30 April 2012

Those Moving Pews

BanG Studio's Jacob's Ladder in Progress
Last night while closing up the sanctuary for the night, the architects Henry Grosman and Babak Bryan and I stood around, under a clear and dark blue, star-filled sky, talking about Jacob's Ladder.

A student of one of the architects, a young man named Ahmed who was helping set up the project, is a practicing Muslim, and he was very interested in the narrative as depicted in Torah.  We compared notes on the Torah and the Koran's story of the life of Jacob.

Jacob, as is well known, had his dream at a critical juncture in his ongoing sibling rivalry with his brother Esau, from whom he acquired the birthright.  With his own measure of guile, some assistance from his doting mother Rebecca, as well as neglect and apathy from Esau, Jacob emerged from the household triumphant.  Finally realizing his loss, Esau is overwhelmed with anger and pursues his brother, threatening his life.

It is at this point, in flight, where Jacob lays down his head on the desert floor and dreams his dream.  A ladder springs forth from where his head rests while angels ascend and descend the ladder.  When he awakens, he realizes that his repose is upon holy ground.  "Surely the Eternal is present in this place and I did not know it!  How awesome is this place!  This is none other than בית אלוהים the House of God, and that is the gateway to heaven."

Serendipity; the chance encounter; here is where God can be found.  And for Jacob, this moment is particularly fraught with the tension of familial conflict.  This is the beginning of a reconciliation between the brothers that will take years (and considerable toil and struggle on Jacob's part) before the two can come together again.

One of the ideas that interested us in asking BanG Studios to create an architectural installation referencing Jacob's Ladder (by the way, did you vote for CBE today at Partners in Preservation?) as depicted in our stained glass window in the Main Sanctuary of CBE, was the notion of how space, particularly sacred space, though designed for a sacred idea, must also contain in it the seeds of potentiality of chance encounter.  Pews are ordered in rows; memorial candles are lit; bronze plaques are polished just so; the organ, when it worked, was set to play tunes designed to evoke contemplation, joy, or mourning.  And yet a sanctuary is only relevant in so far as the Divine can be made to dwell by chance, upon invitation, as it were, by one ready to accept it.

The funny thing about moving some pews and building a conceptual ladder in their place is that the very idea evokes the willful participation of the seeker with the Divine potential inherent in the space itself.  Perhaps in this construct, the pews are an illusion--the hard desert floor which reveals only sand and stone; but the dream of the architects reveals the ladder that reaches up to God.

Cars, bikers, and late night dog walkers went strolling past as four architects and a rabbi talked about ancient narratives.  It was decided that at one point this week, we'd have our afternoon Minchah prayers in the Main Sanctuary, next to the work in progress, to be followed by Muslim prayers.

This will likely be a first for this House of God; but hopefully, in our shared, ongoing efforts at making peace, it will be far from the last.

After all, the "gateway to heaven" is a lofty aspiration.  One might as well expend some effort on the journey.


Don't forget to vote for CBE at Partners in Preservation.  You can help us win up to $250,000 from American Express to restore our historic stained-glass windows.  Thanks!

29 April 2012

Keeping In Touch with Barbara

mom, early 1940s, milwaukee
As many of you know, my mom has been fighting various forms of cancer for the past several years.

She asked that we create a blog of periodic updates for those of you who know and love her to send along good wishes and prayers for this stage of the battle.

That blog can be found here at Keeping In Touch with Barbara.

I'll be back and forth between Brooklyn and Milwaukee, joining my sisters and brother in caring for Mom and want to thank everyone in advance for their warm words and support.

26 April 2012

CBE Among 40 Finalists in Amex/Partners in Preservation Program

Thursday April 26, 2012

To All Members of the CBE Community and Our Friends Around the World:

I write to you at an exciting and historic moment for our community.

I am thrilled -- nearly beyond words -- to announce that CBE has just been chosen to be among the 40 finalists in the American Express Partners in Preservation (PiP) program with the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission and the National Trust for Historic Preservation.  We were chosen as one of 40 finalists among the hundreds of applicants from throughout the five boroughs and are the only Jewish institution chosen.  As part of the $3 million American Express will distribute, we have a chance to win up to $250,000 to restore our beautiful stained glass windows in the Main Sanctuary.  I couldn't think of a more honored and celebratory way to kick off our 150th anniversary as an open synagogue community serving Brooklyn!  

