Tag Archives: Beth El Congregation Baltimore

Kehilah

Kehilah is a term the Conservative Movement’s United Synagogue began using a couple of years ago to describe congregations.  The sense of the word is ‘sacred community,’ going back to the Torah’s use of the word as meaning a ‘gathering-together’ for religious celebration.  But the idea of a sacred community is more than that.  Sacred communities  support their members, sometimes during difficult times, sometimes during moments of joy.  In sacred communities people show up for one another.  Being part of a sacred community means that your phone might ring if you haven’t been in shul.  It means that you feel safe in a class environment to ask questions or make comments.  It means that you feel respected, valued, and cared for.  It means that you have a home away from home, and it also means that you feel part of something that is greater than you.

Over the last months I have been privileged to witness the ideal of kehilah at work over and over again.  I’ve also discovered that when I see sacred community in action I feel enormously proud of the congregation I serve.  During those moments Judaism becomes a living entity, a binding force between people with a common goal and vision – to bring God’s presence into their lives, their synagogue, and their world.  Let me give you just a few examples.

A beloved member of our Shabbat morning minyan lost his wife and life partner at a young age.  They lived some distance away, a drive of 30 minutes or so, much of it over back roads.  It was important to the family to complete a traditional seven days of shiva, but they knew it would be difficult to make the minyan because of where they lived.  But members of the kehilah – the congregation, the sacred community – showed up each night, making sure that the requisite ten were there for the bereaved husband to recite kaddish for his wife.

Here is another example of kehilah at work.  I received a note from a woman who had lost her husband.  She was not initially a member of our congregation, but after her loss began coming to our morning minyan.  The note she sent expressed how touched she was at the welcome she received.  People greeted her each day, sat with her, helped her follow the service, made a spot for her at the breakfast.  Many shared with her their own experiences of loss, and talked with her about how helpful the minyan had been in terms of navigating that terribly difficult moment of their lives.  She knew each morning she had a community with which to share her burden.  She knew she would be greeted by a smile (really multiple smiles!) every day, and that people would ask how she was and if she needed anything.  She knew she was not alone in her grief, and that she could honor her husband’s memory through the structure of our tradition.

There are countless other examples.  Dozens of congregants ‘schlepping’ to Washington to honor our Associate Rabbi, who was receiving a significant national award.  The pride our Friday night regulars feel each week when the bar or bat mitzvah of that Shabbat chants the kiddush.  The work our members to do give back to the community in meaningful ways, whether through in-house blood drives or participating in food delivery for a local food band on Thanksgiving and Christmas.  Congregants who help to lead shiva minyanim, or host congregational events, or come in to affix labels to prayer books.  In each case there is a sense of mitzvah, of the performance of a sacred deed, and in each case there is connection to kehilah, to sacred community, and through the kehilah to tradition, to history, to faith, and to God.

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Jacob Comes Home

This a text version of my Shabbat sermon from 11/25/17 –

Thanksgiving weekend is one of the times during the year when children, regardless of their age or whereabouts, come back to their hometown.  Our children are now living in New York – Tali and Merav in Manhattan, Josh in Poughkeepsie – but they all managed to find their way back to Baltimore for some home cooking and R&R.  Sarah King, the Cantor and Shazi’s daughter, is also a New York resident, but here she is on Thanksgiving weekend reading Torah at Beth El and spending some quality time with her family.  And the list could go on an on – one of the very reasons why we had four baby naming (as far as I know, a record at Beth El!) is because young people are back in town this weekend.  To one and all, welcome home!

The idea of a young person moving away is still a bit tricky in Baltimore.  Elsewhere it is common, in fact even expected, that young people after college will make their lives in some new place.  But here in Baltimore the expectation still exists that if you do go further than College Park for college, you’ll come back soon after and settle in Baltimore.  But the truth is that is happening less and less.  New York and Washington DC are towns that are filled with young people who grew up in Pikesville.  Boston is another place where Baltimoreans are making their new homes.  And these young people are not coming back to Baltimore – they are settling in their new cities, marrying, having children, crafting their careers.  And their parents – who want to see their children, and eventually their grandchildren – are schlepping to New York once or twice a month, or to Boston regularly, or two the DC area sometimes on a weekly basis.  What we do for our children!

