29 March 2009

Let's Make It Count

New York City Councilmen Bill de Blasio and David Yassky were at CBE tonight, as part of our "Coping with the Economic Crisis" series, put together by a group of our members and friends from UJA Federation of NY.

One couldn't ask for more intelligent and hard working public servants like de Blasio and Yassky--both were warm, informative and honest about the hard road ahead for our city, state and country. Each tried, in his own way, to address the complex web of city, state and federal spending and how it will ultimately effect direct services city-wide and in our neighborhood. Three areas that were particularly illuminating--city transportation like bus lines, schools and teacher funding, as well as early childhood care, after school programming and senior centers--are all on the chopping block and each Councilman was adamant about the need to let city leaders know how crucial these services are.

Synagogues like ours can do alot to raise its voice, write letters to politicians, make phone calls, and let people know about which direction our country should be headed in these defining times.

I'll tell you one thing: Albany did not come away smelling like a rose. And the Daily News confirmed as much today in its extensive call to fix this politically troubled area known as New York State Government.

Walking down 8th Avenue toward CBE for the evening program, it didn't take me long to realize that I was the only person on the street at the time NOT using his cellphone. I heard people touching base with home, planning a hike of the Appalachian Trail, and uttering Lord knows what to whom--at that point I had tuned out. All this connectivity: and yet, we still live in a world with real problems which need to be solved by real people. Sometimes, in my nuttier moments, I fear we're all being anesthetized by media, numbing us to keep our subscriptions going while the world falls to pieces. It's perfect, in a way, that the other disturbing story I read was about Glenn Beck, Fox News' new star of the apocalypse, whose misguiding musings about taxes and socialism and God is doing its own special part in anesthetizing up to 2.3 million viewers a day.

The happy bourgeois numbed with our connectivity; and the masses on their couches, looking into the angry mirror of self-affirmation.

It left a small group, with two incredibly hard-working and bright public servants, trying to figure it all out.

"What's the best way to make our voices heard?" I asked Councilman de Blasio at the end of the night.

"You'd be surprised," he offered. "We really take letters and phone calls to heart. Of course, you can email and you can Twitter, too. But there's nothing like reading a letter and getting that call."

If we're going to be connected--especially in these times--let's make it count.

26 March 2009

Coping with the Economic Crisis

With the surge in Shantytowns, as reported in today's Times, Peter Applebome's coverage of those at the "bottom rung" of the fare hike, along with Steven Greenhouse's reporting on the U.S. Department of Labor failing to adequately pursue unfair wage lawsuits, AND the jump in the City's jobless rate -- to 8.1% from 6.9% -- there is more than enough reason to grasp that people are really hurting.

There are two things you can do immediately.

One, come into CBE and buy a Tzedakah Box for $50. And when you fill it with your donations, return those to us as well. We are starting a Tzedakah Fund that will help those in need in Brooklyn and beyond. We've sold nearly 50 boxes so far, have 250 more to sell, and several members have come forward to join the effot to help think through how to allocate the money we'll be bringing in. If you want to get involved, please let me know.

Two,on Sunday evening we'll be hosting NYC Councilmen David Yassky and Bill de Blasio, who will address to our community ways in which we can understand how this current economic downturn effects New York City. That's Sunday night at 7 pm, part of a three part series, "Coping with the Economic Crisis" put together by our After School Committee and its Director Bobbie Finkelstein, members of our Social Action Committee, and Penni Beckerman from UJA Federation of New York.

For more information, check out the CBE website here.

25 March 2009

Visit to J Street

I spent the day in DC--on Capitol Hill and in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building--with J Street, a pro-Israel and pro-peace group that is new to the DC scene. J Street founder Jeremy Ben Ami and his incredible staff put together a great day which began with a briefing from J Street's pollster Jim Gerstein, who shared his findings which indicate that the American Jewish community strongly supports a two-state settlement between Israelis and Palestinians as well as strongly supports an even-handed approach to both sides in the conflict, recognizing that terror and settlement expansion BOTH need to be curtailed.

