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The blog of Congregation Rodeph Shalom, Philadelphia's Reform Jewish Synagogue
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Multi-faith in Morocco

Tue, 11/14/2017 - 9:54am

Yesterday and today marked the 79th anniversary of Kristallnacht, the night of broken glass, when ordinary Germans demonized their Jewish neighbors and lashed out against them in violence and hate. Soon after, once Hitler had control over France, the Vichy government there sent a message to King Mohammed V of Morocco: help us deport your country’s 250,000 Jews to Nazi concentration camps. As the story goes, the king responded saying, “We have no Jews, we only have Moroccans.”

There are academic debates to the historic accuracy of this account, however, not one Moroccan Jew was ever sent to a concentration camp, and the Jews of Morocco lived out WWII in relative safety and peace compared to their French counterparts.

I learned of this story while visiting the Mausoleum of King Mohammed V in Rabat, Morocco just a few weeks ago. Some of you may remember, I had the opportunity to visit Abu Dhabi in May as part of a conference called An American Peace Caravan: Working from the Marrakech Declaration. Our American delegation was responding to a group of over 300 Muslim civil and religious leaders that gathered in 2016 in Marrakech. Led by Sheikh Abdullah bin Bayyah, the Marrakech Declaration signees promised to protect the rights of religious minorities in Muslim countries.

In this most recent conference, rabbis, imams, and evangelical pastors from 20 cities in the US gathered in Rabat to continue this conversation and think about how we can bring this message of tolerance to the US, especially in light of recent anti-Semitism and Islamophobia. This multi-faith conference was a unique opportunity to challenge each other on tough questions and engage in deep, meaningful dialogue in an effort to better understand one another, for as we know, so much hate and mistrust is based on fear and lack of knowledge.

In this week’s Torah portion, Chayei Sarah, the portion begins with the death of our matriarch, Sarah. Abraham purchases a burial plot for her in the cave of Machpelah.

At the end of the portion, Abraham dies as well and his two sons, Isaac and Ishmael come together to bury their father in the same cave. This may seem fairly routine, brothers coming together to make funeral arrangements for their elderly father.

But it is a truly remarkable sentiment that Isaac, a Jewish patriarch, and Ishmael, an Islamic patriarch, came together at this moment. If you remember, the last time we heard from Ishmael, he was cast out of Abraham and Sarah’s tent along with his mother Hagar to presumably die in the wilderness at Sarah’s behest. God watched over the young boy and ensured that he too would eventually be the progenitor of the Muslim people. But this is not justification for being treated so horribly.

So why did Sarah throw the boy and his mother out of the household? According to the text it was simply because Sarah saw Isaac and Ishmael ‘playing’ together. This seems like a bit of an overreaction. However, according to one rabbinic commentary, Pirkei D’Rebbe Eliezer, written during the Islamic conquest of the Middle East, Ishmael’s crime is much more sinister. Using a fringe definition of the word mitzacheik, playing, Pirkei D’Rebbe Eliezer sees Ishmael’s actions as some type of sexual abuse of Isaac.

Nowhere in the text is there justification for this reading and most scholars point to this interpretation as a direct polemic against Islam. This type of vilification of Islam and ‘the other’ has sadly always been a part of Judaism and society, and still exists today.

We witnessed two mass killings in recent weeks. One in New York City at the hands of a Muslim, and one in a Texas church at the hands of a white American man. The New York attack was described as a terrorist attack. The attack at a church in Texas was described as the act of someone mentally ill. Both attacks were attacks of terrorism. Let us not forget that the majority of terrorist attacks in America are committed by white men.

It is not just politicians and the media that vilify Islam and ‘the other;’ many of us are guilty as well. I can say personally, that before my trips to Abu Dhabi and Morocco, I had many negative, preconceived notions about Muslims and Evangelical Christians. I thought all Muslims hated Israel. I thought all Evangelicals aligned themselves with a specific political party. I found both of these statements to be false when I got to know imams and pastors on a deeper level.

Now, I don’t want to sugar coat this and say that we agree on everything and all love each other. We have fundamental differences in our beliefs and irreconcilable points of view on certain issues. However, this does not mean we should be fearful or ignorant of the other. We may not ever agree on certain issues, but we can at least understand one another. And through understanding, we may not like one another or agree with one another, but we will hopefully stop creating evil caricatures of each other. Or as Brene Brown writes in her book, Braving the Wilderness, it is hard to hate close-up. So move in.

At the conferences in Rabat and Abu Dhabi, we were tasked with bringing this dialogue back to our communities so that we might all, in Brown’s words, ‘move in.’ In that spirit, Pastor Kevin Brown of the Perfecting Church, Imam Muhammad Abdul-Aleem of Masjidullah, and myself, with the support of some amazing lay leaders, have created our first series of dialogue events called, “Ambassadors of Peace.” Our hope is that our congregants will also have the chance to get to know one another and that, through meeting ‘the other,’ we can destigmatize, we can stop vilifying each other, we can see each person not as a stereotype of their religion, but as an individual.

The first dialogue took place last week at the American Bible Society, where we learned about Evangelical Christianity. The next dialogue will take place this coming Tuesday evening, November 14th at 6pm at the National Museum of American Jewish History. I hope many of you will join us as we teach others about Judaism.  

And the last part of the series will be held on December 7th at Masjidullah, a mosque on West Oak Lane, where we will learn about Islam. I’ll end with a story about that very mosque:

I was at Masjidullah with my mom, Laurel, and Josephine for a special multi-faith Iftar celebration a few months back. When we arrived at the mosque, my mother turned to me and said, “I’ve been here before.”

She couldn’t quite place it until the Imam, Mohammed Abdul-Aleem, invited us to come to a special room downstairs in the mosque. He was incredibly proud to show us some beautiful, old, stained-glass windows. The windows were clearly Jewish, and dated back to when the mosque was originally Temple Sinai. My mom then realized that the last time she had been there was 60 years ago for her cousin’s Bar Mitzvah.

What an amazing moment. To see a mosque that took extra precautions and extra steps to preserve sacred Jewish art. The next time someone tells you that all Muslims hate Jews, or that Islam is a religion of violence and is un-American, remember that this type of demonization and vilification needs to stop. Remember Masjidullah caring for our Jewish sacred art, remember the imams that showed up at Rodeph Shalom after the Jewish cemetery in Philadelphia was desecrated, remember King Mohammed V who saved the Jews of Morocco from the Nazis and remember to ‘move in’ and see the Divine in everyone.

Filed under: Uncategorized

Installation: May We Enter in Thanks

Thu, 11/09/2017 - 3:28pm

In the words inscribed on my tallit, taken from Psalms: Pitchu li sha-arey tzedek, avovam odeh-ya/Open for me the gates of righteousness and I will enter in thanks.  As I have stepped through new gates, I enter with profound gratitude.


Thank you to Rabbi Kroloff and Rabbi Kuhn, for your faith in me, for your career-shaping mentorship, and for your generous words.  Rabbi Kroloff, you are my original teacher of what a rabbi can be—a justice-driven, Torah-driven leader of integrity and wisdom, discernment and compassion– you are my rabbi.  Rabbi Kuhn, your visionary leadership and care for every congregant, has taught me for 16 years; thank you for the exceptional generosity and inclusion of your mentorship.

I am grateful to enter these new gates with my partners: Cantor Frankel, Rabbi Freedman, executive director Jeff Katz, director of Congregational Advancement Catherine Fischer, director of Youth Learning Jennifer James, and director of the Buerger Early Learning Center Andi Miller, and for the trust, creativity, passion, and reflection our team shares.

I am grateful for the support of lay leaders and of all of you, our congregants.  The search committee, led by Michael Hauptman and Michael Furman, and shepherded by then-president Lloyd Brotman, engaged me in deep conversations.  What a joy it has been, to share a sacred partnership with our wise and compassionate president, Michael Hauptman, whose words on Yom Kippur encouraging us each to bring our lamp—our participation—inspired us all.   Thank you to our installation team and chairpeople, Susan Kline Klehr, Julia Engel, Ellen Simon, and Ivy Olesh, for lovingly turning this weekend into a reality.

Our tradition teaches that a parent’s 2 most enduring gifts to a child are: roots and wings. Everything I accomplish, grows from my parents’ love, support, perspective, humor, and generosity of spirit.

I am grateful for the close family they created, and for my sister Paige and brother-in-law Jason, who are always finding ways for the family to be together.

And to my extended family: Sue, Helene, Rick, Rich, Amy, Harriet, Elihu, Frank, Jeremy, Michelle, Jude and Simone, how special it is to welcome you here tonight.

