Category Archives: community

Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood

A text version of my sermon from Shabbat services on 11/30/19 –

     Who could have imagined that more than a half century after the very first episode of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood debuted – on February 19th, 1968 – that Fred Rogers would be a virtually ubiquitous personality.  With not one, but two major movies about his life, the most recent starring Tom Hanks; with article after article and op ed piece after op ed piece, Fred Rogers – now 16 years after his death – has suddenly become one of the most thought about and prominent public figures in the country.  

     On the surface this is an odd phenomenon, to say the least.  I am guessing most of the people in the room this morning remember Mr. Rogers.  Soft spoken and gentle, kind and caring, sneaker and red sweater wearing, his TV show ran for 31 seasons, influencing generation after generation of children as they grew up and watched TV during their formative years.  A child of the late 60s and early 70s, I remember settling in front of an old black and white TV with a screen smaller than the screen I currently use for my computer, and watching Fred Rogers spin his stories, relating life lessons, unpacking issues like anger and sadness, and in his gentle way teaching moral and ethical principles that could help you to be a better person, the kind of person your parents and grandparents clearly thought you should be.

     Mr. Rogers died only a couple of years after his show went off the air.  The TV episodes were still on, replayed usually as part of the early morning PBS schedule, but the person of Fred Rogers entered a sort of quiescent period.  He was remembered, but mostly in a  nostalgic way, the way we remember with fondness a time in our lives – or in the life of our country – with a golden sheen.  Fifteen years ago – probably even ten years ago – if someone had told you there would be two major motion pictures made about the life of Fred Rogers, you probably would not have taken that person’s investment advice.  And yet here we are.  Fred Rogers is so popular right now that there is even an article about his wife – whose name is?  Joanne!  – in yesterday’s New York Times.  She is still alive, and in good health, God bless her.

     I’ve always believed we create the hero we need at the time when we need him – or her – and evidently at this contentious time in our country there is a sense that we need Fred Rogers.  Maybe it is the soothing tone of his voice during a time when people, especially public figures, seem to mostly yell at each other.  We might be attracted to his calm demeanor when everything, and everyone, seems to be so frantic.  Perhaps it has to do with the way he listens in an age when all anyone seems to want to do is talk.  Or maybe it is his fundamental and unshakable optimism that appeals to us, when so much of the world seems dark and hope is hard to come by.  Most likely it is some combination of all of these things.  We are living in unsettled times, and Fred Rogers had a way of making us believe everything would be OK, and reminding us that at the end of the day, we can trust one another. 

     I know that evidence often seems to be to the contrary.  Forget about our country and the deepening divisions that we see everywhere, whether racial or political or economic or otherwise.  All you have to do is take a cursory glance through this morning’s Torah portion to remember how difficult we humans can be, even to the people closest to us.  This morning’s reading contains some of the Bible’s best known stories, all of them focusing on the family of Isaac and Rebecca, and their sons – what are their names?  Esau and Jacob!  

     I imagine you know the narrative well.  It begins with one of the most fundamental of all parenting mistakes, namely one parent favoring one child, while another parent favors the other child.  In this case it is Rebecca who loves her son Jacob but doesn’t care much for his older brother Esau.  But just to make sure things in the family are truly impossible, Isaac does the same thing in reverse, always proud of and talking about Esau, but seemingly not too fond of Jacob.  If you’ve ever known a family like this, you know this is a recipe for disaster, and that is in fact what ensues.  By the time this morning’s reading is done Jacob has deceived his older brother Esau into selling him the family birthright.  Then Isaac tells a group of men that his wife Rebecca is his sister, putting her in a very uncomfortable position, to say the least.  And if you thought things couldn’t get any worse, the portion ends with Rebecca and Jacob, mother and son, hatching a plot to trick Isaac, their husband and father, into giving the family inheritance to Jacob.  

     And you thought Washington DC was bad.

