  "The day is short, the work is great, the workers are idle, the reward is great, and the Master of the House is pressing!"  I have always felt this way about work at CBE, with Brooklyn Jews and with the Bronfman Center before that; and I will take this teaching with me out into the greater world.  Tarfon also reminds us that while "we are not obliged to complete the work, neither are we free to evade it."

Having had the incredible privilege to serve for fourteen years at CBE (1993-98 & 2006-15) I humbly accept that the work inside the synagogue community is never done.  I am also enormously hopeful that the next Senior Rabbi will bring her own or his own set of skills and unique commitments that will carry the work of Torah, Service and Deeds of Lovingkindness onward still.

In the meantime, let's agree that the most important aspect of who we are as a people is made manifest in showing up:  To make a Minyan or to teach the Alef-Bet; to feed the hungry or house the homeless; to welcome those not born Jewish into our People; to speak out against injustice and to illuminate the sublime pathways of the inner spirit of human striving for the Divine; to see ourselves as one people--in Israel, America and throughout the world; and to also see ourselves as One People--humanity, bound by our aspirations to live lives of goodness and peace.

26 March 2014


March 26, 2014

To the Beloved Members of our CBE Community:

It is with mixed emotion and after much soul searching that I am writing this letter to inform you that I do not intend to pursue a fourth contractual agreement as Senior Rabbi at Congregation Beth Elohim. I am taking the step of informing you now since the general guidelines of the Central Conference of American Rabbis recommends that synagogues undergo a 15-18 month search process for Rabbinic Placement.  

With my contract set to expire on June 30, 2015, this affords the synagogue a wide berth in developing a plan for succession.

Additionally, as our synagogue community navigates a temporary fiscal challenge, I remain committed to helping partner with you and the leadership over the next 15 months in order to strengthen our finances for the near and distant future.

Much thinking has gone into this decision, taking me back reflectively over a lifetime of service since my youth in Wisconsin, through college, on to rabbinical school and into the pulpit.  At a critical stage in my life, at age 20, I made the decision to focus specifically on Jewish service.  Inspired by my own great-grandparents commitment to Tradition and Israel, I found particular meaning in the centuries of Jewish texts and wisdom that animate our moral and ethical life as a people.  From Hillel at UW and NYU to Brooklyn Jews and CBE, I have found the work to be exceptionally inspiring and rewarding.  Lifelong friendships, mentorships, intellectual and political battles “for the Sake of Heaven” have animated every step of the journey.

Last year, the combination of watching our community’s response to Hurricane Sandy as well as the fortuitous and inevitable rite of passage of turning 50, I began to explore the idea of moving beyond strictly Jewish service and contemplate seriously the idea of serving disadvantaged communities broadly throughout New York City.  The issues of poverty, hunger, homelessness, education, and violence remain central to my own concerns as a citizen of New York.  And so as I thought of another chapter to my professional life, I became increasingly inspired by the opportunity to serve communities in need in Brooklyn and beyond.  

I don’t know where this will lead and there is still much time to decide what that next professional step will be, but I can assure you that Rachel and I, along with Audrey, Lois and Minna, will remain devoted members of the CBE community for years to come.  My Jewish soul will have a special place here at CBE in Brooklyn (and of course in Israel) but I am ready to move on to new challenges in my career.

What a privilege it has been to serve this historic Congregation.

I am enormously proud of our achievements together at CBE and grateful to the Congregation and its members for the opportunity to serve and share my vision for Jewish life in the 21st century.

