Sunday, November 15, 2015

Biennial Sermon Nov 13, 2015

Last week I attended the URJ’s 73rd Biennial Convention in Orlando. It was a gathering of 5000 Reform Jews from among the 900 URJ Congregations in North America. It was my fourth Biennial, and probably the best one I have ever been to. This year they did things a little differently for Biennial by dividing the sessions into four tracks of learning: Tikkun Olam, for those focused on social action; Audacious Hospitality, for those focused on how congregations are emulating the catch phrase embraced by the union two years ago in San Diego; Strengthening Congregations, for those trying to invigorate their membership and entice new families; and Transforming Texts for people like me who love to learn with the union’s top Torah teachers.

There were also some fantastic plenary sessions with amazing presenters. There was a panel on Israel with author Ari Shavit, Israel’s youngest Member of Knesset Stav Shaffir, and Past President of the URJ Rabbi Eric Yoffie. There was a moving tribute to Rabbi David Saperstein, currently serving as the United States’ Ambassador for Religious Freedom, and a speech by Vice President Joe Biden that felt like he was chatting with us in his living room.

The goal of this trip was to give us some ideas and inspiration for our own congregation, and in this regard it was successful. I want to point out three things I learned from Biennial this year that I hope to set into motion here at CBT.

I want to start at the end of Biennial and work my way backwards. After four intense days of biennial, most people do not go to the Sunday morning sessions. Usually we fly out on Sunday and cannot attend, but this year there was a study session with Rabbi Lauren Berkun from the Hartman Center Institute. My guess is that very few people in this room are familiar with either Rabbi Berkun or the Hartman Center, so suffice it to say that both of these names elicit ooh’s and aah’s from my circle of friends, and she absolutely deserves great kudos for the lesson she prepared for us. Her session was called, “Who is a Jewish Leader?” and it looked at Abraham, Hannah, and Rabbi A.J. Heschel as exemplary Jewish leaders. She gave us a midrash from Genesis Rabbah about Abraham from Genesis 12:
Adonai said to Abram, “Go forth from your land…” R. Isaac said: This may be compared to a man who was traveling from place to place when he saw a palace (birah) all in flames. He wondered, “Is it possible that this palace has no manhig (no one who looks after it)?” The owner of the palace looked out and said, “I am the owner (ba’al) of the palace.” Similarly, because Abraham our ancestor wondered, “Is it possible that this world is without a manhig (manager)? The Holy One of Blessing looked out at him and said, “I am the owner (ba’al) of the world.”
A birah, that is translated here as “palace,” was actually more like a tenement house. It was an apartment complex that was susceptible to catching fire. So a birah doleket, a tenement house all in flames, would actually be a relatively common thing. If there was a fire, the manager of the building, the manhig, would run around and wake up the residents. Abraham asking, “Where is the manager?” is logical. What is interesting is that God answers, “I am the owner,” not the manager. So Abraham in this Midrash, sees the world on fire and asks where the manager is. God comes down and claims ownership, which implies that there is no manager. So when God calls to Abraham, it is not a call out, it is a call for help. Abraham sees the world on fire and complains aloud that there is no leader, and God says, “Yes. You need to be the manager. You need to be the leader.”

God is calling for us all the time. The world is on fire, and it is up to us to step up, rouse the residents of the world, work to put out the blaze, and encourage others to act alongside us. That is the leadership we learn from Abraham, and because I know how important learning is to our community, I look forward to sharing more of what I learned from this three-hour text study with you.

The next thing I want to point out is my Saturday lunch session with Allison Klein, that I attended with our president, Sam Backer. Ms. Klein wrote a book that I cited during my report to the congregation last month called “Matterness,” and a lot of what she wrote helped inspire a part of our current visioning with the board of trustees. One of the first things she did during her presentation was to open up the floor to anyone who wanted to share a story about when they feel they didn’t matter, and then she asked people to share a story about when they mattered. After 20 minutes of taking other people’s stories, she pointed out the commonality. Every time people felt like they did not matter, they were not listened to, and every time they felt like the mattered, they were. Most of these stories are about one touch--one moment when the person’s whole experience with the organization was affected.

Instead of sharing one of these stories, I want to share a story I heard from here at CBT. Since I do not have permission to share names, suffice it to say that a person came in to the synagogue with their child years ago, and they were hanging out near the back because they were wearing jeans. They were greeted by a not-to-be-named Director of Education, who told them that we don’t care what people are wearing here, just as long as they are here. Now I know that there are differing opinions about dress code and bimah etiquette, but for a person who is coming to CBT for the first time to be welcomed with open arms no matter what they were wearing, that one moment made that family a faithful CBT family, and I am so thankful that we have people here who get it. We are a community who understands matterness at our core, and if I were not a Jewish professional I know that I would want my family to make CBT our Jewish home, because you make us feel like we matter.

Finally, on the first day of the convention I went to a session called, “Words Shape Worlds,” which was about listening to individual stories and using them to engage our community to move them to action. Take the story I just told about being welcomed in jeans. It would be easy for me to say, “We welcome all people, and we have no dress code.” That would be factual and effective, but it only speaks to our head. Hearing the story of someone who felt intimidated by their own outfit choice, and derived comfort from a caring member of CBT speaks to our heart. Everyone has a story, and everyone’s story can be used as a spark to ignite change in our community.

