26 June 2016

If the Shoe Fits: A True Story

Some time in the past, let's say about ten years ago, I paid a Shiva visit to a family from my synagogue.  They were modest people--humble, kind, and generous.  They sought in their lives not attention but goodness and adhesion to community.

They lived in Coney Island, in a housing project built by Donald Trump's father, Fred.

It was a warm summer evening and I had taken my bike, down through Prospect Park and along Ocean Parkway, the Olmsted and Vaux boulevard inspired by routes in Paris and Berlin.  While making small-talk with the family, I shared my interest in Brooklyn's history, its many-layered dynamic sense of time and narrative, and this is when someone in the family spoke up and said, "You know, Donald Trump's father built this housing project."

Trump Village.  Yes, of course.  This was one of his first major projects, built on the ruins of the Trump-sought dissolution of Coney Island's mythic amusement parks, and therefore known to students of urban planning as an object lesson in the inherent tensions of politics, business and community.

"Fred was a piece of work," said one family member.  "But he was nothing compared to his son."  There was considerable shaking of heads.  I should add a kind of knowing shaking of heads.  As in, you won't believe what you're about to hear.

"Fred's kid Donald was a rich boy but he used to come around and once he stole a bike," someone said.  "I remember the time that Fred pulled up with Donald in his car and made him return the bike. Can you imagine.  You could see the embarrassment, the shame."

There was laughter.  And the conversation moved on--since it was a Shiva call, it moved on to more serious, sublime matters.  Memory, kindness, decency.

I think about that story a lot these days, for all sorts of obvious reasons.

I don't know if it's true or apocryphal.  But I'll tell you what:  it certainly could be true, given the very nasty stuff that flows from the mouth of the presumptive GOP nominee for President of the United States.

Bankruptcies; fraudulent practices of Trump University; pseudo-declarations of faith before gullible Evangelicals; ingratiating words before the NRA; fear-mongering over Muslims, Mexicans, and other legal immigrants to and citizens of this great nation; and a blatant misogyny that makes my blood boil (being a father of daughters, especially.)

So, you know, maybe he did or maybe he didn't.

But if the shoe fits...

04 March 2016

History Matters

I had the honor of teaching a noon-time program at City College yesterday in the Jewish Studies Department, a kind of sneak preview of the full semester course I'll be giving on "Jews and Social Justice" next September.  The hour-long preview was an excuse to share some background on the varieties of events that led to Rabbi Joachim Prinz's moving and historic speech that he gave to those attending the March on Washington in 1963.  Of course, it's a speech unknown to many Americans because Rabbi Prinz, a refugee from Nazi Germany and activist rabbi in his adopted homeland, was sandwiched between the stirring music of Mahalia Jackson and the earth-shattering brilliance of Rev Dr Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech.  Mere mortals are to be forgiven their forgetfulness.  

Teaching in this esteemed bastion of public education has been a long-held dream and I felt a particular fealty to the role coming from a great public university in the Midwest, my beloved University of Wisconsin-Madison.  After all, it was in Madison where I first really learned, as George Mosse taught us, that "history matters."  And that the facts arrayed in a pattern have the power to tell a story about seeing the contemporary world through the vital refractions of the teachable, knowable past.

So the goal was trace patterns of migration--Central European Jews coming to America in the mid-nineteenth century; Civil War, Reconstruction and Jim Crow; the rise of the Ku Klux Klan and white supremacist movements (are you listening Donald Trump?); the next great wave of immigrants, including more than three millions Jews, between 1880 and 1920 and therefore the first mass encounters between Jews and Blacks; and the birth of the modern Civil Rights movement, including the founding of the NAACP, which during the odious period of lynchings in the United States, would regularly hang the above banner from its 5th Avenue office until 1938 and which one can now see in the Library of Congress in Washington, DC.  Students were fascinated to hear about birth of Jewish rights organizations as well, like the ADL, the American Jewish Congress and American Jewish Committee, among others, who adopted partnerships with Black organizations in the shared efforts to ensure that America's values would hew true to those embedded in our foundational civic documents like the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.  

Because "history matters" I shared stories about Julius Rosenwald, whose philanthropy built more than 5000 schools throughout the Black South; about the lynching of Leo Frank; of Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner in Philadelphia, Mississippi; and the famous "footnote 11" in Brown v Topeka, the landmark Supreme Court case that threw out "separate but equal," finally undoing Plessy v Ferguson, which had encoded legal segregation in the United States for sixty years.  "The arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice."  Truer words never spoken.