With these polling numbers we visited several Congressional offices and I'd have to say found a surprising degree of welcome and relief from Members of Congress who were very heartened to hear that a large segment of the American Jewish community supports these views.

For lunch we were briefed by members of the Obama Administration on their own plans for moving ahead, most fundamentally with the appointment of Senator George Mitchell and an able team of State Department veterans dedicated to seeking a diplomatic solution region-wide.

Besides being impressed by J Street's organization and professionalism, I was also struck by the tone coming from members of the Obama Administration, who, when referencing diplomatic efforts used sentences like, "We plan to try to normalize the mechanics of these relationships" and "we are committed to frequent, meaningful, deep engagement and dialogue."

Heck, I'm for that in our synagogue!

But seriously, the sense of relief that from the President on down there is a distinct effort to set a new tone, to try a new path, and to do so while remaining firmly committed to Israel's strength and security--understanding fundamentally that Israel's Jewish and democratic character is preserved and strengthened by the two-state solution--was a powerful testimony to the new mood in our nation's capital.

Around the room today were rabbis, activists, diplomats and other interested parties--all convinced that dialogue is the way. "Frequent, meaningful, deep engagement and dialogue." We were asked to give Senator Mitchell a vote of confidence, a chance to tour the region, to listen, and to prod all the parties toward peace. What we heard, remarkably, yet not surprising, is that Arabs and Israelis would very much like to travel down that road. Our job, it seems to me, is to encourage and support those risks for peace.

There seems to be a deep fear and concern on all sides that this window of opportunity is closing and with further radicalization, we risk a remade map of the Middle East that could endanger Israel even further.

And so to quote an early sage, Hillel, known as a lover of peace:

If not now, when?

If not frequent, meaningful, deep engagement and dialogue now, when?

24 March 2009

Practical Wisdom for Tough Times

Ron Lieber shares some great wisdom from his Your Money column in the Times.
Take a look.
The practicality and generosity of spirit revealed in Ron's reporting is really inspiring.

23 March 2009


Are you kidding me?

We're supposed to believe this kind of "study" coming out of the Jewish community?

Communities Must Do More to Attract Birthright Alums
, Sue Fishkoff's piece in today's JTA seems to inexplicably place the blame on other communities for not "attracting" (like bees to honey? like boys to girls? like steel to magnets?) Jews to Jewish life.

Here's the report: Tourists, Travelers and Citizens. Found at the Brandeis University Cohen Center website.

Let's take this argument apart.

How long did it take birthright, after it's founding, to create an official post-trip programming arm? I lost count after five years but I think the official answer is 7-8 years--on the national level for sure.

And in that time period--when I worked at Hillel at NYU, ran Brooklyn Jews, and as a congregational rabbi in what is known as an "attractive" neighborhood, I always got one answer and one answer alone when asking for lists of birthright alumni in our "attractive" area: NO.

Plain and simple: NO.

Various answers included that they were developing their own Alumni "Network," and were getting ready to roll out their own birthright NEXT program (apparently it's "attractive" to put some words in small case letters and other words in ALL CAPS. It makes things more "attractive" for the NEXT GENeration.


The thesis is flawed. The "organized" (and hey, I can tell you from the inside, it's NOT organized) Jewish community is boring and out of touch. Young people don't know it because they're not interested. Blah, blah, blah.

So we have to start all new initiatives to replace the bad, boring, broken stuff. We're what's NEXT. Get it?

Problem is, young people are savvier and they all don't appear in shiny studies paid for by academic departments that are underwritten by the philanthropists that create the "attractive" programs. It's a silly loop.

I have several birthright alumni in my weekly Basic Judaism class; one birthright alumna works here at CBE just after she got her BA from NYU; another birthright alum walked into our SYNAGOGUE today (she studies Library Science at the Pratt Institute) to interview for a gig to reconfigure our OLD SHUL LIBRARY and make it a robust learning center with some tweaking and reorganization.

You know what she told me, "I love OLD BOOKS!" I told her she was forbidden from liking anything more than 17 minutes old, unless it was 2000 years old and she saw it on a birthright trip!

Just kidding.

