Sign In Forgot Password

Parashat Vayeshev: How Much Pain?

11/29/2018 10:23:31 AM

Nov29

Rabbi Robinson

Parashat Vayeshev: How Much Pain?

What is an acceptable level of trauma? What is an acceptable level of pain? What is our comfort level with letting people suffer? I’m going to take a stab in the dark here and assume that the answer for us is “none”. There is no acceptable level of trauma, pain and suffering. For those of us who have experienced pain and suffering, and all of us have experienced pain and suffering, whether it’s emotional, physical, psychological, the very thought of a painful moment in our lives—an injury, an abusive encounter—is enough to put us in a tailspin. Some of us can heal and move forward from our injuries, but many of us find past trauma never really goes away. And we all know people like that. I have a friend in his 50s who played football in high school, and not at an especially high level, and he’s still dealing with knee issues from his time on the field more than thirty-five years ago. If we’re like most people, we hear that and shake our heads, intolerant of the idea of still dealing with pain from a past injury, at the same time feeling our own body or history for our own aches.

Accepting this idea, that there is no level of trauma that is acceptable, let me move on to the idea of moral trauma, especially bigotry. What is the acceptable level of bigotry for us as a society? Ethnic jokes? The use of misgendered names for trans individuals, or tired clichés about who wears the pants in a gay marriage? Is it redlining? Or pushing African Americans into worse housing loans, worse jobs, worse opportunities, or assuming their achievements are merely due to their skin color? Or shooting tear gas at people who are brown skinned? What is a healthy level of bigotry for a community? Again, I’m going to take a leap of faith and assume that, for all of us, the answer is “none”. The acceptable level of bigotry is “zero”. We recognize that expressions of bigotry, be they overt, like nooses left on a college campus, or subtle, like crossing the street when a man of Color comes our way, are unacceptable in a just society. We may be surprised to find our behavior turns out to be unintentionally bigoted—how many people use the word “retarded” because of habit, never once intending to demean those with learning or developmental issues, for example—and when we discover we’ve said something offensive we go through our cycle of defensiveness, embarrassment, and remorse and correct the behavior. At least, that is what is supposed to happen. Regardless, we recognize that to behave in this way is to cause real pain, moral trauma, and if there is no level of pain that is acceptable, then there can be no level of moral trauma that is acceptable.

So why is it, then, that when antisemitism comes up in discussion, the conversation quickly turns to the idea that there is some level of antisemitism that is acceptable in a free and just society? If you are a conservative, you should tolerate attacks on liberal forms of Judaism, the use of old canards and blood libels against opponents like George Soros and the like, so long as the conservative individuals in question support Israel (and we can have another conversation about what that means later). If you are a liberal, you should retain your fealty to the leaders of the Women’s March, and remember that their antisemitism—their expression of support for Louis Farrakhan, their accusations that supporters of Israel are not loyal to the United States—aren’t really antisemitism, that they are fighting for justice for all, and our supposedly white privilege and wealth means we should shut up and just support the cause. And if you think it is limited to politics, just bring up with your “friends” on the internet how you don’t celebrate Christmas and watch the fireworks explode. Or talk to any parent of kids, public or private, and ask them about the conversations they’ve had with fellow parents about how miffed they are that the school is closed for Rosh Hashanah, or that we are somehow undermining the education of children by even wanting the days off from school. If there is no level of pain or trauma—including moral injury—that is acceptable, why are we expected to grin and bear it?

I ask this pointedly, as I’ve been thinking a lot about something Linda Sarsour said, that has been coming up more on college campuses; that good liberals shouldn’t “humanize” Zionists, that to do so would be like asking black folk to “Humanize” members of the Klan. I can’t begin to tell you how freaked out and upset I get at this idea.

Let’s leave aside the comparison between Israel and the Klan for the moment. I’m troubled by this idea, that we should ‘dehumanize’ the people we disagree with, as if disagreement, even anger, is too milquetoast a response. How does dehumanizing my opponent help? First, does it give them room or space to learn or grow or make amends for their actions? Does it give you the space to see their perspective, their reality, their own human dignity? What does it accomplish other than making all of us, each of us, complicit in the defacing of God’s image in the world, denying the humanity and, by extension, the holiness inherent in everyone? We may disagree vehemently with the other, be angry at their choices, rage against the ways they undermine our sense of what is right, but they are, in the end, still people.

Of course, that doesn’t stop people, even in their humanity, from doing the wrong thing. As Donna Hicks points out in her book Dignity, while our humanity cannot to be questioned, our actions are always up for judgment. Look at our Torah portion. Joseph is introduced as a pretty awful character. He tells his father awful things about his brothers, and the question is raised whether he’s telling the truth or not. The favorite child, he rubs it in his brothers’ face by telling them about his dreams, dreams that make him the hero. Can we wonder why his brothers hated him, were angry at him? His actions are wretched. But his brothers don’t stop and correct the behavior, or just chew him out; instead, they gang up on him, tearing his clothes, flinging him into a pit, starving him, selling him into slavery, and finally rubbing his beloved cloak in sheep’s blood to suggest he was torn apart by a wild beast. Joseph’s behavior is bad, but his brothers’, response is to dehumanize Joseph, making him a slave and even replacing his physical body with animal blood. They deny Joseph his dignity, sending him to Egypt, an act that will have massive consequences, not the least of which Israel’s eventual 400 years of exile and servitude in Egypt. That, my friends, is the outcome of refusing to humanize the other; it will eventually result in our own dehumanization. And as a people who have been the subject of dehumanization, as recently as last month in Pittsburgh, we understand that threat intuitively.

There is pain and trauma in this world, a lot more than “none”. There is pain and trauma being caused by people claiming to do so in the name of American values, and I will resist that and do what I can to heal that pain and repair that trauma. There’s a lot of bigotry in this world, a lot more than “none”, and I will do everything I can to create a culture of peace and justice in this world. But demonizing the other will not help us heal pain, it will not help us create peace or justice. As we mark the end of sheloshim, the thirty days of mourning, for the victims of the Tree of Life shooting in Pittsburgh, let us remember that there is no level of trauma, no level of moral injury or bigotry that is acceptable in a just society, and that any attempts to dehumanize the other must be met with all the resistance we can muster.

 

Parashat Vayetzei: She has those Eyes

11/16/2018 09:06:13 AM

Nov16

Rabbi Robinson

Parashat Vayetzei: She Has Those Eyes

As the snow was coming down this past Thursday, I was on the phone with a longtime congregant. Her beloved husband, who had been in and out of the hospital a lot over the last several months, was coming to the end. As often happens, it was unclear whether it was going to be days or hours or weeks, but the family had gathered in their home to spend time with him. She thanked me for the call and, as we were talking, she said, “we’re trying to be strong for one another”. I responded, “well, maybe take turns; you don’t always have to be the strong one.”

I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about strength, and weakness, and what those two really mean. What are these ideas? What is real strength? What is real weakness? As Americans, I think we all have certain cultural ideas about what strength and weakness mean, ideas that we as a society have held up for a long time and are increasingly seeing challenged. The idea that strength means somehow stifling emotions other than anger, for example; that we can’t express our feelings. Or that we cannot accept help from others, that to do so makes us weak. A friend and local pastor refer to such people as ‘half generous’; they’re happy to give, grateful to give, but cannot accept assistance even when they need it.

Of course, these personal expressions and ideas of weakness and strength have global ramifications. Our response to migrants coming to the border is to send the army, rather than social workers, lawyers and medical professionals. Again, Israel seems trapped in showing how strong it is against terrorist organizations, which never quite gains the quiet and peace Israelis so desperately need. Again and again corporations, universities and other organizations, confronted with the misdeeds of instructors and executives, insist on being right, double down and deny accusations of wrongdoing rather than admit their own errors, because to admit an error is to be weak.

Increasingly, we find that these models—especially those that are based on gender—to be mostly malarkey. How is showing emotion weakness? How is admitting a mistake and learning from it weakness? How is there any strength is sticking your chin out and picking unnecessary fights? What is really gained from all this?

Our tradition, of course, already understood this, that what we consider to be weakness is really strength. “Eizeh hu Gibor? Who is Mighty?” Asks Pirkei Avot, in the Mishnah. The one who has self-control, who doesn’t impose her will over others, or throw their weight around. And here we are presented with the idea of weakness and strength in our Torah portion. First, we’re presented with Laban, Rebekah’s brother, Rachel and Leah’s father. He’s a cynic; strength for him means being able to take advantage of others. He is in constant competition with the world; if someone else ‘wins’, it must mean that he loses, and if he is to succeed, he must make sure everyone else is vanquished, left in the dust. Meanwhile, we see Leah’s eyes. They are described as weak, rakkot, in comparison to Rachel’s beauty, so the assumption is that ‘weak eyes’ means unattractive, or bad. I had a teacher in rabbinic school who said, “it means she’s a real bow-wow”. Maybe, as the midrash suggests, she wore her eyes out crying because she was originally supposed to marry Esau, Jacob’s nogoodnik brother? Or…maybe weakness doesn’t really mean what it says. The Talmud (Bava Batra 123a:14) raises the question about weakness: how can the Bible describe Leah this way, given her righteousness as our matriarch? Not at all. In fact, we are misreading the word. It’s not Rakkot, but arachot, long-lasting, in reference to the gifts her descendants would receive. Because who would be born from Leah, if not Levi, the tribe of the Priesthood, and Judah, our tribe, the tribe of kings? Her eyes aren’t weak; rather, they look toward a future of holiness. Unlike her father Laban, who’s constantly jockeying for position, treating everyone as a potential mark, someone he can mislead for greater advantage, she’s not interested in the short-term gain, but long-term growth. While her father sees the world cynically, she has her eyes open in hope. And while cynicism is hard and hope is soft, hardness doesn’t mean strength, and softness doesn’t mean weakness.

Ruth Koch and Kenneth C Haugk, founders of Stephen Ministries, talk about the idea of assertive rather than aggressive or passive response. That is, we shouldn’t let people walk all over us, but we shouldn’t try to smother others either, shouldn’t always be trying to win. Maybe real strength is found in taking care of ourselves and each other, of allowing ourselves to feel and acknowledging our feelings, while not imposing them on others? Who is strong? The one who has Leah’s eyes. May we aspire to have them ourselves as we say, Amen.

D'var Torah: Parashat Toldot: Dayenu

11/11/2018 05:11:20 PM

Nov11

Rabbi Elisa F. Koppel

I’ve had a refrain going through my head these past few weeks: Dayenu, it would have been enough for us.  But not the joyous Dayenu we sing at Passover, but a more somber one—enough is enough.  Had this one thing happened, Dayenu.  It would have been enough for us. 

Had there been a shooting in Pittsburgh, but not on Shabbat during services: Dayenu.

Had survivors of the Las Vegas shooting just over a year ago, not also been at the bar in Thousand Oaks: Dayenu.

Had there been a shooting in Thousand Oaks and not wild fires ravaging that same area: Dayenu.

Had swastikas been drawn in synagogues and public spaces throughout the country, but other synagogues not faced arson attacks: Dayenu.

Had our JCC had bomb threats nearly 2 years ago, and not been evacuated again this week: Dayenu.

Had Kristallnacht shattered windows and lives 80 years ago, and antisemitism and other hateful prejudice not continued to exist in the decades since: Dayenu.

Dayenu. It’s enough.  It’s too much.  

Between all these things, amidst other moments of challenge that so many of us have, traumas and wounds barely healed the reopen with each headline. When even our moments of joy can feel muted, for some of us: Dayenu. 

When some of us feel bad for feeling joy: Dayenu.

As Rebecca cried out with twins fighting with her womb: אִם־כֵּ֔ן לָ֥מָּה זֶּ֖ה אָנֹ֑כִי

“If this is so,” she asks, “Why am I?” 

If this is so, Why are any of us? Why are we? Dayenu.   It’s enough.

And yet, we turn towards the news, morning after morning, to see what else has happened.  For many, with a dread and a knowledge that there will be something.  Some other horror that has faced our world since the night before.  A sense of relief at those times when the world has been quiet—but a feeling that those times are fewer and further between than they used to be.  A sense of numbness and lack of surprise when we read of a new horror, that feels as unnatural as the tears that might burn on our cheeks.

And we find moments of hope.  We find sources of support.  We find opportunities for resilience.  And yet: Dayenu.

And yet we know we cannot be daunted by the enormity of the world’s grief; as Rabbi Rami Shapiro reminds us, we must do justly, now.  Love mercy, now. Walk humbly, now.  We are not obligated to complete the work, but nor are we free to abandon it.  We must say dayenu, now.

We know what happens for those fighting twins that Rebecca eventually births.  Jacob and Esau go on to lives of fighting.  But surely—we cannot accept that we are to live lives that are full of reports of almost daily trauma.  We cannot accept that while there may be factions around us who cannot agree and whose messages only grow louder, that they will continue to fight within our midst.  At some point, it must truly become enough.  For when it truly enough for us, then we must do something.  We must realize that we need to begin to repair, ourselves and our world, so that the future is better than the present may seem.

So what do we do with this sense of dayenu?

I believe that the answer is in those very twins, warring in Rebecca’s womb.  Because even those brothers eventually come together, a few chapters later than this week, Jacob and Esau crying over each other in a deep embrace and seeing in each other the Face of God.  In those brothers, we can see hope, a glimmer of the idea that eventually, the hatred and violence, the trickery and the manipulation, is, indeed, enough.  And it is in our young people that I continue to see hope.  This week’s Torah portion, after all, is called Toldot: generations.  It is through the generations that we can continue to make mistakes, and through the generations that we can find the hope towards repair.

Rebecca and Isaac, it seems, do not learn to change for the better, the behaviors of the generations before them.  Isaac instead digs anew the wells that his father had dug before him, instead of finding new wells of his own.  He urges his wife to pretend she is something other than who she is, in order to protect himself—just as his father had done.  Isaac and Rebecca both love one child more than the other, increasing the strife that existed for those children.  Perhaps, the story could have moved forward differently, if they had changed, and found a way to give their children the tools they could have used to make their world different.  Each generation has the potential to repair the damage of past generations—if only they are given the tools and the ability to do so.

 Perhaps, the next chapter in our own story can be different.  To those young people growing up in a world where shelter in place drills are commonplace, because too many shootings have happened in schools.  Those young people who are evacuated from their schools because of suspicious packages.  Those young people who have learned that they need to be careful wherever they are, because they read the same news that we read.  Those young people who have only begun to speak out against what they see as wrong.

Perhaps, it is through them that it will truly become dayenu.  Enough.  If we listen to them.  And help them to grow.  And help them to learn lessons that will help them to build the world that we all must believe is possible.  And listen to them.  And let them speak their truth and their power.

We have not yet learned.  And yet we can.  We can learn and we can teach what we have learned.  And together create that better world.  Where our broken and breaking hearts are mended.  Where our fractured world is healed.

And then, we really can create plowshares out of swords.  And musical instruments out of those.  And music out of those instruments.  A world where we don’t come together with our neighbors at rallies and vigils, but out of celebration and love.  

I believe that such a world is possible.  Because, as I heard this week, whole worlds pivot on acts of imagination.  It is imagining that world, and how to build it, and that we can, that keeps me going.  May this be the week where we, as a world, truly can say dayenu: It is enough.  

Ken y’hi ratzon.

Parashat Vayera October 26, 2018

10/26/2018 09:07:58 AM

Oct26

Rabbi Robinson

I want to spend a moment talking about the word ‘audacity’.

It means a lot of things: the willingness to take risks, to be brave and intrepid. It can also mean impudence; showing a lack of respect. Recently, in a meeting of some local Jewish community leaders, it was pointed out that I have a tendency to be audacious when I speak in those settings. I’d like to think they meant the good stuff; I’ll leave it up to you and them what they actually meant.

It’s a word that has become a little cliché, especially after President Obama’s book with that word in the title, The Audacity of Hope. Doesn’t that seem like a long time ago, now? We hear that word being used again and again in different contexts: business, social action, politics and religion. It’s an app for recording on the computer. In our own Reform Movement you can’t go to a national program without hearing someone talk about “audacious hospitality”, for example. Which sounds awesome, if a bit nebulous. Abraham Joshua Heschel most famously used the word to talk about the Jewish religious experience. He referred to the idea of the prophets and living prophetically—that is, protesting injustice in the world with words and actions—as spiritual audacity.

What do we mean when we talk about audacity?

We could argue that Parashat Vayera is one story of audacity after another. Abraham’s audacity of leaving God’s presence to serve three strangers along the road. Sarah’s audacity to laugh in the face of her husband’s old age. Hagar and Ishmael’s audacity to live. And in this case, Abraham’s audacity to challenge God. Here, God tells Abraham of the Divine intent to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah. Abraham’s response? He immediately challenges God. Not just meekly ask questions, but throw it back in God’s face: Chalila lecha! God Forbid that you should do such a thing! Will not the judge of the whole world judge righteously?

We love this story as a story of chutzpah, as a story that shows that God wants us to challenge, to push back. We lift it up as an example of God-wrestling, of how God seems to especially love those who want to see justice in the world and aren’t afraid to stick their neck out to get it, willing to challenge every authority figure—even the ultimate authority figure. We can even read this text of Torah as if there’s an ellipsis after God tells Abraham of the imminent visit—and doom—of Sodom and Gomorrah. As if God is actively inviting Abraham to respond, and respond provocatively.

But here’s the thing; despite all of the back and forth between God and Abraham, despite Abraham’s challenge, despite the audacity of the protest, it doesn’t work. Abraham negotiates God down to 10 righteous individuals, and there aren’t EVEN 10 in the whole of the plain. For all of Abraham’s audacity’, God still destroys Sodom. The protest fails. Or does it?

The answer to that question depends on the point of the exchange. If the point is to save Sodom, even in spite of itself, then the answer has to be that Abraham is a failure. But what if there is another purpose? What if this is God teaching Abraham—and by extension, us—how to be audacious? My teacher, Rabbi Shai Held, writes in his The Heart of Torah, “God wants Abraham to train his descendants to do what is just and right, but Abraham cannot teach what he himself has not yet learned. Abraham needs to learn how to stand up for justice and how to plead for mercy, so God places him in a situation where he can do just that.” God doesn’t need to ask Abraham for what to do, or even let Abraham know what’s going to happen. God can just let fly with the fire. But God doesn’t; God opens the door to allow Abraham—and us, Abraham’s descendants—the possibility of moral confrontation.

And if we want to be more theologically radical, the late Rabbi David Hartman, founder of the Hartman Institute, wrote, “The God of Nature acts alone, the God of history, however, acts in a relational context.” That is, our God, the God of Torah, is not some unmoved mover, but seeks out partnership and, therefore, limitation. Held again, “God wants—indeed, God actively solicits—the intercession of the prophets. Argue with Me, God says, stand up to Me and persuade Me.”