"Footnote 11" allowed me to get personal, because my mentor Naomi Levine, who was a staff attorney at the American Jewish Congress at the time, worked on the legal strategy and the various sociological and psychological research initiatives, made most famous by Dr. Kenneth Clark's, which demonstrated, unequivocally, that segregation was causing social and psychological damage to Black children.  I even called Naomi the night before the talk to rouse her into more anecdotes and let me tell you, at 92 years old she is still firing on all cylinders!

Naomi and her colleague at the Congress, Phil Baum, also helped Rabbi Prinz (who was President of the American Jewish Congress at the time) craft his remarks.  They were titled "The Most Tragic Problem is Silence."

You can see Prinz deliver the speech on film at the Civil Rights Museum in Memphis--at the Lorraine Motel, where Dr. King was assassinated--and you can listen to it online, here, which we did.  

In stirring, prophetic prose, through eloquent English in a German accent, Prinz argued that the greatest sin he experienced in fleeing Germany was not Nazism but that "the most urgent, the most disgraceful, the most shameful and the most tragic problem is silence."  

I let that claim hang there, as it should, before emphasizing for clarity the critical notion that at various stages in history, our silence in the face of oppression is our greatest sin as a nation.  And that especially today, in an election where terrible, threatening, mean-spirited and even violent words are spoken against people from all backgrounds (and often the most vulnerable) we must be vigilant, cognizant, and be willing to take the risks necessary to not remain silent.

To tell one small story of two peoples with a history of suffering and triumph in the face of oppression, finding ways to work together to advance the cause of justice, especially now, is so important.

History matters, indeed.  

And so do our voices--of all races, faiths, nationalities and backgrounds--lifted up together, bending our moral universe and political arena away from hatred and toward a kind and compassionate foundation in justice.

02 March 2016

My Sack of Duties and Comforts

After a long break, I'm back.

For ten years, this blog has been a mechanism for sharing my thoughts and teaching in a transparent way as possible while setting out to build community.

It started when we founded Brooklyn Jews; continued for the nearly ten years that I served CBE as their senior rabbi; and then I decided to go dark.  Hunker down.  Do some deep thinking.  I've read a lot and am learning to relax by reading the meditations of Thich Nhat Hanh.  He sure seems like a righteous fellow.

Part of that process has been looking back on the journey--not just the meanderings and achievements in Brooklyn but to explore my thinking and development as a college student in Madison; on my first trip to Israel; in graduate school at NYU; and then rabbinic school.

I've learned a lot about myself:  my restlessness; my impatience; my earnest moral voice; my righteous anger, good humor, and pathological need to be honest, even when it gets me in trouble.

On balance, I learned I'm not a bad guy.  But clearly, I could be better:  a better husband; a better dad; a better brother; a better friend; even a better citizen of our troubled, confused and angry land.

Anyway, easing back in here, I thought I'd share an exchange from the spring of 1994.  Twenty one years ago if you do the math.  It's an excerpt from a theology class I took at Hebrew Union College as part of my rabbinic training, taught by the late Eugene Borowitz.  Dr. Borowitz, as he was reverently called, died recently.  He was the last standing giant of liberal Jewish thought in the United States and in an era of DIY and Indie Minyans, we're not likely to see another systematic thinker in quite some time.  He was a daring writer and famously, with many other rabbis, put his life on the line in June 1964, jailed with other clergy for protesting abuses toward Black Americans during the Civil Rights protest era.  You can read his moving letter from St. Augustine here.

Anyway, Dr. Borowitz's class required of us our reading the assigned material and writing a response, to which he would respond in turn.
I found the following exchange from April 14, 1994 to be particularly illustrative of this unique teacher-student relationship, noted by many for its vigor and candor.

A rabbinic student writes:
"I sometimes feel like a monkey in a jungle, swinging back and forth between branches of mercy and despair.  The readings on the Holocaust have made me climb those ropes (sic); the climb itself testing my strength, challenging my optimism, shaking the foundations of my faith.  Mercy:  there is pain in life, injustice, cruelty.  That I know such things, from experience and observation, can often necessitate for me the imperative that I act morally and ethically and that I ground my faith and actions in God.

And then, on the opposite side of the spectrum, is the continued existence of evil--evil of every imaginable variety.  And I begin in waver.  Despair:  never really seeing change or knowing change. But sensing that headlines melt into one another, life itself becomes murky, redundant, too accepting of the "banality of evil."