Case and point: for the past few months I have been hearing from people about what they are lacking from CBT. This is great, but I have been making a mistake when I hear their complaints. I have been defensive and explained that we already do these things. This is wrong, and I am going to try to change the message from “we already do this,” to “tell me what you are looking for.”

But I cannot do this alone.

The board doesn’t know this, but I am about to ask them to invite you all to their homes so that we can listen to you. I am going to challenge them on Sunday at our next board meeting, but I am telling you all now so that together we can hold them accountable. Each board member will be asked to invite 10 people to their home to listen to their stories, and bring them back to the board as a whole so that we can try to make improvements that will provide what they are seeking whenever possible. My hope is to teach them some of what I learned to the board, so that they can lead sessions for you.

We all have stories to share, and we all have needs that can be filled. The solutions to the needs of some occasionally do not serve the needs of others, but in the words of Allison Klein, “Somebody might get left out does not means we should just leave everybody out instead.” We acknowledge that our different stories provide different opportunities, and that is exactly what makes a thriving community. An open tent, so to speak, with multiple opportunities for entry, many ways to be heard, and many chances to connect with like-minded Reform Jews who are passionate about Jewish learning, Tikkun Olam, and Matterness.

I would be remiss if I did not mention what a valuable experience biennial is. The next URJ Biennial will be December 6-10, 2017, in Boston, MA. In addition to the sessions I described tonight, there are opportunities to pray together, hear incredible new Jewish music (Cantor Natalie Young performed on the Jewish Rock Radio Stage, for example), and even do some pretty cool shopping. Of course, there is a lot of schmoozing, and one of my favorite things to do at a biennial is to take my own congregation out for an incredible dinner.

I hope you will join me in Boston in 2017, and I know you will be a part of making what we learned in Orlando come to fruition here in Fountain Valley.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

In Response to a Challenge to "Bring It On"

I spent a wonderful week learning with colleagues and lay leaders in Orlando last week at the Union for Reform Judaism's Biennial Convention. 5000 Reform leaders spent five days in a convention center seeking deeper understandings on issues like Audacious Hospitality, Strengthening Congregations, Tikkun Olam ("Social Action"), and Text Study. There were also some wonderful panels with religious leaders and Israel advocates, including a speech by Birthright Israel founder Charles Bronfman.

I was recently pointed to an article in the Times of Israel by Rabbi Avi Richler, a Chabad rabbi who points to a line in Bronfman's address where he suggests the Reform movement "take back Birthright from Chabad." The article suggested that we "Bring it on," meaning that if we bring more Reform Jews to Israel, more Jews in general will be going to Israel, and that will be marked as a success to both Chabad and the Reform movement. On that point, I completely agree with Rabbi Richler. He actually did not say much in the article about Chabad and Birthright except that he led trips more than eight years ago, and that rabbis and rebbetzin invite their constituents to Birthright. 

He did suggest that the Reform movement should "challenge our members to put on tefillin, observe Shabbat, keep a kosher diet, or the countless other ways they can promote growth in Jewish practice and observance." On this point we disagree.

Clearly Rabbi Richler does not understand what Reform Judaism is. Or perhaps he is confusing Reform with Secular Judaism. The Reform movement stands on three guiding principals: God, Torah, and Israel. We engage with these principals from a variety of different experiences and backgrounds, and come to our own conclusions about them, and we accept the choices that come from this engagement because we hold sacred the idea of personal autonomy backed by educated choice. The emphasis in the Reform movement is on educated here. We Reform rabbis encourage challenging our constituents about tefillin, kashrut, and Shabbat. We accept it when our congregants accept or reject our teachings, and this is where we differ from Chabad.

Chabad teaches one way of living Jewishly. Even the Talmud rejects the notion that there is only one way to observe. On the very first page of the Talmud (B. Brachot 2a) the Mishnah asks a question (What is the proper time for reciting the evening Shema?) and presents three answers. The conclusion (that we should recite Shema by midnight but we have uno dawn if we must) creates a general rule for the rabbis (that whenever it says "until midnight" the implication is that it is okay to lawfully do the mitzvah in question until dawn arises). This first mishnah teaches us two very important things about Talmudic thought. 

First, the opposing views are not ignored. They are taught along with the conclusion so that we understand the logic of all of our honored teachers. This is a lesson that Chabad misses, which is evident just by the language Rabbi Richler uses in his article. He only understands one way of doing things, as evidenced by his examples of a young man wrapping refilling and a young woman lighting Shabbat candles. In Chabad, these activities are gender restricted. The Reform movement is egalitarian, and invites all people to participate in all mitzvot they would practice to bring meaning into their lives. He claims that Charades philosophy is "loving, caring, and guiding every single Jew..." but does not explain what happens when he guidance is challenged or opposed. I guarantee Rabbi Richler would not extend to my female colleagues the respect that I extend him by referring to him as Rabbi Richler. This is not loving and caring, this is stubborn and ostracizing.

Second, by showing the preferred way as well as the option should the preferred way not be possible, the Talmus answers the essential question about living a Jewish life: What do we do when life gets in the way? The Reform movement answers this question exactly as the Talmud does: We adapt. We find ways to be mindful of what we eat when we do not trust the heksher (kosher symbol) of what can be corrupt organizations. We find ways to keep Shabbat according to how we interpret the use of modern technology such as electricity. We welcome Jews of every sort: women and men, LGBT and straight, Jews-by-Choice and Jews-by Birth, agnostic and faithful, observant and not.