     Of course the sad truth is that people do nasty things to one another all the time.  Cheat, steal, and lie.  Betray.  Physically harm one another.  The list could go on and on, but you get the point.  It is not always easy for us – and in fact sometimes it is quite difficult – to treat one another the way God wants us to.  To respect one another, care for each other, help and support one another,  sacrifice for one another, give one another the benefit of the doubt.  To live honestly and admirably, and to regularly ask, paraphrasing JFK, not what others can do for us, but what we can do for them.  You see, the Torah lays out the very worst human behavior in front of us, because once you see the worst you have a deeper appreciation for how important it is to strive to be the best.

     Mr. Rogers came at that idea from the other way around.  He also wanted to show us that we should strive to be the best we can be, but he illustrated that by focusing on the positive.  It wasn’t that he denied the difficulties of human nature.  He acknowledged that people make mistakes, hurt others, and fall short on a regular basis.  But in Fred Rogers world that moment of failure was seen as the beginning of something better.  Growing, changing, understanding more deeply, and figuring out how, the next time around, to do it right.

     And I think that is why – at least one of the reasons why – Mr. Rogers is at the front of the national consciousness these days.  We are getting tired of all the negativity.  And we like seeing the spirit of a person who said, over and over again, there is a better way, and you can, with a little help from your friends, figure out what it is.  What was the name of Fred Roger’s show?  Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood!  I am sure the choice of the word neighborhood is very intentional – a place filled with all kinds of people, and animals, different backgrounds and ethnicities, but working for a common goal.  

     Anyone happen to know the Hebrew word for neighborhood?  שכונה – it comes from the root that means ‘to dwell.’  So the שכונה is the place where people dwell together.  And of course if you just change one letter  – take that ‘vav’, and make it a ‘yud’ – you have what?  שכינה – one of the names we use for God, a name that reminds us particularly of God’s sheltering presence.  The sense seems to be that when we dwell together – truly, not just in place but in spirit – God’s presence is brought into our world.  Mr. Rogers spent his life teaching children – and maybe all of us – that that kind of world is not only ideal, it can be real.  His job was to teach us that lesson – and the rest is up to us.

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Same as it Ever Was

In the fall of 1980 the Talking Heads released their fourth studio album, entitled ‘Remain in Light.’  Jimmy Carter’s presidency was winding down, and in November, a month after the record was released, the country would elect Ronald Reagan to be its 40th president.  The signature song of Remain in Light would become Once in a Lifetime, a charged blending of funk and world music beats overlaid with David Bryne’s surrealistic ravings delivered in a series of preacher-like cadences.  Here are the lyrics of the memorable first verse:

And you may find yourself
Living in a shotgun shack
And you may find yourself
In another part of the world
And you may find yourself
Behind the wheel of a large automobile
And you may find yourself in a beautiful house
With a beautiful wife
And you may ask yourself, well
How did I get here?

In the band’s live version of the song, recorded for its 1984 concert film Stop Making Sense, Byrne shakes, trembles, and sweats as he sings, conveying the sense of a man on the verge of a nervous breakdown.  It is all too much.  Too much going on.  Too much to understand.  Too much information.  What is real, what is important, what is true, what false, and how, indeed, did we get here?

One answer to that question is found in the song’s haunting refrain, that Byrne hypnotically chants over and over, slapping his hand against his forehead – ‘same as it ever was.’  It is in essence a reframing of the famous biblical line from Ecclesiastes 1:9:  ‘there is nothing new under the sun.’  Here is that verse in its entirety:  “What was will be again, what has been done will be repeated, for there is not a single new thing under the sun.”  In other words we get to ‘here’ because it is inevitable.  We don’t have a choice because we are doomed to repeat the same story lines over and over.  Make the same mistakes, never grow, never change, never break new ground.  Same as it ever was.

I’ve been thinking about both the song and the verse from Ecclesiastes over the last weeks, while finishing Jill Lepore’s masterful one volume history of the United States, entitled ‘These Truths.’  In vivd and elegant prose Lepore recounts moment after moment in the history of our nation.  Many of those moments are glorious, stirring tales of the human spirit at its very best.  In generation after generation Americans stepped forward to risk everything for values that we hold to be true and eternal – human dignity, freedom, justice, and mercy among them.

