24 November 2009

Programmed at the BKLYN MAC Store

Michele Jaslow curates another great Brooklyn Artists Gym show.

Check it out HERE.

19 November 2009

Resolved and Unresolved

The rabbis in the Talmud suggest that the famous incident between Jacob and Esau bargaining over the birthright for a bowl of lentils took place on the same day that Abraham died. It's an interesting and somewhat provocative thought that fuels the imagination.

What was Esau doing out in the field--from which he comes back to the house hungry--on his grandfather's funeral date? Left to their own devices with parents in mourning over the loss of first Sarah and then Abraham, Jacob and Esau are the rivaled brothers of legend here, 14 or 15 years of age and hanging out, barely staying out of trouble, while off someplace else the "adults" mourn according to the traditions.

I see this all the time with regard to funerals. Shiva homes are generally divided into adult rooms and kids' rooms--with the appropriate sense that we don't fully draw the young into the heaviness, the weightedness of mourning; rather, it's enough that they are present to mark this passage in life but we expect youth to have the resilience, practically the denial of death's inevitable power to conquer us all. That mortal reality is unavoidable past a certain age, a perspective one learns to live with. For youth, however, it can be damaging if not crippling. (One immediately thinks of the claim, heard over and over, that traditional Hebrew schools' great institutional failure in the last generation was in placing too much emphasis on Holocaust education and not enough on Judaism's positive message about living life.)

Riding to school today, we were listening to Nachum Segal on JM in the AM on WFMU, and as a rabbi discussed the weekly Torah portion, my six year old piped up from the back seat, "I know what the Torah's all about--but what's the Bible? I mean, what's THAT book all about?" Her friend in the backseat said, "Rules from God." "You mean, how to live?" she asked. "Yeah," he said. And that settled that. Made sense.

In my mind, preparing to do another burial today, I thought to myself but didn't say aloud, "And how to die."

Because what we expect from our children is how to live, live, live.

So here are Jacob and Esau, two teenage twins, looking very much alike except the color of their hair, and they're hanging out, bargaining over the future of the family while others are off mourning. There's a kind of moxy in the whole thing, you know? One imagines them boasting of how they'd lead the family, what choices they'd make moving forward for their generation.

Today there'd be a basketball game on, food on a table, a lot of laughter and bluster. It's interesting to think of Esau coming in from the field, immediately starting in with his brother, and then his brother setting to bargaining. And after some back and forth (a constant running joke among them: 'Brother, you came out holding my heel!') Esau relents for a bowl of lentils and Jacob gets to be called Firstborn.

The rabbis give this moment less credence than the blessing that Jacob will get from his father, this in deceit and with his mother complicit as well. It's an ugly moment, arguably, one that one also sees with families torn apart by death--a competition begins for the estate, for wealth, for power. But by this later section of the family narrative, the kids have grown somewhat and they are now moving through the world with a more realistic, albeit competitive mentality.

What's the message? That there is a double-edged sword to a playful rivalry in families. It can hold the key to defusing conflict or it can in fact load up ammunition for a greater, more damaging confrontation down the road.

When Jacob and Esau finally re-unite toward the end of their narrative, after Jacob has wrestled with God and received his new name, Yisrael, the meet expecting battle but embrace. Esau moves to kiss his brothers and aware of the weightiness of the moment, the rabbis say he likely wanted to bite his throat. The restraint is heroic in its own right, a reconciled fact for a family that ultimately chose new leadership.

And the story hangs open, both resolved and unresolved, for the brothers part ways, at peace, but less together than their early, playful days, watching a ball game and bargaining over the future of the family.

18 November 2009

Plural, Amen.

The earlier part of the week was all about making the organizational decisions to help put us on the right footing for a campaign to renovate and restore our buildings, including fundraising coffees and fundraising lunches followed by strategic meetings and planning sessions.

And then, just like that, today pivoted, and I'm helping to find housing for a family left nearly homeless in this brutal economy and within moments, sitting with a bereaved woman whose husband of 46 years died and she can't function without him. That's 16,790 days with one person. Try to imagine doing something with someone for 16,790 days in a row and then all of a sudden lose that presence, lose that voice, suffer from the absence of that soul. There is survivor's guilt; anger; anxiety; depression. And an unspeakable loneliness that few of us truly know.

