Knowledge, Pride and Partnership: The Keys to Combating Anti-Semitism and Hate

I grew up in Los Angeles, a city of perennial sunshine and smog.  I didn’t see snowfall until the year I spent in Jerusalem in rabbinical school.  I received an outstanding Jewish education and a wonderful experience at my hometown synagogue in the San Fernando Valley.  There I learned to love Judaism, became a proficient service leader and Torah reader, and soaked up every minute of Religious School.

Growing up in Los Angeles, I also experienced anti-Semitism firsthand.  I have distinct memories of being harassed by bullies while as a young teenager I walked to and from synagogue wearing a kippah and dressed for Shabbat services.  Some of the tough kids on our street who knew my family was Jewish would try to prevent me and my siblings from entering the elementary school we attended, blocking the entrance and yelling “kikes don’t belong here.”  During the week of Chanukkah, when my father would hang a Star of David ringed by blue and white lights over our garage door, our house was routinely egged by hoodlums who specifically targeted our Magen David.

While my parents told me to be proud that I am a Jew, and she probably called the school principal to clear the way for us to enter the building, there was never any meaningful discussion of anti-Semitism among the members of my family, at the public school I attended, or even at my synagogue.  Looking back at those years, it seems to me now that nobody wanted to talk about anti-Semitic hatred, harassment of Jews, vandalism directed at Jewish families or even anti-Jewish violence, no matter how mild.  The attitude seemed to be one of “ignore it and it will go away.”

Still, none of these incidents affected my interest in being Jewish.  I happily attended the Los Angeles Hebrew High School, enrolled in undergraduate courses at the University of Judaism (now the American Jewish University), spent six summers at Camp Ramah in Ojai, California and plowed ahead with my plans to enter Rabbinical School and become a rabbi.  The anti-Semitism I had grown used to in my childhood and teen years did nothing to question my commitment to Judaism or dissuade me from living a Jewish life.

My childhood experience was the product of the times and community in which I was raised, as well as of my parents’ reluctance to rock the boat of acceptance they likely felt they were working hard to navigate.  But it is not a model for how to address anti-Semitism in the United States or anywhere else in the world.  We are facing a brewing crisis and we must be pro-active in our response to the anti-Jewish sentiments and actions we see around us.  This is the message of the landmark new study of anti-Semitism just released by the American Jewish Community.  The study coincides with the first anniversary of the horrific murders of 11 Jews praying on a Shabbat morning at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh last October.  It is the largest and most comprehensive study of American Jewish attitudes on anti-Semitism to date.

The survey indicates that American Jews are deeply concerned about anti-Semitism and believe it is getting worse. Nearly 88% of American Jews (88%) believe anti-Semitism is a problem in this country.  More than a third of respondents say they have personally been the targets of anti-Semitism, in person, by mail or by phone.  Young people are significantly more likely to have been victims of anti-Semitism.  Nearly a third of American Jews say they have avoided publicly wearing, carrying or displaying things that might help people identify them as Jewish, while 25% of respondents say they avoid certain places, events or situations out of concern for their safety or comfort as Jews at least some of the time.  American Jews resoundingly view efforts and statements against the state of Israel as being tainted by anti-Semitism. For example, the statement that “Israel has no right to exist” is viewed by a large majority of respondents as anti-Semitic.

Surveys define problems and issues, but we require action and solutions.  What should we do?  As I said in my Rosh Hashana sermon, we need to be proactive and vigilant in our response, which should include at least three elements:  knowledge, pride, and partnership.

We need to be knowledgeable about the threats we face as Jews.  I ask you to attend the ADL’s Never Is Now Summit on anti-Semitism and hatred sponsored by the ADL on November 21 at the Jacob Javits Center.  Oheb Shalom is part of the ADL’s Signature Synagogue program, and any of our members who register will receive an 18% discount on the cost of registration.  And this Friday, come to Oheb Shalom to hear Fred Bloch, Senior Vice-President at the ADL, speak about “The Four Corners of Anti-Semitism.”  Fred will address our congregation after a brief Shabbat service.

We need to express pride in our Jewish identity.  This is not a time to hide our Jewishness out of fear or conspicuousness.  As I said on Rosh Hashana, if the goal of anti-Semitism is to intimidate Jews and eliminate Judaism, then we must resist by fully embracing our way of life and our heritage.  We must support, with resources of time and money, synagogues, our Jewish Federation, Jewish Day Schools and summer camps and the State of Israel.  It is the responsibility of each generation to ensure that Judaism grows and does not diminish.

And we need to build and sustain partnerships with all those who oppose hatred and anti-Semitism, not merely for our own sake but because we need a united front of good and decent people to oppose all forms of bigotry and oppression.  That is why this Shabbat Oheb Shalom is participating in Show Up for Shabbat, a project initiated by the AJC.  Launched last year right after the Tree of Life massacre to banish fear and nurture solidarity among ALL peace-love and hate-rejecting people—not only Jews—this moment is happening again.  By participating, we are sending the message that our services this Friday are open to all those who want to stand together in opposition to anti-Semitism and all forms of hatred, racism, and bigotry.

Knowledge, pride, and partnership…these are the keys to standing up and standing strong to combat the scourge of anti-Semitism and hate.  We must take this threat seriously, not out of fear or anger, but out of a strong desire to build a world of decency and peace.

