Monthly Archives: March 2016

Israel on Campus

this a text version of my sermon from 3/26/16

It is the time of year when college admissions departments around the country are making their final decisions about which young people will and will not be admitted to their schools. High school seniors around the country keep a close eye on their email inboxes, waiting to hear if they got in to the school of their choice. Once they hear, the ball is in their court, and they begin to weigh various and sundry factors – what kind of financial aid package were they offered. Which school has better department in this or that subject area. Young people today also want to know what kind of work out facilities the school has, how new the dorms are, what kind of food courts are available to students, and even if Starbucks coffee is served in the dorms. At the same time there are deeper issues students ponder about going to college today, and something in the Jewish community that students are thinking about when they weigh their college choices, something that was not even on the radar screen when I applied to college 35 years ago, is what kind of atmosphere on the campus exists in terms of Israel, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and comfortably being Jewish on campus, and Jewish life in general.

A young Jew who arrives on a college campus today might quickly discover that there are regular anti-Israel protests being held by student groups, not uncommonly supported by faculty, where an entirely one sided view of the Israeli Palestinian conflict is used to paint Israel in the worst possible light. The new student might find an active BDS movement on campus. BDS stands for boycott, divestment, and sanctions, and is a growing national movement that attempts to get organizations and institutions to cut off all financial connections with the State of Israel, to not use any Israeli products, or invest in any Israeli companies. And on campus the BDS groups often become repositories of anti Israel, anti Zionist, and sometimes anti semitic language and ideas that should make any Jew uncomfortable.

This week I read an article in the WSJ about a relatively new anti-Israel movement on some college campuses, called Israel Apartheid Week. This is often connected with the campus’ anti-Israel BDS movement, and becomes another series of activities on campus where Israel is accused of all kinds of ridiculous and blatantly false human rights violations against the Palestinians. Those of you who know my Israeli politics know that I am certainly left of center, and I don’t claim that Israel is perfect, and have not hesitated in the past to criticize Israel from this pulpit when I’ve felt Israel has gone astray. But the accusations leveled by the BDS and Israel Apartheid groups are so wildly false, the information they claim so totally inaccurate, and the poisonous atmosphere they foster so dangerous, for Israel and for Jews on campus, that we in the Jewish community have to first of all be aware of it, be educated about it, understand what it is and how it works. Secondly we have to speak out against it. And last – and most importantly, I think – we have to make sure that when our young people arrive on campus they know enough about what is really going on in the Middle East to identify misinformation when it is thrown at them, and should they choose, to actively engage in the debate.

The easiest part of that equation is educating ourselves. I know from emails I get that many of you are already aware and concerned about how Israel is being portrayed on campus today. There is plenty of information if you want to learn more, and if you want specific references or resources you can certainly be in contact with me or with Rabbi Saroken or the Cantor. The second piece – how we choose to speak out – is a bit trickier. There are issues of free speech here, and I don’t think we should be in a position of saying we want to entirely shut down the conversation on campus. But we can be vigilant, and when we have children or grandchildren at schools where we know anti-Israel sentiment is strong and the BDS movement is vocal and active, we can write letters to the administration – I would suggest to the president’s office – voicing our concerns and in a rational way acknowledging Israel’s challenges, while at the same time pointing out that Israel is the only democracy in the Middle East and that it is a nation grounded in the deepest values of human rights and freedom.

This brings me to the last piece – properly educating our young people. We can do it – just a couple of weeks ago I had a long conversation with a group of 11th and 12th graders about these very issues. But here is the problem – we cannot do it if we have no contact with the kids. And if they stop their Jewish education after their bar and bat mitzvah, we don’t have a chance. This is not the kind of stuff you can talk with a 10 or 11 year old about. But 15, 16, and 17 year old high schoolers are interested in this because they are thinking about college. They know it won’t be long before they are the ones sitting and waiting for that email from the admissions department. And they’ve heard about BDS. And they know something is going on on campus about Israel – but they don’t know exactly what it is. Most of our high schoolers do not have the tools they need to walk onto campus and engage in these debates. If we have them here we can teach them, we can study with them, we can give them those tools. But we need to have them here, and all too often today we don’t see them after bar and bat mitzvah.

We read from the Torah this morning the second portion of the book of Leviticus, continuing from last week a detailed explanation of the sacrifices that were offered in ancient times at the Temple in Jerusalem. Some of the sacrifices were offered when a person had committed a sin. So if you did something wrong – if you lied, if you stole something, if you knowingly violated a commandment – you offered this type of sacrifice, and you were absolved of your guilt. These are what we technically calls sins of commission – you actively participated in doing something wrong.