And finally, maybe the problem is the the very paradigm I have employed:  Maybe it's not a spectrum I should consider but a whole--LIFE'S WHOLE--and in so doing accept mercy and despair as two elements seemingly opposite but part of the whole of life.  Distinct, separate elements held together loosely.  Here Rosenzweig is helpful in maintaining the separate realms via channels.

And here also Cohen is ultimately not satisfactory, somehow not allowing for radical evil, since ethical striving is an infinite enterprise.  Or is that despair in its truth?  Do I object because I fear it? Do I despair the potential admission that the ethical strivings infinite enterprise forces me to face a different, less comfortable, more difficult reality--where suffering may have a place if it comes as the consequence of one's ethical striving missing the mark?

In bouncing between mercy for and despair in myself, I postpone deciding to say what I really think. Help."

Borowitz responds:
"I must fail you here.  I know no theoretical, therapeutic or practical way to end the dialectic of facing life openly--idealistically & realistically at the same time.  I agree with you on Cohen, for he had such confidence in human capacity that he felt we could handle an infinite truth and even make progress.  I am quite a chastened liberal on that issue, enough so to say that my sense of hope ultimately derives from there being a good God in the universe.  And that is the source of my messianism.  And like all such believers I must find a resolute way not to turn my eye (&hand) away from the multitude of sickening and evil-doing that is so often part of our every day news.  Yet try as I do, I often find the ubiquity of sin outstrips my will to realism.  So I am caught, for the moment, in the same dialectic you know.  And then I pick up my sack of duties and comforts & try to move on."

A find piece of wisdom then.  And an even better one today.  Thank you, Dr. Borowitz.  May your rest with the wise be rich in comfort and ever more learning.

02 October 2015

A Million in Washington for Sane Gun Laws

This is my late grandfather, Norman.  I never met him.  He was killed in 1939 in a workplace shooting.  A disgruntled and mentally ill man with a gun shot him before turning his gun on himself.

I've told you about this before.  But like traumas both experienced and inherited, one lives it and shares it, in ever renewable ways, when the wounds are opened against our will.  Like when other mentally ill people take guns into workplaces or schools and slay the innocent.

So here we go again.

I was with President Obama in spirit yesterday as I watched his press conference.  His disgust and remorse and seething anger.  I couldn't have been the only person watching and thinking about his Anger Translator, Luther.  He could have used an Exasperation Translator, too.

Because like many of us, we're exasperated, disgusted, and, as Bryan Stevenson teaches us in the context of the broader struggle for justice and equality in America, we are "tired, tired, tired," which of course is the kind of exhaustion that gives us pause, then more energy to fight the fight.

But we are nowhere near the end of this struggle.

So it's time to kick it up a notch; raise our game.

We need a million people in Washington, DC to send a message to the world that a majority of Americans have had enough of the cowardice in Congress; have had enough of the immoral hold that the N.R.A. and gun manufacturers have on our elected representatives; have had enough of the ludicrous misreadings of the United States Constitution that insists, erroneously, that a "well-regulated militia" includes allowing mentally ill people to buy weapons and use them on their own delusional, murderous rampages.

When we had finally had enough of slavery, we had a war.  When we had enough of racism and the abuse of civil rights, we put our bodies on the line and changed the law of the land.  The 1963 March on Washington, the year I was born, has long been seen as a critical turning point in the fight for the passage of meaningful legislation.  In 1987, I rode in a car from Madison to DC on the eve of Mikhail Gorbachev's summit with Ronald Reagan and joined 250,000 Jews in calling for the freedom of Soviet Jewry.

These powerful displays of solidarity do have an effect.

There is enough wealth to build a movement.  There are enough people to fill the Washington Mall.

We can either sleep through this moment in history or we can wake up and save future lives.

A Million for Sane Gun Laws.  Let's go.

