Monthly Archives: April 2018

Adding Seats to the Table

This a text version of my sermon on Shabbat (4/22/18) –

     This past Wednesday evening, when many people were at Beth T’filoh, at the community celebration for Israel’s 70th birthday – which I heard was terrific – I climbed into my car and drove downtown to the Hopkins Hillel building, where I met with the chairs of the Johns Hopkins J Street U organization.  J Street U, as you may or may not know, is the college student branch of J Street, a DC based lobbying group that defines itself as pro-Israel, and pro-peace.  It is without question left of center politically, and so recently has often clashed with the Netanyahu administration, which is decidedly right of center.  J Street also focuses on the importance of a two state solution in terms of any ultimate peace deal with the Palestinians.

     The students I met with – one young man, one young woman – are bright, thoughtful, energetic, and deeply invested in their own Jewish identity, and deeply invested in the future of the State of Israel.  They worry that decisions that Israel is making today may have long term negative repercussions for the Jewish state.  In their work on campus they raise awareness about those issues – an example would be Israel’s building of settlements over the green line – which they argue will make it more difficult to disentangle the Israelis and Palestinians and to implement the idea of two states for two peoples.  

     Now you may or may not agree with their politics – I suspect many of you don’t.  But what I would ask you to consider this morning is whether those students have the right to express their views about Israel.  Can we be comfortable, as a Jewish community, when critical ideas about Israel enter the communal conversation?  Are we willing to listen to those ideas, to consider them, to respond thoughtfully to them?  Or has our community entered a space where we will not tolerate views on Israel that we don’t agree with?

     I personally hope we have not entered that kind of space, which is one of the reasons I went to meet with the Hopkins J Street U students.  I wanted them to know that someone who represents the community – a rabbi, and a rabbi from a large synagogue at that – would agree to spend time with them, would listen to their concerns, and would engage in thoughtful dialogue with them, even if I didn’t necessarily agree with everything they said or every view they hold.  The problem is this – if the community refuses to engage with young people like this, then we are shutting the door on young Jews who care about Israel, who are ready to work, to be active participants in the communal life, and once the door is shut we will lose their talent, their energy, and their love for the Jewish state.  And it is hard for me to understand how that would be good for anyone.

     It seems to me there are two challenges.  The first is we have to let young people like that know they are welcome at the communal table.  They have to feel safe in expressing their views, they have to be treated with the same respect as anyone else and not automatically and immediately shouted down every time they say something.  The double Torah portion that we read from this morning, Tazria Metzora, is filled with bizarre details about skin diseases and ritual purity and impurity that to us as modern people are extremely difficult to relate to, to say the least.  But at the heart of the double portion is one central concern – how can we bring people back into the community?  And that is the question we need to ask about these young people.  How can we let these young people know they are a valued part of the community, and that their views will be respected in the communal conversation about Israel?  That is challenge number one.

     Challenge number two has to do with a generational divide in terms of how the community understands Israel.  By and large folks who are in the 50s, 60s, and up still see Israel under what I would call the old mythology.  That is to say that Israel is a tiny country, that it is weak, that it is continually existentially threatened, and that it is continually overcoming enormous odds just to exist on a day to day basis.  And if you remember, as some of you here today do, when Israel was founded 70 years ago, if you remember the ’67 war, or the YK war in ’73, that mythology is probably an important part of the way you understand the state and relate emotionally to Israel.

     But many younger Jews today – Jews in the 40s, 30s, and 20s – don’t subscribe to that mythology.  They have lived their entire lives without Israel being in a war.  They know that Israel is strong economically and militarily, and they know Israel as the start up nation, a tech savvy, progressive, forward thinking country.  They don’t see Israel as weak, they don’t see Israel as existentially threatened, they don’t see Israel as struggling to survive on a day to day basis.  Their mythology is that Israel is a strong, established nation, now 70 years into its journey, powerful and secure and in charge of its own destiny.  