But the Torah also identifies a second category of sin – sins of omission. There is a special sacrifice for these sins – it was called the Asham. In this case the person hasn’t actively done anything wrong – they haven’t violated a commandment. But there was something they could have done, that for whatever reason they chose not to do. Here is the Torah’s language about the Asham – והוא עד או ראה או ידע אם לא יגיד – he was able to testify – he could have spoken out – but he was silent. In the Torah’s eyes, that is also a kind of sin, and the sacrifice is required.

This is one of those times when there are things that we can do. We can make sure we know what we need to know about BDS and about what is going on in terms of Israel on college campuses today. We can actively participate in that process, we can engage in the conversation by reaching out to the schools where we went years ago or where our children and grandchildren go today, letting them know we are concerned and we care. And most importantly of all we can make sure that our children and grandchildren have the love of Israel, and the understanding, the knowledge, and the tools they need to know truth from falsehood, and to without fear or shame speak out on Israel’s behalf for what is right and just.
may we all determine to engage in that work in the years ahead –

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The NFL and VW – Who Knew?

Well, the cat is out of the bag. We now know that even at the very highest levels of the NFL’s corporate structure there was an awareness that playing football is directly correlated to brain trauma and that a significant percentage of NFL players will struggle with the devastating brain disease CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy). Exactly when who knew what is still an open question, but they’ve known for a while, and all the while they’ve known the games have gone on, making even more money, with bigger and brighter spectacle, with a more and more ravenous fan base.

What will ultimately happen I have no idea. The NFL is the biggest game in town, and the amount of money the league generates is in the billions of dollars. I don’t have to tell you that people will often sacrifice just about anything for money. Their morals, their integrity, heck even their friends and families. But for some reason it stills feels disappointing to me that every time with these mega corporations and entities there seems to be a cover up. Those who know, those who are responsible, those charged with making the decisions, end up abrogating their responsibility, or even worse, knowingly being deceitful and dishonest, misleading the rest of us. Its fine! No worries! Business as usual! Carry on!

And if nothing is more American than the NFL, what is more German than Volkswagen? Different business, but in the end the same story. An organized deception, a planned ongoing cover up, folks in the know all along the hierarchical chain. You have to wonder – didn’t they realize that at a certain point the truth would come out? And isn’t it always better to tackle these things at the earliest possible stage? Unpleasant, for sure, but it seems to me the longer you wait, the more unpleasant it gets. I guess it is the idea of hanging on to a sinking boat. It might be going down, but at least you know what you are holding.

I guess in the end it is money that does the talking. When all of a sudden money is at stake people sit up and pay attention, and the apologies start coming out, with promises of ‘full investigations’ and complete transparency. VW is learning that lesson in a real way. The NFL not so much, at least not yet. Whether one day they will only time will tell. Time and the league’s fans, who continually and so generously feed the beast.

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TRAIPAC

Yes it is true that AIPAC has a long standing habit of inviting presidential candidates to speak at its annual conference. McCain, Clinton, and Obama spoke at the conference in 2008, Romney did it in 2012 (via satellite), and the list goes on and on. So it was no surprise that yesterday (3/21/16) on the AIPAC main stage there was a parade of potential presidential power with each of the remaining candidates, (except, oddly, Bernie Sanders, the only Jew in the bunch) giving their two cents to the crowd, in various and sundry ways repeating the same mantra over and over again – America will always stand by Israel. It was business as usual at AIPAC, and even if the candidates jabbed at each other in the course of their remarks, they all stuck to the central AIPAC talking points, as expected – or is that required? Anyway, you get the picture.

What was different this time, however, was the controversy surrounding AIPAC’s invitation to Donald Trump. On the one hand, he is the leading Republican candidate – how could they not invite him? On the other hand, there are many in the Jewish community who feel that his public statements are often in direct conflict with Jewish values. A group of rabbis organized a silent protest to Trump’s AIPAC talk, getting up and walking out just as he began his remarks. The leaders of the Conservative Movement (Chancellor Arnie Eisen and Rabbis Julie Schonfeld and Steve Wernick) published an Op Ed the day before Trump’s speech, raising four objections to Trump’s character and candidacy, and wondering whether it was wise to highlight him at a conference that is in many ways about Jewish community. (you can read the text of their statement here: http://www.nydailynews.com/news/politics/jewish-americans-wary-trump-takes-aipac-stage-article-1.2570993)

It was an interesting conundrum for the AIPAC leadership to navigate. It is true, everything is a trade off, and politics makes strange bedfellows, etc. etc. But did we really have to go there? Are we prepared to set aside core communal values for political expediency, for a potential leg up should the unimaginable happen and Trump actually ascend to the presidency? By inviting Trump AIPAC answered that question in the affirmative. I wonder if they were surprised at the references to ‘Palestine’ in his remarks? For someone who ‘studies the issues, who knows them better than just about anyone,’ that was a noticeable slip that gave the faithful in the crowd pause. I have no doubt it will be corrected and explained in the days ahead.

