26 January 2012

Arrivals and Departures

I have a few thoughts about yesterday's post, proposing that after a few years of synagogue membership and sending their kids to Hebrew Schools, families consider taking a break for a year (unless of course they can afford the extra cost) and instead take a big family trip to Israel.

In comments, on private email, and over at The Facebook, the response was enthusiastic.  In the middle of the morning I had a meeting with the new URJ President-elect Rabbi Rick Jacobs who mentioned my blogpost, with a friendly ribbing, and then, later in the day, according to my nifty little google analytics app, I could see that a lot of people linked to the piece off of the URJ website.  Interesting.   And at the end of the day, settling into my seat for the 6th grade instrumental concert at NEST, my mother-in-law asked about the responses to the idea.  A friend over in Europe sent a list of suggestions for congregants to do while there, which included both "spitting" and "shopping."


I think two things intrigued people.  One was the guilty pleasure that a synagogue rabbi would suggest that people "not pay dues" for a year and instead invest otherwise in their family's Jewish life.  Larkish as this idea may be, it's meant to provoke discussion on two fronts:  why do we pay to join a synagogue at all?  Is it to support the synagogue for its own sake?  To support its mission?  To pay its teachers?  To give to the Jewish people?  Funny to imagine for a moment a section on the membership that form that asks, "As you write a big check to our community to pay for membership, what purpose do you hope your money serves?"  I wonder what people would say?

Anyway, I had that in mind when suggesting that for one year, if families couldn't afford both membership *and* a trip to Israel, they choose the trip.  We'll still be here; and I can guarantee you that nine times out of ten, the family will come back to the community post-Israel with a renewed sense of identity, belonging and commitment to the Jewish people.  Studies show this to be true and I know it from a steady stream of anecdotal experience.

Fear not ye who worry about the bottom line:  This scheme is about proudly encouraging our Jews to invest their resources wisely!  Dividends will come.

The second intriguing things is something else entirely.  Israel, for Diaspora Jews, represents a definition of Jewishness beyond religion that is rooted in nation, language, history, calendar and land--compelling and often, sadly, not something people feel walking down the street every day here in Brooklyn.  Don't get me wrong:  the sense of community, the warmth and purpose of the shared collective on Fridays and Saturdays at CBE is compelling and powerful; but your kid ordering chips and limonana at the Emek Refaim pool?  Your cab driver waxing poetic about mother's Moroccan chicken while he drives you to the center of town to do your Shabbat shopping?  Traversing landscapes where the Pilgrims were your great-grandparents, great-aunts and uncles, not distant Puritans?  These are the inescapably satisfying and edifying dimensions of identity that no curriculum can convey over here, on these shores, no matter how talented the teachers, no matter how compelling the lesson plan.

A final thought:  Allow the mind to wander in this territory without over-thinking it.  I'm not an economist; nor am I proposing a sound, fiscally responsible communal idea.  Rather, I'm simply saying that there is more that makes us besides our synagogue affiliation; and the act of both recognizing and embracing that fact may actually strengthen the legitimacy of our relationship to the synagogue as the steady institution capable of helping us define our Jewishness throughout our lives.

Arrivals and Departures.  Departures and Arrivals.  What a blessing to embrace both, the necessary nodes of engagement for those who see their destiny as linked to a people known as Jews.  Not members of a particular synagogue.

Simple, purposeful Jews.

25 January 2012


If a family membership in the synagogue is $2200 per year and educating a child in our Hebrew School is $1000 per year and you're a family with two parents and two kids, you should ask yourself:  What is the better way to spend $4400 this year on Jewish identity?  Synagogue affiliation or a trip to Israel?

I posed this question to a bunch of teachers today and no one hesitated:  for one year, a two week trip to Israel has more value, packs a greater punch.

It demonstrates a living, thriving Jewish majority; it demonstrates a living, thriving and relevant Hebrew language; and it represents not a segmented Jewish identity but a whole one, complex to be sure, but nevertheless, whole.

And then I thought:  What an innovative idea for contemporary synagogue life.

Call it Hofesh/חופש, or Vacation/Take-A-Break.

Your membership at the synagogue, for one year, is expressed in going to Israel for the first time as a family--for two weeks.  We don't want you to spend your money on Jewishness here; rather, spend it there.  And then, when you come back, see what it does for you?

You have to do this before the bar/bat mitzvah year. 

Two Weeks There v. One Year Here.

What would happen to the family's sense of language, culture, land, identity and nation that, in the classroom and in the hands of ambivalent parents, exist in a vacuum? 

Worth it?

I think so.