We've never surveyed our attendees from the FREE Brooklyn Jews High Holy Days services but I bet we have a robust population of birthright participants there, too. You know how we found them? BY OURSELVES! Through NETWORKING and WORD OF MOUTH and PROGRAMMING that has INTEGRITY. We even raise MONEY from those attendees, teaching them the age old language of OBLIGATION, which in HEBREW is translated as MITZVAH.

Come on people: NEXT time you decide to issue one of these steamy press releases, send a preview copy to me so I can be better prepared with SPF 36 (that's double-chai to you, buster!) to protect myself from the bright lights and hot air headed in my direction.

From the trenches: Jews are made one at a time. Release the lists to those who know what they're doing and aren't afraid to say everything isn't for free.

20 March 2009

Trip Home 3.0

You know you live in a community when you order a book from the Community Bookstore (Dr. Jerome Groopman's Anatomy of Hope--several people recommended it after hearing about B's cancer diagnosis), walk into the store to pick it up, browse for more books to send B (Ken Druse's Planthropology and Roz Chast's Theories of Everything),and when you're done with your browsing, the Groopman book is waiting for you without a word at the cash register.

"This is you, right?" says the clerk whose name I didn't know.

"Yes," I answer, and wonder how she knew that, if she knows why I want to read it, and what else she or anyone knows about me. That's the thing about my role in all this: I choose to be public because that's a rabbi's job. But I do this while also learning to control that, to set limits, and to carve out privacy when and where it's needed.

Last week I met a couple whose wedding ceremony I'll perform later in the year. They told me that the day they got engaged, they were in Prospect Park with their dog and from a distance they saw me with my daughters and our dog, relaxing and having fun. I had yet to meet with them, had know idea who they were, and yet they talked about looking down the hill at me and my family and saying, "We have to call the rabbi next week to announce our engagement and see if he can marry us."

Extraordinary, isn't it, how the fabric of time and life are woven together, often times with us remarkably unaware of who's doing the weaving and with which cloth?

My mother's mother was a devout Christian (or "non-Jew," a distinction I always found rather hilarious) and when I was a kid, she dreamed that I would be a Minister. "But I'm a Jew, Grandma," I'd say and in her own unique, laconic way, she'd say, "A rabbi is good, too."

Grandparents weave for parents and parents weave for children and we become who we are in part because of choices that we make and in part because of choices that are made for us which at some point we choose to accept or reject. I think the point I'm trying to make here is that Community is a kind of in locus parentis at times as well. There is a structure there, and in the best of circumstances, it's meant to shore us up, both when we need it and when we don't even know we need it.

I felt taken care of today in the bookstore--anonymously--and it was a secure and kind feeling.

In B's neighborhood in Milwaukeee, her favorite local bookstore, Schwartz's, is closing after serving her area for many, many years. She's made her peace already with the grave injustice of it all and serves on the board of her local library which has been a source of great pride and gratitude for a long while now.

When I was home last week and B was in the hospital, it was very important to her that she fulfill her obligation of contributing a selection of mixed nuts to a small fundraiser the library was doing. We kids did the shopping for her and dropped them off at the board chair's house. A couple nights later, back in Brooklyn, I got a call from the chair, checking in on B's progress and thanking me for the nuts. Apparently they were a hit. "B always feels it's important to have some nuts with a drink or a glass of wine," I said. "It's one of the organizing principles of her civilized world-view."

She got a kick out of that, we had a laugh, and wished each other well. Separated by 850 miles but connected, invisibly, through the fabric of friendship and motherhood.

19 March 2009

Leadership Crisis in Israel

As difficult as it is to read, one must take a look at Ethan Bronner's story in today's Times about Israel's difficulty in maintaining an upper hand in the PR war with Palestinians.

We Jews agonize in public--always have, always will. So to some degree, that we do so here is an expression of our strength. Grappling with the morality of war or the dysfunctionality of its fragile democracy is a way to model to the world whose eyes are cast upon Israel's drama and very existence.

I only wish we could read such reports of Palestinian moral struggles. If they exist, we need to see and hear about it more: do leaders agonize over rockets in Sderot or suicide bombing?

