21 May 2009

We're Always Not Yet There

Some kids bar mitzvah speeches write themselves. Others take weeks of craftsmanship. And still others require adaptive styles and teaching approaches. With some kids, for instance, the student enters my study, pulls their laptop out of their backpack, and I type while they think, "write out loud," and together we create what it is they want to say. I have to admit that this method has been fun. It's happened now three times in the last three years and in each situation, the work that the kid produces has been heartfelt and original. A truly genuine engagement with--wait for it--the "process" of Torah.

I think about this on two levels. One is the purely functional: some kids are just not necessarily wired to easily sit down in front of a keyboard or with paper and pen in hand and then start writing. In fact, most probably are not. The very idea of committing ideas to the permanence of written word can be quite terrifying. Mediating that experience by holding the laptop, doing the typing, as the student holds the books, the study sheets, and free associates, composing oral sentences that become the written word--well there is a vitality that is irreplaceable. But the other has to do with the tools of the day and the expectations that drive the pedagogic engagement. I remember, often in these editing sessions, my first English paper, freshman year in Madison, being ripped apart by the strong editorial hand of my TA and then retreating to my desk in the dorm, back at the typewriter, focused and eager to make the necessary corrections to earn the teacher's praise. Now the tools create instant mediation, in real time. It's a changed process. Neither better nor worse. Just different and therefore worthy of reflection.

With one particular kid, we're really locked into a conversation about the manna, about it's taste, it's appearance, and about the ancient Israelites relationship to it--as a food that could taste like anything, appear in abundance and be of unlimited supply, and yet, somehow, leave people lacking. The very puzzle of that and the outrageous quality of the Israelites' distinct lack of gratitude for God's beneficence is somehow not something from which one can easily avert one's glance. A moral car-crash, as it were. You have to look.

This particular study leads to a general conversation about what is "enough," an important focus for a developing young mind, especially one so keenly attuned to the sense of dislocation so many adults are feeling these days with regard to their own work and livelihood. What is the measure of "enough" in the context of an economy that may very well be redefining that term in real time.

The abundance of the past 40 or 50 years may be experiencing it's own cycle of diminishment and then regeneration, yielding not the same old amount but rather a new molecular configuration of differently organized matter.

Consider the American Auto Industry. In a heart-beat: the dislocation of a collapsing economy, a war for oil, and the alarm bells of our narrow, fossil-fueled myopia, and just like that, the car is redefined. Every aspect of the American city and highway design as we know it is arguably being called into question right now, in part because we have left the abundance out to rot--not unlike the Israelites, whose appetite for more turns out to have been a corrupting influence on their true sense of how much was enough and what was right.

These kids read the news, after all. They know what's going on. And as the Great Reckoning takes place, we who grow up this way must be clear that like Moses, we can only lead them so far and then it will be their world to take over from us. In my 46th year on the 43rd day of the Omer, I am so fully aware of how it's both my world and no longer my world (and there are still two generations above me!)

How quickly things move. How abundant we always are. And how we're always not yet there but forever moving forward.

20 May 2009

God Bless Those Who Try

My kids have pictures of their President in their bedrooms. Like an earlier generation had pictures of FDR or Truman or Eisenhower or Kennedy hanging in their homes, their is no question that ours is the generation whose children are likely to have revived the adoration of their national leader, iconized him, and brought him into the home, like he once was. The neo-traditionalism of this gesture is unmistakable. It's related to the basic thesis of President Obama's candidacy, now being put to the test: a candidacy of strong moral and ethical leadership that is meant to translate into a Presidency rooted in strong moral and ethical leadership.

We are all over the map on our assessment of this leadership. From gas emissions and the auto industry to Israel/Palestine, Guantanamo, Iraq and Afghanistan; from abortion to health care--those who embraced a new era of dynamic and engaging leadership is struggling with reality of political leadership complex trajectory toward change. It never happens overnight; it rarely comes without a cost; no one person can ever go it alone.

