25 October 2013

A Week of Milestones


It was a week of milestones for us in Brooklyn and so an appropriate moment in time to take stock, now well into the new year, at the inspiring growth of our community.

This morning, as I have virtually every morning since Hurricane Sandy struck New York, I delivered a fresh cup of coffee to our amazing members Rozanne Gold and Michael Whiteman, who have taken the lead in making sure that the hungry of Brooklyn are fed.  Monday through Friday since last November with a brief summer respite, they have continued to lead a volunteer staff of committed community members and teams of individuals from New York Cares to daily deliver more than 500 meals.  And today, in the quiet of the CBE Kitchen, with warm coffees held aloft like sweet kiddush wine, we celebrated our 100,000th meal.  

This is a number that was virtually unfathomable a year ago; but when our Council Member Brad Lander called and asked for a few hundred meals for residents staying at the Park Slope Armory, we said "yes" and have continued to do so--long since the storm has passed--because we learned that by affirming the call to serve, we have found areas of New York that labor under hunger and need our continued love and support.  So we deliver to the Gravesend Houses, up and down Neptune Avenue, into Canarsie to church kitchens and over to Red Hook--and CBE Feeds does just that, if only so that those we encounter who are hungry should be fed.

Last week we were humbled and honored to learn that for our efforts, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo's Office of Storm Recovery had awarded us $309,000, enabling us to continue our feeding program for several years.  This adds to a growing list of civic partnerships that have helped us to do this work - UJA Federation of NY, the Union for Reform Judaism, Brooklyn Community Foundation, Brooklyn Recovery Fund, City Councilman Brad Lander, the Ford Foundation, the Mayor's Fund for the City of New York, the Charles H. Revson Foundation and the Samuel Bronfman Foundation.  Our inspiring staff and volunteers have enabled us, through their work, and the generous contributions of so many more, to fulfill one of our Tradition's most ancient of commands.  Thank you.

Since the synagogue was established as an institution in Jewish life more than two thousand years ago, it has served as a Gathering Place, a House of Prayer, and a House of Study.  Not only do hundreds gather each Shabbat to sing and pray together; not only do dozens gather each week for learning across the Jewish spectrum; but several times a month now our Main Sanctuary is nearly full to capacity for our Brooklyn by the Book series which we run with our friends at the Community Bookstore and the Brooklyn Public Library.  In the last ten days we've been filled to capacity for Diane Ravitch's new book about education in America; for an intimate conversation with David Gershon-Harris about the 2002 Hebrew University terrorist bombing; and next Tuesday, Brooklyn by the Book will have its largest event yet with the author Donna Tartt's only Brooklyn visit.  

Events like this, that we have doubled in membership in the last six years, that our community reach is tireless and mission-driven--and last year's American Express contest to restore our stained glass windows--have grown our email advisory list to more than 10,000 unique names.  This means that we can reach a lot of people.  Which is, you know, awesome.

I'd go on and on but I have to run.  Our over-subscribed dual-language Hebrew-English Early Childhood Center class is calling me for Shabbat.  A classroom of three year olds, learning together and climbing all over the building blocks of our people's ancient language made new.

Anyway, the real purpose of this was a just a quick note to say how grateful we are for our successes in doing what we do--from feeding the hungry to expanding the minds of young and old and allowing all of those who seek a place of inspiration and loving kindness to call this place home.  A community that has been teaching one of Jewish civilization's most enduring values, echoed genuinely in the American discourse as well:  from the many, one.  Wherever you come from, you're home at CBE.

Thanks.  And Shabbat Shalom.

04 October 2013

Make Us Whole

I'm always struck by those awkward moments when I see you but you don't see me and you're saying something nasty or doing something mean but then your eye catches mine, your demeanor changes, you smile and say, "Oh, hello Rabbi!"

I exchange pleasantries right back but sometimes I want to say, "Hey, don't do me any favors.  I'm not God.  Or your conscience.  Or a camera."  Knock it off, I want to say.  You know what you're doing and you know it is wrong.  In other words, don't put on faces--just do what's right.

But let's face it--sometimes I'm glad they saw me just so they can stop being mean to the person they're with, pause, re-consider their behavior and do a mid-course correction.  I mean, it's not like there's a God who will suddenly appear like a bolt of lightening and wake them up from their lugubrious slumber from decency.  Whatever works, I guess.