None of this, however, diminishes the severity of things.

To me, the most troubling aspect of the article is the outlandish idea that Israel needs to rebrand itself. God willing one day we will move beyond branding and marketing and return to the days when values matter above all else. For 42 years Israel has occupied the West Bank and Gaza Strip along with the Golan Heights. One can't rebrand that except to attempt to annex those territories and then redraw official maps. But that is not being considered, so we are left with the peace process, to the extent that it exists or doesn't exist.

Israel cannot "blame" the Palestinians for its Right Wing turn. It's problematic democratic process has created this crisis; the failure of Labor and the Left wing parties to articulate a vision has created this crisis; and the rise (all over the world) of rampant individualism and retreat into the self has removed from the process potential voices of responsibility, obligation, and sacrifice.

In short, it's a leadership crisis--on the Israel and Palestinian side. I'm proud that the Jewish people's political entity is tearing out its hair in public. Let us be an example. But more than that, let us move toward responsible decisions, difficult decisions, with strength and bravery.

18 March 2009

Trip Home 2.0

When we first heard the news of B's cancer, we all grabbed each other. Four of us, standing in a hallway at the hospital, holding on to one another for protection from the malevolent rain of truth, a more ambitious kind of shelter that we had been able to offer one another as children, when it may have rained, thundered and frightened us. Then, back on stormy summer nights in Wisconsin, the weather was mysterious but not a mortal intrusion into our reality. However, in a clean hospital hallway, with floor polishers humming and orderlies mopping and nurses fussing over electronic monitors, rain's deliberate rhythm was distant, indiscernible, and the only known truth was that death was threatening the very life of She who had brought us into the world.

I'd like to say that our aggregation--a spontaneous, warm, misshapen mass of holding one another for support at the news of "inoperable malignancy"--was oddly complete, except that it lacked its Mother and Father at that moment: the one, being rolled down the hallway by a kindly nurse, crushed by the news, and the other, long having exited the world, twenty-six years earlier, just a few miles down the road. "It's just us now," I thought, as my mind raced to all those whom I've comforted over the years, who said those very words, "It's just me, now, Rabbi. I'm all that's left," a pronouncement of finality that shocks at its first utterance, like the intake of breath one feels, involuntarily, standing at the edge of a high cliff or an abyss.

But at the presence of B, in her gurney, smiling with tears in her eyes, that determined triumphalism so unique to her, is like the warm, warm sun after a threatening summer storm. Like the broken branches of a battered tree, she bears the mark of one changed yet regenerative. She's not REALLY going anywhere anytime soon. Not if we, or the forces of Nature, have anything to say about THAT.

I rub her head, and feel the thickness of her hair, as she begins to muse about picking out wigs to cover up what the chemotherapy will do. "The Angel of Death is going to come and fuck with THIS head of hair?" I think, accusatorily. Instead, I just say, "Your hair is so thick! It'll grow back thicker!" Because that's what we do when we face loss: We say "More, more."

I think of the times she stroked my hair to comfort me as a boy, whether fevered and nauseous, fearful and distraught, pained and confused. Her presence was "everlasting." And through thick and thin throughout childhood, lulled to a blessed quiet and then sleep by her immovable, covenanted nature of it all, I was the lucky one.

A child can never repay a parent, I realize, stupidly, as if for the first time. And so only offer unconditional love, too late, and promise to do better for one's own children, now. She knows that, I think. A kind of beginning of wisdom for me. But still. If she weren't preoccupied with survival, I'd deserve an eye-roll. Feel free.

Later that evening, J and I sat at a bar, drinking a glass of wine, waiting for some take-out. We were re-hashing old stories, one in particular, trying to uncover hidden meanings. Our hearts softened by the deep, red intoxicating wine, we drifted into unchartered emotional waters and yet stayed there, talking, listening, trying to reconstruct events as we both remembered them and "chose" to remember them, a crucial distinction.