A clergy’s work schedule can be a challenge.  For Len and me, what makes it possible to run a family, is the help and boundless devotion, of Len’s parents Susan and Phil, for whom we are both grateful.

Our children Moshe and Pria are loving and kind and funny; Daddy and I are so proud of the people you are becoming.

Len, thank you for making all of this possible, by being an incredible husband, best friend and co-parent.  I trust your wisdom and moral compass completely, and our love is the most important thing in my life.


Installation.  My role may be new, but this… There are few places in the world where I feel as at home as I do on this bimah, and with all of you.  How lucky I am to be with a community I already love, as I share of my vision for Rodeph Shalom.

Jewish time is not linear.  In Jewish time, taught the 20th century Rabbi Joseph Soleveichik, we move from future to past to present.  We envision the future, learn lessons from the past, and then take action in the present.

And so, we begin with the future.  Our vision for the future of Rodeph Shalom is to create profound connections and compelling Jewish life in our community, in our outreach, and in our moral leadership.

To guide our future, we turn to the past.  I recently opened the Rodeph Shalom Sisterhood cookbook published in 1927, the year this sanctuary was built.  Does anyone here remember that cookbook?   This was from a time long before women served as rabbis, or trustees on our Board.  And certainly long before they served as senior rabbi.  For it is my honor to serve as your first senior rabbi, who is a woman.

So, what do we learn from the 1927 cookbook?  First, there is a significant variety of marshmellow-related desserts… which will be honored with tonight’s meringue.  And there is a lot of mayonnaise…  including an appetizer called a mayonnaise ring; I don’t think that one will be making a comeback tonight.

Now, here’s what really struck me.  There is a Kosher for Passover section.  But then, there is a seafood section—shrimp, crab (again, not making a comeback tonight).  The point for Reform Jews in 1927, was not that they could eat crab and lots of mayo.  From them we learn the principle: to reflect the aesthetics and values of the time, and to shape a compelling Jewish life.  Further into our past, our founders were committed to welcoming any member, regardless of financial capacity.  From them we learn the principle: to reflect the values of the time and to shape an inclusive Jewish life.

The past principles of a compelling and inclusive Judaism, guide us still.  And so we move from future to past, and now to present.

In order to move toward the vision of community and outreach, we draw inspiration from the words of Isaiah, inscribed on our building’s façade: “Your house shall be called a house of prayer for all people.” We are a Caring Community of connection groups, all ages, colors, abilities, vulnerabilities, sexual orientations, and socioeconomic realities. We are faithful and skeptics, Jewish and not, or maybe someday.  We value our diversity, but our large numbers make it difficult to know each other.  Hundreds of you have come to our intimate Engagement  Lunches, which have taught me the importance of small-group experiences.

Even as we nurture our closeness, it is upon us to further our outreach.

We often call ourselves the Center of Jewish life in Philadelphia.  But this is not an award; it is our responsibility.  Indeed, our work is nothing less than, to ensure the future of the Jewish people.

For Rodeph Shalom to become the Center of Jewish life in Philadelphia, we will need to take a giant leap outside of our walls (as magnificent as they are) to serve the Jewish people, and to connect to the seekers and the disaffected Jews in our city.

We will thrive in outreach when we hold out our hand in partnership to other institutions, and I feel honored we are joined tonight by the CEO of the Jewish Federation, Naomi Adler, and by the CEO of the National Museum of American Jewish History Ivy Barsky.

In order to move toward the vision of moral leadership, we draw inspiration from the words of Leviticus, inscribed on our building’s façade:  “Love your neighbor as yourself.”

We are ready for more community- service experiences, that we may see more clearly the divine in every person, the suffering in our world, and the potential we have to repair, not only on the ground with direct service, but also in social change efforts.  I hope you will join us on November 9 for “Neighbor is a Moral Concept: A Conversation about the Unique Social Justice Role of RS.”

It is time for us, in partnership with as many organizations, Jewish or not, whose values overlap with our own, to raise our moral voice.  I feel honored we are joined tonight by members of the Muslim community and look forward to deepening our relationship.

This is your congregation, please– take part, join hands with the community and find your role, your mitzvah, in the life of Rodeph Shalom.

For to be the Center of Jewish life in Philadelphia is our responsibility.  Indeed, our work is nothing less than, to ensure the future of the Jewish people.

With love and deep respect for this community, I am grateful to partner with you all, to look ahead to the future, to learn from the past, and to pursue the vision at this moment in our present.  Open for us the gates of righteousness and may we enter in thanks.  Amen.




Filed under: Bulletin Article, Community, Jewish Philadelphia, New to Judaism, Outreach, Philadelphia Jewish History, Shabbat, Social Justice

The Tower of Babel, Anita Hill, Unchecked Power, and the #MeToo’s of Sexual Harassment

Sat, 10/21/2017 - 9:43pm

We have seen the words, “Me Too” on our computer screens all week long.  In the wake of the most recent sexual harassment reports, actress Alyssa Milano tweeted: “If you’ve been sexually harassed or assaulted, write ‘me too’ as a reply to this tweet.  If all the women who have been sexually harassed or assaulted wrote ‘me too’ as a status, we might give people a sense of the magnitude of the problem.”

Hundreds of thousands of women (correction: now 1.5 million), and some men too, have added their voices, posting, “me too.”  Although it is no woman’s responsibility to post about being harassed or assaulted, the wave of “Me Too” responses has been important.  It reminds us that sexual harassment and assault are not products of Hollywood celebrity, some unreal world that has nothing to do with us.  It’s your neighbor posting, “Me Too.’  Actually, most of your female neighbors.  The “Me Too” campaign is giving people a sense of the magnitude of the problem.  And that is a tremendous step.

For, studies show that, most people do not speak up when they experience or witness sexual harassment.  Why such silence?  What are people afraid of?  Losing a job?  Perhaps.  And understandable.  But I believe that most of all, women are trying to protect their dignity– to avoid allowing their character to be put on trial.

Where is this fear rooted?  In reality.  In my formative years, my generation of professional women witnessed the Anita Hill hearings in Oct. 1991.  As now-Justice Clarence Thomas was being considered for the United States Supreme Court, Anita Hill shared her experience of his sexual harassment.  The all-male, all-white Senate committee, grilled Anita Hill.  Senator Arlen Spector (z”l) accused her of being “unfair” to bring such an accusation, and committee chairperson Senator Joe Biden neglected to bring a sexual harassment expert witness, leaving Anita Hill to explain what sexual harassment is!  So many of us women watched, praying that we would never find ourselves sitting in the seat she occupied.  Not in a Senate hearing, not in a courtroom, not in an HR office.  Senator Spector, a friend to women’s reproductive rights in many other seasons, misused his power then.  And Senator Biden, now an advocate for women, abdicated his power then.

What does Judaism say?  B’tzelem Elohim–we are all created in the image of God (Genesis 1:27).  But more specifically, what does Judaism say?

The Talmud tells the story: A man once saw a certain woman, and his heart was so consumed by burning desire for her, that his life was in danger.  When the doctors were consulted, and said: ‘His only cure is that she shall submit,’ the sages said: ‘She should not yield; Let him die.’ Then when the doctors said: ‘Let her stand naked before him,’ the sages answered: ‘She should not yield; Let him die.’ When doctors said: ‘Let her converse with him from behind the fence,’ the sages said, ‘She should not yield; Let him die. (Sanhedrin 75a).

Relieved to see the text conclude that: we do not exploit women’s bodies to benefit men’s sexual desires; and to extend beyond the hetero-norms of the Talmud, we do not exploit people’s bodies, the text still reveals the tragic problem we have yet to overcome today: the problem of imbalanced power.  Notice: no one asked the woman for her point of view—she had no power.   Notice: the man and the doctors, felt they had the right to even propose exploitation—they did have power.   When it comes to sexual harassment and sexual assault, the essence is power.

And one of Judaism’s great messages about power, comes to us in this week’s Torah portion.

In the story of Babel, the people endeavor to build a tower with its top in the sky, to make a name for themselves. God sees this and responds: “If…this is how they have begun to act, then nothing they may propose to do, will be out of their reach.” (Genesis 11:1-9).

Nothing out of their reach.  Unchecked power.

When God sees unchecked power, God dismantles it.

When we see unchecked power, we must dismantle it.

What can we do with the hundreds of thousands of #MeToo’s?  Although men also suffer from sexual harassment and assault and there are also female perpetrators, it is men’s actions and women’s “me too” experiences, that reflect today’s most common power imbalances, and that is where I would like to focus now, in particular, on sexual harassment.