Tom Coburn of Oklahoma clucks like a rooster because he attaches to a credit card bill the "right" of Americans to carry weapons into National Parks. Dick Cheney relentlessly rides the airwaves defending his legacy while the President attempts to steady the ship of state when it comes to the ethics of interrogation. The President's own Democratic leadership abandons him on key issues while protecting their own base, defending democracy's classic first ethic: "first" get elected. Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi may have gotten us out of Egypt; but who will be the Joshuas to lead us into the Promised Land?

Putting the girls to bed tonight I was reminded of the reality of seeing their leader's visage looking down upon them. It will take a generation--40 years--to tackle the problems that have piled up in our nation. Roads and schools; energy and health care; national service and the common defense. One leader is never enough but the ability of one leader to galvanize a generation to serve, to work for change, and to bring others along--now that's an accomplishment that is a blessing to witness.

Each night before going to sleep, the girls say their prayers. They ask God to protect the family; to look after their friends; and to care for our ancestral homelands--Brooklyn, Milwaukee, Baltimore, and Israel. And each night they say, "God bless the Obamas, and Israel, and Iraq."

And tonight, with that mid-May breeze warmly blowing in the window, I realized that their prayers, as children, are as aspirational as the policies created by the adult mind of a legislator seeking change. The relentless effort to enact a law is one thing; the law's ultimate effect on the society which enacts it is a reality whose end is seldom realized. As if to say: "What I won't realize I leave to others to dream for." Or, "I dream so you can dream and ultimately another generation will realize what it is we want."

And so it goes. Less than six months into the leadership of a dreamer, we're nowhere near realizing the dream. Except to remember--and to realize--that the fulfillment is an ever-elusive obligation, a striving toward completion that gets us closer than the prior generation but never quite there, because that would be the end.

Word to the wise: tire not. Don't let the unattainability of that end persuade you from pursuing its realization.

Important Torah: You are not obligated to complete the task; at the same time, you are not free to hold yourself back from trying.

God bless those who try.

19 May 2009

Which Comes First?

The image of Obama and Netanyahu, the two leaders of the Jews, meeting in the White House this week, had me thinking.

Oh, let me explain.

Obama, supported by at least 80% of American Jewry in the 2008 election and likely more than that now with his steadily high approval ratings, is arguably the most well-known and well regarded and broadly supported leader of American Jewry as a civic component of American democracy. By comparison, Bibi Netanyahu, as the leader of the coalition government in Israel--who actually polled second to Tzipi Livni in the recent elections in Israel (who, by the way, now finds herself in the minority after failing to form a government)--polls less well than Obama among American Jews.

It leads one to all sorts of interesting conclusions, not all of which can be addressed her but one: when working with kids on their bar/bat mitzvah portions, I find it interesting to engage them as American citizens with regard to the Torah texts in front of them.

Today I had two seventh graders who were particularly engaged with their own notions of American universalism and attempting to understand their American identities in the context of their own Jewish particularism. In other words, I think one can generalize that with most kids who come through my office to talk about their Torah portions, they are more focused on their secular identities and their secular educational goals than they are on the abiding Jewish particularities of their evolving identities. The trick, educationally speaking, is in finding ways to make these systems relate to one another. And to the point of Jewish leadership, I began testing kids by showing them pictures of Obama and Netanyahu talking to each other in the White House. This prompted the interesting responses, notably that Obama was more recognized than Bibi. Maybe not a surprise but still, nonetheless, telling.

And so it leaves me asking myself which questions organize the identity formation of these young kids? And how does Torah speak to their own particular identity? To their collective identity? And to what degree are families framing these questions as well? And finally, what does it all say about the tension between the individual and the collective, the self and the community, the American and the Jew?

I wonder, always, am I raising a generation of American Jews or Jewish Americans? Which comes first for us? For you?

18 May 2009

The Beginning of Wisdom

Death is all around us, all the time.