Together we have:
  • Grown the Synagogue membership from 500 to more than 1000 families
  • Hired the most gifted and talented recent graduates of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion--Rabbi Shira Koch Epstein, Cantor Joshua Breitzer, and Rabbi Marc Katz--to bring a revitalized commitment to Judaism in the 21st century
  • Replaced and repaved the Temple House Roof
  • Reinvented the Religious School as Yachad, an innovative Jewish family education program centered on Shabbat
  • Created a dual-language Hebrew immersion program in our ECC
  • Integrated Brooklyn Jews into the fabric of CBE's ongoing efforts to reach out to young Jews in their 20s and 30s.
  • Written a new Torah Scroll in honor our community's 150th Anniversary
  • Led numerous trips to Israel for Teens and Adults, strengthening our people's relationship to our brothers and sisters in the State of Israel
  • Created innovative cultural programming like Brooklyn by the Book, in partnership with the Community Bookstore and the Brooklyn Public Library, bringing leading authors from the United States and Israel to speak to audiences of thousands
  • Incubated the nation's most successful engagement with Israelis through Israelis in Brooklyn and Keshet/Keshetot
  • Welcomed Altshul, an Independent Minyan, into CBE to help enrich Jewish spiritual life in our community
  • Successfully raised more than $3 million dollars (including a prestigious award of $250,000 from American Express) for the repair and restoration of the Main Sanctuary's roof, exterior and stained glass windows
  • Partnered with CAMBA to open a Men's Respite Shelter
  • Partnered with John Jay High School to offer ongoing tutoring to neighborhood children in need
  • Partnered with the Osborne Association to aid children in their visits to incarcerated parents in the New York state prison system
  • Founded the CBE Gun Violence Prevention Group
  • Responded in a moment of historic crisis to Hurricane Sandy by providing meals to thousands of New York City's poorest residents most deeply effected by the storm.  CBE Feeds remains one of our community's most deeply meaningful statements of Judaism's prophetic command to comfort the afflicted and feed the hungry
  • Engaged a number of foundations and family philanthropies from the Charles H. Revson Foundation, the Samuel Bronfman Foundation, the Covenant Foundation, and UJA Federation of New York in the sacred work of developing and growing Jewish life in Brooklyn

Besides my devoted and brilliant clergy colleagues, Rabbis Epstein and Katz as well as Cantor Breitzer (along with past partners here at CBE, Rabbi Emeritus Gerald Weider and Rabbi Daniel Bronstein)  I have been blessed to work with the most extraordinary team of Jewish program professionals I have ever known--April Mellas, Cindy Greenberg, Lauren Shenkman, Isabel Burton, Debbie Brukman, Yehudit Feinstein, Jaci Israel, Ilana Friedman, Bobbie Finkelstein, Lisa Rosenberg, Laura Landau, Shuli Zilberfarb-Sela, Shelley Klein and countless others.  Local leaders like my dear friends Reverend Daniel Meeter, Councilmen Brad Lander and Stephen Levin, past and current Brooklyn Boro Presidents Marty Markowitz and Eric Adams, have helped forge enduring friendships across neighborhoods that make Brooklyn truly special.  Throughout the past many years, I have benefited from the ongoing wisdom and guidance from Shifra Bronznick, Nessa Rapoport, Julie Sandorf, Dana Raucher, Rabbi Dan Bronstein, Dr. Michael Berkowitz, Dr. Ari Kelman, Rabbi Dr. David Ellenson, Rabbi Mishael Zion, John Ruskay, Mitchell Moss, Jay Kriegel, Pam Brier, and of course, as ever, the great Naomi Levine.

In addition, the past animates so much of what we do in the present in Jewish life.  I have been buoyed in imagining what is possible in Jewish life today by my late friends and teachers Lisa Goldberg, Dr. George L. Mosse, Dr. Irv Saposnik, Rabbi Dr. Arthur Hertzberg, Rabbi Dr. Stanley Dreyfus and most recently, Edgar M. Bronfman.  

Finally, in addition to working with our current president Charles Nathan, I have been blessed to have the support of past-presidents Jules Hirsch and David Kasakove as well as our current and past trustees, committee members and volunteers.  Building and strengthening our synagogue with all of you has been a true blessing.

