Monthly Archives: May 2014

Tickets and Tefilin

Confusing, yes?  You would expect tallit and tefilin, the natural pair of ritual objects, both beginning with ‘t,’ used in daily davening during morning services.  But it was a dream, and in my dream it was tickets and tefilin.

It was a classic dream, with dream tropes that we are all familiar with.  I was rushing to leave Baltimore so I could get to a concert in New York City.  Everything was taking a few extra minutes, and in the dream that pressing feeling of the clock ticking, of a deadline approaching, was pervasive.  I was going to be staying over night and I had packed a small bag.  I left my home, went to my friend’s, was waiting in his house for him to grab a couple of things.  Then we would be on the road and off to the show!

Suddenly I realized I hadn’t packed my tefilin.  I would need them in the morning and am very rigorous about observing at least this mitzvah.  I told my friend to wait, I would just be a few minutes.  And here is where it gets weird.  For whatever reason, I decided to walk to my house.  Suddenly I wasn’t in Baltimore, but back in my home town Binghamton NY, walking near the soccer field I played on in high school.  The distance was further than I remembered, so I was getting even later.  Somehow I found the tefilin and made my way back to my friend’s.  We got on the road and were New York City bound.

Then I realized I had also forgotten the tickets!  I knew exactly where they were, sitting on top of a book on my bedside table.  To go back to get them would take us an extra half hour, but we had no choice.  Back it was.  We would be late for the show.  That feeling of unavoidable lateness, of not being able to control destiny, fate, traffic, whatever it is, was tangible.  

What was this all about?  What is any dream about?  There are threads – I am going to a show in the next couple of days (Phil Lesh in Central Park), and the tickets are sitting on the book on that bedside table.  But I’ve never forgotten tickets in my life!  (I know, famous last words)  And what is with the tefilin?  Two possibilities come to my mind.  First, the simple truth that music and Judaism have been the two major spiritual influences in my life.  Perhaps more on that in another blog.  But second, the two objects also symbolize an inherent tension.  On the one hand, my personal side (those tickets)!  The ability to leave the office behind, to get out on the road and once again experience the freedom of another time.  On the other, my professional life (the tefilin), with all of its demands, burdens, challenges.  

Now we are getting somewhere.  The tefilin called me first and I had to walk to get them.  Professional life is at the forefront of my mind.  The tickets were almost forgotten entirely, and in this the sense of the professional side consuming the personal.  But those tickets were retrieved in the end, and although the dream ended before the show started, my sense was we were going to get there, late or not.  Of course even when you get away, a little part of that professional side comes along, like it or not.  So the tefilin had to come along for the ride.  But if I remember it right, they were somewhere in the trunk.

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Memorial Day Weekend 2014

A recent article in the Times about the rising value of Norman Rockwell paintings caught my attention.  At one time Rockwell was largely reviled by the art world, his paintings thought of as slick shtick, with no real ‘there’ there.  But when an artist’s painting sells for 9 million dollars, as a Rockwell recently did, the critics take notice.  With a recent biography the quiet Norman Rockwell has been in the cultural eye of late, with a series of articles, TV and radio spots, and a growing interest in his paintings in the art world.  Who knows?  I wouldn’t be surprised if one day in the near future the critics are talking about him as a 20th century American master.

Of course that is what the rest of us would have said all along.  Perhaps not articulated, but it was what we felt when we looked at his depictions of small town American life.  The plain folk, engaged in daily tasks like painting fences and walking to church, or playing ball in the yard, saying grace in a diner or serving a Thanksgiving turkey.  Like all great art, Rockwell’s paintings capture something both familiar and mythic, the intimate moments of our lives, the smallest details of our neighbors and neighborhoods, somehow even the values and ideals we live by.  But at the same time the sense that there is something greater at work here, a shared destiny and community that is all around us, that we are a part of! – but that we too easily forget in our day to day lives.  A wise literary critic once remarked that reading the paper will tell you what happened yesterday, while reading great literature will tell you what always happens.  Rockwell’s paintings somehow managed to do both.