I am grateful that so many people, especially men, have asked: what can we do to help?  This is about power, and so we begin by taking steps to balance power.  I invite you to join me in these everyday actions that men and women can take:

When a woman tells me she has been harassed, I will believe her.

When I start a conversation with a woman in my office, I will notice how easy it is to default to a comment about her looks.  And I will resist that temptation.

If I see one person touch another person who looks uncomfortable with it, I will say something.

If I hear a sexist joke, I will say: That’s not funny and you’re better than that.

If I hear my dentist refer to the hygenists as “the girls,” I will say: please speak about professional adult females in your office, as women.

I will lead with an understanding that no arena is as strong as it should be until different kinds of people are represented–not the boardroom, the Senate, the hospital, the home, the synagogue leadership — so I will pursue diversity in all hiring finalist pools and in professional mentoring pipelines in my field.

Many areas of change will be strengthened by men’s initiative, and I welcome their partnership.  So, ways to help, especially if you are a man:

Decline sitting on an all-male panel.

Negotiate for, and take, parental leave.

Identify the settings in which you have power–economic power, social capital… name the ways women might not thrive in those settings, and identify the ways you can include women.  (paraphrased from youth minister Lily Dodge’s blog)

Identify your power, use it and share it.

And, please recall with me, exactly 26 years ago, this month.  Recall two of the most powerful men in our nation.  Imagine if they had had the courage to believe Anita Hill.  Imagine if they had had the courage to educate the Senate committee and the nation about sexual harassment.  They might have been sacrificing their jobs, their money, their friends, their power, their status, their dignity.

What can we do about sexual harassment today?  Imagine the place in your life where you have the most power, the most status, the most to lose.  There, you witness sexual harassment.  You allow yourself to see it, to believe it.  And then you decide, what are you willing to sacrifice?  When you see a woman harassed or any vulnerable person harmed by someone in power, someone who can strip you of your power, your money, your friends, your status, your dignity… will you accommodate the predator, or will you allow yourself to notice?  Will you keep silent, or will you speak up?  Are you ready to make a sacrifice?

Sexism is so deeply embedded in our society that we often accommodate it, unchecked, without realizing. It’s time to realize.  And I believe we can.  This is a congregation that engages in transformative Torah study, lifting up Jewish values that guide us towards righteousness.  This is a congregation that digs deep spiritually, to improve ourselves.  This is a congregation that is not afraid of difficult conversations, and the challenging path—the sometimes slow path—to social justice.

Change takes time.  Not a single woman who was at Senecca Falls, the Women’s rights convention in 1848, voted in an election. In the Jewish Reform movement, to this day, every arm is led by a male rabbi.  But there was a wonderful announcement this week that I am excited to share: one of those arms, our Reform seminary Hebrew Union College, just appointed Rabbi Dr Andrea Weiss as its new provost.  Rabbi Weiss, who some of you remember from her teaching here at Rodeph Shalom, will hold the highest leadership position that any woman rabbi has ever held in our movement.  Mazel tov to Rabbi Weiss.

God sees the Tower of Babel and responds: “nothing they may propose to do, will be out of their reach.”  When God sees unchecked power, God dismantles it.

We will dismantle unchecked power, when we are willing to sacrifice.  We will dismantle unchecked power, when we have the courage to use our own power.  We will dismantle unchecked power, when we live every day guided by the notion of B’tzelem Elohim, that all humanity is created in the image of God.


Filed under: Community, God, Sermons, Social Justice, Spirituality

Tochecha: The Courage to Give Honest Criticism

Tue, 10/03/2017 - 1:32pm

Anyone notice that stunning tapestry in the lobby when they walked in this morning? How could you not?! The tapestry was hand stitched in 1972 by a group of 49 women at the congregation, led by Evelyn Keyser, and recently restored through the generous support of RS Women. When I first walked in and saw it, I noticed the beauty, the bright burst of color, the craftsmanship. But what really wowed me were the words. At the top, it says, “Ohev shalom v’rodeph shalom – Love peace and pursue peace.” These same words appear on our new addition, looking out on Broad Street. This quote, from Pirkei Avot (Ethics of our Ancestors) was written almost 2000 years ago and still remains at our core today.

At the bottom of the tapestry are the words of Leviticus 19, “K’doshim tih’yu ki kadosh Ani Adonai Eloheichem – You shall be holy for I, Adonai your God, am holy.” This verse is from the Torah portion, K’doshim, often called the Holiness Code, which we will read at the afternoon service. K’doshim is often called the physical and spiritual center of our Torah. Physical – because it is situated almost exactly in the middle of the Torah scroll. And spiritual – because this portion contains the core teachings from our tradition about ethical living.

We are holy, because God is holy. But what does it mean to be holy? To pray? To study Torah? All good things, but according to Leviticus 19, holiness is found in our honest dealings with our neighbors. We are holy when we leave the corners of our fields, when we refrain from cursing the deaf or putting a stumbling block before the blind. We are holy when we have honest weights and measures and just courts. We are holy when we respect our elders. And when strangers dwell with us in our land, we shall not wrong them. This is what it means to be holy.

Among the many moral commands in the Holiness Code, there is one that struck me as I looked at the tapestry, “Hochayach tochi’ach amitecha – You will surely reprove your friend…” Reprove, rebuke, or tochecha, as we call it in Hebrew, is unsolicited advice; a spoken frankness that reveals a fixable flaw.  The purpose of giving tochecha is to point out an important truth that someone just seems to keep missing. It is one of Judaism’s most spiritual practices, not to be dished out carelessly or in anger, but with genuine concern for another human being.

This command is the link between between the quote at the top of the tapestry and the quote at the bottom. How shall you be holy? By seeking peace. And how do we seek peace? Through tochecha. Contrary to conventional thinking, tochecha is the path to loving peace and pursuing it.

Fundamentally, tochecha is a mitzvah of connection — a cornerstone of healthy relationships and strong community. If we can trust our neighbors to tell us the truth lovingly, and if we can hear a reprimand with calm consideration, then our path to one of Judaism’s most sought after spiritual destinations, shalom, peace and wholeness, is well paved. As the Talmudic sage, Resh Lakish said, “Reproof leads to peace; a peace where there has been no reproof is no peace.” (Bereshit Rabbah 54:3)

Imagine your loved one has a character flaw that drives you crazy; probably not that hard to do! What do you do? You have a few options:

  1. Say nothing and just bottle up your concerns and feelings. You definitely can’t help your loved one by holding back and you may even find yourself getting upset with them because you are holding on to that resentment.
  2. Vent to other people about the issue. This might make you feel better but doesn’t actually help the situation and furthermore, it can lead to one of Judaism’s most reviled sins, lashon hara or gossip.
  3. Choose the difficult path of confrontation and talk to your loved one about his or her actions and why they are upsetting you.

Pirkei Avot tells us to, “Love peace and pursue peace.” Peace does not mean a lack of conflict – in fact, sometimes it requires it. Sometimes to truly rodeph shalom, to seek peace, we must confront our loved ones with hard truths.

Let me tell you a story…

This summer we served over 600 meals to children in need in our own backyard. With generous support from congregants, Robert Schwartz and Judith Creed, and through a partnerships with the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, the ‘Breaking Bread on Broad’ program provided meals, educational activities, and a safe space for neighborhood youth.

Breaking Bread on Broad was staffed by congregation volunteers and we were blessed with the lay and professional leadership of Eric Dickstein and Jeremy Schmidt. We also hired three neighborhood teens as interns. However, the interns that we hired had some shortcomings. But nobody is perfect – isn’t that what today is all about?

Specifically, how did these interns miss the mark? Well first, they were teens! Anyone who has parented or worked with teens knows some of the potential issues – they were immature, showed up late, constantly played on their phones, in general they were unprofessional… let me give you an example.

A congregational volunteer came in to teach yoga to the students. On her first visit, the interns didn’t want to participate along with the younger students. Not only did they refuse to participate but they actually sat around mocking the younger children who were bravely trying something new.

This was the first week of the summer. However, by the end of the summer when we had another yoga session, the interns were totally engaged. They volunteered to do the yoga without any prodding and they had fun doing it. One teen was even laughing, no longer at the younger kids, but because he was having so much fun.

So what happened in between those two yoga classes? Tochecha. Jeremy and Eric worked with the interns to help them develop into young leaders. Some would have given up; I’ll be blunt – there was a brief time, when Jeremy, Eric and I were ready to give up on these teens. We’d had it. They were disrespectful, unprofessional, and not only were they not helping the program, they were actually hindering it.