 

 

 

 

From “Not Long Ago, Not Far Away” to “Never Is Now”

I am pleased to post the sermon I offered our congregation on the first day of Rosh Hashana.

My Friends,

This morning, I want to share the story of a small, quiet town in Austria that was little known across Europe.  Jews had lived in the town from the middle of the 16th century, which they called Oshpitzin, a name derived from the Aramaic word “ushpizin,” which means honored and welcome guests.  In 1804, one of the town’s residents, a man named Jakob Haberfeld, established the Jakob Haberfeld Steam Vodka and Liquor Factory.   By the end of the 19th century, it was the largest business in town, producing a wide range of liquors famous throughout the Austro-Hungarian Empire and beyond.  By the late 1930s, Jakob Haberfeld’s grandson Alfons had taken over the business.  He and his wife Felicia were highly respected citizens in Oshpitzin, which had a very large Jewish population.  The Jewish community had a good reputation among Jewish peddlers and business travelers who regularly passed through.  Pious groups that were more insular and focused on old traditions found a home there, as did newer groups of younger Jews who were interested in more spiritual matters.  Oshpitzin was well known as the westernmost outpost of Hasidism.  Remarkably, the Jews of Oshpitzin, especially people like Alfons and Felicia Haberfeld, enjoyed a good and peaceful relationship with the surrounding Christian community.  The Haberfelds were wealthy and lived in a 40-room mansion but they used their wealth to support the town’s needy.  Felicia was especially known for her charitable work and for establishing and supporting soup kitchens and food pantries that served all the poor of the town, not only the Jews.  She even received a citation from the town’s mayor for her acts of charity.

Alfons and Felicia Haberfeld had global ambitions for their liquor factory and in July of 1939, they traveled to the United States to represent their distillery at the New York World’s Fair.  They left their 2-year old daughter Francziska in the care of Felicia’s mother, Helena Spierer.  But they never returned to Oshpitzin.  As they were preparing to board the ship for the trip from New York back to Europe, Alfons and Felicia learned that Germany had invaded Poland.  Their ship was diverted to Scotland and the couple was unable to return home.  You see, after World War I Oshpitzin had become part of independent Poland and the town became known by its Polish name- Oswiecim.  After the Germans conquered Poland, it was called by a name that is probably more familiar- Auschwitz.  In 1940, dormitories that had been constructed in the town years earlier to provide shelter for seasonal laborers were confiscated by the SS and Rudolph Hoss, the newly appointed commandant, expanded them into the infamous death camp that has become synonymous with hate and genocide.

I encountered the story of Alfons and Felicia Haberfeld and the fate of Oshpitzin at an exhibition called “Auschwitz: Not Long Ago, Not Far Away” that is at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in Lower Manhattan through January 3.  The exhibition tells the story of the Holocaust in broad terms and includes stories about the history of Judaism, the rise of the Nazi party and the destruction of European Jewry.  But the exhibition’s primary purpose is to tell the history of Auschwitz and what life was like there for its prisoners and even for the Germans who worked there.

The exhibition is absorbing and fascinating, and I am especially drawn to its title: “Auschwitz: Not Long Ago, Not Far Away.”  What it was meant to convey, I’m sure, is that while the death camp known as Auschwitz may be on the other side of the world from those of us who live here in the New York metropolitan area, a place like Auschwitz is not far away from our lives.  And while we may want to think that what took place in Auschwitz, and the thousands of other death camps throughout Nazi-occupied Europe were an aberration from an era gone by, that’s not really the case.  Antisemitism and hate-induced killing are not relics of a past age.  They’re alive and well in the here and now.

In Warsaw, in the past few days, anti-Semitic posters have been put up all over the capital ahead of the country’s national elections.  The posters include images of former and current Israeli diplomats as well as prominent Jewish figures along with the slogan “Beware of parasites” and call for an end of restitution to Jewish owners and their heirs of property that was seized during the Holocaust, saying it is a “mafia” program, and demand that Poland “Stop the Jewish occupation” of the country.  In France, gravestones were defaced with swastikas after “yellow vest” protesters hurled insults and threats at a prominent Jewish intellectual at a Paris rally.  In Britain, the Labour Party and its leader Jeremy Corbyn are nothing if not a platform for anti-Semites, prompting former UK Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks to brand Corbyn a dangerous anti-Semite who wants to kill Jews and remove Israel from the world map, as well as other leading British rabbis to speak openly about Jews leaving Britain.   In Belgium, a carnival float featured puppets that portrayed scowling ultra-Orthodox Jews with giant noses and bags of money at their feet.  Throughout Europe, Jewish cemeteries are desecrated, and synagogues and Jewish sites are patrolled by armed guards 24 hours a day.  Here in the United States, we need look no further for evidence of anti-Semitism than the “Unite the Right” rally held two years ago in Charlottesville, Virginia with its haunting scenes of Nazi-sympathizers thrusting their arms upward in a Hitler salute while carrying torches and shouting in unison “Sieg Heil” and “Jews will not replace us.”  The murder of 11 Jews on a Shabbat morning at Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh just one year ago, and the murder of a member of a Chabad shul outside of San Diego, has frightened Jews across this country and sparked efforts in synagogues across the country, including this one, to dramatically ramp up security measures.  And it seems that every day brings a new story of harassment and violence committed against Hasidic Jews in Brooklyn.  If you’re the type of person that is persuaded by statistics, the Anti-Defamation League’s most recent report shows that in the U.S. anti-Semitic acts have surged by more than 60%.