This knowledge, according to the Sages, is the beginning of wisdom. For instance, how soon after Adam and Eve were created was the reality of death introduced? Practically immediately: Genesis 2.7, the human has the breath of God breathed into him. Verse 17, God says, "but as for the tree of knowledge of good and bad, you must not eat of it; for as soon as you eat of it, you shall die."

Well that didn't take long.

In Pirke Avot, Rabbi Levitas of Yavneh said, "Be exceedingly humble in spirit, for the hope of earthly man is but decay."

While Judaism favors an open-eyed confrontation with death, American culture tends toward a more sterile approach. And arguably, as media continues it's assault on our sense to stay "current" (no greater life force than currency, in both senses of the term, right?) we might consider ways to ease our foot off the pedal and slow into an understanding that can teach some of this timeless wisdom.

Our neighbor Jane Brody has a new book out: Jane Brody's Guide to the Great Beyond. In that smart and clear way that she writes, she helps the reader grasp what the reader would rather avoid: You shall die. "You can--you must, for your own sake and the sake of those you love--help to change the culture of denial and avoidance to one of acceptance and preparation. You and your heirs will be glad you did." It practically reads like an advertisement for wisdom! It's a really good book. You should read it. And Jane will read from her book at CBE on June 17 at 7.30 pm.

It made me think about how we Reform Jews deal with death, doctrinally. Personally, in my own daily prayer, I find the second paragraph of the Amidah to be quite powerful when offered as a mediation on God's power: "Your might, Eternal, is boundless. You give life to the dead; great is your power to save." For centuries, this was one of Judaism's doctrinal efforts at positing resurrection of the dead, a key teaching since Pharisaic times. The later rabbis maintained this belief while employing a key tool, metaphor, to engage Jews in the notion that the dead remain "alive" with us in a variety of ways beyond the body and the world as we know it.

The early Reform Jews of Charleston, South Carolina, in 1830, summarized it this way: "I believe with perfect faith that the soul of man is breathed into him by God and is therefore immortal." Ergo, God gives life to the dead, continually.

Other Reform rationalists, notably Rabbi David Einhorn of Baltimore, excised this line from his prayerbook and so it was removed from all prior Reform Movement prayerbooks for more than 150 years, until the publication of Mishkan Tefilah, where God giving life to the dead has returned, albeit parenthetically, as an "option." A hedged bet on the immortality of the soul. Too bad. I sing out when I lead. Some join, some don't. I'd like to know what people think.

Anyway, after drashing along these lines Friday night, the Shabbat proceeded as usual. Sunday I rode my bike into Greenwood Cemetery and toured around with my nine year old, who faced mortality of a teacher this year and has been struggling in a might and healthy way with the issue all year. We read graves, climbed up and down the beautiful hills, took pictures next to Leonard Bernstein's grave and sang a couple songs from West Side Story, and enjoyed the view of New York City from Battle Hill. After, on our way down the hill and toward our bikes, we spied two parakeet feather in the grass. We collected them, turned them in the light this way and that to see their colors, and headed home. She shared with Rachel the highlight: sewing machine inventor Elias Howe's homage to his dog Fannie, also buried in the family plot. The poem is beautiful and she said, "I'm going to write one for Nathan (her dog), when he dies."

The matter-of-fact way in which the young poet comforted me greatly. The poem for a 19th century dog, laid to rest in Brooklyn, inspiring new words for a very much alive 21st century dog, in open-eyed preparation for the inevitable.

Morbid?

Nah. The beginning of wisdom.

17 May 2009

It Is the Water Which Falls Upon It Every Day

from Avot d'Rabbi Natan:

"Rabbi Akiva was 40 years old and he had not studied a thing. One time he stood by the mouth of the well. 'Who hollowed out this stone?' he wondered. He was told, 'It is the water which falls upon it every day, continually.' It was said to him, 'Akiva, have you not heard the text, "The waters wear away the stones? (Job 14.19)?"