We were sitting in a bar, at a restaurant, that before was movie-supper club that once was just a plain old movie theater, where B had taken me as a kid. At four or five I left the theater in horror when a hunter killed a mother deer ("Bambi"); I laughed hysterically through "E.T." (Don't ask.) And now I sat in a reconfigured architectural space with J., beginning to make sense of it all, waiting for take-out on a Monday night in Milwaukee. I loved the solid poetry of the moment, its unpretentiousness, its sense of home.

One late summer night, while home from college in Madison, I rolled into home, and B was up late, reading the New Yorker. She knew I had made my domestic late night roll-call in a somewhat altered state so she invited me to sit on the edge of her bed and share what was on my mind. I talked and talked and talked: about friendship and politics and the state of the world and what the moon looked like against the trees at one in the morning on a warm Wisconsin night. With her magazine in her lap, her own face shone like the moon. There was no judgment, only amusement, and unconditional love.

Which is not a bad thing to strive for: amusement and unconditional love.

17 March 2009

No "Crosses" at the Red Sea

From the mixed up brain files of Rabbi Shmuel Rabinovitch, this encouraging item from the JTA:

The Pope can't wear his Idol at the site of the Jewish Communal Idol.

I can see it now: The Cross versus the Wall! Who's ritualized object of suffering will prevail?

It's a new version of Rock=Paper=Scissors!

Did Rabbi Rabinovitch come up with this as the humorous month of Adar slips away, feeling blue that Purim has passed so he thought he'd lighten our moods as we prepare for the clarifying harshness of Passover?

"Shmuely! This is Isaiah talking! I'm standing next to Ezekiel and Amos and Hosea and Jeremiah, chilling by the Throne of Glory with the One Who is Awesome Over All. And He has this message to deliver:


Worth dusting off your old Yeshayahu Leibowitz here, who notably called the Western Wall, six weeks after the Six Day War, the "largest discotheque in Israel."

16 March 2009

Friendly Fire

I just finished reading A.B. Yehoshua's Friendly Fire, his excellent new novel, translated by Stuart Schoffman.

A few quick impressions:

One, a really clever and rich story, woven between Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, and Tanzania with great wit and depth. Much more psychological than I thought it would be, which was a great surprise.

Two, it's never a surprise but always reassuring how much more in control and deeply self-critical Israelis are as compared to the rabble that calls for economic and intellectual boycotts. The public soul searching of contemporary Israelis is quite real--certainly even more so for a public figure like Yehoshua. That Yehoshua chose to weave the prophet Jeremiah into the narrative as a condemnatory theme, a double-bladed knife used to dissect both sides of the divide, was an added bonus. His play between old Jerusalem and new Tel Aviv; his cast of characters--from a disillusioned young Army reservist and deeply embittered and anti-Israeli Israeli hiding out with paleontologists in Tanzania, to an elevator engineer and Palestinian intellectual that I won't say too much about since the plot hinges on many of these characters coming together at key times.

Three, Yehoshua's book should be read by anyone interested in a perfectly snapshot in time of the last three years. I had the sense of reading in real time, only to discover that the book was written in Haifa between 2004-2007.

Four, birthright participants should get a copy on their bus seats. Then they should put Yehoshua on a chair in Binyanei Ha'Uma and have him give a jeremiad on the current situation.

The book is some seriously good secular Torah.

15 March 2009

A Little World

I started praying at home with a new siddur, one I bought in Jerusalem this summer. It's blue, with gold lettering on the outside (Know Before Whom You Stand--in Hebrew) and fits neatly in one hand.

It freed me up physically, and I found myself today gesticulating as I uttered certain phrases, something I don't ordinarily, and certainly not when leading services publicly, as the expectations of civility and decorum generally are called for--especially in Reform synagogues.

I found the experience to be, well, athletic. As opposed to say "mystical," or "petitionary," my motions had the sensation I can best liken to pounding a ball into a baseball glove or taking a few deliberate dribbles of a basketball before setting my feet to shoot a free throw.

I liked it.

The siddur also has no English, a deliberate decision I made in order to privilege the language of Hebrew prayer, in order to force myself to actively translate when coming across a word I don't know, as well as untether myself from translation, so that the experience of prayer as mantra or mediation can lead the way.