Today I had the privilege of standing with New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg on the steps of the Metropolitan Museum as the announcement was made, sharing in this special moment with the other finalists. They include our neighbors at the Brooklyn Public Library as well as the High Line, the Guggenheim Museum, and the Tenement House Museum--and many, many more.  This incredible act of generosity has inspired each of us to celebrate our good work together.  

There is a distinguished panel of civic leaders and preservation experts serving alongside Mayor Bloomberg as judges for the program and there is an international voting campaign, where you will be able to vote--once per day--for your favorite, beloved institution:  Congregation Beth Elohim!  Your daily votes and the assessment of the judges will be weighed together in choosing the contest winners.

A brief documentary film about CBE, made by American Express and featuring the many community programs of CBE along with the special relationship we share with our friends at Old First Reformed Church and Rev. Daniel Meeter can be found at www.cbebk.org/connects

I know CBE has so many friends around the world who will want to help us with this campaign. You can start by committing to vote for us every day at www.partnersinpreservation.com You can also like us on Facebook at www.facebook.com/cbebk and see daily videos throughout the campaign.  Please remember to tell your family, friends and neighbors to do the same and share this link on the Facebook page as well.

To stay connected to CBE, make sure you’re on our email list for bi-weekly updates.  Sign up at www.cbebk.org/connects

By the way, to thank you for your participation, we’re raffling prizes of one year free membership to CBE and an iPad to those who vote in person at CBE or tag the CBE Facebook page in your status update.

On Sunday May 6, as part of the PiP contest, we will host an Open House from 2-5 pm called CBE Connects, where we will premier another commissioned work by noted architects Henry Grosman and Babak Bryan, called “Jacob’s Ladder by BanG,” who designed our eye-popping sukkah last fall and won the 2010 Sukkah City contest in Union Square.  CBE Connects will feature musical performances from the Brooklyn Community Chorus, the Brooklyn Conservatory of Music, the Spirit Family Reunion, the Brooklyn Art Song Society, Brooklyn Jewish Community Chorus, Pitom, Yellow Sneaker, Doll Shot, and many, many more.  It will be an inspiring celebration of Brooklyn's rich musical tradition worthy of one of the narratives depicted in the stained glass--Jacob's Ladder, a divine dream moment where the unexpected takes us to new places.

So with gratitude to the selection committee of Partners in Preservation for this wonderful opportunity, to our many volunteers who have prepared us for the wild ride in our media campaign, and to each of you who will vote for us, I close with the apocryphal and noted words of the late Mayor Daley of Chicago:  Vote early and vote often!

Rabbi Andy Bachman

25 April 2012

It Gives Us Hope

"I'm not amused," said Nathan.


"How does Israel, in all it's complexity, beauty, crisis, confusion and glory, get celebrated on its sixty-fourth birthday with one of the worst and cheesiest Beatles songs ever written?  How?  Why?"

Take it easy, boy.  Perhaps it's a generational thing.


What's that in your mouth?

"I noticed the moon tonight, over Park Slope.  That luminous sliver of light, that radiant reflection, already a memory of the sun's fire, now past.  What is it about a partial moon, hanging low in the sky, that brings to mind..."



Amichai comes to mind.

" 'I know a man who took pictures of the landscape he saw from the window of the room where he loved and not of the face of the one he loved.' "

Interesting choice, old boy.

"I hear one loves in Jerusalem in that way," Nathan continued.  "Bound by geographic mandates as much as by the urgency of romance.  The moon, axiomatically, bridges both realities."

For a dog, you're a deeply feeling creature.

" 'I brought my children to the mound where once I fought battles, for them to understand the things I did do, and forgive me for the things I didn't do.' "

From "Anniversaries of War," one of Amichai's great series.  Good choice.  And yet, I know you--I'm suspicious.

"I ripped the head off a stuffed dog and tore a hole in a polar bear today.  I couldn't help myself," Nathan confessed.

Nevertheless, I love you.

"Few seem to understand my occasionally irrational, dog-like instincts.  I appreciate your devotion."

And I yours, pal.  It must be the moon.  It gives us hope.

24 April 2012

Welcoming Josh Breitzer on Friday April 27

I've prayed three times this week with Josh Breitzer, our new Cantor whom we're "installing" into the pulpit at CBE in a beautiful musical service he's assembled.  Friends, colleagues and mentors are coming from around New York and the rest of the country to honor Josh at this exciting moment in his career.