I know this is painful for the family that remains here in Baltimore.  I will always remember the day when a member of the shul made an appointment with me, came to my office, sat down in front of my desk, and immediately began to weep.  AS I tried to console her I asked her what in the world could be the matter, fearing the worst.  When she managed to get control of herself she said ‘my son is moving away, moving out of Baltimore.’  I asked the only natural question – ‘to where?’  And her answer:  ‘Washington DC!’  So I understand, again, particularly here, how difficult this can be for some people.  But I want to argue this morning that it is actually a good thing for our young people to move away, at least for a time.  And I also want to think about a different understand of what it means to come home.

You may be familiar with the Amish tradition of the ‘rumspringa.’  Anyone know what that is?  It comes from a German word which means to ‘jump about’ and is a life cycle passage that Amish young adults go through – usually 16 – 24 year olds.  And the idea is that Amish children grow up in a very tight knit community, that they are only familiar with a small geographic area – the few miles around where they grew up, and that they know very little about the rest of the world.  So the rumspringa is a time in their lives when they are encouraged to be more independent, to see more of the world, to get a bit outside of their comfort zone, and to spend less time with their immediate family.  The hope is, of course, that when the rumspringa ends, they will come back to their community, to their family, and settle down into traditional Amish life.

On the surface it probably sounds like an odd ritual to us, but the truth is it isn’t all that different from what we do with our own children.  One could certainly say that the college experience is a kind of rumspringa.  Our children go away in their late teens, usually around the time they are 18.  For the first time in their lives they live largely independently, with full responsibility for making their own decisions and choices, about everything – from what to eat for dinner to when to study, and even if they’ll study at all.  They are expanding their horizons, meeting new people, and hopefully seeing the world for the first time without that world being filtered through us, their parents.  That is a necessary process for them to become fully independent, to realize all of the places where we steered them wrong – but also to realize, hopefully, all of the things we actually were right about all these years.

I would argue that perhaps the first rumspringa of all time occurs in this morning’s Torah portion.  Jacob is like an Amish youth or  Pikesville teen – he has very little experience with anything outside of his own small world.  At the beginning of this morning’s reading he is for the first time leaving his parents’ home, and he will spend the next 20 years of his life learning about the outside world.  He lives with his Uncle Laban, he marries – twice actually.  He becomes a father and learns a trade. He grows wealthy.  And then, after all is said and done, Jacob decides to return home.  The very last scene in this morning’s portion depicts that moment – as he crosses the border back into the land of Israel, the text tells us that angels of God met him, and at that very moment he reentered the land of his birth.

There is a traditional explanation for the appearance of those angels, which is that each person, when they enter the land of Israel, is matched with a sort of Israeli guardian angel, who will accompany that person during their time in the Holy Land.  In this sense the angels in the text are connected to a physical place, to the land of Israel itself.  My problem with this has always been that angels are not understood, even in the Torah, as being physical creatures.  They are instead spiritual beings, not bound to a place or a person.  But in my mind they are still symbolically connected to the idea of home, and I believe their appearance in the text is a sign that Jacob truly has returned to the place of his birth.

And for that to work, we have to think about home in a different way.  We have to understand the idea of home not as a physical place – home is not the land of Israel, it is not an Amish enclave, home is not even Pikesville in any physical sense.   Instead, home is a place of character, home is a place of values.  Our children return home to us in a spiritual sense when they decide to live their lives in a way that makes us proud.  When Judaism is an important part of who they are, they have come home.  When they make good choices, when they do something in their lives to make the world a better place, they have come home.  When they value family, when they are kind and caring, when their morals are strong, in all of these ways, they return to the place they were raised, they come home.  Not in any kind of physical sense, but in the spiritual sense of knowing where they’ve come from, of knowing who they are, and of knowing where they want to go and who they want to be.  And we have to remember that that can happen here, or in New York, or Washington, or Boston, or anyplace.

That would be my hope and prayer for the babies we’ve named this morning – for Harper and Brynn and Phoebe and Reese .  It may be hard for their parents to believe, but it won’t be so long before their little children are on their on rumspringas, whatever that will be.  But wherever they go, however far away, wherever they live, whatever they do, may they come home again and again, even as they learn and grow, and spread their wings, and fly.

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Celebrations!

A text version of my sermon from Rosh Hashanah day 2 –

I will confess something this morning, being our season of confession, which is that I am feeling a bit nervous.  Not about this morning’s service, which after all is almost over.  Not about this sermon, which will also be over in a few minutes.  But instead, about tomorrow morning, when many of you won’t be here.  Because tomorrow morning, Shabbat Shuvah, I will celebrate the 40th anniversary of my bar mitzvah.  And some weeks ago I agreed, in honor of this occasion, to chant both the haftara and the maftir tomorrow.  But I’ve been so busy, I haven’t practiced!  So I feel a bit like a bar mitzvah bachor, and all afternoon I’ll be practicing my maftir!