14 January 2012

Quinn to Support Living Wage

In statement released by Council Speaker Christine Quinn, the New York City leader has decided to support the creation of Living Wage legislation.  This is great news.

This decision is a new direction for the Council Speaker and the result of some incredibly hard work and persistent politicking by a variety of leaders in government, labor, business and faith-communities in the City who have believed in a Living Wage for many years.

Thank you Speaker Quinn!

You can read the full statement HERE.

13 January 2012


How can you not think of this:

"Akavyah ben Mahalal said:  Reflect on three things and you will not come into the grip of sin:  Know from where you came, where you are going and from whom you will have to render account and reckoning.  Whence you came?  From a putrid drop.  Where are you going?  To a place of dust and decay and vermin.  Before whom will you render account and reckoning?  Before the Supreme King of Kings, the Holy One, blessed be He." (Pirke Avot)

or this:

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

when you encounter this:

God, A Poem (James Fenton)

A nasty surprise in a sandwich,
A drawing-pin caught in your sock,
The limpest of shakes from a hand which
You'd thought would be firm as a rock,

A serious mistake in a nightie,
A grave disappointment all round
Is all that you'll get from th'Almighty,
Is all that you'll get underground.

Oh he said, "If you lay off the crumpet
I'll see you alright in the end.
Just hang on until the last trumpet.
Have faith in me, chum--I'm your friend."

But if you remind him, he'll tell you:
"I'm sorry, I must have been pissed--
Though your name rings a sort of a bell.  You
Should have guessed that I do not exist.

"I didn't exist at Creation,
I didn't exist at the Flood,
And I won't be around for Salvation
To sort out the sheep from the cud--

"Or whatever the phrase is.  The fact is
In soteriological terms
I'm a crude existential malpractice
And you are a diet of worms.

"You're a nasty surprise in a sandwich.
You're a drawing-pin caught in a sock.
You're the limpest of shakes from a hand which
I'd have thought would be firm as a rock,

"You're a serious mistake in a nightie,
You're a grave disappointment all round--
That's all that you are," says th'Almighty,
"And that's all that you'll be underground."


I keep each text close at hand, especially when I get the usual proclaiming from one genius or another about why the synagogue or Jewish life is meaningless to them.  "There's no god, you see--so why bother," the logic goes, as if the Sages never struggled mightily with theodicies' failures and shortfalls; as if the persistence of evil or the absurdity of our material existence didn't throw them from their beds in the middle of the night, leading them by the nose of their tortured souls toward a more palatable fate.

This past week, more than usual, in a range of ages from 12 to 82, I found myself arguing that participation in the synagogue had less to do with faith and more to do with the responsibility to know what our Tradition teaches and, regardless of one's view of wisdom's source, to have the courage of one's convictions, as they say, to act.

Shammai:  Say little, do much.

Micah:  He has shown you, o' man, what is good; and what the eternal requires of you:  to do justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your god.

Justice, mercy and humility. A tall order any day--no matter who demands and who has the courage to take up the cause.

Oblivion Should Discover a Ritual

amos elon 

christopher hitchens

It is not what they built. It is what they knocked down.It is not the houses. It is the spaces in between the houses.It is not the streets that exist. It is the streets that no longer exist.It is not your memories which haunt you.It is not what you have written down.It is what you have forgotten, what you must forget.What you must go on forgetting all your life.And with any luck oblivion should discover a ritual.You will find out that you are not alone in the enterprise.Yesterday the very furniture seemed to reproach you.Today you take your place in the Widow's Shuttle.--from James Fenton's 'German Requiem'

Christopher Hitchens, in his memoir, Hitch 22, references this poem by his friend James Fenton in reference to the discovery of Hitchens own Jewish identity--crediting the Israeli historian Amos Elon with teaching him about the vanished-by-destruction Jewish community of Germany in his terrific work, The Pity of It All:  A History of Jews in Germany, 1743-1933.
"My late friend Amos Elon has written the best history of the German-Jewish relationship," Hitchens explains during a stirring passage in which he describes confronting the Jewish ghosts of his mother's Jewish past, among abandoned Jewish homes and synagogues in Brelau and Kempno.

It's funny.  In the Acknowledgments following his footnotes, Elon himself writes, "I am endebted to many authors, but my thinking about German Jews before the rise of Nazism was primarily affected by the learned insights of three great historians far more expert than I:  Peter Gay, Fritz Stern, and my friend of many years, the late George Mosse, to whose memory I dedicate this book."

As I read Hitchens quoting Elon quoting his friend James Fenton, I thought of Elon dedicating his work to Mosse, a teacher of monumental importance for a generation of historians, erecting bricks in the illusory memory edifice of a lost nation.