Why does the world hate the Jews?  That’s not a question that can be answered in a single sermon, but here are some short answers that you may find appealing.  One is that we are the early warning for all other expressions and acts of hatred in the world.  We are the “canary in the coal mine” meant to tip off the rest of the world that there are haters on the prowl.  That’s not a role we auditioned for, but if you read the Torah carefully, it’s a role that God assigned to us when he told Abraham, “I will bless those who bless you and curse those who curse you.”  Who would want to curse Abraham?  That was God hinting that part of our people’s role in the world would be to smoke out bigots and haters.

Another theory is posited by my mentor, Rabbi Harold Kushner, who wrote that many European intellectuals, embarrassed by what educated Europeans did in the Holocaust, are desperately eager to exaggerate Jewish behavior because it lets them say, “You see, they’re no better than we are.  We can stop feeling guilty about what we did to them.”

As a good friend of mine likes to say, enough admiring the problem.  We can only get so far analyzing the reasons for anti-Semitic behavior.  Now that we know it’s a persistent, dangerous problem, what should we do about it?  I have a few simple but important ideas to share with you that are within our grasp to embrace.

The first, and perhaps simplest, is to live proudly and openly as a Jew.  If the goal of anti-Semitism is to intimidate Jews and eliminate Judaism, then Jews must fiercely resist by fully embracing our way of life and our heritage.  Lend your support, both personal and financial, to synagogues, especially Oheb Shalom, to the Jewish Federation, to Jewish Day Schools, to Jewish summer camps, to Hillel, and to the State of Israel.  It is the sacred responsibility of each generation, especially we who live in the decades immediately following the Holocaust and the near destruction of European Jewry, to ensure that Jews and Judaism grow, not decrease from the face of the earth.

Next, I turn to David Harris, the Chief Executive Officer of the American Jewish Committee, who has said that anti-Semitism must be called out in all its forms.  That means we must take a strong stand against not only the Unite the Right Rally but also against harassment of Orthodox Jews in Brooklyn and Rockland County, against anti-Semitic tropes when they are used by anyone from co-workers to freshman Congresswomen to the President of the United States.  Not all manifestations of anti-Semitism fit into the narrative of White Supremacy.  One Jew beaten while walking home from shul on a Friday night in Crown Heights is also a victim of anti-Semitic rage.  To use Harris’ phrase, we need to be “swivel-headed” in calling out anti-Semitism.

Next, we need to seize opportunities to build bridges with as many partners as possible, and not only in times of crisis when we feel vulnerable and not only when we are victims.  When more than 50 Muslims were murdered in a mosque in Christchurch, New Zealand last March, I immediately called my colleague and friend who is the Imam at the National Islamic Center in Newark and arranged to attend their Friday prayer service to express condolences and show support.  And when there was a vigil in town to protest the killings at the Tree of Life Synagogue a year ago, the Imam was there to express his horror at what had happened.  This past Shavuot eve, I invited the pastor of the local Methodist Church and the Imam from the mosque to bring their members to Oheb Shalom for an extraordinary evening of learning in celebration of our holiday.  Over 100 people attended and learned how the three Abrahamic religions interpret the scriptural lessons of Abraham and Sarah.  The Imam asked if his congregation could recite their evening prayer in Founders’ Hall while I led Ma’ariv in the chapel.  I will never forget the sounds of their prayers mingling with our melodies, and the sheer beauty of Jews and Muslims praying near one another according to their own traditions.  We need those partnerships not only when we are under direct threat but always.  We need to achieve mutual understanding.

Next, we need to be educated about the causes and manifestations of anti-Semitism.  It is not adequate to shrug our shoulders and concede that there are people who hate Jews.  We need to be up to date about trends and catalysts of anti-Semitic behavior, and how to react and respond when we encounter it.  One of the best ways to do that is to attend the “Never is Now” Summit on Anti-Semitism and Hate sponsored by the Anti-Defamation League this November 21 at the Jacob Javitz Center.  I’m proud that our own Amy Blumkin is the ADL’s Vice-President of Brand and Marketing and Andy Neusner is the ADL’s E-mail Marketing Manager.  Because we are a part of the ADL’s Signature Synagogue Program, any one of our members who register for the conference will receive an 18% discount.  I would like to see at least 25 Oheb members attend the conference.  For more information, link to www.neverisnow.org.

Finally, one cannot talk about sources of antisemitism without talking about Zionism and Israel.  I believe and accept that there are times we must criticize Israel, just as we must at times criticize the United States.  Not everything Israel does is praiseworthy and defensible.  But I also believe that there is a difference between criticizing Israel and opposing Zionism.  Zionism is the legitimate aspiration of the Jewish People to live in the land of our birth, safe from threats of harm and annihilation.  As David Harris said, if we can’t defend Zionism then we can’t be successful defenders of Jews against anti-Semitism.  If we can’t speak of Israel with pride and admiration, even if we have objections to some of the statements and actions of whatever government happens to be in power, then we can’t fully and completely defend Jews.  I believe that with all my heart and will always speak out in defense of the Jewish people’s right to live safely in the Land of Israel.