What is helping me is that I know I’ll be in good company.  Not only with all of the bar and bat mitzvah boys and girls who will be celebrating with their families in this new year, but also with all of the congregants who will come to the Torah in the coming months to thank God for reaching a milestone day their lives.  You may know the baseball expression ‘hitting for the cycle’ – what does it mean?  Right!  And there are Shabbat mornings where we have the shul equivalent of that here at Beth El – a baby naming and an auffruff, a 50th wedding anniversary and a 90th birthday, all in one morning.  People come to the Torah to celebrate those moments because they want to connect that important day in their lives with something that is sacred, and they also want to thank God for that gift of time.  Over the years I have been privileged to stand with many couples at the Torah as they expressed the gratitude they felt for the time they had shared and they life they had made.

I don’t know how many couples I’ve shared that anniversary moment with, at this point probably a couple of hundred or more.  But there are two such moments particularly that stand out in my mind.  The first was many years ago, when Sam and Vera Singer came to the Torah on the occasion of their 60th wedding anniversary.  Sam was a wonderful guy, a bit of a character, and as I was talking to him and to Vera, and saying ‘what a wonderful thing,’ and ‘mazaltov,’ and ’60 years of marriage!’ with a twinkle in his eye Sam leaned over to me – in front of the entire congregation – with his mouth near the microphone – and said ‘rabbi, it seems like longer.’  I will always remember that!

And the second moment, just a few weeks ago, in the Gorn Chapel, when Lucille and Nathan Goldberg came to the Torah to celebrate their 76th wedding anniversary.  I did not misstate that number – they’ve been married for 76 years. That is a rare thing.  It is a wedding anniversary I will probably never see again in my rabbinate.  There are a series of things that have to happen for a couple to be married 76 years.  Obviously they need to be blessed with good health, and to live well into their 90s.  I think a devoted, caring, and loving family around them makes a huge difference as well.  Some luck along the way is a necessity.  And of course they have to have a love, a respect, and a level of caring that nourishes and sustains their relationship for decade after decade.  But they need one other thing, that happens at the very beginning of their relationship – and that is a leap of faith.  Because every anniversary – whether it is the first or the 76th –  begins with a leap of faith.

Certainly that is true for couples.  Every couple faces an unknown future when they stand under the huppah.  Their hope and expectation is that they will find all of the good things that life has to offer – health, a family, financial success, and many years to be together.  But the truth is they don’t know what their future will hold.  Almost half of the couples that marry today will get divorced, and every couple will face significant challenges in the course of their journey together.  And yet they take the chance, and they make that leap.

That was certainly the case for Gertrude Mokotoff and Alvin Mann.  Like many couples, they were introduced by a mutual friend.  They took a liking to each other, had a first date, and quickly became an item.  It took a few years – and it was Gert Mokotoff who had to pop the question – but they were finally married this summer in upstate New York.  Alvin is 94.  And he married an older woman – Gert is 98.  And that folks is quite a leap of faith.  At their wedding celebration Alvin told the story of their first sleep over.  This is the way he described it:  “We had spent the whole day together, and at night, I set up the bedroom for her, and I was going to be in the next room.  She gets into the bed, and I say good night and start walking out, and she says, ‘Where are you going?’”  God willing, in the summer of 2018 Alvin and Gert will celebrate their first anniversary.  But that never would have happened if not for the leap of faith they took, that they could make a future together as husband and wife.

Of course the same is true for institutions, and even nations.  You may or may not know that Beth El and the State of Israel share the same birth year – 1948.  That means, if my math is correct (which it rarely is) that the modern Jewish homeland will turn 70 this spring.  And this year, 5778, is the 70th time our congregation has gathered together to welcome in a new year.  That does not quite match Nathan and Lucille’s 76th anniversary, but it is striking nonetheless.  And think for a moment of the leaps of faith required for those two 70th anniversaries to come to pass.