Sunday morning at 8 am we greeted the new month in a morning minyan with our neighbors at the Park Slope Jewish Center, where Josh sang a spirited Hallel to welcome the transition from Nisan to Iyar, a powerful springtime shift from ancient to contemporary historical time.  Yesterday we met in the CBE Chapel for Minchah so that a neighbor could say Kaddish to mourn her mother; and again today, when he and I were the only ones who showed up.  So we sat and sang, like a couple of monks.

This is a man who can sing all ways, play piano and guitar, offer up some pipe-cleaning cantorial flourishes, and also, like a true mensch, be there with people in moments of pastoral need and sensitivity.

He's a terrific colleague and I'm so grateful for his presence here at CBE.

Please join us Friday night at 6:30 pm for a special Shabbat service and a festive Oneg Shabbat with good food and drink to celebrate the Shabbat and this talented young man.

23 April 2012

exiled in season

they asked me at customs
'do you have any food items?'
and i said, 'no,' certain
the answer was true.

later, riding the train
i reached for a pen and poked
my finger on the dried twig
of rosemary i pinched from a bush
near the israel museum.

blood rose to the skin's surface
and i recalled saying at the time
'this rosemary will cause me
to remember.'

that, and the clementine that
made it past customs as well--
round and 'delicious, so sweet,'
exiled in season.

06 April 2012

Passover Message to CBE Staff

My Passover Message to the CBE Staff
A Sweet, Healthy Passover to you all!


This Friday marks an unusual occasion for our community and I wanted to take a moment to share a few reflections with you.

At Sundown this evening, the Jewish people celebrate and commemorate with song, story and food the narrative of our Exodus from Egypt.  History and the Biblical Book of Exodus share the encounter between Moses and Pharaoh, where Moses asked for the right of Jews to worship their God in Freedom.  Pharaoh famously refused, Ten Plagues descended upon Egypt, and the Jewish people were liberated from bondage.  Since that time, each year, we gather to tell that story and to remind ourselves that in every generation, we are commanded to feel as if we were just liberated from slavery ourselves.  This means our hearts are particularly open to the suffering of Jews and all people everywhere; and that we are meant to rededicate ourselves to bringing freedom and justice to all those not yet free.

We eat Matzah to remember the haste with which the Children of Israel left Egypt, not having enough time for bread to rise; we eat horseradish to remember the bitterness of our hard labor; we dip parsley, a symbol of the blessing of springtime and rebirth, in salt water, to remember the bitter tears of our enslavement.  A delicious dish of apples, raisins, dates and nuts comprise haroset, meant to remind us the mortar we used to build Pharaoh's cities; and on the Passover Seder table is the shank bone of a lamb, to remind us the sacrificial lamb that was eaten on that last night in Egypt more than 3500 years ago.  The blood from the sacrifice, used to mark the doorposts of the Jewish homes, reminded God of whom to spare when the terrible plague of death came upon the Egyptians, prompting Pharaoh to finally "let my people go."

The Sages teach, however, that any war of liberation is cause for both our own rejoicing but a humble of expression of gratitude, knowing that others had to die in order for us to be free.  And how true that is today, where so many in this world continue to struggle for freedom, often at great cost to human life.  

As a community we remember the Passover here in Brooklyn by building homes with Habitat for Humanity; visiting prisoners at Albion, Rikers and Bedford Hills; tutoring at John Jay High School; sleeping in homeless shelters; and so much more.  We remember our history and live out its values in order to make the world a better place.  That our community is made up of people from so many backgrounds, working together for ideals of friendship, love and peace is a true sign of our having our values in order!  Thanks for all you do to make our community special.

This Sunday, we will be hosting Old First Reform Church for their Easter Service--returning the favor to Rev Daniel Meeter and his community for graciously hosting us since 2009 while our ceiling was under repair.  As many of you know, this past September Old First had a ceiling collapse and so they will now make their special holiday home at CBE while they undergo repair.  Our inter-religious friendship and devotion to one another is a great neighborhood story and we are proud to practice this special mitzvah of hospitality for our friends.

In our community, we are blessed with so many members and staff of CBE, working together to honor our traditions and to be reminded that ultimately, there is more that unites us than divides us; and that our diversity of belief and practice is a strength and source of celebration in our world. 