My friends, in one of the key passages of our High Holiday prayers, we look forward to a year in which tzadikim yiru ve-yismachu viyesharim ya’alozu…a year in which good people will have reason to rejoice and honest people will have cause to be glad, a year in which the mouth of the wicked will be shut and hate-filled evil will disappear like smoke.  Of all our prayers, may God grant that one, for the world has seen enough hatred and violence.  May it be a year in which we move from “Not long ago, not far away” to “Never is now.”  Kein Yehi Ratzon…may that be God’s will, and ours.

Making a Connection

In Parashat Shoftim, we encounter a wide assortment of laws that govern both civil and religious matters.  As the name of the portion—Shoftim— suggests, there are laws about judges, the judiciary and public officials.  There are laws about kings and how many horses he can have.  There are laws about priests and prophets, cities of refuge, war and unsolved murders.  It all makes for scintillating reading.

The law that I find among the most interesting is presented in chapter 19 and has to do with ensuring good relations among neighbors:  Lo tasig gevul rei’echa asher gavlu rishonim…You shall not move your neighbor’s landmarks in the land that God is giving you.  The law has to do with the way the boundary between two adjacent properties was marked, usually with a line of heavy stones or pegs in the ground.  Hasagat Gevul, or encroaching on someone’s property, happened when a landowner would move the stones or pegs a distance outward to enlarge his own territory, usually in the middle of the night so as not to be seen doing it.  Later codifications of Jewish law expanded the law against Hasagat Gevul to include other types of encroachment such as copyright infringement.

The law against encroachment was meant to achieve the most basic of all legal objectives, namely civility and respect for one another.  In this case, the law was intended to control people’s impulses to act solely in their own self-interest and prevent neighbors from engaging in a form of stealing.  In short, the law prohibiting hasagat gevul was meant to ensure that people would get along and live peacefully side by side.

We might say that the purpose of Torah is to inspire faith, to unite us as a people, to deepen our relationship to God, and all those assertions would be true.  But a basic purpose of Torah is to create a society whose foundation is decency, fairness and consideration of others.  In the end, we shouldn’t judge the quality of a community by the fervency of its prayers or by the faith of our most pious members, by how learned its members are or by how scrupulously the commandments are observed.  Rather, we must judge our community by how we treat each other.  Do we respect one another?  Do we treat one another with decency and civility?  Even more crucial, do we care for one another?  Are we invested in each other’s welfare?

I ask these questions not because we have any soul-searching to conduct about how we treat each other.  This is a good and caring congregation, made up of people who are responsive to each other’s need.  But sometimes we all must be reminded that there are people in our midst who need a small gesture of help, an expression of companionship, a tangible and personal sign that they are noticed and that they matter.

Oheb Shalom is renewing efforts to take care of one another in ways that are coordinated as well as informal and the result of the normal and natural bonds of friendship.  We’re excited to launch Connections, an initiative designed to connect us to one another and demonstrate in tangible ways that we care about one another.  Overseen by Marilyn Kohan and Roberta Zweifler, this initiative will make connections between those who want to lend a hand and those who need support.

An email address connections@ohebshalom.org has been set up that will enable Marilyn and Roberta to make connections between those who need support and friendship and those who want to give support and friendship to a fellow Oheb Shalom member.

What type of connections are we hoping to make?  We want to connect those who would appreciate a periodic phone call saying hello with those who are willing to make the call.  We want to connect those who need a ride to a service, a program with those who can pick someone up.  We want to connect those who are in the hospital or a rehab center for an extende stay with those who can visit.  We want to connect those who would appreciate going to a movie or out to dinner but don’t have someone in their life to share that experience with someone who can deliver a treat or have lunch or dinner with someone.  There are so many other ways we can all reach out to each other and become more connected as a community.

Lo tasig gevul rei’echa…You shall not encroach on your neighbor’s property.  That seems like a minimal standard to me.  Perhaps the law should say, “You shall not only not encroach on each other’s land, but you shall treat one another with respect, with love and with caring.”  That’s a law that applies to us.  And like all laws, its purpose is to remind us of what we already know, that the quality and depth of our community is measured by how we treat each other, by the connections we make to one another.  This year, let’s resolve to connect to one another and ensure that no one is left alone in need of friendship and caring.

 

Do We Deserve To Have the Keys?

A Talmudic story:  When the Roman army attacked Israel and the Temple was nearly destroyed on the 9th of Av, a young priest climbed up to the top of the roof of the Temple and threw the keys to the main gate up in the air, saying, “Master of the Universe! Since we have not been true custodians, we return the keys to You!” At that moment, a heavenly hand came down and took the keys” (Babylonian Talmud Ta’anit 29a).

The story fits with the general rabbinic notion that the Temple was destroyed, and our people exiled because we had ceased to be “good custodians.”  Our ancestors were no longer loyal to the Covenant with God and they had abandoned the values that give our lives meaning.  On Tisha B’Av, we reflect not on the sacking of the Temple, nor even on the pain of exile.  Rather, the day is given to contemplating the terrible effects of gratuitous hatred, and on the consequences of abandoning our people’s commitment to caring for the weak, the needy and the vulnerable.  The day is solemn and mournful and is commemorated by a 24-hour fast and the reading of the Book of Lamentations with its haunting melody.

The Talmudic story about returning the keys to God should have relevance for us especially this week, as our nation has witnessed a shocking wave of violence and murder.  The killing of 22 people at a Walmart in El Paso, Texas, followed the next day by the killing of 9 people in Dayton, Ohio are the latest mass murders in America.  We should all be horrified that these two episodes were the 254th and 255th mass killings in 2019, more than the number of days in the year so far.  We should be incensed that one of the killers was motivated by a White Supremacist ideology and was likely acting in response to anti-immigrant and racist rhetoric that is all too common nowadays from our national leaders.  We should fiercely combat the tendency to become numb to such violence.  In a few days, the news cycle will move past these killings and onto something else, but only if we are complicit in forgetting about them.