A fire alarm went off during this conversation today and my visitor kept checking her watch. "You must be busy," she said. "I'm not a member of your shul. I should go." "But you are here," I said. "And we're together. So stay."

I thought, but didn't say, "The fundraising and the strategizing is for moments like these, the quiet moments of service." Obligation without fanfare. Just the response.

I'm so tired in those moments. I see only more appointments and more conversations ahead. One kid's parents are out of town; another's got the flu but here they are, in the chair, chanting Torah. Time is collapsing. It's 11 am and 12 pm and 4 pm and 6 pm and it's learning and shelter and a wedding and cremation and hunger and another member laid off from work in this goddamn economy. My kids text me their class pictures. I skip dinner, make copies, prepare for an evening class.

On Chosenness. and the text I choose is Leo Baeck's work on "Election of Israel" from the Essence of Judaism. Like clear water, cool and refreshing, Baeck's prose awakens me, centering and focusing my tiredness into a molecular revitalization. We deal with exclusivity and commandedness; particularism and universalism. And around the room are those who have been members of the shul for 25 years and those who have yet to join. Jew and non-Jew. North. South. East. West.


We read Baeck and I tell the stories about him that I know, learned from Rabbi A. Stanley Dreyfus, of blessed memory. We read Baeck and I attempt to contextualize him and help others understand him and be inspired by him.

And I find myself inspired by being Chosen. To serve God. And my people. And all people. Wherever and whoever they are.

Plural. Like my day. All things at all times. For all time. Amen.

17 November 2009

Free Advice

If I were a "consultant" this post would cost you $100,000.

But I'm not, so it's free.

When Richard Joel set to putting Hillel on different footing, with the single greatest investment in American Jewish youth until birthright came along, the working thesis was that you needed to invest in talented local leadership, you needed to hire a new generation of rabbis and executive directors to run Hillels, manage their budgets and raise money, and and you needed two annual meetings--the Staff Conference and Leaders' Assembly--to energize and galvanize the movement. I was part of the movement from 1998 until 2004 and while it wasn't perfect and had its own bureaucratic cholesterol, it certainly was a highly organized and effective attempt to focus on those young Jews between the ages of 18 and 26 and bring them into Jewish life in all new ways. It worked by valuing their desire for the content of Torah and by professionalizing the experience of engaging the Jewish community and by repeating a mantra over and over again: meeting people where they're at.

Looking back on it all twenty years later, I'd have to say that those who were deeply effected by a re-prioritized Hillel are among the most important leaders today in the North American Jewish community. It's not for nothing that the concerted effort worked. But what made it work was the combination of visionary leadership nationally and an equally strong and committed local partnership that actually had the connections to the base, as it were, and could reach the so-called Jewish youth in both meaningful and innovative ways.

This model comes to mind when I look at birthright next and its attempts to go it alone without either investing in a local talent base on the same scale that Hillel chose to or, for far less money but a willingness to share information, partnering with local "service providers" (their language, not mine) who are actually succeeding to reach Jews where they are at.

Since my consultancy is free, I have no need to worry about conflict of interest, so I'll be self-serving and say: If birthright participants in the New York area focusing on Brooklyn alone (I hear it's cool to live here) were matched with CBE and Altshul and Brooklyn Jews and JDub Records on a regular basis as true partners in reaching Jews where they are at, one would see a far greater content-based communal program, rooted in classical Jewish values and deeply committed to bottom-up, demand based initiatives. Let me say that Limmud programs in Brooklyn now. And so does Hazon. And CBE regularly partners with J Street, and the New Israel Fund, and the American Jewish World Service, and Avodah (arts and service!) So I don't understand, at all, actually, the reticence (or better, refusal) to engage in a partnership.

Honestly, at this point it's irrational.

One immediately thinks of Esau. Sitting at a table, coveting a bowl of lentils. Counting each little bean and thinking, "Mine, mine, mine!"

I mean, really. Whose birthright is it, anyway?