     And I would say in the course of the communal conversation about Israel both of those mythologies have to be recognized.  The young people are right – Israel is strong and secure and powerful and in charge of its own fate.  Just last month US News and World Report ranked the most powerful countries in the world, using a formula based on GDP, population, average salary, and military strength.  Here are the top 8 countries on that list – you may guess #1 – the US.  2?  Russia.  3 – China, 4 – Germany, 5 – the UK, 6 – France, 7 – Japan, and the 8th country on the list of most powerful nations in the world?  Israel!  8th in the world!  70 years into its history that is a remarkable, astonishing, incredible accomplishment.  With a GDP of 318 billion dollars, with a total population of 8.5 million people, with one of the world’s most powerful militaries, with an average citizen’s salary at around 35K per year, Israel is a true world power.  The young people are right.

     On the other hand, the older folks have a leg to stand on too.  There is truth to the old mythology.  Israel lives in a tough neighborhood to say the least.  With Iran and Syria and Lebanon, with an active Hezbollah on its borders, Israel’s sense of security is fragile, and without question Israel has to constantly be on its guard.  And when you take into account the growing Palestinian population, and the constant threat of terror attacks in Israel proper, Israel is facing challenges on a day to day basis that those of us who live in the US can barely get our heads around.  

     And I would argue that for us to be able to have a productive and meaningful communal conversation about Israel we have to take into account both the old and the new.  Talk bout the full picture, not just one side.  Israel is strong, powerful, established, but also at times threatened, and constantly facing danger and hostility from its neighbors.  And to have that full conversation – to acknowledge all that Israel is, and all of the challenges that she faces – we need everyone around the table.  Even – and maybe most importantly  – those with whom we don’t agree.  So lets open the doors as wide as we can – and with respect for one another – continue the conversation.

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Filed under American Jewry, Beth El Congregation, Bible, community, Israel, Israeli-American relations, Jewish life, preaching, Rabbi Steven Schwartz, sermon, Uncategorized

Augusta ’84

The Deadheads among you will recognize the reference to the show played by the Grateful Dead at the Augusta Civic Center, in (where else?) Augusta, Maine, on the 12th of October, 1984.   Commonly acknowledged as one of the best concerts played by the Dead in the 80s, its reputation was sealed when it was included in a list of the top twenty Dead shows of all time, and then included as THE 1984 show in the CD box set release 30 Trips Around the Sun.

At the time, those of us who were lucky enough to be there had a sense that something special had happened.  We may not have fully grasped the magnitude, we may not have wrapped our heads around the ultimate historical significance, we weren’t talking about top twenty all time lists, but we knew that the band had conjured up the magic that evening.  I saw the Dead seven times that fall, twice in Worcester, MA (10/8 & 10/9), twice in Augusta (10/11 & 10/12), twice in Hartford, CT (10/14 & 10/15), and the tour closer at the Carrier Dome in Syracuse New York on 10/20.

The famous Augusta show was without question the peak of the tour, and within the show itself there was a moment that captured it all, that encapsulated what made the Dead the Dead.  I’ll return to that in a moment.  But the truth is the band was playing well in general that fall.  They were having fun, throwing in some rare gems, mixing up the setlists.  New England was cozy for the Dead, the venues all within a few hours drive of each other, many of the towns small, and that particular tour just happened to coincide with peak foliage, the oaks and maples deep into their oranges, yellows, and reds.

I guess what I am trying to say is as great as Augusta was, you could kind of see it (or feel it) coming.  The vibe was good, Jerry energized and playing well, Mydland digging deep into a new found commitment to the blues and his Hammond B3, Weir as frisky as ever, and the drummers tight.  Phil, for his part, was in a good personal space, sober, in love, and feeling groovy.  The table was set.