But perhaps most importantly, we must affirm that we wish to be good custodians of our nation and of our society.  We must demonstrate respect for all life, even when we don’t personally know the victims of mass killings that take place far away from our homes and our community.  We must be good custodians of our children’s safety and their future.  If we want gun violence to stop and the senseless killing to end, we must become activists for change.  We must raise our voices to our elected representatives and demand that they act. If we want White Supremacist hate to be obliterated and racism and xenophobia to be dwarfed, we must protest these ugly expressions with our entire being.

Otherwise, we should relinquish the keys and admit that we’ve failed to be good custodians of the world God has entrusted to our care.

I encourage you to be present at Oheb Shalom for this year’s commemoration of Tisha B’Av.  Here’s the schedule:

Saturday, August 10

6:30 PM- Mincha service

7:00 PM- Light dinner to precede the fast

7:30 PM- Presentation by Gillian Perry, author of The Legacy of Anne Frank

8:30 PM- Reading of Eicha

Sunday, August 11

9:00 AM- Shacharit service (tallit and tefillin are not worn)

1:45 PM- Mincha (tallit and tefillin are worn)

The Daily Minyan Needs You…and You Need It!

Here’s a question of Jewish law that could only be asked in the 21st century:  Can we fulfill our obligation to pray with a minyan in a videoconference held online?  Could 10 Jews be at home or in an office and pray together using Skype or ZOOM?  On the one hand, a videoconference seems like a brilliant solution to convening a minyan, especially for people who don’t have a lot of spare time to go to the synagogue.  The internet is an element of technology that could not have been envisioned by the Talmudic sages and medieval scholars who codified Jewish law.  It’s possible to read the Torah via videoconference if one person had a Torah scroll and could chant the portion.  It’s even possible to imagine a “virtual minyan” expanding well beyond the minimum requirement of 10 Jews for a quorum.

On the other hand, a virtual minyan is a bad idea, even if it’s a clever merging of religion and technology.  That’s because no matter how good your computer is or how fast your internet speed is, people aren’t truly brought together in cyberspace.  There’s something real about being in a shared physical space, where we can hear each other’s voices as we pray and sing, that simply isn’t very authentic online.  Human interaction is most genuine when we face one another, listen to one another, take note of one another’s feelings that are seen in the expressions on our faces.  And praying together requires genuine human interaction.

I say this as a prelude to putting in a plug for your presence at our daily minyan.  If you are one of our regulars, or even if you come to the morning minyan occasionally, you know that Oheb Shalom’s daily minyan is a close group of people who care about one another and support one another.  If one of us is ill, the rest of the group is concerned.  If one of us is in mourning, the rest of the group provides comfort and consolation.  If one of us can’t get to the minyan on his own, someone from the group will provide transportation.  We celebrate each other’s joys with blessings at the Torah, in conversation before and after (and even during!) the service and enjoy breakfast and a few words of Torah study after the service each Wednesday.  Perhaps most important, Oheb Shalom’s daily minyan is not a closed group at all.  Any person who attends is instantly drawn into the club and quickly feels at home.

For those who are not sure they can recite the prayers, don’t worry.  Our minyan is not a judgmental place where people’s knowledge is scrutinized or critiqued.  Whether you choose to pray in Hebrew or in English, whether you wish to follow the order of prayers or do your own thing, you will feel at home at our minyan.  You will be called to the Torah for an honor regularly and assisted in reciting the blessings if you are not familiar with them.

Aside from all the personal benefits of attending minyan, your presence will fill an important need for our congregation.  One of the signs of a healthy synagogue is a reliable daily minyan that serves the needs of its members and the community, whether for prayer and introspection or the fulfillment of a mourners’ Kaddish obligation.  There are few things more disheartening than a mourner seeking comfort and wishing to say Kaddish for their loved one but being unable to do so because there is no minyan.

So, I ask you to support Oheb Shalom’s daily minyan.  Perhaps you wish to pick a day of the week to attend the minyan, or perhaps you are inclined to attend every day.  Either way, your presence will make a significant difference in the lives of fellow members.  The idea of starting each day with prayer and reflection, in the company of others, will also make a difference in your personal life by enabling you to start each day in a positive manner.  That is why our tradition urges that we start each day with the experience of prayer.

The minyan meets every Sunday-Friday at 8:00 AM (7:45 AM on Rosh Chodesh and certain Jewish holidays), and at 9:00 AM on Sundays and national holidays.  I hope to see you there!

Shabbat Shalom,

RABBI COOPER

We Need the Torah…and the Torah Needs Us Too

Shavuot, the second of the three pilgrimage festivals, commemorates God’s revelation to the Jewish People at Mt. Sinai and the giving of the Torah.  Several commentaries note that the Ten Commandments, which are at the heart of the revelation, are addressed in the singular.  Why?  Two reasons are given.  First, so that each person should think that he is personally responsible for upholding the Torah’s teachings.  Second, because each person can and should hear God’s voice in a personal way and craft a unique relationship with the Divine.  The Kabbalists taught that there was no spoken Revelation at all.  Rather than proclaiming the Ten Commandments in a booming voice, the ancient mystics said that God spoke only the first letter of the first word of the first commandment.  That was the letter “aleph,” which produces no sound at all.  Standing at the foot of the mountain, the Kabbalists said, each of the Israelites heard God’s voice in their head.  So it is with each of us—we each hear and understand God in a deeply private and individual way.