This was Jacob's confidence game that lured the real blessing to his side of the table. I understand Jacob's genius in all new ways, watching, sadly, as money gets spent to figure out what's "next." Jacob: the Dweller in Tents. Jacob: Who studied while Esau went hunting for scraps of meat.

The Tent: Synagogues that work.
The Study: Pursuit of meaning.

It's actually not about the number of beans in a bowl. Get it?

That's why Jacob won the birthright.

16 November 2009

Abode of God

In Paul Goldberger's book, Why Architecture Matters, he writes about the critic Karsten Harris, who describes the task of architecture as preserving "at least a piece of utopia, and inevitably such a piece leaves and should leave a sting, awaken utopian longings, fill us with dreams of another and better world."

I know this feeling close to heart, serving a community that is very attached to not one but two buildings, our Sanctuary and Temple House--attached spiritually, socially, physically, historically. The ties that bind are powerful. It was with considerable pleasure this morning that I read the following passage, thinking about our founding in 1861, during Abraham Lincoln's Presidency. Goldberger writes, "It is not for nothing that Abraham Lincoln insisted that the building of the great dome of the Capitol continue during the Civil War, even though manpower was scarce and money scarcer still; he knew that the rising dome was a symbol of the nation coming together and that no words could have the same effect on the psyche of the country that the physical reality of the building could. Lincoln knew, I suspect, that even the most eloquent words would not be present and in front of us all the time, the way the building would be. And Lincoln knew also that there was value in making new symbols as well as in preserving older ones and the building the dome was a way of affirming a belief in the future."

"...that there was value in making new symbols as well as in preserving older ones and the building the dome was a way of affirming a belief in the future."

We live inside this construct as a community and reading these words today on a speeding subway car, running from meeting to meeting around the city, telling our story as a community to those who might help us; and then returning to a meeting at Shul tonight to share these words with our leadership was a thrilling transitional moment to experience. It had the feeling of reading liturgy in those rare moments when everything actually does work, when the words match up with the heart and one is literally transported from a present to future place, and then back again, forever aware of having been changed by the shift in perspective.

Architects must surely feel this way about the spaces they create. Maybe it's even why they do what they do. God knows it's why I became a rabbi.

And living in Brooklyn for the last twenty years, serving CBE as its rabbi for the last three, I inhabit this question daily. And now here we are, as one community, facing it together.

Two old buildings in need of repair--not quite in domestic wartime but certainly in an age of diminishing "manpower" and even scarcer resources. But how could we not? How could we deny, arguably, the greatest resources we have--our love of community, our desire to learn and to serve others, and our irrepressible need to weave a story of personal and national redemption?

From the Capitol dome to our Sanctuary dome, each the shape of a Heaven that holds an unlimited supply of unlimited dreams, now and into the future. And we, a Congregation since 1861, who takes its name from Jacob's dream of dreams, out in the open, beneath a dome of sky, nothing less than the "Abode of God."

13 November 2009


Since I was in rabbinic school, I have been spending a fair amount of my spiritual life praying alone. It's always a dilemma--enormously satisfying while at the same time in direct contradiction of the rabbinic mandate--"don't remove yourself from the community."

The Rabbis of early Judaism created a system of worship whose fundamental basis was the minyan--the group of a ten person minimum that would constitute their definition of community. Without a minyan, a community could not exist. Without community, one could not access God and offer up prayer as a sacrifice on the altar of God's existence. But if one was at home intellectually in liberal Judaism but not necessarily at home spiritually in liberal Judaism--what was one to do?

In rabbinic school I developed the habit of praying alone at home, early in the morning before school, and then, joining the community at school. That's where my "minyan" was, yet my deeper and more formative spiritual heights were climbed in the singular pursuit of God's reality when alone--in my living room, in a corner of the Park, on a beach. Surrounded by God when alone; lonely when surrounded by others. What a spiritual paradox.

In this week's Torah portion, Isaac, soon after being nearly sacrificed by his father, is next seen meditating alone in a field when he meets his future wife, Rebecca. He's handsome, pained and poetic. She is beautiful, strong and savvy. She sees him alone, "meditating in the field." The Hebrew suggests "conversing" with God and the Rabbis of the commentary are quick to point out that he was praying the Afternoon Mincha service.