Reform Judaism is authentic Judaism. It is a Judaism that struggles with tradition by embracing and learning from the past, looking toward the future, and bringing Jews together toward creating a stronger faith.

As declared in the Central Conference of American Rabbis' Statement of Principals in 1999:
The great contribution of Reform Judaism is that it has enabled the Jewish people to introduce innovation while preserving tradition, to embrace diversity while asserting commonality, to affirm beliefs without rejecting those who doubt, and to bring faith to sacred texts without sacrificing critical scholarship.
 When Bronfman asks us to "take back Birthright," he is reminding us that strong, informed, Reform Zionism is at the forefront of Israel today. It is up to the Reform movement to follow the examples of those who bring scores of young adults to Israel, to keep them engaged with Jewish life, and to teach them what authentic Judaism really is.

Saturday, October 17, 2015

Solidarity Shabbat

I got a surprising Facebook message from a camp friend who lives in Northern Utah this week, asking my advice. She wrote to me that her son was given an assignment to write about his religion, so they could study the impact of various religions on culture and world events. Looking at a classmate's paper, he noticed that she had written that the Jews had killed Jesus. He asked his teacher for help correcting her, because as the only Jewish family in their public school, he didn't want to be bullied or teased for calling her out. The teacher told him that he needed to check his facts because the Jews did kill Jesus.

Oh, wait. It gets worse.

On my advice, my friend took her son to meet with the teacher and the principal, and the principal told them that there were two sides to the history. She confirmed the teachers outdated notion about the Jews killing Jesus, and scolded them for hurting the teacher's feelings when they called his words anti-Semitic.

When our conversation left off, she was making an appointment with the Superintendent.

As educated people, we tend to shake our head at the ignorance of people in the world. We might even brush it off as the ignorance of small town Northern Utah with only one family to represent all Jews. It helps to think of it as small town mentality--a rarity, infrequent in modern America. After all, we have access to a universe of multi-cultural information at our fingertips. We can surf the web and learn about the past from multiple points of view, evaluate the data, and form our own rich and informed opinions on a variety of topics, including religion.

Sadly, this is not the case. In our hyper-connected, 24-hour-news-watching, Google-searching, blog-reading world, we form our opinions without checking the veracity of what we find. We tend to believe what we first read. Part of the problem is that we believe whoever has a microphone.

When speaking with confidence, a charismatic leader can get a crowd nodding and agreeing with whatever they say. Take, for example, the most recent Republican and Democratic debates. cites a list of 17 topics combined between the two debates that are considered misleading or false claims. This does not mean they were lying. Assuming the best of these candidates, it just means they were wrong. 

Now there is nothing wrong with being wrong. People are wrong all the time. I'm wrong all the time. Just ask Natalie. The problem comes when we speak or write in the public forum as an expert, and then refuse to admit that we can be wrong.

A recent study was done about this, when a group of college students was given two articles about immunizing children. One article in favor, and one against, both citing data and drawing confident conclusions. When the students were brought together to discuss immunization, they were found to be highly polarized, even though they all read both articles. The typical writing style of confident presentation of opinion as fact creates a polarized society who refuses to believe any opposing argument, and that dismisses disagreement as ignorance.

This is what happened to my friend in Utah, and this is what is happening in the media with regard to Israel this week. 

In case you missed it, this has been a difficult couple of weeks in Israel. Violence has escalated, and the new method of attack seems to be stabbings. A Palestinian teenager stabbed two Israelis to death in the Old City and wounded two others. Hours later, another knife-wielder was shot and killed by Israeli police after slashing a 15-year-old in the chest and back. Another attack happened at a bus stop, where an Arab-Israeli ran over a 19-year-old girl, then got out of the car, stabbed her, and then attacked two men and a 14-year-old. But don't worry, the suicide bombings and attempted suicide bombings have still been happening.

What makes it worse is the way these attacks have been represented in some of the media. There were articles titled, "Two Palestinian Teenagers Shot by Israeli Police," "Israeli Retaliatory Strike in Gaza Kills Woman and Child, Palestinians Say," or, "Palestinian Killed as Violence Continues." And that last one happens to be false. The wounded Palestinian boy was picked up and treated at an Israeli hospital! How did he get his wounds? By attacking another 13-year-old Israeli boy who fought back. Israeli police broke up the fight, subduing the teens. While it is true that the boy was injured by the police, the way the facts are presented skews the data in a way that presents as being just as anti-Semitic as that teacher in Utah. Even the attacks that are not reported have a feel of anti-Semitism, as if by their silence they imply that these lives are not worth reporting on, or that they somehow deserved it.

Just last week in our Torah we read about the creation of the world. We read that humans were created b'tzelem elohim, in the image of God. As such, we acknowledge the Divine in every human being, no matter what their beliefs, and no matter how vehemently we may disagree with them. We do not pray for the harm of others because in acknowledging that all humans are created in the Divine image, we know that any harm that comes to a human is, at its core, harming God. This week we read in Parashat Noach that God wants to destroy all humanity, ki-malah ha'aretz chamas mip'neichem, "because the earth is filled with violence through them." The word for violence here is chamas, and if I were to leave it at that, I could let you draw your own conclusions about the very nature of the organization that brings such violence to Israel. However, that would be misleading of me, because the ancient Hebrew word has absolutely no connection to the Arabic word which is actually an acronym for the Islamic Resistance Movement in Arabic. With only part of the information, it is too easy for me to mislead you, especially when you probably already have opinions about Hamas.