28 August 2015

When Truth Is Cruel We Talk Our Way to Justice

I shared this D'var Torah with the BYFI list.  Enjoy.  Shabbat Shalom
Reading through this week's Torah portion, Ki Tetze, with the many commandments and injunctions about proscribed behavior in wartime as depicted through the perspectives of our ancestors, one is reminded of the Tradition's unique capacity for remaining totally relevant to our own lives.  While the words of Torah are ancient, its ethical dimension is eternal and ever-renewable.  Though spoken long ago atop Mt. Sinai, they still matter today.  How could they not?
The human capacity for cruelty ought to humble, if not shame us; and so at the very least our Torah seems to be teaching us that given the reality of our existence, we ought also to create rules for engagement, not just in the best of times but the worst of times.  Sure, wouldn't it be great if our most sacred book was only wonder and poetry and beauty and peace!  Alas, we come from a people who count among their greater contributions to religious discourse the ability to wrestle with what it means to be human and to strive for justice and righteousness as an act of covenantal responsibility as Jews.  
Edgar Bronfman's famous story about learning Talmud for the first time, later in his life, comes to mind.  At first glance he found the laws described in this week's parsha to be outmoded.  Who cares about oxen and asses or birds in their nests?  How is this relevant to us?  But as Edgar plowed deeper into the dialogue, he found himself facing ultimate questions of justice.  And as a non-believer, he often said that this gave him entree to generations of teachers and students who asked similar questions on the journey of building a better world.
I got to share that story again this summer on Bronfman with the 2015 Fellows against the backdrop of a particularly wrenching summer in Jerusalem.  From the first moments of orientation to our last goodbyes at Ben Gurion Airport, we were never far from the sounds of the world calling out to us, to our identities, to our history, demanding a response.  We arrived still in the shadow of Charleston and the cruel legacies of race and violence in America; we encountered speaker after speaker throughout the summer weighing in on and trying to come to terms with the many dimensions of the Iran deal and what it would mean for Israel, for America, for the Jewish people; and perhaps more than any other summer in my own experience as a Bronfman faculty member, we heard and shared the anguished thinking of Jews and Palestinians on the Right and on the Left, struggling to find the language and maybe even a new paradigm for the seemingly interminable impasse on the road to an ever-elusive peace.
In typical Bronfman fashion, we listened, argued, opened up ourselves to new perspectives, and pushed our boundaries of comfort and ease with who we were as Jews in an effort not so much to know but to understand; not to be right but to be judicious; not to win but to be kind.  If you think I sound pollyannish, that's okay.  All I'm saying is that when you see twenty-six Fellows' souls grow over the course of a summer, you have faith in the system and the ways in which its purposeful ambiguities spur us on to new depths of understanding.  To quote Rabbi Jim Diamond, of blessed memory, "If you're not confused, you're not thinking straight."  
If a man as great and successful as Edgar Bronfman could be confused about his relationship to the Tradition but then digs in, engages, and learns, it seems a worthy aspiration for us as well.  
Of course, and tragically, there are then times in which there is no confusion.  Times when the clear, blinding light of morality calls out for our voices to be lifted up, even as our hearts are torn in grief.  Because besides the stroke of genius in building BYFI around learning and dialogue, BYFI is centered in Israel, in the roiling, boiling living laboratory of Jewish history and identity.  The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is no mere abstraction.  Its tenuous borders are within our grasp; a taxi driver's opinion about Iran or Obama or Bibi can be as nuanced and relevant as that from some of the most skilled diplomats. Plurality, diversity, triumphs and grievances all play out in loud and messy ways.  And while most of the time this dynamic serves a wonderful pedagogic end, at other times it shocks us into clear-eyed declarations of right and wrong.  No playful Bronfman ambiguity but hard truths that demand declaration.
A 16 year old girl, Shira Banki, was stabbed and killed marching in the Jerusalem Pride Parade.  That dark and cruel act was a gut-punch to the Fellows and the Faculty.  It stunned us into silence, sadness and shame, provoking anger that, through talking, we turned into love and the reified commitment to continue the struggle for the right to love as we love despite the twisted theologies of those who kill in the name of God.  And of course, no sooner did we begin to wrap our minds around the tragedy of the Pride Parade than we were forced to confront the outrageous and disgusting murders of Ali and Saad Dawabshah by Jewish extremists, hell-bent on terror and havoc wreaking.  Jerusalem yet again became the place where we as a people are commanded to explore not only the lofty, spiritual aspirations of our souls but the cruel evil expressions of our humanity as well.  
It turns out that when the Torah speaks of how one behaves when one is at war or conflict, it is, in the words of the Sages, "speaking human language."
And so it was, with human language, that we kept up our talking and learning and understanding, even with tragedy in our midst, because to quote Bryan Stevenson, who quoted Martin Luther King, who quoted Theodore Parker, "The moral arc of the universe is long but it bends toward Justice."  We weren't meant to figure it all out this summer; but for BYFI, we know that the more we talk and the more we learn and the more we understand, the closer we get to where we need to be going.
Isaiah seems to intuit this in the Haftarah for Ki Tetze.  "In slight anger for a moment I hid My face from you; But with kindness everlasting I will take you back in love."
It was a meaningful summer; it had moments of depth and beauty and hilarity and yeah, even cruelty.  But the journey we took together, the road we traveled, was one constructed on a commitment to upholding one another's inherent integrity and individuality, as part of a people, rooted in a Tradition that demands, especially in the face of abhorrent acts of evil, that we show our faces to one another in kindness and love.  
It seems to me to be a legitimate way to get to justice.  But hey, that's me.  Feel free to argue.  That's the Bronfman tradition.
Shabbat Shalom