Maybe. At the very least, he was alone because he found peace there from the traumas of his existence. He found a singular narrative of aloneness that spoke to his being and though drawn, inexorably, to a woman who would be charged with keeping him in the Covenant, he found his God not in the communal but in the singular relation with the Source of Life.

Isaac is that for us--the singular, the insistent, the alone. In dialogue with the communal, the insistent, the group. It's the classic dilemma of the Jewish condition--finding the self in the group and negotiating the irrepressible ways in which the group defines the individual self.

Put it another way: If you are a Jew--why?

Is it God's call to you as an individual, alone in a field?

Or is that call of the covenant, the call of history, pulling you back from your aloneness, into covenantal relation with narrative, with people, with language, with land?

Somewhere you stand.


12 November 2009

TNR Story on Westboro in New York

Ben Birnbaum and Ben Eisler from the New Republic have their story up today on the TNR site.

It's a great summary of Westboro's visit to New York this Fall.

The joyful response of our community is a real moment of pride for us all.


11 November 2009

Paying for the Privilege

One of the reasons funerals cost so much is because they can. This is a long story about large corporations gobbling up family owned funeral homes and maximizing profits on the backs of families in mourning who are, over a hole in the ground, as it were, to pay what they must in order to lay their families to rest. This is the main reason that I proudly serve on the board of the Plaza Jewish Community Chapel here in New York City: it's a non-profit. Because (and this could be their motto) no one should profit from death. (Though I heard Sony has made a killing since Michael Jackson died.)

Yesterday at a burial out on Long Island, I stuck around after the family left, as I have begun to do in the last couple years, until the grave is totally filled in. I generally require that we cover the coffin. And some families will stay, with shovels in hand, in order to complete the task of filling up the entire grave with earth. But more often than not, families will leave after the coffin has been covered and then I stay in order to supervise the completion of the task. It works out nicely and I appreciate the time to contemplate life and death, recite a few Psalms, and simply be.

So after continuing to shovel, I heard the bulldozer kick into gear and then four guys plus the bulldozer drive approached. Their laconic demeanor--likely owing as much to language and work environment (cemeteries aren't exceptionally chatty places)--was merely a window into one of the most bizarre sites I had ever seen. Four guys standing around while one struggled mightily to push earth into a hole in the ground.

What should have taken five minutes to complete took fifteen, during which time we all could have filled in the grave ourselves. I found myself getting increasingly annoyed. Especially since two of the five guys didn't have any dirt on their shoes and I was the moderate mess I usually am after a funeral: muddy shoes, smudged suit, kippah askew. Which is fine--it's work. And I like having something to show for it.

But then I wondered about costs and how they get monetized and passed on to mourners and not that I have any interest in depriving anyone the right to make a living but certain aspects of the enterprise struck me as simply wrong.

After the task was complete--and hey, if you're going to get to sit behind the wheel of a bulldozer, at least look like you're having fun, right?--I went to use the restroom and then ritually wash my hands. I stood at the hand-washing station next to a group of Hasidim who had just finished a burial and we were all slightly smudged and seeking to alter, through blessing, our status as we prepared to leave the cemetery.

I wondered what it would be to have a Burial Committee at CBE--who would, without hesitation, show up at our funerals and complete the task of burial. We could even have lunch afterward. Would that lower the intake costs at the cemetery? Likely not. But at least we'd all be paying for the privilege of performing a mitzvah.

Something to think about.

08 November 2009

Debate for the Sake of Heaven

I woke up this morning to read various news sources and noticed that the issue of birthright bringing Gordon Robertson to address alumni was picked up by a lot of Jewish sources, there's not really a forum to debate this issue in any kind of productive way.

This is frustrating for a couple reasons.

One, birthright is a communal strategy but it's not really being shaped and debated in any kind of true communal context. Rather, the money is calling the shots and the educational or core Jewish values are given a back seat to the assumed strategic goal--in-marriage--as opposed to, say, values-based Jewish identity formation. This has created a kind of "pay to play" or even a "get paid to play" philosophy, where constructive criticism is pushed away from the table. Not very Jewish if you ask me.