Taking this idea a step further, Rabbi Yitzchak ben Yaakov Alfasi (1013-1103, Morocco) taught that not only must each person cultivate a personal relationship with the Divine, but the Torah only reaches its potential when it is received and interpreted by many different types of people.  He wrote:

Our rabbis said:  Had only one of the Israelites been absent, the Torah would not have been given.  It is for this reason that the Torah was given to 600,000 people.  It was the will of the Holy Blessed One that the Torah be accepted by all factions, and the 600,000 people who stood at the foot of Mt. Sinai included all factions and opinions.

Rabbi Alfasi remarkably taught that the Revelation could not have taken place had even a single person from the community of Israelites been absent.  That is because every single person’s opinion was necessary to make the Torah into a living, relevant document.

I understand Rabbi Alfasi’s teaching to be innovative and urgent.  Not only is each person free to craft a personal understanding of God, but the Torah itself, which reflects Divine wisdom and insight, becomes stronger and more authentic when its passages are subject to many different interpretations and opinions.

Those who arrogantly believe that they alone know God’s truth, those who claim to exclusively hear the authentic voice of God, and especially all those who seek to impose their views on others because they think they have special knowledge of how God wants human beings to behave, should carefully read the words of Rabbi Alfasi.  The voice of God is heard differently by every human being, and God’s Torah thrives only when it is interpreted by many factions and subject to many opinions.  No one has a monopoly on God’s truth.

Judaism holds that we need the Torah.  But Rabbi Alfasi cleverly reminds us that the Torah needs us too.

I hope that you will join us for our Shavuot celebrations.

  • SATURDAY, JUNE 8
  • 8:30 PM. One Text…Three Faiths: “A Triangle of Love: How Jews, Muslims and Christians View Abraham, Sarah and Hagar.”  On Shavuot eve, learn a text revered by Jews, Christians and Muslims. The evening will begin with refreshments and worship. Rabbi Cooper, Pastor Brenda Wheeler Ehlers from Morrow Memorial Methodist Church, and Imam Daud Haqq of the National Islamic Association Masjid will teach and lead a discussion on what their respective faith groups learn from these sacred texts.
  • SUNDAY, JUNE 9
    • 9:45 AM Morning Service for the First Day of Shavuot.  We will celebrate as Jason Vaidman (the grandson of Nancy Lorre) becomes a Bar Mitzvah.
    • 11:15 AM Shavuot Katan/Gadol (with Miss Vivian). For kids ages 0-8.
    • 9:00 PM Evening Service for the Second Day of Shavuot
  • MONDAY, JUNE 10
    • 9:45 AM Morning Service for the Second Day of Shavuot.  Our Yizkor service will be accompanied by a professional violinist to create a moving and beautiful tribute to our lost loved ones.

 

One Text, Three Faiths

Join us for an inspiring evening of interfaith study on the eve of Shavuot

Saturday, June 8 at 8:30 PM

Jewish tradition holds that seven weeks after the Exodus from Egypt, on the Festival of Shavuot, the Israelites arrived at the foot of Mt. Sinai and there met God to receive Divine “revelation” and the Torah.  The Talmudic rabbis, in Tractate Shabbat, suggest that the Torah was given to the Jewish people on a conditional basis.  Playing off the phrase “they encamped at the foot of the mountain,” the sages say that God held the mountain over their collective heads and threatened to drop it on them, turning the site into a graveyard, if they did not accept the Torah.  Some interpret this Talmudic passage as asserting the idea that God created the world solely so that Jews could live in it and teach Torah to humanity, a self-aggrandizing attitude that encourages the dark and ugly notion that Jewish souls are somehow qualitatively better and purer than the souls of other human beings.

Opposite that idea lives the nobler assertion that all human beings are children of God, that we all face the same challenges and risks, and that our journey in this world is a common one that we approach from different perspectives.  The great champion of that idea was Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel who, in 1953, gave a lecture about the need for interreligious cooperation entitled “No Religion Is an Island.”  Heschel said:

Christianity and Islam, far from being accidents of history or purely human phenomena, are part of God’s design for the redemption of all men. Christianity is accorded ultimate significance by acknowledging that “all these matters relative to Jesus of Nazareth and Mohammed… served to clear the way for King Messiah.” The achievements of these religions within history are explicitly affirmed: Through them “the messianic hope, the Torah, and the commandments have become familiar topics among people.” Maimonides acknowledges that “the Christians believe and profess that the Torah is God’s revelation and given to Moses in the form in which it has been preserved.”

Heschel taught that the purpose of interreligious cooperation is “to help one another, to share insight and learning, to cooperate in academic ventures on the highest scholarly level, and to search in the wilderness for well-springs of devotion, for treasures of stillness, for the power of love and care for man.”  His compelling vision, and not the one embraced by a handful of self-righteous people that suggests that Jewish souls are superior, is, of course, to be embraced.