To the extent that one's prayer is meant to be an enactment of aspirational behavior, certain aggregate forms of anger and vituperation were hovering above my head like a dark cloud on Thursday morning, having read in the New York Times that as Affordable Health Care went into effect, millions of our country's poor went uninsured because Republican state governments chose not to extend Medicaid to those impoverished, often working people, mostly because the way the law was designed, written, passed by both houses of Congress and signed by the President was meant to offer Federal subsidies for the poor and Medicaid expansion for the very poor.  But as we all have grown tired of hearing, our government is locked in a battle between a Republican party controlled by a fringe minority that is opposing the President at all costs--even to the radical disadvantage to the poor--in this case, 8 million people denied health care.  One middle age woman with high blood pressure who lives in Virginia is considering moving to Maryland and living out of her car--just to get health insurance.  Ted Cruz:  you hate the President that much?

Hatred of the President is so great that rather than talk to him, this democratically empowered rump group is taking out its anger on the least advantaged.  Kick the poor but smile for the cameras.  It's really quite nauseating.

At 7:15 am I was already riled up.  So I strapped myself in for the ride, tallis and tefilin like a mad man's constraints and words of the Psalms coursing through my veins:  "Halleluyah.  It is good to sing Psalms to our God, it is pleasant to praise Him.  The Lord rebuilds Jerusalem, gathers Israel's dispersed.  He heals the broken-hearted and binds up their wounds.  He numbers all the stars and gives each one a name."

Metaphor.  ME-TA-PHOR.  The mantra of praise.  Don't get caught up in whether or not God hears you or whether or not you actually believe in a God who hears you.  That doesn't matter right now.  What matters is that you say nice things.  The cognitive behavioral therapy of saying good things even when you're thinking bad things.  Say good things with all your breath it might turn out to be true.

You have a nice sun tan, Mr. Boehner.  You sure are passionate about your beliefs, Mr. Cruz.  Would you like to have lunch sometime?

Let's face it:  these characters don't body-check each other enough.  Isn't their a bowling alley in the White House?  A basketball court?  Wasn't there a Beer Summit once?  Why just once?

Open your mouths and smile--not to your constituents or your donors or the cameras--but to each other.

I once fantasized that if I ever ran for Congress, I'd host a regular text study on Capitol Hill.  Being the only rabbi in the House or Senate, it would be an interesting novelty to practice the pluralism I love so much in serving the Jewish people and teach it to these men and women on the Hill.  Jews, Christians, Muslims, Native Americans, Atheists, Agnostics--all serving the American people and sitting around the lingo-vocal plurality of Jewish text.  They'd see that God has many faces, many voices.  Just like the American people.  They'd understand that there is more that unites us than divides us, as they say.

I suppose we'd also eat.  I'd teach Michele Bachmann to pronounce "shmear" properly.  Angels would sing.

There I was in our Shul at 7:15 am.  Reading that "He heals the broken-hearted and binds up their wounds."  I was wondering who pays for that?

Our CBE Feeds program started up again on Wednesday.  We're back to feeding 500 people a day.  Are things so bad that we have to think of opening a health care clinic, too?  Hey, we'll do it if we have to; but is that really our job?

Could be a good text study on Capitol Hill.  In reading Psalm 147, the Sages suggest that when the Psalmist writes, "He heals the broken-hearted and binds up their wounds" it's a healing in response to the destruction of Jerusalem, caused  in no small part, the Sages continue, by the "free and causeless hatred fellow Jews had for one another."

In other words, if people in Congress could actually speak to one another and identify what unites them in service to our country, rebuild their city, gather in the dispersed sent away in anger--they'd heal one another from their own senseless destruction, and prevent themselves from truly undesirable result of their mutual hatred--which is the poorest of the poor denied basic health-care coverage.

When God decides to obliterate the face of the earth with an enormous flood in the Noah story, the text in Genesis attributes this divine decree to God's telling Noah, "The end of all flesh has come before Me; for the earth is filled with violence through them; and behold, I will destroy them with the earth."

The Dubner Magid, a Hasidic master, taught that this is like when someone hosts a huge banquet with the finest foods that, sadly, descends into a massive, greedy fight over what is laid on the table.  So the host removes everything, saying, "With an empty table, there's nothing to fight over."

Of course, those at a banquet generally are used to having enough to eat.  So while the government shutdown may be like the empty banquet table, quietly humbling our civil servants into the embarrassment over their fight that may get them back to compromise, to pass laws, and to get things working again, the poor stand on the outside looking in, waiting for the relatively wealthy among us to cease their games so that the business of taking care of the least advantaged can get back on track.