Why is this important? Because it is so easy to ask, “why bother?” It’s easy to simply assume that our every effort to make a difference in this broken world is doomed to fail. Even if we were not living in a world where political enemies received pipe bombs, and those who spoke up for justice were ridiculed and mocked; we would grapple with this question. What’s the point of talking to political leaders if they’ve already made up their mind on how they’re going to vote? What’s the point of protesting injustice when it seems like no one is listening? As one example, what’s the point of getting email reminders, daily, that there are still hundreds of children separated from their parents when they are not yet reunified? What’s the point of voting, even, when the outcome seems certain? What’s the point of feeding the hungry or clothing the naked? They will merely be hungry and destitute, and if not them, others. Because, to return to Abraham Joshua Heschel, indifference to evil is worse than evil itself. The point is not winning, though we hope to win. The point is that the words need to be said, the act needs to be made, the conversation needs to be had. As the Talmud reminds us, whoever is able to protest against the transgressions of his own family and does not do so is held responsible for the transgressions of his family. Whoever is able to protest against the transgressions of the people of his or her community and does not do so is held responsible for the transgressions of his community. Whoever is able to protest against the transgressions of the entire world and does not do so is held responsible for the transgressions of the entire world.” (B. Talmud Shabbat 45b). And so, we stand next to Abraham. We draw near, as he did. We find the strength to lift up our voices. We hear the ellipsis in the conversation, the invitation by God to speak up, to challenge. And we respond, audaciously. Because we must.

 

October 19, 2018

10/19/2018 09:44:45 AM

Oct19

Daniella Buchstaber, Community Shlicha

Did you ever feel an urge to make a life changing decision? I’m talking about actually taking a chance and following your heart? Would you still have the courage to make that decision without knowing or the outcome, because you knew deep down it was the right thing to do?

In Lech Lecha, Abram experienced his calling when God told him לֶךְ-לְךָ מֵאַרְצְךָ וּמִמּוֹלַדְתְּךָ וּמִבֵּית אָבִיךָ, אֶל-הָאָרֶץ, אֲשֶׁר אַרְאֶךָּ- “Get thee out of thy country, and from thy kindred, and from thy father's house, unto the land that I will show thee.” For Abram, this moment was so powerful and meaningful that he left Haran for Canaan, taking everything with him: his wife, his brother’s son, his entire property. Abram did not know where he was going, what he would encounter when he got there, or what the consequences of his actions would be, but he had conviction. The only thing he had was a strong belief in his decision because he trusted God to navigate and illuminate the path ahead.

God called and Abram answered. He chose to follow this calling and leave his comfort zone. Now when I say comfort zone, I mean Abram had the life. He was a wealthy man with a lot of sheep and goats; he was well respected within his family and his community. Imagine experiencing a moment of clarity in which you hear your true calling and then realizing it meant leaving a life you spent the last 75 years building.

This act is an act we can learn from. Abram’s faith in God was enough to trigger him into action. But what about us? You know, regular people with a regular connection to God. Most of us probably feel we have one sided conversations with God, without being able to hear a call back to us.

It is very possible that many people who are sitting in this room right now had a moment in which they felt a calling. Whether it’s something we really love and want to do, or a dream that we’ve had since we were children. A calling is stronger than just an aspiration. A calling is waking up in the morning knowing in your heart and in your gut that you MUST act.

Many Jewish philosophers tell us that we have a piece of God in us. That means that we don’t really have to have God reveal to us and encourage us to take action, as we already have this power inside of us.  True, most of us probably won’t hear the voice of God telling us to get up and go, but we must remember that the urge inside of us to pursue something because we know in our hearts it is the right thing to do, is GOD calling and it is up to us to ACT.

Yes, I know it is hard to leave your comfort zone. It’s comforting! It’s our warm cozy bed on a Monday morning, but you get out of bed anyway because you must. I believe in challenging myself to leave my comfort zone over and over again. As a perfect example, two months ago I got on a plane and left my home knowing I wouldn’t see it for a whole year, without really knowing what’s in store for me when I landed.  The fact that I’m standing here in front of you today, talking to you about Parasht Hashavua is a another one, as I do not usually discuss texts from the Torah, in English, let alone in public.

In my life, I have always tried to challenge myself and follow my internal calling, which is serving Israel and the Jewish people. This is a calling I felt since I was a teenager. I remember one day I read on the news that a group of Israeli teenagers went on a delegation to the University of Cape Town in order to protest against Israel’s policy, and I was overwhelmed by a very strong feeling, thinking this is not something you should do! I mean, Israel is not perfect - but why not try to influence and change from the inside? Why go to South Africa and harm Israel’s image that is already fragile? Looking back at that moment in time, I realize that the strong feeling I felt was my calling. It wasn’t anything like the divine calling that Abram had received, rather a strong burning in my heart and in my gut, which made me want to ACT. Immediately I started an advocacy project for teenagers and after a year I was able to form a delegation that went to Germany and spoke to over 200 peers about Israel and its complexity. That was the beginning of my journey serving my country and as you can see I am standing here in front of you today, serving as a bridge between Delaware and Israel. And although the calling was something I was sure of almost immediately, I have to say that many times I have acted out of that calling without knowing what’s in store, and in those times I always discovered and learned new and amazing things.

I once heard someone say that a calling is not something that just happened for no reason. There is a reason for why we feel what we feel. And if we feel a certain calling, we must follow it because it might be the reason why we were born into this world. This puts a lot of responsibility on our shoulders but it is an opportunity to be brave and heed God’s calling.

So what is it? What is your drive? What is that one thing that when you think about it, you feel compelled to action? And are you, in this moment of time, really perusing your calling or is there something holding you back? These are questions I ask myself on a daily basis almost, and I encourage you to ask yourself those questions as well.

There is a lot we can learn from Abram’s decision at Parahshat Lech Lecha about courage, taking risks and believing in yourself.  Today I want you to motivate and challenge you to follow Abram’s example and answer your calling because when you do, the fear of the unknown will melt away and you’ll be free to fulfill the purpose you were put on this earth to do.

Sukkot 2018

09/28/2018 09:16:54 AM

Sep28

Rabbi Robinson

Sukkot 2018

The day finally came: I had to get rid of my old rabbi’s manual. Despite popular belief, the rabbi’s manual does not come with an allen wrench nor does it explain how often I need an oil change. Rather, it’s a small prayerbook with the wedding ceremony, the funeral service, readings and services for dedicating a gravestone, visiting a dying person, and the like. I’ve used this rabbi’s manual to lead my first funeral and first wedding and countless of both since. It was a satisfying size, and had all kinds of typed notes from various life cycle occasions I’ve performed over the years. But a rolled down window during a rainstorm plus warm weather resulted in it getting moldy, despite my best efforts to save it. And truth be told, even before this incident, it was looking pretty ratty and worn. It was done, so off it went to be buried.

I have another copy, of course, the one I got for my ordination. Plus the new version, as well as the old one in pdf form that I’ve printed out to use, but it isn’t the same. I know, it’s just a book, not the end of the world, but it served me well, and I’m going to miss it.

It’s human nature; we get attached to things. But nothing is forever. Everything is, at the end of the day, ephemeral. Objects, our health, even the way we express our values and aspirations. The question isn’t how we keep things from fading away; it’s how we learn to accept that they will, despite our best efforts. It’s one of my favorite aspects of Shinto and Japanese tradition: there is an understanding that everything, even ceramics and shrines, are impermanent and fragile. The transient nature of life is not to be resisted, but celebrated; that there is beauty in entropy and change.

So Sukkot comes in, and reminds us that as well. Sukkot, as we sit in a hut open to the elements (and boy was that ever true this week!) says to us “gam ze ya’avor”, this too shall pass. The kids’ decorations, made with such care on Sunday, are trashed from rain and wind. The wood of the sukkah curls, the schach rots and falls away, we get damp waving lulav and etrog, and we are reminded that the rain isn’t forever, nor is the sunshine. That the pain we feel will fade, but so will the joy. As Ecclesiastes reminds us this time of year, to everything there is a season, and a time for every purpose under heaven. That’s not just a song, but a reminder to us to appreciate each moment, to make our days count.

I’ll get over the rabbi’s manual. I’ll learn to love the new one, eventually. I will get used to not having it, even as I’m grateful for its service in the first 19 years of my career, as a student and a rabbi. And with the last days of Sukkot, I will remind myself to appreciate these moments, even as they too pass away.

Haazinu 2018

09/28/2018 09:13:12 AM

Sep28

Rabbi Robinson

Many of you have often heard me say that there’s all kinds of learning, a lesson I learned from my teacher, Ken Ehrlich. I want to share one moment of learning from early in my rabbinic career.

It’s 1998. I’m walking down the hall at HUC in Jerusalem with a bunch of my classmates, and we’re talking about heaven knows what. Clearly, something isn’t going my way, but the details are fuzzy now. At some point, I say with joking, mock exasperation “Clearly I just can’t win”, when a classmate looks at me and says, deadpan, “then maybe you should stop trying.”

Oof. That hit where it counts. It was an aside, probably meant in the same playful spirit as my comment, but it ended up having a profound impact on me. I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about that encounter and what it means for my life and my rabbinate. Specifically, what’s the winning thing about? On a certain level, it’s about vulnerability, or rather, masking vulnerability. In fact, I would dare say that a lot of what we do in our lives is to protect ourselves from feeling vulnerable, exposed. It feels bad.

There’s a famous story about President Johnson that, as he was getting on a helicopter, a Marine came over and said, “excuse me, sir, but this isn’t Marine One. That’s your helicopter.” To which LBJ responded “Son, they’re all my helicopters” and got on the wrong one. While true on one level, would it have been so bad if Johnson had smiled at the Marine and gotten on the other one? Did it matter that much? It does when we think of vulnerability as weakness and admitting our mistakes as a sign of failure.

But, didn’t we just go through a whole day whose purpose is to expose our vulnerabilities? To open ourselves up to healthy self-doubt? Isn’t that why we fast, on some level, and recite our sins alphabetically over and over again? By being vulnerable, we allow ourselves to be open to the possibilities before us. We allow ourselves to move past winning and toward growth.

That’s why we read Ha’azinu as well. God, through Moses, sings this song to the people, calling them to account right when they are about to cross the River Jordan and enter the promise land. They’re primed to focus on winning, to defeat the local yokels and settle this land flowing with milk and honey, but before they do, they are reminded of all their faults and foibles as a people. Their fecklessness, their failure to affirm God and follow the mitzvot. The song hits them right between the eyes and exposes their vulnerabilities. Not so that Israel will be defeated, not so that they give up, but to open themselves to growth, to learning, to not just be a people conquering a land, but to be a just people, a holy people. To be God’s people. So it is with us. We can only be just, and holy, and count ourselves as God’s people if we are vulnerable, if we take off our armor and allow ourselves to learn from our mistakes and each other.

Some time shortly before my encounter in the hallway 20 years ago, my teacher David Marmur taught me one of my favorite stories. Perhaps they are related. That in every conversation, there are two angels, the angel of winning and the angel of learning. The thing is, only one angel can be present at any given time. It’s been two days since Yom Kippur, Two days since we heard the shofar. May we continue to allow ourselves to be vulnerable, as on that day, and as such may we allow our better angels to prevail. Amen.

Yom Kippur Morning 5779

09/20/2018 04:37:41 PM

Sep20

Rabbi Elisa F. Koppel

Rabbi Elisa F. Koppel

Are We Awake? Are We Prepared?

This sermon began this summer at camp.  I had the opportunity to spend time this summer at 2 different Reform Movement camps—first returning to Camp Harlam—the camp where I grew up—as faculty and also serving on faculty during the inaugural summer of the new URJ 6 points creative arts academy.  At both camps, in addition to the satisfaction and inspiration of working with the campers and staff, I found (as I often have in my years as a rabbi at camp), that the time spent in conversation with the other faculty was equally meaningful.

As we shared in sacred conversations throughout the day between camp activities, walking from place to place on camp, at meals, and late at night—often over a campfire—we’d cover any number of topics, ranging from the goings on of camp to the happenings in our congregations…from making plans for services to making plans for a “faculty outing”…from ideas for programs to insight on our lives.  In my mind’s eye, I imagine that this is how the Talmud was written—through snippets of conversations of the ancient equivalent of rabbis, cantors, educators, and youth advisors.  Pieced together across generations.  Discussing, interpreting, learning—creating new tractates through our sharing.

In one of those conversations, we had just been singing Noah Aronson’s introduction to the Bar’chu, as we often sing/just sang here: “Am I awake, Am I prepared, Are you listening to my prayer, Can you hear my voice? Can you understand? Am I awake? Am I prepared?”

My friend took issue with the middle portion of the intention: “Can You hear my voice, Can you understand?” saying that it was liturgically problematic because it denied that God can hear and understand.  But, I countered, I think that many who say these prayers have had  doubts that God in fact can do any of that….My friend continued with the idea that it didn’t make theological sense within the context of liturgy.  I continued with my assertion that it didn’t have to—that our prayers were, at least in part, an expression of our own thoughts.   The conversation ended there, as camp conversations sometimes do, before we had any chance for resolution, but I’ve been thinking about it ever since.

Because, I believe that most of us have moments, even when we sit here in the sanctuary, perhaps especially when we sit here, when we don’t believe, or when we have doubt, when we honestly aren’t sure that there is a God at all, much less One that can hear or understand any of this.  To me, it is profound to express that sense of doubt within our prayers themselves—our very doubt transformed into liturgy.  

Indeed, this struggle with belief is nothing new, nor is the expression of doubt.  Even in the Psalms, our people’s earliest expressions of prayers, we see this.  In Psalm 13, we read:

How long, Adonai; will You ignore me forever? How long will You hide Your face from me?

How long will I have cares on my mind, grief in my heart all day? How long will my enemy have the upper hand?

Look at me, answer me, Adonai, my God! Restore the luster to my eyes, lest I sleep the sleep of death

lest my enemy say, “I have overcome him,” my foes exult when I totter.

It seems to me that the essence of these words is similar to the essence of Aronson’s: Will you ignore me forever? Can you hear my voice? How long will I have cares on my mind, grief in my heart all day? Can you understand? 

And as we read the end of this Psalm, we again find similar echoes: 

But I trust in Your faithfulness, my heart will exult in Your deliverance. I will sing to Adonai, Who has been good to me.

I see the message of a complete apparent turnaround in theme as twofold—first, despite the doubt, we pray anyway.  Second, we recognize the dichotomy inherent in the first response, and we embrace it—we allow faith and doubt to exist symbiotically, each fueling the other even as they stand in opposition to each other.  We recognize that the struggle doesn’t remove us from Judaism or even from the act of prayer.  As my teacher, of blessed memory, Dr Eugene Borowitz writes, “What I thought was some secret difficulty of mine with God not only occurred to some Jews centuries ago but has long been an accepted part of Jewish religious life. …Many people feel their disbelief so keenly they cannot give much credence to their occasional sense that there is a God…In Judaism faith in God is that dynamic; it is not an all-or-nothing, static state of being.”  

And so we ask—Am I awake? Am I prepared? Are we ready to move forward within our struggle-filled Jewish expression, and attempt prayer, even if we do not know to Whom or for What purpose we are praying? Whether our words reach Some Hearing and Understanding Entity, or hang as vapors.  And so, we at least attempt prayer.  Because we know that Judaism is a religion of action over faith—and prayer, after all, is an action.

Which brings us back to the struggle, for many, of sitting here in services, reading and listening and singing.  And the doubt that is evoked by those very actions. And yet we show up—surely, some of us today intimately know this struggle, but we are all here.  Perhaps we feel some amorphous sense of obligation. Or we know that Goldberg comes to talk to God and we come to talk to Goldberg.   Or because we hope that it will be meaningful or inspiring.  Or because there are parts of it that we love.  Or because we recognize that, especially on these High Holy Days, the sounds, the words, the symbols—are all designed to stir up for us the ancient memories of our people, while at the same time calling upon us to return ourselves to the people we were meant to be.  Or, perhaps, because recognize that potential exists.

105 years ago, Franz Rosenzweig, who would later become one of the greatest and most influential Jewish theologians of modern times, had decided to convert to Christianity.  But he wanted to do so as a Jew—taking a closer look at the things from which he was choosing to separate himself—he wanted to “go through” Judaism to get to Christianity.  And so, as one final step of leaving the religion of his birth, he attended Yom Kippur services at a small synagogue in Berlin, understanding the Day of Atonement as a necessary action in his preparing to take on Christianity.  At that service, he found himself profoundly moved—and realized there was no need for him to find salvation outside of his own religion.  And he chose, that day, to remain Jewish.  

As described in a 2013 article in Tablet Magazine: 

In effect, Rosenzweig experienced a paradoxically non-mystical enlightenment on Yom Kippur 1913: 

 A “meta-historical” breakthrough, yet at the same time one solidly anchored in time; a theoretical, yet thoroughly pragmatic epiphany; a revelation irreconcilable with Christian religion, yet committed anew to Hashem via the Neilah service, the final prayers spoken on the Day of Atonement. Just as it is not possible to “unring” a bell, Rosenzweig clearly could not “un-sound” the shofar he heard in 1913.

Clearly, the experience of worship during these days of awe can work and sometimes does work.  

But, at the same time, sometimes it doesn’t.   Someone’s struggle with the faith-doubt dichotomy may prevent them from fully entering the experience.  Someone may feel disconnected.  Someone may feel as if they were on the outside looking in, even surrounded by community.   For many reasons, for many, the experience of High Holy Day worship doesn’t always entirely grab them.  And this isn’t something we often talk about, or acknowledge, or give permission for.  But the truth is these days can be fraught with obstacles.  It’s important to recognize that, whether we are the person that isn’t connected or we are the person that is.

Sometimes, the experience might feel too unfamiliar…because it’s different from what we grew up with or because we didn’t grow up with these holidays.  Or because many of the prayers, the melodies, the content, the aesthetic, are not what we are used to or comfortable with.  Or because we happen to be distracted by the rest of life.  Or because of our doubt or the ambiguity of our personal connection to Judaism.  Or because the God we do believe in doesn’t seem to be reflected in the prayers, overshadowed by the God we don’t believe in.  Or, because we harbor anger towards God, or haven’t been able to forgive God.  

And much of the text doesn’t necessarily resonate for everyone.  The liturgy of these days is full of metaphors that don’t make the connection for many of us that they were designed to make.  We don’t live in a world where kings and shepherds are figures we regularly come across outside of stories.  Some of the intent of the words is lacking for us—the power that the symbols are meant to evoke can be lost.

And, for many, the liturgy brings pain.  Unetane tokef, in particular, can be a hurtful moment—hearing the words can wound us.  

I still vividly remember reading those words on Rosh Hashanah 17 years ago, days after the planes hitting the towers gave new meaning to the very idea of “Who shall live and who shall die,” and reading through a blur of tears, many lines of that section of the text hit like shrapnel.   A moment of catharsis for some, and of blinding pain for others.

And in any year, for someone who has had loss, for someone who has survived, for someone who is ill, or for someone who loves someone who is ill…those words, as well as others in the liturgy, can be painful.  And those moments of pain can tear us away from the experience.

For many reasons, for many people, the experience of these services can be difficult—and the words of our lips do not match the meditations of our hearts—and we find ourselves unable to connect.  And yet, even if we are going through the motions of worship, we might find for ourselves a moment where our worship becomes prayer.   

And perhaps, the purpose of all of this is discovering those moments.  Finding just one prayer, one melody, one insight, one moment of peace, or even one moment of deep feeling—that can be a effective worship experience.  

Judaism has never been an all-or-nothing religion.  Very few people find every single moment of any given service meaningful—that should be neither our expectation nor our standard.  