We live in times when adherents of Judaism, Islam, and Christianity are at risk.  Synagogues, masjids, and churches all suffer from hate-filled persecution and violence.  We must affirm that there is strength in unity and mutual respect.  When Jews were massacred at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, my Muslim colleagues reached out to me with words of consolation.  When a hate-filled bigot murdered 50 Muslims peacefully praying in New Zealand, I joined my friends in the Jumma prayer at the NIA Masjid in Newark to offer comfort by affirming that we are all children of the same God.

In the spirit of nurturing interreligious cooperation, this year’s Shavuot evening of study will be held in partnership with the National Islamic Association Masjid and Morrow Memorial United Methodist Church. Come for refreshments, fellowship and study.  Imam Daud Haqq, Pastor Brenda Wheeler Ehlers and I will teach and members of all three congregations will learn together how Biblical stories about Abraham, Sarah and Hagar are understood by Jews, Muslims and Christians.  Our theme will be “A Triangle of Love:  How Do Jews, Muslims and Christians View the Abrahamic Narratives?”

No religion is an island.  Join us on Shavuot to demonstrate that the adherents of all religions can, and must, learn from one another.

TLS In House-1

 

What Would Herzl Think?

Note:  This Friday night, May 10, we welcome to Oheb Shalom Rabbi David Levy, Director of the New Jersey Regional Office of the American Jewish Committee.  Rabbi Levy will discuss “Building Bridges Between American and Israeli Jews.”  Service at 8:00 PM, Presentation at 8:30 PM.  

It was on a sunny and warm Sunday August evening that a 37-year old man, impeccably dressed in a top hat and tails and a crisply formed white bowtie, stood before some 200 people and spoke these words:

“We shall never tire or slack off at repeating and repeating these words, until we are understood. On this cordial occasion, when Jews from so many lands are assembled together, to hear the clarion call, the ancient call of the people, we must again cordially repeat this our belief…that Zionism is a legal and civilized movement full of love of the masses, with the ancient and coveted goal of our people to live in safety in a land of our own.”

The man in his late 30s was Binyamin Ze’ev Theodore Herzl, and he spoke these words 122 years ago in the city of Basel, Switzerland at the First World Zionist Congress, an auspicious gathering of Jewish leaders from across Europe that Herzl convened to present his plan to create a Jewish State and begin the work necessary to make his dream a reality.

Herzl is a giant of Jewish history, credited with establishing and fostering modern Zionism, a movement that culminated in Israel’s improbable rebirth just a half-century after he convened the first World Zionist Congress in 1897.  He understood the odds against the success of his work and that of Zionists who wanted to establish a haven for the world’s Jews in the land of Judaism’s birth.  The obstacles he faced were enormous.  There was rampant anti-Semitism everywhere, and there was assimilation among Jews in the lands where they lived.  There was the need to reconcile Zionism, a secular nationalist movement, with the rabbinical establishment. The rabbis were not interested in a movement that they viewed as undermining religion and their authority. Over many centuries, Judaism had adapted itself to Diaspora living. Religious authorities saw a return to the land of Israel as an event that would come to pass only upon the coming of the Messiah. Those few rabbis who were Zionists sought to control the new movement and ensure that the new state would be a theocracy, obedient to ancient religious laws. And of course, the secular Zionists who attended the meetings of the World Zionist Congress felt that a modern democratic state could not be built on those principles.

Herzl’s life and work are a story of unfathomable success in the face of enormous odds.  In the decades preceding Israel’s rebirth as a modern nation-state, world Jewry was largely oppressed and living in fear in Eastern Europe, facing assimilation and persecution in Western Europe.  Jews then faced genocide during the dark years of the Shoah.  The land that Zionists sought as a homeland was in the possession of the Ottomans.  The allied powers who would soon be victorious in World War I were split over whether the land should be partitioned among the victors or left in the hands of the Turks to be reshaped by world powers.

But not only did the State of Israel come into being against all odds, 71 years later it is an indisputable brilliant success.  In just seven decades, an undeveloped land with almost no infrastructure, with few roads or schools or hospitals, has become a thriving nation that is among the world’s leaders in science, technology, and agriculture.

So, on this 71st Yom Ha’atsmaut, Israel Independence Day, I wonder what Herzl would think of the modern State of Israel.  Would he be impressed by the remarkable pace at which the land has been developed, at which Jewish culture has taken root, and at which a Jewish army has been able to defend its citizens and Jews around the world?  Would Herzl be satisfied to see Israeli medical teams fly to distant lands to help other states recover from earthquakes or agricultural specialists heading off to Africa to help drought-stricken countries yield more from the land?

Or would he be disillusioned to see that tension and discord still rage between religious and secular Jews, or that there are parts of Israeli society still awaiting social and economic justice?  Would he be disheartened to see the rightward drift of Israeli politics, marked by the legitimization of extremist and racist parties and ideologies in the government?  Would he be disappointed that enmity between Arabs and Israelis has for the most part not abated and that peace has eluded the people who live in the land he worked so hard to establish?  What would he think of an Israel that has done so much, yet still has many problems to solve?  If Herzl could see the Israel that today is celebrating Yom Ha’atsmaut, I imagine that he would see all these things.

I see these things as well.  I see Israel’s brilliant achievements, and I see Israel’s challenges and struggles.  And I love Israel.  The rebirth of the State of Israel is the most exciting, impactful event to happen to the Jewish people in the past 2,000 years.  Herzl’s dream thrives in the land of our people’s birth, and it’s ours to protect and to nurture.  Od lo ovda tikvateynu…Israel remains the hope of the Jewish people in our time and for generations yet to come.