And you could trace it in the arc of the shows.  There was the explosive Help on the Way > Slipknot > Franklin’s Tower > Jack Straw to open set two of night two in Worcester.  It is true that the Help > Slip > Franklin’s is a bit sloppy and choppy, Jerry not quite keeping pace with the complicated transitional leads, but the venerable old Worcester Centrum simply explodes when the crowd realizes that Jack Straw is being served up in the heart of a strong second set.  Night one in Augusta, by the way, is a strong show in its own right.  The first set is particularly well played, with hot versions of Shakedown, Big River, Ramble on Rose, Looks Like Rain, and Might As Well.

And post Augusta the band played a phenomenal show in Hartford.  Often lost in the shuffle of the greatness of Augusta, the 10/14 Hartford show is one for the ages, with an eleven song first set, a powerful run of China > Rider, Samson and Delilah, High Time, Estimated > Eyes, all before drums!!  And then post-drums a gorgeous China Doll, with the breakout of Lovelight, only the 5th time the band had played the song since 1972.  Whew!

But allow me to return, for a moment, to Augusta.  A fair amount has been written about the 10/12/84 show.  The energetic playing.  The wild setlist, filled with rarities and songs only performed once or twice that entire year.  The phenomenal Morning Dew, and the Good Lovin’ encore.  But there was a moment, locked forever in my memory, that captured it all, that pushed the show from great to all-time top twenty lists, and that truly   expressed the quintessence of what the Dead were after night after night, of how powerful it was when they found it, and of why we went to so many shows looking for it.

It was in the second set, post drums.  There is a long, long jam, winding and twisting and turning out of the space.  Garcia’s guitar weaves sonic theme after sonic theme, but keeps coming back to the graceful notes that lead into Playing in the Band.  The problem was, they had played Playing in the Band the night before.  What was Jerry doing?  He brought the band right up to the edge of the song, and then danced away, then back again.  The notes appeared and disappeared, circling, close, almost, and then gone again.

And here is the thing.  We were all on that ride together, Garcia’s guitar like some kind of massive magic carpet that we all were riding.  Even the band!  It was electric, how closely they were listening, how intently following Jerry, how ready to be vessels for the great muse that was about to descend.  And we were too!  Knowing, even more so feeling that a giant and beautiful and powerful wave was about to crash, and we were all ready to ride it.

Then it happened.  Jerry turned towards Weir and Lesh, peering at them over his glasses in that Jerry way.  At that very moment Mickey leaned forward over his drum kit, yelling out to Bobby, ‘Playin?!’  Weir turned to the drummers for an instant, and with the briefest nod confirmed what was about to happen.  Suddenly, with tremendous force and power, just as Bobby turned back to the mic, the entire band came together on the mystical ‘one.’  Playing in the Band – the ‘Playin’ playout’ section – just the end, the reprise – filled up the old Augusta Civic.  I believe to this day the entire concrete shell of the building momentarily lifted a few feet off of God’s good earth, with 4,000 Deadheads aboard for the ride, and the greatest band we’d ever seen on one of their greatest nights.

In one of the oddest and nearly impossible karmic Grateful Dead occurrences, somehow, someone video taped that entire night in Augusta.  Remember, this was 1984!!  Like with seemingly everything else in the universe, you can find the video on Youtube.  The quality is iffy, but there is no question that it is the show from that evening.  You can’t see the drummers on the video – it is filmed from Phil’s side of the stage, and so you see some of Phil, and Bobby, Jerry, and Brent.

But that magic moment after the space is quite clear, vivd and captured for posterity by the mysterious videographer.  You see Weir turn back towards the drum kit, confirming Mickey’s query,  ‘Playin?!’  That slight nod, which I guess means something like ‘evidently so!’  And then the explosion.  Still gives me chills.  Even 34 years later.

Let there be songs to fill the air!  And magic, too, that will last a lifetime.

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Big Shul Life

Been a while.  I was laid up with a nasty bug that has been making its way through the synagogue staff, and then I’ve been trying to catch up.  In that scramble blogging tends to slide down the priority scale as you struggle to do what needs to be done that day (or sometimes that hour) with some modicum of competence.  Sometimes that is all you can hope for, just that the wheels don’t fall off, that the bus somehow shuffles along from point A to point B and arrives with everyone safely seated.  Maybe it wasn’t the most memorable trip, the most dazzling or mind-bending or life-changing, but you did help folks move a little ways down the road.