This is in distinction from what happens on a Friday or Saturday, when, as a public-rabbi-service leader, my role is teacher, facilitator, enabler of others. That's part of the job and I understand that. But as a person who really enjoys my spiritual practice, the home-based davenning, generally occurs in a totemic corner of our living room, becoming a spiritual home within my home.

On the Eastern wall are the following items:

A Mizrach (meaning "East," as in Jerusalem); a 19th century silver gelatin print of the Milwaukee waterfront; a Pilgrimage Certificate given to my grandparents in 1964 when they climbed Mt. Zion on their first and only trip to Israel: and, a kind of classic piece of Judaica--an elderly "religious" Jew praying at the Western Wall, bought by my grandmother-in-law when she first traveled to Israel in 1970.

It's my own private force-field past. Sometimes I lean against it for support. Other times I pound my fist into it, wanting to break through into the future (if not the present.)

And now with a lighter book in hand, unburdened by the English language, there is a singular focus.

Like a pitcher who sees only the catcher's glove. No hecklers, no cheers. Just the ball, a little world, being tossed back and forth.

11 March 2009

Trip Home 1.0

As I sit in the airport in Milwaukee, preparing to board a flight delayed by winds in New York, I want to take a few moments to put down some reflections about the last 72 hours.

1. The friendliness and service orientation of folks here in Milwaukee are extraordinary characteristics. During my life growing up, I never really noticed it. On occasion when I return home, I interpret it as "too slow for me now" and feel relieved about coming back to Brooklyn. But this trip home, in order to check in on B who is dealing with an illness, I am struck by how the smallness of a city allows people to focus on the task in front of them with little around them to distract from the job at hand. This quality of reduced background noise, if you will, makes space for meaningful encounter. I have really enjoyed that.

2. A well-run institution means everything. The way I was greeted at the hospital each day--from security guards to janitors to nurses and doctors--was overwhelmingly positive. To the extent that my experience matters, then the people who run Columbia-St. Mary's Hospital on the UWM campus are doing a great job. If people are ultimately treated by everyone who walks into my synagogue the way that I was treated from the parking lot to the chief of oncology, then my career will have accomplished something quite serious.

3. Cancer is bad. It is without feeling. It's malignancy is manifested in the sly and deviant way it appears, before rearing its ugly head and launching its assault. It attacks with no regard to its victim's sense of purpose nor with any regard to the infinite number of ways that the victim is connected to others. But it's threat unifies the forces of good against it, which is fascinating and an important process to experience.

4. Humor and love, combined with transparency, honesty, and aggressive medical acumen, seem to be the key weapons in waging war against cancer. And partnership. Communication is vital. And bottomless buckets of patience. Beneath which are bottomless buckets of patience. It's ironic, because cancer is on the move, so you have to be, too. But only with patience. There exists, in this regard, a kind of alternate universe of time which is fast/slow. One must be in the moment. Like you're ready to catch a fly. A bad fly, full of cancer, threatening you and those you love. But you can't swat it--you have to catch it, and quickly/slowly kill it. If you've been down this road you know what I mean. I never got it until Monday. And Tuesday. And Wednesday. Now I do.

Cancer Fly: I am watching you.

10 March 2009

Did You Notice the Ram?

"The real hero of the story is the lamb."

So says Yehuda Amichai in his famous poem about Abraham's sacrifice of Isaac.

I like to think of this in relation to service.

I spent all day in a hospital in Milwaukee, watching people work to save lives, every minute of every hour all day long.

For all the hand-wringing about Jewish continuity questions, I found the reality of gathering information and wisdom from caregivers whose professional lives are devoted to providing care, to be profoundly humbling.

Who steps into the breach so others can survive?

Those who serve.

Sure, Abraham and Isaac (and Sarah and Hagar and Ishmael) had their drama.

But who really made it all happen?

The ram.

Did you notice?

09 March 2009

The Purpose of Such an Arrangement

The prophet Isaiah said, "The heart of the people is fat and their ears are heavy and their eyes are shut."

I was thinking of that quote today when I read through a variety of emails and online articles from the surplus of consultants who are out there today in the Jewish world (and the general world as well) trying to tell all of us working in the trenches how it is that we're supposed to weather this massive economic storm.