Therefore Rabbi Akiva drew the inference with regard to himself: 'If what is soft wears down the hard, all the more shall the words of Torah, which are as hard as iron, hollow out my heart, which is flesh and blood!' Immediately he turned to the study of Torah."

So it goes, at least as far as my own mind is concerned.

This week I was inundated as usual with email listings from every "cool" Jewish initiative imaginable, including one which promised its readers to be a "multi-media magnet for the young, urban and influential." Well, there's your Waterloo, Andy, I told myself. You're certainly no longer that.



So in the spirit of the Omer I have dressed down the blog, renamed it, put up a picture I shot with my phone while out visiting my mom in April--that's a wave over rocks on the shore of Lake Michigan, at Lake Park beach in Whitefish Bay, a favored spot. There is something that has rushed over me these past several months--I'm not yet fully sure what it is. It could be the beginning of my second, three year contract at Beth Elohim; it could be Mom's cancer; it could be the usual wear and tear of age, which, with each passing moment at a certain point in time, becomes something one actually notices on a daily basis; or, it could be that gnawing sense of reality that despite the promised immediacy and relevancy of the "young, urban and influential" who one literally trips over on the sidewalk these days in Brooklyn, mostly because they're lost in the reverie of ephemeral conversations and twits on hand-held devices, promising nothing less than the total rehabilitation of society as we know it--that gnawing sense of reality that the world will only be fixed one moment at a time.

So I've settled in. To water. Which falls upon it: You, me, us, them, these, those. Every day.

12 May 2009

Rabbi's Annual Report

It's that time of year again and so I share my annual report to the Congregation.

Thoughts?

==

Rabbi Andy Bachman

Annual Report to the Congregation

May 11, 2009

“If not now, when?”

I begin this report by thanking my devoted wife Rachel Altstein, who holds our family together so that I may serve Congregation Beth Elohim. “A woman of valor, who shall find? She is more precious than fine rubies.” Solomon’s proverb is a truth I know in the essence of my being, the expression of which I can never realize enough. To Rachel and our three daughters—Audrey, Lois, and Minna—thank you for allowing me to pursue my desire and need to serve the Jewish people and this holy congregation. What I lack as a husband and father you must continue to correct with exactitude and haste—please!

Since writing last year’s Annual Report, our teacher and neighbor, Union Temple’s Emeritus Rabbi A. Stanley Dreyfus died. Words and feelings of comfort continue to go out to his beloved Marianne Dreyfus, and their beloved son Dr. James Dreyfus, daughters-in-law Helen and Rabbi Ellen Dreyfus, and many grandchildren. Rabbi Dreyfus raised many disciples and I was blessed to be one of them. His soul is constant reminder in our work of the need for honesty and integrity, for humor and dignity, and for the ultimate focus of our endeavors, which is service to the Divine. It is to Rabbi Dreyfus’ memory that I dedicate these words this year.

I write this report at a time of great challenge for our nation and our community, with the knowledge and pride that our particular community, Congregation Beth Elohim in Brooklyn, New York, is experiencing unprecedented growth and development in its mission to share Torah, Worship and Deeds of Lovingkindness to its membership and the surrounding Brooklyn Jewish community.

This is our sacred privilege.

Just as Abraham and Sarah, our Biblical ancestors, were called upon to be a blessing; and just as their successors were challenged by God to be a “light unto the nations” and a holy people; so it is our lot, as inheritors of Torah, to carry on this call to serve others than ourselves in the sacred pursuit of bringing peace, justice and redemption to our world.

“If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am only for myself, what am I? And, if not now, when?” The sage Hillel spoke these words more than two thousand years ago and they ring true for us today as well.

If I am not for myself, who will be for me? Park Slope, Brooklyn, where Congregation Beth Elohim has resided for more than a century, is one of the most beautiful and sought after neighborhoods in all of New York City. It boasts beautiful homes, beautiful and interesting people, terrific restaurants and food stores, and some of the best public and private schools in the entire City. People move here in order to experience the individual satisfactions of their heart’s desire.