What did the Magid of Mezeritch say about the earth being filled with violence in Noah's time?  "The sin of the generation of the flood was that the people preferred the 'earth'--their material wants--to their idea of God and a higher calling.  They made their own materialism the most important value and holiness secondary."

Holiness, however we may define it, makes clear demands:  It heals the broken-hearted.  It binds up their wounds.  And this, like the mythic idea of Jerusalem, makes us whole.

01 October 2013

Yizkor Drash from Shemini Atzeret

Yizkor Drash
Shemini Atzeret 5774

I know a man who once asked me to bury his father.  The father, who had died after a moderately long life but a life that wasn’t long enough, was buried in the heart of winter, with a heavy snow falling outside, and cold, bracing winds blowing between New York and New Jersey.  We eulogized the father in a funeral home on the Upper West Side, with Kleenex boxes and serious undertakers and glasses of water, at room temperature, set aside for thirsty mourners throats, tired from talking and crying.  A time for talking and a time for crying.

The ride to the cemetery was brief.  At the graveside the wind kicked up.  Family and friends steeled into it and looked for sunlight, for hope, through the scattered clouds.  A time for sun and a time for clouds.

The grave, it’s frozen earth arranged in small heaps, curated, as it were, welcomed the pine box and the body of the man.  A time for bodies and a time for souls.

He was a hardware man.  He owned a store that sons and nephews and cousins had worked in, grown in, evolved in.  When the box was lowered into the ground one had a sense that the men who gathered around it like a team at a loading dock wordlessly dispatches deliveries, knew what to do.

They grabbed the shovels and went to work.  The hardened earth, the frozen earth, became molded clay, softened by the blows and then conveyed, lovingly, down, down, down into the ground.  A time for up and a time for down.

One such man signalled the cemetery workers standing off to the side in observance of this viscerally timeless Jewish gathering on the winter land which was New Jersey but could have easily been Minsk; and in a seamless consonance of purpose and understanding, conveyed to the cemetery workers, mostly Latinos to let the Jews do their work.

“Dad would love this,” one said.  And they kept on digging and lifting and tossing that earth, down, down, down into the cold, cold ground.  They were committed to complete the job.  The grave workers would sit off to the side.  Watching the Jews bury their dead.  “This is what we do,” the Jews said.  “This is our job.  This is our work now.”

Just then, before the job was complete, an uncle, the brother of the deceased, “the atheist,” a philosopher, steps forward toward the hole in the ground.  I am propelled back twenty-five years in time, to my own grandfather’s frozen graveside, to a hole in the ground that my grieving grandmother, Russian-born, offered herself down to--take me, take me, she cried.  A dead man.  A dead man.  I feared the worst.  That the brother would throw himself down, like Esau returning, once and for all, to Jacob.  But at the moment, in a flash, he opened, his jacket, pulled out a camera, aimed its lens, and shot a picture of the casket, nestled into the earth.  In a moment, beneath a Jersey sky, he made his own memorial.

“No monuments need be put up for the righteous,” the Talmud teaches us, “their words are their monuments.”  Then the son of the dead father spoke.  “Let him take the picture,” he said.  “It’s his way of dealing with this.”

Robert Frost wrote, “God once spoke to people by name.  The sun once imparted its flame.  One impulse persists as our breath.  The other persists as our faith.”

The son, like many of us at the graveside, had faith.  The brother, like many of us at the graveside, had his needs.  And both stories, wound around each other like the tefilin straps holding near the words bound to our hearts and souls, are a greater memorial to those who lived and died than that which is carved in stone, only to be one day worn away by wind and rain and sun and snow.

קחו עמכם דברים--take with you words, said the prophet Hosea, on Shabbat Shuva, nearly three weeks ago--ושובו אל ה אלוהיך--and return to the Eternal your God.  Take with you words and return to the Source of All Life, to Everything that was and is and always will be.

We work so hard to mourn.  We work so hard to remember.  We work so hard to hold on to the memories of those we love, to keep their souls, their goodness, their decency, their kindness and even their complications, alive with us in the world.  And we shape and mold our understanding with words, expressed in laughter and tears and revelry and bitterness and frustration and exaltation, words upon words upon words, like rocks, piled high on a stone, marking time and our presence, bearing witness that they were here, that we are here.

