Tag Archives: JTS

He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother

If you are from a certain era you know this song. One of the biggest hits of 1969, the music and lyrics were written by Bobby Scott and Bob Rusell, but it was the version recorded by the Hollies that put the song over the top. (Trivia alert – Elton John plays keys on the track!) In many ways it captured the zeitgeist of the times – the young people were determined to watch out for each other, care for each other, have each other’s back, and to do so unconditionally and non-judgmentally. It was communal, and it was community. Still today folks whose souls were shaped in that era will call each other brother.

The song has been buzzing around in my brain over the last days, really since I’ve returned from #RTI, known in the vernacular as ‘rabbi’s camp.’ A once a year retreat in rural Maryland for Conservative rabbis from around the country, that is marked by great davening, deep learning, and sincere and serious sharing. I am convinced one of the reasons ‘campers’ come back year after year is because we can truly let our hair down. We pray and learn together during the day, we play guitar and drink scotch and wine at night. We wear t-shirts and jeans, old sweaters and junky baseball caps. We talk and share, compare shop, tell our funniest funeral stories and saddest wedding stories (yes you read that correctly), and wrestle with issues both congregational and movement wide.

But I think more than anything else we support each other. The rabbi business can be lonely. RTI is a place where rabbis can unburden the burdens, openly voice the doubts, and allow the vulnerability to seep through the polished and professional veneer. In letting our hair down we let our hearts out, something we rarely have the chance to do or the place to do it in. This can be difficult, even painful sometimes, but it also can leave you feeling a little bit lighter, brighter, and clearer, and a lot more grateful. You know you’ve got colleagues who are also wrestling – intensely wrestling – with what it means to do ‘God’s work.’

Of course the title of the song has a double meaning. Heavy is the key word. Not weight wise, or course, but existentially. ‘Its heavy, man!’ Deep, hard, mystical, full of awe, troubling, difficult, glorious, inspiring. Back in the day ‘heavy’ could mean any of those things, or all of them. In other words, a one word description of life. Or, maybe, of being a rabbi.

Here are the lyrics to the song:

The road is long
With many a winding turn
That leads us to who knows where
Who knows when
But I’m strong
Strong enough to carry him
He ain’t heavy, he’s my brother

So on we go
His welfare is of my concern
No burden is he to bear
We’ll get there
For I know
He would not encumber me
He ain’t heavy, he’s my brother

If I’m laden at all
I’m laden with sadness
That everyone’s heart
Isn’t filled with the gladness
Of love for one another

It’s a long, long road
From which there is no return
While we’re on the way to there
Why not share
And the load
Doesn’t weigh me down at all
He ain’t heavy, he’s my brother

He’s my brother
He ain’t heavy, he’s my brother…

And here a link to the Hollies version of the song on Youtube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oT57tjz9py8

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Find Your iPod

With the news coming out over the last couple of weeks that two major arms of the Conservative Movement are selling significant land parcels in New York the sense of a Conservative Judaism on the wane is again in the air.  A number of the movement’s most difficult challenges continue unabated, with little or no end in sight, including funding for the United Synagogue and JTS and the dwindling number of Jews who formally affiliate with Conservative Judaism.  Although the movement initially seemed to have a ‘come to Moses’ moment when the Pew study results were released, not much has been done since to directly address these problems.  One recommendation that I would make is the Conservative Movement has to find its own version of the iPod.  Let me explain.

When we moved to Baltimore, now some 17 years ago (!), Apple Computer stock was selling for about 14 dollars a share.  I remember looking at the stock quotes in the newspaper one day (in the days when newspapers had stock pages) and saying something to my wife about it.  “If we only had a few extra bucks, we should buy some Apple stock!”  Of course we had almost no money to speak of, and the thought of actually using some of the money we did have to buy shares of stock in a sinking computer company was ludicrous.  Yes, I loved my Mac, but I had pretty much resigned myself to the fact that I would within  a year or so be doing my computing on a dreaded PC.  I was about to be forced over to the ‘dark side,’ and there was nothing I could do about it.  That was 1998.

Apple hung on for another two years.  Steve Jobs came back to the company, and they released the first iMac, and then a gorgeous laptop, the Powerbook G3.  But things were tenuous at best.  Pundits were still predicting that Apple Computer would go the way of the dodo bird.  It wasn’t, they said, a question of if, it was a question of when.