I think we can all relate to that feeling. A spouse, a child, a parent, a coworker, someone in our lives that we care about, is doing it all wrong. We want to help them but we are so frustrated we think it will just be easier to give up. And it will be – it would have been easier for Jeremy and Eric to just give up. But our tradition commands us not to stand idly by, “Hochayach tochi’ach amitecha – You will surely reprove your friend…”

Tochecha — the art of giving and receiving honest feedback or rebuke — is part of the biblical formula for sustaining friendships and relationships. According to the talmudic rabbis, it is an integral part of love; without tochecha, love cannot endure. (Bereshit Raba 54:3) I see evidence of this every day while counselling wedding couples. Those who are skilled at giving and receiving feedback are able to sustain healthy relationships over the long term, while those who lack such skills are ill-equipped to deal with relationship challenges when they arise.

Tochecha requires great integrity and impeccable communication skills. It also requires the use of an array of psychological capacities and virtues, including humility, empathy, mindfulness, courage, non-defensiveness, and integration. While some individuals welcome tochecha as an opportunity for self-improvement, most people defend against having their shortcomings pointed out to them, and they will employ a range of psychological defenses, including denial and projection, to protect themselves from the pain of reproof. According to Estelle Frankel, a psychotherapist and Jewish educator, we increase the likelihood that our words will be heard by paying attention to three things: our timing, tone, and intention.

Timing: The rabbis teach that just as it is a mitzvah to offer words of tochecha when our words are likely to be heard, it is a mitzvah to stay silent when our words will not be heard. (Yevamot 65) Before speaking, we need to be mindful of our own emotional state as well as that of the listener. If we are emotionally triggered or angry, or notice that the listener is in a state of agitation, it is better to wait for a more opportune time.

Tone: A voice that is angry, disdainful, blaming, or judgmental can undermine our message. It is better to communicate tochecha with humility and empathy. Remembering that we are all flawed and that we all possess the capacity for wrongdoing is key. When possible, offer feedback and insight as an equally imperfect individual — no better or worse than anyone else. As it says in Pirkei Avot (Chapter 2, Mishnah 5), “Do not judge your neighbors until you have stood in their place.”

Intention: Tochecha is not simply a matter of venting; rather, it involves a conscious effort to heal a breach in a relationship or to help others to awaken to their spiritual and moral deficits. Tochecha is most effective when we make use of our psychological capacity for integration — the ability to see ourselves and others as whole beings with strengths and weaknesses, virtues and vices. With integration, we do not define people by their mistakes and flaws; rather, we point out specific criticisms at the same time that we remember the person’s essential goodness. When giving tochecha, it is helpful to express our loving concern, respect, and appreciation alongside any critique. Doing so reduces defensiveness and any sense that the criticism is an assault on the individual’s character.  

During the High Holy Days we end our service with a section called, “hakarat hatov – remembering the good.” After beating ourselves up all day, we need a reminder that we have merit, we are not defined by our faults. The same is true when offering tochecha to loved ones.

So how did Jeremy and Eric apply these principles? First, they thought about timing and pulled the interns aside, privately at the end of the day. And when issues came up during the day, they never spoke to the interns in front of the younger children, in an effort to never embarrass our interns. It is so hard to hear criticism – imagine how much harder it is to hear it if you are feeling embarrassed. Avoiding shame and embarrassment is crucial to practicing tochecha and core to our Jewish tradition, so much so that the Talmud states “He who publicly shames his neighbour is as though he shed blood.” (Bava Metzia 58b)

In those private meetings, Jeremy and Eric told the interns that their behavior was unacceptable – they were honest with them because they cared about these young men and their futures. The intention of this encounter was not one of anger or frustration but of love. I wonder how many teachers, parents, coaches, and other adults in their lives never said anything. Never reprimanded them because they didn’t care enough to do it or because they naively thought the path of peace is one without confrontation.

Next they coached the interns. Using the right tone, they didn’t just tell them what they were doing wrong but told them how to do it right. And of course, when the interns did get it right, Jeremy and Eric gave them positive reinforcement.

Lastly, Jeremy and Eric showed the interns a tremendous amount of respect and honor.  One Friday, towards the end of the summer, we were having a small internal issue and it appeared that the weekly paychecks for the interns were not going to be ready by the end of the day. Jeremy was relentless, and said, “This is not right, we have to get those interns their paychecks. This is part of the deal I made with them and if they are going to honor me, I need to honor them and agree to my end of the bargain.”  We did get the checks out in time, keeping with another law in the Holiness Code, “You shall not keep a worker’s wage with you until morning.” (Leviticus 19:13)

Hopefully this story has got you thinking about your own relationships. When you see a fault in someone how do you react? How do we actually get people to change? Does posting on Facebook work? Does yelling at people work? Shaming them? When we practice tochecha, who are we doing it for? It is not always so easy in the moment but we must constantly ask ourselves before giving criticism, who is this for? Is the timing and tone right? What are my intentions? Will this person actually listen? How can I give feedback in the most thoughtful, least humiliating way?

In this season of repentance, we spend so much of our time focused on how we can improve ourselves. We do this, not to be selfish, but because we want to be better people for our loved ones. Similarly, if we truly love our parent, sibling, spouse, child, friend, it is our obligation to help them improve.

Long before Jesus ever said it, the Holiness Code states, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” In fact, this is the verse that immediately follows the commandment of tochecha. If we are to truly love our neighbors, it means helping them with the same sort of personal character development that we want for ourselves during this season and throughout our lives.  It means being holy, by loving peace and pursuing peace – peace that can only come from careful, loving confrontation.

This New Year, may we have the strength and courage to be holy like God, to love peace and pursue it, to reprove our loved ones, to tell them, in the most thoughtful of ways, the hard truths that they so desperately need to hear.

Ken y’hi ratzon. May this be God’s will.


Filed under: Uncategorized

Neighbor is a Moral Concept* (Kol Nidrei 2017)

Sun, 10/01/2017 - 10:28pm

Or zarua latzadik / Light is sown for the righteous**, words we just sang as the introduction to Kol Nidrei. This Yom Kippur, we search for the light of righteousness that it may illumine our path, and the path for generations to come.

Since our last Yom Kippur together, our world feels different.  We have born witness to anti-Semitism and bigotry, meant to keep us from the faith that we have the power to stand in the light.  More emboldened than recent memories of hate.  No longer hiding behind the white hood.  Not limited to the right or left fringes.  White supremacists, have desecrated cemeteries, painted swastikas in our city, threatened our Jewish Community Centers, and just last week created a new online presence #Gasthesynagogue.  And, in 2017 America, armed Nazis stalked a Reform Jewish synagogue in Charlottesville.   According to the Anti-Defamation League, in the first quarter of 2017 anti-semitic incidents in the U.S. surged more than 86%.

What do we do, in the face of heightened Anti-Semitism?  Certainly, we are vigilant about security protocols and are grateful for the people who keep us safe at Rodeph Shalom.  But in a deeper way, how do we respond to anti-Semitism?

When in Charlottesville, Congregation Beth Israel sees three men dressed in fatigues and armed with semi-automatic rifles standing across the street from the Temple, they keep praying and finish their Shabbat worship.

When in Florida, a Jewish Day School receives a bomb threat during their morning service, they evacuate to the parking lot as one student takes the Torah scroll outside. Once in the parking lot, another student takes his tallit/prayer shawl, and spreads it on the hood of a car. And then the kid with the Torah scroll, unrolls the Torah on the tallit, and the students continue with the Torah service – with a Torah on a tallit, on the hood of a car, in a parking lot, to which they have been evacuated, because of an anti-Semitic bomb threat.***

How do we respond to anti-Semitism? That is how we respond to anti-Semitism: Unafraid to stand in the light, we pray and we read Torah!  We– Jews of different colors, countries of origin and background, and non-Jewish family members too– we show up today in this sanctuary!  With resilience and courage, we show up, and we re-devote ourselves to Jewish life, to illumine our path and the path for generations to come!

But that rededication to a vital and meaningful Jewish life, is only our first response to hate.  

Our second response to hate, must be to heed the words of Elie Wiesel who taught: “Silence encourages the tormenter. We must take sides.”

In our response to hate we cannot only protect ourselves.  We see the other groups who are targeted by bigotry: African-Americans, LGBTQ Americans, immigrants, Muslims, women…  We must honor difference in our world and with moral leadership stand in solidarity with other vulnerable groupswhether or not we are targeted that day.

We have already begun.  Coalition-building raises hard questions; I realize that some of you hold different perspectives from my own, and I invite you to share them with me.

