Monthly Archives: January 2015

The Ghost in the Machine

An interesting question was raised at last night’s board meeting, in the course of a discussion about our Saturday morning service. We were talking about the differences between Friday night (a service that has been growing in numbers for years) and Shabbat morning (a service that has been shrinking numbers wise). A comparison between the two services is instructive, and in and of itself lends some insight into the dynamic. The Friday night service is shorter, less formal, more participatory, very much in tune with the modern zeitgeist in terms of what people are looking for from their religious institutions. Saturday morning is more than twice as long, formal, tie and jacket for men, more structured, and has an older style and vibe.

We also spoke about the different demographics – Friday night younger, on average probably a good 10-15 years younger than Saturday morning. A thoughtful board member then raised the following question: is there a difference between the Friday night and Saturday morning groups in terms of their belief in God? That is to say, has there been some kind of theological self selection, more traditionally faithful folks tending towards one service, those less inclined towards another?

On the one hand, you just can’t take God out of the equation. After all, we are a synagogue, a house of worship. Without the worship part we would simply be a JCC, a social gathering place for Jews, where people could do some learning, participate in social action initiatives, stay connected to Israel. All important, but all things that can happen outside of a synagogue. What makes a synagogue a synagogue by definition is that it holds religious services. And if you are worshipping, engaged in prayer, at some point God is connected to that process. How might very well change dramatically for different people, but still the whole God idea is central. The synagogue is in some significant way about exploring the world of the spirit and soul, helping us to get in touch with our inner selves, our hopes and dreams, our faults and failings. Can that happen without God? Of course. But the premise of synagogue life is that it can happen better with God.

That being said, one does not have to be a ‘believer’ to be part of a synagogue, or even to find connection to the synagogue meaningful and important. There is an old story about Schwartz and Greenberg, both of whom faithfully attend their shul’s morning minyan. Greenberg is a true believer, but Schwartz has serious doubts about the Divine. One day Schwartz’s wife asks him about his service attendance: “Greenberg I understand,” she says, “he believes in God. But you don’t! Why do you bother to get up every day and go?” Schwartz responded to his wife: “Greenberg goes to shul to talk to God. I go to shul to talk to Greenberg.”

To answer my board member’s question, if I had to guess I would say there are more Greenbergs in attendance on Saturday mornings, and more Schwartzs on Friday nights. The Saturday morning crowd is still tied to the Judaism of my bubbie and zayde, still rooted in the experience of our ancestors who came from Eastern Europe, lived traditional Jewish lives, spoke Yiddish, kept kosher, and by and large were true believers. The Friday night crowd is one more generation removed from that experience, and also deeply immersed in secular life and all of its glitter (like most Americans, by the way!). The challenge for the synagogue is to maintain the one, to tend to the needs of traditionally oriented folk, while at the same time cultivating the interest of the other, that newer and younger demographic that is still connected, but a little bit further down the chain of tradition.

What a task! But at the same time it is good to know that there is meaningful and challenging work ahead. As for me, I’ll see you in services. Either Friday night or Saturday morning – I’ll be at both!

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The First Rock Concert (Literally)

The cave paintings of France immediately capture the imagination. Images of fish and bison, of birds and woolly mammoths, they were put on the walls of caves some thirty thousand years ago by long forgotten artists. To look at them today is to look into the distant past, to wonder about the people who made them, their community, their lives, their thoughts and concerns. Archeologists have long speculated that the drawings and paintings were located in areas of the caves that were communal, gathering spaces where our distant ancestors came together, possibly to worship, opening themselves to the deep mystery they sensed all around them in the world. The images were representations of that world and its vastness and variety, icons that symbolized man’s role and that spoke of the shared narrative of an ancient people.

New evidence indicates that these early humans may have gathered at the paintings for another reason, namely to sing together. In the mid 90s a music ethnographer from the University of Paris studied the caves acoustically, carefully listening for the brightest echoes and most resonant spots in various parts of the cave complex. What he found surprised everyone. The cave paintings were aways clustered in an area that was sonically rich, where the cave’s natural formation created the most intense reverberation of sound. The paintings were placed in the caves precisely where the human voice could be amplified and echoed, and where a group of human voices – joined in song, for example – would create sounds that had never before been heard in the world.