And yet.  Reading through the book’s 800 plus pages also reminded me that so many of the sorrows and troubles we live with today have been a part of our country from the very beginning.  Lepore makes it clear that racism is chief among those.  But we must also add to that list populism, political partisanship, poverty, the conservative / liberal divide, wealth inequality, and the list goes on and on.  Just like in the Talking Heads song, or the verse from Kohelet, we got here because we’ve been here before, and we just can’t seem to figure out a way to move forward.  Same as it ever was.

But I did not put the book down in a state of despair.  Instead I felt inspired, touched, moved, and reenergized.  In a way what is truly astonishing is that we have not given up.  We keep trying.  There are lights along the way, great figures and thinkers that show us who we are and encourage us to be better.  They help us to move down the road just a bit, a step or two.  Sometimes we slide back, sucked in by selfishness or fear to past mistakes and hatreds, repeating and revisiting them as if for the very first time.  But other times we are better.  We do better.  We live up to the ideals that we believe should define our country, our lives, and ourselves.

Of course the true question is how can we more consistently follow, using Lincoln’s term, ‘the better angels of our nature?’  There is no clear answer to that question.  One thing we should all know – it is not easy work.  Another is that Lepore’s splendid book can remind us all of where we’ve been, which will help us chart a safer and straighter course through the storms of the future.  Perhaps that is why she concludes the prayerful last paragraph of her history with the metaphor of a boat sailing on choppy seas:

“It would fall to a new generation of Americans, reckoning what their forebears had wrought, to fathom the depths of the doom-black sea.  If they meant to repair the tattered ship, they would need to fell the most majestic pine in a deer haunted forest and raise a new mast that could pierce the clouded sky.  With sharpened adzes, they would have to hew timbers of cedar and oak into planks, straight and true.  They would need to drive home the nails with the untiring swing of mighty arms and, with needles held tenderly in nimble fingers, stitch new sails out of the rugged canvas of their goodwill.  Knowing that heat and sparks and anvils are not enough, they would have to forge an anchor in the glowing fire of their ideals.  And to steer that ship through wind and wave, they would need to learn an ancient and nearly forgotten art:  how to navigate by the stars.”

In that clarion call Lepore reminds us all that the stars are there if we have the vision to see them, and the strength and will we need to chart the course.

For those interested here is a link to the classic Talking Heads performance of ‘Once in a Lifetime.’

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A Bad Week for the Jews

There were three Jews prominently featured on the front pages of American newspapers this week:  Michael Cohen, Bibi Netanyahu, and Robert Kraft.

Think about that for a moment.  As my Bubbie used to say, ‘Oy vey iz mir!’

It started with the Michael Cohen testimony.  A congregant came to see me the day he was on the hill and said she had been watching but had turned the TV off, feeling physically sick from what she was seeing.  I asked her if it was because of what Cohen’s testimony symbolized in terms of the state of the union, or because he was a Jew?  ‘Because he is a Jew,’ she said, ‘because I was watching a Jew stand up in front of the country, in front of the world, talking about cheating others, paying off prostitutes, lying, bullying, seeking power and money at any cost, having no morals or ethics, and serving those with no morals or ethics.  I was ashamed.’

Then there was Bibi.  Yes, the indictment (s) – it won’t make his life any easier, particularly with an election a little over a month away.  But much more disturbing was his willingness to play in the same political sandbox as Otzma Yehudit, a far-right politically organized Israeli group that unabashedly expresses racist views and advocates the ‘removal’ of most if not all Arabs from ‘greater Israel.’  Three men tangentially connected with the group were convicted of setting fire to a school where Jewish and Arab children studied together in 2015.  Opposition to Bibi’s willingness to engage this group was so strong that even AIPAC supported a statement from the American Jewish Committee condemning Netanyahu’s actions.  When AIPAC is condemning Netanyahu, you know something serious is going on.