I walked through a Rockwell painting yesterday afternoon.  My neighborhood, a leisurely stroll with the pooch.  Deep blue skies broken by wisps of cloud.  Just enough of a wind to make things interesting, to ruffle the leaves of the oaks and maples that line the streets and break up the yards, their roots cracking the sidewalks.  It was a quiet space that the dog and I walked through, almost unseen, but the noise of day to day life was all around us.  Children playing a game of touch football in a back yard, or riding bikes up the street.  The trimming of bushes and raking of grass.  A lawn mower in the distance, humming away at its task.  Families on porches, enjoying the late afternoon sunshine, sipping beer or iced tea, talking quietly, observing the beauty of the day, or the twists and turns of life, anticipating summer and its slower pace.  American flags hung from flag poles, stiffened by the wind, Old Glory, crimson, white, and indigo.  

In many ways this is precisely what Memorial Day is about.  The sacrifices we are called to remember this weekend were made to preserve this neighborhood, this style of life, the quiet and calm, the tree lined streets and children on bikes.  In my own neighborhood and so many others the scenes that Rockwell so skillfully and subtly and deftly committed to canvas.  As we enjoy one we should not forget the other.  As we remember one, we should do so with gratitude for the sacrifices that have been made for us all.

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Summer Reading List 2014

The Story of the Jews (Finding the Words 1000 BC – 1492 CE), Simon Schama

Its been a while since a ‘history of the Jews’ book has been published, let alone to such high praise, so Simon Schama’s just published ‘The Story of the Jews’ had to make this summer’s list.  It is in fact a first volume of a planned two volume work, covering the history of the Jewish people from 1000 BCE all the up to the time of Christopher Columbus, who sailed the ocean blue in 1492 CE.  2500 years of Jewish history – 500 pages – about 5 years on every page!  Who could resist that?


The Circle, Dave Eggers

The newest novel by one of the great modern American writers.  It tells the story of a Google like technology company in the near future, and explores our growing penchant for making even our private lives public.  The world the novel describes is eerily similar to our own, with the internet and its vast technologies a constant, and ominous presence.  This is a book about where we might be going, but reading it reminds us that in many ways we are already there.  500 pages give or take – mostly give!


A Guide for the Perplexed, Dara Horn

One of today’s best known Jewish writers gives us a narrative that weaves together stories from Genesis, medieval philosophy, the figure of Maimonides, and the discovery of the Cairo geniza in the early 1900s.  The book explores sibling rivalry, the power of words and texts in Judaism, and the way memory informs our lives.  342 pp.  (this is the beach read for the summer – save it for your week in Bethany!!)


Great Expectations, Charles Dickens

The story of the orphan Pip, as he grows from a little boy into a young man.  This is a classic for all time, but explores themes that are central to our lives today – when loyalty and social conscience conflict with ambition, wealth, and class, what wins out, and what should win out?  And you’ll get to meet (or re-meet) the unforgettable character of Miss Havisham, who has created a home where time literally stands still.  caveat emptor – Dickens novels are long!


Shakespeare’s Restless World, Neil MacGregor

The Director of the British Museum in London explores Shakespeare’s world by closely examining 20 objects that come from his time and the places where he lived.  Using the technique he established in A History of the World in 100 Objects, MacGregor brilliantly brings out the details of Elizabethan life in this series of short, beautifully written essays.  336 pp. – but a fast read!


The Tempest, William Shakespeare

Each summer I re-read one of the Bard’s plays.  The Tempest is a personal favorite, exploring through the character of the ship wrecked Prospero ideas of mortality, aging, forgiveness, justice, wisdom, creativity, and art.  Some scholars believe Prospero is the one character in the Shakespearean canon that most directly reflects Shakespeare’s own sense of self.  Good for a summer reading list as it takes place on an island! 

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2020 A Synagogue Odyssey

this a text version of the talk I gave at my synagogue’s annual meeting, trying to peer into the future of synagogue life – what will we be like in the next 5 – 10 years??

     Believe it or not it was 46 years ago when Stanley Kubrick released his visionary movie 2001 A Space Odyssey, a science fiction film which was in reality an exploration of human evolution, and the idea that we are traveling together into an unknown future.  Some of the more memorable moments of the film include the image of the mysterious monolith as it shifts through various eras and places, of course the theme music, and who can forget the cold and calculating voice of Hal, the super computer that controls the space ship the astronauts travel on.