For those members of our CBE community who celebrate Passover, Hag Sameach and Happy Passover!  And to those members of our CBE community who celebrate Easter, Happy Easter!   May each of you and your loved ones be blessed in the year ahead; may you be renewed in this spring of rebirth; and may you all know goodness, kindness and peace.

Rabbi Andy Bachman


"Pour out Your wrath upon the nations who do not know You and upon the kingdoms who call not upon Your name, for they have consumed Jacob and laid waste his dwelling.  Pour your fury upon them and may your rage overtake them.  Pursue them with anger and obliterate them from under the Eternal's skies."

This collection of verses, sewn together by the Haggadah's editors at some point in the Middle Ages (likely in response to the Crusades which had decimated Jewish communities across Europe) is arguably the most difficult and objectionable section of the Haggadah.  Most commentators refer to this as an allusion to the hoped for arrival of the Messianic Age, Judaism's own version of apocalyptic visions. It is recited just after we pour the fourth cup of wine, understood to signify our national redemption.  Since we're suffering so horribly, the logic goes, come "pour out your wrath" and get them off our necks!

Tuesday evening, after I had finished interviewing our member Jonathan Safran Foer about his new Haggadah, a member of the audience approached me while Jonathan signed books and wanted to know why this collection of verses is still in our books.  "It's violent.  It's offensive.  It's vengeful.  It should be removed."  She was quite adamant.

While some editors have in fact removed it from various Haggadot during the past fifty years, I appreciate its presence.  Anger and wrath are not only common human emotions that many of us often struggle mightily to control, but for better or worse, they are Biblical manifestations of God's personality in the sacred literature.  One simply has to deal with it.  And for those who love and appreciate the complexity of ancient, epic narratives, the grandiosity of such expressions are fit to scale for the centrality of God's outsized personality.

The verses in question come from two distinct Psalms--numbers 69 and 79--as well as from Lamentations.  When one examines their origin, a different story emerges.  And this is precisely why we ought not edit things out so easily.  The Psalmist in both Psalm 69 and 79 is in fact writing from a place of deep spiritual humility.  He is beaten down by the yoke of oppression, an echo of descriptions which demonstrate distinct literary allusions to the historical events depicted in Lamentations:  Jerusalem's destruction, national humiliation in the eyes of the world, and the theological conclusion that God's desire was for Israel to suffer in order to teach them a lesson.  Both the Psalmist and Lamentation's author go further and agree to shoulder the responsibility of the suffering, agree to take it on and thereby strengthen their faith, so that at some future point God will reverse course and reward the Jews for their perseverance and loyalty.

"Pour out Your wrath upon the nations who do not know You" is an acknowledgment of humility, not a call for vengeance.  It says, in a moment of exhaustion, "enough God!" but is not a call to hit the streets with torches and weapons and carry out that impulse to anger and violence like a raving band of vigilantes.   "We will continue to suffer for the values you have entrusted to us," it claims, while also demanding at certain points in history, "Give us a break!  Pour out your wrath on them not on us."

A text for the strong at heart, for the one willing to take the punishment doled out by history, to understand its meaning:  at times, we suffer for a cause greater than ourselves but we are not ever meant to take to the streets ourselves and carry out acts of revenge.

Before you rush to judgement, consider the position of Jews at most stages of our history--our strength and ability to survive was not found in violence but in sacred texts, in words of prayer, in commanded acts of lovingkindness that were the fiber of community connection.

Even in American history, think of the great sacrifices made by other generations for the greater good--incomprehensible self-sacrifice during the founding of the nation; African American willingness to give one's life for freedom and the right to vote; periods of rationing during world wars; deep expressions of neighborly cooperation during the Great Depression; our most recently in New York, outpouring of cooperation we briefly saw after 9-11.

Finding strength in not lashing out; in allowing God that expression but not arrogating it to ourselves, is a bold and humbling act.

It's cliche to say so but the level of anger, hatred and violent rhetoric that is personally employed in our political discourse is, without question, out of proportion to the genuine contributions each of us make to truly better the world we live in.  It's as if our energy were more valuable when it's spent tearing each other apart rather than reflecting more rationally and saving ourselves for actionable items like eradicating poverty and hunger and human suffering.