Since the late 1980s, if not much, much earlier, we have always been top-heavy in experts who know best and short on talent and leadership willing to roll up their sleeves, take on the real work of community building and organizing, and insisting that the measure of our existence ought to be how much goodness and justice and peace we have brought into the world.

We study ourselves over and over; wring our hands over our possible Ashkenazic genetic dissolution (God forbid!); and privilege engagement in numbers over the mundane process of visiting the sick, burying the dead, comforting the mourner, rejoicing with brides and grooms.

Jewish life--and in particular Jewish life in the synagogue--has been consigned to the leprous territory known as Boredomland, only to be saved by the Consultants, who have written studies and studied studies and garner fees and salaries for telling us what to do.

But to quote Moses Hayyim Luzzatto in the Path of the Upright, "only they who break away from such bondage can see the Truth and can advise others concerning it."

To wit:

Last week I took my family to see the Batsheva Dance Company at BAM. We bought the tickets, took the girls to dinner at the BAM Cafe beforehand, and navigated our interpretive way through some of Ohad Naharin's more provocative ideas. (In this case, the "heavy ears of youth" is not such a bad thing.)

To rows in front of us sat much of the professional staff of birthright next, including one its major funders, and we learned that through the generosity of birthright, 200 alumni of this amazing program were treated to a free show. I, of course, got annoyed.

I mean, I PAID for my undergraduate tuition at Wisconsin and Hebrew University, PAID for my rabbinic education at HUC, and PAID for dinner and tickets for my family to see Israel's premier dance company perform (note: this past July, in Tel Aviv, we walked through the campus of Batsheva, which prompted our kids' interest in it all.)

I paid for this all despite my mutt-like, illiterate Jewish upbringing, but (and I'm not saying this because like Warren Buffet I too hail from the Midwest) my own prudent investment has built a more powerful model than throwing money at entitled kids in order to buy their Jewish allegiance.

But the studies say it works! Even though none of these kids has gotten married, raised a family, made Jewish educational choices, and had THEIR offspring make Jewish choices. In other words, the cake is half-baked but we're jumping to conclusions because we're so blinded by the illusion of what a successful Jewish community looks like.

When I was in Israel in December, climbing up Masada, we passed 40 birthright students. I said to congregant then, "Well, there goes $120,000." I stand by that.

At BAM, I said to no one in particular, "Two hundred free tickets--that's what seven, eight, nine-thousand dollars?"

Do you know what I would do with that?

I could pay for a songleader to play Shabbat songs each Saturday for 75 young families who are actively trying to teach their tots Jewish songs, Jewish melodies and the rudiments of Jewish literacy.

I could make our Congregational Retreat affordable for the more than 175 people who will attend, a multi-generational expression of what synagogue life should strive to be.

I could build a bereavement group for mourners, hire a couple teachers to teach classes to the hungry seekers, and get people in their twenties and thirties to actually pay for their faith in Jewish community, in substantive programming, and an investment in their own future.

Luzzatto writes, "In princely estates, a garden is sometimes so laid out that a man easily loses his way in it. The purpose of such an arrangement is to afford entertainment."

Luzatto's "birthright" was Torah. That big, bad, boring book.

Purim is enough entertainment, no? Do not the times demand more from us than paying for the most fortunate generation's good fortune?

I didn't have a consultant who helped me find a teacher. I found one on my own, another through a friend, and so the chain of tradition linked up to me, and I to it.

As the greater culture deals with one of the greatest periods of dislocation and reinvention since the Great Depression, I hope that we will be able to rely upon the truly bold ideas of our tradition and not the spasms of genetic naval gazing that have us making entertainment for anyone happy to belly up to the table and cash in.

Just as Health Care, Infrastructure, and Sustainable Ecology are the key issues we'll be hearing about over and over again, I would argue that those values will be found in their most fundamental form in the Synogogue, the Infrastructure of Jewish Infrastructures, that has so far outlasted all the experts and the studies, and exist on dues and "free-will offerings" of the People.