The word I would rather point out is mip'neichem, translated as "through them." The world is filled with violence through them. Through the humans that God created, the earth was filled with violence--with people ignoring the godliness implanted within others, refusing to settle their differences through peaceful means. Another translation of mip'neichem is "before them," meaning right in front of them. The double meaning helps us see that God does not destroy the world out of vengeance or spite, but because they refused to acknowledge what was right in front of them: other people. They took what they wanted with no regard for anyone's needs but their own.

This is what happens when we refuse to pay attention to the arguments of those who are before us. We force our own agenda forward, heeding only the truths presented to us by those whose goal it is to manipulate our own thoughts and feelings. When we focus on only how sure we are about any issue, we lose.

Here is what I am sure will solve the problems between Israelis and Palestinians.

That's right, nothing. I am sure about nothing. I have no idea how to stop the violence and the territorial disputes and the claim of both sides that the land is given to them by God. I just don't know. But I do know one thing: neither does anybody else. Anyone who claims to have the solution may not be intentionally lying, but they are wrong. We will not be able to come to any sort of peace until both sides acknowledge the humanity within the other, and are willing to see what is right before them: God's presence. And we will never move forward until we acknowledge the Divine presence in everyone at the table. Even if they do not acknowledge it within us.

This Shabbat has been declared Solidarity Shabbat. Jews all over the country, of every denomination are standing together to declare that we stand with Israel. No matter how clueless we are about the situation, we support Israel's right to exist. We stand with Israel, and we stand against all forms of hatred and anti-Semitism, and all ignorance in reporting. We stand with Israel in acknowledgment of the presence of God in all people, and the hope that we will soon know peace.

I want to close with Rabbi Levi Weiman Kelman's prayer for peace:
Adon hashalom, melech shel hashalom shelo,
sim shalom l'amcha Yisrael
Master of peace, make peace for your people Israel
Let that peace spread to all of your creatures.
Let there be an end to hatred, jealousy, and competition between people,
Let there be love and peace among all of us,
Let everyone be aware of their neighbor's love
until we can all gather together and speak to one another.
Help us to learn the truth from the oterh.
O God, you are peace, and peace comes from you.
Adon hashalom, barcheinu bashslaom,
Source of Peace, bless us with peace.


Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Israel from Four Perspectives (Yom Kippur Sermon 5776)

Five Jews are sitting on a park bench. “Oy,” says the first. “Oy vey,” says the second. “Oy vey iz mir,” says the third. “Oy gevalt,” says the fourth. The fifth says, “Can we just this once stop talking about Israel?”

In an essay called, “Israel-The Ever-Dying People,” by Simon Rawidowicz, written when Israel as a country was a new reality, he begins with this sentence:
The world makes many images of Israel, but Israel makes only one image of itself: that of being consistently on the verge of ceasing to be, of disappearing.

He sets out a view that Israel's strength is in the "Oy's" and "Oy vey's" uttered by Jews both there and in the diaspora. The worry that we create, he claims, brings the support and strength that we needed in the 1950's when this essay was written.

In his review of Rawidowicz’s essay in the Jerusalem Post some 60 years later, Daniel Gourdis claims that we must resist this lachrymose, Chicken-Little view of Israel. Gourdis instead refers to us as the never-dying people. He critiques that we should not cling to worry as we have in the past, but to wisdom.

Israel is alive and vibrant. It is a leader in science and technology on the world stage. It is a beautiful, breathtaking land with so much diversity that one person’s opinion cannot cover it.

So today I want to look at Israel from four perspectives. All four of these come from people who traveled to Israel this summer. First we will hear from Shari Einstein, who went with her sister Michelle. It was her second trip to Israel, but a new perspective from the Birthright bus. Next will be Marcia McReynolds, who joined us on our congregational trip. Marcia travels to Tel Aviv regularly on business, is learning Hebrew, and had never taken a formal tour of the entire country. Then David Duner will tell us about his experience on the congregational trip, which was his first trip to Israel. The fourth perspective will be mine.

Big thanks to Rabbi Young for inviting me to speak today about my recent experiences in Israel.
I returned from a Birthright trip last month.  I traveled with about 40 other 22-27 year olds from across the US and with 10 Israelis for a whirlwind, 10 day trip.  Even though the entire country is about the size of New Jersey, 10 days didn’t even scratch the surface!

After taking a moment to digest my trip, I’m finding my biggest takeaway from the entire trip is how “normal” the experiences felt.

-Meeting up with Israeli friends in Tel Aviv for Mexican food.
-Conversations about new careers, dating, politics, TV - similar to any Friday night hanging out with friends.
-Surprised to find the place filled with hipsters.
-Worth noting, Mexican food in Israel is pretty good!
-Comforting know all of these are universal

-Normal to spend Shabbat at the Western Wall.
-Sang, danced, and prayed with the group and were joined by Israelis and other Birthright  groups from around the world.
-Although melodies differed, the prayers were the same as what I learned in Sunday School.
-Felt a transpersonal experience - a sense of identity that extended beyond myself and  encompassed a connection to my Jewish heritage, past, present and future.
-Somehow, this felt normal because it is a common experience for all there.