If I am only for myself, what am I? And yet our neighborhood also is outward looking. Here there are more activists, non-profit leaders, community builders, pushing for change throughout the private and pubic sector as an essential characteristic of their ideals not just as Jews but as Americans.

And if not now, when? Hillel fortuitously captured what can only be coined “classic Jewish impatience.” We all know it when we see it. Sometimes it’s vexing and difficult; at other times, we swell with pride in knowing that we are a people who likes to get things done. “Deed over creed.” Our own President talks about the “fierce urgency of now.” It’s the same idea. Whether we are reaching out to the sick or those in mourning; whether we suddenly realize that our child must be educated; whether we must feed the hungry or clothe the poor; whether the creative dimensions of our souls must be heard through music or art or the written word; or whether an idea burns within us—to start a business, to find a partner, to make a friend, we are people of action—uncompromising in our efforts to fulfill that calling.

On a daily basis, I tend to the mitzvah of teaching Torah in our community through the sacred work of serving Congregation Beth Elohim. It has been an honor and a privilege to greet toddlers on their way to the Early Childhood Center; to engage their parents in conversations about life and Jewish choices; to spend morning meetings teaching students for conversion, preparing couples for marriage; counseling the bereaved and troubled; and, hammering out a new idea of expanding our mission, both inside and outside the synagogue walls.

It has been an honor and a privilege to work with our talented and devoted Clergy and Staff as we work together to serve our community. It has been an honor and a privilege to tutor children in Hebrew and the ancient melodies of our tradition as they prepare to become Bar and Bat Mitzvah; to plan programs with a variety of lay-leaders; to recruit neighbors to join our synagogue; to cajole reticent members into more active participation; and to be at the ready for that phone call that can change plans instantly but channels one into the state of readiness and presence of “if not now, when?”

In particular, I would to thank the members of the Chesed and Membership Committees for their tireless and holy work of serving those in need. Their selfless acts have uplifted the hearts and souls of many of our members—may God continue to bless you in your work. Bobbie Finkelstein, our beloved After School and Day Camp Director, continued her great work this year but also read the situation with the economic crisis, partnered with our friends at UJA Federation of New York, and provided our community with real help in a time of crisis. Thank you, Bobbie!

To my clergy colleagues: Rabbis Bronstein, Epstein and Rabbi Emeritus Weider, and Cantor Leuchter—you each have my deepest gratitude for your presence, your spirit and your service. May you be strengthened in serving God and our people.

And finally, to our energetic President, my daily partner in helping lead this community, David Kasakove—I thank for your devotion to Beth Elohim. It has been an honor to serve with you and in particular, I think your wife Yahz and your daughter Sophie for your time away from home. The sacrifices, we make for sustaining and building our community are great—and the burden is shared by many. But God willing, the attainment of our goals will make all such labors rewarding!

Some of the initiatives undertaken in the last year speak to Hillel’s call.

Bronfman Fellow for Neighborhood Jewish Life. Through a three year grant of $150,000 from the Samuel Bronfman Foundation, we have been blessed to be able to carry out some very important programming in our community. Our first Fellow, Benjamin Resnick, has served us wonderfully and deserves our heartfelt gratitude. Ben begins his rabbinical studies at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America in June. Ben coordinated Tot Shabbat, our monthly outreach program for ECC and neighborhood families that this year expanded to include a monthly Friday night dinner attended by more than 100 people each month; Shir L’Shabbat, coordinated in partnership with our new Trustee Ron Lieber and songleader Debbie Brukman, to reach more than 100 people each Saturday morning with song and worship for young families with Tots. Each of these programs have served as effective portals for growth in our membership.

In addition, the Bronfman Fellow coordinated Film Park Slope, a monthly film series ongoing now for the second year and curated by our members Rachel Dretzin and Barak Goodman. The Bronfman Fellow has also worked with the Membership Committee, providing staff support for Membership initiatives from Long-Term Member Shabbat to a variety of Brooklyn Jews services for the unaffiliated 20-30 somethings. Leah Rosen, a new member of CBE and the Membership Committee, joins this year’s class of Trustees, a testimony to this partnership’s success.