15 August 2015

From Shore to Shore

This morning's NY Daily News carried the alarming news, recently released by Mayor de Blasio's office, that complaints about the homeless to the city are up 59%.  This number reflects data from 311 calls to the city's information line and is comprised mostly of calls made by city residents' own objections to illegal encampments or homeless people in need of assistance.  There are disputes among officials about whether homeless is going up or down in the city and as the article states, the city hopes to take a census later in the summer to determine this more definitively.  And long term there is the structural attempt to create more shelters and more affordable housing, which will require a joint city and state effort--hopefully not too herculean a task, given the oft-times tense bickering that moves up and down the Taconic between Albany and New York City.

Stories like this flesh out in more focus the complications inherent to so many cities and articulated as cogently as usual by the News' Harry Siegel, in a piece he wrote this week called "The Architecture of Segregation," where Siegel decried the painful and shameful reality that the "poor are getting poorer," especially in the smaller cities of America.  This creates a situation, Siegel writes, "which often means bad schools, lousy services, and a lot of crime and policing."  He backs up his argument with data and analysis from the Century Foundation.  It's worth a look.

It's true, isn't it? -- that we don't just live where we live but in fact we live, with some perspective, in an ever expanding circle of connectedness.  Choosing to know the brokenness of others' lives requires a willful opening of the eyes, hand and heart.  Easy as it may be to ignore -- to look the other way, to close our hands and harden our hearts, is an ignorance we exercise at our own peril.

It can make all the difference between living in a society rooted in a sense of blessing or mired in the dissonance of curse.  The world we live in today often seems to suspend us in that place, between the starkness of the good and evil everywhere and especially when, powerless as we may feel in the face of it, we don't know which way the scales will tip.  There is so much work to do.

The blessings and curses of faith are made manifest when extreme fanaticism and the desire to do good collide.  While I'm all too aware of the justified skepticism out there for the certainty of religious truths in an age of rising and violent fundamentalism, I'm also a strong believer in the power of faith and religious narratives to do enormous good.

"If there be among you a needy man, one of thy brethren, within any of thy gates, in thy land which the Eternal your God gives to you, do not harden your heart nor shut your hand from your needy brother; rather, you must surely open your hand to him and lend him sufficient need for that which he lacks," warns Moses in Deuteronomy 15: 7-8.  He continues, "For the poor shall never cease out of the land; therefore I command you, saying, 'You shall surely open your hand to your poor and needy brother in your land.'"

It's a curious challenge, isn't it?  A seemingly perfect God creates a land to be inhabited by fallible human beings who, by definition, will always have poor living among them.  Is it as simple an equation to posit that the main reason there are poor among us is because of the choices we make as people?

Stay with this notion:  Poverty is a choice--for those who are poor and for those who live among the poor.  Each of us bears responsibility for changing the situation.  One cannot simply lift oneself up and out with a helping hand; and when can not simply bestow largesse and expect an instantaneous transformation from destitution to success.  It takes two, back and forth, together, in an endless, ongoing commitment to the continual commitment to eradicate injustice from the world.

"The poor shall never cease out of the land."  So don't get tired.  Or rest up when you need to.  We're in this for the long haul.

The Rabbis embrace this notion.  They understand, in most commentaries to this section of Torah, only in a perfect world, with everyone doing good deeds all the time, is the eradication of poverty possible.  We humans, they long concluded, are responsible for our own souls as well as making up for the lack of generosity in others.  I'm reminded of a great story Bryan Stevenson tells in his book Just Mercy about sitting with Rosa Parks and talking to her about all he was going to do bring justice to those mistreated or wrongly accused.  Expecting her praises for his ambition, he was humorously humbled by her pronouncement that this work would make him "tired, tired, tired."  Johnnie Carr, another woman who organized the Montgomery Bus Boycott, added, "And that's why you've got to be brave, brave, brave."  You can watch Bryan's Ted Talk here.