Which brings me to this past weekend.  A series of days that really only happens in the context of large congregational life.  From Friday to Sunday we had two funerals (one Friday afternoon, one Sunday afternoon), and four b’nai mitzvah (two Saturday morning, one Saturday evening, one Sunday morning). Oh yes, and a Friday night dinner for the scholar in residence.  Of course two eulogies must be written somewhere in there, charges composed for the bar and bat mitzvah students, the services themselves conducted with their various liturgical complications.

It all came together fairly well.  We’ve got a good team, the staff works hard, everyone pitches in, does their job, contributes.  There are little glitches here and there, but for the most part we are the only ones who notice them.  After all, most of the people who came through our doors over the weekend are so far out of their element in the synagogue they hardly know what is correct or incorrect anyway.  That being said, we do take pride in what we do, and we are professionals, perhaps not always the most complimentary word, but there is something to be said for it.  Sometimes simply getting the names right is a victory in and of itself.

Not that we don’t have moments of nahas.  We truly do feel proud of the kids, of how hard they work, how much they put into it.  It might be a blur for us, particularly in a weekend when we are going from family to family to family.  (Please, God, help us get the names right!) But for the families, particularly for the students, we hope they’ve had a positive experience that will stay with them for many years.  Perhaps even a formative Jewish moment that will in some mysterious way help to shape who they are as people and as Jews as they grow into adulthood.

That is a future hope.  Sometimes it can also be a reward in the present.  We have to hope for both.

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Structured Memories

I’ve often wondered why the tradition is so invested in our remembering the losses of our lives.  Think of it for a moment.  Yartzeits are marked, and people come to services on those days to recite the kaddish.  The unveiling ritual, often scheduled a full year after someone has died, brings a family back to the cemetery right about the time their grief may have been diminishing.  And four times a year, on Yom Kippur, Shemini Atzeret, Passover (the 8th day), and Shavuot (the 2nd day), the liturgical calendar asks us to come to services to recite Yizkor prayers.

But why the frequency and emphasis?  Would we not, organically, on our own, day to day (let alone on such scheduled occasions), think of those we’ve lost?  Don’t they come into our minds even without any special prayers or scheduled moments?  Aren’t our losses with us every day?  And if so, why all of these kaddishes?  These yartzeits and Yizkors?

Perhaps one answer is that we need to be reminded that time is passing by.  I have countless times over the years had the following conversation with a congregant who has come to shul to observe a yartzeit:  ‘How long is your loved one gone?’  ‘Rabbi, I can’t believe it, but it is 5 years!’  Or 10, or 20, or 40.  Yes, how the time goes by, and there is something important about marking its passage, about reflecting on the fact that we have bravely journeyed onward after our losses, that the sun has continued to rise and set, the moon to wax and wane, the years to pass.

There is also something to be said for connecting grief and loss and remembering to a sacred community.  In that community we understand our experience is shared.  We rise for Yizkor each remembering our own losses, but we rise together, surrounded by friends, supported by our fellow worshippers, comforted by a common liturgy and history.  And in that moment we also honor the memories of those we’ve lost through the lens of the Tradition, so commonly an important part of their lives and the legacy they’ve left behind for us.

And also we need to carve out intentional moments in the course of our lives dedicated to remembering, reflecting, understanding, thinking, and wondering.  Moments when we can feel grief, or gratitude, or often both.  Moments when we can reaffirm, in a formal way, how important memory is in our lives, how deeply we feel life’s losses, and how connected we remain to the people with whom we’ve shared the journey of our lives.  Even when the journey of their life has ended.

May their memories always be for a blessing!

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Filed under Beth El Congregation, celebration, grief, Jewish festivals, Jewish life, loss, memory, Rabbi Steven Schwartz, Uncategorized, Yizkor