In addition, the Bronfman Fellow coordinated our innovative Shabbat in the Neighborhood Program, offering Shabbat programming to outlying neighborhoods with little Jewish infrastructure for growing liberal Jewish community in Fort Greene, Prospect Heights, and Williamsburg. Working with our HUC Rabbinical students who are also Yachad Staff, CBE has supported lay-led Shabbat programming which has reached several hundred people since January. Our new Trustee Michell Lyn Sachs and her husband Steven have already hosted two such events for their neighbors in Fort Greene—and some of those young families are now coming to Shir L’Shabbat. Grass roots community organizing at its finest for CBE!

Finally, Ben Resnick has been the coordinator of our weekly CBE Advisory, handling our internal and external electronic communications, so that our Congregation can receive up-to-the-minute information about our many initiatives. For much of the past year, Ben did this service with our member Dave Friedman, who deserves special recognition for his uncommon devotion to the Advisory and Website.

I want to thank our friends at the Samuel Bronfman Foundation for making this gift possible.

Support from the Charles H. Revson Foundation for a number of positions has helped us enormously at CBE. Since 2006, this remarkable foundation has helped our congregation in numerous ways. An annual grant pays for the Revson Rabbinic Fellow, a position occupied in exemplary ways by Matthew Soffer, an HUC Rabbinical Student, who now leaves this position after three years. Matt has been a teacher in Yachad, a songleader for the Brooklyn Jews high holy days services, an Academy teacher, a teacher of parents each Shabbat morning, and a coordinator of many of social action activities. He is a bright young star of our movement and we have been blessed by his many achievements as we wish him the best in his career. In the coming year, the Revson Rabbinic Fellow will be Marc Katz, a third year HUC student and current Yachad faculty member.

Support from the Revson Foundation also covers part of the salary of Debbie Brukman, our incredibly energetic and positive songleader who is the musical pied piper for hundreds of Tots in the Early Childhood Center, Tot Shabbat and Shir L’Shabbat program. We are so blessed to have Debbie’s energy and optimism inspiring children and their parents to embrace Jewish choices as they start their families on their sacred journeys.

Finally, Revson monies help supplement the salary line for Alix Fellman, a recent graduate of NYU and technically my assistant but a person of such extraordinary talent and energy who serves as an administrative glue for many of the professional and lay leaders in the Congregation. Alix has demonstrated leadership that is truly commendable and I thank her for her continued service to our community.

I want to thank our friends at the Charles H. Revson Foundation for making this gift possible.

CBE Tzedakah Fund. Inspired by the discovery of hundreds of tzedakah boxes left over from an earlier fundraising campaign, the Trustees of our Congregation elected to sell the boxes and devote that income to the creation of a CBE Tzedakah Fund. This important new initiative grew out of our need to answer the call to help our community and our country in a time of crisis. Since March, a group of members including Josh Blackman, Gail Bernstein, Steven Gold, Lori Leibovich, Joanne Nerenberg, and Emily Berger have been meeting to give shape to this idea. In the coming months, they look forward to launching this idea congregation-wide, with educational components to interfacing with the ECC and Yachad Programs.

Shabbat Worship and Daily Prayer. On a Friday night at CBE, we often burst at the seams with robust experiences welcoming the Shabbat. Our regular services at 7 pm three times a month and 8.15 monthly satisfy a cross section of our membership. Often with new musical accompaniment to join our Musical Director Rose Moscowitz, these services also feature our CBE Singers. I would like to thank Cantor Leuchter, Rose Moscowitz, and the Singers for enriching these Friday night services. Monthly Tot Shabbats followed by dinner satisfy another. This year we began a Yachad Family Shabbat program once a month, to experiment with a more informal, “camp-style” service. And twice a month, Altshul, a local independent minyan, meets at CBE. On Saturday mornings, we are doubly blessed, as should be the case on Shabbat! Learning and Torah Study each Saturday followed by Yachad Shabbat, Shir L’Shabbat, a Bar/Bat Mitzvah Service, the Lay Led Minyan (with rabbinic guidance from Emeritus Rabbi Weider and CBE member and HUC rabbinical student Carole Gould), and, twice monthly, Altshul. Most Saturdays, more than 500 people cross our doorways. When guests visit and leaders of the Reform movement are here, they congratulate us for increasing Torah and Worship in our community. CBE is looked to increasingly as one of the most vibrant and diverse congregations in the country. We should all be so proud!