Marror- Symbol of the Holocaust?

With the setting of the sun on Wednesday evening, we begin the commemoration of another Yom HaShoah.  This day of remembrance and solemn reflection of the cost of absolute evil has been observed since December 1949, when a group of rabbis gathered on the 10th of Tevet, already an established fast day on the Jewish calendar, to bury the bones and ashes of thousands of Jews that had been brought to a cemetery in Jerusalem from the Flossenberg concentration camp.  In 1951, after lengthy and difficult negotiations between the ultra-Orthodox, who did not want Yom Ha-Shoah to fall in the month of Nissan and intrude on the joy of Passover, and ghetto fighters, who wanted to commemorate the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising which began on Passover, the Israeli Knesset passed a law establishing the 27th of Nissan as “Yom HaShoah v’HaGevurah.”  The name was meant to convey that we should remember not only destruction and suffering but also heroism, resolve, courage and determination.

The name “Yom HaShoah v’HaGevurah” suggests that the meaning of the Holocaust is about both suffering and heroism.  There is no end to tragic stories of pain and suffering from that dark period of our history.  And there are also stories of heroic resistance and defiance.  The intense debate among religious leaders and ghetto fighters that led to setting the date of Yom HaShoah on 27 Nissan was about preserving the religious integrity of Pesach, but it was also about the tension between the Holocaust as a story of victimhood or a story of heroism.

A familiar Passover symbol- Marror, or the bitter herb- also reflects this tension.  We are commanded to eat Marror at the Seder in order to vicariously taste the bitterness of slavery and oppression.  Experiencing bitterness can make someone bitter, suspicious of others and unable to see goodness in the world.  Experiencing bitterness can also sensitize us to the trauma of suffering and can make someone empathetic and understanding.  Perhaps we are told to eat Marror precisely so we can consider how to respond to the despair and suffering we encounter in the course of our lives.

Nobody should dare tell a Holocaust survivor how they should respond to the suffering they endured.  There are survivors who could not shake the bitterness of their suffering and who lived their years with a cynical attitude and untrusting of others.  There are also survivors whose experience of bitterness led them to be empathetic, sensitive and understanding.  One such person was Helen Paktor, who witnessed the murder of her father and brother, survived the hell of Auschwitz, and went on to raise a family and build a productive and positive life.  Helen taught others about how a human being should behave and what a virtuous life entails.

Helen passed away this week at the age of 93, and she is on my mind and in my heart as we commemorate another Yom HaShoah.  Yehi Zichra L’veracha…her memory will indeed endure as a blessing.

The Fifth Question

Dear Friends,

In the next 24 hours, we will gather with our families and friends to honor one of our most ancient and revered traditions by celebrating Passover.  With the symbols of our people’s past oppression and our dramatic liberation from enslavement arrayed before us, we will once again ask how this night is different from all other nights and tell the story of our pursuit of freedom from tyranny.

But the Passover Seder can be neither complete nor authentic if our story is focused only on ourselves, for Passover is not solely about our own people’s redemption.  It is a summons to work for the freedom of all oppressed people.   The ultimate and truest purpose of the Passover Seder is not merely to tell what happened to our ancestors 3,000 years ago, but to inspire every person who participates in the ritual to demand freedom for all who are denied it, just as Moses demanded freedom for the Israelites from the Pharaoh.

The Passover Seder has been described as a talk-feast in four acts.  Indeed, several aspects of the Seder come in a pattern of four, such as the drinking of four cups of wine, the tale of the four children and the asking of four questions. The Rabbinic Sages intentionally adopted this structure because, as they read the story of the Exodus in the Torah, God’s promise of redemption was made in four parts: “Therefore, say to the people of Israel…I will bring you out from under the burden of the Egyptians…I will rid you from their slavery…I will redeem you with an outstretched arm…and I will take you to me for a people.” (Exodus 6:6-7)

Some of the sages interpreted that God actually made five promises, since one verse later, in Exodus 6:8, we read: “And I will bring you to the land which I gave to Abraham and his descendants.”  As often happens in Talmudic debate, the rabbis couldn’t come to a unanimous consensus as to whether there were four or five Divine promises, and thus whether there should be four or five question cups of wine at the Seder.  So, they decided that a fifth cup of wine should be placed on the Seder table, but did not require that a blessing be said over it.  They dedicated the fifth cup to Elijah the Prophet, whom they believed would solve all such disputes at the dawn of the Messianic era.

Just as there are actually five cups of wine at the Passover Seder, perhaps there should also be five questions asked instead of four.  The Fifth Question should be this: “What will you do to help alleviate the suffering of another person?”  Put differently, what act of kindness and justice will we commit to doing that will redeem someone from hunger, from homelessness, from insecurity, from fear, and from oppression?  Just as the Seder experience cannot be completed without answering the classic Four Questions, we ought not to end the evening without answering the crucial Fifth Question about how each of us will fight modern-day oppression in all its ugly forms.  The Passover Seder is an urgent call to work for freedom for all, and we must answer the summons.

This year, I again have the privilege of celebrating Passover with my family in Israel where the spirit of this special holiday is uniquely expressed and felt.  I am grateful for this opportunity and I eagerly look forward to the week of celebration that lies ahead.

My family joins me in wishing you a fulfilling, memorable and inspirational Pesach experience!

RABBI COOPER