While being wildly entertained reading the bulk of Hitchens' memoir, there was a gnawing pain of absence in his Jewish learning--too easily dismissed by the classic hubris of his atheism, the excessively black and white dichotomization of religion or no religion; and the tragedy of his mother's complex sense of Jewishness.

A pity that time ran out on Hitchens' searching soul.  It would have been interesting to see him deepen his understanding, if only to have the privilege of develop more entertaining heresies.

"And with any luck, oblivion should discover a ritual.
You will find out that you are not alone in the enterprise."

So it is that we who survive continue reading, digging deeper, and in the mine's darkness of history and time, we see the flash of a miner's helmet down the path, joining their light with ours.

11 January 2012

What's the Difference?

We davenned Mincha on the roof of the Temple House today--a space not yet open to the public but certainly one worthy of inspirational sites of Brooklyn in all directions and the hills of New Jersey in the distance. 

Pigeons camped about Moses' sculpted visage; books were passed around; and facing east toward Prospect Park, with bikers and runners seen through the overhang of bare trees, we laid it up there--prayers in the Hebrew language as a mid-day offering of concern, anxiety, transcendent separation from the demands of the every day.

Today you could really feel the enthusiasm for one day taking possession of the roof.  For its views, for its freeing atmosphere in a crowded city, for its vistas of this historic borough.  I was up there early this morning at 8 am with my youngest, tracing in the air with our fingers the Washingtonian trajectories of revolutionary era maneuvers with the British.   And later in the day, at 2.30 pm, we recited prayers that Jews said a thousand years before George Washington was but a glimmer in his mammy's eye. 

Some of the time when I pray I talk to God.  And other times I talk to History. 

Today I could hardly tell the difference.

06 January 2012

Until We Meet Again

Endings are never easy.  If anyone knows this in Torah, it's Jacob, who never really seems to end anything right; rather, he seems to always be scheming, finagling, wiggling his way this way and that until a new set of circumstances arise that can occupy his restless, teeming soul.

He leaves home in conflict with his brother; he leaves Paddan Aram and his father-in-law's household with deceit and a swindling of the family idols; even his reunion with Esau, by the river, is rife with double-meaning: a kiss that bites a marble neck, knocking out Esau's teeth, according to a famous midrash.  And hear at the very end, more tricks up the frayed sleeves of his patriarchal robe:  the switcheroo on the blessings for Ephraim and Menashe; the truth-telling, harsh as it may be of his sons in the form of a "blessing" before he dies (with blessings like some of these, who needs curses?)  In character to the very end.

What he does know, in his inimitable, exhausting way, is that he seeks, above all else, love and truth--חסד ואמת--and, finally, to be buried with his fathers, not in Egypt, the land of exile and strangeness, but at home, in familiar territory.  Where the names on the graves are those that belong to you; where the trees under which prayers are offered are branches of mercy, accepting--despite weakness, faults, sins, deceits, and wretched behavior--the man for whom those words are spoken.

Israel, his true name, has seen the fullness of his people's destiny and as he prepares to say good-bye, he remembers.  He remembers the promise and the prophesy of covenant, slavery and redemption and knows, as deeply in his mind as in the very bones that have carried him hither and yon, that he can go no further.  He declares his end to be near.  He rests his head on the very bed in which he'll die.  He seems to drift away.

But remains.  Long enough to assert an order in the family; long enough to encode for Joseph his son that the way among the Jews is unique, singular, and certainly not simple.  "Promise me you'll bury me among the ancestors," he demands of his son.  And the promise is fulfilled.  But like a great quarterback fakes long before hitting the receiver cutting across the field for short yardage, Jacob pulls his grandchildren close and in switching the blessing of Ephraim and Menashe, he conveys an even greater principle beyond the plea for love and truth--חסד ואמת that he demands. 

That truth says that we change the order of a destiny we are meant to live.  How we were born, where we were born, in what place, at what time--is not determinative of who we are and who we will be but the human element--our lives at play in the world--is ultimately the hand that shapes our existence.

Abraham may have argued with God; Isaac, that passive saint of a man, said little, and did less.  But Jacob, mighty conniver in the game of life that he was, pinned his God to the ground, fought to a draw, and from the struggle, exacted blessing.

Destiny, covenant, faith, eternity--I know, I know:  when all is said and done, what are you going to do about it?

Jacob is laid to rest this Shabbat.  Genesis draws to an end.  The drama of Exodus and Moses' larger-than-life personality dominates Torah for the remainder of the year.  But it's Jacob we long for, Jacob we know in our guts, until we meet again, next year.