     I will confess to you it is always a problem when I am asked for the title of a talk 2 months or so before I actually give it, because the truth is I rarely if ever know that far in advance what I will be speaking on.  But when I gave the title 2020 A Synagogue Odyssey to Gil as the title for this evening’s reflections I thought it had two things going for it – one, it was general enough that I could pretty much do anything I wanted to with it, and two, I do actually believe that the Jewish community in general and the synagogue community in particular share a couple of important similarities with the Kubrick film.  The first is that we know for certain our future will be dramatically influenced by technology, although I hope we don’t have a Hal controlling our shul – Hal Hackerman, maybe, but not Hal the computer.  But more importantly, we in the Jewish community today are in a way like the astronauts in the Kubrick film, standing in a very familiar place, but looking out into an unknown, somewhat scary, and very mysterious future for Jewish life.  In the next few minutes I hope to explore with you a little bit what that future might be like – what will a Conservative Synagogue, and by extension, what will Beth El, look like in 10 years time?

     There is one simple and short answer to that question, namely that any shul that is successful, vibrant, and growing 10 years from now will look very different than shuls look today.  I don’t mean physically different, but rather different in how it will function, what its infrastructure will be, how membership will work, how Hebrew schools will operate, what worship services will look like, and how a family will experience bar and bat mitzvah.  If you think for a moment about that list, these are the core elements of synagogue life.  These are the fundamental building blocks that make up what a synagogue is.  This is our bread and butter.  This is what we do.  It has worked the same way now for a long time – probably close to 100 years.  The synagogue creates a dues structure which will cover most of its budget, and if you are a member you pay those dues.  The Hebrew school gives your child a classroom oriented Jewish education, and prepares your child for bar or bat mitzvah.  The Cantor and Rabbi Saroken and I were talking the other day, and we figure the Saturday morning service at Beth El hasn’t changed in at least 30 years – not one bit!  

     In our minds these things are a given.  This is the synagogue we have lived with, for some of us, all of our lives, and it has always worked pretty well.  The dues come in.  The kids show up at Hebrew school.  The b’nai mitzvah happen week by week.  The services are run, and what is more people come.  But as the great sage Yogi Berra once famously said, it ain’t over until its over – and it is over.  My guess would be that many of those building blocks will be dramatically different in as little as 5 years, and there is no question in my mind they will all be different within a decade.  

    Lets think about membership.  There are may different conversations in the community today about what membership should look like, and there are a variety of models that people are proposing.  Here is one of the more radical ideas, but that being said I also think it is one of the more probable possibilities:  shul membership in 5 to 10 years could be almost entirely a la carte.  Each use of the shul and its services is paid for on a case by case basis – you have a baby naming, you pay for that.  A funeral, you pay for that.  You want HHD services, you pay for that.  Take a class, a separate fee.  I can even imagine a scenario where people choose to have their baby naming at Oheb Shalom, have the child enrolled in Hebrew school at Beth Israel, and have the bat mitzvah at Beth El.  The bottom line is that it is entirely possible that moving forward it will be pay as you go, choosing off the menu, and of course in today’s world it will be purchasing the service online, and without question paying with a credit card.

     Next on our list is the b’nai mitzvah experience.  If there has been a true bread and butter of synagogue life in the liberal Jewish community, it has been bar and bat mitzvah.  In a way, it is what drives everything.  People join the shul because they want to enroll their children in Hebrew school so their child can have a bar or bat mitzvah in the sanctuary of the synagogue – that has been our E = mc2 equation.  Membership and the Hebrew school, the two major income generating segments of synagogue life, are both predicated on the b’nai mitzvah experience.   Now let me ask you a question, and please be honest.  How many of you have been to a bar or bat mitzvah outside of the synagogue in the last year?  At a country club, or hotel, or function hall, or Ravens Stadium, for that matter?  Just raise your hands.  Your response proves this point – people don’t need synagogues, sanctuaries, or Hebrew schools to have b’nai mitzvah anymore!  Wow!  Now what do we do!