At age fifty-one and after nearly 25 years of work in the broader Jewish community, I am eager to pursue other areas of interest and public service in New York City.  Rachel and the girls join me in expressing our heartfelt emotions at this time of transition and know that this strong and historic community will continue to thrive and grow for generations to come.

With sincere gratitude,

Andy Bachman

07 February 2014

David Rotem 2.0: A Response

J. Turrell, Space that Sees,  Israel Museum
Without question, Facebook and Twitter and Blogging can be helpful tools.

After writing what I thought was a measured response to Israeli MK David Rotem for his remarks about Reform Judaism, a couple of friends in Israel wrote me and offered to get directly to David Rotem my remarks.

And to understand the dimensions of this ongoing struggle for some in the Jewish community--over the legitimacy and authenticity of the diversity of expression of Jewish life--it's important to know that both people who conveyed my words directly to MK Rotem were Orthodox Jews.

One, a Modern Orthodox man and committed Pluralist who has lived in Israel for nearly 40 years; and another, a Haredi woman (and best friend of a Reform woman rabbi) who works with Rotem in the Knesset.

And then this morning:  I woke up to an email from a congregant who has been dialoguing with an Orthodox family member about this issue and my blog post and reported with pride that his Orthodox relative said, "Your rabbi sounds like my kind of rabbi."

I write this decidedly *not* to toot my own horn but to indicate that above all, what binds us together as Jews is not *how* we identify but *that* we identify as such.  At a relatively infinitesimally small number in proportion to the world who have embraced a singularly unique historical and spiritual narrative, we ought to stretch ourselves to love one another more sincerely.

From the moment my father and then grandmother told me so, I've always identified first and foremost as a Jew.  It needn't get more complicated than that.

So this is to thank my friends out there.  We're all in this together.

Shabbat Shalom.

06 February 2014

David Rotem: Give the Brother Some Love

I've never met Israeli Knesset Member David Rotem.  I don't think I'd recognize him if I bumped into him on the street--whether the long, arboreal pathways of Prospect Park or the frenetic tumult of Mahane Yehuda on a Friday afternoon.  He's a guy doing his thing and I'm a guy doing mine and that's just fine.

He spends his Saturdays in the synagogue (or so I presume) which is exactly where I spend mine.  He talks to my God in Hebrew and I do the same with his.  We both wear tefillin and tallit each day.  And we both keep Kosher (though, given some of his more recent outbursts, I guess it's safe to say he's more strict than I am about where I eat.)  I love Israel and though I'm not sure how he feels about Brooklyn, he's certainly welcome here anytime.  We're a tolerant lot.  I'll take the Vegas odds that we're both circumcised.  And we both wear glasses.

Here in New York there is a lot of tension of the rising income gap; over-testing of students in schools; perceived racial tensions in police tactics; a spate of pedestrian traffic deaths; union contracts and universal pre-K; diminishing library budgets; and always, the fear that New York remains exposed, like many great cities in the world, to the terror threat.

Jerusalem, to be sure, has no shortage of challenges.  A stalled peace process with Palestinians; a rising income gap across the country; affordable housing shortages and university budget cuts; diminishing water resources and environmental challenges; the integration of Haredi populations into the public sector; the threat of a nuclear Iran; a creeping al Qaeda presence in Sinai and the Syrian border of the Golan Heights; Hezbollah in Lebanon.

It's a big agenda in both cities.  Just thinking about it can take up your day.

So I'm not sure what the benefit is, exactly, in David Rotem declaring, among the many things he could be declaring these days, that "Reform Judaism is not Jewish."  Unless the benefit, from his perspective, is to foster a hermetic, exclusive, extreme, one-dimensional definition of Jewishness, which cuts against the historical reality of the ongoing development of the Jewish people for the past three thousand five hundred years.  I mean, it's his right to espouse that.  But he'd be radically wrong.

After all, we no longer sacrifice animals to God; or sit in the dark on Shabbat; or stone people to death for capital crimes (not to mention gouging out their eyes); we don't have Kings, Prophets and Priests (in the Biblical sense) and even though Mel Brooks stopped making movies, at least we still have Larry David.