It's takes an act of moral courage, daily, to open one's hand and heart to the poor.  It requires an exercise in muscular control to open a fist, to allow for warmed blooded flow of compassion to keep our hearts soft and responsive.  It begins within and emanates outward.

Maimonides, who famously conceptualized giving and the creation of justice in society as a ladder of progression, wrote about these verses in his Mishneh Torah, "The poor person who is in your family takes precedence over all others who are in need and the poor person of your house takes precedence over your town and the poor person of your town takes precedence over other towns, as it is said, 'to your brother, to your poor, and to your needy in your land."

It's a brilliant and challenging read on an already challenging text.  Charity--or the establishment of justice--begins at home, some say; but the Rambam would argue it only begins at home--it then moves, in ever expanding circles, outward to the rest of the world.  Like waves in an ocean, deeds of goodness, kindness of open hands and hearts, beating back poverty from shore to shore.

12 August 2015

Skeptically Enwrapped

During the High Holy Days of 2013, I decided to share a personal sermon about the ways in which I struggled mightily with my faith during the year that my mother died after a seven year fight against cancer.  As an experience, it was easy to write and hard to deliver, so weighted with emotion and an inner terror that I was revealing too much to those in attendance who, on the holiest day of the year, look to their rabbis for stability, promise, and depth of faith.

But I knew I couldn't stand before them and "confess" as the tradition demands of us as the service leaders; I knew I couldn't represent the community with integrity, through the agency of liturgical drama, without total honesty.  After all, when the Temple stood in Jerusalem in ancient days, the High Priest would confess his own sins before God along with those of the community and so one of the sacrifices I needed to lay on the altar of our community's offering was my own doubt.  I knew, both intuitively and from numerous conversations with members over the years, that doubt plagues all of us.  Many look right past it and build structures of meaning in their lives beyond faith; others double-down on faith in order to crush or silence the doubt; and still more look into doubt's face, call God into question for the experience of His seeming absence and decide, as I had, to fight back.

One morning, unaware of the obvious tension and anger coursing through my hands and arms and head -- the wrapping hands, the leathered arm, the in-between eyes squinting into the glare of endless questions bound up in obligation to God -- but cognizant of my place at the frontline of this battle, the leather strap of the tefilin snapped in my hands.  I pulled so hard at that tenuous connection that it broke.

I rooted the rupture in an incident 18 months earlier.  My brother and I were bathing our mother from the devastation that the chemotherapy had wrought on her fragile body.  I felt radically loving toward her and furious with God.  The tear of the tefilin straps represented for me true doubt.  Here's what I wrote:

That’s when my Atheism crept in.  

I began to allow myself to rebel.  My brother was silent and devoted and I was furious at God for allowing such a kind and decent person to suffer.  Not just now at the end of her life but at the beginning.  And in the middle.  The famous Talmudic legend of the Messiah cleaning and bandaging the wounds of the sick at the gates of the city fell flat.  I took off my Tefilin.  I stopped praying.  I felt like a fraud and a fake leading services on Shabbat.  I wondered if families knew?  If there was a Golem like ALEF on my forehead, seen by all.  “Mi chamocha be’elim?”  Who is like you among the gods? sang Bnai Yisrael after their escape from Egypt.  But the Sages, having witnessed the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans, said, “Mi chamocha be’ilmim?”  Who is like you among the deaf?  You, God, ignore suffering.  You’re powerless to stop it.  And I joined that accusation.
It was there I remained.  If not atheist, certainly agnostic.  Too wounded to speak to God.  The bindedness of obligation a shadow, at best.  The funeral I ran on fumes. The high of seeing family and old friends, of the absorption into sympathy.  I said Kaddish at my grandparents shul in Milwaukee and came back to Brooklyn to the embrace of this generous and remarkable community.  The outpouring of support was fundamentally beautiful and restorative.  But my faith was shattered.

The torn Tefilin strap from the arm; the ש for God's name on the head Tefilin transformed to the monstrously destructive א of the Golem.  I was in new, terrifying territory.