     One thing we know we need to do is to be flexible.  That is why almost two years ago at this point our board decided to open up the Saturday evening havdalah slot for b’nai mitzvah.  That is why we now have close to 1/3 of our Hebrew school students in satellite schools.  That is why we are beginning to think about using Skype technology for b’nai mitzvah lessons.  And there are many other questions that still need to be resolved – what do we do when families want to have a bar or bat mitzvah off site, outside of the building?  Our current policy is that we do not do it, but that could change.   What about one day a week Hebrew school?  The Reform shuls already do it, and we are feeling the pressure.  What about experiential learning versus class room learning?  Do we want our students to ‘feel good’ about being Jewish, or do we want them to know prayers and the stories of the Torah?  10 years ago these questions weren’t on the table.  5 years ago they were peripheral.  Today they are front and center, and we need to answer them within the next couple of years.  

     And last, but certainly not least, synagogue services.  Holding services is the raison d’être of a synagogue.  A child can get a Jewish education at a day school.  You can do Jewish things socially at the JCC, or even through the Associated.  But a shul has a Torah and a sanctuary, and if you are not conducting services, I don’t know what you are, but I know you aren’t a shul anymore.  Here is our challenge – we ask people to come in for our services, and we say this to them:  please sit quietly during the next 2 plus hours (at many shuls it is 3!!) to listen to prayers in a language you don’t understand and which many of you can’t read.  If we pause to think about this structure, it just doesn’t make sense in a fundamental way.  So services have got to change.  Whether it is the use of technology, video screens, twitter feeds, whether it is shorter, more participatory, more study and discussion oriented.  Something has to give, and changes need to be made.

     So I think you can see, or I hope you can see, that we are truly living through a time of significant transition in synagogue life, I think the most significant in the last century.  Shuls that keep doing business the way they’ve always done it will not be around 10 years from now.  That is the bad news.  The good news is that I have great confidence that with our lay leadership, and our professional staff, with the creative thinkers and talented people we have at Beth El, we will meet the challenges that are ahead.  We will be a very different kind of place ten years from now than we’ve been for the last 65 years.  But we’ll be stronger and better able to meet the needs of our members and the Jewish community.  That being said, we do have a lot of work to do – lets roll up our sleeves and get started – 


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The Numbers Game

I am sure it is merely coincidence that the week we begin reading the book of Numbers in the Torah an article appears in the New York Times about how obsessed we’ve become with metrics (measuring and quantifying everything in our lives).  The Bruce Feiler penned piece appeared under the title ‘Statisticians 10, Poets 0,’ and described the rapidly growing trend in our society to track and describe everything – and I mean everything – with numbers.  The opening paragraphs of the article revolve around a new smart phone app that somehow tracks the duration and intensity of sexual experiences.  The data from the app is uploaded to a web site, which you can log onto to see, in the form of a map of the country, which states have the best sex.  If you have to know it is New Mexico.  Alaska came up on the short end of the stick, ranking dead last.  

Yes, this is an extreme example.  But it is also the tip of the iceberg.  Today we measure how many steps we walk daily, what our sleep patterns are, our heart rhythms, of course our weight (some things never change), and who could forget the number that confronts so many of us each morning when we log onto our Facebook accounts, namely how many ‘friends’ we have (in case you are wondering, the average is 338).  Feiler goes on to show how metrics, more and more, rule in every area of life – health, social media, sports, social science, lifestyle.  It is a reflection of the impulse behind ‘big data.’   If you can just get enough information, you can know everything, and the mysteries of life – why we do what we do – will be resolved, once and for all.  

I can’t help but think it is all some kind of big con game.  Numbers can tell a story, but I firmly believe only part of the story.  Case in point, a man I recently buried.  Long life, living into his late 80s.  Three children.  Six grandchildren.  Multiple great grandchildren as well.  Long marriage, close to fifty years.  It all looks pretty good on paper, and most folks, seeing those numbers, would say ‘sign me up.’  But the story behind the numbers was much more complicated.  There was an earlier failed marriage that he never was able to come to terms with.  There was a deep sense of unease, a restlessness that never allowed him to feel he had what he was looking for.  Professional success came and went.  Family relationships were challenging and rarely satisfying.  His numbers were great, but his life was in many ways difficult.