It is not easy.  Some fear that speaking out makes us vulnerable to hate.  At the Interfaith Center of Greater Philadelphia, on whose Board I serve, I have the privilege of getting to know people from many backgrounds different from my own.  I recently shared a conversation with a man of another minority religion.  In his community, when they care about a social issue, they stay quiet, afraid they will be targeted if they speak out.  This “laying-low” may capture a sense of fear that some Jews share.  Will they leave us alone if only we keep our heads down?  …Probably not.  But even if Jews could find protection in our silence, at what cost? If we weren’t speaking to our Jewish values, wouldn’t we be giving up something even more precious than our security?

It is not easy.  Some fear that speaking out alongside groups with whom we disagree on other issues, threatens our integrity.

When it comes to coalitions, the question is: which groups, are enough aligned with our Reform Jewish values, that they are the appropriate partners for us, for specific causes?

After the Vigil in Support of Those Who Stood Against Hate in Charlottesville, I shared with one of the organizers how much I appreciated the opportunity to speak, but also my discomfort with some of the messages that were presented by other speakers.  This organizer explained to me, that when she was invited to help she knew she would not be comfortable with all that was said at the Vigil.  But this woman, a Jewish woman, also knew that without her enlisting rabbis to speak, the vigil would not have a Jewish voice. And the rally would remain more distant from issues that matter to the Jewish community.  So she stretched her boundaries. This woman’s story reflects much of my recent thinking…

I have been challenged by the question: Which groups are enough aligned with our Reform Jewish values that in the question of partnership, or just co-sponsoring the same statement, I can revisit some of my past boundaries.

For instance: I love Israel and believe Israel’s existence and security is critical to the Jewish people.  I also care deeply about a Two-State Solution that will offer opportunity and dignity to the Palestinians. And I oppose the Boycott-Divestment-Sanctions, that is BDS, movements which I see as both anti-Israel and often anti-Jewish.  So, when a women’s or an anti-racism initiative includes organizers who are also BDS activists, do I participate, risking association with groups I oppose?  Or do I stay home, risking complacency, risking an absence of a Jewish voice… and knowing that when I stay home, I miss the opportunity, for other groups to get to know and understand Jews.

Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, recently taught, it may be time to experiment with our restrictions.  For sometimes, the big community-wide gathering that advocates some of our most cherished principles, is the one with co-sponsors who offend us.  Perhaps, there are rallies where I would say “We don’t all agree on every issue, but on this, we can stand together.”

I have engaged our leadership in conversation to explore these hard questions about how Rodeph Shalom takes moral leadership.  I invite you to join me in a conversation about the future of our congregation’s unique social justice role, on Thurs., Nov 9. I am inviting you to struggle with me and to share your point of view, as tonight, I’d like to share my own perspective, that I draw from our religious values.

Solidarity and coalitions challenge our boundaries. We are cautious because, the people with whom we stand, say something about who we are.   The question is: when does staying home, say more about who we are?

The ancient sages imagine our patriarch Abraham traveling when he sees a house aglow in flames. Abraham stops and says, “Who is looking after this house?”  Then what happens?  Abraham could continue to walk past.  He could say: the fire is not my problem until it’s in my backyard.  He could say: this is not really even my neighborhood.  But not Abraham.  Abraham realizes: this is God’s house.  This is all God’s house.  God’s house is on fire!  All of it.  Not just in the Jewish neighborhood.

In August of 1963, Rabbi Joachim Prinz spoke, just before the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. did, at the March on Washington.  Rabbi Prinz said: “When I was the rabbi of the Jewish community in Berlin under the Hitler regime, the most important thing that I learned was that bigotry is not the most urgent problem. The most shameful and the most tragic problem is silence….Our ancestors taught us, that God created every human being as everybody’s neighbor. Neighbor is not a geographic concept. It is a moral concept.* It means our collective responsibility, for the preservation of humanity’s dignity.”

When we stand in solidarity, that fire is our problem, because neighbor is a moral concept.

We know what can happen when we forget our collective responsibility for the preservation of humanity’s dignity. How do we move beyond the words of German pastor, Martin Niemoller, who, before his own imprisonment in the concentration camps, conformed to anti-Semitic norms, and after his release, wrote these now famous words:

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out— Because I was not a Socialist. Then they came for the Catholics, and I did not speak out— Because I was not a Catholic. Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out— Because I was not a Jew. Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.

Pastor Niemoller warns us how dangerous it is to be silent, to hide difference, to disconnect, or to allow ourselves to be pitted against each other.  But despite its powerful message, the poem reflects a failure to honor difference and to stand in solidarity.  Haunted by Pastor Niemoller’s remorse, my friend and colleague Rabbi Michael Latz responded with his own poem this year:

First they came for transpeople and I spoke up–

Because we are all God’s children!

They came for the African Americans and I spoke up—

Because I am my sisters’ and my brothers’ keeper.

And then they came for the women and I spoke up—

Because women hold up half the sky.

And then they came for the immigrants and I spoke up—

Because I remember the ideals of our democracy.

And then they came for the Muslims and I spoke up—

Because they are my cousins and we are one human family.

And then they came for the Native Americans and Mother Earth and I spoke up—

Because the blood-soaked land cries and the mountains weep.

They keep coming.

We keep rising up.

Because we Jews know the cost of silence.

We remember where we come from.

And we will link arms, because when you come for our neighbors, you come for us—

and THAT just won’t stand.

These Days of Awe, and this season in the life of our nation, demand we ask ourselves:  Will we see our neighbor, not as a geographic concept, but as a moral concept?  Will we see that the house on fire is our problem, because it is all God’s house.  I pray we will look back on this season and be able to say, again and again, when we witnessed words of hate, systems of racism, policies of fear: we spoke up!

As in these Days of Awe we dig into the deepest darkest places of our souls, in the words of the prophet Isaiah in tomorrow morning’s Haftarah: “may our light burst forth like the dawn.”  May we light the way to Jewish study, Jewish values, Jewish living, and the repair of our world, faithful and unafraid to stand in the light.

Or zarua latzadik, this Kol Nidrei, may we sow the light of righteousness, that it may illumine our path, and the path for generations to come.


**(Psalm 97:11)

***adapted from retelling by Rabbi David Stern, CCAR President


Filed under: Community, God, High Holy Days, Multi-faith dialogue, Social Justice

Our Love is All of God’s Money: Avinu Malkeinu and the Divine Economy

Wed, 09/27/2017 - 12:45pm

It sounds like a classic nightmare. I wake up late and rush to class, only to find that we have an exam for which I had totally forgotten to study. With sweat running down my neck, in a state of sheer panic, I look down at the sheet of paper on my desk not knowing a single answer…

Unfortunately, this was not a dream, and in fact, reality during my senior year of college in a Medieval Philosophy class. And so, bereft of options, like so many of my ancestors before me, I began to pray, “Dear God, if you could just help me pass this test, I promise to study so hard in the future and be a really good person…”

Or maybe you can relate more to this one. It’s the Super Bowl and your team is down with only a few seconds to go. The quarterback tosses a ‘hail Mary’(pun intended) and you start thinking, “God, please let the receiver catch it and score. If you could do this one little thing for me, I promise to never ask for anything ever again…”

Or maybe it’s a little more serious and someone you care about is undergoing major surgery. Sitting in the waiting room, you can’t help but lift your voice to the heavens, asking, “God, please watch over my loved one. If she comes out of surgery ok, I swear I will do anything You want…”

How many of us have done this at some point in our lives? Silently prayed to God saying, “If you could just do this or that… I promise to do x, y, or z.” Many of us, in our logical, rational minds know that prayer doesn’t exactly work this way, yet we still find ourselves bargaining with God when we have nowhere else to turn.

In an effort to understand this universal plea, the Maggid of Dubno, a hasidic teacher of the 18th century, tells a story:

Moshe, a travelling shmata salesman was at his wholesale supplier to buy the goods he needed for his business. The wholesaler instructed his workers to wait on Moshe and to bring him all that he ordered. Standing in the middle of the warehouse, Moshe bellowed all sorts of orders and requests, “I want 1,000 yards of that cloth, 2,000 yards of the blue velvet, 3,000 yards of that white silk.” On and on he went, requesting many other items.

When it came time to total up the price of the goods and to pay the bill, Moshe took the wholesaler to the side and, very embarrassed, whispered in his ear: “Listen, I can’t give you any money for this right now. Please allow me credit until I can pay you.”

Tonight, said the Maggid of Dubno, we are all Moshe. Shortly, we will recite Avinu Malkeinu. We will shout out all sorts of requests to God:

Avinu Malkeinu, show us mercy.