Each Thursday morning since September, at 8 am, a few of us gather for the morning service. There are a few regulars and an occasional guest. This moment each week, though small and brief, is a spiritual highlight and I encourage you to give it a try.

In the coming year, two areas of attention will be: building a more cohesive and integrated bridge between the Yachad Shabbat Service and the Bar/Bat Mitzvah Service. The Bnei Mitzvah Sub-Committee of Yachad has been exploring this integration and will soon be presenting to the Executive Committee and the Ritual Committee an integration plan for their approval. This will answer the call being heard to truly celebrate a child becoming Bar or Bat Mitzvah in the midst of their Shabbat community, and not only in a separate service which, though beautiful, is often exclusive.

In addition, the Ritual Committee will be examining a number of issues, always looking for ways to strengthen successes and grow in new directions with regard to overall holiday worship. In what ways ought we to be strengthening Sukkot and Simchat Torah, Hanukah and Purim, Passover, Shavuot, and Tisha B’Av? Our High Holy Days are strong—it is now time for us as a community to address the entire Jewish calendar and engage in the full scope of Jewish time. I hope you will join in these efforts.

Rabbi Tarfon said, “The day is short.” Let’s face it—there really is never enough time for all our dreams and aspirations. “And the task is great.” A Congregation moving toward its 150th anniversary has founders to answer to, current membership to serve, and a legacy we must leave to the future. No small task indeed—and one known by all prior generations of our people. We can gain most by working together. “The laborers are lazy.” Rabbi Tarfon didn’t cut corners with the truth. He knew that hard work paid off in the end. It really did get the job done. “The wages are abundant.” The reward of teaching a child to read, of comforting the bereaved, of making a friend in community—these are the abundant, measureless achievements, paying dividends to future generations of Congregation Beth Elohim. “And the Master of the House is pressing.”

God calls. Let us answer together.

Or, as Hillel said, “If not now, when?”

09 May 2009

Safe Food and Safe Streets Are Torah-True

Rabbi Nehunya ben Hakanah said, "Whoever takes upon himself the yoke of Torah from him are removed the yoke of government and the yoke of worldly care; but whoever casts off the yoke of Torah, upon him are placed the yoke of government and the yoke of worldly care."

Don't be fooled by this text--it's not about losing oneself in Torah study at the expense of the secular world. Rather, it's about Rabbi Nehunya's idea that being morally obligated by Torah simply lightens the load of obligation one has to the secular world as well.

In other words, one may read this text with a sense of celebration for the challenge to let our religious dimension inform our sense of obligation to the government and secular service.

After Shabbat evening services last night where I talked about this idea, someone said, "So does this mean we should enjoy paying taxes?" Good question. And I think the answer is "Yes." Along with the charge that we make sure our government is obligated to spend our money wisely, and in dialogue with our values as citizens--wherever they come from.

I think about a couple different issues, so relevant to our community: the safety of our streets and the food we eat. Brooklyn cares deeply about both.

With regard to transportation, our section of Brooklyn is one of the intellectual and activist centers of the Alternate Transportation movement. Street redesign, bikers rights, "green" transportation schemes--each of these are being worked on passionately and with a sense of devoted immediacy. Our own synagogue has several members who themselves are quite active in this area. And as rabbi to those people, I think about the sacred relationship between their work and the Jewish tradition's own concern for the welfare of its people, for the obligation to live, work and teach in safe conditions and from an environmental perspective, to live in sacred, covenantal partnership with the planet. This isn't left mumbo-jumbo. There's serious Torah at stake.