This May it will be 70 years since the founders of Israel gathered with David Ben Gurion in Independence Hall in Tel Aviv.  At 4 o’clock in the afternoon of the 14th of that month Ben Gurion banged his gavel on the table, but before order could even be established the 250 assembled guests rose to their feet and spontaneously burst out into an emotional singing of Hatikvah.  When things quieted down Ben Gurion read, live on the Israeli radio station Kol Yisrael, Israel’s Declaration of Independence.  When he finished the last words, Rabbi Yehuda Fishman came to the mic, and recited the שהחיינו blessing.  It was a powerful moment, full of emotion and hope, but who could have known then that in just 70 years Israel would become one of the greatest nations in the entire world?

And who could have known, 70 years ago, when a small group of 8 families came together with the goal of creating a congregation where progressive Jewish values would be embraced, where men and women would sit together, where a vibrant Judaism for the 20th century and beyond would be lived – who could have known then where the congregation’s journey would take it?  Who could have known that in 70 years Beth El would become one of the largest and most respected synagogues in the United States, with 1700 families, open 365 days a year, helping thousands and thousands of Jews to feel closer to their heritage, tradition, and God?

Who could have known?  With the possible exception of God Godself, no one.  And yet 70 years ago Ben Gurion stood and declared Israel to be an independent nation.  And 70 years ago our founders made a pact that they would do their best to bring a new congregational community into being.   76 years ago Lucille and Nathan left a huppah to walk out together into the future.  One month ago Gert Mokotoff and Alvin Mann did the same.

There is even a rabbinic tradition that it was the leap of faith of one individual that enabled the Jewish people to become a nation.  You all know the story – fleeing Egypt, the Israelites are trapped at the edge of the sea with the Egyptian army closing in behind them.  Moses pleads to God, but God says to Moses ‘you have to do something.’  And the waters don’t move, and the army is getting closer and closer.

But the Sages teach that one individual – Nachshon – begins to walk forward into the water.  And all of Israel, even Moses, watches him.  And the water reaches his waste.  And then his chest.  And then his neck.  And he keeps walking forward.  And he stretches his head up, to catch the last gasps of air before the waters close over his head, and just at that moment the sea begins to part.  And then one Israelite, and then another, and another, and another, begin to follow Nachshon, and when they together emerge on the far shore, they have become Am Israel, the Jewish people.

It all began with a leap of faith.  But if you think about it, so does every human undertaking.  We have limited and imperfect knowledge of the road we travel and the journey we are on.  It is not just Nachshon, or Ben Gurion, or the Singers or the Goldbergs, or even Gert Mokotoff and Alvin Mann.  Each one of us begins a day not knowing what it will hold.  Each one of us begins a new year wondering where it will take us.  May God grant us the faith we need to leap forward into this new year with hope and courage and trust, that our days will be full, our journey fulfilling, and our lives a blessing.

May that be God’s will – כן יהי רצון

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Say What You Mean, Mean What You Say

this a text version of my Shabbat sermon from 7/22/17

As a child of the 70s, like many boys of my generation, I was both fascinated and obsessed with the Planet of the Apes.  I am guessing you all have a sense of what I am talking about – the movie franchise about a planet where apes speak and have a culture and society, and humans are mute and treated like animals.  In the early 70s when the movies were on TV I watched them – you’ll excuse the expression – religiously.  In 1974, when it was decided there was going to be a weekly Planet of the Apes TV series, I was beyond ecstatic.  When it was cancelled after just one season, I was inconsolable.  I begged my father to let me stay up late one Saturday night to watch the Carol Burnett Show because Roddy McDowell, the star of the movies and my hero, was going to be on.  There was a time in my life when it was Planet of the Apes pretty much 24/7.  And yes, I’ve seen the new Planet of the Apes movies, although the newest one is still on my to do list.

Some of you may know that the entire Apes franchise was based on a novel published in French in 1963, called La Planete des Singes – Planet of the Monkeys, I think is the literal translation – written by Pierre Boulle.  I read his Planet of the Apes novel in one night, straight through, with a flashlight under the covers so my parents would not know how late I stayed up.

When I was a little boy I was drawn to the story because of the space travel and adventure, but like all great science fiction the book deals with contemporary issues and themes, and at its core its one central question:  what is it that makes us human?  Is it the trappings of humanity?  The clothes, the manners, the culture, the societal structures?  Or is it something deeper, something perhaps even God given?  Our intellect?  Our consciences?  Our creative ability?  And the book explores these questions by taking humans out of the traditional trappings, and putting apes into them.  So if a human is naked and running around in a jungle, and an ape is dressed in a suit and sitting in a cafe sipping coffee, which of them is actually ‘human’ and which is the ‘animal?’