Finally, last, and probably least, Robert Kraft.  One of the wealthiest men in America, and one of its most prominent Jews, a generous donor to Jewish causes, and best known as the owner of the New England Patriots, Kraft was arrested on charges of soliciting prostitution at a Florida massage parlor.  He entered a not guilty plea, but word is there is video tape evidence that will be submitted should things progress to a trial.

When I was going to Hebrew school while growing up we were taught to have pride in the Jewish community, in Jewish identity, and in Judaism’s deep belief in the importance of living a moral and ethical life.  We learned that Jews give charity (tzedekah), that Jews make the world a better place (Tikkun olam), that Jews stand for justice (tzedek).  And we understood, not just from our Hebrew school teachers, but from our parents and grandparents, that we were supposed to live our lives by those values.  That to be a moral and ethical person, to be a person of integrity and honor and honesty, in short to be a mensch – was what it meant to be a Jew.

Perhaps it is just coincidence.  Everyone has a bad week here and there.  After all, the Golden State Warriors, the best team in basketball, have lost their last two games in a row.  But we expect more, and we should.  The Torah teaches that Israel is supposed to be a light unto the nations.  It is hard enough to do that in the very best of circumstances.  With the headlines of the last week about three highly visible and prominent Jews, it makes it feel almost impossible.

In his closing statement at the public phase of the Michael Cohen testimony, Representative Elijah Cummings said ‘we are better than this.’  Jews around the world may be saying the same thing about this week’s news.  Let us hope we are right, and let us live our lives accordingly.

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A Shifting Ground

Almost right under your feet, and you may not even realize it.  A recent NY Times Book Review issue dedicated its core article to the changing conditions and dynamics of America’s Jewish community.  ‘God is in the Crowd,’ ‘the Jewish American Paradox,’ ‘ ‘The New American Judaism’ – these are a few of the books reviewed in the article, itself tellingly entitled ‘Lamentations.’ (see the NY Times Book Review from November 18th)

Lamentations is of course the name of the biblical book traditionally chanted on Tisha B’Av, the annual commemoration of the destruction of the Jerusalem Temples in ancient times.  It is a book about, in a narrow sense, the destruction of a Jewish city, Jerusalem.  But in a larger sense the Book of Lamentations is about the destruction of an entire Jewish community, even a Jewish way of life.  Once the Temple was gone the foundation of Jewish living and religious observance no longer existed.  The Jews at that time (the second Temple destruction occurred in 70 CE) were forced to entirely reinvent themselves, their culture, and their religious life.  Temple rituals were shifted and reflected symbolically in synagogue and home observance.  Study and prayer replaced animal sacrifice.  The rabbi became the central focus of Jewish life, and the role of the Priest began to diminish.  Over time Rabbinic Judaism emerged from the ashes of the Israelite sacrificial cult and Temple-centric worship.  As the process unfolded it was at times torturous, certainly filled with lamentation.  But when it was all said and done, we had become ‘rabbinic’ Jews, following the system of law the talmudic rabbis established some two thousand years ago.  And to this day, that system has defined Jewish life.

What the ‘Lamentations’ article seems to suggest is that the era of Rabbinic Judaism may finally be coming to an end.  We are living, some have suggested, in a ‘post-halachic’ (post Jewish legal system) age.  Understandings of religious life are changing rapidly, particularly for young Jews.  Ideas of traditional Jewish structures like synagogue affiliation, bar and bat mitzvah, worship, and holiday and Shabbat observance are shifting, and in some cases even being discarded.  Recent surveys suggest that today’s Jews identify ethnically, more as lox and bagel and Jerry Seinfeld Jews, as opposed to Jews who define themselves through a religious lens.  Pick your catchy phrase.  This is not your father’s synagogue/Judaism comes quickly to mind.  Perhaps even better, however:  we aren’t in Kansas anymore!

Traditional Jewish institutions are rushing to catch up.  The bar and bat mitzvah ritual is being reimagined, in some cases not even involving reading from the Torah.  So called ‘spiritual centers’ are springing up in synagogues from coast to coast, dressing up modern self improvement programs like yoga or meditation with a Jewish flavor.  Synagogues are becoming cultural centers, hosting music programs, adult education classes, cooking and bridge playing classes and movie nights.  Some of this is Jewishly oriented, some of it is entirely secular, some of it is somewhere in between.  All of it is an attempt, in one way or another, to cope with the shifting Jewish landscape of modern America.