Avinu Malkeinu, bring healing and wholeness to the ill among us.

Avinu Malkeinu, have compassion on us and our families.

Avinu Malkeinu, renew us for a year of goodness.

We want forgiveness, health, compassion, goodness, and so much more. But when it comes down to the last verse, to pay the bill, so to speak, tradition teaches that we whisper: “Avinu Malkeinu, choneinu v’aneinu, ki ein banu ma’asim. Ase imanu tzedakah vachesed, vehoshiyeinu. Almighty and Merciful – answer us with grace, for our deeds are wanting. Save us through acts of justice and love.”

“Answer us with grace, for our deeds are wanting;” we have no worthy deeds with which to pay You for our large order. Please God, just this once, give us this one little thing on credit. We know we don’t deserve it, but if you could just hook us up this one time, we promise we will repay you over this coming year.

Avinu Malkeinu, perhaps the most famous of High Holy Day prayers, is essentially that same little prayer that we say when we forgot to study for the test, or when our team is about to kick the game winning field goal. And our people have been praying it long before football or medieval philosophy exams existed. The Talmud (Ta’anit 25b) records the first mention of the Avinu Malkeinu prayer when the 2nd century sage, Rabbi Akiva, recited two verses each beginning “Avinu, Malkeinu,” in a prayer to end a drought. However, the two terms themselves, “Avinu” and “Malkeinu,” date back even further.

Avinu, translated as our Father, Parent, or Merciful One, and Malkeinu, translated as our King, our Ruler, or Almighty, were first used to describe God, over 500 years earlier by the prophet Isaiah. Writing in Babylon, after the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, Isaiah coined these terms for God to put the theological consequences of exile into a relatable metaphor for his people.

Let me be clear; these names and all the other names of God that we recite in our liturgy are not meant to be taken literally. “Ein lo d’mut haguf v’eino guf, God has no body” – so no name can contain or capture God – including the name, God. Anything that we say about God is an understatement. However, each name for God describes and defines, however feebly, what we believe is at least one dimension of God’s nature.

Avinu and Malkeinu are just two of so many, many different names for God in our tradition. We call God creator, prosecutor, judge, jury, shepherd, friend, and partner, to name a few. But in the last sentence of Avinu Malkeinu, we call God our cashier.

In modern Hebrew, when asking for the check at the end of the meal, one requests the heshbon – literally, the accounting. At the High Holy Days, God the cashier tallies up our heshbon hanefesh, the accounting of our souls. Tonight we call God the One who tallies up the bill and the One whom we ask to give us undeserved credit. What then do we really mean when we call God our cashier?

I think it is our way of saying that the things that we want from God ought really to be earned and that the only currency we have with which to pay for them is mitzvot, or in the words of Avinu Malkeinu, “acts of justice and love.”

But we know that in the end, our lives, and all the blessings that we receive within our lives, are favors that God gives us, not things that we have earned. Life itself, after all, is just a gift that we didn’t earn. We are born and we will die without ever being asked, and in between, we hope for health and good fortune, even though we know that for reasons we cannot fathom, bad things happen even to good people.

But no one wants to live totally as the recipient of unearned and undeserved favors. And so we call upon God the cashier to examine our souls and our deeds, our heshbon hanefesh, so that we might merit God’s grace.

It is a thin line we walk between knowing that our lives are a gift of divine grace and wishing that we could earn at least some of our blessings by our deeds. The former can lead to a sense of helplessness and passivity, in which everything we have and everything we are comes only from God’s kindness. The latter can lead to a sense of unchecked privilege and pride, to a feeling that we deserve all the blessings that we have, that we have indeed actually earned them.

The last line of Avinu Malkeinu, at least as the Maggid of Dubno explains it, is a prayer that strives to avoid both dangers. It keeps us from false pride by reminding us that we cannot ever rightfully claim to have earned all that we receive in life. But it keeps us from helplessness, by reminding us that, for the blessings we receive, we owe God and that we should promise to pay for them in the only currency that counts in the divine economy – mitzvot; “acts of justice and love.” I think Jeff Tweedy, from the band Wilco, put it best when he sang, “Our love, our love is all of God’s money.”

We owe God for the the blessings we receive and we promise tonight to pay for them in the only currency that counts in the divine economy – mitzvot. Mitzvot, the plural of mitzvah and literally translated as commandments, are the set of rules laid out by our tradition that guide us in our daily lives. They govern the way we eat, what we wear, how we treat others, and so much more. Right now, some of you might be thinking to yourself, “Wait, I always thought a mitzvah was a good deed.” Hold that thought.

Have most people here heard of Chabad? Whether you know it or not, you have most likely met a Jew that is part of the Chabad Lubavitch movement. Chabad is today one of the world’s best known Hasidic movements and is well known for its outreach. They stand on the street corners asking passersby, “Are you Jewish? Are you Jewish?” in an effort to bring those already Jewish more in touch with their Judaism – work known as kiruv in Hebrew. Specifically Chabad strive to help Jews do more mitzvot. See, Chabad believes in the ‘mitzvah meter;’ the idea that the more mitzvot we do, the closer we will come to the messianic age.

Why am I telling you all this? Because, I agree with Chabad; the more mitzvot we do, the closer we will come to the messianic age. However, there is one really big, crucial difference. For Chabad, a mitzvah is a mitzvah is a mitzvah. They do not distinguish. Therefore, if you stop to put on tefillin, or to shake the lulav and etrog, or pick up candles to light for shabbat, Chabad believe that we have moved that much closer to the messianic age.

For me, and Reform Judaism, those ritual mitzvot are meaningful and if they bring you spiritual nourishment, by all means continue to pursue that path. However, our tradition focuses on the ethical and moral mitzvot; acts of justice and love, the prophetic command to love the stranger, to clothe the naked, and to leave the gleanings of our fields for the widow and the orphan. I believe the more of these mitzvot we do, the closer we will be to the messianic age. This focus on ethical mitzvot, especially during this season of t’shuvah, is perfectly summarized by the prophet Isaiah in the famous haftarah reading for Yom Kippur morning:

Is this the fast I desire? A day to afflict body and soul? Bowing your head like a reed, covering yourself with sackcloth and ashes? Do you call this a fast – a day worthy of the favor of Adonai? Is not this the fast I desire – to break the bonds of injustice and remove the heavy yoke; to let the oppressed go free and release all those enslaved? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry and to take the homeless poor into your home?

It is therefore not surprising that we think of mitzvot as good deeds, as our tradition has always focused on the commandments that look beyond ourselves, striving to do the work of tikkun olam – repair of the world. We say in Avinu Malkeinu, “Save us through acts of justice and love,” meaning it is through our acts of justice and love that we can all save the world.

Although we always think of mitzvot as good deeds, they are literally,  “commandments.” And that is an important distinction because these ethical and moral teachings are exactly that – commandments – not a choice, but an obligation. We have a bill to pay, and we cannot declare chapter 11 and renege on our obligations.

But please, do not let this language of obligation scare you aware. As we are taught in Torah portion for Yom Kippur:

Ki hamitzvah hazot asher Anochi mitzav’cha hayom lo niflait hi mimcha v’lo r’chokah hi – For this mitzvah, which I command you this day, is neither beyond you nor far away. It is not in the heaven, causing you to say: “Who will go up to heaven on our behalf [and] get it for us…” And it is not across the sea, causing you to say: “Who will cross the sea on our behalf [and] get it for us…” No, this is so very near to you – in your mouth and in your heart – that you can surely do it.

These mitzvot, these obligations, good deeds, acts of justice and love, all of God’s money, the divine currency, they are so very near. They are in our mouths, in our hearts, and in our very community. Situated for almost 150 years on North Broad St, our congregation has a unique role to play in the social justice fabric of Philadelphia. And there are so many opportunities to ‘pay the cashier’ at Rodeph Shalom this year.

Many of you are already in involved; like those who volunteered this summer with Breaking Break on Broad, a new initiative providing educational activities and meals to underserved neighborhood children. For those still looking to get involved, consider some of our other mitzvah opportunities like:

  • Working with HIAS to support refugee families
  • Advocating with POWER, our interfaith community organizing coalition, for more equitable public education in Pennsylvania
  • Cooking and serving meals on Sunday mornings at the Bethesda Broad Shelter
  • Tutoring with our MENTOR program at local schools

You can find information about these and many other ways to get involved on our website under the ‘Social Justice’ tab.

In case you were wondering, that Medieval Philosophy test – I failed it. God did not answer my prayers, per se. I made a mistake, I missed the mark and my deeds were wanting. But I ended up passing the class. Mostly because I studied extra hard for subsequent tests and made up for my mistake. I don’t know if I’d call my hard work in the class acts of justice and love, but it was my way of hoping that I could earn my reward. It was one small way of paying the cashier.