One of the most provocative ways that the novel tries to explore this question is through the use of language, of speech.  In the Planet of the Apes movies the most shocking moments, the most dramatic, are the moments where a character who is not supposed to be able to speak suddenly does.  And that is because more than anything else we understand that speech separates us from animals.  We have fundamental drives and needs, we must eat, we get angry, we have sexual drives, when we are pushed far enough we will even kill – and in all of those ways, we are indistinguishable from the animals.  But the one thing we can do that animals cannot is use language to communicate complex ideas to one another.  Language – our ability to use words – enables us to transmit scientific discoveries, to problem solve, to philosophize – to talk about God, or justice, or dignity.  And as the Planet of the Apes seems to suggest – were we to lose our ability to speak, to communicate with one another through language, we would also lose our humanity.

Judaism has long had a sensitivity to the power and importance of words and language.  It is not in my mind a coincidence that in the Creation story in the beginning of Genesis God brings the world into being by speaking a series of words.  Each act of creation in that story is preceded by the phrase ויאמר קילוהים – And God said.  And God said ‘let there be light.’  And God said ‘let the waters gather together.’  And God said ‘let us make man in our image.’  This is why we say in the siddur ברוך שאמר והיה העולם – blessed is the One Who spoke, and the world came into being.  God’s revelation at Sinai is conveyed to Moses and the people through words – וידבר קלוהים את כל הדברים האלה לאמור – God spoke all of these words, saying – that is the introductory verse to the 10 Commandments, emphasizing speech – language – as the means of communication between God and Israel.  And in fact in Hebrew – what are the 10 Commandments called in Hebrew?  The Aseret HaDibrot, which is probably best translated as ‘the 10 utterances, the 10 words.’

And human speech in the Bible is supposed to echo God’s speech.  It is supposed to  be sacred, it is supposed to have real meaning and real power, it is supposed to convey truth.  Harold Kushner points out that in the Torah a word is not merely a sound.  It is actually something that is real, that has substance and power.  There are many examples of this in the Torah.  When Isaac mistakenly gives his blessing to Jacob instead of Esau, he cannot take it back – the words have been spoken, and they must stand.  The covenants that are made in the Torah – between people, and between God and people – are verbal agreements, but they are eternally binding.  This morning’s double Torah portion begins with a series laws that describe how vows worked in ancient Israelite culture.  And it is clear that when a vow is made it cannot be broken, that the words that have been spoken have a true force that cannot be revoked once they have been uttered.

In our world today this might seem like a strange idea.  We have grown accustomed to using words cheaply, and even worse we have become very accomplished at using words to twist the truth instead of to arrive at it.  It is one of the great ironies of modern life that in what we call the ‘age of communication’ we are less and less capable of communicating with one another.  We talk by one another, and not to one another.  In a world of texts, and tweets, and emails, our sensitivity to the nuance of language, to the power of language, has been diminished.

There was a time, not so long ago, when this was not the case.  When I meet with a family about a funeral, and they are telling me about their loved one who was a member of the generation that we now call the greatest, they will often say like:  ‘they  meant what they said, and they said what they meant.’  Or, ‘their word was their bond.’  Or, ‘if they said they were going to take care of it, it was as good as done.’

It was just a generation or two ago that words still retained their meaning and power, their sacred sense of being binding and true.  That is something that we should not only remember – it is something we should strive to return to, in our own lives, in our communities, in our public discourse.  What are the six words we say before we pray the amidah?  Adonai sefati tiftach, u’fi yagid tefilatecha – God, open my lips, that my mouth might declare your praise.  Before we pray, we ask God to help us make our language sacred.  Perhaps we should keep the same idea in mind whenever we speak, to whomever we are speaking, and whatever it might be we are saying –

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Biblical Math

A text version of my sermon from Shabbat services on 5/27/17

Those of you who know me even moderately well probably know that I am what would today be called ‘math challenged.’  I remember always being this way, from the time math became a bit more complicated, say when I was in 3rd or 4th grade and we started in with long division.  That was pretty much the end of my successful math career.  From that point forward it was a serious struggle.  Fractions made me crazy.  Algebra intimidated me and made very little sense.  Trigonometry left me wondering if I was going to graduate from high school.  In the end – and I am convinced to this day with some help from God Almighty – or at least my trig teacher who had rachmanas on me – I did graduate, and have happily not studied math since I was in 10th grade.  Thank God for calculators!