If you are a lover of roots music, you have probably heard of Robert Johnson, the original blues man. Johnson came from the Mississippi delta, a poor black man who somehow almost singlehandedly created a style of music that would become famous world wide. He only lived into his late 20s, and recorded a mere 30 or so songs in his entire career. But without Robert Johnson it is possible to argue that you wouldn’t have the Rolling Stones, or Led Zeppelin, Eric Clapton or the Allman Brothers, possibly even Bob Dylan. The question about Johnson was this: how did one man have such a huge influence? Where did his almost preternatural talent come from?

The legendary answer to that question is that Johnson one day met the Devil at dry and dusty crossroads in the deep delta. A deal was made – Johnson secured his short term talent and a long term legacy. But he lost his soul. Whether you believe the story or not, it is hard not to read it as a cautionary tale.

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Some Thoughts on Israel

This a text version of a talk I gave after Shabbat services on 3/19/16, part of on ongoing series of speakers reflecting on their relationship with Israel –

Thinking about how to speak about Israel, and its importance in my life and my rabbinate, I realized that it isn’t one Israel I have a relationship with, but rather 3 Israels, each in a way related to a distinct period of my life. So I’ll spend a few minutes with you this afternoon thinking about each of those Israels, and I hope in the course of doing that you’ll be able to have some sense of my relationship with Israel, how that informs my rabbinate and brings meaning to my life.

The first Israel is what I call the ideal Israel, and the period of my life I connect with that Israel is my childhood. I was born in 1964, and really came of age in the 70s, the decade in which I attended Hebrew school and had my bar mitzvah. Israel was an important part of my Jewish education, both in Hebrew school and in confirmation classes (yes I continued my Jewish education after bar mitzvah!), and the Israel I was introduced to during that time was ideal, a heroic and almost mythic state. It was an Israel that could make crops grow in the desert. It was an Israel that was a tiny nation with few people, but that could somehow, through superior intelligence, resilience, and determination defeat more powerful and numerous enemies. And it was an Israel that occupied a moral high ground, that existed in an unimpeachable state of goodness and ethical clarity that no other nation existed in. The Israel I met growing up achieved the impossible, lived to a higher standard, was a David to the world’s Goliaths, and of course the reason Israel did all of this was that it was a Jewish state.

That Israel – the mythic Israel – in my mind was formed by particular experiences. I remember meeting in Hebrew school an older man who had survived the Holocaust and moved to Israel after the war. I was an impressionable 11 or 12 year old, and the harrowing stories the man told of train rides and concentration camps have stayed with me to this day, but what I most vividly remember was that at one point he pulled a large knife out of his belt, and he showed us it had the IDF logo, and he told us that Israel meant that Jews will never be sacrificed again. I also remember, like many of you, watching in real time the events of the 72 Olympics, the pride I felt watching a Jew, Mark Spitz, setting a record for most gold medals won in a single Olympics, but also the horror, confusion, and fear that I felt when 11 Israeli athletes at those games were murdered by Palestinian terrorists. And last, but certainly not least, I will never forget the feeling of sitting in shul on Yom Kippur in 1973, when our rabbi approached the pulpit and began to talk with us about the surprise invasion of Israel that began the Yom Kippur war, and the level of emotion in the room that day as we prayed for Israel’s safety and survival with all of our hearts and souls.

The Yom Kippur war, in a sense, proved Israel’s mythic narrative in my young eyes. Israel was tiny, surrounded by enemies, on the very verge of destruction, and yet somehow overcame all of the odds, in the end to emerge victorious, and even stronger than she had been before – Israel was unbreakable, favored by God, based on Jewish morals and values, and really was, in my young eyes, perfect – a perfect land, with a perfect people, with a perfect story, and a perfect ending. It was ideal.