The million dollar question, of course, is will it work?  The answer is, we don’t know.  We may, for a time, convince Jews to keep coming into the synagogue, if not to sit in services and listen to the rabbi’s sermon, at least to learn to play bridge.  But long term will this new kind of Jewish connection enable the Jewish community to retain a sense of distinct identity and to live meaningfully through Judaism?  After all, not everyone even likes lox, if you understand my meaning.

Of course the challenge is to have our cake and eat it too.  In an ideal world we would entice people into the building to meditate or learn to play bridge, and then figure out a way to connect them to Jewish life so they’ll end up more knowledgeable and practicing Jews.  Certainly Jews can meditate and also study Talmud, or play bridge on Thursdays and come to services Shabbat mornings.  Whether they will or not is something we are about to find out.

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Not by Might

There will be close to one thousand Jews gathering tonight at my congregation to light a menorah, nosh on some typical Hanukkah fair, and watch fireworks (what could be more appropriate for the Festival of Lights?!).  We share this evening with another congregation just a stone’s throw away, and over the last few years it has developed into a much anticipated communal celebration of the holiday.

It is true, it can be a bit of a ‘ballagan,’ a crazy scene.  Imagine 1,000 Jews trying to make their way to a few tables piled high with latkes and you’ll have the picture.  To paraphrase Woody Allen, it is sort of like kiddish after Shabbat  services, only more so.  Bu despite the logistical challenges, despite the crowds, despite the difficulties in terms of parking, people come, and they truly seem to enjoy the evening.

I wonder why?

Certainly it is a striking Jewish identity moment for everyone.  Simply stated, there is a power to numbers.  Lighting a menorah at home with your family can feel like a sacred moment.  But lighting a menorah with a thousand people, everyone chanting the blessings, all those voices raised together enacting a ritual that is two thousand years old, that experience has its own particular power.  You know you are part of something significant, something serious, something that others – many others – feel is worthwhile.  The experience also connects in well with the theme of the holiday, namely that Jews can be powerful and can control their own destiny.  That is something Jews in America rarely celebrate in such a public way.  The experience is connective in an ethnic kind of way, even a bit tribal in feel.

There is also the light of the menorah.  Maybe it doesn’t mean what it once did.  After all, in our day and age we can turn lights off and on with ease, flicking a switch, or even just speaking a word to our ‘smart’ bulbs.  But there is something about real flame, something ancient and almost arcane, magical and mystical.  We gather around as the candles are lit and the flames flicker, insistently pushing back against the darkness during some of the darkest and longest nights of the entire year.  The light of Hanukkah is a light of the spirit, the flame  bringing us back to an earlier time when our ancestors gathered around their camp fires to listen to stories of hope and fate and God.

On the Shabbat of Hanukkah we read the words of the prophet Zechariah in the text of the haftara:  “Not by might, nor by power, but by My spirit, said he Lord of Hosts.”  It is the light of that spirit that Hanukkah still brings into our lives – and our world – today.

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The Healer of Broken Hearts

This morning I named a baby, a beautiful little girl welcomed with deep joy into her family and community.  It was a simple rabbinic moment.  Working with my Cantor I spoke of covenant and history, read the appropriate prayers, blessed the child.  She cooed and fussed a bit, squirmed in her parents arms, happily slurped some sweet wine, the taste of which made her suddenly widen her eyes.

It is the very day after one of the greatest tragedies in American Jewish history.  Eleven dead in a synagogue shooting in Pittsburgh.  There is much to do.  Emails are flying through the community, phone calls are coming in, plans are being made for various memorial services and vigils, and an upcoming communal Shabbat of solidarity.  There are security questions to be weighed and considered.  But what could be more important than naming a baby?  What could be more meaningful than bringing a new child into the community, what could be more significant than giving her a Hebrew name?  Am Yisrael Chai! we sing – the Jewish people live!  There is no greater proof of that than the little baby I held in my arms today.