One can argue, as the 12th century Maimonides did in Guide for the Perplexed, that God's demand of Israel's animal sacrifice was God's deployment of other cultures' idolatrous practices (the impulse to slaughter an animal being so primal, being so great) in order to teach Israel that the people ought to worship the monotheistic God of the Jewish people, not the pagan deities of other cultures.  One can (and many indeed have) further conclude that this Maimonidean maneuver is an example of the evolutionary adaptability to ever-changing Jewish civilization in an ongoing relationship to its God.  Or you can not conclude that.  And you can even vehemently disagree.

But the disagreement doesn't deprive one side of its Jewishness.  It just means that two Jews disagree on something:  a phenomenon, both in Jerusalem and Brooklyn, that's as old as the hills.

David Rotem, I'd guess, is not his real family name.  An Orthodox man born in Bnai Brak in 1949, with a name like "Rotem," which in Hebrew is a desert plant and remains a favorite among those who rejected the Diaspora in favor of an authentic new Hebrew culture linked inextricably to the land, is a modern construct.  So is the education he received at Hebrew University.  Without Napoleon and other European emperors granting Jews emancipation and citizenship in the late 18th and 19th centuries, Jews would never have been able to enter universities.  Without universities, there'd be no critical analysis of the meaning of history and ancient texts.  Without that, there'd be no philosophical or politically scientific basis for Zionism, not to mention the theological underpinnings of Modern Orthodoxy, Conservatism, and yes, David, even Reform Judaism.

Who were the Rotems before your own version of an intolerant Zionism?  Simple Jews, no doubt.  Just trying to make ends meet.  Like my people, with their new names, trying to survive from Minsk to Milwaukee to Brooklyn.   Your family found refuge in our people's ancient homeland, a commitment I honor and defend from the relative ease of the Diaspora each day.

But just because I don't observe God's law exactly as you do, don't drag us all down into your fundamentalist rantings of the same sectarian divisiveness that is tearing apart our Muslim neighbors as well.

We're meant to be a light unto the nations.  To prove that despite our difference, we can get along.  That's how we do it here in Brooklyn, in Tel Aviv, and even in certain neighborhoods in our beloved Jerusalem.

So don't waste your breath putting me down, turning "Reform" into a curse.  There are rockets aimed at you from the borders, internal divisions far greater than whose Shabbat is holier.  Your insults are pushing away your brothers and sisters who commit no sin other than merely respectfully disagreeing with precisely what it is God wants of us.   But we're in agreement over the bulk of the message and that ought to be enough.

Cain, who slew Abel, arrogantly challenged God with the outrageous and disingenuous question, "Am I my brother's keeper?"

We know the answer.  And so know this, dear brother, that I'm looking out for you.  Keeping you, dear brother, when I ask you not to make your brother the enemy.

I'm your friend.

The bulk of Jews have lived more years in the Diaspora than in the Land of Israel, a mind-boggling fact that begs the question:  how, despite the violence and bloodshed of Jewish history, did we survive?  The shul I daven in, dear brother, is the one that is built on the principle of tolerance, accommodation and good relations with our neighbors, and, when it's unavoidable, disagreement "for the sake of heaven."

So for heaven's sake, cease your vituperations.  Give the brother some love.

With internal and external threats, you need all the help you can get.

02 February 2014

Being Human Is Just Enough

I had never been covered by a noxious mixture of fecal and urine infused water before and so had no real sense of what that would be like--until last night.

Walking up Flatbush Avenue after an evening viewing of Spike Jonze's clever movie, "Her," I was standing in front of the Atlantic Center with my family when a geyser like spray of fecal urine water shot up from a small metal cover in the sidewalk, soaking me and one of my daughters in a totally disgusting shower of waste.  People stopped and gawked in shared disgust.  Someone offered a small bottle of Purell.  In order to ward off a brief spell of insanity, we considered laughing.  But then we just decided to head home, clean our clothes, and bathe.