Imagine for a moment. A flickering fire, illuminating the paintings on the walls. The still silence of the cave, its vastness reaching far beyond the fire’s light, a group sitting on the cave’s floor, in wonder and perhaps fear. And then one voice breaks the quiet, a plaintive melody? A chant, a hum, maybe in a long forgotten language telling the primordial tale of the hunt? Slowly other voices join in, rising together, the sound rising and falling, the cave’s walls making it into something new, a striking expression of the human spirit, of yearning and gratitude and mystery. When the chanting reached its peak did they rise together, bodies moving to a beat older than time itself?

That beat goes on, never ending, winding its way from thirty thousand years ago, from deep caves, all the way to the present day. When people gather together in prayer, when voices rise in unison, when music moves us in the concert hall or the arena, we are answering the same call that those early humans answered so long ago. An opening of the spirit, an expression of what is deepest inside of us, and at the very same time what is furthest away from us. We live in their world, we walk to their beat, we continue their journey, we are called by their song. And we sing it anew. For a new time, a new age. But the song remains the same.

These lyrics from the Grateful Dead song Sunrise capture that ancient cave and its ‘dwellers on the threshold:’

Gazing at the fire
Burning by the water
Before he speaks, the world around us quiets

With eyes as sharp as arrows
And turning to the fire
He clears the air and cuts it with a feather

Many in a circle
Slowly round the fire
When he is gone, I want to know him better

No one is forsaken
No one is a liar
He plants the tree of life on our foreheads with water

He hums
There are drums
Four winds
Rising suns
We are singing and playing
I hear what he’s saying

I remember breezes
From winds inside your body
Keep me high
Like I told you
I’ll sing to them this story
And know why

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The Inflation Situation

Well, with all of the things we need to worry about in this world, we’ll now add whether or not a football team intentionally deflated the balls used by its quarterback in a recent NFL playoff game. This morning I heard a commentator on the radio comparing this to Watergate. Watergate?! For those who don’t remember, Watergate was the scandal that led to Richard Nixon resigning from the presidency, the one involving break ins, thefts, coverups, the breaking of the law at the very highest levels of government. Do we really want to compare the proper inflation of footballs to one of the most significant political fiascos of the 20th century? I know people in this country live and die by their football teams, but I think that is a bit of a stretch.

And do we really expect that our football players, coaches, owners – dare I say it, even ball boys? – should be held to high standards of ethical behavior? These fellows aren’t out on the football field because they aced ethics courses while they were in college. Football is about one thing, and one thing alone – winning. Those who help the team win will be given the opportunity to continue to do so. Those who don’t, won’t. It is that simple, and ethics and morals are rarely considered in that equation.

There are so many quotes – winning isn’t everything, it is the only thing (Lombardi); there is winning, and there is misery (Pat Riley); I’m with you, win or draw (anonymous). Winning is the point, and the only point of professional football. If you don’t win you get cut, or fired if you are the coach. You aren’t judged by whether you are a nice guy, or committed to the local community. You are judged by performance on the field and whether you help the team win. Period.

So lets stop pretending to be shocked and surprised when we discover someone in professional football is ‘cheating.’ Football may be the only sport where they say a penalty is committed every play, but the referees just don’t call them all. It is a brutal game, a violent game, and yes, also a game of skill and athleticism. But to imagine that the players and coaches don’t do everything they possibly can to make sure they win seems naive. After all, it is all about the winning.

Which is, by the way, precisely why football is a GAME. It is only in a game where there are clear winners and losers, where success is defined in such narrow terms. In games there are winners and there are losers, and never the twain shall meet. But not so in life. In real life, everyone both wins and loses. Everyone has some success, everyone knows failure. It is true, some have more of one or the other, but no one’s life plays out in only one category. And success is defined in so many other ways – family and friendship. What you manage to give back to the world. Creativity. Strength of character. Loyalty and laughter. The list could go on and on. We are all playing that game. And amazingly, many of us strive to play, as best we can, according to the rules.