"Pour out Your wrath upon the nations that do not know You."   Or, in other words, for those of us who truly know You--leave us alone to humbly serve you, to redeem the world.  And that rabble of trouble-makers off in the corner over there who refuse to speak calmly and play by the rules, close the door and throw away the key.  They'll take care of each other.  They certainly don't need me to stoop to their level and throw a few punches myself.

There's only so much brimstone, fire and blood a sane person can take.

05 April 2012

A Parade of Values

The Pro-Israel Parade caucus of the JCC Watch has begun it's campaign again to ban left-wing Zionist organizations from marching in the Israel Day Parade.  The main focus of their argument is against the New Israel Fund, a longtime supporter of progressive causes, democratic reforms and civil society for Jewish and Arab citizens of Israel.  Like Louis Brandeis, Henrietta Szold, Albert Einstein and countless other American Jews, the staff and supporters of the New Israel Fund believes that Israel is strongest when its democratic institutions are strong and all supporters of the Jewish, democratic state can engage in a meaningful discourse about the nature of a country we all love.

The NIF's mission states the following:  "The New Israel Fund is dedicated to the vision of the State of Israel as the sovereign expression of the right of self-determination of the Jewish people and as a democracy dedicated to the full equality of all its citizens and communities."

This idea is taken directly from Israel's Declaration of Independence, written as the guiding document for the state when it was established in 1948.  This is not a radical or dangerous idea as it is portrayed by the "Pro-Israel Parade" caucus of JCC Watch claims it be but in fact is, at it's core, a Zionist idea.

As I recently wrote in an editorial in the Jewish Week, Israel's strength, and the long-term resilience of the Jewish people, each depend upon a vibrant democracy, a civil exchange of ideas, and a healthy, respectful debate about Israel's future.  Vilification has no place in this debate and only damages our chances of working together to make the necessary compromises to safeguard Israel's future.

This past week in our synagogue, we hosted Hagit Ofran and Yariv Oppenheimer from Peace Now in Israel.  Zionists, veterans of the Israel Defense Forces, deeply committed Zionists, both Ofran and Oppenheimer have repeatedly received death-threats from right-wing activists, merely because they believe that Israeli settlements should not be expanded in the West Bank; because they litigate on behalf of Palestinians whose lands are taken to support such expansions; and continue to argue forcefully that the way forward is through negotiation and painful compromise.

To so many people, these are reasonable ideas; but unfortunately, we are living in an era of Jewish history when compromise and democratic values are portrayed as a threat to the Jewish state.  I cannot think of an  historical precedent where the radical constriction of rights, where the censoring of dissent, and where death-threats against democratic activists, has ended well.

It would serve well, however, if the leading voices of the New York and American Jewish community let it be known loud and clear that attempts to ban "left" or "liberal" Zionists from the Israel Day Parade will be a diminishment for our community and for the vision of Israel as well.

03 April 2012

We Are One

In the introduction to his collected poems, Stanley Kunitz writes, "At the core of one's existence is a pool of energy that has nothing to do with personal identity, but that falls away from self, blends into the natural universe.  Man has only a bit part to play in the whole marvelous show of creation."

We can think of this while preparing to seat ourselves at Passover Seder tables at week's end:  Marveling at having made it to another year, humbling ourselves to the reality that the world is not yet redeemed; acknowledging that the particulars of our narrative as a people, in the final analysis, may not be personal but rather the personal is merely an enticement to feel deeply our broader connection to all of humanity, to all of creation.

In our community we volunteer to tutor children in a local high school; we escort children of the incarcerated to visit their parents in prisons hundreds of miles from home; we build homes for the poor; feed the hungry and the homeless; rally for reproductive rights; for gay marriage; and, advocate for Israel, come to the synagogue, care for our own.  From a bird's eye view, there are fewer particulars--only the precise machinery of human activity, constant and furtive, incidental and ongoing, making things work.

The work in Egypt is slavery; the work in Freedom is service to a cause or a God greater than ourselves.

"Our poems can never satisfy us," Kunitz writes, "since they are at best a diminished echo of a song that maybe once or twice in a lifetime we've heard and keep trying to recall."

Sing songs of redemption at your Passover seder.  Let echoes of freedom and justice reverberate both familiarity and newness.

Do good.  Make things better.

The Sages who sat up all night on Seder night, only to realize it was time for the morning Shma remind us of the most vital of all lessons this time of year:  When darkness gives way to light, we recognize that we are One.