Revelers crowded into Barclays for a Saturday night event; the restaurants and bars of Flatbush popped with pre-Super Bowl excitement.  I thought of the scenes in "Schindler's List" and "Les Miserables," when brief journeys through sewage were life-saving risks undertaken by heroic innocents.

What a contrast this all was with the strangely beautiful, alluring and anti-septic love on-screen between Joaquin Phoenix and Scarlett Johansson.  Though ultimately having been superseded in intelligence by their operating systems, Phoenix and Amy Adams were an inspiring sight in all their fallible humanity, atop a roof, admiring a landscape, leaning on one another with their unavoidable physicality.

"Akavyah ben Mahalalel said, 'Reflect upon three things and you will not come into the grip of sin:  Know whence you came, where you are going, and before whom you will have to render account and reckoning.  Whence you came--from a putrid drop.  Where are you going--to a place of dust and decay and vermin.  Before whom you will have to render account and reckoning--before the Supreme King of Kings, the Holy One, blessed be He."

This evocative, rooted, centering rabbinical text from the 1st century remains one of my favorite calling cards for justice.  As the Sages also may have said, "Hold fast to life; hold your mortality closer."

Of course, this is a grown-up message.  My daughter I didn't inflict with the jaded wisdom of the Sages living under Epicurean and Stoic Roman systems.  In fact, the luxuriousness of the Roman system came in handy.  We each went our separate ways when we got home, took long hot showers, changed our clothes, and shook off this leveling event with a good warm meal.

For dessert we ate baklava from Jerusalem's Ja'afar Sweets, an Old City favorite, and read a couple stories from Shalom Auslander's Beward of God.  His short story, "Bobo the Self-Hating Chimp," seemed appropriate for the occasion, especially its opening lines:

"At 9:37 in the otherwise ordinary morning of May 25, Bobo, a small male chimpanzee in the Monkey House of the Bronx Zoo, achieved total conscious self-awareness.  God.  Death.  Shame.  Guilt.  Each one dropped like a boulder onto his tiny primitive skull."

Between chimps and operating systems, I guess being human is just enough.

01 February 2014

Invocation for EMB. 1.28.14

Delivered in Memory of Edgar M. Bronfman
"A Life Fulfilled:  A Tribute Celebration"
January 28, 2014
Avery Fisher Hall, Lincoln Center

(After a beautiful opening melody by Rabbi Angela Warnick Buchdahl, I had the honor of delivering this Invocation in memory of my dear friend and mentor, Edgar.)

Good evening and ערב טוב

Tonight we gather as a community of those who have come together to express our love and admiration of Edgar M. Bronfman.

Son.  Grandson.  Brother.  Father.  Grandfather.  Great-grandfather.  Husband.  Fierce Friend and Advocate for the Jewish people, wherever they lived.  Defender of Freedom and Justice--Insistent Prophet of Learning, of Doing, of Joy.

נר השם נשמת אדם--The spirit of man, of this man, Edgar, is the light of the Eternal; and this memorial candle burns bright for Edgar, Yehiel, in whose name and memory Eternality abides.

Around the throne of this king, this man, this father, husband, brother, son, are the wrought and rendered works of a life so fully lived.  Achievement.  Generosity.  Justice.  Redeemed Captives and Revitalized Youth.  Learning and Questions and Heresies and Knowledge.  Ethics and Morality.  And no shortage of jokes.  Thank God for the jokes.

Tonight there is hallowed memory and laughter; there are tears of sadness and longing and an awestruck recognition of just how much on man can achieve.

With raw humility, goodness and kindness, his family laid his body to rest one month ago.  And tonight, as Edgar insisted, we join together as one to remember him with joy.  To celebrate the life of Edgar M. Bronfman.

זכר צדיק לברכה

May his memory always be a blessing.