-Normal to spend time in a foreign country halfway around the world.
-Israel looks like So Cal to me.
-Food fantastic
-People so welcoming and open to conversation

-Normal how it easy it was to be visiting Israel, a country we have fought and prayed for for millennia.
-Extra special be traveling with my sister.  Spent an afternoon at Yad Vashem,      Jerusalem’s Holocaust museum.  Felt connection
-Soldiers we were traveling with.  Our own age.

One of the best trips of my life.  Can’t wait to go back!

Last June, I had the good fortune to be able to tour Israel with Rabbi Young and members of our CBT congregation. I want to share with you some observations and my perspective on Israel.  
But since this is Yom Kippur, I have a confession to make first. Before my first trip to Israel 5 years ago, I didn't really have any desire to visit Israel. It wasn't on my bucket list.  But then my company bought a small startup company in Israel. And I was assigned to support them. So, I traveled to Israel on business. And just being there in Israel changed my whole perspective.
Israel was no longer just another country to visit. Now, I finally felt the connection that everyone else talked about. So when I heard that Rabbi Young was organizing a trip, I jumped at the chance. I was able to combine it with a business trip, so I had a full two weeks there.
Israel is a place that contains the origins and memories of our Jewish history.  Past and present intertwine. And, since Judaism is the majority religion, Jewish holidays and celebrations are forefront. Walking around Jaffa on one of the first nights we were there, I came across a beautiful Jewish wedding ceremony taking place on the rooftop of a nearby building.  Jewish melodies filled the air. And when we were in Jerusalem, there were B'nai Mitzvah celebrations in the streets. People singing and dancing.   My very first trip to Israel was just before Rosh Hashanah.  Over all the streets in Tel Aviv were huge banners wishing everyone "Shana Tovah".    

In the Israel office one day, I heard a big commotion in the conference room, with voices heatedly debating something.   With me, they speak in English, but among themselves they speak Hebrew.  Even though I am learning Hebrew, I couldn't tell what was going on.  I thought maybe they were discussing something about my project, so I peeked in to find out.   I discovered that they were arguing over the existence of God.   They continued, in English now, so I could participate too.   My co-workers there are all Jewish.  And it is very natural for them to break up their work day with religious discussions (even heated arguments like the one I overheard).  Then they quietly go back to work, with no hard feelings.  They continue to respect and work together well.  
I mentioned that Israel is a place where Judaism's past and present intertwine.   This was highlighted many times on our CBT trip.  
Our guide, Muki, who was an historian and archeologist, would describe what we were seeing and connect it both to what happened there in the past, and what was going on in the present.  He often brought out a bible and quoted passages related to the places we were visiting.    
One day, he pointed out the opening to a cave where the dead sea scrolls were found.  
Another day, we were traveling through a valley on the way to an amazing archeological dig, and he pointed out that this was where David fought Goliath.  
The archeological dig was at the Beit Guvrin Caves.  We actually dug up pieces of pottery that were 2300 years old, dating from the time of the Maccabees.  
In  the Upper Galilee, we stayed in a hotel that was very near the Jordan river. One morning, I got up early and walked along the river.  It was really pretty and very peaceful.  Every so often, there were plaques set in the ground with passages from the Torah. I recognized the word "Yarden" in each of them, and realized these were all references to the Jordan river.  That was a really special place for me.  I took pictures of the beautiful scenery and all the plaques, thinking that some day, I will transfer the pictures to fabric and design them into one of my quilts.
We took a camel ride to a re-enactment of Abraham's tent, to experience his "biblical hospitality".  Now, some may have thought that it was a bit hokey.   But I had an amazing experience there.   They had situated the tent  such that if you stood a bit in front,  you got a view of the desert hills and valleys that could easily have been the same actual view that Abraham saw looking out from his tent.    
I stood in that spot, blocking out all the people and activity around me, and just took in the view.  Abraham's view.   
As the Rabbi mentioned, I am learning to speak Hebrew.   And it was a pleasure to find that Holly Gordon also shared that interest.    We had fun practicing with various people we met.  A word of advice:  If you aren't very fluent, it is best to start by saying "Ani lomedet evrit" (which means "I am learning Hebrew"). Otherwise, they speak way too fast.    
I continue to study Hebrew, and use it more frequently as I interact with my co-workers in Tel Aviv.  The next time I get a chance to go to Israel, I'll be ready.    
Good Yontif (sic)
I am positive that I can speak for all of us and say that we had a really great time.
There is something very special about going to Israel with a group from our temple. Some of us might only have been acquaintances but now we have something important in common.  We all grew closer to each other.  Now we have a special connection and every time we see each other on Friday night we hug and remember the special bond that we have. We have a shared memory that effected each of us very deeply.
The reason is because going to Israel is much more than a vacation, it is a combination of extreme emotional experiences.  One that in some moments brings tears of happiness.
Imagine the first time seeing the Western Wall, considered the holiest of Jewish sites because it is the only remnant of the wall that enclosed the second temple.  Today it is an open air synagogue.  Imagine being able to place a prayer written on a little piece of paper into the cracks of the wall and saying a prayer for your loved ones.
Imagine the first time seeing the walls of the Old City of Jerusalem from afar.  It was even emotional simply landing at Ben Gurion Airport.  I get choked up thinking about it.
In Israel, I had a strong sense of belonging.  You are not in the minority.  It’s a good feeling.  It is kind of similar to the feeling we get every time we walk into our temple.  The difference is that in Israel, you have that feeling all of the time, everywhere you go.  It’s a feeling where you say to yourself, I belong here, I feel comfortable here, this is my home.
I didn’t expect these feelings to happen.  Nobody explained this to me.  The only thing I thought about was to make sure that I visited all of the important places, and that I visited my daughter Natalie who currently lives in Tel Aviv.
I remember my brother in law telling me how amazing the breakfast’s buffets were.  He was right.  Every hotel, in the grand ball room, had a wall to wall buffet.  I expected a giant Katella Deli.  But it was more Mediterranean style with plenty of different types of herring.
At the end of our trip, Rabbi Young asked us to write down our thoughts about our experience.  This is what I wrote.  Every day I kept saying that each day was more interesting and fun than the previous one.
[One day we] went into the Western Wall Tunnels. It turns out that the existence of the Western Wall continued underground and archeologists were able to dig under the buildings to discover much more. We received an excellent explanation by our tour guide about how the temple mount and the second temple was built by Herod. It was interesting to note that a gate was discovered that lead into the temple court yard but was decided that it should remain shut and unopened forever.
After lunch we went to Yad Vashem, the Jerusalem Holocaust museum. I knew this was going to be difficult. We were very fortunate to have the absolute best tour guide for our entire trip, Mookie, but his guided tour of Yad Vashem was extraordinary. I could see our entire group faces on the brink of breakdown. My favorite part of his presentation was the story of a Jewish man that fortunately survived after his entire family was lost. Yet today he is alive and has received a sense of vengeance by creating a very large family of children, grand-children and great grand-children.
The next day we went to Beit Guvrin archaeological site and caves. We actually had the opportunity to dig for ancient artifacts. Mostly we uncovered pieces of pottery that were 2300 years old. This was an area where the terrane was similar to the rolling hills of Orange County. We were told that this was the area where David slew Goliath. Our digging took place in underground in caves. This was actually hard work and we got dirty doing it. But it was a worthwhile experience. After we finished our manual labor we climbed through long and deep tunnels that were lit with candles. This was actually very
difficult. I enjoyed making sure that Mira Adler made it through safely.
It was Friday afternoon and after we cleaned up from our archaeological dig we went to Kehillat Kol Haneshema synagogue. This was a reform temple where we enjoyed a Shabbat service. I will always remember that was the day when the US Supreme Court decided that Gay marriage will be legal in every state in our country. Rabbi Young announced it and the congregation erupted in joy.
There actually were more amazing experiences that I wish I had time to tell you about.  I could see myself wanting to live there, primarily because of that special feeling I had while I was there.  That’s not practical, but at least I do realize that the same welcoming feeling is available every time I’m with my friends from CBT and every time I step into our synagogue.
If you can, make “next year in Jerusalem” come true
L’Shanah Tovah Tikatevu – may us all have a good year ahead.