If we find just one instant of transcendence, then we have succeeded.  And even if we don’t, and we won’t always, it need not be a failure.  For worship can inspire us towards action, even if it doesn’t transform us in that moment.

Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote in Man’s Quest for God, “Ultimately the goal of prayer is not to translate a word but to translate the self; not to refer an ancient vocabulary in modern terminology, but to transform our lives into prayers.”  And that is our challenge and our opportunity.  

To take a liturgy, parts of which may seem alien, and to determine the truth, the wisdom, that is inherent in its words—even if that truth is buried, and to then take that truth outside of the service.  To make those messages part of our living.

Feeling remorse, facing adversity, hoping for the future, fearing the unknown, wanting what is best for ourselves and for those we love and for the world at large, appreciating that which we have in our lives—all of that is at the heart of our prayers.  We can, and we should, take the opportunity to find for ourselves ways through which to express those ideas.  

And especially when a prayer is troubling us, is disconnecting us, we can read it with the intention of determining its truth, its meaning in a greater context, and determine what we can say, or better yet, what we can do, that will meaningfully convey that message for us.

We all connect in different ways: through spirituality, or action, or learning, or community, or nature, or music.  I challenge you to integrate your mode of connection with your Yom Kippur experience.  

It doesn’t have to be today, but find a time to take one aspect of what today is about—one piece of what our liturgy speaks of—and bring that aspect to the way that you do connect.  Whether that’s taking a walk outside and truly enjoying and appreciating the world around us, or hand writing a letter to someone who has been helpful to you, or volunteering your time, or giving food to someone who is hungry, or reading a book, or having a conversation with a friend, or whatever it is that you find meaningful, don’t let your Yom Kippur worship experience end when you walk out the door. 

Let us not forget, after all, that one of the main themes, the main actions, of this season is t’shuvah, repentence—turning within, truly examining our lives and seeking forgiveness for those times when we’ve missed the mark.  And while we can do the self-reflection portion of t’shuvah while we pray, the other portions necessitate leaving the worship setting.  

To give someone a meaningful apology or to truly forgive another, one must be in conversation and one must be fully present.  And to really determine for ourselves how we can act differently—to engage in real change—that takes a lot longer than the timeframe of services; even when we are here all day.  

We must allow the opportunity to find meaning to extend beyond this timeframe and beyond this space.  And by expanding this experience beyond this moment, we can, perhaps, find other moments through which we can both transform worship and prayer, and for that worship and that prayer to transform us. And by engaging with the worship, by appreciating the moments when we do connect, and by allowing ourselves to have moments of disconnect…we can each have a Holy Day Experience which calls us—be it through the sound of the shofar at Neilah or through the still, small voice whispering to us amidst the cacophony of the liturgy.  

Connecting us each to something—to the community around us, to the generations before us and those yet to be, to the acts of building a world inspired by our dreams, to Something Beyond ourselves, to our doubt and our faith, and even to the prayers.  Connecting us to our sacred texts, our insights becoming part of the sacred conversation that has been going on for thousands of years. 

And in doing so, we write another page for ourselves in the Book of Life, inscribing ourselves for a meaningful and engaging year, a year of being awake and prepared, a year of connection. 

 

 

Erev Yom Kippur 2018

09/20/2018 11:27:30 AM

Sep20

Rabbi Yair D. Robinson

No One Leaves Home

Home-Warsan Shire

no one leaves home unless
home is the mouth of a shark
you only run for the border
when you see the whole city running as well

your neighbours running faster than you
breath bloody in their throats
the boy you went to school with
who kissed you dizzy behind the old tin factory
is holding a gun bigger than his body
you only leave home
when home won't let you stay.

no one leaves home unless home chases you
fire under feet
hot blood in your belly
it's not something you ever thought of doing
until the blade burnt threats into
your neck
and even then you carried the anthem under
your breath
only tearing up your passport in an airport toilets
sobbing as each mouthful of paper
made it clear that you wouldn't be going back.

you have to understand,
that no one puts their children in a boat
unless the water is safer than the land
no one burns their palms
under trains
beneath carriages
no one spends days and nights in the stomach of a truck
feeding on newspaper unless the miles travelled
means something more than journey.
no one crawls under fences
no one wants to be beaten
pitied

no one chooses refugee camps
or strip searches where your
body is left aching
or prison,
because prison is safer
than a city of fire
and one prison guard
in the night
is better than a truckload
of men who look like your father
no one could take it
no one could stomach it
no one skin would be tough enough

the
go home blacks
refugees
dirty immigrants
asylum seekers
sucking our country dry
niggers with their hands out
they smell strange
savage
messed up their country and now they want
to mess ours up
how do the words
the dirty looks
roll off your backs
maybe because the blow is softer
than a limb torn off

or the words are more tender
than fourteen men between
your legs

or the insults are easier
to swallow
than rubble
than bone
than your child’s body
in pieces.
i want to go home,
but home is the mouth of a shark
home is the barrel of the gun
and no one would leave home
unless home chased you to the shore
unless home told you
to quicken your legs
leave your clothes behind
crawl through the desert
wade through the oceans
drown
save
be hunger
beg
forget pride
your survival is more important

no one leaves home until home is a sweaty voice in your ear
saying-
leave,
run away from me now
i dont know what i've become
but i know that anywhere
is safer than here.

 

As Jews, we know what it means to run. As Jews, we know what it means to not have a home, to think we had a home and find that it is on fire. As Jews, we know. We know what it means. We have been carrying our babies, our bread, our stories, our burdens on our backs for two thousand years. We know. And now, tonight, the holiest night of the year, we are secure in our synagogues, our homes. We rejoice in our prosperity, in our relative safety, even as we’re mindful of the police protecting our door. And we know that there are children in converted Walmarts weeping for their parents, and parents scattered to the four winds weeping for their children. No, their weeping is not more important than that of the parent or child weeping in Wilmington, yes, they lament in a different language. And as Jews we know what it feels like, because we’ve felt those tears in the backs of our throats. We know.

I don’t know what the solution is for immigration, for refugees, for asylum seekers. And I’m not going to pretend that I do. I don’t presume that one person’s pain is more precious than another’s. I know that there is pain, and as Jews, we know that our obligation is to alleviate that pain, to recognize the dignity of the person suffering that pain, to embrace that person and love them as a person.

I don’t have any answers this Kol Nidre, except one. That there is a choice before us. Whether we are going to add to the suffering of others or help relieve it. Whether we are going to take our own security for granted or extend it to others. Whether we are going to stand against the tide of anger and rage or be swept up by it. I will stand against it, with every fiber of who I am. Even when I’m exhausted, and truth be told, I’m exhausted a lot of the time. And I bet you are, too. Tonight, on this night where we sing away our vows, and apologize in advance for the promises we fail to keep, I take an oath: I will stand against the pain of hunger by working to feed the hungry. I will relieve the pain of violence by supporting its victims. I will challenge the pain of being the stranger by embracing and offering dignity to the estranged. I will do this, and more. And I ask that you do this with me. We must. Because it is the only way forward. Because to do otherwise would be blasphemy. Because no one leaves home unless it is the mouth of a shark.

Rosh Hashanah Morning 5779

09/11/2018 09:47:21 AM

Sep11

Rabbi Robinson

Rabbi Yair D. Robinson

Rosh Hashanah Morning 5779

“Lift Up Our Eyes”

In a few moments, after I’m done speaking, after Avinu Malkeinu and a hakafah that is either too long or too short, depending on your point of view, we will settle in to our Torah service, and hear the Akedat Yitzchak, the binding of Isaac, chanted beautifully by our congregants. We will hear about how God asks, no, commands Abraham to take his son, the only of his wife Sarah, his miracle child, his child of laughter, and sacrifice him. This is no metaphor; Abraham must take a knife and slit his son’s throat, and place him on the fire as an offering; a test, we are told. As many of you have frequently observed, it is a deeply, profoundly uncomfortable text. Why on earth are we reading this text on Rosh Hashanah? The Sunday School answer is, of course, because of the ram Abraham will see and sacrifice instead of his son, and the source of the shofar, the ram’s horn, that we sound on this day. But in light of the cruelty of the story, it seems pretty weak. Why couldn’t we read the Ten Commandments, say, or the seven days of creation, or literally any other text but this one, where a father nearly murders his child on behalf of his God?

I used to think that the pivot point in the text was the dialogue between Abraham and Isaac as they go up the hill. When Isaac asks where the sheep is to sacrifice, Abraham answers that God will see to it, a wink and a nod to the readers that all is not lost. But lately I’ve been thinking that it’s moment that is the key to understanding this text and why we read it on the first day of the New Year.

Throughout the story, the word “see” is used over and over again; it is a leitmotif of the text as Abraham sees things, God shows things, God sees things, and the like. But twice Abraham lifts his eyes, vayisa et einav, and sees…something. First the mountain of Moriah, and then the ram in the thicket. When we read that Abraham lifts his eyes, it is as if what he’s seeing wasn’t there before; that is, this isn’t just that he didn’t notice or wasn’t paying attention, but rather that what Abraham sees was literally not there a moment ago, until his eyes were opened. In fact, the Talmud lists the ram in the thicket as a miracle, created at the beginning of all things, waiting for its moment to save Isaac. And what he sees is not just a place to offer his child, or a ram to offer in his stead. What he sees are choices, moral choices. As I’ve shared with you before, a way to read this text is to see it as Abraham being given and failing a test; instead of challenging God, Abraham submits, and God must stop the test. While I still think that’s true, I increasingly believe that these two moments where Abraham lifts up his eyes are the moments where the test happens; Abraham has the choice to take Isaac up to Moriah, or do something else, anything else to protect his son. Likewise, Abraham, seeing the ram, recognizes the opportunity to save his son.

When Abraham lifts up his eyes, it becomes moment of moral clarity.

And so it is with us today. This story shocks us on the first day of the New Year. Good. It horrifies us on a day when we should be enjoying honey cake and hearing that same story from our uncle for the umpteenth time at dinner, but we listen anyway because we love our uncle. Good. It is a story to shake us, to challenge us before we go back to the mundanity of our lives, before we hear the shofar, giggle at the tekiah gedolah, and go home to watch the ball game. As it is for Abraham, it is a moment of moral clarity for each of us, a moment when we should be opening our eyes to what is going on and asking ourselves what am I doing? What are the limits of violence, of indignity, of pain, that we are willing to tolerate in our midst.

So let me make the question explicit: what are your limits? Where is your moral clarity? I ask because we are being challenged as a people and a nation as never before. Every day brings its new sin of bigotry and malice. Whether it’s a guard at a swimming pool throwing people out because they are people of color or children as young as one year old defending themselves in immigration court, trying to plead for asylum, our moral clarity is being tested. When we see the working poor, including men and women in uniform, increasingly left adrift by a nation that doesn’t want to lift the tide to lift all ships, our moral boundaries are being tested. And surely we are challenged when we do turn to help, when we go to rally with our allies and friends, and all too often are told that we aren’t wanted because of our Zionism.

It is not that these issues weren’t there before, of course. Many of us have been fighting this fight for a long time, have been knee-deep in the fight against poverty, bigotry and depravity. But now it feels like the fires are burning out of control, and no one is bringing any water. We are as a society at the moment between when Abraham raises the knife, and God’s voice emerges from the heavens, and like Abraham, we don’t know if the voice is coming. We can’t see the ram.

So what do we do? What can we say? What is our task?

It was Nachman of Bratzlav who said, “the entire world is a narrow bridge; the important thing is to not be afraid”. Today he might qualify that statement and say, “the important thing is to not feel helpless”. We may, in fact, feel helpless, feel that there is nothing we can do except stare at what is transpiring in our community, our nation and our world with that pit in our stomach. But helplessness is as much a learned behavior as is anything else, and action is a learned behavior too. We cannot wave a magic wand and make everything all right; that’s not how the world works. But we can choose to set down our sense of powerlessness, and take up whatever action our minds, our bodies and our capabilities allow. We must—we must—remember that we have agency, and so long as we have agency, the power to choose and to do, then there is hope.

Our task, therefore, is to open up our eyes, and act. We cannot wait for the ram to appear or for the voice of God to stop the knife. We cannot wait for someone else to step up.  We must act without ambiguity, but with full moral clarity in our actions.

First, we must be civically engaged. We must challenge our elected leaders, even when we like them. We cannot wait for the exact right time, the exact right legislation, or the exact right person; we must challenge them and push them to alleviate the pain in our communities. And we have an opportunity to do that. On September 17th, next week, the JCC and Jewish Federation along with Hadassah will be hosting their Candidate Forum. There will be a handout with a link to resources from our Religious Action Center with questions to pose to the various candidates, Republican and Democrat, about our values as progressive Jews. If you are free that evening, look at the questions, perhaps you have a few of your own, submit them in advance, and go and be present, press them. And whether you can go or not, start asking tough questions of our Senators, our Congresswoman, our governor, every elected official. Write emails, go to forums, vote for the people who will stand up for our values, and then continue to reach out.

Second, we must challenge our friends and neighbors. We all know people who are happy to re-share a meme or re-circulate an email; are they registered to vote? Are they volunteering their time? Are they giving of themselves to causes in our community and country that will make a difference? Could they be more generous with their resources? Are they working to make this world really better, or just mouthing off? I know how engaged and civically minded this room is, how many of the people in this room take the time to research candidates and vote. It was a joy to watch all the pictures of congregants posting their ‘I voted’ selfies on primary day. In addition, I am asking you to reach out to your friends, your neighbors, and push them to do the same. Get one more person—a family member, a friend—to reflect on the issues they care about, learn about the candidates, and go to the polls in November and vote their conscience.

Finally, we must challenge ourselves. We need to truly show up:  to march, to speak out, to work and work hard for the kind of community we believe in. If our eyes are truly open to what is, and what ought to be, then we need to put ourselves truly into the work. I have been immensely proud of how our congregants have marched, and written letters, and given of their time and wealth. But marching and protests, civic engagement, writing letters, all that only goes so far. It’s important, it’s critical, but it isn’t relieving the pain right now, it isn’t fixing what is broken right now. We need to act: what will we do?

Last night I mentioned the words written on the walls of this synagogue, words written on the walls of this very sanctuary: Do Justly, Love Mercy, Walk Humbly With thy God. These words were and continue to be a call to action. Our congregation has a long history of working to alleviate poverty. If you’ve ever experienced poverty yourself; perhaps because of your own experience growing up, or you’ve done something like the SNAP challenge where you attempted to live on the meager resources provided by our safety net, you know how much pain and suffering food and housing insecurity causes. And we know how much need there is in this community. According to our friends at the Food bank, one in eight Delaware families are food insecure, and one in six children. That’s over 114,000 people. We’ve seen the need, and we’ve answered the call. We’ve partnered with Family Promise for several years, helping house and support homeless families, and have another opportunity to do that work two weeks from now, starting on September 23rd. We have joined with our brothers and sisters of other faiths to pack Thanksgiving meals in November. Our Sisterhood and confirmation classes have partnered with Ministry of Caring to support their soup kitchens. We have supported our congregant Brennan Stark, who, at age 19, is building sustainable housing for low income families here in Wilmington, and heaven knows he needs our help. All of that will continue, but I also want to commit to something else, something new that will support this neighborhood, this community. For 10 years we have gathered food as part of Project Isaiah at the High Holidays, filling a truck with grocery bags, hundreds of pounds of food which are then taken to the Delaware Food Bank. Not this year. This year, it’s going in our own, new Food Pantry. Thanks to our administrator Jon Yulish and our social action committee, Starting in November, once a week, coordinated with other support services in the community, we will open our doors to those in need around us, providing emergency resources for individuals and families who are trying to make ends meet. Perhaps they’re on SNAP and the month is running out. Perhaps they’ve lost a job or had been sick. Perhaps they don’t have transportation to get to the market. Whatever their circumstance, we are going to be here. And it needs to be ‘we’. We’re going to need volunteers to help stock and sort, to help our new friends ‘shop’ for their groceries. And we’re not going to stop there. The vision is to be able to expand, to offer other resources; perhaps perishable food, perhaps having a social worker here who can help our guests get the support services they need, perhaps having medical professionals here who can do screenings and other support. Perhaps there are needs out there that we are unaware of, and as we get to know our new friends, we will find a way to step into the breach. We are going to make our spiritual home a place that supports the people around us. Because we have to. We must answer the call. We must respond to the crippling needs we see around us. To do otherwise would be an act of idolatry, a rejection of the image of God present in each person. If we pretend that this space is only for us, that we are helpless in the face of poverty, if we look in the mirror tonight and say, “there’s nothing more I can do for my community”, then we might as well give up calling ourselves Jewish, because Jews act, and Jews don’t wait for permission.

As you collect your shopping bags there will be new instructions on what we need and how to volunteer to help. And, on Erev Sukkot, there will be a special program for anyone who wants to participate, and we’ll need all hands on deck for this. Finally, as you depart, you can take a quick peek at the space we’ll be using in all its glory, just before you exit the building—WITH your shopping bag! Every year we collect a truck and a half, and I’d love to see us bring in six months’ supply for the pantry! And from this point forward, let that shopping bag (or two, or five) be your starting point, not the end point. I offer you to be generous in spirit: that every time you enter this building, you bring some non-perishable food for the pantry. That we find time, every one of us, to help in some way, whether it’s stocking shelves or actually being present to help our soon-to-be new friends. That we ask our friends and neighbors to also bring us what we need to bring out.

Our eyes are lifted up; they are open. The task is before us. What shall we do? Do we embrace the choice before us, or do we sacrifice that choice on the altar of hopelessness and helplessness? At Camp Harlam, before the Amidah, they often sing words written by songleader and friend Julie Silver: “Open my eyes to truth, open my hands to give freely, open my lips to good words, to pure words, open my heart to love.” Our eyes are open; may the rest follow, and follow soon. Amen.

If you are going to the Candidate Forum on September 17th, or would like to participate more fully in our Civic engagement work, please visit HERE to find resources, including sample questions.

Erev Rosh Hashsanah 5779

09/11/2018 09:44:10 AM

Sep11

Rabbi Robinson

Rabbi Yair D. Robinson

“The Walls Demand It of Us”

You can learn a great deal about a community, including a sacred community, by the space they call home. You can learn a great deal about a community’s history, about its values, about its loves and relationship with the surrounding neighborhood. Space is not merely space, after all; it tells a story and projects a message about who the community is and who it wants to be.

Once I went to a church for a social justice event. This church, like many houses of worship, had many doors. I walked up to the main door to find it locked. So I walked around the side to what looked like the office door, and found it locked as well. I walked around the building for several minutes trying each one in turn, until finally I found one that would open. Later, I found out that this door—which was a real back door—was the one that ‘everyone’ used to get in. Everyone who knew, at least.

Similarly, I recall a story I head about a congregation far from this community, a synagogue, where to get from the rabbi’s office to the religious school office, you had to go through several doors, down several hallways, and up a flight of stairs. Perhaps it was because of geography, or just the way the congregation’s building evolved? Nope. Apparently, the rabbi and the educator at that congregation hated each other, and they worked to put as much space and as many barriers between them as possible.