Recently, nearly 15 years after burying the man’s father, I buried his mother.  Time, that beautiful, paradoxical, inexorable force of metamorphosis, had made its mark.  Living, talking, growing, changing and evolving had deepened understanding; it had softened the hard, frozen edges of death’s searing mandate.  

Some of those who stood over the family plots fifteen years ago were still there; others were now gone.  Surveying the scene one cousin said, “Let’s go.  Let’s fill it in.  This is our job.  This is the work we have to do now.”  This time the son was satisfied filling in *most* of the way and letting the cemetery workers do the rest.

“It’s just what we’re going to do this time,” said the son.  “I did my work for Daddy.”  He was more rooted now, it seemed.  More deeply reflective.  With a second parent gone, the horizon, drawing near, demanded a more open posture.  

And at that moment, under a late summer sky, trees still full and in ripe anticipation of their own impending deciduousness, a great truth was spoken.  A child knew his mourning work.  He knew what he needed to remember and he knew what he could forget.  When to work and when to rest.  He knew when to laugh and when to cry, when to seek and when to lose, when to love and when to hate, when to be silent and when to speak.  

With time, in his memory, in the words he spoke, he had attained wisdom.  “It’s not work. It’s just what we do.”  

“Because Koheleth was a sage,” we learn, “he listened to and tested the soundness of many maxims.  The sayings of the wise are like goads, like nails fixed in prodding sticks.”

Words are the ways we make memorial for the righteous.  Their words and our words.  Deeds are the ways we grant eternal life to those we remember.  Ecclesiastes, so seemingly cynical in his ordered, seasonal affective post-mortem on loss and life and fate, concludes with this deepest of lessons about life and death, gain and loss, and wisdom:

“The sum of the matter, when all is said and done:  Revere God and observe His commandments.  For this applies to all mankind:  that God will call every creature to account for everything unknown, be it good or bad.  סוף דבר הכל נשמע את האלוהים ירא ואת מצותיו שמור כי זה כל האדם--It’s just what we do.  We laugh and we cry.  We remember and we forget.  We build memorials and we make new life.  And in the doing is the remembering, the souls of those who live forever, the Source of All Life who is forever, together with those  we love, בצרור החיים--Bound up in the bonds of everlasting life, forever.  

On the Pew Study

Reading the news about a Pew study which indicates an alarmingly high rate of assimilation for American Jewry, a sports analogy comes to mind:

Now is not the time for being defensive; but rather an aggressive, multi-pronged offensive attack is in order.  In this case, calling plays includes admitting demographic realities and risks; admit communal strategic failures; embrace skepticism and doubt; and understand that beneath the desire for meaning is a real hunger for deeper connections to what Jewish civilization can offer searching people.

1.  Admit realities and risks.  In America, we love and marry who we want.  That means intermarriage rates will be high.  It also means that those who choose to intermarry play an integral role in increasing the risk of assimilation.  How we translate that fact into a sense of responsibility and continuity means everything.  For decades, a person who intermarried was seen as having "given up" on Jewish life.  In our community in Brooklyn and certainly in countless Jewish communities everywhere, that is simply not true.  Marrying someone *not* Jewish often leads to the couple making Jewish decisions together--for their benefit and enrichment as a couple, and certainly when it comes to raising children inside the value system and faith of Jewish civilization--especially if they're embraced by the Jewish community and not harshly judged for "marrying out."  What helps no one is excoriation and blame for assimilation.  That is the failed endeavor of the twentieth century, fueled as much by the traumas of that century (immigration, assimilation, dislocation, and the Holocaust) as well as antiquated modes of conveying identity--what is nearly universally regarded as the now defunct Hebrew school and religious schools models that could not be re-thought and re-invented quickly enough.

Inside the Orthodox world, there is a "fence around the Torah."  Non-orthodox communities don't have that communal mitzvah mandate.  Everything in the non-orthodox world is about freedom of choice.  This means that whether we like it or not (and I'll admit that there are plenty of days when I don't like it) we have to make Judaism compelling on a daily basis.  We have to justify it, even sell it, in an age of marketing saturation and a nauseatingly infinite number of other simultaneous sales pitches.  Except we have what most other non-religious civilizations don't have:  ritual for every aspect of life at precisely the points of life where people cry out of meaning.  Birth, transition, marriage, death, and everything in between.  Even taking a day off of work (Shabbat.)  That Jews are still here on Earth after 3500 years is in large measure because of ritual--the ritual of both sanctifying life *and* the ritual of defending ourselves against people who hate us.  Both have been enormously effective tools of self-preservation.  You can try to argue and I'll win.  America's great challenge, of course, is that everyone (well, mostly) loves us.