Thank you, all three of you. Your words are beautiful and inspiring. You make me want to go back to Israel right now instead of waiting until 2018!

Until then, I want to share some of my thoughts about our congregational trip this past June.

This was my fifth trip to Israel, and one of those trips lasted an entire year. Israel for me has always felt like home. Like David mentioned, it is a place of total comfort. I remember during my year in Israel I was coming home from a late night “study” session at a local cafe (bar). I stood on a street corner waiting for a light to change, and a tall man with a gun walked up next to me to wait for the same light. If I were anywhere in America, I would have seen my life flash before my eyes. But on that dark street corner in Jerusalem, I knew he was an IDF soldier, possibly heading home on a pass or coming back from miluim, army reserve duty. In Israel, standing next to an armed man, I felt safe.

This trip, I was excited to show my new CBT family, and some of my actual family, my Israel, my home. I was a little nervous to see how this diverse group of people, ranging in age from 18 to 80, would get along. I worried about the varying degrees of physical capabilities, about the mundane travel problems we could have faced like lost luggage, and about what my mother might say about my childhood while I was trying to be a rabbi. More than anything, though, I was looking forward to going back home.

I want to talk about two particular moments that stand out in my mind about this particular trip. The first was up north in the Golan Heights. We stood together at an outlook post overlooking Syria with our guide Muki. We had heard the stories that day of Israeli routing out Syrian troops with the help of the spy Eli Cohen. We learned about the Yom Kippur War, of the difficulties of being surrounded by enemies, and of the war that began one day after Israel declared her independence and has not stopped since.

As we stood on the battlements and prayed for peace between Israel and her neighbors, a cloud of smoke puffed up over the horizon, and moments later we heard the distant boom of the explosion. At first we oohed and aahed at the pyrotechnics before us. Then Muki reminded us that we were witnessing something horrible. “That’s the civil war,” he reproached “Someone just died in that smoke, and people are dying over there every day.” We made our way silently to the bus that afternoon--our ride to the hotel that evening just a little quieter and more somber than usual. We felt a moment of Al chet shechatanu lefanecha.... As Jews we pray for the peace of all nations, even those who would be our enemies. We do not rejoice at others' defeat. We pray instead that the day will soon come when all nations are at peace with us and with one another.