I love our space, our building. I’ve gotten to know it well over the last 10 years, and it feels homey to me. I love showing people where the staircase to the rabbi’s office used to be, both because it’s a neat little bit of trivia, but also because it demonstrates how the values of the congregation changed. As I’ve shared with many of you, I love the long corridor from the main entrance to the sanctuary as a sacred space. You come in, feeling whatever you felt based on the drive over here, and as you walk down, you see the pictures of generations of our confirmands, you hang up your coat and see your friends, you have a chance to get a drink of water, go use the rest room, and by the time you enter the sanctuary, the troubles you carried in with you—the stress of the drive, from work—are all left behind. I love this sanctuary, especially when it’s filled with people. You know I love the parking lot. And I especially love the words we have inscribed on our wall, outside the synagogue. If you go out onto Lea Boulevard and look past the spotlights, you’ll see the words of the prophet Micah inscribed on the outside walls of the sanctuary. Do Justly, Love Mercy, Walk Humbly With Thy God. Those words, along with the two tablets of the commandments positioned way up high in the corner, and the sign with our name, are the only ways you can tell that this is a synagogue. That’s it.

What do those words say about us? What do those words teach us about ourselves as a community, or as individuals who choose to be a part of this community? Certainly the words are attractively carved, in a font that was very much of the era. But it can’t just be mere decoration, could it? Synagogues often have quotes from scripture or other sources, but not always this quote, and not always in English so that everyone can read them. Certainly, as Reform Jews, we have embraced the idea of the prophetic message, especially in the era this building was built, with an eye toward proclaiming what is right and just in our community. So there’s a sense of history and connectivity there, too, that these words make this place feel like a reform synagogue, and a historic one at that. But I’d like to suggest another possibility. I’d like to put forward the idea that, in the same way that the yahrzeit plaques and the portraits on the wall and the ark behind me, that these words tell us something about the who we are and what we’re about. Even more than that, that the very fact that the words are written OUTSIDE the building are also meant to say something to those around us.

First, what does it say about us? Let as assume that these words are not merely decorative. It says that, as a congregation, these words matter. More than that, that these words get to the very fiber of who we are. That if you enter this congregation, and speak to its membership and clergy and staff, its active volunteers and less active occasional worshippers, you will find these words: To do justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with thy God, lived. Lived by our youngest toddler to our oldest grand and everyone in between. Of course, that raises an important question: are we? Are we really living these words? Can each of us say that these words are our words? Is this how we’re living our Judaism, how we’re living our lives? So let me ask, what are we doing for justice? What are we doing in mercy, or goodness? Do we see ourselves walking modestly after God, or going through life modestly at all?

I feel like it’s necessary to raise this question today, at the start of a new year, because we are a living in a time when we as a society and a nation are decidedly NOT doing justly, loving mercy or walking humbly with God. Just as an example or two, where is the justice in asking 2-year old asylum seekers to represent themselves in court, as many of them had to do this summer? Is there mercy in how we understand those suffering from addiction, or poverty? Or do we hold them accountable to unreasonable expectations.  And as we hurl insults at each other online or otherwise dive head first into the outrage machine that is the internet, can we really say that we are being humble in our experience of others?  I think it is safe to say that we are not as a country living these words, and our failure to do so is causing us a great deal of harm as a society. We are failing to lift up the just needs of others,  and turn instead to cynicism. We are increasingly cruel with each other, rather than gentle and kind and loving, seeing those who disagree with us as opponents or worse, enemies. And we are only satisfied with one answer, the extreme answer, with no room for forgiveness, or learning, or context. This is a rot in the moral underpinnings of American life, and it is taking its toll on us. The American Psychological Association now says that the fourth greatest stressor in American Life is politics, and it’s as much because of the outright hostility to, and erosion of, basic norms of civic and civil behavior as it is who won and who lost. Suffice to say, when Micah wrote these words, he lived in a similar time, with a similar breakdown, a similar calamity. Which makes the need to live these words all the more important.

This leads us to why it is on the outside wall, rather than inside. If it were inside, it would be clear that this is a personal, communal reflection. But by putting it on the outside, the people who created this building did something amazing. Two things, actually. First, they created inspiration for anyone who walks by. If you’re in the neighborhood, or driving to work, and you see our building, you see those words. And maybe they fade into the background, or you stop paying attention after a while, but maybe, just maybe, they inspire. They raise the kinds of questions in the passerby that we’ve been exploring together.

But our congregational forebears did more than that by putting Micah’s words outside our building. They called us out. Because now, if you are unfamiliar with us, and you see our wall, and you walk in, you might ask out loud or to yourself, whether or not we are doing justly, loving mercy and walking humbly. You might look around and talk to the folks; the members and the staff and the clergy, the volunteers and the worshippers, the kids and the adults, and ask yourself, is this a place and a people that truly lives by those words on the wall? They should ask that question, and we should be prepared to answer. Because if we don’t live by those words, then this is just a building, full of empty rituals. It’s brilliant, isn’t it? By putting the words on the outside the people who built this building in the 1950s challenged us to live by these words or run the risk of making the whole enterprise nothing but hypocrisy and pablum.

So the question becomes whether we are going to choose to make these words a part of our lives. Whether in our day-to-day interactions we will be these words, so that when people speak of this congregation they will say not only that we’re nice (and we are) or that we care about education (which we do) or that we are active in our community (which I think we are but you know there’s always more to do) but will say “Oh, I know which congregation is yours. It’s the one with the words from the prophet Micah on its walls. It says, “Do justly, love mercy and walk humbly with thy God” and I can say that every person from Beth Emeth lived those words and made them real.” Because it’s not enough to be nice, to care about education or be active in the community. It’s not enough to have beautiful services and a wonderful space filled with memories. None of it is enough if we don’t make these words come alive in a world so full right now of pain and enmity.

I’m sure it seems like too much. Why should each of us, then, be responsible for those words? Isn’t it hubris to think that we are uniquely required to fulfill them? And what if we fail? What if we succumb to the bitterness, the anger, the simmering rage that we see and feel around us?

A few weeks ago I was speaking with Aaron Selkow, the director of camp Harlam, where we send many of our kids, and he said something interesting. He asked why we as institutions insist on saying that we’re either really great at something or really not? Why does it have to be either or? Because when you say you’re really great, that’s just an opinion, and it may change. And when you say you’re bad at something as an institution it kind of lets you off the hook, doesn’t it? Why can’t we say we’re experimenting? We’re trying, we’re doing our best, which means we may fail, or fall, but we’re falling forward? If that’s true for institutions—for camps and synagogues and businesses—isn’t it true for people? What right do we have to say that we can’t, or that it isn’t our strong suit, or that we’re already good enough at something that we don’t have to reexamine and continue to learn? The words on our wall do not call us to be perfect but they do call on us to TRY. We don’t get to say it’s too hard. We don’t get to say we’re doing all we can already, and it’s good enough. Yes, the words of the prophet demand a great deal from us. They push us out of our comfort zone. But they leave no room to hide in self-pity or apathy. Our wall, our very building, calls us to action. Tomorrow I’ll speak more of how, but we cannot doubt the why, only respond as our ancestors did, affirming their choices. We will try. We will step out of our comfort zones. Even when it’s hard. Especially because it’s hard. The very walls demand it of us.

Parashat Ki Tavo

08/30/2018 04:41:12 PM

Aug30

Rabbi Robinson

Parashat Ki Tavo

8/31/2018

If you want to make God laugh, tell her your plans. It’s a variation on the Yiddish expression that I heard on the radio earlier this week in an interview, and I’ve been thinking about it a lot. Because we as people are planners; what are we doing today, next week, next year. Where are we travelling to, who are we having dinner with, what movie are we going to see, when are we going to go to the game with our buddy or our kid, who are we going to be when we grow up? and so on and so forth. That’s what we do: we plan. And yet, we know, deep inside, in some secret part of ourselves, that our plans are all written in pencil, they’re all theoretical. We think we know what the future holds—for our careers, our relationships, our health—and then life happens, and our plans go out the window. Sometimes in profoundly negative ways, and that might be what comes to mind: a layoff, an unexpected diagnosis, but sometimes it can be profoundly positive as well. How many times have I talked to people who met their spouses when preparing to marry someone else, or right after a big breakup, or stumbled into a job they thought would be temporary and instead led to long, meaningful careers, or weren’t planning on having kids—or having another kid—and, well, you see where I’m going. Life, as the saying goes, comes at you fast.

And yet, we plan. We still plan. We can’t help ourselves! It’s who we are. And we see it so clearly in our Torah portion this week, the verses I just recited. Vehaya ki tavo el ha’aretz asher Adonai elohecha notein lecha, when you enter the land Adonai your God is giving you, you shall take the first fruits and offer them up. When. Don’t you love it? Not, “Should you be able to”, or “If”, but “When”. What confidence! What a plan! This is going to happen, Israel! So be ready! Put it on the calendar! Here, I can share the event with you, do you prefer google calendar or ical or outlook? How could they know? How could they be so confident that, after entering this land flowing with milk and honey, and after tilling and planting and tending, they would have first fruits AT ALL, never mind enough to bring to Jerusalem? Yet there it is. A plan.

Or maybe not. Or not exactly what we mean by a plan. I think there’s another way to read this. What if this isn’t a plan for prosperity—I will have first fruits, I will have success—but instead a plan for appreciation and gratitude: “I will be grateful for what I have and I get”; “I will give thanks for what there is in my life, even if it doesn’t turn out the way I thought it would”? That’s not how we normally think of plans, is it? We don’t plan to be grateful. And yet, how might that change our perspective on life? Would it help us cope with the unexpected harm, or be better prepared for the unexpected joy? Would it allow us to be more present, more in the moment? It might not make the surprises any less surprising, but it may change how we experience them? How we relate to them. How they affect us. Is that something we would find appealing?

I think it’s worth asking the question, especially now, as we prepare for a new year. Rosh Hashanah comes and its liturgy reminds us that our plans are, perhaps, less assurances and more hopes, or aspirations. And we don’t like to be reminded of that. But the prayers of the new year also remind us of the opportunities around us for gratitude, for the expected and unexpected alike. And as Rabbi Alan Lew reminds us, while we can’t change what happens to us, we can experience what happens not as evil, but simply what happens. And, perhaps, find a way to offer our thanks for what we have—whether despite or because of what happens—all the same. Amen.

Ki Tetzei, August 24, 2018

08/24/2018 10:14:27 AM

Aug24

Rabbi Robinson

Rabbi Yair Robinson

Congregation Beth Emeth

Parashat Ki Tetzei

8/24/18

I’m not sure if you heard, but Rosh Hashanah is right around the corner. I mean, of course you’ve heard. Rob Knapper blew the shofar last week at the end of the service. We’ve been singing high holiday themed tunes all night tonight. I’ve already gotten two Rosh Hashanah cards (thanks Charlotte and Jeffrey). Let’s face it, Rosh Hashanah is at hand.

As we all know, the High Holidays have three themes, the themes that will appear on our Torah Mantles at Selichot, the themes that appear in the prayer unetaneh tokeph: T’fillah, Teshuvah and Tzedakah, usually translated as prayer, repentance and charity. These are the things that are supposed to lessen, or help us cope with, the severity of the decree. Often we focus on the first two when we talk about the high holy days. And why not? We spend a lot of time praying, and a lot of time fasting, and reflecting on the past year and our actions. Prayer and repentance seem like good things to focus on this time of year. And they are, but I want to focus on the third: tzedakah.

Tzedakah is usually translated as charity, and that’s how many people think of it. As a kid, tzedakah meant the quarter I brought in to Sunday School to give to the teacher. It was what you did. Just a thing. But of course, tzedakah means something else. It means Justice. What does justice have to do with prayer and repentance? Charity would make more sense, right? We pray, we ask forgiveness, and we give of ourselves. What’s this justice all about?

When we talk about justice we talk about two different ideas; legal justice and restorative justice. Most of the time we talk about legal justice; Law and Order stuff. There’s been a lot of legal justice in the news lately. You may have noticed: plea deals and trials and convictions and other stuff.

That is one aspect of justice, an important one. But it isn’t the only one. Restorative justice is a term that’s more in the news these days as well. Restorative justice recognizes that there are always those in our society who are mistreated legally. Who, by the pure letter of the law, are allowed to suffer, but that we as a society recognize that suffering and wish to alleviate it. Not out of the goodness of our hearts, but because it is right. This is the justice of the prophets, the justice we talk about when we mention social justice. Without a doubt, rule of law is important and necessary; but sometimes our laws don’t create the kind of conditions that allow for full equality, the alleviation of poverty, and the recognition of the holiness in each individual. So we need both. And both appear in our Torah portion. Yes, it’s a potpourri of laws about warfare, loved and unloved wives, rebellious children, not wearing wool blend clothes, and the like. But it also includes reminders that we mustn’t charge fellow Israelites interest, that we cannot deprive the poor, even if they owe us something, that the gleanings of the field belong to the poor, not to us; and the text I read, that the escaped slave must be allowed to go free. Think about that; in the time this portion was written, slavery was legal in every respect. It was a natural outcome of warfare or debt. But the Torah recognizes that, despite its legal status, it’s still wrong. It’s still unjust. So it is with us. We know many who, in spite of the law, still suffer. Our task, then, is to alleviate their suffering. To make their suffering ours. And just as prayer and repentance relieve some of the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, practicing justice, like any other spiritual practice, brings us closer to our best selves, and brings our world closer to the world God envisions for us, if only we would heed God’s voice.

 

Rabbi Robinson's Sermon, July 20, 2018

07/18/2018 09:27:58 AM

Jul18

Rabbi Robinson

Rabbi Yair D. Robinson

Parashat Devarim

7/19/18

This was not a good week for reading the news. Once again, your best bet while reading or watching the latest reports were to have a paper bag, perhaps a scotch or a pint of Haagen Daaz or whatever your poison of choice as close at hand as possible. But there was one thing on NPR that made me less miserable, and it wasn’t France’s win at the world cup.

Eritrea and Ethiopia, two countries we rarely think about except in the context of famine or evacuating Jews, have been fighting a war for 20 years, ever since the former separated from the latter. It has been a bitter, awful fight, claiming 80,000 lives and resulting in expulsions from both countries. But recently there’s been a thaw, negotiations, an official end to the fighting declared, and even an embrace between Ethiopia’s young prime minister and Eritrea’s longtime leader.

How would you respond, knowing your country and its neighbor are no longer at war? What would that look like, or feel like? For people in these two countries, it elicited an interesting response. They started calling each other. Not long-lost family or former neighbors; they started calling, like, random people. An Ethiopian would get a call from a random Eritrean, and vice versa. It was already a miracle that they could reach each other; the phone lines had been cut off from each other for decades. But there was something about this moment that compelled people across a border to call each other and express their happiness with total strangers. One example reported was that of Selehadin Eshetu. I’m quoting the news report here:

 It took Selehadin Eshetu three days of dialing random numbers to connect with someone in Eritrea. On Wednesday, as he was getting dressed to go to work in Addis Ababa, someone picked up.

Eshetu said hello; they said hello. The person asked, "Who is this?"

Eshetu said: "I am Selehadin and I am calling from Ethiopia. And I am calling randomly to say hi and to tell you how happy I am."

"And [the person called] said, 'I am going to save your number; I am going to call you regularly. We will be family,'" Eshetu said.

We will be family. Those are powerful words. Even if they never speak to each other again, those words are transformational. The act of picking up the phone and calling a random person that only a few days before was your bitter enemy and hearing them say those words, we will be family, is empowering. We need those words. My God do we need those words. If it is powerful for people of warring countries to say this to each other, how much the moreso for us as Americans to say this to one another, when we are so profoundly at war with ourselves? When a day doesn’t go by when we look at those with whom we disagree and we call them the enemy. Or we are called the enemy, with devastating and violent results.

A few minutes ago I read from Deuteronomy, the introduction to the book, which begins with admonition. As I said before, quoting the various sources, the book opens with a reminder of the places and moments when Israel sinned, delaying their arrival to the promised land. And we need those words too. We need the criticism, the reminder of our mission as a people; we need to be challenged. But we can agree that there is a difference between admonition and hate, a difference between criticism and hostility. On this weekend of Tisha b’av, a day commemorating the destruction of the Temple and Jewish sovereignty for 2000 years, we are reminded that it was words of hate that led to our self-destruction as a people, and that we need those words of comfort, those words of celebration, those words of empowerment as well. And while Devarim, which literally means ‘words’ begins with admonition, it concludes with inspiration and comfort. It begins with reminders of our past failures, and it ends with a reminder that we are all family.

I am not a believer in observing the 9th of Av, you know that, not when Israel exists, with all her faults and challenges. But it is worth our pausing this Friday to reflect on our words and how we share them. We are, sadly, too far away as a country from being able to call strangers over the phone and call them family, but we can try, and we can begin today. We can use this time to repair the breaches as we see them, to share words of comfort and love with each other. We can call each other family. So we pray as the psalmist did, Adonai, open my lips, that my mouth may declare your glory. Amen.

Rabbi Robinson's SermonParashat Mattot-Masei

07/13/2018 10:57:32 AM

Jul13

Rabbi Robinson

Rabbi Yair D. Robinson

Parashat Mattot-Masei

7/13/18

This past week I had the privilege of teaching at Delaware State University. They, in partnership with the Urban League, run a fellowship for community organizers and people working in non-profit and civic engagement here in Delaware. Specifically, the fellowship seeks to “train young people of color to be change agents empowered to create and execute solutions to pressing social problems.” They wanted me to come out and speak to this group about the Jewish community and congregational engagement. So, dunks in hand, I showed up at their building on Kirkwood Highway, studied a little Talmud with them, and talked about the challenges and benefits of community engagement with religious organizations in general and Jewish organizations in particular, and generally blathered at them for an hour and a half.

It was an engaging morning. Inspiring, really. As is often the case, I found this group both humbling and a bit intimidating, and probably learned more from them than they learned from me. Here I am, being brought in as a so-called ‘expert’, and here are young people who are already working in the schools, in the office of the public defender, on the North Side, the West Side, literally on the front lines actually walking the walk and talking the talk of community organizing and engagement, trying to move the needle for communities desperately in need. Not that we don’t do good work, mind you, both as a congregation and a Jewish community, but we aren’t living it, for the most part. We come in and do our project: we volunteer for Family Promise or cook meals or raise funds or tutor kids or do one of the myriad other Tikkun Olam endeavors that do help, and then we get in our car and go home, home being somewhere else, somewhere in the bubble that is the North Wilmington Jewish community. These folks are deeply invested because it’s their community.

And I’ll tell you what: being with these folks: these lawyers and phd students and teachers who could do truly anything with their lives and choose to work in the community, was exactly what I needed. I needed to see people who are not deterred by the cruelty of individuals in power, who are energized by the needs around them, and who sees the potential for this community to be, well, better than it is. It was inspiring to talk to these folk, each one smarter and more determined than the next, who were committed to the work out of a sense of urgency but are clear-eyed about what that work involves, and why the work must be done. As one of the participants said: she sees her work as selfish, because as long as there are individuals and communities that are suffering, she cannot consider herself to have any success or happiness.