And so it is with our lives; they are a gift of divine grace and we pray that we can earn at least some of our blessings by our deeds. Avinu Malkeinu reminds us, with it’s whisper at the end, to our commitment to paying our bill in the coming year.

So as we begin our High Holy Day season and look ahead to this New Year, a New Year teeming with the possibility of blessings, let us remember to pay our tab; to pay God the cashier in the only currency that counts in the divine economy – mitzvot, our acts of justice and love.

Avinu Malkeinu, choneinu v’aneinu, ki ein banu ma’asim. Ase imanu tzedakah vachesed, vehoshiyeinu.

Almighty and Merciful – answer us with grace, for our deeds are wanting. Save us through acts of justice and love.


Filed under: High Holy Days

I Am Becoming Who I Am*: Transformation in Our Times of Change (Rosh Hashanah 2017)

Sat, 09/23/2017 - 9:58pm

In all of my years preaching from our bimah, I think the sermon about which I have received the most response is the one that described my character revealing challenges in the Whole Foods parking lot.  Speaking of which: What do you think of the new Whole Foods?  I know that many of you shop there, because I see you there all the time.  Even after a year of the new lay-out and new procedures, the new Whole Foods still unsettles me.  When I’ve observed my discomfort I’ve thought of you.  I’ve thought, every time congregants tell me that change in something as meaningful as synagogue life is difficult, I need to remember this — how disoriented I can feel about something so simple, as a new version of my grocery store.  Change– change of all kinds– is hard.  

Several years ago, a woman in our congregation came up to me just before a service began to share that she planned to sit in a different location than usual; she was letting me know because she did not want to throw me off.  She was so thoughtfully sensitive to the fact that: change—even indirect change– is hard.

Most of us find routines that bring us comfort, sometimes meaning.  There’s a group of Rodeph Shalom regulars–mostly young adults– who attend our Shabbat services, who consistently choose to sit in Row J — J for Jewish.

For those who are not new to the congregation, how many of you, each year at the High Holy Days, sit in about the same seat or neighborhood?   If I were to ask you right now to switch seats, how would you feel?   Don’t worry, I am not going to do that. We get comfortable.  But life brings change.  Sometimes superficial, but often profound.

The Talmudic sage Resh Lakish, teaches: Great is repentance, for it transforms.  A Midrash on the Psalms expounds: Great is repentance, for it preceded the creation of the world, as it is said, before the mountains were brought forth, You said, “turn, humanity.”  So, life changes; and when we also change; we, humanity, turn.  That’s tshuvah–repentance, transformation, growth.  These Days of Awe are our tradition’s mandate to do tshuvah, to occupy space differently.

For 16 years, I have been your rabbi; yet now I occupy space differently, as we enter a new relationship, which I look forward to marking with you at my upcoming installation as your senior rabbi.

For the past several months I have had the joy of gathering with congregants for meals. Thanks to a group of gracious funders, every adult congregant has been invited to these small groups, and we will continue to add dates giving every congregant who is interested, the opportunity to share in these intimate settings.  Our purpose has been to re-meet each other.  I have learned more about your personal journeys, and about the meaning you seek to bring to your lives.  For so many, this is not only a time that begins a new senior rabbi’s chapter, it is also a time of change on your own path.  Often, your participation is a way to bring transformation to transitional moments, as your own lives and relationships change.

Relationships change for us all; we know this when we take stock of our personal lives.

For families who are working to mend after a time of estrangement, for any of us who receives a worrisome diagnosis, for all of us who have been shaken by the hate in the world, the storms in the world, relationships change.

For the businessperson who reduces hours at the office to spend time with family, for the professional who is unemployed or underemployed, for the homemaker who returns to the office, relationships change.

For the parents who take their child to college for the first time…and then experience them home for college breaks for the first time; for the adult children who help aging parents into assisted living, for the widow living with loss; for the retirees downsizing their homes; for the couple facing infertility; for parents of adolescents such as myself, who begin to see their children spend less time in the house; relationships change.

The question is, in the face of all of this change, what is our response?  Will we face it, honor it, and allow it to transform us?  Will we grow?

In “The Parable of the Trapeze: Turning the Fear of Transformation into the Transformation of Fear,” Danaan Parry writes:

“Sometimes I feel that my life is a series of trapeze swings.  Every once in a while, I see another trapeze bar swinging toward me. It’s empty and I know, that this new trapeze bar has my name on it. It is my next step, coming to get me. I must release my grip on this present, well-known bar and move to the new one. I have a sneaking suspicion that this transition zone is the only real thing, and the bars are illusions we dream up to avoid the void where the real change, the real growth, occurs for us. Yes, with all the pain and fear and feelings of being out of control that can (but not necessarily) accompany transitions, they are still the most alive, most growth-filled, passionate, expansive moments in our lives.”

Change management expert William Bridges teaches: “Every transition begins with an ending… that ending, even when ultimately for the good, inevitably involves some sense of loss.  In between the letting go and the taking hold again, there is a chaotic but potentially creative ‘neutral zone’ when things aren’t the old way, but aren’t really a new way either.  It is the time when repatterning takes place.”

These Days of Awe offer us the creativity, the repatterning and the potential of the neutral zone, that growth-filled time between trapeze bars.

This is our season for transformation.  And serving as a model for us, ours is a God of transformation.

One stream of Jewish philosophy called process theology, focuses on God as an inspiration for possibility and potential.  In the Torah, God is not static; even the divine moves through a journey.  God unfolds, learns, changes, modeling transformation for us all.   In the Torah when God first catches Moses’ attention at the burning bush, and meets Moses for the first time, God says: my name is “Ehyeh-Asher-Ehyeh.”  Often translated as “I shall be who I shall be,” contemporary Rabbi Cindy Enger* translates, Ehyeh-Asher-Ehyeh as “I am who I am becoming; I am becoming who I am.”

Every day of our lives, but especially in this season, we encounter the question: Who am I; and who am I becoming? These Days of Awe challenge us to do repentance.  Tshuvah, literally meaning turning, is a term of movement.  You cannot stand still and turn.  And so we join together in these holy days to turn inward to determine a path for who we are becoming, and then to turn in an intentional direction, to become who we are.

Some of you personify this perspective on potential, in even the most challenging of circumstances.   A member of our congregation granted me permission to share this story.  When this father in our Berkman Mercaz Limud religious school learned over a decade ago that he was going blind, he found the resilience to respond with transformation.  He would no longer have the ability to employ his vision as a hospitality professional in the hotel business, so he forged a new path and pursued his PhD, to teach hospitality and marketing as a scholar at a university.

When he shared with me the topic for his dissertation, I was moved.  As a person with a disability, he is exposed to discrimination or inhospitality in his every day experiences, such as in a retail store.  This sensitivity made him empathize with other groups who might confront discrimination in similar settings.  So he studied the experiences of transgender and LGBTQ individuals, as well as people with disabilities, in the marketplace.  His important work has the potential to create more inclusive experiences for people who are transgender, or who have disabilities, and has the potential to help businesses strengthen their marketing and service.  Change, even adverse change, propelled this man to transform himself and the world around him, and to make a deep impact.   He embodies those words: “I am who I am becoming; I am becoming who I am.

Sometimes our transformation is stirred by external changes; other times, by just seeing our own truth in a new light.  Several years ago, I learned that an old friend of mine entered a recovery program; he had wrestled with alcoholism for many years, but never really addressed it with serious treatment.  I sent him a letter to share my support.  Months later, I received a call from him.  He said that before the High Holy Days, he wanted the chance to thank me for my letter.  He did not have to do that; and no doubt, he had received many such letters.  Why did he respond to each of them personally?  My guess is that he sought to re-establish and grow his relationships, in light of his newly revealed truth.  The call helped us to connect, and to share mutually in his transformation.

Like most things in Judaism, transformation can be more real, and more supported when we connect with others. This morning in the Unetane Tokef prayer, as we sought to understand our destinies, we read: “Let us proclaim the power of this day– a day whose holiness awakens deepest awe.”  We did not say “Let me proclaim,” it’s us, all of us, who move through these days of tshuvah, bound together.

Our tradition guides our great transformation to happen in connection with others. Each of us endeavors toward individual growth, but we are not alone as we say:  Ehyeh-Asher-Ehyeh, “I am who I am becoming; I am becoming who I am.”