Judaism has long been uncomfortable with counting people.  In the Bible, a census was completed by using a half shekel to represent individuals, so as not to directly count human beings.  King David commissioned a census of the people, and was punished for it by God.  Even today the tradition is to not directly count individuals using numbers when checking if the required ten are present for a prayer service.  Numbers can be misleading.  I had a statistics professor in graduate school who told us that statistics are like a bikini – they reveal general curves but conceal essentials.  After all, how do you quantify laughter, love, Shakespeare, Torah, sadness, how you feel on a bright summer morning, or when you watch a baby take her first steps.  Somewhere in all of those things, and so many others, is a sense of what it means to live a human life.  And that is something the numbers will never be able to capture.

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The ADL’s Anti-Semitism Study

this a text from a Shabbat sermon delivered on 5/17/14

My father grew up here in Baltimore in the 1940s, and like many of you he remembers a time when Charm City was a  far less friendly place for Jews than it is today.  There was subtle anti-Semitism, the unspoken understanding that Jews could not live in certain areas, go to certain schools, and belong to certain country clubs.  Then there were more blatant examples – my father remembers being chased home from school by other kids because he was Jewish, until he finally found another route to walk where he could avoid the anti-Semites.

     Looking back to those times, it feels like we’ve made a lot of progress.  We take for granted that in the heart of downtown Baltimore the Associated Jewish Charities has a magnificent building, that the home of Baltimore’s Symphony is the Meyerhoff, or that we can – for the most part – live in any neighborhood, go to any school, or belong to any club or organization we like.  And yet when we look around, there are times when we feel uncomfortable, when we are reminded that there is still plenty of anti-Semitism out there, whether right out in the open or just below the surface.  We hear stories about anti-Jewish leaflets being distributed in the Ukraine.  We sense that Israel is not treated fairly, that she is held to a higher standard than other nations and criticized for things that go on around the world in other places all the time and are ignored.  We read about growing divestment movements in the Presbyterian Church or in academic organizations.  And sometimes we look around, and we say to ourselves the more things change, the more they stay the same.

     This sense of unease was certainly reinforced this past week with the release of the results of a new study on anti-Semitism commissioned by the ADL, the Anti Defamation League.  I remember well the story a young man told me a few years ago.  He had taken his Bubbe out to lunch, and they had a pleasant meal.  They decided to order dessert, and the waitress brought them dessert menus.  And they noticed one of the items on the menu was called Jewish apple cake, so they decided to order it – how could you resist Jewish apple cake?  They order the cake, and the cake comes out, they each take a bite of the cake, and its terrible.  Absolutely the worst cake either of them has ever tasted.  And the young man’s Bubbe looks up at him, and she looks down at the cake, and she looks up at him, and she says ‘for this too they blame the Jews.’

     The results of the new study seem to validate the young man’s bubbe’s world view.  

To say they were disturbing would be an understatement.  In total some 53 thousand adults from 102 countries were asked a series of 11 questions, that could indicate an anti-Semitic bias.  The questions were not ‘do you hate Jews’ but rather ‘do Jews have more loyalty to Israel than to your native country,’ or ‘do Jews have too much power in the business world?’  – so these are questions based on classic anti-Semitic stereotypes.  Some of the results were not surprising at all – for example, the highest rates of anti-Semitism were found in the Middle East and North Africa, where around %74 of the population was found to be anti-semitic.  But there were some surprising numbers, two of which I felt were particularly disturbing.  The first that a full %54 of the respondents said they believed the Holocaust never happened.  And secondly, the over all results of the study indicate that %26 – one out of every four people – harbors significant anti-semitic sentiment.

         Of course it is only coincidence that the study results were released the same week when we are in shul reading Parshat B’Hukotai from the Torah, but if there is any Torah portion that an anti-Semite would like it would be this one.  The portion contains what the Talmudic rabbis called ‘the Tocheha’, in English ‘the Rebuke,’ – essentially a listing out of various terrible things that will happen to the Israelites if they fail to keep their covenant with God once they enter the Promised Land. The list is both extensive – all told it encompasses 24 verses – and it is comprehensive, including just about every possible terrible thing you could imagine. Illness. Military defeat, a land where crops will not grow and there is not enough food to eat, where roads are deserted and cities are destroyed.  And especially the concluding verse of the section is one an anti-Semite would love:  ואבדתם בגוים ואכלה אתכם ארץ איביכם – you will perish among the nations, and the land of your enemies will consume you.