What kind of world will she grow up in?  Will it be safe? Tolerant?  Will it be kind and gentle?  It must be.  It is our responsibility to make that world into a reality, to build our communities and cultures so one day children will not know of hatred and prejudice, of violence or despair.  It is our responsibility to value kindness and trust, love and joy, determination and courage, and hope.  To espouse ideas of inclusion and peace, of tolerance and diversity, for all people in all places at all times.

Darkness will always give way to light.  Of this I am convinced.  The very existence of the Jewish people makes this clear, our thousands of years of history all too often scarred by cruelty, hatred, and violence.   And yet generation after generation we sing and celebrate, we name our children and bring them into the ancient covenant between God and Israel,   we escort our brides and grooms to the huppah when they marry.  Our elders speak of sweet kugels and warm memories of faith and family.  Our children celebrate b’nai mitzvahs ceremonies, surrounded by family and friends.  We go to shul, we learn, we pray, we grow.  We do live – with vibrancy and faith and loyalty to our people and our God.  Am Yisrael Chai!

The Psalmist writes that God is ‘the healer of shattered hearts, and the binder of wounds.’  We must be and do the same.  We must work to heal the hearts we know are broken, to bind the wounds that must be mended, to tend to those who need our help, and in doing so, to push back the darkness and the hate and the fear.  We can do it together, as communities and families, as congregations and organizations, as Jews.

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Sacred Language

One good deed leads to another good deed, while one sin leads to another sin. (Mishnah Avot, 4:2)

The above rabbinic maxim has often been on my mind of late.  It captures the idea that one good thing commonly leads to another good thing, while the opposite is also true – a destructive action frequently sets off a series of disturbing events.  This is true about our actions.  For example, the telling of a single lie often begins an extended process of telling multiple lies.  Conversely, a person who gets involved with charitable work will discover how good that work feels, and become more and more involved.  ‘A mitzvah leads to another mitzvah, a sin leads to another sin.’

The same is true of the language we use.  Destructive, hateful, and hurtful language leads to more and more destructive language, and potentially to destructive and harmful action.  It is no coincidence that as the midterm elections loom, and the political rhetoric grows more and more heated, a series of pipe bombs have been discovered in the mail boxes of well known figures on the left.  As I write this it is not yet clear whether the bombs were functional or not, but the point remains the same – hateful and hostile talk will lead to destructive action.  Sin causes sin.  With the President’s constant use of divisive and hateful language, both in the tweets that he sends so frequently and the stump speech he is currently using on the campaign trail, is it any wonder that someone decided to translate his words into actions?  How can we be surprised?  Once you cross the line with words you don’t have to go much further to get to that place of violent action.  After all, you’ve already crossed the line.

Jonathan Merritt, an occasional writer for the Atlantic, recently published an op ed in the NY Times about the gradual diminishment of what he called ‘God talk’ in our culture today.  If you track the column down and read it you’ll find that he is mostly writing about his God, the Christian God, but his point is well taken.  Our language has become coarse, our discourse uncivil, and our ability to voice disagreement respectfully almost non-existent.  Words like grace, kindness, sacrifice, patience, modesty, sacred, and holy are all words that often come up in faith oriented conversations.  We need those words today as much as, if not more, than ever.

Judaism has long believed that what you say can make an impact on what you think and feel.  The recitation of the Mourner’s Kaddish is a prime example.  This prayer, a litany of praises of God, is recited by those who have suffered the loss of a loved one.  An odd choice, when you actually stop to think about it.  Or is it?  Perhaps the idea is that the constant praising of God through the recitation of the prayer will over time enable a person to return to a place of faith, and to reclaim a sense of God’s greatness and presence.

I would argue it is the same for the language we use every day.  Lets talk more about modesty and kindness, about grace and justice, about sacrifice and patience, about how we experience the sacred in our lives.  The old saying is a rising tide lifts all boats.  One good deed leads to another.  We can say the same about sacred words.

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