In the face of change, what is our response?  Will we face it, honor it, and allow it to transform us?  Will we grow?  In reading the plea found in the Psalms, “Do not cast me off when I am old,” 20th century thinker Martin Buber teaches, “the Psalm is not about my age; ‘Do not cast me off when I am old means: do not let my world become old.  Every day of our lives, but especially in this season, we encounter the question: Who am I, and who am I becoming?  Even God moves through a journey.

These Days of Awe challenge us to transform.  And so may we join together, to turn, to grow, that we may say Ehyeh-Asher-Ehyeh, “I am who I am becoming; I am becoming who I am.




Filed under: High Holy Days

High Holy Day Services for Families with Young Children

Wed, 09/06/2017 - 10:50am

We invite you and your children to celebrate the High Holy Days with us this year. See the service schedule for Families with Young Children. L’Shana Tovah!

High Holy Day Services for Families with Young Children

Contemporary “Multi-generational” Morning Services:
Requires a “pass;” please contact Catherine Fischer ([email protected]).

Rosh Hashanah: Thursday, September 21, 8:30 am
Yom Kippur: Saturday, September 30, 8:30 am

A full service for adults with a family-friendly atmosphere for children of all ages. Clergy, congregational choir, and guitar lead accessible music, encouraging participants to join in. Designed for all ages, the informality provides a comfortable setting for families with young children, and there are activities for the children during the sermon.

Tashlich Service at Fairmount Waterworks:
Thursday, September 21, 1:30pm
640 Water Works Drive Philadelphia, PA 19130
Join us as we cast away our sins with breadcrumbs. This service is open to all.

Afternoon Mini-Service for Families:
Open to the community; no pass needed, please just bring photo ID for security.

Rosh Hashanah: Thursday, September 21, 3:00 pm
Yom Kippur: Saturday, September 30, 1:30 pm
A very brief service for families with very young children.

Filed under: Uncategorized

Do Not Remain Indifferent

Tue, 09/05/2017 - 10:29am

This week’s Torah portion, Ki Teitzei, contains quite a few seemingly random, disconnected commandments. One especially striking commandment found in this week’s portion is:

If you happen to come upon a bird’s nest along the way, in any tree or on the ground, with young ones or eggs, and the mother sitting on the young or on the eggs, you shall not take the mother with the young; you shall certainly let the mother go, but the young you may take for yourself, in order that it may be well with you and that you may prolong your days. (Deuteronomy 22:6-7)

Most commentators believe this commandment is an important statement against animal cruelty, akin to the prohibition of boiling a kid in it’s mothers milk. Also, modern scholars point to an early ecological message of sustainability in this passage. However, there is another powerful message that our rabbis draw from this text in the Talmud; it lays the foundation for tale of Judaism first apostate, Rabbi Elisha Ben Abuya.

Elisha Ben Abuya, whose life is fictionalized in the book, “As a Driven Leaf, by Milton Steinberg,” was a complex man to say the least. He was born in the first century, the son of a rich and well-respected citizen of Jerusalem, and was trained for the career of a Jewish scholar. However, early in life Elisha, like many of his generation, was enamored with Hellenistic society.

He became a man of the world, acquainted with wine, horses, and architecture. He was a student of Greek; the Talmud suggests that his study of Greek philosophy was one of the factors that led him to a life of apostasy, or renouncement of Judaism.  It is taught that Elisha, while a teacher in the beit midrash, even sang Greek songs and kept forbidden books hidden in his clothes.

As appealing as Hellenistic life must have been with its baths, wrestling, art and music, their must have been more than just the draw of this secular society that drove Elisha away from Judaism. The sages recount a tale in the Talmud:

What did he see that made him go wrong? It is said that once, while sitting in the valley of Gennaser, he saw a man climb to the top of a palm tree on Shabbat, take the mother bird with the young, and descend in safety. At the end of Shabbat, he saw another man climb to the top of the same palm tree, take the young but let the mother bird go free. As he descended, a snake bit him and he died. Elisha exclaimed: It is written, “Let the mother go and take only the young, that you may fare well and have a long life” (Deuteronomy 22:7). Where is the well-being of this man and where is the prolonging of his life? (BT, Hagiga 15b)

The text from this week’s parsha, when read literally is quite clear. Follow the law of leaving a mother bird when taking the young and you will live a long life. But what happens when it doesn’t work that way? Like so many of us, Elisha grappled with an essential question in this world, why do bad things happen to good people?

Known in academic circles as theodicy, this question has plagues humankind since our first days. In his book, “When Bad Things Happen to Good People,” Rabbi Harold Kushner grapples with this very question. First, it should be noted that Kushner titled the book, “When Bad Things Happen…” and not, “Why Bad Things Happen…” for a very deliberate reason. ‘When’ implies this will happen. It is a constant reality in our world. Second, the word, ‘when’ takes away the question of why. And that is one of Kushner’s main points. We will never know why. And there comes a point when it is futile to keep asking. Instead, Kushner posits, we should ask, “What are we going to do about it?”

I believe the the answer to latter, more helpful question, lies just a few verses earlier in this week’s portion in a seemingly disconnected passage:

If you see your fellow Israelite’s ox or sheep straying, do not ignore it but be sure to take it back to its owner. If they do not live near you or if you do not know who owns it, take it home with you and keep it until they come looking for it. Then give it back. Do the same if you find their donkey or cloak or anything else they have lost. Lo tuchal l’hitaleim – Do not remain indifferent. (Deuteronomy 22:1-3)

Why did Hurricane Harvey devastate Houston, killing and injuring so many good people, and leaving hundreds of thousands of innocent, hard working folks homeless. I do not know. We will never know the answers to these questions. And frankly, I do not find any comfort in asking that question.

What are we going to do about it? What is our role in all of this? That is a question I can get behind. And the answer is clear, “Lo tuchal l’hitaleim – Do not remain indifferent.”

Like so many of you, I read this week about ordinary people saving lives because they chose to not remain indifferent. People like Jim “Mattress Mack” McIngval, the owner of Gallery Furniture, who took in 300 evacuees. Or The Islamic Society of Greater Houston, whose mosques have been providing cots and food to displaced people who may have otherwise never stepped foot inside. Or an elderly couple from Texas that were rescued by a pair of Jet Ski-riding heroes. When asked about their heroism they simple said, “Someone had to do it.”

Closer to home, I recently read about our own congregant and Berkman Mercaz Limud graduate, Michele Ozer, who works for URJ Greene Family Camp in Bruceville, TX. She has been working around the clock to create a safe place for families to flee and has created a day camp in a matter of days for kids to escape the trauma of losing their homes.

All of these people embody the commandment, “Lo tuchal l’hitaleim – do not remain indifferent.” But ‘not remaining indifferent’ is not just about feel good stories of heroism. My friend and colleague, Rabbi Oren Hayon of Temple Emanu-El of Houston recently posted a powerful message on Facebook. Directing his message to the many journalists who had reached out to him, Hayon wrote:

If you came to Houston to report on the hurricane, and after spending a few days in our wonderful city, you just decided to spin some big, shaggy, heart-warming stories proclaiming that “The real lesson of the hurricane is about how neighbors help each other!” or “The most powerful force in Houston is the indomitable human spirit!” – then you’re actually not helping.

Yes: selfless people with hearts of gold are doing extraordinary work in our city, and inspiring people are looking after each other in amazing ways all across Houston every day. But if those are the only stories you’re telling, then you’re just serving empty calories.

There are important stories that urgently need to be told now. We need meaningful stories about why the infrastructure of our cities and our nation is crumbling, and what can be done about it. We need real conversations about the backroom horse-trading of the state budgeting process, and about where those dollars really go. We need your help to explore race and wealth and housing and religion and public transit and education, and how all of them combine to affect human beings’ ability to survive and succeed.

Rabbi Hayon reminds us, “Lo tuchal l’hitaleim – do not remain indifferent.” Do not remain indifferent to the underlying injustices in our world.

Yes, the world is unfair and the righteous will suffer but we have the power and responsibility to help mitigate that suffering through our acts of loving kindness. For Rabbi Elisha ben Abuya, witnessing this suffering first hand was too much to take. He lost his faith and turned away from Judaism. That is a justifiable response and I do fault him or other, like Holocaust survivors, for having such a reaction.

Yet there is another response to the suffering of the innocent. Lo tuchal l’hitaleim – do not remain indifferent. Double down on your faith in God, in the world, and in humanity and choose to engage. Engage in acts of loving kindness and tikkun olam – repair of the world. You can find specific ways to help the families of Houston here. Whatever you do, just do something; Lo tuchal l’hitaleim – do not remain indifferent.


Filed under: Uncategorized