     Of course what is perhaps most striking about the Jewish people and our history is that that biblical vision of a destroyed Israel has never come to pass.  Despite enemies both ancient and modern, the Hamans and the Hitlers, the Sennacheribs and the Ahmadinajavs, Israel still stands today, thousands of years after those biblical verses were written.  It is a miracle on the one hand, but I don’t want to give all the credit to God.  After all, this journey has been about a partnership between God and Israel, and the Israel side of that equation should not be underestimated.  And surely one of the reasons why the anti-Semites have failed over the years is the Jewish people, our determination and strength of will, our courage and ingenuity, our shared history, and our common goals, our a vision of what the world should be like that has sustained through too many dark and difficult times.

    So what should we do with the results of this new study?  How should we as a community respond to these numbers, what course of action we should take moving forward?  And it seems to me there are two possible responses.  The first is to let the bitter taste that the study brings to our mouths settle there, and eventually work its way down into our kishkes.  I know a lot of people who have already done this even before the results of this study came out.  These are folks who believe the whole world is out to get the Jews, that the only safe thing for the Jewish community to do is to circle the wagons, to cut off contact with the outside world, to take care of our own, to turn into ourselves.  These Jews are bitter, distrustful, suspicious, and I have no doubts the ADL study has in their minds justified the approach they feel the community should take when dealing with the rest of the world.  

     But there is another possible approach, and that is, believe it or not, to essentially ignore the study, and to go about with our business as usual.  I don’t imagine that any of us are surprised to find out that there is still anti-Semitism out there.  And we have to be aware of it, and we have to be vigilant about it.  The question is do we let that fact define our lives and our communities, our interests and our concerns.  And I would say we should not.  We should not distort our lives because anti-semitism exists.  We should not compromise our existence in the contemporary world because some people hate Jews, we should not forget what the larger world has to offer us, and that historically the most vibrant Jewish communities were those that were integrated with the outside world, not closed off from it.  So in my mind that is how we should move forward.  Cautiously yes, but with heads held high.  Not naive, but not negative either.  Not retreating from the world, but engaging in it more than ever.  Not with pessimism, but with optimism and hope that the future can be better not just for Jews, but for everyone, and with the understanding that we in our own lives and through our own communities can help to make that vision of a better world for all a reality – 


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And Then One Day…

It happens almost imperceptibly.  One day you notice the one who always came into your room at night to climb into your bed doesn’t any longer.  And then you notice she doesn’t complain anymore when you turn the light off at night.  And the one who insisted on a drink of water each night before he went to sleep stopped asking for that drink.  And one day you notice that when he goes to sleep, he closes his bedroom door, and you have to knock before you go in to say goodnight.

One day they don’t need you to help them take a bath, or get dressed, or to wipe their nose.  They don’t need you to read for them anymore either, at night, the Goodnight Moon, or Peter’s Purple Crayon, and that nighty ritual somehow vanishes not suddenly and strikingly but slowly and subtly. 

And then one day, sitting at dinner, you suddenly notice that he eats olives, and in fact quite enjoys them.  And she, suddenly, somehow and entirely out of the blue, professes a love of brussels sprouts.  He mysteriously pulls away in the car one morning, with no one else in it!  And the truth is, you really have no idea where he is going.  Hopefully to school, but after all, who knows?  He needs razors (for his face), and so does she (legs).  You come down one morning and one of them (you can’t remember which) was reading the New York Times.  The front page, and with a furrowed brow, worrying over climate change, or war, or some such thing.

And then one day you look, and suddenly you realize that he is a young man, and she a young woman.  Adults, perhaps not yet fully or finally formed, but (almost) entirely independent, with their own hopes, dreams, concerns, tastes, and even their own sense of who they are and who they want to be.

And you think in your mind – one day.  But how did that day come so soon?

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