The Gordon Robertson program is a classic idea to deconstruct. It's cut straight out of the Shmuley Boteach playbook--the ecstasy of flash with little content, publicity for its own sake. And marketed to the audience as something they'll want to listen to. But what percentage of birthright participants are asking themselves daily questions about Jews for Jewish or the Evangelical Christian Right and its relationship to Zionism and Israel? I'd guess very few.

I sat with a group of a few dozen high school seniors the other day and when we asked them what they planned on doing after getting accepted to college this fall and spring, nearly two-thirds said that they planned on doing a gap year in Israel, abroad, or here in the states with City Year. Their desire for service, for linking their developing Jewish identities to the core Jewish value of serving others didn't surprise me. Over and over again I hear this from young people: a deep concern for the state of the world and a burning desire to do something about it. With a jobless rate exceeding 17%, with the popular perception that the rich are getting richer and with so many sectors of our national infrastructure here and in Israel in dire need of repair, it's disheartening to see the community's greatest short-term success--birthright--squander its resources on its own insular agenda without regularly putting around the table a core group of rabbis (yes, actual rabbis who work as rabbis in communities with Jews on a daily basis!), teachers and entrepreneurs and activists to help hammer out a more substantive agenda.

So why doesn't it happen?

Two reasons immediately come to mind. The first, which is virtually undeniable, is a nearly overt bias against the synagogue. The straw man here is the "boring, empty synagogue" which has lost its hold on the center of Jewish life. It's a false assumption, a kind of figment of the imagination, and even if it were moderately true in some cases (there are good synagogues and bad synagogues) it's not as if there is something being proposed to replace it. What we are left with is a kind of careless investment strategy born from the high risk ventures of the 1980s down to today that throws money at ideas, hoping one will stick. The rabbis who founded the synagogue movement of 2000 years ago, give or take a century, weren't so careless in their planning. And if one looks at what lasted as the enduring institution, it stand to reason that investing in good synagogues could be well worth the money.

Second, related to the first, is that real investment takes time and patience and sacrifice. A board member sat next to me at a meeting the other day, sharing his sons texts from college. He's a freshman at an Ivy League school and his favorite class is Freshman Hebrew. His parents spend a hunk of their income each year on their own trips to ulpan in Israel and though the kids have yet to go (they'll likely go on birthright!) they are investing in their linguistic infrastructure and owning it with pride. That's what THEY are willing to PAY FOR! Why? Because it matters. The ruse that birthright succeeds at getting kids to care because it's such a great trip has to be held against the light of what would happen if people had to pay for it. Invest in it from the start. That's a study I'd like to see.

I'd bet some good money that you'd see more push back from the base that pays when a program like Jews for Jesus comes to birthright next. I think you'd get more of a response like, "What are you doing with my money?" Instead, we rabbis are left to sit on the sidelines--because real communal debate rarely happens these days.

Of the 450 people who cam to our Brooklyn Jews High Holy Days service, we had an average age of 29 years old (yes, we surveyed them!) And they gave more than $6000 to support a free service. Alt-shul, the Indie Minyan that meets at CBE also has an average age of under thirty and they raised nearly $8000 for the CBE Yom Kippur Appeal. We've got 15 Shabbat in the Hood programs on the books for Brooklyn Jews this year, 15 students under 30 in a Basic Judaism class, and a few dozen coming into the synagogue--yes, the synagogue--for a monthly Friday night service. Again, if I were investing in Jewish life (which I am with more sweat than money) I'd bet for success on those willing to roll up their sleeves and work toward what they want rather than on those who are being offered free entertainment.

I keep thinking of the irony of Abraham and Sarah leaving Haran with "the souls they acquired." And the rabbis famous insight that these were people they had converted to Judaism. They made them into Jews BEFORE they went on their journey to the Land of Israel, the sacred task that synagogues have endeavored to do for nearly 2000 years.

Hark, ye Foundation Rabbis! Hark ye Rabbis of birthright! Answer the call of your people! And for God sakes, live up to your title and don't be afraid of debate.