Like Daniel Gourdis suggests, I want to conclude with celebration. When we made our way up to Jerusalem on our 6th day of travel, we stopped at Mount Scopus to admire the view of the other Holy City, Jerusalem. This is a stop that every trip to Israel makes. Every time you come close to Jerusalem, you stop and look from Mount Scopus. Having spent a summer on Mount Scopus at Hebrew University, I had been to this vista many times. But this time was different. As we stood looking over Jerusalem, we made kiddush and sang Shehecheyanu and Yerushalayim Shel Zahav. I started reading a translation of Hatikvah and paused for a minute, unable to speak.

I often explain to my kids that when someone is so full of emotion--happiness, sadness, anger, joy, whatever--it can leak out of our eyes, and that’s why we cry. Standing there, looking over Jerusalem with my wife, my mother, and my congregation, I was overflowing. There had been so much preparation to get us to that point. We talked, planned, taught, discussed, paid, and planned some more. We had learned so much from Muki in our first week. We had grown closer together as a group, and we knew that standing there we represented CBT, America, and Jews everywhere. I was happy beyond words, proud to be a rabbi for this amazing community, and so excited to be home.

There are so many more stories to tell, so many more perspectives to learn. We will be back. We will travel together again in 2018, and I have been told that some people who went this summer are already saving to go back. I can’t wait.

Until then, we continue to support Israel from afar. We will keep learning about Israel and supporting Israel, and we will advocate for Israel until peace reigns in her borders.

Am Yisrael Chai!

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Rosh Hashanah: The Failure of Abraham

When I lived in Los Angeles in the late 90’s, I tried out for a few game shows. For many of the quiz shows like Jeopardy! or Wheel of Fortune, they give you a written, 20-question test before you even walked in the door. For one of these tests, I was sure I got all of the questions right, but I never got a callback. While complaining about this to a friend in the industry, he told me that usually they only take contestants who score between 75-95% on the tests. If I got the 100% I expected, therefore, I would not have been chosen. They didn’t accept contestants with a perfect score.

Disappointed as I was, I was not surprised, because I was familiar with the concept of rejecting perfection. When I was in high school I worked as a tutor for students preparing for their standardized tests. There, I learned that colleges often do not want applicants with 800’s on their SAT’s. A university’s role is to teach. Universities are not looking for perfect students, because the perfect student has nothing to learn. A perfect SAT score does not demonstrate what a university can provide for the student.

God also rejects perfection. We know this from today’s Torah reading.

Abraham is called. God tells him, “Go and sacrifice your son on a mountain I will show you.”
Abraham takes a three day journey with his son, sees Mount Moriah, and brings him to the mountain.
Isaac carries the wood and the firestarter, and asks Abraham, “Dad, I see the fire and the wood, but where is the sacrifice?”
Abraham says, “God will see to the sacrifice, my son.”
At the top of the mountain, Abraham binds Isaac, puts him on the wood, and raises his knife to slaughter him as a sacrifice to God. An angel calls out to him, “Abraham, Abraham!”
And Abraham stays his hand, unties the boy, and sacrifices a ram in his place.

It is a familiar and disturbing story. Known as the Akeidah, Hebrew for “binding,” rabbis and scholars have been trying to parse and explain it for centuries. We try to shave away the discomfort that is inherent in this tale of child sacrifice interwoven with tender moments between father and son. We explain away certain parts of this rich text because some pieces are very difficult for us to understand.

Of the many Midrashim on this story, one of my favorites is known as “The Ten Trials of Abraham.” Pirkei Avot declares that Abraham was tested 10 times, but does not list what those ten times are. The 12th Century Spanish scholar and rabbi known as Maimonides, who lived among mathematicians and who did not know that numbers didn’t always mean math, lists them in his commentary on the Mishnah as follows:
God tells Abraham to leave his homeland and go to an unknown land, which eventually is revealed to be Canaan.
As soon as he arrives in Canaan, it is struck with famine.
The Egyptians capture his wife Sarah and bring her to Pharaoh.
Abraham bests four kings and their armies with 300 men because they kidnap his cousin Lot.
He cohabits with Hagar after not being able to procreate with Sarah.
He circumcises himself at an old age on God’s command.
The king of Gerar kidnaps Sarah.
God tells Abraham to send away Hagar, Ishmael’s mother.
He also has to send away Ishmael.
He is told by God to sacrifice Isaac on Mount Moriah.
Different sources suggest different lists, but regardless of how we count them, each test is put forth by God to demonstrate that Abraham is worthy of being the progenitor of Judaism, and of the blessing, “I will make your offspring as numerous as the stars in the sky and as the grains of sand on a beach” (Gen. 22:17).

The first nine trials of Abraham test his faith, his physical prowess, his cunning, his commitment to his family, his willingness to self-sacrifice, and more. From the first chapters that tell us of Abraham’s life, we learn that he has many qualities from which we can learn. He is faithful, doing anything God asks. He is hospitable, willing to give his very best to anyone who would enter his tent. He listens to his wife, sometimes to her own consternation, as it was when she told him to make a baby with Hagar. He listens to her when he does not want to, as he does when he casts out Hagar and Ishmael.

The tenth trial is not a test of faith. God already knows that Abraham is faithful. He proved it when he left his homeland, and when he stayed in the strange land despite the famine that threatened Canaan. He proved it when he circumcised himself at 99 years old as a sign that he would uphold the covenant between him and God. He proved it when he convinced every male in his house to do the same. Abraham never, ever in the Torah says to God, “You want me to do what to my what?!?”

We already know that Abraham will do whatever God tells him to do.