2.  Embrace skepticism and doubt.  We do such a poor job of not letting people know that the religious exemplars of faith--the Rabbis--had moments of enormous doubt; had questions about divinity and providence that tormented them; and struggled mightily to convey Judaism's deepest truths through the lens of questioning God, law and authority.  American Christian traditions, especially the Evangelical movements which traditionally place faith front and center, have influenced American Judaism to place too great an emphasis on pure faith and I find that, to use a colloquialism, this "turns people off."   Don't get me wrong--I am often deeply moved by people's stories of faith and find them inspiring.  But a larger number of American Jews don't buy it and in unrelenting string of ages of science and inquiry that stretches back in time nearly 500 years, if not more, we'd do well to honor those who lack faith but want very much to remain part of the Jewish civilizational conversation about truth and justice, love and freedom, right and wrong, kindness and compassion, war and peace.  Physics, biology, chemistry, philosophy, psychology, politics and history.  These are equally valid constructs of Jewish civilization as faith.  Having lived in every nation at every stage of history--yes, history--we Jews have something to say and teach about that.

3.   Admit communal failures.  Hebrew school no longer works.  Institutional life is bogged down in old models, old structures and an over-abundance of self-defense organizations that the vast majority of American Jews don't support and don't know anything about.  There is so much waste and institutional fat it's a miracle we're still here.  Of course, the other side of the coin is that we know what works:  day schools, summer camp, and trips to Israel.  Interestingly, when families stay connected to synagogue life, the synagogue holds people together in Jewish life as well.  The reason that families leave the synagogue is that synagogues lose their relevance.  Maybe a relationship was merely transactional--bar mitzvah and goodbye; maybe the community failed at  keeping people engaged; maybe "membership dues," another outlandish construct of the past that ought to be eliminated, were too expensive.  Or, maybe people just don't care.  That's part of it too.  Non-orthodox Jews can often be arrogant and dismissive and lazy.  Hey, it's a two-way street here.  We each have to admit our faults.

4.  A hunger for deeper connections.  We promise that we are there for you at birth to welcome a child into the community.  That means a name, a bris, a covenantal relationship; it means meals, friendships, a sense of going on a journey through life with others who join a chain of tradition stretching back 3500 years.  That's more powerful than words can describe and when people burst into tears at baby namings and brises, that's what's going on.  We can't value that enough.  When a child moves into adolescence, one of the worst and challenging phases of life, we have a ritual that is as meaningful as it is incomprehensible.  Rote memorization is our own worst enemy, since few have a fond memory of it for reading from Torah.  But the relationships that can form with a family, when done correctly are indelible.  This is a two-way street--I'll say it again.  If you're in it for the party and the presents, you're kind of wasting your time.  When you make it matter, it actually matters.  Marriage--the biggest decision of one's young adult life, when your parents aren't making you do it, when you're not memorizing lines but saying, in terror and love what you really mean and hope to achieve with another, is our community's first real chance at success with young adults.  The Huppah, I always tell couples, is the first foundation of your new home together--and it's Jewish.  That's true if both in the couple are Jewish or just one.  Again, we have to make it count.  And then there's what goes on the rest of way--transitions in people's lives, job loss, divorce, illness and death.  As eternal as these human experiences are, Judaism has known responses and endless innovations that, in every generation, has sustained us.  We're a people who are best in the trenches of life.

But we have to be there.  Sustaining irrelevant organizations, voicing continuity platitudes that no longer work, and being overly defensive about our disappearing numbers--those are the challenges of Jewish leadership.  Having been turned away or spurned because of intermarriage or atheism on one hand, or laziness, self-hatred or pure apathy--those are the challenges faced by everyone else.

So goes another study.  But we know that what works has always worked.  And if people don't realize it, it's our responsibility to work harder it making it known.

The smallest of nations on Earth has managed to survive every empire in every age because we believe that learning, that being part of a greater whole, and acts of love in community, are ultimately the foundation of the world's very existence.  It's a truth into which we are born and a truth we will take to the grave.  With a perfect mixture of faith, doubt and hard work, another generation will know this truth as well.