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Reflections on the Paris Tragedies

this the text of my Shabbat sermon from 1/17/15:

There are certain events that seem to shake the Jewish community more deeply, touch a particular nerve, and it looks like going forward the events in Paris last week will fall into that category.  It is not always the case!  When Palestinians drove vehicles into Jews waiting at a train station in Jerusalem over the summer there was a relatively muted reaction in the Jewish community.  What happened in Paris is clearly being experienced in a different way.  What I would like to do this morning is to think about why that might be the case, and then to tell you what my three take aways from last week’s events are, at least to this point.  First of all, why has the community experienced this as a watershed event?

I think for two reasons.  Reason number one is that we still have the bitter taste of the summer in our mouths.  It was only a few months ago that the Gaza war was raging, a time when the Jewish community felt Israel’s international isolation, and also came face to face with a rising tide of anti-semitism around the world, but especially in Europe.  If you think back for a moment to those summer months you can remember I am sure how concerned the Jewish community was, how alone we felt, and how difficult a time it was for all of us.  Then just as things seemed to be settling down, and suddenly just as we were beginning to feel comfortable again last week’s terrorist attack and the ensuing events reminded us that things are still very Unsettled for Jews in Europe today.  The great commentator Rashi says about Jacob and his troubles with Joseph:  בקש יעקב לישב בשלוה קפץ רוגזו של יוסף – just as Jacob thought his troubles were over, the difficulties of Joseph popped up!  And I think that is exactly what happened to the Jewish community last week.  We thought everything was settling down, and suddenly it exploded.  Reason #1.

The second reason the Paris events were so disturbing is that some people in our community see in them echoes of what happened during the Second World War.  After all the Shabbat after the attacks the Great Synagogue of Paris was closed for the first time since that war.   More than that, there have been a number of articles and op ed pieces addressing the question of whether Jews should feel safe to live in France at all, or whether it would be better for them to leave and to move to Israel or the US.  And this talk of a Europe that is unsafe for Jews, inhospitable to a Jewish presence at all, makes us wonder if the world is any different now than it was more than 75 years ago when the Nazis came to power.

But that leads me to the first of my three take aways from what happened in Paris, which is this:  we’ve come a long way.  Because the truth is the world is different than it was 75 years ago, and France is a prime example of that difference.  A recent Pew pole indicated that a vast French majority – about %89 – hold favorable views toward Jews.  When you couple a statistic like that with the strong and immediate condemnation of attacks against Jews by the leaders of France and Germany, the legislation that has been put into place to protect against anti-semitic (and other racist) speech and activity, and the willingness of the French government to use the nation’s army to ensure that Jewish schools, synagogues, stores, and organizations will be protected, and the statement made by the French president that France without Jews would not be France, you can not help but say that we’ve come a long way, and the Jews of France in particular and Europe in general stand on far more solid ground than they did 3/4s of a century ago.  We have come a long way indeed.

The second of my take aways, however, is that as far as we’ve come, we’ve still got a long way to go.  There is a rise in anti-Semitic rhetoric and activity in Europe that is disturbing, and almost all of it comes from one of two places – either the far left or far right of the european political spectrum, or from Europe’s growing Muslim population.  In terms of Europe’s politics, those groups that are intensely nationalistic, that fight against the European union, also have a tendency to fall back on old anti-semitic tropes, like the Jews are the cause of Europe’s banking troubles, to pick one of the classics.  This is a danger that should not be underestimated, especially with Europe’s troubled economic situation, which often opens the door for groups like this to grow in power.

The issue of Europe’s growing Muslim population is another serious concern for Europe’s Jews.  It is first important to state that not all Muslims are radical fundamentalists, in fact the vast majority of Muslims are peace loving people like you and me.  Remember, as Rabbi Saroken pointed out last night, it was a Muslim man who protected and saved Jews in that grocery store last week.  People also have an unfortunate tendency to inflate numbers when they discuss this issue, and the talk that you hear, depending on your news sources, that Europe will soon be 35 or 40 percent Muslim is just irrational – the numbers aren’t even close to that, nor will they be.