It’s an important reminder to us as we get into the weeds of our Torah portion. Amidst the reframing of the journey of the Israelites, and the recapitulation of various laws and encounters Israel has faced, and the boundaries for each tribe in the land of Israel are established, the tribes Reuben and Gad make a request to settle outside the land, beyond the Jordan. Their leaders have a vision for their people, and see that the land they would choose to settle is, frankly, better suited to their needs than the land they would be given east of the River. Moses, fearing another revolt like the one involving the spies, cuts them a new one, until they insist that they are not doing this to abandon their fellow Israelites. In fact, they offer to go as the vanguard, the shock troops, ahead of everyone else. While on the surface they are not fighting for themselves, the Gadites and Reubenites get that for their tribes to be successful, all of Israel needs to be successful, for them to have prosperity, all of Israel needs to experience prosperity.

And so it is with us. How can we call ourselves prosperous, or happy, so long as children suffer, so long as people in our community go hungry, or experience violence? The answer is, we cannot. Not yet, not until we can say truly that we have gone ahead as a vanguard to help those in need around us. If we cannot say that we have alleviated even a modicum of pain in our midst, can we really say that we have lived well?

For me, the most fun I had with the fellows was studying Talmud with them. There’s something cool about introducing people, Jewish or non-Jewish, to text study. The text we studied was from Sotah 14a. In it, the rabbis ask about the verse “we should walk after God” and ask how it’s possible to do so. The answer is that we should follow the attributes of God: as God clothes the naked, tends to the sick, comforts the mourners and buries the dead throughout Torah, so should we. And that when we do so, we are affirming the dignity of those who need our help. It doesn’t say “Jews only”, and it certainly doesn’t say “Americans only”. Nor does the text say we even have to like the people we’re helping. Only that, to walk after God, we must act, to go like Reuben and Gad as the vanguard knowing that, while the task isn’t obviously to our benefit, in the end it is. You know what? The fellows got this text intuitively. I hope that we can as well.

07/11/2018 10:53:40 AM

Jul11

Update this content.

05/25/2018 10:57:55 AM

May25

Update this content.

Parashat Naso May 25, 2018

05/25/2018 09:24:17 AM

May25

Rabbi Robinson

Last night Rabbi Koppel and I had the blessing of being at the Islamic Society of Delaware’s Interfaith Iftar. For those who don’t know, Iftar is the ritual breaking of the fast each evening of the month of Ramadan, marked with prayer and a festive meal precisely at sundown (last night it was 8:18pm, exactly). I’d been to the New Castle County Iftar at Rockwood last year, but hadn’t been able to go to the one in Newark, so when I got the invite I jumped at the chance to celebrate with our brothers and sisters for one of their holiest days of the year. It was wonderful; they hosted religious leaders from across Delaware—Black and White, Protestant, Catholic, Jew and Sikh, men and women, as well as elected and appointed governmental officials. The governor was there, along with Senator Carper, County Executive Matt Meyer, and many others. Their Imam spoke, the governor spoke, the senator spoke, and the food was delicious. But the most impressive speech, the one that made the most impact on me, was by the head of their sisterhood, who quoted from her favorite verse of the Koran. In it, God asks a question of the people, saying, “so which of the Eternal’s Blessings would you deny?”

What a great question! It could have come out of the mouth of the prophet Isaiah or Micah rather than the mouth of Mohammad. And it’s a perfect reflection for this week, as we read the priestly benediction. Now, as I indicated already, Aaron and Moses have already blessed the people back toward the beginning of Leviticus, but here we have the actual text of the blessing. And in reciting this blessing, Israel and God are connected one to the other, inextricably linked. But it’s more than just Aaron’s responsibility. This blessing, birkat shalom, is also the blessing we say at the holidays and the festivals, and most importantly, the blessing we recite over our children. Birkat Shalom is NOT a special events blessing, it’s a reminder that we and God are interconnected, that we and the world are full of God’s glory.

So, which of God’s blessings would you deny? Because our world is full of blessing, full of opportunities to lift up and sanctify our experience. Yes, even now, when the world is on fire, when we are acutely aware of the pain in the world and the suffering of our neighbors, there is opportunity for blessing. There is a tradition in Judaism that we should say one hundred blessings every day. Which sounds like a lot, but many of them are baked into the three services we’re supposed to observe. Factor in bedtime shema, hamotzi before meals and birkat hamazon after meals and you’re most of the way there. But it’s worth looking at so many of those blessings. As I teach our b’nai mitzvah students as they prepare to lead the morning service, so many of the blessings we say are for seemingly mundane things. In the course of the morning service we say blessings for getting up, putting on our shoes, belt and hat, for roosters knowing the difference between morning and evening, cleaning out eye boogers when we go to wash our face, and even for going to the bathroom. That’s right! Go look in the morning service and you will find those blessings. Which, I remind our kids, means that everything we do has the potential for holiness, everything we do can be worthy of blessing. Everything we do can connect us back to God and God’s world and those created in God’s image.

So, which of God’s blessings would you deny? Let us instead embrace every opportunity for blessing. Or, rather, let us embrace every experience as potentially sacred, potentially holy, and therefore worthy of blessing, connecting ourselves back to God, and to each other. Amen.

Parashat Shemini April 13, 2018

03/23/2018 09:08:26 AM

Mar23

Rabbi Robinson

A nice Jewish boy made news this week, but for all the wrong reasons. Mark Zuckerberg, founder and CEO of Facebook, was up on Capitol Hill offering mea culpas and trying to explain how his creation, which was meant to bring people together and create community online for millions—even billions—has become a twisted tool of those who would sow hate and discord. Increasingly we have seen how social media has been used to create divisions in American and European society, as well as be used as a tool of choice for communicating hatred by terrorists and bigots, even being used in Burma to perpetuate atrocities against the Rohinga people. This platform that Zuckerberg created, that was touted for so long as a way of bringing people together seems, increasingly, to be a tool to drive people apart. We saw it coming, of course. The bubbles we created for ourselves as Facebook and Social Media in general became our source for news and found ourselves preferring sites and pages of sources we agreed with, sources that were increasingly strident, and as we’re learning more and more each day, may have been weaponized to make us see “the other side”, and you can decide who that is, as the enemy.

And the problem wasn’t that people were doing these things with Facebook, in collecting and manipulating our data. The problem is that it worked. The problem is that, when faced with the opportunity to see our neighbors, our fellow Americans, our fellow Jews, as our fellows or our enemies, too often we chose the latter. And perhaps we continue to choose the latter. And I mean choose. I wonder whether, 15 months after the last presidential elections, there is any way back for us to relate to and among each other. I wonder, and I worry. I worry that the damage to our precious community and sense of community is so severe, that it may never recover. I worry that my son will grow up in an era of discord and conflict rather than shared support and humanity. I worry that we will not let go of our anger, as we continue to look for blame, rather than solutions.

I worry, but I hope as well. Not a naïve hope; not ignorant of what is happening outside these walls and around the world, but the hope that grows out of shared love and support. The hope that comes out of hearing our youth speak out for justice. The hope that comes from seeing 80 or more of us gathered this past Saturday to greet our new cantor, but also catch up with one another in sacred and personal fellowship.

This week, we read in the Torah how Aaron, now the high priest of Israel, goes to bless the people. He raises his hands, and…nothing happens. So, he and Moses, his brother, go back into the Tent of Meeting, come back out, bless the people together, and then the presence of Adonai manifested and fire came forth; the prayer over the people had been recognized.

Why did it need to happen twice? Aaron was the high priest, after all. Why did Moses have to do it with him? Did Aaron do it wrong, as some commentaries suggest? Did Moses have to demonstrate how? Did his voice falter at the thought of such an important responsibility? Whatever the reason, the text is pretty clear that the blessing doesn’t count unless it’s done together.

The blessing doesn’t count unless it’s done together.

It is important for us to lift this up, and to lift it up in this moment. In the Torah, this moment happens not just at the ordination of Aaron and his sons, but the ordination of Israel itself as God’s chosen people. This is a moment in the Torah that is beyond survival, beyond mere physical needs, and speaks instead to the mission of Israel; to be a nation of priests and a holy people. That’s true in our moment too. We are still that nation of priests and that holy people. We are in this moment, no less terrifying than the moment after Sinai when Israel realized it had a long journey ahead of them. Perhaps our wilderness is different, but the mission remains the same. We are called, all of us, to do this work. And we’re called to do it together. Together we can be strong even when one of us doesn’t feel it. Together we can be loving even when one of us is wounded. Together the work we do to make a difference becomes not only meaningful, but transformative. Each of us as individuals can only do so much, but together, together our blessing counts for so much more.

That, fundamentally, is why we come here to this place. Not for our own personal needs, not to satisfy our own desire for entertainment or relaxation or memory, but because when we’re together, we’re something more. Because together—young and old, of every gender and no gender, Jews by choice and by chance and those who aren’t Jewish at all, with all of our myriad different experiences—become something else entirely. In that moment, we become Israel, and it is when we come together as Israel that the blessing becomes real.

We are counting the Omer right now, each day from the second day of Passover for fifty days. Each day is just a day, full of potential realized and squandered, full of tasks and moments that are thrilling and challenging in equal measure. There’s nothing special about each day. But the last day is Shavuot, when we commemorate the giving of the Torah at Sinai. The days, gathered together, matter. The work we do, gathered together, matters. The blessing we offer, when done together, matters. For that reason, we must find a way to come back, each of us, all of us, together.

Parashat Tzav

03/15/2018 09:42:35 AM

Mar15

Rabbi Yair Robinson

Rabbi Yair Robinson

Parashat Tzav

March 23rd 2018

I want to talk to you about antisemitism. Well, I don’t want to talk talk to you about antisemitism, but with the Forward's recent critique that the American Jewish community isn’t responding to the increase in anti-Jewish action and rhetoric (to which many leaders of the American Jewish community responded “really”?), I figured we really should have a chat.

Because it is a serious concern. The anti-defamation league reports a pretty massive increase in antisemitism in our goldene medina, along the lines of what we’re used to seeing in Europe or South America. In the last couple of weeks we’ve had members of the leadership of the Women’s March have to rush to the aid of one if their own due to her recent support of Louis Farrakhan of the Nation of Islam. You had an actual Illinois Nazi win the Republican nomination for Congress in his district, and I hate Illinois Nazis, and a Washington DC city council member claim that Jews, more specifically the Rothchilds, control the weather. All of this Coming amid a backdrop of increasing anti Jewish animosity on college campuses and online, as well as in the public square, not so long after the disaster of what happened this summer in Charlotte.

And in truth, we…wring our hands. We shry gavult on Facebook. We make funny memes in response (if Jews controlled the weather why the humidity?). We let the ADL and other Jewish Organizations put pressure, but why aren’t we doing more? What else should we be doing?

It’s possible that, despite the increase, we aren’t personally effected by it. Or, we’re used to a certain low-level simmer with non-jews. Who hasn’t had someone say something vaguely antisemetic, more out of ignorance than malice? Some comment about how great Jews are with money, for example. I remember a teacher in high school describing a particularly anxious character in a book as a Jewish, Woody Allen type. Perhaps we’re just desensitized? Or, perhaps as bad as it’s getting, it’s just not what people of color experience. Antisemetic incidents, as bad as they are, are in the category of schoolyard taunts, the kind of ethnic jokes that have mostly gone out of style. That’s different than the constant fear of violence and bigotry marginalized people often experience in our country.

Perhaps. But I don’t think that’s it. It’s clear that something else is happening now, in the last year, something far beyond punk kids spraying swastikas. And while each of us have experienced low grade foot in mouth disease among acquaintances and colleagues, what we’re seeing now is much more powerful.

That’s because anti-Semitism is different from other forms of bigotry. In our case, it’s a conspiracy theory, as Yair Rosenberg (among many others) have pointed out. The idea that Jews control the weather, the economy, horde “infamous gold” as Jorge Louis Borges wrote, that we are all ‘globalists’, whatever the heck that means, is in many ways a far more powerful set of ideas than thinking we are beneath contempt. Instead, we are something to be feared and looked upon with suspicion. And, as Rosenberg wrote this week, it’s not that the conspiracy theories exist; ever since there were Jews there were conspiracy theories about us—just ask Pharaoh, who opens Exodus with one. The issue is that, instead of consigning these tin-foil hat ideas to the dustbin of history, people—elected officials, college educated individuals, people who have the means to know better—continue to peddle in them, seemingly without consequence or any real effort to correct or stop them. That is what should scare us. It’s not that Louis Farrakhan exists; it’s that he manages to show up despite his irrelevance and swallow whole people’s political careers. It’s not that the term ‘globalist’ is an anti-Semitic dog whistle, it’s that folks from Wall Street to Main Street—and the White House—use the term as if they’re describing the weather. It’s not that crackpots deny the Holocaust—it’s that people running for congress on major party tickets and the leader of the Palestinian Authority deny the Holocaust. That is what is scary?

In this regard, the critique that we’re not doing enough to combat antisemitism is on point, and I’m as surprised as anyone else. In the Torah portion I just read, it talks about how the fire on the altar, meant to be kept burning always, must be fed “boker boker”, every morning, literally morning after morning. The fire won’t stay lit, after all, unless it has fuel fed it by the Kohein. So it is with combating hate. We can’t laugh off the off-color joke or the half-thought out comment anymore. We can’t ignore the comment or the episode, and then fight it out in our heads later. We have an obligation to respond each and every single time. Just because we’re doing pretty well as a minority doesn’t mean we must silence our voices when vitriol emerges, for if they come for us, be sure that they’re coming for any other marginalized or minority voice: women, people of color, the LGBTQ community, the immigrant, etc. We must be vigilant in a way that we haven’t had to be in a generation or more. Which doesn’t mean we come down like a hammer on every person. We cannot combat hate with hate, with anger and yelling and screaming. We cannot stoop to their level. We have to be strategic and thoughtful. Sometimes we need to take the opportunity to make a gentle correction, to clarify the person who means well but doesn’t have experience. And sometimes, we need to respond more sternly, righteously, even if our voice shakes; but not with anger. With the rectitude and knowledge that sometimes, a person won’t get the message unless he’s told directly and forcefully that his words and actions are wrong. Even if that doesn’t change who they are—the Illinois Nazi isn’t going to change his stripes—but it will give courage to those around us, and rally allies to the cause. And we must call out the bigots in our own midst. We cannot keep the flame of God lit if we have Jewish leaders, like the Chief Rabbi of Israel, who recently compared people of color to monkeys, wallowing publicly in their own bigotry. We cannot be a light to the nations if there are those of our people who would dim that light. So when we hear fellow Jews saying something, even jokingly, about minorities, or women, or the marginalized, we must speak as loudly and as strongly. Again, without hate, but with the knowledge that we are right and they are wrong.

Pesach is next Shabbat. We will gather around our tables and share our story of Freedom. We will say we were slaves but now we’re free. Free people call out hatred. Free people silence bigotry. Free people teach and correct misguided individuals. Free people keep God’s light lit for all to see. When we conclude the seder we will say “next year in Jerusalem”. I hope this time we’re right, but it’s going to take all of our efforts. May we work toward it. Amen.

Sermon for March 16, 2018

02/16/2018 02:19:58 PM

Feb16

Rabbi Robinson

Parashat Vayikra

March 16, 2018

It was deep in the winter—so goes the Hasidic story—and the rebbe was walking along the snowy path when he heard a cry: “help, help!” from just off the road. He went and found a wagon overturned next to a mule and driver, who was trying to right it. “Come and help me!” cried the frantic man by the wagon. The rebbe came and tried to lift, but it was no use; his limbs wouldn’t let him lift the wagon back on its wheels. With a resigned sigh he said, “It’s no use. It cannot be lifted.” “No,” said the driver with a fierce look in his eye, “you’re just giving up; you’re not really willing to help.” Stunned, the rebbe looked at the man, and tried one last time, whereupon they lifted the wagon back on its wheels and he sent the driver on his way.

I have to tell you, this story has been rattling around in my head the last week; while walking around New York City, while studying with colleagues, while watching teens and kids walk out of schools this week to protest and mark the period of sheloshim since Parkland. There’s something about this story, about the passionate, frantic calling out of the wagon driver and the rebbe’s two responses, first his ambivalence, then his stronger reaction, that is really speaking to me right now. I don’t know why. Maybe it’s that ongoing sense of feeling overwhelmed; the daily, hourly, minute-by-minute reminders of how broken and sad and cruel our world can be. But maybe it’s something else as well.

What does it mean to call or be called to? A call is an attempt to get our attention, sometimes out of anxiety, sometimes out of affection, sometimes both. Regardless, the idea of a call is that it’s something that we have trouble tuning out. Like a baby’s cry, a real call grabs our attention and won’t let go, we have to respond. And a call is intentional; it’s not merely a crying out, but something that pierces the heart.

This week our Torah presents us with a call as well: מוֹעֵד מֵאֹהֶל אֵלָיו יְהוָֹה   יְדַבֵּר וַ -מֹשֶׁה אֶל וַיִּקְרָא. God called to Moses and spoke to him from the Tent of Meeting.

Rashi reminds us that the word Vayikra i וַיִּקְרָא s used with intention here. Why else would the text present two words for the same thing: Vayikra and vayidaber: God called and God spoke. You only need one, and God doesn’t waste ink, so what gives? Well, as Rashi explains, all oral communications of the Eternal to Moses were preceded by a call. We might think this is merely to get Moses’ attention, but we’re also told that it is a way of expressing affection, the mode used by the ministering angels when addressing each other, as it is said (Isaiah 6:3) “And one called unto another [and said, Holy, holy, holy is the God of hosts]”, the same verses in the kedusha when we go up on our tiptoes. Sure, the words that will follow are meant to be transmitted to Israel, which is a pretty important task. But there’s a personal connection, a kind of loving and insistent grabbing of Moses’ elbow, as it were. A moment of trust, where God knows Moses will listen.

We shouldn’t take that for granted, by the way. Why assume just because God speaks that people listen? Even through fire, through flame, God can be like our wagon driver, calling for help but no one is listening. But Moses will listen. Moses will hear, whether there’s fire or not.

The real question isn’t whether Moses will hear the call. The real question is whether we will hear the call. And don’t tell me there isn’t a call. The call is all around us; it’s deafening. The truth of the matter is that we’re being called to by God all the time. Perhaps we don’t think of it that way or realize it, but there it is: in the paper as we read about human suffering, directly in front of us when we confront it in teens so afraid and angry they stage a walkout, and the poor person made so humble they can barely ask for their God-given right to dignity, and so many others. God calls to us, and we have do decide how we’re going to respond. We can read the paper and feel bad for a minute about the Rohingya or the kid who got shot or whoever and then feel good that we felt bad, but that doesn’t seem like enough, does it? That seems like the rebbe’s first reaction, pushing against the cart without really making an effort. What would it mean, then, for us to respond more fully, less ambivalently, more wholly? Does that mean giving our money? Our time? Our sweat equity? Does that mean looking for opportunities to step up rather than opportunities to opt out? Does it mean using our prayer time on Friday nights not just to enjoy the music and relax and unwind but to spend some real time within our souls challenging ourselves about what we should be doing? The word to pray in Hebrew, after all, means to judge one’s self.

I ask this as an honest question, and a question I struggle with every day. Sometimes I give to the homeless person, and sometimes I don’t. Sometimes I actively look for those moments to make a difference in the community, and sometimes it seems like it’s too much, the wagon won’t right. Sometimes I can hear that voice, with affection and urgency in equal measure, asking me whether I’m doing enough. I especially hear that voice when I look at my family, at my son, and wonder what he thinks of the work I do. And I think of something my teacher Rabbi Shai Held reminds me of again and again: what’s the point of studying Torah if it doesn’t lead you to be a better person? What’s the point of ANYTHING we do as Jews if it’s merely a social or academic exercise? How does that help us answer the call, answer God’s call.