But what is a ‘mathless’ rabbi to do with this week’s Torah portion, Bamidbar?  It is first of all the beginning of the book of the Torah that we call in English – Numbers!  The text begins with a census, which is at the end of the day doing math, counting and adding.  And the portion itself is filled with numbers in every chapter.  Here are just a few examples, chosen randomly:  59,300 (the number of males aged 20 or over from the tribe of Shimon);  603,550 (the total number of males eligible for military service among the Israelites);  22,273 (the number of first born males).  There is even a math problem in the portion.  At one point the text says you have to multiply 273 by the number 5 and you will arrive at an answer of 1365.

Of course the numbers here serve a purpose.  The Israelites needed to know what their number was, how many of them were eligible for military service, how many of them would be responsible for conducting worship at the Tabernacle, or for carrying the objects of the Tabernacle when they moved to a new camp.  But over time Judaism became wary of counting people, eventually preferring not use numbers to count people at all.  That is why in Exodus one of the counting techniques is for each person to submit a half shekel, and then you count the shekels.  Of if you’ve ever been in a traditional shul, and they are wondering if there are enough people for a minyan, they’ll use the motzi instead of using numbers to find out of there are 10.  Try it!  10 words!

There are a variety of explanations as to why Jews don’t count Jews.  One idea is that counting makes people distinct, it in a sense separates one person from another, and we don’t want Jews to be separate, we want Jews to be communal, to be together and united.  But I’ve always suspected that the tradition was simply uncomfortable assigning a number to a person.  Once a person becomes a number they aren’t an individual any more.  They are not a name or a face, they are not part of a family, they don’t have a story.  Instead, they are a statistic, to be analyzed, to be mathematically manipulated, to be thought about in abstract terms.  And there is something about that that is dehumanizing, that takes away our individuality and our sense of self worth.       Some of you may remember the 1981 Police album Ghost in the Machine.  There is a song on that record Invisible Sun, and one of the lines is ‘I don’t ever want to play the part of a statistic on a government chart.’

To me that is a problem of our internet – computer driven age.  We have more ways to turn people into numbers today than we ever have before.  I imagine you know that as you use your iPhone, or your computer, every click is tracked, and there are algorithms at work that make you into a statistic based on those clicks.  This is done to communities as well, or even to entire areas of the country, with what they call ‘big data,’ which is mostly a collection of information about Google searches in your area.

Now there is some accuracy in these numbers , and I am sure there is something important that can be learned from them.  But we certainly know that numbers never tell the full story.  Probably the best recent example of this is the presidential election.  All of the numbers, all of the statistics, predicted that Hillary would win that election and Donald Trump would lose.  But Donald Trump is president of the United States.  And you may remember that right after the election all of the reporters, and all of the sociologists, and all of the pundits, were wringing their hands and saying ‘how could we have gotten it so wrong?’  And I think part of the answer is that they were paying attention to the poll numbers as they came in, but they weren’t paying attention to the people, to the communities, to the personal stories and emotions of the people who ultimately voted.

Unfortunately in our culture today we do the same thing.  We commonly evaluate others – and sometimes even ourselves – by numbers.  What is a person’s salary?  What zip code do they live in?  Even how many years did they live, or how many children and grandchildren did they have?  And we tend to believe that when the numbers are high the story is good.  But I’ve known plenty of people – and I am sure you have too – who have lived long lives, had many children, been paid high salaries, and at the end of the day were pretty miserable.

And the reason for that is all of the things that define the quality of human life that cannot be quantified.  You can’t put a number on the quality of a person’s relationships.  You can’t put a number on a person’s emotional intelligence, on their ability to cope with trauma and tragedy, on the joy or humor or love that they bring into the world.  And I would argue that all of the things – much more so than the numbers – give us a true sense of the quality of our lives.

So truth be told I am not a big fan of this week’s Torah portion and its penchant for counting people and adding them up as if they were something to be packaged or sold.  Instead I much prefer the approach of the prophet Hosea, captured in the very first verse of this morning’s haftara.  והיה מספר בני ישראל כחול הים אשר לא ימד ולא יספר – Behold the number of the people Israel shall be like that of the sands of the sea, which cannot be measured or counted – instead, they shall simple be called ‘Children of the Living God.’

And that, at least it seems to me – tells more about the Jewish people than any number ever could.  Now that is my kind of math.