Let me shift now to the second Israel I have a relationship with, and that is what I call the real Israel. This Israel I got to know as a young man, as I married, got more interested in Jewish life, and Israel itself, and ultimately entered rabbinical school. This Israel didn’t fit the mythic narrative of the Israel of my childhood. It was first of all militarily powerful, with the best trained, best equipped, Army in the Middle East. This Israel was a nuclear power, the only in the Middle East, and one of only 9 nations in the world to possess nuclear weapons. This was an Israel that was vibrant, at the forefront of modern technology, innovative, progressive socially in many ways, with a strong economy, great scientists, world class universities, a vibrant culture, a commitment to fundamental human rights and freedoms. This was an Israel that any Jew anywhere could be enormously proud of. But it also was an Israel that struggled with internal ethnic tensions, between S’fardim and Ashkanazim, between Russian Olim and Sabras, between secular Israelis and the Ultra-Orthodox. It was an Israel where an average Israeli with an average salary could not afford to buy a home. And most difficult of all, it was an Israel that struggled with a terrible and existentially threatening problem – the Palestinian population, growing rapidly, that it shared its small space with. And it is in dealing with the Palestinians where I believe Israel’s fundamental Jewish identity and moral fiber are most directly challenged. This is Israel’s dilemma today – can you be a Jewish state when you forcibly maintain control of a large non-Jewish population? Can you continue to occupy the moral high ground when you are locked in a struggle to the death which at times forces you to do things that may not be moral, or ethical, to survive? At what point do you abandon certain Jewish values, in order to survive, or in order to win?

This is the real Israel I have come to know. It is a place of nuance, of grey, and not of black and white. It is a place of much good, of incredible potential, of indescribable spirit, of unbelievable optimism. But it is also a place with deep conflicts, with significant problems, a place where mistakes are made, where not every decision is correct and not battle is won, where the military is strong, but fallible, where government leaders are great men and women, but where an Israeli Prime Minister can be assassinated by a fellow Jew, or where a former Prime Minister can go to jail, as Ehud Olmert did last month. This is the real Israel – a wonderful, almost miraculous place. But at the same time, in many ways, a place that is no better or worse than any other place.

But it is my place, because I am a Jew, and Israel is intrinsically connected to being Jewish and living a Jewish life. And that leads me to the third Israel in my life, the Israel I relate to not with my mind, not even with my heart, but with my soul, my neshama. This is the Israel I experience as a religiously observant Jew, as one who davens every day, who takes Shabbat and holidays seriously, who loves the study of our ancient and sacred texts, who lives his life according to the rhythms of the Jewish calendar. And when you put your tefilin on, or wrap yourself in a tallit, or open a volume of Talmud, or celebrate Shabbat, or sit down at a Passover seder, it feels different – in my soul – to do it in Israel than it does anywhere else in the world. Because Israel is the homeland of the Jewish people. Because Israel is the birthplace of Judaism and Jewish life. Because I know when I put my tallit and tefillin on in Israel it is something Jews were doing in Israel 3000 years ago, something you can’t say about the United States, or any other place for that matter.

This Israel I got to know only in my adult life, because to know this Israel you have to go there, you have to breath the air and walk on the dusty paths of the Galilee and the ancient cobbled stones of Tzefat and stand on the beach in Tel Aviv and hear the siren that begins Shabbat in Jerusalem. And the very first time I was in Israel I was 30 years old.

Since then I have been back many times, so many that I have lost track. I have had the great privilege of bringing hundreds of congregants to Israel over the last 18 years, so that they might form their own relationships with their own Israels, but always with the hope that they will emerge from their experience with the deep connection to Israel that I feel every day of my life.

My relationship with Israel will always be woven from the three threads I have described to you this afternoon – the ideal, the real, and the religious. The ideal Israel continues to inspire me, to remind me of the great possibility, and also the great hope and expectation that Jews everywhere attach to the Jewish homeland. The real Israel also inspires me, but at the same time challenges me and worries me. The religious Israel, that Israel that speaks to my soul, nourishes my religious life, keeping me connected to the great history of our people, so much of it lived in that land, and also to God.

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When in Shul, Do as the Romans

You are more familiar with the traditional version of the quote, ‘when in Rome, do as the Romans.’ That is to say, when you are somewhere with a different culture you should by and large conform to that culture. At the very least be sensitive to the fact that a culture that might seem strange to you can have deep meaning and familiarity to others. Be respectful, don’t look down on it, and sometimes just go with it. It is, minimally, the polite thing to do.

One of the challenging things about shul life today is that many Jews feel like foreigners in their own sanctuaries. They are so unfamiliar with the service, so uncomfortable with the rituals, and so detached from a sense of meaning and connection to the tradition, that the experience of shul is alien to them, foreign, something they watch from afar but do not engage in.

Of course the synagogue has some responsibility for this. This is at least in part our failure. We have not successfully communicated the knowledge and skills that people need to participate in our services. I know this, I feel bad about it, I sympathize, and yes, we have our work cut out for us. We will keep trying!