06 November 2009

More Strange News from birthright next

As reactions unfold to the recent birthright study celebrating the supposed success of the trip because people who went on between 2001-2004 married other Jews at a higher rate than those who didn't go on the trip (even writing that sentence makes me feel gross) a couple of interesting posts today in the blogosphere are worth a look.

First, there is Failed Messiah's post from the Jewish Week about birthright next and the Jewish Enrichment Center's decision to invite Robertson ben Pat, Gordon Robertson, to speak to birthright alumni about Evangelical Christians who call themselves Messianic Jews and their relationship to Israel. This debate about how much support Israel should take from Evangelical Christians is an old one in American Jewish politics, so nothing new here, except that it's being so openly embraced by a supposedly "agenda-less" or "bottom-up" movement like birthright. As the Jewish Week points out, this wacky Jewish-Evangelical confab at JEC takes place on the heels of Elie Wiesel's speech to 6000 faithful at the Reverend John Hagee's Christians United for Israel conference. Since birthright's founder Michael Steinhardt likes to say in public that Jewish academics' accomplishments amount to "gornisht," I am not sure who's supposed to explain to him that the continued melding of Jewish and Christian messianic movements rarely turns out well for the Jews. Using one another in an unholy alliance to support Israel at all costs can only encourage or strengthen fanaticism. History has proven that that's not a good thing.

A quick look at Hagee's site reveals some of his more bizarre and right wing views, and in addition, a link to support Elie Wiesel's Foundation, eviscerated by his dealings with the jailed Bernie Madoff. You can't make this stuff up.

Second, Paul Golin of JOI writes about the study in this week's Forward, decrying the birthright study's over-emphasis on ethnic in-marriage as the root purpose of birthright while appropriately arguing that "The real cure for 21st-century Judaism is to move beyond ethnic definitions and open our tradition, culture and learning to all who would find meaning and value in joining us."

He's on the mark.

What remains most disturbing about the program--a raging success for those ten days--is the insularity of purpose and mission that is expressed back here in New York. If JEC and birthright next had the foresight and intellectual honesty to do it, they could partner with organizations across the spectrum with proven track records of reaching Jews in a meaningful way.

Another missed opportunity.

05 November 2009

Cary Grant Was Handsome

In an effort to put the next several months into the proper perspective, I went to see the Boss today. Not the singer from New Jersey but my Boss, the woman who hired me more than ten years ago for a job I no longer have but upon whom I continually rely for wisdom, friendship and a clear-eyed and honest assessment of where things are.

The examination began immediately upon my entering her home. Within moments of crossing the threshold, I was questioned about my beard, my wife's change of career, my children's plans for summer camp and college, my board, my congregants, the Jewish people, Israel, and the abysmal state of politics in our nation today. No sooner was lunch served than I was listening to a monologue about the National Recovery Act, its use of marketing to win support, and the serious consideration I should be undertaking for a fundraising campaign to repair and renew our synagogue.

I kid you not: I was present no more than fifteen minutes and we had moved rapidly and thoroughly from one topic to the next and as I was making mental notes, the Boss said, "Why aren't you writing any of this down? Do you have it stored in that clever head of yours? Why don't you shave that ridiculous beard?"

The Boss is just a couple years older than my father would be and I have to admit to a special kinship I feel being both loved and amusingly abused by a member of the Generation of all Generations in 20th century America. My own opinions matter in relevance only in so far as they are truly persuasive (based on solid evidence.) Numbers matter and about the only thing that I was able to impress the Boss with was that our synagogue has grown by 230 families in the last 4 years and that a local philanthropist gave us $100,000 when he heard about our roof. "That's the most serious thing you've said all afternoon," the Boss said, winking. I had been there twenty minutes.

Some of the Boss's lectures I've heard many times. And I never tire of them, truly. There's the lecture on the importance of camping. There's the lesson about how crushed she was when Roosevelt died only to discover that Truman was an equally strong leader. There's the continued insistence that since 1948, Israel has continued to struggle for existential legitimacy. A vase of flowers stood behind me, a gift to the Boss from a young Palestinian professional who had visited and debated the finer points of the creation of the Palestinian refugees crisis and the ongoing challenge of the settlements. Well into her eighties, the Boss's suitors pursue her, for that brain, that stubbornness, and that brutally honest sense of humor.