The tenth trial is not a test of Abraham’s faith.

It is a test of Abraham’s fundamentalism.

And he fails.

Earlier in the Torah, God tells Abraham that Sodom is going to be destroyed. God even wavers about whether or not to let Abraham know about the impending destruction. From the text:
Adonai said, “Shall I hide from Abraham the thing which I [am about to] do; Seeing that Abraham shall surely become a great and mighty nation, and all the nations of the earth shall be blessed by him? For I know him, that he will command his children and his household after him, and they shall keep the way of Adonai, to do justice and judgment…”
(Gen. 18:17-19)

Sure enough, when God reveals that thing that God is about to do--destroying Sodom--Abraham argues, “Will you also destroy the righteous with the wicked?” (v. 23). Abraham bargains with God asking that God spare the city for fifty good men, and God acquiesces. Abraham whittles the number down until God eventually agrees to save the city for the sake of ten righteous men. Of course, there is only one. Only Lot, Abraham’s cousin, who immediately tries to protect the angels as they approach the town. Only Lot is righteous in this wicked place, and so only he and his family are saved.

It can be argued that Lot is saved only because of Abraham’s desire to have the town tested. Only because Abraham challenged God about the plan to destroy Sodom that he was able to go in and save Lot and his family. Yet this episode is not listed among the tests of Abraham. It happens in between the 6th and 7th tests, so God was in the midst of trying Abraham, but this does not count as one of the trials according to Maimonides, Rashi, or any other rabbinic source regarding the ten trials. Nevertheless, we can understand that human lives are important to Abraham. God even declares that Abraham has a strong sense of justice. So when it comes time for Abraham’s tenth trial, God is probably sure that Abraham will do even more to save his own son’s life. It is Abraham’s good nature, after all, to try to save lives. God knows this, and perhaps does not need to test it.

But Abraham does not stick up for Isaac. He does not bargain that his son’s life be spared. He does not argue. He simply says, “Ok,” and takes his son up the mountain. This is not the answer God wanted. Abraham fails the final test.

And that’s ok.

It’s better than ok, it is exactly what God was waiting for. Now we know Abraham’s weakness: blind faith. He has an unquestioning willingness to do whatever God says, even if it goes against his good nature. God wants us to value human life above all else. Abraham should have said no, should have at least questioned God at this point. But even after a three day journey, Abraham still raises the knife to his son, and has to be stopped by an angel from completing this horrible task.

Abraham fails, because he would not stay his own hand from killing Isaac. God does not want us to believe that whatever we believe comes from God is automatically correct. God wants us to think about our religion and make choices based on the combination of our faith and our reason. Abraham does not think in this episode. He only does what he is told.

If Abraham had passed this test, God might have kept testing him. You see, just like the game shows and universities, God is not looking for perfection. God knows we each have obstacles that prevent us from becoming all that we are destined to be. And we know that some of those obstacles are self-inflicted.

Thankfully our tradition has a prescription should we choose to address these hindrances: the gifts of Repentance, Prayer and Charity. Rosh Hashanah compels us to determine how to use gifts to better ourselves and to identity how we can be better family members, friends and members of this sacred community.

It is in that spirit that the Board and I have launched a visioning partnership. Together we are taking stock of the many areas as a congregational family in which we shine. Equally important, though, we are taking stock of where we are falling short of perfection, and falling short even of our own expectations for ourselves. We ask ourselves the same questions that frame our individual High Holy Day observance: What defines us and what tools should we highlight to help us get to become our higher selves? Communally, we have asked this third question: What must we keep in our field of vision as we build toward the next decade and beyond?

We have started on a 5-year plan that we are referring to as our “2020 Vision.” We hope to continue to grow CBT building on three major strengths, and keeping them at the heart of our vision. These three things fall under the umbrella of being a Reform Jewish community, and we view each of them through the lens of Reform Judaism. We hope that everything we do as an organization will be informed by at least one of these three things.

The first is education. Six days a week there is educational programming at CBT. We have a fantastic committee that helps plan special events and regular classes for adults, and we have a vibrant Religious School with an amazing team of teachers led by Pam Rosen. And I know I am not teaching you anything new to say that she runs a fantastic program with passion and resolve. For the young and the young at heart, there is always something to be learned, and we constantly find new and wonderful things for the whole community to discover together.

The second is justice. A congregation with the name “B’nai Tzedek” has that name for a reason. Our mitzvah day is an unparalleled experience that everyone should be a part of, and we are at the beginning stages of planning a trip to New Orleans this spring. Every student who becomes B’nai Mitzvah on our bimah takes on mitzvah work that becomes their own personal expression of justice that will go beyond a simple project and become a way of living Jewishly.

The third is a little harder to name. Borrowing a page from Alison Fine’s newest book, we are calling it “Matterness.” Matterness is the idea that everyone who walks through our doors with the intent to worship, learn, and do justice with us will be welcomed with open arms. We make people feel as if what they say and what they desire matters to us, even if we don’t always see eye to eye. Everyone here matters.

Like Abraham, we know we are not perfect. We have made mistakes, and we will keep making them, but when we do we will have our vision in mind. Education, Justice, and Matterness will be at the forefront of our vision, and as we move forward to 2020 and beyond, we will continue to make our community the greatest that it can be.

But never perfect.

May we all use this High Holy Day season to move away from perfection and toward greatness.