My friend Rabbi David Kedmi told me at Shiva that "when our parents die, we still have Moses our Teacher to talk to."  And that line sustained me.  Teaching and doing deeds of lovingkindness were the floor beneath my feet.  My friend Mishael Zion reminded me that sometimes our job is not to wait for God to seek us out but for us to demand for God's presence in His absence.

I weighed these two ideas in the balance for the better part of two years and then finally decided this summer in Jerusalem that it was time for a new set of Teflilin.  I met a wonderful Sofer named Steve Bar Yakov Gindi, a member of the Syrian Jewish community from Brooklyn who has been living in Israel for many years now.  We spent the better part of two hours together over three visits, talking, laughing, and, at his urging, creating the Tefilin together.

There was something so irreducibly reparative about fulfilling this mitzvah, of helping to write and sew together the material that would then, after a three year absence, bring me back in to conversation with God.

Here are couple of photographs from our sessions.

Adding crowns to the letters of the Shma

Securing one scroll with calve's hair

The finished product
On the day the Sofer delivered to me the Tefilin, an oppressively hot Jerusalem Tuesday, with our staff and Fellows still reeling from the horrific killings at the Gay Pride Parade and in the Palestinian village of Duma, each of us searching high and low for God in what seemed like an exceptionally cruel world, I began to share with the Bronfman Youth Fellows this story of the Tefilin.  And while sitting in front of these outstanding, searching, kind-hearted seventeen year olds, I remembered back to my own youth, to a story that Abraham Joshua Heschel tells in his book about the Hasidic masters Baal Shem Tov and Menachem Mendl of Kotzk and their divergent views about God's nearness to man.  The book is called A Passion for Truth.

Heschel tells the story of his friend "Mr. Sh. Z. Shragai," a Jewish Agency representative who traveled back to Poland and German after the Holocaust to facilitate the movement of Jews from Displaced Persons Camps to either Israel or other places willing to take these refugees from the horrors of the war.  Shragai described to Heschel that a poor Jew, with a small sack, joined him in his train car as they traveled from Warsaw to Paris.  Each evening and morning, Shragai would pray but the poor Jew refused.  When asked why he said, "I am never going to pray anymore because of what happened to us in Auschwitz...How could pray?  That is why I did not pray all day."

But when Shragai woke up the following morning, he noticed that the man had gotten up first and was wearing Tallis and Tefilin, saying his prayers.  When Shragai asked what happened, he replied, "It suddenly dawned on me to think how lonely God must be; look with whom he is left.  I felt sorry for Him."

How lonely God must be.  With our disdain for his absence and those among us whose disdain for others absence Him.

Part of faith, I have come to realize, is comprised of the component pieces of explaining things to ourselves and others, and building worlds upon those bricks, those truths.

If God was anywhere when my mother suffered, He was in the hands and hearts of her daughters and sons and family and caregivers who helped usher her, compassionately, to the door of death.  If God was anywhere when Shira Banki was stabbed and killed in the Gay Pride Parade in Jerusalem, He was present in the moral outrage at the murder, at the civic failure in not tracking a dangerous, fanatical man; and in the fearless expressions of hope and love for all those who love, regardless of who they love.  And if God was anywhere when members of the Dawabshah family were killed by fire at the hands of evil youth deluded in their thinking that they were fulfilling God's will, God was in the still small voices of compassion and love and condolence as well as in the moral outrage that justice must be done.

To carry out such acts in the name of Torah is to erase God's name from our holiest of books.

Having come back in to conversation following a three year protest, my faithfully fragile certainties are bruised and battered.  But wrapped in words worn and spoken by those who generations came before me, provides a humbling comfort.

One of the verses from Torah in Tefilin speaks of placing the words of God's oneness "on" our hearts, not "in" our hearts.  The Kotzker Rabbi, writes Heschel, explained that it is absurd to think one can have Truth "in" one's heart--given that our hearts are often such compromised and troubled places. Rather, he said, Truth should be like a stone "on" our hearts because there were moments when the heart opened up and if the Stone of Truth was there, those words might seep in.  Heschel said, "One could become a different person, one realized what to do, what to correct...and the words were absorbed into one's very being."

The Stone of Truth on my heart demands an expression of gratitude for friends, family and teachers, who listened, as we all must, when one seeks repair.  The Stone of Truth demands as well, especially for those in our world whose hearts are hardened in hatred and who do acts of evil in the name of their god, that Truths are spoken neither thrown, whetted at the end of a knife, or set ablaze by delusion. I pray, skeptically enwrapped, with words again on my heart, that we may merit finding a path to peace.