All of that being said, the Muslim population has grown rapidly in Europe, and the largest segment of that population is in France, where roughly %8 of the total population is Muslim (a large Muslim population exists in Russia, but that is outside of the European Union).  In Paris the numbers are more concentrated, with upwards of %15 of the population being Muslim.  As you may know, France also has the largest Jewish population of any European nation, with about a half a million Jews living there, most of them in Paris.   The bottom line is that it feels more dangerous for Jews in Europe today because in some ways it is, and the reason for that is the fringe left and right of European politics and the growth in the Muslim population.  So although we have come a long ways since the Second World War, and although the elected officials of France and the vast majority of Frenchman support Jews, we do still have a long way to go and much to be concerned about.

My last take away from last week’s events has to do with Israel.  It is during times like these when fully realize how important it is to Jews every where to have a State of Israel.  God forbid you or your family should ever be living in a place where Jews were not welcome, where you felt that the very fact that you were Jewish put you in danger, but if that were to happen you would know that you could go to a place where Jews will always be welcome, a Jewish homeland.  Israel does provide us with a safety net, with a sense that there is a place to go, that there are people who care, who share with us an unbreakable bond of fellowship and friendship and family that will always be there.  That is an enormous blessing, but it is easy, especially living in the States, to take that blessing for granted.  Last week’s events remind us that a blessing of that nature should never be taken for granted, and that we should be grateful every day to live during a time when the State of Israel not only exists, but is powerful, and has truly become one of the great nations of the world.

So there you have it, my thoughts about last week’s events.  I also published a blog post this week about the peace rally in Paris last Sunday which you may be interested to read (you can find it at  One thing I do know is that as Jews we will do two things – continue to move forward, and continue to pray, every day, for peace in God’s world –

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A Passing Glance

It was one of those moments when past, present, and future all come together. I was sitting in the doctor’s office, not in the main waiting area, but a hallway where tests are performed, analyses conducted. A strange liminal space, people come and go, doors open and close, each telling their own story. A door near me suddenly opened and an older man emerged, clearly uncomfortable, too familiar with the indignities of medical exams, leaning heavily on a cane, his eyes sad and creased with pain. His focus was to get himself to the end of the hall, some 15 feet or so distant, and he was mustering his strength.

But just as I glanced up at him his eyes caught mine. Maybe for a few seconds we stared straight at one another. In each other’s eyes some strange kind of mirror existed that twisted time, space, and identity. I wondered what it was that troubled him, but also in that same instant I thought about what might be awaiting me somewhere down the road. I felt I could almost read his mind. “Look at that young buck,” he might have thought, “I remember when I was that age, how good I felt, how much possibility the future held.”

As he looked at me, the slightest hint of a smile came to his lips, danced around the corners of his eyes. He nodded at me ever so slightly, as if to say ‘good luck,’ and then he shuffled past. ‘God’s speed,’ I thought, an anachronistic phrase I know, but it came unbidden to my mind. I watched him pass through the door at the end of the hall, and he was gone.

“Mr. Schwartz!” The calling of my name reminded me of the here and now. The door the older gentleman had emerged from was ajar, a man in a white lab coat leaning out of it. “Right this way,” he said. I rose from my chair, grabbed my things, walked to the door, took hold of the knob. For the briefest moment I hesitated. A fraction of a second? I walked through the door and it closed behind me.

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A Million Voices

Crying out as one.  In anger and pain, in disbelief and shock and sadness.  In solidarity and strength.  In protest.  Crying out for justice and peace, crying out against injustice and violence and hatred.  One million voices.  United as one, but at the very same time each one different from the other.  Different nationalities, faith traditions, ethnicities, ages, hair and skin colors, the old and the young, the short and tall, the Jew, Christian, Muslim, the French, German, American, Israeli, Canadian, Palestinian.