And though liberal American Jews often hold as sacred the separation of "church and state," our time demands a new way of thinking. A community like ours might consider ways to let it's voice be heard on this matters--no matter what they are. And determine in what ways we may want to speak out for safer, sounder traffic patterns. After all, imagine walking to Shul to study Torah, to learn Hebrew, to pray to God, to hear a lecture--and have your life threatened by irresponsible drivers, careless law enforcement, or the inertia of not making progress in traffic design that is healthier and better for the citizens.

With regard to food, one could make a similar argument. Our devotion to organic food, to the responsible ways its grown, to the very earth from which it comes--each have the simple Torah dimension of meriting a blessing before we eat it. A blessing for each food type, before and after, circumscribing our consumption with: 1. gratitude for the food; 2. cognizance of the process which made it; and, 3. gratitude for the experience of satisfaction in having eaten it.

But given that food and food policy is actually quite public, this is no singular culinary experience that is uttered in modest privacy. Rather, it mitigates toward our own involvement in public policy--from the FDA to local gardens.

Rabbi Nehunya ben Hakanah said, "Whoever takes upon himself the yoke of Torah from him are removed the yoke of government and the yoke of worldly care; but whoever casts off the yoke of Torah, upon him are placed the yoke of government and the yoke of worldly care."

Our relationship to Torah--yoking ourselves to the moral obligations of tradition--frees us from the burdensome relationship to government by opening us up to a sacred dialogue in making the government the true instrument of the will of its citizens.

08 May 2009

In Search of Courageous Leadership in the City

And while we're sounding off on the public trust, let me also weigh in on the MTA and the Port Authority.

I continue to read about, with great sorrow, the lack of real courageous decision-making when it comes to these agencies oversight of the Transit System and, in the case of the Port Authority, Ground Zero.

First, the MTA. I was truly disappointed that the state and the MTA couldn't come to a better budget agreement and have passed a large part of the burden on to those who actually use mass transit. I think there is more will in this city for putting a toll on the bridges between Brooklyn and Manhattan and we should be demanding more of it. The benefits--income, environment, safer streets--far outweigh the downside. With whole cities closing down because of bankruptcies of the auto-industry, it seems radically counter-intuitive to enable more driving in a densely populated metropolis with a vast rail system. NOW IS THE TIME in our city and country to make these tough choices.

The Times has an editorial today, worth reading here, about the loggerheads that the MTA and developer Larry Silverstein seem to be at. This is simply inexcusable and should demand the attention of Mayor Bloomberg and Governors Patterson and Corzine immediately. Whatever power these elected officials have to force through a solution as soon as possible is greatly in demand. What other city in the world would languish with this lack of progress in an open pit, which remains a graveyard, for nearly 8 years?

People refer to New York as the Greatest City in the World. Well, "great" has many dimensions. And this lack of progress is a great injustice and a great embarrassment to the agencies and developers in charge.

Letters? Phone calls? Any readers out there know who's organizing around this? What a shame on the reputation of our City.

Steroid Use = Lifetime Ban

Not that anyone's asking, but my solution for the ongoing steroid crisis in baseball is simple:

Lifetime ban from the game.

It worked for Pete Rose and gambling (we think.) And this cheating with drugs is every bit as egregious and detrimental to the game. If the entire sport is being called into question, it's time for extreme measures.

Besides, prospects come up all the time. There's always someone to replace the "next great player."

If you test positive for use of illegal steroids, you lose the right to play in Major League Baseball. Period.

Suspensions keep the money flowing to the owners, who, let's face it, likely have looked the other way because pumped up players pump up ticket sales.

But with Manny Ramirez being the latest and A-Rod coming back tonight, it's time to contemplate what is right for the game once and for all.