Woven into the rational and the intellectual and the political were a few asides here and there, reflections of battles lost and won but reflections that never lasted long enough to cast a shadow on the next great project, just around the corner. We hatched a few ourselves.

Getting up to go--she noticed I was ready to leave before I announced my goodbye--she said, "I'm sure you have some bar mitzvah kid to tutor. I hope you write down everything I told you." And then she reviewed the plan for the next few months. I smiled, not taking notes, and she said, "I really don't see why you grew that beard."

"My wife thinks it's handsome," I said.

"Cary Grant was handsome," said the Boss. And with a smile she showed me the door.

As the 1 train pulled into the station, to take me to Chambers and then on to the 3 train to Brooklyn, I made a list of the Boss's agenda. My marching orders for the weeks ahead.

I considered listing "shaving" among the items but decided not to. The other items I'll follow through on--or there will be hell to pay.

04 November 2009

Actor/Singer/Comedian/Voice Over Artist

Without question, one of the most disturbing developments in our society over the past several years has been the complete dependence on immediate information. You can see this best at the transitional moments of human interaction in the city, namely, when people arrive at the subway station on their way to or from a destination.

Today was a beautiful autumn day. Taking my oldest to school, we could see the moon sinking in the sky, quietly giving way to the morning after a bright, industrious evenings lighting the heavens. The wind was gentle, the air clean and crisp. Mid-day I traveled into the city for lunch with an old teacher and as I gathered thoughts in anticipation, I was struck repeatedly by how down and determined were my fellow walkers, scurrying to the train, absorbing every last digital drop of information before their descent into the bowels of the city, where, in florescence they would travel deeper, darker, into the hand-held tools. It's sad. And pathetic, really.

This play repeated itself over and over--from Union Square to Washington Square Park and back again, on the 4 train, on the 6 train, on the Q train--it knows no demographic bounds. And then back in the neighborhood, the scramble to the hand, to the satellite connection, to that euphoric flood of information.

Outside Shul today CBS is shooting a scene for a TV show which features fictional Hasidic rabbis. I walked up to them and introduced myself as the "real" Rabbi of the Shul and one guy handed me his card, saying, "Oh, I'm a rabbi, too." His name is Elli, King of Broadway. And he's an actor/singer/comedian/voice over artist. "Oh, you teach here?" he asks.

Virtual world collided but I'm not sure anyone heard the sound. Generations ago, philosophers asked, "If a tree falls in a forest and no one is there to hear it, does it make a sound?"

I thought of that when I answered this soon to be digitally broadcast "rabbi" standing in front of my Shul.

"Yeah, I teach" I said, "that's what rabbis do."

03 November 2009

Eli Valley and Sway Machinery

Great stuff

Say Yes

You know how sometimes when someone pronounces your name wrong and you're fine with it, but other times when someone pronounces your name wrong, over and over again, you're annoyed, even angry, at the insensitivity? This applies to the spelling of names as well. In a certain fundamental way, there's really no excuse. A name, in its power to well, name, gains force over a moment in life that draws attention to the essence and character of the person or object designated, or, named. To get it wrong is to invalidate the person or the object. And let's face it: that's just never good.

No one wants to be invalidated.

I think of this every day when I walk to work and see God's name misspelled over the doors of Beth Elohim's Main Sanctuary. For one hundred years now God's name has been misspelled. We've yet to figure out why. We even have an archivist on the case, trying to uncover some documents from the early years of the synagogue's move to Park Slope from Southern Brooklyn that might indicate an exchange or two about a mason's linguistic indiscretion. God's name, as it should appear above the door, is ELOHIM, or in Hebrew, אלוהים. But in fact, God's name is spelled אלוחים, with a ח in place of the ה which is doubly insulting since the letter ה is already a deep signifier for God's name. The ה repeats itself in the Tetragrammaton, which may explain one aspect of its depth; in addition, the ה means השם, Hashem, or, "the Name," so sacred an expression of God's essence that one doesn't actually pronounce it but merely refers to it, as, well, "the Name."