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The Best Colleges for Jewish Students

This a text version of my sermon from Shabbat services on 4/29/17 –

This coming Monday, May 1, is the final deadline for high school seniors around the country to commit to the college or university of their choice.  Thousands upon thousands of students are wrestling with that decision this weekend, knowing that the process that began for many of them almost two years ago is down to these last couple of days, maybe even the last few hours.  Today students and their families take into account a whole series of factors that I never even considered when I was applying to college.  Does the school have a food court, for example, or state of the art work out facilities, or Starbucks coffee available on campus 24/7?

In the Jewish community there is also an additional factor that families wrestle with that was not on the table even 10 years ago, and that is what is the school’s attitude towards Israel in particular and towards Judaism in general?  We are probably all aware of the complexities of navigating Jewish life and identity on the college campus today.  The Boycott Divest and Sanction Movement – often called BDS – a movement that very publicly, and often provocatively, challenges Israeli policy vis a vis the Palestinians, and sometimes also challenges Israel’s right to exist – that movement is strong and active on many college campuses.  And there is a growing perception that those campuses are not friendly places for Jews – that they are becoming anti-semitic – and that Jews should perhaps shy away from attending those schools.

Just this past week, the Algemeiner, a right of center web site that covers Jewish news, released a list it entitled ‘the 40 Worst Colleges for Jewish Students.’  The list was compiled based on an attempt to assess some of the following:  the number of anti-Semitic incidents on campus, the number of anti-Israel groups, public positions taken by faculty – in other words are there faculty on the campus that are vocally anti-Israel, and also the success or lack of success of boycott-Israel efforts undertaken by campus groups.

The list is not just a list – it is also a ranking – #1 on the list is the absolute worst in terms of anti-semitism, all the way down. Among the 40 schools you will find many of the top colleges and universities in the country, to include:  Harvard, Stanford, Brown, and Swarthmore;  the University of Chicago, UCal Berkeley, UCLA, and McGill University in Montreal;  Oberlin, Tufts, Michigan, Northwestern,  UNC Chapel Hill, Wesleyan, Syracuse, and Georgetown, and the University of Wisconsin, Madison.  As you now have a sense, the list is a virtual who is who of the top schools in the country.

Now on the one hand a list is just a list.  Like a list of the top 10 greatest guitar players of all time, or the best quarterbacks of all time, or the worst draft picks of all time, one person puts this list together, one person puts another, one person says its Unitas, one person says it is Marino, one person says Brady, you can argue and debate about it, but it is largely subjective.  The problem with this list is that people are starting to believe it.  So much so that a congregant recently said to me they didn’t want their child – who is a great student and a great kid – they didn’t want their child applying to Tufts – one of the top schools in the country! – because they had heard it was an anti-semitic campus.

The Jewish community has long prided itself on its academic orientation.  Education is a powerful value in our culture.  When our grandparents and great grandparents came from Europe and settled here it was education that enabled us to make better lives for ourselves, for our children, for our grandchildren.  That value is as old as Judaism itself.  The Torah portions we read this morning, Tazria and Metzora, describe the role of the Kohen, the Priest, in ancient Israelite culture.  And the Kohen was a combination of religious leader and medical man, a kind of rabbi-doctor hybrid.  Call it what you will – a docbi or a rabtor?  But he was respected for his knowledge, for the fact that he was learned in the tradition, that he knew the laws of the Torah, that he had studied and mastered his material.  And that respect for study, for education and learning, for the intellect, has stayed strong in Jewish life to this very day.  Which is precisely why, by the way, you find a high percentage of Jewish students at these top universities.

And that is also why I am proud to say that Becky and I will have children at the top two school on that Algemeiner list.  You heard that right – two of the rabbi’s children will be enrolled as students at the top two schools on that anti-Semitic university list.  And why am I proud of that?  Reason #1 – could you imagine what would happen if the Jewish community en masse decided not to send its children to those schools?  We would first of all be depriving our children of the opportunity to study at some of the world’s top universities.  Is this the way we fight anti-semitism?  Or is that the way we let anti-Semites win?  I know a number of you in this room remember a time – not so long ago – when Hopkins had a quota in terms of the number of Jewish students it would admit per year.  After what we fought for – to have equal access to any university in the country – are we going to impose a quota on ourselves?

Secondly, if we don’t get our children onto the campuses of those schools, who on the campus is going to stand up for the stand of Israel?  Who on the campus is going to represent Judaism and the Jewish people?  Who will be on the campus when someone says something outrageous about Israel or the Jewish people, who will be there to stand up and say ‘that is a lie, and here are the real facts?’  Who will be there if our children aren’t there?