God calls to us out of love, and we must answer the call with all our might. We simply must. Because here’s the thing: what does the call in Vayikra lead to? It leads to forgiveness through the sacrifices, and it leads to holiness in the holiness code. The same is true for us: hearing the call and answering the call leads to repairing the fabric of the universe around us, and leads to holiness, to whole-ness, for ourselves and those around us. May we recognize the call, so we may fulfill the words of Torah: Na’aseh v’nishmah: we will do, as we have heard. Amen. 

 

February 23, 2018 Parashat Tetzaveh

02/16/2018 02:19:18 PM

Feb16

Rabbi Elisa F. Koppel

In the synagogue where I worked in NJ, we would take our 8th and 9th graders each year on a weekend retreat with several other synagogues in the area.

I will never forget the look on the face of the educator I worked with, when she came back to our table after getting more food at Shabbat lunch during one of those weekends.  Lisa, the educator I worked with, told us of the following exchange:

As she stood in line alongside Grace, a student from our synagogue who happens to be blind.  A young man from another synagogue stood in front of them and offered to let them go ahead of him because he “certainly didn’t need to get to the food first.”  (This was a young man who was a little bit overweight and who is often misunderstood and judged based on his appearance, rather than the quality of his character.)  Grace looked confused, and leaned in to Lisa to say that she didn’t understand what he meant.  Lisa explained to her that the young man had just made a self-deprecating remark about himself in reference to his weight. Her response was “Oh,” and while it was clear that this made her feel bad, she just had no real frame of reference for what he was saying.  And that’s when it dawned on him.  Lisa watched his face light up, his whole demeanor change and he addressed his next comment to Grace directly.  “Wow,” he said to her, “You are so lucky! You never have to judge people on their appearances!” 

This young man gave Grace—and Lisa—and all of us who heard the story, an amazing gift—by recognizing and defining Grace’s own gift—a gift that comes as a result of something that most would perceive as a deficit.  It is so easy to look at a person who has a disability and miss the person, miss their gifts, and only see the disability. 

Rabbi Lynn Landsberg, after suffering a traumatic brain injury that physically and mentally impaired her, talks about going into stores using a wheelchair, where she had shopped regularly before her accident.  Salespeople who had helped her spend money for years would suddenly ignore her.  She quips when talking about this, “What, because I can’t walk, I can no longer use a credit card?”  

Sometimes, we overlook the individual and often, we miss the gifts—those gifts that are tangible, and those that are not.  But indeed, it is sometimes exactly as a result of what we usually call a disability, that people are able to have, and to give, a unique gift. I’m reminded of 2 examples of gifts I was given:

When I was a rabbi in Port Washington, NY, our synagogue was located around the corner from the Helen Keller National Center for Deaf-Blind Youths and Adults.  Over the course of my time there, a young woman came to live and learn at the center who was Jewish and wanted to come to services.  

I found a generous donor who helped to fund this, paying for the aid who accompanied her and transportation.  And each Saturday morning, she’d come to services.  Following along in a braille edition of the prayer book, experiencing the prayers, and communicating through her aid with touch based sign language.  She became a regular and I always enjoyed greeting her and welcoming her.  

After a month or so of her coming each week to temple, her aide told me that she had created a sign for me, which is something that people who communicate through sign language do for significant people in their lives—she used the sign for rabbi, using a K instead of an R.  I will always remember and treasure the moment I received that gift.

And then, back to the synagogue in NJ, when I received another gift, on the 2nd day of Rosh Hashanah (this is a synagogue where they do 2 days of services for Rosh Hashanah).  I was not feeling well that day.  A bit stressed about the sermon I was about to deliver, and I was also coming down with something.  I had slept horribly the night before. Between not feeling well and being nervous, I was distracted enough that I forgot to put on a kippah, a yarmulke, that morning.  And I didn’t realize it until about half way through the service, when I went to scratch my head.  I probably had a look of surprise on my face at this realization, but I went on.  

A few minutes later, I noticed Wayne, a teenager with autism, who frequently and enthusiastically attended services at our synagogue, as well as being an active participant in our youth group and our NFTY region and camper at the Reform Movement's Kutz Camp;  Wayne was, at that moment, walking up to the bimah.  When he had seen my moment of distress, he immediately noticed what was off, got up, walked out of the sanctuary to the bin where we kept extra kippot, grabbed a kippah, and brought it to me.  A pure act of kindness and concern.  Truly a gift.

We are told in the Torah that the Mishkan, the Tabernacle—the portable sanctuary that the Israelites carried with them through the wilderness—the first sacred space constructed—was made out of gifts brought by the community.  We are in the midst of several weeks of Torah portions that talk about this idea—as well as the clothing the priests wore, and the creation of ritual items that went into the Mishkan. 

In these descriptions, we are told about Betzalel, the artist who crafted this structure—a man who was singled out by God—who was filled with the spirit of God in wisdom, and understanding, and knowledge in every kind of craft.  A man, surely, of unique spirit.  And God also assigns Oholiab to work with him, and other skilled members of the community to help, as well.  

Each year, as I read these portions during February, Jewish Disability Awareness and Inclusion Month, I can’t help but wonder if maybe Betzalel was someone whose gifts were often overlooked because of other aspects of his person.  The Torah doesn’t tell us much else about Betzalel—which gives us the freedom to interpret it—to create modern midrash—to write the back stories.  

And in my midrashic imagination, Betzalel is a man who is singled out by God for his unique gifts, because the community itself might not have noticed the gifts he had to offer.

And what a model that offers us.  First, he’s given an aide—someone who can help him to be successful—who can make sure he has what he needs—some extra help to negotiate that which is more challenging for him.  And other members of the community as well.  

Because the community needs to be part of this—so Betzalel has more help, so he isn’t alone, so Betzalel is truly part of that community.  And by calling him forth in front of the entire community to do this sacred work, Moses gives him a place of honor.  Recognizing his gifts publicly. 

And Betzalel is the one who gets to have the holy task of creating the holy space built so that the Divine can dwell with the people in that space.

And, indeed, it is only when we honor the gifts of all members of the community—when we put systems in place so that all members of the community are welcomed—when we have removed the stumbling blocks that are huge, as well as the ones that no one had even noticed were there—it is then that we can truly create holy community.  And receive the gifts that each member of the community has to offer.

Let us learn from this—may Betzalel be our reminder to create a community—to create a world—in which all are welcome—are embraced—not despite a disability that someone has, but because we value the gifts that only that individual can bring.  Gifts that are the essence of their spirit.  Gifts that others might ignore.  Gifts that we need, in order to create sacred space.

February 16, 2018 Sermond

02/09/2018 09:06:03 AM

Feb9

Rabbi Robinson

Rabbi Yair Robinson

Parashat Terumah 2018

 

Permit me the luxury of ruining Gilbert and Sullivan, or perhaps even music, for you.

[sing]

Prithee, pretty maiden—prithee, tell me true

(hey but I’m doleful, willow willow waly)

Have you e’er a lover a-dangling after you

(Hey willow waly-o!)

I would fain discover

If you have a lover

(hey willow waly-o)

This song, Prithee Pretty Maiden from the Gilbert and Sullivan Operetta Patience has been STUCK IN MY HEAD since Saturday afternoon. Literally I’ve been walking around—throughout DC during L’taken, at home, in the office, at the hospital, humming this tune, tunelessly. Why? Well, it first got there this past Saturday, at my wife’s concert Performance of the Chester County Gilbert and Sullivan 30th anniversary Gala., which became a who’s who of the local G&S circuit. But it wasn’t just because it was performed at the Gala. Being an anniversary celebration, they asked past performers to come and revisit their old favorites. Interestingly, the song—which is a duet between two potential young lovers—was not sung by someone who had played the role in Chester County. Instead, it was sung by a 70-ish year old woman and her 90-ish year old longtime partner, who first played the role when he was a young man in the D’oyly Carte (those of you who know something about Gilbert & Sullivan will understand that that is a Very Big Deal). I’d heard them perform together before, of course, but to hear a nonogenerian sing a song meant for a callow youth, and sing it beautifully for someone that age, and with all the weight and gravity of decades of life experience, made a profound impression on me. Seeing the two of them on stage and hearing his voice in particular, was truly magical. You could hear the echo of his younger self in the performance, but with all these other layers of life, all at the same time.

As I’ve been unable to let go of this Victorian earworm (and by the way, you’re welcome), I’ve been thinking about the truth in the layers of this performance. What do I mean? Well, let me quote journalist Sarah Tuttle Singer for a moment. She wrote this week “The thing about the Old City is it's built on layers and each layer is true.” She’s talking archeology and culture, but I think there’s a truth there about life and memory as well. In the Old city of Jerusalem, we have a modern house built over a Byzantine church built over a Roman shop built over a Judean granary. And each existed in its own time and had its own integrity, which the archeological record allows us to see, and none could exist without the other, each structure literally supported by the other. And that’s true in the Torah, as layer upon layer of commentary and interpretation helps shape our reading and understanding of scripture, each influencing and relating to the other, and each with its own deep meaning. Each layer is true. And in our lives we have memory stacked on top of memory on top of memory. We remember our childhood and our youth and draw comparisons to who we are today, and each has its own integrity, and one cannot exist without the other. Each layer is true. So when we come to a synagogue, a sanctuary, we use the prayerbook that is there now, and sing the songs that are sung now, and hear the words of the rabbi who is there now, but we remember the texture of the prayerbook of our childhood, and the sound of the voice of the cantor of our youth, and the words of the rabbi when we were young parents. We look at the carpet today and remember the parquet floor of yesterday. We look at the Eternal Light of today but we remember the light that shone over our child’s bar mitzvah celebration. We hear the voices of the people around us, but we remember the voices who used to sing joyfully with us from before. Sometimes, when we sing Ein Keloheinu I can hear the voices of the old men who sang with gusto when I was a child, or when I pick up Mishkan T’fillah I can feel the pink ribbon from the blue Gates of Prayer between my fingers, or the rough, cloth-like texture of the Gray Gates. And sometimes when I read a prayer I can hear the voice of one of my teachers reading that prayer as I recite it, or I remember what it was like to stand on a bimah the first time and hear the congregation read responsively as I read. And all those layers are true. I know I cannot go back to the sanctuary of my youth, to the prayerbook and the music, to say nothing of the congregation; the past is in the past. But it is present within me, and it informs me, and as I pray today’s prayers in today’s sanctuary I give honor to those layers of experience. And all of those layers are true. And all of those layers are sacred.

A few moments ago we recited from the Torah God’s command to bring gifts, in order to make God a sanctuary that God may dwell among us. And we could spend a lot of time on the minutia of the various gifts and what it means to make a physical sanctuary, a mishkan, a tabernacle. And there is a truth to that understanding, of wealth utilized for sacred purpose. And, I would suggest to you that, among the gold and silver and lapis lazuli and dolphin skins and crimson thread, one of the gifts we bring is the layers of our experience and memory. And that when we share those layers we are sharing what is most true about ourselves, our experience, our love: our past and present and even our future. And more than that; the prophet Jeremiah, in what could be taken as a commentary on this portion, said, “I did not speak to your ancestors nor command them in the day that I brought them out of Egypt, concerning burnt-offerings and sacrifices; rather, this is what I commanded them, saying: ‘listen to my voice, and I will be your God, and you shall be my people. You shall walk in all the ways that I command you, so that it will be good for you.” Through our memories, through the layers of our experience, we can hear God’s voice, we can feel ourselves renewed and inspired again to fulfill God’s mitzvah. Different now, because we are different. But honoring and celebrating what came before.

The past is a gift, the layers of memory an offering, and from them we build a sanctuary of meaning and inspiration. And in that sanctuary we encounter holiness. And like the Torah, like the Old City of Jerusalem, like the song of a young man sung by one who’s lived a lifetime, it is true. Hey, Willow waly-O.

February 9, 2018

02/09/2018 09:04:59 AM

Feb9

Rabbi Robinson

Update th

Parashat Mishpatim

2/9/18

I don’t know if you heard the news, but Wilmington has a Kosher restaurant for the first time in years, perhaps decades. And it’s not what you’d think. Last month, the Va’ad certified Dropsquad Kitchen, on the riverfront at Justison Landing, as our first kosher eatery. This is a big deal; sure, we’ve had froyo and ice cream joints and a cupcake shop with kosher certification, and you could get kosher food at Lodge Lane and the JCC, but it’s been a while since you could buy lunch or dinner out at a kosher place.

 

The question then becomes, what is Dropsquad kitchen? It’s not a new place; they’ve been on the riverfront since 2012. They’re a vegan, African American owned and operated soul-food restaurant. The name was chosen by the owner, Abundance Child, who took it from a Spike Lee movie. It’s a quirky place, filled with books and board games, the kind of place I would have loved to hang out in when I was in high school. The staff (who are mostly family) are thoughtful and welcoming and kind, and the food is delicious.

I’d been there before they got their heksher, and you know something? I’m absolutely thrilled. I have to tell you, I love the fact that it’s not what you’d expect from a kosher place; it’s not a deli, not a bagel place. Nothing about it says ‘Jewish’: no kreplach, no latkes, and certainly no gribnes. But so what? Why does that have to be our idea of kosher? And why not an African American business, downtown on the Riverfront as opposed to another eatery in Trolley Square or on 202 in North Wilmington? We had our DERECH meeting there this Tuesday and it was so great to get out of our own ruts, our own comfort zones, and I can’t wait to see as others in the Jewish community do the same.

For Dropsquad Kitchen to become kosher (and for the Va’ad to give them the heksher) is, of course, a business decision. But it’s more than that; it’s an experiment in radical empathy. Will Jews who want Kosher be willing to go downtown and eat vegan tacos (which are pretty awesome by the way), and will Dropsquad Kitchen want to welcome these folks in? Why wouldn’t the restaurant stick with its usual clientele and the Va’ad wait for someone to open up a more “classic” Jewish eatery? Specifically, because it gets us to see each other as part of a shared community, a shared experience. By eating kosher soulfood, it challenges us to understand the value of kashrut as more than just a particular ethnic cuisine but as a collection of values that are meant to lift us up and better ourselves and the world around us. When we get beyond our own boundaries, we stop being strangers to each other, and we become neighbors. And I can think of nothing more Jewish than that.

A few minutes ago I reminded us that the idea of loving and caring for the stranger, something that we are so familiar with in the Torah that it verges on pablum, is one of the most radical ideas in the ancient world and, I would argue, today. To say that we should take our shared experience of being the stranger, the resident alien, in Egypt, our narrative of being oppressed and ostracized, and transform that memory into radical empathy, is nothing short of revolutionary. As Rabbi Shai Held reminds us in The Heart of Torah, Scripture could have said, “since you were tyrannized and exploited and no one did anything to help you, you don’t owe anything to anyone; how dare anyone ask anything of you?” But that’s not what it said and not what I read; “You shall not oppress the stranger for you know the feelings of the stranger having yourselves been strangers in the land of Egypt.” Our memory is transformed from ethnic experience to intense ethical obligation, from an act of remembering for its own sake to one of moral responsibility. It’s not rational; we aren’t told “be kind to strangers because you might get something out of it”, or, “be kind to the resident alien in case they take over and you find yourself on the wrong end of a sword,” or, “let’s be kind to the resident alien, but only the good ones, the right ones who look like us and bother to get off the couch.” The appeal is entirely emotional. We’ve been there, we know what it’s like, and because we do we have an obligation to help when no one helped us; the immigrant Dreamer who dreams American dreams, the refugee fleeing persecution and death, and the African migrant coming to Israel hoping for safety and refuge, raising families and children, converting sometimes to Judaism, only to be told by the Jewish state that they should go to Rwanda. To forget our shared experience, our narrative, or to think it doesn’t make a moral demand of us, is to betray God, our Torah and ourselves. That’s what makes Dropsquad kitchen being kosher so amazing; a simple act of radical kindness. And that’s what makes our current debate around immigration, both here and in Israel, so infuriating. Yes, there is a comfort in hiding behind walls of our own making, but Torah compels us, compels us as surely as it compels us to keep the Sabbath or the holidays, to do differently, and to do better. That’s why we must act and work with JFS Rise program to welcome refugees. That’s why we must join with the Religious Action Center to call for a clean DREAM act. That’s why we must do what we must do to make sure those who are not from here, the resident alien, the stranger, know that they are welcome.

One of my favorite stories goes like this (you might know it from that great source of midrash, The West Wing): "This guy's walking down the street when he falls in a hole. The walls are so steep he can't get out.

"A doctor passes by and the guy shouts up, 'Hey you. Can you help me out?' The doctor writes a prescription, throws it down in the hole and moves on.

"Then a priest comes along and the guy shouts up, 'Father, I'm down in this hole can you help me out?' The priest writes out a prayer, throws it down in the hole and moves on

"Then a friend walks by, 'Hey, Joe, it's me can you help me out?' And the friend jumps in the hole. Our guy says, 'Are you stupid? Now we're both down here.' The friend says, 'Yeah, but I've been down here before and I know the way out.'"

We’ve been down here before, and we know the way out. And Torah reminds us what to do; we jump into the pit with them. Just let’s grab some vegan kosher tacos for the road first.

December 20, 2017

12/20/2017 09:29:26 AM

Dec20

As Wilmington’s largest and most progressive Jewish congregation, we are saddened by the “for sale” sign out in front of our neighboring synagogue, Adas Kodesh Shel Emeth. The article in Monday’s News Journal describing their plans to sell the building and move was painful to read for the entire Jewish community and we will continue to be supportive of our friends at AKSE in whatever ways we are able.

As the leadership of a Congregation Beth Emeth, a thriving synagogue, we take exception to the allegation that synagogues in Delaware are in a race to the bottom that AKSE got unlucky enough to win. Our mission continues daily as we enrich and inspire each other and our greater community through teaching, learning, and rejoicing in our Jewish ideals and traditions while remaining committed to pluralism, diversity, and inclusivity.

The Reform movement of which we are a member, stresses building community both with our Jewish or non-Jewish brothers and sisters. We are working hard here in Delaware to connect people to an inclusive and joyful Judaism. And while yes, that Judaism may not resemble “traditional” Judaism, it is no less grounded in investing in a Jewish future than any of the other congregations in our state. We will continue to provide diverse and meaningful experiences for any who choose to be a part of our community, fulfilling the words of the prophet Isaiah, that we shall be a house of worship for all people.

Sermon October 27, 2017, Me Too

10/03/2017 01:33:39 PM

Oct3

Rabbi Robinson

Me too.

Those are the words we're hearing and seeing again and again these few weeks. Girls. Women. Mom's. Grandmas. Black, white, Jewish. Affirmations that they, too had been sexually harassed.

Started as a campaign years ago by an African American activist, me too came back to the fore as a result of the Harvey Weinstein scandal, which turns out to be a cascading scandal of Hollywood and political leaders being outed as harassers, abusers of power and authority.

Like many men, I've been watching and listening, horrified. What can one say to seeing hundreds, if not thousands, of responses from family and friends and allies and colleagues about their experiences?