But one hundred years ago we got it wrong, which isn't good. One hopeful theory is that the founders got it wrong on purpose. Their piety dictated that God's name should be misspelled in case, God forbid, future generations would have to remove the lintel in order to repair the building. (This reason based on the classic Jewish interpretation that one is not allowed to "erase" or "destroy" God's name.)

I don't buy it. I think, rather, it was a mason hired who got it wrong. And the exigencies of the day demanded not a do-over but an approximate victory. And so for the better part of the last hundred years, assuming no one would notice, it would be "fine."

In late August a few of us were sitting around the Shul when we realized that on September 9, 2009, the Shul's Main Sanctuary would be 100 years old in a rather special way. 9-9-09. The symmetry was good and so we started talking about a party in the Main Sanctuary--a band, some drinks, a generally good time--with the theme, "Reverse the Curse" whose stated goal would be to raise the money to fix the lintel, to restore God's name to its proper spelling, and to propitiate this said God, in order to bring about good fortune for our holy community and those who share our fate an destiny as a synagogue center.

It was a good idea.

But Holy Days preparation overcame us, and then the word of the Westboro Baptists, and then a ceiling collapse.

Here's a picture of the section that collapsed:

There are likely two or three other sections of the ceiling where that could happen again, mainly because the roof of the Main Sanctuary is very, very leaky. And just so you understand, here's what it looked like, that day of said collapse, in the pews below:

Those hunks of plaster weighed about 15-20 pounds and if they'd have hit you on the head, you, like Jonah, would not have been able to discern the difference between your left, your right, or much cattle.

So we have closed the Sanctuary for the better part of two years and thank God for the friendship of Rev Daniel Meeter and the folks at Old First Reformed Church, who opened up their Church to us for worship on Yom Kippur this year and will likely host us again for the next two years as we set about with the daunting but necessary and inspiring task of raising the money necessary to repair, renovate, restore and yes, re-imagine our central worship space for the next 150 years.

Reverse the Curse indeed! I have come to believe, despite several hefty doses of skepticism that I have been served since my youth in Wisconsin, where daylight savings' arrival is darker and harsher, that this challenge is the single greatest challenge that has confronted our community since its founding in 1861 and that the very hand of God is visible in this challenge. Like Abraham our Father, who the Rabbis teach us is tested over and over and over again, we as a community are being tested about our ability to rise to the occasion, to humble ourselves before God's glory, and breathe new life into a dedicated community space in pursuit of the One Who Is Sovereign Over All, the Holy One Blessed Be God.

I know, I know. This is Park Slope. The child is God. The Co-Op is God. Prospect Park is God. I know, I know. But stand in my shoes, just for a moment. The God you believe in has suffered the indignity of a misspelled name for one hundred years. For a century the rains fall, steadily wearing away at the illusion of protection. A pattern emerges in the one hundred years' time--decay and repair, decay and repair. And then, one day, when enough people dare to say aloud, "Reverse the Curse," to admit the flaw, to give voice to the breach, the ceiling falls in. And within days, Kansas produces a hateful few that stand in the shadow of our destruction and mock us with their twisted venom. But our Torah speaks louder. Our community--open to all--stands in the open air, in the place where Jacob first dreamed a dream of angels ascending and descending the ladder to heaven, and re-fashioned (that is to say 'reversed the curse') the very definition of holy space, of the House of God, of בית אלוהים.

The work before us, to raise millions to repair, renovate, restore and re-imagine, will comprise the greatest challenge our community has ever faced. It is without a doubt the most terrifying and the most thrilling challenge of our Jewish lives. And our God, who is very much present at this time, waits to meet us on this journey.

I remember when I was ordained Rabbi, in 1996, at a large service at Temple Emanuel in Manhattan, our College president, before two thousand people, privately and quietly said to me, "At every link in our chain of tradition, God waits to meet you. Are you ready to meet God?" And I remember saying to myself, "This isn't a rhetorical question! This isn't a rhetorical question!" So I looked my ordainer in the eyes and said, "Yes. Yes."

Say Yes.

Say Yes.

Meet the test.