We should not be telling our kids to stay away from those schools.  We should instead be telling our kids to flood those schools with applications, we should be strengthening the Hillels on those school’s campuses, we should be talking with our kids when they are in high school about what they might encounter when they arrive on the campus of their choice, so that if they see BDS in action, or if they are in a situation where they need to defend Israel or need to respond to anti-semitism they will know how to do so.  And I would argue that the higher the school is on the list, the more young Jews should try to go there.

So far, that has actually been the case.  Almost every school on the list has a large, active, and vibrant Jewish student body on its campus.  Those students are traveling to Israel on Birthright trips.  They are filling Hillel and Chabad houses.  They are defending Israel on campus, and calling out any anti-Semitism they experience.  They are also having positive and powerful experiences at colleges and universities they love, during their four years in school growing as people and as Jews.

So at the end of the day, Algemeiner compiled a terrific list.  They just gave it the wrong title.  It should have been called ‘the 40 Best Colleges for Jewish Students.”

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Filed under American Jewry, assimilation, Beth El Congregation, Jewish life, preaching, Rabbi Steven Schwartz, sermon, Uncategorized

S.Q.N

It stands for sine qua non, a latin phrase that means ‘an essential condition, a thing that is absolutely necessary.’  What is the bottom line ingredient that is required to make something what it is?  Scotch, for example, might be blended or single malt, it might be aged in casks made of sherry or oak, it might be smokey or peaty.  But it must be made from malted barley.  That is its sine qua non.  If it isn’t made from malted barley, it isn’t scotch whisky.

I’ve often wondered about the sine qua non of the synagogue.  Does it exist, and if so what would it be?  The study and learning?  The Hebrew school?  The adult education programs?  Social action?  All important.  But if I had to choose one fundamental piece, the one component without which a synagogue would no longer be a synagogue, I would choose the prayer service – the minyan.

After all, the study and learning can happen at a local university with a strong adult education program.  You can participate in social action with a local charity.  Even Hebrew school these days can happen in various and sundry locations – just look at the number of families choosing to hire a private tutor to prepare their child for bar or bat mitzvah.  But the one thing a synagogue does that is unique – its sine quo non – is the minyan.  When ten or more Jews come together to pray.  When the Torah is taken out of the ark and publicly proclaimed.  When the ancient liturgy of our tradition is recited.  The minyan is the synagogue’s raison d’être, its true reason for existing.  Without prayer, the synagogue becomes just another place where Jews gather to be with other Jews.

The problem is this:  the minyan is fading away.  We don’t often acknowledge this, we don’t like to look it right in the eye, but traditional prayer services in the liberal Jewish community are slowly but surely disappearing right before our eyes.  In part because people are busy, and Saturday morning is prime errand time, or golf time.  In part because people don’t have the skills they need to participate (the Hebrew is a serious problem).  In part because people don’t find meaning in it, they don’t believe the act of prayer can be transformative in their lives and characters.  What to do?

It is first important to recognize that there is no magic pill here.  It isn’t simply a matter of finding the right charismatic rabbi or cantor.  It isn’t just arriving at the proper recipe for the service itself, just a tweak here or there, or even a radical rearrangement, and all will be well.  It is a much more complicated equation, multi-layered, involving education, programming, community, and leadership.  Minimally – as a beginning – we need to create opportunities for people in our community to deepen their knowledge of and connection to our prayer services, our minyanim.  Some of this is familiarity.  Some of this is study and discussion.  Some of it is practice!  And some of it is having a safe space where all of these things can happen.

It is this space we are hoping to create with a new ‘learnin’ minyan’ that we will be holding at Beth El.  Meeting the first Shabbat morning of the month, from 9:45 to 10:30, this minyan will be a combination of prayer and study, of delving into the themes and motifs that drive our liturgy while at the same time (hopefully) increasing the number of tools that are available to access those themes and to participate in those prayers.  I have believed for a long time that there is deep meaning in prayer, and that the very exercise of praying can be truly transformative in our lives.  Join us on this journey and we’ll see if we can convince you of the same.  We will meet in the Rabbi Jacob Agus Library, immediately following the Torah study class.  Beginning January 7th.

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Filed under American Jewry, celebration, clergy, community, Jewish life, prayer, Rabbi Steven Schwartz, ritual, Uncategorized