But we need partners. We need people who want to learn, who feel that their lack of connection is important, is something they would like to change. I’ve noticed recently how fewer and fewer people even bother to pick up a siddur during services. They come and sit, they watch the proceedings, they seem to pay some attention when sermons are delivered. But I just don’t understand why you would sit in a two hour service and not want to pick up the prayer book. We call the pages. We do a fair amount in English. There are responsive readings you can participate in, even if you can’t read Hebrew.

Think for a moment of the message you give to your children if you sit there with them and don’t open the prayer book. You don’t have to say anything to them – they’ll know. Mom thinks this is boring! This must not be important, dad isn’t following what is going on. And then the obvious question – why should I?

And I know many people can’t read the Hebrew. And I also know that many people are not comfortable with prayer (both of those issues, by the way, we can work on!). But out of common courtesy, please pick up the prayer book. Follow the service. You don’t have to believe it! You don’t even have to believe in God! Besides, you might be surprised, and something in those pages might be interesting, moving, meaningful, dare I say it, even spiritual. But just by picking up the book you are showing you are part of the community. You are saying ‘even if I don’t understand this, I respect it.’ And you are showing your children that this is something to participate in, something to be taken seriously, something that might one day have meaning for them, even if it doesn’t for you.

So when in shul, please don’t do as the Romans. Do as the Jews.

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U.S. Blues

The Grateful Dead canon is filled with references to America, a land (in the Dead’s eyes) of on the one hand potential, possibility, and freedom, and on the other absurdity and utter hypocrisy. Think of the Bob Weir/Robert Hunter composition Jack Straw, with its cowboy anti-heroes, its flying eagles, its reference to the 4th of July and its copping of the phrase ‘sea to shining sea’ from America the Beautiful. In song after song Garcia and Weir sing of old time America, of the Great West and backroom card games, of cowboys on the dusty trail, of small town life and homemade whiskey, Tennessee Jed and ‘just like New York City.’ With parched throats and dusty boots the Dead came out of the West, fresh off the trail, seeking truth through experience, exploring the power of music to reveal the real, creating alternate community but connecting to something at the core of what our great country is about.

They knew in the end there was only so much they could do, but they never flinched. They were pranksters at their core and they could spot a con a mile a way. That may be why for so many years they intentionally maintained an apolitical stance, watching the issues and the elections come and go from the sidelines with bemused expressions. Even later when they started to touch on topics that might have been political they were big picture issues – the rain forest and the climate, the general human tendency to self destruct (Weir and Barlow’s Throwing Stones.) But to actually immerse in the game, to endorse a candidate, or take a position on a particular issue was anathema. Whether right or wrong, the Dead left that kind of thing to Springsteen or Bono or Kid Rock.

But they always watched, keeping the country and its doings in view, shaking their collective head at the sheer strangeness of the entire enterprise. There was anger, too. Over the years Weir changed the lyrics in Throwing Stones: ‘Money green, its the only way – you can buy a whole God damned government today!’- always shouted with conviction and a ragged righteousness. In essence, in their own strange, bizarre, and beautiful way, they nobly filled the role of the artist, through their music granting us the flash of insight that reminds us of what it all should be about. Even politics.

The song US Blues captures it. Politics?! Uncle Sam?! The ultimate con-game, the largest and most dangerous wolf in sheep’s clothing you’ll even encounter in your life. Beware of patriotism – it can muddle your mind! Watch out for politicians – they’ll try to ‘run your life, steal your wife!’ The song’s couplets are playful, even comical. But the title drives it home – US…BLUES! This is a tragedy of epic proportions. The blues is sadness personified, the lowest and worst situation you can imagine. A blues for the United States is almost a requiem, rock and roll style.

Sounds about right as a description for the political farce we are all so avidly watching unfold day by day. The ratings are through the roof! Can you imagine that? This is what we want to do with our time? Watch men in suits yell at each other, talk over each other, and insult each other with ever worsening vulgarities? Here is a better suggestion: read Mary Beard’s new history of ancient Rome, SPQR. There are some eerie parallels in terms of rising and falling, of how great countries come into being, and of what brings about their demise.

At this point it really does have to play itself out. This great and uncontrollable wave, cresting and crashing, who knows where it might actually make shore? In that very last batch of Garcia/Hunter collaborations there was a sort of US Blues redux, entitled Liberty. Here its first verse: Saw a bird with a tear in its eye, walking to New Orleans, my oh my. Hey now bird wouldn’t you rather die, than walk this world when you are born to fly?

The bird, of course is America. The question is where is it going? And maybe even more importantly, how will it get there? Will it walk or fly?

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