There are moments that shake us out of our reverie, that remind us of our common humanity and reinforce the idea that we are all connected, all responsible for each other.  The events in Paris struck that kind of chord.  In a way we sense we are all threatened, that we had all been attacked.  What is the slogan that has been chanted, put on shirts and stickers, hash tagged?  Je suis – I am!  I am Charlie Hebdo, I am a Jew, I am the person who was attacked.  It was me!  And so we all felt the urge to respond, to come together, to show by example that goodness in the human heart triumphs over evil, that kindness and caring and decency can not be overcome by hatred and insanity.  One million people marched in Paris.  How many other’s hearts were there with them?

What do they want, these misguided, delusional God-deniers?  The target of the terrorists was freedom, and perhaps that is why the response has been so resounding.  Such a core value in our cultures and our lives.  It wasn’t a satirical magazine that was attacked, it was freedom of speech, freedom of expression, the freedom to write and think and share and debate ideas.  It wasn’t a Jewish grocery store that was attacked, it was freedom of religion, the choice we should all have to worship (or not to worship) in the way we want.  Commonly when freedom is attacked, the Jews are an early target.  We are often vulnerable, small in number yet high on the radar screen, and perhaps in some way we represent freedom in an ideal form.  Freedom is a core value of our tradition, even our story of origin, our founding myth, is that we escaped from עבדות לחרות, from slavery to freedom.  In a sense our core story holds out the possibility of freedom to all people in all places.

It was a march, and I like that image, how it works as a metaphor.  Movement, pushing back, retaking territory.  We mourn our losses, comfort bereaved families and communities, but then we move forward with strength and resolve.  Heschel once famously said after marching with Martin Luther King Jr. that he felt he was praying with his feet.  The march in Paris was a kind of prayer, but it was also a call to action.  We walk on the road together, taking care of one another and deciding which direction we should go, where we should turn, where stop to rest, how to allocate our resources.  But wherever we go, we are closer than we were before, and therefore both stronger and more human.  As we journey together, may we only go from strength to strength.

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My Rabbi

That is a phrase that warms a rabbi’s heart. When a congregant introduces you as ‘my rabbi,’ or speaks about you to someone else referring to you in the same way, it is a particular term of connection the mingles pride, gratitude, affinity, shared history, trust, and respect. You might say it is a big part of what, at the end of the day, we are truly hoping to find in our work. It means you’ve been there for the family, said something meaningful to the person, taught something that touched them, helped them feel connected to their Judaism, perhaps even their humanity. In the course of time, doing these things, connecting with people, you become ‘their rabbi.’

But as the old saying goes, there are times when even the rabbi needs a rabbi. So who is my rabbi? Over the years I can actually name quite a few. The rabbi from the congregation I grew up in, Elihu Schagrin, who took his time to teach me and my fellow teens each Monday night when I was in high school. And also, by the way, taught me my bar mitzvah material. Rabbi Elliot Dorff, from the American Jewish University, without whom I wouldn’t even be a rabbi. Rabbi Eliezer Diamond, who helped me discover a deep love of classic Jewish texts. The list could go on and on. These are the rabbis who helped to shape not only my Jewish self, but my entire self. These are ‘my rabbis.’

And this week I can add many more names to that list, too many to single out. I spent the week at RTI (the Rabbinic Training Institute, fondly nick-named ‘rabbi’s camp). It is an annual retreat for conservative rabbis from across the country where we study with fabulous teachers, pray together, schmooze, share experiences, and give one another hizuk – a sense of renewed strength and energy. Each year I emerge from the retreat with a deep sense of respect and admiration for the colleagues I spend the week with, the men and woman whose vocation and avocation I share. Some of the participants are nearing the ends of their careers. Some are freshly minted rabbis. Some are somewhere in between. But all of them are caring, lovers of the Jewish people and Judaism, thoughtful, wise, intelligent, fun loving, terrific people. I realized this year while spending time with my fellow ‘campers’ that I would be proud to call any one of them ‘my rabbi.’ We are truly blessed in the Conservative Movement to have people of such quality serving our congregations, our institutions, and the Jewish people.


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