I teach Torah. Torah is the lense through which I see the world and I look to the Torah and see another Me too moment. Sarai (eventually Sarah) and Avram (eventually Abraham) will, after reaching the promised Land, go down to Egypt to avoid famine. There, Avram will ask Sarai to pretend that she is his sister, fearful that Pharoah will kill him for her. So she plays along with the rest, and see enough, Pharaoh wants Sarai for his harem. As her brother, Abvram benefits beautifully with great wealth-a bride price. It takes a plague by God to stop Pharaoh, who banishes Avram and Sarai due to Avram’s actions.

Me too, says Sarai. Me too, victim not just of Pharoah’s power mad antics but also her husband's fear and failure to see his spouse as anything more than a bargaining chip.

We might say his story is a product of its time, but the text itself seems to be calling out Avram for his behavior. Certainly the rabbis pull all their hair out trying to justify, rationalize, and indeed, call Avram on the carpet for his behavior.

Me too, says the Torah.

 

Each of us have, at some point, witnessed harassment. How many times did we stand up against it, take the offending person behind the woodshed, sounded the alarm? How often did we meekly apologize to the victim, and make excuses? How often, after hearing accusations, did we try to justify an abuser's actions? How often did we do nothing?

 

The text holds up a model of behavior for us. Not Avram and certainly not Pharaohz but God. God intervenes. God stops the actual abuse. Now, we can't hit folks with a plague, but we can speak out. We can stand up. We can take victims’ stories seriously. We can and must. Even when it's hard. Even when we are fearful. If these women are brave enough to describe their moments of abuse and harassment, can we as bystanders really say we lack courage?

 

Sarai says Me too. God says: be a blessing. Let's choose to be a blessing.

Kol Nidrei 5778 Sermon

09/30/2017 09:33:54 PM

Sep30

Rabbi Robinson

Tomorrow, thousands of people will gather in a communal act of love and justice. Actually, Two. One, is the holiday we begin tonight, a holiday that calls us to task and asks us to be our better selves. The other is the March for Racial Justice, a march taking place on Washington on a day, tomorrow, that is incredibly significant for African Americans, a day commemorating the massacre of hundreds of African Americans in Elaine, Arkansas in 1919, one of too many days in American history drenched in blood. But by scheduling this march on Yom Kippur, it appeared as if the organizers were purposefully excluding Jews, who have been at the forefront of racial justice in North America, from David Einhorn and the abolitionists before the Civil War, to the Jewish Freedom Riders and rabbis who went to the south to fight for desegregation and voting rights, to today. It looked bad…until a day in late August, when the organizers put out an apology. A heartfelt one, recognizing the shared crisis of racism and antisemitism we are facing in the United States today and their own failure to recognize the date of Yom Kippur being in conflict. They could have stopped there, but they didn’t. They asked for forgiveness in the spirit of the holiday, recognized that self-denial and fasting is not just a spiritual act but one of resistance, and that we use the holiday to reflect on the ills of society and not only our personal failings. And while they couldn’t change the date of the primary march, they were adding other events afterwards and in other cities to create opportunities to include Jews as allies and partners in the work of racial healing and social justice.

In other words, they made Teshuvah.

Tonight, we begin our Day of Atonement, our last chance to reflect on our actions from the past year and decide what kind of people we want to be. The next 24 hours we will be focused, as commanded, on self-denial, mostly fasting, and concluding these 10 Days of Awe, themselves part of several weeks of penitence; a final, last-ditch effort to make Teshuvah, to turn in true repentance and try to live up to our better selves. Even more than that, the scholar Adin Steinsaltz describes Teshuvah as “the ever-present possibility of changing one’s life and the very direction of one’s life”, and “the possibility of altering reality after the fact.”

When we talk about Teshuvah, repentance, and kapparah, atonement, we often talk about the idea of selicha, of apology.  Classically, Teshuvah is made up of three parts: we are supposed to apologize for what we’ve done wrong, make amends or restitution to those we’ve offended, and make changes in our lives so that we don’t make the same mistake or cause the same harm again. But the focus is so often on asking forgiveness. Our liturgy emphasizes that idea of verbally saying “I’m sorry”, and we see all over social media and in person people saying something like, “if I have offended you I apologize and I forgive anyone who has offended me,” a catch-all reciprocal act of forgiveness. But Teshuvah is more than just the words we speak; it must be predicated on our actions as well. To merely ask for forgiveness without doing the hard work of literally turning ourselves around is really an invitation to failure. It’s setting an expectation that we will do better and be better without having prepared ourselves to do either. It’s the spiritual equivalent of running a marathon without having ever done any exercise; without the training, the buildup of muscle and endurance, both physical and mental, the race is already lost. Doesn’t matter if you paid the registration, got your number and had every intention of running and finishing; without the prep work, it’s over before it starts. The same is true for Teshuvah. To apologize is to set an expectation; that things will be different, that I will be better. That I will just somehow miraculously stop doing whatever it is I was doing to make the other person miserable. But without recompense and change in behavior, without doing some real hard work within my soul, then the words are only sounds.

And we each know someone who simply cannot apologize. To ask them to say, “I’m sorry” is a step too far. It doesn’t mean that they’re bad people or incapable of being thoughtful or self-reflective; they just can’t say those words. Or perhaps that description resonates within us, ourselves. Maybe it’s too embarrassing, or it feels like weakness. But for whatever reason the words “I’m sorry”, meant to be a phrase that facilitates catharsis, instead becomes an obstacle to real Teshuvah.   

Is real Teshuvah, real repentance, possible without an apology? That’s tough. For many of us, hearing an apology is a necessary moment of engagement; it’s that point where we evaluate the sincerity of the offending individual. And, frankly, it’s sometimes self-satisfying to be told by someone that they were wrong and we were right. It’s gratifying to have someone come to us in humility. But is it truly necessary?

To understand that I want to share what I think is one of the greatest examples of contrition and Teshuvah in the modern experience, and the words “I’m sorry” were never spoken.

Many people wondered what President George W. Bush was going to do when he left office in 2009. At the time a deeply unpopular president, one who had presided over a Recession, two enormous wars, and one of the worst natural disasters to ever hit the United States, “Dubya” was never one to apologize. In fact, he cast himself as a man of steely resolve, the “Decider” who, despite initially wanting to create a humbler presidency, never could admit a wrong, at least publicly. Surely there were tears shed privately, as we learned later, when confronted by the parents of soldiers sent off to war only to return broken, or not at all. But that was never articulated to the public.

So, it was a surprise to learn that this least-introspective president had taken up painting. Taking lessons and self-teaching, he seemed to be cultivating a quirky hobby in his political retirement, painting self-portraits, including of him coming out of the shower, which no one wanted to see. There were a lot of laughs at his expense as a result. But it turned out all of this was practice, laying a groundwork to focus on a specific project. Last year, it was revealed that former-President Bush had been learning to paint so he could paint the portraits of men and women he had ordered to serve in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, many of whom were profoundly wounded, either physically or psychologically. He released a book this year of his portraits, called “Portraits of Courage”, which highlight the biographies of the former soldiers he painted, many of whom suffered post-traumatic stress and brain injuries. The proceeds from the book go to an organization that helps wounded warriors with employment, treatment and recovery for their injuries, etc.

Friends, George W. Bush never apologized in the way the organizers for the March for Justice did. He never apologized for the forever wars we are still fighting. He never apologized for sending our children into harm’s way. He never asked this country’ forgiveness for his choices, and we’ll never know if he apologized to those men and women who did their duty, be it with enthusiasm or reluctance. But is there any other way to understand this effort? And how could we not open our hearts to this action, this choice, this act of contrition, no less profound than that of the March organizers gearing up for tomorrow. Each in their own way made a choice to alter reality after the fact, to open themselves up to the possibility that they could turn, and in turning, be reborn. That very same choice is before us; tonight, tomorrow, and each and every day. It’s only up to us to resolve that we will embrace those opportunities to alter ourselves and our experiences. May we have the courage to do so. Amen.

 

 

Yom Kippur Day Sermon 5778

09/22/2017 09:20:27 AM

Sep22

Rabbi Elisa Koppel

When I was in sixth grade, a classmate of mine drew a swastika on the cover of one of my text books.  I’m not going to name him, because it doesn’t really matter.  And because I don’t think he really understood what he was drawing.  And because he’s a nice person.  And because we’re facebook friends and I don’t want to shame him.  I saw him at our last high school reunion and had a great conversation about religion and our own personal journeys.  I think that, at the time, when we were in sixth grade, he wanted to pick on me, knew I was Jewish, and knew that drawing that particular symbol was a way he could accomplish that—I doubt he really knew why.  I don’t really remember how I responded.  I think I erased it and tried to move on.  I’m fairly certain that I didn’t tell a teacher or my parents.  

The phenomenon of victims of hatred based acts, due to any kind of hate, no matter how small or large the act, not saying a thing, is a common one.  More than half of hate crimes go unreported, according to the Department of Justice.  Perhaps because those who are the receivers of such acts don’t want to make waves, or are embarrassed that something happened to them, or because they don’t think anything will realistically be done about it…too often, things happen and no one says a thing.  Which has the effect of the perpetrator of the act never learning that what they did was wrong.  And of any sort of real, systemic change being slow, because few realize or recognize the reality of what happens to individuals.

For this particular instance I shared, I think I just wanted to move beyond it.  Maybe to pretend it didn’t happen.  I’m fairly certain that this man does not recollect this incident—I don’t think it was a defining moment of his childhood, and I don’t think he did then or does now actually hate Jews.  

But quite frankly, the fact that this was a fairly innocent act, and not a hate fueled statement, actually makes the whole thing all the more frightening to me.  Because it shows that a swastika is a common enough symbol, that even someone who was neither Jewish nor a Nazi knew that it was antisemitic.  Because casual antisemitism was a thought that crossed the mind of this boy in the mostly white middle class suburb where we grew up.  Because such an act of hate was not something that likely had a lasting impact on him.  Because while I understood that this symbol on my book would worry the adults in my life, I wanted to hide it.  Because, to this day, I still think he’s a nice guy.  A nice guy who drew a swastika on the cover of my text book.

Antisemitism, prejudice, various forms of hatred have existed in this country since the beginning of its history.  But we’ve been able to largely pretend that they no longer exist, or that they aren’t at all wide spread.  Until recently, at least. 

When our JCC had repeated bomb threats earlier this year. When news of swastikas defacing all sorts of places became regular news stories, including some drawn on message boards outside of some dorm rooms at my alma mater, Brandeis University, just this week. And this summer, when we all watched images of torch bearing white nationalists, wielding confederate flags and nazi flags, marching in the streets of Charlottesville, VA.  Shouting, “Jews will not replace us.  YOU will not replace us.”  Forcing the members of a synagogue that was along the path of their march to leave Shabbat services through a back door, sneaking the Torah scrolls out to keep them safe, as well.  I don’t need to go into the violent details of that day,  which woke a lot of us to a realization that racism in this country is a real and present problem.

For many of us, the color of our skin does not mark us as different, so we often don’t think of ourselves as victims of racism.  But, in fact, by virtue of our connection to Judaism, our whiteness is conditional.  We, of course, are able to hide our Judaism—we are able to pass as white. But our passing whiteness doesn’t remove the hatred that exists. Charlottesville made it clear that racism and antisemitism not only go hand in hand, but are one in the same. 

We live in an odd time, in which Jews can and have risen to the highest of positions, but at the same time, face roadblocks and hatred.  While the glass ceiling may have been shattered for us, we still exist within glass houses, and have been taught not to throw stones.  Which, when stones are cast in our direction, becomes challenging.  And when stones are cast at others—because of their difference—we may want to help, but we don’t want the hatred to spread to us.  And we’re not the ones who are hating.   And we’re not sure what to do.  And, all too often, we do nothing.

The words of Martin Niemoller echo in our heads:

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.

Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out— 

Because I was not a Trade Unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out— 

Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.

A message both powerful and troubling, speaking to the need to speak out for others—and yet limited to speech and so focused on inaction, that they serve more as a confession than as an inspiration.  Earlier this year, my friend and colleague, Rabbi Michael Latz wrote the following in response to Martin Neimoller (z”l):

First they came for transpeople and I spoke up -- because God does NOT make mistakes!

Then they came for the African Americans and I spoke up—

Because I am my sisters’ and my brothers’ keeper.

And then they came for the women and I spoke up—

Because women hold up half the sky.

And then they came for the immigrants and I spoke up—

Because I remember the ideals of our democracy.

And then they came for the Muslims and I spoke up—

Because they are my cousins and we are one human family.

And then they came for the Native Americans and Mother Earth and I spoke up—

Because the blood-soaked land cries and the mountains weep.

They keep coming.

We keep rising up.

Because we Jews know the cost of silence.

We remember where we came from.

And we will link arms, because when you come for our neighbors, you come for us—

and THAT just won’t stand.

Indeed, the hatred we see in our world cannot stand—we must speak out and we must stand up.  Whether the hatred is against us because we are Jews, or against others because of the color of their skin, racism is real and we cannot stand for that.

We can do better.

We can start by listening.  To noticing hateful acts when they occur.  And to really hear when others point out racism that they’ve seen or experienced.  To not argue against it but to accept that the person experienced it, and consider how we can help them, or even how we ourselves can act differently.  And maybe even ask questions so that we can learn more. And enter into dialogue to better understand.

It’s been virtually impossible this past week to not be aware that something is happening with the NFL, other than football games, as some players from every team knelt or stood arm in arm with teammates during the National Anthem, in solidarity with Colin Kaepernick, who started kneeling during the anthem last year, to protest racial oppression.  At first, he sat during the anthem.  But then, Nate Boyer, a former green beret and NFL player, wrote a public letter to Kaepernick, in which he expressed, “Even though my initial reaction to your protest was one of anger, I’m trying to listen to what you’re saying and why you’re doing it.”  Kaepernick responded by inviting Boyer to sit down and have a conversation—and then the men talked.  Eric Reid, another player, joined them.  According ESPN, “Boyer, Kaepernick and Reid agreed that the divided nature of the country right now is making it difficult to communicate clearly about complicated issues. They hope that people see and understand their conversation, and that it will lead those who can effect change to have similar discussions.”  It was out of that conversation, honoring the views of each of the 3 men, that the 3 men collectively decided that Kaepernick should kneel instead of sit—an act still problematic to many, but one that was formed out of 3 people having a complicated conversation, which can lead to others having such discussions, which is the only way that we can see change.  And they’re right.  

Change needs to happen.  And change is difficult and sometimes messy.  But change is necessary.  And we can only see that change when we hear each other, when we listen to each other, and when we try to understand the perspective of another.  To learn to use the experience of others in order to notice and respond to the racism around us.  

We should do better.

Let us be aware that this is a problem that exists even within the walls of synagogues.  A rabbinical student, my friend Eric Uriarte, in his recent student sermon at Hebrew Union College in Los Angeles, spoke about his experience as a Jew of Color.  He said, “When we take off our Jewish garb, our skin color and our ethnic markers continue to make us the target of white supremacists.  But when we put them on, I’m sorry to say, those same elements can make us feel excluded in Jewish spaces.”  His experience is not unique.  For many Jews of color, they have been welcomed into Jewish spaces with questions of their legitimacy as Jews—what they are doing there, what their Jewish background is—or assumptions are made that they do not know how to follow a service.  That they must be at the synagogue for another reason, other than to pray.  That because of their color, they must not be Jewish—or not really be Jewish. 

None of these stories are ones that I have heard about this community.  But I’ve heard enough such stories—and even witnessed some—that I recognize Jews of color not feeling included is an ongoing challenge for the Jewish community as a whole. 

We must do better.  

I am not suggesting that racism is the fault of any of us.  I am not suggesting that any of us are racists. 

But let us remember that the Hebrew word for sin, het, actually means missing the mark—it’s an archery term.  And that definition recognizes that even when we are trying our best, even when we are aiming to get things right, sometimes we make mistakes.  We must be open to that idea, and we must determine to continue to try.  We must know that even though we are not racists, we might sometimes do something or say something that has been perceived by a person of color through the lens of race.  Just like we can name moments at which someone innocuously said something to us or around us that we experienced as antisemitic, even though they didn’t mean it, we must be open to the idea that sometimes we have unintentionally participated in racism.

And I do believe that we bear a communal responsibility.  Our liturgy on these High Holy Days reminds us of that with the plural language of our confessional prayers; words that we all read, even if we ourselves have not committed a particular act.  We have gone astray.  We have sinned.  We have done these things.  We might not have acted through hatred based prejudice, but we still confess.  We might not be racists ourselves, but we know that there are others who are.  We may not be the cause, but we still participate in, and sometimes even benefit from, a system in which racism is inherent and bias is real. Al chet shechatanu l’faneicha—for all the ways through which we have missed the mark in ending racism, we pray for forgiveness.  And we resolve to change.  

We will do better.

We must speak out.  Just as thousands are marching against racism in Washington today, as Rabbi Robinson spoke about last night, I am protesting racism through my words today.  I hope that we all take our place in the chain of Jewish tradition of Kivie Kaplan and Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner and Abraham Joshua Heschel, and speak out against the systemic racism that still exists.  This is the prophetic voice that must inform us.  This is the fast, as Isaiah reminds us, that is demanded.

We must speak out and we must also speak up.  We must not stand for racist comments—and let it be known when we observe racism happening.  And we must do this for ourselves, as well.

Allie Gurwitz, a student of mine from San Antonio is now at Georgetown University.  In response to swastikas being painted around her campus, she recently posted the following:

I don't normally post things like this on Facebook but as Elie Wiesel said, "Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented." To whatever individual or group is responsible for the growing number of swastikas being painted in different locations on campus: I am not afraid. We are not afraid. The Jewish community at Georgetown is strong and proud. Your hate has no place here and will not be tolerated. Spread love today.

She’s right.  We must speak out.  We must not be afraid.  And we must combat hate through love.  And darkness through light.  To pursue justice is our sacred mandate.  Our holy task is to bring the light of justice into our world.  We are taught so many times in the Torah that we must care for the stranger, for we were strangers in the land of Egypt.  Through our communal history, and through our personal experience, we must remember that we will not stand for hatred expressed towards us nor towards anyone else.  We must act in accordance with building the world that we want to see—to be the light for justice so that we can know a world of justice.  A world of righteousness.  A world of peace.  

Ken Y’hi Ratzon, may this be God’s will.

Ken Y’hi Ratzeinu, may this be OUR will.

Rosh Hashanah Sermon

09/22/2017 09:16:00 AM

Sep22

Rabbi Robinson

In the village where I grew up, down the street from the home-made ice cream place and the library, across the street from the playground where I went as a kid and I used to take my son, there is a magical place. It’s a red-painted barn- like building, kind of out of place for New England, with the words 1856 Country Store on the side, but everyone knows it as the Penny Candy Store. It’s the place in the village to get sweatshirts, soap, doodads, knickknacks, a newspaper, and yes, penny candy. It’s the perfect spot to meet your friends or take your kid after story time or some time on the playground, and the best spot to stand in front of to watch the Memorial Day parade every year. On either side of the door are two white, painted benches; one says “Democratsdemocrats” on it, the other “Republicansrepublicans”. It’s supposed to be for a laugh, these two benches divided by the entranceway, a cute photo you take. This past summer as I was walking with my family past I looked at those benches, and suddenly it wasn’t so cute any more.