Then in the fall of 2001 something remarkable happened.  Apple released a pocket sized digital music player.  They called it the iPod.  It looked cool, worked easily, and enabled you to store 1,000 songs in your pocket for anytime listening.  The rest of the story we know.  The iPod exploded in popularity.  The iPhone followed a few years later.  Then the iPad.  Apple Computer became Apple Inc., now the most valuable company on the planet, long ago surpassing Microsoft, something that 17 years ago would have seemed as impossible as traveling in time.  In the last quarter, Apple sold 38,000 iPhone 6 models an hour.  Seven days a week.  For three straight months.  38,000 an hour.  Talk about hard to imagine.

The point is this.  Apple wasn’t an iPod company.  It was a computer company.  The iPod was a music player.  But Apple found a product that it felt it could do something with, even if it wasn’t the company’s bread and butter.  And it was that product that enabled Apple to survive and thrive.  And it was that product – the iPod – that gave Apple the chance to keep doing what it originally set out to do, namely to make and sell computers.  The iPod saved the Mac.  It was Apple Inc. that ensured the survival of Apple Computer.

The synagogue world in general and the Conservative Movement in particular needs to find its iPod.  Something that we can do, and do well, that might not have much to do with what we’ve done for the last 75 years, but that will speak to people, get them interested, entice them to come through our doors.  Maybe it is adult education.  Or yoga.  Or ice cream, or coffee, or infant-toddler care.  Maybe scotch tastings, kayaking or hiking, social action.  Healing centers.  Maybe some combination of those things.  If we can find our iPod, its success will enable us to continue to be a synagogue in the traditional sense of the word.  Somewhere out there is a synagogue version of the iPod.  We are looking like crazy for it here.  How about you?

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My Rabbi

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

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

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

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Where Magic Works

While in college my sophomore year I took an anthropology class, not because it was connected to my major (psychology) but just because I was interested in the topic.  I am a bit embarrassed to admit I remember absolutely nothing about the class, except one statement made by the professor.  As part of his field work he had spent a year of his life living with a primitive tribe in the jungles of Africa.  One day in class he was speaking about that experience in relation to whatever we were studying, and he said, almost as an aside, that the most remarkable thing about living with that tribe was that in their culture, in their world, magic actually works.

I remember there was a bit of give and take as a couple of my classmates pushed the professor on his statement.  What did he mean, exactly?  What kind of magic was he referring to?  In the end he said that in a culture where everyone believes in an ideal, where everyone fully buys into the system, if the system, or part of it, is magic, then in that culture, for those people, magic will work.  It will bring meaning into people’s lives, at times heal them, help crops to grow, protect them against evil spirits, help them make important choices in their lives and on and on – it works!

I’ve been thinking about that idea quite a bit since returning from the Rabbinic Training Institute.  In a sense the rabbis on the retreat, all gathered together, create a group like the tribe the professor lived with.  We have a system, and we believe in it and buy into it.  And when we are all together, all believers, all invested in the system and knowledgable about it, it creates a powerful experience where the ‘magic’ actually works.  The davening is filled with spirit and power and meaning.  The study has deep wisdom and a sense of the sacred.  Gratitude is expressed and experienced through blessings that are recited daily.  This is Jewish life as it is meant to be lived, focusing on what the Talmudic rabbis called ‘Chayei Olam,’ the life of the spirit.  The ancient system actually does work.

The challenge for the rabbi, of course, is to bring some of the ‘magic’ back into the secular world that we all live and work in.  A world where not everyone believes and/or buys into the system.  Where the challenges and distractions of everyday life and the demands of our jobs pull us away from study and prayer, from time to think and reflect.  And yet that is our task.  Judaism has never been a monastic tradition.  What good is the system if it remains behind a veil of secrecy, available only to the acolyte?  Perhaps Moses is a model.  He brought the tablets back down from the mountain, giving them to the people, leaving the space of unified communion with God for a (sometimes very difficult) life filled with the very best and worst of what people are.  In many ways we are doing our best to continue to uncover the meaning of that moment, as it resonates still to this day in our own time, our world, our lives.

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