There’s been a lot of discussion since last high holidays on how divided we are, and how ugly and angry those divisions have become. We read about neighbors who can’t stand to look at each other anymore getting into screaming matches and even spitting on each other; racist and anti-Semitic and homophobic attacks in the wake of the election. And it isn’t just Rightright vs. Leftleft; it seems to me that we’re increasingly in the middle of an all-out scrum of all versus all; left-wing organizations shunning Jews because of Zionism, right-wing groups and individuals threatening those who don’t observe intellectual purity. And all those discussions have been filled with a great deal of blame and accusation; whose fault is it that we’re so divided. Which, of course, fosters more division, more hostility, more anger. I don’t know about you; maybe you’re over it. Maybe you feel like this issue has been talked to death and you just want to be left alone. For me, as a father, as a rabbi, as a man, it’s scary. It’s exhausting. And it’s sad. It’s increasingly clear that we cannot move forward as a country and a community in this fashion. As human beings, we ache for connectivity; we are social animals and we want to be able to be in relationship with one another in peace. Forget about politics for a moment; in my neighborhood, there are two neighbors that are having a constant war with one another about the Lord knows what, but it’s constant and they are always trying to suck everyone else into this fight. Perhaps you have had similar experiences. It’s really uncomfortable, to the point of worrying about folks’ safety. I’m not saying we all have to be best buddies, but a minimum level of civility goes a long way to keeping the peace. We hunger for that civility, need to reclaim it and restore it to a prominent place in our society.

Therefore, as Jews, as human beings, we are compelled to act. Our tradition teaches us the importance of peace: in text after text we are reminded that the pursuit of peace is among the most important tasks before usu. Famously we are taught Bakesh shalom v’rodfei hu; Seek peace and pursue it. And the sages of old have understood that text to mean that, while other mitzvot are conditional, circumstantial; perhaps we could do whatever we’re commanded to do, perhaps not; this. This mitzvah, however, is not conditional. If there is no opportunity to make peace, we make an opportunity to make peace.  And in the spirit of the new year, I’d like to suggest that we now could make that opportunity, to start over, and spend this year in our daily lives rebuilding what has been broken, healing the divisions we see in our midst.

To pursue peace, we must ask the question: what do we mean by that word, peace? The word can too easily conjure up a certain kind of cynicism; “can’t we all just get along” type stuff. Let me be clear by what I mean by this action, and what I don’t mean. In the spirit of Maimonides, I’ll begin with what I don’t mean. I do not mean capitulation on deeply held beliefs. I do not mean moral ambivalence or relativism, that somehow ‘many sides’ can all be equally right. Peace doesn’t merely mean quiet or order. This is not about shutting people up or shutting people down. Indeed, I’d argue that doing so is no peace at all. Many of us feel quite strongly about a whole range of issues, have attended rallies and vigils and protests; peace does not mean going home and shutting up. It does not mean minimizing folks’ lived experiences. None of those things lead to peace. They may lead to quiet, and it might lead to order, but the ache, the anger, the issues that were there before will still seep out, will still curdle our relationships with one another. I’m guessing all of us have apologized at some point or another for something we didn’t feel guilty of, just to get the conversation over and avoid the conflict. And I’m also guessing each of us have tried to share a deeply held belief—perhaps even with close friends—only to be shouted down, perhaps without the other person even understanding our point of view. Maybe we were doing the shouting. How many of us are still carrying the scars from that, still holding onto the anger we felt, the frustration we felt. How many of us are still carrying that around with us? Does that sound like peace to you?   As we read in the prophets, we are forbidden to proclaim “peace! Peace! Peace! When there is no peace.”

So, what is the pursuit of peace, really? What does our tradition mean when it compels us to seek peace and pursue it? First and foremost, it means recognizing our shared humanity. If we take seriously the idea from our Torah that all of us are created in God’s image, then we have a moral obligation to lift that up for ourselves and each other. Sounds easy, but it’s really, really hard. To stop for a moment, stop our own anxieties, our own agenda, our own business long enough to look at the person and see that it is, in fact, A PERSON you’re looking at, requires a great deal of compassion and patience. Especially if they’re yelling at you. Rabbi Amy Eilberg, who has done a tremendous amount of conflict transformation work, especially between Jews and Palestinians, talks about when she’s in difficult conversations, sometimes painful conversations with others, and before she responds with her own anger, her own need to be right, takes a deep breath and, looking at each person, says silently to herself ‘betzelem Elohim, betzelem Elohim, betzelem Elohim.” –“Created in God’s image, Created in God’s image, Created in God’s image.”

In those moments, when we want to just take the other person apart, to respond defensively, it takes a willingness to put down our own weapons, to not, in conflict, fight to win. Rabbi Elisa Koppel last year shared the idea of makhlokeht l’shem shamayim, a disagreement for the sake of heaven. Our tradition does not presume that conflict will cease to exist; there will always be conflict. But, how can we make said conflicts constructive, thoughtful, and productive?. How can we avoid demonizing the other side, making broad generalizations of everyone who disagrees with me? It might feel good in the moment, but is the hangover worth it? I’ve been a Rotarian for a few years now, as is my father, and the hallmark for the Rotary organization is something called the Four-Way test. The Four-way test asks us to take the following questions into account before we speak with one another: Is it the truth? Is it fair to all concerned? Will it build goodwill? Is it to everyone’s benefit? It’s meant to be nonsectarian and nonpartisan, but I can’t help but think of it as awfully Jewish. Can you imagine having those four questions in your head before you spoke? I don’t know about you, but I think it would help make a whole lot of conflicts much more meaningful, and who knows, perhaps we might learn something from the other as a result.

That idea of learning, of being open and curious rather than closed and determined, is essential to the work of pursuing peace as well. That doesn’t mean being soft. It doesn’t mean giving up what we believe. It does mean being humble; listening to the other without interruption, even when it is hard. Perhaps especially when it is hard. It means being quick to listen carefully and slow to interject. It means being aware of one’s own feelings in the heated moment and recognizing them as authentic but not letting them drive the conversation. I’ve often shared my teacher Rabbi David Ellenson’s story of how, when he and his wife would get into a disagreement and the conversation got too heated she would say “David, this is where you can either be right or be married.” Our need to win cannot and should not take precedence over our need to maintain a relationship; we must respond graciously and acknowledge our own limits. So, when the person shares their pain, their own lived experience, we would be wise to listen respectfully, and expect the same from the person we’re speaking to, and apologize quickly if what we say in reflection turns out to be hurtful. That’s not being politically correct, it’s not being policed, it’s being a mensch; it’s being kind. And I think we can agree that we could use a little more kindness. Last Sukkot Ivan Thomas, who created #wearelove, came and led our congregation in a process where we could listen deeply and respectfully to each other’s stories. I doubt anyone who was there that night could say that they didn’t learn something new about the world, the person they interacted with, or themselves. And when we open ourselves up, when we respond with curiosity, we create the opportunity to do exactly that kind of learning. In contrast, Rabbi Eilberg recounts in her book From Enemy to Friend how she went to an academic panel where the moderator asked each panelist to ask the other a question, and one admitted she honestly couldn’t think of one question she could ask the others. They were so used to articulating their point of view, defending their point of view, that they hadn’t thought what it would mean to listen to one another.

By now you’ve probably realized that the kind of peace I’m describing is hard to achieve, especially in a world where it’s easy to go on the internet, see something that makes our blood boil and then go bananas. To do this work takes intentionality, self-awareness, humility and courage. Yes, courage: the courage to be vulnerable in the moment, to open yourself up to someone else’s world view. It takes compassion, honoring the holiness in the other, and a generosity of spirit. It’s not easy; we’ve fallen out of the habit. We want to repost memes and scream into the face of the other—and there’s always an “Other”. But just because something is hard doesn’t mean it isn’t worth doing. What if we committed to taking these values and, when we encounter someone with whom we disagree, someone with whom we’re in conflict, work to make them a part of the encounter. What if we strive, each one of us, to be a little more curious, a little humbler, a little more willing to listen to each other. A little more willing to hear someone else’s pain, and be aware of our own. A little more willing to transform the conflict rather than avoid it. Look, we’re not going to magically become the Dalai Llama or Reb Nachman of Bratzlav or Pope Francis—and frankly, each one of them have had moments they weren’t proud of. Each one of us, no matter how hard we try, will fall. God knows I have. But that’s not the point; the point is to pursue peace. We may never achieve it, not fully nor perfectly, but we must still seek out those opportunities and embrace them to the best of our abilities. Maybe we only change one conversation; sometimes that’s all it takes to make a difference in this world.

The poet Yehuda Amichai wrote the following:

In the place where we are right

Flowers will never grow in the spring.

The place where we are right

Is hard and trampled like a yard.

But doubts and loves dig up the world like a

Mole, a plough.

And a whisper will be heard in the place where the

Ruined house once stood.

Do we want to be right or in relationship? Do we want to continue to trample the ground and each other in service to our rage and pain, or do we want to plant new flowers of love and understanding? In this new year, I am going to commit myself to pursuing peace. I am going to commit myself to seek understanding, to respect and reflect, and to do what I can to shape the conflicts I encounter into conflicts for the sake of Heaven. And I deeply believe that, if each of us commits as well, we can begin to change the world around us, to move toward a culture of peace. As you leave today you will find the Rodef Shalom Agreement, a brit, a covenant you make with yourself. I encourage you to take one, and begin to do the work of exploring what it would mean for each of us to be that person in our lives. May it be so. Amen.

 

Erev of Rosh Hashanah Sermon 2017

08/24/2017 01:05:06 PM

Aug24

Rabbi Robinson

It was a hot day this past July, and it looked like the Old City of Jerusalem was going to explode. A few days before, three Israeli Arabs had killed two Israeli Druze police officers near the Temple Mount. Security forces had closed off the area and then reopened it with metal detectors. Israeli Arab leaders and the leadership of the Waqf, the religious authority that supervises Muslim holy sites in Israel, staged a protest, and began calling for a day of rage. Three Israelis were killed when someone broke into their home, and three Palestinians were killed in rioting. For those of us watching this past summer, it appeared that once again Israel would be embroiled in violence.

In response to the increased tensions, Sarah Tuttle-Singer, an American Israeli journalist who has been living in the Muslim Quarter of the Old City, stood outside and, with a few friends, handed out popsicles to passersby. She started with popsicles she had paid for out of pocket, and by the end of the day merchants were donating them entire boxes.

She wrote the following of the experience:

On Thursday, a group of us stood in front of the Austrian hospice at the intersection of Al Wad and Via Dolorosa and handed out (parve) popsicles to anyone who would accept.

Men carrying prayer rugs on their way to the Mosque.

Guys going to the Western Wall.

Families walking north and south and back again.

A baffled looking priest and two nuns.

A guy in Border Police with braces on his teeth.

A pilgrim from Russia wearing a giant cross and strappy sandals.

A bunch of tourists from Ohio.

Lots and lots and lots of kids.

Anyone who would accept a popsicle got one.

Why?

Because it's *** hot out.

And we may come from different cultures and religions, we may speak different languages and see the world through different eyes, but we are all a sum part of chemical and biological processes, and we all get hot.

And when we get hot we get irritated and the tensions that are already there can ignite.

Also, the Old City is my home and I believe in treating my neighbors with respect during good times, and bad.

As it happened, the next day, Israel removed the security apparatuses and tensions were calmed.

I suspect many of us, as touched as we are by Sarah’s gesture (on her birthday, no less) find it lovely but Pollyanna-ish. How do popsicles solve the crisis between Palestinian and Jew in the area between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan RIver? How does this account for the Waqf’s incitement, fanning the flames of violence? How does it deal with the Palestinian Authority continuing to pay the families of terrorists, including the three who killed the Druze police officers? How do popsicles deal with olive groves destroyed by settlers who build on hilltops that don’t belong to them? What do popsicles do to protect our kids at college when someone paints a swastika on their dorm room door? How does this really resolve anything? We see the picture of Sarah handing out popsicles, and it’s lovely, and kind, yet by the time we’re done thinking about the matzav, the situation, we get ourselves so worked up that it feels futile and hopeless and irrelevant.

When I was a kid I had a book from AIPAC called “Myths and Facts”, a guide to talking about the Arab-Israeli conflict, that was meant to help someone who would get caught up in a conversation about Israel and quickly get overwhelmed. That’s because the conversation is overwhelming. Because when we speak of Israel, we are often very quick to speak of technicalities: dates and maps and green lines and technical marvels, who did what when, who is to blame and who is responsible, who really actually truly cares about others? And what’s worse, the diversity of Zionist organizations on the left and the right has created increasing fracture within the Jewish community, including here in Delaware. Myths And Facts was meant for Jews to speak with non-Jews, but it seems that we have reached the point where we may feel that we need it internally, not just externally. It was one thing to combat well-meaning non-Jewish peaceniks who would carry the claim that Zionism was racism. Now we have the ZOA, AIPAC, J-Street, ARZA, IfNotNow, Open Hillel and many other organizations whose relationship with Zionism is complex and nuanced, which would be great, if we were living in a time of complex and nuanced discussion and debate. But increasingly, we have been living in a world of alternative facts, fake news, insistence that if the person across from me disagrees with me even in the slightest bit, they are not just wrong, they are my enemy and the enemy of all I hold dear. To be a J-Street supporter in the eyes of many is to betray the Jewish state to an Iranian Nuclear Weapon, while to be an AIPAC supporter is to capitulate to an Israeli Prime Minister unwilling and unable to make peace. Is ARZA fighting to create space for Reform Jews to practice an egalitarian Judaism at the Western Wall, or a distraction undermining the fabric of Israeli society and Judaism as we know it? Does the ZOA advocate for a strong Jewish State or is it a racist organization advocating bigotry against Arabs? These are actual discussions that are taking place, if you can call them ‘discussions’. More like weaponized sentences, screaming matches, skirmishes that have casualties. As one example, a student of mine, now in college, shared this experience with me: She was getting ready to go on a birthright trip, one geared toward LGBT individuals, that would coincide with Israel Pridefest. She wrote: “Before the trip I had gotten anti-Israel hate on campus (anti-Trump protests saying if you didn't vote to divest then you don't believe in human rights, friends saying Zionism has no place in feminism) and my best friend told me she cancelled her trip with me because she couldn't "morally go to Israel" but nobody was like actually attacking me for going cuz I kept it on the down low since I knew so many of my friends legitimately hated Israel and would make laugh about terrorism on twitter. Only after I went did I have people be blatantly anti-Semitic to me on twitter because of my trip and people passive aggressively post articles about pink washing the day I got back” . Can you imagine having friendships ruined, trips ruined, relationships blown apart? That is what is happening, and this is being repeated over and over again. My friends, we are tearing each other apart.

Friends, if we keep talking about Israel through technicalities, as if it were a zero-sum game, without nuance or complexity or an acknowledgement of each other’s lived experiences, then we are not going to resolve the Palestinian-Israeli crisis. We are not going to stop dumb college kids from saying dumb and terrible things and doing dumb and terrible things. We aren’t going to be able to support the kind of Israel we want to see—strong and diverse and safe. We are creating a no-man’s land within the Jewish community; no one wants to talk about Israel. I’ve seen it for years: a survey came out two years ago of rabbis across all three major movements that indicated the majority refrained from discussing Israel because they feared for their jobs; one prominent rabbi in the Northeast who does a great deal of social justice work told a group of us ten years ago to approach the topic of Israel gingerly, and treat it as a third rail in synagogue politics. And we see it in Delaware. How many people are still giving to ARZA, or are willing to go to an AIPAC or J-Street policy conference, or at least tell others? How many look over both shoulders while at Temple before talking about Israel so as not to get into a fight? I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but we’ve been without an Israel Advocacy Chair for more than two years, a Board position! Because no one wants to touch it.

So let’s go back to those popsicles, shall we? Did some blonde woman from LA who now lives in Jerusalem handing out popsicles resolve the borders, water rights, Palestinian Right of Return and the boundaries of Jerusalem? Nope. Did it resolve the issue on the Temple Mount? Nope. Did it bring back the lives of those killed—the policemen, the family, the young people at the protest? Sadly, no. But it was a human gesture, a recognition that the people shared a city, shared a love for that city, and a love for each other as well. It was neighborly, it was kind. And it allowed the people to be people, to recognize the humanity in one another, even for one brief, cool, sweet, drippy moment.

We need more of those moments. We need more opportunities that are safe, where we can sit with our fellow congregants and speak from our lived experiences, talk about what Israel means to each one of us personally. We need to start not at 30,000 feet, at borders and drip irrigation and the like. That doesn’t mean that isn’t interesting, that doesn’t mean it isn’t cool, but that’s not our starting point. Our starting point needs to be each other. Why do we care about Israel? What does that look like to me, or to you? Where does it come from? How does it relate to the rest of our lives? How can we listen and affirm that connection, deepen it, relate to it, let it resonate for ourselves? How does Israel challenge us, upset us? How do we create space to listen to one another, not scream the so-called correct answers at one another?

This year, I want to try an experiment; an experiment in listening. Over the course of this year, there will be sessions, held over several months, beginning in October and culminating in May. The purpose of them is to create the space to talk about Israel, to listen to each other in a safe space, and to build relationships. No other agenda, no convincing one another of being right or wrong, no yelling, no screaming, no Myths and no Facts. Only listening deeply and seeing the humanity in one another, and acknowledging each other’s experiences. I can’t promise there will be popsicles, but my prayer is that we’re able to come together and speak honestly and compassionately, to hear one another even when it’s difficult. Because it’ll be no good if we only speak platitudes and avoid the subject; that’s what we’ve got now and it’s not doing anything either. We need to be able to be honest, but to be able to hear one another clearly as well, not just prepare our next fusillade. Rabbi Amy Eilberg, in her book From Enemy to Friend, talks about “skilled disagreement”, and this will help guide our conversations. Ideas like: we can be critical of ideas but not people, we can separate our personal worth from criticism of our ideas, we listen to everyone, even when we don’t agree, we try to understand one another and stand in a posture of curiosity, asking questions. I’ll be going into greater detail about those ideas tomorrow, but that is the intention. I cordially invite you—all of you, each of you—to come and participate, to share, to be present, to create those moments of empathy with one another. Perhaps it will lead to something concrete for the synagogue—a new Israel committee, a new program—or perhaps it will just mean that the participants got to know each other better and learned how to speak thoughtfully. Perhaps we will choose to extend the conversation: to the rest of Delaware’s Jewish community, to the non-Jewish community, or perhaps not. What’s most important is that we do it. Because if we do not start here, each one of us, in this congregation, then I fear our relationship with Israel will become increasingly tenuous, and our relationship with one another ever more brittle. And should that happen, then we cannot advocate for Israel, at least not effectively. And are we really ready to give up on the Hope and the dream of a Jewish people, Free in our land?

The rabbis of old ask, “Who is the hero of heroes? The one who makes an enemy into a friend.” May we, through our listening and our kindness learn to keep our friends “friends”, and see those around us not as enemies but as potential friends, then may our words be as sweet to one another as a popsicle on a summer’s day. Amen

Fri, December 14 2018 6 Tevet 5779